© 2010 Bhob Stewart
I can never reread the Shock Illustrated story "The Lipstick Killer" without recalling the summer of 1946. I was nine years old. My father was attending a sales convention in Chicago, and my mother decided that was reason enough for a family vacation. With my younger brother in tow, we headed for the railroad station and boarded a Chicago-bound train, eventually joining up with my father at the Palmer House.
Sightseeing over the next few days included bubbling tanks of aquatic life at the Shedd Aquarium, then in its second decade, and a visit to a magnificent movie palace where the audience roared with laughter at a vaudeville team doing pratfalls in a knockabout comedy act. At the Museum of Science and Industry, we watched model trains circling 1000 feet of track in the world's largest model railroad layout (installed in 1941) before descending into the Museum's famous Coal Mine (opened in 1933).
Returning to the hotel, we stopped off at the hotel's newsstand, and I saw, for the first time in my life, the girlie magazines usually not sold in smalltown America. Earl Moran, Billy de Vorss, Peter Driben (famed for his The Maltese Falcon poster) and Merlin Glen Enabit supplied the pin-up cover art for Robert Harrison's cheesecake publications (Beauty Parade, Eyeful, Wink, Flirt, Titter, Whisper), a line launched in 1942 and continuing into the next decade when Harrison added Confidential (1952-1973).
I managed to get only a quick eyeful of Eyeful, a fleeting glimpse of gams, before my mother said, "Put that back." My parents bought every Chicago newspaper, and we rode the elevator up to our hotel room. They tossed the stack of newspapers on the sofa, went into the other room and closed the door. I spread the newspapers across the carpet and began reading the Chicago Tribune's headline story–the chilling confession of William Heirens, aka the Lipstick Killer, with the Tribune's lurid detailing of body parts being carried through the Chicago streets: "This is the story of how William George Heirens, 17, kidnapped, strangled and then dismembered Suzanne Degnan, 6, last Jan. 7, and distributed the parts of her body in sewer openings near her home. It is the story of how William George Heirens climbed into the apartment of Miss Frances Brown... and shot and stabbed her to death, and left a message on the wall with lipstick imploring the police to catch him... And it is the story of how William George Heirens entered the apartment of Mrs. Josephine Ross... and how he stabbed her to death when she awoke."
The Chicago Tribune front page was a powerful revelation of evil lurking in the shadows of the Windy City, many steps removed from the boring suburbia of the Dick and Jane primer I had read in school ("See Spot run") or the funny animal comic books I had thumbed through at home. When my parents finally opened the door and announced we were going out to a restaurant for dinner that evening, I looked up from the newspapers on the carpet and asked, "Is it safe?"
Ten years later, Fritz Lang directed While the City Sleeps (1956). By then, my memory of the newspaper headlines I had seen in the Chicago hotel room had faded, and I failed to make the connection of that movie or the Picto-Fiction story with the Tribune account I had read as a child.
In Lang's psychological thriller, John Barrymore, Jr. (Drew Barrymore's father) plays disturbed teen Robert Manners, nicknamed the "Lipstick Killer" by the New York Sentinel. In the mid-1950s, with the comic book industry under siege, maverick EC publisher Bill Gaines canceled all of his comic book titles and launched the line of illustrated story magazines he called Picto-Fiction. The second issue of Shock Illustrated featured a story titled "The Lipstick Killer," a compelling psychological portrait etched by artist Reed Crandall with stark realism, sweaty intensity and a shadowy nod in the direction of film noir. Rudi Nappi did the cover painting. A comparison of the movie's release (on 16 May 1956) with the publication date of Shock 2 (Winter 1955-56) indicates that Lang and EC were creating their Lipstick Killer stories independently and unaware of each other. In fact, Gaines did not learn about Lang's film until 1972.
Was there a real Lipstick Killer? Or was the Picto-Fiction tale just one small chapter in an urban legend of vast proportions, one that smeared lipstick over the truth? EC's "The Lipstick Killer" was credited to A.D. Locke, a pseudonym for Daniel Keyes, who later wrote Flowers for Algernon (1966), filmed in 1968 as Charly. The source of Keyes' story is obviously Lucy Freeman's non-fiction Before I Kill More... (Crown, 1955). With access to Heirens' confessions, Freeman interviewed dozens of people associated with the case to construct a highly detailed 374-page argument against Heirens. Transcripts of his confessions fill a 115-page appendix. When she allowed Heirens to read a rough draft of the book, he told her, "I may not like your opinion on some things, but that does not mean I don't like you as a person." He asked that she include his statement in the book, and she agreed (effectively burying it on page 132): "Lucy and I have had many discussions over the contents of this book, and I'm grateful to her for having the decency to come out and talk these matters over before they are put into publication. However, I do object to much of the material that this book contains. Much of it is myth, and the case of William Heirens has progressively become such an expanding mythology that the truth has long been forsaken."
Intersecting titles echo through the history of comics and film. In 1928, While the City Sleeps was the title of a Lon Chaney silent feature, and years later, several comic book stories were titled "While the City Sleeps." One by Bill Finger and Dick Sprang appeared in Batman 30 (August-September 1945), and there was another by Stan Lee and Russ Heath in Uncanny Tales 1 (June 1952), followed by a Wally Wood/Bob Powell collaboration for Daredevil 10 (January 1965).
The newspaper setting of While the City Sleeps enabled Lang to make a commentary on the mid-1950s newspaper attacks on comic books. While the City Sleeps (which had the working title News Is Made at Night) opened two weeks after Variety gave the film a favorable review, noting the interweaving of several storylines: "Among them are the murderous activities of a homicidal maniac, played by John Barrymore, Jr.; a scramble for power among the top brass of a newspaper empire; and a good-natured love story between the paper's top reporter, played by Dana Andrews, and Sally Forrest, the secretary of one of the contestants. When the empire's chieftain, played by Robert Warwick, dies, his son, Vincent Price, decides to set up a new top exec post for grabs. Contenders are: Thomas Mitchell, editor of the keystone paper; George Sanders, head of the empire's wire service; and James Craig, dapper photo bureau chief. Price lets it be known that the one to crack the wave of murders being committed by Barrymore gets the job. Sanders and Mitchell commence heartily to cut each other's throats, while Craig puts the pressure, literally and figuratively, on [Rhonda] Fleming."
As the film opens, the death of media mogul Amos Kyne (Warwick) sets off the city room power struggle. Comic book reader Robert Manners (Barrymore) scrawls "Ask mother" in lipstick at the scene of a crime and later reads a copy of the New York Sentinel with the headline, "Criminologist Tags Lipstick Killer as Mama's Boy." When Amos Kyne's pompous son, Walter Kyne, Jr. (Price), takes over his father's empire, he announces a staff competition to find the Lipstick Killer, with the job of top editor going to the winner. City editor John Day Griffith (Mitchell) relies on reporter Edward Mobley (Andrews) to investigate. Wire service editor Mark Loving (Sanders) uses his mistress, mink-clad columnist Mildred Donner (Lupino), to pry information from Mobley. Photo editor Harry Kritzer (Craig) attempts to manipulate Kyne's ex-model wife Dorothy (Fleming). Mobley's girl friend Nancy Liggett (Forrest) almost loses her life when she is used as bait for the killer. After Mobley captures Manners in the subway, Griffith puts out an extra edition and takes over as editor-in-chief.
In his 1967 study, Fritz Lang in America, Peter Bogdanovich observes that beneath the "civilized exterior" of While the City Sleeps, "the monsters are not disfigured super-criminals plotting from subterrranean cellars, but well-dressed citizens in the mainstream of life. These people who vie so ruthlessly for the editorship of a large city newspaper are much more brutalized and corrupt than the psychopathic murderer they are hunting... The sick boy who pleads, 'Please catch me before I kill more!" has a self-awareness, a humanity even, that does not exist in his pursuers; but the psychic destruction they cause goes unpunished, the real sickness of society is not cured."
In one scene Mobley mentions comic books when he makes an appeal on television directly to the unknown killer. The scene cuts from the studio to Manners, alone in a room reading Tales from the Crypt 32 (October-November 1952). As Manners looks up at his TV set, the comic book falls to the floor, and suddenly, in the insert shot, it is no longer Tales from the Crypt. Instead, it is the prop department's crude mock-up of a fake comic book, The Strangler, which never appeared on newsstands and existed only for this movie.
That sequence suggests that Lang may have been a regular reader of EC Comics. In his youth, Lang studied art and architecture, selling his paintings and cartoons between 1910 and 1914, the year he had an exhibition in Paris. As an artist, he was fascinated with comics and read them for many years, a fact revealed in his 1965 interview with Bogdanovich (Fritz Lang in America). Discussing his arrival in the U.S. to "become an American" in 1934, he commented, "In those days, I refused to speak a word of German... I read only English. I read a lot of newspapers, and I read comic strips–from which I learned a lot. I said to myself, if an audience–year in, year out–reads so many comic strips, there must be something interesting in them. And I found them very interesting. I got (and still get today) an insight into the American character, into American humor; and I learned slang."
When Bogdanovich asked Lang about the sympathetic treatment of EC Comics reader Robert Manners ("Weren't most of the newspeople actually more objectionable than the murderer? One has some sympathy for him but very little for characters like Vincent Price or Rhonda Fleming."), Lang responded, "You are very romantic. They are human beings. Maybe it's like Lorre in M–he murders because he must–but these people (with the exception of Dana Andrews and Thomas Mitchell) do exactly the things you probably do yourself but which you detest: running after a job, greedy for money. How many people have you met in your life who are ethical? So what do you expect from these people in While the City Sleeps?" Reviewing the film in 2003, Stephen Murray compared Kyne to Rupert Murdoch, noting, "The killer is more violent, and clearly psychotic, but is not as amoral as the mogul."
Lang's linkage of an EC horror comic with unethical newsmen is a striking juxtaposition. Lang fled Germany in 1933, the same year of the Nazi book-burnings and made his series of anti-Nazi films in the early 1940s. To work on his screenplays, Lang kept extensive files of newspaper clippings as a springboard for film situations, so certainly he was aware of the 1954 Senate Subcommittee investigation of comic books, Fredric Wertham and the attacks on EC by newspapers, leading to public comic-book burnings in some towns. His on-screen reference to comic books of the 1950s is more complex than it might seem at first glance. He notes the newspaper attitude toward 1950s comics publishers by having reporter Mobley refer to "the so-called comic books." At one point the idea is introduced that Manners intentionally left a comic book at a crime scene as a jape aimed at both the police and the media.Casey Robinson's screenplay is an adaptation of a 1953 novel about the Lipstick Killer, The Bloody Spur, by sportswriter Charles Einstein. With a title taken from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Einstein's novel transposes the real-life Chicago setting of the Lipstick Killer murders to fictional New York situations. Inserted into the text are a variety of typographic devices–boldface used to simulate newspaper headlines, handwritten lipstick scrawls ("help me for god's sake") and imitations of teletype bulletins, all in upper case. The novel has a few mentions of comic strips but not comic books.
In Bogdanovich's interview, Lang discussed working with Robinson but curiously made no mention of Charles Einstein or The Bloody Spur: "The producer called me and showed me the scenario. I saw great possibilities in it as well as some things in which I didn't believe. So I got together with the writer, Casey Robinson (it was very pleasant to work with him), and, because there was also a kind of psychotic sex murderer in this story, I told him about my experiences on M. And I remembered that real murder case in Chicago, where a man wrote on the mirror, 'Please catch me before I kill more.' (He was confined, I think, to an insane asylum for study.) I had the basic elements for these things collected from newspaper clippings, and we put them in. We really worked hand-in-glove; sometimes I invented a scene, sometimes he invented a scene, sometimes I improved, sometimes he improved."
The son of famed radio comedian Harry Einstein (1904-1958), aka Parkyakarkus, Charles Einstein was born in Boston in 1926, grew up in New York and attended the University of Chicago. At the time he wrote his first novel, The Bloody Spur, he was a magazine freelancer (Collier's, The Saturday Evening Post) while holding down a full-time job in New York as a sports and feature writer for the International News Service. In addition to his Willie Mays biography (Willie's Time: Baseball's Golden Age), he wrote and narrated NBC's A Man Named Mays (1963) and scripted for Lou Grant (CBS) in 1978. His son is Jeff Einstein, author of Einstein's Computer Guides.
Charles Einstein's three half-brothers are actor/ad man Clifford Einstein (Face/Off, Real Life, Modern Romance); Bob Einstein, who performs as the character Super Dave Osborne (The Extreme Adventures of Super Dave, Modern Romance); and actor-director Albert Brooks (The Muse, Mother, Real Life, Modern Romance), whose birth name is Albert Einstein. Their mother is the actress Thelma Leeds (Modern Romance, New Faces of 1937).
The front cover of The Bloody Spur shows a young man in the darkness outside a window where he is spying through Venetian blinds at a woman in a lit room. To the left of this image is the New York Sentinel, displaying the headline, "Lipstick Slayer Butchered Laura" with a smaller subtitle, "Strangled tot first."
The back of the book carries a quote from newspaper columnist Bob Considine ("One of the most exciting novels I have ever read. Packs the wallop of an extra!"). The back cover blurb is printed beneath a headline of quivering handwriting in red:
Help me for god's sake
Later the doctors would use these words to decipher the riddle of a perverted killer. Right now, the lipstick scrawl signaled the start of New York's greatest manhunt.
And in the city room of the fabulous Kyne News empire, four big-time newsmen went into action. All four knew that an exclusive beat on the killings would mean the top job at Kyne–and they were all hungry for that job. Hungry enough to buck the police, sell out their mistresses, and commit blackmail. Four decent men–corrupted by the bloody spur of ambition.
Charles Einstein and William Heirens (pronounced High-rens) were both University of Chicago students during the 1940s. Heirens was born 15 November 1928. As a child, he liked to build model airplanes and draw comic books, but he turned to petty thefts while he was in the seventh grade. At the age of 13, he was arrested for burglary, and his mother later recalled, "He had tears in his eyes and was very downcast and ashamed of himself. He did not give any explanation for his deeds, except that he had gotten ideas from radio programs and comics books and thought it would be exciting."
With good grades, he skipped his senior year of high school in 1945; at age 16, he entered a special program at the University of Chicago, majoring in electrical engineering. The thefts continued, however, and he was arrested 26 June 1946 during an attempted burglary in Chicago's North Side. In custody without legal counsel for six days, he was subjected to grueling interrogations, threats and brutal treatment, along with lie detector tests, a sodium pentothal injection ("to get the truth out of him") and a spinal tap (to determine that he was not brain damaged).
Mocked by the newspapers, the Chicago police and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office were under much pressure to find the killer. Prior to Heirens, they had arrested and released a 65-year-old janitor, Hector Verburgh, who later received $20,000 after filing a lawsuit against the police. "Oh, they hanged me up, they blindfolded me," said Verburgh. "I can’t put up my arms. They are sore. They had handcuffs on me for hours and hours. They threw me in the cell and blindfolded me. They handcuffed my hands behind my back and pulled me up on bars until my toes touched the floor. I no eat, I go to the hospital. Oh, I am so sick. Any more and I would have confessed to anything.”
Accused of the 1945-46 murders, Heirens confessed under a plea bargain that gave him immunity from a death sentence. He was sentenced to three consecutive life terms. At the age of 81, the diabetic, wheelchair-bound Heirens has spent 63 years in the Illinois prison system (where he became the first Illinois inmate to earn a college degree). He has continued to claim his innocence over the decades. In recent years, other writers and investigators have affirmed Heirens' innocence in various articles and books: Joseph Geringer in Court TV's Crime Library, Dolores Kennedy's Bill Heirens: His Day in Court (1991) and Richard Lindberg's Return to the Scene of the Crime–Chicago (1999). ABC aired a 1996 investigatory segment about Heirens, "The Wrong Man?" on PrimeTime Live, and A&E's American Justice also questioned whether Heirens was really the guilty party.
At the time, even the daughter of one of the victims said Heirens was framed. Heirens did have the support of the popular female mystery writer Craig Rice, best known for her novel Home Sweet Homicide, filmed in 1946 with Lynn Bari, Peggy Ann Garner and Dean Stockwell. Rice was featured on the front cover of Time early in 1946 in a Boris Artzybasheff painting. She wrote a series of articles that year for the Chicago Herald-American on Heirens' behalf, but she was a lone voice.
With screaming headlines, the Chicago newspapers were in a frenzy for details. Heirens told Lucy Freeman, "The press really had been stepping up their campaign to see me convicted. In headline and lurid descriptives, in pictures, and faked confession stories, I was convicted in the eyes of all, while as yet the State did not have enough evidence to charge me with murder... The papers printed every damaging morsel of information they could learn about me, hounded my parents, and told in detail how the gruesome murders were carried out."
Heirens' confession was published before he had actually confessed. Facts were not enough, so the Chicago Tribune printed a fictional confession in mid-July -- and that was the front-page story I read while staying at the Palmer House that summer. Rewritten by the other Chicago dailies and wire services, it was accepted by newspaper readers as the truth, yet it was nothing more than a deception dreamed up by the Tribune's George Wright.
When Heirens heard this fraudulent news story broadcast on radio, he said, "I didn't confess to anybody, honestly. My God, what are they going to pin on me next?" Because the Tribune story was so widely believed, Heirens used it as an outline when he gave his false confession, telling the law what he thought they wanted to hear in order to avoid the electric chair: "I was 17 years old, and I wanted to live." In 2002, Northwestern University's Center for Wrongful Convictions filed a petition for executive clemency, and many facts of the case plus Heirens' own account are presented in that petition.
In an interview on NBC's Today (8 April 2002), Dolores Kennedy talked about the media influence on Heirens' situation: "In 1946 there were five daily Chicago papers. World War II had just ended, and they were looking for news. And as one authority at the Department of Corrections said some years ago, Bill Heirens replaced World War II in the Chicago press. And if you look at the newspaper coverage during that time, it's absolutely true. The press, of course, was led by the prosecution, who gave them daily information about evidence findings and we found that many of those things were not even true. But they were vying for circulation. They were, in some cases, even inventing stories in order to sell more papers. Finally, after about a month, the Chicago Tribune came out with a story that would have led the public to believe that Bill had confessed. It was a front-page headline story. After that particular article, which was picked up by the other four newspapers and the AP and spread throughout the world, it became apparent to Bill Heirens that there was no way that he would be able to have a fair trial... There was really only a ten-week period between Bill's arrest and the time that he was sent away to prison, and during that time in the Chicago papers his case was headlined 157 times. It was pretty enormous coverage and not very factual."
Heirens became known as the Lipstick Killer because of a newspaper photo showing the interior of one victim's apartment. The words scrawled on the wall read, "For heavens sake catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself." Variations of that phrase and the image of a Lipstick Killer reverberated through the years, from Chicago newspapers to novels, films and Picto-Fiction. It entered the culture through different avenues. In Richard Hilliard's The Lonely Sex (1959) a murderer scrawls "Help" on a rock wall. Teenage Strangler is a 1964 movie about a Lipstick Killer in Huntington, West Virginia. The Twisted Sex (1966) dramatizes six case histories, including one about a sex criminal who scrawls "stop me before I kill more" on a mirror. The archival CD Lipstick Killers (2000) features the New York Dolls on nine tracks recorded in the summer of 1972 when the band was only four months old. "The Lipstick Killer" was a January 1984 episode of the television series, T.J. Hooker. The German horror film Schramm (1993) focuses on a deranged murderer labeled "The Lipstick Killer" by the press. The Japanese rock group Lipstick Killers, led by Naruzy Suicide, has recorded four albums since the group was formed in 1995.
The real killer in the Chicago murders was probably 42-year-old Richard Russell Thomas from Phoenix, Arizona. He was a male nurse on Chicago's South Side at the time of the murders. Thomas did, in fact, confess to the Degnan murder, but his confession was brushed aside after Heirens' arrest. Thomas died in Tennessee in 1974.
In recent years, a team led by Chicago attorney Jed Stone found 29 inconsistencies between Heirens' confessions and the known facts of the crimes. Stone's team and other investigators have established that the words on the apartment wall were not written by Heirens. Even in the 1940s, there were those who said the photograph was staged, created by a journalist to embellish and enhance the other fictions surrounding the case. Chicago newsmen at the time claimed the lipstick message was fabricated by Chicago American police reporter Buddy McHugh. It took only a single click of the shutter to launch the legend of the Lipstick Killer, one of the great hoaxes of the past century.