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Hard-Boiled Hollywood: Crime and Punishment in Postwar Los Angeles

Hard-Boiled Hollywood: Crime and Punishment in Postwar Los Angeles

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Hard-Boiled Hollywood: Crime and Punishment in Postwar Los Angeles

380 pages
8 hours
Apr 19, 2017


The tragic and mysterious circumstances surrounding the deaths of Elizabeth Short, or the Black Dahlia, and Marilyn Monroe ripped open Hollywood’s glitzy façade, exposing the city's ugly underbelly of corruption, crime, and murder. These two spectacular dead bodies, one found dumped and posed in a vacant lot in January 1947, the other found dead in her home in August 1962, bookend this new history of Hollywood. Short and Monroe are just two of the many left for dead after the collapse of the studio system, Hollywood’s awkward adolescence when the company town’s many competing subcultures—celebrities, moguls, mobsters, gossip mongers, industry wannabes, and desperate transients—came into frequent contact and conflict. Hard-Boiled Hollywood focuses on the lives lost at the crossroads between a dreamed-of Los Angeles and the real thing after the Second World War, where reality was anything but glamorous."
Apr 19, 2017

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Jon Lewis is the Distinguished Professor of Film Studies and University Honors College Eminent Professor at Oregon State University. He has published eleven books, including Whom God Wishes to Destroy . . . : Francis Coppola and the New Hollywood and Hollywood v. Hard Core: How the Struggle over Censorship Saved the Modern Film Industry, is past editor of Cinema Journal, and served on the Executive Council of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.

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Hard-Boiled Hollywood - Jon Lewis

Hard-Boiled Hollywood

Hard-Boiled Hollywood

Crime and Punishment in Postwar Los Angeles

Jon Lewis


University of California Press, one of the most distinguished university presses in the United States, enriches lives around the world by advancing scholarship in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Its activities are supported by the UC Press Foundation and by philanthropic contributions from individuals and institutions. For more information, visit www.ucpress.edu.

University of California Press

Oakland, California

© 2017 by The Regents of the University of California

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Lewis, Jon, author.

Title: Hard-boiled Hollywood : crime and punishment in postwar Los Angeles / Jon Lewis.

Description: Oakland, California : University of California Press, [2017] |

Includes bibliographical references and index.

Identifiers: LCCN 2016045492 (print) | LCCN 2016046542 (ebook) | ISBN 9780520284319 (cloth : alk. paper) | ISBN 9780520284326 (pbk. : alk. paper) | ISBN 9780520959910 (eBook)

Subjects: LCSH: Crime—California—Los Angeles—History—20th century.

Classification: LCC HV6795.L6 L49 2017 (print) | LCC HV6795.L6 (ebook) | DDC 364.9794/9409044—dc23

LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2016045492

Manufactured in the United States of America

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10  9  8  7  6  5  4  3  2  1

For Q, of course

It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.

—Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust




1. The Real Estate of Crime: The Black Dahlia Dumped by the Side of the Road

2. Mobsters and Movie Stars: Crime, Punishment, and Hollywood Celebrity

3. Hollywood Confidential: Crime and Punishment in Postwar Los Angeles

4. Hollywood’s Last Lonely Places: The Sad, Short Stories of Barbara Payton and Marilyn Monroe




The idea for a book about dead bodies left by the side of the road in postwar Los Angeles grew out of a Winter 2013 film-noir class here at Oregon State. When, some months later, I figured I might be onto something, I staged the idea to colleagues in a presentation to the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, organized by Mark Shiel, and then at an invited lecture at University College, London, sponsored by Lee Grieveson. Both Mark and Lee have weighed in freely and frequently during the course of this project. It’s a better book because of them.

In May 2015, as a first draft of the book was nearly complete, I turned 60 and received a Distinguished Professorship. Both big events served to remind me how lucky I have been to have landed here in Corvallis, to have enjoyed the friendship of such terrific colleagues, several of whom—Tracy Daugherty, Mike Oriard, and Kerry Ahearn, to name just three—have for three decades now supported my work.

Since 1985 I have as well been able to count on the generous support of the OSU Center for the Humanities. A 2014 Center release-time grant freed me to examine with the necessary rigor a decade’s worth of L.A. daily newspapers. My stay at the Center was productive thanks to David Robinson and to Joy Futrell, who found the Garry Winogrand photograph (Los Angeles, 1980) that I looked at every morning when I sat down to write. The PowerPoint presentation that I used for my Center lecture was in the spring of 2015 published by the Australian journal Contrapasso. Noel King, a longtime friend and advocate for my work, made that happen.

In the spring of 2013, I signed an advance contract with Mary Frances at the University of California Press to write a book promising to map the Hollywood transition. That’s not the book I ended up writing, but thanks to her that never really mattered. Mary assigned the précis to Tom Doherty—the perfect reader, as things have played out. One of the biggest challenges to writing history is maintaining confidence and interest over the long haul. Tom believed from the start in what would have struck a less imaginative and supportive reader as a crackpot project. His confidence in my ability to write a truly hard-boiled Hollywood history has been crucial.

When Mary moved on to another press, Raina Polivka inherited the book, and she has from our very first meeting championed its style and appreciated its content. Raina has a talent for encouraging the right things in a writer’s toolbox and has the confidence to say no when that’s what needs to be said. The editorial staff, including especially Zuha Khan, and the production staff—the project editor, Cindy Fulton, and the copyeditor, Paul Psoinos, in particular—have worked hard to make this a better book and me a better writer.

Finding and securing permission for the many illustrations included here was made easier by Glenn Bradie at the Everett Collection, Alex and Rebeca Fuchs at the Leo Fuchs Photography Archive, Pierre-Yves Butzbach at the Man Ray Trust, and Julianna Jenkins at the UCLA Library, Special Collections.

Finally, on the home-front, there’s Q, AKA Martha Lewis. Without her, without our boys, Guy and Adam, it would be impossible to take pleasure from something so strange, so endlessly draining, so in the scheme of things small as this.


On February 8, 1962, the movie actress Lana Turner fainted at a Hollywood party. It was her birthday—her forty-second.¹ She was rushed to the emergency room at Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital, where she made the most of her entrance, dramatically clinging to the arms of two of her party guests, the actor Eddie Albert (Turner’s current co-star in Daniel’s Mann’s Who’s Got the Action) and his wife, Margo. It would have made for a compelling picture had anyone bothered to dispatch a photographer.

After a preliminary examination, Turner was admitted for nervous exhaustion, a catchall malady that for Hollywood insiders begged interpretation and cynicism, and for her still-ardent fans warranted concern. The following day the story made page 5 of the New York Post—a brief item run in a single column about half a page long. The Post dutifully drew from the Turner entourage’s press release, reporting that the actress had been keeping long hours on the set of Mann’s film, getting only four or five hours of sleep each night. For those reading more closely, a relevant subtext was tersely expressed in a two-word caption run under a flattering stock photo; Turner was not so much exhausted from long hours on the set; she was instead, after a long and eventful career in Hollywood, quite simply tired out.²

Aboard the Staten Island Ferry on the cold and snowy evening of February 9th en route to a reading with Robert Lowell at Wagner College, the poet Frank O’Hara spied the story about Turner’s fainting spell. The reading was an engagement that he was not looking forward to; he loathed Lowell, and the feeling was mutual.³ Killing time, O’Hara began reading the Post. A banner headline and longer article about Jayne Mansfield (she was having an affair, apparently) dominated page 5. But O’Hara dawdled instead over the Turner birthday swoon, fascinated by a single line that for him spoke profoundly to the absurdity of celebrity culture in general: She’s just exhausted, her fifth husband, Fred May, said.

In the half-hour it took to get from Manhattan to Staten Island, O’Hara wrote a poem titled simply Lana Turner Has Collapsed!⁴ At the Wagner reading he decided to debut a handwritten draft, and by all accounts it got an enthusiastic reception. The poem has since become quite famous, and so has the story of its writing; indeed it has become a foundational work in what the poetry scholar Paul Stephens calls the poetics of celebsploitation, works built upon a poet’s ironic identification with a movie star.⁵

O’Hara had long been fascinated by Hollywood and had five years earlier written a longer poem entitled To the Film Industry in Crisis,⁶ which he opens with a confession concerning his scant interest in lean quarterlies and swarthy periodicals, at least in comparison with the guilty pleasures of moving pictures and celebrity gossip. In times of crisis, O’Hara writes, we must all decide again and again whom we / love. And O’Hara loved the movies, and he loved movie stars, despite himself . . . that is, despite himself as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, as an American writer of some renown, as an intellectual instinctively suspicious of popular, mass culture.

To capture the Turner incident in all its absurd drama—how many people, after all, have a fifth husband to comment upon a mishap at a birthday party—O’Hara writes Lana Turner Has Collapsed! in the first person and begins with a reflection upon similar events in his own life: I have been to lots of parties / and acted perfectly disgraceful. As Stephens notes, O’Hara is at first sympathetic; Turner is newsworthy because she is a victim of a rapacious culture industry . . . and O’Hara is not (newsworthy, nor is he that sort of victim). But then, accounting for the relative dynamics of literary/poetic-versus-cinematic stardom, O’Hara indulges in schadenfreude, taking pleasure in Turner’s nervous exhaustion as some sort of karmic payback in a pop culture that has freighted her every experience with such importance.

Lana Turner Has Collapsed! ends with a rumination on the devouring nature of stardom and the absurdity of movie fandom as O’Hara issues an exasperated plea that doubles as an admonition: Oh Lana Turner we love you get up. Our connection to and with the lives of movie stars, O’Hara implies, the value we place on what they do and what gets done to them, becomes, despite its essential banality, the stuff of history. And much as we’d like to believe we might be part of that history—that our testimony (we love you) and entreaty (get up) may be heard and felt, we know better. Theirs is a world we watch from a distance. It is history precisely because we are not part of it.

This vignette about Turner’s collapse and O’Hara’s response to it is an apt entry point for this postwar Hollywood history. It is the first of many such stories in this book of movie people on their backs, counted down and out, left for dead, run out of town, dismissed in some throwaway piece in the tabloids. Turner did, as O’Hara urged, get back up—plenty of those discussed in the pages to follow did not, could not. But her story nonetheless leaves us rubbernecking, fascinated with the immanence and possibility of catastrophe and humiliation.


To portray a city, a native must have other, deeper motives.

—Walter Benjamin

Work on this book began innocently enough with an accidental and, in retrospect, fortunate bit of programming for a class I taught on film noir in 2013. A propos the topic L.A. Noir, I screened three films: Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950), In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950), and The Big Knife (Robert Aldrich, 1955). What I discovered after the screenings was how these three movies revealingly showcased not so much or not only the ingredients and characteristics of film noir, but how similarly, how cynically, how profoundly these films told the story of movie workers adjusting to an industry in transition, and how all three situated these Hollywood film workers amid the sprawl of an evolving new and noir American city.

The adjustment to changing Hollywood policies and procedures is in all three films uncertain, even chaotic. The film workers gather and (to use a contemporary term) network. They audition and pitch in restaurants and drug stores, in silent-era mansions on the city’s most famous strip, in Hollywood bungalows, in modest houses by the beach, and in a movie star’s compound in the Hollywood Hills; they ply their trade (or try to) in an industry that seems determined to keep them at arm’s length. We see little actual studio space or film work in the films; Sunset Boulevard is the only one of the three that takes us inside a studio and onto a soundstage, and in that film the Paramount lot is portrayed as poignant and nostalgic—a set and setting that will certainly be lost as Hollywood reconfigures itself to necessarily fit an evolving new business model. The structured absence of studio space heralds the arrival of a less coherent film business, one in which film workers become independent contractors on the make as opposed to studio workers on the clock.

While I remembered that these films offered similarly cynical Hollywood-on-Hollywood parables, what I had not noticed before teaching them together—what I did not see coming, so to speak—was a common and compelling narrative detail. The story told in each of these three Hollywood melodramas focuses on a dead body . . . each of them a film worker: one gunned down in cold blood and discovered face-down in a swimming pool, another strangled and then dumped by the side of the road, and the third a suicide in a bathtub in that movie star’s house in the Hollywood Hills. All three films, especially for filmgoers seeing them in the initial release, eerily recalled the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, herself an aspiring actress who like so many young women after the war ventured to Hollywood to be discovered but instead got lost in Los Angeles’ geographic and cultural sprawl, her life lost in and to Hollywood’s industrial meantime.

The long and inconclusive investigation into Short’s murder foregrounded a revised mythology of Hollywood aspiration and stardom. It introduced an unglamorous Hollywood narrative focused not on discovery and transcendence but on the cruel realities of life as it was lived by aspiring film workers after war. When Short was found murdered, in January 1947, her corpse mistaken for a mannequin or a drunk passed out by the side of the road, hers would become the first in a series of disquieting stories in an increasingly perilous city whose urban geography encouraged what would come to be cruelly termed the body-dump killing. Her death and the fruitless investigation that followed set in motion an increasingly dark celebrity narrative that would fundamentally transform how American filmgoers imagined Hollywood.

All three films exploit the Dahlia’s notoriety and link her story to fundamental changes in the movie industry. That one may have been be the consequence of the other—that her death might be unique to the Hollywood transition (that is, from the studio era into a forthcoming, anticipated new Hollywood)—compels a rereading of Hollywood (the business, the urban neighborhood, the site par excellence of American aspiration). Such a rereading characterizes the project here.

All three films as well present a new Hollywood geography; the fragility of contracts and relationships that accompanied the decline of the Hollywood studio system is expressed in dispersed sites of professional and personal engagement. As these films depict, filmmaking in the postwar years became an enterprise in which private and public space overlapped uncomfortably. For those venturing to Hollywood to be discovered, a first and often insurmountable task involved finding a secure and safe site for conducting movie business. As the studios cut back on production and correspondingly diminished their commitment to contracted labor, the studio lots became less and less central to the business of making movies. As the three films suggest, industry workers were forced to find new sites for movie-business networking. As Short discovered, among these new sites for professional and personal engagement were the many bars and nightclubs, sites that attracted a range of real and quasi-industry players, as well as mobsters, hucksters, transients, and psychopaths.

Sunset Boulevard begins with an image of a curb in a filthy gutter, and then we hear the voice-over of the failed screenwriter Joe Gillis affirming first what we see—Yes, this is Sunset Boulevard—and then, as the camera holds on an image of his corpse floating face-down in Norma’s swimming pool, the terms of the narrative: Just a movie writer with a couple of B-pictures to his credit. The poor dope. He always wanted a pool. Well in the end he got himself a pool—only the price turned out to be a little high. The film begins with a body floating in a pool and then, early in the film’s extended flashback, echoes that image with a second corpse, a dead chimpanzee, whose death is treated with more respect. Joe, the dead writer whose Hollywood adventure is chronicled in the film, is initially mistaken for a pet undertaker and then for a working writer; pointedly, he’s neither.

For Joe, there is no office to work at, no studio to report to, and there’s no contract to fall back on. His encounters with Hollywood power—the producer with ulcers who reminds him (and us) that the studios are all losing money in 1950; the agent who won’t answer his phone calls and cynically offers that the finest things in the world have been written on an empty stomach—get Joe nowhere closer to his dream. The only writing job he can get is with Norma Desmond, and there are, as with everything in transition-era Hollywood, strings attached.

In A Lonely Place is rather programmatically film noir, so everyone’s timing is off. Dix Steele is a screenwriter whose uncertainty about things personal and professional fuels his paranoia. Self-doubt and vague (but deeply felt) suspicions are at once a natural state for a noir hero and a Hollywood screenwriter who has returned from the war to find his home town, Hollywood, changed, and his role in that home town suddenly intolerable, incomprehensible. Dix indulges his violent urges, built as they are upon fears of obsolescence and abandonment. And although we may find his refusal to adapt to such a corrupt and corrupted place as Hollywood to be mildly heroic, and appreciate his self-loathing at the prospect of dumbing down his work to suit an industry that produces so many awful films, In a Lonely Place complicates this heroism by focusing on his paranoia, which is complicated as well by the distinct possibility that he is at once paranoid and astute: people are indeed out to get him.

Dix is beset throughout the film by false accusations: he’s followed by the cops (party to an investigation led by a man he served with overseas), he is interrogated several times as the prime suspect in a murder he did not commit, and he remains a suspect in that murder until the film’s deus-ex-machina ending not because there is any evidence linking him to the crime but because of questionable past acts, because his answers during interrogation betray a disdain for the investigative process and the investigators. In Blacklist-era Hollywood—in a movie about Hollywood made during and set in the Blacklist era—it was and is hard to miss the allegory here.

Pointedly, Dix never sets foot on a studio lot; he connects with management through an intermediary, his agent, and spends most of his professional life commingling (networking) at a nightclub with other film workers, who, like him, are held at arm’s length from a transitioning studio system. He sees himself as an artist in an industry given over to popcorn salesmen. But even the popcorn salesmen reminisce about a Hollywood that no longer exists.

The Big Knife is set for all but a few minutes in a single interior space: the movie star Charlie Castle’s living room. Charlie is the most conventionally successful of the three industry players in these films, but he’s also the most isolated; his lonely place is his home, which doubles as his base of operation. The film pivots on two successive scenes in which Charlie fails to protect that space from the studio executive Stanley Shriner Hoff, two scenes that lead inexorably and inevitably to Charlie’s suicide. What Charlie learns from his encounters with Hollywood power is that although the business is sure to change, he, or at least his contract, will not be allowed to change with it. Charlie can’t even leave his house—and thus he can’t work—without first accepting Hoff’s terms.

Charlie is a rugged, virile movie actor played by the rugged, virile movie actor Jack Palance, whose masculinity is serially undermined, first by a gossip columnist who sets the narrative in motion, then by a studio fixer who keeps changing the story line. He eventually stands up to these threats to his masculinity and to his autonomy as a professional actor, but doing so leaves him alone, vulnerable, and finally suicidal.

What matters most to the central characters in these three films pointedly happens elsewhere. While Joe is otherwise occupied at Norma’s, the story editor (and his eventual guilty love interest), Betty Schaefer, convinces an executive to develop one of Joe’s old story ideas. It’s a lifeline of sorts—albeit one freighted with dishonesty and betrayal (of his amiable friend, an assistant director named Artie Green, who begins the film romantically involved with Betty). This potential story deal arrives too late to save him; he is in too deep with Norma by then.

The hatcheck girl, Mildred Atkinson, who ventures to Dix’s apartment to help him with a script in Ray’s film is killed off screen after Dix ungallantly dispatches her to a neighborhood cabstand. She is, like the Dahlia, murdered, transported, and summarily dumped in the sprawling elsewhere of Los Angeles. Later, when an executive at one of the studios decides to buy Dix’s new script, the message is delivered by Dix’s agent too late to save his affair with the wannabe actress Laurel, and thus too late to forestall his decline into madness. In The Big Knife, the studio fixer arranges the murder of a starlet who can implicate Charlie in a drunken hit-and-run killing. Recognizing his complicity, Charlie kills himself off screen.

The film workers in all three films are undone by a Hollywood that has become for them impossibly chaotic—organized so differently from the previous studio model that they fail to find their way in or out. They are dispirited and unmoored . . . conditions that are evinced geographically. The paradigmatic noir narrative—that is, the labyrinthine story structure—abandons them to a profound physical as well as spiritual isolation. The film workers depicted in these three films anticipate a new Hollywood they will not live long enough or stay sane enough to see.


I come to a red light, tempted to go through it, then stop once I see a billboard sign that I don’t remember seeing and I look up at it. All it says is Disappear Here and even though it’s probably an ad for some resort, it still freaks me out.

—Brett Easton Ellis, Less than Zero

What follows in this book is a history of Hollywood—the geographic site and the notional construct—built upon stories of the fallen, the stricken, the dismissed, discarded, and exiled during Hollywood’s awkward adolescence stretching from the decline of the classical era after World War II to the beginnings of a new Hollywood in the 1960s. Though its genesis involves the aforementioned noir classics, the book is by design not a history of films and filmmakers or of the demarcations in an industrial trajectory—though this era has plenty of them: the Blacklist, the Paramount Decision, the dismantling of the Production Code. This is instead an alternative history focusing on Hollywood players and aspirants alike literally or figuratively dumped by the side of the road . . . casualties upon which a new Hollywood was constructed.

The narrative begins and ends with two dead bodies: the mutilated, blood-drained corpse of the Hollywood wannabe Elizabeth Short, killed one-place, transported, dumped, and posed in another, a vacant lot at the corner of 39th and Norton in January 1947; and the crime scene at 12305 Fifth Helena Drive in August 1962, where the unclothed body of Hollywood’s last classical-era movie star, Marilyn Monroe, was discovered. The transition era in Hollywood seems to me framed by these two scenes, which fundamentally altered the dreamed-upon and the real Hollywood after the war.

There are precedents to such an approach to social history. In the most famous, just before the turn of the twentieth century, the sociologist Émile Durkheim posited how a cultural history might be formulated from the study of suicide (or suicides).⁸ He focused on four types or reasons for such a desperate act: egoistic, altruistic, anomic, and fatalistic suicide: self-annihilation prompted by, respectively, a feeling of not belonging, a desire for martyrdom (in which one’s death serves a cause), moral confusion or alienation, or both (what he termed anomie), and an affirmation of social constraints so extreme that a person sees no way out, no way forward. An understanding of a society, Durkheim concluded, might thus be formulated upon those tragically unserved and unhappy. Just such a project is undertaken here as well, though the focus on casualties is not so exclusively tied to those so desperate as to take their own lives; indeed the term casualty is viewed more broadly here to include the many seekers who ventured to Los Angeles and didn’t find what they were looking for . . . and then stopped searching, their spirits broken as they finally gave up dreaming about a place that no longer existed.

The larger ambition of this project involves two conflicting narratives: one complexly tied to American aspiration (dreams of success, of glamor, of social mobility, even transcendence) and another grounded, qualified, and profoundly diminished by the harsh realities of a transforming modern American movie business, the complexities of Cold War politics, and the brutality of urban crime . . . new narratives of a new postwar America writ large in the City of the Angels. These new narratives feature a wealth of characters (in the fullest sense of the term): movie-industry celebrities (the players and the wannabes); the transient, anonymous, desperate, cruel, and crazy inhabiting the streets; mobsters, madams, and corrupt police; purveyors of gossip and the subjects and topics of their savage commentaries.

Short’s murder called attention to the lives of the many disenfranchised in Los Angeles; she was, after all, once one of them. Monroe’s death implicated the strange entourage inhabiting her movie-star orbit: quack doctors, gangsters, other movie stars and industry workers, Fidel Castro, the FBI and the CIA, and inevitably, the Kennedys . . . so many characters crossing paths—at times disastrously—in the chaotic world of postwar Los Angeles. Theirs are the stories I will tell in this book. In doing so I insist upon the significance of their lives and their ambitions . . . so many of which were so abruptly snuffed out.


The Real Estate of Crime

The Black Dahlia Dumped by the Side of the Road

The January 15, 1947, edition of William Randolph Hearst’s Los Angeles Examiner ran with the following sensational

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