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The Blonde Slayer
Sex sells newspapers. So does murder. Put the two together and you've got the keys to a journalistic Fort Knox. Press barons have always known this and that's why, whenever a steamy murder trial comes along, gallons of printer's ink are devoted to getting every last sordid detail. In November 1935 the tabloids' moneymaking microscope was focused on a tragic woman they dubbed "The Blonde Slayer." And this was even before she stood trial.
How best to spend $35,000? That was the thorny problem facing Vera Stretz in late 1934. After much consideration, the attractive 31-year-old ash blonde NYU graduate – she'd inherited that sum from her late mother – decided to splash out a cruise. In December 1934, while touring the West Indies aboard the Italian-registered Vulcania, she chanced to meet a wealthy German financier, Dr. Fritz Gebhardt, 42, who had offices in New York. The setting was romantic and Vera fell heavily for the older man. On their return to New York, Gebhardt asked for Vera's phone number and soon the relationship blossomed into a full-blown affair.
German Love Triangle
Then Vera learned that Gebhardt had a wife and two daughters back in Karlsruhe. Gebhardt brushed off her concerns. The marriage, he said, was over, and existed in name only. Vera took him at his word and, as a sign of her affection, moved into Beekman Tower – then, as now, a swanky hotel in Manhattan – where Gebhardt kept an apartment. She kept a thin veneer of respectability on the relationship by taking rooms two floors down from lover. Ostensibly Vera worked as a book-keeper at Gebhardt's thriving import business, but that was just window-dressing. Her main function was to cater to her boss's sexual needs, and, if Vera is to be believed, these could be quite demanding.
For a while all went well. When Gebhardt visited Germany, he and Vera exchanged erotic letters that were designed to keep the flames burning. Vera proved to be especially adept in this area, spicing up her letters with extracts from the unexpurgated version of Lady Chatterley's Lover. But in the months following Gebhardt's return Vera sensed a certain cooling in their relationship. The final blow came on November 10, 1935, with the discovery that her lover had spent the previous night at a hotel with another woman. Vera was crushed. That same day, mired in despair, she rewrote her will, leaving all her entire estate to her father, apart from some small bequests to two close friends. Then she returned to Beekman Tower, still hopeful, so she said later, of patching up things with Gebhardt.
His reliance on Vera was made plain in the early hours of November 12, when he phoned down to her room, complaining of abdominal pains. Vera didn't pause. Throwing a coat over her cerise nightgown, she hastened upstairs. Upon her arrival at room 2114 she found Gebhardt lying in an old-fashioned nightshirt on the bed, feeling feverish and clutching his stomach. She turned to a bureau drawer that she knew housed an electric pad that Gebhardt used to ease aches and pains. While her back was turned, Gebhardt underwent a miraculous recovery. He leapt from the bed, red-faced, and began tearing at her clothes, all the while yelling, "You'll do everything I want you to do!" Then he had yanked up his nightshirt and demanded that she perform what Vera later described as an "unnatural act" upon him.
Shots Ring Out
Repelled by such ungentlemanly conduct, Vera drew away. As she did so, her gaze fell upon a pistol lying in the bureau drawer. Without thinking she grabbed hold and began blindly firing. A hail of bullets sent Gebhardt slumping across the bed. Then, in a daze, she phoned down to the hotel switchboard and asked if they could send for the police.
When Vera recounted details of her ordeal to the detectives, their instinctive reaction was "Hogwash!". They couldn't picture the coolly possessed—and still fully dressed—Vera as some shrinking violent who'd gallantly defended her honor. All they saw was a jealous killer who'd burst into her lover's room and shot him because he was about to dump her. How else to explain that the murder weapon was a .32 caliber pistol purchased by Vera in May 1930?
There was also the nagging difficulty of the 46 rounds of ammunition recovered from Vera's handbag. And when an autopsy showed that Gebhardt had been shot four times—twice in the back—things looked black indeed for Miss Stretz. The senior officer in charge of the case, John A. Lyons, promptly charged her with murder, certain in his own mind that Vera's conviction was a slam dunk. Facing an appointment with the electric chair, Vera now put the remainder of her mother's legacy to the best possible use – she hired the top defense attorney in America.
The Courtroom Wizard
When it came to getting people acquitted against the odds, Samuel L. Leibowitz was the master. Like most successful defense attorneys he understood that cases weren't won on points of law or even evidence; no, the secret was to grasp the jury's heart, not its head. Pity the poor prosecutor who came armed with mere facts when Leibowitz was sat at the opposing table. He dealt in the dark arts of emotion manipulation and nobody did it better. Within moments of reading the brief he'd figured out where Vera's best chances of survival lay.
Just recently, the American press had woken up to the threat posed by Adolf Hitler's anti-Semitic ravings. Troubling reports of Jews in Germany being victimized, beaten up and even murdered had begun to filter across the Atlantic. This gave Leibowitz his opening. He told the court that Miss Stretz had only been protecting herself against a Nazi assault, undertaken by a lustful Aryan intent on violating pure American womanhood. Gradually Leibowitz weaved his spell over the all-male jury. Soon it was Gebhardt, not Vera, on trial. Among those in the packed courtroom who sat enraptured by Leibowitz's towering performance was famed movie actress Tallulah Bankhead.
By the time Leibowitz finished his closing address, Gebhardt had been transformed from wealthy German financier into a closet Nazi, a godless disciple of Nietzsche, someone so perverted by sexual excess that shooting was almost too good for him. The jury swallowed every overheated word and wasted little time in returning a verdict of not guilty.
There was a gasp in court. Some cheered. Others looked aghast. A stone-faced judge notably failed to thank the jury for their efforts and quickly left the bench. One newspaper captured the air of general incredulity in an editorial sourly titled, "Boy Meets Girl, Girl Shoots Boy, Boys Free Girl."
Not that Samuel Leibowitz gave a damn. Outside the court, mobbed by reporters, the triumphant lawyer tallied up the score: by his reckoning, Vera Stretz was the 116th defendant he had saved from the electric chair. The next day it was Vera's turn to meet the press. "Don't let this ruin your life," urged one woman reporter.
"My life is ruined already," was the sad reply.