Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history
Comes now the time to divulge two of the deeper secrets of L.A newspaper lore, which I had forgotten until dinner recently with Carolyn Strickler, former head of The Times History Center.
Their names are Victor Frisbie and Phlange Welder. Mark them well, for although they were not brothers, they were truly kindred spirits. Hidden though they may have been, there is no escape from Proquest.
In deference to age and seniority, I'll take Victor first.
Victor did not emerge from the forehead of Zeus, but rather from the fertile imagination of Los Angeles Examiner reporter Maury Godchaux, assigned to provide color for the paper's coverage of the 1950 Rose Parade, according to a 1962 story by Paul Coates. (And yes, there really was a Maury Godchaux. He even wrote for The Times in the 1940s).
According to Coates, instead of prowling chilly Colorado Boulevard, Godchaux "sat huddled in a telephone booth. At reasonable intervals, he dialed his city desk with a series of 'exclusives.' He never left the booth, pausing between calls only long enough to invent another imaginary person and set of 'facts.' "
On May 25, 1950, Godchaux died after being hit by a car. His wife, Miriam, had just dropped him off at Victory Boulevard and Bellaire and he was struck while crossing the street to the bus stop for the ride downtown to the Examiner.
In a tribute, Godchaux's fellow reporters decided to resurrect Victor Frisbie in their annual stories about the Rose Parade, Coates said. Mostly he was described as a visitor from Bakersfield, although he also put in appearances as a Cumberland, Md., dentist, a Minneapolis mortician and was once Brig. Sir Victor Frisbie of the Royal Australian Artillery.
According to Coates, in January 1962, the front page of the Examiner's final edition carried a boxed item: "BAKERSFIELD--Victor Frisbie, well-known sportsman and traveler, died here today. He was 58."
Victor's career went on hiatus for 15 years before he resurfaced in a 1977 Times story on a Laguna Beach landslide. As far as I can determine, his second and final appearance was in a 1985 Calendar story (above, right) in what was then the section's single-minded obsession with Bruce Springsteen, who was ending a world tour in a concert at the Coliseum.
In contrast, Phlange Welder had a far more illustrious career at The Times. Lore has it that Phlange debuted in a society column listing guests at a party given by Dorothy "Buff" Chandler. But, as is often the case, the lore is wrong. Phlange Welder first appeared in a Nov. 26, 1961, column by Joan Winchell titled "Around Town."
According to Proquest, Phlange was in the paper 32 more times, most recently in 1980. Phlange mostly turns up at the end of a long list of names, sometimes in the society pages, other times in coverage of the broadcasting industry (reporter Don Page was a regular offender).
He also appeared in the TV and radio listings (Phlange Welder was apparently a classical music figure, having composed a waltz, and served as conductor of the New Symphony Orchestra of London).
It was Page, in fact, who concluded a year-end wrap-up for 1961 by saying: Name to watch in '62: Phlange Welder.
And indeed, it was a year to flourish. In 1962, Phlange showed up skiing at Mammoth (Mary Matthew), sending letters to the editor (music critic Albert Goldberg on Stravinsky), writing from his summer home in "Viet-Nam" and spending Thanksgiving with friends in Hyannis Port, Mass., (Virginia Horn).
My favorite find: A bylined Phlange Welder story from 1962 (at right).
A 1964 staff report informs us that Phlange Welder was a UC Berkeley alumnus and he appears in a year-end poem by TV writer Cecil Smith, who rhymed his name (sort of) with Tuesday Weld.
A far more interesting reference appears in 1965 when Phlange attended the Bachelors Ball accompanied by Mary Greene, who became his regular consort. Society Editor Anne Sonne noted that Phlange was in costume as Agent 007 while Greene was dressed as Mata Hari. He also visited Palm Springs before jetting back to Brussels, according to another Sonne column.
Apparently the wags in the features section decided that Phlange needed a trip, because they reported that he left Brussels (where he visited consort Mary Greene) for a golf tour including St. Andrews in Scotland after a stop in England.
After a 10-year hiatus (more about that later), Phlange returned in a column by Pulitzer winner Martin Bernheimer in a satiric piece full of fake names.
And except for occasional memorial donations to The Times Summer Camp Fund, that was it.
According to Times lore (and a privately printed book by Evelyn De Wolfe), one of Phlange's main patrons was Pentagon reporter and columnist Ted Sell. The legend (note: legend) says Otis Chandler eventually learned of the prank and ordered that anyone putting Phlange Welder into a story would be fired.
Sell's Dec. 27, 1967, column, written in response to Chandler's purported order (again, we are dealing with myth), appears below. Pay particular attention to the first letter of every paragraph.
Ps. Michael Connelly's "City of Bones" includes a minor character named Victor Frizbe.
Perhaps aghast is too strong a word. Let's say amused or mildly interested.
Brownie, an innocent-looking cherub but a deadly man in his day in running down a story or a bottle, is not given to emotional expression. In fact, his indifference to what most people consider important is colossal.
"I walk along a street looking for places I used to know and they've all disappeared," he said. "It's uncanny. You fellows who have been here all the time don't realize what has happened to this town."
Brownie's escapades as a reporter are legendary and mostly unprintable. Suffice it to say he was a terror with a diabolic technique for leaving his friends, his enemies, strangers and local authorities in the lurch, holding a great big bag and wondering what happened.
Brownie was glad to see a murder case on the front pages--l'affaire L. Ewing Scott--but he finds it rather tame in terms of the lurid stories of his era--William Desmond Taylor, William Edward Hickman, Roscoe Arbuckle, Wallace Reid.
Brownie's greatest fame came indirectly from two books about Hollywood, "Queer People"* and "Whitey," written by his playmates, Carroll and Garrett Graham. They evoked wails of anguish from movie people who were depicted without very much disguise.
Brownie was depicted as Theodore Anthony White, a picaresque character, which he is, but looking back, he isn't sure it was a good idea.
"Being famous in a book may win friends and influence people but it keeps you off the payroll," he said. "I was wined and dined while the books were bestsellers but I was finally thrown out of Hollywood. The book, and its inferences, also lost me a wife, not necessarily a bad omen, but a plea for the defense."
Furthermore, the notoriety lingered. He was on the verge of landing a big publicity job with Major Bowes in New York when a secretary came in to take down a short letter of agreement.
"Major," she said, "I don't care if he says he's Browne, this is that Whitey. He'll ruin your amateur hour."
You'd never guess what Brownie's doing here, besides holding continuous reunions with friends, including those other bearers of Hollywood scars, Jack and Max Wagner, Eddie Hart, Rowland Brown, Jay Strauss and John Arrington. Yep, he's writing a book about the tempestuous Hollywood of the '20s and '30s. He intends to show that without the vivid foundation he helped establish it would be as dull as Tombstone, Ariz.
IT WAS BOUND to happen. An elderly lady in Independence, Calif., recently complained of stomach distress. When asked if she knew what caused it, reports Lucile McNeil, she whimpered, "I think it's that Russian thing!"
WITH ALL THEIR know-how, auto designers have not come up with a very good ash tray. While driving, a person can never be sure the cigarette he snuffs out is really out.
Today the problem is solved. You know what John Sherwood does? He fills his ash container almost to the top with sand into which he dunks his cigarettes when finished.
Next week, how to fly a kite.
ONLY IN L.A. -- A young man in a car parked on Beverly Boulevard alongside Wilshire Country Club near Rossmore was intently playing a saxophone accompanied by the music from his car radio as Norman Dash passed last Saturday morning.
Landlady trouble, no doubt.
MISCELLANY ... Bob Speck, Daily Trojan sports writer who this week blasted the football team, the coaches and student apathy, has been relieved of his writing job... A man just returned from the High Sierra wishes to put in a few nasty words about deer hunters who shoot holes in road signs. Irresponsible vandalism, he calls it... Lee Shippey has moved back to Del Mar, where he started life in California 35 years ago. Lee was known as the sage of Sierra Madre... Fascinating exchange Raul Rodriguez overheard between two young men at a riding academy: "And she was what I'd call all dressed up." "Gee, did she have a dress on?" "I don't know--I didn't notice."
*[Note: The Graham brothers' "Queer People" is absolutely hilarious, as I recall, though I haven't read it in years. I believe Horace McCoy called it the best book ever written on Hollywood. The sequel, "Whitey," is not so great but in a similar vein.--lrh]
Most good writers are also good listeners.
And Hollywood scenarist Jack Wagner isn't an exception to the rule.
In fact, Jack often goes it one better by listening in the right places at the right times.
Forty-seven years ago, Jack sat in the plaza of the north Mexico town of Gomez Palacio and listened.
He heard storekeepers grumble softly about the soldiers of Presidente Porfirio Diaz. The soldiers, they complained, had an ugly habit of grabbing merchandise off the shelves and laughing:
"Charge it to Porfirio."
He heard complaints of abuse and poverty and general displeasure from farmers and women and even children.
He also heard the name of Francisco Madero spoken frequently and reverently.
On a cold morning in late November of 1910, Wagner watched as Madero's "vanishing army" of angered citizens stormed through the town to annihilate the forces of Presidente Porfirio.
He stayed around long enough to see Madero's attack spark the national revolution which brought Mexico its present democratic government.
Earlier this week I printed a story about some Cubans here in Los Angeles. [Note: I haven't run it. So many columns, so little time--lrh].
The Cubans told me that their country's dictator, Fulgencio Batista, was ripe for a fall. And they indicated, as boldly as anyone can indicate, that they were ready to return to their native country and help put Batista belly-upwards.
After writing the story, I learned that Jack Wagner had--only a few months ago--been sitting in the plaza of their homeland.
And, of course, listening.
I called Jack yesterday and asked him what he heard.
He told me:
"I heard some merchants complaining softly that the soldiers were stealing from their shelves and laughing, 'Charge it to Batista.'
"Other people complained about the way soldiers grabbed the young girls off of plantations.
"Bus drivers, laborers, shoeshine boys--each one had a gripe."
Jack told me that he spent about a month in Cuba.
"I went to Havana first, of course," he said, "but I still like to sit in the little plazas of little towns.
"So I took the bus to central Cuba, and over to the southern side."
I asked him, "What about Fidel Castro?" (My Cuban acquaintances here had assured me that Castro, now staging raids from a mountain hideout, was the man who would restore democracy to Cuba).
"Some people just mention him by implication," Jack told me. "They say, 'There's a man who can help us.'
"Of course, it took me a while to gain the confidence of the people. Usually, after I did, they'd tell me, 'Castro is in the mountains and he is coming.'
"And that," he concluded, "is just the way they used to talk about Francisco Madero in Mexico some 47 years ago."
Perhaps you remember publicist Desmond Slattery from Paul Coates' Aug. 22, 1957, column. In brief, he was selling crickets as pets.
This time, however, his problem is roaches--or rather, a roach.
Slattery and his roommate, actor Scott Brady (real name Gerald Kenneth Tierney), were arrested at 8929 Hollywood Hills Road in a major LAPD raid in which four officers, acting on a tip that drug parties were being held at the home, recovered: the butt of a marijuana cigarette and, yes, a single joint.
Aside from the humorous situation of Sgt. Marty Brennan from "He Walked by Night" being busted for drugs, there's a serious point here and not just the relatively minuscule amount of drugs, compared to today's arrests.
The district attorney's office dropped the case because it would reveal the identify of one of the narcotics details' "most reliable informants," The Times said. You might be asking why the police didn't think of this before they staged the raid. Me too.
"All I can say is a woman is the cause of it all," Slattery mourned, according to The Times. "You can't shake down every woman who comes into your place."
OK, here's how it went down. Promise not to laugh:
Brady "invited two girls up to blast some tea and get high," Sgt. John E. O'Grady said. (Right daddy-O. Let's throw on some hip platters and groove to Kerouac. He is a real gone cat).
Slattery said neither he nor Brady knew the women, but that one of them called and arranged for Brady to meet them in Hollywood.
Brady came home with a blonde and a Eurasian. When Slattery went into the kitchen, he found the blonde jiggling the shutters as if she were signaling police.
"They came in like the Russian army," Slattery said despite Brady's warning against "talking too much," The Times said.
Police rejected the men's allegations implicating the women. "The girls had nothing to do with the narcotics charge," O'Grady said. "They were brought there by Scott Brady from someplace in Hollywood. We released them after we were perfectly satisfied that they had nothing to do with the narcotics charge."
In December, however, an officer told prosecutors that to "disclose the identity of the two women would be to unmask one of his most reliable informants." The officer said he could not do that "in good conscience," The Times reported.
In other words, police got complaints that Brady and Slattery were throwing drug parties at the house. They had an informant contact the men, go to the home, get the men to smoke some dope and signal the police. The cops release the women and bust the men. Any lawyers in the audience want to weigh in?
Brady, who died in 1985, had a long career in TV. The Social Security Death Index lists a Desmond Slattery, born Sept. 19, 1914, who died in Houston, Jan. 4, 1977.
Sgt. John O'Grady apparently became a private investigator and wrote the 1974 book "O'Grady," in which he recounted being a bodyguard for Linda Lovelace. Later on, according to The Times clips, he was hired by relatives to find out what became of missing "Cotton Club" promoter Roy Radin. California death records list two men named John E. O'Grady, one of whom died in in Los Angeles County in 1990 at the age of 68.
As for the two women, we don't know. But you hipsters watch out for a blonde and a Eurasian. They're with the fuzz.
Bonus fact: John O'Grady also took part in the drug raid involving Saundra Maazel.
Oct. 18, 1957
Not long ago, a woman phoned the complaint desk at the City Health Department and said, "I want to report a health menace--my doorbell is out of order."
Another non sequitur came from a lady who said she lived next door to a pet shop which sold horse meat. This she considered very unsanitary. "I'm expecting a baby," she added, "and I think something should be done about it."
A man inquired, "Are there any health ordinances on the proper fit of shoes?"
A woman asked, "Will you connect me with the free clinic for face lifting?"
Another woman complained that there was an odor under her house and she wanted an inspector to come out and check it. "I'm too fat to crawl underneath myself," she said.
A woman on the south side of the city said, "Our gas has been cut off and we have a small baby and I was wondering if you could pay the bill. My husband is working but we have too many other bills to pay."
A man who spoke in broken English asked, "How much will it cost for an arresting license?" He was asked, "Do you mean a restaurant license?" "No," was the reply, "I want a license to arrest somebody."
The fact that they were sitting in the very saloon, running up more tabs, only added to their wounded feelings and their sense of outrage.
After heavy brooding they decided there was only one course of action--counterattack. And they agreed that if he sent them one more reminder they would threaten to incorporate and then declare bankruptcy.
A GAL carrying several packages dashed breathlessly into a Spring Street elevator after what was obviously a lunch hour shopping expedition and Operator Ann commented:
"Oh, oh. There went the rent money."
The gal sighed:
"Nope, this time I'm really living dangerously. I used the milkman's money."
ROBERT PAUL Smith's book, "Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing" is a middled-aged man's nostalgic recollection of his childhood with the sad reflection that kids today with their planned recreation are missing something.
For one thing, he points out, they don't know how to play mumblety-peg.
Not long ago a 12-year-old girl named Holly, who lives in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., read the book and became fascinated by the game. She asked her mother how it was played but ma didn't know.
Neither did her father or any of his friends. They'd played it as boys, they said, but had forgotten the rules.
Holly persisted, reports a friend of the family here, and finally her mother phoned Smith, who lives in nearby Westchester County, and asked him. He was so enchanted that he's giving her mumblety-peg lessons.
FOOTNOTES--A dime store in Redondo Beach has a live Panama parrot for sale--$125. Yes, dime store... You know what irks hot dog stand entrepreneurs? Customers remarking, "What have you got that's different today?" ... Now that the TV moguls have decreed a menu of "mature Westerns" for the punch-drunk public, Hardy Hoover of Downey asks only one thing--please no more escapes from the back door of the jail... That low moan you hear is from admirers of Stan Freberg, a young man with a great flair for satire. His Sunday CBS radio show will be his last. Yep, canceled. However, there are still his records, especially his latest, "Wun'erful, Wun'erful," with Lawrence Welk as the target.
Evelyn and L. Ewing Scott during a cruise on the Queen Mary.
Oct. 16-18, 1957
In its opening days, the Leonard Ewing Scott murder trial has focused Evelyn Scott's eyeglasses and dentures, which were found behind the couple's Bel-Air home by police investigating her May 16, 1955, disappearance.
The presentation by Deputy Dist. Atty. J. Miller Leavy (at right with Capt. Arthur G. Hertel, Times photo by Jack Gaunt) was part of a mountain of evidence he planned to present exhausting all possibilities that the 63-year-old woman was still alive. This would include establishing a detailed pattern of her behavior that came to an abrupt halt when she vanished.
Not that Ewing Scott was terribly upset that his wife was gone. He never filed a missing persons report and, in fact, rebuffed questions from friends and relatives about where she might be, saying that she had run off or he had put her in a sanitarium to cure her alleged alcoholism. The matter only became public in March 1956, when her brother E. Raymond Throsby filed a petition asking to be appointed guardian of her estate.
On March 10, 1956, The Times photographed detectives using 6-foot steel rods to probe the grounds around the home at 217 S. Bentley in search of a body. Although they didn't find anything, Capt. Arthur G. Hertel was more successful in exploring an area on an adjoining lot behind the incinerator, which was built into a retaining wall along the property line.
"For a while I walked along the top of the wall," Hertel testified. "Then I got down on the ground and removed some leaves and scratched--with my hands."
The first item he found was a set of dentures under 4 or 5 inches of leaves, partially buried and encrusted with dirt and mud. Hertel cleared the leaves from an area about 2 feet by 18 inches, discovering partially dissolved gelatin capsules and white pills, an empty Eff-Remin can, a hairbrush, a tube of oily material (presumably hair dressing), a short piece of dog chain, a cigarette holder, a large number of cigarette filters and "wampum jewelry."
About 10 feet down the hill west of the incinerator, Hertel found a pair of glasses. "They were on the surface of a thin layer of leaves above the ground, exposed to view at a casual glance directly under a heavily leaved bush," he said. Another 10 feet away, Hertel found another pair of glasses.
"They were partially embedded in a heap of ashes," he said. "The lower portion of the lens was covered by ashes but the bow was exposed," The Times said. "They were encrusted with dirt, mud and ashes."
Hertel testified that the items had apparently been on the adjoining property for some time because the leaves that covered them were loose on top but matted and partially disintegrated underneath. His impression was that the glasses had been washed downhill by rain rather than thrown.
" 'Tossed' is not a good word," he said. " 'Thrown' is not a good word. 'Placed' is not a good word. They were just there."
Defense attorney P. Basil Lambros objected vigorously, but was overruled when Leavy moved to introduce the items into evidence.
"They have not been tied in any manner to the problem that faces us with corpus delicti. They are immaterial, incompetent and irrelevant. There is no proof of how they got there, if they were there... It would be just as easy to introduce Mrs. Scott's hat and say it was found in the yard. The prosecution is saying that because they were found there Scott killed his wife."
On cross-examination by Lambros, Hertel testified that the items had not been checked for fingerprints, blood or hair because their weathered condition convinced him that nothing would be found. He also said that none of the items had been photographed before they were recovered.
Hertel testified that Ewing Scott watched from a balcony as he explored the area where the items were found. He testified that he heard Scott ask: "What are they doing down there?"
What followed was exhaustive testimony from Evelyn Scott's dentist, Dr. R.L. Coldwell, who identified the dentures, Dr. Harold R. Mulligan, who wrote the prescription for her glasses, and Dr. Albert Chatton who made them.
Photograph by Bruce H. Cox / Los Angeles Times
Detectives Grover Armstrong, left, and Frank Gravente use steel rods to probe the ground around the Scott home as police spokesman Edward Walker uses a radio-telephone, March 10, 1956.
Coldwell said Evelyn Scott had worn the dentures since he made them for her in 1943 to replace an earlier set. He noted that police had failed to find a device she wore when sleeping to hold her teeth in place. The Times said that the clear implication was that whatever happened to her had occurred while she was asleep. Under defense questioning, Coldwell said that she would have been able to use her previous set of dentures if she still had them.
Chatton and Mulligan testified that Evelyn Scott would have been unable to read without her glasses. Chatton noted that the frames of one pair of glasses had faded to yellow, caused by aging and weather, rebutting the defense implication that they had been placed there more recently, The Times said.
To be continued...