(with apologies to INXS).
Last August, I introduced a key character in my book: a powerful Philadelphia attorney named Herman M. Modell. Modell, who knew my father and his uncle through their membership in LaFayette Lodge No. 71, Free and Accepted Masons (of course the Freemasons are part of my saga), privately arranged my adoption by David Louis and Elaine (Kohn) Berger in 1966.
In a recent post, I described the ups and downs of learning more about the circumstances of my adoption, observing that a “packet” from investigators appointed by the Orphans’ Court of Delaware County had been mailed to me.
That slender, typed, two-page packet arrived on April 21, 2018.
Given the twists and turns my search had already taken, I should not have been surprised that it contained very little information. Basically, because my adoption was private, the only information the Court had was testimony Modell had provided in a follow-up hearing in April 1967. My genetic mother did not attend that hearing, so she is not named, and my genetic father’s name did not even appear on the official birth certificate filed upon my birth. This would have been before October 5, when Lou and Elaine took five-day-old me home from Metropolitan Hospital and filed a superseding birth certificate.
The story I had always heard (or told myself—this is why I “interrogate” memory) was that I was born in Pennsylvania Hospital. In fact, I was born in Metropolitan Hospital at 10:29 am on September 30, 1966 (with my adoptive parents paying my genetic mother’s hospital bills).
Off to Google and Newspapers.com I went. The first thing I learned was that Metropolitan Hospital had closed in 1992. The building was sold in 1997 and turned into condominiums in 2004. So who knows where their 1966 birth records are now (note: when I called Pennsylvania Hospital last year, a less-than-helpful informed me they had destroyed all the analogous records. Good, great, thank you.)
Seriously, this search has had more dead ends than the Minotaur’s labyrinth.
A little more digging turned up this curious tidbit.
One Herman M. Modell served as Metropolitan Hospital’s chief counsel (and occasionally as either President or Secretary of the hospital’s board of directors) from 1944, when it was converted into an “osteopathic hospital,” until his death in 1973.
Check out the bowtie. As the 11th Doctor says, bowties are cool.
I thought that fact was significant until I checked three other adoptions he had arranged between 1960 and 1970: the three other mothers gave birth at three different hospitals, none of which was Metropolitan. Most likely, it was simply the hospital nearest where my 19-year-old, unmarried, white Catholic genetic mother lived with her parents (and possibly the sister with my genetic mother and their mother when she handed me to Modell outside the hospital. I suspect my adoptive parents were watching from a discrete distance away on Spruce Street; Elaine Berger would have been that curious).
What this association with Metropolitan Hospital did do, however, was send me back onto Newspapers.com to learn more about the hospital and Modell’s association with it.
As a result, I found many more mentions of Modell than in my first search last summer; Newspapers.com continually adds to its collection (or its search algorithm improved). Once I read through all of the Metropolitan stories, I started working my way through other stories (after all, I am devoting most of a book chapter to the man…well, him AND the Freemasons).
One story I was able to flesh out concerned Modell’s representation of 125 (or 150, or 200, depending on the article) women clerks who worked for the Dock Street produce markets in 1947.
These women were the proximate cause of a 90% shutdown of these markets in January and February 1947. Teamsters Local 929, Produce, Poultry, Fish and Oystermen’s Drivers and Helpers had negotiated a new contract with the management associations on January 2. They also wanted the clerks, already members of the independent Wholesale Fruit and Produce Employees’ Association (sometimes called the Wholesale Produce Office Employees Association), to join Teamsters Local 929.
The women refused and staged a seven-hour walkout. This led Teamsters Local 929 to issue their bosses, 57 carlot receivers, an ultimatum: get their clerks into the union by January 4, or they would shut down the markets on January 6.
Guess what happened on January 6.
Modell ultimately got a Circuit Court judge to issue an injunction against Teamsters Local 929, preventing them from coercing the clerks into joining the union (the dispute then moved into other areas, ending Modell’s role here).
By the way, if you think this sounds like racketeering (say, violation of the Wagner and Hobbs Acts), give yourself a gold star. Three men and Teamsters Local 929 were convicted in federal court in October 1948 of violation of the Hobbs Act.
But let me return to January 1947, as I found myself reading the unfolding sage of the “Dock St. rackets,” while thinking about the excellent 1949 film noir Thieves’ Highway.
I found this story in the upper right-hand corner of page 3 of the January 21, 1947 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
As I was reading it, my eye was drawn to a captioned photograph immediately to the right.
I recognized it immediately. “Oh, right,” I thought…or said (to no one there), “January 1947!”
Just bear with me as I take us 2,721 miles west and six days into the past.
On the morning of January 15, 1947, at approximately 10:30 am PST, a woman named Bette Bersinger was pushing a stroller along a sidewalk bordering an empty grass-and-weed-covered lot on Norton Street, between 39th and Coliseum. She saw what she thought was a broken doll lying a few feet off the sidewalk. Upon closer inspection, she discovered…well, I spare you the fairly gruesome details. If you want to know more, I recommend starting here; this video is also excellent.
The body was soon identified as a 22-year-old aspiring actress named Elizabeth Short, who grew up in Medford, MA (a 20 minute drive northeast of our Brookline apartment).
History, as you can see, knows Ms. Short better as “The Black Dahlia.” The flowers are mine. I place them there every year because I want to remember “Betty” Short as an actual human being, not a true-crime caricature with a macabre sobriquet.
I have been fascinated by the still-unsolved death of Ms. Short for nearly 20 years. So much so that I write the following from memory (interrogate it, by all means):
Elizabeth Short was last seen alive leaving the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles around 9 pm PST on the night of January 9. She had been dropped off there by a name named Robert “Red” Manley. Manley, who was married, had just driven Ms. Short north from San Diego, where the peripatetic young woman had been living for a month or so. They had spent the night at a motel, where nothing exciting happened according to Manley; Manley was sorely disappointed, if memory serves. We know all of this because shortly after the identification of Ms. Short, Manley came forward to tell his story to the police, insisting that the last time he ever saw Ms. Short was at the Biltmore Hotel.
The police, lacking substantive leads, grilled Manley mercilessly, eventually submitting him to a polygraph test. I do not recall how many times I saw the newspaper photograph of the exhausted Manley strapped into the machine, police detectives hovering over him.
You guessed it.
This was the photograph that caught my eye at the top of page 3 of the January 21, 1947 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The full caption reads:
‘PASSING’ THE LIE DETECTOR TEST
Robert Manley, 25, submitting to a lie detector test in Los Angeles yesterday as police questioned him in connection with the mutilation-slaying of Elizabeth Short, 22-year-old Hollywood hopeful. The tests proved, detectives said, Manley had nothing to do with the slaying. He has been released. Checking results of the test are Detective F. A. Brown (left) and Ray Pinker, police chemist.
Here is the full newspaper page:
Just to make this serendipitous juxtaposition of interests even better, the actress Laraine Day (see divorce story) is the female lead in one of my five favorite films, Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant Foreign Correspondent.
Until next time…
 These are only the ones I currently know about.