“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

Suicide at the Washington Apartments – A “Tragedy of Homesickness” in 1934 Shanghai

Posted: November 19th, 2015 | 6 Comments »

Writing and blogging about old China and Shanghai often means discovering and telling sad stories and I know I usually err on the dark side of life…Still, Shanghai between the wars was a place where often people reached the end of the road, where their dreams died and things just got too much, the poverty too grinding, the hopelessness of being a refugee, a stateless person or deserted just overwhelmed them. It was a violent city too and people died in gun fights, bar brawls and murders; they overdosed, drank themselves to death or, often, just seem to slip away and fade out becoming lost to history. But the story of Mrs Bill Grooch and her two sons William and Thomas is perhaps the saddest I’ve come across yet….

The Washington Apartments were (and still are) one of the art-deco gems of Shanghai. The apartments were among the smartest and most “fashionable” blocks to live in in the mid-1930s in the French Concession, built in 1928 by the White Russian architect Alexander Yaron and situated at the junction of Avenue Pétain (Hengshan Road) and Route Cohen (Gao’an Road).


In 1934 William (“Bill”) Steven Grooch and his family lived in the apartment building (which was, as above, originally painted yellow I believe but is now a sort of slightly sickly green for some reason). Grooch was an ex-US Navy flyer working in Shanghai as the Operations Manager for Pacific-American Airways. The airline was a subsidiary of Pan-Am airlines and flew the route between Hong Kong and Shanghai, Canton and Shanghai (with a stopover in Hankow) and over to the Philippines. It was hoped that eventually a Hong Kong to America Trans-Ocean Clipper service could be started with stops at Canton, Shanghai and Manila. Grooch had previously worked for the New York, Rio, and Buenos Aires Airline (NYRBA) and had moved to Shanghai from Rio de Janeiro with his wife and two children, William (6) and Thomas (7). Bill Grooch was from Beaumont, Texas and his wife was reportedly from El Paso. Setting up the Trans-Ocean Clipper service was fraught with difficulties…

…And things must have been hard on Mrs Grooch too (I should note that in none of the articles about the case is her forename ever mentioned sadly). She had received news from America that her father was desperately sick and likely to die. She had booked passage on the SS President Wilson back to the States. The newspapers at the time speculated that Mrs Grooch was depressed, upset about her father and fed up with the poverty she saw in Shanghai and the cold, cold January weather. Whatever the reasons, on Friday January 19th 1934, the day before she was due to sail for America, Mrs Grooch jumped from the balcony of their eighth floor apartment in the Washington Apartments with her two children – “one under each arm”. All three were killed instantly on the pavement of Avenue Pétain. On being told the news Bill Grooch reportedly collapsed unconscious on the spot. Bill himself later claimed that he was unable to explain why she had done it. A tragedy in Shanghai…but one that led to arguments and then resonated far away in America too weeks later….


It seems nobody else really understood either. After the police reported that Mrs Grooch had committed suicide and taken her children with her, some of her friends disputed this. Why would she? She was living a good life, in a nice building with two young sons and a husband in a good paying job? They speculated that a terrible accident had occurred and the children fallen over the balcony. In her grief at seeing her two children dead on the street below, Mrs Grooch had jumped, distraught. Or perhaps somehow all three had fallen accidentally. It was the case that there were no witnesses to the fall. The French Concession police stated that they believed it was a suicide and that she had taken the children with her over the balcony in a case of extreme and desperate homesickness.


And then…nearly a month later, on February 13th 1934, a report appeared in the newspapers of a double suicide on New York City’s East Side. Emil Phillipson, an elderly retired decorator had taken a revolver and fired a bullet into the left temple of his wife, Marie, killing her instantly. He had then put the revolver in his own mouth, pulled the trigger and blown his brains out. When police arrived at the apartment in New York they found a note – “I can stand the pain no longer.” The police investigated and found that Mrs William Grooch of Shanghai was their daughter; her maiden name was Phillipson. Unable to bear the pain of the news from Shanghai of the death of their daughter and two grandsons her parents too had decided to commit suicide.


Bill Grooch went back to working on the airlines in China before moving to South America to work for something called Mining Airlines. He wrote three books – Skyway to Asia in 1936 about the Trans-Ocean project, Winged Highway (1938), which is I think a novel about an early aviator, and From Crate to Clipper (1939). I believe he did remarry, to a woman called Irene, and died in a fatal plane crash in Mexico in 1939. His wife Irene was also killed in the crash.

grooch02Bill Grooch – once of Shanghai



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6 Comments on “Suicide at the Washington Apartments – A “Tragedy of Homesickness” in 1934 Shanghai”

  1. 1 William H. Phillipson said at 1:03 pm on January 8th, 2019:

    Marie Phillipson Grooch was my grandfather’s first cousin. There is considerably more to the story than was discussed in the news articles concerning her death, as well as that of her father Emil, who was my great-grandfather’s younger brother.

  2. 2 Robert said at 2:38 am on May 21st, 2019:

    I have an autographed letter from William Grooch, “1st Pilot NYRBA Airlines” dated Feb 1930 that is addressed to Eva Grooch of San Diego. I believe that Eva may have been the name of his wife.

  3. 3 Robert said at 4:44 am on May 21st, 2019:

    After further research, Eva was Bill Grooch’s sister.

  4. 4 Janet said at 4:48 am on June 4th, 2019:

    Very interesting article of such a tragic tale. I am researching William S. Grooch.
    Belle Lefler Phillipson name of first wife who died in Shanghai.
    Irene Lambert name of wife that died in plane crash.

  5. 5 Gene Meier said at 11:15 am on February 16th, 2020:

    Phillipson World’s Fair Relief Panorama, on display at the old Exposition Building, 1891, replaced by Art Institute of Chicago (photo). I am researching 19th century rotunda panoramas from the American point of view. Emil Phillipson , Chicago architect, claimed to have secured the use of staff in the construction of the exhibition buildings[ROCK ISLAND DAILY ARGUS 10-6-1893,p.5]. Info to share

  6. 6 Gene Meier said at 11:30 am on February 16th, 2020:

    FINDAGRAVE Belle Lefler PHILLIPSON Grooch, daughter of Emil Phillipson Memorial ID 120546578

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