Stranger Than Fiction-November 2018

November 2018

Rich and Infamous

By Dean Jobb

Two Chicago teenagers, the sons of wealthy families, are convinced they can outsmart the police and get away with murder. A group of upper-class London playboys attack and rob a diamond salesman in a posh hotel suite. An American brewing magnate is kidnapped outside the gates of his ranch, while a night at the theater proves deadly for the celebrated New York architect Stanford White. Money and privilege collide with greed, jealousy, and murder in new true crime titles that recreate crimes where the wealthy were the victims or perpetrators.

The_Leopold_Loeb_FilesThe case of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb may be the most notorious and extreme example of the corrosive effects of money and entitlement. In 1924 the University of Chicago students kidnapped and murdered a young neighbor, Bobby Franks, simply for the thrill of planning the perfect crime and evading detection—for the “pure love of excitement,” as Leopold later confessed. Their callous, unthinkable crime—inevitably dubbed, like so many other sensational cases, the Crime of the Century—is retold in remarkable detail in Nina Barrett’s The Leopold and Loeb Files: An Intimate Look at One of America’s Most Infamous Crimes (Midway Books/Agate Publishing).

Barrett, a Chicago-area author and bookseller, curated a 2009 exhibition on the case at Northwestern University Library and this illustrated, large-format book explores the case through selections from police statements, trial transcripts, and psychological reports. Extracts from a cache of documents discovered in a basement vault in 1988—including the original ransom note sent to Franks’s parents—excerpts from press reports, and stunning photographs round out this engaging, thorough, and illuminating account.

“From the moment of their remarkable and remarkably detailed twin confessions in police custody ten days after the murder, the guilt of Leopold and Loeb has never been in question,” writes Barrett, who introduces each record with a brief, insightful commentary. The crime’s “persistent fascination lies in its essentially inscrutable nature.”

Saving_Sin_CityWhy did they do it? Famed defense lawyer Clarence Darrow, who fought to save the pair from the gallows, and a team of psychiatrists attributed their emotional detachment and lack of conscience to their privileged and pampered upbringings. The prosecution, led by bombastic state’s attorney Robert Crowe, portrayed them as nothing more than cold-blooded killers. In The Leopold and Loeb Files, Barrett provides enough raw material for readers to make their own judgments.

 

Two decades before Leopold and Loeb, a sensational murder within the ranks of New York’s elite staked its own claim to the title Crime of the Century. In 1906, Harry K. Thaw shot and killed architect Stanford White in front of dozens of witnesses attending the theater. White had seduced and raped a Broadway chorus girl, Evelyn Nesbit, five years earlier when she was just sixteen, and the volatile Thaw, by this time Nesbit’s husband, was obsessed with taking revenge.

It’s a case with “all the elements of a sensational drama—sex, money, murder and madness,” writes Mary Cummings in Saving Sin City: William Travers Jerome, Stanford White, and the Original Crime of the Century (Pegasus Books). It’s a combination that has made the case the subject of a number of books, including Simon Baatz’s The Girl on the Velvet Swing: Sex, Murder, and Madness at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century (Mulholland Books), released at the beginning of 2018.

The_Girl_Velvet_SwingBaatz and other writers have focused on Nesbit’s tragic story. A much-photographed supermodel of her day, described as flashing a smile “that is girlish winsomeness itself,” she struggled to pursue an acting or stage career after the murder but never escaped the stigma of the case. Cummings, however, shifts the spotlight to William Travers Jerome, the prosecutor determined to have Thaw—portrayed as a hero in the yellow press of the era—locked up in a prison or insane asylum. Jerome’s crusades against vice and police corruption allow the author, a Long Island journalist, to explore the political rot of Tammany Hall and the excesses of the Gilded Age’s privileged one percent, which form the backdrop to the murder and Thaw’s two trials.

Cummings tells the intertwined stories of White, Nesbit, Thaw, and Jerome with skill and a keen eye for character and detail. But her use of the present tense throughout (a surprising choice to recount events of more than a century ago) tends to make the action feel narrated and distant.

 

Playboys_Mayfair_MenThe trial of the so-called “Mayfair Men” lifted the lid on wealth and privilege in Depression-era London. A few days before Christmas 1937, a phone rang at the city’s branch of Cartier, the renowned jewelers. The man on the line, who identified himself as Captain Hambro, asked that someone bring a selection of engagement rings to his suite at the exclusive Hyde Park Hotel, so he could select one for his fiancée. When the Cartier man arrived with nine expensive rings, he was robbed and almost beaten to death.

The jeweler’s assailants were young, upper class, and well educated—“toff gone bad,” as Canadian academic Angus McLaren puts it in his account of the case, Playboys and Mayfair Men: Crime, Class, Masculinity, and Fascism in 1930s London (Johns Hopkins University Press). The notion that the high-born could stoop to a crime worthy of street thugs sent shock waves through British society. The Fleet Street tabloids reveled in the downfall of these loutish sons of privilege.

The crime itself was amateurish and poorly planned. Two of the suspects left their fingerprints in the suite and Scotland Yard rounded up the culprits within days. They were convicted after a short trial (there’s no need for a spoiler alert—the outcome is revealed only a few pages into the book) and two were sentenced to be whipped, a barbaric punishment British judges were still meting out in the Thirties.

McLaren does a superb job of reconstructing the investigation and trial, using police files and newspaper accounts, but he is after bigger game—his focus is what the case says about class, society, and politics in interwar Britain. The case popularized the term “playboy” and the term fit the robbers, who frequented the hotels and nightclubs of West End London’s posh Mayfair district when not “seeking thrills in motorcars and airplanes,” McLaren writes, “and pursuing wealthy women.”

The renowned British true crime writer F. Tennyson Jesse, who attended the trial, described the case as “a social phenomenon,” exposing a callous sense of entitlement that almost culminated in murder. The crime even touched the most entitled man in Britain: Cartier were jewelers to the Royal Family, and the firm, adhering to a new policy after the Hyde Park Hotel incident, sent two representatives when King George VI asked to view some gems. “They were not going to trust me,” grumbled the indignant monarch.

 

Hollywood_GodfatherHollywood had an unofficial king of its own—Billy Wilkerson, who ruled the movie business from the 1930s to the 1950s. “A marvelous man,” the actor Kirk Douglas said upon his death in 1962, “and a dynamic leader in our industry.” As founder of the influential trade newspaper the Hollywood Reporter, he had the power to launch the careers of movie stars and could destroy a new release with a single bad review. And that made him more feared than revered, and arguably one of the most influential figures in the history of the movie business.

In Hollywood Godfather: The Life and Crimes of Billy Wilkerson (Chicago Review Press), journalist and author W.R. Wilkerson III explores an even darker side of his father’s life—how he helped organized crime infiltrate the film business. Wilkerson’s story “is the story of Hollywood,” he contends, as he confesses the sins of his father in unflinching detail. “Movies and glamour were mere by-products of Hollywood’s unending power struggles, and throughout those decades Billy Wilkerson was at the epicenter of those struggles.”

Wilkerson came to Hollywood with mob connections—from his days running New York speakeasies—and a grudge against studio bosses, who had refused to distribute a film he had produced. The Hollywood Reporter allowed him to get even, and opening Cafe Trocadero and other Sunset Strip hotspots made him the ultimate insider and fixer who knew everyone—and their secrets. Along the way he discovered Lana Turner, catapulted Clark Gable from bit parts to stardom, and launched the witch hunt that branded scores of Hollywood players as communists.

Wilkerson did not advertise his crimes and connections to Bugsy Siegel and other underworld figures, of course, but his son produces convincing evidence of his role in helping the mob take over backstage unions and extort money from the studios. “Organized crime came to Hollywood through Billy,” asserts a former Hollywood Reporter journalist, one of many interviewees who confirm Wilkerson’s “godfather” role. For readers who suspect this lively, anecdote-filled account overstates Wilkerson’s wrongdoing and influence, there’s abundant support for the author’s claim that his father rose from a “New York nobody” to become “the most powerful man in the entertainment industry.”

 

The_Death_HeirThe botched kidnapping and murder of a corporate executive with a surname synonymous with beer is the subject of The Death of an Heir: Adolph Coors III and the Murder That Rocked an American Brewing Dynasty (St. Martin’s Press). “Ad” Coors, as he was known, was the CEO of the Adolph Coors Company when he was abducted in 1960 near his Colorado ranch, a crime that launched the largest manhunt in America since the Lindbergh baby was snatched from his cradle in the 1930s.

Philip Jett, a former corporate lawyer, recreates the crime in vivid detail—and, he admits, with invented dialogue and other embellishments designed to “make the story more interesting and enjoyable.” An escaped convict, Joseph Corbett, Jr., hoped to demand a $500,000 ransom, but months of planning unraveled in an instant when his target resisted. He shot Coors twice in the back as he tried to flee, dumped the body in a remote area, and sought refuge in Canada.

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover declared Corbett “the most wanted man since John Dillinger,” but he proved far easier to catch than the notorious bank robber. Corbett left a trail of clues during his nine months on the run and was living under a known alias when he was arrested in Vancouver, British Columbia. The evidence against him was circumstantial but damning, and he was convicted and served more than eighteen years of a life sentence. Like Leopold and Loeb decades before, he discovered that even the most meticulously planned crime can be far from perfect.

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Dean Jobb’s latest book, Empire of Deception (Algonquin Books and HarperCollins Canada) tells the story of a master swindler who preyed on the wealthy in 1920s Chicago. He teaches nonfiction writing and journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb

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