Posts Tagged ‘Paul Bern’

Courthouse Wall of Fame

Monday, January 10th, 2011

FILM HISTORY

Wall of Fame recalled Star’s visits to courthouse press room

 

 

Above is the County Courthouse that was located at Temple and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles where the Wall of Fame resided in the press room. Notice the low granite wall at the bottom of the photo. Remarkably, portions of this wall still remain. (lapl)

 

 

By Allan R. Ellenberger

 

The Civic Center in downtown Los Angeles is where several courthouses mete out their justice, sometimes to Hollywood celebrities. Before many of the building that now stands there were erected, there stood an old brownstone Courthouse located at Temple Street and Broadway. It stood for forty-five years until it was razed after being damaged in the Long Beach earthquake of March 1933.

 

When it was finally demolished in 1934, it took with it the old press room and its unique Wall of Fame and the signatures of stars, who for this or that reason had been in court, or the marriage license bureau. Scrawled in either pencil or crayon, one could find the names of Charlie Chaplin, Tom Mix, George Bancroft, Harry Langdon, Eugene O’Brien, Doris Kenyon, Ethel Clayton, Constance and Natalie Talmadge, Pauline Starke, Jean Harlow and Bebe Daniels. There were a lot more and each one had its own story.

 

Of course, not all the screen stars who appeared in court, inscribed their names on the Wall of Fame. Some, the reporters failed to corral; others could not be lured to the press room. There were some who flatly refused. Among the latter was William Powell, who had come with Carole Lombard, for a marriage license. Powell, when confronted by the wall, glared reproachfully at the reporters and demanded: “Gentlemen, isn’t anything sacred?” The reporters thought he was kidding until he turned and stalked out of the press room fairly oozing indignation.

 

 

 

 

Jack Hoxie was first to sign the wall and his signature was the largest. Oddly enough, Tom Mix’s name was one of the smallest and Charlie Chaplin’s was the hardest to read.  

 

And what did they appear for? Harry Langdon, asserting he had but $40 with which to pay $60,000 his divorced wife sought as property settlement. The case was dismissed and Harry was smiling when he signed the wall. Divorce also steered the Talmadge sisters into the press room. Natalie Talmadge was fighting Buster Keaton over custody of their children. Constance was a witness. The prolonged contests between Charlie Chaplin and Lita Grey Chaplin, also concerning the care of their children is well known. When the reporters tried to lure Lita to the press room she balked, saying she always wanted to know what she was expected to do before she went places with strangers.

 

Besides the signature of James Quirk of Photoplay magazine, was pasted the headline announcing his death. His wife, May Allison, also signed. Reporters tried to get Paul Bern to sign the wall when he and Jean Harlow applied for their marriage license, but both refused to visit the press room because they were “radiantly happy and in a terrible hurry.” A few months later, dressed in widow’s attire, Jean returned to probate Paul Bern’s will. This time she signed the wall.

 

Doris Kenyon, widow of Milton Sills, was considered by a majority of the court reporters, as the grandest girl to affix her signature to the Wall of Fame. They designated Polly Moran as “the hard egg with the soft heart.” Polly crashed the press room the day she appeared to legally adopt a 16-year-old boy she had taken from an orphanage when he was only a few months old.

 

One of the funniest incidents connected with signing the wall centered on Richard Barthelmess who was suing to recover securities alleged to have been misappropriated. His wife was with him and they consented to have a picture taken together. She sat in a chair and Barthelmess stood beside her. The photographer snapped his picture and after the couple had gone, remarked to the reporters: “I think I got a good picture of that dame but I had an awful job keeping that rube out of it, he was standing so close.” The reporters, on informing him that the “rube” was Richard Barthelmess, used language which allegedly made even the signatures on the wall blush.

 

 

Richard Barthelmess, his wife and family

 

 

The names of Ben Lyon and Bebe Daniels graced the wall as the result of the trial of Bebe’s lunatic lover.” Edna Murphy signed when she got her divorce from director Mervyn LeRoy. Gertrude Olmstead was a witness at the trial and also signed. The reporters recalled, however, that Gertrude was rather embarrassed by the ordeal of clambering on the table in order to write her name.

 

George Bancroft divided honors with Jack Hoxie as the most massive man to have perpetuated his signature. He appeared in court to contest an agent’s claim for $30,000 of commissions. Hoxie had been up on alimony charges.

 

Several of the signatures recalled the tragic death of Alma Rubens. They were obtained during the libel suit brought against Photoplay and James Quirk by Ruben’s mother, and included Eileen Percy’s and Claire Windsor’s. ZaSu Pitts was another witness, but would not sign. The reporters declared her to be the most “publicity shy” screen star they encountered. She also eluded the news-hounds when she divorced her husband, Tom Gallery. The Courthouse scribes were not certain which cases brought Tom Mix, Edwin Carewe and Mae Murray to the Wall of Fame, as their court appearances was so numerous. Legal battles over the Mix children and property disputes made Mix a familiar figure and both Mae Murray and Carewe were central figures in countless suits over property, contracts and other things. Pauline Starke’s court appearance was mainly due to the protracted battle with her former husband, Jack White.

 

The reporters captured director Robert Vignola and Eugene O’Brien when they appeared in court as character witnesses for a young man who had gotten into trouble and Stanley Fields immortalized himself by apprehending a burglar in his apartment.

 

 

Above a rare image of the Wall of Fame located in the County Courthouse press room 

 

 

Most of the females who signed the wall were space conservers. That is except Constance Cummings and Vivian Duncan, whose names stand out like sore thumbs. Cummings had just won a contract suit, while the half of the famous Duncan sisters won a divorce from Nils Asther on the ground of too much mother-in-law. Another signer brought to the wall by the divorce route was Lola Lane when she parted company with Lew Ayres.

 

Duncan Renaldo was the only signer of the Wall of Fame who had gone to jail, though this happened later than when he actually signed the wall. His name was obtained when he was the central figure in the alienation case against Edwina Booth, which came as the aftermath to a “location” trip to Africa.

 

Snub Pollard also appeared on the wall as did that of Lowell Sherman, whose matrimonial adventures with Pauline Garon and later with Helene Costello brought him into the press room.

 

When the fate of the old courthouse was sealed, the reporters lost interest in their famous wall, knowing it soon would be destroyed. The visitors of the last few months were not asked to sign. During the last two or three months there were many noteworthy eligible’s including Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Estelle Taylor, Colleen Moore and Marian Nixon. Crawford was one of the last asked to sign, the occasion being her divorce from Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. She refused. The reporters asserted she was so nervous and shaky it was doubtful if she could have written her name of the floor, much less on the wall.

 

Signing the Wall of Fame grew to be quite a ceremonial and somewhat of an athletic function. It was necessary to step onto a chair and then mount onto a table in order to reach the designated spot and in addition to the gentlemen of the press, court attachés and sometimes the judges themselves would assemble to witness the event. In fact, gazing up at a movie star was really something to talk about afterward.

 

It’s too bad that the Wall of Fame could not have been saved or moved to another location. When the new courthouse was built, there was another press room, but it was never the same.

 _____________________________________

 

Please follow and like us:

Frank A. Nance profile

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

HOLLYWOOD PROFILES

Frank A. Nance, Coroner to the stars

 

 

 Frank A. Nance sits at his desk in the Los Angeles Coroners office (1932, LAPL)

 

By Allan R. Ellenberger

 

Frank A. Nance was not a famous movie star. He never appeared in a film, yet he came in contact with more movie stars than the average person – the only difference is, if a movie star was in the presence of Frank Nance, they were probably dead. You see, Frank Nance was the Los Angeles County Coroner from 1921 through 1945, during what is typically called the Golden Age of Hollywood.

 

During his term in the Coroner’s office, Nance investigated 121,000 deaths, including 2,500 murders and 17,000 traffic victims. He wrote numerous articles about his job and set up standards, many of which have become routine procedure in California Coroner offices.

 

Frank Albert Nance was born on May 25, 1875 in Galesburg, Illinois. When he was 12, his family moved to California where Nance was educated in Los Angeles schools and at Pomona College where he was a star athlete. In 1911, Nance married Bessie Marion Beaver, a native of Toronto, Canada. The couple settled in the Los Angeles suburb of Monrovia, living at 127 N. Canyon Boulevard.

 

Nance’s career in public service began on December 10, 1910, when he became bookkeeper in the County Auditor’s office.  On March 25, 1921, the Board of Supervisors appointed him from a list of eight certified eligible candidates to succeed the late Calvin Hartwell as County Coroner. He officially took office on May 1 at a salary of $375 a month.

 

During his 24 year career as coroner, Nance performed or presided over many celebrity autopsies, including the murders of director William Desmond Taylor (1922), actor Ray Raymond by the hands of fellow actor Paul Kelly (1927), and the mysterious ‘Trunk Murders’ committed by Winnie Ruth Judd. The suicides of director Lynn Reynolds (1927), actress Peg Entwistle (1932), producer Paul Bern (1932) and Lupe Velez (1944) kept his name in the headlines. And Nance’s findings concerning the mysterious deaths of Thelma Todd (1935), Ted Healy (1937) and Marie Prevost (1937) fascinated the public.

 

Nance’s first headline-grabbing case was the murder of director William Desmond Taylor. The inquest was held at the Ivy Overholtzer undertaking parlor where Taylor’s body was present, covered with a satin sheet, except for his head. Actress Mabel Normand was scheduled to testify at 10 am however at the appointed time, Normand was nowhere to be found. Nance ordered a telephone search for her, however, it was learned that while the photographers waited at the entrance, Mabel was hurried in through the back alley and was waiting in the hall.

 

Mabel entered the rooms wearing a brown checked sport coat furred at the collar and cuffs, a black skirt and a cream lace waist and a green velour, wide-brimmed fedora. She wore white gloves and held a lavender silk handkerchief in one hand. Her voice was low and she spoke calmly.

 

“Did Mr. Taylor go to your car with you when you left?” Nance asked her.

 

“Yes, he took me to the car and stood talking with me a few minutes and said he would call me by telephone in about an hour,” Mabel replied. “He watched while I drove away and I waved my hand to him.”

 

“Did he call you up,” Nance asked.

 

“No,” she said. “I went home and went right to bed. My maid never wakes me anyway, once I have retired.”

 

It was during Nance’s tenure that both the St. Francis Dam disaster (1928) and the Long Beach earthquake (1933) occurred, each presenting extraordinary problems for the Coroner to solve. More than 450 people lost their lives when the St. Francis Dam collapsed and flooded the valley below.

 

The disintegration of the St. Francis Dam is one of the worst American civil engineering failures of the 20th century. Nance’s inquest concluded the disaster was primarily caused by the paleomegalandslide on which the eastern abutment of the dam was built. The coroner’s jury determined responsibility for the disaster lay with the governmental organizations which oversaw the dam’s construction and the dam’s designer and engineer, William Mulholland, but cleared Mulholland of any charges, since neither he nor anyone at the time could have known of the instability of the rock formations on which the dam was built.

 

Frank A. Nance (seated) and his staff go over notes from an inquest (LAPL)

 

In 1929, a scandal of sorts erupted in the Coroner’s office when it was charged that certain employees had sold funeral privileges to several Los Angeles undertakers. After an investigation by the Sheriff’s department, it was determined that no evidence was found to support the charges. Nance expressed pleasure at the outcome of the investigation.

 

“It confirms my opinion that none of my employees would be a party to such proceedings,” Nance said. “Should I ever find anyone guilty of such an act I will dismiss him at once. “

 

At times, Nance would publish statistics, especially if some form of death was more prevalent at that time. For example, during the mid 1930s, the suicide rate had steadily climbed in California and Los Angeles County over a fifteen year period. Nance reported that during the fiscal year of July 1, 1935 to June 30, 1936, there were 522 reported cases of suicide. Of this total 416 were men and 106 were women. The suicide ages ranged fairly evenly from 20 to 60 years. Poisoning was the favorite method of killing oneself, shooting, hanging, jumping and asphyxiation followed in that order.

 

In 1939, Nance relaxed procedures for an autopsy and inquest when Edward C. Crossman, veteran police ballistics expert committed suicide from carbon monoxide poisoning. Crossman was a friend of Nance and was  an expert witness at many coroner inquests. Crossman left a special note to the Coroner:

 

“Dear Frank Nance: This is, of course, a suicide. No inquest is necessary, and for the sake of my family will you keep the matter as quiet as possible. Reason for suicide – the death of my beloved wife – Oct. 21 (1938), from the motor car accident which was my own fault. Best regards. Edward C. Crossman.”

 

Per the dead man’s wish, Nance announced that there would be no autopsy or inquest in this case.

 

In 1945, Frank Nance celebrated his 70th birthday, which was the compulsory retirement age for Los Angeles County employees. On May 29, civic leaders, public officials and county government workers packed the assembly room of the Hall of Records to honor Nance for 34 years in county government service, 24 of them as County Coroner.

 

“It is not my desire to retire at this time, but retirement is the penalty for having enjoyed one’s 70th birthday,” Nance said in response to many tributes by assembled speakers. “I resent the insinuation of the Retirement Act that I am an old man. One’s age is a state of mind.”

 

Nance left the coroner’s office on May 31, 1945 and was succeeded by Ben H. Brown, who became coroner as well as Public Administrator – a consolidation of both departments.

 

After his retirement, Nance accepted an executive position at the Utter-McKinley Mortuary.

 

“After 24 years as Los Angeles County Coroner, during which time I have had intimate contact with all local funeral firms, I take pleasure in announcing my association with the Utter-McKinley Mortuaries,” Nance announced. “I do so with the sincere belief that Utter-McKinley is the finest funeral firm in Los Angeles.”

 

Shortly after Nance’s retirement, his wife Bessie became ill and died two years later on August 8, 1947. The following year on November 7, 1948, Nance married for the second time to Ruthmary Barnes, a cofounder of the Executives’ Secretaries, and went on a cross-country tour with his new wife. When they arrived in Boerne, Texas, about 30 miles north of San Antonio, they found the climate to their liking and leased a ranch house.

 

In late September 1950, Nance became ill and was admitted to a San Antonio hospital where he died of pneumonia a week later on October 2, 1950. His body was returned to Los Angeles where funeral services were held at Utter-McKinley Wilshire Mortuary at 444 S. Vermont Avenue. He was buried next to Bessie at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale.

 

 

 

 

 

The grave of Frank A. Nance and his wife Bessie are located at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale in the Kindly Light section (above), Lot 207, Space 1 and 2. They are directly across the road from the Finding of Moses statue near the cemetery entrance. If you know where Claire Windsor is interred, the Nances are two rows up and ‘about’ 20 feet to the right.

 

 

A month following his death, a bitterly worded will was filed for probate in Superior Court. The document, written entirely in Nance’s hand, identified his widow as Ruthmary Nance, 45 of 2124 Hillhurst Avenue.

 

It stated that during their brief marriage, Nance gave her joint tenancy interest in property worth $20,000, made her beneficiary in insurance policies of $15,000 and purchased a car for her.

 

“All of which,” the will said, “she now has in her possession exclusively and all of which she received from me on her promise to be a loving and loyal wife as long as I lived, which promise she has refused to keep or to tell her true name to others – persisting that her name is Ruthmary Barnes.”

 

Nance cut off his wife with $1.00 and left the remainder of his estate, valued at the time at $25,000 to his brother, sisters and a godson.  Nance had no children.

 

The following September, Nance’s brother, Ira, sued his ex-sister-in-law, charging that Frank Nance was deceived into assigning her some $50,000 from his holdings. The inducement for these transfers was the “promise of marriage, but after the marriage, Mrs. Nance did not live with Mr. Nance as his wife despite her promise.”

 

Unfortunately the results of these charges were never made public, however, Ruthmary Barnes returned to her original name and died on March 14, 1972.

 ______________________________________________

 

Please follow and like us: