Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Death of a Flapper: Part Two

The brownstone in which Dot King died is of more than passing interest. In his memoirs, the great financier, Bernard Baruch, born in 1870, told of moving in 1881 with his family from South Carolina to 144 West 57th Street, where they holed up in a tiny attic room and were taken care of by an elderly landlady named Mrs. Jacobs.
Destined to become an immensely rich stock market speculator (an interesting career, considering the later denizens of 144 West 57th Street), Baruch may have been exaggerating his early poverty, and his living quarters. For the 1880 census clearly shows that this particular address was not a boarding house at all, but a private residence owned by H. L. Horton, a now-forgotten, but at the time, leading broker on Wall Street, who had extensive dealings with J. P. Morgan (the partner so closely-tied to E. T. Stotesbury.) It's possible that late in life Baruch got the address wrong (there was a boarding house a few doors further East), or maybe he simply didn't realize that he and his family were guests of the Hortons (Baruch's father had been a noted surgeon in the Civil War and not quite as poor as Baruch liked to paint him.)
Harry Lawrence Horton, the owner of 144 West 57th Street back then, was a typical Horatio Alger figure of the Gilded Age. Born in 1832, in Sheshequin, Pennsylvania, Horton started out as a clerk in a general store, then traveled out West to seek his fortune. He ended up a grain dealer in Milwaukee. His first wife, Nellie Breen, had died there in 1864, leaving two sons, Oliver and Eugene, both of whom later died at an early age, one vanishing at sea. Horton picked himself up, started over, and moved to New York in 1865 where he set up a brokerage house on Wall Street. He took as his second wife, a New Yorker, Sarah Patten, and had two daughters with her: Blanche (1879) and Grace (1881).

Horton first settled on Staten Island, in New Brighton, but relocated to 144 West 57th Street sometime in the 1870s. Horton later expanded the property by buying the house next door at 146, which had belonged to Thomas Tileston, another well-known broker. He combined the two structures, reconfigured the insides, added a lavish ballroom, and entertained often with his socially-inclined wife. They had at least five servants to run the house. Horton also bought the two lots behind his houses (139 and 141 West 56th Street), facing south. These included a carriage house and a hostelry. The lot was connected to the house on 57th Street by a long, narrow wooden shack. (The photo, below, shows the house at 139, the four-story at the center.) Ironically many years later I actually worked directly across the street from these buildings at 156 W. 56th Street, but paid no attention to them at the time.

Horton's daughter Blanche would marry one of her father's business acquaintances, a rising star from San Francisco by the name of E. F. Hutton. His office at 61 Broadway was right next to Horton's at 60. Hutton had not yet made his fortune, and no doubt, a marriage to Horton's daughter was a step-up the ladder for the ambitious businessman. The young couple wed in 1906 and lived at 144-146 West 57th Street, until old man Horton's death in 1915 (Sarah had died in 1899 in London). The Huttons had one child, a son, Halcourt. (As an interesting side note, Harry Horton was sued in 1905 by a woman named Elizabeth P. Berg, many years his junior, for breach of promise. She claimed he had told her he would marry her, but he reneged. The case was settled out of court.)
According to the terms of his will, Horton left the property to Blanche, while her sister Grace inherited $100,000. Grace had been wed quite young to Ernest M. Lockwood. But by the time of Dot's death, she was divorced from him, and had married Edwin F. Raynor, an automobile executive from a prominent New York family. It was probably through Edwin's influence that Grace Raynor bought a Simplex in 1914, one of the more fashionable cars of the day, popular among Vanderbilts and Morgans.

In 1917, Blanche and E. F. Hutton, above, decided to sell the property at 144-146. An announcement was made in the New York Times that the noted art gallery owner, Mitchell Kennerley, was going to buy it and move his enterprises there. (57th Street, by then, had become a fashionable center for art galleries and studios. The Art Society was just up the block.) But for some reason that deal fell through. Perhaps Kennerley had difficulty raising capital, or perhaps there was trouble with the deed. The Huttons also rented space to a furrier named Morris Schatz and later to Robert B. Mussman, who had a gallery of "paintings, etchings and mezzotints."
The same year that the Kennerley deal fell through, Hilma Louise Dunlap, a Swedish immigrant, rented the space on the ground floor of 146 and relocated her restaurant, the Yellow Aster Tea Room, which had originally been at 35th Street and Fifth, to 57th Street. Tea houses were all the rage in the Teens and '20s, and the Yellow Aster was one of the more popular. It's hard to tell from period photographs of the building's facade, which are murky and grainy, but it looks to me as if the restaurant occupied the ground floor of both buildings, and was entered by the door at 144 where the lobby was. Hilma Dunlap at some point also became the superintendent of 144-146 West 57th Street.

Blanche Hutton (bust, above) died very suddenly at the tail end of the flu epidemic in 1919 and E. F. Hutton inherited the property outright. How this must have sat with her younger sister, Grace, the Horton family's sole survivor, who'd grown up there, is open to speculation. The only clue I could find was a notice of a lawsuit between the Raynors and E. H. Hutton (his real estate holdings were called Nottuh; Hutton backwards) but I was unable to read the actual terms. I suspect they settled out of court.

Grace Horton Raynor, above, moved into 139 West 56th Street, the former carriage house behind her childhood home, and lived there throughout the 20s, devoting herself to sculpting, an art form she turned to, she explained in an interview, as a way to surmount her grief over the loss of Blanche. Her work soon gained recognition, and she received several key commissions. The building at 139, refitted with "housekeeping studios," became the hub of what appears to have been a madcap, bohemian artist community, including the well-known rhythm-dance instructor Ruth Doing, dancer Doris Canfield, opera singer Gail Gardner, photographer Delight Weston, as well as arts enthusiast Louise Bybee, all of whom lived there together and never married. (The Dance, below, by Delight West.

E. F. Hutton didn't waste much time after Blanche's death to extend his rise to the top. He married cereal heiress Marjorie Meriweather Post, the recently divorced Mrs. Close (who had inherited roughly $20 million when her father, C. W. Post, died the year before). He moved to the East Side with her and bought an estate on Long Island's East End, where his son Halcourt died in 1920 after a fall during a horse-riding accident. (Death trailed E. F. Hutton a lot in those early years. But he and Marjorie, below, had a child themselves, the future actress, Dina Merrill.)

In 1920 Hutton sold the Horton property to the real estate developer Robert E. Simon, who had snatched up many of the other houses along that stretch of 57th Street under the name SIDEM Corp. He bought 150 West 57th Street in 1919, as well as rights to 148 (then owned by the Horace E. Garth family) and its back lots on 56th Street. Simon added the jewel in the crown, Carnegie Hall, to his holdings a year later, purchasing it from Carnegie's executors. According to a tribute to Simon I read, there were outcries at the time from those who feared he planned to demolish Carnegie Hall, a theme that would resurface in the 1980s when Isaac Stern once again "saved" it.

But Simon had bigger plans for his 57th Street lots, including the music hall, envisioning a skyscraper that would dominate the street, and house automobile showrooms, offices and apartments. (He also bought the stylish but somewhat faded Rembrandt next door to Carnegie Hall, one of the city's first apartment houses. It is now the site of Carnegie Tower. Next door, at 150 West 57th Street, then the Pupke residence, Fiat had its Manhattan office. One of the fashionable Strebeigh Twins, daughters of Mrs. Jerome Bonaparte, apparently ran it. That building would later become the famed Russian Tea Room, which is the only one of these brownstones still standing today.)

Back in the '20s, there had been feverish talk about building a massive bridge across the Hudson, above, at the end of 57th Street to Union City, New Jersey. Savvy developers like Simon (who was backed by his wife's millionaire brother, Henry Morgenthau) scooped up as much of the boulevard as possible in hopes of a coming land boom. A turf war ensued. The bridge never materialized, however, and the market turned south. Simon abandoned his plans to erect a tall tower there. In 1929, 144-146 West 57th Street was turned into the Little Carnegie Theater, a fine-art movie house. It stood there until the 80s when Harry Macklowe tore them down and erected his notorious "Knife Building," the sharp-edged black glass tower there. Today a Starbucks stands on the exact same spot where the Yellow Aster Tea Room once was. (142 to 150 West 57th Street, below: The Little Carnegie, at left; Russian Tea Room.)

I mention all of this real estate background because I've a hunch the building and its location played a role in what happened to Dot King. In all the news reports about Dot King's slaying, the other people in Dot's building are never mentioned by name, except Hilda Ferguson, her former roommate; and the chance mention of the Grahams by the elevator operator. That strikes me as revealing, especially considering that the police theorized that the killer had to be someone that Dot King knew and trusted, since there were no signs of a break-in. The door was locked when the maid arrived on the 15th. Only two people had a key, the maid Billy Bradford informed the police: she and her mistress, Dot. But was that true? Another report I read said that Dot kept a set of keys in the elevator, enabling her visitors to come and go as they liked. The elevator man, John Thomas, was in charge of them, receiving tips each time someone used them. If that were true, then anyone could have nicked them and gotten into her flat unannounced. But it seems unlikely that Dot would do that, especially since she was complaining to her mother, and the lawyer who drafted her will, and anyone who would listen, from her maid to her masseuse, that she was scared for her life.
What could have caused her to be so afraid? Just a few days before she died, Dot had been accosted on the street, witnesses said, by a woman who grabbed her by the hair, threw her to the ground and started pelting her, screaming at her. This was written up in the papers after her death, but no one knew who this assailant was. One paper speculated it was Mitchell's wife, Frances, Stotesbury's daughter, but that is impossible since she was in Palm Beach at the time, and by all accounts was a mild-mannered lady who had no idea her husband was having an affair with Dot King. I'm surprised people didn't speculate that it was Hilda Ferguson, her roommate. Hilda always said she moved out of Dot's flat because she couldn't stand her late night lifestyle. But that's ridiculous since Hilda was known for her own very fast-and-loose lifestyle. Perhaps she and Dot had had a knock-down, drag-out cat-fight which led to her either leaving in a huff, or more likely, being thrown out. That could explain the attack on the street (Hilda, below, had moved back to the Great Northern Hotel, just down the block.)

And on Tuesday, March 13th, shortly before her death, Dot had been allegedly beat up by Guimares himself, probably because she had just returned from a week in Atlantic City without him. Or did she have reason to be angry with him? An article I found from a few months later, tells of a bobbed-haired bandit, claiming to be Mrs. Albert Guimares, who was arrested for shoplifting from a tailor. She was wearing a fur coat identical to the one apparently stolen from Dot King's apartment. I began to wonder if Guimares hadn't been cheating on Dot around the time she was killed. And perhaps that was the woman Dot was fighting with. It would explain the marks on Guimares's hands, if he and Dot had fought. And it might also explain who the mystery woman was who phoned in later about the "pink toes" letter. She would have had reason to deflect attention away from Guimares and onto Dot's sugar daddy, Mitchell.
If one removes Guimares and Mitchell as suspects, the field opens up to include not just Hilda Ferguson and this mysterious Mrs. Albert Guimares, but also the residents in Dot's building. It would have been easy for someone living there to knock on Dot's door after 2AM, or early that morning, gain entrance and then poison her. (The swirl of cotton found on the umbrella by the door would seem to indicate that they grabbed Dot as she opened the door, then led her back to the bed where they finished her off, wittingly or unwittingly.)
And if they didn't come through the door, they might have been able to enter through a dumbwaiter that stretched from the top floor of the building to the lobby. In fact, one of the neighbors in the apartment below Dot's had told police that she had heard the sound of scuffling feet in the apartment above, and smelled a horrible odor in the dumbwaiter (chloroform has a very potent, sickeningly sweet smell.) It's possible this neighbor was Mrs. Graham, mentioned in the police report, along with her husband, as being the last people to use the elevator that night. She lived on the fourth floor. But extrapolating from census reports in 1920, it seems there were two apartments per floor. While researching the building, I came across notices placed in the New York Times by Hilma L. Dunlap, advertising rooms for rent there. An apartment on the fifth floor, which could have been the same one Dot had lived in, or the one adjacent to Dot's, facing front, included a roof garden! So it must, therefore, have had access to the roof. It's not inconceivable to imagine the killer entering from above, by swinging down into Dot's window in back.
Who were these other residents? At first, my focus remained fixated on Hilma L. Dunlap, the superintendent, who owned the Yellow Aster Tea Room, and undoubtedly had a skeleton key to all the apartments. But she's not listed in the 1920 census as a resident of 144 or 146 (the census records for the house that year are particularly confusing and poorly executed.) In fact, Dunlap does not show up anywhere in that year's census. But by sifting through real estate records, I was able to find out that Hilma Dunlap actually owned 142 West 57th Street, the townhouse next door. This came as a big surprise to me, especially since the Yellow Aster was in 144/146. And how could a single woman, who had come over from Sweden in 1883, have the capital to buy an expensive brownstone on ritzy 57th Street?
I find it particularly perplexing that Robert E. Simon would go to such great lengths to procure all the properties on that stretch of 57th Street, from Carnegie Hall east to 144 West 57th Street, but he would have let 142 slip through his fingers. Hilma Dunlap bought it a few years before Dot's death from a real estate developer named Frederic Culver. If she was working for Simon as the super of 144, the two could not be construed as rivals. It must have been an amicable relationship. But why wouldn't Culver have sold it to Simon? Was Hilma a front? But Simon would have had no reason to use a front since he'd bought the other buildings without any subterfuge. The fact that Frederic Culver was found dead later that fall, an alleged suicide, only makes the situation more intriguing.

Hilma, it turns out, was born in 1875 in Stockholm, but it's not clear when she became Mrs. Dunlap. She lived with her close friend and partner Katherine Jewett Smith for many years. Hilma and Katherine ended up moving the Yellow Aster Tea Room out of Manhattan in 1927, relocating it to Lenox Road in Pittsfield, MA where it thrived until Hilma's death in 1940 (and remained open under different owners, and names, until recently.) Kate, widow of William Smith, moved to Pasadena where she died four years later. (In her will, Hilma Dunlap left everything to her "good friend" Kate. She had no other kin and I can't help wondering if Hilma invented having been married. The 1910 Census, shows her living with "Katherine Jewett", on 58th Street; both are listed as "single." The 1930 census, in Pittsfield, shows her living with Katherine Jewett Smith, her "sister-in-law." That makes little sense since Hilma would have had to marry Katherine's brother or vice-versa. But Katherine's maiden name, I found out, was Behan, not Dunlap. One could go quietly insane trying to unravel all these loose ends.)

As for the tenants of 144, it's more difficult to get a handle on who actually lived there in 1923 when Dot was killed. The 1920 census lists a handful of people, including actress Ethel Winthrop, above, who had played Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest when it was revived on Broadway in 1910. She'd also appeared in films with the silent star Clara Kimball Young. I am certain Ethel was still there in 1923, although she shows up on 58th Street in 1930. She strikes me as the perfect candidate to be the "professional woman of the highest standing" who complained about the noise coming from Dot's flat. None of the other women living in the house were working, per the census records. And I suspect any actress who could succeed as Lady Bracknell, must have had an imperious streak. That "professional woman" had been described as having lived there for six years, so she should be included in the 1920 census, making Ethel really the only logical candidate. If she was that lady, who had ties to J. P. Morgan, then it dovetails nicely with the Hortons who also had ties to J. P. Morgan, and Mitchell, whose father-in-law Stotesbury, was J. P. Morgan's right-hand man. Researching a bit into Ethel Winthrop's life, I discovered that she was a widow, born in Canada, formerly married to James Gibbs, with whom she had a son, Harold C. Gibbs, and was friends with Fania Marinoff, Carl Van Vechten's actress wife. On the eve of Dot's death, Ethel Winthrop was appearing on Broadway in a short-lived play, The Sporting Life.
The only people I could confirm from primary records, including passport applications and voters lists, as living there in 1923, proved to be fascinating in their own right. One was an elderly lady named Fermine B. Catchings who was a Christian Scientist and a writer. Her son Benjamin Catchings, who lived with her, was a real character, one of those eccentric letter writers fond of conspiracy theories. He was arrested years earlier for making threats to Teddy Roosevelt. He makes for a good candidate for a deranged killer, but he seems to have ended his days peacefully, having settled down with a wife, avoiding future run-ins with the law.
Also in residence was a widow in her 50s named Frances Henrietta Stoddard (listed erroneously as a "male" in the 1920 census) who was originally from Vermont. Could she have had a grudge against Dot King? And what of Robert C. Sanborn, who also lived in the building? He's listed in the city directory that year as living at 144. My research uncovered that he was an executive at the Mitchell Publishing firm, which specialized in advertising products, (and, although tempting, seems to have had no tie to J. Kearsley Mitchell.) Robert Sanborn had a dark side. His wife Florence, a former vaudeville actress from Massachusetts, had once accused him of trying to kill her. She herself was a shady character, having been charged with forging her father's will in her favor. It was her own son, Robert W. Sanborn, an interior decorator, who brought the charges! Shades of the Brooke Astor saga many years later.
As I dug into the lives of Stoddard and Sanborn, I was suddenly reminded of something buried deep in my brain, a tiny fragment of information I'd filed away from one of the articles surrounding the Dot King case. When Albert Guimares was indicted for stock fraud in Boston, the police said that he had concocted a company called "King and Scott" in order to dupe people into buying securities. The "King" was for Dot King; the "Scott" was for Guimares, one of his many pseudonyms, just as he had used the name Morris and Santos at other times. But the article also mentioned that he and Dorothy kept an office at the Giske Building in New York, under the name "Stoddard and Sandborn." Searches for any information on this company yielded nothing. City directories did not have any listing for "Stoddard and Sandborn" or even "Sanborn." (The name "Sandborn" is practically non-existent and must have been a typo in the article.) Nor does the company name "Stoddard & Sanborn" show up in any news archives. Could this be Frances Stoddard and Robert Sanborn?
The similarity is too uncanny to be a mere fluke. My hunch is that Dot King and Guimares set up a fictitious company using the names of her neighbors. Why? Because she had probably convinced them to invest their savings in one of her Ponzi scams. That was the modus operandi of a pyramid scheme. She and Guimares had done it before. And there's no reason to think they wouldn't do it again. They might have even been the reason Dot moved to 144 West 57th Street. Could Robert C. Sanborn have figured out he was being duped and attacked her to get back his money? Or could he possibly have tried to recover incriminating documents that she had in her possession? It's no less far-fetched than the outlandish blackmail theories the police were bandying about. In fact, one of the news reports at the time of Dot King's death described how she was physically attacked at the Ben Hur Club on City Island the summer before by an angry investor who had been duped by her and had lost his life savings.
That was no isolated incident. She'd been arrested in Atlantic City in 1920 after a brawl in a hotel suite. A man named John Chapman had gone to her room, where she was entertaining a handsome young aviator named E. Kenneth Jaquith, and attacked her. She accused Chapman of stealing her jewelry, but had actually hid her jewels in a flower vase. She'd registered there under an assumed name. Was Chapman a jealous boyfriend, or another victim of a Ponzi scheme? Did Jaquith, below, resurface in her life? Was he the man she'd been with in Atlantic City just a few days before her death? What if Dot King had been threatened again? Wouldn't that be cause for her to fear for her life and make plans to skip town?

Let's look at that blackmail plot theory a bit more closely. Unlike the "bucket shops" criminal activity that we know for a fact Dot King and Guimares were involved in, there's no evidence that Dot King or Guimares ever threatened anyone with blackmail. It was only her brother Francis who was accused of that, and then only because he wanted a job, not a payoff. Second, it doesn't make any sense that J. Kearsley Mitchell would have feared being blackmailed over that "pink toes" epistle since he had not even signed it. And it would be hard to trace it back to him. He only came forward because he knew he had been seen at the building the night before she died and he wanted to clear his name. At that time he was the primary suspect. He needed to defuse the situation. As far as I know, he never once claimed he was being blackmailed. It was only the press that speculated along those lines, and with absolutely no evidence.
The Stoddard & Sanborn link I've uncovered does point to one other potential suspect, perhaps the best candidate for the killer I can come up with: Guimares's friend and alibi Edmund J. McBrien. When McBrien was interviewed by the police, he explained that he too worked at "Stoddard & Sandborn" with Guimares. He was described as a stockbroker (which is how he is listed in the 1930 Census, living with his brother Harry, in Manhattan). There is some confusion over his exact name. Most often his name is spelled "McBryan" in news reports. But he shows up in most census records as "Edmund J. McBrien," born 1899 in New Haven, CT. His father Christopher was a mason; his brother Christopher, Jr., ironically, was an IRS agent.

McBrien's name reappeared in the papers in 1929 when he was involved in another sensational scandal, the suspicious death of his girlfriend Aurelia A. Fischer. She was the same "mystery blonde" who had played such a prominent role in establishing Guimares's alibi in the Dot King case, swearing to police that she had spent the night with him and McBrien at the Embassy Hotel, before fleeing to New Haven, where the authorities questioned her. In October 1923, just six months after Dot King's murder, Aurelia Fischer had married a much-older stockbroker named Herbert M. Dreyfus. This strikes me as odd, since she was obviously McBrien's girlfriend earlier on. But by 1928 her marriage to Dreyfus was over; McBrien had been named a correspondent in her divorce case.

In October 1929, Aurelia, above, was visiting her family in DC. She'd been to a party at the Colonial Canoe Club where her brother William was Secretary. McBrien was with her. She'd gone out with him to take the air and stood at the edge of a promontory overlooking the Potomac. Her body was found later on the boat landing where it had fallen. Many believed McBrien had pushed her because she had threatened to expose the truth about what really happened to Dot King. He denied it. Her parents demanded a trial. A grand jury was formed.

At the inquiry, it was revealed that shortly before her death Aurelia had told her family that she feared for her life because she had perjured herself in 1923 when interviewed by the police. She said she had not been with Guimares that night. The jury decided that there was insufficient evidence to press charges against McBrien and the case was deemed an accident. Since then commentators have speculated that McBrien killed her to hush her up, lest his best friend Guimares be arrested for Dot King's murder. This strikes me as implausible. Nothing would implicate Guimares more than Aurelia's sudden death. It would be the last thing Guimares would have wanted, especially since by then Guimares had served his prison term for gun possession, and had married a rich woman. I don't buy that theory. (Guimares, for the record, died at 56 years old in 1952. He died at the Madison Hotel in Manhattan, where he was registered under the name Albert Santos.)
So where does all this leave us? It leaves us with Eddie McBrien, stockbroker with the phony "Stoddard & Sandborn" and boyfriend of Aurelia. It seems far more likely to me that if the death of Aurelia Fischer was his doing that it would be to save himself from the gas chamber, not Guimares. Perhaps he was the one who visited Dot King that fateful morning, and had brought the chloroform along because he knew she would not have willingly given him entrance to her rooms. They were business associates, not lovers. Was he there then at Guimares's bidding? I doubt that too. I think, if he was in fact the killer, that he had his own motive, probably related to the collapsing Ponzi scheme surrounding Stoddard & Sanborn.
There is one other suspect I've got my eye on. A completely new theory. This one involves a Japanese valet, with his own ties to 144 West 57th Street, who was found with his throat cut the day after Dot King's murder. But that, as they say, is another story, and another blog post.

[Part One of the Dot King Scandal can be found here:]

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Cruising with the Major

One needn’t be au courant in the art of canoeing to lap up Major R. Raven-Hart’s eccentric travel books, including Canoe Errant, Down the Mississippi and Canoe in Australia. Hardly remembered now, Raven-Hart (above, right) was once highly regarded, having penned dozens of books, covering topics as diverse as semaphores, engineering, classical Greek sculpture, South African exploration, Ceylonese culture, and of course his greatest passion, canoeing.
Or was it? Reading of his exotic exploits, one can’t help but be struck by Raven-Hart’s unerring interest in his youthful traveling companions, as well as his endless fascination with nude sunbathing. A devout naturist, Raven-Hart eschewed clothing whenever possible, particularly when cruising some obscure river or lake. He yearned to be streaming along, beside his nimble-bodied playmates. And in the 1930s, he paddled over 10,000 miles, a sort of “satyr errant,” fulfilling this erotic quest.

I stumbled upon Raven-Hart years ago when I’d noticed his name in a round-up of gay-themed books compiled by the ground-breaking bibliographer Ian Young. Perplexed why a writer who so obviously specialized in canoeing would be included on such a list, I ordered a copy of Canoe Errant, his best-known work, published in 1935 by the London firm John Murray. The cover immediately grabbed my attention, for on the dust jacket was the startling image of a naked youth leaning over a fold-up canoe, on the banks of the Seine, with the curious caption. “Even near Paris so lonely that one has no need to dress to bathe.”

Considering the era, when male nudity, especially revolving around athletic activities, was not at all uncommon (even Life magazine often published photos of schoolboys swimming buck naked), the cover was perfectly natural. But later when I finally dipped into the Major’s riveting account of his journeys, I was swept away by his unusual candor. His unapologetic appreciation of young male beauty is remarkable for any time period. And his style, although occasionally archaic, never fails to titillate or amuse. Impressed by the 15-year-old son of a fish-breeder who put him up for a night, Raven-Hart writes: “I visited them again, and fixed, I hope, to take with me on a cruise in 1935 this same youngster, now a superb youth with that development of the oblique belly-muscles out beyond the line of the thigh which is so frequent in Greek statues and so rare in living bodies to-day.”

One might dismiss such comments as the exacting observations of a dedicated fitness enthusiast and amateur sculptor, but page after page ofCanoe Errant exudes similar quirky asides. The book starts off with a trip in 1930 along the Loire, visiting the famous chateaux by canoe. It’s a romantic idyll made even more so by the presence of Leonard, a teen-age boy who “was an apprentice to a famous master-potter. He was also a model to a sculptor friend of mine in Paris…his sixteen-year-old body was a sight for the Greeks.” And one might infer, for Raven-Hart’s sore eyes. At Candes, they treated themselves to a room at an inn, with apparently just a single bed. “Leonard paddled in his sleep,” Raven-Hart, then 40 years old, writes, “and nearly pushed me out on the floor.”

Raven-Hart never lacked for companions, despite the fact that turnover was constant. He relied almost completely on word-of-mouth. In Anseremme, he momentarily found himself without a traveling partner (he claimed that cruising alone was dangerous, but he never seems to have found any adult volunteers.) “In the way such things do happen, a casual conversation in the train with an English father and son led to their equally casual mention of my canoe to another English family at their hotel, with the result that by that same evening I had secured a new partner, an English schoolboy of sixteen.”

Later at a stop-over in Germany, Raven-Hart visits a Youth Hostel and enlists Paul, a “solid, sensible lad of seventeen,” from Hamburg, who is “a whirl of brown legs and arms with a grin in the middle of it.” Paul, we learn, has the “irresistible impudence of a fox-terrier puppy” who “makes friends with everyone.” As they cruise down the Rhine, in parts where “still, the pastoral dominates,” they “stayed naked so much as to forget it: Paul couldn’t make out why the passengers on a steamer grinned down at him, until after it had passed us.”
The joy of skinny-dipping appears to have been half the goal of these athletic excursions. In Hungary Raven-Hart hooks up with a lad named Johan, whom he writes, “proved even better-looking when stripped…we bathed three or four times that day, the first really hot one of the season…and in no case needed to dress to do so — in the boat, we are of course naked.”
One of the more bizarre incidents occurs when Raven-Hart cruises the Neckar river in Germany. At a hostel in Lichtenfels, he inquires about a companion, but someone “smaller” than the 30-year-old who volunteers. “The whole room chorused ‘Pibel!’ and a small sleepy head wriggled out of a cocoon of blankets in a corner and blinked at us.” Pibel turns out to be a nickname for “shrimp” and “it fitted him perfectly, a boy of sixteen with the stature of a twelve-year-old, but a perfect miniature, with no trace of dwarfishness or retarded development.”
The two get on instantly. “Pibel was the most catlike person I have ever met (this is not a criticism — I like cats); he talked little, and seemed to like best to use my shoulder as a pillow and my arm as a neckerchief, and play with my fingers, solemnly opening and closing them one after the other — he did not actually purr, but I felt he might start at any moment. At night, too, he had the same catlike habit of curling himself up as close to me as possible, and I usually had to deposit him bodily on his own side of the tent just as one does with a cat occupying one’s chair, at least once before I got to sleep; and even so he was generally curled into my lap in the morning, with his head pillowed on the softest portions of me and giving me nightmares of indigestion.” Later in a boathouse, they slept on the floor: “I on my pneumatic mattress, and Pibel largely on me.”
During a cruise along Lake Constance, Raven-Hart is ahead of schedule, and without a comrade. “At the Youth Hostel at Lindau…close to the Austrian frontier, I picked up an out-of-work youngster, by trade a butcher’s boy.” Werner is a “bronzed sixteen years,” with “eyes brightened and cheeks flushed by our windy journey,” whose looks “were by no means badly shown off by shirt and shorts, and more than one of the guests seemed to agree with me.” Later, in the room upstairs, Werner shows Raven-Hart an engraved visiting-card he received, with a coronet on it. A countess had given it to him. “Whether he noticed a pencilled room-number in the corner of the card,” Raven Hart slyly adds, “I did not ask; and I am a heavy sleeper after such a day.”
So Werner we presume preferred the company of ladies. And just when one is beginning to think that maybe one is reading too much into Raven-Hart’s homoerotic musings — perhaps he really is only dealing in abstract aesthetics — he tosses out this earthy anecdote. In Leipzig, Raven-Hart meets up with Christian, a shop boy he had arranged to travel with. “I spent the night at the Youth Hostel, being ‘entertained’ after lights-out in the big dormitory by a competition of dirty stories (all old, at that and so badly told).” Raven-Hart debates whether to intervene, since there are younger boys present. But he decides not to since such talk is only natural in Youth Hostels, where also, he adds coyly “… a certain amount of surreptitious petting between friends occupying adjacent beds is not infrequently to be overheard.”

What are we to make of such remarks? And what did readers at the time make of it? Did the Major indulge in “surreptitious petting” himself? It seems highly unlikely. One has to assume he kept his affections within the bounds of normal male bonding, even if he did enjoy a kind of voyeuristic thrill. For him to have crossed a line with any of these youths would not only have endangered his reputation, but his mission. He would also have jeopardized any chance of finding future companions or of being taken seriously as a scholar and explorer. It’s difficult to read his books today without a contemporary jaundiced eye, but at the time no one seemed to raise even an eyebrow, let alone find it odd that a man in his 40s spent all his time with adolescent boys. A review of Canoe Errant in the Winnipeg Free Press from 1935 indicates that these highly personal asides were welcome: “The many racy anecdotes of peoples met and incidents experienced are of extreme interest. It is a jolly fireside book.”
One of the Major’s particular favorites in Canoe Errant is a lad named Siegfried, whom the Consul at Eisenach had found for him. “His entry into that dingy little hotel-room was like the switching-on of an extra hundred-watt light: a mop of brilliantly blond hair, eyes like the sun seen through a wave, and the whitest of teeth in a shy smile. Physically, he was, I suppose, about perfect: it came almost as a shock to learn that he was a tailor.” At Anselben, they stop at another Youth Hostel. The next morning, when they awake, “we found a horde of schoolboys, who swarmed round us and on us all the evening, especially pestering the long-suffering Siegfried to know where we had come from, and how long it had taken… they were rather dears.”
Later, while traveling with Siegfried to a “F.A.D.” or German work camp, Raven-Hart writes of meeting one of the boys kept there, “an open-faced child of nineteen,” who helps him carry the canoe to the river. While Siegfried is relieving himself behind a bush, Raven-Hart asks this other boy why he ended up in the camp. “I had to choose between it and the Reformatory,” the lad answers. “What on earth for?” Raven-Hart naively asks. “I never had a job before, couldn’t get one since I left school, so I went on the ‘Strich’ till they caught me: now of course I shan’t go back to that.” After the boy leaves, Raven-Hart asks Siegfried what “Strich” means, but Siegfried merely blushes from head to toe and refuses to answer. Apparently, Raven-Hart, despite his fluency in five languages, and knowledge of a dozen more, was unaware that “Strich” is German slang for prostitution.
Siegfried, himself, it turns out, has something to hide. A few days later, when they are confronted by a patrol guard, Siegfried shows the soldier his papers, revealing that Siegfried is actually a member of the S.A., the notorious Nazi brown shirts. Siegfried explains to Raven-Hart that his father was losing all their business, but since he joined the group, “We’ve got it all back.” Such telling details are remarkable, lending Raven-Hart’s eyewitness account an added historical interest, recalling at times Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories.

Not all of Raven-Hart’s chums were selected for their beauty. Kurt, the 15-year-old son of a hotel keeper in Breslau, was “an ugly kid, with a grin that gashed his face in half, but delightfully German, complete with heel-click and the funny head-bow (as if the upper vertebrae had suddenly changed to rubber) and a clumsy handshake of a boyish paw.” Kurt was “an enthusiastic member of the ‘Hitler Jugend’ (Hitler Youth), the association which took over the various forms of Boy Scouts and the like; and at his own suggestion wore the uniform for our trip, including the useful dagger duly engraved with ‘Blood and Honour.’” Raven-Hart adds that “I thoroughly agree that such militarisation of the young is deplorable.” But he argues he is enough of a boy at heart to enjoy the swagger of such emblems. That first day they bathed seven or eight times, he writes: “the H. J. costume, needless to say, giving place to a far more antique ‘uniform’ both in and out of the boat, so lonely was it.”
One of the unexpected fascinations of Canoe Errant is in watching as Raven-Hart threads his way through Germany and Austria, and later Hungary and Czechoslovakia and documents the changing tenor of the youthful organizations he meets, the increasing threat of violence he witnesses as Nazism takes hold, and the greater difficulty he had in passing customs and inspections. He is also shocked by the antisemitism he encounters. Meeting German officers at a work camp, extolling Aryanism, he is appalled by the “incredible rubbish they talked, apparently in all good faith, about the Jews and their secret societies for the purpose of undermining Western civilization.” One can’t help wondering how many of his youthful companions were killed during the war.

Raven-Hart, who stood 6 feet, 2 inches, and sported a long, scraggly beard, must have had enormous charm, since he has an uncanny knack for making friends instantly with total strangers. At Lubben, after finding out that his next mate, a “jolly kid of fourteen, met in Brandenburg, the previous season” is not coming because his father is sick, Raven-Hart soothes his soul with a beer at an inn across from the railroad station. Within minutes, a youngster sauntered by, “looked at my beer and grinned at me.” Then “after he had gulped half a litre or so — I find the combination of red hair, freckles, and a grin quite irresistible — I asked him his plans.” One doesn’t have to read too deeply between the lines here to get the gist. Raven-Hart must have offered the boy a beer, and then wooed him to join him. No mention of money passing hands is ever hinted at. One presumes these drifters had time on their hands and merely wanted an escape. But the similarity to the language of sexual pick-ups is clear, if not actually deliberate.
And no doubt there were extra thrills in hooking up with drifters and riff-raff, a risk the eccentric Raven-Hart seems to relish. At Aggsbach he talks of meeting a young man, 19, who had been arrested in Belgrade for not having proper identification, then was rescued by a senior police officer “who had taken a fancy to him,” hired him as a valet, after which he ran off to the circus and became the assistant to a lion-tamer. Later he stowed away on a boat to Marseilles, where he smuggled opium, was a runner for a brothel, “and quite incidentally killed a negro, who had at first been very friendly and later drawn a razor…” and was now working as a “courier-valet to an English traveller.” Raven-Hart recognizes the literary appeal of such a wayward life. “If only that sort of person could, or would, write their experiences!”
Wending his way through Hungary, Raven-Hart meets a boy named Imre at the bath house there, “who replied to my query as to whether or not he knew anyone who could swim and might like a canoe trip by diving off into the shallow warm water and doing a perfect somersault plus side-way twist below it, coming up grinning, tapping himself on the breast with one hand and readjusting his loin-cloth with the other.” While in Hungary he witnessed a strange scene: “a coupé, four-wheeled and two-horsed, standing wheel-deep in the river while horses and carriage were washed by four naked urchins… ‘Eros and the Brougham.’” This was a stark contrast to the island of Rav, “full of unpleasant people, fat women in beach pyjamas with gilded toe-nails, and the slinky youths who are their inevitable parasites.”
In Austria, he is disenchanted with his companion, Alfred, who talked nonstop about the Anschluss. But a trip to the lakes made up for it, as they bathed “for hours in very shallow water, on a sand-bank in the company of a band of urchins ranging from six to sixteen: they dashed for their clothes as we approached, but our own absence of costume encouraged them to return to their nakedness.”
At Kotor, Raven-Hart “finally dropped Alfred, being unable to put up with him any longer, and spent one more, and far more pleasant, day there with a Yugoslav boy picked up by signs on the quay.” They stopped at a deserted beach to bathe and to take photographs. “He succeeded in explaining to me that certain scars on his body were from boiling water as a baby, and others from red-hot irons used by the gendarmes to persuade him to give the names of the ringleaders of an arsenal-strike in which he had taken part. The colouring of his body was indescribable: words like ‘tanned’ or ‘bronzed’ fail entirely to convey it. The nearest I can get is that he looked as if he had used several tins of the darkest mahogany boot-polish… nor were there any disfiguring white areas, under the arms or round the loins…he was exceptional even in this country of naked sun-bathers.”

When Raven-Hart came to America in 1936 to cruise down the Mississippi (a trip recounted in his book Canoe Errant on the Mississippi, entitled Down the Mississippi in the States) he traveled with a 23-year-old named James N. Grant, from Helen, Georgia, who had heard of Raven-Hart’s trip through a newspaper interview and signed on. No doubt there was an elaborate network of canoeing enthusiasts communicating this way, through the press and newsletters, serving also perhaps as a link for like-minded souls. On the ship record of his voyage from Europe to the United States to make this trip, Raven-Hart indicated that he would be staying with a friend in New York, “Van B. Claussen.” This turns out to have been Waldemar Van Brunt Claussen, the author of the standard Boy Scouts Merit Badge booklet on canoeing. Claussen appears to have been a bachelor, at least per the 1930 census. One wonders if he had more in common with Raven-Hart than just their shared interest in sports.

But who in fact was this mysterious Major R. Raven-Hart? Eager to find out more about this intriguing character, I did my usual Google searches and found very little about him on the web. He does not as yet have a Wikipedia entry, nor is there an obituary for him. I did manage to find references to him in other blogs and a few tantalizing details, including an excerpt from his book Canoe to Mandalay which I had not yet read. It seems to be similar in tone to Canoe Errant, featuring many of the same curiously candid discussions of male beauty. For instance at the American Baptist Mission School in Myitkyina, he selects Ma Tu, 15, as his traveling companion. He was “stocky, not good-looking until he smiled,” which he did “explosively when I patted his solid brown shoulder on choosing him, and I knew that I was going to like him.” (Raven-Hart holding hands with MaTu, below.)

Ma Tu had to return home, but the Major made do with another young man, Nyo, who looks sixteen but is actually 22. “The skin of his cheeks as soft as that of his arms, and as little pubic hair as a just-adolescent European or American boy.” You can read more of this material here at “The World History of Male Love.”
Roland James Milleville Raven-Hart was born in 1889, in Glen Alla, Ireland. His father, William R. Raven, was descended from a long line of English men of the cloth, succeeding his own father as Vicar of Snaith. William Raven added the hyphenated Hart to his name upon marrying Edith Hester Maria O’Neill Fairbrother, a member of the Hart clan,. She was of Irish descent, a fact Roland made much of in his books. The father traveled constantly, assuming various posts. Shortly after Roland’s birth, the family moved back to England. William died there in 1919; Edith in 1941. A sister Hester, who wrote a history of theatre costumes, died in 1946, apparently unmarried.
Raven-Hart attended the University of London as a member of the Officer Training Corps. During World War One, he was wounded in Egypt and convalesced at a hospital there. In 1919, he was given the O.B.E. for “valuable services rendered.” Raven-Hart served as a signalling officer, and an expert in semaphores. As early as 1915, while a Captain, he wrote a booklet The Signalling Instructor, with “notes on teaching of semaphore, Morse and station work, with Morse practice tables, and an appendix on the system of signalling in use in the French, Belgian, German and Austrian armies.” His facility with foreign languages and expertise in code served him well. He worked in the British intelligence department, where he befriended T. E. Lawrence, below.

Thanks to a friend with access to online genealogical records, I was able to find out the extraordinary fact that Raven-Hart was married in Edmonton in 1916 to a woman his age named Mary R. Croft. This was a total shock, considering his later writings, but he seems to have remained married to her for quite some time. In ship records during Raven-Hart’s trip to America in 1936, her name, Mary, is given as his wife (although she did not travel with him.) Raven-Hart gives his last permanent residence as La Ciotat, in the south of France. In a later trip, Italy is given as his residence, and his wife as “Rosa.” This was probably a clerk’s Italianization of Rose, since I have found evidence that Mary R. Croft’s middle name was Rose. (A Mary Rose Croft, born in 1889, was living in London in the 1911 census.) But what happened to Mary R. Croft later on? I have found no record of a death for any Mary or Rose Raven-Hart, and she is not mentioned in any later documents. In fact, I have found no reference to her in any of Raven-Hart’s books. I find this odd. He writes in Canoe Errant about contacting friends in London, sending letters and wires home. But not once does he mention the wife he left behind!

After the war, Raven-Hart became an engineer, working for railway companies. He spent a good part of the 1920s in Argentina. In 1920 he listed his address as “c/o Central Argentine Rly, Co. Buenos Aires.” In 1930, he wrote a booklet on “radio composing.” From then on, however, he seems to have given up working to devote himself full time to his hobby of canoeing. Canoe Errant details his trips from 1930-1935. The latter 30s were spent crisscrossing the globe, as he wrote his books on the the Nile, and the Mississippi, as well as his historic exploration of the Irrawaday in Burma, finding its source in Mandalay.

In a 1937 article about cruising down the Nile, (photo, above), which Raven-Hart wrote for the New York Times, he observes with his usual gimlet-eye how Egypt, over the centuries, has bred “a fine, aristocratically lean, hard-flanked type, with greyhound lines, so that a Nubian lad stripped for work or a swim looks like the shadow of a young Greek god.” One scratches one’s head today and wonders what the editors of the Times thought, or for that matter, what its readers made of Raven-Hart’s aesthetic musings. Perhaps that was his plan. He was an expert in code, after all. By writing these suggestive asides, he sent out a message to friends and followers. And very often hooked up with new recruits and fans by virtue of them. During World War II, he seems to have volunteered as an engineering expert with the Royal Air Force. But whether he ever flew any planes (some sources call him a “pilot”) is unclear.

On the heels of WWII, he wrote two books, The Happy Isles and a booklet on Canoeing in Ireland. During the 40s, he traveled throughout Australia, out of which he wrote Canoe in Australia (1948). Not quite as racy as Canoe Errant, the Australia book still has its curious asides. At Currawarna, he runs into a gaggle of lads: “they ranged from 8 to 13 with an older brother of 16, all very tousle-headed and happily shabby, one of them in shorts which repeatedly failed in their duty to his unembarrassed amusement.”

At Sale, he hooks up with a boy named Leslie, “a Melbourne boy who had got into touch with me during my first stay in that city, thanks to a newspaper interview. He was an ever-cheerful youngster: he had worked in an aeroplane factory, and as a waiter, and in a radio works — he was now, he told me, working on the roads for a municipality, with pick and shovel…I was glad that he had taken this out-door work, since it had developed him beautifully: when we first met his chest and arms were a bit skinny — now they were a joy to look at, steel-hard under silk-soft.”

Swimming at Ninety Mile Beach near the Gippsland Lakes, Raven-Hart comments on the abundant fish: “shoals of babies skipped like fleas over the water ahead of us, and investigated us indecorously when we bathed, to Leslie’s ribald amusement. He had a delicious slow smile, and an irresistible laugh, beginning as a chortle and developing into an explosion that shook his flat, corded belly. He nearly went to sleep after our n’th swim, lying naked in the sand, utterly relaxed as one never seems able to relax except in the lap of the Great Mother: I longed for modelling-wax, but had to content myself with a photograph.”

Australia also yielded trips with Robin, a 15-year-old with a “chunky, solid little body” and Alan, 17, with “ginger hair and milk-white skin” that burned easily. “He knew it only too well, and wisely remained shirted except at our frequent swims: a pity, since his body was a joy for a sculptor’s eyes, still slim and graceful, but with the muscles clearly marked.” By book’s end, Raven-Hart is unhappy to leave this exotic continent behind, regretting “that my long-hoped-for Australian cruises were over, and the pleasant companionships with Australian boys ended.” He consoles himself by knowing he may return, with Bevan, or Alan, or “some as-yet-unknown youngster” but “it will not be the same thing. I shall expect that friendliness which came as such a pleasant surprise, and I shall never re-capture the thrill when I first realised that I had fallen in love with the river-gums….”

A query recently posted in the London Sunday Times, here, states that Raven-Hart lived in Ceylon from 1947-1963. Sometime in the 50s he was introduced to Arthur C. Clarke, who had stopped for the day in Colombo. The two hit it off, and Raven-Hart appears to have convinced Clarke to move there. The story was written up in People magazine,here. Clarke’s sexuality has been a subject of much debate over the years, especially before he was knighted. In The Guardian, author Michael Moorcock wrote: “Everyone knew he was gay. In the 1950s I’d go out drinking with his boyfriend. We met his proteges, western and eastern, and their families, people who had only the most generous praise for his kindness. Self-absorbed he might be, and a teetotaller, but an impeccable gent through and through.”

Clarke resided in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, in a large house with a young male native (and the man’s wife), staffed with handsome local lads, many of them no doubt friends of Raven-Hart’s. Clarke has been quoted as saying that Raven-Hart “easily tops my list of ‘The Most Unforgettable Characters I’ve Ever Met,” adding that he was “a tall, distinguished-looking man of sixty-five, with a straggly beard which gave him a distinct likeness to Conan Doyle’s Professor Summerlee.”
During the 50s, Raven-Hart wrote Where the Buddha Trod, about his journeys in India. He also put out several books about Ceylon, including translations of historical accounts: Heydt’s Ceylon (1952),Germans in Dutch Ceylon (1953) and Travels in Ceylon, 1700-1800(1963), Ceylon: History in Stone (1964).

Raven-Hart never flagged in his enthusiasm for comely ephebes. According to Allen Carr, a writer about Ceylon, Raven-Hart inserted numerous homophile references in his later works: “In the engaging account he wrote of his journey to places of Buddhist pilgrimage in India in 1956 he referred to the ‘superb young manhood naked above the waist; boys with the irreducible minimum of clothing’ that he encountered in villages. ‘Sweets were sold on the train by small Sikh boys, many of them as delectable as their wares were not.’ Nor did he waver from his nearly scientific penchant for describing the secondary sex characteristics of the local natives: “At Bodh Gaya, Raven-Hart took a village boy with him on his hikes around the countryside. ‘(W)e found a lonely island-sandbank, and had a swim and lay in the sun to dry. I regretted that I had no camera since the lad was a beautifully-made fourteen or fifteen, with square, flat pectorals, and the abdominal muscles clearly defined right down to the just-growing pubic hair.’”

Raven-Hart even found time in 1957 to write an article entitled “The Naturist’s Ideal Holiday” for one of the era’s better-known nudist magazines, Health & Efficiency, (the particular issue, above.) Sometime in the 60s, however, Raven-Hart moved from Ceylon and settled in South Africa where he continued to churn out scholarly articles and books about the region’s culture and history, including one of his best known works, Before Van Riebeeck: Callers at South Africa from 1488 to 1652. It is presumed that he died there, sometime after 1971, the date of his last book, Cape of Good Hope 1652–1702: The First Fifty Years of Dutch. Colonization.

So what are we to make of the Major and his minors? As a slice of life in days gone by, Raven-Hart’s canoeing books are amusing relics, engaging records with a wildly personal slant. Some might find them creepy today. Others might wax nostalgic for the imagined good old days. They are a window into a lost world of innocence and freedom. However you may feel about them, they are important historical documents, not only of a time when such exhilarating canoe treks were still possible, but of an era when a certain naiveté about sexual matters was still in full bloom.
One wonders what happened to all of Raven-Hart’s papers, journals, letters and photographs. He admitted in one of his books that he’d lost much of his archive, including his own out-of-print books, during the Blitz in London. But what of his personal papers, photographs, and belongings accumulated from 1945 until his death? Surely they weren’t just tossed out in the garbage. If anyone knows more about their whereabouts, I would appreciate hearing from you. Then we can more accurately assess the legacy of Major R. Raven-Hart’s extraordinary oeuvre

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Death of a Flapper: The Dot King Scandal

PART ONE: Just the Facts
Her body was found in a small, but stylish two-room apartment in 57th Street, on the Ides of March, 1923. It was on the top floor of a five-story brownstone a few doors east of Carnegie Hall. Draped only in a loose-fitting yellow silk chemise with a thin black border, the girl looked as if she were sleeping, her head half-buried under the pillow, one arm dangling over the edge, her feet exposed. The other arm was wrenched behind her back, but the maid, Billy Bradford, didn’t notice that detail when she first came into the bedroom at 11:30 AM that Thursday and found her mistress seemingly passed out. Billy touched the bare foot and was horrified by how cold it was. The window by the bed, facing south over the back yard, was wide open, which was certainly odd, as it was one of the coldest mornings in March on record. Billy shut the window, then gently turned the body over and saw the strange discolorations around the woman’s mouth and nose, dark purple abrasions, as if her lips and nostrils had been rubbed raw. She gasped, then picked up the phone with shaking hands and called the dead girl’s mother. Moments later, she ran outside to hail a policeman. She found one a few blocks away — Officer Heller, on school duty at 55th and Seventh. Once he was upstairs, an ambulance was sent for from Bellevue Hospital.
Thus began one of the most notorious and mysterious murder cases in New York history: the Dorothy King story. Nicknamed “the Broadway Butterfly” by the press, because of her penchant for flitting from one after-hours cabaret and speakeasy along the “Great White Way” to the next, Dot King was more famous dead than she ever had been alive. A former “artist’s model” with shady ties to gangsters, to stage door Johnnies, and to Wall Street, Dot was a thoroughly modern flapper, right down to her bobbed blonde hair and the gold silk bandeau she sported around her brow when cutting a rug in her sparkling jewels, swanky gowns and garish furs. At 28 (she was born in 1894), a divorcée, she was no innocent ingenue. She’d been around the block a few times too many.
Born Anna Marie Keenan in upper Manhattan, to poor Irish immigrants, Dot had charmed her way out of the ghetto, flashing her deep blue eyes, capitalizing on her buxom figure, and cute freckled face, to make a luxurious life for herself. She was, as a reporter put it, a girl who “lived on the bubbles of life.” After a stint in a dress shop, modeling the latest fashions, she changed her name to Dorothy King (King was her mother’s maiden name), perhaps to pursue a career in the theater. (She is often confused with a showgirl named Dorothy King who appeared in the Broadway Brevities of 1920.) She’d done all right for a girl who’d never finished high school. She had a list of admirers as long as the deposits in her bank account, including one highly placed inamorato for whom the term “sugar daddy” was reportedly first coined by Julia Harpman at the Daily News.
Dot’s shocking tale captivated the hoi polloi and became fodder for titillating headlines across the country for weeks on end, and for decades to come. It wasn’t so much the manner of murder that intrigued readers — she was poisoned to death with chloroform — but the details of her life leading up to the killing gave wide-eyed readers a peek into a strange, little known demimonde, exposing a two-faced world of high society high jinks the likes of which had not been revealed since Harry Thaw’s murder of Stanford White during the Evelyn Nesbit (of the “Red Velvet Swing”) scandal a generation before. In time, three movies would be made based on Dot’s killing, and several books written touching upon her story, among them Memoirs of a Murder Man (1930) by detective Arthur A. Carey, who handled the case; It’s Time to Tell (1962) by George Petit LeBrun, the assistant Medical Examiner; Murder Won’t Out by Russel Crouse, a pulp from 1932; and the more recent Chronicle of Murder (2004) by Brian Lane and Who Killed the Broadway Butterfly? (2002) by George Anthony.

The most famous account is a fictionalized whodunnit, The Canary Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine (1927, turned into an early talkie thriller starring William Powell and Louise Brooks in 1929.) The 1934 Upper World, starring Warren William and Ginger Rogers, also bears a striking resemblance to the story. Years later, the Jules Dassin 1948 film noir, The Naked City (scripted by Mark Hellinger, who covered the Dorothy King case when he was just starting out as a journalist), would tell her sad, sordid tale all over again. Today one can surf the net and find web pages devoted to her legend. But few versions have got it completely right. The amount of misinformation about her is legion, with factual errors, contradictions and outright exaggerations or inventions aplenty. One has to slog through miles of microfilm, stacks of dusty archives and morgue records to get at any semblance of the truth. For the past two years, I’ve been digging into her life, trying to find a key to unlock the mystery surrounding her brutal killing. What I’ve discovered is that the case may be much bigger than previous accounts have let on.
Whatever the reality of her murky past, Dot King has become part of the very fabric of New York, a cornerstone of Manhattan Babylon, alongside Peggy Hopkins Joyce and Legs Diamond in the pantheon of Jazz Age legends. Her rags-to-riches saga seems to encapsulate all the vices and excesses of the Roaring 20s while also revealing the corruption at the heart of Prohibition. She became a symbol of the gold-digging schemer straight out of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Anita Loos had her in mind when writing that book in 1925. Loos belonged to a club of showgirls and models that met weekly; she knew them all intimately. But Dot’s murder was never solved, no one was ever indicted. Whoever did in “Dashing Dot” was never brought to justice. To this day it remains one of the most perplexing of all the city’s cold case files. Ironically, however, since no one was ever indicted and no charges were ever filed, there are no cold files to warm up. The city’s archives have no police records of the investigation into her murder. Some see this as evidence of a cover-up; the files must have been removed or destroyed. Others chalk it up to mere incompetence on the part of the investigating team who bungled her case from the get-go.
At first it was the lack of details that set Dot King’s murder apart from other Manhattan slayings. It had all the trappings of a typical “locked room” puzzler, so popular in the 20s. She’d come home after a night on the town with one of her gentlemen callers, gone straight to bed after he took his leave. No one had been seen entering her room after 2AM. The night elevator man, a black man from the West Indies named John Thomas, swore he had not taken anyone up after that time, and there was no way to get upstairs without using the elevator. Could the killer have climbed in through the window? Unlikely. She was on the top floor and the fire escape (if there was one; reports varied on that score) didn’t extend to her rooms. How did he (or she, or they) get in? Had she been a victim of a burglary gone bad? Some $15,000 worth of jewelry was missing. It was certainly a plausible explanation. There had been a spate of similar crimes up and down Manhattan, most notably the Irene Schoelkopf case a few months before when a wealthy woman was chloroformed at her New Year’s Eve party and $300,000 worth of her jewels was plucked. Luckily she had survived.
Much was made by the media of the few clues that did surface: a man’s black rubber comb found on the bed, two fur coats on the floor, a pair of men’s yellow silk pajamas tucked under the sofa, a black umbrella by the door, with a wisp of cotton fluff stuck to it; the label on the chloroform bottle which was half-scratched off, making the serial number untraceable. And then there was the last will and testament, found on a table, beginning with the ominous words, “I, Dorothy Keenan, believing that something unforeseen might happen to me, hereby bequeath all my worldly possessions to my mother.” But did any of this “evidence” point to the murderer?
Perhaps if the police had been more thorough at the time of the body’s discovery, things might have been resolved more successfully. But everything that could be done wrong had been done spectacularly wrong. Forensics was not yet the precise science it is today. The maid, Ella Bradford, nicknamed Billy, had cleaned up before the police came, removing telltale signs such as fingerprints from champagne glasses, and clothes on the floor (it was she who had stashed the pajamas under the sofa). When the ambulance arrived that morning, the doctor on call, Baker, from Bellevue Hospital, considered the death a suicide or accidental poisoning. Party girls back then often used to inhale chloroform to get their kicks, or to kill themselves when the party was over. The fact that Dot’s will was laid out on a table seemed to confirm this diagnosis. The intern had not noticed that her arm was wrenched behind her back in a hammer-lock hold, nor that the chloroform bottle was found between her legs, hardly the place to drop it if she had done herself in. And apparently he thought nothing of the fact that the apartment had been ransacked.
It wasn’t until the city physician, Dr. Charles Cassasa, who worked at Harlem Hospital, arrived, that the wheels of a homicide investigation were set in motion. He thought the evidence pointed to a crime, a burglary, and notified the Chief Medical Examiner’s office. So did a private detective named Frank J. Houghtalin, who mysteriously appeared on the scene. He telephoned the assistant medical examiner, George LeBrun, and told him he thought a murder had taken place. When Dr. Charles Norris, the Chief Medical Examiner finally arrived at 6PM, he was furious that the detectives still had not arrived. Not only had the victim’s mother and family traipsed through the apartment for several hours, but several policemen, doctors and building personnel had been all over it too. Later it would be revealed that the family had taken some of her belongings, including some of the jewels and clothing that the police assumed had been stolen.
Everyone was baffled by the killing, from the affable Police Commissioner Robert E. Enright, who wrote mysteries on the side, to the lowliest shoeshine boy, dispensing the latest gossip. And everyone had a theory. The police were sure it was a burglary gone bad; the Homicide squad, when they finally got down to brass tacks, leaned towards a theory of a blackmail ring and premeditated murder. But by whom?
The likeliest suspect was an elusive figure named “Mr. Marshall” who had paid calls on Dot King frequently over the past year, and was rumored to be paying her rent. She was, sources revealed, his “femme au foyer.” He’d allegedly set her up in the flat about 18 months earlier after meeting her at a party at the fashionable Hotel Brevoort downtown. They’d been introduced by a friend named “Marie.” From then on “Mr. Marshall” had lavished Dot with expensive gifts: diamonds and furs. He would show up at her place, bearing a bottle of champagne draped in a string of pearls. Or he would shower her with savings bonds worth $1,000 as a token of his affection for her; no small prize. Dot had invested the money, authorities claimed, in stocks, had bought a car for her brother’s cabbie business, and a vacation place in Atlantic City for her mother. She had bank accounts and safe deposit boxes all over the city. It was Mr. Marshall’s pajamas that Billy had found the morning of the murder and had stashed away out of respect for her mistress. Or was it more for his protection? If he was paying Dot’s rent, as the press kept intimating, couldn’t he also have been paying Billy’s salary? Such speculations were never fully explained or looked into. And were probably erroneous. (If “Mr. Marshall” was paying her rent, why didn’t he have a key? And why would Dot have taken on a roommate the previous fall?)
The odd thing about “Mr. Marshall,” however, is that he never appeared with Dot unless he had his secretary with him, a tall, thin man named “Mr. Wilson.” The two would arrive at Dot’s building, then Wilson would scope out the lobby and elevator to make sure no one was there. The coast clear, Marshall would ascend to Dot’s flat, tipping the “Negro elevator boy,” as the press repeatedly put it, extravagantly for his consideration. Then after a brief interlude, Mr. Wilson would leave, either wait in the car, or go home, and Marshall would remain. But Wilson’s involvement went beyond mere scout work. He too was friendly with the girl. On the eve of the murder, the three of them had had dinner together at the fashionable Brevoort Hotel in Greenwich Village, where Marshall had met Dorothy, hardly a location one would choose for a clandestine affair.
Dot’s distraught mother, Kate Keenan, told the police that the 50-something Marshall was a kind, avuncular old soul who wouldn’t hurt anyone. She suspected it was Dot’s no-good boyfriend, Albert Guimares, a gigolo and grifter, of Portuguese and Spanish descent, who had been known to beat her when he didn’t get his way. At the time of the murder, Dot had just come back from a week in Atlantic City (an odd time of year to go down there, considering the cold.) while Marshall had been in Palm Beach. Who was Dot seeing there? The rumor was that Dot had been secretly wed to the son of a very prominent family, but his name was kept secret by the papers (the entire story was probably made-up.) Dot had told her mother that she didn’t want to see Guimares anymore. He’d beaten her once too many times. So perhaps the murder was due to insane jealousy on Guimares’s part. He had a fiery Latin temper. Did he think Dot was cheating on him? Or did he have more nefarious plans for Dot, using her as the bait in a potential blackmail racket?

Guimares, it soon became apparent, using the name Al Morris, had set up sucker-schemes before, opening “bucket shops” in which he conned innocent investors into buying fraudulent stocks. Police found a so-called “suckers list” in Dot’s apartment. It appeared that she and Guimares were working in tandem. A warrant for his arrest had been issued in Boston where he’d managed a bankrupt brokerage house, Joseph and William McLoughlin. Guimares used numerous aliases (Smith, Morris and Santos) and had reputed ties to the mob. (Some authors have claimed that the notorious crime lord Arnold Rothstein, immortalized in The Great Gatsby as Meyer Wolfsheim, owned the building where she lived. As we shall see, this was untrue.)
Police rounded Guimares up at his suite at the Embassy Hotel on the Upper West Side. He had bruises and bite marks on his hand (he claimed to have been in a fist fight the night before).  But he had an airtight alibi. He’d spent the evening with his best friend Edmund J. McBryan (sometimes spelled McBrien) and Eddie’s girlfriend, a stunning young beauty known only in the press as “the blonde.” She was actually Aurelia A. Fischer, below, the daughter of a DC-based carpenter (and not the “society heiress” the press made her out to be). She risked her reputation by admitting to spending the night in a hotel with a man (and the police, for reasons that remain obscure, protected her identity.)

While interrogating Guimares, the police found an unregistered gun and he was arrested. (Ironically, it was George Le Brun, the assistant medical examiner, who had initiated the law requiring all guns in New York City be registered after a famous case in which an actor was shot and killed at the Players Club by a deranged fan.) Guimares was held without bail pending the investigation. He would go on to serve three years in a federal prison in Atlanta for using the mails to defraud.
Much of this speculation about Guimares and his whereabouts that night proved to be beside the point after the very detailed autopsy revealed that Dot King had died in the morning of the 15th, not the night before. The postmortem had been performed by the Chief Medical Examiner himself, the esteemed Dr. Charles Norris, an imposing figure of almost Shakespearean stature, according to his biographer. Norris’s findings belied the press’s version of events. He found no trace of alcohol in Dot’s system. No evidence of rape or sexual activity. “Examination of the vaginal contents and of the mucous exudate on the tonsil is negative for spermatozoa,” he wrote in his dry, exacting style. So the notion of Dot coming home after a wild night on the town — or having gone out again after being dropped off, as some had claimed — had to be dismissed. It seemed more likely that she had gone to bed after a light supper (only traces of celery were found in her stomach), and was disturbed in her sleep. Whoever had done it had to have access to her from 6AM on. That allegedly left Guimares out of the running since he was at his hotel around that time, and was seen having breakfast there.
But then the story was blown open by a startling revelation. An anonymous call was made to the police from a woman in Atlantic City. She knew of a letter that might prove helpful, what the French call a “billet doux.” It was a saucy love letter, penned by one of Dot King’s admirers: “Darling Dottie, only two more days and I will be in your arms. I want to see you. O so much, and to kiss your pretty toes.” The man who’d sent it, from Palm Beach, the woman claimed, was the head of a large company and the scion of a distinguished Main Line family with roots as old as the Mayflower. It was, she declared, none other than Mr. Marshall. (The letter was reportedly found in a beaded bag belonging to Dot, at her mother’s, and not in a safe deposit box as has been written. It’s not clear how this woman in Atlantic City knew about it, or how she was connected to the case. But I have a hunch it was the woman named “Marie” who had introduced Dot to Marshall the previous summer.)
It didn’t take long for the amorous author to step forward and reveal his true identity. In a meeting arranged on St. Patrick’s Day with Ferdinand Pecora, the Assistant District Attorney (who would go on to greater fame as a prosecutor of bank fraud), a wealthy businessman from Philadelphia named John Kearsley Mitchell (aka “Jack”) admitted that he was the elusive “Mr. Marshall” and had written the letter. He’d struck a deal with Pecora to maintain his anonymity.

Why he came forward is open to conjecture, especially since the “billet doux” was not signed with his real name. But perhaps he feared there were more revealing letters to be found. Or maybe Billy, the maid, had blurted out his real name. Mitchell had a lot to hide. He was the son-in-law of one of the richest men in the country, E. T. Stotesbury, one of J. P. Morgan’s most trusted partners. Stotesbury’s wife, Eva, was a flamboyant, influential figure in Society. (Her daughter, from a previous marriage, Louise Cromwell had married Douglas McArthur and her son, James, would later marry Doris Duke.)
The Stotesburys had built Whitemarsh, one of the largest houses in America, as well as mansions in Bar Harbor, and Palm Beach. Addison Mizener had built El Mirasol at Eva’s request. But crafty reporters at the Hearst-owned New York Journal American figured out Mitchell’s true identity and broke the story on the 24th. The scandal that ensued exploded like a bomb. Suddenly the death of Dorothy King was no longer about the flutterings of the Broadway demimonde but reached to the pinnacles of high finance and the Social Register. (Eva and E. T. Stotesbury, below, courtesy of the Stotesbury website.)

To casual observers, it must have seemed then like an open-and-shut case. Dot King had threatened her sugar daddy with blackmail. She’d go public with his embarrassing missive if he didn’t cough up some big bucks to keep her quiet. Perhaps Guimares, or a gang of blackmailers, had put her up to it. Or so the tabloids spun it. There had been a spate of similar cases recently, including the Walter S. Ward case involving the shooting of a sailor, and the William Desmond Taylor murder in Hollywood. But Mitchell claimed he and Dot were just good friends. He denied any romantic relationship. His wife stood by him. Mitchell stated that he and his lawyer friend John H. Jackson (revealed as the mysterious “Mr. Wilson”) had dropped Dot off after dinner at 11PM on March 14, then stayed for a night cap, before leaving at 2AM. He said he gave the elevator man, John Thomas, a $2 tip. Thomas denied this and claimed he never saw Mitchell come down. The last people to use the elevator, he said, were the Grahams who lived on the fourth floor. He’d dropped them off at 1AM. This little discrepancy didn’t seem to bother the police too much since Mitchell could have simply walked down the stairs and exited the building.
(One of the more maddening aspects of the case was the strange design of the building at 144 West 57th Street where Dot lived. The building was actually two brownstones combined as one residence. The doorway to 144 led to the elevator, while 146′s entrance led to a stairwell which was locked at the mezzanine level. This way customers of the shops on the ground floor could walk up but not enter the apartment area above. Yet residents coming down could exit through this door thanks to a catch bolt on the inside.) Key details, such as did Mitchell walk to the hotel where he was staying (he lived in the landmark Red House Inn in Villanova, outside Philadelphia); or take a cab, or have his driver waiting outside, were never discussed in the reports I found. It seems to me that there might have been a witness if any of those options were taken.
It was typical of the inept police work that these matters were either never disclosed or more likely never looked into. And what of the elevator girl who took over from Thomas? Her name was Juanita Marable, described often in the press at the time as a “mulatto girl.” (She was actually 21 yrs old.) Did she see anyone enter the building early that morning and go up to the fifth floor? If so, the information was never made public. Juanita was born in Kentucky circa 1902 and had come to New York sometime after 1920. She later married a Pullman railroad man, Fred Andrews, and became a waitress in a hotel. As for Billy Bradford, she withdrew from the spotlight and never discussed the case. Years later, a cabaret gadabout named Jack Lait, who knew Dot King, wrote that Billy’s husband, Chester, who became his chauffeur, probably knew who did it. But his lips were sealed.

A third suspect materialized when it was revealed that among Dot King’s admirers was Draper M. Daugherty, the troubled son of the nation’s Attorney General, Harry Daugherty. It didn’t seem to matter to reporters that Daugherty was nowhere near the city the day of her murder. The fact that he was married and had suddenly entered a sanitarium helped fuel rumors that he was hiding out, or being silenced by powers that be. A vast cover-up was hinted at. He later escaped from the asylum, with the help of the actress Pearl Baremore, leading to a flurry of news reports that a madman was on the loose. But two facts kept his name among the suspects. First, the chloroform bottle found resembled a type that had been used in Daugherty’s unit when he was a soldier in the war. Second, he told authorities how he had received a threatening phone call from Dot King’s younger brother Francis, suggesting that he be hired as a chauffeur or else he’d spill the beans about Draper’s “friendship” with Dot.
Everyone who had known Dot was interviewed or scrutinized, from her good friend Blossom Seeley, the famous blues singer once married to Rube Marquard, the baseball star, to Jack Lannigan, a former tailor from Chicago, later a nightclub owner, who had lived with Dot years before. Matthew D. Biddulph, held for the Schoelkopf jewel heist at the Tombs was interrogated. As was the blueblood alleged to have married her after a drunken weekend party. The press did not reveal his name either. Perhaps the oddest suspect was a man named Harlan Rowe who was arrested in Los Angeles after a drunk driving accident. His pockets were full of newspaper clippings about Dorothy King. Police wondered if he were somehow involved. But he seems to have been just one of the many swept up in the case.

Perhaps the most colorful of Dot’s acquaintances was Hilda Ferguson, above, her former roommate. The original “shimmy girl” Hilda was a scintillating beauty who was appearing in the Music Box Revue (and would later star at the Ziegfeld Follies.) Born Hildegarde Gibbons in Baltimore, Hilda had had a hard childhood. The 1910 census shows her, age 7, living in a “home for the friendless” with her mother Demmorah. She later married Dr. Robert Ugarte in 1919 and had a child, Yolanda. But by 1922, she’d left her husband, whom she claimed beat her repeatedly (they divorced in 1926), and was living at the Great Northern Hotel in 1921 where she reconnected with Dot King, who was also staying there. When Dot moved to her new apartment, she invited Hilda to come stay with her. With only one bed, it was a cozy arrangement. The friendship was tight for the first few months, but Hilda eventually wearied of the wild parties Dot threw. She claimed Dot drank too much. Much was made of Dot’s wild streak. Julia Harpman claimed that Dot was a hop head, and had once kicked out the windows of a taxi cab when she was riding high. Others had speculated that Dot was using heroin. But Hilda denied Dot ever used drugs.
A neighbor, who lived downstairs and had a view of the bay window in Dot’s apartment, complained often of the raucous laughter, coarse language, and loud music emanating from above. She said that on one hot summer night, she’d left her windows open and she heard a woman who was obviously drunk tell her date that she’d expose his pedigree all over town if he didn’t come through for her. This woman, who was never named but was described as a “professional woman of the highest standing” with family ties to J. P. Morgan’s lawyers, demanded that Hilma Dunlap, the super, go up and ask them to turn the music down. Hilma says she went up there and found it was actually Hilda Ferguson who was throwing the party, not Dot. So there is some discrepancy in Hilda’s account and I wouldn’t be surprised if she wasn’t just covering her tracks. She would not have enjoyed people looking into her own past (although her notoriety soon landed her a starring role at the Follies.) She left two weeks before Dot was killed. Hilda later became tight with bootlegger Willie McCabe, one of Arnold Rothstein’s cronies. And she was there at the Park Central the night Rothstein was slain in 1928. Hilda died five years later, just 30 years old. To the day she died, she never breathed a word of what she knew about Dot’s murder.
Family members, too, were not above suspicion. Some felt that there were strains in the Keenan household that could have played a role in Dot’s death. One report stated that her late father had disinherited her after she left home, although considering his lowly position it’s hard to imagine what he disinherited her of. Then there were her two brothers.  Her volatile but devilishly handsome older brother John, popular with the ladies, was a cab driver, who disapproved of her lifestyle, and upbraided her for bobbing her hair.

Then there was her milder, younger brother Francis, the same one who allegedly had tried to blackmail Draper Daugherty into hiring him as a chauffeur. Dot also had two sisters, Tessa (who may have been an adopted cousin) and Helen, who was married and lived in New Jersey. And then there was Kate, the mother. A hard-bitten laundress, she was a strict Catholic who fretted over Dot’s affairs and had even sent a priest and two nuns to her apartment at 144 West 57th Street in order to convince her to turn over a new leaf. Her behavior on the day of the murder had raised a few eyebrows. When Hilma Dunlap, the super, had come up to offer assistance, Mrs. Keenan had seized her by the shoulders, “whirled her around” and physically pushed her out the door, demanding she be left alone. Guimares, who hated her, said she was a “gouger,” who would do anything for a buck.
Another likely suspect, and one who was singled out for further scrutiny, was Dot’s ex-husband, Eugene I. Oppel. She’d only ended the marriage with him the previous October, although they had not lived as man and wife for many years. She’d married him in 1912 when she was 18. In the 1920 census, Oppel shows up living in Brooklyn, alone. Most of the time, he lived at home with his family in Little Falls, New York, where he died in 1970. He also worked as a chauffeur and suffered from a limp since one of his legs was shorter than the other. Dot loathed him, calling him “that big bum.” She had the marriage annulled, citing her own infidelities. Could he have sought revenge for her casting him aside? Or did he try to shake her down? It seems unlikely that no one would have noticed him, especially with his pronounced limp, if he had been at the building that night or the next morning.
It seemed to me in studying the story that the gaps in the case were just as intriguing as the things that were reported. What if one examined all the details of the murder, could a likely suspect be found? The case had already been picked over by dozens of writers. But I was shocked by the inconsistencies and lack of follow through. And by a persistent paucity of logic. As I delved into the story, I became more and more fascinated by the house in which the murder took place. For the Dorothy King story is also the story of 144 West 57th Street, and its twin, 146. Could the property itself provide clues as to Dot King’s real killer?

(End of Part One. Part Two Next Week.