Sparks fly when Hollywood bigshots tangle.
The above photo, which was made today in 1952, shows Los Angeles film producer Walter Wanger entering the L.A. Hall of Justice. Wanger was one side of a Hollywood love triangle, and perpetrator of one of Tinseltown's most storied crimes. He had learned that his wife, actress Joan Bennett, was cheating on him with her agent Jennings Lang. Wanger decided to deal with the issue by trying to shoot Lang in his wanger. Stories vary concerning whether he actually managed to Jake Barnes the guy, but most reputable sources say he missed his target and instead hit Lang in the thigh, groin, or both, depending on which account you read. That was in December 1951. Wanger would be arrested for assault with intent to commit murder.
In the photos below, also from today 1952, you see Wanger inside the courthouse preparing to answer for those charges. At his side is Hollywood superlawyer Jerry Giesler. You'd think even a superlawyer would have a difficult task defending a client who tried to to eunuch a guy, but this was Giesler. Beating impossible odds was his calling card. He opted for the temporary insanity defense, and thanks to him, Wanger drew a mere four months at a country club jail called Castaic Honor Farm—fitting for an inmate who claimed to be defending his honor. There Wanger worked in the sun planting cabbages and probably pondered what had gone wrong in his marriage leading up to that fateful 1951 shooting. Some accounts claim Wanger merely suspected Bennett of cheating, but others claim convincingly that Wanger knew it for a fact, because he'd hired a detective who found that the lovebirds had met in New Orleans, the Caribbean, and in a Beverly Hills apartment owned by one of Wanger’s friends, the agent Jay Kanter. Despite his wife's transgressions, Wanger must have found some form of peace out there under the Castaic sun, because he remained married to Bennett for fourteen more years. The wounded Lang recovered fully, and presumably used his wanger on safer partners. A few years after his near miss he married and stayed married until he died. As for Bennett, her career declined sharply, and she believed it was because of the shooting. She felt she had been blacklisted. She once said, “I might as well have pulled the trigger myself.”
Bailiff, can you please hand me Exhibit A so I can use it to get these people the hell out of my face?
In this photo made today in 1958 Hollywood super attorney Jerry Giesler sits next to Lana Turner at a coroner's inquest into the killing of Turner's boyfriend, alleged mob enforcer Johnny Stompanato. Turner's daughter, fourteen-year-old Cheryl Crane, had stabbed Stompanato in the abdomen with a knife during a confrontation in her and Turner's home. Among the throng seen around Giesler and Turner are Crane's father Stephen, assistant attorney Art Crowley, and various members of the press, who back then were given what today would be considered intrusive access to court proceedings.
As all Hollywood hung on Turner's words, the famed femme fatale, looking every bit the superstar she was, described to the court how an escalating argument between her and Stompanato led to him threatening to kill her. She related the fatal moment this way: “I was walking toward the bedroom door and he was right behind me, and I opened it and my daughter came in. I swear it was so fast I … I truthfully thought she had hit him in the stomach. The best I can remember they came together and they parted. I still never saw a blade.”
In most accounts the knife Crane used is described as a butcher knife, but it was actually a thin-bladed filleting knife. In any case it did the job nicely. And despite taking on a feared thug Crane came away physically unharmed. In the seconds after the stabbing Stompanato either chose not to retaliate, or more likely—because the knife had penetrated his liver, portal vein, and aorta—went into shock immediately and was unable either to strike back or go for aid. Police found him peacefully supine on the bedroom carpet. He had bled very little—at least on the outside.
Giesler got Crane off on the grounds of justifiable homicide, but conspiracy theories about the killing became rampant. Some said Crane killed Stompanato out of jealous desire; others claimed Turner did the deed and got her daughter to take the blame because she knew the court wouldn't imprison a minor. But in 1988 Crane, who never testified in 1958, gave her version of events. She said the attack was exactly as described, but that she also hated Stompanato because he was sexually abusing her. Many didn't believe her in 1988 but her words certainly have the ring of truth today.
Hah hah, I'm free! Drinks for everyone! My ex-husband's paying!
Why is this woman laughing? Because she's just been granted a divorce. She's actress Francesca de Scaffa and she was married to actor Bruce Cabot until today in 1951, when the photo memorialized her cheerful unfettering. Why is the man laughing? He's Hollywood super lawyer Jerry Giesler, and he's probably thinking about the fees he collected. Strangely, Wikipedia lists de Scaffa and Cabot as divorcing in 1957, but we found wire photos stating unambiguously that they split in 1951. However, we also found references to the 1957 divorce. We can only guess the two remarried at some point, a supposition that makes sense considering we also found a photo of the two dining in December 1951 captioned in part, “Last night, guess who took [de Scaffa] night-clubbing? Right! Bruce Cabot.” The point of the caption being that divorced couples are not often seen out having a night on the town together. It lends credence to the idea that they married twice, but don't quote us on it. We will find out, though, because we'll probably revisit de Scaffa a bit later—she's true pulp material. Among her many exploits were acting as an informant for Confidential magazine, a liaison with the Shah of Iran, marrying a Spanish bullfighter, running afoul of Mexican officials who tried to deport her, two suicide attempts, and more. As far as her marriage(s) with Cabot go(es), we'll put it(them) in the mystery file for now.
Lili shows L.A. County who's boss.
We decided to come full circle with Lili St. Cyr. We talked about her famed court case here, showed her on the witness stand here, and mentioned that she beat the rap. You see her above celebrating the not-guilty verdict at the courthouse along with husband Orlando Orsini and mouthpiece Jerry Giesler. Lili walked today in 1951.
Bold McDonald spun a yarn.
Today we’re back to the mid-century tabloid Exposed, with a cover from this month 1957 featuring Harry Belafonte, Joan Fontaine, Yul Brenner, Sid Caesar and Rita Hayworth. In the middle of the cover, you see a shot of a bruised and worried Marie McDonald. The photo was taken just after she was found on January 4 wandering in the desert near Indio, California. The tale soon spread across Hollywood like wildfire—that she had been abducted at gunpoint from her home the night of January 3 by two swarthy men who demanded her rings, her money, and her body. The last demand had a certain resonance. McDonald had gotten famous using the nickname “The Body.” The possibility that two swarthy men—one black and one Mexican—had defiled it was, in 1957, simply incendiary.
McDonald’s story began to fall apart immediately. She claimed rape, but doctors found no evidence. The note left by kidnappers at her house was made up of words clipped from newspapers found in the fireplace. To the cops, it seemed unlikely that kidnappers would, under the circumstances,take the time to make a note from paper and glue. They also learned that McDonald had made three phone calls during the time she was missing—none to police.
But McDonald was in a battered state, with scrapes, bruises, and two broken crowns. And she stuck to her story—nighttime, bedtime, a noise in her yard, a lean out the window, and a man lurking right there with a sawed-off. The noise had been made by a second man to draw her to the window. McDonald said the men took half an hour to make a note and discuss their plans, then bundled her into a car. About the phone calls, she said she barely managed to sneak to the phone and was disoriented and had no idea who to call. When the kidnappers heard the mounting news coverage about the crime, they decided she was “too hot” to keep and dumped her in the desert, sending her tumbling down a 25-foot embankment. And then there was the matter of the unidentified males who had called people close to McDonald with threats.
By January 5, McDonald’s ex-husband Harry Karl was offering up some juicy quotes to the press. Among them: “Marie is a very sick woman. I believe she left of her own accord.” He had received one of the calls from the kidnappers, but wasn’t buying it for a minute. He said, “She has done some very strange things in the past.” Police soon learned that the kidnap tale resembled the plot of Sylvia Tate's comedic novel The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown, which happened to be among the books McDonald had in her home. There was little doubt now in the minds of authorities that the whole situation was an elaborate hoax, but McDonald was a celebrity and so the police dutifully arrested suspects, continued investigating, and by January 17 sent the whole messy affair to a grand jury.
The day McDonald arrived to give her testimony she said, “I’m not looking forward to this. I don’t see how I can convince 19 men if I can’t convince the police.” She was right. The grand jury decided there wasn’t enough evidence of a crime and the matter was dropped. In retrospect, McDonald was probably lucky not to have been prosecuted herself. Perhaps the fact that she had retained Hollywood super lawyer Jerry Giesler helped her there. In any case, the Marie McDonald kidnapping went into the history books as yet another Hollywood conundrum.
McDonald’s career as a popular performer had been more or less finished for ten years, but she had remained on the fringes of the news thanks to her marriages—seven of them—and her many famous friends.The events of 1957 had put her front and center again, but it was the last time, until she died of an accidental Seconal overdose—or was it suicide?—in 1965. Two months later, her husband Donald F. Taylor, overdosed in the same room, using the same bottle of pills.
Exposed arrives on the scene late, never quite gets up to speed.
Tabloid month continues with the New York City-based Exposed, one of the middle tier entrants onto the scandal sheet scene. The magazine came on the scene a bit later than the heavyweights, at a time when the tabloid market was already packed with better-produced, better-funded rivals. Little wonder then, that Exposed folded quickly—we’ve seen issues numbering up to 18 but no further. Inside this March 1956 issue, numbered 4, we have the usual victims—Brando, Lili St. Cyr, and Ali Khan. The clever lawyer mentioned here in connection with St. Cyr is Jerry Giesler. You see St. Cyr and Giesler hugging below, just after St. Cyr’s acquittal in Los Angeles from charges of indecent exposure at the nightclub Ciro’s. We talked about the trial a couple of years ago, but since then, the website Paradise Released has posted a more detailed version of that unusual day in court. We recommend giving it a read. And if you just can’t get enough, there’s another recent account at Pincurlmag, here, with some additional details. We’ll have more from Exposed, including some interior pages, a little later.
Lili St. Cyr was beloved by legions of fans—the question is whether she loved herself.
Today was the day, back in 1999, that the world was deprived of Lili St. Cyr, when she died of heart failure at the age of 80. Her life at the end was quiet—just her and some cats in a modest Hollywood apartment—but during the 1950s she burned up burlesque houses from coast to coast as the most famous, beautiful, and artful exotic dancer in America.
She was born in Minneapolis, but her family moved to Pasadena when she was young. Like many girls from her background, she wanted to be a ballet dancer, and her family paid for lessons. When she was eighteen she accompanied her sixteen-year-old sister on a dance interview, and the agency also took a liking to her. Her first job was at Hollywood’s Florentine Gardens, where she was a chorus girl. But the low pay made her determined to headline, even it meant taking off her clothes. Her nude debut was two years later at The Music Box. Supposedly, her act didn’t go well, but the producer stuck with her because he could see quite clearly what everyone else saw as well—she was one of the loveliest girls who ever set foot on his stage.
It wasn’t until after adopting the pseudonym Lili St. Cyr over her unusual birth name that her career began to blossom. She scored a job in Montreal at the Gaiety Burlesque House, and worked there for seven years, eventually earning $1500 a week. It was during that time that shedeveloped some of her trademark techniques, including working with a cockatiel, and having her g-string snatched off by a fishing line that was invisible to the audience. Burlesque crowds were usually raucous, but St. Cyr, with her sheer grace and insistence upon infusing balletic movements into her routines, more often awed audiences into silence.
By the end of World War II, St. Cyr was famous enough to travel North America as a headliner. After several years of that she moved back to Hollywood in 1951 to take a headlining gig at Ciro’s. By now she was more than simply Lili St. Cyr—she was The Anatomic Bomb. One of her standard Canadian routines was to perform in a transparent bathtub filled with bubbles. The act didn’t go over quite as well in the U.S., and St. Cyr was hauled into court on obscenity charges. But the arrest was an opportunity, and she used the publicity to further burnish her fame. By the time the jury acquitted her after only 80 minutes of deliberation, all of America knew Lili St. Cyr.
At the height of her fame in the mid-1950s, St. Cyr was reportedly earning more than $100,000 a year. With the fame came famous suitors such as Howard Hughes and Vic Damone, but she seems to have married only for love, if one is to judge by the fact that none of her six husbands werecelebrities. With the fame also came the moral watchdogs, those desperate to stop consenting adults from doing what they wished with their own time, and the arrests followed. She was making enough money to afford top legal representation, and she chose the best—Jerry Giesler, who we discussed last June.
Beginning with 1952’s Love Moods, she began to appear in motion pictures, and scored parts in a total of ten, including 1962’s The Naked and the Dead. If that film—which was based upon a Pulitzer Prize-winning Normal Mailer novel—had been a success, St. Cyr might have shifted careers. She had long ago grown tired of burlesque, discussing her desire for a career change as far back as 1957, during a painfully clunky interview with Mike Wallace. But the film was middling, and her performance failed to impress, so she stuck with stripping—the only thing she knew.
In 1959 she attempted suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. The trigger was an argument with her boyfriend at the time, but the suicide attempt wasn’t a surprise, considering her many failed marriages and deep ambivalence about her profession. Her personal life had been something of a shambles for years. There were whispers she’d had several abortions, was addicted to pills and dabbling in heroin. The double-edged nature of fame was made abundantly clear when she landed on the front cover of Confidential. Inside were unflattering photos, including a police mugshot.
As much as the public loved St. Cyr, it was her enemies that seemed to control the direction of her life. Her legal troubles continued, and another marriage went by the wayside. But St. Cyr was nothing if not persistent. By the time she finally retired from burlesque after thirty years, she hadachieved a longstanding goal of establishing herself in another industry by opening a mail order lingerie business similar to Frederick’s of Hollywood. It was called The Undie World of Lili St. Cyr, and her garments were geared toward a male clientele—the idea being that prodding men to give lingerie as gifts was more profitable than trying to appeal to women. St. Cyr was right, and her business became wildly successful, hawking its wares in colorful catalogues that remain collectibles even today. After St. Cyr sold controlling interest in the business, she drifted into a quiet twilight, but, like former nudie queen Bettie Page, experienced a revival during the 1990s. But unlike Page, St. Cyr didn’t appear at conventions and signings—she stayed in her little apartment with her cats.
Most of the sites we visited looking for information on St. Cyr discuss those years of seclusion as if they were an anomaly. But in that 1957 Mike Wallace interview, she confessed that she hated having people look at her. Wallace seemed baffled by this, and for some reason didn’t seem to make the connection that $100,000 a year will go a long way toward helping someone battle stage fright. The idea that she might actually beshy instead took him into a line of questioning during which he flat-out said: “You don’t like yourself very much, do you?” And St. Cyr replied, “No, I don’t.” Asked why, she says, “Perhaps because of what I do.” So it seems clear that St. Cyr was always destined to spend her last years avoiding the limelight. And while it’s safe to say the world certainly missed her, it’s equally safe to say that she probably never missed the world.
Looking at things from a Q perspective.
We have another issue of On the Q.T. today. The cover subject, Beverly Aadland, was a teenaged actress who earned notoriety for being Errol Flynn’s last lover. Flynn always preferred young girls—oftentimes too young, depending on whom you believe. When he wrote his disappointingly bland (at least to us) autobiography My Wicked, Wicked Ways, the dedication read: To a small companion. We would have guessed Flynn meant his cock, since it got him into so much trouble during his life, but more informed sources than us say the companion he meant was Beverly Aadland. We stand corrected, and she stands explained for those who didn’t know who she was.
Moving on, On the Q.T. also mentions a person named Giesler. This would be Jerry Giesler, who is little known now, but was once Tinseltown’s lawyer-to-the-stars. To say he possessed secrets is an understatement considering he represented the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Edward G. Robinson, Marilyn Monroe, Shelley Winters, Lili St. Cyr, Busby Berkeley (from triple manslaughter charges), Zsa Zsa Gabor, Errol Flynn (again, with Flynn), and too many more to name. But of all his exploits, the most famous was his sensational defense of fourteen year-old Cheryl Crane from murder charges.
It’s one of the most lurid stories in Hollywood history. Crane was the daughter of megastar Lana Turner, and had endured many difficulties early in life, including alleged molestation and rape by Turner’s fourth husband, actor Lex Barker. Turner had an abusive situation of her own with mob enforcer Johnny Stompanato, a violent man who slapped her around but clung onto her for dear life no matter how hard she tried to dump him. On April 4, 1958, Cheryl Crane stabbed Stompanato to death. She claimed the mobster was beating her mother and she had no choice but to attack him. Not to be morbid, but oh to have been a fly on the wall as this fourteen year-old girl went Benihana on a feared mobster. What an astounding scene that must have been, especially to Stompanato, who you see in peaceful repose above. Anyway, Cheryl Crane said the stabbing was done in her mother's defense, and Jerry Giesler convinced a jury she was right.
Already famous enough to command what were at the time enormous retainers, Giesler's reputation was forever sealed after the Crane trial. He was simply the best, the go-to attorney for a celeb in a town that was always boiling with trouble. As a result of Giesler's exploits, Hollywood coined a catchphrase, a collection of magic words believed to possess the power to solve even the toughest problems. The phrase? "Get me Giesler."
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1926—Houdini Fatally Punched in Stomach
After a performance in Montreal, Hungarian-born magician and escape artist Harry Houdini is approached by a university student named J. Gordon Whitehead, who asks if it is true that Houdini can endure any blow to the stomach. Before Houdini is ready Whitehead strikes him several times, causing internal injuries that lead to the magician's death.
1973—Kidnappers Cut Off Getty's Ear
After holding Jean Paul Getty III for more than three months, kidnappers cut off his ear and mail it to a newspaper in Rome. Because of a postal strike it doesn't arrive until November 8. Along with the ear is a lock of hair and ransom note that says: "This is Paul’s ear. If we don’t get some money within 10 days, then the other ear will arrive. In other words, he will arrive in little bits." Getty's grandfather, billionaire oilman Jean Paul Getty, at first refused to pay the 3.2 million dollar ransom, then negotiated it down to 2.8 million, and finally agreed to pay as long as his grandson repaid the sum at 4% interest.
1947—HUAC Hearings Begin
The House Un-American Activities Committee begins its investigation into Communist infiltration of Hollywood, resulting in a witch hunt that destroys lives, ruins careers, and makes Senator Joseph McCarthy the most feared politician of the era.
1968—Jackie Kennedy Marries
Former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy marries Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. The marriage comes as a total surprise to the American public, and results in a terrible backlash against her and also makes her the number one target of paparazzi for years.
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