Tag Archives: suicide

Death By Sound: The Tragic Tale of Karl Dane

Hollywood, like crocodiles, sometimes eats its own. Take, for example, the tragic story of actor and comic Karl Dane.

Dane, who was born Rasmus Karl Therkelsen Gottlieb in Copenhagen in 1886, boarded a steamer headed for Ellis Island 30 years later with $25 in his pocket.

Despite limited English, Dane soon landed a part playing a German chancellor in a film made in New York called My Four Years in Germany. The anti-German propaganda film was the first major hit for fledgling producers Warner Bros. and led to more parts for Dane on the East Coast.

He later moved west, settling in Van Nuys in 1921, where he married and started a new career as a farmer. Two years later his wife and newborn baby daughter died in childbirth, and Dane returned to films.

In 1924, Dane appeared in the silent blockbuster The Big Parade, which starred John Gilbert and Renee Adoree. The success of the film led to more work for the Danish immigrant alongside Rudolph Valentino in Son of the Sheik.

While most of his previous silent film roles were as “heavies,” Dane was teamed up with Scotsman George K. Arthur in 1927 as part of the comic duo Dane & Arthur. The series of comedy shorts they created proved popular, and MGM rewarded Dane with a long-term contract.

And then came sound.

With the arrival of “talkies,” Dane’s heavily-accented voice didn’t translate well to audiences, and he was soon cut by MGM.

The Dane & Arthur team disbanded after a lengthy vaudeville tour, with Dane later trying his hand at a variety of jobs before returning to the stage in an unsuccessful bid to make it as a solo performer.

By the end of 1933, Dane found himself in the humiliating position of running a hot dog stand outside of the MGM gates; the studio where he had been a star a short time earlier. Former friends at the studio, perhaps to save him embarrassment, avoided his establishment, which failed a short time later.

During this week in April 1934, Dane was robbed of his last $18. Afterwards, he went back to his Hollywood apartment and killed himself with a revolver where he was later found by a friend.

For a time his body lay unclaimed until Danish actor Jean Hersholt convinced MGM to pay for Dane’s burial at what is today Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the same burial ground where his old co-star Rudolph Valentino was interred a few years earlier.

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Greed, Graft & Greystone

Have you ever wanted to go inside one of the Vegas casino-sized mansions that are sprinkled around Beverly Hills?

There is one mansion that us commoners can explore called Greystone which the city of Beverly Hills has maintained as a park for the past 40 years. The massive 55,000 square foot behemoth sits on sixteen acres of prime real estate north of Sunset Boulevard.

While the mansion is often used as a setting for films, photo shoots, videos, and television shows, it could star in its own Hollywood blockbuster, based on the dark history of scandal, suicide, and murder which took place within its walls.

Greystone was originally the home of Ned Doheny, the only son of the massively wealthy L.A. oilman Edward L. Doheny. If you want to imagine the character of the senior Mr. Doheny, think of Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in There Will Be Blood, which was loosely based on him (the bowling alley scene at the film’s conclusion was actually shot at Greystone).

Doheny got rich by drilling wells in what is now downtown Los Angeles. He also had huge leases in Mexico that were protected by his own personal army of 6000 men. Between the years of 1910 – 1925 he earned an average of $10 million per year and used three-million of those dollars to build Greystone, which he gave to his son Ned as a wedding present in September, 1928.

In the 1920s, greed got the better of Doheny, as he was implicated in the Teapot Dome Scandal, which soured the public on the administration of President Warren G. Harding.

In case you don’t remember the specifics from your high school U.S. History classes, the scandal went down like this: the Navy had oil leases in an area of Wyoming called Teapot Dome, as well as in the San Joaquin Valley in California. Interior Secretary Albert B. Fall, a close friend of Doheny, talked the Navy into transferring the leases to his department, which he then turned over to Doheny and another oil man for kickbacks totaling over $400,000. Doheny had his son Ned and Ned’s secretary Hugh Plunkett deliver the bribe to Secretary Fall.

When the scandal eventually broke, it was rumored that the Dohenys tried to get Plunkett, who was said to be displaying signs of mental illness, to agree to be institutionalized in a sanitarium to be kept free from testifying.

On this date in 1929, only six months after Ned Doheny and his family had moved into Greystone, Plunkett appeared at the mansion with a gun and shot the 36-year-old Doheny to death before turning the gun on himself.

At least that’s the official story. After the murder-suicide, the papers hinted at other scenarios, including the possibility that Plunkett was in fact Doheny’s lover, and that Ned’s wife had shot them both. Another rumor suggested that the murder-suicide was carried out by Doheny. This story was given credence when the two men were buried within a few feet from each other at Glendale’s Forest Lawn Cemetery, and not in the consecrated ground of the Catholic cemetery where Doheny’s parents were eventually interred, as this cemetery would have been off-limits to someone who had committed suicide.

Doheny’s widow continued living in the mansion until 1955, when she sold it to the owner of the Empire State Building. It eventually became a city park in 1971.

Some of the movies filmed at Greystone include The Social Network, Spiderman, The Prestige, Ghostbusters, All Of Me, The Big Lebowski, X-Men, Batman and Robin, The Loved One, as well as the aforementioned There Will Be Blood.

Greystone today.


Del and Gene

Me and Del were singin’ Little Runaway, I was flyin’  – Tom Petty, Running Down a Dream

Del Shannon, whose bio was remarkably similar to ...

Last week, I wrote about rock and roll pioneer Gene Vincent, who after changing his name, became world-famous on the strength of his first single, Be-Bop-A-Lula. He later saw his career flourish in England while it stagnated stateside, befriended and influenced the Beatles among others, and died prematurely in Santa Clarita.

Today marks the 21st anniversary of the passage of another local rock and roll legend. This singer also changed his name shortly before scoring a worldwide number one hit. He was later largely forgotten in America, but had legions of fans in England, and at the time of his death he was rumored to have been planning on joining former Beatle George Harrison in the Traveling Wilburys. He also died prematurely in Santa Clarita.

This legend’s name was Del Shannon, who was born Charles Westover in Grand Rapids, Michigan. During the early 60s, Charles was busy selling carpets after a stint in the army when he decided to change his name (getting his new moniker from the names of a friend and a Cadillac) and write a song called Runaway. The song, with Shannon’s signature falsetto backed by organist Max Crook’s Musitron, was released 40 years ago this month on February 14, 1961.  It reached number one on both sides of the Atlantic a few months later.

Shannon, like Vincent, had a few follow-up hits after his smash debut, but nothing to approach Runaway in popularity, and his career in America soon stalled. He still maintained a sizable following in England where Del became the first American to record a cover of a Beatles song, charting From Me To You months before the Beatles released their own version of the single.

... Gene Vincent.

At the end of his life, Shannon was working with Tom Petty, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and Jeff Lynne, who were all members of the group The Traveling Wilburys. He was rumored to be replacement in the band for Roy Orbison, who had recently passed away.

But it was not to be. Shannon, who suffered from depression and alcoholism, killed himself with a .22 caliber rifle at his home just off of Sand Canyon on February 8, 1990. His wife later unsuccessfully sued Eli Lilly & Company after his suicide, blaming Prozac for his death.

The four remaining members of the Traveling Wilburys recorded their own version of Runaway as a tribute after Shannon’s death.

Del Shannon and Gene Vincent have one additional thing in common – they were both posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.


The First Movie Star

Florence Lawrence, "The Biograph Girl," in 1905.

On this day in 1938, Florence Lawrence, the actress credited as the world’s first movie star, died by her own hand in a West Hollywood apartment.

Florence Annie Bridgwood was born in Canada in 1886. Her mother was a vaudevillian actress who used the name Lotta Lawrence on stage. Young Florence took on her mother’s professional surname after the death of her father when she was four.

Florence joined her mother on stage at an early age and the two eventually migrated to New York City when she was 20. It was there in 1906 that Lawrence got her first film role for Thomas Edison, being paid five-dollars a day for a two week shoot.

Florence, who rode horses as a girl, was able to garner steady work due to her beauty and equestrian skills. In 1908 she was offered a sizable raise (to $25 a week) to join Biograph Studios to work with director D.W. Griffith. She appeared in most of the 60 films that Griffith made for Biograph that year.

Lawrence became popular with fans, but no one knew her name as the studios feared (rightly, as it turned out) that if actors had their names listed in the credits, they would be able to demand greater salaries. During her time with Griffith, Lawrence was listed simply as “The Biograph Girl.”

By this time, Lawrence was married to actor Harry Solter. When the pair tried to move to Essanay Studios for higher pay, they were both fired from Biograph.

Carl Laemmle, the head of the IMP Film Company (and future founder of Universal Studios) hired Lawrence for a film. To promote the movie, Laemmle “disproved” a rumor (which he had created) that “The Biograph Girl” had been killed in a street car accident. He introduced Lawrence to the public by name in advertisements and public appearances. Soon the name Florence Lawrence was known to all at a time when no actors were known by name to the public. This single act created the “studio system” and proved producers fears correct when other actors then demanded their own names on the marquee, with higher salaries.

Lawrence left Laemmle in 1910 to form a separate studio called the Victor Film Company in Fort Lee, New Jersey. She made five hundred dollars a week as the company’s leading lady with Solter acting as director. The couple sold the studio in 1913 and “retired” to a 50-acre estate in New Jersey.

The retirement didn’t last long. In 1914, Lawrence was again in front of the cameras in a film for Universal called Pawns of Destiny when she was seriously burned in a studio fire. It took months for her to recover from her injuries which seriously depleted her finances as Universal refused to cover her medical bills. She never regained her star status.

Lawrence divorced Soltis a short time later and tried to regain her footing in films before suffering a relapse brought on by her injuries in 1916 that left her paralyzed for many months. Her health returned sufficiently for her to appear in bit parts, but her remaining fortunes were wiped out in the stock market crash of 1929.

Completely forgotten by the industry she helped create, the 52-year-old killed herself on this date in 1938 by swallowing ant paste.

Her humiliation continued after death when she was interred in an unmarked plot in what is now Hollywood Forever Cemetery. In 1991, actor Roddy McDowall honored the forgotten star when he paid for a memorial. It reads, “The Biograph Girl/The First Movie Star.”

An interesting bit of trivia: Flo-Lo, who was once married to an automobile salesman, is also credited with inventing the first turn signal for cars, which she called an “auto signaling arm.” She never patented the device, which made fortunes for others.