Sunday, September 19, 2021

Sample Sunday: MYSTERY AT THE BLUE SEA COTTAGE: A True Story of Murder in San Diego's Jazz Age by James Stewart


Please welcome author James Stewart to the blog today as he tells us all about his new narrative nonfiction book, MYSTERY AT THE BLUE SEA COTTAGE: A True Story of Murder in San Diego's Jazz Age. It is scheduled to be released by Wild Blue Press on October 5th. True unsolved murder of a beautiful Jazz Age dancer who left home one evening to meet a mysterious man and the next day turned up dead on lonely Torrey Pines Beach. The press hyped the case as police uncovered intriguing suspects, Hollywood connections, a clandestine meeting at a beach cottage, and secrets that threatened to ruin the killer.


Set in Jazz Age San Diego against the backdrop of yellow journalism, notorious Hollywood scandals, Prohibition corruption and a lively culture war, Mystery at the Blue Sea Cottage tells the intriguing true story of a beautiful dancer, a playboy actor, and a debonair doctor. In January 1923, Fritzie Mann left home to meet a man whose identity would forever remain a secret. The next morning, the barely clad body of the beautiful and bewitching dancer washed up on lonely Torrey Pines beach, her party dress and possessions strewn about. The scene baffled investigators. Was it suicide, murder, or an accidental drowning? A botched autopsy created more questions than it answered, revealing a scandalous secret and a powerful motive for murder. Journalists in southern California hyped the case, but when Fritzie’s Hollywood connections came to light the investigation shifted to L.A. and the story became a nation-wide sensation. An ambitious District Attorney battled a high-profile L.A. private counsel in the most sensational trial in San Diego’s history. The big question: What happened at the Blue Sea Cottage? 


MYSTERY AT THE BLUE SEA COTTAGE: A True Story of Murder in San Diego's Jazz Age by James Stewart


Prologue – A House Party in Del Mar


On the morning of Monday, January 8, 1923, after performing in Los Angeles for two months, Frieda Mann rode the midnight train home to San Diego dressed like a flapper.

The outfit shocked her mother, Amelia. A party dress of brown silk crepe fringed with rows of copper beads and a brown hat with a tan ostrich feather? Who wears a get-up like that on an overnight train ride? Not her daughter, usually. Frieda said she’d borrowed the outfit from her friend in Long Beach for a house party on Sunday evening. It seemed odd to Amelia. She scolded Frieda for being careless with her friend’s fancy outfit, then put it away and told her to wear her own clothes.

Frieda behaved oddly for the rest of the week, but Amelia saw no hint of melancholy. If anything, the girl acted too cheerful, too much like herself, especially that last day.

“She was joking around the whole day and making happy her sick sister,” Amelia Mann said later in her thick Hungarian accent, “…and she made jokes, take her bath, and was lively—don’t show a thing—nobody can say this girl had something in her heart, because she was happy, and she always was a jolly kid.”

That jolly kid, twenty years old, went by a stage name better suited to her personality and profession: Fritzie. She remained jolly to the end, Amelia insisted, despite what some would claim. Still, something new seemed to be weighing on Fritzie.

What had she been up to in Los Angeles for the past two months? Filling dancing engagements and visiting friends, or so she said. Her visit home was supposed to be short—long enough to break a contract with her employers in San Diego and perhaps tie up some loose ends—then return to L.A. for work and from there on to San Francisco. But maybe she’d been doing something else, like consorting with the wrong kind of people, a danger in the interpretive dance world. Or, more dangerous still, trying to break into Hollywood, again.

Don’t worry, Mother, Fritzie said when Amelia asked her to share her troubles. Everything will work out.

But Amelia did worry, perhaps more than she would have before now that her older daughter, Helen, lay dying in a sanitarium, the consumption killing her by degrees as it had her husband three years before. Fritzie’s cageyness about her plans for Sunday evening bothered Amelia the most. She mentioned the house party more than once but refused to share details.

“Between Del Mar and Los Angeles,” Fritzie said when Amelia asked where the party would be held, which meant nothing—it was a hundred miles between Del Mar and L.A. At other times she answered, “in Del Mar.”

“Tell me the man with who you go,” Amelia said.

“A man from L.A.”

Each time Amelia asked, Fritzie refused to give the man’s name or pretended she didn’t know. She’d never done that before.

There were enough reasons to worry about a young daughter without her keeping secrets. Times had changed in the few years since the Great War and not all in a good way. The shifting gender norms and rambunctious behavior of the younger set—the late-night drinking and dancing, the permissive attitudes towards sex—had come too far and too fast for traditionalists. There were no safeguards anymore. Suitors no longer called on a young woman at her home, where her parents could keep an eye on her; now the man picked her up in his automobile and took her out on a “date,” ostensibly to a restaurant, a moving picture, or a jazz dance. But they might end up at a speakeasy or a hotel.


Amelia had scrutinized Fritzie’s dates as much as any mother would, always asking questions and writing down the man’s name. Some of the men had seemed respectable enough. The soft-spoken Jewish doctor from the Veteran’s hospital, who Fritzie had dated on and off since the previous spring, fit into this category. Fritzie had seemed to care for him, at least before she left for L.A. last November. Was he the house party mystery man? Maybe. The doctor had telephoned her almost every day since she returned home so they must still be seeing one another. But he lived in San Diego, not L.A., and Fritzie would’ve had no reason to hide his identity.


Other suitors had vexed Amelia, one a man Fritzie had dated the previous fall. She had seemed smitten though it hadn’t lasted long—thank God. Supposedly an actor and director, the man never entered the house or stepped onto the porch, just waited on the street in his pretentious Marmon touring car and summoned her with that damn ahooga horn. One morning he’d picked up Fritzie for a drive south of the border to Tijuana. Amelia hadn’t liked the idea one bit—nothing good happened in TJ, a place that teemed with bars and brothels. To size the man up, Amelia had created a pretext; she asked him to drop her off at the Paradise Hills sanitarium, where Helen was being treated at the time, on their way south. Riding in the back seat of the ritzy machine, Amelia had jotted down the man’s physical description, just in case. Was he the mystery man from L.A.? He lived there and worked in the motion picture business, a business Fritzie wanted to join. Hopefully not. Fritzie’s troubles had seemed to start around the time she met him.


Not that Amelia had much control over Fritzie anymore, least of all her dating life and aspirations. Modern young women, the ones they called New Women and flappers, tended to do as they pleased, tradition and consequences be damned. Fritzie had been around more than most women her age anyway, especially for a place like San Diego, a rather provincial city of 80,000. She’d spent her early childhood in Europe, spoke several languages, and danced before large audiences in San Diego, Denver, and L.A. But if Fritzie’s independence and self-assurance gave her certain New Woman sensibilities, no one could call her a flapper—she didn’t smoke cigarettes or hang out in speakeasies or sleep around or do other things flappers did on the big screen. Fritzie danced on stage, not on tables. She was a sensible girl who helped to pay her sister’s medical bills and pursued a career as a dancer on her own. And if interpretive dance had naughty undertones in some quarters, Fritzie considered herself a serious artist and any salaciousness rested in the minds of people who had such thoughts. But she had a twenty-year-old’s overconfidence and naivet√© and moved in risky circles, the night world of the cabaret and on the fringes of Hollywood. A young lady could get herself into trouble if she weren’t careful. Her attitude and behavior may have changed; in many ways, things had not.




On Sunday afternoon, January 14, 1923, as she watched her daughter get ready for the house party in Del Mar or wherever she was going, Amelia’s anxiety grew. Was Fritzie really going to a party? She seemed to be getting ready for one, putting on a real flapper outfit. She dolled herself up with makeup and curled her hair and donned her Long Beach friend’s glad rags, as the younger set called their fancy outfits. To the brown hat and dress, she added brown satin shoes and silk stockings. She accentuated the outfit with a necklace of black and white beads, a gold bar pin on her left breast, and a barrette pinning her hair on the left side. She topped it off with an electric blue coat. She packed an overnight bag with a pink satin night shirt and underwear,

makeup, and a sheer peacock blue nightgown with longish sleeves and gray fur trim.


If I’m not home by noon tomorrow, Fritzie assured her mother, I’ll call.


At 5:15 p.m., ten minutes after sunset, Fritzie grabbed her handbag and vanity case. With her usual flippant goodbye wave to her older brother William, she headed out the front door of their tiny rental house on Spruce Street, near the northeast corner of Balboa Park. Amelia, a small woman, walked with her daughter in the cool January twilight under a cloudy sky, past the California Bungalow-styled homes of the modest neighborhood, two blocks to the streetcar stop at 30th and Redwood. On the way, Amelia’s trepidation grew into a premonition. She implored Fritzie to stay home.


“Tell me who is the man who takes you out,” Amelia said.


“He is a man from Los Angeles,” Fritzie said.


“Tell me the name.”


“I don’t know his name.”


“You told me always who you go out with and now you don’t want to tell me.”


Amelia continued to nag but at the trolley stop Fritzie gave her a quick hug and stepped up onto the streetcar. Photographs of Fritzie Mann, most of which show her in an exotic dance costume, reveal a pretty woman with delicate features whose self-assured, vibrant temperament is evident. Her dark brown hair, often tinted auburn by the red hairnets she wore, wasn’t cut in a flapper bob, but she kept it short in line with Jazz Age fashion and the preferred style of the New Woman. Having seen these pictures, it’s easy to imagine her waving goodbye to her mother, confident that she had everything under control. No photographs of Amelia survive, but it’s not hard to imagine her face as she watched the streetcar disappear into the gathering darkness, the trolley pole sparking on the overhead wire: The worried look of a mother who knew or suspected that her youngest child had gotten herself into a fix and feared it was about to end badly.


Fritzie likely caught a south-bound streetcar, the shortest route to downtown. From there the car would’ve rattled down 30th Street on the eastern edge of Balboa Park, zigzagged around the corner of the park through Golden Hill, and then due west along Broadway into downtown. Fritzie had kept the rendezvous point to herself, mentioning only that she was meeting the mystery man downtown. It might’ve been the U.S. Grant Hotel, a gathering place for the younger set in the heart of downtown that Fritzie and her chums frequented. Or the Golden Lion Tavern, another hangout. Or, if the man was coming by train, the Santa Fe depot.

             Twenty minutes later Fritzie called Amelia.


“Mother, that party will not be between Del Mar and Los Angeles,” Fritzie said. “It will be in La Jolla.”


A strange phone call on top of the other strangeness. Did the house party change venues at the last minute? La Jolla was nine miles south of Del Mar, somewhat closer to home. If Fritzie hoped to allay her mother’s fears with this information, it didn’t work.


“You might think you know the place where you are going,” Amelia said. “I don’t. You don’t told me who you go, and I don’t know.”


Don’t worry, Fritzie said. “It is a very quiet place.” 


James Stewart ©2021

James A. Stewart was born in Baton Rouge, LA, and grew up in a small town sixteen miles to the north called Zachary. After graduating from Louisiana State University with a BS in Industrial Technology, he spent twenty-five years on active duty with the U.S. Navy, including a tour as commanding officer of USS MOUNT VERNON (LSD-39). He also holds a BA in English from National University and an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside. He lives with his family in San Diego, CA. Mystery at the Blue Sea Cottage is his first book.

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