The Windy City songbird, the gangster, the scandal, and the Hollywood movie by which we remember them
Chicago’s sprawling West Side “Valley District”—punctuated by a dense cluster of gray-stone walk-ups, three-flats, saloons, factories, and modest worker cottages—composed Chicago’s “Bloody Twentieth” Ward. It was the bailiwick of Prohibition bootleggers, stickup men, crooked politicians, and champion brawlers in the years leading up to World War II.
A young man, if he had any hope at all of escaping the grind of poverty and gang violence, had to be quick, nimble, and able to think on his feet. The poorly illuminated path to future success for a poor boy growing up in a Valley neighborhood limited the career choices one could make in such a confusing and desultory environment as this. The priesthood and politics were often the best and only hope for an escape. For some, it was the only way out.
Early in life, Valley boy Martin Snyder caught an unlucky break. At the age of six, he mangled his left leg in a streetcar mishap that left him with a permanent limp. Thereafter, Valley District wiseacres cruelly tagged him with the unfortunate nickname, Moe the Gimp. Later in life, the denizens of the Randolph Street theatre crowd (Chicago’s very own Broadway and Tin Pan Alley rolled into one), whose favor he so desperately coveted, addressed Snyder as Colonel Gimp. It was neither a term of respect nor affection but shared derision for a swaggering tough with a yen for the footlights who early on chose thuggery and intimidation as his life’s calling.
Moe “the Gimp” Snyder never advanced past the fourth grade. It was a waste of time, and he didn’t care much for all that “learnin’.” He quit school to scrounge a few dollars per week peddling the Chicago American on Loop street corners. Snyder advanced to “the circulation department,” a euphemism for beating up newsboys and distributors hawking the rival newspapers during the heyday of Chicago’s circulation wars.
It was tough and demanding work, but the glib, fast-talking Snyder made the rounds and established important connections with the big-shot West Side politicians passing through City Hall and the County Building. One of them, Dennis Egan, served as a bailiff in the municipal court before winning a seat in the Chicago City Council as alderman of the “Bloody Twentieth.” Egan owned a political saloon on Maxwell Street where he employed a number of “bright boys” to act as his “street muscle.” Egan rewarded his loyal cronies with high-paying patronage jobs in City Hall.
This was the world that beckoned Moe Snyder, and Egan recognized the lad’s potential and put him to work in the Department of Sanitation. “And den [sic] I got a job as an investigator wit’ da’ Prosecuta’s office,” Snyder informed a packed Los Angeles courtroom in 1938. In City Hall and the justice mills of Chicago, he rubbed elbows with assistant state’s attorneys, judges, and the criminal mouthpieces who appeared before them, and in the thick of things, Snyder managed to keep his chestnuts out of the fire. In Chicago parlance, Moe the Gimp was “well-connected.”
Like many City Hall hangers-on, collecting a check for doing very little in that swaggering feel-good era just after World War I, he co-mingled with the people who mattered. He talked out of the side of his mouth with a cigar firmly clenched between his teeth and a fedora hat perched at a jaunty angle on the top of his head. The Gimp was no Rhodes Scholar to be sure—he bet on the long shot at Lincoln Fields on race day, and had a certain, undeniable, rough-around-the-edges panache the singers and actors found charming.
Randolph Street was Chicago’s “rialto,” where theatrical people buzzed the cabarets and gin joints from Wabash west to LaSalle long after the final curtain dropped on the last stage show of the evening. Its beating heart was the intersection of Randolph and Clark, where the College Inn inside the old Sherman House Hotel, directly across the street from City Hall, was the place to see and be seen.
Years later, when the footlights had noticeably dimmed on the famous intersection, Snyder confided to journalist John Blades that, “The Sherman House was the hangout in the old days for show people. I used to know some bootleggers and I got liquor for people in show business. I had too much sense to be a bootlegger myself.” In his capacity as a “song plugger” for recording studios and the publishers of sheet music, Snyder prowled the hotel bars and gained back-stage admittance to the Vaudeville houses, show lounges and ballrooms, where he cozied up to the big stars of the day and their managers. With a cigarette lighter in hand, he was quick with a joke and to light up their smoke and say, “Now I have dis here little number I’d like to show you dat will work really swell in your act.”
“I knew [Al] Jolson, [Jimmy] Durante, Lou Clayton,” he bragged. “I worked for a song publisher. Going around to houses like the Majestic and the Bijou at Halsted and Jackson asking the performers to sing our songs. That’s how I met Ruth Etting. She was working at the Marigold Gardens.”
Ruth Etting. In her celebrity years, adoring fans knew her as Chicago’s Sweetheart. She might have belonged to the Windy City, but in the heyday of early radio and Vaudeville, her fame was national. Born on a twenty-acre farm in David City, Nebraska, and orphaned at age five, Ruthie went to live with her grandfather, the president of the bank in town. The child showed great aptitude for drawing. With the blessing and encouragement from her uncle, Alex, the mayor of the rural hamlet, Etting left home in 1917 to seek her fame and fortune in Chicago where, for a brief time, she studied at the Academy of Fine Arts.
Etting worked hard to pay for her education. She took a part-time job in the chorus line at the Marigold Gardens, a former German bierstube at Grace Street and Broadway once known as De Berg’s Grove, until owner Karl Eitel converted it into a two-thousand-seat cabaret featuring floor shows, musical comedy, and dancing. When Prohibition became the law of the land, management obliged the patrons by providing a leather “sleeve” discreetly tacked underneath each table for the benefit of the thirsty customer wishing to conceal the flask of spirits smuggled in from the street.
It wasn’t until after eleven p.m., when the cabaret crowd settled in for their nocturnal merriment performed by dance bands and baggy-pants comics such as Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (motion picture star of the silent era) that the show kicked into high gear. The late-hour scheduling had one advantage: It freed up time for Etting to put in a five-hour day at a little tailor shop at 72 West Randolph Street, designing costumes for the performers working up and down the rialto.
Life might have continued on at a dreadfully ordinary pace for this aspiring artist and chorus line hoofer if not for the roving eye of Martin Snyder, who spotted her on stage one night as he called upon the Eitel brothers with a satchel full of show tones for sale. It was 1922, a year before Karl Eitel closed the cabaret permanently and re-opened the Marigold as a boxing hall for club fighters.
Snyder made the approach. He boasted that he was a theatrical agent of local renown and had doubled as singer Al Jolson’s personal bodyguard. “I know everyone in this business!” he clucked. “Stick with me kid, and you’ll go places!” Etting earned twenty-five dollars per week at the Marigold and awaited her first big break. Deciding that Snyder might just be her ticket to stardom, she put her trust in his connections. Before the year ended, the Gimp divorced his wife and abandoned his daughter, Edith, so that he could run off to Crown Point, Indiana, after bullying Ruth into a quickie marriage.
Snyder took charge. He scheduled the bookings and haggled over minute details with the producers while Ruth managed the finances. “I didn’t know nuttin’ about money den,” he later remarked. In the early days, before Etting became a star, Snyder huddled in the doorways outside the theatres and cabarets of Chicago pushing a few dollars into the hands of passers-by to go inside and clap and cheer Etting’s performance so she would not be embarrassed by empty seats. “I got her a job in the Terrace Gardens (the nightclub inside the Hotel Morrison where Chicago politicians often gathered) and some of the kids dere [sic] used to call her Miss City Hall.”
Snyder pulled Etting out of the chorus line and succeeded in making her a celebrity. Although he boasted that other major stars clamored for his services as a booking agent and promoter, the Gimp insisted that Etting would remain his one and only client. What he lacked in manners and charm, he made up for in his willfulness and aggression, like an implied threat of a busted noggin for the hapless manager of the show company if he didn’t agree to give his sweetie an even break.
“To him,” famed Broadway gossip columnist Ed Sullivan observed, “the world was a battleground rather than an oyster. To him the world was full of real and fancied enemies, and he left his hotel each night ready to do battle with them. He eyed everybody with distrust and limped through the world with a cigar in his mouth, a sour look on his face, and the little lady in his heart.”
That Snyder was a jealous, possessive, and physically abusive husband has never been in doubt. Etting survived fifteen tumultuous years of marriage to him as her star ascended to the show business heavens. Just as the Gimp went into a slow and painful eclipse, his wife scored early and impressive successes as a recording artist and stage and motion picture actress. Snyder lived off of her earnings, blowing Etting’s dough at crap tables and card games in Chicago, New York, and Hollywood without apology or regret.
The pretty chanteuse reached stardom in 1927 in “Ziegfield Follies,” singing “Shine on Harvest Moon” in a slow, lazy style that captivated audiences. Through the nineteen twenties and thirties, Etting scored a string of national hits, including her signature songs “Love Me or Leave Me,” “It Happened in Monterey,” and “Ten Cents a Dance.” She headlined with Eddie Cantor in “Whoopie” and “Roman Scandals” in 1928 and 1933, respectively, and became internationally famous. At the height of her career in the early Depression years, Etting appeared on numerous radio programs of local and national origin. She performed live in the WGN studios for fourteen straight weeks in the fall of 1932 on the local program “Music That Satisfies.” By now, she had become one of the highest paid stars in the entertainment world.
Meanwhile, Snyder continued to break Etting’s spirits and dragged her down emotionally. His strong-arm tactics were deeply resented in the business. Florenz Ziegfeld had him bodily thrown out of Etting’s New York dressing room during a performance of the “Follies” one night. He was barred from a number of smaller clubs, but kept on making trouble.
The Nebraska farm girl returned to her uncle’s home on November 15th, 1937 to announce her uncontested divorce from Snyder on the grounds of mental cruelty and desertion—and her intention to retire from show business at the peak of her career. In the final divorce settlement, Etting gave her ex-husband fifty thousand dollars in cash to pay off his gambling debts and half-interest in their Beverly Hills home. She testified that part of her earnings paid for a house given to Snyder’s mother back in Chicago.
Then, after final papers were signed and she was at last free of her snarling, manipulative ex, she began a romance with Myrl Alderman, her piano accompanist, song arranger, and Hollywood gadfly, a married man ten years her junior. Alderman had a reputation as a ladies man—a “hound” if the truth be known. After the affair became a matter of public record, Alderman’s second wife, Alma, sued Etting for alienation of affection and the break-up of their marriage. Alma accused her adulterous spouse of “all night trysting at a frog ranch where they carried on their romance.” In tears, she revealed that Myrl Alderman had not contributed one red cent toward raising their one-year-old daughter, then held up the little tyke to the popping flashbulbs of newspaper photographers for added effect.
It was raw, sensational stuff. Back east, Moe the Gimp, hearing rumors that Etting and Alderman had been seen together at prize fights, was livid with jealousy and rage. A prize fight no less! He phoned Etting from New York with a deadly threat: “I’m going to hop a plane and come out there and kill you!”
The hot-tempered, controlling Snyder raced back to the West Coast, deciding to kill Alderman instead. He found his intended victim inside the NBC studio on Melrose Avenue in the west end of Los Angeles during the early evening hours of October 15th, 1938. At the point of a gun he later claimed to have won in a New York City card game, Snyder ordered Alderman to accompany him to Etting’s alabaster white home facing the San Bernadino Mountains at 3090 Lake Hollywood Drive “to settle an old score.” Inside the home, Snyder found his twenty-one-year-old daughter, Edith, whom Ruth had hired as her personal secretary. Eyeing the gun, Edith screamed at the father she detested. “Shoot me if you will, Daddy! Go ahead!” Snyder told his daughter to shut up and scram.
In the music room, Snyder ordered them to be quiet, but when Alderman arose from the chair and attempted to speak, the Gimp fired a shot into his stomach. He later blamed his actions on drunkenness and asserted that he had only fired in self-defense.
In the confusion that followed, Etting raced upstairs to retrieve her gun from the bedroom nightstand. Panicked and wild-eyed, she trained the weapon on Snyder, but the Gimp knocked it loose before Etting could squeeze the trigger. Edith Snyder retrieved the loaded gun and pointed it at her father. “I’ve got my revenge. Now you can call the cops!” Moe snarled, seconds before fleeing the residence. Edith chased him out of the front door and fired several errant shots into the night, thankfully missing the mark each time.
Alderman survived his wound. Nearing the end of Snyder’s trial for attempted murder in December 1938, Alderman exited the hospital and flew to Las Vegas with Etting where they were betrothed in a wedding chapel ceremony. Informed of this development inside his jail cell, the disbelieving Snyder grumbled to a reporter, “That would be a bum joke to play on a guy.”
It was no joke, and despite a vigorous defense put up by Jerry Giesler (attorney-of-choice for stars caught in the legal crosshairs of nineteen-thirties Hollywood), Snyder was found guilty of attempted murder. He won a new trial on a technicality July 24th, 1940, but by now, Myrl Alderman and Etting had moved on with their lives and declined to appear as a prosecution witness in the second trial. With no other recourse, Snyder was freed by the Los Angeles district attorney. Snyder, chastened and despairing, returned to his old Chicago haunts to pick up the pieces. He had lost the love of his life to another man. Daughter Edith died in Chicago on August 4th, 1939, leaving behind a few worthless trinkets to Ruth Etting, with no mention of her estranged father contained in a one-page will.
The Gimp was a broken man. John Blades located him in 1975 working as a mail sorter in City Hall. He was seventy-seven years old by this time, suffering from chest pain and saying he was often tempted to “take a dive” out of the window of his hotel room. Snyder expressed contrition for his misspent life with Etting and generously praised Mayor Richard J. Daley for giving him a job when others would not. “You’ve heard of Christ?” he asked. “You’ve heard of Moses? Daley belongs with them. The Three Musketeers.”
Myrl Alderman sustained war wounds in the service of his country. He died in 1966 after twenty-eight years of wedded bliss to Etting who made a brief comeback in March 1947 after signing on for a three-week singing engagement at the Copacabana in New York. “I thought it might be fun to see if I’m forgotten,” she informed columnist Louella Parsons. Ruth was forty-six and had no lingering desire to renew her singing career when her contract ended. She retired to her husband’s home in Colorado Springs and faded into obscurity until MGM began production on “Love Me or Leave Me,” the cinematic retelling of the famous love triangle starring James Cagney as Snyder; Doris Day as Etting; and Cameron Mitchell as Alderman (his first name changed to “Johnny” in the script).
The motion picture earned six Academy Award nominations including one for James Cagney as best actor (his last) and came away with a win in the category of Best Motion Picture Story.
All three principals of the 1938 melodrama consented to allow their names to be used, but neither Etting, Snyder, nor Alderman were very pleased with their portrayals after the biopic debuted at the McVicker’s Theater in July 1955. Etting preferred Jane Powell over Doris Day, complaining that the otherwise sweet and gentle Day made her “look tough.”
Snyder was un-amused by Daniel Fuchs’ screenplay and Charles Vidor’s direction. “They had a scene that showed me shooting that guy in the back. You can bet your underwear I didn’t do that. He pulled a gun on me first. To give you an idea of how god-damned silly they are, it’s my left leg that’s on the bum, and Cagney is walking round all through that move dragging his right leg!”
If we accept Snyder’s word at face value, how was it then possible for Alderman to have brandished a gun at the Gimp when in fact Snyder aimed the gun at him?