Truth is Stranger Than Fiction (and sometimes they’re one and the same!)
So I was flipping through the September 7, 1953, issue of Time magazine the other day – you know, the one with Audrey Hepburn on the cover (she’s such a delightful sprite, isn’t she?) – when I came across a write-up in the “National Affairs” section of the publication. In the news for the state of Illinois, subtitled “The Asylum Bookie” I read about one Martin Wanzig, 42, of Chicago, a patient-orderly at Chicago State Hospital. Martin, who was hospitalized at this 385-acre mental institution for schizophrenia (with suicidal tendencies), was apparently doing more with his time than participating in group therapy – he was serving as the bookie for hundreds of hospital employees as well as his fellow inmates.
Wanzig’s lucrative bookmaking enterprise hit the skids when police discovered that a nurse at the hospital had killed herself, despondent over her betting losses. The trail led to the “asylum bookie,” who in just one year, had racked up about two thousand dollars in earnings by placing horse-racing bets of $2 to $10 for hospital workers and as little as twenty-five cents for patients. He worked the scheme with the aid of his 31-year-old girlfriend, Dorothy Hughes, who visited him at the hospital every day. Dorothy would place Wanzig’s bets, and bring back the winnings to the hospital.
The operation had been started several years earlier by a staff physician who brought Wanzig into the fold when the undertaking became too much for him to handle alone. After police moved in on Wanzig, four hospital employees were fired, including the doctor who started the whole thing. Time joked (or maybe they were serious) that Wanzig didn’t have to worry about prosecution – he could plead not guilty by reason of insanity.
Why am I telling you about this case, you might ask? Because in 1950, Universal Pictures released The Sleeping City, which was filmed on location at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, renowned, among other things, for its psychiatric facilities. This well-done film noir feature opens with the shocking murder of a doctor, who is shot in the face at point-blank range while taking a break from his rounds.
In an effort to solve the crime, Detective Fred Rowan, played by the great Richard Conte, is assigned to work undercover as a hospital intern. Within weeks of his arrival at the hospital, a second doctor commits suicide, and Rowan begins to suspect that the two incidents are related. His hunches prove to be correct – he discovers that the hospital’s kindly old elderly elevator is the kingpin of a gambling operation, in which he hustles the hospital’s young interns into placing bets for horse races. Rowan also learns that the two dead doctors had been forced to steal and sell hospital pharmaceuticals in order to pay for their gambling debts – and that the second doctor killed himself when he was unable to pay.
Is it possible that the physician at Chicago State Hospital was inspired by a matinee showing of The Sleeping City? Did he sit in a darkened theater, munching on popcorn when the proverbial lightbulb went off over his head? Could the unfortunate young nurse at the Chicago asylum have recalled a scene in The Sleeping City when she was seeking an escape from her troubles? There’s no way of knowing, of course, but the facts of the real-life case and the plot of the film are eerily and undeniably similar – it certainly gives one food for thought. Hmm.