Final Thoughts on The “It” Girl and the Secretary

Image courtesy of the Clara Bow Archive.

Image courtesy of the Clara Bow Archive.

Clara Bow’s former secretary Daisy De Voe had attempted to use her insider knowledge of Clara’s private life to extort money from the actress; but the truth was she didn’t know much that was worth reporting. So what if Clara liked to party, that was hardly big news in Hollywood. Clara refused to pay her off.

girnauWhen Frederic Girnau (the publisher behind the excretory rag The Coast Reporter) and Daisy De Voe put their malicious heads together they concocted a revolting 60 page document called “Clara’s Secret Love-Life as told by Daisy.”

Girnau contacted Rex Bell and offered to sell The Coast Reporter for $25,000 — but Bell, acting on Clara’s behalf, rejected the offer. The spiteful Girnau then sent copies to Will Hays (first president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, and the man for whom the Hollywood censorship code was named), Superior Court Judges, and local PTA officials. By doing so the idiot violated Section 211 of the U.S. Penal Code which prohibited “mailing, transporting or importing anything lewd, lascivious, or obscene.”

Over the years there have been many outrageous stories circulated about Clara Bow. The genesis of the worst of them was Frederic Girnau’s Coast Reporter. The Coast Reporter accused Bow of everything from drug addiction and drunken sex sprees in Mexico to bestiality. It’s no wonder that as soon as she was able Clara left with Rex Bell for his Nevada ranch. Her nerves were shattered.

Image courtesy of the Clara Bow Archive.

Image courtesy of the Clara Bow Archive.

If Clara had believed that her Hollywood friends would stick by her she was sadly mistaken. There appeared to be few differences between the Hollywood crowd and De Voe and Girnau.

B.P. Schulberg

B.P. Schulberg

Even though Clara was obviously going through an emotional crisis of Herculean proportions Paramount producer, B.P. Schulberg, didn’t cut her an inch of slack. On the contrary, he bullied her until she relented and agreed to return to the studio for her next picture, “The Secret Call”.

Clara managed to get through the costume fitting and a private rehearsal with director Stuart Walker. But on the day she was supposed to begin shooting at the studio she awoke well before her 6 a.m. call screaming and sobbing hysterically.

Clara’s housekeeper was unable to calm her and phoned Rex Bell for help. When Rex arrived he found Clara still hysterical repeating: “I can’t do it, I can’t do it.”

Rex carried Clara to his car and drove her to the Glendale Sanitarium where she was diagnosed with nervous exhaustion.

glendale sanitarium

Schulberg used Clara’s fragile condition to his advantage. He told her that her health was the studio’s primary concern and that they wouldn’t hold her to her contract if she wanted out. It sounded warm and fuzzy, but It was a disingenuous way of manipulating Clara into saying publicly that she couldn’t fulfill her obligations to Paramount. She told columnist Louella Parsons: “I don’t wanna hold Paramount to no contract”. It was the perfect escape hatch for Schulberg and he took it. He had a release form drafted which relieved the studio of any financial obligation to Clara, and she signed it. Schulberg had saved Paramount $60,000 [equivalent to over $900,000 in current USD].

Peggy Shannon

Peggy Shannon

Clara’s role in “The Secret Call” went to newcomer Peggy Shannon. A former Ziegfeld Girl, and a redhead like Bow, Shannon had been in Hollywood for a very short time when she was spotted by Schulberg who groomed her to be the next “It Girl”. Peggy’s life became another tragic Hollywood story. Her career never really took off and she died of complications from alcoholism in 1941 at age 34. Her husband found her slumped over the kitchen table with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of booze in the other. The poor man was so devastated that he committed suicide shortly after Peggy’s death.

Ironically, B.P. Schulberg’s career didn’t survive much longer than Clara’s. He was pushed out of Paramount, probably due to his liberal politics. He became an independent film producer but Paramount stopped distributing his films in 1937. He produced a few films for Columbia, but retired from the business in 1943.

Clara and Rex were married not long after the trial ended. They had two boys together and they remained married until Rex’s death in 1962. Clara suffered from emotional problems throughout the years and her issues resulted in an estrangement from her family. She spent the last years of her life living in Culver City under the constant care of a nurse.

clara rex kidsClara Bow died of a heart attack on September 27, 1965.

What happened to Daisy De Voe and Frederic Girnau?girnau prison

Frederic Girnau spent forty-two months in a Federal slammer for his poison pen attacks on Clara. Actually, that’s not quite true. The attacks themselves, had they not risen to the level of obscenity, would not likely have caused any problems for the muckraking publisher. However, once they were deemed to be obscene and then sent through the U.S. mail Girnau was in deep trouble. He was released in September 1934, but when he violated his parole by driving drunk he was returned to Leavenworth Prison to finish out his term of 8 years. He died in 1955.

daisy sisterDaisy De Voe (whose real surname was DeBoe) served eighteen months in L.A. County Jail following her conviction for stealing a fur coat from Clara. Daisy wasn’t the only member of her family to have problems obeying the law.

Daisy’s father was arrested in 1931 on a possession of liquor charge (not his first), and her sister Grace was busted in September 1932 after a raid on a still in North Hollywood.

Maybe Daisy matured and reformed because I couldn’t find any trace of her in newspapers after 1933, until she surfaced in her mother’s January 11, 1974 obituary. Daisy had married — her name was Daisy DeBoe Stanek. She’d probably had children too, because her mother was survived by five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

The harm that Daisy and Girnau had done to Clara was incalculable. But game, set, and match were won by Clara.

DeBoe and Girnau may have enjoyed their fleeting notoriety, but Clara Bow left a legacy of brilliant performances. She has a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, while DeBoe and Girnau are barely footnotes in Hollywood history.

The last words belong to Clara:

“My life in Hollywood contained plenty of uproar. I’m sorry for a lot of it but not awfully sorry. I never did anything to hurt anyone else. I made a place for myself on the screen and you can’t do that by being Mrs. “Louisa May Alcott” Alcott’s idea of a “Little Women”.


Film Noir Friday: “M”


It’s Film Noir Friday at the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater. Tonight’s feature is the 1931 classic “M”, directed by Fritz Lang. The following is portion of a review written by Roger Ebert:

The horror of the faces: That is the overwhelming image that remains from a recent viewing of the restored version of “M,”Fritz Lang’s famous 1931 film about a child murderer in Germany. In my memory it was a film that centered on the killer, the creepy little Franz Becker, played by Peter Lorre. But Becker has relatively limited screen time, and only one consequential speech–although it’s a haunting one. Most of the film is devoted to the search for Becker, by both the police and the underworld, and many of these scenes are played in closeup. In searching for words to describe the faces of the actors, I fall hopelessly upon “piglike.’ — Robert Ebert / August 3, 1997

The “It” Girl and the Secretary, Part 3

Daisy De Voe

Daisy De Voe

Daisy De Voe wanted $125,000 [equivalent to $1.7 million current USD] to keep her mouth shut about Clara Bow’s private life. When her extortion plan failed and she was busted for grand theft De Voe’s attorney, Nathan O. Freedman, used Clara’s private correspondence to humiliate her in open court; and it was all legal. The stolen papers had been submitted as evidence. It was a nightmare for Clara.


Rex Bell and friend.

Freedman tormented the actress with questions about her relationship with Rex Bell. Clara became angry and frustrated, particularly when he asked her about Daisy’s firing:

“As a matter of fact he (Rex Bell) discharged Miss De Voe from her position as your secretary?”

Clara snapped:

“He didn’t!”

But Freedman continued:

“Well, he’s your secretary now, isn’t he?”

Clara replied:

“He is not; I know it has been printed that he is, but it is not the truth.”

To anyone reading the newspapers it must have appeared that Clara was on trial and not Daisy. Finally, the D.A. questioned Clara about Daisy’s attempt at extortion. Clara testified that only a few days following Daisy’s dismissal W.I. Gilbert, Clara’s attorney, had come to her and told her that Daisy had paid him a visit. The former secretary had demanded $125,000 or, she said, she would turn over certain information she possessed to the newspapers. Then she had the audacity to go to Clara and demand to get her job back!

There was a turning point in the trial though, and it came when a forensic accountant testified that after having double-checked his way through 1,558 of the special account’s canceled checks he discovered a shortfall of $48,000. The special account was the one for which Daisy had access.

Daisy took the witness stand to explain the missing $48,000, but instead she began to tell tales about Clara’s personal life. According to Daisy, Clara played poker six nights a week and had large quantities of liquor delivered to her home on a regular basis. If Daisy was telling nothing but the truth, the jury must have wondered when Clara found the time to appear in films.clara_ace

Egged on by her attorney’s questions, Daisy told the packed courtroom about Clara’s lifestyle:

“She would rather stay home and play poker than go to the theater or any other place. We played all the time; six nights a week, at least. She never carried any money with her and I had to pay off her debts. Sometimes it was only $4 or $5 and sometimes it was $200.”

The strain of having her life scrutinized in court resulted in Clara absenting herself from the trial. Her physician, Dr. Wesley Hommel, said:

“Miss Bow is suffering from a severe cold and from nervous strain attendant on the trial.” She is running a temperature and I ordered her to bed. Her condition is not serious and she should be up and around in a few days.”

While Clara was ill, Rex Bell, her boyfriend, was a front-seat spectator at the trail.

Nearly three weeks into the trial Judge Doran finally banned the rampant mudslinging, coming primarily from Daisy’s corner. He was interested in having more attention paid to the question of whether she stole Clara Bow’s money than what she knew about Clara’s private life.

It was about damned time.

Clara hadn’t done anything but misjudged Daisy’s character, and yet her reputation had been tarnished. Daisy’s venomous attacks even had a deleterious effect on Clara’s career. The Riverside Board of Censorship barred one of Clara’s films “because of the notoriety” given the actress in the trial of her former secretary. The chair of the board, Mrs. Jessie Joslyn, self-righteously announced:

“Our action in barring the film was taken because of the notoriety given the actress in the Los Angeles trial. Besides, the picture is not of a type we want shown.”

Meanwhile, Daisy’s jury came back deadlocked. They seemed to be confused by one of the judge’s instructions to them regarding “intent to permanently deprive the owner of property”.

Since I can’t time travel, I have no idea why the jury was so confused, or why in the world they found Daisy De Voe guilty on only one of the over thirty counts of grand theft! Even more unfathomable to me was that they recommended leniency for Daisy! They should have thrown the book at her.daisy verdict

Daisy’s request for a new trial was denied, and she was finally sentenced to five years of probation, eighteen months of which she would be required to spend in the County Jail.

daisy slammerDaisy asked for bail so she could be out during the appeal; however, her request was denied a couple of times before she was released on March 28, 1931 on $5000 bail pending an appeal.

While Daisy was fighting her conviction, and Clara was attempting to piece her life back together, a dirt bag named Fred Girnau was taken into custody by the Feds for sending a publication containing alleged obscene articles about Clara through the mails. And where did he get his information? He said he got it from Daisy De Voe.

The misery of having her private life made food for public consumption was finally too much for Clara who, in May 1931, was admited to the Glendale Sanatorium. Paramount studio executives denied that Bow’s illness would terminate her career.

If there was any good news at all it was that Daisy De Voe and H. Girnau were at each other’s throats — suing and countersuing each other over the stories about Clara Bow that appeared in Girnau’s nasty little rag, The Coast Reporter.

Daisy De Voe’s trial caused Clara so much stress that she decided  to retire from the film business and live a quiet life out of the public eye. Clara’s contract with Paramount was “terminated by mutual consent” and she moved to Rex Bell’s Nevada ranch.


NEXT TIME: Final thoughts on the “It” Girl and the Secretary.



The “It” Girl and the Secretary, Part 2

clara dramaThe indictment returned by the Los Angeles County Grand Jury against Clara Bow’s former secretary, Daisy De Voe, totaled 37 counts of grand theft. Not only was it alleged that De Voe had walked off with some of Bow’s jewelry and personal papers, she was also accused of withdrawing approximately $16,000 [equivalent to $222,434.49 current USD] from one of Clara’s accounts. De Voe was arrested and immediately posted a $1000 bond so she wouldn’t have to await her arraignment from behind bars.daisy_indicted

De Voe’s attorney, Nathan O. Freedman, filed a complaint on her behalf against Clara Bow, Rex Bell, and three employees of the District Attorney’s office. The complaint asked for $7200 [equivalent to $100,095.52 current USD] damages based on De Voe’s “unlawful detention” for forty-eight hours when she was investigated in connection with missing property said to have belonged to her former employer.

daisy sues claraDe Voe’s trial began on January 13, 1931, and Daisy’s attorney quickly directed the juror’s attention away from Daisy’s alleged bad behavior by shining a light on Clara’s lifestyle. According to information gleaned from canceled checks, Bow spent over $350,000 [equivalent to $4.8 million current USD] between February 1929 and October 1930 on clothing, automobiles, and going out. Freedman’s diversionary tactics included questioning the actress about payments for whiskey (illegal at the time).

Under cross-examination Freedman asked Clara if she’d authorized a check for $143.50 for whisky and another on March 10, 1930, for $117.50 for whiskey. Clara replied:

“I authorized Miss De Voe to spend whatever was necessary to maintain the household. I trusted her. If she wanted to buy whiskey, why, I suppose, she made out the checks and signed them.”

Freedman continued to question Clara:

“Didn’t you ever look through the books to see what she spent?”

To which Clara replied:

“No, I never looked through the books–that’s why I was so silly–I trusted her.”

Clara was particularly upset when Dep. Dist.-Atty. Clark showed her a canceled check in the amount of $850, and asked asked her if she had knowingly authorized De Voe’s purchase of a fur coat with the money:

“That is my check. I signed it myself. But Miss De Voe brought it to me and said it was to go on my income tax and I signed it because I trusted her.”

Clara broke down in tears when she was asked about an engraved silver dresser set. According to Clara, De Voe had presented the set to her as a birthday gift.

The D.A. asked:

“Did you authorize Miss De Voe to draw a check upon your special account to pay for this set?”

Bow sobbed:

“I never did. I thought she was just being sweet and kind to me, that’s all.”

Clara explained repeatedly under questioning that she had authorized De Voe only to draw checks for her own salary and for household expenses.

At one point Clara leaned forward in the witness box and remarked to De Voe:

“Go ahead and sneer, Daisy, that’s all right.”

Because Daisy had taken many of Clara’s personal papers, including love letters and telegrams, the items were entered into evidence. And of course some of the telegrams, particularly the most personal of them, were read aloud in court. There was a telegram dated September 8, 1930 from Rex Bell to Clara while she was staying at Tahoe, and it read:

“Dearest sweetheart, darling baby, I do miss you, and this is only the beginning. Rex.”

Local newspapers printed as much as they could of Clara’s personal correspondence, which had to have been excruciating for the actress. The papers also printed excerpts from Daisy’s confession to the D.A. — and they spoke volumes about Daisy’s character — or lack thereof.

Clara Bow & Rex Bell

Clara Bow & Rex Bell

Daisy had come to L.A. in 1923 after graduating from a St. Louis beauty college. She was employed in two beauty parlors before transferring to the Paramount studio where she eventually met Clara Bow. Clara hired Daisy in 1929.

The former hairdresser had taken every opportunity to defame Clara in her confession. When she was asked about the her duties for the star, Daisy said:

“Well, I did plenty.  Her house was terribly dirty.  I had the whole place renovated, the drapes taken down and the rugs taken out and cleaned; floors polished; furniture gone over, and everything; and, well, I don’t know what I did.”

In her confession Daisy said that she overheard a conversation between Clara and Rex Bell, in which Bell said he thought Daisy ought to be fired. When she was asked what she did with that information, she said that she decided to go quietly because:

“…Miss Bow was drunk and if I had gotten into any argument with her she would have tried to kill me because she had tried to once before…”

Daisy continued:

“I think it would be better to walk out and later on straighten out her affairs. I wanted to get her things settled as quietly as possible, and keep Clara out of the papers, because one more slam in the papers and Clara is through in pictures.”

Was Daisy really trying to help Clara out of a potentially bad situation? No way. Her confession revealed her attempt to extort money from Clara by threatening to use her personal papers to expose her to public ridicule. For her silence, Daisy told the D.A.’s investigators that she’d asked for  $125,000. She said:

“I think it would be to her advantage to keep my mouth shut.”

When she was asked how much money she had drawn out of Clara’s account over and above her salary, Daisy replied that she’d taken $35,000! But in her mind it was all Clara’s fault:

“It was her fault.  If she had paid attention to business I wouldn’t have taken a dime from her because she would have known about everything. She wouldn’t even write her own checks.  She put me in a position to take everything I wanted.  Of course, I didn’t blame her.”

Next Time: The mudslinging continues, and Riverside bans one of Clara Bows films.

The “It” Girl and the Secretary

clara bowBy 1930 Clara Bow had been appearing films for eight years, and she’d lit up the screen in every one of them. In 1924 Bow was selected to be a WAMPAS Baby Star.


The Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers (WAMPAS), honored thirteen (fourteen in 1932) young women each year whom they believed to be on the threshold of movie stardom. Clara had appeared in about 40 films by the time she made “WINGS” and “IT” in 1927. Both films were financial and critical successes, and Clara was praised as “a joy to behold”. However, she would forever be identified as the “It Girl”.

clara itWhat is “it”? In his 1904 short story “Mrs. Bathurst”, Rudyard Kipling introduced the concept:

“It isn’t beauty, so to speak, nor good talk necessarily. It’s just “It”. Some women will stay in a man’s memory if they once walk down the street.”

In February 1927, Cosmopolitan magazine published a two-part serial story in which Elinor Glyn described “It” as:

“That quality possessed by some which draws all others with its magnetic force. With “it” you win all men if you are a woman and all women if you are a man. “it” can be a quality of the mind as well as a physical attraction.”

rod la rocqueThere was no question that Clara Bow possessed “It” in spades. The public adored her, and with good reason. Bow had sex appeal infused with enough sweetness and innocence to make her approachable, not saccharin.

Clara was making truckloads of money, and her contemporaries were doing just as well. But many of them were like kids in a candy store, they had no clue about what do with their money except to spend it. Fellow star, Rod La Rocque, became incorporated and his fortune was under the management of a board of directors.

Until about 1928, Clara’s money had been managed by Bogart Rogers. In 1930 her money and her personal affairs were in the hands of her secretary, Daisy De Voe. daisy

On November 10, 1930 local newspapers reported on a story that was eventually going to shine a light on both Clara’s money and Daisy’s management skills. Clara and Daisy had parted ways, and it wasn’t an amicable split.

Both Clara and Daisy denied the stories of the break in their professional relationship. De Voe said:

“As far as I know I am still her secretary. Miss Bow has not served notice on me. I guess I’ll have to find out all about it.”

Clara refused to comment.

A few days later the story got even more interesting when it was revealed that Daisy  had indeed been fired by Clara, and then she had helped herself to some of her former employer’s valuables including: diamond jewelry, a sapphire ring, and all of Bow’s insurance papers. In addition, Daisy had also taken a $20,000 cashier’s check, and a mass of personal papers, including canceled checks, paid and unpaid bills, and personal correspondence.

Despite the fact that De Voe had taken thousands of dollars worth of Clara’s belongings, the cheeky amanuensis was gearing up to file a suit against Bow for several thousand dollars that she alleged she was owed for back pay and expenses.

De Voe and Bow had disagreed on what to do with the cashier’s check; but why did De Voe take jewelry and papers belonging to her employer?

“Clara was going to use this in a business deal I had advised her against going into so that is the reason I kept it from her. She knows as well as everybody else that I could never have cashed it. I intended giving it back the same as everything I had that belonged to her. They (the D.A. and cops) treated me terribly and I think it absolutely unjust the way the treated me and kept me at the hotel. I believe, as does my attorney, we have justifiable cause of action against them.”

clara rex court

Clara Bow and Rex Bell

De Voe intimated that Clara’s latest boyfriend (actor Rex Bell) was responsible for her firing.  It is possible that Bell instigated the firing, but once Clara had discovered her belongings were missing she had no other choice.

Daisy’s attorney, Nathan O. Freedman, announced that he was going to file a civil suit on her behalf against Buron Fitts (he D.A.) and Blayney Matthews (a chief investigator for the D.A.’s office).  According to De Voe the two had held her incommunicado for several days while they cleaned out her safe deposit box. Fitts didn’t think De Voe had much of a case since the majority of the items found in the safe deposit box had belonged to Clara Bow.

Fitts told reporters:

“This matter came into this office in the nature of a formal request for a criminal complaint against Miss Daisy De Voe for the embezzlement of money and property belonging to Miss Clara Bow. The matter was regularly referred to Mr. Blayney Matthews, chief of the bureau of investigation. After several days of investigation, Mr. Matthews reported back that Miss De Voe had made a thirty page confession of the theft of some $35,000 of Miss Bow’s money, a great deal of which was found in her possession.”

“It is the policy of this office that before issuing a complaint against a private citizen to first thoroughly investigate the case in order to prevent a mistake or miscarriage of justice. This investigation was completed today, and this office has no other alternative under the law but to place the matter before the county grand jury.”

Daisy was quick to deny having made a confession, and she boasted that she had nothing to fear from the grand jury; but she had spoken too soon.

The grand jury indicted Daisy De Voe on thirty-seven counts of grand theft!

NEXT TIME: The De Voe case continues.

The Lady in the Lake

headlineOn October 29, 1941, a story appeared in the L.A. Times about a man, Monty J. llingworth, who had been arrested for the 1937 murder of his wife, Hallie, in Clallam County, Washington.

Because Illingworth had committed the crime in Washington it wasn’t covered extensively here, but I have to wonder if Raymond Chandler saw the piece in the newspaper and was inspired to write THE LADY IN THE LAKE (published in 1943).chandler

The true story of the Lady began on July 6, 1940 when two fishermen found the well preserved body of a woman floating in the waters of Lake Crescent, near Port Angeles, Washington. The corpse had been wrapped in blankets and tied with heavy rope.

chandler1The body was not decomposed as one might have expected, nor was it bloated as “floaters” generally are. Dr. Kaveney, who examined the body, said:

“I never saw a corpse just like this one before. The flesh is hard, almost waxy. She must be nearly as large as when she went into the water. I’d say she is about 5 feet 6 inches in height and that she weighed about 140 pounds when alive.”

There was a chemical reason for the relatively good condition of the woman’s body, she had saponified, she had literally turned into soap! In fact, she had become very much like Ivory soap, the “soap that floats”.

Even though they were unable to I.D. the woman her cause of death was certain, she had been floats

The press dubbed the unknown woman The Lady of the Lake. She was buried as a Jane Doe in a pauper’s grave. She was exhumed a couple of times in an attempt to give her a name, but it wasn’t until criminologist Hollis B. Fultz began to look at missing persons reports from the area that the case came together.

Hollis focused his attention on a missing waitress, Hallie Illingworth. Hallie had been an attractive woman with auburn hair — the corpse also had auburn hair.

Hallie was married to a beer truck driver, Monty Illingworth, at the time of her disappearance. Monty told people that Hallie had run off with a Navy lieutenant commander.

Further investigation revealed that Hallie had never contacted any of her family, which the cops found suspicious. Also suspicious was the fact that Monty had filed for a divorce five months after she’d vanished on the grounds of incompatibility, not desertion.


Hallie Latham Illingworth

A chart was made of the dead woman’s unique upper dental plate and advertised in professional journals. Finally a dentist from South Dakota came forward to positively identify The Lady of the Lake as Hallie Illingworth.

Monty had moved to Long Beach, California shortly after Hallie allegedly ran off with a Navy man. Monty wasn’t alone, accompanying him was Elinore Pearson the daughter of a wealthy timber magnate.

Illingworth was arrested at 1351 St. Louis Street, Long Beach. His mother and Elinor Pearson visited him while he was waiting to find out if he’d be extradited to Washington. In his jail cell, Monty turned to face his mother and said: “Mother, you know I didn’t do it; I didn’t.” To which his mother replied: “Yes, I know you didn’t, son.”

The couple had been living as husband and wife yet Elinor was coy when asked if she was married to Monty, she would neither confirm nor deny it.


Monty Illingworth

The truck driver was extradited to Washington where he was tried for Hallie’s murder.

On March 5, 1942 a Washington jury found Monty Illingworth guilty of second degree murder. They’d agreed on the lesser charge because they felt the crime had been one of passion and not premeditation.

Monty was sentenced to life in Walla Walla Prison, but was paroled after only nine years. He returned to California where he lived until his death in the early 1960s.

A writer of Chandler’s caliber wouldn’t have needed anything more than a small newspaper piece to become inspired. Of course I don’t know if Raymond Chandler actually saw the story about the Lady of the Lake, but I like to think so. Ladyinthelake

Dead Woman Walking: Elizabeth Ann “Ma” Duncan, Part 4

ma rosary

sanity testElizabeth Duncan’s plea of not guilty by reason of insanity would ultimately fail. She was interviewed by shrinks and she even submitted to a brain wave test, but nothing about her tests indicated that she was insane.  Dr. Louis R. Nash, assistant director of Camarillo State Hopsital, described Elizabeth Duncan as a “psychopathic personality” and a “pathological liar”, but said that she sane.

On January 30, 1959, Luis Moya withdrew his not guilty plea and entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. Gus Baldonado would quickly do the same. And, just like Ma, they would be found sane.

One of the most difficult tasks was to find jurors who could be fair and impartial. During voir dire many of the prospective jurors revealed that they had already made up their minds and felt that the defendants were guilty. In fact, Ma and Frank received a lot of hate mail.  A news photo arrived for Ma with multiple epithets scrawled in red ink: “Hope you hang.” “You should have died before you were born.” “Cutthroat.” “I could kill you.” “Apron strings.” “Mamma’s boy.” An anonymous letter posted in San Francisco said:

“Your daughter-in-law was a fine, clean, decent person. She and her unborn child was murdered. I hope the state will execute those involved in that crime. It was a cruel, rotten deal.”

eight women four men pics

The jury of eight women and four men was finally seated. They must have felt their responsibility acutely, it was, after all, a death penalty case and they were charged with determining Ma’s guilt or innocence. There was bad news for Ma, three of them had admitted to believing her guilty before hearing a word of testimony! When Ma got the news that the jurors had been selected she was asked if she thought she could get a fair trial. She didn’t think so, she said that there were too many people against her.

luis moyaThe trial testimony was as gut wrenching as the grand jury testimony had been. In particular, Luis Moya seemed to want to talk.  Moya said that he and Baldonando had been introduced to Mrs. Duncan through Mrs. Esperanza Esquivel, the operator of the Tropical Cafe in Santa Barbara. Equivel would act as the go-between.

Moya testified:

“She (Elizabeth Duncan) told me she had acid, rope and sleeping pills if we decided we could use them. The pills were to be for an overdose, the rope to tie her and the acid to disfigure her (Olga Duncan) face and fingerprints”

The plan Moya and Baldonado came up with was to kidnap Olga and take some of her clothes to make it appear she’d gone on vacation. They were going to dispose of her near Tijuana.

Ma pawned a ring to give Moya $175 for expenses.

About the night of the murder, Moya said:

“I knocked on the door and asked if her husband was Frank Duncan. She said ‘Yes’. I said I had met him at a bar, and that he was pretty drunk and had a lot of money on him. I said I had him in the car and wondered if she would help be bring him up.”

She said ‘Sure, I’ll help you bring him up.’ When she opened the door of the car I hit her a blow over the head with the pistol to try to knock her out.

“It was a very hard blow, but I didn’t knock her out. Baldonado grabbed her and I shoved her into the car.”

Moya said he drove down to the Cabrillo Highway near the beach. Olga was still screaming and Baldonado was hitting her with the pistol.

“I stopped the car and told Baldonado to give me the pistol. I hit her a heavy blow on the head and she passed out. Baldonado taped her hands.

The car they’d rented from a friend for $25 wasn’t working well. They stopped twice before selecting Olga’s final resting place.

Moya said:

“It was a pretty good place to bury her. We didn’t think she would be found. We dragged her out of the car.”

When asked if Olga was still alive, Moya said that she was. Moya told the hushed courtroom that because he’d broken the gun over Olga’s head, they’d decided to strangle her. He said:

“We decided to strangle her until she was dead. We took turns strangling her and hit her with a rock.”

Baldanodo wasn’t nearly as loquacious as Moya — his testimony provided some corroboration  but primarily consisted of “I don’t recall” answers.gus baldonado

Ma’s friend, Emma Short, testified to overhearing threatening phone calls made by Ma to Olga. When she was asked about the relationship between Ma and Frank, Emma said that he often called his mother “doll” and she’d heard him promise many times “I’ll never leave you.”

While no one had mentioned incest directly, there were many oblique references to it in the questioning of witnesses about the relationship between mother and son. Short was asked about the sleeping arrangements in the two bedroom apartment shared by Frank and his mother before the marriage. She told the court:

“Mrs. Duncan’s bedroom could be seen from the living room. Frank was lying in her bed. She came out and said, ‘Isn’t he beautiful?'”

At last Ma took the stand. She testified that she had once plotted to tie up and kidnap Frank! She felt that if she got him away from Olga he’d snap to his senses; however, she continued to deny that she threatened Olga or ever intended to harm her.

The courtroom was thrown into an uproar when Ma’s past was exposed during cross-examination by the D.A.. She had been married about 16 times, and had failed to get an annulment or divorce for many of them. The D.A. also revealed that she had six children! Ma acknowledged 10 of the marriages, but she said she couldn’t recall any of the others.

When she was asked about her relationship with Frank, Ma said it was one of love and devotion. The D.A. asked if she loved Frank more that her other children, she replied: “Yes”.frank testifies

Next to take the stand was Frank Duncan. He testified that:

“I loved my mother and I love her still.”

He continued to support Elizabeth’s story throughout the trial.

One of the trial shockers came when Ma was asked by the D.A. if she had worked as a madam to put Frank through law school and she shouted “No!” The D.A. persisted in his questioning:

“Well, that was your occupation, wasn’t it?”

Ma responded:

“I didn’t consider it an occupation. It was a position.”

frank_in tears

While Ma’s personality was revealed during the trial, it was difficult to get a handle on Frank — what he knew, when he knew it, and exactly what kind of man he was. He was in law school when Ma was running a brothel and he must have known what was going on. How did he feel about that? He never said.frank_ma

There were, however, a few tantalizing glimpses into Frank’s personality.

He became angry and actually rose to object when the D.A. taunted him by calling him “Frankie”. He left the courtroom in tears during Luis Moya’s testimony in  which he  recounted the details of Olga’s monstrous death.

Frank admitted that he’d dated a woman in San Francisco during a business trip while he was married to Olga. He didn’t bother to tell his date that he was married. Apparently Frank couldn’t be faithful even for the six month duration of his marriage to Olga. What was even more surprising was that Frank married again, secretly, during Ma’s trial! If there was one person in the case that was a cipher, it was undoubtedly Frank.

On March 16, 1959, after 4 hours and 51 minutes of deliberation, Ma was found guilty.   Moya and Baldonado were found guilty at their trials as well. All three were given the death penalty.

Frank fought for his mother until the end. In fact he wasn’t at her August 8, 1962 execution because he was in San Francisco at the Federal Court arguing her case.

Ma Duncan’s last recorded words were said to have been: “Where’s Frank? I want to see my son.”






Dead Woman Walking: Elizabeth Ann “Ma” Duncan, Part 3

duncan_mugElizabeth Duncan, Luis Moya, and Gus Baldanado were busted on December 19, 1958 for conspiracy to murder Olga Duncan. Bail was set at $100,000 each (the amount is equivalent to over $7 million 2013 USD).

Two days later, on December 21st, the cops went public with an appeal to help them find Olga Duncan’s body. The public didn’t have to do a thing because Gus Baldanado confessed that same day and implicated Luis Moya and Elizabeth Duncan. He also led them to Olga’s body in Casitas Pass. Luis Moya would also confess to his part in the slaying. Ma, however, was adamant that she was not moya baldanado

If Santa Claus had any presents for Frank Duncan he was going to have a tough time finding him because the attorney mysteriously vanished on Christmas Eve. District Attorney Roy Gustafson would have better luck with a subpoena requiring Frank to testify before the grand jury — Ma’s son was located in a Hollywood apartment. frank sought

According to testimony during the grand jury hearing, Ma had approached at least four people with various plans to kill Olga.

Mrs. Barbara Reed, a carhop at the Blue Onion Restauant in Santa Barbara, said she had been acquainted with Ma for at least ten years. She testified that in August 1958 Ma had asked her if she would “…put her (Olga) out of the way becasue she was interferring with Frank’s future”. Ma told Reed that she had plenty of acid and anything else that might be needed to deal with Olga. Ma wanted Reed to go to Olga’s apartment and throw acid in her face! Ma said that she’d hide behind Reed and as soon as Olga had a face full of acid she’d throw a blanket over the injured woman, drag her out to the car, drive her up to the mountains and push her over a cliff! Reed was offered $1500 for her trouble.barbara reed2

Barbara Reed said she realized that Ma had gone crazy and rather than cross her she told the older woman she’d think about the offer. Instead Reed phoned Frank the following day and asked him to meet her at the Blue Onion.

Reed testified:

“The very next day I asked him to come out tot he Blue Onion. He came out and I said, ‘This is very important. It is sort of a real dangerous matter here.’ He said ‘Are you in trouble?’, and I told him what his mother had come up with and I said ‘You have got to do something about her, Frankie. This girl is in danger and I think your mother had gone crazy.’ He said, ‘You know it, too.’ I told him to do something with Olga, either get her out of town or take her some place where she would be safe. He said ‘I will do what I can.’ That is all he said.”

emma short picMa had also discussed Olga with her close friend, eighty-four year old Emma Short. Short said that she had first heard of Olga Duncan after Elizabeth had taken an overdose of sleeping pills and was confined to Cottage Hospital. Short said that Elizabeth told her that after she’d recovered from the overdose Frank had promised he wouldn’t marry Olga.

But of course Frank married Olga in spite of his promise to his mother. Emma Short said that Elizabeth told her, “My son will never live with Olga. I will kill her first, destroy her.”

Emma’s testimony was riveting:

“…she (Elizabeth) asked me to go over to Olga’s apartment and try to get her to come to my apartment. When she got to my apartment, she would have her sit in a chair that goes against the closet. She (Elizabeth) would be in there. Then she would take a rope and put it around her neck and choke her and throw poison in her eyes.”

When asked if she had ever mentioned any of her conversations with Ma to Frank, Emma said:

“No, I never did. Mr. Duncan is a man that is very hard to approach and I had very little to say to him at any time.”

A woman named Diane Romero also came forward to testify to the grand jury about her conversations with Elizabeth Duncan regarding Olga. Romero had first met Elizabeth while Frank was defending her husband, Rudolph Romero, on a narcotics possession charge.

diane romero

Diane said that Elizabeth Duncan had mentioned her hatred for Olga and how much she wanted to get rid of her. Diane’s testimony was a chilling account of the depth of Ma’s hatred for her daughter-in-law.

“…she (Elizabeth) gave me $5 one time to go buy some lye for her bathroom. I didn’t pay too much attention. After, when se did start talking about getting rid of Olga, she told me that she wanted the lye so that she could put Olga in the bathtub, put some water in the tub and pour lye over her so that you couldn’t recognize her, make her dissolve or something.”

Mrs. Romero and her husband, Rudolph, met with Elizabeth to discuss another of Ma’s plans for Olga. According to Diane, Elizabeth offered her husband money to get rid of Olga.

“…it was either $1000 or $1500, something like that. He said no, that he didn’t want anything to do with it and then we left. Later she came to the hotel with me and she kept raising the price. She said $1000 at first, then it was $1500 and she raised it to $2500.”

Rudolph Romero corroborated his wife’s testimony.

Just in case hiring an assassin didn’t pan out, Ma had a back-up plan. She made an appointment with a local doctor and tried to get the physician’s office manger, Mary Ann Dowhower, to go out with Frank.

Mary Ann testified that:

“She (Elizabeth) would flash pictures of Frank and she wanted me to go out with him, to come home for dinner. She wanted me to become his girl friend and possibly his wife, since he was interested in someone and she didn’t know who and she didn’t want it to go any further than it had gone. I didn’t keep the appointment. She pushed me too much.”

Finally, Frank Duncan took the stand and his testimony was an uncomfortable peek into the dynamic between mother and son. He revealed that his mother didn’t want him to marry at all, ever. And while Frank’s memory seemed to be very good, it failed him at some crucial moments. When he was asked if his mother had raised any objections when he began dating Olga, he stated that he didn’t recall.

frank shifty picFrank went on to describe his living arrangement following his marriage to Olga. He said that he lived part of the time with his mother, and part of the time with Olga. After the newlyweds moved to the Garden Street apartments he said he went home to Elizabeth Duncan each night with few exceptions. When he was asked why he didn’t stay with Olga continuously, he said:

“Well, sir, my mother, when we first got married, used to call me a lot at the office and I understand she called my wife sometimes, and my wife and myself, we just had an understanding that I was to stay home until shortly before the baby arrived.”

Frank further testified that after he married Olga, Elizabeth purchased a gun and threatened to take her own life. He took the gun from her and she promised him she would return it to the pawn shop where she had bought it. As far as Frank knew, Ma had returned the little pearl-handled .22.

The horrific testimony given during the grand jury hearing resulted in the indictment of Elizabeth Duncan and her co-conspirators, Luis Moya and Gus Baldanado for the slaying of Ma’s pregnant daughter-in-law, Olga.

Ma did one of the only things she could do under the circumstances — she decided to enter a plea of insanity.

NEXT TIME: The trial and its aftermath.

Dead Woman Walking: Elizabeth Ann “Ma” Duncan, Part 2

olga_picOlga Duncan accompanied Luis Moya out to the car where she expected to find her husband Frank in a drunken stupor. She thought she saw him stretched out on the backseat of the beat-up Chevy so she reached in to awaken him, and then everything went black.

Luis Moya bashed Olga Duncan over the head hard enough to knock her out, and Gus Baldanado dragged her into the back seat of the car — but she was a fighter with a compelling reason to live, she was pregnant. Whenever she regained consciousness and began to scream and struggle Ma’s hjired killers beat her until she passed out.

On the way out of town Luis and Gus realized that the 1948 Chevrolet they’d rented from a friend for $25 wasn’t up to a trip to Tijuana as they had originally planned. They headed south on Highway 101 and drove a little over ten miles to Carpinteria, then went another few miles to Casitas Pass Road. Gus recalled using the road to get to a winery near Ojai. By the time that they stopped they were almost seven miles into Ventura County — it was quiet, dark and deserted.

'58 Chev full line mag adLuis and Gus dragged pregnant Olga out of the car and down a small embankment. They couldn’t shoot her because they’d broken the gun over her head during one of the beatings they’d given her. Instead, they took turns strangling her until Baldanado, who had been an Army medic, decided that she was dead.

The men were so pathetically inept that they had neglected to bring shovels, so they dug a shallow gave in the soft silt near a drainage ditch with their bare hands; then they buried Olga and her unborn daughter. Olga was still wearing the wedding ring that Frank had given her.

Baldanado was as lousy a medic as he was a hit man because Olga hadn’t been dead when they covered her body with dirt. The beatings hadn’t killed Olga, and neither had the attempted strangulation. She had suffocated to death. Olga had been unconscious but alive when Luis and Gus had buried her.

Olga was discovered missing by a friend and colleague of hers, Adeline Curry, chief surgical nurse at St. Francis Hospital. She went to Olga’s apartment after the young nurse had failed to show up for an important operation. Curry was alarmed when she found the door to the apartment ajar. All the lights were on and the bed covers had been turned back, but the bed had not been slept in.  Olga was gone.

Olga’s landlady, who refused to be identified by name for fear of retribution, said she had met Mrs. Elizabeth Duncan on one occasion when she’d come by looking for Olga. The landlady said that Elizabeth was raving and declared that she would kill Olga if it was the last thing she ever did. Then Elizabeth told that landlady that her son and Olga weren’t married at all, that they were living in sin. When the landlady challenged her, Elizabeth snapped: “All you have to do is check with Ventura. The marriage has been annulled.” The landlady told police and reporters that Olga was deathly afraid of her mother-in-law and  she frequently moved to stay one step ahead of her.

Upon being notified of her disappearance Olga’s father, Elias Kupczyk, turned over to Santa Barbara police letters he’d received from his missing daughter telling of Elizabeth’s constant death threats. Elias was soon on his way from Canada to Santa Barbara to aid in the investigation.young wife missing

The fraudulent annulment was discovered when attorney Hal Hammons unwittingly drew up the papers for Elizabeth and a mysterious man named Ralph. Hammons had rushed the annulment through the same day as a courtesy because Elizabeth was Frank’s mother. When Hammons phoned Frank later and asked if he had represented him in annulment proceedings, Duncan told him absolutely not. Hammons contacted a Ventura District Attorney Investigator, Clarence Henderson, who began to check out the information he’d been given.fake annulment

The D.A.’s investigation revealed that the annulment was a fraud perpetrated by Elizabeth Ann Duncan. Ma was promptly arrested on charges of bribing a witness to influence testimony, falsifying a legal paper, forgery with intent to defraud and aiding and abetting a “Ralph Roe” in making false statements under oath.

gus_luisWhile Ma Duncan was facing charges related to the fraud two men, Augustine Baldanado and Luis Moya, were arrested . Police refused to say if the men were part of the inquiry into Olga’s disappearance.

Ma appeared in court represented by her dutiful son, Frank — in fact the two walked in together hand-in-hand. Frank successfully won Elizabeth a reduction in bail from $50,000 to $5,000. He argued that the Santa Barbara and Ventura County authorities needed to “put up or shut up” with their insinuations that his mother had anything to do with the mysterious disappearance of his wife.

Ventura D.A. Ray Gustafson attempted to block the bail reduction. He told the court:

“Things reaching my ears indicate there may be a homicide change in this case. Mrs. Duncan obviously had some concern about Mr. Duncan’s wife and did things that were not normal unless she had an intense dislike for her.”

Ma refused to comment on any phase of the case on the advice of her attorney/son.frank defender

Frank was either a complete idiot, delusional or, more likely, in denial regarding his mother’s involvement in Olga’s disappearance. He told reporters that he believed his wife to be alive. He went on to say:

“Truly that is my hope. At one time she threatened to cause me some unpleasant publicity but this would seem to be going to the extreme.”

Reporters asked Frank if he’d go back to live with his wife if she returned, he said: “I sure would.” Frank was also asked if his mother had been unhappy with his marriage to Olga or had tried to break it up; he replied: “Let’s say she hindered its development.”

How did Frank feel about Ma’s possible involvement in Olga’s disappearance? He stated that he didn’t believe for a minute that Ma had any guilty knowledge:

“Since that time (of Olga’s disappearance) and before she was taken into custody I cross-examined her closely about Olga’s disappearance. She said she knew nothing about it. I know her and she would not lie. I’m quite certain that she had nothing to do with it.”

Frank had no insight into why Elizabeth had taken the drastic measure of faking an annulment, and he refused to make any comment.

On December 19, 1958, Mrs. Elizabeth Ann “Ma” Duncan was formally accused of hiring Augustine Baldonado and Luis Moya, for $3000, to murder her daughter-in-law.

R.W. Cooley

R.W. Cooley [Photo from Santa Barbara Police Department.]

The cops had kept a tight lid on their investigation of Olga’s kidnapping when finally, on December 21, 1958, they went public with an appeal to help them find the missing bride’s body. Santa Barbara Police Chief R.W. Cooley said that the information he had about the alleged murder and disposal of the body was based on information obtained in questioning friends of the suspects. Cooley said:

“The body was disposed of early on the morning of November 18, probably between the hours of 12:30 a.m. and 5 a.m. It was placed beside or under a pipe. This pipe may have been loose, and was near a post. The automobile used to transport the body, and probably parked nearby while the body was disposed of, was a 1948 faded, dirty beige four door Chevrolet. It had blue primer spots on the hood.”

Chief Cooley figured the 5 a.m. cut-off time based on statements of witnesses that it was dark when Baldanado and Moya returned to Santa Barbara. The two were overheard to say that they had “finished Mrs. Duncan’s job.”

NEXT TIME: Frank Duncan goes missing. Olga Duncan’s body is discovered. Elizabeth Duncan, Luis Moya and Gus Baldanado are indicted for the murder of the young bride and mother-to-be.