Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Old Priest

Our Lady of Victory Church

After Father Albinger died, the housekeeper discovered the will and the key in a creaky old desk in the rectory attic.  The city fathers scratched their heads at what was revealed.  If the old priest had accumulated so much property and money, why did he dress in threadbare garments and beg for food?

And how had Father Albinger, who presided for 25 years over a Roman Catholic Church in an undistinguished suburb of New York City, come to possess so many worldly goods?   

The mysterious priest departed from this earth on April 21, 1898, the first day of the Spanish-American War.  He died in Germany, from whence he had emigrated to the U.S. during the 1850s.  

After the housekeeper found the will, one of several documents tied up with a faded ribbon, she walked carefully down two flights of stairs in the dusty house, holding tightly to the banister.  She showed the will to a member of the parish, who told everyone in town, and almost instantaneously the County Treasurer came to call.  His name was T. Ellwood Carpenter and, having founded his own bank just a few years earlier, he knew all about assets.

 Home of T. Ellwood Carpenter, who investigated
Father Albinger's bequest

According to Carpenter, who opened the deposit boxes, Albinger left 25 purses, each containing 1,000 marks, and $10,000 in securities.  Carpenter also discovered that the priest owned several houses in New York and New Jersey.  He estimated that the estate was worth well over $100,000. 

Equally surprising, Albinger named one of his former altar boys as the sole legatee and executor.  However, no one in town could recall this person, Nicholas Lauer.

Nicholas grew up in far northern New York State, near Lake Ontario.  He was the son of a grocer whose family, like Albinger’s, emigrated from Prussia.  It is likely that the boy worked with Father Albinger at the time of the Civil War when the priest was in his mid-20s.  German communities flourished upstate and Father Albinger had the good fortune to serve as a pastor there before he hit the bigtime down near New York City.    

Now three decades later, here came the will.  Father Albinger’s sisters, who lived in Germany, refused to accept it.  In 1900 they contested the will in the county’s Surrogate’s Court. 

At the turn of the twentieth century, the law still regarded expert witnesses with skepticism. Judge Silkman, who presided over the Albinger case, acknowledged that he was dubious about expert testimony.  Nonetheless, he would base his opinion on the reports of two men well-known in the field of handwriting and ink analysis.

David Nunes Carvhalo,
handwriting expert
William J. Kinsley and David Nunes Carvalho were contemporaries and competitors.  Kinsley made his reputation in financial fraud.  Carvalho, a Sephardic Jew, played an important part in the Dreyfus Affair, a political scandal fraught with virulent anti-Semitism, which roiled France between 1894 and 1906.  Working long-distance from the U.S., David proved the forgery of a document, purportedly written by Captain Dreyfus, which was used as evidence to convict him.  

The Albinger matter also came down to forgery.  The priest’s signature didn’t match writing samples and there were suspicious erasures over the signatures of the witnesses, who happened to be Nicholas Lauer’s brother-in-law and sister-in-law. 
It also puzzled the judge that the will, executed in 1897 in a restaurant at the St. Denis Hotel in Greenwich Village, occupied the lower half of a sheet of paper, the top having been sheared off.   

St. Denis Hotel, New York City, around 1890

Both Kinsley and Carvalho declared the Albinger will to be a forgery and Judge Silkman refused to probate it. 

A few years passed.  Then suddenly, lo and behold!  A second will by Father Albinger appeared in the basement of the dead priest’s former church.  This will, which was accepted and probated, divided the estate among the priest’s sisters, two parishioners, a sexton, the church – and Nicholas Lauer.

“Lauer is said to be the only man whom Father Albinger ever received in friendship,” a reporter wrote in a New York Times story.

On one hand, there is the dimly lit attic, its small windows looking down to the busy street.  On the other hand, there is the musty basement with dark corners and a cold stone floor.

And in the space between them, plenty of secrets.


Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Winifred Lenihan of Brooklyn

Winifred Lenihan, publicity shot, 1928

When the labor organizer Peter Lenihan died unexpectedly in February 1914, his wife Martha was 8-1/2 months pregnant with their only son.   Of course she named him after his father.  Then she moved her family – four young daughters along with the baby– to the borough of Queens where she became a janitress in an apartment building.

Peter Lenihan had been an electrician who was very active in his union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.  The IBEW may have provided some money to the widow, but it would not have stretched far.

Yet fortune smiled on Martha.  Her eldest daughter, Winifred, became a rather acclaimed actress during her early 20s.  Later, Winifred explained that she had grown up in a Brooklyn family that had no interest in the theater, but she developed a passion for the stage and started a drama club at her high school.

Winifred was admitted to Smith College and planned to leave the theater behind.  Then she had second thoughts.  She decided to stay in New York and try out for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.  Her family opposed her decision, she once told an interviewer, but she followed her heart. 

In 1919, Winifred made her debut in a minor production of The Blue Bird, a fairy tale by Maurice Maeterlinck.  Alas, the critic for Theatre Magazine, who wrote under the pseudonym “Mr. Hornblow,” did not take note of Winifred in his review.  Of the production, he remarked tortuously: “the flashes of brilliancy are rarely intermittent.”  

The Blue Bird 
(Winifred Lenihan is second from left)

Next, Winifred performed in three plays lost to history – The Betrothal, The Dover Road and The Failures – and received favorable attention, as they say.  More importantly, the reviews led the board of the Theatre Guild to cast her in the plum role of Joan in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, which opened in December 1923.

Saint Joan would launch Winifred’s career, although a few critics sniped at her.  In The American Mercury, H.L. Mencken growled that she was “unequal to the heroic demands of Joan.”  The first editor of Vanity Fair and a star of cafĂ© society, a man named Frank Crowninshield, wrote:

Here is Winifred Lenihan, the Saint Joan of Uncle George Shaw’s newest play, making an impassioned appeal to the warriors of France.  Or can it be that Miss Lenihan, with the Theatre Guild at heart, is offering (at a benefit performance) the last two seats in the house to some frenzied bidder?

He couldn't help himself.

In the meantime, Winifred’s sisters became a telephone operator, a clerk, and a teacher.  Peter, Jr. appears to have died young, like his father.  By 1925 the mother, Martha, had stopped working.  In 1928 she took her first vacation, in Bermuda.    

During the 1930s, Winifred lost interest in acting and began to teach and direct.  She met her husband, Frank Wheeler, a vice president of what was then called the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, while working on radio sketches sponsored by the company.  During her tenure on the governing council of Actors' Equity, she authored an anti-Communist, anti-fascist resolution.

It’s such an old story, often an immigrant’s story: the astonishing way that a generation leaps so far ahead of the previous one.  The same stage lights that shone on Winifred might have been manufactured in a dingy Bronx shop where her father had once labored.

Winifred Lenihan pictured in Theatre World, 1950s

See posts: May 16 + June 13, 2018


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