Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history
July 18-Aug. 1, 1957
In the summer of 1957, eight years before the Watts riots, the Los Angeles Sentinel, a weekly newspaper serving the black community, published a three-part series by Stanley Robertson titled: "Does Los Angeles Have a Negro Leader?"
Robertson's conclusion was "No." But the question remains far more interesting than the answer.
The series began with a hypothetical case: another bombing of a home in a white neighborhood that was recently sold to a black family, like the blasts on Dunsmuir in 1951-52.
Robertson noted the painfully inept effort by one white newspaper to get comments on the bombings from representatives of the African American community. "Some of the answers would have made good copy for 'Amos 'n Andy," Robertson said.
The newspaper, he said, indiscriminately interviewed several prominent doctors and businessmen as well as a convicted gambler, a "would-be politician who had a lucrative 'book' going behind his phony real estate office" and a newspaperman who was later convicted of petty theft.
In the event of another bombing or other crisis, Robertson asked:
"What single Negro man or woman in Los Angeles will be the person who will come to the front as not only the spokesman and the champion of the bombed family but for Negroes throughout the city? What single Negro man or woman will have enough 'influence' to put the right pressure in the right places so that the investigation of the bombing by police and other authorities will not end as another 'unsolved case?'
"What Negro in Los Angeles will have enough 'contact' with all segments of local radio, television and press so as to ensure that 'all the facts' are made public? What Negro in Los Angeles will be 'powerful enough' to cause city officials to use every resource at their command in breaking the case?
"In short, what Los Angeles Negro will act as the leader of the Negro people in case such an event takes place? Does the third-largest city in the United States have a Negro leader? Is there a Negro in Los Angeles who is as powerful as New York's fiery little borough president, Hulan Jack, Chicago's William Dawson, Montgomery's Martin Luther King ?
"Or is the third-largest Negro settlement in the United States without a recognized leader?"
The second part of the series portrayed a sadly disillusioned, cynical view of black politicians and ministers who could be had for a price. Robertson also noted the LAPD's failure to treat prominent African Americans with the same respect usually accorded to distinguished whites in a famous 1955 gambling raid on the Pacific Town Club, 4332 W. Adams, in which 123 people, many of them doctors and lawyers, were arrested.
"Do you think the same thing would have happened if the same type of affair was going on, as it very often does, at a white club of comparable stature as the Pacific Town Club?" one man asked.
None of Robertson's sources were identified except by trade, their gender or the amount of time they had been in Los Angeles.
One African American who had lived in Los Angeles for many years said:
"When I was a young man in Los Angeles there weren't many Negroes here but we fought for the things we wanted. Things which people today are still enjoying but take for granted. We fought for, and got, Negro teachers in the school system. We opened the city and county departments. We fought for equal treatment from the police.
"But our trouble was leadership. Yes, we had some leaders. Some who were pretty promising until the politicians and people in high places got to them. For secure, well-paying positions or an occasional handout, most of them merely became figureheads doing whatever they were asked to do. There were a few who still fought for what they believed in, but against the money these captive leaders had to spend on an occasional barbecue or drink, they soon disappeared.
"I've watched people of this type come and go. After World War II, with the large influx of Negroes and the great amount of young Negroes who were attending college and branching out into the fields which had been closed to us in my day I thought this would change. But, honestly, it hasn't. The only thing which has changed is the price by which people can be bought off.
"We called those people who could be bought off in my time Uncle Toms. There are still Uncle Toms today, only Uncle Toms with fancier clothes and fatter wallets."
Robertson also described conflict and lack of unity among newcomers and more established blacks. Some in the African American community charged that there was an "old guard" "from the days when the 'Negro vote' could be delivered by one whopping big chicken fry, barbecue or watermelon feed at Lincoln Park or South Park," Robertson said.
There were just as many accusations, he said, that the newer generation of blacks was all too eager to trade their ideals for a Brooks Brothers suit, a T-bird and a home in the suburbs.
The third part of the series described the effects of upward mobility on blacks, the weakness of the local NAACP compared with the Urban League, the Lullaby Guild and the Jack and Jill Organization, and the lack of unity in supporting African American politicians.
One woman told Robertson:
"This losing of 'identity' knows no bounds among Negroes who become a success in their chosen profession.... However, most of those who attempt to forget that they are Negroes really don't realize that one of the major factors in their success has been the fact that they are Negroes. Those people who are appointed, or elected, to public office, for instance, aren't naive enough to think that they're holding office because they're qualified?"
As for the NAACP, one unidentified official cited an appearance in Los Angeles by Jackie Robinson as part of a nationwide fundraiser. Although Robinson helped raise a significant amount of money in Oakland, Detroit, Chicago and New York, the man said, in Los Angeles, Robinson couldn't "draw flies." "Can you blame that on the NAACP leadership or the people of Los Angeles?" the official asked.
Robertson quoted a woman who said that although a few "talk their way into being regarded by the two major parties as 'key Negroes,' no one person is anything more than a political gnat."
She said: "We tell ourselves that we are much more organized, have made more progress and have more people in higher positions that the Mexican American community here. But what Negro in Los Angeles can we point to who is comparable to City Councilman Edward Roybal, who happens to be of Mexican descent?
"Rather than spending our time fighting among ourselves trying to secure a little plum for ourselves, as seems to happen whenever a Negro announces that he's a candidate for a particular office, why not get together and back one candidate? How many Mexican-Americans do you suppose have run against Roybal?"
As it stands, Robertson's series only states the problems and judging by his remarks, his stories hit a nerve in the African American community, eliciting phone calls and letters. But had I been his editor, I would have asked him to write a final installment exploring possible solutions. And for all I know, perhaps he did in a later story that I have yet to discover in the archives.
Instead, he concluded: "Does Los Angeles have a Negro leader? What do you say? I say no, not now, but a few men who, if they continue in their present manner, are only a few years away."
Unfortunately, Robertson didn't identify them. And eight years later, white Los Angeles will wonder what all the fuss is about down in Watts.
For those wishing to read the entire series, Part 1 appeared July 18, 1957; Part 2, July 25, 1957; Part 3, Aug. 1, 1957. The Sentinel is available on microfilm at the Los Angeles Public Library.
- The Los Angeles Sentinel is now owned by Danny Bakewell.
- In 1957, Rodney G. King hadn't even been born.
These appear to be four rather ordinary West Adams district homes from the late 1920s and early '30s and in many ways they are.
Photographs by Larry Harnisch Los Angeles Times
This is 2435 S. Dunsmuir Ave.
This is 2308 S. Dunsmuir Ave.
This is 2135 S. Dunsmuir Ave.
And this is 2130 S. Dunsmuir Ave.
But on March 16, 1952, 2130 S. Dunsmuir looked like this:
About three months before the explosion, William Bailey, a science teacher at Carver Junior High School, had moved into the house with his wife, Willa, and their son, William Jr. The family was black. The neighborhood was white.
Whoever hit the house also bombed the one across the street, which was being rented by Ralph Martinez and John W. Potts. Presumably they were black, although The Times doesn't say so.
On July 25, 1951, 2435 S. Dunsmuir was bombed several days after after it was sold to Dr. M.D. Matsumoto, a Japanese American physician.
An explosion a few hours earlier ripped 2308 S. Dunsmuir, which was owned by Sallie H. Mazoway, a real estate agent. "Mrs. Mazoway told police she had no part in the sale of the Matsumoto house nor had she sold property to persons not Caucasians," The Times said. "She did say that she had received anonymous telephone calls on the subject of such sales."
Although police said the explosion at 2308 S. Dunsmuir was like the others, fire officials said it might have been caused by gas that accumulated beneath the house.
There's one other thing these homes have in common: The bombings were never solved, despite rewards offered by the NAACP and ACLU soliciting information.
A maid at a Riverside hotel found the battered, nude body of 5-year-old Hiedrun "Heidi" Nicholson bent over double and stuffed into a closet.
It looked "as if someone had been pounding her with a hammer," The Times said, quoting another hotel maid. The autopsy showed she had a collapsed lung from a broken rib and bruises over most of her body.
The girl and her mother, Felicitas Nicholson, a 31-year-old German war bride, had checked into the motel with Harry Vern Gates, 40, a Santa Ana salesman.
When he was questioned about Heidi's death, Gates told police he had taken Nicholson to another motel in Maywood but insisted that she said her daughter was staying with friends.
She was semiconscious and incoherent, according to police, and her purse contained her last will and testament, requesting a Christian burial.
In later interviews, she told police she was a commercial artist and that her parents still lived behind the Iron Curtain in Leipzig, East Germany.
She said she had been married to Air Force Master Sgt. Raymond Nicholson of Stillwater, Okla.
She was found guilty of murder and sentenced to the gas chamber after Gates testified that Felicitas told her daughter she didn't love her anymore and was going to get rid of her.
However, Feliticas was the first person to be tried under a new California law requiring a sanity hearing for those sentenced to die.
After a 32-day trial, the jury deadlocked and the judge declared a mistrial.
Halfway through the second sanity trial, the judge halted the proceedings and declared Felicitas insane, committing her to Patton State Hospital.
The judge ordered that she be retried if she ever regained her sanity. And then Feliticas Solveig Nicholson vanished without a trace.
Minda Lee Birnbaum, 15, and her mother, Blanche Lewie, 46, had spent most of the day with the divorce lawyer, Murray Chotiner. In the late afternoon, as Blanche made some phone calls from the law offices' library, Minda pecked at a typewriter and talked to Carol Tannis about becoming a secretary.
Then Blanche's estranged husband, Leo, walked into the offices at 202 S. Hamilton Drive, Beverly Hills. Minda ran to warn her mother, yelling: "He's here!" Blanche stood between them as he shouted at Minda: "Why are you doing this to me?"
After an initial confrontation, Blanche told Tannis to call the police, but Leo warned Tannis: "Don't do it."
As Tannis hid behind her desk, Blanche grabbed a pair of scissors but Leo took them away, pulled a Luger from his belt, held the barrel against Blanche's stomach and pulled the trigger.
Minda ran from the room but tripped and sprawled in the doorway. As she lay on the floor, Leo put the Luger against the 15-year-old's head and pulled the trigger. When it didn't fire, Tannis fled.
Then, two shots.
Acting on a tip, police found him at a miniature golf course, 1312 S. Arlington Ave.
Forty-year-old liquor store clerk Leo Aaron Lewie was a Polish Jew who fled to Israel, he told The Times while in jail awaiting trial on two counts of murder.
He married in 1941, but his wife died giving birth to his son, Aaron, in 1947. A second marriage ended in divorce, he said. Then there was the 1948 war with the Arab states. "Many persons died in the streets," Lewie said. "I crawled through the streets searching for food for my son."
Lewie and Aaron left for France. "I came to Paris destroyed inside--my heart, my mind," he said.
They arrived in New York in 1953 on a business visa. Later that year in Los Angeles, he married Blanche, whose husband had hanged himself in the basement of their home, leaving her with two children, Minda and Martin, who was two years younger. "It was an unhappy home from the start," Lewie said.
Blanche loaned him money to start a drive-in and they had a son, Robin. With the profits from the drive-in, the family moved to a home at 2066 Roscomare Road, Bel-Air. In 1956, Lewie sold the restaurant and opened a liquor store at 3901 S. Vermont.
"I worked long hours, seven days a week," he said. "My wife became moody. She tells me, 'Leo, I don't care for you or the kids.' That night I took the children to dinner and a movie. When we came home my wife hit me. I slapped her. She called the police. They arrest me. Later my stepdaughter Minda tells police I molested her."
The domestic violence counts were dropped, but he was charged with molesting Minda. When he was finally released on bail, the family had gone into hiding from him.
Lewie insisted the molestation charges were Blanche's ploy to get a divorce. "My wife said if I give her everything the charges will be dropped," he said. So he agreed. But instead of dropping the charges, Blanche was trying to have him deported, he said.
He bought a Luger, planning to go to Chotiner's office and say that he would kill himself if the charges weren't dropped. Instead, he found Minda and Blanche.
"She grabbed a pair of scissors and came at me," he said. "I lost my head and pushed on the trigger. I put the gun to my head and pulled the trigger again. But there were no bullets left."
(Police said that when he was arrested he had a full magazine of ammunition plus some shells in his pocket).
One of the key contentions at the trial was that Lewie had been molesting Minda for two years, but the medical experts disagreed completely. Dr. Charles Demos, a Santa Monica gynecologist who examined Minda before she was killed, said he found evidence that she had been molested. Dr. Gerald K. Ridge, who performed the autopsy, said he found no evidence that Minda had sexual relations.
In an attempt to determine the truth, investigators exhumed Minda's body from her crypt at Beth Olam Cemetery, 900 N. Gower St. Over objections by defense attorney Gladys Root, Dr. Bruce David Stern testified that his findings "were compatible with the contention that the girl had been repeatedly violated."
Leo Aaron Lewie was convicted on two counts of second-degree murder March 27, 1958. He died in San Francisco on April 25, 1983, at the age of 66.
Murray Chotiner, a longtime adviser to Richard Nixon, died in 1974 in Washington, D.C., of injuries from a car accident. He was 64.
More information on the Lewie case is available at the Jewish Coalition Against Sexual Abuse/Assault.
Hours after Liberace gave a deposition in his $25-million libel suit against Confidential magazine, two masked intruders attacked his mother in the garage of Liberace's home, 15405 Valley Vista Blvd., Sherman Oaks.
Frances Liberace Casadonte, (68, according to the Mirror; 65, according to The Times) said she was on her way to burn some trash in a backyard incinerator when she was attacked by two men.
"They had black hoods with slits for their eyes. They also had some kind of covering, probably stockings, over their shoes," Casadonte told police. "I screamed and they chased me into the kitchen. There, one of them grabbed me, hit me or threw me down on the floor. One of them kicked me in the back. I heard one of them say, 'This will give him something to laugh about.' Then I fainted."
A doctor says Casadonte's heavy corset may have protected her from being badly injured when the attackers kicked her. Liberace was not informed about the assault until he finished his midnight show at the Moulin Rouge, The Times said.
A family spokesman said: "I feel this whole thing is connected with the Confidential suit. Somebody is trying to frighten us."
In response, guards were hired to protect the home of Liberace, as well as the home of his brother George in Encino, and that of his brother Rudy in Van Nuys.
According to The Times, several people were questioned in the assault, but no one was ever arrested.
The jury convicted Wallace LeRoy Schiers of second-degree murder on July 18, 1957. But Schiers continued to insist that he did not kill his wife. He said: "I have nothing on my conscience. Somewhere along the line I have got to be exonerated. I am not guilty."
He was sentenced to five years to life in prison, serving four years in prison and four years' probation.
But the story is not over. Schiers appealed his conviction while in prison and although his case was rejected by the California Supreme Court, he continued to fight the case even after six years of freedom.
The basis of Schiers' argument was police testimony about his polygraph test, which was inadmissible in court. Schiers acted as his own attorney, arguing before the state Court of Appeal that the judge's order to strike the testimony and instructions to the jury to ignore it were not enough. Schiers' argued that since the polygraph testimony had come up in his preliminary trial, Deputy Dist. Atty. Evan Lewis knew about it and should have taken steps to prevent it from being introduced in court.
Although the Court of Appeal rejected his plea and the state Supreme Court refused to hear his case, state Supreme Court Justice Jesse W. Carter wrote a dissenting opinion saying: "By this decision the California judiciary invited repetition of such open debauchery of basic fairness to the discredit of the bench and bar. In my opinion it amounts to denial of due process of law."
Schiers' next action was to claim that he had not been furnished with counsel and had to act as his own attorney. He also tried to take the matter before the federal courts but was unsuccessful.
Finally, after a prolonged legal battle, the Court of Appeal reversed Schiers' conviction in 1971 because of the inadmissible testimony about the polygraph results.
"The court noted the police officer's testimony did not come as a surprise to the prosecution," The Times said. "An augmentation of the appeal record allowed by the appellate court showed that police had referred to the lie-detector test in Schiers' preliminary hearing before trial.
"Thus, in the court's view, the prosecutor was on notice and should have guarded against any such testimony being presented in the presence of the jury at the trial.
"The fact that he did not indicated that the error was intentional and invited by the prosecution."
"The error was so prejudicial that the judgment must be reversed," the court ruled.
Wallace LeRoy Schiers reestablished himself in the aerospace industry. He died Oct. 5, 1994 in Nevada.
Note: I had two votes for not guilty, no votes for guilty. Thanks, gentlemen.
Don Bailey Jr. has no red tab on his rear license plate.
He applied for it like other motorists during the renewal period but never received it. Apparently it was lost in the processing at Sacramento or in the mail.
He is stopped almost every day and asked about the tab.
He explains the situation to the officers. He shows them his canceled check for $84 ($601.88 USD 2006) dated Feb. 4 and a memo that he is authorized to drive the car, a 1955 Olds, License BBS664. He tells them this has been verified by the Inglewood and L.A. offices of the Motor Vehicle Department and he has been instructed to carry the check and memo with him at all times until the matter is cleared.
The officers sympathize and let him go.
On July 7, at about 1:30 a.m. Bailey was stopped near 39th and Crenshaw. His wife, sister-in-law and sleeping child were in the car.
One officer put a flashlight on his rear plate and asked to see his 1957 license. Bailey handed him his "evidence."
The officer was unconvinced and wrote a citation. He listed three counts--wrong address on operator's license, lights out of adjustment and "no evidence of '57 registration."
Bailey refused to sign the citation. Then, as he puts it, "We both got pretty hot."
The officer said he'd have to take him in if he didn't sign the ticket. Bailey remained adamant.
The officer handcuffed him behind his back and Bailey told his wife to drive their car home.
At University Station, Bailey was given the usual alternative--sign the ticket or be booked in jail. He finally decided to sign.
He explains, "The reason I didn't want to sign it was that to do so would be conceding that I was driving my car illegally and that I'd thrown away my $84."
When the case comes up in court, Bailey plans to plead not guilty.
CULTURAL NOTE--Remember the ubiquitous wartime phrase "Kilroy was here?" Well, in the men's room of a Hollywood Boulevard restaurant-bar, reports Tom Lempertz, someone has written, "In hoc loc Kilrex erat."
CURE FOR INSOMNIA
My body is ready for slumber
Except for my worrisome head;
It's best to abandon the blankets
And watch the late movie instead.
Mildred Hall, 44, who vanished Nov. 15, 1956, and was the subject of a Paul Coates column, resurfaced in April 1959, posing as many baffling questions as she did when she disappeared after leaving a note for her husband, Harold, that she was running some errands and would be back soon.
"I always prayed. God, how I prayed someone would recognize me," said Hall, an actress who gave up her movie career to raise a family.
"The first thing I remembered was sitting in a bus station in Meridian, Miss., with 33 cents in my pocket and a ticket for New Orleans," she told The Times.
She worked as a cocktail waitress in New Orleans, but after being robbed apparently blacked out and found herself on a ship bound for Manila. Next, she stowed away on a ship to Havana, she said.
"There, I got a job as a shill in a casino and earned enough money to fly to Key West Fla., where I worked for six months as a singer. Then I teamed up with a magician and his wife and traveled across the country," Hall said.
Somehow, she got to Ventura, where she was hospitalized. While she was gone, her husband divorced her, The Times said.
There's no further word in The Times on Hall or what became of her children. It's impossible to sort out all the Mildred Halls in the California death records and the Social Security Death Index. She had a brother, Bob, who was a lifeguard in Santa Monica in the 1950s. Her mother, Adeline M. Lucas, died Feb. 24, 1976.
We also know that her father, Charles M. Lloyd (real name Charles Lloyd Maude), an actor in silent films and vaudeville, died in Camarillo State Hospital in 1948, so there may have been some predisposition toward mental illness. But that is only a guess. As Coates said: "Mildred Hall is not a simple person to explain."