The Hustlers and the Movie Star
By William Van Meter
Ramon Novarro with Greta Garbo in Mata Hari
The next day, Halloween, Weber reported to Novarro’s home for work at 8:30 a.m. The house was in a state of disorder: chairs were overturned, a pair of spectacles was crushed on the living room carpet, and liquor bottles were strewn around. Weber searched the nine-room house. At first, he didn’t see anything out of the ordinary in the bedroom; the curtains were closed and no light could come in. After he drew them, he made out the figure of Novarro, nude, lying on his back on his bed, his face severely beaten. Scrawled on the mirror with a brown makeup pencil: US GIRLS ARE BETTER THAN FAGITS. The name LARRY was written in ink on the blue bed sheet next to the body. Scratches were carved into Novarro’s neck.
Weber phoned the police, and, within minutes, investigators (and a phalanx of reporters and onlookers) arrived. A newspaper photographer stumbled upon a pile of bloody clothes (a jacket, undershirt, T-shirt, and two pairs of underwear) in the ivy bed on the other side of the 8-foot-high iron fence that separated the property from the lot next door.
The preliminary coroner’s report issued later that day read:
“Blood noted (smeared) on floor in bedroom, on ceiling, and tooth noted lying on floor at foot of bed. Decedent’s hands were tied behind his back with brown electric cord, (a white condom was found in decedent’s right hand) and electric cord extended down and was tied around decedent’s ankles. Lacerations and ecchymosis were noted on face and head.”
The next day, Novarro’s murder made the front page in newspapers across the country. The headline from The New York Times read “Ramon Novarro Slain on Coast; Starred in Silent Film ‘Ben-Hur.’ ” The Los Angeles Times chimed “Ramon Novarro, Silent Film Era Star, Beaten to Death.” Police announced that the murder weapon had been found, a silver-tipped cane.
The final autopsy report revealed that Novarro’s blood alcohol level was .23 (today’s legal limit in California is .08). He had a fractured nose, and there was bruising on his chest, neck, left arm, knees, and penis. The cause of death was determined to be suffocation. Novarro had choked on his own blood, due to “multiple traumatic injuries of face, neck, nose and mouth.”
On October 21, nine days before the murder, 17-year-old Tommy Ferguson arrived in Los Angeles. In March, he had escaped from an Illinois reform school where he had been sent for beating up an older man and robbing him. Wanting a fresh start for him, his grandmother had put Tommy on a plane with instructions to stay with his 22-year-old brother, Paul, and his wife of three months, Mari, in their Gardena apartment.
When Paul was growing up, the Fergusons were an itinerant family, depending on where their father, Lucky, would find work as a steeplejack (repairing and painting steeples, towers, bridges, anything high and dangerous). Lucky was a daredevil even when not working. Once, when he had a broken leg, he jumped off a high bridge into a river carrying Paul, a toddler at the time. The family would move between Alabama and Illinois. This was no small feat. Lorraine and Lucky had 10 children; Paul was the oldest. “He’d wake you up in the middle of the night and say, ‘Look what I caught,’ ” Paul remembers of his father. “The whole bathtub would be full of big ol’ catfish. He was a good guy when he was sober. He was a womanizer and he’d rather drink than buy groceries or pay rent. He was a regular piece of hillbilly shit.”
Lucky would disappear for weeks at a time, leaving Lorraine with the kids and no money. When he was 10, after being struck by his father, Paul left home and hitchhiked from Florida to his grandmother’s in Chicago, eating wild onions on the way. Lucky died of spinal meningitis when Paul was 12. At 14, Paul left home for good and hitchhiked to Mexico and then to Wyoming to work as a rancher. At 15, he joined the army, by lying about his age, and was honorably discharged a year later.