Friday, March 17, 2017

The Eyes of Taos

While exploring the vast contents of the Harry Ransom Center in Austin during a month-long sojourn one joyful March a few years ago, I was captivated by the diaries of a little-known writer named Spud Johnson. These journals document the Taos art scene, as well as American gay life in the 30s and 40s, in a way I had never come across before.

The collection includes hundreds of photographs documenting Spud's life in Taos. There are pictures of him posing with Frieda and D. H. Lawrence (anachronistically dressed in thick woolen suits in the desert); Mabel Dodge and Tony Luhan; young men like Haniel Long, Joel Lacey, Lucius Kutchin, artists Loren Mozley, John Goldmark, as well as local youths Rafael and Patricio who resemble models handpicked by Edward S. Curtiss.

I actually had first heard of Spud Johnson ages ago back when I was obsessed with anything to do with D. H. Lawrence, especially his days recovering from tuberculosis in Taos, New Mexico. As a college student, enthralled with Lady Chatterley's Lover and the like, I read all about Lawrence's life among the pueblos and his wacky circle of friends there, in particular Mabel Dodge Luhan, the heiress who had rocked the world with her torrid love affair with John Reed, then settled down with an American Indian in Taos.

One of her closest friends was a little known poet and publisher, Walter Willard Johnson, nicknamed Spud, who occasionally put out a much-admired journal called Laughing Horse. A recent book about that venture, Spud Johnson and Laughing Horse, by Sharyn Rohlfsen Udall, describes him as "the aesthetic and intellectual conscience of Taos." But it reveals very little about Spud Johnson's colorful personal life.

I found out more on my own. He was born on June 3, 1897 in Mount Vernon, Illinois but grew up in Greeley, Colorado. His father John Smith Johnson was from Fredonia, Kentucky and had built up a successful lumber business. His mother, (née) Susan Wiggington, was also originally from Kentucky. Spud had a brother Van Elbert and a sister Helen Gladys. His cousin Lila Wheeler was adopted by the family and raised as a sister. From an early age, Walter was dubbed "Spud" by his family. In fact, that is the name he used on his Social Security card. He studied at Colorado State Teacher's College in 1916, where he wrote for the school paper and worked as a cub reporter for the Greeley newspaper. He then attended the University of Colorado in Boulder, and found work at the Pueblo Chieftain where he apprenticed in journalism.

Eager to broaden his horizons, he moved to the University of California in Berkeley. There, with friends, he started up a small press pamphlet, Laughing Horse, known for its biting and flippant tone, which immediately raised the hackles of university authorities by opposing certain school programs. Spud became the companion of one of his poetry teachers, Witter Bynner (below), a noted writer who also taught at UCLA. Bynner helped Spud find a job as a secretary at the esteemed but highly secretive Bohemian Club.

By 1922 the two traveled to Santa Fe, NM, where Spud met D. H. Lawrence through Bynner and traveled with the storied author and his wife Frieda to Mexico. In a short time he had relocated with Bynner to Taos, the hub of a lively burgeoning literary scene, where he soon fell in with the indomitable Mabel Dodge Luhan, who'd first put Taos on the map. (Mabel, Frieda and Dorothy Brett, below.)

Spud became Mabel's private secretary and settled down there permanently. He eventually built a small adobe home, La Placita, where he lived for 40 years until his death in 1968. It later became a popular, if funky, bed and breakfast, The Laughing Horse Inn.

In those early years in the 20s, Spud wrote constantly and his work was published in Poetry, Pan, Echo, Palms, and The New Republic. Rydal Press published a selection of his works in 1935, entitled Horizontal Yellow. Later he would toil in Manhattan for a year at The New Yorker, penning pithy "Talk of the Town" pieces. He preferred the Southwest and hurried back to Taos.

But it was primarily as a friend of the famous that Spud achieved lasting notoriety. He appears sporadically as a character in books by Lawrence and Mabel Luhan and Dorothy Brett, and was frequently sought out by visitors who relished his connections as well as his hospitality. He was an enigma to many. Lady Dorothy Brett wrote of him: "There is something oddly Chinese in the narrow shape of the face, of the features, that are more chiseled bones than flesh. He might be a Chinese ascetic from some old, old Mandarin family: the dark, smooth hair should end in a pig-tail, I think to myself. And not only to look at, is he Chinese to me: he has also something of their reserve; he keeps his inner life hidden away, carefully guarded."

That inner life was not hidden in his date books and journals. These diaries, carefully preserved at the Harry Ransom Center, cover a wide turf, starting off in the 1910s, and contain a startling "Declaration of Independence" in 1918, which sounds oddly like a defiant statement of coming out. Several pages are torn out of the diary in those early years, but as they progress they become more confident and far more candid. Spud details his affair with Myron Brinig, the now nearly forgotten writer who at the time was ranked alongside Thomas Wolfe.

Brinig was living with his boyfriend, artist Cady Wells, at the time but that did not preclude several jumps in the hay with Spud which the latter described as "bedroom athletics." He seemed to genuinely love Myron, below, his "ape-like" "Roumanian Jew."

Spud's explicit diary entries are extremely daring for their day and an invaluable guide for any scholar of so-called "queer studies" looking into the mind-set of homosexual life at the time. Despite the prevailing prudishness, Spud pulls no punches and reveals all. Some of his observations are campy and self-revealing, primarily plaintive regrets that he wasn't promiscuous enough, and had failed to pick up a stray boy on the street. The picture he paints is one of a very active and amusing gay scene of transients and trend-setters, but also a lonely life of yearning and regret.

In August 1934 Spud describes vividly having sex in the lobby of the Sagebrush Inn with a young man who worked there. Not long after he reveals seducing one of Mabel's native American cowboys, "topping" him in a tepee during a camping trip. Lust became an obsession for him: he keeps thinking of "white-limbed boys and dark-skinned lads" and "muscles that get hard when you touch them." (Below, Bynner and two local youths, Patricio and Rafael, from New Mexico.)

The diaries reveal a world of endless intrigue, drunken debauches, and constant fights with female admirers such as Alexandra Fichen, but also of boredom. This was before television and evenings were usually devoted to listening to radio, or spent at local dances, in bars or playing games like Anagrams and Charades or Solitaire. Spud expends a great deal of energy trying to "vamp" the local boys. He compares his notes to a schoolgirl's diary, especially after a failed attempt to pick up a drunken pal at a dance. A few weeks later, he yearns for a friend who instead has "hot pants" for some "tramp".

What comes through most in these diaries is Spud's sweet sense of humor. He's provocative, such as the time he threw flowers at the feet of a native Indian boy he fancied as he passes by during a parade. Much of the time, Spud generously takes in strays and younger men who are just passing through town and treats them with respect and an almost maternal care. But he clearly relishes his privacy and few of them stay very long.

By the mid 30s, he asks why he has no lovers? "I know I'm no longer either young or attractive, and yet everyone seems to like me." But soon he is befriended and bedded by Forbes Cheston, a wealthy Englishman who would later become a dominant figure in AA. There's also the episode in 1937 when he picks up a "strangely Aztec" bar boy and has wild sex with him under the moonlight behind a chapel, adding characteristically, "He practically nailed me to the old church wall."

The diaries, when not revealing the gay subterranean set, also revel in the literary life in New York which he visits in 1934. He hangs out with Carl Van Vechten and Effie Stettheimer. He describes Virgil Thomson in unflattering terms as pudgy with pop eyes and a high voice. "Didn't like him very much." Driving back to Taos, he picks up a hitchhiker with such bad body odor that he has to drive with the windows wide open. All of his road trips are sagas of overheated water tanks, flat tires and blow-outs.

Patrick White, above, the noted Australian author, visited with Spud in the late 30s and began an intense romantic affair with him on the eve of World War II. Some of his love letters are quoted in Spud's diaries and are very touching. But ultimately White met the man he would spend the rest of his life with and moved on, never looking back. Spud was left once again alone.

Max Evans, the author of the recent novel Bluefeather Fellini, describes him: "Spud had a cadaverous face, even in his youth. This made his brownish black eyes prominent indeed. At first glance, Spud's eyes said they had seen too much and done too little about it. They could be interested, amused, and in agreement, with moods changing so fast that the projections could be lost on the viewer."

In time the diaries change tone and are less graphic. This is most likely due to Spud's advancing age and his busy work schedule. By 1948 he admits having no delusions about making a name for himself as a writer. By then he still had only published Horizontal Yellow. He seems to have accepted his fate as being a local "gadfly" and even published a local column under that name. Later diaries document trips he took to Mexico with Georgia O'Keeffe where they met Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and a journey to Europe with the painter Earl Stroh in which he finally met Alice B. Toklas, below.

By the 60s, Spud talks ominously about the "hazards of fraternization." He is alone and seems to prefer it that way. In his later years, Spud, who wrote regularly on the arts and cultural life in New Mexico for El Crepusculo, became increasingly eccentric. He affected a series of obvious toupees, one of which looked like a dead skunk. Or he might sport a beret and smoke an elaborate pipe. He would sometimes dress as a monk in robes and ride a donkey through the streets, the "St. Francis of Taos."

His thin wizened features gave him the air of a Renaissance saint. He'd sit in the local square selling books out of a makeshift cart he designed out of an old bicycle. The townspeople adored him and treated him like a living monument. He took up painting and was often seen outside capturing landscapes with his brush. He used his columns to fight over-development and to decry the mindless tearing down of trees to build more parking lots. He was ahead of his time in that regard and no doubt the changes to Taos and Santa Fe must have been difficult to witness having seen what it was like when it was first discovered by the cognoscenti in the early 20s.

And yet Spud never lost his enthusiasm for the place and championed the arts until his last breath. In fact, an art show he was organizing at the time he died was turned into a retrospective celebrating his career. His obituary appeared prominently in numerous newspapers. He had outlived all his friends and achieved a measure of renown all his own. And luckily he left us his collection of photographs and diaries which are a revealing and priceless glimpse into a fascinating lost era.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Beguiling Beverley Nichols

One of the most curious figures of English letters is Beverley Nichols (1898–1983). A Renaissance man of the Roaring 20s and the 30s, Nichols was a handsome, debonair writer and playwright, a pianist, songwriter, actor, mystery writer, gardening expert, sparkling wit, bon vivant, cat champion, noted children’s author, and what used to be described delicately as a “confirmed bachelor,” despite a 40-year long relationship with his male companion. For decades he was inescapable on the British literary and social scene. He knew and was lauded by many of the leading lights of his day. And he outlived many of his staunchest rivals.
Having taken the glitterati by storm with the publication of his precocious memoirs Twenty-Five, coyly penned when he was just 25, after he had finished at Oxford, Nichols went on to write over 50 books, many of them bestsellers. One of my favorites is Prelude, which is set at a public school, and reminds me in some ways of Alec Waugh’s classic The Loom of Youth. It is a charming bit of fluff, with some subtle gay undertones, and proof that Nichols was as good as, if not better than his contemporaries, Michael Arlen and Max Beerbohm. (below, detail from the cover art of Prelude.)

But mention his name today and most people have no idea who you are talking about. And I am not just talking about people in America. Even in his beloved England, Nichols is now nearly forgotten. A dutiful biography by Bryan Connon went a long way to reviving interest in him, but Beverley Nichols still remains one of those singularly talented authors who has fallen unfairly through the cracks. (That’s Nichols, below, at his thatched cottage, with his pet pooch Whoops.)

And yet, what a strange, marvelous creature he was! Reading his books, one feels that Nichols would have made a terrific house guest. While he probably wouldn’t lift a finger to help set a fire, or clear the table, he’d pay his way with witty anecdotes culled from his many years cavorting with celebrities, both haut monde and demi-monde. I’d like to grill him about Nellie Melba, the great Australian opera diva. Nichols ghostwrote her memoirs and later tossed off a perfectly brilliant roman a clef, Evensong, about her. It was made into a 1934 film starring Evelyn Laye and Emlyn Williams. But it is the appearance of opera legend Conchita Supervia in it that makes it especially memorable. (photo below, from the film.)

I first stumbled upon the unusual name Beverley Nichols during one of my Somerset Maugham phases (which every young writer goes through). I came across a book entitled A Case of Human Bondage (who could avoid picking that one up at a used bookstore?) It is a scathing attack on Somerset Maugham, mostly for treating his wife, the lovely and influential interior decorator Syrie Maugham, like dirt. What is shocking about this rather short book (it is literally an idee fixe set down on paper) is how relentless it is! There is little attempt on the part of Nichols to balance his criticisms. It is mean-spirited and yet mesmerizing. And he really captures the esssence of Somerset Maugham’s darker side, although the author of Of Human Bondage liked to compliment Nichols on always looking “spruce.” 

Most scholars and biographers bend over backwards to either prove their points or at least offer a countering opinion. Not so with Nichols, who rarely minced words, although the tone of many of his books is rather mincing to say the least. I found I could not stop re-reading sections of this vicious volume to friends. I asked a writer chum of mine in England if he had ever heard of this fellow with the odd first name, Beverley (at least on this side of the Pond, most men are not called Beverley, even with the extra “e”). My pal vaguely recalled seeing Nichols out and about, an eccentric raconteur who was a fun addition to a party. But he could not add much to my knowledge of who this man really was. Or how he came to write this wickedly fun little book.
My appetite whetted, I devoured the few more books by Nichols I could find. This was back in 1998 just as eBay was getting going. I found copies of his much-admired gardening books via Australia, Canada and Great Britain. I even ordered some from Hong Kong. It seemed as long as there was a sun setting on the former British empire, one could find a copy of a book by Beverley Nichols, even if it was dog-eared or ex-library. And for mere pennies! 

These gardening tomes, originally designed with whimsical illustrations by Rex Whistler, (and later by William McLaren) were also a revelation since they are told from the point of view of a man who clearly spent a great deal of time admiring his garden but who did very little actual gardening himself! He relied on the help of his staff, in some cases inherited from the home’s previous owners. 

The tone of what might be called the “herbaceous border” series, which began beautifully with Down the Garden Path (a typically wry Nichols title) is downright delicious. Nichols pokes fun at his stuffy neighbors and prissy socialite friends, as well as excoriating his ego-crazed gardening rivals. And he does it all with stylish, effortless prose that is a joy to read. The book was a runaway bestseller and helped restore Nichols to the limelight. His star had been a bit dampened after his early brash successes by a series of less-than-stellar journalistic efforts. His diversity, however, was astonishing, ranging from books on politics and religion, to folk tales and treatises on flower arranging. I was not as enthusiastic about some of these, such as The Star Spangled Manner; Are They The Same at Home?; Women and Children Last; Uncle Samson. What one discovers here is Nichols struggling to find his niche, while being paid handsomely to do it. Ironically, he wouldn’t have been able to afford the squire lifestyle which he described so vividly in his various “country” series if he hadn’t done these rather humdrum hack jobs.

Down the Garden Path was followed by a succession of equally amusing books: A Village in a Valley and A Thatched Roof. Then Nichols traded up, buying a Geogian pile, glorified in Merry Hall and its two follow-ups: Laughter on the Stairs and Sunlight on the Lawn.

He later sold that white elephant and moved to a grim sort of rowhouse with an ugly backyard which he tried (vainly, I believe) to improve with brick walls and lavish garden ornaments. It was written up in Green Grows the City. That is the only time I felt Nichols was faltering. (That’s him, below, gazing adoringly at his “folly” in the odd corner of his tight plot.)

He later returned to a more luxurious lifestyle with another country house, Sudbrook Cottage, this time immortalized in Garden Open Today, and later, Garden Open Tomorrow. One of the best of the later books is Down The Kitchen Sink, a culinary excursion that is filled with brittle asides about nosy neighbors, and cottage chitchat.
For my money, however, I have a special place in my heart for Nichols’ eccentric mystery novels. No Man’s Street. The Moonflower. Death to Slow Music, etc. These curious efforts began, one has to believe, as a bold attempt to cash in on the rage for Agatha Christie style whodunnits. Nichols’ take on it, however, was typically subversive and slightly wacky since his character, Mr. Green, solved crimes not with his insightful intellect or his magnifying glass, or even his snooping skills, but with his incredibly sensitive nose. He had an inordinately gifted olfactory ability, which led to some pretty startling surprises.

It’s clear reading these potboilers that Nichols was having a great deal of fun pushing the envelope of the genre, satirizing his friends (including Noel Coward and Ivor Novello, whom he considered his rivals as well), and introducing slightly risque gay themes into the plots at a time when such things were still tightly wrapped in the closet.

Beverley Nichols also had a serious side and this is evident in some of his political screeds, such as his pacifist tract: Cry Havoc!, or the immensely passe Verdict on India. And some might question his mental faculties while reading Powers That Be, a rather hodgepodge examination of psychic phenomena. 

No, Nichols belonged in other realms divorced from otherworldly forces or dry diplomatic diversions. Perhaps one can argue that his book on his family’s painful bouts with alcoholism, Father Figure, suffers a bit from this tendency towards being “de trop”, but who can resist its opening line? — “The first time I remember my father he was lying dead-drunk on the dining room floor.” Or this later comment? “The occasion of my third attempt to murder my father can be precisely dated and it is not a date that I am likely to forget.”

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Killing Time: Leopold and Loeb

(Fresh from viewing PBS's riveting new documentary about Leopold and Loeb on its American Experience series, I have taken the opportunity to repost one of my earlier pieces regarding the literary legacy of these two enigmatic figures. Here is an excerpt from it.)

While conducting research a few years back at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, I stumbled upon a mention of the vast collection of Erle Stanley Gardner's papers in the center's online catalogue. Gardner was a tireless workhorse who wrote or dictated reams of prose everyday: letters, proposals, lectures, novels and essays. He wrote at least two Perry Mason novels a year, as well as dozens of others under various pseudonyms. His correspondents numbered into the thousands. He seems to have responded to nearly every fan letter he ever got. His collection is sprawling, running to over 33,000 items, and includes a replica of his private writing studio from his California ranch. It would take a lifetime to pore through it all, which might explain why there hasn't been a biography of him written since the 70s. But a hint in the collection guide's "Gay Lives" section led me directly to a pair of folders of documents relating to Nathan Leopold, the luckier half of the infamous duo Leopold and Loeb.

On a cold day in Chicago in 1924, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two teenage friends from affluent Jewish families, kidnapped a 14-year-old school friend, Bobby Franks (Loeb, who was a second cousin of his, had played tennis with him just the day before), and murdered him in cold blood by beating his head in with a cudgel. Then they poured hydrochloric acid over his genitals and face and stuffed his naked corpse into a culvert, before demanding $10,000 in ransom from his parents for his "safe return." Why? "For the thrill of it," they said, cooly and unapologetically. At the time, their diabolical actions were dubbed "the crime of the century," even though the new century was not much older than the youths themselves. But in some ways the title still stands since the senselessness and incomprehensibility of their crime was never equalled. Far worse things were done in the decades that followed, but no single event had quite the resonance of this inexplicable act.

The boys' homoerotic attachment to each other gave their maniacal compact as amoral "Supermen" an added frisson of bloodlust, at a time when such subjects were strictly taboo. During their trial the judge refused to let the jury, or any women and reporters in attendance, hear the sordid details of their peculiar sexual predilections. This only added to their notoriety, even if references in court to "mouth perversions" and "interfemoral intercourse" were edited out of news accounts or sealed as privileged testimony. But the truth is that their crime was absolutely arbitrary and pointless. There was no sexual gratification and no previous pattern of sadistic behavior. 

It was ultimately, however, despite their carefully executed plans, a very imperfect crime. They never got the ransom money and were quickly caught. The acid they used concealed nothing, and the eyeglasses Leopold accidentally left at the scene sealed their doom. Both confessed too easily and immediately blamed the other. In fact, the "crime of the century" was an inept fiasco, unworthy of the tribute. And yet rarely has a pair of such mismatched misfits generated so much media attention. Their case has captivated each new generation of writers, jurists, psychiatrists, criminologists, filmmakers, and artists. Perhaps their story is so popular because of their failings, their tragic flaws, which render them more human, less evil. 

The curious friendship between Erle Stanley Gardner (above) and Nathan Leopold began shortly after Gardner reviewed the novel Compulsion, by Meyer Levin, for the New York Times in 1956. Gardner lauded the novel, which was a fictionalized account of the case, as a "masterly achievement in literary craftmanship," but stated that "the last chapter has been omitted." He wanted to know, "What has happened to the one central character who has remained alive?" That is -- Nathan Leopold. It was an open challenge. And one that Leopold responded to immediately. Days later, Leopold wrote an admiring letter to Gardner, thanking him for his kind and supportive words about his right to rehabilitation and telling him how much of a fan he had always been of his Perry Mason novels. Leopold was limited in the number of letters he could write from prison, and had to include his convict number "9306-D." All his letters were read and approved by prison censors. 

Gardner, who seems to have been flattered by Leopold's interest, quickly wrote back and began a lengthy correspondence that led to a close friendship for the rest of their lives. Gardner also ended up writing the introduction to Leopold's memoir Life Plus 99 Years. The latter did a great deal to help Leopold eventually get parole, as did efforts by Gardner and his team at the Court of Last Resort, a legal think tank that Gardner established which took on special cases and examined the pros and cons of rehabilitation. The Court became a popular TV show. And in 1957 Gardner's most famous creation, Perry Mason, was lighting up the boob tube, with Raymond Burr bringing justice to his falsely accused clients week after week. So it's no wonder that Gardner was drawn to Nathan Leopold's predicament. He loved a tough case as much as Perry Mason.

The notion that a confessed killer who barely escaped the death penalty could ever get parole seemed far-fetched when Leopold and Loeb first went to prison. But by the late 50s, public opinion on prison reform had changed dramatically and Leopold saw a way out. This was partly in response to the wave of juvenile crime that was sweeping across the nation, a point Gardner hammered home in his introduction to Leopold's memoir. Leopold's crimes no longer were so singular, or so scary, he said. Far worse things were happening everyday across the country. In fact, the Clutter family murders which Capote immortalized in In Cold Blood were just around the corner. Gardner, along with Carl Sandburg and Elmer Gertz, who represented Leopold, managed to convince the parole board that Nathan Leopold deserved a second chance. He was finally released from prison in 1958, having served 33 years of his life sentence. (Dickie Loeb had been killed in prison by another inmate in 1936.)

I find the exchange between Gardner and Leopold fascinating. It's not often, I would think, that a convicted murderer develops a friendship with a mystery writer and manages to get this famous author to write for him. (Norman Mailer comes to mind but he was not really a mystery writer so the connotations are different.) The friendship between Gardner and Leopold is paradoxical too because the entire notion of the "perfect murder" which had been Loeb's idée fixe stemmed from his reading pulp detective fiction of which Gardner was one of the earliest masters. No doubt for Leopold this added a level of nostalgia to his interplay with Gardner since it had to remind him of Dickie Loeb. He must have been tickled pink by the irony of it all. 

The symbiosis throughout the correspondence between Gardner and Leopold is revealing too of Leopold's uncanny people skills. In all his letters, Leopold is a master at flattery and charm. He downplays his talents and paints Gardner as an extremely generous man who is going out on a limb to take on Leopold's case. Leopold constantly criticizes his own prose style and laughingly admits that he only wanted Gardner to write the introduction so that the reader wouldn't be too disappointed in the final product. It's a clever ploy to win over the immensely successful author (who never really achieved literary recognition for his immense output, and only won an Edgar award for his non-fiction book The Court of Last Resort). Leopold must have known that by stroking Gardner's ego he was nudging the door open to his own freedom.

But there's no denying that the friendship was genuine. Leopold may have seen the advantages of his connection to a famous writer who went out on a limb to help him achieve parole. In one letter Leopold offers to put up Gardner in his tiny apartment in Puerto Rico (after his parole) if Gardner were to visit. The idea of Gardner shacking up with this notorious killer is too good to be true. It's not clear from the correspondence if Gardner ever took him up on his offer. 

What is most surprising about this cache of letters is that no one seems to have read them, at least not in the context of the literature surrounding the case. Hal Higdon's book The Crime of the Century (Putnam), which came out in 1975, makes no mention of Gardner at all. Likewise in the latest book on the case: Simon Baatz's For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder that Shocked Chicago (Harper's, 2008) Gardner's name does not appear anywhere within its more than 500 pages despite the fact that he was instrumental in helping Leopold achieve parole. 

Like many, I first learned of these two infamous "thrill killers" by watching the film Compulsion starring Orson Welles. It's a brilliant, still underrated film, which thanks to a new DVD release is having a much-deserved second life. Based on the novel by Levin (1956), the film takes a psychoanalytic view of the case. Dean Stockwell played the part based on Nathan Leopold with a sad neurotic genius while Bradford Dillman took on the smooth, devil-may-care Dickie Loeb in his usual deft manner. Welles' take on Clarence Darrow is a sight to behold and proof that he was as great an actor as he was a director. Apparently, however, he was a difficult cast member and took off for Mexico before the film was finished. His closing remarks, Dean Stockwell stated in his memoirs, had to be pieced together from leftover scraps by a clever editor. 

What most of us have forgotten is that Compulsion first ran on Broadway as a stage play. It was part of Zanuck's option when he purchased rights to the novel that Levin had to write a dramatic version first which would open prior to the film, generating word of mouth and a great deal of advance publicity. Levin eventually disassociated himself from the staged version, after arguments with the producer Michael Myerberg who brought in Robert Thom to revamp the script. The play opened in October, 1957 at the Ambassador Theatre with Dean Stockwell in the Nathan Leopold role (he was trying to break out of his earlier goody-good child star roles) and Roddy McDowall (who also needed to move away from being typecast in his Lassie roles) in the more glamorous Loeb part. Included in the cast was Howard da Silva, Frank Conroy (who ended up having a near-fatal heart attack during the run) and a very young Susanne Pleshette as "the Fourth Girl." Cy Coleman provided the music! It ran for 140 performances. 

Compulsion, it turns out, was not the only novel based on the case. In 1957 Mary-Carter Roberts wrote Little Brother Fate (Farrar, Straus & Cudahy) which uses the Leopold and Loeb case as part of a tripartite retelling of three famous 20s crimes. The other two being the Snyder-Gray case, used by James M. Cain in Double Indemnity (Raymond Chandler wrote the screenplay) and the notorious Halls-Mills "Lover's Lane" case which remains unsolved. Roberts' take on Leopold and Loeb is more about the strange hold one boy had over the other, and less about the actual killing. Anthony Boucher in the Times called it "vivid and penetrating," a portrait of "larger-than-life all their torment." He included it in his list of best books of the year.

Another novel that year also examined the case: James Yaffe's Nothing but the Night (Little Brown). Siegfred Mandel in the Times stated that it was more tightly written and neatly plotted than Compulsion with more stress on the guilt of the parents, but that it "avoids the homosexual tie." This is odd considering the paperback version blatantly used gay pulp style cover art to market it. Yaffe said: "My object was to do a novel which would give the feeling that the boys were not obviously different from any other boys, that the same thing would happen to anybody... I give the reader the feeling that these were his boys." 

The effect of three books coming out within one year inspired some soul-searching. Rabbi Newman placed an ad in the Times promoting "Criminal Responsibility," a sermon he was giving at Rodelph Sholom on the novels by Yaffe and Levin. Nothing But the Night was optioned to be made into a film. Bernice Block, who had produced Dino with Sal Mineo for TV's Studio One, bought the screen rights and announced that she had contacted Elia Kazan as a possible choice for director. Perhaps she had Sal Mineo in mind for the lead. But nothing came of it. It would have been fascinating to see Mineo tackle the part of Nathan Leopold. 

In 1964 actor Don Murray, of Bus-Stop fame, announced that he had optioned Life Plus 99 Years and was going to make a film. It was to be directed by Paton Price (who later directed episodes of Surfside 6 and The Partridge Family). Murray actually went to visit Nathan Leopold in Puerto Rico. But unfortunately nothing came of it either. 

Long before any of these versions appeared, however, the story of Leopold and Loeb inspired a play by Patrick Hamilton in 1929 called Rope's End. Hamilton set the tale in Mayfair, London, England, rather than Chicago, giving it more of an aristocratic edge. It was produced at the Strand in 1929. Lee Shubert produced it later on Broadway at the Theatre Masque and the Maxine Elliott Theatre. It starred Ernest Melton as Rupert Cadell; Ivan Brandt as Charles Granillo, and Hugh Dempster as Kenneth Raglan. Reginald Denham directed. It does not seem to have made much of a dent. And no one would remember it at all if Alfred Hitchcock hadn't directed a film version of it in 1948 called Rope starring James Stewart, Farley Granger and John Dall. Arthur Laurents and Hume Cronyn adapted it for the screen. 

In both the play and the movie, the focus is on how two sensually corrupt and spoiled youths (more explicitly homoerotic in the stage version) plot to commit the perfect murder. They kill a friend of theirs, stuff his body in a trunk, then throw a cocktail party for him, inviting his family. They are outsmarted by their mentor, a Nietzchean professor, who is appalled that they took his dark philosophical musings to an illogical extreme. The film is not one of Hitchcock's most popular, despite excellent performances from Granger and Dall and an experimental approach that involved a series of very long takes. The problem is that James Stewart is miscast as the dark professor who misleads his protegees. If James Mason or Claude Rains had played the part, it might have been more convincing. Ironically the film was criticized by the Anti-Defamation League for portraying two Jews as homosexual murderers. 

I have my own peculiar connection to the Leopold and Loeb case. My mother's guardian, Elmer Gertz, (above), had been the lawyer who helped Nathan Leopold finally get parole after being in prison for over 30 years. It wasn't until after my mother died in 1993 that I finally got to meet Mr. Gertz and talk to him specifically about the case. He told me a lot of interesting things, most of which has been fully documented in his two books of memoirs. When I asked him directly about the rumors of Leopold and Loeb's being lovers he told me a funny story. He had gone to stay with Leopold and was shocked to find that in his bedroom he kept a photograph of Elmer Gertz and beside that one of Richard Loeb. Leopold said they were the two most important men in his life. After Leopold got married in Puerto Rico to the widow of a local doctor, he took the picture of Dickie Loeb down.

I asked Gertz if he had seen the film Swoon by Tom Kalin (1992) which had just come out. He said he had and that he liked it which surprised me since he was a man in his 90s at the time. Swoon takes the Leopold and Loeb case to a completely different level, offering a post-modern account of the crime. The homoerotic relationship is made the central theme. With striking photography, props and costumes, Swoon breathed new life into a story that by the 90s was becoming routine. The film reawakened interest in the case and since then there have been a number of plays and films and even graphic novels that touch upon the case. 

The film Murder by Numbers, by Barbet Shroeder, is said to be based on the case, although the story line is much different. In 1985 John Logan wrote a play called Never the Sinner which was inspired by the actual court transcripts. It won the Outer Circle Critics award. A play version of Rope has been making the rounds, using the film script as much as Hamilton's original. In 2003 Stephen Dolginoff premiered his musical Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story. It has appeared in many productions around the world. In 1999, Kevin Spacey's Darrow 91 in the series Haunted History recreated parts of the famous trial with Jamie Harrold and Barry Del Sherman as Leopold and Loeb.

One of the most intriguing tidbits I gleaned from Simon Baatz's book is that F. Scott Fitzgerald told a newspaper reporter from the New York World in 1927 over lunch at the Plaza that he was writing a novel based on the story of Leopold and Loeb. One can only imagine what might have been. Coming on the heels of The Great Gatsby, a novel by Fitzgerald on the "crime of the century" might just have been "the great American novel" we've all been hankering for. 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Poet of Apprehension

(Twenty years ago, I wrote a profile for Out Magazine about author Patricia Highsmith that appeared shortly after her death. Back then Highsmith was relatively unknown to the public at large. Her ground-breaking lesbian novel The Price of Salt had been written under a pseudonym. Some took me to task back then for allegedly "outing" her. But times change. Since then numerous books have been written about Highsmith, and her work is very much back in vogue. One of my favorites of her novels, The Blunderer, has just been reissued. And a film based on The Price of Salt called Carol is garnering rave reviews. I thought it might be fun to look back at my article, written before she was a household name again, and to revisit the peculiar genius of this now-legendary writer.)

“Sometimes I think that the artistic life is a long and lovely suicide, and I am sorry that is so." This quote, from Oscar Wilde's personal letters, was used by Patricia Highsmith in a foreword to one of her twenty-one extraordinary novels. It might as well have been her epitaph (she died of leukemia at age 74 in Switzerland on February 4, 1995), for the statement sums up so simply the eerie melancholy that colored her lifework. 

From her first novel, Strangers on a Train (immortalized, if bowdlerized, in Hitchcock's classic thriller), to her last, Small g: A Summer Idyll, about a bizarre gay bar in Zurich (published in London, just days after her death), Patricia Highsmith probed the dark depths of paranoia, delving into the minds of homicidal psychopaths and their victims. Very often, in her world, crime did pay. Her short stories were horrifying, frequently grotesque: A rat devours the nose of a small child; a snail lover is smothered to death by millions of his slimy pets; a man saddled with a deformed baby strangles an innocent passerby in a sudden act of revenge. 

One treads gingerly in Highsmith's troubled universe, never knowing what waits around the corner. Graham Greene called her "the poet of apprehension." But she was also haunted by her own demons. Pegged early on as a suspense writer, Highsmith transcended the genre, gaining cult status even as she was ignored by most American literary critics. Those who did pay attention compared her to Henry James, Dostoyevsky and Poe. Immensely popular in Europe, her books were filmed by Wim Wenders, Rene Clement, and Claude Miller, and garnered numerous awards. But she never caught on with the American public, no doubt because she didn't portray them in flattering terms and had little patience with middle-class conceptions of good versus evil. To her, justice was a man-made conceit. 

Novelist and director Michael Tolkin (The Player) says, "She was one of the best writers in the world. I have never read a review of her work where there wasn't some hedging on the part of the critic, a slightly superior tone because she was a girl or writing in this genre. But she was a great writer, the last turn of the dial to unlock my novels. I don't think I could have written The Player without her." 

Few people, know, however, that Patricia Highsmith, by all accounts a passionate, yet very private lesbian, was also an important figure in gay literature. In 1952, fresh from her success with Strangers on a Train, she wrote the groundbreaking novel The Price of Salt. Perhaps fearful of being branded a "lesbian author" as she had been a "mystery writer," Highsmith wrote under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. Or perhaps she could not reconcile her lesbianism with her public profile. 

For decades this heartfelt romance, one of the first lesbian novels with a happy ending, was required reading for young women (and many men) eager to overcome their isolation and loneliness. Reissued several times, most notably by Naiad Press, the book is still in print. Eventually, Naiad publisher Barbara Grier convinced Highsmith to use her own name on the book. "I worshiped that book," Grier says, recalling the thrill of discovering it in 1952 in a department store in Kansas City. "It was a very upbeat, pro-lesbian book, which in itself was a miracle." 

Highsmith's representative Anne Elisabeth-Suter estimates The Price of Salt has sold hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide, so its impact cannot be ignored. But none of her major obituaries mentioned it, except for a personal piece by Tolkin in the Los Angeles Times. In fact, the original New York Times' obituary did Highsmith another disservice by erroneously calling her "Ms. Ripley," confusing the author with her more diabolical creation, Tom Ripley, an engaging American psychopath, living abroad, who continually gets away with murder. 

No doubt Highsmith, master of irony, was laughing in her grave. She often said that Ripley, not she, had written the first of the five books in which he appears. That novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, was developed as a project for Paramount Pictures by Sydney Pollack and William Horberg. "Highsmith was one of the great postwar novelists," Horberg says. "Her books are impossible to put down. The Talented Mr. Ripley is a profound love story. Ripley loves Dickie Greenleaf but can't have him, so tragically, he destroys him." The novel was made into the classic Rene Clement film Plein Soleil, aka Purple Noon, starring Alain Delon. 

For all their psychological intrigue, Highsmith saw her books merely as entertainments. Favoring emotions over style, she wrote in a spare, declarative tone that weaves a terrifying spell. The monotony of quotidian details lulls the reader into a false sense of security. Her protagonists are always cooking, drinking, or making their beds, so that when a murderer suddenly acts, the horror is infinitely more dramatic, raw. In The Boy Who Followed Ripley, one of her most affecting and disturbing novels, Highsmith grippingly depicts Ripley's growing affection for a handsome young man who has murdered his invalid father in Maine by pushing his wheelchair off a cliff. He turns to the notorious Ripley for support. Later, Ripley dresses in drag for a rendezvous at a gay bar and commits murder to save the boy's life. 

What was behind Highsmith's fascination with death and murder? One can only suspect it stems from her private obsessions. She was born Patricia Plangman in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1921. Her parents, commercial artists, had divorced before she was born. Patricia lived with her maternal grandmother until age six, when she moved with her mother to New York. Her mother remarried a man named Highsmith, who later adopted Patricia. Highsmith didn't meet her natural father until she was twelve. In interviews she hinted that her childhood was less than happy. Emotional turmoil was constant. 

A clue to her feelings may be gleaned from her early writings, odd little stories about homicidal children. She was inspired by a clinical text her family owned called The Human Mind by Dr. Karl Menninger, filled with vivid case studies about pyromaniacs, sadists, and kleptomaniacs. Highsmith used it throughout her career as a character bible. "The Terrapin," for example, concerns a lonely boy whose mother dresses him in children's clothes. Alienated from his peers, in particular a bully next door, the youth grows increasingly hysterical until he stabs his mother to death after she boils a turtle alive. One wonders, with a chill, if Highsmith's mother ever read that story. 

Highsmith attended Barnard College, where she edited the school literary magazine. There she met journalist Kate Kingsley Skattebol, who corresponded with Highsmith the rest of her life and remained a devoted friend. Skattebol recalls Highsmith as a droll, impish wit fond of practical jokes, scatological humor, and bawdy limericks. "Her writing talent was evident in college," she says. One of her earliest tales, "The Heroine," about a deranged nanny who sets fire to a house where she works, was rejected by the Barnard magazine, Skattebol says, because it was "too unpleasant." It later appeared in Harper's Bazaar and the short story collection Eleven, regaining notoriety decades later during the scandalous Swiss nanny murder trial. Some thought the alleged killer (later acquitted) might have been inspired by Highsmith's story. 

An early friend, Truman Capote, championed Highsmith, helping her to get into Yaddo, where she rewrote Strangers on a Train (it had been rejected by six publishers). Over the years, Highsmith also developed lasting friendships with writers Graham Greene, Gore Vidal, and Paul Bowles. When not writing fiction, Highsmith found odd jobs, writing scenarios for Superman comics, or toiling at Bloomingdale's over Christmas. She used that stint as background for The Price of Salt: Therese, the main character, whose dark features and shy, dreamy demeanor bear more than a passing resemblance to the young Highsmith, meets her love, Carol, at a New York department store. "Every adult has secrets," writes Highsmith at the novel's end. And throughout her life she seemed to enjoy harboring her own. "Pat was nothing if not unobvious," says Gary Fisketjon, her editor at Knopf, her last American publisher. "She was not particularly troubled by the fact that she was gay. She couldn't give a shit -- she was Texan until the fucking end." But she preferred leading a private life." 

Barbara Grier, who corresponded with her frequently, says Highsmith suffered acutely from "internalized homophobia," which was not surprising, she adds, considering the era in which she was raised. Highsmith's own attitude is put rather succinctly in a postscript to The Price of Salt, in which she states, "I like to avoid labels." An expatriate, Highsmith traveled constantly, moving first from New York to Mexico, then to Italy, England, and France, before finally settling near Locarno, in Switzerland.

Often cold and close-mouthed with reporters, Highsmith disliked publicity. "She hated to come out of her house," says her Swiss publisher Daniel Keel. On more than one occasion she walked out in the middle of interviews. But her sense of humor was well-known. Larry Ashmead, executive editor at HarperCollins, recalls Highsmith telling him how she once smuggled live snails into France by hiding them under her breasts. At the end, Highsmith lived alone with her beloved cat, Charlotte. She was, by most accounts, a loner who drank and smoked to excess. 

As a young woman, according to Fisketjon, Highsmith was a "staggeringly beautiful woman." But as she aged, her sturdy masculine features became more exaggerated, almost forbidding. Duncan Hannah, a New York artist, recalls meeting Highsmith at a book-signing. "She was like a Mandarin, almost Buddha-like," he says, "with a dilapidated, very still quality. Being under her gaze was like being under a microscope. It was spooky." 

Highsmith seems to have exorcized her demons with her final and most openly gay work, Small g: A Summer Idyll. Sweetly sentimental, with gothic undertones, this dark romance harks back to the young-adults-in-love theme of The Price of Salt, but lacks its focus. In fact, Small g was rejected by Knopf and poorly reviewed in England. But it has unmistakable Highsmith touches: a club-footed homophobe, a bisexual beauty, a dandy diagnosed as HIV positive, and a clever circus dog named LuLu who upstages everyone else. One wonders what Highsmith might have achieved had she brought her literary villains and herself "out" decades ago. But maybe, for her readers, it's better she didn't. For then we might not have experienced the full rewards of her strange, macabre genius.

Friday, July 24, 2015


"Queen of the Follies," Jessie Reed.

Seventy-five years ago, in a charity ward of Chicago’s Osteopathic Hospital, a once-celebrated beauty lay immobile under an oxygen tent, barely able to breathe. A painful throat infection made it impossible for her to talk. A fever clouded her mind. Pneumonia had set in, sapping all her strength. She was penniless, despite four high-profile marriages, and four notorious divorces. Even the whiffs of scandal surrounding her (including her part in a sensational murder) were lost in time. Back in the early 20s, as Jessie Reed, she had been the belle of Broadway, a household name, the highest paid showgirl of the Ziegfeld Follies. 

But now Jessie was completely alone, abandoned by her former agents and publicists, ignored by the playboys who once jockeyed to be by her side. The only friends she had left were her fellow showgirls, aging members of the Ziegfeld Club, who sent flowers, letters and donated money for her care. She’d been in the hospital a few weeks before and had recovered enough after numerous blood transfusions to go back to her cheap hotel room. But this time Jessie didn’t have any pluck left. She died on September 18, 1940, age 43. Her only relative was a 26-year-old daughter in San Antonio whom she had not seen in decades. 

The next day, papers all over the country trumpeted the news. There was an outpouring of sympathy for Jessie’s tragedy, but also a sense of shock since it seemed inconceivable that someone who had had it all — diamonds, the latest French fashions and more than one millionaire husband — could die without a nickel to her name and in such dire circumstances. Adela Rogers St John had dubbed her “the Queen of the Follies — the Champion.” But fate had been unkind, St John added, and she became “Bad Luck’s Baby.” How could this fall from grace have happened? Blame was laid all around, but Jessie’s once-lusted-after alabaster shoulders bore the brunt of it. She got what she deserved, some moralized, for having been such a scheming gold digger. But one couldn’t help but feel sympathy toward her. It was as if the American Dream itself had failed, for Jessie Reed’s rags-to-riches tale had seemed the archetypal stuff of dreams, or at least countless dime-store romances. 

All dolled-up for the Shuberts, 1918

I first heard of Jessie Reed while sifting through my mother’s papers after her death. It turned out my mother’s father, Leonard Minor Reno, was Jessie’s last husband. In fact, Jessie had been married to him for nearly six years, longer than any of her previous spouses. This fact had never been mentioned in my family. Both Jessie and my grandfather had died before I was born. And my mother, who was Leonard’s only child, had never met Jessie Reed. At the time my grandfather was considered a catch. He’d been a pilot in the Lafayette Flying Corps during the First World War, and was the son of a Chicago publisher. He was often referred to as “son of a millionaire,” but his father, Harry Otho Reno, founder of Furniture Age, had spent his fortune raising racehorses and probably owed more millions than he owned.

The Jessie Reed Story, as it were, begins in 1917, twenty years after her official birth, when she first sailed into New York as a bright-eyed, young ingenue on a steamer from Texas. She arrived like Venus rising out of the sea, for no one was quite sure who she was or where she was from, or who her parents were. Her roots were murky at best, and remain so. 

“I had nerve to burn and was willing to work,” Jessie later recalled in an article she wrote about her early days. And work she did, landing a spot that summer in The Passing Show of 1917, a Shubert spectacle at the Winter Garden. Jessie didn’t have much to do, except slide elegantly across the stage, dressed in one outlandish costume after another. Her flaming Titian-hued tresses created a sensation, as did her sultry good looks. Standing about five feet four, Jessie was not an imposing figure, although photos suggest callipygian curves and a buxom bust. But she exuded an animal magnetism and joie de vivre that leapt across the stage. “With her love of life and alluring and spectacular beauty, she had an irresistible appeal to men,” summed up Adela Rogers St. John. 

Baring what the public will bear. Cine-Mundial

What Jessie had that struck a nerve was raw, unaffected sex appeal. Burns Mantle, describing her in Theatre magazine, likened Jessie to “a jungle cat.” She was the “It Girl” before the term had been popularized. She epitomized a new look that cast aside the constraints and propriety of the past. She oozed sensuality. One admirer summed up her attributes with poetic precision: “Miss Reed is all in warm colors; her hair is old bronze, saturated with tropical sunlight; her teeth are rice-grains; her eyes are big and glowing, with ruby glints in their pupils; her ears are tiny and buttoned close in; her nose is all that a nose should be; and her lips are piquantly persuasive.”


Artist Harrison Fisher, who glorified the American Girl in his widely published illustrations, (above) was drawn to Jessie’s luscious auburn hair and perfect complexion. He hired her to model for him, and she became one of his favorite muses. Not long after, another Fisher took a shine to her: Bud Fisher, creator of Mutt & Jeff. A rich playboy, with a taste for showgirls, Bud wined and dined Jessie, squiring her from one fashionable soiree and nightclub to the next. Gossip columns were atwitter about their affair. Jessie announced they were engaged. 

"Jungle Cat," as captured by C. Smith Gardner

Knowing they were onto a good thing, the Shubert brothers featured Jessie in their sumptuous new Sigmund Romberg musical at the Winter Garden, Sinbad, starring Al Jolson. Some critics crowed that the show was de trop, with over-the-top Arabian Nights sets and costumes, but it ran for over a year. Jessie, in particular, was singled out for her charm and beauty. 

Broadway Cameo, 1918. Photo by Count Jean de Strelecki

The Shuberts next showcased Jessie in the Passing Show of 1918, which featured a reenactment of the bombing of London, complete with a dogfight between planes, and starred dancing sensations, Fred and Adele Astaire. Rumors spread that Fred fell head over heels in love with Jessie. He would wait backstage, hoping to catch a moment with her between numbers, but too shy and polite to ask her out. Jessie's costumes and those of the other fashion plates, were even more spectacular than before, setting a new threshold of theatrical opulence. 

All decked out: Jessie, top right, The Passing Show of 1918, White Studio

Edwardian Voguing; Jessie at left, The Passing Show of 1918, White Studio

One night the legendary producer Florenz Ziegfeld happened to stop into the show and spied Jessie in the chorus line. He sent her a note backstage, which Jessie recalled, she assumed was a pink slip from the Shuberts and didn’t bother to read until later. When she did open it, she was floored. Ziegfeld was offering her a lucrative contract to appear in Midnight Frolic, his hit revue on the New Amsterdam theater rooftop. She immediately accepted. Flo worked her into a skit with W. C. Fields. She had little acting experience but she held her own against the acerbic comic. 

Flo also made room for her in his latest, most extravagant edition of the Follies, that opened in the summer of 1919. In an “episode” designed by Ben Ali Haggin dubbed “Hail to the Thirteenth Folly,” Jessie debuted as “The New Folly,” surrounded by her “Twelve Sisters.” In one number she appeared as the incarnation of the Salvation Army. She also appeared in a skit with the great black comic Bert Williams and floated across stage dressed as an effervescent bottle of Sarsaparilla while Marilyn Miller sang “A Syncopated Cocktail.” 

Jessie as the Salvation Army, center, as "arranged" by Ben Ali Haggin

But it was in the grandest number of the second act that Jessie made her biggest splash. Ziegfeld commissioned Lady Duff Gordon to design a set of magnificent costumes for his top five showgirls to wear. Jessie appeared as “Barcarolle” in “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” written for the show by Irving Berlin and sung by tenor John Steel. The tune, which had debuted as a last minute addition in June in Atlantic City, became the signature hit of the show. It would later be immortalized as the elaborate Busby Berkeley staircase sequence in the Oscar winning film The Great Ziegfeld (1936). Berlin’s lyric “A pretty girl is like a melody that haunts you night and day” summed up the effect Jessie and the other showgirls had on male audience members even if there was a price to pay for such pulchritude. Lou Valentine in his bio of Lana Turner suggests that the troubled character Sheila Regan, played so memorably by Turner in Ziegfeld Girl (1941), was based in part on Jessie Reed. 

Ziegfeld Girl, by Edward Thayer Monroe

Jessie was paid $100 salary each week, the most any showgirl had ever been offered. Ziegfeld’s well-oiled publicity machine toiled overtime to promote her. She was sent to sit for Flo’s favorite photographers, Alfred Cheney Johnston and Edward Thayer Monroe. Jessie was touted as the Texan Cinderella, a beauty contest winner who just a year previous had been selling silk stockings at Levy’s Dry Goods store in Houston and was now the toast of the town. Doris Eaton, one of the last surviving Ziegfeld Club members (who died at 106 in 2010) recalled Jessie fondly. “I was still in the chorus then, so we had different dressing rooms," she told me, "but I do remember Jessie. She was one of the most liked of the show girls. You had to be extraordinarily beautiful to be chosen by Ziegfeld.”

Young Man on the Move: Florenz Ziegfeld, Chicago.

As the 1919 show played to record audiences, talk up and down Broadway was that Ziegfeld was having an affair with Jessie Reed. His wife Billie Burke (now better remembered as Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz) kept an anxious eye on both. Ziegfeld stars Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers were both fans, as was “Funny Girl” Fanny Brice who teased Jessie about her “fake English accent.” Jessie took it all in stride. She adored the attention but she was no fool. She’d been well-trained as a salesgirl in Houston, she told reporters, skilled at fending off unwanted advances. She joked that “For every heart on Broadway, there are two heels.” 

By 1920, Jessie Reed’s reputation as a gold digger, a word that only recently had come into vogue, was firmly in place. The type figured prominently in Anita Loos’s classic Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, first published in 1925. Jessie was more like the character Dorothy Shaw (played by Jane Russell in the movie) than Marilyn Monroe’s Lorelei Lee. No breathless airhead, she had a pragmatic streak and keen business sense. While Jessie may have been showered with jewels from her many admirers (one gave her a seven-carat diamond), she also worked full time. The life of a showgirl, even a headliner, was no cakewalk. 

Feather in her cap. Jessie at the height of her fame

As her popularity grew, Jessie asked and got a pay raise from her boss to $200 a week. She spent it all on clothes, the finer things in life, a fashionable apartment in Manhattan that she shared with some of her showgirl friends, and endless nights out on the town. New York was in the clutches of Prohibition but Jessie had a maid named Belinda who rumor had it doubled as a bootlegger so the well never ran dry. Jessie joked that as a child growing up by the bayou, all she had known was water, but once she had tasted Champagne, she had no use for water. She had many stage door johnnies to choose from, including, she boasted, an English earl and a handful of titled Europeans. But she preferred American boys because they usually played straight. Continental men, she argued, talked a great deal but rarely lived up to their promises. 

One of these stagestruck young Americans was “Dashing Dan” Caswell, who came from an affluent family in Ohio. His father had been a real estate developer, a partner and adopted son of Nelson Ambler, who’d built Ambler Estates in Cleveland. Dan often bragged that President McKinley was his godfather. Dan followed in his father’s footsteps by attending Williams College. In the fall of 1920, aboard the 20th Century, en route to Boston to present an engagement ring to a society deb his mother Elisabeth had picked out for him, Dan’s life changed dramatically. As he slipped from his berth to the bar, he spied Jessie Reed in a parlor car. She was on tour with the Follies. For Dan it was love at first sight, even though Jessie initially, he admitted, coldly brushed him off. He invited Jessie out to dinner in Boston that night, forgot all about his future fiancee and presented the large and expensive ring to Jessie. Unable to find a church in Boston that was free, they crossed over to Rhode Island and were married in Pawtucket the next day. 

At the time, Jessie had been engaged to Louis Grovat, a pilot from Long Island. In fact, the day Jessie married Caswell, a broken-hearted Grovat intended to fly up to Boston to see her with one of her best friends, Emily Drange, also of the Follies. Their plane, however, fell to the ground just after take-off. It was a telling omen for Jessie’s nuptials as her marriage with Caswell would quickly crash and burn. 

The news of Jessie’s whirlwind courtship hit the papers the next morning from coast to coast. Dashing Dan reportedly spent $37,000 on the wedding celebrations. No doubt Ziegfeld’s publicist saw a good angle and played it up. But the ploy backfired. Before the newlyweds got back to Boston, reporters were waiting for them back at their hotel with very pointed questions about Jessie’s shadowy past. It soon became evident that she wasn’t really “Jessie Reed” at all. She was someone else entirely, someone with a dark secret that she’d been hiding for years.  

Jessie's stormy past was a well-guarded secret

The problem was that Jessie hadn’t told Dan that she was a divorcee and had a nearly seven year old daughter back in Texas. She fibbed to the court clerk, saying it was her first marriage. She also fudged her birth year, perhaps because she didn’t want Dan to know she was older than he was. She also had neglected to mention that she was a key figure in a murder case back in Texas just a few years before. Jessie’s ex-husband, the blackface comedian Ollie Debrow, had shot and killed a man who had threatened to run off with her. 

It’s no wonder that Jessie had tried to put some distance between herself and her roots. Her troubled early life in Texas was a far cry from her elegant success on Broadway. In a short memoir she wrote in 1935, and published as a series of articles, Jessie talked about her difficult childhood, how her parents had died when she was young. An only child, she dropped out of school in 8th grade and scraped by doing odd jobs. Houston still had a frontier edge in the early 1900s, a rough-and-tumble oil town with a gun-happy citizenry. Jessie grew up amid some pretty tough characters. Her first crush, she said, was a boy named Red. One wonders if this was Red, a leader of a gang of hoodlums and petty thieves in Houston who was frequently in the news.  

Her ex-husband Oliver Debrow (born Durborrow) was equally notorious. He had a rap sheet as long as a player piano roll, having been arrested regularly for drunkenness, vagrancy and burglary. In 1908 he’d been caught breaking into Alkemeyer’s Dry Goods store. Ollie finally cleaned up his act when he teamed with his older brother William in vaudeville, touring in “tab shows,” a ragbag circuit of burlesque houses throughout the Deep South. Sporting blackface, suitcase shoes, suspenders and an oversize hat, Ollie was praised for his broad physical humor and quick timing. Some credit him for originating the phrase “hubba hubba.” He also wrote songs, including “Yodlin’ Blues” which was performed by Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. 

First husband, Ollie Debrow, "hubba hubba" man

Reports on how Ollie first met Jessie varied. One columnist said she was a waitress in Houston when Ollie walked in and cajoled her into joining his troupe. Another pegged her as a laundress in a “whistle-stop” town on one of Ollie’s “tab” tours. Still another called her a “cracker girl” at Nabisco, which had just opened a plant in Houston. She may have been all those things. But Ollie would later state that he met her at the Princess Theater on Main Street in Houston where she was a dancer in the chorus. She was only fourteen. Her name then, he said, was Jessie Rogers. Perhaps this was a stage name since on her wedding license her name is given as "Jessie May Richardson." They were married on March 11, 1912 at the First German Lutheran Evangelical Church. A handwritten entry in the church ledger confirms the spelling of her name and gives as their witness W. B. Kyle, an electrician who was out on bail having shot his roommate a few days earlier because he made advances on his wife. He was an ironic choice considering the shooting scandal that was soon to engulf Ollie and Jessie. 

Ollie and Jessie’s marriage started off happily enough. In November, 1913, they had a child, Annie Carroll Debrow [Note: here the birth certificate gives Jessie's name as "Jessie May Richards." It's still not clear which was her real name. Richards or Richardson. Adding to the confusion, her death certificate says Richard.] Ollie named their daughter after his half-sister Annie Carroll who had been shot a few years before by her boyfriend and become paralyzed. She had died earlier that year. Having a child didn’t slow down Jessie’s career on the stage. As Jessie Debrow, she traipsed across the South with Ollie, playing Waco, Galveston, Dallas, Beaumont, and Little Rock. In 1915 the Debrows performed at the Majestic in Birmingham, in Al and Gertrude Bernards’ Boys and Girls From Dixie musical revue. Annie, stayed in San Antonio with Ollie’s other half-sister Gertrude. 

By the summer of 1916, however, signs appeared that their partnership was unraveling. Jessie separated from Ollie and went to New Orleans. He went back to Birmingham. By fall, she was again in San Antonio, working in the chorus at the Star Theater, a vaudeville house on College Street. Ollie was in Houston but came down at the end of October to see her. 

Ollie was disturbed by rumors he’d heard that a tall, handsome 18-year-old chauffeur named Leslie Nash, who worked at a garage next door to the Star, had been hanging about backstage, flirting with Jessie. The manager had warned Nash to make himself scarce as only folks on the payroll were allowed backstage. But Nash persisted, becoming a nuisance. Ollie also learned that Nash was taking Jessie out for joy rides in his car. Jessie’s friend Eva Flippen, an actress, went along on a couple of these jaunts. Nothing indecent had transpired, she said. They were just innocent excursions. 

Late in the afternoon of Halloween, a few hours before curtain time, Ollie cornered Nash and demanded to know what his intentions were. They stopped into Hewgley’s bar and had a few drinks. Nash assured him he and Jessie were just friends. Ollie went back to the theater around 8:30 pm where he confronted Jessie in her dressing room. He later testified that she confessed then to having an affair with Nash and that she was going to leave him. Ollie stormed outside and called to Nash who was chatting with a young woman, Rose Falbo, and a young boy, both affiliated with the theater. When Nash turned to face him, Ollie pulled out a handgun and fired twice. Jessie, who was now in the wings, heard the gunshots and fainted. The bullets pierced Nash’s lungs and stomach. He collapsed, then died shortly after in the hospital. Debrow refused to comment except to say that “My wife and baby were all I had in the world, and I meant to keep them.” 

Scene of the crime: the Star Theatre, San Antonio

The shooting was front page news in Texas. It also was fodder for papers as far away as Chicago and California. The New York Clipper, a theatrical journal, covered it in detail. Ollie was charged with murder in December, and a jury trial was ordered for the following year. In June 1917, Ollie was arraigned, pleading self-defense and just cause. He was defended by Carlos Bee, a sharp-witted state senator who would later serve in Congress. In his questioning of Debrow, Bee focused on the affair between the victim and his wife. Nash was painted as the villain, and by implication, so was Jessie. What should have been an open-and-shut case of first degree murder became more nuanced. The jury could not reach a verdict and the judge ordered a retrial. Just weeks later in July, Ollie was acquitted and walked out of the courtroom a free man. Carlos Bee had persuaded a group of Ollie’s peers that in Texas at least “the unwritten law” prevailed. 

Jessie hadn’t waited around to find out what the verdict would be. She had already fled Houston — and Ollie, who must have loomed as a threat to her if acquitted — before the verdict was read. She sued for divorce in absentia. The terms of Jessie’s separation gave her visitation rights, but her daughter remained with Gertrude in San Antonio. She never saw Annie again. 

All Jessie needed now was a new identity. She found it through her best friend Nora Flippen, Eva’s sister. Nora, who had been in vaudeville since she was eleven, married actor Ben H. Reed. But in 1914 they divorced. Nora kept her married name Reed and used it on the stage. Like Jessie, she had dreams of making it big on Broadway. The two hatched a scheme to pose as sisters. They booked tickets to New York and left Houston for good. 

Sister acts were popular in vaudeville at the time and it didn’t take long for “the Misses Reed” to get hired on Broadway. Both were cast in The Passing Show of 1917. Nora soon segued into films, appearing with Alice Brady, whom she resembled. She remained a close friend of Jessie’s for years. 

Ironically, the revelations of Jessie Reed’s stormy past did not hurt her career. If anything she became more popular and in demand. But the Caswells’ marriage was doomed from the start. Jessie still had a contract with Ziegfeld and continued to tour. Caswell carped that Jessie’s friends and admirers made him pick up the tab for their frequent all-night parties. When Dan brought Jessie to meet his mother in Cleveland, they were blackballed by his country club and ignored by family friends. His mother soon cut him off and he was forced to sell his fancy touring car to pay his mounting bills. 

Meanwhile Caswell was busy courting Jessie’s chum, fellow actress June Castleton, chasing her across New England even though she had lost her role in a play due to the controversy his advances had caused. Jessie sued Dan for divorce, citing adultery and cruelty. Dan countersued for “gross neglect of duty.” Jessie had tossed him out, he said, and refused to have anything to do with him. Dan was often seen waiting outside her stage door, well in his cups, often in tears. Jessie joked that she couldn’t understand why people called him “Dashing Dan,” since “The only thing I ever knew him to dash for was a drink and then dash out for more.” They divorced in 1921. 

Jessie threw herself back into work. “I love home life as well as any woman in the world,” she wrote to Ziegfeld, “but for some unknown reason I am unhappy when I am away from the stage, and so long as it affects me in this way, I intend to continue my theatrical work.” She rejoined the Follies and also appeared in bit parts in movies, one with Lionel Barrymore and another directed by Raoul Walsh for the Mayflower Corporation. She was now earning an extra $100 a week. 

Jessie, center rear, with her Follies friends, Brighton Beach, 1920s

Shortly after her second divorce, Jessie was linked to another blackface comedian, Lew Reed, one of the top cork stars of the day. But it was nothing more than a case of mistaken identity, since there were actually two Jessie Reeds in show business then. The other Jessie Reed, nee Hyman, was a “singing comedienne” in the Keith circuit. She had married Louis Herzberg, aka Lew Reed, in 1915. But by 1923, Lew wanted out, claiming his wife was sleeping around, naming several well-known agents and producers as correspondents, including Lou Tellegen, husband of Geraldine Ferrar. One ill-informed reporter tracked Jessie Hyman down to a club in Connecticut and queried her about her career at the Follies. Hyman, knowing any publicity is good publicity, didn’t let on that she wasn’t the same Jessie Reed. 

Bee in her bonnet. The other Jessie Reed, singing comedienne

Finally out of frustration, the real Jessie Reed of the Follies issued a statement to the press that she was not and never had been married to Lew Reed, and was already “happily divorced.” She had “neither the time nor the inclination,” she quipped, “to participate in any more divorces this season.” Nevertheless to this day Jessie is mistaken for this other Jessie Reed. 

Dan Caswell, still smarting from his divorce from Jessie, wed June Castleton, who immediately regretted it, due to his drinking binges, gambling, temper tantrums and roving eye. Desperate for cash, Dan wrote a kiss-and-tell memoir about his life with Jessie that was syndicated across the country, depicting Jessie as a ruthless femme fatale. But in the end, it made Dan look like an ungrateful spoiled brat who had taken advantage of her, not vice-versa. In 1923, in a last ditch stab at fame, Dan debuted a vaudeville act of his own that bombed so badly, due to nerves, that he did not even finish his routine. Dan’s alcoholism soon caught up with him. June divorced him. Then he entered a sanitarium after suffering a nervous breakdown, and died in 1925 in New York from typhoid fever. He did not live long enough to inherit the fortune his father had left him in trust. 

A string of pearls and husbands

By then Jessie had remarried. During a Follies tour to Chicago in 1924, reports surfaced that she was engaged to Russell Griswold Colt, heir to the gun-making firm and ex-husband of Ethel Barrymore. Colt allegedly gave her a large diamond solitaire that became the envy of the other showgirls. But Colt issued a statement denying it all and Jessie blamed an overzealous press agent. The very next day she was back in the papers, having run off with William Tandy Young, Jr, a handsome ad exec for an auto company from Indianapolis who was living in Chicago. The speed with which they got hitched shocked even the most jaded of observers since she had met Young at a restaurant called The Tent and then got married the next morning in Waukegan. Young defended his impetuous actions saying that he had met Jessie four years before at a seaside party out on Long Island in New York when he was a reporter for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Now styling herself as Jessica, Mrs. Young left the Follies for good and settled in a suburb of Indianapolis with William. Jessie claimed to enjoy the role of housewife and was tired of life in the fast lane. Less than three years later, however, she filed for divorce due to mental cruelty, complaining that Young didn’t take her out enough. She returned to Chicago. Young ended up doing well on his own. He became a Brigadier General in the Air Force in the Second World War, and later President of the Leo Burnett ad agency. He remarried a couple more times. He and his brother Collier Young, a film producer married to Ida Lupino and later Joan Fontaine, were often photographed out and about with the smart set in Hollywood and New York. William T. Young died in Palm Beach in 1981. There was no mention in his obituary of his three-year marriage to Jessie Reed.

Dog fight: Lafayette ace, Leonard Minor Reno, 4th husband

It didn’t take long for Jessie to find a new man in her life. “I don’t know whether I’ll get married again,” she told reporters. “I always do, so I suppose I will.” And indeed she did. This time she pulled another surprise by marrying flying ace Leonard Reno, who had been married to another Reed, Muriel, a few years before. No doubt Leonard admired Jessie because she could hold her own in a drinking competition. Little is known of their years together other than the fact that Jessie rescued him from jail, coming up with $7300 when he failed to pay his back alimony to Muriel Reed. Other than that, the Reno marriage was a quiet affair. She separated from Leonard in 1934, claiming cruelty and non-support. In a rare moment of candor, Jessie admitted to reporters that her husband had simply “thrown her out.” He countered it was the other way around: she had walked out and he hadn’t heard from her for a year. The judge sided with him. The divorce was finalized in 1935.

Jessie moved into a small residential hotel called the Buena Vista. It was a bargain at $5 a week. She still looked as good as ever. Jazz legend Eddie Condon reminisced in We Called It Jazz, that he was in Chicago around this time on tour when he recognized Jessie Reed in his hotel lobby. He knew who she was and was floored by her looks. He asked her to dinner. They had a brief, but by his account, highly memorable, fling. 

Heartthrob Eddie Condon, jazz legend

One bright spot during all this was Jessie’s daughter Annie Carroll Debrow, who had turned out to be a well-adjusted, lovely young girl, probably due to the influence of Ollie’s sister Gertrude who raised her. Ann, as she preferred to be called, entered a beauty tournament as Miss San Antonio and got her picture in the papers. Flo Ziegfeld took notice of her, probably due to Jessie’s influence, offering Ann a spot in one of his shows as “Jessie Reed, Jr.” but Ziegfeld died before the deal was finalized. The Shuberts contacted her in 1933, eager to work with her. But in 1937 Ann married George F. Keene, Jr., an army officer and she put her theater career on hold. Keene was the son of a popular San Antonio drug store owner. Ann settled down to a quiet life in San Antonio, modeling occasionally for department stores. 

Daughter Annie Carroll Debrow, 1928

By autumn of 1935, Jessie was running out of potential suitors. She’d run out of money, too, hocking her best dresses, pawning her jewels. The seven-carat diamond she once flaunted was long gone — so too the expensive furs that would have come in handy during those record cold Chicago winters at the height of the Depression. Jessie had no choice but to file for relief. She was behind in her rent. A reporter got wind of it and the story hit the papers. An outpouring of sympathy brought offers of money and help, but none of her ex-husbands provided assistance. Jessie said she wouldn’t accept it from them anyway. “I hate all this publicity,” she added. “If I owe rent, that’s my business. All I want is a chance to come back on the stage.” 

Jessie left the Buena Vista and moved to the Metropole, former residence of Al Capone. Nightclub owner Al Quodbach offered Jessie a spot at the Granada. She got a new dress, a new publicist, some new pictures. But by then her voice was shot, her hands shaky. Reviews were unkind. Next she played the Carousel, but soon was relegated to acting as a nightclub hostess. Her drinking increased but her earnings did not. 

Jessie, the trouper, second from left, with former Follies stars, Chicago, 1930s.

Things were no better for Ollie Debrow, who had succumbed to heroin addiction, after his second wife, Ardy Strickland, died suddenly. As the glory days of burlesque waned, he was reduced to playing in shooting galleries where, one observer said, “customers brought salami sandwich lunches and threw peanuts at the actors.” He overdosed in 1937 in a flophouse in Houston. 

In 1938 Jessie was reported as having slipped on the street and broken her kneecap. She’d been putting on a few pounds due to her drinking. Some columnists made fun of her newly plump figure, her frayed, out-of-date dresses, and her duties as a nightclub hostess. Every now and then a reporter would seek her out and chat her up. It was not unlike that scene in Citizen Kane when Kane’s ex-mistress is interviewed, slumped over a drink in a seedy roadside bar. Perhaps Orson Welles had read the less-than-flattering news reports of Jessie’s downward spiral. The similarity is uncanny. Each night Jessie peddled cocktails and split the take with the management and lived off tips. One columnist insinuated that she was doing more than just hustling drinks. 

By 1940 Jessie’s binge of bad luck hit bottom. At the close of summer, Jessie’s health collapsed. She needed blood transfusions to combat a severe case of strep throat. A press report revealed that one of her few bedside visitors was her last husband, Leonard Reno. He came with his new wife and they both donated blood to help save her life. Jessie rallied briefly and returned to her room at the Metropole. Then pneumonia set in and she was back in the hospital. She died on September 18, and was buried in Olivet Cemetery. Her daughter Ann was too sick from an operation to attend. Actors Equity and the Ziegfeld Club covered the funeral expenses.  

Nymph Errant, 1918. Studio of C. Smith Gardner

When Jessie Reed died, she received the kind of news coverage one might expect of a top box-office movie star. The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Washington Post ran stories about her. As did Variety and Billboard. The Houston Daily Post paid tribute. So did the San Antonio papers, but no mention was made of her role there in a once infamous murder case. In the end, the Queen of the Follies, despite the hardships she'd endured, had not been forgotten. She was still a legend, a haunting melody that lingered on. As Irving Berlin wrote, “You can’t escape. She’s in your memory…”