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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

BATS IN THE ATTIC

I can’t say she was beautiful, but then photographs are a poor record of personality. The newspapers called her “comely”, which the dictionary defines as “pleasing and wholesome in appearance.” But Dolly Oesterreich (pronounced "Ace-strike") (above) was not wholesome. She was, when our story begins, about 33 years old, an age at which a woman, so we are told, reaches the peak of her sensuality. However, I suspect that Dolly had always been skilled at seduction.
For 15 years Dolly (left) had been married to Fred Oesterreich (right), a man whose only selling point as a husband was that he was wealthy. He owned an apron factory in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he was constantly berating his 60 seamstresses to work faster. He pinched every penny and drove himself as hard as he drove his employees. As a result of his dedication to his job, the Oesterreiches got richer. And Dolly got lonelier. So it should have come as no surprise in 1913, when Dolly asked her husband to dispatch a particular repairman she had seen about the factory, to fix her personal sewing machine.
His name was Otto Sanhuber, and when our story begins, he was all of 17. Again it seems, the photographs do not do him justice. To the casual observer he looked like a mousy milktoast of a man. But Dolly must have recognized that, beyond Otto’s nebish exterior, loomed an undiscovered Hercules of passion.
Dolly answered Otto's knock attired only in a robe and slippers. She showed him to her bedroom, where she kept her Singer. She lounged on the bed while Otto adjusted her bobbin. Dolly brushed back her hair. Otto tightened her belts. Dolly lifted a leg. Otto greased her shuttle shaft. Dolly let her robe fall open. And according to Otto, he threaded her needle eight times that first afternoon.
They began by sneaking assignations in the Oesterrich home while Fred was at work, but a needling neghbor warned Fred about the man who was constantly coming and going from his house. Dolly was forced to hem and haw an excuse. First the love struck pair substituted Otto’s depressing rooms, and then a hotel. But every rendevouses ran the risk of uncovering their affair. Eventually, Dolly conceived a simple pattern for their love. Otto quit his job and moved into the attic of the Oesterreich home. A curtain was thus drawn and there would be no more comings and goings - none visible to the neighbors, anyway.
The thread of Otto’s life had found his spool. The hook of Dolly’s life had found her eye. For three years they pulled the wool over Fred’s eyes. For three years Otto slept above his mistresses’ marriage bed, slipping out of his hidden attic room by day to help Dolly with her housework, and once the dishes were done, to pump her treadle and spin her crank. There were loose threads, of course, that threatened to unfray the fabric of thier affair. But with a little tacking, awl was mended.
Eventually Fred got the notion of moving his factory to Los Angeles, and in 1918 he bought Dolly a grand home on North St. Andrew’s place in that city. Dolly made certain the new home had a tidy tiny attic room, so Otto would feel comforted too. Life was a perfect fit for Dolly and Otto and Fred, as long as Fred never noticed how much it was costing him to feed and clothe one woman.
This happy scene unraveled on the night of Tuesday, August 22, 1922, four years after the move to Los Angeles. Fred and Dolly returned from a dinner party and a fight broke out. Fred lost his temper and actually struck Dolly. And that was when Otto rushed to the rescue from behind his hidden access door, carrying a .22 pistol. The two men struggled. Otto’s gun went off three times, and Fred went down. His string had run out. A few moments later, the police arrived to discover an apparent house robbery gone bad. The husband was dead on the living room floor and the hysterical wife was locked in the hall closet. Still, there was something that made the police suspicious. When swetted by the cops, Dolly insisted the couple had never fought. The police, many of them married men,  knew that had to be a lie, but they couldn't prove it.
Dolly was arrested, and charged (above) with the murder of her husband. While she was in lockup Dolly pleated with one of her lawyers, Herman Shapiro, to do her a tiny  favor. Dolly claimed to have an addled half-brother named Otto who lived in her attic, who must be running short of food by now. Already under Dolly’s beguiling influence, Herman agreed to deliver sustenance to the man. When he tapped on the hidden attic door, a bespeckeled little face appeared and wolfed down the food, and talked; he talked as if he had no one to speak to for years. He was, in fact, explained Otto, a sewing machine repairman who years ago had come to fix Dolly’s machine and stayed to be her “sex slave”. Otto said nothing about Fred’s murder, but Herman was no fool.
Without knowledge of Otto, the Police case against Dolly fell apart, and she was released. But Herman Shapiro found he cottoned to Dolly, and he insisted that before anything happened between them, Otto had to go. So, in 1923, Otto moved out of the attic. He went to Canada. There he he married. But, eventually, in search of work,  he moved himself and his wife back to Los Angeles. In L.A. he got a job as a porter in a hotel. And all might have lived there happily ever with his devoted wife, if only Herman Shapiro kept his big fat mouth sewn shut.
In 1930, eight years after Fred’s death, Herman finally realized the seductress from Milwaukee was never going to marry him, especially after he caught her in a lie, and realized she had taken up behind his back with her business manager, Mr. Ray Bert Hendrick. A lawyer scorned, Herman went to the police and spilled the beans. He confessed the details of his encounter with the man in the attic. The police checked the long since abandoned Oesterreich homes in Wisconson and Los Angeles and discovered Otto’s hidden abodes, and the veil was stripped from their eyes. Dolly's life quickly unraveled. Otto (above, with glasses, center, showing off his hideaway) was arrested, and he talked and he showed. The prosecutors were in stiches. They fitted Dolly for a pair of handcuffs.
Otto was convicted of manslaughter. But, since the statute of limitations for manslaughter was eight years, which had just run out, Otto was released immediately after his conviction. He then faded from history. I wonder if his marraige survived the revolations.  Dolly’s trial ended in a hung jury, the majority favoring her aquital. She was never recharged. Dolly (above) lived out the rest of her life living over a garage, surviving on the meger remains of the fortune that Fred had amassed - which would have infuriated Fred, had he not been dead. In the end I guess Otto was still needling Dolly.  She did not remarry until 1961, at the age of 75. Her new husband was her long time business manager, Ray Bert Hendrick. She died just two weeks later.
It brings to mind the way that Leo Tolstoy began his novel Anna Karenina; “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”.  And this family was surely particularly unhappy, because whatever it was that Otto and Fred and Dolly were doing together, they were doing it tailored in  their very own ill-fitting way.
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