You can well imagine that an incident such as this would be reported across the globe and followed intensely by thousands and, perhaps, millions of readers. And it was, as this was not an ordinary story. Within days, newspapers throughout the world carried the startling and grim details on their front pages. An investigation into these deaths began immediately.
The women were identified as sisters, Americans, in their early twenties, well traveled, and reportedly “familiar with the civilities of European social life.” One was characterized as more of a leader; the other as more apt to follow. They were reportedly the daughters of a high-ranking and well-regarded American government foreign service official whose name was withheld out of respect for the family’s privacy.
As you might conclude, there were many questions. And early on, there was much speculation as to whether this was a double suicide, a tragedy of love or youthful disillusionment, perhaps even a homicide resulting from an argument, or simply a malfunction of the external door from the main cabin. Several newspapers suggested that the women may have been despondent over illness; one of the women had been known to suffer from severe bouts of asthma. Even as the bodies lay in the Hornchurch police mortuary, some reports even hypothesized that this terrible event was in some way tied to a shipment of gold bullion that had been reportedly lost while being transported by the very same airline the preceding week. This theory was quickly dispelled when it became known that three members of the Sabini gang were responsible for that theft.
Every story has a beginning, and this seems to be as good a place to begin as any other. Now the question for you to consider is: What could this tragic event have to do with a guesthouse, the Pensione Alexandra, located fourteen hundred miles away in Naples, Italy?
Me? Own a pensione? I was convinced my daughter, Mela, was crazy in the head when she came home that otherwise unremarkable late-October day in 1934 and announced the news that Bertie Allen, the odd Englishwoman who owned the Pensione Alexandra overlooking the Bay of Naples at Caracciolo 13, was thinking of selling. I had no idea why Mela was so excited. For heaven’s sake, why should Paul and I be interested in hearing about a pensione that was for sale?
But that was how Mela was, a girl of seventeen years, forever dreaming, with a mind that could never sit still. Mela was very smart when it came to so many things, but she was constantly puzzled by the oddest assortment of distractions. She spent far too many of her waking hours each day wondering about what might be. Some days, that head of hers was completely in the clouds. What did she know of life? What did she know of fate? What did she know of disappointment? I couldn’t help but smile when Paul told me Mela reminded him of how naïve I had been about these things when I’d first stepped off the train in Naples at the age of twenty-one in those months before we married.
I suppose that operating a small guesthouse like the Pensione Alexandra would not be as ridiculous as trying to manage a huge hotel like the Palazzio, with the bellmen, waiters, chambermaids, and cooks always holding out their hands and asking for tips. No one cared that the Palazzio was careful to warn guests about this practice and that the help was not supposed to act that way. Gratuities for these kinds of services were included as a service charge on the hotel bill specifically to prevent this bothersome behavior.
Most of us understood. These were difficult times in Naples. People needed money. What was the harm in asking? Unsuspecting tourists were fair game. They couldn’t tell one coin from another and always fell prey to the sad looks of children. Look at all the lazzaroni on the streets, always begging for money. It seemed everyone was trying to make ends meet, even the authorities. The authorities? Ha! They just turned a blind eye. And what about the inspectors from the city hall? They had their hands out asking for money too. Most Neapolitans were simply trying to put food on their tables and keep roofs over their heads. Naples was a city of survivors, where people, from the youngest of age, learned how to get by from one day to the next using their cunning and wit.
A pensione? Crazy in the head! Paul and I did not have the money. We had no experience. Who would stay there? Who would cook? Who would mop? Who would make the beds? Who would launder the sheets? What about Mussolini’s Fascists and all their silly regulations? What did we know about operating a pensione?
Now I can only laugh and smile when I think about that time. I remember how I caught Mela’s dream. It was an idea that refused to leave, an irritating mosquito bite I continued to scratch. And day after day, that little bite began to itch more and more until, just like Mela, I started to imagine what might be. That was when that crazy little bite grew so large that it did not matter how much I scratched. It became my dream too.
And today? Today, I sit quietly for hours and hours and ponder those moments. I relive those memories. I picture the Pensione Alexandra in the early evening with its beautiful sunsets. I dream of the magnificent view of the Bay of Naples and feel the caress of the gentle breeze on those nights we sat on the balcony after everything in the kitchen was put up and our work was done for the day. I imagine the moon when everyone slept, and how I always knew that I could speak and it would listen. I remember the people of Naples, how they always overflowed with both the joy and the misery of life, and how crazy and alive Naples always felt, like a heart that never stops pounding. How could I forget that old man Vesuvius, his pipe spewing smoke and his mouth spouting fiery red lava, watched over us at night?
The Pensione Alexandra never made us wealthy, but it did enrich our lives. It changed us and made us become so different from the way we were. It brought the world to our windows. I was given a perch to observe the people of Europe struggle and suffer through unimagined and horrible times. I watched impassioned joy and tearful loss. When I think of those moments and the many people who passed through our doors, the memories make me smile and laugh and cry and catch my breath all at once. They bring me delight. They make me sad. They remind me of happiness, uncertainty, anguish, fear, desperation, and longing. They make me grateful for the life I have lived. These memories will never fade. They will always fill my heart.
Me? A pensione? Crazy in the head! That’s what I told Mela that otherwise unremarkable October day when she came home and told us that Bertie Allen was selling the Pensione Alexandra. What on earth did we know about running a pensione?