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Stranger Than Fiction

June 2024 

Guys and Dolls
by Dean Jobb

Fritzie Mann was an ambitious young dancer with plenty of Hollywood contacts and had just scored her big break—she had landed a movie contract. That, at least, was what the twenty-year-old told her friends and family. After her body was found on a beach not far from her San Diego home in January 1923, a different story emerged.

Mann was more than four months pregnant and someone had drowned her in the bathtub of a nearby rental cottage before dumping her body. There was no movie deal, no circle of Hollywood friends. And Fritzie was not the real name of the woman who had donned exotic costumes to perform at local events and in theaters before silent films were screened. She was Frieda Mann, whose family had emigrated from the borderlands between Poland and Ukraine when she was a child.

As historian Amy Absher argues in Fritzie: The Invented Life and Violent Murder of a Flapper (University of Oklahoma Press), she was a product—and, ultimately, a victim—of the shape-shifting, reinvention-obsessed Jazz Age. “Mann’s life, her murder, and its aftermath could only have happened in the twenties,” she asserts. “Her murder was a paradigm of its age.”

Everyone connected to her and to her death was pretending to be something else. One of her boyfriends was a car dealer who claimed to be a Hollywood bigwig. Louis Jacobs, a navy doctor who tried to arrange for her to have an abortion—and was likely the child’s father—insisted he was only trying to help a friend in her time of need. Police officers failed to secure the area around her body or mount a thorough search for her scattered belongings, behaving like real-life Keystone Cops. The district attorney, armed only with circumstantial evidence, pretended he had a strong case against Jacobs and twice put him on trial for murder. Reporters may have been the only characters in this tragic story who remained true to themselves. None seemed to care who killed Mann and why; handed a tawdry story of scandal, illicit sex, and murder, they ran with it.

Absher dissects the story with an analytical, scholarly eye, like a coroner dissecting a body in the search for the truth. She deconstructs the case into a succession of themes—News, Fantasy, Flapper, and Killers are among the chapter headings—to explore the wider context and Mann’s turbulent times. Readers disappointed with the lack of a straightforward, dramatic narrative will be rewarded with razor-sharp insights into the world of the liberated, convention-shunning flapper of the Jazz Age—an era, the author argues, that “celebrated women while simultaneously destroying them.”


Vivian Gordon was another victim of the Jazz Age. While Fritzie Mann created a fantasy world where she was destined for stardom, Gordon lived a dangerous life on the fringes of New York City’s underworld. A sex worker and madam, she blackmailed some of the men she seduced and teamed up with some unsavory characters to plan scams and robberies. In February 1931, someone strangled her and dumped her body in a Bronx park.

Author and journalist Michael Wolraich tackles Gordon’s baffling murder and the tsunami of scandal it unleashed in The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age (Union Square & Co.), a gripping account of a crime that helped to expose the pervasive corruption of New York’s Tammany Hall political machine.

Gordon’s life imploded in 1923 when she was arrested for soliciting, sentenced to two years in a reformatory, and lost custody of her young daughter. She was among hundreds of victims of a ruthless shakedown racket. Police officers, working in collusion with equally corrupt prosecutors and judges, framed innocent women for soliciting and offered to have the charges dropped in exchange for bribes. Women like Gordon, who refused to pay, were convicted and jailed.

Fast forward to 1931. Former judge Samuel Seabury—the “Bishop” of the book’s title, a nickname that reflected his squeaky-clean image and career—is leading a high-profile investigation into the NYPD’s vice squad that’s exposing the shakedown racket and shaking the foundations of Tammany Hall. Soon after Gordon reached out to Seabury’s staff with an offer to testify, she was dead.

Was her murder a random crime or a hit carried out to keep her from testifying? Detectives who searched her apartment after her death turned up diaries filled with references to underworld characters, shady deals, and people who wanted her dead. New York governor Franklin Roosevelt, who would soon be president, was among many who were convinced the timing of her murder was no coincidence.

Wolraich offers a gripping account of a murder that galvanized reformers and ultimately helped to topple New York’s flamboyant, wise-cracking, and crooked mayor, Jimmy Walker, a Tammany man who symbolized the regime’s corruption and arrogance. Was Gordon killed to keep her from talking? Were the police complicit? Were her killers brought to justice? Read this real-life noir thriller to find out.


Author and New York University professor James Polchin explores another sensational, headline-grabbing murder of the era in Shadow Men: The Tangled Story of Murder, Media, and Privilege That Scandalized Jazz Age America (Counterpoint Press). The body of Clarence Peters, a young drifter and ne’er-do-well, was found in 1922 at a roadside in Westchester County, north of Manhattan. He had been shot once in the chest. The police had no suspects, little evidence, and few hopes of solving the crime until Walter Ward, a prominent businessman and the commissioner of police in New Rochelle, came forward to confess.

Ward claimed he had been accosted by a gang of “shadow men”—blackmailers—and had shot Peters in self-defense. There were doubts about his far-fetched account of the deadly confrontation, however, and Ward refused to divulge why he was being blackmailed. Relentless newshounds soon offered plenty of possible reasons as they exposed Ward as a philanderer and a gambler. Rumors he was a homosexual—a “degenerate,” in the slang of the time—added an even more salacious angle to a story that transfixed newspaper readers in New York and beyond for more than a year.

In this masterful recreation of the crime, the lurid news coverage it spawned, and the courtroom dramas that followed, Polchin tackles the question at the heart of the Ward-Peters case: could a wealthy, powerful man get away with murder? The Ward family’s baking business was one of the largest producers of bread and cakes in the country. Walter Ward presented himself to the world as a family man and respected citizen. New Rochelle’s police chief likely had given him the pistol used in the shooting. Peters, in contrast, was a hustler with a history of petty crimes, a spotty employment record, and a penchant for embellishing the truth. It was easy to image him in the company of blackmailers.

The Peters family, it turned out, had friends in high places as well. The editor of the New York Daily News, America’s first tabloid newspaper, made it his mission to keep the case alive and hold Ward accountable—all while boosting circulation and his bottom line. When an initial attempt to prosecute Ward fizzled, an avalanche of bad press and public outrage forced New York Governor Al Smith to step in. The state’s attorney general took charge of the case and put Ward on trial for murder. Polchin’s engrossing account of this forgotten cause célèbre exposes how easily wealth, power, and privilege can tip the scales of justice.


Imagine being transported to 1920s Manhattan and having an expert take you on a guided tour of the sights—Broadway’s ornate theatres, packed nightclubs like the El Fey and the Hotsy Totsy, doorways leading to hidden speakeasies and gambling dens, the neon dazzle of Times Square. Prolific author David Pietrusza, who once led walking tours of Midtown, showcases his vast knowledge of the area’s seedy history in Gangsterland: A Tour Through the Dark Heart of Jazz-Age New York City (Diversion Books).

“Here in the belly of the big city resided a very small world of power and vice, of bright lights and big money,” he writes as he kicks off what he terms a “blood-and-peroxide-drenched cement shoes walking tour.” It’s a quirky, sepia-toned snapshot of a city and its shady inhabitants.

The cast of characters is pure Damon Runyon (the newsman whose Broadway stories inspired the musical Guys and Dolls is among them, of course). Impresario Florenz Ziegfeld of Follies fame rubs shoulders with the likes of mobsters Legs Diamond and Owney “The Killer” Madden. Entertainers Fanny Brice and Jimmy Durante take the stage alongside Tammany Hall boss and soon-to-be-convicted racketeer Jimmy Hines. Jewel thieves, newsmen, gangsters’ molls, and showgirls share these pages with high-rolling gamblers and low-life con artists.

Pietrusza assigns a number to each stop on this tour (there are 189 in all) and digs into memoirs, history books, and news coverage from the time to flesh out each location’s backstory and the people who made it infamous. Most of the buildings are long gone but the author has dipped into his impressive collection of period photographs. He includes an eleven-page list of people who appear in the book and a chronology of events to help readers keep track of who’s who.

The glue that binds together this dizzying array of people and places is Arnold Rothstein, the notorious gambler, loan shark, and fence best known for his involvement in the Black Sox Scandal—the fixing of the 1919 World Series (his West Forty-sixth Street gambling house is No. 50 on the tour). Pietrusza has penned a biography of Rothstein, which explains his affinity for this ruthless and odious character as well as his detailed knowledge of the habits and haunts of the man dubbed “The Big bankroll.”

Stop No. 119 is the Park Central Hotel on West Fifty-Sixth Street, which is still in operation. In 1928 Rothstein, who had failed to cover a hefty gambling debt, was lured to a meeting in one of its rooms and shot to death. The book includes the New York Police Department’s official—and previously unpublished—report on the murder.


Rothstein, Vivian Gordon, Fritzie Mann, and Clarence Peters have something in common. While indictments were filed and trials stood trial, no one was ever convicted of these Jazz Age crimes.


Dean Jobb’s new book A Gentleman and a Thief: The Daring Jewel Heists of a Jazz Age Rogue, released this month by Algonquin Books and HarperCollins Canada, is the incredible true story of Arthur Barry, who charmed the elite of 1920s New York while planning some of the most brazen jewel thefts in history. For more on this and Dean’s other true crime books, find him at

Copyright © 2024 Dean Jobb

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