“…but the outside world is a forest of dangers.”
Living in New York City in 1917 must have been something else, with all of the prosperity, the explosion of silent films, emerging technology and the ever-changing social culture of the day. And although it was a large city, New York was still relatively quiet and safe. There was only about one murder committed every other day, placing the overall figure in the 200s. Not bad for a city of six-and-a-half million souls. And this was thanks to a reformer-mayor, who vowed and did get tough on crime after a court clerk was hit by a stray gangland bullet in 1914. The number of murders went down in the city over the next five years. It was within this relative Camelot that our story unfolds. Horse still competing with buggy, gas competing with electricity, and the NYPD, by now one of the finest police forces in the world, competing with mostly theft or petty crimes. And the Tango, although not a crime in the Big Apple, was looked upon by some almost as if it were one of the more lurid headlines to rarely capture the front page.
The Hilairs lived in the third floor apartment of this brownstone on Clinton St. in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn
The newspapers of New York at the time were very matter-of-fact, almost dreary affairs. News of the first World War and the hunt for Pancho Villa down south of the border seemed to be the spectacles for most readers. The NY Times was considered “an educated reader’s choice”, while immigrants or blacks generally had their own language news or ethnic papers to peruse daily. It was only when some lurid case of high society hit the wire that the more traditional newspapers in town would run with it. The outlandish sold! And as nobody really cared about unknown murders of the poor, say if Joe the bartender down at Lenny’s got shot by a drunk on Saturday – they devoured stories like the one you about to read. This is Elsie and the Tango Pirate.
An old tango palace sign, still around in 1970
The “Tango” was a dance out of Argentina. It hit New York like a thunderbolt in 1913. Tango parlors sprang up and were very popular, especially with male “dandies” and lonely ladies. It’s been said the tango started in the slums of Argentina and went on to conquer the world. It kind of did.
It was from Vaudeville acts born a few decades earlier, that the era of true celebrity worship by the masses had begun. With photographs and these traveling shows visiting every state, fans had their favorite performers, singers, comedy acts and dancers hanging on their walls, tucked in a wallet or adorning the saloons. There were pamphlets distributed on how to break into the business, whether a singer, dancer, etc. It was becoming the stuff dreams were made of, and this phenomenon only exploded further with the “It” girls of silent films. Young ladies were star struck. And since Vaudeville shows had to also reel in young men, performers and beautiful singers were often costumed in skimpy outfits – showing the curves of the female form for the first time – and in person!
Elsie Lee Hilair was a pretty young lady in her thirties. Her beauty did not jump out at one though. More like a Cleopatra, it was the way she carried herself, her manner, her style. One young man is quoted as having pretended to check his watch outside of the hotel bar, just so he could get one more look at the mysterious woman, who by the style of the day – was more hat than head. Old black and white photos rob us of things in the modern era, for we cannot tell if the roof of that hotel was red, the person’s coat purple, or the pretty lady’s hair blonde. Even if some charlatan colorizes it with guesswork, we still get robbed.
I at first thought of a young Edith Bunker, but seeing I guess was believing. And these styles are now more seemingly common to me than ladies’ fashions are today. Like a few years ago when women were wearing cut-off jeans and hiking boots, what was that all about?
This “glamour shots”-style photo was used by police in trying to find her killer.
Mrs. Hilair was also a young lady pulled into the orbit of celebrity and stardom, albeit through what was undoubtedly a mid-life crisis. She went to the Orpheum Theatre often and was given a generous allowance by her boring husband. She lived in a posh apartment on Clinton Street in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood, still a nice address by 1917. Upper-middle class, even at the tail-end of its heyday, and immigrants and other ethnic groups were still relatively confined to their own neighborhoods elsewhere. Elsie was originally from New Jersey, and was married to a furniture dealer, who at one time was wealthy, but at the time of her death in 1917 was now just a salesman – his wealth diminished. He had great wealth prior to this, and in that time he bought Elsie some very expensive jewelry. About $2,500 worth, in those days – a tidy sum ($47,000 in 2016). Elsie wore the big hats of the era, sweepingly beautiful dresses and had dyed her dark blonde hair a stunning shade or two brighter. She caught the attention of everybody, including one Benny Sternberg, a local hustler, thief and racehorse tout. A few of the local cops that knew him a long time said that he never worked a day in his life. He was a sportin’ man, with a rich father who owned a skirt factory. He was a smoker and weighed about a buck forty.
Benny Sutton aka Sternberg aka the Tango Pirate
Seeing Elsie as an easy mark, upon meeting her amidst “some flirting” at the Orpheum Theatre in Brooklyn one afternoon, and exchanging those mutual flirtations, the pair agreed to meet the following day for a tryst in Manhattan at the then very posh Hotel Martinique. It’s a Radisson now, and in the 1980s had once been a welfare hotel, set up so by Mayor Ed Koch.
The hotel as it appears today
But unknown to her niece, Elsie knew the man already – as he too frequented the many “tango parlors” and dance halls around the city.
After a hardy late breakfast with her niece on a Thursday in chilly mid-March, which consisted of “steak, macaroni with tomato sauce, bread and coffee”, a fortified Elsie stepped out wearing her black fur stole, $11 in her pocket (about $200 today), ready for a date with Benny. As was her custom with men, and for added adventure, she often traveled to various nice hotels for these rendezvous. On Benny’s way to the Flatbush station, a local cop asked “Where ya goin’ Benny?” to which the five-foot-six-inch hustler replied, “I have a date with a chicken!” (is that where we get chick from?). And so they rode the subway train there together, being spotted by several people who remembered the dynamic “lookers”: her big ribbonly hat with so many ribbons it defied description from one female witness, and Benny’s two karat pinky ring, dapper suit and affable manner. Benny was about ten years her junior.
Benny and his wife’s apartment building in Brooklyn
Being a two-bit, unemployed Brooklyn hustler, Benny (although married with a new child) prowled the theaters, dance halls and bars. Since Vaudeville, silent films and jazz where the best new fads and were taking the city by storm, this was the obvious place for the well-built Benny Sutton, as was his alias, to prowl for women: loose women, older women, young women – Benny did not discriminate. And losing his too-ethnic sounding last name gave him the air of a jet-setter, a distinguished new last name he must have pondered over many a night, until it rolled off the tongue – Sutton! Not a Brooklyn hack named Sternberg. But with his slight stature, heavy-set build and chubby, boyish face – his nice dress and flashy jewelry – reflecting a wealth he did not possess – was all that it took to reel in ladies in need or want of attention. And Elsie fell for it, even with his odd, recklessly appearing gait when he walked. He was a charmer. There was something about him too. And he was street-smart. At saloons, he was known as a ladies’ man, and spoke mostly of seeing shows, films or dancing – how good it was, or how funny it was. And of women. Lots of women. Benny liked to have fun, even flipping for drinks sometimes. And all of this despite having that new baby at home. His loyal father may have also financed his leisurely ambitions.
The Orpheum Theatre in Brooklyn. It seated 1,200.
From eyewitness accounts, they had a lively time conversing on the train and while walking down Broadway once they got to Manhattan. After a lively walk down Broadway, which was full of banter, they made their way into the Martinique. Since she checked into the hotel as “Florence Grey” and with no luggage, this would simply say it all. Benny must have waited by the elevators, but he was spotted in the lobby by a passer-by, a stenographer and lawyer originally from Mississippi, who testified at the Grand Jury hearing. Several witnesses remembered the pair, who seemed to attract attention: Elsie with her flair, and Benny with his perma-grin and careless wide walk.
But infidelity is as old as the Book of Genesis. This is what people have always done and did back in those days before dating services, web sites, before lonely hearts ads were around. Before CraigsList could get a lady killed, it was still possible the old-fashioned way.
Interestingly, another tidbit from this by-gone era: Elsie checked in saying it was just herself and that she was Florence Grey of Boston. She had no luggage. Customers with no luggage were often given a “hotel suit”, which was like a cheap paper linen gown for ladies or pajamas for men. These were discarded after use.
So much information was given in the papers about a mysterious Benny, the one who frequented the tango parlors, that the cops were hot on his trail. And whether he did it or not, he finally turned himself in at the station house, saying: “I believe I am the Benny you are looking so hard for, what can I do for you?” Benny was initially questioned and released. But in his long grilling session, the cops seemed more tired and frazzled than Benny, who smiled the entire time. The good cop/bad cop routine did not work with him. His wife showed up with a female companion, and during a break in questioning she berated him in front of reporters for not telling her about these secret women. Then, she stormed out of the station.
Elsie’s niece, Irene, first noticed Benny at the Vaudeville theater. His two-karat pinky ring alerting their watchful eyes, his courteous manner and big smile lending attractiveness where his looks seemed too short in achieving on their own. In her testimony, the counselors seemed very interested in the flirting, for flirting was such a tantalizing thing for them to talk about at the time, one can almost imagine the peanut gallery and jurors leaning forward, so as to not miss a word. But Benny had made such an impression on the nineteen year-old: His attitude; he was the cock of the walk. He had confidence. All this, the niece – with her strange relationship with the aunt who was married to her mother’s brother – remembered. And was able to tell it to the Grand Jury. When Benny was formally charged and arrested at his parent’s home, his aging father attacked officers with his cane, and was quickly dispatched to the ground. There were no cell phone videos then to capture the chaos, but Benny’s nineteen year-old sister lauged heartily at reporters and said sarcastically that she wished she had made extra photos of Benny to sell to them.
But this was not Elsie’s first encounter with strange men. And after her murder, other hotels came forward with information that she had stayed at their establishments, always checking in alone, always for one night. This was always under the guise of going to spend time at her mother’s house in Rutherford, New Jersey. This is how Elsie got time away from a boring husband. The sex, and the Tango dancing and Jazz music was impossible for her to resist.
Nothing else was seen of Elsie at the hotel that day, save for once. A maid was asked by Elsie if a side entrance existed, apart from the main lobby. She was told yes. And so then Elsie, with her big hat, disappeared down the hallway. When the hotel maid discovered Elsie’s body the next day, in the room Elsie paid $4 in cash for ($75 in 2016 money, $150 for two guests), she at first thought nothing of the messy pile of bedding on the bed, for guests often left the rooms in disarray – Nobody makes their bed at a hotel. But when the maid saw the bloody towels in the bathroom and noticed the women’s corset on a chair with no luggage around, her heart jumped. She proceeded to the bed. There, a nude Elsie lay dead with dried blood on her nose, mouth and chin. Wearing only stockings and her knee-high leather high-heeled boots. The maid then ran for help. This type of killing was not a common thing in those days and several hotel employees milled around in the hallway in in shock, disbelief. The bellhop, Emil, told detectives of the rings and jewelry, and so did the clerk. After inspecting the room and turning on the light, the bellhop noticed the diamond rings as Elsie fumbled with coins to give him a twenty cent tip ($4 today).
The coroner testified to the Grand Jury that Elsie had been strangled to death with a cord. There were also signs of sexual activity, but it was hard to him to come to a rape conclusion based on the evidence. It could have been consensual. One thing was certain, however, the expensive jewelry was gone. The killer had difficulty removing her wedding ring though, for it was on good as you will, marks on the skin indicated a struggle for the ring. The coroner added that Elsie was very much nearing her menstrual cycle and would have reached that point in a few days, had she not been killed.
During the Grand Jury, all attention seemed hinged on the niece’s testimony and the word “flirting”. Elsie’s husband knew her to be a flirt, but could never had imagined her committing such indiscretions behind his back. Everyone in her family was shocked. The neighborhood too. The newspapers ran full page stories. This lonely housewife, going out to “tango palaces” and meeting men at theatres; having sex with these men. But the tango dancing, the lure of popular jazz music and the excitement of it all made Elsie want to cut free, take chances, find some sort of adventure. And she certainly found it. It was thrown out in the press back a hundred years ago as a cautionary tale. And it was. Be careful what you wish and to whom you speak, and don’t talk to strangers, and listen to your gut feeling. All of the things our parents teach us growing up. For it is all true.
Benny had been caught asking one person to falsely give him an alibi. The person did come forward, but with more witnesses placing Benny at the scene – he was there after all. And later admitted that he was there with Elsie, amidst so many eyewitnesses, but they only had sex and he left her in good spirits. That she planned to meet another man. And coincidentally, a note was found in another hotel room by a maid at the Martinique, purportedly from “Florence Grey”, and in the room of two mysterious men who were now gone. The note or letter asked the men to help her become a cabaret dancer – another secret she was probably going to hide away from her husband. And another woman came forward later which helped Benny. She said that she saw Benny and Elsie part ways when an older man appeared. Benny’s hair color also did not match chestnut-colored hairs found at the crime scene.
The real or planted note or letter and the mysterious woman had become just the red herrings Benny needed. And although he had also been seen later that night sporting a thick wad of cash, the charges were later dropped. He was never caught pawning jewelry, although a private fence is not a stretch. And although Benny would serve prison time for a theft of furs in 1921 with his gang of Einsteins, having attempted to first flee to Canada – he was returned and served his five to ten at Sing Sing prison for 1st degree grand larceny. His father was in the fur trade by this time, so maybe this was one of his competitors or suppliers. He served three and a half years, but the suspicion of the murder of Elsie would follow him around the rest of his life. And he would forever be known as “the Tango Pirate”. When Morris Sternberg died of old age in the late 1920s, he willed to his son $2,000. Benny’s date with the reaper is unknown.
If you find Elsie or Benny on findagrave, let me know!
Evidence by Luc Sante
The People of the State of New York vs. Benjamin Sternberg
Old news articles