Good Time Charlie
It all started in an ivy covered bungalow at 6665 Sunset Boulevard on May 20, 1931. The bungalow was shared by a realtor, a photographer, and the owner of the building -- a huge, jovial, high-voiced 52 year-old "businessman" by the name of Charlie Crawford. Charlie's office was in the back, and it was peculiar, with dark wood paneling covered in wires, and almost no natural light -- except that which found its way through a steel mesh covered skylight. Four telephones sat on a giant desk, along with a panic button. The doors were outfitted with special locks and steel bars and a large safe sat against one wall.
Around 4:30pm shots rang out. A few moments later, a dapper man in a double breasted suit walked calmly out the side door and got into a car where a bejeweled blonde woman was waiting. Inside, Charlie Crawford laid clinging to life. The other victim, Herbert Spencer, was already dead. Charlie was rushed to the Georgia Street Hospital, where his wife Ella, a slight and lovely woman with blonde hair and melancholy blue eyes, rushed through the halls with a bible in her hands, demanding to see her husband.
In the operating theater, an LAPD detective asked Charlie who had shot him. Charlie simply smiled and said "I don't know, ask Spencer." After being pressed further he smiled one last time, and slipped into unconsciousness. He had been true to his code to the last. Because Charlie wasn't a "businessman" or a "real estate agent" or a "politician," as the skittish newspapers frequently labeled him. And the 30-something woman who now stood perfectly still over his corpse, as tears rolled down her face, wasn't simply a privileged housewife, formerly Ms. Oddessa Ella Weding of Minnapolis, who lived at 929 Rexford Drive in Beverly Hills. She was the wife of the man who had once ruled the Los Angeles underworld, known to all of the Southland as "the gray wolf of Spring Street."
Charles E. Crawford had gotten his start in boomtown Seattle at the turn of the century, operating casinos and bordellos and eventually making his way to the mayor's office. Around 1910, Seattle voted in a reform mayor and began an investigation into his activities. Charlie, followed by some of his cronies, headed down to sunny and lawless Los Angeles and opened the Maple Bar, at Fifth and Maple, which also featured a casino and bordello and was frequented by the city's ruling elite. By the 1920s Charlie was the boss of an informal but ruthless crime syndicate, commonly known as "the city hall gang." From 1921-29 Charlie, along with political fixer Kent Kane Parrot, virtually ran the city, using puppet-mayor George E. Cryer as the front man.
As the markets crashed, so did Charlie's empire. The Seattle situation happened all over again, as a reforming mayor was voted into office and Charlie was indicted for various crimes. Charlie publicly attempted to clean up his act, focusing on real estate and claiming to have found god with the help of his wife. He started a magazine, "Critic of Critics," and hired his friend Herbert Spencer to be the editor. But privately Charlie was up to the same old tricks. "Critic of Critics" was simply a tool in a propaganda campaign against targeted city officials. On that afternoon in 1931, for reasons that were never entirely clear, "Handsome" Dave Clark, a USC grad, corrupt District Attorney, and candidate for city judge, came to meet with Spencer and Charlie. As the prosecutor later stated, "there were three racketeers" in that bungalows back office.
Only one came out.
Frail and worn, but calm and self-possesed, Mrs. Ella Crawford talked with a group of newspaper reporters. 'I bear no malice in my heart toward anyone. And I do not believe in capital punishment. I believe that it is against the commandments of God to take a human life. I think the murderer of my husband should be treated as any other criminal.'-- The Los Angeles Times, August 6, 1931
Ella Crawford was now alone, with two small daughters, Joan and Eleanor, to raise.
No matter what she had known or thought of her husband's dirty dealings, during the two highly publicized trials of Dave Clark, Ella defended her husband with a pious vim and vigor that belied her helpless appearance. Dave and his histrionic wife Nancy turned out to be media stars, a highly attractive couple who won both the public and the jury's sympathy and adulation. They relentlessly courted the press, Dave inviting them into his cell to watch in him play poker with other accused murderers, Nancy granting endless interviews.
Ella and Spencer's widow also became media figures, with daily reports on what they wore and their demeanor in the court room. Ella was the more reserved of the two, often patting the hand of Spencer's widow while she sobbed uncontrollably and appearing at the trial only occasionally. When she was called to testify, she took the stand in a chic "black silk two-piece suit with a touch of color at the throat" and spoke in a "clear voice" with "calm blue eyes." When she was asked if her husband had carried a gun on the day of the shooting (a vital piece of evidence, since Clark claimed he had shot in self-defense) Ella said he had not. When asked how she knew, she smiled slightly -- reminiscent of her good time husband -- and rolling a bit of paper between her gloved fingers stated:
He embraced me when he left home. He always did before he left me and if he had been wearing a revolver I would have felt it.
Yet behind her austere and resigned calm, it seems Ella's blood was boiling. The murders were to be tried separately, with Spencer's death up first. While the judge read the jury his instructions, Ella sat silently, an occasional tear trickling down her face, as the other wives broke down. On August 24, when the star-struck jury came back with a vote of not guilty, she was at the home of friends and declined to comment. But two days later, back in her palatial, columned mansion in Beverly Hills, Ella let loose, issuing a remarkable statement that reveals more about her character and mettle than my insufficient words ever could.
August 26, 1931At the close of the trial as I was coming out of the building called the Hall of Justice, thinking of the injustice expressed by the verdict in the trial involving the slaying of my husband, I stepped across the street and was confronted by an inscription on an old building that had been erected many years past. It read:"It is not your battle, but God's!"So as far as I am concerned District Attorney Fittz need not put on any more burlesque shows in the trial of my husband's slayer. In these times of depression it would be far better if the taxpayers be saved the cost of another futile gesture such as that just completed. In the trial the memory of my husband was besmirched and a halo placed over the head of his slayer. Against the forces of evil and hypocrisy which now control this city, even reaching into pulpits to spread false rumors and reports, and into official circles to pervert justice, a lone woman cannot prevail. It must indeed be a dull conscience and complacent public which can view with unconcern the farcical conduct and outcome of this case. Sadly enough, it is not the first nor will it be the last if justice is to continue to be administered by such hands. Only a few months ago gangsters shot and hopelessly crippled an honest policeman doing his duty in attempting to arrest criminals. They were defended by one of the same attorneys who defended Clark. They put on the same kind of self-defense story they used in this case and a jury of American citizens acquitted the gangsters. So widows are robbed of their husbands, children robbed of their fathers, mother robbed of their sons, and this is called justice.-- Ella E. Crawford.
The reasons behind Ella's absolute unwillingness for her husband's murderer to be tried were no doubt complicated and self-protective. She continued to battle with the D.A. in the days leading up to the second trial. On September 16 she wrote an angry letter to Fitz, accusing Prosecutor W. Joseph Ford of asking her for money, and accusing Fitz and Ford of dragging her husband's name through the mud and mounting a half-assed prosecution. This time the prosecution fought back, claiming they had not asked her for money. Fittz seemed fed up, and hinted at feuds now obscured by time, stating: "I propose to give Mr. Ford every assistance which he may desire, and do not propose to be dictated to by the whim or caprice of any person."
The second trial duly occurred, and just as Ella feared, Debonair Dave was acquitted (he would kill again in 1953, and die in jail a few weeks later). Perhaps in reaction to the verdict and wishing to escape, Ella rushed into a second marriage. She met C. Roy Smith, a dubious San Francisco real estate man of questionable marital status, at a party in September and they were married January 23, 1932 in Yuma, Arizona. The usually camera shy Ella posed for pictures, gushing "We found we had much in common and the romance grew naturally. I am happy to have had the love of two such men as Mr. Crawford and Mr. Smith." Not surprisingly, the marriage was over by 1934, with Ella reclaiming the name of Crawford for business reasons.
Since the first trial in 1931, Ella expressed her intention to carry on her husband's real estate ventures. In 1935 the IRS came after Charlie Crawford's estate for over $42,000 in back taxes. Crawford's estate was set at $113,724, $21,642 of which was in cash. It was around this time that Ella had a vision. "By golly, life is going fast here" she exclaimed, as she thought of the empty murder bungalow and surrounding city block she now owned. In its sordid place she pictured a calm, dignified fantasy land of multi-national buildings, modeled on the famous trade market of Jerusalem. In classic Hollywood fashion, she set out to whitewash 6665 Sunset Boulevard's sordid past, and in the process created an entire complex dedicated to the concept of escape -- and commerce.
At the Crossroads
It would be like taking a trip around the world. Visitors coming here expect to see something beautiful and unusual, given the widespread publicity in some of our motion pictures.-- Ella Crawford, The Los Angeles Times, Oct 26, 1986
Ella enlisted premier streamline moderne architect Robert V Derrah (who also designed the iconic Coco-Cola bottling plant at 1200 S. Central Avenue) to helm the $12,000 project. There would be a main building in the shape of a sleek ocean liner, in the front center of the property as if it were coming into port. Surrounding it would be buildings in Cape Cod, Italian, French, old English, and early Californian styles. With an eye for the hoped for 100+ international shops, artist studios and restaurants, bay windows were constructed to enhance the display of merchandise. In the back there was a lighthouse, in the middle a shaded patio, and on top of the ocean liner, a 60 foot tower topped with a turning globe. The haunted bungalow was razed, and construction began at the end of May, 1936.
The grand opening on October 29 was pure Hollywood kitsch. A cadre of Universal film players from all over the globe joined several foreign counsels, as folk singers, native dancers, and world musicians entertained the masses who came to see the nation's first outdoor mall.
The shops quickly filled with just the kind of clientele Ella had hoped for. Ads from the late '30s included Anne Herbert's hand-dipped chocolate, Dulaine-Bennatie's exclusive fashions and fabrics, Marcy De Paris's perfumes and powders, Mildred Asher, who specialized in peasant houses, gardens and "provincial feeling" design, McDonald Meyers importers of Peiping-Shanghai oriental arts, and more eclectic tenants like Burr McIntosh "the cheerful philosopher," the puppeteer Everett Burgess, and community theater pioneer Neely Dickson. Many artists established studios in the smaller spaces, including the influential ceramics artist Beato. The Subdebs hosted fundraising arts fairs in the quaint streets, the Sigma Kappas gatherd at the restaurant La Merienda, and several charities established their headquarters there.
With Ella's dream fully realized, it is here that she bows out of our story and back into the private life it seem she had always craved. She continued in the real estate business, and is mentioned in an L.A. Times article from 1940, when she and her daughter Joan were in a serious car accident. With both of her daughters married and now a grandmother of six, Ella -- who seems to have never wed again -- passed away in 1953. Perhaps in her final triumph, her obituary described her simply as the widow of "Charles H. Crawford, former building and loan official."
Her great creation continued on during the war years. Though imports sharply declined, relief and charity work rose, and many production offices (including Hitchcock's) and do-good enterprises filled the vacant spots. After the war isolationism rose and commerce moved westward, slowly leaving Hollywood behind. The charities, like Herbert Hoover's C.A.R.E., and the theatrical organizations stayed, taking care of and giving work to Hollywood's increasingly large underclass. In 1949 the Masquers Club offered a free Santa school at Crossroads, instructing actors, dancers and musicians who would normally be out of work during the holidays in the finer points of being an employable Santa. The classes included psychology, first aid, holiday music, interfaith questions, Christmas legends, makeup and fire prevention.
The decline continued through the '50s, even though Billboard did occupy a suite for a time. By 1965 the property had changed hands several times and was considered by many to be an embarrassing, half-empty 2.7 acres of "goopy-de-goop," reminiscent of a "Don Ameche musical." Investor J. Thomas Wilner, calling himself "the craziest man in the construction industry," bought the Crossroads for $1 million and began a $250,000 refurbishment campaign.
He was not successful. In 1967 it was reported that motorcycles were being sold in front of the once high class mall. As the charities and legit business owners moved out, the hippies and hustlers moved in. A man named Gary Shusett opened an experimental college from two rooms, John Holmes was discovered in the nearby office of a porn magazine, and tenants were living in their offices and sleeping in the hallways. Musicians, including Jackson Browne and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and mixers, like the legendary Wally Heider, took over many of the rooms. Famed art director Kosh moved in, as did Interlock Recording Studios.
In 1977 developer Morton La Kretz purchased the Crossroads and began another round of renovations -- kicking out the dead-broke-drop-outs while nurturing the entertainment industry tenants. By 1980 he claimed to have only two vacant spaces, and by 1986 the Hollywood Arts Council, Cyprus Music, and Artistic Hand Beading had moved in, along with numerous ad agencies. That same year the Crossroads 50th anniversary was celebrated and the rebirth of Crossroads seemed complete.
Today the La Kretz family still owns the Crossroads. There are still high-end tenants like the book publisher Taschen, who occupies the central ocean liner and several surrounding suites. But the Sunday I went to visit, the complex had the forlorn feeling of an off-season amusement park. Many of the bay windows were empty and a peek inside several of the offices revealed dusty spaces frozen in time, with dark wood paneling and unpolished brass light fixtures. A lone European family sat on a bench in front of the "Old English" village, and an open door led into an office where voices wafted out of the musty darkness. There was a twinge of sadness in the air, in the peeling paint, in the makeshift sculptures and flowers growing out of beer kegs.
I know it was last the last thing Ella would have wanted, but all I could think about was where exactly that ivy covered bungalow once stood.
Top: Crossroads of the World today. Photo by Caitlin Meares