Stuart M. Kaminsky

He Done Her Wrong


The best-looking Mae West in the room, outside of Mae West herself, was a Chinese guy named Richard Horn who wanted to be a comedian. I counted no less than forty Mae Wests in the room, at least one of whom was a thief.

I met Mae West the last day in April 1942, a cool day with no sun. I had called her number the day before, after talking to my brother Phil, and a man had answered and told me to come out the next morning. The man then told me how to get to her ranch in the San Fernando Valley, and I told my mechanic, No-Neck Arnie, that he had to turn all his magic on to keep my ’34 Buick going a few more days. He had taken half my last fee to repaint the car and fix the dents an angry elephant had made in it.

“Oliver ain’t gonna make it through the summer,” Arnie had said, shifting his cigar to the other side of his mouth and rubbing the new black paint job. “You shouldn’t sink any more gelt into it. I tell you for a fact.” It bothered me that Arnie had named the car Oliver, since I always thought of it as a female.

“I can’t afford a new car,” I explained. “Inflation is here, Arn. My income is low. Cars are hard to get. The war.”

He wiped his greasy hands on his greasy overalls, spit on the roof of Oliver where he saw or imagined he saw a taint in the paint, and rubbed his sleeve on it professionally.

“I know a guy can get you a ’38 Ford coupe for two hundred cash and no questions,” he said. “Runs good.”

“If I get two hundred, I’ll be back.”

“Suit yourself,” he shrugged in a not-too-bad imitation of Randolph Scott.

I suited myself and headed for the valley. The car sounded fine most of the way. Instead of listening to it or the radio, I went over what I had picked up from the L.A. Times’ files the night before. The few private detectives and all the cops I know claim to have friends at the newspapers in town, reporters or editors who do favors and get favors back. I’ve got no such contacts. There’s not much I can offer besides a little inside information on a few stars, and I make whatever living I’ve got by keeping my mouth shut.

When I was a kid back in 1925, a Jewish gangster named Dave Berman became a minor folk hero by refusing to testify against his friends in a kidnapping case. “Hell, all they can give me is life,” he said, and the kids back in Glendale and across the country picked it up as a catchphrase. For me it was more than that. Berman may have been a kidnapper, but he had something to sell, loyalty and nerve.

I was dressed right for the meeting, a new 100 percent all-wool tropical worsted gray suit I’d picked up from Hy’s Clothes for Him for $22.50 new. Four more bucks got me an extra pair of pants. The tie was a striped blue thing I’d been given for my birthday back in November by my friend and next-door neighbor at Mrs. Plaut’s Boardinghouse, Gunther Wherthman.

Driving down Laurel Canyon Road, I saw a sign reminding me to CONSERVE FOOD, so I stopped at a little neighborhood market, picked up a dozen eggs for thirty cents, three Lifebuoy soaps for seventeen cents, and a box of spoon-size Shreddies for which I didn’t ask the price. Some things are essential even in inflation. With the groceries safely in the trunk, I continued out beyond the cluster of valley towns and into the country roads at the foot of the mountains.

Mae West, according to the guy at the Times I had to bribe to let me see the files, was pushing fifty and pulling down maybe three hundred thousand dollars for each movie she wrote and acted in. She was in the middle of a divorce from a guy she hadn’t seen in twenty years. She’d been under a lot of pressure from groups claiming she was a bad moral influence, and she hadn’t made a movie in two years; but that one, My Little Chickadee, according to the Times morgue guy, who looked like the paper in his files-fragile, old, and a little yellow-had earned a pile of money for Paramount.

That was enough to know and think about until I got some facts. I flipped on the radio and picked up Connie Boswell singing “Stardust.” I hummed along with her till I found the road I’d been directed to just outside La Canada and urged Oliver to pull us by the retreads up to the big two-story house. Mae West didn’t live in the middle of nowhere-she lived on its fringes.

The whole thing had started a week earlier when my brother Phil had cornered me in my office, a cubbyhole with a door inside the dental suite of Sheldon Minck, D.D.S.

Phil is a few months from his first half century on earth. His hair is steel gray to match his disposition and his body solid, with more than a hint of cop gut. Both of which are appropriate, since he is a Los Angeles Homicide lieutenant hoping, in spite of the people he has antagonized over the years by failing to control his temper, to make captain in the near future. Phil is angry about criminals. No matter how many he has stomped, kicked, threatened, and maimed, no matter how many he has railroaded, goaded, and locked up with questionable evidence and the real thing, there are always others to take their place, always more than the week before. Phil strikes with outrage at crime, but there are moments when he focuses some of that hatred on me.

He has been doing that for a lifetime, too. It is his therapy. At home he is a gentle father and a tender husband. He has to be. His wife, Ruth, looks like a finely shaved toothpick ready for exhibition at the “Believe It or Not Show.” He has to have someone he loves to take it out on.

So, I was surprised to find him in my office that afternoon, asking me for a favor. It was the only thing he had asked me for in his life, and it came hard to him. He love-hated me and I did the same for him, but he trusted me, and this favor took trust.

“Mae West,” he had said with a grunt.

Something like silence had settled over my little office, if you discount the sound of Shelly Minck in the next room drilling away on a patient and singing “When the Red, Red Robin Goes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along.” You also had to discount the various other unidentified sounds of the Farraday Building and Hoover Street outside, but I was pretty good at that. I looked at the cracked wall holding the 1907 photograph of Phil with his arm around me holding the collar of our dog Murphy while our father looked proudly at the both of us. Murph was later renamed Kaiser Wilhelm when Phil came back from the Big War, which had now been replaced by another Big War with some of the same people.

“I want you to do something for Mae West,” he said, removing the tie from his thick neck.

“O.K.,” I said.

“Don’t you want to know what it is before you agree?” he said, looking at me.

“I’ve agreed. Now tell me what it is.”

He laughed a this-is-not-funny laugh.

“I see,” he said between teeth that were reasonably straight and clean for someone who spent so much time grinding them together and probably biting suspects. “You think this will give you some edge, make me owe you, give you something you can cash in on later.”

“I hadn’t thought about it, but I’ll consider it a suggestion.” I resisted the urge to put my feet up on the desk, one of the four or five hundred habits I have that drive Phil to violence. I remembered the last time he had knocked my feet off his desk at the Wilshire station. It had resulted in my seeing an orthopedic surgeon.

“Toby,” he said. “No wise talk or I walk.”

“O.K., Phil. Do me a favor? Don’t walk. Let me help you. Please. I’ll be good.”

Phil looked at the ceiling and explained that he had known Mae West when she came to the coast back in 1931. He didn’t say how he knew her or how well, but it had been either just before or just after he married Ruth. He didn’t make it clear, and I didn’t push. They had been friends or friends, and she had now called him with a request for help, but it wasn’t quite a police matter. Phil had promised to help, and that promise had brought him to my office.

“She wrote a book,” he explained, “a life story sort of in fictional form. She had one copy, and it turned out to be missing about a week ago. Gone right out of her apartment in town over near Paramount. It took her a long time

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