Last night I stood on the ninth-floor balcony of the Hay-Adams Hotel in downtown Washington DC. Below me was Lafayette Square and an illuminated White House glowed brightly a short block away. Although it was late, it was still a scorcher of a day: at 92 F in the afternoon, and a heat index close to 105 F.
The images spread out before me led back to memories in the 1960s when I worked weekends as a tour guide. I rode on a bus with high school students from both New York and New Jersey to Washington DC for their graduation trips.
That was when I first became a storyteller, and it was why I was drawn to continue my graduate studies in Washington after graduating from college in New Jersey.
It was those weekly trips to DC during my undergraduate college days that caste a spell on my imagination, made me yearn to learn more stories from American history. But it would also lead me to wed Mary Jo Kelly, whom I met in Washington, in 1966. And now I was at another wedding with a gathering of my nephews and nieces exactly fifty years later.
The Hay-Adams is a grand old historic hotel, filled with its own stories. And this day was another family story in the celebration of my nephew Joseph’s wedding to Cassie, his bride. Understated and elegant, it was a perfect reception as I seemingly floated above White House at twilight last night as I stood on the open balcony nine stories high.
The sky then darkened into night. I took a few more photos, and walked around to the other side of the balcony. There I could look down upon the President’s historic church, St. John’s Episcopal. I took a single photo, and promised myself a visit the church for an early Sunday service.
Maybe, I hoped, I could even sit near pew 54, roped off for every American President since James Madison in 1816. It was most frequently visited by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.
The wedding reception was winding down and the humidity on the balcony was building up. I had met and talked with every one of my nine nieces and nephews who were present. Now there was only the breakfast on Sunday morning that remained. I foolishly thought that it was all over. While every thing that was planned did happen, two unexpected encounters still awaited me. One was with the Turk, and one was with the General. Let me tell you about them.
Tales of the Turk
Just as I was about to return to the cool and comfortable ballroom inside, a man who sat opposite me at the large round table during the reception stepped out onto the balcony. I had not yet spoken to him, but had heard from others at the table that he was Turkish. We bantered politely.
Yes, the Turk said he lived in Washington. Yes, he owned some buildings in an upscale neighborhood with shops in them. Yes, he ran the shops himself.
“And what do you sell?” I asked.
“Oh, I sell and buy… repair and and restore… appraise and advise… and train refugees from across Central Asia as well as Afghanistan and Tibet… in reviving the almost lost art of vegetable-dyed, hand woven tribal, village, and urban… rugs.”
Rugs and carpets! The many historical stories that I told in Washington as a tour guide slipped away. The Turk took me on a magic carpet across Central Asia along the caravan routes from the Balkans to Mongolia.
I interrupted: “Do you have rugs from Hungary?” The Turk hesitated and then counted off “…Poland, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, yes. But nothing from Hungary. Wait! Someone once brought in an antique rug for appraisal and repair. It was from Budapest… in the time of the Ottomans…”
Hoping to journey more with him, I interrupted, “Yes, from the Budapest of Gul Baba.” The Turk hesitated only for a moment as I named the famous Turkish teacher who resided in Budapest in Ottoman days. “Yes, all the way from Europe to Siberia, this is a common heritage.”
I said, “My father is Hungarian. He always told me that the Turks were our cousins…”
“Of course,” smiled the Turk, “We are all from the same roots: Uralic-Altaic peoples that include Turks, Hungarians, even Finns. We are not Indo-European like the rest of European peoples and languages.”
As we talked some more, I discovered that he lectured on these topics, as well as trained refugees from these areas to revive the many varied arts of rug and carpet making. The Turk gave his carpetmakers hope, and saved an art from disappearing forever.
“Centuries ago we travelled together on horses across the great Eurasian steppe, those open prairies, that extend from Hungary in the west to Mongolia and Manchuria in the east. Turks, Hungarians, Pechenegs, Kipchaks.
“Hungarian even sounds a lot like Turkish…” and with that he spoke the shared phonetic sounds that both languages share. We talked into the night, and the Turk gave me the address to his shop. “Come visit, and we will talk some more.”
In my dream that night, I walked under the star-studded sky along the great Mall. From the U.S. Capitol in the east, to the Washington monument, and then to the Lincoln Memorial in the west. My dream had me telling stories to young Americans about our history. But during the dream, I was lifted up and carried across the sky on a magic carpet.
The Lincoln Memorial faded away as I crossed the Potomac River, then the Appalachians, even the Himalayas, and finally the Caucasus mountains. And I was telling the ancient folktales flying across the cities of the Silk Road— Tashkent, Bukhara, and Samarkand. I told the story from Mongolia of Mergen the archer, and the tale from Kazakstan of Unerbek the horse herder.
Tale of the General
The dreams were powerful, but they exhausted me, I had a restless night, and slept in.
Kelly arose and went to the President’s Church, while I caught up on my missed sleep. I dressed, stumbled towards the elevator, and went out on the top floor where strong coffee kept me awake while I waited for breakfast.
Looking out the windows I saw that I was safely back in the familiar landscape of my Washington DC. I had safely returned from the Silk Road to my nephew’s wedding.
And while I rubbed my eyes and drank my coffee to fully awaken, one of my cousins asked “What is the story about this hotel? Does anyone know?”
I may not have been fully awake, but the storyteller in me immediately began to tell the tale:
“Yes,” I quickly said, “John Hay and Henry Adams were close friends who had their mansions built on this site, side by side in the 1880’s. Hay had been the personal secretary to President Lincoln, and Adams a writer and historian who was the grandchild of President John Quincy Adams. John’s wife, Clara, was a wealthy heiress, and Henry’s wife, Clover, was a gifted photographer…”
Meanwhile, the waiter was serving coffee to all ten of us at the table. His focus was on pouring the coffee, but he was slow and careful as he moved around our table. Meanwhile, I continued….
“The foursome also had a friend, a geologist named Clarence King, who joined them for tea in the rented house next door to the new two mansions the couples were building…”
The waiter had started on my left and had now moved clockwise half-way around the table. Vaguely aware of how slow he was, I sensed that he was listening to my story.
I continued to hold court: “The five called themselves the ‘Five of Hearts’ and began hosting a salon that drew not only Washington insiders, but distinguished visitors from around the world.”
I named half a dozen celebrities as the waiter moved three-quarters around the table, pouring what seemed to be coffee from a bottomless pot. I glanced at him and read the name on his badge. “Hooker” it said, and that reminded me of someone… but I could not remember who. I continued with my tour guide’s tale:
“Well the years passed, and by the 1920s their houses were torn down and a very elegant Italianate Renaissance building arose here. First as an upscale residential apartment building, then later as a hotel.”
I was about to name another half dozen famous visitors who frequently stayed at the Hay-Adams Hotel when the waiter finally reached me. Even as he poured the black brew from the bottom of his pot into my cup, he loudly announced to our whole group:
“This man knows what he is talking about. That is part of the story of the Hay-Adams…”
I had now lost my audience, and “Hooker” filled in the rest of the tale with some interesting details that I knew nothing about. He told us that Clover Adams poisoned herself with potassium cyanide — a chemical used in developing tintypes in her photographer’s darkroom. The potassium cyanide smells like almonds, and sometimes you can smell the aroma in the hallways where she walks at night.”
I cringed. Another fabricated ghost story for tourists! But he held our attention with stories of Mark Twain and Teddy Roosevelt and their connections with the ‘Five of Hearts.’ When he was done, Hooker went to refill his coffee pot and moved from our Table #5 to nearby Table #7.
Our table had slipped into a number of smaller conversations, in groups of twos and threes. But Hooker came back to me after he had serviced Table #7. No longer addressing a tour group, he eagerly passed on some tales for me — another tour guide and storyteller like himself.
“Sir, you’ll be interested in this: During the Civil War, President Lincoln would visit St. John’s Episcopal Church almost daily. It’s right across 16th Street. But he never sat in the Presidential pew reserved for him.
“He always sat in the back of the church, in the last pew, and sat their quietly — deep in prayer and thought about the terrible slaughter of our Civil War…”
Civil War, I thought, and the name Hooker. Weren’t they connected? I was sure they were.
“And of course,” Hooker continued, “when Lincoln was killed, six ghostly figures appeared sitting in the last pew at the back of the church…”
I knew I had to ask a question, as part of the etiquette of receiving a story from another teller. So I said,
“Have they ever been seen again?”
Hooker nodded, “Only when McKinley was killed in Buffalo, and John Kennedy in Dallas.” Hooker looked me straight in the eye and whispered, “But those times they were seen not at the back of the church but sitting right in the President’s pew.”
“Angels?” I asked, to keep the story going.
“No. Soldiers killed in the Civil War, I’m sure.”
Civil War, again. And then I knew:
“Hooker, are you related to General Hooker from the Civil War?”
Hooker stood tall, at attention, and answered me loud and sharp, “Yes, Sir. Yes, Sir. But he was a Yankee. We come from the southern branch of the family.”
With that General Hooker, as I now think of our waiter, turned about face and marched back into the kitchen.
The Party is Over
I finished my coffee and walked outside to gaze at the White House one more time. And I thought to myself: This is the first (and probably the last) time I will ever set foot inside the Hay-Adams Hotel.
Joseph and Cassie’s wedding had been a joy. It was everything I expected. But in the midst of a most carefully planned celebration, something unexpected happened.
I encountered the Turk, and then the General. One took me on a magic carpet to a foreign land that was far away, and the other brought me back to a home land that was long ago.
I packed my leather bag, and Kelly and I went down to the lobby. We paid our bill, and the valet brought our car to the front door. We drove away from the Hay-Adams Hotel, turning left onto 16th Street, getting one last glimpse of the President’s church.
I thought of Abe Lincoln sitting alone in the rear pew. I wondered about those six figures who sometimes appeared there. And I wondered whether potassium cyanide really smells like almonds.
Then, I turned on the car’s air-conditioner, and we drove home.
— RobertBéla Wilhelm
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