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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

HISTORY LESSON: Who-dunnit, Hollywood?

Charlie Chaplin and Marion Davies: did their affair
lead to murder???

Part of Hollywood's allure is its mystique: a foreign land of sunlight, palm trees, and skies that seem to rain money on people that are just plain prettier than the rest of us. However, this city, when it doesn't have its make-up on, can be downright ugly. The harder someone works to look perfect, the more certain you can be that he or she is covering something up-- perhaps even something hideous. The dark side of La La Land is far from glamorous, and enough disturbing, tragic events have taken place to create the contradictory, evasive, and hypocritical image of both Heaven and Hell that many equate with the city today. Strangely, the world's audience seems to find the macabre stories more fascinating and hypnotic than the triumphant or pure. And so, we remain tantalized by tales of Sharon Tate, Elizabeth Short, Paul Bern, Thelma Todd, and George Reeves, keeping in check a city that protests too much its perfection-- we are no longer fooled. Here are a handful of similarly fascinating Hollywood tales, unsolved mysteries, and questionable alibis. The trouble with the following is that we may never know what truly happened in any of these cases, but then again, a solved murder is much less intriguing than the average open book.

What really happened to Thomas Ince (left)? The theories abound and none of the facts add up. What we know for sure is that Ince-- acclaimed director and producer who made up one third of the Triangle Film Corp. triumvirate and made Westerns in Inceville-- joined a group on William Randolph Hearst's yacht, the Onieda, when it took to sea in celebration of his 43rd birthday on Nov. 16, 1924. Thomas would never set foot back on shore, for when the party docked in San Diego on the 19th, he was carried inland and died mere hours later. The cast of this plot alternately may or may not include: Marion Davies (Hearst's mistress), Elinor Glyn, Margaret Livingston (Ince's alleged mistress), aspiring columnist Louella Parsons, Seena Owen, Aileen Pringle, Julanne JohnstonTheodore Kosloff, Hearst's secretary Joseph Willicombe, publisher Frank Barham and wife, Marion's sisters Ethel and Reine and niece Pepi, Dr. Daniel Carson GoodmanMary Urban, and Gretl Urban. During the night, Ince was overheard groaning in his bedroom. The fortunately present Dr. Goodman was summoned and diagnosed Thomas as suffering a heart attack brought on by indigestion or ptomaine poisoning. The ship docked on the 19th, Ince was attended to, and to keep matters from the press, Hearst urged everyone to keep mum-- most particularly, one presumes, to keep his affair with Marion under wraps (not to mention the heavy imbibing that had occurred during this prohibition era party). After all, leaking their rendezvous would only serve to inflame current gossip, embarrass his wife, Millicent Wilson, and hurt the career that he was trying to build for his kooky but beloved girlfriend, Marion. Unfortunately for Hearst, Ince died, and the press wanted details. The nervous Doctor Goodman is generally blamed for fearfully blabbing a series of contradictory facts in order to obey Hearst's orders, thus starting the alleged theory that all was not as it seemed. All aboard maintained that the death was an unfortunate twist of fate, and Marion maintained to her deathbed that nothing sinister was afoot. 

Yet, this is difficult to be believed.  This is where Charlie Chaplin comes into play, who was also allegedly in attendance on the Onieda, though he always denied this later. It had been rumored for some time that he and Comedy Queen Marion were enjoying a tryst of their own, and that Hearst was becoming incredibly jealous. When you add this to the conflicting stories about what exactly occurred, the alibis get dicey. The most shocking bit of evidence came from Charlie's own loyal chauffeur, Kono, who stated that he not only picked Charlie up from the travel's end but witnessed Ince being pulled ashore with an apparent bullet-wound in his head, a fact which he confided to Eleanor Boarman. Curious... Marion maintained there was no gun on board, but Hearst was known to shoot pelicans for sport on the ship. The now popular theory is that Hearst, in a jealous rage over his suspicions that Marion Davies and Charlie were having an affair, shot at Chaplin, only to discover that he had accidentally shot Ince instead, who in certain lighting looked a great deal like Charlie. (This a scenario brilliantly brought to life in Peter Bogdanovich's The Cat's Meow). Other theories are that Hearst poisoned Ince, stabbed him with Marion's hatpin, or even hired an assassin to kill him, though with no pure motive, these latter conspiracy theories don't add up, unless Marion was getting too cozy with Ince as well. To cover up the scandal, many believe that Hearst threw money at everyone present to hush them up-- including giving Louella Parsons her lifetime gig with the Hearst corporation-- and printed his own creative narrative of the events in his papers, like the little ditty that Ince had taken ill at his ranch and not at sea. As Hearst all but controlled the press, it was not a hard feat to keep things quiet, yet Ince's quick cremation and burial on Nov. 21st only bolstered suspicions. So, was Kono mistaken? Was the blood he saw actually from a "perforated ulcer?" It is hard to believe that Kono, so loyal to his boss, would tell such a lie nor one so outlandish. And if Ince wasn't shot or somehow pummeled on the head, why would Hearst go to such lengths to cover up his death? Was it some other, even more unbelievable accident, or was it murder? Everyone involved kept deathly silent, and now the truth is lying six feet under. (Right, the nemeses at happier times at one of Hearst's costume balls: Doug Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Hearst, Charlie, and Millicent Hearst (?)).

One of Charlie's old Keystone chums also ran into her share of scandals. Good-time girl Mabel Normand (left) made a career out of hamming it up alongside fiance Mack Sennett, becoming the first major cinematic comedienne. She held her own against the comic giants of the day, eventually directing her own films and becoming a huge star in the process. The fact that she twisted her beautiful features into hilarious mugs made her seem less pretentious and more down-to-earth than the average starlet, and as she earned the public's chuckles she too stole their hearts. Ironically, Mabel's heart was ever in trouble. Not only did she fail to marry her soul mate, Mack, but she wound up in a loveless, gag marriage to Lew Cody, and was also falsely implicated in the murder of her good friend William Desmond Taylor. When it came to luck, Mabel must have spent it all in her first 25 years. The demise of her relationship with Mack is one of the remaining mysteries about her. We know that the powerful duo broke it off. We too know that Mabel appeared afterward with a nasty head wound. Where exactly it came from remains a matter of great debate. One theory is that Mabel walked in on Mack in flagrante with her supposed friend Mae Busch, who-- after Mabel became understandably hysterical-- smashed a vase over her head. 

Minta Durfee, Mrs. Fatty Arbuckle, would recall that she and her husband were either a) summoned to Mabel's home by a mutual friend who revealed the disconcerted Mabel and her nasty head-wound, or b) Mabel showed up at their doorstep in the same fashion. Fatty rushed Mabel to the hospital where a threatening blood clot was found and instantly corrected through a dangerous operation. Yet, another theory is that Mabel was so heartbroken by her break-up with Mack-- who may or may not have been a philanderer-- that she took one of her famous swan dives from the Santa Monica Pier in the attempt to kill herself. To complicate things further, Adela Rogers St. Johns attested that Mabel attempted this suicide only after her initial head-injury and hospital release, making both versions true. Whatever the case, the story Sennett (right) gave the press was that Mabel had injured herself while doing a stunt with Fatty, who allegedly, accidentally sat on her head-- a bit of foreshadowing to the Virginia Rappe rape scandal, where again Fatty's girth would be used as a scapegoat (this guy couldn't catch a break). Sennett also claimed that Mabel faked her "illness" to get back at him for going after Busch, a ploy that worked after he complacently set her up in her own studio and gave her the role of a lifetime in Mickey. Arguments against Mae Busch's guilt in the incident have too been made, as she and Mabel were pretty good pals. Whatever the true situation, Mabel was never the same. Some would protest that in addition to her heartbreak, a switch in her mind took place that made her more erratic and disjointed. So, what really broke Sennett and Mabel up? Was it the same thing that broke her head?

By 1958, Lana Turner (left) was no longer the Queen of MGM. As an aging actress, her career was winding down almost as quickly as she had risen to the top. This prior rise to fame in itself is the stuff of legend. After she was allegedly plucked off a stool at Schwab's Pharmacy (really the Top Hat) while drinking a milkshake (coca-cola), Lana shot to fame for her ability to fill out a sweater with great... panache in They Won't Forget. Lynn Fontanne she was not, but Lana still had an edge to her that made her a bit naughty, a bit dangerous, and all gorgeous, which allowed her to maintain a lengthy career before the cameras. In her time, she was linked to all kinds of handsome leading men, from Tyrone Power, to Artie Shaw, to Clark Gable, but it was her marriage to Johnny Stompanato aka Johnny Valentine that would become the most notorious. Johnny too had an edge of danger, but his was much more threatening than Lana's more sensual allure. In fact, it was deadly, but this had come in handy back when he was a bodyguard for none other than Mickey Cohen. The thrice divorced Johnny's charms and seduction won the rebellious Lana over, though as their relationship became abusive, their passion for each other perpetuated an on-again, off-again tragedy-- both violent and deluded. Caught in the fray was Lana's daughter with Steve Crane: Cheryl. Cheryl bore witness to more than one unruly spat that grew horrifyingly physical. At fourteen-years-old, this was hardly the happy home that the teenaged girl needed to endow her with confidence and positivity to face the world. 

On the evening of April 4th, ironically Good Friday, the police were summoned to Lana's home on the infamously catastrophic Bedford Drive. Johnny had been stabbed to death! Cheryl and Lana would claim that Cheryl had overheard another frightening spat between her mother and her lover, during which Johnny had threatened to essentially cut both women to ribbons. Terrified, Cheryl had run to the kitchen to obtain a weapon to protect her mother. She raced back to Lana's bedroom door, and before she even knew what she was doing, she was startled by Johnny's exit. She stabbed him, and he fell backward into the shocked Lana's room. Lana would tearfully tell this same story before a judge, a moment that many would mockingly refer to as "the performance of her career." Cheryl has forever maintained her version of the story, but many have hypothesized that it was in fact Lana who killed her lover. To save herself and her career, it is thus suggested that Lana begged Cheryl to step up to the plate and take the blame. Did she? In the end, most of us take Cheryl's word for it, but was she protecting her mother's life on that fateful day, or did she tell a fib to protect her mother's livelihood forever after??? If the latter is true, the ploy worked. Lana shot back to fame with the dual success of Peyton Place and Imitation of Life. Buh-bye, Johnny. (Lana, Johnny, and Cheryl, right).

The name Jean Spangler (left) doesn't ring too many bells today. A wannabe actress, the svelte brunette had come to Hollywood chasing the dreams of so many others. And, like so many others, she too often used the wrong avenues to get where she wanted to go. Vulnerability and naivete never serve a woman well... By the age of twenty-seven, Jean had already been a dancer at the Florentine Gardens and a girlfriend of, again, Mickey Cohen. Still, her fortitude was able to land her some bit parts in films for Harry Cohn at Columbia, such as The Petty Girl, but she never made it as a top leading lady. This, of course, may have had something to do with the fact that she literally disappeared on October 7, 1949.  Earlier that day, Jean had confided that she was going to be "out late" shooting a movie. After over 24 hours of absence, her sister Sophie filed a missing person's report, and the hunt for Jean began, though efforts by LAPD were half-hearted at best-- they didn't even send the report out on the teletype. On the 9th, a groundskeeper at Griffith Park found her purse, which had been torn. Clearly a struggle had ensued, but no robbery had taken place, as the purse's contents remained in tact-- including an undelivered note to her current boyfriend, "Kirk" (allegedly Kirk Douglas), in which it is heavily implied that she would soon be proceeding with an abortion from a "Dr. Scott." Ooh, the plot thickens...

Needless to say, Jean's family, particularly her mother, were distraught and certain that foul play had ended in murder. Kirk (right), who was married to Diana Douglas at the time, and his lawyer maintained that he didn't even know "the girl," yet her mother maintained that he had picked her up from her apartment at least twice. Other eye-witnesses claimed to have seen them at a party together, and Jean's friends attested to the fact that Jean was indeed three months pregnant. Throwing speculation is his direction even more is the fact that he contacted the police to tell them that he was not the "Kirk" in the note before the contents of this note had been made known to him, nor the connection made by police to the defensive star. Kirk would later backtrack and admit that he may have taken Jean on a couple of dates. Radio man Al "The Sheik" Lazaar also claimed that he saw Jean the night she disappeared at The Cheese Box on Sunset, where she was sandwiched between two unrecognizable men. The trio were said to be arguing. This was the last time that she was seen alive. What happened is still unknown, and her body has not been found. There are two major theories as to what may have befallen the young beauty: a) the infamous Dr. Scott had botched Jean's abortion, she had died on his table, and her body was disposed of, perhaps even in Griffith Park or b) Mickey Cohen had her maliciously "taken out" when he became jealous over the news of her affair with Kirk Douglas. Aside from the possible baby, Kirk was in no way implicated in her disappearance. Certainly, he must have learned his lesson regarding what a seemingly harmless night of passion can turn into. This didn't keep him from being at least partially blamed, and the normally stony Cohn actually had him barred from his studio when Kirk came to pay a visit to Evelyn Keyes not long after the incident. While his conscience may be clear of her death, someone is guilty. But just who-dunnit, we may never know.


  1. great post Mer ! Thanks and Merry Christmas

    1. Thanks, as always, Bill. I hope that you are enjoying an incredible Christmas and that the new year brings you much joy, mirth, and movies! :)

  2. Thoroughly enjoyed this story ! Very fascinating & intriguing! Are there more?