“I'm a lady of the evening. And while youth and beauty last, I never worry who will pay my rent. For a while I'll be in clover, And when easy days are over, I know I'll go the way that all, My predecessors went.”
Our poet, Benita Franklin, was born in Joliet, Illinois in 1891. Her father was a strict disciplinarian, and when the young drama queen rebelled, he dispatched her to the Ladies of Loretto Convent School in nearby Wheaton. Benita was so miserable there she claimed to have tried to commit suicide, but the nuns labeled her behavior as “insubordinate”. So Benita ran away, looking for an audience who would appreciate her performance. And being young and beautiful, she found a way to make her way, working as a chorus girl on the nightclub circuit, and using the name, Vivian Gordon. In Charleston, South Carolina, in 1912 the 21 year old met a dull accountant named Joseph E.C. Bischoff. Perhaps it was her need for security, or perhaps she really fell in love, but within a few months they were married. And in 1913 Benita/Vivian gave birth to a girl, Benita Frederica.
The new family moved to the Philadelphia suburb of Audubon, New Jersey, and Joseph went to work for the United States Marshal service, as an office manager. Benita/Vivian was left at home with little Benita Frederica . But Benita/Vivian's search for drama reasserted itself after Joesph secured a promotion to the D.C. Woman’s Reformatory, in Lorton, Virginia. The money was good, but Joseph was away from home for weeks at a time. Eventually Benita/Vivian sought out the attention of Al Marks, a lingerie salesman, from Long Branch, New Jersey. And in 1923, while the couple was having a dramatic tryst in the seedy Langwell Hotel (above), on West 44th street, just above Manhattan’s Time Square, Vice Patrolman Andrew J. McLaughlin dramatically burst in on them. Under pressure Al Marks confessed he had paid Benita/Vivian for the sex, and she was charged with prostitution.
Shuffled abruptly through the Brooklyn night court of Magistrate H. Stanley Renaud, Benita/Vivian quickly came to the realization she had been set up. Of the 219 women the Brooklyn night court convicted of prostitution in 1923, 72% were first time offenders, like Vivian, and one in ten were pregnant – which should have told officials they were not really prostitutes. But judge Renaud never asked such questions. Benita/Vivian was convicted of prostitution on the statement signed by Al and detective McLaughlin, and even though she was a first time offender (at least in New York City), she as sentenced to three years at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, in Westchester County. Even before she left Brooklyn , Benita/Vivian was served divorce papers, filed by her husband Joseph, who was seeking custody of Benita Frederica . That quickly the previous decade of her life was simply wiped out.
“I'm a lady of the evening, With a morning glory's beauty. The payment for my raiment, I get in devious ways. When some big and wealthy brute, Wants to love me 'cause I'm cute, I admit that I submit, Because it pays.”
Bedford Hills had been built by well intentioned do-gooders, who had designed the facility to be communal, and to emphasize reform. The 3-400 prisoners, each between 16 and 30 years old, some along with their infants and newborns, were housed in two story cottages, each with their own kitchens. Mornings everyone worked on the 300 acre farm, but in the afternoon there were classes in secretarial work and sewing. However, time had converted Bedford Hills into an understaffed prison devoid of much good. Inmates were isolated and allowed only one letter a month. And the last note Benita/Vivian received from her daughter read, “Dear mama. I am very sorry you are sick. I hope you will be better soon. I miss you very much.” The pressure on her to be dramatic must have been overwhelming, but dramatic prisoners were reclassified as Mentally Defective, and chained to beds in what had once been the infirmary. Their sentences were now indeterminate, meaning the doctors decided when and if to release them. Under this threat, Benita/Vivian quickly became just another dull inmate. Her father would have been proud.
The woman who came out of Bedford in 1926 had a single goal, to get her daughter back. And a single name, Vivian Gordon (above). She went into the only profession now open to her, and as she noted in her poem, she was good at it. She was still beautiful and looked far younger than her age. Vivian was a "high class" hooker, and quickly branched out to blackmailing her wealthier customers. As the roaring twenties approached their end, Vivian Gordon was often seen at Manhattan speakeasies with Jack “Legs” Diamond, the gangster who ran the city.
Vivian “loaned” Jack (above) thousands of dollars, to enlist his help. On his advice she hired crooked lawyer John Radeloff, to get her conviction overturned. Radeloff took her money, but all three of his three attempts to nail McLaughlin, failed. On Radeloff's advice she even hired a dope named Sam “Chowder-head” Harris to kidnap her daughter in New Jersey and bring her to New York, where the judges could be bribed. All “Chowder-head” managed to do was to terrify the 15 year old Benita. Vivian began to suspect that Radeloff was only interested in sucking her dry. And then Vivian saw another way to get at the crooked cop, and get her daughter back..
In August of 1930 State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Force Crater disappeared on West 45th street. Press reports about the mob connections of “the missingest man in New York” were so explosive that New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt was able to pressure Mayor Jimmy Walker to accept an independent and wide ranging investigation of graft in city government. The man Roosevelt pushed on Walker to lead the committee was above suspicion, retired judge Samuel Seabury. He was so honest he could barely get elected. Early in February of 1931 Vivian wrote to the committee (below), saying she had “some information in connection with a 'frame up' by a police officer and others which . . . will be of great aid to your committee.”
Lead counsel Irving Cooper met with Vivian at committee offices at 80 Center Street, on Friday, February 20th, 1931, and he was impressed. Vivian would make a good witness, beautiful and articulate. She was an intimate of Jack Diamond's. Her story was filled with names, from Mayor Jimmy Walker down to dozens of judges and hoods who were all "on the take". But Cooper wanted more. He asked Vivian to come back with corroboration, paperwork, photos and letters, the kind of thing she used in her blackmail. And Vivian agreed to return with “the goods”.
Shortly after eleven on the night of Wednesday, February 25th , 1931, Vivian Gordon (above) was seen leaving her three room apartment at 156 East 37th Street in Manhattan. She was wearing a black evening dress with white lace trim and a matching handbag, which was covered by an ankle-length mink coat and topped off with a black straw hat. On her left wrist she wore a platinum watch and on her right hand a two caret diamond ring. Vivian Gordon got into a waiting Cadillac and disappeared into the night.
Nine hours later an oil company employee on his way to work spotted her body in a ditch (above) beside a lonely section of the Mosholu Parkway, adjacent to the golf course in the Bronx's Van Courtland Park
Vivian (above) had been beaten about the head, but the cause of death was the clothesline knotted about her throat. Her hat and one of her sued shoes were found not far away. Her coat, her watch and her pocketbook were all missing.
The New York papers lit up like the Fourth of July. A beautiful prostitute, a witness for the Seabury Commission, had been murdered just six months after Judge Crater had gone missing. And it turned out Vivian and Crater knew many of the same people, including Jack "Legs" Diamond and Mayor Jimmy Walker. All of that made her murder front page news, even in the papers out in the sticks (above).. The reporters noted the autopsy of the “Queen of the Courtesans” (as they now called her) revealed that about one in the morning of Thursday, February 26th she had eaten sauerkraut, raisins and some egg whites – a “working girl's” dinner, heavy on the protein. And over the course of the evening Vivian had consumed five or six stiff drinks. But that was as far as the facts could take them. Still having a paper to fill, the reporters switch to speculation.
The cops searched Vivian's apartment (above) for the corroboration she had promised the Seabury Committee. They reported finding no little black book, or photos, or hotel receipts or love letters, not even any business cards. They may have found them, they just didn't report them. What they did find and report was $50,000 in cash and Vivian Gordon's dramatic diary. In it she railed against Detective McLaughlin, her ex-husband and all the men who had cheated her. There were also the names of 200 of New York's rich and dishonest. The most telling passage was when she dramatically called her own lawyer, John Radeloff, “the only man I fear...who, if he wanted, could get (Chowder-head) Cohen and a couple of his henchmen to do away with me.”
Those with something to hide waited for the story to fade. But just six days later, at about 4:30 pm on Tuesday March 3, 1931, 16 year old Benita Frederica was discovered by her stepmother. The teenager was near death on the kitchen floor. The previous weekend, members of Benita's prep school hockey team had refused to practice with the daughter of the infamous Vivian Gordon. The newspapers turned that into the headline, “Squeeler's Daughter Unable to Face Schoolmates.” According to her diary, that was why Benita had turned on the gas. She died a few hours later in a Camden hospital. The story, which had been hot the week before, was white hot now. A Daily News editorial screamed, “The rope that jerked tight about Vivian Gordon's neck to keep her from talking, is about to jerk the lid off a sizzling pot of scandals, frame ups, charges and counter-charges in New York's city government.”
The Seabury investigation focused on Detective McLaughlin. He had an iron clad alibi, being aboard the Cunard liner S.S. California, on a six-day cruise to Bermuda. He was 800 miles out in the Atlantic on the night Vivian was murdered. But investigators also discovered that over the last three years the $60 a week detective had managed to accumulate $35,800. Andrew McLaughlin would be indited, and although not convicted he was through as a New York City cop.
The local cops meanwhile zeroed in on Vivian's diaries, which showed she was no madam. The diary said attorney John Radeloff had been her pimp, while his brother Joe had been her boyfriend and partner in a stock scam, funded by Vivian's various skills. But the year before Vivian had turned on Joe, testifying against him in front of a grand jury. For some reason, the records of that jury had disappeared, but reporters suspected hard feelings remained between Vivian and Joe. Reporters also discovered that Vivian had been the owner of record for gambling houses in Queens and Brooklyn. Were they actually owned by Jack Diamond and other mobsters? Or maybe even Mayor Walker. Vivian Gordon it seemed, had been the Donald Trump of the roaring twenties underworld. And just when it seemed the publicity would bring down the whole rotten structure of New York politics, the cops came up with a trio of the usual suspects who shut down all other investigations.
Harry Stein was a small time crook and occasional partner in Vivian's scams. He had also once been accused of strangling a woman. But the primary justification for his arrest was that he sold Vivian's mink coat and ring the day after her murder, or so the police said. A few days after his arrest, his tailor Sam Greenhauser was indicted. And for a topper, the cops arrested the small time hood Harry Schlitten. In exchange for immunity, he confessed to driving the Ford coupe (above) in which Vivian had been beaten and strangled, or so said the cops.
But Stein and Greenhauser had alibi's. And the front seat of the coupe looked too small to fit more than two people, which meant the killer would have to drive and strangle Vivian at the same time. And that did not even consider beating her in the head. The trial began on June 18th, 1931, just 16 weeks after Vivian's murder, and it ended two weeks later, on July 1st . After just three hours of deliberation, the jury declared all the defendants “not guilty”. And that was that.
Nobody would ever be convicted of Vivian's brutal murder. As corrupt mayor Jimmy Walker (above) would observe, when he returned from his California vacation, “There were more frames than there were pictures”. But the ultimate judgment on Vivian, may have been delivered by Polly Adler, the most infamous "Vice Entrepreneuse" in New York City. Vivian Gordon, the infamous madam said, was “just another woman out to feather her nest quickly.”
“I'm a lady of the evening, Just like Cleopatra was. The Queen of Sheba also played my game. Though by inches I am dying, There's not any use in crying. I stay and play 'cause I'm that way, A moth that loves the flame.”
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