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Saturday 30 April 2022

Murder, Mystery, Millionaires, Multiple Marriages - and the Typewriter That Went Missing From Mexico City

Florabel Muir, a courageous underworld and Hollywood reporter for the New York Daily News. Muir assisted Jesse Stearn with his 1948 exposé of the Dahlbergs and Mary Alexander.

WARNING: This is a saga, an extremey long and involved yet fascinating story. I have tried my best to knit together its multitude of strands in a coherent way, and apologise if readers find it all just a little too tangled. To help, here is a brief summary of the main characters:

Mary Virginia Alexander (1897-1938): A once famous Texas-born social climber and gold digger. Adventurer and author of the 1930 novel Dagger. She was married to racketeer and murderer John Marcus, millionaiure artist Huntley Chapin, and for 11 years pretended to be married to millionaire businessman Bror Dahlberg.

Huntley Chapin (1905-1989): Scion of a rich Buffalo utilities family. He was Mary’s second legitimate husband. His millionaire grandfather, Charles Russell Huntley, worked for Remington when the first typewriter was made. He was married to Myrtice McLaughlin, Mary Alexander, Eulalia Miller and Salome “Sally” Taylor.

Bror Gustav Henrie Dahlberg (1881-1954): Swedish-born founder and head of the Celotex company, falsely thought to have been Mary Alexander’s second husband. Mary committed bigamy when she “married” Dahlberg in 1921. He later legitimately married Gilda Krieger.

John Marcus
(1882-1930?): Notorious Ohio racketeer, bootlegger and killer. He was Mary’s first legitimate husband, and wasn't divorced from her until 1922. He was brutally murdered in Hamilton, Ohio. He was also married to
Margie Hensley. There is a question mark over his date of death, because no one knows for certain when that was.

And so the sordid story begins …


When, on April 12, 1935, wealthy Buffalo artist Huntley Chapin filed suit in the Mexico Federal District for divorce from his wife of exactly 17 months - adventurer, author and socialite Mary Virginia Alexander - all he really wanted was his Remington portable typewriter back. Huntley had a particular sense of consanguinity with his Remington. The enormous wealth of his benefactor, his maternal grandfather Charles Russell Huntley, had been seeded in 1873 with writing machines, in his home county of Herkimer, New York, where Charles R. Huntley joined the company of E. Remington & Son as a clerk. He was there for the launch of the Sholes & Glidden and the subsequent first Remington typewriter.

Adding considerably to Huntley Chapin’s concerns in Mexico City in 1935, his wife Mary, as well as taking his Remington typewriter, had threatened to have Huntley shot by gangsters – and, as Huntley was only too well aware, she had been inimate with hoodlums. As a teenager, Mary Alexander had married one of the most notorious racketeers and bootleggers in American history, the evil Russian-born John “Jew” Marcus (1882-1931), mentor of “The Bourbon King” George Remus.

As with Chapin, Mary’s marriage to Marcus ended in a divorce court - but in the case of the earlier union, it was the husband who ended it, in Cincinnati in 1922, a year after Mary had "married" millionaire businessman, 
Celotex company founder and president Bror Dahlberg. Marcus probably didn't enter Mary's mind again until the morning of Wednesday, February 4, 1931, when she read the screaming newspaper headlines that Marcus was dead. The previous afternoon, Lorenzo Miller, of Dayton Street, Hamilton, Ohio, looking for somewhere to rent, walked over to Line Road, 1½ miles from the Middleton Pike, to have another look at an abandoned Butler County Lumber Company house. This time Miller, with his wife and four friends, hoped to gain access to a secret, unlit basement, which had not long earlier housed an illegal still. Inside, near the back wall, they stumbled over Marcus’s long dead body, badly decomposed but still well dressed in a tailored suit, silk underwear and socks. Marcus was trussed up with picture wire, which sort of spoiled the look of the expensive clothing. Miller struck a match and saw a bullet hole near Marcus’s right temple (another was later found in the back of his head). A stream of dried blood led to a drain in the next room. Marcus’s ruthless rival Cincinnati bootlegger Robert “Foxy Bob” Zwick was initially suspected, but later it was believed the gun used had belonged to yet another Cincinnati crook, Larry Coates, who was in turn rubbed out on Wooster Pike on July 28. Nobody was ever charged with murdering Marcus.

Oh no, she wasn't. She was still Mrs John Marcus.
Mary Alexander was born to farmer Robert Silas Alexander and his wife Lou Annie (née Lee, later Mrs Joe Fly) on September 14, 1897, at Bend, a village on one side of a horseshoe-shaped bend in the Colorado River in San Saba County in western central Texas. Silas died in 1902, Annie remarried in 1910 and by the age of 12 Mary was in the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Widows and Orphans Home in Corsicana, Navarro. She often called herself May, Virginia or Jennie, to distinguish herself from her older sister, Mary Cleopatra Alexander. No doubt it was at Corsicana that the young Mary Viriginia Alexander plotted ways of finding a better life for herself. Sadly that first led her to an arch criminal, before betrothal – or at least the pretence of betrothal in one case - to two millionaires, Bror Dahlberg and Huntley Chapin, one a self-made man, the other the beneficiary of someone else’s business acumen.

Mary’s second legal marriage was to Huntley “Hunt” Chapin. Huntley was born on June 20, 1905, in Buffalo, Erie, New York, the son of Robert Wheeler Chapin and his wife Mary (née Huntley). He grew up at 549 Linwood Avenue, a elm tree-lined promenade of grand homes in a variety of architectural styles, where people strolled to see and be seen. The Chapins had three live-in servants. Huntley’s father was the proprietor of a mill feed company, but the real money came from Huntley’s maternal grandfather, Charles Russell Huntley (1853-1926), a banking magnate and president of Buffalo General Electric at the time of his death. Charles R. Huntley and his bosom buddy, Charles Albert Coffin, first president of GE (a merger of Edison General Electric and Thomson-Houston) were regarded as being among the pioneers of American electricity, and died within weeks of one another.  

Huntley Chapin was educated first at The Fessenden School for the intellectually gifted in West Newton, Massachusetts, graduated from the Culver Military Academy, Indiana, in 1923, attended Princeton in 1924 and entered Yale in 1925, graduating in 1929. His mother divorced Robert Chaplin in 1920 and two years later married Elmore Charles Green, an executive of the Statler Hotel chain. When Charles R. Huntley died in 1926, Huntley Chapin became an heir to his vast fortune. His mother, by then Mary Green, was a major influence in Huntley Chapin’s life, so much so she was accused by Mary Alexander of coming between husband and wife in Mexico in 1935.

In 1930 Mary Alexander, under her then assumed name of Mary Dahlberg, had published her widely syndicated and popular novel Dagger, (“Alexandra ‘Dagger’ Marley, 16-year-old niece of a Texas rancher, rescues Blaine Howard, American free lance vagabond, from some Mexican insurgents.”). In March and April 1935, she was at daggers drawn with Mary Green and her son Huntley Chapin. On March 15, before bolting from Mexico City, Mary Alexander hired prominent lawyer Guillermo Obregon to sue Mary Green for $500,000 for causing an alienation of affections from her husband. Obregon also sought a court order sealing safety deposit boxes containing Huntley Chapin’s trust funds, of which $200,000 was due to be received by Huntley on June 20, 1935, his 30th birthday. Mary Alexander claimed $1 million of it belonged to her. Mary said, “I sacrificed a lot when I married Huntley Chapin. I have supported him ever since. He has never done a stroke of work in his life.” Huntley was already receiving $1000 a month from his trust fund.

Once Mary had left Mexico City, by train for Chicago, Huntley managed to persuade police to detain her in San Luis Potosí City, and she was forcibly returned under police guard to face charges of stealing her husband’s typewriter – and she literally fought the law. Mary Alexander was at the time on her way back to Chicago to sue for divorce, charging Chapin with cruelty. With Mary out of the way, and his typewriter recovered, Huntley Chapin went legitimately gold digging in Mexico while Walter Winchell reported across the nation that Mary had already set her sights on a 71-year-old unnamed Chicago “shoe man”-  at least more legitimate occupation than bootlegger.

Mary Alexander had only two years previously divorced Bror Dahlberg, who, when in May 1934 was asked to fork out more alimony to her, claimed he’d never been legally married to Mary. He was right. Mary had not been divorced from Marcus until 1922. Mary and Marcus wed at Butte, Montana, on October 4, 1916, two weeks after Mary had turned 18, the then minimum age of consent. They were together for their second wedding anniversary when both were charged with loitering while staying at the Hotel Howard in Cincinnati on October 5, 1918. On November 10, 1921, a little more than five years after marrying Marcus, Mary “married” Dahlberg. (At the time of Marcus’s gruesome slaying, he had been with another wife, Margie Hensley, who disappeared and was presumed to have been drowned.)

Soon after Chapin and Dahlberg were married, by County Judge Culver Alvaro Green in the San Luis Valley, Colorado, village of Conejos on November 14, 1933, Chapin began to find out just how exciting having Mary as his wife would be. At 2.30pm on March 1, 1934, the couple walked into the Embassy Club in the heart of San Antonio’s business district, ordered sandwiches and beers, and were suddenly ambushed by bar owners Walter “Skinny” Baker and Frank Nixon. Baker shot Chapin twice in the left foot with a revolver while Nixon hit Chapin in the face with brass knuckles. Chapin and his new wife had stopped off in the Texas city on the way back to their home in Taos, New Mexico, from a business meeting in Chicago. Baker was charged with assault to murder and Nixon with assault with a prohibited weapon. When witnesses were threatened, it turned out Mary’s younger brother, Robert Silas Alexander (1902-55), an oil man, had had an interest in buying the bar, and that Baker and Nixon thought they were “protecting their turf”.

If Huntley Chapin hadn’t realised by that stage that marriage to Mary Alexander was going to be anything but smooth sailing, he was soon awakened to the realities. Even though Mary had left one millionaire for another, in May 1934 she charged “non-husband” Bror Dahlberg with contempt for court for being in arrears with alimony. He’d stopped payments once Mary married Chapin. Dahlberg, a very astute businessman if ever there was one, was determined not to cough up, telling Mary that since she’d married Chapin, she had no need for Dahlberg’s money. Mary countered that Chapin’s inherited millions were irrelevant, so Dahlberg “tossed a bombshell” into proceedings. That is, he told the court of Mary’s marriage to Marcus, which was still valid at the time Mary “married” Dahlberg.  The hearings went into private chambers and instead of the $41,250 she had demanded, Mary emerged with a mere $2500. As Jess Stearn wrote about that lesser settlement in the New York Sunday News in January 1948, “You can draw what conclusions you like.” Stearn added of Mary, “Whatever else she was, she was interesting …”

Widely syndicated New York columnist Oscar Odd McIntyre certainly found her so, with repeated references to Mary’s many activities in the 1920s and 1930s. Walter Winchell also followed her movements closely, but far less admiringly. In September 1932 Winchell said she was “of Chicago divorce and jewel-theft renown”. Mary’s divorce proceedings against Huntley Chapin dragged on until 1938, by which time Mary had settled down in Albuquerque, New Mexico, while her husband remained in Mexico City with his Remington typewriter. After a short illness, Mary died on July 26, aged 39. Her lengthy obituary in the Chicago Daily Tribune gave no cause of death, surprising for someone still so young and so nationally famous. In Taos three days after Mary died, Huntley Chapin married for a third time, to “lush and lovely” Oregon-born Hollywood model Eulalia Catherine Miller (née Gilmer, 1903-82). The happy couple honeymooned in the Grand Canyon. This time, it seems, Chapin hadn’t got himself into such a deep turbulence.

In his two-page January 4, 1948, New York Sunday News article about Bror Dalhberg’s equally eventful marital life, journalist and author Jesse Stearn devoted almost as much space to Dahlberg’s ex, Mary Alexander – about whom Dahlberg refused to speak – as he did to Dahlberg’s then wife, the former Broadway musical comedy star Gilda Kreegan (real name Rebecca Gilda Krieger, 1904-). As well as using his own undoubted skills, Stearn (1914-2002) - later an associate editor for Newsweek, admirer of psychic Edgar Cayce and early promoter of yoga - was able to call on the experience and digging of Wyoming-born “Headline Happy” writer Florabel Muir (1889-1970), a reporter and paper columnist known for covering both Hollywood celebrities and underworld gangsters from the 1920s through to the 60s. Muir had started with the New York Daily News as a police reporter in 1927 and became its Los Angeles correspondent. Florabel was one tough lady: In 1949, during a shooting attempt on the life of mobster Mickey Cohen at Sherry's restaurant on the Sunset Strip, Muir was hit in the backside by a stray slug.

Stearn gave a rundown of some of the “highlights” of Mary Alexander’s life in the 1920s and early 30s. She had labelled Chicago society as “washtub aristrocrats” – something which offended the socialites deeply (society leader Harriet Townley Brown sued for $200,000 for defamation). Mary managed to pull off a coup, and cause a great deal of envy in the process, by having Princess Marie de Bourbon of Spain, second cousin of King Alfonso XIII, visit her in 1926. Mary hired the American Historical Society to trace her and Bror Dahlberg’s roots. Even though it linked her to William the Conqueror and Robert Bruce, her husband refused to pay the society’s fee of $1700, and it was forced to take him to court to recover its costs.

Huntley Chapin had his own troubles, quite apart from those caused by Mary. His 1931 divorce from his first wife, Myrtice McLaughlin Chapin (1903-39), had been messy, and there was a 15-month-old son, Huntley Jr (1929-2020) involved. Myrtice got a $100,000 settlement and she and her second husband, Willard Frederick Cummings, raised the child. But when Myrtice died in August 1939, Huntley fought for custody. He succeeded in December 1940 and took the boy back to Los Angeles with him. In mid-June 1948 Chapin married yet again, to Salome “Sally” Taylor (née Jamison, 1911-99), giving Huntley Jr two step-sisters. Bror Dahlberg’s second wife, Gilda Krieger, also had a fondness for litigation and the resulting splash headlines. In 1929 she pursued a pretend Hindu potentate (or a rich Bengal manganese and radium mine owner) calling himself Cambridge-educated Sir Eric Edward Dutt (real name, apparently, Chand) for $150,000 for slander over her morals and breach of promise to marry, as well as $100,000 from wealthy widow Theresa Rosenfeld for alienating the affections of Gilda’s former husband Bertram Victor Lichtie.

So endeth the story of Mary Virginia Alexander, the bootlegger John Marcus, the millionaires the Chapins and the Dahlbergs, and the Remington typewriter stolen in Mexico City in 1935. Phew! Bewildering, Such lives, lies and loves!

Tuesday 26 April 2022

What the Carnage of Gallipoli did to the Australian Typewriter Mechanic Malv Vail

Anzac, The Landing 1915, by George Lambert

“Tell me, when we read the story

Will your name be written there?”

-       Malv Vail, Narrabri, New South Wales, October 1916

Yesterday, at the time of an extremely ruthless and cruel war being waged in Europe by a mad, bloodthristy Russian mongrel dog, tens of thousands of Australians and New Zealanders marched to remind us of the absolute senselessness of war. This was on Anzac Day, April 25, marking the day in 1915 when the shores of Gallipoli in Turkey were left saturated by the wasted blood of Australian and New Zealand Army Corps soldiers.

One of the Australians caught up in the fruitless bloodlust of Gallipoli was a Melbourne typewriter mechanic, Malvern William Knight Vail, who was still just 21 when he joined the First Australian Imperial Force on November 28, 1914, three months after the force was formed following Britain’s declaration of war against Germany. Malv was assigned as a private to the 2nd Reinforcement, 7th Infantry Battalion, in January 1915, and left his home city for military training in Egypt early the next month.

Malv survived Gallipoli, but he was never the same man again. His mind would forever after be a mess. Admittedly, by the time he enlisted, he had already embarked on a nomadic life, and not one that was always straight. He’d had a sad upbringing; Malv lost his mother when he was six, and his father soon after abandoned eight children to Malv’s paternal grandmother, Elizabeth. In 1913, while a 20-year-old manager of the Underwood Typewriter Company’s branch office in Townsville, North Queensland, Malv fiddled the till and hocked one of the company’s typewriters. Then, in March 1914, while working for the Underwood manager in Brisbane, A.L. Simmonds, Malv stole another typewriter, worth £35. By April he had reached Sydney, where he was apprehended. He was given a six-months suspended sentence. Before returning home to enlist for military duty at Malvern, the Melbourne suburb after which he was named, Malv was advertising his typewriter repair and overhaul services in Bathurst. The temptation of the demon drink was the cause of his pre-war trouble, so signing up to serve overseas no doubt seemed a good idea at the time.

It didn’t turn out that way. In the thick of things at Gallipoli, Marv suffered shell shock (now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD). Now it needs to be borne in mind that men who suffered from shell shock at Gallipoli, and there were many, were not considered to be among the casualties of war; more often than not, indeed, they were accused of being malingerers. By May 1922, attitudes to shell shock had begun to change, and to become more enlightened. The Melbourne Argus reported, “Among the thousands of cases which have been dealt with by the Repatriation Department, none have presented greater difficulty than those of men who, as a result of the strain of war, have been classified on their return to civil life as neurasthenics [characterised by a persistent and distressing complaint of increased fatigue after mental effort, or persistent and distressing complaints of bodily weakness and exhaustion after minimal effort]. These men might have been shell shocked, gassed, or weakened by trench fever, and they have returned to Australia bundles of nerves, shattered and debilitated. Realising that this class of war derelict was unfitted to be turned on to the labour market to compete with normal healthy workmen, the department [is] determined to give them an opportunity of recovering their strength of body and mind.”

In his talk “The broken years: Thousands of shell-shocked Diggers left to suffer in silence”, given at the University of Sydney in August 2015, respected American historian Jay Winter said, “Mentally unwell soldiers were often regarded as malingerers during World War I and never received help for their injuries. There has been a silence lasting a century about the extent to which the soldiers of World War I suffered psychological injury. In part, this arose out of the stigma attached to mental illness. A contributory factor was the relatively undeveloped diagnostic skills of doctors confronted with a mixture of disorders that many tended to treat as malingering.

“Some doctors didn't believe in shell shock, preferring the term malingering. Under-reporting tended to understate the proportion of the wounded who suffered from psychological or neurological injury, with those in charge preferring to believe soldiers were manipulating the system to save their necks. And some soldiers did do precisely that. For a cluster of reasons, the medical profession created a silent protective box around shell shock … No one would seriously doubt that what happened on the Somme or at Verdun or at Gallipoli at times was matched in ferocity by later battles, in Normandy, Monte Cassino or during the Battle of the Bulge. And yet casualty statistics for World War II and for later conflicts report psychological casualties at levels from five to 20 times higher than those in World War I … Not that shell-shocked men couldn't admit what had happened to them.”

Malv Vail did freely admit to shell shock, at Gallipoli and afterwards. Eventually, after regular visits to the medical tent – he was wounded early in the August Offensive - it was decided Malv was unfit for further fighting. He was also one of 60,000 Australian soldiers who contracted venereal disease in World War I. Malv was returned to duty in Egypt in late November 1915, but was shipped back to Australia from Suez on January 29, 1916, aboard the Suffolk. He arrived home as a lance-corporal, among the “sick and wounded”, in Melbourne on February 21, 1916, and was discharged, medically unfit, on June 11, 1916. Yet Malv wasn’t done with war, not yet, not in his own mind. While quickly resuming his typewriter work in various parts of New South Wales, he joined the Narrabri military camp staff, pretty much as a recruiter, calling up what he dubbed the “Hughesites”. The term identified supporters of Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes (who used a Corona portable typewriter, by the way). Hughes was a strong supporter of compulsory war service, since after the catastrophe of Gallipoli, recruiting more Aussie lambs for the slaughter had become a major problem. But under the Defence Act 1903, the Government could not send conscripts overseas - they could only fight on Australian soil. With the topic of compulsory war service dividing the country, Hughes took the issue to a referendum. The October 28, 1916, referendum was defeated, with 51.6 per cent of 2.3 million voters against conscription and 48.4 per cent in favour of it.

Malv Vail, who became attached to the Defence Department in his spare time, was one of those trying to maintain the numbers of men needed to fight Britain’s war. Yet Malv himself was rejected in his bid to resume active military duty, on the grounds of shell shock. He tried to enlist at the Royal Agricultural Showgrounds in Sydney on December 1, 1916, and was assigned to the Depot Signal Training Company four days later. But on March 7, 1917, he was discharged as medically unfit. His file was marked, “Not due to misconduct.” Meanwhile, Malv carried on his typewriter trade, advertising under the heading “Help a Returned Soldier”. He remained in Narrabri even after the military camp was abandoned and in late October 1916, Malv wrote and recited at the Narrabri School of Arts this moving piece of poetry:

Malv roamed around New South Wales and Queensland, advertising his typewriter services wherever he went. His modus was to first offer to overhaul the typewriters at the local newspaper office in each town and getting a little bit of free publicity in return – usually it lauded his typewriter skills. Between 1917-20 he was in Bathurst, Coonabarabran, Grafton, Inverell, Dubbo, Murwillumbah, Kyogle, Glenn Innes, Lismore (where he even set up a company), Tamworth, Toowoomba, Dalby, Warwick and Bundaberg. In later years he worked in Victoria and South Australia, including Hay, Broken Hill, Mildura, Kadina and Port Pirie. He had married in Casino in 1917 and twin sons were born there. But Malv was soon in trouble with the law again, for desertion and not providing child support. He was also up to his old tricks in 1922, illegally obtaining a Royal typewriter from the Sisters of Mercy in Armidale.

Malv continued his wandering life in the typewriter business throughout the 1930s before returning to Melbourne in 1943. He then tried the Northern Territory, setting up his service in Darwin and Alice Spring from 1949-54. By 1968, aged 75, he was living at the Eventide Home in Sandgate, Brisbane. He died at the Prince Charles Hospital in Chermside, Brisbane, in late May 1978, aged 84, and is buried at the Mount Gravatt Cemetery.

Thursday 21 April 2022

I Be Merry: IBM Model 82 Electric Typewriter Resurrected

The simple pleasure I got from being able to type this standard old line today surprised even me. It was typed on a 45-year-old IBM Model 82 I found at the recycling centre on a dump site on Mugga Lane in Canberra this morning. I was there for an entirely different reason (green waste), but thought I'd pop into the centre on the off-chance there'd be a typewriter there. There were two, a massive big Adler electric and this IBM. The IBM looked in reasonable condition, but it was only after I'd forked out $5 for it that I found the power cord had been cut at the rim of the mask. And it's not like me to bother too much trying to get an IBM working. Still, I figured I might be able to build from what was left of the cord if I could get the mask off. That was easy enough (from past experience, happily not forgotten), but the mess under the mask - mainly from disintegrated black foam, was a real shock. My heart sank, this was one dead duck IBM I thought. Once I powered it up, however, there were coughs and splutters and signs of a small flicker of life, so I ploughed on.
A really thorough clean-up of the clumps of foam and the rest of the dirt and mess - including two pencils, one tightly stuck under the feed rollers, four paper clips and sundry other items - a degrease and relube and a blow-through with the air compressor, and this machine started to show more positive signs of being alive once more. It polished up rather well, in fact. So I put back the feed rollers and the platen and, sure enough, bit by bit, it came back from the brink. It had no golfball, but I took a Courier font ball off an IBM in the display room. I also dipped into a stockpile of spare ribbon cartridges. And finally I was able to type a line. That was enough for me for one day. Oh what joy! Such simple pleasure, even from an IBM! The sense of achievement and satisfaction being felt all the more keenly because of all the typewriters I've had to relegate to the spare parts section this past year. Being able to type just that one line meant so much.

Monday 18 April 2022

Whatever Happened to 'Gypsy Typing'? Gypsy Rose Lee and Her Royal Portable Typewriter

An Associated Press wire photo of Gypsy Rose Lee's son Erik Lee Preminger (1944 - ), who'd only just found out a short time earlier that Otto Preminger was his father, and not Bill Kirkland, admires the Marcel Vertès painting “Gyspy Typing” at the March 11, 1971, Sotheby Parke-Bernet auction in Los Angeles.

Howard Martin Von Bortel (left, 1930-2011), of Palmyra, New York, was as smart a car salesman as they come. He had one-price selling down to a science, and he sold thousands of cars, from Rolls-Royces to Chevrolets, Oldsmobiles, Chryslers and Plymouths. Von Bortel could also spot a bargin when he saw one. On March 10, 1971, there was a Sotheby Parke-Bernet auction of the estate of Gypsy Rose Lee, who had died in LA, aged 59, the previous April 26. Headlining the 261 items on sale was Gypsy Rose’s 1956 Silvercloud Rolls, but it went to a Russell Harris of LA 
for $8250. One big bidder, for the Rolls and other items, was former child movie star Jane Withers (1926-2021). Withers was at the time earning a dollar as ‘Josephine the Plumber’ in a series of television commercials for Comet cleanser. She was also co-starring, as the villian of the piece, in the Broadway musical comedy Sure, Sure, Shirley, with Shirley Temple Black. Van Bortel, known for selling Rolls-Royces at a discount, wasn't interested in Gypsy Rose’s Rolls at that price, but spotted something else – a Marcel Vertès painting titled “Gyspy Typing”. It depicted Gyspy Rose cross-legged on a covered stool, wearing only a high floral hat, gloves, a G-string and high heels, sitting at her Royal portable typewriter writing her racy detective novel The G-String Murders, which had been first published by Simon & Schuster in 1941.

Below, what Gypsy Rose Lee actually looked like while writing
The G-String Murders on her Royal portable in 1941. 

Now this is not the more commonly seen Vertès caricature, titled “Author at Work”, the one in which Gypsy Rose is on a chair in a costume change room, with no hat but a bra and a pair of knickers draped around her left ankle. A tamer variation of this appeared with Gypsy Rose's biography on the back cover of the first edition of The G-String Murders, with Gyspy Rose wearing some sort of dressing gown covering the upper part of her body. The Vertès painting that Von Bortel’s Palmyra Motors won at the LA auction, for  $1100, doesn’t appear to have been seen in public since 1971.

The tame version that appeared on the back cover of  The G-String Murders.

Vertès (1895-1961), a long-time friend of Gypsy Rose, was a French costume designer and illustrator of Hungarian-Jewish origins, the winner of two Academy Awards (Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design) for his work on the 1952 film Moulin Rouge. He is also responsible for the original murals in the Café Carlyle in the Carlyle Hotel in New York City and for those in the Peacock Alley in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York.

Gypsy Rose Lee and her Royal portable backstage in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1949.

Gypsy Rose had written to Simon & Shuster on February 26, 1941, saying: “Does this sound good for a dust jacket: a picture full length, of a stripper. Semi nude. The G String actually silver flitter. (Very inexpensive, that flitter business) And a separate piece of paper pasted on as a skirt, like birthday cards, you know? The customers can lift the skirt, and there’s the G string sparkling gaily. It is strictly gag business but it might cause talk … I asked Vertès if I could use the drawing he did of me for the back where they say: about the author … of me, half dressed pounding on the typewriter between shows. Just in case you liked it. He said he would be delighted. Dammit I love furriners! Aside from the hand kissing they really make like gents.”

Simon & Shuster didn’t agree to Gypsy Rose’s idea for readers of The G-String Murders to be able to lift her skirt, but the Vertès drawing was used in the book with the addition of a poorly drawn dressing gown. As to whatever happened to the Vertès painting bought by Palmyra Motors in 1971, its whereabouts are, unfortunately, anyone’s guess. 

Saturday 16 April 2022

The Playwright Who Invented Himself, on a Remington Typewriter

Teddy Barclay isn’t Australia’s most famous playwright, far from it. That title would most likely go to David Williamson, who used an Olivetti Lettera 22 portable. But Teddy Barclay was possibly our most prolific playwright, certainly so in the now long-lost speciality of radio drama. And he was definitely the playwright who consistently pounded a typewriter with the most unforgiving zeal. Each day in the six months from March to September 1933, Barclay sat at his Remington 10 standard typewriter from 8am to 1am the next morning, and wrote an astonishing 14 radio revues.

Or so Teddy said. The big problem with all this is that Teddy Barclay never existed. Unquestionably a highly inventive writer, Teddy’s most lasting invention was himself. In Leslie Rees’s 1982 book Hold Fast to Dreams: Fifty Years in Theatre, Radio, Television and Books, Rees described Barclay as “something of a minor genius”. His major genius was in creating a persona that Australians, to this day, believe to be true. Teddy Barclay was no mere writer's 
pseudonym, it was the complete fabrication of a life.

Teddy Barclay is still, today, vaunted in print – most notably in no less than the Australian Dictionary of Biography - as an outstanding novellist and playwright. His ADB entry has been slavishly copied by Wikipedia. Trouble is, all of the details about his early life are quite obviously false - to start with, no one in real life has ever had the surname Compston-Buckleigh. Yet until now nobody has bothered to find out the truth about Teddy. And that seemingly unpalatable truth is he that he is Australian literature’s greatest liar.

Australian Who's Who, 1944

Radio historian Richard Lane, in The Golden Age of Australian Radio Drama 1923-1960, wrote that Edmund Piers Barclay was "Australian radio's first great writer and, many would say, Australian radio's greatest playwright ever”. According to the ADB, Wikipedia and all other sources, Barclay was born on May 2, 1898, at Dinapore, India, the son of Major Edmund Compston-Buckleigh, from Hendon, Middlesex, that he was educated at Stonyhurst College, joined the Middlesex Regiment at the outbreak of World War I and won the Military Cross and Croix de Guerre while serving with the Royal Flying Corps. Apart from the date of birth, none of these things are even vaguely correct.

Brighter London was actually a 1923 stage play, not a weekly newspaper.
The editor named was Jimmy Heddle, not Headle.

The ADB and Wikipedia say Barclay arrived in Australia in August 1926, “determined to show ‘he was the world's greatest novelist’”. It must have been a very long voyage, because, under his real name, Barclay actually left London on the Australian Commonwealth Line's MV Largs Bay for Australia on November 11, 1924. The fact is that he would have reached this country by January 1925 at the latest.e wH


The unforunate wife of "Barclay" was London-born Helene Beatrice Barclay
 (nee Date, 1903-), left, also a noted playwright and author.

The 1993 (Volume 13) ADB entry on Barclay was written by Marion Consandine, who had had no more luck finding out who Barclay really was than, apparently, such well-known historians as Ken Inglis and Clement Semmler, the State Library of NSW or AusLit. Some relied on an entry in the 1944 Australian Who’s Who, which devoted 17 lines to “Barclay (formerly Compston-Buckleigh), Edmund Piers, MC (with Bar)”. The first nine lines are just a succession of blatant lies.

It didn’t take all that much effort to find the truth. All I needed to do was not copy what someone else (and especially Barclay) had written.

Mechanics were not all he devised.

Barclay was actually Edmund Charles Buckley, not born in India but in Southport, Lancashire (at least the birth date he gave was correct). His dad was no more a “Major” than I am – he was in fact a Swinton-born bike and car engineer, Samuel Compston Buckley (1871-1929). Edmund Buckley didn’t serve in World War I, and wasn’t awarded any war medals. When he left England under his real name, in 1924, he declared his occupation was journalism. He might have added, “and monumental bulldust artist”.

The sad part is that, in reinventing himself as a war hero and the son of a British Army officer, Teddy Barclay may have been inspired by the real life of Edmund Maurice Buckley, left, the son of Sir Edmund Buckley, the second Baronet of Mawddwy in Wales. Edmund Maurice Buckley (1886-1915) joined the Seventh Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers as a Second Lieutenant at the outbreak of the First World War. He served in the Gallipoli Campaign and died in the assault on Sulva Bay on  August 12, 1915.

Edmund Charles Buckley, who had become universally known as Edmund Piers Barclay, died of a coronary occlusion on August 26, 1961, at Gosford in New South Wales, aged 63. The truth about him was buried, along with the body.

Wednesday 13 April 2022

'The Duke' and the Remington Portable Typewriter

The Remington portable is on top of the filing cabinet as Jim Broadbent, playing Kempton Bunton in The Duke, is caught in the act of wrapping up the Goya by Helen Mirren, playing Bunton's wife Dorothy.
The model used in the movie

An early contender for the Movie With Typewriter Oscar is
The Duke, a very popular and much acclaimed British comedy-drama about Kempton Canwon Bunton and the theft of Francisco Goya's painting Portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London on August 21, 1961. This was the only time artwork has ever been stolen from the National Gallery. The delightful film stars Jim Broadbent as Bunton and Helen Mirren as his wife, Dorothy. The abundance of scenes showing Broadbent typing on a Glasgow-made grey Remington portable amply qualifies The Duke for our special category Academy Award. As well, there are lines of Leceister-made Imperial 66s in scenes shot at what purports to be Scotland Yard.

At the time of the robbery, Bunton was a 57-year-old unemployed driver, of Yewcroft Avenue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in the north-east of England. Constantly sacked from various jobs, Bunton had plenty of time on his hands to sit at his typewriter in a spare bedroom writing scripts for television mini-series. The stories in folders were piled up in a wardrobe in the bedroom, alongside the stolen painting. At the end of the movie, audiences are informed that none of the many scripts typed and submitted by this ambitious aspiring playwright were accepted for production by the British Broadcasting Corporation. Broadbent-Bunton is shown receiving one rejection letter from the BBC, telling him it doesn’t find much call for “grief” stories.

The real Kempton Bunton (1904-1976)
Between 1961-65, Kempton Bunton gave British police plenty of grief. Finally the Bunton case reached the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court in London, and was heard from November 4-9, 1965. This was the subject of a 2016 book by American lawyer Alan Hirsch, The Duke of Wellington, Kidnapped!: The Incredible True Story of the Art Heist That Shocked a Nation. Hirsh wrote that the presiding judge Carl Aarvold was “once oddly described by a journalist as ‘not only gracious in defeat but fluent in French, a rare combination’.” Hirsch pointed out that Aarvold made the odd judicial decision to instruct the jurors that they must acquit Bunton if they believed that he always intended to return the painting. “[Aarvold] was actually following the letter of Britain’s exceedingly odd larceny statute,” Hirsch wrote. “Bunton’s defence team wisely latched on to the wording of the law, which said you are guilty of theft only if you intend to ‘permanently deprive’ the owner of his possession. The problem for the defence was that while Bunton returned the painting, he did not return the frame [which the Buntons had lost]. All of this tied the judge up in knots during his instruction to the jury.” Even so, the jury managed to follow his instructions - finding Bunton not guilty of stealing the painting, but guilty of stealing the frame. Bunton served three months.

Bunton’s motive was to benefit “the good of mankind” and to pay off BBC TV licences for pensioners. His wife Dorothy (née Donnelly) considered her husband as, “above all a frustrated author who had written a novel and several plays without ever managing to get a line published”. However, 11 months after Bunton died, in April 1976, the Liverpool Daily Post put Bunton’s own typed words into print. The story was headlined, “How I Stole the Goya”.

Sunday 10 April 2022

Feeling Like An Achiever - of the Sears Waltons Typewriter Kind

* It's easy to see how invigorated I was by this trip: I've subconsciously swapped the figures around in my age - I'm actually 74!
I suspect the typewriter gods were with me on this journey, because it started well, with an on-the-spot, no-tools freebie typewriter repair job in the village of Braidwood, about an hour out of Canberra. We were walking down the main street when I looked into a store window and saw a dusty old Imperial 55 standard. I gave it a test type and realised straight away that the drawband was unattached. I asked the storekeeper if she wanted it to be returned to working order, and she said, "Yes, please!"  So I removed the carriage, reattached the drawband, and in less than five minutes had it typing again. The storekeeper was greatly impressed!
As is often the case in Braidwood, I saw one of the cars of my dreams (and the motor was still running in the owner's absence). But of course, it would never have been able to do the job the "Magical Mystery Tour" bus managed to do - which is haul back go Canberra all the things we'd found in op-shops along the way, including two "new" typewriters for my collection.
But getting back to the Sears Achiever 600. In its edition of October 1977, the Australian Consumers' Association magazine Choice rated 59 "lightweight" portable typewriters. Among them, it "double-dipped" many times, including Imperials, Royals, Chevrons, Pinnocks and KMarts made by Nakajima; and Brothers, Sears and Lemairs made by Brother. Brother came out on top, with not alone the Nagoya-made Sears Achiever 600 (which was on the magazine's cover) but the Brother 700T and the Lemair 800T among the four typewriters singled out for recommendations by Choice. The other one was the Olivetti Lettera 32.

The model I found was originally sold, at $79.99, by Waltons, an Australian department store chain founded by John Walton (1904–1998). In August 1955 Walton formed an alliance with the Chicago-headquartered retail giant Sears, Roebuck and Co. Waltons chairman Norman B. Rydge announced Sears had bought a substantial interest in Waltons shares, the first deal of its kind for an Australian retail outfit. In April 1955 Walton and Sears had each made a bid for another Australian concern, Foy & Gibson, one of this country's largest and earliest department store chains (it was taken over by Cox Brothers, which went into liquidation in 1968), and afterwards Waltons and Sears joined forces. Sears got equal representation on the Waltons board and its chairman, Theodore V. Houser, said he had been impressed by Australia’s growrth and prosperity. Ted Munk, on the Typewriter Database, points out that the new Sears Achiever model was announced in the Sears 1977 Fall Catalog at $118.99. Ted says it is the Brother JP-7 type. 

For all that, the "top prize" from our trip was the Remington 15 I found in Ulladulla. In my previous post, concentrating on this Brazilian-made machine, I neglected to mention two other variations of it, the Remington Travelriter, available for sale in Mumbai, and the Atlas 25, on WorthPoint, both with tabulation, unlike the Sperry Rand Remington 10 and my 15.
Having scored the more unusual Remington 15, however, I was content (though not 47 again). I could put my feet up, sip from a glass of bubbly, and enjoy the evenings at the "Magical Mystery Tour" base in Mollymook:
And start getting into the new "journalism library" of books my wife Harriet gave me for what was actually my 74th birthday: