Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Murder at "The Monastery"-- No. 22 West 77th Street

The West 77th Street block between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue was especially alluring to apartment building developers.  Its location across from the sprawling Manhattan Square and the grounds of the American Museum of Natural History assured that no high structures would ever be built to obstruct the abundant natural light.

On May 7, 1921 the New-York Tribune announced that Fred F. French had formed 22 West Seventy-seventh Street, Inc., and purchased the plot at Nos. 22 and 24 West 77th Street.  The newspaper noted that the property was “bought for flat improvement.”

The Fred F. French Co. was an all-in-one development concern.  It handled every step of the real estate process from buying the property, designing the structure, constructing it and finally managing the completed building.  And the firm wasted no time with its newest property.  Just five days later plans were filed for “a six story apartment house” with an estimated cost of $300,000—in the neighborhood of $4 million in 2016.

Eager residents did not wait for the building to be completed before sign leases.  By the end of October Fred F. French had rented several of the apartments.  The finished six story building contained 42 apartments “in suites of one, two, three and four rooms.”  Fred F. French had designed a quaint brick-faced neo-Tudor structure with storybook half-timbering, pointed gables and picturesque rough-cut stonework around the arched entrance.

The New York Times (while getting the architectural style distinctly wrong) noted that the building was "so strikingly decorated in mission style as to bear the neighborhood name of the Monastery."

Among the first residents was a 22-year old music student, Louise Lawson, who rented one of the three-room suites.   Louise had enjoyed a privileged childhood, the daughter of wealthy Texans, Mr. and Mrs. A. P. Lawson of Walnut Springs.  She did not work; but her parents provided for her expenses which included Lillian Harvey, Louise’s maid who came every morning around 10:00.

Louise had arrived in New York with dreams of becoming a movie star.  She managed to land a small part in D. W. Griffith’s 1920 film Way Down East starring Lillian Gish (New York City was still the center of the motion picture industry).   She shared an apartment with her best friend, Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl Charlotte Wakefeld, at the time.

But her show business career wilted and she turned her focus to studying the piano.  In October 1922 she signed a lease at No. 22 West 77th Street.  The rent was $1,900 per year, about $2,250 per month today.   Despite the fact that she was not working, The New York Times later mentioned “Persons who met her at the apartment said that she liked to be regarded as an actress, but that her success on the stage had been limited.”

Nevertheless, social life for a single girl in New York City during the Roaring Twenties was not wasted on Louise Lawson.   According to a newspaper “Occasionally, it was learned, Miss Lawson would surround herself with a lively crowd and hold a merry party in the apartment.  As a result of this she was cautioned several times.”

Louise’s fifth floor apartment, No. 56, was “luxuriously furnished,” including mahogany furniture and a grand piano fashionably cluttered with photographs in sterling silver frames.   Employees of the apartment building said she was never home on the weekends.  Like other girls with money in the Gatsby Era, she went off to country places, often whisked away from 77th Street in a large olive green Pierce-Arrow touring car driving by a liveried chauffeur.

Louise, for example, was present at the scandalous party in Greenwich, Connecticut in September 1923 which ended with the drowning of Angier B. Duke, heir to the $5 million estate of Benjamin B. Duke.

In January 1924 there had been three burglaries at No. 22 West 77th Street in quick succession.  They may have been on Louise’s mind when a knock on her door sounded one morning while a friend was visiting.  When the two men announced they had a delivery for her, she replied “I am not expecting any packages” and slammed the door.  Her friend later recalled that Louise “seemed to be upset by the episode and referred to it several times later.”

She had every reason to be unnerved by the matter.  Less than a month later, at around 8:00 on the morning of February 8, 1924, two men showed up at the service entrance.  The elevator operator, mindful of the string of burglaries, questioned them before taking them up.  They explained that they had a package for Miss Lawson.  About 20 minutes later one of the men called for the elevator.  He still carried the package and offhandedly said “Miss Lawson wanted scotch and not rye.  You never can tell what they want.”

It was not the delivery of alcohol during Prohibition that puzzled the elevator man—moneyed New Yorkers managed to get their liquor.  He wondered what had happened to the delivery man’s partner.

Later Louise’s next door neighbor, Peggy Tompkins, reported that she had heard Louise’s doorbell ring and heard her ask “Who is there.”

“A couple of expressmen.  We’ve got something here for you.”

Despite Louise’s cautious reaction just a few weeks earlier, she answered “I’m not dressed yet, wait a minute.”

Peggy Tompkins heard the door open and close a few seconds later; then heard nothing more until two hours later when screams emanated from Apartment 56.

Those screams came from Lillian Harvey.  Shortly before 10:00 the maid entered Louise’s apartment with her key.  “Removing her wraps, she went to work straightening out the private hall, a stretch of about ten feet, and then passed into the living room,” explained The Times the following day.

“As she entered she saw signs of disorder.  A big basket of American Beauty roses had been scattered over the Turkish rugs and the flowers had been torn apart by struggling feet.  Pictures were lying broken on the floor, and chairs had been thrown about.  The maid called for Miss Lawson, and then passed into the bedroom, which opened off the bathroom and a tiny kitchenette.”

Lillian found her employer face down on “the lace-trimmed linen cover of a mahogany bed in the dainty chamber.”  She was dead.  Police called her the victim “of one of the most savage crimes of recent years.”  She was bound at the wrists and feet, gagged with a Turkish towel held over her mouth by adhesive tape, and left to suffocate to death.

It appeared that the second man had waited for his accomplice to distract the elevator man so he could escape down the stairs with thousands of dollars in Louise’s jewelry and furs.   One missing ermine cape alone had been a $1,500 gift.

Police scoured the apartment for clues, but found little or nothing to go on.  The suite had been ransacked.  They even searched the ice box where they found no food, but two bottles of champagne and about a case of scotch. 

Although detectives repeatedly assured the public that they were closing in on the thieves; the trail eventually went cold and Louise Lawson’s murderers were never found.

Living in the building at the same time was wealthy bon vivant pen manufacturer Ignatz Salz, and Ralph Oyler, Chief of the Federal Narcotic Square.

The President of Salz Brothers, Inc., Ignatz Salz was 45 years old at the time of Louise’s murder.  Newspapers noted that he was “well-known” on Broadway—referring to the nightclubs rather than the theaters.  He was perhaps equally well known for his “attention to women.”  And Salz’s attention did not discriminate between married and unmarried females.

Three years after Louise Lawson’s murder, Ignatz Salz arrived home on Friday, January 14, 1927 around 6:00 and changed into his evening clothes.   Prepared for a night out with a companion and two women, he stuffed $4,000 in cash into his pocket and sported a diamond ring and diamond stickpin. 

Before he was quite ready, his doorbell rang.  When he opened the door, he was accosted by two men, about 30 years old, who tried to push him back into the apartment.  When he struggled, one said “Give it to him.”

The second man drew a pistol and fired.  Ignatz Salz fell to the floor in his doorway.  The men rushed from the building, into a waiting automobile and sped down Central Park West.

Detectives bandied about several motives for the shooting.  “Their first belief was that the two men, probably night club habitu├ęs of the criminal type who knew that Mr. Salz carried large sums of money, which was said to be his habit, had waited for him to come home and had entered intending to rob him,” reported The Times.

But that theory quickly was dismissed.  The men had made no attempt to take Salz’s jewelry and cash; and James Salz, the victim’s brother, pointed out that “if the men were robbers, why one should say ‘Give it to him’ and the other shoot him almost immediately.  It made no sense."

Another theory was that the gunmen had mistaken Salz for Federal narcotic agent Ralph Oyler.  He was responsible for the recent take-down of a German narcotics ring which resulted in the arrest of 32-year old Alice Seaman earlier that day.

But the motive investigators most focused on was “that the gunmen were hired by a person who hated Salz because of his attention to women.”  The New York Times reported two days later “The police questioned the two women who called at the apartment after the shooting.  They had a dinner appointment with Salz.  The detectives refused to make public the names of the women.  It was ascertained, however, that one of the two women is married.”

James Salz dismissed the idea as ridiculous.  “I know my brother better than any one else does.  He was a home-loving man, had not an enemy in the world, and either his assailants were bent on robbery or else they mistook him for Mr. Oyler.”

Despite James Salz’s offer of a $5,000 reward, as in the case of Louise Lawson, Ignatz Salz’s assailants were never found.

For three decades the violent episodes at No. 22 West 77th Street were forgotten.  Respected residents like the well-known stage actor Malcom Fassett continued to live in the building.  But then on July 9, 1955 the address was once again the scene of murder.

Mary Samuels was already living in the building when she married 63-year old power press operator Monte J. Samuels in January 1955.  Mary worked for the Child Guidance Division of the Department of Welfare and Monte was her third husband.  She was twice widowed.  Monte’s only other marriage had ended in divorce.

The couple’s honeymoon period was short-lived.  Unable to live with her new husband, Mary telephoned his sister, Mrs. Sarah Phillips, on the morning of July 9.  She was telling Sarah to “have her brother’s belongings removed from the house” when Monte walked into the room.

With Sarah still on the line, he began fighting with his wife, and dragged her away from the telephone.  When police arrived, they found the 53-year old Mary strangled to death on the kitchen floor.

The pseudo half-timbering on the eastern side has been plastered over and the gable removed.
To date the only other violence and tragedy to occur at No. 22 West 77th Street is the vandalism of the architecture by subsequent owners.  But despite the disrespectful alterations, the building still exhibits American architects’ love of the romantically picturesque Tudor style in the 1920s.

photographs by the author

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