Summer 2007, Vol. 39, No. 2
From the Files of St. Elizabeths Hospital
The files of Dr. William Alanson White, superintendent of St. Elizabeths Hospital from 1903 to 1937, reveal other stories about the rich and powerful in Washington:
Keeping the Family Secrets
Dr. White served as a consultant in a custody dispute in 1935 between two high-profile media figures—Henry W. Suydam and his wife, Anne. Anne wrote for the Washington Star and the Washington Herald. Henry, a longtime Washington correspondent for the Brooklyn Eagle and the Newark News, was then the Justice Department's first spokesman, a very public role. He had previously served as State Department spokesman and later served as press secretary for Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.
The Suydam file includes letters between Dr. White and Henry Suydam's attorneys that deal with his wife's alcoholism and a custody arrangement for their son—and assurance that the story did not reach the press. Henry's attorney asked Dr. White to help reach "some adjustment that would protect the feelings and social comfort for the parties." Complex, deceptive separate living and custody arrangements are made "in order that there may be no gossip as to separation," Dr. White wrote Henry, using his first name only "to conceal your identity" adding that he has "spoken in riddles, but I am sure you will understand all the references I have made." For propriety's sake or otherwise, an accommodation was reached, and Henry and Anne remained married.
Trying to Avoid Thalia
In June 1934, Dr. White received a letter from Mrs. Chas J. Bell, grandniece of Alexander Graham Bell. She hoped to vacation that summer without Thalia Massie, her 23-year old suicidal granddaughter, who lived with her. She asked Dr. White to evaluate and find appropriate summer care for Thalia.
"The most outstanding emotional attitude which Mrs. Massie has at the moment is that she has never been loved and never been wanted," Dr. White said after meeting with Thalia and finding nothing unusual. Dr. White found her "fundamentally lazy" and she "seems to have accepted defeat rather too easily. . . her philosophy is expressed by a not infrequent use of the phrase 'What's the use?'"
What was unusual was Thalia's past, loosely referenced in Dr. White's letters as "the Hawaii tragedy and the subsequent divorce" detailed in "lurid newspaper literature." The notorious "Massie affair" would have been well known—having galvanized national attention and sensationalist news coverage in 1931 and 1932.
Thalia was married at age 16 to Lt. Thomas Hedges Massie. On Saturday night, September 12, 1931, Thalia left a Navy party in Hawaii, where her husband was stationed. She returned the next morning with a broken jaw, claiming "something terrible has happened." She accused five Hawaiian men of rape, and the subsequent trial propelled Hawaii into a state of racial turmoil. When a mistrial was declared, Thalia's mother, her husband, and two other sailors found and murdered one of the five men, Joseph Kahahawai. The jury rejected the "honor killing" defense put forward by their attorney, Clarence Darrow, the noted lawyer and civil libertarian, and were convicted of manslaughter. Under pressure from Congress and the Navy, the group served just one hour in the custody of the high sheriff.
Dr. White downplayed Thalia's suicide risk, writing: "There have been several attempts at so-called suicide over the years, which of course have not been very desperate in character, or she would have long since passed into the Great Beyond." Thalia died of a drug overdose in 1963.
Notes on a Powerful Editor
Washington socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean consulted with Dr. White in 1933 regarding her husband, Edward Beal McLean ("Ned"), Washington Post editor and heir. Mrs. McLean hoped to have him evaluated, declared mentally incompetent, and committed.
Married in 1908 and separated 20 years later, the couple was known for extravagant spending and reckless behavior. Both drank excessively, and Ned had numerous affairs, including a longtime association with Rose Davies, an actress, singer, former girlfriend of William Randolph Hearst, and sister of Hollywood star Marion Davies. Under Ned's leadership the Post's staff morale, circulation, and advertising all plummeted as his alcoholism and bizarre behavior intensified. He caused disturbances by bringing Rose Davies to Washington Post editorial meetings. Mrs. McLean feared "Miss Davies would probably attempt to bring a child into the situation as a claim against him," although a note in the file states that Mr. McLean "was physically incapable of having a child, and had been for some time."
Dr. White described Ned as "suffering from a delirioid condition with manic features." He "has been alcoholic for many years," has "Korsakoff psychosis" with "marked mental disturbance," and "hallucinatory falsifications." Ned "had been drinking liquor to the extent of about two quarts a day" but doctors at a hospital in Paris "cut it down to a spoonful a day." In a letter to Mrs. McLean, Dr. White described his meeting with Ned and advised: "the best thing for him would be to be cared for in an institution for mental disease."
Ned was given a standard sanity test, used to access a patient's mental grasp. In addition to standard questions (day of the week, year, name of the then-current President), there was an additional one—Ned was asked in which year his mother purchased the Hope Diamond.
Declared insane, Ned was committed to a mental institution in Towson, Maryland, and died in 1941.
Return to Rich, Famous, and Questionably Sane.