Once upon a time, there was a 63-year-old sales manager for a shirt manufacturing company named Albert E. Langford, who lived with his wife in a suite in New York City's elegant Hotel Marguery. On the night of June 4, 1945, he went to see who was outside one of the doors of their apartment. Whoever was there shot him dead, and seemingly disappeared into thin air.
The murder itself was puzzling, but relatively straightforward. What made this case so weird was the subsequent investigation into the crime, which brought forward a cast of characters more suited for a vaudeville sketch than a murder inquiry.
Chief among these human oddities was Albert's semi-grieving widow. Mrs. Marion Mayer Langford was, at the time of her husband's death, 70 years old, although she stubbornly maintained she was only 55. This "art and music patroness" was a flamboyant woman with heavy makeup, hair dyed a bright red, and lots of expensive jewelry. She had a substantial allowance from her wealthy father, which she augmented through a series of highly profitable investments. She was, in fact, the modern-day equivalent of a multi-millionaire, of considerably higher wealth and social position than her spouse. Langford, to whom she had been married less than three years, was her second husband. Her first marriage, to a lawyer named Grimes, ended when he died on the French Riviera in 1936.
Mrs. Langford could tell the police very little about Albert's murder. Her account of the evening was almost peculiarly simple: She had spent the earlier part of the evening entertaining friends. They left shortly after her husband arrived home from work. She then retired to her bedroom to change clothes. At about 8:30, her Pekingese, Wendy, began growling at a door which led to the hotel corridor, and Albert went to see what was up. After a few moments, he returned with the news that there were two men outside who wished to speak to her. He gathered that the purpose of their visit was something connected to Rafaelo Diaz, an opera singer who had been a close friend of Mrs. Langford's before his death in 1943. She declined to see them. Albert left to send the men away. Mrs. Langford heard the sound of angry voices, then of a scuffle. When she went out to the foyer to investigate, she found Albert on the ground, bleeding from a bullet wound in the head. He died before help could arrive.
That was all anyone could ever determine about the death of Albert Langford. No one in the hotel, including his wife, claimed to have heard any gunshots. No one had any idea who the two men could have been. They had apparently avoided going by the front desk of the hotel. The Hotel Marguery's elevator operator stated that on the fatal night, he had taken two men up to Langford's floor, but when they left the elevator, they walked off in the direction opposite to the victim's apartment. He never saw them again, so presumably they left by the hotel stairwell. All the elderly, near-sighted operator could say about the passengers was that they were deeply tanned and wore dark coats. The murder weapon was never found.
The motive for the killing was equally mysterious. The dead man had apparently been a nondescript, inoffensive type, the sort who fails to attract either ardent friends or passionate enemies. A suspicion soon arose that the real target of the killers was not Mr. Langford, but his wife. According to law enforcement, in the weeks prior to the murder Marion had gone to the police and the District Attorney, complaining that certain unnamed people were trying to extort money from her.
Investigators began to examine Mrs. Langford's many friends and acquaintances, who proved to be a very curious lot. The most well-known of her associates was 59-year-old Evelyn Nesbit. Four decades earlier, Nesbit had figured in one of America's most scandalous murders, when her former lover, Stanford White, was shot by her husband Harry Thaw.
As a beautiful teenager, Nesbit had been a celebrated model and chorus girl, courted by a string of wealthy and famous men, but the years had not been kind to her. By the time of the Langford murder, the divorced woman was a broke, washed-up alcoholic. Nesbit confirmed the reports that Mrs. Langford--whom she described as a close friend--had been plagued by extortionists.
Another notorious figure who popped up in the investigation was former silent-film star Carlyle Blackwell. In between his marriages to heiresses and Ziegfield girls, he was said to have been briefly engaged to Marion before her marriage to Albert Langford. Although his name added additional color to the newspaper reports about the mystery, he claimed he had not seen Marion for several years, and could say nothing relevant to the shooting.
The police believed their most promising lead was in Mrs. Langford's relationship with the late operatic tenor, Rafaelo Diaz. Diaz sang with the Metropolitan Opera for some years before he quit in favor of performing "in the drawing rooms of socialite women." (And, yes, that was probably a euphemistic description of his activities.) Diaz and Marion had once been partners in a slightly shady-sounding talent booking company. Could this business have attracted some crooked associates who were now looking to squeeze money out of the wealthy woman? It was not an implausible theory, but no evidence to back it up was ever uncovered.
Then there was another singing friend of Marion's, a 30-year-old operetta singer/would-be show business impresario named Reed Lawton. Police were very interested indeed to learn that during the course of their friendship, Mrs. Langford had given him more than $100,000. Lawton was married, but he conceded that he "didn't emphasize the fact to Mrs. Langford." It was reported that the pair had planned to open up a nightclub together, stories that Marion fiercely denied.
After her husband's death, Marion Langford found herself issuing a lot of denials. Stories emerged that she frequented nightclubs and illegal gambling joints and that she regularly held card parties in her apartment which were attended by some very dubious characters. It was said that she gave money and lavish gifts to a succession of "proteges" in the musical world--all of them personable men many years her junior. Acccording to a former chauffeur, she often took lengthy vacations in the company of various men. There was also talk about her friendship with a "familiar nightclub character" named Joseph Rosenzweig, who was well-known to the police thanks to his penchant for committing grand larceny and writing rubber checks.
Reed Lawton interrupted his career (he was touring with a road company production of "Naughty Marietta") long enough to talk to police and, of course, the press. He told a peculiar story about how a Cherokee Indian, "Chief Robert Redwing" had arranged the marriage between the Langfords with the help of a "Baroness de Chaney," an ex-lover of Albert's. Albert, it seems, had promised them $25,000 if they found him a rich woman to marry, and their choice for this honor was the widowed Marion Grimes.
Mrs. Langford gave many vehement, decidedly frazzled-sounding statements--often in the third person-- describing all these "dirty, rotten statements" as bald-faced lies. According to Marion, she never gambled. Since her remarriage, she had never so much as set foot in a nightclub. She "never associated with Broadwayites and she never had disreputable people in her house." The "smartest people in America" were "her dearest friends." She "spent her money the way she wanted to--which, perhaps, was foolish but she did." Her "standing financially and socially is 100 per cent plus." She had never traveled alone with any man other than her husband. The 100 grand she gave Reed Lawton was merely a loan, one that he quickly repaid. She also refuted any suggestion that the late Mr. Langford had been little more than a gigolo who had married her for her money. "He was a friend of my late husband, a very nice man and easy to get along with. I wanted companionship." (She did, however, admit that she had kept the marriage a secret from her father. Apparently, after her first husband died, old Mr. Meyer had warned her against remarrying, lest she fall prey to fortune hunters.) Albert, she huffed, was "the finest man who ever lived...My husband worshiped me and adored me until he breathed his last...he never accepted a dime from me." She added "I'll tell you what's wrong with me--I've been too damn good. I've been a sucker."
Mrs. Langford complained that she was "a cultured woman, a refined woman. I speak English, French, German and Italian. I have legions of friends...My husband's people love me and my servants are faithful." Her only fault was being enough of a "damn fool" to generously hand out money to unworthy friends. Reed Lawton, she snarled, was a "fantastic liar...very difficult to handle."
And as for that hussy Evelyn Nesbit, why, she barely knew the dreadful woman at all. Same with Joseph Rosenzweig. Despite what the police claimed, she insisted that no one had ever tried to extort money from her. Mrs. Langford speculated that her husband had fallen victim to holdup men. "I wish to God they had taken my jewelry and left my husband alive," she sighed. Marion also volunteered the information that a few days before the murder, Albert had gone to a fortune teller who told him he would live to be 98.
Hopefully, Mrs. Langford revisited this soothsayer and demanded a refund.
Marion ended this public self-pity party by moaning that "She has been honest and helped poor struggling people and what she got from the newspapers was really something."
The police finally found "Baroness de Chaney" living in Hollywood. She proved to be a former model named Beatrice Coleman. She claimed the story of the $25,000 "finder's fee" was nothing but an innocent joke. She admitted that before he married, Langford had given her a diamond bracelet and a 40-carat sapphire ring, and that he had offered to loan her money for some business enterprise, but she maintained that contrary to what the press was reporting, he never supported her financially. After Langford married, she saw no more of him because "Mrs. Langford was very jealous of me and forced us to break off our friendship." Coleman offered the enigmatic theory that Langford had been killed because "he was in somebody's way...You know there was much money involved, and money is a powerful force." She gave no further details.
Meanwhile, by July 2, 1946, Mrs. Langford had recovered from her grief enough to marry for the third time. Her newest husband was Walter von Elvers, a young dentist who had been squiring her around the New York nightclubs.
This parade of nuttiness did not bring anybody one step closer to solving the murder, but the police investigation, always lacking in direction, wearily slogged on for a while longer. They learned that Langford had put a great deal of his wife's money into some business schemes of dubious probity, and that shortly before his death, she had told him he wouldn't be getting another cent from her. These stories were given credence when, in 1947, "Chief Redwing" was arrested for his role in some bogus "oyster dehydration company." Perhaps Langford had somehow crossed some of his shady associates, and they took a lethal revenge? It was no secret that the Langford's apartment contained some $100,000 worth of jewelry and artwork. Perhaps Albert was one of the victims of a Brooklyn gang of robbers who had committed other murders in the New York area? Perhaps, as a few papers vaguely hinted, blackmail had been the motive?
All this made very entertaining copy for newspaper readers, of course, but by the time the murder finally faded from the headlines, the world had yet to learn who killed Albert Langford, and why.
Only Wendy knew, and she wasn't talking.