The Daily Mirror

Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history

Category: December 23, 2007 - December 29, 2007

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Dec. 30, 1957

 

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Van Nuys Boulevard

Dec. 29, 1957
Los Angeles

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Isn't this building cool, in its weird 1950s Space Age way? This is a wonderful detail from a Times ad for the opening of a Van Nuys Savings and Loan office at 8201 Van Nuys Blvd. The building is still there, but unfortunately, it doesn't look anything like this anymore. I'll try to get out to Panorama City for a shot in the near future. And here's a shout-out to the Van Nuys Boomers blog. Thanks for reading!

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Update: It's unclear to me just how much the building has changed since 1957. Before I wrote the post, I found one online image that indicated the building had been fairly compromised by later remodeling. Richard Hultman sent me some satellite images that make it appear to be more intact. A field is definitely in order. Stay tuned!

Vaudeville days

I stumbled across this story while looking for something else. Notice that it mentions the Main Street Gym and the Hippodrome. As published in The Times, Oct. 2, 1983.
 

 

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Heidi Fleiss

Given the interest in Ivan Nagy, here's the original Times front page story on Heidi Fleiss by Shawn Hubler and James Bates, with a headline by yours truly that worked hard to tell the story without saying anything. (Good Lord, was it really 1993?)

Heidi's Arrest Is the Talk of Tinseltown Vice: Celebrities are rushing to help or distance themselves from alleged madam to the stars.

 
SHAWN HUBLER; JAMES BATES
TIMES STAFF WRITERS
3244 words
1 August 1993
Los Angeles Times
Home
1
English
(Copyright, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times 1993 All Rights Reserved)

No wonder California was in the poorhouse, she wisecracked after the arrest-they had sent three police agencies and two canines to nail a 115-pound party girl. The cops leaped from her shrubbery as she was taking out the trash. "LAPD!" they barked. "Which one of you is Heidi Fleiss?"

It surprised her that they had to ask. Everyone who was anyone in Hollywood knew Heidi. Gliding right in to the best booths at Jack Nicholson's place, the Monkey Bar. Clubbing with Billy Idol and Peter Sellers' daughter, Victoria. Hobnobbing with Robert Evans, the producer of "Chinatown." And wasn't it at Fleiss' house that they held that bash for Mick Jagger?

And now what a ruckus her arrest has raised.

She's not an actress, not a director, not even a producer, but she has surely been a player in this town. Most of the summer, her case has captivated the entertainment industry on both coasts and ignited speculation-lists of celebrity clients, heads rolling at studios, a mysterious tape-recording that names names.

For although formal charges have yet to be filed, police say that Fleiss, the 27-year-old daughter of a prominent pediatrician, has for the last three years filled a time-honored niche: madam to the stars.

Within a week of Fleiss' arrest-according to her, her friends and a tape-recording of her phone conversations-four major producers had called directly to express their condolences. Eight more producers and entertainment industry executives had friends call on their behalf. Six big-name actors checked in, as did an international financier, a Sunset Strip rock impresario, a Texas real estate heir and a Beverly Hills real estate agent calling on behalf of an Italian multimillionaire who, for sentimental reasons, wanted to buy Fleiss' $1.6-million Benedict Canyon home.

Some called out of friendship. Others, Fleiss said, were concerned that the names in her big black book may come out when she goes to court Aug. 9. "A lot of people are nervous," one well-known producer said. "She . . . fixes everybody up (and) there are a lot of married people in this town getting some booty."

As long as there has been a Hollywood, there has been a Hollywood madam. But rarely has one arrest offered such a ready window into the world whose unspoken motto has been "discretion, discretion, discretion."

"I have warned her, you cannot mention johns, not even privately-it ruins careers," sighed Elizabeth (Madam Alex) Adams, whose 20-year reign as Beverly Hills madam ended with her arrest in 1988 and who has known Fleiss for at least the last five years.

But, from Fleiss' standpoint, the potential for leaks of her client list could be a benefit.

Two well-known producers, according to a tape-recording of one of Fleiss' phone conversations that she confirmed, have anted up several thousand dollars apiece toward her legal bills. Meanwhile, two other producers and a screenwriter have inquired about the rights to "The Heidi Fleiss Story."

"It's self-explanatory," said screenwriter Matt Tabak, who called Fleiss to offer his help and ask for a 30-day option, minimum $300,000 on her end.

"How does someone go from being a nice Jewish girl whose father is a doctor to being arrested as an alleged Beverly Hills madam? How does that happen? It's gotta be an amazing story."

*

She was raised in a Spanish-style home in affluent Los Feliz, the third of six children born to Dr. Paul Fleiss and his now ex-wife, Elissa, an elementary schoolteacher.

Success ran in the family. Dr. Fleiss lectured at UCLA's School of Public Health. Elissa Fleiss specializes in teaching gifted children. Their eldest daughter is a veterinarian. Their elder son is in medical school.

But Heidi-although charming and popular-was somewhat less than a model student. Pressed to earn straight A's at John Marshall High School, she found herself unable or unwilling to compete.

"I was always in the classroom staring at the blue sky, thinking, `Gotta go, gotta go'," the green-eyed brunette said. "After a while, I hardly went to school at all. I'd cut class and go to the beach or the racetrack."

Hoping to challenge her, her parents enrolled Fleiss at the local parochial high school, Immaculate Heart, but she flunked out after one semester, school officials said. By her senior year, she had become so alienated that she dropped out, telling her parents she wanted to get a GED and start college early.

But that summer, there was an automobile accident. Fleiss was driving, and her sister was injured, nearly losing an arm. The guilt, her family said, sent her into a tailspin. "It was July 10, 1984," said her sister, Shana, 26, "and after it happened, it changed everyone's lives."

The next year, Fleiss and a crowd of friends went to work waiting tables at a trattoria on Sunset Boulevard. One night after work, a friend invited her to a big party at the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, and Fleiss-at all of 19-embarked on a four-year affair with her then 57-year-old host: the jet-set financier Bernie Cornfeld.

"We weren't really a couple in that sense-it's not my thing-but we were good friends. We saw a lot of each other," Cornfeld said from his London home.

He took her to Europe, the Caribbean, his 12th-Century castle in France. But Cornfeld, she said, "was much older and not monogamous"-and neither was Fleiss. By the time the relationship ended, Fleiss had a new attachment, a Hungarian director named Ivan Nagy.

Like Cornfeld, Nagy was older-50 to her 23-and on a downswing in his career. Though he had a steady string of credits-TV movies and action shows such as "Starsky and Hutch"-it had been several years since his last job.

Their romance was brief and harsh; their breakup was protracted. They still beset each other with restraining orders and speak of each other in hostile terms. At one point in 1991, they were convicted on misdemeanor bookmaking charges, the result, Nagy says, of an informal betting circle that got out of hand.

But that, Fleiss contends, was the least of it.

Nagy, she said, introduced her to Adams, the Beverly Hills madam. But Nagy remembers it differently. The day he told Madam Alex about his new love, he said, he got a surprise.

"She said, `Yes, she is working for me,' " Nagy said.

At any moment, police say, there are perhaps no more than 150 women working the topmost echelons of L.A.'s call girl trade.

They are the Chanel-clad bombshells on the arms of foreign dignitaries and tycoons, the tawny "good friends" of producers at studio parties and movie openings. Some are centerfolds, some model sportswear. Some turn only one or two tricks in a year; others make a brief career of it.

The strong and the lucky move on to security-rich husbands, film careers. The weak ones are less fortunate, police say. The demand is for variety, and few johns want to see the same woman more than a time or two. So the longtimers bounce from madam to madam, descending through the escort services to the bachelor party circuit and into the realm of $100 tricks.

It is a rough, dehumanizing road, even at its upper end. And, according to police and prostitutes, it does not take long to encounter the city's more notorious tricks: The big-name producer who defecates on women. The high-tech entrepreneur from the East Coast who horsewhips them. The independently wealthy crack addict who orders women to his house two at a time and overpays, just to have company while he gets high.

"It's a dirty, degrading, coercive business," LAPD Administrative Vice Capt. Glenn Ackerman said, "and there are all kinds of ways to hook the girls-money, dope, promises of fame. You can mouth platitudes about it being the oldest profession and a victimless crime, but the fact is that prostitution is always at the center of a whole cluster of criminal behavior."

But for those first few times the downside seems remote.

"I was making $10,000, $20,000 a month," said "Karin," a 22-year-old bit actress who met Fleiss through a man who followed her into a check-cashing office on Hollywood Boulevard one day. "He said he was a photographer. It turned out he would go out and find girls to introduce to Heidi, for a fee."

It took more than a year, she said, but one day, desperate to move out of her mother's apartment in Westlake Village, she allowed herself to be persuaded to visit Fleiss.

"I was like, `OK, but no fat guys and if they're gross, I won't do it. Only if I want to, OK?' " said Karin, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "She just started laughing. A week later, she called me and said, `I have a trip to London for you.' And that was it. Within a month, I had $25,000, a new car, a lotta, lotta money and an apartment of my own in the city."

For the next year, she said, her life was a parade of Middle Eastern dignitaries and middle-aged American men who specified her type-petite, curvaceous and blonde. Some dates were unforgettable. An elderly Saudi paid her $1,000 for nothing more than dinner at Morton's and a kiss on the cheek. A local high-roller took her to Las Vegas for a prizefight, 10 girls and five guys on a private jet. At a birthday party for a young actor, she was the $1,000 present.

But eventually she got out, she said. "I had no life of my own."

*

Adams reclines, phone at hand, in her Beverly Hills-adjacent boudoir. Sixty years old and diabetic, she rarely leaves her antique blue and white bed. She has even dictated her memoirs, the forthcoming "Madam 90210," from its pillowy depths.

Still, she manages to keep in touch. For two decades, she was the bawdy empress of L.A. vice, serving millionaires and movie stars and sheiks. Now, after a 1991 pandering conviction, she gets a hearty kick out of the battle for her throne, and spends hour upon hour dishing the exploits of her would-be heiresses.

"Ivan brought Heidi here in 1989," she confided in a world-weary rasp. "He turned her out. He made her work for me to pay off a $450 gambling debt. I can't remember who I sent her to-Jesus, it was years ago-but I think it was a very wealthy Texan."

Fleiss said she was Adams' assistant, not a "working girl." But in a June 9 search warrant affidavit, LAPD Administrative Vice Officer Patricia A. Corso alleges that Fleiss "was Elizabeth Adams' No. 1 `girl' until she broke off . . . to start her own prostitution business."

At first, police say, Fleiss operated out of a quiet cottage off Melrose Avenue. Neighbors there recall the parties and the fancy cars-the Rolls-Royce convertibles and Porsches and Corvettes.

According to a law enforcement affidavit on file in Municipal Court, the prostitutes charged customers $1,500, and Fleiss received 40% of the money. Women who said they worked for Fleiss said they were paid not only in cash, but also with checks, some of them drawn on real estate corporations and movie production companies.

Soon she moved to a sprawling ranch house off Benedict Canyon Road in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Records show it was bought last summer from actor Michael Douglas and the deed shows Fleiss' father as owner.

Fleiss' father refused to comment on the purchase or allegations against Fleiss. Other relatives said that the family until recently believed that Fleiss made her living from real estate.

The Benedict Canyon home became a sort of bachelor women's club. Actress Victoria Sellers, daughter of the late British actor, moved in with Fleiss. Together, they became a fixture of L.A. night life-Sellers hosting three nights a week at On the Roxx, a trendy Sunset Strip bar, and co-hosting parties at Fleiss' house.

"There was one party for Mick Jagger, and the house just got thrashed-there were women climbing up the side of the hill to get in," Sellers laughed.

"She knows major, major people," she said. "But I never asked what was going on in that, um, other part of her life. I figured that was her private thing."

*

The police operation was complicated, like so much in Fleiss' life. But what triggered it was simple, the LAPD's Ackerman said: "Her own big mouth."

When it comes to vice enforcement, the Police Department prioritizes according to "the three Cs"-commercial, conspicuous and complained about. Fleiss was all three and then some, police said.

She lived lavishly. Gossip columns made references to her; tabloids sent paparazzi to take her photograph. And, police said, there were complaints aplenty about her from rival madams, jealous boyfriends and spurned employees.

"When I came in, Heidi became one of my priorities," said Ackerman, who took over the department's Administrative Vice Division in December. Within months, a multi-agency law enforcement task force had been assembled to investigate Fleiss, drawing officers from the LAPD, Beverly Hills Police Department, the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Agency and the state attorney general's office.

According to search warrant affidavits, authorities got their big break April 6, when Beverly Hills Detective Sammy Lee heard that Fleiss would be at a party at the Rangoon Racquet Club. Posing as a Honolulu businessman, he pulled up in a Ferrari Testarossa, accompanied by a state undercover agent. They sat down next to a table full of women who had come with Jennifer Young, an old friend of Fleiss and the daughter of the late actor Gig Young and Elaine Young, the Beverly Hills real estate broker.

According to a law enforcement affidavit, the following ensued:

"I can't believe that I lived with her for that long and didn't know what she was doing," one woman laughed as Fleiss walked by.

Later, when Fleiss passed, Lee had Young introduce him. Haltingly, he told Fleiss that he was a businessman who needed to "arrange entertainment" for Japanese clients.

When Fleiss said she could help, Young rattled off Fleiss' phone number. Lee jotted it down. Two months later, Fleiss and Lee met at the Beverly Hilton to arrange the deal: One night of partying at the hotel, $1,500 a girl, no group sex, U.S. dollars only, condoms all around.

And nothing kinky. "I don't want to see a llama coming through the house," the officer said. To cap the negotiations, Fleiss had Lee describe his "dream girl."

The next night four women showed up at the Beverly Hilton, police said. One was the dream girl-Samantha Burdette, a Colorado model who resembled the late Natalie Wood. Another was 22-year-old Brandi McClain, a tall, athletic blonde in a black and white blazer and slacks.

"The guys didn't say anything," McClain recalled. "They were supposedly Japanese and didn't speak English and I thought, `Well, this'll be easy.' Then all of a sudden, I hear, `OK, party's over.' And there were about 12 more people in the room than there were before."

Burdette was arrested on misdemeanor prostitution charges. McClain-a San Diego County community college student who said she worked weekends for Fleiss-was questioned and released. Police told her they "wanted the big cheese."

It wasn't until that moment, she said, that she realized her predicament. "I realized it was illegal, but I never thought anything could happen to me."

Within minutes, records show, authorities swept into Fleiss' house, seizing 13 grams of cocaine and other evidence, including travelers checks signed, according to Fleiss, by a well-known actor. She was arrested on felony pimping, pandering and narcotics charges.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Alan Carter said he still has not completed his review of the case to determine whether to prosecute Fleiss. He declined to discuss the case.

An affidavit in support of the search warrants alleged that Fleiss had admitted to an undercover agent and in police interviews that she was a madam. "In the history of this business, in one year, no one has ever been able to do what I do," Fleiss allegedly said.

Other madams, she added, couldn't hope to compete. "You get what you pay for," she said.

*

Rumors started within days of her arrest: Studio executives had been paying Fleiss with movie development funds and corporate credit cards. Veteran vice officers said such rumors have circulated for years, but no hard evidence has emerged. Contrary to reports in gossip columns, sources say the FBI is not investigating the matter.

In a more tangible twist, however, a tape surfaced, containing some of Fleiss' phone conversations after the arrest.

Dan Hanks, a private investigator who has previously served as a police undercover operative, said he made the tape by monitoring transmissions from an apparent wiretap of Fleiss' phone. "I thought maybe I can . . . sell a story to the tabloids or `A Current Affair'-if I could catch a celebrity with her (and) get some pictures," he said. "It could be happenin.' "

Fleiss, who is out on bail, said she bought a copy of the tape from Hanks and intends to use it in her defense, provided that charges are filed. Her attorney, Anthony Brooklier, declined to comment.

Meanwhile, who actually tapped into Fleiss' conversations remains a mystery. Authorities said they are aware of the tape but it was not culled from a law enforcement wiretap.

But the tape, played for a Times reporter, alludes to a number of rich or famous people who know Fleiss. And as their names have begun to leak out, some have rushed to distance themselves from her. Others acknowledged knowing Fleiss but said they were only social acquaintances or friends.

"I haven't spoken to her for some time. Call my press agent," said "Sliver" producer Robert Evans. His publicist described Fleiss as a family friend.

Bob Crow, heir to the Texas-based Trammell Crow real estate empire, said: "We knew each other pretty well-frankly, I had a little romantic interest in Heidi at one time, but she is sort of a businesswoman.

"I haven't seen her in months," he added. "I gotta skedaddle now."

Billy Idol's personal publicist, Ellen Golden, said: "He's been to (On the Roxx) and met her, but doesn't know her well."

Elliot Mintz, a well-known media handler for rock stars, acknowledged chatting with Fleiss shortly after her arrest. "She's a casual friend," he added. "I'm not in her social loop."

As for Fleiss, she has only one thing to say when asked for details about her alleged business: "Talk to my lawyer."

Dec. 29, 1957

 


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LAPD HQ

 

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Photograph by Larry Harnisch / Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles Police Department headquarters under construction, Dec. 27, 2007.

Before YouTube

 

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You may be wondering why you are looking at a poster of the 1973 film "Bad Charleston Charlie." (And what a poster: the hair... the bloated lettering... the hearts... that suit! If this doesn't say "lousy 1970s movie" I don't know what does).

I can explain.

You see, I had planned to use the last days of the year to get caught up on a few stories that slipped through the cracks before we rolled over into 1958. (Yes, that's what we're going to do at the Daily Mirror).

Today, I was going to write about the introduction of videotape. Except that the subject of videotape, though it revolutionized broadcasting, is about as interesting as staring at a Betamax cartridge for an hour. (Hey, Grandpa, what's a Betamax? Oh, you kids).

In researching a post on videotape (which is about as much fun as it sounds) I came across the name of Kelly Thordsen, a former LAPD motorcycle officer who became an actor. Thordsen turns up in many films and TV shows from the 1950s into the 1970s, including 1957's "Fuzzy Pink Nightgown." He often played a police officer in contemporary films or a lawman in period pieces.

1953_0422_thordsen_2 According to The Times, Thordsen began his show business career after serving as master of ceremonies at an LAPD benefit that featured William Bendix. After the performance, Bendix complimented Thordsen and suggested that he turn pro. By 1960, Thorsden had appeared in many TV shows, including such hits of the era as "Yancey Derringer" and "Tales of Wells Fargo." He also was a member of SPEBSQA.

Thordsen was never the subject of a Times profile, but as a character actor he often ended up in three-bullet items at the bottom of a column, working regularly in projects such as "The Ugly Dachshund" and "Texas Across the River." And, five years before his death in 1978, "Bad Charleston Charlie."

So here's to you, Kelly Thordsen, actor and police officer. The Daily Mirror salutes you for capturing three robbers single-handedly in 1953--with only one pair of handcuffs.

As for videotape, NBC President Robert W. Sarnoff said in 1957 that the new recording medium would free television from the clunky technology of the day: kinescopes. NBC built what it called the Western Tape Center at its Color City in Burbank to house 11 videotape recorders, The Times said. NBC planned to go to videotape for the switch to Daylight Saving Time in 1958 to contend with the challenges of broadcasting shows in different time zones across the country.

Did I mention that "Bad Charleston Charlie" is out on videotape (but not DVD)? See, I knew I could pull this together if I thought about it.

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Bonus factoid: As several people have noted, "Bad Charleston Charlie" was directed by Ivan "Izzy Sleeze's Casting Couch Cuties" Nagy, remembered today for his role in the case of Hollywood Madam Heidi Fleiss. Of course there are many claimants to the title "Hollywood Madam," including Madam Alex, and much earlier, Ronnie Quillan and Brenda Allen.




The Astrodome

I ran across this Jim Murray column and thought I'd share it. As published in The Times, April 29, 1965:

 

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Dec. 28, 1957

 


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Ted Thackrey

Aug. 13, 2001
Los Angeles

 In Memory of a Rewrite King With a Truly Soaring Imagination

By Al Martinez,

   They told me Ted Thackrey was dead, and I said yeah, sure, right. They said he had written his last 1,000 words with the kind of blazing speed that characterized his kamikaze style, and when he'd finished, he just closed his eyes and died. I said tell me another one and went back to work.

   But then, as it happened, I discovered this Thackrey story was true. There was an obit in the small weekly newspaper where he once worked and then a memorial service. Even Thackrey wouldn't have gone that far, pretending to be dead, then popping up somewhere after all the tears and rituals were over.

  It would be hard even for Ted to fake his own cremation. He was dead all right.

   When I became convinced of it, I began thinking back to the guy who, if you'll forgive the arrogance of my conclusion, was newspapering's last great rewrite man. A hard drinker, a storyteller of the Baron Munchausen school and a man who wrote faster than a hurricane in hell, he defined a breed of journalists that no longer exists.

  They were the ones who rarely left the office and whose bylines you didn't often see. They took notes over the phone from reporters in the field, shaped them into tight, readable stories in the chaotic final seconds before deadline, then went back to smoking and complaining until the phone rang again.

   They were right out of "Front Page."

   Thack worked here for a lot of years, terrifying young reporters even as he tutored them, demanding no less from himself than he did from them. He was known to simply hang up on lazy beginners who came to him with incomplete information and quietly praise those he couldn't intimidate. He was part of a rewrite row that included guys like Jack Jones, Dick West, Jerry Cohen and acid-tongued Jerry Belcher, the quickest wit south of San Francisco. I was part of the crew until I drifted off to other pursuits, leaving the frantic last-minute stuff to the guys who loved it.

   "They wrote with grace and language," a former editor says of them. "They were fast, but they were literate. A Ted Thackrey doesn't exist anymore."

   Thack and I shared the same desk for years. I'd use it during the day and he'd take over at night. We wrote, in those pre-computer days, on Remingtons that were old when I got there in '72 and broke down when you needed them most. After everyone had gone home at night, Ted would cannibalize other typewriters in the office and steal their parts in order to make ours the fastest, loosest and most efficient machine of all.

   Stories about the man, a big, bald, wry kind of guy, are the stuff of make-believe. One has Ted contributing to the creation of a fictitious character they named Victor Frisbee in the old L.A. Examiner. An inside joke, Frisbee would pop up in stories as the eternal bystander, sometimes a sportsman, sometimes a philanthropist. When the Ex folded, a brief, front-page piece said simply, "Victor Frisbee, sportsman and philanthropist, died today."

   Rewrite guys were a different breed. They yelled a lot and drank a lot and had bursts of temper that were legendary. Thackrey could slam-dunk a typewriter into a wastebasket in a fight with an editor and roar at slow or clumsy reporters in a voice that rattled windows. West, built like a bull, could, and occasionally did, express himself by knocking someone on his can when the mood took him, as fast with his fists as he was with a typewriter. Belcher could attack editors with the fury of a tiger shark, leaving them emotionally dead, then go back to writing the cleanest stories I've ever read in a newspaper.

   When he wasn't setting a Remington afire with his awesome writing speed or teaching lessons in newspaper prose, Thack was a storyteller with a soaring imagination. According to him, he'd been a pilot with the Royal Air Force in World War II, a soldier in both the Korean and Biafran wars, a government agent in Vienna and an airline pilot in Southeast Asia.

   In between, or so he always said, he'd been Ernest Hemingway's secretary and sparring partner, a phone psychic, a kind of ghost-buster and a pastor. He also wrote novels, short stories and may, or may not, have written one of the best science-fiction pieces ever, called "Arena." He churned out 1,000 words a day on his own, right up until two days before he died of cancer at age 82. Or maybe 84.

   We never knew which of his many lives were real, concluding somewhere along the way that no one person could have lived them all. His widow, Diana, says she knew that most of his stories were true but wasn't sure about some of the others.

   We'll have to settle for that, I guess. Sometimes his penchant for fiction crept into his news stuff, and it was ultimately the reason for his leaving The Times. He tried to create another Victor Frisbee at the wrong time, in the wrong place. As we said goodbye, this giant of rewrite row, humbled by his own deed, said simply, "It's a lousy way to end a career."

   The program at Thack's memorial service listed his name as Thedor Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Thackera Olwyn von Refrau und zu Holsten. Maybe there were two Thackreys, one of them Ted, who loved newspapering and reigned over rewrite as its once and future king, and the long-named guy who, like Baron Munchausen, told one story too many. It doesn't matter. Not really. The Thack I knew was unique to an era of journalism that exists only in the memories of those of us who were there.

   Ted Thackrey is truly dead, but the legend lives. He is survived by us all.

Ewing Scott

 

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Photograph by Con Keyes / Los Angeles Times

Convicted killer L. Ewing Scott, 1980, at the age of 83.


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In 1986, bedridden, frail and slowly dying in a Silver Lake convalescent home, 89-year-old Leonard Ewing Scott agreed to see a visitor, Times reporter David Johnston. Scott had been freed from San Quentin in 1978 after serving 20 years, released without supervision because the prisoner--one of the oldest in the state's penal system--refused to agree to parole as it would imply that he had truly killed his wife, Evelyn, in 1955.

Johnston was running down details for a story about new book. It seemed that where all the investigators had failed, a young writer named Diane Wagner had gotten a tape-recorded confession in 1984 for a manuscript she was writing, "Corpus Delecti." Scott told her that he killed his wife by striking on the head with a rubber mallet, wrapped the body in a tarp and buried it near Las Vegas.

The reporter asked Scott if he knew Wagner. Of course, said Scott, who was sometimes disoriented and edging toward senility, she was his third wife. In fact, he told another reporter, they went on a honeymoon to South America.

Had he seen the book, Johnston asked. No.

Johnston read the transcript of the confession as the convicted killer lay in bed, eyes fixed on his guest. Scott started to say something, then stopped.

"What do you want?" Scott asked.

What made him acknowledge the killing after all these years?

"Acknowledge it? I'd be a damn fool to acknowledge it--they never found the body."

As far as the California Department of Corrections was concerned, Scott was freed in 1978, but he remained in a prison of his own--a prison of denial--for the rest of his life.

Officials had tried to release him in 1974, but he wouldn't leave. Not that he didn't want to get out, for he spent most of his days in his 4 1/2-foot by 9-foot cell typing letters and legal appeals. They never found the body, he insisted, as he had since first fell under suspicion in his wife's disappearance.

More important, during the trial, prosecutor J. Miller Leavy hammered away at Scott for failing to testify. It was proof, Leavy insisted again and again, that Scott was guilty and afraid to take the stand. In a 1965 ruling in the case of Griffin vs. California, the U.S. Supreme Court found that such remarks violated the 5th Amendment. But the court did not make the ruling apply retroactively to cases such as Scott's. As far as the state was concerned, he had no grounds for an appeal. He continued his legal fight, but without success.

Then, in the fall of 1974, when he was 78, the state attempted to parole him for the first time.

"They pulled out a piece of paper and said, 'Here, sign this,' " he said. "I read it over and said, 'From just what in  the hell do you propose to parole me? You know I'm being held here illegally, without a valid conviction.' Well, they were flabbergasted. They're all used to guys saying, 'Yes sir, no sir, whatever you say, sir.' But I won't do that."

The state made a second attempt to parole him in early 1978. Again, he turned it down.

A few weeks later, he sent a letter to Times reporter Gene Blake, who covered the trial in 1957.

"I told you some time ago that you would be the first to be given information when I leave this hellhole. I always try to abide by my promises," Scott wrote.

After refusing to be "suckered into accepting a parole," Scott said, prison officials told him he was being released. He slowly cleaned out his cell, which was filled with 500 pounds of legal files.

On March 17, 1978, 81-year-old Leonard Ewing Scott limped out of San Quentin, leaning on a cane after breaking his hip in a fall, and still wearing his prison denims with $200 from the state in his pocket. As he was released to some friends who ran a mobile ministry for truck drivers, Scott said his first act of freedom would be to sue his wife for divorce. She was still alive, he insisted, and had been arrested twice in Mexico for drunk driving. His first meal after being freed was a Big Mac, The Times said.

Two years later, Blake found him living on Social Security at a downtown Los Angeles hotel, having moved from Santa Monica because the rent "got too stiff."

"That's what I'm getting by on," he said of his Social Security payments. "It's not a hell of a lot. That's the reason I moved down here." And at 83, he was continuing to fight his conviction. "There was no legal reason for it," he said.

When Wagner began working on her book in 1983, she found Scott living in a seedy mid-Wilshire apartment, The Times said. She interviewed him repeatedly and he always told her the same story--he didn't kill his wife.

On Aug. 5, 1984, he called and asked to see her one more time, Johnston said. She went there the next day and he told her:

"Well," he said suddenly, "I arrived in Las Vegas about dusk.... I hit her in the head with a mallet, a hard rubber mallet. Just once. On the head, right on top."

According to Johnston's story, Scott said he wrapped his wife's body in a tarp, put it in the trunk of a 1940 Ford and drove to the desert six miles east of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. He dug a grave, dumped the body, drove around to cover his tracks, then "went to sleep the car for a while. Then I drove back to Los Angeles."

As his health declined, Scott moved into the Skyline Convalescent Home in Silver Lake.* Reporters dropped in now and then, hoping that he would finally admit the killing. Tom Towers, who covered the trial for the Examiner, was a regular.

"I always felt that he did it, but I was just unable to bring all the pieces together to finalize my own conviction because there was no body," Towers said. "I visited him repeatedly because, like a lot of newspapermen, I felt if he is going to cop out he'd cop out to me."

Not that anyone believed his confession. Leavy, Towers and Arthur Alarcon, a federal judge who had been assistant prosecutor in the case, dismissed the idea that Scott could have killed anyone with a single blow from a rubber mallet, Johnston wrote in 1986.

"The important thing is he acknowledged he killed her," Leavy said.

Scott died Aug. 15, 1987, and his body lay unclaimed at the Los Angeles County morgue for more than a week, The Times said. He was 91 and left no survivors. Except for his single conversation with Wagner, Scott adamantly denied killing his wife. Why did he confess to Wagner? He told her it would make a good epilogue to her book.

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* According to Scott's 1987 obituary by Ted Thackrey Jr., whose byline should be a red flag for careful researchers.

Smith on Wry

 


Marvin_miles1
Photograph by the Los Angeles Times

I love this picture of Times reporters Jack Smith and Marvin Miles, in coats and ties, of course, flying a kite. I don't know the story behind this picture, but I'm sure there is one.

Early next year, the Huntington Library will open "Smith on Wry: Jack Smith, Columnist for Our Times," drawn from his papers and other materials donated to the San Marino museum. Exhibits will will include "string books," letters, photos, awards and, yes, his columns. I was quite impressed by the large turnout for a 2005 panel discussion at the museum with Curt and Doug Smith, and columnist Al Martinez. Nearly 10 years after his death, Jack Smith still filled the room. Not many columnists can make a claim like that.

"Smith on Wry" will be on display Feb. 15 through May 12 in the Library's West Hall.

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