Before it was displaced from the front pages by the terrorist slaughter in Paris, the biggest crime story of the month, at least in New York City, was the murder of 70-year-old hedge-fund founder Thomas Gilbert Sr., allegedly by his 30-year-old son and namesake. What made the story catnip to the tabloids was not only the irresistibly lurid ingredients of the apparently parricidal crime—unstable golden boy allegedly shoots his multimillionaire dad over a $200 cut in his monthly allowance—but its setting: what the papers consistently referred to as the “tony enclave” of Beekman Place, a Manhattan bastion of wealth and privilege where such horrors are not supposed to happen.
While it’s true that Beekman Place has long been one of the safest places in the city (if not the country), the truth of the matter is that the neighborhood has a notable, if long-forgotten, history of sensational murder. Indeed, in 1948, when the great noir novelist Raymond Chandler wrote a piece for the old Cosmopolitan magazine on the “Ten Greatest Crimes of the Century,” two of his choices were murders that occurred on Beekman Place. And that notorious pair was preceded by two equally shocking homicides that dominated the headlines for weeks.
The first of the great Beekman Place murders happened in November 1935, when a prominent German financier named Fritz Gebhardt—former World War I flying ace, friend of Hermann Göring, and leading candidate for the German ambassadorship to the U.S.—was shot dead in his Beekman Tower hotel room.
The killer turned out to be his lover, Vera Stretz, the cultured, NYU-educated daughter of a well-known musician and bandleader, who had reportedly killed him after learning that her “Nazi loverboy” (as the tabloids tagged Gebhardt) was cheating on her with another woman. The city papers had a field day with the story, especially after Vera retained attorney Samuel Leibowitz—the “Great Defender,” as he was known, later famed as the lawyer for the Scottsboro Boys. Employing his usual courtroom histrionics, Leibowitz argued that his client had merely acted in self-defense when the brutish Gebhardt tried to force her to perform “a crime against nature” (understood to be oral sex). Despite overwhelming evidence that the shooting was an act of cold-blooded premeditation by a jilted woman, Vera was acquitted by the all-male jury who bought Leibowitz’s depiction of her as “a poor girl trying to get away from a lecherous beast.”
Four years later, on April 10, 1936—Good Friday—22 Beekman Place, a five-story walk-up just off East 50th Street, was the scene of an especially awful murder. The victim was Nancy Titterton, young wife of an NBC executive and an up-and-coming writer who had just landed a contract for her first novel. She had been raped, strangled, and dumped face-down in the bathtub. From the moment the story broke, the Beekman Place “Bathtub Murder” became the talk of the town, thanks to the gleefully exploitive coverage by the tabloids. That the killing occurred exactly one week to the day after Vera Stretz’s acquittal and just a block north of the building where Fritz Gebhardt was shot to death only added to its lurid appeal. In the end, the case was cracked by a pioneering piece of CSI-type detection, when forensic wiz Alexander Gettler was able to trace a length of twine found beneath the victim’s corpse to a local upholstery shop recently patronized by Titterton. The culprit turned out to be the upholsterer’s 24-year-old assistant, John Fiorenza, a grade-school dropout with a “dull normal” IQ, a stunted personality, and a serious problem with impulse control. Arrested on April 20, he was tried and convicted the following month and executed at Sing Sing in January 1937.
Exactly one year after the Good Friday rape-murder of Nancy Titterton, Beekman Place was the site of one of the most highly publicized American crimes of the 1930s. On Easter Sunday, 1937, Robert Irwin—a talented, profoundly disturbed young sculptor who had once been confined to Bellevue Hospital after attempting to slice off his own penis—committed a horrific triple murder just a block-and-a-half away from the Titterton crime scene. Among his victims was a beautiful “artist’s model” named Veronica Gedeon who made her living posing in various states of undress for lurid pulp crime magazines and amateur “camera clubs.” With its unbeatable combination of elements—a larger-than-life villain (immediately dubbed “The Mad Sculptor”), a stunning, sexually adventurous victim, and a particularly savage triple homicide—the case was a tabloid editor’s dream. After months on the run, Irwin—then working as a busboy in a Cleveland hotel under an assumed identity—was recognized by a co-worker who spotted his photograph in a true-detective magazine. In a scene straight of the hit Broadway play The Front Page, he surrendered to a Chicago newspaper, which put him up in a fancy hotel and paid him $5,000 for an exclusive confession before turning him over to the police. Irwin used the money to hire Samuel Leibowitz, who once again succeeded in saving his client from the chair. Irwin ended up confined to a mental asylum, where he lived out his days.
The “Mad Sculptor” case was No. 3 on Raymond Chandler’s list of the century’s 10 greatest American crimes (after the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and the Ruth Snyder-Judd Gray “Double Indemnity” murder). No. 9 was another Beekman Place murder.
In 1941, socialite Patsy Burton married her late father’s boyfriend, a handsome, bisexual gigolo named Wayne Lonergan (“If he was good enough for my father,” she explained, “he’s good enough for me”). Unsurprisingly, the marriage was a disaster from the start. In the summer of 1943, following two years of public and increasingly ugly altercations, they separated. A few months later, on the morning of October 24, Wayne paid a visit to Patsy and ended up bludgeoning her with a heavy brass candlestick, then choking her to death. Its deliciously scandalous features made the Lonergan case the greatest tabloid sensation in years. Among the lurid rumors that swirled around the crime was a widespread story that Wayne had killed Patsy when she nearly bit off his penis while performing “a final act of fellatio on him.”
As with the Stretz-Gebhardt, Titterton-Fiorenza, and Irwin-Gedeon cases, however, what made the crime so titillating was not just the sex but the setting. The killing took place at 313 E. 51st Street, a four-story townhouse a few blocks from the sites of the other horrors still fresh in the minds of New Yorkers. The brutalized heiress became the latest in a string of victims slain in the fashionable Manhattan neighborhood. Once again, as newspapers throughout the country never failed to mention, savage death had visited Beekman Place.
Harold Schechter is the author of the Edgar-nominated The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, the Model, and the Murder That Shook the Nation.