Lou Henry Hoover and the “Mad Sculptor”

Sculptor Robert Irwin.

One of the most sensational New York City murders of 1937 involved artist, Robert Irwin, who brutally murdered three people on Easter Sunday. Nicknamed the “mad sculptor” by the newspapers, Irwin briefly boarded with Mary Gedeon and her two daughters, Veronica and Ethel at their Beekman Place apartment. Veronica was a model who posed for artists and crime magazines. Irwin became obsessed with Ethel, a twenty-year-old who expressed no romantic interest in Irwin. In a bizarre thought process, Irwin turned from thoughts of suicide to decapitating Ethel and sculpting her death mask. Not finding Ethel at home, Irwin strangled Mary and Veronica Gedeon and stabbed boarder Frank Byrnes to death in his sleep. Initially, the key suspects were Joseph Gedeon, Veronica’s father and her ex-husband Bobby. Veronica wrote in her diary that she often feared Bobby’s aggressive behavior. Police found an elaborate sculpture of soap at the crime scene and later realized that the name Bobby could also refer to the sculptor Robert Irwin.

Harold Schechter in his book The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, the Model, and the Murder

Bust of Herbert Hoover sculpted by Robert Irwin.

that Shook the Nation talks about an endorsement given by Lou Hoover to an early bust Irwin crafted of Herbert Hoover. A look at Lou’s correspondence reveals that the endorsement came after a solicitation by Samuel Wardlaw, special investigator for the Los Angeles public library. Wardlaw presented his request in a letter dated July 31, 1929:

“I am enclosing a photograph of a bust of the President made by Robert Irwin a nineteen year old youth.

Robert, through unfortunate circumstances, spent some years in a state institution for boys and his talent was not discovered until after his release. Without any instruction whatever, he made the bust and the attention of Laredo Taft, the sculptor, was called to it. Mr. Taft now has the boy and is teaching him. A short note from you would greatly encourage this boy whom authorities feel has a great deal of talent.”

Wardlaw also included Robert Irwin’s letter to himself. Undoubtedly, Wardlaw counted on Lou being moved by the young man’s plight and by Irwin’s petition that “If she was to write me a letter it would sure boost my stock with Mr. Taft.”

Responding six days later, Lou wrote separate letters to both Wardlaw and to Irwin. To Wardlaw she penned:

“How generous of you to take such a personal interest in Robert Irwin about whom you write in your letter of July 31st. Indeed I shall be pleased to write him a note and because there is no address other than Chicago, I am enclosing it in the hope that you will forward it to him.
Trusting that you will be justified in your faith in Robert, I am…”

Irwin’s letter was also upbeat:

“Mr. Wardlaw has been kind enough to send to me a picture of the bust which you did of my husband, and I want to commend you for the high order of your work.
You are indeed fortunate to have been recognized by such a man as Mr. Taft and I hope that you will work long and hard and some day be a great sculptor.”

Perhaps Lou sensed she had made a serious mistake when she received Irwin’s response to her encouragement. Dated August 19, 1929 on “The Midway Studios of Chicago” letterhead, Irwin wrote:

“I have just received thru Mr. Wardlaw your kind letter of Aug. 6, and I want to thank you and to assure you that it will always be kept among my most treasured possessions. When I showed it to Mr. Taft he seemed very well pleased and he congratulated me warmly.
I made this bust in Los Angeles more than a year ago and I believe it has been destroyed. But I would like very much to make another bust of President Hoover and give it to you as a present if you would care to pay the cost of the bronze casting. Mr. Taft’s secretary told me this would amount to two hundred dollars. I would not ask you to pay for the casting but I haven’t the money myself. I can make it entirely from picture as I made the other one.
It would certainly be a wonderful thing for me if you should let me do this. I hope you give the matter some consideration.
I am sending you a few pictures of my work.
Hoping to hear from you.”

The selection of enclosed photographs included busts of Attila the Hun, Napoleon, Benito Mussolini, and Thomas A. Edison. This cast of characters would give anyone pause.

Irwin escaped the electric chair for a life sentence because of the skillful arguments made by his attorney, Samuel Leibowitz. Ironically, the actor Kirk Douglas befriended the “mad sculptor” while they attended St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, and used Irwin as the model for his portrayal of Vincent van Gogh in the film Lust for Life.

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