Title: A Front Page Affair by Radha Vatsal
Kitty Weeks Mystery Series Book One
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Genre: Historical (1915), Mystery
Length: 336 pages
New York City, 1915
The Lusitania has just been sunk, and headlines about a shooting at J.P. Morgan’s mansion and the Great War are splashed across the front page of every newspaper. Capability “Kitty” Weeks would love nothing more than to report on the news of the day, but she’s stuck writing about fashion and society gossip over on the Ladies’ Page—until a man is murdered at a high society picnic on her beat.
Determined to prove her worth as a journalist, Kitty finds herself plunged into the midst of a wartime conspiracy that threatens to derail the United States’ attempt to remain neutral—and to disrupt the privileged life she has always known.
Radha Vatsal’s A Front Page Affair is the first book in highly anticipated series featuring rising journalism star Kitty Weeks.
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his is whom they’ve sent to cover my party?” Mrs. Elizabeth Basshor was in her forties, plump, and well–preserved. As befitting a queen bee, she was dressed in crisp yellow silk, and the plunging neckline of her gown revealed an ample, bejeweled bosom.
“Hotchkiss?” She turned to her secretary, a boyishly handsome fellow who coughed into his palm by way of reply. Behind them, workers put final touches on the dais for the band, and waiters scurried about, pushing chairs into place and arranging floral centerpieces on tables dotted across the lush lawns of the Sleepy Hollow Country Club.
Mrs. Basshor trained her gaze on Capability Weeks. “Are you sure you are up to this?”
Nineteen-year-old Kitty squared her shoulders. Today’s Independence Day gala—-held on Monday, July 5, since the Fourth fell on a Sunday—-would be her first solo outing as a reporter. In a simple tea dress, her glossy chestnut hair pinned away from her heart–shaped face, her brown eyes sparkling, Kitty felt ready. “Miss Busby wanted to attend, but she sent me because she’s indisposed. I’ve been working for her for the past sixth months.”
“I know your Miss Busby.” Mrs. Basshor sniffed at the mention of Kitty’s editor at the Ladies’ Page of the New York Sentinel. “She gives me a nice write–up.” Her gaze drifted to the workmen on the lawns. “Too close, too close,” she called, frowning and pointing to a string of lanterns, patterned in red, white, and blue. Her attention returned to Kitty. “Did Miss Busby tell you we’re having a display of Japanese daylight fireworks this afternoon? You must observe them carefully and be sure to give them their due. They’re quite spectacular, not at all flashy like the nighttime ones.
“Hotchkiss.” She swung around to him. “See to it that Miss Meeks receives a copy of the guest list and the program. If you need further help, Miss Meeks, my secretary will be happy to assist you.”
“It’s ‘Weeks,’ actually,” Kitty corrected, but Elizabeth Basshor had already stepped off the terrace and was busy making sure that the lanterns were being hung to her satisfaction.
“You mustn’t take it personally.” Hotchkiss tried to smooth things over as soon as his employer was out of earshot. “Names aren’t her strong point—I’ll leave you to imagine what she called me when I first started working for her.” He shuddered at the ghastly memory and handed Kitty a page from his clipboard.
She glanced at the notes: Guests to arrive at three. Japanese fireworks from four to five. Illumination of the clubhouse terrace and Italian gardens at six. Dinner and dancing to follow.
“Have you been with Mrs. Basshor for long, Mr. Hotchkiss?”
“About f ive years, Miss Weeks.” He took a deep breath. “I must point out that we’ve had some cancellations because of Saturday’s incident on Long Island.”
Kitty nodded. He was referring to the shooting of Mr. J. P. Morgan, the nation’s foremost financier, who had been attacked by an intruder who barged his way into the Morgan mansion. The story had made front-page headlines and pushed aside news of the war in Europe.
“Fortunately, Mr. Morgan seems to be recovering well.” Hotchkiss pulled a handkerchief from his pocket. “Otherwise—-who knows—-we might have had to call off the party.” He wiped the perspiration from his forehead. “Do you know how much work it took to get to today, Miss Weeks? Months of agonizing. Menus changed and changed again. The guest list vetted, entertainment fixed—-and we have the impossible task of ensuring that each year everything is the same, and, at the same time, utterly different.”
“It sounds extremely demanding, Mr. Hotchkiss.” Kitty looked around her. “But this is a beautiful location.” The patio gave way to green lawns, which sloped toward formal gardens and the Hudson River, and backed up against the majestic brick–and–stone clubhouse, which had once been home to a Vanderbilt granddaughter.
“It is much more pleasant than trying to do something in Manhattan.”
“Hotchkiss!” Mrs. Basshor trilled just as a long–haired Oriental beckoned to her secretary from the far side of the terrace.
“If you will excuse me”—-he sounded flustered—-“I should go take care of business.”
Kitty left him to negotiate the competing demands for his attention and wandered off to explore the grounds before the party began. She made her way past trimmed topiaries, through a vine–covered pergola, and down neatly graveled paths that led to a fountain burbling at the center of a peaceful Italian garden.
In the distance, ships steamed up and down the broad expanse of the Hudson. Kitty watched the water surge in their wake for a few quiet moments. Just a year and a half ago, in the spring of 1914, she had been nothing more than a recent boarding–school graduate arriving by sea to set foot on home soil for the first time. She had been born abroad and, as a child, had followed her businessman father on his travels through the Indies and the Orient; then, for almost a decade, she boarded at the Misses Dancey’s school in Switzerland until he sent for her to join him in New York.
She had applied for the position at the Ladies’ Page after she had settled in and grown accustomed to her new town. Without any practical experience, she had been certain she wouldn’t be selected. But somehow, Miss Busby had hired Kitty as her apprentice—-and then set her to opening mail, reading proofs, judging cookery contests, and, every now and then, writing a piece about domestic matters.
The Morgan shooting, which reawakened Kitty’s urge to write a real news story, seemed like just the latest instance of how the world could turn on a dime. Last summer, an assassin’s bullet in far–off Sarajevo had launched the entire continent into war. This May, a torpedo from a German U–boat had struck the majestic ocean liner Lusitania, which sank in a mere eighteen minutes, killing nearly twelve hundred passengers—-128 of them Americans—-and it felt as though the United States might be sucked into Europe’s madness.
Kitty turned away from the river to a shady path that wound its way toward the club’s golf course.
“The example of America must be a special example,” the president had said in his rousing speech in the aftermath of the Lusitania tragedy. “The example of America must be the example not merely of peace because it will not fight, but of peace because peace is the healing and elevating influence of the world and strife is not.”
The clack of hedge cutters jolted Kitty from her reverie. A gardener trimming bushes with a ferocious pair of blades scowled as she walked by.
She came across a groundskeeper shoveling manure into a wheelbarrow outside a two–and–a–half–story yellow–brick building. With its tiled roof and arched windows reaching all the way to the roofline, it looked formal, but the layout didn’t seem right for a residence. “What is this place?”
“It’s the stables, miss.”
“Is that so?” Kitty smiled to herself. Some horses had all the luck.
A couple strolled along arm in arm. He was big and burly in his formal attire; she was about half his size and wore a lavender gown with muttonchop sleeves that overwhelmed her petite form.
“I don’t know what we’re doing here,” the woman said to her companion before her words were drowned out by the sound of touring cars crunching down the gravel drive.
Kitty hurried back to the party, where the band had begun to play, and chose an inconspicuous position beside a pillar on the terrace from which to observe the goings–on.
The lawns soon filled with gentlemen in dark suits and ladies in wispy organza gowns. Pearls glowed around necks; diamonds sparkled on languid wrists. Silver trays bobbed up and down as waiters made their way through the crowd, proffering bubbly drinks and savory appetizers. Children darted between the grown–ups’ legs.
Bang! “You’re dead, Willie!” A gunshot went off. Kitty searched for the source of the sound.
One of the boys had fired his toy pistol.
“I’m not Willie,” his playmate cried indignantly.
“Why don’t you play Cowboys and Indians?” Kitty suggested.
The boys stared at her in confusion. “Why would we want to play that?”
“Look at us,” the first one demanded, “and tell me who looks like Kaiser Bill and who”—-he stuck his hand in his pocket and assumed a debonair pose—-“resembles King George.”
Kitty laughed. No one seemed to care for the German kaiser these days. She wondered whether he was as bad as the press made out.
The boys ran off, continuing their battle, and she found herself drawn to another conversation. Two men, one with a chest full of medals, discussed the details of the Morgan shooting. How Mr. Morgan’s attacker panicked and fired when he saw the 250-pound banker charge toward him—-and then found himself pinned below the massive financier, who toppled forward when the bullets hit his groin and thigh. How the Morgans’ butler had conked the fellow in the head with a lump of coal after Mrs. Morgan pried away his guns. The would-be assailant was in police custody.
“Wouldn’t you know, he’s German,” the man with the medals said. “Thank goodness he’s safely behind bars,” the other replied.
“Doing a little eavesdropping, were we?” Hotchkiss startled Kitty by materializing noiselessly beside her.
“I’m just doing my job.” She felt her cheeks flush.
“Aren’t we all?” Tiny moon–shaped gold cuff links flashed from under his cuffs as he clasped his hands together. “Would you like me to help you put names to faces?”
“That would be wonderful.” Although Kitty and her father went to parties from time to time, they didn’t hobnob with New York’s high society, and it would be important for her to identify the most important guests in her article as well as to say who was wearing what.
“The woman with the turban”—-he nodded toward a striking figure in iridescent Turkish–style pantaloons—-“is Mrs. Poppy Clements. She’s the wife of Mr. Clement Clements, the theater producer, and is a playwright herself. The handsome buck to her left is Justice Stevens, a cad of the first order.
“He’s with his grandmama,” Mrs. Basshor’s secretary continued with a smirk, as a good–looking fellow with an old lady on his arm made eyes at all the pretty girls going by. “She’s richer than Croesus, and he has to keep on her good side.” He turned to another cluster of guests. “Those over there are the Goelets in conversation with the Burrall–Hoffmans.
“Mrs. Wilson Alexander is behind them in red and blue. Mr. Wilson Alexander has the white beard. There’s John Parson with the glasses. Miss Winnie Slade is wearing a wonderful bracelet—-do you see those emeralds?”
Kitty nodded. She wished she could take notes, but Miss Busby had forbidden her from writing anything. “Notepads and pencils staunch the flow of conversation, so it all stays in here.” She had tapped her temple.
“And… Oh no.” Hotchkiss pretended to take cover. “Here comes Hunter Cole with his wife, Aimee.”
Kitty spotted the couple she had seen wandering about the grounds stop to speak to the turbaned Mrs. Clements.
“What’s wrong with them, Mr. Hotchkiss?” she said, surprised that he would be so indiscreet in front of a reporter.
“Have you seen her dress?” The secretary sneered. “He’s a bully, and she’s a nobody—-but, of course, you didn’t hear me say that.”
Kitty watched the couple for a few moments; when she looked up once more, the secretary had vanished.
What a strange man, she thought to herself before she stepped out onto the lawns.
Kitty felt the urge to mingle. These were people whom a girl in her position might be expected to know, that is, if her father took more trouble to socialize. Realizing that she didn’t have to wait to be introduced because she was there on business, Kitty approached the first lady she saw heading her way—-Mrs. Goelet. The older woman seemed amused by the young reporter and was soon joined by the inquisitive Mrs. Burrall–Hoffman. Kitty had no illusions that the women were interested in her for her own sake. From their remarks she could tell that what they really wanted to know was how someone who dressed well and spoke well could be there to work, and that they wouldn’t mind a mention in the Page’s Social Scene column.
“Isn’t she delightful?” Mrs. Basshor joined the group and took Kitty’s arm as well as the credit for her being there. “I told dear Frieda Eichendorff that her husband’s paper must send someone other than that beanpole, Helena Busby, who usually comes.”
Kitty didn’t care to hear Miss Busby described so disparagingly, but this was hardly the moment to leap to her boss’s defense.
Mrs. Basshor beamed at her friends. “The fireworks will start in fifteen minutes or so.” Her smile hardened as she turned to Kitty. “I look forward to your description, my dear. Don’t let me down.”
The women drifted away to find their husbands, and Kitty returned to the terrace, pleased with the results of her first foray into social reporting. She hadn’t gone into journalism to become a society columnist, but she had to admit that the profession had its pluses: one could speak to whomever one wanted, for starters.
Given her lack of formal training, Kitty realized that she couldn’t afford to be choosy. Moreover, the skills she required today—-to observe, ask questions, come forward when necessary, and disappear into the scenery when not—-were all skills required for any good reporter, even a newswoman.
A sudden flurry of movement caught her eye. A feminine voice, shrill enough to be heard above the din of the party, called, “I’m sorry!”
A figure in a lavender gown with muttonchop sleeves pushed her way through the guests.
“She bumped into me on purpose,” Mrs. Cole hissed to her heavyset husband as they made their way toward the terrace.
Radha Vatsal grew up in Mumbai, India, and came to the United States to attend boarding school when she was sixteen. She has stayed here ever since. Her fascination with the 1910s began when she studied women filmmakers and action-film heroines of silent cinema at Duke University, where she earned her Ph.D. from the English Department. A Front Page Affair is her first novel.
Radha lives in New York City, and is a member of Mystery Writer’s of America-NY, Sisters-in-Crime NY, and International Thriller Writers.
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