Real L.A. Noir: The Case of the Buried Blonde | KCET
Real L.A. Noir: The Case of the Buried Blonde
She gave her name to a reporter who came to watch one of her burials. He wrote down Corrinne Neustedt, but that wasn’t her name. A different name – the one on the black-and-white banners and the press releases – was Gloria Graves. She was, for a season, the “Beautiful Girl Buried Alive” at the end of the Ocean Park pier. The papers, playing up the glamour angle, described Gloria as “curvesome.”
Her handlers included Mr. Q, a name he used as a vaudeville performer. The other name he used was Robert Godwin. He was one of those mind-over-matter, higher-consciousness hucksters who regularly turned up in L.A. to make a few bucks from the gullible or the bored. Godwin had a wife – Florence – who posed as Gloria’s nurse. Maybe she was. Godwin stuck the title Dr. on his name and called himself a hypnotist. Maybe he was too. He had a look that could etch glass. He had a strange way with women. You’ve probably guessed that he’s dead before this story is done.
Mr. Q exhibited Gloria as the “Beautiful Girl Buried Alive” in the summer of 1935 for a dime a look down a long shaft that opened over Gloria’s almost pretty face and conventionally blond hair, shining in the glare of an electric light. You could have seen on any street in Hollywood the same face and hair repeated a hundred times for free. That didn’t stop the customers from paying ten cents and peering at the girl lying below in her coffin. The curious could shout questions down to her, and she would answer. She had a nice voice.
Buried Alive. Gloria Graves wasn’t the first to be buried alive as the Depression of the 1930s wore on. Lois Shirk, a recent high school graduate, lay entombed beneath the Lincoln Lawn Miniature Golf Course in Gettysburg in 1933. She was paid for the stunt. “My family needs the money badly,” she told the Gettysburg Times. Irwin Westheimer, a vaudeville comic who went by the stage name Billy West, had himself buried at Ocean View on the New Jersey shore. He drank Orange Crush “exclusively for his liquid diet,” the banner over his grave said. The local Orange Crush bottler and an appliance store paid for his stunt.
Some burial artists contended for a record stay. Jack Loreen, an out-of-work miner who already had done weekend stints underground at carnivals on the East Coast, took long-form burial to Chicago in 1933.[i] Loreen intended to be interred for 60 days, longer than anyone, he claimed. Despite a night of flooding that put four inches of muddy water in the bottom of his casket, Loreen stuck it out to the end. He did it again the following year, staying down 65 days.
In 1934, “human groundhog” Harry Morrison spent 120 days under the Akron airport. He rose on his resurrection day looking like “a potato just out of the cellar bin.”[ii] He had been looking for any kind of work before he chose burial. When the stunt was over, he still needed a job.
Endurance contests had entertained American gawkers through the 1920s – six-day bike races, flagpole sitting, and long-distance walking. But this was different. Between a flagpole sitter and a buried ex-miner lay a Depression abyss of wrecked businesses, lost jobs, and broken dreams. Coffined and nearly immobile, a simulation of death-in-life, burial artists looked up into the staring faces of men and women just as desperate as they were, just as trapped, only the buried were getting paid. They were newspaper celebrities for having what millions of the anonymous had: no other job except to wait.
Beautiful Girl. Mr. Q and Gloria Graves (whose actual name was Corinne Nienstedt) first appeared together in Santa Monica in 1935. In one breezy front-page account:[iii]
Gloria told the reporter that she had been buried before, but only briefly. Her new goal was a three-month entombment. At stake was the $1,500 the operators of the Ocean Park pier would pay, but Mr. Q insisted that the burial was intended to be a demonstration of a new form of self-hypnosis, the result of years of research. “Gloria is a scientific psychologist with tremendous will power. If she says she’ll stay under dirt for 90 days you can bet all the grapes in Mussolini’s hoots she’ll be there when they pull up the casket.”[iv] The reporter described Mr. Q as Gloria’s “sponsor, mental advisor, and best friend.”
Mr. Q’s self-hypnosis instruction seemed to work. Gloria was fearless about the burial. “I know I’ll like it,” she said. “I won’t have to worry about traffic lights, and I’ll take plenty of books to read. I’m just nuts on aviation and I’ve got several books on aviation to read while I’m down there.” Down there she would be fed through the airshaft, and the condition of her heart checked daily by means of a custom-made, extended stethoscope.
Gloria – to whom the adjectives tall, willowy, and blond were now permanently attached – was lowered into her grave and five tons of beach sand laid over her steel coffin on Saturday afternoon June 15, 1935. Four days later Jack Loreen lay in his wooden casket waiting to be buried alive at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but it didn’t look like one.
Gloria brought aviation books to her grave. Jack, whose promoter called him the “world’s champion ‘self-inflicted burial’ artist,” brought a radio set and a telephone (Bayview 7272, no collect calls accepted). Jack’s promoter was dismissive of Gloria’s burial attempt. “There is only one Loreen, and the others just don’t count,” he announced. [v]
The customers that summer paid their dimes to see Gloria and Jack. Some asked questions, shouting down the airshaft. Most just looked, not sure if what they saw was a trick or real.
Resurrections and arrest. Gloria was lifted from her seaside grave first, on Sept. 15, 92 days, 5 hours and 28 minutes after her coffin lid had been screwed shut. She shook some dirt out of her “corn-yellow hair” and announced that she had broken the world’s record for being buried alive. (The record had no meaning, although it was clear that Jack Loreen was keeping score.) “I hope I have proved to skeptics that this was not a publicity stunt,” she told reporters, “I am a student of psychology, and what I have done proves conclusively that mind is stronger than matter.”[vi]
Mr. Q/Dr. Godwin (now described as “ticket taker” as well as Gloria’s counselor) announced with scientific precision that she had received 27 proposals of marriage, 13,652 offers of a date, 27 offers of jobs from nurse to movie star, 7 books on exercise, and 5 offers to join churches and 14 to join the Communist Party. Gloria had been viewed by 72,693 customers at 10 cents a look.
She would have remained underground longer, she said, except for a new state law that restricted endurance contests like marathon dancing and flagpole sitting. Gloria was resurrected just as the new law went into effect. “Miss Graves felt she made sufficient contribution to the science of psychology,” Godwin explained, slipping into gangster-ese, “without she had to be sent to the jug for it.”
Jack Loreen wasn’t worried about being “jugged.” He smiled up at reporters on his 93rd day underground, declaring that he now held the record for self-inflicted burial, beating the “Ocean Park blond” by a whole day. He planned to be interred for another ten or twelve days, he said. Ultimately, he spent 119 days below ground.
The first 100 days were the easiest, he said. “After I broke the record, my nerves began to get jumpy. I couldn't sleep. I've never counted so many sheep in my life.” His coffin was raised on Oct. 17 and Jack "de-casketized" (his press agent thought up that one) at a wrestling show later that evening.
He’d had enough. “Driven to stunt acts by the Depression and in order to extricate himself from a financial hole, Mr. Loreen submitted to his being buried alive,” wrote the Republican Press of Ukiah, where he was recovering from his long rest underground. He would give up the coffined life. “He has entered the used car business in San Francisco where he how intends to reside with his wife and two children.”[vii]
Gloria Graves, however, was ready for another bout of immobility. Almost as soon as Jack Loreen had given up being buried, Mr. Q rented an empty lot in what is now Koreatown, opened another grave, lowered Gloria into it (with her own radio and telephone), and began collecting dimes. A crowd had come for the burial, but after a week, the crowds grew thinner and the dimes fewer.
Gloria had been buried just 192 hours when three detectives from the police Vice Squad showed up with seven uniformed patrolmen and a work detail of trustees from the county jail. They had come to enforce a city ordinance that outlawed endurance contests. “This show is pinched,” declared Detective Lieutenants L. O. Jennings, L. L. Miller, and Fred L. Coe.
But Gloria had a point. The city ordinance specifically outlawed flagpole sitting and marathon dancing by name and generally restricted other endurance contests if they occurred indoors. Being buried alive in a vacant city lot wasn’t exactly indoors.
The logic of this objection didn’t keep Gloria, Florence Godwin (Mr. Q’s wife), and Robert Wood from being booked on misdemeanor charges and then freed on $50 bail each, pending a hearing before a municipal court judge the following morning. The judge remanded the three to trial in late December.
A smiling Gloria brought her coffin to court and provided a tutorial on the mechanics of being buried alive. Courtroom spectators were fascinated. Detective Lieutenant Jennings, who had stopped the show on Nov. 15, told the court he was not convinced Gloria was demonstrating the power of mind over matter as advertised. Judge Arthur Crum agreed, and fined the defendants $50 each. They said they would appeal.
They did, and because of technicalities in the criminal complaint and the trial judge’s original decision, the appellate court agreed that Gloria’s burial hadn’t violated the city’s ordinance against indoor endurance contests. The Los Angeles Times headlined “Buried-Alive Girl Wins in Appeal from Penalty.”
A Hollywood Murder. Aviation enthusiast Gloria Graves – willowy, tall, curvesome, blond – drops out of the buried alive racket at this point and disappears from the newspaper headlines.[ix] (But there is more ahead for Gloria as Corinne Nienstedt.)
Robert and Florence Godwin disappear from the headlines until 1939. Things had worsened for Mr. Q and his wife. Godwin, perhaps as a result of war injuries, he had become an addict. He also had a drinking problem and a bad heart. He had hospital bills and owed even more to Harold T. Edwards, an osteopath who treated him for his addictions.
Sometime in 1938, needing money, Godwin went looking for the materials for a new act. He found them in a pretty, 20-year-old actress named Marianna Persall.
Persall wasn’t another “buried alive” girl or the subject of a strip-tease-via-hypnosis routine that had been Godwin’s vaudeville act. What Persall was expected to do on stage while under the influence of Mr. Q isn’t clear from news accounts. Edwards, the osteopath, was part of the deal, although mostly in finding backers for the new show. Persall lived with the Godwins in their Hollywood bungalow during the first weeks of 1939.
The mixture of drugs, liquor, Persall, and Godwin led to the inevitable. Godwin was something of a brute, but also someone fascinating.[x] Persall gave in to Godwin’s advances but threatened to tell his wife about the affair. Godwin reacted by kicking, beating, and choking Persall into unconsciousness. When Florence Godwin confronted him, he struck her as well. She fled the house. Godwin began drinking heavily, ending up in the hospital that evening.
Discharged into Edwards’ care on Feb. 8 or 9, Godwin and the osteopath met with potential theatrical backers in a Hollywood hotel room. The meeting didn’t go well. Godwin blamed Edwards and began accusing him of knowing where Florence Godwin was hiding. Edwards retaliated with a warning about harming Persall. The two men were on the street by this time. Godwin clipped Edwards on the jaw, knocking him to the sidewalk. Edwards drew a pistol from his coat pocket and fired one wild round and three better aimed shots that struck Godwin.
Godwin’s dying words were a B-movie cliché (if the news stories are right). “Dramatically clutching his chest, Mr. Q gasped, “He got me,” and fell to the sidewalk dead.”[xi]
Edwards was arrested immediately and did not deny that he had shot Godwin, but only in self-defense. Persall disappeared for several hours after hearing of Godwin's death, probably to find Florence Godwin. She came out of hiding. A coroner’s jury heard their stories, along with the testimony of eyewitnesses, and delivered a verdict of justifiable homicide. The District Attorney was less understanding. Godwin hadn’t been armed at the time of his death. Edwards could have fled without taking further shots at Godwin. The District Attorney filed a charge of murder.
In anticipation of the preliminary hearing, Edwards, Florence Godwin, and Persall – with help from the newspapers – developed a convincing story of the days leading up to the shooting. They turned Mr. Q/Dr. Godwin into a kind of monster: addict, abusive drunk, sinister hypnotist, and a sexual predator.
Florence Godwin testified at the preliminary hearing in mid-February that her husband had been under the care of Edwards since 1937, treating him for a narcotics habit. “He was a dangerous man,” she told Judge Leo Freund. Persall testified that Godwin often became abusive and beat her, knocking her to the floor frequently. Edwards repeated his account of being struck down by Godwin and fearing for his life. Eyewitnesses corroborated that Godwin had been the aggressor. On a motion from Edward’s attorney, Judge Freund reduced the charge from willful murder to manslaughter and released Edwards on $2,000 bail pending trial in Superior Court. The Deputy District Attorney objected, but Judge Freund gaveled the hearing closed.
The Edwards trial was heard in April without a jury before Superior Court Judge Charles Fricke. Florence Godwin, again testifying for the defense, claimed that her husband had “an ungovernable temper, a ‘vicious disposition,’ and was a narcotics addict. … She said her husband had threatened Dr. Edwards with death if he interfered with his attempts to place under his hypnotic spell Marianna Persall, partner in his vaudeville act.”[xii] Several eyewitnesses again testified that Godwin had attacked Edwards first.
In the Los Angeles Times account of the trial, Edwards insisted that he only meant to frighten Godwin, not kill him:[xiii]
“Godwin may have been ruthless and evil, but he was unarmed and the man who shot him down should be found guilty of murder,” Deputy District Attorney W. O. Russell told Judge Fricke. Fricke disagreed and acquitted Edwards of the manslaughter charge. On the steps of the courthouse, Persall, Florence Godwin, and a relieved Edwards celebrated his release, grateful perhaps that Robert Godwin was out of their lives.
He was buried at what is now the Los Angeles National Cemetery in Westwood. No one expected him to be resurrected soon.
Epilog for a Pilot. The fad for “world’s record” stays underground and buried alive stunts did not entirely die out with Mr. Q’s end. There are stage magicians who perform the stunts today. Some still try for the mythical record, claiming to have broken it with stays of just a couple of months. Jack Loreen and Gloria Graves would be amused.
Jack, one hopes, was a good used car salesmen, father, and husband. His story beyond the grave should have ended happily. If the one wants to believe that Corinne Nienstedt was Gloria Graves, and that Corinne was as much an aviation enthusiast as she said she was, then her story ended well, too.
The face of an apparently blond Corinne Nienstedt smiles warmly from a black-and-white class photograph, probably shot in 1943. She’s wearing a leather flight jacket with the cartoon mascot of the WASPs. Corrine was a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, an all-volunteer corps of civilian pilots who flew every kind of military aircraft from factory airfields to military bases. There were more than a thousand WASPs in World War II who freed many thousands of military pilots and aircrews to continue in combat. The WASP pilots risked their lives; 38 of them were killed when engines failed or landing gears collapsed.
When her unit was decommissioned toward the end of the war, Corrine was stationed at the Moore Field combat training base in Texas. Her unit’s assignment was towing aerial targets for trainee fighter pilots and ferrying military planes to all parts of the country.
Once earthbound, Corinne Nienstedt had soared.[xiv]
[i]. Southtown Economist (Chicago, Illinois), July 13, 1933, 1.
[iii]. Klamath News (Klamath Falls, Oregon), Jun 14, 1935, 1.
[v]. San Bernardino County Sun, June 19, 1935, 3. Carl T. Nunan, who ballyhooed Loreen’s burial, was a publicist connected with the amusement park at Ocean Beach.
[vi]. San Bernardino County Sun, September 16, 1935, 1.
[vii]. Republican Press (Ukiah, California), October 30, 1935, 1.
[viii]. Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), November 17, 1935, 5
[ix]. Gloria Graves turns up, but only as a passing reference, in a mystery story serialized in the Des Moines Register in November 1936. There are snapshots of a Gloria Graves burial, dated July 1936 by their taker, but no news stories or advertisements mention this show or where it was located.
[x]. Godwin told the police in Memphis in 1928 that he had been married eight times, and some of the women were already married. (Danville Virginia Bee, March 10, 1939, 8.) Florence Godwin told reporters she had married Godwin in 1928 and was his ninth wife.
[xi]. Danville Bee (Virginia), March 10, 1939, 8.
[xii]. Santa Cruz Sentinel, Wednesday, April 19, 1939, 2.
[xiii]. The Los Angeles Times, April 20, 1939, 39.
[xiv]. Corinne Nienstedt died in 1996.
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