The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age

  • By Michael Wolraich
  • Union Square & Co.
  • 352 pp.

The tawdry case that helped FDR win the White House.

The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age

Early on the morning of February 26, 1931, a blue-collar worker lucky enough to be employed in Depression-weary New York City came upon a white glove stuck in a bush in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx as he was walking to his job. Below it, in a ditch, was the bruised body of its owner, a stylish young woman with reddish-brown hair dressed in a black velvet party gown with a filthy clothesline drawn tightly around her neck.

The deceased was Vivian Gordon, a part-time prostitute and full-time extortionist with a criminal record. Her murder would’ve meant little in a city gripped by killings (273 in Manhattan alone in 1930) but for the fact that she was attractive and her story juicy enough to interest Gotham’s thriving tabloids. Was she murdered because she tried to con the wrong man or because she knew too much about dirty city politics?

Author Michael Wolraich has resurrected social-butterfly Gordon and the story of her improbable impact on New York’s Jazz Age corruption and vice in The Bishop and the Butterfly, a true-crime tale that reads like a novel. Although seemingly far-fetched, the fallout from Gordon’s murder, Wolraich credibly posits, helped bring down New York City’s political machine and catapult FDR into the White House.

Crooked cops and magistrates plagued early-20th-century Manhattan. The district attorney was incompetent, and Tammany Hall’s corrupt power brokers installed handpicked stooges throughout state and local government. Since New Year’s Day 1926, the city was presided over by a feckless mayor, the handsome and charming Jimmy Walker. Composer of the 1906 hit song “Will You Love Me in December as You Do in May?” the mayor wasn’t one for burning the midnight oil at City Hall. Instead, he could be found nightclubbing with his mistress or vacationing in Europe with his personal tailor and the 43 suits and 100 ties paid for by bribes from folks doing business with the city.

Enter Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had to tread carefully; he had his eye on the White House and needed Tammany’s support. Yet, for obvious reasons, he wanted to keep his distance from his state’s notoriously corrupt political machine. When stories of city court magistrates on the take became too loud to ignore in 1930, Roosevelt had no choice but to authorize an investigation. To lead it, he chose retired New York Court of Appeals judge Samuel Seabury (nicknamed “the bishop”), a respected jurist known for his uncompromising integrity.

At first, Seabury’s role was to look into court corruption in Manhattan and the Bronx. But then Gordon was found dead just weeks after she’d written a tantalizing letter to one of Seabury’s investigators in which she claimed to have “information in connection with a ‘frame-up’ by a police officer” and requested a meeting.

A week before her murder, Gordon met with Seabury’s investigators. She told them that back in 1923, she’d been arrested by a plain-clothes vice officer, Andrew McLaughlin. She was down and out at the time and an unknown man — who turned out to be McLaughlin — picked her up in a car, listened to her tale of woe, slipped $20 into the top of her stocking, and offered to help her. When she accepted, he arrested her for prostitution.

Under prevailing practices, if Gordon had paid McLaughlin a bribe, he would’ve skipped her hearing, and the charges would have been dismissed. But without money to pay off the dirty cop, Gordon was brought before a magistrate, pled guilty, and was sentenced to prison. She believed the plot was engineered by her ex-husband to gain custody of their daughter (which he did, never allowing Gordon to see her again).

Not that Gordon was an innocent lamb. She and her shady lawyer and sometime-boyfriend, John Radeloff, teamed up to bilk sugar daddies. Their marks were wealthy men with reputations to protect, whom Gordon would seduce for their money and lavish gifts. Once the men tired of her, Radeloff would threaten to sue them on her behalf. To avoid scandal, most of the men would quietly pay up. Gordon also had a string of cabbies she paid to bring drunken rich men to her luxury apartment, where she turned tricks for exorbitant prices. She also ran an escort service populated with a string of young, naïve women she’d recruited.

When reporters learned that police investigating Gordon’s murder found a letter from the Seabury committee in her personal effects, the front pages of the papers exploded. The New York Daily News ran a photograph of Gordon’s corpse with a cutline announcing she was “strangled into silence.” Gordon’s death was so upsetting to her estranged teenage daughter — who had no idea what’d become of her mother — that the girl committed suicide.

After reading about Gordon’s connection to the Seabury investigation, everyone, including FDR, surmised she was rubbed out because of what she knew. Roosevelt immediately expanded the scope of Seabury’s jurisdiction to include examination of the inept Manhattan D.A. and eventually the crooked police force and city government.

And so began the downfall of Tammany Hall and the happy-go-lucky mayor it had installed. As Wolraich writes:

“Gordon’s unsolved murder and her daughter’s tragic suicide catalyzed the collective fury and frustration that had been simmering below the surface. Amid crippling unemployment, spiraling crime, rampant graft, and chronic institutional incompetence, New Yorkers cried out for a savior, and ‘Saint’ Seabury came marching in.”

The book expertly chronicles the drip-by-drip dismantling of the political machine at the hands of Seabury and his staff. Their meticulous pre-trial preparation and incisive cross-examination of witnesses did the trick. Yet after Seabury recommended Walker be removed from office, it was FDR who enjoyed the Perry Mason moment. Roosevelt convened a special proceeding and, for two stunning weeks, personally grilled Walker about large, unexplained financial gifts, private bank accounts, and “anonymous” letters of credit to his mistress. Walker stumbled through a series of dissatisfying answers.

The extraordinary showdown led to the mayor’s resignation, which saved Roosevelt from the politically uncomfortable position of having to take on Tammany Hall directly by ousting him. Nonetheless, the result allowed FDR to legitimately claim title during his presidential campaign to having fought bad government and corruption.

As for Gordon, it turned out her murder had nothing to do with what she told Seabury’s investigators. Instead, she was a victim of her own schemes, having launched a hare-brained one with Radeloff and his cronies in which she shelled out $2,000 to fund a bank robbery in Norway that went awry. Killing her stopped her from trying to get the money back. Although two of the men involved were tried for Gordon’s murder, they were acquitted and, in the end, nobody was ever held responsible. Nor were the diamond ring and fur coat she was wearing the night she was slain ever found.

Diane Kiesel is a former judge of the Supreme Court of New York. She is an author whose next book, When Charlie Met Joan: The Tragedy of the Chaplin Trials and the Failings of American Justice, will be published later this year by the University of Michigan Press.

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