The mysterious death of Superman George Reeves

George Reeves, the American Superman of the 1950s (NL)

 

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It wasn’t Kryptonite that killed Superman. It was a bullet to the head.

Two Los Angeles police officers arrived at 1579 Benedict Canyon after at almost 3 a.m., June 16, 1959. It was the two story house owned by Toni Mannix, the woman that big-time mobster Mickey Cohen called “the only person in Hollywood who had any balls.” She was also the wife of the one-and-only Eddie “The Bulldog” Mannix, the vice-president and general manager of MGM. Eddie had been accused of staging the murder of his first wife Beatrice. She died in 1937 in what many believe was a “make believe” high speed car crash. The incident also raised questions because mobster Al Wertheimer was involved in the accident.

Eddie Mannix first noticed Toni in New York when she was a in a line-up of Ziegfeld showgirls. Her arrogant and lavish mannerisms were attractive. They married in the late 1940s while Eddie was one of two “fixers” at MGM. Howard Strickling took care of studio publicity, while Eddie provided the muscle. Strickling handled the press. Eddie handled the police. Their responsibilities included duties like cleaning up corpses, paying off politicians and law enforcement, buying prostitutes, fixing tickets and hiding illegitimate children.

“I spent my whole life inventing cover-ups,” Strickling said. “Eddie did the covering up.”

Toni Mannix, Eddie Mannix, George Reeves, Lenore Lemmon

By 1959, Eddie had experienced several heart attacks and was confined to a wheelchair.

When the police officers were greeted by several drunken guests downstairs. One of the visitors was the beautiful Leonare Lemmon. She explained this was her boyfriend’s home and that she knew he was going to kill himself because when he came down earlier to greet her partying friends, he had been in a bad mood. He was now dead upstairs.

“If you thought he was going to kill himself,” on officer asked. “Why didn’t you try to stop him?”

She denied she didn’t really say that he was going to kill himself.  But she had a feeling he was going to use his gun. They walked up the steps and approached the bedroom. The nude body of a muscular six-foot-two-inch 45-year-old man lay on the bed. His blood gushed through the sheets beneath him like a flowing red cape.

A Lugar lay between his feet, which remained on the floor, as if he’d been sitting on the edge of the bed before falling backward. He’d been shot through the head. The bullet that passed through his brain blasted a hole in the ceiling above and left a casing under his back.

Upon closer examination, the two officers looked at each immediately after recognizing the man. It was Superman. George Reeves played the role of the world’s most famous TV and comic book superhero from 1952 until the previous year.

There were no powder marks or burns from the gun’s discharge found on Reeves’ head wound. These marks are usually present with a suicide. The bullet that killed Reeves was recovered from the bedroom ceiling. The police determined that there was no sign of forced entry. They also found  two additional bullet holes in the bedroom floor, but they were discovered at a later date. They had been covered over with a rug on the night of Reeves’ death, a rug that friend Gene LeBell claims did not belong there. A further examination revealed that the same Luger automatic that killed Reeves had fired these two other bullets too. Lemmon told police that she had been “fooling around” with the gun at an earlier time.

After talking with everyone in the house, the police established the death as a suicide. No fingerprints were taken. No one, including the body, was checked for gun residue. They didn’t even consider trying to determine if it was even physically possible for Reeves to have killed himself.

George Reeves and Phyllis Coates as Superman and Lois Lane (1950s TV)

The police discovered the home was not Reeve’s, but was owned by Toni Mannix, Eddie’s wife. They also learned that Toni had called Phyllis Coates, the actress who played Lois Lane on the “Adventures of Superman” TV program. Toni, in hysterics, told her Reeves had been killed. Even more suspicious was that the gun found at the feet of Reeves was registered to her husband, Eddie Mannix.

It was common knowledge to many that George Reeves and Toni Mannix had been lovers for about seven years. Prior to George leaving to go on tour for Superman, Toni had wanted to build a house further up in the canyon. George liked the idea only if she would leave her husband Eddie and marry him. Toni refused, citing that Eddie was in poor health and did not have much time to live. George decided it was time to move on.

Although production had ceased on the Superman television series on November 9, 1957, due to its popularity the producers had decided to shoot another two seasons worth of shows for release in 1960. Reeves had agreed to return and was given a substantial pay raise.

Reeves met Lenore Lemmon at Toot’s Shores restaurant in New York City somewhere in the vicinity of September 1958. Eventually, the two met up again in Florida while he was on another publicity tour for the Superman TV series. In 1959, by the time Reeves came back to California from a New York trip with Lemmon, Toni was out of the picture. In fact, Reeves and Lemmon were scheduled to elope to get married in Spain just three days before his death.

Reeves had been married to Ellanora (Robinson Needles) Rose, a Cincinnati woman who had come to California to be a star. She met Reeves and married him in 1940, a year after Reeves had starred as Stuart Tarleton in Gone With the Wind. Reeves and Ellanora were married for nine years.

Not long after Reeves brought Lemmon back from New York, he started getting up to twenty silent phone in the early hours each night and during the day. Toni began stalking and keeping surveillance of the house. Reeve’s dog suddenly disappeared. While Reeves was planning a marriage to Lemmon, Toni continued to pay for his restaurant and liquor store bills. Practically everything Reeves had–house, car, gun, alcohol, and food– belonged to Toni, and everything Toni owned was paid for with Eddie’s money. She would often say that Reeves “was like a son to Mr. Mannix and me”.

In the following months, Reeves had two minor car accidents and one major one, which led the mechanic who looked at his car to conclude that “somebody wanted him dead.”

Reeves was scheduled to go on tour dressed as Superman and box former light-heavyweight champ Archie Moore in an exhibition match. Reeves, who had aspired to become a boxer in his youth, was excited about the match. “The Archie Moore fight will be the highlight of my life,” Reeves told reporters. “Immediately after the fight I will be married to the most wonderful girl in the world. We’ll fly to Spain, then Australia for six weeks.”

Benedict Canyon home of George Reeves (NL)

Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olsen in the Superman series, accompanied Toni to Reeves’ home a few days after his death, where she nailed prayer cards over the bullet holes in Reeves’ bedroom floor.

Years later, a journalist called Toni to inform he was writing about the death of George Reeves. She immediately phoned Howard Strickling in a panic. He drove over with his former colleague Samuel Marx, a retired screenwriter he’d asked to ghostwrite his memoirs. Strickling explained to Marx what the trouble was.

“Well, Eddie did do it of course,” Strickling said. Marx pointed out that Strickling would have to decide how much of that kind of thing he wanted to reveal in the book. Strickling’s memoirs were never published.

Helen Bessolo, Reeve’s mother, thought the case should be treated as murder. She hired Jerry Giesler, Hollywood’s most colorful and successful lawyer, to plea with Los Angeles Police Department. A second autopsy noted bruises were found on Reeves’s head and body. But no one on the police force pursued this new evidence. Some say Giesler back down and dropped out of the investigation after being ‘leaned on’ by Strickling or the Mob.

Bessolo ultimately had her son cremated. Lenore took the $5000 in travelers checks originally intended for her and George’s honeymoon. Lenore returned to the house with Gwen Dailey and they broke the police seal to get in. She claimed that she went in for the lunchmeat and a cat. This is most likely when she took the money. After the press reported that the traveler’s checks were missing, Lenore turned them over to her attorney Leon Kaplan, who then turned them over to Reeves’ estate. However, only $4,000 in traveler’s checks were returned, which leads many to believe that Lenore kept $1,000 for herself. Leonore Lemmon went back to New York and never returned.

Toni Mannix was put under heavy sedation. When Reeves’s will was made public, she appeared as its sole beneficiary. Husband Eddie died four years later. Toni spent the rest of her life alone, occasionally inviting people to her house to watch reruns of Superman.

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