Death of George Reeves 50 Years Later: Aftermath
by Armand Vaquer
From The Straight Dope.com:
The night of June 15, Reeves and Lemmon and a few other guests were drinking and partying at his home until after 1 AM. Reeves went up to bed, a shot rang out, and he was found dead, sprawled nude on his bed, with a bullet hole in his right temple. The death was ruled suicide, largely since the houseguests all said there was no other explanation, and there was no sign of an intruder or forced entry. The high alcohol content in Reeves' blood (.27, well above the intoxication point), combined with narcotics (he was taking painkillers for injuries in a car accident), made this plausible.
However, Reeves' mother and a few others thought the whole thing was suspicious and claimed Reeves was a victim of foul play. Thus, suspicions and questions started flying around, long before any internet to spawn conspiracy theories.
It is strange that sometimes when some celebrities die at an early age they become more popular in death than in life. These included Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and others. It also happened to George Reeves.
While Reeves was immensely popular to his young fans during the run of Adventures of Superman in the years of 1953 to 1958, his death on June 16, 1959 only added to his appeal.
In the years since his death, numerous books, television profiles and magazine articles picked apart the facts and rumors surrounding the Benedict Canyon mystery. One major motion picture used Reeves's death as the centerpiece of a fictional private detective’s quest to find his own position in life. It was called Hollywoodland. It played a little loose with the facts. On its own, Hollywoodland was an entertaining period piece. But those who went to see it with the idea they were going to learn the truth about the death of Reeves were sadly disappointed. Some diehard Superman fans liked the movie, some despised it. One thing it did accomplish: it got people talking about George Reeves again.
At the time of Hollywoodland’s release, the floodgate of television documentaries, newspaper and magazine articles was opened to an eager public wanting to know more.
George's fiancee Lenore Lemmon claimed the only other people at the house were Carol Von Ronkle, William Bliss, and writer Robert Condon, who was writing a magazine article on Reeves and was staying in the guest bedroom. While some have wondered if there were more people in the house that night, no proof has ever surfaced that there were.
The group was drinking and talking during the late hours of June 15 and early morning of June 16. Reeves was up in his room trying to get some sleep. Earlier, he and Lenore went out to dinner at a local steak house and were reportedly drinking and arguing. A witness at the steak house, Merrill Sparks (who was playing piano there that night) noted that Reeves was mellow and elegant while Lemmon was boisterous and in a mood to argue with Reeves.
Reportedly, Sparks saw Lemmon still arguing with Reeves on the sidewalk outside of the restaurant just before leaving when Sparks went out for a cigarette.
They returned to Benedict Canyon and Reeves went to bed in his upstairs bedroom. Lemmon wasn’t in the mood to go to bed. She stayed up was was talking to Condon. The porch light was left on, whether it was intentional or not is hard to say. But if the porch light is on, it usually was a signal that guests are free to drop in. So when William Bliss and Carol Von Ronkle saw the light on, they stopped by. Soon, their little party began.
There is a dispute on whether Reeves was awakened by the group and came down to chastize them, apologize and joined them for a drink. In an interview shortly before her death, Lemmon said that Reeves never came down from upstairs.
Regardless, while the group was having their gathering, a shot rang out from Reeves’s bedroom.
The drunken guests (along with Lenore Lemmon) got some of their wits together and finally notified the police of Reeves’s shooting, after about an hour passed since his lifeless body was discovered by Bliss.
Reeves was taken to a local mortuary and had a “cursory” autopsy performed and embalmed. It was decided that Reeves’s death was due to suicide. (Blood samples were taken from the body before he was embalmed, despite an error to the contrary in a recent television profile.) The bullet wounds were sewn up with twine.
Unfortunately, this hasty action only added more questions to the mystery. Then two more bullet holes were found in Reeves’s bedroom floor. Lemmon only accounted for one of them. Where did the other one come from? This discovery pressured the Los Angeles Police Department to re-open the case and have Reeves’s body autopsied again. This time it was done more thoroughly.
Above, the Hall of Justice, center (to the left of City Hall), was the location of the more thorough autopsy of George Reeves. This photo was taken in the late 1940s while the Hollywood Freeway was still under construction.
Reeves was brought to the Los Angeles County Coroner’s basement facility located at the Los Angeles Hall of Justice in downtown (above photo) near City Hall. This was the coroner’s facility before the move to the present facility on North Mission Road. Other celebrities were autopsied at the Hall of Justice, including Marilyn Monroe in 1962 and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. The Hall of Justice was the headquarters for the Los Angeles County District Attorney. During Evelle Younger’s tenure as County D.A., a small bomb exploded near his office on the 6th floor. The Hall was also the main jail and it housed the criminal courts until the present one was built. A tunnel under Temple Street connects the Hall of Justice with the new criminal court building. [I recently toured the underground tunnel and it is fascinating.] It was used to transport suspects to and from the courthouse.
Above, the Hall of Justice in 2008 with the Criminal Courts Building in the background. A tunnel connects the two.
Although the second autopsy on Reeves’s body was more thorough, it still did not change the initial suicide finding.
Meanwhile, Lenore Lemmon left California for New York, never to return (not even for Reeves’s funeral).
This second autopsy still did not satisfy Reeves’s mother, Helen Bessolo. She returned to California from Ohio to conduct her own investigation into her son’s death. She did not know any of the parties in Reeves’s house on the night of his death. She suspected foul play and hired famed attorney Jerry Giesler to prove it. Fortunately for Helen Bessolo, she had the means to fund her private investigation.
Despite her efforts in Los Angeles, Helen Bessolo’s investigation did not disprove her son’s suicide ruling. She even went so far to have Reeves’s body sent to Cincinnati for a third autopsy in January 1960. By then, Reeves’s body had greatly deteriorated in the six months since his death, despite being embalmed. [I have photos of the body from this autopsy, but will not publish them out of respect to Reeves.] Although the body had deteriorated, the findings from this third autopsy were consistent with the suicide rulings of the first two Los Angeles autopsies.
Shortly thereafter, Helen Bessolo dropped her investigation. She was either satisfied that her son’s death was thoroughly investigated (despite the suicide ruling being allowed to stand), ran out of money to fund further investigations or may, as some have speculated, have been scared out of pursuing it further. Helen Bessolo remained in California until she died in 1964. Before her death, she had George cremated and her ashes rest next to his and her sister’s in an Altadena, California cemetery mausoleum. It was reported that George’s urn’s inscripted side was placed facing away from the viewing window.
For years, the whereabouts of Reeves’s final resting place was a mystery.
Reportedly, an earthquake shook up the mausoleum and a worker turned the urn around during the clean-up so that its inscription was facing the window. Now, many fans make pilgrimages to George’s urn.
The whereabouts of William Bliss, Carol Von Ronkle and Robert Condon in the years since Reeves’s death have been a mystery. They are all reportedly deceased. Lenore Lemmon was found dead in her New York apartment on New Year’s Day 1990. It has been reported that she died a few days earlier. Helen Bessolo died in 1964, as I mentioned earlier.
Although fifty years have passed since the death of George Reeves, the story refuses to go away, much like the assassination of President Kennedy. We now know more than we did twenty years ago. Actor/writer Jim Beaver has been working on a book on Reeves for the past twenty years. Chuck Harter has been shopping his book proposal that would contain rare photographs and other materials to publishers. DVD box sets of the Adventures of Superman became unexpected best-sellers for Warners. Jan Alan Henderson, in the aftermath of Hollywoodland, pubished a second edition of his book, Speeding Bullet that refutes and corrects conclusions and facts presented in Hollywood Kryptonite and in Hollywoodland. Reeves's co-stars, Jack Larson and Noel Neill appeared in television profiles and made cameo appearances in Superman Returns. Phyllis Coates appears occasionally at conventions or collector shows as do Noel Neill and Jack Larson (although he does so on rare occasions). Numerous websites on the show and Reeves have flourished on the Internet. A Superman museum has been open in Metropolis, Illinois for many years. The exhibits on George Reeves are the most popular. The museum is run by Jim Hambrick. Annual Superman festivals are held in Metropolis in June.
An attempt to restore and preserve Reeves's birthplace in Woolstock, Iowa was made, but egos and small-town politics have disappointingly gutted that effort.
Reeves may be gone, but his work lives on. Will the undisputed truth ever surface? It is doubtful. But it is a tribute to Reeves that he is still remembered fifty years after his passing.
Death of George Reeves 50 Years Later: The House
UPDATE (6/11/09): I have been told by a Reeves/Superman historian that Reeves dined the night of June 15 at The Brown Derby with Lenore, not at a local steakhouse where Merrill Sparks played piano. Sparks may have been confused as Reeves and Lemmon did dine there Saturday, June 13.