The Gilded Cage: Tragedy at Palm Beach

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Newspaper headline, May 7, 1949. Andrea Luckenbach’s fortune could not spare her from the spousal physical abuse women of her era were expected to endure.

“Men who club women and drag them by their hair,” were simply “clumsy, old-fashioned and unchic,” declared society referee Igor Cassini in his August 1949 syndicated column Cavemen in the Blue Book. Reflecting on the post-WW II era’s tolerance for domestic assault, the article’s perspective on “slaphappy lovebirds” and “the little woman” excused a few whacks and smacks as “the needs of a blue-blooded man.”

Five years later, one of the article’s subjects, Andrea Luckenbach, was shot at four times by her third husband Frederick Hammer, whose prior abusive behavior was downplayed in Cassini’s column as “ Neanderthal … the melodramatic leanings to satisfy his rugged nature.”

August 1949. “Cavemen in the Blue Book.” Igor Cassini’s syndicated column was published nationwide.

Clearly, Andrea Luckenbach lacked the legal and societal supports that are intended to safeguard 21st-century women. Even so, civil protection orders, restraining directives, and temporary shelters do not guarantee 100% protection or that a wife’s accusations will be believed. Back then, whether they wore Chanel or an apron, women were regarded primarily as submissive caretakers. Most often, they were encouraged to accept apologies and promises of change, retract their charges, and reconcile with their assailant. Defenseless, they were kicked-around as much by their husbands as the police and the courts. And, in Luckenbach’s case, regardless her bruises and wounds, the press branded her emotional, a blonde socialite and an heiress wife, implying her wealth might have triggered her empty-pockets husband to crack up.

At the time of her death in April 1962 from lingering complications caused by the gunshot wounds she sustained years earlier, The Palm Beach Post reported (“Troubled Heiress Succumbs in Sleep”), “Shipping heiress Andrea Luckenbach Long will no longer be plagued with assaults, shootings and court trials.” Three decades later, Fred Hammer died at Palm Beach. The Shiny Sheet reported only, “At one time Mr. Hammer was married to Andrea Luckenbach.” Hammer’s 1993 obit portrayed him as a “host to visiting heads of state including Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.”

Although more than 70 years have passed since Andrea Luckenbach’s allegations were questioned and discounted, women’s claims are often still subject to excessive scrutiny. Recently, a family member observed, “A tragedy, really tragic, what happened to Andrea,” recalling her storybook life that became tabloid headlines.

November 1922. Andrea “Bubbles” Luckenbach, age 3, takes a swing on the golf course with her mother Andrea Fenwick Luckenbach.

Palm Beach playground

Palm Beach’s upper echelon was surely impressed when they opened their December 1920 Christmas cards from Edgar and Andrea Fenwick Luckenbach. Inside the envelope, they glimpsed “the enclosure of a tiny portrait of the new little Miss Luckenbach, just six months old, who smiles cheerily from her frame of lace bonnet and promises to make new friends at Palm Beach, where her nursery will be in one of the maisonettes at the Everglades Club, which her fond papa has taken for the season.”

Edgar had expanded his father Lewis Luckenbach’s marine business from Brooklyn-based schooners and tug boats to a national and international line of freighters and steamships, becoming a familiar figure inside the North Shore and Palm Beach’s exclusive private clubs while his stately yacht was recognized at Newport and Bar Harbor. Following their marriage in February 1919 at New York’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel, his third, her second, Edgar, 51, and Toronto-born Andrea, 32, spent their honeymoon at Palm Beach. His first wife Florence Bissell died shortly after they were married. His marriage to Brooklynite Susan Vickers ended in a contentious divorce in 1914. Although the second Mrs. Luckenbach accused Edgar of “inhuman tyrannous conduct, bad language and depriving her of spending money and driving an automobile,” the Commodore, as everyone called him, paid a generous settlement and received custody of the couple’s 15-year-old son Lewis Luckenbach II.

After World War I ended and his company’s vessels decommissioned, Edgar was joined by Lewis II in running the company’s global empire. The father-son partnership built additional port facilities on the Gulf of Mexico and California to accommodate increased cargo shipments between Europe, South America and Asia. With Lewis II installed as the Luckenbach Steamship Company’s vice-president, Edgar and Andrea found more time to enjoy Elm Court, a classic 22-room Sands Point mansion surrounded by 100 acres of cypresses and elms. There, the couple indulged their passion for breeding show horses and thoroughbreds, an interest their daughter Andrea would share. Elm Court became the setting for the Sands Point Horse Show. Bubbles, as baby Andrea became known, also developed her parent’s taste for the sporting life, golf, tennis and fishing.

Elm Court. Sands Point, Long Island, New York. Photo Old Long Island

Just one month after her arrival at Palm Beach, Bubbles garnered yet another mention in society columns. She and several hundred silver-spooned toddlers-with-nannies attended the resort’s annual Valentine’s Day party staged in the Cocoanut Grove. She was matched up with William Thaw IV, whose Blue Book Pittsburgh family became continuous front page headlines when William IV’s great-uncle, playboy Harry Thaw, murdered architect Stanford White in 1905. A few seasons later, Bubbles was joined by a baby brother named Edgar Frederick. With the family ensconced as part of the Palm Beach social panorama, the Luckenbachs bought a Wyeth-designed Venetian-styled house at 70 Singer Place that served as their seasonal retreat for the next several decades.

On March 15, 1930, Marjorie Post Hutton celebrated her 43rd birthday at Mar-a-Lago with a few friends and her daughter Nedenia Hutton who was joined by 100 of her play pals. Emulating the grown-ups, the children’s invitation was for a fancy dress party complete with a Grand March along Mar-a-Lago’s patio. Judged by the Duchesse de Richelieu, Bubbles was awarded first prize for the most beautiful costume. The children’s dance instructor Bonnie Rae Murray choreographed a recital for the eager parents. Bubbles, along with sub-teens Nedenia and Annette Hood Reynolds, danced as petite poupèes and papillons while showing off their skills at the pony gallop. Jack and Betty McAnenny charmed as 1830 minuet dancers. After the presentation, Marjorie hosted a tea for the parents while the children ate ice cream cones and cakes on the patio with their mam’selles.

May 1932. Belmont Park, New York. Bubbles Luckenbach, 12, far right, a junior member of society’s saddles-and-spurs set.
As Andrea navigated her rebellious teenage years, her older half-brother Lewis Luckenbach II’s bumpy marital episodes made headlines.

Finishing school

Having cultivated their daughter’s talent among the jumpers and trotters, the Luckenbachs enrolled Andrea at the posh Fermata School in Aiken, South Carolina, where she could stable her horses with classmates Betty Ordway and Gloria Baker. Andrea was a popular member of the sub-deb set who preferred unchaperoned activities rather than white glove teas, toasting marshmallows or writing thank-you notes. Her mother died from pneumonia in January 1937, just as her romance kindled with “poor but handsome” Billy Dobbs, a well-known rider on the horse show circuit. Along with loving cups and blue ribbons at horsemanship class competitions, Andrea and Dobbs became an item at Sands Point dinner dances. A champion rider at 1937 National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden, Andrea’s independent nature was growingly apparent.

Fermata School for Girls, Aiken South Carolina.
June 1937. The Luckenbach’s Elm Court hosted the Sands Point Horse Show.
June 1937. Arrowhead Inn, Saratoga. At 17, Bubbles’ passion for horses was as evident as her affection for fellow rider Billy Dobbs.
November 1937. Photo by Morgan. AP wire photo.
March 1938. Bubbles and classmate Evelyn Iglehart were reported as runaways from Fermata. While there was speculation she had eloped, Edgar said his daughter “got tired of school and there were no plans for marriage.”
March 1938. “But I am not going to marry him. Not for a while yet, “ Andrea told the press. Three months later, she married Billy Dobbs. A longtime family friend observed, “She could have lived in the big house like a queen since her mother died. She can’t keep those long red nails very long or very red by doing her own washing.”

From love cottage to divorce court

Edgar Luckenbach was accustomed to telling everyone around him what to do whether running his shipping line, at Elm Court, or his daughter’s love life. He made it clear if his daughter married Billy Dobbs, “she is too young,” he would cut her off. Nonetheless, a disobedient Andrea and Billy proceeded, planning the ceremony for days after her 18th birthday.

The night before, the Great Neck Episcopal Church refused to marry them over the objections of her father as well as the minister. Fearing reprimand from church superiors, Rev. William Grime told the press, “I don’t care to marry people of varying social or financial standing. I have principle.” Despite this challenging hurdle, the family of one of Andrea’s bridesmaids held the ceremony and reception at their Long Island home. Anna Deere Wiman was her maid of honor. Shortly after her half-brother Lewis II walked her down the aisle, a process server crashed the reception and handed Lewis II a subpoena from his third wife who accused him of drinking monkey-gland cocktails and throwing firecrackers at her. Billy and Andrea left for their honeymoon on Lewis II’s yacht.

June 1938. AP Wire photo.
June 1938.
June 14 1938. AP and UPI wire services directed the Luckenbach-Dobbs wedding onto front pages across the country.
June 1938.
August 1938. No sooner had the couple returned to their $55 a month cottage with a two-horse stable and a chicken coop then Andrea sued her father for her rightful share of her mother’s estate.
August 1940. Father and daughter reconciled.
April 1943.
April 1943.Despite their publicized differences, Andrea inherited one-third of her father’s $10 million estate, albeit not until 1951.
July 1945 & June 1947. Within a two-year period, Andrea divorced-married-divorced.

Traditions die hard

In July 1947 Luckenbach married Frederick Hammer at her brother’s ranch near Seattle. At the time Hammer was identified as a “Long Island and Palm Beach horseman.” Several years later, court documents indicate that rather than a “horseman” he worked as a seasonal starter at Hialeah where apparently the couple met. In a two-page affidavit filed in May 1929, Andrea Luckenbach stated she was beaten by Hammer with “his fists and a flashlight” and “was kept prisoner on her yacht for eight days.” Having escaped from the yacht in Daytona, Luckenbach returned to Palm Beach where she was hospitalized. Held in a jail cell in Deland, Florida, Hammer claimed the couple had “a mild argument over their racehorses.” Freed on $2,000 bail, Hammer claimed they were “completely in love” while he was booked for aggravated assault. The following month, the couple were reported to have reconciled and charges were dropped in May 1950.

May 1949.
May 1949.
May 1949.
May 1949.
May 1949. After paying $111.88 in court costs, the charges were dismissed and the couple reportedly went on their second honeymoon

A Man’s World

By 1953, the couple had been separated for more than a year and Andrea made plans to divorce her third husband. In June, Hammer followed Luckenbach to a Lexington hotel where she was staying overseeing her stable of thoroughbreds. When Hammer appeared inside her room with a gun and a knife, Andrea fled. Hammer was arrested for carrying a concealed deadly weapon and brandishing a deadly weapon, posting a $2,000 “peace bond.” Described then as “ a former race track employee,” Luckenbach claimed her husband “hounded her around the country.” Hammer told the judge that Luckenbach was “a very original babe” who became scared when “he opened his suitcase and saw a gun and a fishing knife fall out.” He denied threatening her. “I hate to say it but she drinks too much,” Hammer told the judge. In May 1954, Andrea Luckenbach filed for divorce in Kentucky and Florida.

L to R.: June 1953.; June 1954.

The Final Assault

On June 28, 1954, at Delaware Park in Wilmington, Delaware, Hammer approached his estranged wife while she was having lunch with friends at the race track clubhouse. When Hammer made “threatening words and gestures,” Luckenbach retreated to the paddock. Moments later, shots rang out and Andrea Luckenbach was on the ground having been hit four times. Her trainer and horse were also grazed by bullets. “I don’t know what got into me …When I saw a horse that I raised, something went haywire. I decided to shoot because I was determined the horse wasn’t going to run for anyone but me …” With Luckenbach in the hospital, Hammer now faced charges.

A month after Luckenbach left the hospital, Hammer was sentenced to five years at a workhouse and a $1,000 fine. Hammer’s lawyer argued extenuating circumstances as Hammer was “ a poor boy” until his marriage when his wife “lavished riches upon him before she left him.” In September Luckenbach was granted a divorce. The following month the judge reduced the previous five-year sentence to six-months. At sentencing, the judge addressed Hammer: “You are the victim of circumstances. But some of these circumstances were brought on by yourself and others were brought on by others …”

June 1954.
June 29, 1954.
July 1954. A New York columnist reported: “Andrea Luckenbach had told cops about her husband’s threats but they couldn’t do anything.”
July 1954.
August 1954.
September 1954.
October 1954.
October 1954. Three weeks after his conviction
June 1955. A reversal of fortune … “there would be little left after the borrowings of heirs and heavy legal fees are deducted.”
While Andrea Luckenbach endured complications from her wounds, Hammer returned to Palm Beach. In June 1958, he was reported a coach and director of the summer junior program at the Palm Beach Tennis Club’s Seaview courts. As her health declined, Andrea Luckenbach lived on borrowed funds, pleading poverty in court records during the summer of 1961. As Hammer resumed a social profile at Palm Beach. Andrea Luckenbach died at the age of 41 at her Key Biscayne home on April 1,1962.
April 1962.

Sources: AP & UPI wire services, The Palm Beach Post, Palm Beach Daily News, The Miami News, Baltimore Sun, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Daily News – New York, The Tampa Times, The Tampa Tribune

Augustus Mayhew is the author of Palm Beach-A Greater Grandeur

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