Love’s Undertaker: Nathan Burkan and Jazz Age Divorce

There was the strange case of Orator Francis Woodward, the playboy heir to a $30 million Jell-O fortune. For nearly two years, Orator had been living in a $2,000-a-month suite at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel in New York City, while his estranged wife, Persis, was living in Paris with their two children. In January 1929, Orator and his lawyer, Herbert C. Smythe, hatched an audacious plan to bring the marriage to a quick and, they hoped, inexpensive end.

Orator first took a lease on a furnished house in suburban Nyack, New York, and then filed a divorce complaint against Persis in the Rockland County court, a venue that Nathan Burkan called “a Mecca for wealthy and distressed gentlemen who want to get rid of their wives.” Certainly, it had a reputation for being a quicker and quieter divorce venue than Manhattan. The complaint accused Persis of infidelity with six men―in Paris, in Italy, on the Riviera―specifically naming one Russian dance instructor and one Parisian “gigolo.” Orator and Smythe then headed to France, where they orchestrated an abduction of the Woodward children as they were leaving school one afternoon.

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Persis had a fine lawyer in New York to look out for her interests: Dudley Field Malone. Malone, a progressive politician and one of Clarence Darrow’s co-counsel in the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, specialized in divorce and had an office in Paris. Before sailing to France to retrieve Mrs. Woodward, Malone brought Burkan, an old friend and political ally, into the case as his co-counsel. After conferring on strategy, the two lawyers told reporters that they viewed the kidnapping as “an obvious attempt to put up a bluff and get a cheap settlement. Mr. Woodward has started something and we’ll finish it.”

Burkan filed a writ of habeas corpus in the state supreme court in Manhattan, seeking an order compelling Orator to turn the children over on the ground that he was an unfit guardian. The habeas petition―compiled with the help of private detective James McIntyre, known in the press as the “society sleuth”―detailed Orator’s lengthy history of drunkenness and physical abusiveness toward Persis. It went on to allege that he suffered from delusions of grandeur, believing that he was “some sort of potentate,” and that “one of his favorite amusements is to make his daughter salaam in his presence.”

Orator’s strange behavior was attributed to his infatuation with a mysterious Turkish “princess,” Fatima Ala, with whom he consorted when in Europe. “She has thick black hair and a certain voluptuous walk that attracts attention everywhere,” the affidavit of Orator’s mother-in-law stated. “I have been informed she is not really a member of the Turkish nobility. Her father was a rug peddler.” McIntyre’s operatives told reporters that Fatima was actually “short and fat and has warts.”

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Burkan sent private eye McIntyre to meet the Île de France at the pier and serve the writ of habeas corpus. But Orator was able to evade service with the help of the crew, who spirited him and the children from the bowels of the ship via a lower-level gangplank. All McIntyre found was a note that Orator had left in his cabin: “To all reporters, greetings. We have enjoyed the Ile de France and have had a nice trip. I have nothing further to say.” A few days later, McIntyre’s operatives found and served Orator in Nyack.

Reports that Orator had been accompanied by “seventeen gigolos” who would attest to Mrs. Woodward’s infidelity proved unfounded. But several days later his attorney, Smythe, returned from Europe with two French women, two Russian men, and a Dutchman who reportedly would “tell of Paris parties and love rodeos on the Riviera in which sleek gigolos and dancing masters are said to have played Romeo for Mrs. Woodward.” Private detectives hired by Orator kept the witnesses under constant guard to prevent reporters from speaking to them.

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Smythe was having trouble keeping his witnesses corralled. One of the Russian men died of delirium tremens on Ellis Island; one of the French women met the love of her life and disappeared, and the other became homesick:

But the detectives convoying the foreigners had their greatest trouble with two other men, a Russian and a Dutchman.

Otar Berk Tugai of Moscow insisted on a $25-a-day suite at the Ritz and caviar for breakfast, served in bed. He gave Woodward’s sleuths nervous prostration by disappearing for three days and coming back to the hotel, almost out of his mind from the effects of synthetic vodka.

Tugai also became temperamental and objected to the Dutch witness, Dirk Pen, stopping at the same hotel. The two met in the lobby and before an amused crowd called each other cochon and canaille in the language they both understood, French.

Within days of Mrs. Woodward’s return to New York, the couple reached a settlement. Orator got his wished-for termination of the marriage, but it did not come cheap. He paid Persis $1 million and established trust funds of $750,000 for each child. It was a “sweeping victory” for Persis and “a new high price for millionaires who fail in efforts to break the bonds of matrimony.”