The Murder of Ramón Novarro

Many silent film stars came to grisly or disturbing ends shortly after the talkies were introduced, and the death of another should come as no surprise. However, for Ramón Novarro, his demise came not because of the stress of transitioning from one medium to another, but many years later, and in the most hideous way imaginable.

Born on 6 February 1899, José Ramón Gil Samaniego moved to Los Angeles with his family to avoid the Mexican Revolution. Coming from a well-to-do and influential family, Ramón had an air of sophistication about him that appealed to movie directors, and in 1917 he began making small appearances in a variety of silent movies, in which he was often compared to Hollywood legend Rudolph Valentino.

In 1923 Novarro made an impact when he starred in Scaramouche, and then after his appearance in 1925’s Ben Hur his elevation to stardom was complete. His career went from strength to strength, and after Valentino’s death in 1926, it was Novarro who inherited his crown, going on to appear with the likes of Joan Crawford, Lupe Vélez, Myrna Loy and Norma Shearer in a variety of critically acclaimed movies.

However, as was often the case, his career slowed somewhat with the advent of the talkies, as a result of his thick Mexican accent. But the actor was not one to give up on his career easily, and instead of mourning the loss of his once great silent acting roles, he began appearing in films that required a heavy accent, such as in The Pagan and The Student Prince.

As though knowing that his career in films would not last for his entire life, Novarro had developed a shrewd business head and when he was at his peak in the 1920s and 1930s, he began making a series of lucrative investments. By the time his career slowed, therefore, he then had the opportunity of taking the odd small movie role when he wanted, but was also able to live comfortably off the money he had raised during the highs of his career.

As a result of this sensible approach to business, Novarro led a secure life with very few money worries, though he did suffer drink problems which often gave him unwanted headlines from the 1930s onwards. It was one of the biggest struggles of his life, and one that is said to have started due to his inability truly to accept that he was homosexual; a guilt very much brought about by his strict Catholic upbringing. His alcoholism also led to brushes with the law due to drink driving. However, in 1962 his drinking seemed to have been conquered somewhat when his lawyer announced that Novarro had solved any psychological problems he had previously suffered from. “He has not driven a car or taken a drink for several months,” the lawyer told reporters.

Unfortunately, this was not strictly true, as by 1968, Novarro was living at 3110 Laurel Canyon Boulevard, where it was noted that the bins outside his home were filled with empty bottles of vodka, whisky and gin. But despite his advancing years, and troubles with alcohol, the actor was still busy, making occasional appearances in television programmes such as The High Chaparral, Bonanza and Rawhide. He had also started to write his autobiography, on which he was still working on the ill-fated evening of 30 October 1968.

For some time, Novarro had used gay escort agencies and he was well known in the “hustling” community. So it was that on that particular afternoon, two brothers, Paul and Tommy Ferguson, took it upon themselves to call the actor on the chance he would invite them over. According to testimony, Paul telephoned the actor and introduced himself as a relative of “Larry”, Ferguson’s brother-in-law. Novarro was acquainted with him and, as a result, he spoke to Paul for a while before the actor eventually agreed that both brothers could come over to his Laurel Canyon home. Shortly afterwards, at approximately 4.30 p.m., they arrived at the house, and found Novarro already prepared for them, wearing a smart dressing gown, with his beard and moustache nicely trimmed.

The actor offered the boys cocktails and a snack of chicken gizzards and cheese crackers. He talked and sang a little, and then ordered cigarettes from a nearby drugstore. As luck would have it, Novarro’s secretary of nine years, Edward Weber, was enjoying his evening off, but just happened to be calling into the store when the order came through. Hearing his employer’s name, he then told the shopkeeper that he would deliver the cartons himself, though he later admitted to being somewhat confused by the order, as he had never known Novarro to smoke.

Weber made his way over to Laurel Canyon and knocked on the door. There he was met by the surprised actor, who obviously had no idea Weber would be visiting him that evening and was somewhat confused by his arrival. The secretary gave his boss the cigarettes and, as he did so, noted the trimmed moustache and smell of lotion, though did not comment on it. “I had the feeling that he had guests,” he later said. He was right, of course, and after bidding Weber goodbye, Novarro headed back inside the house, where the Ferguson brothers played around on his piano and smoked the cigarettes he had just bought for them.

The evening is believed to have turned more intimate as it wore on, but did not go the way Novarro – or anyone else for that matter – expected things to go. Sadly, by the time the brothers left, Ramón Novarro was dead, and one of the biggest Hollywood scandals was about to begin . . .

On the morning of 31 October, Edward Weber returned to work, let himself into the house and was greeted by a dreadful sight. It was obvious that there had been a struggle in the house: there were bloodstains splattered on the carpets, walls and ceiling; furniture was overturned and Ramón’s eyeglasses were broken on the floor. Added to that, there were cigarette butts everywhere, burns on the furniture and other debris littered all around.

The secretary was in great shock and deeply worried about what had gone on and where his employer was. He looked around the house, calling out Novarro’s name as he did so, but it was not until he entered the actor’s bedroom that he was met by a sight he would remember for the rest of his life. There was the body of the 1920s film star, lying face up on the bed, completely nude. His wrists and ankles were tied with cord and it was evident that his body had taken a severe and brutal beating. “It all indicated a fight or struggle had taken place,” Detective Sergeant Robert T. Smith later testified.

Police were quickly called and an investigation began. Meanwhile, reporters got wind that something serious had happened at the Laurel Canyon home and rushed to find out as much as they could. Gathered outside, the world’s press waited for an explanation as to how or why the beloved actor had been so brutally taken away, until finally the police gathered them together and read out a statement. The hungry reporters took out their notebooks, poised to write down every ounce of information, but the comments handed over by the police somehow ended in more questions than answers.

The officers confirmed that Ramón Novarro was dead – it would appear murdered – but stated that they could find absolutely no motive for the killing. Yes, there had been a great struggle – the state of the house was testament to that – but on closer inspection it did not appear that any of the actor’s possessions were missing. Still, they were unwilling to rule out any lines of enquiry at this stage, including the possibility that it could very well have been a robbery gone wrong.

At this point the police really did not know much at all, though they did reveal that they had found bloodied clothes – believed to have been those of the killer – on a nearby fence. The reporters noted it all down but when no more answers were forthcoming, they were left with the possibility that the killing could have been as a result of not one but several motives, and it was all a confusing mystery.

However, while the police had been able to reveal certain aspects of the case, there was one thing that they chose to keep secret from the media: they had found the possible murder weapon. The actor’s walking stick had been located near to the body, only it was not in one piece; it had been broken in two. Could it have broken while the killer was bludgeoning the actor to death? They believed so, but knowing the murderers would most certainly be keeping track of the case, the police decided they needed to keep this information to themselves until the moment was right to release it.

An autopsy was performed on the body of Ramón Novarro, which showed that his death was attributed to “suffocation due to massive bleeding due to fracture of the nose and laceration of the lips and mouth”. Still, while the police now had a reason why his body had finally given up, they were no further forward in finding out how or why it happened. Extra detectives were assigned to the case while the body of the once-great Novarro lay in state, mourned by everyone from waiters who had served him in restaurants to a housewife forever grateful for a fan letter he had written some thirty years before. The outpouring of grief was immense, and his death was commemorated around the world by everyone who remembered his glory days in silent movies.

Just a week later, the world was surprised to learn that two brothers, twenty-two-year-old Paul and seventeen-year-old Tommy Ferguson were arrested and booked on suspicion of murder. Their names were released to the press and Paul apparently responded to the development by – quite disturbingly – trying to gouge out his eyes with nothing but his own fingernails. This dramatic episode did not gain the man any sympathy but did make headlines, and newspapers around the country were left wondering what evidence the police must have to be so sure the brothers had performed the crime in the first place.

Officers refused to comment on the case, but the arrival of Tommy Ferguson’s girlfriend Brenda Lee Metcalf put the rumour mill into overdrive, and it was soon discovered that she might just be the missing link between the death and the subsequent arrests. Shortly after, the brothers were indicted for the murder of the aging star, and by January 1969 it was revealed that they had initially been investigated by the police after conducting a routine check of Novarro’s phone records. There had been one number that particularly intrigued them as it had been called on the very evening of the murder for a staggering forty-eight minutes. An investigation was immediately conducted and, after finding that it belonged to Brenda Metcalf, police were quick to get in touch.

What they discovered was truly horrifying. Miss Metcalf confirmed that she had indeed received a phone call from the house that evening, and it had been from her boyfriend, Tommy Ferguson. She went on to explain that he had freely admitted he was with the actor, and that she then asked him what he was doing there.

“He’s trying to get me into pictures,” he replied, before oddly changing his mind and declaring he had made a mistake, that it was Paul who would be in pictures, not himself. According to Metcalf, Ferguson left her hanging on the telephone several times while he went off to talk to his brother, get cigarettes and drink beer. Then some way into the call he apparently announced that they knew there was $5,000 in the house and intended to tie the actor up to find out where it was.

Metcalf was said to be horrified. “Don’t do it,” she begged, “you’ll get yourself into trouble.” Then, quite disturbingly, the young woman told the police that at one point near the end of the call she heard screaming coming from somewhere within the house. When she asked Tommy what was happening, he replied, “Paul is probably just trying to scare him or hit him with something.” He then told the woman that he had to go to see what was happening, as he did not want Paul to really hurt Ramón Novarro.

After the body had been found, Metcalf received one more phone call from Tommy Ferguson, this time asking if she had heard of Novarro’s death and then telling her that, on the night in question, he had bent down over the actor and could tell immediately that he had died. Metcalf was horrified to think that her boyfriend was in some way associated with the murder but decided not to say anything to the police about the calls she had received. Her decision may have had something to do with the fact that Tommy had told her that he and his brother were planning to travel back to Chicago, rather than stay in California and risk arrest. Whatever her reasons, the woman did not expect to speak to the police at all until they tracked her down, and she subsequently opened up and confessed everything she knew.

The phone-call mystery was for the most part solved, but something else bothered officers deeply. When Novarro’s body was found, they had discovered bizarre messages on the mirror, marks on the actor’s neck and the word “Larry” scrawled on to the sheet next to his body. Nobody had any idea who the mysterious Larry was, but it was a big clue in the hunt for the killer and police were desperate to find him. After the phone-call information had implicated the Ferguson brothers, they began investigating any links they had to anyone called Larry, and quickly discovered that Paul Ferguson’s estranged wife, Mary, had a brother with the very same name.

As the brothers were not particularly great fans of Larry and were aware that Novarro had known the man prior to the murder, police believed that the brothers scrawled the brother-in-law’s name in an attempt to divert any suspicion away from themselves and on to the innocent man. It was also noted that the name had been written several times on a notepad next to the bed, and a pen had been placed in the dead man’s hand to try and make it look as though he was attempting to leave a clue. However, the fact that his hands were tied tightly behind his back was a sure sign that the dying actor had not been the person to scrawl any of the words.

When the case went to court in 1969, it made headlines around the world. Because of his criminal past, Tommy Ferguson was put on trial as an adult despite his young age, though it was made clear that he would be spared the death sentence if found guilty. Elder brother Paul Ferguson’s future did not look so bright, however, when Deputy District Attorney James M. Ideman indicated that he would certainly be seeking a death sentence for his part in the slaying.

The trial began with jurors being told that Ramón Novarro was killed with his own cane, after “wining and dining” the brothers at his home. Ideman described how the two men had tortured the aging actor in a bid to find out where he hid his money, reviving him in the shower when he began to pass out from his injuries. He went on to tell the court that the brothers later laid Novarro on the bed and tied his hands behind him with an electric extension, while they resumed the beatings in their quest for cash.

The emphasis was very much on the money aspect of the case – the idea that the Ferguson brothers thought the actor kept large amounts of cash around the house. But why the men presumed there was a lot of money in Novarro’s possession was a mystery, particularly as they had only just met him that night and did not seem to know anything much about his life or career until that point. Had they been told by a third party that Novarro was wealthy and, if so, who? Did they go round to the house knowing for sure that there was money somewhere, or did they just presume that to be the case after he had told them of his fame in the days of silent movies?

Nobody seemed to have the answers to these questions, but one thing was clear – Ramón Novarro did not seem to be a man who kept bundles of cash lying around the house. Indeed, his secretary Edward Weber recalled that at the time of his death, the only money he knew the actor to have on his person was $45 in his wallet – and that was only because he had received payment from a cheque he had received a few days before.

When Brenda Metcalf took to the stand, she was nervous and near tears. Defence lawyers Richard Walton and Cletus Hanifin objected to her testifying against the brothers, although Superior Judge Mark Brandler swept their concerns aside and let the girl recall the conversation she’d had on the evening of the murder.

The girl repeated everything she had earlier told police: that Tommy Ferguson phoned her from the home and that Novarro was being beaten in a bid to find $5,000. The brunette’s story stunned jurors, particularly when she described that during the call, her boyfriend had actually managed to ask her to marry him. She did not declare what her answer was, though; she declined to look anywhere near Ferguson in the courtroom, so it was pretty clear what she thought of him at that very moment.

Next on the stand came Victor Nichols, a friend of Paul Ferguson, who admitted to everyone that he had been the one to provide the brothers with Novarro’s phone number. Not only that, but he had received a visit from them shortly after midnight on 31 October 1968, explaining that they were in trouble. When asked by Nichols what was wrong, Paul Ferguson replied, “Tom hit Ramón . . . Ramón is dead.” They had been drinking, Nichols said, and as he served coffee, Tommy Ferguson had fallen asleep on the sofa. “You better wake him up,” Nichols told Paul, before adding that he did not want to become involved with whatever had gone on that night.

When Tommy Ferguson woke up, a furious Nichols asked how he could possibly have done such a thing as kill the aging actor. “I hit him several times very hard and he is dead . . .” was all Tommy apparently had to say. Nichols had heard enough; as he had previously told Paul, he wanted nothing to do with their crimes, so he gave the brothers money for a taxi and sent them on their way. That, he hoped, would be the last he would see of the Ferguson brothers.

The testimony of both Metcalf and Nichols was confusing to say the least. One said it was Paul who had administered the beating, while the other said it was Tommy. It was very apparent early on, therefore, that this would be no easy case, and in the weeks that went by, things only became more and more bewildering.

On Friday, 22 August 1969, Dr Vernon J. Miller took to the stand to explain that Paul Ferguson suffered from a sociopathic disturbance and a chronic brain disease when drinking alcohol. The doctor said that while Novarro was attacked, Ferguson could have been mentally ill and a danger to both himself and others. He was able to come to this conclusion, he explained, because of an examination he had conducted where Ferguson was given twelve ounces of whisky and beer to drink. His “abnormalities” had come to light shortly afterwards. This excuse did not earn any sympathy from the Deputy District Attorney, however, who was placing the blame firmly at the door of Paul Ferguson, mentally ill or not.

On Monday, 25 August, came the moment for which everyone was waiting: Paul Ferguson took to the stand himself. From the moment he stood up, the gloves were off and he refused to take any blame for what had happened to Ramón Novarro. In his testimony he assured jurors that it was his brother Tommy, not himself, who had carried out the beating, and that he had been asleep the entire time. According to him, Tommy Ferguson had called his girlfriend on the house phone, before disappearing to the patio with Novarro, while Paul passed out after drinking vodka, tequila and beer.

He told the court that his brother had woken him up some time later with the words, “This guy’s dead”, and it was only then that he knew what had gone on. According to Paul he then walked into the bedroom to discover Novarro lying on the floor, covered with blood and his hands tied behind him. Then, according to the brother, he touched him on the shoulder and discovered his skin felt “starchy and tight like paper . . . I was sad,” he said. When questioned further, Paul added that he had endured two previous weeks of bad luck and was appalled that he had now been thrown into the circumstances surrounding the death of a movie star. “I wanted to know why everything was happening to me,” he told the astonished court.

Paul Ferguson went on to say how he had wanted to call the police, but that his brother put a stop to the plan by claiming they could cover everything up to look like a robbery. “Why did you join in this plan?” asked his attorney, to which Ferguson replied, “Stupidness.” He then went on to deny that he had ever hit the actor with his cane, and claimed that the first time he had seen it was when it was brought into the courtroom. This information did not sit well with Tommy Ferguson, however, who sat glaring at him from across the room, shaking his head in frustration. It was obvious to all that he couldn’t believe the words coming out of his brother’s mouth that day.

The testimony turned to what Paul Ferguson had thought of the aging actor. “I thought he was a nice guy,” he said, before explaining that Novarro had told him he could be a superstar like a young Burt Lancaster or Clint Eastwood. If the testimony was to be believed, it seemed that Ramón Novarro was so taken by Ferguson that he even called his agent to see about getting him into the movies. This little nugget of information was pounced on by the defence team, who presented it as a good reason why Paul Ferguson could not possibly be the murderer. “He would have no reason to kill a man who might have become his benefactor,” they argued.

When cross-examined, it was put to the elder brother that he was just saying his brother murdered the actor to spare himself the death sentence. This was quickly denied by Paul, however, who once again told the court, “I didn’t kill him, it was my brother,” though nobody seemed to believe him. He then alleged that he had initially lied to police to protect Tommy, though had later broken down and confessed his brother’s guilt after hours and hours of questioning.

In spite of being so adamant that Tommy had been the murderer, Paul did admit that he was continually haunted by the possibility that he had got so drunk he had murdered the man himself without realizing it. “If I killed Mr Novarro, I’d like to know that I did it,” he said, before adding somewhat sincerely that deep down he knew he hadn’t done it, because it had been Tommy who told him that Novarro was dead.

Several days later the court had a chance to hear another version of events when pale, nervous Tommy Ferguson took to the stand. It came as no surprise to anyone when he placed the blame for the death squarely on the shoulders not of himself, but on his brother, Paul. “I told a good many people I had done it because Paul told me to spread it around,” he admitted, but explained his change of mind came after hearing that the actor had been bludgeoned by his own walking stick. “It turned my stomach against Paul,” he said.

Explaining his version of events, Thomas told the court that they had both gone to Novarro’s house to “hustle” him, and had no intention of murdering or robbing the actor at all. According to Tommy, after the killing happened, Paul Ferguson suggested to his younger brother that if he confessed to the crime, he would probably get only six months in a juvenile facility because of his age.

Tommy admitted that he did think he should confess to the slaying because he felt sorry for his brother. “He kept talking himself down,” he said. He then started to speak about the visit they had made to their friend Victor Nichols’s house, where Paul told him that his younger brother was the one who had killed the actor. But while Tommy told the court that had been a lie and denied ever undertaking the killing himself, he did admit to one cover up: that of making it appear to be a robbery. The motive of that, he admitted, was to try to divert suspicion away from the two of them.

It was soon time to talk about the now infamous telephone call between Tommy Ferguson and his girlfriend. The young man described how he had been talking to Metcalf but towards the end of the conversation had heard noises. Presuming there was a fight going on in the bedroom, he proceeded to hang up the phone, get two beers from the kitchen and then go to investigate what was going on. Once in the bedroom he was shocked to find Novarro lying on the bed with blood oozing from his face, nose and lips while his brother stood nearby. “Take him to the shower and clean him up,” he reported his elder brother as saying to him.

When showering, the younger brother begged Novarro not to say anything to Paul Ferguson as he might become violent. Since it was apparent that there had already been more than a little violence in the house that night, this was a mute point, but nevertheless Tommy Ferguson told the jury that he was concerned enough for the man not to be even more hurt than he already was. “I have always been afraid of my brother,” he told the courtroom.

Unfortunately, if testimony is to be believed, his warning did not save Ramón’s life, as very soon afterwards Tommy found him lying in a pool of blood on the floor. When asked why he did not stop Paul beating him up, the younger brother strangely answered that he never saw him do anything. This was an odd answer, particularly as even if he wasn’t in the room at the time of the beating, he would surely have heard something going on, just as he had done earlier. The fact that he was now saying that he had not been aware of his brother doing anything to the actor was confusing to say the least.

More bewildering testimony came when Tommy was asked who had tied Novarro’s hands. He didn’t appear to know and then told the court that while he had a memory of his brother doing the deed, he was confused as Paul “keeps telling me . . . trying to plant in my head . . . that I tied him”. During cross-examination, however, his story changed, and he admitted that it was he, not Paul, who firstly had decided to tie the actor’s hands together, and secondly actually proceeded to do the task.

The contradictory testimony continued with a discussion as to why the brothers had written messages on the mirror and scratched marks into Novarro’s neck. “We tried to make it look like some girls had committed the murder,” Tommy said. Then, when the subject of money came up, the brother denied all knowledge of trying to find $5,000 in the apartment; they had gone there to hustle the actor, not burgle him, he claimed.

There then followed an angry scene when Tommy Ferguson told the court that when helping Novarro to the shower, the aging actor had muttered the words, “Hail Mary full of grace.” Paul Ferguson, who had been listening to the testimony closely, suddenly launched an attack on his stunned younger brother, calling him a “punk liar” and a “son of a bitch”. The brother’s yell preceded him throwing a pen at Tommy, missing him by a mere fraction.

Spectators in the gallery, who had previously been nodding off with the sheer weight of the testimony, were suddenly awake and interested to know what would happen next. They were more enthralled than the judge was, however, and he immediately sent the jury out of the room and told Paul in no uncertain terms that he would be bound and gagged if he ever disrupted the court in that way again.

There was a surprise in court on 5 September with the arrival of Mrs Lorraine Smith, the mother of the Ferguson brothers. She managed to confuse proceedings even more than before by asserting that she had received five letters from her youngest son, telling her that both brothers had been responsible for the killing of Ramón Novarro. When asked where these letters were now, she infuriated everyone by stating, “I threw them away.” She also denied rumours that she’d told Tommy to take full blame for the killing; saying “I meant I wanted him to tell the truth. I don’t think either of them did it.”

The long and disturbing testimony from both sides was finally at an end on 8 September, and on the 17th, the jury found both Ferguson brothers guilty of murder in the first degree. During the penalty trial a week later, a furious Paul Ferguson stunned onlookers by apparently calling Ideman “a pig” and accusing him of falsifying evidence and lying. He also turned his attentions to the jury; “I didn’t do it,” he wept, though no one appeared to believe him.

Meanwhile, Tommy Ferguson surprisingly decided to “admit” to the crime once and for all, by announcing, “I caused his death. He died of a broken nose and I am the one who busted his nose.” Why ever did you do such a thing? he was asked, to which he replied that he had considered Ramón Novarro to be “just an old punk”.

This revelation could have been devastating, but Ideman wasted no time in announcing to the court that he believed the younger brother’s “confession” was just a last-minute attempt to create doubts in their mind. Tommy retorted that he had decided to tell the truth because he didn’t want it on his shoulders that his brother was sent to the gas chamber, while “I sit [in prison] like Mr Cool.”

Ideman played along with the scenario and asked the younger brother straight out if he had murdered Ramón Novarro. “I caused his death . . . He caused his death . . . We both caused it. He was as much a part of it as I was,” Tommy replied. Strangely, the “we” in question, according to Ferguson, was not his brother, but Ramón Novarro himself.

Ideman then asked Ferguson if it had bothered his conscience when he had previously blamed the killing on his brother. “Not a bit,” he declared, before explaining that he had been told beforehand that Paul would likely get charged with manslaughter, while he would get off with the crime once and for all. “It’s not our fault we got a dumb jury,” he said.

But regardless of last-minute claims of guilt, in the end the two feuding brothers were sentenced to life in prison for their crimes, though by the time they were released, they had actually only served seven years. Tommy Ferguson later committed suicide, while at the time of writing, Paul Ferguson is currently in prison after committing another crime. He is said to spend his time writing books and stories.

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