It didn't happen in Los Angeles' Chinatown, but in the beautiful home city of the Rose Parade, but there was something about the 1933 murder of Dr. Leonard Siever and its cast of characters that suggested a film in which a friend of the victim, or one of the suspects, might seek help from LA private detective J. J. "Jake" Gittes, one of the memorable characters brought to life by Jack Nicholson.
What made this case difficult, eventually impossible to solve, was motive. Police couldn't establish one, except, perhaps, robbery, but few robbers take the time to shoot their victims, especially more than once. And what brought the victim to this particular location so late in the evening?
Granted, the Sphinx Murder (the reason for the name is explained below) was not as sensational as the famous "Black Dahlia" case exploited by Los Angeles newspapers in 1947. For one thing, the 1933 victim was a man, and his body, except for the bullet holes, was left intact. The "Black Dahlia" was Elizabeth Short, a 23-year-old single woman about whom many sordid, unfounded stories would be written, and her body was dismembered.
What both cases have in common is that neither has been officially solved, though a retired California detective is certain he knows who killed Elizabeth Short and several other women — his father.
But let's go back to December, 1933:
New York Sun, December 13, 1923
PASADENA, California (AP) — Dr. Leonard Siever, a dentist, was found shot to death today in a driveway alongside the Scottish Rite Cathedral here. There were bullet wounds in his chest and head.
A cursory investigation disclosed no firearm about the body, and the police concluded that Dr. Siever had been murdered, whether by robbers or by an enemy they had not determined.
The body was found about 5 a.m. by a milkman. Nearby in the driveway Dr. Siever’s automobile was parked.
The dentist was about 30 years old. He had been active in music, art and civic circles here.
The news broke quietly, almost routinely — another murder, the victim a dentist. Within days, the story would become more intriguing, with ever-changing "facts" and police revising theories about a motive, then revising them again. One thing was quickly apparent — Dr. Leonard Siever wasn't your ordinary dentist. Well, let's hope not, at least for the sake of any man married to an attractive woman, for it seemed Dr. Siever, while not the best-looking fellow in Southern California, had a way with the ladies.
Murders, particularly those that stump the police, soon attract nicknames. This one became known as "The Sphinx Murder" because of two stone figures that stand, like guards, on each side of the steps at the front entrance of Pasadena's Scottish Rite Cathedral.
Notice in the story (above) that Dr. Siever's body was found in a driveway alongside the cathedral. And it probably was, though it better fit the mystery's nickname to say the body was sprawled on the steps, between the two Sphinx-like statues. And that's how some writers reported the crime scene.
Leonard Siever was a native of Russia and a graduate of the University of Michigan, and the University of Southern California dental school. His office was in Pasadena and the vast majority of his patients were women, many among the city's wealthiest. When he was killed, Dr. Siever was not 30, as guessed by the reporter who wrote the above story, but 44 or 45 years old; his exact age uncertain. However, he seemed much younger, and went so far as to lop 20 years off his age when he courted a teenager in 1932.
He was never married, but was engaged several times. Many of his lady friends were married. All of this led police to believe the killer was a jealous husband, a boy friend, or a spurned lover. Many women were questioned, and their apparent lack of knowledge about Dr. Siever's last day prompted police to consider the actual motive was robbery, since the victim's wallet and watch were stolen. (One of the telltale clues in television murders is the absence of a theft. Perhaps in this case the killer was smart enough to think, "Hey, I'll make it look like a robbery." There might also have been a special reason the watch was taken. More on that later.)
Unanswered was perhaps the second most important question — the most important, obviously, was who shot Leonard Siever? That other vital question: what was the dentist doing at the Scottish Rite Cathedral between 11 p.m. and midnight on the evening he was supposed to have a date with one of his most attractive girl friends? He never called to cancel, and left her waiting all evening. Or so she said.
One possibility, though police ruled it out, was his date set him up by arranging for him to be at the cathedral. That's probably reaching, but some information given to police by admittedly unreliable people did raise disturbing questions about the woman in question. Again, more on that later.
As with many murder investigations, this one soon took a turn for the weird:
Syracuse Journal, December 16, 1933
PASADENA, California (INS) — Found wandering at dawn today in the streets of Hawthorne, a Los Angeles suburb, a tall, slim woman with reddish-brown hair hysterically informed police that she was the slayer of Dr. Leonard Siever, Pasadena dentist and music lover.
“I knew him for eight years,” she sobbed. “I shot him with his own gun because he double-crossed me.”
The woman gave her name as Yvonne Howard, 34. Rushed to the Pasadena police station, she reiterated her hysterical story and was held while an investigation was launched.
Officer refused to express an opinion as to whether the confession would solve the mysterious slaying of the dentist, whose body was found near the Sphinxes that guard the Scottish Rite Cathedral here.
Two Hawthorne police officers first saw the woman wandering as though dazed. Though a cold wind was blowing, she wore only a thin silk dress and a light sweater. She wore no hat and her hair was blown about her face.
One of the officers took her by the arm and she immediately began to scream.
In the warm Hawthorne police station, the woman quieted down a little and became more rational.
“I used to live in South Pasadena,” she is said to have told police. “I met Dr. Siever eight years ago when I lived there. He called me Peggy. Then he double-crossed me, so I took his gun and waited for him last Tuesday night and shot him.”
The dentist was shot and killed by a lurking assassin during a blinding rainstorm, ending the strange “parade of beauties” who had filed in unending numbers through his life since his undergraduate days at the University of Michigan.
Detectives, backtracking today over the love-strewn trail of the gay philanderer, found a diary filled with the names of women and crammed with romantic musings about them. He employed 17 pretty office girls in three years. One of them worked for him only two hours.
Hotel bills bore mute witness to amorous weekend rendezvous with a young married woman.
Questioned, the woman insisted that her acquaintance with the rich dentist was “only casual.” Detectives kept her name secret.
Secret also was the name of a dark-haired and vivacious young actress visited by Dr. Siever backstage at a Pasadena theater several times the week before he was murdered. The actress claims she knows of no reason for the killing.
Dr. Siever’s diary revealed that women “bothered him.” He wrote at length of two women he had known intimately — Leone, a blonde university coed, who was interested, so the diary said, only in “frivolity,” and Florence, 18, also a blonde, a graduate of an exclusive school for girls.
“I had one infatuation and one love; Leone, for the former; Florence the latter,” Dr. Siever wrote.
Leone lied to him — and he went to France, broken-hearted.
Florence “would not discourage amorous letters from other men, even after we were engaged to be married.”
Referring to a third woman, who threatened to shoot him when he broke their engagement, Dr. Siever wrote, “She hounded me continually and forbade me to see anyone else.”
The woman has been questioned, but will be re-interrogated about her ownership of a pearl-handled pistol.
Siever’s love letters marked him, police said, as a man who loved too well and not wisely. The dentist noted the ruses his married women friends made to elude their husbands in order to hold romantic meetings with him.
(I would think no explanation is necessary, but just in case the term "gay philanderer" confuses a few people, the word "gay" means "fun-loving," "merry," or "lively." In the 1920s and '30s the word often was used to describe playboys.)
Mrs. Yvonne Howard soon recanted her confession and said she had never met Dr. Siever. Police believed her when she told them everything she knew about the dentist was what she read in newspapers after his death. Police let her go and concentrated for a while on the robbery theory, supporting it with their discovery of what Police Chief Charles Kelley called "a gambling joint" that had been operating a block away from the cathedral. Again, there was no explanation of what Dr. Siever might have been doing in the deserted cathedral parking lot after 11 p.m. during a rainstorm.
Not quite three months had passed when the following story appeared in the Milwaukee Journal and, I'm sure, many other newspapers. Unfortunately, there was no byline, so I can't identify the writer, who took more than a few liberties in describing the crime scene.
Nonetheless, it's an interesting look at Dr. Leonard Siever, though he remained very much a mystery.
Milwaukee Journal, March 4, 1934
In the pouring rain, two inscrutable sphinxes gazed stonily at the crumpled body of a murdered man with two bullet holes in his body as he lay near his automobile beside the Scottish Rite cathedral in Pasadena, California.
A milkman on his rounds saw the body and shouted the alarm. Police arrived. In the drizzle of dawn they worked hastily and soon discovered the slain man was suave Dr. Leonard Siever, 45, Russian born and prominent Pasadena dentist, patron of the arts and said by some to be a bit of a Don Juan.
But there was nothing on the rain swept pavement of value toward solving the mystery of the murder. There was no clue to the slayer, no clue to the motive. And after a far-flung investigation, the murder of Dr. Siever remained the riddle of the sphinx.
Tracking back after the murder, it was found that beautiful young women played leading roles in the life of Dr. Siever. His office records revealed he had employed 17 different girls and young women as his office assistant in just three years.
Several of the girls were married. They followed one another in the dashing dentist’s office with bewildering rapidity. His records further showed that a majority of his dental patients were women, many from Pasadena’s famed “millionaires’ row.”
And in the futile investigation which followed the murder, scores of innocent women married and unmarried, were questioned by police in the hope of finding the doctor’s slayer.
There is no doubt Dr. Leonard Siever was strongly attracted to young and pretty women, yet always his ardor was that of the aesthete rather than the lover. He built himself air castles on a rare, cultural plane and invited those he knew and cared for to dwell there with him.
He had feminine taste without being effeminate. He would attend women’s club meetings and women’s teas and women’s social functions, sometimes as the only man among them. He loved fine paintings, jewels and even old lace and feminine trinkets.
But the theory that a “wronged woman” might have killed Dr. Siever was practically eliminated by the nature of his wounds. He was assassinated, and not murdered in the heat of a woman’s rage. But all through his life runs the thread of his attraction for women and their attraction to him.
A well set-up, handsome, gentlemanly fellow who worshiped music — that was Dr. Siever when he wasn’t courting some beautiful woman.
His love of music made him introduce an ingenious way of keeping his patients from being nervous while they were in the dentist’s chair. Behind velvet drapes in his office he had a phonograph and while he worked on the patient’s teeth, he played records of classical music, grinding at molars to the rhythm of a symphony orchestra playing Beethoven.
Born in Russia, he was a student of languages, as well as of the art of the land that gave him birth. Everywhere he went, the dentist carried books and music with him. In his brief case, which lay beside the body, were a number of songs, most of which dealt with love.
The killing was done in the night, probably between the hours of 11 p.m. and midnight, when the rain was drumming on the pavement, on the cold bodies of the great statues, and the wind was whirling around the cathedral — a dark night for a dark deed with few people about in Pasadena.
And within this mystery of a murder, there lurked another mystery as to why Dr. Siever was out in the storm and why he had gone to this eerie spot under the blind eyes of the stone sphinxes. The whole situation presented an enigma as insoluble as the strange legend which surrounds those silent statues.
Apparently his slayer was hidden behind one of the sphinxes. He must have crept out, his footsteps muffled by the rain, and must have stood very close to the dentist. He fired at the back of the doctor’s head, and then, as the victim fell, made sure he was dead by putting a bullet into the prostrate form. The crime was committed as Dr. Siever unlocked his automobile.
Tracing the life of Dr. Siever, police found a jumble of faces of beautiful women, a veritable jigsaw of soft lips and smiling eyes. So, from among the faces of many women, police are seeking the face of one woman — the woman who loved Siever.
All along, the police theory has been that Siever was killed by a man and that the man killed Siever because of a woman. If they could find the woman they could find the man and solve the mystery.
Light was thrown on the past and the character of Dr. Siever by a beautiful motion picture extra, Eleanor Johnson, 20, known on the screen as Eleanor Lee. She was brought into the investigation when it was learned the dentist at one time had sought to marry her.
“Dr. Siever,” she said, “would try to make love to every woman he went out with. He lived for the glamorous showy things in life. He told me he was only 23 years of age when I met him at a cocktail party in Pasadena about a year ago.
“He said he was immediately attracted to me. He discussed dramatic art and music and we soon discovered we had a mutual love for the arts. Very soon after we met, he began calling on me. We attended many concerts plays and musicals together. He soon proposed marriage, but I told him that though I enjoyed his friendship, I was not in love with him.
“Everything he did, he did for show. He told me he liked to take me fine places because I was young and beautiful and focused attention on him. He continued from time to time to ask me to marry him, but I refused each time. He was a marvelous dancer and loved to attract attention at parties by fancy exhibitions.”
Other women who knew Dr. Siever through music and who had been his patients could cast little light on the mystery of his murder. Mrs. Frances Coen Cooke, beautiful Pasadena divorcée, who was to have accompanied him to the home of a mutual friend on the night of the murder, was questioned. She told how she had waited in vain for the doctor on the fatal evening.
From Miss Cathryn Moodle, 21-year-old Pasadena socialite, who was a friend of Dr. Siever, it was learned that a woman who had once been engaged to him had hounded him for several months.
The woman, it was learned, intimated to all her acquaintances that it would be dangerous for any other woman “to pick up with the doctor” where she left off, Miss Moodle said.
“Dr. Siever said he was extremely glad he never married her,” she said, “because her insane jealousy would have made his life unbearable.”
Miss Moodle further revealed the dentist once informed her that a woman had drawn a gun and threatened his life, but she did not know whether it was the woman to whom he had been engaged. Dr. Siever made light of the incident, she said.
Police also questioned a young singer who knew Dr. Siever, after it was learned he had gone five times to see a comic opera at the Pasadena Community Playhouse in which she appeared. But the singer, Miss Zaruhi Elmassian, soprano of the Los Angeles Opera Company, said she “knew Dr. Siever professionally, but not socially” and had “no knowledge of the case whatever.” Miss Elmassian said she was unaware of his many visits to her performances in the opera.
Miss Mary Rockwell, one of Dr. Siever’s patients, who admitted giving him a kiss the morning of the day he was slain, could throw no light on the mystery.
Miss Muriel Evans said she met Dr. Siever in 1926 in San Francisco when she was a professional dancer there. She said he fell in love with her and they became engaged, but later the engagement was broken.
“I always thought he had some fear of someone, and I remember him asking me, ‘What would you think if you found me with my head chopped off and lying in a pool of blood?’ I told him jokingly I would keep on dancing,” Miss Evans said.
“I remember another time, after we had become engaged, he told me he had a “purple past” and he had made an awful mistake in his life.”
Dr. Siever’s associations with women were paradoxical. He went out of his way to help young women musicians on their way to fame. He even founded the Artist-Student League in Pasadena, a benefit foundation for music students.
In striking contrast was his treatment of the women who worked for him, some of them staying but a few hours. It was brought out that in one case a girl who worked for him three weeks was forced to resign her position after authorities of the college she attended investigated Dr. Siever’s references.
The case took an interesting, but tragic turn in June when an automobile accident in Pasadena claimed the lives of promising young actress Dorothy Dell, and her companion, Dr. Carl Wagner, a prominent young surgeon. Because Dr. Wagner's office was located on the floor beneath Dr. Siever's in the Pasadena Professional Building, he had been questioned by police, who later would discover another connection between the two men.
On August 5, 1934, Erskine Johnson, a well-known Hollywood-based journalist, reported that the woman who had a date with Dr. Siever on the evening he was killed had spent that afternoon with Dr. Wagner.
The woman was Mrs. Frances Coen Cooke, a 22-year-old divorcée. After police discovered Mrs. Cooke and Dr. Wagner were together just hours before the murder, they subjected the pair to a long interrogation.
Wrote Johnson, "Eventually they were absolved of blame. Later, however, Mrs. Cooke was drawn once more into the case when the wrist watch taken from Dr. Siever’s body by the killer was sent to her through the mail for no apparent reason. But there the case ended, and Dr. Siever’s slayer was never captured."
Four weeks after the Erskine Johnson piece was published, Mrs. Cooke was dragged further into the mystery, at least, it was assumed she was the woman in a story told to police by a female killer on death row:
Rome Daily Sentinel, August 31,1934
LOS ANGELES (AP) — A fantastic solution for one of California’s most mystifying murders came today from the lips of a woman sentenced to die.
Mrs. Nellie Madison claims her husband killed Dr. Leonard Siever, Pasadena society dentist, in a fight over another woman. So says Blaney Matthews, special investigator for the district attorney.
Matthews says Mrs. Madison, a former Montana cowgirl, told him that shortly before his death, her husband, Eric D. Madison, confessed he had shot Dr. Siever. It was for the fatal shooting of her husband that Mrs. Madison, a crack pistol shot, was sentenced to be hanged.
The investigator said Mrs. Madison implicated a Los Angeles woman in the fight leading to the dentist’s death. A woman to whom Madison gave a costly wrist watch supposedly was one of the women linked with the socially prominent Pasadenan’s love life.
This was the watch, Mrs. Madison said, that was taken from Dr. Siever’s wrist when he was shot down last December 12 near the Scottish Rite Cathedral, and figured so prominently in subsequent investigations. The watch was mailed to Mrs. Frances Coen Cooke, wealthy Pasadena divorcée who was a central figure in the murder investigation, with a demand for $5,000.
Mrs. Madison’s weird story was reportedly told at Tehachapi Prison where she is awaiting execution for the murder of her husband in his Burbank, California, apartment on March 24.
Authorities agreed her story sounded fantastic, but said they knew her husband had often registered at Pasadena hotels. Every angle of her statement is being investigated, Matthews said.
Mrs. Madison said she met Madison when he was engaged to marry a Pasadena girl. The former cowgirl was manager of an inn at Palm Springs which Madison, his fiancée and Dr. Siever sometimes visited.
Madison and Dr. Siever fought over the girl, the condemned woman said, and one night, while intoxicated, Madison told her he killed the dentist.
“He (Madison) swore me to secrecy and threatened to kill me if I ever said anything about it.”
Nellie Madison's story was interesting, but the man she had identified as the killer was dead and the gun that killed Dr. Siever was still missing.
Later, a law student named Harry Karsch went to the district attorney to admit he had been hired to get rid of a gun in Tijuana, saying he had become convinced this was the Siever murder weapon. That tip apparently didn't pan out, or if it did, the gun couldn't be connected with Madison, and the case went from cold to colder, though one wonders why there was a demand for $5,000 with the watch that was sent to Mrs. Cooke.
Jake Gittes would have found the answer.