The Mysterious Virginia Harrison, Lillian Collier’s “aid”

Now that we’ve cleared up the mystery of Lillian Collier: The Vanishing Flapper, we’re left with another mystery: what was the deal with Virginia Harrison, her “aid?”

Virginia Harrison, left, with Lillian
Collier, Feb, 1922, in the Tribune

When the Wind Blew Inn, a bohemian tea room, was raided on February 13, 1922, the police arrested 40 patrons, as well as Lillian Collier, the owner, and Virginia Harrison, who was variously described in the press as Lillian’s aid, assistant, partner, employee, or sister (some modern commentators have assumed that “aid” was code for “girlfriend.”). They were both listed as living in the same building as the tea room, though by April Lillian’s address was given as 545 N. Michigan, around the corner from the place. Between Feb 13 and April 21, the place was raided several times, and Lillian (who claimed to be friends with Mayor Thompson) successfully received a writ banning the cops from interfering with her.

Lillian took to complaining that “cops are here oftener than customers.” “They simply come in droves;” she told the Journal. “And it is hard to distinguish between them and guests, except that the cops….never take off their hats. My! I nearly insulted a customer a while ago. An absent-minded old gentleman sat down without removing his hat. I told him, ‘if you cops’re going to hang around here you’ll have to eat and be merry and take off your hats!’ My, but he was indignant! ‘Madam,’ he said – and I just hate to be called ‘madam’ – “madam, you confuse me.’ Of course, I apologized and told him my latest joke.” She told a judge that she ran a strictly decent place, and that she believed it was the finest restaurant ever built into an old gasoline station (Though later patrons admitted that the 75 cent cups of “tea” were not really tea).

Cops certainly did make trouble, and teased her in court, saying that they used only candle-light because it “saved on dishwashing costs.” A few cops were said to be laughing when the place burned down in April, 1922 (Lillian opened a new, slicker version right next to the police station on LaSalle to save them the trip, but it wasn’t a success – it was too “nice” for the bohemian crowd).

One paper said it was Virginia Harrison who told the judge “There is no snugglepupping at the Wind Blew Inn,” the most famous line from the whole affair. She was often photographed alongside Lillian, and was her co-defendant at the bizarre trial in March, 1922, when the two of them were sentenced to read a book of fairy tales to cure their bohemianism.

A few weeks later, The Wind Blew Inn burned down. The Tribune said that Lillian blamed puritan arsonists.  In other papers, though, she seemed to be putting the blame on none other than Virginia Harrison!

It seems that in the weeks that followed their strange sentencing, the two of them had a falling out of some sort. By April 21, the night of the fire, Virginia was described as a disgruntled former employee who had been heard making threats, and who may have even been seen around the place with a can of gasoline. Lillian herself was brought in for questioning, but when it turned out she had no insurance on the place, she was absolved of all blame, and police began to focus on looking for Virginia Harrison.

Virginia in the
Chicago American

Here her story seems to end. I’m not sure whether they ever found her or what. One paper said that she was also known as Jean Lawrence (whether that or Virginia Harrison was her real name is hard to guess). Either name is common enough that she’s pretty hard to trace.

So what became of her? Was she Lillian’s girlfriend (or trying to be?) I can imagine a scenario in which she was in love with Lillian, but Lillian wasn’t actually into girls, and Virginia torched the place after being rejected… but that’s usually the sort of story that happens in bad TV dramas that risk get boycotted by GLBT groups!   Her antics and quotes certainly didn’t attract as much media attention as Lillian’s own did – papers rarely quoted her directly or spoke about her adventures in flagpole sitting, etc.  Other than possibly being the source of the “snugglepupping” line (which other papers credited to Lillian), it’s Lillian who gets all the best quotes in the articles, and who was later remembered in many reminisces of Chicago bohemia.

Above: Virginia, right, with a rather unflattering shot of Lillian! This is from a
Chicago Journal article noting that Virginia was wanted for questioning.

Tomorrow, we’ll examine the case of Mildred Bolton, a forgotten murderer that Lillian wrote about in the 1940s under her pen name, Nellise Child!

Lillian Collier: Mystery Solved!

Since the story of Lillian Collier, the flapper who seemed to disappear from the record in 1924, figures heavily into the rough draft of my new novel, I doubled my efforts to find out the rest of her story – and I’m pleased to say that I have finally solved the mystery of what happened to her!

above: Lillian in a
1921 flagpole sitting

Just to refresh your memory, Lillian was the 20 year old owner of The Wind Blew Inn, an early 20s bohemian dive at Michigan and Ohio, where the Eddie Bauer is now. She was arrested for hosting “petting parties” and playing loud “syncopated ‘blues’ piano” music, and either she or her “aid,” Virginia Harrison, told the judge “there is no snugglepupping at the Wind Blew Inn.” She covered the nude statues in the place with overalls and told reporters that she was trying to convert Chicagoans to the gospel of high art.  She and Virginia were sentenced to read a book of fairy tales to cure them of their bohemian ideals (in a case that should have become a landmark event in the early history of post-suffrage feminism).

A couple of years later Lillian was interviewed for a widely-circulated article entitled Is Today’s Girl Becoming a Savage? in which she defended flappers as vanguards of a new era of freedom and opportunity for women.  After that, though, she simply vanished from the record. It was only recently that I found an article on microfiche that gave her mother’s name, which led to a census form and some other records, though still nothing from after 1924.

Recently, I ran across what may have been her father’s World War 2 draft card – a guy with her father’s name (Meyer Lieberman) and statistics (place and date of birth, anyway), matching up to his.  There were a lot of people named Meyer Lieberman, so you have to be careful.

His closest contact info was one Mrs. Lillian Gerard. In the 1930 census, Lillian and Franklin Gerard were in L.A. with Lillan’s mother, who was listed as Natalie Bensonson. Bensonson, I knew from other records, was Lillian Collier’s mother’s maiden name. Her name was Nellie, not Natalie, but mistakes like that are common in the census, and since Meyer and Nellie were divorced by 1930, it’s possible she had gone back to her maiden name.

 On the 1940 census, Lillian Gerard was going by “Lilli” and had a baby son named Frank Gerard Jr. The form said she was self-employed as a writer.

The mother’s maiden name was a strong clue, and I’d suspected that she ended up in Los Angeles (there was a news item saying a woman named Lillian Collier was going to be in a Chaplin film). Looking for info on a writer named Lillian Gerard broke the case wide open, and I was able to put the pieces together.  Lillian Collier became Lillian Gerard at some point in the 1920s, and Lillian Rosenfeld some time later after marrying a Chicago real estate developer.

Lillian as Lillian Gerard / Nellise Child
at work in the early 1940s

In the 1930s and 40s, Lillian wrote under the name Nellise Child (“Nellie’s Child”), writing a couple of mystery novels in the 1930s, a couple of more serious novels in the early 1940s, and a handful of plays, including one entitled Weep for the Virgins that was produced on Broadway by the famous Group Theatre collective (and listed as a play young Marilyn Monroe is known to have studied).   She’s also contributed a chapter to 1947 book on Chicago murders – she wrote a section called The Almost Indestructible Husband about Mildred Bolton, a now-forgotten woman who killed her husband (a now-forgotten murder that I’ll have to dig up data on!)

When her first “serious” novel came out in the early 40s, she was writing the book while living as a housewife – her husband didn’t want her to work, according to a news article. This arrangement didn’t work out so well for her, and eventually she divorced Frank and ended up back in New York.  Thereafter, her son (writing in the afterward of a new ebook of Weep for the Virgins) remembers that she took him to just about every Broadway show between 1948 and 1962! He remembers running lines from her works in progress with people like Irene Castle.

Articles about her from the 1940s onward mention her having worked in a cannery in Los Angeles, as well as in soda fountain, and she spoke to one reporter about her days a a “girl reporter” in Chicago (I’ve only ever found one of her articles from those days), but none mention her time in the Chicago bohemia scene. Her brief autobiography on the back of her first novel mentions her work for two Chicago papers, as well a stint with Sells-Floto’s Circus, which backs up the occasional early 1920s mentions of her as a circus performer, and firmly establishes that this woman is the same woman who took Chicago by storm in 1922.

Eventually marrying real estate developer Abner Rosenfeld, she found her way back to Chicago later in life, and seems to have formally changed her name to Nellise at one point. She was living near Loyola when she passed away in 1981 at the age of 79. Her obituary gives her name was “Nellise Rosenfeld,” and she was interred at Shalome Memorial Park. She was still a member of the Dramatists’ Guild, as well as the American Jewish Congress, and a couple of Zionist organizations.

She achieved enough note to have a French wikipedia entry that doesn’t mention “Collie” or “Collier” as a last name (she was only married to Herbert Collie for a very short time when she was just a teenager, from what I can tell). She seems to have spoken very little about her time in Chicago; her son didn’t even know about it when I tracked him down!

So, I’m secure in saying that we’ve found out what happened to Lillian Collier, but this is just the beginning. I may be working with her son now to get more of her works back into print…

The Flapper’s Mother: Feminism in 1912?

Yesterday we reported on new information on Lillian Collier , the flapper we’ve been talking about for years. Lillian ran an outfit called The Wind Blew Inn and was the darling of Chicago bohemia in 1920-22, and in 1925 gave an interview saying that flappers were not “savages,” but evidence of a new era of freedom for women. This was a few years after the Inn was raided for holding “petting parties,” leading her to assure a judge that “there is no snugglepupping at the Wind Blew Inn” (he sentenced her to read a book of fairy tales to cure her bohemianism) (it doesn’t seem to have worked). I’ve written about her in several Chicago history books, including the upcoming Chronicles of Old Chicago.

We still don’t know what she was up to after 1925 (update: we do now!) but having found out that her maiden name was Lieberman has helped find a few more pieces of the puzzle to add to the mix. We know she was born in New York in 1901 (probably Sept 16). We know she and her family were in Baltimore in 1910, then apparently back in New York just before their time in Chicago, which began in 1919 or 1920. Some of the family appear to have remained there all their lives, some may have moved on.

In any case, one fascinating new thing I found is an essay that Lillian’s mother, Nellie, wrote for a contest the Baltimore Sun had in 1912. The subject was “Do Women Want Good Husbands,” and Mrs. Lieberman’s entry is a fascinating document. The “husbands should be assertive and noisy” sentiment is balanced by a demand for equal rights and equal treatment; is this what feminism looked like a century ago?

The address below (cut off here) corresponds with their address in the 1910 census, so I’m sure this is the same Nellie Lieberman who accompanied her daughter Lillian to court in 1922. Nellie and her husband, Meyer, were apparently divorced in 1921. 
Lillian herself seems to have won a children’s poetry contest in the same paper in 1916, but I haven’t found her poem yet (the scan of the paper from the day it was probably published is messed up in the only source I know of for Baltimore Sun papers from that year). It was in the “Yarns for Youngsters” section, and she would have been 14 at the time. Like Homer Simpson in the “design a Nuclear Power plant” contest,  she may have been in a contest with children, but she kicked their butts!
update: we now know that she went on from her juvenile poetry contest success to a career writing mystery novels, a couple of serious “literary” pieces, a play produced on Broadway, and even a bit of Chicago true crime in the 1930s and 40s. See our update! 

Lillian Collier: The Mysterious Flapper – new data!

I’ve written quite a lot about Lillian Collier of the Wind Blew Inn,  a flapper who was sentenced to read a book of fairy tales to cure her bohemianism in 1922. A few years later she appeared in a widely-circulated article saying that flappers were not “savages,” but represented a new era of freedom for women. After that, she vanished from the record. Several Lillian Colliers were found – a suffragist in Texas, a poet in Canada, a New York socialist – but none I could trace positively to her.

Lillian Collier, pictured here when her
flagpole-sitting antics made the news
in 1921.

Today I was digging through the Herald Examiner archives, having heard that she worked as a reporter from them in 1920 under the name “Our Little Girl Reporter,” a title that several reporters held at that paper (most notably Carol Frink, whose husband wrote The Front Page with Ben Hecht).  I could only find one article I could trace to her – a story about painting the words “Safety First” on the 10th story of a building on Van Buren (wonder if it’s still there?).

However, Herald Examiner notes from when her Bohemian tea room, The Wind Blew Inn, was raided by the cops turned up two very interesting new pieces of info that may just help solve this mystery.

One is that Virginia Harrison, described as Collier’s “aid” in some papers, appears to have given her name as Virginia Collier. This may be a clue that the two were “more than friends,” as some have surmised. It could also just be a mistake, though.

More notably is that one paper gave the name of her mother, Nellie Lieberman.  From this I was finally able to dig up Lillian’s 1920 census records, where had her listed as “Lillian Coltie.” After that, I was able to find some more new clues:

 – Lillian was born Lillian Lieberman around 1901-2 in New York.

– She apparently married one Herbert Collie in New York in 1919; the name was usually spelled “Collier” in the press, though records stick with “Collie.” It may have been an affectation on her part. I found a record of the wedding, but can’t definitively, 100% match it to THIS Lillian Lieberman.

– By spring of 1920, she was living with her parens, Meyer Lieberman and Nellie Lieberman, in Chicago near North and Leavitt, as well as her sisters, Martha Lieberman and Bertha Lieberman.  Herbert was out of the picture by this time, but she kept his name.

– I can’t find much about Herbert Collie.  I did find a thing saying Martha, her sister, died in 1991 and had been a vaudeville dancer at one point.

– Meyer and Nellie were apparently divorced in 1921.

So, that maiden name is a STRONG new clue, and one that might very well help us find out what happened to her after 1925.  On Wednesday, we’ll feature a newly-discovered essay written by her mother in 1912!

Whatever Happened to Lillian Collier: Teenage Flapper?

Update, 2014: We’ve had a break in the case!

The facts are these:

Lillian Collier (sometimes spelled Collee, or even Kelly) came to Chicago around 1920 from Greenwich Village, intent on converting Chicagoans to “real life.” Only a teenager by most accounts, her poetry made her the darling of the Dil Pickle Club. Some accounts say she had previously been a circus performer.

On arriving in Chicago, she founded a bohemian tea room called The Wind Blew Inn at Ohio and Michigan (where the Eddie Bauer store is now), where she held open forums, art exhibits, poetry readings, and more. The place was not popular with the neighbors, who complained about the jazz music, or the police, who thought that any tea that cost 75 cents had to have liquor in it (which it surely did), or with local parents, who feared that their children were attending “petting parties” there.

The place was raided by cops, and Collier was forced to put overalls over the Greek nude statues. On the stand in trial, she said there was nothing stronger than hot chocolate served at the place, and that “there is no snugglepupping at the Wind Blew Inn.” We here at Chicago Unbelievable are trying to bring the term “snugglepupping” back (along with its variants “Snugglepuppy,” a girl who enjoys snugglepupping, and “snugglepup,” the male equivalent.”)

The judge, in what should probably be considered a landmark case, sentenced her and her “aide,” Virginia Harrison (modern commenters generally assume she was her girlfriend) to read a book of fairy tales to cure her of her bohemianism. A month or so later, the Wind Blew Inn caught fire, the victim, Collier was sure, of puritan arsonists.

The place moved to a new, fancier location on LaSalle, but, lacking the grit and charm of the original, it soon tanked.

A few years later, in 1924, Collier was featured in a major national article about flappers in which she stated that flappers were not savages, but pioneers of new freedom for women. In the article, she comes across like a proto-feminist.

But here her trail ends. Various clues to her whereabouts around this period have popped up here and there – she was arrested for embezzling a bit, and may have been considered for a role in a Charlie Chaplin film. Another Wind Blew Inn, which may or may not have been related to the first one, opened for a while in New York.

There were many people named Lillian Collier who showed up in the press therafter – a poetess in Canada, a suffragist in Texas, and a NY socialite who married an Olympic fencer who promptly died in a zeppelin crash (I thought this was the best lead, but the marriage certificate indicates that the NY Lillian Collier was probably too young to be the Chicago one). None seem to be the same Lillian Collier who took Chicago by storm. Actual records of Collier herself are hard to come by, partly because we aren’t at all sure that Collier was really her name (it seems to have been pronounced more like Collee or Colley, in any case).

So we’re putting out an All Points Bulletin on information as to whereabouts of Lillian C after 1924. Was she your grandmother? Your great aunt? Did your mother know her? Was your great grandmother, the old lady in the home who watched a lot of Lawrence Welk and always asked if your crops were in, even though you work at the bank, a snugglepuppy? Let us know! Any leads are appreciated.

Update: some detective work has led us to much more info about Lillian, who died under the name Nellise Rosenfeld in 1981 after a long career as a playwright and mystery novelist.

Snugglepupping at the Wind Blew Inn

There’s an early 20s slang term I’ve been trying to revive: snugglepupping. It was coined, as far as anyone knows, right here in Chicago, down at the courthouse on Hubbard and Dearborn, by one Miss Lillian Collier.

Here’s Lillian on the right:

Lillian was a teenage flapper when she moved to Chicago, determined to turn the residents of this “hick town” (as she called it) on to high art and convert them to the “gospel of real life.” She ran a “tea shop” at the corner of Ohio and Michigan (where the Eddie Bauer is now, i believe) called The Wind Blew Inn. The strange poetry readings and Greek nude statues made the place a notorious bohemian dive.

But it was rumors of “petting parties” that got Lillian in trouble. One day, the cops raided the place and arrested everyone. Lillian was forced to cover up the statues’ hoo-hoos.

On trial, Lillian testified that “there is no snugglepupping at the Wind Blew Inn.” Snugglepupping is about like regular snuggling, but more illicit. The judge (get this) sentenced her to read a book of fairy tales to cure her of bohemianism. The Wind Blew Inn was torched a few months later. She re-opened another place, but it flopped.

A few years later, Lillian gave an interview claiming that flappers were the “modern woman” and represented a future in which women would enjoy much more freedom; the article reads like an early feminist manifesto. After that, though, she disappears from the record altogether. I’ve found a few people with her same name – a poet in Canada, a socialite who married an Olympic fencer – but not that I think I are her. The fact that her name was spelled a few different ways (Collier, Kelly, Collee, etc) makes it doubly hard.   (update: we found some more in 2014)