Retiring at 50 years old, Walter Donald Douglas, along with his wife Mahala, built their 27-room estate on Lake Minnetonka where the elegant Hotel St. Louis once stood. Douglas made his fortune in Minneapolis in linseed oil for a company that became the giant Archer Daniels Midland; it didn’t hurt that he inherited millions from his father who helped found Quaker Oats.
Mahala’s poetic aspirations were reflected in the house as her husband eponymously named his new chateau “Waldon” (Wal-Don), perhaps as an homage to—or spoof of—Henry David Thoreau’s masterpiece about a pokey little pond. Through the years, the house and environs has reverted to “Walden.”
This newly built French Renaissance mansion in Deephaven needed proper bureaus and buffets to entertain the elite, so Douglas and Mahala set off for a lengthy European tour to shop for proper furnishings and hobnob with the lost generation in Paris. Mahala was an aspiring writer, and admired the expatriates and bustling French culture, which she hoped to transplant in part to her native Midwest in the form of a “Minnesota Renaissance,” beginning with her house.
Once the couple acquired the fitting furniture, they loaded everything onto the world’s largest luxury passenger steamer at Cherbourg, France, and prepared for their triumphant return to Lake Minnetonka. The maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic famously struck a giant iceberg in the North Atlantic on April 14, 1912, and was completely submerged within two-and-a-half hours. Douglas made sure Mahala and her Swiss-French maid Berthe Leroy were comfy on a lifeboat while he froze to death in the frigid salt water.
The Carpathia picked up Mahala, and sailed her and her maid to New York, and she went home to Deephaven without her husband. She never married again and turned down many proposals for her hand. However, the countess’s literary life flourished as she became the muse for Carl Van Vechten's Tattooed Countess. Inspired by Parisian life, she hosted salons at her lakeside mansion, and even entertained Gertrude Stein and lover Alice B. Toklas when they made a second grand tour to America in 1934.
The elegant estate, decorated inside with rare blue orchids, housed this famous survivor of the Titanic and provided shelter for her to write her haunting poem of the sinking of that floating behemoth. Here’s a section from Mahala’s poem “Titanic:”
… Silently the prow sinks deeper,
As if some Titan’s hand,
Inexorable as Fate,
Were drawing the great ship down to her death.
Slowly, slowly, with hardly a ripple
Of that velvet sea,
She sinks out of sight …