secret_history (2006-36)


The seduction of Miss Evelyn Hazen

by Jack Neely

Shaded by ancient maples and magnolias, behind a trim row of boxwoods that guard the veranda, the Mabry-Hazen house on Dandridge Avenue is graceful and well kept, but something about it sulks. Its melancholy seems built in, though it may as easily have been acquired.

Three of its earliest residents were shot to death in Gay Street gunfights, two of them on the same day. One of them was Joe Mabry himself, the hot-blooded, muttonchopped businessman of the Civil War era who, in a philanthropic mood, co-donated the land that became Market Square. It’s enough to give a house a mood.

But the house has another, more recent tragedy, of a promising life lost not violently, but by attrition. To a generation of Knoxvillians, she was known as Miss Evelyn. But to say anyone knew Miss Evelyn Hazen is perhaps an exaggeration. Most know her as a story, a cliché of a crazy old lady who sat daily at the head of her staircase, surrounded by peeling wallpaper, a deteriorating trousseau, and cats, holding a loaded .32 pistol.

She was once half of a landmark breach-of-promise lawsuit known as Scharringhaus vs. Hazen. She has become the preoccupation of a new author who, a few days ago, published a book called The Seduction of Miss Evelyn Hazen . It’s an eye-opener, in part because it’s easily the most explicitly sexual biography on Knoxville-history shelves.

Originally from Muncie, Ind., Jane Van Ryan is a pert, energetic woman with short, platinum-blonde hair. In a dark business suit, she looks like a big-market TV personality, and in fact was. She is not a historian by profession, and is contentedly vague about some dates and details, but she has spent much of the last 17 years studying the unusual life of Miss Evelyn.

She developed her interest by way of a particularly close cousin, the late Lucille LaBonte who, while working for Evelyn Hazen’s attorney, Howard Bozeman, developed an appreciation for the eccentric old lady. Long ago, LaBonte talked Van Ryan into writing a book. Van Ryan first tried to shop it around as a novel, without luck. “Fiction’s harder to sell,” she says. “So it had to be non-fiction.” She hit the library, and last week published The Seduction of Miss Evelyn Hazen under her own imprint, Glen Echo.

The author was in town last week, and returned to the Mabry-Hazen house to have a look around. Joe Mabry’s granddaughter grew up in the prosperous and sheltered Hazen family. “They lived up here on the hill, and didn’t know what was going on around them,” says Van Ryan. “They lived in the past.”

In her mid-teens, already a student at UT, dark-haired and buxom, she turned heads. “She was just strikingly gorgeous,” Van Ryan says. “Some say she was the most beautiful woman who ever lived in Knoxville.” One female contemporary told the author, “She was really built, if you know what I mean.”

Her appeal is less obvious in photographs, which show her as a sort of pretty mannequin. She looks, if not vacant, bored.

At UT she met the boisterous young son of a successful businessman, Ralph Scharringhaus. He was smitten. It’s an old story. They dated, he was crazy about her, couldn’t stop thinking about her. His time in the army during World War I only seemed to increase his devotion. He loved Evelyn so much he wanted to marry her, considered them already married. He talked her into sex. From the sound of it, he was passionate, if clumsy. She didn’t care for intercourse. It was, in her word, “ghastly.”

“It was a painful, vulgar, unpleasant experience for her,” Van Ryan says. “It frightened her.”

The inset photo on the cover is of a proud-looking young man in a uniform sitting next to a lady in a white dress and designer hat, frowning, crossing her arms, her head turned away.

But they were engaged. She began assembling a trousseau. Her own accounts imply that she didn’t love him, or even like him much, but very much looked forward to their wedding.

It sounds like a bad first date that lasted for 15 years. She seems to have been aghast frequently. Why they stayed together isn’t obvious. Van Ryan believes Hazen assumed no other man would want her. “She felt she was a ruined woman,” Van Ryan says.

In her 30s, Miss Evelyn grew frustrated, angry, apparently unstable. She got worse after rumors about Ralph’s dalliances with other women, and the death of her father. In 1932, she was allegedly planning to kill Scharringhaus, and her family had her committed to Lyons View. She spent only a month there, and as soon as she got out, Scharringhaus left town, allegedly in fear of his old flame. But she tracked him down in Covingston, Ky., and there sued him for breach of promise. The lurid testimony, including descriptions of oral sex, gained national headlines.

“It split Knoxville in two,” Van Ryan says, “between those who supported Scharringhaus and those who supported Evelyn.” Even some of Evelyn’s family turned on her. Some just thought she shouldn’t air dirty laundry in such a public way. The book, which has a large cast of old-family characters and cleaves to Evelyn’s side of the story, may ruffle feathers even today.

She won: an $80,000 settlement, over a million by modern standards. Van Ryan has been told she never collected. Her opponent didn’t have much.

Scharringhaus returned to Knoxville, married another woman, and found work selling cars.

Some might consider it a tragic thing that Evelyn never married. Sometimes hallucinations kept her company. One night, alone in her bedroom, she saw the face of a New York friend floating by. She later learned that he had died. It scared her, and she thereafter preferred to sleep elsewhere, believing the room haunted.

She died there in 1987, after a fall down these steps, a strange and lonely old woman with a gun. In her will, she insisted that her family’s house either be kept as a museum or razed to the ground. Today, visitors can see the rooms where Evelyn and Ralph once courted. Upstairs is her bedroom; lying on a chair is the Social Register of Knoxville for 1934.

Times have changed, but Van Ryan says Miss Evelyn’s story “sheds light on the human condition, the frailties we have, the complicated relationships between men and women that still exist even now.”

Women who read her story may wonder if something has been lost since the days when, if a woman had sex with a man, he plausibly owed her his life. Or at least a whole lot of money.