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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

MENTAL MONTAGE: 50 G's, or the Kid Gets it!

If Rita Hayworth were as handy with a gun as Elsa Bannister,
her private life may have been a little less frightening.

Fame is attractive. Perhaps too much so. The brilliant light of celebrity glows so brightly that it is bound to attract all kinds of insects. While being a movie star may, therefore, appear to be glamorous, all that swatting at intrusive pests can become quite irritating... even horrifying. Every cinema great has a story when it comes to seeing the dark side of fanaticism and fame. Some have been sent obscene letters, stalked, hounded, etc. But the worst of the worst is when the threat of death comes knocking at the mansion door; when the wealth and prestige one has worked to accumulate is suddenly used against him by the very public that originally built him up. Extortion, blackmail, ransom... You name it. When you have money, you are going to make a lot of "friends" fast and a lot of enemies even faster. The worst of it comes when a parent's own child is used as the bargaining chip. Most of the time, these vile threats are just that-- pathetic, get-rich-quick schemes connived by ill-adept con-artists. On rare occasions, the worst can happen, as in the tragic kidnapping and subsequent death of the Lindbergh baby. Here are a few examples of when the lifestyles of the rich and famous became nightmares of the sick and twisted. Greed knows no shame...

Rita Hayworth never went in for the whole celebrity lifestyle. While she had great pride in her hard work, she did not invite nor yearn for a place in the spotlight. If she was disenchanted with the pretentious, hoity-toityness of Hollywood initially, she became completely tormented after the hypothetical high-life threatened the peace of her home and the safety of her children. After she married Orson Welles and gave birth to their daughter, Rebecca(together left), the trouble began. She was already on emotional pins and needles as her marriage collapsed (after a brief reconciliation while filming The Lady from Shanghai together). Mostly on her own, with secretary Shifra Haran and Rebecca as her only company, she was completely blindsided and terrified when a fan letter was sent to her on Feb 2, 1947 from "The Scar Never Fails" of Cleveland, TN. The author demanded $2000 in a week's time, threatening to kidnap Rebecca if his demands were not met. In addition, he intimidated Rita by making violent threats against her own life, ignorantly asking her if she wanted to wind up looking like "the blue daliha[sic]," clearly referencing "Black Dahlia" Elizabeth Short, whose mutilated and bisected body had just been found the previous month. If Rita did not comply with the blackmailer, she was told that lye would be "thrown into those beautiful eyes of yours." Needless to say, she was panicked and frightened. Luckily, by the time she even became aware of the letter, blackmailer James Gibson was already in custody. Having dealt with the shock almost completely on her own, she decided it was time to give old Orson the heave ho', and she filed for divorce the next month. Unfortunately, this was not the last threat to Rebecca's life. When vacationing with her mother and Aly Khan, Rebecca was actually physically grabbed by a man on the beach at Deauville. Luckily, the nanny who was watching her was able to call for help and the culprit didn't get far.

The one positive during this latter episode was the attentiveness of Aly, who was a much more nurturing partner than Orson had been. However, it was Rita's relationship, or rather failed relationship, with Aly that would put her children in even further danger. Their daughter, Princess Yasmin (right, with mom), became a prime target for kidnappers after she was brought back to America. Due to her royal status and wealthy parentage, she looked like a pretty sack of cash to unsavory individuals looking to make some easy money. Just prior to her divorce from Aly, Rita received threatening letters that demanded a hefty ransom in return for Yasmin's life. Rita had tried to find a little serenity by taking both of her girls to Lake Tahoe for some respite. Imagine her surprise when the District Attorney showed up at her door with seven guards telling her that there had been a threat made against Yasmin's life! Apparently, D.A. Jack Streeter had serendipitously overheard two culprits bragging about how much Yasmin would be worth, then listened as they laid out their plan to approach by boat, snatch Yasmin, and escape across the lake. The morons had no idea that they were divulging their plans to the very man who would stop them. Thus, Rita and her children were surrounded by bodyguards as they waited nervously for danger to approach. Luckily, none did. Perhaps the two dimwitted gents had merely been describing a fantasy scenario; perhaps they approached, saw all the feds, and decided to back off. In any case, Yasmin was safe... For now. When Rita finally was able to escape with the girls to the Beverly Hills Hotel, she became irate when a reporter broke into her hotel room and started taking photos of her daughters. If it had been that easy for him to get in, imagine what would happen if a person with evil intent made a move!

The worst was to come while Rita was being squired by next beau, Dick Haymes, who had essentially set his sights on Rita to solve his own financial woes and too help him out of his latest debacle-- he was being threatened with deportation to Argentina. (When visiting Rita in Hawaii, which was then not a U.S. state, he had failed to notify the authorities). In the midst of this mess, Rita received the first of three threatening letters on Aug. 24, 1953. Rita was going through her divorce from the Muslim Prince when this poison pen author claimed that Yasmin would be killed if she did not return to Aly. Since Rita had been unfairly dubbed a "homewrecker" and a "whore" after she allegedly broke up Aly's first marriage, it was clear that a religious fanatic was invoking the wrath of God on her and her sinful ways. The second letter she received informed her that if Yasmin was not returned to Aly, someone would "beat you so that you will have to go to the hospilal and your career as movie star will be over [sic]." At this point, Rita became incredibly paranoid, fearing that perhaps it was father-in-law Aga Khan III himself who was orchestrating this whole thing as a scare tactic to get her to return to his son. Such was not the case, but the intimidation had reached such a level that even J. Edgar Hoover got involved. Everyone was on the lookout for more letters with the same postmark of Rochelle, NY. The third letter came mere days before Rita's wedding to Dick. It stated: "Yasmine [sic] will die unless her father is permitted to raise her as a Moslem." Then... silence. The money was never paid, and the villain stopped his correspondence. Luckily, the worst Rebecca and Yasmin were to suffer through the ordeal was the inconvenience of constant police surveillance. (Dick, Rita, and the kiddies left).

Marlene Dietrich was also a fiercely protective mother. Though her relationship with only child, daughter Maria Riva (together right), would grow complicated over the years, no one could deny her intense pleasure at being a mom nor her overpowering maternal instincts. This was never more evident than in Maria's earliest years, when Marlene took a brief respite from show-biz to play Mama. Yet, entertaining was in her blood, so it was only a matter of time before she returned to the spotlight. She was ecstatic about her sudden success with The Blue Angel and her American hit Morocco. However, when she crossed over to the United States, all was not all rosy. She would receive one Hell of a welcome when, almost immediately, Maria's safety was threatened. Just prior to filming Blonde Venus, Marlene received the first of several ransom letters. The extortionist demanded that $10,000 be placed in a box and left on the running board of a car, which was to be parked in front of her house. Marlene started shaking: "I have never known such fear in my life. I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep." She immediately went to husband Rudi (Sieber), who wanted to call the police, but since the letter insisted that the police not be involved, Marlene resisted the intervention of law enforcement. Instead, Rudi did the next best thing, which was to enlist the aid of Josef von Sternberg and Maurice Chevalier, the latter of whom just happened to call when the hysteria was setting in.

And so it was that dapper Frenchman Maurice (left) arrived with both a pistol and a shotgun. He and Josef stood guard at Maria's door while Rudi patrolled the house and grounds, being clever enough to constantly change his clothes, so the kidnappers believed that there were more people around. More letters arrived, with the ransom price jumping to $20,000. As Marlene grew more nervous, Rudi maintained composure. Finally, the letters came to a stop. No thieves ever showed. Maurice tipped his hat, holstered his guns, and went home. It seemed the whole thing had either been a hoax or an ill-performed attempt that the instigators failed to follow through with. Things slowly returned to normal, but Marlene insisted that life always remained a bit bittersweet after that. When she started filming Blonde Venus, she insisted that Maria accompany her to set and be placed just out of camera range, so she could keep her eye on her. She later asked Rudi how he had remained so calm, to which he admitted that he had actually called the police unbeknown to her from the very beginning. The entire time that she had been biting her nails, the house and her daughter were under complete surveillance. Rudi said that he was afraid if she knew, she would be unable to go about her business normally, thus alerting the kidnappers to the police presence. He didn't think she was that good of an actress!

In February of 1934, Spencer Tracy also got an unfortunate introduction to an extortionist who went by the name of "Rattlesnake Pete." By this time, Spence was receiving oodles of fan mail, but one particular letter, written in pencil, definitely stood out from the pack. It too arrived straight to his Holmby Avenue address, which was even more alarming. Rattlesnake demanded $8,000 in return for the safety of Spence, his wife, mother, children Susie and John, as well as his recent paramour Loretta Young (together in Man's Castle, right). This was unnerving, mostly because the person seemed to have intimate knowledge of all the people surrounding Spence and too seemed to be taking some sort of cocky revenge on his infidelities. Rattlesnake made sure to illustrate the gravity of the situation by referencing recent ransom victim, Minnesota banker Edward G. Bremer, who had just paid the highest price to date for his safety-- $200,000-- to the Barker-Karpis gang. He warned that if Spence didn't pay up on the allotted March 10th drop date, the price would only go up. Spence took every precaution he could, moving his children to his mother's place in Westlake Park and calling the authorities, despite the warning not to do so. Wife Louise was blissfully ignorant of the whole charade, since she was out of town, unreachable, and snowed in. Detectives watched the family constantly, which was a thorn in the 10-year-old John's side, though Susie was too young to be aware of the situation. When Spence was forced to tell John that if he wandered off, a "bad man" may take him away, the little boy got the picture sure enough and remained terrified throughout the rest of the ordeal.

When Louise finally received word, she rushed home as quickly as she could and stuck to her children like white on rice. The family (left) was at the end of their tether as the dreaded drop date approached. The police authorized Spence to go ahead with the exchange in the hope that they would be able to swoop in and catch the culprit. So, on March 10th, Spence rode out to Wilshire and Western with chauffeur Walter... and Detective Joseph Filkas crouched in the back seat! They were told that a man would jump onto the side of the car and grab the dough. Though they followed instructions, the blackmailer never appeared. After that, Rattlesnake Pete became silent, never sending another letter. Spence had a theory that his last chauffeur may have been the guilty party, since he had been bitter when Spence fired him. Yet, when police investigated, the evidence was too inconclusive to make an arrest. The handwriting didn't check out. Rattlesnake Pete was never found.

The idea of losing one's child is perhaps the worst feeling a parent can endure, but there was one single lady who had her share of scares as well. In 1935, Thelma Todd (right) was doing more than well for herself. A successful, beautiful comedienne, the "Ice-cream Blonde" too had a roaring business going with her Sidewalk Cafe, co-owned by ex-lover Roland West. However, despite the fact that everyone in America seemed to love her, Thelma continuously got a slew of evil letters threatening her life. She once had to call a bomb squad to the restaurant because an offender claimed he had planted one inside! None was ever found. Some of these hate notes were certainly from obsessive fans, or anti-fans, but due to the company she had previously kept, Toddy also had an idea that ex-flame Lucky Luciano and perhaps even ex-husband Pat DiCicco had something to do with it. Since Lucky was miffed that Thelma wouldn't allow him to use the upper level of her restaurant for his gambling purposes, there had been a violent rift between them. She often felt herself being watched and followed. The hate mail grew to such a level that her maid, Mae Whitehead, took a batch of letters to the police station as a part of her regular duties. No shrinking violet, Thel' wasn't about to let the abuse go on. She kept the cops well informed, bought a white bull terrier named White King, and purchased herself a pretty little handgun, which she kept tucked in her purse.

The most fearful letters came from a man called "The Ace," who decorated his correspondence with a drawing of the ace of hearts in the lower, right-hand corner. His mail started Feb. 2 and continued five times more through November. His letters were different than the others, since they each named different men that Toddy had been romantically involved with, including Roland and bandleader Abe Lyman. She too received strange, mumbling  phone calls from Ace. The instructions she received-- money for her life-- were confusing. She was told to send $10,000 to Abe Lyman in New York, while Abe was told in a separate letter to send $20,000 to radio man Major Edward Bowes (?!?!). None of the three involved could make heads or tails of it. Soon, Thelma's number was up to $20,000. She decided to take action. She was to make the drop at Hollywood, but instead, the feisty lady left a letter at the allotted space, which stated that she wanted to meet the blackmailer face to face. Another meet was set, and Thelma drove to the Warner's Theater, where she saw a fidgety man in a hat, who made sure to obscure his face. He came up to the car and gave her directions to a secluded place where they could make the swap. After tossing out a "Not on your life, pal!" Thelma put the pedal to the metal and sped off. She went straight to the police, who first scolded her for setting up this dangerous operation without them, and then instructed her to try again with them in tow. She obliged. This time, when Ace stuck his head in the car and reached for the money in her purse, he caught a sight of her gun and made a dash for it. He got away again, but not for long. (Thelma with White King in her last photo, left).

The police made an arrest in Astoria, NY. Hotel superintendent Harry Schimanski was a 34-year-old obsessed fan who had photos of the lovely Thelma (right) taped all over his apartment. Though he pleaded "not guilty," Thelma was glad to at least have the guy in custody. To make things more confusing, however, more letters started to arrive, this time from "A Friend." This guy demanded $50,000, or Thelma would be killed and her restaurant burned to the ground. Luckily, the police located 28-year-old Edward Schieffert immediately, and he made no protest. In fact, he openly admitted that he had been the author. He was proud of it! He said that Thelma was his "dream girl." Obviously, he was a bit confused about proper wooing procedure. The strange thing was that he too admitted to the Ace letters. Since he was quickly committed to Bellevue after being deemed mentally unstable, it is still uncertain if these were just more mad claims or if he was in fact some kind of maniacal genius playing two games at once. Thelma was just glad that the harassment was over. Her peace would be short lived. She would be found dead that December.

Ironically, Spence portrayed a man wrongfully accused of
kidnapping in Fury.

Oh, the negative side of fame... Countless stories could be told. Linda Darnell's attempted $2000 extortion by a seventeen-year-old from Salt Lake City; Gloria Swanson's attempted blackmail by ex-husband Harry Samborn... It seems that there is no rest for the wealthy. Fame has a price, and it is staggering. The emotional toll is often more damaging than the financial one, which is perhaps why, for matters of pride, the aforementioned individuals refused to pay up, even if it meant that they could wind up six feet under. In the end, it wasn't about the money; it was about dignity and smarts. Where you find one cockroach, there are bound to be more. Sometimes you have no choice but to squash 'em, especially when a threat is made against your offspring. If the natural world has taught us anything, it is that you don't come between a mother and her cubs. Not even in Tinsel Town.


  1. Crazy stalkers: a universal constant in any time period, it would seem. I never knew about the harrowing ordeals Hayworth, Dietrich, and Tracy had to undergo with their children. That's the lowest of low blows to target someone's kids. Unsettling, of course, when it's just yourself, but your kids? Man, oh man. Whole other level of "not okay".

    Especially creepy and tragic for poor Thelma is that there's still talk that her apparent suicide was possibly a murder. Though the consensus is that if true, the perpetrators were probably some mobster thugs connected to her restaurant, not a crazed stalker. But you never know, do you, especially with Ms. Todd's history of unhinged followers causing mayhem in her life. Very tragic and unfair either way for the short-lived comedienne.

    Excellently written and researched piece! After a certain point, fame is truly not to be desired, is it?

    1. I am totally on board with you about Thelma. Lucky definitely had something to do with that "suicide." I read the bio "Hot Toddy" some time ago and have totally accepted its summations as truth. So sad. You're right, fame is no bueno! Thanks for reading. :)