Plain-Spoken Ethel

I've interviewed thousands of people during my time as a journalist, but none more memorable than Ethel Marley.

In November, we spoke by phone for more than an hour about the 1988 murder of her friend and neighbor Jeanne Tovrea.

While she had some interesting things to say about the murder, what impressed me most was her vivid portrait of a Phoenix with which I was not familiar, and how--even after she had attained multimillionaire status--she seemed to have stayed true to her unpretentious, frontier roots.

That conversation came back to me last week, when I heard that Mrs. Marley had died at her home inside east Phoenix's Lincoln Hills Estates, the exclusive subdivision where Tovrea had been shot to death.

Mrs. Marley, who was 90, was the widow of Kemper Marley, one of Arizona's all-time powerful land barons, liquor magnates and dealmakers. His name forever will be linked to the 1976 car-bombing assassination of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles; prosecutors depicted him as an unindicted co-conspirator in the crime.

I wanted to hear what Mrs. Marley had to say about Jeanne Tovrea and her husband, Ed Tovrea Sr., pioneer cattleman and World War II hero.

Smoothing the way was Bill Roer, an old friend of Mrs. Marley's who had promised to put in the good word for me. Roer gave me the go-ahead, warning me to be gentle with Mrs. Marley, and not to exhaust her with too many questions.

I dialed her number; she answered on the second ring.
"Hello," she said, her voice loud but quavering.
I introduced myself.

"Oh, you're the guy who's doing a story on the history of the Tovrea family. I can tell you some things if it interests you that much."

"That sounds great, ma'am," I replied, "and I'd like to ask you some questions about Jeanne and Ed Sr."

Ed Tovrea Sr. and Kemper Marley had been buddies for decades--"We knew Ed since he was a little old kid. We housed Ed many a night back then--he was always hauling his horse around, and we'd put him and the horse up at our place."

One of her places, she said, was located at 24th Street and Broadway Road.
"We built a beautiful place there, a hacienda, airy and open. We had so much fun there. We were young and working hard, getting things going. Arizona was wide open then. If you pushed hard and knew how to work, you had a good chance at being somebody."

I told her I'd once written about 24th Street and Broadway in a different context--that of a hub for crack-cocaine dealers and hookers.

"I've heard about that," Mrs. Marley said. "It's a new world down there, and it's not a nice one."

She spoke of growing up on a farm at 32nd Street and McDowell, where she said she learned to love the outdoors.

"I got my hands dirty from the time I was a little girl. Nothing wrong with that. But I also loved art and to study scientific things. I guess you could say I was into a lot. Still am, though I don't get around as quickly as I used to."

She attended Creighton Elementary School and, later, Phoenix Union High School.

In her late teens, she met a young rancher named Kemper Marley during a private reception held at the home of Governor George W.P. Hunt.

"He was quite a man," she said of her future husband. "He had goals and dreams, and he wanted me to share them with him. I know you people [the media] always think of him as this bad guy. But even when we didn't have much after we got married [in 1927], he'd do things for others--even people who couldn't do anything for him."

I asked her to provide insight on the Tovreas, who wed a decade before Ed Sr. died in July 1983.

"Those two loved each other, and they weren't faking it, whatever his kids might say. . . . Me and Kemper would talk about those Tovrea kids [Ed Sr.'s children] and what they put their father through. 'Happy' [Edward Tovrea Jr.] was friendly and nice, but his dad considered him a do-nothing. He said Cricket and Prissy [Ed Sr.'s daughters] also gave him a lot of problems."

I asked her to recall what she'd heard from Kemper about Jeanne Tovrea's murder.

"Oh, you're doing a story about the murder, aren't you?" she asked. "Why didn't you tell me that?"

"I was trying to, ma'am," I stammered. "But the history is important, too. I'm sorry if I didn't make that clear."

"Oh, that's okay. I know that the police were trying to talk to Kemp just before he died [in 1990]. He just had some opinions, that's all--he figured it was an inside job, that a family member had killed poor Jeanne or had paid someone else to do it."

(James Harrod, no relation to the Tovreas, but a friend of Ed Jr.'s, awaits a Maricopa County Superior Court trial on charges of murdering Jeanne Tovrea. No one else has been arrested in the famed case.)

We had been conversing for about a half-hour.
"Mrs. Marley," I told her, recalling Roer's admonitions, "I don't want to take too much of your time."

"Son, I'll tell you when I'm getting tired," she said, very sweetly. "I'm enjoying this."

She spoke of the expansive Marley land holdings in southern Arizona--"The ranch," she called it--where she was to go in a few days. "I'm the only one who really cares about it anymore. But I'm not as sharp as I used to be."

I told her she seemed sharp as a tack.
"I don't know about that. I think I'm losing it sometimes. I can remember riding a horse back in 1930 or something, but don't ask me what I ate for lunch yesterday."

"What did you eat for lunch yesterday?"
"Some vegetable soup and toast."
"How was it?"
"I can't remember." She paused. "I'm just kidding. It was fine."

Finally, I brought up her horrific February 1991 experience as a crime victim who lived to tell the tale. Two men in black clothing got into the gated community and broke into her home, where she was living alone.

The pair covered her with an afghan, then proceeded to rob her of about $250,000 in jewelry and cash. Before the thieves left, they snatched gold bracelets and a watch from her wrists, bruising her badly as they did so.

No one ever was arrested in the heist.
"I don't think they would have tried something like that when Kemp was around," Mrs. Marley said, chuckling. "He would have eaten them alive.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin