Thursday, December 16, 2010

Hooray for Hollywood

Actress Thelma Todd, shown here with husband Pat DiCicco, was found dead in her Lincoln Phaeton convertible in Pacific Palisades in December 1935.

For the past month, like most of Hollywood [but hardly anyone else], I've been fascinated by the story of the murder of Hollywood publicist Ronni Chasen, who was found shot to death on November 16, 2010 in her Mercedes-Benz, apparently hit while driving through a posh Beverley Hills neighborhood.

On December 1, 2010, a man police suspected in the killing, Harold Smith, shot himself to death when confronted by police. The most recent statement from the Beverly Hills Police Department on December 8th stated that Chasen's murder was a random act of violence by Smith - who shot Chasen while he was riding on a bicycle. They theorize that Smith's intention was only robbery and that he never intended to actually hit Chasen with his shots, but merely get her to stop so he could rob her.

Police say they believe Smith acted alone and it was in no way connected with road rage -- one of many theories that have floated around for the last month. Smith was identified to police as a suspect through a tip to America's Most Wanted -- I didn't even know that was still on the air. Apparently, Smith had been bragging to neighbors that he shot Chasen and got $10,000 for it. Incidentally, that tipster stands to collect a $125,000 reward.

But Chasen's family, friends and even residents of the neighborhood in which Chasen was killed doubt that story. As one resident said, "A black guy on a bike in Beverly Hills? I don't think so. For one thing, the guy isn't going to get too far before somebody calls the cops." Another hole in the robbery theory is that nothing was taken from Chasen's car after the shooting.

Chances are, we'll never know exactly why Chasen was killed. It could, in fact, just have been - as the police said - a case where Smith was looking to rob someone; Chasen had the misfortune to drive by; Smith shot at the car, probably not meaning to hit her, but only to get her to stop; once he realized she was dead, he fled without taking anything.

Yeah, I doubt it too. But it's possible.

It may come out that Chasen - whose estate was valued at about $6.1 million - was killed by some beneficiary of her wealth. Perhaps Chasen - or one of Chasen's clients - was involved with the mob and she was 'hit' for one reason or another.

Again, though, chances are that we'll never know. If so, Chasen's death will just be the latest in a long line of bizarre Hollywood deaths over the past 90 years.

Back in 1921, noted comedian and silent film star Fatty Arbuckle had his career, reputation and life ruined as a result of the death of Virginia Rappe. On September 5, 1921 Arbuckle took a break from his hectic film schedule and - despite suffering from second degree burns literally to his ass from an accident on set - drove to San Francisco with two friends, Lowell Sherman (an actor/director) and cameraman Fred Fischbach. The three checked into three rooms at the St. Francis Hotel. They subsequently invited several women to the room.

During the carousing, Rappe - a 30-year-old aspiring actress - was found seriously ill. She was examined by the hotel doctor, who concluded her symptoms were mostly caused by intoxication and gave her morphine to calm her. As big a fan of opiates as I am, and I'm no doctor, but I'm guessing that was not the proper treatment. Indeed, Rappe was not hospitalized until two days after the incident.

As it turns out, Rappe had come to the party already an ill woman. She suffered from chronic cystitis, a condition that flared up dramatically whenever she drank. Her heavy drinking habits - not to mention the shitty quality of the era's bootleg alcohol - left her in severe physical distress whenever she drank. She had actually developed a reputation for getting loaded at parties, then drunkenly tearing at her clothes from the resulting physical pain.

Worse, by the time of Arbuckle's St. Francis Hotel party, her reproductive health was an even greater concern. She had undergone several abortions in the space of a few years, and God-knows what - if any - quality of care she received for such procedures in 1921. In fact, as she came to Arbuckle's party, Rappe had recently had another abortion as a result of a pregnancy by her boyfriend, director Henry Lehrman.]

No one is sure what exactly happened at the party. One theory was that Arbuckle may have inadvertently struck Rappe's midsection with his knee during some romping around. If she had undergone a botched abortion during the days immediately before, the blow might have been enough to badly damage her already compromised internal organs. This would also account for the statements that a delirious Rappe was alleged to have made later during the party, statements along the lines of, "Arbuckle did it," or "He hurt me," without implicating Arbuckle in any rape or violent attack on her.

At the hospital, Rappe's companion at the party, Bambina Maude Delmont, told Rappe's doctor that Arbuckle had raped her friend. The doctor examined Rappe but found no evidence of rape. Rappe died one day after her hospitalization of peritonitis, caused by a ruptured bladder. Delmont then told police that Arbuckle raped Rappe. How would forced sexual intercourse lead to a ruptured bladder? The geniuses at the police department concluded that the impact Arbuckle's enormous body had on Rappe eventually caused her bladder to rupture.

Then things got weird.

Shortly after her death, Rappe's manager, Al Semnacker, accused Arbuckle of using a piece of ice to simulate sex with her, which led to the injuries. By the time the story was reported in newspapers, the object had evolved into being a Coca-Cola or champagne bottle, instead of a piece of ice. This is most likely nonsense. The 'ice' may have come from the fact that Arbuckle did rub ice on Rappe's stomach to ease her abdominal pain. Arbuckle denied any wrongdoing but was arrested and put on trial. Three times.

Arbuckle's trials were major media events - think O.J. without television. Exaggerated and sensationalized stories in William Randolph Hearst's nationwide newspaper chain finished Arbuckle's career. The newspapers portrayed him as a gross sexually depraved lunatic who used his weight to overpower innocent girls. In reality Arbuckle was a good natured man who was so shy with women that he was regarded by those who knew him as, "the most chaste man in pictures".

Being a completely evil prick, Hearst loved the Arbuckle scandal, and later said that it had "sold more newspapers than any event since the sinking of the RMS Lusitania." So-called 'morality groups' called for Arbuckle to be sentenced to death, and studio executives ordered Arbuckle's industry friends (whose careers they controlled) not to publicly speak up for him. Charlie Chaplin - whom Arbuckle had mentored - was in England at the time and said nothing. Others did, however. And it didn't help Arbuckle's case. Buster Keaton, and actor William S. Hart - who had never even worked with Arbuckle - both made public statements which presumed that Arbuckle was guilty.

San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady, waas naturally one of those crazy bastards who was DA only because he planned to run for governor and then President of the United States. He made public pronouncements of Arbuckle’s guilt and pressured witnesses to make false statements. Ultimately, the judge found no evidence of rape. However, after hearing testimony from one of the party guests, Zey Prevon, that Rappe told her "Roscoe [Arbuckle's real first name] hurt me" on her deathbed, the judge decided that Arbuckle could be charged with first-degree murder. Brady had originally planned to seek the death penalty, but the charge was later reduced to manslaughter.

Despite three trials that ultimately led to his full acquittal, Arbuckle's career was over. He attempted to make a comeback in the early 1930s. In fact, some of these short films were successful and miraculously, Arbuckle looked like he'd salvage something of his career. In June 1933, in fact, he was signed by Warner Brothers to make a feature-length film. Joyously, he told a friend, "This is the best day of my life."

He suffered a heart attack later that night and died in his sleep. He was 46.

Another Hollywood scandal occurred in 1922 when director William Desmond Taylor was found slain in his fashionable bachelor pad. Apparently, Taylor's valet found him and began crying uncontrollably, running out of the house and down the street throughout the neighborhood like some 20th century town crier. One of Taylor's neighbors - an actress - immediately went into action, quickly notifying Taylor's acquaintances, including those in the habit of writing sexually explicit love letters [remember, this was before texting, folks].

So, by the time police officers arrived at Taylor's home, the place looked like a Hollywood party: Paramount actors, actresses and executives were rummaging through bedroom drawers and closets, a butler was in the kitchen calmly washing dishes and an unnamed extra walked right out the front door - past unknowing police - with a case of bootleg gin.

The proverbial "persons of interest" abounded: an actress with a crush on Taylor; an actress' mother with a crush on Taylor; an actress' drug dealer [no word on whether he had a crush on Taylor]; a thieving valet (who may have secretly been Taylor's brother...and perhaps also had a crush on Taylor); a wife whom Taylor had deserted in the East; and a soldier from his wartime regiment whom Taylor had court-martialed for theft.

88 years later, no one has ever been arrested.

Other cases have titillated: in 1932 director Paul Bern was found shot to death. While a coroner ruled suicide, many believed that an ex-lover did in Bern, the husband of actress Jean Harlow.

In 1935, the body of actress Thelma Todd was discovered in December 1935 in her Lincoln Phaeton convertible in a garage near her cafe in Pacific Palisades. The coroner - and wasn't this guy a fucking genius - ruled she died of carbon monoxide poisoning after turning on the ignition and striking her head on the steering wheel. Many theorized, instead, that she was killed by a film director or an abusive ex-husband or even minions of Charles "Lucky" Luciano, whom she had angered by refusing to allow casino gambling on the property. My money's on the latter.

Then, of course, there was the infamous fascination with the 'Black Dahlia' case, which involved the gruesome and - ultimately - unsolved murder of Elizaberth Short on January 15, 1947. Although not an actress, the Hollywood resident's brutal death - her severely mutilated body had been severed at the waist and drained of blood, and her face was slashed from the corners of her mouth toward her ears - became a national sensation.

In death, Short acquired the nickname 'Black Dahlia' because of her black outfits and black hair and because a movie out at the time called The Blue Dahlia. On January 24, 1947, a person who identified themselves as the killer mailed a packet to a Los Angeles newspaper containing Short's birth certificate, business cards, photographs, names written on pieces of paper and an address book with the name 'Mark Hansen' embossed on the cover. Hansen, the last person known to have seen Short alive [on January 9th] became the prime suspect. On January 25th, Short's handbag and one shoe were found in a trash bin a short distance from where her body had been found.

Probably due to the notoriety of the case, more than 50 lunatics - both men and women - have confessed to the murder over the past 63 years. To this day, police receive tips every time a newspaper mentions the case or a book or movie on the subject released. Although, granted, those tips have dwindled as those alive at the time have gradually begun to die off. Over the years, the suspects have been variously been identified as a pipe salesman, a doctor, a cop, a mobster, a cafe owner and an actor.

The case was never solved.

Then there was the famous case of George Reeves, TV's Superman, who died in 1959 - not by jumping out a window, as the urban myth goes — but by gunshot. Not sure if it was the same coroner, but once again it was ruled a suicide, the story being that Reeves' was distraught at his inability to land serious roles after his Superman role. As gay porn was at least 10 years away from being invented - and anyone who ever saw Reeves in those tights knows what I mean - there were very few options for him. Many, however, think that story is horseshit. They believe that Reeves instead was killed on orders of a studio executive whose wife was having an affair with Reeves.

Most recently, the violent and bloody murder of Bob Crane from Hogan's Heroes in 1978 stirred Hollywood even though Crane was killed in Arizona. Amazingly - considering the trends in these Hollywood deaths - Crane's death was never thought to be a suicide - probably because it's very hard to beat yourself to death. Many believe that Crane's co-pornographer, John Henry Carpenter, bludgeoned Crane to death after the actor ended their business relationship.

Amazingly, authorities were actually able to finally bring murder charges against Carpenter in 1994 only to see the O.J.-like jury acquit him. Carpenter died in 1998, still claiming innocence in Crane's death. While it is true that there were a number of suspects in Crane's murder - the guy fucked on film who knows how many guys' wives - Carpenter was the only one with a speck of fatty matter from Crane's skull found on the door of his rental car. Incredibly, the photograph of the speck was lost before the trial started and Carpenter walked.

Officially, the case remains unsolved.

So, while it is too soon to predict the outcome of the investigation into Ronni Chasen's murder, the above cases seem to point toward no final truthful conclusion.

As the Los Angeles Times said recently, not every Hollywood story has a happy ending. And some have no ending at all.

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