A 1935 crime of passion shocks New Yorkers

When she was found by a police officer on the third floor of Beekman Tower on the morning of November 12, 1935, Vera Stretz didn’t deny that she had just fired four bullets into the married man she was having an affair with (below).

“I shot him,” the blond, 31-year-old NYU graduate confessed to the officer, who spotted her sitting on the floor by the elevator of the sleek Art Deco hotel at First Avenue and Mitchell Place (below left).

In her purse, Stretz was carrying a revolver, ammo, a bloody negligee, and her will—along with the passport and apartment key of Fritz Gebhardt, 43, her German businessman lover.

The Manhattan DA’s office probably assumed it was a slam-dunk case; a crime of passion with a quick confession and lots of evidence.

But this lurid murder would take an unusual turn, with Stretz ultimately claiming that Gebhardt asked her to do something so “unnatural,” she had to defend her honor.

The details emerged when her trial began in March 1936. Stretz met Gebhardt on a cruise to the West Indies and fell hard for the smooth-talking World War I pilot and intellectual. (He was a fan of Nietzsche, apparently.)

Back in New York, Gebhardt got Stretz a job in his office and an apartment for her below his in Beekman Tower.

When Gebhardt sailed to Germany in July, Stretz assumed it was to divorce the wife he’d left behind so he could come back and marry her.

But when her paramour returned to New York in November, he was still married. Worse, he said he had no intentions of marrying Stretz.

This is where the crime of passion theory veers into totally different territory, one with salacious details that captivated New Yorkers.

Stretz’s defense lawyer was Samuel Leibowitz (at the right of Stretz in the above photo), the celebrated attorney who represented Al Capone and the Scottsboro Boys.

Leibowitz put Stretz on the stand.

“Through tears, Stretz told the court how he dominated her, and of the horrible events on the night of the shooting,” wrote the New York Daily News in a 2010 recap of the story.

“She said Gebhardt had called for her to come to his apartment because he was feeling ill. Once there, he tried to force her to perform an ‘unnatural act.’

She shot, Leibowitz declared, in defense of her honor.”

The “unnatural act” was assumed to be oral sex—and the 12-man jury apparently agreed that no morally straight man would ask a woman to take part in this sexual activity. Leibowitz also capitalized on anti-Nazi sentiment by painting the dead man as a Nazi sympathizer.

Stretz was found not guilty on April 3. She never made headlines again.

[Top photo: via Daily News 1936; second photo: Wikipedia; third photo: AP; fourth image: Daily News 1936; fifth photo: Daily News 1936]

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10 Responses to “A 1935 crime of passion shocks New Yorkers”

  1. Rick Nelson Says:

    Why did she have a gun? She went from her apartment to his. Did she carry a gun there, anticipating she would be surprised by an “unnatural” request?!

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    According to one account I read, she had a gun for protection when she lived in another apartment on 57th Street. After she moved to Beekman Tower, Gebhardt convinced her she didn’t need it and he confiscated it. She told police that in the heat of the moment on the night of the murder, she lunged for it in a drawer in his bedroom and it accidentally went off.

  3. Lady G. Says:

    Boy how times have changed. It’s crazy ridiculous that she got off completely for a cold-blooded murder. By her own admission this wasn’t even physical self-defense.

  4. Lady G. Says:

    Forgot to add, she’s crying about her honor but she’s taking up with a married man.

  5. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Right! Based on some of the news headlines I looked up, a lot of people were pretty skeptical about her claim of defending her honor…and of course her paramour couldn’t refute her claims.

  6. rossana delzio Says:

    Reblogged this on Intellicooking.

  7. David H Lippman Says:

    I’m having a hard time keeping a straight face over the idea that no “normal man” would participate in oral sex now or ever. That society might consider it “unnatural” I can believe, though.

  8. joecivitano Says:

    unnatural?

  9. Ricky Says:

    When the Beekman Tower changed from a hotel to a long stay hotel the new management remodeled the art deco lobby into a generic modern day marble lobby. That is another crime committed in at the Beekman Tower.

  10. Timothy Grier Says:

    I haven’t visited this site for a few weeks so I’m catching up. The first story I read just minutes ago was of the apartment building where Henri Matisse lived for a short while. It happens to be right next to this building. I’m also reading John O’Hara’s BUtterfield 8 which deals with similar themes as well as the same time and place.

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