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’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.
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.
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.
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.