Less than a week before writing this, the decapitated and dismembered body of former British actress Gemma McCluskie was fished from a canal in London. While McCluskie's 35-year-old brother was arrested quickly and charged in connection with the murder, there are numerous questions yet to be answered in this bizarre story.
This edition of 13 Paranoid Facts is dedicated to Gemma McCluskie and all the other tragic figures contained herein.
Though she made a small name for herself in life, Peg Entwistle became truly infamous after leaping to her death from the Hollywoodland sign (as it read back then) in September of 1932. Tragedy was no stranger to Entwistle. Her mother, father and step-mother all died before she was 15, and the onset of the Great Depression stymied her critically acclaimed stage career.
Bette Davis credited Entwistle as the inspiration for her acting career.
After her last Broadway play was cancelled because of another actor's alcoholism, she found work in L.A. in David O. Selznick's Thirteen Women. Unfortunately, her role was drastically edited down and the studio refused to renew her contract. Disillusioned, Entwistle climbed up the giant "H" just a month before the October premier of her first and only film.
What pushes this tragedy into paranoid weirdness are reports that her uncle received a letter offering Entwistle the lead role in a new play on the same day her body was found. The catch? Her character was to commit suicide in the last act...
Unlike Peg Entwistle, most things seemed to go Gladys Brockwell's way. Her first show biz gig was at 3 years old, and she did her first film by the time she was twenty. Nearly 40 movies later, Brockwell successfully made the difficult transition from silent films to "talkies" and was still receiving top female billing, though she was never considered an "it girl" and rarely played lead roles.
Unfortunately, on June 27, 1929, a few random grains of dust blew into the eyes of Thomas Stanley Brennan. Even more unfortunately, the grit blew into his eyes while he was driving Brockwell around near Calabasas, California, causing him to lose control and plummet over a 75-foot embankment. Both survived the accident and Brennan went on to recover, but Brockwell died five days later of peritonitis, brought on by her horrific injuries (she was crushed beneath the car).
The odd final act took place some twenty years later, in 1949, when Brennan was involved in another accident. This time, Brennan was the passenger...and victim. The reckless driver of the car lost control, which smashed through a bridge and into the ground some 35 feet below. Brennan died instantly; the driver survived.
British actor Gareth Jones got his start in television in 1957, picking up four roles that year. The following year seemed equally promising, as he scored a number of parts on ITV's Armchair Theatre, an anthology series that was broadcast live every Sunday night. Unfortunate for Jones, his fourth appearance on the show made him famous...
On November 30, 1958, the 33-year-old Jones performed in "Underground," a sci-fi teleplay that focused on survivors of a nuclear holocaust in the London tube system. At some point in the production, Jones' character was supposed to suffer a fatal heart attack--but instead, Jones suffered a fatal heart attack between scenes!
True to the old theater adage, the producer decided that The Show Must Go On! And it did. The actors and director scrambled to improv around the missing actor. However, though some of the cast members saw Jones collapse on his way to an entrance, none were told their fellow thespian had died until after the performance.
Crooner and actor Russ Columbo missed the then-new "27 Club" by a matter of months when he was killed in a freak accident by his best friend. At the time of his death, "The Romeo of Song" only had Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee as professional competition, and he was dating actress Carole Lombard.
Columbo went to visit well-known photographer Lansing Brown on September 2, 1934. Brown was fooling around with an old dueling pistol when he struck a match, accidently igniting residual gunpowder that dislodged a stuck Minié ball (bullet) which ricocheted off a table and passed through Columbo's eye, penetrating all the way into the rear of his brain. Surgeons could do nothing for him, and he succumbed to his injuries hours later.
The oddest detail to this story may be in the epilogue, however. At the time of his death, Columbo's nearly blind mother, Julia, was in the hospital recovering from a heart attack. Fearing for her frail health, Julia's children (and girlfriend Carole Lombard) never told her that Columbo was dead. For the final 10 years of Julia's life, her surviving children told her that Columbo was travelling abroad--they would play old recordings and pass them off as new, send false telegrams, and dividends from Columbo's life insurance policy were declared to be royalty checks from him.
In No Country for Old Men, Anton Chigurh ominously asks, "What's the most you ever lost on a coin toss?" Much like Chigurh's intended victim, Carole Lombard unknowingly had her life on the line when she flipped a coin at a war bond rally in January of 1941. There with her mother and publicist Otto Winkler, Lombard whipped up the crowd and raised over $2 million in defense bonds during her visit.
In a hurry to get home to husband Clark Gable, Lombard wished to catch a flight back to Los Angeles, though her mother and Winkler--both afraid of flying--hoped to take the train. The ill-fated trio then decided to leave the decision up to fate. Lombard won the coin toss and they booked flights on TWA Flight 3, sealing their doom.
After successfully navigating most of the Indiana to California journey, the flight crew made a fatal error just outside of Las Vegas, flying directly into a mountain and killing all aboard instantly. Her final film, To Be or Not to Be, was in post-production at the time of Lombard's death. Upon hearing the news, the producers chose to edit out one of her lines: "What can happen on a plane?"
TAMMY LYNN LEPPERT
Tammy Lyyn Leppert's story may not have a tragic ending, but a lot of the circumstances surrounding her strange disappearance would suggest one. After winning nearly every one(!) of her 300+ beauty pageants(!!), Leppert broke into films, picking up a role in (creator of Friday the 13th) Sean S. Cunningham's Spring Break.
Once that film wrapped, she went to a party were she "saw something [she] wasn't supposed to see." Leppert became trapped in a paranoid nightmare after that, fearing for her life. On her fourth day on the set of Scarface, she broke into hysterics after seeing an actor perform a bloody scene in which his character was gunshot. Her friend was called in to help calm her down, but Leppert remained in a state of high anxiety, ranting about money laundering and her fear that somebody wanted to kill her.
She was soon checked into a psychiatric hospital, but released just 72 hours later. The following day she vanished after getting into an argument and being dropped off (without shoes or a purse) by a friend in Cocoa Beach, Florida. Whether she was delusional or truly in danger is still debated, as is the result of her disappearance: she may have voluntarily gone underground to protect herself, or she might have followed mental illness into oblivion--or she may have been abducted by the people she feared most. Some theories even suggest that the 18-year-old could have been a victim of serial killer and rapist Christopher Wilder, who operated in the Florida area at the time of her disappearance.
Though Bernard Natan rarely worked with Hollywood, he is notable in film history as the inventor of the anamorphic film camera lens and a founder or pioneer of the French film, television, radio and gay pornography industries.
After an early career as a writer/director/producer/actor in gay and bi-sexual porn, Natan successfully made the jump to a mainstream filmmaker. By the 1930s, his own motion picture company had become a major player in the French market. Things went well for five years, until Natan's studio went bankrupt and charges of fraud were filed against him. More charges were filed against him in 1941, including the fact that he'd changed his name to obscure his Jewish and Romanian heritage.
In 1942 he was released from jail...straight into the hands of the occupying Nazis. On the 25th of September, like so many Jews of the time, Natan was herded into a cattle car and shipped off to the Auschwitz death camp. (His 1934 production of The Last Billionaire certainly didn't help him earn clemency, either, as it openly mocked Adolf Hitler and caused public rioting when shown.) Natan is reported to have died within weeks of entering the concentration camp.
NATURAL BORN KILLERS
A financially successful, cult classic film might seem like an odd thing to label as a Hollywood tragedy, but the original intent of Natural Born Killers versus its public effect is astonishingly ironic. And paranoid.
While NBK was meant to satirize (and thus question) the public's lust for violence and the media's willingness to shove it down our throats, the film went on to "inspire" nearly two dozen murderers to commit extremely violent crimes that were subsequently sensationalized by the media. (In the film, two dysfunctional killers--Mickey and Mallory Knox--create a media firestorm that focuses on their intense romance, which in turn fuels their bloody killing spree.)
The most infamous of the cases is the Columbine High School Massacre, where the killers used "NBK" as a codeword for the upcoming murders. Others include a case where a 14-year-old decapitated a classmate, multiple cases of (mostly) teens that specifically wanted to emulate Mickey Knox, and a lawsuit brought against Oliver Stone and Time Warner by the surviving victim of NBK-influenced killers. Fortunately, none of these assholes have become media darlings like Mickey and Mallory.
CARYLL ANN EKELUND
Actress Jana Lund made her name in Hollywood history by giving Elvis his first screen kiss, but her little sister, Caryll Ann Ekelund, is remembered for darker reasons. Very little is known about young Ekelund, though she made her debut with Shirley Temple in The Blue Bird, Twentieth Century Fox's answer to The Wizard of Oz.
One of the few known references to this ill-fated young actress takes place in Shirley Temple's autobiography, Child Star, where Temple confirms that Ekelund was killed during the time that The Blue Bird was in production (but not on set).
On Halloween night, 1939, the four-year-old was dressed for a night of trick or treating. Unfortunately, she came into contact with a lit candle, and her costume dress caught fire. She succumbed to her injuries days later, and was buried in her costume from The Blue Bird.
"The Mexican Spitfire" Lupe Vélez lived up to her name, involved in a number of scandalous public affairs with the likes of Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Tom Mix and Gary Cooper during her lifetime. What didn't sit well with her was the fact that she was better known for these relationships than her forty-plus film roles.
Vélez tired of the drama after getting pregnant and then rejected by her lover (most likely by part-time actor Harald Maresch, though some evidence points toward Gary Cooper). The possibly bipolar actress took a lethal dose of Seconal less than two weeks before Christmas of 1944, ending her life and that of her child.
Some sources--including Andy Warhol's movie, Lupe (1965)--indicate that Vélez was found drowned in her own toilet. Accounts vary, but they indicate that she either slipped or passed out from the effects of the drugs; either way, she wound up unconscious with her head in the commode. This tidbit is probably an urban legend, however, as newspapers of the time reported that Vélez was found in bed, surrounded by flowers.
Ramón Novarro's family fled from their home country in the midst of the Mexican Revolution, landing the future sex symbol in the heart of Los Angeles. After Rudolph Velentino died, Novarro was considered Hollywood's top Latin actor, and one of the greatest romantic leads of his time, starring with Greta Garbo, Myrna Loy and Joan Crawford...
Which is kinda funny from a certain perspective, as Novarro was homosexual. Not so funny was the fact that he'd been raised a Catholic, and thus struggled with his conflicting feelings throughout his life, becoming an alcoholic in the process. In spite of that, some good investments and his continued popularity ensured that he could live the life he'd grow accustomed to well into old age.
On Devil's Night, 1968, Novarro phoned a special agency and ordered two young brothers for an evening of gratification. Unfortunately, the boys thought Novarro had a lot of cash hidden in the mansion, and spent many hours torturing and beating him in pursuit of the imaginary money. The actor eventually choked to death on his own blood--Kenneth Anger, in his largely unfactual Hollywood Babylon, claimed that Novarro choked to death on an Art Deco dildo, which the brothers supposedly rammed down his throat--and the boys only made off with $20. They were arrested and charged days later.
Danish-born actress Gwili Andre landed in Hollywood in the 1930s, hoping to become a star like countless other girls in the modern era. "The highest priced model in America" got on the right track for a while, picking up a contract with RKO for her Garbo-like looks and dating Howard Hughes for a while.
However, though she had looks and talent to match the "A-listers" of her time, and though RKO Studio was promoting her heavily, Andre never managed to grab hold of her brass ring. Her career limped along until 1942, when the roles dried up altogether.
Andre pursued a comeback for the rest of her life, but fell into alcoholism and depression in the later years. Andre is confirmed to have died in an apartment fire in 1959, rumored to have started after she built an indoor bonfire out of her old publicity materials.
Arguably the most notorious tragedy on this largely obscure list, the death of Playboy Centerfold Dorothy Stratten is still remembered today. Stratten's story has been filmed at least twice and is the subject of numerous television documentaries. The 1980 Playmate of the Year has been mentioned in song most recently by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bush and Bongwater; Bryan Adams famously co-wrote two songs about Stratten, Prism's "Cover Girl" and his own "The Best Was Yet to Come."
In 1980, just as her career as an actress was coming into full bloom, the 20-year-old Stratten was brutally slain by her sleazy estranged husband, Paul Snider. She was over Snider's controlling ways and preparing to divorce him after a meaningful affair with director Peter Bogdanovich, Stratten's director on her final project, They All Laughed. Sadly, the sweetly genuine girl allowed Snider to talk her into one final meeting at their old house, which both Bogdanovich and Hugh Hefner discouraged her from attending. Snider raped Stratten multiple times--before and after he'd killed her with a gunshot to the face--and then he took the coward's way out.
For personal thoughts about Dorothy Stratten by Peter Bogdanovich and They All Laughed co-star Glenn Scarpelli, please see our "The Peter Bogdanovich They All Laughed Q&A," featured in this issue of 69FoP.