I find wives hard to keep -- but I am going to hang on to this one until the end.
-- Frederick G. Nixon-Nirdlinger, on his marriage to Charlotte Nash
An aging millionaire, a beauty queen, a bottle of whisky, a loaded pistol, an accusation of infidelity -- put them all in one room and someone is bound to die to spectacular tabloid effect.
The story actually began eight years before that fateful booze-fueled night; it started the moment a pair of dimples framed by spun-gold hair strolled across a stage in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in the autumn of 1923. The sash draped across her teenage bosom identified her as "Miss St. Louis," though she usually answered to Charlotte Nash. She was seventeen years old, barely out of high school, and extremely pretty, and her one ambition was to become Miss America.
At least one of the judges thought her blue eyes and corn-fed cheeks warranted the title. He was Fred Nixon-Nirdlinger, world traveler and wealthy 47-year-old owner of a chain of theaters in Philadelphia. But he was ultimately outvoted; the crown went to a young lady from Ohio. Nixon-Nirdlinger was furious and vowed that if he could not make Charlotte Nash into Miss America then he would at least make her a famous actress. She was a "diamond of purest water," he said, just needing "a touch of polishing here and there."
Charlotte was trotted off to finishing school at Nixon-Nirdlinger's expense, where she learned the niceties of deportment, to rise, sit, and carry herself with dignity, to soften her western Rs. A few months into Charlotte's polishing regimen, Fred decided that his public, long-lasting search for The One Woman had finally come to an end. He withdrew her from finishing school and married the 18-year-old beauty in a sensational ceremony in Hagerstown, Maryland. Alas, he neglected to tell his young bride the not insignificant fact that he was already married to someone else.
In fact, Fred Nixon-Nirdlinger had been married for the better part of twenty years to a woman by the name of Lura Mckenna. He was also expecting a child by his mistress, and he had been recently sued for alienation of affections (i.e., he had played the role of 'the other man' in a divorce story). All of these errors and omissions came to light while Charlotte and Fred were on a trans-Atlantic voyage to their Paris honeymoon. Once she recovered from the dizzying bad news, Charlotte left him in Paris and returned to the United States.
Fred couldn’t let his perfect woman get away. He nearly melted the cable lines imploring her to return to him. Charlotte caved in and put herself on a ship back to Paris. Quite the honeymoon followed; jealous quarrels between bouts of lovemaking left Charlotte pregnant -- and divorced. But they weren’t done with one another. After her first child was born, Charlotte married Fred again.
The second marriage was no better than the first. Fred, it seemed, was intensely jealous of his young and beautiful wife. According to the couple’s friends, he hired detectives to follow her every move. The cycle of nasty confrontations between bouts of gentler interactions resulted in another child and a move to Nice, France, where, in March, 1931, Mr. and Mrs. Nixon-Nirdlinger would become household names.
The survivor of the disaster would later give this account of the fatal evening: Fred was drinking. Charlotte was sitting, studying Italian. Fred asked her what she was doing and from her answer he surmised that Charlotte must be interested in an Italian fellow, and he said so. She denied this. He accused her of trafficking with gigilos. She denied this. The ensuing argument lasted for hours, turning ugly, resulting at one point in Fred wrapping his hands around Charlotte’s throat and threatening to choke her to death.
At some point Fred went into the kitchen for more whisky. Charlotte used the opportunity to flee to the bedroom, where she slipped a loaded pistol under her pillow. Fred’s last words to her were, “I will kill you rather than let you have an Italian lover.” Charlotte beat him to it, and as she lay on the bed she retrieved her pistol and fired. The first bullet entered just under Fred Nixon-Nirdlinger’s left eye and lodged at the base of his skull. A second bullet hit him in the chest. Two other shots went wild. Fred crumpled in a pool of blood.
Mrs. Nixon-Nirdlinger stood, dropped her pistol, and slipped in her husband's blood. Picking herself up, she stumbled into the hall, her arms and nightgown streaked with red stains. She ran downstairs for the janitor, crying "I have killed my husband." Then she fainted.
Charlotte Nixon-Nirdlinger soon found herself in a French jail, where she relayed her story of the evening to the police. They noted vivid red marks on her throat that deepened to bruises and came to the conclusion that she had been severely handled as she claimed, but this did not stop prosecutors from holding her on a charge of “murder with excuse of provocation.”
The shooting death of the American millionaire became an overnight news sensation. Journalists from the United States visited the beautiful widow in jail and wired detailed reports to their editors. Said the United Press correspondent: “She was a pitiful figure in the dark prison dress, deprived of powder and lipstick, and faced with the task of defending herself in a foreign court room.” The careful descriptions of her appearance continued when her trial began a little over a month later. As she came to court, the reporters noted that she “was attired in a smart tight-fitting, low-cut frock and wore a black coat with the collar turned up... a black cloche hat also shaded her face.”
A jury of businessmen was selected to hear from a variety of witnesses who told stories of the dead man’s jealousy. The couple’s French friends testified that the slain man was “insanely jealous,” never letting her out alone, reading every letter she wrote or received. The fact that the deceased was Jewish was also whispered.
A critical witness was a Swedish nanny who contradicted the prosecution’s efforts to paint Charlotte scarlet. The nanny insisted that Mrs. Nixon-Nirdlinger was as pure as Caesar’s wife. “Mrs. Nirdlinger never flirted and never had any love affairs,” the nanny said. “I would have known it if she had.”
Then the self-made widow testified between sobs and gasps. “He came into the bedroom and said such disgusting things to me that I cannot repeat them. I fired – I did not mean to kill him.”
On cross-examination, Charlotte denied the prosecutor’s accusations that she danced and flirted with other men. She denied rumors of an affair with a swimming instructor. When all was said and done, the prosecutor came up with two pieces of evidence that she was a wandering wife. One, he had a photograph of her in a fashionable bathing suit. Two, he read from a letter Charlotte wrote to a friend in which the unhappy young lady said -- “There are nothing but constant rows. But I’ll be damned if I’ll stay home and sit in a corner reading. I am still young. Maybe when I’m his age I’ll do that.”
But there was more evidence against her; there was the physical evidence. There was the fact that she purchased a handgun two months before she shot her husband -- clearly a sign that she was planning the scene. There was the fact that she shot four times and missed twice -- so he couldn't have been standing all that close to her at the moment and probably wasn't posing the imminent threat that one would expect to accompany a claim of self-defense. The prosecutors insisted that she was never in danger of death.
But her lawyers were adamant. "It's a clear case of self-defense," said her lead defense attorney. "The fact that my client bought two months ago the revolver with which she shot and killed her husband does not indicate premeditation.... She simply purchased the weapon for use in case of extreme emergency to defend her life. How prudent this action was." Her lawyer summed up his closing argument with the now famous declaration that "she is too beautiful to be bad."
The jurors -- seven of whom were bachelors -- apparently agreed; they acquitted Charlotte in nine minutes. The judge released her with the final thought that though the investigation of her morals was favorable, she was still to be chastised for being "flighty in your thoughts, too much occupied with pretty dresses and dancing."
And thus Charlotte Nash Nixon-Nirdlinger was acquitted on charges of adultery -- umm, manslaughter. The spectators cheered and crowds gathered in the courthouse square to see her restored to liberty.
She may well have been better off to remain in France; the verdict was largely attributed (by the American newspapers at least) to French attitudes toward beautiful women and marriage in general. But she returned to St. Louis; learned that her husband's will left her nearly penniless; and tried to find acting jobs in Hollywood only to be snubbed Lizzie Borden-style, as Hollywood would have none of her. In the end she would declare, "Sometimes I'm sorry that I was ever considered beautiful. It brought me more trouble than joy."
Presumably her husband had similar sentiments in his last moments.