The Woman Whose Mother Had Her Arrested For Dancing

“Hey, hey. What’s this I see? I thought this was a party! Let’s dance!” —Ren McCormack, “Footloose” (1984)

In A Nutshell

Eugenia Kelly was a 19-year-old socialite in 1915 . . . and she’d fallen head over heels for Al Davis. Davis was an older man, a married man, and a professional dancer, the kind of guy newspapers called a “tango pirate.” But Eugenia’s mother, Helen Kelly, didn’t approve of the relationship, and when Eugenia refused to end the affair, Helen took her daughter to court. Naturally, the case scandalized the nation.

The Whole Bushel

During the early 20th century, tango teas were all the rage. Wealthy young women would attend cabarets and pay well-dressed men to take them out onto the dance floor. Stylish and suave, these men were professional dancers who knew how to treat young ladies to a good time. Of course, not everyone approved of these tango teas and the spats-sporting dancers. After all, quite a few of these fellows were professional con artists, using their silver tongues and fancy footwork to charm well-to-do women out of their money. Newspapers labeled these men “tango pirates” and warned concerned parents that “no girl can spend her afternoons in the cafes and escape with her money—or her reputation, even if she survives with all else.”

Eugenia Kelly was one of those girls, a woman who put everything on the line for love. It was 1915, and Eugenia was a 19-year-old socialite from a wealthy New York banking family. On her 21st birthday, she was due to inherit the family fortune, but Eugenia wasn’t worried about her social standing or aristocratic etiquette or “what one does.” Instead, Miss Kelly was smitten with Al Davis, a vaudeville dancer who taught Miss Kelly how to tango. After their first encounter, the two became an item and regularly stayed up late into the evening, smoking, drinking, and dancing their way across New York.

Needless to say, Eugenia’s mother was not happy. A conservative widow who didn’t approve of tango teas, Helen Kelly frowned on Eugenia’s nighttime activities. Not only was her daughter staying out all night long—doing who knows what—but she was returning home hungover and sleeping all day long. Even worse, Helen worried that Al Davis, a lower-class ruffian with loose morals, had an eye on Eugenia’s inheritance. After all, Mr. Davis never declined any of the expensive gifts Eugenia gave him.

Hoping to dissuade her daughter from running around with a tango pirate, Helen offered to increase Eugenia’s allowance. When that didn’t work, she threatened to take it all away. She begged, she pleaded, she demanded, and she screamed, but Eugenia just wouldn’t listen. Every evening, she rushed out to dance with Al Davis. On one occasion, Helen even locked the door, hoping a night on the porch might slow her daughter down. Instead, when Eugenia came home, she smashed in a window with a rock. After all, she was 19, and she could go where she wanted and do as she pleased.

So it’s probably safe to assume Eugenia was shocked when two police officers dragged her out of a Penn Station restaurant and threw her behind bars. Unbeknownst to Eugenia, her mother had visited the local magistrate and convinced his honor Eugenia was “likely to become depraved” and needed an intervention. After all, as Helen and her lawyer explained to the judge, this tango pirate was a married man. This kind of behavior couldn’t continue, and if she couldn’t convince Eugenia to stop dancing with Al Davis, she was going to have her “declared incorrigible and remanded to her care or jailed.”

Article Continued Below

Helen Kelly was not a woman who played around.

In May 1915, Eugenia was led past a legion of reporters and into a Manhattan courtroom where her mother and the magistrate were ready to teach her a lesson. The deputy assistant district attorney offered to drop all the charges if only Eugenia would agree to end her relationship with Davis, but the young New Yorker refused. As her own lawyer pointed out, Eugenia wasn’t a minor. Technically, she could do whatever she wanted so long as it was legal, and neither the government nor her mother could interfere. “I will not go home to my mother,” Eugenia declared. “I am not going to apologize to any one for anything that I have done . . . My mother started the ball rolling, and I will see this thing through to the end.”

The fiery young woman was in every major newspaper in the country. People across the nation were captivated by the scandal, but on the third day of the trial, Eugenia changed her tune after a private meeting with her mother, their lawyers, and several Catholic priests. During the meeting, Eugenia learned that if she kept going out with a married man, there was an excellent chance she might lose her inheritance. Suddenly, her financial future—something she’d always taken for granted—was about to disappear. Finally defeated, Eugenia trudged back into the courtroom and announced, “I was wrong, and mother was right . . . I realize now that I was dazzled by the glamour of the white lights and the music and the dancing of Broadway.”

Not content to let Eugenia off so easy, the judge launched into a long-winded sermon and made Eugenia promise to always listen to her mother. But several months later, Eugenia broke her word. After Al Davis’s wife filed for divorce, the tango pirate and the 19-year-old socialite married in November 1915. Over the next few months, Davis and Helen Kelly would continue their little feud, filing lawsuits against each other, sniping back and forth. Despite all that, true love had won out, right?

Perhaps not. When Eugenia turned 26, five years after inheriting her fortune, she divorced the tango pirate on the grounds of neglect. After all that fighting and notoriety, their relationship was over, and the dancer simply disappeared. So perhaps Eugenia’s mother had been right about Al Davis. Perhaps the socialite should’ve kept her promise to the judge. Perhaps Eugenia should’ve been more careful when stepping out at night. On the bright side, at least she learned how to tango.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: Donald Biddle Keyes
The Wicked Waltz and Other Scandalous Dances, by Mark Knowles
Flapper, by Joshua Zeitz
The Memory Palace: Episode 66: The Pirate Queen