TAMPA — In the early 1900s, 12-year-old Evelyn Fariss was sold as a bride to husband No. 1, who was 77.
At 15, Fariss next married 39-year-old husband No. 2, but had it annulled around a year later without informing him.
Fariss went on to become a Broadway and silent movie star before marrying husband No. 3, whom she divorced while he was on an extended work trip to Europe, taking much of his fortune and getting married again before he returned.
Husband No. 4 brought her to Tampa, where Fariss was finally gaining the social status that she’d long sought. That fell apart when, in 1923, the husband killed a man in what might have been an act of jealous rage.
Overall, she wed 10 times, including one man she married twice. Three had Tampa connections. Most were scandalous, but none more so than one husband’s Tampa murder trial that made national headlines. A century after the trial that captivated Tampa, this is Fariss’ life story.
K.H. Rafferty, who wrote the book “Sister E X: A Cruel Fate” published a year ago about Fariss, her great-aunt, considers her ancestor’s story to be a tragedy with roots in that first marriage.
“She completely lost her childhood,” Rafferty said. “I should say it was stolen because her older sister, Mary, sold her.”
Born in 1896 in a mountain town in Tennessee, the sister sold Fariss for $250,000 to that much older Chattanooga man, Van Heusen, who abused the young girl physically, sexually and mentally, according to Rafferty’s book.
When he died a few years later, she became a wealthy widow. But her life was hardly easy, Rafferty wrote. “She was a little girl thrust into the role of adult. And, in many ways, that stunted her emotional and mental development ... Evelyn’s life was like a house without a foundation to support it.”
Fariss went to work at a department store in Chattanooga, where she met her second husband, Carl Merritt, but left him to pursue an acting career in New York.
“A beautiful child of the South, Evelyn Fariss stood behind the ribbon counter of a department store ... and dreamed of someday shining in society,” the New York Daily News wrote in a 1923 profile of Fariss.
In New York, she earned a role in Ziegfeld Follies, a popular and elaborate Broadway variety show, and was cast in six silent movies. She became known as the “Million Dollar Beauty of Broadway,” Rafferty wrote, due to gifts of jewelry from admirers.
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But rather than becoming famous, she became infamous.
Fariss married stockbroker William Gill and adopted a daughter, Peggy, but divorced him in 1920 while he was in Europe.
Two years later, Gill filed a lawsuit against her, claiming he returned home to find his “apartment stripped of furniture, and his wife gone South with a fortune in securities to become the wife of another” and that he delayed the legal action due to a broken heart, according to New York Daily News coverage of the lawsuit that made national headlines.
Newspapers reported that Gill requested $75,000 and was awarded $30,000. “He recovered all his jewelry, some furniture, and stocks, but he was only able to retrieve $6,000,” Rafferty wrote.
Fariss was two years into her marriage with husband No. 4, Raymond Bennett, a wealthy banker with whom she moved just outside of Tampa, near Lake Magdalene. “After two years of hard work to gain the social success that seemed to eternally evade her, she finally had Tampa at her feet,” reported a Tampa Tribune story from 1923. “She was in the inner circle of society in Tampa. Her $50,000 worth of jewelry commanded attention.”
Her crowning moment was to be her starring role in a local production called “The Follies,” based on her former Broadway show. After the final performance on May 24, 1923, she and her husband were to host a celebratory dinner party for the city’s movers and shakers. Then it all fell apart. While picking up the catering from Alhambra Café following that show, Bennett got into an argument with two men, one of whom was Herbert Caruthers.
“There was speculation that Herbert was having an affair with Evelyn,” Rafferty said.
Outside the restaurant, Bennett shot and killed Caruthers.
“In desperation to buy her husband’s freedom, she took off all of her jewelry and piled it on” the police chief’s desk, Rafferty wrote, “saying it was worth about $850,000 ... She also brought a large paper bag containing $50,000 in banknotes.” Her bribe was denied.
More than 1,000 packed the courthouse during a murder trial that was covered by newspapers throughout the nation. Bennett was acquitted, in large part due to the efforts of Fariss, who assembled witnesses claiming that he acted in self-defense.
Fariss filed for divorce in 1924 and moved to New York — then almost immediately petitioned the Hillsborough County court to withdraw her petition. It was too late, so they remarried, and then divorced again in 1926.
“Another thing we’ve lost interest in is Evelyn Bennett’s divorces and marriages,” the Tampa Tribune published in May 1926.
Soon after, she married husband No. 5, John McNeil, but that lasted just a few months. Fariss returned to Tampa to live on Davis Islands with husband No. 6, Jimmy Heath, but he died in 1927 of meningitis.
Fariss was once again in the headlines when Heath’s sisters had his body exhumed for a second autopsy. Newspapers did not say why, but Rafferty wonders if the sisters believed Heath had been poisoned by his wife.
Fariss went back to New York and married husband No. 7, Fred Boell. She opened a luxurious tearoom. When finances waned, in 1931 she filed a paternity suit against an ex-boyfriend, saying her adopted daughter was the product of their affair. Fariss was in the news again when her claim was proved false, and was sentenced to four years in a mental hospital. She fled to Boston and worked as a fortune teller, but was eventually arrested and served time.
Divorced again, it was back to Tampa in 1935, where Fariss met husband No. 8, wealthy wholesale merchandiser Fred Johnson. They married in New York in 1941, Rafferty wrote, but divorced that same year when Johnson was found guilty of embezzling company money.
Fariss then found “sort of” love, Rafferty said, with husband No. 9, John McCann. They stayed married until her death in 1965. “I am not sure she knew what love was. I think she morphed into a comfortable existence with him. But he loved her.”
In her book, she added, “Evelyn constantly searched for love throughout her life,” Rafferty wrote. “She craved love, stability, and security ... She was always searching for a brighter and happier tomorrow and trying to make the best of what life presented her.”