Saturday, January 12, 2013

This Day in Literary History (Execution in the ‘Double Indemnity’ Murders)

January 12, 1928—Her trial was sensational, so why should her execution have been any different? And so, Ruth Brown Snyder—having washed down Chicken Parmesan with pasta Alfredo, ice cream, two milkshakes, and a 12-pack of grape soda—was executed after her lover, weak-willed corset salesman Henry Judd Gray, for their part in the murder of Snyder’s husband. This first execution of a woman in New York’s Sing Sing in nearly 30 years was recorded on film by a reporter, who covertly shot it with a miniature camera taped to his ankle, with the indelible image of the woman strapped in the electric chair with a mask over her face displayed the next day for readers of the New York Daily News.

At another, earlier time, authorities might have hesitated about executing a mother of a young child. But this 32-year-old Queens housewife was a brassy, curvy blonde given to dancing and taking rooms for afternoon sex at the Waldorf during Prohibition while her husband stayed home minding their daughter. In short, in the court of public opinion, she was not just a flapper, but a flapper who, given her age and way of life, should have known better. She had to be punished, and was, for convincing Gray to kill her husband, Albert Snyder, the editor of Motor Boating Magazine (where she had once worked as his secretary). The details--coming home late with her husband on the night of the March 1927 killing, having sex with her lover while her husband slept, then beating Albert with a dumbbell herself when Gray botched his first attempt at the hit--only increased animosity toward her.

The Snyder-Gray murder might have ended as simply an entry in an encyclopedia of crime, except that two literary friends were inspired by the case to write two of their more celebrated works. H.L. Mencken, the cynical editor of The American Mercury and columnist at the Baltimore Sun, took the occasion of a review of Doomed Ship, Gray's posthumously published memoir, to draw ironic moral lessons from the case of the "Putty Man":

“Sin is a dangerous toy in the hands of the virtuous. It should be left to the congenitally sinful, who know when to play with it and when to let it alone. Run a boy through a Presbyterian Sunday-school and you must police him carefully all the rest of his life, for once he slips he is ready for anything.”

Mencken’s column on the case was short, and it departed from his usual subjects—politics, literature, music—but it went on to become among his most appreciated works. One of his acolytes at the Sun and the Mercury, James M. Cain, even helped create an entire literary genre when he was inspired by the case to write Double Indemnity (1936). In the pioneering example of roman noir, or hard-boiled crime fiction, he incorporated one of the most breathlessly reported facts about the case—that Snyder took out personal injury insurance on her husband for $50,000 and double indemnity in case of death—wove it into Cain’s own personal knowledge both of selling insurance in his younger days and of clandestine affairs, and produced a fast-moving novel of suspense that the public—and Hollywood—snapped up.

Billy Wilder’s 1944 adaptation of the novel is one of the foundations of film noir, and the element that audiences found so intriguing, just as tabloid readers had done more than a decade earlier—a femme fatale leading a clueless lover to his destruction—would be incorporated down the years in other films such as Body Heat and The Last Seduction.

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