Lady in the Lake

The film Lady in the Lake was based of on Raymond Chandler’s novel The Lady in the Lake. If you read on, note spoilers follow- about the novel, the short stories Chandler cannibalized for it, and the film adaptation.

Published in November 1943, The Lady in the Lake was Chandler’s fourth Philip Marlowe novel. The author drew on material two previously published short stories featuring Marlowe prototype John Dalmas: “Bay City Blues” and “The Lady in the Lake,” which appeared in Dime Detective magazine in June 1938 and January 1939 respectively (and, by extension, “No Crime in the Mountains” from Detective Story magazine, September 1941, with detective John Evans, which expanded and refined the mountain resort setting of “The Lady in the Lake”).

In “Bay City Blues,” Violets McGee, Dalmas’ sheriff’s deputy pal, puts him in touch with Harry Matson, a neighborhood watchman in Bay City (Santa Monica), who thinks someone is trying to bump him off. A year-and-a-half earlier, at about 2am, Matson happened by the Austrian home and found the body of Florence, the doctor’s wife, on the floor of the garage, in “peekaboo pajamas and slippers.” The car motor was running. He didn’t call the police, but rather, calls the doc. The doc tells him to call the chief of police at home. The chief and some officers arrived, along with an undertaker and a lab man, who took a blood sample.

Santa Monica then, as Los Angeles had  in previous years, dispatched victims of murder or accidental/suspicious death to private undertaking firms in lieu of a city morgue, a situation that had caused a corruption investigation in Los Angeles amongst allegations that city officials steered business to certain establishments over others.

Florence’s blood is found to contain carbon monoxide. The death is deemed an accident or suicide without an inquest. The coroner released Florence’s body, and she was quickly cremated. The case is kept out of the papers as much as possible; local reporters aren’t allowed to write up the details, such as the fact that Florence had become hysterical earlier that evening while at the illicit gambling club of connected gangster Vince Conried, who pages the doc. Doc Austrian arrived and gave Florence a shot to calm her down and called his nurse to check on her later before continuing on his rounds. Conreid drove Florence home. Dr. Austrian, McGee notes, is the kind of physician who “runs around all night keeping movie hams from having pink elephants for breakfast.”

Matson, hiding out in Los Angeles, sends Dalmas a green velvet slipper, custom made in Hollywood. Through the maker, he traces it to Mrs. Dr. Austin, who had had two identical pairs made.

“I picked up the slipper again and looked it up very carefully. It hadn’t been worn. There was no sign of running on the biffed leather of the thin sole.”

Harry Matson is indeed bumped off before Dalmas can talk to him. He later runs into Austrian’s office nurse at Club Conreid- she’s Helen Matson, Harry’s ex-wife, and had been playing house with the doc. Dalmas is sapped outside the club and wakes up in Helen’s apartment, reeking of gin. Helen is dead. Dalmas climbs out the bathroom window into the neighbor’s apartment, but is soon apprehended by Bay City cops arriving on scene, Shorty and Al DeSpain. DeSpain believes Dalmas’ story and the two of them confront Dr. Austrian at his office, where he’s “loading up his little needles.” It turns out that whoever put the shoes Florence that night got one that had been worn before and one that hadn’t. Matson noticed and tried to use the slipper for blackmail. Helen Matson gave Florence an extra dose of morphine. The doc came home and found her dead but couldn’t tell anyone without exposing his own racket and helped cover up the crime. DeSpain killed Helen in a fit of jealousy and also shoots the doctor.

It seems obvious now that “Bay City Blues” was inspired by two real life events that occured two months apart in 1935: the death of Doris Dazey, wife of Santa Monica doctor George Dazey, by monoxide poisoning, and the mysterious death of actress Thelma Todd just up the coast from Santa Monica, also of monoxide poisoning.

In the Dazey case, Doris was found by her husband shortly before 8pm on October 3, 1935-just 8 days shy of the couple’s first wedding anniversary- lying on the floor of the garage near the car exhaust pipe with the doors closed. An autopsy performed at the Gates, Menderhall & Gates mortuary determined that monoxide poisoning was the cause of death, though whether accidental or suicide could not be determined. Police leaned toward the former, as the doctor stated his wife was subject to fainting spells. There was no inquest and the case was reported closed in local papers on October 4, and in the L.A. papers on October 5. Doris’ funeral took place on October 6. She was cremated.

These were the publicly known facts of the case at the time Chandler penned “Bay City Blues,” and they are not inconsistent with the details included in the story, with some circumstances of the similar Todd case mixed in. While Doc Dazey was not charged with his wife’s murder until after publication of the short story, it’s hardly a stretch to think “Hmm what if it was murder?” Living in Pacific Palisades for part of the 1930s, Chandler had likely heard of doctors that ran around all night with hypos, may have even heard rumors, founded or unfounded, that Dr. Dazey was such a doctor.

Born in Texas, George K. Dazey attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C. class of 1920. By the mid-1920s he was well established as a socially prominent doctor in the Santa Monica beach area, attending prominent patients such as actress Mabel Normand and millionaire oilman George F. Getty. Dazey was also a key witness in the assault with a deadly weapon trial against L.A. underworld figure Albert Marco, who was accused of beating a fellow patron at the Ship Cafe in Venice in July 1928 while free on bail pending appeal of his 1927 federal bootlegging conviction. When Marco’s assault trial began in August 1928, Dazey could not be found. He was rumored to be in Europe (he wasn’t).

The Todd case made national headlines at the time and has been much written of it since, so there is not much more to say. Thelma Todd was found by her maid in a closed garage, behind the wheel of a car, on Monday, December 16, 1935, still dressed in the evening gown and fur coat she’d worn to a party at the Trocadero the previous Saturday, where she’d had an encounter with her ex-husband, underworld figure Pat DeCicco. A night watchman passing by on his rounds in the wee hours of Sunday morning noticed the garage doors were closed but not locked.

The detail of Chandler’s Mrs. Dr. Austrian’s one-scuffed, one-not shoes seems to have come from the Todd case. During a grand jury’s visit to the scene in January 1936, a woman jurist who climbed the 271 steps from Thelma’s beach cafe to the garage noted that her shoes, which were much sturdier that the light dancing slippers Todd had been wearing, were far more scuffed after the trek than Todd’s. An investigation was launched in to whether Todd had actually walked up to the garage as surmised. In a newspaper photograph of the soles of her shoes, one does appear to have less wear than the other, though it is probably just due to the lighting.

Thelma Todd’s shoes. Source: internet.

“The Lady in the Lake” short story follows closely the plot of the eventual novel, minus the doctor sub-plot. Dalmas is hired by a perfume company executive to find his wife Julia, who has apparently run off with a playboy. Dalmas visits the playboy and finds him dead. Suspecting his client’s wife may have done it, he tidies up the scene, informs the client and goes up to the client’s cabin at Little Fawn Lake. There he finds the pegleg caretaker also has a missing wife, Beryl. Beryl’s body is found in the lake during Dalmas’ visit as is a gold anklet, inscribed Julia, which has been cut with pliers. Dalmas traces Julia and the playboy to a hotel and San Bernardino. He then asks his client to meet him at the playboy’s house. There he meets a woman who turns out to be Beryl, the body in the lake being Julia- murdered by Beryl and Dalmas’ client, who arrives at the house and is shot by Beryl. Beryl is later caught and arrested.

Chandler brought these two unrelated plots together, fleshed out and embellished with new details, in the novel The Lady in the Lake by having it that the missing wife he’s hired to find, Crystal Kingsley, was once a patient of Dr. Almore, who also happens to live across the street from Chris Laverty, the playboy Crystal is supposed to have run off with and her husband’s former confidential secretary, and it’s Laverty who found Dr. Almore’s wife dead in the garage. Chandler combines the characters of Helen Matson and Beryl into one: Almore’s nurse who put his wife to bed on the fatal night is Mildred Haviland, ex-wife of Bay City cop, Al DeGarmo. Mildred changes her name to Muriel and marries Bill Chess, who happens to be caretaker of the Kingsley’s Little Faun Lake cabin.

There’s no real reason for Marlowe to investigate Dr. Almore other than a detective’s hunch. Almore sets off his suspicions by getting twitchy and overreacts by calling a cop when Marlowe loiters outside Laverty’s house. Marlowe asks Adrienne Fromsett, Kingsley’s office manager, about Almore’s late wife. Fromsett knows all about her, having learned of the case from a gossip at a cocktail party. In a detail not included in “Bay City Blues,” she puts Marlowe in contact with Florence Almore’s parents, who still believe their daughter’s death was not accidental. They had employed a private detective to find new evidence. We don’t meet this detective in the book, but Marlowe later hears about the unworn slipper he found. Marlowe justifies his investigation of Almore with the idea that Laverty may have been shaking down the doctor, and therefore maybe the doc, and not his client’s wife, killed Laverty.

This added detail of the parents pushing for an investigation into their daughter’s death is clearly one that came from new information into the Dr. Dazey case that had become public knowledge since publication of “Bay City Clues.” On December 3, 1939, Dr. Dazey was arrested for the 1935 death of his wife following a grand jury investigation. Doris Dazey’s parents were behind the reopening of the case, having sought witnesses who might provide new information. One was Roland DeWitt Seal, a former Santa Monica Movie theater operator who in October 1935 was briefly employed as a watchman for a neighborhood security firm. Seal testified that he’d seen the doctor carrying the scantily clad form of a woman into the garage that night. He was later warned by a “friend” of the doc’s that Dr. Dazey would “take care of him” if he talked. Seal left town for Honolulu in 1936, returning in August 1939. The other witness was a woman named Frances Hainesbury who’d been an office nurse of the doc’s and also dated him a few times. Francis claimed that the doctor had bragged to her of committing the “perfect murder” and later threatened her life if she talked. The doctor, who had remarried in 1938, denied all charges, accusing his ex-in-laws, who sat “dry-eyed and silent” outside the grand jury room, of causing his arrest due to their court battle with him for custody of their grandson, whose paternity they (unsuccessfully) disputed. He now believed his wife had committed suicide due to an incurable illness, Addison’s disease.

The trial began in February 1940. Dr. Dazey engaged mob lawyer Jerry Geisler, who had defended the late Les Bruneman in the 1930 kidnapping of Zeke Caress and would represent Bugsy Siegel in the 1939 murder of Big Greenie. The prosecutor, Deputy D.A. Joseph Carr, believed the motive was money. Doris had wealthy parents, and was planning to get a divorce. The couple had indeed borrowed money from her parents on occasion (For what it’s worth, in April-May 1935 the doctor was being sued by his first wife for non-payment of her $100 a month alimony, $100; the doctor had told the court he was unable to pay and dependant primarily on his present wife Doris’ money). They believed the doctor had injected Doris with insulin or adrenaline then forced her to inhale the gas fumes.

Jerry Geisler examining Doris Dazey’s robe, 1940. UCLA, Daily News collection.

Autopsy surgeon Frank Webb testified that there were strange burn marks at the back of Doris’ neck that he could not explain. On cross-examination, Geisler noted that the autopsy had done a chemical analysis of her organs which showed them to be free of any poison narcotic or sedative “other than phenol contained in embalming fluid.” (She’d been embalmed before the autopsy was performed). Webb replied that insulin or adrenaline would not have shown up.

Under questioning by Geisler, the doctor later testified that he’d come home from the office that evening about 7:15, parked on the street and, hearing a car motor running, had dashed into the garage and found Doris dead, flung open the large garage door, and ran for an ambulance.

According to testimony of witnesses who were at the scene that night, the first person the doctor called was undertaker Allison J. Bernard, who testified that Dr. Dazey called him “even before the police and wanted Doris taken to the hospital. Bernard, finding Doris dead when he arrived, told him this was useless and called the police instead.

The three Santa Monica police officers who responded to the call, C.J. Barcoe, Carl Mayhew and Dt. Lt. Richard Edwards (though their recollection of events had faded someone and had to refer to their case notes to refresh their memories), testified that they arrived shortly after 8pm on October 3, 1935 and found Doris dead in the garage, her head near the car’s exhaust pipe. Barcoe stated “A blast of hot air struck us as we opened the door of the garage.” The main door was closed; the officers had entered through a small side door, contradicting the doctor’s testimony that he’d flung the big door open.

Dr. Dazey on the stand, 1940. UCLA, Daily News collection.

Confronted on cross-examination with discrepancies between his story and those of other witnesses, Dazey, who had frequent outbursts on the stand, asserted that he had been “confused and hysterical” at the time but now firmly believed his wife had killed herself due to illness.

Geisler’s chipped away at the credibility of the state’s witnesses. Frances, the former office nurse was depicted as a woman scorned, out to get back at the doctor for marrying another woman. He located a Santa Monica doctor who quoted Frances as having said “You doctors think you are smart sticking together to help Dr. Dazey but wait until we get you on the witness stand- I will see George Dazey in San Quentin or in the lethal gas chamber.”

Roland W. Seal at the Dazey trial, 1940. UCLA, Daily News collection.

Roland Seal was more problematic for the defense as his story was damning for the doctor. Geisler located a man who’d worked for a cleaners in Bakersfield, who testified that Sean had held him up at gunpoint on October 26, 1939. Seal wasn’t charged in the incident. Geisler speculated later that Seal had been promised immunity in exchange for his testimony.  Seal was subsequently arrested for purchasing a gun at a Main Street pawn shop on November 20, 1939 under a fictitious name; Seal said he wanted the gun to protect himself from threats received before the Dazey trial. Geisler also brought in photos to show a hedge in front of the doctor’s house at the time would have blocked his view of anyone walking along the path to that garage, so he couldn’t possibly have seen Dr. Dazey or anyone else carrying a woman.

Geisler also exposed a woman claiming to have been a maid in the Dazey house in 1935, presenting evidence that she had not even been in California until 1936. In his memoir, Geisler crows about this as a major triumph, and it’s true that the woman was later convicted of perjury. However, her testimony was not particularly damaging. She’d stated that the doctor was frequently drunk over the weekend and called his wife names. Doris’ sister had testified to much the same thing.

Dr. Dazey and his third wife, Dorcas, in court, 1940. UCLA, Daily News collection.

Far worse for defense was the testimony of a neighbor, Winifred Westover Hart, former screen actress and wife of silent star William S. Hart. who said that she heard screams coming from the vicinity of the Dazey home late that afternoon and had subsequently received “threatening phone calls.” Geisler objected before Hart could say any more, therefore jurors never heard the threats.

A neighbor boy testified that he’d seen the doctor’s car parked on the street about 4:30 that afternoon; Geisler attacked this by pointing out the car was a popular make and model, and the boy had not made not of the license plate number, therefore it could’ve been anyone.

In a blow to the prosecution, state’s witness George Merritt, a real estate friend of the doc’s, developed amnesia on the stand and said he could not recall having told a deputy recently that in 1935 that doctor had moaned “Why did I do it? Why did I do it?” and that friends thought his hysteria was a put-on.

In the end, after 3 days of deliberation during which it was looking like there would be a hung jury, the vote came in on March 10, 1940 to acquit the doctor of the charges.

Doris’ father died on September 3, 1940, pointedly noting in his will that Dr. Dazey was not to get a penny of his estate. In December 1942, Dr. Dazey and his third wife separated; she estimated he had an income at that time of $8000 a year, down considerably, if accurate, from the $60,000 annual Depression dollars his first wife claimed he earned in 1931. Before the divorce was finalized, Dr. Dazey died of pneumonia on October 3, 1943.

“Marlowe is that rare creature- a detective with whom the reader can actually feel, suffer, and triumph.” Knopf ad for The Lady in the Lake, November 2, 1943.

The Lady in the Lake film was published in the Fall of 1943.

February 14, 1947

MGM’s film adaptation debuted in Los Angeles theaters on February 14, 1947. Famously filmed from “point of view” angle, it stars Robert Montgomery as Marlowe. The perfume company becomes a crime magazine publisher, and Marlow an aspiring pulp fiction writer. Miss Fromsett (Audrey Totter) has an expanded role, not in the book, as Marlowe’s love interest. Lloyd Nolan, who as P.I. Michael Shayne had appeared in 1942’s Time To Kill, which was based on Chandler’s The High Window, plays the bitter cop, here renamed Lt. DeGarmot.

The Lady in the Lake was popular or novel enough with Los Angeles audiences to be held over for a second week. February 21, 1947.

As usual, an affordable movie tie-in version of the novel was published.