The Story Of The Century


Within twenty-four hours it developed that Hauptmann was trying to clear himself by pinning the ransom money on an acquaintance now dead with whom he had had some minor dealings in fur skins—Isidor Fisch. I learned also that all the police agencies involved were hunting desperately for a sample of Fisch’s handwriting to compare with that of the kidnapper’s notes. The Post , after printing a facsimile and analysis of the Fisch signature from Die Finanzen des Grossherzogs , was glad to accommodate the police.

So it went for me even during the trial. One day, as Hauptmann was being taken under guard from the courtroom during a recess and passing the kidnap ladder, which was standing against the wall in evidence, I lunged toward him impulsively and obtained a “world exclusive,” a first interview of two succinct sentences:

Q. Bruno, did you make that ladder?

A. I would be a second-hand carpenter if I make such a ladder.

I was struck by the incongruously high-pitched voice that came out of that virile athletic body, but I was later to observe a similar phenomenon in such undoubted manly specimens as Jack Dempsey, Fiorello La Guardia, Ernest Hemingway, and General Patton.

A definite obstacle to the proceedings were the mink-clad ladies from café society (the generational parent of the jet set and grandparent of the Beautiful People) who swarmed to the trial like the knitting women at the base of the guillotine during the Terror. Throughout the sessions they chatted, tittered, and giggled without concern for the fact that a man charged with the murder of a baby was on trial for his life. So many of them turned up in Flemington that the Journal assigned one of its society columnists, a Mrs. Sigourney Thayer who wrote under the house pseudonym “Madame Flutterby,” to spend full time at the trial reporting nothing but the activities of the women in mink.

In an angry piece for the New York Times novelist Edna Ferber wrote: “I found all the Maxwell party countersigns and passwords were being cooed back and forth. All the mink coats were saying to the Savile Row topcoats and burgundy mufflers, ‘Hello, darling! How are you? Isn’t this divine?'”

But high as Miss Ferber soared in her indignation, I believe she fell short of the social commentary we put together in the Post by simply quoting from the Encyclopedia Britannica’s wholly objective description of the mink as a “fur-bearing animal … of the weasel family … Few mammals are as voracious and bloodthirsty. … The female is of a savage disposition.”

Miss Ferber was herself one of another genus, the “trained seal,” as we working reporters called them, celebrities in other writing media who were sent to the trial by various newspapers and news agencies to catch a quick impression and make profound observations. Also present were Alexander Woollcott, the sage of the New Yorker , and novelists Fannie Hurst, Kathleen Norris, and Ford Madox Ford, who invariably found themselves thoroughly confused by the twists and turns of the testimony and would eventually appeal to some fiftydollar-a-week reporter of the working press to guide them through the maze.

As an aspiring young novelist I was flattered to do service for the most distinguished trained seal of the lot, Ford Madox Ford, a huge, kindly mass of a man well described at the time as resembling a beached whale and very near destitution because of the meager sales of his novels in the Depression. At Ford’s request I showed him around town so he could stock up on overnight supplies. At the drugstore he asked, wistfully, for “the very smallest quantity of toothpaste that you sell” (a ten-cent tube) and elsewhere for “the cheapest spirits you stock, and the very smallest quantity” (this last was a half pint of applejack, the highly potent and potable vin du pays of Hunterdon County, priced at seventy-five cents).

Though the strongest aspects of the case against Hauptmann proved to be a mass of solid, objective evidence of a kind that laymen mistakenly downgrade because it is “circumstantial,” there were also a host of eyewitnesses who claimed to have beheld Hauptmann in a variety of damaging situations. Chief among them was John F. Condon (“Jafsie,” as he called himself), a heavyset, seventy-four-year-old retired elementary-school teacher from “the beautiful borough of the Bronx.” In one of the more bizarre turns of the case he became the intermediary in the ransom negotiations simply by writing a letter to a neighborhood newspaper offering his services —with the astonishing result that the kidnapper, whom he later positively identified as Hauptmann, got in touch with him at once and met with him twice face to face.