Thursday, November 16, 2017

Colleen's reflections

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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Did you know that November 11th was originally called Armistice Day?  After the end of World War 1 in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson chose that date because it was when the Germans finally surrendered. 
President Wilson had been reluctant to involve the nation in a war that didn’t directly involve America.  That all changed, however, when German U-boats (submarines) attacked American ships and had spy networks that detonated bombs and incendiary devices on American soil.  The final blow came when a letter to the Mexican president was intercepted and taken to President Wilson.  The letter’s contents were shocking: the German government offered to assist Mexico invade America to take back the border states of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.
Within days, Wilson declared war on the “Central Powers” (Germany, Austria-Hungary and their allies) in April of 1917, four years after the war had begun.  By the time the Germans surrendered on November 11, 1918, the war had claimed over 18 million lives, with an additional 23 million wounded (including civilians). 
Versailles ~Image courtesy of

The official peace agreement, The Treaty of Versailles, wasn’t signed until June, 1919, after months of meetings, arguments, and negotiations between the representatives of the conquering nations regarding how Germany and the Central Powers should be punished. 
An interesting fact is that representatives from the Central Powers – most importantly, the Germans – weren’t included in the actual peace negotiations in France. When the dust settled, the Germans were fined what amounted to a half-trillion dollars (in today’s currency), a monumental debt that wasn’t paid off until 2010.  The war devastated Germany economically.  The people were mpoverished,  starving, and humiliated. Germany was seriously in debt, not to mention that they had lost millions of young men.  In addition, they had lost face by their defeat. 
The Germans were forced to sign the Armicist agreement.  Germany was humiliated, their economy ruined, and millions of their young men were dead.  Kaiser Wilhelm, grandson of Queen Victoria, had been at the helm during the war and had been forced to resign his position as unquestioned leader of the German Empire. 

All of these factors contributed directly to Adolph Hitler’s rise to power.  He had been a foot soldier who had been injured in a mustard gas attack by the British.  His anger at the countries which had defeated Germany grew. He used the devastating reparations the Germans would pay for generations to ignite the fuse of hatred that would lead to World War II less than twenty years later. 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017


Fall comes to New York’s Hudson Valley in October, just in time for area’s multitude of annual Halloween events.  The town of Sleepy Hollow, immortalized in Washington Irving’s classic tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman, welcomes thousands of visitors for all-things-Halloween during the entire month. 
Years ago, I wrote an article for AAA Home & Away Magazine about the awesome Halloween events held in the beautiful towns skirting the Hudson River, including Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown.  And yet, I had never actually visited these legendary towns in the autumn, when the trees morph into variations of orange, crimson, and gold.  When the air is crisp and the brisk wind nudges fallen leaves into the streets and walkways.
Lyndhurst  Mansion
Several of these towns have Halloween parades, with costumed residents, floats, and bands.  In Sleepy Hollow, Horseman’s Hollow is the biggest event, a lengthy, spread-out maze of dark and scary walk-through buildings filled with monsters, ghosts, and ghouls.  They loosely represent the story of the Headless Horseman…who actually makes his appearance on his steed as you leave the Hollow.
Just south of  Sleepy Hollow is Lyndhurst Mansion, a Gothic Mansion once used as the setting for the Dark Shadows television series and several creepy movies.  Open for tours, the house’s beautiful interior is converted to a more Halloweenish, haunted d├ęcor at night, when costumed actors occupy the hallways, frightening the stream of guests who dare enter the realm of the unliving.
The little burg of Sleepy Hollow has assorted events, including readings of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (what else?), tours of author Washington Irving’s house, haunted hayrides, and lantern-led tours of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.
By far, the most fantastic Halloween event, the Great Jack O'Lanter Blaze, takes place about 30 minutes north of Sleepy Hollow at the Van Courtlandt Manor in Croton-on-Hudson, New York.  Some 10,000 pumpkins are carved and arranged into exhibits unlike anything you’ve ever seen.  Follow the pumpkin-rimmed paths to see an over-sized pumpkin clock; life-sized dinosaurs; circus animals and a small train; a sea serpent; an enormous cake made from layers of elaborately carved pumpkins; ghosts, singing skeletons, and a giant spider web and super-sized arachnid, and much more…all made from myriads of the orange orbs.  Volunteers scour the exhibits daily to make sure none of the pumpkins need to be replaced, a full-time job throughout the month.
Whether you live on the East Coast, or plan to visit during leaf-peeking season, don’t miss spending a few days in the gorgeous Hudson Valley.  Visit for more information.  Tickets are available online.

Friday, June 9, 2017


While Sophie Chotek’s youth was one of privilege, palaces, servants and dances, her later years were filled with rejection and frustration.  Born in Stuttgart, Germany in 1868, Sophie was the daughter of the Count of Hohenberg, which was a small area near what is now the German/Czech border. Sophie’s high-ranking status gave her access to meeting royalty, including Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the royal prince and heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

It’s believed the Archduke met Sophie at a ball in Prague in 1894. Franz was smitten by Sophie’s beauty, and the couple fell in love.  Theirs was a clandestine courtship, and it was kept secret for good reason. When their engagement was finally announced, the news created a huge scandal.  Although Sophie’s family tree included nobility that could be traced back to the 18th century, her blood wasn’t “royal enough,” simply because none of her ancestors had been of “dynastic status.” In other words, there were no kings in her bloodline. The Archduke’s uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph, ruler of Austria, King of Hungary and Bohemia, intervened, forbidding the couple to marry.

Infuriated by his uncle’s proclamation against Sophie, Archduke Franz was determined to spend his life with the woman he loved.  On July 1, 1900, after suffering humiliation and denouncement by her husband’s family and the members of the Imperial Court, Sophie married Franz. Very few of the nobles attended the ceremony, including Franz Ferdinand’s own brothers.

Shortly before the wedding took place, Sophie had to sign legal documents acknowledging that she would never be Empress or hold a high-ranking title. She eventually received the lower-level title of Duchess of Hohenberg, despite the fact that one day, when the aging Emperor Franz Joseph died, her husband would become the new Emperor.  

Throughout their fourteen-year marriage, the couple continued to be shunned by most of the royal courts of Europe. We can only imagine how she felt about being prohibited from accompanying her husband on official trips, riding with him in the Imperial carriage, or standing beside him at most functions.  As if it wasn’t enough to punish the Duchess for lacking the appropriate royal blood, none of the couple’s three children or their descendants would ever be allowed to acquire any royal titles.

Ironically, it was the United Kingdom’s King George V and Queen Mary who finally welcomed the Archduke and Duchess Sophie at Windsor Castle in November of 1913.  Were the British King and Queen reaching out to the future rulers of Germany’s biggest allies (the multitude of smaller countries that once made up the Austro-Hungarian Empire) at a time when so many European royals had rudely rejected Franz and Sophie?


Archduke Franz Ferdinand was disliked immensely by his uncle, the Emperor. Not only did he marry Sophie, going against the Emperor’s direct orders, his nephew, Franz, had very different political ideals.  The Archduke was reformist who planned to ease the tensions between countries included in the realm. There was so much political unrest in Europe by 1912, the entire area of today’s Balkan region was like a powder keg just waiting to be ignited.

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was invited to Sarajevo, the provincial capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Normally, Sophie’s lower rank would prevent her from accompanying her husband on any official visit.  However, the Archduke insisted that Sophie be allowed to attend the dedication of the new museum with him.  The couple rode together through the streets of Sarajevo in an open-topped touring car unaware of the impending danger.  Minutes later a man in the crowd threw a grenade at the Archduke’s automobile. Spotting the explosive device hurling in their direction, their driver sped up the vehicle. The grenade landed under the official car behind them and blew up, seriously injuring a number of people. 

Believing the danger had passed, Franz and Sophie were driven to City Hall for an official reception.  When Franz insisted he wanted to visit the wounded in the hospital, he was warned that it was still quite risky, as no one knew how many men were involved in the plot to assassinate him.  Still, the Archduke wanted to go, though he told Sophie that she should remain at City Hall.  Duchess Sophie refused to stay behind, arguing that if her husband was going to expose himself in public again, she would be at his side.

That was a fatal mistake.  On their way to Sarajevo Hospital, a teenager, a radical Serbian named Gavrilo Princip, stepped towards the Imperial automobile, aimed his gun and fired twice at close range.  Sophie was shot in the stomach, and Franz was struck in the neck.  Reportedly, Franz begged his dying wife to live for their children’s sake.  Sadly, they were both dead within the hour.


For decades, the political climate in this part of Europe had been shaky.  War was inevitable, and the assassination of the Archduke and Sophie was likely the catalyst to the events that would trigger World War I, resulting in the deaths of more than 17 million people.

In one final insult to Duchess Sophie, her earthly remains weren’t allowed to be entombed in the Imperial crypt.  Aware of this situation before his death, Archduke Franz Ferdinand had left instructions that he be interred beside his beloved wife at Artstetten Castle northwest of Vienna.  Because she could never be considered his equal in life and in death, Sophie was placed on a bier 18” lower than the Archduke’s. 

I found it terribly disturbing that Sophie is rarely mentioned in books about World War I.  That’s why I decided to write this Blog article focusing on Sophie, rather than her famous husband. For the most part, Duchess Sophie has been forgotten…until now.




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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Colleen's reflections

Colleen's reflections

            As some of you know, I’ve been working on a historical novel, The Winds of Change, for the past couple of years.  The Winds of Change—the first book in a two-part series—takes place in 1915 and 1916 during World War I.  The story is set in New York City; on the luxury liner, RMS Lusitania, which was torpedoed by a German submarine, killing nearly 2,000 men, women and children when it sank; in Queenstown, Ireland, where both the survivors and bodies of the dead were taken; and in England and Scotland. 

The novel is currently with editors, and I’m beginning the process of finding a new agent.  Thus begins the next step on the ladder to publication.  Stay tuned.

            In the meantime, while researching the book, I found so many fascinating details that wouldn’t “fit” into a work of fiction, I’ve decided to share them with you in a Blog.  For example, in the early 1900s, a German professor at Harvard University, Eric Muenter, killed his wife, disappeared for years, and then showed up again in 1915 when he committed numerous acts of espionage in New York City.  I’ve included Muenter in my novel and the true facts that on July 3, 1915, he set off a bomb inside the U. S. Capitol building.  From Washington, D.C., he took the train to Long Island, New York, barged into J. P. Morgan, Jr.’s mansion, and shot the millionaire…twice.  I’ve inserted my male protagonist, Curtis Carlson, into that horrific scene, so we can experience what happened through his eyes. The life of Eric Muenter will be one of many thought-provoking Blogs, and perhaps, even a great nonfiction book.  Hmmm….

            Other Blogs will include interesting life stories about many of the people who died on the RMS Lusitania. I hope to eventually put these accounts into a book called Voices from the Lusitania.  I’ll also write Blogs about the underground German spy network in New York City and the fact that they planted explosives on countless ships traveling from New York Harbor to England.  Did you know that German spies brought germ warfare to the U. S. to kill the horses and mules being sent by ship to the Allied troops?  Ever heard of Mata Hari, the seductive woman spy who was convicted and hanged in 1917.  Was she truly a German spy, or was she innocent.  There are tons of great stories to share with you.

I was a history major in college, and WWI was barely mentioned.  And yet, the impact of the war, the millions of people who died, and the resulting repercussions changed the course of world history.  Most importantly, even though Germany lost, the terms of the Treaty of Peace signed at Versailles, France in 1919 were so severe, the result was a growing resentment among in the German people, allowing Adolph Hitler to come to power. (Incidentally, did you know that Hitler fought as a soldier on the battlefields of France and that his life was spared by a French soldier, who chose not to shoot the “young German” who had run out of ammunition?)  Can you imagine…?

            Please join me for my next Blog, which is scheduled for Friday, June 2.  I’ll begin with the why, where, and how there was a First World War.  Here’s an often-over-looked fact:  Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in June 1914.  But what most articles don’t mention is that his wife, who sat by the Archduke’s side in the carriage, was also shot and killed by the assassin. Who was she and why has she been forgotten.  And how did their deaths prompt Germany and Austria to declare war on France? The story will be on my website:  I look forward to meeting you and discussing your questions and comments.