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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Death of George Reeves 50 Years Later: Aftermath

Above, Reeves in front of his house 3 days before his death.

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.

See also:

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.


Anonymous said...

As there were no powder burns on the face the gun would have to be sufficiently far away. everyone agrees. In order for the shell casing to be under the body the gun would have to be held upside down and close to the head as the shell casing ejection is normally over and to the right of the shooter. If Reeves was playing a game with a blank, it is physically impossible to hold the gun upside down with your elbow bent and any further than a few inches from his head. If he held the gun verticle in a reverse grip to play the game it would have been far enough away not to have powder burns (maybe) but the shell would not be ejected forward to be under his back, which it would be if his elbow was bent and the gun held upside down, but then there would be powder burns. All this suggests is that this was not a suicide.The 30-45min delay in calling the police is also disturbing. With all the alcohol involved, the painkillers and the possibility that GR had changed his mind about Lenore for whatever reason there could have been an argument and struggle with the gun involved. Assuming Lenore had control of the gun and was lying or kneeling at an odd angle and not within the grasp of GR (perhaps he said he would leave her as some reports said) this scenario answers all these questions . Regardless there had to be at least one other person besides GR involved. Also there was no reason for Mannix to have GR murdered . So much time had passed since the breakup of GR and Toni. A crime of passion for Toni-she would have had to pull the trigger to get the satisfaction. Even in payoff LA county, murder is a tough one to escape and Mannix was a leg breaker that was his satisfaction. Drain the break fluid, the car crashes GRs face gets messed up, maybe killed but unlikely, thats his kind of satisfaction and that timing makes sense. This was a crime of passion. The other guests were probably not aware.Gunshots in closed quarters in a semi auto firing rapidly are hard to count and the closer you are to the noise your ears will shut down at the first shot and not open up again for 30 min or more. Ergo the reason for the delay. It was not a large house and the sound would be deafening. And with Lenore telling everyone GR shot himself. Maybe she was so drunk she believed it.

Anonymous said...

There are some problems with the comments from Anonymous. He says "there was no reason for Mannix to have GR murdered." George was about to go off on a trip and marry Lemmon. Anonymous should recall that Reeves had received strings of harassing and eventually threatening phone calls just prior to his death, sufficient for him to seek an order of protection from a Judge specifically against Toni Mannix. It is also contradictory to assert that Eddie or Toni would have to "pull the trigger" when Eddie's background was having hired hands take care of things. By all evidence, he wasn't a hands on "fixer."

Anonymous also states that the inverted position of the Luger etc "suggests that this was not a suicide." On the contrary, if Reeves held a luger to his right temple, inverted, the shell would be ejected down, behind Reeves -- who was sitting at the edge of his bed. Reeves fell backward after the shot and the shell casing was found behind his back. Placing the gun so close to the head does not leave powder burns. After the shot was fired, the natural rotation of the right arm would send the gun down toward his legs. The gun was found between his feet. In other words, while other scenarios are still possible, including a struggle with Lemmon, with an inverted Luger, all of the "official" evidence at the crime scene falls into place.

Anonymous also states that ears in close proximity to a gun shot shut down for 30 minutes and one can't count the shots etc. While this may be the case, Jan Bliss was reportedly outside of Reeves' house that night, walking away from the scene, and hearing one shot. Jan Bliss and the house guests reported one shot. However, the "one shot" evidence is irreconcilable with other bullet holes found in the walls, baseboard, and floor. Gene Lebell stated that the holes in the floor were not there that morning during his visit, nor was the area rug that was covering them up that night after the shooting.

Bill Bliss reportedly told friend Millicent Trent that Lemmon emerged after the shooting, telling the guests "Don't tell anyone I was in that room." Minimally, she witnessed what happened. Possibly she was involved in the shooting, as some like Lebell believe. Whatever the case, Bliss's revelation helps put Lemmon's statements to police and reporters in context --- apparently saying anything that would separate her from the scene in the bedroom -- either because she witnessed the shooting and didn't want to get blamed for it, or was involved in a tussle that resulted in it. Certainly her accounts of hearing drawers open and firing shots weeks prior strain credulity.

Anonymous said...

A Luger needs to cycle between rounds. It is quite fast, but there will still be a noticeable period between rounds fired. I own a 9mm Luger, and have shot it on a pistol range, with out ear protection years ago, and even if you are doing rapid fire you can hear each round as it fires.
Of course if you were to hold the weapon close to someone’s ear that person would probably not even hear all of the sound of the report, but you would most likely damage the ear, so further sounds of a pistol’s report would be moot. I would also expect a rather violent reaction (jerking away) to the report, as well as stinging and stippling from the gasses ejected at the muzzle. Even with modern smokeless powder there is a definite gas cloud emanating from the muzzle. While in the military I had a pistol go off in close proximity to my right ear, and although it was not close enough to do permanent damage, it is a sound you feel as well as hear, and you react to it right away.
If the weapon was far enough away from the person’s head, then you might have an entry wound, but it would need to be quite away not get stippling, or residue of some form. This lack of residue or tattooing would be pretty much impossible if the person was holding the gun themselves. If the muzzle is pressed to the head, then there is a typical wound pattern which looks something like a star, where the gasses actually enter the wound between the bone and the skin, causing the tissue to expand outward and tear in a radial pattern away from the entry. Anything with in a few inches of the head would have this pattern, along with tattooing. I would also be interested in the arrangement of finger prints on the pistol grip and trigger.
If the shooter was holding the gun upside down (why I cannot see), then the pattern of finger prints on the gun would indicate that. The most likely way I could think this would be done would be to hold the gun by gripping it backwards and use you thumb to pull the trigger. The Luger had a broad flat trigger, and the grip has wide smooth metal portions which should be quite easy to lift prints from. It would have had been no problem to get some indication of how the gun was gripped even if the prints were smudged.

Anonymous said...

There were no fingerprints on the gun... So somebody out there thinks that a man comes out of the shower, towels off, shoots the floor, shoots himself in the head with the gun held far enough away to prevent stippling, then wipes ALLLLLL the fingerprints off the gun AND the bullets...hmmmm
Anyone following that chain of logic should start watching CSI....better yet, take a forensics 101 course... George Reeves was murdered, plain and simple.

Anonymous said...

He was not murdered. Four, count em, four DOCTORS examining either the body or the notes taken from one of the 3 autopsies ALL concur he shot himself.

He may have been playing a game thinking blanks were in the gun. He may have been so drunk and with taking medication he may have just said, "the hell with it", whatever.

LL may have been involved and in a struggle, the gun went off. Hard to believe the house guests would put themselves on the line saying LL was with them when the shot went off. If she was in the room, she or they could have said to the police that they rushed to stop him but it was too late.

My best guess is that someone put in real bullets and George was caught by surprise.

Anonymous said...

heavily oiled guns do not leave prints. powder burns can be hit or miss based on bullet, angle, distance from body, etc.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious how the autopsy photos were obtained. A surgeon relative of mine would like to see them.

Anonymous said...

For what its worth I think he was murdered. I think Leonore did it. I think they got into an argument and both were drunk and it got out of hand. No I dont have any proof or anything else that makes me any more of a guesser than anyone else. It is possible he killed himself but if so it was more of an accident than a suicide.Probably similar to Jon Erik Hexum in the 80s.But in the end all those involved are gone and no one will ever know for sure and after all these years, no way to prove any one theory more than the other.Between how they handled evidence, time, the fact he was cremated, etc any possiblity of proving or disproving any theory has been destroyed.

Anonymous said...

How about the deathbed confession of Toni Manix to her priest that she personaly ordered the killing of George Reeves? NO Roman Catholic would confess a lie, nor would they leave out a murder when they knew they were making their final confession before going to meet the Maker so to speak. Ed Lozzi of Lozzi Media Services was her caretaker at that time and heard her make the confession. I spoke with Mr Lozzi and he confirmed this. He also confirmed that Mrs. Manix prayed often for forgiveness for the murder. Even with a deathbed confession, the darling LA coroner's office would not change the official cause of death on the certificate, because there was no court official or policeman there to witness the confession. There's as much proof as can be gotten at this point.

Eric Velasco said...

Regardless of all the theories out there, let's just pray that George's Spiritual Essence can finally rest in peace. On a website called Phantom Sand monsters it states that George's spirit still lingers around the Benedict Canyon house. There are even eyewitness reports from neighboring residents to have seen George's ghost in the front of the house dressed in his Superman suit. Now I don't know how true this is but I am in the process of investigating this issue personally. In this case I really hope it is all a big lie. The thought of that great man's inability to cross over is very heart breaking. He suffered enough alive and should suffer no more in the afterlife. Pray for Superman!

Honeycomb said...

Anonymmous said that Reeves was surprised by his gun having real bullets instead of blanks. Shooting your temple with a blank would cause serious injury. So I doubt GR would have been doing that. Also, medical examiners go by examination of the body,not the crime scene. He was shot in the temple. Ergo, it was suicide. But that does not take into account witness statements or the fact that there were other gun holes in the room. That's not a doctor's expertise.

It seems to me that Lemmon is a likely suspect to have murdered him. She was there, there were multiple gunshots in the room, she was a drunk and an argumentative person, there were no fingerprints on the gun, no powder burns on GR, it took her 45 mins to call authorities, and witness statements are conflicting. Single things can be explained away, but put them all together, and it does paint a likely picture.

No one seems to mention the fact that GR was naked. When people kill themselves, they often take into account how they would like to be found. I think it's very unusual that a 45 yr old man would choose to be found completely naked. Especially considering how his mother would hear about it, strangers finding his body, pictures being taken. I don't think that's likely.

A second possibility is Toni. When someone makes threats against someone else, and that someone else is found dead, that would be a logical course of investigation. It wasn't investigated, that I have read. But maybe it's a coincidence that he was killed by his current gf instead of the prior one (who wouldn't have done it personally, btw). OTOH, in a later interview Lemmon says that Reeves wasn't a depressed sort of person, altho unhappy about not being able to get work. If she were guilty, wouldn't she have said he had been extremely depressed of late? OTOH, she did make a comment to someone after the shot that he'd probably killed himself. She said later that was a joke and she didn't mean that.

As for his being unemployed, the 20/20 show said he'd been notified that day that he had a job. There was a new job for a new superman project. That could be two things: He now had a job (either as an actor or a director...read conflicting reports), but the bad news is that it was Superman-related.

I think the most likely thing is that Lemmon killed him during a drunken argument or a tussle with the gun. It could not have been suicide, since there were multiple shots and no fingerprints on the gun. Even an oiled gun would have something besides the same thing as a gun being wiped clean.

Justin said...

All of these commenters have zero knowledge of forensic science. Reeve's bedroom was relatively small. Given this size, it would be nearly impossible to fire the shot from far enough of a distance where there would be no gun powder burns around the entry wound. Rather, nearly every medical examiner interviewed about this subject states the same thing: it is a misconception that a point blank shot leaves a gun powder tattoo. At point blank, the powder and smoke go into the wound, rather than around it.

Further, much has been made about the location of both the gun and spent shell. Try holding a fake gun to your head, the most common way to do it would be holding it so the weapon is sideways, with the top of the gun facing behind you. This then allowed the spent cartridge to eject behind Reeves, hitting the bed before his body could fall. Thus it is found under his back. His hand goes limp and the gun falls off his fingers, winding up between his legs.

As far as the other bullet holes in the floor, Lemmon admitted she fired them at some points. Even if she didn't, it is also VERY common for people attempting suicide to fire a test shot or two, working themselves up to the big moment.

Power Factor Training said...

I think it was Lemmon accidentally in an argument. That totally falls in line w/ the 45 delay. Nothing else does. She was a whore from the F'ed up world of NY nightclubs used to dealing w/ people using violence. Reeves behavior changed once she moved herself into Reeve's home. He didn't invite her to California...she invited herself. Reeve's would have long since re-married IF thats what he wanted but it wasn't.

Anonymous said...

After reading as much as I can find. A possible answer could be, LL shot George. This was done before Bliss arrived and Condone was passed out. Bliss then comes in, LL puts the move on begins to make out with Bliss. Says George came down the stairs gets mad and goes back up. She goes to check on George, fires a shot into the floor. Comes back down tells Bliss go check on him. Calls the police, George has been dead a while. Bliss can't speak up as he is drunk, and thinks he was caught by Reeves. Everyone remains silent as they don't know. Except Lennore.

Kirk Groeneveld said...

now, that last comment with a theory that George had been dead a while and that LL hit on Bliss makes a lot of sense. At least the 45 minute delay in calling the police indicates that there were some serious discussions going on by the witnesses, drunk or not, and that somebody was trying to get their story straight.

Also, why could those bullet holes in the floor not have been from a former tenant or owner? Who says they were recent?

Who actually owned the house then? George? If he was leaving LL, then was he kicking her out? Did she own the house? Or Toni?

I'd like to know more about the "new project" that Reeves had just been hired for. What was is? A Superman movie? How was it connected to Superman? If he had work, then he must have been happy...not depressed. And if Manix had had GR's car sabotaged, how much earlier than his death was that crash? Why would Manix have waited that long, if the affair was long over?

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