Pageant winner fulfilled show business and personal ambitions. Then things went wrong.
Beauty pageants are a bit silly, perhaps, but the participants are generally ambitious people who see them as stepping stones to show business or modeling. And in mid-century Los Angeles in particular, even minor pageants occasionally led to stardom. In the above photos high school student Barbara Thomason wins the crown of Miss Muscle Beach 1954. Listed at 5 foot 3 inches and 110 pounds, she was a body-building enthusiast, and in the shot just below she celebrates her hard fought win by pumping a bit of iron while photographers click away and a crowd watches.
Did Thomason's victory lead to bigger things? Maybe not directly, but it probably helped. She was a habitual pageant participant who also won Miss Huntington Beach, Miss Van Ness, Miss Bay Beach, Miss Southwest Los Angeles, Miss Pacific Coast, Queen of Southern California, andten other titles. All that winning finally got her noticed by Hollywood movers and shakers. In 1955, performing under the name Carolyn Mitchell, she made her acting debut on the television show Crossroads, and in 1958 co-starred in two Roger Corman b-movies, The Crybaby Killer and Dragstrip Riot.
But she put her career on hold when she met and married a star—Mickey Rooney, who was nearly seventeen years her senior and nearly two inches her junior. Their union had problems from the beginning. The couple married secretly in Mexico because Rooney was still awaiting a divorce from actress Elaine Mahnken. They would have to wait almost two years before the law allowed them to wed in the U.S. Legalities, though doubtless bothersome, were the least of their problems. During the next six years, during which Thomason bore four children, Rooney indulged in numerous affairs.
It should probably be noted here that Thomason was Rooney's fifth wife. Among the predecessors were goddesses like Ava Gardner and Martha Vickers. We don't know what Thomason's expectations of marriage were, but clearly Rooney didn't know the meaning of the phrase “for better or worse.” The affairs continued, and eventually Thomason did the same with a temperamental Yugoslavian actor named Milos Milosevic, who performed under the name Milos Milos. But what was good for goose was not good for the gander—Rooney found out about these international relations, moved out of the Brentwood house he shared with Thomason, and filed for divorce, charging mental cruelty. The nerve, right?
On the morning of January 31, 1966, while Rooney was in St. John's Hospital recovering from an intestinal infection he'd picked up in the Philippines, Thomason and Milosevic were found together on the bathroom floor of the Brentwood house, dead. Milosevic had shot Thomason under the chin and killed himself with a temple shot using a chrome-plated .38 Rooney had bought in 1964. The consensus is Thomason had decided to dump Milosevic and he flipped out.
The photos below show Thomason on Muscle Beach during her halcyon years there, a mere teenager, frolicking in the sun, filled with youthful hopes for a good life. She won beauty titles, acted in films, married an icon, and had four children. Any of those accomplishments would have been good legacies. Instead her death at twenty-nine overshadowed all the rest, and she's remembered as another celebrity murder victim, Hollywood style, which is always somehow both sensational and banal.
Last stop—the city morgue.
Watching lots of movies eventually brings everything your way. The promo poster for Grand Central Murder lured us, and we found ourselves watching an archetypal Sherlockian whodunnit, complete with the villain unmasked in the final moments. When a Broadway showgirl is murdered on a private train car the police gather a gaggle of suspects and go through each of their stories trying to uncover the killer. Among the detainees—her escaped convict boyfriend, her sad sack ex-husband, her jealous co-worker, her phony psychic stepfather, her theatrical understudy, and others, including the convict's lawyer, played by lead actor Van Heflin. Various alibis and reminiscences are shown in flashback until the killer is revealed via a monologue that wraps everything up nice and neat. We wouldn't call the movie screamingly thrilling and funny like the poster does, but it's okay if you like mysteries, and the mass transit backdrop is actually kind of interesting. Grand Central Murder premiered in New York City today in 1942.
Bisset holds all the cards.
English actress Jacqueline Bisset peeks out from behind the suits of a card deck in this striking promo image made sometime during the late 1960s. A different photo from the session was used for the cover of Italian publisher Garzanti's 1970 release of 007 Casinò royal, which you see here as well. Bisset was born as Winifred (ouch!) Bisset in 1944 and made a name for herself in such impactful films as Bullitt, Murder on the Orient Express, The Deep, and Casino Royale. You could include efforts like Under the Volcano, The Man from Acapulco, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, and Two for the Road in the aforementioned list. All told, Bisset seems a bit under-appreciated considering her filmography, but not by us.
She always said his biggest problem was that he was pig-headed. Turns out she was right.
When you achieve something rare you want others to know. Usually these are minor things, like breaking 200 on bowling night or perfectly poaching an egg, and the subsequent boasts are basically harmless. But even people who do terrible things—and really should keep their mouths shut for the sake of self-preservation—will still at the very least hint at their accomplishments. Such was the case with 67-year-old Virginia Hayden, above, who regaled her grandson with tales of how useful pigs can be. Just like in those mafia movies, she explained how pigs will eat every part of a human body, except the cranium.
Visits to gran's house must have been heartwarming affairs. Picture her possibly baking chocolate chip cookies and making pleasant smalltalk, dispensing ageless wisdom like, “Did you know that if a woman were to kill her husband and feed his body to pigs, they would eat every part of that fat, hairy body, apart from the exceptionally hard cranium, which never seemed capable of letting through the things his wife told him, for example to pick up his damn socks and wash a fuckin' dish once in a while? Did you know that, my sweet?”
“Oh, good. The cookies are done.”
Rewind a bit from that cozy scene. In 2011 Hayden's third husband Thomas flew to Mexico for medical treatment and never came back. In early 2012 an unidentified cranium, with scalp and hair attached, was found near a rural Pennsylvania road. Nobody put cranium and hubby together until 2017, when Thomas Hayden's daughter, who had been estranged from her dad for more than a decade, contacted police with suspicions that his supposed one-way trip to Mexico was something other than it seemed.
Long story short, Virginia Hayden was arrested last week on suspicion of murder.
The lesson here may be that talking about heinous crimes will sometimes indicate how informed one is in esoteric areas of knowledge, but other times will indicate that one has, in fact, committed heinous crimes. Now some of Hayden's other wise utterances take on a darker tone. For example, she used to mention how stabbing a corpse before sinking it in water would keep it from floating, and how giving a person a heavy snootful of nitroglycerine spray could trigger a heart attack. Hayden's second husband died of a heart attack. And her first? He was a suicide. At the moment there's no indication foul play was involved in either death, but we'll bet you a batch of chocolate chip cookies the police are looking into it.
An errant pass leads to an infamous court case.
The National Insider takes on a controversial subject with this issue that hit newsstands today in 1963. The gist of the story is that forty-something George Brinham invited sixteen-year-old Laurence Somers to his London flat, made a pass by saying, “Give us a kiss,” and got clocked on the head by a shocked Somers with a wine decanter. Brinham died, and Somers went on trial for murder. As the details came out, the British public learned that Somers didn't merely hit Brinham once, but three or four times. He then dragged Brinham's body into the bedroom, hit him once more for good measure, and tried to stage the apartment to look as if a burglar had been the assailant. But haste makes waste—he left his coat and a pair of gloves in Brinham's flat. Police caught up with him shortly thereafter and he was arrested and charged with murder.
The case was fascinating. The judge immediately reduced the charges from murder to manslaughter. Defense attorneys portrayed Brinham, a former Labor Party official, as predatory and decadent. A pathologist testified that his body showed “physiological indications of the practice of homosexuality,” and added that his skull was “half the normal thickness.” Meanwhile, Somers' virility and youth was played up, how he once swung a sledgehammer in an abattoir and became unusually strong. At the end of the trial the judge flatly directed the jury to find Somers not guilty, stating: “[Brinham] attempted to make homosexual advances. I think that is about as clear a case of provocation as it is possible to have.” In the end the jury indeed set Somers free.
In general, bludgeoning someone to death for making a non-violent pass, further damaging the body, tampering with the scene, attempting a cover-up, and failing to report a death should result in some charge or other sticking. But not this time. Insider's take on the event pretends journalistic impartiality, but in reality weights the scales. Somers gets the final word: he discusses his incredulity at “setting out for an innocent Saturday night and finishing up a killer.” He'd heard about homosexuals, he says, but never met one. The same could be said of the British public. But after George Brinham was outed, it thought it had. The case confirmed mainstream Britain's toxic prejudices against gay men. But Somers was never forgotten by friends and advocates—his murder became a spark for the gay rights movement of the 1970s.
There's not even the slightest glimmer of hope.
Virginia Christine prepares to ventilate someone's cranium in this crop of a promo photo made for her 1947 film noir The Invisible Wall. We haven't watched this yet, but we will, because we have a copy of this flick in some hard drive or other. You probably haven't heard of Christine, but she had a fantastic career during which she appeared in about fifty films and numerous television shows, moving constantly between the two realms like few performers have ever managed. Some of her cinematic highlights include Robert Siodmak's The Killers, Jack Webb's Dragnet, Sam Newfield's Murder Is My Business, and Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The full version of the above shot, which includes her blissfully sleeping target, appears below.
Serial killer art released in effort to solve cold cases.
As pulp art fans we were a bit amazed by this next news item. The FBI has just released drawings imprisoned serial killer Samuel Little made of his victims, with the hope that the images will help in solving open cases. Little is serving life for three murders he committed in California, but he claims to have killed ninety women over nearly four decades. Law enforcement in various states have definitively linked him to more than thirty murders. Many of those killings were not classified as such at the time because Little's preferred method of dispatch was to knock the women out and strangle them, which meant that there were not always clear signs of foul play if the remains went undiscovered for any amount of time.
But now, by circulating these drawings, authorities hope to close dozens of cases scattered throughout the United States in places the nomadic Little is suspected to have traveled. The feds are being helped by Little himself, who agreed to cooperate in exchange for being allowed a transfer to a new prison. He's 78 years old and in poor health, which means it's basically now or never in securing his assistance.
After Little dies in prison it will be interesting to see what eventually happens to these drawings. In the past such artifacts tended to end up in repositories such as the Black Museum and similar places, but in this day and age we suspect they'll be destroyed once their usefulness is agreed to have passed. Since they're incredibly sad when considered in context, destruction may be a fitting end for them. But it's also possible, though not likely, that they could be sold and the proceeds used to compensate victims' families. One thing is for sure—there are plenty of collectors of the morbid out there who would buy them.
A man is only as good as his word.
As the promo poster makes clear, the 1958 crime drama Murder by Contract deals with a killer for hire. That's nothing special, but Claude, played by Vince Edwards, is a different kind of fella. He's single-minded, socially distant, and harbors a nebulous, smoldering hostility. He has theories and plans, and being a killer is the quickest way to for him to get what he wants out life. Everything goes fine for this contractor until he's asked to do away with a woman, played by Caprice Toriel in her only film role. Reluctance isn't the issue for Claude. Just the opposite in fact—he's willing but feels he deserves more money for killing a woman. Why?
Claude: “I don't like women. They don't stand still. When they move it's hard to figure out why or wherefore. They're not dependable. It's tough to kill somebody who's not dependable.”
Is Toriel going to be tough to kill? Oh, you betcha. This contract is more trouble than Claude is prepared for by orders of magnitude, not least because two temporary sidekicks he's working with for this important job are distrustful of his methods, and the target has police protection. Getting to her is going to require creativity. Which may be just what this otherwise confident character lacks. With its no frills style, quirky humor, and Django Reinhardt-esque score by Perry Botkin Sr., Murder by Contract is not film noir, but the disaffected killer that's its subject makes it a good choice for the Noir City festival. Recommended stuff.
Crime pays with a series of beautiful mugshots.
Above is a collection of police booking photos of women arrested in Sydney, Australia during the late 1910s to early 1930s. These were originally shot and developed using a dry glass plate process, warehoused for decades, unearthed several years back, and shared online by Sydney Living Museums. They weren't curated as a women-only group—we grabbed only women because we were struck by their remarkable faces. We also like the last shot, just above, which features a mystery figure in the background keeping her or his—looks like a dude to us—face lowered.
Charges on the group range from robbery, to “attempting to procure a miscarriage on behalf of a third party,” to plain old murder. You notice a booking photo was a little different back then. Full body framing in open rooms was common. Because of the composition, shallow focus, and hyper-detailed glass plate process, these are (presumably accidental) art shots. They serve as a companion collection to the previous set of Australian mugshots we shared, which you can see here. You'll notice we've repeated a couple, which means you can learn specifically what they did to get arrested.
L.A. man ends the holidays with a bang.
We've always been fascinated by splatter shots from the mid-century period. When did someone finally decide people had a right to privacy even in death? We don't know, but we think it was a good idea. Before that change came about press photographers routinely tramped around crime scenes documenting mayhem for profit. These images show the aftermath of a murder-suicide that took place today in 1951. Pictured are L.A. cops Detective Lieutenant George A. Encinas and Detective Lieutenant Bill Cummings, along with the bodies of Charles Sullivan and his wife, identified only as Mrs. Charles Sullivan. Maybe a new year would have brought new hope to this household, but we'll never know, nor will we know exactly why Sullivan shot his wife and himself. The images are part of the always compelling collection of Los Angeles Examiner photos maintained by the University of Southern California.
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