Longform

THE NAKED DESERT

IT IS 1975. Sixteen years after it first appeared in France, the legendary book Hollywood Babylon rolls off the presses in its first authorized U.S. edition.

While the rest of the nation gasps over Kenneth Anger's juicy compendium of Tinseltown tattle, Phoenix yawns.

For starters, we'd seen it all in 1965, when a bootleg translation of Anger's scandalous tome (now a much-coveted collectors' item) was issued by a fly-by-night publishing outfit operating out of a rented office across the street from Chris-Town Mall.

Besides, there is no shortage of sensationalism right in our own backyard. Here are the murders, suicides, scandals and other prurient points of interest that have earned Phoenix its own place in the sun. Bring your cameras.

PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES She was Phoenix's first lady of crime, the Valley's answer to Lizzie Borden.

"Trunk murderess" WINNIE RUTH JUDD began her six-decade affair with notoriety on October 17, 1931. That was the day the petite medical secretary decided to take a train trip to Los Angeles with Anne LeRoi and Hedvig Samuelson, a couple of girlfriends from Phoenix.

Unfortunately, Winnie's two pals had to ride in the baggage compartment. During an argument the previous night, they had been murdered, butchered and stuffed in trunks (presumably so Winnie could dispose of the bodies in the Pacific Ocean). Had Winnie worked alone? Amid rumors of accomplices and cover-ups, the stoic "Tiger Woman" remained mum. She eventually copped an insanity plea and was carted off to the state mental hospital, where she spent the next 40 years demonstrating a flair for escape artistry that would have put Houdini to shame. Pardoned in 1971, the eighty-something Judd now lives in northern California.

Site of LeRoi/Samuelson murder house, 2929 North Second Street.
Arizona State Hospital, 2500 East Van Buren.

GOING OVERBOARD Twenty-four years before finding themselves center stage in Hollywood's most tragic buoy-meets-girl story, Locustland lovebirds NATALIE WOOD and ROBERT WAGNER caught the love boat right here in the Valley. Hoping to avoid Tinseltown paparazzi, the star-crossed couple quietly slipped into Scottsdale (home of Wagner's parents) on December 28, 1957, where they were married at Scottsdale United Methodist Church. Following a small ceremony, the wedding party (which included Nick Adams, Wood's Rebel Without a Cause co-star) adjourned to the nearby Ramada Valley Ho resort. Five years later, they divorced, but in '72, they took the plunge again.

Scottsdale United Methodist Church, 4140 North Miller.
Ramada Valley Ho resort, 6850 East Main, Scottsdale.

BLAST FROM THE PAST Talk about a plan that backfired! When the Tempe man who called himself "Joseph Nardi" started his car on the morning of October 6, 1975, a dynamite explosion ripped through the vehicle and blew out 75 of his neighbors' windows.

"Nardi" was actually mob informer LOUIS BOMBACINO, an underworld snitch whose testimony was responsible for helping crack a multimillion-dollar gambling racket in 1969. The case remains unsolved.

201 East Hermosa, Tempe.

DYE HARD In 1966, the local press touted this massacre as "the worst crime in Arizona history." Few readers argued the point; some were too busy organizing lynch mobs.

On Saturday morning, November 12, an 18-year-old Mesa High School student named ROBERT BENJAMIN SMITH walked into Mesa's Rose-Mar Beauty College and opened fire on the staff and customers with a .22-caliber six-gun. By the time police led the grinning killer out of the shop, five victims (including a 3-year-old girl) lay dead; two others (including a 3-month-old infant) were wounded. According to news reports, Smith's parents had given their son the weapon as a gift, for "target practice."

During a rare prison interview in 1985, Smith was unable to adequately explain what had triggered his homicidal rampage, but told a reporter he was "sorry."

Rose-Mar Beauty College (now LaVonne's Classic Beauty College), 42 North Stapley, Mesa.

"YELLOW" JOURNALISM In the mid-Sixties, downtown's Vista Theatre made headlines when it wrapped up its year-plus engagement of The Sound of Music, the longest-running film in Phoenix history.

In the fall of 1969, the Vista should have made headlines but didn't. The theatre was raided during a screening of the Swedish sex shocker I AM CURIOUS, YELLOW. Thanks to puritanical policies at the Arizona Republic and the Phoenix Gazette (both newspapers refused to make any mention, even in news stories, of X-rated films), the bust wasn't reported in either newspaper. Several months later, the newspapers were forced to reevaluate this stance when the X-rated Midnight Cowboy won the Oscar for Best Picture.

Site of Vista Theatre (now Valley Bank Center), 215 North Central.

GOODBYE CHARLIE Despondent over the death of his wife and concerned with his own declining health, French-born film star CHARLES BOYER cut short a visit to a Scottsdale friend's home by swallowing an overdose of Seconal on August 26, 1978. Later that day, the 78-year-old Gaslight star died at St. Joseph's Hospital. Before the announcement of his wife's death just two days earlier, few people were aware that Boyer had quietly lived in Paradise Valley for a number of years.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Dewey Webb