The White Plague


Dr. Brown mentions a special Klondike method of wrapping the blankets about the patient in the cure chair, and The Journal of the Outdoor Life , the magazine he founded in 1904 for the TB patient, is full of photos of consumptives wearing earmuffs and mittens as they turn the pages of their books. Some patients, wrapped to the gunwales otherwise, bared their chests to the cold, believing the air would work more marvels if it did not have to penetrate clothing. The value of the cold climate to the health seeker was buttressed by doctors who reminded their patients that Greece and Rome were conquered by healthy invaders reared in a cold, northern climate.

The TB patient who did not have fever, whose afternoon temperature reading showed no elevation, could do what he liked as long as it was mostly outdoors and he rested in the afternoon. TB patients without fever went on winter picnics, sleigh rides, bobsleds, forming the special, close friendships that expatriates form when marooned together in island outposts. At Trudeau, I am told, the constant, haunting presence of death drove many patients to plunge into sexual affairs with other patients and particularly with the nurses, who were apparently drawn to the consumptives with their aura of fatalism. For many patients, these relationships were the only close human contact they had. Families frequently brought their tubercular members to Trudeau and never returned. Ranged in tiers, two to a porch, the Trudeau patients took informal roll call daily, calling to the tiers above and below, out of sight, to check that the departing coffins the night before had not contained a friend.

The fear was always present, spoken or unspoken. The sound of the ice wagon was particularly dreaded. Especially at Trudeau, where the patients often arrived with advanced cases, the last-ditch measure was a block of ice on the chest to slow the hemorrhage and compress the lungs. Twenty pounds of sand were sometimes used the same way. Either could mean that there would be a gap in the line when the beds were next pushed out on the porch.

At the Santanoni, the realities of the disease were more veiled than at Trudeau, but I never heard my mother speak of her life there. I remember little of that period except the long drive up the hill and the little smocked dresses I took home after nearly every visit. My mother made these dresses during her rest hours.

Recently I went back to Saranac and from the bottom of that hill looked once more up at the Santanoni. It had been gutted by fire and stood deserted but still proud, like a grand dame down on her luck, its windows blackened with smoke and its top two stories gone. I walked up the drive in search of a piece of my mother’s life and found the new owner puttying the broken windows.

He had been a small boy who came frequently to the kitchen door for a pastry treat in the twenties, and he remembered vividly the Santanoni in its full flower. It was very grand, he told me, shaking his head. Such a kitchen. Every day his father sold the chef fresh fish caught in the lake. The hotel’s quartered oak floors became legendary and it had one of the first hydraulic elevators in the country; the patients who rode it were most elegantly dressed. They were forever having cocktail parties and smoking, like my mother, from long, slim holders. Those in the top floors brought their own private nurses.

The list of the tuberculars he remembered who had lived at the Santanoni could have been cribbed from an International Who’s Who . Manuel Quezon, the President of the Philippines, brought his retinue to the town and established a government in absentia at the nearby Hotel Saranac; Christy Mathewson, the ballplayer; Hope Lange, the movie star; Rosalind Russell’s adopted daughter; the wife of the chef of the New York Ritz, Louis Diat; much later Dean Acheson’s daughter, Mrs. William Bundy.

In the offices of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise next day I found the account of the fire and the obituary of the Santanoni. It was designed by William Scopes, a well-known architect who had come to Saranac from New York to take the cure himself. From the moment it was completed in 1914, a long list of patients sought apartments there. It boasted the latest in cure accommodations, with one and sometimes two sleeping porches for every room and beds on wheels that could be rolled out onto them. Two regular nurses were in constant attendance, and the doctors who called daily were the aristocracy of the profession. Dr. Brown’s name was there and so were those of Drs. Francis Trudeau, Senior and Junior.

One of Saranac’s most elegant social events was the marriage in 1946 of June Serrelas of the Don Q rum fortune to a fellow Santanoni patient. It took place at St. Bernard’s Church at the end of the block, and the red carpet ran all the way across the street to the Hotel Saranac in the next block, where the reception was held. For the occasion, the Serrelas family presented the church with a new $10,000 organ to play the wedding march.