The Lady Vanishes: The Mysterious Disappearance of Jean Spangler

I’m pleased to announce that my story, The Lady Vanishes: The Mysterious Disappearance of Jean Spangler, will appear in Mitzi Szereto’s newest true crime anthology, The Best New True Crime Stories: Unsolved Crimes and Mysteries.

Coming September 15, 2022.

Available for pre-order now.

To whet your appetite for the story, I created this short video.

Film Noir Friday, on Saturday: Woman on the Run [1950]

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 WOMAN ON THE RUN, starring Ann Sheridan and Dennis O’Keefe.

Enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

After San Francisco artist Frank Johnson witnesses the gangland murder of informant Joe Gordon while walking his dog, Inspector Ferris attempts to take him into protective custody. Afraid that he will be killed if he testifies against the murderer, Frank instead runs away. Ferris questions Eleanor, Frank’s estranged wife, about her husband, but she offers little help. Ferris does convince Eleanor, however, that Frank would be safer in police custody than alone on the streets. Later that night, Eleanor sneaks out of her apartment and goes to a nightclub in Chinatown. She is followed there by tabloid reporter Dan Leggett, who offers to pay her $1,000 for exclusive rights to Frank’s story.

Female Trouble, Conclusion

According to Edith’s public defender, William Aggeler, a state of extreme melancholia brought about by physical ailments suffered since childhood, account for her accidental shooting of Linus Worden, causing his death.

Edith’s mother recounted for the seven men and five women on the jury a litany of illnesses and conditions afflicting her daughter. She testified that at seven months old, Edith had a serious case of pneumonia; she had an attack of spinal meningitis at three; at nine they found her unconscious in a rocking chair. She remained in bed for several weeks and was in such extreme pain she couldn’t bear to be touched without screaming in agony. When she finally got out of bed, she held her head in a twisted position. A lump developed on the right side of her neck and when she walked, she dragged her right leg and complained of constant head pain. At twelve, she suffered a spasm so severe that her hands couldn’t voluntarily unclench.

After her marriage, at seventeen, her husband found her one afternoon unconscious lying between the bed and the wall. In the ten years since then, she endured many similar attacks, even having one while in jail.

In November 1920, Edith’s mother noticed her daughter’s extreme moodiness. She testified the nervous condition manifested itself in Edith’s refusal to eat and her inability to continue to work in any capacity. In the fall of 1920, her mother found a revolver in Edith’s room and removed it. She gave the weapon to her husband.

As sad as Edith’s life was, she still shot and killed a man—and that is the story the prosecution would tell. Detective Kline testified to his conversation with Edith in the hospital. He asked her how she came to be shot. She answered, “It does not make any difference.” He informed her of Linus’ death, and she said, “I shot him, but I do not believe he is dead and will not believe it until my brother-in-law, Lee, tells me so.”

Edith insisted mutual despondency was the reason for the shooting. She claimed both she and Linus wanted to die. The mutual destruction motive flew in the face of Edith’s initial statement, “I couldn’t live without him, and I couldn’t get along with him.”

Edith’s mother testified for the defense; however, her father, Mr. Vosberg, was called as a prosecution witness. His duty to testify weighed heavily on him. He loved Edith. He recalled for the jury the events of the night of Linus’ death. He said he and Harvey Clarke, his son-in-law, relaxed inside the house while Linus and Edith sat outside in Linus’ car. When they hear four shots, both men sprang into action. They found Linus dying, and Edith seriously wounded.

A packed courtroom heard Edith testify on Monday, July 25. Physical suffering made her life wretched, and she tried several times to commit suicide. Two years after she married, she tried it again. “I had been reading spiritualist books.” [Note: spiritualism was enormously popular following WWI. So many people lost loved ones and desperately wanted to contact them in the afterlife.] Edith said she read The Gateway of Heaven. “It described the experiences of a woman on the other side. After reading it, I got a desire to go and see what was there.”

Seance c. 1920

The death of her husband exacerbated her depression. “I used to walk the palisades at Santa Monica and fight the inclination to go over. I did not think it was right at that time; I had a greater understanding then than later. I got the desire in August 1920 to take my life.”

A friend of hers from Santa Barbara shot himself in the head. She thought it would be “a good way to do it.” She bought a gun in early November.

Even jail didn’t stop Edith from attempting suicide. She got a hold of a pair of scissors and tried to do herself in.

Edith described suffering debilitating symptoms every month. She lived on aspirin. Often, she shut herself away in her bedroom.

Was there a legitimate medical cause for Edith’s physical complaint and behavior? It is possible Edith suffered from Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD). In the 1920s, the diagnosis didn’t exist. In fact, they didn’t add PMDD to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 2013, and it remains a controversial. Yet, the symptoms described by Edith fit the disorder. They also fit Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). Her first suicide attempt at fourteen lends credibility to a hormonal imbalance, but that is speculation.

It isn’t surprising that Edith’s trial became a battle of expert witnesses. Alienists on both sides offered an opinion on Edith’s mental state. The question of her sanity loomed large.

Defense witness, Dr. Allen, believed Edith was insane at the time of the murder. In fact, he referred to her case as one of “psycopathic (sic) personality.” He said, “In considering her mental state, it is necessary to view it in the light of the history of her case. In this case, there is a very marked history of abnormality, or eroticism. I don’t think this woman was at any time mentally normal. Because of her physical condition, she was predestined to become mentally unbalanced in a crisis.”

Dr. Allen’s conclusion isn’t surprising given how often women were characterized as hysterical and insane.

The coincidentally named Dr. Wordens female pills for women. Advertising for the pills read: Thousands of women suffering from the nerve and health-racking ailments peculiar to their sex have been restored to full health and strength by this great remedy after they despaired of ever being well and strong again.

I’ll digress for a moment. Women’s menstrual cycle has a long history of being misunderstood. In fact, the word taboo comes from the Polynesian word tapua, which means both sacred and menstrual flow. Ladies, if we ever learn to harness it, menstruation is our super power. Why? Ancient Romans believed a woman’s monthly flow could turn new wine sour, wither crops, dry seeds in gardens, kill bees, rust iron and bronze. Dogs who taste the blood become mad—their bite poisonous. There is some good news. Hailstorms and whirlwinds are driven away if menstrual fluid is exposed to flashes of lightning.

Don your capes and prepare for battle. Now back to Edith.

Edith’s conflicting stories of the murder are troubling. At first, she said Linus wanted to die. During her trial, she said it was an accident. Before she and Linus went out for a drive on the fatal night, she slipped into a small room off the parlor. Linus noticed her come and go twice before he asked her about it. She said she would explain later. She didn’t tell him it was where she kept her revolver. He didn’t see her slip the gun into her coat pocket.

When they returned later and sat in Linus’ car, Edith said she kept thinking about taking out the gun and shooting herself. She communicated some of her unease to Linus. He said he would see her the next night. Making future plans doesn’t sound like a man ready to kill himself.

Edith continued her testimony, “All kinds of emotions went through me. I remember him turning away from me. He laughed and said: ‘You will be all right.’ I shook my head and felt the gun. The first thing I knew there was a flash. I saw his face in front of me. The report frightened me.”

Did Linus laughing at her trigger a rage?

The defense hoped the jury would believe Edith’s ill health made her mentally irresponsible for Linus’ death.

“Many people suffer from illness, including headaches, but it doesn’t justify taking a life,” argued the prosecution. The D.A. asked the jury not to be swayed by “technical insanity,” nor sympathy, but to administer the law as it is written.

It took the jury an hour and a quarter to acquit Edith.

The following day, shortly after 2 PM, police rearrested Edith at a downtown department store on an insanity warrant sworn to by Detective Sergeant Eddie King of the district attorney’s office. Accompanying him was future LAPD chief, Louis Oaks. [Oaks served from 1922 to 1923 until they showed the hard-drinking the door. It’s an interesting tale for another time.]

Was the D.A. a sore loser? Maybe. But he pointed out that the attacks of melancholia Edith suffered were a recurrent affliction, and a recognized form of insanity.

In early August, five physicians of the Lunacy Commission found Edith sane. While subject to depression, the doctors didn’t consider her a menace to society. However, they recommended six months of probation rather than confinement in an institution.

Judge Weyle said, “you have suffered enough.”

EPILOGUE

Following her acquittal, Edith resumed the use and spelling of her maiden name, Edythe Vosberg.

The 1930 census shows her living with her parents in a home at 858 N. Curson, in West Hollywood. She works as a stenographer in the motion picture industry. Her brother-in-law Harvey, and her brother Gayne (born Alfred D. Vosberg), worked as actors. Either of them may have helped her get the job. Her brother changed his name to Gayne Whitman after WWI to avoid the negative association with his German birth name. Gayne had a long career, from 1904-1957, he appeared in 213 films. On radio, he played the title role in Chandu the Magician and also worked as an announcer.

The 1933 city directory for Santa Monica, has Edythe working for the H.C. Henshey Company. Henshey’s was a major Santa Monica department store. Sadly, it went out of business years ago.

Henshey’s

Edythe’s mother passed away in 1939. By the 1940 census, 49-year-old Edythe is living at 2630 St. George Street with her father and her nephew, 22-year-old Harvey Clark. The house is off Franklin Avenue, near the Shakespeare Bridge in Los Feliz.

In 1950, 56-year-old Edythe works as a record keeper for the city police department. It doesn’t say which city, she appears to be living in North Hollywood in the San Fernando Valley.

I don’t know what Edythe did from 1950 until her death in 1971. I know she never remarried, and never had any further run-ins with the law. She is buried at Forest Lawn in Glendale.

Film Noir Friday on Sunday: Fallen Angel [1945]

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 matinee is an outstanding film noir from 1945, directed by Otto Preminger, FALLEN ANGEL. It stars Alice Faye, Dana Andrews and Linda Darnell.

IMDB says:

One night, drifter Eric Stanton is forced to disembark a San Francisco-bound bus because he has not paid the full fare. Eric is let off in the small town of Walton, and when he goes to Pop’s, a local diner, he finds Pop distraught over the disappearance of his beautiful waitress Stella. Retired police detective Mark Judd assures Pop that Stella will return, and soon she does appear, much to Pop’s relief. Eric then leaves and, after seeing a poster for a show by “psychic” Professor Madley, convinces Madley’s assistant, Joe Ellis, that he is friends with the professor. Ellis confides that ticket sales have been slow due to the influence of Clara Mills, the former mayor’s daughter, who has been telling her friends not to attend. Seeing an opportunity to make money, Eric goes to the Mills house the next morning, and asks the cynical Clara to give the professor a chance. Clara dismisses Eric, saying that the professor is a charlatan, but her lovely younger sister June is intrigued by Eric, and tells Clara that Madley is merely trying to make a living. June convinces her sister to buy tickets to the show, and soon many of the townspeople follow suit. 

ENJOY THE MOVIE!

Female Trouble, Part I

The Supreme Court is trampling women’s rights and there is no reason to believe it will stop. Can we expect to be deprived of voting rights? Will they force us to perform only those jobs deemed suitable for women? I, for one, believe this court has no lower bound. I await an apocalypse.

While I await said apocalypse, I divert my energy into research. It is my escape and my happy place. Anyway, during a recent search of old newspapers, I found several intriguing cases from 1921.

I’ll begin with Edith Lundberg.

The Los Angeles newspaper headlines for 1921, reflect nothing short of a female crime wave. On any given day, Edith Lundberg shares column space with Louise Peete (unmasked years later as a serial killer); Erie Mullicane, a young woman accused of killing her baby, and numerous other women facing the criminal justice system for a variety of crimes.

Born to Anna Marie Hart and William Allen Vosburgh (Vosberg) on June 29, 1891 in Illinois, Edith Mae Vosberg had an older brother, Gayne born in 1890, and a sister, Ethel, born 1895

The Vosbergs: Anna, Gayne, Ethel, Edith, William

Married, at 18 years-old, to Arthur Lundberg and widowed seven years later in 1916, Edith Lundberg’s life was not very different from other women her age. Many young women lost children, and husbands, before their 30th birthday. Luckier than some, Edith moved from Missouri to Santa Barbara, California, to live with her younger sister, Ethel. Ethel married Harvey Clark, a successful movie character actor. They welcomed Edith.

Harvey Clark

Situated a short distance from the beach, the Clark’s house at 322 West Mission Street must have made a pleasant change for Edith from the harsh mid-western winters, and the loneliness of widowhood. Even with its desirable location, it was a long commute to get to the movie studios, so sometime during 1920, the Clarks moved to Los Angeles, and Edith accompanied them. She moved in with her parents, who also fled the harsh midwestern weather. She found a job as a stenographer in the mechanical department of the Hall of Records.

Looking northwest: Hall of Records, County Courthouse, Hall of Justice. In the foreground, construction begins on City Hall c. 1927

In September 1920, she started dating Linus Worden, Jr., a local car salesman. Linus served in the motor transport corps during the war, earning his sergeant’s stripes. A post-war segue to working in auto sales seemed perfect for him.

Prior to meeting Linus, Edith resumed use of her maiden name. Linus and his family knew her as Miss Vosberg. She did not mention her widowed status. After five years alone, she may have preferred to put her sadness behind her and start fresh. Linus called on at least once a week. Edith’s mother believed the relationship was on a track to marriage, but the Wordens had a different take on it. They believed it was casual companionship. Both families agreed the pair enjoyed each other’s company.

On February 8, 1921, the couple went out for a drive. A couple of hours later, Linus’ car pulled up at the curb in front of the Vosberg home at 1227 West Twelfth Street. (The house is long gone.) In the house, her parents, and her sister and her brother-in-law, heard laughter and conversation from the car. After a momentary silence, four gunshots cracked. A agonized cry followed. Linus got out of the car, took a few steps toward the house and collapsed on the sidewalk.

F.E. Andreani, a near neighbor, heard the commotion and ran over to Linus to render aid. Linus said, “I’m shot.” Then stopped trying to speak. Andreani pulled the fallen man into his car and rushed him to the nearest receiving hospital, but Linus died before they could reach medical help. One bullet pierced his heart, and another lodged in his stomach.

Linus’ wounds accounted for two shots. What about the other two? After shooting Linus, Edith held the pistol against her abdomen and shot twice. She made it to her parents’ porch before falling. At the hospital, Edith begged to die. She told the attending surgeons, “I couldn’t live with him and I couldn’t live without him. I made up my mind to kill him and I shot him.” She also muttered she and Linus “felt blue.” She said she planned to kill him and then herself.

As they waited for word on Edith’s condition, police began their investigation. They learned Edith purchased the gun at a pawnshop two weeks earlier. She used an assumed name.

Two days after the crime, Edith lay near death in the county hospital. Her motive remained unclear. One doctor, Edward H. Morrissey, president of the Los Angeles Association of Optometrists, theorized, “If this young woman quarreled with Worden, she undoubtedly did so because of the low ebb of her vitality caused her to be irritable. Any undue excitement which might have come while she was in this condition could have caused her to lose control of herself. The majority of criminals in our jails and inmates of our county farms are victims of defective vision.” An interesting theory, for sure. Dr. Morrissey based it on a report that Edith complained of a severe headache and problems with her eyesight the day of Linus’ murder.

Police had their own theory, which did not involve faulty eyesight. They believed Edith premeditated the murder because she purchased the revolver in advance. Another odd thing, Edith wrote, but did not mail, a letter to a friend in which she stated: “I have a strange feeling. If anything happens, I will come to you if I am allowed.”

Edith’s condition tread a thin line between life and death for days before doctors felt confident enough to declare her on the road to recovery. The news is enough for the District Attorney to file a murder charge against Edith. They move her from the county hospital to a bed in the county jail.

According to her attorney, T.E. Justice, (perfect name for an attorney, right?) Edith would plead insanity. Edith said, “I don’t know why I killed him. I loved him and he loved me, but we were both moody, subject to despondency and melancholy, and I did not feel that we would be happy married. I had planned for some time to take my own life, but had no intention of taking his. But I expect to pay the penalty, and now my chief worry is for his mother, for he was everything to her.”

Her difficult recovery postponed her preliminary hearing until April 5. Los Angeles Police Department Detective Sergeant Bean remained baffled by Edith’s conflicting statements. On one hand, she claimed she couldn’t live with Linus; other the other hand she could not live without him. In the next breath, she asserted the shooting was a terrible accident. She intended to kill herself, not to harm Linus. Maybe the trial would clarify her true motive.

On April 5, her attorney (soon to be replaced by a public defender) previewed Edith’s defense—chronic melancholia.

NEXT TIME: Edith on trial.

Film Noir Friday: HEAT

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.

I am following-up my tribute to the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department Homicide Bureau, aka the Bulldogs, with the 1995 film, HEAT. Why? Because one of the Bulldogs has a small role in the movie. Look for retired Sheriff’s homicide detective, Rey Verdugo, as Vegas cop.

Bulldogs. Is there nothing they can’t do?

IMDB says:

Master criminal Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) is trying to control the rogue actions of one of his men, while also planning one last big heist before retiring. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Hanna (Al Pacino) attempts to track down McCauley as he deals with the chaos in his own life, including the infidelity of his wife (Diane Venora) and the mental health of his stepdaughter (Natalie Portman). McCauley and Hanna discover a mutual respect, even as they try to thwart each other’s plans.

Heat is based on the true story of Neil McCauley, a calculating criminal and ex-Alcatraz inmate who was tracked down by Detective Chuck Adamson in 1964.

Enjoy the movie!

A Salute to the Bulldogs

A Celebration

On June 2, 2022, I attended the banquet to celebrate the centenary of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Homicide Bureau.

Founded in 1921, the Bureau’s celebration should have taken place last year but, like so many things, they put it on hold. It was worth the wait.

Nearly 500 people gathered at Pacific Palms Resort in the City of Industry to honor past and present detectives. I am honored to know a few of them personally.

During the 6+ years, I have volunteered with LASD’s museum, I’ve met, and worked with, a few of the department’s retired homicide investigators. Most notably, Frank Salerno and Gil Carrillo. You know them from the Night Stalker case in the mid-1980s.

GIL CARRILLO & FRANK SALERNO

They are among the most famous of the Bulldogs, but each of the investigators I’ve met is truly outstanding. I’ve learned that being a homicide investigator is a calling. It’s not a j-o-b. It takes intelligence, skill, and heart to deal with the cases that cross their desks daily.

Bulldog Attitude

A person I admire and respect is Ray Lugo. Ray has been a homicide detective for over 20 years.

JESSE AGUILAR

An example of Ray’s bulldog attitude is the investigation into the 2006 murder of Iraq war veteran, 24-year-old Jesse Aguilar, found shot to death inside the trunk of his car, which was found on fire on Oct. 26, 2006, in the Los Angeles Riverbed near Paramount Boulevard in South Gate.

It took a decade to solve the case, and over twelve years before the killers went to trial. and to prison.

Jesse’s mother, Nancy, said,

“It’s been a relief that there’s going to be accountability. I want to look into the killers’ eyes. I want to see them.”

She said this about Ray Lugo,

“God sent Ray (Lugo) for this case because he never quits.”

RAY LUGO

It does not matter if they are working a case that is hours old, or decades old, they have the same determination to find a solution.

Bow WOW–A Brief History of the Bulldogs

How did the Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau earn their nickname?

In a December 18, 1977 Los Angeles Times article by Myrna Oliver and Bill Farr.

Under the headline “Sheriff’s ‘Bulldogs’ Hang in Where LAPD Doesn’t,” a veteran prosecutor is quoted, “You want to know why the Sheriff’s conviction rate is so much higher in homicide, not just last year, but for several years? It is because the guys from the Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau are a bunch of bulldogs. From the time they are called to the murder scene, until we prosecutors get the case through the courts, they never let go and I mean on every murder case, not just the high publicity cases. They are routinely tenacious, and the investigator assigned to the case sticks with it until the end. There is no shuttling cases to somebody else like at LAPD. With the Sheriff’s people, if you need follow-up done, they are marvelous; they are super. They even give you their home phone number in volunteering to help out.”

In the same article, a defense attorney had this to say, “I can tell you that almost every defense attorney I’ve ever talked to would rather try a murder case LAPD than against the Sheriff’s people. The Sheriffs are just tougher.”

L.A.’s First Serial Killer & The Birth of the Bureau

It is interesting to note that the birth of the bureau directly results from the city’s first bona fide serial killer, James Bluebeard Watson.

Kathryn Wombacher, an unmarried seamstress, took a chance on love when she answered an ad in a local Spokane, Washington newspaper in 1919. The ad’s author, Walter Andrew, described himself as a man in his 30s—sensitive and caring, with good habits, a decent income, and a desire to marry. Kathryn immediately answered the ad. Their meeting went well and they married in November 1919.

It thrilled Kathryn to move with her new husband to Hollywood. There was a constellation of stars living in the area. She wondered if she would meet Charlie Chaplin or Mary Pickford.

Even more exciting than moving to Hollywood was the knowledge that she married a government secret agent. Walter’s work lost some of its luster for Kathryn when his absences from home became longer and more frequent. She suspected her new husband of infidelity.

She hired a private detective and together they uncovered Walter’s secret. His real name was James Watson. He was a bigamist, and a multiple murderer with no connection to the secret service. He killed at least 25 of his wives across the western U.S. and Canada.

BLUEBEARD WATSON ESCORTED TO CELL

There was no homicide bureau then. Sheriff Traeger investigated on his own. It was not a one-person job. At the successful end of the investigation, in 1921, Chief of the Criminal Division, Harry Wright, insisted that Sheriff Traeger create the Homicide Detail. That was the first step toward the modern bureau.

Going Forward

In the decades since the Bluebeard Watson case, Sheriff’s homicide bureau has tackled some of the most difficult, and bizarre, murders in the county’s history; and they continue to do amazing work.

Advancements in science have provided detectives with valuable tools, but no matter what the science, it will always take a detective’s insight and skill to put together a case.

Speaking with Mike Fratantoni, the Sheriff’s museum curator, we agreed that each generation of homicide detectives passes the torch to those who follow. It is a tradition of which the department is justifiably proud.

Thanks for all you do, Bulldogs!

Film Noir Friday:Lady of Burlesque [1943]

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.

H

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!

TCM says:

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.

No, No, Babette!

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.

SALLY RAND

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.

JOSEPHINE BAKER, A TRUE BRONZE VENUS

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.

HA CHA SAN

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.

ANN SHERIDAN

Babette gave Greta Garbo a thumbs down as date material. Why? Because

she felt that men would be frightened of her.

GRETA GARBO

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.”

TYRONNE POWER

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.

I AM SO LUCKY TO HAVE CHATTED WITH THE GREAT BETTY “BALL OF FIRE” ROWLAND. TO SEE BETTY IN ACTION, CLICK ON THE ABOVE PHOTO.

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.

BARBARA STANWYCK’S “BALL OF FIRE” COSTUME IS A KNOCK-OFF OF ONE OF BETTY’S.

[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.

BROADWAY HOTEL, PORTLAND, OREGON

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.

Partners in Crime Interview

I recently had a conversation with author and editor Mitzi Szereto about her latest anthology, THE BEST NEW TRUE CRIME STORIES: PARTNERS IN CRIME. I am delighted to have my story, THE WAGES OF SIN: THE BALLAD OF MARGIE AND DALE included in the book.

Mitiz and I covered a lot of ground in our chat. I hope you enjoy it. Thanks!

I am grateful to Dwight Haverkorn for sharing his extensive knowledge of Dale and Margie’s lives and misdeeds with me. He knows more about the case than anyone I’ve ever met.