Part of an ongoing, irregular series of historical articles called True Crime: Bay Ridge.
At about 2:30 a.m. on Friday, November 7, 1952, residents of 6823 Ridge Boulevard flooded the street, huddling in their pajamas, even though it was 36 degrees outside with the wind chill; there was a fire in the building. After putting it out, firefighters followed the one-alarm blaze to its source—an apartment on the second floor—and broke down the door. They found Helen Olsen just inside, dead, in the foyer, “where she had apparently fallen after a desperate attempt to escape the blazing apartment,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported.
“She lay, magnificent in death and naked as the day she was born, on the floor just inside her own doorsill,” a magazine later reported, rather floridly. “Her outstretched arms told only too graphically how narrowly she had missed reaching the revivifying fresh air. How close she had been when the gaseous poison of the smoke filled her lungs and cut her down.”
It looked like a routine accident, and it might have been written off as such, if a week later an anonymous tipster hadn’t called the Eagle. Look at the boyfriend, she’d said.
But first investigators had to figure out who her boyfriend was.
The Eagle waffled on the details about Olsen. One article calls her Helen Olsen Gjelland. The small item about the fire says her husband, a seaman, was away; all subsequent articles refer to her as a divorcée. The fullest account of her death I found comes from the May 1956 issue of True Crime, though its salacious headline—“Last Orgy of a Blond Barfly” (!)—suggests its lurid details and novelistic dialogue might be exaggerated for maximum tawdriness. (“She liked her booze and she was just crazy about men,” the subhed proclaims. “Too bad that she couldn’t handle both at the same time!”)
But byliner Stephen R. Hoyt’s reporting, if considered with skepticism, fills in many of the holes left in the cursory daily reporting. According to his piece, Olsen was twice divorced. She also “had everything a woman might reasonably want.”
She was tall, with the magnificently proportioned figure of a Viking goddess. She had a beautiful face crowned by a glory of natural golden hair. She had three lovely children and a man who was slavishly devoted to her.
Yet Helen Olsen was desperately, unrelentingly unhappy. Her face and figure had led her to nothing but trouble. Her three children by her two divorced husbands had been taken away from her. The one man who really loved her—her fiancé—was away at sea most of the time. She had no choice, she felt, but to solace herself with lesser men, and with the whiskey bottle.
Olsen was a well-known habituée of the local bars, according to True Crime. “There wasn’t one that Helen had missed,” the magazine reported. “Drunk or sober, her radiant presence was like a breath of fresh air in the murky barrooms of Bay Ridge. Everyone knew her.”
So detectives started canvassing them, hunting for leads, because on closer inspection the fire didn’t look quite right—it started in the closet, but Olsen hadn’t hung up her clothes; there were no matches or cigarette butts in the bedroom; and there were two whiskey glasses in her kitchen, only one of which bore lipstick. Soon they found the woman who had called Eagle reporter Dave Engel and said, “It isn’t what the police think. That woman was deliberately set on fire.” (The Brooklyn Eagle not only forwarded this tip to authorities but also sat on the story so as not to disturb the investigation—which would be almost unthinkable today. “This is an example of what an alert citizen, in co-operation with a public-spirited newspaper, can do,” the district attorney said, adding thanks for “subordinating a news story to the public good without fanfare.”)
The woman tried to pin the arson on her boyfriend, whom True Crime calls Larson (it’s not his real name), because she was jealous of the attention he paid to Olsen.
“Like many sections of New York, Bay Ridge is a small, neighborly community within a large city,” True Crime reported. “Everybody knows everyone else—particularly in the taverns.”
Helen Olsen had done a lot of drinking with Larson. When they were drunk he’d sometimes paw her. But Helen had drunk with many other men who did the same thing. As did Larson with other women. There was no evidence that Helen was Larson’s special girl.
Police considered that the accuser might have done it; once she had smashed a glass, picked up a shard and tried to cut Olsen’s face. But she had an alibi—she was too wasted to kill anyone that night, and she had been escorted home and put to bed by Chester Elliott, a 42-year-old long-distance truck driver who lived in a furnished room in a brick rowhouse at 459 49th Street. (She said Larson had once tried to light her nightgown on fire; when police asked Elliott about that story, he blushed and said she never slept in a nightgown—she slept “raw.”)
On a hunch, detectives checked out Elliott and discovered he had a sheet—over 20 years, he’d been arrested five times, twice for disorderly conduct, twice for felonious assault, and once for grand larceny. (Each case had been dismissed or the sentence suspended, so Elliott had never spent time in prison. “Larson” also had a few arrests, all for drunkenness.) Suspicious, they questioned him; he denied knowing Olsen, but bartenders identified him as someone who’d shared drinks with Olsen numerous times.
Detectives interrogated him again, and they broke him—he confessed. From True Crime:
”I got up out of bed,” he said. “Helen stayed there. She was very drunk.
“I asked her for a date over the weekend. She told me that she couldn’t go because she had a date with someone else. While I was getting dressed, she turned over facing the wall and fell asleep.”
That made him mad, Elliott said. And he was jealous of her other date. He lit a cigarette, stood looking down at her as he smoked, admiring her. And his jealousy, his terrible longing to possess her alone for himself, mounted till it became a frenzy of rage, a whiplash goading him to maniac fury.
“The door of the clothes closet was open,” he related, “so I threw the cigarette inside. I thought I’d fix her. I’d burn up her clothes so she couldn’t keep her date with this other guy.” Then he walked into the kitchen, he said, and downed a drink of Scotch.
“I sat there about 20 minutes drinking whiskey,” he continued. “I saw a slight haze of smoke, but didn’t do anything about it. I had four or five more drinks.”
Then he heard the roar of flames. A huge ball of fire leaped from the clothes closet. He said, “I took my topcoat from the kitchen and ran out of the apartment.
“I guess I just blew my top,” he summed it up.
Elliott was booked at 3:30 a.m. on Saturday, November 22—15 days after Olsen had died, almost to the hour. And on May 28, 1953, he pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter (rather than risk a trial for first-degree murder). In July, he was sentenced to 7-to-15 in Sing-Sing, all because of an anonymous phone call to a newspaper that wasn’t even about him.