A Forgotten Stories Field Trip

Headline

The Hanans were minor royalty amongst New York’s upper crust.  Irish immigrant James Hanan laid the foundations of the family fortune back in 1866 when he and his son John started a small shoe making factory on the Brooklyn shores of the East River.  James handled making the shoes, while John sold them – a hard task made easier when John convinced his father to imprint the family name on the soles of their product.  Every Nike, Sketcher, Sperry, and Reebok brand on the bottom of a shoe owes a little something to John Hanan’s marketing skill.  The free publicity – imprinted in dirt from coast to coast – helped the Hanan & Son become one of the dominant footwear companies in the country.  By 1882 they opened a huge factory at 54 Bridge Street and employed some 400 people, among them various Hanan relatives of varying degrees of consanguinity.  By the time control of the company passed to John’s son James D. Hanan, in 1897, the company was worth millions.

James D. Hanan lived larger than his father and grandfather, thrusting the family into the upper echelons of East Coast Society.  He bought a summer place at Narragansett Pier, Rhode Island, just down the road from Newport, and took up yachting. Nicknamed “Commodore” after he became president of the yacht club, he took his boat “The Surf” across the Atlantic to Monte Carlo, where his sister fell in love with and wed an Italian count.  True, Don Arturo di Majo Durazzo was only 24 and his bride was 50, he’d made a living selling olive oil and spaghetti, and may have had a criminal record in France, but an Italian count was an Italian count.

The Hanan’s proliferated by birth and adoption.  James Hanan and his first wife gave birth to Alfred Partridge Hanan, and after their divorce James adopted the son of his second wife by her first marriage, Talbot.  Talbot and his wife became the leaders of Narragansett Pier’s social scene, and the highlight of each summer’s season was their themed dances – their Checkered Ball in 1915 was typical of the pomp and preparation that went into one of their affairs.  Everything was in black and white checkerboard pattern, from the tablecloths to the cigarette boxes.  They even themed the orchestra – an all black band was hired for the evening and outfitted in spotless white suits.

Mrs. Talbot Hanan

Costumes from the Ball

Rounding out the Hanan field was Mildred Hanan, daughter of Alfred Hanan, and sister to Alfred Hanan Jr. Mildred married a Dr. James Wagner when she was only 17; the marriage didn’t take, and Mildred got a Reno divorce shortly thereafter.  She spent her 20s marinating in the Hanan milieu, and is listed as attending many of the society parties with which lower-upper class New Yorkers busied themselves.

Mildred Hanan

Mildred Hanan

Keeping her company was Grace Lawes, a Hanan hanger-on.  A few years older than Mildred, Lawes was a distant relative of sorts, an aunt of James Hanan’s second wife, and weirdly enough a friend of James’ first wife Edith; so much so that when Edith moved to Europe, Lawes was given power of attorney over Edith’s affairs. Divorced in California shortly before joining the Hanans, she acted the part of an elder sister to Mildred.  Barbara Gottschalk, a frequent Hanan guest, remembered most of all Lawes’ cold beauty;

I have known Grace Lawes for a long time.  I met her here at the Hanan home.  She seemed to be connected there some way.  I never knew just how.  But she was the sort of woman never knows very well.  She was beautiful, tall, with titian hair and remarkable eyes.  But I think her face was the coldest I ever saw.

I could not tell about her age.  She was not young, but she was always beautifully dressed, her hair was always beautifully arranged, and I could never guess at her years.

There was no doubt that Mrs. Lawes was a woman of great culture and refinement.

Grace Lawes

Grace Lawes

*****

The summer of 1919 began in much the same way as previous seasons had at Narragansett Pier, with dinners and dances, and at one of these soirees someone introduced an unwelcome guest; influenza.  The global pandemic, which had originated the trenches of the Great War, had killed some 21.5 million people worldwide before it arrived in the Hanan home.  By the time it left, it took many of the elder Hanans with it, including Mildred’s father Alfred and her uncle Talbot.  Grandfather James caught it too and never fully recovered; he died a few months later leaving the family awash in tragedy and without any cogent paternal leadership.  Hanan & Sons continued operation under the leadership of various minor Hanans family members, up to and including Count Durazzo.  Its leadership position amongst shoe manufacturers began to fade.

That was all in the future, for the moment Mildred’s trust fund left her quite comfortable with a yearly income of $12,000 ($150,000 in today’s money), right at the time that the 1920s began to roar.  Without any father to answer to, and with her mother an ineffectual check on her headstrong daughter, Mildred lived the high life in a rotating whirly-gig of restaurants, speakeasies and parties.  Mildred handled it well, but Grace Lawes struggled to keep up with all the drinking and socializing; lacking her own funds she soon became indebted to Mildred.  More troubling, Lawes became an alcoholic, a problem at all times but certainly egregious when prohibition liquor frequently included ingredients such as turpentine, gasoline, and ether.  In her struggle to balance out the effects of the alcohol, Grace turned to cocaine, and to balance that out, morphine.

Mori's Italian Restaurant

A typical night out began at Mori’s, an Italian restaurant located along Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village.[1]  Barbara Gottschalk, an old school friend of Mildred’s typically joined them.  It was over pasta at some point in 1920 that Barbara introduced a fourth member to the group; John “Jack” Borland.  Dartmouth educated, handsome, and with plenty of available income from a thriving chemical import company, Borland was just shy of 30.  He soon became enamored of Mildred, a match which Grace encouraged, at least at the outset.

Soon however, Grace began to feel marginalized.  With Borland taking up more and more of Mildred’s time, Lawes’ source of funds was in jeopardy and with it her means to purchase clothes, booze, and drugs.  In the summer of 1921, Mildred and Grace engaged in a virulent quarrel at the Hanan’s estate in Shoreham, Long Island.  Lawes showed up late for dinner.  Borland, who overheard the argument from a chair on the front porch, never revealed its substance, claiming only that he had paid little attention to it because he believed it was just a “women’s quarrel.”  Perhaps Lawes showed up to dinner drunk or drug-addled or maybe Mildred had begun to press her over the large sums of money she’d borrowed; regardless, Grace was thrown out of the house.

John Borland

John Borland

“Whatever the cause of the quarrel of the two women may have been,” wrote the New York Tribune, “Mrs. Lawes undoubtedly saw slipping from her the ease and affluence which had been hers since she had ingratiate herself with Miss Hanan and had become almost a member of the family.  Ordered to leave the Hanan summer home at Shoreham, L.I., either because she owed her benefactor large sums of money which she was unable or unwilling to repay, or because she had made her presence obnoxious by overindulgence in alcohol, possibly both, Mrs. Lawes conceived of the plan of killing the woman who’d been her best friend.”

Taking up rooms at the luxurious Hotel Vanderbilt, Lawes quickly began to dissipate whatever remained of her assets.  Her behavior in the last two weeks before the murder was bizarre.  She stalked Mildred, following her around New York City in a taxi-cab or on foot.  Confronted by her pray, Grace threatened her former friend with disfigurement.  Calls came in at odd hours to the apartment at 780 Park Avenue, where Mildred lived with her mother.

To try and talk some sense into the woman, Gottschalk met Grace for dinner at Mori’s on the night of September 21, 1921.  Lawes was hysterical, telling her friend “every time I’ve had anything sweet in my life it has been taken away from me…I have been a fiend – a fiend.  I’ve done things you’d never think me capable of doing.”  What those things were remains lost to history.

What is known is that around lunch time on the 22nd of September, Mildred joined John Borland to help him find a new apartment.  He lived with a college friend on 4th Street in Manhattan, and had decided to find his own place in Brooklyn.  After a day spent searching, the two picked up Barbara from her place at 35 Schermerhorn in Brooklyn Heights, and then drove across the Brooklyn Bridge to Mildred’s apartment for dinner.  Around 10 or so, the phone rang.  The maid answered it.  Grace was on the other end, but Mildred refused to take the call.

Around midnight, Mildred, John and Barbara piled into Mildred’s car to take Barbara back to Brooklyn; Mildred brought along her dog, Puffy.  Grace Lawes waited out front in a cab, and followed them to Brooklyn.  When the three were safely upstairs, Lawes dismissed the cab and paced back and forth in front of 35 Schermerhorn.

Upstairs, John and Barbara discussed Italy, they’d both been and Barbara showed off a table cover she’d brought back as a souvenir.  Perhaps they shared a final drink.  Out front, Grace waited. Katherine Strong, of 30 Schermerhorn, saw Lawes sit down on a doorstop take a teacup out of her purse, pour something into it out of a vial, and drink it, before throwing the cup into the gutter.  Police later found its broken remains and a vial marked “morphine.”

John Williams, who lived in the same building as Gottschalk, noticed the suspicious woman too.  “She had several keys in her hand, and when I walked into the vestibule it struck me that she had seen me coming, and only pretended she was trying to open the door.  She stood aside as I approached the door, but said nothing until the door sprung open, and then thanked me.  She walked ahead of me to the third floor, but as I started to open the door of my apartment, I saw her light a cigarette.”  Grace went back out front, where she now stood in the shadows of a small porch to the building’s left.”

She didn’t have long to wait; John and Mildred intended their visit to be a short one; Mildred hadn’t even removed her hat and gloves.  Bidding farewell to Barbara, the couple walked downstairs and through the vestibule.  John held open the door, and Mildred came out first.  Only a step or two outside, Mildred saw her friend, “Oh, there’s Grace.”  She didn’t notice the revolver in Grace’s hand.  The first shot hit Mildred’s arm, causing her to drop Puffy, who ran barking into the night, never to be seen again.  Mildred turned and attempted to get away.  The second shot entered her back below the eighth rib, tore its way through her stomach and kidney, and exited beneath her right breast.

Grace Lawes wrapped her mouth around the gun and pulled the trigger, dying instantaneously as the bullet blew out the back of her skull and painted the outside of the building in a spray of brains and gore.

It was over before John Borland had much of a chance to do anything.  An off-duty policeman who heard the shots came running.  Unable to get Mildred’s car started, they flagged down a passing motorist and induced him to take the copiously bleeding woman to Long Island College Hospital.  Mildred lingered a few days, slipping in and out of consciousness, and asking after Puffy’s whereabouts.  At 4:04AM on the morning of Monday, September 25, 1921, she died, surrounded by her mother, brother, John Borland, and Barbara Gottschalk.

In Grace’s purse, they found two letters.  One incoherently disposed of her few remaining assets, and the second was addressed to her mother:

Mother Darling:

You can never understand what I have gone through here.  Don’t try to learn.  It is fast.  I am too tired and ill to try and overcome the great obstacles I have placed in my own way.  Too much high life in New York and the pace is too fast.  The liquor here has driven me crazy, mother dear.  Forgive and forget and remember to pray for my soul.  Love to all, and think of me always.  Say to yourself always “A good, sweet daughter”

Lovingly,

 Grace

*****

Yesterday was an absolutely brilliantly beautiful day in Brooklyn, and we here at Forgotten Stories decided to take a field trip to the murder site.  The building is still standing, and we got a few good comparison shots, as you can see:

Murder Scene

35 Schemerhorn

IMG_8862

We also took a long walk (interrupted for a breakfast of corned beef hash, sausage, over easy egg, toast and home fries) down to Greenwood Cemetery to pay our respects to Mildred.  Perhaps she was gently chiding us for not wearing Hanan & Son shoes, for a poor choice of footwear led to two blisters and a particularly nasty cut, but we made it.  Mildred lies today in the Hanan family plot, surrounded by Greenwood’s quiet lawns.

IMG_8881

[1] Sadly, where Mori’s once stood at 144 Bleecker Street is now a Duane Reade.  The building still stands, and the Doric columns have been fortunately preserved.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 405 other followers

%d bloggers like this: