A Woman in Miniature
by Carol Goodman
“Well, Hello Dolly!” Tony the bellhop whistled under his breath. “Look at what just blew into town!”
I looked up from the directory, suspecting that Tony, Broadway fan that he was, might be referring to the irrepressible matchmaker Dolly Levi in the latest revival of The Merchant of Yonkers, but instead I was just in time to watch a cloud of silver fox and violet tulle sail by as if a storm front had advanced into the lobby of the Plaza. She—if there really was a woman at the center of all that fur and fabric and static electricity—drifted into the elevator and turned a veiled face toward the lobby as if facing a firing squad before being lifted into her natural aerial element. My ears popped as if the pressure had dropped inside the information booth.
“Who was that?” I asked Lydia Belknap, who worked the information booth with me when her busy schedule at Barnard allowed. As usual she had her nose in a book, but I’d caught her taking a peek at the show. Tony answered instead.
“New arrival from Europe. The baroness Clara von Rosenberg, lately of Vienna by way of Paris and London.”
“The baroness—” Lydia began, looking up from her book again.
“There’s her companion,” Tony cut in, loath to give up his role as narrator. I bet he low-talks in movie theaters too, I thought, as a dour woman in tweed marched across the lobby in front of an armada of battered trunks and valises and hatboxes, all bearing luggage stamps from a dozen foreign countries.
“I hear she escaped from Austria impersonating her maid,” Tony said.
“The companion?” I asked, thinking the Nazis would be no match for General Tweed, who carried herself like the toughest nuns at Our Lady.
“No, the baroness. Louis B. Mayer is making a movie of her life. I think I’ll go see if she needs any help.”
Tony, who had theatrical ambitions, winked and sauntered across the lobby, intercepting one of his brethren manhandling a hatbox. Some words and a coin were exchanged and Tony squeezed into the elevator with General Tweed. A fresh recruit. I couldn’t help being jealous that he was free to go where he pleased while I was chained to my desk as firmly as the directory to its brass chain. When I got the job manning the information booth, I thought I’d be at the hub, Peggy Quinn of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, dispensing the secrets of the grand old hotel to the uninitiated. I knew it wasn’t the same as serving overseas like all the boys I knew were doing, but at least I’d get to wear a navy blazer with epaulettes and a brass badge with my name and the double-P insignia. I read the history of the hotel in the brochure and memorized the directory backwards and forwards. But all anyone ever asked was how to get to the ladies’ room. The phone hardly ever rang—
My phone rang.
“Hello, Information, how may I assist your inquiry?”
I’d come up with that bit on my own to class up the job a little.
“My last pair of silk stockings has a run,” said a doleful voice as if reporting a death in the family. Which she might as well have been; silk stockings were rare as hen teeth. “Might you know where I could procure a replacement?”
“Honey, there’s a war on,” I in-formed her.
There was a crackling pause and the voice, with an accent like Greta Garbo’s in Ninotchka, drawled, “I am aware. I have just come from there.”
It was her. The baroness in the penthouse. I could direct her to housekeeping or— “Bergdorf’s, right across the street. Would you like me to pick you up a pair? Any particular color? Size?”
“An assorted dozen in the usual tones,” she replied. “Petite.”
She hung up and I turned to Lydia, who was staring down at the same picture of a girl on a swing as she’d been five minutes ago. “Hold the booth while I’m gone. I’m making a foray to the front for the baroness.”
Lydia looked up from the girl on the swing, blinking dazedly as if she’d been swinging right along with her. “Did that bellhop say the new guest is the baroness von Rosenberg?”
“His name’s Tony, which you’d know if you ever looked up from your book. And yes, that’s who he said it was. You see, Lydia, not all the world’s secrets are to be found in books. Sometimes it pays to look up and around you.” Since she still looked dazed, I added, “Don’t worry, no one will ask you anything but how to get to the ladies’ and that’s not exactly classified.”
“I’m not as good with people as you are,” she said, clutching her book as if she might need to hurl it at an enemy assailant. It was big enough to do some real damage.
“Well, then, this will be practice,” I quipped, fixing my hat and slipping behind the palm trees bordering the Palm Court so the hotel manager wouldn’t see me going, past ladies having tea, past the newsstand where the headlines announced another tanker torpedoed by a German U-boat and another island taken by the Japanese, past the hotel detective snoozing in a club chair—fat lot of good he’d be in an invasion—and out the 58th Street exit into a blast of taxi exhaust and steam rising from a hot-dog stand. Ah, Manhattan! What a relief to be out from behind the information booth, even if the air smelled like gasoline and sauerkraut. The windows of Bergdorf Goodman beckoned, the mannequins gaily showing off their legs and the new spring dresses without a care in the world, as if they didn’t read the papers or have a fellow in the war.
I sailed past them with my chin up, straight to women’s hosiery, where the salesgirl gave me a jaundiced look and went back to covertly reading her newspaper under the counter.
I rang the bell.
“Hello!” I said as if she’d just ap-peared. “I’m Peggy Quinn from the Plaza—” I tapped my brass badge, which I polished every day before work. “—and I’m here to pick up a few things for one of our new guests—the baroness von Rosenberg. Perhaps you’ve heard of her?”
“The baroness von Rosenberg? The one who’s in today’s paper?” She pointed to a list of arrivals on the Shipping and Mail page.
“The very one,” I said, making a mental note that I should read the shipping and mail page. A Plaza information girl ought to keep abreast of foreign arrivals. “She’d like a dozen pairs of stockings, silk, all the usual tones.” I repeated the words with the baroness’s inflection. The salesgirl’s eyes widened. “You can bill the penthouse suite. I imagine—” I added, leaning in and lowering my voice to a conspiratorial whisper appropriate for international secrets. “—if she’s pleased, she’ll be happy to patronize Bergdorf’s while she’s in town. Or there’s always Bonwit’s—”
“Oh no! Our stockings are far superior to Bonwit’s! All the usual tones, you say? We’ve got Pearl Dawn, Misty Morning, Noon Nude, Blue Monday, Twilight Grey, White Nights, Midnight Black, After Hours Jet, Navy Days, and Reveille Red.”
“I’ll take one of each time—I mean color—and double up on the Nude and Black,” I said, my head spinning. That was enough silk to parachute a dozen of our boys behind enemy lines. I spent an hour every morning painting my legs and drawing a seam down my calf. But I supposed there would always be exceptions for the rich. “Petite,” I added.
“Sure, honey,” she said, pulling out boxes and tissue paper. “I’ll throw in a pair of tall in navy for you if you give your baroness my card and tell her to ask for Lorraine when she comes over.”
I took the card but left the stockings. “No, thanks. My fellow would think I’d gotten an admirer,” I said, even though I hadn’t seen or heard from Colt Lewis since he’d left for a “secret posting” on Christmas day.
I left with half a dozen bags bristling with tissue paper, but still made it past the house detective without disturbing his slumbers. Henri, the manager, caught me halfway across the lobby, though, and demanded to know why I wasn’t at my post. I glanced over at Lydia and noticed that a couple of men in matching navy Brooks Brothers suits were giving her the third degree. I hoped they were asking her about one of those eighteenth-century artists she liked so much, because that was all the information they were going to get out of her.
“Baroness von Rosenberg asked me to pick up a few things for her. I didn’t think anyone would mind.”
Henri’s eyebrows shot up and he became ten times Frencher than usual. “Mais oui!” he exclaimed. “Anything for the baroness. Here—” He escorted me to the elevator and pushed the button for me. “Please do tell the baroness we are all happy to do anything she requires.” He pressed his card into my hand as I stepped in.
Just before the doors closed, the Brooks Brothers squeezed in and stood on either side of me, taking up all the air in the lift. We passed the first two flights in silence until I couldn’t stand it anymore. Sister Agatha Dorothy was always quoting that proverb about the babbling fool to me. “Was Lydia able to help you? She’s getting her degree in art history at Barnard and can tell you everything you’d ever want to know about eighteenth-century Rococo painters.”
They turned their heads to me at the same time and angle like cuckoos on a cuckoo clock but less cute.
“Is that what you were asking her about?” I went on when they didn’t respond. “Because if you want to know what to see on Broadway, you’d be better off asking Tony the bellhop.”
They looked at each other and nodded in unison as if they’d decided I was simple-minded. Which was fine with me. They got out on 17, one floor shy of the penthouse. “See ya,” I said, rustling my bags at their backs. “Don’t be strangers.”
When the doors opened on the 18th floor, I was greeted by a flock of chambermaids flitting back and forth like magpies, trailing chiffon, silk, and tulle between trunks and closets, valises and drawers. I recognized Arnette, one of the older maids who’d rescued me from wandering lost in the attic dormitories one day, and winked at her. General Tweed directed them all while the baroness lounged becalmed in a velvet chaise longue, cradled in furs and pinned down by an enormous bejeweled chain around her neck. General Tweed tried to head me off, but I maneuvered around her and marched straight to the baroness, determined to complete my mission.
“Here are your stockings, ma’am . . . I mean Baroness . . . your . . . “ How were you supposed to address a baroness? Was I supposed to curtsey? No, this was America, after all, and the baroness didn’t look like she cared. The dark eyes she raised to mine were sunken in her pale face like raisins in a pudding. I should have picked up some rouge and lipstick for her at Bergdorf’s.
“I got all the colors—even Reveille Red—” I glanced at the dresses in one of the maid’s arms. They were all in shades of mourning that didn’t presage well for the health of Baron von Rosenberg. “—which I suppose you may not have much use for. I can take it back for something more—” Funereal, I was about to say, but luckily the baroness waved a pale hand bedecked with rubies and diamonds and said, “Perhaps instead you could find me a dress to match the stockings in this . . . what did you call the color?”
“How very American. We exiles must accustom ourselves to the manners of our hosts.”
I thought she was joking, but then she reached into the pocket of her fur coat and withdrew a handful of bills. “Here. Buy yourself something to wear as well. I’m having a little soiree tonight and I insist you attend. I’m sure my new American friends will find you . . .” She looked me up and down in my Plaza uniform with its epaulettes. “Droll.”
After work I picked out a red Dior number at Bergdorf’s and had it sent over to the baroness. Then I took the subway down to May’s and bought myself a navy dress for one tenth the price of one at Bergdorf’s. I threw in a pair of pumps and nylons and still had change for the baroness. Arnette snuck me into the maids’ quarters in the attic to change and filled me in on the hotel gossip about the baroness. She’d ordered dozens of oysters and cases of champagnes for tonight’s soiree. The hotel was swarming with Hollywood bigwigs and art dealers here to greet her. Her trunks didn’t just contain dresses and furs, but paintings and precious artworks rescued from the Nazis. For a refugee, she seemed to have plenty of cash, which she was freely spreading amongst the staff.
“She gave me twenty dollars to draw her bath and help her in,” Arnette told me. “Do you know the last thing she took off? That clunky old necklace of hers. Had me lay it on a chair where she could see it and put it right back on when she dried off. She asked me to stay until after the party to help her get undressed. Good thing my sister Eunice was able to watch my boys.”
I was glad I wasn’t the only one to benefit from the baroness’s largesse but it made me wonder. One of the boarders at my aunt’s boarding house, Professor Edelstein, had re-cently welcomed his brother’s family from Europe. They were gaunt and penniless and grateful to escape with their lives. How had the baroness come through all her travels so flush?
No one else at the party seemed overly worried about the source of the baroness’s generosity. Manhattan’s finest were there, showbiz people like Ann Sheridan and the theater critic George Jean Nathan, the society columnist from the Times, the director of the Metropolitan Museum, all guzzling champagne and slurping back raw oysters as if it were New Year’s Eve. The baroness, in the red Dior I’d picked out, was draped over her chaise longue like a bloodstain, a bevy of bespectacled old men examining the body. One was holding his monocle to the baroness’s décolletage.
“Fellow,” I couldn’t help saying, “she may not be Betty Grable, but you don’t need a magnifying glass to see what’s there.”
Then I saw that he was examining the necklace, specifically the painted miniature that lay between the baroness’s breasts.
“Extraordinary,” Monocle pronounced, “an early eighteenth-century Louis-François Aubry miniature, I wager, but an unknown one.”
“An espousal portrait of my ancestress made on her betrothal. It is my fondest treasure. She, too, was forced to leave her homeland when she was betrothed to an Austrian count, and now she has accompanied me into exile. She has been, how do you say it?” She lifted her eyes and met mine.
“A good luck charm?” I suggested, leaning closer to peer at the woman in the miniature. She was a wispy blonde with a peaches-and-cream complexion, head tilted to the side, one hand clutching her blue-and-pink kimono as if to cover herself up but doing a bad job of it and exposing a lot of white bosom instead. Caught in her frame of diamonds and hanging from the heavy, jewel-encrusted chain, she didn’t look lucky; she looked trapped.
“Yes,” the baroness replied, smiling. “She is, as you say, charming. She is a fellow exile. Perhaps she will make me feel less alone here in this strange country.”
The baroness didn’t seem very much alone at all, I thought, as I was jostled aside by a cub reporter with a pencil stuck behind his ear and a steno pad in his hand. “What a story! Our readers at the Saturday Evening Post will love it! Mind if my photographer gets a close-up of the painting, perhaps on a background of black velvet?
“I never take her off,” the baroness said in a suddenly chilly voice.
“Okey-dokey,” the reporter chirped. “If you don’t mind Charlie doing a close-up of your, er . . .”
The photographer squeezed in and set off his flash. I backed up into a corner, blinking away Christmas lights, and stepped on someone’s foot.
“Watch where you’re going, sister,” grunted a man sitting in a chair. I blinked at him and recognized the house detective.
“Excuse me, Mr. Hansen,” I said. “I didn’t see you napping there. Are you sure you’re in the right room? Don’t you usually take your evening nap in the Oak Room?”
“Ha-ha, very funny. I guess you don’t know what undercover means.”
“I know it doesn’t usually involve the imbibing of champagne. Or did you bring your own?” I peered into the folds of his trench coat. “I happen to be very good friends with the Brooklyn assistant D.A.—”
“I know all about it, Miss Quinn. I vetted you for this job. I know you lost your mother last year—my condolences—and your brothers ran afoul of Children’s Aid and wound up in an orphanage. I know that you were mixed up with some of the boys from Murder, Inc. and that you were almost killed by the Mermaid Murderer—”
“I caught the Mermaid Murderer,” I corrected, blinking away tears at the memories his recital had brought up. He made my life sound like the story of the little match girl. He made me sound little. “Who was the last criminal you caught, Mr. Hansen?”
The detective turned red in the face, which either meant he was embarrassed or the drink had caught up with him. Maybe I should have felt sorry for him, but I’d dealt with my share of drunks in my life and I was fed up—fed up, suddenly, with the whole scene of old men peering at a woman’s bust, painted or not, while slurping the baroness’s champagne. It was time to go home. I said goodbye to Arnette, who was handing out towels in the ladies’ room and keeping mashers off the baroness’s bed. As I was leaving, I ran into Lydia.
“Hey, I didn’t know you were here. I didn’t think this was your sort of thing.” Honestly, I thought she spent her nights at the Columbia Library.
“I wanted to see the miniature,” she said.
“Oh, yeah, I guess that’s your period. One of those old profs said it was painted by a guy named Louis—”
“He’s wrong. It was painted by Rosalba Carriera, one of the finest miniature painters of the eighteenth century and practically the inventor of the Rococo, but does she get any credit? No, because she was a woman she is neglected and ignored.”
I’d never seen Lydia so angry. “Worse things are done to women than being neglected and ignored,” I said. But then, because she looked so upset, I added, “Maybe you can change it. Get people to sit up and take notice of this Rose Alma Carrier woman.”
She nodded. “Oh, people will notice,” she said. “You wait and see. . . .”
Copyright © 2023 A Woman in Miniature by Carol Goodman