Eugenia Kelly and the tango pirates

When we review the impact of tango on sensitivity and bodies, it is inevitable to refer to the resounding case of Eugenia Kelly, the heiress of a wealthy family in New York. In 1915, Eugenia Kelly was aken to court by her family under the accusation of “incorrigible” due to her misbehavior: she had engaged,  without permission of his parents,  with Al Davis, a tango dancer. The news appeared in the press in May, when Bonnie Glass, Davis’s other lover, unmasked the lifestyle of society girls on Broadway. Bonnie, blind with jealousy over Eugenia’s relationship, had asked her to end with Al and as Eugenia refused to do so, in revenge, her friend told the Eugenia´s mother about the romance. The Kelly family became aware of the world that their daughter frequented and they realized that the places where the society girls were going to have tea, and where the New York society made their parties, were places where the tango was hidden. According to the mother, Eugenia had invited at home men, without her consent, that she met in some Broadway speakeasy. The purpose of the girl was organizing a party without the supervision of any person from the family. After the meeting, these “friends” had emptied the refrigerator and had taken away money and jewelry. Her daughter’s erratic behavior began several months before when she started smoking, she returned home at 4 A.M., using as an excuse that a girl should visit at least five cafes per night in New York. Subsequently, the girl became friend with players, professional dancers, drug dealers, among other night characters. When taking note of this, his mother decided to ban these outings, but Eugenia refusaled to obey, then the mother decided to present the case in court.

A quick reaction of conservatives, clergy, and judges emerged as a result of the mother’s request to bring the case to court. One of the district’s lawyers told the press that it was well known that in the places where tango reigned, high society girls were an easy target for a scam, but “never in his life had seen a situation like this.” Miss Kelly publicly stated that “I had never been so close to someone like Al Davis.” When the girl appeared at the courthouse everybody was talking about her clothes. The New York Times described her: “she was wearing a greenish-colored Norfolk suit, a white shirt with a loose waist, a red tie, and what a woman described as the latest fashion in headgear: The Allies’ hat”. The cashier of the Central Park Exchange Bank presented to the whitness stand. He declared that the girl had opened an account on April depositing four thousand dollars, and then she extracted a total of two thousand eight hundred dollars. In the judicial presentation, it was pointed out that some of the family jewels were stolen or, at least, their absence in the safecase at home was notable. After an argument with the defense attorney, the district attorney turned to her and said: “You are a beautiful girl to be here in court, where your good name is tainted daily. If you promise to go back to your mother and obey her, cut off your relationship with this Broadway group and eliminate all thoughts about this man, Al Davis, I’m going to leave things like that.” However, the girl replied, to everyone’s surprise, that she was not going to give up her beloved: “I don’t have to apologize to anyone, I’m not going to give up Al.” Another lawyer snapped at him: “don’t you realize that you are going to go to an institution?” To which she replied: “get into your own affairs,” and excused herself saying that she was in a hurry to go to her hairdresser.

The accusation against Eugenia Kelly is interesting for several reasons. In the first place, because of the impact in the press and how it described the details of the case in the newspapers. For example, The Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times or The New York Times made references to the way she was dressed, made up, and  trivial details. The case highlighted the youth rebellion, starring a girl who had not only succumbed to sexual temptations but faced her mother, to the point of ending the dispute in a courthouseIn an ascent tension of unique proportions, the mother (a widow) brought the case to the court to impose the law. Disobedience, temptations, and rebellion seemed to combine in Eugenie who, repudiate the attitude of his mother and the jury.

Amid an intricate plot of complaints, divorce petitions by Al Davis’s wife, and testimonies of different characters close to the rich girl, the New York City Commissioner initiated an investigation into the places where tango teas were performed. Supported by a committee of women of the upper bourgeoisie advocated for “moral cleansing of the city,” the commissioner and the police chief began to assess the situation of these places that did not have a good reputation. For social control, a law was applied to danceable venues and urban coexistence codes. In section 1.4.2 of the Dance Venues Act, it argued that these “are not allowed anywhere in New York City where liquor is sold. The dance is allowed in hotels, that sell liquors, but that have at least fifty rooms […] You cannot sell liquor in any place that publishes the teaching of dance classes”. The law provided that, in the dance teaching academies, the local government should appoint an inspector, but this had not been accomplished so far. The commissioner declared that it was known that there were good and bad dance venues, but the government was looking for the bad ones: “I have worked to improve the characteristics of those places since I have been in charge. I think I am successful,” he argued against the opinions that requested greater control.

The dancing madness allowed these “social gangsters,” such as Al Davis, to emerge. Just in New York, the police identified two thousand “tango boys,” including professional dancers and their partners. The point of conflict was what to do with them, since according to the police description “We can go to a place and, after seeing the dancers, be satisfied that one or more of those men are not of a desirable class, but How do you try it? You can’t arrest a man because he wears brightly colored clothes or because he looks different. You cannot arrest a woman for smoking or because you think she took more liquor than she owed”.  

These statements exposed two critical topics: the first was the association of improper behavior with liquor (at least four years before the Volstead Act passed in 1919); The second consideration was, given the impossibility of controlling by law, the police invented a new social type linked to moral declination.

The case of the heiress Kelly occupied at least eight months of the American press. The first judicial presentation concluded when Eugenia promised before the judge that she would obey her mother. Months later, Mrs. Kelly returned to court to prevent her daughter from marrying Al Davis. Despite family disapproval, her daughter had had several clandestine dates and had even photographed herself with the dancer. However, the rich heiress not only eluded her mother’s advice but eventually married her. The first photos of the new happy couple appeared in all the newspapers in November 1915. The cost of his tango crush was high: to sustain the romance she had pledged his mother’s jewelry for five thousand dollars, she had run away and finally had been disinherited. In a few months, she achieved what no flapper of the time: exceeded the limits of his mother’s authority by performing his will and not that of his family. Two years later, she divorced. And while the case resonated in the national press, Al Davis’s former dance partner married to Ben Ali Haggin, a millionaire with a fortune estimated in ten million dollars.

As a result of the investigation carried out on this case, The New York Times warned of what they called “pirates of tango.” What was this new social figure about? How to identify them? First, they had to be put in context. Two characters were needed: first, a young woman from a wealthy family who had nothing to do with her life;  second, an adventurous scammer. The new custom of tango tea gave both the possibility of crossing. A former assistant of the District Justice of New York described them as “girls, of excellent family, with pockets full of money, often owners of their car, often of good family and well educated […]. Their habit is to leave the house at ten in the morning, presumably to go shopping. Lunchtime is the great moment of initiation for evil. Lunch has supplanted dinner for these girls, and today they can choose from a dozen such restaurants that offer tango.” It was there that the “pirate of tango” appeared. According to Richard Barry, it was complicated for a young girl to meet in those places and at that time, an honest young man of good social class to marry, since surely this kind of boys would be working (Barry, 1915). However, in the desire to have fun, the girls enjoyed other companies, a type of men who apparently could meet all their demands. These alleged gentlemen wore fashionable, top-quality suits, and had language management that allowed them to have a pleasant conversation.

According to a lawyer, this type of men came from different places; usually they were young ignorant and of low social origin, who had acquired good manners and the art of an intelligent conversation. There were exceptional cases that derived from other social conditions: he mentioned a former jockey, a former journalist and even men of good academic education and honorable families, such as the son of a judge of the Supreme Court of a distant country, who had Acquired this helpful lifestyle.

The typical tango pirate was a young man, good looking, fashionable, and a good dancer. The most prominent feature of this archetype was that he did not spend a single dollar on a woman unless she had lent it to him. The girls of a good family seemed to tolerate a man didn’t invites them, since they owned their parents’ money, and paid for lunch, drinks, cars and even the furniture for these gentlemen. In  those years, the case of male escorts was known. They rented themself for any service for five dollars an hour plus expenses.

The strange fascination that this kind of “maintained men” was explained by  the longing for the fun of the bored young women, they usually linked to the world of drugs. The Tango pirates were who started them on drugs: “In my experience, all tango pirates are victims of advanced cocaine or heroin; and they are experts in describing the wonderful sensations that come from taking cocaine,” a witness warned. After introducing the young woman, the pirate should only find a way in which she voluntarily gave her money with pleasure.6

The central distinction of these ruffians, from such as those dedicated to the white slave trade,  was that there was no sexual seduction strategy to induce women to use drugs and work for them. The Tango Pirate was usually married or in a relationship with someone of his social status and only used his disrespectful and charming attitude to impact in the unsuspecting young women who would be his financial support. Some testimonies pointed out that some of them took care of their victims, trying to the girls did not become addicted and did not break ties with their families. From the moment that this happened,  his chances of financing through the girl´s money ended. A sort of a hyperbolic interpretation from sensuality to crime.

To understand this criminalization of tango, we must highlight the role that the rules played in the codification of social relations in the years before the First War. Eugenia Kelly’s mother was criticized because she was a woman who did not belong to that new decade. Instead, she thought that social hierarchies and rules must be respected and obeyed.

The tango revealed a physical device: it allowed to approach in an “innocent” hug, mix the legs in the famous “cuts,” and in this way that which looked forbidden seemed to be enabled. This sensuality of movements was not only in the physical touch of the dance but aroused loving feelings that, socially considered inadequate and improper, determined the actions of these women. In this decade, the moral revolution that the press spoke about began early, which was a symptom of youth rebellion that openly exposed for the first time in the century. It was not a political rebellion as in the case of the Russian Revolution in 1917, but social, moral, domestic. The challenge was physical and internal: it was the authority of the parents, of the elders, of the law, which did not fit into this modernity. Among those bodies that approached the dance, physical temperatures were increased, and feelings were confused. The context of these situations was transcendental. As we have pointed out since the early beginning of the century, Midtown Manhattan and Broadway, in particular, had become the first scenario of these new seduction techniques, of these physical encounters that were sexually desirable, becoming the necessary topographical area for tango.

A year after this case, the police took up a census of the tango pirates, from which more than seventy men who performed these type of activities in ballrooms and cafeterias were identified. The investigation was launched after police discovered Mrs. Elsie Lee Hilar’s crime at the Martinique Hotel on Broadway. She was a millionaire, married to a well-known merchant, who attended the tango tea, hiding from her husband while he worked. The woman went to the hotel for one of these meetings and met a man known from the environment. Subsequently, the maid discovered Mrs. Lee Hilar hanged, lay naked on the bed and her diamonds, valued at two thousand five hundred dollars, had disappeared. The police wanted to find the man she frequented the teas,  the main suspect.

The crushes produced by  Tango were described by the press. The rich heiress Caroline Kohl, for example, got engaged to Ernest Evans, whom she met on Broadway where he was her tango teacher. Evans came from Little Rock, Arkansas, and had arrived in New York to do his university studies. Soon, he abandoned the univerity and began working as a dance instructor in a tango tea salon. There, he met his fiancée who was attending the classroom. It seems that it was “love at first sight.” They both secretly engaged and planned to marry in a few months, but their families objected to the union. In the case of Evans, his father, a prosperous merchant from Arkansas, rejected the engagement because the bride came from a well-known family linked to Vaudeville and the theatrical world. Lewis Kohl, the father of the bride, had owned four of the most prestigious theaters in the city of Chicago and had bequeathed a fortune of one million dollars to each of his daughters. On the other hand, the mother of the bride rejected the commitment because she considered that how Evans made a living was informal and unstable. Unfortunately, they were forced to return the rings, and the engagement was canceled.

At the beginning of the century, the ladies of the Charitable Society had spread Tango so much, but in 1914 they opposed not for the dance itself, but the dark purposes of the hugs. A specialist said that “tango is an open dance with difficulty to be learned and danced without any physical contact, but the young dancers change the direction and try to take advantage of the hug” (The New York Times, January 14, 1914). To avoid vulgar or rude representation, parents recommended to teach it in their homes so that their daughters were not victims of malicious squeezes in social dances. Some members of the exclusive social clubs wielded arguments to avoid the suspicion placed in the hugs, like a man from the White West End Club who saw in tango an excessive solemnity: “the dancers have their brows wrinkled in an unusual mental effort to dance it.” The argument took a critical turn: rather than provocative, inciting, or immoral, it should be rejected as being too solemn, which in itself represented a different opinion.

The American newspapers gave us innumerable testimonies of these situations, soon I will review new ones.

El tango entre dos Américas Representaciones en Estados Unidos durante las primeras décadas del siglo XX


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