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Hanging with a real gangster granny

My grandmothers were pretty boring. By that, I mean they lived pretty routine lives. Grandma Wingfield worked the lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Overland, Mo., for as long as I can remember and retired as its manager. You might be an old fogey if you remember Woolworth’s. You could fire a dart at balloons, which held coupons for discounted or free food items.

Before she and her first husband divorced, they owned and operated Jack and Edna’s Diner in Overland. It was a hangout for teens and young people and it’s where my parents met for the first time.

My other grandmother, Esther Autry, we called Nana because her first grandchild, Danny Adams, couldn’t say Grandma. She also thought she was too young to be a grandmother and preferred the nickname that meant no one would ever guess she was a grandma. Yeah, OK.

I don’t know that she ever worked. She was 14 when she married and had four children, one of whom died at 4 months after getting sick. My grandpa was much more interesting. He was a stone mason and loved spending time with us kids.

According to documents found in Nana’s belongings, he lied about his age to join the Army and was honorably discharged. He wasn’t in very long and didn’t serve in combat. He grew up in Cleveland, White County, Ga., where his father was a Pentecostal preacher.

Pretty standard stuff, huh? Then there’s Jewel. She’s my cousin’s grandma so there is no relation to me. I remember her from my childhood in St. Louis. She was beautiful, elegant and sophisticated — at least I thought she was.

One evening, I watched her getting ready for a night on the town — she had several marriages and I’m guessing was dating in between two of them — and she seemed so glamorous. I told her how pretty she looked.

“Pretty is as pretty does,” she replied.

That’s all I remember about her.

When I visited St. Louis in October, I went with my cousin to the nursing home where Jewel lives now. She is in her 80s and suffers from the onset of Alzheimer’s, although she is physically active and mobile.

We took her with us downtown to shop, walk around and hang out. She rode in the backseat of my cousin’s Mustang and I sat in the passenger seat. She asked me what was I doing now. I told her about my job covering crime and the courts.

She told me how much she loved watching the ID network and following true crime stories. I shared some of the cases I’ve covered over the years and she was fascinated.

It was only later that night or maybe the next day that my cousin told me about Jewel’s own history. I wish Jewel had been forthcoming herself but my cousin said Jewel doesn’t realize her grandkids know about her past.

Turns out, Jewel was a real-life gangster’s moll back in the day. She was also a madam in Las Vegas and traveled back and forth between there and St. Louis. Jewel served two years in prison for refusing to testify truthfully against one of her gangster boyfriends. I could only imagine the stories she’s keeping secret under all that gorgeous white hair.

What a gem of a source so close and yet so far. Jewel wouldn’t bring up her history in front of her granddaughter and my cousin couldn’t bring it up in front of Jewel.

For all their routine lifestyles, I wonder what secrets my own grandmothers took to their graves? What secrets are your own grandmothers holding onto? With the next generation’s grandmothers living out their lives on social media, it’s harder to keep secrets. Jail and prison records are online now, as are newspaper archives, not to mention websites devoted to true crimes.

Boy, I would have given plenty to hear Jewel’s secrets that day.