August 25, 2016

The Halloween Murder of Ramon Novarro



It was Wednesday, October 30, 1968.  In Los Angeles the temperature had peaked around 75 degrees - - a wonderful autumn day - - dropping to 59 degrees once the sun set.  The American Basketball Association, famous for Dr. J and the L.A. Stars, were in town for a brief stop.  "Hey Jude" by the Beatles sat atop the records charts and dominated the radio airwaves while Airport by Arthur Hailey was the current New York Times fiction bestseller.

At 3110 Laurel Canyon Drive was a Spanish Colonial designed by Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright.  Nestled in the Hollywood Hills, it had been owned since 1927 by former stage, screen and television star Ramon Novarro.  Novarro was now 69 and frail, many days away from his life as a sex symbol of MGM following in Rudolph Valentino's vaulted footsteps after the infamous Valentino had died unexpectedly.  Despite being retired from acting for many years, Novarro had made wise real estate investments with his movie earnings and this allowed him to live very comfortably.

Navarro with the great Garbo
That evening Novarro, in a red and blue robe, welcomed brothers Paul and Tom Ferguson into his home.  The brothers Ferguson had gotten Novarro's phone number from a previous guest; both hustlers, they knew that Novarro was known to use agencies for sexual escorts.

Novarro, ever the gentleman and always gracious, served beverages - - liquor - - and read older brother Paul's palm, ironically predicting a bright future.  He played his piano, sharing with the brothers a tune he had composed and wrote.  He showed them promotional photos of himself as a young and virile MGM star.  It's likely that the former actor engaged in sexual activity with the older brother and then at some point the elder Ferguson demanded that Novarro hand over the $5,000 he was rumored to keep hidden in his home.

The young and beautiful Novarro
Novarro truthfully stated there was no such amount in his home; he never kept such large sums at his residence.  Tom Ferguson, having been speaking to a Chicago girl from Novarro's phone, joined his older brother in jostling, shaking and shoving the older man.  When that didn't net them the anticipated sum of cash, they began to pummel him violently; to keep him from losing consciousness, they dragged him into the bathroom where he was splashed with cold water.  One of the brothers, upon finding a cane, twirled it around and danced with it as their victim was tortured and bleeding.  While the Catholic Novarro began praying "Hail Mary, full of grace," the brothers bound him with an electrical cord and took turns striking him in the head and genitals with the cane.  Tom Ferguson, while carrying the bludgeoned and dying Novarro to his bed, scratched the older man's face in anger.  The two left the man to choke to death on his own blood.

The murderers decided to ransack the house, dumping Novarro's professional stills and photos on the floor, attempting to create a scene of a burglary gone wrong.  Complicating the matters, they also thought it would help to make the crime seem as though a vengeful woman had committed it, and so wrote on the bathroom mirror "Us girls are better than fagits (sic)."  They left the house with the cash they had netted from their torture and murder - - $20, taken from the pocket of Novarro's robe.

Novarro with a young Joan Crawford
While the Fergusons were caught and convicted quickly, it was Ramon Novarro who was put on trial.  The soft spoken and gentle star, who had for years struggled with the inner conflict of being Catholic and homosexual, who had stood up to Louis B. Meyer and refused a "lavender" marriage, and who had for years kept this part of his life from the world, now had his private affairs become posthumous fodder for gossips and entertainment hacks.  His killers' criminal trial saw him labeled "an old queer" by the defense attorney, the person defending two killers who were themselves homosexual hustlers, as if Novarro was less than human and somehow deserved or brought on what happened to him.

The Fergusons were found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison after each brother testified that it was the other that had killed their innocent victim.  The judge presiding over their criminal trial stated they should never be released; they both were.  The younger Tom was released after only six years; the elder Paul was out in nine years.

Nine years total for the brutal murder of a defenseless man.  It boggles the mind.  I believe the brothers were paroled for one reason only - - homophobia.  Novarro and his lifestyle were made out to be the guilty party.   If you solicit gay sex, look what happens.  It's a sad injustice, most especially for Ramon Novarro.

The Hollywood Hills home where Novarro died
Once the Fergusons were released, both quickly reoffended over the years,both separately committed rape.  Shocker.  In 1998 Paul Ferguson assumed the blame for Novarro's death; he claimed that neither he nor Tom went to the star's home to rob him and the murder happened out of a homosexual panic.  This, despite the fact that both brothers knew about the supposed cash stash and Paul at least had turned gay tricks for cash before.  In 2012, he would claim that he had come to peace with what happened to Novarro and stated that Novarro would not have died if he had not been so drunk.  Victim blaming at its finest and more than 40 years after his death, still putting Ramon Novarro on trial.  For the record, Paul Ferguson is currently serving a 60 year sentence for a rape and sodomy charge; not that rape and/or sodomy is not a grievous crime but telling that his current sentence is much longer than that sentence he served for beating to death Ramon Novarro.

In 2005, Tom Ferguson committed suicide at a Motel 6 by slitting his own throat.  He left no note nor commented on his part in the murder.

Ramon Novarro, toward the end of his life
Ramon Novarro's name would come up occasionally through the years, most notably when Kenneth Anger published one of his Hollywood Babylon books and claimed that Novarro had in his possession a black dildo made to the specifications of Rudolph Valentino's genitalia.  In 2012, Scotty Bowers released his juicy autobiography titled Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars and described gruesome details of Novarro's last moments, including the claim that he had been suffocated with a lead dildo given to him by Valentino.  However, I tend to side with writer William van Meter, who says the dildo is an urban legend that has been repeated often but with no proof.  Surely if such an item existed and was used in the assault, the ever resourceful Paul Ferguson would have mentioned it as yet another piece of evidentiary proof that Novarro brought his death on himself.

The October 30, 1968 homicide was a sad end to the life of a man often described as giving, kind, gentle and unassuming.  A man who not only managed to make a success for himself in silent films but rather easily transitioned into "talkies," a feat that was accomplished by very few, to become our first Latin American star.  It's tragic that his personal life was put on trial and that he is more recalled today for his gruesome end and an urban legend than for the happiness he provided many silent film and Depression-era audiences.

Ramon Novarro should be remembered as a kind, gentle soul who after achieving film success supported his large and extended Mexican family; a devout Catholic who more than once considered the priesthood or monastery, so ardent was his religious devotion; a well liked professional of whom nobody appeared to have anything bad to say; a talented actor who also had a glorious singing voice and a talent for dance; and, as his gravestone memorializes for all time, a beloved brother.

 


Photo taken in September 2015 during my visit to Calvary Cemetery in L.A.



2 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the post, amb3rlyn. It is sad, isn't it? Bad enough that the Fergusons got away with only serving 6 and 9 years for killing a defenseless man but Ramon's friends and family did not see justice done for his brutal end.

      It's too bad that he's not better remembered today - - he was gorgeous in his youth and he was our first Latin American movie star!

      Thank you for posting.

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