“Wolf,” the injured man whispered from his hospital bed.
The Portland police detectives were confused. Sorry? You’re saying a wolf attacked you?
Not quite. Kermit Smith meant a man named Wolf — Victor Wolf. “He kind of likes my wife,” Smith said.
Earlier that night, someone had jumped from the darkness outside Smith’s home and smashed the attorney in the face with a bottle, breaking his nose. But despite the victim’s suspicions, the police did not arrest Victor Wolf. There was no evidence that the Union Pacific Railroad electrician had ambushed Smith, a 35-year-old World War II veteran. And Smith soon had second thoughts about his accusation.
“Oh, forget about him,” he ultimately told police.
Just over a month later, on April 21, 1955, Smith climbed into his car in the parking lot of the Columbia Edgewater Country Club. He turned the ignition and put his foot down on the pedal.
The explosion blew the roof off the Buick. It also tore Smith’s body apart, killing him instantly.
This time the police moved swiftly to bring in 45-year-old Victor Laurence Wolf. The man didn’t seem surprised that police had come to his small apartment in the middle of the night. “He didn’t ask the questions why, where or how,” reporter George Spagna pointed out.
Once he was in custody and facing determined interrogators, Wolf started to talk, according to local historian J.B. Fisher, who has reviewed the notebooks of a Multnomah County Sheriff’s detective who worked the case. After dodging and weaving for a while, Wolf suddenly asked: “Could I get off with maybe second-degree murder? Would I have to go to the gas chamber?”
Within hours, Wolf had signed a confession admitting to the bombing. He walked detectives through every step of his day, including when he connected sticks of dynamite to the car’s starter.
Then came the bombshell about the bombing, the reason he believed he could get a second-degree charge rather than a potential death sentence. He said Kermit Smith’s wife put him up to it.
He insisted he was her “love slave.”
Wolf said he had met the 34-year-old Marjorie Smith the previous October when she and Kermit Smith were divorced. Wolf said he and the young divorcee fell for each other — and she came up with a plan that would allow them to be together and get rich along the way.
First, she’d remarry Kermit — a “domineering and snobbish man,” in Wolf’s telling. Then Wolf would kill him.
With Smith dead, the lovers planned to head for Alaska — with the $20,000 payout from Smith’s life insurance, Wolf said. (Twenty grand in 1955 would be about $200,000 today.) Wolf said he didn’t want to commit murder but that Marjorie knew exactly how to get him to do it: she stopped having sex with him.
It was essentially the plot of “Double Indemnity” — the classic 1944 film noir in which Barbara Stanwyck convinces her illicit lover to kill her husband for the insurance money.
Except this story appeared to be all too real. Police found Kermit Smith’s .38 pistol in Wolf’s apartment, hidden in a ceiling panel. He said Marjorie had given it to him to do the deed before they settled on using a bomb. Detectives dug out a pair of wire-cutters and a ball of wire hidden in a vent in Wolf’s car. It was the same kind of wire used in the bombing.
Marjorie Smith, described by The Oregonian as a “trim, pretty brunet,” denied everything.
“I don’t know anything about it,” she declared.
Before talking to detectives at the Multnomah County Courthouse the day after the murder, she agreed to pose for news photographers. The young widow, who had dreamed of becoming a movie star and years before had worked as an extra in a few Hollywood films, did not smile as the flashbulbs popped.
Inside the courthouse, she told officers she had briefly dated Wolf between her marriages to Kermit and had hired him to run a rooming house the Smiths owned. She said he had been “very helpful around the place.”
Detectives treated Marjorie with respect, questioning her quietly, without pushing her or pointing out contradictions. During the interview, her brother-in-law Alvin Hightower arrived from California, coming straight from the airport. Outside the room where Marjorie was being interviewed, he stomped around and waved his arms.
“You have to book her or release her!” he yelled.
The police chose the former. They charged Mrs. Smith with murder. At 9:30 p.m., she was taken out to Rocky Butte Jail for the night.
Bombing — and the threat of bombing — had become the crime du jour in Portland that spring. The same week that Kermit Smith was killed, another local attorney received a phone call in which an unknown man with a “foreign-sounding voice” demanded $20,000 or he’d set off a bomb at the man’s home. Police also received a panicked report from five-and-dime store J.J. Newberry: a caller had told an employee that a bomb was hidden under a counter. And a man called Lincoln High School and said a bomb had been planted in the cafeteria, prompting the school to evacuate.
The week before, an explosion rocked the block-long downtown Meier & Frank department store, shattering windows and injuring two people. The bomb had been placed in the third-floor men’s room. A note that arrived earlier in the day, with “Important! Important! Important!” scrawled across the envelope, instructed the company president to come up with $50,000 or a second bomb would be detonated.
The Kermit Smith case immediately moved to the top of the news. It wasn’t just about a bombing and murder. It was about sex, the kind of sex that twisted a man’s mind, made him do things he otherwise wouldn’t do.
Victor Wolf said he hid sticks of dynamite under the driver’s seat of Smith’s car while the 1952 Buick sat in the couple’s garage. Marjorie kept her husband talking with the neighbors, he said. Kermit believed Wolf was at the house on Northeast Alameda Street to install a swing set in the backyard for the Smiths’ 3-year-old daughter, Susan. Wolf said he later connected the wires from the dynamite to the starter after Smith drove to the country club.
Five months later, Marjorie Smith went on trial for murder.
Prosecutors portrayed her as a loose woman, pointing out that she had been married and divorced twice when she met Kermit. She and her first husband had a 12-year-old son, Gregory. The prosecutors hammered on the precarious state of Marjorie’s finances during her divorce from Kermit.
One witness, a former convict, testified that Marjorie had tried to hire him to drive a getaway car for the planned murder. Marjorie denied it — and was forced to also deny that she’d had an affair with the ex-con.
Marjorie broke down in tears on the stand. She said her husband had called her as he was leaving the country club on the night he died, telling her: “I’ll be home in 10 minutes.” She related how she turned on the porch light for him and let his dog, Lady, into the front yard to greet him.
She said she learned her husband had been killed when a reporter called the house at about midnight. She couldn’t recall what happened next.
“I do remember calling the man back and asking him if it was a joke,” she said. “I must have passed out. I remember picking myself up from the floor.”
After a 13-day trial — and 15 hours of deliberations — the jury acquitted Marjorie Smith of first-degree murder. Screams echoed through the courtroom when the court clerk read the verdict.
Marjorie made her way to the jury box, tears running down her face. She thanked each juror, one by one.
Her attorney, Bruce Spaulding, was weeping too. He’d argued that Wolf alone was responsible for the murder, that the electrician had become obsessed with Marjorie, a sinister obsession Marjorie knew nothing about.
“Marjorie and I have prayed together,” he told the press outside the courtroom. “We prayed, ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of death I shall fear no evil …’”
Wolf’s legal result did not match Marjorie’s — no surprise, seeing as he had confessed. He was convicted of second-degree murder — the charged he had angled for — and sentenced to a life term at the Oregon State Penitentiary.
As it turned out, Marjorie wasn’t entirely in the clear. Kermit Smith’s sister and her husband, who lived in Los Gatos, Calif., filed for custody of little Carol. They called Marjorie a “cold-blooded perjurer.”
In family court in California, Marjorie insisted she was a good mother, but she had trouble responding to various disquieting facts about her history. She said that when her first husband went overseas during World War II, she was raped and had a baby, which she put up for adoption. Marjorie said she told her husband about these terrible events when he returned, but he divorced her anyway, claiming she had committed adultery.
In January 1957, a judge in San Francisco ruled in favor of Alvin and Ellen Hightower, giving the couple permanent custody of the 4-year-old girl.
Pointing out that Marjorie Smith and Victor Wolf had had “some sort of a relationship,” the case’s appellate judge concluded that when Carol Smith got older she would inevitably ponder the “most unpleasant possibilities” about her mother, and so it was best for the girl to have nothing to do with her. Listening to the judge, Marjorie burst into tears.
“Whether innocent or guilty, moral or immoral, Marjorie Smith has been through eight months of hell,” The Oregon Journal wrote, referring to the murder trial followed by the custody battle. The newspaper added:
“The widow is a woman alone. … Old friends ‘cut’ her in the street.”
With the end of the court cases, local newspaper headlines took up other subjects, but the lives of those involved went on. Wolf was paroled in 1962, and three years later he married a well-to-do Florida widow. He died in 2000.
Marjorie, for her part, worked hard to keep a low profile. She didn’t collect the life-insurance money for Kermit’s death, so she took a job running the gift shop of the 33,000-ton luxury liner S.S. America that operated between New York and Europe.
After that, rumors took over. There was the one about her marrying a wealthy Kansas City man. Former friends in Portland knocked that one down. Another had her dying in a Los Angeles car accident. The same ex-friends shrugged: who knows?
Oregon Journal columnist Doug Baker tried to find the truth in 1965, but couldn’t get anywhere. He discovered that Marjorie’s 93-year-old grandmother, who had sat through every minute of the murder trial 10 years earlier, had long ago lost track of her granddaughter’s “whereabouts.”
More than 50 years later, Marjorie does not appear in available death records under her known names. Members of her family did not respond to efforts to reach them.
The murder trial and custody fight — as well as newspaper reports and magazine features in the 1950s — raked over Marjorie Smith’s life, holding up every former lover for judge, jury and reader to consider. But both in the courtroom and out, she consistently insisted that Kermit Smith was her true love — and that she had nothing to do with his murder.
Kermit’s former law partner, for one, believed her. Virgil Crum told The Oregonian that in the days and weeks before Kermit’s death, he and Marjorie had “seemed happy as larks.”
— Douglas Perry