“The Ding-Dong Daddy of the D-car line
Had a thing for the ladies for which he did time
He reaped a little more than he could sow
Of the pleasures the Mormons in Utah know
He could not restrain himself when he saw
a nice caboose.”
— Ding Dong Daddy Of The D-Car Line lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC
For three months in 1945 a short, rotund, bald man replaced Frank Sinatra as America’s latest sex symbol. Admittedly, it was a microscopic sliver of America, namely the 22-Fillmore streetcar line in San Francisco, where his charisma ruled. The man was Francis Van Wie, a 58-year-old street car conductor, aka The Car Barn Casanova, aka The Ding Dong Daddy of the D-Line.
In 1942, Van Wie was one of many hired to take the place of younger drivers who had been drafted into World War II. Francis had an unusual background for a street car conductor, though some might consider it good training. He had been a lion tamer in the Ringling Brothers Circus for 14 years and once spent an inebriated and undisturbed night sleeping in the cage of a lioness, named Old Mary.
Francis also had an affinity for mature females on his streetcar line. Between 1941 and 1945 he married five women but neglected to divorce any of them. When Evelyn, wife No. 5, brought divorce charges against him in January 1945, the other four wives learned of his activities and they went to Pat Brown, then-San Francisco district attorney, and he was charged with bigamy. Just before police reached him, Van Wie abandoned his streetcar post and fled to Southern California. When the story broke, additional wives started appearing all over the country. Police learned that Francis’ matrimonial career began in 1904, when he was 18 and that he had been married at least 13 times. He was arrested in Los Angeles and brought back for trial.
In normal times Van Wie’s exploits would have been a brief human interest article but a columnist, a contradiction and a world conflict made this into a national story. The columnist was the S.F. Chronicle’s Stan Delaplane, a travel writer most famous for making Irish Coffee into a worldwide phenomenon. Stan called Francis Van Wie the “Ding Dong Daddy of the D Car Line,” a phrase taken from a popular Louis Armstrong song “I’m a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas.” The alliteration made the story irresistible to editors looking for a captivating headline.
The contradiction between Francis’ appearance and his actions was also compelling. How could this short, dumpy man be so attractive to women?
“Women want to be told they’re loved more than anything else,” declared Francis. “I know how to make a woman feel as if she’s the only woman in the world — and I’m the only man.”
And, compared to most bigamists, who married women only to steal their money, Francis seemed harmless, even romantic.
The story was also a welcome respite from the world conflict. It was the closing days of World War II and the true horror of the war had been recently revealed with the discovery of German concentration camps. The story of a rotund Romeo and his harem of 13 wives was a welcome distraction from the daily headlines of death and destruction.
In San Francisco, a place that celebrated oddballs, many of the town’s movers and shakers, such as criminal defense attorney Jake Erlich, financier Louis Lurie, and hotelier Ben Swig established a defense fund for Van Wie. Francis’s boss, Utilities Manager E.G. Cahill defended him, saying. “I can’t find anything in the City Charter against him having more than one wife. I believe the public cares more about getting streetcar service than whether a man has one or five wives.”
The evidence against Van Wie was overwhelming. And, truth be told, Francis was less harmless than he appeared. Within weeks after marriage, Van Wie often became abusive. He disappeared for months at a time, telling his wives that he was an undercover agent for the FBI and other lies. During this time he would be romancing his next wife.
“Frank’s a card in the parlor, a gentleman on the street, and a beast in the home.” said wife No. 7.
It took the jury 10 minutes to find him guilty and Judge Herbert Kaufman sentenced Van Wie to 10 years. With good behavior, Francis was released from San Quentin in 1948 and got a job as a janitor. Within a year Van Wie married Mary Abba, his 16th wife.
In 1952 Francis broke into show business, starring in “My True Love Story” at the El Ray burlesque theatre in Oakland, a production in which Francis and the girl dancers all wore conductors hats. One night the production had surprise guest stars, two Los Angeles policeman who arrested Francis for bigamy. It turned out that Van Wie had married wives No. 15 and No. 16 in Southern California without divorcing No. 14.
Francis was able to avoid jail time and his increasing age slowed down his matrimonial pace. It took him until 1958, at age 73, to marry his 18th wife. He died in 1973 at the age of 88, proving that married men do live longer.
Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco, www.crookstour.com.