The Black Dahlia: Robert “Red” Manley

In his 1991 autobiography, “Reporters”: Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman, Will Fowler recalled that one of his colleagues, Baker Conrad, had noticed a telegram among Elizabeth Short’s effects.  The Examiner’s editor, Jim Richardson, dispatched Fowler to the address on the telegram, 8010 Mountain View Avenue in South Gate.

When Fowler arrived at the bungalow court he was greeted by “A strikingly beautiful red-haired young woman.”  Fowler may not have actually said he was a cop, but he let the woman, Harriet Manley, believe he was law enforcement.

Robert "Red" Manley with his wife Harriette. [LAPL Photo]

Robert “Red” Manley with his wife Harriette. [LAPL Photo]

During her conversation with Fowler, Harriet said that Red had phoned her from San Francisco after seeing his name in the newspapers in connection with Elizabeth Short’s murder.  Red tried to reassure Harriet that he’d had nothing to do with the slaying and told her that he “loved her more than any man ever loved his wife.”

At about 10:00 pm on January 19th a couple of LAPD sergeants, J.W. Wass and Sam Flowers, were staking out the home of Red’s employer in Eagle Rock where the wanted man was expected to arrive shortly.  When Red pulled up in his sedan the officers approached him with their guns drawn. An Examiner photographer was there to capture the arrest.  Red looks like a deer in the headlights as Sgt. Flowers handcuffs him.

Robert "Red" Manley busted in Eagle Rock. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Robert “Red” Manley busted in Eagle Rock. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Aggie Underwood interviewed Red early in the morning of January 20th at LAPD’s Hollenbeck station. She recalled the interview in her 1949 autobiography Newspaperwoman:

“You look as if you’ve been on a drunk,” I said in sizing up the suspect. I was ready to talk sympathetically about hangovers.  That approach won’t work always, but Red looked like a guy reporters might meet at a bar and find a congenial drinking companion, possible criminal or not.

“This is worse than any I’ve ever been on,” he replied.  Perry Fowler, the photographer assigned to the case with me, caught the cue we had used repeatedly in softening subjects and stepped forward with a cigarette, which Manley took gratefully.

“Look, fella,” I continued as he inhaled.  “You’re in one hell of a spot.  You’re in a jam and it’s no secret.  If you’re as innocent as you say you are, tell the whole storey; and if you haven’t anything to hide, people can’t help knowing you’re telling the truth.  That way, you’ll get it over with all at once and it won’t be kicking around to cause you more trouble.”

Red didn’t need any further encouragement to unburden himself to Aggie. He told her how he’d initially picked Elizabeth up on a San Diego street corner. How they had spent an “erotically uneventful” night in a motel and how he had eventually dropped her off at the Biltmore Hotel on January 9th.

Red finished his tale with: “I’ll never pick up another dame as long as I live.”

Robert Manley in high school c. 1940.  Photo from Ancestry.

Robert Manley in high school c. 1940. Photo from Ancestry.

Aggie believed Red was innocent, and shared her gut feelings with the police. Red had been forthcoming in his interview and Aggie knew right away that he wasn’t a killer. Red was just a frightened man with goofy ideas about love tests.

If there was one thing that Aggie detested it was a sob sister.  For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a sob sister is a female journalist who writes overly sentimental copy. That sort of journalism was never Aggie’s thing. She said: “A sob sister could have wept with and over Manley, interpolating, editorial gushes to prove what a big bleeding heart beat in her breast.  To hell with that.  I’d rather have a fistful—an armload—of good solid facts.”

Aggie at her desk c. 1949.  Photo courtesy LAPL. [Yes, that it a baseball bat on her desk. Aggie had a way of dealing with overzealous Hollywood agents.

Aggie at her desk c. 1949. Photo courtesy LAPL. [Yes, that’s a baseball bat on her desk. Aggie had a way of dealing with over zealous Hollywood press agents.]

It was the armload of facts that made Aggie’s interview with Red Manley so compelling. In fact her city editor, who normally cautioned her to keep her copy short, let the entire interview run without a ton of photos. He knew a good interview when he read one.

Why, then, in the midst of covering of the murder was Aggie unceremoniously yanked off the story?  Without any warning or explanation Aggie suddenly found herself benched.  The city editor had pulled her off the story and let her cool her heels in the newsroom without a thing to do.

Aggie spent a couple of miserable days at her desk bored out of her mind. Then she got pissed-off enough to fight back. She didn’t get huffy or raise her voice. She brought in an embroidery project.  Shortly the other newsroom denizens were snickering. One of the other newswomen, Caroline Walker, said: “What do you think of that?  Here’s the best reporter on the Herald, on the biggest day of one of the best stories in years—sitting in the office doing fancy work!”

The next day Aggie was reassigned to the story—only to be pulled off a second time.  What the hell was going on?

NEXT TIME: Aggie gets a big surprise as the investigation into Elizabeth Short’s murder continues.

Aggie and the Oliver Hardy Incident

Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel.

Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel.

L.A.’s first official racetrack was opened in 1904 by gold prospector, Elias Jackson “Lucky” Baldwin. Baldwin owned an enormous tract of land, the Rancho Santa Anita, and he was a regular at racetracks across the U.S., both as a gambler and as a horse breeder. No one was surprised when Baldwin founded a racetrack on his property in the early 1900s.

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Lucky Baldwin and a woman (likely his fourth wife, sixteen year old Lillie Bennett). Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library.

From newspaper accounts of the time it appears that Baldwin’s death in 1909 ended the racetrack venture – in large part due to squabbles over his estate. Baldwin had left behind a widow, three ex-wives, and several daughters (at least one of whom appeared out of the blue to lay claim to a portion of his multi-million dollar estate). There wouldn’t be another Santa Anita Racetrack until the 1930s.

California legalized pari-mutuel wagering in 1933, and several groups of investors sought to open racetracks.  In the San Francisco area a group, headed by Dr. Charles H. “Doc” Strub, was having a difficult time locating a suitable site for a track. In Los Angeles a group of investors, led by movie producer Hal Roach, was in need of additional funds so the two groups combined and formed the Los Angeles Turf Club.

Photo from the Herman J. Schultheis Collection at the Los Angeles Public Library.

Photo from the Herman J. Schultheis Collection at the Los Angeles Public Library.

Santa Anita racetrack was designed in the Art Deco style by architect Gordon B. Kaufman. Kaufman had also designed the Los Angeles Times Building, and Greystone mansion (for the Doheny family).  The track opened on December 25, 1934 and quickly became a destination for Hollywood’s biggest stars, some of whom, such as Bing Crosby, Joe E. Brown, Al Jolson, and Harry Warner, were stockholders.

On January 4, 1936 Aggie Underwood and photographer Perry Fowler were assigned to the Turf Club at Santa Anita.  Across the room they spotted Oliver Hardy, the portly half of the popular comedy team Laurel & Hardy, and they decided to ask him if he’d consent to being photographed.

Perry reached Hardy before Aggie did and said: “Well, Mr. Hardy in person.  Will you let us have your picture, Mr. Hardy?”  Hardy glanced up from his racing form and answered no; he said he was busy. When Aggie asked him, “Why, Mr. Hardy, won’t you let the Herald-Express have your picture today?” He looked at her and this time answered yes.

Perry reached for his camera, and as he prepared to get the shot he asked Hardy if he was accompanied by his wife or daughter – if so, maybe they’d like to have their photos taken too. Hardy became belligerent and said: “Don’t ask so goddam many questions”.  In fairness to Hardy, it’s entirely possible that he was touchy on the subject of marriage because he and his wife Myrtle would divorce that same year.  Perry wasn’t sure what to make of Hardy’s comment, and at first he thought that the comedian was kidding. He quickly changed his mind when he saw Hardy’s thunder cloud expression. According to Aggie, Perry told Hardy not to get “so goddam tough”; at which point the situation quickly deteriorated, with the two men about to exchange blows.

Oliver & Myrtle Hardy w/ Stan & Ruth Laurel

Oliver & Myrtle Hardy w/ Stan & Ruth Laurel

Hardy made several pointedly unkind remarks about news photographers and ended by hitting Perry on the shoulder and saying: “Put down that camera and I’ll throw you over that rail and break your goddam neck.” Aggie stepped between the two men before they could start swinging, and suggested to Perry that they leave.  They didn’t want Hardy’s picture anyway.

As Aggie and Perry headed for the exit, Hardy took the opportunity to get in the last word.  He called out, “PUNK!” Aggie glared at Hardy and said: “I wouldn’t make the situation any worse, if I were you, by calling people names.”  Hardy again had to get the last word and said: “I didn’t call any names.  I said PUNK and that still goes.”

Back in the newsroom, Aggie figured that it would be a good idea to get the incident on record, just in case there was a phone call from Hardy’s publicist or studio.  She and Perry submitted a memo to city editor, Cappy Marek, describing the incident in detail.

Cappy read the memo and became furious – he was an editor who always backed his reporters and photogs. In a huff, Marek got Hardy’s publicist on the phone and in no uncertain terms let him know about the behavior of his client.

Good relations with the press counted for a lot in those days, as Hardy’s publicist must have explained to the cranky comedian. Within a day or two of the Santa Anita incident Cappy Marek received a letter from Oliver Hardy.

oliver hardy tieHardy gave his side of the story which put him in the right, of course. He said that he’d never called Perry names – which got Aggie’s ire up. She repeated to Cappy that she had been present when Hardy had called Perry a punk. She’d heard him loud and clear. Hardy’s explanation didn’t reconcile with Aggie’s version, but she let it go.

In her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie said that she had observed that “…some folks are handy at offering insults in public and later trying to present apologies in private”.  It was her opinion that: “Beyond that no comment is necessary.”