Tuesday, October 29, 2019

A Literary Munchausen: The Amazing (and Sometimes Appalling) Adventures of Henry von Rhau, Part One

American author Henry von Rhau (1896-1960) wrote whimsical satires and tales of romantic adventure, including a couple of books that can be categorized as crime or thriller fiction, yet nothing in his fiction, arguably, was stranger than the events in his life and the lives of his wives.  Divorce, extra-marital affairs, bigamy, illegitimacy, impersonation, pornography, miscegenation, homosexuality, spousal abuse, a perfectly sane spouse shut up against her will in a madhouse--it would have taken a triple-decker Victorian sensation novel to contain it all!  And now allow me my tale to unfold....

Henry von Rhau was born Henry Louis Gustav Adolph Rau at Staten Island, New York on January 19, 1896 to Gustav Adolph and Clara Rau, immigrants originally from Germany and England respectively.  Born in Freiburg im Breisgau, Baden-Wurttemberg in 1850, Gustav Rau after migrating to the United States as a young man became a wealthy wood pulp importer and manufacturer with offices at 41 Park Row, Manhattan (formerly the location of the New York Times).  He passed away in New York in 1911, leaving behind his wife Clara and two sons and a daughter.  In descending order of age these three children were Herbert, Hilda and Henry.

Henry von Rhau
(probably taken in the late 1940s,
when he was around fifty)
At this point, when writing about the life of Henry Rau (as he was then), we lose the steady ground of verifiable fact and must move forward on the words of Henry himself, admittedly a shaky foundation for truth.

Keeping this in mind, however, I will note that according to Henry's 1960 obituary, young Henry "received his early education in private schools in the U. S. and Europe," afterward briefly attending the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.  Upon leaving West Point, he served with the U. S. Cavalry on the Mexican border during American operations against the paramilitary forces of revolutionary leader Francisco "Pancho" Villa.

Afterward Henry attended classes for a year at Columbia University, before enlisting as a second lieutenant in the U. S. Infantry.  He did not serve overseas, however, rather spending the period between June 25, 1917 to August 20, 1919 at the Training Camp at Plattsburg, New York.  By the end of his term of service, he had been promoted to the rank of Captain, and, according to his obituary, he had become an "aide to the Chief of Intelligence, having pioneered in prisoner interrogation" (a plausible claim given his German heritage).

After the war, his obituary states, Henry Rau was "engaged in the oil business in Venezuela and traveled widely."  However, by 1920, anyway, he was back in New York, where he resided in the upper West Side of Manhattan with his sister Hilda, a former student at Barnard College and a future "pioneer tanning stylist" and their housekeeper.  While Hilda became a Jazz Age career woman in the shoe business, Henry, with his good looks, aristocratic continental bearing, proficiency at equestrianism (he was a noted competitor at horse shows) and marked disdain for everyday employment, became a habitue of New York's cafe society.

Henry von Rhau's sister, Hilda Rau
(taken around 1930, when she was
in her early thirties)
The Detroit Free Press stated of Hilda:
"Where once she was hailed as a radical,
devoid of commercial knowledge, she is now
acclaimed as a leader in the shoe world
In 1922 Henry gave a supper party at Broadway's fashionable Club du Montmartre, which made the pages of the New York Times when a dust-up took place there involving a trio of his society friends--future mystery writer Willoughby Sharp, John Magee "Jack" Boissevain and Louis Bertschmann.  Strolling over at three a. m. to the Montmartre from a dance at the Hotel Vanderbilt (Jack's father was president of the company that owned the hotel), Sharp and his two chums were curtly informed by the doorman that Rau's party had ended, although in fact it was still ongoing.  Thereupon the doorman attempted to shut the door in the lads' faces. 

When the trio of fun seekers rowdily barreled their way into the building anyway (resourceful Jack had gained them entry by inserting his walking stick between the door and its frame), the doorman and the two elevator operators promptly assaulted them, resulting in the police being called to the scene.

The sympathies of the newsman who reported the affray in the New York Times lay decidedly with the three gay society blades, two of whom were present again four years later, in February 1927, when, at St. James' Episcopal Church in Manhattan, their old pal Henry Rau, who was now thirty years old and more formidably known as Henry von Rhau, wed Aline Blanche Stumer, the attractive twenty-three year old daughter of the late Louis Michael Stumer, one of Chicago's leading businessmen. 

A highly successful retail merchant, Louis Stumer had co-founded the trio of popular fiction magazines known as The Red Book, The Blue Book and The Green Book. Thus Henry's father, Gustav Rau, it will be recalled, had imported wood pulp, while Aline's father had co-founded pulp fiction magazines.  Appropriately Henry would soon be writing, if not pulp fiction, then something resembling it in spirit.  Indeed, it might be argued that the life of Henry von Rhau, as we must now call him, began to resemble fiction, the "von" in his name evidently being spurious, as was Henry's claim that he was the heir to a German baronetcy, which he had quixotically, if patriotically, eschewed, all out of his love for America.

Eighteen-year-old Aline Stumer's 1922
passport photo,taken after the last one was stolen,
along with her jewels at the Gare de Lyon
A passport application submitted at the American embassy in Paris by Aline Blanche Stumer five years earlier, in 1922, when she was eighteen, includes a striking photograph of her, in which she appears as a frizzy-haired brunette with big intense eyes, a Cupid's bow mouth and a rather woebegone expression.  One almost hears the words "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers" to issuing from the pretty lips of this particular Blanche. 

In an affidavit dated September 1, the young woman, who was then staying in Paris with her mother and sister at the Hotel Ritz, explained that she needed a new passport because a thief had absconded with her previous one. 

Aline Stumer sounds for all the world like she just stepped out of out of Agatha Christie's The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928):

On August 29, 1922, I was getting out of the Gare de Lyon, at Paris, France.  I had my passport in my jewel case which I was carrying myself, but which I laid for a short moment on top of my hand luggage, and which was stolen during that very short time when I was not actually holding it.  I immediately notified the French police but all their efforts failed to trace either my missing jewels or my passport.

Three years later in Manhattan, Aline's wealthy forty-two-year-old widowed mother, Blanche Regina (Griesheimer) Stumer, in 1925, married twenty-seven-year-old Phillip Harris Giddens, a promising etcher from the state of Georgia. Two years after that blessed event, Aline left her mother's and stepfather's household to link her future with that of Henry von Rhau. 

Willoughby Sharp (1900-1955)
stockbroker and mystery writer
At the Stumer-von Rhau weddings both Willoughby Sharp and Jack Boissevain--old pals, as we know, of Henry's--served as ushers, as did Maurice McKim Minton, son of the late managing editor of the New York Herald; Richard Boyd Ayer, a young stockbroker and relation of patent medicine tycoon James Cook Ayer; and noted gay playwright John Colton, at the time the recent author of the popular Far East dramas Rain (based on a Somerset Maugham short story) and The Shanghai Gesture

Colton probably made the acquaintance of von Rhau while both men served with the U. S. cavalry during the American incursion into Mexico in pursuit of revolutionary leader Pancho Villa. 

Henry's best man was Thornton Wallace "Wally" Orr, a son of an official in the New York office of the American Gypsum Company who later married one of the richest heiresses in Canada, while Henry's sister Hilda served as Aline's maid of honor, Aline having no other attendants besides a matron of honor, her recently wed sister Lois Margaret (Stumer) Sidenberg, wife of stockbroker and former Yale football player George Monroe Sidenberg.  Aline's section of the wedding party seems to have been oddly truncated.

A few months before his marriage to Aline, Henry briefly took up acting on stage. perhaps for this auspicious event first adopting his new, weightier surname, von Rhau.  His first acting gig was in the minor role of Mr. Dudley Gregory in his friend John Colton's hit play The Shanghai Gesture, which ran for 206 performances between February and September 1926.  In the script von Rhau's character is described as an American, "youngish and alert." 

Jack Boissevain (1901-?)
much married man-about-town
The next year Henry got to play a German, Sergeant Franz, in Denison Clift's A Woman Disputed, a melodrama, based on a celebrated Guy de Maupassant short story, about a French prostitute who gives her all for the cause during the First World War.  Starring Ann Harding in the title role and described as a surefire melodrama in the New York Times, the play surprisingly ran for only twenty-seven performances in September and October 1927.  Fortunately, von Rhau did not need to rely on acting for his livelihood.

After he and Aline spent a month-long honeymoon in Bermuda, a favorite playground getaway of Eastern seaboard urban elites, the newlywed couple resided at a recently constructed luxury apartment building located at 717 Madison Avenue, just off Central Park. 

A talented athlete, Aline played in Women's golf tournaments while Henry, supported by his rich wife, continued riding in society equestrian competitions.  A son, Anthony, was born to the couple on July 17, 1928. 

That same year marked a major new life course for Henry when he began writing his first work of fiction: a quirky satire of Radclyffe Hall's controversial landmark lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness (which had been banned in England), entitled The Hell of Loneliness.  Two illustrations by Henry's gay best bro John Colton were included. 

A short work of only forty pages of text (and about 7000 words), Hell was published in 1929 by the obscure Inwood Press, though it was soon picked up by the newly-launched, self-named firm of publisher Claude Kendall, which specialized in risque or spicy fiction.  In "The Week of a New Yorker" column in the Brooklyn Daily News, Hell was described as a "short, zippy" tome that was "funny enough to rate a whole flock of rereadings."  Claude Kendall, who like Colton was gay, deemed Hell "impudent and delightfully scampish."

Henry von Rhau takes a leap
(see second photo)
Although as stated The Well of Loneliness is a landmark of lesbian literature, the novel is also remarkable for what lesbian author Mary Renault termed its "earnest humorlessness," making it a natural send-up for satire.  Well is about the travails of a female "invert" (i.e., masculine woman) named Stephen, but in Henry von Rhau's hands this character becomes a randy male named Otto Kugelmann, who from an early age evinces a lustful urge to bite women on their fleshy calves.  I don't know that this would be funny in any case, but in light of later accusations made against Henry it strikes me as unsettling.

Anyway, later in life Otto loses his wife Connie to her Amazonian Russian friend Ivanova-Feodronova, who shares the same tailor with Otto.  Mannish lesbians soon begin displacing men generally in society.  At a bar Otto commiserates with some of his similarly displaced friends:

married men mostly, but where were their wives now?  God pity the men who must live alone!  There was Coogan, the genius, the author, the playwright, for years sought after by great actress stars.  There was Kendall, for long called the happy boy lover dissembling his years by the ardor he felt; and Boissevain, the thrice married young boulevardier.  They were men who had known life, and lived it and loved it.  Now they were outcasts, and their horrible secret showed in their eyes.

Coogan of course is John Colton, while Kendall the "happy boy lover" is Claude Kendall.  Thrice married Boissevain is Jack Boissevain, who at the time of the publication of Hell was on the verge of divorcing Estelle Carroll (who claimed in the society pages that she was descended from the Carrolls of Carrollton but in fact was descended, ignominiously, from the Carrolls of Brooklyn Heights) and wedding one Princess Suzanne Soroukhanoff, the divorced second wife of the handsome, relentlessly self-promoting, pseudo archaeologist "tomb raider" "Count" Byron Kuhn de Porok

This latest marriage went bust after a few years, and in 1933 Jack would make the news for shooting himself in the chest at a Parisian cafe during a conference with his lawyer.  Was it about alimony payments?  Jack would survive to marry yet again, however.  And again.

ready for his closeup
Count Byron Kuhn de Porok (1896-1954)
in Byronic profile
Claude Kendall would be murdered in 1937 by a young slim man he picked up and brought back to his apartment on Thanksgiving morning.  (I'll have more on this in an upcoming CrimeReads article.)  Henry's characterization of Kendall as a "happy boy lover" is cheekily ambiguous--was Kendall a "happy-boy lover" or a "happy boy-lover"?  To those of us in the know, the answer is clear.  By "boy lover," by the way, Henry meant, I suspect, not literal "boys" but younger men.  Kendall at this time was nearing forty years old and older than most of his cronies by a decade.

Later in the tale, Otto and his pals find more and more bars closed to their kind.  The speakeasies have become speakeasiettes and Tony's is now Antoinette's, so they are forced to settle on a bar frequented by "ginny collegians" who "behaved very queerly."  This inspires Coogan to declare defiantly, "We will carry on and on....And when we grow old there will be these young boys...."  To which Otto counters sharply, "Never mind these young boys....They play by themselves."

John Colton's name was included
prominently on the cover of Hell, even
though he provided only two illustrations,
including the one of the cover, presumably
a caricature of Radclyffe Hall herself
What are we to make of this?  Henry's text in Hell has been condemned by modern-day scholars as "homophobic and misogynistic," but I don't know.  What are we to make of the fact that Henry's crowd included two prominent homosexuals--Colton and Kendall--whom the text makes clear were known to be such to Henry and his other, presumably heterosexual friends, like Willoughby Sharp and Jack Boissevain?  That their boys' club may have been sexist, even misogynistic, I'll grant, but it seems to have been far from homophobic, at least as far as male homosexuals were concerned.  Indeed, it might even be designated "bi-curious."

Born around 1900, Otto Kugelmann, the compulsive biter of women's calves, may well have been somewhat autobiographical too, just as Stephen in The Well of Loneliness is believed to have been biographical of Radclyffe Hall. 

Note Otto's heavy German name, for example.  Also, the "country seat" of the Kugelmanns is "the most hideous house in existence," a "smelly, drab, damp horror" located in urban New Jersey across the Hudson River from New York City.  ("Not very far from Weehawken, between it in fact, and Hoboken," as Henry put it, in a droll send-up of Hall's formal, precise writing style.)  One is reminded of Henry's father, Gustav Adolph Rau, and his Staten Island paper mill.

One day...[Otto] came upon the Kugelmann maid of all work--Fanny Rumpelbauch.  She was bending over as Otto entered the room.  He saw a generous ankle and a fat calf encased in an ample red yarn stocking.  It was his first consciousness of SEX; it overwhelmed him.  He was gloriously unrestrained and, lunging at Rumpel, bit her in the calf.  She slapped at him vigorously but Otto's teeth held firm....It took the combined efforts of the Kugelmann family to pry him loose.  Such was Otto's LUST.  The Baron cauterized Rumpelbach's leg with a hot coal and thereafter took the precaution of locking Otto up in the coal bin while Rumpelbach tidied up the nursery. (Text by Henry von Rhau, illustration by John Colton)

Claude Kendall declined to publish Henry's next impudent book, Tale of the Nineties, although this "lighthearted story of a bawdy house and three girls who worked there--Trixie, Jasmyne and Ophelia," should have appealed to Kendall's taste for naughtiness.  Likely Henry's Tale was a bit too bawdy.  My copy of the book has a randy inscription, ambiguously made to P. K. from J. C. (John Colton?), which gives an idea of what people--men, one assumes--were expected to get out of the book:

the three lovely Hoars
who live at the Old Hoar House
Trixie, Jasmyne and Ophelia
To P. K.
To whom "tale" is spelled "tail"
And assail is a sale of ass!!!!
May this bawdy confection
Induce an erection
That'd make a she-whale
Become pale!
J. C.

The Tale is basically an excuse for a series of bawdy puns, as the chapter titles and illustration captions indicate:

I. The Old Hoar House
II. Leopold's Wang (Wang is Leopold's Chinese servant)
III. Jasmyne's Box

"Oh, I like to come," his worship wheezed, "as often as I can."
 "Trixie," she said, her voice was cold, "let go of the bishop's nuts!"
"Sir, don't make free with my sister's box," Ophelia added warmly.

You get the idea!  1050 numbered copies of the book were privately printed in Normandy Vellum paper imported from France by the Heron Press in association with John Edward Mullins, a grandson of the founder of New York's John Mullin & Son Furniture Company who had removed himself to Antibes, on France's Cote d'Azur, to live the good life.  Apparently Mullins, to all appearances a Riviera idler, helped underwrite the cost of the book, the publisher being a one-man operation who, not having an office, conducted business in his car--a forerunner, indeed, of today's internet micro presses!

Included were woodcut illustrations by noted commercial artist Frank Wagner Peers.  The short-loved Heron Press specialized in high quality editions of literary fiction, including such outre items as Erskine Caldwell's earthy The Bastard and Hanns Heinz Ewers' horrific short collection of contes cruels, Blood.

Radclyffe Hall (1880-1943)
author of The Well of Loneliness
During this time Aline continued to play a lot of golf (in 1932 she made it to the finals of the Bermuda women's gold championship), while her husband continued both riding and writing.  Von Rhau's third book, To the Victor (1931), was his first actual novel and his first work published originally by mass market publishers, Longmans in the United States and George C. Harrap in the United Kingdom.  Set in the second decade of the twentieth century, To the Victor was described in The Leatherneck, the United States Marine Corps magazine, as a "well-plotted, romantic adventure that keeps you guessing as to how the young Prussian officer is going to extricate himself from his web of difficulties," while the Brooklyn Times Union found it "a romance with everything in it to make it gripping and absorbing."

With his first full scale novel, essentially a Ruritarian/Graustarkian thriller of the type associated with popular novels by Anthony Hope and George Barr McCutcheon, Henry, now going by the appellation of Major Henry von Rhau (not sure where the Major came from), played up the supposed authenticity of his aristocratic Continental European background, presumably in order to enhance his credibility as an author of such a tale. 

Reviewers swallowed whole this glittering German bait.  "Major von Rhau knows his Germany and his German army man," wrote an ingenuous Brooklyn Times Union reviewer.  "A native of the United States and a soldier in the war in the American army, he studied in a German university when an uncle of his was chief of von Hindenberg's staff years ago.

Ironically, there was a German hippologist named Gustav Rau who became known as "Hitler's horse breeder" during the Thirties and Forties.  However, Henry, quite understandably, did not claim this Rau as a relation.

Another newspaper reviewer commented of Henry and his new novel:

Of late we have been bearish about romantic fiction until along came Henry von Rhau...who literally steps out of a German background.  Accustomed to a continental youth with the foaming stein, the single eyeglass, the calling card with crossed sabers, he dropped all that to enlist in the U. S. Army.  From thence, he fetched up in the U. S. diplomatic service.  And now, despite the fact that, like many a musical comedy hero, should he set foot on his native heath he might lay claim to a baronetcy, he prefers the seclusion of a Connecticut farm, where  revolting against city smells, taxi horns, and the machine age, he loses himself in creating just such high romances as "To the Victor."

Truly, this was laying the liverwurst on thick!  Notwithstanding such fulsome puffery, which painted the author as a charmingly anachronistic Prussian gentleman lost in the vulgar modern era, Henry in truth was soon to lose himself in modern marital friction with his wife Aline, culminating in a hugely embarrassing divorce suit that she filed against him in April 1933, after just six years of marriage. 

Henry, who had seemed to be making some headway in his writing career with To the Victor, would over the rest of his life publish in hardcover, so far as I know, just one more novel, and that one not for another sixteen years (although there was a serialized tale, The Green Hussar, which was very much in the vein of To the Victor.  Before that there was the ordeal of a melodramatic divorce scandal to be undergone.  In this bitter legal contest between Henry and Aline, who would emerge as the victor?  See how the brouhaha sorted itself out in Part Two.


  1. This sounds like something out of Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon. Kendall's business relationship with hack writer Tiffany Thayer now makes perfect sense. De Porok looks like he stepped out of Charles Ludlam's play The Mystery of Irma Vep or better yet a Fritz Lang silent movie.

    1. Great observations. I want to learn more about the "Count" now. Writing about these people made me better appreciate why heartlanders were pushing for Prohibition, lol.