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ZaSu Pitts: A Life of Mystery

August 2, 2019

ZaSu Pitts

I’m currently researching figures from the Golden Age of Hollywood, and I’m amazed at how many talented, tragic, quirky and sometimes bizarre characters the era produced. Many of the names have, over time, drifted away from public consciousness. Take for example ZaSu Pitts…

ZaSu Pitts was an actress and comedienne whose career stretched from the Silent Movie Age right through to the birth of television in the 1940s and 50s, ending with her cameo role in the all-star comic extravaganza It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World in 1963. She was known primarily for comedic and dramatic roles. However, she had an abiding love of mystery fiction and would have loved to have played more parts in this genre. She was disappointed to have narrowly missed out on roles in the screen adaptations of And Then There Were None (1945) and The Night of the Hunter (1955). As it turned out, her life was full of mystery and intrigue and she played a key role in some of the strangest chapters in Hollywood history.

ZaSu Pitts was born in Parsons, Kansas. ZaSu is a compound name taken from her forenames Eliza Susan, and it became her professional and legal name. Even ZaSu’s year of birth is something of a mystery. Her obituary in the New York Times and headstone place it as 1900. However, Pitts’ biographer Charles K Stumpf puts her year of birth as 1894. To make matters more confusing, the ZaSu Pitts film festival celebrated her centenary in 1998.

Barbara La Marr and her son Donald Gallery

In 1922, Pitts’ acting career was in full swing, and she celebrated the birth of her daughter ZaSu Ann with her first husband Tom Gallery. Pitts’ nanny would bring baby ZaSu to the film sets to visit her mother at work. It was on the set of Souls for Sale that Pitts met fellow actress Barbara La Marr. La Marr was also having a baby brought to her every day, but under considerable secrecy. As Pitts’ biographer Gayle Haffner describes, ‘Each day La Marr’s maid brought a large covered picnic hamper concealing the infant inside.’ Pitts befriended La Marr and during their spare moments on set together, La Marr revealed the truth about her baby boy Sonny. La Marr had given birth while separated from her husband. To avoid a scandal, the pregnancy had been kept secret, with La Marr’s pre-natal weight put down to overeating. As Sonny was getting too big for the picnic hamper his existence couldn’t be kept a secret forever. An elaborate cover-up was put in place. Sonny was placed in the care of the orphanage Hope Cottage in Dallas. One of Hope Cottage’s chief benefactors was Texas Klan leader Zeke Marvin. He arranged for La Marr to make a public appearance tour of the Cottage, during which the actress would, by chance, spot Sonny and choose to adopt him. In addition, La Marr agreed to name the child Marvin after the wily Klansman. The plan worked and, as it happens, Hope Cottage is still active nearly a century later.

Alas, shortly after her ‘adoption’ of Sonny, La Marr contracted tuberculosis and died on January 30, 1926. She was twenty-nine years old. Pitts looked after Sonny during much of La Marr’s illness. La Marr’s deathbed wish was for Pitts to raise Sonny, which she happily did. Pitts and her husband Tom Gallery legally adopted Sonny (no ruse was necessary this time), and he took the name Donald Michael Gallery.

Don Gallery went on to have an extraordinary life. Raised among the stars during the Golden Age of Hollywood, he was friends with and dated Shirley Temple and Elizabeth Taylor. He attended Stanford Law School and enlisted in the Army Air Corp during World War Two. Pitts did not like the idea of her adopted son on combat duty and used her celebrity influence to get him grounded in a desk job. His post-war experience was more adventurous. He was assigned to the Counter Intelligence Corps and tasked with hunting down war criminals. He later worked as an actor in Hollywood and investigator with an insurance company. He retired to Puerto Vallarta where he founded a popular Writer’s Group in 1998. He was an expert on Hollywood history, and he held scathing opinions on the adopted children of movie stars who claimed their parents never loved them. Gallery’s biological father and exact date of birth are not known. Gallery suspected his real father was his godfather Paul Bern. Bern was a screenwriter and director who visited Gallery frequently at the Pitts’ home, often bringing gifts. Bern died in 1932 of an apparent suicide, just two months after he had married Jean Harlow.

Thelma Todd

It would seem Pitts had a habit of befriending short-lived and ill-fated actresses. Pitts became good friends with the actress Thelma Todd and they starred together in seventeen comedies. On December 14, 1935 Todd visited Pitts at her home. Todd was her usual friendly self, spoiling Don Gallery with an early Christmas gift. Todd went to a dinner party at the Cafe Trocadero that evening hosted by Ida Lupino. The next morning Todd was found dead in her car in the garage of Castillo del Mar, a sprawling residence owned by the married couple Roland West and Jewel Carmen. West was Todd’s lover and business partner in her newly opened restaurant Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe. There were immediate suspicions of foul play in the death of the twenty-nine year old star. Todd had been seen in an altercation with her ex-husband Pat DiCicco at the dinner party. DiCicco had called Lupino and begged for an invitation at the last minute. She reluctantly invited him, however, he never took his seat at the table but was seen dancing in the Trocadero with a good-looking date, which initiated a loud argument with the humiliated Todd. DiCicco had underworld connections and there was evidence to suggest Mob figures were trying to extort Todd’s business, hoping to run a gambling den from inside the restaurant. However, the LAPD found that Todd’s death was most likely accidental. Todd had found herself locked out of West’s house and she had taken refuge in her car in the garage, possibly turning the engine on to keep warm and inadvertently causing carbon monoxide poisoning. Todd’s friends, including Pitts, insisted she displayed no signs of suicidal feelings. A grand jury probe failed to find any evidence of murder. Todd testified before the Grand Jury and Gayle Haffner argues this cost her a role on a radio show, such was the salacious nature of the story. Whatever the exact circumstances of her death, the premature passing of Thelma Todd was a traumatic experience that would stay with ZaSu Pitts for the rest of her life.

Madge Meredith

In 1947, Pitts found herself embroiled in another mystery. Madge Meredith was a talented young actress whose promising career was cut short when she was convicted of orchestrating the beating, robbery and kidnapping of Nick Gianaclis and Verne Davis. Meredith was fresh out of drama school when she met Gianaclis, who was Greek by birth, in Los Angeles. He became her business manager. As a restaurant supply man, he wangled her a job as a waitress at a studio commissary. It put her in close contact with movie power-brokers and soon she was landing minor and then substantial film roles. Meredith bought a home on Magnolia Drive in the Hollywood Hills. Gianaclis lent her a few thousand to make the down payment, but in doing so he conned her into putting his name on the deed. He lived at the house for a while, but Meredith kept things strictly platonic and was growing tired of his constant romantic advances. She fired him as her business manager, stating she wanted more professional representation now that her career was taking off. It would mark the beginning of a long nightmare for Madge Meredith.

Meredith and Gianaclis arranged to meet in the Hollywood Hills to discuss property rights. According to Gianaclis, Meredith led him and his bodyguard Verne Davis to a secluded area. She blocked the road with her car and then three men in another car showed up who subsequently beat up, robbed and kidnapped Gianaclis and Davis under her instructions. One of the men was assigned to watch them, but Gianaclis caught him off-guard, took his weapon and called the police.

Gianaclis’ story was complete hokum. Gianaclis and Davis, who could have given acting lessons to Jussie Smollett, had staged the crime by inflicting minor injuries on each other, to wreak a terrible revenge on Meredith. Meredith was arrested and held without bail. She was in jail for a full eleven months before she was found guilty at trial. She was sentenced to five years to life and began her sentence at the dreaded California Correctional Institution, which is now a Supermax, in Tehachapi. Meredith also lost her Hollywood home to Gianaclis during her incarceration.

Pitts had been following the case in the news and had her doubts about Meredith’s guilt. According to Haffner, it came to Pitts in a dream that Meredith must be innocent. She visited Meredith in prison, bringing with her a bag of toiletries as a gift, and came away convinced that she was the victim of a terrible miscarriage of justice. Pitts agreed to do what she could to secure Meredith’s release. She contacted lawyer and author Erle Stanley Gardner who began pro-bono work on Meredith’s case. Meredith was extremely grateful to Pitts, especially as she felt she had not had adequate legal representation at the trial. LA historian Joan Renner also identifies Herbert Schofield (a retired banker) and Charles E Wilson (a real estate businessman) as two men who worked diligently on Meredith’s behalf, interviewing witnesses and putting pressure on the authorities to reopen the case. In 1954, almost five years after she had been found guilty, Meredith’s sentence was commuted to time served by the Governor of California Earl Warren who called the case ‘a mockery of investigation, of defence counselling, of trial procedure, and of justice itself.’

Meredith was released from prison. She regained her house from Gianaclis who, it seems, never did prison time for perpetrating a serious miscarriage of justice. He did, however, have his application for American citizenship denied. Meredith and Pitts became friends for life, and unlike several of Pitts’ actress friends, Meredith was blessed with longevity. She died at her home in Hawaii in 2017, at the age of ninety-six.

Aside from her successful part in securing Meredith’s release from prison, the 1950s would be a quieter decade for Pitts. Her career began to wind down as her health began to fail. But this would not prove quite the end of Pitts life of mystery. While recovering from an operation, Pitts was visited at home by a nurse who helped her to change bandages, dispense medication and generally check up on her. The nurse was a woman who had cared for Pitts at St John’s Hospital, and was someone the actress liked and admired.

Her name was Jean Ellroy.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 3, 2019 3:29 am

    Fascinating as always!

  2. Dan permalink
    August 3, 2019 9:17 pm

    Great article. My interest in the dark side of Hollywood actually pre-dates my discovery of Ellroy (although it’s really taken off since reading his books). It started back in the late ’90’s with an American cable show called “Mysteries and Scandals” which focused on different Hollywood figures and events from the silent era through the 1960’s; just about everything you can imagine from that period is covered including episodes on the Black Dahlia, Thelma Todd, and Paul Bern. You can view about 50 or 60 of the episodes on YouTube. It’s worth checking out if you’re looking into Classic Hollywood-they went for a Noir/Tabloid feel but was surprisingly well done with interviews of biographers, friends/family, and celebrities like Mickey Rooney talking about his friendship with Errol Flynn.

    • August 4, 2019 8:49 am

      Thanks Dan, I’ve culled lots of great stuff off the internet, and have probably watched a few episodes of that show, not realising they are part of a wider series. Now its on my radar I’ll try and watch the entire series. Steve


  1. ZaSu Pitts and Jean Ellroy: Kindred Spirits? | The Venetian Vase

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