When Manhattan It Girl, Dot King, was found murdered in her apartment on West 57th Street in 1923, the case became a public sensation. It dominated the headlines in every major newspaper, enthralling readers as they debated who did it. King was the mistress of a wealthy member of high society–as well as the lover of a shady person in her murder–and her list of acquaintances spanned from the underbelly of Broadway to the halls of power and prestige.
The case was closed before the murderer could be brought to justice. Now, a century later, the case is brought back to life in Sara DiVello’s “Broadway Butterfly” where she channels Julia Harpman, an ace crime reporter for the “New York Daily News” who chases the story while navigating a male-dominated industry. Harpman was one of the pioneering women of journalism, risking her career, and her life to boldly undertake a private investigation and print the expose revealing the injustice of King’s case.
While meant to entertain, “Broadway Butterfly” represents an enduring quest for justice set against a backdrop of power, money, class, race, gender, truth and politics. In this real-life story, DiVello sets out to honor their lives in this true crime thriller that examines political power at play and demonstrates how a killer got away with murder.
Sara DiVello is a true crime writer and the creator/host of “Mystery and Thriller Mavens,” a popular author series and interactive Facebook group. She has interviewed more than 300 authors for her weekly Mystery and Thriller Mavens live events. In her spare time, she loves to teach yoga, cook (and eat!), garden and go for leisurely walks with her husband and their beloved rescue mutt, Peluda. Sara is passionate about all things books (especially mysteries and thrillers), the craft of writing and connecting readers to their favorite authors and introducing them to their new discoveries.
Why chose to focus on this case in particular? What about it drew you to write a whole novel on it?
Every writer is drawn to particular stories for uniquely personal reasons. I’ve noticed that true-crime writers are drawn to stories that resonate with them based on their life experiences and what they care most about, and even fiction writers wrestle with (and try to resolve) issues they care about through the lens of imaginary (or thinly disguised and real!) characters. I happen to be a person who cares very deeply about justice, what’s “fair” and stories about incredible women. So when I stumbled upon the murder of Dot King, herself an extraordinary woman, and how the case brought together Julia Harpman, a pioneering journalist and the lead crime reporter on the case, Ella Bradford, Dot King’s closest friend, confidant and the keeper of all her secrets, who became the detective’s most valuable source, and Frances Stotesbury, daughter of the wealthiest man in Pennsylvania, within a web of mystery, secrets, lies, power and betrayal, I knew this was a story I wanted to tell.
Dot King in the postscript was a “woman who made her own decisions” and was reputable for it. How do you think society would react to a woman living “King style” now versus how you think society should react to a woman’s lifestyle choice?
First of all, I think we should get #KingStyle trending in life and on social media! Secondly, I think women have more opportunities, power and freedom today than they did in 1923…and I also think that if we look closely, we can see echoes and outgrowths of the same limitations, restrictions and judgments today. I still don’t think society looks kindly upon “sugar babies” today.
It’s no surprise that novels take a while to be published but for you, it took you nine years solely for research. What helped you continue your publishing journey?
Honoring these real-life people and wrestling with these real-life issues, kept me motivated and energized. Over the past nine years of spending almost every single day researching, writing and thinking about them, I came to love each of them, and I firmly believe that they are each due the respect of telling their stories in the fullness and complexity of their individual humanity.
Dot King was killed and someone literally got away with murder—he was allowed to walk among us and live out the rest of his life as though he had not taken her life. The truth of that is mind-boggling. I hope that in some small way, telling her story brings light and justice to this case.
Julia Harpman was a pioneering journalist—this is a woman whose name should be known and whose career should be taught in history of journalism classes—and yet she has been completely forgotten by time. The path of every female journalist today has been made easier and more possible by the women before her and Julia Harpman was one such leader. I hope that this book will raise awareness about this extraordinary woman and that she will take her rightful place in history.
Ella Bradford was one of seven million Black Americans who were part of The Great Migration, leaving the south in search of better futures in the wake of the Civil War and Jim Crow laws. Around the age of 20, she courageously left Jacksonville, Florida to come to New York and create a better life for herself. She then found herself smack dab in the middle of a murder, and possessing more information than anyone else involved the case, especially when the case involved some of the most powerful people in the country, put her in tremendous danger. And yet Ella Bradford persevered. Her courage and loyalty deserve to be honored and I hope that, in some small way, this book does that.
Frances Stotesbury found herself paying a life-changing, life-harming price for men’s selfish folly…as countless women have done before and since.
And even Inspector John D. Coughlin, head of the NYPD Detective’s Unit, himself in charge of hunting down justice, finds himself the victim of injustice.
What was the trickiest part about telling the stories of real-life people who lived in the 1920s? Certainly, there wasn’t a lot of research on everyone included in this case.
The trickiest parts were unearthing the facts about women, which were much harder to find than the facts and storylines about men, and also winnowing down which historically accurate details would enhance the story. My mission was to separate that which was integral from that which was “merely interesting.”
Ella Bradford was the most challenging, because as challenging as it was to find records and information about women, finding records and information about a Black woman was even harder. Given that there was, of course, no electronic records back then, and we also have to factor in human error (misspelling, sloppy handwriting, a census worker who misheard, someone who misspoke or used another person’s nickname instead of their official name, etc.) made everything some degree harder. But when you finally get a hit, it’s completely addictive.
Why do you find it important to emphasize the justice of class, gender and race to a 21st-century audience?
I see a really dangerous trend right now where some people want to deny, ignore, bury or misrepresent the painful parts of history. But if we don’t look at, think about, talk about, analyze, dissect and teach the truth of history—even the most painful and ugly parts—we will never do better in the future, and we must do better in the future.
Thank you so much Sara for answering my questions! I was intrigued by “Broadway Butterfly” when I received an email about the novel, especially since I’m not a huge true crime novel, but I’m excited to do some research on my own to learn more about Dot King.
I’d also like to thank Stephanie Eliott and Megan Beatie from MB Communications for sending me this interview opportunity and the incoming ones. So excited to continue to work with you both as the semester starts soon!