Greenwich Village, New York City, was a particularly progressive town in the 1930s. One of its main appeals was its acceptance of alternative lifestyles such as the LGBTQ community. Many clubs and bars included risqué acts, one reason police targeted many of these establishments.
At the time, 47 West Third Street was home to the Howdy Club. It was known as a lesbian bar and was often referred to as a shady place. A 1936 edition of the New York Times Post described the bar: “Continuous entertainment on West Third Street. The Village at its strangest — and not for the squeamish”.
Norma De Marco, a striking 22-year-old unemployed stenographer, was a frequent customer of the Howdy Club. She had previously lived in the Bronx but was at the time living with her friend (it is likely the two were a couple) Dorothy La Marr, a hatcheck girl in a Greenwich Village club, the Black Cat.
De Marco was rumored to be a drug addict and there were police records showing she had tried to jump from a third-floor window on one occasion — she had later been assisted at the Bellevue Hospital.
On Tuesday, April 12, 1938, Norma De Marco and Dorothy La Marr were at the Howdy Club when it was the target of an armed robbery and subsequent gunfight.
While the armed men stole what they could from the establishment, De Marco shouted, “This is a wicked thing to do”. This led to her being hit in the head by a gunman with the butt of a revolver.
Minutes after, the police arrived at the scene. The gunmen, in a rush of fury, enclosed themselves in the men’s bathroom. A gunfight followed as the trio tried to shoot their way out of the establishment.
James Gibbons, a police officer, was hiding behind a post when one gunman ambushed him from behind. De Marco “cried out” and the policeman turned around and shot the thief in the arm. Gibbons later credited De Marco with saving his life.
Alas, another police officer, Moruzzi, was fatally shot in the head during the gunfight. The three gunmen, John Kulka, Chester Carson, and Francis Degnan were wounded but later recovered in the Bellevue Hospital Prison Ward. De Marco was also assisted by doctors.
The robbery was presumed to be an inside job. As a result, the over 40 clients present at the time of the crime were all questioned. One woman, Jacqueline Walker, was arrested for being a possible accomplice. She was friends with the gunmen and was seen with them not long before the incident.
On April 13, around 5 PM, De Marco and La Marr were questioned at the District Attorney’s Office. Not long after, the women left and De Marco called up two male friends for dinner and drinks that night. The four spent the night around the Village’s clubs, then went to La Marr’s apartment.
De Marco seemed to be normal until out of the nowhere she began to freak out, yelling “My eyes are bulging out. I’m losing my mind”. She then tried to jump out the window, but her two male friends dragged her away from the window and calmed her down. When everything seemed to be fine, the two men left the apartment.
Around midnight, La Marr thought it would be best for De Marco to take a cold bath, “to straighten her out”. While in the bathroom, La Marr helped De Marco undress. But when she turned her back, De Marco plunged out the 12th-floor window, onto the courtyard of the building.
An autopsy revealed that De Marco had suffered a skull fracture from being bludgeoned by the gunman.
Despite this, the police did not believe there was a link between the robbery and suicide.