Actress Thelma Mareo and the case of the killer conductor

by Redmer Yska / 20 January, 2017
Actress Thelma Mareo.

A spellbinding murder case that transfixed New Zealand more than 80 years ago relied on the questionable evidence of the famous exotic dancer Freda Stark.

The drug-soaked crime transfixed the nation: a musician accused of giving his wife a fatal dose during the round-the-clock partying that was part of their chaotic inner-city lifestyle, fuelled by ruinous chemicals.

But this wasn’t a case from the files of today’s meth epidemic. This was the 1930s in Auckland, a city putting on its dancing shoes after the sombre Depression years and making room for throbbing nightlife and glittering, exotic personalities.

Enter Eric Mareo (real name Eric Joachim Pechotsch), a Sydney-born bandleader who might be regarded as our first genuine metrosexual long before the term was coined. Strolling down Queen St in a tuxedo, with a foot-long cigarette holder in one hand, a cane and gloves in the other, he stood out from other locals in their lumpy brown sports jackets, cropped hair and grey strides.

His outlandish confidence showed in orchestral performances, which he conducted with a tinsel baton. An Auckland weekly wrote: “The stage was decked in crimson roses. Every music stand trailed its garland. Busts of great composers stood in the background, and the name ‘Mareo’ was outlined in flowers.”

Mareo and his actress wife Thelma were habitués of the Dixieland cabaret on the corner of Queen and Waverley Sts, with its sprung dance floor. Patrons enjoyed live jazz and illegal liquor. Truth talked of “an orgy of jazz and fizz” at the cabaret and of young drunken women “whose knees gave way beneath them”. The sleepy Queen City was waking up: nightlife, such as it was, had consisted of musical theatre, vaudeville and silent movies.

Auckland’s Jazz Age arrived in 1929 with the December opening of the Civic Theatre. Radio, talking cinema and gramophone records were the harbingers of a new consumer culture, increasingly with a “fast” American accent.

Not everyone could afford it, of course. Much of inner-city Auckland was run-down and crowded, a hotbed of labour activism. Ponsonby and Herne Bay were workers’ enclaves, electing MPs such as Michael Joseph Savage, who in 1935 led Labour into power for the first time.

Freda Stark.

Suburban Mt Eden, where the Mareos rented a bungalow, was a quieter, leafier corner. The couple regularly hosted all-night parties there for fellow “theatricals”, wild characters such as dancer Freda Stark, who would gain notoriety in later years for ­dancing for visiting troops at the Wintergarden cabaret beneath the Civic, clad in a G-string and gold paint.

But the couple had a dark side: both were addicted to the barbiturate Veronal, a lethal hypnotic that was all the rage with the glamorous London jazz crowd. An inquest into the death of an Auckland user heard the tablets could be bought from local chemists “like a bag of lollies”.

So when Thelma overdosed and died one weekend in April 1935, the spotlight fell on their seamy world. Charged with giving the killer dose, Mareo would be judged as much for his flamboyant, dissolute lifestyle as for the crime itself.

For the next decade, Mareo’s name would never be far from the headlines. And like childcare worker Peter Ellis, released from jail in 2000 after serving the mandatory two-thirds of his 10-year sentence for abusing children at the Christchurch Civic Creche, or Arthur Allan Thomas, twice wrongly convicted and later pardoned for the 1970 Crewe murders, he was a man whose guilt or innocence was a constant topic of conversation.

Above all, the vain, foppish bandleader with the foreign name appeared to have a motive: the prosecution insisted he wanted to replace his wife with his doting assistant Eleanor Brownlee, who laundered his white bow ties and waistcoats.

Five months after Thelma’s death, Auckland police acted: in September, Mareo was taken into custody and charged with her murder. At the time, he told detectives: “Really? On what evidence? This is ridiculous. What evidence have you got?”

Conductor Eric Mareo.

Intense interest

The trial began on February 17, 1936, and Auckland’s Supreme Court was packed. Media interest was intense: the Auckland Star emphasised Mareo’s attractiveness to women, suggesting he was as vain as ever:

“Keen public interest was displayed in the opening of the trial, many women having waited in a queue at the side door which leads to the women’s gallery,” the paper reported. “The Court was crowded when Mareo’s name was called. Dressed in a neat blue-striped suit, prisoner looked exceptionally well when he came through the trapdoor into the dock, a deep suntan showing that he had spent much of his time in the open at Mt Eden gaol since his arrest on September 2 last.”

In fact, according to chaplain Rev George Moreton, the tan resulted from a desperate attempt to survive months on remand inside the prison’s grim stone walls. “There was not a single stick of furniture, only an old mattress thrown on the floor in one corner; they gave him a couple of dessert spoons with which to eat his meals – a knife and fork were not allowed in case he attempted to commit suicide … For the first few weeks, he paced that cell all day and most of the night; his brain was in a hopeless whirl. He must keep himself fit, he thought; … so he measured the remand yard and walked sixteen miles every day.”

Mareo was right to be worried. New Zealand in the 30s still had a thick underlay of Victorian puritanism. Everything closed on Sundays, and silky foreigners were regarded with suspicion. As the case began, the Herald’s drama critic wrote: Music, to the British mind, is always suspect. It is manly enough and respectable enough to be a merchant, or a lawyer, or a grocer, but there is some taint of femininity about the arts – something wild and long-haired and unbusinesslike.

Jurors heard how Pechotsch, a brilliant musician and conductor, was born in Sydney in 1891 to a family of Viennese musicians. At 13, he had travelled to Berlin to further his musical studies. Later, in England, he lived with another man’s wife, who died from tuberculosis. There were two children, Betty and Graham. Returning to Sydney, Mareo met and married Thelma Trott, a musician and actress. The couple toured in theatrical companies across Australia, where they’d met Stark.

Stark with Thelma at a picnic in 1935.

Spellbinding witness

She would become the main witness for the prosecution and she was spellbinding. Over the course of nine compelling days, she stripped the Mareos’ marriage bare, exposing the overdressed man in the dock as a violent drunk, abusive and highly emotional (as might be expected of a foreigner). The jurors lapped it all up.

Yet there was an elephant in the courtroom: lesbianism. Stark and Thelma spent a lot of time in bed together at the Mareo home. Today it is clear that they were lovers – Stark was “out”, but in the climate of 1936, homosexuality didn’t fit the prevailing narrative. Influential papers, including Truth, reinforced the prosecution’s demonisation of the accused, showing Stark and Thelma as intimate friends. Nothing more.

Instead, Mareo became the “pervert”, the man with the abnormal marriage: “He says in a statement … that he never lived with her as man and wife, and that her desires were gratified by her associations with women. He has also said that it was agreed before they married that they would never have sexual relations. He further says that she drank two bottles of sherry every day.”

So how had Thelma died? Neither defence nor prosecution disputed that, nearly comatose on Veronal, she died after an additional, fatal dose. The issue was whether she had taken it of her own volition. The prosecution argued that Mareo, keen to get rid of her, contrived to lace a glass of hot milk on the Saturday night. According to Stark’s lengthy, sordid and explicit account of Thelma’s slumped agony in the bedroom, this was when he murdered his wife.

Mareo’s villainy didn’t end there. Stark twisted the knife by highlighting his callousness in not calling a doctor on the Sunday after she failed to awaken. This allegation rested on her evidence alone and was rebutted by other witnesses.

Had the prosecution made its case? According to the definitive 2002 account of the case, The Trials of Eric Mareo, by Rebecca Ellis (now a High Court Judge) and Dr Charles Ferrall, the Crown had the seemingly impossible task of convincing the jury that Mareo had killed his wife with Veronal when the evidence was entirely circumstantial”. And despite Stark’s performance, the jury still had enough doubt to consider a manslaughter verdict.

The authors, however, note that the presiding judge, Mr Justice Fair, was ­conducting his first criminal trial. ­“Perhaps for that reason his direction to the ­Foreman was ponderous and confusing, and completely failed to define what manslaughter was.

The jury found him guilty of murder, with a recommendation of mercy. The accused was asked if he had anything to say. According to the Auckland Star, Mareo moved slightly, then, with a clear, deep and ringing voice, he said: “Nothing to say against it. Only it seems to me, after the evidence, which has been most just in every way – and after the judge, His Honour’s, direction to the jury, that their verdict is a travesty of justice. Nothing more.”

The judge donned the black cap and sentenced him “to be hanged by the neck until you are dead”. The Star again: “Mareo, with head now bowed and arms hanging limply by his side, turned at a touch from a warder. He walked in this way the few short paces to the trapdoor stairs. He gave one fleeting glance at the crowd – then disappeared below.”

It was a triumph for the prosecution. Their star witness kept her composure under tough questioning, earning her the reputation as “the perfect Crown witness”. Mareo later said, I have been sentenced on the lying word of Freda Stark.”

Chaplain Moreton recorded Mareo’s reaction: “He was locked in the ‘condemned’ cell, which enjoys a sinister exclusiveness – and left to await his death. But he wasn’t alone; no condemned man ever is. A warder sat woodenly in a corner of the cell … becoming as nerve-racking to Mareo as anything in the whole of that early experience.”

Mareo displays new dentures.

Fresh evidence

Then came a chance of reprieve: following the discovery of fresh evidence from Australian witnesses, a second trial, highly unusual for its time, was ordered. The Savage administration, opposed to the death penalty, had gently intervened.

Attorney-General Rex Mason, theosophist, vegetarian and teetotaller, now enters the story. From the start, this dedicated law reformer retained private, nagging doubts about Mareo’s guilt. The Court of Appeal had refused him a fresh trial, but one was ordered after an application to the Governor-General-in-Council, with which Mason was involved.

The second trial opened on the first day of June, 1936, before Mr Justice Callan. Much the same evidence was submitted, but Mareo’s defence team made more of testimony that Thelma had regularly taken drugs and threatened suicide. However, they were up against a wily prosecutor, Vincent Meredith, the charismatic manager of the All Blacks and a consummate performer on the amateur stage as well as in court. Meredith gave Stark star billing, reinforcing the impression of Mareo as a cold and callous killer.

The Star recorded her theatrical testimony: “She could hear Thelma gasping for breath. ‘It was terrible,’ she said. Witness went in and saw Thelma – and ran out a few minutes later to phone a doctor from next door, saying as she went, ‘Oh, Mr Mareo, why didn’t you get a doctor?’ Mrs Mareo’s face had a mottled, bluish tinge, like that of someone very cold. Her mouth was open, and brown saliva had run out of one side, caking in her hair. Her eyes were shut. Miss Stark rang three doctors – one was unable to come for some time, the second was out, and when she finally got Dr Dreadon, she could not speak through her tears.”

Again, Mareo was found guilty and ­sentenced to hang. This time there was no recommendation for mercy. His lawyer, Humphrey O’Leary KC, who was later to become Chief Justice, wept when the ­verdict was announced. Others thought he should hang. When the verdict flashed on the screens of one Auckland cinema, patrons famously stood up and cheered.

The chaplain recorded that at this point Mareo converted to Christianity: “All hope was dead then, his soul seemed to have died within him; it wasn’t the real Mareo who returned to the condemned cell, it was his ghost … he tried to pray. From that moment a wonderful peace came upon him.”

Then came an unexpected intervention. Mr Justice Callan sent Mason a confidential note, stating thatat the conclusion of the trial, the evidence fell short of satisfying me of Mareo’s guilt”.

Like every death sentence imposed while the Labour Government was in power, Mareo’s was commuted to life imprisonment. He spent nearly 13 years in Mt Eden Prison, turning into a model prisoner who played the organ during church services and wrote an oratorio in his cell. Moreton became increasingly convinced of his innocence:

It seemed impossible that the handsome, impeccably dressed figure that had bowed so gracefully before the clapping audience could bear any relation to the coarsely clad prisoner who played the jail organ. [He] in my opinion was not the type who could cold-bloodedly plan a murder. He was too artistic, too temperamental, too fundamentally honest.”

The chaplain was not alone in believing in Mareo. There would be relentless, high-powered efforts to clear his name over the following decade. These included two Court of Appeal Hearings, three select committee inquiries and Mason’s recommendation for a commission of inquiry. Truth, however continued its persecution, calling him names, including Glamour Boy No 1”.

Mareo’s situation seemed hopeless. Then in 1941, his supporters persuaded Sir ­William Wilcox, arguably the world’s most eminent toxicologist, to give his opinion on medical aspects of the case.

Wilcox, the principal toxicologist to the British Home Office, concluded it was not all likely that another dose of Veranol had been taken at the time that the milk was allegedly given to Thelma. He concluded: If Thelma Mareo had access to Veranol, the drug was, in my opinion, self-administered as is so commonly the case in fatal cases of Veranol poisoning.” In other words, the accused was innocent.

The chaplain recorded how much store Mareo set by this expert opinion, convincing himself it would help spring his release. But, he recorded, it was not to be: “Mareo, who a few weeks previously had every reason to expect a speedy release, was standing at the graveside of all his hopes.”

Local toxicologist Dr Philip Lynch ­persuaded Justice Ministry officials to reject the finding: Freda Stark’s evidence was of critical importance, he said, and could only be tested by seeing and hearing her as she gave evidence. For Lynch, the guilty verdict was fully justifiable.

The Mareo Symphony Orchestra.

Futile appeals

Mason continued to argue Mareo’s ­innocence, but the growing list of appeals, inquiries and petitions went nowhere. By 1948, as Mareo’s release from prison loomed, Truth needled Mason, saying. “It would be a travesty of justice if all the rejections of the most strenuous efforts made to disprove Mareo’s guilt were to be thwarted by the ­failure of a minister to face the facts and realise the seriousness of turning loose in the community a man convicted of the most satanic crime in the criminal calendar.”

On his release, Mareo changed his name by deed poll to Curtis. He married Gladys Andreae, a woman he’d met in jail, and the couple moved to a spacious house on Auckland’s outskirts. Gladys died suddenly in early in 1960, shortly after Mareo was granted a discharge from probation. Within weeks, he’d married violinist Nora Bailey, a woman who had waited patiently for him in London for 28 years. He died, just weeks later, on November 25, 1960.

The case continued to haunt Mason long after he ceased to be Attorney-General. After his retirement, he drafted chapters of a book dedicated to proving Mareo’s innocence, Rebecca Ellis and Charles Ferrall drew on that draft material in their acclaimed book.

During the 1961 debate in Parliament on legislation that finally put an end to capital punishment for civilians, Mason made explicit reference to Mareo, noting that mistakes could happen in convictions. “I am pointing out that we can obtain a conviction though the basis is not there. An innocent man can be convicted.” Mason was openly critical of Freda Stark, condemning her for clear, inescapable perjury”.

Within a decade of Mareo’s conviction, the country faced a second outbreak of sleek and frivolous metrosexuality in the arrival of tens of thousands of US troops. Their success with local womenfolk soon saw jealous Kiwi males describe their flashy, confident rivals as “bedroom commandos”. Many young New Zealanders, however, glimpsed an alternative to the cautious restraint of their parents and began to “go American”. The post-war future was on its way.

Robin Hyde.

The ‘infallible cure’ with a killer kick

Eric Mareo’s admission that he was addicted to Veronal would have counted against him with the honest citizens who sat in judgment on him.

It was the perfect sleeping pill with echoes of Italy in the elegant brand name. The first commercially available barbiturate (its generic name was barbitone), Veronal was synthesised in 1903 by chemists who hailed it as “the infallible cure for insomnia”.

Billed as safe and non-addictive, it proved an immediate success in Europe. Katherine Mansfield snapped up tablets when she arrived in London, by which time the overdoses and deaths had already begun. New Zealand, targeted by British and American drug companies, ­followed suit.

By 1930, Veronal had been added to the prohibited ­poisons list, along with morphine and cocaine. Writer Robin Hyde, a former user, had noted that it had been “the cause of so many recent ­tragedies that the New Zealand Pharmacy Board is moving in this direction”. A Poisons Act provided that Veronal could be obtained only with a prescription.

Hyde speculated that economic insecurity was behind the increased use of drugs: “It has undoubtedly caused increased nervous strain, and has weakened the resistance of men and women who a few years ago would have shunned the drug habit.”

She may have been on the mark. Mareo was struggling financially. He had recently lost his job as a bandleader and was facing economic ruin. He was also worried about the impact of the Poisons Act on his supplies and had gone shopping around pharmacies to stock up. As a result, Thelma and Eric had been on binges lasting for days.

Mareo openly confessed to being a drug addict, but this counted against him with the jury. As a supporter noted, “the prejudice against him tightened considerably. You see, to those honest citizens from whom juries are selected, there’s something heinous about the very word ‘drug’ … the fact that Eric Mareo was a self-confessed addict enormously depreciated his chances of an acquittal.”

Almost starkers: Freda Stark in costume.

‘Always another layer of mystery’

Star witness Freda Stark led a glamorous life as a dancer.

Writer F Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that there are no second acts in American lives”. It was not a concept dancer Freda Stark, right, understood: the star witness in the Mareo trials went on to lead a long, glamorous life and was later championed as a gay icon.

Most notoriously, Stark became known as the “Fever of the Fleet” during World War II. At the Wintergarden cabaret in the Civic Theatre, she entertained visiting troops clad only in gold paint (which took five hours to apply), a G-string and a feather headdress.

Born in Kaeo in Northland in 1910, Stark was taught to dance by her storekeeper father, and took formal lessons from age nine. By the time she left Epsom Girls’ Grammar School in the mid-1920s, she was working in an office by day and dancing at night under the name “L’Etoile” (the Star).

Such was her reputation by the 1930s that she was snapped up by Ernest Rolls’ touring revue company. It was there that she met and fell in love with actress and dancer Thelma Trott, wife of Eric Mareo.

After the war, Stark quit the stage and headed for London, getting clerical work at New Zealand House. She married a fellow dancer there in 1947, but in 1970 returned alone. She spent the rest of her working life at the University of Auckland Library, until her death in 1999.

Writer and film-maker Peter Wells later wrote of her: “Somehow with Freda you never got behind the mask. There was always another layer of mystery there – almost a reticence.

“I think she needed such inner strength to survive the scandal of the 1930s, that while she recovered and went on to live a fantastic life, some part of her died. And that part was the woman she loved most in the world, Thelma.”

This article was first published in the December 24, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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