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.
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, 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 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.
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 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.
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.
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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