The Bobbed-Haired Bandit: A True Story of Crime and Celebrity in 1920s New York

Duncombe, Stephen, and Andrew Mattson, The Bobbed-Haired Bandit: A True Story of Crime and Celebrity in 1920s New York (New York: New York University Press, 2006).

On a cold night in January 1924, a small, dark-haired woman in a beaded dress and a fur coat walked into a grocery store in Brooklyn. When she asked the manager for a package of eggs, he obligingly wrapped them up, tying the box shut with a piece of string. Then the customer pulled an automatic pistol from the pocket of her coat.

‘Stick ’em up! Quick!’… For a second I thought he wasn’t going to do it… Then up they went, both arms together, like one of those monkeys you buy on a stick with a string at the ten cent store. I thought, ‘Gee, that would make a pretty toy for my baby.’ (31)

Celia Cooney was twenty years old and three months pregnant when she and her husband Ed borrowed a car, bought a few cheap pistols, and embarked on a string of petty robberies across Brooklyn. Her crime spree terrorized businesses in the borough, outwitted the city’s police force and embarrassed its political leaders, and set off a brief but intense cultural craze. For months, she was great copy: the scandal sheets dubbed her “The Bobbed-Haired Bandit” and speculated for months about her identity, motivation, M.O., and the social meaning of her crimes. Was she a coke-addled flapper, a lady Robin Hood, a depraved lumpenproletarian, a cross-dressing “super-criminal,” or just a girl gone wild?

While the yellow journalists’ accounts of Cooney’s gaudy robberies are worth the cover price, the real joy of The Bobbed-Haired Bandit is the slow pace of 1920s police work. In an age before surveillance cameras and computer databases, the young laundress had months to develop into the role that the newspapers elaborated. Self-conscious of her status as a public figure, Celia played the role of the “Bobbed-Haired Bandit” with panache -– appearing in disguise, leaving taunting notes at the scenes of her crimes, and carrying out jobs in her own neighborhood. A working-class girl whose Dickensian life story later inspired pitying editorials, the marauding Cooney was delighted by her homemade fame, and by the chance to enjoy a few fine things.

Predating Bonnie and Clyde by almost a decade, Celia Cooney was a foretaste of the kinds of “Public Enemies” who were elevated to the status of national antiheroes during the Depression. But despite all the glamour, the Cooneys found that crime didn’t pay -– or at least, not enough. After just one lucky dip, their holdups didn’t net much, and the couple soon found themselves scraping to cover their bills. Meanwhile, the increasingly nervous NYPD issued “shoot to kill” orders and put hundreds of volunteer officers on the streets of Brooklyn. When their carefully planned “big knockover” went wrong, Celia and Ed Cooney fled south to Florida -– only to be apprehended in Miami a few weeks later.

Celia was a local hero. The crowd that turned out to see her do the perp walk easily outnumbered the reception that the city had held to welcome President Coolidge that same morning. For weeks, the tabloids stayed abreast of the bandits’ convoluted legal proceedings, which ultimately dispatched her and her beloved Ed to prison for a sentence of ten to twenty years. While in prison, Celia was paid by William Randolph Hearst to “write” her autobiography for serialization. Then she was slowly forgotten -– until Duncombe and Mattson stumbled on her story in the archives of the New York State Library.

Discovering Celia Cooney’s identity is only one of the mysteries that Duncombe and Mattson set for themselves in this genre-crossing work of literary nonfiction. In the library stacks, they uncovered not simply the footage of a long-drawn-out crime spree, but “a story of stories”: multivocal, contradictory, and ultimately ambiguous. “There is no ‘true’ story of the Bobbed Haired Bandit… What is important is the way what happened was interpreted, recorded, instrumentalized, and mobilized.” (7)

Indeed. The story of the bobbed-haired bandit is remarkable as a recovered episode of lost history, or a dashing tale of cops and robbers, and as a collage of the colorfully written, funny, inaccurate newspaper accounts that covered the self-consciously cool career of the petite “gunmiss.” But better, The Bobbed-Haired Bandit expands into a three-dimensional portrait by using the figure of Celia Cooney to explore New York City in the Jazz Age. Using Celia as a window on the world, Duncombe and Mattson give a full and compelling depiction of the period’s gender and class politics, as well as a survey of the history of Prohibition, the battles around social reform, the development of a credit-based consumer economy, and the unique relationship between New York City’s mayor and its muckraking newspapers.

To this end, The Bobbed-Haired Bandit reproduces dialogue, court reports, editorials, headlines, illustrations, photos, and political cartoons, providing a powerful sense of the language, styles, and values of the era. Almost across the board, these supplementary materials are well chosen and helpfully placed. (Unfortunately, there isn’t a map of Brooklyn, leaving one to hop up from the sitting room periodically and run to the bus map to check the cross streets where the “Bobbed-Haired Bandit and her tall companion” lived and worked. It gave me a jolt to realize that Ed and Celia lived not far from my own apartment in present-day Prospect Heights.)

In reproducing the case of the Cooneys in such deep detail, while still attempting to impart wisdom about topics like social banditry and the political economy of tabloid journalism, the authors are attempting to tread the delicate ground between true crime and social history, genres whose aims stand at intellectual cross-purposes. Given the difficulty of this balancing act, The Bobbed Haired Bandit is a strong, smooth read that doesn’t show too many of its seams. However, the authors’ love for their complex protagonist occasionally intrudes. Duncombe and Mattson worked with the diligence of archaeologists to recover Celia Cooney from news and court archives, and footnoted their manuscript to distraction: even the sentence “A dog barked” gets a citation. Too, the authors occasionally seem to be translating their primary documents for the reader, as if the English of the 1920s were a foreign language.

Because the authors are working on multiple and sometimes contradictory projects, the tone of The Bobbed Haired Bandit occasionally slips into a workmanlike register that lacks literary grace. But when they cut to the chase, the writers have a great story, and they handle it well. The end of Celia Cooney’s brief, brilliant criminal career is as tragic as it is predictable. But even as the outlaw’s real voice vanishes in ghostwritten accounts and purple reportage, she comes into view in brief, illuminating quotes. Where she remarks “For once in my life I was boss” (32), she echoes Meridel LeSueur’s classic novel The Girl, whose protagonist observes bitterly (after her own botched holdup): “They show you the world and take it away.” Here, as in The Bobbed Haired Bandit, the story template is David and Goliath. Almost as remarkable as the bravery of a desperate young woman is the fear and force with which the American class system defended itself and its contradictions. Celia Cooney’s willingness to take a splendid, ruthless risk is as American as the system that refused her.

Reviewed by Martha Lincoln
CUNY Graduate Center

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