Note: I originally wrote this essay for a fabulous site called Biographile. If you’re not familiar with this site I highly recommend subscribing. They focus on biographies and memoirs and, like me, have a special fondness for all things history. I hope you’ll check them out.
I’ve got a thing for unsolved mysteries. I blame this fixation largely on Agatha Christie and an adolescence spent reading whodunits. While my friends were sneaking out at night and drinking stolen Zima I was at home reading Murder on the Orient Express. Truth be told I’d still choose a good book over an illicit buzz. So it comes as no surprise that one morning ten years ago my attention was drawn to a link titled, “Has the Mystery of Judge Crater Been Solved?”
Of course I clicked. But what I discovered was not, in fact, the answer to one of the most baffling missing person’s cases of the twentieth century but rather the idea for a novel. Joseph Crater had only been on the New York State Supreme Court for a few months when he stepped into a cab on August 6th, 1930, and vanished. His disappearance was front-page news for years, thanks in no small part to his connections to Tammany Hall, infamous gangsters, and rumors of judicial corruption. It was everything a noir potboiler should be. But had that been all I would have finished the article and gone about my life. I would have never written the book. What captured my attention was not so much the missing judge himself, but his wife, Stella, and a bizarre ritual that I could not get out of my mind.
Every year on the anniversary of her husband’s disappearance Stella Crater went to a bar in Greenwich Village named Club Abbey. Upon her arrival Stella would settle into a corner booth and order two shots of whiskey. Then she would toast her missing husband. “To Joe! Wherever you are,” she would say, one drink held high. And then she’d drain her glass and leave the bar, the other shot of whiskey untouched on the table. Thirty-nine years she did this. Long after she had remarried and moved on with her life. Yet she never once missed that ritual.
All I could think, reading that article was: That’s not grief. That’s penance. And that thought was closely followed by a second: What if she knew what happened to her husband but for some reason couldn’t tell?
Stella Crater took up permanent residence in my mind at that moment. I had to understand who she was and why she’d chosen to keep that secret and what sort of person she’d become as a result. And of course I had to feed my secret addiction: research. It didn’t take long to discover that there were two other intriguing women in Judge Crater’s life: a devoted maid who worked for them at the time of his disappearance, and a showgirl named Sally Lou Ritz who was long suspected to be Crater’s lover.
A wife. A maid. And a mistress. What if all three of them knew what happened to him but chose not to tell? Now I had a story.
But here’s an unfortunate truth: women often become the footnotes in history. As I read everything I could find about Judge Crater’s disappearance I noticed an interesting trend: writers got so swept up in various testosterone-laden theories of what happened to the judge that they never turned their attention to the women he left behind. Yet I believe that if you want to get at the heart of any historic event, go ask the women who witnessed it. Women pay attention to the little details. They take note of relational complexities and small betrayals. For women history is personal. And this particular bit of history was very personal to Stella Crater. She wrote a memoir about her husband’s disappearance in 1963 (ironically published by Doubleday—who knew my novel would eventually end up at the same publisher?) and her version of events—often dismissed entirely by historians and armchair detectives as wildly naïve and melodramatic—became the beating heart of my novel. Mrs. Crater was a clever girl.
I was able to build Stella’s part of the narrative directly from her own words and experiences and frustrations. The maid and the mistress were a bit more difficult to reconstruct since their involvement in the case was limited mostly to historical anecdotes. But they are present, if you know where to look. Their narratives required a good deal of creative license but are supported by a few cryptic mentions in Stella’s memoir.
In the end no one knows what happened to Joseph Crater. The case was closed but never solved. No body was ever found. No suspects were ever named. Someone, somewhere knew what happened to the Judge but never told. So I used these three women to tell my version of what could have happened. I like to think that Agatha Christie would approve.
THE WIFE, THE MAID, AND THE MISTRESS is now available in paperback. Do let me know if your book club chooses to read the novel. I’d be happy to call in or Skype with you. If that’s something you’re interested in, you can contact me here.