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Frederick Housman, the husband of Patricia’s grandmother Stella Bernheimer Housman, and Patricia’s mother Lucille Burton in their car after Patricia’s funeral, 1943Getty Images
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Burton Family Chronicles

How a wealthy German Jewish family went from the society pages to front-page news after a 1943 murder and the subsequent sensational trial

by
Allan Levine
September 30, 2020
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Frederick Housman, the husband of Patricia’s grandmother Stella Bernheimer Housman, and Patricia’s mother Lucille Burton in their car after Patricia's funeral, 1943Getty Images

In the early hours of Sunday, Oct. 24, 1943, 22-year-old Patricia Burton Lonergan, from a wealthy New York German Jewish family, was murdered at her residence on 51st Street in the upscale Manhattan neighborhood of Turtle Bay-Beekman Place, where she lived with her infant son. Her estranged husband, Wayne Lonergan, a 26-year-old Canadian from Toronto, was charged with the crime and ultimately convicted in a sensational trial that for a time pushed WWII off the front pages of New York City’s newspapers.

Details are Unprintable: Wayne Lonergan and the Sensational Café Society Murder traces the story of Patricia and Wayne’s turbulent lives—a story that is set against New York’s café society nightclub culture and examines the era’s intolerant and fear-mongering attitudes about homosexuality, which contributed to the harsh portrayal of Lonergan in the press. In this adapted excerpt, the background of Patricia Burton Lonergan’s family—including her parents, William O. Burton and Lucille Wolfe Burton—is chronicled.

Life was good for 23-year-old William Oliver Burton in the summer of 1920. Seemingly, he did not have a care in the world. On his 21st birthday, in October 1917, he had inherited a trust fund of $250,000—the equivalent today of about $6.3 million. That money, and William’s privileged upbringing—in 1910, he and his parents, Max and Stella Bernheimer, his older brother George, and his maternal grandparents had five servants to attend to their daily needs—was the result of Max inheriting his father’s lucrative brewery business and expanding it.

William, however, short and small in stature, fancied himself an artist. He had no interest in manufacturing beer for the rest of his life—and he didn’t have to. His substantial wealth enabled him to explore his creative interests. He studied at the Yale University School of Art, the Art Students League of New York, and the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, and on many trips to Paris worked alongside the noted landscape artist Marius Avy. France was, in fact, where he wanted to be to expand his artistic horizons.

Paris also afforded William another freedom: to be completely at ease with himself and who he was at heart. Though William’s sexual orientation cannot be absolutely confirmed, there is sufficient evidence to strongly suggest that—like Wayne Lonergan—William Burton was gay, or certainly bisexual.

During much of the 20th century, France was one of the few places on Earth where homosexuality was more or less tolerated—at least, in comparison to the United States, Canada, and Britain, where it was illegal, morally repugnant, regarded as sexual perversion at its worst. In France, sodomy laws were repealed in 1791 at the start of the French Revolution. “Fairy nice boys,” as the slang of the day had it, could freely socialize at nightclubs in Montmartre, Pigalle, and Montparnasse. When William was in Paris, he could live his life as he saw fit. He did not have to look over his shoulder as he did in New York in order to safeguard his secrets.

William’s family made other demands on him, however; they had specific expectations for his future, one of which was for him to find a nice girl and get married, settle down, and have children. In 1920 there was definitely no “closet” to come out of; you kept your private life as private as was possible. Hence, during the first week of August that year, William’s engagement to the lovely, Jewish, and pampered Lucille Wolfe was announced in the New York and Chicago newspapers.

Lucille, who was three years older than William, had grown up along with her three younger brothers and a sister surrounded by modest wealth and (a few) servants. Her heritage was in the Deep South. Lucille was the daughter of Hartwig Wolfe from South Carolina. His German immigrant parents, Sailing and Sarah, had 13 children; Hartwig, who was born in May 1867, was number 10. The Wolfes had owned and operated several plantations in Winnsboro, about 70 miles south of Charlotte, North Carolina. The Wolfe family were proud Southerners and slave owners. They lived in a columned mansion, enjoyed musical evenings around the fire, and had their every whim and desire attended to by their slaves. This mint julep and bourbon-sipping lifestyle ended with the advent of the Civil War in 1861.

In February 1865, as the war was coming to an end, the family’s home, property, and cotton, like that of nearly all of their neighbours, were pillaged and then burned and destroyed by the pitiless Union soldiers. Commanded by General William Tecumseh Sherman, the Yankee forces inflicted havoc and a wave of destruction as they marched through the South.

They resided in grand brownstones on Fifth Avenue, or closer to the still-undeveloped area around Central Park. Nonetheless, the bourgeois Gentile elite whose acceptance they sought never quite let them forget they were Jewish immigrants and outsiders.

When the smoke cleared, the Wolfes were nearly destitute, forced to start over again in nearby Camden during the Reconstruction era. It was an arduous challenge, one that Sailing Wolfe did not overcome. He died at the age of 84 in poverty.

In 1867, Isabelle (“Belle”) Wolfe, Hartwig’s older sister, married Dr. Simon Baruch. He had served in the Confederate Army as a surgeon, and was later a public health advocate and hydrotherapist, who promoted the healing powers of water. Their son, Bernard, became a noted financier in New York, where many members of the extended Wolfe family relocated in the early 1880s. Bernard Baruch was also an advisor to two U.S. presidents: Woodrow Wilson during World War I, and, more significantly, Franklin Roosevelt, during World War II.

Family connections boosted Hartwig’s career. In 1871, another of his sisters, Rose, had married Henry Lytton, who had been born in New York in 1846 as Henry Levi, into a British-Jewish family. Lytton, who lived to be 102, was the founder of the Chicago department store, Lytton’s, known more popularly as “The Hub,” which became a multimillion-dollar enterprise, with several outlets elsewhere in Illinois and Indiana.

Like his bride-to-be, William Burton’s family roots were also in Germany. But it was New Yorkers’ penchant for light German lager in the latter half of the 19th century that was the basis of his personal fortune. Escaping economic hardship and restrictive government regulation, nearly 3 million German-speaking immigrants arrived in the United States in the period from 1820 to 1880, of whom an estimated 150,000 were Jewish. Many Germans, Jews and non-Jews alike, ended up in New York City; by 1880, one-third of the city’s population, or more than 370,000, were German.

Among the multitude was Emanuel Bernheimer, who in 1844, at the age of 27, bid farewell to his family in the Baden-Württemberg area in central Germany near Stuttgart and journeyed to the new world. He landed in New York City with a bit of money and trained as a brewer. Within six years, he and a partner, August Schmid, founded the Constanz Brewery on East 14th Street. After that Emanuel expanded his business interests with the more well-known Lion Brewery on Columbus Avenue. In 1862, he was also one of the organizers of the United States Brewers Association, America’s first trade association.

Two factors contributed to Emanuel’s growing success. First was the enormous popularity of German lager that was more carbonated and not as heavy as the English “top-fermented” ales and porters that New Yorkers had been imbibing. And second, Emanuel was a marketing wizard. He was one of the first brewery owners in the city to advertise in the press, and astutely opened boisterous beer gardens and saloons to promote his beer.

By the time of Emanuel’s death in March 1890, he and his wife Fannie and their four children—Simon, Max, Flora, and Henry—were members of New York’s German-Jewish upper class. This was a Jewish elite that included such luminaries as the Straus family, who owned Macy’s department store; garment factory owner William Seligman; and investment bankers Joseph Seligman, Henry Lehman, Marcus Goldman, and his partner, Samuel Sachs. They were assimilated “Israelites” and patriotic Americans, rather than “Hebrews” or Jews. They resided in grand brownstones on Fifth Avenue, or closer to the still-undeveloped area around Central Park. Nonetheless, the bourgeois Gentile elite whose acceptance they sought never quite let them forget they were Jewish immigrants and outsiders. The wealthy socialites who dominated the Social Register, the coveted and snooty official list of New York blue bloods, did not disdain the Germans Jews as much as they later did the “pushy” and backward Eastern European Jews—who, starting in the early 1880s, inhabited the Lower East Side in huge numbers—yet the German Jews were bothersome all the same.

They became the targets of an increasing number of anti-Semitic and discriminatory incidents. Starting in the late 1870s, wealthy and prominent German Jews—who much to their chagrin were lumped in with the uncouth East European Jews—found that social clubs were closed to them, elite private schools refused to admit their children, and they could not purchase property at various summer resorts.

Nothing was written in stone, however, and there was an ebb and flow to the prejudice and discrimination. A case in point: The Bernheimers’ brewery sales did not suffer from their Jewish background. Emanuel’s son Max (William Burton’s father), who joined his older brother Simon in the business in 1889, had attended Grammar School No. 35, a prestigious boys’ school on West 13th Street near Sixth Avenue. The Bernheimers were generous philanthropists to Jewish and non-Jewish charities. They were members of the Temple Emanu-El, the first true Reform congregation in New York, where German (and then English) was used in prayer services, rather than only Hebrew. In 1868, the Bernheimers, along with other members, helped to raise more than $650,000 (about $11.5 million today) to erect what the Temple’s website notes was “the largest and most spectacular synagogue in America, a gorgeous house of worship of Moorish design at Fifth Avenue and East 43rd Street.”

At the synagogue on June 8, 1887, Max, who was 32 years old, married Stella Steinam, 19 years old. It was a union of two prominent German-Jewish families. Stella was the daughter of Abraham Steinam, who as a young man in the 1840s had come to the United States from Bavaria and eventually established a successful clothing business. Abraham Steinam passed away in January 1914 at the age of 75.

What the brothers really wanted was complete acceptance as full-fledged members of the Park Avenue elite, which proved elusive, even if they were the scions of a notable German-Jewish family with roots in the United States going back to the mid-nineteenth century.

Max and Stella and their two sons—George, who was born in February 1894, and William, born in October 1896—lived in style in a roomy Upper West Side apartment on 72nd Street, not too far from the Dakota, the elegant residence across from Central Park built by Edward Clark, who made his money as co-owner of the Singer Sewing Machine Company.

The Bernheimer family’s idyllic life was shattered on September 24, 1913. Max was at a courthouse in Brooklyn testifying in a civil case. A painter by the name of Gustave Kenz was suing his brewery company for $10,000 in damages. In the lawsuit, Kenz claimed that while working at the brewery his eyes had been injured from acid emanating from vats on the premises. As soon as Max had finished giving his testimony, Kenz’s lawyer handed him another subpoena to appear again on that day. Max was angered by this ploy and grew visibly agitated. He stumbled for a moment and then collapsed. By the time he arrived at nearby Brooklyn Hospital, he was dead at the age of 58. He was laid to rest at the Salem Fields Cemetery in Brooklyn. Established by the congregants of Temple Emanu-El in 1851, it is the final resting place for several generations of prominent German-American Jews.

Stella and her sons were devastated, but they didn’t need to worry about money. Max left an estate worth more than $4 million (about $89 million today). Apart from a $20,000 charitable bequest, Stella received the bulk of it, while sons George and William were each left $250,000 in trust funds accessible on their 21st birthdays.

The very wealthy Stella did not stay a widow for long. In March 1915, she married 50-year-old Frederick Housman, the head of a Wall Street brokerage firm. Housman was the son of German-Jewish immigrant parents and had been born in New York City. He had the regal bearing of a Prussian duke, and was distinguished by a neatly trimmed Van Dyke beard and handlebar mustache. He was also rich in his own right. The couple lived in a luxurious Midtown Park Avenue suite.

During the hot and humid summer months, they retreated to their magnificent home at Elberon, a resort favored by the rich and famous along the New Jersey coastline. Elberon and nearby locales like Rumson were especially popular among wealthy Jewish families such as the Seligmans, Lehmans, Schiffs, and Warburgs, where they were welcomed rather than shunned. There, amid the European-style villas and beaches, these Jewish families enjoyed sunbathing, golf, tennis, dinner parties, river lunches, horse shows, and “automobiling” down the coast. The New York weekly the American Hebrew and Jewish Messenger, for example, ran a summer column entitled “Society and Its Doings: On the Jersey Shore,” to keep its readers apprised of the comings and goings of the Jewish elite. For some years, Housman served as president of the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). Elberon was also well-known as the favored vacation spot for several US presidents, including Ulysses Grant, William McKinley, and Woodrow Wilson. President James Garfield died in Elberon in September 1881, 80 days after he had been shot by writer and lawyer Charles J. Guiteau.

Later Stella and Frederick owned property in Palm Beach, Fla., as well. Housman died in late 1945, and Stella lived until early 1954, passing away in Palm Beach when she was 86. By then, she had experienced much tragedy, with the deaths of her two sons and the murder of her granddaughter Patricia.

In 1917, however, that was far into a future that neither George nor William could have ever predicted. Even before they received their inheritances, the two brothers, like Henry Lytton and many other assimilated New York Jews of the day—wanting to eschew the anti-Semitism that they believed impacted on their lives—changed their last name from the German-Jewish sounding “Bernheimer” to the more American “Burton.” William also rid himself of the middle name “Solomon” for the Christian name “Oliver.” William later claimed that he and George had abandoned their father’s surname primarily because in the midst of World War I—their name change did coincide with the U.S. entrance into the war in April of 1917—their “Teutonic” family name attracted anti-German sentiments. That was probably true, to a point. Yet what the brothers really wanted was complete acceptance as full-fledged members of the Park Avenue elite, which proved elusive, even if they were the scions of a notable German-Jewish family with roots in the United States going back to the mid-nineteenth century.

The draft board classified Wayne as ‘4-F,’ or unacceptable, rejecting him on ‘immoral tendencies.’

On a near-perfect warm autumn day, Saturday, September 25, 1920, William Burton married Lucille Wolfe at Stella and Frederick’s Elberon home. The newlyweds honeymooned in Paris, and then decided to stay for several more months while William painted. They returned to Elberon in time for Lucille to give birth on September 1, 1921, to a beautiful baby girl, Patricia Hartley Burton—as WASP-y a name as a Jewish couple could come up with. She had her mother’s dark eyes and her father’s long and slender nose and narrow chin.

By the new year, William, Lucille, and baby Patsy, as she had been dubbed, were back in France. Much of Patricia’s early childhood was spent journeying between New York, where the family had an apartment near Park Avenue and 72nd Street, close to where Stella and Frederick lived; Paris, living at a residence and studio at the famed Villa des Arts in Montmartre, on rue Hégésippe, where such luminaries as Paul Cézanne and Auguste Renoir had once painted; and, best of all, at William’s opulent villa at Mougins in the south, not far from Cannes. As was the custom of the rich, Patricia—who one day would follow this custom herself, with her own child—was essentially raised by two governesses, Miss Wilmott and Mademoiselle Aimone. When the family was in Mougins, the nanny and Patricia lived together in a guesthouse on the property, so that she did not bother her parents while they partied or disturb them while they slept.

As inspiring as painting at the Villa des Arts must have been, the experience did not transform William into another Cézanne or Renoir. His art career never reached the high level he had anticipated.

Meanwhile, William and Lucille’s brief marriage was falling apart—in all probability because William was trying to live his life as a heterosexual husband, and his dishonesty frustrated and angered him. Lucille may have had an affair and claimed that William had become violent toward her, in front of Patricia. She later listed his various transgressions in a court proceeding: In April 1922, he had “used profane language in front of their home and caused a crowd to gather”; on a family trip to Biarritz, a popular and pricey seaside town on France’s southwestern coast, she claimed William hit her, knocked her head against the wall, and ordered her out of the villa they were staying at; during a vacation at the charming resort town of San Sebastian, Spain—31 miles south of Biarritz—he allegedly threw a suitcase at her and “put her in fear of her life”; and in early April 1924, she said that he had pushed her down the steps in their home in the presence of guests, locked her in a bedroom for two hours, and then took Patricia to an undisclosed location, where the young girl was kept for several days away from her mother.

By mid-March 1925, after less than five years of marriage, Lucille had had enough and sought a separation on the grounds of cruelty. With William residing in Paris at the time, the authorities in New York served him the papers at his residence at the Villa des Arts. He vehemently denied he had hurt his wife, but the courts in New York and Paris did find her version of their troubled marriage credible. William had remained in France for so long that Lucille was legally able to charge him with desertion. In May 1926, a court in Paris granted Lucille a divorce decree. As alimony, William was ordered to pay Lucille $18,000 ($257,000 today) annually. Lucille took little Patsy back to New York, where they stayed for the next four years.

Then, the unexpected happened.

Only the couple can truly know the state of their relationship. Quite inexplicably in August 1930, Lucille agreed to remarry William in a ceremony in Cannes. Lucille later said that she and William mainly did this for their daughter, who they both “worshipped.” Given all that had gone on between the two of them, it was, nonetheless, a bizarre turn of events, one applauded by Lucille’s mother, Clara, who was then living in Los Angeles.

Patricia’s home life got back to a semblance of normalcy—at least, what was normal for the rich. The family remained in Europe during much of the 1930s, journeying back and forth from the Riviera to New York every so often. Patricia’s early education proceeded with private tutors and elite schools. Both William and Lucille—according to Lucille, at any rate—were strict parents. When she became a teenager, they did not permit her to accompany them to late-night parties, bob her hair, “varnish” her nails, or wear red lipstick.

But that eventually changed. By the time she was 20 years old, like most young women of her generation, she had gained sufficient independence from her parents to make her own fashion decisions.

One day in late 1939 or early 1940, William Burton met 22-year old Wayne Lonergan, who had moved from Toronto to New York City to work at the New York World’s Fair, and was immediately drawn to him. The feelings were apparently mutual. For Lonergan, moreover, who was just getting by as a bus dispatcher based at the Fair, Burton’s wealth and lavish lifestyle were immensely appealing. Their intimate affair likely lasted a few months.

It was through William—who died suddenly in late October 1940 from a heart attack—that Wayne was introduced to his daughter Patricia. Lonergan later insisted it was Patricia he was immediately interested in, not William. At the same time, Lonergan did not hide the fact from journalist and author Hamilton Darby Perry, who interviewed him and wrote about the case in 1972, that William was known to be bisexual, although this, he claimed, had nothing to do with him.

Against her mother’s wishes, Patricia married Wayne in Las Vegas at the end of July 1941. As she later was supposed to have said about Lonergan, according to novelist and New York Daily Mirror columnist Thyra Samter Winslow: “If he was good enough for my father, he’s good enough for me.”

Despite Patricia and Wayne enjoying nights out sipping champagne and dancing into the wee hours at the Stork Club and El Morocco, their marriage, like that of William and Lucille, was doomed from the start—though it took a little while for Patricia to come to that conclusion. Following their return to New York City, Lonergan barely worked (his job at the Fair had ended) and Patricia used money from her trust fund to finance their lavish lifestyle. But at the apartment where they lived for a time on Park Avenue, there was much bickering and yelling, even after Patricia gave birth on July 1, 1942, to their son William (“Billy”) Wayne Lonergan.

World War II also put stress on Patricia and Wayne’s faltering relationship. As a Canadian living in the United States, Lonergan was eligible for the U.S. draft, not something he relished. If he had to fight in the conflict, then he wanted to do it for Canada—or so he later said. When he was ordered to report to the U.S. Selective Service Board for medical examination, he admitted to the army physician that he was a homosexual. At the time, the military establishment had tremendous fear and paranoia about homosexuals enlisting in the U.S. Armed Forces. Predictably, the draft board classified Wayne as “4-F,” or unacceptable, rejecting him on “immoral tendencies.” Nearly three decades later, Lonergan insisted that the whole exercise had been a ruse—that he had told the doctor and draft board that he was gay in order to avoid being conscripted.

Wayne and Patricia separated during the summer of 1943. She moved with Billy from the residence on Park Avenue to a three-floor furnished apartment in a fashionable refurbished four-story brownstone on East 51st Street. He worked for a time as a photographer’s assistant before deciding to return to Toronto and enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Late on Friday evening, October 22, 1943, Lonergan boarded an airplane at the Malton Field airport near Toronto for a weekend visit to New York City. He was looking forward to seeing his young son and for a possible reconciliation with Patricia, though he knew that she was dating other men. Tragically, two days later Patricia was discovered dead in her bedroom by her mother and son’s nanny. Wayne Lonergan was quickly the center of an intense murder investigation and the defendant in a sensational trial that was to grip New York City for months.

Excerpted from Details Are Unprintable: Wayne Lonergan and the Sensational Café Society Murder. Allan Levine, © 2020. Reprinted courtesy of Lyons Press.

Historian and writer Allan Levine’s most recent book is Details Are Unprintable: Wayne Lonergan and the Sensational Café Society Murder.

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