Hollywoodland: Unsolved (S02E01)
The Murder of Christa Helm
February 12th 1977
We know that Hollywood is full of secrets and those looking to expose them. So if you brag about keeping a diary of your sex-capades with the city’s rich and famous, don’t be surprised when you turn up dead.
I am breaking my “no investigating crimes with living suspects” rule to tell you about the “Black Dahlia of the Disco Era” Christa Helm.
Christa Helm was a 27-year-old single mother and aspiring actress who would do anything - or anyone - for fame. But she came to an untimely demise when she was brutally stabbed over 20 times on February 12th 1977 in West Hollywood. What would make someone commit such a senseless act of violence towards a seemingly innocent wanna be starlet?
Well, her alleged “love diary” might be an option. She kept detailed notes on all of her sexual encounter and included a ranking system of them written in said diary that she kept with her at all times…
…and in this diary? Names dates and details of sex with different member of hollywoods elite. A diary which she bragged about and the one that disappeared when she the night she was brutally attacked…. Her murder remains unsolved to this day.
I’m you’re host Ansley and welcome to Hollywoodland: Unsolved. Listener digression is advised.
Christa Helm was born on November 11, 1949 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as Sandra Lynn Wohlfeil. She was the daughter of Harry – the owner of an asphalt company and Delores - a housewife. The two split just before Christa’s 3rd birthday. Her father went on and married another women and had two more children but her mother sunk into alcoholism and depression and dated a string of abusive and violent men.
Her mother allegedly stood idly by while these men took advantage of her three daughters, Chrsita (formerly Sandra), Marisa and Candie, and for years her mother denied that the abuse even happened. As the abuse progressed, Christa and her two sisters were moved to live with their father permanently.
During this time, Christa learned to push the limits. She developed wild habits and tested the boundaries of her small town Wisconsin life. Christa loved attention and made herself known wherever she went. At 16, Christa fell in love with 26-year-old Gary Clements and within weeks became pregnant with his child. Under the pressure of her parents, Christa and Gary got married in a shotgun wedding. Shortly after Christa’s 17th birthday, she gave birth to a baby girl – Nicole. But it wasn’t long before things went south for the couple. Within weeks of Nicole’s christening, Gary disappeared.
Nicole gave an account later that stated QUOTE “I never got to know my father. He kind of disappeared from our lives sometime after my christening. I was told that Mom looked high and low for him and that she couldn’t find him. My father never did come back. A few months later Mom was told by someone that he had died in a motorcycle accident in Florida, but she was never sure if that was true. It seems so strange to say this, but it’s like he just vanished one day into thin air” END QUOTE
But Christa wasn’t single for long. Her big personality and beautiful blonde locks attracted many… suitors and she dated a number of men.
After Nicole’s birth, Christa got a job as a waitress at a local Italian restaurant where she befriends another waitress, Dianne Mitchell, who was also a mother to a young daughter. Soon after, the pair got a two bedroom apartment together, with their daughters living with their grandmothers. Dianne was wary of Christa’s love of attention and willingness to bring it into their one. In one account Dianne states “She spoke to everyone in the restaurant and would often invite people she barely knew over to our apartment for drinks. I was concerned and told her that it wasn’t safe to invite total strangers over to our place like that but she would just laugh at me. She said it was fine and that I worried too much. Lucky thing, most of the people she befriended were fine. There were a couple of strange guys, but you know, that was Sandy! She didn’t seem to be afraid of very much, if anything
The girls were invited by their boss at the restaurant to go to a playboy club with him in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin where Christa met actor and singer, James Darren. She was bitten by the bug and said then and there she was going to be a star. She was hired as a playboy bunny but never actually got to work as one, stating that she didn’t want to do it alone. Just after her daughter’s second birthday, with her sights set on fame, Christa and her friend Dianne left their daughters in the care of a nanny in Vermont and moved to New York.
After moving to New York, Christa got a job as a waitress at The Gaslight club where she met Buffalo Bills player, Ray Abbruzzese. A hot and heavy fling ensued but her time was Ray’s live-in lover was short lived. Christa booked a few modeling jobs and was working on a way to to really “get discovered.”
Her “big break” came shortly after when she met costume designer Linny Barron. He became a good friend of Christa’s and helped introduce her to New York’s elites.
Christa knew that she would need to be seen as a movie star to become a movie star so she adopted a lifestyle of parties, glitz and glamor as quickly as she could.
It was through her nightlife in New York that Christ met Broadway producer Stuart Duncan, heir to the Wrostcher sauce fortune, who was making his transition from the stage to the screen.
Stewart and Christa had a long-time friendship and he helped her buy property and a corvette and helped her get her career off the ground.
Stewart gave Christa her breakout role as the star of his 1974 film “Let’s Go For Broke” where she plays an investigative journalist names “Jackie Broke” and it has a Charlie’s Angles meets James Bond feel. One account by Steve Thompson and John O’Dowd says QUOTE The film’s outlandish, Bond-style plot deals with a wheelchair bound madman who uses a synthetic dog food on his enemies which causes them to turn into (believe it or not) raw meat! Reporter Jackie Broke is interviewing a feminist who is then kidnapped and taken to Haiti. She herself is later kidnapped by the same villains and also taken to the island where voodoo and various tortures come into play until she escapes and tackles the bad guys with her feminine wiles and elaborate skills in martial arts.
Steward was the creator of the well-known musical, Godspell and gave Christa stock in the show, which made her money for years.
After filming “Let’s go for broke” wrapped, she made the transition from New York to Hollywood to continue her quest for fame. With connections made and a bit of success under her belt, Christa was ready for the city of Angles.
According to reports, Christa submitted photos and stories of herself to gossip columns to try to edge her way into Hollywood’s elite. And it worked. Christa was able to link herself to Mic Jagger, Warren Beaty, and Jack Nicholson, to name a few. She used her charm and good looks to make herself part of the entertainment industry’s inner circle.
Shortly after moving to Los Angeles, Christa met big-time fiancer Bernard Cornfeld (aka Bernie) and shortly after moved into his 39- room mansion located at 1100 Carolinian Drive. The house housed numerous of people from up and comers to Bernie’s lackeys. It was a allegedly a nonstop party destination and Christa fit right in.
Christa was later described by her daughter as a “free agent who openly enjoyed sex.”
On the topic of sex… Christa allegedly kept a diary of her many escapades and sexual encounters. She apparently kept very detailed accounts down to what she was wearing and her rating of how much she enjoyed the interactions. She wrote down everything. And she took the diary with her everywhere.
Years after her death – her high school friend recounts reading Christa’s diary and what it said QUOTE “She said it's kind a like when we are teenage girls in on our rating system then she showed me her diary it was a step above let's put it that way it was meant that she had slept with including some threesomes with women” END QUOTE.
She didn’t hide that she kept this habit either – and allegedly several of her friends advised her to stop or at the very least, stop talking about it. But Christa didn’t listen.
According to some reports she was keeping these diaries to write a book about her adventures in hollywood but according to others, she was keeping it to blackmail the Hollywood bigwigs she was sleeping with.
After a few years in Hollywood, and a few small tv roles under her belt, most notably a role on an episode of “Wonder Woman” Christa started to realize that her years in Hollywood were not amounting to what she’d hoped. She started searching for a new way to break into the spotlight.
What did she come up with? Nothing other than a disco album.
Yep, Christa went from trying to be the next movie start to trying to be the next disco star.
According to reports, Christa was signed on to Casablanca Records and they brought in DJ Frankie Crocker – an up and coming producer, but the pair didn’t get along and their relationship fizzled out. Trying to save face, Christa allegedly told people that it was her idea that she didn’t work with Crocker and that she QUOTE “had him by the balls”
From the start this disco album was doomed to an ill fate. Christa started to party harder and got mixed up in a crowd she would later tell a friend that she was afraid of.
But on the surface, that seemed far from the truth. Shortly after starting the album, Christa started hooking up with one of her female backup singers, Patty Collins. Patty and Christa became inseparable and Patty couldn’t get enough of it. That was until Debbie Danalow joined the mix. Another backup singer, Debbie joined the record after Patty and said in one account QUOTE “ Christa was flirty, and came on to me immediately but with a sense of timeliness. She let me know she was interested in me (sexually) but wanted me to be comfortable with her first. I more or less ignored her advances, all the time keeping my eye on Patty who was keeping her eye on me! To be quite frank, I have never had an interest in having a relationship with another woman, especially sexual. I have been married five times — but always to men! But I accepted Christa as she was, and I appreciated her interest in me, even though it was not something we would act upon.”
So let’s pause for a moment here – we know that Christa used her sexuality to forward her acting career and wasn’t shy about who she was sleeping with, but that didn’t get her very far. With not much to show for her career she starts a new one as a singer and gets mixed up with not one, but two of her FEMALE backup singers? Okay, great now that we are all on the same page…. What we have here is a fame and adoration seeking young woman who will do whatever it takes to achieve said fame and adoration. Which is a slippery slope…. Black Dalilah anyone?
Christa continued to brag about her sex diary and how detailed she kept. She told people that she wrote names, things they liked, dates and even ranked the sex with a scale she created. She openly bragged about her conquests and the details written in her diary that she always kept in her purse.
Shortly after, Christa wound up dead.
On the night of February 12th, 1977, Christa Helm went to a Hollywood party with her roommate, Stephanie. Christa left the party to go to the home of Sandy Smith, a quote “talent agent” when Christ arrived at Sandy’s house, she was brutally stabbed a number of times on the street in front of the house and left for dead with no eye witnesses.
So let’s start at the beginning –
We know that on the night of February 12th Charisa went to a party with her roommate. Her roommate’s name was Stephanie. The party was in West Hollywood. She and her roommate took her roommates car. We know that she made a call to her agent – Sandy Smith – at some point during the party. Allegedly she was trying to get him to come to the party (they may or may not have been lovers) but Sandy refused. We also know that Christa left the party to go to Smith’s house where she was later found stabbed to death outside of the car, in front of Smith’s house.
All around her body. From her breast, to her back to her left, Christa was violently attacked and left for dead, bleeding out, on a West Hollywood neighborhood street.
Her hands were covered in stab wounds, indicating that she was trying to defend herself. She definitely didn’t go down without a fight.
Smith denies hearing or seeing Christa that night and claims to have been sleeping.
Christa was stabbed over thirty times and beaten with a blunt force object (authorities assume the handle of the knife or a hammer). Her body was discovered by a young man crossing the street. According to some reports he found her with car keys in her hand, partially under the car.
When investigators arrived on scene they took note at the odd way her car had been parked: She allegedly stopped her car abruptly, with her tires jammed into the curb on the passenger’s side. This lead them to believe that someone had been trailing her that evening in West Hollywood.
According to reports, Christa then got out of the car and then neighbors reported hearing people talking loudly and one neighbor said that he heard quote “two women and a man.” Another ear witness said that they heard QUOTE “vicious screams that sounded like a cat being skinned.” End quote.
The knife used in Christa’s murder was never found but according to reports the LAPD speculate that it was a buck knife or a more-heavy duty knife that what most people have lying around in their kitchen. It is also speculated that the amount force and passion that went into her stabbing that it was a single person who knew Christa who was acting alone. This is a very personal and violent way to kill someone, so the police (and I) assume that it was someone who knew Christa intimately.
No evidence of the murderer was left at the scene. But DNA was taken from under Christa’s nails. According to LAPD, Christa had fought for her life.
Shortly after an unidentified person walking in the neighborhood finds Christa covered in blood, on the ground in the street by her car. He claimed that he was standing by her as she breathed her last breath.
It is important to note that when Christa’s body was found – her purse was missing. And in the purse? The sex diary. Which to this day has not been accounted for. According to reports, her murder didn’t receive as much media attention as you would think for someone so deeply entrenched in the Hollywood gossip scene but one account thinks that that is the precise reason for her murder: it was personal. QUOTE ““who she knew and what she knew may be the reason her savage killing was barely reported.”
Investigators has very little to go on at the scene but they matched the keys to the car and to the apartment that she shared with Stephanie Warsaugh. When police went to the apartment – Stephanie told them that her roommate, Christa, had her car last night.
And this is where the story gets a little weird – Christa’s roommate Stephanie told investigators that Sandy Smith was Christa’s agent and was a mutual friend of them both. Stephanie stated that Christa had called Sandy from the party earlier that evening to try to get him to join their party.
When asked about that night – Sandy Smith told investigators that he was sound asleep and never heard a thing. He claimed that he had no idea that Christa had been stabbed to death mere feet from his house.
But according to witnesses, that statement is false – allegedly there were other people coming and going from Sandy’s house all evening. And the person who found Christa’s body was on his way to Sandy’s house. So there we have our first lie. What was Sandy trying to hide by lying to the police?
In the recording from her sessions at the studio working on her disco album, investigators found that they were littered with personal drama and tensions. Allegedly her backup singer, Patty Collins, was having a secret relationship with Christa. But Christa denied being a lesbian and that upset Collins. Upon hearing the recordings, investigators went on the hunt for Patty Collins… but they were never able to find her. Where did she go? And why?
Another weird thing – Christa was said to have been carrying a handbag with a “Tommy boy” logo on it and allegedly her sex diary inside. Neither the purse nor the diary has ever been accounted for.
After a few months… the case went cold.
The police had too many leads, too many loose ends, too much on their hands – they passed things off and moved on to the next until there was nothing left… so let’s look at the suspects:
Sandy Smith. He was Christa’s agent and the person whose house Christa was murdered in front of. He was – from what I could find – definitely in the Hollywood party scene, potentially had mob ties, and definitely was a shady character. I couldn’t find too much on him in my research but I did come across a notice that the LAPD is actively looking for him… so Sandy Smith if you’re listening, investigators at the LAPD would like to talk to you.
The next suspect is Rudy Mozella. Remember the drama that police found on the studio recordings from Christa’s disco album? Well, He was a drug dealer who was roommates with Blair Aaronson – the keyboardist who worked on Christa’s disco album. According to reports, Christa was storing large amounts of cocaine for Mozella and during that she stole some of the drugs from him and he found out and got violent. Another crazy thing? Rudy allegedly bragged that he was the one who committed the murder of Christa Helm . We all know false confessions happen regularly in murder cases, but this is one that I take seriously. He wasn’t looked at deeply at the time of Christa’s murder but when the case was open in the mid 2000’s cold case investigators found that Rudy had been dead for years.
According to my research – Rudy is the general favorite for who killed Christa. But with investigators unable to interview him (because he’s dead) and there being no direct evidence linking him to the death of Christa Helms, the case is still unsolved today.
What I would like to know is did Sandy Smith see something. Why did he lie to the police? Did Sandy Smith and Rudy know each other? Rudy was a drug dealer and smith was an agent in Hollywood in the ‘70’s so…. It wouldn’t be a far stretch.
What is also interesting about this case is investigators found tapes among Christa’s possessions – audio recordings of her sexual encounters.
The next suspect is Tony Sirico (Si-ricco). Yep, you heard that right, the actor who played Paulie Walnuts on the Soprano’s is a suspect in this case. According to reports, Christa’s roommate, Stephanie, said that Tony showed up at their apartment shortly after the party to check on Christa’s quote “welfare” but allegedly what he ended up doing was going to their apartment to steal furs and personal documents of Christa’s. According to reports – Stephanie believes that it was Tony who initially stole Christa’s tape recordings from her room after the murder.
So does that make him a suspect? My guess is that he was new to Hollywood and was trying to find is way in. Someone offered him something he wanted for going to their apartment and stealing Christa’s things. Tony denies all involvement, and this is just a theory, but something worth thinking about.
When interviewed by the police, they said he was cooperative and friendly and stated that he was simply an acquaintance of Christa’s. But when investigators got specific on dates and times, Tony’s demeanor allegedly changed. His lawyer stopped the interview and said that Tony wouldn’t answer any more questions. Suspicious if you ask me.
The next suspect is the unnamed Movie star.
The main theory is that someone – one of her high-powered sexual partners – found out about her tapes and detailed diary and was not willing to risk that information getting out, remember Christa was not shy about telling people about her detailed diary and ranking system, so that would be enough to spook anyone with something to hide.
Would that be enough for a high profile person to murder Christa? I believe so. I am so fascinated by this case because there are so many moving parts and SO many suspects.
So what happened to the tapes? I’m my research I came across a report where a cold case investigator stated that on the tapes was a recording of a threesome that was described as quote a “very intense sexual encounter.” This threesome was with Patty Collins (Christa’s backup singer and lesbian lover), Christa and a well-known movie star. The investigator does not disclose who this person is but states that he is a man and is still alive and in the public eye today…. Interesting… when this “celebrity” as he is called in the reports, was interviewed he states that Patty Collins was not happy with Christa at the time of their sexual encounter and that there was a lot of tension between the two. So could Patty be a suspect?
Let’s say that she is – I find is very weird that Patty disappeared right after the murder of Christa Helms. To me, that says “I have something to hide” and investigators thought so too. They still to this day have not been able to find her. So – she definitely knows something and willing to stay hidden to not let anyone find out what that is.
As for Christa’s other backup singer Debby Danilo? She knows more than she ever let on… According to the band’s keyboardist Blaire Aaronson, he and Debbie were in a relationship – but he and Christa had sexual relations the night before her murder. According to that same report, Debbie caught him cheating on her with Christa by watching them have sex through a window. Aaronson says this is what happened… Debbie denies it.
So what about DNA evidence? When cold case investigators hopped on the case in 2006, they began testing the DNA under Christa’s fingernails from the night she was murdered. Remember how she fought for her life? Well, what they turned up was that the DNA evidence showed that it was a woman with whom Christa had had contact that night. That also matched the ear-whiteness reports that stated that they had heard woman’s voices.
Investigators began searching for the woman in Christa’s life and of the suspects listed – Debbie was the only female they could track down and after being tested they learned the DNA was not hers.
What breaks my heart about this case is Christa’s daughter Nicole. She is the reason that the case was given to cold case investigators 30 years after her mom’s murder and she is still searching for answers.
Ultimately what this case comes down to is the idea that Christa got herself mixed up in something so big she couldn’t get out. Whether it was a high-profile movie star or a killing over drugs, Christa Helm’s murder is a case with as many loose ends as there are interesting characters.
So what do you think?
Was it one of Christa’s backup singers? The sketchy agent Sandy Smith? Or the drug dealer who bragged that he killed Christa? Or was it someone else? Tweet me at HollywoodlandPC or email me at Hollywoodlandpod.com
I’ve included a complete reference list of all of my research in the show notes as well as links to the accounts I quotes in this episode. Please feel free to check them out for more information on Christa Helms.
What drives a father to commit sadistic acts in a Los Feliz mansion? And why is the house infamously known as the “Murder House” in Los Angeles? Find out next time on Hollywoodland Unsolved. Until then – happy sleuthing!
All elements of Hollywoodland: Unsolved are produced by me, with graphics and maps by Brian Balzerini and music by my amazing father.
Sources: https://cbsn.ws/2pIC0UT | https://bit.ly/2DTaTf7 | https://oxygen.tv/2szPLtR | https://bit.ly/2G6M4xZ | https://bit.ly/2I0twV8
1126 Queens Hwy, Long Beach, CA 90802
Year Docked: 1967 - still operating
Hollywoodland: Unsolved (S01E10)
Haunted Hollywood Hotels
By Ansley Gordon
Murder, scandal, infidelity, drugs and secrets. If only these walls could talk.
Welcome to the Halloween bonus episode of Hollywoodland: Unsolved: ‘Hollywood’s Most Haunted Hotels’. I’m your host Ansley.
I must warn you that this episode may be frightening to listeners under the at of 13 so listener digression is advised.
Hollywood is a city build on history, glamor and scandal. With so many iconic monuments so accessible, I love learning about the different histories of the places I visit on a daily basis. What I have learned is not only that Los Angeles have some of the most gorgeous hotels, but boy oh boy, do they have quite scandalous histories. So in the spirit of Halloween, I wanted to give you a tour of the some of Hollywood’s most iconic (and haunted) hotels.
Let’s start with the Hollywood Roosevelt. With a booming history and gorgeous architecture, the Roosevelt Hotel is one of the most recognizable spots in Hollywood. Located almost directly across from the Chinese theatre on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, this haunted Hollywood hotel was built in 1926 and named after President Roosevelt. It is the oldest continually operating Los Angeles Hotel and just got a major facelift in recent years. Located at the 7000 Block of Hollywood Blvd, the Roosevelt Hotel cost $2.5 million ($34.5 million today) to complete and opened on May 15, 1927.
Entering the hotel through large double doors on Hollywood Boulevard across the street from the iconic Chinese Theater, guests are immediately greeted with a rich Spanish-style two story lobby, hand-painted beams, large sitting area and bar. The room is dark and has a moody but upscale feel. It is a stark contrast to the vintage Hollywood glamor the outdoor pool boasts.
The hotel had 300 rooms and suites, multiple ball and conference rooms, as well as all of the modern amenities (bars and nightclubs, rooftop deck, wifi and even babysitting services).
Some of the hotels famous guests include Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin and Clark Gable. The first Academy awards were held at the Roosevelt in 1929 and the hotel became known for hosting many celeb parties and premiers (I was just there for the Marshall premier earlier this month). Rooms at this iconic Hollywood Hotel start at about $300 and boast a gorgeous “you-should-be-seen-here” pool with Tropicana Pool Side Bar.
People claim the ghost of movie star Cliff Montgomery still walk the halls of the Roosevelt and has even been heard practicing his trumpet and walking the 9th floor. Another ghost that’s said to haunt the Roosevelt is Marilyn Monroe. She frequented the hotel in her modeling days and it’s said that she did her very first modeling shoot at the pool of the hotel. Guests claim to have seen her in a number of mirrors through the hotel, specifically in suite 1200 – her old room. There are also stories of security guards seeing “guests” enjoying themselves in the pool on security cameras – but when the tapes are watched back – no one is there. (http://bit.ly/2zAPrK4)
Moving from Hollywood to West Hollywood – let’s look another notable haunted Hollywood Hotel is the Chateau Marmount. Converted into a hotel in the 1930’s (http://bit.ly/2y2cGPi) this gorgeous castle-like structure is still a well-known spot full of Hollywood glamor. Famously know for banning Lindsay Lohan in 2012 (http://dailym.ai/2xUNCKP) this is probably one of the most infamous Hollywood Hotels. Located off of the glamorous Sunset Strip, the Chateau Marmot didn’t originally open as a hotel, but as LA’s first earthquake proof apartment building. It was converted into a hotel in the 30’s and has remained operating as one since. This hotel has a reputation full of misbehavior and scandal with head of Colombia pictures, Harry Cohen, telling two young stars “if you must get in trouble, do it at the chateau marmont.” Rooms at the Chateau start at just over $550.
As far as hauntings go - John Belushi of Saturday Night Live who famously overdosed in Bungalow 3 is said to haunt the halls of the Chateau Marmont. According to a report by the Travel Channel QUOTE “The most notorious incident occurred in 1999, when a family temporarily moved into Bungalow 3 while their house was being renovated. The family’s 2-year old son was often found laughing and giggling by himself. When asked what he was laughing at, he would respond, "The funny man." When his mother was leafing through a book of celebrity guests of Chateau Marmont, the boy pointed to John Belushi and exclaimed, "The funny man!"” END QUOTE (http://bit.ly/1KL3I4j) oohhhhhh! Creepy.
Head back to Hollywood – just a few blocks away from the Roosevelt Hotel is Another apartment building turned hotel. The Knickerbocker. Well, apartment turned hotel turned assisted living center, I should say. Located in the heart of Hollywood at 1714 Ivar Avenue, the building opened as apartments in 1925 and then was opened as a hotel in 1929. The knickerbocker was said to have hosted a number of celebrities including Marilyn Monroe and Joe DeMaggio as well as being the backdrop to Frances Farmer’s famous dramatic arrest. Harry Houdini’s widow did her tenth séance to contact the dead magician on the rooftop of the then-hotel on Halloween night in 1936.
Another tragedy to strike the Knickerbocker happened in 1962 when MGM costume designer Irene Gibbs checked into a room under a false name and attempted to slit her wrists. When that failed to end her life, she then jumped to her death out of a 14th floor window. Allegedly her body was found on top of a hotel awning later that night. Yikes.
According to a Curbed Los Angeles article QUOTE “It's alleged that Monroe stuck around post-mortem and haunts the the ladies' room; the bar is taken by the ghost of Rudolph Valentino. A maintenance worker told The Hollywood Reporter last year that a woman who threw herself off the roof also continues to haunt the Knickerbocker (since converted to senior apartments). "Many have seen her. When I work in the basement, shadows go by and doors close and open by themselves." He might have been referring to dress-designer-to-the-stars Irene (aka Mrs. Irene Gibbons), who threw herself off the eleventh floor of the building in 1962, according to an Los Angeles Times report from November 16 of that year. Who's not haunting the Knickerbocker? Harry Houdini. His wife tried for a decade to contact him via an annual séance on the roof, but he never made an appearance.” END QUOTE (http://bit.ly/2y2cGPi)
As the ‘60’s rolled on and Hollywood began to detreated, the Knickerbocker followed suit and and soon closed its doors as a hotel. It not stands as an assisted living center about a block away from the Capital Records building in Hollywood.
Located in the heart of downtown Los Angeles stands The Melliniman Biltmore Hotel. The Biltmore Hotel has seen as many celebrities as it has scandals - you might remember it as being the place where Elizabeth Short was last scene. It has held the Oscars, democratic national conventions, premiers, underground nightclubs and is home to a number of mysterious circumstances. Located at 506 S Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles, this Los Angeles landmark as 683 guest rooms, a historical pool and spa, full gym and large workspace with multiple meeting rooms and multiple dining options. Built in 1921 the hotel cost over 10 million dollars to construct (http://bit.ly/1AYbDce).
The hotel is still in operation today and is designated as a historical-cultural landmark.
When researching the hotel, one of the tops hits I got on google was a trip adviser review with the title “haunted” with 5 exclamation marks. I have to read it to you because it is so interesting – QUOTE “I stayed here for 1st time in mid September. I chose it for the charm and knew going in that the building would be old and not updated based on reading reviews. It was not the cleanest but it wasn’t filthy either and was not the run of the mill hotel. Stayed 4 nights. Felt creepy the minute I got there. 3rd night woke with bed shaking and saw blue orb size of a basketball and a dark cloud above my bed which hovered there for 15 minutes. I was alone and scared and so began to pray. I have never seen a ghost or anything of the sort before in my life. Found out later the place has reputation of being haunted. That weekend I also found out that they had a convention of people who seek to locate demons and ghosts so maybe they brought them in. This experience has changed me. I still feel fear as I know these things now exist.The food and the service was excellent. Walls thin and could hear EVERYTHING outside. Not peaceful and quite at all as hear everything downtown as if windows were open.”
Thank you Sue B for that insightful review – I will make sure to go for dinner, but not stay the night!
Now let’s move to West LA – the Beverly hills hotel and the Hotel Bel Air. Both exude luxury and have histories full of Hollywood gossip.
According to the website for the Beverly Hills Hotel QUOTE “Like Hollywood itself, the history of The Beverly Hills Hotel is a 20th-century tale of glamour, riches and romance. The celebrity hotel in Los Angeles was built in 1912, before there was even a city called Beverly Hills. Hoping to ignite a land rush, developer Burton Green, President of the Rodeo Land and Water Company, bought land once owned by the Mexican government in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains.” End Quote. (http://bit.ly/2gCoA94) Rooms at the Beverly Hills Hotel start at about $600 bucks (yikes) and the palm-leaf-and-pink style of the hotel has made it as famous as some of its guests.
While this hotel isn’t haunted (per se), it has been the backdrop for a number of Hollywood parties, meltdowns and movie shoots. Celebrity citing’s are a norm there and the décor is iconic.
As one journalist at the New York Post put it “The Beverly Hills hotel is where you go to be seen, the Hotel Bel Air is where you got to hide out.” (http://nyp.st/1jVWvWB)
Another notable Westside Los Angeles hotel is the luxurious Hotel Bel Air. According to the Huffington Post the hotel sits on 18 acres in Bel Air and QUOTE “developer Joseph Drown envisioned a coral-hued oasis, an “elegant pastoral hotel hideaway” complete with pool, Spanish Colonial architecture, lush gardens, a lake to go with them and swans to go with that.” END QUOTE
As with its sister hotel, the Beverly Hills Hotel, there isn’t much on the scandals that have happened at the Hotel Bel Air (they want to keep up their this-is-a-place-where-secrets-stay reputation). Rooms start at about 500 bucks at this secluded star-studded hotel and the hotel features a luxury gym, fancy restaurants and gorgeous foliage around the grounds.
Entering this oasis through lush gardens – this hotel is the epitome of luxury with. As far as sandals go – Misha Barton pulled a bit of a Li-Lo when her credit card was denied at the Hotel Bel Air and she was kicked out. Whoops. This is also the spot where the nanny that had an affair with Ben Affleck hid after the scandal broke – not a bad place to be held up, if you ask me.
I want to add one bonus haunted Hollywood Hotel that is not quite in Hollywood, but is definitely a hotel and is definitely haunted. The Queen Mary. (I added this one after the map was finished, so it’s not on there – but I wanted to share it with you guys).
Built in the 1930’s, the Queen Mary is a massive ship docked in the Long Beach Harbor. I recently stayed there for a film festival (for two night) and everyone who worked on the ship had multiple haunting stories.
The massive ship with 3 black and red steam funnels, is about 1.5 times the size of the titanic and was a very active ship until it locked in the Long Beach Harbor in the 60’s. It’s last voyage was from Southampton on Halloween 1967 to Long Beach, CA where it is still docked today. The massive ship features multiple ballrooms, restaurants and bars. The ship is known to be haunted and event does Paranormal Ship Walks and Dining with the Spirit.
This place is so haunted there is a whole site dedicated to the “Queen Mary Ghost Cam” (I had to close the browser because the images were freaking me out! But I will put the link in the show notes to you guys can see it - http://bit.ly/2gzBHHT) The ship is massive and so old that there are all kinds of unexplained noises and creaking. While we were there
According to a website on the hauntings QUOTE “During her 60-year history, the Queen Mary was the site of 49 reported deaths, so there are plenty of potential spirits to haunt her hallways. Reported hauntings include a young crewman in the engine room, swimmers in the first-class pool, a man in black, and a woman in blue. In the Hotel Queen Mary, Room B340 is said to be one of the most haunted places on the ship.” (http://bit.ly/2le0uX9)
While we were there we learned about room B340 – the most haunted room on the ship – and according to Curbed LA’s writeup on the Queen Mary there are a number of haunted spots on the ship. QUOTE “Ghosts have been spotted in the Queen Mary's engine room ("Door 13" has crushed a couple of people to death), in the first class swimming pool (unused for decades, women have been spotted in 1930s bathing suits wandering the decks; people have also seen a young girl with a teddy bear), the second class swimming pool (another little girl who's said to have drowned), the Queen's Salon (a young woman in evening dress), and several of the first-class state rooms (a 1930s man, as well as lights, water running, phones ringing), and the third-class children's playroom (a baby crying).” (http://bit.ly/2zOBYzi)
If you want more episode like this – based on Hollywood’s history and not as much on scandal – let me know! Tweet me at HollywoodlandPC or email me at email@example.com
As per usual, complete list of references is included in the show notes and on the website.
All elements of Hollywoodland: Unsolved are produced by me with graphics and maps by Brian Balzerini and music by my amazing father.
Sources: http://bit.ly/2zAPrK4 | http://bit.ly/2zDrmlE | http://bit.ly/2y2cGPi | http://dailym.ai/2xUNCKP | http://bit.ly/2y2cGPi | http://bit.ly/1AYbDce | http://bit.ly/2gCoA94 | http://nyp.st/1jVWvWB | http://bit.ly/2zOBYzi | http://bit.ly/1KL3I4j
3825 S Norton Ave | January 19th 1947
Welcome to the two-part season finale event of “Hollywoodland: Unsolved.”
This is a two-part episode, so if you haven’t listened to part 1, I recommend you go back and listen to that first before continuing with this episode. Trust me, everything will make a lot more sense. And now, let’s go to the show.
Please note that this case is one of the more graphic cases discussed on this show yet and may be frightening to listeners under the age of 13 - so listener digression is advised.
On the morning of January 15, 1947 the mutilated body of a young woman was found on a vacant lot. The body was severed at the waste and appeared to be laid out carefully as though she was basking in the southern California sun. There were also three inch gashes cut into her face – causing her to have a permanent smile. The the dark hair of the women was framing her delicate features and her body was stoic and complete white, perfectly drained of blood. Her breasts had been slashed and an alleged “BD” had been carved into her left thigh.
The body belonged to an aspiring actress with raven black hair and a reputation in the Los Angeles party scene – her name was Elizabeth Short.
I’m your host, Ansley, and welcome to Hollywoodland: Unsolved and part 2 of the investigation into the Murder of the Black Dahlia.
Last episode we talked who Elizabeth was and who the conventional suspects are.
My top two are George Hodel and Walter Bayley. Both medical men. Both had the knowledge to cut the body with precision. Neither were deeply investigated. We will look at them again later in the episode.
Now we are going to look at theories that are not as widely talked about: the potential of a woman being the killer, the black dahlia murder being part of a series of murders from one serial killer and if it was a male, who and why.
So let’s start with the first unconventional idea: Could a woman have killed Elizabeth Short? This theory has become more popular in recent years and I think it is worth looking into.
Around the time of Short’s murder there were 3 prominent woman murderess on the scene: Louise Peete, Winnie Ruth Judd, Clara Phillips.
Louise Peete was the first woman to be given the death penalty in California and committed a string of murders throughout the 1920s. She was arrested, did time, was released and then committed another murder. She was executed in April of 1947.
The next is Winnie Ruth Judd…. QUOTE “Winnie Ruth Judd committed two murders in Arizona. She was busted in L.A. when a trunk containing the dismembered remains of her two victums began to get a little ripe and leak bodily fluids in the baggage claim section of a local train station.” End Quote (http://bit.ly/2g0Kgyx) That is quite a way to get busted, if you ask me.
And finally there’s Clara Phillips. Phillips was arrested for killing a woman who she thought was coming onto her husband. She struck the woman multiple times with a hammer and then rolled a 50-pound boulder on top of her body. (http://bit.ly/2g0Kgyx)
So what do these 3 ladies have to do with the murder of the Black Dahlia? In researching these three women, none of them were questioned in the killing of Elizabeth Short and their whereabouts couldn’t all be accounted for on the night of Short’s murder, nor were they really looked into. What I think is interesting is all of these women had committed crimes before Short’s murder, but maybe there is another woman murderess that the LAPD never looked at?
So the idea that it could have been a woman holds up on some aspects – a newspaper in LA did a whole profile about how an older woman could very well have killed Short, but if you ask me, I don’t think that is what happened.
The second unconventional idea: Could the black dahlia have been the victim of a serial killer?
There were a number of deaths before and after short’s murder that to this day, have yet to be solved. This could be an episode all in itself, but I am going to condense it as much as possible.
Starting with the mysterious death of georgette bauerdorf – an American heirs who was found murdered in her bath tub in 1944. She had dark hair, just like Elizabeth short, and was around the same age. She was murdered in West Hollywood and her murder has never been solved.
The link between Beauerdorf and Short is most clearly The Hollywood Canteen. Which has been described as “the famous nightclub created by Bette Davis and John Garfield, that allowed servicemen to eat and be entertained for free while served by a staff of Hollywood notable” End quote (http://bit.ly/2xmpH2W)
Both were junior hostesses there in the 40s. Both had dark hair. Both were friendly with men.
In the early hours of October 12th 1944, the couple living below Beauerdorf heard heels clicking and heard what they described as a tray hitting the ground. Around 2:30am they heard Georgette scream “Stop! You’re killing me!” (http://bit.ly/2v0pHZE).
Her body was found in the bathtub the next morning by Georgettes maid. She was bruterally raped and the the official cause of death was strangulation. Georgettes car was found miles from her apartment – out of gas and empty. The case quickly went cold. I’ve included her apartment on this episodes map – her actual apartment was up for rent not too long ago.
There are a few similarities to Gerogette Beaurdorf and Elizabeth Short that have caused people to speculate correlation between the two. For 1 – they both worked at the Hollywood Canteen as junior hostesses. 2 – they were both around the same age 2- they both had dark hair.
This lead the police to think that initially both Beaurdorf and Shorts murder was someone in the service that they had met at the canteen.
This is the most strikingly the similar case to the black dahlia and kicks off the idea of a serial killer. If you want more information on the idea of the Black Dahlia murder being part of a serial killing – I recommend you check out the podcast “Hollywood & Crime” from Wondery.
They look into multiple murders that could all be linked to the Black Dahlia Murder – all were women, all had dark hair, all were nude or partially nude, all of their personal items were taken and they all were left in public places where they were sure to be found.
It is a really interesting theory and one that I think could hold up against some of the suspects we have already looked at in the episode. I’ll link the podcast in the show notes because it’s really well done and worth a listen.
I want to talk about Elizabeth Short’s life in Hollywood for a minute – she was in Los Angeles for only 4 months before she was murdered and she moved 8 times in those 4 months. She has been described by those “close” to her and those who lived with her as “lazy” and that she “didn’t want to lift a finger.” But in contrast, she has been described by lovers and former boyfriends as “being able to get the best table at a packed restaurant” and “always put together.” This strikes me as so interesting because this idea of a near-broke wannabe actress that Short was at home is so different from the polished, elegant lady that she presented to the men she associated with. Could that be a clue?
In the months before her murder Short had fallen on unusually hard times – Crime Magazine.com says “On December 8 she took the Greyhound bus south to San Diego. Later that day she fell asleep in the Aztec Picture Theater and was awakened by Dorothy French, a 21-year-old cashier and usherette. Short spent a month living with Dorothy, her mother Elvira, and younger brother Cory in their home in Pacific Beach, just north of the city limits. During this time she dated a number of men, one of whom was Robert “Red” Manley, a 26-year-old travelling salesman from Huntington Park, in Los Angeles. On January 9, 1947 it would be Robert Manley who would drive Elizabeth Short back to Los Angeles and let her off at the Biltmore Hotel.” END QUOTE (http://bit.ly/1ybx1O9)
So there was have the introduction of Red. We know that he supposedly left her at the Biltmore Hotel and that she was waiting on a call – from another lover, perhaps? We know that Red was cleared as a suspect early on in the investigation but that Short’s murder would haunt him for the rest of his life. I wonder if he knew more than he ever let on, but couldn’t come forward for fear of looking guilty or associated?
What I think is interesting is that I have found in my research that the case files – not the evidence, because that is all missing – but the “four filing-cabinet drawers” of files are still sealed. They are not open to the public and have never been shared or disclosed. Which makes me wonder… yes this case is a “cold-case” that could be re-opened at any minute, but it’s over 70 years old and there is no evidence left… so they say?
Which leads me to my next suspect, and the one most widely accepted at the murdered of Elizabeth Short: George Hodel.
The was the prominent surgeon who owned the Mayan Replica Frank Lloyd Write house on Franklin Ave has been described as the number one suspect in the killing of the Black Dahlia – mainly due to his son: Steve Hodel. As I mentioned last episode, Steve Hodel believed his father’s guilt so strongly that he has basically dedicated his life to proving it by working for the LAPD and writing a number of books including the 2003 “The black Dahlia Avenger”
I began correspondence with Steve Hodel over a year ago. When I began researching this case, I thought that George Hodel was the most blaringly the obvious suspect. How was he never questioned? The DA even had tapes of him saying “Supposin' I did kill the Black Dahlia. They couldn't prove it now. They can't talk to my secretary anymore because she's dead.... They thought there was something fishy. Anyway, now they may have figured it out. Killed her. Maybe I did kill my secretary”
That “secretary” that Hodel mentions is Ruth Spaulding. She was believe to be murdered by Hodel in 1945 but it was later determined that she committed suicide, yet Hodel was present and burned some of her personal documents before contacting police. Weird.
And I wanted to get Steve Hodel’s perspective – he is the one shouting the loudest that his father is the killer despite there being no hard and fast evidence. As my research went on I wasn’t as convinced that George Hodel could be pinned as the killer… but I still wanted to talk to Hodel. He agreed to an interview back in June and then when I reached back out to schedule the call he said…
“Just in the past week, I've decided not to do any more podcast interviews, at least for the present.
With four books completed with all the new evidence and all the original top LAPD/DA/Sheriffs brass confirming that the case was solved and Dr. George Hodel was the killer, I am no longer presenting BDA as "another theory."
We are now way beyond any "Reasonable Doubt."
Currently involved in putting together a miniseries presenting all the evidence and linkage.
Need to keep my work/investigation clear and free from of the many myths that so many want to keep perpetuating.
This is best done by disassociating my own investigation from the other "theorists" some who are still pushing fictions from fifty years past.” End Quote.
Another suspect that we haven’t talked about is George Knowlton. His daughter, Janice, claimed years later that Elizabeth Short was having an affair with her father and that she was living in a makeshift room in their garage. She claimed that short was a sex worker and that she had a miscarriage of her father’s child. According to one report, Janice said QUOTE “she witnessed her rage-filled father beat Short to death with a claw hammer in the detached garage of the family home in Westminster.” (http://lat.ms/2wBhkE1) This comes almost 40 years after the slaying of Elizabeth Short and years after her father’s death. Why now? Alleged “repressed memoires” resurfaced… she later died of an overdose but QUOTE “Psychiatrists and experts on post-traumatic stress disorder who appeared with Knowlton during her talk-show appearances, however, found her story plausible.”
I want to throw one more suspect out here because I think it is interesting: Patrick S. O’Reilly. O’Reilly was a medical doctor that Short new through Mark Hansen – remember him? The nightclub owner who Short stayed with for a bit? One account on O’Reilly states QUOTE “According to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s files, O’Reilly was close friends with Hansen and frequented the nightclub that Hansen owned around the time of the murder. O’Reilly also allegedly “attended sex parties at Malibu” with Hansen.
O’Reilly had been convicted of assault with a deadly weapon for “taking his secretary to a motel and sadistically beating her almost to death apparently for no other reason than to satisfy his sexual desires without intercourse,” the District Attorney’s files stated. This meant that O’Reilly had a history of violent crimes with sexual motivation.
The files noted that O’Reilly’s right pectoral had been surgically removed, which was similar to the mutilation present on Elizabeth Short’s body. It should be noted that O’Reilly was once married to the daughter of one of the LAPD captains.” (http://unc.live/2iBxuav)
O’Reilly’s name is one of 22 – including Dr. George Hodel’s – that the LAPD looked at as a potential killer of Elizabeth Short. But no conviction came of his questioning. (http://bit.ly/2wgRna2)
Something to note about this case is all of the other crimes that were exposed because of it – George Hodel’s secretary’s supposed suicide, and in the case of Janice Knowlton, the potential that she was part of child sex trafficking.
This case is so muddied and there are so many theories out there as to what actually happened that even speculating is hard. But what I do think is this: Elizabeth Short was murdered by someone with medical knowledge. I don’t think that her death was premeditated – I think it was potentially a crime of passion like in Georgette Beaurdorf’s case.
Now is where I am going to go out on a limb – Elizabeth Short was known to be very friendly with men and had a taste for the finer things in life. We know she had no real roots, but dressed herself as a lady, spent may nights out and was often swept off with men (for example, her trip to Santa Barbara with Red Manley) – if I had to theorize, and this is based on what I have gathered through my year of researching this case – is that Short was an escort of sorts – I don’t know if she was a full-fledged prostitute, but I definitely think she worked in that field. As far as her murder – if it was done by a medical professional such a George Hodel or Walter Bayley, I think it might be under the guise of her getting an abortion – which was illegal at that time. It has been speculated that both men were part of underground abortion rings. That would give her connection to both men, a location for either of them to do their concealed medical work/deal with her body.
Now, the questions with WHY. And I don’t think this is something I can answer. Perhaps it was a crime of passion, perhaps it was a display of art, perhaps it was for sport – because the killer felt that invincible.
At the end of the day, all of this is speculation as the murder happened 70 years ago, those involved are probably long since passed away, and there is no current access to the evidence. But hey, maybe Steve Hodel’s “miniseries” will shed some factual light into what actually happened to Elizabeth short… only time will tell, I guess.
In a weird way, Elizabeth short got what she wanted – for her name to go down in history and her legacy to be cemented in fame, but now quite how she had envisioned it.
So what are your thoughts? Who do you think was the infamous Black Dahlia killer and why? Tweet me @HollywoodlandPC or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know! I love hearing from you guys!
As per usual, complete list of references is included in the show notes and on the website.
I want to thank you all for listening to this season of Hollywoodland: Unsovled and for your emails and tweets. I love hearing from you and having you guys along for the ride of this passion project has been amazing. Cheers to next season! And maybe a little surprise before then.
All elements of Hollywoodland: Unsolved are produced by me, with graphics and maps by Brian Balzerini and music by my amazing father.
Sources: http://bit.ly/2g0Kgyx | http://bit.ly/2xmpH2W | http://bit.ly/2v0pHZE | http://bit.ly/1ybx1O9 | http://lat.ms/2wBhkE1 | http://bit.ly/2wgRna2 | http://unc.live/2iBxuav
Hollywood & Crime: http://wondery.com/wondery/shows/hollywoodcrime/
3825 S Norton Ave | January 19th 1947
Welcome to the two-part season finale event of “Hollywoodland: Unsolved.”
Please note that this case is one of the more graphic cases discussed on this show yet and may be frightening to listeners under the age of 13 - so listener digression is advised.
On a brisk Wednesday morning in January of 1947, an attractive house wife, named Betty Bersinger, was taking a walk with her 3-year-old daughter to a shoe repaired shop a few blocks away when she noticed what looked like a mannequin lying in the field ahead of her.
According to reports, she thought it had fallen off of a truck and didn’t suspect anything other than the uncomfortable feeling she had. She crossed the street and continued to make her way to the shoe shop.
It wasn’t until she got closer that she saw that the mannequin was in fact the naked body of a young women and rushed to a nearby residence to notify the police.
The body was severed at the waste and appeared to be laid out carefully as though she was basking in the southern California sun. There were also three inch gashes cut into her face – causing her to have a permanent smile. The the dark hair of the women was framing her delicate features and her body was stoic and complete white, perfectly drained of blood. Her breasts had been slashed and an alleged “BD” had been carved into her left thigh.
This cold case has stumped the LAPD for 70 years.
The body belonged to an aspiring actress with raven black hair and a reputation in the Los Angeles party scene – her name was Elizabeth Short.
I’m your host, Ansley, and welcome to Hollywoodland: Unsolved and the investigation into the Murder of the Black Dahlia.
A gorgeous young 20’s wannabe from Medford, Massachusetts, Short made her way to the dazzling lights of Hollywood in July of 1946 in pursuit of fame and fortune. She would only live in the City of Angels for 6 months before her gruesome murder.
Short grew up in a broken home – her father, Cleo Short, made a living building mini gold courses until the market crashed and through the 1920s the family lost most their assets. By 1930, Cleo parked his car on a bridged and vanished – leaving the family to believe he had committed suicide.
Short was the middle of 5 girls and after her father’s apparent suicide, her mother did the best she could to give her 5 daughters a good life. Yet living on a single mother’s paycheck in a large family proved to be too much and Short’s mother quickly asked for help.
According to reports, Short at a young age became fascinated with movies and by her early teen’s she set her sights on becoming an actress.
Years later, Short learned that her father was alive and well and living in California and when she was 19 – she made her way out west to live with him.
So let’s pause for a second, according to documents – Short’s father faked his death to get out of taking care of his family, but later took in Short in California? No wonder Short proved later to have unstable relationships with men- having a father straight up abandon her, her sisters and her mother only to have him later treat Short to a glamorous stint in Santa Barbara. Having a father like that did her no favors.
Her time in California with her father didn’t last long though.
Short was never been one to follow the rules or blend into the crowd – shortly after moving in with her father in California, she arrested at a Santa Barbra saloon at the age of 19 for underage drinking and sent back to Massachusetts to live with her mother and 4 sisters where she split the time between Florida and Massachusetts.
While living in Florida, Short met Major Matthew Michael Gordon, Jr., an alleged decorated United States Army Air Force officer, who would later propose to her through a letter he wrote while deployed in India. The proposal never came to fruition because Major Gordon, Jr. died in an airplane crash before he could make it back to the United States. This story is fishy because there are not documents that prove the Major Gordon Jr. ever actually proposed to Short but there is a photo of the two together proving that they did at least go on a date.
Short met another military man in California in 1944, Army Air Force Lieutenant Joseph Gordon Fickling – who would later be stationed out in Long Beach, CA. and in the summer of 1946, Short made her way out there to visit him and made southern California her home. Fickling was one of the last people to receive communication from Short. Allegedly he received a letter dated January 8th 1947 stating that she no longer wanted communication with him and that she was moving from San Diego to Chicago.
With her big dreams of being a star, Short spent much of her time in Los Angeles and with a reputation for dazzling the men and sometimes teasing them a bit too much. She has been described by peers and former classmates as being a little on the easy side… and loved being the life of the party. From when she made the leap to Los Angeles until her death, Short made sure to make herself know with the Hollywood bar scene.
Short’s body was found completely drained of blood and her stone cold torso was cut in half. According to reports – “Shorts body had been quote expertly bisected” end quote. For the police – this was their first lead. It gave them the idea that the killer had to be someone with medical knowledge because Short’s body was cut with such precision and knowledge and wiped clean.
QUOTE "It was pretty gruesome," Brian Carr, a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department who has long worked on the Dahlia case, later said. "I just can't imagine someone doing that to another human being." END QUOTE
There is speculation as to why she was given the name “the Black Dalilah” after her death. One theory was she often wore a large Dalilah in her hair and there had been an old Noir film called the “Black Dahlia” and a reporter, having found out that Short often wore Dahlia’s in her hair, dubbed her with that nickname.
The police interviewed literally thousands of people – everyone who had known Short was a suspect and on January 24th – 5 days after her body was found was found a chilling message arrived at the Los Angeles police department - hodgepodged together with letters cut out from magazines and newspapers that read “here is dahlia’s belongings – letter to follow”
Some of Short’s personal belongings were sent with the note including her birth certificate and personal papers – and included in those items was an address book that allegedly belonged to Mark Hansen. Hansen was the owner of a popular Hollywood nightclub called Florentine Gardens where Short was known to frequent. Hansen also let Short stay at his house a number of times where she shared a bedroom with Hansen’s girlfriend, Ann Toth according to reports. On January 8th – the day before she went missing – Short called Hansen in Los Angeles from San Diego where she was staying with an alleged lover Red Manley.
When asked about why his address book was sent with Short’s belongings, one report states QUOTE “Hansen told the LAPD that the address book had belonged to him, yet he had never used it. He said that he had given the address book to Elizabeth as a gift for her to use as her own.” (http://unc.live/2rl6JqA) QUOTE
Hansen gave conflicting reports over the years but no criminal charges were ever brought upon him. He was the lead suspect in the case in 1949 but was never convicted. Personally, I don’t think he did it. So let’s look at some other suspects….
The first was Robert Red Manley – Red for short.
Red Manley was a salesman who claimed to have spent the night in a Santa Barbra motel with Short before her death and claims to have driven her from Santa Barbra back to Los Angeles where he dropped her off at the Biltmore Hotel. According to reports, he stayed with Short for a while at the hotel, hanging out in the lounger and bar areas – Short says that she doesn’t want to leave because she is waiting for a call – but she refuses to say from who.
Manley – being a married man – needed to get back home to his wife before the though anything suspicious was going on. So Manley left Short at the Biltmore Hotel on the night of January 9th.
According to reports – one of the bell captains, late in the evening, recall seeing Short leave the hotel and walk out onto Olive street in downtown Los Angeles.
That is the last time anyone saw Elizabeth Short alive.
There were 6 nights in between her leaving the hotel and her body being found – January 9th – January 15th
According to biographer John Gilmore, the first person to notice Shorts body was a boy who was on his paper route. He saw a car (presumable a dark sedan) heading down the street with its headlights off. The boy claimed that he say the person remove something from the automobile and get back in the car, hesitate, and then leave. That is where the attractive housewife comes in – she was walking down that same street later that morning, saw the body and notified the police.
In the mid to late 40’s TV wasn’t widespread yet, but there were 5 major newspapers in the Los Angeles area. Two reporters for the LA Examiner, heard about the body in the park through the police radio and made their way to the scene of the crime. These reporters did everything from take pictures of the body to later breaking into the morgue and fingerprinting Short with soot from a match. For the duration of the case, the reporters seemed to stay ahead of the police.
Red Manley was the original suspect: his name, along with Shorts name, were listed on a Los Angeles motel guest book – when this information got back to the police, Manley was taken into custody.
He was later released due to lack of evidence and Manley’s wife backing up his alibi.
Something seems weird here, right? Why was Manley’s name listed on the address book that short kept – with a total of 75 men who met her on the streets of Hollywood and in clubs and bars.
According to reports – Manley being questioned for Short’s murder haunted him for the rest of his life. Is that because he was guilty?
Moving on to the next suspect
Residing at 5121 Franklin Ave – just a few blocks from Hollywood in Los Feliz stands a massive Mayan temple replica covered by lush greenery – lived George Hodel. This home is known as “the franklin house” and is believed by many to be where Short was murdered and rained of blood. The home is vast and features a courtyard swimming pool and secret room hidden by sliding bookshelves. Steve Hodel – George’s son who grew up in the house stated that the room was off limits to the children when he was growing up in the house. He believes that this is where Short’s body was mutilated and wiped clean.
It is interesting to note, that this location is about 8 miles away from George Hodel’s home at 5121 Franklin Ave. In Los Angeles – eight miles is a long way to go (I just mapped it, and at around 7:30 on a Sunday evening, it would take over 35 mins to get from Hodel’s home to where the body was found). Granted there is more traffic now, but his home on Franklin Ave is in a bustling area in the heart of the city. Not an ideal area to transport a body to a car and drive it across town. (Also – did anyone ever look into the vehicles of the suspects? I know DNA testing was still at thing of the future but maybe investigating and searching their vehicles would have proved to be fruitful?
Steve Hodel – convinced of his father’s guilt – has spent his life dedicated to proving his father’s guilt and served a number of years in the LAPD as well becoming a licensed California Private Investigator. Hodel with uses software to compare facial features of the autopsy photos to ones found in his father’s secret photo album – according to his discoveries, George Hodel had secret images of Elizabeth Short – linking him to Short and proving that they had some sort of relationship. But I let you hear that for yourself next episode……
According to Hodel – his father’s placement of the body and meticulous care he took to drain and clean the body was an attempt at surrealist art – sounds like a pretty sick guy if you ask me.
There is a whole section on Steve Hodel’s website where he explains his father’s relationship to surrealist artist Man Ray. Hodel thinks that his father was trying to copy an image that Ray had made, but one up him by doing it in person…. Hodel’s report on this theory is lengthy so I’ll attach the link at the top of the show notes and on the website because this is an incredibly interesting theory.
The way George Hodel was linked to the Black Dahlia was through another run-in with the law – George was on trial for incest with his daughter. He won the incest case, but while he was being questioned about the Black Dahlia, the DA took the opportunity to bug his house and for 40 days the DA spied on George Hodel. That was the only time George Hodel was ever questioned.
To me this is a missed opportunity. I’m sure by this point, you think that George Hodel is the killer…
In the transcripts of the recordings taken by the DA something stands out – quote by George Hodel stating quote “supposin’ I did kill the black Dalilah, they couldn’t prove it now. They can’t talk to my secretary anymore because she’s dead.” End quote. Whoa. Hold on a second – first off: he sort of admitted to doing it, right? and Second: did he kill his secretary too to keep her quiet?
I actually found Steve Hodel’s personal Facebook page when I started researching for the show last year and reached out to him. But more on that later….
Now let’s talk about the location where the body was found – the intersection of 39th and Norton (please refer to the map in the show notes for the exact location). At the time, that area was at the end of the subdivision and was where trash was sometimes dumped. Why would Hodel pick that vacant lot on the other side of town from where he killed short and drained her of blood? Does he have a connection to this area?
The lot one south block from where The Black Dahlia was found belonged to Ruth Bailey – the wife of a doctor. But not just any doctor – a surgeon. Coincidence? I’m not sure, but the police stated from the beginning of the investigation that the killer had to be someone with expert knowledge of the body dude to the precise way that Elizabeth Short’s body was severed and how meticulously it was expertly drained of blood.
So this adds another suspect to the case …. Dr. Walter Bayley.
Dr. Walter Bayley – former chief of staff at LA County Hospital, fit the profile of who the police were looking for. Upon his death, his wife and girlfriend ended up in a legal battle over his belongings with his girlfriend claiming she knew a secret that would ruin him personally and professionally. Was this secret a murder? We will never know, Dr. Bayley, his girlfriend and Mrs. Bayley have all long since passed away.
There is factual evidence linking Walter Bailey to Elizabeth Short – but there isn’t even record that they knew each other… so that makes since as to why the police might have missed him as a suspect.
However looking into it deeper now – there is evidence that the Short family did have ties to the neighborhood where her body was found and the lot owned by Dr. Walter Bayley. As it turns out, Bayley’s daughter - Barbara Lindgren was a friend of Elizabeth Short’s sister, Virginia and her husband. To make that even weirder? Virginia was the Matron of Honor at Barbara Lindgren’s wedding. So the two families had a stronger connection than the police ever looked into.
While researching this case I came across a site dedicated to research on the Black Dahlia from UNC and found this account interesting. The site says QUOTE “The LAPD never considered Bayley a suspect in the Black Dahlia case. However, many theorists believed he could be linked to Elizabeth Short’s murder due to the man’s medical expertise. Detective Harry Hansen told the 1949 Grand Jury that the killer had to be a “top medical man” and “a fine surgeon.” Bayley was sixty-seven years old at the time of Elizabeth Short’s death and had no known history of violence or criminal activity. He likely had not even known or met Elizabeth Short even though his daughter was a friend to Virginia Short.
Larry Harnisch, a copy editor and writer for The Los Angeles Times, started studying the Black Dahlia case in 1996. He eventually concluded that Bayley could have been Elizabeth Short’s killer. While some critics of this theory say that Bayley would have been too old and weak for the crime, the original investigators believed the body could have been cut in half for easier transport. Harnisch believed this would have made it possible for Bayley to transport and dispose of Elizabeth Short’s body. Harnisch also believed that Bayley’s neurological deterioration could have contributed to his violent ways against Elizabeth. He claimed the neurological condition was known to illicit violent behavior in otherwise calm individuals” END QUOTE (http://unc.live/2s5EM9j).
This theory is interesting to me because of the placement of the body and the idea that it was cut in half to make it easier to carry. What I also think is interesting is whoever had Short’s body had to keep if for about 5 days. Who would have the amount of time it took to sever a human spine with exact precision and drain all of the blood with such medical expertise? A retired surgeon sounds like a killer option to me. (Pun anyone?)
While looked into Dr. Bayley deeper, I learned that not only did he have this degenerative brain condition but he was also alleged to be a part of an under the table abortion ring.
So why hasn’t DNA testing been used? With technology now we should easily be able to lift DNA off of the letter sent to the LAPD 10 days after the Dahlia murder – that all sounds great…. Except the little problem that all of the evidence is gone.
Detective Brian Carr of the Los Angeles Police Department said in an interview when asked about the evidence and the letters sent from the alleged killer quote “I don’t know where it’s at… I haven’t been able to locate them.” End quote. What?! He goes on to say “Those envelopes – that we earlier mentioned – they are not to be found.”
Hold on – you’re telling me, Detective Carr that all of the physical evidence from Hollywood’s most notorious unsolved murder is… gone?!
Everyone of notability one the case all state that it is all gone. Hodel has been quoted as saying “everything is gone, everything has disappeared. And their position is ‘they don’t know it’s just gone.”
When asked about his take on the missing evidence, Hodle thinks that this is no accident. “The real telling thing about this is the fact that everything connected to George Hodel – all of the transcripts, all of the tape recordings, all of the witness interviews – everything had disappeared.”
Ray Pinker who was a detective on the case for years allegedly kept filing cabinets worth of documents on the Black Dahlia case. When his widow was asked why in a 2003 LA Times Interviews she stated QUOTE "She was a professional sponger, not an out-and-out prostitute," Ruby Pinker said. "She didn't like to work and wanted to play, which she did, and paid for it in the end. Ray pitied her because she was a beautiful girl with such terrible teeth," plugged with wax, "a sign that nobody cared about her." END QUOTE.
His files proved to be nothing more than trails of dead ends when investigators looked at the cold case years later.
So… how will a case with all of the original evidence ever get solved? It’s terrible, but it probably won’t. But why not try….
Redd Manley. George Hodel. William Bayley. Those are the top 3 suspects I have found while researching the case. But upon further review – I stumbled upon a website that looks at the idea what a woman may have killed Elizabeth Short. I don’t know why this idea never occurred to me – maybe it is because the cops interviewed dozens of men in the murder case but hardly looked at the potential of a woman being the killer. Stay with me. We will dive into that in Part 2 of the season finale.
An amazing map for the Black Dahlia case is up on HollywoodlandPod.com (man Brian Balzerini is talented!) as well as all of the addresses and references to my research for this case.
All elements of Hollywoodland Unsolved are produced by me, with graphics and maps by Brian Balzerini and music by my amazing father.
Make sure to tune in for Part 2 of the Season Finale of Hollywoodland: Unsolved. Who killed the Black Dahlia?
We will look deeper into the suspects discussed this episode, the potential of a woman killer, what Short did for those 5 days? Was she dead the whole time? And…. I have a little surprise for you. You won’t want to miss it.
The Mysterious Death of Thomas Ince
November 16, 1942
A lavish boating excursion ended in mystery when Hollywood Producer, Thomas Ince, died under circumstances that to this day have not been explained. The official report say indigestion and heart attack but elatedly he was shot in the head by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. The scandal that followed left this case unsolved today. Was the supposed indigestion really the cause of Thomas Ince’s untimely death? And if it was, why was his widow gifted a trust fund (and a lavish building in the heart of Hollywood) by Hearst? What happened that fateful night aboard the ( OH NIII DUH)? Apparently there was even a Los Angeles Times article that didn’t make to publication titled “Movie Producer Shot On Hearst Yacht.”
So what really happened to Thomas Ince? And why is this story a mystery still today?
I’m your host Ansley and welcome to Hollywoodland: Unsolved.
I must warn you that this episode may be frightening to listeners under the age of 13, so listener digression is advised.
Thomas Ince was born into a show-biz fam on November 16th 1882 in Newport, Road Island. He began his journey in the entertainment industry as an actor and after many failed attempts to make it as a stage actor, he switched gears to filmmaking.
Ince went on the change the film industry and became one of the biggest film moguls of the time. He was reported to be the first person to build a movie studio which he called “Inceville”. According to reports many of his techniques of writing and filming are still used today such as the use of assistant directors and shooting scenes separately instead of one long scene like a play. (http://bit.ly/2si8TZ0). The studio was built in Santa Ynez Canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains and QUOTE “It consisted of several thousand acres filled with stages, entire neighborhoods of multicolored houses, from the humblest abode to gigantic mansions, commissaries, dressing rooms, props and more. There were several different nations represented at the studio, from Japanese villages to French Chalets. Ince even hired performers from a Wild West show to live at the studio, including an entire Sioux Indian tribe, who pitched their teepees on the grounds.” END QUOTE
Ince would eventually become known for being the “Father of the Western” style of filmmaking and had quite a portfolio to uphold that title. (http://bit.ly/1KFfOif).
Ince eventually sold “Inceville” to a western star and began building a new movie studio in Culver City, which still stands today right on Culver Boulevard. QUOTE “The administration building is instantly recognizable, not only for its resemblance to Mount Vernon but also because the façade was used as the front of Tara in the film Gone With the Wind. Culver studios boasted 40 colonial style revival buildings, a fire department, a hospital and a swimming pool. Royalty and presidents were taken on tours of the studio and came away duly impressed.” END QUOTE
But his story came to an untimely end when he was escorted off of a yacht owed by William Randolph Hearst to due to alleged illness. He died within days was was immediately cremated and no autopsy was done. (http://bit.ly/2qBgNMo).
And there are many conflicting stories as to what actually happened to Thomas Ince.
Let’s start at the beginning….
On the weekend of November 15th, in celebration of his 43rd birthday, the Yacht’s owner – Newspaper bigwig – William Randolph Hearst hosted the ride from Los Angeles to San Diego. The trip wasn’t originally for Ince’s birthday but a dinner was set in celebration. Later that was all denied by one of the passengers….
Aboard the ship was Hearst and his mistress Marion Davies – an actress- as well as Charlie Chaplin, his secretory, Louella Parsons (who would go on to be one of the biggest gossip columnist of the time), a jazz band and a few other guests, including Ince’s wife – Eleanora Ince, or Nell as she was called. (http://bit.ly/2rJf4bq). Marion Davies later said that Ince wasn’t originally invited but was requested by Nell because she thought her husband QUOTE “needed the rest.” END QUOTE
So what happened that night? One report states -
QUOTE “A grand dinner ensued with much merry making but no drinking, according to Davis. Others have claimed the booze was freely flowing. Ince himself supposedly told doctors later that he had consumed alcohol while aboard the yacht. Hearst was a well-known teetotaler and did not tolerate drinking in his presence, but that did not stop his guests from sneaking their own booze on board so the truth probably lies somewhere in between.
Sometime during the middle of the night, Ince became violently ill and was removed from the yacht and placed on a train in San Diego bound for Los Angeles. The version doctor Goodman gave, however, was that both he and Ince had been up early Monday morning and left the yacht together, as both planned to return to Los Angeles before the others had awakened. According to the doctor, Ince fell ill with a heart attack while en route and was removed from the train to a hotel, where another physician, Dr. T.A. Parker, was called. It seems odd that a doctor, who suspected this man was having a heart attack, would not try to get him to a hospital. Ince’s wife was called and she rushed to be with her husband. Again, rather than be transported to a hospital, he insisted he wanted to go home and was brought to Los Angeles, where he died in his wife’s arms the next day.” END QUOTE
Well… that doesn’t seem too far-fetched right?
What I think is really interesting that that no corners report was ever done and the remains of Ince were cremated immediately so no investigation could ever be done. Strange right?
Immediately after the death the newspapers had a field day. Allegedly the front page of the LA times read “Movie Producer Shot on Hearst Yacht.” Yikes.
But that story didn’t get printed – what did get printed was that Ince had fallen ill while visiting Hearst’s ranch and had been taken home by an ambience only to die at his family’s side. This story didn’t hold weight for long because too many people had seen Ince board the Oneida in San Diego. Rumors of foul play were fueled by Charlie Chaplin’s secretary claiming to have seen a bullet hole in Ince’s head.
The rumors reached the district attorney office and he felt pressure to investigate – but he only questioned on man, Dr. Daniel Goodman who was a Hearst employee, who stated that he took the train down to San Diego with Ince and stated that Ince had claimed chest pain on the trip – as to aid to the heart attack story. It was enough to suffice the district attorney though because he didn’t question anyone else in the cast.
A theory as to why the DA’s office only interviewed one person – A doctor no doubt – was because he suspected that there might have been alcohol involved. Apparently it was a well-known secret that there was alcohol aboard the Oneida. This was during probation so that would have gotten a whole lot of important people in a whole lot of trouble and we all know that the Los Angeles police don’t have the best reputation of doing what is right and just and for doing what is – well, paid for by the highest bidder. I think that Hearst was far too powerful with far too much money for this investigation to go any further.
So what happened to Thomas Ince aboard the Oneida?
So let’s say that Ince was shot – if so, by who and why? One theory is that he was shot by mistake – that the gun was supposed to be aimed at someone else. Allegedly Hearst was in a relationship of sorts with Marion Davies and allegedly Charlie Chaplin was having an affair with her behind his back. According to the stories, Hearst invited Chaplin to come on this excursion so he could witness how happy him and Davies were with the hopes that he would back off.
While on board, Hearst allegedly caught Chaplin and Davies in a less that flattering position and Hearst stormed out to get his gun, returned and aimed at Chaplin but aboard the unpredictable seas, shot Ince instead. Another is that Davie and Ince were full-on caught in bed together and Hearst shot Ince in a fit of rage (with a diamond incrusted pistol, allegedly).
D.W. Griffith remarked in later years, “All you have to do to make Hearst turn white as a ghost is mention Ince’s name. There’s plenty wrong there, but Hearst is too big to touch.”
So something definitely went down.
Another interesting clue that fuels the “Hearst accidentally killed Ince” theory is that Ince’s wife, Eleanor Ince, was potentially paid off. After Ince’s death, Eleanor moved to Europe and was allegedly given a trust fund to live on by Hearst as well as had the building– the famed Chateau Elysee Apartment building in Hollywood – was paid off in full by Hearst before Eleanor left for Europe. (http://bit.ly/2ssuqxH) Sounds suspicious if you ask me.
One more thing to note is Louella Parsons, one of the passengers on the Oneida that night and the soon-to-be-famous gossip columnist, was just an up and comer at the time of this fateful boat ride – but soon after she was offered a lifetime contract with Hearst corporation… even though later she furiously denied being anywhere near the yacht at the time.
Another theory of what happened to Ince was killed because he raped Abigail Kingsolving – Marion Davie’s secretary.
Stay with me. One of my favorite websites “Hollywoodland Forever Blog” states QUOTE:
“Another quite messy scenario is that of an unknown character, Abigail Kinsolving. Miss Kinsolving happened to be Miss Davies Secretary, and from most stories she is not among those listed as being aboard the Oneida that night. However, apparently through the Hollywood gossip circuit, the story claims that Abigail was raped by Ince aboard Hearst's yacht and that she shot him in self-defense or even quite possibly stabbed him in the head. Another report states that she only admitted to being raped by Ince, but never mentioned anything about how he died, or even if the death was related to her rape.
Stories go on to state that Abigail became pregnant from that incident and gave birth to a daughter, Louise just months later. As you know, a pregnancy takes an entire nine months. So for her to give birth just a "few months" later sounds fishy to me. Also, the reports claim that Ince raped her on Saturday night, the 15th of November.
That is impossible, Ince didn't even board the Oneida until Sunday morning (the 16th) in San Diego because he had been busy at the premiere of "The Mirage" and an ongoing production deal he was negotiating with Hearst's International Film Corporation. So if Abigail claimed to have been raped by Ince on the 15th aboard the Oneida, then that was a lie.” END WUOTE
So – if we are going to roll with the Abigail was impregnated by Ince why would she kill him then? Due to the time that she allegedly gave birth, we have to assume that she was already expecting long before she stepped aboard the Oneida. Perhaps she became enraged with jealousy aboard the ship when she saw Ince with another passenger – Margaret Livingston who was allegedly Ince mistress. Did Abigail become enraged and act out of anger? Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned right?
This theory is interesting to me for a number of reasons
There is more to the story though… after digging into this theory I learned that
Abigail’s child was placed in an orphanage but was allegedly supported financially by Davies for years. Why?
There are so many unanswered questions and bizarre facts that make this case suspicious. Between the newspaper articles fabricating where Ince was, to the mysterious death of Abigail to Eleonore Ince being gifted a freakin building?
What I am still in clear about is when was Ince on the train with Doctor Goodman? Alledgely it was on the drive DOWN to meet everyone in San Diego where they then boarded the ship and his alleged heart attack (or gunshot) took place on the ride back UP to Los Angeles.
I believe that Ince was in fact killed accidentally. I do believe he was shot (they were out to sea, so who would have heard it). I also believe that Ince was in fact having an affair with Abigail Kingsolving and I think that she was going to talk and someone from the Hearst’s empire took care of her.
As for Nell? There are conflicting stories – one states that she was gifted a trust including The Chateau Elysee in Hollywood and booked it to Europe. The other states that even if she was gifted that, the stock market crash of 1929 left her life in shambles where she spent the rest of her days as a taxi cab driver.
But – the world may never know the truth as to what happened that night on board the Oneida.
This story has created so much speculation over the years that a big Hollywood blockbuster was made about it years later – in 2001 to be exact –starring Kirsten Dunst as Marion Davies, Edward Herrmann as William Randolf Hearst and Cary Elwes as Thomas Ince. Definitely adding that one to my “must watch list.”
As far as the Chateau Elysee in Hollywood? Well the building still stands and has made quite a name for it’s as the celebrity center for a little religion known as Scientoloty. Have you heard of it? (http://bit.ly/2rY8D4d)
So what do you think? Was Ince shot by Hearst in a fit of rage after catching him with Davies? Was it really indigestion that led to a heart attack? Or was Abigail Kingsolving telling the truth? Tweet me at @HollywoodlandPC or email me at Hollywoodlandpod@gmai.com. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this because my jury is still out on this one.
I’ve included a complete reference list of all of my research in the show notes as well as links to the accounts I quotes in this episode. Please feel free to check them out for more information on the mysterious death of Thomas Ince and those involved.
As always, the maps and address are included in the show notes and on the website so you can try to track down the killer and finally nail down just want happened aboard the yacht that night.
Next time on Hollywoodland: Unsolved. We dive into one of the most chilling murders to ever strike Hollywood. With twists and turns at every corner, this 70-year old cold case has been the subject of movies and books for almost a century. When Elizabeth Short’s body was found dismembered in a vacant lot in Hollywood – the police began a wild goose chase that would leave behind a trail of mystery. The murder of the Black Dahlia.
All elements of Hollywoodland: Unsolved are produced by me, with graphics and maps by Brian Balzerini and music by my amazing father.
9820-9860 Easton Dr, Beverly Hills, CA 90210
September 5, 1932
On September 5, 1932, the body of MGM executive, Paul Bern was found in with a bullet hole in his head lying front of a mirror drenched in his wife’s favorite perfume in the master bedroom of their Beverly hills mansion. His wife? None other than the notorious famewhore Jean Harlow. His body was found with a suicide note that read "Dearest Dear, Unfortunately this is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done you and to wipe out my abject humiliation, I Love you. Paul. You understand that last night was only a comedy."
I’m your host Ansley and welcome to Hollywoodland: Unsolved.
I must warn you that this episode may be frightening to listeners under the age if 13, so listener digression is advised.
The death was ruled a suicide all to quickly by authorities – and as was the norm back then, the studio was called upon the discovery of Bern’s death, instead of the police. So what happened that fateful night?
Paul Bern was born in Germany in 1889 as Paul Levy. He left school at just 14 but has been described as being one of the most brilliant minds in Hollywood. Some even call him a genius. After leaving school, Bern made his way to New York where he worked as a stage actor before transitioning to work for a film company in Toronto, Canada. In 1926 at the age of 37, he moved to Los Angeles where he stayed until his death 6 years later.
Bern worked as a quote “film cutter” and script editor before transitioning to directing. After working on a few pictures, he began his job as a supervisor at MGM.
Bern has been described as being… well, less than attractive. With a small frame and quote “only as tall as a girl,” Bern is not the type one would expect to bag a hot Hollywood starlet. But, he did have a sensitive side that was well loved throughout Hollywood – he was nicknamed “Hollywood’s Father Confessor.”
He married Jean Harlow in July of 1932.
Jean Harlow born Harlean Carpenter to a successful dentist and his wife - was a stunning up and comer from Kansas City, Missouri. She moved to Los Angeles with her then husband Charles McGrew. Harlow struggled to find parts and her marriage to McGrew crumbled. After their split, Harlow won the lead role in the talkie remake of “Hell’s Angels” and became an overnight success. Everyone wanted a piece of this stunning new actress. Her staples were her bleach blonde hair and plunging neckline – and she never left the house without them… so much so that the Los Angeles Times called her “sexquisit.”
Gossip columns recounted her every move and she loved it. She was seen with the top producers and directors in Hollywood and wasted no time using her good looks and charm to help her climb the Hollywood ladder.
So it should be no surprise that Bern was the one who got Harlow’s contract purchased and transferred from the not-as-notable Howard Hughes to the mega successful MGM studio. That’s the kind of boyfriend any Hollywood ladder climber would want if you ask me.
After just months of dating, Bern purposed to Harlow and just two days later the couple wed. So little planning went into the wedding that it’s said that Harlow didn’t even wear a real wedding dress. 150 guests gather at the home of the Harlow’s mother and the couple was married on July 2ed 1932. According to reports, they both took just one day off and then went back to work.
Their marriage was short lived though, just over 4 months after the couple got married – Bern was found with a bullet hole to the head in the home he shared with Harlow.
After the nuptials, Harlow was reported looking “radiant” and happy… but the same cannot be said about Bern. He is said to have become a paler, haggard version of himself within weeks of the couples wedding. Rumors began to fly, as they usually do in Hollywood.
Some speculated that the source of the turmoil was the grand home that Bern had purchased in for Harlow in Benedict Canyon. The home is a two-story Bavarian-style mansion situated on a 5-acre lot in the Beverly Hills neighborhood. The home has since been split up into 3 separate homes, with the carriage houses being converted into full homes.
It is reported that Harlow was not a fan of the home and wanted to sell it while Bern wanted to keep it and build a home there together.
That seems very interesting to me… that a couple would have THAT level of contempt over a house. It’s possible I guess….
QUOTE “On September 5, 1932, just four months after his marriage to Jean Harlow, Paul Bern was found shot to death in the house. Bern’s butler found his body in his wife’s all-white bedroom. He was nude, sprawled in front of a full-length mirror and drenched in Jean’s favorite perfume. He had been shot in the head with a .38 caliber revolver, which was still laying by his side.”
And on top of that Bern had left a cryptic note for Harlow on the side table in the bedroom that read read "Dearest Dear, Unfortunately this is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done you and to wipe out my abject humiliation, I Love you. Paul. You understand that last night was only a comedy."
Wait…. What?!? Bern’s butler is the one who found him and yep – just like in basically every other mysterious death or murder of that time, the butler called the STUDIO where Bern worked instead of the police. The studio heads came rushing over to Bern’s house. Yet, no one had called the police.
The first to arrive at Bern’s house was MGM co-founder Louis B Mayer, followed by two other studio execs W.P. Hendry who was MGM’s chief of security and Irving Thalberg – the other co-founder of MGM.
What happened next is unknown to anyone than those 3 men because after their arrival on scene they waited a whopping 2 hours to notify the police of Bern’s death.
What did they do during those two hours? What were they trying to cover up?
What we do know is that Mayer took the note left by Bern. It isn’t clear as to what his intentions were, but at the advice of the studio, he turned the note over to the authorities.
What interested me the most about the note is the last section “You understand that last night was only a comedy.” What is he referring to?
The cops examined the note and could make nothing of it. They then went to Harlow’s mother’s home to question her. At that time, it was unclear to the authorities why Ms. Harlow had not spent the night in her home with her husband.
Apparently they were told by her physician Harlow was QUOTE “too hysterical to undergo questioning at this time.” That seems a bit weird… doesn’t it? But then again, grief is a weird thing. It is said that she later did speak to authorities but QUOTE “was not called as a witness at the inquest, which is unusual to say the least.”
According to the Inquest – the night before his death (Saturday), Bern had sent Harlow to spend the evening with her mother who was apparently home alone. Harlow returned on Sunday and was sent away AGAIN by Bern under the guise that he had work to do- specifically scripts to read. When Harlow never heard from Bern, she apparently simply assumed that he had fallen asleep reading the scripts and thought nothing of it. But that is just one account – another states that Jean wanted to be alone that evening because she “had a headache” so she went back to her mother’s house for some space.
I’m sorry… what?! If he didn’t spend the evening with his wife the night before his death what does “you understand LAST NIGHT was only a comedy” mean?! This testimony from Harlow raises a lot of questions that the authorities never answered.
Either way – Harlow has told TWO different stories as to why she wasn’t at their home that night. That seems strange and worth looking into, right?
Apparently not. Instead, they went with the easy route and deemed it a suicide.
Yet the continued to investigate and they allegedly learned that Bern was suffering from QUOTE “physical infirmity” … which apparently made sex with Harlow impossible. So was it embarrassment that made him send Harlow to his mother’s house? And the “comedy” her refers to in the note is his impedance?
For a studio big wig with a hot Hollywood starlet for a new wife, this would be enough to embarrass anyone. But to the point of death? I think that might be a bit extreme.
But the story doesn’t stop there – according to reports, there was another woman in Bern’s life… well, sort of. Her name was Dorothy Millette. She and Bern lived together for many years in both New York and Toronto before Bern made his transition to Los Angeles – some state that she was Bern’s estranged wife, but I have found conflicting reports on this.
Millette was an aspiring actress who was just 20 years old when she met Bern and according to reports, she often referred to herself as “Mrs. Paul Bern” (perhaps because she really was married to him?) She was institutionalized for mental illness but there is no specific diagnosis made for her but guess who paid her medical expenses? Yep, none other than Paul Bern himself… even after he married Harlow.
But the big kicker is Millette mysteriously died the day after Bern’s mysterious death.
Coincidence? I think not. But the story doesn’t stop there….
Apparently cured, Milette was released from the hospital and moved into the Algonquin Hotel in New York and Bern made it a point to visit her every time he was in New York. According to reports, she was apparently the sole beneficiary on Bern’s will up until his marriage to Harlow.
So it seems like these two had a very serious love connection. If Bern loved Milette so much, why did he give her up? Was it for an easier life?
As it turns out, on March 17th 1932, just months before Bern wed Harlow, Bern received a letter from Milette stating that she was moving from New York to San Francisco. Bern apparently offered to pay for her life in New York if she continued to live there. She moved into the Plaza Hotel. So it looks like he didn’t fully give her up after all.
Once this news became public, Harlow’s stepfather issued a statement that Harlow knew nothing of Milette and that she was shocked by the news. This was countered by Bern’s brother who allegedly said that Milette was common knowledge and even discussed with Harlow before they wed.
The day after Bern’s death, Milette was aboard a steamer on the Sacramento River going from San Francisco to Sacramento. An officer found a woman’s coat on the railing and when the ship docked, no one could account for Milette. According to reports, her body was found in the river by fisherman two weeks later.
Was this a planned suicide between star-crossed lovers with a doomed fate? Merely a coincidence? Or is someone behind both the deaths of Bern and Milette?
It seems like a strange coincidence, but then again, Milette was stated to be suffering from mental illness and the person she claimed to be closest to in the world did kill himself.
The case was widely investigated – as they were at that time – but with so much speculation, tampering of evidence and a contaminated crime scene the case stumped the authorities.
Thought it was deemed a suicide. Many of the people close to bern believed it was a murder.
One account states the recounts of those who worked for Bern:
“Davis (Bern’s Gardener) believed that it was a muder and QUOTE “I thought so from the beginning”, he said. He believed that the butler had lied about what happened. He testified that the butler told the police that Bern and Harlow were always hugging and kissing and that he sometimes overheard Bern talking of suicide. The gardener said that the opposite was actually true. He never thought that the couple got along that well and he had never once heard Mr. Bern talk about killing himself! He also said that he didn’t believe the suicide note was even in his employer’s handwriting.
Irene Harrison, Bern’s secretary, confirmed this and she also added that Jean Harlow, not Bern, had been the pursuer in the relationship. She also added that she didn’t think that Bern looked “particularly happy” at the reception after the wedding ceremony.
The most exciting testimony came from Winifred Carmichael, Bern’s cook. She stated that a strange woman had been seen by the household staff on Sunday evening. The cook stated that a woman’s voice, which was unfamiliar to her, was heard. The woman screamed once. She also said that she later found a wet woman’s bathing suit on the edge of the swimming pool and two empty glasses nearby.
So could that strange woman have been Dorothy Milette? If Harlow can be placed at her mother’s house at that time, who did Bern have over?
Apparently there are no records of the police dusting the glasses for prints, no bathing suit was taken into custody - but it was confirmed that the bathing suit WAS wet and WAS NOT Harlow’s size” Also, there are claims of blood by the pool. Different member of the staff at Bern’s house share the accounts of blood by the pool, yet they were never confirmed by authorities .
This poses a very interesting situation and puts quite a twist on a mysterious death that looked more black and white when we started.
So let’s looks what could have happened.
The first theory is that Bern really did kill himself. Feeling the pressures of life with his new wife, his apparent inability to please her, and his looming money problems – Bern felt trapped and that his only way out was suicide. He was apparently known throughout town for being near bankrupt – this was supposedly news to Harlow though – and the couple began fighting over finances. Was the level of financial pressure too much for him?
I feel like this theory is a stretch because the couple had only been married for a few months. If Bern really was that unhappy, why wouldn’t he just leave Harlow? Was it because he couldn’t pay her out in a divorce? Or … was someone blackmailing him. With his secret love and his apparent money problems, Bern would have been the perfect target.
Another theory is that Harlow killed Bern. Whether it was rage or jealously and his undying love for Milette, his lack of performance in their relationships, and his deception to her on the financial side of things - Harlow was fed up with his mediocre performance as a husband and killed him. It is speculated that the note found by the studio execs was not actually a suicide note at all but actually an apology note from a fight the couple had previously. They execs decided that a suicide would look better for the studio (and Harlow) rather than letting the public know that a woman had killed one of their most powerful employees. So, they made up the story to protect the reputations of the studio, Bern and Harlow.
Harlow claimed that she knew nothing of Milette… she kept this up even when close friends and family of Bern came forward saying that Harlow did in fact know Milette and was awared of her presence in Bern’s life. I don’t think that sat well with the Hollywood starlet.
On account states QUOTE “The servants, whose quarters were located outside at the other end of the property, claimed to hear a scream after the gunshot. If Dorothy had killed him, why would she have screamed right after shooting him? Perhaps Jean shot Paul. Dorothy could have been so shaken by it that she screamed and ran for her life out of the house and down to the limo that had been waiting for her as ordered by Paul.
That would make sense as to why she left her bathing suit behind and why she didn’t even stop to pick up the shoe that had fallen off as she was running away. That also explains why she told the limo driver not to stop but to keep driving faster.”
Something I’d like to know – was their gun power on Bern’s head. If it were a suicide, there would have to be gun power, if it was a murder, there might not have been any.
Continuing on the thought that Harlow did in fact know about Milette and was riddled with jealousy – could Harlow have tried to get Milette out of her life on her own?
That same account from earlier states that Harlow had taken a day trip up to see San Francisco (where Milette) lived just months before Bern’s death. It is said that she stayed only an hour before returning to Los Angeles. Did she go up there to confront Milette? Question her on her relationship with Bern? Plot her murder?
Something that is also interesting to note is that according to reports, Bern’s will had originally included Milette and a payment of $1,200 per month in perputity. That was changed just weeks after Bern and Harlow were married. The new will left Bern’s entire state to Harlow. Hmmm… that seems suspicious to me….
Another theory is that Milette killed Bern and then killed herself. Distraught over being banished to a mental hospital and Bern starting over with a young Hollywood beauty, Milette sought revenge for the life she felt should have been hers. If that is the case, I wonder what would have happened if Harlow HAD been home that evening… would Bern and Harlow both have ended up dead?
Then there is the theory that Jean’s mother is behind Bern’s death. Stay with me on this one because it’s a doozy. The theory goes like this:
Momma Jean was known to be loud, in your face and had alleged connections to the mob. Apparently she was fed up with her son in law due to the problems in his marriage to her beloved daughter and the scandal of him having a secret first wife.
Jean and her mom were now strangers to the mob world and her mother had a reputation for getting what she wanted. That same account from earlier states this as a fact: QUOTE “Jean had dated a gangster, who was known as The Al Capone of New Jersey, and he had allegedly “taken care of some blackmailers” who had threatened to go public with nude photographs of Jean in 1917.” Wait… what?! So this wouldn’t be the first time that Jean’s mother had allowed to mob to step in and clean up a mess for Harlow
And on top of that – Bern was basically broke and needed Harlow to support himself AND Milette. QUOTE “Paul was secretly broke and it was evident he was spending more than he was taking in. He mortgaged his home on Easton Drive for almost the face value of the home, He then deeded it to his wife, making it look like he gave her a wedding gift even though Jean didn’t like the house.” End quote.
So could Harlow’s mother – her husband – or Jean Harlow herself set the whole thing up? Did they know that Milette was coming to see Bern that weekend? Did they quote un quote “take care of Bern” and Milette witnessed the whole thing, got spooked and ran, only to later be tracked down and pushed overboard of the ship?
As with most of these cases, there are so many theories with so many outcomes. But my gut tells me that it was a murder. What I think happened was Harlow did in fact know about Dorothy Milette and Bern’s ongoing relations with her (he allegedly had relations with his secretary too). I think that she was tired of playing second fiddle in her own marriage and fed up with Bern’s financials.
Let me explain – I do think that she was the one who perused Bern due to his connections at MGM. Bern – knowing if he got her contract purchased by MGM she would owe him – made the transaction happen and then purposed to Harlow to ensure that he would get access to the new cash flow she would have. Harlow agreed and married Bern and after doing so realized his financial situation. After being quote “gifted” the house, having to put up with Bern’s lack of sexual relations to her and the knowledge of his mistress, Harlow had enough. I think that Harlow invited Milette over with the intention of making it look like a murder suicide – playing off of Milette’s reputation of being mentall unstable. Things didn’t go as plan and Harlow was able to kill Bern and Milette got spooked and ran. I think that she was tracked down by someone and killed discreetly in order to finish the job and allow Harlow to keep her reputation.
And what about the suicide note? It is alleged that the note came from a personal diary of Bern’s and was not written as a stand-alone note. Apparently, one of the studio execs who arrived before the police took the diary from Bern’s house and searched it looking for ANYTHING he could use to give to the police as a suicide note in order to avoid the scandal of a murder. Another theory is that the note was faked all together by one of the execs as it was turned in later to the police
Looks like everyone was playing at their own interested in this case.
The lot where the house was has now been split up into several properties – who owns 5 acres in Beverly Hills nowadays?! For the map this episode, I have shown roughly you what the compound would have looked like that the time that is was owned by Bern and Harlow.
It is said that the home that Bern and Harlow shared together is haunted – located at 9820 Easton Dr. in the 90210 zip code of Beverly Hills, the home has had a number of deaths happen on the lot, with following Bern’s mysterious death, two people drowned in the swimming pool and later, two former tenants of the house (including Jay Sebring) were a victim of the Manson Murders. The current owners say they haven’t had any issues since bying the home in the’70s.
If you want to check it out, as always, maps an addresses are included in the show notes and on the website.
So what are your thoughts? Do you think that Paul was murdered? Or was it really suicide? Tweet me @HollywoodlandPC or email me at email@example.com and let me know! I love hearing from you guys!
As per usual, complete list of references is included in the show notes and on the website.
SOURCES: http://bit.ly/2kCCx6v | http://imdb.to/2kWNPWp | http://bit.ly/2ludKFF | http://bit.ly/2l8rrJI | http://bit.ly/2kVc2u1| http://imdb.to/2lWVWUB
The Mysterious Death of Olive Thomas