Content warning: This post discusses domestic violence. It includes photos, discussion, and depictions of physical abuse.
Catch up with Part 1 and Part 2
The first half of 1926 was mostly thorns, few roses for Lady Bledzo. In just four short months, her boyfriend (and chief funder) “Yellow Kid” Weil went to prison; she was attacked by his wife; she moved from hotel to hotel; and her face was cut up in a car crash.
Whatever Lady Bledzo was trying to achieve in life, this was probably not it.
It’s no surprise that she then vanished from the record. Who wouldn’t want to lay low after that? I would like to think that she took time to pause, to recalibrate and make better choices. But introspection doesn’t seem to have been her style, and I don’t think she could afford it anyway. Self-reflection doesn’t pay the hotel bill.
She was still based in Chicago, probably still moving in the circle of nightclub vamps and low-grade crooks that she had cultivated in happier days. Her lifestyle continued to be transient — fixed addresses were for swells with money. And money… That was probably transient, too.
Whether for love or for finance, by late 1926 Lady Bledzo was attached to a new man. He was no more stable than Weil had been and her life with him was no easier.
June 1927: The Lady Returns
It was nearly a year later, early summer 1927, when Lady Bledzo bloomed anew in newspapers across the country.
The new boyfriend, Darby Day, Jr., had not been a good one. Their romance had been marked by violent physical and emotional abuse, and now Lady Bledzo had filed suit: $100K for the abuse, and $100K for breach of contract because he failed to marry her. The lawsuit amount — nearly $3 million in today’s money — was itself enough to get press attention. But the story had more oomph than that, even: There were two celebrities involved.
Darby, the sole heir of a Chicago millionaire, had been in the papers just the year before. In a dramatic story, he was seriously hurt when his wife Bernice threw acid on him. He nearly lost an eye and required multiple surgeries to his face.
Darby’s upbringing appears to have been indulgent. His obituary says he attended Northwestern University, but a records search found no trace of his attendance. If he majored in anything, it was in drinking, spending his father’s money, and speeding around in expensive cars. When he inevitably smashed them, his father paid the bill and promised his son wouldn’t do it again.
Darby and Bernice eloped when he was 21 and she was 19 — and it was her second elopement. They seem suited for each other, in the way that terrible people find a connection. As soon as the honeymoon ended, their arguments began. Separation quickly followed. The acid-throwing happened while they were trying to reconcile. In the months after the attack: Bernice attempted suicide; Darby filed for divorce; Darby went to jail for speeding; Bernice was convicted, got it overturned, was reconvicted, and was sentenced to San Quentin; and there was a big public discussion about whether he would fight to get her pardoned.
These were not moderate people.
So, when Lady Bledzo appeared with stories — and photos — of Darby’s continued volatility, the press took notice.
In All the Papers
The most powerful force in Lady Bledzo’s corner seems to have been International Feature Service, the same Hearst organization that had featured her in its splashy 1925 articles about Yellow Kid Weil. During the summer of 1927, IFS ran at least three separate features about Lady Bledzo. They were designed for inserts in Sunday newspapers, with eye-catching visuals and highly sympathetic writing. The articles tout “exclusive photos” of Lady Bledzo’s graphic injuries, so we can guess that a bargain was struck and she cooperated fully.
Rough Romance: Full-size article
Close-Up Exhibits: Full-size article
Fate’s 8th Blow: Full-size article
Every bargain has some give and take.
On the upside: Lady Bledzo was now the star. In 1925, when the IFS stories were about Weil, she had been the strumpet. Now she was the injured lover/jilted fiancée. It was a better seat to have, for sure. (And yet, if you read the articles, you’ll note that at least a third of each is just about Darby or Weil, not about her at all.)
The syndicate’s depiction of Lady Bledzo is not just sympathetic — at times it gets downright flowery.
“Her dark spectacular beauty…”
“There is no more peaceful girl in all the world…”
“Ravishingly beautiful and the darling of those cabarets which feel their receipts swelled by the presence of her dancing act on their programs…”*
Under their treatment, her own life story gets similarly ornamented. The woman who said she was born in Mexico was now a “fiery Spanish dancer.” Her first husband, also a “fiery Spaniard,” scarred her on the cheek with a “devil’s pitchfork.” There’s a dramatic elopement and a second husband. Even the scuffle with the Yellow Kid’s wife, which left her with a torn fur and a hurt lip, turns into Lady Bledzo losing fistfuls of hair and requiring plastic surgery. It’s heavy on the drama and light on truth.
The darker aspect of her bargain with the newspapers is more subtle. “Wife beating” was illegal in all states by 1920, but domestic violence was dealt with socially in ways that look appalling today.
“By the first decades of the twentieth century, the systemic response to domestic violence was to avoid criminal intervention and require (at most) counseling for the couple. Domestic relations courts faced with complaints of wife beating would urge reconciliation and family preservation, and would emphasize that both parties were at fault…”
I took a long time to write this blog post because I find the IFS features to be, frankly, gross. I try hard not to judge past choices with my modern morality, but the way they sentimentalize truly terrible, violent allegations is difficult to absorb and hard to turn into words. It’s egregious and upsetting and minimizing. And that’s just the drawings and the text, not even touching on the stark nature of her injury photos.
And they weren’t alone. I mean… this is horrible.
Even a “sympathetic” source like IFS didn’t avoid making jokes like “Cupid wears boxing gloves” and “Love’s old sweet song seems thus a right to the jaw.”
It’s the jokes that disgust me the most, because I believe her.
In December 1926, when Darby and Lady Bledzo would have been together, his divorce was finalized. He celebrated about as you would expect.
So, when Lady Bledzo tells IFS that he hit her at the Rendezvous Café, when she says he tore through her belongings, hit her with a Victrola, dragged her by her hair, and kicked her, I believe her. I also don’t doubt that other men beat her up. She’s a woman without means, among men who have means. It’s a power dynamic ripe for abuse. I suspect Lady Bledzo found herself in that kind of vulnerable situation often.
And then to see it turned into joke fodder… This one has been tough.
* * * *
Darby left for Europe just before the lawsuit story broke, and stayed there the whole summer. His timing was certainly fortuitous.
It was left to his father, Darby Day, Sr., to respond in the press for him. The senior Day claimed that it was all a shakedown. According to him, Darby had never worked (probably true) and only got $50/week allowance – a mere $725 in today’s money – so Lady Bledzo wouldn’t get a cent.
Darby didn’t come back until September, and his response to the lawsuit was characteristically laconic: “I thought she’d forgotten about all that.”
I really hate that guy.
The Researcher’s Dilemma
As I said, I believe Lady Bledzo’s allegations.
However… As part of researching this story, I looked into two supports for her case: Her plastic surgeon Henry Schireson, and her lawyer, Benjamin Ehrlich. There is some curious context that I can’t ignore. I have to discuss it.
Lady Bledzo claimed that the couple first met at the office of their mutual plastic surgeon, Dr. Henry Schireson. This is plausible. The joyriding car crash did damage her face, and Darby had at least one facial surgery, in Chicago, in August 1926, with more planned.
Schireson was a nationally known plastic surgeon. He was also a tremendous fraud and dangerous quack, first arrested in 1907. Less than a year after Lady Bledzo, he maimed and nearly killed a patient in one of his operations. Defending him in the resulting lawsuit: Benjamin Ehrlich. It’s an odd choice because Ehrlich’s specialty was divorce cases, big ones. $100K ones.
So, Lady Bledzo had no visible means of making money. Yet she picked a famous, very expensive plastic surgeon? And she happened to meet a millionaire’s son at that surgeon’s office? And then she chose a splashy lawyer? And the lawyer and the surgeon know each other?
I believe Darby hit her. I believe he was terrible.
But that “scar” on her cheek has visible edges. ☗
Next time: The Lady vanishes. Or so she thought.
* I have searched in vain for an ad or bill touting a Lady Bledzo performance anywhere. Not a one has turned up yet.
Special thanks to the archive staff at Northwestern University.
Domestic Violence history
The Chicago Blue Book of Selected Names of Chicago and Suburban Towns, Volume 26; Chicago directory Company, 1914
Conversion to 1920s dollars
The Exit Myth: Family Law, Gender Roles, and Changing Attitudes toward Female Victims of Domestic Violence toward Female Victims of Domestic Violence
Wife Murder in Chicago: 1910-1930
Darby returns from Europe
© 2020 Tori Brovet/All rights reserved
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