April 7, 1928



A FELLOW NAMED EARL CARROLL had it made. As a producer of sumptuous revues, he lived a life of luxury, surrounded by girls, girls, girls. Then the peculiar pressures of the times caused him to spend an uncomfortable nine months in a Federal penitentiary.

It happened because he told a lie, brazenly swearing before a Grand Jury to something the whole world knew to be untrue.

Friends said he did so out of fear of the powerful gangsters of the Prohibition era, which is one place the pressures come in. But Carroll was also a publicity hound and maybe a vain man who may have talked too much and then been forced to lie to protect his words and image.

Earl Carroll's Vanities ranked with Florenz Ziegfeld's Follies and George White's Scandals as the top femme-and-fun revues so popular in the Twenties. Ziegfeld originated the Idea of the lavish revue in America, borrowing the idea from Folies Bergère. George White, who had worked in the Follies as a tap dancer, broke away in 1919 to begin his own lively, jazzy Scandals.

Connoisseurs of these lush shows say the Vanities was the least worthy of the lot. Ziegfeld was a wildly extravagant man of impeccable taste, who created breathtaking beauty-and-costume scenes that cost a fortune. Show him two types of silk, one at $50 a yard and the other at $5, and he unhesitatingly picked the expensive one.

Carroll, on the other hand, was chintzy with money. Around Broadway his penny pinching was a laugh. The scenery for one of his productions was so cheap it fell down around the actors on opening night. Yet if he had genius it was in gaining effects that looked almost as expensive as Ziegfeld's for about one-third the cost.

Carroll also nursed a powerful ego. Where Ziegfeld hired composers like Irving Berlin, and George White the great Gershwin, Carroll liked to write his own words and music.

The Vanities producer was a tall, thin, picturesque looking guy, with large soulful eyes and long thinning hair. High cheekbones and pale skin made him look ascetic. To some he seemed effeminate, but his friend George Jessel and others contradict this vigorously. Carroll was a practicing ladies man who, as a producer, spent much time looking at parading girls and picking the beauties.

Like his shows, his girls were not as scrumptious as those Ziegfeld displayed. There was a thin texture of coarseness in the beauty of your Vanities lovely. Carroll had a wife, but in the 1920's his adoring companion was Dorothy Knapp, billed in the Vanities as "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World." Dottie rose to that eminence by winning every one of the numerous beauty contests she entered.

Earl Carroll was a typical Broadway type of those years. Born in Pittsburgh of Irish parents, he was fascinated by the theater from childhood and at the age of ten quit school to become an usher. Pittsburgh had many local playhouses in those happy days, and he studied dramatic stars like Maude Adams and Richard Mansfield. He left Pittsburg and moved elsewhere to immerse himself in musical comedy and burlesque.

Looking frail and artistic, he really had guts and steely nerve. At the age of fourteen he took off with an older brother to bum around the Orient, getting there as a boy steward on a ship as well as a WW I airplane pilot.

Returning, he naturally gravitated to Broadway, starting as office boy in a song publishing house. A kid with gall, he convinced the bosses of his talent and began writing lyrics; then words and music. At one point he collaborated with Enrico Caruso on a song that never got off the ground.

He also produced plays. White Cargo, which he produced on a shoestring, ran for years and made a million. Another of his efforts was So Long, Letty, a successful musical. He wrote Canary Cottage, Eddie Cantor's first musical, and discovered funnyman Joe Cook. But Earl Carroll was just another skilled theater journeyman until he met William R. Edrington, a Texas oil millionaire whose checkbook was opened wide for the privilege of hanging around backstage, talking to girls and actors, and generally feeling like a showbiz figure. Carroll played on these harmless desires, and Edrington not only agreed to back the Vanities at $100,000 per production, but to build an Earl Carroll Theatre as well. In Broadway parlance he was an "angel." and proved the most angelic of the lot.

All at once, Earl Carroll was a Broadway celeb, ranking with Ziegfeld and White. But where Ziggie and Georgie were inclined to let their shows speak for them, Carroll exposed himself as a publicity nut whose big gimmick was nudity.

Over the stage door of the Earl Carroll Theatre ran the chiseled legend THROUGH THESE PORTALS PASS THE MOST BEAUTIFUL GIRLS IN THE WORLD. Onstage, these same girls were the barest in the world, or close to it. Proclaiming himself the Troubadour of the Nude, Carroll let his beauties parade around in next to nothing.

It got him in constant trouble with authorities, but he loved every moment of it. Such embroilments naturally added up to headlines which brought him personal fame and pulled audiences to his shows. Soon the Vanities earned more box office than either of its rivals. When hauled into court, the producer solemnly promised to mend his ways, but, of course, he never did.

One of his tricks was to display artistically nude portraits of his girls in his theater lobby. Males, naturally, walked in from the street to get a free look at the daring photos, and police regularly arrested Carroll over this. In court, the producer would loudly tell the judge that the pictures were "art pure and simple." Refusing to post bail, he'd be locked in the Tombs, where newspapermen interviewed him. When the newspaper publicity died down, he calmly paid his fine and went home.

Another effective gambit was to insert himself in raging public controversies. When the tabloid Graphic attacked the honesty of the Miss America Beauty Contests the producer, who had been a judge once, rose in protest. The Graphic printed an article questioning his motives, and Carroll threatened to sue for $500,000. Writes managing editor Emile Gauvreau. "I informed him that I would make no mention of the suit unless he raised the sum to $1,000,000." He did.

Such publicity was — you might say — straightforward. That is, Carroll took stands that earned him headlines. Yet often his methods were involuted. As radio became popular he bought air time to ask high school girls of the five boroughs to bring bathing suits and audition for $40 a week Vanities jobs (Ziegfeld paid his girls $75). This annoyed a lot of people. Aspiring showgirls auditioned for the Vanities nearly every day. Why did Carroll need local high school girls?

"I am looking for fresh girls," was his ungallant answer. "The girls I use get stale in a few weeks." For a time he lived in a heaven of bliss as precocious school girls swarmed to see him.

A group of mothers banded together as Moms of America and petitioned Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to make Carroll stop. The producer did, but it won him reams of publicity.

Carroll's decline began in February 1926, with a backstage party given for angel William Edrington. Determined to make this one of the great parties of all time, he hired a girl to sit nude in a bathtub of champagne.

According to most of the 300-odd people who attended, the party was on the dull side and the girl in the tub looked cold and unhappy. As guests entered, Carroll swore them to secrecy about the girl. But Philip Payne, editor of the tabloid Mirror, arrived after the festivities began, when Carroll was too busy to swear him to secrecy. His headline made the affair sound like an evening in Sodom and Gemorrah: NUDE GIRL STARS AT ORGY.

Now Carroll was in trouble over the liquor he'd served at the party! Remember, these were Prohibition days, with Americans forbidden to drink potent beverages. Everybody did, of course, and got away with it. But drinking on a large, publicized scale was a challenge to law enforcers.

Basking happily in a glow of publicity, Carroll flatly denied that liquor had been served at his party or that the girl had sat in the tub. A man who liked big words, he stated, "A guest had stepped forth to broadcast to the world that I put on a wild revel. This is a distortion, invented to appease a demand for scandal. A great falsehood."

He went on to say that only ginger ale and fruit juices had been served at the party. This was madness, for other newspapers had followed the Mirror in printing the story. No reporter wanted to call Carroll a liar, but they did report that a well stocked bar and a fine buffet had been made available to guests. Next, Joyce Hawley, the human centerpiece, told reporters that she had indeed squatted in a tub of illegal champagne.

Carroll's continued and headlined denials played right into the hands of the law. It might be hard to find a jury in tolerant Manhattan that would convict him for serving liquor. But perjury was another matter, if the government could prove Carroll a liar under oath. Taken before a Grand Jury and sworn, he again repeated his denials. Philip Payne, Joyce Hawley, and others testified to the contrary. The Troubadour of the Nude was indicted for perjury.

His trial in May 1926 turned out to be another sensation. Dorothy Knapp had been expected to console Carroll through the ordeal, but instead he showed up with his wife, a lady Broadway had forgotten. It was, of course, a bid for sympathy. "Let me be snapped with my wife," he ordered photogs. "A lot of people don't know I have one." The two continued to kiss and exchange phony fond looks throughout the trial.

Carroll didn't dare take the witness stand in his own behalf, but allowed his testimony before the Grand Jury to be read aloud. Philip Payne and a succession of others testified that liquor had been served. Carroll's lawyer tried to prove that because of Prohibition, these grown men were incapable of recognizing liquor. It failed to convince.

On the stand pretty Joyce Hawley gave simple, straightforward testimony, adding that Carroll had failed to pay her a promised $700. Carroll's lawyer pounced on this, trying to brand her a girl bent on getting even. But Joyce seemed to bear no special rancor.

In his defense, Carroll offered an array of distinguished citizens who swore with straight faces that no liquor had been served. According to the head of the McClure Newspaper Syndicate, "I sought in vain for a drink of whiskey and was unable to find one, and left in disgust at four in the morning." His wife testified that ordinarily two glasses of champagne made her tiddly. This night, after three, she felt okay.

On the stand, lumbering humorist Irvin S. Cobb was asked, "Are you a drinking man?" He replied, "Once in a while I drink a cocktail when I am reasonably certain that the effect will not be immediately painful."

Cobb was equally cryptic when trying to describe Carroll's allegedly non-alcoholic champagne: "It was of near pinkish hue. A translucent liquid takes on the color of its container to a certain extent. This seemed neither red nor yellow, but bordered upon the rosy. It did not resemble any champagne with which I am familiar." His droll testimony did little to help pal Earl.

Al Jolson next bounded forward. The singer of surpassing ego Identified himself as having "No occupation, but I have been an entertainer for twenty-five years." He called Carroll "one of the finest men I have ever met — he would never lie." Yet in his summation, Carroll's own lawyer admitted his client might have told an untruth. "But if he lied, he lied like a gentleman," he concluded.

After four days, the case reached the jury. In sixty-five minutes, the twelve men rendered a verdict of Guilty. The judge then sentenced Carroll to a year and a day in the Federal pen, plus a fine of $2,000. Carroll turned paler than usual and bit his lips. Why did he lie? No one knows, even to this day. One story circulating around the Main Stem said Carroll was so arrogant, vainglorious, and publicity-mad that having lied once, he kept on out of overweening ego.

Another declared he lied to protect Mayor James J. Walker, who, of course, had been a guest at the party Jimmy's supporters at the polls might think that Hizzoner was going too far in attending a latter-day orgy.

The third and most likely explanation had Carroll fibbing to save his life. Had he admitted serving liquor, the law would have required him to tell where he got it. A man of his importance probably secured the booze from a mobster of equal stature. If Carroll had revealed his big-shot bootlegging source, he might have ended on a one-way ride, gangster style.

Whatever the reason, he went to jail. "I died a thousand deaths in those days following my conviction," he recalled later. "I imagined everyone looking at me as if I had been branded a human monster. Human flesh could not stand it — highly strung, super-sensitive human flesh. Believe it or not, my flesh is of that kind." He arrived at the Atlanta Penitentiary in a coma of terror and had to be lifted from the train on a stretcher. "On the way to prison, my soul gave up the battle ... I confessed to myself I was debased beyond repair."

However, the prison hospital revived him and the prison honor farm, with its unwonted fresh air, perked him up. Paroled after nine months, he rushed back to Broadway to produce another Vanities, the rudest one yet.

But Earl Carroll was one more victim of the Depression. Hard times ended his eminence. He bounced around Broadway for awhile, then went to Hollywood to open a successful theater-restaurant on Sunset Strip. Dorothy Knapp faded from his life, a younger Beryl Wallace slipped in. After the trial his wife was never heard of again.

Carroll was killed in an airplane accident in 1947, with Beryl at his side.

NOTE: Next time you're in L.A., go to Forest Lawn and take a look at the monument he had the foresight to design for himself and his beloved Beryl. They say it's the gaudiest ever.

From: http://www.libertymagazine.com/mysteries_carroll.htm


ATLANTA, Ga., Oct. 18. -- Earl Carroll learned tonight that he was to be freed and at once began preparations for his return home. He received the news calmly, having expected it....

October 19, 1927, Wednesday - Special to The New York Times (NYT) - Front Page