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Pageantry Review

Pageantry Review – In the 1920s, America was transfixed by the showgirl and the congressman

Column of John Kelly (Columnist Washington Post)

Lawyers call them “heart balm” cases, as if money is a soothing salve that can be rubbed on a broken heart. They fall under the breach-of-promise category: You said you’d marry me. You didn’t. Cash might make my hurt go away.

In the 1920s, the price tag for Anna Niebel’s broken heart was $50,000.

In 1921, Manuel Herrick, a one-term Republican representative from Oklahoma nicknamed “the Okie Jesus,” had wooed the showgirl after seeing her name in a newspaper story about a District beauty pageant.

Niebel’s wasn’t the only name Herrick saw — or woman he approached. As I recounted in Wednesday’s column, Herrick wrote to 49 beauty contest entrants, promising to marry the “winner.”

Niebel told the Tulsa World that Herrick visited her family’s home several times. Sometimes he would stand in the sitting room — his hand on his chest, his face gazing at the ceiling — and deliver a speech.

“I felt just like Congress and it was all perfectly lovely,” she said. “He sent me copies of his bills instead of love letters. I didn’t know what they meant but they were grand.”

Herrick maintained that it was all a “decoy” to show how pernicious beauty pageants were.

Niebel said Herrick wooed her by delivering speeches to her as if she were Congress.

Niebel said Herrick wooed her by delivering speeches to her as if she were Congress. (Library of Congress)

Niebel said the sticking point was her stage career.

“He wanted me to give it up and go to the plains,” she told a reporter from the Washington Herald. “I wanted him to give up the plains and come with me to the stage.”

At the same time Niebel was threatening to sue Herrick, Herrick was suing his former stenographer, a woman named Ethelyn Chrane.

Herrick said Chrane had agreed to wed, then backed out. By stringing Herrick along, Chrane had “prevented him from paying court to other eligible and marriageable ladies.” He sought damages of $50,000.

Chrane claimed Herrick had schemed for them to marry in secret so he could sue newspapers for libel when they wrote that he was unmarried. She then sued him for libel because of salacious things he said about her in open court. (She won damages of $7,500.)

Herrick served as his own attorney in his heart balm trial. When he first put himself on the witness stand, he used two different voices.

“What is your name?” he asked himself in his lawyer voice.

“My name is Manuel Herrick of Oklahoma,” he responded in his witness voice.

The judge said he didn’t need to be so theatrical.

The jury agreed with Herrick that Chrane had backed out of the marriage. They awarded the Okie Jesus damages of one cent.

As far as I can tell, Anna Niebel’s case went nowhere. It generated nothing but publicity for her, which may be just what the Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl wanted.

Chrane claimed that treatment she received from a U.S. government doctor caused an infection. By 1935 she was picketing the U.S. Capitol wearing a sandwich board adorned with the text of a relief bill she hoped Congress would pass to compensate her for her injury.

The top of the sign read “Uncle Sam used me as a guinea pig then cast me aside to die.” Ethelyn Chrane died on Dec. 17, 1953.

Anna Niebel continued to perform and compete in beauty pageants. She left the Follies to perform in an Eddie Cantor show. In the 1930 Census she listed her occupation as “teacher; dancing school.”

A year later she married a man named Ray B. McIntyre. In 1932 Anna was jailed briefly after her stepfather charged she had mistreated her mother. In October she was picked up by police while riding with John Paul Greer, whose Buick matched one driven by a sniper who killed a Mount Pleasant baker.

Anna said she’d only known Greer a week. Both were released after witnesses failed to pick Greer out of a lineup. I don’t know what happened to the showgirl after that.

As for the man she said she’d wanted to marry, Herrick was back in the news in 1930, arrested for tending a 500-gallon still in St. Mary’s County, Md., for a bootlegger. Herrick used a familiar defense: He said he was gathering evidence as an undercover agent for the Prohibition Bureau.

The bureau said he wasn’t. Herrick was convicted and sentenced to six months in jail.

In 1933, Herrick moved to California. He ran for Congress in 1948 and lost. Four years later, though infirm and nearly blind, the 78-year-old Herrick and a friend, George L. Welch, were working a gold mining claim 9 1/2 miles north of a town in the Sierras called Quincy.

In early February 1952, people at the post office noticed Herrick hadn’t been in to check his mail for a few weeks. A blizzard had struck, and a search party was organized. Welch’s body was found seated against a tree, frozen solid. Three weeks later, Herrick’s body was found in a snowbank two miles from his cabin.

Sometimes I wonder if people today live as interesting lives as people did 100 years ago.

Source – The Washington Post
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