Pageant winner fulfilled show business and personal ambitions. Then things went wrong.
Beauty pageants are a bit silly, perhaps, but the participants are generally ambitious people who see them as stepping stones to show business or modeling. And in mid-century Los Angeles in particular, even minor pageants occasionally led to stardom. In the above photos high school student Barbara Thomason wins the crown of Miss Muscle Beach 1954. Listed at 5 foot 3 inches and 110 pounds, she was a body-building enthusiast, and in the shot just below she celebrates her hard fought win by pumping a bit of iron while photographers click away and a crowd watches.
Did Thomason's victory lead to bigger things? Maybe not directly, but it probably helped. She was a habitual pageant participant who also won Miss Huntington Beach, Miss Van Ness, Miss Bay Beach, Miss Southwest Los Angeles, Miss Pacific Coast, Queen of Southern California, andten other titles. All that winning finally got her noticed by Hollywood movers and shakers. In 1955, performing under the name Carolyn Mitchell, she made her acting debut on the television show Crossroads, and in 1958 co-starred in two Roger Corman b-movies, The Crybaby Killer and Dragstrip Riot.
But she put her career on hold when she met and married a star—Mickey Rooney, who was nearly seventeen years her senior and nearly two inches her junior. Their union had problems from the beginning. The couple married secretly in Mexico because Rooney was still awaiting a divorce from actress Elaine Mahnken. They would have to wait almost two years before the law allowed them to wed in the U.S. Legalities, though doubtless bothersome, were the least of their problems. During the next six years, during which Thomason bore four children, Rooney indulged in numerous affairs.
It should probably be noted here that Thomason was Rooney's fifth wife. Among the predecessors were goddesses like Ava Gardner and Martha Vickers. We don't know what Thomason's expectations of marriage were, but clearly Rooney didn't know the meaning of the phrase “for better or worse.” The affairs continued, and eventually Thomason did the same with a temperamental Yugoslavian actor named Milos Milosevic, who performed under the name Milos Milos. But what was good for goose was not good for the gander—Rooney found out about these international relations, moved out of the Brentwood house he shared with Thomason, and filed for divorce, charging mental cruelty. The nerve, right?
On the morning of January 31, 1966, while Rooney was in St. John's Hospital recovering from an intestinal infection he'd picked up in the Philippines, Thomason and Milosevic were found together on the bathroom floor of the Brentwood house, dead. Milosevic had shot Thomason under the chin and killed himself with a temple shot using a chrome-plated .38 Rooney had bought in 1964. The consensus is Thomason had decided to dump Milosevic and he flipped out.
The photos below show Thomason on Muscle Beach during her halcyon years there, a mere teenager, frolicking in the sun, filled with youthful hopes for a good life. She won beauty titles, acted in films, married an icon, and had four children. Any of those accomplishments would have been good legacies. Instead her death at twenty-nine overshadowed all the rest, and she's remembered as another celebrity murder victim, Hollywood style, which is always somehow both sensational and banal.
Yep, this guy's dead as hell. Too bad. He could sue the beer company for false advertising.
This photo, which is part of the archive of mid-century Los Angeles Herald press shots maintained by the University of Southern California, shows a suicide at the front entrance of Temple M.E. Church at 14th and Union in Los Angeles. The man was named Robert Palmer, and you can see that the poor guy shot himself in the middle of the forehead. You can also see that he bled profusely, which suggests his heart pumped for a bit before he finally died. L.A.P.D. detective Hugh Palmer (no relation) stands over him. Like many suicides Robert Palmer had a final drink before doing the deed. His choice? As you see in the zoom below, it was Lucky Lager, which conferred no benefits whatsoever. Maybe a rabbit's foot or a horseshoe would have been more effective. Or not. The photo is from today in 1957.
L.A. man ends the holidays with a bang.
We've always been fascinated by splatter shots from the mid-century period. When did someone finally decide people had a right to privacy even in death? We don't know, but we think it was a good idea. Before that change came about press photographers routinely tramped around crime scenes documenting mayhem for profit. These images show the aftermath of a murder-suicide that took place today in 1951. Pictured are L.A. cops Detective Lieutenant George A. Encinas and Detective Lieutenant Bill Cummings, along with the bodies of Charles Sullivan and his wife, identified only as Mrs. Charles Sullivan. Maybe a new year would have brought new hope to this household, but we'll never know, nor will we know exactly why Sullivan shot his wife and himself. The images are part of the always compelling collection of Los Angeles Examiner photos maintained by the University of Southern California.
Kenneth Anger explores Hollywood's darkest recesses in his landmark tell-all.
Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon is the grandaddy of all Tinseltown exposés. It was published in 1965, banned ten days later, and shelved until 1975. It's exactly as advertised, outing everybody that was anybody for everything. Entire chunks are devoted to Charlie Chaplain, Lana Turner, Errol Flynn, Fatty Arbuckle and other cinematic luminaries. Some of its claims have been proved false—for instance the assertion that Lupe Velez died with her head in a toilet, and that Clara Bow screwed the USC football team (we doubt anyone really believed that one, even back then). But other tales are basically true, including accounts of various legal run-ins and feuds.
Anger's writing is uneven, but at its most effective mirrors the type of pure tabloid style that influenced the likes of James Ellroy and others. Besides the salacious gossip the book has a ton of rare celeb photos, and those are of real worth. We've uploaded a bunch below. They came from a digital edition because our little paperback was too fragile to get on a scanner. By the way, don't feel as if we're working overtime on our website this Christmas morning—we uploaded everything in advance and are actually nowhere near a computer today. We're glad you took a minute to drop by. Copious vintage Hollywood below.
He obviously didn't realize 'tis the season to be jolly.
This series of photos shows the bloody aftermath of a murder-suicide in Los Angeles. A man named Phillip Lovetti shot his father-in-law before turning a shotgun on himself. A few of aspects of these images are notable. On the most visceral level the position in which Lovetti landed, below, shows what instant death+gravity does to a human body. We once read a police account about a man who shot himself and both his knees dislocated, just from the weight of his body being pulled straight down by gravity. Without muscular control the body goes where physics takes it, and you get a sense of that in these photos. Also note the pockmarked wall above the chair where Lovetti shot himself. But most interesting, to us at least, is that the cops marched Lovetti's wife Lorena through the crime scene. Maybe she was asked to to identify the bodies or describe the incident. She's bloodspattered, so perhaps she witnessed the entire fiasco, but maybe she got bloody handling her husband or father's bodies, checking for pulses, for example. The data with these photos doesn't go into detail. Nor does it explain why Lorena Lovetti is clutching a shoe in the last three shots. Whatever happened, this is a crazy series, from today, 1953. Stay jolly out there.
If I can't live with you, you can't live without me.
Seventy-three-year old Dan E. Fabun lies dead on the front seat of his car near Cardiff Avenue in San Bernadino, California. Fabun had separated from his sixty-six-year old wife Lula Fabun, but was at the house they once shared discussing its sale. But he had no intention of selling the house. Instead, he pulled a .32 caliber automatic pistol from his pocket and fired a volley of shots. One missed. One hit Lula in the torso, and another entered her right cheek and exited her left ear. Lula's unlucky brother-in-law was there too, and he was felled by a fourth bullet in the stomach. While lying wounded in the street, he saw Dan Fabun put the gun to his own head and pull the trigger, with a click resulting. Fabun then leaped into his car and drove off. Not more than a mile away he veered off the road, through a wire fence, and into a field, where police later found him in the condition you see above. He had drunk a deadly poison, andsuccumbed almost immediately. He carried two notes—one explaining his funeral arrangements, and the other explaining his reasoning for what he did. “I'm too old to live alone,” he wrote. And apparently, too unwilling to die alone. Today, 1951.
Her final answer simply raised more questions.
Above you see two photos of actress Carole Landis, dead on the bathroom floor of her Pacific Palisades home, where she was found today in 1948. She had been dumped by her married lover Rex Harrison the night before, and responded by killing herself with an overdose of prescription medication. She had tried suicide before but had been rescued by friends. This time she took forty Seconal tablets, which leaves little doubt as to her firm intent—one fifth the amount would have killed her. She fell into a coma early in the morning with her head resting on a jewelry box, which is the reason for its elevated position. She also left a note on her dresser for her mother:
Dearest Mommie - I'm sorry, really sorry, to put you through this but there is no way to avoid it - I love you darling you have been the most wonderful mom ever and that applies to all our family. I love each and every one of them dearly - Everything goes to you - Look in the files and there is a will which decrees everything - Good bye, my angel - Pray for me - Your baby
Hollywood suicides are part of the town's lore. Landis's is more remembered than most, not for what Landis did, but for what those around her did. Harrison had been calling her throughout the morning but her maid had told him she wasn't awake. She wasn't going to disturb her employer, so Harrison dropped by himself, entered her bedroom and found Landis non-responsive. He felt her wrist and said he felt a faint pulse, but instead of calling an ambulance rifled through her address book, hoping to call her private doctor and thus keep the disaster under wraps. While he did that, Landis died. After failing to find the number he sought, he went home, called studio head Darryl Zanuck, and set about damage control. The maid, left to deal with the situation, asked a neighbor to call police.
It wasn't unusual for press to have access to death scenes, as we've documented frequently in our Naked City posts. Landis's death photo appeared on the fronts of hundreds of newspapers by the next morning. By then questions had begun to arise. Some said Landis had written a second suicide note that Harrison destroyed. When asked at a coroner's inquest whether there was a note, he said no. Her friend Florence Wasson said there was a second note, but it only asked that the cat be taken to the vet because it had a sore paw. The inquest was closed with no new findings, but years later a policeman who had been at Landis's house that day said he had seen a second note addressed to Harrison, and that the cat had seemed in perfect health.
Landis's family claimed Harrison was guilty of murder—and not just for dithering about when he thought he felt a pulse. They claim he killed her outright to keep news of his affair from damaging his career. However, his relationship with Landis was a poorly kept secret, and tabloids were making sly references to it, identifying Harrison and Landis by their initials. Also, Harrison already had a terrible reputation. People behave irrationally in high stress situations, and Harrison made bad moves at every stage, especially when one considers that there was no way he could hope to hide his involvement. But that shows merely cold-hearted concern for himself, and possibly a lack of awareness how near death Landis was. Add it all up and you have one of Hollywood's most storied suicides—one where an act meant to be a final answer left endless questions.
Just because they're kidnappers doesn't mean they're bad people.
This FBI wanted poster was issued for Clarence Vernon Stevens today in 1937, in connection with a kidnapping case dating back to 1933. Clearly, the FBI were having no luck finding their target. In May 1933 Stevens and three accomplices had kidnapped Kansas City rich girl Mary McElroy right out of her bathtub one night and demanded a hefty $60,000 ransom from her father for her safe return. In the end they got $30,000, but they also got caught—all except for Stevens. While his accomplices were tried and sentenced to, respectively death, life, and eight years, police scoured the state for Stevens. Eventually they decided he might have hidden himself somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. The FBI got involved in the search, resulting in the above poster.
Mary McElroy had developed a bond with her kidnappers and lobboed for more lenient sentences for the three that had been caught on the grounds that they had treated her decently. She successfully petitioned Missouri governor Guy Brasfield Park to have the death penalty handed one of her captors commuted to life, explaining in a letter, “Through punishing a guilty man, his victim will be made to suffer equally. [snip] In pleading for Walter McGee's life I am pleading for my own peace of mind.” She was very likely being truthful about her mental state—after the event she suffered from all sorts of mental disorders, problems she attributed to concern for the imprisoned men she now considered friends. We're sure a modern headshrinker would have a more in-depth explanation, something along the lines of PTSD.
Whether McElroy's problems originated from the kidnapping itself or from subsequent anxiety concerning the state punishing them on her behalf, the rest of her life did not go well. She had several nervous breakdowns—as such incidents were called back then—never moved out of her father's house, and became addicted to opium. In January 1949 she committed suicide at age thirty-two by shooting herself in the head with a pistol. She left a note that read, “My four kidnappers are probably the four people on earth who don't consider me an utter fool. You have your death penalty now - so - please - give them a chance. Mary.” But her death brought about no change in her kidnappers' status. One had already been paroled as scheduled, but the other two remained in prison. As for Clarence Vernon Stevens, he was never caught.
Embarrassing family scandal ends in murder.
The above crime scene drawing shows murder victim Ned Doheny, Jr. in the bedroom of his Los Angeles mansion after being killed by a gunshot to the head, along with a superimposition of where police imagine he was just before he was shot. From the above angle the event looks clinical, but a reverse view reveals an unholy mess, with Doheny's face and robe drenched in blood, and a dark pool spread across the carpet.
Out of sight in the hall leading to the bedroom is the body of Hugh Plunkett, Doheny's presumed murderer, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. For a time this was the most famous crime in L.A. history. Doheny was the son of oil tycoon E.L Doheny, who was in trouble for passing bribes to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall. The investigation and legal circus, known as the Teapot Dome scandal, had ensnared not just the senior Doheny but Doheny Jr. and Plunkett. They had both been indicted for conveying the dirty money from Doheny Sr. to Secretary Fall.
Realistically speaking, there was no serious threat of the Dohenys going to jail. But working class Hugh Plunkett was not a tycoon nor a tycoon's son, which meant for him the possibility of incarceration was real. When Jr. was offered immunity and Plunkett was not, their close friendship began to fray. Plunkett's growing instability spawned attempts to get him into a mental facility—whether to save his mind or save him from testifying remains a subject of debate—but it never happend. Todayin 1929 he visited the Doheny mansion to talk with his pal Ned and hours later the result is what you see in the crime scene photos.
There's much more to the case—rumors of a sexual relationship between Doheny Jr. and Plunkett, rumors that Doheny Sr. pulled the trigger on both men, etc.—but we'll leave all that aside. The truly interested can find at least a dozen websites that dig into every aspect of the case. We just wanted to show you the photo-illustration, which is yet another police photo from the University of Southern California digital archive. |
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