Sex and the Sinful Girl

Posted on Jan 14, 1996 in Café Society
Sex and the Sinful Girl

By John Harney [From the New York Daily News]

As New York scandals go, it has just about everything: A troubled call girl, a society rake, a glamorous madam and a talent agent who turns out to be a pimp, all caught up in a big vice investigation of the nightclub set. There were betrayals, sex parties and an attempted suicide. Even Walter Winchell got into the act, supplying a “mystery witness” at the second of two sensational trials that gave the city more than a few cheap thrills in 1953 and 1955. When filmmaker Raymond DeFelitta came across the strange case of Good Luck Margarine heir Minot (Mickey) Jelke and his girlfriend, Pat Ward, in an old issue of Star Detective magazine, he couldn’t believe that no one else had tried to make a movie about it. “Initially, I thought it was very funny. The whole idea of the margarine heir. The girl who was his fiance became this highest-priced prostitute in New York, and the district attorney had gotten involved and the whole thing was sort of like a circus,” he said. DeFelitta, 31, began researching the story, eventually completing the script for “Cafe Society,” which will be aired on Showtime Feb. 11. It stars Frank Whaley as Jelke, Lara Flynn Boyle as Pat Ward, and Peter Gallagher as a fictional vice cop who nails Jelke and later regrets it. DeFelitta came to see Jelke as a sympathetic character, a scapegoat for the politicians and police who, once again, had vowed to eradicate the vice rackets once and for all. Mickey Jelke provided a convenient target. With money from their trust funds, Jelke and his elder brother, Johnny, hit town in the heady years after World War II, quickly becoming fixtures at swank nightclubs like El Morocco, the Stork Club and El Borraccho. Pudgy and only 5-foot-5, Jelke was hardly the dashing type. He wore elevator shoes and swept his hair up and back to make himself look taller. But he got around, as DeFelitta found out when he asked Norman Mailer to play District Attorney Frank Hogan. Mailer declined, but said in a letter that he had once met Jelke in an elevator. “All the women surrounded him, as if he were a cross between St. Francis of Assisi and Truman Capote,” Mailer wrote. “God, they adored him. I remember my annoyance . . . Why didn’t they adore me as well?”

A 1952 Daily News profile of the Jelke family said, “There were few young men around Manhattan who knew more attractive, smartly groomed women than Mickey. He seemed to have money, and he knew the people who gave the gayest parties in town.”

The Jelke brothers and another young playboy even started their own club, the Bachelors Club, which staged balls and other events. “His best friend was a press agent named Ray Davioni, who was actually a pimp, and Jelke seemed to know that and kind of like took pleasure in hanging out with him,” DeFelitta said. “His other best friend was a woman named Erica Steele, who was the biggest madam in New York. . . . She had a very expensive house on 58th St. behind the Plaza, which ironically is now the site of the Hadassah.”

For Jelke, high living was a full-time occupation. The News profile called him “a young man about town with no job and no disposition for work.”

His antics did not escape notice. Vice detectives DeFelitta said Gallagher’s character is based on several of them had been investigating prostitution at the nightclubs for months. When Pat Ward tried to kill herself at the home of Martha Raye she had been working for the comedienne and blurted out that Jelke had enticed her into prostitution with a promise of marriage, she found eager ears in the district attorney’s office. Hogan, who was up for reelection, accused Jelke of running a call-girl ring. “They kind of created this thing in the early articles, Hogan’s office did ‘Cafe Society Ltd.” as if it were sort of this large ring that Jelke had masterminded,” DeFelitta said. “And, clearly, they milked all of that for as much publicity as they could and by the time they got around to trying him, the counts kept going down, until finally it was pretty much there was one witness against him and that was Pat Ward.”

While Jelke grew up a child of privilege in Chicago, Ward her real name was Sandra Wisotsky lived on the lower East Side. DeFelitta doesn’t doubt that Jelke got her to work for him, probably as a bizarre kick, but thinks that was about as far as his career as a pimp went. “What the movie asks is how much guiltier are you for being a pimp for one woman than you are for manipulating the entire public under the guise of moral correctness,” DeFelitta said. Still, at a time when most New Yorkers were struggling, few had much sympathy for a spoiled rich kid in trouble. Convicted twice, Jelke served 21 months in prison. After recreating the Cafe Society of the early ’50s on paper, DeFelitta had to do it again as director with a budget of less than $1 million. The picture was shot in three weeks. He built sets of some of the old nightclubs in an abandoned gentleman’s club downtown. “By the time the Jelke case happened, Cafe Society just became a joke,” DeFelitta said. “It just became synonymous with bunch of losers. . . . Everybody’s trying to get somebody else to pick up their tab and they’re all wandering around trying to find prostitutes in the clubs. And actually it was sort of the death of it. The Jelke trial sort of ended it.”

The movie “Cafe Society” began DeFelitta’s career as a feature director, and made fans of Gallagher and Whaley. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s so steeped in that period as Raymond,” Gallagher said. Before doing the film, he thought, “How is this kid going to shoot a feature about high society in New York? But he had all the right answers. He spoke like a film maker. So it’s strap on your guns, we’re going in.”

“It was the last thing in the world I wanted to do,” Gallagher joked. He was finishing “While You Were Sleeping” in Chicago when he read the script. It won him over. “I read it on a Thursday. I was shooting on Sunday,” Gallagher said. My last day of shooting [‘While You Were Sleeping”] was on Friday or Saturday. I had 24 hours to do a read-through with the rest of the cast. I won’t say I did a lot of research. “I said to people, ‘Watch, the next thing I have will be for scale, at night and outside.’ Well, it was inside, but there was no heat in the building, so that’s not much of a difference.”

Whaley said he admired the way DeFelitta made Jelke despicable and sad at the time time. “Making him sympathetic seemed like a challenge,” Whaley said. “Without looking like one, I tried to play it like a short, little fat guy.”

DeFelitta’s quest for the New York of Jelke and Ward took him down to Avenue D, where she lived. Oddly, her tenement was the only one left on the block. Old bartenders remembered the scandal and the clubs. He even found Jelke’s doorman, still on the job at the playboy’s old E. 48th St. apartment house. “It’s funny, it’s a lot easier researching something in New York City than anywhere else,” DeFelitta said, “because you find that everybody is like a walking novel. Everybody has a bizarre pre-life.”

He had a harder time finding his main characters. Pat Ward went through two marriages and tried to kill herself again, then gradually disappeared. DeFelitta still doesn’t know what happened to her. He also had a hard time learning if Jelke was living or dead. “In fact, that almost made it more poignant to me. He only became famous because of the scandal. The second he went away to jail he was forgotten.”

It was a tragic family. Jelke’s sister, Lana, died in 1952. Johnny Jelke, a flier for the New York National Guard, was killed two years later when his fighter plane crashed. Lana’s son, Michael Brody, carried the family’s notoriety into a new generation in 1970 by giving away money to strangers, even flinging some out a midtown window. He killed himself in 1973. As for Mickey Jelke, he moved to Florida after getting out of prison and eventually came into a $3 million inheritance. DeFelitta said he became an embittered drunk and died in Florida a few years ago, always insisting that he had been set up.

 

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