BY JACK SMITH
Actress Maureen O'Hara's alleged love scene with a Latin in three rear seats of Grauman's Chinese Theater was re-enacted before a spellbound audience here yesterday at the Confidential libel trial.
A witness and a buxom newspaperwoman, who volunteered her services, entwined themselves in three courtroom seats while judge, jury and spectators watched in fascination.
Opposing counsel hovered beside the players, giving conflicting directions.
"Her feet are on the floor!" protested one.
"We never said her feet were off the floor!" exclaimed the other.
Miss Lee Belser (at right in 1958 photo with Otto the clown), a blond reporter for a wire service, played the part of the flaming-haired actress, cuddling into the arms of the witness, James Craig, a former assistant manager of the Chinese Theater.
Superior Judge Herbert V. Walker glowered sternly over the courtroom, his ears attuned to the titters, ready to rap down with his gavel. He had warned that he would let the show go on, but let no one think it was a comedy.
Charges of blackmail, an emotional outburst by a defendant, and an eyewitness account of Miss O'Hara's alleged night of skylarking in the theater brought the slow-starting trial to a racy pitch earlier yesterday.
As the conflict shifted from the prosecution to the defense, the multiple conspiracy trial was enlivened by a series of surprises.
Craig, flown here from London to testify for the defense, admitted he told the O'Hara story to a Confidential agent for a mere 70 pounds (about $200) [$1,433.06 USD 2006].
Hollywood producer Paul Gregory, appearing as a final and surprise witness for the state, leveled a charge of blackmail against one of the defendants, Mrs. Marjorie Meade, alleged queen of Confidential magazine's Hollywood scandal mill.
Red-haired Mrs. Meade broke up the proceedings with a convulsion of tears and sobbing, but after a two-hour rest swept serenely back to take the stand as first witness for the defense.
"I have never seen Mr. Paul Gregory before in my life," she testified.
"I have never had a conversation with Mr. Paul Gregory in my life," she concluded and then stepped down.
This attempt to impeach the producer's testimony out of the way, defense attorney Arthur J. Crowley showed his pattern of strategy by setting about to prove the truth of one of Confidential magazine's most sensational yarns.
The witness was Craig, neat and crisp of manner after a long air trip from London. Craig left Hollywood in 1954 to return to his native England.
Craig said he was on duty at the Chinese Theater on a November night in 1953 when the green-eyed Miss O'Hara, according to Confidential, "heated up the rear of the theater" with a Latino whose name remains unknown.
Craig said he investigated and found Miss O'Hara "leaning across three seats" in the Latin's arms.
"She looked to be very disheveled, very untidy. I didn't want to be indiscreet," Craig recalled, so he got his flashlight and walked up and down the aisle. Miss O'Hara then "took her own seat" he said, and he assumed the incident was over.
At the usher's second appeal, Craig said, he went forth again and found "the gentleman sitting in a seat and Miss O'Hara sitting in his lap."
"I told them I thought it was best if they left the theater. The gentleman said they were leaving anyway."
Miss O'Hara soon came out alone to the foyer, Craig said, and asked to borrow his flashlight, explaining that her friend had lost a cuff link. Craig said he returned and found the missing article.
"It was definitely a diamond cuff link," he recalled.
Craig said he told the story to an old friend, Michael M. Smith, Confidential's London agent, and after its publication, received a check for 70 pounds.
On cross-examination, Deputy Dist. Atty. William Ritzi assaulted Craig's version of the O'Hara story piecemeal. Perhaps never has a bout of spooning been so thoroughly dissected four years after its occurrence.
Ritzi even asked the witness to take chalk and draw a diagram of the part of the theater which allegedly was the arena of the episode and prosecutor and witness jousted back and forth in effort to place each arm, leg, trunk and foot in its proper place according to Craig's memory.
At one point, the exasperated prosecutor--a Sunday school teacher--blurted out:
"To put it bluntly, sir, where was her rear end?"
"Her rear end," the solemn witness answered, "was on the edge of Seat No. 2."
Also present as a witness for the defense was Smith, to whom Craig gave his story. Smith was flown in from London with Craig.
Until Craig entered with his recitation of the O'Hara incident, Mrs. Meade and Gregory had played front and center in the trial, the producer naming her as the woman who kept a rendezvous with him two years ago and offered to kill a scandalous story for $800 to $1,000.
He said she told him the proposed story was "scandalously injurious" and could be ruinous to him and his associates, including Charles Laughton and Laughton's wife, Elsa Lanchester.
The prominent producer was brought forth at the last moment as a surprise witness of the state in the jury trial of Confidential and Whisper magazines and Mrs. Meade and her husband, Fred.
Shortly after Gregory stepped down from the witness stand in the courtroom, the state rested.
Then Mrs. Meade collapsed. Tears gushed from her wide eyes and sobs filled the courtroom as Judge Walker left the bench and strode to his chambers.
The red-haired defendant stood, stumbled and fell back into her chair as her strapping husband rushed forward to her aid. Her weeping apparently uncontrollable, she was led into an anteroom by her husband and a bailiff.
A medical attendant, summoned from the County Jail Hospital in the Hall of Justice, examined Mrs. Meade and said she was "emotionally upset."
When the 15-minute recess ended, defense attorney Crowley advised Judge Walker his client was unable to appear. Judge Walker then recessed the morning session.
Mrs. Meade earlier had expressed outrage and disbelief when Gregory gazed at her and said he was "absolutely positive" she was the woman who called herself "Mrs. Dee" and offered to stop publication of a Confidential story if he would pay the "author's commitment" of $800 to $1,000.
Gregory said he told "Mrs. Dee" he regarded it as "character assassination and blackmail" she was up to and refused to go along with her. Nevertheless, he testified, the threatened story never appeared.
The producer said the woman known to him as Mrs. Dee first made contact with him, by telephone on Aug. 22, 1955. He flipped the pages of a large red leather date book for a page that had a note of the date.
He said the woman proposed a meeting with him which could help him "avoid injurious scandal to me and my associates." He was then associated in a producing venture with Laughton, he added.
Asked by prosecutor Ritzi if he later met the woman whose voice he heard on the telephone, Gregory answered that he had, and that woman, he said evenly, "was Mrs. Meade."
At this Mrs. Meade whipped off her horn-rimmed spectacles and registered horror.
Gregory went on to testify that Mrs. Dee telephoned again on Sept. 16 and he agreed to meet her in a Beverly Hills cafe at 2:15 p.m. that day.
When he entered the cafe he saw a man and two women sitting in a booth, Gregory testified.
"A woman approached me and said, 'Are you Paul Gregory?' I said I was and she said, 'I'm Miss Dee.' "
"Now," asked the prosecutor, "do you recognize here in this court the woman who introduced herself to you as Miss Dee?"
Gregory fixed steely eyes on the red-haired woman at the counsel table.
"Absolutely," he said.
"Mrs. Meade?" asked the prosecutor.
"It is indeed," said Gregory.
He and the woman then sat apart from her friends in another booth, the producer said, and after he declined a drink he asked her to get on with her business.
"She said she could stop this story if I would pay the author's commitment. I asked how much that involved and she said $800 to $1,000.
"I asked her what the story was about. She said it was scandalously injurious and could very well put me out of business if it were allowed to be published."
It was then, Gregory said, that he accused Mrs. Meade of character assassination and blackmail and terminated the interview.
Gregory also testified that before his contact with Mrs. Dee his secretary was harassed by numerous telephone calls from a "Miss Ann Smith" who warned that "something terrible was going to happen to my business associates if I didn't do certain things."
Gregory said he finally had a recorder plugged into his telephone and made a recording of one of Miss Smith's calls. It was placed in the hands of the court yesterday. Gregory said he was certain, however, that Miss Smith was not the same woman as Miss Dee.
Attorney Crowley struck back bitingly when he took the producer on cross-examination, trying to shake his identification of Mrs. Meade and impeach his testimony as a product of bias.
Pointing to Mrs. Meade, the attorney asked Gregory if he were "positive" she was the same woman he met in the restaurant Sept. 16.
"I am most assuredly positive," said the witness.
"You don't like Confidential magazine, do you?" the lawyer demanded in an earlier attack.
"Oh," answered Gregory, "I don't dislike it."
Crowley took up a copy of the magazine, opened it to a splashy spread titled "The Lowdown on Paul Gregory," Yes, Gregory said, he had read the story.
"Is one of the reasons you are testifying here because of this article?" demanded Crowley.
"Not at all, sir."
Under cross-examination, Gregory also explained that the story mentioned by Miss Dee was not one already listed in the trial record as "The Robert Mitchum Story."
It was in this Confidential tale that Mitchum allegedly masqueraded as a hamburger--naked and catsup drenched--at a dinner party given by Gregory. Laughton also was among those present.
The story had already been published, he explained, when he met Mrs. Dee. Outside the courtroom, however, Gregory took the opportunity to brand the earlier story a complete fiction.
"No such thing ever happened," he said. "There were 10 guests who will come down here and testify to that."
The trial resumes at 9:30 a.m. Monday.