Monday, September 5, 2011

The Love Racket (AKA: Heart Balm Racket) - 1930

~ The Love Racket ~

~ Millions for the Ladies; Seldom a Cent for the Men – That’s the Unevenly Balanced Cost of Blighted Affections in this Land of the Free, Which Huge Suit and Alimony Awards Have Made the World’s Costliest for Men Who Run Into Difficulties of the Heart. ~

FULL TEXT: JUDGING by the falling marriage rate in the United States, American women seem less interested in wedlock than the women of European countries; yet no others complain so loudly nor so publicly when their hopes of wedded happiness are thwarted, and no others demand – nor receive – such expensive poultices for injuries to their pride, affections and expectations of comfortable support.

But gentlemen whose ardor has outstripped their caution may look for no immediate relief – at least not from the law.

New York, where the love racket has attained its fullest flower, and where the attempts to curb it have consequently been most numerous, has recently seen the Samberg bill, designed to lighten the burdens of the alimony slaves, killed in committee – gently murdered, as its predecessors have been. Speculation as to why the masculine law-makers will not stand by their harassed brothers In this matter is idle; the fact remains that they have once more proved that they will not.

The love racket, as practiced in America, might well give pause to Westward bound bachelors from the other side of the Atlantic. We know that certain industries in our big cities have to pay a high price for protection from gangster persecution, but we do not all realize what fantastic sums individual men frequently pay to keep their indiscretions out of the courtroom and the tabloids.

The authors of imaginary love letters receive large amounts for allowing their fiction to be printed; the misguided realists who pen the bona fide billet doux pay much more to keep their literary efforts out of print.

The hazards of the love racket begin from that first unguarded moment when an enamoured gentleman asks for the telephone number of the lady be has just met, and the dangers thicken around his path as he pursues big reckless way. If he changes his mind at almost any point in his rendezvous with destruction, he faces the danger of a breach of promise suit or a settlement out of court; if he actually pursues his way into matrimony and then regrets it, he meets the prospects of alimony or a debtor's jail; if he allows himself to be solaced for to first matrimonial failure by a second attempt at felicity, he is confronted by the possibility of paying, in addition, a judgment for alienation of affections procured against his second indiscretion by his first.

The judgments rendered and the amounts awarded in this Land of the Free for breach of promise, alimony and alienation of affections are the wonder and amusement of Europeans, and are not equaled in any other country. When a woman is bereft of the love of an American man, she has, in the opinion of his peers, lost something of almost incalculable value, and great should be her compensation. The only people who have even approached us in this custom of granting pecuniary solace for injuries to the affections are the English, but with the advent of the woman juror even England is tightening her purse strings.

It is a strange anomaly that the large sums which men have been forced to pay as heart balm in the United States have, practically without exception, been awarded by their fellow men. With tears of pity in their eyes, jurors have computed that the agony suffered by a lovely damsel because of a broken vow is worth anywhere from $5,000 to $600,000 —depending on various contributing factors, but chiefly on the beauty of the damsel. For it is a well recognized fact in legal circles that the prettier the plaintiff, the larger the award she will get from a masculine jury—a highly uneconomic basis of decision, because it is obvious that the more alluring the woman, the smaller are the chances that her hopes of love have been eternally blighted. These surface considerations, however, weigh nothing with a jury composed entirely or even partly of women, who regard their sisters with a far more coolly appraising eye and a marked degree of skepticism.

The right to sue for breach of promise is based on the supposition that a few endearments whispered huskily in the moonlight or over the table at a night club, followed by a love letter or two and other "attentions," constitute a legal contract, and that when they are not followed by a bona fide marriage, the one who has broken the contract may be sued in the civil courts and damages recovered for injury to affections, reputations or financial hopes. A jury of his peers decided that the eighty-four-year-old Mr. M— had wounded the prospects of the twenty-nine-year-old Miss W— to the value of $225,000 when, according to her statements, his matrimonial intentions toward her cooled and permanently froze. A judge less swayed by “passion and prejudice” scaled this verdict down to $125,000, and the inconsolable lady finally agreed to be consoled by $100,000 in cash—with which nest egg she and the childhood sweetheart whom she married six months later are still, one hopes, living in felicity. This award is one of the headliners of recent years, but a search of the records reveals that it is a characteristic sample.

Although it is obvious that many plighted troths are broken by women, sometimes cruelly wounding the pride and feelings of the cast-off lovers, these fickle ones are almost never hauled into court and made to settle the amount by check. The history of breach of promise suits here and in England contains very few cases In which the plaintiff was a man, and even fewer In which awards have been made to men. A jilted lover named Harrison did succeed in wresting a $2,000 verdict from an English jury in 1698 when his betrothed (estimated changed her mind. A few years ago a Maine backwoodsman was awarded $24.24, the unflattering amount at which he himself had appraised his lady’s affections. More recently, a former Congressman from a Western state, whose didos scandalized even Washington during the time he graced the capital, was given damages of one cent in his suit for breach of promise against his former secretary. His efforts to prove during the trial that she had expected to marry him resulted in a verdict of $7,500, later reduced to $6,000, to the lady in her later suit for slander.

The cases, however, in which men are given heart balm—even one cent's worth are extremely rare. It is an unflattering thought that the infrequency of such awards may be due not so much to man's unwillingness to drag a woman's name into court as to the general masculine belief that a man who has escaped marriage is more to be congratulated than pitied.

In continental Europe the breach of promise suit, as we know it in America, does not exist. It flourishes only under the common law of England, and in countries, notably the United States, which have derived their legal systems from her. Where the civil law prevails, as it does in lands which derive from the old Roman code, the jilted party to a marriage troth can recover only the actual pecuniary loss, and usually has to produce documentary evidence, including a written promise to marry, to get even that.

It is in America, the land of chivalry and inflated pocketbooks, that this particular racket flourishes in its most deadly form. Every wealthy bachelor with even a mildly roving eye is in danger if he does not watch his step—and sometimes even if he does. One day a few years ago the large-hearted and open-handed son of a prominent Senator strolled into a well known New York jeweler’s in search of a birthday present for a relative. Yearning over a case of rings was a pretty girl whom he had met at a fraternity dance.

“Buying any?” he inquired pleasantly.

“Oh, no,” saw the damsel, “I just adore this one; it's my birth stone, but I couldn't afford it.” The youth's manly heart was touched at the sight of a woman to distress. “That's a shame,” he said, “If you want it so much I’ll get it for you.” Forthwith without even asking its price, he presented it.

When the bill arrived the little trinket turned out to be a $5,000 emerald. It also turned out to be “Exhibit A” in the lady's subsequent breach of promise suit – “the love token, gentlemen of the jury, that the defendant gave to my client when he promised to make her his wife.” After this episode, which had been preceded by several similar ones, the family Of the young gallant was finally forced to hire a detective to accompany him everywhere he went the vigilant protector even, it was rumored' sleeping m the room with him at night.

Bachelors who are not only rich but prominent are doubly in jeopardy. As every newspaper reader knows, Gene Tunney and August Heckscher have recently been sued for large amounts. Caruso was twice the defendant in a breach of promise suit- ha won the first, but lost the second, chiefly because of a very affectionate bundle of letters m the possession of the jilted lady written by the tenor and signed “Baby.”

Judging from a study of the plaintiffs in a long list of such actions, bachelors had best be on their guard when they feel the urge to send effusive epistles to secretaries clerks, cloak models, widows or most dangerous of all, fair alumnae of the Follies Chorus. For the damsels who fail in these classes seem to have worked out to its highest perfection this particular method of getting rich quick. There are volumes of history back of the American proverb- “Do right, and fear no man; don't write and fear no woman.”

Once a luckless male has been caught in the toils of the love racketeer, his chances of escaping without notable injury to his checkbook are slim. No matter what defense he tries to put up it is likely to strike back on his own head. He may show that the fair one was engaged to another at the time she listened to his suit. This, as cases have proved, will not be accepted by the court “in mitigation of damages.” He may reveal that the plaintiff, according to her own statement, never loved him and was planning to marry him just for his money his peers on the jury will only smile and vote that her financial expectations should not be thwarted. He may plead that she had caught another man after he threw her down, and that her heart could not have been injured beyond repair; her lawyer will point out, successfully, that the income of the consolation prize was not so large and that the defendant therefore must make up the difference.

In final desperation the harassed male may even take his own life – no use; his spirit, returning, will see the lady’s tears dried with banknotes gallantly awarded her from his insurance. Finally, if the man is so foolhardy as to intimate in his defense that the beloved was not worthy of his hand, he runs the risk not only of having the amount of the verdict raised against him because of his ungentlemanly inferences, but actually of being sued, in addition and generally successfully, for slander.

The discussion of breach of promise suits, with large awards to women, could go on almost indefinitely, as it does in the pages of the tabloids, but even so it would represent only a portion—and probably a small portion of the money paid out by men in this particular form of racket. For the majority of such claims are quietly settled out of court, the man handing over whatever hush money he can be induced to pay and receiving his letters in return. The only drawback about this less painful mode of settlement is that the cure is frequently not complete. It is very easy for the wary damsel to hold back a letter, usually on the pretext that she had lost it, and then a little later, again to threaten suit. Nothing but swallowing the medicine of a public trial will put an end to this form of extortion for the unhappy author of the letters.

The time-honored method for the male of the species to express his annoyance when an interloper steps in and steals the affections of his lady love Is to resort to fists or a sawed-off shotgun, a hot-headed proceeding which usually lands him In court and often to jail. The woman who has been bereft in similar fashion also goes to court, but under happier auspices. The alienation of affections suit, though not as common in this country as breach of promise, nevertheless is one of the weapons used in the love racket, though it is a weapon generally employed by one woman against another. But its rewards, though not so frequent are large. A jury of farmers felt, a few years ago, that Mrs. Dorrit S. Woodhouse had suffered at least $465.000 worth when her parents-in-law turned her young husband against her and persuaded him to leave her

The heart balm racketeers, however, are amateurs, in numbers and finesse, when compared with that large army of American gold diggers who have made the extraction of alimony a fine science. It is estimated that more than a million women to the United States are living on this form of taxation without representation; more than a million husbands are paying Installments on marriages long since scrapped, and the number mounts steadily with our rising rate of divorces and separations, exceeding every country of western Europe in numbers and awarded.

Recent news dispatches carry the rumor that in her just concluded divorce from Marshall Field 3rd, Mrs. Field was awarded alimony of $1,000,000 a year. If this is true It Is the record for all time. Another of the highest alimony payers in recent years is the owner of a well known system of chain stores, whose first two attempts at married happiness (he has taken on a third helpmate) are estimated to have cost him over $50,000,000 in settlements, including trust funds for the children thus de-fathered. Almost as imposing is the rich vein struck by a New York society woman, awarded $90,000 a year for herself and two children; or the spectacular success of a young foreign gold digger who, doing in Rome as the Romans do, extracted $2,000,000 from her American multi-millionaire husband; or the $1,000,000 given to solace the wife of a Chicago hotel owner; or even the $880,000 of bullion, supplemented by jewels of almost equal value, which J. Stanley Joyce had to Pay for ten months of married happiness with Peggy, she asked for a million, but the mean old jurors would not give it— which, considering who the plaintiff was, seems incomprehensible.

It isn’t, however, just the big fellows who often find that marriage has been an expensive experiment. The poor man who loses his entire worldly wealth, not to mention his liberty, is really worse off than the plutocrat who parts with only a portion – albeit a pretty large portion – of his holdings. The Alimony Payers’ Protective Association, now known as the National Sociological League, has records of hundreds of these cases; such, for instance, as the ex-wife who has had her husband jailed seven times, first making him lose his job and then, when he falls behind to payments having him thrown in prison for contempt of court; or the wife of a sea captain (her second marital adventure) who, suddenly discovering that her first husband had neglected to apply for a release of alimony when she married her second, swooped down on him and collected a fancy sum for several years of accrued arrears; or the successful professional woman, earning an annual salary of $3,200, who insisted on, and received, alimony when she divorced her $2,500 a year husband.

Alimony is responsible for the only debtors’ prisons still existent in the United States. They are not called debtors' prisons but they aw that in effect. The best known one is the county jail in New York City. At this moment of writing twenty of the twenty-nine prisoners there are being held for non-payment of alimony.

Partly as a result of our archaic marriage and divorce laws, based on an economic state of society which no longer exists and partly as a result of the fact that the marriage laws of no two states are exactly alike the alimony racket is a wide and profitable one. In most states, when a wife sues for separation or divorce (and it almost always is the wife who sues) the husband has to Pay all court costs and counsel fees-his own and his wife's-plus temporary alimony until the case is decided.

This remains true no matter how strong the evidence may be against the wife. If it is very strong indeed, she may, and frequently does, with the connivance of her lawyer, whose fees are augmented by delay manage to postpone the trial almost indefinitely, in the mean while living handsomely at her husband's expense. I have in mind the case of one husband whom it cost $30,000 in legal fees and temporary alimony to have the court tell him that he was right.

When a broken marriage finally comes to trial the wife may apply for a divorce or a legal separation-to either case with alimony. Separation is the preferred racket. It leaves her fixed quite comfortably and prevents the erring partner from solacing himself with another helpmate.

If the wife gets a full divorce and later marries again let no luckless ex-husband suppose that this automatically releases him from alimony payments. Many a trusting gentleman has made this mistake only to be suddenly pounced on by the law years later and thrown into prison for letting his alimony lapse. The fact that another man has agreed to love and cherish his former wife does not legally release him from the obligation of supporting her unless he cues to court and formally makes application to be relieved. Even then he sometimes finds himself out of luck. If he is wealthy and the second partner of his, wife's sorrow is poor a chivalrous judge has been known to decide that her expectations of wealth should not be disappointed and has refused to allow his claim.

If for any reason the ex-husband falls behind in his alimony payments he can be, and frequently is, clapped in jail for contempt of court, and thus the fundamental American principle that a man should not be given a prison sentence without a trial is violated. One of the provisions of the recent Samberg bill, which failed to become a law, was designed to remedy one aspect of this injustice. At present a man who Is in arrears with his alimony – and, Fortune being such a fickle jade, it is easy to see how that can happen –cannot apply to the court for a hearing to see if his alimony should not in fairness be reduced, because he is in contempt of court, and no one in this melancholy slate can make an application. The court will not hear him.

The maximum length of time for which a man can be imprisoned for contempt of court is six months, but two days before the happy gates are due to open for him he can be rearrested for not paying the alimony which has accrued while he was in prison, and so on, ad infinitum. One sturdy Western rancher was confined almost continuously for four years in a California county Jail because when his fist wife divorced him and remarried her first husband be thought that alimony automatically stopped. His former wife let the arrears accumulate a while and then sued. He protested the injustice of being made to help support her, second husband, but arrears were arrears, and into jail he went.

On the western side of the Hudson there is a little colony of mournful expatriates who have fled to Jersey in order to avoid alimony payments awarded in New York. They know that if they are reckless enough to Jet their feet on the soil of Manhattan between 12 p. m. Sunday and 12 p. m. Saturday they run the danger of immediate arrest. But for some soft-hearted legal reason they are safe on the Sabbath. One may see them on Saturday nights collected in the ferry stations exchanging grievances and reminiscences while they wait for the 12 o’clock boat to take them for twenty-four hours of gamboling in forbidden pastures. At 12 o’clock Sunday night these male Cinderellas collect on the Manhattan side. Their brief respite is over; their, faces are turned once more to the land of exile.

Alimony, as awarded in this country, is a relic of an outmoded era. When the various state laws were framed marriage was practically the only profession open to the majority of women; their only means of earning a livelihood. Now, according to recent computations, 9,000,000 women receive pay envelopes, and when the 1930 census is tabulated it will probably be discovered that that number is an underestimate.

Farseeing judges, notably those in some of the Western states, are beginning to ask why a childless, ablebodied woman should not go out and earn her own living after her attempt at marriage has proved a failure.

With the realization that the life of a cast-off damsel is not financially blighted forever, even the amounts of breach of promise awards have shown a slight falling off in the last two or three years. This latter trend, however, has not been in evidence long enough to prove anything. American juries still remain the most susceptible in the world to the pleas of slighted —and lovely—femininity. And this being the case, there seems to be no immediate probability that the tabloids will lose the opportunities for their best headlines.

[Mary Day Winn, “The Love Racket,” syndicated, The Billings Gazette (Mt.), Aug 24, 1930), magazine section, p. 4]


For more on the Heart Balm Racket, see:


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