NEW YORK: The Invisible Girl (4-24-44)

TIME (April 24, 1944)

NEW YORK: The Invisible Girl

All night the snow fell heavily. Before dawn it lay eight inches deep on the streets of sleeping Manhattan.

At 4:50 a.m. the elevator signal buzzed in International House, the massive 13-story lodging place built by John D. Rockefeller Jr. for foreign students. The elevator man had a blind right eye, but as he stopped the car, he turned to look at his lone passenger. She was Valsa Anna Matthai, 21, a pretty Indian girl from Bombay, a Columbia University student. She was not wearing the Indian sari pulled over her hair, but a bright kerchief; and as she walked out of the empty, lighted lobby, the operator noticed she wore a tan polo coat, dark slacks, and sport shoes. She had no bag. The streetlights along Riverside Drive made pale yellow pools on the drifted snow, but beyond, Grant’s Tomb and the park sloping down to the Hudson River were lost in gloom. That was the morning of March 20.

Valsa Matthai did not return. Last week her disappearance was still a mystery to the scientifically thorough (and 99.2% successful) Missing Persons Bureau of the New York police. It had stumped private investigators hired by the Manhattan office of Tata Iron & Steel Company, Ltd., branch of the rich House of Tata which controls much of India’s heavy industry.

Valsa’s disappearance was big news in Bombay, where her father, Dr. John Matthai, is managing director of a new Tata enterprise, a $5,000,000 chemical plant. Dr. Matthai, a Christian, educated at the London School of Economics and Oxford’s Balliol College, distinguished himself as an official of the Indian government before joining Tata in 1940. A believer in freedom for women, he sent his only daughter to convent schools in Calcutta and Bombay, and finally to the United States.

At International House, Valsa was not missed for more than 24 hours. Then Pritha Kumarappa, an Indian, and Salma Bishlawy, an Egyptian, Valsa’s two closest girlfriends, went to her room. The key was in the outside lock. The bed was turned down neatly. It had not been slept in. Her room and her clothes were in order; even her purse was there, with lipstick, identification cards and $17 in cash.

At first the case seemed routine to detectives from the West 100th Street station. They got her description for the routine form which the police call “DD-13.” For the Missing Persons Bureau, which seeks 9,000 people a year, turns up 8,900 of them, alive or dead, before twelve months are out; and 80% come back by themselves, 50% within 48 hours.

But by week’s end Capt. John J. Cronin, the deceptively delicate-looking commanding officer of the Bureau, was directing a meticulous search which had spread across the whole United States.

Cronin’s men quietly invaded International House. If the girl had met with foul play, they reasoned, she might never have left the building. They drained two 9,000-gallon water tanks on the roof, another 5,000-gallon tank in a 13th-floor engine room. They shoveled and sifted their way through 150 tons of pea coal in basement bins. They searched the building’s 550 rooms, foot by foot. They found no trace of her: Where had Valsa been going, in the snow, before dawn? She had only an amateur interest in Indian political affairs. If she was dead, where was her body? If she was alive, who had seen her?

Restaurant operators, taxi drivers, residents of the area for blocks around were questioned. The charred ruins of a burned-out apartment were combed. Ticket sellers at Hudson River ferry terminals were interviewed. The Hudson was dragged.

Had Valsa planned the disappearance? Usually the people who attempt to vanish are in search of love or money. But Valsa had all the money she wanted: there was $1,400 in her bank account. Love? On the afternoon before her disappearance, Valsa had met a young officer, Lt. Elmer Rigby of the Army Medical Corps, at the Waldorf-Astoria. The two had known each other since New Year’s, had met often. Rigby showed investigators a recent letter from the girl; it was casual, friendly, with no hint of romance.

The detectives on the case, attempting to understand Valsa Matthai, began to experience an exasperated futility. Her friends said she was proud, brilliant, interested in her studies. She smoked cigarettes, and occasionally visited nightclubs, in groups, escorted by an older Indian friend of her family. But as the case dragged on, digging began to change this image of Valsa Matthai. She began to sound less like a reserved visitor from an exotic land, and more like any other glamour-dazzled girl, first seeing Manhattan’s bright lights.

Her interest in nightclubs, it turned out, was far from casual. She was an habitue. She sat at nightspot tables with American girls and young American and British officers night after night. A photograph made by a nightclub photographer showed a Valsa who looked different from the girl in muddy photographs made back in India. Valsa’s hair was not primly tight around her head, but hung in a loose wave. Valsa’s smile and Valsa’s eyes suggested what students at International House reluctantly confirmed. Valsa had hangovers, and missed classes. She was repeating first-semester subjects. Late last winter, some of her friends had remonstrated with her. They had reminded her that she represented India to Americans.

The Missing Persons Bureau checked 85 reports that Valsa Matthai had been seen in New York City. All were erroneous. After one careful three-day check, officers closed in on an indignant Armenian woman.

Newspaper reporters and photographers, following a telephoned tip, burst into a Willard Hotel dining room in Washington, DC. They found an Indian woman, but the embarrassed newsmen soon discovered that she was with her husband, P. A. Menon of the India Supply Mission.

At the end of last week, Capt. Cronin and his men, still toiling, still could not answer the very first question: why did the girl leave her room at 4:50 a.m.?

J. J. Singh, president of the India League of America, guessed why: Valsa had never seen snow, and was so fascinated that she could not resist walking out into it. Capt. Cronin, a far-from-casual student of abnormal psychology, pondered this idea seriously:

We know that sensitive people are sometimes driven to suicide by the depressing sight of rain, snow or bleak landscapes.

Suicide? Could she have been pregnant? A policewoman checked her girlfriends, reported that she was not. Amnesia? But real amnesia, despite fiction, is exceedingly rare. And a woman with amnesia would still need food, and would probably wander the streets.

Cronin, baffled, pondering murder, saw only one really possible answer – his old enemy, the river.

He said:

If she’s in the river, maybe we’ll know. We’re just getting our December bodies up now. But they come up quicker in the springtime – men face down, women face up. If she’s in the river maybe we’ll know in May. If there’s a thunderstorm we’ll know before that. An odd thing, the way thunder will bring them up.