The Loathsome Life of William Zantzinger
by Jim Washburn
F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American life, but he never met William Zantzinger, who died Jan. 3. In his first act, in the 1960s, Zantzinger won notoriety for being a total piece of crap. In act 2, he bubbled briefly into the national consciousness again in the 1990s, this time as an utter piece of shit.
Does this ring a bell?: "William Zantzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll, With a cane that he twirled 'round his diamond ring finger, At a Baltimore hotel society gathering..." Those are the opening lines of Bob Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" from 1963, back in Bob's topical days, and one of his best songs. It tells how that Feb. 9, Zantzinger-young, athletic, rich and drunk-struck 51-year-old black waitress Carroll dead with a blow from a cane.
Some details are missing from the song: Along with bring rich and white with five top-shelf lawyers, one reason Zantzinger was charged with manslaughter instead of murder was that Carroll's autopsy suggested her fatal brain hemorrhage was caused not directly by his blow but from his attack overstressing her damaged heart, arteries and high blood pressure; but there certainly was no lack of ill intent on Zantzinger's part. He'd struck three other blacks with his cane earlier that evening, and hit Carroll twice because her duties kept her from bringing his bourbon quickly enough, while he yelled "Nigger" and "You black son of a bitch!" at her.
Zantzinger received a 6-month sentence and a $500 fine that was shamed in the song, returned to being a rich tobacco farmer and probably didn't play many Dylan records around the old plantation. After he ran through much of the family fortune, he made money as a slumlord, from rents on two dirt-road no-plumbing shanty communities he owned, later described by the Maryland Real Estate Commission as "ramshackle, primitive structures, reminiscent of slave quarters." (Thanks, Wikipedia.)
He lost title to those properties in 1980 due to unpaid taxes. In 1991, however, it was discovered that he hadn't told the tenants, and had continued extracting undue rents from them for 11 years, even evicting those who didn't pay him rent on the property he did not own. This time he got a 19-month sentence, some of it served in work-release. According to the obit in the Jan. 10 L.A. Times, part of that involved Zantzinger being directed to "help groups that advocate low-income housing." We're sure he must have been a huge help.