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. It is burlesque week at Deranged L.A. Crimes–beginning with the post, NO, NO, BABETTE, and wrapping up with tonight’s feature, LADY OF BURLESQUE, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Michael O’Shea and Pinky Lee.
The movie is based on the 1941 novel by burlesque queen, Gypsy Rose Lee. Rumor has it that the novel was ghostwritten by mystery writer, Craig Rice. Rice (Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig) was the first female mystery writer to be featured on the cover of TIME MAGAZINE.
However, there is sufficient evidence to prove that Ms. Lee wrote the book on her own. Either way, it is a fun read and makes for an equally entertaining movie.
Enjoy the movie!
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.
I’ll open with a short subject, a performance of PUT THE BLAME ON MAME with Gypsy Rose Lee from the 1958 film SCREAMING MIMI. Gypsy’s rendition is okay, but I prefer Rita Hayworth in GILDA.
I research a lot of heinous crimes for this blog. But, sometimes, I tumble down a research rabbit hole and find a character who captures my imagination; then I follow them through their time in Los Angeles.
Each person is a thread in the fabric of the city. Which is how I came to Babette Fontaine. I tugged on a random thread. I saw an article about her and was fascinated. I would describe Babette as an entrepreneur who shared qualities with other transplants to Los Angeles during the 1930s and 1940s. Growing up in rural America, and coming of age during the Great Depression, Babette had nothing handed to her.
Conservative perceptions of women at the time dictated the employment available to them. Even programs in President Roosevelt’s New Deal restricted women.
They could not join the Civilian Conservation Corps, and other programs put them into housekeeping jobs. I imagine, as the daughter of a Kentucky miner, Babette preferred not to be stuck in front of a stove or behind a desk. She became a burlesque performer instead and traveled the east coast for a few years as a dancer.
I love women who defy the conventions and expections of their time. Babette was a rebel.
By the 1930s, American burlesque shows were unrecognizable from their 16th century English literary antecedents. Burlesque during the Great Depression was a training ground for many great comedians and actors whose careers took off in mainstream movies and television during the 1940s and 1950s. Dozens of legendary strippers, Sally Rand, Gypsy Rose Lee, and my favorite, Betty “Ball of Fire” Rowland, began their careers in the 1930s.
Chicago police arrested Sally Rand four times in a single day at the 1933 World’s Fair for her fan dance. Feathers, bubbles, and snakes became props for inspired dancers. Other dancers came up with their own signature acts.
In 1936, Babette Fontaine painted her body bronze in imitation of a statue, and became known professionally as the Bronze Venus. The gimmick made her a featured player in Parlez Vous Paree, a burlesque revue produced by Earl Taylor. Babette wasn’t the only woman to claim the Bronze Venus moniker.
Beginning in the 1920s, black mega-star Josephine Baker was called Bronze Venus. Baker didn’t need paint to glow like a work of art. Others to advertise themselves as Bronze Venus were Ha Cha San, Bobby Lynn, Collette, and La Tonda.
Born to Burns and Maude Mccarty in rural Kentucky in 1916, Babette’s birth name may have been Dorothy. While Dorothy is an ideal name for a schoolteacher or housewife; Babette Fontaine looks better on a theater marquee.
The Parlez-Vous Paree show debuted in September 1936. It was a large production and featured scores of entertainers. They billed one as a stooge-like comedian. I wonder. Did he throw pies or chuckle nyuk, nyuk, nyuk?
A few months following the opening of the show, Babette’s name is prominently displayed in ads. The last mention of her is in November 1938.
Between November 1938 and January 1940, Babette vanished from show business. Then, suddenly, she resurfaced in multiple newspapers in a wire service interview. They described her as the head of a Los Angeles escort service.
Asked, “What would you pay for a date with your favorite movie star?” Babette had a ready answer. She said that if, by some miracle, she could deliver the “oomph girl” Ann Sheridan as a dinner partner to a lonely gent on New Year’s Eve, she would expect to get $1500. To put that into perspective, the 2022 equivalent amount is $30,585.00! If the lonely gentlemen would accept a second-best companion, Babette said she would offer either Dorothy Lamour, Hedy Lamarr, or Claudette Colbert for $750.
Babette gave Greta Garbo a thumbs down as date material. Why? Because
she felt that men would be frightened of her.
What if a woman needed an escort? Babette named Tyrone Power as the perfect date. Clark Gable, not so much. She said, “I am afraid he is a little too much of the aggressive type.”
In April 1941, a few months after Babette rated various Hollywood stars as potential dates for hire, she appeared in newspapers again. Operating an escort agency out of 726 South Wilton Place, she filed an injunction against Columbia Pictures Corp. The company planned to produce a film called “Glamour for Sale”.
And why should the film concern Babette? Because it depicted the escort business as shady, specializing in extortion, blackmail and other criminal activities. Babette took umbrage. She said she had operated an escort bureau in Los Angeles for two years and had never engaged in anything illegal. She worried her reputation would suffer if they released the film.
Babette withdrew her suit in September when producers at Columbia said that they would also show legitimate escort businesses in “Glamour for Sale.”
In a move similar to Babette’s lawsuit, in late 1941, burlesque star Betty Rowland sued Samuel Goldwyn Productions for using her well-known stage name, “Ball of Fire” as the title for his upcoming film starring Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper.
Several years ago, I asked Betty about her lawsuit. She winked and told me that the publicity was good for her and for the classic screwball comedy.
[Note: I’m pleased to report that as far as I know, as of this writing, Betty “Ball of Fire” Rowland is alive and well at 106! I hope she lives forever.]
Following the recall of Mayor Frank Shaw and the dismantling of his criminal empire in 1938, Los Angeles cracked down on vice. Regulations followed. One of the new regulations required escort bureaus to be licensed. Legislating morality is nigh impossible, but that never stopped a city, county, or a nation from trying.
A man seeking an escort sometimes expects more for his money than arm candy. If the woman is willing, they might make a deal without the agency’s knowledge. Of course, a crooked agency would encourage such arrangements and take a cut.
When Babette applied for a license in May 1941, she endured a grilling by the Police Commission. They wanted to know how much income tax she paid, what the girls charged and what she charged the girls.
According to Babette, she selected girls of good moral character, however, they were on “their own” after being introduced to the client. To me, that sounds like ass-covering 101. She said she charged the client $5. She then suggested to the client that he tip his date $5.
Babette claimed none of her girls ever had been arrested, and the only complaints she received about them came from police vice squad officers posing as clients. Sergeant John Stewart of the Central vice squad told a different story about one of Babette’s escorts. He and a few of his men operated an investigation out of the Biltmore and arrested one of the girls for “offering.”
Stewart, questioned about amounts paid to the escorts, said some demanded $50 from undercover investigators, others wanted $100 or more. A far cry from the five bucks Babette quoted.
Babette needed to prove she knew nothing of her escort offering undercover vice investigators a service not on the bureau’s official menu. She provided an alibi. She claimed she was out of town, or out of the office, when the girl was arrested. She played the sympathy card. The stress of the vice investigation caused her to suffer a breakdown. She fled to Dallas, Texas, for her nerves. Then she spent three days at the Hollywood Knickerbocker to further recuperate.
She produced receipts, which showed she was away when the girl was busted at the Biltmore. Babette also claimed a rival agency planted the girl to get her into trouble with the police.
The day after her license hearing, where she learned they postponed the renewal, Babette overdosed on sleeping pills in her car in a service station at Wilshire Boulevard and Detroit Street. She left a note, “Cards stacked—no use.” In her handbag she left a typewritten summary of her testimony to the Police Commission.
Babette claimed the police hounded her for not “playing nice,” and one vice cop in particular, who she nicknamed the “boogeyman”, followed her girls and clients, and prevented her from operating her business.
By July, Babette received the bad news. Her request for a license was denied. Babette’s attorney filed an appeal.
The drama kicked up a notch when, in February 1942, Babette claimed two men kidnapped and beat her.
She said two men followed her as she drove away from her home at 9038 Rosewood Avenue, Beverly Hills. Several blocks later, the men forced her car to the curb. A masked man got into her car and told her to follow his directions or “get a bullet in your back.”
She drove to 135th and San Pedro, where the men forced her from the car into a vacant lot. The thugs told her to “get out of town”, punched her on the jaw and knocked her out. When she revived, she had a gag in her mouth– her wrists and ankles tied. She struggled for an hour before freeing herself. Once freed, she walked into the street and flagged a passing motorist who took her to the Compton Police Station. Police reported Babette’s abductors had used her red lipstick to mark her forehead, cheeks and breasts with crosses. The significance of the red crosses is a mystery.
Babette had a flair for self-promotion. Was her kidnapping real? Without a description of her assailants, the police had nothing to investigate.
In early April, vice cops arrested Babette on morals charges in her home at 1769 S. Crescent Heights Boulevard. Arrested with her were Norma Clark and Harry Barker. Cops took the trio to Lincoln Heights Jail. They charged Babette with procuring and set her bail at $500. They charged Barker and Clark with resorting, and bail was set at $150 each.
Neighbors complained about suspicious goings-on at the bungalow and police staked it out for two nights before making the arrests.
Once her bail was posted, Babette made a beeline to her sister Colleen’s place at 2500 S. Hobart, where she was arrested while packing for a trip to Reno.
At first, Babette refused to appear in court. Then she changed her mind. She pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor procuring charge, and they immediately committed to jail for a medical exam (likely to screen for STDs) pending a probation hearing and sentencing. No word on how that turned out for her.
The Los Angeles Times offered a brief rundown of Babette’s escapades, beginning in 1941 and ending with her March 1943 arrest in Glendale after being found wandering along Brand Boulevard at 3:00 a.m. wearing only a white nightgown with gold trimmings.
This bizarre report ends the newspaper trail for Babette Fontaine—a fascinating and enterprising temporary Angeleno.
The last information I have for Babette is a marriage certificate. In Clark County, Washington, on January 28, 1946, Babette married Will Hayes—seventeen years her senior. Both gave as their address as the Broadway Hotel in Portland, Oregon.
Where they went and what they did as a couple following their marriage, I wish I knew. I hope Babette landed on her feet.
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 GREAT GUY, starring James Cagney and Mae Clark.
A little bit of trivia, thanks to TCM: This was James Cagney’s first film in more than 11 months because of litigation following the termination of his contract at Warner Bros.
Enjoy the movie!
When Joel Green, head of the Department of Weights and Measures, is nearly killed in a car accident by corrupt politician Marty Cavanaugh, ex-prizefighter Johnny Cave replaces him. Facing a city-wide racket of faulty measures, Johnny fines merchants who are cheating the public and ignores the customary bribes and threats of Cavanaugh’s men. The night after he refuses a job offer from Cavanaugh, Johnny is abducted. He wakes up, stinking of alcohol, in the gutter with his hair dyed red.
In early March 1927, twenty-year-old Tony Santi arrived at the Burbank Police Department to report an assault on his girlfriend, a fifteen-year-old Burbank high school girl, Mary Garard.
Tony sat in the station and related a bizarre tale to officers. Two weeks earlier, the couple drove out to a cabin in Kagel Canyon in the hills west of Roscoe. They wanted to prepare it for a party later that day. Tony said the cabin had no running water, so he went out to a stream to fill their bucket. He told Mary he would be gone for about fifteen minutes.
When he returned, he found Mary bound and gagged. He released her, and she told him what had happened. She said shortly after he left to get water, two men, reeking of alcohol, turned up at the cabin door. They asked her if she was alone and she told them no. She said her boyfriend was due to return any minute. Then, without warning, the men grabbed her arms. They bound her and stuffed a rag into her mouth to stifle her screams. They dragged her to a cot. One man produced a knife and, as Mary struggled, he cut into the flesh of her left shoulder the letters NR. The men said, “We are Night Riders. Let this be a lesson to you.”
Mary’s parents knew nothing about the assault until they arrived home from a trip to Colorado a few days later. Tony told police he was making the report against the wishes of Mary and her parents. They wanted the matter dropped.
Because the attack occurred in Los Angeles County territory, Burbank police referred the case to Captain William Bright of the Sheriff’s Department. Captain Bright told reporters that because Mary and her parents were unwilling to pursue the matter, he had no choice but to drop the investigation.
On the heels of Captain Bright’s announcement, Mary and her mother arrived at the Sheriff’s Department ready to swear out a complaint against the perpetrators of what newspapers referred to has a branding. Bright requested a John Doe warrant.
On the day following the Garard’s change of heart in the case, Mary and Tony appeared again in Captain Bright’s office. This time, they told him a different story.
The entire branding incident was a hoax perpetrated by the young lovers. As a minor, Mary required her parents’ consent to marry. They refused. Mary and Tony then concocted the branding scheme so her parents would see the wisdom of granting her a full-time protector. Sheriffs arrested Tony for assault and held Mary as a witness. Tony appeared in Judge MacCoy’s court to answer for two statutory charges. They fixed his bail at $1000.
It took until July to unravel Mary’s and Tony’s lies, but investigators finally sorted it out. In Superior Judge Elliot Craig’s court, Tony pleaded guilty to one of two counts charging a serious offense. (I think we can read between the lines and assume that Tony and Mary had intercourse.)
Mary confessed it was she who carved NR into her left shoulder to convince her parents to allow her to marry. Mutilating yourself is not the best way to show maturity. Her parents were wise to turn her down.
Mary and Tony went to an extraordinary amount of trouble to be together. So, what became of them? A superficial search of ancestry.com shows they married after all in December 1927, and may have divorced in the late 1930s. The course of true love never did run smooth.
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. Today’s feature is INTERNATIONAL CRIME–THE SHADOW starring Rod La Rocque and Astrid Allwyn.
Enjoy the movie!
Lamont Cranston (Rod La Rocque), amateur criminologist and detective, with a daily radio program, sponsored by the Daily Classic newspaper, has developed a friendly feud that sometimes passes the friendly stage with Police Commissioner Weston (Thomas E. Jackson). He complains to his managing editor, Edward Heath (Oscar O’Shea), over the problems that have developed in his department since Phoebe Lane (Astrid Allwyn) has been hired as his assistant. He is advised to forget it since she is the publisher’s niece. During his broadcast about Honest John (William Pawley), a famous safe cracker who has served his time, Phoebe gives him a note that the Metropolitan Theatre is to be robbed at eight o’clock and she is so insistent that he adds it as his closing note.
Two years passed with police no closer to a solution for Elizabeth Short’s murder. The 1949 Los Angeles Grand Jury intended to hold LAPD’s feet to the fire for failing to solve the Dahlia case and several other unsolved homicides and disappearances of women during the 1940s.
On September 6, 1949, the jury’s foreman, Harry Lawson, told reporters that a meeting of the administrative committee was scheduled for September 8.
“There is every possibility that we will summon before the jury officers involved in the investigation of these murders. We find it odd that there are on the books of the Los Angeles Police Deportment many unsolved crimes of this type. Because of the nature of these murder and sex crimes, women and children are constantly placed in jeopardy and are not safe from attack. Something is radically wrong with the present system for apprehending the guilty. The alarming increase in the number of unsolved murders and other major crimes reflects ineffectiveness in law enforcement agencies and the courts, and that should not be tolerated.”
In his statement, Lawson places the blame for the unsolved homicides squarely on the shoulders of law enforcement and the courts. What Lawson failed to understand was that crime was changing. No longer could police assume a woman’s killer was her husband or boyfriend. Stranger homicides were nothing new, but neither were they common.
The population of post-war Los Angeles skewed young and, because of a variety of factors, like the acute housing shortage, they were transient. A potent and deadly mix of opportunity and a large victim pool made it easy for the criminally inclined to do their worst. Women had a false sense of security about men in uniform. Behavior considered risky by today’s standards was acceptable during the 1940s.
From the outbreak of the war, the government encouraged women to support men in uniform. Newspapers and women’s magazines devoted countless column inches to ways in which they could aid fighting men. Women formed “Add-A-Plate” clubs. The mission of the clubs was to invite a soldier home for a meal. Women also routinely picked up soldiers and sailors hitchhiking because it was their patriotic duty.
On April 2, 1943, the Pasadena Post wrote about a “ride waiting zone” which gave military men a place to stand and be visible to passing motorists who would then give them a ride. Most of the men were decent and law-abiding, but some returned home severely damaged by their war experiences. How many of those men were capable of murder?
LAPD detectives spared nothing in their investigation of Short’s slaying. They took over 2700 reports. There were over 300 named suspects. They arrested fifty suspects who they subsequently cleared and released. Nineteen false confessors wasted law enforcement’s time and resources.
In 1949, the DA’s office issued a report on the investigation into Short’s murder. In part, the report stated:
“[she] knew at least fifty men at the time of her death and at least 25 men had been seen with her within the 60-day period preceding her death. She was not a prostitute. She has been confused with a Los Angeles prostitute by the same name… She was known as a teaser of men. She would ride with them, chisel a place to sleep, clothes or money, but she would then refuse to have sexual intercourse by telling them she was a virgin, or that she was engaged or married. There were three known men who had sexual intercourse with her and, according to them, she got no pleasure out of this act. According to the autopsy surgeon, her sex organs showed female trouble. She had disliked queer women very much, as well as prostitutes. She was never known to be a narcotic addict.”
Distracted by the continuing saga of local gangster Mickey Cohen, the jury turned their attention away from the carnage. In the end, they passed the baton to the 1950 grand jury–which also found itself sidetracked.
What happened to the women who disappeared? It is unlikely that we will ever know. It is also unlikely that the identity of the killer(s) will be discovered. People will always speculate about the cases, and every few years a book about the Black Dahlia slaying will emerge claiming to have solved the decades long cold case. None of the books I’ve read so far is credible.
I do not accept theories which rely on elaborate conspiracies perpetrated by everyone, from a newspaper mogul to a local gangster to an allegedly evil genius doctor. My disbelief is based in part on the fact that most people are incapable of keeping a secret. Benjamin Franklin said, “Three (people) can keep a secret if two of them are dead.” Eventually, someone talks.
Elizabeth Short’s killer probably kept his depraved secret but, even if he didn’t, anyone who may have known the truth is long dead.
NOTE: This concludes my series of Black Dahlia posts for now. I hope you will stay with me as I unearth more of L.A.’s most deranged crimes.
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. Today’s feature is NIGHT EDITOR  starring William Gargan, Janis Carter and Jeff Donnell.
The film is based on a radio program of the same name, which ran from 1934 to 1948. Sponsored by Edwards Coffee, the program featured Hal Burdick as the “night editor”. Burdick received readers’ requests for stories, in a “letter to the editor” format, which he would tell on the program. Burdick played all characters in each episode. The radio series was adapted for Night Editor, a short-lived TV series on the DuMont Television Network in 1954, also hosted by Burdick.
Enjoy the movie!
At the offices of the New York Star , Johnny, a troubled young reporter, slumps despondently at his desk. Johnny’s problems cause editor Crane Stewart to reminisce about another troubled young man he knew years earlier: Homicide detective Tony Cochrane dotes on his little son Doc, but is estranged from Martha, his unsophicsticated wife. Tony’s estrangement arises from his love affair with Jill Merrill, a cold-hearted socialite. Although Tony has tried to break off their relationship, Jill keeps him ensnared with her sexual depravity. While passionately embracing at the beach one evening, Jill and Tony see a car stop along the road and hear a woman scream. When a man jumps out of the car and flees, Tony is about to give chase when Jill reminds him that his involvement would expose their illicit affair.
Women Writing True Crime with Mitzi Szereto, Joan Renner, and Cathy Pickens
12 pm / PT
FREE Virtual Event
A panel discussion featuring Mitzi Szereto, editor of The Best New True Crime Stories series, and her contributors Joan Renner and Cathy Pickens from her new book release, The Best New True Crime Stories: Partners in Crime.
Topics to be discussed include:
True crime and how writing it is different from other genres.
True crime and its appeal to women writers and readers.
Individual approaches to true crime.
Writing responsibly and ethically.
How to catch the editor’s eye.
Researching and getting the facts right.
Mitzi Szereto (mitziszereto.com) is an author and anthology editor whose books encompass multiple genres, including those in her popular true crime franchise The Best New True Crime Stories, to date the volumes Partners in Crime; Crimes of Passion, Obsession & Revenge; Well-Mannered Crooks, Rogues & Criminals;Small Towns; and Serial Killers. She has the added distinction of being the editor of the first anthology of erotic fiction to include a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She’s appeared internationally on radio and television and at literature festivals, and has taught creative writing around the world. In addition to having produced and presented the London-based web TV channel Mitzi TV, she portrays herself in the pseudo-documentary British film, Lint: The Movie. The sixth volume in her true crime series, The Best New True Crime Stories: Unsolved Crimes & Mysteries, will be published in September 2022. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @MitziSzereto.
Joan Renner, writer, social historian, and true crime expert, is the author of The First with the latest: Aggie Underwood, the Los Angeles Herald, and the Sordid Crimes of a City. She contributed to the Los Angeles Times bestseller LAPD ’53, written by James Ellroy and Glynn Martin. She has appeared in a previous volume of The Best New True Crime Stories. Joan lectures on historic Los Angeles crime and appears on true crime TV shows and podcasts. She is currently writing a book for University Press of Kentucky about Los Angeles during the Prohibition era.
Cathy Pickens (cathypickens.com) has written crime fiction, starting with the award-winning Southern Fried (St. Martin’s), and a regional historic true crime series, starting with Charlotte True Crime Stories (History Press). The latest is Upstate South Carolina True Crime Stories. She’s served as national president of Sisters in Crime, on Mystery Writers of America’s national board, and as true crime columnist for Mystery Readers Journal. A lawyer and former college professor, she also wrote CREATE! Developing Your Creative Process (create-update.com), works with prison inmates, and coaches writers and others in creativity workshops. Her work has appeared in a previous volume of The Best New True Crime Stories.
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 MURDER WITH PICTURES  starring Lew Ayres and Gail Patrick.
Enjoy the film!
Stanley Redfield, defense lawyer for racketeer Nate Girard, who has been accused of murdering a man named Cusick, is murdered during a press party held to celebrate Girard’s acquittal. Among the suspects are two newspapermen, Phil Doane and I. B. McGoogin, and Meg Archer, a mysterious woman who appeared in town shortly after Girard’s release. Free from suspicion is ace news photographer Kent Murdock, who was in a nearby apartment arguing with his showgirl fiancé, Hester Boone, when the murder took place.