Widow's Lament

In 1956, Anna Elisabeth Colsch married a GI from the Frankfurt Army base and followed him to Minneapolis. He died in a car crash a few years later. Or so she was told.

The story, no matter where you start, gets better. So: 1954, an early summer evening in Frankfurt, Germany. The war was over, though not so long ago as to feel like history yet. People were out on the streets, strolling in the park, mixing with the American soldiers in uniform who'd come into the city from their nearby base for the night. Just off the main square was a nightclub called the Oasis--a swanky watering hole that catered to well-off locals and tourists, served strong highballs, closed at five in the morning for an hour break, and had a reputation as the place to see and be seen with the pretty German girls who worked the bar there. It happened that one of them, 24-year-old Anna Elisabeth Colsch, was at the Oasis that evening serving drinks and performing, singing torch songs of the day in a long black gown. That's when Johnny walked in.

John Phillip Swanson, 22, blond, nearly six feet tall, was the first American soldier in civilian clothing Anna had ever laid eyes on. "When I saw Johnny in the courtroom, many years later, he was an old man," she says now. "But that night, he was like a prince. Charming. Handsome. As if he'd stepped out of a fairy tale." Anna--who changed her name to Angelic after she immigrated to the U.S.--remembers the moment like a snapshot, in soft focus: He was wearing a dark suit, a pink silk tie that looked like frosting, and a trench coat. It was a windy night. When Johnny walked in the door, his coat blew back in the breeze like a great pair of wings. "Afterwards, after we became lovers, that's what I called him--Breeze," she says, starting in on another crying jag. "He came in on the wind and then he went out of my life on the wind."

The next night, Johnny was back at the Oasis. Anna offered him a free drink. They struck up a conversation, she remembers, in German. He'd been stationed at the military base for several months by then and, according to Anna, spoke fluent German, though years later he would deny this in court. She spoke no English, though in that same courtroom her sworn testimony would be given in a nearly perfect version of it. He was a soldier. She was a bar maid with a 6-year-old son--"a scandal, yes"--fathered by a German boxer her parents refused to let her marry. They talked. The next night he returned, and the next. By midsummer Johnny was a regular. Customers mistook him for the club's bouncer. Sometimes he'd bring food from the base, gifts of cake or meat that were still in short supply. In those days, it wasn't unusual for German girls to have American soldiers as boyfriends--it made a certain sense, Anna recalls, "because these were the men who had liberated us." Their romance, she informed me when I met her in Minneapolis a few weeks ago, would become "the most tragic love story ever told."

During the war Anna's father, a Catholic French national, had been deported first to Buchenwald and later to Auschwitz. She and her siblings were split up and taken to special camps for children in the countryside. Some nights she would steal a loaf of bread from the kitchen, take a bicycle from one of the guard's children, and ride for miles to the small town where her mother still lived. "This was near the end, when there was no food. I'd give her that bread and sneak back to the camp and pretend to sleep. Because of this, I was always tired. I got beaten many times and walked around the ground like a ghost." The day the camp surrendered, the children were rounded up and hidden in a cellar. Anna says she could hear trucks up above, orders given in strange languages, commotion, chains, and then the trap door opened and a man in uniform--an American soldier--came down the steps, "as if the sunlight behind him was a halo. He said they have come to rescue us. He told us we were to stay alive. It was a miracle, and we were free."

To the best of her memory, Johnny asked Anna to marry him in early 1955, shortly before his tour of duty ended and he transferred back to the states. He returned the following year via Paris, bringing with him a wedding dress he'd bought for her there. It's still in a suitcase of hers, stored out in Fridley along with stacks of yellowed documents--her passport application, her U.S. citizenship papers, their marriage certificate. The wedding, as Anna describes it, was held in a small chapel annex to the city of Darmstadt's government center. She wore a gold lace dress, a gold veil, black gloves, velvet shoes, and carried a red rose bouquet. He wore a light suit, a red tie and handkerchief, and a white carnation on his lapel. Anna's mother and brother-in-law stood up for them. At the ceremony, the minister delivered their vows in German, which were rendered--according to national law--into English by an official interpreter. All parties signed a marriage certificate dated March 29, 1956. The couple exchanged matching rings they'd bought at a jeweler's in town, two plain gold bands. Anna has long since lost hers; Johnny, she says, was wearing his the night he disappeared in Minneapolis in 1959.

"Once upon a time, there was a beautiful German girl--the best-looking girl you could find," Anna began her story the first time she reached me from a pay phone in March. "And this girl was swept off her feet, rescued, you might say, by love. Johnny was his name. We got married and came to America on a boat in a terrible storm, as husband and wife. We arrived in Minneapolis, and it was like a dream coming true. Then one night, Johnny didn't come home. He just vanished, I thought forever. I was told he was dead. I spent 35 years mourning as a widow. Now I introduce myself to you as Mrs. Angelic Swanson, a broken woman whose dead husband has come back to life."

Gone with the Wind

What you must understand about Angelic Swanson, Johnny's attorney said the other day from his office in Yakima, Wash., is that she's still grieving. And grief--in his line of work--can sometimes express itself as a desire for revenge. As for his client, Johnny's getting on in years; when this all blew up into a legal dispute, it nearly killed him. "This is a complex 'she said, he said' situation," Pat Cockrill concluded. "There's bitterness. There's confusion. There's great pain on all sides. It's an extremely unusual case, one that's called in the legal literature a 'heart bone' complaint"--meaning, in the vernacular, a suit brought not only for money or pure justice's sake, but also to soothe the emotions. "In all my years as an attorney," he went on, "I've never seen anything like it. To really understand the twists, you've got to go back, follow their time together step by step, and unravel the mystery."

They landed in Florida in September 1956, after nearly two weeks at sea. Johnny's parents, who ran a company in St. Petersburg that manufactured Christian memorabilia, met them at the port. Soon after the newlyweds' arrival, they threw a reception to celebrate. "I didn't speak any English then," Angelic remembers, "but I knew how to say thank you. Still, things went sour soon, and I was lost in the new world." Her story goes that Billy Graham, a friend of the Swanson family, was due in town on the revival circuit. Johnny's folks moved the couple out of the house and into the garage, onto cots between parked cars. Angelic got sick--"maybe the carbon monoxide"--and one night woke Johnny up saying she wanted to leave. They walked to the beach and slept there. By week's end, confused and a bit paranoid, she'd run off, been brought back by the police, run off again, met up with another German girl, and gotten hired on in a local cafeteria at 56 cents an hour.

"Johnny, being a decent husband, wouldn't stand for it. He came for me," Angelic explains, "and off we went to the races." The greyhound dog track, that is, where she hit the jackpot on a couple tickets. They took her winnings of several hundred dollars, bought a used Nash, and headed north along the Atlantic coast with another couple who'd recruited them to sell magazines door-to-door--Life, Good Housekeeping, Ladies' Home Journal, glossies that showed America how to live in those boom years. "It ended in a heck of a fight, we never got paid, our car broke down, and the police started coming around. We went back to Florida, but I couldn't take the heat. Johnny said, 'My little wife needs a cooler climate,' so we got out the map and picked Minnesota. I had a big jar of pennies and nickels hidden in the trunk. The Nash ran out of gas on the freeway outside Minneapolis, so we filled up the tank with spare change." At this, Angelic stops and smiles a kind of sly, benevolent smile. "That's when the story took a turn, and I started saving Johnny's skin."

He did construction work off and on. She kept house for a circle of upper-crust women in Minnetonka. In early 1957, after a falling out with the contractor Johnny worked for, they drove into the city and stopped at a lunch counter on Hennepin Avenue. He scoured the paper and circled an apartment at the Kent Hotel on Nicollet Avenue where they put down a week's rent that afternoon. Within days, Johnny was rushed to the hospital with gangrene after stepping on a rusty nail. He was laid up for over a month with a cast on his leg, during which they were hired on to manage the Anglesey Hotel, a turn-of-the-century building that was later torn down.

"I did all the cleaning, and Johnny did the paperwork in English from his bed," Angelic recalls. "We stayed there for, I think, over a year. I had a miscarriage. Johnny lost many jobs. I had my doubts, sure, but this was my husband. Johnny would kiss my forehead and tell me not to worry. I didn't understand what was going on, so he translated everything into German. He said the world was against him. And I had to believe him. Where else could I go?"

Later that spring, Angelic met then-Sen. Hubert Humphrey, who used to dine on occasion at the Anglesey. A few months later, he made arrangements with the American Consulate in Germany to have her 9-year-old son, Renaldo, brought over on an immigrant visa. The boy arrived at the Twin Cities terminal to a waiting crowd, including a reporter and photographer from a local newspaper, which featured the tribulation-and-tears story in the next morning's paper. Renaldo's visa application was supported by a sworn affidavit signed on July 29, 1957 by Johnny--a document whose legal status would later be disputed in court. In it, Johnny listed Anna Elisabeth Swanson as his 27-year-old "wife" and the boy as his "wife's son."

"Maybe Johnny was a restless person. Even after being married for several years and becoming a family with my boy, he was still a stranger to me," Angelic said during our last visit. "He was always up to something--making deals, staying out all night, sleeping during the days after we were kicked out of the Anglesey and I worked at a car factory downtown. He drove a taxi, Yellow Cab, for a while until he was fired there too. Sometimes, when we weren't broke, we'd go for a steak at the Flame nightclub--just like old times. Somebody in the place always spoke a bit of German, which made me happy and homesick. We got a little place down by Lake Street, with a little yard for my boy. One night I said to Johnny, 'It's time you start behaving yourself and make some money for us.' And that was the same night, in 1959, that he vanished."

Around six in the morning, the police knocked on Angelic's door. She'd been up all night walking the floor, waiting for Johnny to come home from his night job delivering dry-cleaning orders. "I knew it wasn't him, because he had a key. They said, 'Police, open up,' so I did and they came in. Johnny, they told me, wrecked his truck and was nowhere to be found. I thought, Mighty God, what's going on? The next afternoon, I went to his company. There was an old man sitting in the door cleaning hangers with a rag. He spoke a little German, and when he saw me coming he pointed his finger in the air, like scolding, and said, 'Johnny's a bad, bad boy.' He was gone with the wind. Years went by, and I never saw Johnny again."

Long Lost Love

Thirty-five years later, at the end of 1994, 65-year-old Angelic Swanson walked into the Social Security Administration office on Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis to inquire about any benefits she might be due. When her number came up, she was ushered into a small cubicle and asked to sit down. The case worker, who was blind, asked for her name, her date of birth, her address, her social security number--the required vitals to call up her computer file. And then he asked Angelic if she'd ever been married. Sure, she replied, but told him she was a widow.

"So the blind man said, 'Fine. You can get a bit more money because you can collect on your dead husband's benefits,'" Angelic says, pulling out some more documents from the stuffed paper bag at her feet. "This was news to me. Then he asked me other questions--about Johnny, his family, where he was born. Everything I knew was correct. But then, well, this man started to act funny."

He turned to the computer, designed with special touch and sound features, and punched in the information. John Phillip Swanson. He asked Angelic for her mother-in-law's maiden name, which she knew. He typed it in. At the next prompt, he asked for Johnny's date of birth. Jan. 27, 1932. What's wrong? Angelic asked him. Is something wrong? The man looked puzzled, and entered another round of names and numbers. Then--as if in slow motion, she recalls--he pushed his chair back from the desk, turned to Angelic, and sighed.

"I'm sorry to tell you this, ma'am," he said, "but you're not a widow. Your husband is very much alive."

At this, Angelic breaks into another round of sobbing, muttering what sounds like Mighty God, Mighty God mixed with oaths in German under her breath. After a couple minutes, she adjusts her wig, pulls up her hose, and composes herself into a script that seems, like any lines memorized over and again by "grief-stricken souls like mine," too bizarre to be fictional. She checks to make sure the tape recorder is running. Good. She only wants to tell this part once.

"Imagine! This was the hammer blow. I couldn't believe it. I thought, no, no, you're wrong, you're very wrong. You're a blind man, there must be a mistake. My husband is dead. His father told me Johnny's dead. I called long distance to St. Petersburg a year after Johnny disappeared and his father told me Johnny died in Chicago. They picked up his body and flew it to Florida and buried him there in the family plot. I was crying. I was sick. I said there's a mistake. This is crazy."

The man called in another officer for a second look. It all checked out. Johnny was alive and well, they told Angelic, and living in Yakima with his fourth wife. He was 62 years old, about to take early retirement from the company he'd worked at for years. This was 100 percent her husband. It may be time, they suggested, to contact an attorney.

Angelic left the building that day, she recalls, in shock. She'd had no word from her husband, not in the months after his disappearance, not in the three decades since his father had pronounced him dead on the phone. She'd been abandoned. She'd left Minneapolis, finally, for Ohio, after receiving a series of what she calls "death threat" phone calls late at night from an anonymous caller she'd presumed Johnny owed money to. She'd travelled to Florida with her son, and been put back on a plane by her father-in-law, "who pulled a beautiful aquamarine ring off my finger at the airport to pay for the tickets." She'd repeatedly relied on the kindness of strangers--clergy, fellow German expatriates, sympathetic listeners at the corner store. She'd been destitute more than once after coming back to Minneapolis, to the point of eating in soup kitchens and sleeping in the bus station with her son before the police evicted them. She'd spent years at odd jobs, doing janitorial work, pressing shirts at the very company whose delivery truck Johnny'd wrecked the night of his exit. She'd eventually retired, sold her small house, and moved into an efficiency to save money. In the early 1990s, her only child, Renaldo, was shot to death in Cambridge, Minn., and buried without a headstone because she couldn't, and still hasn't been able to, afford one. She'd never remarried, Angelic says, "because my only love was Johnny. Until that day I found out he'd done me like a dog."

What to do? She started collecting benefit checks--from her own account and from Johnny's--in early 1995. Fine by Angelic, at least financially. Then in March 1996, she got a letter from the Social Security office that read, in part, "Thank you for informing us of your divorce." Surprised by this new news of her marital status, she called the next day and was connected with an inspector. They talked for over an hour, during which Angelic learned that Johnny had filed for an invalidation of their marriage on the grounds that he was duped into it: In his petition to the Superior Court of Washington, Kittitas County, Johnny claimed that on March 29, 1956--the day of his supposed marriage to Angelic--he did not speak or read any German; he hadn't understood what was taking place. What turned out to be a wedding service was, to his knowledge, actually a ceremony marking Anna Elisabeth Colsch's officially approved immigration to the U.S. He'd simply come along to sponsor his girlfriend, he told the court, not to marry her. According to Johnny, it wasn't until late 1994, after he filed for his Social Security benefits, that he found out Angelic was claiming to be his legal wife.

On the advice of an attorney in Yakima, Johnny had combed the Minneapolis area phone books, looking for his ex-girlfriend and alleged wife. No luck; she was unlisted at the time. His next step was to pay--according to court records--$1,250 for a legal notice that ran from July 22 through July 29, 1994, buried in the Star Tribune's back-section classifieds. The Summons by Publication stated that an action concerning the validity of the marriage between one John P. Swanson and one Anna Elisabeth Swanson was under way in Washington, and would be settled within 60 days if she didn't respond. Angelic never saw the notice. On Sept. 19, the judge ruled in Johnny's favor by granting not a divorce but an invalidation of the marriage. Which was fortunate, his lawyer says, because an actual divorce would have meant Johnny'd been living as a bigamist during his subsequent marriages.

What to do next?

Go to Yakima.

Order in the Court

Angelic landed in Seattle in early June 1996, and from there took the bus to Yakima. She checked into a cheap motel across from the station, woke up the next morning, and searched the phone directory: no Johnny. That afternoon, she walked down to the tax department at the county courthouse. Staffers there pulled his file: 5603 W. Lincoln Ave. The following day she called for a cab from a nearby shopping mall. It arrived almost before she hung up the phone.

"Take me to my fate," she told the driver. "We went to the right street and I said, 'Go around the block.' We circled it three times and then stopped. It was a huge place on the corner, with For Sale signs in the yard. I saw two men sitting in the back. I asked the taxi driver to go ask how much they wanted for this home. And I went along, holding onto his arm. As we approached, one of the men stood up and came toward us. I just stared and stared--after 35 years, there was Johnny!

"Well, all the blood drained out of me. I turned into an ice cube. Just frozen there. Johnny said to the driver, 'I'm John Swanson. I want $500,000 for this place.' And the driver said, 'That's a little stiff for my pocket.' Then Johnny looked at me. I was gasping for air. I thought I'd faint on the spot. Johnny had the same scar on his forehead he had when we met. I don't think he even recognized me. I didn't say one word. Then the taxi driver led me back to the car and I collapsed. I'd just seen my dead husband!"

When Angelic got back to her room, she dialed the hospital. A nurse diagnosed her condition as shock, and told her to drink water and sleep. Then she opened the local yellow pages and called an attorney. By the next afternoon, she'd hired Catherine Lighty of the Kendrick & Malane law firm. Angelic now says she was told a suit against Johnny would probably cost her "$3,500 and not a penny more." By the time a final ruling came down, she was in the hole over $14,000 and counting. As of last month, all her life savings had been spent.

Lighty's first legal strategy was this: a classic heart-bone suit. On June 12, 1996, she compiled a three-page claim against Johnny, alleging that in 1959 he'd abandoned his wife and stepson by faking his own death. During the intervening years, it read, "Plaintiff has suffered emotional distress, both from the believed death and loss of her spouse and from having to support herself and her child with no help from Defendant.... The acts and omissions by Defendant, John P. Swanson, complained of herein constitute the tort of outrage, intentional infliction of emotional distress, bigamy, misrepresentation and/or fraud." Though the suit didn't specify a monetary amount, it asked for a division of any and all marital property and reimbursement of legal expenses. The Yakima County judge tabled the complaint on the grounds that the marriage had already been invalidated in 1994, and later dismissed it as frivolous.

Next move: Lighty filed a motion asking the court in nearby Kittitas County to overturn its invalidation, arguing that Johnny hadn't made a thorough enough search for his first wife, that Angelic hadn't been given fair chance to tell her side of the story, and that the marriage was dissolved based solely on Johnny's testimony, which was an outright lie. Meanwhile, Angelic flew back to Germany twice, collecting various papers to support her claim--Johnny's affidavit supporting "his wife's son" Renaldo's immigration visa, Angelic's visa application (with the "married" box checked), sworn affidavits from the interpreters at their wedding, a verification of their ceremony from Angelic's mother, and their marriage certificate. The judge in Yakima would later rule all these documents inadmissible as evidence, since they were not properly notarized.

While this suit was pending, and just to be safe, Johnny and his current wife, Rozella, drove across the county line and were legally--if temporarily--divorced. According to his lawyer, Pat Cockrill, the couple was afraid that if the invalidation were overturned, Johnny could be charged with criminal bigamy. On a lesser note, both were also nervous about any publicity the case might set off: Johnny was by then an "ordained minister" and with his wife ran an enterprise that, for a handsome fee, conducted weddings and hosted receptions in their house and garden. A minister facing possible bigamy charges might have been bad for business. Lighty later claimed that Johnny also transferred nearly all his assets to Rozella, in order to protect them. The judge in Yakima issued a restraining order that froze his bank accounts and placed a lien on his property--an order that was eventually removed.

The parties to the various suits went back and forth for months, lobbing accusations and complaints across the courtroom in live testimony and whenever possible, it seems, on paper. The files are thick with affidavits, responses, and replies--any judge's nightmare, especially since there were so few precedents for a case this odd. The drama, too, was thick--the stuff of tabloids and miniseries. In one memorandum, Johnny begins, "A long time ago in a land far away, an American GI wanted to help his German girlfriend come to the states." In one of her declarations, Angelic remembers first catching sight of her dead husband after years as a widow: "It all came back to me in a flash as if it were yesterday, my love for John, my hopes and dreams for our future, but then I realized that was years ago and instead John had given me only heartbreak and pain."

Eventually, Lighty's tactics backfired. The plan, she told her client, had all along been to overturn the invalidation and, in turn, sue Johnny for a simple divorce in which their community property--at one point she estimated Johnny's assets at over $300,000--would be divided and Angelic's legal fees covered. That never happened. On Nov. 15, 1996, Kittitas County Judge Michael Cooper ruled in Johnny's favor. The court's Conclusions of Law declared that Johnny had met due-diligence requirements in his efforts to locate Angelic and serve her with a summons before their marriage was invalidated in 1994; that his testimony at that time was legitimate and true--meaning that he had indeed been induced "by fraud and misrepresentation" into marriage in Germany; and that the invalidation of their marriage stands. Case closed.

Down and Out

And with that, any further legal action is out of the question, not so much because justice couldn't be argued for once more in the courts, but because, as Angelic puts it, "I'm as broke at the bank as I am in my heart." The available period for an appeal to the ruling in Washington has long since expired. In order for another judge to hear her case, says Coon Rapids attorney Paul Kaster, "We're talking at least a $20,000 retainer to get the thing rolling. If that were possible--and it's obviously not, with Angelic now sunk into poverty--I'd get a private investigator to turn up all Johnny's assets and from there go right after this guy. We'd be looking at 50-50 alimony over 30-odd years. We'd try to capture proceeds from a house sale, which would be sizable." Kaster also says that to buttress Angelic's case, he would look into the issue of whether there could be grounds for some criminal complaints, from social-security fraud to collusion to bigamy. "What I'm saying, bottom line, is that this is a magnificent can of worms. All Johnny's other wives would be hiring attorneys. But as for getting, finally, her so-called 'day in court,' I don't think it's on the horizon for Angelic."

In the months since the wrangle in Yakima came to a close, Johnny remarried his current wife and got on with his practice of marrying young couples in his back garden. Angelic flew back to Minnesota, where she now lives. On her better days, she parks herself for hours in a booth at the Old Country Buffet just off the highway in Coon Rapids, where she occasionally catches the ear of a nearby stranger and unravels her saga down to the last detail, which can take hours--like working a stuck wheel out of a suckhole. She'll stop in for a visit and strategy session every couple weeks with Kaster, who's memorized her story all the way from the Oasis nightclub to the latest update. But these days, those reports carry little new news. Angelic spends some nights at the Super 8 motel in Blaine, others on friends' couches, "so as not to trouble them too much." It's true, she's fond of saying lately, there's already been enough trouble in this life.

And when worse comes to worst, Angelic drives up to her son's gravesite and talks to the dead, just like she talked to Johnny for more than 30 years. At that mention, she collapses into tears and, under her breath, begins the litany yet again: "I was once a beautiful girl in Germany," she whispers. "Johnny came in on the wind like a bird. Like a dream. We fell in love. We married. We came through the storm to the new world. So happy, we were. One night he disappeared and made me a widow. So many years later he rose from the dead and made me his wife again. A wife, yes, Mighty God, married to a dirty, dirty dog."

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