Three years after this photo, their perfect world came crashing down thanks to two diamond bangles from Paris, a shadowy “Nicaraguan diplomat” and the vengeful, Hitler-loving maid of a Supreme Court judge.
One can only wonder what the photographer said to get these terrific reactions from comedian husband and wife duo George Burns and Gracie Allen, and the man of a thousand faces, actor Joe E. Brown, Chico Marx’s beautiful wife Betty Karp, and actor George E. Stone.
The occasion is the opening of the glamorous Mayfair Club in the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel in 1935. When the ‘Biltmore,’ as it was simply known by the citizens of Hollywood’s film colony, opened in 1923 it was the largest hotel west of Chicago. Its architectural style and decor were deliberately grand and sumptuous, signaling that Los Angeles was truly the West Coast’s anchor for wealth, power and glamour.
By the time this gorgeous crowd rowdily assembled on a set of stairs in the hotel, the Biltmore’s relationship to Hollywood was well established. My great-uncle, MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer, shared his idea for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) over dinner one night with actor Conrad Nagel, director Fred Niblo and producer Fred Beetson. They agreed it was just what the film business needed to band together as an industry, instead of just disparate studios and various guilds. The concept received wide-spread support and plans were made for its first official banquet to be held on May 11, 1927 in the Biltmore’s Crystal Ballroom. Of the 300 guests, 230 joined the Academy that night, paying $100 each – a significant chunk of cash for most Americans at the time, equivalent to roughly $1300 in buying power in today’s money. The first honorary membership was granted to Thomas Edison.
Even the iconic and much coveted Oscar statuette is said to have a connection to the hotel. Legend has it that MGM film art director Cedric Gibbons grabbed a Biltmore napkin and hastily sketched the design for an Oscar. And during the early years of the Academy Awards, eight ceremonies were actually held in the Biltmore Bowl.
But on this night, dozens of behemoth luxury cars would have streamed past the hotel’s grand entrance, disgorging one glamorous couple after another. The women would have been dressed to the nines in sensational gowns of silk and wearing their best jewels, and the men in absolutely nothing less than tuxedo and top hat, with shoes shining like polished ebony.
Oh, those were the days!
Just for a moment, imagine you’re a 20-year-old valet and it’s your job to park the dozens of luxury vehicles and not get a scratch or a dent on any of them — or you’re toast. The thrill of driving these gleaming behemoths would be far outweighed by the reality of parking a gigantic, mirror-polished, brand new Rolls Royce into a tight spot next to another hulking Rolls Royce. A night of this would take years off of my life.
But none of these practical matters were of concern to my glamorous grandmother, Mitzi, Photoplay magazine columnist, and her buddies, the cream of Hollywood’s entertainment colony.
George Burns is laughing out loud and embraced protectively and with deep affection by his wife Gracie Allen, the other half of the wildly popular comedy duo ‘Burns and Allen,’ which would span 35 years of live performances, radio, television and film. George – in love, wealthy, and exuding the confidence that comes from being invited into thousands of American living rooms each night – drapes his arm over Gracie’s lap in such a wonderfully natural way.
And who knows if it’s just the champagne and cigars or there is a long-standing collegiate relationship, but much-loved character actor, Joe E. Brown (best known for Pin Up Girl, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Some Like It Hot, Show Boat, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World), is resting his hands on Gracie’s shoulders, gently and respectfully.
Nestled next to the “man of a thousand faces,” as Brown was also called, is the wife of comedian Chico Marx, Betty Karp, who looks as glamorous as a starlet on this terrific night.
Below Karp is George E. Stone (who film lovers will know from The Front Page, 42nd Street, The Robe, Some Like It Hot), who often played the tough guy, but in this photo looks the big softie and so self-deprecating he might also be ready to serve the hors d’oeuvres.
And finally, up at the top, taking part but also the perennial observer in her role as a Hollywood reporter and niece of Louis B. Mayer, is Mitzi who is smiling her trademark stunning smile and tickled pink by everyone’s antics.
In 1935, everyone sitting on those stairs in the Biltmore had a lot to smile about; they were all popular and busy, but of this group, the super stars are Burns and Allen. By the time this photo was taken, George Burns and Gracie Allen had already had a lifetime of performing.
George, born Nathan Birnbaum in 1896 into an orthodox Jewish home, had five brothers and six sisters. His father was a butcher and part-time cantor (singer in the synagogue). George’ first performance was at the age of eight with the “Pee-wee Quartet” – four neighborhood boys whose stage was the humble street corners of the Lower East Side of Manhattan where they grew up.
When his father passed away, George helped support the family with odd jobs and left school in the fourth grade. By 14, he was performing full-time and smoking his trademark cigars.
Gracie, born in 1906, was named Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen and was the youngest of four sisters from an Irish-Catholic vaudeville family. She began performing with them at just three years old.
When Gracie was born, her father was contracted to work in San Francisco. I am sure they considered it a miracle that the family survived the catastrophic 1906 earthquake, which destroyed most of the city, killed over 3,000 residents and left 75% of the population homeless.
In 1923, George and Gracie met at a show in Union Hill, New Jersey where Burns and his then partner had top billing. But it was Gracie that George was crazy for. Shortly after, he convinced her to join him and they became a couple in work and in love. With a $17 wedding ring (marked down to $11), George Burns made Gracie Allen his wife on January 7, 1926.
The couple’s very first show had George as the funny guy and Gracie as the ‘straight man’, but something wasn’t working.
As Gracie recalled:
“Of course, George had written the act for himself, with himself as the comedian and I as the straight man. But the funny thing – my straight lines got the laughs. People laughed twice as hard at my not being funny as they laughed at George’s being funny.
When we came off after the first show, he said, ‘we’re switching parts, Gracie’. He rewrote the act then and there.”
The two played vaudeville shows for three years and eventually orbited toward the green fields of radio. After guest-starring on the Rudy Valle and Guy Lombardo shows, they began their own show on February, 15, 1932.
America fell in love with them and Burns and Allen quickly became household names and mega stars.
It’s hard to imagine that just three years after everyone posed on the stairs, the couple’s perfect world came crashing down thanks to two diamond bangles from Paris, a shadowy “Nicaraguan diplomat” and the vengeful, Hitler-loving maid of a Supreme Court judge.
The waves of intrigue started innocently enough in 1938 at a Park Avenue dinner party in Manhattan, but would flow all the way to the sun-kissed mansions of Hollywood, and slam into George Burns, and fellow comedian Jack Benny, like a tsunami. The indictments for smuggling would result in guilty pleas all around. It is impossible to imagine now, but Burns faced a $45,000 fine and 18 years in jail!
America was in shock, Hollywood held its breath, and coverage was front page news for months. It must have been agony for George and Gracie, and their friends.
At the same, Hitler’s brutal occupation of Czechoslovakia was also in the news. There were disturbing reports from German exiles that men and women were being shot on the spot, or plucked off the streets and tortured, then murdered. Often their bodies were dumped on busy streets to send the Reich’s heinous message. Hitler was audaciously preparing to take on the might of Europe and Russia.
Speculation about his frightening maneuvers were the subject of newspapers columns and dinner party conversations, including a fateful dinner party attended by New York City elite, hosted by respected Supreme Court Justice Edgar J. Lauer and his wife Elma at their stately apartment.
Of the guests around the dinner table, mainly scions of powerful families, politicians and successful lawyers, Albert N. Chaperau was not of the same ilk.
Described by one of the news reports of the time as an “international adventurer,” Chaperau was a cross-border con-man who claimed to be a “Nicaraguan diplomat,” but appeared to use the smuggling of expensive Parisian jewelry to ingratiate himself with the rich and powerful on both coasts.
As the judge and Mrs Lauer’s guests took their seats around their impressive dinner table, dinner was served, but almost immediately, talk turned to Hitler. What is this evil fellow doing? Mark my words, an ill wind is blowing and this ‘Fuhrer’ cannot be trusted!
Those who weren’t speaking were nodding – the concern was palpable. At that moment, unable to contain herself anymore, one of the Lauer’s maids and a German immigrant, Rosa Weber, cut dramatically into the conversation.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, I love the Fuhrer! He is a good man and Germany’s best leader!”
Forks and knives crashed onto fine porcelain plates. Someone knocked over a glass of red wine. The entire room sucked in their breath and everyone swiveled toward the dark corner where Weber stood, defiantly, her eyes glowering and arms crossed tightly across her chest.
When Justice Lauer got his words back, he fired her on the spot. Weber was packed and out the door before the hour was out. Of course, dinner carried on.
As Weber stood there on the dark and quiet street, one bag in each hand, she stared up at the heavy swagged curtains framing a golden glow from the dining room. She could hear laughter. She may have surprised herself and shocked the Lauers and their guests, but she wasn’t finished. Rosa Weber knew Mrs Lauer’s secret.
Evidently, the wife of the Supreme Court judge had a taste for exclusive French gowns and fine jewelry. Mrs Lauer had used Chaperau’s gracious services on at least a couple of occasions to help her acquire the finery – all without the expense and hassle of Customs tariffs.
While Justice Lauer and Mrs Lauer were munching on their toast, the morning after their unintentionally theatrical dinner, still a little shell-shocked from the whole fiasco, Rosa Weber was ratting on her former employers at the US Customs office.
She would have been very gratified to learn that on October 27, 1938, the Lauer’s apartment was raided and a significant amount of ‘evidence’ was seized. At dinner parties that week, Hitler was briefly replaced with gossip of the raid and the implications for Judge Lauer.
Mrs Lauer and Chaperau were charged with several counts of smuggling, but it was Chaperau’s personal effects, which included correspondence with Burns and Benny, that caused the US Custom’s net to be thrown across the country to the west coast.
Unfortunately, both men had given their wives expensive, Customs-free, jewelry. For two men accustomed to making Americans laugh until they cried, and sometimes struggling themselves to keep a straight face during their hilarious routines, it was safe to say that no one was laughing now.
Gold plated reputations, and careers worth millions, were now on the line. With everyone pleading guilty, it appeared certain that an outraged maid and a polished rascal had brought them down.
In reports from the time, Burns – who had to crisscross the country by train to provide testimony – is described as being pale, drawn and glum. His dear wife, Gracie Allen, also had to testify. Comedian Jack Pearl and motion picture director Wallace Ford were initially investigated but then called as witnesses.
Everyone learned their fate just a few months after charges were laid. In late January 1939, George Burns was fined $8,000 and given a suspended sentence of one year and one day. In February, Jack Benny was fined $10,000 but also escaped jail.
On April 11, 1939, Elma Lauer fearing the worst, attended court with her husband, physician and nurse. Federal Judge Vincent Leibell denounced her as a woman of “insane vanity,” fined her $2,500 and sentenced her to three months jail. Despite pleas from her lawyer, Mrs. Lauer was required to begin her sentence immediately. She was close to collapse when she was taken into custody by two hefty court officers.
I can only imagine that a woman whose domain was her plush Park Avenue apartment, whose lifestyle included servants, fine dining, and expensive clothes and jewelry, would have found stripping down and donning prison-issue undergarments, and a simple cotton shift, a staggering blow. I am sure those moments, and her entire three months behind bars, seemed more hideous nightmare than real life.
Two hours later, in the same court but with a different judge, the man who everyone had the misfortune to meet, Chaperau was fined $5,000 and sentenced to five years in jail.
The former maid’s vengeful actions took one more victim. With his wife now in prison, and the New York state legislature commencing an investigation into his involvement in the smuggling scandal, Supreme Court Justice Edgar J. Lauer resigned. The man with the rock solid reputation, built over decades, was crushed by his wife’s conviction, as well as rumors that he knew full well what she was doing but chose to turn a blind eye.
Less than ten years later, Justice Lauer would die on November, 1948 at just 61 years of age.
Ironically, despite her awful allegiance to Hitler, Rosa Weber had the law on her side. After everyone was successfully prosecuted, she received a United States government reward of $6,714, or 25% of the $26,816 penalty imposed on the smuggled articles.
Strangely enough, Chaperau’s sentence was later commuted by President Roosevelt to just two years. It appears he did have friends in high places after all. And, he also had incredible chutzpah. The con man later attempted to sue George Burns and Jack Benny for the amount of his fines. You’ll be pleased to know the suit was not successful. In 1945, Chapperau turns up as a producer of a small play but after this his trail goes cold.
As for George Burns, according to an article in the Telegraph Herald on April 7, 1939, he was willing to fall on his sword:
“Tired, worn and unshaven upon his return from New York, where he pleaded guilty to smuggling and was fined $8,000, Benny said he walked into the office of his radio sponsor and offered to cancel a contract worth several thousand dollars a week. ‘The offer was not accepted,’ Burns said. Concerning his future plans, he said he would continue his film and radio work while reporting to probation officers here in compliance with stipulations of his year-and-a-day suspended sentence.”
George Burns not only survived the ignominious experience, he said he had “learned a terrible lesson.” The couple put the experience behind them, and Burns and Allen went on to even greater success.
After a stellar fifty year career in show business, Gracie Allen retired in 1958 to “become a housewife” and enjoy the couple’s two children, Ronnie and Sandra and their grandchildren.
Sadly, just six years later on August 27, 1964, Gracie Allen died of a heart attack. She was only 58 years old.
George Burns was heartbroken. America and the entertainment industry also mourned the loss of a woman who not only made them laugh, but whom they loved and deeply admired.
Of everyone in the main photo – Mitzi, Joe, Betty and George, and those involved in the smuggling case – George Burns outlived them all.
As he said, “I’m going to stay in show business until I’m the last one left.”
Indeed he did.
George Burns died at 100 years old in Beverly Hills on March 9, 1996. ♛
Copyright Alicia Mayer 2013.