Rita Hayworth in Gilda

Rita Hayworth in "Gilda"

So many noir events in November — where do we begin?

Esotouric kicked off the month with the Real Black Dahlia tour on November 1st. What’s next on the agenda?  How about The Birth of Noir: James M. Cain’s Southern California Nightmare on Saturday, November 8, 2008? Among the sites we’ll visit: Mildred Pierce’s home, Forest Lawn Memorial Park, and the Glendale Train Station.

We’re inviting everyone to dress in their favorite 1940s attire. So ladies, channel your inner Joan Crawford and slip into something with wicked huge shoulder pads. And gentlemen, this is an opportunity to become your favorite noir tough guy, so don a trenchcoat and a battered fedora (but leave your snub-nosed .38 at home, please). The tour departs from Phillippe’s The Original — be sure to order a slice of pie, won’t you? 

The Los Angeles Conservancy (for which I volunteer as a docent) is hosting a one day Noir-chitecture event on Sunday, November 9, 2008.  I’ve heard that it is sold out, so I hope that you have signed up! Each site on the self-guided tour is a gem and all have a connection to noir literature and/or film. You’ll find me at the Glendale Train Station (twice in two days — I love it!) from 12:45 to 4:00 on tour day.  The lovely old station was built in the 1920s and served as a location in the classic film noir, Double Indemnity.

I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn’t get the money… and I didn’t get the woman Walter Neff in Double Indemnity

"From the Moment they met it was Murder!"

Check out Barbara Stanwyck (left). Isn’t she the epitome of 1940s style? Her classic pageboy ‘do (which was a wig), red lipstick (doesn’t it just HAVE to be red?!) and her sunglasses! Absolutely wonderful. You can’t see it in the photograph, but Barbara wears an anklet in the film. Delicate and lovely, the chain will come to symbolize the noose which will grow tighter and tighter around the necks of the murderous lovers.

Double Indemnity, written by James M. Cain, was inspired by an infamous murder case. On March 20, 1927, housewife Ruth Snyder of Queens, New York and Nelson Gray, a corset salesman, garroted Ruth’s husband Albert, stuffed his nose with choloformed rags, then staged the scene as a burglarly gone wrong.  Snyder and Gray murdered Albert so that they could collect a nice fat insurance policy and live happily ever after.  

The couple turned out to be hopelessly inept at crime and was quickly busted for the murder. They were subsequently convicted and both were sentenced to death by electrocution.  

The crime had nothing to distinguish it — lust and greed are hardly unique motives for murder; and the case would likely have faded into obscurity if not for the efforts of innovative newspaper photographer Thomas Howard of the New York Daily News. He was a witness to Ruth’s execution and he was determined to get a scoop.

The wiley shutterbug strapped a miniature camera to his leg, and at the moment that “state electrician” Robert C. Elliott flipped the fatal switch Howard captured Ruth’s death throes for posterity.

Welcome to the dawn of modern tabloid journalism.


Because of my interest in Los Angeles history, crime, vintage clothing, and cosmetics history, I rushed out to see The Changeling last weekend. As a result, I decided to feature the Elite hair net package from my collection. The woman  on the envelope is from the same era (c. 1928) as depicted in the film, and the hairstyle resembles that worn by Angelina Jolie who stars in the movie.
The story that inspired the The Changeling is even more compelling and repellent than the story told by the film. Compelling because it is based upon an actual case from Los Angeles in the 1920s. Repellent because of the nature of the crimes (the kidnapping, molestation, and murder of young boys), and also because of the criminal — a sociopath by the name of Gordon Stewart Northcott. (Warning — spoilers for the film to follow.)
Walter Collins

Walter Collins

On March 10, 1928 Walter Collins, aged nine, vanished from his home at 217 North Avenue 23 in Lincoln Heights, CA. By August, Los Angeles police claimed to have located Walter in De Kalb, Illinois. The boy was returned to Los Angeles, but as soon Christine Collins, Walter’s mom, clapped eyes on the boy she knew that he was an imposter.
Corruption was rife in Los Angeles at the time and some members of the LAPD, as well as local politicians, were involved in bootlegging, gambling, and prostitution. The police department couldn’t bear further scrutiny or negative press, and they were anxious to have a public relations win. Returning the Collins boy to his mother was just what they needed. The difficulty that they couldn’t overcome was that the boy that they brought back to Los Angeles to be reunited with Christine was not Walter!
Arthur Hutchins, Jr.

Arthur Hutchins, Jr.

Christine resisted, but was finally convinced by LAPD Captain J.J. Jones to take the boy home with her. No amount of wishing, or coercion by Jones, would make the faux Walter morph into the genuine article. Christine kicked up a fuss and was summarily committed by Captain Jones to a local psych ward. It took about 10 days to pry the truth out of the devious counterfeit Walter.

After giving authorities at least two more aliases, the boy finally admitted that he was Arthur Hutchins, Jr. from Marion, Iowa and that he’d pretended to be Walter Collins to get a free trip to Los Angeles. It seems that young Arthur was a big fan of cowboy films — particularly Tom Mix.
Meanwhile, out in Wineville, CA (now Mira Loma) the depraved and profoundly evil Gordon Northcott was molesting, torturing and murdering young boys. One of whom was probably Walter Collins.
Gordon Stewart Northcott

Gordon Stewart Northcott

Then in a deus ex machina worthy of a Greek tragedy, a Canadian cousin of Northcott’s, Sanford Clark (aged 15) entered the drama. He’d been gone from his home for two years when he was arrested at the Wineville ranch as an illegal alien and held for deportation.  While in custody the young man broke down and told police a story so heinous that it was difficult for them to believe him. He said that Gordon Northcott had forced him to assist in the kidnapping and murder of several young boys.
Murder chicken coop

Murder chicken coop

Even as newspaper headlines screamed “Murder Farm” from the newsstands, Gordon and his mother fled to Canada to avoid prosecution. They could run, but they couldn’t escape the long arm of the law. The two were soon located and returned to California to stand trial.

In a noir twist echoed decades later in the Roman Polanski film Chinatown (“she’s my sister, she’s my daughter”) during his trial Gordon would learn that his mother was in fact his grandmother, and that he was the result of an incestuous relationship between his sister and his father.
Gordon was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. His mother/grandmother (who had initially confessed to killing Walter Collins, then recanted) was sentenced to life in prison, but she was paroled after serving only 12 years.
I loved being able to identify some of the buildings used in the film, and found the interior sets to be  faithful to the era. 
Angelina Jolie as Christine Collins

Angelina Jolie as Christine Collins

Angelina Jolie’s wardrobe in the film was gorgeous, and the credit goes to costume designer Deborah Hopper who has worked with director Clint Eastwood for over 20 years. According to Wikipedia, Hopper had to find 1920s style clothing for approximately 1000 people! Archive media featuring the real Christine Collins was used to create Angelina’s authentically styled wardrobe (note the cloche hat and the coat with the fur collar).  Jolie’s makeup was also correct for the time; but as you can see in the photo the real Christine wore few, if any, cosmetics.

One thing I noticed was that Angelina’s shoes are almost certainly reproductions made by an LA-based company called Remix Vintage Shoes.  Check out their site and see if you agree.
Christine Collins

Christine Collins

In the film, as in life, Christine Collins never stopped believing that Walter was alive. She pinned her hopes in part on Northcott’s cynical and cruel manipulations.  From death row he continued to taunt and torment the parents of the victims by sometimes accepting responsility for the killings, and then later insisting that he’d had nothing to do with the slaughter at the ranch. Remains found at the chicken ranch in Wineville could not be positively identified as Walter’s, and this too kept Christine’s hope alive. Her dream of a reunion with her son must have been rekindled when a boy believed to have been murdered by Northcott turned up several years later alive and well.
Sadly, Christine never saw Walter again in this life and she eventually disappeared from public view. The last mention of her that I could find was on January 21, 1941 in the Los Angeles Times.  The newspaper reported that she had renewed a suit for damages against Captain J.J. Jones, the cop who’d had her committed to the psych ward when she refused to accept Arthur Hutchins, Jr. as her son.

On January 15, 1947 the body of a young woman was discovered in a vacant lot in a suburb of Los Angeles. She would later be identified as Elizabeth Short, and dubbed the Black Dahlia.

Over the decades many people have attempted to solve the crime. Steve Hodel in his book [Black Dahlia Avenger] arrived at the conclusion that his own father was the killer! And he’s not alone. Janice Knowlton wrote a book [Daddy Was The Black Dahlia Killer] accusing HER father of the murder.  Neither book is credible. The crime has been depicted in fiction too, most notably in James Ellroy’s neo-noir novel The Black Dahlia.

So much attention has been focused on trying to solve the mystery of her killer, that surprisingly little effort has gone into unraveling the enigma of Beth herself.

Max Factor ad c. 1947

Max Factor ad c. 1947

One of the ways in which to unmask the real Elizabeth Short — who she was, and who she wanted to be — is to deconstruct the face she presented to the world.

Murder and pancake makeup. What’s the connection? 

Join us on the Esotouric crime bus on Saturday, November 1, 2008  and find out. 

I dare you.



Here comes the bride, all dressed in white – and surrounded by art deco geometry. The bride on the Nupcial face powder box is dressed for a wedding in the late 1920s or early 1930s. She’s wearing a cloche style headdress, her hair is bobbed, and her bee-stung lips are painted a vivid crimson.

She represents a typical bride of the time, and she is obviously wearing make-up.  Commercial cosmetics were a recent phenomenon in the 1920s and 30s. Prior to that time women had passed recipes for kitchen cosmetics and skin preparations to one another. The recipes were often contained in cookbooks which were given as gifts, or handed down from mother to daughter. When the Nupcial bride was walking down the aisle, whether or not to “paint and powder” was still the subject of contentious debate.

The bride in the photo looks radiant and deliriously happy, or maybe just delirious; but what about the darker side of brides? For the noir side of brides we need only to look at the 1935 film, “Bride of Frankenstein”.  Elsa Lanchester may have been one of the most reluctant brides ever. She took one look at her intended mate, Boris Karloff, and let out an ear piercing shriek of terror.  Not exactly an “I do”.

Bride of Frankenstein

Bride of Frankenstein

I always feel sorry for the monster – look at his face, he was obviously smitten, and you can see why, Elsa made a lovely bride – even with the lightening bolt of white in her hair, and the extensive scarring on her neck.

“For her fifth wedding, the bride wore black and carried a scotch and soda.”

Phyllis Battelle, journalist

They may look benign in their beautiful gowns; with their hair perfectly coiffed and their makeup flawlessly applied, but brides can also be serial killers! The bride in Cornell Woolrich’s novel was widowed on her wedding day. She was not about to let the murderers escape justice, and the novel tracks the homicidal nearlywed as she lures, ensnares, then bumps off the five men who ruined her life. What the homicidal bride doesn’t know about the death of her groom is revealed in a contrived twist at the novel’s end.

Although he was not the same caliber of writer as either Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, Cornell Woolrich was one of the fathers of the 20th century crime novel. He penned the story Rear Window which became the great Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name.

 Woolrich was a profoundly unhappy man. He was a self-hating homosexual and was a groom one time only. He may have been even more hesitant to walk down the aisle than Frankenstein’s intended.  On a whim, he married the daughter of a movie mogul. The marriage was not consummated, and after a desperate phone call from his mother who claimed that she couldn’t live without him, he moved in with her and never left again.

Even in these enlightened times, wearing white and walking down the aisle with the man of your dreams seems to be a national obsession. There are TV shows devoted to brides behaving almost as badly as the woman in Woolrich’s novel. These women are the notorious “Bridezillas”.  Nothing makes them happy – neither the dress, nor the catering, and perhaps not even the groom. They roar and stomp, and generally make life miserable for all those with whom they come in contact. I’d rather face a starving raptor.

I think that the preoccupation with over the top weddings is a component of the nation’s other reigning mania – the desire for fame.  It seems as if everyone wants to star in her or his own movie, or share space with a “celebutante” on the cover of a supermarket tabloid.

My groom and I opted for a small retro style wedding. The elegant vintage cake topper was a flea market find and suited the theme of my wedding perfectly. I will always cherish it.

The streets were dark with something more than night.
Raymond Chandler

Deadly dames, snub nosed revolvers and gin gimlets — have I died and gone to noir heaven? No!  I’ve just climbed aboard the Esotouric bus for In A Lonely Place: Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles.  Please join us this Saturday, October 11, 2008 as we explore the mean streets of Chandler’s LA. It’s also a swell chance to visit the venerable Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena (the tour will depart from there).

Details at Esotouric.