Showing posts with label Dorothy Parker. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dorothy Parker. Show all posts

13 February 2020

Revoked


by Eve Fisher

Woollcott in 1939 photographed by Carl Van Vechten
Alexander Woollcott
One of the reasons I dig around in old books - especially old miscellanies - is that you can find the most amazing things.  Take Alexander Woollcott (1887-1943):  critic & commentator for The New Yorker, radio personality, occasional actor, and constant pain in the ass.  (He was the inspiration for Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner.)  He was also obsessed with murders, past and contemporary, and he spoke and wrote about many with that acidulous wit that has been equalled only by Dorothy Parker (whom he once described as "so odd a blend of Little Nell and Lady Macbeth").  

So I was rereading Woollcott's While Rome Burns, and - thinking of us, dear SleuthSayers and fans! - headed straight for the section "It May be Human Gore".  I struck the motherlode.  The following - from the chapter "By The Rude Bridge" - is one of my favorite murders of all time.  

Let's just start off by saying that in September, 1929, Myrtle Adkins Bennett, Kansas City housewife, shot her husband, John G. Bennett, to death over a hand of contract bridge.  Where's the mystery, you ask?  Well, read on:  


*********************
(From While Rome Burns.)

"The Bennett killing, which occurred on the night of September 29, 1929, was usually spoken of, with approximate accuracy, as the Bridge-Table Murder. The victim was a personable and prosperous young salesman whose mission, as representative of the house of Hudnut, was to add to the fragrance of life in the Middle West. He had been married eleven years before to a Miss Myrtle Adkins, originally from Arkansas, who first saw his photograph at the home of a friend, announced at once that she intended to marry him, and then, perhaps with this purpose still in mind, recognized and accosted him a year later when she happened to encounter him on a train. That was during the war when the good points of our perfume salesman’s physique were enhanced by an officer’s uniform. They were married in Memphis during the considerable agitation of November 11, 1918. The marriage was a happy one. At least, Senator Jim Reed, who represented Mrs. Bennett in the trying but inevitable legal formalities which ensued upon her bereavement, announced in court—between sobs—that they had always been more like sweethearts than man and wife.

Bridge declarer.jpg"On Mr. Bennett’s last Sunday on earth, these wedded sweethearts spent the day playing a foursome at golf with their friends, Charles and Mayme Hofman... After dark and after an ice-box supper at the Bennetts’, the men folk professed themselves too weary to dress for the movies, so the four settled down to a more slatternly evening of contract bridge. They played family against family at a tenth of a cent a side. With a pretty laugh, Mayme Hofman on the witness stand referred to such a game as playing for “fun stakes,” though whether this was a repulsive little phrase of her own or one prevalent in the now devitalized society of a once rugged community, I do not know.

"They played for some hours. At first the luck went against the Hofmans and the married sweethearts were as merry as grigs. Later the tide turned and the cross-table talk of the Bennetts became tinged with constructive criticism. Finally, just before midnight, the fatal hand was dealt by Bennett himself and he opened the bidding with one spade. Hofman hazarded two diamonds. Mrs. Bennett leaped to four spades. Discreet silence from Mrs. Hofman. Stunned silence from Bennett. Hofman doubled. That ended the bidding and the play began.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/
wiki/User:Newwhist
"Mrs. Bennett put down her hand. At her trial it was the policy of the defense, for strategic reasons, to minimize the part the bridge game had played in the ensuing drama, but the jury could not be confused on this point and three of the jurors went so far as to learn bridge in the long leisure of the jury room. Nor could the mind of that stern realist, Mayme Hofman, be befogged. When summoned as a witness by Senator Reed, she knew she was really coming to the defense of Mrs. Bennett as a bridge player.

“Myrtle put down a good hand,” she said staunchly, “it was a perfectly beautiful hand.”

"In any event, while she was dummy, Mrs. Bennett retired to the kitchen to prepare breakfast for her lord and master, who would be leaving at the crack of dawn for St. Joe. She came back to find he had been set two and to be greeted with the almost automatic charge that she had overbid. Thereupon she ventured to opine that he was, in her phrase, “a bum bridge player.” His reply to that was a slap in the face, followed by several more of the same—whether three or four more, witnesses were uncertain. Then while he stormed about proclaiming his intention to leave for St. Joe at once and while Mr. Hofman prudently devoted the interval to totting up the score, Mrs. Bennett retired to the davenport to weep on the sympathetic bosom of Mayme Hofman...:

“No one but a cur would strike a woman in the presence of friends.”

"I have not as yet been able to learn whether the game was ever settled, but when Mr. Hofman had completed his work as accountant, he ventured to reproach the host for unseemly behavior, to which comment Bennett replied by a strong suggestion that it was time for the guests to go home. Mrs. Hofman—one can imagine her bridling a good deal and saying that she considered the source—had got into her wraps and Mr. Hofman was tidying up in the bathroom, when he saw his hostess advancing through the den, revolver in hand.
Image result for james thurber cartoons new yorker
James Thurber, The New Yorker
via Pinterest (Link)
“My God, Myrtle,” he cried. “What are you going to do?”

"He soon learned.

"There were four shots, with a brief interval after the second. The first went through the hastily closed bathroom door. The second was embedded in the lintel. The next two were embedded in Mr. Bennett, the fourth and fatal shot hitting him in the back.

"The next day the story went round the world. In its first reverberations, I noticed, with interest, that after her visit to the mortuary chapel Mrs. Bennett objected plaintively to her husband’s being buried without a pocket-handkerchief showing in his coat. To interested visitors, she would make cryptic remarks such as “Nobody knows but me and my God why I did it,” thus leaving open to pleasant speculation the probable nature of her defense.

[Seventeen months passed, and finally Woollcott asked a Kansas City friend what happened to the case?]

“Oh!” the good doctor replied, “she was acquitted. It seems it was just an unfortunate accident.”

Natty couple in 1929
Wikipedia Source
"It seems the dutiful Mrs. Bennett had merely gone for the revolver because her husband wanted to take it with him to St. Joe; that in stumbling over a misplaced chair in the den she fired the first two shots unintentionally and that her husband (pardonably misreading her kind intentions) had sought to disarm her. In the ensuing Apache dance of their struggle for the gun, it had gone off and wounded him fatally.


"The defense was materially aided by the exclusion on technical grounds of crucial testimony which would have tended to indicate that at the time Mrs. Bennett had told a rather different story. It was also helped no little by the defendant herself who, in the course of the trial, is estimated to have shed more tears than Jane Cowl did in the entire season of Common Clay. Even the Senator was occasionally unmanned, breaking into sobs several times in the presence of the jury. “I just can’t help it,” he replied, when the calloused prosecutor urged him to bear up.

"The Reed construction of the fatal night’s events proved subsequently important to Mrs. Bennett, in whose favor her husband had once taken out a policy to cover the contingency of his death through accident. Some months after the acquittal a dazed insurance company paid her thirty thousand dollars.


"Footnote: Protesting as I do against the short-weight reporting in the Notable British Trials series, it would ill become me to hoard for my private pleasure certain postscripts to the Bennett case which have recently drifted my way. It looked for a time as if we all might be vouchsafed the luxury of reading Myrtle’s autobiography, but this great work has been indefinitely postponed. I understand she could not come to terms with the local journalist who was to do the actual writing. That ink-stained wretch demanded half the royalties. Mrs. Bennett felt this division would be inequitable, since, as she pointed out, she herself had done all the work.
"Then it seems she has not allowed her bridge to grow rusty, even though she occasionally encounters an explicable difficulty in finding a partner. Recently she took on one unacquainted with her history. Having made an impulsive bid, he put his hand down with some diffidence. “Partner,” he said, “I’m afraid you’ll want to shoot me for this.” Mrs. Bennett, says my informant, had the good taste to faint."
************

Back to my musings:

For the more curious among us: What bridge hand could be that bad? See Snopes' reconstruction HERE.

Source: 
https://www.rosewoodhotels.com/en/the-carlyle-new-york/gallery
As for Myrtle's later years, and there were 61 of them, she died in Miami, Florida, in January, 1992 at the age of 96. "After World War II and throughout the 1950s, she worked as executive head of housekeeping at the elegant Hotel Carlyle in New York City, living alone there in an apartment. At the Carlyle, she developed friendships with the rich and famous, including the actors Mary Pickford and Henry Ford II." Later, she traveled the world, working for a hotel chain, and left an estate - valued at more than $1 million - to family members of the late John Bennett. (Wikipedia)

Final Note: According to Woollcott, "It was Harpo Marx who, on hearing the doctor’s hasty but spirited résumé of the case, suggested that I make use of it for one of my little articles. He even professed to have thought of a title for it. Skeptically I inquired what this might be and he answered “Vulnerable.”"

But personally, I prefer the title "Revoked."

 


25 April 2019

"The Retort Courteous to One You Have Forgotten"


By Eve Fisher
(with necessary help from Dorothy Parker)

I have collected, over the years, a lovely large library which is just eclectic enough that I can find some information about almost anything.  I have everything from history (of all kinds/eras) to potboilers, plus a few weird volumes that I just read and don't try to explain to anybody.  One of the many things I prize is my 1926 edition of Emily Post's Etiquette, which was happily for us all reviewed by Dorothy Parker in the December 23, 1927 edition of The New Yorker

Let's let Dorothy speak for a while, because she can certainly review it better than I can:

Young Dorothy Parker.jpg"Emily Post’s “Etiquette” is out again, this time in a new and an enlarged edition, and so the question of what to do with my evenings has been all fixed up for me. There will be an empty chair at the deal table at Tony’s, when the youngsters gather to discuss life, sex, literature, the drama, what is a gentleman, and whether or not to go on to Helen Morgan’s Club when the place closes; for I shall be at home among my book. I am going in for a course of study at the knee of Mrs. Post. Maybe, some time in the misty future, I shall be Asked Out, and I shall be ready. You won’t catch me being intentionally haughty to subordinates or refusing to be a pallbearer for any reason except serious ill-health. I shall live down the old days, and with the help of Mrs. Post and God (always mention a lady’s name first) there will come a time when you will be perfectly safe in inviting me to your house, which should never be called a residence except in printing or engraving.

"It will not be a gruelling study, for the sprightliness of Mrs. Post’s style makes the text-book as fascinating as it is instructive. Her characters, introduced for the sake of example, are called by no such unimaginative titles as Mrs. A., or Miss Z., or Mr. X.; they are Mrs. Worldly, Mr. Bachelor, the Gildings, Mrs. Oldname, Mrs. Neighbor, Mrs. Stranger, Mrs. Kindhart, and Mr. and Mrs. Nono Better. This gives the work all the force and the application of a morality play.

"It is true that occasionally the author’s invention plucks at the coverlet, and she can do no better by her brainchildren than to name them Mr. Jones and Mrs. Smith. But it must be said, in fairness, that the Joneses and the Smiths are the horrible examples, the confirmed pullers of social boners. They deserve no more...  Mr. Jones, no matter how expensively he is dressed, always gives the effect of being in his shirt-sleeves, while Mrs. Smith is so unmistakably the daughter of a hundred Elks. Let them be dismissed by somebody’s phrase (I wish to heaven it were mine)—“the sort of people who buy their silver.”  These people in Mrs. Post’s book live and breathe; as Heywood Broun once said of the characters in a play, “they have souls and elbows.” Take Mrs. Worldly, for instance, Mrs. Post’s heroine. The woman will live in American letters. I know of no character in the literature of the last quarter-century who is such a complete pain in the neck."  (D.P.)

Mrs. Emily Post painted by Fuchs
Brooklyn Museum
Personally, I believe that Mrs. Worldly is Mrs. Post, in her upbringing and determination to be the arbiter for generations on the subject of Polite Society.  Daughter of Bruce Price, the architect of (among other things) Tuxedo Park, Emily Post was born with enough wealth, beauty, and position to enable her to divorce her banker husband, Edwin Main Post, when he took up chorus girls and was blackmailed.  No wonder Mrs. Worldly freezes occasionally at the sight of young women.

Again, from Dorothy Parker:  "See her at that moment when a younger woman seeks to introduce herself. Says the young woman: “ ‘Aren’t you Mrs. Worldly?’ Mrs. Worldly, with rather freezing politeness, says ‘Yes,’ and waits.” And the young woman, who is evidently a glutton for punishment, neither lets her wait from then on nor replies, “Well, Mrs. Worldly, and how would you like a good sock in the nose, you old meat-axe?” Instead she flounders along with some cock-and-bull story about being a sister of Millicent Manners, at which Mrs. Worldly says, “I want very much to hear you sing some time,” which marks her peak of enthusiasm throughout the entire book."  

Mrs. Post got out of the divorce with her money and position intact.  It was after her children grew up that she decided to become the Petronia Arbiter of her day, with Etiquette.  It was an immediate, and long-lasting hit.  She covered everything from how to write notes and letters, deliver calling cards, dress, balls, luncheons, teas, and dinners, as well as formal occasions like weddings and funerals.  There are chapters on "The Kindergarten of Etiquette" (you need good nannies, nurses, and servants for this one) and "Every Day Manners at Home" (behave yourself at all times, and never "dress down").  

My personal favorite is "The House Party in Camp", when Mr. and Mrs. Worldly, along with the Normans, the Lovejoys, the "Bobo" Gildings, the Littlehouses, Constance Style, Jim Smartlington and his bride, Clubwin Doe and young Struthers all accept Mr. and Mrs. Kindheart's invitation to spend a few weeks at the Mountain Summit Camp. There they all rough it, with only dozens of servants in forest-green livery to bring them hot water and breakfast in their rustic cabins, build their fires, and cook their meals from food shipped in from the Big City, and struggling to survive on only one cloth napkin a day to remind them of their former glories. Granted, Mr. Worldly does bring his valet, Ernest, because "He has never in the twenty years since he left college been twenty-four hours away from Ernest." [Doesn't that sound a little... strange... today?] And Mrs. Worldly spends the entire time "wearing a squirrel fur cap in the evening as well as the daytime; she said it was because it was so warm and comfortable. It was really because she could not do her hair!"  (Etiquette at Gutenberg)

Saint-Simon portrait officiel 1728 détail.png
Of course, it's not just the Gilded Age that combined power, money, position, and domestic helplessness.  The Duc de Saint-Simon (1675-1755) was in the exact same boat back at Versailles, whenever he and his fellow nobility had to go to one of the lesser manors or war.  They brought their valets and they couldn't do their own hair, either.  But the Duc's memoirs are soaked in an etiquette that surpasses anything Mrs. Post could have dreamed of, rigidly enforced (and totally exemplified, to give him credit) by the Sun King himself.  

But it is important to remember that the Sun King had crammed every nobleman in France into Versailles, where they were kept virtual prisoners because of their greed and his charisma.  And they were all touchy, proud, easily insulted, and armed with swords.  Etiquette kept the endless arguments (about who could sit, and when, and where, and who could go to Marly and who couldn't, and who could be a mistress, and who couldn't, etc.) down to a minimum of violence.

Which is a large part of the original reason for etiquette.  Humans living in close proximity to each other need some kind of a code of behavior.  Hunter-gatherer societies have as much etiquette as anyone else, although theirs is based more on spreading the wealth (food) than exhibiting it.  And writing down the rules started a long time ago.  

The earliest book of social rules we have is Ptahhotep's Maxims, which I have not read.  Confucius' Analects could also be considered a work of etiquette as well as philosophy, since under the name of filial piety, he covered not only government, but topics like dress, meals, funerals, and music.  My favorite story is that of a philosopher who, upon being told of disorders in the countryside, had the emperor stand, facing the South, and, as he performed certain rites, all disorder ceased. 

In the Renaissance, Castiglione wrote The Book of the Courtier, which has been overshadowed by Machiavelli's The Prince.  Both tell a person how to get on in society, but the first is a book of manners in order to rise, and the second is how to use those manners to keep power by any means necessary.
NOTE:  This is not the first time that either approach was or would be written, but perhaps the best example of combining both in the same book is Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence.  The fictional devastation of Newland Archer - or of Lily Bart in The House of Mirth - is a masterclass in how to wield absolute power by speech and ceremony without a sword drawn or shot fired.  And this, my dear readers, is the world in which Emily Post was raised.   
During the Age of Enlightenment, in England, the Fourth Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773) wrote Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman.  A sample from Wikipedia: 
The Fourth Earl of
Chesterfield
"I would heartily wish that you may often be seen to smile, but never heard to laugh while you live. Frequent and loud laughter is the characteristic of folly and ill-manners; it is the manner in which the mob express their silly joy at silly things; and they call it being merry. In my mind there is nothing so illiberal, and so ill-bred, as audible laughter. I am neither of a melancholy nor a cynical disposition, and am as willing and as apt to be pleased as anybody; but I am sure that since I have had the full use of my reason nobody has ever heard me laugh."  (Wikipedia)
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), who believed more in the necessity of etiquette than the practice of it, said that Chesterfield's letters taught "the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master."  No, it was not a compliment.  But what Johnson objected to was that Chesterfield made it plain that he had to teach his son manners, when they were supposed to come from the heart.

There is a tendency today to downplay, mock, or get rid of etiquette, manners, civility.  The phrase "political correctness" has become an excuse to say an amazing number of rude things, although I've noticed that the people who do practice being politically incorrect, generally demand the other party be surprisingly politically correct - i.e., polite, if not absolutely silent - back.  But Mrs. Post would not approve:

Etiquette, Chapter 29:

THE FUNDAMENTALS OF GOOD BEHAVIOR

Far more important than any mere dictum of etiquette is the fundamental code of honor, without strict observance of which no man, no matter how "polished," can be considered a gentleman. The honor of a gentleman demands the inviolability of his word, and the incorruptibility of his principles; he is the descendant of the knight, the crusader; he is the defender of the defenseless, and the champion of justice—or he is not a gentleman.
Decencies Of Behavior
A gentleman does not, and a man who aspires to be one must not, ever borrow money from a woman, nor should he, except in unexpected circumstances, borrow money from a man. Money borrowed without security is a debt of honor which must be paid without fail and promptly as possible. The debts incurred by a deceased parent, brother, sister, or grown child, are assumed by honorable men and women, as debts of honor.
A gentleman never takes advantage of a woman in a business dealing, nor of the poor or the helpless.
One who is not well off does not "sponge," but pays his own way to the utmost of his ability.
One who is rich does not make a display of his money or his possessions. Only a vulgarian talks ceaselessly about how much this or that cost him.
A very well-bred man intensely dislikes the mention of money, and never speaks of it (out of business hours) if he can avoid it....
A gentleman does not lose control of his temper. In fact, in his own self-control under difficult or dangerous circumstances, lies his chief ascendancy over others who impulsively betray every emotion which animates them. Exhibitions of anger, fear, hatred, embarrassment, ardor or hilarity, are all bad form in public. And bad form is merely an action which "jars" the sensibilities of others... 
A man whose social position is self-made is apt to be detected by his continual cataloguing of prominent names. Mr. Parvenu invariably interlards his conversation with, "When I was dining at the Bobo Gilding's"; or even "at Lucy Gilding's," and quite often accentuates, in his ignorance, those of rather second-rate, though conspicuous position. "I was spending last week-end with the Richan Vulgars," or "My great friends, the Gotta Crusts." When a so-called gentleman insists on imparting information, interesting only to the Social Register, shun him!
A gentleman's manners are an integral part of him and are the same whether in his dressing-room or in a ballroom, whether in talking to Mrs. Worldly or to the laundress bringing in his clothes. He whose manners are only put on in company is a veneered gentleman, not a real one.
A man of breeding does not slap strangers on the back nor so much as lay his finger-tips on a lady. Nor does he punctuate his conversation by pushing or nudging or patting people, nor take his conversation out of the drawing-room! Notwithstanding the advertisements in the most dignified magazines, a discussion of underwear and toilet articles and their merit or their use, is unpleasant in polite conversation.
All thoroughbred people are considerate of the feelings of others no matter what the station of the others may be. Thackeray's climber who "licks the boots of those above him and kicks the faces of those below him on the social ladder," is a, very good illustration of what a gentleman is not.
A gentleman never takes advantage of another's helplessness or ignorance, and assumes that no gentleman will take advantage of him...
The Instincts Of A Lady
The instincts of a lady are much the same as those of a gentleman. She is equally punctilious about her debts, equally averse to pressing her advantage; especially if her adversary is helpless or poor.
The Hall-Mark Of The Climber
...All thoroughbred women, and men, are considerate of others less fortunately placed, especially of those in their employ. One of the tests by which to distinguish between the woman of breeding and the woman merely of wealth, is to notice the way she speaks to dependents. Queen Victoria's duchesses, those great ladies of grand manner, were the very ones who, on entering the house of a close friend, said "How do you do, Hawkins?" to a butler; and to a sister duchess's maid, "Good morning, Jenkins." A Maryland lady, still living on the estate granted to her family three generations before the Revolution, is quite as polite to her friends' servants as to her friends themselves. When you see a woman in silks and sables and diamonds speak to a little errand girl or a footman or a scullery maid as though they were the dirt under her feet, you may be sure of one thing; she hasn't come a very long way from the ground herself.
*****
Not much more that I can add to that.

PS - What is "The Retort Courteous to One You Have Forgotten"?  Well, Dorothy Parker has one answer (check out the link back at the beginning, and go down to the end of the review).
And then there's classic "I'm sorry, but I didn't recognize you with your clothes on."  But I don't think Mrs. Post would approve.