Crime Fiction by David Hagerty
Upon her death, the same scribblers who depended upon Eleanor’s wisdom disparaged her. When she drowned by a barge in a lake, reporters from across the country, including her own newspapers, converged on that mud puddle sensing scandal. They found only slander. Though they published no photos of the scene, their words imbedded the image: found in her underwear, drunk, floating among a fetid marsh, her hair tangled in reeds and grasses. No pictures were needed to convey that scene.
It shames me to retell it, as though by doing so I betray her. In a sexist society, women should defend each other, and friends should never reveal one another’s confidences, especially not after death. I realize nothing I say will help her now, but neither can I stay silent and let her legacy be written by those tabloid hacks, who’ve twisted it to their own purposes, portraying her as a symbol of the excesses of the wealthy.
I told them she’s no Hearst, no Maxwell, no Citizen Kane. She’s a victim of her own naïveté. For as wise as she was in business, she was that foolish in love. But there are more fools in publishing than I had reckoned, because every time I showed them, explained it so even their unimaginative minds could understand, they asked for proof. “Read for yourselves,” I said, “it’s right in front of you!” But they wouldn’t. They told me I needed more evidence before they’d print anything. “You have already,” I told them. “You’ve printed lies.”
Yet they persist in retelling them.
What I know is this.
On that fatal night, Eleanor and her new husband, Jasper, rented a boat on Clear Lake, which contrary to its name is a glorified swamp of spiky marsh grass and smelly green algae in rural Northern California where people cast out fishing lines, rev their engines, and pitch their tents. Most women I know would want a yacht or at least a sailboat for such an outing, but they chose a simple houseboat, with a small cabin barely large enough for two.
Jasper told the police they’d drunk a bottle of wine together and retreated to their bed. When he awoke at dawn, she was gone. He found her floating in the murk beside the boat.
So what was she doing at the railing by herself so late at night? Jasper claimed she liked to commune with nature, but who walks around outside in their underwear? I assume she could not sleep after enjoying too much alcohol—haven’t we all experienced the bed spinning beneath us, even on stable land—and arose to expel that excess. Being a lady, she would not have wished to retch in a tiny bathroom, adjacent to a tiny bedroom and her new husband. People called her crass, by which they meant ambitious and assertive, but the woman I knew was always conscious of her standing, her station in the community, and never let her slip show. So she would have made her way to the railing to be sick in solitude. Only then . . . what?
The coroner ruled that she’d drowned. Blood tests showed that she’d ingested several glasses of wine, but not enough to incapacitate her. Her body contained no traumas—no head gashes or broken limbs, not even bruises. No other rationale remained, so the police, out of perplexity, dismissed it as an accident.
Except their houseboat had anchored barely a hundred feet from shore. She could have floated there. Or called out for help. Or waited to be rescued. So many alternatives to what happened.
I can think of several more plausible scenarios.
1. Her new husband speculated that after drinking to excess and retiring to bed, she’d left him to go to the railing and be sick in solitude, then fallen overboard and drowned.
Only could she swim? None of us recalled her doing so, but we all assumed she knew how. Most people learn at least a passable dog paddle as children. Those of us who grew up at country clubs all swam as soon as we could walk, not for reasons of survival but of rivalry. We started early so we could develop a facility, for bragging rights over our peers, to compete in high school, and perhaps win entry to a better college. What parent doesn’t want their child to excel in life and sport?
But she did not grow up in a community with such mores. As the daughter of a poor farmer in the Central Valley, where few lakes can survive the relentless sun, she may never have learned to swim. From what I heard, she spent her youth milking and shucking. Which is why at eighteen she left home and enrolled in a secretarial college—because in the 1950s a poor girl had few other avenues to advance herself. After graduation, she took a job at the local newspaper banging out classifieds on a clanging typewriter. The boys in the newsroom eventually condescended to allow her some creative input—for obits and community notices—little more than rewriting press releases, which no one else wanted to do, but it gave her an opening. She started attending editorial meetings—to take notes, they thought, but really to listen and learn. After a few months, she suggested a new column with domestic tips for busy housewives.
“Who’d write it?” said the ink-stained boys, as she called them, looking to each other with dread.
“Me,” she said.
“Based on what? Your typing skills?”
“Lessons from my mom.”
They grunted and groaned, too embarrassed to acknowledge a good idea. “We can’t have a woman with a byline,” said her editor, a cantankerous old cuss who stifled everyone’s career to justify his own failings. “Readers wouldn’t accept it.”
“Run it without,” she said. “As the Ladies’ Corner.”
Which is how she came to Stanley’s attention.
At the time, Stan owned a couple of community papers, including the one where Ellie worked, but he appeared in the offices only to check the books and examine the headlines. However, female readers liked her column, which spiked circulation, which stimulated advertising, which pleased the publisher. When a national syndicate asked about picking up her articles, Stan demanded to meet his rising star.
He’d recently lost his first wife to cancer, and although he predated Ellie by a generation, she started accompanying him to business meetings and charity functions. The boys in the newsroom alleged she had seduced him, but I think he recognized the talent that none of them could. He used the money from selling her work to acquire more broadsheets, at a time in the 60s when the suburbs of Nor Cal were growing like a trust fund.
When they announced their engagement on the society page, next to her own anonymous column, it surprised no one. Still, people called her a gold digger. Not because she had ever sought such wealth, or because she set out to entrap him—how could she have anticipated that a job as a typist would create such opportunities—but any time a woman marries someone of a higher station, the gossips apply that label.
Even if she had, who could blame her? Before women’s lib and the E.R.A., the only way for a member of the fairer sex to rise in rank was through her husband’s success (thus the cliché “behind every great man . . .”).
If anything, her wealth embarrassed her. She thought designer gowns never fit quite right on her rigid frame, heavy jewelry irritated her skin, and at charity benefits she blushed whenever someone mentioned her contributions. Being a devout woman, she wondered if she could be that rare rope to fit through the eye of a needle, and whether it was hypocrisy to try.
Thereafter, Stan relied on her advice for his fastest-growing demographic: women, a readership that had eluded other papers too chauvinistic to recognize the profit potential in half the population. For two decades she acted as Stan’s partner and collaborator, even though she never wrote a column with a byline—a fact the ink-stained set, who’d risen up as copy boys and paperboys, never forgot. The trade usually attracts deluded romantics who dream of world-changing stories, but Ellie and Stan approached it with the rational calculus of accountants. Their focus on profits over scoops embittered the staff of “professional” journalists against them. So when he died and left his empire to her, they rebelled.
First, the editors refused to take her direction on story selection, claiming that Stan had never interfered in their day-to-day operations—although everyone knew he had. Then they buried a piece about the opening of a new building that she had endowed, hiding it on the third page of the lifestyle section rather than the front page of the business news, as she expected. The breaking point came when they published an item of society gossip about her “close friendship” with a local politician. She fired both the author and the editor, which sent a message to the other ink-stained boys. “Enough.”
So whether or not she could swim, she knew how to protect herself.
2. Or, after drinking to excess and retiring to bed, her new husband speculated that she’d left him to go to the railing and be sick in solitude while he ignored her absence.
Why hadn’t he gone looking for her? Jasper was as lean and strong as one of his horses, a groom by training and temperament, from many accounts tough enough to win a bar fight. That explained his appeal to a vulnerable widow.
“I couldn’t make her sober,” he told the police, which tells you about his character. He was not the cowboy of the Western movie genre, not a gentleman in spurs, waiting to help a lady down from her carriage. No, he was a hick who smelled of the stables and treated a woman like he did a milking cow.
They met at a dude ranch, of all places. Under a year after Stan’s passing, in an era when women first dared to run for president, she celebrated her independence by traveling alone. A competitor paper ran a photo of her on horseback, attended to by a groom half her age, with the rough good looks of a Wild West outlaw. He wore the typical getup of the trade—cowboy boots and hat—but without the scruff or dirt one associates with outdoor work. The gossip columnists labelled him her stable boy and implied a romantic relationship that the picture failed to validate. Soon photographers followed her, and scribblers from as far away as New York repeated the libel, despite their previous indifference to her career. Everyone knew the story originated with her own staff, now practicing guerrilla warfare, but the innuendo spread like an insurrection, too salacious to ignore.
I first heard about her dalliance from a mutual friend, who practically fainted over the idea of a boy toy (a term popularized by Madonna and other transgressive female artists of the 80s). Our peers made no efforts to hide their jealousy. I suppose we’ve all entertained fantasies about a gallant manservant or a handsome gamekeeper after reading Lady Chatterley, but few of us possessed the wherewithal or the independence to indulge such passions.
“Good for her,” I said, and I meant it. The days had long since passed when a woman was expected to shroud herself in black and hide herself away for a year of mourning her departed husband. She’d acted as his chaste, faithful companion for most of her adult life—that everyone could agree upon—so why not indulge herself now that she’d been liberated?
Initially, she ignored the rumors, which may be a sound legal strategy, but with journalists it just encourages the scavenger hunt. After weeks of silent tolerance, she responded, bringing Jasper as her escort to a fundraiser for the local food bank, a costume ball for which she fitted him out in new cowboy boots and hat—the only getup he would wear. She festooned herself as a prospector, with gold pan and pickax, a retort to her detractors.
After that, they traveled everywhere together: to the opera and the rodeo, the balls and the barbecues. Throughout, he maintained a stubborn adherence to his country roots, wearing the same ridiculous western outfit regardless of the occasion, and speaking in a hillbilly slang that unsettled everyone. Despite liberal use of yes ma’ams and no sirs, he fooled no one into thinking he was a gentleman. For he’d frequently eat with his hands or drink from a flask.
Then she started dressing like him, forsaking her silky gowns and cashmere sweater sets for fringed leather skirts and plaid snap shirts—still designer, and too delicate for the country, but homely and suggestive of his influence. I assume he appealed to her rural roots, the kind of rough-and-tumble man she knew as a girl, but I never asked. If questioned, how many of us could explain our fancies?
Rumors spread that she planned to wed him, though I never believed it. Why marry your manservant when you can command him? I credited her with being too smart to forsake her freedom so quickly.
But longing and isolation do make fools of us all.
The announcement of their engagement appeared on the front page of her paper (no doubt at her insistence) and spread resentment like a disease through our community. The same society that rejected her two decades before did so to him. They were not the high society of New York or Washington or even San Francisco—not the innovators and capitalists who move the nation. Rather, I mean the petty, provincial society of the suburbs, who grew jealous if their neighbors owned a bigger house or a faster car.
To be sure, he didn’t help matters with his motto of “beer, steer and gear.” On the surface, he appeared a simpleton, the sort of man who preferred a horse to a car and a sleeping bag to a bed, but we all suspected that he’d been lying in wait for a lonely widow. Why else take a job at a dude ranch serving the wealthy? It certainly wasn’t for the lifestyle, which netted him a pickup, a horse trailer, and a motor home. No one believed his affections were genuine, not given his conspicuous enjoyment of her money, with which he purchased several stallions and a stable to house them.
However, to my knowledge, few of her friends tried to dissuade her. Like many things in society, confronting another’s indiscretions is taboo. So people waited for their wedding with anxiety and anticipation, placing bets about who would be invited and who would dare to attend.
I tried to intercede. I appealed to her loyalty. “You don’t have to burn your marriage bed,” I said, “to cleanse it.”
She wouldn’t listen. Professed herself in love, for the “first time in her life.” Such a tired cliché among the privileged, but in her case, I believed it. By the time they met, not even pharmacy could make Stan function as a man, or so rumor said. How many women would stay faithful to the feeble? Nonetheless, she had, or I would have heard gossips about her infidelities as I did with so many of our peers’.
She deserved the same loyalty from her new husband, but she was a far worse judge of character than Stanley if his replacement would ignore her absence for an entire night.
3. Or, after a night of drinking to excess, finding her way to the railing, and falling in, she clung to the side of the boat awaiting a savior, in the chill and dark of night, until she could cling no longer. The forest holds no heat after sundown, and the water drains it from the human body, slow chilling it. Much like a loveless marriage.
Surely, she would have called out for help. She could not have been so inebriated that she failed to understand the danger. So why had he not heard, not responded? Did he really sleep so soundly as not to sense his own wife’s calls of distress?
Many of us had recognized him for what he was on their wedding day.
Like all such festivities, this one offered unlimited alcohol, and she paid for the best quality—French Champagne for her, Tennessee whiskey for him—although both tasted sickly sweet to my palette. Together, they celebrated many toasts. Who wouldn’t, with all her alleged friends in attendance, silently voicing their disapproval of this union, plus a few of his cowboy cohort, unsettling the others like burrs under a saddle? She’d never been a drinker before, but his influence, his encouragement, pushed her to it. For she drank to excess that night, such excess that she grew sick all over herself and her beautiful gown, one that had been hand-made for her at the best boutique in the region. On seeing her with the shame of their celebration spilled upon her, he stood and laughed. Rather than shield her from the judgement of their guests, he made a show of it, pointing and deriding her as the bridesmaids tried to blot out the smells and stains of vomit.
After that, the few of us who’d tried to reason with her, who’d tried to counter his influence, gave up. Which only made her adhere to him that much tighter. They travelled everywhere together.
For their honeymoon, they toured widely, but not to the usual places—not a tour of Europe or Asia, nor even the tropics, as we’d expect. Instead, they visited the national parks and the open forests, where bison and moose roamed uncontrolled, and where they carried pepper spray for protection against bears. She said he was introducing her to a part of the country she’d never seen, a part that was wild and uncivilized. A western fantasy, if you ask me, but she adored it.
Even after she returned, she remained more interested in him than her papers. The ink-stained boys claimed that she’d abandoned the business she fought so hard to control. However, I believe she just tired of jousting with them. Who can tolerate being repeatedly undermined by your subordinates?
From them, she should have learned to rely on herself, and to expect no support from men.
4. Or, after a night of drinking to excess, finding her way to the railing, and falling in, she died alone, rejected and forlorn. Upon her death, the gossips concluded that she’d got her comeuppance: the gold digger dug. Many of her friends believed so as well.
Only what could have propelled her overboard?
Some rocking of the boat from a wave on a quiet lake on a still evening?
Some slick spot on the deck from the spillage of their debauchery?
Or perhaps it was a hand at her back, one allegedly to steady her, but really one to push her over the side, because he knew she could not swim, knew that no one else would hear her call for help, knew that she would be too stunned, too cold, to hang on until a savior arrived.
And thought he would inherit her fortune. Just as she inherited the life created with her first husband, he would have expected her to leave all that she owned to him after she passed.
People discussed the reading of her will as though it were a social event. They anticipated the date as they would the debut of their daughter. They shared rumors of its contents as they would the appointment of a new pastor at the local church.
Few expected she would divide her estate among many charities, and that his share would prove small, barely enough to sustain him. After the way he’d seduced her, that surprised everyone, including him. Those who attended the reading said he looked as stunned as if he’d been kicked by his own horse.
Instead of staying in her home as a modern-day Beverly Hillbilly, he returned to the dude ranch, no doubt in search of another vulnerable woman. He claimed to be happy so long as he possessed a horse and the ability to ride it. Which is more than he had earned.
Yet that is not the story the papers have told, of betrayal and murder. They continue to print the fiction that she died of her own foolishness.
I always said that the newspapers would ruin her. Few women can prosper in such a misogynist trade. Yet not even I could have foreseen how it would come about. That’s what’s saddest, that someone who strove so hard should be brought down by a mere stable boy, and that instead of decrying the crime, society regards her death as a morality play, a tabloid tragedy.
Perhaps it’s for the best that she didn’t live to see herself portrayed like this, by those who owed their livelihood to her, her cleverness, her industry, her generosity. Fate could not be this cruel. It had to be the work of a true devil.
What remains of her legacy? A few buildings with her name above the lintel, a slew of newspapers with her column in syndication, a headstone with all three of her surnames engraved upon it. And some thin clippings, containing a tale of drunken misadventure, that will decay to scraps long before any of these.
She deserved better.
Bio: David Hagerty is the author of the Duncan Cochrane mystery series, which chronicles crime and dirty politics in Chicago during his childhood. Real events inspired all four novels, including the murder of a politician’s daughter six weeks before election day (They Tell Me You Are Wicked), a series of sniper killings in the city’s most notorious housing project (They Tell Me You Are Crooked), the Tylenol poisonings (They Tell Me You Are Brutal), and the false convictions of ten men on Illinois’ death row (They Tell Me You Are Cunning). He has also published more than 40 short stories online and in print.
He can be found along with his books at his website HERE.
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