EDITOR’S NOTE: In celebration of Women’s History Month, MDJ Features Editor Katy Ruth Camp will share the stories of some of the women who made their marks on Cobb County and beyond. Most made those marks in very honorable ways, while others — well, we’ll leave that to you to decide. But there is no doubt their stories will never be forgotten.
Virginia Hill was known as the “Mistress of the Mob” or “Queen of the Mob” in the ’30s and ’40s, or some more formally record her in the history books as a “top courier for the mob.” She was sharp, no-nonsense, beautiful and charming, so the mob leaders knew the feds were much less likely to investigate her than the typical mobster. In the ’30s, she was the top moll in the underworld.
Hill was perhaps most famous for being the girlfriend of mobster Bugsy Siegel, who was a gang leader in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. Siegel was murdered in his LA home while Virginia was in Paris. A movie was made about Siegel and Hill in the 1990s called “Bugsy,” in which Annette Benning played the role of Hill.
She moved to Marietta with her family when she was 8 years old. When she was 14, she dropped out of school and married her first husband, apparently in an effort to escape her abusive father who ultimately divorced her mother. She and her new husband moved to Chicago, which is where she began to make her mob connections.
Late MDJ Editor Bill Kinney befriended her and wrote stories about her extensively (once he felt it was safe to do so). He was a teenager when he first met her, but began sharing tales about her in the MDJ in the 1970s after the NBC Tuesday Night movie, “The Virginia Hill Story” aired. Her mother and brothers lived in Marietta, and she doted on them with love and gifts. She visited them and Marietta frequently in the late 1930s and early 1940s. According to Kinney’s writings, she was known to residents as “the sloe-eyed beauty who tossed her long auburn hair around the Marietta Square, clad in halter tops and short shorts. She clanked two enormous gold bracelets as she walked and liked to hike Kennesaw Mountain barefoot.”
When Hill would come back for her visits, draped in diamonds and mink coats, she would never tell anyone how she got her money or how she won the title of “Hollywood’s most lavish spender,” spending nearly $70,000 (or a little over a million dollars in today’s money) at Hollywood nightclubs. She was known to give the Marietta teenagers a $20 bill to get a case of Coca-Cola for one of her many parties, even though it only cost 80 cents, and let them keep the change. That’s about the equivalent of $300 in today’s money. She was also known to drive Kinney and his friends to Atlanta for parties at hotel bars on the weekends, something he said in his articles brought about some of his most favorite and devilish memories.
Kinney wrote that no single person improved Marietta’s scenery and economy in the late ’30s and early ’40s than Virginia Hill, tossing cash throughout the town like it was candy.
“This ol’ scribbler will never forget the first time I laid eyes on Virginia Hill. Harold Benson, a group of other young fellows and I were girl-watching in front of the now-closed Hodges Drug Store in Marietta’s North Park Square, where Shop Til You Drop is now. That was back in 1940. A black Cadillac convertible tooled up across the street. Out stepped a buxom, barefooted, auburn-haired beauty, clad only in a halter and shorts. All us young fellows eyed Virginia intently as she slinked along the rails implanted at the edges of the park. Tied up to these rails were a number of horse-drawn wagons from which farmers sold fresh vegetables. She made a purchase at Florence’s, a leading department store at the time, and headed back to her convertible. Suddenly, one of the horses reared up, brayed loudly and pawed at the cobblestone pavement.
‘Good Lord, she is even driving the horses mad,’ said Benson, who was quite a connoisseur of young ladies in those days.”
He goes on to say she was the most gossiped-about girl in town, and once rented an apartment in a large house across from the First Presbyterian Church, the white house where Little & Smith’s Inc. Insurance Bond’s office is now. Beth Abbott (later Mrs. B.C. Yates) lived across the hall and shared a phone until Hill could get her own installed. Abbott recalled that Hill would curse and yell into the phone at all hours of the night, all long-distance calls, and was obsessed with the mail arriving. One day, she and Abbott were sitting in their Brumby rockers on the front porch when the mail arrived. Hill tore open a shoebox and inside were several hundred dollar bills wrapped in newspapers. “I was beginning to think Joe forgot about me,” she said, referring to Joe Epstein, the bigtime Chicago racketeer who supplied Hill with money for some untold reason her whole life.
She later bought her mother a big house at the corner of Church Street and Frances Drive, which was once the home of Dr. Ralph Fowler. When he found out that it was Hill who wanted to buy the home, he kept raising the price, hoping to discourage her.
“Unperturbed, Virginia reached into her pocketbook, took out a roll of greenbacks that would choke a cow, and started counting out $11,500 in cash,” Kinney wrote.
Ward Watkins and his wife, also named Virginia, lived next door and this Virginia answered the phone and door for weeks as simply Mrs. Watkins, saying she feared she might get “rubbed out” for saying her name was Virginia. One day, the doorbell rang and it was the famous actor John Carroll, asking if Virginia was there, for which she was finally agreeable to answer, “yes.” She recalled how handsome he was, and how he and the other Virginia spent the day riding around Marietta in her convertible.
Hill was known for waking up early and, clad in her signature halters, shorts and bare feet, ride her horse up Church Street, through the Square, down Cherokee Street and back, causing many of the men in town to get to work on the Square much earlier than usual. She would also roller skate those streets often, adding only leather knee covers to protect her legs.
After Bugsy Siegel was murdered, she was subpoenaed and showed up for questioning in a $5,000 mink cape, broad-brimmed hat and silk gloves. Some described her as the “star witness.” She evaded questions from the committee about her organized crime associations. She gave vague answers and artfully lied about the origins of the tens of thousands in cash she had Epstein hold for her in a safe deposit box. The money was from her winnings betting on the horses, she explained. Hill also claimed the “fellas” she knew, including Siegel, simply sent her gifts and money along the way.
Kinney said out-of-town editors were ringing the MDJ at all hours after Siegel’s death, to see if she had arrived in Marietta yet.
There were also rumors — perhaps started by Kinney himself — that he could be claimed as one of her many paramours. In one of his columns, he coined her “America’s highest paid playgirl,” to which she told Kinney that he should have added “And also the best.”
When she fled to Austria with her new husband, Hans Hauser, a German newspaper reported that the “Gangster Moll” had arrived and wrote negatively of her. When the reporter went to her house to interview her afterward, she hit him over the head with a tennis racket.
She eventually committed suicide via pills, writing in an apparent suicide note that she was just tired of living anymore, though some believe she was force-fed pills by the mob to keep her quiet once and for all. Who knows how many stories were buried with Virginia Hill — and Bill Kinney, too.
Be sure to listen to Camp’s Sunday Cobb Life podcast this Sunday and the next, during which she will revisit Kinney’s columns on Hill and share more of their unforgettable stories.