Wayne Lonergan’s Long Shadow

The Wayne Lonergan murder case of 1943–44 elicited a slew of newspaper reports at the time. Over the next seventy years it became the subject of numerous essays, book chapters, and entire books. And it stimulated the imaginations of several novelists. Born in 1918 in Toronto, Ontario, Wayne came to New York in 1939. His ultimate goal seems to have been finding some rich man or woman to support him and ease his entry into society. While working as one of the cadre of handsome young men hired to push visitors in wheeled chairs around the World Fair, he met the 43-year-old heir to a beer company fortune and amateur painter, William O. Burton. Soon Wayne was serving as Burton’s kept boy and hobnobbing with the likes of Somerset Maugham and Lucius Beebe. Then in October 1940 Burton died. Wayne had already met his daughter, Patricia. They married, over her mother’s objections, in the summer of 1941. Patricia is quoted by Dominick Dunne, among others, as saying, “If he was good enough for my father, he’s good enough for me.” A son soon arrived. Wayne doted on him, but Patricia was more interested in New York’s social life. She loved to frequent such nightspots as El Morocco and the Stork Club. As the couple drifted apart, each took lovers (perhaps on occasion, the same one). Wayne had been classified as 4-F because of his claim to be a homosexual, but he concealed his sexuality (whatever it actually was) to volunteer for the Royal Canadian Air Force. His service had the benefit that Patricia could not divorce him as long as he was in the military.

On Sunday, October 24, 1943, her nude body was discovered in her bedroom at Beekman Hill. She had been bludgeoned with a candlestick and then strangled. It quickly came out that Wayne had been in town on a weekend leave; he was arrested in Toronto. His alibi was that he had picked up an American soldier and spent the night having sex with him, only to be robbed by the man and have his RCAF uniform stolen. Wayne said he had received the deep gashes on his chin in a struggle with him. The Toronto police believed him at first; one officer is reported by Mel Heimer as saying, “A guilty man, I imagine, would not have offered us an alibi so degrading as this one.” But holes soon appeared in Wayne’s story, and he was extradited to New York for further interrogation. Meanwhile, the New York press was going wild; the story vied with war news for coverage. For gay historian Charles Kaiser, the case is singularly important for eliciting “the earliest extended discussion of homosexuality in the history of New York newspapers”—this some four years before the publication of the Kinsey report on the human male.

Under intense grilling Wayne confessed to the murder and to having destroyed his blood-stained uniform. That Sunday morning he had gone to their apartment to deliver a stuffed animal to his son and found Patricia nude in bed, recovering from her night out with another man. According to Heimer, Patricia’s threat that Wayne would never be allowed see his son again triggered the murderous attack. Contemporary gossip had it that while he remained clothed, she had performed fellatio on him and savagely bitten his penis. (Dunne dismisses the latter story for lack of evidence, but the allegation took on a life of its own.) Wayne was indicted for murder in the first degree. The first trial was declared a mistrial. The second one lasted March 20–31, 1944, and ended in a verdict of murder in the second degree. The judge sentenced him to thirty-five years to life in prison. He was paroled in 1965 and deported to Toronto, where he was ultimately taken in by actress Barbara Hamilton. He lived with her until his death from cancer in 1986. His passing made the January 3 obituary page of the New York Times.

Wolcott Gibbs, who lived two doors from the Lonergans’ apartment, published a long article in the November 6, 1943, New Yorker highly critical of the sensational language used by the press at the time. He records how, early in the coverage, the articles began with innuendos about both Burton—“a penchant for picking up impecunious young men and lending a helpful hand”—and Lonergan—“Indications of an abnormal psychological nature”—before finally coming “right out with the word ‘homosexual.’” After that Lonergan changed from being “handsome” and “boyish-looking” to a “sex-twisted 25-year-old Café Society playboy with the crew hair-cut and the easy sneer.” Kaiser, who sees the case as important to the developing gay identity during the war, also pays much attention to language in his nearly seven-page account (plus one page of pictures) in The Gay Metropolis, 1940–1996, 1997. He quotes an entire article from the Journal-American to underscore the vocabulary common in the 1940s when discussing homosexuality: “‘vice,’ ‘damage,’ ‘social cancer,’ ‘monster,’ ‘unnatural,’ ‘moral leper,’ ‘pervert,’ ‘degenerate,’ ‘evil,’ ‘unscrupulous,’ ‘contemptuous of decent people,’ and ‘sinister.’”

Raymond Chandler adds nothing of interest in his October 1948 list for Cosmopolitan of the “10 Greatest Crimes of the Century.” (He placed it number nine.) More lively is Dunne’s 2000 article for Vanity Fair, collected in Justice, 2001. He covers the by then familiar ground with his own personal touch and an insider’s access to people who knew Wayne but would never have acknowledged it at the time, including one woman who claimed to have known him in the biblical sense. In an intriguing throwaway line he compares Wayne to Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. There have been two entire books. In 1955 Gold Medal Books brought out Heimer’s The Girl in Murder Flat as part of its series of “Classic Murder Trials.” The title reflects the fact that it was the third sensational Beekman Hill murder of a young woman within eight years. His flamboyant defense lawyer vies with Wayne for importance, but generous excerpts from the trials’ transcripts allow us to hear the latter’s voice. We have such exchanges as this: “Q. What particular acts of perversion did you commit with this man? A. There are only two. Both of them. Q. You did that before you were married? A. Yes. Q. Did you get much satisfaction out of living with your wife or any other woman? A. Well, a certain amount.” In 1972 crime reporter Hamilton Darby Perry weighed in with his account: A Chair for Wayne Lonergan, with sixteen pages of photographs. His basic thesis is that Wayne’s guilt was not proven beyond a shadow of a doubt; pages are taken up with alternate theories. Perry does fill in much detail about events prior to the murder and continues Wayne’s life up to the time the book appeared. Richard Goldstein devoted less than two pages to the murder in his 2010 history of the city during World War II, Helluva Town. Harold Schechter briefly summarizes the case in an epilogue to his 2014 book The Mad Sculptor, about the second of the three Beekman Hill murders. (Chandler lists it in third place.) Schechter is undoubtedly correct when he says that the case that dominated the headlines so fiercely in 1943–44 is now almost forgotten.

Yet this murder directly impacted, to a greater or lesser degree, the creative imagination of seven writers of fiction, most (maybe all) of whom were in New York at the time, at least three of them actually knowing Lonergan. The poet Kenneth Fearing based the murder in The Big Clock, 1946, on the slaying. Social historian Alan Wald (American Night) asserts that Earl Janoth, the murderer, and Steve Hagen, his best friend, were modeled after magazine magnate Henry Luce and his “partner and rival,” Britton Hadden. But inspired by the revelations about Lonergan, Fearing made the relationship homoerotic. Earl and his mistress quarrel. Earl brings up lesbian affairs that she has had. She retaliates by questioning his relationship with Steve: “Do you think I’m blind? Did I ever see you two together when you weren’t camping?” Earl’s reaction is to feel “sick and stunned, with something big and black gathering inside.” When she continues lashing out—“Why, you poor, old carbon copy of that fairy gorilla”—without realizing what he is doing, he strikes her with a brandy decanter and kills her. Earl flees to Steve’s apartment and confesses, obliquely referring to her accusations against the two men. “Steve was unmoved.” Steve later muses, “I liked Earl more than I had ever liked any person on earth except my mother. I really liked him.” But nothing physical occurs between the two men, and the subject does not come up again. The novel’s plot revolves around the irony that Earl hires one of his employees to track down a man who can place Earl at the scene of the crime, not knowing that the employee is himself the man.

Next came Theodora Keogh’s novel The Double Door, 1950. It is a roman à clef based on the ballet impresario George de Cuevas. (The indefatigable Dunne has an essay about him collected in The Mansions of Limbo, 1991.) But the shadow of the Burton–Lonergans triangle looms in the background. Charles de Tudelos owns adjoining houses in New York, connected by a double door that he alone uses. His latest kept boy, Giovanni Puchini, trespasses through it and catches sight of Tudelos’s daughter, Candy. The attraction between the two teenagers is instant and mutual. She manipulates him into taking her virginity. When Charles finds out, Giovanni’s days with him are numbered. There is no slaying here; rather, Charles sets Giovanni up to be charged with sodomy and corruption of a minor and sentenced to prison. Other plots intertwine. Charles’s personal priest, though asexual or latently homosexual, has his own strange designs on Candy. Even more sinister is a longtime friend of Charles who, if one believes in sorcery, kills Giovanni’s mother. The author’s amoral universe is strongly reminiscent of Highsmith’s; not surprisingly, the latter admired Keogh’s novels, and the two became friends. Keogh, by the way, sought to conceal that she was President Theodore Roosevelt’s granddaughter.

Between these two novels two other authors attempted to recreate the story, hewing more closely to the facts. James Baldwin’s biographer David Leeming records that in 1948 Baldwin began his attempt, which he called Ignorant Armies. According to Leeming, Baldwin was preoccupied at the time with the “whole question of sexual dishonesty.” For a while the novel progressed well, but “the characters suddenly stopped speaking, and he lost his sense of the novel’s form.” Leeming goes on, “The problem was, apparently, that there were two novels in Ignorant Armies: the bones of Giovanni’s Room and Another Country.” Although Giovanni kills his former boss in a rage and is subsequently sentenced to the guillotine, there is nothing in either published novel to remind readers of Wayne Lonergan. Brion Gysin, who knew Wayne as part of the New York nightclub scene, finished I Am Out, his fictionalized account of the murder, in 1949, but it has never been published. (It was offered to Olympia Press in 1960, but was turned down.) According to Gysin’s biographer, John Geiger, the novel “emphasized Lonergan’s Catholic upbringing, and had monsignors and bishops swishing in and out of the scenes.”

Songwriter Carley Mills’s only novel, A Nearness of Evil, 1961, though free with facts (most notably, keeping the Burton figure alive), more closely follows the main outlines of the case. An ardent nightclubber (Tennessee Williams left him, unable to put up with Mills’s lifestyle), he undoubtedly knew Wayne, at least by sight. The novel opens with its straight narrator, the lawyer Alfie Fisher, calling upon Bobby Randall to tell him he is close to running out of money as well as to urge him to remarry his ex-wife for a beard; he has been engaged in too many scandals while abroad. Alfie’s mission is a success, but signs that Bobby’s daughter, Diane, is likewise wayward are worrisome. The second part of the plot begins at the 1939 World’s Fair. Bobby takes Diane there; he meets Neal Hartigan, one of the young men hired to wheel visitors from attraction to attraction. Bobby and Neal quickly become an item. Diane is equally attracted to the handsome man, pertly declaring that “if he’s good enough for Daddy he’s good enough for me.” They start going out, causing a society columnist to remark, “Hartigan is going steady with both Randalls.” Father and daughter turn against each other. Bobby decides to evict Neal from his apartment. Letting himself in unannounced, he is shocked to find Neal and the gay Howland Jotham packing up his things: “Neal was walking out on him.”

The next blow is the announcement of Neal and Diane’s marriage. Diane lets drop that wedlock does not cause Neal to give up “Jothaming.” Soon, like him, she is picking up willing gigolos, including a high number of “pansies.” Shortly after their son is born, Neal departs for Canada to join the RCAF. Then on October 17 [sic], 1943, Diane’s body is discovered in her apartment. Neal is arrested; as an alibi he claims to have spent the evening visiting “gay bars,” picking up an American soldier in one of them. A female friend is asked to corroborate Neal’s alibi: “When asked by a reporter of her opinion of Hartigan’s story, she replied, giggling, ‘I think it’s a terrible fairy tale.’” No motive for the murder emerges. Alfie’s natural reaction is to protect Bobby, who is presented by the press as “the evil genius who had touched off the whole chain of events leading up to the murder.” The transcript of Neal’s trial takes up several chapters. Both Bobby and Jotham are called to testify, and the gay angle is pushed hard. After Neal abruptly changes his plea to murder in the second degree, Bobby leaves town. He settles in Cuernavaca, but abruptly departs after one of his “guests” turns out to be “under eighteen” and a British general’s son to boot. Bobby ends up in Tangier, where his houseboy cuts his throat.

Karl Flinders’s pulp novel The Boy Avengers, 1972, is even freer with facts. The narrator is the son, here called Grant Lattimer; he is nine (rather than an infant) at the time of the murder. The catalyst for the slaying is Grant’s tutor, Jack Foster, whom young Grant is also “infatuated with.” He bores a hole through the wall of their adjoining bedrooms and spies on the amoral tutor. He watches Foster having sex on alternate nights with each of his parents and as a result of seeing his father with Foster becomes aware of his own homosexuality. Foster slips away one night; Grant witnesses his parents’ confrontation when they both show up in Foster’s bedroom seeking him. His father taunts her to prove she can give as good a blow job as Foster, or even as good as her father could. She takes his penis in her mouth and bites down hard. Enraged by pain, he “grabbed up a large brass candlestick on the bedside table and brought it down hard on my mother’s head.” The novel now departs completely from fact. Sentenced to prison, Lattimer is “knifed to death in the prison shower.” Shipped off to a private school, Grant finds Foster is its athletic coach. His infatuation with the man has turned to hatred, compounded by Foster’s passive complicity in five of his soccer team’s rape of Jeff Talbot, a fellow student Grant has taken under wing. The rest of the novel follows the boys’ plot to seek revenge. They find a woman willing to infect the five students with a venereal disease; after they set Foster up, Grant secretly films his having sex with the underage Jeff and then sends the headmaster incriminating stills. The novel literally climaxes with Foster’s hanging himself while Grant once again spies on him. Grant ends the story with a scabrous throwaway line that Foster’s semen “tasted quite ordinary.” The Flinders books are copyrighted by Milton Saul; I have found nothing about him.

In his foreword to his fictionalization of the Lonergan case, Gordon Merrick wrote: “I knew Wayne slightly and had friends who knew him very well indeed.” Merrick obviously followed the news as it unfolded, enough to use the case as the basis for his final novel. But it was the rumor about the mutilated penis that I suspect he used first for fictional purposes. Charlie Mills, the protagonist of Merrick best-selling romance The Lord Won’t Mind, 1970, is as handsome and as ruthless as Wayne was. We are repeatedly (and I mean repeatedly) reminded what a huge penis he has. That penis seduces his distant cousin, Peter Martin, and they enter into a relationship. An artist, like Burton, Charlie paints an erotic nude portrait of Peter. Charlie, however, refuses to accept that he is gay and also pursues women. On impulse, he marries an actress. In a quarrel, she calls him a faggot. Charlie offers to prove his manhood by taking her anally (!). She counters with the offer of a blow job. He taunts her, “Yes, we mustn’t let Peter have all the fun,” whereupon she “took the sex in one hand and opened her mouth and clamped her teeth into it.” No candlestick is handy, but he batters her face and knocks out teeth: “When the veil of rage lifted from his eyes, he saw blood everywhere.” Charlie flees to Peter’s apartment for comfort. The wife survives and does not press charges. The episode takes up only two pages of a 250-page book, but it marks the turning point in the two men’s relationship.

Given how unappealing Charlie is, surprisingly Merrick’s roman à clef about the murder, The Good Life, 1997, is in many ways the most satisfying of all the fictional accounts, in large measure because the author fills in the contemporary homosexual background better than the others do. The novel was probably begun in 1986, the year of Wayne’s death, and left almost complete at the time of the author’s own death two years later; it was finished by Merrick’s partner, Charles G. Hulse. Merrick’s foreword goes on to say, “I have invented a fictional character who obligingly does many of the things that Wayne Lonergan did […] but the intimate details are purely fictional, and even the well-covered trial left gaps in the record that I haven’t hesitated to fill in with my own inventions.” Here the triangle is composed of Perry Langham, Billy Vernon, and Bettina Vernon Langham. Merrick poignantly draws a parallel between young Perry’s dreams and those of young James Gatz in The Great Gatsby. Seeking his man on the yacht, he thinks he has found him in Billy when they meet at the World’s Fair. Perry hasn’t noticed that the mysterious figure Gatsby meets leaves him almost as bad off as he was before their encounter. With a great deal of explicit sex and much dropping of names of gay celebrities (Clifton Webb, Cole Porter, Lucius Beebe, George Platt Lynes, etc.), the novel records the events that led up to the murder, closely copying the beginnings of Wayne and Burton’s affair before launching into almost pure fiction.

On a boat carrying the two men to Europe, Perry begins an affair with Timothy Dillingham. He meets Bettina when they arrive at the Côte d’Azur and takes her virginity. She turns out to be quite the young wanton, freely taking lovers even after their marriage and the birth of their son. She, Perry, and Timothy spend a night in bed together. While Perry dotes on his son, she shows no interest. After Billy’s death, the two drift even further apart. Then comes their fatal encounter. Merrick provides Perry a triple motive for the murder. Bettina tells him that he will never see his son again (citing fear that he will sexually molest the boy). She proclaims that she will kill the boy to preserve his innocence and strikes out at Perry with a heavy lamp. Having toyed with him sexually upon his entrance in the bedroom, she then lunges for his genitals and tries to bite off one of his testicles. Reacting instinctively, Perry grabs a lamp and kills her with it. Merrick ends his novel there, simply appending a slightly rewritten version of Wayne’s obituary in the New York Times to reveal that Perry has spent his life since parole with Timothy. Merrick himself appears in a cameo role under the guise of the actor Rodney Fairfield, who lands a part in Kaufman and Hart’s The American Way. Merrick was in that play and had a larger role in The Man Who Came to Dinner. He was briefly Moss Hart’s lover.

There have been other modern cases involving homosexual murderers. Some of them too became the basis for nonfiction accounts, novels, and films, but the majority are more or less forgotten. Why did the Lonergan case become such a sensation and the source of so many books and articles? The social milieu, the sordid triangle, Wayne’s flexible sexuality, as well as his good looks, must contribute in part to the fascination. Perhaps at the time it was the sheer novelty of the forbidden being splashed across newspaper pages. Now that most of the people who followed the case as it unfolded are dead, one wonders whether the trio finally will be allowed to rest in peace. Probably not. A brief search of the internet reveals that rehashes of the case continue to provide filler for tabloids.

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A much abridged version appeared earlier in Murder in the Closet, edited by Curtis Evans

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