The Hustlers and the Movie Star
By William Van Meter
At left: Paul and Tom Ferguson enter the courtroom for their murder trial, 1969. Right: Ramon Novarro at the height of his stardom, 1925.
Down the sternly christened No More Victims Road lies Jefferson City Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison about two hours west of St. Louis. It is an unseasonably warm day in mid-February, and Paul Robert Ferguson sits in the visitation area. Behind him is a painting of a soldier saluting the flag and various Plexiglas windows for those prisoners considered unfit to be in close proximity to their guests.
Paul, 66, is wearing all gray—hospital-scrub pants and a tee over a long-sleeved shirt. His graying hair is slicked back in the Rockabilly style of his youth, but the back is grown out and touches his shoulders. Two teeth are missing and, as he speaks, he dips a ham sandwich from the vending machine into a cup of hot chocolate, just to taste something different. The monotonous food is his biggest complaint about prison—that, and missing horses. He maintains his strong build doing 200 push-ups every other day (despite the fact that he’s had five heart attacks and sleeps with an oxygen mask on).
“I’m an existentialist,” Paul says. “I try not to let the environment dictate who I am.”
Paul is a practicing Buddhist and does yoga each morning. He is also a convicted murderer responsible for one of the biggest scandals Hollywood has ever seen.
It was 1968, and former silent film star Ramon Novarro had downsized from his Frank Lloyd Wright–designed mansion to a one-story Spanish-style ranch house. The movie roles had long dried up, and he was reduced to the occasional guest spot in TV shows like Bonanza and The Wild Wild West. But the 69-year-old Novarro would soon be front-page fodder again.
Born Ramon Samaniego in Durango, Mexico, Novarro had supported his large family after their move to the states. Novarro starred in silent blockbusters such as 1925’s epic Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (the most expensive silent film until last year’s The Artist) and Scaramouche. From 1925–1935, Novarro made more money for MGM than any actor except for Joan Crawford. He just about survived the great sea change that was sound, appearing in talkies such as the hit Mata Hari, opposite Greta Garbo, but his career went into decline.
A fervent Catholic and an alcoholic for more than 30 years, Novarro had lost his license due to multiple DUIs (he received two within two days in 1960) and was receiving unemployment. He could no longer pull off being a romantic lead, his previous forte. “Most likely because of alcohol abuse, Novarro aged rather rapidly,” says André Soares, author of the biography Beyond Paradise. “Also, Novarro seriously considered becoming a monk. All evidence seems to point out that he very much missed the good old days of fame and riches. He did strive to come back a few times, but without any luck.”
The 5-foot-6 actor had advanced emphysema and arthritis and weighed 198 pounds. He frequently used an escort service, Masseurs -- The Best, on nearby Fountain Avenue. His secretary of eight years, Edward Weber, was helping him write his memoirs. Weber’s other duties included paying the escort service (hundreds of checks were written out in denominations of $20 or $40, often under the ruse of “gardening” services) and making alcohol runs.
Wednesday, October 30, was Weber’s day off, but he happened to stop by the liquor store near Novarro’s house. The proprietor told him that Novarro had just placed a delivery order for cigarettes -- one carton of Winstons and one of Marlboro. Weber offered to drop them off to Novarro (who didn’t smoke). When Weber showed up at 3110 Laurel Canyon Boulevard around 5:30 p.m., his boss appeared at the door in a dressing gown and was surprised to see him. Weber thought that he could smell lotion on Novarro and noticed he had a freshly trimmed mustache and goatee. He wasn’t invited in. Weber would later testify, “I had the feeling that he had guests.”