Tom Neal was a man who came into the world with benefits and attributes that less fortunate souls could only dream of having, then he went ahead and made a complete mess of his life. And along the way he got away with cold-blooded murder. Born into a wealthy Illinois family he was blessed with movie star looks, and was clever enough to earn a law degree at Harvard in 1938, three years after he debuted on the Broadway stage. He was a college boxer (some sources say ‘Golden Gloves’) who worked out regularly, developing a physique that women found most attractive. In short, he had the world at his feet when he made his first movie for MGM in 1938. So what went wrong?
Neal as Bruce Gentry (1949)
Unfortunately, Neal was also vain, egotistical, short-tempered and jealous. In New York City he met big-busted, ex-follies dancer Inez Norton, a woman twice his age and possessed of a chequered past. She was once the girlfriend of mobster Arnold Rothstein, the man who rigged the 1919 World Series by getting the Chicago White Sox to take a dive against the Cincinnati Reds. Not that it did him much good in the long run. In 1928 Arnold was shot to death in the Park Central Hotel, presumably for refusing to pay his gambling debts. Inez found she was left $150,000 in an insurance policy by Rothstein. Tom helped her spend it when they became engaged for a while.
Neal had plenty of girlfriends and assignations, among them Joan Crawford, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and even Xavier Cugat’s wife Lorraine. He was especially active in the years he spent hell-raising with his pals Errol Flynn and Mickey Rooney. But it was his tempestuous relationship with party girl Barbara Payton that pretty much ruined his career. An inkling of why their affair was destined for trouble can be gleaned from one of her Newsweek interviews. ‘Four minutes after we met we decided to get married’, she said. ‘Four minutes!’ Neal then threw in his ten cents’ worth: ‘Barbara asked me to marry her’, he beamed. ‘She was engaged to Tone (Franchot) when I met her. But she told me that she wanted me because he was too dull. She said I was more exciting’. Despite all his bragging and Barbara’s gushing about their great love affair, they never did actually marry each other. Barbara married Tone instead, shortly after Neal had beaten him to a pulp and very nearly killed him. In all fairness to Neal, he was supposed to be marrying Barbara the next morning when she suddenly turned up at their apartment with Tone, having spent most of the day having sex with him in a motel room!
Franchot Tone, Barbara Payton, Tom Neal
Barbara and Franchot attending a premiere
Neal and Barbara out on the town
To cut a sordid story short, after Neal’s vicious attack on tone, Barbara told the press she and Franchot were going to marry as soon as his face mended. But five days later she was again sleeping with Neal! A few days after that she married Tone. Fifty-three days later he filed for divorce. Two days after that he withdrew the divorce application, but Barbara had started sleeping with Neal yet again, so Tone lodged it once more. It was March 1952 when Tone finally filed, citing Barbara for adultery. In May 1953 (believe it or not) she and Neal became engaged, but they soon broke up, this time for good. By then even the press were tired of the trio’s shenanigans.
Ann Savage and Neal in Detour (1945)
Shortly after the break-up Neal married a woman named Patricia Fenton. Their only child was born in 1957, but a year later Patricia passed away from cancer. The fight with Tone had resulted in Neal being blacklisted by all the Hollywood studios. Payton was also blacklisted. Their movie careers, in effect, were over. In all Tom made about 70 movies, mostly B-Grade stuff, the best of them being Detour in 1945. In 1959, forced to retire from the screen, he moved to Palm Springs and took up gardening and landscaping, making a solid living from it. Two years later he wed a receptionist named Gale Bennett in Las Vegas. When her body was discovered on the lounge of their Palm Springs home in April 1965, with a .45 bullet wound in the back of the head, Neal was immediately suspected to have been involved in her death and duly arrested.
On April 1, 1965 he walked into the Tyrol restaurant in Idyllwild, a mountain resort near Palm Springs. Two partners, Robert Balzar and James Willett knew Neal and his wife well. It was evident to both men that he was deeply troubled, so they sat down with him and chatted. Neal told them that ever since he had married Gail she had become his whole life; that he could not live without her. To the partners’ astonishment he then told them he had just killed her. Neither man at first believed him. ‘It’s not an April Fool’s joke’, said Neal. ‘It’s true.’ He had shot her to death earlier in the day, he stated, as she lay taking a nap. After confessing to his friends he had his attorney contact the police to tell them that Gail was at her home and ‘had expired or was seriously injured’. He was arrested that same day.
The Riverside County Public Defender, a man named James Kellam, never even visited Neal in jail, so friends of the defendant started raising funds to get him some strong counsel. Even Hollywood celebrities contributed, among them Mickey Rooney, Blake Edwards and Dorothy Manners. To the amazement of many people Franchot Tone, Neal’s rival in love for all those years, also readily contributed to the fund. It was typical of the man who was known for his gentle and forgiving nature.
A few weeks later, in a two-page note, Neal abruptly tried a new approach to his predicament, accusing a ‘friend’ of killing Gail, stating that this un-named individual ‘drank my booze, ate at my table, and gunned my wife’. His lawyer would later introduce evidence that an unknown man’s wallet and suit were found in Gail’s closet. It was enough to plant the seed in the minds of the nine-woman, three man jury that the items might have belonged to Neal’s un-named ‘friend’.
The police quickly established the identity of the owner of the suit and wallet. They belonged to Gail’s lodger, an insurance salesman named Steve Peck. It was just as quickly established that he had been in Phoenix at the time of the shooting and had witnesses to prove it. He could not possibly have been the killer. The murder weapon was never found, but a live .45 bullet had been discovered in Neal’s jacket pocket when he was arrested. The spectre of the gas chamber was looming clearer than ever. But then there came an exchange on the stand between defence counsel Rosenberg and Neal, both dramatic and bizarre, that should have sealed his fate there and then. Neal was describing the circumstances leading up to Gail’s death; how he was on one knee caressing his wife as she lay on the lounge when, suddenly, he ‘felt her body tense’. It is worth looking at Neal’s testimony verbatim after he was asked what happened next:
Neal: ‘…the next thing I knew, I heard her yell at me; ‘I’ll kill you, you bastard!’ I looked up from where I was – and what I faced was the .45 automatic in her hand.’
Rosenberg: ‘What did you do?’
Neal: ‘I said, ‘Gail, are you out of your mind?’ And with that I shoved the gun with both hands from the position I was in and the gun went off.’ (Just how the shot hit Gail in the back of her head under such circumstances was, apparently, lost on the jury).
Rosenberg: ‘Did you do anything after that?’
Neal: ‘I prayed. I took her hand, I called her name, ‘Gail! God no, Gail!’ Then I said aloud, ‘There is no life, truth, intelligence or substance in mind, all in infinity and its manifestation, for God is all in all. Spirit is immortal truth, matter is mortal error. Spirit is the real and eternal, matter is the unreal and temporal.’ (One has to wonder how many people would immediately deliver such a diatribe, having just accidentally blown their beloved spouse’s head off!)
Rosenberg: ‘Is that what you said at the time?’
Neal: ‘Yes, sir’.
Rosenberg: ‘Did you say anything else?’
Neal: ‘Yes…talithucumi, which is interpreted as ‘Fair maiden arise, for thou art whole.’
While on the stand Neal admitted that he and Gale had been estranged for some time, and that he had returned home from Chicago to attempt a reconciliation. He also admitted speaking to his restaurant friends, telling them that he ‘felt responsible for her death’, but steadfastly insisted that he never at any time said that he had fired the shot. His friends testified that he did say he had shot her, but once again, the jury believed Neal, not them. When the prosecution produced a copy of Gail’s petition for divorce, lodged the previous April, in which she accused her husband of ‘threatening her with a .45 revolver the previous November, things should have been looking extremely bleak for him, but in the final analysis it meant little to jury members that, for all intents and purposes, appeared to have left their brains in the parking lot.
The prosecutors were not buying any of Neal’s stories for one moment, and went after the death penalty with all their might. To the amazement of nearly everyone, however, the jury believed the ‘accidental death’ story and he was convicted of ‘involuntary manslaughter’ only. The prosecution was dumbfounded. Judge McCabe was too, so he was not about to show leniency in his sentencing. He openly agreed with Prosecutor Wilson’s statement: ‘The fact the jury only brought a verdict of involuntary manslaughter is as big a break as Mr. Neal deserves’. The smile was wiped from the defendant’s face when McCabe sentenced him to 1 to 15 years in the penitentiary.
Instead of getting the gas chamber, Tom Neal ended up doing just six years behind bars before being paroled in December 1971. He returned to gardening and landscaping, but a bare eight months later his son found his 58 year-old father dead in bed in North Hollywood, California. The official cause of death was ‘heart failure’.