1959: Los Angeles police arrive at the home of 45-year-old actor George Reeves, famous for his role as TV’s Superman, and find him naked and dead of a gunshot wound to the head. Ruled as a suicide, Reeves’ death inspires a series of conspiracy theories and the interpretive biopic Hollywoodland, as well as a persistent urban legend, itself famously known as the Superman curse.
Reeves’ life was dogged by bad luck. Born in Iowa as George Keefer Brewer in 1914 to Don Brewer and Helen Lescher, his parents separated soon after his birth and he never saw his biological father again. Lescher then married Frank Bessolo, who adopted George as his own son.
When that marriage ended in divorce 15 years later, Lescher told George that Bessolo had committed suicide. It wasn’t until years later that he found out that not only was his father alive but, in fact, was not his biological father.
After spending his youth acting, singing and boxing in Pasadena, California, where he met his first wife, Ellanora Needles, George got his start in film playing a suitor in Victor Fleming’s decorated 1939 epic, Gone With the Wind — where he officially became known as George Reeves. But his cinema career never really took flight into the A-list.
After starring in a parade of two-reelers, B-films and Hopalong Cassidy westerns for Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox and others, Reeves was drafted into the military 17 months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, which further stalled his film career.
Some hope glimmered when he landed a part in the war drama So Proudly We Hail! in 1943. Director Mark Sandrich promised to make him a star, but Sandrich died shortly after of heart failure.
When Reeves became the Man of Steel in 1951, television was in its infancy and regarded as cinema’s red-headed stepchild. But as a real stepchild who played a redhead in Gone With the Wind, Reeves — like television itself — was about to take off.
The reality behind the scenes was that he worked for meager pay under punitive contracts that forbade him from acting in other series or films. Although he became a national celebrity due to his role in the film Superman and the Mole Men and the popular television series Adventures of Superman, he was still a B-lister in the glitzy clique of Hollywood.
The situation worsened when Reeves divorced Needles and became entangled in an affair with ex-Ziegfield Follies showgirl Toni Mannix, wife of MGM general manager Eddie Mannix. (Mannix, according to gossip of the period, was reputed to have underworld connections, and was accused of murdering his first wife Bernice Fitzmaurice and implicated in the cover-up of the salacious suicide of MGM’s Paul Bern.)
While Reeves’ several years with Mannix were productive in terms of playing* Superman*, he had now become so identified with the character that he was typecast and effectively straitjacketed by it. The result was a slow trickle of non-Superman work, including an appearance in Fritz Lang’s The Blue Gardenia, Fred Zinneman’s war epic, From Here to Eternity, Disney’s Westward Ho the Wagons … and not much else.
As the ’50s came to a close, he was culturally popular on the outside and artistically miserable on the inside.
In 1958, Reeves called off the long-running affair with Mannix and became engaged to Leonore Lemmon, the high-society daughter of a successful Broadway ticket broker. She was also the ex-wife of Jacob Webb (a loaded descendant of Cornelius Vanderbilt who faced bigamy charges after marrying someone else while married to Lemmon) and of musician Hamish Menzies. Evidently, the drama became too much for Reeves, who committed suicide three days before their scheduled wedding, and left his estate, what there was of it, to Mannix.
Although alternative theories persist over Reeves’ suicide, ably explained in the 2006 film Hollywoodland, the passage of time has told the tale of an ultimately frustrated artist locked in a spiral of bad luck and disastrous relationships. On the night he took his life, Lemmon and Reeves drank heavily and fought openly in front of William Bliss, writer Robert Condon and Carol Van Ronkel, who were all present at the scene.
Lemmon admitted to the LAPD that when Reeves marched upstairs after their fight, she delivered the flippant remark, “Oh, he’ll probably go shoot himself now.”
Lemmon’s wisecrack implies that Reeves perhaps could have delivered such a warning before, contradicting claims that he was never the type to commit suicide. But questions persist, in part because shell casings were found in strange places, Reeves’ body was bruised, bullet holes were found in the floor, and those present at the scene waited 45 minutes to call the LAPD.
The intrigue surrounding Reeves death, one of many strange Hollywood mysteries capably retold in Kenneth Anger’s classic Hollywood Babylon, summarily birthed the infamous Superman curse, an urban legend that claims the popular DC Comics’ character was also responsible for everything from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to the demise of a later movie Superman, Christopher Reeve, and his wife, Dana.
It makes for a good story, but truth is always stranger than fiction. And the truth, more and more, seems to be that Superman was not as fast as a speeding bullet. In fact, it seems that Superman, in the final analysis, was the bullet that killed George Reeves.
Fade to black.
This article appeared at WIRED
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