FULL TEXT: WHEN dashing Henry Taylor, radio crooner, wrote fervent love letters to dazzling Vera Grove, ho might have suspected that he was making a mistake—but certainly he never dreamed he was making history.
He was, though. For all because of those love letters—and certain other incidents such as his marriage to another girl after he’d promised to marry Vera —Taylor’s name, and Vera’s too, will probably go down in legal history as the principals in the last successful Broadway “heart balm” suit ever tried.
Broadway has been famous for many years for its glamorous love-and-law imbroglios.
At the very moment that a silk-stocking sheriff’s jury was awarding the charming blonde showgirl a $100,000 verdict against Taylor, in her suit for breach of promise to marry, the New York State Legislature was in the net of passing its new statute, which hereafter bans all such legal actions from the tribunals of the Empire State.
Of course, the new law didn’t affect such breach of promise suits as were pending in the courts—and it further set a 60-day period during which new suits might be filed—but past experience shows that legal actions brought under a law which has been removed from the Statute books don’t stand much chance with juries. (You’ll remember how very few convictions there were under the Volstead Act, during the period when repeal was on its way.) So while there’s still a chance that other suit may be filed—and one at least has been —it’s not at all unlikely that Vera is the last of the lovely ladies who, from time to time, have persuaded New York courts that their broken hearts should be stitched up by dollars.
There’ll be no more “heart balm” suits in Indiana, either, that State having pointed the way for New York by passing, some weeks before, a similar ban on actions for breach of promise, Reduction, alienation of affections and “criminal conversation.”
And in legislatures of Maryland, Ohio, Illinois, Texas, Idaho, Rhode Island, Connecticut New Jersey, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and even staid Massachusetts, similar bills were the subject of determined support this year. It looks like the real end of the “heart balm” era in American courts— and, with it, the end of a thriving love-me-or-pay-up industry which has fed upon the law’s provisions intended to protect those helpless creatures— women.
It was a woman, to be sure, who started what she terms this “crusade to make the world safe for men.” Mrs. Roberta West Nicholson, Indiana’s only woman legislator, introduced and fought for the measure which, after State Assembly and Senate had passed it, was enacted into law by the signature of Governor Paul V. McNutt
And maybe Vera’s pink ears didn’t burn—or did they?—when she “read what Mrs. Legislator Nicholson had to say on the subject of “heart balm.”
“It is my contention,” said Mrs. Nicholson, who is a daughter-in-law of Meredith Nicholson, the romantic author and diplomat,” that extortion suits of this sort, with their attendant publicity, are a detriment to public morals.
“They induce a sordid and vulgar conception of marital affairs in the minds of the immature.
“We would like young people to know that marriage is a divine sacrifice, not a commercial agreement. I would like to remind lawyers, too, that 50 per cent of the so-called ‘heart balm’ suits —a phrase that is nauseating to self-respecting women—never reach the courts. They are blackmail suits simply, in which the principals attempt to capitalize on someone’s indiscretions.
“There is no cash value on misconduct and I submit to you that love and respect and affections are not transferable, negotiable commodities — certainly not recoverable in a court of law.
“Women do not demand rights, they earn them! They ask no such privileges as those which are abolished by this bill.”
Although the suits which now are banned in New York and Indiana have poured into American courts for generations, their real basis is perhaps not generally understood.
Lumped under the popular title of “heart balm,” they are o£ four sorts.
Civil suits for “seduction” are occasionally ‘brought in connection with suits claiming breach of promise to marry.
“Alienation of affections” has been made the basis for claims against persons whom the plaintiffs declare “stole the love” of husband or wife. Another type of the “alienation” claim is frequently levied against parents or relatives of a husband or wife who, according to the “wronged” marital partner, had influenced a spouse against his or her mate and broken up a marriage or engagement.
“Criminal conversation” suits, the fourth type, rarely reach the courts. This is the term used for the legal action sometimes brought by a husband or wife against a co-respondent in a divorce action, w h e r e the ground for divorce has been that of infidelity.
The mere threat of such action, it has been pointed out, was a prevalent method for working the old “badger game” racket and collecting blackmail.
Why it is that women have always enjoyed greater privileges than men in these types of legal actions, is explained by Theodore Apstein, general counsel for the National Divorce Reform League, who has consistently crusaded for changes in the laws dealing with domestic relations.
“‘Heart balm,’“ says Mr. Apstein, “was always a misnomer. The theory of the law was not that a Jilted woman should be paid for her wounded feelings, though this idea seems to have been prevalent among juries. Actually, the theory of the law goes back to early days when a woman was regarded in the same class, legally, as children and imbeciles.
“The law has always had basically in mind the ‘stake’ which the State has in its people. The theory was that, if a woman did not marry, she was likely to become a public charge—since there was, in the eyes of the law, no way in which she could support herself!
“Hence, if she were seduced or if a man promised-to marry her and didn’t, her subsequent marriageability was supposedly lessened or eliminated. Thus, the law theorized, the man should be made to pay her—not for her broken heart, but to prevent her from becoming a. charge on the State.
“You can see how ridiculous this is, in the light of modern economic life!”
Many of the plaintiffs in breach of promise actions in the past have been pretty young women whose appearance, it always has been suspected, influenced susceptible jurors in their favor. This may have been true of some Broadway suits—but the strange fact is, the woman in whose favor the largest verdict of all time was returned was singularly unbeautiful! Yet she made the Broadway heart-balmers look like pikers.
She was Mrs. Bertha Cleavenger, a Detroit widow, 43 years old, stout and plain, to whom a jury awarded the whopping sum of $150,000 in her suit against John II. Castle, millionaire real estate operator.
Years before the suit was brought, Castle had been a $6-a-day worker in the Ford plant and a boarder at Mrs. Cleavenger’s home. She, it was testified, had loaned him $450,000 with which he laid the foundations of his fortune verdict to $150,000, but it was still plenty!
More modest in her demands is Adelaide Gloria, former Follies beauty, who, undiscouraged by the action of the New York Legislature, has gotten under the wire since the Vera Grove decision with a 550,000 suit for breach of promise against Francis X. Xiques, a wealthy Cuban. Among the previously-filed suits decided since Vera won her claim was that of Mrs. Maud Kimbell, who was awarded $15,000 only the other day.
And beautiful, blonde Vera may never collect her $100,000 after all. Taylor, who did not even appear to contest Vera’s. suit, contends that he’s broke and couldn’t pay one “grand,” much less a hundred.
In the days when he and Vera met, the crooner admits, he was prosperous, but now things are different.
They met, as. Vera recited in her successful complaint, at a night club where both were appearing as performers— she as a chorus girl and he as one of the “Three Radio Rogues.” To put it in the words of Vera’s complaint: “said friendship ripened, became closer and more intimate, and defendant became more and more ardent in his attentions.”
But when Vera had to go to a hospital for an appendicitis operation, Taylor not only neglected to pay the bill which he’d promised to do—but he stopped writing, she declared. Not long afterward, he met a former sweetheart. Miss Estelle Fried, in Baltimore, and promptly married her.
Vera is 22 years old and has a son of five. When she was 16, she married out in California and subsequently won a divorce.
She doesn’t at present appear to how a very high opinion of Henry Taylor, but he is on record as feeling very friendly toward her. Even after she filed suit, he told an interviewer: “She’s one of the grandest kids I’ve ever met, in or out of show business.”
Which opinion may or may not still hold in Taylor’s mind, now that dazzling Vera has become, in the annals of Broadway “heart balm,” an historic character.
[“End of the Golden Heart-Balm Era as Vivid Vera Cashes In,” syndicated (King Features), Salt Lake Tribune (Ut.), Apr. 28, 1935, p. 6]