Wednesday, June 9, 2021

1920s Yankees Era Depicted in Kim Van Alkemade’s ‘Bachelor Girl,’ Inspired By Actual Events

The era of Babe Ruth and the creation of Yankee Stadium is the backdrop for an unconventional love story.
by Rich Watson

The Yankees were not always the perennial powerhouse we think of today. It wasn’t until the acquisition of Babe Ruth in 1920 that their fortunes began to turn around—a deal set in motion by their owner at the time, brewer Jacob Ruppert.

Ruppert is a pivotal character in the historical fiction novel Bachelor Girl by Kim van Alkemade, a book set in the post-World War One period. The Yankees still played in the Polo Grounds, Ruth was a pitcher for the Red Sox, and Prohibition was the new law of the land.

The centerpiece, however, is a fictitious, unusual love story uniting the woman Ruppert would one day name his successor as Yankees owner with a secretary who lives a double life as a gay man.

Jacob Ruppert and the dawn of the Yankee dynasty

Ruppert was the heir to his father Jacob Sr.’s brewing company. Jacob Jr. served in the National Guard in the 1890s and received an honorary rank of colonel. After a political career as a Representative in Congress at the turn of the century, he and army engineer Tillinghast Huston acquired the Yankees for $480,000 in 1915. 

In 1920, the Yankees with Ruth outdrew the Giants at the Polo Grounds. This increased the friction between the two clubs, especially after they met in the 1921 World Series. (The Giants won.) Ruppert and Huston looked around New York for a site that would not only house their team, but be a baseball cathedral.

In 1922, construction began on a ten-acre lumberyard in the Bronx, across the Harlem River from and in sight of the Polo Grounds. Yankee Stadium, the first ballpark with a three-tiered grandstand instead of the usual two, opened on April 18, 1923. 

Ruth hit a three-run homer to lead the Yanks to a 4-1 win over his old team, the Red Sox. The stadium soon became known as “the House that Ruth built.” 

The Yankees would go on to win the World Series for the first time that year, and again in 1927, 1928 and 1932, all with Ruth at the heart of one of the most feared lineups in baseball history, the legendary “Murderers Row.”

Ruppert would die of phlebitis in January 1939. His will left two-thirds of his estate to his nieces. The other third, including co-ownership of the Yankees, went to a mystery woman named Helen Winthrop Weyant.

Who was Helen Winthrop Weyant?

Little is known for certain as to who Weyant was or why Ruppert would name her as such a major beneficiary in his will. According to a 2012 piece at the website SB Nation, they met when she was twenty-three, more than half Ruppert’s age at the time. She was an actress/chorus girl from Massachusetts and her brother was an assistant to the Yankees’ traveling secretary. 

Ruppert and Weyant were not married; in fact, Ruppert never married nor had children. Reporters of the time quoted her as saying she didn’t know why Ruppert left her the money.

Bachelor Girl speculates on Weyant’s connection to Ruppert

Van Alkemade’s 2018 novel attempts to fill in the blanks on Weyant’s life in a work of fiction. In the story, as Helen Winthrope, she’s the daughter of servants to Ruppert. 

He is indirectly responsible for the accident leading to her father’s death when she was a girl. Ruppert looks out for the family in the subsequent years. She grows up to be an aspiring theater actress, but is resentful of Ruppert for the part he played in her father’s death.

They meet again when Ruppert invites Helen and her family to a Yankee game at the Polo Grounds. It is there where she meets Albert Kramer, Ruppert’s personal secretary. The two eventually grow into a close friendship, akin to love, but both sides have secrets that prevent them from sealing the deal.

In Albert’s case, it’s because he’s gay in a less enlightened time in history. Through him, we see the underground of gay male life in twenties New York City. We follow him to speakeasies and drag balls and gay rooming houses and learn the ways in which a gay man not only passed for straight but made his sexual orientation known to others like him.

Through a chain of events, Helen ends up working for Ruppert as well, and her attitude toward him softens. Ruppert is the glue that connects her to Albert. Their ties to him are almost as important as their connection to each other. Helen and Albert’s secret selves can’t stay hidden from each other long, though, nor can their deepest desires.

Ruppert as a character 

Anything baseball-related in the story mostly derives from Ruppert. We see Ruth play but he’s a minor character. The Black Sox scandal of 1919 is skipped over. 

Ruppert is depicted as an enigmatic but courtly gentleman, willing to live without a wife or children but not without companionship. Albert and others ponder, more than once, whether or not Ruppert himself is gay. 

In an interview with the UK-based Historical Novel Society, Van Alkemade discusses the real-life Ruppert:
“To me he seemed a forgotten example of the Gilded Age millionaire. He was a life-long bachelor, and I was interested in the different ways other characters could interpret that fact. He was associated with the Vanderbilts and the Astors but he is now little known outside of baseball circles. His history spanned a rapidly changing time for both America and New York City, and his personal life was both eccentric and enigmatic.”


Bottom line 

The book is quite moving. Helen and Albert are, in her words, damaged people, but their histories are what enable them to love each other, not as husband and wife or even as lovers, but as intimates nonetheless. In that sense, Bachelor feels modern despite the period setting. It’s well worth reading.

Have you read Bachelor Girl?


  1. You mentioned that construction began in 1922. That was the year that YVONNE DECARLO and AVA GARDNER were born. The ballpark opened in 1923. That was the year that country singer HANK WILLIAMS was born. Also JAMES ARNESS, the star of the long-running western GUNSMOKE(1955-75). My three favorite westerns are GUNSMOKE, BONANZA and THE BIG VALLEY. Do you know these shows? Are you a fan of westerns?

  2. My father was a huge BONANZA fan; it was often on in repeats in our house growing up. I am a big Barbara Stanwyck fan; I wrote about BIG VALLEY at my old film blog. Don’t know much about GUNSMOKE but I know it began in radio and enjoyed a very long life on TV.

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  5. I only know him from THE LOVE BOAT.

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