All I want for Christmas is a clean slate with the county.
This photo shows actress and Playboy centerfold Sally Todd in L.A. County Court, where she was answering for drunk driving charges. Todd had triggered an August 1958 traffic accident, a five-car smash-up so violent that she was ejected from the passenger window of her sports car, but survived with minor injuries. A miracle? Perhaps, if you believe in such things. What may be even more miraculous is that charges against her were dropped, though she admitted having had drinks. Most accounts say that happened in September, but this photo, which is from the digital archive of the Los Angeles Examiner, is dated December 1, suggesting either charges were not dropped until later in the year than most sources say, or that Todd made a return trip to court for a second driving offense. We're going with option one—the photo, which we have no doubt is correctly dated, was made when she appeared in court and learned that August's drunk driving charges against her had been dropped. That was today in 1958.
Did she or didn’t she?
These two photos showing burlesque dancer Lili St. Cyr were shot today in 1951 for a Los Angeles Examiner story about St. Cyr’s legal difficulties. On 23 February of that year she had begun performing at Ciro’s supper club in Hollywood. It was a different type of club for her—it lacked the intimacy of her normal venues, and would sap some of the heat from her act, but the place was world famous and considered by the smart set to be classy. It had hosted Edith Piaf, Marlene Dietrich, Duke Ellington, and Dinah Washington. Of late it was facing stiff competition from Macambo’s, a Brazilian themed joint across the street, and owner Herman Hover wanted to make a splash with St. Cyr. He spent thousands refurbishing the stage just for her, and she would be the first burlesque dancer to transition from men’s clubs to L.A.’s most famous supper club.
On premiere night celebs such as Ronald Reagan, Nancy Davis, Franchot Tone, Barbara Payton, Lex Barker, Mickey Rooney, and Los Angeles mayor Fletcher Bowron watched her strip down to toned perfection as they ate dinner and sipped drinks. Other celebs that visited that summer included Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, and Clark Gable. During St. Cyr’s residency she varied her act, but a standard bit wasentitled "An Interlude Before Evening," and involved being helped from her clothing by her maid Sadie before slipping nude into a bathtub. But the nudity was an illusion, the cleverest part of her act, achieved through a combination of lighting, positioning, flesh-colored underwear, and sheer athleticism as she slipped quickly from behind a towel and into the sudsy tub.
On 18 October a group of Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies, who were trying to enforce a countywide ban against stripping, arrested St. Cyr and Herman Hover. The charges were the usual slate. St. Cyr called upon celebrity lawyer Jerry Giesler—an event the two Examiner photos at top are supposed to be illustrating—and Giesler proceeded to help turn what was already a media boon for St. Cyr into a full bonanza. Giesler was a showman, and he loved cases that had the potential to increase his fame. He made assorted sensational statements to the press, including one in which he promised to have his client perform her bath routine in the courtroom, and another in which he opined that putting together a jury of peers required empaneling a dozen strippers. He described St. Cyr as merely trying to improve her station in life, just an industrious woman trying to carve herself a piece of American pie. The press ate it up.
The trial was scheduled for early December in the Beverly Hills Courthouse. Giesler kept the jury—which wasn’t all strippers, but at least was mostly female—laughing with his continual antics. He introduced St. Cyr’s rhinestone encrusted bra and g-string as people’s exhibits A and B. He drew diagrams on a blackboard illustrating how different observers' vantage points toward the stage were blocked by St. Cyr's maid. He flustered police officials by making them discuss in detail such such terms as “bump,” “grind,” and “half-bump,” and followed that up by putting Herman Hover on the witness stand and having him demonstrate those moves. The sight of the portly Hover attempting burlesque sent ripples of laughter through the courtroom. Years later Giesler wrote: “I can honestly say I succeeded in having her case laughed into a not-guilty verdict.”
That may have been true, but St Cyr’s icy demeanor was also an important factor. The women found her elegant and remote—the opposite of what they had expected. And the cops did their part for St. Cyr's defense by being terrible witnesses. One claimed that she emerged from the tub completely nude (the normal conclusion to her Interlude, and just as illusory). Another said she wore undies but that he couldsee the outline of her “private parts,” which he discerned in enough detail to determine “were shaven.” The inconsistencies were epic. Some said she caressed herself, others weren’t sure. Another described her towel as “about twenty, twenty-four inches.” In reality it was three times that size. It was as if St. Cyr's dance had dumbfounded the cops.
The confusion has extended even to the present day. For a performance that lasted barely fifteen minutes, it has had an amazing amount of conflicting information attached to it. Columnist Army Archerd claimed St. Cyr was indeed nude that night (clearly wrong, according to multiple testimonies); Sheila Weller’s book Dancing at Ciro’s claims an “all-male” jury (it was mostly female) was taken to Ciro’s to see the act (Giesler tried, but the judge said no); some sources claim St. Cyr performed a reverse strip, beginning nude in the tub and emerging to be slowly dressed by her maid (indeed, that was an oft-performed variation, so it is certainly possible it happened that night). Who's right, and who's wrong? Short of using a time machine to return to October 1951 there's no way to tell.
At the end of the six-day trial the jury acquitted St. Cyr following a mere seventy-eight minutes of deliberations. There had been no indecent exposure. At least not that night. All St. Cyr’s biographers agree on this much—she was shy and regal offstage, but her performancesfreed her to inhabit different characters. Despite her assertions that she always wore at least a g-string and bra, she definitely performed topless on occasion, as shown by the above photo taken at Ciro’s during early 1951.
Sheriff’s deputies had gone to the club already intent upon arresting her based on what they had heard about the act, which may have influenced their testimony—i.e., they didn’t see her nude, but knew she had done it before. St. Cyr admitted in court she knew police were in the audience, thus she was especially careful that night. But what of other nights? Maybe Army Archerd did what columnists do—took an event he witnessed on one night and pretended it happened on a more useful one. Maybe St. Cyr, on occasions when she knew the cops were far away, flashed her audience to generate buzz. It’s likely we’ll never know what really happened, but that merely adds to the St. Cyr mystique. Did she or didn’t she? Only her maid knew for sure.
Trouble on the tracks.
The above photos are interesting examples of the editorial focus of the Los Angeles Examiner during the 1950s. Pretty much anything that crashed, burned, bled, or exploded made it into the paper. In this case, a motorist going east on Ramona Boulevard lost control of his car, struck the median, and careened through a chain link fence onto the railroad tracks flanking the road. The spectators are eyeing the scene from the Herbert Avenue overpass. This happened today in 1951.
I’m feeling a little light-headed. Do you have any pills you could give me?
A dismayed but dapper narcotics suspect named Walter Collins gets a double grilling from two LAPD detectives as they sort through a stash of contraband pharma. Collins looks like he’s got a headache, which may very well be true considering the circumstances, but of course he’s actually hiding from the intrusive Los Angeles Examiner photographer documenting his downfall. The photos were made today in 1952.
That silly grin of yours reminds me of some guys you'll meet in D-block whose humor is really infectious.
Burglary suspect James Frantz, top right, tries to look unworried while LAPD officers sort through a pile of time pieces and jewelry they believe he pilfered. No word on whether Frantz went down for the crimes. The photos were made today in 1951.
Tragedy plus a photographer equals sales.
Above and below is a fascinating series of photos from the Los Angeles Examiner during the heyday of tabloids, showing just how invasive such publications could be. The photo above shows the aftermath of a murder-suicide at the Ansonia Apartments in L.A.’s MacArthur Park neighborhood. A mother jumped from a window with her six-year-old son. The photos below show the scene from different angles, then a priest administering last rites to the boy, and finally the father grieving over his son’s body. The Examiner focused on crime, corruption, and Hollywood scandals, and was for a time the most widely circulated newspaper in Los Angeles. Possibly its most famous scoop was breaking the story of the 1947 mutilation murder of Elizabeth Short, better known as the Black Dahlia.
In the references we dug up on the Clouart tragedy the wife’s name is never given—she’s called only Mrs. Gerald Clouart. That was of course common practice at the time, but it’s ironic the way it renders invisible a woman who might have received help had anyone truly discerned her troubles. But in yet another example of the Examiner’s extraordinary access, one of its photos is of Mrs. Clouart’s suicide note, and we were able to get her name from that. The note said: “I’ve reached the point of no return. It’s not your fault. You’ve been a wonderful husband and father. Am taking [John] with me to spare him the disgrace. I’m just inadequate.” It was signed Terry. That was today in 1952.
The worst luck always comes when you aren’t looking.
What you’re seeing here is an aftermath photo of suicide leaper Louise Stark, who jumped from a department store window in downtown Los Angeles. It was a catastrophic fall, as you can discern from the river of blood running into the gutter, but she didn’t just kill herself—she landed on a pedestrian named Victor Angel and killed him too. The unfortunate human nail between the hammer and anvil was deaf, but hearing probably would have made no difference. Even if Angelenos made a habit of looking up while they walked, you have to doubt that a warning shouted by an observer would have done little more than give the man time to look up and see his doom approaching. Still, you never know. This happened today in 1958.
United they stand, divided they fall.
This photo shows the sheet covered body of Fernando Reyes, aged 17, who was killed after a brawl escalated into gunplay on Lamar St., in the hinterlands east of the Los Angeles River. The onlookers include two plainclothes detectives, the deceased’s brother, a friend, and several bystanders. It happened today in 1952.
To every action there is always an equal reaction.
The top photo shows an LAPD policewoman named Florence Coberly, who in a dangerous undercover operation, was asked to lure a serial rapist named Joe Parra. This would require placing herself in harm’s way so police could catch him just before the act. Supported by more than thirty cops hidden in unmarked cars and stationed around the neighborhood, Coberly did exactly that, drawing the suspect, which in turn drew her backup. Parra tried to run, and photo two shows him after he was gunned down. Strangely, Coberly was later arrested for shoplifting and drummed off the police force. But that would be several years later. These shots are from 1952, a year at the end of which she would win the LAPD’s Policewoman of the Year award. These images come from the USC digital archive of mid-century Los Angeles Examiner photos.
An inconvenient acceptance of a casual invitation.
Above is a cover of True Detective from November 1958 and inside is a story on the murder of Irene Morey, a Los Angeles woman who was found strangled along with one of her two young sons. The murder was eventually pinned on a gas station attendant named Charles Earl Brubaker who had met Morey a few days earlier when she had car trouble. Either in gratitude or because she was romantically interested in him, Morey invited him to her place for dinner a few nights later, and the date went wrong. When Brubaker was in the middle of choking the life out of Morey, the older of her two sons walked in, so Brubaker strangled him too. Brubaker confessed to the murders and was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in the gas chamber. That sentence was later overturned by Judge Joseph A. Wapner (who would become famous on his 1980s television show The People’s Court), and instead of seeing the inside of the death chamber Brubaker served hard time until his parole in 1976. After his release he faded from public view, but his crime never will because its aftermath is part of the USC Digital Library’s collection of more than 200,000 Los Angeles Examiner negatives. Irene Morey and her son appear below, in life and in death. We highly recommend you take a spin around USC's Examiner collection. There’s more dark and forgotten history in there than you can imagine.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1942—Battle of Stalingrad Begins
The Battle of Stalingrad, perhaps the most pivotal event of World War II, begins. It lasts for more than six months, spread across the brutal Russian winter, and ends with two million casualties. The Russian sacrifice reduces the powerful German army to a shell of its former self, and as a result Nazi defeat in the war becomes a simple matter of time.
1979—Alexander Gudonov Defects
Russian ballet dancer and actor Alexander Borisovich Godunov defects to the U.S. The event causes an international diplomatic crisis, but Gudonov manages to win asylum. He joins the famous American Ballet Theater, where he becomes a colleague of fellow-defector Mikhail Baryshnikov, and later earns roles in such Hollywood films as Witness and Die Hard.
1950—Althea Gibson Breaks the Color Barrier
Althea Gibson becomes the first African-American woman to compete on the World Tennis Tour, and the first to earn a Grand Slam title when she wins the French Open in 1956. Later she becomes the first African-American woman to compete in the Ladies Professional Golf Association.
1952—Devil's Island Closed
Devil's Island, the penal colony located off the coast of French Guiana, is permanently closed. The prison is later made world famous by Henri Charrière's bestselling novel Papillon, and the subsequent film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.
1962—De Gaulle Survives Assassination Attempt
Jean Bastien-Thiry, a French air weaponry engineer, attempts to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle to prevent Algerian independence. Bastien-Thiry and others attack de Gaulle's armored limousine with machine guns, but after expending hundreds of rounds, they succeed only in puncturing two tires.
1911—Mona Lisa Disappears
Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, aka La Gioconda, is stolen from the Louvre. After many wild theories and false leads, it turns out the painting was snatched by museum employee Vincenzo Peruggia.
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