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In 1927 the public learned why it might be dangerous to sneak onto the William B. Leeds estate in Oyster Bay, Long Island.

 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 6, 1927
Just two months ago The Eagle renewed its attack upon the private use of machine guns with a series of articles showing there was no legislation in New York State to prevent the sale of these weapons indiscriminately, and that only the co-operation of retail dealers after a request from the Police Department was restraining bandits from purchasing them at will.

The Eagle revealed some time ago that wealthy men were purchasing such weapons as the Thompson “sub-machine gun,” the most portable and handiest of the high-powered machine guns, to protect their estates. Among such purchasers is William B. Leeds, son of the late “Tin Plate King.”

 
And what ever happened to Leeds' Thompson sub-machine gun? Funny you should ask. I found this answer at www.machinegunboards.com
 

How did a Thompson submachine gun cause a big rift between Ernest Hemingway and Mike Strater during the summer of 1935 in Bimini?

Hemingway acquired the submachine gun from the International Sportsman, William B. Leeds, who was in Bimini aboard his yacht Moana. Mike, fishing aboard the Pilar, hooked a 12-foot marlin. While moving the fish towards the boat, the sharks zeroed in on it. Ernest, with his new toy, began to give the sharks bursts from the machine-gun on the pretext he had to defend the marlin from them. The effect was just the reverse. A feeding frenzy ensued. It took another hour to boat the marlin.

What was left weighed 500 pounds. A photograph showed over half of the marlin was gone, and what was left was a hollow shell. Strater was enraged. Ernest had helped to destroy the biggest marlin Mike had ever hooked.

 

On May 16, 1927, the Associated Press wrote a story that William B. Leeds Jr. was making a trans-Atlantic voyage in a dress suit, with no luggage. "Leaving Mrs. Leeds, entertaining at home, he went to see some friends off on the Aquitania at midnight. They wouldn’t let him get off the boat, shanghaied him, in fact."

The story might have been true, but Leeds offered another explanation for why he had impulsively left for England on the Aquitania. On May 17 he told the Associated Press he had had an appointment on the liner in New York with a businessman who was to represent him at a conference in Paris. This representative missed the liner, so Leeds decided to go, persuading a friend, William Meyer, to join him, though neither had a passport or luggage.

If there was anything William Leeds liked almost as much as sailing, it was flying. This interest came to the fore in 1927.

 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 14, 1927
LAKE PLACID, NY – Interest in aviation as a means of closer linking the Adirondacks with eastern cities for the convenience of heads of families paying weekend visit here was stimulated this week by the flight of William B. Leeds, who came from Garden City in a big eight-passenger, tri-motored Fokker plane en route to Montreal.

 

Amsterdam Evening Recorder, September 8, 1927
WASHINGTON (AP) – William B. Leeds has qualified for a private air pilot’s license. The name of his wife, the former Princess Xenia, has been given to a plane now in Dublin waiting to hop to Philadelphia. His father was the tin plate king.

 

Albany Evening Journal, September 17, 1927
BALLYBUNNION, County Kerry, Irish Free State (AP) - Another attempt to conquer the unruly Atlantic by a non-stop flight from the east westward to New York City has failed.

The great blue and brown monoplane “Princess Xenia,” owned by the American tinplate heir, William B. Leeds, last night came to a safe rest on Beale strand, near the mouth of the Shannon, six miles south of this seaside resort, after her pilots, Robert H. MacIntosh and Commandant John C. Fitzmaurice, had fought vainly with violent headwinds and blinding fog over the sea. They were in the air for a little less than four and a half hours.

 

On September 22, 1927, five days after Leeds' monoplane failed in its attempt at a Transatlantic flight, the millionaire and his plane's namesake were in Chicago for what would become one of the most famous heavyweight championship fights of all-time, the rematch between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney. That was the fight in which Tunney was knocked down for the only time in his career, but Dempsey's initial refusal to retreat to a neutral corner (a new rule), gave Tunney a few seconds to recover. Tunney went on to win by decision. It is remembered as "the fight of the long count."

Three weeks before the fight the Chicago Herald-Examiner reported on the list of reservations for the fight. The two celebrities who topped that list were Princess Xenia and William B. Leeds. Getting second billing were Mayor James Walker of New York City and entertainers Douglas Fairbanks, Norma Talmadge, Mary Pickford, John Barrymore, Charlie Chaplin, Will Rogers, Gloria Swanson, Buster Keaton and Tom Mix.

Two months later it was a speedboat that put the couple back in the news, when Princess Xenia piloted a new torpedo speedboat over Long Island Sound at what then was considered an astounding 63.07 miles per hour.

The name of that boat was "Fan Tail," and it became Leeds' property – and another chapter in the story of the Leeds jinx. Sure enough, about eight months after Princess Xenia's spring over Long Island Sound, the boat exploded, nearly killing Leeds and a guest, Adele Astaire, sister of Fred. Disaster was averted, thanks to the quick reflexes of William B. Leeds, who right about then must have been wondering how long his luck would last.

 

Albany Evening Journal, November 21, 1927
Whale-Fluke Motorboat Is Guided
by Mrs. Leeds at 63.07 Miles an Hour

NEW YORK, Nov 21 (AP) – New fields in peacetime motor boating, torpedo warfare and communication today were regarded as possible developments from a new torpedo speedboat piloted in a test run by Mrs. William B. Leeds, the former Princess Xenia, at 63.07 miles an hour over Long Island sound.

The boat is equipped with a 500-horsepower Wright Whirlwind airplane motor. It has a streamline body thirty-eight feet long. Its chief difference in construction from that of the average torpedo boat is a fish-like tail which projects from the stern, giving the boat the appearance of a tiny whale, and some of the efficiency of a hydroplane.

Prince Eric of Denmark, Prince Christopher, the son of the late King George of Greece, and naval attaches of foreign embassies and legations in Washington were among the twenty-four passengers on the craft, the Fan Tail, as Mrs. Leeds guided it to a new unofficial record for a craft loaded to 2,500 pounds. The test was made off Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, Saturday.

Johannes Plum, former naval attache of the Danish legation in Washington, who invented the boat, sees its biggest value as an auxiliary to torpedo boats in wartime. He visualized the craft being dropped from a cruiser at sea, running sixty-five or more miles an hour, shooting two or three torpedoes from its forward tubes at an enemy ship and returning under its high speed to the safety of its mother vessel.

Mr. Leeds, who sat beside his wife during the test, suggested development of the boat would improve comfort and speed to Long Islanders who commute to New York during the summer months.

 

Amsterdam Evening Recorder, July 9, 1928
Fire Destroys Leeds’ Yacht

His Quick Action Saves His Own Life
and That of Adele Astaire, Actress

Oyster Bay, N. Y , July 9 (AP) – The quick action of William B. Leeds probably saved the lives of himself and Adele Astaire, actress, when his $75,000 speedboat, Fan Tail, burned to the water’s edge at the pier here yesterday afternoon. Both were severely burned.

Leeds and Miss Astaire, who with her brother and dancing partner, Fred Astaire, was a weekend guest at the Leeds’ Long Island home at Cove Neck, had just entered the boat to take a trial spin. He started the motor. The backfire ignited gasoline seepage in the hull of the craft. The boat almost immediately was enveloped In flames.

Leeds picked up Miss Astaire, who had collapsed, and lifted her to the landing stage. Then climbing out himself he pushed the Fan Tail out into clear water. An explosion occurred a moment later and the boat was destroyed.

Miss Astaire and her host were treated at the Leeds' home, but her burns were found to be so severe that she was taken to the New York hospital. Hospital authorities said she was in no danger. Mr. Leeds remained at home.

Mrs. Leeds, the former Princess Xenia of Russia, and Fred Astaire were standing on the pier waiting to get into the boat when the accident occurred.

 

Prohibition was the law of the land, at least for some folks. In many big cities police usually ignored violators. Judges generally admitted that if prohibition were strictly enforced, the resulting court cases would tie them up for years. However, there were occasionally efforts to crack down on both those who were breaking the law and enforcement officers who were lax in their duty. One such effort was made in August 1928.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (August 19) reported, "Members of the Police Department and Prohibition agents who have winked at the serving of drinks in night clubs will rub elbows with the social registries this week when the 125 persons subpoenaed in the investigation of liquor law violations appear before the Federal Grand Jury in Manhattan."

Among those subpoenaed to testify: William B. Leeds (or as he was identified in the subpoena, "Mr. Leeds of Oyster Bay").

Leeds was a well-known regular at New York nightclubs which were ignoring prohibition. He testified, but the grand jury investigation was an exercise in futility.

For Leeds, a more annoying exercise in futility was being conducted in his home where he and Princess Xenia were playing host to Anna Tchaikovsky, who claimed to be Anastasia, youngest daughter of the late Czar Nicholas of Russia. Princess Xenia was one of a very few insiders who believed the woman's claims. Her acceptance of the woman, who would prove an imposer, alienated Xenia from most of her relatives.

Leeds publicly supported his wife, but privately he could not stand Tchaikovsky. The feeling was mutual. Finally, he ordered her to leave Oyster Bay.

In her book, "A Romanov Fantasy: Life at the Court of Anna Anderson," Frances Welch said this about the would-be Anastasia who lived for awhile with Leeds and his wife.

 

"Years later Anna gave characteristically sparse descriptions of the appearance of her host and hostess; she appeared to recall further, with disapproval, her host’s colorful misdemeanors. ‘The estate was Oyster Bay at the ocean where I was living. Xenia Leeds, nicely tall, well groomed, and ... William Leeds, a tiny creature – like a little dwarf with brown eyes. And William Leeds went with this dancing girl (Adele Astaire, the sister of Fred) on a boat, they went on a boat and then the boat exploded. And the dancing girl was heavy injured ... and he almost lost his eyesight. He had not only one dancing girl but all the secretaries... He was traveling with these secretaries and who knows what.’ "

 

ON AUGUST 29, 1929, newspapers reported the German dirigible Graf Zeppelin had landed back at Lakehurst, N.J. after circling the globe in 21 days, seven hours and 33 minutes. (Actual flying time: 11 days, 23 hours and 14 minutes; the rest was spent on the ground at three stops – Friedrichshafen, Germany; Tokyo, and Los Angeles.)

For awhile this was the record for the fastest around-the-world trip. Along for the ride: William B. Leeds Jr.

Months earlier he had done another of those things reserved for the rich. This stunt seems something out of the Howard Hughes playbook:

 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 16, 1929
Chartering a Sikorsky amphibian plane, William B. Leeds Jr.. of Oyster Bay, and a party of four friends yesterday went by air to Lake Mohawk, N. J., on a fishing trip. Leeds first telephoned to Sparta, N. J., to inquire if Lake Mohawk was big enough for a seaplane to come down on. The men caught some trout in the streams near Sparta and flew back to Oyster Bay in the evening.

 

Geneva (NY) Daily Times, October 15, 1929
NEW YORK – Mrs. William B. Leeds, Princess Xenia of Russia, and her five-year-old daughter are back from abroad. The first thing they noticed when entering the harbor on the Mauritania was Mr. Leeds' motor yacht, decorated with flags, which escorted the ship to the pier.

 

This probably was the yacht that two months later Leeds presented to New York City Police Commissioner Grover A. Whalen. According to an Associated Press story (January 21, 1930), the 55-foot motor yacht would be used "for meeting notables down the harbor."

Leeds didn't need such a small yacht anymore ... because he had a new toy:

 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 19, 1929
By O. R. PILAT
William B. Leeds Jr., to whom fortune gave most of the things of which other men spend their lives dreaming, has a new speed marvel up his sleeve.

About a month ago the 27-year-old son of the late William B. Leeds, the “Tin-Plate King,” purchased the Winchester, steam yacht belonging to Dr. John A. Harris, former Special Deputy Police Commissioner. The purchase attracted little attention, for though a sensation in her day, due to her racing design, the Winchester was 22 years old.

Since then the Winchester has been undergoing overhauling at the Shewant Plant of United Dry Docks, Inc., foot of 27th Street. Her three turbines, with a total of 3,000 horsepower, have been thoroughly revamped, new rubber bearings have been installed and other changes made.

And now experts say that the Winchester, renamed Flying Fox, will be the fastest steam yacht afloat when she moves out of the Shewant plant on a South Seas cruise next month. Captain Fuchs, who has had charge of the overhauling of the boat, expects to make at least 30 knots and probably more. Gasoline boats can equal this speed, but not the modern steam and diesel pleasure craft.

The Flying Fox can accommodate 52 persons on board at a time, but there are sleeping accommodations for only about eight, because of the tremendous amount of space taken up by the engines in the 165-foot sliver-shaped craft.

Continued
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