Tag Archives: Desi

R.I.P. Fred Mertz, by Hollywood Russell

11 Sep

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.

ethyl gun

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.





It’s not funny anymore.

10 Jul

July 10, 2014

No, the title does not refer to this blog.

Last time I went to Tangra Masala in Queens, which is its real name, there were a few strange characters there and I wrote about them in the post called Mumbles Mumbai Meets Sleepy Bhopal. I intended it to be semi-humorous (your humor mileage may very) but everything I wrote was true. However, I’d been there about a dozen times before with generally good experiences and was prepared to go back, which I did last week.

Never again.

Let’s recap what happened last time.

– There was a waiter sleeping in full view of the entire restaurant in our favorite booth.
– After he was awakened by some customers, he started serving us, replacing our mumbling waiter, whose every third word was incomprehensible, and who was incapable of getting us lime.
– Sleepy argued with us over which sauce we wanted to take home, despite my pointing directly to it, trying to get us to take a sauce for a dish we did not even have, accused us of not listening to him, and started mumbling and complaining about us to the rest of the staff- while he was still at our table.
– We were visibly upset and did not leave a tip. When I left the money for our check, the waitress (who was usually pretty good) ran over, grabbed the money, and ran back, never thanking us and making us feel like she was afraid we were running off without paying.

Despite all this, we had dozens of good meals there in the past and, despite the occasional hard to understand accent, the food was always good. So we decided to go back and give it another try.

We arrived at about 6:30 and the place was empty, which is never a good sign. The entire staff was seated at a table and stared at us when we walked in. We gestured to our favorite table and one of them nodded. After a few minutes of waiting, during which time Saarah told me “They’re staring at us” (my back was to them) one of them came over with menus. This was a waiter we had never seen before, and he spoke perfect, and perfectly polite, unaccented English. It struck me as odd that of all the waiters they’d made sure to give us that one, but I chalked it to them remembering us and giving us good service. Was I wrong.

While the service was good, and the food as usual good too, when the bill came I saw that there was a 15% mandatory service charge added to the bill. I had never seen that before and assumed it was new, and idly thought that, ha ha, they must have started adding it because of us not tipping last time. Yeah, as if we were that important, ha ha.


Turns out I was almost right.

While restaurants have the right to add mandatory tips (that’s what the service charge is), I hate it because it takes away my right to tip whatever I feel is deserved. Sure, I can add more, but I can’t take anything away. What pissed me off right there was that if it were added because of us (more on that later) it meant that the lack of tip last time was in their eyes a reflection of my cheapness and not their awful service. In other words, I was the problem, not the lousy staff.

Saarah called her sister, who often also went to that restaurant, and asked if she had ever seen a service charge. She wasn’t sure but believed that it was on her bill the last time she was there. When was that? Coincidently, it was just a couple of days after our bad experience, adding fuel to my theory that it had been added just because of me.

Anyway, I was still not egotistical enough to think that I had affected the whole billing structure of an entire restaurant, so I went on Yelp and read some reviews. I found one, back in 2013, complaining that they had added a service charge for a small party of two. So I was wrong that the policy was created just for me, but it was clearly added to my bill just for me in response to my last meal there. I’d been there dozens of times, always tipped, and probably tipped a little higher than most patrons there. (I found out that rarely do those customers reach 10%, let alone 15%.) But because one time their staff has a meltdown, suddenly I’m viewed as a threat to not tip. But while that’s offensive, what really pisses me off is that, as I said, they see me as the problem, not their staff. I deserved an apology, not a service charge!

I’m the one who received bad service. I was the one whom a waiter argued with. I’m the one who was insulted.

I did not get an “I’m sorry.” I did not even get a “what’s the problem?”  I got treated like I caused a problem and when I returned, I was treated like they didn’t trust me.

I left the money on the table, service charge and all, and stood up to leave. The waitress, who had not served us at all, rushed over to grab the money before I was even halfway to my feet. She took the money and ran off- not even a thank you. Obviously she wanted to make sure I wasn’t stiffing them. In the past, the staff was so lazy that try as I might, I often could not find anyone to take the money, now the female flash was spiriting it away under my very nose.

Worried I’m not going to tip after years of my leaving perfectly good tips? How about asking yourselves- or better yet, ask me- why I didn’t tip that one time. Don’t assume I’m a cheapskate, look at your sleepy, mumbling, combative staff and figure it out. Don’t look at me with suspicion and make me feel like a crook when I’m going to your restaurant with the intention of spending money, tipping, and coming back again! YOU screwed up last time, not me!

Meanwhile, you lost me as a customer. For good, this time.

And the picture of the sleeping waiter is gracing my Yelp review.

This guy deserves a tip?

This guy deserves a tip?

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