Illusions of Magic Blog






Personal Note from J.B.

A little more than a year ago I wrote about how crossing the Bonneville Salt Flats reminded me of the land speed records set there in wheel-driven cars: from Malcolm Campbell’s early Blue Bird runs to Art Arfons’ 1964 Green Monster at 434 miles-per-hour.

During our recent research (see “A New Project” below) I learned of Arthur Duray’s July 17, 1903 attempt during which he set a land speed record of 83.47 miles-per-hour. The record was set in Ostende, Belgium running the ‘flying kilometer’ roadcourse in 26.8 seconds. The American Duray drove a chain-drive car called a Gobron Brillie. In it, he sat up high, gripping a big steering wheel and squinting into the wind (there was no windscreen). Duray reset the record twice more—in 1903 and in 1904.

Below I’ve also posted a short piece about the saving of Paris during the German invasion of France in 1914. This was in doubt until the Battle of the Marne saw the German advance to Paris halted. The article also celebrates the contribution of American journalist Mildred Aldrich to the history of World War One.

As always, I hope you enjoy the blog. Please comment. Be sure to tell me who it’s from. Simply send an email to



A New Project


The latest project I’m undertaking is a novel with the working title Dead Heat to Destiny. It is the story of three people during the first two decades of the 20th Century.

Adrien, the daughter of Jean and Dominique Boch, is raised in the family’s 4-story French-style home on Boulevard Defontaine in Charleroi, Belgium. Seemingly blessed with the Bock family’s artistic talent, Adrien develops impressive skills in the design and making of fashionable clothing during her early teen years. In 1908, at age 18, she enters the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels, intent on becoming a couturier in the Parisian world of fashion.

Gregor is Adrien’s cousin and the second son (the first died at birth) of Helmuth Steiner, for many years a petty officer in the Imperial German Navy and his wife Catherine nèe Boch, the sister of Jean Boch. Helmuth serves a shore-billet in Cuxhaven, Germany. Gregor, two years senior to Adrien, as a youth displays a marked talent in performance at the piano. But his father Helmuth has taken some risk in preparing his son to pass the difficult examinations needed for acceptance into the Imperial Naval Academy in Kiel that promises a prestigious career as a naval officer.

Will Marra resides in Paris but is an American, born in Des Moines, the son of Harlan and Helen Marra. At age eight his mother dies, and his writer-father moves from Iowa to Paris. Will is raised solely by Harlan to age eleven, when his father marries a woman from Brittany. At age nine Will attends the 1903 land speed record attempt with his father, which furthers his fascination with machines and speed. His heart is set on learning to fly one of those newfangled contraptions—an aeroplane. In 1909, a chance meeting of Will and Adrien convinces him that Adrien is the love of his life. But less than a year later, the Marra family returns to America, where they settle in New York.

Several years pass, and international relations fray. Europe plunges into the Great War, affecting each of these three young people differently. In fear of the German Army’s advance, Adrien’s family escapes from Belgium to Paris. Gregor, now a Naval officer, serves on a surface ship but hopes soon to command a U-boat. Meanwhile, Will Marra graduates as a U.S. Army pilot at San Diego and awaits a new assignment.

At the climax of the story, a dramatic event occurs that joins these three people in a confrontation they cannot possibly foresee.


The physical, social and cultural backgrounds for this story require digging deeply into European history from the dawn of the twentieth century through the complex and creative pre-WWI period and on into the initial three years of World War I. One of our lucky discoveries has been the WWI letters of journalist Mildred Aldrich on the Gutenberg Project, which prompted the article below I call “Mildred Aldrich and the Saving of Paris.”

We have at the time of writing accumulated nearly a hundred references, with many more anticipated. Augmented by the knowledge of aviation and U.S. Army history gained in writing Low on Gas – High on Sky, they will aid in the production of a different, unique and historically authentic novel.



Mildred Aldrich and the Saving of Paris


In June of 1914 Mildred Aldrich retired from a successful career in Boston journalism to a peaceful rural village close to Paris. She, an unmarried American citizen, was fluent in French. But in August of that year the world awoke to a World War with expectations that Paris would soon be speaking German.

Less than seven weeks later, Aldrich traveled the twelve miles into Paris. “I...had to stay over one night,” she later writes. “The trip was long and tedious, but interesting. There were soldiers everywhere.” These words are from A Hilltop on the Marne, in which Aldrich describes her experiences during the opening months of WWI.

Later, in October, after the Germans failed to take the city, she describes Paris as “more normal” than on her previous trip. It is “not the Paris you know[, but] it was quiet and peaceful.” The streets lack excitement (and men—they’ve all gone off to fight). Many of the shops and stores on Avenue de l’Opèra and Rue de la Paix are closed. Those that remain in business have little to sell, and customers are as scarce as merchandise.

“A great many of the most fashionable hotels are turned to hospitals,” she writes. Red Cross flags fly over previously busy resorts, and façades display white buntings with the name and number of a hospital. Offices and banks are closed between noon and two o’clock. Street traffic is light and cabs are scarce, making the previously active quarter look “quite unnatural.” Yet Paris remains in French hands.

On Aldrich’s nighttime return by train to her rural home, she finds the town of Esbly “absolutely dark.” The road is “black,” and the uphill donkey-cart journey from the rail station to Huiry takes nearly one-and-a-half hours, during which “[i]t was pitch dark, and oh, so cold!” To her this “ordinary journey seemed like journeying in a wilderness,” yet in her lifetime, “I have never seen fewer tears in a great calamity.”

A couple of months later, in January of 1915, she remarks that “Paris is practically normal.”

So it was. The Battle of the Marne had exhausted both sides, yet the French had stopped the advance on Paris. As Max Hastings writes in Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War: “By the end of 1914, the war had ceased to seem interesting or rewarding to any but a tiny proportion of its participants...”

The war dragged on for nearly three more years, taking with it more than 20 million lives. In the end, Britain, France and the U.S. forced the dispute to a conclusion. The Germans, lacking victory, failed to dictate terms. The Allies imposed what Hastings describes as “a clumsy peace settlement at Versailles in 1919.” Yet in full irony, less than twenty years later the Germans (and the Axis) would once more attempt to subjugate Paris on their imagined path to world domination.



Wisdom (?) with a Smile


The night was pitch-dark. A light appeared directly in the ship’s path.
The ship’s Captain sent an urgent order by wireless:

  • “Change your course to starboard at once – His Majesty’s Battleship.”
  • “Change your course to starboard at once,” came the reply.

The Captain was angry. His second order said:

  • “This is a command. Change your course to starboard – His Majesty’s Battleship.”
  • “Change your course to starboard at once,” came the reply.

The Captain was outraged. His third order said:

  • “Change your course to starboard or I will blow you out of the water – His Majesty’s Battleship.”
  • “Too late,” came the reply. “This is the lighthouse dead ahead.”



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