Shame on You, Conclusion

Spade & Ella Mae

Spade & Ella Mae in happier times

The Cooley’s marriage was unraveling; Spade had filed for a divorce from Ella Mae. Spade then phoned his violinist, Anita Aros, and proposed to her. She thought for sure he was joking so she accepted. Several days later Spade called her again and this time he forced his daughter Melody to tell Anita that she wanted her for a mother.

In the few weeks since Spade had filed for divorce he had continued to torment and abuse his wife both physically and emotionally. He forced her to telephone people in their circle of friends and confess that she was having an affair. Spade even forced her to confess her infidelity to Melody. The fear and degradation Ella Mae endured was horrendous, not to mention the damage Spade was doing to their son and daughter by referring to their mother as a ‘whore’ and ‘slut’. Ella Mae wanted desperately to escape her husband’s abuse but no one could, or would, help her.

On April 3, 1961 Spade visited a business partner, Jarrold Enfield. He said he had written proof of his wife’s philandering and waived a supposed confession around. Enfield thought that he recognized Ella Mae’s handwriting, but he knew that if she had written it the purported confession had been coerced. He said to Spade: ‘Yes, it’s Ella Mae’s handwriting, Spade, but I know how you got it.’ Unconcerned Spade replied, ‘what difference does it make as long as it is true.’

At 4 p.m. Melody phoned her parent’s ranch and asked if she and her brother Donnell could spend the night with a neighbor, Mrs. McWhorter. Spade gave his permission. Melody was relieved–she was terrified of her father and didn’t want to go home.

At 6 p.m. Ella Mae phoned Melody at the McWhorter’s and asked her to come home so she could explain to her ‘what this was all about.’ Presumably she meant the constant violence in the Cooley home. Melody was reluctant to go home at first, but she agreed to do so as long as McWhorter would drop her off and return for her after 20 minutes.

Spade was on the phone to a friend when Melody arrived. She overheard him say, ‘…don’t call the police.’ Melody asked if the police were coming and Spade said they would be there soon. Then he said, ‘Come here, I want you to see your mother.’

spade dramaThey went into the master bedroom but Ella Mae was not there.

Melody noticed bloodstained sheets on the bed and blood spatter on the walls. Spade went into the bathroom and said, ‘Get up, Ella Mae, Melody is here.’ When Ella Mae didn’t move or make a sound, Spade dragged her nude, bloody, body out of the shower by the hair. He banged her head twice on the floor.

He then gave Melody three minutes to get her mother up and moving or he would kill them both. He started the countdown but Melody couldn’t do it. Clutching a rifle her father came back into the room and forced the girl to sit in a chair. He said, ‘All right, Melody, you are going to watch me kill her.’

As the horrified 14-year-old looked on, her father stomped her mother in the abdomen with his boot. He knelt down next to the victim and said, ‘We’ll just see if you’re dead.’ He called her a slut, then touched the nipples of both her breasts with his cigarette. Ella Mae was dead within 20 minutes.

Melody tried to run, but her father grabbed her. He took her into the living room, made her sit on his lap, kissed her passionately and touched her breast. He told her he was going to turn all his love over to her and Donnell, Jr., as their mother had ‘crushed him.’

The phone rang and Spade got up to answer it. While was distracted, Melody saw Mrs. McWhorter approaching the house. She was able to escape.

The Sheriff’s arrived to assess the violent and bloody scene. The body of the deceased told a tale of torture and abuse. Court documents later described the scene in detail: ‘The victim’s body was covered with multiple bruises and abrasions; her left eye was blackened, her nose bruised, her lips bruised and split, there were cracks on the chin, injuries to her neck, shoulder, chest, hip, arms, wrist, legs; there was an abrasion on the right side of the right breast; the nipple was blackened and discolored and partially separated from the breast. Deep bruising of the muscles of the neck, a break in the hyoid bone and a break in the thyroid cartilage in front of the victim’s windpipe indicated that she was strangled. A clump of hair forcibly removed from her head was found near the foot of the bed. There was bloody material in the victim’s vaginal and rectal orifices and splits in both the vaginal and anal-rectal mucous membrane. A broom was found in the bedroom which contained a uniform deposit of mucus substance with some blood extending 5 or 6 inches down the handle. Four fragments of blond bloody hair were embedded in the fibers of the broom handle, and this hair resembled the victims.’

cooley cuffsSpade was arrested for Ella Mae’s murder but the inquest was delayed when he suffered a heart attack. He was transferred from from the jail to a hospital. During his hospitalization his attorney attempted to minimize his client’s role in Ella Mae’s death with statements like, ‘He says he didn’t realize she was hurt so bad. That’s why her stayed with her rubbing her hands in hope that she would respond.’ It beggars belief to think that anyone would buy the story that Spade didn’t realize the severity of his wife’s injuries.

His attorney scrambled to come up with a credible defense–insanity. But the plea went down in flames when four psychiatrists pronounced him sane.The stress brought on another heart attack, which he survived.

Spade continued to insist that Ella Mae hand been unfaithful. And if she was? How could cheating justify the brutality of the attack that took her life–or any of the many previous beatings she had suffered?

cooley beating deathMelody’s testimony at her father’s trial brought on another heart attack. The trial was recessed while Spade recovered. When the trial resumed the defense asserted that Ella Mae had died as the result fall, not a beating. It was ludicrous. Even more ridiculous was Spade’s testimony that he didn’t beat his wife, ‘I did not beat my wife to death, believe me, I did not beat my wife. Without her I am nothing…I worshiped my wife…’

For someone who worshiped his wife, Spade showed no qualms about trashing her memory at every opportunity. He testified that Ella Mae had confessed to an affair with two men in a motel room. According to Spade ‘She said she was going to join them in the 100 member free love cult they were forming.’ Not content to to sully the memory of his dead wife, Spade accused Melody of lying.melody at trial

The jury evidently found Melody to be a more credible witness than Spade. He was found guilty of first degree murder. The judge seemed to believe that Spade was capable of rehabilitation and sentenced him to life in prison. Personally, I think he got way luckier than he deserved.

EPILOGUE

Spade was on a temporary 72-hour parole in November 1969–looking forward to a full parole in February 1970–when he was invited to perform at a benefit for the Alameda County Deputy Sheriffs Association. He had just brought down the house with one of his violin performances and the audience of 2800 gave him a standing ovation. Life was looking good. He thanked the deputies for ‘the chance to be free for a while.’ He was only 59, maybe he could reignite his career, after all he had a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Who knows, he might even marry again. But in a twist of fate he never got the chance. He went backstage to talk to friends and collapsed. He was pronounced dead at Highland Hospital.

Shame On You, Part 2

spade shameSpade Cooley, the self-proclaimed ‘King of Western Swing’, had a series of hits throughout the 1940s and into the late 1950s. In June 1948 he began to host a variety show on KTLA-TV which broadcast from the Santa Monica Pier Ballroom. The show was popular enough (approximately 75% of L.A. viewers tuned in on Saturday nights) to attract A-list guests like Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, and Frankie Laine.

spadecooleyKTLAIt isn’t clear when Spade started to physically abuse Ella Mae, but by the late 1940s the abuse was so rooted in their relationship that he didn’t even attempt to hide it from the rest of the world. On a trip to Catalina Island  Spade smacked Ella Mae in front of several guests. He forced her to kneel before them and apologize for doing something that had pissed him off. Why didn’t anyone intervene? It may have been shock–perhaps the witnesses were immobilized–or it may have been that in those days nobody thought it was their place to interfere in another couple’s relationship no matter what they saw.

The Catalina trip was just one instance of Spade’s abuse. Ella Mae once jumped from the car in which she was riding with her husband when he started to choke her. Nearly everyone in their circle of family and friends had witnessed Spade’s abuse of Ella Mae. Their daughter, Melody, had seen her father ‘slap around’ her mother on many occasions and threaten to kill her. A nurse in the Cooley’s employee had to club Spade with a eucalyptus log to stop him from beating Ella Mae.

Like many abusers Spade blamed his brutal behavior on Ella Mae. In the mantra familiar to many domestic thugs he repeated ‘look what you made me do’ until he likely believed it himself. It is possible he wasn’t entirely wrong about Ella’s infidelity. She allegedly confessed to a friend that she’d had an affair with cowboy star Roy Rogers in the early 1950s. But infidelity, even if real, is no excuse for beating a partner. Increased mistrust and escalating domestic violence characterized the Cooley’s marriage for years before it finally ended in 1961.

Early in 1961 Ella Mae was hospitalized; ostensibly for stress. During her stay she confided to her doctor that she was in fear of Spade. She said she’d suffered numerous beatings over the years and was terrified that he would kill her. From her hospital bed she retained a woman attorney to represent her in divorce proceedings. Spade took the news as could be expected. He blew up, and threatened to kill Ella Mae and their children if she dared to leave him.

Spade telephoned the hospital and told a nurse that he was coming to visit his wife. When Ella Mae got the message she locked herself in the bathroom and refused to come out until she got an all clear signal from the nurse.

Ella Mae was more frightened that ever. She had every reason to believe Spade’s threats. She put together an exit strategy with her friends Bud Davenport and Luther Jackson. She secretly funneled money to them that they would in turn invest in their own names and subsequently keep in trust for her so she would have some cash once her divorce was final.anita aros

Spade, pretending he knew that she had been having lengthy conversations with Bud and Luther, tricked Ella Mae into confirming it; although she didn’t tell him about the money. Even though he knew Bud and Luther were gay he phoned and threatened both of them with death if they continued to speak with his wife. He was so angry that he turned up at their home and punched Bud on the chin.

On March 21, 1961, before Ella Mae could file her own suit, Spade filed for divorce–ironically charging extreme cruelty. He told reporters: ‘Ella Mae has moved out and I’m heartsick, but there isn’t a chance of a reconciliation.’ He sought custody of the kids, Melody, 13, and Donnell, 11. He then telephoned the violinist in his band, Anita Aros, and proposed marriage to her. She accepted, but thought he was kidding.  He wasn’t.

NEXT TIME:  The Cooley’s marriage ends in violence.

Shame on You, Part 1

Donnell Cooley was born in Oklahoma on December 17, 1910 to Emma and John Cooley. The family was dirt poor and by 1920 they had moved to Oregon in pursuit of a better life.  John worked in a saw mill so the family still lived from hand-to-mouth. They were fortunate in one way, John had inherited his family’s musical abilities and was a decent fiddle player.  He passed  along his passion and talent to his son, in fact by the time he was 8-years-old Donnell was performing professionally with his father at local square dances.

Spade Cooley

Spade Cooley

Following in the footsteps of many musicians before him, Donnell moved to Los Angeles in 1930. He worked as an actor–he was Roy Rogers’ stand-in; and toured as a singer with the Riders of the Purple Sage. He also picked up the nickname Spade, thanks to his prowess as a poker player. He may not have known it them but, lucky in poker, unlucky in love.

In 1942 Spade took over as the leader of Jimmy Wakely’s group, the house band at the Venice Pier Ballroom. The band was large and often had multiple singers, one of whom was Tex Williams. The band was extremely popular and pulled in huge crowds every weekend. When Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys moved West, Cooley found himself with some serious competition. He’d had a disagreement with the Ballroom’s promoter, Burt “Foreman” Phillips, and was fired. Prior to his departure from the Ballroom, Cooley demanded a ‘Battle of the Bands’ to be held over two weekends. Never known to be shy or retiring Spade announced,  in advance of the battle, that he was the winner. Then he coined the term the ‘King of Western Swing.’ It would be used ever after to describe both Cooley and the musical style.bob wills

He was still married to his first wife, Anne when, in 1942, he met Ella Mae Evans. Bobby Bennett, Spade’s band manager, declared that “She had no voice,” but Cooley was smitten with the petite blonde, who was 13 years his junior, and hired her anyway. The pair married in November 1945, just a couple of months following his divorce from Anne.

Over the next couple of years Spade became even a bigger star. He’d had a hit with “Shame on You” in 1945 and six more chart toppers followed in succession.

Ella Mae’s singing career ended when she became pregnant. She gave birth to their first child, Melody, in 1946.

Spade & Ella Mae

Spade & Ella Mae

Wearing a cowboy hat instead of a crown, Spade took the appellation of King seriously and he ruled Ella Mae with a iron first. Not long after the marriage, and shortly before Melody’s birth, Ella Mae found her husband with another woman in their home. She packed her bags and told him he could find her at her sister’s. Spade told her that if she ever left him he would find her and kill her. Ella Mae believed him and stayed.

Spade had always had a bad temper. He’d run through musicians and singers by the dozen and those he didn’t fire often left of their own accord because they couldn’t deal with the boss. Spade was a heavy drinker; but drunk or sober he was capable of throwing a world class tantrum. Could he kill?

NEXT TIME: Spade’s career peaks and his marriage hits bottom.