Mrs. Cerruti’s Distress

In his diary entry for Thursday, June 28, 1934, Ambassador Dodd wrote, “During the last five days, stories of many kinds have tended to make the Berlin atmosphere more tense than at any time since I have been in Germany.” Papen’s speech continued to be a topic of daily conversation. With rising ferocity, Hitler, Göring, and Goebbels warned of dire consequences for anyone who dared to oppose the government. In a cable to the State Department, Dodd likened the atmosphere of threat to that of the French Revolution—“the situation was much as it was in Paris in 1792 when the Girondins and Jacobins were struggling for supremacy.”

In his own household, there was an extra layer of strain that had nothing to do with weather or political upheaval. Against her parents’ wishes, Martha continued planning her trip to Russia. She insisted that her interest had nothing to do with communism per se but rather arose out of her love for Boris and her mounting distaste for the Nazi revolution. She recognized that Boris was indeed a loyal communist, but she claimed he exerted influence over her political perspective only “by the example of his magnetism and simplicity, and his love of country.” She confessed to feeling a gnawing ambivalence “regarding him, his beliefs, the political system in his country, our future together.” She insisted on taking the trip without him.

She wanted to see as much of Russia as she could and ignored his advice to concentrate on only a few cities. He wanted her to gain a deep understanding of his homeland, not some glancing tourist’s appreciation. He recognized also that travel in his country was not as quick or comfortable as in Western Europe, nor did its cities and towns have the obvious charm of the picturesque villages of Germany and France. Indeed, the Soviet Union was anything but the workers’ paradise many left-leaning outsiders imagined it to be. Under Stalin, peasants had been forced into vast collectives. Many resisted, and an estimated five million people—men, women, and children—simply disappeared, many shipped off to far-flung work camps. Housing was primitive, consumer goods virtually nonexistent. Famine scoured the Ukraine. Livestock suffered a drastic decline. From 1929 to 1933 the total number of cattle fell from 68.1 million to 38.6 million; of horses, from 34 million to 16.6 million. Boris knew full well that to a casual visitor, the physical and social scenery and especially the drab workers’ fashion of Russia could seem less than captivating, especially if that visitor happened to be exhausted by difficult travel and the mandatory presence of an Intourist guide.

Nonetheless, Martha chose Tour No. 9, the Volga-Caucasus-Crimea tour, set to begin on July 6 with a flight—her first ever—from Berlin to Leningrad. After two days in Leningrad, she would set out by train for Moscow, spend four days there, then proceed by overnight train to Gorki and, two hours after her 10:04 arrival, catch a Volga steamer for a four-day cruise with stops at Kazan, Samara, Saratov, and Stalingrad, where she was to make the obligatory visit to a tractor works; from Stalingrad, she would take a train to Rostov-on-Don, where she would have the option of visiting a state farm, though here her itinerary exuded just a whiff of capitalism, for the farm tour would require an “extra fee.” Next, Ordzhonikidze, Tiflis, Batumi, Yalta, Sebastopol, Odessa, Kiev, and, at last, back to Berlin by train, where she was to arrive on August 7, the thirty-third day of her journey, at precisely—if optimistically—7:22 p.m.

Her relationship with Boris continued to deepen, though with its usual wild swings between passion and anger and the usual cascade of pleading notes and fresh flowers from him. At some point she returned his three “see no evil” ceramic monkeys. He sent them back.

“Martha!” he wrote, indulging his passion for exclamation:

“I thank you for your letters and for ‘not forgetfulness.’ Your three monkeys have grown (they have become big) and want to be with you. I am sending them. I have to tell you very frankly: three monkeys have longed for you. And not only the three monkeys, I know another handsome, blond (aryan!!) young man, who has longed to be with you. This handsome boy (not older than 30)—is me.

“Martha! I want to see you, I need to tell you that I also have not forgotten my little adorable lovely Martha!

“I love you, Martha! What do I have to do to establish more confidence in you?

“Yours, Boris.”

In any era their relationship would have been likely to draw the attention of outsiders, but that June in Berlin everything took on added gravitas. Everyone watched everyone else. At the time, Martha gave little thought to the perceptions of others, but years later, in a letter to Agnes Knickerbocker, the wife of her correspondent friend Knick, she acknowledged how readily perception could distort reality. “I never plotted the overthrow nor even the subversion of the U.S. government, neither in Germany nor in the USA!” she wrote. “I think however that just knowing and loving Boris would be enough for some people to suspect the worst.”

At the time there was nothing to suspect, she insisted. “Instead it was one of those absorbing things that had no political base at all, except that through him I came to know something about the USSR.”

FRIDAY, JUNE 29, 1934, brought the same atmosphere of impending storm that had marked the preceding weeks. “It was the hottest day we had had that summer,” recalled Elisabetta Cerruti, wife of the Italian ambassador. “The air was so heavy with moisture that we could hardly breathe. Black clouds loomed on the horizon, but a merciless sun burned overhead.”

That day the Dodds held a lunch at their home, to which they had invited Vice-Chancellor Papen and other diplomatic and government figures, including the Cerrutis and Hans Luther, Germany’s ambassador to the United States, who at the time happened to be in Berlin.

Martha also attended and watched as her father and Papen stepped away from the other guests for a private conversation in the library, in front of the now-dormant fireplace. Papen, she wrote, “seemed self-confident and as suave as usual.”

At one point Dodd spotted Papen and Luther edging toward each other with a “rather tense attitude” between them. Dodd moved to intervene and steered them out to the lovely winter garden, where another guest joined them in conversation. Dodd, referring to the press photographs taken during the German Derby, said to Papen, “You and Dr. Goebbels seemed to be quite friendly at Hamburg the other day.”

Papen laughed.

At lunch, Mrs. Cerruti sat on Dodd’s right and Papen sat directly opposite, next to Mrs. Dodd. Mrs. Cerruti’s anxiety was palpable, even to Martha, watching from a distance. Martha wrote, “She sat by my father in a state of near-collapse, hardly speaking, pale, preoccupied, and jumpy.”

Mrs. Cerruti told Dodd, “Mr. Ambassador, something terrible is going to happen in Germany. I feel it in the air.”

A later rumor held that Mrs. Cerruti somehow knew in advance what was about to happen. She found this astonishing. Her remark to Dodd, she claimed years later, referred only to the weather.

IN AMERICA THAT FRIDAY the “great heat” worsened. In humid locales like Washington it became nearly impossible to work. Moffat noted in his diary: “Temperature 101 and ½ in the shade today.”

The heat and humidity were so unbearable that as evening approached Moffat and Phillips and a third official went to the home of a friend of Moffat’s to use his pool. The friend was away at the time. The three men undressed and climbed in. The water was warm and provided scant relief. No one swam. Instead the three simply sat there, talking quietly, only their heads showing above the water.

That Dodd was a subject of this conversation seems likely. Just a few days earlier Phillips had written in his diary about Dodd’s unrelenting assault on the wealth of diplomats and consular officials.

“Presumably the Ambassador has been complaining to the President,” Phillips groused in his diary. Dodd “always complains because of the fact that they are spending in Berlin more than their salaries. This he objects to strenuously, probably for the simple reason that he himself has not the money to spend beyond that of his salary. It is, of course, a small town attitude.”

ODDLY ENOUGH, MOFFAT’S MOTHER, Ellen Low Moffat, was in Berlin that Friday, to visit her daughter (Moffat’s sister), who was married to the embassy secretary, John C. White. That evening the mother attended a dinner party where she sat beside Papen. The vice-chancellor was, as she later told her son, “well and in extremely high spirits.”

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