FLY VICE TIPSTER FROM DIXIE JAIL
Within hours after being released on bond, Mickey’s parents had retained a team of lawyers, the best that their oleo money could buy. Samuel Segal, with more than 25 years’ experience, would lead the defense, assisted by junior partner Martin Benjamin. Mickey Jelke had, in today’s jargon, lawyered up. The attorneys began the maneuvering immediately. Mickey’s counsel knew that the negative publicity surrounding his arrest needed to be addressed, and they arranged for Mickey to give his exclusive story to two reporters from the New York Daily Mirror. The story was featured as a first-person piece, which began: “They say, I’m the most gullible man in town for a beautiful girl. I guess I am. I’ve always given, but never in my life have I taken money from any girl.” The New York Daily Mirror and the other newspapers listed Mickey’s name as Minot Frazier Jelke III, which was the way he was incorrectly listed in the social register. He was not a “III,” but the newspapers did not care: the roman numeral after his name gave him more of a patrician air. It made the story better, even if it weren’t true.
The trial of Mickey Jelke in the media had begun, and the newspapers were eager to continue it as summer closed out. The story was proving to have legs. There were other stories to follow, for certain. The Presidential campaign was moving steadily along. Vice-Presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon was emerging as the Republican attack dog on the campaign trail. The Korean War, more than two years old, stagnated, and the Democratic Candidate for President, Adlai Stevenson from Illinois, told the press that he had a plan to end the War but would not disclose any details because he did not want to give the Communists any important military information. Nixon attacked. He demanded that Stevenson disclose the secret plan to the Joint Chiefs of Staff but also alleged that Stevenson “was working a cruel hoax on the men fighting and dying in Korea and their families and loved ones at home if he continues to leave the impression in the public mind that he has some magic formula which could bring the Korean War to an end on an honorable basis when, in fact, he has no such formula.” But even a story about national politics took second billing to fat little Mickey, the oleo heir, and his stable of beauties, which the press called vice-girls or V-girls. The newshounds were on the trail, sniffing out information about the V-girls’ clientele—the celebrities, the rich and powerful. The Jelke vice story would not go away, and the press would not let it.
Ray Russell Davioni, who had been arrested with Mickey, started talking to the D.A. immediately. It was clear he wanted to work a deal by cooperating with the police in return for leniency. “PRISONER SINGS ‘LOVE FOR SALE’” read the banner headline in the New York Daily News. Davioni had wanted Mickey to put up his bail, but he hadn’t, and Davioni’s father, a well-to-do Los Angeles restaurateur, also refused. After sitting in jail for six days, Davioni told the D.A. that he would cooperate. He met with Assistant D.A. Liebler to discuss the case and his testifying before a grand jury. Seven hours of questioning followed. At the end of the day, Davioni and his attorney appeared before members of the press outside the D.A.’s office. Davioni was ready to throw himself on the mercy of the court and take the consequences of “any folly I may have committed.” His attorney added that they would ask for Davioni’s freedom in exchange for his cooperation. Davioni was taken back to City Prison for safekeeping. The Grand Jury was scheduled to convene the next morning. The Jelkes got to Davioni that night, promising bail and the payment of his attorney’s fees. There was a rumor of a large payoff as well. Davioni refused to testify, and the New York Daily News followed with the front page story, “SINGER OF VICE SONG CLAMS UP.”
The Grand Jury proceedings would go on, without Davioni. Pat Ward was ferried in and out of the Criminal Courts Building, followed by Richard Wallace, the bit actor, and his wife, Pat Thompson, and then other women who had been picked up in the raids. When the grand jury recessed for the weekend, it was uncertain whether there would be enough evidence for an indictment without Davioni’s testimony. Early Saturday morning, the D.A. got a big break when a Virginia State Police Officer called to inquire about a half-crazed man held in a Richmond jail who claimed to have information about Jelke.
Robert Merritt, an ex-con from California, had fled the Big Apple sometime in the early summer. He and Mickey had quarreled over a woman, and rumors circulated in the Café Society and in the brothels that arrests by the D.A. in the vice case were imminent. Merritt knew that getting out was good and got out. He went underground, hocking the sharkskin suits and dinner jackets. He hoboed to Florida, where he was arrested for vagrancy in Deland. After a short stint in jail, he was driven to the Florida border and told not to come back. With no place to go, he headed north, hitch-hiking and scrounging for meals. When he heard that Mickey had been arrested, Merritt was down to his last change of clothes, a pair of Army-surplus Khakis and a blue shirt. He was hungry and scared. He walked into a police station in Washington, D.C., and asked for protection. He said the Jelkes were trying to kill him to keep him quiet. He was irrational, nearly hysterical, and the police ignored him. He went back to the streets and hitchhiked south. A few days later he was arrested for vagrancy while walking along U.S. Route 1 in Hanover County, about 12 miles north of Richmond. Because Hanover County had no jail, he was locked up in the Richmond City jail. It was hot and the jail was sweltering and infested with lice and bedbugs.
Merritt shaved his head, then his eyebrows, to keep the bugs away but he couldn’t take it any longer. He told the jailers to check with the D.A. in New York. He had important information about Jelke. He said he had been the “brains” of the enterprise and Jelke had supplied the money. Merritt, with shaved head and eyebrows, was not the most credible looking witness, and he was still claiming that the Jelkes wanted him dead. Merritt’s request was sent to the Virginia State Police, who sent it to New York. Within hours, two New York detectives were in Richmond, trailed by reporters. The detectives quizzed Merritt for ninety minutes, then took him by squad car to the airport for a flight north. The newspaper men wired the story, and it was waiting for New Yorkers as they woke up on Sunday morning, August 24: “FLY VICE TIPSTER FROM DIXIE JAIL.”
Merritt, shaved head and eyebrows and dressed like a bum, squealed to the grand jury on Monday. The formal indictment of Minot Frazier Jelke aka Mickey Jelke was rendered the next day. Mickey was charged with eight separate counts of violating subsection 2 of section 2460 of the New York Penal Law. That section, entitled “Compulsory Prostitution of Women,” prohibited the encouragement and exploitation of women for the purposes of prostitution. The indictment focused on Mickey’s relationship with two women. One count alleged that Mickey had compelled, induced or enticed Pat Thompson into living a life of prostitution between June and August 1952. Another count alleged that Mickey, Ray Russell Davioni, Richard Wallace and Erica Steel—whom the newspapers called the Café Society Madam—conspired “to induce divers females to engage in acts of sexual intercourse with divers persons.” The first six counts, however, were directed at Mickey’s relationship with Pat Ward between September 1951 and June 1952—enticing her into a life of prostitution, placing her into a house of prostitution, receiving money from her efforts as a prostitute and living off the income she derived as a prostitute.
The D.A., however, was not satisfied with the original indictment. He was looking for a hat check girl who had worked at the Embers, another nightclub on the upper eastside. She had fled to Chicago, and he was trying to bring her back to testify before another grand jury. The hat check girl, Marguerite Cordova, a 22 year-old redhead from Puerto Rico, was soon picked up and returned to New York. She testified before the grand jury, and the D.A. filed a superseding indictment against Mickey, charging him with an additional count of pandering related to his attempts to procure Cordova into a life of prostitution. As Jelke left the courtroom after pleading not guilty to the new count, he told the press, “I’m not sure I even know her.”
In the month after his indictment, Mickey Jelke fast became a celebrity. The press shadowed him. Columnists routinely dropped a mention of his name or another tidbit about the case or something about his most recent nocturnal escapades: he was dining here or there, in all of his old haunts, sometimes with two or three beauties on his arms. Strangers asked for his autograph. He started looking for a press agent. A rumor circulated that he would appear as the mystery guest on What’s My Line? Mickey liked his newfound fame, and he demanded that the owners of the clubs he frequented treat him accordingly, arguing that they should comp him his meals and drinks because of all the publicity he would bring when the newspapers reported he had dined there. The owners were not amused. Many others, however, found humor in the chubby Oleo Heir. Nearly every café comedian had an array of Jelke jokes, and soon there was even a joke about the Jelke jokesters: “The newest Broadway fairy tale begins,” Dorothy Kilgallen wrote, “Once upon a time there was a night club comic who didn’t tell a Mickey Jelke joke.”
Mickey’s fame was not limited to gossip columns or nightclub jokes. He became the whipping boy for a variety of interests. Newspapers in the Soviet Union saw Mickey as an opportunity to fire yet another salvo in the emerging Cold War: The plump oleo heir was a symbol of all that was wrong with America’s capitalist, overindulgent, decadent lifestyle. American newspapers saw Mickey as a symbol of what was wrong, not in society as a whole, but in that peculiar subculture known as the Café Society. Noted sociologist C. Wright Mills, of Columbia University, penned two articles for newspaper publication, one on the whys and wherefores of prostitution and one on the indecency of the Café Society—how young pretty, women easily became “expense account” girls for business men and playboys, how chastity and virginity were being devalued, and how sex was glamorized and used by business. Other authors wondered about the Café Society itself. What was it? Where was it? Was it a peculiar New York City subculture consisting of men and women who frequented certain bars and restaurants or was it an invention of gossip columnists—a fiction designed solely to entertain the masses with stories of celebrity comings and goings or fisticuffs between men in dinner jackets fighting over gorgeous gals in evening dresses?
Even those members of the fourth estate who made their living stalking the nightspots to gather material for their columns had joined the attack on the Café Society. H. L. Phillips, whose column always leaned toward the comic, wrote: “Manhattan Island was bought for a few clamshells and beads. Its smelly café society scandal has made it feel even cheaper than that.” Others had taken more direct shots at the chubby Oleo Heir and his ilk. Winchell, for one, was at the forefront, calling it, in the same column, the “Café Sapsiety,” the “Café Sexeity” and the “Saloonatic Society.” In another column, it was the “Café Sssssiety” and “Mickey was a VIP”: a “Very Important Pimpresario.”
The attention paid to Jelke by the press brought a reaction by the press. Columnist Robert C. Ruark had tired of the entire affair, and the press coverage of it, within two weeks of Mickey’s arrest. “Lord bless us, we have played this thing for ten days almost as if it had meaning while real scandals abound and go unnoticed, despite the fact that we have had three or four newsbreaks in the long dreary story.” He was nevertheless amused that New Yorkers, and others, were interested in the story. Sex, of course, was the lure, particularly illicit sex, like prostitution, and most particularly when the rich and famous were involved. “I don’t blame us papers for playing it, because us people want to read it,” Ruark wrote, “But I’m saying that if ‘café society’ and ‘models’ and a few ‘names’ weren’t mixed up in it, it wouldn’t make a stick of type in the truss-ads.” As for the Café Society, Ruark had nothing but scorn: “What has loosely been termed the ‘Café Society’ has always given me an exaggerated pain in a place I won’t mention. I’ve been looking at these people, male and female, for years, with their cheap feuds and fancied glamour and their phony fist-fights and tawdry exhibitions in the chic places where they go to be seen by each other.” They weren’t worth the newspaper space, he concluded.
The attacks upon Café Society brought at least one defense. Cholly Knickerbocker, the pen name for Igor Cassini, argued that the Café Society was simply “the younger cousin of Society” born in big cities during the 1920s in the speakeasy days and then nurtured during the Great Depression “when the great era of competitive extravagance ended.” With a shift from larger houses to smaller apartments, domestic staffs were eliminated and entertainment moved outside of the home to the bars and cafés. “This phenomenon happened more in New York than in any other city in the world which explains why New York has the largest café society in the world.” There was nothing wrong with those who frequented the bars and restaurants. According to Cassini, it was “unfair to mix the sheep with the goats,” adding that the “bad little girls and boys” involved in the Jelke scandal had given the Café Society an undeserved “black eye.” Winchell would have none of it, counterattacking in a column written just after Labor Day: “A society columnist argued that not all cafooey societyties are ‘as bad as Mickey Jelke.’ Sure, not all, just most.”
A Chicago-based columnist was bemused by the attacks upon Jelke and the Café Society by the New York press. “One of the most amusing ironies of the summer,” wrote Sydney J. Harris of the Chicago Tribune, “was the way in which the New York columnists self-righteously repudiated the Jelke boy and those ‘models’ who were the decorative links in an alleged prostitution chain.” Winchell and other reporters on the Broadway beat, Harris continued, had been “scathing and scornful toward” Jelke and his ilk, but “they should have been humble and apologetic.” If “any anyone can be said to be responsible for the waywardness of a 22-year-old boy, it is the men who, consciously and cynically depict the depressing world of ‘café society’ as being glamorous, exciting and important.” The gossip columnists had “succeeded in investing such overpriced saloons as the Stork Club with an atmosphere as appealing to impressionable young people as honeycomb to a bear cub. They delusively believe that these garish personalities and their meretricious goings-on are significant realities in the social life of the community.” And Harris’s criticism went beyond Café Society to the journalism underlying the puffing of celebrity culture. Newspapers had the right to print news, even distasteful news, Harris wrote, but the newspapers were weighted down with column after column of gossip “dreamed up by venal press agents who have adopted the loathsome practice of giving the columnist several juicy bits of scandal (true or otherwise) in return for a free columnar plug for their clients.”
While the internecine fighting among columnists continued, Mickey’s fame grew, and mere mention of his name brought an immediate understanding of the reference. By mid-September, the presidential campaign had turned negative and nasty. The supporters for Stevenson and Eisenhower lobbed salvos back and forth. Robert C. Ruark, though condemning the café society, was not above using Mickey to make a joke. Ruark found satire in the attacks upon Eisenhower. Ike was responsible for a number of evils, Ruark quipped. He was a typhoid carrier. He beat his wife. He had caused the Johnston Flood. He had fixed the 1919 World Series. And, Ruark, added, “A cousin, Mickey Jelke, is currently in trouble on a vice rap.” Still others mused about the marketing of the presidential candidates, whose images seemed to appear everywhere, including on cartons of Kellogg’s Cornflakes. One writer wondered how far it would go. “They used to put ballplayers’ pictures on the cornflakes, then space men, now presidential candidates and first thing you know they’ll give you the morning news reports, closing quotations on the stock market and a chapter of the Mickey Jelke story.”
In the third week of September, Jelke was scheduled to be tried on the Sullivan Law violation—the illegal possession of a firearm, but his attorneys asked for and received a continuance. The gun-possession trial was re-set for later in later in the fall. The postponement received a short mention in the newspapers. Jelke had been pushed from the headlines, columns and nightclub routines by an accusation that the Republican Vice-Presidential Candidate, Richard M. Nixon, had illegally taken money from a group of supporters. “Secret Nixon Fund!” read the banner in the New York Post. There were allegations of a private slush fund with all its negative implications: political pandering, influence peddling and corruption. Nixon was not to be trusted, his accusers said, and many Republicans and pundits predicted that Eisenhower would jettison the California Senator as his running mate. Ike sat on the fence, however, indicating that he would decide the issue based on Nixon’s explanation of the fund. Nixon was stumping on the West Coast when the story hit the press, and after silently weathering the growing storm for a week, Nixon went into seclusion to draft his explanation. Nixon’s handlers had also decided to bypass the traditional method of talking to the public. Instead of speaking at a press conference to reporters, Nixon would make an appeal directly to the public coast to coast on TV. It was Nixon’s chance to use the new medium to his advantage—to bear his soul and clench his fists and show the American public that the charges of corruption were not founded.
The Republican National Committee purchased 30 minutes of television time for September 23, 1952, beginning at 9:30 p.m. on the east coast, right after Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater. Nixon’s handlers wanted a big audience for his explanation, and Berle’s show was one of the most popular, but Nixon’s handlers had another strategy. The baseball pennant races were nearing the end. The Yanks were one up on the Tribe with six to play, and the Dodgers were at home, in a twi-night doubleheader against the Phillies. The champagne was on ice in the clubhouse as the Brooklyn squad needed one more victory or a Giant loss to clinch the National League title. The same night, heavyweight champ Jersey Joe Walcott was scheduled to defend his title in Philadelphia’ Municipal Stadium. The challenger, Rocky Marciano, was younger and lighter than the champ but heavily favored to become the first white champion since The Cinderella Man, James Braddock. Although boxing on network television was one of the highest rated shows, the Walcott-Marciano bout would not be broadcast on either TV or radio. Instead, the promoters had arranged for the fight to be shown via closed circuit in 50 theaters in 31 cities coast to coast. The fight was scheduled to begin at 10:30 p.m. Nixon’s handlers knew that the title bout would not be shown on network television, so the candidate would have a good audience, but the handlers also thought that if the speech did not go over well, it might be swallowed, for a time, by news of big fight and the pennant races. It was a perfect time for Nixon to make his appeal to the public. Nixon worked carefully for several days on the speech.
By the time Nixon appeared on television, the Dodgers had clinched the pennant with a 5 to 4 victory over Philadelphia. “My fellow Americans,” Nixon began. He sat at a desk and held his hands folded in front of him. A stack of papers lay on the table. He was conservatively dressed, in a light gray suit and dark tie. He stared into the camera. “I come before you tonight as a candidate for the Vice Presidency and as a man whose honesty and integrity have been questioned.” Nixon began his long explanation, agreeing that it would not only be illegal but “morally wrong” if he had received any financial gain from a secret slush fund in exchange for political favors. There was a fund, but it was neither secret nor designed to curry special favors. It merely paid for expenses incurred by the Senator in attacking communism. “And so I felt that the best way to handle these necessary political expenses of getting my message to the American people and the speeches I made, the speeches that I had printed, for the most part, concerned this one message—of exposing this Administration, the communism in it, the corruption in it—the only way that I could do that was to accept the aid which people in my home state of California who contributed to my campaign and who continued to make these contributions after I was elected were glad to make.”
Nixon bared his soul (and wallet) to the television viewers in prime time. He traced his work history and told of his meager finances, referring often to his faithful wife, Pat, or his two daughters, Tricia and Julie. He had a small amount of life insurance, no stocks or bonds, and owed mortgages on his house in California and the one in Washington, D.C. He even owed his parents money from a loan. He wasn’t a rich man. He and his family lived modestly. Pat had a “respectable Republican cloth coat,” not a mink coat. Toward the middle of the speech, Nixon described the only gift he had ever accepted, from some supporter in Texas who “heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog. And, believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was. It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate that he’d sent all the way from Texas. Black and white spotted. And our little girl, Tricia, the 6-year old-named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.”
Nixon did not close his “Fund Speech,” as he would forever call it, with the note about the little Cocker Spaniel. He segued into an attack on the Democrats, including Presidential Candidate Adlai Stevenson, who had a similar fund but may have used it improperly to dole out favors. “And I think that what Mr. Stevenson should do is come before the American people as I have, give the names of the people that have contributed to that fund, give the names of the people who put this money into their pockets at the same time that they were receiving money from their state government, and see what favors, if any, they gave out for that.” On screen, Nixon rose from behind the desk, and the camera panned out. He clenched his fists as he spoke.
Nixon’s attack on Stevenson was not limited to possible corruption and a slush fund. Stevenson, Truman, and other democrats were losing the world to Communism. Nixon would not be deterred by the smears or the personal attacks. He would not be silenced. He referenced his first, great political victory, pursuing Alger Hiss for perjury when other Congressmen were willing to let the traitor slip away. Nixon had pursued Hiss because Communism was a threat to America. And Nixon promised to continue the fight against the smears and attacks. “I love my country. And I think my country is in danger.” Nixon used his clenched fists to emphasize the points he made. Communism was taking over the world. Truman and his administration had lost six hundred million to the Communists. There were over 100,000 American casualties in Korea. Stevenson’s record against Communism was poor. He was not fit to be President. Eisenhower was the only man who could lead the fight against Communism, domestic and foreign. Nixon closed with a promise, knowing that his place on the Republican ticket was still uncertain: “But just let me say this last word. Regardless of what happens I’m going to continue this fight. I’m going to campaign up and down America until we drive the crooks and the Communists and those that defend them out of Washington. And remember, folks, Eisenhower is a great man. Believe me. He’s a great man. And a vote for Eisenhower is a vote for what’s good for America.” The camera faded out.
When Nixon finished, there was still a light mist falling in Philadelphia, where it had rained on and off all day. Thirty-minutes later, in the damp night air, the two fighters entered the ring. Inside the closed circuit venues, over 120,000 watched. The Los Angeles Times later reported that the closet circuit was almost as good as being there. Walcott caught Marciano with a left hook in the first, sending the challenger to the canvas. It was the first time Marciano had been knocked down in his pro-career, but the Brockton Brawler was up at the count of four and pressured the older, slower champ. The pugilists traded blows, bloodying each other with their fists and several head butts. By the 8th round, Walcott had a serious cut over his left eye, and Rocky’s face was a mess as blood flowed from cuts to both eyes and a gash atop his head. As the battle entered the 11th round, the older champ was ahead on all three judges’ score cards. The champ won the 11th as the challenger was clearly bothered by the blood—he blinked and often tried to wipe the blood with his eye.
In the 12th, Marciano traded body blows with Walcott but lost the round as Walcott landed a hard hook to the ribcage that put the challenger on his heels. Desperate, Marciano swarmed the champ at the opening bell of the 13th round. The two traded blows, and Walcott back-pedaled across the ring to the ropes, with Marciano pursuing. Walcott bounced off the ropes and, 43 seconds into round, Marciano landed a booming right to his opponent’s jaw. Walcott’s eyes went blank and he sunk slowly to the ring floor. He grabbed the middle rope with his left arm, and Marciano caught him with a brutal left hook. Pappy Joe, as Walcott was also called, crumpled to the deck in a distorted lump, his knee twisted underneath, his forehead on the canvas. Marciano had become the first person to win the heavyweight crown without having suffered a defeat in his ring career.
The next day, the headlines recounted the fight and the Dodger’s pennant-clinching victory. Nixon was also victorious. He had saved the day, and his place on the ticket. According to the New York Daily Mirror, “the fighting young Senator turned the fire back on his tormentors in as beautiful a demonstration of a political boomerang as this generation is likely to see.” The same paper said it would be remembered as an historic night—”the date that Brooklyn won the pennant, Marciano won the championship and Nixon won the election.” With the Nixon problem cleared, Eisenhower moved into the final weeks of the race as the favorite to win the Presidency. Ike and Tricky Dick had proved to be a formidable team, both military men, both strong on defense, conservative on domestic programs and staunchly anti-Communist, both at home and abroad. They made Adlai Stevenson, a bookish looking man with a professorial manner, appear to be both a wimp and an egghead, and by tying Stevenson with the politics of Truman and one alleged-Communist sympathizer after another, Eisenhower and Nixon were swept into office by a landslide.