A British actor in the fifties named Steve Hayes probably summed up the studio bosses as well as anyone, not that he said so when he was under contract, of course. To do so would have been career suicide, as well he knew. ‘All these guys were ruthless bastards’, he said years later. ‘Cohn, Warner, Louis B Mayer. All of them. They were nothing more than thugs in business suits.’ The more I delve into their manipulation of the law, their corruption, and their willingness to do whatever it took to control their environment, the more convinced I am that Hayes’ words were right on the mark. Here are just some of the cover-ups perpetrated during the ‘Golden Years’ by the studio heads and their minions.
young Howard Hughes circa 1936
On 11 July 1936, Howard Hughes, an un-named woman, and Pat DiCicco left Trader Vic’s. Hughes was driving. At the corner of Third and Lorraine his vehicle struck and killed 59 year-old Gabriel Meyer. The car was traveling at high speed and Meyer was on a crosswalk when he was hit. LA County Coroner Frank Nance, (the same man who ‘handled’ Thelma Todd’s death certificate), found Hughes innocent of any wrong-doing, even though there were skid marks fifty feet long at the scene of the accident and the dead man’s body had been tossed a hundred feet by the impact. A doctor at the hospital where Hughes was taken for observation noted that he had been drinking. Consequently, Hughes was booked ‘on suspicion of negligent homicide’, but the charges were dropped by the time of the coroner’s inquiry. The only eyewitness suddenly decided to change his story completely. The victim, he said, had stepped out directly in the path of Hughes’ car which, now he recalled, was being driven slowly and in a responsible manner. The DA immediately cleared the billionaire of any culpability in Mr. Meyer’s death. Hughes paid Meyer’s family $10,000 (about $300,000 in today’s money), ‘to help them in their time of need’, he magnanimously said. More payments were made later.
Joan Crawford 1928
In 1928 a drunken Joan Crawford ran a red light on Hollywood Boulevard and hit a pedestrian, a young woman. Then she tried to bribe the motorcycle cop who attended the accident before driving away from the scene. Howard Strickling was sent to the hospital with $10,000 and paid the injured girl not to proceed with charges. Mayer had him then pay off the police and the DA, so that the incident never appeared in any records or newspaper. The new DA that year was a thoroughly corrupt individual named Buron Fitts. Within 6 months of his appointment he owned a mansion, paid for by the producers who had him in their pockets.
the brilliant alcoholic Busby Berkeley circa 1935
By 1935 Busby Berkeley’s brilliantly staged, choreographed, dance sequences were the talk of Hollywood and the movie-going world. He was a genius – and an alcoholic. On 8 September 1935, a drunken Berkeley crossed the median strip on the Pacific Coast Highway, struck two cars coming the other way, killing 3 members of a family in one car, and severely injuring two people in the other. He escaped with minor injuries. Howard Strickling called lawyer Jerry Giesler at once. There were three trials over two years. Berkeley was wheeled into the first one on a gurney and swathed in bandages. Giesler argued that the tyres on his car were faulty and caused the car to swerve out of control. Several witnesses stated Berkeley was blind drunk at the scene of the accident. A dozen MGM and Warners stars, among them Pat O’Brien and Frank McHugh, as well as director Mervyn LeRoy, came forward and swore that Berkeley was stone cold sober when he left the party that night. McHugh went one lie further, claiming that he did not see anyone of the 200 guests touch any liquor whatsoever! The first two juries were hung, the third returned a ‘not guilty’ verdict. MGM paid out over $100,000 in law suits.
Director Edmund Goulding
Director Edmund Goulding was a sick sex addict and voyeur. In 1933 he paid $1,000 for a hooker to have sex with a client in front of a window directly across from his favourite gas station, just so he could watch the reaction from a mentally handicapped young boy manning the gas pumps. At his home he hosted weekly orgies. One S & M session, which he personally choreographed, got out of hand and two young women were seriously hurt; one nearly dying in hospital. MGM quickly shuttled him off to England for a holiday while the studio paid off the DA, the police and the girls involved.
L.A. District Attorney Buron Fitts
L.A. District Attorney John F. Dockweiler
Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel
‘Bugsy’s’ squeeze – actress Wendy Barrie
Buron Fitts was the corrupt District Attorney in LA for many years. He took bribes from all the major studios, dismissed charges when required to, halted investigations when paid to, and falsified or ‘misplaced charge sheets and police records. In 1940 he lost the election for DA to an equally corrupt John Dockweiler. In August 1940 Bugsy Siegel was arrested and charged with the murder of Mob turncoat Harry Greenberg. Placed in the LA County Jail, he was given two phones, brought gourmet meals to his cell and allowed to sleep with his girlfriend, actress Wendy Barrie whenever he felt the need. On December 11, Dockweiler dismissed all charges and released him after Siegel made a generous $50,000 contribution to his election campaign, the equivalent of $750,000 in today’s money. On 24 January 1941, Mickey Rooney’s step-father Fred Pankey ran down a woman on a Glendale crosswalk. MGM fixers spoke to Dockweiler, money changed hands, and no charges were laid. In fact, Pankey was not even interviewed. A year later, Dockweiler made a very bad career move. He decided to investigate the Los Angeles Police Dept. (LAPD). He suddenly died – from pneumonia it was said – although no-one could recall him ever getting sick. The investigation died with him. Fitts would live on until 1973. Then one day in Tulare, California he walked into his garage, sat down in a chair and fired a .38 slug into his temple. He was 78.
Throughout the so-called ‘Golden Days’ of Hollywood ‘fixing’ problems was part and parcel of everyday life for all the studios. Any crisis, big or small, that might cost big bucks in the future was ‘handled’, usually by doling out smaller bucks now. It was all just a question of ‘how much?’ With a corrupt DA at their beck and call, law enforcement officers, doctors, coroners, court officials, records clerks and the press, all open to bribery or (on rare occasions) prone to threats of violence, it was always possible to arrive at a confidential ‘solution’ to any issue. I have only touched on the myriad of ‘cover-ups’ that took place over several decades. Any ‘problem’, be it domestic violence, alcohol abuse, drug-taking, sexual escapades, infidelity, law-breaking, even injudicious comments, etc. was ‘handled’ at once by the ‘fixers’, quietly and efficiently. The pristine reputation of the screen idols had to be maintained above all else because they brought in the megabucks. And for a very long time few people outside the industry had any idea of the enormity of studio duplicity being practiced on a gullible public.