George Reeves: The Strange, Lonely Death of TV’s Superman

Last week’s blog concerned the murder of actor Sal Mineo by pizza deliveryman turned mugger Lionel Williams. Keeping with the Hollywood theme, this week’s case is the death of actor George Reeves, known to millions as television’s Superman. On June 16, 1959, Reeves died from a single gunshot wound in the bedroom of his Benedict Canyon home. Authorities ruled it a suicide, but was it?

George Reeves

Born George Keefer Brewer in Woolstock, Iowa in 1914, the boy who would become Superman moved around a lot. By the time he was a young teenager, he and his mother had moved to Pasadena, California so she could be near her sister. The acting bug bit George first in high school then at Pasadena Junior College (now Pasadena City College).

George Reeves when he wasn't Superman
George Reeves when he wasn’t Superman

George Reeves, Actor

Reeves’ first film role was a small part in a very big film. He played Stuart Tarleton, one of the young men competing for Scarlett O’Hara’s attentions at the beginning of Gone With the Wind. Before that classic film’s release, Warner Brothers signed him to a contract. But after several mediocre pictures, he and the studio mutually agreed to part ways. Next, he signed with Twentieth Century-Fox. Fox released him after only a few films. After that, he freelanced, looking for work in the westerns that were popular at the time.

Fred Crane (L) and George Reeves (R) as the Tarleton twins vie for the attentions of Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O''Hara in Gone With the Wind.
Fred Crane (L) and George Reeves (R) as the Tarleton twins vie for the attentions of Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O”Hara in Gone With the Wind.

By the early 1940s, though, Reeves had appeared in over thirty films, and it looked like his career was taking off. But in 1943, he joined the U.S. Army to fight in World War II. After the war, finding work became difficult. Acting jobs that paid less and less were farther and farther apart.

The Adventures of Superman

Reeves was offered the title role in a new television series, The Adventures of Superman, in June 1951. Like many actors in that era, he looked down on television as unimportant, inferior to films. Nevertheless, he took the role. The series had a very tight shooting schedule, filming the thirteen episodes for a season in seven weeks. But Reeves’ and the other actors’ contracts were such that it was impossible to take other acting roles.

George Reeves in costume as Superman
George Reeves in costume as Superman

Reeves supplemented his income by making personal appearances. He genuinely liked his young fans and took his status as a role model seriously. For one thing, he avoided smoking where children could see him (he eventually quit smoking altogether). He was also discrete in his private life. It turns out, there were plenty of reasons to be discrete.

Superman mobbed by his fans
Superman mobbed by his fans

The Secret Life of George Reeves

Shortly before The Adventures of Superman launched in 1951, Reeves began an affair with former showgirl Toni Mannix. Toni had recently married MGM vice president and general fixer Eddie Mannix. Supposedly, Mannix gave his blessing to his new wife’s affair.

Toni and Eddie Mannix
Toni and Eddie Mannix

Reeves and Toni broke up in 1958. Reeves then announced his engagement to society playgirl Leonore Lemmon. Leonore (her real name was Lenore) was younger than Reeves and considerably younger than Toni, who was eight years Reeves’ senior. Tony, as one might imagine, was less than amused.

Leonore Lemmon in 1941 (Bettmann/CORBIS)
Leonore Lemmon in 1941 (Bettmann/CORBIS)

The Death of George Reeves

In the summer of 1959, plans for a new season of The Adventures of Superman were in the works. Reeves was tired of the role, but the public so identified him with it he had trouble finding other work. Some friends said he was depressed while others vigorously disputed that claim.

The house where Superman died, 1579 Benedict Canyon Road, Los Angeles (Author's photo)
The house where Superman died, 1579 Benedict Canyon Road, Los Angeles (Author’s photo)

On the evening of June 16, 1959, Reeves and Leonore were out to dinner with another person. The two had an argument and returned to Reeves’ home on Benedict Canyon Drive (Toni bought the house for him). Reeves went upstairs to bed. Meanwhile two more people dropped in on Leonore and a small party broke out, Reeves came downstairs to complain about the noise, but ended up having a drink with Leonore and the guests. Shortly after he returned to his upstairs bedroom, the people downstairs heard a single gunshot. One of the guests, Bill Bliss, went upstairs and found Reeves lying across the bed on his back with his feet under the floor. A 9mm Luger pistol was on the floor nearby.

Suicide or—?

Police didn’t receive a call until nearly an hour later. When they arrived at 1579 Benedict Canyon Drive, they found four intoxicated people downstairs and a dead George Reeves upstairs. The witnesses all told approximately the same story, but was that because they’d taken an hour to get it straight?

A pensive George Reeves sits on the porch of his Benedict Canyon home shortly before his death
A pensive George Reeves sits on the porch of his Benedict Canyon home shortly before his death

Leonore loudly proclaimed that Reeves had killed himself. She said he was depressed over his finances and inability to break out of the Superman mold. But several some things argued against the suicide theory. For one, there were no fingerprints on the gun. Had a heavy coating of gun oil prevented police from obtaining prints or had someone wiped it clean? Then there was the lack of powder burns. However, the autopsy explained that the gun had been in contact with Reeves’ skin, which would have prevented powder stippling around the wound. And there was the rumor that Leonore hadn’t been downstairs as she claimed, but in or near the bedroom when the shot was fired.

Epilogue

Authorities ruled the death a suicide, although some refused to believe it. Reeves’ friend and fellow actor Rory Calhoun famously said, “No one in Hollywood believed the suicide story.” Since there were no witnesses present, there is no way to know for sure whether it was suicide, accident, or murder.

You can read more about George Reeves’ death in Hollywood Kryptonite by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger.

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Sal Mineo: Insidious Murder Takes Out Promising Actor

Our case last week looked at a tragic murder-suicide. Josh Powell killed himself and his two small sons by blowing up his house, which set it on fire. Powell had probably killed his wife, Susan, two years earlier, although he was never convicted of that crime. This week, we consider a classic Hollywood crime, the murder of actor Sal Mineo.

Sal Mineo

Born in New York City in 1939, Salvatore Mineo, Jr. began acting as a youngster. His first stage performance was in Tennessee Williams’ play, The Rose Tattoo in 1951. His first film role was in Six Bridges to Cross in 1955 (he beat out Clint Eastwood for the role).

Sal Mineo (biography.com)
Sal Mineo (biography.com)

But Mineo’s career got a big shot in the arm when he costarred with James Dean and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). He teamed up with Dean again a year later in Giant (1956), considered to be the inspiration for the television series Dallas.

Sal Mineo was a famous teen star in the 1950s. But like so many young actors, he found transitioning into more mature roles difficult. However, by the 1970s, his career had prospered, and he had many film and television roles to his credit.

Sal Mineo in 1973
Sal Mineo in 1973

The Murder of Sal Mineo

On February 12, 1976, Mineo returned home after rehearsing the play P.S. Your Cat is Dead in Los Angeles. After parking his car in the carport next to his West Hollywood apartment, a mugger attacked him. In the attack, the assailant stabbed Mineo in the chest. Neighbors heard his cries for help and ran to assist him. By the time they arrived, the actor was almost dead. He died minutes later. He was only 37 years old.

Neighbors described the attacker who fled the scene as a White man with brown hair. Other than that, police had little to go on. At first, they thought Mineo’s work for prison reform had connected him with a dangerous ex-con. They also discovered numerous pictures of nude men in his apartment. But neither the convict nor the gay angle produced any leads, and the case began to go cold.

The casket of actor Sal Mineo being carried out of Most Holy Trinity Church in Mamaroneck, New York(Dave Pickoff/AP)
Pallbearers carry he casket of actor Sal Mineo out of Most Holy Trinity Church in Mamaroneck, New York(Dave Pickoff/AP)

A Suspect in the Mineo Murder

In April 1977, a 19-year-old woman named Teresa Collins contacted police. She told authorities her boyfriend had just been extradited to Michigan for a bad check charge. She claimed she knew about an unsolved murder. The boyfriend was a career criminal whose name was Lionel Ray Williams. Collins said she was afraid of Williams and waited to come forward until he was behind bars in another state. In addition to Collins, Williams had apparently told other people about killing Mineo, a story he later denied. But his ex-wife reported that on the night of the murder, Williams had come home covered in blood. It was looking like the cops had their man.

But there was a problem. Witnesses described a White attacker with long brown hair. Williams was Black with an Afro. Police were able to solve this dilemma with an old photograph. In it, Williams had dyed his hair brown and had it processed so that it was straight and long. Investigators contended that in the dark carport, witnesses could have confused Williams with a White man.

Lionel Williams, 21, arrives in Los Angles  Jan. 13, 1978 (AP Photo/Lennox  McLendon)
Lionel Williams, 21, arrives in Los Angles Jan. 13, 1978 (AP Photo/Lennox McLendon)

Lionel Williams went on trial for murder on January 9, 1979. By that time, he’d reconciled with Collins and the two had secretly married. Collins invoked her spousal privilege and refused to testify against Williams, crippling the prosecution case. Nevertheless, after deliberating for seven days, a jury found Williams guilty of second-degree murder. Judge Bonnie Lee Martin sentenced him to 51 years, with the ability to apply for parole in 14 years.

Epilogue

Williams served only a portion of his 51-year sentence before being released in the early 1990s. Reportedly, he resumed his criminal ways and was soon behind bars again. He continued to deny that he’d murdered Sal Mineo.

If you want to learn more about Sal Mineo, you might be interested in  Michael Gregg’s 2010 book, Sal Mineo: A Biography.

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Cheryl Crane: Sensational Murder or Something Else?

Our case last week looked at psycho former showgirl Clara Phillips who murdered a supposed love rival with a hammer. This week we delve into a Hollywood death that might or might not be murder. This is the story of Cheryl Crane, Lana Turner, and Johnny Stompanato.

Lana Turner, Cheryl Crane, and Johnny Stompanato

Lana Turner, born Julia Jean Turner in Wallace, Idaho in 1921, was a prominent film actress. Her career began in the 1930s. By the late 1950s, she was an established star. Despite professional success, Turner’s personal life was chaotic. Already married and divorced three times, she remarried her third husband, Stephen Crane in late 1942 when she discovered she was pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter, Cheryl Crane, on July 25, 1943.

Lana Turner in an undated M-G-M publicity photo
Lana Turner in an undated M-G-M publicity photo

As the child of a famous movie star, Cheryl had little chance of a normal childhood. She later described herself as “famous at birth and pampered silly.” Cheryl’s parents divorced in 1944, a year after her birth. She and her mother lived in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles during most of her early years. Years later, in her autobiography, Cheryl alleged that Turner’s fourth husband, actor Lex Barker, had sexually abused her many times.

Cheryl Crane at eight weeks old in 1943 with her father, Stephen Crane, and mother, Lana Turner
CherylCrane at eight weeks old in 1943 with her father, Stephen Crane, and mother, Lana Turner

Now we come to Johnny Stompanato. Stompanato was an ex-marine who served in the Pacific during World War II. By 1957, he was a bodyguard and enforcer for Los Angeles mobster Meyer “Mickey” Cohen. Stompanato became infatuated with Lana Turner in 1957, calling her and sending her flowers as “John Steele.” She was filming The Lady Takes a Flyer at the time.

Johnny Stompanato
Johnny Stompanato

Cheryl Crane Knifes Stompanato

Despite trying to break away when she discovered his ties to organized crime, Turner continued her relationship with Stompanato. It was one characterized by violent arguments and physical abuse followed by reconciliations.

Johnny Stompanato with Lana Turner at a Hollywood nightclub ( Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS)
Johnny Stompanato with Lana Turner at a Hollywood nightclub ( Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS)

Cheryl described Stompanato this way:

B-picture good looks…thick set…powerfully built and soft spoken…and talked in short sentences to cover a poor grasp of grammar and spoke in a deep baritone voice. With friends, he seldom smiled or laughed out loud, but seemed always coiled, holding himself in…had watchful hooded eyes that took in more than he wanted anyone to notice…His wardrobe on a daily basis consisted of roomy, draped slacks, a silver buckled skinny leather belt and lizard shoes.

(L to R) Lana Turner, Johnny Stompanato, and Cheryl Crane about a month before Cheryl stabbed him
(L to R) Lana Turner, Johnny Stompanato, and Cheryl Crane about a month before Cheryl stabbed him

On April 4, 1958, Stompanato showed up at Turner’s rented home in Beverly Hills. She had just leased the place just a week earlier. Cheryl, then 14 years old, heard the couple in a heated argument. Stompanato threatened to kill Turner, Cheryl, and Turner’s mother. He made other threats as well, including breaking Turner’s bones and cutting her face with a straight razor.

The house Lana Turner rented and where Stompanato died at 730 North Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills, California. The window at top left is the pink-carpeted bedroom where the stabbing took place. (JGKlein)
The house Lana Turner rented and where Stompanato died at 730 North Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills, California. The window at top left is the pink-carpeted bedroom where the stabbing took place. (JGKlein)

Cheryl had been watching television in an adjacent room. Believing her mother’s life was in danger, she grabbed a knife and ran to her mother’s aid. Meanwhile, Turner had ordered Stompanato out of the house. The door to the bedroom burst open and out stormed Stompanato, right into the knife Cheryl held in her hand.

Coroner's attendants remove Johnny Stompanato's body from Lana Turner's home (Gary Smith / Los Angeles Times)
Coroner’s attendants remove Johnny Stompanato’s body from Lana Turner’s home (Gary Smith / Los Angeles Times)

Cheryl Crane and the Coroner’s Inquest

Because of Turner’s fame as an actress and the involvement of her teenage daughter, the case quickly became a sensation.  More than a hundred people attended the coroner’s inquest on April 11, 1958.

Cheryl Crane shortly after her arrest
Cheryl Crane shortly after her arrest

Testimony at the inquest lasted for four hours. Witnesses who testified included Mickey Cohen (who refused to say anything), Lana Turner, and Cheryl’s father, Stephen Crane. When testimony wrapped up, the coroner’s jury deliberated about 25 minutes before returning a verdict of justifiable homicide. The court released her to the custody of her grandmother. The judge also ordered her to regularly visit a psychiatrist accompanied by her parents.

Epilogue

Johnny Stompanato’s ex-wife, Sarah Ibrahaim filed a $750,000 wrongful death suit against Turner, Cheryl, and Stephen Crane. It implied that Lana Turner was responsible for stabbing Stompanato. The suit was eventually settled out of court in 1962.

A conspiracy theory endures that Lana Turner stabbed Stompanato, and that Cheryl Crane took the blame for her mother. The theory persists despite Cheryl’s repeated denials. She maintains that her mother never would have forced her teenaged daughter to falsely take the blame.

You can read more about the case in Movie Star & The Mobster: Lana Turner, Johnny Stompanato and Homicide in the Pink Bedroom by John William Law.

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Jenny Maxwell: Murder of a Popular “Elvis Girl”

Last week’s case was the murder of Sylvester Roberts, the true-life crime that helped inspire the novel Peyton Place. This week, we leave New England and return to California, specifically Los Angeles. There we’ll meet Jenny Maxwell. Jenny was an acting sensation in the 1960s, quit acting in 1971, and was murdered a decade later. Her murder has never been officially solved.

Jenny Maxwell Goes to Hollywood

Jennifer Helene Maxwell was born to Norwegian immigrant parents in Brooklyn, New York on September 3, 1941. Known as Jenny, she was her parents’ only child. As a girl, she showed a passion for acting and the theater. Her parents sent her to the Violet Hill School of Drama in Brooklyn for lessons.

Jenny with her cousin Vera in New York in the late 1940s
Jenny with her cousin Vera in New York in the late 1940s

One day in 1958, when Jenny was 16, a man came to the studio during one of her acting lessons. The man was Hollywood director Vincente Minnelli. He was a friend of Gubie Mann, Jenny’s acting instructor. Minnelli insisted that Jenny come to Hollywood to audition for a part in Some Came Running. This film version of a 1958 novel was to star Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Shirley MacLaine. Her parents were reluctant, but soon Jenny and her mother were on their way to California.

The audition went well, yet Jenny didn’t get the part. After viewing the takes, Minnelli decided a brunette would work better with Sinatra. With her Scandinavian heritage, Jenny was blonde. However, right after telling her she didn’t get the part in Some Came Running, her agent had good news. The agent told Jenny she had an audition for the television series Batchelor Father the very next day. She got the part.

Jenny Maxwell

Jenny Maxwell, Starlet

That guest role on Bachelor Father was the beginning of several years when Jenny was in high demand for films and television. She guest-starred on an impressive number of television shows that were popular in the late 1950s and 1960s. These included Bachelor Father, My Three Sons, Route 66, Bonanza, 77 Sunset Strip, The Wild Wild West, The Twilight Zone, Death Valley Days, and many more.

Jenny (R) in the 1960 Bonanaa episode "The Gunmen"
Jenny (R) as Clara Lou Kinsey in the 1960 Bonanaa episode “The Gunmen”

Jenny also worked in films. In Take Her, She’s Mine, she worked with noted actor Jimmy Stewart. But her most famous role was as Ellie Corbett in Blue Hawaii, where she costarred with Elvis Presley. Even after she retired from acting in 1971, people still remembered her in that movie.

Jenny on the set with Joe E. Brown (L) and Buster Keaton (R) for filming the Route 66 episode "Journey to Nineveh"
Jenny on the set with Joe E. Brown (L) and Buster Keaton (R) for filming the Route 66 episode “Journey to Nineveh”

The Hollywood publicity machine said Jenny was from Norway and that she was Marilyn Monroe’s second cousin. Neither was true, but the film industry never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Jenny in her most famous role as Ellie Corbett starring with Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii
Jenny in her most famous role as Ellie Corbett starring with Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii

Jenny Maxwell’s Chaotic Personal Life

When Jenny went to Hollywood, she was only 16. Her parents, confirmed New Yorkers, refused to relocate to the left coast. Therefore, she found herself alone and mostly unsupervised in Tinseltown. Almost a year after arriving in California, she married 24-year-old Paul Rapp, a minor assistant director on April 17, 1959. Jenny was just 17.

Jenny was too young and immature to be a good wife. After the euphoria of young love wore off, she and Paul fought frequently. The arrival of a son, Brian in 1960 did little to improve things. She and Paul divorced in 1961.

Jenny was too young and immature to be a good mother, also. She had developed a taste for the Hollywood party lifestyle and often left young Brian home alone while she trolled the booze-and-drug scene. This led to her losing custody of Brian.

Early on, Jenny was in demand for high-profile films and television shows. She was one of the hottest young stars at the beginning of the 1960s. But by the end of the decade, her fast living gave her a reputation for being unreliable on the set. Her career suffered as a result. Although she still landed some guest roles on television, her last film was the 1963 turkey Shotgun Wedding. This film is forgettable except for the distinction of having the notorious Edward D. Wood, Jr. as one of its writers.

Murder of a Starlet

After divorcing Paul Rapp in 1961, Jenny married again in 1970, this time to Evan “Tip” Roeder (pronounced “raider”). Roeder was a former cop turned sleazy lawyer. He handled high-profile divorces, defended policemen and former policemen accused of wrongdoing, and palled around with mob types. And he was two decades older than Jenny.

With second husband Evan M. "Tip" Roeder
With second husband Evan M. “Tip” Roeder

Jenny’s second marriage was no more successful than her first. She and Roeder fought literally from day one. But Roeder had money, lots of money. Jenny determined to stay with him for 10 years, so she’d get half his assets when she divorced him.

By 1981, she’d put in her 10 years but, sadly, she never got the divorce or half Roeder’s money. On June 10, 1981, Roader picked her up at a hospital where she’d had a minor procedure. They had lunch, then he took her to her apartment on South Holt Avenue. There, a gunman shot them both. Jenny had one gunshot wounds to the temple and one to the right eye and was dead at the scene. Roeder was shot in the stomach and died 2½ hours later at nearby Cedars Sinai Medical Center. Detectives Mike Thies and John Dial told the lone reporter it looked like a robbery gone wrong. That’s the story the Los Angeles Times printed and that’s where the case remained. Police never arrested anyone for the murders.

Newspaper story reporting the Roeder murders, June 10, 1981
Newspaper story reporting the Roeder murders, June 10, 1981

Epilogue

In 2019, veteran journalist (and Jenny’s cousin) Buddy Moorehouse decided to investigate the case. He discovered that Detectives Thies and Dial had quickly learned there was much more to this case than a simple botched robbery. The gathered enough evidence to form a theory that Roeder, in a bid to prevent Jenny from taking half his assets, arranged the shooting. Jenny was to die, of course, but he would only get a nonfatal would in the abdomen. Unfortunately for Roeder, either he flinched or the gunman’s aim wavered. His wound ended up being serious enough for him to bleed out.

With Roeder dead and no way to identify the hitman, the case remained (and still remains) officially unsolved.

Jenny died without a will. What few assets she had, mostly personal property, went to Roeder, When Roeder died, everything went to his daughters. Jenny’s son Brian got nothing.

Jenny’s cousin Buddy Moorehouse wrote a book about his investigation, Murder of an Elvis Girl: Solving the Jenny Maxwell Case. It is a true crime novel in the manner of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

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