Read The Valentino Affair Online
Authors: Colin Evans
Once he had temporarily exhausted his New York connections, Jack decided the time had come to introduce Blanca to her in-laws at their home in Pennsylvania. The meeting didn’t go well. According to Blanca—and as with so much in this story we rely wholly on her word—Arthur and Catherine de Saulles disliked her from day one, bitterly resenting that their hotshot son had tied the knot with some Catholic foreigner barely out of school. At no time did they ever try to make her feel welcome. South Bethlehem, too, came as a visceral shock. A smoky, industrial town that owed its existence to the manufacture of zinc oxide, South Bethlehem lay light-years away from the golden sandy beaches and Mediterranean-type climate of Blanca’s beloved Viña del Mar. It felt cramped, parochial, and dirty, and she hated it. It was also bitterly cold. Back home, Viña del Mar was basking in the height of summer, and, while Blanca always suffered when temperatures really sizzled, right now she would have taken Timbuktu over the bone-chilling rigors of a Pennsylvania steel town in midwinter.
To her immense relief, their stay in South Bethlehem was just a brief stopover before they sailed for Chile. It would be the homecoming she had dreamt of. She and Jack could look forward to a life of ease and elegance at the very pinnacle of South American society. As they sailed slowly southward and the weather warmed, Blanca put all thoughts of grimy South Bethlehem behind her. There was too much to anticipate. Indeed, by the time she reached Santiago, she realized that she was already pregnant. Jack was delighted. After years of carousing on the Great White Way, partying till dawn, and bedding an endless string of actresses and showgirls, he finally had captured the woman of his dreams. Ahead lay a golden future with a gorgeous wife, practically limitless wealth, and an heir. As Jack gazed out across the waters, he saw not a single cloud on his horizon.
But a tempest was brewing.
An American in Paris
HEN THEY ARRIVED IN
HILE, THE NEWLYWEDS DECIDED,
moving permanently to Viña del Mar, to set up home temporarily in Santiago, staying at one of the many Errázuriz-Vergara residences dotted about the country. It would give Jack a chance to make himself known at the exclusive Union Club, where all the big players in Santiago gathered to trade gossip, cook up business deals, and cement alliances. Jack fit in perfectly. With the señora in Paris, he set about playing the role of a freshly minted grandee, and among his first tasks he applied to the administrator of the estates of his wife’s late father for all securities and title deeds belonging to Blanca. Under Chilean law at the time, a bride’s assets automatically became the property of her husband after marriage.
Jack was sounding her out. If he were to realize his dream of building a vast real estate empire, one to rival any in South America, he required an accounting of Blanca’s financial worth. When the documents arrived on his desk, he sifted through them with a practiced eye. After a few minutes he grew puzzled. A few minutes more and confusion turned to disbelief then bemusement that gave way finally to boiling rage. He rushed from his desk and went looking for Blanca. When he found her, he waved the papers in her face. “That’s hardly anything at all,” he yelled. “It is practically nothing. It is absurd to call you an heiress.”
What Jack and every other potential suitor didn’t know was that most of Blanca’s assets were held in trust. Through a series of complicated legal maneuvers, her father had ring-fenced Errázuriz-Vergara millions to guard them against predatory fortune hunters by ensuring that his children gained access to the capital only upon their mother’s death. As it stood, Blanca was worth approximately one hundred thousand dollars
in her own right—enough for the couple to live comfortably but nothing like the staggering twenty-five million dollars that would have catapulted Jack into the upper echelons of Chile’s plutocrats.
Jack raged at Blanca that he’d been negotiating to buy their own estate in Chile and now the deal would collapse. If that happened, he’d be the laughingstock of the Union Club; his future in Chile would be ruined! He ordered Blanca to write to her mother in Paris and demand that she forward sufficient funds to complete the transaction. Then his tone grew more menacing. If the funds were not forthcoming, he told Blanca, he would return to America and take her with him. If that happened, he swore that Blanca’s mother would never set eyes on her grandchild. The ferocity of Jack’s onslaught left Blanca reeling. She grabbed a pen and paper and dashed off a letter to her mother, spelling out Jack’s demands and threats. The reply came by cable. Señora Errázuriz-Vergara protested that, like Blanca, all of her wealth was locked up either in real estate or long-term securities, none of which could be liquidated easily. It was impossible for her, at such short notice, to find the cash that Jack needed to close the deal. However, as promised earlier, she was prepared to sign over one of her houses in Viña del Mar; perhaps he could use that as collateral to buy the estate?
The offer was generous—but not generous enough to placate Jack. He was like an enraged bull, convinced his mother-in-law was lying, deliberately withholding money so that she could keep the couple under her financial thumb. His response was astonishing: He booked passage for himself and Blanca on a steamer to Europe, determined to tackle the señora face to face. Ahead of Blanca—pregnant, remember—lay an arduous forty-five-day voyage across the tempestuous South Atlantic in winter. Years later, Blanca credited Jack’s frenzied insistence on this madcap venture with opening the fault lines in their marriage. Nothing had prepared her for this turn of events. In a few short months, she had gone from the giddy delirium of a glittering society wedding in Paris to cowering in front of a violent and vengeful gold digger. Her dismay would have been doubled had she known that, in order to fund the European bailout mission, Jack had plundered her inheritance, going behind her back to sell six thousand dollars worth of her securities without telling her. Only later would she discover that her husband was a serial embezzler, emptying her accounts of every penny he could grab.
The showdown between Jack and his mother-in-law took place in Paris in mid-July. While Blanca listened, quaking, in an adjoining hotel room, Jack implored the señora to finance the farm purchase. But his entreaties proved no more successful in person than they had by mail. Señora Errázuriz-Vergara stood firm, contemptuous of his grasping avarice, adamant that she didn’t have that kind of spare cash just lying around. He flatly accused her of lying. She told him to get out. After more abuse and arm waving, Jack stormed out of the hotel—alone—and at the Gare du Nord booked passage on the boat-train to London. Blanca remained behind, sobbing in her mother’s arms. We don’t know what passed between mother and daughter, but we safely can assume that the custodian of the Errázuriz-Vergara fortune spelled out some pretty tough ground rules over Jack’s future access to the family’s money. The señora had no intention of allowing this Yanqui marauder to squander the wealth of generations.
A week in London—always one of his favorite places—cooled Jack’s temper but did nothing to allay his vengeful nature. He returned to Paris and told Blanca that they were leaving immediately. They crossed the channel to England and, on July 28, 1912, boarded the SS
at Southampton. Eight days later they docked at New York. Jack de Saulles would never see his mother-in-law again.
By now, he didn’t just need to rebuild his marriage, he also needed to throw a veil of secrecy over his humiliation in Paris, which meant acting as normally as possible. Through his network of real estate contacts, he found a rental cottage in the village of Larchmont in Westchester County, just eighteen miles north of Midtown Manhattan. Still, the cottage’s remote location unsettled an edgy husband concerned about his wife’s pregnancy.
One day while they were in the city, Jack took Blanca into a pawnshop and purchased a black-handled .32 Smith & Wesson revolver. When the gun arrived at their home a few days later—the pawnshop owner delaying shipment because Jack initially didn’t have a license—Jack gave it to Blanca with instructions to keep it by her at all times. Blanca was no stranger to firearms, though; she and her siblings had regularly fired weapons on the family’s estate in Viña del Mar, and, while she suspected that Jack was overreacting, she did promise to keep the gun within easy reach. Then she got on with the business of trying to make her marriage work.
Despite the ghastly scene in Paris and the insults to her mother’s name and reputation, Blanca held traditional views about wedlock. It was her duty, as she saw it, to support her husband in every venture, even if that meant ostracizing her own family. As she prepared for the birth of her child, solitude might not have been the preferred option, but Blanca always knew how to hide her feelings, and she seems to have coped well with the awkward existence that Jack forced upon her. Not that she saw much of him during this period.
Once again, Jack had undergone another of his capricious career shifts. Now politics overtook his life, which meant temporarily abandoning his business interests and throwing himself, body and soul, into the presidential campaign of then–New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson, a progressive Democrat stumping on a commitment “to place man above the dollar.”
For a copper-bottomed capitalist like Jack de Saulles, Wilson’s was an alien philosophy indeed, but financial pragmatism has a knack of ironing out ideological differences, and Jack always did keep his eye on the big picture. Even this far ahead of the election, Wilson was already a heavy favorite to romp home.
On August 30, 1912, de Saulles called a press conference in the Hotel Imperial, at the corner of Broadway and 32nd Street. He had been handpicked, he told the assembled journalists, to form the Woodrow Wilson College Men’s League. There was nothing new in the concept: Presidential candidates had a long tradition of hitching their campaigns to some affiliated college league, but nothing on this scale had ever been attempted before. It was a kind of political pyramid selling. The intent was to recruit as many graduates from every major university as possible to Wilson’s cause and for them to spread the message through meetings and discussion groups. Jack’s superstar football status made him the standout pick when William F. McCombs, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, went scouting for a suitable candidate to oversee the recruiting drive.
But other motives were at work. Complaints had plagued the campaign that Wilson, a Princeton man, was overloading his staff with cronies from his alma mater. McCombs reckoned that Jack’s Yale background would help stanch this criticism. So Jack got the job and soon proved himself a top-flight organizer and communicator. At the Imperial, he gave the assembled journalists a tour of campaign headquarters. He waved an arm, saying that the league had taken over half of the hotel’s second floor. Already the place was humming with dozens of stenographers and typists working nonstop to mail out campaign literature.
Jack always gave the press good value, nor did he intend to waste this opportunity for self-aggrandizement. He sheepishly blamed his belated arrival at Wilson’s campaign headquarters on a string of setbacks that would have taxed the most intrepid explorer. Deep snowdrifts in the Andes, he said, had blocked all transcontinental railroad tracks, forcing him to travel around Cape Horn, by way of Portugal, to America. He boasted that he had traveled fifteen thousand miles to throw his support behind the man whom he believed would guarantee America’s future.
Singularly absent from this frothy narrative was any mention of the real reason underlying this transatlantic marathon. Nor did any journalist query him as to why anyone, in such a rush to reach New York, would dally in Europe. Most were too busy scribbling down the formidable string of gridiron analogies that Jack fired at them: “We are already in the field with our uniforms on and are lined up for a Wilson touchdown,” he said, ending by predicting that, “Our flying wedge will sweep the country from Maine to California.”
As the press conference drew to a close, Jack no doubt sighed in relief that no one had mentioned that tricky incident from a few weeks prior. Just four days after disembarking from the SS
he had been served with papers alleging nonpayment of a nine-thousand-dollar debt—hardly the homecoming that he desired. The plaintiff was the celebrated architect John Russell Pope.
The suit claimed that in November 1909 Pope had been retained by de Saulles to draw plans for a $1.5 million amusement pier and theater at Long Beach. The pier was intended to stretch fifteen hundred feet out into the Atlantic and to accommodate twenty-five thousand people. Facilities on offer would include a convention hall capable of seating five thousand, a recreation park with a promenade, and landing stages for yachts and steamboats. Pope drew the plans and made color pictures on a large scale, only to be yanked suddenly from the project. De Saulles offered no explanation and then salted the wound by refusing to pay Pope for work done. Understandably miffed, Pope claimed compensation under the rules of the American Institute of Architects, which held de Saulles liable to pay three fifths of 1 percent of the total cost for drawing plans and 15 percent for superintending construction. Because all mention of this lawsuit speedily vanished from the papers, we can only assume that it was settled out of court, but it did highlight, once again, Jack’s recklessness. First that ruckus over those embarrassing phantom engagements to two society belles, now another tarnish spot against his name.