Digging though the Hollywood archives: Ted Healy’s drawing of Wallace Beery, and Wallace Beery’s murder of Ted Healy

Every once in a while, I’ve been known to go off on a tangent. Something obscure will pique my interest, and, for whatever reason, I find that I’m not able to let it go. (Does anyone remember my interest in the large school bell that was rung by the 19 year old Orson Welles in his student film The Hearts of Age?) Well, I was home with a cold today, and Clementine and I celebrated by making chicken noodle soup from scratch and watching old movies. We started with Grand Hotel, and then moved on to the even more depressing Dinner at Eight, both of which feature two of my favorite actors, Lionel and John Barrymore. Both films also star comedic tough-guy Wallace Beery. And it was a mention of Beery in a short documentary piece included on the Grand Hotel DVD that caught my interest. In describing the April 29, 1932 premier of Grand Hotel at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the narrator of the documentary segment made an offhand comment about Beery appearing in drag, and it being poorly-received by the star-studded audience. So, after putting the kids to bed, I took to Google… and the next several hours were spent going down the Wallace Beery rabbit hole, trying to figure out why he’d take the stage in drag, and why it had so upset the audience.

It would seem that Beery, who had won a 1931 Best Actor Oscar for his work alongside Jackie Cooper in the film The Champ, had a history of cross-dressing. In fact, it’s how the imposing actor originally came to make a name for himself in Hollywood, during the silent era. Berry, beginning in 1914, had starred in a series of over 30 short silent films, in which he portrayed a woman by the name of Sweedie, The Swedish Maid . (A frame of Beery, appearing as Sweedie in 1914’s Topsy-Turvy Sweedie, can be seen to the right.) While I haven’t yet been able to find the back-story, explaining how the Sweedie character came to be, I have found several allusions to the fact that Beery was known, throughout his career, to often appear in drag. As for what happened on this particular night, it would appear that Berry was encouraged by the humorist Will Rogers, who was acting as the master of ceremonies at the gala event, to imitate his Grand Hotel co-star, the notoriously reclusive Gretta Garbo.

Here’s how Will Rogers explained everything a few days after the fact:

Louie B. Mayer asked me (to introduce the cast), and I was tickled to do it. The whole thing is the biggest ‘hooey’ out here… This was an especially big one, for it was the biggest cast picture ever made… They have an intermission and everybody goes out and looks at each other, and you can’t get ‘em back in again. They would rather look at each other than the show…

Well of course you all know Greta Garbo never goes anywhere… Nobody has ever met her. John Barrymore who played with her in the picture, he has never seen her, that was all done with mirrors…

She’s a fantom. The minute you look at her, she’s not there, she is in Sweden, or Norway, or Denmark, or wherever it is these Swedes come from… She don’t go anywhere, (but) I announced that, on account of the importance of the occasion, Miss Garbo would break her rule and be there, and that immediately after the picture was over (she would) come on stage and take a bow…

Well, I had framed up a gag with Wally Berry (in) some ‘dame’ clothes. He was my Greta Garbo. Sounds kinder funny don’t it? Well it wasn’t to them. Wally did it fine. He even looked like her, but not enough to satisfy that crowd.

Now they should have known that Garbo wasn’t going to be there any more than Coolidge, but they go and believe it and then get sore at themselves for believing it. I didn’t mean any harm. Gosh, us comedians must get laughs. But these first nighters don’t want us to get ‘em at their expense…

So, that, in case you were like me, and wanted to know why people didn’t appreciate Beery in drag, on the stage of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in 1932, is the story. It wasn’t that they didn’t appreciate drag. It’s just that they didn’t like being made fools of for sitting through the movie in expectation of seeing Garbo at the end. (Speaking of Garbo, she was so anxious about being seen that her scenes with John Barrymore in Grad Hotel were apparently shot through a hole in a canvas screen, so that no one on the cast or crew could see them, except for the director, who watched through the camera lens.)

In the process of solving one mystery, though, many more came to the surface. Most notably, I learned that Beery was likely the killer of Tree Stooges founder Ted Healy in 1937. The following comes by way of a 2002 story in the Chicago Tribune.

…It could have been the O. J. Simpson story of its day, except that after a flurry of press reports, the police investigation got snuffed. The story was relegated to the status of Hollywood legend, to be whispered back and forth in the movie colony for decades.

But only recently did it surface in print, contained, bizarrely enough, in a new biography of the Stooges, who are most associated with the mock violence of rubber hammers, slipped punches and simulated eye-jabs.

According to “The Three Stooges: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the Most Popular Comedy Team of All Time,” written by Jeff and Tom Forrester, Chicago-area natives who are longtime Stooges historians, the affair unfolded on the night of Dec. 20, 1937, and resulted in the brutal death of Ted Healy, who at the time was arguably the most influential comedian in the United States, though today he is largely forgotten.

Healy, for those who may not have heard of him, was a top vaudeville funnyman and movie star of the 1920s and ’30s who is best remembered today for giving the Three Stooges their start in show business as foils for his stage act. Regarded by many show-business historians as a brilliant improv comic, who influenced a generation of stand-up comedians, from Jack Benny and Bob Hope to Milton Berle, Healy first met the three Howard brothers (nee Hortwitz) on a beach in Brooklyn one day in 1909, when all were in their early teens. Thirteen years later, by then a major star, Healy would hire his boyhood friends — first Shemp, and later Moe and Curly — to provide the madcap side of his show.

It was the beginning of a tempestuous relationship that would last, on and off, for years, with more Stooges being added and subtracted from the act until a final break with the bad-tempered Healy in 1934 sent the familiar trio of Curly and Moe Howard and Larry Fine out on their own and into the movies.

Healy was a true Jekyll-and-Hyde personality. Loose and funny when sober, he could become a vile drunk, a touchy, combative sort always ready for a bar fight. It was this volatility and mean-spiritedness that sent the Three Stooges packing. (Indeed, a favorite Healy stunt involved having the Stooges collect Los Angles telephone directories, which he’d soak in a bathtub and then drop on unsuspecting pedestrians from his penthouse apartment. Just for laughs.)

According to Jeff Forrester, there were long-standing hard feelings between Healy and Beery and the Luciano mobster, Pasquale “Pat” DiCicco, before that night in December 1937.

DiCicco, a handsome roue with a violent streak who was Luciano’s “eyes and ears in Hollywood,” according to the Forresters, knew Healy had had an affair with his ex-wife, the film star Thelma Todd. (Todd herself died under mysterious circumstances in 1934.)

Officially ruled a “suicide,” there was no accounting for her broken nose and shattered jaw. Some said she died at the hands of her ex-husband, who had been known to abuse her.) And Beery, the star of “The Champ” and “Tugboat Annie,” held a grudge against Healy for supposedly stealing scenes in their 1937 film “Good Old Soak.”

Healy, newly married, was celebrating the birth of his only child the night he was beaten. He had staggered into the Trocadero blind drunk and tangled with Beery twice at the bar, before inviting the actor and DiCicco both outside to fight. Eyewitnesses, including DiCicco’s cousin, the late Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, stated as much to the Los Angeles Police Department.

According to the Forresters’ book, a member of Healy’s Stooges troupe named Sammy Wolfe (there was a dispute between Healy and the Howards over who would retain the name and concept of the Stooges) happened to be at the bar that night and gave the following account:

“Wallace Beery was sitting at the bar with Pat DiCicco. Beery was making a lot of noise. Ted Healy was at the other end of the bar, and Ted told Beery to be quiet. Beery said, “I won’t be quiet.” It went back and forth. Then Beery gets up and punches Ted right in the side of the head, right there at the bar. Ted says, “Let’s go outside, and I’ll take care of both of you!” I guess Beery and DiCicco went out into the parking lot, but there was already another guy out there. And he jumped Ted, and then the other two guys jumped in and beat him up.'”

…By most accounts, the book says, Healy was savagely beaten in the Trocadero parking lot that night, kicked in the head, ribs and stomach. Half-conscious and bleeding, he crawled into a taxi and instructed the driver to take him to the Brown Derby restaurant.

The Forresters say that Shemp’s late widow, Babe, told them that Healy then called Shemp and told him how Beery and DiCicco and a third man whom he didn’t know had attacked him. The book says Healy also telephoned another of the stage Stooges, Dick Hakins, with the same account.

The next day, Healy became violently ill, fell into a coma and died…

The episode is also apparently mentioned in E.J. Fleming’s book The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling and the MGM Publicity Machine. According to Fleming, when Beery, DiCicco and Broccoli, who would eventually go on to make a fortune as the producer of the James Bond films, killed Healy, the MGM “fixers” sprang to action, sending Beery to Europe for several months, and creating a story about Healy having been killed by three unknown college students.

And, for those of you Beery fans out there, who don’t think that the lovable “Champ” would be capable of such a thing, the evidence would seem to indicate otherwise. Not only is there this allegation of murder, but it also seems to be pretty widely accepted that he raped his first wife, the actress Gloria Swanson, and, at some point during their marriage, tricked her into drinking a concoction that induced an abortion, as he neither liked, nor wanted, children. And apparently kids sensed that. Jackie Cooper, who, as a child, worked with Beery in several films, wrote in his autobiography that Beery was, “the most sadistic person I have ever known“.

After hours of research, though, there’s still one thing that I haven’t been able to track down. I’ve seen it mentioned in two places that there’s a pencil sketch of Beery somewhere, drawn by Ted Healy. Apparently he drew it on the set of a film that they were working on together. (I’m assuming it was completed on the set of Good Old Soak, which was shot approximately one year before Healy’s murder, but I’m not certain.) So, that’s my new quest in life. I want to find that drawing and interview its owner. If you can point me in the right direction, I’d appreciate.

And one last little mystery, while we’re at it. Apparently the child-hating Beery illegally adopted an infant girl in 1939, who was never heard of again. The following is from Wikipedia:

In December 1939, the unmarried Beery adopted a seven-month old infant girl Phyllis Ann. Phyllis appeared in MGM publicity photos when adopted, but was never mentioned again. Beery told the press he had taken the girl in from a single mother, recently divorced, but filed no official adoption papers. No further information on the child appears to exist, and she is not mentioned in Beery’s obituary.

My guess is that it was just studio PR, and that there never really was an adoption at all… just a studio that wanted to eke a little more life out of an actor who, only a few years prior, had been one of Hollywood’s Top Ten stars at the box office. At least that’s what I’m hoping, for her sake. (The older girl in the creepy photo above, I suspect, is Carol Ann, the girl that Beery and his second wife, Rita Gilman, adopted during the short time they were together. (She was the daughter of Gilman’s cousin.))

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  1. anonymous
    Posted February 24, 2013 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Beery was a bully, and had an enormous ego. During the mid 1930’s, he demanded a contract with MGM that gave him $1 more than their highest paid contract actor, making him the highest paid actor in Hollywood.

  2. Posted February 24, 2013 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Yay for using the internet for the reason Al Gore intended (acquisition of knowledge!). This is fascinating. The thing about the disappearing adopted daughter is perhaps most interesting…where is that woman today (if she’s still alive)? The lack of follow up on that is really interesting to me. Today, when celebs adopt a kid you can’t avoid reading about it over and over and over and over until you want to pull out your eyes and stomp on them.

  3. Elliott
    Posted February 24, 2013 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Beery didn’t win the Oscar in ’31 outright. It was a tie. Here’s the story from IMDB. It certainly reinforces the believe that he was a dick.

    “When the Academy Awards were first presented, the winners were announced ahead of the ceremony, partly with the hope the recipients would show up to collect their award. When it was announced that the winner of the 1931 prize for best actor went to Fredric March, Beery reportedly stormed into the office of MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer, demanding he be given the award instead. The result was a “tie” for Best Actor that year. From then on the Oscar votes were tabulated by Price Waterhouse, and the winners announced at the ceremony.”

  4. Mr. Y
    Posted February 24, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Fatty Arbuckle got famous too early. If he’d worked for MGM in the era of Mannix and Strickling, he would have been fine.


  5. Interrobang
    Posted February 24, 2013 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    That picture of him with the kids is creepy. He looks like he’s about ten seconds away from backhanding one or other of them across the face. I’m really not a “kids person,” but I could never hate children as much as shows in that picture…

  6. Edward
    Posted February 24, 2013 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    Why’s he in a robe in that photo?

  7. Posted February 24, 2013 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, it’s like “Wait, this isn’t creepy enough… let me change into a silk robe and lunge at the kids.”

  8. Elvis Costello
    Posted February 24, 2013 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    Mark, just saw “Searching for Sugarman” win the Oscar…How about a documentary of the Monkey Power Trio…Looks like Oscar gold to me!

  9. MrMikesHardCoreSot
    Posted February 24, 2013 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

    No point in trying to figure out this hollyweird horseshit. Beery was probably a switch-hittin’ sick fuck pedophile doing kids or adults as convenient to him.

  10. Posted February 28, 2013 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    I think the most intriguing part of the whole article is the missing adopted kid! Whats that all about??

  11. anonymous
    Posted February 28, 2013 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    She grew up to be Anita Bryant.

  12. carolyn
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    Healy performing with his stooges:


  13. captain
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Healy’s son, who was born just a few days before the murder, died not too long ago in Atlanta.


  14. Posted May 12, 2013 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    The Ted Healy “murder” story is most likely untrue. You might be interested in this long investigation from a Los Angeles historian:

  15. Michael Powers
    Posted May 17, 2013 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    I’ve encountered Ted Healy’s sketch of Wallace Beery and it is glorious, a real masterpiece, but it’s apparently vanished from the internet. Healy was a hell of a lot better artist than he was a comedian, which isn’t saying much; his Stooges were Chaplin, Arbuckle and Keaton compared to him. Beery was a legendarily mean-spirited character by all accounts (except Mickey Rooney’s, who loved him) but was arguably the greatest actor of his day, at least after the death of Lon Chaney, Sr., whose sound-era career Beery inherited, similarly to Paul Newman inheriting James Dean’s career almost three decades later. Beery wielded a hundred times the sheer power of any actor currently working today; only Chaney, Sr., Fairbanks, Sr., Gable, the brilliant Marie Dressler, and (oddly) Jean Harlow held their own onscreen with Beery. I’m enthralled by how much the earlier comments reflect people reading so much into that photo of Beery with the children, although I imagine that he was capable of practically anything, especially after his treatment of young wife Gloria Swanson. By the way, I thought I knew all about Beery but this business about him cross-dressing aside from the “Sweedie” shorts surprises me. Just serves as a reminder that everyone seems somehow precisely 180 degrees from what anyone would expect from the image they foster, something I notice over and over in life in acquaintances as well as celebrities.

  16. Michael Powers
    Posted May 17, 2013 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    One more note: no Beery picture ever lost money in the sound era. While his career did gradually decline from its dizzying height of the early ’30s, he remained a huge star in the hinterlands, with a devoted following away from the large cities, especially in the South. He was top-billed with his name above the title in all but a tiny handful of films during the sound era and his name on a poster guaranteed a profit, something never lost on MGM.

  17. Posted May 25, 2013 at 5:14 am | Permalink

    Beery was a hideous bastard – no doubt about it. Has there ever been a biography written about the man? I imagine it would be quite an interesting read.


    Tom Degan

  18. Vulture
    Posted June 14, 2013 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    Just trying to imagine what it would be like if our biggest actor beat to death our biggest comic today…… like if Brad Pitt beat Carrot Top to death.

  19. Myrna
    Posted June 23, 2013 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    A friend who works in MGM research says there are documents supporting Beery beating Healy and a subsequent cover-up.

  20. Alicia Grigsby
    Posted July 10, 2013 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for the interesting article. I have always loved old movies and enjoy reading about actors and “back stories”. While watching an old Wallace Beery movie and researching his career I noticed the “Sweedie the Swedish Maid”, which I had never heard of, and had to google more. I had read about Beery and Healy a few years back in “The Fixers” and will now check out the Stooges book you mentioned. Personal opinion…”The Fixers”, interesting stories but very poorly written. Does “Good Old Soak” exist anywhere?

  21. pills
    Posted December 5, 2013 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    Any luck finding Wallace Beery’s daughter?

  22. Steve
    Posted December 29, 2013 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    The murder of Ted Healy – At least according to the 94 year old Stooge Mousie Garner


  23. J R
    Posted June 16, 2014 at 1:26 am | Permalink

    A Phyllis Riley age 1 is registered as living with Beery in the 1940 Census. A Phyllis Ann Riley obituary is listed in Phoenix Arizona for February 2013, she is listed as born in 1939. I’ve been unable to find any additional info.

  24. Genevieve
    Posted September 10, 2014 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Very interesting. Sounds like this Beery guy was a real a-hole. If he were alive today, I would like to tell him off & whack him in the knee caps.

  25. Genevieve
    Posted September 10, 2014 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Had to add this: http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1964&dat=19391208&id=GysyAAAAIBAJ&sjid=X7YFAAAAIBAJ&pg=3450,3625549
    A newspaper article on him when he got the baby. He comes off as such a creeper.

  26. anon
    Posted September 19, 2014 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    My my look at all the insidious remarks made here! Tell me what “factual” information do any of you have? Are “any” of you related by chance? “Friends” of the family or descendants? Its comical to watch trolls of the internet burn the proverbial candle at both ends as if it is “factual constructive criticism”. The “GREAT Mystery” ends here I KNOW do you?

  27. Steve mcginnis
    Posted February 21, 2015 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Well I’m kinda related. Rita Gillman was my first cousin once removed. (My mothers first cousin). I have old pics of Wallace,Rita and carol Ann that were sent back here to Parkersburg W V from back in the 30’s. I know nothing except my mother was the best dressed girl in high school, dispite the fact that they were quite poor because of my grandfathers death when mom was 10. Rita sent my mom boxes upon boxes of her hand me downs that according to my mom were “quite elegant”. My mother had nothing but good things to say about Wallace Berry and family.

  28. Monica
    Posted August 19, 2019 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    Dicoco was innocent? I find that hard to believe. As for the child her mother probably reclaimed her same as Joan Crawford’s first paid for child a boy.

  29. iRobert
    Posted August 20, 2019 at 5:34 am | Permalink

    I have the addresses, phone numbers and emails of several of Phyllis Ann Riley’s relatives if you’d like to look into this further.

    Why do folks doubt Healy died as a consequence of that beating he took earlier? Are they suggesting the beating didn’t take place?

  30. Gary Vannucci
    Posted February 13, 2021 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Berry was an over rated actor asshole and bully

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