The Hustlers and the Movie Star


By William Van Meter

Ramon Novarro was the king of the silent screen. In 1968, two very uncommon criminals were arrested for his brutal slaying.

Tommy Ferguson consults with his attorney Richard A. Walton

Paul and Tommy’s mother, Lorraine Smith, was next on the stand. It was the first time she had seen her sons since their incarceration (she hadn’t seen Tommy since he was 15). She testified that Tommy wrote and told her that Novarro “deserved to be killed. He was nothing but an old faggot,” but did not produce the letter. Her testimony put the burden of blame squarely on Tommy.

A letter from Smith to Tommy dated May 27 was introduced into evidence by his defense. It read in part: “Paul Robert wrote the first trial day and said everyone seems out to save his own skin and he’s in a corner now. Tom, when you testify, think about what you’re saying. You’re holding Rob’s life in your hands. You can either let him live or die.”

That day, Smith spoke to the Los Angeles Times: “She said her younger son had been in an Illinois mental institution twice and had been in and out of jails and juvenile halls since he was 13. She believes he is capable of violence… ‘I was deathly afraid of him,’ she said.’ ” She told the paper that Paul hadn’t been any trouble.

During his closing argument on September 15, 1969, Ideman waved crime-scene photos at the jury. “What kind of monsters would do a thing like this?” he asked. “These two male whores are experienced. They’ve lived on the streets for years. Why all of these serious injuries if not to get him to tell where the money was?… Novarro was paying a lot of young men for a long time.”

He closed with, “Neither of the Ferguson brothers will admit striking Mr. Novarro even once… I was beginning to wonder if what we were dealing with was a suicide. Perhaps Mr. Novarro wrapped himself in that electrical cord and beat himself to death.”

Hanifan maintained that his client, Paul, had been asleep during the murder, and that it was committed by Tommy. Besides placing the blame solely on Paul, Walton cast his net wider. “Back in the days of Valentino, this man who set female hearts aflutter, was nothing but a queer,” he told the jury. “There’s no way of calculating how many felonies this man committed over the years, for all of his piety. What would have happened that night if Paul had not gotten drunk on Novarro’s booze, at Novarro’s urging, and at Novarro’s behest? Would this have happened if Novarro had not been a seducer and a traducer of young men?” Walton accused Paul and his mother of conspiring to focus the blame on Tommy so Paul could avoid the gas chamber (Tommy wouldn’t face the death penalty because of his age during the crime).

The jury deliberated for two days before finding the Ferguson brothers guilty of first-degree murder. At the sentencing hearing, Tommy confessed, “He kept trying to put his fingers up my rectum… I started hitting him… I hit him again, and he hit the floor.” He then added, “He died of a broken nose, and I’m the one who busted it.” Ideman urged the jury to ignore his confession and maintained that Paul had been the aggressor. The brothers were sentenced to life, a punishment to be served at San Quentin.

“In my neighborhood in California, we did not bless the door that opened wide to stranger as kin. Paul and Tommy Scott Ferguson were the strangers at Ramon Novarro’s door, up on Laurel Canyon,” wrote Joan Didion in her treatise on 1960s Los Angeles and the last gasp of the summer of love.

As the Fergusons served their sentences, the legend of their crimes infiltrated pop culture. Charles Bukowski wrote the thinly veiled “The Murder of Ramon Vasquez.” Salacious magazines featuring crime scene photos and the nude images of Paul were rushed into production. Truman Capote interviewed Paul for a 1973 TV special on the prison’s death row. The most infamous reference to the murder, however, was the section in Kenneth Anger’s remarkably entertaining (and inaccurate) exploration of decadence, Hollywood Babylon. He asserts that the murder weapon used to kill Novarro was a lead dildo cast from Valentino’s member, and that it was crammed down his throat suffocating the actor. The phallus didn’t exist, but this urban legend still persists.

In the 1970s, an avid fan, Ryan Kelly, who often dressed like Novarro, purchased his home (along with some of his furniture). He claimed that Novarro haunted it. Kelly was killed in the late ’80s by his brother with a shotgun up the street from the house. The house has since been demolished.