Politics in Los Angeles has long been a dirty and corrupt business. This was never truer than during the 1930s.
I found this wonderful cartoon in an issue of the Evening Herald & Express. Any citizen of Los Angeles who was paying attention would have known exactly who all the players were.I didn’t understand several of the references and so I thought it might be fun to try to decipher them.
Here is the cartoon, and below that is my key to understanding just what in the hell the cartoonist was talking about.
On the second floor of the Payoff Villa Apartments one of the gamblers says: “Guy, send Eddie in.” The gambler was referring to Guy McAfee. McAfee, like thousands of others, had moved from the midwest to Los Angeles years before seeking his fortune. He didn’t find it as a firefighter, which he worked at for a while. But things began to look up for him when he joined the LAPD. His career trajectory ultimately landed him in the position of head of the vice squad. Oh, delicious irony! While serving as the head of the vice squad, McAfee owned brothels and gambling dens.
Guy McAfee and his wife, June in 1939.
In the late 1930s, when it appeared that LA might become less tolerant of vice (the possible crackdown was a momentary hiccup in the ongoing criminal enterprise that the city had become), McAfee moved to Las Vegas, Nevada. Bugsy Siegel gets the credit, or blame depending on your view, for establishing the desert gaming mecca, but it was men like Guy McAfee and his associate Milton B. “Farmer” Page who really kicked things off in the sleepy little cow town. McAfee was the co-founder of the Pioneer Club and was the President of the Golden Nugget until his death in 1960.
The “Eddie” referred to in the cartoon bubble was Eddie Nealis, a local bookmaker. Eddie’s name along with his fellow vice kings: Guy McAfee, Farmer Page, Tudor Scherer, Jack Dragna and Johnny Roselli, came up in the Los Angele County 1937 Grand Jury investigation into vice. Most of those named fled the city for Vegas in 1938.
Carthay Circle Theater c. 1937
On the roof of the Payoff Villa Apartments, you will find a cop named Mac D. Jones. He appears to be shoving a woman in a toga over the edge. Lysistrata is mentioned. Lysistrata was Greek play written by Aristophanes. This reference threw me for a loop. I couldn’t figure out what a cop had to do with the play. But I found out. The play, written in 411 BC, is a comedy in which a woman, Lysistrata, embarks on a mission to end the Peloponnesian War. And how does she plan to do it? Get all of the women of Greece to withhold sex from their husbands and lovers so that they’ll snap to their senses and negotiate peace. It still seems like a solid plan.
Apparently, Officer Mac Jones wasn’t a lover of Greek plays, he raided the show twice while it was on stage at Carthay Circle Theater (the beautiful 1926 building was demolished in 1969–a bad year for many reasons). The cast filed a suit against Jones in the amount of $226,000 for damages. The judge who heard the case, Superior Court Judge Willis, was evidently no lover of Greek theater either He said that there were two scenes that “as written and acted are sufficient in the mind of the average person to condemn the play as indecent and obscene as hereintofore defined, and there can be found nowhere in the play any redeeming or ameliorating quality of uplift, or lesson, or message of good.” Judge Willis threw out the demand for damages. I happen to love the play for many reasons, one of which is its powerful anti-war stance.
A poster on the exterior wall of the Payoff Villa Apartments exclaims: “Radio fans hear Martin Luther Thomas preach on ‘No Vice, No Crime.'” I was intrigued. Who was Martin Luther Thomas? It turns out that Thomas was one of several local radio preachers who, when he wasn’t railing against the “Underworld”, was the chief investigator for City Prosecutor Johnson.
And the fellow crawling on his hands and knees in the street? He was Wells J. Mosher, confidential secretary to Mayor Porter.
In July 1931 Thomas and Mosher were linked by a so-called “snooping system” they allegedly ran to gather dirt on other city employees–particularly members of the city council. Director Knox of the Bureau of Budget and Efficiency was told to file a report with the Efficiency and Personnel Committee of the City Council. The report was specifically ordered to address whether or not Thomas and Mosher should lose their jobs. One of the councilmen declared that the two men were costing the city money that could be put to better use.
Mayor John Clinton Porter was a teetotaler and a xenophobe. Porter’s promise to clean-up the city’s political system won him the election in 1929, but it didn’t win him any friends on the wrong side of the law. Once sworn in the mayor began receiving death threats. He was the only mayor in LA’s history to be the victim of an attempted assassination.
On February 19, 1932, a federal warehouse worker, Jacob Denzer, who kept watch over confiscated booze, sat in the mayor’s lobby awaiting an audience. The self-proclaimed “messenger of the Lord” had had a vision for a “divine plan of salvation.” When 50 Fullerton Junior High School students, on a tour of City Hall, started to crowd into the lobby Denzer became agitated. He stood up, waved his gun and shouted at the startled students to “Get out of here, all of you.” A city janitor saw the ruckus. He managed to grab the revolver from Denzer’s hand.
Frank L. Shaw
Porter came through a recall effort and presided over the 1932 Olympic Games. Ever the teetotaler, no alcohol was served at the opening ceremony.
Porter enjoyed being mayor and ran in 1933, only to be defeated by arguably the most corrupt mayor in Los Angeles’ history, Frank L. Shaw (who, by the way, was recalled in 1938).
Within hours of her conviction Helen had willed herself into a coma, just like she said she could do. Inmates in the jail who passed by Helen made cracks, to which she was oblivious, about the “sleeping beauty”. Maybe they were jealous, because if Helen regained consciousness she’d be svelte. The first 5 days of her coma she lost 10 lbs! Nothing gets results like a diet of despair and guilt.
The jail physician, Dr. Benjamin Blank, examined Helen and declared that:
“She is suffering from a catatonic condition, a form of stupor brought on by extreme mental strain.”
Helen in a wheel chair. Photo courtesy LAPL.
He further stated:
“It is possible that the condition was brought on by fear during her trial that she might be hanged if convicted, or fear of serving the second-degree murder sentence fixed by the jury.”
A TIME Magazine article described Helen’s condition as:
“a fit of sulks so profound that half a dozen solemn psychiatrists could not even agree on a name for it, variously calling it ‘hysterical fugue,’ ‘split personality,’ ‘dementia praecox,’ ‘triumph of the subconscious,’ ‘self-imposed hypnosis,’ ‘voluntary stupor.'”
Legally, Helen could not be sentenced for her crime while in an insensible state. Her condition put justice for Harry on hold indefinitely.
Judge Smith was skeptical about Helen’s coma, and he wasn’t the only one. Matron Vada Sullivan, who had seen many female prisoners during her tenure at the jail said:
“Mrs. Love is faking. She has been causing us considerable trouble since the jury returned the verdict that found her guilty of second degree murder. She has been stubborn and despondent.”
After several continuances of sentence, Judge Smith ordered court to be held in the hospital so that Helen’s reactions could be observed. There wasn’t much to see. Doctors stuck her with pins and otherwise abused the unconscious woman but she responded only when Dr. Samuel M. Marcus, the fifth psychiatrist to examine her, massaged her head and mentioned Harry’s name. Helen muttered: “Please don’t go away, Harry!”
Helen became known as “the husk woman”, and she remained unconscious for 158 hours.
After slapping and shaking her, which one can only hope weren’t the usual psychiatric treatments for a comatose patient, Dr. Marcus was finally successful in awakening Helen by whispering in her ear:
“Here I come—that Dr. Marcus again—I’m knocking, knocking at that door—let me in now, Helen! Let me in, I say! I am going to get through that door so open it! Wake up!”
Helen did awake, while film crews recorded everything and her attorney stood by. It took 58 seconds for her to rise, and when she did she was terrified and begged for water. When Dr. Marcus asked if she was happy to be back in the land of the living she sobbed, ‘No, Oh, I haven’t done anything wrong! Let me go back!”
Helen, passed out in her mother’s arms. Photo courtesy LAPL.
She felt much better the next day. She said to the assembled newspapermen: “Don’t I look beautiful this morning?”
Helen was ravenously hungry. She’d been fed intravenously while she was out, but once she was upright she was treated to chicken broth with rice, buttered toast and two glasses of milk.
When asked about rumors that she was going to lapse into another neurotic coma, Helen smiled. She did her nails, wrote letters, read her fan mail, and expressed her disappointment at not being able to play golf with Jailer Clem Peoples.
She was sure she could beat him because she had once driven a golf ball 240 yards. She said, “Can you imagine that? And me a girl?”
When all was said and done, Helen was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to serve from seven years to life in prison. Helen left HOJJ (Hall of Justice Jail,) for Tehachapi dressed as though off to a fashionable tea. She was wearing a black crepe dress embroidered with silver flowers and a black cloth coat. Around her shoulders was a silver fox fur. She wore a black straw hat which, she said, she had bought in Paris. Black shoes, gloves, and purse completed her off-to-prison ensemble. Women dressed up for everything in those days, and a trip to prison was no exception. It paid to look your best.
Helen heads off to Tehachapi. Photo courtesy LAPL.
Helen did well at Tehachapi, she even won first place in a baking contest for her coconut cake.
While Helen was baking awarding winning cakes in prison, her mother-in-law, Cora, was embarking on a scorched earth policy where her former daughter-in-law was concerned.
Tehachapi bake-off. And the winner is… Photo courtesy LAPL.
Cora went to court to prove that there was no evidence of a marriage between Harry and Helen. She got an injunction barring Helen from representing herself as Harry’s widow or using the name Love.
In an unrivaled act of optimism, Helen applied for parole in November 1938 under her maiden name, but was told she would have to wait two years before applying again. Not unreasonable given that she had shot a man to death a year earlier.
In 1940 the litigious Cora sued Rio Grande Oil Co., Richfield Oil Co., KNX and CBS for $1M in a libel suit.
Cora Love (right) and a friend in the courtroom during Helen’s trial. Photo courtesy LAPL.
Cora claimed her character had been defamed in a broadcast of the radio program “Calling All Cars” (an episode entitled The Silver Cord which aired on January 13, 1939.) I haven’t found any record of her suit, so I don’t know if she won. But I doubt it. Listen to the episode and decide for yourself if she had a legitimate complaint. Actually, everyone should have complained. The heavily hyperbolic episode didn’t flatter any of the characters.
If Helen was paroled in 1940 it didn’t make news; however, she was eventually released. It is difficult to trace women, especially in years past when they routinely took their husband’s surnames. That said, I think I’ve been able to ferret out a few bits of information on Helen. As far as I can tell she was married a total of four times (three if you agree with Cora Love who adamantly denied Helen was ever legally married to Harry). As far as I know, Helen managed not to kill any of her other husbands or lapse into any more self-induced comas.
Helen Wills passed away in San Francisco, California on November 1, 2000 at the ripe old age of 95.
As for Cora Love, she passed away in Riverside, California on 17 Nov 1950 ten days following her 85th birthday.
Helen and Harry Love eloped to Mexico and married on May 3, 1936. Harry, at 46, was a “retired capitalist” and during the midst of the Great Depression that was quite an accomplishment. He gave Helen everything she could have wanted except his time–which is what she desired most. Harry was a mama’s boy and had, in is nearly five decades on the planet, not managed to clip the umbilical cord that continued to tether him to his meddlesome mother, Cora.
Not only had Harry refused to acknowledge Helen as his wife, he never even claimed her as his girlfriend. On the few occasions that Helen and Cora met, Cora was condescending and competitive to an uncomfortable degree. On Christmas Eve, Helen showed Cora the card Harry had given her which bore the salutation “Sweetheart”. Cora was offended by the card and immediately sneered at Helen, telling her that the card SHE had received from Harry was much prettier.
Many parents are reluctant to accept their child’s choice of a partner, but Cora seemed determined to keep Harry to herself. Had Cora always been so demanding of Harry’s time and attention? Perhaps Cora felt lost after her husband Charles passed away in 1923. She may have transferred her attention to her son. We can only speculate. We do know that Harry and Cora had taken a couple of cruises and frequently went out together for drives. Harry often stayed the night at Cora’s home rather than go to Helen and the apartment he maintained, allegedly for the two of them.
During the months that they had been married, Harry had pressured Helen into terminating a pregnancy and, following the “illegal operation”, Harry had sent Helen to New York to recover from the procedure that had nearly cost her her life.
The fabulous Norconian c, 1920s/1930s.
The final straw for Helen came on New Year’s Eve. Harry had promised to take her out to the Norconian Supreme Resort in Riverside for what would certainly have been a night to remember. Helen had bought a gown, which she foolishly showed to Cora. Had Helen baited Cora with the gown?
Typical women’s evening wear c. 1936.
If Helen was playing a game of one upsmanship, she lost big time. Had Cora then applied pressure to Harry, or had he reneged on his promise to Helen of his own accord? It didn’t matter. Either way Helen was to facing a miserable New Year’s Eve, dressed to the nines with nowhere to go. Cora and Harry were going to dinner in Santa Monica at the Del Mar Hotel. Helen wasn’t even invited to tag along as a third wheel.
After spending hours brooding over the indignity of being kept away from a celebration that she felt should have included her, Helen snapped. She took the pistol that Harry kept in the glove compartment of his car and put it in her handbag. Then, after ruminating for a while longer, she called a taxi and went out to confront Cora and Harry at the Del Mar.
1930s dame with gun.
Hurt, angry, and fed up with being Harry’s secret bride, Helen walked into the lobby of the Del Mar. When she asked the clerk if the Love party had arrived, she was told they had not. She said she would wait. A short time later Harry came from the dining room. He must have been there all along. Had he instructed the clerk to try to turn Helen away if she turned up, and then been thwarted when she declared her intention to stay?
Harry walked over to Helen and she said “Hello, darling.” Harry asked Helen what she was doing there; she said had planned to spend New Year’s Eve with him and she had meant it. They quarreled and Helen turned on her heel and strode into the dining room where she walked up to Cora who was seated at a table for two. Cora turned white and snapped at Helen, “This is no place for you. You are not invited! See me tomorrow.” Helen said, “Tomorrow will be too late.” Helen headed for the exit of the hotel with Harry next to her. “Have you a gun?” he asked. Helen replied, “You’re a big man. Why should you be afraid of a gun?” But he was afraid. So much so that he started to scream and run. He only managed to reach the steps of the club before Helen drew the pistol and fired.
Delineator Magazine’s men’s guide to correct formal evening wear, January 1936.
Harry fell on the steps, but he got back up and ran down the sidewalk still screaming for help. Helen ran after him firing until she was out of bullets. Later Helen claimed she had no recollection of where Harry fell. Harry was carried back into the Del Mar and placed on a couch. Helen sat next to him and watched him die. “I couldn’t believe it was true. It seemed like something you see on the screen. I kept thinking of it as a motion picture death.” Helen later said.
But Harry’s death wasn’t a movie–it was real enough to get Helen arrested for murder.
NEXT TIME: Helen goes on trial as The Death of Love continues.
Helen Wills was born in Kentucky in 1905 to Claudia and George Wills. George and Claudia divorced around 1920. Claudia reclaimed her maiden name of Durst; and she and her teenage children, sixteen-year-old Richard and fifteen-year-old Helen, lived together in Vanceburg, Kentucky. All three held jobs to keep the family afloat. Claudia taught music at home. Richard worked in a button factory as a cutter and Helen worked in a cigar factory.
Helen as a young woman. Photo courtesy LAPL.
Factory work can be soul crushing. I know because I worked in a swim suit factory as a teenager. I began each day punching a time clock. There was a large, empty, bin next to my sewing machine and my job was to fill it by the end of my shift. The noise of the industrial sewing machines was broken occasionally by the screams of a worker who had accidently sewed a finger to the bathing suit she was working on. Based on my experiences, I wasn’t surprised to find that by the 1930 census Helen and her mother had left Kentucky behind and were living in Los Angeles at 74 South Mariposa Avenue. Helen claimed to be an actress, but it is unclear what she actually did to earn a living.
Being an actress must have sounded glamorous to a small town girl like Helen, but there were hundreds of girls in Los Angeles whose big dreams had led only to aching feet as they trudged from one cattle call to another, never getting the break that would make them a star. I haven’t found any documentation to suggest that Helen ever appeared in a film or on stage.
Helen didn’t leave her mark on Hollywood, but as it turned out she would eventually take the lead role in a real life and death drama and she would make headlines from L.A. to New York.
Movie extras c. 1930s. Photo courtesy LAPL.
Helen met Harry Love in 1929 or 1930 and dated seriously for a year prior to their secret marriage in Ensenada, Mexico on May 3, 1936.
Harry was a successful older man, about fifteen years Helen’s senior, described as tall, medium build with dark hair and brown eyes. He was born in Trinidad, Colorado in 1890, and as a young man he had worked as a shift boss for Montezuma Copper Company in Narcozari de Garcia, Sonora, Mexico and as a car salesman in Morenci, Arizona. He wasn’t a millionaire but he had done well enough to retire in his early 40s — the newspapers referred to him as a retired capitalist.
Helen realized early in their relationship that Harry was a mamma’s boy. At 46 he had never been married and he still lived at home with his mother, Cora. In Helen’s shoes I like to think I would have taken one look at that situation and run for the hills, but that’s me looking at the 1930s through my 21st Century lens. It is easy to make that call from a distance of 80 years.
Harry and Cora were so close that they’d taken at least two cruises together. One was in the 1920s, years before Harry met Helen. But in March 1936 Harry and Cora took a second cruise to Hawaii, aboard the S.S. Chiriqui. What man takes a cruise with his mother just a few months prior to his marriage?
The truth is that Harry probably never intended to marry Helen. The hasty Mexican nuptials may have been necessitated by Helen’s announcement that she was pregnant. Harry must have had nightmares about how he was going to explain the marriage and child to Cora. She was barely aware that he was dating, let alone making babies.
After the newlyweds returned home Helen expected, not unreasonably, that Harry would break the news to Cora, but he flatly refused.
According to Helen, while they were dating Harry threatened to kill her if she ever became pregnant. In the 1930s the most common method of birth control was douching because other less caustic forms were nearly impossible to find.
In 1873 the Comstock Act passed in the United States prohibiting advertisements, information, and distribution of birth control and allowing the postal service to confiscate birth control sold through the mail. It wasn’t until 1965 that the Supreme Court (in Griswold v. Connecticut) gave married couples the right to use birth control, ruling that it was protected in the Constitution as a right to privacy. However, millions of unmarried women in 26 states were still denied birth control.
Not only was douching extremely unreliable, it was dangerous. The most widely advertised douche was Lysol. That’s right, as early as the 1910s the same stuff used to clean toilets was advertised as a way for women to stay fresh and feminine. Although, frankly, I fail to see the allure of the regular scented Lysol or, worse yet, the pine scented version that eventually hit the market. The notion that my man would be excited by a pine tree is too horrible to contemplate. The subtext in many of the ads was a nod and a wink toward avoiding unwanted pregnancies.
One wonders exactly what tragedy is being referred to in this ad.
When Helen gave Harry the news of his impending fatherhood, he reacted predictably and pressured her into having an “illegal operation” (i.e. an abortion). Helen nearly died as a result. In September he sent her to New York for a couple of months to regain her health.
Helen arrived home in time for the holidays and one of the first things that she noticed about the apartment was that Harry had removed their framed marriage license from the wall and put it in a safe deposit box. At least that’s what he told her.
In spite of their problems Helen was optimistic about her relationship with Harry and she believed that the two of them would spend Christmas alone together. Harry had other plans. He thought it would be swell if he and Helen spent Christmas with his mother – who still had no idea that Harry and Helen were married. Helen was introduced as a friend.
Helen wasn’t thrilled with the plan, but she went along hoping that Harry would finally reveal the truth of their relationship to Cora. It was not to be. Following dinner Harry and Cora bid adieu to Helen and went off together to church to listen to Christmas carols and then go for a drive.
On New Year’s Eve, Helen and Harry had lunch in Chinatown and he promised to take her to the fabulous Norconian Resort Supreme in Riverside that night to usher in 1937.
The Norconian. Image courtesy LAPL.
As he had many times before, Harry failed to keep his promise. He told Helen that he planned to spend New Year’s Eve with Cora at the Del Mar Club in Santa Monica and that she, Helen, was not invited. Harry did, however, pick Helen up that evening and left her in his car in the parking lot of a building Cora owned at 3020 South Main Street. He gave explicit instructions to the parking attendants that no one but him was to take the car out.
Helen sat in the auto for hours, brooding. Finally an attendant told her she might be more comfortable if she waited inside the building. She agreed, but before she left the car she took the pistol that Harry kept in the glove compartment and stashed it in her handbag.
Frustrated, hurt, and angry Helen took a cab back to the apartment where she stewed for a while longer before she made an important decision. She was tired of living in the shadows and fed up with Harry’s glib promises that inevitably came to naught. She grabbed her bag with the pistol still concealed inside, called a cab, and went to the Del Mar Club for a confrontation with the Loves.
NEXT TIME: The Death of Love, Part 2
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Our Bodies Ourselves
When I began this blog in December 2012, I arbitrarily chose to examine crime in Los Angeles during the years from 1900 to 1970. Now, however, I think it is time to expand the purview to include the decades of 1970, 1980 and 1990 to encompass all of the last century. In terms of crime in the City of Angels, the last three decades of the 20th Century are enormously interesting.
The 1970s have been called one of the most violent decades in U.S. history. Homicide rates climbed at an alarming rate and people felt increasingly vulnerable.
Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry
Hollywood contributed to popular culture, and helped fuel the debate on crime and punishment, with a slew of vigilante films like Dirty Harry and Death Wish. The films showed bad guys being blown away by impressively large weapons. It was cathartic, but not terribly realistic.
It was during the ’70s that the bogeyman got a new name when FBI Investigator Robert Ressler coined the term “serial killer”.
In 1978 convicted rapist and registered sex offender, Rodney Alcala, appeared on the Dating Game. Why wasn’t he more thoroughly vetted by the show’s producers? I have no idea. Even more astounding than his appearance was the fact that he won! The bachelorette who selected Rodney ultimately declined to go out with him–she found him “creepy”. He’s currently on California’s death row and is believed to have committed as many as 50 murders.
Richard Ramirez aka the Night Stalker, flashes a pentagram on his palm.
Some people joined cults where they banded together with like-minded folks for spiritual comfort and to retreat from the scary world-at-large. But there is not always safety in numbers, and evil can assume many guises. In 1978, over 900 members of the People’s Temple died in a mass suicide commanded by their leader, Jim Jones. The group was living in Guyana when they drank cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. The People’s Temple may have been founded in Indiana, but like so many other cults before them they established a presence in L.A.
Jim Jones of the People’s Temple
A crack cocaine epidemic swept the country in the early 1980s. It decimated communities and cost many people their lives. Crack was inexpensive, easily accessible, and even more addictive than regular cocaine.
The 1980s gave rise to a “satanic panic” which resulted in some of most bizarre prosecutions we’ve seen in this country since the Salem Witch Trials in the 1690s. The McMartin Preschool abuse trial was the most costly ($15 million) ever in the U.S. and resulted, rightfully I believe, in no convictions.
Surprisingly, there was a decline in crime during the 1990s, and it has been attributed to a variety of factors including: increased incarceration; increased numbers of police, growth in income; decreased unemployment, decreased alcohol consumption, and even the unleading of gasoline (due to the Clean Air Act). Despite the decline, there was still enough murder and mayhem to make us uneasy.
Here in L.A. there was the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, the so-called Trial of the Century. If you remove fame, wealth, and race and reduce the crime to its basic elements you end up with nothing more than a tragic domestic homicide–the type of crime which is altogether too common everywhere–yet the case continues to fascinate.
Heidi Fleiss, the Hollywood Madam, made news in 1993. At her pandering trial actor Charlie Sheen divulged that he had spent in excess of $53,000 for services rendered by Heidi’s girls.
Please join me as I explore the entirety of 20th Century crime in Los Angeles.
Reporter Aggie Underwood devoted a chapter in her 1949 autobiography Newspaperwoman to covering the stars – and one of the stars she covered was Thelma Todd. Thelma, nicknamed the Ice Cream Blonde, was an enormously popular actress appearing in over 120 films between 1926 and 1935.
Thelma was born on July 29, 1906, in Lawrence, Massachusetts. She was a good student and wanted to become a schoolteacher. She completed high school and went on to college, but she was a pretty girl and her mother insisted that she enter a few beauty contests. She won the title of “Miss Massachusetts” in 1925, and competed in the “Miss America” pageant. She didn’t win, but she did come to the attention of Hollywood talent scouts.
Among the stars with whom Thelma appeared during her career were Gary Cooper, William Powell, The Marx Brothers, and Laurel & Hardy.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s there were several successful male comedy teams but studio head Hal Roach never gave up on the idea of pairing two women. Between 1931 and 1933 Thelma and Zasu Pitts appeared in over a dozen films, primarily two-reelers. When it came time for contract renegotiation Zasu and Thelma found out that Hal Roach had made certain that their individual contracts expired six months apart. He figured that the stars had less leverage separately than they would as a team. He’d pulled the same trick on Laurel and Hardy. Zasu’s bid for more money and a stake in the team’s films was a non-starter with Roach. She was given a take it or leave it option. She left.
Thelma’s new partner was wisecracking Patsy Kelly and they churned out a series of successful shorts for Hal Roach until 1935.
Thelma’s pleasant voice had made the transition from silent to sound films an easy one. She had name recognition and with financial backing from her lover, film director Roland West, she opened the Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café. Thelma and Roland lived in separate rooms above the café. They had known each other for about 5 years. Thelma had appeared in West’s 1931 film Corsair, and that is when they became romantically involved.
West’s estranged wife, Jewel Carmen, lived in a home about 300 feet above the café on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It was an odd domestic arrangement to be sure.
On Saturday, December 14, 1935 Thelma’s personal maid of four years, May Whitehead, helped to dress the actress in a blue and silver sequin gown for a party. At about 8 p.m. Thelma and her mother Alice were preparing to leave the Café together. Thelma was headed to a party at the Trocodero hosted by Ida Lupino and her father Stanley.
As they were about to get into the limo driven by Ernie Peters (one of Thelma’s regular drivers) Roland approached Thelma and told her to be home by 2 a.m. Not one to be given orders, Thelma said she’d be home at 2:05.
When he was questioned later, West characterized his exchange with Thelma as more of a joke than a serious demand on his part; but he had locked Thelma out at least once before when she had failed to arrive home “on time”. On that earlier occasion Thelma had knocked hard enough to break a window and Roland let her in.
According to party goers Thelma arrived at the Trocodero in good spirits and she seemed to be looking forward to the holidays. She downed a few cocktails and she was intoxicated, but none of her friends thought that she was drunk. Thelma’s ex-husband, Pat Di Cicco, was at the Trocodero with a date, but he was not a guest at the Lupino’s party.
Very late in the evening Thelma joined Sid Grauman’s table for about 30 minutes before asking him if he’d call Roland and let him know that she was on her way home. Thelma’s chauffeur said that the actress was unusually quiet on the ride home, and when they arrived she declined his offer to walk her to the door of her apartment. He said she’d never done that before.
It’s at this point that the mystery of Thelma Todd’s death begins.
On Monday, December 16, 1935, May Whitehead, had driven her own car to the garage, as she did every morning, to get Thelma’s chocolate brown, twelve cylinder Lincoln phaeton and bring it down the hill to the café for Thelma’s use.
May said that the doors to the garage were closed, but unlocked. She entered the garage and saw the driver’s side door to Thelma’s car was wide open. Then she saw Thelma slumped over in the seat.
At first May thought Thelma was asleep, but once she realized that her employer was dead she went to the Café and notified the business manager and asked him to telephone Roland West.
From the moment that the story of Thelma Todd’s untimely death broke, the local newspapers covered it as if there was something sinister about it. The Daily Record’s headline proclaimed: “THELMA TODD FOUND DEAD, INVESTIGATING POSSIBLE MURDER”. The Herald’s cover story suggested that Todd’s death was worthy of Edgar Allan Poe:
“…if her death was accidental it was as strange an accident as was ever conceived by the brain of Poe.”
Alice Todd leaves Thelma’s inquest.
The circumstances surrounding Thelma’s death were somewhat mysterious, and when her mother Alice Todd received the news she shrieked “my daughter has been murdered”.
It was up to the cops and criminalists to determine if Thelma’s death had been a suicide, accident, or murder.
An investigation of the death scene found that the light inside the garage was not switched on and that there was some blood on Thelma’s face and there were also droplets of blood inside the car and on the running board.
The Coroner said Thelma may have been dead for about twelve hours before she was discovered. But a few witnesses came forward to swear that they’d seen, or spoken to, Thelma on Sunday afternoon at a time when, according to the Coroner, she would have already been dead.
The most compelling of the witnesses who had claimed to have seen or spoken with Thelma on Sunday was Mrs. Martha Ford.
She and her husband the actor Wallace Ford were hosting a party that day to which Todd had been invited. She said that she received a telephone call and that she’d at first thought the caller was a woman named Velma, who she was expecting at the party; but then the caller identified herself as Thelma, and used the nickname, Hot Toddy. Martha said that Toddy asked her if she could show up in the evening clothes she’d worn the night before to a party — Martha told her that was fine. “Toddy” also said she was bringing a surprise guest and said “You just wait until I walk in. You’ll fall dead!” Mrs. Ford was absolutely convinced that she had spoken with Thelma and not an impostor.
There was an enormous outpouring of grief over Thelma Todd’s death. And hundreds of mourners from all walks of life visited Pierce Mortuary where Thelma’s body was on view from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on December 19, 1935.
Patsy Kelly was said to have been so upset that she was under a doctor’s care.
And Zasu Pitts was devastated. She had been out Christmas shopping with Thelma a few days before her death.
The sightings of Thelma on Sunday led to a multitude of theories, ranging from plausible to crackpot.
Among the theories that have gained popularity over the years, even though it is unsubstantiated, is that New York mobster Lucky Luciano was pressuring Thelma to host gambling at the Café but when Thelma said no, he had her killed.
I don’t believe the Luciano story; however, Thelma may have been approached by some local thugs about gambling because in the LA Times on December 25, 1935 her attorney, A. Ronald Button said:
“… a group of gamblers wanted to open a gambling place in her cafe. She told me at that time that she was opposed to gambling and would have nothing to do with it. But whether the gamblers ever made a deal. I do not know.”
Another theory is that Thelma was murdered by her ex-husband, Pat Di Cicco. He had a history of violence against women; but again, there is no evidence that he had anything to do with her death.
I have my own theory, of course. How could I not? Here’s what I believe happened.
On Saturday night as she was leaving for the Trocodero, Roland West had told Thelma to be home at 2 am. He wasn’t joking with her as he’d said. Asserting herself, she told him she’d be home at 2:05 – but it was about 2:45 or 3 am when she asked Sid Grauman to phone West and let him know that she was on her way.
Her chauffeur, Ernie, said they arrived at the café at about 3:30 a.m and she had declined his offer to walk her up to her apartment. I believe that she declined because she anticipated an ugly scene with Roland about her late arrival home. She had a key in her evening bag, but the door to the apartment had been bolted from the inside. Roland had locked her out again. She was tired and she’d been drinking, her blood alcohol level was later found to be .13, enough for her to be intoxicated but not sloppy drunk. She decided that she didn’t have the energy to engage in an argument with Roland – it must have been about 4 am.
It was a cold night at the beach so Thelma trudged the rest of the way up the stairs to the garage.
She opened the garage doors and switched on the light. She got into her car and turned on the motor in an effort to keep warm. She fell asleep and was dead of carbon monoxide poisoning within minutes. She fell over and banged her head against the steering wheel of the car which caused a small amount of blood to be found on her body and at the scene. The blood was later tested and it contained carbon monoxide, so her injury occurred inside the garage.
According to tests made by criminalist Ray Pinker, it would have taken about two minutes for there to have been enough carbon monoxide in the garage to kill her. He had even tested the car to see how long it would run before the engine died – the shortest time it idled was 2 minutes 40 seconds, the longest was 46 minutes 40 seconds.
What about the light switch and the open car door? I think that when Roland didn’t hear anything from Thelma he decided to look for her. He walked to the garage to see if she’d taken her car. He went inside and saw Thelma slumped over in the front seat, just the way May Whitehead would find her on Monday morning. The car’s motor was no longer running. He swung open the driver’s side door to awaken her and realized that she was dead. He was too stunned to do anything but get the hell out of the garage. He left the driver’s side door open, switched off the garage light, closed the doors, and went back to his apartment.
Chester Morris starred in several Boston Blackie films
West was never held accountable, there was no proof of wrongdoing on his part, but I believe that he felt responsible for Thelma’s death. He never told a soul about the truth of that night; unless you believe the rumor that he made a death bed confession to his friend, actor Chester Morris.
What about Martha Ford’s alleged telephone conversation with Thelma? Was it actually Thelma on the phone? Maybe Ford was mistaken about the time. It is one of the many loose ends in the mystery surrounding Thelma Todd’s death.
Aggie was finishing her first year as a reporter for Hearst when Thelma Todd died. According to her memoir, by the end of the autopsy only she and the coroner remained in the room; her colleagues had turned green and bolted for the door.
The last words in this tale belong to Aggie—she too was perplexed by some of the mysteries surrounding Thelma’s death. She wrote in her memoir:
“In crucial phases of the case, official versions as told reporters varied from subsequent statements. It was known where and what Miss Todd had eaten on Saturday night. Stomach contents found in the autopsy did not appear to bear out reports on the meal. There were other discrepancies, including interpretations of the condition of the body and its position in the automobile.”
And for you conspiracy buffs, Aggie talked about a detective she knew who was working to clarify some of the disputed information. She said:
“…he was deeper in the mystery, receiving threatening calls…which carried a secret and unlisted number. He was warned to ‘lay off if you know what is good for you.’
“In his investigation the detective stopped and searched an automobile of a powerful motion picture figure. In the car, surprisingly, was a witness who had reported that Miss Todd had been seen on Sunday. Near the witness was a packed suitcase. The investigator told me the owner of the car attempted to have him ousted from the police department.”
Aggie would not reveal the name of the detective. In summation she wrote:
“There’s a disquieting feeling in working some of these cinema-land death cases, whether natural or mysterious. One senses intangible pressures, as in the Thelma Todd story: After the inquest testimony, in which one sensational theory was that the blonde star, who died of carbon monoxide gas, was the victim of a killer, the case eventually was dropped as one of accidental, though mysterious, death.”
Over the decades Thelma’s death has been the subject of books, movies, and TV shows; and it has been attributed to everything from suicide, to a criminal conspiracy.
I think it is best if Aggie and I leave you to make up your own mind about what really happened to Thelma Todd.
Bootlegging was a bloody business. Hijacking a competitor’s shipment of booze or encroaching on his territory were considered acts of war. During the 1920s, police became accustomed to finding the bodies of dead gangsters–victims of rough justice. According to LAPD Detective Lieutenant Aldo Corsini by mid-August 1928: “One thing was certain. Either some of the gang killings had to be solved, or somebody was going to get transferred to the sticks. People on the streets were beginning to talk.”
At five past midnight on August 7, the homicide detail in Central Station received a phone call. There had been a shooting at 767 New Depot Street and it looked like another gang job. Detectives Corsini and Frank Condaffer jumped into a call car and drove out to the scene. When they pulled up to the house Detective Corsini recognized it as the home of Gaetano Binetti. Binetti was a known racketeer. If he’d been snuffed out it was likely the result of an underworld disagreement.
The detectives entered the house and found Binetti dead. He’d taken two shotgun blasts to his chest. Next to him his wife, Concetta, lay moaning in agony. Some of the buckshot had entered the back of her head. Gaetano was obviously the target, his wife was collateral damage.
The murder weapon, a shotgun belonging to the dead man, lay on the floor next to the bed. That was odd for a professional hit, but not unprecedented. Concetta was rushed to the Pasadena Avenue Emergency Hospital and her husband’s body was removed to the morgue. Two children, belonging to Gaetano’s cousin Maria, were taken from the home by relatives.
Maria and her two kids lived with Gaetano so police questioned her first. She said that four men had forced their way into the house by breaking in the back screen door. The noise had awakened her and the next thing she knew she was being held at gunpoint by a man wielding a large blue steel revolver. The other three intruders made their way back to Gaetano’s bedroom. Moments later Maria heard gunshots.
The men escaped through a window in the living room. Strange that they didn’t just run out through one of the doors to the home. Maria told the cops that she thought she recognized the assailants, or at least could offer an informed guess as to their identities.
Three months before the hit, Gaetano had been “taken for a ride” by four men who had accused him of hijacking a truck load of illegal hootch from a small farm near Sawtelle where a huge still was located. It may have been one of the few times in his life when Gaetano had been accused of something he hadn’t done. He was able to convince his kidnappers that he hadn’t taken their liquor, and didn’t know who had. Remarkably they believed him and he was released.
The incident had sparked a gang war and Gaetano was the leader of one of the warring factions. Maria was convinced that the same four men who had taken Gaetano for a late night drive had been the ones to kill him. She gave Detectives Corsini and Condaffer the names of the men. Louis B. Williams, 30 years of age and Gentry F. Watkins, 27, were former police officers who had turned to bootlegging. The other two were Japanese gardeners, George Kunisawa and Henry S. Okamoto, both of them 24.
The police rounded up the quartet and took them to Central Station for questioning. None of the men hesitated to admit to the “ride” on which they’d taken Gaetano; but there was no way they were going to cop to a murder of which they insisted they were innocent. Even so, they were coy to the point of refusal when asked where they’d been at the time of the slaying.
Concetta had been critically wounded in the attack that killed her husband. If she lived she faced the possibility of total blindness. The detectives were hopeful that if she regained consciousness she could reveal the identity of the shooter. When Detective Corsini was finally allowed to get a few words with her she had nothing to offer. She had been sound asleep when the killer entered the dark bedroom. She knew that her husband had enemies but whether or not they had been the ones to murder him, she couldn’t say.
The detectives turned their attention back to the men they had in custody. Williams had joined the LAPD on July 23, 1923 and resigned “under pressure” on May 12, 1925. Watkins became a cop on June 22, 1925 and was discharged on January 4, 1928 because of suspicions that he was hijacking bootleggers.The disgraced officers owned a barbecue stand at 12000 Pico Boulevard where it was believed they sold more than sandwiches. The gardeners, Kunisawa and Okamoto, rented the former officers a barn on their Sawtelle ranch. They knew it housed a still and were well paid to keep quiet.
The only one talking was the eye-witness, Maria. She said that as she was being held at gunpoint, she heard one of the men shout: “You stole the liquor!” followed by the fatal gunshots.
Unless they got a break Gaetano’s murder might be added to the growing list of unsolved gang hits; but then someone confessed.
NEXT TIME: A surprising confession and case wrap-up.
“The First with the Latest! Aggie Underwood, the Los Angeles Herald, and the Sordid Crimes of a City,” explores some of the most deranged L.A. stories that were covered by Agness “Aggie” Underwood, a local reporter who rose through the ranks to become the first woman city editor for a major metropolitan newspaper. Curated by yours truly, Joan Renner (Author/Editrix/Publisher of the Deranged L.A. Crimes website, Board Member of Photo Friends), and featuring photos from the Los Angeles Public Library’s Herald Examiner collection.
Join us for light refreshments and brief remarks as we celebrate the reporter who helped the Los Angeles Herald be “The First with the Latest.” An exhibit catalog featuring many never-before-published images from the Herald’s files will be available for purchase.
The reception is on Thursday, August 13, 2015, 6pm-8pm at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles. Christina Rice,Senior Librarian, Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection; Stephanie Bluestein, Assistant Professor of Journalism at California State University, Northridge, and I will be making remarks at about 7pm.
I hope to see you there!
Buy the companion book from my Recommendations in the sidebar.
When I began this blog in mid-December 2012 I had no expectations regarding how many people I might reach. Truthfully I was just compelled to do something I love, which to share twisted tales from L.A.’s deeply disturbed past.
The month of August was a personal best for the blog with over 26,000 visitors, most of whom had visited before! In the months since the blog began it has logged over 124,000 visitors — not just random hits. I know how busy everyone is, and I’m touched that so many of you find time for Deranged L.A. Crimes.
I take this endeavor seriously and I make every effort to keep the stories interesting and the facts straight. I want you to know that I will always respond respectfully to your comments, even on those occasions when we may agree to disagree.
Again, my heartfelt thanks to each and every one of you for your support.