Blog Post #18
by Jane Van Ryan
Of all the people I interviewed before writing The Seduction of Miss Evelyn Hazen, Dannie Mellen Payne was the most outspoken. I met her while she was a patient at the Brakebill Nursing Home after she broke her hip. Stretched out comfortably in a hospital bed, she wore a pink-and-blue nightgown—and a grin.
When I walked into the room with Lucille LaBonte, Dannie welcomed us warmly and immediately showed us a photo of her wedding in March 1926. She gave me the names of each person in the wedding party, including Evelyn Hazen. Like the rest of the bridesmaids, Evelyn wore a beige beaded dress and carried a bouquet of sweet peas.
Dannie said she and Evelyn did not “cross paths” until they were old enough to start dating. Dannie was dating Frank Calloway when she met Evelyn. Frank was a good friend of Ralph Scharringhaus, the man Evelyn sued for breach of promise to marry and seduction in 1934.
Dannie said she was part of the group that went to “house parties” with Evelyn and Ralph. As described in my book, these parties were held outside Knoxville at mountain vacation homes, where young couples would swim in the nearby creeks and enjoy each other’s company for a few days during the hot, sultry summers. At one of the house parties, Dannie recalled the boys put whiskey in the girls’ Coca-Colas, and Evelyn “threw a fit.” Dannie said she had heard about Evelyn’s propensity to explode when things didn’t go as she expected, but that was the first time she had witnessed one of her outbursts.
Dannie also remembered Russ Lindsay, the University of Tennessee football star who dated Evelyn just prior to World War I. “He was a darling,” Dannie recalled. “He was a big man…He was cute.” However, after he returned home from fighting in France, he married a woman who was “awful ugly,” she said.
Evelyn, on the other hand, was a “beautiful woman” who was “well built,” as she put it. Dannie also said Evelyn “had a sense of fairness about her.” Dannie discovered this attribute while they were teachers at Old Knoxville High School.
Dannie became a teacher after she divorced her husband Reuben. Explaining her failed marriage, she said she and Reuben went to Europe for three months after their wedding and then settled down in Miami, Florida. But Reuben had a drinking problem, leading his father to “cut him off” financially. Dannie left Reuben and returned to Knoxville in hopes of finding a job and making a living on her own. She said the divorce was granted due to his “cruel and inhuman treatment” of her, which in legal parlance was Tennessee’s definition for failing to support the family.
The very morning her divorce was finalized, she was notified she could teach at the high school. At that time, married women were not “elected” to teach there—women had to be single. As a divorcee, Dannie taught French to legions of high school students, including Howard Bozeman who later earned his law degree, became Knox County Judge, and was Evelyn’s attorney.
Evelyn also taught at the high school, saying that she needed to work because her fiancé Ralph was continually putting off their wedding. Dannie wondered aloud whether Ralph was to blame for their failure to marry. According to Dannie, Evelyn might have been “carrying on extra activities while she was with Ralph.” There were rumors that Evelyn had other boyfriends who lived out-of-town, and Dannie got the impression that Ralph was tired of Evelyn stringing him along.
Of course, Dannie admitted she got much of her information about Evelyn’s alleged indiscretions from Mildred Eager, a fellow teacher whom Evelyn called one of Ralph’s “subsidized witnesses” at the trial.
Dannie told me how Mildred and Evelyn were fired from their teaching jobs in the fall of 1932. Dannie said she was walking down the hallway at the high school with Evelyn on one side and Mildred on the other. Someone handed letters to Evelyn and Mildred, and they gave each other “sickly” looks. The letters ordered them to report to the superintendent’s office where they were suspended.
Dannie did not mince words in her descriptions of people who figured prominently in Evelyn’s story. She said Mildred was not pretty and had a “hairy face.” About Evelyn’s cousin Flem Hazen, she said he was called “Dugout Hazen” during World War I because he would not fight. Dannie also said the baby believed to be the love child of Ralph and the married Elizabeth Goforth looked like her mother—“puny, little and dark.”
And Evelyn, according to Dannie, was “notorious.” Evelyn agreed with Dannie’s assessment. One day when she invited Dannie to lunch, Evelyn acknowledged that her notoriety would prevent Dannie from ever calling Evelyn her friend.
By taking Ralph to court and admitting she was a ruined woman, Evelyn set herself up for a very lonely existence on Mabry’s Hill.