Meeting Putzi

With the help of Sigrid Schultz and Quentin Reynolds, Martha inserted herself readily into the social fabric of Berlin. Smart, flirtatious, and good-looking, she became a favorite among the younger officers of the foreign diplomatic corps and a sought-after guest at the informal parties, the so-called bean parties and beer evenings, held after the obligatory functions of the day had concluded. She also became a regular at a nightly gathering of twenty or so correspondents who convened in an Italian restaurant, Die Taverne, owned by a German and his Belgian wife. The restaurant always set aside a big, round table in a corner for the group—a Stammtisch, meaning a table for regulars—whose members, including Schultz, typically began to arrive at about ten in the evening and might linger until as late as four the next morning. The group had achieved a kind of fame. “Everybody else in the restaurant is watching them and trying to overhear what they are saying,” wrote Christopher Isherwood in Goodbye to Berlin. “If you have a piece of news to bring them—the details of an arrest, or the address of a victim whose relatives might be interviewed—then one of the journalists leaves the table and walks up and down with you outside, in the street.” The table often drew cameo visits from the first and second secretaries of foreign embassies and various Nazi press officials, and on occasion even Gestapo chief Rudolf Diels. William Shirer, a later member of the group, saw Martha as a worthy participant: “pretty, vivacious, a mighty arguer.”

In this new world, the calling card was the crucial currency. The character of an individual’s card reflected the character of the individual, his perception of himself, or how he wanted the world to perceive him. The Nazi leadership invariably had the largest cards with the most imposing titles, usually printed in some bold Teutonic font. Prince Louis Ferdinand, son of Germany’s crown prince, a sweet-tempered young man who had worked in a Ford assembly plant in America, had the tiniest of cards, with only his name and title. His father, on the other hand, had a large card with a photograph of himself on one side, in full princely regalia, the other side blank. Cards were versatile. Notes scrawled on cards served as invitations to dinner or cocktails or more compelling assignations. By simply crossing out the last name, a man or woman conveyed friendship, interest, even intimacy.

Martha accumulated dozens of cards, and saved them. Cards from Prince Louis, soon to become a suitor and friend; from Sigrid Schultz, of course; and from Mildred Fish Harnack, who had been present on the station platform when Martha and her parents arrived in Berlin. A correspondent for the United Press, Webb Miller, wrote on his card, “If you have nothing more important to do why not have dinner with me.” He provided his hotel and room number.

AT LAST SHE MET her first senior Nazi. As promised, Reynolds took her to the party of his English friend, “a lavish and fairly drunken affair.” Well after their arrival, an immense man with a brick of coal-black hair slammed into the room—“in a sensational manner,” Martha later recalled—passing his card left and right, with a decided emphasis on recipients who were young and pretty. At six feet four inches in height, he was a head taller than most men in the room and weighed easily 250 pounds. A female observer once described him as “supremely awkward-looking—an enormous puppet on slack strings.” Even amid the din of the party his voice stood out like thunder over rain.

This, Reynolds told Martha, was Ernst Hanfstaengl. Officially, as stated on his card, he was Auslandspressechef—foreign press chief—of the National Socialist Party, though in fact this was largely a made-up job with little real authority, a sop granted by Hitler to acknowledge Hanfstaengl’s friendship ever since the early days, when Hitler often came to Hanfstaengl’s home.

Upon being introduced, Hanfstaengl told Martha, “Call me Putzi.” It was his childhood nickname, used universally by his friends and acquaintances and by all the city’s correspondents.

This was the giant that Martha by now had heard so much about—he of the unpronounceable, unspellable last name, adored by many correspondents and diplomats, loathed and distrusted by many others, this latter camp including George Messersmith, who claimed “an instinctive dislike” for the man. “He is totally insincere, and one cannot believe a word he says,” Messersmith wrote. “He pretends the closest friendship with those whom he is at the same time trying to undermine or whom he may be directly attacking.”

Martha’s friend Reynolds at first liked Hanfstaengl. In contrast with other Nazis, the man “went out of his way to be cordial to Americans,” Reynolds recalled. Hanfstaengl offered to arrange interviews that otherwise might be impossible to get and sought to present himself to the city’s correspondents as one of the boys, “informal, hail-fellow-well-met, charming.” Reynolds’s affection for Hanfstaengl eventually cooled, however. “You had to know Putzi to really dislike him. That,” he noted, “came later.”

Hanfstaengl spoke English beautifully. At Harvard he had been a member of the Hasty Pudding Club, a theatrical group, and forever bent the minds of his audience when for one performance he dressed as a Dutch girl named Gretchen Spootsfeiffer. He had come to know classmate Theodore Roosevelt Jr., eldest son of Teddy Roosevelt, and had become a regular visitor to the White House. One story held that Hanfstaengl had played a piano in the White House basement with such verve that he broke seven strings. As an adult he had run his family’s art gallery in New York, where he had met his wife-to-be. After moving to Germany, the couple had grown close to Hitler and made him godfather of their newborn son, Egon. The boy called him “Uncle Dolf.” Sometimes when Hanfstaengl played for Hitler, the dictator wept.

Martha liked Hanfstaengl. He was not at all what she expected a senior Nazi official to be, “so blatantly proclaiming his charm and talent.” He was big and full of energy, with giant, long-fingered hands—hands that Martha’s friend Bella Fromm would describe as being “of almost frightening dimensions”—and a personality that bounded readily from one extreme to another. Martha wrote, “He had a soft, ingratiating manner, a beautiful voice which he used with conscious artistry, sometimes whispering low and soft, the next minute bellowing and shattering the room.” He dominated any social milieu. “He could exhaust anyone and, from sheer perseverance, out-shout or out-whisper the strongest man in Berlin.”

Hanfstaengl took a liking to Martha as well but did not think much of her father. “He was a modest little Southern history professor, who ran his embassy on a shoestring and was probably trying to save money out of his pay,” Hanfstaengl wrote in a memoir. “At a time when it needed a robust millionaire to compete with the flamboyance of the Nazis, he teetered round self-effacingly as if he were still on his college campus.” Hanfstaengl dismissively referred to him as “Papa” Dodd.

“The best thing about Dodd,” Hanfstaengl wrote, “was his attractive blond daughter, Martha, whom I got to know very well.” Hanfstaengl found her charming, vibrant, and clearly a woman of sexual appetite.

Which gave him an idea.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!