Jimmy Hoffa. Ambrose Bierce. D.B. Cooper. Amelia Earhart. Chances are anyone you ask can identify these famous missing persons. But have you heard of “the most missingest man in America?” Once upon a time, Judge Joseph Crater’s 1930 disappearance captivated the country, and sporadic developments have still made news since. Ariel Lawhon doesn’t know what happened to Judge Crater, but her new book sure takes what we know and extends it just a little into a plausible and entertaining solution to the mystery.
What we know: Judge Crater had barely started his new job as an Associate Justice of the New York Supreme Court and was at his summer cottage when he got a phone call. He returned to New York City, and did some work in his chambers. On the evening of August 6, Crater had dinner with a friend and a showgirl, set off to see a Broadway play and >poof<. It took a month for an investigation to start, because everyone thought he was somewhere else, but when he was officially reported missing on September 3 it became national news. Lots of tips, a grand jury investigation, and countless police hours trying to trace him turned up nothing. Whispers of corruption in the judiciary, of Tammany Hall politics, and of gangland involvement came out of the rampant speculation, but nothing was ever proven.
As you can tell by the title, Lawhon’s story revolves around the women in Crater’s life. Stella Crater’s money financed the Judge’s rise in the world, but he expects that she will comport herself as the political wife, representing her husband in public and keeping her nose out of his business in private. The Mistress is Sally Lou Ritz, a busty long-legged showgirl with a secret past and serious current problems. Despite the glamorous whirl of Broadway shows and speakeasies, Ritzi also learns to be where Crater wants her and to be gone when he doesn’t. Then there’s the Maid, Maria Simon. Maria works part-time for the Craters, and the Judge got Maria’s husband Jude his new job as a detective for New York City’s Finest. She, too, learns that keeping Crater’s secrets is the price she will pay for her husband’s advancement.
The story develops along the web of visible and invisible relationships created by these people. All of them dance on the strings pulled by the infamous gangster Owney Madden. Madden is Ritzi’s sponsor in the not-so-glamorous Broadway backstage world, where interchangeable showgirls often double as courtesans. He holds the mortgage on Stella’s family cottage, which Crater sold him in exchange for the cash the judge needed to run his election. And he’s the guy who tells the NYPD how and when to conduct their investigations, and it’s no accident that Maria’s husband is one of the guys chosen to look into Crater’s death.
The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress is set in the quintessential New York City depicted in the black and white movies of the era. It’s 1930, and the worst of the Depression hasn’t really become visible to these characters, although they see men in bespoke shoes selling apples. New Broadway shows are opening up all the time, speakeasies are thriving, the life and livelihood of the City is settled in the chophouses where the rich and powerful eat. Underneath that lighthearted bustle is the worm of the Big Apple – the flow of money and patronage through the political clubs, bribery from the station house to the courthouse, and the muscle to silence anyone who stands in the way.
Lawhon uses a bookend plot to set the stage for those not familiar with Crater’s story. Stella Crater made an annual visit to a Greenwich Village bar on August 6, where she would buy two cocktails, raise one in a toast, drink it and leave the other untouched. In the book, she invites Jude Simon to meet her there for one last drink, and presents him with a sealed envelope, the final word that explains everything to the last detective remotely interested in the case. The modern-day conversation makes an occasional reappearance in the story, as do flashbacks that establish Crater’s character or create a timely link between two characters. Added together, the three plotlines make a deeply satisfying resolution to one of the 20th century’s greatest unsolved mysteries.
Check the WRL catalog for The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress