“What Can I Tell You?”

My attorney father divulged little about his childhood in Hungary, the Holocaust, or the other forces that shaped him. When he died, my search for answers took me to unlikely sources, including two elderly clients of his known as the Black Widow Killers
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It began to unravel around midnight on June 21, 2005, when a homeless man named Kenneth McDavid was found dead in an alley behind a Bristol Farms in Westwood. There was blood near his head, and a medical examiner would later say the 50-year-old had died of crush injuries, including lacerations to his spinal cord and scalp, three broken ribs, and a fractured pelvis. A toxicology exam found enough prescription sedatives in his system to induce drowsiness if not sleep. Apparently he’d been the victim of a hit-and-run.

An ID card in McDavid’s pocket led authorities to an apartment building on Cherokee Avenue in Hollywood. The manager of the complex said McDavid had lived there for a few years but had recently moved out. She also told investigators that his rent was paid by a Santa Monica woman named Helen Golay—the same person who had signed his lease.

Notified of his death, Golay, 74, said she was McDavid’s cousin and sole next of kin. She identified his body at the morgue and paid for him to be cremated.

At the LAPD’s West Traffic Division, the fatality remained unsolved for months. Then Ed Webster showed up to get a copy of the incident report. Webster was an investigator for Mutual of New York, which had issued a $500,000 life insurance policy to McDavid. Webster said he’d been calling the beneficiaries who had just filed the claim—Golay and another woman, 72-year-old Olga Rutterschmidt—but hadn’t heard back. The policy Webster was investigating wasn’t the only one in McDavid’s name. A second soon surfaced, also worth $500,000, again with Rutterschmidt and Golay as beneficiaries. That the insured was apparently homeless was one of several red flags. Another one: Despite Golay’s claim that she was McDavid’s cousin, the policies didn’t mention they were related. Instead the forms indicated that Golay and Rutterschmidt were investment partners in McDavid’s screenwriting career.

Webster shared his findings with Dennis Kilcoyne, a veteran detective in the Robbery-Homicide Division. Kilcoyne was bemused at first. The suspects—two septuagenarians—hardly sounded like menaces to society. But he grew more interested when a colleague in the West Traffic Division recalled working a similar case in Hollywood back in 1999: Paul Vados, a seemingly homeless guy killed by a hit-and-run driver in an alley and loaded with life insurance policies. Vados had been a 73-year-old Hungarian immigrant, a widower and alcoholic who lived alone in Koreatown. Pulling his case file, detectives saw that Golay and Rutterschmidt had come forward to report Vados missing, too, before claiming his body as next of kin.

The nearly yearlong investigation that followed came to include the FBI, the California Department of Insurance, and the U.S. Attorney’s office. On May 18, 2006, Golay and Rutterschmidt were arrested on charges of felony mail fraud and suspicion of murder. They were soon being referred to as the “Black Widows” in the Los Angeles Times, the paper where I worked, but I was about to learn that wasn’t my only connection to the women: My father had been their lawyer.

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A plaintiff’s attorney specializing in personal injury, my father died of prostate cancer in 2004, at 77. He had been dead for two years when I received a call from Therese Baucher, his longtime legal secretary, alerting me that those suddenly notorious elderly women had been his clients. As we spoke, a pair of heavy boxes labeled “Monumental Life v. Olga Rutterschmidt, et al” were collecting dust in my garage.

His work had never interested me much, but still I hadn’t had the heart to destroy the files. The part of my father I’d long wondered about was his childhood in Miskolc, Hungary. He was 20 when he immigrated to the United States in 1946. By the time my brother, sister, and I came along, he’d fully assimilated and lost his accent. Where the Holocaust was concerned, he was the opposite of expansive. Even now I can hear him insisting he’d only been in a forced labor camp in the Hungarian countryside, not at Auschwitz. One day he volunteered for a work detail. While he was gone, his entire camp was shot dead. He went into hiding, and when the war ended, he learned that most of his extended family had also been killed. But that was as much as he’d say. Like many survivors, he was determined to leave that part of his life behind.

An undated photo of George Brownfiled, the author's father
An undated photo of George Brownfiled, the author’s father

Photograph courtesy Paul Brownfield

George Brownfield (he’d changed his name from Einhorn) was five feet seven, with a boyish face, thinning hair, and concave shoulders. He hummed a lot. He had found his place, the Beverly Hills of the 1960s and ’70s. We had boatwide Cadillacs, an English Tudor five-bedroom house with a pool. On Saturdays he swam laps, played afternoon tennis, and smoked a single cigar all day long until it was a nub. Despite what he’d gone through, he seemed a happier person than my mother—a native Angeleno—and, for that matter, my siblings and me. The ruined world of his past was utterly at odds with the everyday evidence of him. He spent well and socialized easily, memorizing the routines of the postwar-generation American comedians with an ingrained sense of timing.

The exception to all this buoyant assimilation was his law practice: Osh-man, Brownfield & Smith. There, in a building near MacArthur Park, he served a steady Hungarian client base. If his biggest victories over the years came from wrongful death and termination suits, the foundation of his business remained these fellow émigrés—their misadventures while driving and subsequent go-rounds with insurers.

This was how Olga Rutterschmidt found him. Born Olga Papp in Budapest, she had left Hungary in her early twenties, during the country’s failed bloody 1956 anti-Communist revolution. My father’s secretary told me that Rutterschmidt was a classic nuisance client who showed up every few years with another personal injury claim from an auto collision or fall. In 2000, though, she came to my father with a different sort of case. She said her cousin, Paul Vados, had been run over in an alley off La Brea, his body found after a night of heavy rain. Vados weighed around 130 pounds and was missing most of his teeth. He was a “retired electrical technician” living on Social Security and a meager pension, according to records of the case. Rutterschmidt said she used to check in on him, driving Vados to AA meetings, and that she’d also introduced him to Helen Golay, a friend she’d met at the gym. Golay was not Hungarian. She was a twice-divorced native Texan who claimed Vados was going to marry her. To repay them for their kindnesses, the women said, he had named them as co-beneficiaries on an insurance policy issued by Monumental Life. Now that Vados was dead, they were due the payout, which came to nearly $200,000. Monumental and another insurer, Guarantee Reserve Life, were disputing that on the grounds that Vados’s death was potentially a homicide and the women had yet to be ruled out as suspects.

With Rutterschmidt and Golay now behind bars, I found myself digging with a strange kind of fervor into those dusty boxes I’d saved. My father had never told me about the Vados case, but then, he hadn’t told me lots of things. For the last years of his life, he’d sort of disappeared on my siblings and me, rediscovering his Hungarian roots. It was as if he’d changed identities—reinvesting in the one he had not allowed us to know. In the wake of his death, I was still puzzling out who my father had been. At the very least the Black Widows were identity thieves, and the files were as good a place as any to look for him.

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Each in our own way, my siblings and I had been oversubscribed to my mother, Leila, orbiting around her anxieties and approval. For much of 1996, the year she would die of breast cancer, I’d remained in denial about the severity of her illness, watching from the safer distance of a newspaper job in South Carolina. When she went into a coma, I finally flew home, though not in time to speak to her. It reassured me to hear that before my mother lost consciousness, she had asked everyone gathered around her bed to leave: They were hovering, and it was scaring her.

Less than a year later I moved home to live with my father. I was 32, he was 71, and mostly we got on well. Up close my father’s grief didn’t look like grief, exactly. I introduced my dates to him, and he proudly clipped the articles I was freelancing for the Times. I remember thinking it was a great year, even as I hoped in vain that he would open up about his past.

Helen Golay (left) and Olga Rutterschmidt are believed to have recruited their homeless victims at First Presbyterian Church in Hollywood.
Helen Golay (left) and Olga Rutterschmidt are believed to have recruited their homeless victims at First Presbyterian Church in Hollywood.

Then we met Adelle, the name I’ll use for his second wife. My father broke the news of his impending wedding at Nibblers, the pleather-boothed coffee shop at Wilshire and San Vicente. It was the night of Thanksgiving. My father ate flannel cakes (his favorite) and mentioned in an offhand way that he was selling the house. Apparently I was moving out. I remember feeling confused. I thought we were happy, he and I, and anyway, how had I missed these developments?

Adelle, too, was Hungarian. She had survived the last year of the war in a building designated as a Swiss protectorate in Budapest. She was well groomed, blond, and given to operatic tones when you asked her a basic question, her accent thick, her voice quavering on the edge of deep feeling. She was, in short, nothing like my mother.

Raised in the West Adams area, my mother was married to my father for 35 years. That entire time she clashed with her mother-in-law. Grandma Lilly lived in attention-must-be-paid repose at the Wilshire Holmby, her condo appointed with vintage Biedermeier furniture, Oriental rugs, and objets d’art from the popular Hungarian ceramics company Zsolnay. She was a small woman who dressed as if going out for tea even though her crippling arthritis meant she didn’t leave home much. It was said that when my parents began dating, Grandma Lilly dismissed my mother as “just a schoolteacher.” This was, I grew up hearing, the Hungarian way: high-handed, self-regarding, brusque. Around Grandma Lilly, my mother was all tight smiles and shallow breathing.

Adelle was more modern than my grandmother, but also not really. Still, she and my father appeared to be absorbed in each other—a closed circle. My siblings and I were single and childless then; theirs would be our first wedding. But how could we begrudge them? My father was living with prostate cancer, caressed and cooed over by a fellow Holocaust survivor. During dinners at their Westside condo, we, the adult children, became the shallow breathers, sitting on white furniture in the white-carpeted living room that featured many mirrors, Zsolnay displays, and for some reason, two life-size ceramic dalmatians. Often we were joined by their Hungarian friends. I was on staff at the Times by then, and one night the conversation turned to the paper’s articles about gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger’s alleged history of groping women. The Hungarians didn’t see what the fuss was about. “He is a peasant,” Adelle said, referring to Schwarzenegger’s rural Austrian lineage. “Peasants grope.”

Four years into their marriage, my father died. Adelle would not give us any of his ashes to put with our mother’s. Instead they were lowered into the ground at Eden Memorial Park, off the 405 in Mission Hills, where he and Adelle had bought side-by-side plots and a bench inscribed with their names. My father might have told us of these plans, but he didn’t. He didn’t discuss his will, either, which was contradictory and, intentionally or not, included a loophole that enabled Adelle to take all of a roughly $600,000 pension trust.

We hired a lawyer, and Adelle agreed to release a fraction of the fund to us. At that point I had landed a “dream gig” as the television critic at the Los Angeles Times, a consuming job that I hoped would distract me from my father’s death and this postmortem drama with Adelle. It didn’t, entirely. As dictated by the settlement, I went to the condo and took digital photographs of various items of value that Adelle was allowed to keep but not sell. She insisted that I not touch anything. As I snapped photos of the piano my parents had played and the art they had collected, Adelle stood behind me, like a curator at a museum.

My anger at her, I kept telling myself, was misplaced. I was still telling myself this in the spring of 2006, when my father’s secretary called, and I started pulling random documents out of those boxes. Over and over, I read Vados’s autopsy report and my father’s demands that insurers provide evidence of an ongoing homicide investigation; otherwise, they were acting in bad faith, he argued. Legal pads were filled with his illegible scrawl. “Call Olga,” it said atop one.

More than Golay, Rutterschmidt interested me, being not only Hungarian but, by all accounts, a grandiose liar and antic figure. Even after that case was settled—each of the women collected around $60,000—she’d haggled with my father over her share. He seemed fed up. “I am now at a point,” he wrote Rutterschmidt in 2001, “where I am starting to spend far in excess of the one hour I billed the two of you for closing the matter, again only because of having to satisfy your questions and opinions.” In this way, he spoke to me. The boxes were how I backtracked into grief.

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Over the course of seven years, Olga Rutterschmidt and Helen Golay took out 20 life insurance policies on Vados and McDavid, netting nearly $3 million in claims. Rutterschmidt had rubber stamps made of the men’s signatures to use on forms. The women were savvy, shopping for lower-cost insurance whose paperwork was handled solely over the phone or by mail. Premium payments sometimes came via electronic withdrawals from checking accounts in the men’s names. With all the policies, 24 months had to pass before the coverage became virtually incontestable. In essence, authorities said, these deadlines became expiration dates on the men’s lives.

Though Golay and Rutterschmidt worked as a team, there was evidence that each was not always aware of the other’s activity. Of the 13 policies on McDavid, for example, Golay was sole beneficiary on 8. Sometimes they tried to remove each other as co-beneficiaries. Regardless, insurers sold policy after policy—and paid up, as often as not. “You made a wise decision in applying for this insurance,” Guarantee Reserve Life wrote to Vados in 1999, at Golay’s address.

The author’s parents, Leila and George Brownfield, on their wedding day, September 17, 1961.
The author’s parents, Leila and George Brownfield, on their wedding day, September 17, 1961.

Photograph courtesy Paul Brownfield

She was easy to spot when Dennis Kilcoyne assigned undercover detectives to follow the women in late 2005. Golay favored pencil skirts, black stockings, and heels and usually teased her hair into a bouffant. She drove a Mercedes SUV. She spent a lot of time at Izzy’s, a Santa Monica deli near her home on Ocean Park Boulevard, setting herself up in a booth to do her bookkeeping. Among the various properties she owned were parcels of land in Playa del Rey that she’d acquired after working for years with a developer named Artie Aaron, who died in 1999. Kilcoyne told me there were suspicions about how Golay came to possess the deeds to some of Aaron’s properties. Though Golay had three grown children, she appeared to maintain a relationship with only her youngest daughter, Kecia (she declined to be interviewed for this story). Golay once sued Kecia and a boyfriend, alleging an assault, and Kecia had a petty theft conviction, among other arrests. Nonetheless, Kecia showed up as her mother’s contingent beneficiary on insurance policies.

Across town Rutterschmidt lived in a one-bedroom apartment on Sycamore Avenue near Franklin. She spoke in preoccupied monologues that, coupled with her Hungarian accent, tended to put people off. Interested in chess and classical music, she kept remarkably fit. Officers who tailed Rutterschmidt found themselves hiking Runyon Canyon and walking briskly at the beach. They also learned that she stole her neighbors’ mail.

Her rent was low—around $200 a month—because she claimed a mental disability that enabled her to qualify for Section 8 housing grants, several of her friends told me. She liked to talk about what had caused that disability, too: In the winter of 1944, when Russian and Allied planes were attacking Budapest to rout German forces, a bomb hit her family’s apartment building, burying Olga—then 11 or 12—in rubble, she said. Rutterschmidt had been a gifted pianist, but the explosion left one of her hands permanently disfigured. She had received electroconvulsive treatments. She claimed to have suffered brain trauma; the phrase “severe shock” was used repeatedly in the personal injury lawsuits she filed.

In the winter of ’44, in a different Budapest district, the young man who would years later help her file some of those lawsuits was in hiding behind the walls of a former glass factory. Carl Lutz, a lifesaving Swiss diplomat, had turned the building into a redoubt issuing Schutzbriefe—letters of protection from a neutral government. Such documents didn’t necessarily guarantee safety for families (roving Hungarian Arrow Cross gangs were murdering Jews regularly), but my father became part of a network of runners linking “the glass house” and the capital’s terrorized Jewish populace. Between June and July of that year alone, more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz.

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When I was growing up, among my father’s favorite phrases were “What can I tell you?” and its alternate, “That’s about all I can tell you.” My mother would complain about his weird equanimity. She enlisted outside assistance in the form of a tall, bearded, and soft-spoken psychologist who was known in our home by his last name: Strickler. Strickler told me that my “separation anxiety” (I sometimes paged my parents in restaurants, asking them to come home) was not uncommon in children of Holocaust survivors. The survivor himself was the only family member who didn’t go to therapy.

Beyond scrambled eggs, I can’t think of a single thing my father ever made. Cigar in mouth, he seemed to glide through our family as if he were riding one of those people movers you see in airports. Until I started having girlfriends and met their socially awkward or highly involved or just handy-with-a-screwdriver fathers, I didn’t realize what a permanent vacation my own father had been on.

In 2005, a year after his death, I went to London to visit an elderly cousin, Eva Haraszti-Taylor. She had grown up with my father in Miskolc; I was hoping she could fill in the gaps between the few facts I knew: He was born in 1926, the only child of Dezso Einhorn, a lawyer, and Lillian Braunfeld, the daughter of a bourgeois Jewish family. They divorced in 1934, when my father was eight. A judge asked which parent he wanted to live with, and he chose his father. In 1938, his mother left for the United States. That same year Germany annexed neighboring Austria. Hungary threw in with Adolf Hitler, adopting anti-Semitic laws limiting the number of Jews who could work in certain professions.

My grandfather, who had been unfaithful, suffered from syphilis that eventually crippled him. Eva recalled my father as an unsupervised teen, pushing his wheelchair-bound father down Miskolc’s main street and sleeping on the floor of gambling houses while his father played cards. To earn money, Eva told me, my father apprenticed with a furrier. “He was just hitting the fur, and I thought, ‘Poor boy,’ ” she said. “But he didn’t complain. It was very curious that at such a young age, he just accepted what fate gave to him. He didn’t rebel. And I think that accepting remained his whole life.”

When the war ended, my father wanted to immigrate to Israel, but my cousin Sari, having survived Auschwitz, persuaded him to come with her to the States. He arrived in America aboard the SS Belgian Amity, on November 14, 1946, and headed for Chicago to reunite with his mother, who was now married to a Hungarian doctor. There he finished high school and college, then enrolled at DePaul law school. By the summer of 1954, he’d changed his last name to Brownfield, moved to L.A., passed the California bar, and was behind the wheel of a convertible.

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Months into the investigation, Dennis Kilcoyne and his team had amassed enough evidence to charge Rutterschmidt and Golay with felony mail fraud. What remained harder to determine was how Vados and McDavid had been killed, exactly, and by whose hand.

A kind of task force gathered to place the women in custody on May 18, 2006. Roll call was at 4 a.m., with some 100 law enforcement officials convening at Parker Center. They would fan out in two teams, one to Santa Monica and the other to Hollywood, to arrest a 75- and 73-year-old at precisely the same moment. Golay and Rutterschmidt had no idea what was coming.

“I wanted it to be a major dog and pony show, to scare the shit out of these women,” Kilcoyne explained. “Because we want them to talk.” Kilcoyne is over six feet tall, with a thick brush of a mustache and a casual demeanor. Before I met him last June, at a Chili’s in Santa Clarita, he had retired after 36 years with the LAPD. Over beers Kilcoyne walked me through his roughly nine-month investigation of “the girls,” as he called Rutterschmidt and Golay. Kilcoyne had come to believe that they used First Presbyterian Church on Gower Street in Hollywood as a sort of recruiting station for homeless alcoholic men. With Vados and McDavid dead, he suspected they were trolling for new marks.

Undercover officers had photographed Rutterschmidt with a frail man, Josef Gabor, who lived alone above the Hungarian Reformed Church, at Crenshaw Boulevard and 8th Street. One day she was seen talking to Gabor and pointing at forms. Next she drove him to a Bank of America. “This is how it would start,” Kilcoyne said. “They would go open a checking account. And then, ‘Hey, by opening a checking account, you get a free thousand-dollar policy.’ Then, a week or two later, in the mail you get a thing from Bank of America: ‘Hey, because you’re such a great customer, we’ve just increased you. For 26 cents a week, your policy can be $10,000.’ It just starts snowballing from there.”

A homeless man in his forties named Jimmy Covington had turned up on an $800,000 application with AAA Insurance, which listed Golay as beneficiary. He told the police he’d been hanging out in Hollywood when Rutterschmidt approached and offered to let him stay on a futon in an office across the street, provided he fill out some paperwork. Soon he met the woman who was leasing the office, Golay. Over the next week Rutterschmidt returned to the office repeatedly and grew angry that he still hadn’t provided his personal information. Spooked, Covington bailed.

Golay kept a meticulous record of all the life insurance policies, with everything labeled and in order. An envelope found in Rutterschmidt’s apartment, meanwhile, contained photocopies of a driver’s license belonging to a Hilary Adler, a woman who was a member of the same health club as Kecia Golay. Years earlier Adler had reported her purse stolen from a locker. The vehicle that killed McDavid—a Mercury Sable—was at the time registered in Adler’s name. In court a car dealer identified Rutterschmidt as the buyer of the Sable. She’d given him Adler’s ID, saying the car was a gift.

A mixture of pills—enough to “put an elephant to sleep,” Kilcoyne said, and ground into powder—was found in Golay’s home. Kilcoyne believed the women “probably took him to dinner and sprinkled a little something in his food. Then they pulled down the alley, he’s out cold, they pushed him out, and then they backed up, got a running start, ran him over.” A toxicology exam had found no alcohol or drugs in Paul Vados’s system, but the circumstances of his death were strikingly similar, as were the multiple traumatic injuries to his upper body, which included rib and vertebrae fractures.

While the D.A.’s office lacked eyewitnesses to the hit-and-runs, the overwhelming circumstantial evidence emboldened them to charge both women with murder. The trial began on March 18, 2008, and lasted three weeks. The two pleaded not guilty, but neither testified. Golay’s private defense lawyer presented a surprising alibi in his opening arguments: It was Golay’s daughter, Kecia, he alleged, who had killed McDavid, perhaps in cahoots with Rutterschmidt. His “proof”? Records of late-night calls to Rutterschmidt from Kecia’s cell phone. Rutterschmidt’s public defender, meanwhile, tried to shift responsibility onto Golay. His impressionable client, he said, had been dazzled by Golay’s lifestyle. She’d gone along with the insurance fraud, somehow unaware that it would involve killing two men.

Jurors didn’t deliberate that long. Golay and Rutterschmidt were convicted of murdering Vados and McDavid. They received sentences of life in prison.

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When their sentences were read, I was already gone. Although TV was in the midst of an explosive time, I could not meet it with equal enthusiasm. Four years in as critic, I found myself waking early to work on a novel, the rest of the day spent in a fog of enervating career indecision as I flitted between the TV in the living room and a smaller TV in a bedroom. The storied paper my parents had known and read voraciously had become a disheartening place of layoffs and buyouts. And I had met someone. She lived in New York City. My father and mother both would have been horrified that I was quitting (To do what? Write fiction? And??), but at 43, I had nobody I was responsible for except myself.

Before moving east I put the boxes labeled “Monumental Life v. Olga Rutterschmidt” in my brother’s basement. I hadn’t been in New York long when my brother received an odd letter from a woman in the San Diego area. The woman—I’ll call her Kaye—said she’d been our father’s girlfriend in the 1950s, a relationship that produced a child. Enclosed was a photograph of a middle-aged woman whose oval face bore a striking similarity to my father’s.

Nine months later, on a Sunday afternoon, my siblings and I pulled up to a two-story house in a sloping subdivision dotted with palm trees. We’d already cycled through our questions: Why get in touch now, years after our father’s death? Were they after his money? While it came as some consolation that this buried history predated our parents meeting, the whole interaction suggested deep secrets my mother and father had kept from us—or from each other.

 
An undated photo of George Einhorn (Brownfield’s given name) as a child in Miskolc, Hungary

Photograph courtesy Paul Brownfield

Over the phone Kaye, a native Hawaiian in her eighties, apologized for surprising us, saying she simply felt we should know, finally, that we had a half sibling. Her daughter, Sharon (also not her real name), was less personable. My father had rejected her, and she wanted nothing to do with us. Yet here we were, at their house. Kaye and Sharon came out before we rang the bell. Kaye was tall, with olive skin and delicate features. Sharon looked more like a Brownfield. We sat at their kitchen table, and Kaye brought out black-and-white snapshots of her and my father “living in sin,” as she put it, on a weekend trip to Idyllwild. There was his Lincoln convertible, and there was my father, shirtless behind the wheel. It was 1956 or ’57; my parents wouldn’t marry until 1961. Kaye said she dated my father for more than a year, becoming pregnant as they were breaking up. My father asked her to have an abortion, but she refused. As her pregnancy began to show, she used the last name of Brownfield at work—she was a schoolteacher—and wore a wedding ring to disguise her predicament. With my father contesting paternity, she took him to court, winning a lump sum of $7,500. Her lawyer advised she accept it on the chance my father might flee back to Hungary.

Kaye and Sharon served an early dinner, and we told them of our lives. But at the same time we were speechless. We could scarcely recognize Sharon’s version of our father, who had denied her existence even after she’d confronted him when she was an adult. Showing up unannounced at his law office, Sharon said, she demanded to see him, only to hear my father—her father—declare that he did not want her in his life.

I felt at once guilty and protective. Across the table my brother wore the expression of someone imagining driving 90 miles an hour north on Highway 5. We said our good-byes, promising perhaps to speak again. Even as we pulled away, something Kaye had said stuck with me: She had a recording of my father that she had made surreptitiously at her lawyer’s suggestion. All she had to do was find the box it was in.

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What Kaye handed me when I returned a few years later was a strange-looking disc in a small plastic casing—a wire recording on which, I hoped, was a remnant of my father’s voice.

Made of stainless steel, the wire was as thin in diameter as a human hair. Finding someone who could play it would prove a project in itself. Art Shifrin is a sardonic, bearded New Yorker in his sixties who, after a long career as a sales engineer for the recording equipment company Ampex, has become a go-to person in sound restoration, particularly when it comes to the lost technology of the wire recording.

In the basement of Shifrin’s house in Queens, I watched as he carefully fed my wire into a contraption he had designed. The process was delicate, he warned. A wire can get impossibly tangled on itself as it plays. If you’re lucky, instead of tangling, the wire breaks. Then you can patch it and play it. Often this process must be repeated dozens of times. We got started, and the wire emitted old-timey whirring sounds, with crackles and pops but no actual content. Each time the wire broke, Shifrin went into a workshop and patched it with thread. This is how it went: Shifrin would capture a few seconds of sound, then go to his computer to fiddle with playback speeds. After several minutes, we arrived at a woman’s unintelligible voice. Shifrin made some adjustments on his computer. What I heard next was Kaye: “I’m to meet George Brownfield at 7 p.m.” In the next sound bite Kaye said, “U.S. Israel near accord.” It was a headline out of the paper. She gave the date, February 24, 1957, and stated her name.

Eventually Shifrin edited the 12 minutes of dialogue into scenes that sent me traveling back in time. “Yeah, all right, you want a marriage,” I heard my 30-year-old father say. It was his voice, yet also a voice I didn’t know. His Hungarian accent lingered. And he was irritated. “Well, we won’t get married. I don’t care what kind of marriage you define it as, a less-than-lifetime marriage or not, we are not gonna get married.”

“In other words, you are willing to see me go ahead and have your child,” Kaye said.

“No,” my father responded, and I recognized his familiar tone—a lawyerly middle ground in place of emotion—as he sought to turn a crisis into a search for reason. “I would like you to have an abortion.”

As I transcribed the audio, I kept returning to one snippet: my father saying, “I have thought about this since your first phone call. And my decision is final. And I, in my stupid mind, I am convinced that that’s the only right way.” What he said next I couldn’t make out, but his tone relaxed, and then I picked up his words again. “I feel that way,” he said. “That’s about all I can tell you.”

I imagined interrupting him, his future son, and telling him that he would later have three children whom he wanted and loved and who loved him back. I wanted him to know his secrets needn’t be secrets. But of course they had to be: His shadow identity was what he’d put away in order to be there for me. If nothing else, meeting Kaye and Sharon had driven home what not knowing him actually looked like.

I decided to seek out Adelle, the woman who knew him best at the end. Settling into a booth at Lenny’s, the deli on Westwood Boulevard at Pico, she told me she’d kept the condo just as it was before my father died. “He used to play a very simple Bach sonata,” she said, “and this is still on the piano exactly where he played it.” To keep away old feelings, I put a recorder between us. Adelle said she had first met my father, and my mother, too, at a dinner party in 1970. She didn’t see him again until 1993, when she had a bad collision on the 5, and her husband recommended she go see the Hungarian lawyer. As my mother was dying, they grew closer over long lunches.

I told Adelle about Sharon and Kaye. Adelle listened, then said that her first husband had also had a child out of wedlock. “Paul, it’s standard,” she said finally. “In most men’s life that can happen. Nothing unusual.” We’d already discussed Olga Rutterschmidt. I was surprised that Adelle thought my father had declined to represent her that last time. “This woman,” she remembered him saying of Olga, “is guilty as hell.”

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By the time I wrote to them, Rutterschmidt and Golay were both serving their life sentences at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, a four-and-a-half-hour drive north of Los Angeles. Golay, by then 81, wrote back saying she didn’t want to talk, as she had written a memoir that was “under lock and key” and was awaiting a decision on appeal before the California supreme court. Several months later, after her appeal was denied, Golay changed her terms. She would grant me an interview, but I would have to deposit $250,000 in her daughter’s bank account. I declined.

Rutterschmidt’s reply was different: part plea for legal help, part ode to my father (she called him “my friend. Anything he represented for me he was winning successfully my cases. Your father had great relations with Hungarian clienteles.”). I set up a prepaid phone account for her, and soon she was calling me regularly, urging me to find her a paralegal (she wanted to sue the media for libel; we would split the winnings) and track down investment accounts that perhaps hadn’t been seized.

“Paul, darling,” she’d say, speaking fast, in a thickly accented, almost musical voice. As she always had, Rutterschmidt saw her situation in contrast to Golay’s. Helen, she said, was in a better unit, for seniors and the disabled, while she was in the prison’s general population.

Between 1991 and 1994, I discovered, my father had filed suit several times on her behalf. In one, Rutterschmidt had complained to the management of a La Brea Avenue coffee shop about her food and then gotten into an altercation with another customer. The customer, she said, shot her with a stun gun, causing physical injuries and emotional trauma. My father filed a negligence claim against the restaurant.

Hearing this made me uneasy. I never thought of my father as an ambulance chaser. His loyalty to Rutterschmidt, if that’s what it was, seemed a throwback to his early days, when he’d placed ads in the back pages of the Hungarian-language newspaper Californiai Magyarság (California Hungarians).

On a summer Saturday I arrived at the prison before 8 a.m. Already a dozen people were lined up in 90-degree heat. My processing was delayed because my blue shirt too closely resembled the inmates’ uniforms. Corrections officers sent me to a trailer in the parking lot, where I could borrow something to wear. Soon I was sitting at a table in the cafeteria-size visiting room in a too-small black T-shirt. Finally Rutterschmidt—then 80—entered through a metal door, pushing a walker at a high rate of speed. She looked nothing like the robust blond of her 1986 passport, a copy of which I’d found in the case file. Her light blue smock and drawstring pants hung off her frame. There was pink rouge on her cheeks, and her stringy gray hair was adorned with a fragment of yarn. When I stood to greet her, she said, “You are much taller than your father.”

Talking about the murders, she maintained her innocence. Kenneth McDavid wasn’t homeless; he was “a bohemian,” “a ghostwriter.” She had met him at a Writers Guild event. Maybe, she suggested, he was run over by “the Pakistani boyfriend,” a reference to a friend of Golay’s. As for Vados, they had met at a Buddhist temple. “If you gave Paul a thousand dollars,” she said, “he would drink it all.”

When I asked about my father, Rutterschmidt recalled how they would argue over who was the better composer, Beethoven or Bach. For her it was Beethoven, his Pathétique Sonata. Her favorite, though, was Chopin’s Revolutionary étude. She began air-playing it at our table, humming the notes.

I stayed for hours, even after I realized she hadn’t known my father well at all. She was hungry, she told me, and we headed to the snack machines. They took only quarters, and I had none. I felt a stab of guilt, and then a woman at a nearby table, perhaps mistaking us for grandmother and grandson, offered several dollars’ worth of coins. Rutterschmidt selected a bag of potato chips and an orange, but she was disappointed. Couldn’t I buy her more? Next time, I said, as she put the orange in the pouch of her walker for later.

It was a few months before I went to see Rutterschmidt again, unable to resist her pull both as a convicted killer and as an outsize character from my father’s past come to life. I liked her, which seemed to have something to do with the way my father had once tolerated her. As incapable as she was of confronting the reasons for her imprisonment, she had a sense of humor. She hardly seemed threatening. I wanted to believe that Golay had orchestrated it all, had driven the cars, and that Rutterschmidt, craven about money but not murderous, was, at worst, in the passenger seat, literally or metaphorically.

On this visit I bought her lunch, and she attempted to teach me chess. I noticed that she called the pawns “peasants.” As we played, she boasted that her late husband came from a prominent Hungarian family that ran a bakery on Budapest’s most fashionable street, Váci Utca. The regent of Hungary, Admiral Miklós Horthy himself, got his pastries there.

Game after game, amid anxious monologues about what she wished I’d do to get her out of prison, Rutterschmidt beat me easily. Only once did I manage to move a pawn past her defenses. Startled, Rutterschmidt stared at the board, mulling her next move. “I am not going to give up my bishop,” she declared, “for a lousy peasant.”


Paul Brownfield wrote about the L.A. Clippers in the July issue.

This feature originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Los Angeles magazine.

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