The Woman on the Bridge

Estelle knew her fiancé had betrayed her — she had no idea what else he was capable of.

Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

On July 30, 1966, two days before she expected to be married, Estelle Evans received a letter from her lover. She was 22, fairly fresh to New York, sharing an apartment near Columbus Circle with her roommate, Laura (last name withheld for privacy reasons), and trying to earn some kind of coin as a model. Michael was nearly 34 and claimed to be a reporter investigating some secret government operation in war-torn Vietnam.

They met one summer night at an Upper East Side bar. Estelle fell in love right away. Mike said he felt the same way about her, and their romance intensified over the course of several months. They spent far more time at his bachelor apartment, on East 85th Street and First Avenue, than anywhere else, as if their relationship would wilt in public settings and under scrutiny of friends. He promised they would marry and picked the date — August 1, his birthday.

Estelle kept her roommate completely up-to-date on her involvement with Mike. She had to tell someone she’d met her husband-to-be, and Laura, who was almost a decade older than Estelle, made the best possible confidante. Estelle’s family knew, too. She’d taken Mike to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where she’d grown up, over the Christmas holidays to meet her parents, older sisters, nephews, and nieces.

She was a glamorous visitor. Her makeup was immaculate, her jewelry on point, her clothes elegant. She wondered how her family might receive Mike, but over the course of the afternoon, it seemed apparent he’d won them over. One of her nephews, 16-year-old Walter Olszewski, was particularly impressed with Mike’s war-reporting stories.

Then, seven months later, came the letter from her lover. He confessed to Estelle that he was not who he said he was. His name was not Michael King as he’d told her. He was married, with children, and could not leave them. He did not, in fact, live on the Upper East Side but with his family in Laurelton, Queens — 20 miles away. The romance was over, and he would not contact her again. He never revealed his true identity to her.

Estelle read the letter. She read it several more times. The shock and disbelief did not abate, in part because Estelle had recently learned that she was pregnant with Mike’s child. Laura returned to the apartment to find her roommate in a deepening state of despondency. Laura didn’t feel right leaving Estelle alone. Between convulsive sobs, Estelle kept repeating how she could she have been such a fool.

The roommates ventured out, heading crosstown. Somehow, the two women ended up all the way east at the pedestrian entrance to the Queensboro Bridge. Estelle kept threatening to throw herself off it.

By this time, it was nearly 4:30 in the morning.

Estelle and Laura walked along the lower level of the bridge on the Manhattan side. Laura flagged down a passing car. “Help! Help! She wants to jump!” she cried, grasping at any chance she had to save her friend’s life.
The driver sped to the foot of the bridge and alerted the two patrolmen on duty. When they drove out across the bridge, they spotted Laura running along the pedestrian path. Estelle was not with her.

Laura was in hysterics. The patrolmen had arrived too late. Estelle, Laura told them, had bolted for the rail and jumped, plunging 135 feet into the water.

Estelle Evans and two patrolmen hold onto a life preserver after Evans jumped off the Queensboro Bridge. Photo: NY Daily News via Getty Images/2000/Daily News, L.P. (New York)

The patrolmen acted quickly. Their efforts to save Estelle Evans’s life resulted in a photo on the front page of the Sunday-morning Daily News.
Most newspaper readers at that time would have seen this at home or on newsstands and only registered the story’s essential ingredients of lurid tragedy — the image suffused with terror and suspense. The woman is clearly suffering. It would have been their first notice of Estelle Evans, without any clue that her brief life was inextricably linked with the origins of a dark political movement about to unfold.

Her name wasn’t Estelle Evans, and her story was even more tragic and upsetting beyond the dive off the Queensboro Bridge. She took her life because of a romance built on lies. For Michael King’s real name was Meir Kahane. She had fallen for a man who went on to become one of the most notorious and divisive figures in modern Jewish history. She would never know if he loved her or if he used her as he would come to be known for using others to further his own nefarious purposes.

She needed a new name because that’s what wayward girls did before moving to the big city. The old one had too many bad memories attached. Chauchie — well, that was kid stuff, a childhood nickname all too easy to outgrow, even if her family insisted on using it. And Gloria Jean was the name of a sad, lonely girl who wanted too much to settle for small-town life. She’d known as soon as puberty hit that she was destined for greatness, and that greatness didn’t live in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Her family saw things differently. They saw a girl too wild to be constrained, whose beauty signified danger, whose deep, melodious voice was a siren call, who had to be kept away from the older men who kept coming around, who defied them every chance she had. She felt at odds with her conservative, tight-knit family, whose dreams were largely circumscribed by the edge of Long Island Sound.

Gloria was the youngest, by far, 12 and 14 years younger than her two sisters, Janet and Agnes. Despite the gulf in ages, Gloria and Janet grew particularly close. (Agnes, the eldest, remained more distant.) But that bond did not alter the fact that her sisters had left home, married, bore children, divorced, and remarried before Gloria was fully out of childhood.

The D’Argenios lived simply, and their modest, strict upbringing proved suffocating for their youngest daughter. By the time Gloria turned 14, she wasn’t living with her parents anymore. The outward rebellion and inward restlessness proved too much for parent and child. She’d been sent to an orphanage in New Haven called Highland Heights, where family visits were said to number twice a month at best. She was allowed to leave for holidays and stayed with Janet over Thanksgiving.

She left her sister’s home on the night of November 30, 1958, clad in a black coat, blue hat, and black shoes, to board a New Haven–bound train to what they were calling “boarding school.” When the train arrived, Gloria wasn’t on it. This would not be the first time she would run away from the orphanage and her sister’s home.

Details about Gloria’s adolescence and early adulthood are spotty, even to her own family. Two fall 1961 mentions in the local newspaper, the Bridgeport Post, offer some clues. The first story, on September 24, mentioned Gloria in a write-up of Warren Harding High School’s student council. The next, on October 29, was more serious: Gloria, now 17, had fled Janet’s home and was discovered in the company of a 25-year-old dance instructor and both she and he were arrested on morals charges. Then the paper trail withered away once more, leaving scant information about Gloria’s next few years.

There’s no record of her graduating from Harding High, but she may have switched to another school to complete her studies. She moved to New York City around the age of 18 in hope of launching an acting career, but there are no records to prove how long she stayed. Whatever the case, by the spring of 1966, the 22-year-old’s dark-haired, olive-skinned, blue-eyed beauty opened the door for modeling jobs in Manhattan.

Gloria Jean D’Argenio couldn’t land those jobs. Estelle Evans, however, could — the name just sounded better, the way Marilyn Monroe resonated more than Norma Jeane Baker. She rented a room in the Coliseum Park Building on West 58th Street, sharing the apartment with Laura. She spent her evenings immersed in Manhattan nightlife. One of those evenings, Estelle Evans went to a bar on Second Avenue.

There, she met a man who said his name was Michael King.

Who knows what stories Meir Kahane spun upon first meeting Estelle Evans. The stories had to be convincing, because that was his business. Not as a writer per se — though he would later publish books under his real name, including one that condemned intermarriage — but as an operative. Along with a childhood friend, Kahane set up pro–Vietnam War cells on college campuses to counteract the rising antiwar movement on the left. He’d infiltrated the John Birch Society — a group so far to the right that National Review founder and editor William F. Buckley essentially froze it out of the conservative movement — at the FBI’s behest, to scope out the source of its funding.

Kahane’s deceptions yielded little success. “It was difficult on account of my religion. I constantly had to make up reasons why I couldn’t attend meetings on Friday nights,” he would later tell an interviewer for Playboy. But at 33, with strong features and a shock of dark hair, and a bachelor apartment on the Upper East Side, his failures could be sanded over to impress a much younger woman. He and Estelle began spending time together. She may have worked as his secretary, but we only have his word, not hers.

At the time he was carrying on the affair with Gloria, a.k.a. Estelle, Kahane, a Brooklyn-born, Queens-based Orthodox rabbi, was in need of a pulpit that would serve his own needs first.

That pulpit became the basis for the Jewish Defense League, which Kahane founded in 1968, a time of rising social upheaval and unrest across the country. His enemies were the Soviets, who were holding hostage Russian Jews who desired to emigrate; the Palestinians, who were in the way of a true one-state solution; and, closer to home, “the blacks,” whom he felt unduly targeted Jews, especially those unionized teachers striking during the Ocean Hill–Brownsville school crisis, which increased racial tensions in the community.

Rabbi Meir Kahane of the Jewish Defense League holds a press conference in New York City in 1971. Photo: Shutterstock

Kahane’s tactics relied heavily on pitting Jews against other minorities with the goal of elevating Jewish nationalism, even if it meant resorting to violence. What should have been a struggle for community control instead became a rallying cry against purported anti-Semitism by black people. And Kahane, who had written years’ worth of anti-black screeds in his columns for the Jewish Press, saw a way to boost his voice even further with the JDL, playing on rising anxiety within Jewish communities. Full-page ads in the New York Times in the aftermath of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis touted that “nice Jewish boys — or any nice boys — should not be forced out of their jobs by hoodlums.”

This rhetoric and subsequent actions were met with near-universal loathing within and outside the Jewish community. By the end of 1971, after receiving a five-year suspended sentence for a bomb plot, Kahane found the United States increasingly inhospitable and moved permanently to Israel. (He did return to America for speaking engagements, be they lectures or debates with the likes of Alan Dershowitz.) He eventually ceded day-to-day control of the JDL and concentrated his efforts on Kach, the Israeli political party he founded. After Kahane won a single seat in the Knesset in 1988, the Israeli parliament passed a law that effectively banned Kach as a hate group for its consistent demand that Palestinians be expelled from the “Jewish-inherited soil.”

But Kahane’s philosophy influenced modern-day thinking about Israel more than people wish to admit. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ever-increasing turn to the hard right, with its entrenched belief that Jews have no future outside Israel and that countries like Iran can be compared to Nazis, parrots many of Kahane’s most incendiary talking points. As the scholar Shaul Magid, author of a forthcoming book on Kahane, wrote in 2016, “These were not the views of much of Zionism for most of its history but today it has arguably become almost normative among members of the coalition.”

Protecting Jews by any means necessary, taken to its natural conclusion, made room for demonization of their supposed enemies, “othering,” and justification for violence against them. (The religious extremist Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 worshippers at the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994, was close to Kahane.) Then there was the violence itself by the JDL, some of it lethal, including the 1972 bombing that killed Iris Kones and injured 13 and the 1985 mail-bombing that killed Palestinian-American activist Alex Odeh. Peering past the JDL’s ideology, however, leads to a more personal story that illuminates much about the ultranationalist organization’s origins. A story that is bound up with that of Estelle Evans and the front-page photo of the July 31, 1966, Sunday edition of the Daily News.

At the foot of the Queensboro Bridge, NYPD patrol officers spotted Estelle about 100 yards from shore.

They stripped to their underclothes and dove into the East River together, life preservers in hand. When they reached Estelle, she was conscious. The patrolmen put the preserver over her head and began to swim, but the struggle in the icy-cold water threatened to drown them. All three ended up being rescued by a passing fishing boat.

Estelle Evans was still alive. She told police about the letter that broke her heart and destroyed her spirit. She was taken to Lenox Hill Hospital and underwent hours-long surgery for extensive internal injuries.

At first, it looked as if she might live. The Daily News reported on the
“Girl Bridge Leaper” showing signs of improvement. But Estelle’s injuries proved too severe to be survivable. She died at 6:40 in the morning on August 1.

The funeral was in Bridgeport. Gloria’s family attended, but years later Gloria would prove to be a tragedy best forgotten. When Agnes, her eldest sister, died in June 2019, the obituary did not list Gloria among the predeceased siblings, children, and grandchildren. Janet’s obituary, published upon her death in 2008, also omitted mention of her youngest sibling.

Agnes’s eldest son, Henry Olszewski, said Gloria’s omission from the obituaries came as a surprise — “I don’t think it was even thought of” — but suspected her suicide remained too painful a subject for his mother and aunt. “There were times when we visited with Aunt Janet when Gloria was brought up,” Henry, now 71, told me. “Once the conversation started, it abruptly ended. It brought back too many bad memories.”

Yet she was remembered, in circumstances equally bizarre and calculated, by her former lover. He claimed to have attended Gloria’s funeral, where he dropped to his knees and wailed, “Oh my darling, please forgive me.” (Walter Olszewski, who had met Kahane during the family Christmas visit, did not recall seeing him at the funeral.) He said he visited the cemetery several times over the following year to place roses upon her grave. And then he set up a memorial foundation in her name, which was a Trojan horse to raise money for the organization that became the Jewish Defense League.

By the time that year of mourning ended, Michael King was no more. Now that he had jettisoned the alias and his former life as a failed covert operative to double down on his overt life as an Orthodox rabbi and a family man, Meir Kahane could fully embody his most trenchant beliefs. His urgent nationalist fervor for Israel strengthened after the Six-Day War in 1967, as did his sense that he, above all men, had some greater service to impart.

He gave standing-room-only speeches in Orthodox Jewish synagogues across the country and attracted the constituents who most interested him within his world: teenage male acolytes and wealthy donors. “Never again” became the catchall phrase.

Kahane being led away by police after demonstration at the Soviet Mission at East 67th Street. Photo: NY Daily News via Getty Images/1971/Daily News, L.P. (New York)

All his underlying hatred for others seeded the origin for the JDL in the spring of 1968. “We have no great funds, no great influence, so the answer is simple: to do outrageous things,” he told New York Times reporter Michael Kaufman in January 1971. Money had to be raised, though, and it required setting up charitable, tax-exempt foundations. One of them, incorporated in August 1967, a full six months before the official existence of the JDL, bore the name of Estelle Donna Evans.

A January 10, 1969, Brooklyn Daily article reported that the fund would “give needy Israelis desperately needed money without the stigma of charity.” The same article announced a $1,000 donation by a man establishing a Gemilat chesed (or free loan) fund in his name in Israel, one that would provide interest-free loans without a repayment deadline.

An undated flyer for the Estelle Donna Evans Foundation made the pitch more blunt: “Throughout the land of Israel, there are children who need help. Some are orphans, others from broken homes … All these children need two things very much. One is money to better their own and their families’ lives. The other is love and the knowledge that others care about them.” The ad implored would-be and current JDL members to earmark $10 annually for this fund, in addition to other necessary contributions.

By the time Kaufman interviewed Kahane for the Times in January 1971, the rabbi claimed the fund had disbursed more than $200,000. Never mind that he had no proof that the money actually went to poor Israeli orphans. As Robert I. Friedman, author of The False Prophet: Rabbi Meir Kahane, From FBI Informant to Knesset Member (published a few months before Kahane’s 1990 assassination) revealed, “In reality, Kahane used the money to help finance the JDL.” That meant two different things: funding the purchase of supplies for bombings and fattening his own wallet, spending lavishly on trips for himself.

Kaufman had been assigned the interview to satisfy the paper’s curiosity about the rabbi’s spearheading JDL protests at Soviet diplomatic sites and reveling in his and his acolytes’ arrests. Kahane gave Kaufman leaflets, one of which was an ad for the Estelle Donna Evans Foundation. When Kaufman asked Kahane about the foundation’s namesake, the rabbi claimed she had been his former secretary in his failed consulting operation, she had died of terminal cancer, and her “well-to-do” family had endowed the foundation.

Kaufman and fellow Times reporter Richard Severo felt something was off about the foundation and set out to prove their suspicions that it was fraudulent. In the process, they unearthed Kahane’s dangerous hypocrisy: promoting ethnonationalism and preaching against intermarriage while covering up an affair with a non-Jewish woman. “We could have changed the history of Israel,” Severo said nearly two decades later. “I wonder how many of his Orthodox supporters would have continued to follow him … if they knew the man was a charlatan?”

They tracked down Gloria’s parents, Eliodoro and Gertrude D’Argenio. He showed them a photo of Meir Kahane. They confirmed that it was their daughter’s fiancé, Michael King. Kaufman found Laura, the roommate, who confirmed the details of Kahane’s “Dear Jane” breakup letter. Both reporters then flew down to Montgomery, Alabama, where Kahane’s onetime business partner, Joseph Churba, taught at the local university. “It was a hot day and Churba started sweating,” Kaufman recalled in Friedman’s book. “The half-circle sweat stains under his armpits began to grow [when he was asked about Gloria].” He, too, confirmed that the two had been in a sexual relationship.

Kaufman and Severo decided to confront Kahane with what they’d learned. They engaged him at a television studio in New York, where Kahane had just finished taping The David Susskind Show. Kahane and the two reporters went upstairs to an empty office.

Kaufman immediately asked about Gloria.

“I loved her,” said Kahane, placing a hand on Kaufman’s knee. He made a show of unburdening himself. He said that with Estelle, “he had never known such passion, that they had lived together in the East Side apartment, that she was in the process of converting to Judaism, and that breaking off the affair had driven her to suicide.” Kahane, to the reporters’ astonishment, went further, calling his relationship with his wife “unsatisfactory” and that his sex life was “confined by the strictures of Orthodoxy,” which explained his penchant for going to Second Avenue bars to pick up women.

Then Kahane’s demeanor changed, as Kaufman later recalled:

He then began pleading with me not to publish the full account of this story. His self-assuredness vanished and he started to stutter. He came to my office. He told me that writing about his affair would torment his ailing mother and inflict pain on his wife and his children. At one point he promised that if I withheld the story he would abandon public life. On another visit he told me a story about a rabbi who as a young man wanted to save all the Jews in the world. In middle age he wanted to save the Jews of Poland, and when he had grown old he hoped to save just one Jew, himself. “I am that rabbi,” he said.

When Kaufman finally published his piece about Kahane, he implied, but stopped short of truly specifying, the real nature of the rabbi’s relationship with D’Argenio. As Kahane’s rhetoric worsened, as he moved his base of operations from America to Israel, as his followers said and published bigoted screeds of their own, Kaufman wondered if he had done the right thing in downplaying the affair and about Kahane’s culpability in D’Argenio’s suicide: “Was that my job, to bring the rabbi down?” he wrote in 1994. “I do not know. Over the years I have asked a number of rabbis about it. Some said that setting out to destroy a reputation by revealing secrets of a private life is tantamount to murder. But I am more impressed by those who told me that showing mercy to the cruel is wrong and sinful.”

Friedman, in his book about Kahane, did not equivocate in his judgment. “If the paper of record had published all it knew about Kahane, a self-righteous, Orthodox rabbi who constantly moralized about personal relationships, then perhaps both he and the JDL would have been destroyed.” (Friedman and Kaufman died in 2002 and 2010, respectively; Severo did not respond to requests for contact.)

When Kahane was assassinated in 1990, he was nearly universally despised as a fringe figure who had done great damage to the Jewish community. Yet thousands of people lined the streets at his funeral in Brooklyn. A booklet handed out at a public memorial contained glowing reminiscences, even from those who could not abide his ideology but found him to be a warm, loving man.

The suicide of Gloria D’Argenio had never been a secret. But it wasn’t a topic of discussion or debate, either. The ultranationalist, pro-Israeli, anti-Arab fervor that was a hallmark of Kahane’s philosophy resonated widely enough with deep-funded sources (at one point, Häagen-Dazs co-founder Reuben Mattus was a financial supporter) that personal hypocrisy could be ignored. Of what importance was a young, beautiful, dead girlfriend of Italian-American descent? After all, to invoke a phrase I heard growing up in an Orthodox Jewish community (and a punchline in an early episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), “Shiksas are for practice.”

Gloria Jean D’Argenio died before she could truly live, be known, find purpose. As the “Woman on the Bridge,” she could be flattened into two dimensions, forgotten, discarded. But did she ever have a chance, even before Meir Kahane entered her life and helped bring about her destruction? One can argue, as Kaufman struggled to, about the value of showing mercy to the cruel, but what of showing mercy to those thrown away by the cruelty of others?

Gloria’s story, as it’s been written for more than half a century, isn’t really her own at all. It is one of a woman who had the misfortune to be the brief, tragic lover of a charismatic man, a toxic influence, a man who was nowhere near great.

The Woman on the Bridge