A Madam, A Murder, A Mystery

Exhuming Arizona's most notorious prostitute

In February of 1928, the Elks Theater, a longtime Prescott landmark, featured a silent picture called The Red Kimona, which had gotten national release but decidedly mixed reviews. Gabe, then a prominent businesswoman, owner of the nearby Mason Hotel, set out one afternoon to see it. Near the theater, she was approached on the sidewalk by boys handing out promotional flyers.

"A startling exposé of the white slave trade, fearlessness told!" screamed the handbills printed in bright red ink. Propped on a chair in the lobby was the wax figure of a woman dressed in a kimono and bathed in red lights. When she sat down in the packed theater, Gabe still had no inkling that it was her story playing on the screen. Not only did the movie mirror the details of her life, with a few artistic embellishments, but it used her real name.

Kimona was a mostly female production, a Hollywood first, adapted from a 1924 short story by Adela Rogers St. Johns. The producer was Dorothy Davenport Reid, widow of Wallace Reid, Paramount's most popular leading man before talking pictures. After his death from a morphine overdose in 1923, Dorothy Reid became a crusader dedicated to fighting vice through films. She formed her own production company to produce the movie, and brought in Dorothy Arzner to write the screenplay. The latter was an avowed lesbian who went on to become a pioneer in women's filmmaking. Between 1927 and 1943, Arzner directed 17 features, making her one of the few women of that era able to earn a living in pictures.

Her face bruised from her pimp's final blows, Gabriell Dardley poses for a jailhouse photo in 1915.
courtesy of Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Her face bruised from her pimp's final blows, Gabriell Dardley poses for a jailhouse photo in 1915.

In Arzner's hands, and with Reid herself looking mournfully into the camera to provide narration, Gabe's life played like a feminist melodrama. She was portrayed as a "modern Magdalene," an innocent brought to ruin not by her choices or circumstance, but by the machinations of men. With the exception of the Yaw character's chauffeur, with whom Gabe finds love, every male in the picture was a mustache-twirler.

With early feminists added to the list of users, the cynicism train was really rolling now, and Gabe's reaction stoked the engine even more. Rather than accepting the highly sympathetic portrait, and avoiding another legal fight, she followed the handbook for crime-novel dolls and pounced at the chance to make a big score. In June of 1928, she sued Dorothy Reid and Diamond All-Star Features Distributors, Inc., claiming that after her 1915 trial, she'd returned to Arizona, remarried and become an exemplary wife.

The complaint stated that the film's public recounting of her past exposed her to the world "as a woman of lewd characteristics, a prostitute and a murderess" causing "deep humiliation and grief, untold suffering and loss of self-esteem." And for a new twist, Gabe and her lawyers argued that using her real name, and the facts of her past infringed on her property rights. She demanded $50,000 in damages.

The suit was unprecedented and drew wide notice, including coverage in the New York Times. Never before had the burgeoning movie industry been called to answer for using the facts of someone's life in a production. The case bounced through the California courts for five years. Reid argued that no such privacy or property rights existed under California law, and the superior court of Los Angeles County agreed.

But California's fourth district appellate court reversed that decision, stating that no matter how unsavory her past, Gabe had a right of privacy that could not be opened to public view. The court further said that had the producers stopped at the facts made public in her trial, no action could be taken.

But the movie went beyond those facts. The appellate court dismissed Gabe's novel claim that the movie had violated her property rights. Only when California's supreme court declined to hear the matter, did Reid agree to settle. In doing so, however, she lost everything, including her West Hollywood mansion, believed to be the first in southern California with its own swimming pool. She filed for bankruptcy in Los Angeles on September 21, 1933.

The irony of Hollywood trumpeting Gabe as a feminist heroine, in a movie written by a lesbian, with the intention of ending the scourge of prostitution, is too rich for words. Gabe was the scourge. But what is most remarkable about the Kimona fight was her boldness in waging a five-year legal war against Hollywood big shots, based on the lie that she'd shed her sordid ways, and winning again.

It's unclear how much money Gabe pocketed from the settlement. Whatever the take, it didn't change her life appreciably. She continued in the business to which she was born, only now, thanks to coverage of the legal wrangling in the Prescott papers, her infamy had grown. She became a figure of high curiosity, rarely seen on downtown streets in daylight hours, but when she was, it set lips flapping. Gabe spoke little, walked quickly and sought no public recognition. The only accouterment of her character that drew significant notice were the diamonds she wore.

"You'd see her walking downtown wearing the nicest clothes you ever saw, and shiny diamonds," says Paul Toci, a longtime Prescott resident. "She was a beautiful-looking woman. Unless you knew she was from the whorehouse, you'd never guess it."

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