I will tell it. I will tell it badly, forgetting things that are important and remembering things that never happened. In that, this narrative will be no different than any other. Only the specifics of what is forgotten and remembered will distinguish it as mine.
Why tell it at all then— a story already so well known, concerning as it does, wealthy families, a handsome couple, and murder?
Because the story you have heard is wrong. The headlines you’ve seen, the editorials bemoaning the sorry state of our modern world—all sincere and well-intentioned. But since they did not know the truth of the matter, all quite beside the point.
Many decades have passed. There is no one now living who experienced those terrible events firsthand—except for myself. Who am I to claim to know the truth behind what may have been the first of the many Crimes of the Century?
Nobody. Less than nobody.
I was Charlotte Benchley’s maid.
But before you dismiss my tale as a gain inspired fantasy of a woman seeking brief, cheap fame, let me say something. It is the life’s work of some to pay attention to things others wish to ignore. If it is your job to make sure the silver is clean, you must have a sharp eye for tarnish.If the sheets are to be smooth and straight, you must first find the wrinkles. In the matter of the Benchleys and the Newsomes, I saw the tarnish, the wrinkles, and the dirt.
If it is your opinion that a maid does not possess the capacity to understand these things, then there is no reason to read on.
But if your view is otherwise, please, continue.
At the time of the events that so enthralled the country, I had been with the Benchleys for a year. My former employer had died, leaving the bulk of her fortune to charity—and me without a job.
It was a time for funerals. The city had only recently stopped mourning the aristocratic Mrs. Astor when it became necessary to don the crepe for my employer, Mrs. Armslow, who was connected by birth or marriage to the finest families in the city. In England, the rakish Edward VII was ailing. Leopold of Belgium had died. And on the very day of Mrs. Armslow’s funeral, the Apache chief Geronimo died in a prisoner of war camp at the age of nearly 90. According to the newspapers, he remained “one of the lowest and most cruel savages of the American continent,” merely biding his time in captivity until he could return to the warpath.
After the memorial when the family and staff had returned to the house, Mrs. Armslow’s niece, Mrs. Ogden Tyler, sought me out. Coming from a less affluent wing of the family, Mrs. Tyler had a democratic streak. Laying a light, friendly hand on my arm, she said, “Now you’ll think me a perfect ghoul, but I must ask: have you found a new position?”
When I shook my head, she said, “Well, here’s what you must do. A dear friend of mine, a Mrs. Benchley, has just moved here from Scarsdale of all places, and she is quite desperate. Her husband invented—or is it patented?—an engine. An engine part. Or was it something to do with rifles? At any rate, whatever it is, the government wants it. The point being: oodles of money, but not the first notion of how to live. Live properly, I mean. What to wear, who to hire, what to serve. The poor woman has two daughters, as I do, and so I thought to myself, how can I help? And the very first thing that came to my mind? Jane. Jane’s so clever, I said to myself. So clever and so discreet. Dear Jane, you’re just what the Benchleys need. Won’t you see them?”
When I arrived at the Benchley home in June of 1910, I came with the best recommendation an employee can have: the failure of all who preceded me. The Benchleys had taken up residence in a five-story townhouse on Fifth Avenue. Located on 51st Street, it was perilously close to the commercial district. Mrs. Tyler had steered them to a house that was reassuringly modest, avoiding the bullying ostentation of some of the newer millionaires.
I was admitted to the house not by the housekeeper or the butler, but a stout woman I later discovered to be the cook. She led me up the back stairs of the house to the main hallway. As I waited, I looked down corridors and into adjoining rooms to get the measure of the house. Each room was stuffed from floor to ceiling. Persian rugs covered the floors in profusion. A frieze above the entry depicted a scene from the Bayeux tapestry, King Harold pierced through the eye. A jumble of curios crowded every surface. Vases from China and Turkey jostled with leather bound books and Greek statuary. A sphinx and a china pug dog peered at me from the mantle. The sitting room resembled a tent, the windows lost behind an avalanche of drapery. A museum collection of paintings and portraits hung on the walls. An English tea set rested precariously on a French ottoman. A variety of gilded mirrors reflected and extended the chaos.
The neglect hinted at by Mrs. Tyler was obvious. The mirrors were dull, the rugs stained. Dust was everywhere. Coffee cups and used ashtrays sat unattended on the mantle. The coffee drinkers were of two different temperaments: one, careless, had left the spoon in the half-filled cup; the other, fastidious, had carefully arranged the cup back in its saucer and placed the spoon beside it. The smoker, I guessed, had been a visitor. The brand of cigar was far too exotic for the Benchleys as described by Mrs. Tyler, and clearly, the staff was not used to emptying ashtrays. Muddy, discarded shoes—well made, but poorly tended—lay at the fireplace and something that looked disturbingly like animal feces lurked by an armchair.
A copy of this morning’s Times lay on a table next to a chair that was some distance from the others; from the depression in the cushion, I guessed the man of the house sat there. A bookmark lay three pages into a copy of Middlemarch. Mary Roberts Rhinehart’s thriller When a Man Marrieswas spread-eagled on top.
Hearing the thud of footsteps on the stairs, I stepped back into the hallway, and saw Mrs. Henry Benchley.
Mrs. Benchley, formerly Miss Caroline Shaw, was a plump, anxious woman. Her tea gown was hopelessly old fashioned: mustard yellow with lace panels on the collar that looked as if someone had slapped napkins on her shoulders. The dark brown sash had not been properly tied. A careless laundress had shriveled the ruffles at the sleeves. The pins in her hair had not been fixed at the right angle, and the back was in danger of collapsing. In the grandeur of the house, she seemed a country cousin visiting her city relations, who sigh and count the days until “dear Caroline’s” departure.
“I do apologize,” she said breathlessly. “Did someone let you in? Oh, yes, of course they did. Shall we speak in the sitting room?”
Sweeping into the tent, she remarked over her shoulder, “We are in a complete muddle. I know everyone says it, but it is sohard to find good help. I’m told many girls no longer seek domestic employment, they prefer to work in shops or those dreadful factories.”
It was not the first time I had heard the complaint. Mrs. Armslow and her acquaintances had lamented the ungrateful refusal of the lower classes to employ themselves meeting the needs of their betters. Houses that used to have sixteen or more servants now made do with twelve or even nine.
I said, “It’s not every young women who finds her purpose in service to others.”
“My friend Mrs. Tyler says wonderful things about you. She’s been so helpful getting us settled in New York, I don’t know what we’d do without her. I understand you worked for Lavinia Armslow.” I nodded. “And before Mrs. Armslow?”
“Before Mrs. Armslow, I worked for my uncle, the Reverend Prescott. He…”
I hesitated. My uncle runs a home for women who once sold themselves, but wish to find different employment. Until they can, and until those who profited from their former ventures get tired of looking for them, they stay at the refuge.
Mrs. Armslow chose to devote a small part of her vast fortune to my uncle’s cause. Once a year, she would visit in order to survey the souls in the process of salvation. During one visit, when I was 14, Mrs. Armslow questioned the wisdom of raising an impressionable girl among so many fallen women and offered me a position. My future would be secured and my morals protected.
“My uncle administers a home where fallen women who seek a better life may stay in safety,” I told Mrs. Benchley.
Mrs. Benchley nodded. “I imagine it’s terribly difficult for these women to return to any kind of respectable life.”
She paused, eager for colorful stories of white slavery and innocent country girls seduced into vice. I asked, “Is it you who requires a maid, Mrs. Benchley?”
“Me?” Her mind still on prostitutes, it took Mrs. Benchley a moment. “Oh—no. I have my own dear Maude, she’s been with us for ages. Matchless Maude, I call her. But the girls need someone more their own age. But they’re very different girls, and finding one person to suit both has been so difficult. I had thought, Well, we’ll simply get two, but my husband doesn’t see why they can’t make do with one, and when Henry doesn’t see something, it’s…” Nervous, she rubbed one hand over the other. “So, you see…”
“Yes,” I assured her. “Your daughters require a maid.”
With a sigh, she dropped her hands to her lap. “Oh, you do understand. And you speak English. They say the Irish do, but I can never make it out. Oh—you’re not Irish, are you?”
“No, Madame, from Scotland. When I was three.”
Beaming, she said, “Well, that’s fine. Shall we speak with the young ladies?”
As I followed her up the stairs, she said, “We’ll see Charlotte first. She made her debut a month ago. Oh, it was marvelous, hundreds of people.”
One of whom was Mrs. Gibbes, a friend of Mrs. Armslow’s, who described the event as “a pageant of vulgarity,” although she allowed, “the girl was a pretty little thing.”
Mrs. Benchley said, “Again, I must credit Mrs. Tyler; she told us who the best caterers were, where to get the flowers, who we must invite, and not invite, which is apparently justas important.”
I wondered if there had been financial remuneration for Mrs. Tyler’s helpfulness. She would not be the first lady of great name but small wealth to accept a fee for such guidance.
We were interrupted by a scream from down the hall. Mrs. Benchley hurried to the next door and flung it open. Coming up behind her, I saw a beautiful, airy room that looked directly on to the avenue. In the center of the room, a lovely girl stood in her chemise, fists clenched, glaring down at a bundle of light blue cloth heaped about her ankles. A sullen older woman in an ill-fitting maid’s uniform stood at a safe distance.
“Whatever’s the matter, Charlotte?” asked Mrs. Benchley.
“It’s…” She waved a dismissive hand at the maid. “She’s completely hopeless. She hasn’t got the first idea what to do.”
Small wonder. The bundle of cloth was a hobble skirt. It had only recently become all the rage among the fashionable set. A tight, narrow column of fabric, it obliged women to take tiny, awkward steps; in the words of its creator Paul Poiret, it “freed the bust and shackled the legs.” This made it difficult to put on, as one could lose balance as the skirt clutched tighter and tighter around the body.
This, it seemed, was my cue.
“If I may,” I said, stepping into the room. “Mrs. Armslow’s granddaughter had a skirt similar to this.” Kneeling beside Charlotte Benchley, I said to the older woman who I guessed was the Matchless Maude, “Could you bring that chair here? Miss Benchley, if you would hold on? Thank you.”
Taking the skirt carefully with the tips of my fingers, I eased it over Miss Benchley’s legs. A matching jacket was added. Miss Benchley surveyed herself in the mirror as I adjusted her hair and placed the hat. In some ways, she would be a pleasure to dress. She was not above seventeen years old, blessed with a natural hourglass figure, a slender waist and graceful arms. Her fair hair was fine, but her smile, when she bestowed it, was beguiling. She had a look favored in that day, a childish prettiness, round in the cheek and bosom, with wide, admiring eyes. A girl not quite out of the schoolroom. If she knew how to give a man a look that hinted she might know a little of what happened outside of schoolrooms, then blush straight away when he answered her look, so much the better. Charlotte Benchley, as I discovered, knew very well how to give that look.
She had a sharp eye for her own appearance and watched everything I did. She wanted the hat just so. The ruffles of the blouse should be out, not in. At one point, I wondered if her white gloves were too bright for the suit; did Miss Benchley perhaps have a gray pair? Miss Benchley did and was satisfied with the result.
Smiling, Mrs. Benchley said to her daughter, “I think she’ll do very well for you, don’t you?”
She put an arm around Charlotte’s shoulders, but the young woman disengaged herself, saying, “And I suppose she’ll be doing very well for Louise as well.”
Mrs. Benchley said, “Your father feels…”
Charlotte tugged angrily on her gloves. “It’s absurd. He brings us here, expects us to manage, then doesn’t provide the most basic…” She waved a hand, dismissing any answer her mother could make. Then taking up her bag, she said, “If you don’t mind, I’m late. Very nice to meet you, Miss Prescott.Although who knows if you shall be here when I return.”
As she said this last, our eyes met. As I got my first clear look at the young lady of whom so much would be written about in the months to come, I decided that Mrs. Gibbes had been very wrong to dismiss Charlotte Benchley as a pretty little thing.
As we made our way down the hall, Mrs. Benchley sighed. “It’s too hard, having two daughters. I don’t worry about Charlotte. She may be a tiny bit stubborn about getting her own way, but very often she’s right. But Louise, my eldest! If you could help me with Louise, well, you would be I can’t say what, but something likean angel. She’s a good girl. Most modern girls don’t listen to their mothers, and Louise does, you know. But poor thing, she can’t seem to…
We were at the third door. Mrs. Benchley whispered, “Well, you’ll see what I mean. Louise!” She rapped on the door.
A small voice said, “Yes?” and we went in.
My first impression of Louise Benchley was of a turtle without its shell. As we entered her room, she was sitting at her dressing table, her shoulders hunched and her long back stooped. She was too thin. Her hair was a dull blonde; it hung lank on her head, as if despairing of its lack of shape. Her gray eyes were large and protruding. Her arms were long, so long she often seemed to forget she had hands at the end of them. Clearly—and unfortunately—she did listen to her mother; her dress was much in her mother’s style. The shade of cherry bordered on cruel.
She leapt up as we came in, extending an uncertain hand as her mother introduced us. Her anxiety was catching, and I found myself at a loss until I noticed an array of dolls upon her bed and remarked what a lovely collection she had.
“Oh…” Louise glanced around the room. Truthfully, the dolls made me uneasy. Rows and rows of little female forms with porcelain faces and stiff, tiny hands. They sat suffocated in ruffles and ribbons. Mouths too perfect and small to permit breath, let alone utterance. Their hair was beautifully set—all human hair. I could not help thinking these creatures had cannibalized real women to make themselves even more perfect.
I said, “Perhaps you’d like to tell me what you seek in a maid.”
Louise looked panicked. “Oh, I don’t know. Anything.”
Mrs. Benchley said, “Louise…” But she was interrupted by a shriek and crash from downstairs. Hurrying toward the door, Mrs. Benchley exhorted our better acquaintance and left.
Gazing at the dolls, Louise said, “Have you met my sister?”
“Miss Charlotte. Yes, I have.”
“She likes it in the city, it suits her. I…” She took the hand of one of the dolls, swung it as if they were walking together. “She belonged to Charlotte. When we moved, Charlotte wanted to throw them out. Maybe it was silly, but I couldn’t bear it. Something you’ve had always, just tossed aside. I suppose that’s why I have so many.”
She looked up at me. “I warn you now that I am completely hopeless.”
“My uncle is a reverend. He says no one is completely hopeless.”
“Well, I am. At everything. Everything that matters. Except badminton.” For a moment, she brightened. “I am very good at badminton.”
“Loyalty and athleticism—admirable qualities,” I said.
“Oh, no,” said Louise. “I’m a ninny. I have been all my life. But it didn’t seem to matter as much when we weren’t…as we are now. Charlotte managed straight away. She’s so pretty, so stylish. Brave. When we summered at the shore, she would go rushing into the waves, while I clung to Mother and cried. And it’s the same here. Everything she finds so wonderful about this life I find impossible.”
I asked, “What is it you find so difficult, Miss Benchley?”
She was quiet a long while, before she burst out, “Anything with people. You try so hard to be pleasant and they just look right through you. You’re not clever enough, not pretty enough, not…well, we certainly have money, but even that’s not enough. Not unless you’ve been here a hundred years and have one of five last names.”
I thought of how Mrs. Armslow used to rail against the Astors as upstarts, and said, “You would be surprised how quickly money can grow old in this city.”
“It’s all supposed to be so gracious, so agreeable. But in truth, it feels almost…violent. Everyone wants the same thing. All the girls hoping to marry into the same fortune. Their mothers wanting to be invited here or there. Oh, Mrs. Tyler tries to be kind—but all we are to those people is one less chance for them.” She looked up. “Sometimes, in those rooms, it almost feels like they want to kill you.”
Trying to make light of it, I said, “Well, I have never seen anyone stabbed with a fish knife or bludgeoned with a champagne bottle.”
“Perhaps…” she said vaguely.
For a moment, I inspected Louise Benchley. I had met three of the four Benchleys, and I could vividly imagine their failings as employers. And yet, I felt the irresistible pull of need, the sense that I might be useful here. For Charlotte, I could do no more than any maid. But for Louise, there could be something else.
“Come,” I said, taking her face and turning it to the mirror. “Let’s have this hair the envy of every debutante in New York. Let the mothers bring their knives and cudgels. We are not afraid.”
“I’m afraid I am afraid,” said Louise, but she was smiling.
Of course, I did not take her talk of killing seriously. At the time, I thought Louise Benchley was indulging in that fascination with death that so many who live far beyond its grip—the young, healthy, and wealthy—have.
Tragically, she was far closer to the truth than I was.