Sunday, March 2, 2014

My First True Crime

In the summer of 1967 I was spending time at home. Though I was 14 and about to turn 15, at the beginning of the summer I was still waiting to see if my parents were going to insist I have a babysitter. My last babysitter had not been reengaged.

Mrs. Marsh was a single mom, one of whose daughters was in my class at school. She was nice enough but life at her home was boring. Her taste in music ran to the Ray Conniff singers and she served one unvarying lunch: Warmish iced tea in waxy glasses and Kraft American Singles (you couldn’t call it cheese) on toasted bread. She was rarely my babysitter in the afternoons. She went off to the officer’s club at the local military base and her daughter, my classmate, was in charge of me.

One day she came home aglow (and perhaps a-slosh) with the news that she had seen my father at the officer’s club. She leered at me and it was only some years later that I realized that if he was talking to officers at all, they were probably female. Alas, for Mrs. Marsh, my dad also saw her, the caretaker of his delicate daughter, at a bar in the middle of the day. As I wasn’t knocking back martinis with her, she couldn’t be watching me. She was out of a job.

I begged to be on my own. If I promised not to answer the door or go off our property, what could possibly happen? Would reading too many books put me in danger? So my parents, with some reluctance, let me stay home by myself. My mother left sandwiches for lunch and I was allowed soda pop. Normally, I would have listened to the Beatles, and Broadway show recordings (I can still can do a fair number of Rex Harrison’s ‘songs’ from My Fair Lady) but in the early part of the summer I had a larger task.

My parents and I were a Nielsen family. We got a weekly log in which we were to record what we watched on T.V. The big event in the early summer of 1967 was the Arab-Israeli War (also known as the Six Day War). All the networks were covering the debate at the United Nations. I recorded that I watched every minute of that debate.

I wanted the folks at Nielsen to know that I was a teenager deeply interested in world affairs. (The fact that information about names and ages wasn’t requested didn’t faze me.) And I did learn something. I learned that when U.N. delegates really despised each other they hid it under diplomatic language. No delegate called another a smarmy little worm. The language went like this: “If I might remind my distinguished, learned, honorable colleague…” That’s diplomatic lingo for smarmy little worm.

What was I really glued to? My hardcover copy of Dorothy Kilgallen’s Murder One.

Yes, while foreign intrigue featured on T.V., my book spoke of malice domestic. This was ,for my naive 15 year old self, hot stuff. I’m sure no 15 year old of today would turn a hair.

The trials Kilgallen covers span the 1930s to the 1960s and they all involve sex. Kilgallen has a way with a phrase. Describing Bernard Finch who is on trial for the murder of his wife: “Dr Finch at 40 had a lucrative surgical practice, was a ranking tennis amateur, and had a winning way with the ladies. He was, in short, notably successful both as a surgeon and an operator.”

In the case of “Greta Peltz,” who spices her love letters with bits of Lady Chatterly’s Lover, we are told that her defense attorney whispers this Lawrence into the record. Ms. Peltz admits to killing her lover because he raped her. She is acquitted it seems, not so much because of the rape, but because her lover asked her to perform repulsive sex acts. Ah, guilt in a more innocent time. There are also accounts of one case that very much resembles An American Tragedy and the first trial of Sam Shepard. I loved this book.

When my parents came home, I made sure to regale them with stories from the U.N. My mother knew what I was reading, but hadn’t read the book herself. Then one evening my father, no reader he, came home, picked up the book, and started leafing through it.

“You’re reading this?”


“Well as long as it doesn’t make you uncomfortable and you’re not bored.”

“No,” I assured him. “Never bored.”

© 2014 Stephanie Patterson


  1. Hi, Steph, look forward to a novel by you! tjs

  2. Steph, until this, I have known Dorothy Kilgallen only as a panelist on What's My Line. What fun to know she kept you entertained, and that you and I are a sisters in teenage crime reading.

    1. Knew Dorothy from What's My Line, too. And knew her dad, Jim Kilgallen, legend among newspapermen. Ancient, he was still pecking away at his Underwood at his desk at the New York Journal-American. I used to pick up his copy. Did y'all know Dorothy was married to Dick Kollmar? (Whoever he was. I remember Nielsen ratings. Bob