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Lilac Girls
Martha Hall Kelly

SEPTEMBER 1939

If I’d known I was about to meet the man who’d shatter me like bone china on terra-cotta, I would have slept in. Instead, I roused our florist, Mr. Sitwell, from his bed to make a boutonnière. My first consulate gala was no time to stand on ceremony.

I joined the riptide of the great unwashed moving up Fifth Avenue. Men in gray-felted fedoras pushed by me, the morning papers in their attachés bearing the last benign headlines of the decade. There was no storm gathering in the east that day, no portent of things to come. The only ominous sign from the direction of Europe was the scent of slack water wafting off the East River.

As I neared our building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Forty-ninth Street, I felt Roger watching from the window above. He’d fired people for a lot less than being twenty minutes late, but the one time of year the New York elite opened their wallets and pretended they cared about France was no time for skimpy boutonnières.

I turned at the corner, the morning sun alive in the gold-leaf letters chiseled in the cornerstone: LA MAISON FRANÇAISE. The French Building, home to the French Consulate, stood side by side with the British Empire Building, facing Fifth Avenue, part of Rockefeller Center, Junior Rockefeller’s new complex of granite and limestone. Many foreign consulates kept offices there then, resulting in a great stew of international diplomacy.

“All the way to the back and face the front,” said Cuddy, our elevator operator.

Mr. Rockefeller handpicked the elevator boys, screening for manners and good looks. Cuddy was heavy on the looks, though his hair was already salt-and-peppered, his body in a hurry to age.

Cuddy fixed his gaze on the illuminated numbers above the doors. “You got a crowd up there today, Miss Ferriday. Pia said there’s two new boats in.”

“Delightful,” I said.

Cuddy brushed something off the sleeve of his navy-blue uniform jacket. “Another late one tonight?”

For the fastest elevators in the world, ours still took forever. “I’ll be gone by five. Gala tonight.”

I loved my job. Grandmother Woolsey had started the work tradition in our family, nursing soldiers on the battlefield at Gettysburg. But my volunteer post as head of family assistance for the French Consulate wasn’t work really. Loving all things French was simply genetic for me. My father may have been half-Irish, but his heart belonged to France. Plus, Mother had inherited an apartment in Paris, where we spent every August, so I felt at home there.

The elevator stopped. Even through the closed doors, we could hear a terrific din of raised voices. A shiver ran through me.

“Third floor,” Cuddy called out. “French Consulate. Watch your—”

Once the doors parted, the noise overpowered all polite speech. The hallway outside our reception area was packed so tightly with people one could scarcely step through. Both the Normandie and the Ile de France, two of France’s premier ocean liners, had landed that morning in New York Harbor, packed with wealthy passengers fleeing the uncertainty in France. Once the all-clear horn signaled and they were free to disembark, the ships’ elite streamed to the consulate to iron out visa problems and other sticky issues.

I squeezed into the smoky reception area, past ladies in Paris’s newest day dresses who stood gossiping in a lovely cloud of Arpège, the sea spray still in their hair. The people in this group were accustomed to being shadowed by a butler with a crystal ashtray and a champagne flute. Bellboys in scarlet jackets from the Normandie went toe-to-toe with their black-jacketed counterparts from the Ile de France. I wedged one shoulder through the crowd, toward our secretary’s desk at the back of the room, and my chiffon scarf snagged on the clasp of one ravishing creature’s pearls. As I worked to extract it, the intercom buzzed unanswered.

Roger.

I pressed on through, felt a pat on my behind, and turned to see a midshipman flash a plaquey smile.

“Gardons nos mains pour nous-mêmes,” I said. Let’s keep our hands to ourselves.

The boy raised his arm above the crowd and dangled his Normandie stateroom key. At least he wasn’t the over-sixty type I usually attracted.

I made it to our secretary’s desk, where she sat, head down, typing.

“Bonjour, Pia.”

Roger’s cousin, a sloe-eyed boy of eighteen, was sitting on Pia’s desk, legs crossed. He held his cigarette in the air as he picked through a box of chocolates, Pia’s favorite breakfast. My inbox on her desk was already stacked with case folders.

“Vraiment? What is so good about it?” she said, not lifting her head.

Pia was much more than a secretary. We all wore many hats, and hers included signing in new clients and establishing a folder for each, typing up Roger’s considerable correspondence, and deciphering the massive flood of daily Morse-code pulses that was the lifeblood of our office.

“Why is it so hot in here?” I said. “The phone is ringing, Pia.”

She plucked a chocolate from the box. “It keeps doing that.”

Pia attracted beaux as if she emitted a frequency only males could detect. She was attractive in a feral way, but I suspected her popularity was due in part to her tight sweaters.

“Can you take some of my cases today, Pia?”

“Roger says I can’t leave this chair.” She broke the shell of the chocolate’s underside with her manicured thumb, stalking the strawberry crèmes. “He also wants to see you right away, but I think the woman on the sofa slept in the hallway last night.” Pia flapped one half of a one-hundred-dollar bill at me. “And the fatty with the dogs says he’ll give you the other half if you take him first.” She nodded toward the well-fed older couple near my office door, each holding a brace of gray-muzzled dachshunds.

Like Pia’s, my job description was wide-ranging. It included attending to the needs of French citizens here in New York—often families fallen on hard times—and overseeing my French Families Fund, a charity effort through which I sent comfort boxes to French orphans overseas. I’d just retired from an almost two-decade-long stint on Broadway, and this felt easy by comparison. It certainly involved less unpacking of trunks.

My boss, Roger Fortier, appeared in his office doorway.

“Caroline, I need you now. Bonnet’s canceled.”

“You can’t be serious, Roger.” The news came like a punch. I’d secured the French foreign minister as our gala keynote speaker months before.

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