Monday, May 6, 2013

The Fastest Woman In The World Jumps Into The Fire: Part Two, The Fall

 Then came Memphis.

What exactly happened in that 1928 race is hazy. It was a local circuit, and even their best tracks were extremely dangerous. This could have taken place on an ad hoc field in the middle of a County Fairground, or a blocked-off section of surface roads. In any case, there was an accident, a rough one. She was badly hurt.

 These are the cars she competed in; thin, designed to slice the air, but offering minimal protection for the unlucky. The Wisconsin Special, for example, was 15 feet long, yet only 20-inches wide. And that's her in the shot of a dirt track car, behind the wheel with no helmet, no fire suit, no harness, just the strength of her grip on a bucking and twisting steering wheel, holding on for dear life. All it takes is a slip, a loose bolt, a rough patch on the dirt straghtaway, and the force of 2,000 pounds of metal at 100 miles-an-hour will tear through the meat and sinew like a razor. 
Her career was over.

Memphis sent her 500 miles North,  wounded, unfit to drive,  with $1400 dollars of past race winnings in her purse. She told some folks that she was going to take flying lessons. One thing is certain, there was no one there for the young foreign divorcee, no one to help. She arrived in Chicago in the early Spring of 1929, and unable to work, she grew desperate as the first wafts of the Midwest Winter started to turn the leaves color. The chill of early Fall had begun to play upon her health, still fragile from an earlier bout of pneumonia.

She was 24, and her best days were already behind her. She had wandered the city for eight months, looking for help, a handout. Time and again she walked past the grand Chicago Beach Hotel, "The Finest Hotel on the Great Lakes", 

It was a luxurious, on-the-beach landmark, haunted by the rich and the super-rich. And there resided families, and couples, and wealthy women by themselves, their husbands heading Fortune 500 companies while the wives socialized on vacations with their friends.

Joan had to have felt some sort of entitlement. After all, hadn't she represented the fairer sex, carrying the banner further and faster than anyone before her? Couldn't she be compensated, somehow, until she found another way, in another city, to reclaim her fame?

What she did took guts, but not much brains. On October 6th, she burst into the room of Mrs. Rebecca Bobbe, and as she fumbled through a robbery attempt she was discovered in the act by the maid while Mrs' Bobbe resisted.
When she was corralled by the house dicks, she was reportedly armed with a fake pistol and a handkerchief soaked in chloroform.

 For the first three days, while she was locked up in a holding cell, she insisted that her name was "Josephine Rust". It was her husband who had planned the robbery she said, but he backed out because he didn't have the guts, and so she did it herself. A real tough moll, she was. 

But as the days passed, so did her resolve. She changed her story to a more sympathetic one, and decided to take her chances with a jury.

She was offered a pre-trial sentence of probation if she pleaded guilty; she was innocent, she said, she wouldn't take it.
"What was your rationale?", the Judge asked her.
Now the story was that she had gone to Mrs. Bobbe for "financial aid", she said.
And the toy pistol?
It was a cigarette holder, and the chloroform was for her only, bought earlier when she had contemplated killing herself.  She had been here, alone in the City of Big Shoulders, for eight months with only a few hundred dollars to her name, now spent, and she was starving, and broken in body and spirit; couldn't they see that? Why won't they help her?

In a surprise, her parents and sister arrived. 
From Memphis.  

Joan La Costa, the "premier French woman driver" was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. W.M. Carver of Memphis, Tennessee. Her actual first name was Marion.

What could have persuaded her to leave a city where she had immediate and extended family and friends,  and light out for Chicago? Was it impossible for her to be "Mademoiselle Joan La Costa" in the Tennessee house of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Carver? She had recuperated, socked her cash and limped out of her hometown as soon as she was able. 
But now this, and she was stuck as Marion Carver again.
The story started to shift once more.

 After admitting to the police that, yes, her name was Marion Carver, nee Joan La Costa, she tearfully confessed what she now professed was "the truth".
"I have so many friends who knew me at that period that I cannot say anything about it," she said of her former glamorous life, "I wonder what they think of me now?"

Story number three soon tumbled from her lips...
She confessed that she had knocked at the door of the apartment of Mrs. Bobbe in the Chicago Beach Hotel on Thursday night, a cigarette case resembling an automatic in her hand.
"Don't scream, or make a noise and you will be safe," she told Mrs. Bobbe, who had opened the door while draped in $20,000 worth of jewelry.  
Instead of obeying, Rebecca Bobbe showed some guts herself, and fought back. Her cries brought forth her maid and other tenants.
Why had she done it, she was asked?

According to the newly penitent Miss La Costa, she had come to Chicago just a few days ago, with $1400 that she had marked for flying lessons. She promptly lost it all at the horse races.
Meeting an acquaintance by the name of Hyman Bobbe, she told him of her plight. He sympathized, and wished he could help, but didn't have the money like his brother Joseph did. 
Really? And how much money did his brother have? They were loaded, he said, and lived in the nicest Hotel in town at the Chicago Beach...

Her past fame from admirers, and also her distant relatives who would rally to her support garnered her the $2,000 dollar bail, and she retained the services of Attorney Michael Bellows to represent her. She attended the proceedings dressed in black.

  I look at her, again and again. She is dressed sharply, but not ostentatiously. She looks older than her age. The bright lights that blazed from her eyes in the earlier shots are gone, and now there is just sadness.

The hardest part for me, in looking at these pictures, is seeing that she is wearing different shoes in a couple of them, a different top, but the same skirt. Her one "nice skirt".

Judgement was rendered on October 25th. The verdict was easy, the acceptance wasn't. When the Honorable Judge Joseph David pronounced her guilty, Joan wailed uncontrollably, and collapsed into unconsciousness. 
This was the same woman who had leapt from an inferno a few years before, brushed away the soot, and then shortly thereafter had willingly climbed back in to another flimsy land rocket to test her mettle against the best. Now just the thought of being locked in a cage for years was enough to break this very brave woman.

The Judge, unmoved by the lamentations of Miss La Costa, sentenced her to 1-to-14 years in the Joliet State Prison, but because of her extenuating circumstances, she was going to be considered for parole instead. 
On November 9th, the sentence was finalized and reduced to a year under probation, and a grateful Joan said to the judge, "I'm going to be good. I'm going to take up aviation and hope to become a commercial pilot. I think it'll be better than auto racing and more thrilling." Just a few months before, Amelia Earhart had crossed the Atlantic by flight. Perhaps she could recast herself again, become another inspirational incarnation, this time as an aviatrix.

Three years later, it was reported that she'd married a meat seller named Joe. The records show that this man, Joseph Maurer, wedded a woman named "Marion Joan Martins" in October.

Had she finally surrendered her exotic French name when she surrendered her dreams? "Mlle. Joan La Costa" was the famous, exciting race car driver, "Josephine Rust" was the bad girl "armed" robber.

Marion married a meat salesman.
 Joan then slipped away from us, retreating to the anonymity of the pre-internet, avoiding the ever-lasting infamy that she most certainly would have been unable to escape today.

90 years later, I say we ought to remember Joan this way; sitting on her leather throne, braced by the sun in her face, her many dreams still in front of her. 

We should all be so happy.

Sources: Bismarck Tribune and Indiana Gazette, October 26th, 1929, Milwaukee Sentinal, October 7th, 1929, Plattsburgh Daily Press, and Reading Eagle Newspaper, October 26th, 1929, New York Times, November 9, 1929, Lancaster Daily Eagle, May 6, 1926, The Pittsburgh Press, February 24th, 1929, Niagara Falls NY Gazette, October 7th, 1929

Courtroom photos from Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum. 

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