Topics for my true crime blogs entries can come from just about anywhere and this subject is a prime example of that fact.
It was while watching Season 1, Episode 27 of “The Untouchables” (“Head of Fire, Feet of Clay”) that I saw Leo Gordon without his shirt on and wondered “Is that a shark bite?”
A quick Google search led me to Leo’s Wikipedia page and I had my answer within minutes.
“Gordon was in southern California where he and a cohort attempted to rob
a bar and its patrons with a pistol. He was shot in the stomach by one
of the officers making the arrest. Convicted of armed robbery, he served five years in San Quentin Prison, where he furthered his education by reading nearly every book in the library.”
If that’s enough information for you, go ahead and close this browser tab. However, if you find it lacking in detail and wish to know more – I’m your gal. Get ready for an extremely deep dive.
Nine years before tough guy TV and movie actor Leo Gordon made his first appearance on any screen, big or small, he was a young man, fresh out of the army, living at the Midway Auto Court in Culver City and committing crimes. His San Quentin intake record lists Leo’s occupation as “metal worker.”
From the various newspaper accounts I’ve read, this is an an approximation of how things went down during what was to be Leo’s last incident of armed robbery:
On November 8, 1943, a Monday night, three men – Leo Gordon (21-years-old), Gerald Charles Atherton, Jr. (25-years-old) and Lovell Laverne Allman (27-years-old) – entered the Countess Sonia Cafe, located at 5815 W. Washington Blvd, Culver City, CA.
Atherton stayed near the door while Leo and Allman approached the bar and ordered drinks.
Suddenly, Leo pulled out a gun, ordered the bartender to “freeze” and announced “this is a stick-up.”
The restaurant’s namesake and proprietress Countess Sonia D’Andrie (aged 49), bartender E. H. “Mike” Johnson (aged 42) and the cafe’s few patrons were told to keep their hands on the bar, in full view, while Leo emptied the cash register of $275.00.
Not satisfied with the takings, Leo thought he’d relieve the customers of their money too and that’s when things went south.
As Leo approached 60-year-old Franklin L. Bohanan, another younger man, 27-year-old Jesse Stillinger, threw a punch at Leo.
The distraction gave Bohanan an opportunity to pull his own gun and fire at Leo.
Leo was shot in the stomach and fell to the floor.
Leo’s cohort Lovell Allman quickly fled the scene.
From his position near the door, Gerald Atherton reacted by shooting into the crowd.
He missed Bohanan completely but, with a single shot, Atherton managed to graze Stillinger’s companion, Miss Florence Gale (25-years-old) and wound Stillinger – a bullet to the gut, just like Leo Gordon had received.
This apparently was enough gun play for Atherton because he, like Allman before him, quickly beat feet out the door.
It’s important to note that, as Atherton would later explain to police, the gang only had one bullet between them because “ammunition is hard to get.” (Referring, of course, to the ammunition shortage during WWII.)
Would Atherton have shot more people if he had more than one bullet? We’ll never know.
The wounded were taken to the Culver City Emergency Hospital.
Jesse Stillinger and Leo would later be transferred to the Los Angeles General Hospital.
Stillinger was not expected to live; Miss Gale was treated and released; Leo was operated on and listed in critical condition while police went about tracking down his cohorts.
Two days later, Allman and Atherton, apprehended separately, were each in police custody.
Lovell Allman, a family man and former Pico Bowling Palace bartender, was arrested at his home at 1901 Ridgely Drive, Los Angeles on November 9th. Police Sgt. Austin Collar told reporters he believed Allman to be the alleged leader of the gang.
Allman admitted to police that yes, he had driven his friends to the Cafe on the night of the robbery attempt but Allman claimed he didn’t know they had intended to rob the joint and he took off when the shooting started.
Police Captain Jack Donohoe (who would later investigate the death of Elizabeth Short aka The Black Dahlia) found this hard to believe.
In fact, Captain Donohoe suspected this particular trio of bandits were responsible for several recent robberies in the neighborhood, including the Carthay Circle Theater (6316 San Vincente Blvd), Loew’s State Theater (703 S. Broadway) and King’s Tropical Inn (5741 West Washington Blvd.).
During the Tropical Inn robbery, three unidentified men had cheekily enjoyed dinner at the restaurant before stealing $700 from the cash register. This robbery happened one month before, on Saturday, October 16, 1943, at 11:30 PM.
The restaurant’s doors had been closed to incoming traffic and approximately 15 patrons remained.
As all three men approached the cash register, presumably to pay their bill, one of them thrust a gun into the ribs of manager Eddie Mousseau while another emptied the till. Their getaway car was in the Inn’s parking lot.
Gerald C. Atherton was the last to be arrested for his part in the Countess Sonia Cafe robbery attempt.
At the time of his apprehension, on November 10th, Atherton was sitting in a car, parked at the corner of Toberman Avenue and W. 23rd Street, Los Angeles, in the company of an unidentified young woman who seemed unaware of Atherton’s criminality.
Gerald Atherton is identified in newspapers as an “escaped army prisoner” however, no reporter informs the reader of what Atherton did to end up in the brig
at California’s Camp Stoneman and I haven’t been able to discover it
for myself. The Wikipedia page for the Army base describes it this way
“Camp Stoneman opened May 28, 1942, for the purpose of staging troops for the Pacific Theater of Operations.”
So, not necessarily a prison camp – there was only one stockade.
Of the three men, Atherton did have a more extensive criminal history. Although he’d never shot a man before. At least, I don’t think he had.
Gerald Atherton is also the only one who had an alias listed on his prison record. That name was “Jerry Jordan.”
In Kansas City, Missouri, on March 16, 1941, two and a half years before his Los Angeles crime spree, Gerald C. Atherton (then 23) confessed to four counts of robbery.
Partnering with Paul Edward Terry (27) and Wilfred Finnell (24), Gerald C. Atherton had robbed, at gunpoint, four taxi cab drivers in three days (March 12th, 13th and 15th, 1941).
On March 15th, driver Chester O. Staley lost not only $4.00 but his cab, which was later found abandoned.
A short time after their last hold-up, Terry and Atherton were spotted on the street and picked up. The newspaper account says they “were recognized” but not by whom. Perhaps one of the victims? Local men committing local crimes. When the two were arrested, Terry was carrying a revolver.
Interestingly, both Paul E. Terry and Wilfred Finnell might have either held a grudge against cab companies or simply possessed inside knowledge of how things worked.
When Paul E. Terry (1914-1944) registered for the draft on October 16, 1940, he listed the Yellow Cab Company, 14th & Wyanotte, Kansas City, Missouri as his employer.
When Wilfred Finnell (1916-1992) registered for the draft, also on October 16, 1940, he listed his employer as The American Cab Company, Kansas City, Jackson, Missouri.
Gerald C. Atherton (1918-1978), when he registered for the draft, yes, on October 16, 1940, his employer was McNamara Transfer.
The trio’s last victim, Chester O. Staley also worked for the Yellow Cab Company, but at a different location than Paul Terry. Staley operated out of 201 West 14th Street.
There are no newspaper accounts of the previous three robberies so it’s not possible to say what cab company was victimized or who the drivers were.
They were all found guilty of “larceny from a person” and sentenced to 5 years in prison. Astonishingly, they were granted parole the following month.
I’m going to deviate from the narrative for a moment – You might have noticed the death date for Paul Edward Terry and realized he was a relatively young man when he died, only 30-years-old.
According to Paul’s obituary: “He died in a car accident on April 29, 1944. The car he was riding in ran off the highway, struck a bridge abutment and turned over, landing in a creek bed forty feet away.”
Paul Terry’s death certificate lists the immediate cause of death to be a”crushing injury of the chest.” The document also indicates a “laceration of the lung.” A later newspaper report on the findings of the coroner’s inquest claims Paul Terry’s neck was broken. I see no evidence of that on the death certificate.
According to the April 29, 1944 edition of the Kansas City (MO) Star newspaper: Paul was found dead in the back seat of the car, a 1942 Oldsmobile. The car’s other occupant, Leroy Allen, received only minor injuries. Leroy initially told police that he couldn’t recall who was driving.
Louis Smith, one of two deputy sheriffs who were on the scene, said it appeared as thought the vehicle was speeding and skidded off the highway. A partly filled bottle of alcohol was found in the car and he detected evidence of drinking.
Deputy Smith and Deputy Shannon were quick to response because they had been patrolling the neighborhood and heard the crash before they saw it.
As reported in the Kansas City (MO) Times, on May 1, 1944, police traced the ownership of the Oldsmobile and discovered it belonged to neither man. It was registered to an insurance company.
Louis Allen admitted they had ‘borrowed’ the car from the garage Paul Terry was working at. They filled it with 16 gallons of gas (‘without benefit of rationing coupons,’ it was noted) and went for a late night ride. Allen also confessed that it was he who was driving the car when it crashed.
Both Allen and Terry had served time in prison for car theft.
On May 5, 1944, a coroner’s jury ruled Paul Terry’s death had been an accident, Leroy Allen was not to be held responsible for his friend’s death.
There was no follow-up reporting on whether or not Louis Allen would be charged in connection to the theft of the car or the damage incurred in the accident.
Back to the Countess Sonia’s caper and it’s participants –
There is a small notation under Leo Gordon’s name in the San Quentin prison records indicating a 30 days stay at Rikers Island in 1939 for, I believe, violating “Park Rules.” Leo would have been 17-years-old at the time. It’s kind of scary to think that a 17-year-old could be sent to Rikers for something as innocuous as perhaps sleeping in the park.
Under questioning by the LAPD, Allman admitted to seven robberies, including two at the Carthay Circle theater, one at the King’s Tropical Inn and the attempted robbery of Countess Sonia’s Cafe.
Captain Donohoe’s suspicions were confirmed.
The gun which had been used to shoot Jesse Stillinger was recovered from Ballona Creek, right where Atherton told police he had dumped it.
Allman and Atherton were both charged with “assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill” and “armed robbery.” Bail was set at $10,000.
On December 7, 1943, both men entered a plea of “not guilty.”
Judge Charles W. Fricke lowered Allman’s bail to $5,000 after Allman’s lawyer, Morris Lavine, successfully argued that his client was a responsible individual.
Atherton’s bail stayed the same.
Despite this victory by Allman’s lawyer, both men were returned to the county jail.
Their joint trial, scheduled for January 21, 1944, was delayed due to one of the defense lawyers being ill.
On March 4, 1944, Gerald Atherton changed his plea to “guilty of two counts of Robbery in the 1st degree.”
Lovell Allman opted to try his luck with a jury. At the conclusion of his three day trial, Allman was found guilty of Robbery in the 1st degree, 2 counts of 1st degree Burglary and Assault With A Deadly Weapon with intent to murder.
Judge Charles W. Fricke sentenced each man to terms ranging from 5 years to life.
Leo Gordon’s trial was scheduled for March 27, 1944. He plead guilty to 2 counts of 1st degree Robbery. Leo also received a sentence of 5 years to life.
All three were sent to San Quentin Prison. Allman and Atherton on March 25, 1944; Leo Gordon on May 2, 1944.
|Lovell Laverne Allman|
|Gerald Charles Atherton|
|Leo Vincent Gordon|
Lovell Allman was paroled on November 21, 1947.
Leo Gordon was paroled on December 2, 1947.
Gerald Atherton’s parole date is a little trickier to decipher.
One San Quentin record book lists his parole date as February 28, 1948. Yet another ledger lists two different dates – December 19, 1951 and March 6, 1959.
Perhaps Atherton continually violated the terms of his parole and was routinely returned to prison? The inmate number is the same for both entries (#71370) so there’s no doubt that it’s the same individual.
Gerald Atherton continued to run afoul of the law after being released from San Quentin but he did also have a moment of redemption in 1960.
On August 18, 1960, Atherton was locked up in Oregon’s Rocky Butte jail, awaiting trial on robbery charge, when an aborted jail break turned into a violent riot.
|Rocky Butte Jail|
Oregon prison guard James C. Mastne, aged 39, was escorting some inmates to supper when he was jumped by four men armed with homemade knives.
Mastne was beaten, kicked and locked in another cell block after being forced to hand over a gate key. Unbeknownst to the inmates, that key would get them no further than the end of the cell block.
Fortunately for the guard, he was tossed into a cell block with inmates who had no interest in the riot.
When four of the fifteen men who were attempting to escape – Elmer Merrill (29), Darwin I. Wilson (22), Larry G. Glenn (24) and James H. Bello (33) – realized they were stuck, they returned to have another go at Mastne.
Eight men, including Gerald Atherton, protected Mastne from the rioters.
The uprising, which lasted less than an hour, left one guard injured and one inmate, Edward Arnold Paquin (24-years-old), had been shot in the abdomen as he rushed towards guard Carl Dentler.
|The Capitol Journal, 8-19-1960|
Paquin, who was awaiting trial on a charge of arson, survived.
Within a week, charges related to the rioting were dropped for all of the men but, like Atherton, they all still had to stand trial for the crimes that brought them to prison in the first place.
Elmer Merrill and Darwin I. Wilson both were convicted of armed robbery.
Larry G. Glenn pleaded guilty to a charge of burglary and was sentenced to 4 years in the Oregon State Penitentiary.
The fourth rioter, James H. Bello, was sentenced to 1 year in the Oregon State Penitentiary on a larceny charge.
Before his trial, Bello had requested that he be moved from solitary confinement and he asked for a restraining order against jail superintendent Jack Matthews.
Bello alleged that the inmates had endured vengeful acts of physical abuse during and after the riot. Naturally, Superintendent Matthews denied these claims and testified under oath that force was used only when it was needed to subdue prisoners who were attacking the guards.
“Some of those boys got roughed up,” Matthews conceded. “One of the fellows was knocked out twice. You take men like this (he said while pointing at Bello), they attack you; you got to defend yourself.”
Paquin, the inmate who had been shot during quelling of the riot, would later be found guilty of setting fire to a Portland apartment building, The Wentworth on S.W. 12th Avenue, which he and his wife managed. The fire caused $15,000 worth of damage; all of the thirty-five occupants fled into the street and escaped unharmed.
On September 20, 1960, Leo Gordon’s former cohort, Gerald C. Atherton pleaded guilty to a charge of robbing a tavern the previous spring and he received a sentence of 10 years in the Oregon State Penitentiary.
Newspapers reflected the public perception that the penalty Atherton received was a little harsh; it was expected that Atherton might catch a break after a deputy district attorney and several sheriff’s officers testified on his behalf before Judge Charles Redding.
The following day, Judge Redding reduced, by one year, the sentence he himself had imposed upon Atherton. The judge explained his change of heart by saying, “It was a highly commendable thing he did …. and I decided he deserved a ray of hope.”
Gerald C. Atherton, Jr. died on February 28, 1978. He was 60-years-old. He’s buried in Lincoln Memorial Park in Portland, Oregon.
|photo by Nathan Haines|
LaVerne Allman seems to have learned his lesson as a result of his sole prison stint. That is to say, I can’t find any
evidence of him being on the wrong side of the law again. Although, he was in and
out of divorce court a few times.
Lovell died on
October 19, 1989. He was 73 years old. He’s buried in Forest Lawn
Memorial Park in Los Angeles. There is no photo of a headstone for Lovell on findagrave.
|Lovell tending bar, undate photo|
Compared to his former cohorts, Leo V. Gordon’s post-prison years were certainly more of a success story.
|Mickey Rooney & Leo Gordon in “Baby Face Nelson” (1957)|
Leo was paroled in December 1947 and released into the custody of his father Leo T. Gordon and stepmother Hazel in Floral Park, NY and he began working in construction.
*Here’s an interesting fact – Leo’s father had been a layout engineer for construction of the Chrysler Building in Manhattan (mid-November 1928 to May 27, 1930).
Leo’s birth mother Anna had not been present in his life since mid-1929.
Anna Qualey had married Leo T. Gordon in March 1922 when she was 19-years-0ld and he was 22. By May 1929, their marriage was well and truly on the rocks.
According to a November 23, 1929 NY Daily News article, it was on May 15, 1929 that private detectives raided an apartment at 327 West 85th Street and found proof of Anna’s extramarital affair and cohabitation with a man identified only as “Mr. Jones.”
This evidence was passed along to Leo T. Gordon and he filed for divorce. Anna’s infidelity made it easy for her husband to be granted custody of their 7-year-old son Leo.
By the time a US Census taker had visited the Gordons’ Brooklyn, NY household on April 7, 1930, the senior Leo was married to his second wife, Hazel. In 1934, Leo’s half-brother Gary was born.
I shared the 1929 newspaper article, with it’s accompanying photo of Anna Gordon, with Leo’s daughter Tara and I will forever be glad I did.
|NY Daily News, 11-23-1929|
I had assumed Tara already knew the story …. about her own grandmother … but the fact that there was a photo compelled me send it to her.
Perhaps it was because I remember how excited I was when I found a photo of my grandmother on the front page of a 1923 edition of the NY Daily News.
Although, in the case of my grandmother, she was a child being handed a cash reward for her fire-fighting father’s heroism not a wife and mother being held responsible for the dissolution of her marriage.
A few days later, Tara posted the article to her Facebook tribute to all things Leo Gordon with the following information:
is the first and only image I’ve ever seen of my grandmother. It’s
from 1929. I keep searching for a resemblance to my father.
didn’t remember his parents ever really being together. Apparently, his
father used to just disappear for days at a time. His young wife got
lonely, had an affair, got caught, and Leo Sr. became the custodial
parent. Sometimes Leo lived with his father and sometimes he was in a
loose foster care situation. He only saw his mother when she made sneak
visits. At age 9 or 10 little Leo’s father remarried and he had a
home. The last time Leo saw his mother he was 18 years old and in
uniform. He tracked her down at a restaurant where she was working.
Instead of being a waitress or cashier, she was a dish washer. He
arranged for his army pay to be sent to her.
After his time in
the army, then 4 years in prison he returned to New York. He tried and
tried but couldn’t find her. In the following years he was in
California working constantly in movies and TV. She had to have seen
him. Everyone else did. He figured she’d write to him, or even call.
Nothing. He wanted to see her. He wanted to help her. That
dishwashing image really stuck with him.
I always wondered if she
died young. He chose to believe she was alive, and had started a new
(hopefully better) life. He dearly loved her.
did some digging for me and found a woman who seemed to be her had
lived well into her eighties. What could have been the story?
It’s nice to finally see her.
The 1940 US Census shows 17-year-old Leo still living with his family and working for the C.C.C. (Civilian Conservation Corps.).
Leo V. Gordon enlisted in the Army on February 3, 1941 in NYC. Records indicate he was to serve in either the “Coast Artillery Corp” or the “Mine Planter Service.”
According to Leo’s obituary, “‘he couldn’t take the rules’ and was honorably discharged after about two years.”
This timeline is supported by the fact that when Leo registered for the draft on February 24, 1943, he was living at the YMCA on North Hudson Avenue in Hollywood. By November of that same year, he was shot and arrested.
haven’t been able to positively confirm or disprove some online reports
which claim Leo’s time in the military ended with a dishonorable
discharge but his military career was comparatively brief. If anything, Leo
may have received an “Other Than Honorable Discharge.”
I have requested Leo’s personnel record via the Standard Form 180, just out of curiosity. Whether or not anything still exists from Leo’s personnel file was a concern.
If you’ve read my previous blog on Walter Blattert, you may recall my mentioning the July 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center which destroyed millions of other document.
If anything concerning Leo’s military career revealed as a result of my request, I’ll come back and update this entry. So far I’ve not had a response of any kind and I can’t see a reason to delay uploading this story, as it currently stands.
Leo’s adult life took a change for the better when he used the G.I. Bill to fund acting classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. (I question whether Leo would have been eligible for GI Bill benefits if he was dishonorably discharged. This alone may disprove the assertion that his discharge was of a “dishonorable” nature.)
According to Leo’s daughter Tara, “He thought it (acting classes) would be a good way to meet girls.”
And he was right – for it was there Leo met his future wife, Lynn Cartwright.
To quote Little Edie Beale, “Romance was inevitable.”
Doralyn Cartwright was born in McAlester, Oklahoma on February 27, 1927.
That same year her father, Wilburn Cartwright, began serving as a congressman for the state of Oklahoma; a job he held until 1943.
According to Wilburn’s biography on the Oklahoma Historical Society website:
In 1942 Cartwright lost the Democratic primary to Paul Stewart, and when Cartwright left Congress, the United States was fighting World War II. He immediately joined the U.S. Army, serving as a major in the Allied Military Government in Africa and Italy from 1943 until injured in combat. He returned to the United States in 1945 and became an instructor at Fort Custer, near Battle Creek, Michigan. He was employed with the Veterans Administration at Muskogee, Oklahoma, in 1945–46.
In 1946, Wilburn Cartwright was elected to serve as Oklahoma’s Secretary of State (1947-1951). Following that, Wilburn served 3 years as state auditor (1951-1954). After resigning from that position, Wilburn was appointed, by then Governor Johnston Murray, to the serve on the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.
As the eldest daughter of such a prominent Oklahoma resident, the state’s newspapers proudly reported on all of Doralyn’s achievements, beginning with her winning a beautiful baby contest at the 1929 state fair. Although, since this was competition also included a boys division, the titles were “Most Perfect Physical Specimen.” The entrants were between 24 and 36 months. Doralyn was then 31 months old and her stage career had just begun.
Wilburn’s profession afforded his wife, Carrie, and their two children, Doralyn and Wilburta, the opportunity to travel extensively, internationally as well as nationally.
Lynn Cartwright’s upbringing and background seems so much different from that of her future husband. Archived Oklahoma newspapers reveal Doralyn’s many accomplishments.
On April 16, 1938, both Doralyn and Wilburta performed in the annual Children’s Party of the Congressional Club. This event was broadcast over the Red Network (*) of the National Broadcast Company. Doralyn was 11 years old, her sister Wilburta was one month shy of her 10th birthday. Also on the program was 14-year-old Miss Margaret Truman.
*Quick note – NBC’s “Red Network” had nothing to do with Communism. According to a 2009 history of NBC by Time Magazine:
The National Broadcast Company originally had two separate networks, both focused primarily on the East Coast: the Red Network, which broadcast entertainment and music, and the Blue Network, which carried news. In 1927 the West Coast got its own version of the Red and Blue with the creation of the Orange and Gold networks, which largely showed the same programs.
During the following decade, Doralyn continued to hone her craft in amateur theatrical productions like “Anne of Green Gables,” “Little Women” and “Blithe Spirit.”
In April of 1944, while Leo was in Los Angeles, recovering from his gunshot wound and awaiting trial, Doralyn was winning accolades throughout Oklahoma for her dramatic readings and oral poetry interpretation.
In 1946, Lynn, then a first year student at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri was selected to play Valentine (the leading male role) in Shakespeare’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona” and the role of Mr. Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice.” This casting would seem daring if not for the fact that Stephens was a private women’s college.
In March 1947, during Leo’s third year in prison, Doralyn, now a senior drama student at Stephens College and an Omega Psi sorority sister, played the lead role in the school’s production of “Lady Precious Stream” and she was named “girl-of-the-month.”
In September 1947, three months before Leo was released from San Quentin, Doralyn and her father appeared together at a Waukomis (Oklahoma) Lions Club meeting. Wilburn delivered a speech on “Government” and Doralyn favored the audience with two dramatic readings.
In June of 1949, Doralyn was hired as the female lead in the stage play “Strange Bedfellows” and Oklahoma newspapers announced that she signed her first contract as a professional actress.
There was considerably less press coverage … anywhere …. for fellow “Strange Bedfellows” cast member Leo Gordon.
|Wilburn & Lynn|
If the scandalous failure of his parents’ marriage gave Leo any misgivings, it isn’t evident in how quickly he proposed to Lynn. They were married on February 14, 1950. Their only child, Tara, was born in September 1952.
I’m not sure what Lynn’s parents thought of the courtship initially but, once wed, Leo’s name appeared favorably alongside or even ahead of Lynn’s in a variety of Oklahoma papers.
Not surprisingly, their lengthy wedding announcement in the February 24, 1950 Durant Daily Democrat makes no mention of Leo’s criminal records, opting to focus instead on Leo’s military service and his burgeoning acting career.
|Lynn as Geena|
The name Lynn Cartwright might not be instantly familiar but what if I told you that Lynn played the older version of Geena Davis’s character, Dottie Hinson, in 1992’s “A League of Their Own?”
Despite working as a professional actress on stage and screen since 1949, this role, in what was to be her final film appearance, remains the one most closely associated with Lynn Cartwright.
Shortly after their wedding, Leo had an opportunity to join the cast of “Mister Roberts” for it’s London run (July 19, 1950 to January 20, 1951) but because his prison discharge date wasn’t until June 2, 1951, Leo would need permission from his parole officer. This was no easy task but he managed it.
From September 28, 1951 to April 26, 1952, Leo was part of a touring company for “Darkness at Noon” starring Edward G. Robinson. In that play, Robinson’s character is an old Bolshevik who is arrested, imprisoned and accused of treason.
Leo played the part of “Gletkin” – a brutal guard who interrogates and bullies Edward G. Robinson throughout the play. He was very convincing.
|on stage in “Darkness at Noon”|
Two significant things happened as a result of that job.
-Leo was spotted by a Hollywood agent when the play was performed in Los Angeles (February 1952), which led to a part in the movie “City of Bad Men.”
-Leo got in trouble with the law … again (April 1952).
Fortunately, he was no longer on parole or Leo might have been right back in prison. An arrest for assault was certainly a violation the terms or his release.
The incident I’m referring to happened around 2 AM on April 17, 1952 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where “Darkness at Noon” was enjoying a four day run at the (now demolished) Davidson Theatre located at 625 N. 3rd Street.
Boxing fans will know April 16, 1952 as the day Sugar Ray Robinson knocked out Rocky Graziano before a sell-out crowd at Chicago’s Stadium.
Because the bout was televised live but blacked out in Chicago, five fight fans from Chicago, including Richard N. Williams, made their way to Milwaukee to watch the fight at a bar. That’s about a 2 hour car ride.
Perhaps keyed up from the seeing the Championship bout and perhaps fueled by alcohol, 24-year-old Richard Williams made a poor decision upon leaving the bar. He and his friends heckled a stranger – that man was 29-year-old Leo Gordon and he wasn’t in the mood.
“It was not what he said that bothered me,” explained Leo. “It was the way he said it.”
Richard Williams suffered a skull fracture and was listed in critical condition. His companion, Edward Schroeder, a 26-year-old off-duty policeman
from Evanston, Illinois, was only slightly hurt. The other three men are not named in any of the
newspaper reports so we can assume they weren’t arrested or hospitalized.
The Davidson Theatre was a quick three minute walk from the corner of N. 5th Street and W. Wisconsin Avenue, where the slugfest took place. I’m not sure which of the city’s bars the five men were at prior to their encounter with Leo.
Leo was arrested on the spot and D.A.William McCauley warned him, “The man you hit may die. If he does,
you’ll be charged with manslaughter.”
pleaded not guilty to assault and battery. Edward G. Robinson
posted his $2,500 bail. In the next evening’s performance at The
Davidson, Gordon’s own bruises were covered by extra stage makeup.
Leo’s very intense, very convincing performance as a brutal guard in the play skewed the way the assault was reported in newspapers. Headlines such as “Carried Role Too Far and Beats Up Man” and “Plays Cruel Role in Real Life” greeted readers in the days following the assault.
Williams was in a coma for 3 weeks at County Emergency Hospital. When he regained consciousness, he sued Leo for $50,000.
Supposedly there was some confusion on Leo’s part as to when the trial was to take place so, when he missed his court date, a judge found in favor of the plaintiff for $25,000.
Leo filed an appeal, asking for a new trial. This was granted on May 10, 1955 and the judgement was set aside. Leo paid $271 for legal expenses incurred by Williams.
Leo’s second trial lasted 6 days and on May 9, 1956, a jury of eight women and four men found Leo Gordon not guilty. Jury foreman, 58-year-old Walter Kuptz, explained they felt it was a case of five against one.
Naturally, with any fight, there’s more than one side to this story.
Early newspaper reports claim Leo’s role as a bully carried over into real life and that his attack on the group of men was unprovoked. Even explanations attributed to Leo in the various newspaper accounts make it seem as though he simply didn’t like the way they looked at him and he didn’t appreciated the insults hurled at him.
I was fortunate enough to find online two varying opinions of what happened that night from the daughter of Leo Gordon and one of the sons of Richard Williams. Neither of them witnessed the fight but naturally, they each have a different take on who’s responsible. Fair enough.
Leo’s daughter describes the street fight in an August 7, 2018 Facebook post as her dad being attacked by 5 men and him successfully fighting them off.
Richard’s son clearly sees Leo as the aggressor and the villain.
The one fact that’s not in dispute is that Leo absolutely got the better of Richard Norman Williams.
One of Richard Williams’s sons writes a blog called “Who Am Us Anyway?” In his blog posts, the author will often reference his father’s love of boxing, as a sport, and he’ll juxtapose that passion with the terrible 1952 beat down that his father suffered at the hands of Leo Gordon.
This is a March 20, 2009 post entitled “And he carries the reminders“:
Of every glove that layed him down
My old man, who died just last June, did a fair amount of amateur
boxing, but when he was in his mid-20s he was sucker punched and stomped
and had his head slammed repeatedly against the sidewalk.
Long story short, after coming out of a 6-week coma, he had a seemingly
miraculous recovery & met my mom, raised a family, and all that. I
flash forward to his first big stroke some 10 years ago, & I’m
looking at the MRI results with his doctor, and the doc points out to me
the damage from the stroke – a little white area — and then with a
wave of his hand dismisses this other, much more massive cloud on his
brain scan as a “pre-existing injury.”
I said “Pre-existing? You mean, all these years, my old man’s been
cruising on half a brain?” And the doc said, “yep – just about.”
It was news to me.
So later after the funeral I got to quizzing my aunts & uncles about
what my dad was like as a kid before he got hurt & my aunt (his
sister) says: “It’s really a good thing you didn’t know him before the
injury. You wouldn’t have liked all his personality changes.”
Apparently he used to be a lot of fun and kind – and, even stranger news
for anyone like me who only knew him after his injury, he used to be a
huge jazz fan. Went to the clubs all the freaking time – Dizzy
Gillespie, Satchmo, that kind of thing. When he died he still had a
small treasure trove of old jazz records that he had just quit listening
In a January 17, 2010 post entitled “Ouch (that’ll leave a mark)” Williams’ son shared the following:
I came across and scanned the (very initial) surgeon’s bill that was
compiled in the immediate wake of a beating my old man suffered at the
corner of Milwaukee’s North 5th Street and West Wisconsin Avenue at 2
a.m. on April 17, 1952. It reads, in, as they say, pertinent part:
“Neurological Surgery (five craniotomy openings in skull
with drainage of right subdural hematoma), multiple lumbar punctures
“My old man was 27 years old and weighed 145 pounds. He had an unbeaten
record boxing for his Army regiment and, unfortunately for him, was
afraid of no one. (Note No. 1: Is 27 a dangerous age or what? Note No.
2: I think I can demonstrate in this book that successful boxers are in
fact different than you & me).
The guy who laid my old man out, killed half his brain & put him in a coma for 2 weeks weighed 210 pounds.”
Leo Gordon is never identified as the assailant in these posts but the author gave several clues as to who he was and this sparked a brief guessing game by his readers.
Seemingly obsessed with Leo’s assault on his father, and I can’t say I blame him, there was this “But what can a poor boy do” post on Jan 28, 2010 which contained several video links:
has no shortage of Leo Gordon fighting scenes. He’s got a million of
’em in the movies that began shortly after he either sucker punched and
then beat my old man (according to my dad’s friends) or defended himself after my dad picked a fight with him (according to Gordon and the jury).
One of the things I’ve been researching is the whole science of a
different kind of fight: the street fight — the strange business of
complete strangers (usually men, but not always) suddenly finding
themselves fighting for their lives over matters of respect (as opposed
to money or turf or women, which fights have a different look).
I personally winced at the bang the head against the table trick, as
that is too close for comfort to the old “pound your opponent’s head
against the sidewalk trick,” which is the technique Gordon allegedly
used to kill a big chunk of my dad’s grey matter.
On Feb 22, 2010, Williams’ son posted this under the heading “A man hears what he wants to hear & disregards the rest”:
At the same time my old man started boxing in the Army but — luckily
for dad — in a different weight class, Rocky Marciano was gaining major
Army boxing fame and ultimately winning the 1946 amateur armed forces
All his life Dad was a Marciano fan, as most ex-Army boxers were, and he
was a boxing fan in general. In fact, it was boxing that brought him to
Milwaukee on April 17, 1952, and finally to the corner of N. 5th St. & W. Wisconsin Ave.
When I knew my dad, he always — but always — carried himself like he was still a boxer, and maybe he was.
Being in a coma & all, he would’ve missed Marciano’s second-round
knockout of Gino Buonvino (4/21/52) and his third-round knockout of
Bernie Reynolds (5/12/52). But he was back up in time to watch all of
Rocky’s 13 rounds with Jersey Joe Walcott.
Richard Williams died at the age of 80 on June 22, 2008. The following is from his June 25, 2008 obituary:
A tremendous jazz fan, Richard famously once shared a bottle of whiskey
with Louis Armstrong in the alley after an early Chicago club gig. He
had rhythm, going undefeated while representing his regiment in numerous
Army boxing tournaments and remaining an enthusiastic dancer so long as
he could walk. He was athletic, the captain of his basketball team at
Taft High School in Norwood Park and later of his wrestling team at
Northwestern University, which he attended thanks to an academic
scholarship and the G.I. Bill. He graduated from Northwestern with a
B.S. in chemical engineering and was a member of the Phi Gamma Delta
Fraternity. He retired from Norton Company in 1988 after 28 years of
service. Richard overcame extreme adversity in his life, including a
vicious street beating in his 20’s that put him in a 3-week coma and
caused doctors to express astonishment at his will to live and eventual
recovery. He loved his family and treasured his friends.
Richard is survived by his wife, Charlene, nee’ Pollard,
whom he married Oct. 24, 1954, in St. Louis, MO; his children, Charles
(Mary) Williams of Lakeville, MN and Kirk (Jean) Williams of Ponte
Vedra, FL; his grandchildren, Rachel, Eric, David and John Williams,
Jessica (Brock) O’Shell, Shaina (Nikolas) Harding and Joyce Huang; his
great-grandchildren, Ashton and Grace O’Shell; his sister, Jean (Robert)
Oldenburg; and many nieces and nephews.
Leo Gordon had another later arrest which I might have missed if it were not for his daughter’s excellent FB page which pays tribute to both of her parents.
Tara Gordon often shares this mugshot of her father on her “Leo Gordon” FB page and explains:
was arrested for his participation in a fight outside a Sunset Strip
bar. In the ’70’s, when he was writing ADAM 12’s, some of his cop
friends dug up this mug shot, blew it up, and presented it to him.”
Leo’s violent criminal past never really
hurt his career. His IMDb page lists 197 acting credits and 34 screenwriting credits.
Leo’s first Imdb credit as a writer was for a 1956 episode of the TV western “Cheyenne.”
Leo’s tough guy image served him well throughout his career. “Thank God for
typecasting” Leo said in 1997 as he received his Golden Boot award for
his western screen work.
Don Seigel who directed Leo in the film “Riot in Cell Block 11” (1957) said “Leo Gordon was the scariest man I have ever met.”
|Neville Brand & Leo Gordon – “Riot in Cell Block 11”|
Leo’s personal experience with prisons, fights, gunshot wounds, etc. no doubt aided him in his chosen profession.
Here’s an oft repeated anecdote about Leo Gordon:
In “Hondo” with John Wayne in 1953, *spoiler alert* Wayne’s character shoots and kills Leo Gordon. During filming Leo pitched forward and fell to the ground.
Wayne hollered, “Cut! Cut!” and asked Leo, “What was that? Don’t you know when you get hit with a slug you go flying backwards.”
Leo pulled up his shirt to
show Wayne where he’d really been shot in the gut. “Yeah? I caught two in the gut and I fell forward.”
Wayne may have respected Leo’s insider opinion but if you watch the film, Leo does not fall forward. John Wayne explained, “Well, it looks better for the camera.”
Leo’s wife Lynn has far fewer TV and movie entries on Imdb (just 34) but she had worked with the Group Repertory Theater in Los Angeles for 15 years.
Often, and this must have been wonderful when it happened, Leo and Lynn would work together on something.
They costarred together in Lynn’s first feature film, a 1957 western called “Black Patch.”
This was also Leo Gordon’s first non-television screenwriter credit and it has a great tagline – “They took his eye, they stole his woman and they dirtied his name!”
You can also see Lynn alongside Jack Nicholson,who was making his film debut, in “The Cry Baby Killer” (1958), penned by Leo Gordon and produced by Roger Corman.
Lynn also appears in one of my favorites, a classic Roger Corman movie from 1959 called “The Wasp Woman,” which was written by Leo Gordon.
Leo also wrote the screenplay for “Attack of the Giant Leeches” (1959).
For the small screen, Leo co-created a crime drama series called “The Case of the Dangerous Robin” (1960) and wrote 21 episodes of “Adam-12.” (from 1971-1975).
Three of those “Adam-12” episodes featured appearances by Lynn Cartwright.
If you’re interested in seeing them when they’re aired in syndication, here are the specifics: “Million Dollar Bluff” (S4, Ep – a chance to see Leo, Lynn and Lindsay Wagner.), “Hot Spell” (S5, Ep 11 – with Leo and Lynn) and “Gus Corbin (S7, Ep 21).
It was mid-1974 when Leo Gordon became entangled in the real life, high-profile robbery of Howard Hughes’ Romaine Street offices, located in Hollywood. He started off as a sort of accessory after the fact particpant and then became an FBI informant.
The story is bit involved but I’ll try to keep it as brief as possible.
My chief sources for this information is the 1979 book “‘Empire – The Life, Legend and Madness of Howard Hughes” by Donald L Barlett and “Citizen Hughes” by Michael Drosnin, published in 1985. There are later editions of both books.
I took the time to cross-check assertions made in the books with various newspaper accounts. The following is a combination of what I learned independently and what Barlett and Drosnin wrote.
Details of Leo’s involvement with this caper come mostly from his testimony before a Grand Jury.
Shortly before 1 AM on June 5, 1974, a team of four men forced their way into Howard Hughes’s Summa Corporation offices, a two story building located on Romaine Street in Hollywood.
The security guard on duty, 39-year-old father of six children, Michael Davis had just completed his rounds outside of the building and was letting himself back inside when two men suddenly appeared. Davis was pushed inside from behind then blindfolded; his mouth and hands were taped.
The men dragged Davis along with them as they worked their way through the building. They visited a total of five rooms – four offices and a conference room.
The burglars spent hours in the building.
Acetylene torches were used to gain entry into several safes. They moved from one office to another, taking and rejecting file folders and papers. They also helped themselves to things like bundles of cash, expensive wristwatches, two 19th century Wedgewood vases, a collection of South American butterflies in a silver backing and a rare Mongolian bowl.
The amount of money stolen is unclear. Various newspaper accounts of the burglary place the sum as low as $60,000 and as high as $250,000.
The guard would later tell police that the burglars seemed to know exactly what they were looking for rather than grabbing things randomly. Davis reported that he could hear them saying “Looky here, this is it,” “Take this” and “Don’t take this.”
One other Summa employee was on duty that night – Harry F. Watson. He was in another part of the building, in the Operations center, manning the phones. A fact that was perhaps known to the burglars because Watson’s office, located at the west end of the second floor, was avoided at all costs.
Having found what they were looking for (and more) the men escorted Davis to a warehouse area, bound his ankles and told him to stay put. While shoving him into the room, the blindfold slipped from Davis’ eyes but the room was very dark and he was unable to see anything of the burglars’ faces.
After “what I think was a half hour,” Davis managed to stand up, hobble out into the hallway, into an office and phone Operations for help.
Harry Watson logged the call in at 4:40 AM.
This was the third break-in of an office building belonging to Howard Hughes in the last 5 months.
On June 17, 1974, twelve days after the burglary, a man identifying himself as ‘Chester Brooks’ phoned the Summa Corporation and began negotiating for the return of the stolen property – specifically a sizable portion of pilfered confidential documents.
Proof of Chester’s claim to possessing the sensitive materials came in the form of a single document, left at a specified location. The LAPD bomb squad retrieved the envelope left by ‘Chester Brooks.’
A single sheet document, not containing any sensitive information, was proven to have been typed on one of Summa’s Romaine Street typewriters.
Three days later, June 20th, ‘Chester Brooks’ named his price and it was one million dollars, to be delivered in two payments of $500,000. A series of instructions were given, including Summa placing an ad in the Los Angeles Times reading “Apex okay” and a phone number printed backwards.
The police had been waiting since June 5th (12 days) for someone to make contact. In fact, they had bugged the office phones in anticipation of this moment. As a result, the June 20th phone call with Miss Nadine Henley had been recorded for posterity.
Miss Nadine Henley, a senior VP and private secretary to Howard Hughes, had spent decades in Hughes’ employ and hers was one of the offices burgled.
Miss Henley listened carefully to the instructions given by ‘Chester Brooks’ and explained that such a sum of money wasn’t easily attained and that she would “need a little time to get in touch with the man.” Hughes had already retreated into an increasingly bizarre private world.
“Well, that’s your responsibility,” Brooks countered. “We won’t call but one more time. Thank you very much.”
When ‘Brooks’ called the following day, Miss Henley was in a meeting and unavailable to take his call. That put an end to negotiations and ‘Brooks’ never did call again.
Police believed the burglary had been an inside job and they planned to polygraph seventeen Summa employees.
|Davis in 1975|
Only the guard, Michael Davis, refused to take the polygraph.
Davis explained that he doubted the results of a polygraph test could tell if someone was being truthful. Summa executives told Davis that if he didn’t submit to the polygraph he would lose his job and that’s exactly what happened. Thus ending his three years of employment with the Summa Corporation.
No worries though, Davis still had his day time job to fall back on – he was a car salesman at Crossroads Chevrolet in North Hollywood.
Of the sixteen employees who did submit to polygraph testing, one failed it. That was Vincent Kelley, director of internal security for Summa in Los Angeles. Despite the failure, he retained his job.
Weeks after the burglary, Summa executives contacted the FBI to report their belief that some of the stolen documents might be related to national security. Specifically a single handwritten memo outlining Summa’s involvement with the CIA on a top secret ‘mining operation.’
While not 100 percent certain that the memo had actually been stolen, nobody had seen the memo recently and they knew that it had been, at times, stored in one the burglarized safes.
Government agents were sent to Los Angeles and they quickly made it known around town that they were willing to pay $1 million for the documents, even if Summa wouldn’t.
Enter Donald Ray Woolbright,
|St. Louis Dispatch|
a 33-year-old used car salesman and co-owner of a jewelry store who had a shady criminal past.
Woolbright had moved to Los Angeles in 1971. Before leaving St. Louis, Woolbright had racked up twenty-six arrests for a variety of offenses including burglary, fencing, assault, carrying a concealed weapon and counterfeiting.
When the St. Louis police department learned that Woolbright was heading to Los Angeles, they breathed a sigh of relief then informed the LAPD of his imminent arrival. They described Woolbright as a “con-man, a burglar and a fence.”
According to “Empire” author Donald L. Bartlett, the friendship between Woolbright and Leo Gordon began when Leo bought a car from Woolbright’s business. Leo later recommended the dealership to two of his friends.
Interestingly, Woolbright’s dealership was located directly across from Crossroads Chevrolet where Michael Davis worked.
According to Leo, a month or so after the well-publicized burglary, Woolbright contacted him, seeking advice.
The following two paragraphs are from a March 27, 1975 article in the Tampa Times:
“Gordon told authorities he first met Woolbright in January 1974 at the jewelry shop of a former St. Louis bail bondswoman, Carol Yeskey. Over the next six or seven months, Gordon said, he saw Woolbright several times.
“In August 1974, Woolbright called Gordon and told him, ‘I have some stuff that is dynamite, and I want to talk to a writer about what to do.’
Leo invited Woolbright over to his house in the San Fernando Valley.
As Leo later recalled, Woolbright seemed agitated during his visit that day. Eventually, Woolbridge unburdened himself.
“What would you say if I told you I had two boxes of Howard Hughes’s personal documents?” Woolbright asked.
“Well, where did they come from?” Leo asked.
When Woolbright hesitated, Leo had his answer.
“Well, there’s only one place it could have come from and that’s the burglary that happened about a month and a half ago,” Leo noted.
Woolbright nodded and launched into his tale.
Woolbright had apparently been brought into this caper by someone from his past.
A man from St. Louis named ‘Bennie,’ who knew of Woolbright’s former criminal career, phoned him one evening and offered him $15,000 to act as a go-between or “bag man” during an exchange of money for documents.
Woolbright vehemently denied any involvement in the actual burglary. According to him, four men were brought in from St. Louis specifically to commit the crime and that “someone in the know” within the Hughes Organization helped the burglars.
Following the break-in, Woolbright told Leo, all of the stolen documents were taken to Las Vegas. Whoever it was that commissioned the job, removed whatever papers they wanted from the lot and returned the rest to the thieves.
Woolbright seemed to have insider knowledge of the burglary. He told Leo about other items that were taken the night – the butterfly collection, watches, etc.
Woolbright could see there was money to be made with the remaining documents. He was turning to Leo for advice.
As Leo later explained it, “I’m a writer … and it was his idea that in view of the (Clifford) Irving thing (*) and everything else, that someone would pay handsomely for these documents because they are all handwritten by Mr. Hughes.”
(* A reference to the publicity surrounding Clifford Irving’s bogus 1971 Hughes autobiography.)
Leo and Woolbright visited several of Leo’s contacts who they thought might be able to place a value on the documents and broker a deal.
It was West Los Angeles attorney Maynard Davis who offered to contact one of Howard Hughes’ lawyers, Greg Bautzer, providing he could be shown some proof that they actually possessed what they were selling.
Two days later, the men reappeared with a memo written by Howard Hughes relating to underground nuclear test conducting in Nevada. Davis made the call.
Bautzer said he was interested in purchasing the papers but only if he could personally meet with the burglars. Woolbright flatly refused.
Maynard Davis offered Leo and Woolbright the following thought, “I have a gut feeling and you guys make up your own mind. If I were you, I would drop it. You are playing with dynamite.”
Over coffee, Leo and Woolbright decided that was sound advice and that they were “too lightweight” to handle the sale of stolen documents but Woolbright was despondent. He told Leo that he’d “already spent some of the money.”
Leo, claiming that he was troubled by his interaction with Woolbright in this scheme and his potential involvement in a crime, the now law-abiding citizen shared information about the purloined papers with his longtime friend Frank Hronek, a highly respected intelligence officer in the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.
Hronek met with Leo and played for him the tape recording of ‘Chester Brooks’ speaking on the phone with Nadine Henley. There was no question in Leo’s mind that ‘Chester Brooks’ was Donald Woolbright.
A reluctant Leo Gordon was soon agreeing to help the LAPD and the FBI in a joint sting operation.
Leo consented to secretly record Woolbright’s voice for comparison to that of ‘Chester Brooks.’
In an October 2, 1974 meeting attended by LAPD officers and FBI agents, Leo agreed to cooperate but, according to a CIA internal report, Leo insisted on “total immunity in writing from both the federal and California jurisdictions for himself and Woolbright.”
As another condition, Leo wanted a promise that “Woolbright would not have to testify before any type of judicial proceeding or be required to identify anyone involved in this matter.”
At this same meeting, Leo’s criminal past was brought up in the form of information provided by Lawrence S. Mohr, supervisor of the FBI criminal desk.
According to an internal CIA report regarding the meeting:
“Mr. Mohr advised that Leo V. Gordon had an extensive criminal record …. He recalled that Gordon served 30 days in 1942 in New York; that he had been arrested as a robbery suspect in Los Angeles in 1944; that he had been convicted for robbery and assault with intent to commit murder in 1947, at which time to was sentenced to 11 years at San Quentin with an 11 year probation period to follow. He was arrested for assault and battery in 1952; no disposition was shown in this case. He was questioned about a robbery in L. A. in 1959 (*), again with no disposition shown. His latest arrest was in 1968 for disturbing the peace.”
*I don’t know what robbery the memo is referring to when it states that Leo was questioned by the LAPD in 1959.
The first step was for Leo to reestablish contact with Woolbright and say he’d found a buyer for the stolen documents. Leo did just that. Woolbright was suspicious but he nibbled at the bait.
Left to decide for himself how he would approach Woolbright, Leo overthought things and concocted a story about Robert Mitchum wanting to buy the Hughes papers.
Seeing the look of disbelief and suspicion on Woolbright’s face, Leo finally told Woolbright that the police and feds were on to them but because national security is involved, neither of them would be facing charges if they could recover a particular file from the men who committed the crime.
Woolbright said he’d see what he could do and came back with the news that without seeing money up front, the burglars wouldn’t play ball.
“What would it take?” Leo asked.
“At least five thousand dollars,” Woolbright, who claimed to only have seventeen hundred, said.
“You put in fifteen,” Leo told his friend. “I’ll put in thirty-five. That’s five thousand.”
Leo, took twenty-five $100 bills and two $500 bills from his safe then handed the cash to Woolbright – who quickly disappeared.
Two days later, Leo delivered an additional $410 to Donald Woolbright’s wife Joan at the Woolbright home in Canoga Park, CA.
There would be one additional and final phone call from Donald Woolbright to Leo.
Less than two weeks after being given $3500.00, Woolbright claimed to be on the move and doing the best he could to track down the documents but he indicated that he was starting to run out of money. Leo, joking with Woolbright, said “I hope you’re not buying cars with my money.”
Woolbright wasn’t amused and ended the phone call.
In November 1974, the scheme to buy back the documents collapsed; both the FBI and the CIA had lost interest.
As Leo described the end of his participation in the scheme, “They dropped me like a hot potato. It was really strange. It was like I had the Hope Diamond, and zap, all of a sudden it was glass.”
Leo was not reimbursed by the government for the $3500.00 or the $410.00 because, according to authorities, there was no proof any money had exchanged hands.
In preparation for this blog entry, I listened to the 2017 audio book “The Taking of K-129: How the CIA Used Howard Hughes to Steal a Russian Sub in the Most Daring Covert Operation in History” by Josh Dean.
The running time for the unabridged audio book is 15 hours, 47 minutes. The Romaine Street burglary is covered in a span of 10 minutes and 28 seconds.
Author Josh Dean never implicates Leo Gordon, by name, as a participant in either the burglary or the extortion attempt that followed but, if you’ve done some independent research, it’s clear to the listener or reader who Dean is referring to when he writes:
Two men, claiming to be FBI agents, flew out from headquarters in Washington to meet with the LAPD.
They told detectives working the case that a national security document was among the papers stolen and that, if turned up, they would recognize it and were to forget they’d ever seen it.
These agents, who might not even work for the FBI, speculation later was that they might have been CIA officers posing as federal agents, stayed in Los Angeles and floated the rumor that there was a one million dollar reward for the return of Hughes’s stolen documents.
When two suspects emerged, by stepping forward to offer the documents for sale, the CIA’s involvement intensified. It took a direct role in the investigation – an action in violation of it’s charter, which forbade the agency fromspying on U.S. soil.
Unknown officers from within the agency began working directly with the FBI to set up an elaborate ruse.
They would use an LAPD informant to introduce the alleged thieves to a fake attorney, an undercover FBI agent, who claimed to represent an interested buyer.
The attorney would examine the documents and would be authorized to “negotiate the buy of individual pieces,” if he felt his client would find them useful.
The FBI authorized the release of $100,000 in ‘show money,’ that the agent could use to make a buy if necessary, to bait the thieves and negotiate the return of the most important documents, including the Azorian memo.
The plot unraveled when one of the thieves, a struggling actor and screenwriter, was interviewed by cops and made a series of demands, including total immunity in writing.
When the CIA learned that he had an extensive criminal record, the agency changed its stance and quietly backed away from the case. It also urged that the FBI do the same. Explaining that further tension would be hamrful to national security and that, it seemed, was the end of it.
Dean’s version of events differs slightly from the others that I’ve read. He implicates Leo by insinuating Leo had knowledge of the crime and actively participated in the caper. Dean calls Leo a thief without naming him.
If Leo had actually colluded with Woolbright to sell stolen property, before deciding to work with the police, he could have been charged with that crime but he wasn’t.
In writing his book, did Dean have access to records that were unavailable to either Donald L. Bartlett or Michael Drosnin? Both of those men have published updated version of their books and neither goes so far as to insinuate Leo participated in the theft of the documents.
It was publicly confirmed in March 1975 that some of the highly-sensitive documents stolen from the Romaine Street office, nine months earlier, might potentially reveal an agreement between the CIA and Summa Corp.
For in truth, since 1971, the U.S. government had been covertly paying for the construction of the Glomar Explorer, a massive marine mining vessel. The estimated cost was $350 million.
|The Glomar Explorer|
A vessel the size of the Glomar Explorer, 619 feet long, couldn’t operate unnoticed so the government created a cover story promoting the idea that Howard Hughes and Summa Corp were interested in extracting manganese nodules (rich in iron, nickel, cobalt and other useful metals) that were to be found on the ocean floor.
However, there was no genuine Howard Hughes-funded, underwater mining operation.
The U.S. government was going to attempt to secretly retrieve a sunken Russian nuclear submarine.
Russia’s K129, a Soviet Golf-II Class ballistic missile submarine, was 320 feet long, fifteen years old and had been carrying a crew of ninety-eight. It had gone silent in late February 1968. It’s fate was unknown to the Soviet Navy.
|K-129 – Wikipedia photo|
During the third week of March 1968, the US Navy had noticed increased air and sea activity by the Soviets and believed they were conducting a search and rescue mission.
Using their Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS), Naval Intelligence reviewed archived data and settled on March 8, 1968 as a probable date for the underwater explosion of a Russian submarine.
The Soviets might not have known where their missing submarine was but the US Navy had a pretty good idea of where to look and the CIA wanted it.
The submarine was believed to be resting at a depth of nearly 17,000 feet and be situated 1600 miles northwest of Hawaii. If the mission was successful, the intel this could provide was immeasurable. This was still the time of the Cold War.
It was an audacious and ambitious retrieval plan.
|Project Azorian by Claus Lunau|
This covert mission, known to the CIA as “Project Azorian,” was written about as “Project Jennifer” by members of the press when they broke the story in March 1975.
Not until February 2010 would the CIA officially confirm the project’s existence and it’s mission.
According to the F.A.S. (Federation of Scientists) website:
Glomar Explorer went to sea on June 20, 1974, found the sub, and began to bring a portion of it to the surface. The Soviets watched the “deep-sea miing” operation with interest, but did not attempt to thwart it. An accident during the lifting operation caused the fragile hulk to break apart, resulting in the loss of a critical portion of the submarine, its nuclear missiles and crypto codes. However, according to other accounts, material recovered included three nuclear missiles, two nuclear torpedoes, the ship’s code machine, and various code books.
Also recovered were the bodies of six Soviet sailors.
These men received a burial at sea, on September 4, 1974, complete with prayers for the dead and the playing of the Soviet national anthem. The ceremony was videotaped for posterity and for protection. It wouldn’t hurt to treat the sailors with respect and be able to present evidence of such solemnity to the enemy. In October 1992, a copy of this recording, as well as the Soviet naval flagthat had shrouded the coffins was presented to Russia’s President Boris Yelstin.
The true cause of the explosion aboard the K-129 has never been settled on.
Here’s some information from the Wikipedia page on the tragedy:
The official Soviet Navy hypothesis is that K-129, while operating in snorkel mode, slipped below its operating depth. Such an event, combined with a mechanical failure or improper crew reaction, can cause flooding sufficient to sink the boat.
This account, however, has not been accepted by many, and alternative theories have been advanced to explain the loss of K-129.
Top four theories are:
1. A hydrogen explosion in the batteries while charging.
2. A collision with USS Swordfish.
3. A missile explosion caused by a leaking missile door seal.
4. Intentional or unintentional scuttle by crew due to K-129 violating normal operating procedures and/or departing from authorized areas.
A more in-depth analysis of each theory is available on the Wiki page.
For those interested in conspiracy theories, from the same Wiki page there is this:
In October 1992, Russian President Boris Yelstin posthumously awarded the Medal “For Courage” to 98 sailors who died on K-129. However, as the complement of a diesel-electric Golf-class Russian submarine was about 83, his award acknowledges 15 extra personnel aboard the boat at the time of its sinking. An increase in the sub’s total complement would put a strain on the logistical capabilities of a patrol because it reduces its duration. No explanation for the K-129’s extra submariners has ever been provided by the Russian Navy.
Is it mere coincidence that the day the submarine was found is the same day ‘Chester Brooks’ demanded one million dollars for the return of documents relating to “Project Jennifer”? It probably is just that – a coincidence. The general public did not become aware of this joint venture until March of 1975.
Newspaper reporters had learned of the secret CIA recovery mission the previous month but agreed to withhold the story – until Jack Anderson broke the story during his radio broadcast.
President Ford had no choice but to confirm the existence of “Project Jennifer.” However, the President refused to elaborate because he, like all government officials, had been sworn to secrecy.
In another coincidence, at the same time news of the covert operation went public, the LAPD and district attorney’s office finally decided to bring criminal charges against Donald Ray Woolbright for his part in the Romaine Street burglary.
Both Leo Gordon and his wife Lynn Cartwright were called upon to testify before a secret Grand Jury convened in February 1975.
Also testifying before the Grand Jury was former Summa security guard Michael Davis. Davis repeated his version of events the night of the burglary but withheld crucial information.
On March 18, 1975, Woolbright was indicted in secret and charged with two counts of possession of stolen property and extortion.
Unfortunately, the authorities didn’t know where Woolbright was. A federal warrant was issued, charging Woolbright with “unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.”
In fairness to Woolbright, I have to question if that truly was what he was doing when he sold his Canoga Park, CA home on October 29, 1974 and moved back to St. Louis, MO. The investigation and the indictment had been carried out in secret.
Once it became known to Woolbright that he was sought after, he made arrangements to turn himself in. On March 28, 1975, while still in St. Louis, Donald Woolbright was arraigned and released on $12,500 bond.
Reporters from the Los Angeles Times kept at former Summa Corp security guard Michael Davis, asking for an interview and finally he granted one.
On April 4, 1975, the L.A. Times was able to reveal what they had learned from Davis about fate of the much sought-after secret memo linking the Hughes Organization to the CIA’s “Project Jennifer.”
This what Davis told the reporter:
“After the burglars had gone, and I had been able to get to a phone to call for help, I noticed two pieces of paper on the floor near the door to Kay Glenn’s office. The burglars must have dropped them there.
“One of the papers was just a typewritten note to HRH and the other looked like a check with a lot of zeros on it.
|L.A. Times photo – 4/4/1975|
“My hands were still partially tied together with tape so I had to sort of scoop the papers up and jam them into my pocket. In all the excitement that followed with the arrival of the police and everything, I forgot that I had the documents.
“It was just an absent-minded thing. The next time I noticed them was when I got home and was in the bathroom changing clothes. When I saw what I had, I panicked.
“One document was a memo saying that the CIA wanted to build a ship or something to bring up a Russian sub. I don’t remember all the details, but I recall that it said President Nixon knew about it and that the IRS would look the other way on how the money was being put in.
“The other document was actually a deposit note for $100,000 made payable to Glenn. For several months I kept both the memo and the note in a bedroom drawer.
“When all the publicity began to break on the submarine business about a month ago, I tore up the memo and flushed it down the toilet. Then I took Glenn’s $100,000 note and put it in a friend’s safe.
“Had I any idea that the memo involved something of that magnitude, my whole course of action would have been different.
“I grant that I made a mistake, but as tough as it is for me now, I want to clear everything up.
“My God, if I only would have remembered to give them those documents I stuffed in my pocket, it would have saved me and a whole lot of other people an awful lot of trouble.”
When Davis was asked why he destroyed the submarine memo but not the $100,000 note, he replied:
“I felt that what was on the memo was of no personal value to anyone and that the person who wrote it knew its content.
“But I had the feeling that the note was still of some value to Glenn and in my mind I knew that I would some day get it back to him after things had calmed down and I wouldn’t get into trouble over it.”
After securing the interview and scooping everyone, including the district attorney’s office, the L.A. Times arranged for Michael Davis and his attorney to meet with Deputy District Attorney Stephen Trott and three LAPD detectives.
“Whew, am I glad to get that off my chest,” Davis said after his session with Trott and the detectives. “This whole thing has been a nightmare.”
At the time of his interview with the press, Michael Davis was no longer selling cars, in fact he was unemployed. Additionally, he had been forced to sell his house and was renting a smaller home.
Although indicted in March of 1975, the trial of Donald Woolbright was a long time coming.
The delay was caused partly by the CIA and FBI refusing to turn over information which Woolbright’s defense lawyer Robert Kirschner had subpoenaed.
Kirschner was quoted as saying he requested the documents “to see whether the Hughes Organization orchestrated its own burglary.”
|Tampa Bay Times|
On April 22, 1977, after five days of deliberation, Donald Ray Woolright was found guilty of receiving stolen property but he was acquitted on extortion charges.
The guilty verdict was later overturned because as the jury was deliberating they became hopelessly deadlocked. Rather than declare a mistrial, Superior Judge Earl Riley, ordered them to continue in their deliberations.
A second trial, on the single charge of receiving stolen property, ended in a mistrial on June 6, 1978 when the jury was unable to reach a verdict.
The district attorney’s office opted not to pursue the matter.
Donald Woolbright returned to the life of a car salesman and made quite a success of it.
On April 28, 1965, Woolbright would be named as a co-defendant in a civil $20 million lawsuit filed by former Howard Hughes aide Robert Maheu, following the 1984 publication of “Citizen Hughes” by Michael Drosnin.
Maheu claimed his private letters to Howard Hughes, were used in the writing of Drosnin’s book – letters that had been stolen during the Romaine Street burglary.
The case was dismissed. An appeal of this decision was filed by Maheu but, on May 28, 1988, the order of dismissal was affirmed by a California court of Appeals.
The Romaine Street burglary remains unsolved.
Donald Ray Woolbright died on May 4, 2009. He was 68-years-old.
Because this caper involved Howard Hughes, President Nixon and super secret entities such as the CIA, the FBI, and Russia, there are plenty of conspiracy theories and rabbit holes you can delve into, should you wish.
A second mission to retrieve the rest of the Russian submarine had been planned but it was scrapped when the government couldn’t guarantee the safety of the crew now that Russia was fully aware of what had been happening.
Leo Gordon’s acting and writing career seems unaffected by his involvement in this intrigue.
Leo was an avid reader and reportedly read all the books in San Quentin’s library during his incarceration there.
In 1992 Leo had a book of his own on library shelves – the novel “Powder Keg” which he and Richard Vetterli co-authored.
Leo died at home on December 26, 2000, of heart failure after a brief illness. He was 78-years-old. He and Lynn had been married for 50 years.
Lynn Cartwright’s health began to decline following Leo’s death. She died on January 2, 2004 of dementia-related illnesses following a hip fracture.
Their ashes and a shared memorial are in the Chapel Columbarium of the Hollywood Cemetery in Los Angeles.
|findagrave upload by AJM|
|findagrave upload by anonymous|
Rather than end on a sad note, let’s scoot back to 1943 and check up on some of the individuals present at the failed robbery of the Countess Sonia Cafe.
In the days following the shootout at the Countess Sonia Cafe, F.L. Bohanan was hailed as hero and referred to in newspapers as a retired deputy sheriff. But retired from which sheriff’s department and when did he serve? The facts related to his stint as a deputy are never specified.
There has been some speculation on the Leo Gordon Facebook page that Franklin’s status as “deputy” was merely an honorary one; a badge and title given to friends of the police department.
Well, if you’re in that camp, then certainly a photo of F.L. Bohanan enjoying a day of fishing with two men from the Sheriff’s Department might bolster this idea.
On May 31, 1936, the Los Angeles Times printed such a photo with the heading “Prominent Anglers Enjoy Ocean Sport.”
Included in the photo with F.L. Bohanan are Ralph Walters (chief steward of the L.A. County Jail) and Clem Peoples (Chief Jailer).
Other men in the fishing party were Herman Albers (of the Gilmore Oil Company), James McKean (identified simply in the caption as “of Balboa,” but James McKean was the boat’s skipper).
|F.L. Bohanan, 1934|
Bill Froelich, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and fellow angler, provided readers with an in-depth account of the day’s fishing.
F.L. Bohanan is identified as a “local manufacturer” and, at that point in his life, that’s exactly what he was. I’ll expand on that later, but first –
I discovered that for a brief period of time, in 1922, someone by the name of “F.L. Bohanan” was employed by the Port Huron
Police Department in Michigan as a fingerprints expert.
It seemed unlikely that it was the same F.L. Bohanan but I owed it to myself to pursue this line.
Some biographical information about Franklin’s father, Major Bohanan, which I found in the 811 page tome “Lincoln: The Capital City and Lancaster County, Nebraska, Volume 2” by Andrew J. Sawyer (published in 1916) has swayed me.
Mr. Sawyer provides the reader with the names of Major and Lydia Bohanan’s four children and information about their current (1916) whereabouts. Youngest son Roy is at that time was living in Detroit, Michigan. “Roy” – an abbreviation of Franklin Leroy’s middle name matches the 1900 Census entry for the family.
F.L. Bohanan was born in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1882. He was a veteran of the Spanish American War (serving from 1900 t0 1903).
In 1905, Franklin, then 22-years-old, married Martha Brandt, three years his junior. They were living in Chicago at the time of the 1910 US Census. Franklin was employed as electrician at a car factory.
In 1912, Franklin and Rolland F. Hawley, also an electrician, applied for a US Patent for a heater they had designed. The patent, #1,147,396, was awarded is 1915.
One-third credit for the invention was assigned to Herman F. Getze, Lydia Bohanan’s second husband whom she wed after the August 14, 1900 death of Major Bohanan. Getze was a wealthy man and most likely provided financial support rather than playing an active role in the design of the heater.
When Franklin registered for the draft on September 12, 1918 he was employed as an electrician at Plano Works (a division of the International Harvester Corporation). His permanent place of residence was listed as 11528 Wentworth Avenue, Chicago.
1920 US Census shows Franklin’s wife Martha, still living in Chicago
but with her widowed mother and two of her younger sisters, Clara and
Anna, at 11528 Wentworth Avenue.
Just when F.L. Bohanan relocated to California and if he brought his wife Martha along with him is unclear.
I’ve lost track of Franklin from 1918 to 1933. Unless he was in Michigan ….
As I stated earlier, F.L. Bohanan’s time with the Port Huron Police Department was brief.
Although already working as a fingerprint expert in July of 1922, news of Bohanan being hired jointly by the police department and the sheriff’s office didn’t hit the newspapers until August 24, 1922. Six days later, on August 30, 1922 (a Wednesday), F.L. Bohanan handed in his resignation and it was accepted.
According to Port Huron’s Times Herald:
“Although no definite reason was given for the officer’s sudden resignation, it is intimated that Bohanan ‘had words’ with a superior officer of the police department Tuesday night over reports he made to the office.
The city commission two weeks ago authorized the hiring of the fingerprint expert on condition that he was to receive $67.50 a month from the police department and the same amount from the sheriff’s office.
Although several attempts were made by the officer to obtain sufficient evidence in burglary cases to cause arrests, none of the work of the department thus far proved sufficient to warrant arrests.
Police Chief Hugh E. Stringer said today that no immediate effort would be made to hire another fingerprint expert.”
Admittedly, the position of ‘fingerprint expert,’ when Bohanan was hired, was resolved by the city commission to be “temporary in its character and to continue during the pleasure of the commission” but Bohanan’s resignation caused problems for the police department a month later when he was unable to be located and give evidence at the trial of George Vernier.
George Vernier, proprietor of the Vernier Hotel in Fair Haven, Michigan, was under investigation for having violated the prohibition laws and maintaining gambling devices.
In January 1923, Vernier plead guilty to violating the prohibition law and paid a $1,000 fine. In admitting his guilt, Vernier declared that he had sold liquor “to some of the most prominent men in Port Huron and St. Clair county.”
Twenty years later, at
the time of the Countess Sonia’s shoot-out, 60-year-old F.L. Bohanan was a local Los Angeles businessman. His company, Bohanan Manufacturing Company, made and sold
|Popular Mechanics photo of the Bohanan Mfg. plant, 1934|
“Bohanan & McCoy,” manufacturers of “B&M Fishing Poles,” is listed in the 1933 Manufacturing Directory published by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. The Bohanan and McCoy’s Fishing Supply House was located at 3626 Washington Blvd, Los Angeles, CA.
“Popular Mechanics” magazine ran a two page article on F.L. Bohanan in their July 1934 issue called “From Bamboo to Fish.”
Unsurprisingly, there’s no biographical information – the emphasis is purely on the manufacturing of his fishing poles.
Thanks to the popularity of their products, particularly their Calcutta and Baby Tonkin fishing pole, business was booming for F.L. Bohanan and P.P. McCoy; the company expanded. Their new address was 3624 W. Washington Blvd.
According to an article in the Los Angeles Times (October 20, 1935),
when Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Los Angeles on October 1st, F.L.
Bohanan had outfitted the President with swordfish fishing equipment for
FDR’s upcoming 21 day fishing trip aboard the U.S.S. Houston.
|FDR fishing in Costa Rica|
Where Franklin Bohanan’s wife Martha is during all of this, I do not know.
When F.L. registered for the draft on April 25, 1942, it is his sister Myrtle he lists as the individual who will always know where he is. Martha, I suspect, is either still in Chicago or she has died.
F.L. Bohanan sold his business, Bohanan Manufacturing, in 1949 to Jack J. Lane and according to Lane’s 1998 obituary:
“Lane purchased the bankrupt business in 1949 from founder Frank Bohanan, who sold bamboo fishing rods but went broke when he refused to carry fiberglass rods.”
Jack J. Lane a pilot and aeronautical engineer, took the company in a direction F.L. Bohanan never would have.
Again from the same 1998 obituary:
“Lane transformed Bohanan Manufacturing into a machine shop that created bomb ejection systems for atomic payloads dropped at supersonic speeds. At it’s peak, 400 people were employed by the company.
“Besides holding the patent for the ejection system, Bohanan contracted with the U.S. Air Force to use the system for the first time in the F-89 Scorpion.”
Franklin’s second marriage (Sept 1951 to Feb 1956), to Lola I. Osborne, ended in divorce.
Franklin’s third and final marriage, on Nov 3, 1957 was to Florence Oberg. He was 74-years-old and she was 24 years his junior.
Born in Nebraska but a Los Angeles native for decades before her marriage, Florence A. Oberg had served as the bookkeeper/treasurer/secretary for Bohanan Mfg. for many years.
F.L. Bohanan died on November 15, 1959 at the age of 76. He is buried in the Los Angeles National Cemetery.
|findagrave photo by Romper90060|
Franklin’s widow, Florence, died January 25, 1997, at the age of 91. She is buried in the Oberg family plot in the Angelus Rosedale Cemetery in Ojai, California.
Countess Sonia Cafe patron Jesse Robert Stillinger had not been expected to survive the gunshot wound to his stomach but, fortunately for shooter Gerald Atherton, he had.
Here’s what I knew about Jesse Stillinger’s life before the night of the shooting.
Jesse Robert Stillinger was born in Newcastle, Wyoming on June 5, 1916.
Jesse was 25-years-old when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He served aboard the USS S-34 (an S-class submarine) in Pearl Harbor from 1936 to 1939 as a Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class.
At 9:55 PM on October 27, 1938 (a Thursday), a coupe driven by Jesse R. Stillinger struck bicyclist Ernest Soares, 15-years-old.
The accident occurred at the corner of Kalakaua Avenue and Philip Street in Honolulu. Ernest received cuts to his hip and scalp, a fractured upper jaw, several broken front teeth and possible head injuries.
According to the October 28, 1938 edition of Honolulu Advertiser”
Traffic Investigator Donal Clague conducted an investigation immediately after the crash, taking statements from Sillinger (sic) and several witnesses. From early reports made of the accident, it was indicated that the Soares boy had made a left turn into Fern street, while proceeding toward Waikiki on Kalakaua avenue. At the intersection, police said, he crashed into the coupe-type automobile driven by the sailor.
Sillinger (sic) said the boy first hit he front left fender, then crashed head on into his side windshield. He was then hurled to the pavement several feet away. Sillinger (sic) picked up the boy and took him to the emergency hospital.
The following week, in the early morning hours of November 2, 1938, Jesse was arrested after brandishing an ice pick in a restaurant. He was charged with “carrying a dangerous weapon.”
It was reported on January 8, 1939 that Ernest Soares was suing Jesse Stillinger for $25,552.55.
On January 21, 1939, Jesse was transferred to the USS Waters (DD-215, a Wickes-class destroyer).
I couldn’t find a resolution to the lawsuit against Jesse Stillinger. However, on May 15, 1940 a petition was filed for Arthur E. Restarick, chief clerk of the circuit court, to be appointed as legal guardian for the estate of Ernest Soares (a minor).
From this, we can perhaps assume Ernest won some sum of money in a settlement. I know Ernest Soares hadn’t died as a result of his injuries. His death came decades later, on November 11, 2013, at the age of 90.
There were several instances of ‘confinement’ and ‘loss of pay’ for Jesse while aboard the USS Waters. His time with the US Navy ended when he received Bad Conduct Discharge BCD in June 1939.
On August 2, 1939, Jesse married Mildred V. Berg.
According to the 1940 US Census and 1946 his death certificate, Jesse was employed as an aircraft machinist.
When I discovered that Jesse Stillinger died
on January 19, 1946, at the age of 29, I naturally wondered if his death
at an early age was in any way related to complications from the November 8, 1943 shooting and/or a subsequent surgery. I decided to spend the $21 for a copy of his death certificate. It was money well-spent.
Following Jesse’s death, at his Culver City home, on January 19, 1946, an autopsy was performed. Cause of death was “multiple abscesses of liver, kidneys and brain.”
The coroner classified Jesse’s death as a homicide and attributed it to the gunshot wound he had received during the November 8, 1943 robbery.
If I’m interpreting this information correctly, a deadly infection stemming from the stomach wound eventually spread to his liver, kidneys and brain.
These days, the subsequent death of an individual who was shot during the commission of a crime might result in charges being brought against the individual who pulled the trigger, as well as those who participated in the crime.
On November 5, 1945, a month and a half before Jesse died, his ex-wife Mildred married a man named George Robinson. Jesse’s death certificate lists him as “single.”
suppose that Jesse being in the company of Miss Florence Gale nearly two years before his wife remarried is an indication that Jesse’s marriage to Mildred had already
ended or was heading that way? When did they divorce? I can’t answer that. I also can’t locate a photo of Jesse Stillinger.
Jesse was buried in the Inglewood Park Cemetery on January 22, 1946.
It’s an interesting fact that Jesse’s father Dale Craig Stillinger had been arrested several times for a variety of forgery offenses between 1938 and 1948 but that really has no bearing in the Countess Sonia robbery attempt so I’ll be stepping to the side of that particular rabbit hole.
However, having discovered this information, I feel compelled to share it. Especially since I couldn’t find a photo of Jesse Stillinger
|Dale Stillinger, Idaho inmate (1941)|
Florence Gale, Jesse’s companion on the evening he was shot, was born January 16, 1918 in Payson, Utah.
Florence had moved from Utah to California some time in 1939, following her divorce from husband Loren Houston.
The two had married on April 14, 1937 when Florence was 19-years-old and Loren 20-years-old. Was their union doomed to fail from the start or was the tipping point the death of their son? We can never know.
Their son Michael, born on September 2, 1937, died when he was only 1 month and 2 days old. Primary cause of death was his “premature birth” and a contributing factor was “malnutrition.”
In October 1938, Loren Houston was charged with issuing a fraudulent check. He pleaded guilty and was fined $20. The judge agreed to reduce the fine to $5 if Loren would make restitution to the store for two bad checks he had written, one for $10 and another for $5.
On April 24, 1939, Florence filed for a divorce, charging Loren with “nonsupport” and she asked for the restoration of her maiden name. She and Loren had been married just over two years. A June 23, 1939 newspaper announced the divorce had been granted. By April 10, 1940 Florence was living in Los Angeles.
Florence moved in with her sister Jean, her brother-in-law Emil and their two
children. She was still living with them at the time of the shooting.
According to the 1940 US Census, Florence’s occupation in 1940 was “saleslady” at a
Florence married for a second time on August 29, 1946. Her second and final husband was Frederick William Richter III (1914-1976). They had three children, two girls and a boy.
Frederick was the long-time owner and operator of Richter Liquors in East Northport, Long Island, NY. The family still owns the business.
There is a record of Frederick and Florence obtaining a divorce while in San Diego, CA in January 1971. However, when Frederick died from sepsis at a V.A. Hospital on February 11, 1976, his marital status (according to his death certificate) was “Married” and Florence was listed as his wife. This fact is further confirmed by his obituary.
According to Frederick’s death certificate, his usual residence was Acapulco. Perhaps he and Florence reconsidered their divorce and remarried in Mexico? This would explain why I can’t find a record of such a ceremony.
Frederick was cremated. The death certificate doesn’t indicate where he was buried. Perhaps, Frederick, as a former seaman with the Bureau of Navigation an Steamboat Inspection, was scattered at sea?
Frederick’s line of business seemed to me rather ironic when I read Florence’s 1997 obituary, printed in the Santa Cruz Sentinel (September 10, 1997):
“She (Florence) was an active member of Alcoholics Anonymous for the past 32 years, and shared her experience, strength and hope with those suffering the disease of alcoholism in an effort to give back some of that which was given to her. In her many travels, Mrs. Richter started the first chapter of AA in Acapulco, Mexico, and helped establish an AA clubhouse in Christiansted, St. Croix. She spent her last years enjoying the fellowship at the Alano Club and the 12-Step House in Southern California.”
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a photo of Florence.
Although Florence died in Santa Cruz, California on September 4, 1997, her ashes weren’t laid to rest until October 8, 2004.
She is buried in the Payson City Cemetery in Utah, where her infant son was buried 67 years earlier.
|finadagrave photo by Tina Curits|
|finadagrave photo by Tina Curtis|
What can I tell you about Countess Sonia’s bartender E. H. ‘Mike’ Johnson?
Well, the “E. H.” stood for Elmer Herbert. While this is true, I will continue to refer to Elmer as “Mike” since that clearly was his preference.
The only photo I could find of Mike is a grainy one from the Los Angeles Examiner shortly after the crime.
For the benefit of the news photographer, Mike and Countess Sonia recreate their positions from the night Leo Gordon attempted to rob their cafe.
Mike Johnson was born in Iowa on March 28, 1901. He was the eleventh of twelve children born to Meint and Mary Jane Johnson.
Mike married Vera Mueller in 1922. He was 21-years-old and she was 17-years-old.
The 1930 US Census shows the young couple had moved from Iowa to Mankato, Minnesota. Mike was working as auto mechanic; Velma was a saleslady at a ready-to-wear shop.
The 1935 obituary for Mike’s mother Mary Jane indicates that he, at least, was still living in Mankato when she passed on.
Five years later, things had changed. Mike and Vera were both living in Los Angeles but they were no longer together. What brought them to the west coast, had they come together, etc.? I don’t know but according to the 1940 US Census, Velma was married to Ray Weimer and they had an 11-month-old daughter.
I can’t find Mike in the census for that year but when he registered for the draft on February 14, 1942, his place of residence was 5815 West Washington Street, the same address as Countess Sonia’s Cafe, so I suppose Mike had an apartment on the premises.
A “cafe & cocktails” located at 5813 W. Washington Blvd. was listed for “sale or lease” in the classified section of the LA Times in December 1937 and the ad specified that living quarters were included.
I’m fairly certain that Mike had enlisted on August 7, 1942. There was no specific branch of the military indicated; his classification was Warrant Officer. Perhaps this was designation a reflection of his previous work as a mechanic?
There is a notation at the top of Mike’s registration card indicating that he had been discharged on March 19, 1943. Even less time in the military than Leo Gordon.
On Oct. 26, 1944 (a Thursday), less than one year after the attempted burglary of Countess Sonia’s Cafe by Leo Gordon and his cohorts, Mike Johnson had been, to quote the Evening Star News –
“assertedly (sic) hit on the head with a bottle by an unknown person in the vicinity of Countess Sonia’s cafe.
“He suffered lacerations above his right eye and was taken to the Culver City hospital.”
There was no secondary story on this assault, in any newspaper, so I’m assuming nobody was ever caught.
Mike’s address in the 1946 Voter’s Registration is
5813 West Washington. His next-door neighbor is Countess Sonia herself, residing at #5815.
Both Mike and the Countess would have to find a new place to live when Sonia sold the business.
In March 1946, Dal’s Little Russia operated for a very brief time at that location on Washington Street. A number of cafes, restaurants and cocktail lounges would follow over the years – Felix’s Restaurant, Goldie’s Beach, Patterson’s Steak House, Silky’s Bar & Restaurant, etc.
Mike Johnson’s name does pop up again in a few September 1952 newspaper articles but sadly it was in connection to the death of his friend Oren Wheeler. Mike was one of the last people to see Oren alive.
Oren Wheeler, a 31-year-old aspiring actor/bartender at the Bali-Hi restaurant in Inglewood, was one of three passengers aboard a small plane piloted by John Vincent Mammelli when it crashed into the sea off of Manhattan Beach pier on September 23, 1952 and exploded. Everyone was killed.
As reported by the Los Angeles Times on Sept 24, 1952:
The ERCO Ercoupe, a light single-engine monoplane which Mammelli had rented the previous evening, took off from Hawthorne Airport at 2:45 AM on Sept 23, 1952.
Roughly twenty minutes later, “Manhattan Beach police officer Bob Perry saw the plane dive seaward out of an overcast, with its motor silent. The engine coughed and spat fire once, then the plane plunged into the sea. As it struck the water it exploded.”
A second eyewitness gave the same account.
According to the September 23, 1952 edition of the Los Angeles Daily News:
Witnesses said they heard screams of the victims before the waves swallowed them.
Nobody seemed to know there was a third passenger, later identified Oren Wheeler, when the crashed. The plane was a two-seater.
first newspaper reports on the crash named only two victims: 40-year-old John Vincent Mammelli, the manager of the Jo Sher Bar who was also a former trumpet
payer with the Harry James Band, and 23-year-old Nina Ricks, a divorced
dental assistant and mother of two young children.
The Los Angeles Times reported, on September 24th:
“Hours later, Mrs. Ricks’ body was found by lifeguards. It was floating just outside the breaker line near the pier at Manhattan, a few hundred feet from where the plane went down. Her purse was found on the sand a short distance away.”
The Los Angeles Daily News described Nina’s body as being broken and burned and credits Mr. Jack Welsh with finding Nina’s body, while he was walking his dog.
The Los Angeles Times was quick to interview Nina’s mother, Mrs. Juanita Short.
Mrs. Short, who said her daughter had lived there since her divorce last January, told of a telephone call at 10:30 P.M. Monday. It was Vincent, inviting her daughter for an early morning plane ride.
“She was delighted about it.” the mother said. “She was enthusiastic about flying, ever since her husband’s brother became a pilot. We all used to go flying with him.”
Her daughter drove to the bar on Crenshaw Blvd where Vincent was working.
“After she left,” the mother said, “I was bothered. I was up all night long. I knew something must be wrong when she didn’t come home.”
|Nina’s mother and children|
Police were able to link Oren Wheeler with the tragedy when the registration for an abandoned car, parked at the Jo Sher Bar, 11421 S. Crenshaw Blvd., was traced to Oren Wheeler.
A partly burned pipe and tobacco pouch were found floating in the water near the wreckage.
Dorothy Wheeler identified the tobacco pouch as belonging to her husband. Dorothy also recognized a tobacco pipe found in Mammelli’s car as one belonging to Oren.
Oren had not turned up at home or work since September 23rd. Mike Johnson reporting seeing Oren, Mammelli and Mrs. Ricks, about an hour before the plane crash, leaving the Jo Sher bar together.
Does this mean Mike Johnson was an employee of the Jo Sher? Or was he a patron on the night in question? I just don’t know.
Mutual friend Mrs. Gerry Childress said she had been urged by the trio to accompany them on the fatal late night flight but she declined.
|L.A. Times photo, 9-28-1952|
It would be five days before the bodies of Mammelli and Wheeler were pulled from the water.
Mammelli was found 50 yards off the Manhattan Beach Pier; Wheeler’s body was recovered by lifeguards at 3rd Street and The Strand.
Dorothy Wheeler was at the Hollywood police station filing a missing persons report when news of their bodies being recovered reached her. She collapsed on the spot.
Mammelli’s identify was confirmed by the driver’s license in his wallet.
Perhaps as a kindness to his widow, Oren Wheeler’s body was identified by his employer – Countess Sonia!
|L.A. Daily News, 9-29-1952|
On September 28, 1952, Perry Hodgen, CAB member, disclosed the crash had not been caused by either structural or electrical trouble.
As the investigation into the crash continued, Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) and Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) members experienced some real push-back and stonewalling from Mammelli’s friends.
The CAA and CAB began to suspect Mammelli was involved in criminal activity so they contacted the FBI, who turned the matter over to the Hawthorne police.
The Jo Sher bar had recently been shut down for a period of fifteen days as a punishment for selling alcohol to minors.
John Vincent Mammelli certainly knew some shady people and his several of his jazz musician friends had been busted for drug possession.
|L.A. Daily News, 9-29-1952|
Investigators thought it suspicious that the recently divorced Vincent Mammelli had recently begun living at a motor court (10825 S. Crenshaw) under an assumed name – James Palmeno. They also discovered he had been known to use the alias V.J. Minetti.
They also found it suspicious that receipts for Jo Sher averaged $500 a month until Mammelli took over as manager; the bar banked almost $2000 for the month of November 1951.
Found among Mammelli’s effects was a note which read in part: “I fell like going to a real wild tea session with all the hep people of the world.” It was signed “Donna.”
Hardly proof of drug smuggling or even drug use but police descended on the Jo Sher Bar and, according to the bar’s owner Blackie Gregory, “shook the joint down from the rafters to the basement” in a search for narcotics.
On the very day Mammelli’s corpse was recovered, the Los Angeles Daily News ran a story about how the police were trying to connect the victims with drug smuggling.
Evelyn Mammelli, John Vincent Mammelli’s ex-wife, said she was “aghast” at her husband’s reported association with a narcotics ring.
In light of the much-publicized allegations, Countess Sonia felt compelled to make a
statement to press describing Oren Wheeler as “a man of excellent
At the time of his death, Oren was enrolled in the Don Martin School of Radio and Television. He and his wife Dorothy had moved to California from Cincinnati, Ohio 2 years prior.
Mammelli was an experienced pilot with nearly 4000 hours of flying time. He had been a B-17 pilot during WWII. Pilot error seemed unlikely.
On the evening that Mammelli rented the Ercoupe, he had treated several friends to short rides.
A Los Angeles Times reporter interviewed Albert Grossman, owner of Cal Aircraft Sales Co at Hawthorne Airport, and turned in this account for their September 24th morning edition:
Vincent appeared at 9:30 p.m. with a man and a dark-haired girl.
He took the girl for a ride in the Ercoupe then left the field with his companions at 10 p.m. Grossman said he agreed to let Vincent return before the field closed at 11 p.m. and use the plane again. He told him to leave the keys under his office door.
Grossman quoted witnesses at the field as saying Vincent returned at 10:30 or 10:45 p.m. Monday with the same man and girl. He took each one for a ride and left again at 11:20 p.m.
Then he apparently returned to the field again with Mrs. Ricks. She left her shoes in his parked car outside the wire fence that surrounded the locked field. They both apparently climbed the fence and warmed up the airplane for another flight.
The time, according to the Northrop Aircraft Co. fire department, the Ercoupe took off at 2:45 a.m.
Grossman said that the overcast was heavy at the time of the crash. He added that he did not believe the motor was off at the time the plane dived into the sea.
“In order for it to explode,” Grossman said, “the power would have to be on. I believe Vincent had cut his throttle to lose speed. He obviously failed to recover from his dive.”
I can’t find anything additional on either the investigation into the plane crash or John Vincent Mammelli’s supposed involvement in a narcotics ring. We have to assume that the police were also unable to make a connection.
Elmer Herbert “Mike” Johnson died on March 26, 1980, two days before his 79th birthday. He is buried at the Rose Hills Memorial Park Cemetery in Whittier, California. There is no photo of a headstone available.
Additional information regarding Mike’s cause of death, his marital status, etc. could be found on his death certificate but at $21.00 a pop, I have to pick and choose.
I’m finishing this extensive blog entry with a focus on Countess Sonia.
|Countess Sonia, Nat’l Vaudeville Artists yearbook, 1928|
The more research I did for this blog entry, the more interested in Sonia I became. Well, actually, I think I came to realize that everyone is more interesting than me. However, Sonia in particular intrigued me.
Maybe it’s because I knew her to be an entertainer yet, unlike Leo Gordon, Sonia’s work isn’t readily available for viewing. I accepted the challenge.
Sonia’s early years proved difficult to research because of where she was born – Simferopol, Ukraine, Russia.
Even if I could access Russia’s archives, and I cannot, it’s a completely different alphabet and (often) a different calendar.
A further complication to the research is the surprising number of Countess Sonias who were active and newsworthy during the 1930s and 1940s.
The three most notable women using that title, other than the subject of this blog, were Countess Sonia Poushkareff (a prominent Hollywood dentist), Countess Sonia (a Burlesque performer) and Countess Sonia (a talented east coast accordionist and aunt to Metropolitan Opera soprano Helen Jepson). The first two of these women were also born in Russia and the first one actually was a Countess, until her 1933 divorce from Count Boris Poushkareff.
I’ve seen photos of all three women and none of them is the same Countess Sonia who was held at gunpoint by Leo Gordon.
|Dr. Sonia, 1930|
|Squeezebox Sonia, 1943|
Leo’s Countess Sonia was interviewed several times between the years of 1922-1931 and by combining those interviews with information found on U.S. documents, I’ve pieced together the following:
The Countess started off as Sophie Riazanoff on April 20, 1894, 1896 or 1897 (it depends on the document). When she died, on January 3, 1990, she was Sonia D’Andrie.
Sonia married Eugene Belikovitch in Odessa, Russia (his hometown) on either July 15, 1913 or July 11, 1912 (again, it depends on the document).
I’m more inclined to believe Sonia was born in 1894 or 1896 and married in 1913 if only because it makes more sense for her to be married at the age of 17 or 19-years-old and not 15-years-old.
I’m going to bounce back and forth with the dates of my source material in an effort to keep the narrative linear.
Also, variations on the spelling of Sonia’s first and last names appear throughout the years. I will mostly refer to her as Sonia but in the instances where I’m quoting directly from a newspaper article, I’ll leave the alternate spelling of her name(s).
In a July 29, 1931 newspaper interview with an Australian journalist, Countess Sonia described her unnamed husband as “a rich member of the Russian nobility.”
two “lived in St. Petersburg and Moscow, seeing very little of her
home, until she returned there at the beginning of the war, when her
husband joined the forces.”
What never waivers in Sonia’s various interviews is that before the war her father was a presiding judge in Odessa. Once WWI broke out, her father became a General in the Czar’s army. Only once, in a June 27, 1922 interview, does Sonia mention a brother, who served as “commandant of the province” before WWI.
Unfortunately, neither man’s first name is ever revealed so researching them any further was a challenge.
(I spent some time exploring the possibility that Sonia’s last name was misspelled on a 1942 form. If Sonia’s maiden name was actually ‘Rozanoff,’ then perhaps Sonia’s father was General Sergei Rozanoff or maybe her brother was Constantin Rozanoff, an internationally renowned pilot. Ultimately, I concluded I was wrong in both cases but it sent me down a series of rabbit holes.)
Once I finally bit the bullet and spent $21.00 for Sonia’s death certificate, I discovered her father’s first name was Ivan; his last name on this document is spelled “Riazanoff.”
I already knew that Sonia’s mother’s first name was Maria; she is listed as Sonia’s ‘nearest relative or friend in country whence alien came’ on a S.S. Ventura June 20, 1931 passenger manifest.) Maria’s last name on this immigration document in spelled “Riazanova.”)
The difference between Sonia’s parents’ last names is most like explained by Maria’s last name being a feminine form of her husband’s last name.
Anyway – Following the February 1917 Russian revolution, the March 1917 abdication of Nicholas II, the failure of Russia’s provisional government, the October 1917 Russian revolution and finally Lenin’s immediate Decree on Land (in which her family’s land was seized, without compensation), Sonia sought to escape Bolshevik rule.
Here is how Sonia described the journey in a September 28, 1929 newspaper interview:
“It seems only yesterday that the horrible Red wave swept over my homeland.
“I will never forget that hospital train racing through southern Russia, snow lashing in through the car windows, and terrified groups of men and women huddled around the cots which bore the wounded.
“I was one of them – the young daughter of a Russian general – one of the hated Czarist families. That picture is branded on my mind. Grouped around me were others of the Russian nobility – men and women with whom I had danced only a few days before at gay affairs, before the revolution.
“We had all our worldly possessions in our pockets. And all our hopes for escape from that land of madness and slaughter hung on the question: ‘Will this train get through?’ We dared not think of what would happen if it didn’t.
“Then the train rumbled into Yerkutsa (sic), in southern Russia. The winter wind’s howl was drowned in screams. The Reds boarded our train!
“I prefer to forget what happened next. It was too terrible for words. They stripped us of our clothes and our money and threw us in awful cells, dark and dank.
“One day they freed me. The rest is blurred. I managed to fight my way through Siberia and into the Orient.”
Here is a Google Maps representation of the distance Sonia traveled, starting with Saint Petersburg and ending finally in Singapore.
modern day estimation of how long a train ride from Saint Petersburg to
Yakutsk would take is a minimum of 6 days 5 hours and a maximum of 6
days 22 hours.
In the above 1929 interview, Sonia speaks only of herself; there is no mention of her husband being with her on the train yet a March 5, 1926 article about Sonia states both she and her husband “were arrested and held prisoners for two months by the Bolsheviks.”
Eugene Belikovitch’s fate remains unknown to me. Although, I don’t doubt I’ll keep searching. But if Eugene never left Russia, I’m unlikely to learn anything and perhaps I should spend my time doing something else.
I know that Sonia’s April 23, 1924 “Declaration of Intention” lists her marital status as “Divorced.” Documents from 1938 and 1942 repeat the claim.
Sonia’s 1942 Petition for Naturalization goes one step further in stating that Eugene has never (to Sonia’s knowledge) entered the U.S. and she doesn’t know where he presently resides.
Is it from her marriage to Eugene that Sonia became a Countess? That’s what various newspaper articles of the day state. Or was “Countess Sonia” simply a stage name?
Search engines fail to show me anything definitive when I type in “Count Belikovitch” but that means nothing. However, the earliest press releases in which she is called “Countess Sonia” is 1925 when she began touring with her well-received vaudeville show “Satiricon.”
The first official US documents identifying Sonia as a “Countess” is her January 27, 1942 Petition for Naturalization.
That’s nearly 20 years after she first entered the United States.
Is it possible that “Countess Sonia,” one of four variations of her name listed on this document, is included simply because that was her stage name?
So, how did Sonia embark on this successful stage career as a classical dancer?
the same June 29, 1931 Australian newspaper article we have this
“With the arrival of Bolshevism, she accompanied a group of loyalists on an unforgettable and harrowing journey into Siberia. Hunger was a common and terrifying experience. Having learned to dance in her youth, and possessing a
natural leaning towards this art, the Countess embarked on her stage
career at Vladivostok.”
A quick note – Vladivostok was occupied by
Allied forces from 1918-1920.
By the time the Allied forces exited Russia, so had Sonia.
Billed as “Mme. Belikovitch,” Sonia partnered with Russian baritone Paul Grey and made a series of appearances in Asian countries. I’ll include those that I can confirm.
This is how an article in the January 17, 1920 edition of the North China Herald reviewed Sonia’s performance at Shanghai’s Astor House three days earlier:
“The principal ballerina of the Warsaw Opera House, Mme. Belikovitch, made her first appearance to a Shanghai audience on Wednesday at the Astor House. She is one of the most graceful and finished dancers we have had the pleasure of seeing, and it is to be hoped that the series of costume dances she appeared in will be repeated. In the Indian dance, “Aischa,” and later in a Directoire polka she was at her best, but “Anitra’s Dace” and a Russian dance of Tschaikowsky’s (sic) were also charming numbers. Her feet hardly seemed to touch the floor and she entered into the spirit of each dance in a manner that gave life to every phase of the music.”
From there it was on to Singapore and a nearly two week engagement at the Raffles Hotel.
|1921 image of the Raffles Hotel, Singapore|
Then down to Jakarta, Indonesia where she and Paul Grey performed numerous times throughout 1920 and 1921.
|Jakarta newspaper, 12-10-1920|
Various newspaper bios of Sonia claim she had a successful career in Europe before coming to the United States. I don’t wish to dispute Sonia being “the toast of Europe,” as Shreveport, Louisiana Times described her in a July 24, 1928 article, but I can’t substantiate it or provide specifics.
Sonia’s “last foreign residence” before applying for United States citizenship was Bangkok, Siam.
|King Rama VI|
Before coming to America for the first time (in 1922), Sonia was performing publicly in Bangkok and King Rama VI noticed her. Soon afterwards the King asked Mme. Belikovitch for private dance lessons.
In June 1922, Sonia related the following to a reporter from the San Francisco Examiner:
“King Rama made a splendid pupil. In the ballet, he was not so good, but in your modern dances – your fox trot – he was a royal success.”
Sonia’s first voyage to the United States was aboard the S.S. Shinyo Maru, a Japanese luxury liner on June 26, 1922.
Sonia’s mode of transport is not to be confused with the S.S. Shinyo Maru Hell Ship, a Japanese cargo ship which,
when sunk by the American submarine USS Paddle on September 7, 1944, was transporting
Allied Prisoners of War. 687 Allied POWs were killed in the attack, either by their Japanese guards or friendly fire. That’s a whole other blog topic.
|Palace Hotel, San Francisco – 1928|
Sonia’s trip from Hong Kong to San Francisco took four weeks.
Once back on dry land, she checked into the luxurious Palace Hotel, located on the corner of Market and New Montgomery Streets.
Quick note – On August 2, 1923, Warren G. Harding’s
term as President ended suddenly when he died at the Palace Hotel, in
Room 8064, an eighth floor suite that overlooks Market Street. Naturally, when I read this, I wondered what room Sonia had stayed in.
Now billed as “Madame Sophia,” she was one of the principal artists at the American Institute ball held on July 29, 1922 at the Oakland Auditorium.
|Okalnd Tribune, 7-27-1922|
Before heading east, to establish herself in New York City, Sonia took part in the 1923 American Historical Revue and Motion Picture Exposition/Monroe Doctrine Centennial celebration which was held in Los Angeles.
The idea of the celebration was to cast a positive light on the film industry and hopefully counteract all the negative publicity generated by scandals involving top celebrities of the day such as Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand. The Monroe Doctrine Centennial seems to have been just a hook to hang it on.
This thirty-three day long celebration (July 2 to August 4th, 1923) is arguably more remembered these days for the commemorative silver half dollar coin which minted to mark the occasion than any one performance or exhibit.
However, there was a fair amount of excitement leading up to the event. Well, among industry insiders anyway, and plans were made to have cinematographers film various aspects of the spectacle.
Sonia’s participation in a ballet choreographed by famed Russian dancer Theodore Kosloff did warrant a mention in the Los Angeles Times.
In an excerpt taken from the newspaper’s extensive July 9, 1923 article, we find this description:
After praising a performance in The Little Church Around the Corner by organist Jean de Chauvenet, the LA Times reporter offered this under the banner
“BALLET FOR LESS DEVOUT”
While the devout paid tribute to his artistry, within ear-shot of the pealing pipes there trooped three-score coryphees of the Theodore Kosloff ballets, posing, before thousands of curious folks, for a battery of cinematographers.
It was incongruous and yet strangely pleasing to the crowd to see the Southland belles in their picturesque ballet costumes pirouetting about a fountain in full play in the dazzling sunshine almost in the churchyard.
Thirty policemen were required to keep the throng, filling the Rue de la Paix, from crowding dancers, photographers and even the ballet master, Kosloff, into the Aztec fountain, which was being used for atmosphere as well as moisture.
A unique effect was obtained for the motion-picture cameras to grind upon by having Sophie Belikowetch, auburn-haired an shapely Russian danseuse, and Elsa Brunette (*), equally striking brunette, both clad in gossamer tunics, posed in the crest of the Aztec fountain while the toe dancers trooped past.
The fountain nymphs giggled and squirmed as the cold water stung their flesh, much to the delight of the spectators.
*Identifying the second female dancer as “Elsa Brunette” is not a typo on my part but an error by the newspaper. I believe the woman was Elsa Benham.
Here’s a photo of Kosloff’s Aztec dance production, as it was performed at the Exposition. Good luck spotting Sonia, or anyone, in this group shot.
|Standard Union (Brooklyn), 7-29-1923|
By all accounts, the Exposition was a failure in more ways than one.
Attendance was only a fraction of what organizers had predicted and the historically-themed exhibits didn’t appeal to the large majority of those people who did spend 50 cents for a ticket. To boost attendance, free admission was given to teenagers during the final two weeks of the exposition.
With a purchase price of twice their face value, the half dollar coins weren’t selling as well as had been expected.
Of the 274,000 half dollars which the San Francisco mint produced, only 27,000 were sold.
|L.A. Evening Express|
Most of the 27,000 coins were purchased at the exposition but they were also available through the mail, at banks and from newspaper raffles. The remaining unsold coins were eventually released into circulation. A disappointment to those who had paid $1 for the coin.
Some people who had set these commemorative coins to side likely had to spend them the following decade, during the Great Depression.
According to an article on the Coin Update website:
“It is unclear why it was decided to release the remaining pieces into circulation.”
“The most obvious reason perhaps would be the Mint preventing the realized pieces to become instant rarities when their low mintage was realized, or perhaps it didn’t make sense financially to melt the coins. The pieces that remain in uncirculated condition are often weakly struck, with even the finest specimens generally lacking eye-appeal.”
On average, these coins today sell for around $50.00 and there aren’t difficult to find. It’s melt value is $8.59. The coin’s composition is 90% silver, 10% copper.
Although the coins are not considered rare, on January 28, 2009, Bonhams auction house sold one of the Centennial half dollars for an astonishinf $18,000.
The coin was rated “Professional Coin Grading Service Mint State 67” and described in the catalog as “vividly toned in multicolored hues including reddish-gold, sea-blue, pinkish-rose, jade-green and silver-apricot iridescence.”
Here’s a picture of that coin. Would you pay $18,000 for that?
Finally, the much-anticipated visit from President Harding never happened because he died four days before he was to appear.
However, the Los Angeles Coliseum, used as a centerpiece of the exposition, had been a success.
The Coliseum had been commissioned in 1921 as a memorial to WWI veterans and opened to the public in May 1, 1923. For many, a day spent at the Exposition would be their first trip to the Coliseum.
On July 2, 1923, opening day of the Monroe Doctrine Exposition, the LA Times proclaimed
The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, that colossal bowl which rises in grandeur and majesty from its beauteous semi-tropical setting in Exposition Park, today enters upon the fulfillment of the pledge made for it by the fathers of the project that of being the “people’s playground.”
Sonia made the papers again one year later but it was for having violated the Volstead Act.
Sonia and her maid Xenia Verbitsky were arrested on August 1, 1924 in their NYC apartment at 30 West 47th Street after an undercover dry agent Snell had arrived at their door with a letter of introduction written in Russian.
Sonia allowed him entry into her home and served him a drink of whiskey. At that moment, two other prohibition officers broke down the door and made the arrests. They also seized a quantity of champagne, whiskey and wine.
The following day, before U.S. Commissioner John N. Boyle, Snell admitted that he had not paid for the drink and the agents had no search warrant. Case dismissed.
Despite this erroneous arrest by the prohibition police, Sonia’s move to New York City seems to have been a good decision.
On April 23, 1924, Sonia submitted her first application for U.S. citizenship. It would take Sonia nearly 18 years to become a US citizen.
By 1925, Sonia was the owner/operator of a dance studio, it’s address was the same as her apartment.
Sonia also began her career in vaudeville in 1925.
Was it the constant travel associated with a career on the vaudeville circuit that caused Sonia to wait so long to become a citizen? A ‘Declaration of Intention’ expires after 7 years.
Once joining the vaudeville circuit, Sonia toured the United States and Canada for years with a number of revues, generally as the headlining act.
Unfortunately for Sonia, by the time she’d started in vaudeville it was on it’s way out. Moving pictures were already being integrated into the bill.
However, folks still turned out to see Sonia and her ensemble of dancers in the “Revue Satiricon” and later her “Revue Intimate.”
To alert the public of what they could expect to see should they buy a ticket, Sonia took the opportunity in April 1928 to explain Russian dance to a reporter from the San Francisco Examiner:
All the acrobatic and strenuous dancing generally identified upon the American stage as genuine Russian dancing is merely trick dancing of a sort developed by circus performers to amuse the Russian peasantry and is not expressive of the higher and truer type of Russian dancing.
The foregoing statement was made by Countess Sonia, the Russian dancer, who is to be featured at the Golden Gate next week on the Spring Carnival bill.
“Russian peasant men,” says the countess, “are the only ones who perform the exacting floor dances in Russia. No Russian woman of class does them. They are but an ordinary form – like the Charleston in this country.
“It is just one little angle of Russian dancing. There are so many. My people love to dance. In America you learn two or three dances, in Russia, we know many, and they are traditional. Prussian (sic) dances are expressionistic; they are individual. It is not correct to take one form of it as Russian dancing.”
Sonia was not only a commercial but a critical success.
Without any actual film of Sonia’s performances to view for ourselves, we need to rely on eye witness accounts from the time.
I won’t bombard you with all of the reviews that I discovered while researching this but here are some of the more descriptive and glowing reviews – just so that you can get a sense of what folks were seeing.
Here is an excerpt from a review appearing in the January 15, 1926 Pasadena Evening Post:
The entire act possesses the true Russian flavor. The most artistic bit is the dancing by the Countess, while the Parade of Wooden Soldiers was the cleverest thing seen a local stage in a long time and was applauded for minutes on end.
And from the “In the Footlights Glow” column of the June 4, 1926 Edmonton Journal, we have this excerpt:
There is another really fine bill at the Pantages this week, The entertainment it offers is of a lighter type, and therefore particularly seasonable, while the show as a whole is characterized by highly meritorious performances.
Headlining the program is Countess Sonia’s “Revue Satiricon.” This is an act fashioned along the lines of the successful “Chauve Souris,” and provides a class of entertainment that is thoroughly commendable. The Countess and her capable company of artists present classical dances, songs, choruses and novelty numbers in great variety, and at no stage is the performance anything but distinctly good.
“Love by Rank,” a cleverly conceived novelty number by Miss Klarfield and Messrs. A. Stoinivski, Dennison, Volganin and Riesanoff, is followed by a graceful interpretation of the minuet by Countess Sonia and Alex Sherer. “Pepita” is a humorous offering in which the fine voices of Miss Klarfield and Messrs. Stoinovski, Volganin and Riesonanoff are heard to excellent advantage. Countess Sonia and Alex sherer follow with “Dance Arabesque,” an artistic terpsichorean number, the entire company presenting as a grand finale a novel conception of “I Miss My Swiss.”
The act is a really excellent one throughout. Costuming and scenic investiture have been planned on a lavish scale, while the vocal and terpsichorean talents of those to whom these various roles have been assigned are outstanding. Miss Klarfield (*), in operatic and other vocal selections, is particularly impressive.
*Just a quick note about the above review – I think “Miss Klarfield” might be soprano Marion Klarfield, who performed as Marion Lawley after her 1935 marriage to tenor Cooper Lawley.
A reporter for the Spokesman Review was equally impressed with Sonia and her troupe when he or (perhaps) she took in the show at the Panatages.
A very favorable review appeared in the paper’s June 14, 1926 edition.
Sonia, who was known to speak to the audience in French as well as English, left the writer believing she was direct from Paris.
YOU SHOULD SEE SONIA AT PAN
Parisian Countess in Headline Act
Charms Audience – Other Good
Numbers on Program.
Probably the Countess Sonia (who is the headliner at the Pantages this week) is not a countess, and perhaps her name is not Sonia, but undoubtedly she has red hair, is a slim, delightful minx and the possessor of a wholly charming French accent. With her, in the “Revue Satyricon,” is a young Hercules named Alex Sherer whose muscular makeup is worth a second and even a third look.
The scenic effects in the revue are an eyeful. And there is a quartet of males who know who to sing and at the same time how to make singing pictorially interesting. But Sonia is the one who leaves a wistful yearning in the heart of the mere male spectator to visit Paris, if there are any more specimens of Gallic loveliness like her in La Belle France.
The reviewer for the July 12, 1927 edition of Montreal’s Gazette newspaper seemed most impressed with “Revue Satiricon”:
In perfection of detail, luxuriousness of setting and clever manipulation of scenic effect,Countess Sonia’s “Revue Satiricon,” the headliner at the Imperial this week, is far superior to any act of its kind that has been at the theatre for some time. No effort is spared to make the act distinctive and it combines the bizarre with genuine aesthetic appeal. Countess Sonia is undeniably the centre of interest, although the members of her company each contribute to the success of the performance. As a dancer, the Countess leaves little to be desired. She had a complete mastery of difficult technique and is at all times the personification of grace. In addition to her ability for dancing she boasts the twofold assets of an exquisite appearance and a piquant personality.
The individual scenes, ranging from a sunrise over the mountain, made possible by a scenic photograph and unusual lighting effect, to a conception of the infernal regions when the Countess as an intriguing little fiend executes a dance of the bizarre type, are complete in themselves. While the dancing is perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the act, the singing is quite praiseworthy in its own way and the operatic selections are rendered with fine gusto.
Not that Sonia didn’t have her detractors.
Two months after wowing a Canadian critic, the Richmond Times printed this short review in their September 13, 1927 edition:
“Revue Satiricon,” with Countess Sonia and Alex Sherer, is a prettily staged and costumed dance act. The opening “wooden soldier” scene is out of the beaten path, and the scene in Hades is well worked out. However, the burlesque opera is poor stuff. Countess Sonia is both lively and ornamental, although her talk becomes tiresome.
And the NY Daily News, on December 25, 1927, seemed to doubt Sonia’s nobility when it curtly announced:
Countess Sonia, who says her title is genuine, has been booked for an Orpheum tour.
Showing an ability to get her name in the papers, and perhaps receive a little remuneration for some subtle product placement, Sonia was photographed in Los Angeles behind the wheel of her new Gardner Trojan roadster (June 1928) –
And a reporter in Omaha, Nebraska turned out to see Sonia buying a new diamond Bulova watch while in town to appear at the Orpheum Theater (September 1929).
For the latter purchase and combination photo op/cross-promotion, the Omaha Evening Bee News printed the following caption:
“How beautiful your new store is. I did not expect to find such a wonderful jewelry store in Omaha,” said Countess Sonia, celebrated dancer, who is appearing at the Orpheum theater.
The countess is shown purchasing a BULOVA watch from David Gross at the new ‘Ye Diamond Shoppe,’ in the Paxton Hotel building, 1407 Farnum Street.
Countess Sonia said, “The Bulova watch is not only the choice of royalty in Europe, but the choice of the theatrical profession throughour the world. I wouldn’t be without one.”
In 1931, with work for vaudeville acts in America on the decline, Sonia and Alex Sherer, decided to try their luck in Australia.
From having watched an “American Masters” documentary about vaudeville, I know that this move wasn’t uncommon but Sonia’s January 1931 departure aboard the Matson luxury liner Ventura was covered by an Associated Press photographer and reporter. I doubt every performer who left to fulfill an overseas engagement got that much attention.
Their Australian performances were well-received and favorable reviewed and yet Sonia and Alex were back in the United States six months later ,without any apparent fanfare.
Having seen much of the world, 34-year-old Sonia decided to settle in Los Angeles.
While I haven’t been able to find Sonia in the 1930 or 1940 US Census,
her place of residence is often the same as her place of employment.
After 1931, except for an occasional foray into film work (in three very minor roles – moreon that later), Sonia’s live performances were reserved for patrons at several of the Los Angeles’s Russian-themed restaurants in Los Angeles.
Places such as The Two Guitars Club (5525 Harold Way), the Bublichki Russian Cafe (8846 Sunset Blvd), U-Gene’s Bagdad (8383 Sunset Blvd) or the Zamboanga South Seas Nite Club (3828 W. Slauson Ave).
|Hollywood Citizen News, 9-22-1934|
|Hollywood Citizen News, 5-7-1938|
As evidenced by this excerpt from a write-up in the Jan-Oct 1934 edition of Hollywood Filmograph, Sonia had lost none of her charm and could easily play to a smaller crowd:
THE TWO GUITAR CLUB HAS A GREAT STAR IN “COUNTESS SONIA”
Countess Sonia acts as M.C. at the Two Guitar Club, which was formerly the Russian American Art Club, on Harold Way, near Western. This simple announcement doesn’t mean so much, but when this charming actress and dancer acts as mistress of ceremonies and makes her famous speech, “I Thank You,” you will just fall in love with her and the whole show the rest of the evening.
On March 21, 1935, Sonia opened her own restaurant – the Countess Sonia Rendezvous at 1608 Cosmo Street in Hollywood.
|Hollywood Citizen News, 4-20-1935|
*For fans of such things – this location, 1608 Cosmo Street, was previously home to Los Angeles’s first openly gay nightclub – Jimmy’s Back Yard (in operation from 1929 to 1933). Constant raids by police, who were clamping down on the illegal sale of alcohol as well as the objectionable though popular drag shows, eventually forced Jimmy’s to close.
|Hollywood Citizen News, 1-2-1932|
Rendezvous was a popular enough nightclub/restaurant to warrant a twice-nightly live
radio broadcast on KMTR radio. (9:15 and again at 11:30).
This is how the program was promoted in the October 13, 1935 L.A. Times:
For a change in musical fare, dial KMTR at 11:30 nightly for Countess Sonia’s Balalaika. This Russian music is aired from a colorful, recently opened nightery in Hollywood. You can munch a good meal that’s easy on the gullet and the wallet whilst harking to mezzo Ena Miriava go to town on real Russian ballads.
This was Sonia’s first foray into the restaurant business but it would not be her last.
I see evidence of Sonia owning and operating three restaurants in Los Angeles.
– Countess Sonia’s Rendezvous (1608 Cosmo Street, opened in 1935)
|Hollywood Citizen News, 5-25-1935|
– Countess Sonia Cafe (5815 West Washington Street, opened in 1941)
|Detroit Free Press, 11-30-1941|
– Countess Sonia’s Bali-Hi (3305 Imperial Blvd, opened in 1951).
|The Mirror, 5-22-1951|
A small news item in the September 14, 1954 Los Angeles Times has me thinking Sonia had sold the latter business three years after opening it – “Understand the new Bali-Hi out on Imperial Highway is quite something.”
In fact, in November 1955, when Sonia spoke of the Bali-Hi, she clearly indicated it was a thing of the past for her.
A 1957 investigation into organized crime led authorities to the Bali-Hi Cafe and its operator Richard Mastrosimone.
Mastrosimone turned over the restaurant’s accounting books but no charges were brought against him.
The Bali-Hi was destroyed by a fire of “undetermined origin” on February 15, 1960. I don’t see Sonia’s name associated with the business at that time.
When Helen Lawrenson interviewed Anthony Quinn for the October 1966 issue of Esquire Magazine, he related this story:
“I used to walk from school to the Santa Fe freight trains and unload vegetables from the trains and trucks. I’d get a box of vegetables as pay, and we’d make soup. One day I came out of school and I had ten cents. What shall I do? I thought. Buy a book, eat, or take a streetcar home? Someone told me there was a Russian restaurant looking for singers and they would audition you and even if you didn’t get the job they’d give you a dinner. I walked into the restaurant, and this tiny blonde lady came up to me – she was called Countess Sonia – and I said, ‘I’m a singer.’ So they tuned up a balalaika and I started to sing ‘Shortnin’ Bread.’ Pathetic! It was a mess, a disaster – but I had the guts to do it. Oh, God the things you did when you were a kid! Well, there was this huge laughter booming out, and then I was called over to a man’s table. It was Chaliapin, but I didn’t know who he was. He had me sit down and he ordered dinner for me. He said he started out in the same way and that I had a good voice. His son and I became close friends. Now they want to film the life of Chaliapin, and his children say, there’s only one man who can play our father – Tony Quinn! I’d like to make it in Russia.”
The man who bought Anthony Quinn dinner that day was famed Russian opera singer Feodor Chaliapin. Chaliapin died on April 12, 1938, so it must have been at Sonia’s first restaurant that Anthony Quinn auditioned.
the various newspaper accounts and documents I’ve seen, Sonia quite
naturally surrounded herself, personally and professionally, with fellow
Russian expatriates, former vaudevillians or restaurant workers. There is some unexpected overlap too.
Mike Johnson’s 1942 draft registration card list Simeon Aller, a raw film dealer with the Dupont Film Company, as the “person who will always know” his address.
Simeon Aller was also one of two witnesses who, listed on Sonia’s final citizenship application. He stepped forward in 1942 to attest to Sonia’s good character.
Sonia’s second witness was Russian-born Yasmina Hadji-Ali, herself a US citizen since 1930.
Yasmina was a former vaudevillian who had performed alongside her husband, the famous Egyptian regurgitation artist Hadji Ali.
|Tennessee Theatre photo|
It’s interesting that Hadji had been summoned by Tsar Nicholas II of Russia in 1914 to perform at the Winter Palace, Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Years afterwards, Hadji told a reporter that the Tsar “must have liked my performance because he awarded me a special decoration, which is now one of my treasured possessions.”
Yasmina retired from show business after the November 5, 1937 death of her husband. On Sonia’s January 27, 1942 application, Yasmina lists her profession simply as “waitress.”
In January 1950, Yasmina told newspaper reporter Aline Mosby that Rita Hayworth, a frequent Bublichki patron, and Rita’s husband Aly Khan must have named their baby Yasmin after her.
|Rita Hayworth & Yasmin Aga Khan|
The international mystery of why Rita and Aly named their baby ‘Yasmin’ had another solution today. A hostess at a Russian restaurant claims they borrowed 6/7th of it from her.
The hostess, named Yasmina, is a fixture at swank Bublichki, a violins-and-borscht movie colony hangout on the Sunset Strip. Before Rita and Aly left for Europe last year, she says, they ate at one of her red-checkered tableclothed tables.
On each table is a sign, ‘Your hostess is Yasmina Ali.’ she’s spelling her last name Aly these days, though.
“Everybody who comes in comment on how beautiful my name is,” thrilled Yasmina. “Rita and Aly, the mentioned it too. Rita used to come in with Tony Martin, and then with Orson Welles. I never dreamed she named her baby after me.
“I am so surprised. I am thinking about sending them a telegram thanking them for using my name. I am honored.”
Recently a Paris writer announced the Princess Aly Khan had lifted the moniker from a book he wrote. He said he would sue them, too.
“Well, now he cannot sue them,” beamed Yasmina. “I save Rita from the suit. It struck me funny that this writer would sue Rita for using his name because they used mine.
“I have traveled and lived all over the world and I’ve never met anybody with a name like mine. The little princess and I may be the only ones in the world with that name now.
“My mama in Russia was very much against the name. But papa say either I an Yasmina or I have no name at all. Papa was a businessman and he deal with group of people by the Black Sea – Tartars. He got the name from them. It is a rare oriental name and means flower.
“In high school in Russia they were so surprised at my name. They never hear it before. I suppose Rita’s baby will go through that too,” she sighed.
“But why do people laugh at the baby’s name? Yasmina is beautiful name. I predict this name will become very common. Mothers all over the world will be naming their baby Yasmina.”
The local vital statistics bureau says no Yasminas have turned up on birth certificates yet.
Between 1938-1940, Sonia’s friendship with Vera Ivanova Shuvalova would bring her some measure of publicity but, as my mother often warned me, “you’re judged by the company you keep” and talk of Vera Shuvalova is almost always unflattering.
Shuvalova was the third wife of Stan Laurel. Vera’s stage name was Illeana; I’ve also seen it spelled “Illiana.”
I’ll not alter the spelling when I’m quoting directly from newspapers or books.
Stan and Vera’s tumultuous, alcohol-fueled marriage asted only 2 years (1937-1939). During their brief union, newspapers loved to report on Vera’s antics and the couple’s frequent quarrels.
Stan and Vera famously held three separate weddings in the first four months of 1937. January 1st, then again on February 28th, and a third time on April 26th.
Sonia, as Vera’s companion and confidant, was a witness to much that went on in the Laurel marriage – the good and the bad. Often Sonia stepped forward as spokeswoman for Vera.
On February 16, 1938, as Vera was recovering from her second nervous breakdown in two weeks, Sonia told reporters that Vera had decided to end her marriage to Stan. Sonia, for her part, believed the two would reconcile.
When asked for his opinion, Stan Laurel said “Everything will come out all right.”
|Int’l News Photo, 2-15-1938|
Sonia was correct when she predicted Vera would change her mind about the divorce.
On January 5, 1939, as Vera was being booked into the Beverly Hills City Jail to begin serving a seven hour prison stay for a drunk driving conviction, she told reporters, “The divorce is off. I will tell the judge that I want no divorce; I want only my Stan.”
|Officer Eugene C. Mullenaux with Vera and Stan Laurel before Vera serves her jail sentence, Beverly Hills, 1939|
Hours later, when Stan re-entered the building retrieve his wife, he told reporters, “It’s the real thing this time. We love each other.”
The reconciliation, however, was temporary; only this time, it was Stan who decided to end it. Stan successfully filed for divorce from Vera on May 18, 1939.
Although Vera had not contested the divorce at the time, five months later, in October 1939, Vera sought to have the decree set aside. Her attorney, S.S. Hahn told the press –
“Illiana contends that Laurel got his divorce fraudulently and through collusion. I will file suit to set aside the divorce and property settlement.”
Vera was unavailable to speak for herself at that time; she had again taken to her hospital bed to recover from “a temporary nervous disorder.”
Stan Laurel responded to the lawsuit by telling reporters –
“I’ve tried to do my best with that woman. Oh well, if she wants to go to court and battle it out I will tell the whole truth about it all. I’m just being persecuted.”
|Miami Herald, 11-23-1939|
As the Laurels’ marriage dissolved, Countess Sonia tried to be a friend to both parties, but, in November 1939, she filed an affidavit which supported Vera’s version of being beaten by Stan during a quarrel, then being chased down the street; with Stan in his boxer shorts and Vera in a negligee.
Sonia had been a guest at the Laurel’s Beverly Hills home that evening and had seen everything firsthand. Sonia also indicated she was prepared to testify in court as to what she had asserted in the the affidavit.
The newspapers gleefully covered the court proceedings as Vera explained that she had allowed the divorce to go through because Stan had threatened to kill her on several occasions and that he had threatened to bury her alive in their backyard.
According to Vera, Stan also threatened to use his influence to have Vera and her mother deported back to Stalinist Russia.
Finally, Vera claimed that Stan had promised to ruin Vera’s career by revealing that her 8-year-old son Bobby had been born out of wedlock.
Despite Vera’s claims of coercion, on November 25, 1939, Judge Joseph W. Vickers upheld the divorce decree.
On February 2, 1940, newspapers reported that, in exchange for $6,500, Vera had surrendered all claims to the name “Laurel.”
The money would come in handy because the former Mrs. Laurel would soon need that money for additional lawyer’s fees and eventually train fare out of town. But rather than put the $6,500 aside for her future, Vera went on a binge.
On February 3, 1940, the LAPD responded to complaints of a raucous apartment party at 6434 Yucca Street. Someone’s extended revelry had become too much for the other tenants; their appeals to the landlord resulted in a phone call to the police.
Hostess Vera Lebedeff aka Vera Lubov, a Yiddish Theatre actress whose well-received novel “The Heart Returneth” would be published three year later, came along peaceably when the police knocked at the door but not the life of the party – Vera Shuvalova. Both women were released on $20 bond and both failed to appear.
Three days later, the two Veras were again arrested for intoxication.
They’d been causing trouble at several Hollywood nightclubs and managing to stay one step ahead of the police.
According to the Feb 16, 1940 edition of Appleton, Wisconsin Post-Crescent newspaper, one Los Angeles reporter submitted this account of the evening:
This is the itinerary of Illeana’s latest journey to the clink; along about 2:00 a.m. Illeana and Vera, her drinking companion, after touring other night spots, had run up a $7.00 bill for strong drinks at the Jane Jones Little Club on Sunset Boulevard (*).
Bartender Herman suggested that the ladies pay up. ‘Nutsky’ or words to that effect, said Illeana. ‘Comes the revolution and I’ll have the strawberries and cream and you’ll have the hives.’ The bartender snatched Illeana’s fur coat for security. The ladies called a cab.
‘Where to?’ asked the driver James L. Ring.
‘Figure it out for yourselfsky, comrade,’ snarled Illeana, it’s cab, ain’t it?”
Ring figured it out. He drove around until the meter figured $12.50 and then deposited them at the sheriff’s Fairfax sub-station.
‘I want the Commissar,’ screamed Illeana. But she got a ride in the Black Maria.
The gals were chanting the Vodka boat song when the patrol wagon drew up at the jail.
‘Ah, cried Illeana.’The Kremlin home again.’
*Quick note – the Jane Jones Little Club, described by queermaps.com as ‘a chic lesbian-centric nightclub’ was located at 8730 Sunset Blvd. Named for co-owner vaudeville and motion picture actress Jane Jones, the club opened May 1936, was raided in Sept 1939 and subsequently lost their liquor license because they were caught serving alcohol after hours. No nightclub could survive that. The doors closed for good in early 1940, not long after the two Veras pulled a drink and dash.
think we all can detect a little tongue-in-cheek poetic license in the
above reporting by a Los Angeles scribe but the facts are correct even if the dialogue seems
Each of the women entered a plea of not guilty and demanded a jury trial.
Beverly Hills Justice of the Peace Cecil B. Holland released Vera Shuvalova on a $150 bond; bond for Vera Lebedeff was set at $100.
“This is leap year,” Judge Holland remarked, “and Feb 29 is supposed to be an important day for women. Is that date satisfactory?”
Both defendants agreed.
Reporters greeted them as they exited and asked for a comment.
Vera Shuvalova declared indignantly, “Friends of mine got me into this trouble. You can bet it will never happen again.”
Vera Lebedeff stuck her tongue out at the reporters and announced she had nothing to say.
On February 9, 1940, rather than plead her case to a jury, Vera Shuvalova made a deal with Judge Cecil B. Holland.
Judge Holland sentenced her to 60 days in jail on a charge of public intoxication. The judge was willing to suspend all but 15 days of the sentence on the condition that she leave California for a period of one year. If Vera returned to California before the year was up, she would have to serve the other 45 days.
“It’s for the safety of our officers,” Judge Holland said.
Vera’s fifteen-day sentence would run concurrently with a separate five-day sentence imposed for an unresolved previous conviction.
This prior charge of ‘disturbing the peace’ stemmed from a February 9, 1939 incident in which Vera, at the time on probation for ‘reckless driving,’ caused a ruckus at the Bublichki Cafe (8846 Sunset Blvd) in which she allegedly made a speech about the Bolsheviks.
Yes, the same Bublichki Cafe where Countess Sonia occassionally appeared and where Yasmin Ali acted as hostess.
“The Bolsheviks killed my brother,” Vera said, “and that man over there is a Bolshevik.” The man Vera was pointing to was George Stout, head of the liquor law enforcement in California.
According to testimony provided by the cafe’s bartender, William Harry Walters, at Vera’s April 27, 1939 trial, “Stout told her to be a good girl and go home but she told him he was a cop and could do as she pleased.”
Vera then decided she preferred to raise a glass with Stout and Maurice “Moe” Genser, a California DMV official, who was seated at another table.
“She wanted to buy champagne for Stout and Genser, but we didn’t sell her any,” Walters told the court.
“Laurel had called us the day before and said he wouldn’t pay her bills,” he added.
When Vera wouldn’t stop annoying the paying customers, the proprietor’s wife, Mary Danaroff, called the police. Vera was arrested for public intoxication and disturbing the peace.
Vera had been released on bond following that arrest but failed to appear for her April 4, 1939 trial. A bench warrant had been issued and Vera was arrested, without incident, on April 6th, 1939.
She would later explain her absence from court on April 4th by saying she had been ill, that she had been operated on and had been convalescing at Murietta Hot Springs. That’s as vague as it is intriguing.
An eyewitness account from a Los Angeles Daily News reporter claimed during her April 27th trial, Vera shook with laughter as the prosecution presented its case but when she took the stand to defend herself she sobbed loudly.
Vera testified that she was not drunk at time but feeling the effects of a sedative her doctor had given her. “It must have gone to my head. But I did not lose my head until I heard somebody say a mean thing about me – that I had taken that nice man, Stan Laurel, for a ride.” she explained.
The jury, after deliberating for all of 15 minutes, found Vera guilty.
At a later hearing, Justice H. Leonard Kaufman sentenced Vera to spend 5 days in jail and pay a $100 fine.
Vera’s lawyer asked for probation.
Judge Kaufman rejected the counter offer of probation and told Vera “This should be an ordinary drunk case. But evidently you want to focus attention on yourself for publicity purposes and your attitude has not only been that the whole thing was a huge joke, but it has been an attitude of disrespect for American courts.”
Despite this harsh assessment by the judge, he released Vera on bond after Vera’s lawyer announced his intention to appeal the conviction.
This maneuver allowed Vera to remain at liberty and postpone a jail term but it all caught up to her on February 9, 1940.
When Vera left the prison on February 23, 1940, she was greeted by reporters. “Goodbye, boys!” she shouted. “I’m through. I’m going east!”
One day later, two deputy sheriffs escorted Vera to the Union Station, where she boarded the Santa Fe Chief bound for Pittsburgh. New York was her final destination.
Vera’s lawyer, S. S. Hahn, had already announced his client was booked for several east coast singing engagements.
Unfazed by her banishment, Vera told reporters that she had lost a pound a day while in prison and recommended incarceration for anyone struggling to lose weight.
“I can’t be too unhappy about my exile,” Vera said. “After all, New York is no Siberia. There are nightclubs there, and gaiety and laughter and life that I love.
“My life has been filled with much unhappiness here because of my domestic troubles with Stan Laurel and my arrests and everything. I will be glad to get away from all that in the east for a while.”
There’s no clear indication of what became of Vera Lebedeff’s case.
So notorious was Vera Shuvalova’s behavior that, in response to one of her incarcerations, poet Ethel Jacobson wrote the following verse:
A RUSSIAN PROBLEM OF OUR OWN
All is quiet, calm, serene,
Nothing mars the peaceful scene.
Stack the empties in the sink,
Illeana’s in the clink.
Now the clamor’s evanesced;
Riot squads can get some rest
Now the uproar can subside;
Illeana’s roped and tied.
|Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph|
On March 18, 1940, Vera reportedly shattered box office records when more than 2,200 people turned out to see the train wreck that was “Illeana” performing, 4 shows a day, at the Casino burlesque theater in Pittsburgh.
I’m not doubting Vera’s talent as a songstress but, at this point in her career, she was more of a celebrity curiosity than anything else.
The name “Illeana” appeared occasionally in newspapers after her divorce from Stan, but usually in connection to some petty crime, character defect or dramatic behavior. Vera eventually faded away.
In a 2007 work of biographical fiction called “He: A Novel,” author John Connolly describes the Stan Laurel/Vera Shuvalova/Countess Sonia dynamic in this way:
Her name is Vera Ivanova Shuvalova, but she usually goes by her stage
name of Illeana. She is a Russian gold-digger of the worst stripe, as
well as an appalling alcoholic.
She travels with a woman named Countess Sonia, who claims to be
descended from Russian royalty and may or may not be Illeana’s mother.
Laurel’s introduction to these women has come through Roy Randolph, a
Hollywood dancing master only recently acquitted of sexually assaulting a
young actress. There is little money for Randolph in giving dancing
lessons, but more in introducing his Russian friends to a movie star,
especially one who is building up a track record of broken marriages.
Which is how Laurel has ended up in Yuma, Arizona, married to a woman he
For more along this line, you can read Connolly’s book but I stress that it is a work of fiction.
There is no indication anywhere that Vera is Sonia’s daughter but because John Connolly included this musing in his novel, many have seriously considered the possibility or taken it as fact.
However, Sonia’s earliest and subsequent applications for citizenship clearly state that she has no children.
Vera Shuvalova was born in Cissia, Georgia, Russia; she lists her birth date as September 24, 1912. Although, it’s possible that she shaved two years off her age and was actually born in 1910.
While Sonia, born in 1896 or 1897, was certainly biologically old enough to bear children at the time of Vera’s birth, she would have been unmarried and as young as 13 but no older than 16 years old.
I do not believe the two women were mother and daughter.
Vera, Sonia and Roy don’t fair any better in the 2002 Simon Louvish book “Stan and Ollie, The Roots of Comedy: The Double Life of Laurel and Hardy.”
Louvish describes Sonia and Roy as “constant companions of Illiana in her Hollywood carousings, attached like barnacles to a shipwreck.”
Knowing me, as I do, I’ll keep looking for information concerning Vera Shuvalova’s life and death. Perhaps she’ll get her own blog entry one day. She’s certainly notorious enough to warrant one. With this in mind, I’ll keep some things in reserve.
For now, in my research, I lose track of Vera in 1943, when she was 31-years-old. I don’t know when she died.
However, Vera’s post-Stan years are described thusly by Peter Underwood in his 1992 book “Death in Hollywood:”
After the divorce, Illeana Shuvalova drifted into acute alcoholism and drug addiction; her liver became affected and she died before reaching her 45th birthday.
There’s no specific date of death mentioned nor does the author reveal where Vera was living when she died so it’s difficult for me to confirm this assertion. Underwood doesn’t identify his source for this information either.
If we accept Vera’s birth year as 1912, she would have turned 45 in 1957.
In Underwood’s defense, that one line from “Death in Hollywood” is taken from a chapter about Laurel and Hardy not Vera. It’s entirely possible that Peter Underwood, who believed very strongly in the paranormal, didn’t require the kind of supporting documentation that I do.
The 1980 book “Stan: the life of Stan Laurel” written by Fred Lawrence Guiles, sums up Vera’s later life in three lines:
“Illeana drifted into a drearly life of alcoholism and drug addiction. Her attractive slavic features were soon blurred by puffiness as body water bloated her when her liver began to fail. She died in her early forties.”
Sounds as though the above paragraph might be Peter Underwood’s unnamed source.
In the 2002 book, “Stan and Ollie, the roots of comedy: the double life of Laurel and Hardy,” author Simon Louvish states that it’s possible Vera died in 1994 but he doesn’t seem entirely sure.
Louvish begins the paragraph with “The merry-making Illiana’s fate is less certain. Where she went, whom she married, divorced, remarried, drove crazy, remains outside our tale.”
Then Louvish references a San Francisco death certificate for a “Vera I. Ivanova” (Vera Shuvalova’s maiden name). The document lists the woman’s birth date as November 6, 1897; her death date February 7, 1994. This Vera was 96 when she died.
I’m not saying Louvish is wrong but I don’t think he’s right – there’s a difference. For one, the birthdate is wrong. And I don’t just mean the year. Vera was born on September 24th, in either 1910 or 1912.
I’m not sure how much of a friendship existed between Vera Shuvalova and Countess Sonia once Vera left Los Angeles. Not everything is reported in newspapers.
I’d mentioned previously that Countess Sonia D’Andrie had appeared in several films and yes, Countess Sonia does have her own IMDb page where she is credited with three film appearances. I have seen two of these films.
Sonia’s first film, 1934’s “Three on a Honeymoon,” is considered lost.
She is identified in the cast list as “specialty dancer.” The film’s working title was “Promenade Deck” and the action takes place aboard a cruise ship. I’m going to assume that Sonia was part of some onboard entertainment.
Naturally, given that Sonia’s fame came from her dancing, “Three on a Honeymoon” is the film I was most interested in
seeing, plus it costars ZaSu Pitts, but that hasn’t proved possible. The film is considered ‘lost.’ However, I’ve read that the film was recently screened at a film festival so perhaps one day ….
Sonja’s second film credit is 1935’s “Naughty Marietta.” Sonia is included in the musical number “Ship Ahoy,” sung primarily by Jeanettte MacDonald. Unfortunately, this is not an opportunity to see Sonia dancing.
For most of her time on screen, Sonia’s head is stuck through a hole in curtain. I’m taking IMDb on their word that the woman at the top left of the screen is Sonia.
|Screen capture from “Naughty Marietta” (1935)|
Sonia’s third and final film appearance was as “townswoman” in the 1938 Laurel & Hardy picture “Swiss Miss.” As anyone who has seen this picture knows, there are hundreds of townspeople on screen.
Sonia appearing as extra in this film makes sense given her friendship with Laurel’s wife but she clearly doesn’t exploit the relationship too greatly. Sonia’s name doesn’t appear in the credits, she has no lines or even a close-up; she’s basically background talent.
I can personally attest to the fact that Sonia’s IMDb page is incomplete.
Absent from the list is Sonia’s appearance as a contestant on “You Bet Your Life.”
Sonia would have been roughly 61 years old then, and one would assume, retired.
|Screen capture from “You Bet Your Life”|
The episode was recorded on November 16, 1955 and it aired on January 5, 1956. I’ve uploaded her portion of that episode to the As Close To Crime YouTube channel.
Unless I can find film footage of her dancing, this really is the best way to see Sonia.
Here is a link – https://youtu.be/qGbCDpBL0pw
It seems possible that there are other omissions in Sonia’s IMDb credits.
Two newspaper articles printed before 1934 reference Sonia’s appearance in motion pictures.
A September 28, 1929 article appearing in the Minneapolis Star claims, “She achieved fame in motion pictures, then went on the vaudeville stage.”
According to a United Press piece published in January 1931, Sonia “has played several roles in motion pictures in Hollywood.”
Not a single title or costar is named so I’ve been unable to confirm or deny these claims.
This leaves me wondering if Sonia and/or her publicist are referring to the films made during the 1923 Monroe Doctrine Centennial. Or did Sonia perhaps participate in some Vitaphone shorts, many of which are lost?
Perhaps Sonia appeared in one or more of the fifteen films her friend (and former Monroe Doctrine Centennial choreographer), Russian-born dancer/actor Theodore Kosloff made between 1923 and 1930?
Film studios back then didn’t provide the viewing audience an entire cast list in their end credits.
Or, are newspapers confusing Countess Sonia D’Andrie with a woman I’d mentioned earlier – Countess Sonia Poushkareff?
Before becoming a dentist, Sonia Poushkareff appeared in more than a dozen silent movies in two years, including the 1927 drama “Resurrection.” She also found some work writing film scenarios.
Sonia Poushkareff, or Sonia Igor, as she says she was billed then, was never a major film star and only ever played minor or bit parts so perhaps leaving it all behind to pursue a more fulfilling line of work was easy for her. She does not have her own IMDb page.
How and when Countess Sonia Belikovitch nee’ Sophie Riazanoff acquired the last name of D’Andrie remains a mystery to me. I can’t find a marriage listing for Sonia. So, either she married overseas or Sonia simply adopted this name because she preferred it to Belikovitch. You know what show folk are like.
Sonia’s death certificate lists her marital status as ‘divorced.” Is that divorced from Eugene Belikovitch or Mr. D’Andrie?
This new last name, D’Andrie, appears in newspapers as early as 1931 and it is the name used for Sonia’s 1990 obituary and death certificate but many official documents, dated later than 1931 still bear her married name of Belikovitch. Newspaper articles, phone books and voter registrations are the exceptions – in those she is Sonia D’Andrie.
Line 21 of Sonia’s 1942 Petition for Naturalization reads –
(21) Wherefore, I, your petitioner for naturalization, pray that I might be admitted a citizen of the United States of America, and that my name be changed to SOPHIE D’ANDRIE.
You can see from her signature that Sonia had initially signed the document using her new name but had to cross it out and resign the form using “Sophie Belikovitch.”
It took me quite some time to find an admission of deception by Sonia regarding her status as a “Countess.” However, my perseverance paid off – in the final 8 lines of the very last paragraph of a two-page spread in the Sunday edition of the L.A. Times (March 15, 1936), written by Mary C. Kennan –
MEET OUR TITLED NEIGHBORS
And then there is the Countess Sonia, who runs a restaurant, and whose title is just as imaginary. She is forgiven, however, because she admits frankly that the “countess” doesn’t mean anything, but is only the stage name she used when she was a dancer.
The last address I have for Sonia, before she was admitted to a nursing home, is 2174 Canyon Drive, in the Hollywood Dell section of Los Angeles. It’s a fifteen minute drive northeast to the Griffith Observatory.
|2174 Canyon Drive|
Construction on this single family house, dubbed ‘Arch Lane Knoll,’ began in 1921 and was built for prominent Los Angeles jeweler Sam Prager and his family.
The home’s value, according to the 1940 census, was an estimated $10,000.
The house was placed on the market in April 1945, less than a year after the death of Charlotta Prager, his wife of 52 years. The real estate advertisement does not list an asking price but describes it as “The home for discriminating people.”
I can’t trace the ownership of the house to see for certain if it was Sonia who purchased it from Sam Prager. Well, not for free or from a remote location anyway.
There are three newspaper articles from 1949 which place Sonia at that location (January 5th, and two from September, the 20th and 21st).
There is an ad in the real estate section of the Sept 30, 1949 Los Angeles Evening Citizens News under ‘Residential Rentals’ for 2174 Canyon Drive which promotes the fact that the residence is within walking distance to downtown Hollywood and lists it as available for $200 a month.
Did Sonia buy the property in 1945 then decide to use it as a rental property following an incident at the home on September 20, 1949? An involving her house guest, Queenie Kaili, and two marauding stray dogs.
|Queenie & husband David|
Queenie, affectionately referred to as “Hawaii’s Sophie Tucker,” suffered a back injury after Sonia’s German shepherd Tex knocked her to the ground in an effort to defend Sonia’s chickens from an attack by two stray dogs.
According to the Los Angeles Times:
Police received a call that the two women were being attacked by “wild dogs.”
There was little Radio Patrol Officers L.J. Bonanno and J.E. Morgan could do when they arrived on the scene; Tex had done his job and chased the other dogs into the street by then.
The Los Angeles Evening Citizens News article from January 5, 1949 concerned a birthday party for Charles Pickard (*) which was held at Sonia’s residence.
More than 30 guests had been bidden to the formal gathering which included a midnight buffet of turkey and caviar. Climaxing the festivities was the appearance of Mrs. Pickard bearing a huge birthday cake aglow with candles.
(*) I believe this would be Charles Pickard of “The Pickard Family” fame. The Pickards were a popular musical act that first appeared at the Grand Ole Opry in 1926. The group enjoyed decades of success on the radio and even on television. Their series “Sunday at Home,” with a running time of 15 minutes, premiered July 3, 1949. Charlie later enjoyed a solo career as a guitar-strumming folk singer/humorist. In this group shot, Charlie is on the extreme left.
When the 1950 US Census is released, I will naturally be searching for Sonia to see where she was living.
I’ve searched for Sonia on the Library of Congress website, under the B, C & D sections of several White Pages books, spanning the 1950’s and 1960’s, but to no avail.
Perhaps Sonia held on to the Canyon Drive property until her health began to fail? I see from Sonia’s death certificate that she had been suffering from ‘hypertension’ since 1975.
As far as real estate records are concerned, I can only go as far back as May 1977 when the home was listed as “needs work but well worth it!!” The asking price was $149,500 and it sold on July 8, 1977 for $147,000.
The property was on the market again in June 1998 and described as a “fixer with tremendous potential” the asking price was $899,00. It sold on December 14, 1998 for $695,000.
The current estimated value of the home is $3,879,000.
Countess Sonia died on January 3, 1990 at the Alexandria Convalescent Home (now the Alexandria Care Center) located at 1515 N. Alexandria Avenue, Los Angeles. According to her death certificate, Sonia was 95 years old; her obituary says she was 98.
Cause of death was ‘multi organ failure.’ Her death certificate tells a fuller story. Contributing factors associated with Sonia’s death were ‘advanced arteriosclerosis’ (1 yr) and ‘hypertension’ (15 yrs).
I also noticed, with some sadness, that Sonia had been suffering from ‘senile dementia’ prior to her death; her condition requiring a ‘feeding gastrostomy” procedure in May 1989.
According to Sonia’s obituary, as it appeared in the Los Angeles Times on January 6, 1990, she was “survived by her self-adopted family: sister Miss Jean Leavitt, niece, Joy Prindle; great-nieces, Jeannie and Lorraine; great-nephew, Richard.”
Once again, more questions than answers.
Who is Jean Leavitt? Where was Sonia to be buried?
Perhaps we can draw a line from Jean Leavitt (1913-1994) to Countess Sonia by information gleaned from the 1940 US Census?
According to that record, Jean was a 26-year-old, widowed, single mother of one child (Joy). Jean and her daughter were living in an apartment building at 967 Hobart Avenue and Jean was working as a ‘waitress at a nightclub.’ Five years before she had been living in Chicago, Illinois. Her name then was Jean Delroy.
There is no specific restaurant mentioned as Jean’s place of employment in 1940 but is it possible that Jean worked at Countess Sonia’s Rendezvous?
Then again, the 1948 Culver City, California phone book shows Jean and her new husband James Paul Horton were living at 10751 Garfield Ave.
Perhaps, as Culver City residents, the Hortons frequented Countess Sonia’s Cafe on W. Washington Blvd.? The two locations were only 10 minutes apart. Maybe that is how they became acquainted?
Maybe Jean and Sonia met through Bernard Leavitt, whom Jean married in 1971, twenty years after the premature death of James Horton? James died in 1951, following a short illness – he was 46 years old. Bernard Leavitt, at one time, owned a chain of movie theaters in Santa Monica, Culver City, Laguna Beach and Eagle Rock.
Maybe they met through one of Jean’s many charitable organizations?
At this point, it’s impossible to know for sure how the two women became friends. I’d like to think the first scenario is true but I have no way of proving it. What I can know for certain, however, is that Jean Leavitt is listed as the informant on Sonia’s death certificate.
As to the matter of Sonia’s remains – she was cremated and her ashes scattered at sea by the Neptune Society on January 17, 1990, at a location near the Point Fermin Lighthouse in San Pedro, Los Angeles.
|Point Fermin, Los Angeles, California|
I’ll conclude with a tale told by Tara Gordon on her Leo Gordon Facebook page.
Years after Leo’s release from prison, he took his wife Lynn to the bar where he was shot. Without revealing who he was, Leo mentioned the incident to Countess Sonia.
As Tara tells it “She sat down with them and described the events in great detail, totally unaware of who she was talking to. She looked right at Leo and said (about him), “I’ll never forget that man’s face as long as I live.”