Milwaukee Sentinel June 1 1932

It’s quite remarkable how quickly speculation about the shooting at 21 William Mews hit the news-stands. The above article, from Associated Press, appeared in Milwaukee on the day after the incident and not only fashions a juicy narrative out of what must have been very hastily assembled facts but is already imbued with references to the “decadence” that dominated the coverage of the whole case.

Inaccuracies abound. The “golden-haired” Elvira is a “divorced actress”, which is pushing it a bit, and Michael gains 10 years in age. It is Michael who is reported as having brandished the gun and the police are said to be pursuing a line of “accidental death”, which they most certainly weren’t. He is also reported to have been found lying on a sofa – he was on the landing,

The cocktail party and the Mews life-style are both given starring roles. Naturally, it was “a gay cocktail party” – not meant in the modern sense  – but the following paragraph is the one that caught my eye.

“Meanwhile astonishing stories were heard of parties which were held in the gaily decorated back-alley flat in Williams Mews, the London counterpart of Greenwich Village’s MacDougall Alley in New York.”

Berenice Abbott MacDougal Alley 1936

Now, in no way did William Mews resemble the bohemian heart of Greenwich Village, but the comparison speaks volumes.  “MacDougal Alley” is code for artistic, alternative and avant-garde. It also meant Gay (this time in the modern sense of the term). American readers would have got the inference and would have been quite aware what it was that was “astonishing” about these parties.

So, right from the start, the shooting is almost secondary to the exotic context in which it took place. The 1930s’ press, despite being trapped in a code of censorship, euphemism and innuendo, very quickly made it apparent what sort of world Elvira inhabited. As was to actually happen in due course, the Associated Press prophetically found Elvira innocent of murder but guilty of flouting social conventions.

Incidentally, one of Elvira’s cocktail guests, Olivia Wyndham, who had recently moved to New York was to become a regular visitor to Greenwich Village where she, and her partner Edna Thomas’, friend, the author Nella Larsen, lived. Wyndham and her circle really did embody the  “improper” Bohemia hinted at in the newspaper report.

Vincent La Gambina Life Cafeteria Greenwich Village 1936

In 2001 the 80 year old artist and actress  Tatheena Roberts published a novel about the travails of two young lesbians in pre-war New York. I don’t know if there is any autobiographical element to the story but the book’s title is testimony to the continuing resonance of the address. It was called “MacDougal Alley” .

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