Aunt Marge’s Fifteen Minutes

by Tom Ashley

Music often played in the background at Aunt Marge’s beautiful home on the shores of the Saginaw River.  She was dressed for  a party by 7 a.m. and went  through three or four clothing changes by the end of the day. Whether you knew Aunt Marge for fifteen minutes or as a regular visitor such as myself, you would discover that she was a former “Miss Saginaw,” homecoming queen and a majorette of the University of Michigan Wolverines. With an avid devotion to the media arts, she served the Michigan television community as the host of “Marge’s Forecast,” a quasi weather person cum fortuneteller. “Oh, I had many offers to go to New York , but my love for your Uncle Billy couldn’t allow me to even consider that,” she’d often tell me.

The house was called “The Birthday Cake” because of its striking turrets, latticed porches, elaborate flower boxes and a dozen gas lamps bathing the three story mansion in a perpetual glow each night.  Elegant fifty foot-silver birches encased it.

Saginaw, Michigan, is one of those cities that dropped off the radar fifty years ago. For the prior century, Saginaw was the furniture capitol of the country.  At the turn of the twentieth century, huge factories were built to supply parts to the “Big Three” – General Motors, Ford and Chrysler — and vast fortunes were made..

Aunt Marge’s husband, my Uncle Billy Davis, had been  successful in highway construction and had bought “The Birthday Cake” for a song in the early 1960s when that style of house, along with Saginaw itself, was distinctly out of fashion. The home had been in a bit of disrepair upon purchase, and Uncle Billy’s fatal heart attack less than a year later did not bode well for its future. With four children under eighteen, Marge’s inheritance quickly dissipated, and repairing the place to its original glory never occurred. As the grown children departed, we thought Aunt Marge would sell the grand pile which I swear was beginning to tilt, but Aunt Marge was determined to stay. She had the house converted into three separate flats in order to make do. She retained the grand parlor floor and operated as a landlady-psychologist-traffic controller of this new venture. The top floor was occupied by a young couple with a preschool child. They were great tenants, infusing an energy, which had left when her last son headed off to college.

The middle floor was occupied by a bachelor, Carlton Smythe. He was a talented musician who could play the clarinet, guitar or piano for hours on end. He was strikingly handsome, albeit reserved. I had visited Aunt Marge many times and thrilled to hear the music coming from his flat, but had yet to meet Carlton. Then, perhaps three years later, he appeared at one of Aunt Marge’s intimate dinner parties. He was resplendent in a J. Press blazer, Hermes tie and a crested gold signet ring. For more than two hours he sat opposite me and although talking his fair share, I had never learned so little about an individual. He said he was raised in Portland, Oregon and made his living from music publishing and occasionally performing with society bands. He preferred a conversation he could pick about some obscure locale and go into an esoteric  commentary. – “Have you ever been to Helsinki in the fall when the Veeteen Festival’s in full swing and global decision makers are in town?”  I had no idea what he was talking about. In retrospect, why would you choose down and out Saginaw to live in, you…you strange man of the world?     Later, it seemed odd one afternoon when I went to fetch Aunt Marge’s mail for her that there were a half dozen newspapers for Carlton from Palm Beach to San Francisco. There were magazines such as Town and Country and Tattler, yet quizzing Aunt Marge got me nowhere. She explained that Carlton disappeared for long weekends, going ‘somewhere.’ ”Somewhere?”

Time passed and we all moved on. I was living in Los Angeles when I received the call. It was my Mom. “Are you sitting down? Watch Walter Cronkite! They’re doing a big story on Carlton Smythe, who’s no ‘Carlton Smythe’! His real name is Roger Caruso, and he’s a jewel thief who’s been operating for two decades, preying off debutante balls and other charity galas! The FBI had known about him but never had a positive resolution of who or where he was.”   Mom went on and on.  I turned on the TV and saw Carlton ahh – Roger –being led down Aunt Marge’s front steps in hand cuffs with his head hung low and no longer looking elegant and self-assured.

Next followed a young Leslie Stahl interviewing Aunt Marge, reminiscent of Gloria Swanson ready for her close-up and rambling on about how sweet ‘Carlton’ always was, but she had “always suspected something.” Really?

The old birthday cake revealed many secrets.  Jewelry was found hidden under the  floorboards. Cash, precious metals and stones were buried in the back garden. He had always played in some small society bands and more often than not, when discovering where big and important parties and weddings were being held, he would dress in a tuxedo like all the other penguins. That’s where he did most of his handiwork. Upon easy entrance, he cased the locale, noting the bejeweled women, their state of inebriation and the resting places for their handbags. More importantly, if the event was in a private residence, he’d wander around to spot rooms that weren’t in use but housed precious objets d’art. His musical cases were all fitted out with false bottoms to cart the ill-gotten gains off the premises. In those pre-security camera days, Carlton, when not playing music, could easily fit into a crowd of “gentlemen” wearing tuxedos, three-piece suits or resort-garb.

Carlton/Roger had a wife and two daughters living in San Diego, whom he had deserted 17 years earlier.  Surprisingly, he had sent money orders to them from all over the country.

Carlton readily confessed to his indiscretions, pleading his way down to an eight-year prison sentence, combined with the commitment to serve the government as a crime consultant upon release. Oh…and Aunt Marge, you ask? She certainly became an overnight celebrity. Her fifteen minutes of fame actually lasted for several months as the parade of news gatherers from around the globe poured in to put their own twists to this bizarre story. She spruced up his flat and charged $500 a night with a two-day minimum for the thrill of sleeping there.

The interviews she gave were hilarious and highly anticipated affairs. We never knew which Aunt Marge would show up: would it be the homecoming queen, the groundbreaking TV journalist or another complete surprise? But in one area where there was no wavering was her “high suspicion of Carlton.” “High suspicion”! For fifteen years?

I went to Aunt Marge’s funeral twenty years ago. Her wishes had specifically been that most of the photos on display be  of her interviews with Harry Reasoner, John Chancellor, Hugh Downs, Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, … the list goes on. Of course there were photos of herself and Carlton/Roger in  her rogues gallery.  Eccentricity, highly valued by my family, was a hallmark of Aunt Marge, and although there was no need to enhance her notoriety, she thought these photos  would help her go out on a grand stage, with the Birthday Cake as backdrop.

Taking many study groups over the years at the IRP has been a growing and stimulating process.  In college, I dreaded my writing courses.  I LOVE them now.