Thursday, September 1, 2011

The mysterious death of the first Superman

Tribeca. 7:45 PM. Photo: JH.
Thursday, September 1, 2011. A warm, beautiful, slightly humid day in New York. This is the last week of summer for a lot of people. School’s back soon and the beach bunnies return to the bricks and mortar of the city. I lunched at Michael’s and for the first Wednesday in all the times I’ve gone there, it was not full. It was even quiet. Some men were even lunching with their wives, which tells you more than a little something about their workdays this week.

Next to the last retro in our series. We first ran this piece in 2003. For anyone born after 1960, the players are long forgotten, but for the boomer generation, they still live in vivid childhood memory:

When I lived in Los Angeles I had the good fortune
to meet a lot of individuals who had substantial careers in the film business, particularly those who worked in that time that is now known as the Golden Age of Movies. Those were the days when the studios were the Dream Factories, fiefdoms run by moguls. And the community known as Hollywood was densely populated with very talented, often brilliant, sometimes genius people – artists, designers, writers, directors, producers, choreographers, actors, singers, dancers, musicians, hair stylists, agents, press agents and executives.

In its heyday it was without question the most concentrated force of creative people in the United States. From the 1920s through the early 1950s, the motion picture industry, aka the picture business as it was then known, centered in Los Angeles, was a small town of bright, even brilliant people who ultimately became some of the most powerful contributors to the culture known as the American Century.
George Reeves, the original star of television's "The Adventures of Superman" from 1951 to 1959.
Aside from creating the notion of “glamour” and “stardom” that still exists today despite the slapdash approach we take for granted, the influence of this community called Hollywood conquered the world’s hearts and minds.

Its citizens were, however, highly creative, and also led very creative lives. Not all, but many. And by creative I mean drama, color, action, secrets, monsters, angels, sex, victims and murderers, emperors, clowns, courtesans, and slaves. Owned by the studios, the actors were the real slaves. Although their producers and pedicurists might not have agreed.

"Superman" the comic strip came to television (as “The Adventures of… etc.) in the 1950s with an actor named George Reeves in the title role. Reeves was a good-looking, clean-cut, dark-haired guy, handsome yet ordinary looking: in his late 30s, the perfect all-American post-War everyman. It was no accident that his singular successor, Christopher Reeve, in the movies, a level George never achieved as actor, is an updated version of the same.
In costume in color and with his co-star "Lois Lane" Noel Neill. Although television was black and white in those days, the last two years of the show were shot in color and so they re-run now in their original color.
The coming of television terrified the film industry in the early 1950s. No one had any vision about the new medium (with the possible exception of Jules Stein and Lew Wasserman, who were still agents in those days). The studios were afraid they would be killed by it. So did just about everybody else.

This was traumatic because they had been spoiled. In the mid-1940s when the country’s population was about 145 million, forty to fifty million Americans went to the movies every week. There were dozens of movie magazines. Two women, Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper wrote syndicated movie gossip columns read by millions daily. Radio shows featuring the movie stars drew the biggest ratings. The major studios ruled the town (with MGM at the top of the heap, and Louis B. Mayer its king). Then television came along and suddenly broke the stats by the as the boob tube took over millions of American homes in the early 1950s.

For actors, television was a boon. It was work, a job; the rent; a way to keep food on the table until a break in pictures came along. George Reeves was one of those actors. Born in Iowa in 1914, he was a Golden Gloves champion by his late teens with an excellent record (30 – 1). He’d migrated to Los Angeles when someone planted the idea his head that he was good looking enough to be a movie actor. He joined the Pasadena Playhouse. And somewhere thereafter someone discovered him. The director Victor Fleming hired him for a tiny but memorable part screentime-wise, in “Gone With the Wind” playing ones of the twin brothers who were charmed by Scarlett O’Hara.
On the set of "Gone With the Wind," Vivien Leigh applying makeup with George Reeves overlooking, his back to the camera,
L. to r.: The Tartleton Twins with Scarlett on the veranda of Tara in "Gone With The Wind," with Fred Crane, left, Vivien Leigh, center, and George Reeves; With Rita Hayworth in "The Strawberry Blonde."
George was serious about his work, but as it is for most who pursue that kind of employment, it wasn’t easy. By the early 50s he was just getting by. That early break had seemingly run its course and rather unspectacularly, and George very possibly might not have gone much further if it hadn’t been for a certain woman who happened to be the wife of a very powerful man at MGM.

George was one of those big all-American handsome guys who even in a suit looked like he could take on an army with his own hands, but was a sucker when it came to the dames. And dames is what he was naturally attracted to.

He had been struggling along in Hollywood through most of the 1940s, as just another pretty face leading man playing second and third roles when he met her.

George at a premiere with ice skating star Sonja Henie.
Eddie Mannix.
George with the lady herself, Mrs. Eddie Mannix, also known as Toni, and once upon a time as Legs Lanier.
Her name was Toni Mannix, the wife of Eddie Mannix, the number two man at Metro. Mannix was the eyes and ears on the Coast for Nick Schenck, the head of Loew's Inc. (which owned Metro) back in New York. In a way, because of it, he had more power than even Mr. Mayer. In fact, at the time of this story, which I am about to tell, after more than twenty-five years of success beyond compare, Mr. Mayer's days as head of the studio were just about over. But not so for Eddie Mannix.

Eddie Mannix had come up through the school of hard knocks. He started out as a bouncer at Palisades Park over in Jersey back in the 1920s, working for the Schencks, Nick and Joe who owned the Park but would later make their fortunes through MGM and 20th Century-Fox.

Eddie was your basic tough guy, with a thick set of knuckles to deliver the harsher messages to anyone who stepped out of line. A dees dems and dose mug who also had an eye for the ladies, even though he was married to a real pretty Irish girl from New York, the former Bernice Fitzmaurice.

The eye for the ladies is important to this story. Once he was living out in Hollywood – in Beverly Hills – and pulling down a big salary at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Eddie Mannix's "eye" got him in some real trouble.

There was the incident when he had a “showgirl” up for a nightcap at an apartment he kept on the side over in West Hollywood. The next day they found her on the floor, beside the bed that Eddie was passed out on. She was dead. And she also just happened to have Eddie Mannix’s semen in her mouth. The press said it was suicide. Which, no doubt, it was; one way or the other.

This was a real squeezer for Eddie Mannix, and another crisis-control job for Howard Strickling, the studio’s publicity head. It was an especially thorny matter with Bernice Mannix too. She didn't like it one damned bit. She let it go this time though, hoping it would teach him a lesson.

But it didn't. On another trip back East to visit the home office and Mr. Schenck, Eddie ran into another showgirl known around Broadway as Legs Lanier. One thing led to another and before they knew it, the two started seeing more and more of each other.

One day Legs, who was looking to go legit, decided to change her name to Toni. She then moved West to be near her man, married though he still was. Legs/Toni was a charmer when it came to getting a guy.

She knew what to do and when to do it, and she was tough. Like the wife. But maybe tougher, After going around with Mr. Mannix for awhile, “Toni,” got into the habit of telling people that she had become Mrs. Mannix.

When the real Mrs. Mannix got wind of this, which didn’t take long in that particularly small town of Hollywood, she was so angry, she went straight to the lawyers, got herself a nice settlement, a divorce, and moved to Palm Springs. You wan’ him, be my guest. Although it still did not end well for Bernice Mannix. She was killed in an automobile accident, and at the time it was widely believed (although never proven) Eddie had her killed.

Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, gangland's dapper Dan, always stylish until ...
... he wasn't. Police photo of Siegel, murdered gangland style, on the living room sofa in his girlfriend Virginia Hill's house in Bevelry Hills on June 20, 1947.
Toni and Eddie still didn't marry. Although she told everyone she was the Missus. They now lived together as man and wife in a very nice house on Linden Drive in Beverly Hills, just up the block from where Bugsy Siegel got knocked off one June night in 1947 by Meyer Lansky’s boys, shot through the living room window of his girlfriend Virginia Hill’s house, while reading the Los Angeles Times.

Married or not, now Eddie Mannix couldn't get rid of Toni Lanier because she had "too much on him," particularly the business about the girl on the floor in the apartment. A few years, however, as irony will have it, Toni Mannix tired of her Eddie, or vice versa, and she finally got the message. So without changing any of their living arrangements, she took up with handsome George Reeves, whose career at that moment was just about in the pits.

Toni took a real liking to George. Unlike Eddie, he was a real good-looking guy. Her type of man. Eddie Mannix knew all about George Reeves and Toni long before. It came as a relief; it got her off his back.

A friend of theirs recalled to me being over at the Mannix house one morning with Eddie sitting at the kitchen table in his bathrobe and pajamas eating his breakfast, when, without knocking or ringing the doorbell, in comes George, bounding through the backdoor. He says hello to Eddie, Eddie says hello to him, and George goes straight for the refrigerator where he helped himself to a glass of milk. "That was how familiar everyone was with each other," the friend recalled. An understanding, Hollywood-style.

No matter, Toni bought her guy a nice little cottage way up on Benedict Canyon, number 1659. She bought him a car, some decent suits, dressing him for the part. And then came the "Superman" series and Toni put her connections to work.

George’s work schedule on the show was heavy. They'd shoot 26 half hour episodes in thirteen weeks. The money was lousy too. Toni didn’t mind it taking time away from her. She was used to that, being from the business herself. She would just go down to the studio to lunch (and keep her eye) on him.

One day they asked George’s co-stars -- "Lois Lane" and "Jimmy Olsen" to join them in George’s trailer. The conversation over sandwiches got into "age" and "shape." Toni told Jimmy that she was in such great shape that she didn't need to wear a bra. To prove her point, she took Jimmy's hand and put it inside her blouse, on her chest, so that he could tell "firsthand." Ahh, so ...
The house on Linden Drive where Siegel was murdered.
"That," said a friend who related the story, "was Toni. Obsessed with the physical and herself."

After a year, the "Superman" series was getting so popular, the producers began sending George out on publicity tours all over the country. Everyone knew that George was "Toni's guy," but not everyone, especially Toni, knew that George also had an eye for the broads. Just like her “husband.” Same type too.

A few years into the run, on one tour, in Florida, George met a woman named Lenore Lemmon — also well known in New York as a showgirl. And also a tough dame. George, however, fell for Lenore Lemmon, and in short time he asked her to marry him. She said yes.

Lenore Lemmon, in one of her sour moments.
When he got back to California, he broke the news to Toni. She was shattered, but not the type to show it, so he went away thinking he’d escaped. By this time his career was sailing. He was famous. The show was renewed, year after year. The new fame and prosperous career probably helped him delude himself about the situation with Toni. He thought everything was fine; free at last. But George was as naive as Clark Kent looks. Toni was outraged. Not for nothing did Eddie Mannix blow off his Bernice for Legs Lanier. Had George really forgotten from whence all blessings came?

So outraged was this dame that she had other plans for George, like a major career move. In those days, there was a heavy Mob influence at the studios, including MGM where it was well known around the lot that you could get someone to “off” someone for "a hundred and a half."

Toni Mannix knew this, the same way a woman knows her husband’s business. On the night of June 15, 1959, George Reeves, the actor, was no longer starving. He was in good shape with a nice chunk of cash in the bank. “The Adventures of Superman” had been re-newed for another two years. This would make it eight years (syndication and rights had not yet been dreamed up by some canny producer). He had already grown very tired of the grind of the same-old-same-old, script-wise, but twenty years had passed since Victor Fleming gave him his “break” with the part in GWTW. He wasn’t a movie star, but he was a “name” now, and he also had been given in his new contract the opportunity to direct some episodes. He had put Toni Mannix and that business behind him, or so he thought. Things were definitely looking up.
Noel Neill ("Lois Lane") on the set of "Superman" with Clark Kent (George Reeves).
Although, in the weeks leading up to this June night, George had been getting frequent mysterious threatening phone calls to his unlisted numbers, sometimes as many as twenty calls a day. He told the police when he reported it that he suspected Mrs. Mannix. Although, it was unlikely that the police were going to trouble Mr. Mannix with the matter.

George had also been in a couple of auto accidents in recent months which were close-calls. One seemed less like an “accident” when it was discovered later by a mechanic that George’s brakes failed and he narrowly escaped death because someone had pumped the brake fluid from them. In another much more recent accident he had seriously injured his right hand, and had been prescribed painkillers for it.

Under those conditions and circumstances on this Monday night, he took his betrothed, the lovely although temperamental Lenore, to dinner. They were scheduled to marry in a couple of days, after which they were off to Europe on honeymoon, then returning to Los Angeles and on to Australia where George was to make personal appearances (and pick up $20,000) for the Australian television’s debut of the “Superman” series.

George and Lenore was not all copasetic that night, however. George had quite a bit to drink – which was not uncommon with him (or her) – and by the time they got back to the house on Benedict Canyon, close to midnight, they were arguing, loudly.
George's bungalow in Benedict Canyon in Beverly Hills, a gift from Toni Mannix, and the scene of his untimely death.
The details of their altercation and what exactly happened after that, remains speculation to this day. There are various theories since the final explanation of the LAPD and the LA coroner’s office closed the case forever.

My source, who had a professional and social relationship with George Reeves, reported it matter-of-factly, at the same time I was told that “in those days you could get a guy to murder someone for you for a hundred and a half.”

"The guy just went over to George's house,” my friend recounted, “and into his room, and shot him in the head and put the gun in his hand." Word got out that it was "suicide," and because M-G-M and Eddie Mannix were still powerful, that was how it was told to the papers. Hell hath no fury.”

There’s more to the scene of the crime.
When George and Lenore got back to the house after dinner and had their “quarrel,” they were joined by two friends, a man and a woman. There are several versions of their arrival. In one version, George was angry that these people had showed up at the door (common practice in the days before insta-phone access etc.) at that hour. Lenore evidently wanted them, maybe invited them, and George, reportedly angry, went upstairs to bed.

A few minutes later (in all versions) Lenore and her guests heard a gunshot. She went upstairs and found George “naked” lying in a body-twisted position on the bed, shot in the head, with the bullet lodged in the ceiling, with the gun on the floor at his feet.

Johnny Stompanato's body at the crime scene.
Coincidentally or not, like the Doheny murder, and the Johnny Stomponato-Lana Turner affair, the LAPD was not called immediately. It might very well have been the deft hand of Howard Strickling at work once again.

About two hours after George Reeves demise, they called the cops. The cops found the Lugar on the floor – which belonged to the deceased. It had no fingerprints on it, which meant that fingerprints were either wiped off by someone after the fact, or that the gun was so well-oiled the prints had dissolved in it. This was not noted.

George, it was said, also liked to occasionally play Russian Roulette. On top of that, Lenore reported that he was “very depressed” at this time – although it seems ironic, in retrospect considering the future plans that he already knew about – a new marriage, a new contract, Europe, Australia.

George, it was also found, had a .27 alcohol level in his bloodstream at the time of death, well beyond a little too much. He also was on painkillers for his right hand, injured in the recent accident, which he had been told might never again have complete use of.

The police also found that there were no signs of burned gunpowder on the head of the 45-year-old deceased male. Very unusual for a self-inflicted gun wound to the head. They also found that the fatal bullet was lodged in the ceiling. It had also been noted that he shot himself with his “right hand,” although it was still very painful to move. These details required an odd contortion of the body in to hold the gun to his temple.

They also discovered that under a rug that had been very recently placed on the floor underneath where the gun was found, two more bullet holes. Lenore explained that she had done that accidentally while holding the gun a few days before.

Lenore Lemmon.
Whatever else they found or learned, it all added up to the same thing for the cops: Suicide. Many of George’s friends found it hard to believe that the actor who had everything to live for at that moment, would kill himself. His mother disbelieved it vehemently, and later got the courts to open up an inquest, all of which proved nothing. Suicide would be the official verdict.

Lenore Lemmon blew town two days later. She took with her $5000 in travelers cheques that George had bought for their European honeymoon ($5000 = approx. $60,000 in today’s currency). Since the cash was legally George’s property she was later asked to return them. She returned $4000.

When George Reeves' Will was read, Toni Mannix, all the way from Legs Lanier, was his main heir. She got the house, the car, and the $71,000 cash in his bank account.

Eddie Mannix died four years later in 1963 at age 72. Some who were familiar with the players said at the time that Toni Mannix killed him too. The rumor among some higher ups at the studio was that she poisoned him. True or not, on his deathbed, she finally married him for all the world to learn about, and inherited everything. She lived for a number of years after that in the house they shared where George used to come in through the kitchen door while Eddie was having his breakfast.

When she was in her seventies, Toni Mannix beginning to deteriorate, deeded her entire estate over to St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, and moved into one of the special suites the hospital used to keep for VIPs. There she lived out the rest of her days reminiscing about George and watching his old films and TV shows over and over.

"George Reeves," Toni Mannix always used to tell her visitors, "was one hell of a good-looking guy."

And he was her guy. Through and through. Over and over.


Comments? Contact DPC here.