Before 1966, adultery was the only legal grounds for divorce in the state of New York. For couples who agreed to end their marriage for other reasons, there were a few solutions: either a “migratory divorce,” which required travelling to states where divorce laws were more liberal (Reno, Nevada was a popular divorce destination), or a “collusive divorce,” which involved faking an abusive or adulterous relationship. Sometimes a wife would claim her husband abused her — two slaps would normally do it. If more evidence were necessary, they’d orchestrate a mock affair, hiring a woman and photographer to capture the scene. The photos would then be used as evidence in court.
In 1934, the New York Mirror published an article that featured a woman named Dorothy Jarvis, titled: “I was the ‘Unknown Blonde’ in 100 New York Divorces!” In the article, she exposes the strategies, tactics, and schemes employed to simulate and capture an affair. Some maneuvers even had names — “the push and raid,” the “Shanghai shadow,” and the “dance and dope.” What follows is a fictional account of an “unknown blonde” in several New York divorces.
“Curly Lambeau photographed in hotel room with unknown blonde!” was the height of my fame.
He was a high-profile guy, a famous football coach, and the story of our fabricated affair made headlines. The rest of them were less exciting — I was still the “unknown blonde,” but only in legal documents, not splashed across the front page of the Daily Mirror.
It was an art, really, making sure the photographer didn’t get my face. I learned how to twist my neck and body in ways I never thought I could, all for the sake of remaining “unknown.” One defining feature and my cover would be blown — these men (and women!) needed me.
After all, the year was 1934 and divorce laws in New York State were strict as ever. There had to be evidence (it had to be the man who cheated; a cuckold had no premise for divorce in the court). So what was a poor couple, allied in their quest of divorce but with no one at fault, to do?
Stage a scene, of course. The goal was to obtain photo evidence of an affair so that the state would legally terminate their marriage. “Collusive divorces,” the lawyers called them in the back rooms of the courthouses. The judges couldn’t know that it was all fake. For me, they were an opportunity — being the “other woman” was my trade, and I could make anywhere from $50 to $100 for each job. An hour of my time for a lifetime of their happiness. At least that’s what I liked to think.
I started with these jobs a couple years back when I was fresh to New York City and making a next-to-nothing salary as a secretary at a small publishing house. I’d heard about the tactics from my boss, who’d heard about it from a friend who was looking for a girl to help him out. I wasyoung and desperate for cash, so I jumped at the chance. I was happy to help them out, and it sounded like a thrill.
It worked like this: an unhappy couple would contact me — they heard about me by word-of-mouth, mostly, all Upper West and Upper East poor little rich people, men who were too prude to cheat but not too prude to forge an affair. Not that I wasn’t on their side, of course. The laws were unjust and oppressive to both the man and wife. This was our little rebellion.
The logistics were intricate. Timing was key. Everything needed to be executed to a tee, or we’d be busted. First, we’d arrange a time and date — the couple would pick the location, pay for the hotel room and my transportation, hire a photographer. When I got there, he’d be waiting in the lobby to accompany me upstairs. Usually he’d give a generous tip to the man at the front desk, requesting a maid to come tidy the room precisely 10 minutes later.
The elevator rides were always a bit uncomfortable. Most of the men would avoid eye contact, but a rogue few here and there would try to start up conversation with me, sometimes a little too flirtatiously. “Let’s keep this professional,” I’d have to remind them. I wasn’t a prostitute, after all. They were paying me to pretend to have sex with them, not to actually do it.
Sometimes it wasn’t even the man who’d try with me — just last week I met up with a couple, Bill and Lucy Bingham they were called, at the Plaza Hotel. Before her husband and I left for the room, she pulled me aside and whispered into my ear, “No need to fake it, darling. God knows he could use a good fuck. We haven’t so much as brushed elbows since last April!” I smiled sweetly back but felt myself blushing. Despite times like those, I liked having the wives there before we went off — it was good to have proof that they were in on it, too.
Anyway, we’d get to the hotel room with a couple minutes to spare but it was always better safe than sorry, so we’d slowly start stripping, peeling off our layers of clothes. It wasn’t sexy. Only down to the underwear, that was my rule: no nudity. Sometimes they’d expect a striptease, try to sneak a peek. I made them turn around, just on the principle of the thing.
While waiting for the maid, we’d smoke a cigarette or two. They’d ask me about the weather, I’d ask them why they were getting divorced. They were always surprised by the question, often hesitant to answer, even though it was the sole reason why we were there.
The most common reason was that they’d “fallen out of love,” whatever that means. These men often sounded wistful and romantic, like they didn’t quite want a divorce but they also clearly didn’t want to stay married to their wives. Others said it was their wife’s constant nagging, that they’d come home from a hard day’s work and she’d just be there to whine and badger and criticize their every move. It was those ones that tried to flirt or watch me undress. The best guys — the ones who gave the biggest tips — always said they were doing it for their wife, that they could tell she was unhappy in their marriage and wanted to fix that. They always made me feel a little sad. I pitied them and their hopeless devotion.
Our conversation would be interrupted by a knock at the door. “Maid service!” they’d call out. We’d make for the bed as the door opened, and the maid would walk in. A split second later the photographer would follow suit, catching the door just as it was closing. The flash would go off a few times, we’d make a commotion, and the maid — the only one who wasn’t in on the hoax — would typically scream and make a mad dash for the door. Once she left, the photographer would hand off the film to the man in exchange for his pay. I’d get back dressed and he’d hand me my bills. The men often looked a little forlorn at this part, the reminder that it was all a transaction and that once we’d leave, all he would have was photos of his fake affair and legal grounds for a divorce.
Me, I’d walk away $100 richer and with another job the next day, the fairy godmother of crumbling marriages all across New York City.