Navigation with Ghosts, Part 1

I just got back from a business trip to Washington DC, making use of the usual travel options of planes, trains and automobiles. During this trip—one of many occuring annually in May—I did not avail myself of the subway train, being schlepping-my-carry-on-up or-down-non-working-escalators averse. However shuttle bus, ride-share, taxi and airplanes were essential.

The first was a Boeing 737. I spent money to get a seat in the Elite section, with the extra knee-room. Air travel being a comparatively cheap, fast (in a general sense) and grossly uncomfortable option, especially when one is expected to be across the United States on a particular day, was obviously the best choice. Because the destination airport was an hour outside of the city (Dulles), my employer hired a moderately-sized bus with darkened windows, adjustable seats and blessed AC. Traffic was as expected—need I say more—and the dozen of us on this flight arrived as expected: crabby, tired and feeble.

As a quick aside, the loquacious clerk, while she was checking me in, happened to ask me a question that led me to say that I write historical fiction. Excitedly she asked me about my website and books, and then went on to tell me a story about the “Ghost Apartment” in the DC Omni Shoreham hotel where we were staying.

While the details about death, sorrow, hauntings, a home closed up for forty years was a little off from reality—at least what I’ve learned so far—I was very intrigued. Ghosts! Suspicious deaths! Money troubles! 1930’s DC culture. Ah. Hmmm. The next novel? I asked if the hotel staff ever gave tours of the apartment, and she said there was no such opportunity, but she did let me know that if the apartment wasn’t in use, the concierge could take me up there.

I happened to mention this to my younger work buddy, who was also intrigued, saying, “I don’t believe in ghosts, anyway.”

Well, I do. At least, I subscribe to the theory that there is no evidence today to prove that there are or there aren’t ghosts, and working with scientists and having an appreciation for evidence-based findings, I stick with ambiguity. The next day, she and I asked the concierge for a tour.

A bit reluctant at first, she checked the register and found that we were in luck—at least we were, as I figured she was hoping she could get out of taking us up there. But she found her graciousness, disappeared to get a key card, and guided us to the elevator and the eighth floor.

The Omni Shoreham has a reputation that I wouldn’t have known about, unless I lived in DC and cared about such things. Opening in 1930—some sources claim it was Halloween—the building was originally an apartment and hotel combination financed and contructed by Harry Bralove, whose desire was to build a stylish hotel during the depression. Designed by an architect with the improbable name of Waddy Butler Wood, responsible for multiple public and private buildings in DC, the hotel is an interesting blend of neoclassical and art deco flourishes. Bralove’s dream of a prominent, upper-crust hotel came true when Franklyn Delano Roosevelt held his 1932 inauguration ball in the Palladium Ballroom. Since that time, there has been an inauguration ball held at the Omni Shoreham after every presidential election.

Bralove’s money difficulties caused him to partnership with Henry L Doherty, a savvy investor who made is fortune in oil. With his wife, Grace nee Eames, step-daughter Helen Lee, and maid Julia Brown, Doherty took up residence in suite 870,the eighth floor penthouse. Crippled with what appears to be rheumatoid arthritis, Doherty was in his early sixties. The penthouse looked down on Arlington, Rock Creek Part, and in the southern distance, monuments of the Capital mall.

The truth about what followed is buried under assumption, rumor and the desire for a good story. I’ll share more in “Navigation with Ghosts, Part 2”, next Sunday.

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About Jill Zeller

The author of numerous short stories and novels, Jill Zeller lives near Seattle, Washington, with her patient and adoring husband, two English mastiffs, and one self-centered tuxedo cat. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination were as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this. Maybe it is because she was raised as a Christian Scientist. Jill Zeller also writes under the pseudonym Hunter Morrison

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