It was the line about her birth mother being “a strong and expert swimmer” that stopped Donna Freed cold.
In 2010, Freed, a London radio journalist, was reading a five-page, bare-bones report that she had obtained about her biological mother from a Manhattan adoption agency. It described the unnamed woman who had given her up as an infant in the vaguest of terms: “A 27-year-old, Caucasian, Jewish, single female” who lived on the Eastern Seaboard and worked at an advertising firm.
Oh, and she was a good swimmer.
“Why were they telling me she was a strong swimmer?” said Freed, who grew up in Westchester and began searching for her birth parents after her adoptive mother died in 2009.
The answer became clear when Freed, now 52, began to probe in earnest. Using the few details gleaned from the report, she dispatched a friend to the New York Public Library, which keeps records of all births in the city. When the friend returned with the name Miriam Lindenmaier as a possible maternal match, Freed began plugging information into a Google search. She was shocked by the bold tabloid headlines that greeted her:
“Double Indemnity Love.”
“Friends Cite Double Life of Double Indemnity Girl.”
“Homecoming of the Drowned Blond.”
Each story featured the same picture of the woman who seemed to be her mother — an attractive blond who, despite her arrest on charges of conspiracy to commit grand larceny after faking her own drowning, looked undeniably chic in horn-rimmed glasses.
Miriam Lindenmaier was born in Switzerland in 1939, the younger daughter of Werner and Braina Lindenmaier. Braina was a pediatrician from Latvia, and Werner, a noted chemist, was recruited for a job in New York City in 1941.
The family settled in a sprawling six-bedroom home in the leafy suburb of Upper Montclair, New Jersey, when Miriam, known to friends and family as Mira, was 18 months old.
She spent a year at college, but seems to have become disillusioned with school, leaving for a job as a research analyst at Metropolitan News Analyst, according to press reports. Mira also eschewed her sheltered suburban upbringing and eventually hooked up with a “dapper” construction worker “who doesn’t look the part,” as The Post would note in 1966.
Alvin Brodie was an erstwhile jazz musician who often went by the cinematic alias Brutus Cain, according to police. He liked to dress in a natty suit and tie, with a goatee giving off a rakish, bohemian air.
Eight years older than Mira, Alvin was married with four children. He and his wife, Louise, lived in a tiny flat on East 92nd Street. She was described by a Post reporter as a “sallow-faced, dark-haired woman” unsurprised by her husband’s amorous antics.
In 1966, Alvin, then 34, and Mira, 26, had been dating for three years and were deeply in love. Finally, he was ready to leave his wife. So Alvin and his mistress hatched a plan to fake Mira’s death, cash in her insurance and eventually escape to Spain. The Metropolitan Life and Equitable policies were worth $10,000 and $8,000, and had a double-indemnity clause in the case of accidental death. Mira made Alvin her beneficiary so that they could collect $36,000.
On the afternoon of July 9, 1966, Alvin and his friend Thomas Martin, a 26-year-old elevator operator, made their way to City Island in the Bronx, where they rented “an outboard dory-type skiff” from a boatyard. According to Alvin, Mira was with them.
He told police that she fell asleep on the deck and he decided to wake her up by “zigzagging” the boat to spray her with water. But, he claimed, the boat capsized and Mira fell overboard.
The two men said they frantically searched for her in the choppy waters of Long Island Sound near Hart Island, enlisting nearby boaters for help. Police and the Coast Guard followed, but Mira was nowhere to be found.
Her grief-stricken parents were baffled — after all, the young woman was an excellent swimmer — and believed that their daughter had been the victim of a homicide. A New York police detective also had his doubts.
Detective Edward Dermody was a veteran fisherman and knew the rented dories to be seaworthy. When he heard Mira had made Alvin the beneficiary of her life-insurance policies, the officer switched gears and began to investigate the “drowning” as a homicide.
Dermody enlisted the help of the Bronx district attorney, and a wiretap order was obtained from a state Supreme Court judge.
The big break came on Thanksgiving Day 1967 when police intercepted a phone call that led them to White Plains. Dermody enlisted the help of local cops. When he showed them a photo of Mira, they were shocked.
“That’s our waitress at the Schrafft’s down the block,” said one of the officers. The whole team, including Dermody, trooped over to the popular diner at the corner of Main and Court streets in White Plains, where they were served coffee by Mira.
“The tall, attractive blond had been working there since September,” The Post reported.
Using the name Elizabeth Panghorn, Mira was living at a nearby hotel. On Dec. 13, 1966, nearly five months after she had allegedly drowned, police knocked on the door of her room at 6 a.m. She was taken to the Bronx District Attorney’s Office and reunited with her parents, who had driven from New Jersey after being summoned by the DA “on a very important matter.”
“The scene was not entirely happy,” noted a Post reporter. “The resurrection of the attractive 27-year-old blond was charged with sordid and shocking circumstances for a respectable family that hailed from an upper-middle class community like Upper Montclair, NJ.”
Adding to the shock: Mira was six months pregnant.
According to The Post, the family “walked dejectedly into the dingy second-floor courtroom of the Bronx Criminal Court,” the mother’s face streaked with tears.
The Lindenmaiers stood to the right of their daughter as she faced the judge. On her left side stood Alvin — “a full three inches shorter than Miriam” and the father of her unborn child, noted The Post.
Mira was released to the custody of her parents and later given a suspended sentence. Alvin went to jail for three years, while Martin, the accomplice, received a suspended sentence. Police said they were also looking for a third man who allegedly picked up Mira in a motorboat after the fake drowning.
Alvin’s wife, who read of his exploits in the newspaper, told The Post she was “terribly nervous and upset about the whole thing” but that she didn’t plan to leave her husband. Her hair in rollers as she looked after her boys at the “shabbily furnished” flat, Louise was asked if she her marriage was a happy one.
She replied: “How many happy marriages are there?”
When her daughter was born on March 28, 1967, Mira reluctantly gave the baby up for adoption through the Louise Wise Services agency. (In 2018, the documentary “Three Identical Strangers” exposed the agency’s secret experiments involving the separation of twins and triplets.)
That’s our waitress at Schrafft’s.
– White Plains officer when presented with a photo of ‘drowned’ Mira Lindenmaier
After Wise closed in 2004, its records were transferred to another Manhattan adoption agency, the Spence-Chapin, which is where Freed first read about her mother in 2010.
“Part of the reason she gave me up for adoption is that she thought I would have a better chance at life with another family,” Freed told The Post.
According to Freed, the Lindenmaiers, who spoke Russian at home, had been deeply embarrassed by their daughter’s arrest and worried about their own status in the United States. It was the height of the Cold War, when anyone with links to the Soviet Union was looked upon with suspicion. Mira had already appeared on the front pages of the tabloids, and her parents couldn’t cope with the shame of an unwed mother.
“They were always considered ‘the other,’ ” said Freed. “They were very conscious of that.”
Freed was adopted by a Westchester family, in which she was the youngest of three children. Her adoptive father was a Brooklyn-born civil engineer, whose projects included the re-cabling of the Brooklyn Bridge. Her adoptive mother was from Boston, attended Wellesley College and went on to become a psychologist. Freed grew up in White Plains, just a few miles from the hotel where her birth mother was arrested.
After working as a copywriter and translator in New York, in 2005 Freed moved with her British husband to London and co-founded the podcast Radio Gorgeous.
In December 2011, Freed finally tracked down her biological mother at a retirement home in the South. More than four decades after Mira had given birth to her, the two were reunited when Freed, her husband and son visited.
“It was very, very emotional,” Freed recalled, adding that she speaks with her mother on the phone and visits frequently.
(A representative for Mira did not return requests for comment.)
Mira, who did not serve any time in prison, went on to work in a bank and continued to see Alvin after he served his sentence. She never married and didn’t have any more children, Freed said.
For his part, Alvin went back to his wife and family. He died in 2004. Freed said she longs to meet her four half-brothers one day.
At the nursing home meeting, Mira said she had tried for years to find her daughter. As Mira, now 80, revealed her memories of holding Freed and wrapping a blanket around her in the hospital, she stretched out her arms in a pantomime of cradling a baby.
“I thought about you my whole life,” she said.