Well, not only was “Lady In The Lake” by Laura Lippman an enjoyable novel but it has its roots in two actual Baltimore crimes that occurred in 1969.
Just like any good “Law and Order” episode, the names have been changed to protect the innocent but the inspiration for the victims are real.
I won’t go too deeply into the particulars of the crimes because there are enough parallels between what’s true and what’s imaginary, regarding the lives and deaths of the victims, that to do so might spoil the book for you.
However, I’d hate to leave you hanging or require you to research the real crimes yourself.
It’s a fine line.
Here’s the description from the back of the book:
In 1966, Baltimore is a city of secrets that everyone seems to know—everyone, that is, except Madeline “Maddie” Schwartz. Last year, she was a happy, even pampered housewife. This year, she’s bolted from her marriage of almost twenty years, determined to make good on her youthful ambitions to live a passionate, meaningful life.
Maddie wants to matter, to leave her mark on a swiftly changing world. Drawing on her own secrets, she helps Baltimore police find a murdered girl — assistance that leads to a job at the city’s afternoon newspaper, the Star. Working at the newspaper offers Maddie the opportunity to make her name, and she has found just the story to do it: a missing black woman whose body was discovered in the fountain of a city park lake.
Cleo Sherwood was a young black woman who liked to have a good time. No one seems to know or care why she was killed except Maddie — and the dead woman herself. Maddie sets out to find the truth about Cleo’s life and death, but Cleo’s ghost, privy to Maddie’s poking and prying, wants to be left alone.
Maddie’s investigation brings her into contact with people who used to be on the periphery of her life — a jewelry store clerk, a waitress, a rising star on the Baltimore Orioles, a patrol cop, a hardened female reporter, a lonely man in a movie theater. But for all her ambition and drive, Maddie may fail to see the people right in front of her. Her inability to look beyond her own needs could lead to tragedy and turmoil for all sorts of people — including the man who shares her bed, a black police officer who cares for Maddie more than she knows.
Author Laura Lippman was all of 10-years-old when, on September 29, 1969, Esther Lebowitz disappeared while on her way home from school.
Baltimore Sun photo
The search for 11-year-old Esther and the discovery of her body two days later made the pages of the Baltimore newspapers and these events made a lasting impression on young Laura.
Laura followed the case closely, perhaps thinking “this could easily be me.”
Laura had easy access to the updates on this developing story because her father, Leo Lippman, Jr., was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun; two copies of his newspaper (an early and an evening edition) were delivered to the Lippman house every day.
Wayne Stephen Young, 23, was quickly caught and the forensics that made the arrest possible are the same in real life as in the book.
Young confessed to killing Esther in a fit of temporary insanity.
A psychiatrist for the defense, Dr. Ian Mackay, testified that when Young killed Esther he “was trying to destroy his mother.” Dr. Mackay stated that Young had been under “perpetual stress” for years because of a “dependence on his mother’s will.”
Wayne Stephen Young’s father, Albert, had died in 1954 when Wayne was 8-years-old.
Esther Lebowitz had been struck on the head 17 times with a blunt instrument and sexually molested.
|Wayne Stephen Young escorted into Baltimore Police HQ by Sgt Harry Bannon, 1969|
The insanity defense was rejected and, after 30 minutes of deliberation, the jury returned a guilty verdict. Young received a life sentence in prison.
He was out of sight but the crime was never truly forgotten by the community. Especially as parole hearings and multiple appeals filed on his behalf over the decades wouldn’t let people forget. In fact, when Young died in prison, on December 21, 2015 from heart failure, he was awaiting a new trial.
It wasn’t until 1989 when Laura Lippman, following in her father’s footsteps, began working as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun that she had heard of the mysterious 1969 disappearance of 35-year-old Shirley Lee Parker.
It’s fair to assume that even if 10-year-old Laura had heard of Shirley’s fate, it wouldn’t have resonated to quite the same degree as the death of someone in her own age group.
|Shirley Lee Parker, HS photo|
Shirley Lee Widgeon Parker, a twice-divorced mother of two boys, aged 9 and 14 years, was reported missing by her mother on April 23, 1969. This was five months before Esther Lebowitz went missing.
Shirley held many jobs over the years but at the time of her disappearance she was working at the popular Sphinx Club as a bookkeeper and bartender. She was also a secretary for the Urban League and did volunteer work with the NAACP.
|Pratt Library collection|
Shirley was last seen in the company of her 33-year-old boyfriend, Arno West.
The couple had engaged in a “heated argument” when Shirley confronted Arno about him buying clothing for another woman with money from her paycheck.
Arno was reliant on money Shirley funneled his way and the idea that he was using her money to buy gifts for another woman infuriated Shirley. Arno told police that he and Shirley went for a drive afterwards, to have some drinks and “cool off.”
According to Arno, Shirley wanted to walk around Druid Hill Park and he witnessed her climbing over a 10 foot gate to access the lake. Arno followed suit, struggled with Shirley and managed to persuade her not to go for a swim in the lake. Afterwards, he dropped Shirley back at the house she shared with her mother and youngest son.
Shirley’s mother, Theresa Austin, told police her daughter never came home that night.
|Theresa Austin – AFRO, May 13, 1969|
The possibility of accidental drowning was immediately dismissed by Shirley’s mother. Theresa told reporters, “Shirley was an expert swimmer. She was once a Druid Park pool lifeguard.”
When asked if Shirley was suicidal, Mrs. Austin told police her daughter “loved life.”
“It’s not like my daughter to stay away without calling me or inquiring about her 9-year-old son David, who is here with me. Something awful must have happened.”
Shirley’s older son from her first marriage, Richard Price, Jr., was living with his father in Pennsylvania.
On May 12, 1969, police did drag the 25 foot deep lake but found no trace of Shirley.
Nobody thought to check the fountain.
The Baltimore Sun never mentioned Shirley’s disappearance or the searches and interviews conducted over the two months that she was missing. Only the chance discovery of her badly-decomposed, fully-clothed body which was found floating face-down in the lake’s fountain warranted a mention.
On June 2, 1969, a crew of three electricians had been dispatched to repair the two lights at the top of the fountain and were shocked to find a body wedged between some pipes and lights in a four foot depression on the top of the fountain.
The lake’s fountain rose 20 feet above the water and was situated about 380 feet from the nearest shore. The top of the fountain could be reached by climbing an 18 foot metal ladder.
|Druid Hill Park Reservoir fountain, mapio.net site image|
Several factors make Shirley’s boyfriend Arno West look guilty.
Arno was seen arguing with the victim the night she disappeared.
Arno also told conflicting stories about Shirley’s purse. He initially told investigators that he had picked up the purse after convincing Shirley not to enter the lake and handed it back to her prior to dropping Shirley at home but then it was Arno who phoned the police to report finding Shirley’s purse one day after her disappearance – hanging on the railing of the fence that surrounds the lake.
Arno was also the only one of Shirley’s friends or family who told investigators that Shirley was “depressed.” He failed the polygraph test and he was admitted to a mental hospital following the discovery of Shirley’s body.
It should be noted that Arno West was never charged and in recent years, Shirley’s son David has stated he doesn’t suspect either Arno West or his own father, former Baltimore disc jockey and record store owner, Joe Parker, of having a hand in the death of his mother.
In a May 11, 2017 interview with AFRO, David is quoted as saying, “What I think happened was my mother swam out into the lake because she was an excellent swimmer, she got awards for swimming. I feel like she swam out there to clear her mind after the argument with Arno and to think about me and my brother. I think when she was ready to go, she stood up and fell back and hit her head on the spout where the water comes out, because the autopsy said she had a hole in the back of her head.”
“I think she hit her head and fell back and was unconscious and with the water coming down on her, she drowned.”
David Parker said he has been unable to find any answers after all these years. “I just want some closure…even if they say anything to pacify me. I have six children asking about their grandmother and I can’t give them no answers.”
On October 21, 1969, Theresa Austin met with Baltimore’s Medical Examiner to review the evidence in the case.
|Shirley, March 1969|
Mrs. Austin had been haunted by dreams of Shirley and the possibility that the body she had buried was not her daughter. No family member had ever formerly identified the body that had been pulled from the fountain. It was too badly decomposed for anyone to make a visual identification.
The severe decomposition also made it impossible for the medical examiners to tell police how Shirley died.
“If she had drowned, we wouldn’t be able to tell,” said Dr. Edward Wilson.
“We have ruled out several causes of death,” he continued. She wasn’t strangled, stabbed or used narcotics. There were no needle marks, and we were particularly interested in whether she died this way.”
“We also ruled out electrocution.”
Contributing to the woman’s uncertainty was news from Theresa’s sister who claimed to have received a long-distance call over the summer from a woman who said “Hello Aunt Janie. This is Shirley.”
And while the clothing found on the body was a match to what Shirley was reportedly wearing the night she disappeared, nobody in the family had ever seen these articles for themselves and the clothing had subsequently been destroyed, because of their condition.
However, the FBI had confirmed identification through fingerprints. Shirley had held several governmental positions over the years, including the Baltimore Post Office, so her fingerprints were on file.
This meeting was the first time Theresa had heard exactly how that identification was confirmed. As upsetting as it was to learn that Shirley’s hands had been removed and shipped to the FBI’s latent fingerprint department in Washington, D.C., it helped assuage her doubts.
How Shirley Lee Parker ended up in the fountain remains a mystery to this day but fortunately “Lady In The Lake” is a work of fiction, so in Laura’s book there is a resolution.
I don’t believe this is an active investigation. It was ruled a suspicious death but not necessarily a homicide.
Was the disparity in the press coverage attributable to the 25 year age difference between Shirley and Esther or was it a matter of race?
While the Baltimore Sun and most of the other mainstream newspapers largely ignored Shirley’s disappearance, Baltimore’s AFRO Newspaper covered it extensively. This disinterest on the part of the other newspapers is reflected in the novel.
Laura Lippman has said “I can’t write about Baltimore and not write about race” and that racial divide is a big part of this novel, which is set in 1966.
A psychic is consulted in the book and here too there is a parallel to real-life events.
Preferring to remain anonymous until she had more details regarding the missing woman, in late May 1969, an East Baltimore medium said she was “beginning to get vibrations.”
Reportedly, “the vibrations come in strong and then for some reason they go weak.”
Unfortunately, it seems as though the vibrations were never stable or strong enough for her to assist the police with their inquiries.
In 1973, self-proclaimed prophet Jerome Q. Mills came forward, hoping to lead police to the truth of Shirley’s death.
|Jerome Q. Mills|
Mills claimed to have conducted a solo seance at the lake on day three of a planned 40 day fast. During that session, Mills had a vision and recounted it to AFRO reporter Charles Ludlow.
“I traveled back in time and actually witnessed the events that led to Shirley’s death. I heard her scream, I heard her being beaten. I was inside a yellow station wagon which carried her to the lake. She died in the vehicle and not the lake and I saw her paralyzed on the right side.
“One person drove her to the lake and I saw this person push her body over the iron fence surrounding the lake and I saw her dragged into the water.
Unfortunately, Mills was unable to identify the individual, saying “a veil prevented me from seeing the person” who drove Shirley to the lake. Neither could he see the license plate of the station wagon because he was traveling inside the vehicle.
Making a cameo appearance in Laura’s novel is the real-life, trailblazing policewoman Violet Hill Whyte aka “Lady Law.”
Mrs. Whyte retired from the police force three years before the deaths of Esther and Shirley so she never worked on either case. Her appearance in the novel is mostly limited to a party thrown in her honor but her inclusion is appreciated.
|Violet Hill Whyte – Baltimore Sun file photo|
Mrs. Whyte became Maryland’s first black law enforcement officer on December 31, 1937.
When she accepted the position, Violet was a 39-year-old teacher, wife and mother of four.
Throughout her career, Violet specialized in cases concerning the protection and well-being of children but she was once called upon to work undercover as a dope addict and helped break up a narcotics ring.
Mrs. Whyte ultimately achieved the rank of Lieutenant and retired after 30 years on the force.
According to the Baltimore Sun, after her retirement, Mrs. Whyte “worked as a field-work supervisor for Planned Parenthood of Maryland and continued visiting prison inmates and nursing homes carrying along her famous “sunshine” bags of gifts and toiletries.” She passed away on July 19, 1980 at the age of 81.
There are two video tributes to Violet Hill White available on YouTube. Here are the links –
From the Baltimore Police Dept – https://youtu.be/2cofBWC9foI
From WBAL- TV, Baltimore – https://youtu.be/tTKUMJIJp90
“The Lady In The Lake” is not the first Laura Lippman novel to draw upon real-life tragedies for inspiration but I’ll save that for a future blog post.