Raymond Chandler in the 1940 census

There’s something perverse and delicious when mundane formality captures genius in its net. The census is one of the best tools for illuminating these queer intersections.

chandler 1940 census stitched

The recently published 1940 US census finds the serial renters Raymond and Pearl (Cissy) Chandler living at 1155 Arcadia Avenue in what was then Monrovia Township. Their monthly rent is $50. (Regrettably, for those who like to visit the residences of great writers, the house has not survived; much of the block was replaced by condominiums in 1979.)

Mrs. Chandler, who answered census taker Cornelius F. Hax’ questions, gives her age as 63 (she was actually 69) and Chandler’s as 51. She states that during the week of March 24-30, 1940, Chandler spent 36 hours engaged in his profession, Free Lance Writer. Yet when asked about employment during the calendar year 1939, she states that Chandler did not work at all. 

chandler names cropchandler occupation crop

This report of an idle 1939, like her age, is a lie. Chandler worked fiendishly that year. His first novel, The Big Sleep, was published in February. He began, then set aside The Lady in the Lake and dug into Farewell My Lovely. 

chandler farewell my lovely first edition

By the time the census taker knocked on their door on April 8, the revisions for Farewell were nearly complete; it would be published in October. Perhaps Chandler was in his study working while Cissy spoke with Mr. Hax in the front of the house. Maybe, ever conscious of their privacy, she pulled the door shut behind her and answered his questions on the porch. As is nearly always the case with these dry census records, one is left longing for more. A few facts, most of them wrong, jotted down, and then Mr. Hax was off to knock on another door. 

In walking his route that spring day, Mr. Hax recorded a cross-section of the suburban west. The Chandlers’ neighbors came from California, Italy, New York, Nebraska, Wyoming, Ohio, Maine, Pennsylvania, Canada, England, Texas, Missouri, Illinois, Massachusetts, Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota and Montana. There was a painter and a telegraph operator, a chicken rancher and a bookkeeper in a meat packing plant (Chandler, when new to California, had done similar work in a dairy), an automotive mechanic and a U.S. Postmaster, a wholesale shoe salesman, an architect, a department store saleslady, a machinist, a comptometer operator, a stenographer, a teacher, an attorney and a man who kept an aviary. 

As he began what would be the most distinguished and lasting literary career of any writer working in the debased genre of detective fiction, Chandler chose to live modestly among strangers, far from L.A.’s literary or intellectual hum. Hollywood wouldn’t call for a few years yet.

The Chandlers kept to themselves. He wrote. She looked after him. He was still sober. They had fourteen more years together. And the purple San Gabriels loomed above.

Chandler circa 1940

A moment in time: Beth Short in the 1940 census

On April 10, 1940–seventy-two years ago today–a man named Edmund M. Hart walked the streets of Medford, Massachusetts in the county of Middlesex, knocking on doors and making inquiries about the people who lived behind them. He was the designated U.S. Census enumerator, and the personal information he gathered has just this month been placed online.

On Salem Street, at number 115, Hart recorded the particulars of three separate households.

The owner of the property (valued at $5000) was Myer Winer, aged 59. A widower, he lived with his sons Samuel (21) and Allen (19), his daughter Dorothy (29) and her husband Eli Reingold (30). The young people were all born in Massachusetts, Myer Winer in Russia. He was a tailor in a retail clothing store, earning $700 for the previous year (for only 18 weeks work).  Son-in-law Eli Reingold was employed as a clerk in a wholesale tea company, earning $1200 for the previous year (52 weeks). His wife, a stenographer for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, earned the same wage for her 52 weeks of work. Although the census did not ask, we know from other sources that theirs was a Jewish family. 

Paying $35 in monthly rent was Edwin F. Jones, 58, and his wife Minnie, 56. He was from Maine, she from Massachusetts, and both had been living in the same house for at least five years. Jones was a newspaper printer, with wages of $2350 for the previous year (47 weeks work). 

Beth Short 1940 census (detail)

It is the third and final family which draws our attention, for reasons having nothing to do with their quiet life in Medford, Mass. The head of the household is Phoebe Short, 39, native of Maine. She tells Mr. Hart that her family of six has been living in this place for at least five years, and pays $28 rent–$7 less than Mr. and Mrs. Jones, perhaps a reflection of Myer Winer’s charity. Although unemployed, she has an unspecified income of more than $50, not from wages. This is, we assume, money provided to her by her estranged husband Cleo.

Living with Phoebe are five unmarried daughters. Virginia M. (19), is the only one seeking work outside the home, claiming 34 weeks unemployment through the end of March 1940. Her occupation is given as New Worker, meaning she had left school but had not yet secured any position. The other Short sisters are all in school: Dorothea (17), Elizabeth (15), Elenora (14) and Muriel J. (11). 

medford high school pc

Although history records that Phoebe Short’s husband Cleo was still living, she identifies herself to the census as a widow. Maybe at this time, Phoebe really thought her husband was dead. Maybe she claimed to be a widow instead of admitting to a stranger that she had been abandoned. We do not know if the story she told Edmund Hart was the same one that she told her landlord and her daughters. The bare facts of the census record cannot reveal the nuances of any family’s tragedy.

Phoebe’s pretty daughter Elizabeth (15) is frozen in time by the census keeper’s ink. She is still safe with the women who know and love her, still free to walk out the front door on a balmy day and turn west on the Salem Road, which is will not for some years be bisected by I-93, a highway which seems to have obliterated 115 Salem Street. Half a mile from her home, past the movie theater and the city hall, is the old Salem Street Burying Ground, a neglected cemetery dating to the late 17th century. Maybe she wandered there, among the winged skull markers and crumbling walls, and thought about her own mortality and imagined the joys her life would contain before the grave.  

winged skull

She’s still a couple of years away from her ill-considered escape from the limited opportunities available to a poor, fatherless girl in the Boston suburbs. When she runs, she will go to California, to be reunited with Cleo Short. Their relationship will quickly fracture, and she will become a vagabond, moving often and forming short-lived, intimate relationships with strangers. She will travel from California to Florida, to Chicago, then west again. She will lie to her mother, and she will not look for work. She will sink into depressive obsession over a promising relationship cut off when the man dies in a plane crash. She’ll make some foolish choices, and some stupid ones. 

And at 22, they will find her body cut into two pieces, naked and brutalized, in a vacant lot in Los Angeles. She will find posthumous fame as the beautiful victim of one of the most heinous unsolved crimes in American history. They will call her The Black Dahlia, leer over the terrible photographs, and they’ll never stop talking about her. 

But for this moment, she is still frozen in time. The census taker knocks on the door, and wants to know: who is the head of this household? What are the names of the children, and their ages? 

Elizabeth Short is 15 years old, and it is springtime. The possibilities are limitless. And we are far away, and remembering a girl we never knew. 

Thank you, Joe Cianciarulo, for the detective work.

Medford, 1880

The Garden of Allah in the 1940 census

Hollywood in its Golden Age was filled with beautiful, glamorous apartments, residence hotels and bungalow courts, quite a few of which have survived the harsh winds of time, neglect, temblors and the questionable taste of subsequent owners.

But the site of that most storied of all the Hollywood residences, the legendary Garden of Allah (8152 Sunset Boulevard), is today a bland mini-mall anchored by a McDonald’s restaurant in the post-modern style. Popular myth has it that it was demolition of the Garden of Allah and its beautiful pool and fountains, mature gardens, handsome villas and culture of creativity that inspired Joni Mitchell to write “Big Yellow Taxi” — “they paved paradise, put up a parking lot.” If that isn’t true, it ought to be. 00058512 Garden of Allah LAPL

Photo: Los Angeles Public Library

The Garden of Allah fell to the wrecker in summer 1959. But on April 9, 1940, when the census enumerator dropped by to take the hotel’s temperature, it was at its height as an urbane social center, the only place suitable for a certain class of extraordinary person to make their Hollywood home.

The census record is illuminating and more than a little heartbreaking as a suggestive portrait of a vanished time. The first resident recorded is practically a novel in a single line:

Lerner, Herbert A. White, single, Louisiana-born, 29. His residence on April 1, 1935? ” At sea. Near Florida” Occupation? “First mate, private yacht.” Annual wages $1200.

garden of allah 1940 herbert lerner

This is the type of fascinating stranger one might make a friend of at the famous bar at the Garden of Allah. No wonder writers loved the place.

And yes, there are famous writers living at the Garden of Allah in the spring of 1940, and we’ll get to them, but just look at the variety of elevated humanity that was drawn to this seductive corner of the world.

A stock broker. A public utilities executive. A couple guys in advertising. Varied and sundry magazine hacks. A night club publicity manager. An actors’ agent. Alonzo F. Farrow and wife Edna, who run the joint ($3600/year for him). British film producer John Stafford. The beautiful Greta Nissen, a silent star that fell from favor, though not entirely, due to her strong Norwegian accent. Populist historian and pulp writer Harold Lamb, who must have been a hoot over a cup of grog. Irish novelist Liam O’Flaherty, slumming with film work. Edwin Justus Mayer, who wrote To Be or Not To Be.

garden of allah 1940 census benchley campbell parker

And mostly clustered together near the bottom of the page, those grand Algonquin wits. George S. Kaufman, theatrical writer, 50, who declined to state his income. Robert C. Benchley, motion picture writer, $5000+ per annum. Alan Campbell and wife Dorothy P., for Parker, both movie writers, both earning what friend Benchley brings home. This was where the hard work got done, and steam was let off, before the cycle began again. What nights they must have had, and what days, beneath the ridiculous California sun, surrounded by geniuses and nincompoops, the lovely and the lost.

Once upon a time in Hollywood, this place was real, not imagined. Now it’s just real estate, a ring of shaggy palm trees around an asphalt lot. Pull in some time, park in the center, close your eyes and just breathe the air that once fed paradise. That grand moment has passed, and this moment can be rude and trying. But a more beautiful world is coming. It was ever thus.

00011968 Garden of Allah LAPL

Photo: Los Angeles Public Library

Downtown Los Angeles, 1946: Beth Short’s last walk

Here’s another amazing discovery from the good folks at the Internet Archive. This May 1946 night time process shot through Downtown Los Angeles was filmed by Columbia for the Rita Hayworth vehicle Down to Earth. In the picture, the actress portrays the ancient Greek Muse Terpsichore, who visits 20th century America to torment the Broadway producer who dares put on a show portraying the muses as man-crazy sluts, and Terpsichore herself as “just an ordinary dame.” Sacrilege! 

It’s a fitting theme for us here at 1947project. For while perturbed Terpsichore was no human female, we think she’d sympathize with the posthumous plight of Beth Short, Black Dahlia murder victim, brutalized before death by unknown assailants, and ever after subject to vile, false rumors. (No, she wasn’t a prostitute. Our offshoot Esotouric offers a bus tour explaining who she really was.) 

Now thanks to Down to Earth, we have this gorgeous footage of the heart of Beth Short’s post-war city, a bright, populated and thriving Downtown that is as lost to us as the cultures of the Inca or the Toltec. Click “play” and enter a place that positively thrums with energy. Marvel at the neon lights, the late-night coffee houses, the fur shops, the airline offices, the swimsuit-clad manikins, the drug stores, the theaters of Broadway (some open all night), the street life. Gasp at Clifton’s Pacific Seas (demolished 1960, now a parking lot) and Clifton’s Brookdale (still with us, but indefinitely closed for renovations), boggle at Alexander & Oviatt’s bright-lit windows packed with the hautest of gentleman’s couture, and laugh when you spy unmistakeable evidence of just how huge a star Miss Rita Hayworth was in the spring of 1946.

Beth Short spent the last half of 1946 living in Los Angeles, bouncing from cheap hotel to friends’ couch and back again. Her social life centered on the nightspots of Hollywood and Downtown. This process footage contains a near-exact recreation of her final steps on the night she vanished: south along Olive Street away from the Biltmore Hotel, then left on Eighth Street, where we are rewarded with two astonishingly rare views of the Crown Grill, the last place she was seen alive. 

Knowing what we do, the stylized crown above the bar’s entrance looks an awful lot like a death’s head, doesn’t it?

Screen grab, 1946 "Down To Earth" process shot

As a time travel portal, this clip rates among the finest. Blow it up big on your screen, sit back with a cup of something soothing, and be transported.

Behind Every Great Man…

onanism

 

 

March 16, 1927
Los Angeles

 

 

 

Clarence and Ona Brown were married in 1922, but now Ona wants a divorce. “When I married him,â€Â said Mrs. Brown, while weeping bitterly during her testimony before Judge Summerfield, “he was a second-rate assistant director, and I made a director out of him. That cost me my home, for he got to thinking so well of himself he attempted to boss the house. He went nearly a year without even speaking to me.â€Â

 

 

(She may have a point; see this page under "salary.")

 

Ona’s testimony was neither denied nor contested, and she won her decree.

 

 

Think of that the next time you watch "Garbo’s favorite director".

 

 

 

Grossery Shopping

TSgreengrocers

March 15, 1927
Los Angeles

Traditionally, the term greengrocer refers to a retail tradesperson who sells fresh fruits and vegetables. Should you be down on Temple Street, you might find grocer Edith Green to be a greengrocer of the green meat variety. Mmmm. Heck, even her Temple Street neighbor Abraham Margolis purveys criminally suspect comestibles.

Edith, at 922 Temple, and Abraham, at 937, were both charged with selling adulterated and contaminated foodstuffs. Stock amounting to $2,500 ($29,055 currentUSD) were ordered destroyed, she given thirty and he 180 days in the hoosegow, suspended on the condition that they clean up their act. And their stores.

As much fun as it would be to venture in to those structures now to see what eighty year-old smells lingered from the putrid pigs feet and bad borscht, we’ll have to content ourselves with visualizing such while whizzing under the one-ten:
templest

Snow Davis, aka Harry Harpon, aka “The Sticker”

February 13, 1927
Chinatown 
 
dopeslayerThe headline read, "TORTURE DEN AND POISON PEN OF SUSPECTED DOPE SLAYER BELIEVED FOUND," and the story itself contained six missing girls, a basement torture chamber, and a "trick" pencil that could turn into hypodermic needle, chock full of poison, with the flick of a finger.
 
The villain was none other than Snow Davis, aka Harry Harpon, aka The Sticker, a dope fiend who’d done time on poison charges in three state prisons in as many years, and had twice been a murder suspect.
 
It’s all quite a lot of build-up for a story that ultimately came to nothing. 
 
The Chinatown den was discovered when undercover agents heard groans in its vacinity.  Their report was passed along to the feds, who prompty raided the joint.  In addition to the "poison pencil," Snow Davis’s known weapon of choice, they found piles of women’s clothing and a stack of newspaper clippings from New Orleans.
 
However, any former inhabitants had fled.  Investigators had been hoping to link Snow to the January disappearances of six girls between the ages of 15 and 20, but it must have been wishful thinking.
 
Snow Davis, aka Harry Harpon, aka The Sticker, gets out of Los Angeles unscathed, and the Times never mentions him again. 

William Wrigley’s Ocean Marathon

January 16, 1927
Palos Verdes Peninsula, CA
 
georgeyoung
In 1919, the heavily insured William Wrigley Jr. bought a controlling interest in the Santa Catalina Island Co., and sought to promote his lovely little island getaway.  And what better publicity stunt for the Roaring 20s than a contest of endurance?  Yes, a winter swim from Catalina to Point Vicente would be just the thing for those flagpole-sitting, dance marathoning types.
 
Wrigley offered a prize of $25,000 to the first man to finish the January 15 channel swim, and $15,000 to the first woman. 
 
The Wrigley Ocean Marathon attracted over 100 competitors, including a 17-year-old Canadian boy named George Young.  Young held several Canadian swimming records, but was too poor to afford a ticket to Los Angeles.  He did, however, have a friend with a motorcycle, and together they made the long haul from Toronto.  The bike broke down in Arizona, where Young was picked up by a honeymooning couple, who drove him the rest of the way.
 
His perserverance paid off.  Around 3am on January 16, after swimming for nearly 16 hours, Young was declared the winner of Wrigley’s challenge.  In fact, he was the only competitor to finish the race.  With water temperatures hovering in the 50s, over 2/3 of the contestants dropped out after just a few hours.
 
Young caused a stir when he emerged from the surf in the nude.  The modest Young said, "We put a covering of graphite over the grease before I put on my bathing suit to help keep out the cold… I had taken off my bathing suit when I was two and one half miles from Catalina, and I forgot that grease and graphite were my only covering as I rose out of the water."
 
Two women, Margaret Hauser of Long Beach and Martha Stager of Portland, OR, were awarded prize money, despite not completing the race.  Only a mile from the finish line, Hauser was pulled from the water by her husband/trainer after 19 hours and 26 minutes, making her the contestant who lasted the longest.  When Wrigley heard the news, he said, "Shucks!  That’s too bad.  Give them each $2500 for their remarkable attempts."
 
Sadly, Young’s career fell apart soon after the race.  His manager turned down a $250,000 movie offer, believing he could get more money.  But there weren’t any other offers, and Young never again recaptured his glory he enjoyed as "The Catalina Kid."
 
Those interested in the endurance contests of the era may also enjoy Geoff Williams’s new book, C.C. Pyle’s Amazing Foot Race, which recounts the misadventures of the 199 men who ran from Los Angeles to New York City in 1928.

Cowboys and Indians

January 10, 1927
Unincorporated Los Angeles

Sheriff’s officers responded to a desperate cry of murder after a corpse was found by oil field workers digging ditches in Brea, but when they investigated they determined it was merely the aged skeleton of an Indian, disinterred from his ancient grave. The corpse was reburied without ceremony, and the diggers advised to avoid the spot in the future.

And in another Sheriff’s case with a fresher body, the peculiar suicide by gun of Charles Norton, shopkeeper at 1760 East Slauson, was explained away rather ingeniously. Why was the man found dead in his bed in the store’s back room, when his brother said he had no reason to do away with himself? Deputy Sheriff Hackett believes the cause was a nightmare, triggered by the story "Shooting Mad" in the Wild West-themed magazine lying beside the dead man. Hackett suggests Norton dozed off while reading, dreamed a gunman was in the room, reached under the pillow for his own weapon and inadvertently shot himself. Stranger things have happened in Los Angeles.

Cute Enough to Deserve Them

 gladys

January 6, 1927
Los Angeles

itsaCRAVINGGladys Nolan, 22, of 5510 Lexington Avenue, had a craving for fine clothes and expensive perfumes.  She needed them.  Yes, there’s a difference between needs and wants.  She NEEDED them.  

Gladys was no klepto.  She paid for the items, and not with money from the handbag of some white-glove spinster she’d clobbered and left twitching in her death throes down a urine-soaked alley.  Gladys paid for these things with all the nicety befitting a girl of refinement, trouble being, she paid for the lovely things with forged checks.

A $200 ($2,206 USD 2007) fur coat and $34 bottle of perfume, she picked up at I. Magnin’s; a check signed in a fictitious name at Maison Blanche allowed her a gown and hat totaling $110.  Some killjoy by the name of “Deputy District Attoney Frampton” got in a twist about this, convincing some other sourpuss called “Judge Ambrose” to hold her to answer in Superior Court and fix bail at $2000.

Gladys was given probation and told to keep her nose clean.  Which she almost did.

ohgladysnotagain

Whatever became of Gladys Nolan?  A lady whose refinement and obvious taste sadly outdistanced her pocketbook?  Guess we’ll never know.

November1939