HNo. 14 in a series of 52 commemorating the 100-year anniversary of The Signal
The past two weeks, we’ve chronicled that magic elixir of journalism — When Love Goes Wrong. The story is brewed from love, sex, betrayal, infidelity, revenge and sometimes even murder.
Throw in the cult of celebrity and fee-hungry attorneys and this prurient recipe of Kiss & Stab gets no better.
Sitting atop a windswept hill overlooking downtown Newhall is a castle and museum. It was once the abode to one of the most famous and influential people on the planet.
William Surrey Hart was a movie superstar, his face recognizable all over the civilized world. His silent movie heyday was a century ago, but Hart’s legacy is still felt around the world in 2019.
“Two-Gun” Bill was the original celluloid Western hero. His name emblazons the local high school district and the Santa Clarita Valley’s first high school. Not a day goes by without The Signal mentioning the name, “Hart.”
But, there was a mesmerizing side to the thespian, a story juicier than any modern tabloid tale. For a decade, The Mighty Signal covered the most sensational courtroom drama in the history of this valley.
Starting in 1946, the original court case for the estate of Bill Hart would have more than three dozen attorneys, with 13 of them speaking. There was more than 2 million words of testimony, and transcripts sneaked up on the 12,000-page mark. That’s enough to fill 28 book-length novels. There were 428 pieces of evidence, and 119 witnesses.
The trial frequently passed the ridiculous. One single hypothetical question, by a psychiatrist, was 15,000 words in length, covering 72 pages. It took two days just to read that one hypothetical into the record. When completed, the transcripts of the trial alone cost $15,000. All of this went on in a courthouse on Market Street the size of a shoe box.
Millions of dollars (in 1940s money)…
The richest plot of land in the SCV…
The legacy of a giant…
The future of a son, William S. Hart Jr…
Howdy, Mr. Ben-Hur pahdnuh…
Few know that Bill Hart was both a real, bona fide cowboy AND a trained Shakespearean stage actor. In 1880, former Union Gen. Lewis Wallace penned a bestseller that would live on for more than a century. From 1907 on, “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” would eventually be made into five movies, with the 1959 Charlton Heston version winning 11 Oscars. But first, it had been a monster hit on the stage. More than 20 million people would view the theater performance.
William S. Hart would invent the modern character of Massala, the main villain. Hart would race Ben-Hur on the New York stage, using real chariots and real horses. One evening, according to Hart, Massala’s horses got tired of losing. They careened off the stage treadmill and smashed through the back of the theater into an alley.
Hart would go from stage to silent screen. Starting as a bit actor, he quickly became a leading man, earning a staggering $500,000 a film and making 70 motion pictures.
You absolutely cannot say there wasn’t drama in Hart’s life both on and off the screen. His last was the epic Western, “Tumbleweeds” in 1925. Hart sank a lot of his own money into that film and sued United Artists, claiming they had cheated him at the box office. He was right, but a judge felt differently, ruling against him. Nearly 15 years later, Hart won in a reopened case. Seems the judge who ruled against him had been bribed by U.A. They ended up paying Hart an estimated $700,000 and the good jurist went to San Quentin for eight years.
You did — WHAT?!? — While I was wedding dress shopping?
On the condition of anonymity, years ago, a high mucky muck in Los Angeles County told me a story that will never be shared on the tours of Hart mansion. It’s a tale that makes men wince and women grind their molars. What follows came from this official:
In 1921, Hart became engaged to the alleged love of his life and soul mate, Jane Novak. The actress starred in several silent movies. She earned a part her very first day in Hollywood.C
Reportedly, Hart and Novak took the train to New York City to be wed, bringing along Hart’s youngest sister, Mary Ann, who was close friends with Jane.
While the soon-to-be bride and Mary Ann were shopping for the wedding dress, Hart was back at their hotel, where he was — ahem, vigorously — “dating” — the young temptress/actress Winifred Westover, aka, Winifred Heidi.
Hart apparently considered it one last sowing of oats (kudos to his nutritionist; Hart was 59). A couple weeks before their wedding, Winifred gets in touch with Hart. She says she is heavy with Hart’s child.
As a guy, I cannot fathom any possible combination of two honest positives and a negative to offer up this kind of bulletin in a palatable fashion to your fiancée:
“Gee, hon. Are you doing something special with your hair and are those new shoes and by the way while you were out shopping for your wedding dress with my sister I sorta/kinda got a teen actress pregnant in our hotel room.”
The wedding with Novak was called off. Hart married Westover Dec. 7, 1922. In May, Hart orders his wife out of their Los Angeles home. She’s five-months pregnant. Almost nine months later to the day after their wedding, Sept. 6, 1922, Bill Hart Jr. was born.
On Feb. 18, 1927, The Signal reported that Hart and Winnifred were divorcing, five years after they had separated a few months after they had wed. The Signal, under both publishers A.B. Thatcher and Fred Trueblood, were very protective of the star.
Little information was shared about the divorce. However, The Los Angeles Times reported that Hart paid a six-figure stipend to Winnifred on the condition she not use his name nor return to acting — and she was to focus on raising their son.
Hart spent the next 19 years living quietly on his beloved hilltop mansion overlooking the SCV. His health was fading. His friend and sister Mary died. A few days before his death, he shared a long letter he had written at his bedside with Signal Editor Fred Trueblood I.
It was about how his friend, Will Rogers, was on a cattle drive in heaven, calling on Hart to join him. Partially, from Hart’s last written words:
“I heard it. A voice so fine that nothing seemed to live between it and silence. It was the voice of Will Rogers, Will Rogers, calling my name… calling for you and me to help drive this last great roundup into Eternity!’”
On the night of June 23, 1946, 11:20 p.m., William Surrey Hart died.
It started with a human brain
It’s hard to imagine the effect of Hart’s death on people. The Signal reported nearly everyone in the SCV sobbing. Most businesses closed. Hart died the night of June 23, 1946. He was 81.
The next day, at a big rodeo in downtown Los Angeles, a cowboy sang “O Bury Me Not, On The Lone Prairie.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the stadium. Hart had defined the American West for millions.
He defined the Santa Clarita Valley.
It gets Shakespearean.
Hart was originally to be interred at Forest Lawn in Burbank (his remains are in New York City today). As his casket was being rolled into the crematorium, his son, Bill Jr., sprinted into the mortuary with a court order clutched in hand. Bill Jr. yelled to stop the cremation, he had an order for his father’s brain.
You see, Hart had left nearly his entire fortune to Los Angeles County, with the stipulation they create a park out of his 265-acre ranch. Bill Jr. had been given a robust six-figure stipend at his birth but sued the county, claiming his father was not of sound mind when he made the will.
From 1946 to 1956, there were a series of trials and appeals. The little Newhall Courthouse turned into a circus. One of the strangest witnesses was little Erlita Madray, who stole the show in April 1951.
The 12-year-old had been given a book by Hart and signed, “for her dad to read first, and then if it’s OK, let Erlita read it.” The judge asked Erlita why her father had to read it first. Hart Jr.’s attorneys pointed out there was an illustration of a Mexican woman about to be ravaged and her blouse was torn, revealing an alleged plunging neckline.
The book was passed around to everyone in court. The judge finally said it looked like a plunging neckline to him. Erlita said: “I don’t think the woman has a neckline to plunge.”
The Signal noted the trial got ugly.
Two ranch hands, John Imperial and Joe “Boots” Ruddel, testified they had entered Mary Hart’s bedroom to repair a fireplace and found Hart and his sister in bed together. The cowboys’ lives were threatened. They left town.
Other witnesses testified Hart was deeply saddened that his wife and son never came to visit unless they wanted something. Hart said earlier he didn’t want his son to become a ne’er-do-well. Hart wanted Little Bill to make something of himself.
Hart Sr. was convinced his wife married him just to gouge money. Westover testified Hart pinched her and that she and Hart’s sister would argue over whether to serve lemon pie or cookies for dessert at their Los Angeles home.
Hart’s alleged temper was brought in as evidence from 1922, days after Bill Jr.’s birth. Winifred’s then attorney, Milton Cohen, called Hart a wife-beater. Hart told a Los Angeles Times reporter on Sept. 17, 1922: “If Cohen claims I was physically cruel to my wife, I’ll lick him so you won’t be able to recognize him. If I can’t do that, I’ll drill a hole in his stomach so big you can drive a 20-mule-team borax wagon through it.”
Hart’s brain turned out to be normal.
L.A. County finally won the initial case in a 10-2 civil verdict in 1952. There were a few “hail Mary” appeals, one in 1956 claiming that the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (transferring California to the United States from Mexico) was null and void, therefore, all real estate transactions since were null and void) was illegal.
Bill Hart Jr. & the definition of ironic
The Signal asked many questions over the years. Part of Hart’s art collection disappeared after the county took over. His treasure trove of Western memorabilia — one-of-a-kind belt buckles, bolos, rings, watches — went to Beverly Hills jeweler Ina Schnoncite for a steal: $13,764.77.
Who paid for Bill Jr. and Winifred’s massive legal fees?
Signal Editor Fred Trueblood posed in a front-page column years later that it was Y.M. Yant, the controversial Placerita con man, ex-felon and oil tycoon. Trueblood felt Yant wanted to get his hands on the nearly 300 acres of the Hart ranch because Yant believed there was a sea of oil underneath.
Even today, people ask why there’s never been a movie made about the life of Two-Gun Bill.
There almost was.
In the 1950s, The Signal reported that Darryl Zanuck bought the rights to William S. Hart’s life’s story. Small problem. Zanuck bought the rights from Bill Jr., who didn’t OWN the rights.
No movie was ever made about the life of one of the most influential cowboy stars in movie history.
Life’s a funny duck.
A dear friend years ago objected to my use of the term, “soulmate” when referring to Hart and actress Jane Novak.
“You can’t be a soulmate and cheat on your beloved while she’s buying her wedding dress,” she said.
Point well taken.C
It seems Winifred and Bill loved one another. And, Winifred and Bill hated each other. He helped her return to show business, getting her a part in the 1930 movie, “Lummox.” The movie did poorly. She and Bill Jr. were at Hart’s death bed, reportedly to make amends.
Bill Hart Jr. ended up helping create Hart Park. But he never got to inherit the most pristine and valuable chunk of real estate in all the Santa Clarita.
Hart Jr. worked for years in the SCV, driving past the ranch and fortune that could have been his.
Of all things, William S. Hart’s son ended up becoming a real estate appraiser locally.
John Boston is the local historian, author and columnist for The Mighty Signal. Come back next Saturday for installment No. 15 on The History of The Mighty Signal.