“Sure, it’s New York and 1923, but might just as well be some feudal kingdom in the Dark Ages. Money wins out. Rich beats poor. A murderer goes free. Just another day in New York City.”
Broadway Butterfly is a whodunnit that never reveals who committed the murder. Don’t let that lack of a resolution cause you to pass on Sara DiVello’s engrossing thriller, a fictionalized account of a true crime that in the spring of 1923 dominated tabloid headlines in New York City, scandalized a wealthy Philadelphia society family, targeted an Atlantic City crime boss, and implicated a cabinet official in President Warren Harding’s administration.
DiVello, a true-crime novelist, has done her homework, researching the murder of Anna Keenan, aka Dot King, a young sometime model and “scandalous flapper,” who was brutally murdered, her bloody body left sprawled on her bedroom’s brass bed, a large bottle of chloroform by her side. Dot had many admirers, including Albert Guimares, a Puerto Rican grifter and lothario, and John Kearsley Mitchell III, a wealthy, married millionaire. While Guimares was known to abuse Dot, Mitchell showered her with jewels and furs and wrote her love letters where he rhapsodized about her “pretty pink toes.”
Sara DiVello (Photo Credit: Lisa Schaffer Photography)
One can only imagine the frenzy Dot’s murder created in New York in 1923 in the midst of the Roaring 20s where prohibition forced crime underground and the jazz age packed venues, many speakeasies, where alcohol was served to eager patrons brazenly flouting the law. Power flowed to those who had money, while those living on the margins struggled to survive. Racism was overt and working women battled in male-dominated fields.
In an author’s note, DiVello states that her storytelling “required incorporating the racism, sexism, ethnic prejudice, socioeconomic power dynamics, and corruption” common in the 1920s, that do not reflect her “own beliefs or moral values.” While these attitudes are upsetting and shocking, including them in the story is essential for understanding the dynamics and politics that dominated society in 1923. Sadly, some of the same prejudices are not only still with us, but being embraced by a larger segment of our society. So, in some ways, DiVello’s book is also a cautionary tale that we can never take our democracy and a fair justice system for granted.
Dot King is a complicated woman and two very different versions of her character are depicted in the book. Her mother, Kate, had nothing good to say about her daughter, despite being supported by Dot. Ella Bradford, Dot’s Black maid, is loyal to her mistress, thankful for her generosity (Dot often gave Ella clothes), and her caring attitude. In return, Dot trusted Ella, often confiding in her about the men in her life. Those exchanges make Ella a valuable witness to the NYPD, particularly Inspector John D. Coughlin, commander of the Detectives Division.
Not everyone is as accepting of Ella as Coughlin. Capt. Carey, insists that Ella write down the names of all the Black men she knows, convinced that the maid arranged for one of her friends to steal Dot’s jewels and kill her. Ella’s in tears as she reluctantly writes out the list, knowing the men are innocent but could be arrested anyway just because they’re Black.
The imbalance in the justice system shows up in other ways. Mitchell, who initially hides behind the pseudonym of Mr. Marshall, is handled with kid gloves, while Guimares is presumed guilty, even though he has an alibi. What Mitchell can’t escape, however, is the wrath of his wife, Frances, the daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia family whose patriarch is a J.P. Morgan partner and a friend of President Harding. At her father’s urging, Frances had married Mitchell, and they have two children. Although a successful businessman in his own right, Mitchell has always felt in the shadow of Frances’ father. Did that lack of self esteem lead him to an affair with Dot? Whatever the reason, Frances must suffer the humiliation of daily headlines detailing her husband’s dalliance with Dot and the possibility that he may have killed her.
Those headlines are generated by intrepid New York Daily News reporter Julia Harpman. I confess to having an affinity for Harpman since I began my journalism career as a crime reporter in Pennsylvania. Even in the 1970s, there were few women covering crime and no female police officers. While Harpman’s talent and tenacity is on display in Broadway Butterfly, her legacy takes a backseat to her husband, Westbrook Pegler, who was also a reporter. Pegler, who died in 1969, has a large presence online and an extensive Wikipedia page. Julia’s accomplishments are nowhere to be found, outside of her relationship with her husband. The Harpman/Westbrook marriage is described in glowing terms in Broadway Butterfly. But since Pegler turned to the dark side, opposing the New Deal, finding fault with Eleanor Roosevelt, and supporting the removal of Japanese Americans from California during World War II, did Julia continue to see him as her shining knight? She died of a heart attack in 1955 and, six years later, Pegler married his secretary, Maude Wettje.
DiVello doesn’t tie up everything in the end, but rather leaves us with several possibilities for who actually killed Dot. That the guilty party was never brought to justice is captured in the opening quote above by J.C. Hackett, special deputy to the police commissioner. Cold cases continue to fascinate true crime aficionados, and DiVello provides a juicy one for people to discuss. Who knows? Maybe even 100 years later, someone will solve the murder.
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