If you're in the mood for a little reading, I've transcribed the entire cover story "Romance was my Racket" from Complete Detective Cases from January 1947. If you're anything like me, you want lots of pictures. So, I've taken the liberty of fully illustrating this little tale.
Truth be told, the story is pretty lame. It has its moments, but overall it's woefully under-qualified to be a cover story. So why did I choose it? Well, let's just say this I was fiddling around and somehow wound up with a post.
Blog posts are meant to be quick and dirty, but this bad boy has some girth. It's a lot to read (with little payoff), so we shall see how many of you actually take time to read this. That'll determine whether there's more of these to come.
So, enjoy (or not).
|Sherry Borden, the author|
WHY should I lie now? I've got nothing to gain anymore. Maybe three months ago, maybe before I got up in court and heard myself denounced as a vulture who preyed on human misery and desolation and loneliness-maybe then a lie would have saved me. But not now. It's too late. We didn't start out with the idea of stealing. We didn't think it would lead to jail and disgrace. All we saw in it was a nice little racket-not too dangerous and with practically no work attached to it. And that's all it was-at first. Just a safe little racket. The way we figured it, the suckers who were sending us their money would be sending it to someone else, if we didn't cash in. It all seemed pretty harmless, and, in fact, on the penny-ante side. It was penny-ante. That's what led to trouble. The dollars were only trickling in, so we started to figure angles on how to get chunks of big dough. And once we had that worked out. it stopped being so innocent.
I'D BETTER go back to the very beginning. To the day that I first saw the ad in the magazine, and doubled over with laughter because it was so corny. Hal wanted to know what was so funny. Hal is my husband, and we were already married at that time. Probably I should tell you something about Hal, too, so you'll understand the rest of the story better ... understand why he's such a weak sister.
Hal started out by being a combination hellion and rich man's son. His mother had died when he was a baby, and by the time they shipped him off to school he'd been wearing out governesses at the rate of six a year. The schools lasted only a little longer, and when he finally landed in Harvard, his past performance record was as shady as a jockey suspected of "pulling" races. Fun and money continued all through college, and while Hal made a lot of contacts with the gambling and bootleg element, he never did learn that a college is a hall of learning. Dartmouth was the last school to give him the heave, and when Dartmouth tossed him out, he gave up the ghost and devoted himself entirely to his true love - chorus girls.
From what he's told me and what I remember having seen in the gossip columns of the newspapers, he went through chorus girls even faster than he went through governesses and schools. And then the blow fell. The old man died, and Hal, instead of inheriting half a million bucks, found he was sitting in with a cold hand, because it turned out that the old man had been living on borrowed money. There were debts here, debts there; some went back three and four years. There wasn't a cent in cash to comfort the son and heir.
In the end, Hal sold everything, paid off what he could, and started to look for a job. To him, work was a noble gesture, and he was ready to take a crack at it. The only gimmick was that he didn't know how to do anything. He'd have made a wonderful gigolo, because running around with women was all he'd done since the day they first put long trousers on him. But he had too much pride for that, and besides, the kind of women who could afford gigolos didn't. appeal to him. Too old.
And at the time that I'm speaking of, we'd been married almost six months. The six months had been perfect-except 'for the money angle. Hal made a few half-hearted attempts to get jobs, and he did get them, but something always happened so that he either quit or got fired. We didn't worry too much. We spent what we had. There was always another job around the corner. The living was easy-but the corners were getting tighter all the time .. Then I saw the ad in the magazine.
I glanced at it once, and then I read h aloud. Strictly for laughs, you understand. I had nothing in mind at the time. It was a gag, that ad, and I was sharing it with Hal because it would amuse him too. It was addressed to "Lonely Hearts."
"Are you lonely? Is there a lack in your life, a lack which can be filled only by a real live friend or sweetheart? Let us help you find real happiness. We give personal, confidential service to refined ladies and gentlemen, many with means, seeking congenial mates: Let us arrange a romantic correspondence for you. Write for details today. We will answer in a plain envelope."The address was a post office box in Kansas City. "Sure are a lot of suckers in this world," I said, tossing down the magazine. "People will fall for anything."
Hal nodded thoughtfully, picking it up and sat holding the magazine. Finally I laughed, "Hey, you aren't lonely, are you? You're not thinking of joining a let's-get-acquainted club?"
It was still strictly for gags, mind you. I was only talking, making a joke.
Hal nodded slowly. "Yes, I'm lonely. Lonely as hell-for a little fast money." He looked up. "This is a wonderful racket, Sherry. I bet these outfits do a land office business, with no more investment than a post-office box, an ad and a few sheets of stationery. There are six different clubs advertised in this one magazine. Let's write to them and see what happens."
I thought he'd gone crazy. "Write to them? What for? I've got enough friends. I'm not looking for any penpals."
"I know you're not, baby," Hal said patiently. "But these people are. And there must be hundreds ... thousands of them. Send the club a buck, and in return they send you a list of names of members eager to correspond with 'a refined person of means, seeking real happiness. Why, a club like this is a gold mine. You collect the money, you send the list, and from then on you're out of it. Anything that happens after that has nothing to do with you."
"What could happen?" I scoffed. "A few letters are exchanged, a few lies are told and maybe once every fifty times a couple of lonely persons actually do meet and marry."
Hal shook his head. "No, a lot can happen. A list like that is a setup for a 'con' man, for example. It gives him a line on potential victims, on women who are so anxious for a little whirl at romance that they'll fall for anything.''
I was to remember those words later, but at the time they didn't register-that is, not enough to faze me. That day I sent letters to each of the clubs, explaining that I had seen the ad in the magazine, that I was interested in getting in touch with a congenial man, and what did I do now? Hal sent similar letters. He wanted to make friends with a "real, sincere woman who would appreciate a lonely man, recently bereft of his wife." He gave another address.
WITHIN a week, we had our answers. They were all pretty much alike. Each club included a "membership form" to be filled out, which asked such leading questions as: Age, weight, married or single, what is your income, do you own a car, do you own your home, are you looking for friendship or romance, what sort of man do you prefer. Each also sent a form letter asking for a dollar and explaining that a list of 25 names would be sent on receipt of the money, names chosen from their large membership list as most likely to conform with preferences mentioned. Between us, Hal and I invested twelve dollars; and by the end of the next week, we had 300 names, complete with mailing addresses and short descriptions. I read them over carefully. One thing about them intrigued me.
"I 'd have thought that most of the members were country folk, living out in the sticks, fairly isolated. But a good many of them seem to come from fairly good-sized cities."
Hal nodded. "I'm not too surprised. People who live in small towns have a certain amount of social life automatically ... church affairs, and so forth. It's those who migrate to the cities and can't meet anyone who are the really lonely. You can be far more alone in a city the size of New York, where everyone is too busy with his own affairs to pay any attention to you, than in a hamlet."
I said, "What do we do with these names, now that we have them?" "Those names are now the property of the Trusty Friendship Club. That's us." He paused. "Tomorrow I'll arrange to run ads in half a dozen magazines. We already have 300 names to begin with. Anybody that writes in gets on the list. That's the pretty thing about this racket. Anybody that writes in pays off and also becomes part of what we sell." It certainly looked safe enough, running a "lonely hearts club." I didn't see how we could get into trouble. Neither did Hal.
He said, "The club promises nothing but to put members in touch with other members. If one of them turns out to be a crook looking for a soft touch or a 'con' man on the make for an easy grift, that's not our business. We don't know anything about it. As a matter of fact, I intend to run a warning over the lists, telling members that we are not responsible for any statements made by correspondents, that we do not check for misrepresentations, and any presents made or money loaned for any purpose whatsoever is done solely at their own risk. Like I say, we intended to stay strictly out of trouble, even if it meant passing up a buck here and there. If there was anything crooked going on, we didn't intend to have any part of it. We were interested only in selling memberships-at that time!
We hadn't become moneyhungry yet. It took about two months after Hal put the first ads in magazines before the magazines were printed and distributed and the answers started trickling in. We had taken a post-office box for that purpose, so that nobody could tie us in with the club. The first day I picked four letters out of the box. Three were from women, one from a man. Incidentally, that was something I found out immediately: The ratio of women seeking romance is at least three to every one man, if not higher. Some of them are widows, some are spinsters, and a surprising number are married women with husbands and families who are dissatisfied with their lives. In any case, women made up the bulk of our membership, and I'm sure that's true of any lonely hearts club. And the things they tell in order to make themselves seem attractive is unbelievable.
A man, an address and a declaration of loneliness from a complete stranger are likely to bring forth such information as the size of her income, how large a farm she owns, any expectations of inheritance and probably an invitation to visit. Another thing I found out is that a great percentage of the lonely hearts members lie. I don't remember seeing a single letter in which a woman ever admitted being older than "the early forties," nor did any man ever describe himself as older than "fifty-ish." The heftiest women reduce themselves to "pleasingly plump, with a lovely complexion and beautiful, shining hair," and the most ignorant, backwoods farmer turned up as "a real he-man, plain spoken and used to the outdoors, but a refined gentleman in every' sense of the word." I suppose it's human nature, but there must have been a good many disappointments when and if the pen-pals finally met up with each other.
Any scruples I'd ever had about the racket completely disappeared as the membership grew and the dollars rolled in. And, I'd tell myself, there was always the possibility that we were bringing happiness and fulfillment into the lives of some people. There was only one thing really wrong with the setup. The money came in driblets-steady, but penny-ante. It was an easy way of getting by, but you couldn't do any fancy living on it ... That was when Hal got his brilliant. idea..
He sold copies of our complete listing to mail order manufacturers. Most of the products advertised by these manufacturers in some way involved romance, and it was a foregone conclusion that the man who was "anxious to meet a congenial lady" would probably also be a setup to buy pills which promised new health for the old boy. And the woman who joined the lonely hearts club in the hope of snaring a husband would almost certainly be interested in the numerous articles which offered to bring beauty to the buyer. We never bothered to investigate the manufacturers, although I daresay their products were as good as anything else on the market. After all, if they'd been complete fakes, the government, we supposed, would have caught up with them for fraudulent advertising. And then Hal began to get restless again.
The cash wasn't coming in fast enough or heavy enough. Finally he came up with another idea. And this one wasn't so innocent. He said: "Look, we know that at least 75 per cent of our members get taken, one way or another. Either they're gullible women so anxious to get husbands that they practically invite confidence men to fleece them, or grizzled old codgers looking for a pretty nineteen year- old girl to be a combination wife, sweetheart, nurse and caretaker. After all, we get first crack at the names, and from the membership forms we can get a pretty good idea of what the setup really is. Why don't we put our own names on the list and pick off a little of this gravy for ourselves?"
I wasn't angry at his proposal; I was just bewildered. I said, "How can we run the club and be members ourselves, at the same time?"
"I don't mean put our real names on the list," Hal explained. "We'll take two phony names and two post-office boxes. You be Mary Jane, a nice girl in her middle twenties, looking for companionship and true love. You carry on a correspondence with three or four men, and let's see what happens. There are a hundred ways to get them to send you money. Either for fare so you can visit them and eventually marry them, or because you're broke, or because you haven't any nice clothes and you want to look your best when you meet them ... Once we get a chunk of dough out of the sucker, you drop him cold. You disappear. You don't answer his letters. For all he knows, you died."
I said, "Suppose he comes after me, looking for me?"
"He can't ever find you," Hal pointed out. "You're using a phony name in the first place, and the only address he'll have will be a post- office box. How can he find you?"
What's the point in kidding? I knew it was crooked. I knew it was out-and-out stealing, with a fancy twist to it. But we'd been on the thin edge between the lawful and the unlawful for so long that a little slip didn't seem important-then. So I wrote the letters. . . .
THEY succeeded beyond our wildest expectations, because under a phony name, I promptly snagged myself four different men, each of whom told me I was the girl of his dreams. Actually, I'd gotten many more letters than that, but by careful analysis and elimination, we'd finally settled on these four. They seemed the safest, the best bets; they were situated in different parts of the country, far enough away from each other so that it would have been next to a miracle if they'd ever met.
One was a schoolteacher in Wisconsin, another a rancher in New Mexico, another a gasoline station proprietor in Idaho and the fourth a Maine farmer. To the schoolteacher I was a young girl, alone in the big city, shy, friendless and looking for a dream lover. My letters were wistful, between-the-lines attestations of frustration and loneliness. To the rancher in New Mexico I was a married woman, unhappy in her choice of a husband, and anxious to contact a robust, not-too-young man who liked fun and knew how to appreciate a woman. The gas station proprietor and the Maine farmer I wrote describing myself as a widow living in a strange city where I knew no one.
Life was hard, life was bitter. I worked all day and went home to my little furnished room and read every evening. They all received photos from me- photos, incidentally, of a pretty but obscure little model which Hal picked up somewhere and had copied by the dozen. My mail order boy friends were surprised and delighted when they saw the pictures and wrote back glowing letters. I was able to keep track of my correspondence arid the lies I told by .making carbon copies of my letters and keeping them in separate files. Before I finished with those four, I tapped each one.
The schoolteacher was the first to fall. He wanted to marry me, and as soon as possible. He knew from my letters, he said, that I was his ideal girl, the woman for whom he had been waiting all his life. Unfortunately, it was the middle of the term, he would be unable to get away at all until the Christmas holidays, and that would only be for a few days. His real vacation wouldn't start until June. Why waste all that precious time, now that we had finally found each other? Why not come out to Wisconsin, where I would, in any event, spend the rest of my life? I sent back a sweet and gentle note, thanking him for the honor he had done me and telling him how thrilled I was and how I looked forward to our life together. However, I added, it would be impractical for me to go to Wisconsin immediately. And, I added, the train fare would take a little saving up, too. It wasn't put as badly as that, naturally.
My three other correspondents also came through like little men. The rancher to whom I had written that I was unhappily married and anxious to have a little fun, sent me $200. He wouldn't fall for my hints about money for a divorce, but he did send enough to take care of a few clothes and the trip to New Mexico. "Come by plane," he wrote, "as the railroad trip is long and tedious, and I am anxious to see you as soon as possible. I am very lonely and have been longing to meet you since the day I went out to the mailbox and found your letter and your picture waiting for me. Forget your husband. I can see he doesn't appreciate you, and I promise to make you happy. Wire me when to expect you. Love."
Hal grinned when he saw the letter. "I bet his ranch is a little two-room shack stuck out in the middle of the desert," he said. "And that $200 he sent is probably half his life's savings. But don't feel too sorry for him. This time you clipped him. The next time he'll clip somebody else. It all evens up in the end."
I wasn't feeling sorry for him or anybody else, at that stage of the game I liked .the feel of the money that was coming in too much for that. And I already had six other men on my romance list to whom I was giving a mail build-up. Don't get the Idea. that all the men who wrote to me had marriage in mind. A certain percentage talked marriage, but most of that was only come-on. That was the main reason they sent me money to visit them. They worked on the assumption that any girl who'd travel half way across the country to meet an unknown man would also be foolish enough to believe that If they were not wed immediately, there would be a. marriage in the coming.
All this time, of course, we were running the club. Occasionally, we'd get a letter complaining about me-under my phony name-from one of the suckers I'd taken. In that case, the club would send back a. polite note pointing out that it printed a notice over every list of names saying that the club was not responsible for any misrepresentations by members and warning pen~pals under no circumstances to send money to a correspondent. Our theory was that most of them took their medicine and kept their mouths shut. I suppose it's human nature; most men don't want it known that they've been taken for a ride, and most particularly in the case of a supposed love affair, where personal egotism is involved. We were doing fine, Hal and I. We were living higher, we were spending more money and everything looked rosy. Then I got tangled up with Fred Bracker.
BRACKER was probably the most intelligent of all my mall order Romeos. He lived in New York, was a garage mechanic, 50 years old. Bracker had a double purpose in joining the club: He was lonely and he was anxious to find a woman who would make a good mother to his two young children. His first letter was a. masterpiece of dignity In which he described himself, his need for companionship and his earnest conviction that mutual interest was the foundation of any sound marriage. This, it appeared from Bracker's letter. would take quite a while to establish. He also enclosed a photograph of himself. He had a well-lined face, a rather determined chin and his hair line was going fast. Even without the photograph I was all for dropping Bracker by the wayside. To me it looked like a lot of work and only peanuts at the end of it. But Hal objected.
"This guy's going to be our jackpot, Sherry. I know the type. First, he's got plenty of dough socked away. He's the kind that's been saving five dollars a week since his first pay check. Secondly, if handled properly, hell fall like a ton of bricks. He obviously hasn't been around, he has no idea that the world isn't made up of good, sweet characters. Thirdly, he has a couple of kids. That means he's serious about getting married. And once he's convinced you're the proper mother for them, there's nothing he won't do for you."
I still didn't like it. I tried to think of a reasonable argument against it. "I don't know what to say to him. He's so different from the others."
"Stick to three ideas, and you'll be able to handle him for the rest of your life," Hal advised. "You're crazy about children, you're longing for a good home and you've always wanted to live in New York. All New Yorkers are nuts on the subject of New York, and that always gets them."
As usual, Hal was right. Under the name of Polly Baker, I got letter after letter from Bracker, all filled with descriptions of New York. The famous buildings, Coney Island, the museums, the harbor, the Statue of Liberty-he was better than a. Baedeker, where the free entertainment was concerned. Finally I made the grade. Bracker proposed. I wrote back saying that although I had grown to love him dearly, I needed time to think it over, that it was a serious step in a girl's life, one she must not leap into without careful consideration. And then I laid my bait for the touch. I sent a sad little note saying that this must be farewell for us. I had just returned from my physician who had told me that I needed an operation immediately, not to delay and not to attempt a journey in my present condition. It was not serious, but it was imperative. It was not fair, I added, to burden him with a sick woman. A sick woman could not possibly give him the companionship he craved and deserved, and she certainly would be impractical so far as the children went. The reason I couldn't go right ahead and have the operation, of course, was that it was very expensive.
Four days later I got an airmail letter from him. Money, he declared, after what must have been quite a struggle, should not stand between us and happiness. And if that was all that was lacking, let him know how much and he would send it. He would like to be able to come out and stay with me during my illness, but, of course, the children precluded anything like that. However, be sure to tell him how much the operation would cost, don't let pride stand in the way.
I didn't. I told him $1,000 would cover the cost of the operation and the hospital and a few little extras. But that was only the beginning of Bracker's troubles. There was a matter of $200 to cover the expense of a sanitarium, where I was convalescing. Then I needed a few clothes to make the journey. Each time he came through like a major, apparently on the theory that he already had so much invested, it would be foolish to quit now. But after I received railroad fare, I decided to drop Bracker. We'd milked him for everything I could think of. It was time to take him off the list. I got four more letters from him within the next two weeks, ranging from worried to annoyed. He demanded an explanation of my silence. I answered none of them. Then there were no more letters. I decided Bracker had finally realized he'd been swindled and was quietly licking his wounds.
I thought it was all over, and I was glad. My conscience bothered me about him, about the hard-earned money he'd so patiently put by, about the two little children for whom he'd been so anxious to get a good mother. And then one day I went down to the post-office to pick up the mall. I opened two boxes-one taken out in the name of the club, the other under my most recent phony, Polly Baker. There were some dozen letters in all. I put them into my bag.
I GOT home to find Hal and another man, a Mr. Mills, waiting for me. I'd never seen Mr. Mills before, but I had a feeling right away that something was going on. Mr. Mills was going through the private filing cabinet on Hal's desk and doing it in a very methodical manner. Hal was pale as he introduced us. "This is my wife, Sherry." He paused and added significantly, "Sherry, Mr. Mills is connected with the post-office."
That was all I had to hear. I picked up my bag and started toward the door. ''I've got a little shopping to do, Hal," I said pointedly. "I'll be back in a few minutes."
I flung open the door without waiting for an answer. There was only one thought in my mind-to get away as fast as possible as far as possible, and to get rid of the incriminating mail I had just picked up at the post-office. I got as far as the threshold. There was a large man standing outside the door, blocking the path. He smiled down at me and said genially, "Where are you going-Miss Baker? Not planning a. trip to New York at this late date, are you?"
I backed slowly into the room. The man followed me in, still smiling. The events of the next half hour are very vague in my mind. The two men - they were both cops, of course- knew all about us.
Later I discovered they'd been on our trail for months, bad just been waiting to get enough on us to make it stick. And who do you think gave them the information that finally led to our being picked up? Right. That meek little garage mechanic from New York, Mr. Bracker. It seems that when he finally came to and discovered how much money he'd tossed away, he went down to the district attorney's office and told them the whole sad story. The D.A. advised him to go to the post-office. Fraud via the mails is a federal offense.
I sat in a daze while Mills and the other cop tossed questions at us, but I knew from the beginning that the jig was up. I made no attempt to stop them when they picked up my file containing carbons of letters I'd written to my mail order sweethearts. We had a lawyer to defend us, but that was only a formality. We were an open-and-shut case. They had too much on us. There was only one surprise in that whole trial-the sentences they handed out. I drew a year for using the malls to defraud. Hal got only six months as accessory. Actually, they had very little on him, except that he was a. partner in the lonely hearts club, and that wasn't against the law. It was I who had done all the defrauding who had written the letters, sent promises of marriage, asked for money. Hal had managed to take care of himself. He stayed clear of any of that.I was the baby who was left holding the bag. We didn't exchange more than two words, Hal and I, from the time we were picked up until the trial was over and we were escorted to our separate cells.
AS SOON as I get out- I'll be getting time off for good behavior- I'm going to get a divorce since the whole idea was Hal's from the very beginning, and in the end it is I who am paying for it.