In December 1911, a few months before the White Star Line’s Titanic would dominate headlines around the world, another of the company’s ocean liners, the Oceanic, arrived at a port in New York. As the massive ship docked, a scandalous family drama was about to unfold onshore. Their warm breath fogging in the damp December, an Italian diplomat, his wife, and their adult daughter eagerly waited to set sight on the apple of the family’s eye: 18-year-old Andre Riela.
The young man was returning from a sojourn in Paris and, as onlookers would soon spy, he had more than his luggage in tow. During his time in the City of Love, Riela had fallen under love’s spell. She was a singer and actress by the name of Antoinette De Lilas. She was more than a decade his senior — a number she adjusted to seven when talking to the press — and Riela found her fascinating and clever, as bright and entertaining as anyone he had ever met.
His parents were far less enthralled.
They, reportedly, had already selected an American girl for Riela to wed, and his affection for Miss De Lilas caused the family great distress, which grew in intensity as they laid eyes on her.
“The father frowned and looked with savage glances at the shrinking bride, his son’s senior and quite a mature and seasoned woman,” described a reporter for New York World, which reported on the dramatic scene that played out as the young couple arrived. The mother was in hysterics. The bride began to cry; the groom embraced his love and dried her tears.
“Reporters were at these ships all the time,” explains historian Lynne Borofsky, “because things go on. So they have this story of this young couple, Andre’s parents are screaming, ‘He’s too young for her!’”
Following the port incident, the reporter interviewed the couple at a Midtown Manhattan apartment and Riela expanded on their troubles. He had brought his bride home to celebrate the holidays with his family, and he told the reporter that the dramatic reception had caused him “the greatest confusion.” It was a fine family scandal, and the reporter ate it up, knowing his readers would love it too.
The only trouble is, almost all of it was a lie.
Riela and De Lilas were in love, and they had met in Paris. The rest of the details, though, were, as Borofsky puts it, a ruse.
It’s unclear who the players by the port were, but it seems they were indeed players, there to act the part of a diplomat and his family distraught by the prodigal son’s return with his mature wife. They could have been actors, or even a real family — but not that of a diplomat, and their name was not Riela. Also not named Riela? Andre. That was a pseudonym. His real name was Anthony Macaluso and, a couple of years before this scene would play out, he’d escaped the custody of the New York City police and absconded to Paris. Now, his new love in tow, he wanted to return home. But he couldn’t do so under his old name, lest he be captured again.
So, the entire scene by the port — one that would be written up in the press and therefore put Andre Riela on the record — was a performance, staged by Riela and De Lilas. It was likely not the couple’s first, and certainly not their last. “Their life was performing,” says Borofsky.
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The criminal saga that Macaluso was running from began in Philadelphia, where, in 1908, he worked as an apprentice under Philadelphia-based decorator Joseph E. O’Brien. According to New York Times reports, the two later fell into a dispute, and Macaluso sought the help of an attorney for wages he claimed he was owed but hadn’t been paid. But the attorney, Carl Fisher-Hansen, had more than a mere lawsuit in mind. He cooked up a scheme to extort O’Brien, creating a scandal by using Macaluso’s journal and letters O’Brien had written to Macaluso.
The details of what exactly was in those letters are unclear. Some contemporary reports refer to it as a sexual blackmail case, while newspapers of the era referred to Macaluso and O’Brien as “entangled.” The short of it is that Fisher-Hansen didn’t get away with the extortion. It caught up with him in New York, where he was put on trial. The key witness against him was Macaluso.
Obviously not one to go down without a fight, Fisher-Hansen considered offing Macaluso, according to a witness who testified that Fisher-Hansen said, “we could shanghai him easy enough if we went about it,” adding that, “if you should take him out to some lonely spot I would find somebody to get him out of the way.”
The witness (who is not named in a New York Times report on the case) refused to follow through, so Fisher-Hansen’s next move was to try to send Macaluso to jail. He found some police officers who were willing to collaborate on a complex plan. Fisher-Hansen would attempt to bribe Macaluso to lie on the stand — and the police would have Macaluso arrested for accepting the bribe. (It’s not exactly clear how this sordid scheme would ultimately help Fisher-Hansen.)
But Macaluso didn’t accept the bribe. The police arrested him anyway, and the district attorney, unsure whether there was even a crime to charge him with, put him under detective custody in his own apartment for the night.
It’s unclear whether or not Macaluso knew there was nothing real to charge him with, or whether he was scared of the law or of Fisher-Hansen. Whatever the reason, he slipped out in the night, unbeknownst to Detective John Mullen, who was responsible for him. “Mullen did not know his prisoner had escaped yesterday morning until informed of it at Headquarters,” reported the Times the following day.
Macaluso fled the city, bound for Paris, where he would assume the identity of Andre Riela and meet the love of his life, Antoinette De Lilas. The next time he’d return to New York, it would be as a diplomat’s son. At least according to him.
In Paris, Riela got work as a vaudeville dancer, which is where he met Antoinette De Lilas, an actress whom he would tell New York World “attracted him at once, not because of her beauty, for her audiences admitted they were charmed by her art and her magnetism more than her good looks.” Riela found her “such a fascinating and clever woman that he became love’s captive.”
The new couple was always putting on a show. Photographs of the pair show a duo with a shared energy about them, and even their garb has a flare of drama. One photo shows the couple in similarly captivating necklaces, both dressed in white. She wears a turban on her head, while he is wearing a shirt the length of a tunic with dress pants and heels. They look casual in this capture, although De Lilas is looking directly into the camera with an expression that feels deliberate.
Specifics about the couple’s life in Paris are scant. In his book Madame Sherri (a moniker that De Lilas would one day adopt), Eric Stanway writes of this period: “Details of Madame’s early life are fuzzy, at best — it is known she was originally trained as a seamstress and ended up on stage, and was well-known by the time she was in her twenties.”
Eventually the couple plotted to return to America, but Macaluso worried that the police were still after him. So they cooked up the story they would later perform in grandeur: Andre Riela was the son of an Italian diplomat who was none too pleased that his boy had taken up with an older woman in Paris.
After their splashy arrival, the couple worked their way into the New York theater scene, De Lilas as a singer and actress and Riela as a dancer. It’s unclear whether they kept up the son-of-the-diplomat facade, or how they ever got enough money to lead the life they did. In his interview with New York World upon arrival, Riela recounted a story of winning 160,000 francs in one night in Monte Carlo — the truth of which is anyone’s guess. Some have questioned whether the Macaluso family may have had connections to the mob, but that hasn’t been confirmed definitively by historians. One thing that is clear is that as the couple’s life in New York unfolded, money came up a lot.
“They’re always kind of involved in things with money, and it’s always shady,” says Borofsky. Times records show that the couple was often in debt, either under their own names or that of the company they went on to found. By 1912, just a year after their dramatic portside scene, the pair cooked up what Borofsky believes was another scam. According to a Times report, Riela — who in that article is referred to as Andre Rieta — called the police claiming that expensive jewels were stolen from the couple’s apartment.
But when Detective Fitzsimmons arrived and laid eyes on Riela, he pointed an accusing finger and said, “You’re Tony Macaluso.”
Riela did not deny it. He was arrested and, while in police custody, filled detectives’ ears with tales of his adventures in Paris — from inventing the Apache dance craze that was popular on the nightlife circuit there (in actually it predated his time in Paris), to his jackpot night in Monte Carlo (this time the amount he reported winning was only 100,000 francs).
Following the incident with the jewels in which the police discovered Riela was really the escaped Macaluso, Riela spent a few nights in the Tombs, a jail in Lower Manhattan, but ultimately he was not charged with anything. After getting bailed out, he and his wife decided it was time for another rebrand.
They changed their names yet again, dubbing themselves Mister Andre and Madame Antoinette Sherri, and built a new career as costume designers. Stanway writes that this name change came about because De Lilas didn’t find their existing names “conducive to being placed on a sign.” While searching for a name that would be more befitting a dramatic business, she hit upon a play by Otto Hauerbach called Madame Sherry. She liked the name, and ran with it.
“She would become Madame Sherri, costumer to the bright lights of Broadway,” writes Stanway. “Accordingly, on November 10, 1916, she marched into the New York Registry and made the appropriate arrangements to open a business under that name.” The business was called Andre-Sherri. They both changed their surnames to Sherri, and she soon started going exclusively by “Madame Sherri.”
Andre-Sherri designed costumes for popular Broadway musicals including Frivolities of 1920 and The Lady in Red. The company would also bring into their orbit Charles LeMaire, a struggling performer who was interested in learning costume design. Madame Sherri took LeMaire under her wing as her protégé.
Despite their genuine success, Mister Andre and Madame Sherri were never without drama. They were still perpetually in debt, and in 1916, they suffered a personal loss when a young girl they had taken in and raised was removed from them and put into the custody of the church. (The couple never had children of their own.)
Then, in 1917, Riela was hit by a car and suffered a permanent injury to his leg, ending his dance career.
In 1919, LeMaire took over as president of Andre-Sherri, Inc. He would go on to design costumes for famous Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld and, later in his career, win three Academy Awards for his costume design in All About Eve and Love Is a Many Splendor Thing.
Meanwhile, Riela’s leg injury was followed by more injury and illness. He began to lose his vision and also began suffering from what he himself thought was insanity. He was admitted to a mental institution in 1924, where he died that same year at the age of just 31.
Grief-stricken after Riela’s death, Madame Sherri found herself searching. So she did the thing she knew how to do best — she reinvented herself.
She bought property in West Chesterfield, New Hampshire, where she began to construct a lavish mansion that came to be known as “Madame Sherri’s Castle.”
Madame Sherri gained a reputation as a curious figure in West Chesterfield and the neighboring town of Brattleboro, Vermont. A monkey sat on her shoulder as she was chauffeured up Main Street in her cream Packard to transport her friends to her party house. Archives from the Brattleboro Reformer note that locals reported she often donned a fur coat with nothing underneath and carried rolls of cash in her bosom or in a purse strapped to her thigh. Her mansion was fit for the Roaring Twenties and then some. While the street where Madame Sherri’s “castle” was located didn’t have electricity in the 1920s, she had the house wired specially so that she could host parties there. She also had it outfitted with a champagne tap, a trunk filled with chocolate bars and wine, and a tree that grew straight through the ceiling of the main party room.
Her castle parties soon became legendary. With guests gathered on the front lawn, Madame Sherri would descend from the second floor and saunter down the impressive stone staircase that hugged the side of the party house. “‘Bébés!’ She would call out,” writes Stanway. “‘Mes chères! Please, enter, and enjoy yourselves!’”
Local lore is brimming with passed-down details of Madame Sherri’s parties. But just like her New York life with Andre, it’s unclear which details are true and which have been concocted or exaggerated over time. Whatever the truth, the parties wouldn’t last forever, and the final chapter of Madame Sherri’s life was starkly without showmanship.
After her husband’s death, Madame Sherri’s eccentric lifestyle was funded by LeMaire. But during Madame Sherri’s last years, those checks ceased to arrive. It’s unclear if a major falling out between the pair took place, or if LeMaire just grew tired of funding her lavish lifestyle.
“I was Madame Sherri’s protege, later her protector, and finally she became my ward,” LeMaire revealed in a letter to Chesterfield historian Glenda Leonard after Madame Sherri’s death. “I paid for all the land in West Chesterfield and the building of the stone house. Her supposed wealth was always my money and the past she talked of changed with each telling. She had not been well for many years and lived in a kind of a ‘folie des grandeur’ (delusions of grandeur) state of mind.”
Without her patron, Madame Sherri’s parties ended. She fell into poverty and eventually began living on public assistance. Her party house fell into disrepair and, while she was out of town in 1959, it was vandalized. Paintings were slashed, her statues shattered, her piano chopped with an ax. “Madame Sherri walked through the rooms sobbing and wailing in French,” wrote Mary Young in her 1980 article “They Must Never Know About Madame Sherri.” “After that summer, she never came back.”
Madame Sherri lived out her final years just a few miles away, in a poorhouse in Brattleboro. Young notes that she was occasionally seen hobbling across the street for groceries.
In 1962, the “castle” burned down. Her biggest show, her smoke and mirrors, were replaced by wafts of real smoke billowing above the forest. Even in tragedy, though, her obsession with appearances remained. When a close friend, Richard Newman, called her to disclose the news of the fire at her old estate, she seemed excited, wrote Young.
“What do they say about Madame Sherri?” was all she wanted to know.
Newman told Young that he’d decided the kindest thing to do was indulge her. “‘I made up a lot of things they supposedly said about her,’ he confesses. ‘She was elated.’”