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Well, here we are once again in the month of February, and you know what that means: Valentine’s Day is coming up shortly.
And in honor of the day of love, I thought that this would be a good time to tell you a fun, quirky story about a couple from the late 1930s who struggled with the thought of marrying one another. To be more specific, one-half of the couple desperately wanted to marry, while the other half struggled with making that commitment.
So, let’s roll our clocks back to February 1937, and have our two lovebirds introduce themselves:
Harold Hulen: Hi, my name is Robert Harold Hulen, although I prefer to be referred to by my middle name of Harold. I was born on November 24, 1895, in Madison, Missouri to Alice and Amos Hulen.
Despite my attempts to break into Vaudeville over the years, success eluded me, much like many others in the industry. My most notable moment as an artist occurred in 1935 when a song and dance act that I organized became a highlight of a minstrel show at the Kiwanis Club in Mexico, Missouri. The performance, which I titled “That’s How Darkies Were Born,” featured Lillian Brady Burton and Mary Katheryn Davenport joining me on stage. It was said to bring down the house.
Anyway, I spent the summers of 1934 and 1935 employed as the recreational program director for the Excelsior Springs Chamber of Commerce. But when the city park was closed last summer while the municipal water system was being constructed, I had no choice but to take a job at my dad’s insurance agency. So now I am an insurance agent.
Florence Hurlbut: And I’m Florence Isadore Smith Hurlbut, Harold’s girlfriend. I was born on March 12, 1917, in Nebraska to Eunice and William Smith. Following my mother’s remarriage, Ira Hurlbut became my stepfather. That’s how my name became Florence Hurlbut. Until just a week ago, I held a position as a stenographer for the mineral water system here. Unfortunately, in an effort to reduce expenses, they decided to lay me off. So, I am unemployed.
As for Harold, I first met him while I was performing in one of his shows. I was fourteen years old at the time. “But I just learned to love him two years ago.”
Clearly, Harold was much older than Florence and wished for nothing more than to marry her. But Florence was reluctant. He would ask her day after day, week after week, but her answer was always no.
As the expression goes, desperate people do desperate things, and Harold was no exception. So, on the morning of Wednesday, February 3, 1937, he headed over to the Excelsior Springs Trust Company and climbed the stairs to the lobby just outside of Florence’s apartment. He then placed a rubber pillow down on the floor and plopped himself down on top of it. Next, he fastened a dog chain to his right wrist and then proceeded to padlock himself to the radiator. His resolve was firm; he wouldn’t depart until Florence consented to marry him. By his own estimation, this marked the 100th time that he had posed the question to her.
“I’m a desperate man. Florence refused to make up her mind about our marriage again last night. That was the last straw. Now I’m here to stay until she makes up her mind. And I won’t lose.”
The only problem was that Florence wasn’t in her apartment at the time, so she was unaware of what Harold was up to. Imagine her shock when she returned home shortly after noon.
“Here I am and here I stay until you name the day,” Harold stated.
Florence curtly replied, “You get out of here. I never heard of anything so ridiculous.”
Harold then took his hand and with great confidence ran it over his thinly trimmed mustache. “Say when.”
She begged and pleaded with him to stop what he was doing, but he made it clear that he wasn’t going anywhere. “You know I love you, Harold. You know I just can’t make up my mind. Now please unchain yourself and let’s forget all about this silliness.”
Even Florence’s aunt, Ruth Smith, who owned the building couldn’t get Harold to budge. She knelt down next to him and warned him, “This is no way to win a young girl’s love.”
Needless to say, 30-year-old Harold came equipped for the long haul. To fill his time, he chain-smoked cigarettes, occupied himself with rounds of solitaire, and read magazines and books. As the afternoon dragged on, he switched to a more comfortable feather pillow as Florence and her aunt opted to leave the room.
Around 6 PM, the dinner that he had prearranged for was delivered and he sat down to have his meal. Oh, wait! He was already sitting down…
An hour later, Florence returned and told Harold that if he didn’t unchain himself from the radiator immediately, she would call the cops. He simply chuckled and reminded her that he was a deputized policeman himself.
Florence then informed him, “I’m going out for a long walk. You had better be gone when I return.” To which Harold mockingly replied, “Now, honey.”
She wouldn’t return until around 11:15 in the evening. Florence blurted out, “I thought I told you to leave.” “Nope,” Harold snapped back. “I’m still here. And I’m going to stay here just like I told you unless you name the happy day.”
Tired of arguing with Harold, she slumped down into a chair and soon fell asleep next to him. He lit another cigarette as he perused the pages of a romance magazine. About an hour later, Florence got up and went back to her apartment for the night.
And so ended day one of the Radiator Romeo’s attempt to win Florence’s hand in marriage.
Early the next morning, Ruth asked Harold what he wanted for breakfast. He requested some rolls and coffee. While vacuuming the floor, she commented, “fellows in love don’t eat much.”
It wasn’t long before the story of Harold’s “sit-down strike,” as the press began to call it, spread throughout the media. Calls began to pour in from all over the country, forcing the local telephone company to bring in three additional long-distance operators. The calls were flying in so fast that Florence ceased answering them.
Aunt Ruth was even more annoyed. “The telephone kept ringing all the time. People calling up. I finally told the operator to quit ringing. Some men came to take motion pictures. All I got to say is if he gets out of here, it would be motion picture enough.”
Harold then chimed in, “If Florence will name the day for our wedding I will go gladly,” Hulen said.
Florence answered, “You silly. The answer is still ‘no.’”
Ruth then added, “I’m no John L. Lewis and I don’t know what to do about ending a sit-down strike. But I don’t think I’ll stand this foolishness much longer. I don’t dislike Harold. I guess ‘neutral’ is the best way to describe my feelings towards him.” (She was referring to John L. Lewis, the once powerful leader of the United Mine Workers of America.)
Meanwhile, Harold could be heard singing love songs, which he purposely directed down the hall toward Florence’s apartment.
The long hours were finally starting to take their toll on him. Being chained to the radiator, Harold noted, “I wish I had a bicycle and a treadmill so I could peddle here by the radiator and get some exercise.” So, he dealt out his umpteenth hand of solitaire. “Lucky at cards, unlucky at love, you know.”
A reporter interviewed Excelsior Springs Mayor John S. Lodwick inside of Clarence Peck’s drug store, which was located across the street from Florence’s apartment. He noted, “I never had known Hulen to show signs of disappointed love. I don’t know anything the city can do about this. The city has no love arbitration department.”
Druggist Peck then pointed to a soda table near the cosmetics display. “Right there’s where that romance budded and I’ve seen them both there time after time the last three years. Mostly he would just sit and look at the girl while she sipped a soft drink.”
After that, the mayor decided that it was time to pay Harold a visit. Upon reaching the top of the stairs, Harold asked, “Howyuh, pal?”
The mayor replied, “How do you do, Harold?”
He soon turned his attention to Florence who was biting her nails. “I bite my nails when I’m nervous. I’m nervous now.”
A reporter noted she had since changed from black velvet pajamas into a “flaming red dress trimmed in black.”
The mayor began to question Florence, “What is your ambition if not to marry?”
“I wish to be a secretary,” she replied.
“Have you a secret ambition?”
“Yes. I wish very much to be an actress.”
When the mayor asked Florence whether or not she really liked Harold or not, she replied, “Sure, I like him,” the 20-year-old Florence admitted to the mayor. “Maybe I love him,” she conceded. “But he’s not going to force me into anything with this silly business. Besides, such a way to propose! Sitting down on a rubber pillow! And he hasn’t shaved, either!”
Harold did admit that he was older than he originally stated. “I said I was 30, but I’m really 35.”
He was still lying through his teeth. Harold Hulen was really 41 years old. I’ll be generous and say that he was a very youthful 41…
“I attended Central high school when Mr. Holmes was principal. I also went to Horner Institute. That’s where my talents for the stage were brought out.”
In his first interview with the Associated Press, Harold explained, “I asked Florence to marry me. She said she couldn’t make up her mind. She has repeated the same thing twice every week for the last year. Now I’m here, and I’m not leaving until I get an answer.”
In an exclusive with the New York Daily News, he said, “I can cook,” he argued. “I’ll feed myself while she’s at work. She’s said ‘maybe’ for two years now. I don’t want anything but a signed contract. Or anyhow a marriage license.”
Florence told the United Press, “Who ever heard of a sit-down strike for love?” she demanded. “It’s positively crazy, and if he thinks I’m going to be stampeded into the thing he’s crazy. Besides it doesn’t look good to the neighbors.”
As she sat at the beauty parlor across the street getting some freshening up, someone stopped in to tell Florence that the manager of the Elms Hotel was sending over a waiter to serve a “prenuptial, cosmopolitan meal.” This included dry martinis, Beluga caviar, mock turtle soup, and prize beef. In response to this invitation, she replied, “Sure, I’ll eat the meal with him, but I won’t marry him.”
Announcer Dan Paul of radio station WDAF, 620 kHz on the dial, did a live broadcast on location – in front of the radiator – and it went out to an estimated one million listeners across the NBC radio network. With so many people listening, the pressure was on Florence to finally give in and agree to marry Harold.
Just what would she say?
Her response was, “I think the whole thing is ridiculous. It won’t work. My answer is still no!”
As the sun rose on Day 3, Harold was still chained to that radiator. Mayor Lodwick was becoming concerned with all of the disruption that this spectacle was creating in Excelsior Springs. He conferred with the city attorney and concluded that the best approach was to charge Harold with disturbing the peace. Once the complaint was drawn up, the mayor and Police Chief William A. Payne walked a couple of blocks to inform Harold that he had until noon the next day to vacate the premises. Harold looked up at them and said, “Gentlemen, if you have no warrant, you are just wasting your time and might as well get out.” And they did.
Later that afternoon, three men came in and forcefully attached a 90 lb. (40.8 kg) rusty ball and chain to Harold’s leg. He identified his assailants as Excelsior Springs jailer Roy Holt and firemen Marion Boyer and Buford West. Harold asked Payne to promptly apprehend the trio, and the chief willingly agreed. The only condition was that Harold needed to go to city hall to sign a warrant, but clearly, since he was tied up at the moment, he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Fortunately, someone provided him with a file, and he dedicated the next several hours to freeing himself from the restraint.
Meanwhile, Aunt Ruth was not a happy campy. “All these people coming in here are beginning to wear on my nerves, not to mention the carpets.”
She went on: “I have an empty room, but I couldn’t rent it out now; it’s ruining my business,” said Mrs. Smith, in a fairly loud tone of voice.
Harold quickly responded, “I will rent it from you if you move my radiator in with me,” said Mr. Hulen, who is quick to catch any idea, but no quicker than Mrs. Smith.
“Say, that’s not a bad idea,” she replied. “I’m going to start asking him rent for camping in my hotel. It’s going to be pretty steep, what with all these people wearing out my stairs tramping up here.”
One thing that puzzled me was how Harold could remain attached to that radiator for several days without needing a bathroom break. Strangely, the press never raised this question, despite repeatedly mentioning his consistently clean-shaven appearance each morning. Was he possibly freeing himself each night to attend to such matters? Could he have been secretly retreating to a real bed after everyone departed for the night? One can only speculate.
Friday, February 5, 1937, marked the day Florence went missing. Concerned, Harold enlisted the help of friends to search for her, only to discover that she had sought temporary shelter in the residence of his uncle, T. E. Crawford, vice president of the Excelsior Springs bank. In response, Harold released himself from the dog chain, gathered his belongings, made his way to his uncle’s home, and secured himself to the radiator just outside Florence’s room.
What Harold didn’t know was that the whole thing was a ruse. As Harold slept serenely outside that closed guest room door, his uncle helped Florence escape out the window. She was driven to Kansas City, boarded a TWA Sky Chief, and departed for New York City at 3:29 AM local time. The plane was scheduled to land in Newark, New Jersey at 10:53 AM New York time.
When Florence stepped off the plane, Florence found herself instantly engulfed by a crowd of reporters and photographers, all eagerly seeking the scoop on whether she would tie the knot with Harold. She said that she would announce her decision Monday evening on the Phil Baker radio show, which was to be broadcast from coast to coast over the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS).
The show had picked up the cost of her entire trip, and, as Florence explained, “I decided to get away from it all by accepting one of the many offers that have been made to me.”
She continued, “I told my family and friends that I was going to a sanitarium to read books to somebody. Instead, I went to a friend’s house and then to Kansas City, to board the plane. This is my first plane ride. I thought it was wonderful, but I wasn’t feeling very well.”
The next day, the New York Daily News declared that the whole thing had been a publicity stunt. But Florence set the record straight. “It wasn’t a stunt,” she said. “Harold just got all steamed up about my delay. First thing I knew he was resting on my radiator reading ‘Gone with the Wind’.”
But what about poor Harold? Was he still chained to that radiator back in Excelsior Springs?
He told a reporter, “I got a telegram, and she says she will give me her answer tomorrow night on a radio program.”
Harold unchained himself from the radiator and declared, “I think it was a little unfair for Florence to go away like that without telling me. I admit I feel a little bit left out in the cold. After all, I was the one who endured the hardships of the strike, still she gets the break.”
Beginning at 3 PM on Monday, February 8, 1937, Harold sat down beside his radio and turned the dial to various stations that were carrying the CBS feed. He eagerly awaited the moment when Phil Baker began to introduce Florence.
Here’s what he said: “It’s a well-known fact that through the ages men have done curious things for love. But it remains for 1937 to bring to light one of the most curious demonstrations of affection that has ever been heard of. Florence, come up here for a moment and tell us the circumstances of this most unusual sit-down strike for love. What happened?”
“Well, little did I dream a week ago when I invited him over to my house and asked him to sit down that he wouldn’t get up for four days and four nights.”
Okay. Okay. Let’s forget the small talk. Was she about to tell Harold “No!” for the umpteenth time or was she finally going to say “Yes?”
“Well, Harold, since I left Excelsior Springs, I have had loads of time to think everything out by myself, and if you really want me to be your bride, I’ll marry you in June.”
And that is basically the end of the story, at least as far as coverage in the press is concerned. Which left me wondering: did the two ever marry?
The answer is no.
It’s unclear what happened next. Maybe it all was a publicity stunt. Or maybe, just maybe, Harold’s love for Florence was real and it just didn’t work out for whatever reason. But, if nothing else, their story did capture the hearts and minds of people for a very short time back in 1937.
Harold Hulen’s 1942 draft registration shows that he had blue eyes, brown hair, and stood nearly 5’8” (173 cm) tall. Yet he only weighed 112 pounds (50.8 kg). Harold was clearly in poor health. He passed away on February 3, 1943, which just happened to be the sixth anniversary of the day he chained himself to that radiator. He was just 48 years old, and the cause of death was spinal meningitis.
Florence would go on to marry Forrest W. “Jack” Larkin on October 2, 1944. The couple had three children: Gloria, Linda, and Ernest. She was 73 years old when she passed away on November 11, 1990.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.