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1958: Howard Hughes Cracks Up

The building that housed Nosseck's screening room as it appears today; inset: Howard Hughes in the 1950s

The building at 9012 Sunset that housed Nosseck's screening room as it appears today; inset: Howard Hughes in the 1950s

One night in the spring of 1958, Howard Hughes, mid-century America’s most famous and flamboyant millionaire, moved into Nosseck’s screening room in the basement of the building at 9102 Sunset Blvd. on the Strip [map]. He occupied the screening room, never venturing outside, for the rest of the summer, consuming nothing but milk, Hershey bars, pecans and Poland water. It is likely Hughes suffered from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which is treatable today. Whatever the diagnosis might have been, the summer he spent at Nosseck’s was the first vivid presentment of the insanity that marked his final years. As the summer wound down, Hughes regained a semblance of himself and returned to his bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

1955: Rock Hudson Gets Married

Left: Rock Hudson and Phyllis Gates with their wedding cake; right Rock and Phyllis at home, with a small dog-like creature

Left: Rock Hudson and Phyllis Gates with their wedding cake; right Rock and Phyllis at home, with a small dog-like creature

After his breakthrough performance in “Magnificent Obsession,” in 1954, Rock Hudson purchased his first home, a sweet California cottage at 9151 Warbler Place [map] above the Sunset Strip in a neighborhood known as the Bird Streets, because the streets were named for birds-—Blue Jay Way, Sky Lark Lane, Oriole Lane, etc. But in Rock’s case, the neighborhood could well have been called the “Beard Streets,” because as his fame increased, so did speculation that he was gay, which was not only a career-killer then, it was a crime. Rock desperately needed a wife in order to quiet the whispering and to kill off stories he and his agent Henry Willson knew to be in the works at Confidential Magazine and elsewhere.

They had the perfect candidate for marriage — Phyllis Gates. She was not only Willson’s secretary and Rock’s longtime pal, she was also gay. Phyllis readily agreed to the ruse. She and Rock were married in Santa Barbara in November 1955. They “honeymooned” by moving her belongings into the honeymoon cottage on Warbler Place. Not surprisingly, however, the marriage soon became rocky as Phyllis became increasingly worried that Rock’s affairs with men would wreck his career and kill her cash cow. She even hired Sunset Strip private detective Fred Otash (who often worked for Confidential Magazine) to bug the Warbler house and record her conversations with Rock about his affairs.

Divorce was inevitable, and during negotiations for the split in 1958, the recordings seemed to have played a role. Phyllis got the house, valued at $32,000 then (the equivalent of about $250,000 today, although the house sold recently for $1.8 million), a car and a settlement of $250,000 (about $2 million today) over 10 years.

A year or so after Hudson’s death from HIV disease in October 1985, Gates wrote a book, My Husband, Rock Hudson, in which she portrayed herself as too naive to know that she had married a gay man and claimed that the marriage fell apart after that shocking truth was revealed to her. Hudson’s friends disputed this. In his autobiography, Rock Hudson: His Story, (which he wrote with Sara Davison, who finished it after his death), members of Hudson’s tightknit inner circle said Gates was fully aware that Rock had sex with men. It neither concerned nor alarmed her, they said, because Phyllis herself was gay.

After Phyllis Gates died on January 6, 2006, Robert Hofler, author of The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson, wrote in the Advocate Magazine that Rock Hudson’s contemporaries told him uniformly that Phyllis Gates was a lesbian:

“[Every] person I met who knew Gates called her a lesbian,” Hofler wrote. “Not straight, not bisexual, but lesbian.”

1954: Wrong Door Raid

Left: Confidential Magazine featuring cover story about the raid; right: Marilyn in iconic scene from ‘Seven Year Itch’ that led to the end of her marriage

In November 1954, Marilyn Monroe was living along the Sunset Strip in the Brandon Arms Apartments at 8338 DeLongpre Ave. [map], recovering from her tumultuous divorce from baseball legend Joe DiMaggio. The marriage ended because DiMaggio had been physically abusive–the worst instance had happened earlier that year in New York after Marilyn filmed the iconic scene in “Seven Year Itch,” in which her skirt billowed up while she stood on a subway grate. After they divorced in October, DiMaggio remained so jealous that he hired Sunset Strip private detective Barney Ruditsky to keep tabs on her.

On the evening of Friday, Nov. 5, Marilyn drove her white Cadillac convertible to visit a friend who lived about eight blocks south in a three-unit apartment building in the southeast corner of Waring Avenue and Kilkea Drive. A little later, one of Ruditsky’s men spotted Marilyn’s Caddy parked on Waring and phoned it in. Ruditsky contacted DiMaggio who happened to be out drinking with Frank Sinatra. It seemed obvious to DiMaggio that his ex-wife was visiting one of her many lovers. He and Sinatra quickly hatched a cockamamie scheme to catch Marilyn in the arms of her paramour. Within the hour, they met Ruditsky and his men, one of whom was armed with a camera equipped with a large spotlight, at Waring and Kilkea.

On a signal, a half dozen or so of the men stormed the ground floor apartment, crashing through the kitchen door, stomping through the dark house to a back bedroom where they surrounded the bed. Ruditsky’s man with the camera turned on his spotlight and exposed–Florence Kotz, a 39-year-old secretary, awakened in her curlers from a deep sleep and now screaming bloody murder. The men realized that they had entered the wrong apartment and hastily retreated, breaking more of Kotz’s belongings on the way out. Kotz had been blinded by the spotlight and couldn’t identify her assailants, so the police report she filed that night was vague on details. The incident was filed as an attempted home-invasion robbery.

The story went dark for nearly a year, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, it exploded into a firestorm of unwanted publicity in the form of a cover story in the September 1955 edition of Confidential Magazine depicting DiMaggio and Sinatra as bungling fools. Over the next two years, the “Wrong Door Raid” became one of many stories reported by Confidential that Hollywood stars found objectionable. In August 1957, California Attorney General Pat Brown, a future governor and father of Gov. Jerry Brown, took Confidential to trial in Los Angeles based on allegations made in the “Wrong Door Raid” articles, among many other salacious stories in the popular magazine. The trial, which the public followed with rapt attention, was one of the 20th century’s many “trials of the century,” and like many of them, it ended in a whimper not a bang. The jury was hung on whether Confidential had committed libel, but rather than face a retrial, the magazine’s publisher opted to stop reporting on the personal lives of Hollywood stars.

(Read the complete story here: “Wrong Door Raid: The Celebrity Scandal That Irked Sinatra, Made a Fool of DiMaggio – All at Marilyn Monroe’s Expense.”)

1951: Best-Dressed Undressed

Lili St. Cyr in her famous bathtub

Lili St. Cyr and her infamous bathtub

In 1951, Ciro’s owner Herman Hover booked Lili St. Cyr, a high-class stripper, to perform in his world-renown venue, making St. Cyr the first stripper to headline on the Sunset Strip.

Part of St. Cyr’s act was to come out onto the stage–which featured a giant, ornately designed bathtub–wearing a mink coat and little else. She would take off the coat, revealing herself to be completely nude, and then step into the bathtub. But one night not long after she opened at Ciro’s–a night when the audience was packed with movie stars–before she could step into the bathtub and finish her act, West Hollywood sheriff’s deputies swarmed the stage. St. Cyr and Hover were arrested, hauled out of Ciro’s and booked.

The arrests made the front pages of the newspapers the next day, which was apparently Hover’s objective all along. Later, when St. Cyr’s case came to trial, prosecutors abruptly dropped the charges when her lawyers prevailed in their request to let her perform the act in the courtroom for the jury.

1948: Mickey Cohen Moves Up

Mickey Cohen's storefront building around 1951 after he decided to quit the haberdashery business during an IRS investigation into his business dealings; inset: Mickey Cohen

Mickey Cohen’s storefront building around 1951 after he decided to quit the haberdashery business during an IRS investigation into his business dealings; inset: Mickey Cohen

Mickey Cohen assumed control of the East Coast syndicate’s interests in Southern California not long after the assassination of Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, in June 1947. Later that year he moved the headquarters of his multi-million dollar underworld empire into a storefront building on the Strip at 8804 Sunset Blvd. [map]. He also installed three of his legit businesses in the building’s street-level storefronts: Michael’s Haberdashery, Courtley Jewelers and his tailor’s shop.

Cohen had many enemies, of course, including rival local gangsters as well as officers inside the LAPD, a few of whom were corrupt and had been shaking him down for years. He was targeted for assassination twice during his years on the Strip. The first attack came in August 1948 when a gunmen entered his deluxe private office suite on a lower floor in the storefont building and opened fire. Cohen survived by hiding in the men’s room but one of his bodyguards, Hooky Rothman, had his head blown off.

The second attack came almost year later, in July 1949, when two men with shotguns opened fire from across the street when Mickey and his entourage were leaving Sherry’s night club on the Strip at 9039 Sunset Blvd. [map], around 4 a.m. Cohen and three others were wounded and required hospitalization but another bodyguard, Neddie Herbert, later died from his wounds. The gossip columnist Florabel Muir, a friend of Cohen, was slightly wounded by shotgun pelt that grazed her derriere.

Not long after the shotgun ambush at Sherry’s, Cohen’s home in Brentwood was bombed several times. But if these and other attacks were meant to drive Mickey Cohen out of business, they were efforts in futility. However, what did eventually drive him out was an investigation by the IRS, which forced him to sell his legitimate businesses and eventually resulted in conviction and sentencing to a lengthy term in federal prison.

No one was ever arrested in connection with any of the attacks on Mickey Cohen. Years later, however, Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno [Wiki] revealed that he had arranged the attempted hit in 1948 at the behest of Cohen’s gangster rival Jack Dragna — he also said that the triggerman who killed Hooky Rothman was longtime Dragna associate Frank “the Bomp” Bompensiero [Wiki]. But the source of the shotgun ambush outside Sherry’s in July 1949 along with the identities of the two gunmen remains a mystery. Many experts in mid-century Los Angeles crime history believe the most likely suspects were officials inside the LAPD.

1948: Hollywood Agog

Brenda Allen with attorney Max Solomon at a bail hearing in 1951

Brenda Allen with attorney Max Solomon at a bail hearing in 1951

On the morning of May 5, 1948, dozens of powerful Angelenos — movie stars, moguls and other high muckamucks — must have done spit takes with their coffee upon opening the Los Angeles Times and seeing this headline: “Names Found in Vice Raid Set Hollywood Agog.” The report that followed contained potentially career-killing news: During a raid on the bordello Hollywood madam Brenda Allen operated at 8436 Harold Way above the Sunset Strip [map], police had confiscated a box of index cards containing the names, contact info and sexual predilections of about 250 men whom the Times article described as “notables of the film colony.” And it got worse: A photo, captioned “Lots of names,” showed a uniformed LAPD officer pawing through the files, which appeared to be casually spread across a desk.

This was not the first time a Hollywood madam’s client list had fallen into the hands of the LAPD, nor would it be the last, and all these incidents tend to follow a similar arc: Initial, barely suppressed panic among the marquee names on the madam’s list followed by secret machinations among lawyers, agents and studio executives leading to quiet, behind-the-scenes negotiations among lawyers and police, as well as, presumably, an exchange of cash in return for assurances that the names will never see the light of day.

We will never know whether a scenario like that played out in the Brenda Allen matter over the summer of 1948. We do know what the outcome was, however. During Allen’s trial on the charge of running a “house of ill fame,” after reviewing the names on the cards, Judge Joseph L. Call issued his decision:

JUDGE CALL: In the box are names of dignitaries of the screen and radio and executives of responsible positions in many great industries. Publication of their names would be ruinous to their careers and cause them great public disgrace. I order the exhibit sealed.

Judge Call found Brenda Allen guilty, and the matter appeared to be settled. But it wasn’t. Like other madams before her, Brenda Allen had been paying corrupt officers inside the LAPD for protection. In fact, Detective Sgt. Elmer “Jack” Jackson, a member of the elite Administrative Vice Squad, which reported directly to Chief Clemence B. Horrall, was both her lover and de facto business partner. Separately, Sgt. Jackson and his boss, Lt. Rudy Wellpott, had been shaking down the mobster Mickey Cohen for several years, or so Cohen will claim.

All of this corruption and much more exploded into public view exactly a year to the day after Brenda Allen was busted. It was then, on May 5, 1949, that Mickey Cohen announced during a trial on an unrelated matter that he had in his possession recordings of telephone conversations between Brenda Allen and Sgt. Jackson — calls made to and by Jackson in his office at LAPD headquarters. Before the summer was over, Chief Horrall had resigned and he and five other top LAPD officials, including Sgt. Jackson and Lt. Wellpott, had been charged with lying to the grand jury — Jackson and Wellpott were also charged with taking bribes from Brenda Allen.

But now, dear reader, here is a test of your insight into how these sorts of things worked in Los Angeles back then. Among the people accused of criminal acts in the Brenda Allen case only one person was convicted and sent to jail. Among the five top LAPD officials, Brenda’s 250 clients and Brenda herself, can you guess who it was who took the fall?

Hint: The jailbird was a woman.

1942: Navy Bans Gay Clubs

Building at 8711 Sunset Blvd, site of Cafe Internationale, as it appears today; inset: Rae Bourbon

Building at 8711 Sunset Blvd, site of Cafe Internationale, as it appears today; inset: Rae Bourbon

During World War II, thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen on their way to the Pacific theater were granted their last stateside leaves in Los Angeles. Many of them headed out to the local bars to blow off steam, of course. But in June 1942, the Navy took the unusual action of placing about 30 bars and nightclubs across the city off limits to sailors.

“These taverns and bars are not safe or proper places for servicemen to patronize,” a Naval commander told the Times. “Firm handling is necessary to eliminate that undesirable fringe of the industry.” The precise nature of the unsafe and improper activities going on in these night spots was left unstated — but it must have been pretty bad if the Navy felt the need to protect sailors from it, especially since the Navy was sending these same men off to risk their lives in the Midway, Guadalcanal and other death traps in the Pacific.

There is one possible clue, however. Two of the clubs were on the Sunset Strip — Chez Boheme at 8950 Sunset Blvd. [map] and Cafe Internationale at 8711 Sunset Blvd. [map] — both of which were, using today’s term, “gay friendly.” (Gay bars as we know them today — clubs that cater to gay men or women — were a post-war phenomenon.)

The star attraction at Chez Boheme that summer was Rae Bourbon, a female impersonator and one of the last big stars of the Prohibition era “Pansy Craze.” Cafe Internationale, on the other hand, was owned and operated by Elmer and Tess Wheeler and catered to women. As the 1940 guidebook, “How to Sin in Hollywood” put it:

When Your Urge’s Mauve, [go to] the Café International on Sunset Boulevard. The location offered supper, drinks, and the ability to watch boy-girls who necked and sulked and little girl customers who… look like boys.

Like Chez Boheme, Cafe Internationale offered cross-dressing performers, but these singers were women dressed in male drag — two who were quite well-known then were billed as Tommy Williams and Jimmy Renard. According to historian Lillian Faderman, co-author with Stuart Timmons of Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics and Lipstick Lesbians, Marlene Dietrich was in the crowd at Cafe Internationale when Tommy Williams performed one night.

As a result of the Navy ban, state authorities revoked the liquor licenses for Chez Boheme and Cafe Internationale. A new club, the Starlit Room, opened in the Chez Boheme space three years later, and Rae Bourbon returned there for a six-month run. Cafe Internationale owner Elmer Wheeler sued in 1942 to have the license reinstated, but he died that December and the club closed for good. His widow Tess opened another club later and became a fixture, along with her partner Sylvia Reiff (who was said to look like Radclyffe Hall), in the burgeoning Los Angeles lesbian scene after the war.

1941: Mocambo Opens

The Mocambo

The Mocambo

Like Cafe Trocadero and Ciro’s, the Mocambo was a world-famous nightclub on the Sunset Strip catering to celebrities. Located at 8588 Sunset Blvd. [map], it opened on January 3, 1941, featuring Mexican-themed decor said to have cost over $100,000 (about $1.6 million today) and dominated by glass-walled aviaries that housed live macaws, cockatoos, parrots and other birds. (And, yes, the ASPCA objected to this arrangement.)

During its 17-year run, the Mocambo was the scene of a number of celebrity brawls. In 1941, a movie agent named William Burnside cold-cocked restaurateur Michael Romanoff there, for reasons now forgotten. “I wish they had let me go just for a minute and I would have annihilated him,” Romanoff said later. In October that year, Errol Flynn punched Los Angeles Times columnist Jimmy Fidler at Mocambo in retaliation for purported derogatory comments Fidler had made in his column.

After Frank Sinatra left the Tommy Dorsey orchestra in 1943, he made his debut as a solo act at Mocambo. The club was also at the forefront of breaking the color line during the Jim Crow era. Eartha Kitt, Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald all played there in the 1940s and 1950s. Ella’s appearance in March 1955 was given a boost by her superstar fangirl, Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn promised Mocambo owner Charlie Morrison that if he would book Ella, she would make sure the booking received worldwide publicity. True to her word, Marilyn was in the house every time Ella performed, and where Marilyn went, reporters followed. Ella later said that because of Marilyn’s support, after she played the Mocambo, “I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman — a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”

Charlie Morrison died in 1957. The Mocambo closed a year later, on June 30, 1958. Another club called the Cloister opened in the space briefly. The building was later demolished, and a retail plaza occupies the lot today.

1940: Death of F. Scott Fitzgerald

The building at 1443 N. Hayworth Ave. where Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940 s it appears today; inset: Fitzgerald and Sheilah Graham

The building at 1443 N. Hayworth Ave. where Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940 s it appears today; inset: Fitzgerald and Sheilah Graham

On Dec. 21, 1940, the winter solstice, Scott Fitzgerald suffered a fatal heart attack in the apartment of the British-born gossip columnist, Sheilah Graham, at 1443 N. Hayworth Ave. [map], just south of Sunset Blvd.

In his prime, Scott and his wife Zelda were part of the Lost Generation of literary set and spent time in Paris in the 1920s, along with with Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. He died in Hollywood, however, in Graham’s apartment, a fact which proved to be awkward because he was still married to Zelda.

Scott and Sheilah had been in love and sharing digs for three years, although Scott also maintained an apartment a block east, at 1403 N. Laurel Ave. [map] (where his next-door neighbors was another couple living in sin, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz).

Fitzgerald had a history of heart problems. In November 1940, Scott suffered a nonfatal heart attack earlier at Schwab’s, reportedly while he was standing in line to buy cigarettes. He died a month later in Sheilah’s living room.

1940: Ciro’s Opens

Ciro's

Ciro’s

Louis Adlon, son of the proprietor of Berlin’s Hotel Adlon, opened Hollywood’s first iteration of Ciro’s in 1934. Located on Hollywood Boulevard, the club was informally part of a chain with locations in London, Paris and Berlin. The Hollywood Ciro’s was not a success, apparently, because it soon folded.

In 1935, the building at 8433 Sunset Blvd. [map] that would later house the Sunset Strip’s Ciro’s was completed. The first tenant was Al De Freitas’ Club Seville, where the gimmick was a dance floor made from sheets of glass over a giant aquarium. But dancing on fish proved not to be popular, and the club closed within a year.

In 1940, six years after he successfully launched Cafe Trocadero down the street in Sunset Plaza, Hollywood Reporter publisher Billy Wilkerson acquired the former Club Seville building, redesigned the interior in his trademark Hollywood style and opened a new Ciro’s in the space on January 31.

Wilkerson created Ciro’s as a “celebrities only” club, but by the summer of 1942 he had lost interest in it. In November, he leased it to Herman Hover, who reconfigured the layout and opened it up to the public as well as the stars. In June, the building was nearly destroyed by fire. It was closed for four months, after which Hover purchased the building from Wilkerson.

In the post-war era, Ciro’s became notorious as a venue for celebrity brawling. There were so many fights that Hover said he was considering replacing the dance floor with a boxing ring. He also declared a limit of three brawls per customer. One of the most infamous of these was in 1951, when famed actor Franchot Tone approached gossip columnist Florabel Muir at her table and spat in her face.

That same year, as a publicity stunt, Hover put high-class stripper Lili St. Cyr on the bill. The stunt worked. As she was doing her act one night, sheriff’s deputies emerged from the crowd, stopped the act and arrested St. Cyr and Hover. The story became front-page news for weeks afterwards.

Hover was forced into bankruptcy in late 1957, and eventually lost the club. The venue became a rock club in the 1960s, and in 1972 opened as the Comedy Store, which is there today and thriving.

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