Tuesday, April 14, 2015

"On the Line"

At 16 years old, Jean Larson (I am using her chosen alias) found herself far from her parents' farm, in metropolitan Sacramento. Enrolled in junior college, arrangements were made for her to earn room and board by keeping house for Kenneth and Helena MacLachlan.  Not surprisingly, studies and housework were no match for the urban social scene and the pretty things Jean saw displayed in the shop windows. She said "My family wouldn't give me any money for pretty things or good times." So Jean set out to find a job.

The St. Nicholas Pool Room and Dance Hall was advertising in the Sacramento Bee:  "Girls Wanted for Taxi Dancers". To spend the evenings dancing, and to be paid for it ? Jean applied, and was interviewed by the proprietor--Big Nick Matcovich. (I've mentioned him before, he remains my favored suspect in Blanche's killing). Realizing that there probably were age requirements to dance for pay, and encourage men to spend their money at the bar, Jean lied and said she was 18 years old.

Jean's first night of work at the dance hall was October 14th, 1933. Mabel Wortman, Betty Lynch, Billy, and Bubbles were among the new friends Jean made, and they helped her find a room to rent in the building where Mabel and Betty lived. Jean soon found that dancing for hire was not truly social. It was rare that a girl could refuse a partner, regardless of manners, hygiene, or drunkenness. For every gallant, lonely boy who only wished to spend some time with a friendly girl, there were at least as many men who felt their dime bought them hands-on access for the length of the tune. Besides this aspect, being the Swing era, the popular dances such as the Foxtrot or the jitterbug were physically taxing--particularly when required from 7pm to 2am, with few breaks. The most popular dancers were usually the most exhausted. In court, Jean said she had also been asked to be among the dancers "On Call" after closing time, but she declined.

 Jean had only been dancing for 5 nights when one night at the dance hall, Mabel offered to introduce her to a friend-Joseph Franks. Mabel said Joe was a showman, and a young, pretty girl like Jean stood to make far more money (and with far less effort) by "going on the line" with him.  Jean imagined a show business atmosphere, possible fame, and definite fortune.  Within minutes of broaching the subject, Mabel led Jean to the bar where Joe stood, smoking. Normally, employed dancers were not given real alcoholic drinks, but this night, the bartender poured Jean a beer along with Joe. Franks occupied Jean's dance ticket for the rest of the evening-only a half an hour-though no dancing occurred. It felt so grown up to Jean, sitting at the bar, receiving compliments from a worldly man who spoke glowingly of her potential.

From Big Nick's establishment; Mabel, Joe, and Jean went to eat at the Bright Spot restaurant(also known as the Red Spot--possibly a reference to communist leanings?). As they arrived, Pinky Logan, the bartender from the Dance Hall, joined them. Seated at the counter, Mabel and Pinky turned as if in their own conversation, leaving Joe and Jean to discuss her possible future under his guidance. Joe passed a flask of whiskey around the foursome, and everyone smoked. Joe offered a cigarette to Jean from his pack of Chesterfields, holding the pack toward her with one cigarette extended. Jean later said, "It tasted peculiar, but I didn't think anything about it, because he was a friend of Mabel's". Before long, Mabel said she was tired and needed to go home. Leaving Pinky behind, the three of them hailed a cab. Even though Mabel and Jean lived in the same building, only Mabel got in the cab. It was at this point, that Jean's recollections end.

In the morning, Jean awoke, fully clothed, in Joe Frank's bed in the Coloma Hotel (Another tie to Blanche. The Coloma is the same hotel where she and Faye were living at the time of  Blanche's murder). In court, Jean testified that she had no memory of their morning conversation. Joe took her out to breakfast at the Peking Cafe, and it was here that Jean revealed to him her true age. Joe Franks was no showman, nor was he so inexperienced to be surprised to hear that Jean was only 16. Unperturbed by her status as a minor, Joe assured Jean that he would "protect" her from her father, as Jean feared he would soon come to Sacramento looking for her. A chronic felon, Franks had been incarcerated for crimes involving minors at least as early as 1924.

After breakfast, Joe and Jean met up with Mabel. It was Mabel who suggested that Jean needed new dresses for dancing at the St. Nicholas, and Joe gave Mabel some money to take Jean shopping. He said she would be able to make more money if she had newer, more fashionable clothes. For the remainder of the day, Mabel guided Jean through a parade of department stores, picking out dresses, stockings,  and other accessories. Several times throughout the afternoon, Joe rejoined them briefly to give Mabel more money. Sometimes, Mabel let Jean pay for the items and keep a little change for herself. They went for lunch at Hart's Cafeteria, and finished their day with a visit to the Peter Pan beauty parlor. All along, there was a cab driver at their beck and call, commissioned to take them wherever they needed to go.

In the true pattern of predatory grooming, Joe Franks did not push Jean to immediately come to work for him. Initially, Jean had no idea what it meant to "go on the line", but Joe provided a peek in to the true nature of what such work entailed.  He told her she was not ready. that he needed to "wise her up" first. Joe explained to her how to "roll drunks". The girls Joe employed would entice drunken men to hotel rooms, and when the man passed out, their job would be to take any cash or valuables,  and clear out. (The eventual certainty of prostitution was never discussed.) But again, he emphasized that she was far too green, and not ready. In the meantime, she would need to continue working every night at the dance hall. Gifted with the glittering new wardrobe, and challenged to prove her maturity, Jean was in this way groomed and enticed. Besides, she could not go back to school or her parents' farm, how does a girl explain the fact she had gone to a hotel room and spent the night with a man she just met ? These are among the same methods traffickers have used throughout history and still do now, in contemporary time.

That night, Jean arrived for work as her updated and fashionable self. As she told the other girls of her new association with Joe Franks, some of them warned her that he was no good. As the evening progressed, Jean became more and more alarmed. Mabel tried her best to disrupt the flow of conversation and keep Jean interested in Joe Franks' proposition.  As it turns out, Jean, Mabel, and Joe were all arrested that same evening. It appears that Joe Franks (and possibly Mabel Wortman) was already known to Sacramento Police. It was not Jean who called the police. The Sacramento Bee laid credit at the feet of a new committee formed to rout out "men living off the earnings of women".

Reading newspapers from the time period, it is pretty clear that vice laws had not been vigorously enforced, with most prosecutions and arrests concentrated on immigrants and people of color. Public sentiment had been rising against the City officials and police department. One of the scenarios fueling the surge in public outcry was the encroachment of  vice activities in to the more affluent, "white" parts of town. This incident seems to have been part of a public display of efforts to appease those petitioning for action. Nick Matcovich and his dance establishments had long been targeted because their demographic included people of color.

In reality, not much of lasting impact occurred in this case. A grand Jury was empaneled with the sole charge being against Franks for "Contributing to the Delinquency of a minor". Mabel testified, proclaiming her full willingness to cooperate, and simultaneously presented the story in such a way as to absolve herself (and Nick Matcovich) of any implication of criminal intent. She portrayed Jean as a fully capable and consenting participant--even going so far as to say that Jean had paid for the shopping and other expenses from her own money.  Even with this minor charge, amendments were made to lower the gravity from a felony to an "indictable misdemeanor". Joseph Franks served less than a year in the County Jail.

This all took place in Sacramento one year before Blanche came there to live. Faye was already "in the business", however. I can't say yet that Faye knew Joe Franks, but there are multiple ties between witnesses in this case, and players in Blanche's growing drama. These people frequented the Coloma Hotel, the St. Nicholas dance hall, and the Modern Rooms.