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Gossip! News! Fame & Infamy!

One of the reasons I began researching my family tree was to find out if I was related to anyone famous. Have you ever wondered too?

Irish pirate queen
Gráinne Ní Mháille Picture:

I admit, I was hoping to be related to somebody, especially since I have not had any past-life-regressions to find myself as

Grace O'Malley the Pirate Queen of Ireland or Calamity Jane of the Wild West. Sadly, my biggest claim to fame for years was being descended from a busted cigarette smuggler (who was fined and had to pay the taxes due).

But doing research using newspapers led me to an international family scandal involving two secretaries, sports stars, a very rich man, and a secret marriage! Pull up a chair and let's talk about Grandaunt Gladys Myrtle Dow. NOTE: I prefer the term "grandaunt" for the sister of my grandmother, because it makes it much less confusing for me when speaking of the prior generation of my great-grandmother's family.

Gladys was born in December 1895 in New London, CT. The daughter of a ne'er do well street car conductor and a second generation American whose grandparents were from Roscommon, Ireland. Gladys's father deserted his family of six children in 1911 for a younger woman he had gotten in a family way. This is not the "scandal" of the story today!

We find Gladys living with her aunt Minnie Dow Murphy and her husband in New York City in 1920 mislabeled in that census as their daughter, and then in Detroit in 1930. She is a secretary. In 1940, she is in the census as "Gladys Dow," the single head of household living with her Aunt Minnie, who is now widowed.

112 Edison, Detroit, MI

Her address is 112 Edison, valued at $18,000 ($381,000 in 2022 money) and she is the owner. She is no longer a secretary. Where did Grandaunt Gladys get all the money to buy this house, you may well ask? Well, I was curious!

Fast forward to the 1950's. I haven't found her in the recently issued 1950 census as Michigan is not all indexed yet. Grandaunt Gladys is living the high life, in a hotel, in Detroit, Michigan. With servants. My newlywed mother remembers being dazzled by the crystal, the furnishings, and the locale when my father took her there to meet his aunt. It was the first time a butler ever had asked her what kind of cocktail she would like to have, and she was unable to speak to answer!

The family had always been pretty mum about what was going on with Grandaunt Gladys. We knew she was a secretary for a man named Jerry Utley. MAYBE they were married. Maybe they were not. She is buried as "Gladys Utley." Who was Jerry Utley of Detroit? Here's where the story starts to get good!

Turns out, Jerry Utley was the principal of Jerome A. Utley Construction in Detroit that was one of the builders of the General Motors facilities there. Note the plural. Facilities. Ohhhhhhh! He even has his own Wiki page which says in part, "Jerome Adams "Jerry" Utley (January 7, 1881 – April 24, 1959[1]) was an American baseball player and coach, contracting engineer, hotelier and boxing promoter. He played and coached college baseball for the Michigan Wolverines baseball team in the early 1900s. He also briefly coached and played minor league baseball from 1905 to 1906. After retiring from baseball, Utley had a successful career as a contracting engineer on building projects in Detroit. From 1931 to approximately 1948, he had an ownership interest in the Hotel Playa Ensenada, later renamed the Hotel Riviera del Pacífico, a luxury hotel in Baja California, Mexico. He also briefly had a partnership with Jack Dempsey as a boxing promoter which included promoting the 1933 heavyweight championship match between Max Schmeling and Max Baer."

The Hotel Playa Ensenada (and Casino) was built in 1929 & 1930 just 75 miles south of Tijuana and San Diego. You remember what was happening in the US in 1929? Prohibition! Mexico in the 1920's was just coming out of its revolution. The government of Mexico was very interested in attracting capital. Rich Americans were very interested in drinking and gambling, both of which were legal in Baja California. The stars aligned. Literally.

"The hotel was inaugurated on Halloween night, October 31, 1930. Those who came would remember the occasion as long as they lived. It was a formal affair — Xavier Cugat’s band played, [Bing Crosby performed] the Hollywood crowd, the beautiful people, were all there. But, the real star of the night was the building itself. The Spanish interiors, so much in vogue at the time, were plush and elegant. All the ornaments had been brought from around the world. Beautiful wrought iron grilles that had belonged to wonderful old colonial buildings in Havana, now adorned windows and arches at the hotel; the roofs were constructed with Florida wormwood cypress; the vitraux [stained or art glass] were Italian; the chandeliers and lamps came from Spain, as well as all the mosaics. The interior decoration boasted Persian rugs, Chinese commodes and a select assembly of Spanish furniture. Rich tapestries hung on the walls, and a grand piano dominated the huge lobby that had the Pacific Ocean for a front yard.

The ceilings and many walls were painted with murals by Alfredo Ramos Martínez, a fine Mexican artist whose work caused great admiration. The motifs were varied and eloquent: beautiful women, mythological themes, social themes, and a great variety of eclectic decorations which ranged from Pompeiian to Renaissance and Mudéjar [Moorish or Moresque]. The total cost, according to the San Diego Union of November 1, 1930, was $2,000,000." $2 million in 1930 money is worth about $35,482,155.69 today!

Jack Dempsey, the boxer, was one of the original investors and one of the main draws to the property. But for whatever reason, he left the project in 1931. Enter Jerome Utley as the new investor. But his timing was terrible. Prohibition in the US ended in 1935 and new president of Mexico, Lázaro Cárdenas, abolished gambling in 1938. With the coming of World War II, the hotel closed in 1939 and was occupied by the Mexican armed forces off and on until 1945 to protect the coast from invasion by Japan.

When the war ended, (here comes the juicy part) Utley decided to reopen the hotel. And several different sources state that he was a "70 year old bachelor very much in love" and in 1948 he decided to give the hotel to his "beloved, Marjorie King Plant, an attractive blond woman in her early forties."

I have found this fabulous Facebook page for the Hotel Playa Ensenada with lots of historical pictures and references. There is a clip of "movie star" Marjorie King "bailando" (dancing) in 1936 in a Belgian film before she married Mr. Plant, and before she met Jerry Utley. Click on the picture to see the short clip of this femme fatale if you like. (Belgian film in French, <J'ai gagné un million> or I Made a Million from 1936. Length: 36 Minutes Directed by: Og Calster issued by Bruxelles-Films)

But as you may know, at that time, foreigners could not own property in Mexico, especially in the Restricted Zone which was beachfront property that could be subject to invasion by enemies (apparently, the ownership structure wherein Uncle Jerry was the majority holder was exempt or grandfathered from this rule). Marjorie wisely consulted with an attorney, who advised her that the only way she could own the property was to marry a Mexican, and then volunteered his services. She accepted. The hotel's FB page cites her business savvy. They also posit that she is the source of the name for the Margarita cocktail.

Sadly, true love did not win out. Uncle Jerry discovered at some point that his true love's business arrangement was no longer just a marriage of convenience with the Mexican attorney, sued Marjorie, and lost. She kept the hotel until 1950.

Meanwhile, while all of this intrigue and romance is going on in Ensenada, Grandaunt Gladys is back at the ranch (mansion) in Detroit. What must she have been thinking about all of this going on in Ensenada? Gladys's mother, Agnes, died in 1957. "Gladys Dow" of New London, CT is listed in the obituary as a survivor in 1957, so, Gladys is no longer in Detroit, or is she maintaining a double residency in both places?

Jerome Utley died in 1959. Grandaunt Gladys is listed as his surviving wife (!) in the obituary clipped from Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan) · 25 Apr 1959, Sat · Page 16

This is the first record we have that he has married Gladys! Another obituary clarifies that his wife is, indeed, "Gladys Dow Utley." When did this happen? The plot has thickened!

The contents of Jerome Utley's will were published in the Detroit Free Press on April 28, 1959. See the clipping from showing who inherited the bulk of his estate.

His SECRETARY was getting a fortune in cash and land, part ownership in the construction company, one fourth of the Mexican hotel company, and Grandaunt Gladys only got $500? Wait, the story gets better! The Dow family wasted no time in contesting this will as seen in Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan)3 Jun 1959, Wed Page 3. We also learn that the First Congregational Church is getting 1/2 of the estate, and NOT the University of Michigan.

Newspaper article about contested Will
Utley Dow Marriage Lic. 1926
Utley Dow Marriage Lic. 1926

Now we learned in the last paragraph that they got married in 1926! Where?

Now that I had a year narrowed down, it made it a little easier to find. I found their marriage license in OHIO. Lucas County Ohio is just down the road from Detroit. They lied and said they were residents of Chicago, Illinois, and I love the notation "Do Not Publish" in the upper left hand corner. He was 45, and she was 28. Don't forget, she still listed herself on the censuses for 1930 and 1940 as single! Click on it to expand.

From this newspaper article we also discover the name of the swanky hotel where my mother met Grandaunt Gladys - The Whittier Hotel.

Well, you know this secretary inheriting the fortune and the secret wife contesting the will was turning into quite the scandal in Detroit, and no doubt, back in New London! I looked further up the newspaper trail. The image below contains the next article from The Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan)6 Jun 1959, Sat · Page 5 found at

Newspaper article re voided will

I'm thinking Uncle Jerry is turning out to be quite the cad. Is it really possible neither of these women knew about each other for two decades? Miss Cooper began working for Jerry Utley in 1928, two years after he had married Gladys. In secret. In Ohio. Did she know what was going on in Ensenada? Was she in on that Marjorie King Plant romance? Did he promise her the fortune to keep that quiet?

The day after the will was voided Miss Cooper got fired from the Utley Construction Co. Of course, she filed a lawsuit trying to get her briefly held fortune back from the wife she claimed she knew nothing about. The First Congregational Church also filed a suit to get their half of the estate back.

One year later, Miss Cooper's lawsuit was dropped per another article in Detroit Free Press published on July 6, 1960. The Dow family had made a settlement offer which was accepted.

However, The First Congregational Church of Detroit took their case all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court (UTLEY v. FIRST CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH, Utley v. Congregational Church, 368 Mich. 90, 117 N.W.2d 141 {Mich. 1962}), and they ultimately won in 1962. They ruled that just because Miss Cooper, the secretary, had settled with the Dow family, as she was the executrix of Jerome Utley's estate she had the responsibility to fight for the will as written for all of the beneficiaries (the estate was footing the bill, after all). Poor Grandaunt Gladys was now, relatively, poor.

Gladys Myrtle Dow Utley died in 1964, and her obituary was published in The Detroit Free Press on May 1. She was buried in Connecticut. I have not yet been able to find any probate records for her estate in either Connecticut or Detroit, so I don't know what happened to the mansion in Detroit, or the 640 acre farm in Luzerne, Michigan. Her last known address was 125 Lower Blvd. in New London, which is a nice big lot right in the heart of town. I hope she enjoyed the luxuries she had during this strange relationship (even by today's standards)and was comfortable in her remaining years.

house in connecticut

Can the same be said for (literally) poor Miss Cooper? Only her family or genealogist knows.

Who knew this kind of excitement could happen in real life? And if I hadn't been curious about my family history I never would have known about this tale of international intrigue, mistresses, gambling, and fortunes made and lost! I haven't found any pirate queens yet, but I'm going to keep looking.

What secrets could we uncover for you? Is there an unclaimed bank account out there with your Grandaunt's name on it? Are you related to royalty? Let's find out! I'd love to help you with your own stories tell at the Thanksgiving dinner table!

Thanks for reading, I always welcome your comments and questions.


Leslie Ryan

No compensation received for any links or services referenced.


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