Are the paintings in the book real?
Yes! Every one. I had fun “shopping” the world’s greatest museums, building my own collection of paintings and then arranging them to tell Rose’s story.
You can see them all together here.
Gilded Age mansions didn’t have their own underground train platforms, did they?
Mansions may not have, but a very famous hotel does. When the Waldorf-Astoria was built, just such a platform was added to give high-profile celebrities a discreet way in and out of the hotel. Here's how it was described in The New York Times on September 8, 1929:
The new Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, to be erected in the block bounded by Park Avenue, Lexington Avenue, Forty-ninth and Fiftieth Streets, will have a private railway siding underneath the building, it was learned yesterday. Guests with private rail cars may have them routed directly to the hotel instead of to the Pennsylvania Station or the Grand Central Terminal, and may leave their cars at a special elevator which will take them directly to their suites or to the lobby.
The arrangement is made possible because of the fact that the New York Central tracks pass directly beneath the block, which has been obtained by the Hotel Waldorf-Astoria Corporation from the New York Central Railroad on a sixty-three-year leasehold, the lease being in reality only for the "air rights" on the site.
It was used most famously by wheelchair-bound Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (FDR’s administration worked hard to hide the president’s disability from photographers.)
The hotel platform still exists today, but has fallen into disrepair and is no longer in use. Here's how it looks now, from the outside and the inside:
The Gallery: Ask the Author
1928-1929: Prohibition, the presidential election between Herbert Hoover and Al Smith, the murder of Al Rothstein, the run on the stock market. Did these things all really happen that year?
They sure did. I found particularly interesting the way the Smith-Hoover election mirrored themes in our own political landscape.
But the stock market crash of 1929 didn’t happen until October! Why does the book have it taking place in March?
It was a different crash—a “run up” crash, economists call it. After the Federal Reserve warned of rampant stock speculation, interest rates started to rise. Investors got nervous and started dumping their stock. Things snowballed the week of March 18, with a market experiencing a “mini-crash” on Monday, March 25—the day Rose gets the drop on Mr. Sewell.
From reading her husband’s newspaper, Rose could tell he was pumping certain stocks for his own gain and was likely overextended in the market. She knew a crash would wipe him out—and she guessed one was coming eventually. So when she heard the radio reports on March 25, she knew he was—at least momentarily--penniless. Just the time to put her plan in motion.
Rose is smart to get Mr. Sewell out of the country that very day. He’s already at sea when some of his banker cronies bail out the market, artificially buoying it for another few months—before the Great Crash of October 29.
But how can Mr. Sewell just jump on a ship bound for Italy, with no passport, no visa, just a ticket in Alfonso Vanzetti’s name? Wouldn’t he have to show identification?
Nope. All of the documentation we take for granted these days—passports, visas, photographic drivers’ licenses—didn’t exist at this time. At least, not to leave the country.
For some, visas were required to enter the country—especially for those immigrants from less “desirable” regions specified in the Immigration Restriction Act of 1921. (Alfonso and his brother would have entered the country before that.) But passports and travel visas didn’t become standard until World War II.
Not surprisingly, it was quite easy for people to change their identities at this time—as we see in Alfonso Vanzetti’s use of the name Alphonse Dupont.
How could Alfonso get a job under a false name, Alphonse Dupont? Wouldn’t somebody check his social security number or something?
Again: no. Social security numbers and other forms of identity documentation didn’t come about until the 1940’s. At this time, most employees (and certainly servants) were paid in cash or by check, with no payroll taxes extracted. The most a job candidate needed to produce was a reference, which could be easily faked.
Did Vanzetti really have a brother?
If he did, it wasn’t Alfonso (or Alphonse). The character of Alphonse is purely fictional, although Sacco and Vanzetti were very real and very important figures of this time.
Who were Sacco and Vanzetti anyway?
Sacco and Vanzetti were two Italian immigrants who were tried and executed for shooting a security guard as part of a failed robbery.
But the case was a little more complicated than that.
Throughout the 1920’s, the political movement known as anarchism was under deep suspicion—partly due to its commitment to change through violence, partly for its large following among immigrants, mostly Italians. Italian anarchists were the face of “terrorists” at this time; they were behind a number of high profile attacks: the bombing on Wall Street in 1920, an attack on a New York City subway train in 1927, the large-scale poisoning mentioned in the headlines above. Bombs were their preferred mode of attack: their leader, Luigi Galleani, published a pamphlet misleadingly titled La Salute E in Voi (literally Health Is in You), which detailed how anyone could build weapons of destruction from everyday items. (It’s what appears in Alfonso’s pocket the day the Sewell mansion burns to the ground.)
Sacco and Vanzetti had attended anarchist meetings, although their participation seems to have been minimal. They were not even necessarily at the location of the robbery in question. But their anarchist leanings made great headlines in the newspapers of magnates like William Randolph Hearst (a model for Mr. Sewell). Today most believe that Sacco and Vanzetti were scapegoated for their political beliefs, and even at the time their case caused public outcry around the world.
After Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution, a slew of revenge bombings followed, including a failed assassination attempt on Herbert Hoover in Argentina. As the publisher of a paper that had vilified the two men, Mr. Sewell would likely be concerned of revenge attacks as well. (And as it turns out, he even fakes one as a publicity stunt on the eve of the presidential election.)
Were you inspired by any real-life museums or collectors?
Oh, yes. In fact, The Gallery has its roots in one of my favorite places, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Isabella, very much a model for Rose, was your textbook eccentric Gilded Age heiress with the money and moxie to do as she pleased—whether it was walking lion cubs on a leash, wearing a Red Sox headband to the opera, or curating a world-class art museum in her home.
Isabella left behind an airtight will leaving her home as a museum. She even stipulated that if a single object were ever moved from where she’d placed it, the entire collection should be sold off and the museum shut down. For this reason, when you visit the museum, you will see it exactly as Isabella intended.
Or almost. In 1990, gunmen raided the museum and stole thirteen works of art—including works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Manet, and Degas. Thankfully the removal of these pieces didn’t necessitate the liquidation of the museum. (Isabella’s will provided a loophole for theft, cleaning, or lending.) But it did leave the collection diminished, and the museum has left the empty frames in their places as a reminder of what was lost.
(A free-willed heiress. A precise order of paintings. An elaborate heist. Sound familiar?)
In recent years, leads around the Gardner theft have begun bubbling up to the surface, but there have been no grand revelations yet. I like to think of the paintings waiting somewhere, like Rose’s at the end of The Gallery. Are they stacked in the dark of a basement, or are they lighting up a living room for an audience of one? Maybe, like Rose’s, they’re in a cold, sealed tomb in some unsuspecting graveyard. Wherever they are, they’re ready to be discovered and to tell their stories again.
Who knows who will discover them? Maybe even you.