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History of Hollywood Madams Is Long, Lurid

L.A. Then and Now / Cecilia Rasmussen

November 30, 1997|Cecilia Rasmussen

As long as there has been a Hollywood, there has been a Hollywood madam.

And if parts of the industry trembled over talk that Heidi Fleiss, the most recent madam to the stars, had a "black book" filled with the names of celebrity customers, whole studios shook when some of her predecessors threatened to describe the sexual proclivities and eccentricities of actors and politicians.

Those threats were taken seriously because, unlike Fleiss, her predecessors usually were even cozier with the cops than they were with their clients.

In fact, during the movies' so-called "golden age" of the 1920s and 1930s, the madam of the moment usually could count on the cops she paid off to give her enough "pre-raid" warning to clear out any big-name customers. The renowned Lee Francis always had French champagne chilled and dishes of Russian caviar waiting for the vice squad when it arrived. After going through the motions--and finding no one to arrest--the officers would sit down and enjoy her hospitality.

But all good things must come to an end, and Francis eventually spent 30 days in jail on a morals charge, leaving her market niche open for Ann Forrester, soon dubbed the "Black Widow" by the police.

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By the late 1930s, the "Black Widow's" lavish prostitution business was raking in $5,000 weekly while she set Hollywood atwitter with talk of files containing the identities of male customers. But Forrester, too, was eventually convicted of pandering and went to jail. At her trial, the famous reform mayor, Fletcher Bowron, unsuccessfully pleaded for a lenient sentence because "her information was of great value in determining the identity of those Police Department members whose honesty was questionable."

In 1940, while the "Black Widow" sat in jail, her protege, Brenda Allen, began spinning her own web.

For the next decade, Allen--a redheaded "party girl"--reigned as the bawdy empress of L.A. vice, serving millionaires and movie stars alike. She delighted in boasting that she had never spent a day in jail. As it later emerged, that was because she had improved on her predecessors' notion of safe sex by taking a Hollywood vice cop, LAPD Sgt. Elmer V. Jackson, as her lover and business partner.

But in 1948, Allen too was indicted after an LAPD telephone tap recorded an all-too-chummy business chat between the bordello queen and her badge-bearing partner. Her arrest shook Hollywood, which instantly began to buzz with rumors about a little black box containing the names of 250 celebrity clients, including entertainment industry figures, politicians and gangsters.

But the elaborate vice sting embarrassed the Los Angeles Police Department even more.

The key players in Allen's operation included not only Jackson, but other vice cops paid to protect prostitutes. The scandal forced Police Chief Clemence B. Horrall into early retirement. His place was temporarily taken by former Marine Corps Gen. William A. Worton, who eventually was replaced by the hard-nosed William H. Parker, who came in with City Hall's mandate to clean things up.

During the scandal, it also emerged that Allen's real name was Marie Mitchell. She had made her professional debut as a teenage streetwalker on a seedy stretch of West 6th Street between Union Avenue and Alvarado Street. It wasn't exactly Schwab's, but she soon was "discovered" by Forrester, who took her off the street corner and into a pricey brothel. When the "Black Widow" ran afoul of the law, the young Mitchell testified that her former boss had lured her into this "shameful business." When Forrester went to jail, Mitchell--now Brenda Allen--took over the business.

Buoyed by the power of her shrewd manager and boyfriend, the vice cop Jackson, Allen "grew the business." Soon, 114 party girls were working for her, taking in $9,000 a day from customers who paid from $20 to $100 for the services of one of "Brenda's girls." Allen took 50% off the top and a third went to pay cops, doctors, lawyers and bail bondsmen.

Allen rented large, ornate party houses above the Sunset Strip on streets such as Cory Avenue, Harold Way and Miller Place. After each one of her 19 arrests, she just packed things up and moved to another house on the next street.

On the night of Feb. 21, 1947, Allen and Jackson were necking in his car in front of her apartment at 9th and Fedora streets when a robber stuck a machine gun through Jackson's open window. Jackson, pretending to reach for his wallet, pulled out a pistol instead and killed Roy "Peewee" Lewis, the stickup man, while the getaway driver sped off. Jackson told the police that Allen was a Police Department stenographer.

A year later, a reporter with the Daily News discovered that the woman with Jackson that night was actually Allen.

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Subsequent headlines led to a grand jury investigation. Jackson denied any wrongdoing, but Allen testified that she paid him $50 a week for each woman she employed, as well as other sums to other vice squad members.

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