Martha and her mother set out to find the family a house to lease, so that they could move out of the Esplanade—escape its opulence, in Dodd’s view—and lead a more settled life. Bill Jr., meanwhile, enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Berlin. To improve his German as speedily as possible, he arranged to live during the school week with the family of a professor.
The matter of housing the U.S. ambassador in Berlin had long been an embarrassment. Some years earlier the State Department had acquired and renovated a large and lavish building, the Blücher Palace, on Pariser Platz behind the Brandenburg Gate, to provide an ambassador’s residence and consolidate in one location all the other diplomatic and consular offices spread throughout the city, and also to raise America’s physical presence nearer to that of Britain and France, whose embassies had long been ensconced in majestic palaces on the plaza. However, just before Dodd’s predecessor, Frederic Sackett, was to move in, fire had gutted the building. It had stood as a forlorn wreck ever since, forcing Sackett and now Dodd to find alternative lodging. On a personal level, Dodd was not unhappy about this. Though he reviled the waste of all the money thus far expended on the palace—the government, he wrote, had paid an “exorbitant” price for the building, but “you know it was in 1928 or 1929, when everybody was crazy”—he liked the idea of having a home outside the embassy itself. “Personally, I would rather have my residence a half-hour’s walk away than to have it in the Palais,” he wrote. He acknowledged that having a building large enough to house junior officials would be a good thing, “but any of us who have to see people would find that the residence alongside of our offices would deprive us practically of all privacy—which is sometimes very essential.”
Martha and her mother toured greater Berlin’s lovely residential neighborhoods and discovered the city to be full of parks and gardens, with planters and flowers seemingly on every balcony. In the farthest districts they saw what appeared to be tiny farms, possibly just the thing for Martha’s father. They encountered squads of uniformed young people happily marching and singing, and more threatening formations of Storm Troopers with men of all sizes in ill-fitting uniforms, the centerpiece of which was a brown shirt of spectacularly unflattering cut. More rarely they spotted the leaner, better-tailored men of the SS, in night black accented with red, like some species of oversized blackbird.
The Dodds found many properties to choose from, though at first they failed to ask themselves why so many grand old mansions were available for lease so fully and luxuriously furnished, with ornate tables and chairs, gleaming pianos, and rare vases, maps, and books still in place. One area they particularly liked was the district immediately south of the Tiergarten along Dodd’s route to work, where they found gardens, plentiful shade, a quiet atmosphere, and an array of handsome houses. A property in the district had become available, which they learned of through the embassy’s military attaché, who had been told of its availability directly by the owner, Alfred Panofsky, the wealthy Jewish proprietor of a private bank and one of the many Jews—some sixteen thousand, or about 9 percent of Berlin’s Jews—who lived within the district. Even though Jews were being evicted from their jobs throughout Germany, Panofsky’s bank continued in operation and, surprisingly, with official indulgence.
Panofsky promised the rent would be very reasonable. Dodd, by now ruing but still adhering to his vow to live within his salary, was interested and toward the end of July went to take a look.
THE HOUSE, AT TIERGARTENSTRASSE 27a, was a four-story mansion of stone that had been built for Ferdinand Warburg of the famed Warburg dynasty. The park was across the street. Panofsky and his mother showed the Dodds the property, and now Dodd learned that in fact Panofsky was not offering the whole house, only the first three floors. The banker and his mother planned to occupy the top floor and reserved as well the use of the mansion’s electric elevator.
Panofsky was sufficiently wealthy that he did not need the income from the lease, but he had seen enough since Hitler’s appointment as chancellor to know that no Jew, no matter how prominent, was safe from Nazi persecution. He offered 27a to the new ambassador with the express intention of gaining for himself and his mother an enhanced level of physical protection, calculating that surely even the Storm Troopers would not risk the international outcry likely to arise from an attack on the house shared by the American ambassador. The Dodds, for their part, would gain all the amenities of a freestanding house, yet for a fraction of the cost, in a structure whose street presence was sufficiently impressive to communicate American power and prestige and whose interior spaces were grand enough to allow the entertainment of government and diplomatic guests without embarrassment. In a letter to President Roosevelt, Dodd exulted, “We have one of the best residences in Berlin at $150 a month—due to the fact the owner is a wealthy Jew, most willing to let us have it.”
Panofsky and Dodd signed a one-page “gentleman’s agreement,” though Dodd still had a few qualms about the place. While he loved the quiet, the trees, the garden, and the prospect of continuing to walk to work each morning, he judged the house too opulent and called it, derisively, “our new mansion.”
A plaque bearing the image of an American eagle was affixed to the iron gate at the entrance to the property, and on Saturday, August 5, 1933, Dodd and his family left the Esplanade behind and moved into their new home.
Dodd conceded later that if he had known Panofsky’s actual intentions for the use of the fourth floor, beyond simply lodging himself and his mother, he never would have agreed to the lease.
TREES AND GARDENS FILLED the yard, which was surrounded with a high iron fence set in a knee-high wall of brick. Anyone arriving on foot reached the front entrance through doorlike gates built of vertical bars of iron; by car, through a tall master gate topped with an elaborate ironwork arch with a translucent orb at its center. The front doorway of the house was invariably in shadow and formed a black rectangle at the base of a rounded, towerlike facade that rose the full height of the building. The mansion’s most peculiar architectural feature was an imposing protrusion about one and a half stories tall that jutted from the front of the house to form a porte cochere over the entry driveway and served as a gallery for the display of paintings.
The main entrance and foyer were on the ground floor, at the rear of which lay the operational soul of the house—servants’ quarters, laundry, ice storage, various supply rooms and cupboards, a pantry, and a huge kitchen, which Martha described as being “twice the size of an average New York apartment.” Upon entering the house, the Dodds walked first into a large vestibule flanked on both sides by cloakrooms and then up an elaborate staircase to the main floor.
It was here that the true drama of the house became evident. At the front, behind the curved facade, was a ballroom with an oval dance floor of gleaming wood and a piano covered in rich, fringed fabric, its bench upholstered and gilded. Here, on the piano, the Dodds placed an elaborate vase full of tall flowers and, beside this, a framed photographic portrait of Martha in which she looked exceptionally beautiful and overtly sexual, an odd choice, perhaps, for the ballroom of an ambassadorial residence. One reception room had walls covered in dark green damask, another, pink satin. A vast dining room had walls sheathed in red tapestry.
The Dodds’ bedroom was on the third floor. (Panofsky and his mother were to live on the floor above this, the attic floor.) The master bathroom was immense, so elaborate and overdone as to be comical, at least in Martha’s view. Its floors and walls were “entirely done in gold and colored mosaics.” A large tub stood on a raised platform, like something on display in a museum. “For weeks,” Martha wrote, “I roared with laughter whenever I saw the bathroom and occasionally as a lark would take my friends up to see it, when my father was away.”
Though the house still struck Dodd as overly luxurious, even he had to concede that its ballroom and reception rooms would come in handy for diplomatic functions, some of which he knew—and dreaded—would require the invitation of scores of guests so as not to offend an overlooked ambassador. And he loved the Wintergarten at the south end of the main floor, a glassed-in chamber that opened onto a tiled terrace overlooking the garden. Inside he would lie reading in a recliner; on fine days he sat outside in a cane chair, a book in his lap, as he caught the southern sun.
The family’s overall favorite room was the library, which offered the prospect of cozy winter nights beside a fire. It was walled with dark, gleaming wood and red damask, and had a great old fireplace whose black-enameled mantel was carved with forests and human figures. The shelves were full of books, many of which Dodd judged to be ancient and valuable. At certain times of day the room was bathed in colored light cast from stained glass set high in one wall. A glass-topped table displayed valuable manuscripts and letters left there by Panofsky. Martha especially liked the library’s roomy brown leather sofa, soon to become an asset in her romantic life. The size of the house, the remoteness of its bedrooms, the quiet of its fabric-sheathed walls—these too would prove valuable, as would her parents’ habit of retiring early despite the prevailing Berlin custom of staying up to all hours.
On that Saturday in August when the Dodds moved in, the Panofskys graciously placed fresh flowers throughout the house, prompting Dodd to write a thank-you note. “We are convinced that, thanks to your kind efforts and thoughtfulness, we shall be very happy in your lovely house.”
Among the diplomatic community, the house at Tiergartenstrasse 27a quickly became known as a haven where people could speak their minds without fear. “I love going there because of Dodd’s brilliant mind, his sharp gift of observation and trenchantly sarcastic tongue,” wrote Bella Fromm, the society columnist. “I like it also because there is no rigid ceremony as observed in other diplomatic houses.” One regular visitor was Prince Louis Ferdinand, who in a memoir described the house as his “second home.” He often joined the Dodds for dinner. “When the servants were out of sight we opened our hearts,” he wrote. Sometimes the prince’s candor was too much even for Ambassador Dodd, who warned him, “If you don’t try to be more careful with your talk, Prince Louis, they will hang you one of these days. I’ll come to your funeral all right, but that won’t do you much good, I am afraid.”
As the family settled in, Martha and her father fell into an easy camaraderie. They traded jokes and wry observations. “We love each other,” she wrote in a letter to Thornton Wilder, “and I am told state secrets. We laugh at the Nazis and ask our sweet butler if he has Jewish blood.” The butler, named Fritz—“short, blond, obsequious, efficient”—had worked for Dodd’s predecessor. “We talk mostly politics at table,” she continued. “Father reads chapters of his Old South to the guests. They almost perish of chagrin and mystification.”
She noted that her mother—whom she called “Her Excellency”—was in good health “but a bit nervous [and] rather enjoying it all.” Her father, she wrote, was “flourishing incredibly,” and seemed “slightly pro-German.” She added, “We sort of don’t like the Jews anyway.”
Carl Sandburg sent her a maundering letter of greeting, typed on two very thin sheets of paper, with spaces instead of punctuation marks: “Now the hegira begins the wanderjahre the track over the sea and the zig-zag over the continent and the center and the home in berlin where are many ragged arithmetics and torn testaments thru the doors will pass all the garbs and tongues and tales of europe the jews the communists the atheists the non-aryans the proscribed will not always come as such but they will come in guises disguises disgeeses … some will arrive with strange songs and a few with lines we have known and loved correspondents casual and permanent international spies spindrift beach combers aviators heroes …”
The Dodds soon learned they had a prominent and much-feared neighbor farther along Tiergartenstrasse, on a side street called Standartenstrasse: Captain Röhm himself, commander of the Storm Troopers. Every morning he could be seen riding a large black horse in the Tiergarten. Another nearby building, a lovely two-story mansion that housed Hitler’s personal chancellery, would soon become the home of a Nazi program to euthanize people with severe mental or physical disabilities, code-named Aktion (Action) T-4, for the address, Tiergartenstrasse 4.
To the horror of Counselor Gordon, Ambassador Dodd continued his practice of walking to work, alone, unguarded, in his plain business suits.
NOW, SUNDAY, AUGUST 13, 1933, with Hindenburg still convalescing on his estate, Dodd still an unofficial ambassador, and the matter of establishing a new household at last resolved, the family, accompanied by Martha’s new friend, correspondent Quentin Reynolds, set off to see a little of Germany. They traveled first by car—the Dodds’ Chevrolet—but planned to separate at Leipzig, about ninety miles south of Berlin, where Dodd and his wife planned to linger awhile and visit landmarks from his days at Leipzig University.
Martha, Bill Jr., and Reynolds continued south, with the aim of eventually reaching Austria. Theirs would prove to be a journey laden with incident that would provide the first challenge to Martha’s rosy view of the new Germany.