Monday, March 19, 2012

The strange story of Pearl and Olga

Pearl Lusk and Olga Rocco didn't meet in any kind of friendly or even a formal way, but in an act of violence choreographed by Olga's husband.

In 1946 Pearl had moved to Manhattan from her parents' home in Brooklyn. She loved life in the city. For a time she worked a holiday job at a department store, but was laid-off shortly after Christmas. On a subway ride one day she saw “the most handsome man she had ever seen.” She resisted his advances at first, but on a subsequent subway ride she agreed to meet him. He told her his name was Allen La Rue.

Allen La Rue was a private eye, he told Pearl. He did insurance investigations, and right now he was investigating a suspected jewel thief named Olga. He offered Pearl a job as an assistant and she jumped at the chance. Her assignment was to get to know what Olga looked like. He knew where Olga worked as a secretary for a hat company. He sent Pearl in there to look at her so she'd recognize her again. Pearl completed her first assignment. Her second assignment was to take a box that was wrapped like a present, but had a hole in it for what he told her was the lens of an x-ray camera. Pearl was to get as close to Olga as she could when Olga got off the subway, then pull a cord on the bottom of the box and take her picture. La Rue told Pearl that he suspected Olga was wearing the stolen jewels around her waist, under her clothes, so Pearl was to aim low before pulling the cord. Pearl did what she was told, and gave the box back to Allen. He told her later the picture didn't turn out, and he had to get another camera.

Some days later Pearl shadowed Olga again on the subway. Olga even noticed the girl sitting near her with a box wrapped like a present, with a hole in it and something sticking out that looked like a camera lens. As they got off the train, Pearl, right behind Olga, did as instructed and pulled the cord. There was a deafening explosion and Olga fell to the ground, a gaping wound in her leg. As a policeman approached to find out what happened Pearl told him, “I took her picture and at the same time somebody shot her!” Actually, it was Pearl. The “camera” she was carrying was a sawed-off shotgun, and the blast cost Olga her leg.

Olga was expecting something to happen. The man Pearl knew as Allen La Rue was actually Olga’s estranged husband, Alphonse Rocco. Since leaving him Olga had received several death threats, and had even been shot once before. One night while helping her mother fix dinner, Olga felt a stinging pain in her leg. When she looked down she saw blood streaming from a wound. A bullet, fired through the window, had gone through her leg.

Rocco kidnapped Olga a couple of times, also, taking her to a tourist cabin in the hills, where he kept her against her will for several days each time. (We aren't told what he did to her, but it probably wasn't pleasant.) Rocco was an outdoor type. He loved hunting, loved camping, loved guns, and had several. Because of all this Olga pleaded with police to help her. Each time she called them she spoke to the same detective who told her “not to worry.” But worry she did, and for good cause. Her unanswered pleas for help went on for quite some time until the terrible day when na├»ve Pearl was used as Rocco's surrogate in permanently maiming his wife.

After the incident Rocco took off for the hills. Police found him camped out, and he engaged them in a gunfight in which he was killed. Olga later sued the New York City Police for failing to protect her. A judge reluctantly dismissed her case because while he found her sympathetic, the police would have been looking to protect Olga from Rocco, but not from Pearl Lusk.

The story is told in a straightforward and reportorial style by the late writer, St. Clair McKelway. McKelway worked for The New Yorker from the 1930s through the 1960s. His reporting on the Pearl-Olga story was published originally in a 1953 issue of the magazine, then reprinted in a compilation of his best work, Report From Wit’s End. The book is currrently available, and besides the story I just related to you—without McKelway’s wonderful prose, alas—he tells a story of Mr. 880, an elderly counterfeiter who made $1.00 bills in his apartment, and drove the Secret Service crazy for years trying to catch him. His bills were so poor that he even misspelled “Washington” as “Wahsington,” yet because of their low denomination most people who accepted the bills in stores didn’t look at them.

McKelway also tells the tale of his own time as a public relations officer for the Army Air Corps. At one point McKelway actually sent out a press release calling Admiral Chester Nimitz, who was head of the Pacific Fleet, a traitor! And he got away with it! It's a complex story you just have to read to fully understand.

There are eighteen stories in the book, each of them fascinating.

McKelway died in 1980 at age 75. He left a wealth of material, of which this book, even at a hefty 619 pages, is only a fraction of what he wrote for The New Yorker.


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