Occupying a thoughtful place in my medley of childhood memories are hazy after-school days waiting for my mother to pick me up from the babysitter. I was an irrepressible kid, always looking for trouble, but late afternoons in California were ripe with engaging boob-tube content that would usually shut me up for hours at a time. Wedged between the Tom and Jerry Show and Emergency! was the Adventures of Superman, starring George Reeves. The image of Reeves as the beefy, indestructible man of steel was crystallized in my mind. George Reeves WAS Superman. Later in life, as I began looking into the man behind the man of steel, I found myself disheartened by the unsettled circumstances surrounding his death.
George Reeves was born George Keefer Brewer on January 5, 1914, to Don Brewer and Helen Lescher. Troubled by an unstable marriage, Helen took George and fled to Illinois shortly after his birth. He never saw his father again. The pair eventually ended up in California, where Helen married Frank Bessolo. Frank took kindly to George, assuming fatherly responsibilities for the boy, and George responded in kind by taking his last name. Familial bliss in the Bessolo household lasted roughly 15 years before things began to go south. While attempting to work on their fractured union, the couple thought it best to send young George away to visit relatives. But reconciliation was not to be, and George never saw Frank again. His mother later told him Frank had committed suicide.
Reeves kept his mind off the lack of harmony at home by focusing on acting and singing, which were quickly becoming his passion. He enthusiastically pursued performance throughout high school and college, eventually gaining admission to the celebrated Pasadena Playhouse. It was there he met and fell in love with Ellanora Needles. They eventually married, but divorced 10 years later. George was finally getting his foot in the door in Hollywood, securing bit parts in several films, most notably in 1939 as one of the Tarleton twins in Gone with the Wind. Just as he was hitting his stride and making a name for himself in Tinsletown, his acting career was unceremoniously put on hold in 1943 when he was drafted into the Army, where he stayed until the war’s end.
Out of the Army, divorced, and ready to make a name for himself in Hollywood, George met and began dating the older and very married Toni Mannix. Toni’s husband Eddie was head honcho at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which at the time was the largest and most revered film studio in Hollywood. Eddie Mannix was powerful, notoriously grouchy, and very connected with several undesirable characters in the California underworld. He had a mistress of his own, and didn’t seem to mind young George in Toni’s life. Indeed, the odd quartet could even be seen dining together at posh Hollywood restaurants. Eddie loved Toni, and despite their unorthodox relationship just wanted to keep her happy.
By those close to the couple, George’s sultry relations with Toni seemed to be contingent upon her well-connected social circle – in particular, her very formidable husband. Toni thought nothing of using Eddie’s money to spoil George. She began referring to Reeves as “the boy,” showering him with gifts of clothing and cars. But perhaps Toni’s most extravagant offering to the boy was a sweet pad in the desirable Benedict Canyon neighborhood high in the hills above Los Angeles. This modest home was 1579 Benedict Canyon Drive, Reeves final residence and the next stop on our dark tour of California.
The stars were aligned for George Reeves to land roles that would inevitably make him a star. With his chiseled jaw, perfect hair and athletic frame, he was the quintessential matinee idol. Coupled with the aforementioned Mannix connection and his impressive stage and screen background, George was one well-written script away from fame. Toni was madly in love with handsome George, and driven by her own insecurity, kept a careful eye on him. It soon became clear Toni wasn’t about to help George with his career. The big leading-man roles for MGM were not to be. Perhaps this was Toni’s way of keeping her grasp on George’s affection, as she certainly noticed the way he flirted with some of the younger starlets.
In June of 1951 George was offered the role of Superman for a prospective television series. Little did he know his performance would immortalize him as the man of steel, and make him famous beyond his wildest dreams. At the time, television was still frowned upon as a throwaway medium by the classically trained old Hollywood guard. Motion pictures were where you wanted to be. George pondered that the role could be potential career suicide, but he felt the need to branch out and make steady money independent of Toni, so he took the role.
The Adventures of Superman began in 1951 with Superman and the Mole Men. Ostensibly to be used as the pilot, or possible stand alone B-movie, Mole Men had a limited budget and shaky production. Season one filmed shortly after, and although big-money interest was tentative at first, ABC ultimately picked up the show in 1953. George Reeves was now a professional television actor, though somewhat begrudgingly. He was happy for the work, but viewed his Superman gig as decidedly lowbrow. He didn’t envision the role that would make him a big name would be performed in a cape and tights.
The early 1952-1954 episodes of The Adventures of Superman were violent and noir, and full of gangland crime, fisticuffs, and gunplay. Later, the series took on a more lighthearted tone, with the villains displaying an open buffoonery that appealed more to children, which was always the intended demographic.
With the success of Superman, Reeves soon realized he had become very famous, especially with children. He gave up smoking in public, and soon found himself inextricably tied to the heroic persona of the caped crusader. He eventually ceased public appearances in costume due to brazen physical challenges by surly teens. Small children could also be cruel. George often had to fend off rocks and plunder thrown his way to test his perceived superpowers.
Recipients of signed Superman memorabilia from George Reeves have noted that he never signed as Superman, but always as George Reeves. He never wanted to lose his identity in what he viewed as a temporary role on the way to his perceived station in life. Perhaps George was in denial, as he had already become synonymous with Superman. The association would follow George for the remainder of his days.
National Comics, in order to maximize exposure, sent George on cross-country promotional tours, with staged scenarios in front of whooping kiddies that demanded the immediate intervention of Superman. After the big rescue, George signed autographs and posed for photos before bidding farewell and moving on to the next stop of the tour.
In October of 1958, the sixth season of The Adventures of Superman was officially a wrap. George finished his obligations for the cross-country promotional tour in New York, a city he always loved. He needed to get away from Hollywood and what he saw as several wasted years of his life. He had been soundly typecast, and was beginning to wonder if there was life beyond Superman. After checking into the Gotham Hotel, George went out for drinks at the chic Toots Shores restaurant. It was there he met Leonore Lemmon.
Leonore Lemmon was a New York society girl, with wealthy parents and a stint living in London that gave her a worldly sophistication. George was immediately smitten with Leonore, impressed with her style and the elegant way she carried herself. She was cosmopolitan and hard, yet betrayed a smoldering vulnerability. She was also fifteen years younger than Toni. The couple started taking trips together, smiling away in photographs in Miami and Palm Beach. Soon, George declared he was in love with Leonore, and promptly nestled her into 1579 Benedict Canyon Drive.
When Toni Mannix caught wind of the romance, she was livid. How dare George move this trollop into the house she provided out of the goodness of her heart? Incensed with jealousy and rage, she began to obsessively drive by the house and repeatedly call at all hours. George tried to lay low, hoping things would eventually simmer down. He reluctantly took the phone off the hook, which could be a risky move for an ambitious actor anticipating word of that elusive starring role.
Eddie Mannix, watching this torrid episode unfold from afar, was dismayed to see his wife crushed. Though they both had extramarital affairs, Toni and Eddie remained close. He was adamant about always taking care of her. He wondered what George was thinking, deliberately hurting her like this.
On June 15 1959, George and Leonore hosted a small party at the Benedict Canyon house. These boozy get-togethers had become a regular thing once Leonore entered the picture. George’s tolerance for alcohol was legendary, but not everyone could put away hooch like Superman, so these functions often wound up with everyone involved passed out drunk. In attendance that night were screenwriter Rip Von Ronkel and his wife, Carol, and Richard Condon, a friend who had been staying with George. After a few minutes of drinks and conversation, George and Leonore excused themselves from the party and headed off to dinner at Scandia, a well-known, exclusive eatery on Sunset Boulevard.
The couple had much to discuss. George had recently proposed to Leonore, and they were planning on tying the knot in Spain the following week. On this particular night, however, the lovebirds were apparently unable to agree on anything, and left the restaurant after a heated squabble.
George and Leonore returned to Benedict Canyon to find that his guests were still there working on George’s fully stocked bar. After a few minutes of conversation, George and Leonore excused themselves and went upstairs to bed.
Whatever activities Leonore had planned with George when she went upstairs – sex or sleep – neither were going to take place that night. After a few minutes, she dejectedly came back downstairs to hang out with her impaired guests.
Since George and Leonore had established themselves as party hosts, they would often leave the front light on as a beacon to friends that they were awake and ready to receive guests. William Bliss, a loose acquaintance of George, happened to be in the neighborhood that night. He took the bait and was soon in the living room slurping booze.
George, trying to get some damn sleep, came downstairs briefly to complain about the noise, then stomped back up to his room. Fearing he might have been rude to his houseguests, he returned downstairs minutes later to apologize. He had a quick drink then headed back up to bed. In perhaps a cruel display of candor, Leonore oddly quipped that George was headed upstairs to kill himself. Moments later, a shot rang out. William Bliss went up to George’s bedroom to find the actors nude body covered in blood, with a gun on the floor beneath his feet. Almost an hour later, those assembled at the death scene called the police.
This is where things begin to get sketchy, as the apparent suicide of George Reeves gets sucked into a black hole of hearsay, conjecture and conspiracy theories. Circumstantial evidence points to a few possible scenarios.
The most probable conclusion to this tragic tale is that George Reeves shot himself. He was feeling all of his 45 years lately, with no real career prospects aside from another season in tights. Reeves allegedly confided in Leonore that he was not feeling particularly optimistic about his future. He was prone to depression, often self-medicating with alcohol. Pain pills had recently been added to mix, which can be a deadly combination. There was also a history of suicide in his family, which statistically increased the probability that George killed himself.
The Los Angeles County Coroner determined that suicide was in fact the cause of death, and after a hasty investigation, closed the case.
Helen Bessolo smelled a rat, and wanted a full investigation into the murder of her son. Her inquiries turned up a few interesting possibilities. Indeed, the ongoing fascination with the death of George Reeves has continued to this day, partially due to the diligence of Helen and the investigators she employed. The evidence that George Reeves was murdered is entirely circumstantial, but compelling.
Here are a couple of murder theories:
Toni and Eddie Mannix had George killed: George was being stalked and harassed by Toni after the break-up in ways that would have landed her in jail in the 21st Century. Shortly before George died, he was in an automobile accident, which resulted in a concussion and a nasty gash on his head. This injury necessitated the prescription for pain pills that were part of the toxic cocktail found in his bloodstream at the time of death. A few days after the accident, a mechanic discovered that his brake fluid had been deliberately drained. Let’s not forget that Eddie Mannix was a powerful player in Hollywood, with a crew of vicious friends and associates tied to organized crime. On the night of George’s death an assassin could have been hired to lie in wait until George settled into bed, or snuck in the back door unbeknownst to George and his inebriated guests. Then, used George’s own gun to do the deed.
Another theory is that Leonore Lemmon killed George.
Apparently, George had told Leonore that he had changed his will, and she was now the sole beneficiary of his estate. This was not completely true. George was going to revise the will after the wedding, but didn’t live long enough to do so. According to friends, George and Leonore hadn’t been getting along, and the wedding plans were said to be seriously stressing George out. Could Leonore have shot George while a group of drunken guests reveled downstairs? After all, it did take them almost an hour to call the cops. Was this to allow time to get their stories straight? Also, Leonore suspiciously returned to the house after it had been sealed off as a crime scene and swiped a few thousand dollars in traveler’s checks, which were going to be used for the wedding. She later returned part of the money, but would a grieving bride-to-be have the malicious forethought to steal wedding funds from her dead fiancé?
As I sat in my car across the street from 1579 Benedict Canyon Drive, I soaked in the odd vibe of the neighborhood. There is a dark history here. It’s only a short distance from the location where on that fateful night in 1969 Sharon Tate and her friends were killed by a tweaking Tex Watson and Susan Atkins under the supposed spell of Charles Manson. As the sun sets and is obscured by the twisting hills above Hollywood, you can almost feel the bad energy. The Reeves house itself is modest, but peaceful. It’s surrounded by trees, looking very much the same as it did in 1959. It was here that one of my childhood heroes, Superman, unsure of his future, went upstairs to bed and never returned.
Grossman, Gary Superman: Serial To Cereal
Popular Library Edition
Kashner, Sam, Schoenberger, Nancy Hollywood Kryptonite: The Bulldog, The Lady, And The Death Of Superman
St. Martin’s Press
Henderson, Jan Alan Speeding Bullet: The Life And Bizarre Death Of George Reeves
(2007) Second Edition
Wood, Gaby Who Killed Superman? The Sinister True Story Behind The Death Of George Reeves
March 16, 2016 The Telegraph UK
www.straightdope.com Was Superman star George Reeves a suicide – or murder victim?
Rubio, J’aime Hollywoodland Forever Interesting Twist – Toni Mannix Wasn’t Married When She Dated Superman!
March 27, 2013
Copyright 2013 – published by Dreaming Casually Publications