From Los Angeles Magazine December 1987
"Dark Strangers, suicide, a jealous boyfriend, Mob connections — all have been fingered at one time or another for Thelma Todd's death."
May Whitehead pulled up alongside the cliff-side wall high on Posetano Road above Will Rogers Beach. She walked to the garage carrying several bundles in her arms. As always, the massive doors were closed but not locked. Whitehead juggled the packages to free one hand, then slid back the right-hand door. Inside were the shiny grille and headlamps of her boss' chocolate-colored 1933 Lincoln Phaeton. It was 10:30 on the cold but sunny Monday morning of December 16, 1935. Whitehead, attractive, erudite and black, was Thelma Todd's personal maid and confidante. She was responsible for getting the curvy blond comedienne to work on time at the Hal Roach Studio in Culver City. She would pull Todd's Lincoln out of the garage, leave her own car in its place, then drive the steep, meandering lanes to a white stucco building at the bottom of the hill on what is now Pacific Coast Highway. The rambling, vaguely Mediterranean three-story building housed Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Cafe, a chic, pricey and popular restaurant operated by Todd's partner and lover, film director Roland West.
On this morning Whitehead approached the Lincoln from the passenger side. With a start she saw Todd slumped behind the wheel, her eyes closed, her head inclined toward the car's open door. She was wearing a full-length mink coat over a metallic blue sequined evening gown and matching cape, blue silk slippers and about $20,000 worth of jewelry, including a square-cut diamond ring, a diamond-studded wristwatch, pin and brooch and two diamond hair clasps. She wore, in fact, exactly the same outfit Whitehead had dressed her in to attend a celebrity-studded dinner party at the Sunset Strip's trendy Trocadero nightclub the previous Saturday evening. "I went around to the left side of the car, the driver's side," Whitehead later told a coroner's jury, "and I thought I could awaken her, that she was asleep."
But Thelma Todd, "the Ice Cream Blonde," "the Blond Venus," Hollywood's notorious party girl, was dead.
Whitehead ran back to her car and drove to the cafe, where she got hold of Charles Smith, the septuagenarian café treasurer and veteran assistant film director who'd served Roland West for decades. West, 48, was a little shorter than Todd's five-foot-four, swarthy and sharp featured. He and Todd lived in modest second-floor apartments connected, for an outward show of propriety (West was still married to silent-film star Jewel Carmen), by sliding doors that could be locked from either side. Adjacent to the apartments was a private club, Joya's, and an oversize lobby with couches where "overtired" guests sometimes napped.
Smith buzzed West, who was upstairs and apparently still asleep, on the intercom. West appeared in minutes, ashen faced and carelessly dressed, and leaped into Whitehead's car. In her excitement, on the way back to the garage Whitehead missed a turnoff and had to stop and turn the car around in the narrow lane.
At the garage, West raced inside and put a hand to Todd's face. He pulled his hand back, there were a few drops of blood, which he wiped on his handkerchief. West told Whitehead to fetch Rudolph Schafer, the cafe manager and his brother-in-law. Schafer lived in Castillo del Mar, an enormous hillside villa owned by West's estranged wife, which overlooked West and Todd's place. Schafer, who had also been asleep, got to the garage about 11:15. He touched Todd's cold cheek. The police must be called, he decided, and West agreed. Electing not to use the phones at the Sidewalk Café or those at Castillo del Mar, Schafer took West's Hupmobile, parked as usual in the stall next to Todd's Lincoln, and drove several miles to a Santa Monica print shop, where he called the LAPD's West Los Angeles station on the proprietor's private phone.
At the death scene police noted no signs of violence. There were 2.5 gallons of gas left in the Lincoln's tank; the ignition was on, but the battery was completely discharged. On the seat was Todd's small white party purse. Inside was a key to her apartment's outside door. Thus began one of the strangest chapters in the history of Los Angeles crime. Immediately, the 29-year-old actress' death made page-one headlines across the country. As the investigation wore on, the local papers were filled for months with speculation, rumor and charges-most of them unfounded and inaccurate — that soon made the case one of Hollywood's most sensational unsolved deaths. Over the years, scores of articles and books have been written hypothesizing what really happened to Thelma Todd that night in 1935. "Dark strangers," suicide, her jealous boyfriend, mob connections — all have been fingered at one time or another for her death. But despite more than five decades of speculation and hype, the final chapter of Thelma Todd's mysterious death has remained unwritten.
Until now. What follows, for the first time, is the true story of what happened that night-and why Hollywood conspired to keep it a secret for half a century.
Thelma Todd was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1906. Her father was an important local figure, a merchant and perennial alderman. At 15 Thelma went to work in a dime store, but when crowds of people, mostly young men, jammed the store merely to look at her natural beauty, the proprietor had to fire her. The Lawrence Elks club proclaimed her Miss Lawrence and sponsored her in a statewide competition in which she became Miss Massachusetts. For extra money during high school, she modeled clothing in a local theater, so impressing Napoleon DeMara, manager and principal performer for a community theatrical troupe, that he sent her picture to Jesse Lasky at Paramount. Lasky liked what he saw.
Studio press agents would later describe her as a former schoolteacher, but despite being elected freshman-class spokesman, Thelma dropped out of Hood Normal, a teacher's college, after one year to attend Paramount's training school in Astoria, Long Island. She graduated with the class of 1926, which included such later notables as Buddy Rogers and Josephine Dunn. Todd's first film was God Gave Me 20 Cents. Paramount liked her way with fine clothes and her forceful, intelligent looks. She appeared in 13 silent films, easily making the transition to talkies in 1927. She had a vibrant, cultured speaking voice and strove to enhance it with voice lessons.
By the late Twenties her private life was being radically shaped by her sudden affluence and Hollywood's fast, hedonistic society. In July 1932 she eloped with Pasquale ("Pat") De Cicco, an agent, to Prescott, Arizona. But she was already accustomed to the fast lane. She had affairs with actor Ronald Colman, band leader Abe Lyman and several other men before divorcing De Cicco in March 1934.
Thelma acquired faster and faster cars. She drank freely. She was cited for speeding and for driving under the influence. And on January 23, 1933, she ran into a palm tree near Hollywood Boulevard and Nichols Canyon, suffering three broken ribs, a shattered collarbone and internal injuries. She contracted peritonitis and hovered on the brink of death, then rallied. When the Roach studio forbade her to drive, Thelma began taking Whitehead along to drive and hired Ernest Peters as her party chauffeur. Todd's career had taken a new turn when she met Roland West in 1930. The director changed her screen name to Alison Lloyd — "so that no taint of comedy would cling to her skirts" — and starred her as a jaded, manipulative, pleasure-seeking debutante opposite his good friend Chester Morris in Corsair. Though Todd would later appear in other dramas with such superstars as Humphrey Bogart, Randolph Scott and Gary Cooper, she went back to being Thelma Todd after producer Hat Roach half-seriously threatened to change her name to Susie Dinkleberry "so that no taint of drama would cling to her skirts." Roach knew that Depression-era audiences wanted to laugh, and nobody in skirts was funnier than Todd, who went on to star in such comedy classics as Horsefeathers and Monkey Business with the Marx Brothers.
But Corsair was to be West's last film, and before it was finished he and Todd began their tempestuous affair. And though he strenuously denied a relationship with Todd, it was to last, off and on, for five years, until her death.
From the beginning, the investigation generated controversy and conflicting reports. For weeks after Todd's death the city's lurid dailies ran stories recounting purported details of her last hours.
The first mystery confronted by the police was why Todd had not slept in her apartment. Todd had been driven from the Trocadero and dropped off at the entrance to the café by her chauffeur at 4 a.m. Sunday morning. She had not taken the keys to the main ground-floor entrance or to the inside en-trance to her apartment, but she carried one to the outside entrance to her apartment. How is it, the coroner asked Roland West, that she didn't use it?
West told the coroner that, not realizing Todd wasn't carrying her other keys, he'd bolted the outside door from the inside because of recent prowlers and death threats against Todd. He retired at 2:30 a.m. Sunday morning, but at about 3:30 a.m., he said, he was awakened by the whining of his bullterrier, White King.
The dog would have barked if anyone except he or Todd were nearby, said West, so he assumed Todd had returned. Later, hearing an electric water pump, he concluded that Todd was using the bath. He awakened Sunday morning to find Todd gone. Judging by an impression left on a lobby divan, West said, he assumed she had slept there, rising early to depart, perhaps to visit her mother in Hollywood.
Police eventually advanced the theory that Todd, finding herself locked out, had decided to sleep in her car and climbed the 271 steps cut into the steep cliff behind the café to the garage. It was an exceptionally cold and windy night, and she might have started the engine to keep warm. Since the autopsy revealed a blood-alcohol content of .13 percent-. .8 today is considered the legal threshold of intoxication-she might have dozed off before being overcome by the engine's fumes. But that theory immediately came under attack.
Todd hated to walk, insisted West. She had a heart condition, he said, and her physician had forbidden strenuous exercise. Though the autopsy indicated no heart or other organ abnormalities, West claimed Todd was subject to frequent "fainting spells" because of her heart condition. Nobody publicly asked why Todd would have chosen to sit freezing in her open-topped phaeton when West's unlocked Hupmobile sedan was right next to it.
The press seemed bent on discrediting the police investigation. Several papers dug up stories with remarkable testimony. of people who claimed to have seen or spoken with Todd well after the time of death fixed by the coroner: "anywhere from 5 or 6 o'clock on to 8 o'clock" on Sunday morning, December 15. Hearst's L.A. Examiner ran a page-wide headshot of autopsy surgeon A. F. Wagner over the headline "I do not believe she could have died earlier than 5 or 6 o'clock last Sunday after-noon." Totally inaccurate, it served to heighten the mysteries of Todd's last hours.
Despite the inquest testimony of LAPD captain Bruce Clark, the first cop on the scene, that the bottoms of Todd's silk slippers were "scuffed up quite a bit" and "gave the appearance or indication she had walked quite some distance on cement," it was widely reported that her slippers showed no sign that she could have climbed the 271 hillside steps, the most direct route between the café and the garage. So much play was given this bit of disinformation, in fact, that the LAPD had a 120-pound woman, the same weight as Todd, climb the stone steps in similar slippers, to the delight of the press, who witnessed the test but all but ignored the results, which confirmed the inquest testimony.
Some news accounts described a tooth knocked from Todd's mouth; others turned the few specks of blood found on Todd's lip into a fountain of gore. One police-beat reporter wrote about great bruises inside Todd's throat, suggesting they'd been made by a Coke bottle. There was in reality no broken tooth or any bruises, and the tiny bit of bloody froth on Todd's lip was consistent with postmortem changes in mucous membranes typical of carbon-monoxide poisoning — facts contained in the coroner's report but never publicized. There was one possible witness, night watchman Earl Carder, who by his own calculations walked past the death scene 15 times between midnight and dawn-an average of once every 24 minutes. But Carder, tall, burly and employed by West, said he neither saw nor heard anything unusual.
As the investigation continued, rumors of foul play took on a new slant. Todd's hired driver, Ernest Peters, had testified to dropping Todd off at the Sidewalk Café just before 4 o'clock Sunday morning. Oddly, for the first time in the three years Peters worked for her, Todd had declined his offer to escort her to the outside door of her apartment. Peters testified that Todd said nothing at all on the ride home; nonetheless, reporters were soon quoting him as saying that after leaving the night-were soon quoting him as saying that after leaving the nightclub, Todd insisted he drive faster because she feared being killed or kidnapped by "gangsters."
Then two men who worked at a Christmas-tree lot in Holly-wood came forward to report selling Todd and a "dark stranger" a tree at around midnight Sunday, adding, days later, that two burly gunmen in a long black car subsequently warned them against telling police they'd seen Todd. Soon anonymous officials were leaking stories about a supposed Mafia connection. It was alleged that Lucky Luciano's mob, attracted by the Sidewalk Cafe's semi-remote location and wealthy clientele, had sought to open an illegal casino on the third floor and that when Todd opposed it she was murdered.
The press also made much ado about Todd's Trocadero attendance in the company of such luminaries as Sid Grauman, British director Stanley Lupino, his daughter, Ida, and starlet Margaret Lindsay, who arrived on the arm of Pat De Cicco, whom Todd had divorced nearly two years earlier. De Cicco was attending another party there, but the dailies made much of the couple's inevitable meeting, insinuating that he sought to embarrass his ex-wife by bringing along another woman. It was all irrelevant but titillating.
The press, however, weren't the only ones who had doubts about the Todd case. Grand jurors were not persuaded by the collectively incredible testimony from the parade of celebrities who seemed to go out of their way to contradict each other.
West, for instance, insisted that if Todd had attempted to start her car, it would have awakened Smith, who lived in rooms above the garage. He insisted that the Lincoln's 12-cylinder engine was loud and pointed out that there was a large hole in the garage's plaster ceiling. The assertion got a lot of newspaper ink. In a reenactment, the hole proved smallish and far from the upstairs bedroom. Police listening for engine noise heard nothing.
Jewel Carmen, West's wife, testified to seeing Todd, dressed quite differently from the way her body was found, driving her car with a dark, mysterious man beside her on Sunday evening. Carmen adroitly avoided cross-examination by collapsing on the witness stand, though she later was sufficiently recovered to give Louella Parsons an "exclusive" interview confirming West's contention that he and Todd were merely friends.
To further confound the matter, despite Whitehead's testimony that Todd detested using telephones and always go someone else to make her calls, two witnesses — a middle-aged male liquor-store owner and a widowed druggist-swore that Todd had used a pay phone in their respective establishment Sunday afternoon and evening. Even more astounding, Mr. Wallace Ford, wife of the noted actor, insisted Todd had telephoned her Sunday afternoon. to confirm an invitation to the Fords' cocktail party.
"Several witnesses have not told all they know," said one juror. It wasn't long before some began to suspect a cover-up. "Some of those who appear most mute, most dumb, apparent are deliberately concealing facts," noted grand-jury foreman George Rochester. "Potent Hollywood interests have tempted to block the probe [into Todd's death I from the beginning," he added, warning witnesses about perjury. Likewise, prosecutors smelled something rotten. "falsehoods have been told by certain witnesses inside the grand-jury room," complained deputy DA George Johnson. "Someone covering up something. Someone, we think, knows how Thelma Todd died ... none of the apparent facts smooth out."
"Has pressure from some influential source been brought I hear in an attempt to halt this investigation?" a reporter asked Rochester. "We are not stopping," he replied. But the witnesses stuck to their stories. In the end, the grand jury did stop.
Todd's death was left an accident. Case closed. But not solved.
As it turns out, some in the police department knew very well who killed Thelma Todd, and how as well as why. They kept their silence but closed the file only when the killer died in 1951. Still, the real story could not be told. A handful of powerful Hollywood insiders with long memories and wide connections maintained a conspiracy silence. Even after the architect of the conspiracy died in 1961 associates continued to suppress the story. Over the years, whenever a film studio expressed an interest in the mystery of Todd's death, someone always intervened, and the idea was quietly dropped.
To comprehend exactly what transpired, it is necessary to understand a little about the times and the principals involved. The Todd affair was particularly sensitive to L.A. film, business and civic leaders of the day because on the very day her body was found, Warner Bros. director Busby Berkeley went on trial for three counts of second-degree murder for his alcohol-related head-on collision with another car on Pacific Coast Highway, not far from Todd's café. If there was one thing the L.A. Establishment did not want, it was yet another showboat murder trial involving alcohol and a noted director. Now an almost forgotten figure, Roland West was at the time one of the most innovative directors in Hollywood, pioneering techniques that now seem strangely modern. His film noir scenarios were all variations on a single theme: the workings of the criminal mind. West's amoral protagonists typically masquerade behind respectable public images, as in The Bat and its talkie sequel, The Bat Whispers. In Corsair, a college football hero quits a brokerage firm after realizing he's preying on widows and orphans, only to become a thuggish, manipulative rum runner. By guile and brute violence, most of West's protagonists manage to evade punishment for their crimes. It was while performing in the play The Criminal, in which he appeared for years on the vast Loews theater circuit, that West met Joe Schenck, then Loew's booking manager.
West soon turned to producing, and in 1912 he directed his first film, Lost Souls, produced by Schenck. Schenck was born in Rybinsk, Russia, on the Volga, Christmas Day, 1877, and came to New York at age 10. He and younger brother Nicholas earned $4.50 a week as factory laborers. They soon became drugstore delivery boys in New York's Chinatown. After several years of hustling, Joe had saved enough money to start a New Jersey amusement park, with Nick as a partner. Schenck displayed a genius for show business. He parlayed the Jersey property into a larger one in the Bronx, then sold that to Marcus Loew and, along with brother Nick, went to work for him. Schenck left Loew's in 1912 to launch a movie business with Roland West. In 1917 he stole Fatty Arbuckle away from Keystone with a salary increase, an independent production deal and the keys to a new Rolls. Like many a Schenck deal to come, it was all done on a handshake. In 1917 he took his company to California.
By 1921 Schenck's man Arbuckle was the nation's second-biggest box-office draw. But over the Labor Day weekend Arbuckle touched off the film industry's most infamous scandal. Arbuckle was charged with the rape and murder of actress Virginia Rappe during a drunken orgy he hosted at a San Francisco hotel. The day Fatty was arrested, Schenck pulled ..is latest film from distribution. Within days, cities across the country passed ordinances barring Arbuckle's films from theaters. With their friend, former postmaster general Will Hays, the Schencks created an industry watchdog agency and helped promulgate the infamous morals clause.
The Arbuckle scandal proved that Hollywood needed a place to play where moviegoers' disapproving eyes couldn't see them. That led Joe Schenck and a number of partners, including local vice lords and the very respectable Jacob Paley (father of William S. Paley, founder and chairman of CBS), to open an exclusive resort, complete with casinos, racetrack, hotel and fine restaurants, at Agua Caliente, near Tijuana. As the major investor, Schenck was chairman of the board.
Schenck became chairman of United Artists in 1924. In 1933 he left to found 20th Century Productions along with Louis B. Mayer's son-in-law, William Goetz, and Darryl F. Zanuck. Initial capital of $750,000 was put up by Mayer and by Nick Schenck, who was by then running Loew's. In 1935, 20th Century bought Fox, which was in bankruptcy but con-trolled a huge chain of theaters.
Schenck soon became one of California's wealthiest men, with vast real-estate holdings in Arizona and California. For a time he owned, with Jacob Paley, Del Mar Race Track and a Lake Arrowhead resort. He controlled the Federal Trust and Savings Bank and was a major stockholder and director of the Bank of Italy, now the Bank of America. He became great friends with William Randolph Hearst.
At the time of Todd's death, he was already one of the most powerful men in the Industry. His brother was the head of Loew's and MGM and therefore the boss of Hal Roach, the man who had made Todd a star.
As writers, we first became familiar with the Todd case while researching it for a recent book, Fallen Angels, which chronicles 39 true stories of Los Angeles crime and mystery. But since we had to rely on mostly secondary sources in researching all the chapters, the death remained an enigma. For years we'd heard rumors about the case, and Katherine Mader, who grew up in Pacific Palisades near the scene of Todd's demise, insisted we could solve this crime. There had to be somebody still alive from the era who knew what had happened. In the spring of 1987, after finishing the book, we had, for the first time in years, time on our hands. We began prodding a screenwriter friend who, between family connections and writing projects, had become something of an authority on old Hollywood. He admitted to having heard whispers about Todd's killer, but he refused to go any further, saying he couldn't betray confidences.
Instead he referred us to a number of low-profile industry insiders. For the most part, however, they either ducked our questions or referred us cryptically to still other people, most of whom turned out to be long deceased. Even so, the one name that kept coming up again and again was Hal Roach. We were somewhat surprised to find that, at 90, the legendary comedy producer was still very much alive. However, when we finally got hold of him on the phone he was alternately accommodating and evasive: First he was ill with a virus; then a few weeks later, he was too busy; then he was going out of town. Finally, though, Roach agreed to meet us at his home and talk about Thelma Todd, whom he remembered fondly.
When we were at last seated in his den, surrounded by an impossible number of film-celebrity photographs and other mementos documenting a career that began in 1912, Roach skipped the preamble and went right to the point. On December 17, 1935, the day after Todd's body was found, three Los Angeles County sheriff's detectives came to Roach's studio office. The deputies told Roach that Roland West, under intense questioning, had confessed to killing Thelma Todd.
"West was very possessive, very controlling," said Roach, the last survivor of the affair. "He told Thelma she was to be back by 2 a.m. She said she'd come and go as she pleased. They had a little argument about it, and then Thelma left for the party. When Sid Grauman called West, about 2:30, to tell him Thelma was leaving,
West went into her apartment and locked her out. He was going to teach her a lesson. "Apparently when Todd returned at almost 4 a.m., she declined her chauffeur's offer to walk her upstairs because she knew there would be a scene with West. When she found the door locked, she shouted at him, and they had another argument through the door. West told her he didn't want her going to so many parties. Todd, still a bit drunk, screamed that she'd go to any party she pleased. She was invited to one later that day, at Mrs. Wallace Ford's, and she said she'd just go to that party now." According to Roach, she climbed the steps to the garage. West followed. When he arrived she was already in her car. She started the engine, and he ran around and locked the garage door. "He wasn't thinking about carbon monoxide, just about teaching her a lesson about who was the boss. So he left and went back to bed," says Roach. After daylight West returned to the garage to find Todd's body. "He didn't know what to do," says Roach. "So he did nothing. He closed the door — but didn't lock it — and went back to the cafe. All that day, when people called for Thelma, he said he didn't know where she was. If he really hadn't known where she was, he would have been calling all over trying to find her. That's the kind of man he was."
We listened in barely suppressed excitement. Besides naming the killer, Roach was admitting he had played a role in a cover-up. The sheriff's detectives had called on Roach, it turned out, because they were sent theme to seek his opinion on what they ought to do about West's confession. "I told them I thought they should forget about it," says Roach. "He wouldn't have gone to jail anyway, because he'd have the best lawyers, he'd deny everything in court, and there were no witnesses. So why cause him all that trouble?"
We left Roach's house in a state of wonderment. Out on the street, blinking in the brilliant sunshine of midday Bel Air, we compared notes. A trio of deputy sheriffs had visited Roach. Though that was illuminating, it raised more questions than it answered. Who sent them? Whom did they report to after leaving Roach? And would Hal Roach, in 1935 at the height of his influence, have had the clout to stop a police investigation? It was all very unsettling.
The first issue to consider was why Roach should have protected the man who killed his $3,000-a-week star. One reason, of course, was that implicating West would have meant exposing Todd's adulterous affair, and that could have meant a scandal like the Fatty Arbuckle affair some years earlier, surely at the price of heavy box-office losses for his studio.
The deputies left, and the case against West never surfaced. But, as we soon learned, Roach was hardly such a powerful figure that three deputies would simply take his advice and quash a wrongful death investigation. It was also difficult to believe that the deputies who visited Roach could have many any decision concerning a homicide case without consulting someone in higher authority. So, who sent the detectives to Roach in the first place?
Whoever dispatched the deputies to talk to Roach had to have worked for the sheriff. A few days spent prowling dusty stacks and uncatalogued archives in the USC Library convinced us that Eugene Biscailuz, who in 1932 had resigned from the California Highway Patrol to win election as sheriff, was well acquainted with former highway commissioner Joe Schenck, He was a frequent visitor to Agua Caliente and was often photographed visiting film locations and studio sets with Darryl F. Zanuck, Schenck's partner, and with Mayer, whom Biscailuz made an "honorary deputy.' Biscailuz also knew Todd's best friend, Zasu Pitts, a heavy contributor to his election campaign and in whose private car the he had installed a police siren.
And Biscailuz knew Roland West as a 32nd-degree Mason and lodge brother, at a time when such associations meant a lot. Though it's rare, the Sheriff's Department can investigations of crimes committed within its boundaries. Biscailuz chose to do so in 1935. He was also very good friends with deputy DA U. U. Blaylock, the man who helped prepare and present the Todd case to the grand jury, which was to return no indictment. As sheriff and as a deeply rooted Angeleno, Biscailuz had an institutional interest in the film industry's financial health: The movies were the nation's fifth largest industry and L.A. County's most visible.
As for the LAPD, in 1935 Mayor Frank Shaw ruled Los Angeles like a private fiefdom. Police corruption was so pervasive that when in 1937 Shaw was recalled from office, dozens of senior officers fled to avoid prosecution. In. 1935, anyone with money to spread around could have easily gotten to the LAPD. Chief of Detectives Thad Brown, who knew West had killed Todd, was told to back off "because there was no evidence."
Obviously the police had conspired to suppress West's confession, a fact known by only a handful of senior cops. (The Todd file was said to be among dozens of suppressed records seized by an LAPD flying squad from Thad Brown's garage hours after his death. The files have never been made public.
With the Fatty Arbuckle imbroglio still a vivid memory, avoiding yet another movie scandal became Joe Schenck's chief concern. But he had other reasons as well — reasons that hit a little closer to home. In 1941 Schenck was convicted three counts of tax evasion and one of perjury. Schenck's tax-evasion charges included unreported income between 1935 and 1937, preposterous "business deductions" and a stock-sale fraud. In 1935 a new Mexican dictator issued an edict "outlawing" gambling. Translated, this meant that he expected a bigger cut. Schenck, who controlled Agua Caliente's lucrative gaming, would eventually spread enough money around Mexico City and Baja California to come to terms with the new government, but in the meantime he saw an opportunity to recoup his investment. As Roland West later testified, Schenck sold him $410,000 in Agua Caliente stock for $50,000. Schenck then took a tax loss of $360,000, though he never actually transferred the shares and continued to vote them for years through hidden proxies. To make it easy for West, Schenck had his company, Fox, loan West the price of the stock. West gave Schenck a check; Schenck then secretly reimbursed West in cash, money which he in turn used to pay off the Fox loan. West's first $5,000 installment was paid in July 1935. The balance was to be paid in $5,000 installments.
According to uncontroverted testimony at Schenck's trial, West paid the second installment and was secretly reimbursed on December 17, 1935, the day after Todd's body was found West's garage. It was the same day the three deputies visited Roach, a day when West and Schenck had much to talk about Though Schenck's concern for the Industry was a compelling factor, his eagerness to cover up the potential scandal had a much more immediate cause: keeping his lifelong friend away from any temptation to trade information on Schenck's tax fraud in return for a reduced sentence. (Schenck himself eventually got a reduced sentence of $432,050 in fines and back taxes and served four months in prison.)
Nobody was ever indicted for Thelma Todd's death. Any attempt to penetrate the veil of secrecy surrounding the affair was met with stony silence for as long as Joe Schenck and his associates lived. To this day, Hal Roach continues to deny knowing of any connect between Schenck and West.
Released from prison in 1942, Schenck began rebuilding image by leading innumerable Industry and Jewish charity drives. While FDR lived, Schenck's particular favorite charity was polio. He is credited with inventing the March of Dimes concept and with getting collection boxes put in nearly all US movie theaters.
Sheriff Biscailuz won the contested reelection campaign in 1936 — and went on being reelected until he retired in 1958. After 1935, however, he distanced himself from the studio moguls. From then on, he limited his Industry exposure to public events and photo opportunities involving charitable causes, posing for photos with an endless stream of film stars, but always within the security of his own office.
On his Saint John's Hospital deathbed in Santa Monica in 1951, a guilt-ridden West confessed his role in Todd's death to a close friend, actor Chester Morris. Morris, who committed suicide in 1972, repeated West's confession to director Gordon, who recently confirmed it for the writers.
Last year, after speaking about Fallen Angels at a Biltmore Hotel literary event, we were introduced to Don Gallery, adoptive son of film comedienne Zasu Pitts. After we spoke to Roach, we tracked Gallery to his home on Catalina Island, where he confirmed that his mother, Thelma Todd's best friend, had once confided an almost identical version of her death.
Joe Schenck died on October 2, 1961, in Beverly Hills. Pallbearers included Irving Berlin, Sam Goldwyn and Jack Warner. In his eulogy, Association of Motion Picture Producers president Y. Frank Freeman told the assembled. Hollywood mourners, "Joe Schenck never waited for a man who needed help to come to him. He went to that man for that purpose."
© 1987 Marvin J. Wolf and Katherine Mader
It Was 1957 and a Skinny 16-Year-Old Needed an Emergency Loan to Keep His Family Up and Running. Enter Mort Reubens.
VERY FIRST PERSON
Los Angeles Times Magazine, October 11, 1998
Marvin J. Wolf
Journalist and author Marvin J. Wolf is immediate past president of Independent Writers of Southern California. His most recent book is Where White Men Fear to Tread (St. Martin's Press), which he co-authored with Russell Means.
I stood on tiptoe and handed the 3-by-5 card from the Help Wanted board at Fairfax High up to the tall, broad-shouldered, ruddy-faced man behind the counter of Mort's Deli at Farmers Market. He wore a starched chef's hat and a clean white apron over slacks and a sports shirt, and even before I opened my mouth to speak, he was frowning and shaking his head.
"This is a tough job for any high school kid," he said. "I need somebody big and strong."
At 16, I looked younger and was barely 5 feet tall. "I worked last summer washing dishes in a boys camp," I said. "Near Chicago. I'm not afraid of hot water, dirty dishes or heavy lifting."
"Florine, come out here a minute," called the tall man. In the kitchen doorway appeared an elfin presence, his dark skin mottled and wrinkled with age. He was even shorter than I was. Several long, wispy white hairs sprouted from his chin. "This is Mr. Joaquin, the chef. He's 80 years old. He needs someone strong enough to lift great big pots filled with boiling water."
"I can do the job."
"Really, we need someone bigger. You'll find something easier than this, kid," the tall man said in a kind voice. It was September 1957, and my family had just arrived in California. Without seniority in the local union, my father, a sheet-metal worker, was lucky to get work two or three days a week. Our meager savings were gone, and I, the eldest boy among what would soon be six children, was the only one able to help. I'd applied at retail stores, but without local references, shopkeepers were reluctant to let me handle cash. And everyone said I was too small.
"Tell you what," I said. "Put me to work the rest of the week, and if you don't like the way I do the job, don't pay me."
The tall man stared at me, then nodded. "I'm Mort Reubens," he said. "What's your name?"
The patio at Farmers Market, then as now, was a collection of small shops and about 30 highly individualized restaurants. All used the same crockery and silverware, retrieved from tables by busboys and returned for washing. At Mort's, a river of soiled utensils, trays and dishes flowed into my sinks. Huge pots and pans came off the stove and out of the ovens to be scrubbed. I washed and rinsed and scoured; by the end of my first after-school shift, sharp pains were shooting up my heels and lower legs from four hours of standing on concrete without a break.
My father suggested that I would get used to it, but as closing time approached on Saturday, I was in agony. I would need better shoes if I was to continue working here, but I had no money and no idea if Mort would pay me for four days of work. Near the end of the day he called me up front. "How much did that card at school say this job paid?" he asked.
"Dollar an hour," I murmured. "The minimum wage." I was willing to take less.
"That's not enough for someone who works as hard as you," said Mort. "You start at $1.25."
Over the next few weeks I learned a lot about Mort. He was a few years older than my dad, was from Chicago and had a daughter my age. About 1937, Mort had joined the National Guard's horse-drawn artillery because he loved horses. Early in World War II, he was nearly killed in a savage battle in New Guinea's Owen Stanley mountains. Recuperating from a terrible head wound, he was attached to Gen. Douglas MacArthur's personal staff as a military policeman, where he cultivated an Aussie accent while tracking down GI black marketers. When things were slow at the deli, he often shared stories from his Army days. But things were never slow in the kitchen; there was always something to be washed or swept or scoured.
We were closed on Sundays, and so every Saturday evening, Mort encouraged me to take home the leftover soup in a huge jar. A rich broth of turkey, rice and vegetables, it was a meal in itself, a treat for my struggling family. My father usually picked me up after work on Saturdays because the soup was too much to lug home on my bike. Then, one Saturday about six weeks after I began working, my father was hired to hang gutters on a neighbor's house, and I took the family car.
After work I drove home and parked on 6th Street, a few doors from Sweetzer Avenue, and, with the warm jar in my arms, crossed the lawn. As I passed the living room window, I glanced inside–and almost dropped the jar. In my father's chair–my father's chair!–was a large, heavy bald man. He was cursing my father, flinging the most obscene words in a voice dripping with contempt. My brothers and sisters sat like statues. Dad's face was stone; Mom wept.
I crept into the darkened kitchen, carefully set the soup on a counter and listened through a crack in the swinging door. The bald man wanted to take our 1952 Chevy. Dad offered to pay the three weekly payments that were in arrears, but the man demanded the entire sum–$325–or the car.
I had been in Los Angeles just long enough to understand how essential a car is. I slipped out the door, pushed the Chevy down to the corner, then started the engine and circled the neighborhood, thinking furiously. Who might have $325? Who would even consider loaning me such a princely sum?
The only person I could think of was Mort. I drove back to Farmers Market, rapped on the rear door, then waited until the window shade went up. I found myself staring down the barrel of an Army .45. "What do you want?" growled Mort, lowering the gun but peering behind me into the darkness.
I stammered out my tale: The bald man, his foul cursing, the outrageous demand. "So, could you possibly loan my father $325?" I finished, realizing how absurd it sounded.
Mort's eyes bored holes in my face. His cheeks began to purple, and his lips quivered. I realized that he was still clutching the gun, and took an involuntary step backward. At that, he smiled. "I'm not going to shoot you," he chuckled, placing the pistol on his tiny desk. Abruptly he knelt, pried a worn red tile from the floor to reveal a safe and began to twist the dial.
He counted the money twice, placing it in an old envelope. "This is $325," he said. "When school is out this summer, you'll work full time. I'll take back half your wages until it's repaid."
"Thank you," I said, trembling at this responsibility. "Do you want my father to come over and sign something?"
Slowly, he shook his head. "No, son. I'm betting on you."
I went in the back door like the lord of the manor, and Dad came rushing into the kitchen, the bald man on his heels. "Quick! Drive away, take the car away!" cried my father. I calmly handed the repo man the soiled envelope. "Count it, give my father a receipt and get out of our house," I said, a speech I'd rehearsed all the way home.
That night I was a hero to my family. But the real hero was Mort Rubin, who not only saved us from certain penury, but also quietly raised my salary every month or so until, when summer came, I was earning $2.50 an hour, double the original wage. I worked for Mort until I graduated in 1959 and joined the Army. We stayed in touch for many decades, but I lost track of Mort several years ago and don't even know if he's still alive.
But this I know: Mort Reubens made Los Angeles a better place.
© 1998 Marvin J. Wolf
The bottle blond is making out with this old guy and I’m next to them on the couch wondering what the hell is going on in my hallucination, this lucid dream state where I know that I’m sleeping yet don’t want to awaken because somehow, strange as this is, it’s better, more compelling, more involving, than the waking world.
Slender and curvaceous, hard-edged but oh-so-sexy, the blonde—I don’t know her name—is attired for marketing, her catalog of womanly wares displayed for browsing or close inspection. She’s swapping spit with the old dude, letting him rub and stroke her hither, thither and yon—and then she reaches out and takes my hand.
While she’s still making out with the other dude.
He’s wrinkled but tall and raw-boned, a Ben Gurion fringe of white hair crowning his bald dome. I’m not my young, supple, Army-strong, buzz-cut self as I usually am in dreams. No, I’m my present, porcine, white-haired, creaky-jointed self. When she takes my hand and inflates my libido with a stare from one robin’s-egg-blue eye—the other one is jammed against the old guy’s face—I realize that I’m auditioning to understudy him.
It’s creepy weird, but that’s a dream for you. A little reality—over a long life I’ve now and then foolishly allowed myself to be used in demeaning ways—and a whole lot of freakish nonsense.
Now the other guy is gone and it’s just me and her standing on a giant macadam apron behind a row of high-rise apartments and I see that her home is a one-room shack forlornly slumped against a corner of a forbiddingly high fence that borders the complex.
“He’s my hero,” she says, I guess referring to the wrinkled fringe dome guy.
“He rescued me,” she adds, and then a giant wrecking ball flattens her shack and a bulldozer appears from out of nowhere—that’s another thing about my dreams, time is as warped as an Escher drawing—and with one pass of its blade scoops up the wreckage and disappears around a corner that wasn’t there a second ago.
“My goddamn landlord,” she says, spreading her arms wide and frowning till I worry that her mascara will crack, sighing and blinking like this explains everything.
Maybe, in her dream, it actually does.
Then I hear a rattling, high-pitched whine like the bogey wheels on an Abrams tank and here’s this massive tracked vehicle, treads higher than a point guard’s head, and Main-Street wide. Behind it rolls a giant crane. In two shakes the crane is pulling pre-fab boxes off the back of the behemoth mover and stacking one atop another into a rambling ziggurat that turns out to be a multi-story, wedding-cake of a house.
We go inside and mirabile dictu, it’s completely furnished, lights on, music playing. I see now that I’m not even auditioning for understudy. I’m only the backup.
I’m her Plan B.
And I think about this for a minute, which in a dream might be an hour or a second of actual REM time, and as I cogitate and concentrate and worry over the details I conclude that libido be damned, I am never, no-how, nobody’s sugar daddy, not possible.
“You need to find some way to support yourself,” I tell the bottle blonde and zip zap zoom! we’re meandering through an endless hardware store, like some lunatic Mandelbrot fractal of B&B Hardware, floor-to-ceiling bins and shelves and drawers crammed with every sort of nut and bolt and screw and nail and knob and chain and tool and gizmo, a store so big that you’re always deep in its twisting, curvilinear middle.
I grab some tiny screwdrivers and squish five into an irregular lineup.
“Look, these could be earrings. Maybe even a belt buckle.”
I pull a length of chain off a roll, bite off a link and circle her waist with it.
“See, they could go with this as a belt.”
She grunts, very softly, moving against me, calculatingly making body contact. I take anodized carbon-steel lug nuts from a bin and arrange them in her manicured hand, grooving on their shape and texture, arranging them this way and that.
“Do mechanics even wear earrings?” she mumbles.
“Think about how cool they’d look plated with silver. Or brass. Maybe copper, and then an acid bath for a nice patina. Even an anodized finish,” I add
“I don’t know about all this stuff. I just need someone to rescue me.”
“Wait, look at these,” I say, grabbing some hacksaw blades and arranging the edges so they’re irregularly staggered. I pull out my camera and zoom it to take a close-up of the geometric pattern, then hold the Nikon’s back up for her to look at.
“Very pretty. I’ve got a lot of overhead, you know.”
In the distance, thunder rattles the store.
Distracted, I turn my head to paw through tiny, round-head stainless steel hex nuts, arranging them in my hand, peering closely at them, grooving on the reflections of nearby bins and shelves. Then I see a stack of needle files, and marvel over their surface patterns. Could these be bent round, plated and made into bracelets?
There’s the thunder again, louder. There was nothing in the forecast—Oh, there’s those cool chromed nails. Their heads are tiny ellipses--
So much to look at. I spy bronze concrete nails with grooved, twisted shanks--
I open one eye. My daughter has cracked my bedroom door and is looking at me. “Can I use your car? Samson needs to go to the doggie park and my brakes won’t be ready until this afternoon?”
Brakes? I bet the shoes will have an interesting texture. Carborundum is way cool stuff. I should go over and look at that.
Annoyed, I open both eyes. “Sure, take the car.”
I drift back to sleep, vaguely wondering about the blonde but getting more and more worried, obsessing, really, because I want to look at the emery cloth, it’s got really nifty teeny-tiny, jagged-edge grains and naturally folds into different patterns but I can’t find the hardware store and now I can’t find my car—it isn’t where I parked it.
Peering every which way, panic rising in me, I walk streets somehow simultaneously familiar and strange. Could they be Frankfurt, Seoul, London, Montreal, New York, Chicago, Tokyo, Saigon, Chicago—places I haven’t visited in decades? I’m stressed, anxious to get back to the store but disoriented and this morphs into my familiar standby dream, where I’m wandering, lost, trying to find my way home. I always end up home in bed in these, mildly exasperated, a little disappointed.
I open both eyes and sit up.
Bottle blondes are always on sale somewhere. But I really wish that I could find that hardware store again.
© 2011 Marvin J. Wolf
Excerpt from "Sea of Dreams," unpublished novel by Marvin J. Wolf
I swim slowly through an endless bank of thick fog; my whole world is the sea below and a dense white shroud above. I pause to float atop the waves, carried through the thick mist by an invisible current. Hungry, I dive down to snag a passing cod, peel the skin back like a banana, wipe the mayonnaise off with a paper towel, and eat the breaded, perfectly-fried fillets. I drop the head and skeleton and watch it float away, knowing that I am littering my environment but not caring—let the scavengers take care of it. I notice that I can breathe underwater, that my limbs and chest are covered with scales. Suddenly the fog parts. A leviathan ship bears down on me, its decks lined with people. I see them pointing at me, snapping pictures. The ship alters course and slows. Something comes flying down from the observation deck and splashes nearby. I look over and see a bronze urn, slowly sinking. "Get a life!" someone yells from the ship, and peering through the mist I see Out-At-The-Plate Herring at the rail, a slender blonde in a full-length mink clinging to his arm. She looks oddly familiar.
Suddenly the ship is gone. The fog thins, then lifts as I accelerate, moving ever faster. I spy-hop out of the water to peer ahead. Before me, a hole opens in the sea and I’m drawn toward it. Frantic, I try to swim away, but the current overwhelms my feeble strokes. I slide, whirling, down a gigantic whirlpool toward the darkness.
I don't like this.
I get up to pee.
I used to see a shrink, with whom I discussed my dreams at great length. When Dr. Quahog said "Dreams are deal memos from your soul," I thought that he was speaking metaphorically until the day when I caught his mistress, or one of them, listening to our sessions on the intercom as she sat at a court reporter's machine, taking down my words. Not long after that, one of my weirder nightmares came alive on the tube, a series about Pentagon-based supercops who fight corruption, major crime and sexual harassment in the armed services; the voice over introduced each segment with a summary of the team’s after-action reports.
And in my dream, the one I told Quahog, I was back in the Crotch, handling PR for this operation, and between shootouts with the bad guys rewriting my semiliterate colleagues’ mangled syntax, snarled grammar and bad spelling on after-action reports. I watched the television show's credits very carefully, and sure enough, Dr. Quahog is an associate producer and shares story credit with the executive producer. Asking around, I hear that he’s been shopping dreams around town for years, and had pocketed option money on three or four. When I confronted him, he never flinched: "You know very well that you don't own an idea until it's developed, committed to paper and copyrighted," he said. "If you have problems with the way credits were awarded, appeal to the Writers Guild for arbitration." Then he asked when I wanted to schedule our next session.
Out of that experience came one of my better-selling books, Mind Fucking, which kept me solvent for three years. Unfortunately, I also became persona non grata to the entire mental health community, including psychiatrists, psychologists, marriage and family counselors, psych-social workers — even the most ethical shrink was afraid to let me in his office. Now I tell my dreams to my girlfriend.
Maybe that's why I don't have a girlfriend.
After I void my bladder, I decide against going back to sleep. It's sprinkling when I go outside to net my Sunday Tides, a few drops from patchy white clouds floating beneath a cerulean sky. About two hours later, after reading the funnies, the book review and opinion sections, complete leisurely ablutions and dress for the diamond, it's still sprinkling. I decide to chance the five-mile drive to Brentwood; it might not be raining there, and even if it is, the worst case is that only a few guys will show up. So we'll throw and catch, enjoy a little batting practice. Beats sitting in front of the tube watching millionaire leviathans in color-coordinated jerseys banging into each other while grunting like elephant seals in rut.
But when I turn off the Bonefish Avenue freeway ramp, there’s Les Miserable, waving me down. "They won't let us in — parking lot's full of movie trailers," he says. "Making some kinda World War Two movie." This has happened before: the VA includes streets full of pre-war buildings that resemble old-style military bases.
"What about one of the fields by the Post Office?" I ask.
"Marvel went up to see," he replies. "Took Dead-Pull with him."
I pull onto the shoulder, out of the way. Five more players trickle in and we stand around next to our cars, talking, until Marvel comes back with Dead Pull.
"We're out of luck," he says. "League games by the post office, soccer players all over the Little League field and the junior high is mud — sprinklers ran all night."
"Let's go to breakfast," says Sandy, as Satchel pulls up.
"Grenadier's?" says Marvel, spurring a chorus of dissent. After five minutes of argument, we agree on Bryde's, an unpretentious café known for quick service. With my usual good parking karma, I find a spot down the street and as I leave my car, Satchel calls to me from his Escalade.
"Got a minute?" he says.
"Ain't you coming in?" I say.
"Ate at home."
"If it's urgent, why not call me?"
"Not that important. Anyway, you never know who's listening to your phone these days," says Satchel, glancing around like he thought he was being followed.
"So what's up?"
"Less, and more."
"I'm all ears," I say, wishing he'd get down to it.
"You had a really good idea with Snow Cone," he says.
"I'm not following."
"Basking never called my lawyer back, so I told Snow Cone I'd like to meet him, and he got me right in to see him."
"You didn't tell Snow Cone why?"
"I told him that since Beverly Hills P.D. is world famous, I was pitching a television series idea to Murax about it and kind of wanted to feel department brass out about how much ongoing support we could expect from the city."
"Clever," I say.
"So I had a quick sit-down with Basking, drank a cup of coffee. He apologized for not getting back to Karp. Turns out it's all a big misunderstanding. Mistaken identity. Basking was told that Judah P. Benjamin VI is my real name, but my stage name —"
"Oh no," I say. "They think that you're —"
"But why would they have a hard-on for him?"
"We didn't get into that. My guess is, ‘cause he travels in exalted circles..."
"Could be," I say.
"Anyway, it's all squared away. Basking is an okay dude, get to know him a little. Made a big deal out of apologizing. Said he'd make it up to me."
"They've dropped the charges. I'm to stay out of Beverly Hills when I throw a poker game, and they'll forget about the whole thing."
"That's terrific," I say.
"I owe you."
"What for? I didn't do a damn thing."
"But you give great counsel. You were a buddy. I don't forget my buddies."
"Good. So now that we have the terms of endearment, why don't you come in and buy me breakfast — I didn't bring any cash."
"I'll drink some coffee," says Satchel, climbing out of the car. I look down and sure enough, a chauffeur's billed cap is resting on the passenger seat.
Heading toward our gang in the back room, we’re intercepted by a pretty, middle-aged hostess bearing oversize menus. "I can seat you immediately," she says, then does a double take at Satchel.
"Oh my god!" she shrieks. "It's you! It's really you!"
Satchel switches on the charm like an electric eel sampling live sushi in some briny cafeteria. "It certainly is me," he chuckles, taking her by the arm. "Would you like an autograph?"
The woman is in ecstasy. "Oh, I just never thought — I grew up watching your movies, I mean films. Don't know how you─you don't look a day older. Oh, this is so wonderful!"
Satchel signs a menu with a flourish, kisses the woman's cheek, pats her arm and slides into the booth next to Valentino, who, like the rest of our crowd, is rolling his eyes. "I hate going out with you guys," says Satchel. "You just don't appreciate a fine performance," and we all laugh. Satchel accepts a complimentary bagel with his coffee. After the food comes, he slides a ten under the napkin dispenser and rises.
"That's for Slips and me," he says. "Gotta sail."
Just then the manager, heavy-set and dark, appears, wringing his hands. "Is something wrong?" he says.
"No, not at all," sighs Satchel. "I have an appointment."
"I know it's an imposition," says the manager, "But is there any way we could get an autographed photo to put up in front?"
"Of course," says Satchel, pulling out his wallet and handing the manager a card. "Here's the guy to call. Tell him I said to get you a picture, and he'll take care of you."
"Thank you so very much," says the manager, blissed out. "You bring great honor to our humble place."
"Pleasure is all mine," says Satchel. I walk him out, and on the sidewalk, he leans down to whisper, "Guy has a great racket. Gets free headshots from studio publicity, forges the signatures, and takes whatever the traffic will bear."
"The Coho Archive, right?" I say, which earns me a look.
"He's got all kinds of photos. Use him for my books," I add. "Gets two bills for a genuine forged Kevin Costner. But how do you come out on this?"
"My real name's on that card. Somebody asks for me, he knows to spiel them for some charity he invented. Whatever he drags out of them, we split," he says, shakes my hand and steams majestically towards his Caddy like he owns everything in sight.
That night I dream again and again I float atop foggy swells, eating fried cod. I watch the urn fly from the ship and splash, and as I feel myself being sucked into the whirlpool, I decide to see where it will take me.
© 2018 Marvin J. Wolf
In 1965 I was a PFC and rookie combat correspondent with the First Cavalry Division in Vietnam. In November, two of our battalions engaged with regular North Vietnamese regiments in the Ia Drang Valley, in what would become a famous battle. With my colleagues in the Public Information Office, I flew to Camp Holloway at Pleiku, 30 miles from the battle but the nearest US base with an airstrip.
By the middle of the second day casualties were evacuated to Holloway and I had an opportunity to interview several of the less seriously, wounded troops before they were hospitalized.
From these interviews, I wrote a 1,000-word story, and brought it to my boss, Major Siler, for approval. He deleted four words in the last paragraph and told me to phone our tent office at An Khe, about 30 miles east, and read it to whoever answered the phone. Siler said to tell the man who took the story to send it to Stars & Stripes in Tokyo without changing a word.
The voice on the other end of my phone was new to me, a sergeant D’Angelo. I read him the story and to my surprise, he typed as fast as I spoke. When he finished I passed on the major’s order to send it without changes, the D’Angelo lectured me on the importance of proofreading, fact-checking, grammar, sentence structure and so forth.
It was three days before I got back to An Khe and my bunk in the section tent. I was filthy and exhausted. I took off my dirty uniform and underwear and slept for ten hours. Then I hitched a ride to the shower point, got a cold shower, and hitched a ride back.
Then for the first time, I began flipping through the previous few days Stars &Stripes, looking for my by-line. When I didn’t find it, I was disappointed. I was a new writer and I assumed that the story wasn’t good enough for the Stripes’ editor.
The next day, reading those papers again, I found five stories by-lined by D’Angelo. It didn’t seem possible, because he had spent the whole battle 60 miles away at our basecamp. Reading the third D’Angelo piece I recognized my own work. He had transposed two clauses in the lead sentence, but otherwise, the story was exactly what I wrote.
I respectfully asked him to explain why his name on was on my story. I got a long-winded lecture about teamwork, that it didn’t matter whose name was on a story as long as it got published and that in any case, he had rewritten the story to fix my grammatical mistakes, spelling errors, and poor organization. I replied that the story published in Stripes was exactly what I wrote, except for those transposed clauses in the first sentence.
He repeated his whole spiel about teamwork, and how it did not matter whose name was on the story.
“If it doesn’t matter, then why your name instead of mine?” I said.
He repeated the entire teamwork spiel yet again.
Later that day I ran into Captain Coleman, the major’s deputy, who told me that Major Siler was away on Army business.
I knew Coleman fairly well and saw him as a tough but fair officer with years of civilian news reporting and editing experience. So I told him about my encounter with Sergeant D’Angelo. He said that he would look into it.
Standing in line for evening chow, D’Angelo and another new member of the section, a Staff Sergeant Jameson, came up on either side of me and took me out of line. They marched me about a half mile to a small patch of jungle inside the base camp, where Jameson held me while D’Angelo pounded by midsection, arms, and legs until he was covered with sweat. I was cautioned that PFCs do not go over their sergeant’s head to talk to an officer. After a few more punches, I was threatened with re-assignment to an infantry company if I didn’t shape up. Jameson told me that I needed “extra training. I was to report to him at 8:00 pm.
I was bruised and sore, but they had avoided hitting my face. When I found Jameson that evening he took me outside, handed me an entrenching tool—a small folding shovel--and told me to dig a standard foxhole, six feet long, two feet wide, and four feet deep.
That took until midnight. When he came back he seemed surprised that I had done as told.
He ordered me to get some sleep and report to him at 0500.
When I did, he had me fill in the foxhole. He warned me again about speaking to officers.
I was angry and frustrated. The next day followed without incident.
After breakfast on the day after that, Major Siler re-appeared. He told me to report to Division Headquarters and the Command Sergeant Major.
There I was promoted one grade to Specialist Four and told that henceforth I was the acting press chief, in charge of all the reporters in the section.
“What about SGT D’Angelo?” I asked.
“He requested re-assignment in his other military occupational specialty, maintaining databases of helicopter replacement parts.”
Staff Sergeant Jameson had also requested re-assignment to an infantry battalion.
It developed that D’Angelo had stolen the stories of every other reporter in the section. Siler had flown down to Saigon where he found high-quality international circuits, which he used to call Stripes in Tokyo and also the European edition, published in West Germany. Apparently, D’Angelo had been stealing stories for several years.
Fast forward to 1970. I arrived in Kaiserslautern Germany for duty as the Communication-Electronics staff officer for the 93rd Air Defense Group, a large collection of surface-to-air missile units whose weapons were pointed at East Germany and Czechoslovakia. I was assigned the additional duty of Public Information Officer.
In that capacity, I was invited to meet with the lieutenant colonel who served as regional public affairs officer, the better to coordinate public affairs goals and the means of achieving them.
Entering the PAO outer office, out of the corner of my eye I saw a familiar figure wearing the stripes of a sergeant first class. I was greeted by the PAO sergeant major, who took me in to see his boss.
As I strode across the office I heard D’Angelo telling someone, “See that young captain? He’s a hell of a writer. I taught him everything he knows about news reporting.”
Inside the lieutenant colonel’s office, we shook hands and had a collegial chat of about ten minutes. I asked a few questions, and he answered them. Then I turned to the sergeant major. “Have any of your enlisted men made any complaints about SFC D’Angelo?
The sergeant major was startled. “A few, but D’Angelo told me what really happened.”
Leaving myself out of it, I described what had happened in Vietnam, down to Siler’s discovery that this was a habitual behavior.
“Is that Chuck Siler?” asked the lieutenant colonel.
“He’s an old friend,” replied the PAO. “Do you know where he’s stationed these days?”
I told him, we shook hands and I departed for my office, an hour’s ride distant.
When I was back behind my desk attacking a pile of paperwork, my right-hand man, Master Sergeant Bill Solomon, came into my office and perched on the edge of my desk. I didn’t mind—he was almost a friend, Despite the difference in our ranks, he knew more about my job than I knew about his.
“You used to know a Sergeant First Class D’Angelo?” he said, eyes twinkling.
“Tell me,” I replied.
“Got a call from a sergeant-major we know. D’Angelo is up for a court-martial.”
“How interesting,” I replied.
The Sicilians have it right. Revenge is a dish best served cold.
© 2018 Marvin J. Wolf
Excerpt from the second in my Rabbi Ben mystery novels, 'A Scribe Dies in Brooklyn.' Available on Kindle eBook Paperback. For more info and reviews, click here.
“A few weeks ago, a Jewish woman here in New York, discovered—or, at least, thinks she did—the missing pages, perhaps only some of them. They were hidden in the home of her beloved great-uncle, who had just passed away at 97.”
“That’s wonderful news!”
“It isn’t. Two days later, someone broke into the uncle’s house and stole it.”
“Who else knew that she’d found it?”
“An excellent question! You might want to ask her that.”
“The State of Israel wants me to find the missing Codex pages? Mossad is too busy? Shabak can’t be bothered? What about Aman, since you have so much influence?”
“The State of Israel asks nothing of you. Were you to accept any task for us in the U.S., you would be obliged to register as a foreign agent. Mossad and Shabak would know immediately. I would be unhappy if either agency—if anyone in the Israeli government—hears anything about you or the Codex.”
“Why is that?”
“You probably know that we have many political parties in Israel, too many, really. No party ever wins enough seats in the Knesset to form a government on its own.
“So every election is followed by a few days of backroom horse-trading—perhaps necessary, but very unseemly. The small parties are single-issue parties; to get enough seats to govern, the ruling coalition always includes a few of them.”
“You’re talking about the religious parties?”
“I am. And their issue is ensuring that the Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox, get what they want: power.”
“Here’s something you might not know. In 1958, when the Aleppo Codex was still missing, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel commanded any Jew who knew where it was to produce it. Almost immediately, the Codex, except those still-missing pages, mysteriously appeared—in Argentina!—and was brought to Israel.
“Which leads me to the reason for this conversation.”
Ben cocked his head, thinking. “Let me guess. You don’t want the Haredim to get their hands on the missing portion of the Codex. And this is because … because … if American Jews, the Jews of the Diaspora, take possession of it, they have a bargaining chip. They can demand, perhaps, that the Haredim recognize Diaspora conversions, marriages, etc. And this is vital for Israel; in the long run, Israel cannot survive without the support of Diaspora Jews.”
Yossi nodded. “Exactly. And I can see that you are just the man to do this.”
Ben shook his head. “I’m not the right man for this.”
Yossi grinned. “You are much too modest. My brother-in-law, Yakov, tells me that Mossad has an open file on you. Perhaps Shabak keeps one, as well.”
“That’s ridiculous! Why?”
“A man who brought down a multimillion-dollar organized-crime scheme? Working alone, without a support team? Why indeed?”
“Not alone. I worked with the police and the DEA.”
“The police of a small city, who were of little help. And the DEA came in only to make arrests. Let’s not quibble. You are a man who knows how to get things done.”
“But I know very little about ancient texts. I can’t tell if a Torah page is a hundred years old or a thousand.”
“If that’s your only problem, it’s easily solved.”
“It’s not my only problem. I have an appointment for Lasik surgery in two weeks. In California.”
“You might be finished by then. And if not, I’ll personally buy you a roundtrip ticket to Israel and pay for your surgery. We have wonderful doctors, you know.”
“That’s very generous. But even so, I’m not a wealthy man. I must earn a living.”
“An American organization has volunteered to pay your fee.”
Ben sighed. “You’re making this very hard. Yossi, I haven’t had even a few days off in more than a year. Since my wife died, I’ve been alone in the world. No family at all. It’s a hard life, to be utterly alone in the world.”
“My parents were Holocaust survivors. I understand.”
“But wait! Two days ago, I discovered that I have a sister and brother in California. I’d like to get to know them, spend some time with them before the High Holy Days.”
“And what will become of your sister, Marcia--Malka bat Mikel—and your brother, Mort--Mordechai ben Mikel—if the power of the Haredim is not checked? Their mothers were Jews by choice, their conversions supervised by rabbis that the Haredim don’t recognize. Will they be allowed to visit the Wailing Wall? Will your sister, a Reform rabbinical student, be allowed even to touch a Sefer Torah? Not long ago, a Conservative woman, a rabbi, was arrested at the Wall merely for carrying a Torah!”
“Marcia is a rabbinical student? How is it possible that you know more about my family than I do?”
“Mossad keeps an eye on certain people, people like you. And your father, alev hashalom, may he rest in peace.”
“They watched him because he was a remorseless swindler who preyed on synagogues and Jewish institutions?”
“I wouldn’t say remorseless. In the last few years of his life, he gave a lot of money to Jewish causes: hospitals, medical research, homeless shelters, Legal Aid societies. Maybe he was trying to make amends for his earlier life.”
Ben’s head swam against this rush of new information. He took several deep breaths, trying to focus.
“Yossi, I appreciate all that you’ve told me. But you haven’t given me a single reason why I, of all people, would have a chance of finding the Codex.”
“So. I will now provide that reason.”
Yossi touched a button on the phone. Seconds later, the door opened to admit the most beautiful woman Ben had ever seen: a face to make Da Vinci weep; tall and graceful, like his dear Rachel, with glowing, flawless skin and dazzling teeth; a modest business suit that displayed magnificent legs while failing to hide a lush but perfectly proportioned body.
“Rabbi Ben Maimon, this is Dr. Chana Kaplan of the Jewish Philanthropy Institute.”
Chana smiled, filling the room with light and warmth. The faint scent of her perfume seemed to evoke the gardens of Paradise. Ben felt her dark eyes penetrating deep into his soul. As though from a great distance, he heard Yossi speaking, and forced himself to listen.
“So we can count on you, Rabbi? You’ll work with Dr. Kaplan to help find the Codex?”
Unable even to summon his voice, Ben nodded, yes.
Yossi said, “Doctor Kaplan?”
She snorted. “This is your fearless genius? Your troubleshooting rabbi? This shrimp? I thought he’d be much taller.”
© 2017 Marvin J. Wolf
I was hired away from a job that I enjoyed but which paid little to become editor-in-chief of the Northrop News, a monthly tabloid sent to Northrop’s employees in the US and abroad, and to stockholders. The woman who recruited me promised that I would have broad authority to transform the News from its stodgy 1950s format into a contemporary magazine and that I would have six full-time employees and one part-timer at a small Northrop facility on the East Coast.
I took the job and immediately learned that none of six at Northrop headquarters worked for me. They reported to “Mary,” my boss, and if I needed them to do something, I had to ask Mary.
But Mary was never around. She traveled constantly, and in that era before cell phones, she was almost impossible to reach. I left countless messages for her in the offices that she was supposedly visiting, but she never called back. Meanwhile, each of the six individuals that I had been promised worked for me were all busy on tasks that Mary gave them, none of which had anything to do with the Northrop News.
So for the first two months, I wrote the whole magazine myself. I also served as the art director. The one thing I persuaded one of Mary’s people to do was to proofread my copy.
My first issue would, in the year following, win several national and international awards. We received over 200 requests for copies and had to go back to press to satisfy the demand.
My second issue won a few awards as well.
On one of her rare visits to her own office, Mary sent for me and scolded me for my re-design work during the transmutation from tabloid to magazine. She said that the secretary to the vice president of one company division had written a note of complaint. She was angry that some “college boy” had taken over and changed her beloved News. (I was then 37 years of age, a Vietnam veteran and yes, a college graduate.) Apparently, Mary was terrified of this secretary. When I took the opportunity to remind her that I had been promised six and a half workers under me and that instead, I had none, she got angry. “All you have to do is ask me, and I’ll assign someone to help you on a specific task,” she said. “But everyone in this department reports to me, and to me alone.”
I reminded her that she was rarely around to ask, and she rose from he chair and hurried off without replying.
After another month, I was burned out. Midway through the third issue of my tenure, I was working seven days a week. I took work home every night and wrote until I could hardly see the page. I got up early and was in the office at 7:00 so I could work without interruption by phone calls and office business.
When Mary returned from her next trip, I went into her office a little before noon and closed the door.
“Did you have an appointment?” she asked, as I sank into the visitor’s chair.
“Mary, I must have some help. I cannot do this job alone. Just give me ONE person who can assist me.”
“Everyone reports to me,” she said. “That’s how it is.”
“Mary,” I said. “You’re an attractive black woman in an aerospace company. THEY WON’T FIRE YOU. You need to learn to delegate.”
“I have a lunch,” she said and grabbed her purse as she flew from the room.
When I returned from my own lunch, there was a firing notice on my desk. My tenure at Northrop Corporation was over because “I did not fit in with the corporate culture.”
I would learn in the years ahead that this had been Mary’s first management position and her first communications assignments. She was previously in charge of corporate equal opportunity at Northrop. Before that, she was a flight attendant. Her husband was an actor, but I have yet to see one of his credits in a film or TV show or on the Broadway stage.
When Mary got that employee communications job, she immediately spent some $27,000 of Northop’s money to hire an international business consulting firm to do a corporate communications audit. They produced two copies of what was essentially a how-to book. That’s why the other six writers were doing things for Mary. When they weren’t out of the office on personal business, they were trying to create a package of new communications media: A virtual bulletin board, a complaint hotline, A weekly video report to all employees, etc.
Mary was unable to secure funding for most of those projects.
And at a writers gathering 22 years later, I ran into the woman who had replaced me at Northrop. She lasted six weeks. He replacement lasted five. I learned from the first woman that apparently one or more of my office colleagues had eavesdropped on my last conversation with Mary.
Apparently, I had become an office legend for the manner of my departure.
© 2018 Marvin J. Wolf
Excerpt from the first Rabbi Ben mystery novel I wrote, "For Whom The Shofar Blows." Available on Amazon Barnes & Noble Kobo Kindle iTunes. For more info and reviews, click here.
They dined on a patio watching the dying sunset’s magnificent purples and reds behind the entire San Fernando Valley, stretching dozens of miles toward the horizon, an endless sea of twinkling lights framed by red and white ribbons of headlamp- and –taillight-strewn freeways.
Ben had never tasted better food. The chicken was moist yet firm, marvelously seasoned. Each item in the salad was deliciously distinct in texture and flavor. The cornbread stuffing topped all—the best food he’d ever had. He took seconds, then thirds, meanwhile sipping on a robust, superbly fruity Baron Hertzog Zinfandel.
Relaxing into drowsiness, Ben marveled at how he felt—never more alive, more in control, more cogent—yet, somehow, he also felt himself drifting away, saw himself reclining on a patio chair with Susan nestled in his arms. It was as though he was in two places at once, viewing himself from high above and simultaneously feeling her soft lips on his own, the delicious weight of her breasts pressing against his chest …
Ben opened his eyes. Susan lay atop him, smiling.
Ben said, “What was in that stuffing?”
“Same as the sesame cakes—a little herb seasoning.”
“What sort of herb?”
“Gary used to get it from that Mexican guy. The one in Pacoima, with the garage.”
“No, silly. His name’s Henry. Loco Henry.”
“Gary buys marijuana from him?”
“I call it Mary Jane’s Home Relaxer. He likes to smoke it. I hate smoking. It’s so much better in food, don’t you think?”
Ben sighed. Gary was out to get him, he was sure. He’d set him up to stay with Susan so she could drug him. Any minute, he’d come to kill him. That was it. He couldn’t say anything; Susan would tell Gary, and he’d be finished.
Ben was fearful, but he didn’t want to get up. It was too hard, and he was too comfortable.
And something else was getting hard. Susan was gently stroking him through his trousers. Deep in his loins, desire built, a buried tingling that grew more urgent by the second. It was wonderful. And dangerous. He knew that he should stop, but he was powerless to resist.
“I know what you’re trying to do, Mrs. Robinson! You’re trying to seduce me.”
Susan laughed. He had never heard a sexier laugh.
“Damn right I am.”
No, he thought.
No, no, no. I’m high as a kite, but this is no excuse. Gently, he pushed her away and sat up.
“I shouldn’t have let things go so far. Please forgive me.”
“You’re a beautiful woman. I’d like nothing better than to make love with you. Gary was crazy to let you go.”
“I let him go. He wanted his cake—me—and his little cupcake, too. She’s twenty-five, big fake boobs, legs up to here, and she wants to open a chain of boutiques with his money. Our money! Well, screw him. Forget Gary. You’re gorgeous! You defuse bombs, break bully’s arms and give Torah lessons. And you’re stoned. I’m stoned. Let’s do it.”
“Please, Susan, don’t make it any harder.”
Ben staggered to his feet.
“Tova was right! You’re gay!”
“No. No. Please, don’t do this.”
Hating himself, Ben staggered inside and found his room. He kicked his shoes off and fell forward on the bed.
The room spun. A little sleep, he thought, and then I’ll be able to think straight.
© 2013 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.