Sunday, June 16, 2013

Speeding Bullet The Life and Bizarre Death of George Reeves by Jan Alan Henderson

The world was devastated when tv’s Superman, George Reeves, was found dead with a bullet in his head on June 16, 1959. Was it suicide, a tragic accident, or murder? Those questions are still being asked to this day. A movie, Hollywoodland, was even made about this enduring Hollywood mystery.

This is not just a book about a mysterious death. It takes us back to George Reeves’ humble beginnings in Iowa, through his theatrical training at the Pasadena Playhouse, where he met his wife Eleanor, and his early days in Hollywood, where, after a few small parts in B-westerns, he landed a part as one of the pair of tangerine-haired Tarleton twins in Gone With the Wind. But appearing in one of the most famous and best loved movies of all time wasn't the break George hoped it would be. More small roles of varying qualities followed. He seemed poised on the brink of stardom when he was cast alongside Claudette Colbert in So Proudly We Hail, but then, as luck would have it, he was drafted.

After the war, he just could not seem to get his career back on track. He began a long term affair with a wealthy older woman, Toni Mannix, the wife of an MGM studio executive, and in 1951 accepted the role in a kiddie serial, The Adventures of Superman, solely for the money. To everyone’s surprise, it became a smash hit, and he was signed for six more seasons playing Clark Kent and his alter ego Superman, which meant dyeing his prematurely gray hair black and being laced into a corset and strapping on twenty pounds of rubber muscles beneath the famous blue and red suit.

To George’s dismay, he became typecast, trapped by the role that made him famous. When audiences saw him on the screen in other roles they screamed Superman! He tried to be a good sport about it, and hid his pain behind wisecracks and alcohol. Though whether he actually became an alcoholic or not is open to debate.

In 1958 a new woman came into his life, the alluring life of the party girl Lenore Lemmon. Toni didn't take being jilted gracefully; she was hurt and angry, and begged mutual friends to intercede and try to talk some sense into George. But he and Lenore stayed together and there were rumors that they planned to marry.

Then it all came to a sudden end that night in June when shots rank out in Benedict Canyon. George was found dead, nude in bed, with a bullet wound in his head while downstairs Lenore hosted a small party downstairs where the drinks flowed freely.

The truth about George’s death remains a mystery. Did the aging and depressed actor (he was forty-five), trapped by his success as Superman, see death as the only graceful way out? Was it an impulsive act of despair? Or was it an accident or murder along the lines of “Hell hath no fury like a woman spurned”? All theories are explored in this book.

As for the women George Reeves left behind, Lenore continued drinking and partying until she died, while Toni Manix, heartbroken over George’s death, became a recluse, sitting in her bedroom of her Beverly Hills mansion watching old episodes of Superman and eating the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that had been his favorite until she died.

This author exposes some of the errors in the more sensational and popular book about George Reeves’ death, “Hollywood Kryptonite,” which I will also be reviewing. He has a very honest, down to earth approach, and if something is unknown or open to debate he says so, and that’s something I give biographers high marks for when we all know sensation and scandalous new revelations are what sells celebrity biographies. Of the two books currently available about George Reeves’ death, I would say “Speeding Bullet” is the best.

Hollywood Kryptonite by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger

This book claims to reveal the truth about one of Hollywood’s great unsolved mysteries—the death of George Reeves. It puts his affair with Toni Manix squarely at the heart of the matter.

Toni, “The Lady,” was the wife of “The Bulldog,” Eddie Mannix, a powerful executive at MGM Studios, and George Reeves was “The Boy,” in this love triangle that went murderously wrong when party girl Lenore Lemmon came on the scene and ousted Toni from George’s bed and affections.

It all makes a very interesting story, and it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for George Reeves, torn between two women in his personal life, and professionally being trapped by the role of Superman, an all too human and aging man played a character expected to be always young, strong, and handsome, and worrying about children being injured trying to fly like their television hero (one little boy even brought a real gun to one of George’s public appearances as Superman, an incident dramatized in the movie Hollywoodland), but I can’t honestly say I’m convinced they've solved it. I was also struck by a glaring error in this book, the authors state there was no window in George Reeve’s bedroom, but there definitely was, if you look at the illustrations in the book you can even see the window, and when an author makes an important error like that in a nonfiction book it really makes me wonder if they've played fast and loose or misinterpreted or ignored other facts for the sake of their story and proving their theory.

If you read this in the spirit of a novel, or a dramatization of George Reeves’ death, like watching the movie Hollywoodland, it makes a great story, riveting and page turning, and is definitely worth reading, but as a true crime book I think it falls a little short. Ultimately, I think the death of George Reeves is fated to remain one of Hollywood’s unsolved mysteries.