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Murder, sex and celebrities — 1920 style

Well, kind hearts, as they used to say back in the Jazz Age, this one is “the bee’s knees.” Set in the roaring 1920’s, Ron Hansen’s new novel is based on the sensational 1927 murder trial and execution of Ruth Snyder and her weak-kneed accomplice, Judd Gray. Viewed from the jaded present age where we have become accustomed to media coverage of serial killers, bizarre mutilations and the over-hyped details of the Casey Anthony murder trial (which is still dominating the news), the details of this crime by two inept, foolish lovers seems sordid ... but unremarkable. Yet, there is something here that caught the morbid attention of America in what became known as “The Trial of the Century.” What was it?

In addition to turning the courtroom trial into a media circus that dominated newspaper headlines for six months, New York’s Queens County drew an audience of thousands that packed the courtroom, the halls and the surrounding grounds and streets. Celebrities managed to acquire seating up close to the action. New York Gov. Al Smith; the Rev. Billy Sunday; evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson; historian Will Durant, comedian Jimmy Durante; director D. W. Griffith; songwriter Irving Berlin; columnist Fannie Hurst; and playwright Damon Runyon came each day - all eager to share their opinions and moral judgments in paid interviews with the media. Aimee preached a stirring sermon about “sex love” and “red-hot cuties.” Noted playwright Willard Mack noted that, as theater, the trial lacked direction. “The plot was weak and most of the participants were stupid.” However, each performance was standing room only.

And share them, they did. Each day, for the duration of this amazing trial, writers, gossip columnists, early advocates of Freudian psychology and even politicians and comedians made daily comments about how the Ruth Snyder affair was a lurid fable about the dangers of the New York lifestyle. As the testimony shifted from prosecution to defense, Ruth and Judd found themselves described first as tragic victims of a doomed passion and then as coarse and shallow alcoholics who were motivated totally by greed (Ruth had secretly taken out a $95,000 insurance policy on her husband, Albert’s life.)

When the sordid details of their “love nest” were revealed — a lavish room at the Waldorf-Astoria where this carnally imaginative couple conducted a year-long tryst — the moral pundits of New York were finally shocked. Drunken orgies complete with bootleg whiskey and room-service banquets ... and all of it recorded in Ruth’s diary, a document so lewd and explicit with sexual details that the court finally ruled against allowing it to be read in court.

After Ruth Synder turned against Judd Gray, testifying that she had been a reluctant participant in Albert’s death (bludgeoned to death in his bed with a window sash), the media coverage gradually became vicious. Judd was no longer described as “a debonair, educated distributor of women’s lingerie” but as “a weazened little corset salesman.” Ruth was no longer extolled as a “wowser” with “China-blue eyes crackling sparks,” but as a “blond fiend, a vampire” and a “spider woman” who had revealed herself to be “a shallow-brained pleasure seeker who is accustomed to unlimited self-indulgence.” Finally, when Ruth’s diary revealed that she had attempted to murder her husband a half-dozen times before she finally solicited Judd’s reluctant assistance, the last vestiges of sympathy vanished. The jury was out less than 90 minutes.

Reduced to its basics, the Ruth Snyder/Judd Gray murder trial has a tawdry simplicity. There are no heroes or heroines in this triangle. Ruth, unhappily married to a moderately successful magazine editor, suffered from neglect and physical abuse. Treated with public contempt by her husband, she attempted to fill in the vacuums in her life with a frenzied self-indulgent life style. Broadway shows, beach parties, shopping binges with her 9-year-old daughter ... and flirting with every “beach sheik” in sight.

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Judd Gray’s life seems a duplicate of Ruth’s. Unhappily married but a devout parent to his indifferent daughter, Gray is reputed to be a successful salesman with a genuine love of music and the arts. Unfortunately, he is a seasoned alcoholic, who, according to his own admission, never falls asleep at night, but “passes out.” In the morning, he does not wake up, but merely “regains consciousness” to continue to drinking.

From their first encounter, this “jazz couple” seem to be hopelessly drawn to each other; their wild roller coaster affair is an exhilarating rush to destruction. Yet, they are a product of their time. Ruth quips like Mae West, an actress she admires: “Better to be looked over than overlooked,” she says when sees admiring males looking her over. She sings Irving Berlin songs, peroxides her hair a vivid blonde and knows all the current dances. She is, after all, “a real jazz baby.” Judd quotes the classics, attends the theater, affectionately refers to Ruth as “Momsie,” and ponders the moral issues explicit in D. W. Griffith’s movie, “An American Tragedy” (which concerns a murder that has some remarkable parallels to poor Albert Snyder’s demise).

As for Albert Snyder, it would be difficult to find a less sympathetic victim. Arrogant, self-indulgent and given to episodes of surliness and bad temper, he had few friends. Although an enthusiastic party-goer, he frequently insulted his peers and had a reputation for picking fights. Ironically, the autopsy performed on Albert revealed that he was suffering from alcoholic poisoning and if Ruth and Judd had not succeeded in beating his brains out with a window sash, he may have died that night from the effects of bootleg whiskey.

In reviewing the case, many legal pundits conclude that this was “a murder by clowns,” carried out by an almost child-like ineptitude. Certainly, the trial was badly handled by the defense. Given the fact that there was a plentiful supply of black-hearted villains and gory Capone-era slaughters, the public’s passionate demand for the death of these two poor sinners seems excessive. Why? Hundreds of worse killers have walked away, or ended up with a life sentence. Why execute Ruth and Judd?

Perhaps their mistake was candor. Ruth’s diary treated both the murder and the erotic details of their love affair with a kind of joyful zest and abandon. Certainly, the secret pleasures they enjoyed were not unknown in New York’s decade of decadence, but perhaps what was unforgivable was to record everything with such enthusiasm and frankness. Ruth seemed to glory in carnal details; poor Judd was devastated by guilt, which meant that he enjoyed the experience even more.

Ruth and Judd did not die well. A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion concludes with a harrowing account of the executions. Ruth approached the electric chair with fear and trembling, and had to be forced to sit. A few moments later Judd Gray managed to walk under his own power and take his place. Both suffered embarrassment regarding their coarse prison garments and the tonsure-shaved circles on their heads. Following their execution, the burned and blistered bodies of the two lovers were placed on storage shelves awaiting burial ... their nerveless hands, scant inches from each other.

A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion by Ron Hansen. Scribner, 2011. 256 pages.

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