Anyone who has been around the Chestnut Hill area for several decades surely remembers the legendary, almost mythic, Stotesbury Estate.
In 1912, Edward T. Stotesbury, one of the wealthiest men in the world, hired the world-famous architect Horace Trumbauer to build a Downton Abbey-like mansion. Called Whitemarsh Hall, and known as the “Versailles of America,” the manor house was a wedding gift to Stotesbury's second wife, Eva Cromwell, on a 300-acre tract of land in Wyndmoor.
This month, the storied estate, demolished in 1980 to make way for a housing development, figures prominently in a new book, an exploration of the death of New York starlet Dorothy “Dot” King.
“Broadway Butterfly” is the story of King’s 1923 murder and its links to American high society including Stotesbury’s ne'er-do-well son-in-law John Kearsley Mitchell. The killing was the kind of sordid scandal and whodunit that makes the O.J. Simpson trial look like a game of chess. The book’s author, Sara DiVello, an Arcadia University graduate and former Chestnut Hill area resident, chronicles the whodunit in page-turning fashion.
DiVello, who spent nine years researching “Broadway Butterfly,” will discuss her latest work at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 10, at Arcadia in Glenside. The event will be in the school’s Grey Towers Castle, which was also designed by Trumbauer. Tickets include a ghost and historical tour of the castle, a copy of the book, author talk, author signing and refreshments.
Regarding the book, as Ezra Pound once wrote about Ernest Hemingway, DiVello's writing reflects “that innate and genial honesty that is the very soul of talent.” Her writing reveals a disdain of sham and posturing. It has the heady essence of a modern classic. It is replete with smile-inducing Damon Runyon-type politically incorrect expressions from the 1920s, like “dames,” “mugs” and”flatfeet.” Reading it, I was as happy as a person can be without arousing suspicion.
In a Zoom interview last week, DiVello, wearing a “True Crime Addict” T-shirt said, “My uncles, Ed and David Lagan, went to LaSalle College High School (in Wyndmoor), and sometimes after school they would go over to the old Stotesbury Estate ruins and hang out, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer.”
Her parents eventually moved to Glenside, said DiVello, creator/host of Mystery and Thriller Mavens, a popular interactive Facebook group. “They moved to South Philly and then Andorra. I was home-schooled until I went to (Arcadia). My aunt Joan and uncle David lived in Chestnut Hill and owned Primex Garden Center in Glenside. I come home to Chestnut Hill all the time. I love Weavers Way.”
DiVello now lives in Boston with husband Allen, who is in the biotech industry.
“Broadway Butterfly” is about a tragic episode that will be catnip to fans of true crime TV shows like “Dateline,” “48 Hours” and “20/20.” King’s body was found in a bed in her Manhattan apartment. Unearthed during the investigation was a love letter from Mitchell, who was married to Stotesbury’s daughter Frances.
But keep in mind that these were the days before the existence of television, movies and even radio (for most people), so there were no movie stars, national sports stars, Kim Kardashians, Taylor Swifts, Elvis Presleys, etc. Thus, obscenely wealthy businessmen and industrialists with names like Rockefeller, Stanford, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Mellon, Stotesbury, Drexel and Morgan were the “movie stars” and royalty of their day. They were the trend-setters and taste-makers, Their parties and travels and family disputes were chronicled in microscopic detail by a myriad of gossip columnists and curious readers.
Stotesbury and his partners, Anthony Drexel, founder of Drexel University, and J.P.Morgan, ran a monster banking firm in the U.S., headquartered in Center City.
Stotesbury owned four massive homes, but Whitemarsh Hall was definitely the jewel in the crown. According to numerous histories, it had 147 rooms and a staff of 70 just to maintain the grounds, 24 fireplaces, 28 bathrooms, a ballroom, a gymnasium, a staff of chauffeurs and much more.
I don't want to reveal the ending in a whodunit that includes Mitchell’s infamous letter describing his longing to kiss King’s “pretty toes,” but another suspect in the murder was Draper Daugherty, the son of Harry Daugherty, the attorney general of the U.S. under then-President Warren G. Harding, who was trying to withstand a few scandals of his own. Draper Daugherty's best friend was Arnold “The Brain” Rothstein, notorious crime boss known for his involvement in drug trafficking and bootlegging and allegedly fixing countless horse races and the 1919 World Series with payoffs to Chicago White Sox players. Rothstein was murdered in 1928.
For more information about the Aug. 10 event, visit saradivello.com. You can reach Len Lear at firstname.lastname@example.org. Arcadia University is at 400 Easton Rd.