THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN
The Unsolved Death and Mysterious Afterlife of Television's "Superman"... George Reeves!
Superman died at 1:59 am on June 16, 1959. Not the comic book character, of course, but the man who personified the "real" Superman for an entire generation of television fans. George Reeves, it was discovered, was not faster than a speeding bullet after all. Even though the initial coroner’s report listed Reeves’ death as an "indicated suicide", after more than four decades there are many who do not believe that he killed himself.
The death of Superman remains an unsolved mystery. Could this be why his ghost is still said to haunt his former Benedict Canyon Drive home?
George Reeves grew up as George Besselo. His mother, Helen, became pregnant in her hometown of Galesburg, Illinois, eloped and then moved to Iowa. Shortly after settling in, she divorced her husband, took baby George and moved to Pasadena, California. It would not be until George joined the Army during World War II that he would discover a number of parts of his life that his mother had hidden from him. She had concealed his true birth date, the identity of his father and the fact that his stepfather had committed suicide eight years after Helen divorced him. This so disturbed Reeves that he didn’t speak to her through most of the 1940’s.
Growing up, Reeves was an accomplished athlete and in 1932, he entered the Golden Globes Boxing competition against his mother’s wishes. He did well in the competition and went to the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1932. After having his nose broken nine times as a boxer, he hung up his gloves and decided to try his hand at an acting career.
In spite of his time in the ring and rugged good looks, Reeves was not a tough guy. In fact, one writer, James Beaver, discovered that Reeves was a "totally decent person. I honestly never spoke to anyone who didn’t like him a lot". He began to take acting lessons at the Pasadena Playhouse, where he met his first and only wife, Eleanora Needles. They married in 1940 and divorced nine years later.
Like most struggling performers, Reeves took a number of small parts. In his very first film, he played a minor role as one of the red-headed twins enamored with Scarlett O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND. His other screen credits included SO PROUDLY WE HAIL, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, BLOOD AND SAND and SAMSON AND DELILAH with Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr. But of course, Reeves’ claim to fame came when he was selected to play the mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, who was really Superman. His portrayal of the character on television became wildly popular and everywhere he went, children (and adults) clamored to meet him and obtain his autograph.
Reeves loved the public and it was said that he loved the ladies as well. Many who were close to Reeves say that he was a womanizer, breaking the hearts of many of the actresses that he worked with. Rumor also had it that he became involved with a number of prominent married women like the wives of film executives and other actors. It is believed that one of these affairs may have led to his death!
In the three months before his death, Reeves was involved in three mysterious automobile mishaps that almost killed him. The first time, his car was nearly crushed by two trucks on the freeway. Another time, a speeding car nearly killed him, but he survived thanks to his quick, athletic reflexes. The third time, Reeves’ brakes failed on a narrow, twisting road. All of the brake fluid, it was discovered, was gone from the hydraulic system, in spite of the fact that an examination by a mechanic found the system was in perfect working order.
"When the mechanic suggested that someone had pumped out the fluid, George dismissed the notion," said Arthur Weissman, Reeves’ best friend and business manager. Weissman always remained convinced that his friend had been murdered. He tried to convince Reeves that he needed to be careful but Reeves brushed off the warnings.
About a month later, he began to receive death threats on his unlisted telephone line. Most of them came late at night and there were sometimes 20 or more each day. Often, whoever was calling would simply hang up when he answered. They said nothing, but after a few graphic and detailed threats followed, Reeves knew it was the same person. Nervous after the near-misses in his car, Reeves filed a report with the Beverly Hills Police Department and a complaint with the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office. He even went so far as to suggest a suspect, a woman named Toni Mannix.
It was never explained why Reeves openly pointed the finger at Toni. The Hollywood gossip columnists had linked the two romantically for some time, but their relationship was never a public one. They were a secret couple, as Reeves was engaged to Lenore Lemmon and Toni was married to a man named Eddie Mannix, the vice president of Loew’s Theatres, Inc. and a former studio executive at MGM. According to Reeves’ friend Arthur Weissman, it was no secret that Eddie Mannix was disliked by everyone and was an uncouth and despicable man. He also believed that Mannix was responsible for the threats and attempts on Reeves’ life.
The D.A.’s office investigated Reeves’ complaint and it was soon discovered that both Toni and George were receiving telephone threats and crank calls. When that was disclosed, many people assumed that it was Eddie Mannix who had instigated the calls through employees or hired thuds.
Weissman believed that Mannix was behind Reeve’s near-fatal auto crashes as well. In the film and theater business, Mannix had access to a lot of people outside of the general public. For a price, these men could maneuver two trucks close together on the highway, or could drain the brake fluid from someone’s car. Furthermore, he was sure that Mannix also had access to someone who could arrange a murder too!
In spite of these personal crises, Reeves was on a professional high. He was not in any way despondent and in fact, had much to live for. Things were certainly going his way and offerings were pouring in to cash in on his Superman celebrity status. Just three days after his death, he was to have returned to the boxing ring with light heavyweight champion, Archie Moore. The exhibition match was to be played on television so that viewers across the country could tune in to see Superman beat the champ! Reeves told reporters that the "Archie Moore fight will be the highlight of my life".
After the fight, he was going to marry his fiancée, Lenore Lemmon, an attractive brunette and former New York socialite. They were to honeymoon in Spain and then go to Australia for six weeks, where Reeves would pick up over $20,000 for public appearances as Superman. The series had just been sold to an Australian television network and local viewers were demanding to meet the "man of steel".
Reeves then planned to return to Hollywood later in the year and star in a feature film that he would direct. He was then scheduled to shoot more episodes of Superman for syndication and with a hefty salary increase. This was not the sort of future that would cause a man to commit suicide. It could even be said that George Reeves had everything to live for.
But it all came to an end on June 16. Around 6:30 that evening, dinner was served at the Benedict Canyon home. Lenore Lemmon had prepared it for Reeves and guest Robert Condon, a writer who was there to do an article on Reeves and the upcoming exhibition with Archie Moore. After dinner, they settled down in the living room to watch television. About midnight, everyone went to bed.
Around 1:00 or 1:30 am, a friend of Lenore and Reeves, Carol Von Ronkel, came by the house with another friend, William Bliss. Even though the house was the frequent site of parties and entertaining, Reeves had an unspoken rule that he did not want guests after midnight. However, Von Ronkel and Bliss banged on the door until Lenore got up and let them in. George also got up and came downstairs in his bathrobe. He yelled at them for showing up so late at night.
Lenore calmed him down and a few minutes later, he poured a nightcap and then went back upstairs to his room. At that point, the other witnesses present stated that Lenore said something like, "well, he’s sulking... he’ll probably go up to his room and shoot himself!"
Moments later, a shot rang out in the quiet of the house! George Reeves, television’s Superman, was dead.
The Beverly Hills Police report of the incident states that while entertaining his fiancee and three others in his home, Reeves suddenly, and without explanation, left the room and impulsively committed suicide. He went up to his bedroom, they said, placed a pistol in his right ear and pulled the trigger.
Even though he believed his friend was murdered, Arthur Weissman surprisingly did not dispute this sequence of events. He said that this was just how it happened but that Reeves did not intend to kill himself! He explained that Reeves was just playing his favorite game (although a morbid one, in my opinion), a practical joke he enjoyed with a gun that was loaded with a blank. According to Weissman, that was why Lenore said what she did. All of Reeves’ friends knew that when he was drinking, he would sometimes fire a blank at his head in a mock suicide attempt, making certain that his arm was far enough away so that he didn’t get powder burns on his face!
Weissman claimed that, unknown to Reeves, the blank was replaced with a real bullet by someone hired by Eddie Mannix.
Reeves’ clandestine girlfriend, Toni Mannix, was an actress and former model who was 25 years younger than her powerful husband. She was also madly in love with Reeves and according to Weissman, their relationship was an open Hollywood secret. It continued for years and then came to an end when George announced that he was marrying Lenore Lemmon. Friends said that Toni was "enraged" over this new development and began bombarding Reeves with phone calls, making all sorts of threats. It was believed that both she and her husband, who was openly humiliated by Reeves over the affair, both had the perfect opportunity to seek revenge, especially since Toni possessed a key to the Reeves house.
Many were unhappy with the findings of "indicated suicide", including Reeves’ mother, Helen Besselo. She retained the Nick Harris Detectives of Los Angeles to look into the case. At that time, a man named Milo Speriglio was a novice investigator at the firm and played a small role in the investigation. "Nearly everyone in Hollywood has always been led to believe that George Reeves’ death was a suicide," he said in a later interview. "Not everyone believed it then, nor do they believe it now. I am one of those who does not." And neither did Helen Besselo. She went to her grave in 1964 convinced that her son was murdered.
The Nick Harris Agency, which had been founded in Los Angeles before the FBI was even in existence, quickly came to believe that Reeves death had been a homicide. Even based on the fact that many of the witnesses that night were intoxicated and incoherent, the detectives felt that they could rule out suicide. Unfortunately though, the Beverly Hills Police investigators chose to ignore their findings. A review of the facts seems to indicate the agency’s suspicions were well-founded.
To make matters more confusing, the detectives even managed to rule out Reeves’ macabre "suicide game" as the cause of his death. The agency operatives believed that someone else was in the house at the time!
For one thing, the absence of powder burns on Reeves’ face shows that he did not hold the gun to his head, as the police report stated. For the weapon to have not left any facial burns, it had to have been at least a foot-and-a-half away from Reeves’ head, which is totally impractical in a suicide attempt. In addition, Reeves was discovered after his death, lying on his back. The single shell was found under his body. According to experts, self-inflicted gunshot wounds usually propel the victim forward and away from the expended bullet casing.
Detective Speriglio made a careful examination of the police report and noticed that the bullet wound was described as "irregular". So, the agency reconstructed the bullet entry and exit. The slug had exited Reeves’ head and was found lodged in the ceiling. His head, at the moment of death, would have had to have been twisted, making a self-inflicted shot improbable. Speriglio suspected that an intruder had entered Reeves’ room and that the actor had found his gun. A struggle had followed and Reeves was shot. The intruder then escaped from the house unnoticed.
While interesting, this theory does not explain why the gun (normally loaded with blanks) had a bullet in it and how the intruder escaped from the house with other people inside.
Regardless, there is another discrepancy with the police report. It stated that Reeves had pulled the trigger of the gun with his right hand. Prior to his death, Reeves had been in a terrible auto accident. His Jaguar had hit an oil slick in the Hollywood Hills and had crashed into a brick wall. Reeves later filed a personal injury claim in Los Angeles Superior Court asking for a half-million dollars in damages... because his right hand was disabled!
But just how disabled was it? If Reeves could fight Archie Moore in an exhibition match, then surely he could have pulled the trigger on a pistol.
Regardless of whether or not he killed himself, it was obvious that Reeves’ death was never properly investigated. Police investigators never even bothered to take fingerprints at the scene and people like Arthur Weissman believed that they were pressured to make it an "open and shut" case. George Reeves, according to the official findings, had committed suicide. But did he really?
We will never know for sure. In 1961, Reeves’ body was exhumed and cremated, forever destroying whatever evidence was left behind. The death of George Reeves will always remain another unsolved Hollywood mystery.
Could this be why ghostly phenomena has been reported at the former Reeves house ever since? Many believe that the ghostly appearances by the actor lend credence to the idea that he was murdered. Over the years, occupants of the house have been plagued by not only the sound of a single gunshot that echoes in the darkness, but strange lights and even the apparition of George Reeves!
After Reeves’ death, realtors attempted to sell the house to settle the actor’s estate. Unfortunately though, they had trouble. Occupants would not stay long because they would report inexplicable noises in the upstairs bedroom where George had been killed. When they would go to investigate the sounds, they would find the room was not as they had left it. Often, the bedding would be torn off, clothing would be strewn about and some reported the ominous odor of gunpowder in the air. One tenant also reported that his German Shepherd would stand in the doorway of the room and would bark furiously as though he could see something his owner’s could not. There is also documentation of an extraordinary occurrence when two Los Angeles sheriffs were assigned to watch the house after neighbors reported hearing screams, gunshots, and lights going on and off during the night.
New occupants moved out quickly, becoming completely unnerved after encountering Reeves’ ghost, decked out in his Superman costume! The first couple who spotted him were not the first, nor the last, to see him either. Many later residents saw him too and one couple became so frightened that they moved out of the house the same night. Later, the ghost was even reported on the front lawn by neighboring residents.
In the 1980’s, while the house was being used as a set for a television show, the ghost made another startling appearance. He was seen by several of the actors and crew members before abruptly vanishing... creating yet another mystery in this strange and convoluted case!
Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger (1975)
Haunted Places: The National Directory by Dennis William Hauck (1996)
Hollywood Unsolved Mysteries by John Austin (1970)
Hollywood Haunted by Laurie Jacobson (1994)
Haunted Houses of California by Antoinette May (1990)
The Hollywood Murder Case Book by Michael Munn (1987)
Ghost Stories of Hollywood by Barbara Smith (2000)
© Copyright 2001 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.