Home Massachusetts Boston Showgirl Kiki Roberts Becomes a Gangster’s Gun Moll

Boston Showgirl Kiki Roberts Becomes a Gangster’s Gun Moll

Her mother wasn't at all happy about it

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When mobster Legs Diamond was gunned down in Albany, N.Y., on Dec. 18, 1931, the local district attorney made a beeline for Boston.  He was looking for Kiki Roberts, Diamond’s girlfriend.

Kiki was a Boston girl and the DA wondered if maybe she returned home after the Diamond hit.  She was probably the last person to see him alive, after the killers, of course.

Kiki Roberts, South End Girl

Kiki Roberts was born Marion Strasmick in Boston, the only child of Louis Strasmick, a salesman and immigrant from Russia, and his wife Martha Roberts from Newfoundland, Canada.  Marion’s birthdate is unclear, but the 1920 Census shows her as 10.

Kiki, on her way

Kiki grew up in the South End, an area then known for tenements and row houses. Immigrants from Europe and the Canadian Maritimes as well as African Americans made up much of its population.  Like many families in the neighborhood living on limited means, the Strasmicks moved around a lot. In 1918, they lived in an apartment in the Newcastle Court building across the street from the Columbus Avenue AME Church (both buildings survive today).  Two years later they moved around the corner to a five-story apartment house at 396 Northampton Street at the corner of Watson.

Boston’s South End from the 1912 book, “The Promised Land.”

This was also an industrial part of Boston.  The huge Chickering and Sons Piano Forte Makers factory took up an entire block at the corner of Tremont and Camden Streets, a building that still stands.  Nearby were the Boston Elevated Railway Company, the Somerset Farms Creamery and the Boston Works of Manning Maxwell and Moore, Inc., a large national corporation making railroad gauges, cranes and hoists.

New York City

Marion was stagestruck from a young age and longed for a career in the theater. Boston wasn’t the place to achieve it, so in 1925, she and her mother moved to Manhattan where Marion could follow her dream.

Bit parts soon followed. Her photo was featured in an ad for Pepsodent toothpaste, and she landed small rolls in Ziegfeld productions.  Those included “No Foolin” at the Globe Theater (a fellow cast member was a then unknown Paulette Goddard) and “Rio Rita” at the Ziegfeld Theater.

Young Marion made a triumphant return to Boston in December 1926. The cast of “Rio Rita” arrived by special train at South Station for a performance at the Colonial Theatre.  The Boston Globe identified the 17-year-old as one of two girls from Boston in the production.

Around this time Kiki and John “Legs” Diamond met at a speakeasy in New York.  Despite the inconvenient fact that Legs Diamond was married, the couple fell in love.  It was also around this time that she changed her name to Kiki Roberts.

Mug shot of Legs Diamond

Legs Diamond

Legs Diamond was a ruthless mobster of considerable charm heavily involved in narcotics and bootlegging. Much of his fame rested on his uncanny ability to survive multiple assassination attempts. He bore the bullet wounds to prove it.  He also had a reputation for running out on friends, a trait that gave him lots of enemies. And it just might have been the source of his nickname.

Diamond clearly cared for Kiki, using his influence to get her gigs, and paying for lessons to improve her dancing skills. Nonetheless, Kiki’s mother apparently disapproved of her daughter’s choice of a companion and moved back to Boston.  Her instincts proved correct.  Life with Legs Diamond was precarious, to say the least.

In October 1930 at the Monticello Hotel in New York City, hitmen severely beat and shot Diamond. They left him for dead with five bullet wounds. Kiki, taking a bath at the time, heard the shots from across the hall.  Perhaps unwisely she tried to avoid the police, who later found her hiding under clothing at a friend’s apartment. They held her as a material witness with a $500 bond.  After her mother paid her bail, Kiki left town.  Miraculously, Legs recovered after a lengthy convalescence, adding to his aura of invincibility.

As soon as he was able, Legs traveled to Chicago where Kiki was performing. He then brought her back to New York.

Bootlegging in the Catskills

Legs had moved much of his bootlegging operation to Greene County in upstate New York, where he muscled in on the local racket.   In April 1931, after his return from Chicago with Kiki, Diamond was charged with kidnapping and torturing two rival bootleggers. He then faced separate trials for each victim.  One of the victims testified that Kiki was present.

Legs Diamond gets an escort

Once again, police questioned Kiki for her involvement in a crime, and again she left town.  While Kiki was on the lam, her mother back in Boston was frantic, fearing her daughter may have been kidnapped or dead because she knew too much.  “I hate that Diamond,” she told reporters.  “He caused all this trouble and he has made me a nervous wreck.”

Kiki Roberts’ photo in the Washington Times, October 1930

Kiki surfaced in October at the beginning of Diamond’s first kidnapping and torture trial. During the proceedings in Troy, N.Y.,  Diamond and his wife, Alice, stayed nearby in an Albany boarding house. Kiki, meanwhile, stayed another location in town.

Not surprisingly, Diamond beat the rap in both trials, the second verdict coming on Dec. 17, 1931.

Diamond visited Kiki that night for several hours, returning to his residence at about 4:30 a.m.   A short while later, gunmen entered his room as he slept, killing him with three bullets to the head.  Kiki Roberts was one of the last people to see Legs Diamond alive.

Legs Diamond’s murder was big news nationwide, as was Kiki’s role in it. She garnered front page coverage.

Kiki Roberts Flees to Boston

Kiki left for Boston right away after learning about the murder.  She told reporters she had been with Diamond for 15 minutes the night of his murder, which was patently untrue.   She left Albany, she said, because she had nothing to tell the authorities.

Kiki’s mother lived at 49 Worthington Street in the Mission Hill neighborhood at the time. But Kiki was smart enough not to return there, knowing the cops might be coming for her soon.  After getting off her train at Huntington Station, she took a cab to a Back Bay hotel, where she holed up with Boston American reporters.  She wanted to get her story out.

When the DA from Albany, John T. Delaney, showed up in Boston the next day wanting to question Kiki, he searched high and low but couldn’t find her.  Wherever he went, to police headquarters, the Boston DA’s office, to residences of family and friends, even to the State House, he was followed by a phalanx of reporters and photographers. Finally, in disgust, he gave up and returned home.

In the meantime, the Boston American ran a big spread and filmed an interview in which Kiki proclaimed her innocence.  Kiki told the American reporters, “The last time I saw him was last Thursday night at 11 p.m. [about five and a half hours before the shooting]. He dropped into my room at Albany to tell me the good news of his acquittal…” She said she fainted when she heard about the murder.

Many were not convinced.

Typical of the skepticism, The Washington Times ran a front page photo of Kiki and her mother with the sarcastic headline “So She Went Home to Mother.”

Kiki Roberts Tries to Revive Her Career

After the furor over Diamond’s assassination died down, Kiki Roberts tried to revive her stage career. She appeared at Boston’s Scollay Square Theater in January 1932.  This was followed by a three-week run on Broadway, and in March a week-long gig at the Gayety Theater in Washington D.C.  In the show she revived her old vaudeville dancing routines supported by her group “the Kiki-Poo Kuties.”

But she found doors closed to her because of the connection to Diamond.  She tried Hollywood to no avail. She was told to move on in Pennsylvania, where performed in Pittsburgh and Allentown.

Kiki married Joseph Ross in Easton, Pa., on March 14, 1935, a marriage that didn’t last very long.

Boston seemed the only town where Kiki was welcome onstage.  She opened to a crowded audience in February 1937 at Old Howard Theater. She appeared in the Pepper Pot Revue, an event mentioned by William Kennedy in his novel Legs, the story of Legs Diamond.

Kiki appeared again at the Old Howard in April 1938 in “Pirates of Melody,” running three shows daily.

The Scollay Square theater where Kiki performed

The Census of 1940 shows that Kiki was still in Boston living with her parents on Montefort Street, in a lodging house managed by her mother.  She was listed as a theatrical dancer, age 26 (a fib), divorced, and having completed ninth grade. Kiki’s salary in 1939 was $2000, a tidy sum in those days.

Westward Move

From 1943 to 1947, the Strasmicks (with or without Kiki) lived at 845 Boylston Street in Back Bay.  In February 1947, they placed an advertisement in the Globe offering a bed, chest of drawers, kitchen table and chairs, and a lowboy for sale, suggesting an impending move.

That is borne out by the Census of 1950 showing Louis and Martha had moved to Long Beach, Calif.  The Strasmicks then moved to San Francisco, where Martha died in 1965. Was Kiki with them?

We don’t know because the Kiki Roberts trail runs cold.

*  *  *

James Lee has also written Safe Passage, the dramatic story of the American civilians, trapped on the Hawaiian Islands after the horrifying surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

Photo Credits

Woman in case. The Washington Times. [volume] (Washington [D.C.]), 14 Oct. 1930. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1930-10-14/ed-1/seq-1/>. On Her Way, Photographer unknown. Courtesy of the New York Daily News. Diamond mugshot. Courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center. Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA; Diamond escort.  Courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center. Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA; Home to Mother.  The Washington times. [volume] (Washington [D.C.]), 21 Dec. 1931. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1931-12-21/ed-1/seq-1/>; Theater.  Scollay Square Olympia Theater, Boston, 1915. American Architect. {{PD-US}}

End Notes

Age 10.  Ancestry.com. 1920 Census USFC [database online]. Provo, UT, USA. Accessed 28 Nov. 2023.

Moved around. Boston City Directory, 1918; 1920 Census.

Industrial part. George W. Bromley, Atlas of the City of Boston, 1922. Courtesy Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center, Boston Public Library.

Triumphant return. “Cast of ‘Rio Rita’ Arrives in Boston.”  The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts)  Dec 27, 1926 · Page 6

https://bostonglobe.newspapers.com/image/431089192/image/431089192. Downloaded Nov 21, 2023.

Taking a bath.  The Washington times. [volume] (Washington [D.C.]), 14 Oct. 1930. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1930-10-14/ed-1/seq-3/>

Mother provides bail. “Boston Mother Provides Bail.” The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts) Nov 26, 1930 · Page 28 https://bostonglobe.newspapers.com.  Downloaded on Nov 21, 2023.

Kidnapped bootleggers. “Diamond Accusers are now Unafraid: Kidnaped Truckmen Lose Terror of Convicted Gang Leader.” The Washington Post (1923-1954), Dec 17, 1931, pp. 19. ProQuest, https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/diamond-accusers-are-now-unafraid/docview/150205854/se-2.

Released on bail.  The Washington times. [volume] (Washington [D.C.]), 10 Oct. 1931. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1931-10-10/ed-1/seq-3/>

Mother fears.  The Washington times. [volume] (Washington [D.C.]), 08 Oct. 1931. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1931-10-08/ed-1/seq-1/>

Told reporters.  The Washington times. [volume] (Washington [D.C.]), 19 Dec. 1931. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1931-12-19/ed-1/seq-2/>

Home to mother. The Washington times. [volume] (Washington [D.C.]), 21 Dec. 1931. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1931-12-21/ed-1/seq-1/>

Gayety Theater. “Kiki Roberts Gayety’s New Guest Artist.” The Washington Post (1923-1954), Mar 13, 1932, pp. 1. ProQuest, https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/kiki-roberts-gayetys-new-guest-artist/docview/150337850/se-2.

Furniture advertisement. The Boston Daily Globe (Boston, Massachusetts) Tue Feb 11, 1947 · Page p. 24. https://bostonglobe.newspapers.com.  Downloaded on Nov 21, 2023.

Pepper Pot. The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts) Tue, Feb 16, 1937 · Page 15 https://bostonglobe.newspapers.com.  Downloaded on Nov 21, 2023.

Lodging House. Ancestry.com. 1940 Census USFC [database online]. Provo, UT, USA. Accessed 28 Nov. 2023;

California. Ancestry.com. 1950 Census USFC [database online]. Provo, UT, USA. Accessed 28 Nov. 2023.

 

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