An extract from the unpublished memoir of Abigail Lane, in response to a reader’s request. This memoir was found in a box in Miss Lane’s house in Connecticut when it was being demolished in 2008.
Although I had offered him encouragements throughout his political career, I did not ask Franklin for an invitation to the White House when he became President. That would have been presumptuous. I understood he was very busy. So I appreciated his invitation when it came, and traveled by train to Washington in the winter of 1934.
It had been twenty-five years since I had resigned and left the city. But to my eyes it had not changed much. What had changed were the people. Most of the people I knew were dead, and many of the rest had failed to take care of their health and become invalids. Franklin and Eleanor tried to treat me as if I were an invalid, telling me I should never go out to visit in the cold weather except in an automobile, but I immediately put a stop to that.
Franklin and I were having a private conversation one evening when he asked me if I was planning to visit the Office of Occult Affairs. I told him that I had no intentions of visiting the Office because, as a former acting head, any such visit on my part might be construed as an attempt to interfere in its operations. Franklin asked me to reconsider. He had received a proposal to move the Office from the Secret Service to the Bureau of Investigations, an agency in the Justice Department that had been created since my days in Washington. He knew little about the Office, and wanted someone to evaluate it, someone who was qualified to do so. I agreed to conduct an evaluation, provided that it was clear that this would be an unofficial evaluation, as I no longer held any position of trust in the government. Franklin agreed.
The next day, one of his staff supplied me with the phone number of the Office. I called, and asked to be put through to the head of the Office.
After a minute, a new voice came on the phone. “Miss Abigail Lane? My name is Priscilla Hughes. I am the head of the Office of Occult Affairs these days. I have to admit to a great curiosity to meet you. Will you be paying us a visit?”
Franklin had not mentioned that the current head was a woman. I had to wonder if she, like me, was only an “acting head.” I replied, “Thank you, Miss Hughes. A visit is what I would like. When could one be arranged at your convenience?”
We settled on the following Monday, five days later. That would give me more than enough time to investigate Miss Hughes before I met her.
The following day I went to visit Mrs. Harrison Fields. Virginia had been a matchless repository of information on people in society. However, she was now infirm and house-bound. She lived with her daughter, Mrs. Oliver Randolph, who was now playing the role Virginia had once played.
Mrs. Randolph’s description of Miss Priscilla Hughes was distressing. Miss Hughes herself had come of good family. But her father had died in the war, and her mother had married some coal mining executive of great wealth but no family. Her jokes had earned her the nickname “Silly,” which is what she was commonly called. She had gone to Smith College, but her lack of seriousness included a neglect of studies, and she had barely graduated. Mrs. Randolph had a niece, who had been at Smith at the same time, who said that Silly Hughes spent more time with Amherst College boys than she did at her studies. When she returned home from college, she gave herself up to idleness and parties. While she passed in respectable society, she was rumored with good authority to be mixed up with bootleggers and other people of dubious reputation. Indeed, she was thought to have “lost her purity,” as Mrs. Randolph put it. Mrs. Randolph knew that she had acquired some government job through her step-father’s influence a few years ago, but knew nothing about the job. Save that Miss Hughes no longer slept through the day, she had noted little change in the girl.
I write all this down not to show Mrs. Randolph as a gossip, but to summarize what I learned about Miss Priscilla Hughes from several sources in the days before my meeting with her. I have omitted some of the more scandalous stories. These were invariably prefaced with a whispered observation about Miss Hughes “losing her purity,” or some equivalent phrase, followed by a detailed description of just how she had done this, with anatomical details. I had been keeping abreast of the current scientific and hygiene literature, and had long grown out of the euphemisms for sexual relations I had used in my youth, so these accounts did not shock me so much by their language, as by their currency in proper society.
The one exception to these sordid tale tellers appeared Saturday evening. I was at a party in Mrs. Frederick Wells’s home, and asked her what she knew about Miss Hughes. Dorothea colored with embarrassment. I expected to hear more of the same stories I had already heard. However, Dorothea recovered herself, smiled, and said there was a young lady at the party who was a friend of Miss Hughes, and could tell me all about her.
I will never forget my first sight of Miss Sylvia Thompson. Even at eighty-two, I still stood five-foot-ten, but Sylvia Thompson was clearly several inches taller than I. She was an albino, and had apparently chosen to emphasize her pale skin by wearing a sleeveless black dress with no adornments on it. The only touches of color on her were her two pale blue eyes, and a silver necklace with a single blue stone mounted in front. Even before we came within twenty feet of her, I knew who she had to be, because I could sense that she was a powerful magician.
Dorothea introduced Miss Thompson as a friend of Silly Hughes, and me as an old friend of hers, then left us to converse. Miss Thompson had been visually examining me the entire time. She spoke first, “Would you be pleased, Miss Lane, if I told you that I would have recognized you from the portrait I have seen of you?”
I did not bother to conceal my surprise. “I do not know what to say, Miss Thompson. I have never had my portrait done. Perhaps you are mistaken.”
She shook her head. “I believe it was done from a photograph, Miss Lane. Silly, eh, Priscilla, Priscilla Hughes wanted a complete set of portraits of the people who had headed up the Office of Occult Affairs to hang in our large conference room. I hope you will see it when you come to visit on Monday.”
I will admit to being pleased to find I was so commemorated. But Miss Thompson had put me in a dilemma. I had wanted to interview her as a friend of Miss Hughes. She had now confirmed that she was an employee of Miss Hughes. I could not properly ask her about how she felt about Miss Hughes as a person.
While considering what I could properly say, I asked an innocent question. “So you know about my visit, Miss Thompson?”
Miss Thompson smiled. “Why, yes. Sil, I mean Miss Hughes told us all and instructed us to offer you every consideration. In that spirit, Miss Lane, please consider me at your service this evening, if you would like.”
Her use of Miss Hughes’s nickname irked me, so I thought I would bring it up. “You seem used to calling your superior by her nickname, Miss Thompson. Surely that is undignified.”
Miss Thompson’s smile did not waver. “I told her the same when she took the job in 1930, Miss Lane. But she insisted that everyone in the Office address her as ‘Silly,’ and they do. She has her reasons, which she might explain much better than I can.”
Rather than express my astonishment at such impropriety, I decided to continue obtaining information from Miss Thompson. “You knew Miss Hughes before she came to work at the Office?”
Miss Thompson nodded. “We met two weeks before she joined the Office.” She blushed, lowered her voice. “I was the first magician she hired. And I am forever grateful for her friendship and support. Without her, I would have remained a shut-in, never knowing there were other magicians in the world.”
Miss Thompson’s partiality for her boss was explained. Yet it also spoke well of this ‘Silly’ Hughes that she could inspire such loyalty. I continued digging. “That was laudable of her, Miss Thompson. Does she also lead the magicians of the Office by example? I often did.”
Miss Thompson’s eyes opened wide. “Lead by example? Oh, Miss Lane, you do not know. Silly is not a magician.”