The Bard of Brooklyn
A few weeks after the 1952 Presidential election, Mickey’s sister, Lana Jelke Brody, entered the hospital. She had been having trouble breathing and was running a fever. She had always been frail and sickly, suffering from rheumatic heart disease. She struggled after the birth of each of her children, particularly Michael’s. When she was admitted to the hospital suffering with pneumonia, her illness was duly noted by the gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen. She died on Friday, November 14, 1952, age 29. Her son, Michael, was four years old. His sister, Robin, was six. When she took her last breath, all of the Jelkes were by her side—her mother and father and her three brothers. The following Tuesday, Mickey was back in court to face the gun charge. Segal and Benjamin had advised Mickey to plead guilty to the gun charge, no doubt wanting to remove that unsavory aspect from the case. The attorneys told Mickey that a guilty plea might result in a fine or a few weeks in jail. Mickey followed the advice and pled guilty. The sentencing on the gun charge was then delayed at Mickey’s attorneys’ request until after the conclusion of the vice trial. With the facts about the two illegal handguns out of the vice case, Mickey’s attorneys could focus on attacking the People’s evidence that he was a panderer.
Fall became winter, and the Jelke defense team spent long hours researching legal points and outlining cross examination of the People’s witnesses on yellow legal pads. The attorneys interviewed witnesses and slowly developed their defense strategy. They hired private detectives to hunt down witnesses who could help the defense. The bills from the attorneys and the detectives were astronomical, but Mickey’s father paid them. With trial looming in January, Mickey’s attorneys became more-and-more confident. Most of the evidence would come from known criminals, from pimps like Ray Russell Davioni and Richard Wallace or admitted prostitutes like Barbara Harmon, Pat Thompson or Erica Steel. Mickey could be portrayed as the victim of an overzealous prosecutor and a plethora of unreliable witnesses with long criminal records and little veracity. Davioni and the other schemers had taken advantage of him, of his naïveté. There was only one problem. Pat Ward had no criminal record and appeared to be more naïve than Mickey. The defense would have to discredit her as a trollop. Segal would have to show that, before she met Mickey, Pat was a prostitute or at the very least a woman of questionable morals. If he could show that, then Mickey could not have enticed her into living the life of a lady of the evening. The defense was simple. Segal would put Pat Ward on trial.
Mickey’s trial was originally scheduled to begin in January 1953. At the last minute, Mickey’s attorneys filed a motion to change the venue. Manhattan had been spoiled as a venue by excessive adverse publicity, but the motion was simply a ploy to gain some leverage. What the attorneys really wanted was a postponement. They needed extra time to locate a critical missing witness: one of Pat Ward’s childhood friends who would testify about Ward’s sexual escapades before she met Mickey. The defense attorneys made a deal with the prosecution: they withdrew the venue motion in return for two week postponement. As the new trial date—February 2—approached, the judges of the Common Sessions Court held a meeting to discuss ways to accommodate the reporters who were clamoring to cover the trial. The judges made a room available on the 13th Floor of the Criminal Courts Building. There, the press could conduct interviews of witnesses. Telephone lines and teletype machines were added so that the newspaper men could meet their deadlines. In the courtroom where the trial would occur, a battery of press tables had been installed. The courtroom’s public address system was upgraded.
The trial judge assigned to the case was Francis L. Valente, an eight-year veteran of the court. He was 46 years old and the nephew of another judge. He was suspicious of the press. In the days before the start of the trial, Valente read with growing concern the stories about the Jelke case in the New York newspapers. When court opened on February 2, the courtroom was packed with reporters holding notepads and pencils. Outside the court house, newsreel movie cameras had been set up to film the comings and goings of the star players. And, some of the local television stations sent camera crews “on location,” a relatively new term for a new medium. The courthouse was becoming a media circus. Valente ran a tight court, and he began the jury selection on Monday morning, February 2. In an unusual move, both the prosecution and Mickey’s attorneys agreed to exclude all women from the jury: the evidence that would be presented was too scandalous and lurid for female ears. Over the next days, the attorneys conducted rigorous voir dire of the talesmen. Twelve men and two alternates were eventually selected—one bachelor and the rest married men. As was common for the era, the newspapers printed the names, addresses and a short description of each juror. Opening statements started on Friday morning, February 6, 1953.
“We will show you,” Assistant District Attorney Liebler told the jury, that Mickey Jelke “surrounded himself with pimps and prostitutes and procurers and madams. We will show you the type of life he lived. We will show you that he never did a stick of work. We will show you that day after day he drank and ate at the finest and most expensive restaurants and clubs in New York.” Liebler, holding a legal pad with his carefully-written notes, continued with an outline of the People’s case. Mickey met Pat, convinced her he loved her. He promised marriage, but then he and Davioni worked on her, pressured her to begin turning tricks to help out Mickey. It was all in the name of love. He needed her help; he needed her to sell her body so that they could live together and, once he had his Good Luck margarine inheritance, get married. The pressure grew. It involved psychological manipulation, alcohol, drugs and, eventually, beatings. And there were other young women that Mickey had pressured into a life of prostitution. The jury would hear from them. At the end of the case, the evidence would show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Mickey was guilty as charged. With that, the District Attorney thanked the jury and turned the floor over to his adversary.
Sam Segal’s opening statement for the defense was designed to gain sympathy for Mickey. Segal would try to make the jury know that Mickey was a human being not just some defendant charged with a crime. But Segal also wanted to suggest that Mickey was being targeted if not framed by the District Attorney. He described the pressure that the D.A. had brought on the witnesses: keeping them in jail, threatening long prison sentences, trading leniency for testimony. And then there was Mickey’s name.
“Were it not for the fact that this young man bears the name of Jelke,” Segal told the jury in a clear, firm tone, “I am quite sure that you wouldn’t be hearing it today. But just because his name is Jelke, it has taken on tremendous proportions, and I don’t mind telling you that part of the strategy and part of the way in which a case is presented, especially this case by the District Attorney, brings into play all the histrionic ability and all the staging that the best directors in Hollywood could really take lessons from.”
Segal described Mickey’s background. He was a good boy but his parents had divorced when he was 13. He needed, Segal said, “the strong hand of a father, and perhaps the apron string or the gentle hand of a mother.” Instead, he was shipped off to prep school in New Hampshire. He was a good student and an athlete. He worshipped his older brothers and wanted to be like them. He did a stint in the Army because both his older brothers had served in the military during the war. When he was 19, he left Trinity College and came to New York to be with his brother Johnny. It was the “glitter road” that attached him. “And then you may say, this poor little rich boy, if you like to think of it that way, visited some of these places and the name of Jelke was a magic word, it was the open sesame to a great many places that otherwise closed its doors to many people. There wasn’t a salon in New York or all over the country that would not open its doors for young Jelke. He was a young bachelor, they call him an eligible [bachelor], and, as you gentlemen might know, a great to-do is made of a man like Jelke, one of the names that has been one of the strongest things in the building up of this country and rated with the Cabots and Lodges and all the other names that go to make this country the strong country it is.”
On the glitter road, Mickey became a target. “Is it any wonder then that from these small hamlets and towns, where young girls believe that they could go to New York and wow people with their looks, that they, too, sought the glitter road. And so Young Jelke came in contact, by reason of his name, with the great, the near-great, the would-be great, the climbers, the panderers, the show-offs and all the pretenders that might like to lean an elbow in some bar and run into him purposely or accidentally, but more or less with a purpose, young Jelke, because he was the medium through which they could meet persons who could do them some good.”
Segal turned his opening to Pat Ward, who had been mentioned by the D.A. in his address. “Now you have had something said here with regard to Pat Ward. It isn’t that I would like to throw mud at the direction of this young lady,” Segal said. He then hinted at the mud he would sling. She was “born on the lower East Side of poor parents” but she “liked the glitter.” She knew what she wanted and made a “direct path” to young Jelke. Segal looked directly into the eyes of the jurors. “It will be for you to divine what purpose she had in making it her business to get to know this young boy.”
“When the whole case has been presented to you,” Segal concluded, “you will understand that these panderers and persons who have self-denominated themselves as prostitutes, these persons who have been called procurers, have all woven a very unusual net to bring this young man into a pivotal point where he was the object” of their efforts. They had taken advantage of Mickey, the poor little rich boy from the broken home, then they implicated him in their crimes when pressured by the District Attorney. It was a frame up.
The prosecution’s star witness in Mickey Jelke’s vice trial had not been charged with a crime, perhaps because of her age, perhaps because the D.A. needed her cooperation or perhaps because she was more victim than criminal. But Pat Ward’s mother still thought that legal counsel was necessary and consulted with J. Roland Sala, one of the most flamboyant personalities in the City. He was an ex-magistrate of the Common Sessions Court in Brooklyn. A bald man of 45 years and average height and weight, Sala nevertheless cast an imposing figure. He had been an amateur boxer in his youth and had studied acting before deciding on a career in law. He was a smart dresser, almost a dandy. He usually wore a boutonniere (either a carnation or a rose) and a pearl tie stick pin. He favored piped or brocaded waistcoats and suits with loud pinstripes. He always had an appropriate hat, a Panama in the spring and summer and a Homburg the other seasons. He carried the most expensive Malacca walking stick. He made up words, favored alliteration and misquoted Shakespeare with a heavy Brooklyn accent. He liked being the center of attention.
Sala had achieved notoriety, if not fame, soon after being appointed to the bench by Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia in January 1942. A man appeared before the judge in August of that year, charged with disorderly conduct for exchanging a Nazi salute with another man in a bar. Ordinarily, a defendant accused of disorderly conduct would be released on his own recognizance or, in the more egregious case, a nominal bail, perhaps a hundred dollars. With American troops fighting Hitler, Sala decided to send a message to Nazi lovers by setting the bail at the exorbitant figure of $100,000. Sala’s judicial career became more colorful the next year when he accused a New York County judge of “cacography, cacology and cacophony” when the judge proposed taking juvenile cases away from the Magistrates’ Courts. Sala also gained publicity for the peculiar punishments he meted out. When two juveniles appeared in court charged with breaking branches off one of the borough’s shade trees on Marcy Avenue, Sala made them memorize and recite, in court, Joyce Kilmer’s poem, “Trees.” A man charged with pilfering a church’s poor box was sentenced to read the Bible and learn the story of St. Francis of Assisi. Quoting Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Sala often resolved petty criminal offenses by requiring that the defendant give, not a pound of flesh but a pint of blood to the American Red Cross to assist in the War effort. “Tarry a little,” he would recite in his Brooklyn accent, “There is something else/This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood/The words expressed are a ‘pound of flesh.’” So, what’ll it be? He would then ask the defendant. The jot of blood or the pound of flesh? The defendants universally chose the patriotic path.
Between 1943 and 1945, Sala conducted a one-man war against patrons of Belmont Park, the race track, who illegally parked their cars on the lawns of Queens homes, imposing fines that were triple the allowed rate. Sala’s war on the Belmont patrons was curious given his own history. When he wasn’t in the papers because of judicial rulings, he found himself the subject of stories because of trouble he had with cars. He was involved in several traffic accidents. In the span of three years, Sala’s car was stolen five times. Another time, it was set on fire by an unknown perpetrator. Sala amassed scores of parking tickets because of his fundamental belief that he, as a magistrate, could park his car wherever he wanted. When in April 1946 a patrolman ticketed his car that he had illegally parked in front of the courthouse, Sala verbally attacked the officer in open court, deriding “the arrogance and stupidity of little people with a little power.” The Chief Magistrate suspended Sala for 10-days for that diatribe. In an editorial entitled “The Injudicious Mr. Sala,” the New York Times argued that Sala, as a magistrate, “should spurn special privilege, and scrupulously obey the law which it is his duty to judge and enforce.” The editorial concluded that Sala’s “express scorn for the summons sets an example that tends to undermine the whole structure of respect on which the law rests.” Sala did not heed that advice and continued his illegal parking, contending that his car was an official vehicle immune from parking violations.
Besides parking tickets, Sala also had a disdain for some of the practices of the press. In 1943, he denounced the journalistic practice of identifying a criminal defendant’s race in news account of an arrest, trial or conviction. He threatened to enjoin any newspaper or news agency that identified a defendant by race, creed or color “unless the identification is an essential part of the story or of the crime charged.” This formula would later be widely, if not universally, adopted by the New York press.
Sala’s antics did not go over well with everyone, and near the end of his 10-year term, the New York City Anti-Crime Committee lodged a formal complaint. The 36-page memorandum detailed a host of violations, all minor by themselves: habitual tardiness, drinking coffee on the bench, conducting matters in chambers. The New York newspapers carried numerous stories about the charges. After a formal inquisition, Sala was eventually cleared of all the allegations, but the bad publicity caused by the newspaper accounts sealed his fate. When his 10-year appointment was up in early 1952, the new mayor of New York, Vincent R. Impellitieri, did not reappoint him.
By the time Sala returned to civilian life, his disdain for the press had grown. He had come to see how the newspapers twisted or ignored facts to make a story. He, himself, had been a victim, many times, of such abuse, but he also realized that the press could be manipulated and used by a clever attorney. The opportunity to represent Pat Ward—the femme fatale of vice—was the perfect chance to jump start his private practice. He agreed to represent her, pro bono. He would use the Jelke case to get back at the excessiveness and abuses of the press. Sala would, as Life Magazine later described it, steal the show.
The Bard of Brooklyn and his client arrived at the courthouse as jury selection neared its end. Sala had come prepared not only for the flashbulbs from press photographers but also for the newsreel and television cameras. He was dressed with his usual panache: a boutonniere, stick pin, waistcoat and Homburg. He carried his Malacca walking stick. But he also wore theatrical make up: heavy pancake to reflect the camera lights or flashbulbs. Some reporters called him a “ham” or joked about this appearance, but Sala knew what he was doing. Just as Mickey’s attorneys had months earlier tried to stop the tide of negative publicity by instructing Mickey to give his exclusive story to the New York Daily Mirror, Sala knew that his client’s battle was not inside the courtroom but outside in the newspapers and in the newsreels or on TV. Perception was what mattered, not fact, and there was great opportunity.
Sala told Pat Ward that appearance was everything. Following that advice, she had had her auburn hair cut short, in a demure school-girl style. She wore little, if any make up. Her skin was ashen pale, making her look younger. To disguise her figure and give the appearance of innocence, she wore a loose fitting, navy blue jersey dress (well below the knee) with a white, Peter Pan collar and white cuffs on the short sleeves. The dress was cinched at the waist, but not so as to reveal too much of her figure. She clutched a plain purse. Her shoes had low heels. She gave no hint of the months she had spent as a love-for-sale girl. Pat Ward had come to play the part of innocent teenage victim.
“I am going to be the best witness you have ever seen,” Pat told the assembled newsmen outside the courthouse. “I am sincere, honest and truthful.” She posed for photos with Sala, who only allowed her to answer the questions he liked from the press. “I’m not going to hurt anyone. I’m not out to hurt Mickey Jelke. I’m going to repeat the facts without malice as they occurred.”
Following opening arguments, Judge Valente asked the jury to recess to the jury room. There was a preliminary matter that he had to consider. “Who is your first witness?” Valente asked Assistant D.A. Liebler. “Pat Ward,” Liebler replied. Outside the courtroom, the 13th Floor of the Criminal Courts Building was crowded with those who could not fit into the courtroom—reporters, photographers, the curious. All of the witnesses had been sequestered, so when Liebler called Pat Ward to the stand, she and her attorney had to walk down the corridor through the gantlet of media personnel. The flash bulbs illuminated the narrow hallway as they made their way through the crowd toward the large wood doors. Sala opened the courtroom door, and let Ward make her entrance.
She walked slowly, every eye upon her. Her heels tapped on the hard floor. Mickey squirmed in his seat and stroked his chin in quick gestures. She slid into the witness chair and was sworn in. Sala identified himself for the record. “J. Roland Sala, Empire State Building.” Sala held his Malacca walking stick and Homburg as he spoke. “May I be heard at the bar,” Sala said. Valente nodded. Sala stepped to the Judge’s bench, with Assistant D.A. Liebler and Sam Segal by his side. He spoke in hushed tones to the judge.
As Sala explained his position, the reporters in the courtroom grew restless, almost uneasy. They whispered to each other trying to figure out if anyone knew what was happening. There were many hunches and guesses. Sala’s conference with Valente continued: 10 minutes, then 20. Pat Ward sat on the witness stand, nervous. Mickey shifted in his seat, clenched his jaw. He clasped and unclasped his hands several times. Finally, after nearly 30 minutes, Sala walked back to the trial tables, and Valente asked that the courtroom be cleared of all spectators. Two large bailiffs opened the doors, and another ushered the spectators out. It took less than five minutes to clear the courtroom. The doors were locked. “Now,” Valente said, “make your application on the record.”
“Your Honor,” Sala said loudly in his Brooklyn accent, “I apply for an order for your Honor to exclude the public and to conduct the trial, certainly in so far as the testimony of this witness, Pat Ward, is concerned, behind closed doors.” Sala stood between the prosecution and defense attorneys and spoke in a calm tone. “I need not presumptuously refer to the innumerable cases that sustain the proposition, Judge, in a matter as delicate as one concerning sex crimes, perversity or depravity or anything which may offend the sensibilities and the delicacy of the public.” Sala slowly twirled his Homburg in his hands as he spoke. “Public policy, even if such a motion were not to be made by me as counsel, on the Judge’s own motion, would demand that the public be excluded.” Sala spoke of the events in Pat Ward’s life when she was 15½ or 16 years old—the rape, the pregnancy. She was only 17½ when she first met Mickey. Her testimony would detail numerous incidents of a sexual indiscretion when she was a minor, Sala said. Because she was underage at the time, these incidents may have been crimes.
Assistant D.A. Liebler took no position on the subject. Mickey’s attorneys objected strenuously. Valente listened to the arguments. He first decided that he should exclude the press and public but then changed his mind. He took a short recess, then resumed court. Mickey’s attorneys asked that he reserve decision until Monday when they would be in a better position to argue their position. Additionally, Benjamin was ill, running a high fever, and Segal said he thought he was coming down with a cold. Valente agreed and adjourned court.
In the hallway, Sala stood with his taller client, each posing for the photographers. He confirmed he had asked to exclude the press and public. It was to protect his client. “What is she to do after the trial is over? Go to a desert island or commit suicide?” he said. As Sala spoke, Pat Ward told another group of reporters that she was not afraid to testify in public. She was not afraid of the facts or cross examination. She would tell the truth. Sala grabbed her arm. “Don’t talk, don’t talk,”, he said, and led her through the crowd to the elevator.
Mickey Jelke stepped up to the cameramen and reporters with his attorneys. Mickey had been coached. “It’s my constitutional right to have you there,” he said. “We want you there.” His attorneys took over and explained in legal detail their client’s position. A few minutes after Mickey’s attorneys finished, Judge Valente invited a handful of reporters into his chambers so that he could explain why he was contemplating barring the press and public. It was an unprecedented trial, he said. The press seemed unwilling to restrain itself. He did not want the filth recounted in the daily news. It would serve no public good. Within an hour, the editors of the New York City daily newspapers jointly telegrammed Judge Valente, urging him to keep the court open. “Suppression of any testimony would lead to many rumors, some unfounded and unjustified and perhaps damaging to innocent persons,” the telegram stated. And then, with a reference to repressive Communist regimes, the telegram added, “We believe that open testimony is in the public interest. Any censorship on press coverage of court proceedings would set a dangerous precedent, especially during these times when the free flow of news is restricted in many sections of the world.”