Vintage Noir: The Tragedy at Greystone

May 16, 2013 - by Benjamin Welton - 0 Comments

With good reason, conspiracy theories abound about the shooting deaths of oil scion Ned Doheny and his companion/secretary Hugh Plunkett at the fortress-like mansion Greystone in Los Angeles.

by Benjamin Welton

On the night of February 17, 1929, two would-be writers converged together in order to make history in Los Angeles, America’s fabled land of never-ending sunshine and raw economic opportunity. These two men—Leslie White and Raymond Chandler—did not knew each other that night, nor were they writers yet. They would learn and apply that craft in the 1930s in the various pulp magazines of the day, with White taking the lead while Chandler was busy drinking himself out of a job at the Dabney Oil Syndicate. The hardboiled and cynical worldview that these men shared captured the zeitgeist of the Depression, but the seeds of this bitter harvest were planted in the late 1920s, right before America’s decade-long party came crashing down. In the era before James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, the seedy world of Southern California was rife with corruption and an almost expressionist tapestry of nihilist violence and amorality.

In the same way that the double murder that occurred on February 17, 1929 foreshadowed darker things to come (at least in the literary world), the events of that night were partially based on an even greater scandal of that age. President Warren Harding, America’s 29th commander-in-chief, is often placed near the cellar of the historical rankings of U.S. Presidents, and much (if not all) of that is due to the Teapot Dome Scandal that consumed his entire administration, even after his sudden death in San Francisco in 1923 (which is another crime for another day). Between the years of 1920 and 1923, President Harding’s Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall took and pocketed bribes in order to lease U.S. Navy petroleum reserves (which were then primarily located at Teapot Dome, Wyoming, as well as California) to private oil companies.

Teapot Dome Scandal

Albert Fall had come to politics the hard way. Although born in Kentucky, Fall was a Western man through and through. Besides representing New Mexico as a Republican in the U.S. Senate, Fall had made a killing in Kingston, Arizona, along with the killing of many men, which he boasted about to any available ear. As a lawyer in Santa Fe, Fall, along with other prosperous men in Santa Fe, helped to order the assassination of Pat Garrett, the legendary lawman who had made his name known through his killing of Billy the Kid. Fall was a Horatio Alger-like up-from-the-bottom type, yet instead of feisty pluck, he was full of hard, brutal power lust. Unfortunately for him, he was not as successful once he was in power. Fall lived large and spent freely, causing him to sink into a mire of debt by the early 1920s. When he took office in 1921, Fall hatched a plan to relieve himself of his debt burden.

Fall called upon his Kingston friend and former business partner Edward L. Doheny, one of the country’s wealthiest men and a Southern California oilman who could honestly brag that he owned whole swaths of Mexico. Indeed, in 1910, when the Mexican Revolution began, Doheny financed a private army to protect his wells in Mexico: Cassiano 6 & 7 and Cerro Azul 4. Along with this, Doheny used his substantial influence in Washington to try and place the policies of the U.S. government in step with his own. Some at the time even believed that Doheny was behind the many assassinations of the war, with Mexico President Venustiano Carranaza included. Doheny served as an easy model of vampiric capitalism in such novels as Upton Sinclair’s Oil! and B. Traven’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre.

Fall arranged for Doheny to take charge of the Elk Hills lease (worth somewhere near $100 million) in exchange for building oil storage facilities at the U.S. Navy’s Pearl Harbor base in Hawaii. Doheny agreed, and on November 30, 1921, he sent his son, 28-year-old Edward (Ned) L. Doheny Jr. on a train to Washington with $100,000 in a black satchel. In a room at the Waldman Park Hotel, Ned Doheny, who was accompanied by his personal secretary Hugh Plunkett, presented the $100,000 in five $20,000 bundles to Albert Fall.

Unbeknownst to the Doheny family, Fall had recently made the same deal with Harry Sinclair, another oilman who had also acquired for himself a government lease, this one at Teapot Dome. Fall, who was now $140,000 wealthier, paid off his taxes and made improvements to his New Mexico property. This sudden windfall caught the attention of Iowa lawyer and journalist Carl Magee, who eventually uncovered the whole plot for the American public, leading to the convictions of  Fall and Sinclair on the respective charges of bribery and contempt of court. It was the fiasco surrounding Fall, Sinclair, and Doheny that caused the doomed Harding to comment: “I can take care of my enemies; it’s my friends who are causing me trouble.”

Murder at Greystone Mansion

Thus, by the time that the bodies of Ned Doheny and Hugh Plunkett were discovered at the opulent Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, scandal was treated just like another appendage of the Doheny body politic.

Leslie White, who was then an investigator with the Los Angeles D.A.’s office, received a call at 2 a.m. from Lucien Wheeler, the former Secret Service agent in charge of the D.A.’s investigative unit. Wheeler informed White that young Doheny had been murdered and that he was needed at Gresytone right away.

Greystone, which occupied over 46,000 square feet of Los Angeles real estate, looked very much to White like a European fortress, a wall keeping outsiders on the periphery. When it was fully completed in 1928, it had cost somewhere between $3 and $5 million. The elder Doheny had spared no expense, even going so far as to keep full-time security guards in guardhouses scattered throughout the property. The then oilman Raymond Chandler was fascinated by the Dohneys and their unimaginable wealth, and it’s not hard to discern Greystone hiding behind fictional façades such as the Sternwood mansion in The Big Sleep (itself built upon the Sternwood family’s oil money) and the Grayle residence in Farewell, My Lovely. But, on that rainy night in February 1929, the real inspiration for White and Chandler was inside of the Doheny castle.

White, Wheeler, and the rest of the investigative staff found two corpses in young Doheny’s plush bedroom. Doheny had died in his underwear and silk bathrobe with a hole in his skull. He was found dead on his back, with blood crisscrossed in an abstract pattern on his face. Plunkett was found spread-eagle on his stomach. A large pool of blood was trapped under his face, caused by a yet another hole in the head. Plunkett’s brains had splattered on the wall, and his falling corpse had disheveled the rug underneath him. Interestingly, the fingers of his left hand had been burned by an unfinished cigarette still trapped within his fingers.

White soon located the bullet that had caused Ned Doheny’s demise. After prying it from a wall, White marked its height, which was six feet. He then placed the killer bullet in an envelope. Then, after taking the mandatory fingerprints off of both men, he found a gun—a Bisley .45 Colt Revolver—under Plunkett’s body. White’s crime scene photographs not only show the dead Doheny wearing what appears to be a mask of blood, but that the two victims had been drinking – an opened bottle of Johnny Walker was on the table. This last clue would prove surprisingly important in the ensuing cover-up.

As a forensic investigator, White set to work organizing the physical evidence at the crime scene. He not only collected evidence, but he also interviewed witnesses at the scene. These witnesses told White that Plunkett had arrived at Greystone at 9:30 p.m., letting himself in with his own key. Doheny and Plunkett fell to talking, which grew more and more heated as the night progressed. Plunkett was believed to be both unstable and unwell, and was open about his refusal to check himself into the Camarillo sanitarium, a move suggested and supported by the Doheny family and associates. According to one account, Ned Doheny once again tried to convince his friend Plunkett to reconsider the sanitarium, causing the hysterical Plunkett to produce the single-action revolver and strike down his employer. Then, in a fit of remorse, Plunkett turned the gun on himself. Witnesses described the gunshots as sounding like “furniture banging,” and they came to investigate. The murder and suicide, by their estimate, happened at around 10:55 p.m.

Suspiciously, the authorities weren’t informed of this occurrence until approximately three hours later. The main witness, Dr. Ernest Clyde Fishbaugh, had been called away from a Hollywood theater performance at 10:30 p.m. Dr. Fishbaugh arrived a little before 11 p.m., just around the time of Plunkett’s suicide (which, according to Fishbaugh’s own testimony, occurred after Plunkett had told everyone in the house to not come any closer to the bedroom). Fishbaugh told two differing accounts of Plunkett’s warning, with one early description stating that Plunkett shut the door softly, while his later accounts stated that Plunkett slammed the door, as if in a rage. This was not the only irregularity that night. The testimonies of the maid, the nanny, the liveried butler, the night watchman, and the guards all sounded too neat, almost as if they had been rehearsed in advance. Considering the time gap between the murder and suicide and the first call to the police, White and Wheeler believed this to be possible.

White tested the murder/suicide theory at the Beverly Hills mortuary that morning, and found it lacking. In particular, White found powder burns around the hole in Doheny’s head, which meant that the gun had been less than three inches away from his head when it was fired. Since this type of evidence usually points towards suicide, the theory that Plunkett had murdered Doheny and then killed himself started to unravel before it had even fully coalesced. White found no evidence of powder burns on Plunkett, thus furthering his doubt.

Along with this, White discovered that both men had been drinking, which ran contrary to the accounts of Fishbaugh and the household staff. Furthermore, the unfinished cigarette found on Plunkett didn’t gel with the theory that that he was a frenzied killer worried about saving himself from being committed. It didn’t seem likely that a man who had just shot his best friend would then turn the gun on himself, all the while still holding a lit cigarette.

Cover-Up

By this time, White was convinced that the theory that Plunkett had killed Ned Doheny was false. Before taking his findings to Buron Fitts, the D.A. of Los Angeles County, White got a foreshadowing of how his case would ultimately end. While he was investigating the corpses of Doheny and Plunkett, a uniformed L.A. County sheriff lazily sauntered into the morgue and warned White that “Old Man Doheny’s too big to monkey with.”

White brought his incendiary findings to Fitts on Sunday morning. Fitts, a former Marine officer in World War I during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, was known as fiery reformer and an outspoken advocate for Los Angeles’s veteran community. Fitts was also a politician with deep ties to Harry Chandler, the conservative owner of the Los Angeles Times. At the time it was widely-known that Fitts eyed the governorship in Sacramento, so Fitts was in a dangerous position: He had to both keep up his image as a reformer (which meant supporting White and initiating a thorough investigation into the affair at Greystone) while still avoiding the ire of Doheny, a man of incredible clout in both California and Washington.

When he met with White on that Sunday morning, Fitts agreed to a “sweeping investigation.” To White, Fitts seemed enthusiastic about the prospect. White ended his part of the investigation happy in the knowledge that experienced bloodhounds like Wheeler and Fitts would soon see the case through to completion.

This illusion was shattered within hours, as Fitts called a press conference together in order to inform the news media that his office had signed the death certificates for both men. The affair at Greystone was officially labeled as a murder and a suicide. Hugh Plunkett was named as the guilty party, who, while insane, had killed Ned Doheny before killing himself. No inquest was held, and there was no autopsy on the body of young Doheny. The case went from a widely covered sensation to completely out-of-print in less than 24 hours.

White blamed the funeral-like silence on the elder Doheny, a man who had experience in handling the media. This was White’s first taste of municipal fraud, but it was not to be his last. When he left the D.A.’s office in the 1930s, White blamed his departure on the rampant corruption of Los Angeles. This would prove beneficial for White, for his 1936 memoir, Me, Detective, was a success in its own time.

Theories

Despite the rapid disposal of the case, the affair at Greystone just would not go away. In the underground press of Los Angeles, rumors spread that Ned Doheny and Plunkett were gay lovers, and that their deaths had come at the hands of Lucy Doheny, Ned’s wife. According to this theory, Lucy had caught the men in a provocative situation, and had reacted with scorn by killing them both. Another popular idea was that it had been the work of an intruder. This idea seems unlikely, considering the Fort Knox-like security of Greystone. Still yet another theory was proffered concerning the death of Ned Doheny and Hugh Plunkett. Plunkett, who was set to testify in court about his role in the payoff to Albert Fall, was killed in order to keep him quiet. Unable to live with what he’d done, Ned Doheny then killed himself.

We may never know what actually happened that night at Greystone, but it seems that the official story is not the correct one. The idea that Plunkett killed young Doheny and then himself just doesn’t hold when the physical evidence is presented. The rapid speed which this tragedy was taken from headlines is also highly suspicious, and only further adds to the many conspiracy theories that surround this case. What is for sure though is that the deaths of Ned Doheny and Hugh Plunkett are part of the collective conscious of Los Angeles, and, therefore, America. This tale of murder, suicide, and backroom intrigue in the City of Angels meshes perfectly with the roman noir tradition that begins in America during this time. It is therefore fitting that Chandler should have the last word, and in his 1942 novel The High Window, Chandler’s private investigator Philip Marlowe gives his take on the Cassidy case (a fictional stand-in for the Doheny case) to the Los Angeles detective Breeze:

            “I’m going to make a point, and it’s an important point. Just look at the Cassidy case. Cassidy was a very rich man, a multimillionaire. He had a grown-up son. One night the cops were called to his home and young Cassidy was on his back on the floor with blood all over his face and a bullet hole in the side of his head. His secretary was lying on his back in an adjoining bathroom, with his head against the second bathroom door, leading to a hall, and a   cigarette burned out between his fingers on his left hand, just a short burned-out stub that had scorched the skin between his fingers. A gun was lying by his right hand. He was shot in the head, not a contact wound. A lot of drinking had been done. Four hours had elapsed since the deaths and the family doctor had been there for three of them.  Now, what did you do with the Cassidy case?”

            Breeze sighed. “Murder and suicide during a drinking spree. The secretary went haywire and  shot young Cassidy. I read it in the papers or something. Is that what you want me to say?"

            “You read it in the papers,” I said, “but it wasn’t so. What’s more you knew it wasn’t so and the  D.A. knew it wasn’t so and the D.A.’s investigators were pulled off the case within a matter of   hours. There was no inquest. But every crime reporter in town and every cop on every homicide detail knew it was Cassidy that did the shooting, that it was Cassidy that was crazy drunk, that it  was the secretary who tried to handle him and couldn’t and at last tried to get away from him, but wasn’t quick enough.”

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