Final Thoughts on The “It” Girl and the Secretary

Image courtesy of the Clara Bow Archive.

Image courtesy of the Clara Bow Archive.

Clara Bow’s former secretary Daisy De Voe had attempted to use her insider knowledge of Clara’s private life to extort money from the actress; but the truth was she didn’t know much that was worth reporting. So what if Clara liked to party, that was hardly big news in Hollywood. Clara refused to pay her off.

girnauWhen Frederic Girnau (the publisher behind the excretory rag The Coast Reporter) and Daisy De Voe put their malicious heads together they concocted a revolting 60 page document called “Clara’s Secret Love-Life as told by Daisy.”

Girnau contacted Rex Bell and offered to sell The Coast Reporter for $25,000 — but Bell, acting on Clara’s behalf, rejected the offer. The spiteful Girnau then sent copies to Will Hays (first president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, and the man for whom the Hollywood censorship code was named), Superior Court Judges, and local PTA officials. By doing so the idiot violated Section 211 of the U.S. Penal Code which prohibited “mailing, transporting or importing anything lewd, lascivious, or obscene.”

Over the years there have been many outrageous stories circulated about Clara Bow. The genesis of the worst of them was Frederic Girnau’s Coast Reporter. The Coast Reporter accused Bow of everything from drug addiction and drunken sex sprees in Mexico to bestiality. It’s no wonder that as soon as she was able Clara left with Rex Bell for his Nevada ranch. Her nerves were shattered.

Image courtesy of the Clara Bow Archive.

Image courtesy of the Clara Bow Archive.

If Clara had believed that her Hollywood friends would stick by her she was sadly mistaken. There appeared to be few differences between the Hollywood crowd and De Voe and Girnau.

B.P. Schulberg

B.P. Schulberg

Even though Clara was obviously going through an emotional crisis of Herculean proportions Paramount producer, B.P. Schulberg, didn’t cut her an inch of slack. On the contrary, he bullied her until she relented and agreed to return to the studio for her next picture, “The Secret Call”.

Clara managed to get through the costume fitting and a private rehearsal with director Stuart Walker. But on the day she was supposed to begin shooting at the studio she awoke well before her 6 a.m. call screaming and sobbing hysterically.

Clara’s housekeeper was unable to calm her and phoned Rex Bell for help. When Rex arrived he found Clara still hysterical repeating: “I can’t do it, I can’t do it.”

Rex carried Clara to his car and drove her to the Glendale Sanitarium where she was diagnosed with nervous exhaustion.

glendale sanitarium

Schulberg used Clara’s fragile condition to his advantage. He told her that her health was the studio’s primary concern and that they wouldn’t hold her to her contract if she wanted out. It sounded warm and fuzzy, but It was a disingenuous way of manipulating Clara into saying publicly that she couldn’t fulfill her obligations to Paramount. She told columnist Louella Parsons: “I don’t wanna hold Paramount to no contract”. It was the perfect escape hatch for Schulberg and he took it. He had a release form drafted which relieved the studio of any financial obligation to Clara, and she signed it. Schulberg had saved Paramount $60,000 [equivalent to over $900,000 in current USD].

Peggy Shannon

Peggy Shannon

Clara’s role in “The Secret Call” went to newcomer Peggy Shannon. A former Ziegfeld Girl, and a redhead like Bow, Shannon had been in Hollywood for a very short time when she was spotted by Schulberg who groomed her to be the next “It Girl”. Peggy’s life became another tragic Hollywood story. Her career never really took off and she died of complications from alcoholism in 1941 at age 34. Her husband found her slumped over the kitchen table with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of booze in the other. The poor man was so devastated that he committed suicide shortly after Peggy’s death.

Ironically, B.P. Schulberg’s career didn’t survive much longer than Clara’s. He was pushed out of Paramount, probably due to his liberal politics. He became an independent film producer but Paramount stopped distributing his films in 1937. He produced a few films for Columbia, but retired from the business in 1943.

Clara and Rex were married not long after the trial ended. They had two boys together and they remained married until Rex’s death in 1962. Clara suffered from emotional problems throughout the years and her issues resulted in an estrangement from her family. She spent the last years of her life living in Culver City under the constant care of a nurse.

clara rex kidsClara Bow died of a heart attack on September 27, 1965.

What happened to Daisy De Voe and Frederic Girnau?girnau prison

Frederic Girnau spent forty-two months in a Federal slammer for his poison pen attacks on Clara. Actually, that’s not quite true. The attacks themselves, had they not risen to the level of obscenity, would not likely have caused any problems for the muckraking publisher. However, once they were deemed to be obscene and then sent through the U.S. mail Girnau was in deep trouble. He was released in September 1934, but when he violated his parole by driving drunk he was returned to Leavenworth Prison to finish out his term of 8 years. He died in 1955.

daisy sisterDaisy De Voe (whose real surname was DeBoe) served eighteen months in L.A. County Jail following her conviction for stealing a fur coat from Clara. Daisy wasn’t the only member of her family to have problems obeying the law.

Daisy’s father was arrested in 1931 on a possession of liquor charge (not his first), and her sister Grace was busted in September 1932 after a raid on a still in North Hollywood.

Maybe Daisy matured and reformed because I couldn’t find any trace of her in newspapers after 1933, until she surfaced in her mother’s January 11, 1974 obituary. Daisy had married — her name was Daisy DeBoe Stanek. She’d probably had children too, because her mother was survived by five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

The harm that Daisy and Girnau had done to Clara was incalculable. But game, set, and match were won by Clara.

DeBoe and Girnau may have enjoyed their fleeting notoriety, but Clara Bow left a legacy of brilliant performances. She has a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, while DeBoe and Girnau are barely footnotes in Hollywood history.

The last words belong to Clara:

“My life in Hollywood contained plenty of uproar. I’m sorry for a lot of it but not awfully sorry. I never did anything to hurt anyone else. I made a place for myself on the screen and you can’t do that by being Mrs. “Louisa May Alcott” Alcott’s idea of a “Little Women”.

clara-bow-1932

Film Noir Friday: “M”

m-movie-poster-4

It’s Film Noir Friday at the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater. Tonight’s feature is the 1931 classic “M”, directed by Fritz Lang. The following is portion of a review written by Roger Ebert:

The horror of the faces: That is the overwhelming image that remains from a recent viewing of the restored version of “M,”Fritz Lang’s famous 1931 film about a child murderer in Germany. In my memory it was a film that centered on the killer, the creepy little Franz Becker, played by Peter Lorre. But Becker has relatively limited screen time, and only one consequential speech–although it’s a haunting one. Most of the film is devoted to the search for Becker, by both the police and the underworld, and many of these scenes are played in closeup. In searching for words to describe the faces of the actors, I fall hopelessly upon “piglike.’ — Robert Ebert / August 3, 1997

http://youtu.be/WCEzfjERfvo

The “It” Girl and the Secretary, Part 3

Daisy De Voe

Daisy De Voe

Daisy De Voe wanted $125,000 [equivalent to $1.7 million current USD] to keep her mouth shut about Clara Bow’s private life. When her extortion plan failed and she was busted for grand theft De Voe’s attorney, Nathan O. Freedman, used Clara’s private correspondence to humiliate her in open court; and it was all legal. The stolen papers had been submitted as evidence. It was a nightmare for Clara.

Rex_Bell_300

Rex Bell and friend.

Freedman tormented the actress with questions about her relationship with Rex Bell. Clara became angry and frustrated, particularly when he asked her about Daisy’s firing:

“As a matter of fact he (Rex Bell) discharged Miss De Voe from her position as your secretary?”

Clara snapped:

“He didn’t!”

But Freedman continued:

“Well, he’s your secretary now, isn’t he?”

Clara replied:

“He is not; I know it has been printed that he is, but it is not the truth.”

To anyone reading the newspapers it must have appeared that Clara was on trial and not Daisy. Finally, the D.A. questioned Clara about Daisy’s attempt at extortion. Clara testified that only a few days following Daisy’s dismissal W.I. Gilbert, Clara’s attorney, had come to her and told her that Daisy had paid him a visit. The former secretary had demanded $125,000 or, she said, she would turn over certain information she possessed to the newspapers. Then she had the audacity to go to Clara and demand to get her job back!

There was a turning point in the trial though, and it came when a forensic accountant testified that after having double-checked his way through 1,558 of the special account’s canceled checks he discovered a shortfall of $48,000. The special account was the one for which Daisy had access.

Daisy took the witness stand to explain the missing $48,000, but instead she began to tell tales about Clara’s personal life. According to Daisy, Clara played poker six nights a week and had large quantities of liquor delivered to her home on a regular basis. If Daisy was telling nothing but the truth, the jury must have wondered when Clara found the time to appear in films.clara_ace

Egged on by her attorney’s questions, Daisy told the packed courtroom about Clara’s lifestyle:

“She would rather stay home and play poker than go to the theater or any other place. We played all the time; six nights a week, at least. She never carried any money with her and I had to pay off her debts. Sometimes it was only $4 or $5 and sometimes it was $200.”

The strain of having her life scrutinized in court resulted in Clara absenting herself from the trial. Her physician, Dr. Wesley Hommel, said:

“Miss Bow is suffering from a severe cold and from nervous strain attendant on the trial.” She is running a temperature and I ordered her to bed. Her condition is not serious and she should be up and around in a few days.”

While Clara was ill, Rex Bell, her boyfriend, was a front-seat spectator at the trail.

Nearly three weeks into the trial Judge Doran finally banned the rampant mudslinging, coming primarily from Daisy’s corner. He was interested in having more attention paid to the question of whether she stole Clara Bow’s money than what she knew about Clara’s private life.

It was about damned time.

Clara hadn’t done anything but misjudged Daisy’s character, and yet her reputation had been tarnished. Daisy’s venomous attacks even had a deleterious effect on Clara’s career. The Riverside Board of Censorship barred one of Clara’s films “because of the notoriety” given the actress in the trial of her former secretary. The chair of the board, Mrs. Jessie Joslyn, self-righteously announced:

“Our action in barring the film was taken because of the notoriety given the actress in the Los Angeles trial. Besides, the picture is not of a type we want shown.”

Meanwhile, Daisy’s jury came back deadlocked. They seemed to be confused by one of the judge’s instructions to them regarding “intent to permanently deprive the owner of property”.

Since I can’t time travel, I have no idea why the jury was so confused, or why in the world they found Daisy De Voe guilty on only one of the over thirty counts of grand theft! Even more unfathomable to me was that they recommended leniency for Daisy! They should have thrown the book at her.daisy verdict

Daisy’s request for a new trial was denied, and she was finally sentenced to five years of probation, eighteen months of which she would be required to spend in the County Jail.

daisy slammerDaisy asked for bail so she could be out during the appeal; however, her request was denied a couple of times before she was released on March 28, 1931 on $5000 bail pending an appeal.

While Daisy was fighting her conviction, and Clara was attempting to piece her life back together, a dirt bag named Fred Girnau was taken into custody by the Feds for sending a publication containing alleged obscene articles about Clara through the mails. And where did he get his information? He said he got it from Daisy De Voe.

The misery of having her private life made food for public consumption was finally too much for Clara who, in May 1931, was admited to the Glendale Sanatorium. Paramount studio executives denied that Bow’s illness would terminate her career.

If there was any good news at all it was that Daisy De Voe and H. Girnau were at each other’s throats — suing and countersuing each other over the stories about Clara Bow that appeared in Girnau’s nasty little rag, The Coast Reporter.

Daisy De Voe’s trial caused Clara so much stress that she decided  to retire from the film business and live a quiet life out of the public eye. Clara’s contract with Paramount was “terminated by mutual consent” and she moved to Rex Bell’s Nevada ranch.

rex_clara_ranch

NEXT TIME: Final thoughts on the “It” Girl and the Secretary.

 

 

The “It” Girl and the Secretary, Part 2

clara dramaThe indictment returned by the Los Angeles County Grand Jury against Clara Bow’s former secretary, Daisy De Voe, totaled 37 counts of grand theft. Not only was it alleged that De Voe had walked off with some of Bow’s jewelry and personal papers, she was also accused of withdrawing approximately $16,000 [equivalent to $222,434.49 current USD] from one of Clara’s accounts. De Voe was arrested and immediately posted a $1000 bond so she wouldn’t have to await her arraignment from behind bars.daisy_indicted

De Voe’s attorney, Nathan O. Freedman, filed a complaint on her behalf against Clara Bow, Rex Bell, and three employees of the District Attorney’s office. The complaint asked for $7200 [equivalent to $100,095.52 current USD] damages based on De Voe’s “unlawful detention” for forty-eight hours when she was investigated in connection with missing property said to have belonged to her former employer.

daisy sues claraDe Voe’s trial began on January 13, 1931, and Daisy’s attorney quickly directed the juror’s attention away from Daisy’s alleged bad behavior by shining a light on Clara’s lifestyle. According to information gleaned from canceled checks, Bow spent over $350,000 [equivalent to $4.8 million current USD] between February 1929 and October 1930 on clothing, automobiles, and going out. Freedman’s diversionary tactics included questioning the actress about payments for whiskey (illegal at the time).

Under cross-examination Freedman asked Clara if she’d authorized a check for $143.50 for whisky and another on March 10, 1930, for $117.50 for whiskey. Clara replied:

“I authorized Miss De Voe to spend whatever was necessary to maintain the household. I trusted her. If she wanted to buy whiskey, why, I suppose, she made out the checks and signed them.”

Freedman continued to question Clara:

“Didn’t you ever look through the books to see what she spent?”

To which Clara replied:

“No, I never looked through the books–that’s why I was so silly–I trusted her.”

Clara was particularly upset when Dep. Dist.-Atty. Clark showed her a canceled check in the amount of $850, and asked asked her if she had knowingly authorized De Voe’s purchase of a fur coat with the money:

“That is my check. I signed it myself. But Miss De Voe brought it to me and said it was to go on my income tax and I signed it because I trusted her.”

Clara broke down in tears when she was asked about an engraved silver dresser set. According to Clara, De Voe had presented the set to her as a birthday gift.

The D.A. asked:

“Did you authorize Miss De Voe to draw a check upon your special account to pay for this set?”

Bow sobbed:

“I never did. I thought she was just being sweet and kind to me, that’s all.”

Clara explained repeatedly under questioning that she had authorized De Voe only to draw checks for her own salary and for household expenses.

At one point Clara leaned forward in the witness box and remarked to De Voe:

“Go ahead and sneer, Daisy, that’s all right.”

Because Daisy had taken many of Clara’s personal papers, including love letters and telegrams, the items were entered into evidence. And of course some of the telegrams, particularly the most personal of them, were read aloud in court. There was a telegram dated September 8, 1930 from Rex Bell to Clara while she was staying at Tahoe, and it read:

“Dearest sweetheart, darling baby, I do miss you, and this is only the beginning. Rex.”

Local newspapers printed as much as they could of Clara’s personal correspondence, which had to have been excruciating for the actress. The papers also printed excerpts from Daisy’s confession to the D.A. — and they spoke volumes about Daisy’s character — or lack thereof.

Clara Bow & Rex Bell

Clara Bow & Rex Bell

Daisy had come to L.A. in 1923 after graduating from a St. Louis beauty college. She was employed in two beauty parlors before transferring to the Paramount studio where she eventually met Clara Bow. Clara hired Daisy in 1929.

The former hairdresser had taken every opportunity to defame Clara in her confession. When she was asked about the her duties for the star, Daisy said:

“Well, I did plenty.  Her house was terribly dirty.  I had the whole place renovated, the drapes taken down and the rugs taken out and cleaned; floors polished; furniture gone over, and everything; and, well, I don’t know what I did.”

In her confession Daisy said that she overheard a conversation between Clara and Rex Bell, in which Bell said he thought Daisy ought to be fired. When she was asked what she did with that information, she said that she decided to go quietly because:

“…Miss Bow was drunk and if I had gotten into any argument with her she would have tried to kill me because she had tried to once before…”

Daisy continued:

“I think it would be better to walk out and later on straighten out her affairs. I wanted to get her things settled as quietly as possible, and keep Clara out of the papers, because one more slam in the papers and Clara is through in pictures.”

Was Daisy really trying to help Clara out of a potentially bad situation? No way. Her confession revealed her attempt to extort money from Clara by threatening to use her personal papers to expose her to public ridicule. For her silence, Daisy told the D.A.’s investigators that she’d asked for  $125,000. She said:

“I think it would be to her advantage to keep my mouth shut.”

When she was asked how much money she had drawn out of Clara’s account over and above her salary, Daisy replied that she’d taken $35,000! But in her mind it was all Clara’s fault:

“It was her fault.  If she had paid attention to business I wouldn’t have taken a dime from her because she would have known about everything. She wouldn’t even write her own checks.  She put me in a position to take everything I wanted.  Of course, I didn’t blame her.”

Next Time: The mudslinging continues, and Riverside bans one of Clara Bows films.

The “It” Girl and the Secretary

clara bowBy 1930 Clara Bow had been appearing films for eight years, and she’d lit up the screen in every one of them. In 1924 Bow was selected to be a WAMPAS Baby Star.

WAMPAS_baby_stars_1924

The Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers (WAMPAS), honored thirteen (fourteen in 1932) young women each year whom they believed to be on the threshold of movie stardom. Clara had appeared in about 40 films by the time she made “WINGS” and “IT” in 1927. Both films were financial and critical successes, and Clara was praised as “a joy to behold”. However, she would forever be identified as the “It Girl”.

clara itWhat is “it”? In his 1904 short story “Mrs. Bathurst”, Rudyard Kipling introduced the concept:

“It isn’t beauty, so to speak, nor good talk necessarily. It’s just “It”. Some women will stay in a man’s memory if they once walk down the street.”

In February 1927, Cosmopolitan magazine published a two-part serial story in which Elinor Glyn described “It” as:

“That quality possessed by some which draws all others with its magnetic force. With “it” you win all men if you are a woman and all women if you are a man. “it” can be a quality of the mind as well as a physical attraction.”

rod la rocqueThere was no question that Clara Bow possessed “It” in spades. The public adored her, and with good reason. Bow had sex appeal infused with enough sweetness and innocence to make her approachable, not saccharin.

Clara was making truckloads of money, and her contemporaries were doing just as well. But many of them were like kids in a candy store, they had no clue about what do with their money except to spend it. Fellow star, Rod La Rocque, became incorporated and his fortune was under the management of a board of directors.

Until about 1928, Clara’s money had been managed by Bogart Rogers. In 1930 her money and her personal affairs were in the hands of her secretary, Daisy De Voe. daisy

On November 10, 1930 local newspapers reported on a story that was eventually going to shine a light on both Clara’s money and Daisy’s management skills. Clara and Daisy had parted ways, and it wasn’t an amicable split.

Both Clara and Daisy denied the stories of the break in their professional relationship. De Voe said:

“As far as I know I am still her secretary. Miss Bow has not served notice on me. I guess I’ll have to find out all about it.”

Clara refused to comment.

A few days later the story got even more interesting when it was revealed that Daisy  had indeed been fired by Clara, and then she had helped herself to some of her former employer’s valuables including: diamond jewelry, a sapphire ring, and all of Bow’s insurance papers. In addition, Daisy had also taken a $20,000 cashier’s check, and a mass of personal papers, including canceled checks, paid and unpaid bills, and personal correspondence.

Despite the fact that De Voe had taken thousands of dollars worth of Clara’s belongings, the cheeky amanuensis was gearing up to file a suit against Bow for several thousand dollars that she alleged she was owed for back pay and expenses.

De Voe and Bow had disagreed on what to do with the cashier’s check; but why did De Voe take jewelry and papers belonging to her employer?

“Clara was going to use this in a business deal I had advised her against going into so that is the reason I kept it from her. She knows as well as everybody else that I could never have cashed it. I intended giving it back the same as everything I had that belonged to her. They (the D.A. and cops) treated me terribly and I think it absolutely unjust the way the treated me and kept me at the hotel. I believe, as does my attorney, we have justifiable cause of action against them.”

clara rex court

Clara Bow and Rex Bell

De Voe intimated that Clara’s latest boyfriend (actor Rex Bell) was responsible for her firing.  It is possible that Bell instigated the firing, but once Clara had discovered her belongings were missing she had no other choice.

Daisy’s attorney, Nathan O. Freedman, announced that he was going to file a civil suit on her behalf against Buron Fitts (he D.A.) and Blayney Matthews (a chief investigator for the D.A.’s office).  According to De Voe the two had held her incommunicado for several days while they cleaned out her safe deposit box. Fitts didn’t think De Voe had much of a case since the majority of the items found in the safe deposit box had belonged to Clara Bow.

Fitts told reporters:

“This matter came into this office in the nature of a formal request for a criminal complaint against Miss Daisy De Voe for the embezzlement of money and property belonging to Miss Clara Bow. The matter was regularly referred to Mr. Blayney Matthews, chief of the bureau of investigation. After several days of investigation, Mr. Matthews reported back that Miss De Voe had made a thirty page confession of the theft of some $35,000 of Miss Bow’s money, a great deal of which was found in her possession.”

“It is the policy of this office that before issuing a complaint against a private citizen to first thoroughly investigate the case in order to prevent a mistake or miscarriage of justice. This investigation was completed today, and this office has no other alternative under the law but to place the matter before the county grand jury.”

Daisy was quick to deny having made a confession, and she boasted that she had nothing to fear from the grand jury; but she had spoken too soon.

The grand jury indicted Daisy De Voe on thirty-seven counts of grand theft!

NEXT TIME: The De Voe case continues.

Murder of a Cop’s Wife: Can You Solve the Case?

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Diane Sparks. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

DID THE JURY GET IT WRONG?

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Ramon Gonzales. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Was the jury of twelve women wrong when they acquitted Ramon Gonzales of Diane Sparks’ murder? After all, the murder weapon belonged to him and he seemed to be a little too friendly with the dead woman. Ramon may have been too attentive to Diane, and maybe they’d even shared a kiss, but he didn’t appear to have a motive. The judge thought that the case against Ramon was weak, and the jury obviously agreed; but were they all mistaken?

CASE SYNOPSIS

Thirty-one year old Diane Sparks disappeared from her home on January 29, 1946. A female neighbor saw Diane drive away unaccompanied.

Later on the day she disappeared Diane phoned her next door neighbor, Ramon Gonzales, and told him that her car had run out of gas on Victory Blvd. near Hollywood Way. He went to her rescue. Ramon would tell a couple of different versions of the story: 1) he put gas in Diane’s car and the two of them drove over the service station at Lockheed Air Terminal and later out San Fernando road where they watched airplanes; 2) he put gas in Diane’s car but left her when she said she was going to go meet her husband George.

On March 10, 1946 two young girls and a small terrier discovered the decomposing remains of a woman buried in a shallow brush covered grave in an untended olive grove, frequently used as a lover’s lane. It appeared that the woman had been shot in the head. Her right arm and left hand were missing (they were never found). The dead woman was identified as Diane Sparks when her husband, George, recognized an oddly shaped toenail on her right foot.

George and his father-in-law decided to investigate Diane’s murder on their own and were largely responsible for calling the attention of the police to Ramon Gonzales.

George stated that he’d once seen Ramon kiss Diane, and it was also reported that his neighbor had used “Spanish terms of endearment” when speaking to her.

Ramon owned a sawed-off rifle which he claimed had been stolen out of his truck a few weeks before Diane went missing. The weapon was later found on a roadside near the place where Diane had been buried. Ballistics tests proved that the gun was the murder weapon.

Ramon was tried and acquitted for Diane’s murder.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

George Sparks. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

George Sparks. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Diane and George were having marital difficulties. George admitted to the police that he and his wife were considering a separation. Their problems may have been due, in part, to the difference in their ages — George was ten years older than his wife. Diane appeared to be flirtatious, was she trying to make her husband jealous?

According to George she had kissed their neighbor, Ramon Gonzales, and Ramon stated that he’d heard her say that she was in love with an Army flyer (who was investigated but cleared in the murder). Ramon claimed to have overheard Diane tell George that she was going to leave him and find someone who would really care for her. Did she already have someone lined up, or was she toying with George?

According to Colleen Pullen, a nineteen year old war widow, she and George had a date in June, just months after Diane’s body had been found. I would have thought George would have waited a little longer to begin dating again! Colleen testified that George flew out to Texas to visit his brother rather than take another lie detector test. George had been tested once, but the results were not printed in the newspaper. George made a point of saying that he’d been very emotional and drinking heavily since Diane’s body had been found. Was he anticipating an inconclusive resolution, or did he have reason to believe that he’d fail the lie detector examination outright?

WILD CARD

I was searching for photos of the the principals in the Sparks case when I came across a picture of Bessie Hensley and her daughter, Barbara. Barbara was one of the little girls who found Diane’s body.

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Barbara & Bessie Hensley. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

The photo’s caption reads:

“Principal witnesses in the Gonzales murder trial which opened today in Superior Court are shown here. Lower left is Mrs. Bessie Hensley with her daughter, Barbara, who found Mrs. Sparks’ body in a shallow grave in the hills above Roscoe. Mrs. Hensley has told police she saw what she believes was the killing as she hiked through Lanark Canyon the afternoon Mrs. Sparks disappeared”.

I couldn’t find anything in the L.A. Times indicating that Bessie Hensley had been called as a witness during the trial. I have to wonder why.

Bessie Hensley. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Bessie Hensley. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

“Threatened by someone who told her to “shut up and not talk to the police,” Mrs. Bessie Hensley reports the incident to Regis Goldbach, Valley policeman. Mrs. Hensley received the warning after telling police she witnessed the murder of Mrs. Diane Sparks”.

And if Bessie really was threatened, who was behind it? Bessie Hensley is the wild card in this tale. She claimed to have witnessed the crime, but yet it appears that she was never called to the stand by either the defense or the prosecution.

AFTERMATH

Following his acquittal, Ramon Gonzales went home to his family, and he seems to have behaved himself. George Sparks stuck around for a short time following the trial, but then he quit the LAPD, where he’d served fourteen years as a motorcycle officer, and moved to Texas to live near his brother. On February 9, 1953 George Sparks committed suicide (I don’t know by what means). Members of his family said that he’d been heartbroken since Diane’s murder. Was it grief or guilt that caused George to take his own life?diana sparks

WHO DO YOU THINK KILLED DIANE SPARKS?

Ramon Gonzales was acquitted for Diane’s murder and there were no further arrests for the crime. The case remains unsolved.

Researching and writing true crime is something that I love doing, but it can be frustrating at times. For instance, I always have to accept how the story ends, and that can be particularly difficult in the case of an unsolved homicide.  Very often I feel like I have a solution to a crime, but I can only speculate.

Now I’d like to invite you to do a bit of speculating and armchair detective work. Who do YOU think murdered Diane Sparks?  Please share!

Murder of a Cop’s Wife: Diane Sparks, Part 2

Ramon Gonzales

Ramon Gonzales [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Ramon Gonzales was arraigned for the murder of Diane Sparks in April 1946.

One of the interesting bits of information about the victim that Gonzales shared at the arraignment was that he had heard her expressing her love for Lt. Ade Garvin, an Army flyer, at a party in the Sparks’ home only a few weeks before she vanished. Garvin was thoroughly investigated and cleared in Diane’s death.

There had definitely been trouble in the Sparks’ marriage. Gonzales stated that at another drinking party at the victim’s home the night before she vanished, he’d heard Diane complain to George:

“You love the new house (which George was building in his spare time) more than you do me. I’m going to leave tomorrow and get someone who will really care for me. I don’t want to ever see you, Ramon, or Connie (Ramon’s wife) again.”

Connie & Ramon

And speaking of Ramon’s wife, Connie — she was taking the “for better or worse” portion of her marriage vows very seriously:

“My Ramon couldn’t have done this thing. He loves me and our children too much.”

Ramon went to trial in July 1946. He testified about the day of Diane’s disappearance:

“I took four or five gallons of gasoline and found her by her car on Hollywood Way near Victory Blvd. After putting the fuel in the tank I drove (Diane’s car) to a nearby gas station.”

Gonzales said that Diane dropped him off at his car and told him that she was going to meet George. Ramon testified that he never saw her again.

What about the murder weapon that Ramon said had been stolen from his truck weeks prior to Diane’s killing? According to him, he queried some of his fellow workmen at a construction site about the gun as soon as he noticed it was gone, but claimed that he didn’t see it again until detectives confronted him with it.

Ramon’s attorney, William G. Kenney, had an explanation for the murder that exonerated his client — he said that George had done it. Of course George emphatically denied the accusation.colleen pullen

George did have other uncomfortable moments in the courtroom, particularly when the defense called Mrs. Colleen Pullen, 19, a war widow, to the stand. Colleen testified how George had allegedly avoided a lie detector test.

Colleen said that she had a date with George in June and she accompanied him to the Lockheed Air Terminal — which, truthfully, doesn’t sound like a dream date to me. Colleen must have had few expectations. At any rate, she claimed to have overheard a telephone conversation between George and one of his brothers in Texas:

“He said he was sick and tired of things and was leaving, although he had an appointment with Leonarde Keeler to take another test the following morning.”

Colleen stayed at the airport with George all night until he caught a plane for Texas in the morning.

Interestingly, Edward R. Brand, the judge in the case, commented:

“I believe the evidence to be very weak and even if the jury would convict the defendant I don’t believe the State Supreme Court would sustain the conviction.”

The all woman jury evidently agreed with Judge Brand because it took them only seven hours to acquit Gonzales.

ramon_family_00082383

“Mrs. Ramon Gonzales, wife of the North Hollywood contractor accused of the murder of Diane Sparks, and the couple’s three small daughters. Left to right, they are: Raquel, 7; Mrs. Connie Gonzales, holding the baby of the family, Marie, who is 13 months old today, and Connie, 3, affectionately called “Cookie” by her daddy. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

NEXT TIME: Who do you think killed Diane Sparks?

 

 

 

Murder of a Cop’s Wife: Diane Sparks, Part 1

body found headline

It was Sunday, March 10, 1946, and Barbara Hensley (11), Mary Young (8) and a small terrier named Bozo, had walked to a spot near their homes for a picnic. The two girls had spread out a blanket and some food when they were startled by Bozo. He wasn’t very far from them, and the little terrier was furiously digging and barking.

It's impossible to see Bozo the terrier in this photo, but no better shot is available.

It’s impossible to see Bozo the terrier in this photo, but no better shot is available.

Barbara and Mary decided to see what all the fuss was about. They walked over to Bozo expecting to see a gopher or a squirrel, or anything but a woman’s leg protruding from a shallow brush covered grave. The girls took one look at what Bozo had unearthed and they started screaming and running as fast as they could for home.

Their parents phoned LAPD’s Van Nuys Division and investigators rushed out to the scene, which was at the end of a lover’s lane in an untended olive orchard a half mile off Glen Oaks Blvd.

What the cops found was the badly decomposed body of a woman with evidence of a gun shot wound to the head. They also discovered several .38-caliber cartridge cases nearby. diana headshot

The dead woman was soon identified as Mrs. Diane Sparks (31). Sparks, a cop’s wife, had been missing since January 29th. It was Diana’s husband, George (41), an LAPD motor officer, who ID’d her by recognizing an oddly shaped toenail on the big toe of her right foot. The body was missing its right arm and left hand.

While in her early 20s, Diane had been a Hollywood hopeful. She had appeared as an extra in “MURDER AT THE VANITIES”, “THE CAT’S PAW”, and “THE CAPTAIN HATES THE SEA”. Her film career never took off, and by 1940 she’d quit the endless round of “cattle calls” and disappointments.

[Is Diane one of the cute brunettes, or maybe the screaming blonde, seated on a cactus in the clip from “MURDER AT THE VANITIES”? I’m not sure.]

george sparksOn the day of her disappearance, Diane was seen at her home, 10822 Chandler Blvd., by one of her neighbors, Mrs. Edyth Bailey, who saw her drive off in her car.

Diane’s husband, George, and her father, E.B. Maxmeyer, decided to do a little detecting on their own. They went through Diane’s credit card receipts and found she had purchased gasoline on the day she disappeared. They queried the gas station attendant who described a man George recognized as his neighbor, Ramon Gonzales.

Gonzales (31) confessed to investigators that he’d seen Diane on the afternoon of her death, but that he didn’t kill her. He said she’d phoned him for help when her car ran out of gas on Victory Blvd.  Ramon said:

“I drove down in my truck and poured some gasoline in her tank. We drove to a gas station for more gas, and she suggested we drive on and watch the planes take off from Lockheed Air Terminal. We drove out San Fernando Road, then she drove me back to my truck and I went home.”

Cops were skeptical about Ramon’s version of the day’s events and arrested him as a suspect.

ramon suspicion

Of course the investigators were no less suspicious of George. When a wife goes missing and then turns up dead with bullets in her chest and skull, and a couple of missing body parts, they look hard at the husband — and they don’t much care if he’s a cop or not.

george lie detectorGeorge voluntarily submitted to a lie detector test, administered by Ray Pinker. During six hours of questioning George admitted that he had been drinking and emotionally upset since the discovery of his wife’s body. He also admitted that things weren’t too rosy between he and the Mrs. and that they had been discussing a possible separation before her disappearance.

Suggestions of a rocky marriage always makes investigators prick up their ears. They didn’t take George into custody, but they released a statement saying that they would question him further on other matters pertaining to Diane’s murder.

George underwent another round of questioning — nearly 24 continuous hours, before the police were satisfied that he had nothing to do with Diane’s death. Ballistics tests of his service revolver were made and it could not have fired the bullet found lodged in Diane’s skull.

The Coroner’s Inquest determined Diane’s death: “…to be a homicide committed by some person or persons and at some place unknown.” The inquest also revealed that Diane had been shot twice — one in the right chest and once in the back of the head.

Investigators went public with a statement that the gun used to kill her was a .32-caliber, not a .38 — but they were lying. The hold-back evidence in the case was that the weapon was actually a .32-caliber rifle and unfortunately for Ramon Gonzales, he’d owned a gun just like it.

Gonzales reluctantly admitted that he had a .32-caliber sawed-off, but he told cops that it had been stolen out of his car three months prior to Diane’s slaying.

sawed off

Ramon was looking guiltier by the minute. A fellow named M.O. O’Lear called the police and told them that he’d found a sawed-off .32-caliber rifle along the road between Mrs. Sparks’ make-shift grave and Glen Oaks Blvd. The weapon had the initials “R.G.” carved into the stock.

Further tests concluded that the bullets that had killed Diane Sparks were fired from the gun owned by Ramon Gonzales. When he was confronted with the evidence Ramon didn’t deny ownership of the weapon, but steadfastly maintained his innocence:

“I didn’t kill her. Why should I? She and her husband were my friends.”

The cops were unmoved by his protestations and busted him on the spot.

Ramon’s statements to the police were filled with contradictions and omissions — he had neglected to mention to investigators that he’d owned a weapon, and he told several different versions of the incident in which he took gasoline to Diane’s stalled car on the day of her disappearance.

The law was also suspicious of what was referred to as Ramon’s “unusual” interest in Diane, and the fact that he’d often use Spanish endearments when he was speaking with her. The D.A. felt that there was enough to charge him with the murder.

Ramon was held without bail.

 NEXT TIME: Ramon’s trial and case wrap-up.

Hollywood Cinderella, Part 2

madge_portraitMadge Meredith was a true Hollywood Cinderella. She had been plucked from behind the cash register in the 20th Century-Fox commissary in the mid-1940s to appear in films. When her contract with 20th Century-Fox ended she was picked up by RKO.

She must have pinched herself when she was able, with a little help from her business manager and friend Nick Gianaclis, to purchase a home in the Hollywood Hills. Her future looked rosy.

But the clock struck midnight and Madge was not only back to being Marjorie Massow from Iowa City, Iowa, she was a convicted felon facing prison for kidnapping her friend and benefactor, Nick Gianaclis!meredith deputy

Madge continued to maintain her innocence, of course the guilty usually do. But was she really guilty? A jury thought so, and so did the higher courts. In May 1949, once her appeals had been exhausted, Madge was on her way to Tehachapi to begin serving her term of from five years to life.

Madge vanished from the newspapers and the public consciousness until March 1951, when the parole board of the California Adult Authority recommended her for release from prison. Normally she would not have been eligible for parole for another two years, but the board had examined Madge’s case and concluded that she had been the victim of a miscarriage of justice. E.W. Lester, a member of the three-man board, said:

“It was our conclusion that the girl (Madge) knew something was going to happen to Gianaclis and Davis–perhaps that they were to be intimidated, but that she contemplated no physical assault on the men.”

The board’s action was unusual in that the body met to consider Madge’s application for clemency rather than for parole. The board sent their recommendation to Governor Warren for action.

The California State Assembly took an even stronger stand in Madge’s case than the parole board had done; they charged that the trial had been a mockery and that she had been railroaded to prison!

The Assembly report supported Madge’s claims of innocence, in particular her assertion that she’d been framed by Nick. They also felt that she’d been poorly represented in court.

“Had Miss Meredith been properly defended in a court free of prejudice she would have undoubtedly been proven innocent of the crime.”

The report continued:

“…nor are the tactics of the prosecution above reproach. That witnesses were intimidated is a matter of court record. There is shocking evidence of perjury, suppression of evidence and an almost unbelievable reluctance on the part of defense counsel to investigate the cause of Defendant Meredith.”

Albert Tucker, one of Madge’s co-defendants, had made a new statement in which he said that Nick Gianaclis planned to implicate Miss Meredith as a means of forcing her to “return to his domination”. Tucker said that the married Gianaclis had a “personal affection” for Madge, aside from regarding her prospective “lavish income” from movie contracts.pair_frees_madge

An application for clemency, either for a pardon or for time served, was filed on Meredith’s behalf.

There were two men who worked diligently behind the scenes for two years to see that Madge got justice — Herbert Schofield (71) a retired banker, and Charles E. Wilson (68) a real estate man. At their own expense and on their own time the two amateur detectives interviewed people involved in the case, and they even visited Madge a dozen times in Tehachapi to get the information they needed to crack the case. They were successful.

madge leaves prisonOn July 14, 1951, Governor Warren ordered that Madge Meredith be released, just in time for her 30th birthday, from Tehachapi. The Governor commuted her sentence of from five years to life to time served. Madge had spent two years, two months and five days in prison, and she had been held in County Jail for 11 months prior to going to going to Tehachapi.

Governor Warren said:

“This is a bizarre case, perhaps more fantastic than any moving picture in which the defendant acted — but certainly having many of the attributes of a scenario.”

Warren described Meredith as:

“…a young woman of little worldly experience except in the emotional situation in which she found herself with the unstable people with whom she was associated on one side or the other of this case. She had no prior criminal record or delinquency. She still has a future in the motion picture industry if she is in a position to reenter it.”

giancalis evictedFollowing her release from Tehachapi, Madge renewed her suit to gain ownership of the house in the Hollywood Hills from her former manager Nick Gianaclis — and she was successful.

Gianaclis didn’t just lose the house, he lost his bid for U.S. citizenship as well. Nick had immigrated from Greece in the 1930s and he had applied for citizenship but, because he’d perjured himself during Madge’s trial, and because he didn’t show for his immigration hearing, the judge determined that Nick had failed to establish good moral character and his application was denied.

Madge returned to her career as an actress, and over the years she appeared in several films and many television shows, everything from “Cowboy G-Men” to “Sea Hunt”.  Madge’s last credit was for a television series, “The Littlest Hobo” in 1964.

The Hollywood Cinderella got another chance at the glass slipper, and I hope that it was a perfect fit.