He howled loudly and almost nonstop for five days after Alice Stewart Hofmann ejected him from her womb in the second bedroom of a house on 198th Street in Hollis, Queens. The new baby rejected her breast from the start, refused to sleep more than an hour at a time at night, and avoided eye contact with her and the series of nannies she hired to soothe him during his first year of life. So frustrated with the new baby was the child’s father, Frances, that he broached the idea of giving the demon child, as he called his infant son, up for adoption. “I think he’s going to become a mass murderer,” Frances half-joked after one particularly hard night with the infant. He looked into the bassinet at his red-faced, squalling child and shook his head.
Alice insisted on naming the baby Malcolm, after the alcoholic father she had left behind in Scotland a year earlier. Frances chose his son’s middle name, Claus, for an uncle who had stayed in Germany when the Hofmann family came to America just before the war. Claus, it was rumored, became an aide to Heinrich Himmler, but Frances vehemently denied this.
Alice Stewart and her sister, Mary, had dreamed of coming to American since childhood after a letter from a cousin, Annie, who had preceded them to New York, described church dances where handsome young men dressed in pin-striped suits, two-tone Oxford shoes, wool fedoras, and pocket squares. Some wore suspenders, Annie wrote, but she was being wooed by a bowtie- loving man.
The girls plotted their escape from Scotland in secret. Their father would have had none of it if they had told him their plans. Malcolm Stewart was a fisherman on the island of Lewis, in the village of Tong. He relied on his daughters to bring money into their home from their positions as domestics in the town of Stornoway. Alice, the eldest, was required to make dinner and wash his clothes; Mary cleaned the house and tended to the vegetable garden. Malcolm’s wife, Malvina, the mother of his children, had drowned in Stornoway’s harbor two days after her third child, a boy, was born dead. Malcolm had knocked her to the ground a week earlier in a drunken rage over a dinner that wasn’t to his liking. People in the village were sure Malvina’s death was a suicide, but nobody said this in public for fear of Malcolm’s skill with a knife: he could put a blade in the skull of a jackrabbit at 20 feet.
Mary, at fourteen, enlisted the help of a neighboring farmhand in making her escape. Short and chubby, with long black braids that reached to her waist, she attracted the attention of a teenage picker who was occasionally seen rubbing the front of his pants against a lactating pig. He parted with his meager life savings after she allowed him to rub his penis between her hulking breasts every day for a week, with the promise of something special to come when he made more money.
Seventeen-year-old Alice, the prettier of the sisters, was almost six –feet- tall, with skin as pale as a cloud, blue eyes, and amber hair that curled around her shoulders and reached down her back. She worked as a maid in the home of the town’s mayor, who was also the area’s largest landowner. One afternoon, when the mayor’s wife was at a garden party, Alice quietly entered his office and took a seat opposite him at his desk. She pulled her skirt to the top of her long, slender legs. “It’s so warm in here,” she said, hiking her petticoat up further so that he could see she was not wearing undergarments.
The mayor, a man used to giving orders, barked, “Take your clothes off.”
Alice stood, unbuttoned her white lace blouse, and dropped it to the floor. Her breasts were small but high and taut. “I need passage to America,” she said.
The mayor breathed heavily. His face was flushed. He moved toward Alice as she dropped her skirt. He reached out his hand, and she slapped it down. “Passage to America,” she insisted. She slid her slip behind her hips and let it drop to the floor.
The mayor gasped at the beauty of her nakedness. He went to his desk and took out a canvas bag full of coins. He handed her the bag.
She knelt in front of him and pulled down his pants. She kissed the inside of his legs, first one and then the other, from his ankles to his thighs. She took him in her mouth. He made a loud croaking sound and collapsed to his knees, his wetness dripping down Alice’s face. He pulled her to him and buried his face in her hair. “Please don’t leave,” he begged. “Stay with me in Scotland and I’ll take care of you.”
“I’ll stay,” Alice promised, holding tight to the bag of money.
A week later, in June of 1929, she and Mary boarded the S.S. Transylvania in Glasgow for the journey to New York. Within a month of arriving in the new country, Alice Stuart met Frances Hofmann at the church dance her cousin had written her about. They dated on and off for the next six years while Alice waited for Frances to make his mark in the world. She was not going to live the life of her beloved mother, stuck with a neer-do-well. She and Mary shared an apartment in New York, and both sisters worked as domestics for wealthy families in the city. On the nights she saw Frances, she described in detail the homes and lifestyles of the people she met through her employers. “You will have as big a house and as many servants as they do,” Frances promised her. He begged her to wait for him to make his fortune. By the time Alice married Frances he was on his way to riches as the builder of homes throughout the boroughs of New York.
A carpenter by trade, he had started a construction company called Hofmann Elite Builders. He chose the fancy name because, he later told his sons, “Always make yourself look classy even if you don’t have a pot to piss in.” Once she was assured of Frances’ success, Alice planned a wedding at a ritzy part of Manhattan, at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. She wore a gown of white satin and tulle that cost more than her year’s salary as a maid and carried a bouquet of white orchids and lilies of the valley. A reception was held at the tony Carlyle Hotel. In the Times wedding announcement, Mary’s occupation was noted as a nanny. The couple spent a single night in Atlantic City for their honeymoon because Frances needed to get back to work.
The baby, Malcolm Claus, came a year later. He was a chubby infant, with feathery hair the color of the tabby kitten that roamed the front porch of the house. Upon seeing him for the first time, his Aunt Mary remarked, “He’s the ugliest baby in New York.” Had she lived a million years she would never have imagined the miserable infant would one day become the president of the United States.