Monday, September 5, 2011

Predatory Women Cut Off at the Pass (Heart Balm Racket) - 1935

FULL TEXT: Mrs. Roberta West Nicholson’s bill to outlaw the “heart-balm racket” was passed by her own State of Indiana and copied in the Legislatures of a score of others with a rapidity that threatens the entire $2,000,000,000 “aching-heart-itching- palm” industry. This is much to the consternation of an army of lawyers and their fair clients who live on these cases.

Mrs. Nicholson is the only woman member of the Indiana legislature. The Nicholson bill, mother of all the others, besides forbidding alienation of affections, breach-of-promise and seduction suits, knocks one of the chief weapons out of the hands of the “alimony racketeer” because she is no longer permitted to “name and shame” the corespondent. Of the numerous other States in which the legislation has been introduced the law has been passed in New York and Illinois and has been defeated in Michigan, Oklahoma, Oregon and Missouri.

The legislation is still pending or proposed in New Jersey, Idaho, Rhode Island , Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Texas, North Carolina, California, Maryland, Ohio, Washington and Arizona.

However, even if all the other States should eventually follow the example of Indiana, Illinois and New York, it may not mean the end of this form of what Mrs. Nicholson and many others consider only legalized blackmail.

As the New York Law Journal points out there is considerable doubt whether such an absolute prohibition is constitutional. While it may be true, as asserted by the sponsors of the bills, that more than 90 per cent of the “heart-balm” cases are sheer banditry in which the woman threatens to disgrace the man or her rival unless she is bought off, there may be some honest, meritorious cases. It is possible to enter into a contract to marry, and many lawyers hold that it is contrary to the Constitution to destroy anyone’s right to sue for breach of any legitimate contract.

Bernard A. Sandier, counsel for Colette Francois, the 22-year-old French girl who came over from Paris to sue Arthur M. Loew, New York theatrical magnate for $100,000 damages in a seduction action, said of the New York bill recently enacted:

“There are fundamental rights of great social significance which this law destroys. Abuses undoubtedly exist but these can be corrected without working a hardship on those people entitled to the protection of the courts. I dare say that the net result will be that the unwritten law will be successfully invoked by some of the victims deprived of any appeal to the courts.”

“The unwritten law,” means, of course, that ladies unable to collect cash indemnities from men who have been so ungallant as to “think better of marrying them” and rivals who have “stolen” their husbands, will oil up their guns and “say it with bullets.” Miss Virginia C. Gildersleeve, dean of Barnard College in New York, thinks that a better remedy for these “shake-down” suits would be to have women always sit on such juries.

She feels that the way women on the Hauptmann jury did their duty disproves the charge that women are weak and sentimental in the courtroom.

They are less sentimental than men, and she believes this is so especially about other women and that it would be difficult for a hard-boiled adventuress to convince a jury of her own sex that she was just an innocent, trusting slip of a girl who did not understand what it was all about.

However, the dean’s suggestion does not satisfy one of the most important reasons for the new laws. At least 90 per cent of the victims settle out of a court, not for fear of how much the jury might make them pay but to buy back mortifying love-letters or pictures which they know will be exhibited in court and shame them regardless of whether the jury awards any damages or not. Also they know that the most outrageous assertions will be made whether true or not. New York’s law, written by State Senator McNaboe who estimates that it will save $10,000,000 a year from the clutching hands of “badgerettes” and their lawyers, makes it a felony to institute one of those “black-jack” suits.

Lawyer Burton B. Turkus of Brooklyn sorrowfully states that the new laws safeguard the philanderers and deny protection to innocent and easily susceptible women. But Mrs. Nicholson who started it all, and is Indiana’s only woman legislator, points out that the old laws, far from protecting feminine virtue, held out golden rewards to a girl for wrong-doing, as long as she was careful to pick a rich man to go wrong with. Mrs. Nicholson does  not think this “bonus for badness” was conducive to public morals.

The general idea of course was that men would he the chief beneficiaries from stopping of the “heart-balm game.” Yet, curiously enough, it has come just as mere man had at last achieved something like a single standard and equality of the sexes by actually collecting some damages from a woman who had “betrayed” him.

John Peterson, 50 years old, a fisherman of Pierce County, Washington, told the court that the widow Sarah Linevers, who is 58, had lived with him as man and wife, under promise to marry him. But after a long absence on the fishing banks, he returned to find that the widow’s passion had cooled. She now refused to marry him or return the $500 he had spent on her. There he was — a cast-off plaything. It not only broke his heart but he could not hold up his head among other men who knew he was neither boy, husband nor widower. He asked $5,500 for breach of promise.

That would he unusually modest balm for a woman’s heart but a mere man’s was not supposed to have any cash value at all and the judge reduced even that to $200 and costs.

But it was a revolutionary decision showing that the male heart is worth a little something. In time lawyers with imagination might have worked it up from this humble start to really profitable proportions. In another decade courtrooms might have seen a pallid youth take the stand and sob:

“I am a father but no wedding ring.”

His lawyer would then cry:

“He learned too late that girls betray.

“Wliat charm can soothe his melancholy?

“What art can wash his guilt away?”

Though $200 is top price for breaking a man’s heart, a man’s affections come higher when they belong to some woman and another woman helps herself to them. Not long ago Mrs. Allison L. S. Stern, wife of a New York stock broker sued her ex-friend, Mrs. Ruth Erlanger Nathan for alienating her husband’s affections. She set the stupendous value of $4,000,000 on his love, thus making him the most precious husband of all time, as far as he could be measured by the yard stick of dollars. Men vied with women in studying the picture of this pearl among husbands.

But, after all, it was only the asking price. Mrs. Stern did not get it. The case was settled out of court for an unknown sum but nobody pretends that any such “king’s ransom” changed hands on the deal. Naturally a $4,000,000 “heart-balm” suit was a show worthy of unusual features. Mrs. Stern, after much evidence of how Ruth had vamped him with gifts and playful pranks such as pulling his shirt-tail out, asked to have the courtroom darkened.

When this had been done, moving pictures were shown, revealing the perfect love and peace in the Stern home before Ruth crashed it. After the girls got together on how much was a fair bill for damages to Mrs. Stem’s heart, Mr. and Mrs. Stem got a nice little divorce and Allison married Ruth.

The settlement out of court may have been precipitated by an alarming omen in the jury box. Max Steuer, Mrs. Stern’s eminent lawyer, felt so badly over his client’s broken heart, that he actually wept. Mrs. Nathan and her counsel were not visibly moved by this emotion until they saw one of the jurymen take off his glasses to let bigger and better tears roll down both sides of his nose. Mrs. Nathan may have felt like Miss Gildersleeve that men are too weak for this type of heavy jury duty.

Another damage suit that might never have been heard from had these laws been passed earlier, is the $1,500,000 heart-balm action by Mrs. Rhoda Tanner Doubleday against Harold F. McCormick the affectionate harvester magnate. Harold, for some reason that the ex-wife of the publisher Felix Doubleday could not understand, suddenly decided he didn’t want to marry her. This blighted her life to the extent of a million and a half dollars but the blighter did not want to do anything about it until somehow his memory was refreshed about 68 love-letters which would inevitably be read, in court.

Many rich men pay to have their writings published and this divorced wife of a publisher could have gotten Mr. McCormick’s before the public free but instead, he paid her $65,000, almost $1,000 a letter to settle the case.

From this suit sprang at least two others, Major Max Fleischmann, California multimillionaire and sportsman, expressed opinions about Mrs. Doubleday’s “heart-balm” claim. He gave as his opinion of the suit, among other things, that “no lady ever brings suit for breach-of-promise.”

Hrs. Doubleday showed that she did not agree by suing Fleischman for $100,000 damages in a slander action. Also she sued the Good Samaritan Hospital, in Los Angeles, because somehow the McCormick lawyers had gotten hold of the hospital chart recording her visit there. This alleged breach of hospital etiquette, according to her own estimate, was damaging to the extent of $50,000.

It is easy to see that thousands of women would have to seek other sources of wealth and an army of lawyers would soon go on the relief, if no more gold is to be dug from the good old heart-balm mine.

But insurance companies, railroads and most other large corporations are constantly bled by unjust damage suits. If every law that can be perverted into a racket were repealed, what would become of the courts and all their employees?
When Mrs. Nicholson visited the court in Indianapolis to see the first case to come under her law, the bailiff may have been thinking about that very thing because he indignantly put her out, during a momentary absence of Superior Judge Herbert Stewart. When the judge learned of the incident he told his bailiff a thing or two and tendered the court’s apology to the ejected legislatress.

Probably the last breach-of-promise suit to get through the New York courts before the slamming of the doors by the new law is that of Maud Kimbell who asked $100,000.and won a judgment of $15,000 from Charles Severy, New York manufacturer and his wife, whose stage name is Claire Wilson. According to Mrs. Severy’s story, they took Mr. Kimbell into their home because he hail been dispossessed and “hadn’t a dime.” The reason that Mrs. Kimbell did not stay there also was that the two women did not like each other. Mrs. Kimbell, however, told the court of various alleged “lurid” doings and lavish gifts to her husband which resulted in alienating his affections. These she valued at $100,000, even if he didn’t have a dime. Mrs. Severy denied the doings and paid similar gifts had been handed out to Mrs. Kimbell and her daughters.

“That’s what a person gets .for trying to help the unemployed,” said  Mrs. Severy indignantly as she appealed the court order to help the unemployed Mrs. Kimbell with a $15,000 check.

The first lady to be muzzled by the new Indiana law, making correspondents nameless was Mrs. Bertie Stewart who was fluently telling the court how unsatisfactory her husband had been until she reached tire big scene and said:

“I found him with a woman by the name of . . . .”

“I object!” thundered the husband’s lawyer and the judge sustained him. It took all the steam out of Bertie, who moaned: “You mean I mustn’t tell the name of the woman he was running around with?’ That’s a terrible law.”

Though Colette Francois got her $100,000 breach-of-promise and seduction suit against Arthur M. Loew under the wire just in time, it was thrown out for lack of sufficient evidence.

A jury of eight married men and four bachelors heard the French girl relate how she had met the theatrical man in the lounge of a transatlantic liner but declined to visit his stateroom. In Paris the romance continued and ripened, until finally on the theory that he was going to make her a movie star, she had visited his hotel apartment and accepted a drink. It was so potent that it caused them to make a great mistake, she related.

Mr. Loew then returned to New York, followed later by Colette who expected to be a mother and expected him to rectify the mistake by marrying her or paying $100,000. Mr. Loew did not care for either idea so she took him to court and lost. Yet, on boarding the boat to go back empty-handed to France, Colette told reporters that she was very happy over the outcome. Unless there was a private settlement, which has been denied, this peculiar reasoning might be called, “seductio ad absurdum.”

[“The New Laws to Stop the ‘Heart Balm’ Suits - Three States Have Passed and Many Are Considering Bills That Take All the Profits Out of Lost or Stolen Love and Bring Millions Yearly to Forsaken Sweethearts And Their Lawyers,” American Weekly (San Antonio Light Sunday magazine) (Tx.), Apr. 12, 1935, p. 11]


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