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American Zealots: Shoot Out in the Kingdom of God

It is an easy drive to the mouth of Par­ley’s Canyon. The ascent is so gentle I feel safe glancing away from the high­way and back to the valley — to Salt Lake City, laid out in a fastidious grid, the outlines of its commercial center geometric and distinct in the late after­ noon sun.

In a blink the city is gone from my rearview mirror, obscured by the twist­ing gullet of the canyon. On either side, the peaks of the Wasatch Range rise in volcanic swirls. Snow begins to fall, one of those freak blizzards that blow in unan­nounced during the early spring. All I can do is hold to the road, barely creeping through the curtain of flakes until — as quickly as it came­ — the blizzard stops. The mountains have reced­ed. In their place is a high valley stretching silent, white, and dreamlike beneath the snow.

I follow a well-paved country road west, turning just before the village of Kamas onto Upper Loop Road. And there it is, sitting at the top of an unpaved lane — the Singers’ cabin. It appears innocent, its aging mortar spilling out between the logs just as one of its occupants had described it, like “white frosting on a chocolate cake.”

Weeks before, when I had seen the house on the evening news, it had ap­peared menacing and inaccessible, the hideout for a family of fundamentalist Mormons who had bombed a church in nearby Kamas. The suspects were the clan’s matriarch, a frail blond woman named Vickie Singer, and her son-in-law, Addam Swapp who, apparently, was mar­ried to two of Vickie’s daughters. For nearly two weeks the Singer-Swapps — numbering six adults and nine children­ — barricaded themselves in the cabin and, armed with an arsenal of handguns, ri­fles, and sawed-off shotguns, held off an army of county deputies and federal agents. On the 13th day, the standoff erupted into a gun battle that left one officer dead.

As far as I could tell from the muddled accounts coming out of the highlands of Utah, the Singer-Swapps were harboring a complex set of grievances against not only the Mormon Church, but the State of Utah and the United States of Ameri­ca. The bombing of the Kamas Stake Center was apparently intended as a pro­test against “wickedness.” Beyond that, however, it seemed to have a mystical significance peculiar to this corner of the world. The explosion, which lifted the roof off the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was meant to ring in the millennium, heralding the second coming of Christ — and the resurrection of Vickie’s husband, the late John T. Singer.

“If you’re going up there,” I had been told, “be sure and get there before nightfall. Visitors after dark make them nervous.”

It is well before twilight when I ar­rive, and driving slowly up the rutted lane, I park in the shadow of several outbuildings. Running along the walkway to the back door is a wire still strung with a makeshift warning system, fruit jars filled with bolts.

On the other side of the door, there is the sound of children laughing. It opens suddenly to reveal a teenaged girl with a long skirt and a lustrous blond braid. She is holding a baby. I recognize Charlotte Swapp from photos taken after her ar­rest, when she and her sister, Heidi, and their mother were being shuttled from jail to court in chains. She looked at least five years older then, her expression dumb with shock. Charlotte and Heidi were held in custody 12 days before U.S. prosecutors decided that, unlike their mother and husband, they had no active role in the bombing and released them.

Charlotte’s sweet face is radiant with goodwill. “Any trouble finding us?” she asks, ushering me into the living room. It is comfortable and surprisingly middle­-class, like some civil servant’s idea of a hunting retreat. The fieldstone fireplace, which occupies one entire wall, appears to be largely for show since the seven­-room cabin is heated by an enormous woodburning stove in the kitchen.

Charlotte motions for me to sit on a section of couch upholstered with bold orange sunflowers. She sits nearby cra­dling baby John Swapp to her thin chest.

“You’re not afraid we’ll take you hos­tage or anything?”

We laugh. The scene is so absurdly se­rene I am hard put to imagine how eight weeks earlier the living room was an armed camp. The irony of this seems to elude Charlotte, who talks on about her absent mother and husband as if they were away visiting relatives. What is fore­most in her thoughts, at this moment, is not the prospect of her loved ones down in Salt Lake behind bars, but whether she can get Addam’s birthday gift completed in time for the trial. (His birthday hap­pens to fall on the trial date, April 6. This is also, by certain Mormon calculations, the birth date of Christ.)

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She had been working night and day at her beading loom, fashioning cuff orna­ments for a new buckskin jacket. She clisplays them proudly, two beaded strips bearing a set of arcane symbols.

“What do these mean?” I ask her.

She looks mysterious, then replies with mock exasperation, “You’d just have to know Addam.”

More ambitious than the cuff piece is a larger design that is still on the loom. It seems to be a flag with blue and white stripes and 13 white stars on a blue field. This unfamiliar standard is the work of Charlotte’s older sister, Heidi, who has been hovering on the periphery of this congenial scene like a glowering wraith.

Heidi Swapp is a handsome woman in her early twenties. Ruddy and freckled, she wears her long red hair in a braid like her sister’s. Wherever she moves she is surrounded by a swarm of small chil­dren — I count five — whose screeching and tugging have put her in a foul mood. But I quickly perceive that Heidi’s irrita­tion extends to me.

“You write about murders?” she asks. An intermediary has sent her a collection of my articles. “What do you want with us? We’re not a murder.”

Not exactly a murder, I am tempted to say. But Lieutenant Freddie Floyd House was killed on your lawn not two months ago.

I hold my tongue.

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The real reason Heidi is so hostile, I suspect, is that she assumes I am a gen­tile (a term that Mormons apply to any non-Mormon). T0 be a gentile is to mix with and be contaminated by the world. To be one without understanding. But I understand Heidi’s thinking better than she imagines. When I read those strange news accounts of her family’s dangerous, enchanted world, I experienced a shiver of recognition. Not that I had ever known any of the Singer-Swapps personally. They, barricaded against the wickedness in the wilds of Utah, and I, rubbing el­bows with it in lower Manhattan, do not exactly run in the same circles. But I, too, was born a Latter Day Saint.

This is not quite accurate. I was born a Reorganized Latter Day Saint — a distinction that requires a few words of explanation. The Reorganization — a singularly graceless designation — refers to a faction that bears somewhat the same relation­ship to the original Utah Mormons as Reform Judaism bears to the Orthodoxy. The two were splinters of a church that scattered after 1844 when Joseph Smith was shot by an Illinois mob. The largest group followed Brigham Young to Utah. The next largest coalesced around the prophet’s son and settled in what would later become my hometown of Indepen­dence, Missouri.

We the Reorganized prided ourselves upon being more enlightened than those people in Utah. The church authorities saw fit to admit blacks to the priesthood as early as 1871 and three years ago or­dained women. When I was employed as a guide one summer at church headquar­ters, l was instructed to inform visitors politely but firmly that the Reorganiza­tion never practiced polygamy. (That was true.) Nor, in fact, had Joseph Smith ever preached it. (That was not true. The prophet’s first wife, Emma, devoted her widowhood to rewriting history.) In all respects the RLDS are a rather more easygoing outfit than the Mormons. I never heard of anyone being excommuni­cated. No one ever broke with the church. They just did what I eventually did. Drifted away.

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Although I recall summers of faithful attendance at vacation church school studying instructive stories from the Book of Mormon, my religious training played in the background of my upbring­ing like elevator music. Now, almost 20 years since last attending church, I can’t remember any particular tune. (Perhaps this is due to the merciful offices of deni­al.) I am, however, left with one lingering, powerful impression — call it an appre­hension — that at any moment, a perfectly ordinary street scene is liable to dissolve into a passion play. A Latter-day Saint­ — be he Mormon or Reorganized — is taught to admit the possibility of miracles as part of daily life. Every coincidence is fraught with divine import, every hunch is “the voice of God.” In the world of the Latter-day Saint, God speaks to humans as casually as Dr. Ruth chats with call­-ins.

Among the more vivid memories of my youth is that of the Wednesday night “prayer and testimony” service, where solid, sensible citizens would stand and report on the wonders that God had worked for them that week. In the grand scheme of things, these were only “little miracles,” which God performed to help ease his children through the trials of everyday life. I remember one Wednesday night, a schoolmate stood and told how her father had been laid off at the plant, and the family larder had been down to one pack of hot dogs. But they had prayed and, behold, the dogs had multi­plied to feed everyone. This Miracle of the Frankfurters sounds a little ridiculous as I now tell it, but on that Wednesday night, in a setting of uncritical belief, it sounded perfectly plausible.

There were, of course, unspoken guide­lines as to what constituted an acceptable miracle. The modern variety was under­stood to be more modest in scope than such Old Testament triumphs as raising the dead. To a true believer, such things were still possible. But no one at prayer and testimony would ever have presumed to put God to a test. There was an unspo­ken fear perhaps, that He’d lost His touch over the centuries. That if one tried to provoke the fireworks of antiqui­ty, one was bound to be disappointed. What struck me so profoundly in reading about the exploits of the Singer-Swapps was that they clearly had wandered over the line from “little miracles” to visions of the millennium, not only accepting the possibility of a resurrection, but actually making plans for it. The Singers were living in a full-blown Second Reality, where God was still a god of major miracles.

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Faced now with Heidi’s suspicion, I am tempted to invoke our common Latter-­day Saint heritage. She does not, howev­er, seem the sort whose heart might be softened by the prospect of women hold­ing priesthood.

“Well, Heidi,” I proceed gamely. “I would like to hear about your father.”

I do want to hear about Heidi’s father, who was, after all, the man upon whom this mega-miracle was to turn. During the early ’70s, John T. Singer enjoyed a modest celebrity when he took his chil­dren out of public school in Marion, Utah. The reasons he gave were diverse. He objected to sex education, he objected to drugs in the schools, he objected to a curriculum that taught equality of the races. Singer chose to instruct his chil­dren at home where they would not be polluted by worldliness.

Heidi’s resistance softens visibly at the mention of him. She is now eager to explain.

“My father knew all there was to teaching,” she says. “He taught as long as he pleased. He taught us when he pleased. He taught us arithmetic in our heads and not on paper. Then he’d teach us a hymn. You’d have to do exercise, jog around the hills a little. Some days we’d go out and school was gardening.”

Two of Heidi’s children are now scuf­fling noisily on the floor. She gives one a quick slap. Embarrassed by this outburst, Charlotte indicates that Heidi has been under some unusual pressures of late.

“I’m going to stand,” Heidi announces abruptly. “I have to stand. If I don’t, Dad died for nuthin’.”

It is not clear what Heidi means by “stand.” It seems that two months ago, she and her family “stood” for something — I’m not sure what — and got the wind knocked out of them. But here Heidi is, up again, seemingly ready for a fight. And all in her father’s name.

Exactly what it was in John Singer’s memory that inspires this fierce devo­tion — the compulsion to make “a stand” — is only hinted at in his photograph, which rests against a chalkboard above the couch. He is smiling slightly and his expression reveals a curious playfulness. But there is also a steely intractability — ­the quality that apparently infuriated the town fathers of Kamas during the weeks before he was shot one January morning in 1979.

Singer’s father was a German who came to America before World War II to raise money for the Nazis; his mother, a devout Mormon. This strong-willed pair apparently wore each other out and Herr Singer, intent that his two sons not join the Mormon church, packed them off to Germany where he enrolled them in an SS training school.

John Singer professed to have hated the Nazis and, indeed, to have been ex­pelled from the school for “rebellious be­havior.” After the war, he returned to America and later joined the marines, which he did not seem to like much bet­ter. John Singer could not endure any form of regimentation.

In his late teens, he was lured to Utah by the offer of work from his father’s brother, Gustav Weller, who owned a con­siderable amount of land in the Kamas Valley. In that tiny and predominantly Mormon mountain community, Gus Wel­ler was regarded as an eccentric who held dangerous opinions.

Since the late 1800s, the church had been quietly ridding itself of certain embarrassing doctrines, chief among these, polygamy. Plural marriage was one of the holiest tenets of the early Mormon church. The argument went that a man who had one wife possessed such a tenu­ous claim on eternity that he could only hope to go to the Celestial Kingdom — the highest rung of Mormon heaven — as a minor angel. But the man who spread his seed widely might actually aspire to be­come a God. For justification, the church pointed to certain Old Testament patri­archs who took many wives. During the late 19th century, however, this apologia did not play well throughout the rest of the country, particularly Washington, D.C., where the territory’s petition for statehood was under consideration. The church foresook polygamy, and Utah was admitted to the Union.

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To fundamentalists this was unthink­able hypocrisy. Despite the threat of swift and severe retribution, they contin­ued to espouse polygamy among other discredited beliefs. Gus Weller was one of these malcontents. He taught fundamen­talist tenets to a handful of followers in his home on Upper Loop Road. Among those in regular attendance was his nephew.

Mormon fundamentalism, with its ap­peal to megalomania, found an ardent adherent in John Singer. Years later his family would tell how, as a young boy, Singer had shot a bald eagle, which fell and landed at his feet. He interpreted this as an omen that one day America would bow before him. It must therefore have been the source of some discomfort that by the time he reached 30, he had not only failed to secure the fealty of the nation, but could not even find a woman to marry him. He had gone hat in hand to a number of eligible young women in­forming them that God had directed them to become his bride only to be re­buffed or chased off by some boyfriend or father.

With Vickie Lemon it was different. One of the most popular girls at South Summit High School, she accepted a date with John Singer and was struck, as she later described it, by his “smell of fresh pine.” He later took her to the cabin he was building on a two-acre plot Gus Wel­ler had given him. She was impressed by his self-sufficiency and impeccable grooming. As she sat on the couch in his unfinished living room she recalled a “perfect peace.”

A few weeks later, they eloped over the border to Nevada. Vickie’s parents were certain that Singer had thrown some sort of spell over their daughter, and dis­patched a posse of gun-toting town folk to get her back. But Vickie insisted that she was quite sane and intended to live out the rest of her life with John Singer in his cabin atop Upper Loop Road.

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During the early years of their mar­riage, Singer worked with his Uncle Gus in a television repair shop in Salt Lake City. This lowly occupation, however, did not suit his opinion of himself as a man destined to be a spiritual leader, and he would wander off without warning to teach outlawed doctrine to German im­migrants. Gus was dismayed to learn that his protégé was not only falling down on the job but usurping his spiritual prerogatives.

As the breach between the two men grew, so too did Singer’s estrangement from the community. During Sunday ser­vices in Kamas he would stand, Book of Mormon in hand, point to passages of discredited doctrine, and taunt, “If you people don’t think this is right, let’s tear it out and throw it away.”

The Mormon church, which esteems conformity above most other virtues, moved to end these challenges by excom­municating the troublemaker. In Mor­mon society, where social and profession­al advancement depends on the good opinion of one’s neighbors, John Singer found himself an outcast.

He did not appear to mind. He scorned his scorners, claiming that his questions made them ashamed of having aban­doned their own spiritual roots. Eventually the TV repair business failed, and he retired to his little homestead, devoting himself to the business of being a patriarch.

The life that Singer fashioned for him­self and his family was partly the product of his romantic imagination, partly para­noia. The frontier had always held a fas­cination for him as an ideal of self-reli­ance. He dressed in buckskins, Vickie in long dresses. They raised livestock, kept an orchard, and operated their own flour mill and granary and stocked enough pro­visions to last for two years. The possibil­ity of catastrophe loomed large in their minds. Like many fundamentalists, Sing­er was convinced that the economy was on the verge of collapse at which time “mobs” would come up from the city and overrun the farm. Singer often carried a Colt automatic.

In the beginning they had a child a year. Heidi, Suzanne, and John Timothy. When Vickie’s health began to fail, babies came further apart. Charlotte, Joseph Hyrum, Hans Benjamin, and Israel Mo­roni. John Singer greeted the arrival of each new child with joy. On the first night of its life, the newborn would sleep in an exquisite wooden cradle that Singer had carved with his own hands. John Singer’s children were, as Heidi and Charlotte were fond of telling me, “the apple of his eye.”

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Some say Singer’s anger at the public schools began when Heidi’s schoolmates began to tease her about her old-fash­ioned clothes. For certain, he was not pleased when his oldest girls brought home what he called a “haughty atti­tude.” Although sex education in the Marion school consisted only of a basic biology course, Singer was appalled that anyone but himself should be allowed to raise with his children the sacred subject of procreation.

The final outrage came one day when Suzie Singer brought home a history text showing George Washington, Betsy Ross, and Martin Luther King on the same page. In accordance with the teachings of Joseph Smith, Singer had taught his chil­dren that they should not mingle with blacks (known as “Canaanites” after an ill-favored grandson of Noah). He marched down to the school and led his children out behind him.

In the beginning, the school board de­ferred to Singer’s wishes, offering to sup­ply textbooks and teaching plans. Singer spurned this assistance, teaching his chil­dren “as long as he pleased … when he pleased.” The results, contrary to Heidi’s blissful recollections, were not fortunate. Four years after the Singers left school, the state sent a psychologist up to the farm to test them. Dr. Victor Cline noted that the children were “happy, kind, lov­ing to each other, dutiful to their par­ents,” but that the drop in their intellec­tual development was “shocking.” The children registered IQs almost 30 points below their progenitors. As the youths moved into adolescence, the psychologist noted, there was no way that they could be protected from all of life’s unpleasant experiences. “It might be wiser,” he con­cluded, “to teach the children to cope with these while they grow up rather than let them experience only a protected un­real life at present.”

John Singer would have argued that the life he envisioned for his children was just as real — more real, perhaps — than the one the school system had in mind. He had created on his two and a half acres a self-sufficient world where chil­dren obeyed their parents out of love. In one sense, that life was a model of peace and security. Yet that security was illu­sory. Dr. Cline’s report made it clear that the passionate reliance which the Singers had upon one another was based largely upon fear. Fear of abusive schoolmates, fear of contamination from gentiles, fear of the mobs coming up from the city. Rather than return his children to the world, Singer withdrew them from it alto­gether.

The state of Utah charged John and Vickie with child neglect. After that, the Singers kept to their property for more than a year, living off supplies from the root cellar and keeping an eye on Summit County sheriff’s deputies who kept an intermittent vigil at the foot of the lane. Vickie was spotted wearing a pistol and a leather holster. Heidi grew proficient with a bow and arrow. Whenever John Singer left the house, he would be watched by one of his family positioned at the living room window with a pair of binoculars.

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John Singer could have diffused the hostility by simply answering the com­plaints against him. He had already in­corporated his “school” as a private acad­emy, and had he been willing to make a few more minor concessions, he would have been allowed to teach his children at home. But he refused, insisting it was necessary to make a stand, as the early American patriots had by throwing tea into Boston harbor. And so, declaring his two and a half acres an independent prin­cipality, he raised over the cabin a blue and white flag of the same design I had seen Heidi beading the day of my visit. He called it the Flag of the Kingdom of God.

Even when there was a contempt cita­tion out for his arrest, John Singer flout­ed church and civil law by taking a sec­ond wife. This was a woman named Shirley Black who lived on Upper Loop Road. Shirley was 49 and the mother of seven children. She was also married. But in the fundamentalist belief, a woman could be released from an existing mar­riage if the man was unworthy — in Death of an American, a brief biography of John Singer, Shirley claimed that her husband beat her — and enter into a plural union if it was sanctioned by God. John, Shirley, and Vickie all claimed to have revelations that this was to be. Shirley’s husband was, not unsurprisingly, infuriated when she took four of their children and moved into a little house at the back of the Singer cabin. He vowed to get his chil­dren back. The townspeople of Karnas were once again outraged by Singer’s te­merity and rallied to the assistance of Dean Black.

On the morning of January 18, 1979, John Singer walked down the lane to the mailbox, when suddenly he found himself rushed by state and federal agents on snowmobiles. The lawmen later claimed that Singer raised his gun to fire and caught a blast of buckshot under his right arm.

Charlotte Singer, who was on duty as sentinel that morning, saw something quite different.

“Dad was aimin’ the gun at them like, ‘leave me alone,’ ” she recalls. “He turned and was runnin’ home. And that was when they shot him … They wanted Dad dead and they murdered him.”

From Charlotte’s mouth it is startling to hear so harsh a judgment as “murder.” Her gentle features contort slightly in a spasm of anguish. It is exactly the expres­sion I had seen on her mother whom I had visited, just that morning, in the Salt Lake County Jail.

My mental image of Vickie had been formed by family photos of her taken during her thirties when she was a pert blond, frag­ile but tough. Cheerleader turned frontierswoman. But when Vickie took her place on one side of the glass in the visitor’s room, however, I was shocked. She was only 44, yet her mouth was sunken like a crone’s. (She lost her teeth due to various illnesses and, as she placed her faith in God rather than doc­tors, was still waiting for Him to grow her a third set.) The only suggestion of youth was her shiny blond hair, which, it is said, John Singer loved to stroke by the hour. Most extraordinary, however, were her eyes, a cool and piercing blue.

How, I wondered, does the world look from the other side of those eyes? Does Vickie Singer see the bars and the sorry circumstances of her confinement, or is her gaze still wandering somewhere over the enchanted terrain of a Second Reality?

It is a matter of public record that shortly after her husband’s death, she received a “revelation” that he would re­turn. The night after John Singer was killed, Vickie spent the night listening to her children cry.

“In the early dawn,” Vickie told me, whispering through the mesh, “I felt the most marvelous peace … my husband spoke to me. He said, ‘Vickie. Don’t sor­row. Rejoice. Don’t look back. Look for­ward to the things to come forth.’ ”

“Did you hear a voice?” I asked. “Did you see something?”

“No,” Vickie replied. “Just a knowing. It’s like a marvelous burning … through your whole body … You can’t hallucinate something like this,” she explains, antici­pating my skepticism.

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Vickie tells me how during the days after his death, John Singer also comfort­ed his daughters. Charlotte had fallen se­riously ill, and her father appeared in a dream one night to explain that “Heaven­ly Father took me before it hit me.” Thereafter, Vickie came across a passage in the Book of Mormon that planted the idea that her husband had only been “marred,” not killed. She was also con­vinced that he was the “one mighty and strong,” whom Latter-day Saint prophets foretold would rise up and restore the original church. Each new revelation ap­parently supported the next until Vickie Singer and her daughters were convinced that John Singer’s return was not just s possibility, but a certainty.

Into this web of grief and expectation stepped Addam Swapp.

Addam was a country boy from Fair­view, Utah, about two hours south of Salt Lake. His cousin Roger Bates remembers Addam as a devil-may-care companion. The two of them would go on double dates and Addam, dark-eyed and good­-looking, got along well enough with girls his own age. He was not, however, part of the in-crowd. As Charlotte later ex­plained it, “He didn’t try to please peo­ple.” Addam Swapp, in fact, had the same stubborn, antiauthoritarian streak that had characterized John Singer.

In junior high, a fundamentalist class­mate had quietly introduced him to the discredited Mormon doctrine, which held that Adam, a mere man, had become God. Indeed, any mortal man could be­come God. It was a concept that appealed as mightily to Addam Swapp as it had to John Singer. After that, Addam read widely among unauthorized texts, which left him with contempt for the religion which he felt had abandoned its origins. He was in high school when blacks were allowed into the priesthood. It left him disgusted. After that, he never again set foot in church.

That was 1978, the same year he first laid eyes on 14-year-old Heidi Singer. It was during the 13-month siege, and she was telling a television reporter who had come up to the farm how her father had kept her “clean from the world.” Addam Swapp told himself, “I’m going to marry that girl.” In fact, he fell in love with the entire Singer family. John Singer, he felt, was one of those few men who “stood on truth.” Addam had decided to load up two guns in his car and go up to help out, but two days later John Singer was dead.

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If Addam Swapp had come of age in the mainstream church, he would have been sent on a mission. As a fledgling fundamentalist, however he was denied that formal avenue for spiritual adven­ture. His father, Ramon, later explained to me that a young Mormon male is usu­ally “full of vim and vigor, and wants to save the world.” The plight of the Singer women, left husbandless and fatherless, appealed to his son’s sense of destiny. “A seed,” as he put it, “in a fertile field.”

A month after Singer died, Addam went up to the farm and introduced him­self to the Singer women. Shortly there­after, he brought his cousin, Roger Bates, who began courting the 16-year-old Su­zanne. Addam, for his part, laid claim to Heidi. That fall, the four of them went to the woods behind the cabin and ex­changed wedding vows.

The Swapps’ first year of married life was apparently rocky. Addam later told me in a jail-house interview that he and Heidi were “bullheaded” and that he found the farm a little cramped. They moved for a time to an apartment in nearby Midway, and Addam worked with Roger selling tire casings. It is not exactly clear what Vickie made of all this except that she was upset over losing her “babies.” She also had to contend with Char­lotte, who had taken to her bed weeping.

Charlotte, then 11, claimed she was also in love with Addam, who treated her like a kid sister. A few years after his marriage to Heidi, he had a revelation to put things right. In this dream, he and Heidi were standing by a river. She was tempted to travel down it but Addam, seeing that it led to a wicked city, said to her, “No, it will destroy you.” Instead they took a narrow path that led into the mountains. At one point they encountered Charlotte standing in the middle of the path, and they both took her by the hand. All three tried to cross a crystal pond, but Charlotte sank. They pulled her up and walked together toward the glass doors of a shining city.

Addam interpreted this as divine reve­lation that he should marry Charlotte. In the protected, unreal world of the Singer-­Swapps, this announcement seemed to provoke only a flurry of resistance. Heidi sulked a bit at first, but inasmuch as Addam’s direction had come from God, it had to be credited. Addam took Heidi back to the farm where he married her sister, who was 15. After that, he was said to have divided his time equally between the two, who lived in their separate huts behind the cabin. Addam eventually had five children with Heidi and one with Charlotte.

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Vickie Singer apparently approved of this menage because, among other rea­sons, she was in need of a man about the house. Her eldest son, Timothy, who had taken over many of his father’s chores, was crippled in a logging accident and confined to a wheelchair. And she found herself embattled on many fronts. Gus Weller’s children, under the guidance of his son, Jared, tried to have her evicted from her property. She went to court, arguing that Gus, now deceased, had al­ways intended to deed the property to John. She won that round, but her legal problems were just beginning.

Vickie was grieved not only by the loss of her husband but the circumstances un­der which he died. A fundamentalist friend and a sympathetic physician had slipped into the mortuary and photo­graphed Singer’s body: he had clearly been shot in the back. With the help of John Singer’s brother, Vickie secured the services of the flamboyant Wyoming at­torney, Gerry Spence, and filed a $110 million wrongful death suit in U.S. dis­trict court against the State of Utah. Vickie was enthusiastic to the point of euphoria about Spence, in whom she per­ceived an invincible champion against the temporal world. Her joy was cut short, however, when the suit was dismissed on the grounds of “insufficient evidence.” She appealed, but that, too, was denied. Vickie’s outrage, which might have been dissipated by a proper hearing in court, continued to fester. To the Singer-Swapps, the failure of the civil suit was evidence of a conspiracy that, in their eyes, encompassed the Wellers, the Mor­mon church, the State of Utah, and the United States of America. In the years to come, any person or entity that appeared to threaten the interests of the family joined the swelling league of culprits. In the summer of 1986, the Marion Water Works was added to the roster.

Water is not a trivial issue in Utah, and during the dry summer of 1985, senti­ments were enflamed in the Kamas Val­ley. Until then, Vickie Singer had enjoyed rights to a spring above her property. The Water Works, however, dug a line that reduced her flow to a trickle. She appealed to the commissioners to restore her water, but met with no success. The argument dragged on well into the sum­mer of 1987, when Addam Swapp took matters into his own hands and dug a trench to bring the water back. This trench, unfortunately, ran straight across the property of Jared Weller.

One hot morning in July, two of Jared’s sons caught Addam on their land. Heidi ran up from the house to see what was going on, and the sight of the three men in fierce argument impressed itself upon her memory. Several nights later, she had a dream that she and Addam were standing in the lane, when they were confronted by a black bull. The bull then turned into a man with knives on his fingers. “He was supposed to cut and kill me,” Heidi later wrote in her journal, “but I knew Addam would shoot [him]­ — and Dad would be there to stop it also.”

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Heidi’s dream electrified the family, be­coming the subject of endless interpreta­tion. The bull, it was decided, represented their enemies. Vickie, whose longing for her husband had reached agonizing pro­portions, wrote that “the bull striking would be the cause of Dad coming home … right in the nick of time. I had a dream awhile back about John’s being home,” she continued, “and I said to him … ‘Oh, John, I want to hold you … God, help me. It’s been so long …’ ”

She even went so far as to speculate about what John might do once he had returned. He would help her discipline their sons. He would give a piece of his mind to his brother, Harald, who had insulted her by suggesting she get a job. “My husband knows that I already have ‘a job,’ ” she noted. “He also knows the tremendous serious stand that is required of us at this time, and that we are in no position to go out among the gentiles.”

Making the stand became the gateway through which this modern miracle would pass. The stand would set the molecules of the temporal world aquiver. It would summon God from his “hiding place” and John Singer from the dead. Together they would rescue the family from peril. The stand, then, became the frontier between the First and Second Reality.

Vickie seemed to go out of her way, just as John had nine years earlier, to provoke the authorities. She refused to reincorpo­rate the academy under state law, noting that it might “give them an excuse to come against us.” She also declined to pay the portion of her property tax that was earmarked for the school, reasoning that the board had had a hand in killing her husband. As a result, she got a notice that her home was being “sold for prior taxes.”

Addam wrote an angry letter to the county commissioners asking how “this wicked government,” after leaving Vickie Singer a widow, now had the nerve to take her home. “If you try to take away our land,” he warned, “you will have a fight on your hands and God will fight our battles.” Addam also sent letters to the Marion Water Works and the school board, suggesting that the Lord would “strike them down.”

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Addam’s scarcely veiled threats upset enough of the local citizenry that the Summit County sheriff’s department dis­patched three deputies to visit him on the farm. As Vickie described this encounter in her journals, Addam went out with guns on, telling them to stop or he would “hand them their heads.”

“Addam said he was surprised about what happened next,” Vickie mused. “His hand went straight into the air with the gun and he fired a shot.”

After that there was a standing felony warrant for his arrest.

Addam grew increasingly cocky. This bravado was due to yet another dream. He had been crouching behind logs firing at “the enemy,” when John Singer ap­peared in front of him and commanded him to “fight like a man.” Suddenly, Singer caught a hail of bullets in the back shielding Addam, who walked away un­scathed. Vickie interpreted this to mean that, since her husband had “paid the price … they couldn’t hurt Addam when he had to stand against them.”

The effect of this was to leave the fledgling patriarch feeling invincible. He would be a champion who, unlike John Singer, could not be destroyed. In the minds of the Singer women, the distinc­tion between the two men was growing increasingly blurred. Heidi had foreseen Addam and Dad saving them from the bull. Vickie then had a dream that Ad­dam had started talking to her in a German accent. When she looked at him he had been literally transformed into her husband.

Addam seemed to accept his destiny enthusiastically, assuming Singer’s fron­tier dress right down to the fringed buck­skin jacket. Whenever he left the house, he carried Singer’s old Colt. Once, after spending three days of fasting in the hills, he returned with a fresh revelation that he and John Singer were destined to be­come prophets. It had been shown to him that Singer would return to gather the tribes of Israel — all except for the Ameri­can Indians, which were to be Addam’s responsibility. (Addam had always had a special affinity for the so-called “Laman­ites” whose skin was dark because of their iniquities but who God had prom­ised would turn white if they repented. He even claimed to have some Indian blood in his veins, a fact which his par­ents later denied.)

That three-day fast produced another revelation. Addam was to take a third wife. The young woman in question was a daughter of Shirley Black. This news sent Heidi into a funk. She knew that a proph­et of Addam’s impending stature should have many wives. And she had accepted his marriage to her little sister, but an outsider was different. Heidi suffered for several days, during which time Vickie noted in her journal that this torment had also been foretold by the bull dream. “The bull meant death,” she wrote, “but in this sense ‘death to her mortal-ego self.’ ”

Heidi finally wrestled her troublesome ego to the ground and gave Addam leave to go courting. One morning in late No­vember, he put on his guns and Indian moccasin boots and paid his intended a call. His courtship was short-lived. Julie Black, who had been a child living at the Singer compound during the 13-month siege, hoped to forget the past and cer­tainly wanted nothing more to do with those people up on the hill. Her brother announced that he would rather see his sister dead than married to Addam and later drove up to the Singer’s lane to shout, “You’re going to get yourself killed.”

The hostility that Addam was arousing in the community alarmed Vickie’s moth­er, Marge Lemon, who saw her estranged daughter plotting a dangerous recreation of old tragedy. She wrote a series of let­ters pleading with Vickie to come back to earth.

“You have been a good mother,” she allowed. “You sure have some good kids. But this thing you have about John has got to end … Do you think that all peo­ple has to do is sit around thinking up revenge on you? You are the one that is dwelling on it … I do believe it’s within your power to control whether Addam’s life ends like John’s,” she warned. “Don’t make a martyr out of Addam.”

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By the fall of 1987, the Singer-­Swapp family, which now included Addam’s younger brother, Jon, was living in a world that they reinvented daily, weaving in the details of each new revelation. While Ad­dam was prophet-designate, it was Vickie who seemed to be the chief interpreter of the family’s dream life. Her journal en­tries for the next three months revealed a woman for whom material and meta­physical considerations had become vir­tually indistinguishable. In one breath she talked of getting the driveway paved and new chairs for the kitchen; in the next, she was scheduling social calls for her dead husband. Each minor inconve­nience that arose presented the opportu­nity to make a stand and thereby trip the switch on reality.

I remember reading Vickie’s journal well into the early morning hours and thinking that the difference between her and the stolid burghers who attended those prayer and testimony meetings of my youth is that she had no temporal curbs on her imagination. Neither did her family. Living as they did in their pro­tected, unreal world, they reinforced one another’s fantasies, crediting each dream with apocalyptic significance, finally fall­ing under the sway of a mass hallucination.

What was most amazing, however, was the detached and sometimes blithe fash­ion in which she would write about these events. It was difficult to tell how much of which reality she was experiencing during any given entry. There was one particularly surreal exchange that she was having with a small-time film pro­ducer who had contacted her, with the intention of making a TV movie of John Singer’s life. (Charlton Heston, it was hoped, would play the lead.) I was sur­prised to learn that Vickie was engaging in this kind of commerce. Even more surprised to learn that she was taking an active role in shaping and editing the screenplay, an uncompleted draft of which she had included in the journal. (Wings of Morning, as it was called, was the sensitive story of a high-minded po­lygamist. In this version, John Singer goes to the mailbox unarmed.)

A cynic might conclude that Vickie Singer was quietly laying her plans for Armageddon in hopes of providing a socko last scene for a movie of the week. A more charitable interpretation — one which I eventually came to adopt — is that she simply saw in the screenplay one more avenue to reinvent reality by writ­ing an ending to her liking.

Ironically, it was the producer who un­wittingly triggered the final episode of the Singer-Swapps’ real-life drama. Around the first of the year, he sent Vickie a videotape containing footage of John Singer during the school battle, sug­gesting thoughtfully that “You could view it on John’s birthday.”

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The following evening, the entire fam­ily gathered around a rented VCR to watch the tape. As Vickie later described that experience, she and Heidi wept. So did Addam. “It was a very profound spir­it that came upon us,” she wrote. “It strengthened Addam in his stand … He watched the film over and then again.” One week later she reported, “Addam says he knows what he had to do. He believes, or knows, it has to take place on the 18th. (The ninth anniversary of John’s martyrdom.) God be with us.”

What “it” might be was not spelled out in Vickie’s journal. Nor were the prepara­tions. Vickie, in fact, was sufficiently oblique as to allow her defense to argue that she had no knowledge of what was actually to occur. The U.S. attorney later filled in for the benefit of a jury the details of those preparations, which in­cluded the amassing of 23 firearms and the purchase of 100 pounds of explosives.

Vickie does mention the possibility of blowing up Jared Weller’s reservoir. The reason why they settled, instead, upon the Kamas Stake Center is unclear ex­cept that the previous year Addam had gone down to the church to get his name taken off the membership rolls and ended up in a shoving match with Jared.

On Friday, January 15, Addam made what Vickie described as a “blood-red pole” — it was more of a spear, actually­ — to which he attached nine white feathers and a message reading, “J.S. Jan. 18, 1979 — Church, state and nation will now be destroyed.” Vickie prayed as to wheth­er she should allow her 15-year-old son, Benjamin, to go along to carry the pole. It was revealed to her that he should. As Addam, his brother, and Benjamin trudged one and a half miles over the snowy fields, their cargo in tow, Vickie prayed for “The explosives, that thy blessing be upon them, that they will not malfunction …”

The blast was delayed by a timer, which allowed the bombers to clear the scene. They were back up at the cabin when the church blew. Addam thought it looked like many evil spirits were rising above the chapel because of the eerie red glow and the smoke in the darkness.

“It is very serious,” Vickie noted. “The battle has begun.”

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It is a virtual certainty in the temporal world that when someone dynamites a site of interstate commerce — which oddly enough the Kamas Stake Cen­ter was held to be — federal agents will gather quickly. Peering through the eyes of the First Reality, they found the blood-­red pole with its cryptic allusions to John Singer stuck in the snow in the church parking lot. They followed a set of tracks to the bottom of Upper Loop Road and by Sunday afternoon, the Singer cabin was surrounded by 150 law enforcement officers, including Treasury explosives ex­perts and FBI men. The Weller relatives at the end of the lane were evacuated to accommodate sharpshooters.

The Singer-Swapps, who were listening to the details of these preparations on a Bearcat scanner, were gleeful at having inconvenienced Jared and his family. Ad­dam broke spontaneously into a hymn, and Vickie hoisted John Singer’s old Flag of the Kingdom of God. That afternoon, they received a visit from Addam’s cousin and brother-in-law, Roger Bates, who had been dispatched as a peacemaker. Bates came back down the lane to tell reporters that the Singers were “just waiting for John to come home.”

On Monday, lawmen patrolled the perimeter quietly, hoping not to agitate the family on this, the proposed day of resur­rection. But it passed quietly. The ground did not open. The graves did not give forth their dead. And John Singer did not return. Vickie, that constant chronicler of the Second Reality, was curiously silent on this disappointment. She observed that certain TV reporters had pointed to this as the resurrection day, noting with irritation, “We haven’t set a ‘day.’ ”

Government agents operating out of a command post in the church parking lot ruled out rushing the cabin. The Singers were known to be well-armed and to be stockpiling dynamite. And the cabin was filled with children. They were also aware of the bungled attempt to capture John Singer.

For the next five days, police tried to flush the Singers out with nuisances. They cut off their electricity and water, buzzed them with helicopers and bom­barded them with lights. The sense of embattlement only seemed to make the family more peaceful. Charlotte played hymns. They all sang. “We cooked a nice dinner on the stove,” Vickie wrote at one point. “And also popped some after din­ner popcorn.”

“This is some STAND,” she rejoiced. “A little family against a whole army of ‘lawmen.’ ”

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But by the weekend, the euphoria had begun to wane. The FBI had posted a set of sirens, which shrieked throughout the night. The children muffled their heads with pillows. Vickie complained that the “terrible shrill sound penetrated my head so much I got a deep headache and began getting dizzy.” Addam and Jon Swapp first shot at the speakers, then went out and pulled them down. On Sunday, they allowed a visit by Ogden Kraut, a fellow fundamentalist and old family friend, who had offered his services as negotia­tor. Ogden greeted the children, who were very excited to see a visitor, and ex­plained to Vickie very gently that there had been “a spiritual resurrection. Look at all the attention he’s getting with ev­erything being brought up again.”

Ogden also offered Vickie Singer a chance to air her grievances. He would hand carry letters to the governor of Utah. Vickie agreed and subsequently penned a poignant account of her frustra­tion and anguish.

“I have not been able to have my day in court,” she wrote. “I have been perse­cuted by my neighbors in that they tried to have me thrown out of my home since my husband was shot to death, but by the grace of God they did not succeed …

“ALL in ALL the grievances suffered by this family in a ‘free’ country can hardly be told, let alone believed … We talked until we were ‘blue in the face’ so to speak, but could not be heard … ”

Addam also wrote a letter, and Ogden Kraut came for them as promised. They did not go to the governor, however, but to the command post where the FBI read Addam’s angry militant rhetoric and de­cided that the Singer-Swapps were hell-­bent upon confrontation.

The FBI felt that if Addam Swapp could be isolated and captured, then the rest of the family would surrender peace­fully. That evening they contrived a plan to remount the noisemakers this time with a booby-trapped explosive, which would stun the Swapp brothers if they tried to dislodge them. At that point, state officers hiding in a trench nearby would unleash dogs to bring the men down. The Swapps came out as planned but the flash fizzled and the dog that was to have attacked them turned instead and bit his handler.

The following morning, Addam and Jon walked out to the goat pen as was their custom. Lieutenant Fred House, a state corrections officer who was hidden in an outbuilding a few yards away, sig­naled his dog to attack. The dog balked. House leaned out the door to give the animal encouragement. From an upstairs window of the cabin where the invalid Timothy Singer was posted as lookout there came a shot that hit House in the chest. He slumped back against a wall. The color left his face, making him ap­pear, in the words of a fellow officer, “very similar to a cartoon.”

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A sharpshooter opened fire, catching Addam in the ribs. He fell to the snow, where he lay bleeding for a moment, then dragged himself into the house, where he was encircled by his dazed family. He asked for a blessing, then told them, “I’m going to have to surrender and get to a hospital.”

Vickie and Addam, as well as Timothy Singer and Jon Swapp, were charged in U.S. District Court with 32 counts of federal firearms violations and attempted murder of a federal officer. (The State of Utah held off bringing its own charges for the death of officer House until the feder­al government had concluded its business with the family.) After a trial that ran throughout April and half of May, they were convicted of virtually every charge. (Vickie was acquitted of attempted mur­der and possession of a sawed-off shot­gun.) The outcome surprised no one.

During the siege and after their arrest, all four defendants had made admissions of one kind or another. The only defense left to them was to plead insanity, but they would not hear of it. The family’s court-appointed attorneys had hoped that by focusing upon why their clients had acted as they did, they might elicit sympathy. The government, however, called a numbing succession of federal agents who kept the focus trained narrowly upon how they had accomplished their mischief.

All that remained then was the faint hope that the defendants might find sym­pathizers among the jury, which was drawn from the predominantly Mormon Salt Lake County. These were, after all, just the sort of people who might under­stand the nature of miracles. As a matter of faith they accept the premise that God speaks to man today just as he did in antiquity. And what God could do then, he could do now. But resurrection is a tough trick to credit. To good mainstream Mormons for whom the Second Reality is largely a Sunday exercise, the Singers probably were, as their patriarch once claimed, a prick in the conscience. They certainly were an embarrassment. The family elicited no sympathy from their Mormon brethren.

In the days thereafter, the family tried to put the best face on things, pointing out that Addam had been spared, they claimed, because John Singer had “paid the price.” A sign that God’s word had been fulfilled. Addam Swapp remained defiant, wearing to court each day the buckskin jacket that his wives had so carefully decorated with Indian symbols and the Flag of the Kingdom of God. He took the stand, against his attorney’s best advice, and claimed full responsibility for the bombing. Even this selfless gesture failed to move the jury, which appor­tioned guilt more or less equally.

After the verdict, Addam issued a Dec­laration of Independence, signed by Vickie and the others, declaring their se­cession from the Union.

“We have suffered the conspiracys [sic] of Wicked men in both Church and this the American Government,” he wrote. “We have suffered Publick Humiliation and the Defamation of our character .. By hounding, Persecuting and Depriving us of our Liberties … They have tried to … Wipe us out all in the name of the U.S. Government …

“Let it be known, to all Nations … that we are a Nation under God. That we are Independent, seperate [sic] and Free.”

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Several weeks after Addam issued his declaration, I made another visit to the Singer farm to see how the new republic was faring.

Charlotte answers the door with none of her usual perkiness. Her eyes are listless and she moves into the living room slowly, like an old cat.

I am not sure, now that the waves of spiritual euphoria have subsided, how much of her present condition she actual­ly comprehends. So I ask tentatively.

“What has Addam said about how all of you will be cared for?”

“Oh, boy,” she rallies slightly. “Day by day there are little miracles just showin’ us that the Lord is takin’ care of us.”

“Little miracles?” I ask, recalling invol­untarily the childhood image of hot dogs multiplying wildly in a Frigidaire. “What kind of little miracles?”

“Sometimes people send us some mon­ey. But people mainly bring us food … We’re doin’ just as good now as if Addam was goin’ to work.”

She cannot maintain this rush of optimism.

“I get depressed,” she confesses. “It’s hard, really hard, to believe, you know … because the Lord has promised us cer­tain things … Like Mom getting new teeth … He’s promised us that Dad is gonna come home. And it’s really hard because you know how you get in the mortal way of thinking and you think ‘How can that ever happen?’ ”

But doubt does not befit the wife of a patriarch. And whenever these heretical thoughts come upon her, Addam gives her a stern talking to from prison. If there is one thing the Singer girls are conditioned to respond to, it’s the rally­ing cry of the patriarch.

Outside dusk is falling, and from the window I can see all the way down the lane to the mailbox mounted on the post. It is the hour during which the Singers become uneasy about visitors. A witching hour when little miracles lose their com­monplace proportions and loom with fantastic promise. Bathed now in the glow of unreal light, Charlotte announces gravely, “I’m expectin’ a miracle. That’s the only thing that’s gonna free them is a miracle.”

In another room, her baby and the other children are playing under the watchful gaze of John Singer’s photo. They already know his legend by heart. They have heard countless times that his “blood was spilt” and that he “paid the price” for them. They saw their father shot down in the front yard — just as their mothers saw their own father shot down nine years earlier. Each time their fathers have done battle with the forces of the First Reality they have been beaten bad­ly. But adversity is mother’s milk to a zealot.

Just the other day, one of the younger boys set the dog on Jared Weller as he ventured too close to the cabin. And, I wonder, listening to the shrieks and gig­gles, if it will be him, or his brother, or his cousin, who will be called to make the next stand. ❖

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FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Housing NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Once a Woman of Quality: Portrait of a Survivor

There was one painting that Nancy was hoping to find. And that was, as she described it, a small Watteau in which the painter had created a forest of gigantic trees, then placed in a clearing at their base a tiny man playing a violin. Her recollection of it was vivid, although it had been many years since she first saw it hanging here at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So we circled the corridors of European masters, checking this canvas, then that one, like a pair of darting fish.

In doing so, we drew curious stares from other browsers who must have concluded that Nancy was an eccentric old aesthete with her niece in tow. Had she been alone, she might have elicited a more reproving scrutiny from the guards because her ap­pearance was odd, like that of a gnome from a New Yorker cartoon. She was bun­dled in a fake mouton coat tied with a maroon sash from some unrelated gar­ment. Pulled down around her ears was a peaked red wool cap and from under its edges extended an unruly haze of hair brindled from tinting. The sourness of her face, which bore a general disgruntled expression, was quite unintentional and de­rived from the mouth, which had sunk over toothless gums. She was shy and smiled infrequently. She also had a nervous habit of squinting, but when she was at ease those muscles relaxed, revealing a most remarkable pair of blue eyes. She was old, in her mid-sixties, but her cheekbones were still high and round, her skin still Celtic pink, hinting at some beauty that this strange ruined woman must have been.

Earlier she had listened while I told her of my own fondness for museums. Nothing changes there. While friends and lovers pass in and out of one’s life, the marbles and oils ensconced in the halls of a well­-endowed gallery are constant. She did not reply to that. So I felt a little embarrassed when at length we could not find the Wat­teau. (There is, I later learned, a canvas picturing a clown playing guitar in the forest, but it has been retired to storage.) Nancy took the disappointment with equanimity, as though finding it as it had been pinned in her memory was too much to expect. And in letting go of that she went on to cultivate new favorites, particu­larly Rodin’s bronze Adam, whose neck was arched in a most excruciating posture of guilt. Nancy loved Adam instantly and ardently. It is this quality in her that I most admire, the capacity for spontaneous pleasure. And I suspect that it has been the secret of her survival.

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That Nancy has survived at all, let alone with sensibilities intact, is amazing. That she has gone through some hell is clear, though the full scope of it is not. The details of her passage are blurred by her own imperfect recollection. Some episodes are quite solid, others smoke. Some, I suspect, she obscures intentionally be­cause she does not want me or anyone else to think she was a “bad woman.” From time to time throughout her 60-odd years, Nancy has lived on the streets of New York, in doorways and train stations. She has spent time in public and private shelters and she now lives on federal as­sistance in a charitable SRO on Times Square. It is a most precarious existence, since any change in her circumstance — a small increase in rent, a lost check — would send her back to the streets.

I met Nancy at a shelter called the Dwelling Place near the Port Authority Bus Terminal. I was there doing research on the homeless — more particularly look­ing for one old woman who had, I was told, studied music at Juilliard and still played classical piano. My intent, partly profes­sional and largely personal, was to discover how a woman with considerable gifts could end up on the streets. I never did find her. She did not exist or she had disappeared in the flux of women who wash in and out of the Dwelling Place.

The Dwelling, a five-story walk-up, is run by four Franciscan sisters whose char­ity is boundless and whose resources are limited to 14 beds for homeless women. About 12 more can sleep sitting up in the living room, if they prefer, and many do. Beyond that the sisters offer breakfast and dinner to anyone who needs a free meal. The Dwelling’s founder, a casual blue-­jeaned nun named Sister Nancy, helps them fill out forms for welfare.

The sisters’ facilities are nearly strained to bursting, particularly at the end of the month when government checks have run out. Then one sees in this tiny microcosm the entire range of homeless women. It is something one does not find in the city’s shelters, where paperwork bewilders and frightens the most disturbed women, who prefer to hide from society in corners of Penn Station. Those same women, how­ever, seem to gravitate naturally to the Dwelling Place, which keeps no records and allows them to rest undisturbed. They sit side by side: the filthy deranged who mutter lunatic monologues to the air and an assortment of more composed, de­pressed, and embarrassed women, some in their twenties or younger, who for some reason have found themselves needing a bed or a meal.

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The more ordinary the reason, natu­rally, the more unsettling. One heavy Ital­ian woman in her mid-thirties professed to be a schoolteacher who took her dinners here because she was having trouble making ends meet. She discussed Italian li­queurs with a strong-willed blonde woman in her early forties who said she had spent some time in Rome when she worked on a NATO base in southern Europe. She was receiving a welfare check now and her check had been interrupted. She occupied a bed at the Dwelling until she could untangle the red tape.

Sister Nancy pointed out to me the elegant old women whose careful grooming and alert kohl-rimmed eyes indicated they must at one time have been women of quality. They had lived in expensive old hotels and been pushed out by con­versions. Now, unable to accept the com­paratively shabby accommodations at the Times Square Motor Hotel, where the sis­ters try to place their chronic homeless, they will check into an expensive hotel and spend their entire Social Security checks during the first few days of the month. Then for the next few weeks they must check into shelters or sit up in stations, postures erect, trying to maintain the il­lusion that they are still ladies of quality waiting for a train.

What is strange is that these women in their helpless confusion can be so frighten­ing. One can’t approach them easily. The classic “bag ladies” hovering in doorways might prick the conscience, but they can be dismissed as the Other, species of subhumans who must somehow have brought about their own decline. When they are en repose at the Dwelling, they must be reckoned with like Ghosts of Christmas Future who presage something menacing — that one could end up just like them, elbows resting on oilcloth in the Franciscans’ kitchen. I am afraid of it. And in the weeks surrounding my visits to the Dwelling several well-fed, well-clothed, and safely housed women I know confided that they too fear ending up homeless and broken. It comes, I think, from a feeling that everything is ephemeral and that no matter how one tries to build a dike against chaos, everything — a good marriage, a bank account, friends — may be ripped away. That in the end, one is really entitled to nothing. It is probably a middle-class indulgence to ponder so excessive a ruin. During the Depression there were people who lost everything but did not lose their faculties and disintegrate on the streets. One psychiatrist who had studied the women at the Dwelling Place observed that many prisoners in Nazi concentration camps were stripped of everything and still managed to maintain their essential hu­manity. It is difficult to distill those quali­ties peculiar to survivors. But they exist in the complex person of Nancy Pomeroy.

Nancy came to the shelter in the spring of 1978 looking for a bed. After a time she was resettled in a cheap hotel room on Times Square. She now comes only for the free dinner, generally macaroni and peas or hash and eggs. It was after the paper plates had been cleared away one night that Nancy, whom I had not noticed, leaned across the table and said to me, “I’ve been admiring your beauty.” She went on to clarify that it was my hair, the angle it made at the jaw and the auburn color that she liked. Tendered as it was so matter-of-factly, the compliment was af­fecting. It was a rare overture in a milieu where I had been struggling to elicit revel­ations from women too damaged or embarr­assed to speak. So I turned to study Nancy Pomeroy. She wore an immaculate black tent dress with red and white daisies on it, neat nylons, and little black shoes with tassles. She was smoking a small Dutch Treat cigar. I asked her where she had come by this critical appreciation for color and line.

Nancy replied in precise declarations. She was not quick but deliberate. (She is a Libra, she explained, and Librans always aim for balance, although they might never achieve it.) Many years ago as a girl of 17 she had studied art, she said, at a place called the Grand Central Palace School. Her first semester they had given her a black portfolio with white paper and char­coal and set her to drawing figures of clas­sical statues. She had not realized that art might involve some tedium, and she grew bored with the white torsos. Had she stuck to it she would have moved on the next semester to oils, where the colors might have held her interest. But she dropped out after two months. She recounted this with some disgust and reviled herself as a dilettante. The outlines of Nancy’s past emerged gradually, from anecdotes drop­ped by her in conversation. She did not like to be questioned too closely. Later I found a few people who had known her family. Their memory of her was not dis­tinct but helped somewhat to flesh out her origins.

Nancy was born October 15. She will not divulge the year, but events she claims to have witnessed would place it around 1916. There is no birth certificate on rec­ord under her name. She was apparently adopted and grew up as an only child in the Queens suburb of Forest Hills Gardens. The Garden, as it is called, was a self­-consciously quaint community of English Tudor buildings modeled after the London suburb of Kew Gardens. Conceived origi­nally as an experiment to house blue-collar workers in comparative elegance, it was quickly taken over by writers, artists, and wealthy professionals. During the early part of the century it was a stronghold of Republicanism, where denizens were al­ways on guard against the twin evils of communism and flapperism. In the Gar­den a few old families comprised the aristocracy: Stowe, Marsh, Keller. The Pomeroys apparently were not part of the inner circle although the family was said to have had a good deal of money. One neigh­bor recalls them as “splashy.” Nancy’s father, who had been an officer in the war, returned to civilian life as a copywriter for an ad agency. Nancy recalls that when the war ended her father’s men gave him a silver tray with his name on it because, she said, they loved him so much. Neighbors said he died when Nancy was in her teens. Mrs. Pomeroy, who had a rough time ad­justing to widowhood, became a successful real estate agent. She and Nancy moved into one of the Tudor houses in a place called Pomander Walk.

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Nancy invokes the name of Forest Hills as though it were Eden. Before her fall from grace, she grew up there in comfort among “nice people.” She was, by her own account, a “passable” beauty with clear pale skin. One of her contemporaries, later the wife of the local Episcopal canon, re­calls that she and Nancy were in early grades together at what was known as the Little Red School House. They took danc­ing classes in the foyer of the Forest Hills Inn.

She was not an extrovert but was in­trigued by “glamour.” She admired the great screen stars of the era, chiefly Joan Crawford. Every Saturday she would come into Manhattan with her mother to shop at B. Altman and Lord and Taylor. Then after “luncheon” they would catch the vaudeville show at the Hippodrome. Shapely swimmers dove into a pool sunk in the center of the stage. It was all so lovely, she told her mother she wanted to become an actress. Mrs. Pomeroy said that was fine but it took discipline.

Nancy never understood discipline. She seems to have wandered through events as a sightseer, stopping now and then to focus upon some exquisite oddity. That was apparent in her recounting of a trip she took to Europe when she was 23. Mrs. Pomeroy, having apparently despaired of persuading her dreamy daughter to go to college, thought she might benefit from travel. Nancy had come into a small inheritance when one of her aunts in Massachusetts died. So Mrs. Pomeroy booked Nancy on a tour of Europe for young ladies escorted by two old dowagers. Europe itself was in the earliest throes of World War II, but the dowagers’ tour was a civilized affair con­sisting of playgoing and teas in London townhouses. Nancy allowed herself to be carried along, not much impressed by the ostensible highlights. The passion play in Oberammergau she found a tedious spec­tacle. All that stood out to her of Venice were the orange peels in the canals. The thing that excited her was a boat excursion on Lake Como in Northern Italy to the chateau of Carlotta, Empress of Mexico. In one of the upper rooms was a glorious orchid and chartreuse rug. She stood look­ing at it for as long as time allowed. It was the high point of her trip.

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She did regret never having made it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and that is how our excursion came about. I asked her if she had been to the Metropolitan Mu­seum of Art and she said once, 10 years ago. (Nancy, I learned, had no accurate sense of time’s passage. She pegged every salient event at multiples of five years.) I asked her if she would like to go with me to the Metropolitan. The prospect of that excursion to the museum aroused con­siderable anxiety in her. She was eager to go, but impediments loomed in her imagi­nation. She did not have the “car fare.” That, I assured her, was no problem. I could take care of it. But that offer struck her as charity, and she was very proud. She insisted that she would pay me back when her check came in.

But the real barrier was less material. The Metropolitan, only a 20-minute ride by subway, must have seemed as distant and unapproachable as did Moscow to Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Nancy is at­tached to her territory and apparently ven­tures infrequently beyond Times Square. She shops for sundries at the Walgreen in the Port Authority. She will browse through the bookstores in the terminal, Sister Nancy told me, putting art books on layaway. Sometimes, particularly at night, she will just sit in the terminal absorbing the scene and waiting for a “fiancé” to whom Nancy claims she is to be wed next year. No one seems to have seen this man, and Nancy herself confesses she does not know where he lives. At any rate, Times Square is Nancy’s world, and for her to venture beyond it took some courage.

On the day we had set for the excursion, I went to the Woodstock Hotel where Nancy now rents a room. The Woodstock, once an elegant old hotel with an ornate stone facade, had fallen to ruin and was inhabited by pimps and prostitutes until the mid-’70s when it was taken over by a private nonprofit charitable corporation called Project Find. It is one of the few remaining single-room occupancy hotels left in New York, and certainly one of the few where the elderly poor can find a room for $150 a month, the maximum their fed­eral entitlement checks allow them. But there is no place for the Woodstock or its fragile tenants in the grand development scheme of Times Square. It is, in Nancy’s words, “not much of a hotel.”

Nancy does not have a phone in her room so I could not ring up from the lobby. Curious at any rate about her accommodations, I took the elevator to her floor and knocked on her door. She opened it a crack and I could see nothing of the room, only that she was pale. She had an intestinal ailment. A friend had told her that it was probably because her room had been without heat for three days. Anyway, she could not get out and about.

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I asked her if there was anything I could get her. She said she would like some Kaopectate but that she had no money. So I went to Walgreen and bought Kaopectate, stopping on the way back to pick up black coffee with sugar and some hard rolls. Nancy seemed pleased with the coffee but said she would have to soak the rolls in water or they would hurt her gums. The following morning I went to see her again, and this time she was bundled up and ready to go. Her jaw was set and she was very quiet on the subway.

Once inside the museum, she needed a cigarette. I cringed at the thought of her smoke permeating the canvases of the Eng­lish masters before whom we happened to have parked ourselves. I was also embarrassed at the thought of being chastened by an unimposing female guard standing at one of the doorways. But I said nothing. Nancy shrewdly noted the guard, weighed the risks aloud, then decided the prospective pleasure was worth taking a chance on. She lit her Salem and drew a blissful puff before the guard moved in with an admonishment to snuff it. Nancy did so without resentment. I felt a little embarrassed at having been cowed by the authorities here, and figured that in this respect, at least, Nancy must have an ego made of rawhide.

Once she had relaxed, she was drawn naturally to certain pieces. Her observa­tions revealed a considerable amount of reading. She had read Hendrik Van Loon’s fictional biography of Rembrandt and a couple of “scholarly works” besides. She had bought books on Gothic architecture and antique glass, but a malicious couple who lived across the hall from her in some SRO long ago had broken into her room and thrown her books out the window. It was raining and the books lay wet and ruined in the alley below.

Beyond whatever eclectic expertise she had gleaned from books, she responded instinctually to various works. She sur­prised me, while gazing at human figures on the bas-reliefs of an Egyptian tomb, by observing that the sculptor had not learned to portray his subjects in profile. And that was true. The rows of rigid courtiers were cut with faces in profile, but their bodies were shown straight-on because artists of the time, Nancy explained, hadn’t learned to foreshorten the shoulder.

In the gallery above, she made a beeline for a marble sculpture of children lan­guishing around the feet of an old man whose face wore an expression of anguish. She discovered from reading the inscrip­tion at its base that the man was a Pisan Count named Ugolino who was imprisoned and left to starve with his sons and grand­sons. At learning this Nancy recoiled and muttered that she wished she had never seen it. Being hungry was an awful thing.

***

It was not until this Ugolino episode that Nancy had made such a visceral re­sponse to privation. She had alluded to living on the streets and mourned the loss of “good food” she had known as a child, but the dark side of her experience she considered a private and shameful thing and she kept it to herself. I could not really grasp the fact that this woman, who could be such a perceptive and enjoyable companion, might have lived without shelter and food. She had known something frightening, something that was not civ­ilized.

To my chagrin I had taken a voyeur’s peep at her unsettled interior the day be­fore. Nancy was in the bathroom down the hall taking the Kaopectate I brought her. And I, left alone in the hallway, pushed the door of her room open to take a look inside. What I saw frightened me so badly that I quickly shut the door. Nancy’s little room was awash with clutter. Shopping bags, newspapers, old magazines, old clothes covered everything. The bed was so laden with this monumental debris that it could not have been slept in for some time. There was no clear space on the floor where one could safely tread. When Nancy padded back down the hall, her lips chalky from the Kaopectate, she found me looking guilty and anxious outside her door. As she did not invite me in I could not ask her about the chaos. I was not, at any rate, eager to talk about it, as it seemed danger­ous.

One night about a week later I went up to Nancy’s room. I knocked and there was no answer, but the light was on and I heard a soft rustling of papers. I called her name but there was no response. I imagined her treading back and forth across the debris, doing what she called “involved thinking” and surrounded by dark memories.

It is not clear how Nancy first came to be beleaguered by the Crooks. They did not exist in Forest Hills, that’s for certain. But she holds them responsible for her fall from the Garden. From comments she dropped over successive encounters, I surmised that her descent was gradual. She did not get along well in grammar school because she never understood math. Her father assured her that she was “not stupid, just slow,” but she was so in­timidated by algebra and terrified by the thought of being left back that she drop­ped out of high school after her freshman year. Later she dropped out of art school and, abandoning notions of becoming an actress, she decided she wanted to become a singer. So she auditioned for a big band leader at one of the Manhattan hotels who told her that “with training” she could amount to something. He gave her a letter of introduction to a voice teacher, a bald­ing, brown-eyed man named Raul Querze (she took pains to spell his name for me) who had a studio at Carnegie Hall.

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Querze agreed to teach her at reason­able rates and Nancy, who had apparently determined to make it on her own, got a job in stenography at the McAlpin Hotel. She was embarrassed by this menial work. Throughout her studies with Querze she did not learn to read music and was plagued by terrible stage fright. After a year, she became ill. “Just an illness” — that’s all she will say about it. She had to enter a hospital. When she got out, the house on Pomander Walk had been sold. That sale was recorded in 1944, around the time, says a neighbor, that Mrs. Pomeroy, who had been suffering from a palsy, died.

Nancy does not believe her parents are dead. She concedes only that they were “sick.” As years went by, however, she came to believe that they had been kid­napped by ubiquitous scoundrels whom she called the Crooks. One of them, it turned out, was the man with whom she had lived for many years. She met him, she says, in the hospital. He was a rogue, a “nut,” whom she later came to “cordially despise.” But at the time she thought she loved him and she agreed to live with him because he said he wanted to marry her. He broke that promise and many others. She was so ashamed of living in sin that in corresponding with a friend, a Spanish woman living in Atlanta, she maintained the fiction that she was happily married.

He worked intermittently as a carpen­ter and sign painter. But when his asthma flared up, he was more often than not unemployed. She worked as a salesgirl in the basement of Macy’s, selling cheap net gowns. Then she sold jewelry at Korvettes and later designer dresses at an expensive boutique. But those jobs were apparently short-lived because she didn’t move fast enough. She was a very deliberate person. And her man was jealous of her working. He couldn’t control her, Nancy surmised, if she had money of her own.

They never had a proper home. They would check into a hotel, then be kicked out because he got into a fight with man­agement or because they couldn’t pay the rent. Then they would spend nights on the streets in doorways. Next morning they would get coffee at a restaurant and she would use the bathroom to discreetly wash herself in the sink. She was a very clean person. They were together for many years. Nancy says 10, it may have been longer. I asked her why she didn’t just leave and she said she tried. But some­times when you’re right in the middle of a situation the answers don’t seem so clear. She left him several times but always re­turned because she had no money except the dividends from a small trust fund her mother had set up for her. That was next to nothing, and being with him was all she knew.

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Her man became involved in increas­ingly nefarious dealings with some blacks in Harlem. Nancy professes not to know the nature of it, but it apparently had something to do with shaking down prostitutes. Then one night he abandoned her in Peon Station with only 10 cents to her name. She never saw him again, and al­though she had warned him to leave her parents alone, he joined the Crooks who had kidnapped them.

So in the spring of 1978 — she was in her early sixties — Nancy Pomeroy took up res­idence in Penn Station for three weeks, not as a festering grotesque rolled in rags on the restroom floor, but as one of those women of quality sitting up all night wait­ing for mythical trains. The dignity of these women often fools passersby. It isn’t apparent how many “normal” people mil­ling and sitting about the stations are ac­tually homeless until one studies the crowd. I went out one night to the termi­nals with the city’s pick-up van. One of the social workers said, “You can always tell by the shoes. They are run down because they always have to be on the move.” The police, of course, can spot them and prod them to move along. So not even a lady of quality can get a good night’s sleep. Just an hour here, two there. Pretty soon a narcotic confusion settles over the senses and even those whose personalities were whole begin behaving strangely. If this goes on long enough they lose their pride and slip into purgatory, retrieving bagels out of trash bins to survive.

Nancy had begun to slip into a stupor. The police harried her, one rapped her on the hand with his club, so she found a place near Madison Square Garden where she could hide and sleep uninterrupted. She was vulnerable to muggers; she has been robbed 14 times over the years, she says. She put aside her pride and began to beg — she never took money, she said, without promising to pay it back — and when she had enough she bought bagels and cream cheese. She had already begun to de­teriorate physically and life in the terminal hastened it. The clear skin she had been so proud of as a young woman became in­fected. It had become a problem sometime earlier when “the nut” had checked them into a room where the sink was clogged and there were no handles on the shower so she couldn’t bathe properly. In Penn Station she would go into the restroom at some early morning hour, pull her dress and slip off of her shoulders, and try to wash the sores that were ulcerating her arms and chest. But an attendant once threatened to call the police so she abandoned her toilette.

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It is difficult to imagine that there is no one from her privileged past upon whom Nancy could call. If there were relatives who had escaped the clutches of the Crooks, they were not in evidence. She had briefly checked in to the city shelter on Lafayette Street, but she became fright­ened when they proposed sending her to an adult home in Far Rockaway. As she was unmarried and had worked so erratically, she had no apparent claim to Social Secu­rity. The city sent her uptown to apply for SSI, a federal entitlement for the poor and unemployable, but she made a mistake on the forms and her benefits were delayed. She could most likely have prevailed upon the officers who held her small inheritance in trust at Citicorp Center to give her a loan on the dividends, but in her confusion she could not figure out how to get across town. She did not understand the protocol of dealing with banks and governments. The logistics of helping herself were too abstract.

Nancy cannot be coaxed to reflect on Penn Station except to say she thought she might go insane from the shame. Her de­cline was checked by a suggestion from one of the other “ladies” at the terminal that she might try the Dwelling Place. The nuns took her in and gave her a bed, and one Sister Liz, fearing that Nancy’s lesions might be scabies, undertook to supervise her bathing and massage her afflicted flesh with calomine lotion. The sainted Sister Liz eventually left for Bolivia to work with the lepers. But not before she got Nancy set up in cheap room of her own on Times Square with a small income of federal as­sistance and dividends that came to less than $300 a month.

The nuns continued to give her what help they could. And two years ago when a Hollywood casting director called the Dwelling Place looking for a street woman to work as an extra in a feature film, the sisters suggested Nancy, because they knew she could use the money. Fifty dollars. So she went to Soho one cold night, stood on a street corner before whirring cameras and pretended to be in love with a shabby middle-aged man smoking a cigar. I asked Nancy and the sisters the name of the film, but no one had bothered to find out. Shortly thereafter I was invited quite by chance to the screening of a silly romantic comedy called Soup for One. Nancy’s gnomish form appeared on the screen in a wordless sequence of short takes. Her name did not appear among the credits.

***

I invited Nancy to dinner at Stefanos, a basement restaurant with a deluxe diner menu several doors west of the Woodstock. She appeared in the lobby turned out in an amazingly chic maroon felt hat. Its brim dipped over one eye à la Garbo. I admired it enthusiastically and she seemed at once bashful and pleased. As a girl she had been a stylish dresser, she said. Back then she had had more money and more time. The parts of her arms and chest left exposed by the immaculate tent dress showed faint rosy scars of the now healed sores.

There was a chance, Nancy said, that her fiancé would join us at Stefanos. He was a psychologist, she said. They had known each other for about six years. So we took a booth that would admit at least one more and ordered seafood. I, red snap­per and Nancy, deep-fried scallops. She ate slowly, savoring the food with the same submissive bliss as she did the cigarette at the Metropolitan museum. We had white wine, which she sipped moderately. And for dessert she ordered ice cream, which she spooned into our respective coffees.

I noticed on the third finger of her left hand a jade band. She said it was a gift. From previous conversations I knew that “gifts” were not something given her, but rather tokens she had purchased for her kidnapped parents. She had an odd idea about sacrifice. In fact she once had a vision in which Christ appeared to her, his brow covered with a blue drape, and he whispered “sacrifice.” She had taken to buying and hoarding gifts — rings, per­fume, portable radios — to bestow on her parents when they were finally released. She felt guilty because of the money they had spent on her and she, after all, had wasted those opportunities.

Nancy was plagued by mischievous per­sons who masquerade as her mother or father. She once ran into one, it’s not clear which sex, in a coffee shop, and she was duped into paying for its meal before she realized the fraud. This obsession under­standably wreaks havoc upon her delicate circumstances, as her entire monthly in­come — dividends and government check­ — leaves her about $140 after rent. The nuns once tried to help Nancy manage her money but she declined. Sensible budget­ing didn’t accommodate her obsession with sacrifice.

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Nancy therefore spends most of every month with no money, bumming cigarettes and taking her meals at the Dwelling. There is an unfathomable gulf between having no money and one dollar, as Nancy herself revealed to me in a dispassionate recounting of what had happened before she found her present room at the Wood­stock. Late one afternoon she was thrown out of her room at the Times Square Motor Hotel for nonpayment of rent. She bought coffee in one restaurant, nursed it as long as she could, then bought hot chocolate in another and drank it until dawn.

As I could not imagine the prospect of being even without one dollar, the inequity of our positions was embarrassing. I gave her a bill I had in my purse. At first she demurred, saying she could not pay back, but I told her that it had been a good year for me. Perhaps next year I would be broke, and she would be on a streak and she could help me out. It was a feeble little fiction but if there was anything Nancy could understand it was the fluctuating nature of fortune.

During that meal at Stefanos, her fiancé did not materialize. We did not mention it. “Nancy,” I asked her, apropos of nothing. “How did you get to be so tough?” She was offended by “tough” and I had to amend it to “resilient.” “Well,” she replied in her deliberate way, “I went through hell but I loved beauty.”

When I asked Nancy to accompany me once more to the Metropolitan so that she could be photographed among the art, she agreed, seduced by the anticipation of see­ing her beloved bronze Adam. But Adam was no longer there. He had been taken off his mounting to be prepared for an imminent exhibit called “The Gates of Hell.” Not even marble and bronze stay constant. They go the way of the Watteau. ❖

Categories
CRIME ARCHIVES FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Murder on a Day Pass

One Walked Out of the Cuckoo’s Nest

Ewa Berwid knew perfectly well that her husband intended to kill her. Adam had told her so in a series of matter-of-fact letters penned on yellow legal sheets from the Nassau County Jail. He would strangle her, he promised. Push her ribs right through her back. 

So resolute was he in this obsession that during May of 1978, sometime after their divorce became final, he announced in open court his intentions to take her life if she did not relinquish custody of their two small children, Adam and Olga. After catching a glimpse of her during a later appearance, he lunged for her and was tackled by sheriff’s deputies before he could straddle the rail of the jury box. 

Life for Ewa Berwid became, as a result, one long-running nightmare. Even after Adam was committed to a state mental hospital for observation, she never drew a free breath. For she knew that Adam was cunning enough to elude those who watched him. She bought a revolver, kept it by her bed, and tried to live sensibly with terror. 

Early last December, Adam Berwid persuaded a psychiatrist at Pilgrim Psychiatric Center at Brentwood, Long Island, to give him a day pass. He was free more than six hours before Ewa realized it. When she did, it was too late. Shortly after dusk on December 6, Ewa was at home with her two children when she heard glass shattering in the basement. There was no time to run upstairs for the gun. She hurried instead to the wall phone in the kitchen at the head of the basement stairs and punched 911. An emergency operator answered, but Ewa never had the chance to identify herself or utter a coherent message. Adam appeared at the top of the stairs with a hunting knife, and when he grabbed her the nightmare ended in a series of fast, flickering freeze frames. 

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“Olga, get out!” Adam plunged the knife into her neck and chest with four fatal and audible blows. As the receiver dangled by its cord from the wall, the police operator heard the muffled shuffles of a struggle and a woman crying, “He’s killing me… I’m dying… Oh, God… Oh, God.” Then there was silence except for a sigh. And someone placed the receiver back on its cradle. There was no time to trace the call. 

Ewa Berwid’s death, while perhaps not the most ghastly homicide in this season of mutilations and decapitations, was certainly one of the most infuriating. How could a woman marked so clearly for death be left so vulnerable by the police, by the courts, and most particularly by the psychiatrist who granted Adam Berwid his day pass? 

During the weeks that followed the slaying, all of those who might have saved her engaged in a frantic round of recriminations, trying to find some place to deposit the guilt. Both the Assembly and the Senate held hearings into the matter, during which legislators and public witnesses excoriated the State Office of Mental Health for lax security and supervision. And the OMH, mortified and anxious to distance itself from the tragedy, announced that as the result of an intensive investigation it would, for the first time in its history, suspend two psychiatrists for “misconduct.” The ax fell upon Berwid’s doctor, Irving Blumenthal, and his immediate superior, Dr. Tsu-Teng Loo. Then the state cooperated meekly with Nassau County District Attorney Denis Dillon, who asked that administrative charges be suspended temporarily so he could seek a criminal indictment against the two doctors — a move which sent a chill through the medical establishment and challenged the already eroding principle that pa­tient-doctor privilege gives psychiatrists some special immunity to prosecution. (A California supreme court held in 1974 that a psychia­trist treating a patient who utters threats must take steps to warn the prospective victim.) 

At present, Blumenthal and Loo are the most visible targets for reprisal. Whether Dillon can prove that they are criminals remains to be seen. But the responsibility for Ewa really goes far beyond two careless doctors. She was failed by an entire system of law that should have contained safeguards to protect her. That system, however, turned out to be combed with trap-doors and trip-locks. And Adam Berwid slipped right through it. 

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To be sure, the test of wills between Adam and the mental health system was a mismatch. He was clearly superior. Pilgrim’s director, Peggy O’Neill, says in retrospect, “He was a very bright man. Super­bright. Probably brighter than anybody treating him.” He was by every account remarkable. Even Ewa, during the last months of her life, was mesmerized in a horrible way by his enterprise. That all his genius should be turned upon destroying her seemed unreal, because she had once loved him very much. 

Adam had courted her in Poland during the early sixties. She was nineteen, a blonde unworldly engineering student. He was twenty-six, dark and domineering, already a nuclear engineer. He offered to be her protector and she accepted. During the early years of their marriage, Adam dominated her with her blessing. In 1969 he brought her to America. They arrived in New York City with only two small suitcases and $1,000 between them. But they both found good engineering jobs and eventually moved to Mineola, where they bought a modest white shingled house at 244 Wellington Road. 

A couple of years after leaving Poland, Ewa gave birth to Olga; three years later, to Adam. To all appearances, the Berwids and their two healthy infants were a family favored by fortune. Neighbors considered them close, devoutly Christian. Particularly Adam, whose religious convictions were firm to the point of unyielding. 

No one is quite sure when Adam’s problems began. In one theory, he was unhappy that Ewa continued to work after the children were born. She was advancing very rapidly and eventually earned more than he did. Jealous of her success, he complained when she hired housekeepers, and was resentful because she did not spend more time cooking, caring for the babies, and doting upon him. 

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He quit his job, took out a $25,000 Small Business Administration loan, and tried to start his own consulting firm. But he couldn’t make it go. And early in the summer of 1977, Eva found him growing increasingly strange. The children, he claimed, were in some kind of danger. When Ewa tried to put them to bed early, Adam refused to allow it because, he said, “the devil” wanted them to go to bed early. 

Those amorphous fantasies gradually focused upon his wife. When she changed the baby’s diaper and nuzzled his stomach, Adam accused her of practicing sodomy upon the little boy. At first Ewa tried to reason with him. When that failed, she argued. The arguments grew into fights, and he struck her for the first time in their marriage. During one of these bouts, Adam dragged her downstairs by the hair and threw her out the front door. She obtained a protective order to keep him away from her and the children. He ignored it. She had him arrested and then filed for divorce. 

Much later, Adam wrote in “An Open Letter to the People of Nassau County” that he feared for his children and “that killing their biological mother is the only effective means to protect my kids against her harmful practices toward them.” Those delusions festered and swelled in the Nassau County Jail. It was there he began writing death threats couched in long and terrifying letters sent to Ewa by certified mail. The threats were so explicit that they came to the attention of the district attorney, who brought the most serious charge the law allowed — “aggravated harassment.” A misdemeanor. 

After Adam threatened Ewa’s life in court, Judge Joseph DeMaro set bail at one million dollars and ordered psychiatric examinations to determine whether Berwid was capable of standing trial. The examina­tions revealed that Berwid was incapacitated by a “personality disor­der” manifesting itself in delusions and paranoia. He was sent upstate for ninety days of observation at Mid-Hudson Psychiatric Center — the only hospital in New York State equipped to handle violent or potentially violent patients committed under court order. 

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Here Berwid began slipping through the gears where criminal law and mental health law did not quite mesh. Had he run afoul of Ewa a decade earlier, he would have effectively forfeited his civil rights and been packed off to Matteawan, a notorious psychiatric prison which the state main­tained under scandalous circumstances until pressure for reform closed it down during the mid-seventies. There he might have spent twenty to thirty years, along with a mismatched assortment of other “violent” patients, being shocked, abused, and lobotomized. But Berwid, as it turned out, was the living converse of a Kesey nightmare; a criminally insane man whom the system was not reluctant, but anxious, to release. As soon as he was handed over by the court to the custody of the mental health system, the misdemeanor charge was automatically dropped and he became a civil patient. As the result of a 1973 New York Court of Appeals decision, he was entitled to equal rights in a system determined — in the interests of enlightened treatment — to move him up through the concentric circles of institutional psychiatry and out into society as quickly as possible. The law required it.

That Berwid should have been prematurely discharged by the system came as no surprise to those familiar with Ewa’s predicament. It was foreseen by at least one psychiatrist who, on the eve of Berwid’s departure for Mid-Hudson, warned the court that Adam possessed the sort of genius required to convince a psychiatrist somewhere along the course of his treatment that he was sane. One young law intern in the Nassau County DA’s office read the statutes and saw what was coming: that Berwid would be kept only until he lost the most obvious signs of illness. And then the law would have no reason, no right, to keep him locked up. So he referred Ewa to the Community Legal Assistance Corporation, a consortium of Hofstra University law students and their professors, with the hope that they could put in the hours of legal work it would take to force the system to save her. 

Ewa’s new lawyer, Chuck McEvily, began an urgent correspondence with Mid-Hudson, requesting the administration to recommit Berwid at the end of ninety days. In an extraordinary move, Judge Joseph DeMaro also took it upon himself to write the hospital, admonishing doctors to be cautious because, as he put it, “this court is convinced that the defendant intends to carry out his threat.” An assistant DA sent a chilling and prophetic letter. Berwid, he wrote, was “a clear and homicidal threat” who, in one psychiatrist’s opinion, would even kill his children to prevent his wife from having them. “We have no doubt,” the assistant DA continued, “that if he is released, we will be reading about the murder of Ewa Berwid in Newsday at some time in the future.” 

Sensitive to pressure, Mid-Hudson recommitted Berwid as an involuntary civil patient for another six months. But Ewa’s lawyer kept up the relentless correspondence. “We were trying to get the system to give us notice of whatever happened before any decisions to transfer or release him could be made,” recalls Marjorie Mintzer, Ewa’s attorney at the time of her death. “[We wanted] to participate in those decisions because she was a clear and acknowledged future victim.… The doctors in the mental health system would never acknowledge that we had any rights whatsoever to participate in any decision involving Adam Berwid.” 

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Meanwhile, Berwid chafed at his confinement, claiming he was being poisoned. But his most morbid delusions, as usual, centered about his family. He complained to one psychiatrist that keeping him there was unfair because it kept him from killing Ewa. Yet after nine months, Mid-Hudson authorities determined that keeping Berwid under maximum security would accomplish nothing more in the way of treatment, and doctors started the wheels in motion to transfer him to a less secure — less prisonlike — setting. The choice was Pilgrim Psychi­atric Center in Brentwood. In the eyes of the mental health bureau­cracy, it was the only choice. Pilgrim was the civil hospital closest to Mineola, and the law required that a patient be transferred back into his own community, allowing him as much access and support from family and friends as possible. The patient, in this case, was relocated to a spot within one hour’s train ride from his intended victim. 

Under the best of conditions, Pilgrim would not have welcomed Adam Berwid’s arrival. No one there really knew quite what to do with criminals who filtered down from Mid-Hudson. There were no forensic wards staffed with criminal psychiatrists. Not even any secure wards. Indeed, why should there have been? Mental health reforms of the past two decades emptied out Pilgrim’s acres of brick dorms — warehouses, they were called — and transformed the sprawling psychiatric city into a “civil hospital” with responsibility for only about 3,000 geriatric patients. The intrusion of court-ordered patients was a nuisance, even a menace, and when one like Adam arrived on the scene, Pilgrim’s most fervent hope was that he would get well and go away. 

Pilgrim did not want to keep him, and Ewa — her dread heightened by the transfer — was in a quandary. “Take the children and run,” friends urged her. “Go away somewhere and change your name. Start a new life.” But she said no. She had a good job, friends, church, neighbors, a new male friend. She had an understanding with the local police, who cruised past her house at intervals, checking for trouble. Besides, she said, if Adam were truly intent upon killing her, he would hunt her down no matter how far she ran. Perhaps, she mused to her attorneys, Adam really was getting well. Hoping to see some genuine improvement, she went to visit him at Pilgrim. It was an amiable encounter. He seemed better. At least he was calm. He told her he wanted to move back in with her. Perhaps they could even travel together. Would she like that? As gently as possible, she told him no. And he returned to his locked ward. 

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The lock, however, proved illusory. No one watched Adam closely. That was partly because the acute ward to which he was assigned was in a state of turmoil as the result of an HEW investigation which had discovered inadequate nursing care, sloppy drug therapy, and lax supervision of patients’ treatment. Staff was being shifted here and there, and Berwid, it seems, was lost in the shuffle. On April 5, 1979, he escaped, if you can call it that. He simply shoved open the push bar on the locked ward, left the grounds, and walked thirty miles west to Mineola. When the hospital discovered he was missing, an official notified Ewa so she could take care not to be alone in the house. Two days later, Ewa returned home with her male friend. On her way to the upstairs bathroom, she noticed the bedroom door ajar. From an oblique angle, she saw Adam lying on the bed in his underwear. He appeared to be stirring from a sound sleep. She tiptoed downstairs and went to the phone. The wires had been cut. She called the police from a neighbor’s house. But when the patrolmen arrived, they were not quite sure what to do. They were not authorized to arrest Berwid, since Pilgrim had never sent a teletyped message verifying his escape. Adam was docile as police debated for the next two hours whether or not they could take him in for trespassing. This had, after all, once been his house. There seemed to be no statute covering the situation. Finally they received word from headquarters to take him the hell back to Pilgrim. 

Within a week, he escaped again. This time, he pried loose the chicken wire from a second-story bathroom window and climbed down a rope of knotted sheets. That night, two plainclothes detectives kept a vigil with Ewa at the house. But Adam did not show. Instead, at noon on the following day, he surfaced at Olga’s elementary school in Mineola and demanded to take her away. The principal said Olga was in class, then quietly called the police.

These escapes got Berwid transferred back to maximum security at Mid-Hudson. There his entire demeanor changed. The complaining stopped. For seven months, he put his short, compact body through a daily conditioning regimen of 100 sit-ups and five miles of laps. His delusions apparently subsided, and days passed without mention of Ewa or the children. He filed a writ to the courts insisting that he was not mentally ill. And because he was not “acting out” — not raving or attacking attendants — Mid-Hudson felt it safe to transfer him back to Pilgrim with instructions that he be eased slowly back into the community. 

Adam’s menacing history was chronicled in one black loose-leaf binder. This record preceded him wherever he went within the system and it contained everything: the assistant DA’s warning, DeMaro’s warning, the psychiatrist’s admonition that Adam would one day con a doctor into letting him go. And in late November last year, that record landed on the desk of an elderly Pilgrim psychiatrist, Dr. Irving Blumenthal. As Adam’s doctor, Blumenthal had nearly absolute authority. He could issue his patient an honor card to stroll the grounds, or a day pass allowing him to leave the hospital unescorted. Such excursions are, after all, considered good therapy — a kind of decompression for patients soon to be released. Blumenthal was cold and noncommittal, therefore, when he received a call from Legal Assistance asking him to notify Ewa if Adam were allowed off-grounds unescorted. Blumenthal would not promise that. His rationale — one supported by the majority of institutional psychiatrists up through the top echelons of the Office of Mental Health — was that day passes were part of therapy. To contact outsiders, therefore, violated con­fidentiality. Furthermore, the law did not require notification except when a patient escaped. 

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Blumenthal’s superior, Dr. Loo, also refused to commit himself to notification if the patient was allowed to leave. He was sufficiently alerted, however, to instruct a male therapy aide to flag Berwid’s notebook with large red letters reading: POLICE MUST BE NOTI­FIED IF PATIENT ESCAPES. On the front of the book, the aide also posted the telephone numbers of the police and Ewa ‘s lawyers, as well as Ewa ‘s unlisted number. 

Those warnings, so stark and urgent, could hardly have escaped Blumenthal’s notice. Six days after Bcrwid arrived, Blumenthal observed for the clinical record that if Adam did indeed escape, emergency notification procedures would be followed. (He also signed a typed memorandum to that effect one week later, on December 3.) 

But during the two weeks that Benvid was at Pilgrim, he was, as Blumenthal later put it, “an absolute angel.” He helped other patients and rarely talked about his family except to explain that he wanted to visit family court again to see about getting his children back. “Whatever he was told to do, he did,” Director Peggy O’Neil recalls. “He even volunteered for more. In fact, he was at the point of asking if he could get involved in the work program.… He was extremely cooperative. There was probably a method in his madness to be that cooperative.” Berwid began pressing for an honor card; he said he wanted to buy himself a winter coat. 

A little more than two weeks after Berwid arrived, Blumenthal stunned his treatment team by announcing that he was giving Berwid both an honor card and a day pass. Berwid had received no intensive therapy. He had met only once with the team to draw up his treatment plan — one that specified improving relations with his “wife” — and was scheduled to see a psychiatrist only once a week for an hour. One nurse, particularly distressed by the prospect of the passes, pointed out to the others that Berwid hadn’t been around long enough to be evaluated properly — that hospital policy dictated extending freedom by degrees. Nevertheless, Blumenthal authorized two excursions, and the following morning, December 5, Berwid was allowed to roam free on the grounds. 

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When he failed to return by 4:00 P.M. curfew, the nurse on duty told Blumenthal that she was worried and suggested that he call all the parties on the front of Berwid’s binder. Blumenthal dismissed the warning, saying that emergency notification did not apply to a day pass. He then extended Berwid’s curfew to 9:00 P.M. Berwid wandered in sometime before 5:30 P.M., apparently offering no explanation of where he had been, except that he had checked $100 out of his institutional savings account to buy a coat. Instead of disciplining him, Blumenthal signed him out on a day pass the following morning, December 6. That was the second anniversary of the Berwids’ divorce. Blumenthal’s apparent indulgence worried two nurses, who took their concerns to Dr. Loo, who telephoned Blumenthal to satisfy himself that the situation was under control. At that point, Loo could have overridden the pass. But he did not. 

Berwid left the acute-care ward shortly after 10:00 A.M. He was stopped by a county patrolman, but he flashed his pass and was waved on. According to the itinerary he had outlined to Blumenthal, he was to take his $100, get on a bus to Bay Shore three miles to the south, and shop for a coat. No one seems to have noticed that Berwid already had a winter coat. 

Instead of heading for Bay Shore, Berwid took the Long Island Railroad from the West Brentwood Station to Mineola. The train deposited him at the outskirts of his old neighborhood. He strolled to a Friendly Ice Cream Shop around the corner from Ewa’s house and ate an unhurried lunch — a hamburger and coffee. He dropped by the dentist’s office to have his teeth cleaned. Then he went shopping for a knife at Herman’s World of Sporting Goods. He found one that would do. It had a short, utilitarian blade. About five inches. The kind of knife a woodman might use to dress a deer. His errands complete, he waited until dark. 

When Pilgrim’s evening shift came on duty, the same nurse who had urged Blumenthal the night before to notify police was disturbed to find Berwid had once more not met the 4:00 P.M. curfew. Her fears subsided when, at 4:30 P.M., he called in to say that he had taken the wrong train and ended up at Penn Station in New York City. He would be back in a couple of hours. He was not, of course, in New York at all, but at the Mineola train station only ten minutes away from Ewa, who was beginning to prepare dinner for Adam and Olga. No one else was at home. Adam arrived in the dark and walked down the driveway to the backyard. There he jimmied off the screen of one of the squat rectangular basement windows and, through the narrow opening, he dropped to the basement floor and climbed the stairs. At the top, he grabbed Ewa, who was standing at the phone, and stabbed her again, and again and again. 

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When she was still, he set to work putting things in order. He methodically mended the broken window with boards. He cleaned the blood from the kitchen floor and washed himself. He removed some of Ewa’s garments and washed her too. Then he carried her to the front room, where he laid her on a cot and folded her arms over her chest. He covered her with a coarse brown blanket, then placed a small votive candle on either side of her body. On one wall, he fashioned a cross of red ribbons. Then he commenced a dreadful wake, summoning Olga and Adam, who were cowering in an upstairs bedroom. 

“Pray for Mommy,” he told them. “Kiss Mommy good-bye.” Then he sent them back upstairs to sleep. 

Berwid did not return to Pilgrim at 6:00 P.M. as he had promised. But the ward nurse did not start emergency notification. Still bound by Blumenthal’s order to extend curfew, she waited. It was not until 9:00 P.M., therefore, that the staff began calling the numbers on the front of Berwid’s black binder. No answer at Legal Assistance. No answer at Ewa’s number. They sent her a mailgram informing her in passionless terms that Mr. Berwid was off the grounds without consent. The police arrived at Wellington Road about 9:30 P.M. They rang the doorbell and checked for signs of a break-in but everything seemed secure. So they left. About 11:00 P.M., however, Pilgrim sent a more urgent message out over the teletype, and three patrolmen familiar with Ewa’s case went to check the house again. They banged on the doors and peered in the windows. The house was dark except for a faint glow, too weak to be an incandescent bulb, that appeared to come from the front room. They supposed it to be a night light. One cop spotted that morning’s Daily News still lying in the yard and speculated that Ewa had already learned of Adam’s escape and had fled with the children. So they drove away. And all the while, Adam sat by candlelight ruminating over Ewa’s body. 

Next morning, about 8:45, Berwid called the DA’s office. No one was in yet; the call was picked up by the police operator who advised him to try again at 9:00. 

“Thanks,” he replied, “I’ll call back.” 

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Finally reaching an assistant DA, he explained calmly that he had escaped from Pilgrim and that he had murdered his wife. Detectives from County Homicide were the first to arrive. Adam and Olga waved to them from an upstairs window. The detectives waved back. Adam answered the door and took them to Ewa’s body. Only later that afternoon did the police play back that fragmented emergency 911 tape and realize the call had come from Ewa, the corpse on the cot. The following day, a postman delivered the mailgram from Pilgrim inform­ing Ewa her husband had escaped. No one had thought to send the warning Special Delivery. 

Adam Berwid inflicted heavy casualties not just upon his harried victim but upon everyone around her. The children he sought to keep from evil are now under a psychiatrist’s care. Ewa’s lawyers feel bitter and mortally cheated. 

Dr. Loo reportedly is overcome with remorse and has been hospitalized for heart problems. Blumenthal still admits to no error in judgment. Neither man will discuss the case. They are stifled, of course, by the threat of criminal indictment — a prospect which has thrown a pall over psychiatry in New York. During the weeks immediately following the murder, patients’ rights advocates reported a dread reluctance among psychiatrists to make release decisions. Their defense: Psychiatry is an art, not a science. We cannot tell you when a patient will kill. 

One probable and far-reaching consequence of the Berwid scandal is that it is likely to give rise to a “defensive psychiatry” wherein doctors will make fewer mistakes simply because they will make fewer decisions. “The doctors are as human as we are,” says patient-rights advocate Alfred Besunder. “If they’re afraid they’re going to get their backsides sued, they’re going to say, ‘The hell with it. I’m not going to make any decisions…’ And for some patient who has been making progress, that is tragic.” 

One opinion that is gaining support among psychiatrists is that doctors should be given absolute immunity — in the same manner, perhaps, that the U.S. Supreme Court recently allowed immunity for parole officers. Short of that, the decisions for release of potentially dangerous patients will probably end up in the courts. In the opinion of Ewa’s attorney, Marjorie Mintzer, that is just where the responsibility belongs.

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“I have a feeling,” says Mintzer, “that doctors are not trained to look past their responsibility [to] their patients. Now it may have been in Adam Berwid’s best interest to have a chance outside of the institution for a day.… But would you balance the minimal good it might have done [against] the risk to society? And if so, would you put that decision in the hands of a doctor? I wouldn’t. Judges make those decisions.” 

The legislature, now rallying to find remedies, has entertained a spate of proposals, some so reactionary they would roll back two decades of reform in mental health. But others are more moderate. One remarkably restrained bill came out of the office of the Nassau County DA, who proposes to caulk the “statutory gap” between criminal and mental health law by allowing the DA to keep tabs on a court-ordered patient even after that patient is turned over to the mental health system. It would require doctors to notify police and any potential victim at least two days before a patient is given a day pass. Implicit within this proposal is the power of the prosecutor to challenge a doctor’s decision in court, bringing in his own psychiatrists to air conflicting medical opinions before a judge. Even a relatively con­servative proposal such as this, however, will run into problems in the definition of “potentially violent.” If psychiatrists confess their own inability to predict violent behavior, who will make the determination? 

Even assuming that the notification bill survives close constitutional scrutiny, it does not really reach to the heart of the problem. The fact is that Berwid was mischanneled through a maze of law into a mental health system equipped neither to treat him nor to incarcerate him. He clearly does not belong there. But to direct him elsewhere, through the penal system, would be to buck a precedent going back to Anglo-Saxon law, which holds that an insane man cannot be held a criminal. Assuming the venerable McNaughton legal definition of insanity can be altered to allow the criminally insane to be treated within prisons will mean spending millions to provide clinical facilities. To keep them within the mental health system, on the other hand, will mean spending millions on secure and forensic wards. Either way, the pendulum swings back toward the prison mentality of Matteawan and Dan­nemora. 

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Berwid has not actually created any new dilemmas: he has simply stirred the embers of old controversies. And as they burn around him, he sits in the Nassau County Jail still imposing his own will upon events. Confessing at the slightest provocation. Confounding the system. 

Last December, he wrote to Newsday from jail: “I did my act of taking a human life, not in the name of hatred toward my former wife, but in the name of Jesus Christ to defend my loved ones.” He considers his cause righteous and is quite certain that judge and jury will see the justice in what he did. 

Meanwhile, he is drawing up a death list of all those who have suggested he is insane. The list includes his first court-appointed lawyer — whom he fired — and a second to whom he barely speaks. To facilitate these righteous executions, he has applied for a handgun permit. 

He refuses to plead innocent by reason of insanity and will not allow himself to be examined by psychiatrists. How, they ask, can you examine a mute man? Although charged with second-degree murder, he has twice refused to come to court voluntarily for his arraignment, and a frustrated Judge Richard Delin has ordered the use of force, if necessary, to bring him to his next hearing, set for late February. 

If Adam Berwid is found capable of standing trial, he will almost certainly be acquitted by reason of insanity. In that case, he will be sent back through the cycle to Mid-Hudson, where felony charges against him will eventually lapse. 

In the meantime, he will be eligible for a day pass. 

Categories
CRIME ARCHIVES FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Death of a Playmate

It is shortly past four in the afternoon and Hugh Hefner glides wordlessly into the library of his Playboy Mansion West. He is wearing pajamas and looking somber in green silk. The incongruous spectacle of a sybarite in mourning. To date, his public profession of grief has been contained in a press release: “The death of Dorothy Stratten comes as a shock to us all.… As Playboy’s Playmate of the Year with a film and a television career of increasing importance, her professional future was a bright one. But equally sad to us is the fact that her loss takes from us all a very special member of the Playboy family.”

That’s all. A dispassionate eulogy from which one might conclude that Miss Stratten died in her sleep of pneumonia. One, certainly, which masked the turmoil her death created within the Organization. During the morning hours after Stratten was found nude in a West Los Angeles apartment, her face blasted away by 12-gauge buckshot, editors scrambled to pull her photos from the upcoming October issue. It could not be done. The issues were already run. So they pulled her ethereal blond image from the cover of the 1981 Playmate Calendar and promptly scrapped a Christmas promotion featuring her posed in the buff with Hefner. Other playmates, of course, have expired violently. Wilhelmina Rietveld took a massive overdose of barbiturates in 1973. Claudia Jennings known as “Queen of the B-Movies,” was crushed to death last fall in her Volkswagen convertible. Both caused grief and chagrin to the self-serious “family” of playmates whose aura does not admit the possibility of shaving nicks and bladder infections, let alone death.

But the loss of Dorothy Stratten sent Hefner and his family into seclusion, at least from the press. For one thing, Playboy has been earnestly trying to avoid any bad national publicity that might threaten its application for a casino license in Atlantic City. But beyond that, Dorothy Stratten was a corporate treasure. She was not just any playmate but the “Eighties’ First Playmate of the Year” who, as Playboy trumpeted in June, was on her way to becoming “one of the few emerging goddesses of the new decade.”

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She gave rise to extravagant comparisons with Marilyn Monroe, although unlike Monroe, she was no cripple. She was delighted with her success and wanted more of it. Far from being brutalized by Hollywood, she was coddled by it. Her screen roles were all minor ones. A fleeting walk-on as a bunny in Americathon. A small running part as a roller nymph in Skatetown U.S.A. She played the most perfect woman in the universe in an episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. She was surely more successful in a shorter period of time than any other playmate in the history of the empire. “Playboy has not really had a star,” says Stratten’s erstwhile agent David Wilder. “They thought she was going to be the biggest thing they ever had.”

No wonder Hefner grieves.

“The major reason that I’m… that we’re both sittin’ here,” says Hefner, “that I wanted to talk about it, is because there is still a great tendency… for this thing to fall into the classic cliché of ‘smalltown girl comes to Playboy, comes to Hollywood, life in the fast lane,’ and that was somehow related to her death. And that is not what really happened. A very sick guy saw his meal ticket and his connection to power, whatever, slipping away. And it was that that made him kill her.”

The “very sick guy” is Paul Snider, Dorothy Stratten’s husband, the man who became her mentor. He is the one who plucked her from a Dairy Queen in Vancouver, British Columbia, and pushed her into the path of Playboy during the Great Playmate Hunt in 1978. Later, as she moved out of his class, he became a millstone, and Stratten’s prickliest problem was not coping with celebrity but discarding a husband she had outgrown. When Paul Snider balked at being discarded, he became her nemesis. And on August 14 of this year he apparently took her life and his own with a 12-gauge shotgun.

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The Pimp

It is not so difficult to see why Snider became an embarrassment. Since the murder he has been excoriated by Hefner and others as a cheap hustler, but such moral indignation always rings a little false in Hollywood. Snider’s main sin was that he lacked scope.

Snider grew up in Vancouver’s East End, a tough area of the city steeped in machismo. His parents split up when he was a boy and he had to fend for himself from the time he quit school in the seventh grade. Embarrassed by being skinny, he took up body building in his late teens and within a year had fleshed out his upper torso. His dark hair and mustache were groomed impeccably and women on the nightclub circuit found him attractive. The two things it seemed he could never get enough of were women and money. For a time he was the successful promoter of automobile and cycle shows at the Pacific National Exhibition. But legitimate enterprises didn’t bring him enough to support his expensive tastes and he took to procuring. He wore mink, drove a black Corvette, and flaunted a bejeweled Star of David around his neck. About town he was known as the Jewish Pimp.

Among the heavy gang types in Vancouver, the Rounder Crowd, Paul Snider was regarded with scorn. A punk who always seemed to be missing the big score. “He never touched [the drug trade],” said one Rounder who knew him then. “Nobody trusted him that much and he was scared to death of drugs. He finally lost a lot of money to loan sharks and the Rounder Crowd hung him by his ankles from the 30th floor of a hotel. He had to leave town.”

Snider split for Los Angeles where he acquired a gold limousine and worked his girls on the fringes of Beverly Hills. He was enamored of Hollywood’s dated appeal and styled his girls to conform with a 1950s notion of glamour. At various times he toyed with the idea of becoming a star, or perhaps even a director or a producer. He tried to pry his way into powerful circles, but without much success. At length he gave up pimping because the girls weren’t bringing him enough income — one had stolen some items and had in fact cost him money — and when he returned to Vancouver some time in 1977 Snider resolved to keep straight. For one thing, he was terrified of going to jail. He would kill himself, he once told a girl, before he would go to jail.

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But Snider never lost the appraising eye of a pimp. One night early in 1978 he and a friend dropped into an East Vancouver Dairy Queen and there he first took notice of Dorothy Ruth Hoogstraten filling orders behind the counter. She was very tall with the sweet natural looks of a girl, but she moved like a mature woman. Snider turned to his friend and observed, “That girl could make me a lot of money.” He got Dorothy’s number from another waitress and called her at home. She was 18.

Later when she recalled their meeting Dorothy would feign amused exasperation at Paul’s overtures. He was brash, lacking altogether in finesse. But he appealed to her, probably because he was older by nine years and streetwise. He offered to take charge of her and that was nice. Her father, a Dutch immigrant, had left the family when she was very young. Dorothy had floated along like a particle in a solution. There had never been enough money to buy nice things. And now Paul bought her clothes. He gave her a topaz ring set in diamonds. She could escape to his place, a posh apartment with skylights, plants, and deep burgundy furniture. He would buy wine and cook dinner. Afterwards he’d fix hot toddies and play the guitar for her. In public he was an obnoxious braggart; in private he could be a vulnerable, cuddly Jewish boy.

Paul Snider knew that gaping vulnerability of a young girl. Before he came along Dorothy had had only one boyfriend. She had thought of herself as “plain with big hands.” At 16, her breasts swelled into glorious lobes, but she never really knew what to do about them. She was a shy, comely, undistinguished teenager who wrote sophomoric poetry and had no aspirations other than landing a secretarial job. When Paul told her she was beautiful, she unfolded in the glow of his compliments and was infected by his ambitions for her.

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Snider probably never worked Dorothy as a prostitute. He recognized that she was, as one observer put it, “class merchandise” that could be groomed to better advantage. He had tried to promote other girls as playmates, notably a stripper in 1974, but without success. He had often secured recycled playmates or bunnies to work his auto shows and had seen some get burnt out on sex and cocaine, languishing because of poor management. Snider dealt gingerly with Dorothy’s inexperience and broke her in gradually. After escorting her to her graduation dance — he bought her a ruffled white gown for the occasion — he took her to a German photographer named Uwe Meyer for her first professional portrait. She looked like a flirtatious virgin.

About a month later, Snider called Meyer again, this time to do a nude shooting at Snider’s apartment. Meyer arrived with a hairdresser to find Dorothy a little nervous. She clung, as she later recalled, to a scarf or a blouse as a towline to modesty, but she fell quickly into playful postures. She was perfectly pliant.

“She was eager to please,” recalls Meyer. “I hesitated to rearrange her breasts thinking it might upset her, but she said, ‘Do whatever you like.’ ”

Meyer hoped to get the $1,000 finder’s fee that Playboy routinely pays photographers who discover playmates along the byways and backwaters of the continent. But Snider, covering all bets, took Dorothy to another photographer named Ken Honey who had an established track-record with Playboy. Honey had at first declined to shoot Dorothy because she was underage and needed a parent’s signature on the release. Dorothy, who was reluctant to tell anyone at home about the nude posing, finally broke the news to her mother and persuaded her to sign. Honey sent this set of shots to Los Angeles and was sent a finder’s fee. In August 1978, Dorothy flew to Los Angeles for a test shot. It was the first time she had ever been on a plane.

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***

Even to the most cynical sensibilities there is something miraculous about the way Hollywood took to Dorothy Hoogstraten. In a city overpopulated with beautiful women — most of them soured and disillusioned by 25 — Dorothy caught some current of fortune and floated steadily upward through the spheres of that indifferent paradise. Her test shots were superb, placing her among the 16 top contenders for the 25th Anniversary Playmate. And although she lost out to Candy Loving, she was named Playmate of the Month for August 1979. As soon as he learned of her selection, Paul Snider, by Hefner’s account at least, flew to Los Angeles and proposed. They did not marry right away but set up housekeeping in a modest apartment in West Los Angeles. It was part of Snider’s grand plan that Dorothy should support them both. She was, however, an alien and had no green card. Later, when it appeared her fortunes were on the rise during the fall of 1979, Hefner would personally intervene to secure her a temporary work permit. In the meantime, she was given a job as a bunny at the Century City Playboy Club. The Organization took care of her. It recognized a good thing. While other playmates required cosmetic surgery on breasts or scars, Stratten was nearly perfect. There was a patch of adolescent acne on her forehead and a round birthmark on her hip, but nothing serious. Her most troublesome flaw was a tendency to get plump, but that was controlled through passionate exercise. The only initial change Playboy deemed necessary was trimming her shoulder-length blond hair. And the cumbersome “Hoogstraten” became “Stratten.”

Playboy photographers had been so impressed by the way Dorothy photographed that a company executive called agent David Wilder of Barr-Wilder Associates. Wilder, who handled the film careers of other playmates, agreed to meet Dorothy for coffee.

“A quality like Dorothy Stratten’s comes by once in a lifetime,” says Wilder with the solemn exaggeration that comes naturally after a tragedy. “She was exactly what this town likes, a beautiful girl who could act.”

More to the point she had at least one trait to meet any need. When Lorimar Productions wanted a “playmate type” for a bit role in Americathon, Wilder sent Dorothy. When Columbia wanted a beauty who could skate for Skatetown, Wilder sent Dorothy, who could skate like an ace. When the producers of Buck Rogers and later Galaxina asked simply for a woman who was so beautiful that no one could deny it, Wilder sent Dorothy. And once Dorothy got in the door, it seemed that no one could resist her.

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During the spring of 1979, Dorothy was busy modeling or filming. One photographer recalls, “She was green, but took instruction well.” From time to time, however, she would have difficulty composing herself on the set. She asked a doctor for a prescription of Valium. It was the adjustments, she explained, and the growing hassles with Paul.

Since coming to L.A., Snider had been into some deals of his own, most of them legal but sleazy. He had promoted exotic male dancers at a local disco, a wet underwear contest near Santa Monica, and wet T-shirt contests in the San Fernando Valley. But his chief hopes rested with Dorothy. He reminded her constantly that the two of them had what he called “a lifetime bargain” and he pressed her to marry him. Dorothy was torn by indecision. Friends tried to dissuade her from marrying, saying it could hold back her career, but she replied, “He cares for me so much. He’s always there when I need him. I can’t ever imagine myself being with any other man but Paul.”

They were married in Las Vegas on June 1, 1979, and the following month Dorothy returned to Canada for a promotional tour of the provinces. Paul did not go with her because Playboy wanted the marriage kept secret. In Vancouver, Dorothy was greeted like a minor celebrity. The local press, a little caustic but mainly cowed, questioned her obliquely about exploitation. “I see the pictures as nudes, like nude paintings,” she said. “They are not made for people to fantasize about.” Her family and Paul’s family visited her hotel, highly pleased with her success. Her first film was about to be released. The August issue was already on the stands featuring her as a pouting nymph who wrote poetry. (A few plodding iambs were even reprinted.)

And she was going to star in a new Canadian film by North American Pictures called Autumn Born.

Since the murder, not much has been made of this film, probably because it contained unpleasant overtones of bondage. Dorothy played the lead, a 17-year-old rich orphan who is kidnapped and abused by her uncle. Dorothy was excited about the role, although she conceded to a Canadian reporter, “a lot [of it] is watching this girl get beat up.”

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A Goddess for the ’80s

While Dorothy was being pummeled on the set of Autumn Born, Snider busied himself apartment hunting. They were due for a rent raise and were looking to share a place with a doctor friend, a young internist who patronized the Century City Playboy Club. Paul found a two-story Spanish style stucco house near the Santa Monica Freeway in West L.A. There was a living room upstairs as well as a bedroom which the doctor claimed. Paul and Dorothy moved into the second bedroom downstairs at the back of the house. Since the doctor spent many nights with his girlfriend, the Sniders had the house much to themselves.

Paul had a growing obsession with Dorothy’s destiny. It was, of course, his own. He furnished the house with photographs, and got plates reading “Star-80” for his new Mercedes. He talked about her as the next Playmate of the Year, the next Marilyn Monroe. When he had had a couple of glasses of wine, he would croon, “We’re on a rocket ship to the moon.” When they hit it big, he said, the would move to Bel-Air Estates where the big producers live.

Dorothy was made uncomfortable by his grandiosity. He was putting her, she confided to friends, in a position where she could not fail without failing them both. But she did not complain to him. They had, after all, a lifetime bargain, and he had brought her a long way.

As her manager he provided the kind of cautionary coaching that starlets rarely receive. He wouldn’t let her smoke. He monitored her drinking, which was moderate at any rate. He would have allowed her a little marijuana and cocaine under his supervision, but she showed no interest in drugs, save Valium. Mainly he warned her to be wary of the men she met at the Mansion, men who would promise her things, then use her up. Snider taught her how to finesse a come-on. How to turn a guy down without putting him off. Most important, he discussed with her who she might actually have to sleep with. Hefner, of course, was at the top of the list.

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Did Hefner sleep with Dorothy Stratten? Mansion gossips who have provided graphic narratives of Hefner’s encounters with other playmates cannot similarly document a tryst with Dorothy. According to the bizarre code of the Life — sexual society at the Mansion — fucking Hefner is a strictly voluntary thing. It never hurts a career, but Hefner, with so much sex at his disposal, would consider it unseemly to apply pressure.

Of Stratten, Hefner says, “There was a friendship between us. It wasn’t romantic.… This was not a very loose lady.”

Hefner likes to think of himself as a “father figure” to Stratten who, when she decided to marry, came to tell him about it personally. “She knew I had serious reservations about [Snider],” says Hefner. “I had sufficient reservations… that I had him checked out in terms of a possible police record in Canada.… I used the word — and I realized the [risk] I was taking — I said to her that he had a ‘pimp-like quality’ about him.”

Like most playmate husbands, Snider was held at arm’s length by the Playboy family. He was only rarely invited to the Mansion, which bothered him, as he would have liked more of an opportunity to cultivate Hefner. And Stratten, who was at the Mansion more frequently to party and roller skate, was never actively into the Life. Indeed, she spoke disdainfully of the “whores” who serviced Hefner’s stellar guests. Yet she moved into the circle of Hefner’s distinguished favorites when it became apparent that she might have a real future in film.

Playboy, contrary to the perception of aspiring starlets, is not a natural conduit to stardom. Most playmates who go into movies peak with walk-ons and fade away. Those whom Hefner has tried most earnestly to promote in recent years have been abysmal flops. Barbi Benton disintegrated into a jiggling loon and, according to Playboy sources, Hefner’s one time favorite Sondra Theodore went wooden once the camera started to roll.

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“Dorothy was important,” says one Playboy employee, “because Hefner is regarded by Hollywood as an interloper. They’ll come to his parties and play his games. But the won’t give him respect. One of the ways he can gain legitimacy is to be a star maker.”

There is something poignant about Hefner, master of an empire built on inanimate nudes, but unable to coax these lustrous forms to life on film. His chief preoccupation nowadays is managing the playmates. Yet with all of those beautiful women at his disposal, he has not one Marion Davies to call his own. Dorothy exposed that yearning, that ego weakness, as surely as she revealed the most pathetic side of her husband’s nature — his itch for the big score. Hefner simply had more class.

Dorothy’s possibilities were made manifest to him during The Playboy Roller Disco and Pajama Party taped at the Mansion late in October 1979. Dorothy had a running part and was tremendously appealing.

“Some people have the quality,” says Hefner. “I mean… there is something that comes from inside… The camera comes so close that it almost looks beneath the surface and… that magic is there somehow in the eyes.… That magic she had. That was a curious combination of sensual appeal and vulnerability.”

After the special was aired on television in November, Dorothy’s career accelerated rapidly. There was a rush of appearances that left the accumulating impression of stardom. Around the first of December her Fantasy Island episode appeared. Later that month, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. But the big news was that Hefner had chosen Dorothy Playmate of the Year for 1980. Although her selection was not announced to the public until April, she began photo sessions with Playboy photographer Mario Casilli before the year was out.

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Her look was altered markedly from that of sultry minx in the August issue. As Playmate of the Year her image was more defined. No more pouting, soft focus shots. Stratten was given a burnished high glamour. Her hair fell in the crimped undulating waves of a ’50s starlet. Her translucent body was posed against scarlet velour reminiscent of the Monroe classic. One shot of Stratten displaying some of her $200,000 in gifts — a brass bed and a lavender Lore negligee — clearly evoked the platinum ideal of Jean Harlow. Dorothy’s apotheosis reached, it seemed, for extremes of innocence and eroticism. In one shot she was draped in black lace and nestled into a couch, buttocks raised in an impish invitation to sodomy. Yet the cover displayed her clad in a chaste little peasant gown, seated in a meadow, head tilted angelically to one side. The dichotomy was an affirmation of her supposed sexual range. She was styled, apparently, as the Compleat Goddess for the ’80s.

By January 1980 — the dawning of her designated decade — Dorothy Stratten was attended by a thickening phalanx of photographers, promoters, duennas, coaches, and managers. Snider, sensing uneasily that she might be moving beyond his reach, became more demanding. He wanted absolute control over her financial affairs and the movie offers she accepted. She argued that he was being unreasonable; that she had an agent and a business manager whose job it was to advise her in those matters. Snider then pressed her to take the $200,000 from Playboy and buy a house. It would be a good investment, he said. He spent a lot of time looking at homes that might suit her, but she always found fault with them. She did not want to commit herself. She suspected, perhaps rightly, that he only wanted to attach another lien on her life.

This domestic squabbling was suspended temporarily in January when it appeared that Dorothy was poised for her big break, a featured role in a comedy called They All Laughed starring Audrey Hepburn and Ben Gazzara. It was to be directed by Peter Bogdanovich, whom Dorothy had first met at the roller disco bash in October. According to David Wilder, he and Bogdanovich were partying at the Mansion in January when the director first considered Stratten for the part.

“Jesus Christ,” the 41-year-old Bogdanovich is supposed to have said. “She’s perfect for the girl.… I don’t want her for her tits and ass. I want someone who can act.”

Wilder says he took Dorothy to Bogdanovich’s house in Bel-Air Estates to read for the role. She went back two or three more times and the director decided she was exactly what he wanted.

Filming was scheduled to begin in late March in New York City. Paul wanted to come along but Dorothy said no. He would get in the way and, at any rate, the set was closed to outsiders. Determined that she should depart Hollywood as a queen, he borrowed their housemate’s Rolls Royce and drove her to the airport. He put her on the plane in brash good spirits, then went home to sulk at being left behind.

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They All Laughed

The affair between Dorothy Stratten and Peter Bogdanovich was conducted in amazing secrecy. In that regard it bore little resemblance to the director’s affair with Cybill Shepherd, an escapade which advertised his puerile preference for ingenues. Bogdanovich, doubtless, did not fancy the publicity that might result from a liaison with a 20-year-old woman married to a hustler. A couple of days before the murder-suicide, he spoke of this to his close friend Hugh Hefner.

“It was the first time I’d seen him in a number of months because he’d been in New York,” says Hefner. “He was very very up. Very excited about her and the film.… I don’t think that he was playing with this at all. I think it was important to him. I’m talking about the relationship.… He was concerned at that point because of what had happened to him and [Cybill]. He was concerned about the publicity related to the relationship because of that. He felt in retrospect, as a matter of fact, that he… that they had kind of caused some of it. And it played havoc with both of their careers for a while.”

Stratten, as usual, did not advertise the fact that she was married. When she arrived in New York, she checked quietly into the Wyndham Hotel. The crew knew very little about her except that she showed up on time and seemed very earnest about her small role. She was cordial but kept her distance, spending her time off-camera in a director’s chair reading. One day it would be Dickens’s Great Expectations; the next day a book on dieting. With the help of makeup and hair consultants her looks were rendered chaste and ethereal to defuse her playmate image. “She was a darling little girl,” says makeup artist Fern Buckner. “Very beautiful, of course. Whatever you did to her it was all right.”

Dorothy had headaches. She was eating very little to keep her weight down and working 12-hour days because Bogdanovich was pushing the project along at rapid pace. While most of the crew found him a selfish, mean-spirited megalomaniac, the cast by and large found him charming. He was particularly solicitous of Dorothy Stratten. And just as quietly as she had checked into the Wyndham, she moved into his suite at the Plaza. Word spread around the set that Bogdanovich and Stratten were involved but, because they were discreet, they avoided unpleasant gossip. “They weren’t hanging all over one another,” says one crew member. “It wasn’t until the last few weeks when everyone relaxed a bit that they would show up together holding hands.” One day Bogdanovich walked over to a couch where Dorothy sat chewing gum. “You shouldn’t chew gum,” he admonished. “It has sugar in it.” She playfully removed the wad from her mouth an deposited it in his palm.

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Bogdanovich is less than eager to discuss the affair. His secretary says he will not give interviews until They All Laughed is released in April. The director needs a hit badly and who can tell how Stratten’s death might affect box office. Laughed is, unfortunately, a comedy over which her posthumous performance might throw a pall. Although the plot is being guarded as closely as a national security secret, it goes something like this:

Ben Gazzara is a private detective hired by a wealthy, older man who suspects his spouse, Audrey Hepburn, has a lover. In following her, Gazzara falls in love with her. Meanwhile, Gazzara’s sidekick, John Ritter, is hired by another wealthy older man to follow his young bride, Dorothy Stratten. Ritter watches Stratten from afar — through a window as she argues with her husband, as she roller skates at the Roxy. After a few perfunctory conversations, he asks her to marry him. Hepburn and Gazzara make a brief abortive stab at mature love. And Gazzara reverts to dating and mating with teenyboppers.

Within this intricate web of shallow relationships Dorothy, by all accounts, emerges as a shimmering seraph, a vision of perfection clad perennially in white. In one scene she is found sitting in the Algonquin Hotel bathed in a diaphanous light. “It was one of those scene that could make a career,” recalls a member of the crew. “People in the screening room rustled when they saw her. She didn’t have many lines. She just looked so good.” Bogdanovich was so enthusiastic about her that he called Hefner on the West Coast to say he was expanding Dorothy’s role — not many more lines, but more exposure.

Paul Snider, meanwhile, was calling the East Coast where he detected a chill in Dorothy’s voice. She would be too tired to talk. He would say, “I love you,” and she wouldn’t answer back. Finally, she began to have her calls screened. Late in April, during a shooting break, she flew to Los Angeles for a flurry of appearances which included a Playmate of the Year Luncheon and an appearance on The Johnny Carson Show. Shortly thereafter, Dorothy left for a grand tour of Canada. She agreed, however, to meet Paul in Vancouver during the second week of May. Her mother was remarrying and she planned to attend the wedding.

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The proposed rendezvous worried Dorothy’s Playboy traveling companion, Liz Norris. Paul was becoming irascible. He called Dorothy in Toronto and flew into a rage when she suggested that he allow her more freedom. Norris offered to provide her charge with a bodyguard once they arrived in Vancouver, but Dorothy declined. She met Paul and over her objections he checked them into the same hotel. Later, each gave essentially the same account of that encounter. She asked him to loosen his grip. “Let the bird fly,” she said. They argued violently, they both sank back into tears. According to Snider, they reconciled and made love. Dorothy never acknowledged that. She later told a friend, however, that she had offered to leave Hollywood and go back to live with him in Vancouver, but he didn’t want that. In the end she cut her trip short to get back to shooting.

Snider, by now, realized that his empire was illusory. As her husband he technically had claim to half of her assets, but many of her assets were going into a corporation called Dorothy Stratten Enterprises. He was not one of the officers. When she spoke of financial settlements, she sounded like she was reading a strange script. She was being advised, he suspected, by Bogdanovich’s lawyers. (Dorothy’s attorney, Wayne Alexander, reportedly represents Bogdanovich too, but Alexander cannot be reached for comment.) Late in June, Snider received a letter declaring that he and Dorothy were separated physically and financially. She closed out their joint bank accounts and began advancing him money through her business manager.

Buffeted by forces beyond his control, Snider tried to cut his losses. He could have maintained himself as a promoter or as the manager of a health club. He was an expert craftsman and turned out exercise benches which he sold for $200 a piece. On at least one occasion he had subverted those skills to more dubious ends by building a wooden bondage rack for his private pleasure. But Snider didn’t want to be a nobody. His rocket ship had come too close to the moon to leave him content with hang-gliding.

He tried, a little pathetically, to groom another Dorothy Stratten, a 17-year-old check-out girl from Riverside who modeled on the side. He had discovered her at an auto show. Patty was of the same statuesque Stratten ilk, and Snider taught her to walk like Dorothy, to dress like Dorothy, and to wear her hair like Dorothy. Eventually she moved into the house that he and Dorothy shared. But she was not another Stratten, and when Snider tried to promote her as a playmate, Playboy wanted nothing to do with him.

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Paul’s last hope for a big score was a project begun a month or so before he and Dorothy were married. He had worked out a deal with a couple of photographer friends, Bill and Susan Lachasse, to photograph Dorothy on skates wearing a French-cut skating outfit. From that they would print a poster that they hoped would sell a million copies and net $300,000. After Dorothy’s appearance on the Carson show, Snider thought the timing was right. But Dorothy had changed her mind. The Lachasses flew to New York the day after she finished shooting to persuade her to reconsider. They were told by the production office that Dorothy could be found at Bogdanovich’s suite at the Plaza.

“It was three or four in the afternoon,” says Lachasse. “There had been a cast party the night before. Dorothy answered the door in pajamas and said, ‘Oh my God! What are you doing here?’ She shut the door and when she came out again she explained ‘I can’t invite you in. There are people here.’ She looked at the photos in the hallway and we could tell by her eyes that she liked them. She took them inside, then came out and said, ‘Look how my tits are hanging down.’ Somebody in there was telling her what to do. She said, ‘Look, I’m confused, have you shown these to Paul?’ I said, ‘Dorothy, you’re divorcing Paul.’ And she said, ‘I don’t know, I just don’t know.’ “

When Lachasse called the Plaza suite the following week a woman replied, “We don’t know Dorothy Stratten. Stop harassing us.”

“Paul felt axed as in every other area,” says Lachasse. “That was his last bit of income.”

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They All Cried

During the anxious spring and early summer, Snider suspected, but could not prove, that Dorothy was having an affair. So as the filming of They All Laughed drew to a close in mid-July, he did what, in the comic world of Peter Bogdanovich, many jealous husbands do. He hired a private eye, a 26-year-old freelance detective named Marc Goldstein. The elfish Goldstein, who later claimed to be a friend of both Dorothy and Paul, in fact knew neither of them well. He was retained upon the recommendation of an unidentified third party. He will not say what exactly his mission was, but a Canadian lawyer named Ted Ewachniuk who represented both Paul and Dorothy in Vancouver claims that Snider was seeking to document the affair with Bogdanovich in order to sue him for “enticement to breach management contract” — an agreement Snider believed inherent within their marriage contract. That suit was to be filed in British Columbia, thought to be a suitable venue since both Snider and Stratten were still Canadians and, it could be argued, had only gone to Los Angeles for business.

Goldstein began showing up regularly at Snider’s apartment. Snider produced poems and love letters from Bogdanovich that he had found among Dorothy’s things. He instructed Goldstein to do an asset search on Dorothy and to determine whether or not Bogdanovich was plying her with cocaine.

Even as he squared off for a legal fight, Snider was increasingly despairing. He knew, underneath it all, that he did not have the power or resources to fight Bogdanovich. “Maybe this thing is too big for me,” he confided to a friend, and he talked about going back to Vancouver. But the prospect of returning in defeat was too humiliating. He felt Dorothy was now so completely sequestered by attorneys that he would never see her again. Late in July his old machismo gave way to grief. He called Bill Lachasse one night crying because he could not touch Dorothy or even get near her. About the same time, his roommate the doctor returned home one night to find him despondent in the living room. “This is really hard,” Paul said, and broke into tears. He wrote fragments of notes to Dorothy that were never sent. One written in red felt-tip marker and later found stuffed into one of his drawers was a rambling plaint on how he couldn’t get it together without her. With Ewachniuk’s help, he drafted a letter to Bogdanovich telling him to quit influencing Dorothy and that he [Snider] would “forgive” him. But Ewachniuk does not know if the letter was ever posted.

Dorothy, Paul knew, had gone for a holiday in London with Bogdanovich and would be returning to Los Angeles soon. He tortured himself with the scenario of the successful director and his queen showing up at Hefner’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Party on August 1. He couldn’t bear it and blamed Hefner for fostering the affair. He called the Mansion trying to get an invitation to the party and was told he would be welcome only if he came with Dorothy.

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But Dorothy did not show up at the party. She was keeping a low profile. She had moved ostensibly into a modest little apartment in Beverly Hills, the address appeared on her death certificate. The apartment, however, was occupied by an actress who was Bogdanovich’s personal assistant. Dorothy had actually moved into Bogdanovich’s home in Bel-Air Estates. Where the big producers live.

Several days after her return to Los Angeles, she left for a playmate promotion in Dallas and Houston. There she appeared radiant, apparently reveling in her own success. She had been approached about playing Marilyn Monroe in Larry Schiller’s made-for-TV movie, but she had been too busy with the Bogdanovich film. She had been discussed as a candidate for Charlie’s Angels although Wilder thought she could do better. She was scheduled to meet with independent producer Martin Krofft who was considering her for his new film, The Last Desperado. It all seemed wonderful to her. But Stratten was not so cynical that she could enjoy her good fortune without pangs of regret. She cried in private. Until the end she retained a lingering tenderness for Paul Snider and felt bound to see him taken care of after the divorce. From Houston she gave him a call and agreed to meet him on Friday, August 8, for lunch.

After hearing from her, Snider was as giddy as a con whose sentence has been commuted, for he believed somehow that everything would be all right between them again. The night before their appointed meeting he went out for sandwiches with friends and was his blustering, confident old self. It would be different, he said. He would let her know that he had changed. “I’ve really got to vacuum the rug,” he crowed. “The queen is coming back.”

The lunch date, however, was a disaster. The two of them ended up back in the apartment squared off sullenly on the couch. Dorothy confessed at last that she was in love with Bogdanovich and wanted to proceed with some kind of financial settlement. Before leaving she went through her closet and took the clothes she wanted. The rest, she said, he should give to Patty.

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Having his hopes raised so high and then dashed again gave Snider a perverse energy. Those who saw him during the five days prior to the murder caught only glimpses of odd behavior. In retrospect they appear to form a pattern of intent. He was preoccupied with guns. Much earlier in the year Snider had borrowed a revolver from a friend named Chip, the consort of one of Dorothy’s playmates. Paul never felt easy, he said, without a gun, a holdover from his days on the East End. But Paul had to give the revolver back that Friday afternoon because Chip was leaving town. He looked around for another gun. On Sunday he held a barbecue at his place for a few friends and invited Goldstein. During the afternoon he pulled Goldstein aside and asked the detective to buy a machine gun for him. He needed it, he said, for “home protection.” Goldstein talked him out of it.

In the classifieds, Snider found someone in the San Fernando Valley who wanted to sell a 12-gauge Mossberg pump shotgun. He circled the ad and called the owner. On Monday he drove into the Valley to pick up the gun but got lost in the dark. The owner obligingly brought it to a construction site where he showed Snider how to load and fire it.

Dorothy, meanwhile, had promised to call Paul on Sunday but did not ring until Monday, an omission that piqued him. They agreed to meet on Thursday at 11:30 a.m. to discuss the financial settlement. She had been instructed by her advisers to offer him a specified sum. During previous conversations, Paul thought he had heard Dorothy say, “I’ll always take care of you,” but he could not remember the exact words. Goldstein thought it might be a good idea to wire Snider’s body for sound so that they could get a taped account if Dorothy repeated her promise to provide for him. They could not come up with the proper equipment, however, and abandoned the plan.

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On Wednesday, the day he picked up the gun, Snider seemed in an excellent mood. He told his roommate that Dorothy would be coming over and that she had agreed to look at a new house that he thought might be a good investment for her. He left the impression that they were on amiable terms. That evening he dropped by Bill Lachasse’s studio to look at promotional shots of Patty. There, too, he was relaxed and jovial. In an offhanded way, he told Lachasse that he had bought a gun for protection. He also talked of strange and unrelated things that did not seem menacing in the context of his good spirits. He talked of Claudia Jennings, who had died with a movie in progress. Some playmates get killed, he observed. And when that happens, it causes a lot of chaos.

Bogdanovich had somehow discovered that Dorothy was being trailed by a private eye. He was furious, but Dorothy was apparently not alarmed. She was convinced that she and Paul were on the verge of working out an amicable agreement and she went to meet him as planned. According to the West Los Angeles police, she parked and locked her 1967 Mercury around 11:45 a.m., but the county coroner reports that she arrived later, followed by Goldstein who clocked her into the house at 12:30 p.m. Shortly thereafter, Goldstein called Snider to find out how things were going. Snider replied, in code, that everything was fine. Periodically throughout the afternoon, Goldstein rang Snider with no response. No one entered the house until five when Patty and another of Paul’s little girlfriends returned home, noticed Dorothy’s car and saw the doors to Snider’s room closed. Since they heard no sounds, they assumed he wanted privacy. The two girls left to go skating and returned at 7 p.m. By then the doctor had arrived home and noticed the closed door. He also heard the unanswered ringing on Snider’s downstairs phone. Shortly before midnight Goldstein called Patty and asked her to knock at Paul’s door. She demurred, so he asked to speak to the doctor. The latter agreed to check but even as he walked downstairs he felt some foreboding. The endless ringing had put him on edge and his German shepherd had been pacing and whining in the yard behind Paul’s bedroom. The doctor knocked and when there was no response, he pushed the door open. The scene burnt his senses and he yanked the door shut.

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***

It is impolitic to suggest that Paul Snider loved Dorothy Stratten. Around Hollywood, at least, he is currently limned as brutal and utterly insensitive. If he loved her, it was in the selfish way of one who cannot separate a lover’s best interests from one’s own. And if he did what he is claimed to have done, he was, as Hugh Hefner would put it, “a very sick guy.”

Even now, however, no one can say with certainty that Paul Snider committed either murder or suicide. One of his old confederates claims he bought the gun to “scare” Bogdanovich. The coroner was sufficiently equivocal to deem his death a “questionable suicide/possible homicide.” One Los Angeles psychic reportedly attributes the deaths to an unemployed actor involved with Snider in a drug deal. Goldstein, who holds to a theory that both were murdered, is badgering police for results of fingerprintings and paraffin tests, but the police consider Goldstein a meddler and have rebuffed his requests. The West LAPD, which has not yet closed the case, says it cannot determine if it was Snider who fired the shotgun because his hands were coated with too much blood and tissue for tests to be conclusive.

And yet Snider appears to have been following a script of his own choosing. One which would thwart the designs of Playboy and Hollywood. Perhaps he had only meant to frighten Dorothy, to demonstrate to Bogdanovich that he could hold her in thrall at gunpoint. Perhaps he just got carried away with the scene. No one knows exactly how events unfolded after Dorothy entered the house that afternoon. She had apparently spent some time upstairs because her purse was found lying in the middle of the living room floor. In it was a note in Paul’s handwriting explaining his financial distress. He had no green card, it said, and he required support. Dorothy’s offer, however, fell far short of support. It was a flat settlement of only $7500 which, she claimed, represented half of her total assets after taxes. “Not enough,” said one friend, “to put a nice little sports car in his garage.” Perhaps she had brought the first installment to mollify Paul’s inevitable disappointment; police found $1100 in cash among her belongings, another $400 among his. One can only guess at the motives of those two doomed players who, at some point in the afternoon, apparently left the front room and went downstairs.

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It is curious that, given the power of the blasts, the little bedroom was not soaked in blood. There was only spattering on the walls, curtains, and television. Perhaps because the room lacked a charnel aspect, the bodies themselves appeared all the more grim. They were nude. Dorothy lay crouched across the bottom corner of a low bed. Both knees were on the carpet and her right shoulder was drooping. Her blond hair hung naturally, oddly unaffected by the violence to her countenance. The shell had entered above her left eye leaving the bones of that seraphic face shattered and displaced in a welter of pulp. Her body, mocking the soft languid poses of her pictorials, was in full rigor.

No one, least of all Hugh Hefner, could have foreseen such a desecration. It was unthinkable that an icon of eroticism presumed by millions of credulous readers to be impervious to the pangs of mortality could be reduced by a pull of a trigger to a corpse, mortally stiff, mortally livid and crawling with small black ants. For Hefner, in fact, that grotesque alteration must have been particularly bewildering. Within the limits of his understanding, he had done everything right. He had played it clean with Stratten, handling her paternally, providing her with gifts and opportunities and, of course, the affection of the Playboy family. Despite his best efforts, however, she was destroyed. The irony that Hefner does not perceive or at least fails to acknowledge is that Stratten was destroyed not by random particulars, but by a germ breeding within the ethic. One of the tacit tenets of Playboy philosophy — that women can be possessed — had found a fervent adherent in Paul Snider. He had bought the dream without qualification, and he thought of himself as perhaps one of Playboy’s most honest apostles. He acted out of dark fantasies never intended to be realized. Instead of fondling himself in private, instead of wreaking abstract violence upon a centerfold, he ravaged a playmate in the flesh.

Dorothy had, apparently, been sodomized, though whether this occurred before or after her death is not clear. After the blast, her body was moved and there were what appeared to be bloody handprints on her buttocks and left leg. Near her head was Paul’s handmade bondage rack set for rear-entry intercourse. Loops of tape, used and unused, were lying about and strands of long blond hair were discovered clutched in Snider’s right hand. He was found face-down lying parallel to the foot of the bed. The muzzle of the Mossberg burnt his right cheek as the shell tore upward through his brain. The blast, instead of driving him backwards, whipped him forward over the length of the gun. He had always said he would rather die than go to jail.

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***

Goldstein arrived before the police and called the Mansion. Hefner, thinking the call a prank, would not come to the phone at first. When he did he asked for the badge number of the officer at the scene. Satisfied that this was no bad joke, Hefner, told his guests in the game house. There were wails of sorrow and disbelief. He then called Bogdanovich. “There was no conversation,” Hefner says. “I was afraid that he had gone into shock or something. [When he didn’t respond] I called the house under another number. A male friend was there to make sure he was [all right]. He was overcome.”

Bogdanovich arranged for Stratten’s cremation five days later. Her ashes were placed in an urn and buried in a casket so that he could visit them. Later he would issue his own statement:

DOROTHY STRATTEN WAS AS GIFTED AND INTELLIGENT AN ACTRESS AS SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL, AND SHE WAS VERY BEAUTIFUL INDEED—IN EVERY WAY IMAGINABLE—MOST PARTICULARLY IN HER HEART. SHE AND I FELL IN LOVE DURING OUR PICTURE AND HAD PLANNED TO BE MARRIED AS SOON AS HER DIVORCE WAS FINAL. THE LOSS TO HER MOTHER AND FATHER, HER SISTER AND BROTHER, TO MY CHILDREN, TO HER FRIENDS AND TO ME IS LARGER THAN WE CAN CALCULATE. BUT THERE IS NO LIFE DOROTHY’S TOUCHED THAT HAS NOT BEEN CHANGED FOR THE BETTER THROUGH KNOWING HER, HOWEVER BRIEFLY. DOROTHY LOOKED AT THE WORLD WITH LOVE, AND BELIEVED THAT ALL PEOPLE WERE GOOD DOWN DEEP. SHE WAS MISTAKEN, BUT IT IS AMONG THE MOST GENEROUS AND NOBLE ERRORS WE CAN MAKE.

PETER BOGDANOVICH

Bogdanovich took the family Hoogstraten in tow. They were stunned, but not apparently embittered by Dorothy’s death. “They knew who cared for her,” Hefner says. Mother, fathers — both natural and stepfather — sister, and brother flew to Los Angeles for the service and burial at Westwood Memorial Park, the same cemetery, devotees of irony point out, where Marilyn Monroe is buried. Hefner and Bogdanovich were there and after the service the family repaired to Bogdanovich’s house for rest and refreshments. It was all quiet and discreet. Dorothy’s mother says that she will not talk to the press until the movie comes out. Not until April when Stratten’s glimmering ghost will appear on movie screens across the country, bathed in white light and roller skating through a maze of hilarious infidelities.

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Playboy, whose corporate cool was shaken by her untimely death, has regained its composure. The December issue features Stratten as one of the “Sex Stars of 1980.” At the end of 12 pages of the biggest draws in show business — Bo Derek, Brooke Shields, etc. — she appears topless, one breast draped with a gossamer scarf. A caption laments her death which “cut short what seasoned star-watchers predicted was sure to be an outstanding film career.”

Hype, of course, often passes for prophecy. Whether or not Dorothy Stratten would have fulfilled her extravagant promise can’t be known. Her legacy will not be examined critically because it is really of no consequence. In the end Dorothy Stratten was less memorable for herself than for the yearnings she evoked: in Snider a lust for the score; in Hefner a longing for a star; in Bogdanovich a desire for the eternal ingenue. She was a catalyst for a cycle of ambitions which revealed its players less wicked, perhaps, than pathetic.

As for Paul Snider, his body was returned to Vancouver in permanent exile from Hollywood. It was all too big for him. In that Elysium of dreams and deals, he had reached the limits of his class. His sin, his unforgivable sin, was being small-time. ❖

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized Violence

1980-1989: Crime as Entertainment

A Necessary Evil

If you’re like me, you know perfectly well what you were doing during the summer of 1980. Waiting, along with approximately 83 million other hype-­lashed Dallas fans, to hear who shot J.R. Ewing. Perhaps it was because the outcome was such a letdown — the perp, if you recall, was the petty conniver, Kris­tin — that the high crime and misdemean­ors of the Ewings began to lose their charm.

Somewhere along the sweep of the de­cade, I found my attention diverted to more riveting stuff. The domestic psychodrama of Joel and Hedda. The pasto­ral cavorting of Robert and Jennifer, and, of course, the adolescent hijinks of Tawana Brawley. Night after night, I found myself rushing home — with an urgency I had not felt during my preceding years or so as a journalist — to catch the evening news. There to find Joel, Hedda, Tawana, et al. strutting and fretting upon a stage like day players in one enormous, long-running soap.

It would be no exaggeration to call the ’80s the decade of Crime as Entertain­ment. An epoch where fascination with “reality” permeated every nook and crev­ice of television. The first and most visi­ble manifestation of the phenomenon was the unprecedented number of miniseries and movies-of-the-week based loosely upon true tales of mayhem. In 1981, there was Murder in Texas recreating the de­mise of Texas heiress and equestrian, Joan Hill. The following year brought The Executioner’s Song based upon Nor­man Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize–winning ac­count of the felonious life and ultimate electrocution of Gary Gilmore. Nineteen-eighty-four was a bloody year, giving us both The Burning Bed and Fatal Vision, followed close upon by the following year’s extravaganza, The Atlanta Child Murders. Nineteen-eighty-seven pro­duced not one, but two, network miniser­ies on the rather minor case of Frances Schreuder, a demented Mormon heiress who induced her son to kill her father. And, of course, in the closing months of the decade were offerings fresh off the newsstands: The Preppie Murder and Howard Beach: Making the Case for Murder.

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Within the past three years, crime sto­ries have become fodder for a pair of more novel formats: the populist slugfests of Morton Downey Jr. and Geraldo Rive­ra, and more recently, the evening tabloid magazines that Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Network churns out with assembly-line efficiency: A Current Affair, America’s Most Wanted, and The Reporters. All of this has raised the hackles of the journal­istic establishment (always difficult to identify, but in this case the ringleaders seem to be Fred Friendly and Don Hewitt). These pundits routinely lament the disappearing distinction between fact and fiction, assail reenactments — you know, the footage where actors with fea­tures eerily similar to those of the actual principals plod broadly through scripted re-creations of the events — and join in cacophonous outcry against the evils of “trash television.”

Now, I’m no big fan of Geraldo, and reenactments leave me queasy. That fic­tion has no place on the evening news goes without saying. I felt as cheated as anyone else to learn that ABC’s footage of “Felix Bloch” handing a suitcase to the “CIA man” was a grainy fraud. But hav­ing said that, I will risk being smothered under an avalanche of lofty opprobrium by asking — is crime as entertainment necessarily evil? Put another way, might it not be a necessary evil?

As a practical matter, “tabloid TV” is simply doing what print journalism has done for nearly 200 years. No matter how infuriating the excesses of the print tabs may be, students of media have to con­cede that these raucous rags make their own unique contribution to a free mar­ketplace of ideas. During the past nine years or so that I’ve been reporting crime, I’ve often found myself turning to the tabs to see how they handle second-day stories. In certain cases, their accounts are better reported — certainly more ag­gressively reported — than are those found in the supposed papers of record.

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During the three years I spent in Bos­ton working on a book about Dr. William Douglas, a research scientist who became entangled in an ultimately deadly affair with a prostitute, I observed the city’s two dailies covering that same story. The pious Globe approached it with distaste. As a result, it was beaten hands down by the raunchier, freewheeling Herald. But, you may ask, isn’t the Globe simply being discriminating? Isn’t it elevating public taste and morals by refusing to serve up salacious details? I think this is an un­necessarily charitable interpretation. By setting itself up as “too good” to cover certain stories — in this instance, one that elucidated the inner workings of science, law, and academe — a news organization is arbitrarily denying the public selective aspects of human affairs, flattering itself that it knows better what the public should be reading.

There is something to be said for being sensitive to what interests the public. If the people want to read about the last moments of Gary Gilmore or participate in a manhunt for America’s Most Want­ed, one must ask oneself why. Is it sim­ply, as many critics seem to suggest, that true crime appeals to deviant impulses? Or does it satisfy a deeper need? That this is a dangerous world there is no doubt. Unwary commuters are pushed onto subway tracks, women are raped in elevators, children are tortured with ciga­rette butts. Some people cope with the imminent possibility of such violence by denying the menace exists, effecting a willing suspension of disbelief. Others — ­and I include myself here — prefer to see the demons flushed out into the open. Whenever I see a report of a murder on the evening news, I feel a peculiar sense of relief. In large measure, I’m sure, be­cause misfortune passed someone else’s way. But more particularly because some­one has given a name to the horror and somehow reckoned with it. “Entertain­ment,” as such, becomes a form of exorcism.

The way daily newspapers reckon with events, however, is by its nature episodic and often confusing. It is small wonder that viewers tune into the tabloids and movies-of-the-week to see these same episodes rendered into comprehensible stories. The mere act of watching the random details of a violent act reworked into a narrative, I believe, affords hu­mans some sense of control over their own experience. The persistent criticism leveled at the TV tabloids is that they are not “news.” Docudrama is not “history.” In short, they are not “truth.” But crime as entertainment may be capable of arriv­ing at a truth that is truer than an ag­glomerate of fact.

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I am always reminded of the opening line from Joan Didion’s White Album: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” We look for the sermon in the sui­cide and the moral lesson in the murder. There is a yearning to look for meaning in tragedy and some of the better docu­dramas of the past decade have gone to the heart of the American experience. The Executioner’s Song demonstrated the chilling randomness of evil. The Burning Bed, for its part, dissected the perplexing coexistence of tenderness and hate in a violent marriage. These tales, drawn from richly idiosyncratic particu­lars, rise to the stature of American myths.

More often than not, however, the TV docudrama is rendered not as myth but as morality tale, squeezing the facts of a case into a hackneyed and even priggish formula. Having had the opportunity to report several of the major crime stories of the decade, I’ve also had the opportu­nity to see three of them made into TV movies. (Since I had no financial interest in any of these, I can discuss them with perfect candor.) Murder: By Reason of Insanity, the story of Adam Berwid, a mental patient who killed his wife while out on a day pass; Death of a Centerfold, the for-television rendering of the Doro­thy Stratten story; and The High Price of Passion, the TV version of the William Douglas case, all treated the same theme: “Man kills wife or girlfriend when she bucks his control.” The producer, screen­writer, or whoever the guilty sob sisters in charge of these projects were, reduced the complicated struggles between these adversaries to tales of unblemished Vir­tue ravaged by unqualified Villainy. The High Price of Passion, in particular, was denuded of its eccentricity to the extent that the heroine’s black pimp was written out of the script entirely, presumably be­cause, if he remained, the girl would lose sympathy in the eyes of a primetime audience.

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Some of the same criticism, I’m afraid, can be leveled at Star 80, the movie ver­sion of the Stratten case (a project in which I did enjoy a financial interest, but which I will nevertheless discuss with candor). This film was based on my own article, “Death of a Playmate,” published by the Voice in late 1980. Director Bob Fosse approached the work with the same passion for verisimilitude that made Lenny so mesmerizing, even calling me up to ask for details about the actual principals to assist in casting choices. In the end, however, Star 80 fell into the same trap as its TV predecessor. Appar­ently fearful of offending Hugh Hefner and Peter Bogdanovich, Fosse soft-ped­aled their own exploitation of Stratten and placed the entire onus of villainy upon her husband and killer, Paul Snider.

It takes considerably less effort to fashion cardboard victims and villains than to tackle a tale of moral ambiguity. From that standpoint, the most stunning crime drama of this decade, in my opinion, was Sidney Lumet’s 1981 feature film, Prince of the City, wherein a corrupt New York City vice cop, based on the real-life char­acter of Bob Leuci, discovers he can only find his way back into society’s good graces by informing on his buddies. In Prince of the City there are no clear-cut heroes. The police are dishonest. The “good guys” are squealers. The prosecu­tors are ambitious. Everyone uses every­one else. You do not come away from the film on a natural high, but you do feel strangely comforted that someone has taken the trouble to tell you how it is. That in a rotten world one must still struggle to find the honorable way. Prince of the City is truly one of those stories we tell ourselves in order to live.

Arguably, any crime story contains the seeds of myth. I always felt, for example, that somewhere in the peculiar affair of Ginny Foat, the feminist leader accused and later acquitted of killing two men, there was a classic lurking. Foat was re­portedly peddling the rights to her life story to TV, as was Hedda Nussbaum, who is said to have sold hers to CBS for $100,000. That means we will probably see them coming to the screen — though I shudder to think in what mutant form. These dames still have a lot to answer for, in my opinion, and shouldn’t be al­lowed a free hand to rewrite their own histories. When the actor is director of his own memoirs the result is less likely to be art than artless self-justification.

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About a year and a half ago, I spent time in Utah doing a piece on the Singer Family, a renegade band of fundamental­ist Mormons who bombed a church to protest “persecution” by their main­stream brethren. This episode grew out of an incident that occurred nine years ear­lier when the clan’s patriarch, John Singer, was shot by lawmen in a standoff arising from his refusal to send his children to public school. I was tipped to this story by an independent film producer, a friend of mine who had been hoping to acquire rights. If I was interested in doing a story, she said, she would introduce me to the Singers. Producers often encourage articles of this sort, believing that it will draw attention to the case and give their film project momentum. (It is worth not­ing here that I approached this assign­ment strictly as a journalist. Since the great screenwriters strike of 1988 was in progress, I could not have done movie work even if I was so inclined.)

When I arrived in Salt Lake City to attend the Singers’ trial, I was surprised to find a handful of other producers prowling the hallways of the federal courtroom, hoping to sign the rights of Singer’s widow, Vickie. Among them was Lindsay Wagner’s mother, who was re­searching properties for her daughter. Gerry Spence, the flamboyant Wyoming defense attorney who had formerly represented the clan’s matriarch, Vickie Sing­er, also made a brief but magisterial ap­pearance, in order, it was rumored, to scout out film possibilities for his good friend Bo Derek.

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Clearly, Hollywood thought this story had potential. But as what? During the course of the trial, I had the opportunity to read Vickie Singer’s journal, which had found its way into the court record, and was fascinated to find that after the death of her husband she had been con­tacted by a freelance screenwriter with whom she had since been collaborating more or less informally on her life’s story.

First, let me say that it gave me a frisson to consider that the good Mrs. Singer might have planned the bombing with an eye to providing a socko climax to a TV movie. What was more illuminat­ing, however, was a rough, rather ama­teurish draft of the screenplay, tucked into that journal, giving a firsthand look at how Hollywood might play the Singer yarn. Not surprisingly, it was the story of God-loving individualists persecuted by the Establishment. We saw the Singers raising a cabin, baking bread, reading Tennyson, and only incidentally amass­ing an arsenal. I’m certain there is a larger-than-life story to be told about this family. A mythic American tale of zealot­ry, believers deluded by their own faith. Whether anyone has the sophistication and courage to bring it to the screen… (Sidney Lumet, your country needs you!)… I’ll stay tuned into the ’90s. ■

NEXT…

The Awakening of Kool Moe Dee: A Brother Doin’ 90 into the ’90s
By Kool Moe Dee, as told to Harry Allen