The Death of Love, Part 1

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.

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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.

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?

sschiriquifront3_resizeThe 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.

Harry kept his new wife in an apartment at 3620 West Fourth Street, less than a half mile from his mother’s house at 457 South Harvard Boulevard. Helen may as well have been on another planet.  Harry didn’t even stay with her every night.

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.

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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.

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

References: 

Ancestry
Google Maps
Los Angeles Public Library
Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Evening Herald & Express
Our Bodies Ourselves
Mother Jones
Smithsonian
WGBH Boston
Wikipedia

Film Noir Friday–Holiday Edition: MIDNIGHT [1934]

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Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open for a special holiday screening. It is the 117th anniversary of Humphrey Bogart’s birth. What better way to celebrate than to show one of his early films? Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. Today’s feature is the pre-code MIDNIGHT (aka CALL IT MURDER), starring Humphrey Bogart, Sidney Fox, O.P. Heggie, Henry Hull and Margaret Wycherly.

Enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

Ethel Saxon confesses in court to the murder of her errant husband John in a “crime of passion,” and also admits she took his money. Jury foreman Edward Weldon, who believes in obeying the letter of the law, convinces his peers to convict Ethel of first degree murder, despite public sympathy for her cause. On the day of her execution, reporter Bob Nolan bribes idle Joe “LeRoy” Biggers, Weldon’s son-in-law, to get him into the Weldon home to see the family’s reaction as Ethel is taken to the electric chair.

Happy Birthday to Aggie Underwood and Deranged L.A. Crimes

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Aggie at a crime scene in the 1940s.

Aggie Underwood was born on December 17, 1902 and Deranged L.A. Crimes was born on December 17, 2016, so there’s a lot to celebrate today. We have so many candles on our birthday cake it will take a gale force wind to blow them all out.

It was Aggie’s career as a Los Angeles journalist that inspired me to begin this blog.  She began her career as a temporary switchboard operator at the Daily Record in late 1926.. In her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman, she described the Record’s newsroom as a “weird wonderland” and promptly fell in love with the newspaper business. It didn’t take her long to realize that she wanted to be a reporter and she pursued her goal with passion and commitment.

During a time when most female journalists were assigned to report on women’s club activities and other social events, Aggie covered most, if not all, of the most important crime stories of the day. She attended Thelma Todd’s autopsy in December 1935 and was the only Los Angeles reporter to score a byline in the Black Dahlia case in January 1947.

Like Aggie, I’ve become obsessed with the villains and victims in Los Angeles. The stories touch me as often as they frighten and repulse me. I want to understand why people do the things they do, and sometimes I feel like I get close. I don’t expect to ever completely answer that question–but the quest is a rewarding one.

Whether you are new to the blog or have been following Deranged L.A. Crimes for a while, I want to thank you sincerely for your readership.

There will be many more stories in 2017 and a few appearances too. I will keep you posted.

Joan

30 More Years of Crime in L.A.

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.

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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.

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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

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.

oj-simpson-murdeHere 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.

Joan

 

 

 

Film Noir Friday: The Spanish Cape Mystery [1935]

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Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open! Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. Tonight’s feature is THE SPANISH CAPE MYSTERY, based on an Ellery Queen novel of the same name. It stars Helen Twelvetrees and Donald Cook. Match wits with an arch fiend, and enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

After Ellery Queen helps his father Inspector Queen with a case involving the robbery of a $50,000 pearl necklace, he leaves for a well-deserved vacation in Spanish Cape, California. In Spanish Cape, Walter Godfrey’s relatives, who have gathered in his seaside mansion, quarrel with one another. During an evening stroll, Stella Godfrey is abducted and her uncle, David Kummer, disappears.

Shootout at the Selma Hotel, Conclusion

shirt clueAccording to the attorneys for Tom Bay and Ed “Red” Carmichael, the red shirt that James “Yakima Jim” Anson died in was going to clear their clients of murder.  The shirt would supposedly show that there had been a terrific battle prior to the shooting, thus clearing Tom and Red of a cold-blooded slaying. Unfortunately,  the shirt had disappeared.

On August 26, 1925 a telegram originating from Shosone, Idaho cleared up the mystery of the red shirt. It wasn’t lost and the cops hadn’t concealed it, it had accompanied Yakima’s body to Idaho where it was burned.

Tom and Red’s preliminary hearing lasted for several weeks. At the end of it only Tom was held to answer for Yakima’s murder. Justice Russell released Red, apparently believing the man’s story that he’d been out of the room when the fatal shot was fired. Even though Red had left Yakima’s room for a short time he seemed to know that Tom had produced a revolver, faced Yakima, and said: “Now I’ve got you just where I want you.” He said he heard a scuffle and then a shot. He ran back into the room in time to see Tom escape out the hotel window.jury baffled

As a Hollywood cowboy Tom spent much less time on a horse than he did with a cocktail glass in his hand. His wife Pearl testified that whenever he came home drunk, which was often, he would attempt to crawl under a chiffonier that was only six inches from the floor.  On the day that Yakima was shot Tom came home and again tried to hide under the furniture. Pearl intervened, and then she listened as he told her a garbled tale of Yakima’s shooting. Pearl said: “He told me there had been a shooting and that Anson was badly hurt, but I got the impression he had shot himself. Tom didn’t say anything about having shot him and didn’t seem to know who had.”

Tom Bay c. 1931

Tom Bay c. 1931

When Tom took the stand in Judge Kectch’s court he offered his version of Yakima’s death. He readily admitted that he’d been drinking, but he claimed there were several other men in the  hotel room–which didn’t square with Red’s account. Tom said that Yakima had drawn the gun and started waving it around. It was during a struggle for possession of the weapon that it discharged. Yakima staggered back against the wall and slowly slid into a sitting position on the floor. According to Tom, Red came back into the room (he’d been in the bathroom) and told the wounded man to “snap out of it” and “the cops might come because that gun went off.” Rather than wait for the cops, or check to see if Yakima was okay,  Tom crawled through an open window and dropped to the sidewalk–leaving Red to face the music. Red picked up the revolver, realized it was his, and headed for the door. He didn’t even get out of the hotel before the cops took him into custody. Tom was picked up later.

tom freedThroughout the trial Tom maintained that he didn’t know that Yakima had been shot when he fled from the room. For me that stretches the bounds of credibility, but evidently the jury bought the story because following twenty hours of deliberation they acquitted him. Dozens of men in high-heeled boots, holding ten-gallon hats, and grinning swarmed Tom and slapped him on the back in congratulations.

There are several unanswered questions in this case. Who brought Red’s gun to the room, and why? It seems likely that Tom had somehow managed to get his hands on the weapon and, in his inebriated condition, thought he’d scare an apology out of Yakima for making rude comments about Pearl. Did the gun go off accidentally as Tom insisted or was he drunk enough to pull the trigger in anger?tragedy

We’ll never know for sure and all that matters is the jury’s decision. However if you believe, as I do, that Tom was at the least guilty of involuntary manslaughter then you’ll be interested to know how he fared following his acquittal.

In May 1931, Pearl sued Tom for divorce. She said that she had sold her piano and car to pay for his attorneys; however, he was not only ungrateful, he treated her badly. He was physically and emotionally abusive and he cheated on her over and over. Pearl had discovered love letters and overheard Tom talking to another woman on the phone in a tone of voice that went beyond friendly. To buttress her case Pearl produced a handful of letters written by a woman living in Deadwood, South Dakota. They were torrid enough to have courtroom spectators on the edge of their seats. Pearl won her divorce. Tom continued his film career. He appeared, mostly uncredited,  either as a stunt double or as a heavy in popular horse operas into the early 1930s.

Mary Frances Miller

On October 11, 1933, actress Mary Frances Miles received a telephone call from her friend Alta Lessert. Alta said she and her live-in lover, cowboy actor Tom Bay, had been fighting. Alta may have been looking for moral support or a referee–in any case Mary went to help. She arrived at Alta and Tom’s house at 602 North Lincoln Boulevard, Burbank and tried to keep the peace. She thought she had succeeded in getting the combative couple to calm down–she saw them embrace and kiss–but moments later she heard a gunshot.

Alta ran from the living room to the bedroom.  Alta was standing with a gun in her hand  Tom’s back was to her and he had his hands raised above his head. Alta fired another shot and Tom fell to the floor.

Mary ran from the house to phone the police. On her way to get help she passed the bedroom window. She looked in and saw Alta hold the muzzle of the gun against her breast and fired twice. She collapsed on the floor beside the dead cowboy. lessert_mailbox

Tom died at the scene, a bullet through his heart. Alta’s ribs deflected the bullets and she survived to stand trial for his murder. She claimed self-defense. Tom had been violent with her before and the day he died he had been drinking heavily and threatened to kill her. She had grabbed the gun before he could reach it and fired. Several character witnesses testified on Alta’s behalf–most of them were cowboy actors: Buck Bucko, Roy Bucko, Jack Castle, and Jack Padjan. The men said Tom was a known troublemaker.

The jury deadlocked 6 to 6. The D.A. wanted to re-try Alta, but Judge Fricke dismissed the murder charge saying that he didn’t believe a conviction was possible.

Just as Tom had done nine years earlier, Alta walked out of court a free woman.

Death of the Two Day Bride

clements_lucilleValentine’s Day is coming up, love is in the air, and heart-shaped cards and sweet treats are everywhere. Sadly not all love affairs remain heart shaped, sometimes they become triangles, and when they do  they can be deadly.

Thirty-seven-year-old grocery clerk Worth Clements traveled from Atlanta, Georgia to Los Angeles to plead with his estranged sweetheart, twenty-seven-year-old Lucille Register, to marry him. He brought with him Lucille’s eight-year-old brother Stanley, whom he had adopted. Worth had divorced his former wife, one of Lucille’s aunts, and planned to marry Lucille as soon as possible.

The meeting between Worth and Lucille didn’t go well. Accompanied by two of her friends Mary Temple, Martha Hillhouse, and her brother Stanley, she went to LAPD’s Hollywood station for a safe place to talk things over with Worth. Their talk ended with Worth agreeing to return to Atlanta. The group left the police station and everyone piled into Martha’s car.

As Martha turned the car onto Third Street Worth and Lucille, together in the back seat of the car, began to argue. It was then that Lucille dropped the bombshell. She was already married! She and a fellow named Wayne Campbell had driven to Tijuana just two days earlier and wed. The other occupants of the car heard Lucille reject Worth in no uncertain terms: “I won’t marry you–take it or leave it.”

Worth responded: “Lucille, I’ve got a gun.”  Did he bring the gun because he suspected he was part of a triangle? Or had he planned to kill Lucille if she rejected him for any reason? I suspect the latter; but surely Lucille’s confession was the thing that made him snap. He fired one shot into Lucille and she went quiet. Martha pulled the car to the curb at 3rd Street and Union Avenue. As Martha, Mary and Stanley ran for help they heard two more shots.

When the police arrived they found Lucille dead in the back seat. Beside her lay Worth. He had put two rounds into his chest and was barely alive.

LAPD Detective Thad Brown went to the hospital to speak with Worth. As soon as it was clear that he was going to pull through, he was charged with murder.

Little more than a month following the slaying Worth appeared in Judge Blake’s courtroom. He made a pathetic picture swaddled in a blanket, hunched over in a wheelchair. He pleaded guilty, even though he insisted he couldn’t recall committing the crime.

worth_wheelchairOn December 29, 1937, Judge Blake found Worth guilty of first degree murder and sentenced him to life in prison.  But he didn’t spend the rest of his life behind bars. He was released on January 29, 1948, ten years to the day after he began his sentence.

Film Noir Friday: They Made Me A Criminal [1939]

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Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open! Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. Tonight’s feature is THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL starring John Garfield, Ann Sheridan, and Claude Rains. Enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

Johnnie Bradfield, a deadly and cynical prize fighter, has just slugged his way to the championship when, during a drunken brawl in his apartment, his manager, Doc Wood, accidentally kills Magee, a newspaper reporter, and fixes the evidence so it appears that Johnnie has done the deed. Doc then makes his getaway, but perishes in a car accident while wearing Johnnie’s watch. The next morning, Johnnie awakens in a strange place and reads a newspaper article informing him that he has perished in a car wreck after murdering a reporter. On the advice of a shady lawyer, the champ flees, changes his identity and becomes an outcast.

 

https://youtu.be/DHZZizQjhbk?list=PLONInHcNdOMrTy9Yo1lbTkun8vbnHluRD

Aggie and the Ice Cream Blonde

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Aggie Underwood c. 1930s

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.

thelmaAmong 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.Ida_Lupino_head_shot

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.
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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.”

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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.
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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.

RolandWest

Roland West

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.
ToddMapIt 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.

00050722_ray pinker

Ray Pinker

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.

confessions-of-boston-blackie-movie-poster-1941-1020559030

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.

A Cell of One’s Own, Conclusion

isa_confessionThe fight between Isa Lang and Edith Eufala Norwood over an avocado sandwich ended in death. Isa had grabbed a gun from her former landlady’s closet and shot her in the back of the head. Eufala died instantly.

Isa was indicted for the slaying and ordered to stand trial on March 7, 1935 in Judge Doran’s court. She entered a a double plea of not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity; which seemed reasonable given her stated motive for the murder.

The 46-year-old former school teacher took the stand in her defense and told the jury of nine men and three woman how “Everything went black.” after she and Eufala exchanged angry words. Isa said that the quarrel escalated quickly because: “Mrs. Norwood grabbed the sandwich out of my hands and she called me names. As she ran into the kitchen with the plate I made with my own bread I ran to a closet and got the pistol.”

Aside from the harsh words, Isa’s rage was triggered because she claimed that she had used her own bread to make lunch. She didn’t reveal the source of the avocados. Isa testified that she didn’t recall pulling the trigger, but admitted that she must have done it.

Jurors learned that the two women had been friends for the several years during which Isa had been living in Eufala’s home. But their friendship ended when Isa was told to move out.

Following their deliberations the jury returned a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree and set Isa’s punishment at life in prison. The defendant addressed the jury telling them that she was “willing to accept any punishment the law requires.”isa_convicted

The verdict and sentence ended the first phase of Isa’s trial–next the jury would have to decide if she was insane when she committed the murder.

Three alienists (psychiatrists) testified that while Isa was undoubtedly eccentric whe was not legally insane when she shot Eufala. Isa’s defense team offered their own witnesses in an effort to prove that she was not mentally responsible for the shooting. It took the jury five minutes to arrive at a decision–Isa was sane–she would serve life in the State Prison for Women at Tehachapi.

There were few high profile female killers, especially during the 1930s, who weren’t interviewed by Aggie Underwood. Aggie started working as a reporter for the Evening Herald & Express in January 1935 and, as you can see from the photo she scored an interview with Isa.

Isa Lang, convicted of murder, with reporter Agness  Underwood, Los Angeles, 1935 resize

Aggie Underwood, notebook in hand, interviews Isa Lang. [Photo courtesy of USC]

There were no further newspaper of reports on Isa until November 1976 when the Los Angeles Times did a piece on her. Isa had been a prisoner longer than any other woman in California–but that wasn’t her only claim to fame.

She was paroled in 1960 at age 71, and she told the interviewer, Charles Hillinger: “The first five years of freedom I really enjoyed. I had my own little apartment and a beautiful cat named Ginger. But the last four years were sheer hell. I became sick. I had to give up my apartment and go into a nursing home. I shared a room with five other elderly women. They were all senile. They had no idea where they were or what was going on. It was terrible. I was so lonely for all my friends in prison. I wanted to get back to prison in the worst way…”

isa_home in prisonAstonishingly, Isa was able to convince the Department of Correction that by giving up her parole and returning to prison she would be treated more humanely than she had been in the nursing home on the outside. Actually, now that I think about some of the stories I’ve read about nursing homes, maybe her request wasn’t so shocking after all.

Isa spoke with some pride of her years in prison: “I have worked at every job there is for inmates here over the years. The laundry, the kitchen, as a gardener in the yard, in the sewing room making American flags that fly over state buildings. For many years i was secretary for the superintendent. She also told Hillinger: “..I did your kind of work, too. I wrote feature stories and editorials for the Clarion, our prison paper, for 6 1/2 years.”

Isa revealed that she never married during her free years: “I’m glad for it. This is a tragic place for married women. Separated from their husbands. Their children in foster homes.”

As she got older and her health began to fail she was confined to a wheelchair, but inmates brought her gifts of rosebuds from the prison gardens–and staff members brought her flowers from their home gardens as well.

Isa wouldn’t say very much about the 1935 murder. “It was something that could happen to anyone. It was terribly foolish for me to get caught up in the situation that I did. I got stirred up. It certainly wasn’t worth it. I’ve accepted the consequences. Only God and I know what truly happened…”

Isa Lang in her 80s.

Isa Lang in her 80s.

That wasn’t the end of Isa’s story. In August 1982 the Los Angeles Times covered her again. At age 93 (she was the oldest person serving time in the state’s prison system) she was likely going to be paroled–and she wasn’t happy about it. She objected to the presence of reporters at her parole hearing, saying: “I don’t want any publicity. The last time somebody put something in the Los Angeles Times about me years ago, people started picketing for my release and even the governor got into it. I want those do-gooders to mind their own business.”

It wasn’t just reporters she objected to. She became prickly when her victim was described as having been her benefactor. “That woman was not my benefactor. I merely rented a room from her. I killed her because she called me a bastard and a harlot and I want the record straight on that.”

Robert Roos, a member of the parole board, tried to sum up the conundrum: “The questions really isn’t whether Isa Lang is suitable for parole. She is by our criterion no longer a danger to society. The real question is whether parole is suitable for her. I, for one, don’t want to impose a death sentence on this lady by forcing her out of a place she clearly considers home.”

Would Isa be evicted from prison? Yes, indeed. Her attorney, James Gunn, declared himself “flabbergasted” by the parole board’s decision. Even Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Charles Havens agreed: “I’m surprised at what they did. It just doesn’t seem the compassionate thing to do.” But the board decided to follow the letter of the law and using that measure Isa was released.

Columnist Patt Morrison wrote about Isa in May 1983. At age 94, the former lifer was living comfortably with a “very compatible” elderly woman–a fellow vegetarian and Seventh-day Adventist.isa_dies2

Isa Lang passed away in 1983 at age 95.

NOTE:  Again, many thanks to my friend and fellow historian Mike Fratantoni for directing me to this deranged tale.