The Red Lipstick Murder

Born in a small New Mexico town in 1902, Jeanne Axford came of age during the Roaring ‘20s. Perfect timing for the free-spirited girl. At 17 she married David Wrather, and they had a son, David, Jr.

Jeanne Axford (L) with her cousin Clara. Photo from Ancestry

JEANNE’S EARLY YEARS

In 1922, after training in New Mexico, Jeanne worked as a nurse in Amarillo, Texas. According to Jeanne, David abused her. She and David divorced in 1924; she won custody of their son.

In 1925, Jeanne married again. That marriage, too, failed. Rumors have circulated that Jeanne appeared in a film, yet she remains absent from the Internet Movie Database, even under an alias. She may have appeared in uncredited roles. Whether she appeared in movies, Jeanne had an interesting Hollywood connection. She worked as a private nurse for Marion Wilson, Rudolph Valentino’s last date, maybe his last love. Known as the “Woman in Black” for many years, Marion put flowers on Valentino’s grave each year on the anniversary of his death.

Marion Benda Wilson aka The Woman in Black

Sometime between 1925 and 1931, Jeanne learned to fly and earned the moniker, “Flying Nurse.” She worked for a large oil company in South America, flying from one oil field to another, caring for workers. She became a member of the Women’s Air Reserve, and the 99 Club, an organization of women aviators.

Either an optimist, or a glutton for punishment, Jeanne married for a third time in Dallas, Texas on October 8, 1931, two days after her 29th birthday, to Curtis Bower. It took the couple five weeks to realize their mistake. The dissolution of her marriage earned Jeanne another nickname, “air-mail divorcee.” The divorce papers, prepared by her attorney, Allan Lund, went via air to Juarez, Mexico for filing. A new law in Mexico provided for a final decree by proxy. Neither Jeanne nor Curtis needed to appear in court.

WHERE IS JEANNE?

On July 5, 1932, Jeanne’s mother, Oma Randolph, went to police to file a missing person report. Jeanne left home the morning of June 27 to drive to the Mexican border, where she planned to board a private plane for Mexico City.

The week following the missing person report, Jeanne cabled her mother from Mexico City. “I can’t understand the worry I have caused in the United States by flying to Mexico. I am flying back for the Olympics. I assure everyone that I am okeh.”

By the mid-1940s, Jeanne had unspecified medical issues, possibly a hysterectomy. In pain, she turned to alchohol and drugs.

Jeanne kept a low profile for the next several years. She married in 1944 for the fourth and final time to a former Marine, Frank French.                   

ANOTHER LOS ANGELES WOMAN IS MURDERED

On February 10, 1947, less than a month after housewife Betty Bersinger found Elizabeth Short’s bisected body in a Leimert Park vacant lot, Hugh C. Shelby, a bulldozer operator, found the battered, nude body of a woman in a field near the Santa Monica Airport. The Herald put out an extra edition with the headline, “Werewolf Strikes Again! Kills L.A. Woman, Writes B.D. on Body.”

Within hours, police identified the victim as forty-five-year-old Jeanne French of 3535 Military Avenue. Near her body they found a black plastic purse, like the one Elizabeth Short carried. Inside was a lone penny, some hairpins, and handwritten notes.

The area where they discovered her was a type of Lover’s Lane, situated seven miles from the location on Norton Street where they found Elizabeth Short.

Police speculated her attacker stripped Jeanne naked in a parked car and then beat her. He struck her multiple times after she staggered from the vehicle. Then he dragged her body into the field, some feet from the highway, where he then wrote his obscene message on her torso. Afterwards, he stomped on her chest so hard he left a clear shoe print behind.

He threw her clothing on top of her. A powder blue coat trimmed with fox fur and a burgundy dress. Except for her bra, they did not find any underwear. She wore no stockings.

Her slayer arranged her shoes, one on either side of her head, about 10 feet from her body.

Detectives gather at the scene of Jeanne’s murder

Someone savagely beat Jeanne. She suffered blows to her head administered by a metal blunt instrument—a socket wrench or tire iron. As bad as they were, the blows to her head were not fatal. Jeanne died from hemorrhage and shock due to fractured ribs and multiple injuries caused by her killer stomping on her. Heel prints marked her chest. One of her ribs pierced a lung. It took a long time for Jeanne to die. The coroner said she gradually bled to death.

Jeanne was probably unconscious after the first blows to her head, so she may not have witnessed her killer take the deep red lipstick from her purse, or feel the pressure of his improvised pen as he wrote on her torso, “Fuck You, B.D.” and “Tex.” Police looked for a connection between Jeanne’s murder and Elizabeth Short’s death; but they found nothing.

On the night before she died, Jeanne visited Frank at his apartment and they’d quarreled. She and Frank recently separated. Frank said they planned a 6-month trial separation to see if they could work out their problems. Jeanne arrived drunk at Frank’s apartment and he said she started the fight, then hit him with her purse and left.

Jeanne’s twenty-five-year-old son, David Wrather, came in for questioning. As he left the police station, he saw his step-father for the first time since he’d learned of his mother’s death. David confronted Frank and said, “Well, I’ve told them the truth. If you’re guilty, there’s a God in heaven who will take care of you.” Frank didn’t hesitate. He looked at David and said, “I swear to God, I didn’t kill her.”

Both Frank and David had a history of abusing Jeanne. Neighbors heard violent arguments between Jeanne and David, as well as with Frank. Neither of them treated her with kindness or respect.

Jeanne’s neighbors knew her as a hard partying, mouthy drunk. The local bars she frequented confirmed Jeanne’s belligerence. Loud, profane, and promiscuous, Jeanne hung out with a rough crowd. The men she knew took advantage of her. She courted danger, and according to Frank, she feared nothing and no one. Her alcoholism and drug use suggest she was committing suicide, one drink and one needle at a time.

Despite his declaration of innocence, police booked Frank for murder. Then, as now, a woman is most likely to be killed by her husband or a lover. The forty-seven-year-old former Marine gunnery sergeant was arrested days earlier for viciously beating Jeanne, resulting in blackened eyes and a broken arm. Police cleared him when his landlady confirmed he was in his apartment at the time of the murder; and his shoe prints failed to match those found on Jeanne’s chest.

Police traced Jeanne’s whereabouts for part of the night. Ray Fecher, the operator of a drive-in café at 11925 Santa Monica Blvd., told detectives Jeanne came in between 9:30 and 10:00 p.m. Sunday. She drank coffee and chatted with Fecher. “She said her husband was sadistic. She said he liked ‘dark things,’ and had beaten her several times. Then she raised a pair of dark glasses she was wearing to show me a couple of black eyes she said he had given her.”

After she left the drive-in, Jeanne entered a bar at 10421 Venice Blvd. According to Earl Holmes, the bartender, in a loud voice, she announced her plan to commit Frank to the neuropsychiatric ward at the Sawtelle Veterans Hospital the next day. She had threatened Frank with hospitalization before, and he beat her. As abusive as their relationship was, Frank was not her killer.

Jeanne was last seen seated at the first stool nearest the entrance of the Pan American Bar on West Washington Place. The bartender told police Jeanne took a stool next to a smallish man with a dark complexion. The bartender assumed they were a couple because he saw them leave together at closing time.

Fuck You. B.D.

Jeanne did not drive herself to the place of her death; someone took her there. Police found her cut-down 1929 Ford roadster in the parking lot of a drive-in restaurant, the Piccadilly at Washington Place and Sepulveda Blvd. Witnesses said the car was there at 3:15 on the morning of the murder, and a night watchman saw a man leave it there. The police never accounted for Jeanne’s whereabouts between 3:15 a.m. and the time of her death.

Even though Jeanne was not sexually assaulted, police rousted scores of sex degenerates. The brutality of the crime and the fact that she was found naked led the police to infer a sexual motive. None of the men rose to the level of a serious suspect. Officers also checked out local Chinese restaurants after the autopsy revealed that Jeanne ate a Chinese meal before her death.

THE RED LIPSTICK MURDER GOES COLD

Jeanne’s slaying became known as the “Red Lipstick Murder” case. Like the Black Dahlia case, it went cold.

Three years later, following a Grand Jury investigation into the many unsolved murders of women in L.A., the District Attorney assigned investigators from his office to re-investigate the case.

Frank Jemison and Walter Morgan worked on Jeanne’s murder for eight months, but they never closed it. They found a few suspects. One of the most promising suspects was a man who was seen with Jeanne on the night of her death. The man submitted to a lie detector test, but the examiner told detectives the subject was one of a small percentage of people who could beat the test. They never cleared the man, but neither did they arrest him.

Like the murder of Elizabeth Short, there have been no leads in Jeanne French’s case in decades. Their killers took their bloody secrets to their graves.

Aggie Underwood–Newspaperwoman

On October 27, 1936, in a special edition celebrating the Herald’s twenty-fifth anniversary as an evening daily, city editor John B.T. Campbell wrote this about Aggie Underwood:

“Aggie Underwood should have been a man. A rip-snorting, go-gettum reporter who goes through fire lines trails killers . . . using anything from airplanes to mules to reach the spot that in newspapers is  . . . marked with an arrow or an X. What a gal! Usually followed by one or two photographers who . . . get lost when unable to keep up with this speedy lady. Favorite occupation is following a good murder. Favorite story, a good murder. Favorite photograph, a good murder. Favorite fate for all editors, good murder. Help!”

Today we may struggle with the “should have been a man” comment, but at that time it was high praise. Aggie was still new at the Herald, starting in January 1935. She undeniably made an impression on the newsroom. She recalled those early days as “happy-go-lucky.” The reporters worked hard and played just as hard; often going in a group to Chinatown for dinner, or gathering at a bar in Pico Gulch (about half a block from the office, on Pico between Figueroa and Georgia streets).

1931 photo shows the Goodyear blimp “Volunteer” soaring over the Evening Herald building to pick up a bundle of Twentieth Birthday editions for delivery to officials at city hall.

In her work, Aggie made it a point never to ask for special treatment because she was a woman. One night, she arrived at a brush fire in Malibu. A Sheriff’s deputy stopped her. “It makes no difference if you are a reporter. No woman can go in there.” She was considering her next move when she heard a man’s voice. He addressed the deputy, “It’s all right, lad. She’s been to a hell of a lot more of these things than you ever have. Go on through, Aggie.”

The voice belonged to Sheriff’s Department Inspector Norris G. Stensland, one of my favorite LA law enforcement officers.

Aggie worked well with law enforcement. She took the time to write to an officer’s superior to express how helpful he was. In this way, she built long-standing relationships based on mutual respect. Reporters like Aggie have a lot in common with detectives. Each knows the value of maintaining their composure and assessing a scene. Both cops and reporters know the value of developing informants.

One time, on a tip, Aggie arrived at the scene of a love-triangle murder. The cop at the door refused entry to Aggie, not because she was a reporter, but because she was a woman. “You can’t go in there, lady. It’s pretty bad in there. It’s no place for a woman. It’s a mess of blood all over.” Paul Dorsey, a Herald photographer who was with her, said to the officer, “Don’t worry about her. She can take it. Worry about me. Chances are that I can’t.”

In August 1935, Aggie got a tip that LAPD detectives planned to search the home of a woman accused of shooting and gravely wounding her husband at a dinner party days earlier. Aggie arrived before detectives Aldo Corsini and Thad Brown, who sought the pistol used by the woman. Aggie said the detectives were concerned about entering the home because of a huge gaunt German Shepherd. Nobody had fed or given water to the poor thing since the arrest of his mistress. The dog, frightened and stressed, barked from behind a window.

Victim of shooting interviewed by Aldo Corsini and Thad Brown. Photo courtesy UCLA digital collection.

Aggie had an epiphany. “Look, Thad, Corsini and I will go to the back door and make one hell of a noise and distract the dog. While we’re doing that, Thad, you go in through the window, right there beside the front door, then unlock the front door and rush out. I’ll go in then and tame your dog; I’m not afraid of him.”

Aggie heard dogs are aggressive when they are afraid of taller, bigger humans who seem threatening. She figured the best way to approach the frightened animal would be to get down to his level. Corsini wasn’t about to get on his knees to confront the dog, and neither was Brown, but Aggie refused to retreat. Facing the dog, Aggie talked to him in a soft voice, and cautiously moved her hand toward his head. She petted his head gently and said, “What’s the matter, fellow? You hungry and thirsty?” The big dog whimpered. Aggie stood up and went to the kitchen sink to fill his bowl with water. She set out some food for him, too. He became her shadow. He followed Aggie around the house while the detectives searched for the gun, which they found in a laundry bag. The woman later went to prison for attempted murder.

Thad Brown promoted to captain of homicide/chief of detectives. The rank and file would have made him chief of police if politics hadn’t put William Parker in the office instead. Aggie said for years Brown blushed when asked if he had tamed any wild dogs lately.

Aggie’s cordial relations with police provided her with exclusive stories. She rolled up to a house in Eagle Rock one afternoon after getting a report of a double mystery death. Several LAPD homicide detectives stood around outside, waiting for the living room to air out. Aggie said after ten days, the corpses were ripe. The couple died in the middle of a sex act on the living room couch. Detectives weren’t sure whether they had a murder-suicide or an accident. Aggie wanted to catch the Herald’s next deadline, so she made a deal with Captain H. H. Bert Wallis. They identified the dead man, but they still didn’t know the woman’s identity. No detective wanted to enter the house until the smell dissipated. Aggie said she would brave the stench and retrieve the woman’s handbag, which sat on a table visible from outside.

The woman was nude except for a slip rolled up to her chest. The man, in his union-suit, had fallen to the floor. His penis had burst, and Aggie had to step over him to reach the handbag. She tried to hold her breath, but the smell of decaying flesh was pervasive, clinging to her favorite brown wool dress. Aggie grabbed the purse and handed it to Wallis. In gratitude, he gave her a head start on the story. It turned out the man met the woman in a bar, brought her home, and they died of carbon monoxide poisoning because of a faulty heater.

Aggie loved the brown wool dress. She saw it in a shop window and bought it on lay-away. In a conversation with Aggie’s daughter, years later, I learned the fate of the dress. Mary Evelyn told me Aggie came home that night, peeled off the dress and burned it in the fireplace, saying, “I’ll never the smell of death out of it.”

Aggie at the Black Dahlia body dump, January 15, 1947.

During her career, Aggie reported on hundreds of crimes. The most infamous of them began on the morning of January 15, 1947.

Aggie claimed to be the first reporter at the body dump site on Norton near 39th in Leimert Park. She was likely one of the first. It scarcely matters now. The deceased was a young woman, naked and obscenely posed. Her head is north, her legs spread and point south. A couple of days later, they identified the woman as twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth Short from Medford, Massachusetts. She became known as the Black Dahla.

Aggie interviewed the initial suspect in the grisly murder, Robert “Red” Manley. She sized him up and concluded he was not the killer. Despite an intense investigation, the case remains unsolved.

This post concludes my month-long tribute to Aggie, who inspired me to create this blog eleven years ago.

Aggie in her early days as city editor. Note the baseball bat on her desk. She said she kept the bat to deal with Hollywood press agents.

As we bid adieu to 2023, and prepare for new challenges in 2024, I thank you so much for your continued readership. This blog is one of my passions. I love relating true tales from L.A.’s past. Crime is banal, but the people who commit crime are endlessly fascinating. I’ve begun exploring stories for the upcoming year—there are some excellent ones. Within the next several days, I will begin my annual coverage of the Black Dahlia case, so stay tuned.

Happy New Year!

Aggie and the Ice Cream Blonde

I love this photo of Aggie c. 1930s. Photo by Perry Fowler.

Reporter Aggie Underwood devoted a chapter in her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman, to movie stars. One star she covered was Thelma Todd. Thelma, nicknamed the Ice Cream Blonde, was a popular actress appearing in over 120 films between 1926 and 1935.

Thelma was born on July 29, 1906, in Lawrence, Massachusetts. She excelled in her studies and aspired to be a schoolteacher. Despite going to college after high school, her mother still pushed her to take part in beauty contests because of her looks. In 1925, she became “Miss Massachusetts” and entered the “Miss America” pageant. Despite not winning, Hollywood talent scouts took notice of her.

HORSE FEATHERS, Thelma Todd, Harpo Marx, 1932

Among the stars with whom Thelma appeared during her career were Gary Cooper, William Powell, The Marx Brothers, and Laurel and Hardy.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, various male comedy duos achieved success. Studio head Hal Roach saw the potential in pairing two women. Between 1931 and 1933 Thelma and Zasu Pitts appeared in over a dozen films, primarily two-reelers.

When it came time for contract renegotiation, Zasu and Thelma found out that Hal Roach had made certain that their individual contracts expired six months apart. He concluded the stars had less leverage individually than they would as a team. He’d pulled the same trick on Laurel and Hardy. Zasu’s bid for more money and a stake in the team’s films was a non-starter with Roach. They gave her a take it or leave it option. She left. Thelma’s new partner was wisecracking Patsy Kelly, and they churned out a series of successful shorts for Roach until 1935.

Thelma’s pleasant voice made her transition from silent to sound films an easy one. She had name recognition and with financial backing from her lover, film director Roland West, she opened the Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café. Thelma and Roland lived in separate rooms above the café. They had known each other for about 5 years. Thelma starred in West’s 1931 film Corsair, and that is when they embarked on a passionate affair.

West’s estranged wife, Jewel Carmen, lived in a home about 300 feet above the café on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It was an odd domestic arrangement, to be sure.

On Saturday, December 14, 1935, Thelma’s personal maid of four years, May Whitehead, helped to dress the actress in a blue and silver sequin gown for a party. At about 8 p.m. Thelma and her mother Alice were preparing to leave the Café together. Thelma had plans to attend a party at the Trocadero, where Ida Lupino and her father Stanley were the hosts.

As they were about to get into the limo driven by Ernie Peters (one of Thelma’s regular drivers) Roland approached Thelma and told her to be home by 2 a.m. Not one to be given orders, Thelma said she’d be home at 2:05.

When questioned later, West described his exchange with Thelma as more of a joke than a serious demand on his part. On that earlier occasion, Thelma had knocked hard enough to break a window and Roland let her in.

According to party goers, Thelma arrived at the Trocadero in high spirits and seemed to look forward to the holidays. She downed a few cocktails. Although intoxicated, none of her friends thought she was drunk. Thelma’s ex-husband, Pat Di Cicco, was at the Trocadero with a date, but he was not a guest at the Lupino’s party.

Very late in the evening, Thelma joined Sid Grauman’s table for about 30 minutes before asking him if he’d call Roland and let him know she was on her way home. Thelma’s chauffeur said that the actress was unusually quiet on the ride home, and when they arrived, she declined his offer to walk her to the door of her apartment. He said she’d never done that before.

It’s at this point that the mystery of Thelma Todd’s death begins.

On Monday, December 16, 1935, May Whitehead, had driven her own car to the garage, as she did every morning, to get Thelma’s chocolate brown, twelve-cylinder Lincoln phaeton and bring it down the hill to the café for Thelma’s use.

May said that the doors to the garage were closed, but unlocked. She entered the garage and saw the driver’s side door to Thelma’s car was wide open. Then she saw Thelma slumped over in the seat. At first May thought Thelma was asleep, but once she realized her employer was dead, she went to the Café and notified the business manager and asked him to telephone Roland West.

Once Thelma Todd’s premature death became public, local newspapers sensationalized it, hinting at foul play. The Daily Record’s headline proclaimed: “THELMA TODD FOUND DEAD, INVESTIGATING POSSIBLE MURDER”. The Herald’s cover story suggested that Todd’s death was worthy of Edgar Allan Poe:

“…if her death was accidental, it was as strange an accident as was ever conceived by the brain of Poe.”

The circumstances of Thelma’s death were puzzling, and upon receiving the news, her mother, Alice Todd, shrieked, “My daughter has been murdered!”

Whether Thelma’s death was a suicide, accident, or murder rested with the cops and criminalists. Thelma’s face bore traces of blood, and droplets of blood were present inside the car and on the running board.

According to the coroner, Thelma’s death likely occurred around twelve hours before they found her body. But a few witnesses came forward to swear that they’d seen, or spoken to, Thelma on Sunday afternoon when, according to the coroner, she would have already been dead.

The most interesting of the witnesses who had claimed to have seen or spoken with Thelma on Sunday was Mrs. Martha Ford. She and her husband, the actor Wallace Ford, were hosting a party that day to which they had invited Todd. She said that she received a telephone call and that she’d at first thought the caller was a woman named Velma, who she was expecting at the party; but then the caller identified herself as Thelma, and used the nickname Hot Toddy. Martha said that Toddy asked her if she could show up in the evening clothes she’d worn the night before to a party — Martha told her that was fine. “Toddy” also said she was bringing a surprise guest and said, “You just wait until I walk in. You’ll fall dead!” Mrs. Ford insisted the caller was Thelma.

Thelma Todd’s death evoked a massive outpouring of grief. Hundreds of mourners from all walks of life visited Pierce Mortuary where Thelma’s body was on view from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on December 19, 1935.

Viewing of Thelma

Patsy Kelly was said to have been so upset that she was under a doctor’s care. Thelma’s death devastated Zasu Pitts. She had been out Christmas shopping with her a few days earlier.

The sightings of Thelma on Sunday led to a multitude of theories, ranging from plausible to crackpot. Among the theories that have gained popularity over the years, even though unsubstantiated, is the rumor New York mobster Lucky Luciano put pressure on Thelma to host gambling at the Café. When Thelma said no, he had her killed.

Another theory is her ex-husband, Pat Di Cicco, murdered Thelma. He had a history of violence against women; but they found no evidence against him.

I have my own theory, of course. How could I not? Here’s what I believe happened.

Roland West

On Saturday night as she was leaving for the Trocadero, Roland West told Thelma to be home at 2 am. He wasn’t joking with her as he’d said. Asserting herself, she told him she’d be home at 2:05—but at 2:45 or 3 a.m., probably to avoid an unplkeasant call, she asked Sid Grauman to phone West and let him know she was on her way.

Her chauffeur, Ernie, said they arrived at the café at about 3:30 a.m. and she declined his offer to walk her up to her apartment. I believe she declined because she expected an ugly scene with Roland about her late arrival home. She had a key in her evening bag, but the door to the apartment was bolted from the inside. Roland had locked her out again. She was tired, and she’d been drinking. Her blood alcohol level was later found to be .13, enough for her to be intoxicated but not sloppy drunk. She decided she didn’t have the energy to engage in an argument with Roland—it must have been about 4 am. The beach was cold that night as Thelma trudged up the stairs to the garage.

After opening the garage doors, she turned on the light. To stay warm, she started her car and turned on the engine. Within minutes, she fell asleep and succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning. She fell over and banged her head against the steering wheel of the car, which caused a small amount of blood to be found on her body. Later, they tested the blood and found carbon monoxide in it, indicating that her injury happened inside the garage.

Ray Pinker, Police Chemist c. 1935 Photo courtesy LAPL

According to tests made by criminalist Ray Pinker, it would have taken about two minutes for there to have been enough carbon monoxide in the garage to kill her. He had even tested the car to see how long it would run before the engine died—the shortest time it idled was 2 minutes 40 seconds, the longest was 46 minutes 40 seconds.

What about the light switch and the open car door? I think that when Roland heard nothing from Thelma, he looked for her. He walked to the garage to see if she’d taken her car. He went inside and saw Thelma slumped over in the front seat, just the way May Whitehead would find her on Monday morning. The car’s motor was no longer running. He opened the driver’s side door to wake her up, only to discover she was dead. Shocked, he left, leaving the driver’s side door open, switching off the garage light and closing the doors. Then he returned to the apartment.

While West did not kill Thelma, I believe he felt responsible for her death. He never told a soul about that night; unless you believe the rumor that he made a death bed confession to his friend, actor Chester Morris.

What about Martha Ford’s alleged telephone conversation with Thelma? Was it Thelma on the phone? Maybe Ford was mistaken about the time. Another of the many loose ends in the mystery surrounding Thelma’s death.

Aggie was wrapping up her first year as a reporter for Hearst when Thelma Todd died. She had never attended an autopsy before. She knew her male colleagues brought her along to test her. They wanted to know if she had the stomach for it. She did. According to her memoir, by the end of the autopsy, only she and the coroner remained in the room; her colleagues had turned green and bolted for the door.

Aggie at a crime scene c. 1940s.

The last words are Aggie’s. Perplexed by mysteries surrounding Thelma’s death, she wrote in her memoir, “In crucial phases of the case, official versions as told reporters varied from subsequent statements. It was known where and what Miss Todd had eaten on Saturday night. Stomach contents found in the autopsy did not appear to bear out reports on the meal. There were other discrepancies, including interpretations of the condition of the body and its position in the automobile.”

For conspiracy buffs, Aggie talked about a detective she knew who worked to clarify some of the disputed information. She said, “…he was deeper in the mystery, receiving threatening calls…which carried a secret and unlisted number. He was warned to ‘lay off if you know what is good for you.’

“In his investigation, the detective stopped and searched an automobile of a powerful motion picture figure. In the car, surprisingly, was a witness who had reported that Miss Todd had been seen on Sunday. Near the witness was a packed suitcase. The investigator told me the owner of the car attempted to have him ousted from the police department.”

Aggie would not reveal the name of the detective. In summation, she wrote, “There’s a disquieting feeling in working some of these cinema-land death cases, whether natural or mysterious. One senses intangible pressures, as in the Thelma Todd story: After the inquest testimony, in which one sensational theory was that the blonde star, who died of carbon monoxide gas, was the victim of a killer, the case eventually was dropped as one of accidental, though mysterious, death.”

Over the decades, Thelma’s death has been the subject of books, movies, and TV shows; and attributed to everything from suicide to a criminal conspiracy.

I think it best if Aggie and I leave you to make up your own minds about what happened to the beautiful Ice Cream Blonde.

If you are curious, here is CORSAIR, starring Thelma Todd and Chester Morris

His Girl Friday & The Front Page

Deranged L.A. Crimes celebrates reporter Agness “Aggie” Underwood this month in honor of the 121st anniversary of her birth on the 17th.

Aggie liked His Girl Friday (1940), in which Rosalind Russell portrayed a female newspaper reporter. I would love to show the film, but it is not in the public domain. Instead, listen to the 1941 Screen Guild radio version with Rosalind Russell, Cary Grant, and Ralph Bellamy reprising their movie roles.

Ralph Bellamy, Cary Grant & Rosalind Russell

Even though I can’t show the film version of His Girl Friday, I will show the 1931 version, The Front Page, based on the 1928 stage play.

I love the 1940 film for casting Russell as Hildy Johnson–a role originally written for a man–but the 1931 film is also excellent. Billy Wilder remade it in 1974, casting Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in the starring roles.

Here is what TCM says about The Front Page (1931).

Chicago’s ace reporter Hildy Johnson wants to quit newspaper work and get married, but his editor, Walter Burns, is determined to keep him on the job. Hildy refuses to talk to Walter, knowing his persuasive powers, so Walter sets off a fire alarm outside the apartment of Hildy’s fiancée, Peggy Grant. Unable to resist, Hildy runs to the street, after which Walter corners him and takes him out for drinks. While the two men drink, Walter reminisces about the great stories that Hildy covered and paints a boring picture of married life. Hildy manages to escape, and drops in on the press room at the courthouse, where the reporters are waiting for the hanging of Earl Williams.

Happy Birthday to Aggie Underwood, and Deranged L.A. Crimes!

This is a big month for the Deranged L.A. Crimes blog. On December 17, 2012, the 110th anniversary of the birth of the woman whose career and life inspires me, Agness “Aggie” Underwood, I started writing this blog. I also authored her Wikipedia page, which was long overdue.

Aggie Underwood. Photo by Perry Fowler

By the time I began, Aggie had been gone for twenty-eight years. I regret not knowing about her in time to meet her in person. But, through her work, and speaking with her relatives over the years, I feel like I know her. I have enormous respect for Aggie. She had nothing handed to her, yet she established herself in a male-dominated profession where she earned the respect of her peers without compromising her values. She also earned the respect of law enforcement. Cops who worked with her trusted her judgement and sought her opinion. It isn’t surprising. She shared with them the same qualities that make a successful detective.

This month, I will focus on Aggie. I want everyone to get to know and appreciate her. She was a remarkable woman.

Agness “Aggie” Underwood never intended to become a reporter. All she wanted was a pair of silk stockings. She’d been wearing her younger sister’s hand-me-downs, but she longed for a new pair of her own. When her husband, Harry, told her they couldn’t afford them, she threatened to get a job and buy them herself. It was an empty threat. She did not know how to find employment. She hadn’t worked outside her home for several years. A serendipitous call from her close friend Evelyn, the day after the stockings kerfuffle, changed the course of her life. Evelyn told her about a temporary opening for a switchboard operator where she worked, at the Los Angeles Record. The job was meant to last only through the 1926-27 holiday season, so Aggie jumped at the chance.

Aggie & Harry [Photo courtesy CSUN Special Collections]

Aggie arrived at the Record utterly unfamiliar with the newspaper business, but she swiftly adapted and it became clear to everyone that, even without training, she was sharp and eager to learn. The temporary switchboard job turned into a permanent position.

In December 1927, the kidnapping and cruel mutilation murder of twelve-year-old schoolgirl Marion Parker horrified the city. Aggie was at the Record when they received word the perpetrator, William Edward Hickman, who had nicknamed himself “The Fox,” was in custody in Oregon. The breaking story created a firestorm of activity in the newsroom. Aggie had seen nothing like it. She knew then she didn’t want to be a bystander. She wanted to be a reporter.

When the Record was sold in January 1935, Aggie accepted an offer from William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper, the Evening Herald and Express, propelling her into the big leagues. Working for Hearst differed entirely from working for the Record. Hearst expected his reporters to work at breakneck speed. After all, they had to live up to the paper’s motto, “The First with the latest.”

From January 1935, until January 1947, Aggie covered everything from fires and floods to murder and mayhem, frequently with photographer Perry Fowler by her side. She considered herself to be a general assignment reporter, but developed a reputation and a knack for covering crimes.

Sometimes she helped to solve them.

In December 1939, Aggie was called to the scene of what appeared to be a tragic accident on the Angeles Crest Highway. Laurel Crawford said he had taken his family on a scenic drive, but lost control of the family sedan on a sharp curve. The car plunged over 1000 feet down an embankment, killing his wife, three children, and a boarder in their home. He said he had survived by jumping from the car at the last moment.

When asked by Sheriff’s investigators for her opinion, Aggie said she had observed Laurel’s clothing and his demeanor, and neither lent credibility to his account. She concluded Laurel was “guilty as hell.” Her hunch was right. Upon investigation, police discovered Laurel had engineered the accident to collect over $30,000 in life insurance.

Hollywood was Aggie’s beat, too. When stars misbehaved or perished under mysterious or tragic circumstances, Aggie was there to record everything for Herald readers. On December 16, 1935, popular actress and café owner Thelma Todd died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the garage of her Pacific Palisades ho9me. Thelma’s autopsy was Aggie’s first, and her fellow reporters put her to the test. It backfired on them. Before the coroner could finish his grim work, her colleagues had turned green and fled the room. Aggie remained upright.

Though Aggie never considered herself a feminist, she paved the way for female journalists. In January 1947, they yanked her off the notorious Black Dahlia murder case and made her editor of the City Desk, making her one of the first woman to hold this post for a major metropolitan newspaper. Known to keep a bat and startup pistol handy at her desk, just in case, she was beloved by her staff and served as City Editor for the Herald (later Herald Examiner) until retiring in 1968.

Aggie at a crime scene c. 1946

When she passed away in 1984, the Herald-Examiner eulogized her. “She was undeterred by the grisliest of crime scenes and had a knack for getting details that eluded other reporters. As editor, she knew the names and telephone numbers of numerous celebrities, in addition to all the bars her reporters frequented. She cultivated the day’s best sources, ranging from gangsters and prostitutes to movie stars and government officials.”

They were right. Aggie dined with judges, cops, and even gangster Mickey Cohen. I hope you will enjoy reading about Aggie, as much as I will enjoy telling her stories.

Joan

Aggie and the City of Forgotten Women, Conclusion

This is the third of a series of articles by an International News Service staff correspondent who obtained the first comprehensive inside story of California’s unique all-woman prison.

Tehachapi, Cal., May 2 — Forbidden to read newspapers, their only source of information being occasional letters and visits by friends, the 145 women inmates of California’s “City of Forgotten Women,” Tehachapi, have one question that is always asked early during a visit.

“Something new?” It was the first question asked me by Mrs. Anna de Ritas, 39-year-old convicted slayer of her sweetheart Mike Lotito. The dormitory in which she is housed is by far the “happiest” sounding building of the prison group. Anna de Ritas shot her lover to death.

Housed with her are Miss Thelma Alley, Hollywood actress, convicted of manslaughter in connection with an automobile accident; Mrs. Eleanor Hansen, who murdered the husband whom she charged failed to properly feed her and their daughter; Emma Le Doux, who has spent more than 20 years in state prisons for murder in Stockton.

Another interesting inmate of Tehachapi, and another really happy one, is Mrs. Trinity Nandi who has spent more than 17 years behind prison walls for murder. She is to be released in May, and she is full of plans for the future.

Since her removal from San Quentin to the Tehachapi institution, Mrs. Nandi has been working in the rabbitry and has qualified as an expert. It is her hope to start a rabbit farm when she is released. The women in Tehachapi are learning how to make themselves useful when they leave it.

When Burmah first entered Tehachapi, she was full of ambition and conducted classes in commercial courses, Miss Josephine Jackson, deputy warden, says Burmah did a fine job of it. She taught oral English, typing, and dramatics to fellow inmates.

She fell ill for almost two months and during that illness her ambition and vivacity seemed to disappear.

Burmah White

“I’ve gone into it very thoroughly,” Burmah said softly, and sadly, after announcing that her interviewer was the first visitor she has had since last November. Her father, who was loyal to her throughout her arrest and trial, is dead now.

“The prison board can’t do a thing. The judge who sentenced me fixed that up and I just can’t see any sense in working hard every day when there’s nothing to work for. I can’t see any sense in hoping for the future, when there’ nothing to hope for. I can’t see any sense in training for work to do when I get out of here, because I’ll be an old lady then–maybe not old physically, but I know from what it’s already done to me that I’ll be hundreds of years old mentally.”

The girl the nation read out as the “jazz baby,” Burmah White, the blonde bandit moll, wife of one of Los Angeles’ most notorious slain criminals, Thomas White, has vanished. The “tough,” cynical 19-year-old girl who entered the prison 16 months ago has been transformed into a quiet mannered, sad-eyed girl, her face framed in soft dark brown hair which she had let grow back to its natural color.

“You know,” she said, with a slightly cynical smile, “they tell me there’s civilization beyond them thar hills!”

“I was an example to the youth of this country when I was sentenced for the wrongs I had done. That was the sole purpose in giving me that stiff sentence–to set an example. I wonder if it has deterred any girls in Los Angeles from a life of crime–I doubt if it even made an impression on any of them,” she said bitterly.

I found she had been making a new blouse out of a bit of silk that she had managed to obtain. A particularly becoming blouse–peach colored, with a white lacing down the front.

“Oh, can you wear those things up here?” I asked her, and then she grinned her old grin and said, “Well, we can wear dark skirts and blouses on Sunday–only the blouses have to be white–but making it helped pass the time of day.”

NOTE: This is the final installment of Aggie’s interviews with inmates in the Women’s Prison in Tehachapi. . When the series appeared, Aggie had been working for William Randolph Hearst for less than a year. The series was syndicated which gave her national exposure, and helped her earn a reputation as a reporter to be reckoned with.

Aggie and the City of Forgotten Women, Part 2

Aggie Underwood interviews an unknown woman (possibly at Lincoln Heights Jail)

This is the second of a series on California’s unique women’s prison, which has bestirred national interest among sociologists and penologists. An International News Service staff correspondent was able to obtain the first comprehensive “inside story” of the institution where Clara Phillips and other noted women offenders are now confined.

Tehachapi, Cal., May 1, 1935 — Eight months in the “death house!”

Eight months in which to sit in one tiny room, forbidden to talk to anyone except matrons–Eight months in which to remember–what?

Possibly the sound of six shots, ringing out in the still of night–six shots which ended the life of Eric B. Madison, movie studio cashier.

Eight months in which to hear over and over again, the voice of a judge saying “You are sentenced to hang by the neck until dead”.

That is the fate of Nellie B. Madison, comely widow, who is the only woman in California now under sentence to die on the gallows.

Nellie Madison [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Just eight months ago last March 12, Nellie Madison entered Tehachapi prison and was placed in the “death cell.”

This “cell” is merely a room in the prison hospital. Architects who designed the state institution for woman at Tehachapi omitted “death cell.” That’s another way this prison is different.

So, in this room on the second floor of the administration building, Nellie Madison sits day after day. She seems a quite different person from the Nellie Madison who amazed Los Angeles court attaches during her trial with her cool, calm demeanor.

Her nattily tailored clothes are, of course, discarded for the regulation prison costume–blue denim dresses with a white pinstripe.

Her jet-black hair, now greying, has grown from the trim modern bob until it almost reaches her shoulders.

“In Los Angeles, I was thoroughly benumbed by all that had happened,” she said after the first glad welcome of seeing someone whom she had seen in the outside world.

“I couldn’t realize just what had happened to me, but now that I have been here–let’s see is it only eight months or is it ten years–well, I’ve begun to get all the confidence in the world that the State Supreme court will reverse my conviction.”

This was Mrs. Madison’s only interview since she has entered the state institution.

“It seems to me that one’s conscience would be the greatest punishment in the world,” she said.

“My conscience doesn’t bother me one bit, but I do feel the disgrace that I have brought on myself and my family. One’s past good name and character seem to mean nothing when a person gets into trouble, but it apparently doesn’t mean a thing.”

Mrs. Madison’s recreation consists of short walks on the grounds each day–in company with a matron and the letters she receives from friends.”


Aggie became interested in Nellie’s case when she covered it for the Herald. As she learned more about the abuse Nellie suffered at the hands of her husband, Eric, the less she believed Nellie deserved to hang. Through her coverage of the case, and her advocacy, Aggie and others were successful in getting Nellie’s sentence commuted to life; which made her eligible for parole. On March 27, 1943, nine years and three days after the murder, the state released Nellie.

In her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie said this about the case.

“While one’s work as a reporter may serve justice and work for or against a defendant, one shies from taking bows for presumed triumphs. Even in commendation, one does not want to feel one’s fairness impugned. I was embarrassed, therefore, when Nellie Madison embraced me gratefully at Tehachapi when I informed her that her sentence to be hanged had been commuted to life imprisonment by Governor Frank F. Merriam.”

“‘You did it! You did it!’ she wept. ‘I owe it all to you!’”

NEXT TIME: In the third article, Aggie tells of interviews with other inmates at Tehachapi.

Film Noir Friday-Sunday Evening: Try and Get Me! aka The Sound of Fury [1951]

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 TRY AND GET ME! aka THE SOUND OF FURY, starring Frank Lovejoy, Kathleen Ryan, and Lloyd Bridges.

The film is based on the 1947 novel The Condemned by Jo Pagano, who also wrote the screenplay. The Pagano novel was based on events that occurred in 1933 when two men were arrested in San Jose, California for the kidnapping and murder of Brooke Hart. The suspects confessed and were subsequently lynched by a mob of locals. The 1936 film, Fury, directed by Fritz Lang, was inspired by the same incident.

Enjoy the movie.

TCM says:

Impoverished Howard Tyler decides to move his pregnant wife Judy and their young son Tommy from Massachusetts to the friendly town of Santa Sierra, California, to find his fortune working in the mines. Once there, however, Howard cannot find a job and the family’s poverty deepens to the point where Judy cannot even afford a doctor to monitor her pregnancy. In his desperation, Howard meets a petty thief named Jerry Slocum and is easily convinced to work for him, helping him to commit a series of robberies. Convinced that the town is experiencing an incipient crime wave, publisher and editor of the Santa Sierra Journal Hal Clendenning assigns featured columnist Gil Stanton to sensationalize the new trend. 

Eddie Muller, the Czar of Noir, introuced this film for TCM’s Noir Alley, which he hosts. Check it out.


The Cold Turkey Pinch

What’s a cold turkey pinch? In the 1930s, it was cop speak for an officer who made an arrest with no effort–no gathering of evidence, no investigation, nothing.

Thanksgiving Day on “The Nickel” (Fifth Street) in 1937 was desperate living personified. LAPD Detective Lieutenants Bailey and Olson sat in the Chicago Cafe at 209 Fifth and watched as drunks shuffled past, oblivious to those who would do them harm. Old Man Depression brought an abundance of misery, leaving The Nickel devoid of warmth, joy, and delicious aromas found in other city neighborhoods.

The detectives sipped their coffees and kept their eyes peeled for predators who preyed on helpless drunks. Known as drunk rollers, the vultures robbed Skid Row inebriates of their few possessions. A man, seemingly down on his luck, seated himself beside Bailey and said, “you wouldn’t mind staking a thirsty guy to a nickel beer would you.” After looking the stranger up and down, Bailey bought the man a brew.

Chicago Cafe at 209 Fifth Street c. 1937. [Photo is from Schultheis collection at the LAPL]

The man sat silently nursing his beer, then he turned to Bailey and pointed at a man in a booth who had obviously passed out. “Watch me,” the beer drinker said–then he walked over to the unconscious boozer and searched through his clothing.

When he returned to his seat he grinned at Bailey and Olson and said, “See what I got?” and held up a dollar bill. “Now I guess it’s my treat.”

“Yes, brother, I sure guess it’s your treat all right,” said Bailey as pulled out his badge and arrested his would-be benefactor. Bailey booked Jack Orchard, 35, at the City Jail on suspicion of robbery.

If you wonder what Jack Orchard’s Thanksgiving repast was like in the county slammer, they served prisoners veal turnovers w/cream gravy, mashed potatoes, sugar peas, combination salad, one doughnut and coffee. The jailers, however, got turkey with all the trimmings. Crime doesn’t pay.

May your Thanksgiving be happier than Jack Orchard’s (although he got a free beer.)  Have a great Holiday and stay safe. Those Black Friday sales can be murder!

NOTE: I’ll pick up the rest of Aggie Underwood’s Tehachapi series in my next post.

Film Noir Friday-Sunday Matinee: And Then There Were None [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.  Tonight’s feature is AND THEN THERE WERE NONE [1945]. It is based on a 1939 Agatha Christie novel, and stars Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, and Louis Hayward, Enjoy the film.

TCM Says:

On a stormy Friday afternoon, Judge Francis J. Quincannon, Dr. Edward G. Armstrong, Philip Lombard, Vera Claythorne, General Sir John Mandrake, Emily Brent, William H. Blore and Prince Nikita Starloff are taken on a fishing boat to Indian Island, off the coast of Devon, England, for a weekend visit with the mysterious U. N. Owen. The eight passengers, who are all strangers, are greeted by butler Thomas Rogers and his wife Ethel, the cook, who reveal that they have not met their new employer. While eating in the dining room, the guests become intrigued by the centerpiece, which consists of ten figurines of Indian boys. Vera begins to recite the nursery rhyme about ten little Indian boys who are killed, and Starloff continues the rhyme in the parlor. Rogers then puts a record on the phonograph, as he was instructed to do, and the guests are astonished to hear Owen accuse them of various crimes that led to the deaths of others.