A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion

Aha! moments make novels.

A few years ago I taught a senior seminar on film noir for the English department. Our fourth week in the course was devoted to James M. Cain’s short novel Double Indemnity, and to the fine 1944 Billy Wilder film adaptation starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson, with a script by Wilder and Raymond Chandler. In both the novel and movie, a California insurance salesman meets the strange and alluring wife of one of his wealthy clients, finds out she wants to get rid of her husband, and hardly hesitates before deciding to help her do it. Walter knows that the insurance policy pays double its value for accidental loss of life, so he and Phyllis fraudulently get the husband to sign for a hefty amount and plot to make it appear that the husband, whom Walter bludgeoned in his car, fell in a deadly way off a train. They garner no suspicions from the police, but Walter’s superior, a crafty investigator for the insurance company, is soon on the case, and all goes downhill from there.

In preparing for class, I read a biography of James M. Cain and found a tiny footnote that indicated the plot was based “on the Snyder/Gray case.” That was all. I had heard nothing whatsoever of the case, but through the magic of Google I found Wikipedia and other entries that gave a general background on the love affair between Judd Gray and Ruth Snyder that resulted in the 1927 Queens, New York, homicide of Ruth’s husband, Albert Snyder, the art editor of Motor Boating Magazine.

“The instinct of motherhood, the desire of a father to shield
his child from harm, common sense, any feeling of decency
toward a loving mate were all swept away before a wild surge
of guilty passion.” — Cornelius Vanderbilt III

Screenwriter William Goldman used to say that in pitching a movie to Hollywood studios the screenwriter should say the project would be “just like” some masterpiece “but completely different.” The same holds true for those who focus on writing historical fiction: We chance upon a oncewell-known topic that has enormous but inviting gaps in its narrative and either has been forgotten or has been reported with gross factual errors. In my historical fiction I have sought to clarify how Jesse James was killed by Robert Ford; revive Geli Raubal, Hitler’s niece, whom he claimed was the only woman he ever loved; and give life to the five nuns featured in British Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” The Snyder/Gray case was, for me, equally compelling.

Even now some Internet postings are just plain wrong about multiple aspects of a Snyder/Gray murder case that, in the late 1920s, was called “the crime of the century.” I corroborated some information by researching library microfilms of The New York Times and The New York Daily Mirrorfrom 1927, and I was helped enormously by an edited transcript of the Queens County trial, by Judd Gray’s memoir Doomed Ship—finished just minutes before his execution in Sing Sing’s electric chair—and by Ruth Snyder’s crazy, serialized jailhouse rant, My Own True Story—So Help Me God!

My own fascination had less to do with the details of the homicide than with the deadly progress of an 18-month love affair between a fun-loving, sultry, irresistible housewife and a suave, small, dandyish corset salesman who would jointly register more than 50 times for a clandestine room in the old Waldorf-Astoria—where the Empire State Building is now—and gradually find themselves conspiring to kill Albert, whom Ruth called “the old crab,” a cultured, sour, loveless artist whom Judd had never met.

The novel is not a whodunit. Even the book jacket itself gives away those facts typically withheld in mysteries. The interest for me was in the psychology behind Ruth’s fantasy of perfect happiness once her husband was done away with and she received the $96,000 in insurance money—an enormous sum then— that she’d deceptively gotten Albert to give his signature to, and Judd’s slavish devotion to his strong-willed lover, letting lust, lots of whiskey, and his own pliant nature determine what he would do.

The fun of writing historical fiction is finding out new things all the time. At a Christmas party, I asked Tim Healy of SCU’s Department of Electrical Engineering what the green tint was on the copper roof of the old Waldorf-Astoria, and the next morning received an e-mail from him telling me it was a patina called verdigris. With this book I also discovered that in 1925 Noxzema was called Dr. Bunting’s Sunburn Remedy; cars were still without heaters or radios; hip flasks and lipstick became fashionable; the term “bimbo” referred to a man, not a woman; Mayor Jimmy Walker made it possible to watch movies on Sundays; most people worked six days a week; and even though it was the era of Prohibition, someone arriving at the Port Authority Terminal in New York City could find illegal alcohol for sale in less than a minute.

Also surprising was the speed of the justice system then. Judd and Ruth murdered a sleeping Albert with a five-pound sash weight in the wee hours of Sunday, March 20. Both were in jail by Monday night. The first interviews with jurors took place on April 18; the trial—which was as famous then as O. J. Simpson’s was in our time—took only 17 days; Albert’s character was never called into question; and even with appeals, the lovers were executed in Sing Sing just seven months after their sentencing. (I got a sense of Ruth’s skylark nature when I found out that sentencing took place on May 13 and Ruth joked to a jailer, “This is my worst Friday the 13th ever.”)

All during the two years or so that I was writing the novel I was waiting for a title. I finally found it in a newspaper editorial written by Cornelius Vanderbilt III just after the couple were arrested. He wrote: “The instinct of motherhood, the desire of a father to shield his child from harm, common sense, any feeling of decency toward a loving mate were all swept away before a wild surge of guilty passion.”

Of such aha! moments are novels made. mag-bug

 Ron Hansen reads an excerpt from A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion
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