September 11, 2014
Excerpted from Crime Doesn’t Take Credit, by “Hollywood” Russell Wyndham, ©Nebulous Enterprises, 1983
That’s the headline that made me famous, and I didn’t even earn a penny on the case.
I was asked to look into the death of Fred Mertz by a Cuban bandleader I once knew. We’d met back in Havana during the war, and years later after he married up and moved to the Big Apple I’d drop in at his club from time to time. The drinks were always on the house and it was a good place to meet clients. A few drinks did wonders to loosen stiff tongues.
Anyway, this Mertz was the Conga King’s best friend, and after he died the police ruled it an accident. Conga wasn’t so sure, and that’s where I came in.
I’d met the dead Mertz and his wife a couple of times. They were ex-vaudeville performers who never got the stage out of their blood. Ricky Ricardo, to put a name to the Babalooing Balladeer, out of some sense of loyalty, or maybe because they were the ones he paid his rent to, would sometimes put them in his shows.
And that was my first clue. You see, he didn’t pay his rent to them, he paid it to her. The building was solely in the name of Ethel Roberta Louise Mae Mertz, lock, stock and boiler.
So there you had it. On the face of it: a happy, if mismatched and more than a little bumptious couple, running a New York brownstone. Scratch the surface, and you see an older man with no prospects married to a much younger woman with money. That recipe has been on the menu for murder since the dawn of time. But it didn’t taste right.
I took a trip to Steubenville Ohio, Fred’s home town. It was there that former gold gloves contender began his life on the stage as part of the duo of “Mertz and Kurtz,” known for “tap dancing, soft shoe and smart quips.” It didn’t sound right. Mertz was a wannabe prize fighter and a veteran of World War One. A tap dancer? Soft shoe? After a couple of walks through the sheriff’s open files, I found that Mertz and his partner, Barney Kurtz, left town pretty quickly after piling up some petty theft convictions, just ahead of a warrant for running a numbers scam.
So how did this small-time grifter end up dead in a New York brownstone?
The trail took me to Albuquerque New Mexico, home of the flapper named Ethel Potter.
She was marginally attractive and about as talented. A small town girl, she might have become the tailor’s wife or the butcher’s better half or, if she had more luck than she had talent, she could have been a fixture in local weekend revues, cutting out notices from the local penny press and neatly gluing them into her scrapbook. Once a month, always on the first Monday, she’d call around to the big agencies in Chicago or St. Louis to see if they needed a dancer/singer/actress for whatever production they had coming up. A small life.
But she wanted to be a star. And when Mertz and Kurtz came to town, she saw stars. Two of them. Kurtz was the pug of the pair, and one look at him told Ethel that Mertz was the one. Mertz was THE one. Her way out. Her way to stardom. Mertz and Kurtz and Potter. Or better yet, Mertz and Potter. Better yet- Mertz and Mertz.
It really didn’t take long. Ethel didn’t have beauty. Ethel didn’t have a great personality. And much as Mertz tried, she wasn’t loose. But she had money, and a lot of it, so all was forgiven and forgotten.
As you’d expect, within a year, Kurtz was out, Potter was in, and by the end of the year, “Mertz and Mertz” was taking bookings on the vaudeville circuit, wherever the road took them. Ethel had hitched her meager wagon to Fred’s lackluster star.
I got some of this from the local papers, some of it from the locals, and lots of it from Kurtz. He was bitter to the end of his life, which was only a few months after I spoke to him. He was doing a lifetime stretch in prison, the convictions from Ohio finally having caught up to him, as well as some evidence for some more local crimes. Evidence which turned up on the sheriff’s desk the night before Mertz and Mertz pulled up stakes.
Vaudeville was dying, and if you ask me, Mertz and Mertz were accessories to murder. I saw their act in the Tropicana and while some people said they were past their prime, I don’t think they ever had a prime.
Ethel’s dreams were dying but she was smart and used her money to buy a building in New York City, expecting it to support her in her old age. And this is where things really turned sour. If she was married to Fred in hopes of becoming Queen of the footlights, and that dream was fading fast, then why did she need Fred?
And if Fred married Ethel for her money, but Ethel put the building only in her name, then why did he need Ethel?
But Fred was a conman, not a murderer. And Ethel was a jaded gold-digger, not a killer. So that’s how they spent the next years of their lives: Fred joking about Ethel’s cooking, Ethel joking about Fred’s cheapness, and both smiling for the neighbors. But behind the smiles? A growing revulsion.
And then one day Mertz was gone. I called in a few favors and got a look at the police files. There wasn’t much. The Mertz’s were upstanding citizens and no one was inclined to doubt the word of the widow, especially in light of Mertz’s obvious ill-health. That’s polite shamus talk meaning that Mertz was a drunk.
Fred was sitting at the kitchen table (Ethel said) and suddenly grabbed his chest (Ethel said) and keeled over (Ethel said). She ran to his side, but he was already gone. He let out a few gasps and that was it. Oh, it was sweet, very sweet, especially the report by Officer O’Connell which read “Mrs. Mertz stated that her husband’s last words were ‘I loved you from the first time I saw you, you talented gal.’”
Coroner said heart attack, case closed.
Private eyes do a lot of things that nice people never hear about. Manhandling mooks and slugging skells is a part of the job but that doesn’t happen much. Standing around in alleys, listening in doorways, even just sitting around waiting for something, anything, to happen: that’s how a P.I. spends his days. And that’s when he has a job. Not only was I not making any money on this job, but I spent most of my time digging through trash. First the trash cans behind the brownstone, then in the big piles in the dump.
I’ll spare you the details because it took the guys at the police lab to explain it to me, and I couldn’t get the medical stuff straight even if I remembered it, but it goes like this:
At some point, it seemed that the Mr. and the Mrs. came to the same conclusion: Time for the other to go. Ethel had no use for the mooching Fred, and Fred realized that if Ethel were gone, he’d have the building.
So Fred switched her headache pills for strychnine.
And Ethel started sprinkling arsenic in his breakfast.
Then they waited.
Ethel’s poison worked first. And no autopsy was ever done so she got away with it. Until I came along.
I broke it to the Conga King first and left it to him to tell his wife. I’d been around more than once for her crying storms and her wails of WAHHHH! RICKY! Her crocodile tears were as phony as her red hair and the age on her wedding license.
I slipped the solution to the cops just a few minutes after I slipped it to a friendly reporter, and then I slipped out and left it to them to take her in. And from what heard later, she didn’t come easily.
About The Author: A three time Edgar Award winner, “Hollywood” Russell has settled down to a life of writing true crime novels. After decades of trying to catch killers just to pay the bills, “Hollywood” finds the life of a best-selling author more profitable and less prone to getting shot, shived, or shanked.