July 23, 2014
Like many readers I know, I’m typically in the middle of approximately a jillion books. Actually, for me it tends to be a jillion times two – one jillion being books and manuscripts I’m reading with an eye to possible publication, and the second jillion being books I’m reading for pleasure. The latter category features a lot of non-fiction, but don’t get me wrong: I’m a novel-reader from way back. It’s just that after all the time I spend in fictional worlds, I start to need a break.
As I mentioned earlier, Martin Booth’s wonderful memoir, Goldenboy, is currently at the top of my pile. The No. 2 spot, though, goes to One Summer: America, 1927, by Bill Bryson; I’m about three-quarters of the way through. I am a shameless Bryson junkie. Every few years I reread both In a Sunburned Country and A Walk in the Woods (about, respectively, his trips to Australia and his experience of hiking the Appalachian Trail as a middle-aged fat guy), just for the pleasure of hanging out with such a funny, smart, dyspeptic fella, and every single time I find myself wheezing with laughter at the same scenes.
One Summer is neither as funny nor as peevish as some of his other books, and it features rather more about both aviation and baseball than I really want to wade through. (In fairness, by choosing 1927, Bryson bought himself a year that essentially starred Charles Lindbergh, Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth: Aviation and baseball were pretty much a given.) There are, however, some fascinating supporting players, including Sacco and Vanzetti, the extremely odd Calvin Coolidge (he liked to dress up in a cowboy outfit at every possible opportunity), and – the reason for this post – Ruth Snyder, who with her lover was convicted of perpetrating what newspapers called the “Crime of the Century.”
I was particularly interested in Snyder because her story was the basis of a play I saw earlier this year, “Machinal,” by Sophie Treadwell. What so intrigued me was the gap – a gap like the Grand Canyon – between Treadwell’s presentation of Snyder and Bryson’s. For Treadwell, Ruth Snyder was a woman of refined sensibilities, far too refined for the coarse, brutal world of the 1920s. That world’s financial demands forced her to work in an office where the shrill song of technology – the bells, the shrieking whistles, the mindless clatter of the teletype – was slowly driving her crazy. The world forced her into a joyless marriage with her boss, and left her as vulnerable as a kitten when she encountered a cut-rate Lothario, a fifth-tier ladies’ man who offered her a first, intoxicating whiff of pleasure. And the world – ok, here Treadwell’s reasoning got a little murky – the world left Snyder no choice but to kill her husband and take a slow, refined walk to the electric chair.
In Bryson’s version, that refinement is the first element to hit the floor: Miss Ruth Brown, he says, was a young woman of “high spirits and light intellect,” whose primary interest in marrying the balding editor of Motor Boating magazine was explained by the ring he offered, featuring a diamond “the size of a gumball.” “I just couldn’t give up that ring,” she reportedly sighed to a pal.
Nor was Judd Gray, Snyder’s lover, exactly the testosterone-oozing dreamboat of Sophie Treadwell’s dreams. Though he was in fact a traveling salesman for the Bien Jolie Corset Company (and isn’t that just about the most perfect factoid ever?), he wore Coke-bottle-thick glasses, weighed 120 pounds, and called Ruth Snyder “Mommie.” Romance, who can resist it?
Furthermore, to cast the murder as a crime of passion would require squinting a lot: Snyder first tricked her husband into signing a life-insurance policy guaranteed to pay double in the event of violent death (James M. Cain would later borrow this nifty detail for Double Indemnity), and she then tried to kill him by poisoning both his evening whiskey and (beaming here) his prune-whip pudding. (Ok, that prune-whip pudding is an even more wonderful factoid than the corset company.) He somehow survived the double-whammy, so she dosed his pudding with crushed-up sleeping pills, fed him yet another kind of poison disguised as medicine, and then tried gassing him to death. No luck.
At this point she roped in Judd Gray, who was supposed to cosh the hapless Mr. Snyder over the head with a sash-weight (I didn’t know either: it has something to do with windows).
Unfortunately, Judd Gray’s attempt served only to wake him up. “Confused but considerably enlivened at finding a strange small man leaning over him and tapping him on the head with a blunt instrument” (says Bryson), Mr. Snyder grabbed Judd Gray in a choke-hold, prompting him to cry out, “Mommie, Mommie, for God’s sake, help!” At which point the Mrs. came barreling upstairs, grabbed the sash-weight, and put some moxie into it. For good measure, she then stuffed chloroform up her husband’s nose and strangled him with a length of picture-wire, which she had thoughtfully laid on (Mr. Snyder, after all, had shown all signs of being the second coming of Rasputin). Finally, she placed an Italian anarchist newspaper on the kitchen table (the better to mislead the cops, what with Sacco and Vanzetti very much in the news), and stuffed her jewelry under the mattress (the better to defraud the insurance company). Judd Gray tied Mommie’s wrists and ankles in a comfy but convincing fashion (the better to present her as a victim of those dastardly Italian subversives) kissed her goodbye, and caught the train to Syracuse, to establish an alibi. Wanna know how his fiendishly clever alibi was busted? He was fingered by the cab driver who took him to the train station: The driver remembered Judd Gray because he was such a lousy tipper.
Now that’s what I call a tidy little tale of refinement.