When Richard Whittemore and Margaret Messler married in a Baltimore church, in October 1921, they were five years away from being the most famous couple in America. For a time, they were tabloid fodder for their criminal exploits and their apparent, all-consuming love. Dick, 20, was already a small-time crook with an affinity for gambling, his appetites eventually expanding to robbery and murder. Margaret, two years younger, loved her man and stood by him, proclaiming his innocence when the entire country knew (and not-so-secretly thrilled at) his guilt. They were the Tiger Girl and the Candy Kid, and the grizzled reporters and sob sisters who gave them those monikers chronicled their every turn for a public eager to gobble up the drama.
In his entertaining, zippy chronicle of the Whittemores’ lives and crimes, Glenn Stout argues that their story “is the torrid romance of an entire era”—that of the Jazz Age, “a time when everything was changing so fast and revealing so many obvious contradictions and inequalities that what made sense yesterday did not make sense today and no one quite knew what tomorrow might bring.” The argument isn’t quite definitive, but making the Whittemores avatars for several seasons of massive change, and an example of early tabloid true-crime coverage, is a compelling narrative through line nonetheless.