Coming May 14, 2024–Of Mobsters and Movie Stars: The Bloody “Golden Age” of Hollywood

This gorgeous cover is the winner of the WildBlue Press cover contest. It evokes the glamour of old Hollywood, yet suggests the dark side of the city and the era.

Of Mobsters and Movie Stars is available for pre-order on Amazon for release on Tuesday, May 14, 2024. You will also be able to purchase the book in hardcover, paperback, eBook, and, coming soon, audiobook, on the Amazon and WildBlue’s websites.

My connection with many of you inspired me to tackle a book project. I can’t thank you enough for your support over the past 12 years. I’m looking forward to many more years here (and a few more books!) I’ll let you know about any book signings and interviews, so stay tuned. I’ve created some content for my author page on WildBlue, so please visit me there and sign-up to receive updates.

There are 37 stories in Of Mobsters and Movie Stars, including an early killer couple who went on a spree while Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were still in grammar school. One of the most shocking tales is about a man who plotted to kill his wife using two Diamondback rattlesnakes named Lighting and Lethal.

Many people have asked if Los Angeles had a mob. The answer is they had two. The earliest was headed by Joe “Iron Man” Ardizzone, an old-school gangster straight out of Central Casting. The other mob, orders of magnitude more powerful and insidious than Ardizzone’s, was the Hollywood studios. Using hired thugs called “fixers,” the studios wielded power over actors and politicians. When choreographer Busby Berkeley killed three people while driving drunk, the studio came to his aid. When director, and husband of Jean Harlow, Paul Bern, died under suspicious circumstances, the studio intervened.

One of the ugliest incidents of studio power was the attempted cover-up of the brutal rape of a young actress at a studio hosted event. The victim refused to be silent and, as far as I’m concerned, is the Godmother of the #metoo movement.

I posted excepts from Mobsters and Movie Stars on WildBlue. Below is one of them.


Excerpted from The Torso Murder

“William Pettibone, Ray Seegar, Floyd Waterstreet, and Glen Druer explored the muddy river bank for hidden treasures on May 18, 1929. The boys noticed something that looked like a turtle shell or strange prehistoric fish 150 feet from the bridge in the city of Bell. One boy took a stick and poked it into an end of the bony structure and held it aloft for the others to gape at. The boys spent a few minutes before realizing their treasure was a human skull.

With the head impaled on a stick, the boy ran up to the roadway. He waved it around until a female motorist stopped. The horrified woman kept it together long enough to drive to a public telephone where she called Bell’s Chief of Police. Chief Smith and Motor Officer Steele met the woman and the group of boys near the river. The woman declined to give her name. Smith’s officers told Captain Bright about the grisly find. Bright accompanied Deputies Allen, Brewster, and Gompert to the scene. While deputies searched the area, an enormous crowd of curious on-lookers gathered.

The initial autopsy yielded nothing which could identify the deceased. At least the skull still had several extant teeth, which made an identification possible. Local newspapers printed the photos and drawings of the teeth and distributed them to dentists.

With limited remains, the experts needed to perform a miracle. Amazingly, they did just that.”

Clara Eunice Barker–Vampire

The early 20th century witnessed a clash of old and new technologies, as well as a period of rampant civil unrest. The role of women in the new millennium had yet to be defined. In 1919, when this story takes place, women in the U.S. were one year away from celebrating the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave them the right to vote. The hard-won right was a victory, but it was still a man’s world.

On March 2, 1919, the Los Angeles Times reported that Mrs. Grace Munro, the wife of wealthy zinc manufacturer Charles W. S. Munro, filed suit for alienation of affection. She sought $50,000 in damages, which is equivalent to $826,000 today, from Miss Clara Eunice Barker. Clara was Charles’ mistress for five years. Grace’s suit alleged her twenty-three-year marriage to Charles was a happy one until Clara entered their lives.

According to Grace, Clara enticed Charles to leave home with “an offer of money and otherwise.” We can guess what the otherwise referred to. Charles abandoned Grace without means of support; but he purchased a home for Clara and gave her cash. About $30,000 worth.

In the early morning hours of March 5, 1919, with a warrant sworn out by Grace, Deputy Constables Bright and Hayes arrived on the doorstep of 1201 Mountain View Street in Glendale, the home that Charles and Clara shared. They took Charles into custody for a felony statutory offense against Clara. Grace instigated the charge, and she clearly meant to put the screws to Charles. Having him arrested was enough—she dropped the charge.

William’s arrest came as a shock to Glendale society. They thought Clara and Charles were cousins, which was how they introduced themselves at first. They also did not know Charles had a wife and three daughters in Trenton, NJ.

Police wanted to speak with Clara but they could not find her, and Charles refused to talk. They discovered Clara fled to Salt Lake City, Utah, as soon as she got word of Grace’s lawsuit. Anger and outrage fueled Grace, who tracked Clara down and confronted her in a Salt Lake City hotel lobby. Grace walked up to Clara and exclaimed, “So you are the vampire”.

Theda Bara — the original vampire

Grace was not accusing Clara of being a blood sucking bride of Dracula. She used the term to imply that Clara was a seductress, a femme fatale, a vamp (ire) of the type made famous by actress Theda Bara in the 1915 film A FOOL THERE WAS.

The Glendale home in which Clara and Charles lived was in Clara’s name. She wanted to keep it, along with the furnishings, an automobile, and any other trinkets that Charles gave her. She filed a countersuit

Clara told reporters, “I am fighting for my honor as well as my legal rights. I have been cruelly mistreated and imposed upon by the man in whom I had implicit faith, and I intend to test the justice of the courts.”

Clara alleged there was a conspiracy against her. She accused the recently reconciled Munros, and a few of their friends, of seeking to deprive her of her property.

She demanded damages of $51,500. Some of which were for the Glendale property, the furniture, the car, and $25,000 for damages suffered by the conspiracy and threats she claimed were made against her.

According to Clara, while in Salt Lake City, she was called a vampire and was plagued by mysterious telephone calls, loud knocks on her bedroom door after midnight, and attempts by strangers to “force their acquaintance on her.” These incidents, Clara said, were part of a plan to harass and frighten her.

Grace intended to fight the conspiracy charge and to pursue her alienation suit. She would not back down. “I said she (Clara) is a vampire, and she is.”

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

Grace claimed she and Charles were happily married for years before Clara entered their lives, but Grace lied. Prior to his affair with Clara, Charles had been involved with his stenographer, Miss Mary Pierson, with whom he had taken an auto trip. Grace was obviously aware of the liaison because she knew where Mary lived. She even appeared on the doorstep with questions for Mary’s landlady. Charles had long possessed a wandering eye.

If Angelenos expected a lurid trial, they would not be disappointed. Wife vs. Mistress was going to be a battle royal.

NEXT TIME: A vampire’s love letters, and the wages of sin in Part 2 of Clara Eunice Barker, Vampire.

Death of a Gridiron Great, Part 1

Johnny Hawkins had the college sports career one can only dream of. He was a gridiron hero who was equally skilled at basketball and baseball. During the 1924 season, Hawkins was quarterback and captain of USC’s football team.

Despite his sports successes, Hawkins found the transition from Big Man on Campus to Joe Everyman a difficult one. Following his graduation from USC, he bounced from job to job.

By 1926, Johnny had settled into a career as head coach the South Pasadena military school, the Oneonta Academy. It thrilled Oneonta to have Hawkins on their coaching staff. They were so proud they took out a half-page ad in the L.A. Times to announce his hiring. But Hawkins’ career took a downturn that same year when the Hollywood Generals, a Pacific Coast Football League team he organized and played with, failed.

The death knell for Johnny’s post-college dreams of success came on an evening in mid-June 1928 when he was busted in the home of Earl Burtnett, leader of the Biltmore orchestra.

Clarence Thomas, a houseboy at the Burtnett home on South Catalina Street, spied a man entering the rear door of the house and promptly called the law.

LAPD Detective Lieutenants Steed, Green, and Mole of Wilshire Division answered the call and found Hawkins sitting in the living room listening to the radio.

Portrait of Earl Burtnett, director of the famous Los Angeles Biltmore. Photograph dated February 16, 1929. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Hawkins wasn’t a hardened criminal, and he confessed to dozens of burglaries. He told his interrogators that he desperately needed to raise money because his recent career as a real estate salesman had gone to pieces and his wife, Thelma (his college sweetheart), needed major surgery.

Hawkins said,

 “I know I’ve got it coming to me, but what torments me the most is the thought of my family and my wife’s family. I was driven to desperation by financial troubles.”

Johnny was with his parents in their Fullerton home while his wife was in Vancouver, Washington, for treatment. He said he waited night after night until his parents were in bed before going out to commit the burglaries, then returned home to stash the loot in their attic.

Police valued the recovered property at more than $35,000 ($622,482.16 in 2023 USD). It surprised them that Hawkins had stolen such a hodgepodge of high and low dollar items, including furs, old silverware, gowns, blankets, percolators, typewriters, lingerie, and jewelry.

According to Johnny, he never carried a weapon, a fact borne out by the arresting officers. Johnny had a flashlight, jimmy, ice pick, pass keys, and was wearing white gloves when the police found him in the Burtnett home.

It was strange enough that the football idol had perpetrated a series of at least 25 residential burglaries, but it was stranger still that never attempted to dispose of the loot. He purportedly committed the thefts for a few months, but all the items, except a suitcase full of “presents” for his wife, were traced.

If he was in dire need of cash, as he’d said, then why didn’t he borrow money from his folks or his in-laws? Perhaps the former gridiron star was too proud to ask for help. The alternative, having his name splashed all over the local newspapers, was even more humiliating.

What was going on with Hawkins? Why would he jeopardize his freedom and his reputation in such a stupid way?

NEXT TIME: A unique defense strategy.

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.