‘I came across a book about the Lindbergh case and devoured it,” claims playwright William Cameron, whose “Violet Sharp,” a dramatic interpretation of events in the real life Lindbergh drama, opens this Friday, May 24, at Off-Broadstreet Theater in Hopewell. That’s the town where the “crime that won’t go away” took place 81 years ago and returns for a four-week stay.
Cameron, however, should really say that the events connected to the infamous 1932 kidnapping of the son of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh nearly devoured him and only set him free after he agreed to tell what he knew in a stage work.
“I am a crime buff. I have been fascinated with the Lindbergh case for years,” confesses Cameron in a telephone interview from his office at Jefferson and Washington College in Washington, PA, where he teaches theater.
“I stated getting interested in my late 20s or 30s, and I read about it in Jim Fisher’s ‘The Lindbergh Case’ in 1995 or 1996. I was 40 then and started to plan to write about Fisher’s book. And then I found Violet Sharp.”
Cameron explains that Sharp was a well liked, 27-year-old, British-born maid at the Englewood, New Jersey, home of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s parents Mr. and Mrs. Dwight Morrow. Morrow was a successful American businessman and United States ambassador to Mexico. At the time Charles and Anne Lindbergh were moving into their newly built home on Stoutsberg-Worstville Road (now Lindbergh Road) in Hopewell. “When the kidnapping happened, the police questioned the servants of both the Morrows and Lindberghs. When Violet Sharp was interviewed, she was jumpy. When they asked her where she was she said she was at a movie but couldn’t remember anything about it,” he says.
While Cameron is unclear where the police interview actually happened — it was either in Hopewell or Englewood — he says, “I put her in Hopewell because it worked better.”
Yet no matter the place, Sharp’s nervousness during the questioning piqued police interest. “They brought her back in, and she confessed that she lied the first time. She had not gone to the movies; she went to a speakeasy, the Peanut Grill in one of the Oranges. She confessed that she lied, but she didn’t explain why,” says Cameron.
After the body of the Lindbergh boy was found on Rose Mount-Hopewell Road, the police ordered Sharp back for another integration, this time with the politically connected Jersey City Police Inspector Harry Walsh (involved as a direct request from New Jersey governor Harry Moore), New Jersey State Police Chief Norman Schwarzkopf, and the famed aviator himself. That was on May 23, 1931, a timely coincidence to the play’s opening.
“There are a lot of people today who think that Violet was involved with the kidnapping,” Cameron says. “The Lindberghs had not fully moved into the Hopewell house, and they would stay the weekend and go back to Englewood. They normally go home on Mondays, but the baby was sick — had a cold — and they called his nursemaid, Betty Gow, who came to Hopewell and spent the day with Mrs. Lindbergh.” After the mother and nursemaid put the baby to bed and went downstairs, the child disappeared.
“How did the kidnapers know that the Lindberghs were there on a Tuesday night?” asks Cameron, repeating the question that brought suspicion onto the servants. “There was a lot of belief that there was an inside source. At first (the investigators) thought it was Betty Gow, who was questioned heavily, but she was cleared. Then there was Violet Sharp, who was close to Gow and had information,” says Cameron.
While the playwright admits that Sharp’s behavior during the first two interviews gave the appearance that she was hiding something and was potentially involved with the crime, he does not believe she had anything to do with the kidnapping. “I wrote the play in an attempt to offer an alternative view to (what was believed) and tell her story. I have the transcripts from the police. I have her journal that she kept, but it didn’t have much about her life. She wrote poems and some naughty and risque stories that she may have created or heard. What was interesting was her poems about her life as a servant and her dreams of marrying into wealth, schoolgirl kind of stuff.”
Saying that he could not get enough of Violet Sharp’s story, Cameron dug into reading and researching. “I’ve been to the house where the kidnapping took place and to the home of the Morrows in Englewood, I’ve been to Violet Sharp’s’ grave in Englewood, near the grave of Dwight Morrow.”
In addition to talking to one of Lindbergh’s granddaughters, Cameron also spent considerable time at the New Jersey State Police Museum in Ewing. “They have all the archives related to the Lindbergh case, and curator Mark Falzini was a great resource. I told him I wanted to come and wanted info about Sharp and he would have everything ready, books, journal, and transcripts.” Falzini, by the way, is also a co-author of the recently published Arcadia book “New Jersey’s Lindbergh Kidnapping and Trial” (U.S. 1, November 21, 2012). Cameron says that additional help came from Lindbergh case expert and author Fisher. “He lives not too far and we’ve gotten together. I have been lucky to have some first class resources at my availability.”
While the play is fact laden, Cameron says the play merely uses the details regarding a small character in the proceedings as an entrance into the huge event. “The play doesn’t really deal with (accused kidnapper Bruno) Hauptman. It is not an attempt to write the Lindbergh case. It is speculation to a certain point,” the playwright says. “I’ve taken liberties, of course. It’s based on research, but it is just an attempt to explain what happened. I am not making it a statement of history. I have given myself a lot of poetic license and been faithful to the facts. There’s something that I find really interesting about these shadow figures who are not the main figures in the story.
“It’s a fascinating story,” he says. One that after years in his head finally got put on the page, sent to a competition, received the Julie Harris Playwriting Prize in 2007, and then saw productions in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh, where Cameron also directed the work. The play was recently contracted by Samuel French Play Publishing, which granted performance rights to Off-Broadstreet. “The way that I found out about the production is that a friend of mine told me that he was going to be in it,” says Cameron, referring to fellow Ithaca College classmate and Trenton resident Jerry Smith.
Cameron was raised and lives in Washington, PA, a small town outside of Pittsburgh, where he has also taught at Washington and Jefferson for 26 years. While his family owned the Cameron Coca-Cola Bottling Company, one of largest such companies in the country, the writer had a thirst for something else. “When I was in high school, I got involved with a community theater. I loved it, so I took (theater) classes. Then I went to college to study seriously. I went to Ithaca and got a BFA and bounced around spent some time in LA and New York and tried to make money. Then I got an MFA at Penn State and started teaching at Washington and Jefferson. I worked professionally as an actor, did theaters in Pittsburgh, was a day player in film work, showed up in small parts in a couple of movies, but mostly I was teaching, directing, and writing.” He also married his fellow Penn State graduate, artist and actress Susan Martinelli. They have a 23-year-old artist son, Max.
Cameron chuckles when he remembers his parents’ anxiety about his decision to study theater and says, “As any family would be, they were nervous about me going into some unsteady line of work, but they were very supportive. My parents have seen just about everything that I have done. They’ve come to readings of ‘Violet Sharp’ and saw the productions. I have four brothers and a sister, and they have been wonderful.” He adds that the family sold the bottling company about 15 years ago.
While the writing of a play takes dedication, an interest in the Lindbergh case takes a life of its own. “For those of us who are obsessed, and it is an obsession, you can go online and there are discussion boards and there are fights that people have and rivalries with different contingencies. There are people who are ‘VJ’ who think the verdict was justified and others who think Hauptman was railroaded. I was talking to a friend who has an obsession about the Lizzie Borden case and who does the same thing. Then you have the Kennedy and King assassinations. You get these subcultures around the crime. It’s like a giant puzzle that exists. Here are all the pieces of what we know. Then there are pieces that are missing, and we’re trying to fill in them, which is what I am doing with ‘Violet Sharp.’ It is a really fascinating intellectual exercise.”
Cameron says that the Lindbergh case has other dimensions that intrigue, things more than the stoic yet flawed hero who professed admiration of the Nazis, supported eugenics, and was later found to have fathered three children from two German mistresses who were sisters. “You have the heartbreaking tale of the small child who was murdered and his mother who had to live with it. That makes it particularly heartbreaking. That’s what keeps me fascinated.”
As for what really happened at the Hopewell home many years ago, Cameron says, “I am pretty convinced that Hauptman did it, but I am not convinced that he acted alone. I don’t have a theory about what really happened. I think the evidence against him is pretty compelling. There’s the ladder that has wood from his attic and his handwriting on the letter. He had ransom money hidden away in his home. He went to great length to hide it and had $14,000 of the $50,000. So I just think that it’s pretty solid evidence. I am inclined to believe that Hauptman is a kidnaper, but if he was the only one, I do not know.”
While Cameron is unsure about the role of an accomplice, he is sure about his own role in the case. “I try to make drama and try to make it a good play,” he says. In order to do so, he hones in on nobler aspects of Charles Lindbergh’s character and his willingness to support people he has learned to trust. That gives the play internal and emotional conflicts that resonates and engages beyond the mystery. Cameron says that despite the appearance of Sharp’s suspicious behavior, Lindbergh, who has just lost a child and is the center of national attention, becomes an advocate for the woman. “There was a kind of fierce anxiety about capturing this kidnaper. (The police) definitely wanted to find the culprits. And there was a shadow of suspicion that fell on Violet because she lied the first time. So (the police) were doing their jobs. There were perfectly good reasons to suspect her. But without the evidence of any other suspects, and they pursued her too rigorously. That is what the play is about.”
Violet Sharp, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Opens Friday, May 24, and runs weekends through Sunday, June 22. Friday and Saturday evenings, 7 p.m. dessert and 8 p.m. performances. Sunday afternoons, 1:30 p.m. dessert and 2:30 p.m. performances. $27.00 – $31.50. 609-466-2766 or www.off-broadstreet.com.
More Lindbergh: Lloyd C. Gardner, professor of history at Rutgers University and author of the Lindbergh-related book “The Case That Never Dies,” will present a series of lectures on the kidnapping and the case on Wednesdays, July 10, 17, and 24, at 1 p.m. at the West Windsor Senior Citizen Center, 271 Clarksville Road, Princeton Junction, $15. For more details, call 609-799-9068.