The First Emma

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When I first looked for this book, I could only find it in audio format - which I thought was incredibly weird, especially since each chapter ends with what sounds like a newspaper clipping. Eventually I found a paperback version, but by then I was already so far into the audio that I just continued with that format. I do think that Eric and Buck sounded too similar in the audio. I could usually hear a whole chapter while I exercised (less than 30 minutes) or drove anywhere (my house is at least 15 minutes from everywhere). I enjoyed the audio so much, I often thought about going to do another exercise session. Because I relied solely on audio, my quotes and references may be a bit off. Every chapter ends with a newspaper clipping, which is a bit weird on audio, but progresses the story from the early 1900's, even when we are in the 1940's with Mabel. I also used voice-text to record my notes which led to some creative deciphering. (I found some things like "Dry name teeth to the 18th Amendment" - whatever that means!)

We've read another book by Camille di Maio which was "The Memory of Us". I remember really liking that book and even going to an author appearance at a local book store. Apparently Ms. di Maio has some sort of connection to San Antonio. The city factors heavily into the Emma novel. I will admit, when this selection was announced, I thought we had read two books by this author. I was confused with Leila Meacham (who actually lived in San Antonio and recently passed away) and thought her novel, "Dragonfly" was actually di Maio's.

I don't remember when the Prologue was set but the main story picks up in 1942 when we meet Mabel, who has just been dumped by Artie Walker, and is frustrated by her boss. She feels abandoned by her family because her mother died when she was 12, one brother died in the war and the other is missing and her father is a homeless alcoholic. She is located in Baltimore, Maryland, and answers an ad to write an old lady's story in San Antonio, Texas, even though she has no true writing experience.

The old lady is Emma Bentzen, who married Otto Koehler. She is 83 and heiress of a brewing company. She felt like her family was taking advantage of her and she should trust her employees more than the family. She never had children of her own but thought of the brewery as her child. (Ch. 4) She is lonely without her husband or siblings. Even those who aren't super-history buffs can recognize some of the names dropped in this novel, like when the Koehler's conferred with Anheuser Busch.

The Author's Note, at the end, was very insightful.

On a scale of 1 - 5 (5 being a lot of examples/instances):

Sex: 1.5

Religion: 1

Gruesome: 1

Suspense: 1

Morality: 2

Traditional: 2

Sex - the women compared Otto's lovemaking (minor) in "Other Emma" section. Mabel received unwanted advances from Mr. Oliver, her boss. (Ch. 2) Brief reference to allowing Otto's hands to roam before their marriage. (Ch. 10) Even briefer reference to two nights in a boarding house for their honeymoon and her becoming a woman. (Ch. 10) A couple reconnects but the woman is left "feeling so unfulfilled" (Ch. 17) Mrs. Terrova (?) gave Emma a magazine that Emma wasn't even sure was legal. (Ch. 19). There is an intimate kiss and the couple struggles against their desire in order to maintain the modesty of the time. (Ch. 22) "I heard disturbing sounds coming from the kitchen, and found them both half-dressed and leaning over the countertop," (Ch. 25)

Religion - a reference to San Antonio being named for the patron Saint of lost things (Ch. 6) Mabel looks at the Koehler family Bible with their family tree in it. She reads the fifth commandment from the book of Exodus about honoring they father and mother. (Ch. 9)

Gruesome - Emma K. recalls "becoming a woman" and her step-mother not telling her what was happening so she had to learn from her sister that she was not dying due to the bleeding. (Ch. 10)

Suspense - when Emma collapsed it was difficult to get a message through to Eric. (Ch. 20)

Morality: When a wife confronts a husband about an affair, she says, "You've gone and stuck your prick into the first vulnerable woman that would have you." (Ch. 23)

Traditional - Mabel did not lose her virginity to Artie. Emma K, was scandalized when the woman she worked for as a companion told her about using food as an aphrodisiac for her husband. (Ch. 10)

Discussion Questions

Mabel was upset when Artie asked for the ring back, but she, "She would not let her anger towards Artie rob her of the principles that were dearest to her." (Part 1, Ch. 1) How do you keep your principles in check when you are angry?

Mabel often thought that flowers and butterflies were little gifts from her mother, but then she decided that things weren't going well and that they weren't gifts. When she saw the ad for the writer in San Antonio she, again, thought it was a gift from her mother. (Ch. 2) Later, in Ch. 24, she reflects that she has given half of her sugar ration to a church since she has nobody to bake for, and she considers the indulgences of the chocolates that Eric brought her, and once again returns to the idea that it is a gift from her mother. Do you have any feelings about receiving gifts from those who have gone before us?

Mabel wanted to reinvent herself. (Ch. 2) Have you ever wanted to or done a reinvention?

Emma K. asked Mabel when was the first time she "embibed". (Ch. 7) When was your first time?

Mabel observed, "the topography of wrinkles on old people that robs them not only of their beauty but also of the regard of later generations and hides their secrets." (Ch. 7) How do you feel about wrinkles?

Did you think "Eric" would be at the family dinner? Did you suspect he was the nephew that Emma K. "thought highly of"? (Ch. 11)

Is it more burdensome to be poor or wealthy? (Ch. 11)

Do you agree with Emma K. that, "Good or bad, there's nothing more important than family."? (Ch. 11)

Mabel remembered her mom when she was hearing music in the kitchen. (Ch. 11) What songs remind you of your mom?

Why was Mabel so hesitant to admit that she had met Eric/Bernard in the park? (She didn't have to say that he called himself a different name or that he worked at the theatre.) (Ch. 13)

Eric and Mabel discuss their initials. What would your ideal initials be? (Ch. 14)

Ernestina frequently tried to interrupt Eric and Mabel. (Ch. 15) Have you ever been in a similar situation - on either side?

Mabel wanted both women's rights and chivalry. Can they co-exist? If not, which do you prefer? (Ch. 16)

Emma felt she had nobody to speak to about some aspects of marriage. (Ch. 17) Do you have someone you talk to about marital subjects?

Were you aware of the triple X designation on beer labels? (Ch. 19) Knowing this now, how do you feel about Dos Equis beer?

Emma "was certain that there was some kind of curse cast upon it, even though [she] didn't believe in such things." Emma thought she could "trace every subsequent misfortune that befell us to that moment." (Ch. 19) Do you think places can be cursed?

Do philanthropists deserve extra comforts? (Ch. 20)

Which is better, love or money? (Ch. 22)

When Mabel contemplated the ongoing war, she wondered, "Would it ever end, or were they to forever hold their breath for a day that would never come." (Ch. 22) How were Mabel's feelings similar to your feelings about the pandemic?

On the day of the car accident, Emma had wanted to go shopping without Otto so that she would be able to buy what she wanted and not have to hear his opinion. Do you like to shop with your husband?

Emma said she could tell by a look exchanged between Otto and the nurse that he had already seen the nurse without clothes on. (Ch. 23). Have you ever seen a look between two people and come to a sudden understanding?

Emma put on her pink silk robe every time she was mad at Otto. (Ch. 23). Do you have any such habits?

Emma felt that discovering the affair feed her from having to worry about keeping her husband. (Ch. 23) What do you think of her outlook?

What role did you think Emma should have played after Otto died - "the heartbroken wife? the ardent business partner? jilted woman?" (Ch. 27)

During Prohibition, people became known by either "wet" or "dry" according to the position. (Ch. 30) If prohibition occurred today, would you have been wet or dry? (Consider not just your personal preference for consuming alcoholic beverages, but also the effects on society at large, such as drunk drivers.) (I found this informative article about prohibition.)

Theme Ideas

Incorporate the Crazy House quilt pattern mentioned by one of the other Emma's early in the book.
Give your guests gifts of stationery like Mabel used when she wrote the letter for Artie and also when she wrote the letter for the job. Perhaps pale pink with roses embossed in the corners . (Ch. 13) Also give them chocolates like Mabel suggested her landlord should buy if she didn't need the money for anything else.
Give your guests bookmarks with their names written in shorthand, like Mabel wrote in. (Ch. 7)
Give your guests roses that have been flattened in a book and dried like Emma did with the only rose Otto ever gave her. (Ch. 9)
Give your guests a vanilla bean or Vanilla Fields perfume like Emma K. learned about. (Ch. 10)
Make shadow puppets like Mabel and Eric did at the Majestic theatre. (Ch. 22)

Serve Pearl beer. (Emma said Pearl lager was her secret to reaching the age of 50. - Ch. 4) or serve non-alcoholic beer.
Serve butterscotch candies like Mabel found in her pocket when she was on the bus after running away from Mr. Oliver.
Serve dried apricots and walnuts like Emma K. took on the train when she and Otto moved to San Antonio and sat in the seats "next to First Class". (Ch. 10)
Serve some of the "seven magic foods": melted (hot) chocolate with cream and a pinch of chili powder (Ch. 10)
Serve meatloaf with boiled eggs and potatoes. (Ch. 11)
Serve garlic soup, wiener schnitzel, turkey, meatloaf, and warm molasses cookies dusted with powdered sugar and with vanilla ice cream like at the Sunday dinner. (Ch. 12)
Serve chicken soup with lemon grass, like Mable learned to make for Artie. (Ch. 14)
Serve meat(?) with a sauce of lime juice, goat cheese, and tomato, like Emma learned to make for Otto (Ch. 19)
Serve raspberries in white wine as an alternative to beer. (Ch. 19)
Serve dinner rolls like Emma favored in the hospital. (Ch. 21)
Serve German food, which Mabel must have eaten a lot of since Eric said she was probably tired of it (Ch. 22)
Serve chili con carne like Mabel and Eric ate at Mi Tierra. (Ch. 22)
Serve marzipan chocolate balls like Eric brought to Mabel from the little old woman in New Braunfels. (Ch. 24)
Serve apple pie in honor of Auntie Emma (Ch. 27)
Serve home-brewed beer like the malt extract that Pearl converted to after prohibition, (Ch. 27)

Decorate with "powder blue linen napkins folded as swans" (Ch. 12) like at the Sunday dinner.
Decorate with beauty ads from the 1940's, like when Mabel went to Walgreen's to buy makeup. (Ch. 14)
Decorate with a centerpiece of yellow roses like Mabel received from Eric when he was away on business. (Ch. 24)

Meet at a park in honor of the Koehler's deeding land for a park. (Ch. 14)
Host your meeting somewhere with exotic animals like ostriches. (Ch. 21)


If you are in San Antonio, do a tour of places mentioned in the book (in geographical order):
I have guessed at some of these locations in modern times but being a native of San Antonio I feel pretty confident.

  • Koehler Pavillion in Brackenridge Park

  • the Pearl (brewery, now just known as The Pearl) - or tour a brewery in your town

    • (When Buck arrived, he and Emma walked east from the house toward the Pearl) - (Ch. 27)

  • the Koehler house at 310 West Ashby Place in Laurel Heights

    • The house cost $133,000 in the early 1900s. Dollar for dollar this equates to approx. $3.5 million in 2021 dollars, not accounting for changes in real estate values.

  • San Pedro Springs Park and the nearby synagogue (Temple Beth-El) with the red dome roof (Ch. 18), then continue on Ashby, across San Pedro, to SALT

  • Crockett Park (and, later, San Fernando Cathedral) where Mabel walked in Ch. 26

  • Green Memorial hospital, "a five-story, gold-toned brick building." (Ch. 20)

  • From the hospital, go down San Saba, cross Commerce, and into the long brown building with arches (the Farmer's Market) (Ch. 22) and Mi Tierra restaurant

  • The White Elephant (formerly located at 315 W. Commerce, near San Fernando Cathedral) (Ch. 17)

  • After the restaurant, walk a few blocks, turn on Houston and go to the Majestic Theatre

  • Joske's and the Menger Hotel (Ch. 23). - Mabel saw these places from the train when she arrived and Eric bought the new chair that Emma requested for Mabel at Joske's. Joske's is now closed but if you are facing the Menger hotel it was in the building on your right, at the end, on the corner of Alamo Plaza.

  • the six-sided, green-roofed building known as Smith & Young with gargoyles to ward off financial ruin that opened the day before the stock market crash (Ch. 22) I believe this is now known as the Tower Life building.

  • Fairmont hotel, which still holds the Guiness record for heaviest hotel move (Ch. 17) but was actually not moved until 1985

  • Huntstock Avenue where Otto bought the cottage for the other Emmas

  • the Hot Wells Resort (less than 1 block north of Koehler Ct. on South Presa)

We held our book club at the Hotel Emma on the site of the original Pearl Brewery.

Normally tours are only for hotel guests, but we were able to arrange a tour for our group. It started in the library which was originally the fermentation cellar. Now it houses a lot of books, some of them original to the brewery and written in German. The tour guide was unsure if there is a copy of "The First Emma" in the library - we did not see one but did not actually walk by the shelves.

Hotel guests are able to participate in frequent cooking demonstrations.

The Brew Master's Office contains original chairs. Notice the intricate carving including the triple x designation on the keg of beer.

When the brewery had to close (I don't remember if it was the closure during prohibition or the closure at the end of its life) it seems the employees took the steins that had been around the brewery. Little by little, over the years, they are being recovered from estates and other places. Steins now line the whole room.

The missing plaster on the wall is where a clock was taken from. There is still hope that the clock, like many of the steins, will be recovered and returned to the wall where it belongs.

I forget the name of this guy but he is carved into the wood work that arches around the room. He is some sort of figure from Germany.

Above the Brew Master's door is the triple x designation. Inside the circle it says "San Antonio Brewing Association" which was the original name before "Pearl". The name was changed because it sounded like a group of breweries when it was actually only one. On the tour, several of us said we had understood it to be a group - so the confusion was real!

There are several unique chandeliers throughout the hotel. This one appears to be glass beer mugs and a miniature keg.

After the Brew Master's office we went to the "Elephant Room". The chandeliers in that room, which can hold over 600 people, were parts of bottling machines.

The tanks at the end of the room are orange because they used to contain dangerous chemicals and since not everyone spoke or read English, the color was used to warn them.

These tanks, which hold more gallons than the average swimming pool, are the reason the room is referred to as the "Elephant Room". They look like the butt-end of an elephant with a small tail pointing up.

This would have been the room that was so cold when Eric gave Mabel a tour (in the book).

This black piece is still used in its original purpose of supporting the tank. But in other parts of the hotel, this part and other parts are re-purposed to make coffee table legs, sign posts, and a variety of other things.

After the Elephant Room, we exited through a different door and were back in the lobby where this "before" picture hangs on a wall. It shows the room we were standing in undergoing the process of gutting and renovation.

This is the room from the photo above, after renovation. The red ammonia tank still stands.

Near the ammonia tank is this curio cabinet full of memorabilia.

Entrance to the Sternewirth bar and lounge.

The same doorway from inside the Sternewirth. During renovation they started to remove brick and create a square doorway but then discovered the original archway and revised the plans to preserve it.

Hotel guests can reserve a private area inside a tank. It has been sound-proofed.

The chandelier in the Sternewirth was from a bottle labeling machine.

In a back corner of the Sternewirth is this original spiral staircase and elevator.

Between the Sternewirth and the "Larder" (which sells coffee that smells wonderful and some other food items) is the "history hallway" with a section dedicated to Emma.

After Emma's section is a section dedicated to Otto. The tour guide offered to tell us the tale of how Otto met his death - but we already knew the story.

The final section in the history hallway is dedicated to the Chicago architect who designed the brewery. Mr. Maritzen also has a suite named after him, as do Emma and Otto.

The guide told us the Maritzen suite is her favorite. The Emma suite was booked at the time of our tour so we could not see it but the guide was able to tell us, only because these particular celebrities have made public that they stayed there, that Cher and Celine Dion have stayed in the Emma suite.

After the tour, we relaxed with some drinks and yummy hummus. The menu includes a drink named "The Three Emmas" which a couple of ladies tried and said was good. (Good enough that they had a second!)

The menu explains, regarding the three Emmas, that "One is great, two are sinful, three will kill you." and invites customers to ask their server "about the scandalous tale".

What visit would be complete without an actual Pearl beer.

Personally, I'm not a fan of American beer. I hoped that, since the book mentioned the Koehler's traveling to Germany to get the mother yeast, the beer would taste more like German beer. It was not as strong as foreign beer, but not quite as weak as most American beer. Overall it was enjoyable and if I HAD to order an American beer, I would order a Pearl. (Not being anti-American, I just started my beer drinking in Brazil so that is what I got used to.)