I was thinking I had read Ron Hansen before, but I was mistaken. For some reason I had gotten him mixed up with Erik Larsen (Scandinavian names?) and the two books I read by him (The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, Thunderstruck). The similarity though is that (at least in this historical fiction) the author has written about real events and made the case that many aspects of the saga shined a light on important cultural signifiers of the Twenties. Here, Hansen has taken the scandalous and headline inducing murder case which began in 1925 (the midst of the Roaring Twenties) and written something of a straightforward chronicle of the crime. I had not heard of this (I checked a Time list of the Top 25 Crimes of the Century, but this was not one of those) but it was apparently all the rage and followed closely (before tv) in the newspapers of the time. It has since faded into history. What keeps it alive to some perhaps is the fact that Ruth Snyder was the first woman executed in New York state in the Twentieth Century and that there is a rather infamous news photograph of her electrocution.
There were eleven major newspapers in metropolitan New York and each seemed to consider the evolving Snyder-Gray case the crime of the century. And each paper would see its circulation double when Ruth or Judd was featured.
The New York Daily News actually printed a cover photo that shows Ruth Snyder being jolted against her restraints just as the switch was pulled for her electrocution. These days the basic plot (woman seeks her lover to murder her husband so they can be together and share in the insurance money) is the stuff of Lifetime movies. If you’re looking for a riveting police procedural, forget it. This murder appears to be one of the worst planned in the annals of crime. Damon Runyon famously tagged the inept murder plot the “Dumb-Bell Murder”. Murder and adultery were the stuff of scandal and this played upon the public’s imagination.
One journalist quoted Shakespeare’s Pericles in writing, “‘One sin, I know, another doth provoke; murder’s as near to lust as flame to smoke”‘
But at the time, there were significant cultural aspects of the crime. It was unusual for a woman to be executed and the whole case set off a media feeding frenzy. This was the first case where the courtroom was wired with microphones and loudspeakers (by a Long Island radio broadcasting company). Hansen noted that at the time, female jurors were not allowed to deliberate on murder cases. If the case happened today, Ruth Snyder’s phone would have been hacked by Fox News Corp. Damon Runyon covered the trial for William Randolph Hearst’s American. It was a popular social event for the celebrities of the day. Hansen drops all the names who just had to be there and be seen: the Marquis of Queensberry, D.W. Griffith, Will Durant, Jimmy Durante, Mae West, Fannie Hurst, evangelists Billie Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson. Songwriter Irving Berlin attended and was surprised to learn that the lovers had chosen as “their” song his composition Always. On one of Ruth and Judd Gray’s liaisons, a singer was crooning the tune, popular at the time:
Ruth listened to the singer and tipsily smiled, “Let’s make this our song. ‘Always.’ Okay?”
And then Judd sang in his baritone that he’d be loving Ruth forever, that his love would be true forever, and when the things she planned need a helping hand, he would understand. Always.
At the trial, the Hollywood types all were seated in an area informally referred to as “the Actor’s Equity section.” Early in the book, Hansen’s cultural references seemed to me a bit heavy-handed, but as the story unfolded (and especially when the trial was the focus) they were more an organic part of the novel. As in this excerpt where Judd Gray’s counsel sought to possibly establish a medical reason for his actions, by having him submit to an X-ray of his skull. Also
…he was interviewed by a panel of four alienists to find out if he was sane. Included in their tests was his giving a vial of blood for analysis, walking a chalk line, and spinning until he fell. Psychiatry was still in its infancy.
I’ll say! An interesting read (an interesting case), though I wouldn’t call it fascinating.
Also inspired by the case:
- James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity
- and the Billy Wilder film based on the novel (screenplay by Raymond Chandler