The Strip became famous for fistic encounters between film industry professionals, Hollywood café society, and other newsworthy names. Once, such incidents might have been hushed up for fear of damaging the participants’ reputations. Now they were a publicist’s dream. Even the mainstream press reported them, tongue–in-cheek, as amusing, “boys-will-be-boys” hijinks. If the incident involved Errol Flynn, women pulling each other’s hair out, or both- so much the better.
Filmland’s early favorite, Cafe Trocadero (8610 Sunset), had a brawl in the first months of its opening when some minor industry figures got into a little scuffle on New Years Eve, 1934. It only made the news when one of the participants sued the other as well as the club’s official owner, the Chateau Sunset Corporation.
In February 1937, Arlene Judge witnessed a fistfight at the Clover Club (8477 Sunset) between her then-fiancé Don Topping and agent Pat DiCicco (ex-Mr. Thelma Todd), allegedly over the latter’s use of profanity.
But the Strip’s reputation as brawl-central really got going after the opening of Mocambo (8588 Sunset) in January 1941, where in September of that year, Errol Flynn and gossip columnist Jimmy Fiddler scrapped. As would become the “usual” in such skirmishes, participant and witness accounts of the incident varied. According to Flynn, he only slapped Fiddler, telling him “You’re not worth a fist.” Mrs. Fiddler then jumped into the fray, allegedly jabbing Flynn with a fork. The tussle only enhanced Flynn’s growing manly-man reputation, especially when he was quoted gallantly praising Mrs. Fiddler’s bravery.
In December 1941, with most of Los Angeles, like the rest of the nation, preoccupied with preparing for actual battles, newspapers gleefully reported a fight at Mocambo between real and faux Russian royals: restaurateur “Prince” Mike Romanoff versus the (ex-Mr. Mae Murray) Prince David M’divani. Flynn was also implicated, this time playing the hero in breaking up the brawl, facetiously warning the men: “Fighting in public is so destructive. And the management here charges fantastically for its broken glassware.”
At the end of June 1942, two wealthy playboys- the much-married, much-in-the-news auto-parts heir Tommy Warner, Jr and Alexis Thompson of New York– got into a scrap at Mocambo. Thomson, who was escorting Ann Corcoran and Marie McDonald, claimed that Warner took a swing at him and missed, falling to the floor. Warner began kicking at Thompson, who proceeded to hit Warner with a chair.
The next Strip skirmish of note occurred in April 1944, again at Mocambo. The participants were Virginia Hill, girlfriend of Bugsy Siegel (who some claim backed Mocambo) and showgirl Toby Tuttle. It started after Miss Tuttle became incensed over a remark made by Hill. Errol Flynn, with whom Hill had been chatting before the battle started, was dragged into the affray by Tuttle who somehow acquired a raw egg and hurled it at the actor, annoyed that he hadn’t come to her defense. Hill managed to throw Tuttle to the floor before management broke it up and removed the women (1).
One of the most notorious Sunset Strip fights didn’t take place on the Strip at all but rather just above it at the Sunset Plaza apartments, just a stone’s throw from the Trocadero, Mocambo and the newly-opened Restaurant La Rue. The press soon dubbed it the “Battle of the Balcony.” The time was August 1944 and the participants were bandleader Tommy Dorsey and his new wife Pat Dane, Bugsy Siegel pal Al Smiley (2), and actors Jon Hall, Eddie Norris and Jane Churchill. But accounts of the fight, in which Hall’s nose was badly cut, varied wildly and the much-publicized criminal trial that ensued ended in a draw due to the confusion and conflicting witness statements.
The first brawl of 1946 also involved Errol Flynn, though he wasn’t even present this time. Actor Lawrence Tierney, then best known as the silver screen’s John Dillinger, was involved in a fracas at an artist’s studio party on the Strip, reportedly over insulting remarks made about Flynn. Actor Jack LaRue got injured trying to break it up and Diana Barrymore allegedly slapped Tierney over his rude behavior. The next month, February 1946, Tierney sparred with Paul de Loqueysse at an unnamed Strip nightclub over Tierney’s efforts to obtain the phone number of the French actor’s date. In March Tierney was arrested outside Mocambo after a scuffle inside the club.
In July, independent filmmaker David Selznick tussled with fan magazine photographer Bruce Bailey at an unnamed Strip nightspot when the lensman tried to get a shot of Selznick’s guests, most notably Shirley Temple. In December, producer Sid Luft battled “Dead End Kid” actor Bobby Jordan at Ciro’s after the younger man allegedly directed a “Bronx cheer” at Luft’s then-wife, Lynn Bari.
The year concluded as it had begun- with headlines about a nightclub battle invoking the name Tierney- Gene Tierney this time. Miss Tierney, however, was merely a witness to a melee between her soon-to-be ex-husband, dress designer Oleg Cassini, and a New Jersey businessman at Ciro’s on New Years’ Eve.
In 1947, Ciro’s continued to make inroads into Mocambo’s brawl record. “Swoon crooner” Frank Sinatra was accused of “bopping” columnist Lee Mortimer at the club in April. The writer pressed charges, resulting in Sinatra’s arrest. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper reported that Hollywood was laughing over the lawsuit. “We’ve been having fights here for years,” she wrote, predicting (wrongly) that Sinatra would emerge from the incident more popular than ever. Mortimer, who admitted his columns were more or less critical of the singer, speculated that the altercation may have been sparked by his recent remarks about Sinatra’s activities in Cuba. Sinatra allegedly paid Mortimer $9000 and the charges were dropped.
1947 concluded with a fracas at the former Eddie Nealis-run Colony House (9236 Sunset), now operating as “Le Pavilion,” involving blonde, former model/singer Elizabeth Ann Story. Manager Felix Young, formerly of the Trocadero and Mocambo, said he asked Story to leave due to her “boisterous” behavior. While Story and her three escorts- all said to be Generals- waited outside for her car to be brought around, witnesses reported that the blonde beauty took off a shoe and began beating people over the head with it. She later told police that she’d been slugged while sitting in her car near the club and robbed of several thousand dollars’ worth of jewelry.
1948’s fisticuffs began with director Otto Preminger and writer Ivan Goff battling at an unnamed Strip nightclub on January 12 when the latter showed up with Preminger’s ex, Natalie Draper on his arm. Sharp words were exchanged, then the director delivered “exactly two slaps” to Goff. Goff then rose from his seat and, in his own words, “propelled my fist three times into what might have been a face.”
January 18, Prince Padmanabna Satyapal, a former officer in the Royal Indian navy, exchanged blows with another patron at Mocambo after some reported cracks were made about his turban.
A few nights later, the “battle of the blondes” took place at Ciro’s between blonde #1, Cara Williams, and blonde #2, model Cathy Hamilton. The squabble allegedly stemmed from Hamilton’s “disparaging remarks” about Williams’ pal- another blonde, Lila Leeds.
The action returned to Mocambo when bandleader Xavier Cugat brawled with Oleg Cassini there in February. Cugie, who was performing down the street at Ciro’s, walked over to Mocambo during a break and found his wife dancing with veteran Ciro’s battler Oleg Cassini, now divorced from Gene Tierney. Bandleader and designer stepped into the parking lot, where they exchanged one blow each. Then Cugie returned to the bandstand at Ciro’s.
In March, Prince Satyapal, who’d fought at Mocambo in January, was caught in the middle of a fracas between his fiancé, model Ann Wells, and another woman at Ciro’s. Satyapal was sitting in the club with a woman friend when Wells walked in. According to witnesses, she threw a glass of scotch and water in the woman’s face and slapped Satyapal, “nearly knocking his turban off” (4).
In August, Shirley Temple and husband John Agar narrowly avoided being involved in a brawl at the Café Gala when, shortly after they departed, a patron who had been seated at their table became rowdy. When reached for a quote, Miss Temple said “I’m glad we left when we did.”
1949, which would see real violence with the so-called “Battle of Sunset Strip” involving gangster Mickey Cohen and unknown foes, started with a brawl January 15 at the former Club Casanova (8383 Sunset) between wealthy playboy/racecar driver/stuntman/pilot Joel W. Thorne, and the club’s manager Leo Pavich. Thorne, who suffered a fractured skull and broken jaw, pressed charges. Witness accounts were typically conflicting however and the case ended in a mistrial (5). A few nights later, Spencer Martin, grandson of financier S.W. Straus, was involved in a brawl at Mocambo.
Things quieted down until April, when Howard Duff, radio’s “Sam Spade,” fought with another patron at Ciro’s as Duff’s date, Ava Gardner, looked on.
The year and the decade closed with a hair-pulling brawl in November- not in a nightclub but on the street in front of one, instigated by ex-actress/ex-Lithuanian countess Rella Fowler who attacked blonde model Ariel Ames, the dinner-date of Fowler’s ex-husband. Fowler remained brazenly unapologetic, telling reporters “Anytime she is wiz my husband, I pull her hair, I hit her, I knock her down. Anywhere, too. Sunset Strip. Hollywood. Nightclub or on the street. Anywhere.” Ames later sued when Fowler hurled a statue through the window of Ames’ home, 7775 Sunset Blvd., but the women reached a truce “for the peace and quiet of the Sunset Strip (6).”
The 1950’s started off as relatively calm until May 1950 when a classic brawl took place at Ciro’s involving Sid Luft, who had first battled there back in 1946. In December, Ciro’s owner H.D. Hover was accused of having assaulted performer Irwin Parnes back in May, but nothing came of it.
Just when it seemed that the Strip might be getting tame, 1951 ushered in some of its most infamous incidents.
In February there was a fight described as “one of the few saloon set-tos on the Strip to draw blood,” at an unnamed night spot, involving hotel heir Conrad “Nicky” Hilton, recently divorced from Elizabeth Taylor. In July, a fight between Texas oil millionaire Glenn McCarthy and Don Barry, the former “Red Ryder” of films, over the latter’s asserted “ungentlemanly remarks” resulted in a broken men’s room mirror at Ciro’s.
In October, headlines screamed the news of Franchot Tone’s altercation with journalist Florabel Muir at Ciro’s. According to Muir, shortly after arriving at the club with bride Barbara Payton, Tone approached her table and after some rude remarks, spat in her face and kicked her in the shins. Muir, who had made some unflattering remarks about the Tone-Payton romance in her gossip column, in turn slapped Tone and made a citizen’s arrest of the actor. Tone denied spitting on or kicking Muir but later apologized to her in court, plead guilty and was given a suspended jail sentence and fine (7).
More screaming headlines appeared in November, this time featuring Mocambo. Longtime doorman Ernie Weaver tried to break up a brawl between the manager of singer Toni Arden (the “Mocambo Thrush”) and another patron, nightclub dancer James McGowen. Weaver was hit with a small baseball bat during the affray.
Another Mocambo employee was injured in a brawl there in November 1952, when popular waiter Johnny Trebach was attacked by a drunken customer. Patrons who witnessed the incident, including John Bromfield and Steve Crane, rushed to the Trebech’s defense. The following month, Abbot Black (who gave his occupation as radio writer but was in fact a dishwasher), created a disturbance at Mocambo, arguing with director Charlie Feldman and verbally abusing lawyer Greg Bautzer and his date. Asked to leave, Black began punching, biting and kicking. Doorman Ernie Weaver, back on the job, helped subdue him until sheriff’s deputies arrived. Black then fought the officers, backing up traffic on Sunset as drivers slowed down to rubber-neck.
1953 was generally quiet, but February saw Howard Duff’s second Strip brawl on record. Duff, now married to Ida Lupino, was dining at the Villa Nova restaurant with his wife when he fought with restaurant owner Jack Buchtel. Stories varied as usual– Buchtel said Duff and Lupino had been arguing and Duff smashed Lupino’s glass against the wall; Lupino denied the argument and said the glass-throwing incident had been a gag, adding that Buchtel attacked Duff unprovoked, knocking him out. Lupino, barefoot, had then chased Buchtel down Sunset carrying a glass of water, which she intended to toss in his face but never got the chance.
1954 was mostly peaceful as well until October, when William J. Marinucci, a construction foreman who wrote fiction as a sideline under the pename Bill Erni, allegedly pinched nightclub singer Lillian Long at an unnamed Strip café. Long’s husband, Richard Bryant, then traded blows with Marinucci. Long after the fact, in February 1956, Marinucci sued Bryant to the tune of $15,000 for injuries and embarrassment. The Bryant’s counter-sued for $100,000, citing injuries and humiliation.
In December, Frank Sinatra took part in his second Strip battle on record– a fight with publicist James Byron at an unnamed Strip nightclub. The two had words inside, with Sinatra allegedly declaring “You’re either a cop or a reporter and I hate cops and newspapermen.” They “took it outside,” exchanging “light blows, feints, slaps and pushes.” Witnesses declared it a draw.
1955 and most of 1956 passed quietly. In September 1956, merchant seaman/part time actor Donald Covert had an altercation at Googie’s coffee shop, next door to Schwab’s Sunset Strip drugstore, claiming his companion, Barbara Ann Burns (daughter of comedian Robin “Bob” Burns) had pulled a gun on him. In December, Mickey Cohen perpetuated a dust up with Henry Maltman, the aptly-named manager of the soda fountain at Schwab’s, slapping and threatening the man over a reputed $500 debt. Cohen was charged with felonious assault. While the grand jury elected not to indict him on those charges, it did investigate him for possible fight fixing (8).
In February 1957, Donald Covert (again) and another patron and got into a scrap with comedian Lenny Bruce at Googie’s, in the course of which Bruce was shoved into the restaurant’s plate glass window and injured.
In May 1957, Zeppo Marx of the Marx Brothers tangled with another male patron in a classic Mocambo brawl that began when Marx’s date, Lillian Sherlock, was confronted by blonde model Joyce Niven, who accused Sherlock of stealing her boyfriend (not Zeppo). Marx and Niven’s escort then came to blows. Marx later told reporters that he got in a couple of good clouts, but was glad no one got hurt.
And there, with many of the Strip’s noted nightclubs closed or closing, we’ll leave it.
- Mocambo 11
- Ciro’s 10
- Trocadero 1
- Clover Club 1
- Colony House 1
- Villa Nova 1
- Casanova 1
- Café Gala 1
- Schwab’s 1
- Googie’s 2
- Unnamed 6
- Other 3
(1) Hill was unnamed in original reports of the fracas. Her involvement was referred to following the investigation into Siegel’s shooting death in June 1947.
(2) At the time, Smiley, along with Siegel, faced bookmaking charges stemming from an arrest at the Sunset Towers apartments (8358 Sunset). Smiley would be seated next to Siegel on the couch of Virginia Hill’s rented home when Siegel was executed.
(3) Two years later, Tierney was involved in another altercation, off the Strip, at Barney’s Beanery, 8447 Santa Monica Boulevard, which had its own history of brawls. William Goldy, a bartender who worked at the Cafe Continentale, 7823 Santa Monica (reputedly owned by Mickey Cohen), claimed the actor KO’d him at the popular eatery on February 24, 1948, suing Tierney to the tune of $100k. Tierney claimed Goldy swung first and the case was ultimately dismissed when Goldy failed to show up in court. The following year, in September 1949, Goldy caused a ruckus at Cafe Continentale and was tossed out by Cohen and his ill-fated henchman Jimmy Rist.
(4) The couple made up and did indeed wed. Wells, however, sued the prince for divorce in December, stating that she feared for her life.
(5) Thorne was killed at age 40 in October 1955 when the plane he was piloting crashed into a North Hollywood Apartment Building. A total of eight people died as a result, including a baby, two children and a woman resident of the building.
(6) Ames (real name Edmundson) gained notoriety in 1952 as a “mystery girl” who allegedly fell into a trance at a Las Vegas club, said to have been induced by the voice of singer John Arcasi. She “suddenly awoke” in a hospital after 36 hours asking “Where am I?” How did I get here?”
(7) Prior to this incident, Tone had been badly beaten in a brawl with a rival for Payton’s affections, actor Tom Neil. Payton told reporters that the fight ensued after Tone escorted her home from a party at Ciro’s.
(8) Sometimes reported as Harry Maltin. In addition to the fight fixing charges, a few days after this incident, LAPD officer Sgt. Jerry Wooters swore out a complaint charging Cohen with using vile language, resulting in Cohen’s arrest for disturbing the peace.