Death comes to the creator of The Three Stooges after a night at the Trocadero.

Mitzi with Ted Healy
My grandmother, Mitzi Cummings with actor, Ted Healy. Date circa 1937.

Exactly what happened after the initial altercation with Albert “Cubby” Broccoli is not clear, but Healy would later be found at a Hollywood hotel where the hotel doctor sewed up a huge gash over his left eye. Along with this wound, Healy looked like he had been severely beaten. He was taken home but he soon after slipped into unconsciousness and began convulsing. Within hours he was dead. [Watch the 5 minute documentary here.]

This chummy photo of my grandmother, Mitzi Cummings, with actor and notorious rogue, Ted Healy, was taken shortly before his untimely death at 41 on December 21, 1937, just two days after the birth of his first child to former actress, and on again/off again wife, Betty Hickman.

Like so many of early Hollywood’s comedic actors, Ted Healy came to the motion picture business via the live or die world of vaudeville, a hugely popular form of variety entertainment in the United States and Canada, which spanned for decades, roughly from the early 1880s until the early 1930s. On the one bill a night out could include actors, musicians, dancers, impersonators, magicians, acrobats and comedians. In its dying days, hundreds of vaudevillians made the leap to motion pictures. For many, like Mae West, Chic Sale, Charles Bickford, and George Burns and Gracie Allen (who I’ve written about in previous posts), the transition from the stage to Hollywood was not only seamless, but with their inbuilt fan base, they literally become overnight stars in the new mediums of celluloid and radio.

Behind the scenes the vaudeville biosphere of producers, stage managers and other technical personnel, also flowed into the movie business. Louis B. Mayer, my great uncle, got his start from purchasing old vaudeville theaters and transforming them into film palaces, but  he soon realised that an endless stream of content was needed. Soon L.B. became a producer. Why own a handful of end destinations for a product, when you can create a product needed by thousands of cinemas? The saying ‘content is king’ may be relatively new, but it simply refers to supply and demand, and audiences, mesmerized by film, were absolutely voracious. The film business could barely keep up.

Born on October 1, 1896 in Houston, Texas, Ernest Lea Nash was a scrappy performer who created his first vaudeville act as a teenager. It was a success so he expanded his role to comedian and master of ceremonies, took a new stage name, Ted Healy, and added performers. His friend Moses Harry Horwitz (later known as Moe Howard) joined him, and Healy gave him the role of ‘stooge’, a plant in the audience who is called onto the stage. Of course, once on stage all hell would break loose, culminating in Healy losing his trousers. It’s not hard to see how vaudeville also gave birth to slapstick, a form of comedy that has evolved somewhat but is the nutty domain of modern comedians like Jim Carey (think Dumb and Dumber) and many old and new SNL stars.

Moe Howard’s brother Jerry (later known as Curly) joined the act as a heckler in 1923 and Larry Fine joined in 1925 – and now we have the famous Larry, Curly and Moe, The Three Stooges. However, in 1931 they broke from Healy after a dispute over a movie contract. Healy sued the Stooges for using his material, but the copyright was actually held by the Shubert Theatre Corporation, for which the routines had been produced. As the Stooges had the Shuberts’ permission to use it, Healy lost the suit.

There was an attempt to let bygones be bygones but a 1934 reunion didn’t last. Frankly, I find it hard to imagine The Three Stooges taking anything seriously; my visual is of someone calling a meeting, and first on the agenda are eye pokes and head slaps.

With the loss of the law suit, and his act and vaudeville on life support, Healy shifted his attention to the ‘pictures’ business. From 1930, to his death in December of 1937, he appeared in a succession of films for 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, and MGM, including Soup to Nuts, Hollywood on Parade, Hollywood Party, Meet the Baron, Mad Love, San Francisco, Fugitive Lovers, Hollywood Hotel, Bombshell, Love Is a Headache, The Casino Murder Case, Mad Holiday, Man of the People and The Band Plays On.

Despite his constant flow of roles, Healy was always broke; he lived large, drinking and gambling his money away and chasing women around movie sets and Hollywood. Looking at the photo above, with his worn out shoes, dirty pants and missing fly button, he looks like he is one gig away from hobo status. Still, he had that natural charisma that many hardworking and popular performers have in spades, even if their wallet is all out of common sense. It certainly helps to explain why Healy was never short of female company.

Healy’s ten year marriage to his first wife, Betty Brown, officially ended in 1932, but he took up with Betty Hickman long before then. In fact, in the same year as the divorce, Hickman audaciously sued east coast socialite Mary Brown Warburton for $250,000 for “luring Healy with trysts and gifts”. Although Hickman came from a prominent Pasadena family, Warburton’s wealth was on another level entirely – her father was the publisher of the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph, and her mother was an heir of the legendary John Wanamaker, merchant and civic leader, who left a $1 billion estate when he died in 1922. Both women were evidently unstable, but you would have to be to have any interest in a rapscallion like Healy. Warburton died in 1937 from a deliberate or accidental overdose of what was described as ‘reducing pills’ but later reports speculate that it was more likely cocaine or heroin, and certainly diet pills from the day did often include cocaine.

Healy and his women were perennially at the center of dramas of every type. Along with Hickman’s suit against Warburton, Healy’s first wife, who now went by Betty Nash, was involved in a head-on collision in 1934, which killed Harry Clarke a Los Angeles salesman. And it didn’t stop there. According to a news article on December 27, 1935, a Miss Marian Bonnell filed arson charges against Healy:

“Ted Healy, bald film comedian, has been given an extra day to work up an alibi to prove his absence from a jovial Christmas morning party at which he allegedly burned up the furniture of a girlfriend’s apartment. Healy’s attorney, Jerry Geisler, told Deputy District Attorney, George Johnson he could ‘prove Healy wasn’t there’. Johnson agreed to delay filing an arson complaint against the actor. Miss Marian Bonnell made the complaint before Captain Paul Wolfe of the Fire Department, charging Healy forced his way into her apartment after she locked the door, piled her clothes on the kitchen stove and set fire to them.”

Charming. And around the same time, while at a party and evidently sick and tired of hearing Barbara Stanwyck’s husband Frank Fay boast about his smile, Healy K-O’d him and knocked several of his teeth out.

Where Healy went, trouble soon followed.

So it came as no surprise that when his wife Betty Hickman gave birth to their first child on December 19, 1937, Healy’s best idea was to hit the town and party. By 2:15am, when Healy arrived at the Trocadero in West Hollywood (owned by William R. Wilkerson, who also owned the Hollywood Reporter), Healy was lit up and belligerent.

All reports agree that at the Trocadero he came into contact with Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli, 29, described as “a scion of a wealthy Long Island family”, who was partying with his first cousin Pasquale “Pat” DiCicco, a “Hollywood agent” with no clients but heir to his father’s 83 acre broccoli farm and his mother’s $10,000 estate. DiCicco is repeatedly in the news for nightclub altercations and rumors that he was involved in the mysterious 1935 death of his former wife, actress Thelma Todd. A few months after their divorce, Todd was found dead in her car in the garage of another actress, Jewel Carmen.

Although this was labeled death due to carbon monoxide poisoning, there were enough concerns to warrant a grand jury investigation, particularly as Todd and DicCicco had argued at the Trocadero the night before her death. DiCicco was cleared of any involvement, but rumors persisted that he was somehow responsible for the beautiful blonde’s death.

Amazingly, DiCicco then marries 17-year-old heiress Gloria Laura Vanderbilt, whose fortune was estimated at $4.5 million. Their marriage, like his earlier one to Todd, will become a living hell of domestic violence and shocking public scenes.

After Thelma Todd’s divorce from DiCicco she had a brief affair with Ted Healy, which may or may not be important to the events on the night of December 20, 1937. Their previous relationship may have meant something to DiCicco, but then again Los Angeles was a small town with an overabundance of maniacally egotistical and ambitious players of relationship musical chairs. Connecting the dots between who was in business, in a film, and in bed with each other would drive you mad.

In a front page article on December 23, 1937, under the headline “Wealthy Sportsman Confesses Fight with Ted Healy”, Broccoli’s description of events is quoted: “I was standing in the Trocadero when Healy entered,” Broccoli said. “I knew he had become a father a few days before, so I asked him to have a drink. He seemed quite unsteady, turned to an attendant, and asked: ‘Who is this fellow?’

“I laughed that off and extended my congratulations. He staggered toward me and struck me on the nose. My nose began to bleed. The next thing I knew he had hit me in the mouth and followed this with a blow to the chin that almost floored me. I shoved him away, because I didn’t want to hurt him, and attendants took Healy to an ante-room. Later the attendants came back and told me Healy wanted to see me. I went in and we shook hands. He got into a taxicab and that’s the last I saw of him.”

This tidy, self-serving explanation almost begs you to read between the lines. Although exactly what happened after the initial altercation with Broccoli is not clear, Healy would later be found at a Hollywood hotel where the hotel doctor sewed up a huge gash over his left eye. Along with this wound, Healy looked like he had been severely beaten. He was taken home, but he soon after slipped into unconsciousness and began convulsing. Within hours, Healy was dead.

There was enough uncertainty about whether or not Healy died as a result of the night’s violent events that the attending medical examiner, Dr Wyant Lamont, would not sign his death certificate until further investigations were conducted by the police.

Again, things get cloudy, as autopsy surgeon Dr A. F. Wagner pronounces Healy’s death a result of “nephritis and alcoholism,” and states that there was no injury to the skull or brain and no blood clots, or evidence of cerebral hemorrhage. No mention is made of internal injuries, and if DiCicco did become involved on the night, it is unlikely he was in an understanding mood. This makes the mention of the ante-room conjure up a scene of a terrible, vicious beating. Did DiCicco, or his henchmen, have a ‘quiet word’ with Healy? Some papers also reported a violent fight in the Trocadero parking lot. Did Broccoli and DiCicco et al take their beef with Healy outside?

Tapping into the questions and swirling innuendo, Healy’s widow is unconvinced by the doctor’s findings and in an unusual action for the time, Hickman goes to the media herself calling for a deeper investigation. Instead of pointing the finger at Broccoli, she claims that Healy’s death is directly related to a beating, but intimates that someone else was involved. Sadly, her efforts come to nothing. No charges are laid against anyone – and certainly everyone would agree that Healy was a candidate for kidney trouble, and the ill effects of alcoholism.

Was MGM’s general manager Eddie Mannix, and PR man Howard Strickling involved in ‘fixing’ events in favor of Broccoli? This is hard to imagine. Healy was no box office diamond like the leading men of the day, such as Clark Gable or Fred Astaire. He was a drunk, a trouble-maker and frankly, there were many more, far easier to manage actors like Healy standing in a very long line. As for Broccoli, unless Mannix and Strickling were also gypsy fortune tellers, no one on earth could have known how important Broccoli’s future Bond movie franchise would become to MGM in another era.

Mannix did, however, arrange the ‘Ted Healy Benefit Show’ in January, 1938, which featured over 30 stars and raised $12,000 for Betty Hickman and her now fatherless son. (If you think crowdfunding is new, think again!). Adding the usual dash of Healy drama, Betty Hickman was later sued by Dr Wyant Lamont for unpaid bills: $819 “for hospitalization” (read morgue?) and $980 in doctor’s fees.

As for Healy, his funeral was attended by 300 mourners, including many “film notables,” and was held in St Augustine’s, the same church where his infant son, John Jacob Nash, was baptized – right across the street from MGM.

Post Script: Ted Healy’s son would grow up to become a fine, upstanding and financially talented citizen in Atlanta, Georgia, far from Hollywood, and would change his name to Theodore John Healy. According to an obituary in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, dated 19 July, 2011: “Because he grew up fatherless, Mr. Healy of Dunwoody devoted time to serving as a role-model for young folk. For years, he taught math at the DeKalb Regional Youth Detention Facilities. When he retired, the certified financial planner taught math in an area middle school and high school. He founded Financial Design Consultants, and ran the business nearly 20 years before retiring.”

In 1963, Gloria Vanderbilt would marry Wyatt Emory Cooper and give birth to Anderson Cooper, in 1967, now of CNN fame.

Copyright Alicia Mayer 2013.

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7 comments

  1. Alicia, I love your stories and your writing. Wish my late Dad had known about your blog; he would’ve been glued to it! Old Hollywood scandals and murder mysteries are my favorites!

  2. Thank you so much! I would love to have known your father. I’m sure he had some brilliant stories to tell about his time in the biz!

  3. I wasn’t sure how to email you directly, but this story reminds me of a Hollywood mystery I’ve been working on. It is about Roy Pomeroy, who ushered Paramount Studios into the silent film era with his sound technician skills. He was also an early special effects creator and director. Roy died mysteriously and his Oscar for his work on 1927’s “Wings” is missing. I work for The American Pomeory Historic Genealogical Association. We were contacted by the Academy regarding Roy’s missing Oscar. I have written two articles about Roy and wondered if you would like to do a guest post or link to them. We would love to reach out and see if anyone has more information on Roy and where his missing Oscar could be! Roy worked for Cecil B. DeMille and was hired by Jesse Lasky. He led a fascinating life. Let me know your thoughts. Thank you so much.

  4. Wallace Beery never came up in any of the contemporary articles from the time. He seems to be a later addition to the urban myth that there was an MGM cover up.

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