Max Allan Collins

The Lusitania Murders

“There’s been some cover-up about the Lusitania. .

it was really murder.”

— Edith William Wachtel, Lusitania survivor

“There are few punishments too severe for a popular novel writer.”

— S.S. Van Dine

“So long as governments set the example of killing their enemies,

private citizens will occasionally kill theirs.”

— Elbert Hubbard


Travellers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies to do so at their own risk.

Imperial German Embassy

Washington, D.C., 22 April 1915”

Announcement appearing in New York newspapers the morning the Lusitania sailed


Dinner at Luchow’s

My friend H.L. Mencken-at least, from time to time we were friends-once characterized me as the “biggest liar in Christendom.” So I would take no offense if the gentle reader (as Elbert Hubbard would say) discounted the tale I’m about to tell, as typical S.S. Van Dine self-aggrandizement.

On the other hand, over the years, the question I’ve most often been asked is how I came up with my distinctive pseudonym. The “Van Dine,” I have explained, is simple: It is an elegant representation of my occasional desire to eat, a luxury that requires earning the more than occasional dollar. Some have speculated that the “S.S.” represented the traditional abbreviation of “steamship,” which is in part true, and relates to this tale, taking place as it does on one of the most famous-and infamous-ocean liners of the twentieth century.

Like most artists, however, I have an irresistible inclination toward resonance-double meanings and second levels. And while it is true that I regard my mystery novels as voyages of entertainment, “vacation reading” that encourages my patrons to board the S.S. Van Dine for a good trip, that “S.S.” did indeed have a secondary shade of significance, which at the time seemed clever and now merely strikes me as (I shudder to admit) cute.

At the time of my ill-fated voyage on the Lusitania, I was in no position to travel first class; frankly, managing the fare for second class would have been a trial, and even steerage a stretch. In March of 1914, a year and two months prior, I had suffered through the indignities of second class; the food, accommodations and company were of a different order than my trip to Europe the previous spring, as editor of The Smart Set.

My brother Stanton-the eminent Modernist painter who pioneered the Synchromist movement-was living in London in early 1915. I had spent almost a year with Stanton in Europe-first in Paris, then London-before returning on the Olympia in March, leaving him to stubbornly serve his muse.

Our sojourn in Europe had been well-intentioned-Stanton sought a suitably sympathetic climate in which to paint, I to pursue writing (both criticism and fiction)-but in retrospect our timing could have been better. A continent withered by war and gripped by nationalist hysteria was hardly conducive to creativity.

In April of 1915 I began to cast about for a way to return to Europe, and convince Stanton to return stateside. But the condition of my finances-and, frankly, of my health-was less than ideal.

In some respects, though, my life was on the upswing. I had received a modest advance for my book-in- progress, Modern Painting: Its Tendency and Meaning, and fees for essays and reviews for various publications, Forum and International Studio among them, allowed me to move from my dismal flat in the Bronx to a two-room apartment over a store on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. Disagreeably dilapidated though the building might be, the thirty-five dollars a month rent was friendly enough.

In addition, after a debilitating illness,* my health had recently improved. For months I had been weak and on edge, filled with hallucinations and phobias, and would surely have checked myself into a hospital if my monetary status had allowed. Instead, I ministered to myself in a singularly unromantic garret-a boardinghouse room in the Bronx-until I looked healthier and less drawn, and could come out among the civilized once again.

Perhaps a certain illness-induced gauntness emphasized my already Mephistophelian features-the receding nature of a reddish-brown hairline emphasized my intellectual stance, even if the former aspect was underscored by the devilish glint in my blue eyes and the spade-shaped if well-trimmed full beard, the upturned corners of my mustache perhaps hinting at my pro-German leanings.

Well over a decade later, my Germanophile’s view might seem harmless enough; on the eve of what would be the Great War, I suffered numerous negative repercussions, due to what I admit was an intellectual’s naivete. It seemed to me that reasonable men could tell the difference between Wagner and Kaiser Bill; that a mind fond of Mahler, Strauss, Goethe and Mann did not signify an insurgent heart.

This pro-German stance-added to my reputation as a prolific if outspoken columnist, with the boost of an H.L. Mencken recommendation-had brought me to this table. Of course it could also be said that Gavrillo Princzip made inevitable this appointment, when-on June 28, 1914, on a Sarajevo, Serbia, street-he shot and killed the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

As a bonus, Princzip had also killed the archduke’s wife, and this rash act (the archduke’s assassination, that is, not Mrs. Archduke’s) served to spark a war involving Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, France and Great Britain. Ten million lives would be lost, twenty million souls would be wounded and twenty-five million tons of shipping would be sunk.

But the war was three thousand miles away, on this warm Friday evening in Manhattan in late April of 1915; the three of us were in a bustling Bavarian restaurant near Union Square, on Fourteenth Street. Perhaps the city’s best-known German restaurant, Luchow’s-with its dark woodwork and baroque dining rooms with their elaborate gilt-framed landscape oils and solemn looming stags’ heads-found its popularity unswayed by a growing anti- German sentiment, and remained a favorite haunt of writers, musicians and theater folk. Tonight I was dining at the invitation of publishing legend Samuel Sidney McClure and one of his associates, Edward Rumely.

We were seated at a table beneath the Wagner murals in the Niebelungen Room; I had my back to the eight-piece orchestra, which had been brought to this country by Victor Herbert, whose mediocre music they

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