Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

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Apple Annie – Podcast #56

And now for today’s story titled Apple Annie, which starts on September 5, 1933, near the side entrance of the Astor Theater, which was located at Broadway and West Forty-Fifth Street in NYC. Here we find a poor, elderly woman with a small green cart selling apples and chewing gum in an effort to earn a few coins each day. The press referred to her as Nellie, Ellen, and Eileen, but they were all the same person – one Helen McCarthy.

Suddenly, at midnight, her life changed. A limousine picked her up and drove her to a comfortable bed in a luxurious 3-room suite at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. When she awoke, the staff provided her with breakfast in bed. While she had the choice of anything on the menu, Nellie opted for a simple meal of honeydew melon, hard-boiled eggs, toast, and coffee. After breakfast, a hairdresser to the elite curled her gray, bobbed hair while a manicurist filed and polished her nails.

Apple Annie - Nellie McCarthy - receives the gift of a necklace from a merchant.
Apple Annie – Nellie McCarthy – receives the gift of a necklace from a merchant. Image appeared on page 2 of the September 8, 1933 publication of the Wilkes-Barre Evening News.

Helen spent the morning shopping for new lingerie, satin dresses, a new hat, and lots of other niceties of the rich and powerful.

After lunch, a police officer escorted her in the limousine to city hall to meet with the mayor, but after waiting a few minutes for him, she was quoted as saying “Please tell the mayor I was here. I have important engagements. This is my busy day.”

After an elegant dinner, Nellie was escorted to a movie premiere at the famed Radio City Music Hall. Observers were surprised as to how well she handled the sudden change in her life, but she revealed that prior to the Great Depression, she had been the maid to the very wealthy and had traveled the world. She even claimed to have met the Pope.

And then, at the stroke of midnight, the fantasy was over. The next day Nellie was once again and selling apples at her stand. And, unlike Cinderella, no handsome prince was going to come along with a glass slipper and provide this story with a fairy tale ending.

So, you are probably wondering, what was it that caused such a sudden change in Nellie McCarthy’s life?  Dirt poor one minute, rich the next, and then to have it all taken away in an instant. It was all done by Hollywood as part of the promotion for the Frank Capra movie Lady for a Day.  

The main character in the movie was a woman named Apple Annie, a poor fruit peddler in NYC, who placed her infant daughter in a convent. Years later, Apple Annie learns that her adult daughter has set sail to NY with her rich fiancé to meet her. The only problem is that her daughter had been told all along that her mom was a rich woman of society. And that begins the charade of poor Apple Annie trying to be the rich Mrs. E Worthington Manville.

The press agent for the film, a guy named Lou Goldberg came up with the great idea of finding a real-life Apple Annie and make her Queen for a Day.  Nellie was perfect for the role. After the twenty-four hours of being treated like a princess, Nellie was given $25 for her services. They also allowed her to keep the new clothes that had been given to her. The whole affair cost Columbia Pictures an estimated $500, but it generated far more in free press. So successful was this bit of publicity, that it was repeated in more than fifty other cities around the globe with other women posing as Apple Annie.

After the glare of the spotlight died down, Nellie and her husband Thomas, a former shoe salesman, were thrust right back into their life of poverty.  Within 6-months, they were forced to close the apple stand due to a combination of decreasing profits and Tom’s poor health. In these days prior to Social Security benefits, their only source of income was $16.59 in relief money that they received from the city of NY each month. That’s about $270.00 per month in today’s dollars.

A little after a year of living out of the spotlight of the media, the news broke on November 10th of 1934 that the bodies of Helen and Thomas McCarthy had been lying unclaimed on a slab in the morgue for the previous six days. Nellie was 70 and Thomas 75 years of age.

A detective named Henry White was assigned to locate any living relatives that the couple may have. None were found, but he did determine that Helen was, in fact, the woman who had posed as Apple Annie.

The two had been living in squalor in a rented room at 203 Eighth Avenue. The owner of the store below them smelled gas and notified the police. Upon entering, the responding officers discovered the lifeless bodies of the couple. Police deduced from several burnt matches that Thomas had lit the gas heater in their room, but a breeze had blown it out. Asphyxiation soon followed.  

The couple’s possessions were few. Their only furnishings were a bed and a dresser. A few pennies were found, but that was about it. It was later learned that Nellie sold for 25-cents nearly all of her fancy Apple Annie clothes to a frequent customer of her apple stand who had recently fallen on hard times. A fur scarf was exchanged for a bottle of booze. All that remained of her Queen for a Day experience was a black evening gown, supposedly in ragged condition.

After Columbia Pictures learned of their deaths, a representative from the company claimed their bodies, provided coffins, and arranged for their burial.

Two days later, on November 12th, about two-dozen people, most there just out of sheer curiosity, came to pay their respects. No funeral was held, but Father John Leonard offered a simple blessing.  The deceased were provided with new clothes – Nellie a beautiful gray crepe dress and Thomas a crisp tuxedo – and buried right next to each other.

And, like your typical big business never missing an opportunity for free publicity, a large wreath was provided. Nothing wrong with that, but plastered across the front was a pink ribbon with the words Columbia Pictures Inc. emblazoned upon it.

Now, if you would like to pay your respects to the couple, they were buried in Calvary Cemetery in Queens. Good luck finding the grave – more people are buried there than in any other cemetery in the entire United States – over 3 million people are interred there. The Astor Theater, where Nellie had her apple stand – was ripped down in leveled in 1982 and replaced by the Marriott Marquis Hotel.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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