The best of my Boston stories
Miss Louise Dumas called me for a chat and told me she is a five-great aunt, which sounds about right. I asked one of the Dumases one time if he was related to Alexander, and he said no way, but he'd heard that Alexander claimed to be related to him. That is, our Dumas family is extensive and considerable, and as today's reigning queen of the family Louise is a great-five-times aunt. She said it isn't necessary to be a Dumas to be a great-five-times aunt, but it helps.
We talked of a number of other things, as we have a lot in common, but lingered a bit over Boston stories. It happens, although I mention it only in the presence of Lowells and Cabots, that I was born in Boston, just seven miles from the Old North Church, and I cherish a real good Boston story.
A Boston story must have the cultural charm of gracious superiority, couched in somewhat bashful humor of a sort not appreciated anywhere west of Framingham, Mass. Such as the lady from Louisburg Square who wouldn't eat fish in San Francisco because it was too far from the ocean.
Louise spoke of going to Gilchrist's for macaroons, and I told her I once bought a silk hat at Raymond's for 35 cents. We spoke of S.K. Ames and John T. Connor, and Somerfields and Houghton & Dutton. We spoke of Molly, Waddy, and Tony and the Franklin Park Zoo, and how the peanut warmers used to whistle in the North End.
We talked quite some time, and it was a pay call, but Louise was buying and we just got carried away. She recalled how she would go to Jake Wirth's restaurant for the Wednesday sauerbraten, and how good it was, and I told her the best of all the real Boston stories I ever heard.
Somehow, Louise had never heard my favorite Boston story. It has to do with Jacob Wirth, a boyhood immigrant from the Rheinland who founded a restaurant on Stuart Street and prospered handsomely. He became not only a Boston immortal but also a caring patron of Harvard students.
There came a day when Mr. Wirth was old and some special occasion was approaching and his Harvard friends of all classes decided to put together a sizable brochure of pleasantries to honor the gentleman and his establishment. Along with a biography of the restaurateur and a history of his restaurant, everybody composed a tribute to Mr. Wirth. The director of Boston's Athenaeum, who was Harvard indeed, unpretentiously wrote his squib in Latin, which was untranslated (naturally) as it appeared in the booklet.
The booklet was a beautiful thing, a stirring cheer for a beloved man who had fed so many so well, and Mr. Wirth arranged for a generous press-run so he would have a good supply to hand to customers as a souvenir.
At the time, the senior waiter of the restaurant was one Fritz Heuser, who was made custodian of the tribute booklets, and he kept a stack of them to hand to selected customers after they had paid and as they were leaving.
Fritz was as German as Mr. Wirth, and a fixture of the place. One time during World War I, Fritz was rudely abused by some guests, and when they called him a "Kraut" Fritz excused himself and stepped into the police station next door. Fritz was an American citizen and had a boy in the Army in Europe. He spoke to the desk sergeant, and the rowdy offenders were rewarded for their misplaced patriotism. They lingered in the station until just about noon the next day. Fritz did not give them booklets.
But one evening he gave a booklet to a couple from Ohio. They had been seeing historic Boston, and rounded things off with a recommended dinner at Jake Wirth's. Replete and surfeited, they would taxi to their room at the Vendome. They had been to Bunker Hill, the Old North Church, Fanueil Hall, the Common, and the swan boat. And they'd vastly enjoyed supper at Jake Wirth's. Fritz passed them a booklet and wished them good night. A taxi was handy.
THE lady had the Wirth booklet in hand, and she was thumbing through it. She said the experience of supper at Jake Wirth's was certainly the climax to a magnificent day. "And so very Boston!" she said, "The last place in the world to find a place like that, and yet it fits and belongs!"
The husband agreed that Boston was Boston, and worth the trip.
Then his wife said, "I'm so glad we got this book. It explains something about Boston, and I don't know what it is, but it's good to know. Here's a picture of Mr. Wirth! Oh, this is a book to show folks at home!"
It wasn't a long ride from Stuart Street to the Vendome, and as the taxi drew up in front of the hotel the lady was saying, "Look! If this isn't Boston! One of these pieces is in Latin!"
The taxi driver set his passengers down on the sidewalk. The lady took his hand and stepped out. "Thank you," she said. And he said, "Yes, ma'am, and you'll find it's very good Latin!"
When the venerable, esteemed, and extremely Boston Transcript suspended publication, The Christian Science Monitor, a merest upstart in Boston journals at the time, sent over a writer to do a story. She was Pearl Strachan, a sensitive young lady from England, and she reported that a dear little Boston lady in a Boston-lady hat was at the scene, bemoaning this cessation. "What in the world," the lady asked, "shall the nation do for a newspaper?"