Boo-oo-ooze! 3 Gothic Cocktails to drink at Halloween

Halloween is more and more a part of New Zealand life, but what to drink when you are slightly disdainful of everything commercial and yet still consider October your High Holy season?  Laura Macfehin gives you some spooky yet sophisticated drinks options!

The Bride wore Black

Despite its somewhat sinister sound the Merry Widow Cocktail is named after the rather jolly operetta of the same name that was popular in the first decade of the twentieth century.

Even so, I consider this to be a very goth cocktail, partly because of the somewhat complex mix of aromatic ingredients and partly because Lily Elsie who became famous in the English version of the production is such an Edwardian Goth inspiration to me with her big hats and lace!



Lily Elsie in The Merry Widow


The Merry Widow Cocktail

1 ½ Dry Gin

1 ½ French (Dry) Vermouth

1 Dash of Peychaud’s Bitters

2 Dashes Absinthe, Pernod, or Herbsaint (I used Pernod)

2 Dashes Benedictine

Stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Tastes– like aniseed and well laid plans.


The Original Vamp

Theda Bara was one of the silent screen’s earliest sex symbols and a super favourite at Eclectic Ladyland!  Her on-screen dominatrix-persona gave rise to her nick name The Vamp (short for vampire– which in context was a woman who demoralised men and took their money rather than a blood sucking fiend!)

Despite being marketed as an exotic destroyer of men, by all accounts in real life Theda Bara (or Theodosia Burr Goodman, as she was baptised) was a regular old sweetie, living in a normal apartment with her mother and designing and making most of her own wigs and costumes.

theda bara

Theda Bara ‘The Vamp’

The Theda Bara Cocktail

2oz gin

1oz Raspberry liqueur (like Chambord)

Juice of half a lemon

Mix gently in an ice filled shaker and strain into a glass.

Tastes– sweet but with a dangerous edge.


Unholy Orders

Written by a teenage Matthew Lewis and published at the end of the eighteenth century The Monk is considered one of the prototypes for Gothic literature.  Its convoluted plot involves murder and seduction within a Catholic monastery, with elements which became common Gothic tropes.

What better way to honour this venerable tome than with a liqueur reputedly based on a secret formula by monks at a Benedictine monastery in Normandy.  I love Benedictine– it smells like a liniment your great-grandfather might have used and it tastes great as a toddy or cut with citrus.  The obvious choice for this drink was blood orange, of course!


The Monk

2oz Benedictine

4oz blood orange juice

a dash of Peychauds bitters

Shake briefly in an ice-filled shaker and strain into a glass or other unconsecrated vessel.

Tastes– like bad habits and citrus, with a hint of the blood of your enemies.


What will be drinking as the veil thins?  Let me know!

Late Bloomers: the screen classics that started out as box office bombs

Laura Macfehin delves into the world of film classics that started out as box office bombs.

It is hard to imagine a world where nobody gets the reference “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” or where someone hasn’t cornered you at a party to explain which cut of Blade Runner is the superior one.  And yet that world came close to existing.

David Moscati-TheThing-Poster

The Thing poster by David Moscati

Now hailed as one of the greatest sci-fi horrors of all time John Carpenter’s The Thing was a colossal bomb at the box office.  The amazing special effects by Rob Bottin are now considered some of the finest creature work ever done– Bottin worked so hard on them that he ended up in hospital with double pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer.  He had to ask Stan Winston to finish the work.  Winston did so but refused any credit because he didn’t want to distract from the work Bottin had done.

If anything the effects were perhaps too good– audiences found them, well, gross.  Roger Ebert even described the film as a ‘perfect barf-bag movie’.

It is also kind of dark, with an ambiguous ending that doesn’t offer much hope for the humans.  But probably its biggest assassin at the box office was a much friendlier little alien who came along at the same time.



The Thing came out the same week as E.T. the Extra Terrestrial a film that also had great effects, a somewhat ambivalent view of humans but that also had cute kids, a cute alien and didn’t sound like a remake of a 50s B-grade pic that might scar your children for life.  E.T. cleaned up at the box office, leaving what ever was left over for another little space movie–Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan.

etbg1dean walton

E.T. poster by Dean Walton

In June 1982 it seemed all the blockbuster movies were dealing with what makes us human in the face of aliens, androids and genetically engineered uber-mensch.  The ones that sold the most tickets were definitely the ones that had the most up-beat and triumphalist view of humanity.  Another casualty was the neo-noir Blade Runner.


Blade Runner poster by Tracy Ching

Although a consistent presence in the ‘best movies ever made’ lists today on its release Ridley Scott’s dystopian sci-fi was not a runaway hit.  Critics were divided over whether it was visionary or just boring.  Tickets sales were quickly eaten up by Khan, Conan the Barbarian and that pesky little alien of Spielberg’s. 

The 1980’s boom in home video are what saw Blade Runner develop a cult following, an interest that led to re-screenings of both the original cinema cut and the longer director’s cut, and critics also began to re-assess its impact on the wider culture and film history.


Citizen Kane poster by Martin Ansin

Citizen Kane is often cited as the greatest movie ever made, but its number one spot on film history lists is largely due to the French.  The film, which is not very loosely based on the figure of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, managed to keep the storyline secret throughout production, even from Hearst’s chief Hollywood snoop Louella Parsons. 

Upon release however, an enraged Hearst declared a media ban on not just Citizen Kane but all pictures from RKO.  The media blackout, along with its somewhat bleak take on humanity meant that despite generally good reviews the movie did not make waves.  In the fifties French critics started re-assessing American cinema and their attention brought Citizen Kane back into the limelight.  It has topped ‘best film’ lists ever since.

wizardofozbg1 aaron wells

Wizard of Oz poster by Aaron Wells

It is hard to imagine a world without The Wizard of Oz— the film is so enmeshed in so many facets of our culture.  Amazingly, however, the film wasn’t a huge success when it came out.  The production was fraught with problems– chewing through directors and budgets alike so that by the time it came out there was little chance of re-couping the losses. 

Dorothy and Toto might have been a quirky footnote in cinema history had it not been for the magic of syndication.  MGM re-released the film in 1949 but it was when television started playing the film in regular rotation that the film started to pick up a following and now there are friends of Dorothy all around the world.


It’s a Wonderful Life poster by Laurient Durieux

It’s a Wonderful Life is another holiday classic that owes its fame to the power of television syndication.  The film was planned to have a New Years release, but producers pushed the release date forward to qualify it for the Oscars.  

The strategy did not pay off– the film faced stiff competition in the 1946 awards and although it was nominated for six awards it only won for technical achievement.  It also got somewhat lost in the holiday rush and ended up returning a loss for RKO.  

Television syndication breathed new life into the film, largely thanks to the fact that by the seventies RKO had let its copyright lapse due to its ‘flop’ status at the studio. 

It has since become standard holiday programming even though Frank Capra didn’t even really consider it a Christmas film when making it.  “I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.” 

Although it may seem like the epitome of wholesome family fare, it wasn’t viewed as quite so innocent when it came out.  The FBI investigated Capra and his films as possible Communist threats and Ayn Rand singled the film out as a pernicious threat against Americanism.  Which is another great reason to rally around George Bailey and his family every Christmas.

Frank Capra Director For 'Mr. Smith Goes To Washington'

pernicious threat Frank Capra

If any film any honestly claim to have a bona fide cult following it is The Big Lebowski.  The Coen Brothers film was a box office disappointment with mixed to lousy reviews.  The Dude abided, however, and over time the film has developed a devoted following.

‘Dudeism’ also known as ‘The Church of the Latter-Day Dude’ was founded in 2005, and there are now over 220,000 ordained ‘Dudeist’ priests worldwide. The film has regular screenings and in San Francisco a whole festival in its honour.  


The Big Lebowski poster by Matthew Griffin

In film at least at seems to be true – good things come to those who wait!  What have been your favourite films that others have panned?

Behind the seams with Vivien of Holloway

Natasha meets the wonderfully witty lady behind the Vivien of Holloway empire.

It’s not every day that you get to meet the reproduction vintage pioneer behind one of your favourite reproduction clothing labels.

Vivien of Holloway is a veritable institution in the vintage world. Since 2000, the label has been serving up only the highest quality, authentic, reproduction vintage clothing to pinup and rockabilly devotees worldwide.

Inspired by the timeless style of 1940s and 50s silver screen starlets, her glamourous clothing is made in England and designed to flatter your curves.

It’s an extremely humid Friday morning in late January and Vivien Wilson, aka Vivien in Holloway, is in Auckland and I meet her at Rita Sue Clothing, a vintage inspired boutique in St Kevin’s Arcade, which has recently become a stockist of the brand.

While I’m hungover as hell and my hair is plastered to my skull with sweat, Vivien is a picture of style and elegance. Dressed in a red and white Kitty dress with a striking Hawaiian print, her strawberry blonde hair perfectly coiffed, she’s a walking, talking ambassador for her label.

We grabbed a coffee at a bustling cafe overlooking Myers Park and had a jolly good chat.

Read on for the interview!


Vivien Wilson aka Vivien of Holloway at Rita Sue Boutique photographed in January.

You’ve been making clothing since you were a child and your label started in 2000. So you’re a reproduction clothing pioneer, is that right?

I am the first! I don’t think anyone else was doing it when I was 9 or 10.

I don’t think I’ll tell you how long ago that was! I didn’t start selling  until I was about 14 except to my friends because, obviously I’d make something for myself and then they’d go ‘ can I have one’ and I’d go ‘OK’.

So then I’d make it. And then at the first ever rock ‘n’ roll festival in the world as far as I know, probably the second one actually,  I took some clothes along to sell.


Was this in the 80s or 90s?

 Very early 80s is as far as I’m going to go back.

Was that the beginnings of a scene in the UK?

No there’s always been a scene!


 I went to America when I was 18. There’s pictures all over my personal Instagram…


There was no scene there…no rockabilly scene.

There were a few people there and they said to me ‘there’s nothing here.’


Why do you think this was?

Maybe because it’s so spread out and rockabilly is already a part of their culture. They dressed according to their music but they didn’t dress 50s style.

It was a bit flat to go to America and not to be able to find any rockabilly clubs. But it wasn’t a surprise as obviously I had friends from there who said there wasn’t any. And they were coming to England.

I went out there to meet an English boy who I was seeing and later married and when he picked me up from the airport he had a Chrysler and a ’59 Cadillac and we just got dressed up and went cruising all the time.


And he had a couple of young friends that had Corvettes, so there were cars and people into cars but there wasn’t really a music scene as such.

A few years after that when my friend came over from America… it slowly built from there.


How have you noticed the scene evolve?

The English scene doesn’t really change. People come and go. What’s shocking is when you remember there being a new young person to the scene and then they’re turning 30… Time just goes quickly!

Is the scene a lot bigger than it used to be?

There’s always been a big scene in England. Ever since I can remember really, if anything the clubs were bigger when I was young.


Enter a caption

In New Zealand it seems like the opposite way around. Pinup and vintage culture seem to be booming here. despite us being a tiny country.

I think there’s a big difference between vintage culture and rockabilly clubs. It’s not the same thing.


Viven meets local pinup Dolly Destory.

I guess the scene’s so small here that we don’t really have enough people to have separate scenes..

That’s a good thing it’s not like that in England. I wish more people who are just interested in pinup and vintage would come to clubs, it would make them more interesting.

As it is, it’s just people I’ve been looking at for 30 years.  And oh not you again! Hahaha!

As the first vintage repro label. Obviously everyone is doing vintage repro now. How does that make you feel?

It’s a bit sad that so many of them feel the need to copy my designs!  They do very close copies and then say there’s nothing like it. There’s a million different styles from the 50s- why did you choose to take so much influence from mine?


Vivien of Holloway’s flagship store on Holloway Road, London.

How do you feel about those cheap, nasty, made -in -China knock-offs that people buy on Ali Express and Wish?

One company in China actually stole my whole website! They have now copied a lot of other designers who are now contacting me. And it’s like, well none of you cared …they didn’t have any recognition of the fact that the scene is too small and you need to look further afield.

I started designing 1940s style trousers, I had them with the turn up and buttons and now people  seem to think that that’s the only style of the 1940s trouser instead of looking a bit further and going ‘ there are lots of different styles of 1940s trousers’ you don’t have to put buttons on one side and turn ups!


Do you go after then with lawyers?

When I first started, I didn’t do many designs. The stuff sold really well and I didn’t have to.It sold as quick as I could make it.

But then when people started copying my clothes, I just thought well that’s going to happen and it was just a big kick up the backside to do more designs. So really, they did me a favour.


But the difference with my brand is everything is made in England. Everything has my hand on it because literally those factories are within half an hour travel of my office and I personally check every pattern, I check every fit of every garment.

They’re fitted on one of the girls in the office who’s a size 10, and me who wears a size 18.  Every garment is checked like that- so it fits every person as an average the best. It’s difficult to make something fit at all on a short person.  But what we try and do is do the average of everything. So everything doesn’t fit me perfectly cos I’m tall!


That time I met Vivien Wilson in the flesh at Auckland boutique Rita Sue Clothing.

But it will fit everyone on an average pretty well. Some designs- because they’re made, they might not fit a short person quite so well.


I was actually going to come to that next as I’m sure you get a lot of comments about sizing..

There’s a lot of argument about the sizing. My label has been going so long that the sizes were actually made on the large size when we started.

If you look at an official size chart, it’s not actually that far from our sizing. But also a lot of clothes that are made in China – Asian people don’t have waists like we do so a lot of the clothing doesn’t get made with waists..

28034613_1947677521927239_1990867361_oAlso it’s the same with vanity sizing – if they don’t put a waist on something it’ll fit everybody. But I’m not happy with that. My clothing is limited to girls with one type of figure or maybe two, but it’ll fit them brilliantly.

The thing is there’s a massive gap in the market – for the body shape I cater for. There’s not a massive gap in the market for girls who are size 10. But there is for girls of size 18.

I try and leave little bits of extra [fabric] here and there so you can do adjustments.


Have you ever considered making extended sizes (currently her laegest size is UK22 with a 38″ waist)?

It’s very difficult because we already do 8 sizes. It’s not that there isn’t enough of a market–we could either cut off the small and add another larger size, but I can’t do more than 8 sizes. As it is, every time we make a dress – we make 500 dresses – that’s going to add another 80 dresses every time we do a fabric…

You have to have a cut off somewhere. And that’s kinda where we got to. 

28033166_1947679475260377_2025412431_oA lot of people have asked about larger sizes in the sarongs, but it’s difficult because as you get bigger, different people have their weight in different places and so it’s hard to know where to add the extra. I totally sympathize as I can’t buy clothes on the high street I’m too big…unless I want to go to a big girl’s shop and then just all tents.

In Australia I wear a 16 and at home it would be an 18 to a 20 and most shops don’t even cater that large. And if they do, they do one so it’s gone pretty quickly.

Maybe some of the clothes that aren’t so fitted I could do to a larger size..

28694591_1971569019538089_1357051668_oThe idea of our clothing is to pull you into the shape you should be so if you use a stretch fabric it will just let you out…but I think this year will see us possibly doing a little leisure range so a little beach dress maybe and with me coming to Australia every January , I don’t have anything to wear on the beach.


I like the structure that comes with wearing something non stretch.What about the idea of doing a separate plus size range or even a couple of pieces?

Oh I’d really love to but it’s just not plausible if you understood how small the company was .. because everything we do sells really well so I don’t want to stop… a lot of companies bring out a new range every year. But if we stopped doing anything from our range , people would be unhappy ..

28695235_1971569829538008_909684462_oWhat are the hallmarks of the Vivien of Holloway brand?

Well I like to think we are actually reproduction, most labels are just retro which just means made out of funky fabrics [ or a vague nod to retro] wheras I use the same fabrics – as close to the fabrics as I can get- or we replace rayon with polyester because it washes and it hangs just like rayon but it washes brilliantly or you can chuck it on the floor and put it straight back on.

I try and use fabrics that will hang exactly the same as the original which is where I think a lot of clothing brands fall down.

28695071_1971570499537941_241343011_oSo did you have any formal training in fashion?

No not really. I started [sewing] when I was about 8 or 9 I think – might have been 10. My mum loved old movies so I used to watch old movies with my mum and you know there was always that scene where you saw the women clicking down the road in those heels- stiletto heels with her seamed stockings and her tight skirt .. so I really wanted some of those shoes.


So my mum took me shopping and we looked everywhere and then she went ‘ ok I know where to go’ and she took me to a charity shop which is probably the worst thing she ever did in her life – and from that minute onwards I was hooked. I went in there and she said right- you can have two pairs of shoes and two items of clothing so I remember I bought two pencil skirts and two pairs of shoes and from then on, every single penny I got went straight to the charity shops and jumble sales.


And that’s how I learned the construction of vintage clothing, because I started altering them to fit me – first of all I just made tucks everywhere. My mum always made her own clothing but she wasn’t very good ..and she said this is what you do but then I realised you could start taking things apart and that’s where I learnt all my knowledge about how things were constructed. So that’s how my brand differs from other peoples because I’ve taken thousands of garments apart and I know how to put them together.

1950s-halterneck-turquoise-duchess-dress-p35-12965_image.jpgIn early days I used to just cut a dress in half and use half of it for a pattern and keep the other half to see how the rest went back together.

I learnt an awful lot of things that people can’t teach you .. how seams were made, how darts were made , how things should hang, how a particular style should hang and where it should drape- you need to know all these things.

And through a whole life of being into vintage, that’s how I am ..


Rita Sue Clothing proprietor Cathy Warden models the new Kitty in tiki print.

Have you got anything exciting coming up with the brand or personally?

It’s a bit late for the season but there’s a coat coming. It’s the first time I’ve told anyone we’re doing coats!

katharine-trousers-crepe-scarlet-p2757-12538_medium.jpgAren’t coats quite expensive and complicated to bring out?

They will be, but they’re worth it. It’s very beautiful and already under way and they’ll be made when I get back to England and they’re very beautiful and they’re going to be very limited – I think we’re only making 20 to start with!


We just started a new range before I went away called the Pink Label Deluxe and that’s because so many people admired clothes that I was making for myself but the fabrics were too expensive for me to put them into our range for a similar price so the pink label – probably most items will be twice the price as everything else but it’ll be because the fabric is really nice quality.

I mean we use nice quality already but this will take the limits off what I can spend on fabrics which means I can buy whatever I like. And we’ve already brought out some of the pink label items which are absolutely beautiful.


What is the label most known for? 

Well if you go to my live page on instagram, you’ll be able to see how I spend my life.

What are you most proud of?

My son! He’s just turning 30. He does work with me sometimes but he’s a musician- he’s in a metal band called Counting Days. They’re quite well known but there’s not an awful amount of money involved in music at the moment..

Fashionwise it’s usually my latest thing: I make clothes for me basically. If I want to wear something, then I make it. I might make something I wouldn’t wear now but everything I make is things I would have worn at some point in my life.

28642991_1971570889537902_1730123199_oHow has your style evolved over the years?

I very much dress for my body shape and for my age and I think the label probably reflects that but when I choose fabrics I make sure I choose fabrics that suit every personality and age so I just pick fabrics I think are beautiful and will look good in design- I might not wear them all.

I go to some very high end events a lot and even though I’m surrounded by people in designer clothes I’m always getting people stop me and tell me how amazing I look. And that’s everywhere I go really.

28822071_1971573742870950_422064913_oMy friends find it really funny that some people actually chase me up the street to tell me I look amazing. Year ago they used to laugh but now they understand what it [vintage] is. It’s in the press so much that people understand what you’re doing.

I used to go to a lot of fashion parties with stylists and fashion people . I myself am not really interested in getting involved in the fashion world, I’ve never been to fashion shows, I don’t think it’s got anything to do with what we do.

28695591_1971570639537927_2061382378_oBut I go to fashion parties with other people and whereas people used to look at me like I was weird and ignore me, now they tend to treat you like you’re some 50s movie star or something because they get it. But before it was fashionable, it was like ugh who’s that? The fashion industry can be really catty.

Want to find out more? Check out Vivien of Holloway stock in store now at Rita Sue Clothing or visit the website here.


Vivien and yours truly. Thank goodness for Vivien’s beloved ‘beauty app’ LOL


New Vivien of Holloway kitty dresses in store now at Rita Sue Clothing!

The Coney Island Baby who was almost King of the Jungle

Laura Macfehin looks back on body builder Joe Bonomo- how the son of a Candyman almost became the most famous ‘swinger’ of all time!

The Sweet Life


On a mild summer morning towards the end of the 19th century, a ship was steaming into New York. It had come from Istanbul and the decks were crowded with people keen to get a look at their new home. The harbour was crowded with other ships of all sizes and the sunlight sparkled on the water. Al and Esther Bonomo stood together in the breeze and shaded their eyes against the glare – with the rest of the passengers they craned their necks and stared at the imposing statue that loomed up as they passed Bedloe’s Island. There were oohs and aahs and a couple of whoops as they steamed passed. A thrill of inspiration ran through Al as he gazed at the copper giantess, holding aloft what appeared to be a monumental ice-cream.


Although later disabused of the notion that Liberty was welcoming them to the New World with frozen confectionery the inspiration stuck, and within a year the Bonomos were established on the Coney Island boardwalk with a stall selling ice-creams and homemade candy. On Christmas day in 1901 little Joe was born, and quickly became a fixture along with his parents in the carnival world of Coney Island. Despite having unlimited access to ice-cream and sweets the Brooklyn boy was a scrawny lad— often at the butt end of others jokes and earning himself the nickname ‘Toothpicks’. He kept to himself—exploring the world of sideshows and thrill rides with just his dog Babe for company.


“What’s the matter, kid?”

It was on one of these explorations that little Joe meet Ladislaw—a hulking Polish man who was in Coney Island with his strong man act. Ladislaw found Joe skulking round the back of the tent and asked the boy why he looked so glum. Joe replied that he was sick of being teased, and he wished he’d been born strong like Ladislaw.  Ladislaw chided him—“there’s nothing to it; being a big guy like me—anyone can do it. All it is eating the right foods and exercising your muscles”. Joe was fascinated—he got all the information he could from Ladislaw and from then on befriended every muscle man who came through Coney Island, even the world-famous Eugen Sandow.


Famous Strongman the magnificent Sandow (on the left) interferes with a dead tiger.

By high school he was a footballer and wrestler, and he had also managed to teach himself fencing, horse riding and ballroom dancing. He loved the glamour of the ballroom, but above all he was in love with motion pictures.

New Jersey Babylon


The Great Train Robbery (1903) filmed in the wilds of New Jersey and made by one of Edison’s employees was one of the first films to feature a plot.

At this time, New Jersey, not Hollywood was the centre of film production in America. Thomas Edison had set up his studio near his workshops in 1892 and from that time filmmakers had flocked to the area, setting up their own studios. As well as the proximity to technology New Jersey provided photogenic scenery and locales an a steady stream of talent just a ferry ride away from Broadway.  The previously sedate semi-rural New Jersey was over taken by film folk who churned out thousands of pictures for the new Nickelodeons that were springing up all over the country.


Charles Atlas in leopard print posing pants

In 1921 Joe Bonomo was encouraged by muscle man and founding father of the body-building universe Charles Atlas  to enter a star search competition looking for the ‘Modern Apollo’.  Maybe was there was magic in the leopard print loincloth Atlas lent him because Bonomo beat out thousands of other hopefuls.  The prize was a role opposite film star Hope Hampton.  Hampton, herself a competition winner was successful actress/producer who continued at the top her game until talkies came in.  The role Bonomo won was in ‘The Light in the Dark‘ a seven-reel melodrama featuring Hampton, Lon Chaney as a crook with a heart of gold and a hokey plot centred around the holy grail.

Annex - Hampton, Hope_03.jpg

Silent screen star Hope Hampton.  After she retired from movies she tried her hand at Opera singing before devoting herself to being a New York socialite.

Most films from this era were melted down after a week’s run and turned into new stock – The Light in the Dark has survived in a much abbreviated form as The Light of Faith because it was picked up for use in Religious Education classes –but it no longer has any trace of Bonomo in it.  He must have done okay in it though because from that time on Bonomo was in work constantly in the pictures.


Joe Bonomo in The Light in the Dark, with Hope Hampton and Lon Chaney

When the movie industry decamped to Hollywood seeking cheap land, sunshine and a continent-sized distance between them and the extremely litigious Edison, Bonomo went too.  His impressive physique and animated features made him a perfect fit for silent movies, and he starred in features like Eagle’s Nest and The Great Circus Mystery, as well as serials like The Chinatown Mysteries, Perils of the Wild and The Fighting Marines. He also doubled for actors like Lon Chaney, performing stunts in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and other hugely successful films.  Days were spent leaping from rooftops, from moving cars, throwing punches and falling from windows.  In The Hunchback of Notre Dame he completed a rope stunt that had seen another stuntman badly burnt by lining his gloves and trousers with tinfoil.  At the end of work he showered off the plaster dust and danced the sprains away with partner Ethel.


Bonomo with actress Magaret Quimby in the adventure serial The Perils of the Wild


Bonomo holds another actor above his head in The Chinatown Mysteries

Tarzan that wasn’t

In the early 30s Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer negotiated the rights to turn the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel Tarzan of the Apes into a motion picture.  Bonomo was considered a lock for the part– he had the athleticism, the good looks and he performed his own stunts.  There was one stumbling block– pictures now had sound and this Coney Island baby had a broad Brooklyn accent.  Like many actors of the era Bonomo scrambled to get voice lessons– trying get the necessary refinement for a leading man.  Burroughs was not impressed– Tarzan is meant to be an English lord after all.  In the end it didn’t matter.  Two accidents took Bonomo out of the running for this or any other role.


Bonomo leaps from balcony to flagpole in a stunt

In the first incident Bonomo had hit western star Buck Jones with a chair in a fight scene.  The Jones mis-timed his response and ended up with three broken ribs and a fractured back.  While not his fault the accident badly shook Bonomo’s confidence.  Then, while performing a car crash scene Bonomo broke a hip.  After being x-rayed it was found Bonomo had broken over 37 bones since arriving in Hollywood.  He was now un-insurable and therefore unhireable.  The role of Tarzan went to Johnny Weissmuller, the Olympic gold-medal winning swimmer, who went on to make a dozen films as the Lord of the Apes, perfecting the ‘yell’ that became synonymous with the character and then thirteen films as the Safari hero Jungle Jim.


One of Joe Bonomo’s last roles– as the ‘tigerman’– one of Dr Moreau’s ‘manimals’ in The Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Muscle by mail

Like many stars of the silent era, Joe Bonomo was out of work almost over night.  With his movie career behind him he married his dance partner Ethel and together with their baby daughter Joan they moved back to Coney Island, where Al Bonomo’s health had taken a turn for the worse.  Bonomo took over the family business, but his mind soon turned to a different area of revenue.  After all his early years on the boardwalk had taught him that you could hawk pretty much anything if you put your mind to it and came up with a good enough spiel.

At the height of his fame Bonomo had employed people to answer his fan mail, and one of the things he had sent out was a form letter outlining the steps needed to get a ‘new Apollo’ physique like his.  He now turned his mind to how he could market this plan, and in 1939 his first magazine Your Figure Beautiful was launched.  This publication featured diet and exercise plans, as well as advertisements for his mail-order courses which promised everything from a more beautiful bust to a completely new muscle-man physique.



Then (as now) his combination of quick-fix aspirational lifestyle advice and pictures of scantily clad models made these magazines very popular.  He also managed to include the importance of eating plenty of sweets for building muscle-tone– which tied in nicely with his family business selling the reasonably priced Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy!


From the 1940s on Bonomo also published ‘minis’– pocket-sized manuals on everything from being a good war-worker, to simplifying housework to looking taller.  These had gaudy loud covers and were sold on shop counters throughout the country.  In the sixties he included titles on the evils of drugs (Don’t Be A Dope!) and What I Know About Women-– which was 64 blank pages (har har).

When he died in 1978 he left behind a mixed legacy– on the one hand his publications have a pretty direct lineage to infomercials; possibly not the finest of human cultural excretions, and yet the publications themselves are beautifully composed odes to physical culture (and in particular the muscular male form) in full camp colour.  Not only that, but his stunt-work from the Twenties is breathtaking.  Who knows what could have been had his diction been more malleable (he was also a contender for the role of Anthony to Claudette Colbert’s Cleopatra)– but for now let us pop some candy in our mouths and say bravo Bonomo- the Brooklyn boy with the biceps!

For more info on Joe Bonomo try

The Strongman – Pictorial Autobiography of Joe Bonomo – 1973

Better call Eddie

For MGM moguls Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling, dealing with their stars’ dirty laundry was all in a day’s work. Natasha Francois examines the seedy underbelly of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Movie star Thelma Todd’s body was discovered the morning of December 16, 1935 by trusted maid Mae Whitehead.

The blonde bombshell was slumped behind the wheel of her beloved 1934 Lincoln Phaeton convertible. Her peroxide hair was matted, her skin pale.

Blood was splattered in the car, on her gown, mink coat, and face. Her nose appeared broken, she had bruises on her face and throat, and a porcelain veneer was missing from a front tooth. She appeared to have been severely beaten (broken ribs were later discovered).

Autographed Thelma Todd.jpg

Unsolved murder: Blonde comedienne Thelma Todd aka “the ice-cream blonde.”

The maid made the grisly discovery because she was responsible for collecting the star’s car from actress Jewel Carmen’s hilltop garage every morning and bringing to the Sidewalk Cafe, the restaurant Todd owned and lived above.

Between the garage and Todd’s apartment below were almost 300 steps and a staggeringly steep stairway.

TToddstairstocafehouseWhat was the A-list comedienne doing dead in the garage wearing her clothes from the night before?

On Saturday she’d attended a glitzy party at the Trocadero on Sunset Strip. During the evening, Thelma and her ex Pat DiCicco got into a heated argument – witnessed by many.

Captain Bert Wallis of the police homicide squad checks position of Thelma Todd's body. The coroner's report said her death was caused by carbon monoxide poisoning, but doubt remained.jpg

 ‘It’ girl du jour, Todd had been guest of honour, and seemed to be having a blast. Hubbie Roland West didn’t go and asked her to be home by 2am.  Thelma didn’t leave the party til 3.15am.

Her chauffeur, Ernest Peter, is the last person definitively known to have seen her alive.

From the moment police appeared on the scene, they behaved oddly. Both Chief Detective Bert Wallis and Chief Medical Examiner A. F. Wagner became personally involved – unusual even for a high-profile case like this.


Police were banished while the pair spent half an hour examining the scene. They declared the death due to carbon monoxide poisoning.

Meanwhile the crime scene was trampled by the press while Thelma’s lifeless body was snapped in a photographic free for all.

Just how the Hollywood star dubbed ‘the ice-cream blonde” and romantically linked to none other than notorious New York mobster, Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano, managed to get locked into her garage, by her own hands or by someone else’s, was a matter of conjecture.


Infamous mobster: Lucky Luciano is considered the father of modern organized crime.

The investigation revealed more questions than answers. Some suggested that the hard-drinking, flamboyant blonde committed suicide. It was not an uncommon method, but then murders had been committed in a similar way. In addition, if she killed herself, where did the blood on her face and clothing come from?


The police inexplicably placed the time of death at 2.00am Sunday morning – more than 36 hours before. However, Todd’s body was only just beginning to show signs of rigor mortis when the police arrived indicated that she’d been dead for no more than five or six hours.

The autopsy revealed her alcohol blood level was  .13 scarcely over the legal driving limit. It also found peas and carrots in her stomach – eaten five to six hours prior to her body being found. If she’d died at 2.00am Sunday how could the peas and carrots be accounted for?


The police deemed her death accidental. They believed she had arrived home intoxicated, fell asleep at the wheel and succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning.

Wagner, an experienced coroner, put the bruises on her face and throat down to postmortem lividity – a frankly ludicrous explanation.

The passing-out-drunk story is dubious given her blood alcohol level, although she might have still nodded off as she ran the heater in preparation for a drive down the hill.

And if she had been accidentally locked out of the garage, why was the key found in her purse?

e120bdd19abb5f5e51ffca8ff7e1b94fAlthough there were strong whispers, it was mob-ordered execution, the case remains bafflingly unsolved.

What is likely, however, is that before the maid contacted the police, she would have called Howard Strickling and Eddie Mannix.

What ensued is suspected to be one of the biggest cover ups in Hollywood history.


MGM: “More stars than there are in heaven.”

Meet the fixers

As soon as they caught wind of a potential scandal, Hollywood ‘fixers’ Howard Strickling and right-hand man Eddie Mannix would have sprung into action.

Head of Publicity at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Howard Strickling was the king of cover ups. From the 1930s through to the 1960s, the former journalist worked in tandem with MGM general manager Eddie Mannix to preserve the stars’ carefully choreographed reputations.

It was a time when image was everything and the untouchable icons were worth millions to the studios that owned them.


Sinister streak: MGM general manager Eddie Mannix was described as a “thug in a suit.”

MGM, headed by Louis B. Mayer championed the virtues of wholesome family entertainment. This had to be preserved at any cost. It usually meant keeping scandals out of the press or if they had progressed too far, sweeping them under the rug.

Mannix joined the studio near its inception and soon worked his way up. He remained on the payroll until he died in 1963.

The former New Jersey labourer and Palisades Park carnival barker, had rumoured mafia connections. He was also a serial philanderer and a wife beater who injured his girlfriend Mary Nolan so badly, she needed surgery to recover.

pbdclga_ec061He had people all over Los Angeles on the payroll, cops, doctors, coroners. It meant they could spin a story however they wanted.

Mannix and Strickling might be virtually forgotten today but in their Hollywood heyday, they were lords of the star-studded universe.

Mannix was the muscle, while Strickling distracted the media. Fending off the reporters often involved supplying the press with alternate stories to print and leaking stories about other star’s misdemeanors.

Together they paid off call girls, hushed up speeding tickets, hid illegitimate children, cleaned up corpses, and made sure affairs, homosexuality and other skeletons remained in the closet.

They reportedly bought up copies of a porn film reportedly made early in Joan Crawford’s career. Crawford was also forced by the studio to end a long affair with Clark Gable.


Too hot to handle: Joan Crawford was heartbroken when she was forced to end her affair with Clark Gable.

When the likes of Jean Harlow, Judy Garland, Lana Turner and countless other actresses found themselves pregnant out of wedlock, Strickling and Mannix procured hasty abortions. They even covered up the visits with false names and false ailments.

The fixers read every telegram sent or received through the studio, including personal messages sent by stars. It was the only way to guarantee they caught wind of possible trouble brewing before the shit hit the fan.

When he couldn’t scare a star straight, Mannix would summon an old friend from New Jersey– ie. a gangster to deliver the message.

Sometimes covering up rapes and murders, became part of the job and in many cases studio officials were at the scene of the crime for hours before police were even called.


Opposites attract: Paul Bern and Jean Harlow.

The death of Harlow’s hubbie

When MGM producer and the husband of Jean Harlow was found shot to death in 1932- believed to have been murdered by his ex-common law wife Dorothy Milette (who later plunged to her death off a ferry)- it was strongly suspected that the studio tampered with the crime scene to make Bern’s death to look like a suicide. A crime of passion would have sparked a field day for the press due to his famous wife. Plus murder would spark too many questions such as the inconvenient truth that Berne was still married to another woman.

Girl 27 Patricia Douglas.jpg

Erased from history: Patricia Douglas was sexually assaulted at an MGM party.

The rape of Patricia Douglas

In 1937, one of the studio’s young actresses, Patricia Douglas answered a casting call which required her to show up at the studio lot. The former chorus line girl assumed she’d be dancing a bit part in a musical.

But when she got to the lot, the girls were handed skimpy cowgirl outfits, given full camera-ready hair and makeup and promised $7.50 for the day’s work plus a meal.

It wasn’t until 300 MGM salesmen and executives, who’d by this time been drinking for three days straight, turned up that they realised they were there to provide female companionship at a private party. All the other guests were men. The party was a five-day sales convention to celebrate MGM’s big year.


The night sadly ended with Patricia allegedly being dragged into a car and raped by one of the guests, David Ross from the Chicago office. Earlier, she’d excused herself after their dance to complain to the bathroom attendant that she was having trouble extracting herself from this “annoying creep who was doing his best to cop a feel.”

When she tried to press charges Mannix flew into damage control mode paying witnesses to make statements saying Patricia, a teetotaller, was “uncontrollably drunk.”

When the court date dawned, no lawyers showed up. A federal judge eventually dismissed the case.

Young, Loretta (Bedtime Story)_01.jpg

Curious cover up: Loretta Young was forced to conceal her pregnancy and adopt her own biological child.

Clark Gable’s love child

In 1935 when MGM beauty Loretta Young became pregnant after allegedly being date raped by Clark Gable (her married co-star in Call of the Wild) and refused to have an abortion due to her Roman Catholic beliefs, Mannix devised a bizarre scheme which saw the actress go into hiding during her pregnancy, only to re-emerge 19 months later and adopt her own love child.

Annex - Young, Loretta_NRFPT_10.jpg

This was successfully concealed from the public for more than 65 years. Young herself publicly acknowleged it in an authorised biography that she arranged to have published after her death in 2000.

In fact Mannix kept Gable out of trouble so often (including a rumoured hit and run incident involving the death of a pedestrian) he considered Mannix one of his closest pals.

Mannix also is said to have conspired with police to ensure it never emerged that Gable and fellow star Spencer Tracy were regular customers at Lee Francis’ high-end, Sunset Boulevard brothel.


Best buddies: Otto Winkler, Carole Lombard, Clark Gable and Howard Strickling.

Tracy the terrible

Spencer Tracey was a violent drunk and deemed such a liability that a full-time ‘Tracy squad’ had to be deployed.

According to Mannix biographer E.J Fleming “Mannix assigned a private security detail and arranged it so every bar and restaurant within a 30-mile radius of the studio would have a special hotline to call if Tracy walked in. This unit would then be dispatched to literally carry him out.”


Public liability: Spencer Tracy was “an ugly drunk with a hair-trigger temper.”

And it was Mannix who hid the fact that a 38-year-old Tracy had slept with Judy Garland when she was in her early teens.

The child star and Wizard of Oz actress battled drug and alcohol addiction throughout her life and it was Mannix who introduced her to booze when she was just 17.

She was also said to have been plied with amphetamines to stay awake and barbituates to sleep at night in order to copy with the punishing schedule demanded of the studio’s most prized young stars.

When Garland fell pregnant at age 20 after a short-lived marriage to David Rose, it was Mannix who arranged the abortion.

Still, as a fixer, scandal couldn’t escape Mannix’s own life.


Studio dad: MGM maven Louis B. Mayer with child stars Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.

The death of Superman

George Reeves was the eponymous hero in 1950s TV series Adventures of Superman. He was believed to have committed suicide in 1959, at the age of 45, by shooting himself in the head. However, rumours persist that Mannix allegedly ordered a hit on Reeve when he discovered his wife, Toni Mannix, was having an eight-year affair with the actor. Fingerprints were never found on the weapon and police ruled the death a suicide. Although it was never proven. EJ Fleming believes Reeve’s newest girlfriend, society girl Leonore Lemmon was responsible.


Who killed Superman?

End of an era

The year of Reeve’s death, Mannix, now 68, suffered a string of heart attacks and became wheelchair bound. Another heart attack ended his life on August 30, 1963. He was 72.

Mannix and MGM’s fortunes had dwindled in the 50s after the Supreme Court broke their monopoly ownership of theatre chains and the distribution of films to independent theatres. Actors and directors began to assert their independence and demand a share of the profits, often in lieu of a salary. Plus television was already diverting audiences’ attention.


As for Thelma, perhaps she was simply unlucky? Perhaps she turned on the heating to warm herself up and then drifted off forever?

Did she take her own life? Her friends thought it unlikely as she was in good spirits, and were aware of nothing unusual in her life that could suggest a reason for her committing suicide.

Today, the mysterious murder of the ice-cream blonde continues to captivate the public imagination. There are numerous theories about how she could have died but insufficient evidence to prove any of them and everyone who was directly involved with the case and the original investigation is long dead.

Perhaps we shall never know.

Find out more:

Read: The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling and the MGM Publicity Machine by E.J Fleming.

Listen: You Must Remember This (podcast)

Watch : Hollywood Land (film, 2002). A detective examines the mysterious death of George Reeves, the star of the television series Adventures of Superman (1952).