Film Noir Friday: Lady of Burlesque [1943]

lady of burlesque

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 LADY OF BURLESQUE (aka THE G-STRING MURDERS) directed by William A. Wellman and starring Barbara Stanwyck and Michael O’Shea.

Gypsy Rose Lee

LADY OF BURLESQUE is based on the novel The G-String Murders written by strip tease queen Gypsy Rose Lee (with ghost-writing assistance from mystery writer Craig Rice).

Craig Rice.

If you’re not familiar with Craig Rice, she wrote mystery novels and short stories, and is sometimes described as “the Dorothy Parker of detective fiction.” She was the first mystery writer to appear on the cover of Time Magazine, on January 28, 1946.

Before we roll the feature, let’s enjoy one of Gypsy Rose Lee’s dance routines–followed by a clip from a Tex Avery cartoon starring the lecherous wolf character.

Turner Classic Movies says this about LADY OF BURLESQUE:

S. B. Foss, owner of the Old Opera House on Broadway in New York City, promotes his new recruit, burlesque dancer Dixie Daisy, hoping that she will draw a large audience. Dixie’s performance draws cheers from the crowds and from comedian Biff Brannigan, who ardently admires Dixie even though she hates comics because of past experiences with them. When someone cuts the wire to the light backstage that signals the presence of the police, the performers are surprised by a raid, and pandemonium ensues. As Dixie flees through a coal chute, someone grabs her from behind and tries to strangle her, but her assailant escapes when a stagehand comes along.

 

The Black Dahlia: Jane Doe is Identified

Jane Doe’s body was removed from the vacant lot on Norton and taken to the Hall of Justice where she was fingerprinted and autopsied. Artist Howard Burke sketched an idealized version of the young woman—the reality of her condition was too awful for them to print in the Examiner; although they did print a photo of her body in situ. The only way they could print a picture of the crime scene was by manipulating the photo to remove the mutilations to her face and adding a blanket to cover her.

00010486_dahlia bodyCaptain Jack Donohoe, head of LAPD’s homicide department, was understandably in a rush to identify the woman. Her killer had the advantage of several hours, but to give him, or her, more time to escape could be disastrous. It should have been a simple thing to get Jane Doe’s prints to the FBI in D.C., but the weather back east was conspiring against the detectives.

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Blizzard of 1947. Associated Press photo via Baruch College, CUNY.

Normally fingerprints prints were flown to the FBI but a blizzard grounded aircraft in the East.  If cops waited for the weather to clear, identification could take as much as a week.  Seven days is an eternity in a homicide investigation.

In the 1940s the press and police had a symbiotic relationship which served them both well. Without access to planes the LAPD’s investigation was at a standstill.  But, luckily, they could rely on William Randolph Hearst’s resources. The Examiner had a Soundphoto machine which could be the solution to the conundrum.  It might be possible to transmit the fingerprints to the FBI via the precursor to the facsimile machine. Of course the newspaper expected a quid pro quo—an exclusive. With the clock ticking, Capt. Donohoe reluctantly agreed.

Photo courtesy ladailymirror.com

Photo courtesy ladailymirror.com

Sending fingerprints over the Soundphoto machine had never been tried before, but it was worth the effort.  To everyone’s amazement and relief the prints, after a couple of minor glitches, were successfully transmitted to the FBI.  It didn’t take the bureau long to identify the dead woman as Elizabeth Short. The last address the agency had for her in California was in Santa Barbara.  Santa Barbara police  arrested the Massachusetts native in 1943 for underage drinking. She was sent home to her mother Phoebe.

Now that the dead girl had a name the Examiner’s city editor, Jim Richardson, assigned re-write man Wayne Sutton to break the news to her mother Phoebe.  Sutton was not thrilled when Richardson instructed him to lie to Phoebe. Richardson wanted her to believe that her daughter won a beauty contest. It was only after Sutton had pumped her for information on her daughter that he was allowed to deliver the news of her tragic death.

After a few minutes of chatting with Phoebe, who was proud and happy to discuss her beautiful daughter with the newspaperman from Los Angeles, Richardson gave Sutton the high sign. It was time to tell her the truth. Sutton put his hand over the mouthpiece, looked at Richardson and said: “You lousy son-of-a-bitch.”

Phoebe Short. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Phoebe Short. Photo courtesy LAPL.

It may have been shock that kept Phoebe on the line after hearing the worst news of her life. Sutton learned from Phoebe that Elizabeth recently stayed in San Diego and she gave him the address. Sutton told Phoebe that the Examiner would pay her fare to Los Angeles. The paper needed to keep Phoebe close so they could explore leads and milk her for further information on her murdered child.

Examiner reporters were dispatched up and down the coast from Santa Barbara to San Diego to glean whatever they could from interviews with police and anyone else who may have come into contact with Elizabeth.

While reporters were out searching for information, the Examiner received an anonymous tip that Elizabeth had kept memory books filled with photos and letters. The books were allegedly in a trunk that was lost in transit from the east.  Reporters from the Examiner went to the Greyhound station in downtown Los Angeles. There wasn’t a trunk, but there was a suitcase and some bags.

Robert "Red" Manley. Photo likely taken by Perry Fowler. Courtesy LAPL.

Robert “Red” Manley. Photo likely taken by Perry Fowler. Courtesy LAPL.

A small suitcase turned out to be a treasure trove of photos and letters which offered some insight into Elizabeth’s life. There were letters from soldiers, and letters that Elizabeth had written and never sent. There were photos of her on a beach, and with various men in uniform. Might one of them be her killer?

Examiner reporters in the field received copies of some of the photos which they then showed to clerks at hotels and motels in the hope of finding anywhere the dead woman had been, and with whom.

The reporters discovered that the last man to have been seen with Elizabeth was married salesman, Robert “Red” Manley.  Red and Elizabeth stayed the night in a motel on their way from San Diego to Los Angeles. Red’s name was printed in the Examiner as a person of interest in the slaying.

Red may be a valuable witness–or he may be a killer.

NEXT TIME:   A suspect is arrested.

January 15, 1947: A Werewolf on the Loose

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It was after 10 a.m. on January 15, 1947 — Mrs. Betty Bersinger and her three year old daughter Anne were bundled up against the chill of a cold wave that had held L.A. residents in its grip for several days. Mother and daughter were headed south on the west side of Norton when Mrs. Bersinger noticed something pale in the weeds about a foot in from the sidewalk.

Betty Bersinger

Betty Bersinger

At first Bersinger thought she was looking at either a discarded mannequin, or drunk woman, passed out near the sidewalk. Had she been thrown out of a car by a boyfriend? That particular area was known as a lover’s lane. Once Betty got a closer look, she realized she was in a waking nightmare.  The bright white shape in the weeds was neither a mannequin, nor a drunk. Bersinger said “I was terribly shocked and scared to death, I grabbed Anne and we walked as fast as we could to the first house that had a telephone.”

Over the years several reportera claimed to have been first on the scene of the murder. One them was reporter Will Fowler. Fowler said he and photographer Felix Paegel of the Los Angeles Examiner were near Crenshaw Boulevard when they heard an announcement on the shortwave radio: “A 390 W, 415 down in an empty lot one block east of Crenshaw between 39th and Coliseum streets…Please investigate…Code Two … (Code Two meant “Drunk Woman,” and a 415 designated “Indecent exposure.”) Fowler couldn’t believe his ears: “…a naked drunk dame passed out in a vacant lot. Right here in the neighborhood too…Let’s see what it’s all about.”

Paegel drove as Fowler watched for the woman. “There she is. It’s a body all right…” Fowler got out of the car and walked up to the body as Paegel pulled his Speed Graphic from the trunk of the car. Fowler called out: “Jesus, Felix, this woman’s cut in half!”

That was Fowler’s story, and he stuck to it through the decades. But was it true?

There is information to suggest that a reporter from the Los Angeles Times was the first. In her autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie Underwood said that she was the first reporter on the scene. After all these years  does it really matter who was firstAGGIE_DAHLIA SCENE_1_15_1947_frat_resize

Aggie at the Dahlia body dump site. January 15, 1947.

All those who saw the murdered girl that day were shocked and horrified. Aggie described what she observed in her 1949 autobiography.

“It [the body] had been cut in half through the abdomen, under the ribs. The two sections were ten or twelve inches apart. The arms, bent at right angles at the elbows, were raised about the shoulders. The legs were spread apart. There were bruises and cuts on the forehead and the face, which had been beaten severely. The hair was blood-matted. Front teeth were missing. Both cheeks were slashed from the corners of the lips almost to the ears. The liver hung out of the torso, and the entire lower section of the body had been hacked, gouged, and unprintably desecrated. It showed sadism at its most frenzied.”

The coroner recorded the victim as Jane Doe #1 for 1947.

Detectives Harry Hansen [L} and Finis Brown [R] examine Black Dahlia crime scene.

Detectives Harry Hansen [L} and Finis Brown [R] examine Black Dahlia crime scene.

Two LAPD detectives, Harry Hansen and Finis Brown, took charge of the investigation. During the first twenty-four hours officers pulled in over 150 men for questioning.

dahlia_herald_1_werewolfThe most promising of the early suspects was a twenty-three year old transient, Cecil French. He was busted for molesting women in a downtown bus depot.

Cops were further alarmed when they discovered French had pulled the back seat out of his car. Had he concealed a body there? Police Chemist, Ray Pinker, found no blood or any other physical evidence of a bloody murder in French’s car.

In her initial coverage Aggie referred to the case as the “Werewolf” slaying due to the savagery of the mutilations inflicted on the unknown woman. Aggie’s werewolf tag would identify the case for a few more days until a much better one was discovered–the Black Dahlia.

NEXT TIME: The bisected body of the young woman found in Leimert Park is identified.

REFERENCES:

Fowler, Will (1991). “Reporters” Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman.

Gilmore, John (2001). Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder.

Harnisch, Larry. “A Slaying Cloaked in Mystery and Myths“. Los Angeles Times. January 6, 1997.

Underwood, Agness (1949). Newspaperwoman.

Wagner, Rob Leicester (2000). The Rise and Fall of Los Angeles Newspapers 1920-1962.

Black Dahlia–Last Seen

About 12:20 p.m. on January 9, 1947, Elizabeth Short and Robert “Red” Manley left the motel where they spent the night.

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Robert ‘Red’ Manley. Photo courtesy LAPL.

What did Beth and Red talk about during the couple of hours that it took them to drive back to Los Angeles from San Diego? Red noticed some scratches on Beth’s arms and asked her about them. She spun a tale of an “intensely jealous” boyfriend – an Italian “with black hair who lived in San Diego”, and claimed that it was he who scratched her. In truth the scratches were probably made by Beth herself, the result of itchy insect bites. Beth lied to Red a few times more before their day together ended.

Because Red and his wife were having problems, he wondered if they were meant to be together. In the way that only a spouse on the verge of cheating can do, he sold himself on the notion that if he and his wife were meant to be together, then nothing would happen with Beth.

Following their platonic night in a motel room, Red’s marriage was certified as made in heaven–the fates clearly decreed it. But he had a problem; he’d been out of touch with his wife, Harriette, for a couple of days. How would he explain his lack of communication to her? Any guy capable of devising a ridiculous love test could easily come up with an excuse for being incommunicado for a couple of days.

studebaker

In my mind’s eye I see Beth and Red seated across from each other on the bench seat in his Studebaker, each lost in thought. Beth may have been wondering what she’d do once she hit L.A.  Maybe she’d go to friends in Hollywood. If she was lucky someone would have an empty bed for her. Her immediate difficulty was Red. How would she get away from the well meaning guy for whom she felt  little or nothing?

Once they arrived in the city, Beth told Red that she needed to check her luggage at the bus depot. He took her there, and Beth was ready to wave good-bye to him and be on her way–but he wouldn’t leave. He told her he couldn’t possibly leave her in that neighborhood on her own. She insisted that she would be fine, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

00007538_biltmore_pershing_1950

Biltmore Hotel and part of Pershing Square. [LAPL Photo]

Beth had a few minutes while she checked her bags to come up with a plan. When they returned to his car she told him that she needed to go to the Biltmore Hotel to wait for her sister. It was another lie. Virginia, the sister she referred to, was in Oakland, hundreds of miles to the north.

Red drove her several blocks back to the Biltmore Hotel.  The main lobby was on Olive Street, directly opposite Pershing Square. Beth thanked Red.  He had been a gentleman. He’d paid to have taps put on the heels and toes of her pumps, and of course he’d paid for meals and the motel room. She thought that he would drive off and leave her, but once again he said that he didn’t feel comfortable just putting her out of the car.

crown_grill_1

Matchbook cover — Crown Grill

He parked, and the two of them waited in the Biltmore’s exquisite lobby for quite a while. Finally, Beth managed to out wait Red. He said he had to go. She told him she would be fine and that she expected her sister to arrive at any moment.

Red left her in the Biltmore at approximately 6:30 p.m. Beth watched him go. She gave him a few minutes, and then she exited the hotel and turned right down Olive Street.

Beth may have been headed for the Crown Grill at Eighth and Olive.  She’d been there before and perhaps she hoped to bump into someone she knew; after all, she needed a place to stay. Some patrons of the bar later told cops that she’d been there that night, although it could not be verified, and no one saw her leave. 

Beth would never be seen alive again.

NEXT TIME: The Black Dahlia: January 15, 1947, A  Werewolf on the Loose

NOTE:  For a glimpse into Los Angeles as Beth Short would have seen it, here is some amazing B-roll from 1946 shot for a Rita Hayworth film, Down to Earth, via the Internet Archive.

Here’s a screen grab of the Crown Grill [thanks to Richard Schave of Esotouric Bus Adventures].

crown-grill-screen-grab_richard

The Black Dahlia: January 8, 1947

beth-short-headshot-in-colorSeventy-two years ago on January 8, 1947, Robert “Red” Manley drove to the home of Elvera and Dorothy French in Pacific Beach, in the San Diego area, to pick up a young woman he’d met about a month earlier. Her name was Elizabeth Short.

Red was a twenty-five year old salesman and occasional saxophone player, with a wife and 4-month-old baby at home. The Manley’s had been married for fifteen months and lived in a bungalow court in one of L.A.’s many suburbs. Red and his wife had had “some misunderstandings” as they adjusted to marriage and parenthood. Perhaps restless and feeling unsure about his decision to marry, Red decided to “make a little test to see if I were still in love with my wife.”  The woman Red used to test his love for his wife was twenty-two year old Elizabeth Short.

Aztec Theater, San Diego

Dorothy French met Beth on the night of December 9, 1946 at the all-night movie theater, the Aztec, on Fifth Avenue. Dorothy worked as a cashier at the ticket window and she noticed that Beth seemed at loose ends. When her shift ended at 3 a.m., Dorothy offered to take Beth back to the Bayview Terrace Navy housing unit she shared with her mother and a younger brother. Beth was glad to abandon the theater seat for a more comfortable sofa.

Dorothy French [Photo: theblackdahliain hollywood]

If the French family thought that Beth would stay a night or two and then move on, they were mistaken. She stayed for a month.

Elvera and Dorothy got tired of Beth couch surfing and contributing nothing to the household. Beth could have at least paid for groceries, she received a money order for $100 from a former boyfriend, Gordon Fickling, yet she spent much of her time compulsively writing letters, many of which she never sent.

One of the unsent letters was to Gordon. In the letter dated December 13, 1946, Beth wrote:

“I do hope you find a nice girl to kiss at midnight on new years eve. It would have been wonderful if we belonged to each other now. I’ll never regret coming West to see you. You didn’t take me in your arms and keep me there. However it was nice as long as it lasted.”

The French family had another complaint about their house guest–despite her claims, there was no evidence that Beth ever looked for work. Beth wrote to her mother, Phoebe, that she was working for the Red Cross, or in a VA Hospital, but it was just one of her many lies. Her letters home never revealed her transient lifestyle–nothing about couch surfing, borrowing money to eat, or accepting rides from strange men.

Robert “Red” Manley [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Beth could have found a job if she wanted one. She worked in a delicatessen in Florida  as a teenager and at the post exchange (PX) at Camp Cooke (now Vandenberg Air Force Base).  Her new acquaintance, Red Manley, arranged with a friend of his to get her a job interview–but she didn’t follow-up.

When Red heard from his friend that Beth hadn’t made it to the job interview, he was worried enough to write to her to find out if she was okay. She said she was fine but didn’t like San Diego, she wanted to return to Los Angeles.  She asked Red if he’d help her out, and he agreed.

The drive from San Diego to Los Angeles was Red’s love test. If nothing happened with Beth then he would know that he and his wife were meant to be together. But if he and Beth clicked, he’d have a tough decision to make.

Beth and Red weren’t on the road for long before they stopped at a roadside motel for the night. They went out for dinner and drinks before returning to their room to go to bed. Did Red have butterflies in his stomach? How did he want the love test to turn out?

Red must have known the decision was ultimately Beth’s.  They never shared more than a kiss. She spent the night in a chair and he took the bed.

The pair left the motel at about 12:20 p.m. on January 9, 1947 for Los Angeles.

Beth had about one week to live.

Next time: The Black Dahlia–Last Seen

Film Noir Friday: Christmas Holiday [1944]

 

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crime theater is open! Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. The holidays have a dark side, and to prove it tonight’s feature is CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY starring Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly.

Enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

After receiving his commission on Christmas Eve, Lt. Charles Mason learns that Mona, his longtime girl friend, has married another man. When his plane from North Carolina to San Francisco is forced by bad weather to land in New Orleans, the heartbroken Charles meets alcoholic reporter Simon Fenimore, who takes him to a brothel run by Valerie De Merode. There Charles is introduced to hostess/singer Jackie Lamont, and agrees to take her to a midnight mass. After the church services, the two go to a diner, where Jackie tells Charles that her real name is Abigail and that she is the wife of convicted murderer Robert Manette. At the diner, and the next morning in his hotel room, Abigail tells Charles the story of her relationship with Robert.

 

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

Aggie hoists a brew c. 1920s.

Aggie hoists a brew c. 1920s. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Aggie Underwood was born on December 17, 1902 and Deranged L.A. Crimes was born on December 17, 2012, 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; and my admiration for Aggie and her accomplishments has grown in the years since I first became aware of her.

Aggie at a crime scene in 1946.

Aggie at a crime scene in 1946.

Aggie’s newspaper career began on a whim.  In late 1926, she was tired of wearing her sister’s hand-me-down silk stockings and desperately want a pair of her own. When she asked her husband Harry for the money, he demurred.  He said he was sorry, they simply couldn’t afford them. Aggie got huffy and said she’d buy them herself. It was an empty threat–until a close friend called out of the blue the day following the argument and asked Aggie if she would be interested in a temporary job at the Daily Record. Aggie never intended to work outside her home, but this was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.

In her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie described her first impression of the Record’s newsroom as a “weird wonderland”. She was initially intimidated by the men in shirtsleeves shouting, cursing and banging away on typewriters, but it didn’t take long before intimidation became admiration. She fell in love with the newspaper business. At the end of her first year at her “temporary” job she realized that she wanted to be a reporter. From that moment on Aggie pursued her goal with passion and commitment.

Aggie at her desk after becoming City Editor at the Evening Herald & Express.

Aggie at her desk after becoming City Editor at the Evening Herald & Express. Note the baseball bat — she used it to shoo away pesky Hollywood press agents. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

During a time when most female journalists were assigned to report on women’s club activities and fashion trends, Aggie covered the most important crime stories of the day. She attended actress 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. Aggie’s career may have started on a whim, but it lasted over 40 years.

Look closely and you can see Aggie's byline.

Look closely and you can see Aggie’s byline under “Night In a Motel”.  [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Over the past six years I’ve corresponded with many of you and I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some of you in person. Your support and encouragement mean a lot to me, and whether you are new to the blog or have been following Deranged L.A. Crimes from the beginning I want to thank you sincerely for your readership.

There will be many more stories in 2019, and a few appearances too. Look for me in shows on the Investigation Discovery Network (I’ve been interviewed for Deadly Women, Deadly Affairs, Evil Twins, Evil Kin and several others.) I recently filmed an episode of Ice Cold Blood for the Oxygen Network, and I did a short sport for the podcast Hollywood & Crime, which will air in January.  I may have a couple of local lectures scheduled too.  You can also find me several times a year on Esotouric’s Bus Adventures crime bus. I’ll be co-hosting the Black Dahlia tour on January 5, 2019 and other tours throughout the year.

For several months I have been working on a book of true crime tales titled, Ways to Be Wicked, Volume 1, Los Angeles Crimes 1919-1949.  I’ll keep you posted on the publishing date (best guess now is late January 2019).

Whether it is on television, in the blog or some other medium I’m looking forward to telling more crime tales in 2019.

Happy Holidays and stay safe!

Joan

Film Noir Friday: Undertow [1949]

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crime theater is open! Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. Tonight’s feature is UNDERTOW starring Scott Brady, John Russell, Dorothy Hart, and Peggy Dow.

TCM says:

After buying a half-interest in a small lodge near Reno, Tony Reagan, a recently discharged veteran, runs into Danny Morgan, an old friend from Chicago. Danny, who operates a Reno casino owned by Chicago racketeer Big Jim Lee, offers Tony a job, but Tony declines, stating that he gave up the “business” long ago. Tony shows Danny the engagement ring he plans to give Sally Lee, Big Jim’s niece and ward, and Danny, in turn, shows off the ring he has bought for his girl. Confident and carefree, Tony then helps novice gambler Ann McKnight win at the craps table.

 

Film Noir Friday: Black Angel [1946]

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crime theater is open! Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. Tonight’s feature is BLACK ANGEL (based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich) starring Dan Duryea, June Vincent, Peter Lorre and Broderick Crawford.

Wikipedia says:

A falsely convicted man’s wife, Catherine (June Vincent), and an alcoholic composer and pianist, Martin (Dan Duryea), team up in an attempt to clear her husband of the murder of a blonde singer, who is Martin’s wife. Their investigation leads them to face-to-face confrontations with a determined policeman (Broderick Crawford) and a shifty nightclub owner (Peter Lorre), who Catherine and Martin suspect may be the real killer.

Enjoy the film!