Of course, Hollywood is much more than a place or even an industry for make-believe.
It was that even before some enterprising real estate developer named that particular portion of Los Angeles “Hollywoodland” in the early 1920s.
It was a place one could dream about arriving there and then making both fame and fortune.
Many came and some did achieve both.
A fortunate few of these talented people became highly successful stars, directors and producers.
Unfortunately for some, their lives were cut very short.
Many succumbed to “suicides” — but were these deaths actually murders?
This first notable “suicide” wasn’t just the victim himself, even though Paul Bern was a fairly well know director, screenwriter and producer for MGM, it was his wife.
Bern was married to the original “Blonde Bombshell,” Jean Harlow.
And any scandal involving Miss Harlow had to be squashed quickly.
So Bern had to have died by his own hand, but did he?
Paul Levy was born near Hamburg, Germany in December 1889.
His family immigrated to New York when Paul was nine.
By 1920, the young aspiring actor was studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
While there he changed his surname to Bern.
But acting wasn’t really where he excelled, it was in all aspects of theatre production.
Migrating to Hollywood, Bern rose from film editing by first becoming a first-rate screenwriter, then by successfully directing and producing.
The last film he produced would go on to win “best picture” for 1932.
Unfortunately, Bern did not live to collect the Oscar.
Bern and Harlow had been married a short two months when he was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head on Sept. 5, 1932.
The death at their Beverly Hills estate was quickly ruled a suicide and
the case was closed.
A short “suicide note’ was found by the body but there was, and is, considerable doubt that Paul Bern actually wrote it.
And, somehow, studio personnel were present on the scene before the LAPD arrived.
The biggest question that still remains is why Bern would have shot himself.
He had a very successful career and was married to the most popular actress of her time.
To top it off, they lived in what today would be called a “McMansion,” decades before that term existed.
Studies long after the fact mostly concluded that his jilted common-law wife, Dorothy Millette, who had been left back in New York, killed Bern.
Millete then committed suicide by leaping from a river steamer near Stockton a few days later.
Another “suicide” was recorded on Dec. 16, 1935.
This time it was an actress herself who was the victim.
Thelma Todd has later been compared to Madonna although her career was even more successful.
In fact, Ms. Todd, nicknamed “The Hot Toddy” was not only a former beauty queen, an actress that won awards in both comedies and dramas, but she was also a very successful businesswoman.
Her only failing was her personal life as she seemed only to become involved with men that were either violent or unfaithful or both.
After winning the title of Miss Ohio in 1925, Todd decided against her original idea of becoming a teacher and, instead, traveled to Hollywood to try her luck as an actress.
Her parents may have urged her to take this route.
In any event, by 1935, she had both a successful film career and was the proud owner of Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café in Pacific Palisades.
The café was a favorite both of the Hollywoodcelebrities as well as the more knowledgeable tourists.
On the morning of Dec. 16, Thelma Todd was found dead behind the wheel of her open Packard convertible in the garage owned by Jewel Carmen, former wife of Todd’s lover and sometimes business partner, Roland West.
The structure was located about a block up the hill from the top of Todd’s café.
She definitely died from carbon monoxide poisoning from the Packard’s engine, as the ignition was found on with the gas tank empty.
The autopsy definitely showed the effects of the poison gas.
However, three discoveries bring a verdict of suicide into question.
First her body had both a cut lip and two broken ribs.
Also, although a rocky path led up from the restaurant, Todd’s high heeled dress shoes showed very little wear — nothing like what they should have had she walked in them up to the garage where her body was found.
A grand jury was convened that determined that there was no clear evidence of murder after four weeks of testimony.
Although the LAPD’s Homicide Bureau quickly closed the case as they did with Paul Bern, with a finding of “accidental with possible suicide tendencies,” the question of her very possible murder has persisted over the intervening eighty-five years.
No reason for her suicide has ever been put forward nor was any farewell note found.
There was a long list of possible killers.
• Paul DiCicco, the victim’s ex-husband, an “agent,” very involved with individuals known to be active in Los Angeles’s organized crime.
Todd had divorced DiCicco in 1934 after he had severely beaten her several times.
He felt he had been humiliated and could easily have been seeking revenge.
• Roland West, a failed director that was Todd’s partner, along with his wife, Carmen, in the café.
In fact, all three lived in a duplex above the restaurant. West supposedly bitterly resented Thelma’s many affairs.
• Jewel Carmen, West’s wife and the owner of the garage where Todd’s death occurred, had verbally threatened Todd when the café began to lose money. Carmen claimed that Todd was squandering all her money.
• Charles “Lucky” Luciano, a vicious gangster who had moved west to establish a Mafia beachhead in Los Angeles. Luciano was often violent toward Todd and was particularly angry with her over her refusal to allow him to operate an illegal gambling casino in the unused third floor of the café.
• Alice Todd, Thelma’s mother who had shortly before her daughter’sdeath announced her plans to build a huge mansion. Did she plan to use her daughter’s estate, as Alice had no other known source of the money necessary?
Evidently, all these individuals had an opportunity to commit the murder, if, indeed, one took place.
Most investigators over the years have concluded that Todd was murdered and that Luciano was the most likely killer.
George Reeves, born George Keefer Brewer in January 1914, would have been known only as a fairly successful supporting actor in postwar Hollywood were it not for TV.
Reeves appeared in two films awarded “Best Picture” — “Gone With the Wind” and “From Here to Eternity” — both as minor characters.
He is little remembered for these roles but as early TV’s Superman, he can still be found on some nostalgia cable channels.
But his salary as the caped superhero was meager compared to other film stars of the era so after some fits and starts, Reeves wanted to play other roles.
He even wrote his own screenplays for several productions that were never completed.
So, at age 45 in mid-1959, George Reeves was ready to play Superman once again starting that Fall.
Of course that show never aired as the actor was found dead of a single gunshot wound to the head in the upstairs bedroom of his home in Benedict Canyon on June 16, 1959.
Reeves had been drinking with friends and his then fiancée, Lenore Lemmon, throughout the evening. George had a last drink with his friends about midnight and went upstairs to go to bed. The guests were still at the house when they all heard a single gunshot from above. One of the guests, William Bliss, rushed upstairs and found the actor sprawled nude on his bed with his feet on the floor and a .30 caliber German Luger laying nearby.
For some reason, perhaps because of all the drinking, the LAPD wasn’t contacted for about an hour.
The police did arrive promptly after the call but they found it very difficult to get a coherent story from any of the still drunken houseguests. Some of their stories were in direct conflict with statements made by the other witnesses.
But the official LAPD conclusion was that Reeves did, in fact, fatally shoot himself.
As with Paul Bern and Thelma Todd, was that conclusion valid?
The Luger was too “oily” to hold fingerprints per the police lab and other evidence could be interpreted to indicate that the pistol was either fired from several inches away or at very close range — no one can be sure.
And as with Thelma Todd, no suicide note was found.
Although not his first choice, returning as Superman at a great increase in salary certainly reduced Reeves’ money concerns, and his marital outlook was also very good.
Why, then would he have shot himself? Was there another reason?
Along with the official verdict of suicide, investigators over the intervening years, such as Milo Speriglio, a private detective who had been promptly hired just after the death by Reeves’ mother, Helen Bessolo, concluded that there were two other possible scenarios leading to Reeves’ demise.
First, by some accounts of the evening by the other houseguests, Lenore Lemmon was upstairs with George when the fatal shot was fired.
Was she somehow involved by, perhaps, kidding around with the pistol and it discharged?
The more likely scenario, often fictionalized in books and movies since the event, is that an associate (never identified) of Eddie Mannix, a local gangster who was the husband of Toni Mannix, murdered George Reeves.
Reeves and Toni had had a ten-year affair that had only recently ended when he became engaged to Lemmon. This theory ends with Toni Mannix becoming enraged and begging her husband to have the actor killed.
This last theory has, at least, some credence as one witness claimed years after Toni Mannix’ death in 1983, he had heard her confess to a Catholic priest that she was responsible for having Reeves killed.
But others dispute that claim and point out that she was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease late in life so anything Mannix had said (or didn’t say) could be disregarded.
So, after more than sixty years, the death of Superman remains a mystery.
Almost everyone who can remember Monroe in the movies knows three things about her.
First, although not the first nor the last, the actress was the ultimate “blond bombshell” and her roles confirmed this in every way.
Second, her true name was Norma Jean Baker —not actually true as Baker was the family name of her stepfather.
And finally something was very troubling about her death at the age of 36 in 1962.
Norma Jean had been one of the women workers in the war plants during WWII, often referred to as “Rosie the Riveters.” She married one of her fellow workers, a young engineer, in 1942 when she was just 16.
Her new husband was then 21 and they quickly divorced at the end of the war in 1946.
The twenty-year-old then tried modeling which led to a nude photo as Marilyn Monroe, in Hugh Heffner’s new magazine —Playboy in 1949.
Her film career took off after that with one hit after another.
Monroe married two celebrities during the 1950s.
The first was to baseball superstar Joe DiMaggio in 1952. That lasted two years.
Later, in the decade she married Arthur Miller, the famous playwright, but that union did not last either.
By 1962, the actress was again single and had begun to take an array of prescription drugs.
Monroe spent her last day alive on Aug. 4, 1962 at her home in Brentwood, near Los Angeles.
In the morning her housekeeper Eunice Murray and her publicist Patricia Newcomb had seen her.
They were both still at the home when Marilyn’s therapist Dr. Ralph Greenson arrived and requested that Newcomb leave.
After she left, the doctor conducted about a two-hour session and then asked the housekeeper to spend the night.
About 7:15 p.m. she had a conversation with her ex-stepson, Joe DiMaggio, Jr., whom she had stayed close with since her marriage to Joe, Sr.
They discussed DiMaggio, Jr.’s problems with his girlfriend.
Later, DiMaggio, Jr. said that nothing seemed wrong with his ex-stepmother at the time.
About 7:45 p.m., Monroe again spoke with Dr. Greenson, who also didn’t detect any problems at that time either.
The actress went to her bedroom about 8 p.m.
Around that time she received yet another phone call — it was actor Peter Lawford, the man married to Pat Kennedy, sister to the president and his brother, the Attorney General.
Lawford thought that Monroe sounded as if she was drunk or on drugs, so after speaking with her, he phoned Greenson who didn’t answer.
The actor had become agitated when Marilyn told him to say goodbye to Pat (his wife) and to the president as well as himself.
So after failing to reach Greenson, Peter called Monroe’s lawyer, Milton Rudin, who called the housekeeper who assured him that everything was fine.
At about 3 a.m. the next morning, Murray awakened and went to check on her employer.
There was light coming from under the bedroom door and it was locked.
She then called Greenson who asked her to go outside and look into the room through the window.
She promptly did so.
Seeing Monroe covered by a sheet with a phone in her hand, Murray called the doctor back.
He came right over, broke into the room through that window and found that, indeed, the “blond bombshell” had died.
Greeson then called Monroe’s personal physician, who confirmed the obvious at approximately 3:50 a.m., Aug. 5, 1962.
The doctors then called the Los Angeles Police Department at about 4:30 a.m.
The body was taken to the L.A. County Coroners Office where Deputy Coroner Dr. Thomas Noguchi, the long time L.A. pathologist, performed an autopsy.
His conclusion was that the actress had died between 8:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. the previous evening.
She had ingested two powerful prescription drugs, both many times over the prescribed limits.
The police at her bedside found empty bottles that had contained these drugs.
So a finding of probable suicide was made, although as in all the other “suicides,” with the one exception of the suspect note in the Bern case, no such note was found.
Dr. Noguchi had found no evidence of fowl play and clearly stated so in his report.
But the rumors and conspiracy theories surrounding the death have continued almost unabated since 1962. In 1982, twenty years after Monroe died, L.A. County District Attorney John Van de Camp, conducted a thorough review of her death. His review again found no evidence of anything other than a suicide or, possibly, an accidental overdose.
In 1983, Dr. Noguchi published his memoirs, where he sought to debunk all the alternates to his 1962 conclusions with regard to the death of Marilyn Monroe.
But for more than the nearly sixty years since the events of Aug. 4-5, 1962, the conspiracies keep coming.
One postulates that the actress was killed in a Communist plot to protect the Kennedy brothers.
Another variant blames Labor Union Leader Jimmy Hoffa, who was trying to implicate the Kennedys.
Some even blame Murray, the housekeeper who somehow killed Monroe by accident.
None of these theories seem to have any real basis in fact.
But like the other deaths described herein, the complete truth concerning the death of Marilyn Monroe may never be known.
Heath (for Heathcliff) Ledger was well on his way to being one of the most successful actors in Hollywood when he died suddenly in New York City on Jan. 22, 2008.
Again, as so often in the past cases I covered, the cause of Ledger’s death remains an unresolved issue.
Ruled an “accidental poisoning,” it well could have been suicide or more unlikely, “natural causes.”
Even murder cannot be absolutely ruled out.
Born in Perth, Western Australia on April 4, 1979, the actor was only 28 when he very unexpectedly died in the apartment where he was staying while in New York City on business.
His father Kim Ledger, was both a mining engineer and the owner of the Ledger Engineering Factory, a very successful business started by Heath’s grandfather.
Ledger’s mother wasSally Rawlings, a French teacher. The actor was of English, Irish and Scottish ancestry.
As the young Heathcliff had the advantage of being from a well-todo family, he could afford to pursue a career in the arts.
He moved to Los Angeles early in the new century to try his luck in the American movie scene.
Success came very quickly as Ledger excelled in his chosen craft.
At age 26, he was the ninth youngest man to win a best actor award for his role in “Brokeback Mountain” where he starred with Jake Gyllenhaal, another young Hollywood “wunderkind.”
His last role was as the villain the Joker, in Batman Returns, where he was awarded with another best actor award in 2008 after his death.
Ledger also tried his hand at making music videos.
With this as a background, the actor wanted, as so many do, to be a director as well. He had a film in work at the time of his death.
In his altogether too short Hollywood career, Ledger appeared in 19 films and was planning the 20th.
Although they never married, Ledger and actress Michelle Williams were together from 2004 through 2007.
Their daughter Matilda, now fourteen, was born on October 28, 2005.
The couple had separated only a few months before his death.
In early January of 2008, Ledger complained of “not feeling well.”
Was it just exhaustion from his frantic lifestyle or something more serious?
On the 22nd, the actor had laid down for a nap but when his housekeeper, Teresa Solomon, tried to rouse him at 2:45 p.m., she found him to be unconscious. His masseuse, Diana Wolgan, then called Ledger’s friend in L.A., Mary-Kate Olsen, who told the women to call 9-1-1 immediately.
They did call at 3:26 p.m., almost 45 minutes after their initial discovery.
NYFD paramedics promptly arrived in seven minutes at 3:33 p.m.
They tried to revive Ledger, but pronounced the actor dead at 3:36 p.m., three minutes later. Why the women waited—or were told to wait—remains another significant question.
Two weeks after the actor’s death, the staff of the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of New York released their report.
It clearly stated that Heath Ledger had died from “acute intoxication from prescription drugs.”
Although there were other less dangerous compounds in the actor’s system when he died, the two that caused his death were two of the most powerful pain relievers available, oxycodone and hydrosome.
These drugs alone were plenty enough to have killed Heath Ledger.
But how did the actor obtain the drugs that caused his death?
Like in the case of the actor Nick Adams forty years earlier, no actual supply of the two killer drugs, or any prescriptions were found in the apartment.
Olsen, denied providing them, or any of the other drugs found in his bloodstream, but she refused to testify under oath without first being granted immunity from any prosecution.
It was not to be granted so she never testified in either New York or California.
The DEA also became involved and investigated.
That agency exonerated the two doctors who had provided a supply of the lesser drugs found in the blood analysis.
Olsen was not charged with any crime.
That is where the investigation ended with the original conclusions still on the NYC books as of present.
So questions about the death of Heath Ledger will always remain.
Considering over ninety years of history, suspicious suicides in Hollywood will probably continue in this century.