“You’re a cog in the organized traffic when you’re running a house, a spoke in the wheel of the underworld.”
-Call House Madam
Lee Francis was the madam of multiple brothels in Los Angeles under Charles Crawford and his successors. Almost all that is known about her, or believed that is known about her, is information that came from Francis herself and is not reliable. The following is based on my own original research.
In 1939, Francis completed an “as told to” memoir with ghostwriter Gladys Adelina Lewis (using the pen name Serge G. Wolsey), published in 1942 as Call House Madam. (hereafter cited as Madam) The book uses the pseudonym “Beverly Davis” for Francis and the names of other people and places are likewise changed, which served not only as protection from lawsuits by the (thinly-disguised) persons depicted but also protected Francis from criminal prosecution as well. Should law enforcement pursue the then still-active madam, she could cite this fictionalization and claim none of it was true.
In January 1940, with the manuscript completed, Francis was arrested by county sheriff’s deputies at her Sunset Strip apartment, accused of pandering. Francis insisted the raid- her first in 31 years- had all been a frame up. She claimed to have retired from madaming and was simply living a quiet life, writing her tell-all memoir. She was convicted in March and sentenced to 30 days in county jail. “Just as soon as this thing is settled, I’m going to add two chapters to my memoirs,” she said. On her release, she told reporters her book would be ready to publish within a month.
But the book did not come out the next month. Or the month after that. In fact, it would not be published for more than 2 years: October 1942. Francis’ added chapters were not included, nor, apparently, was she still involved in the project. In February 1943 she sued the publisher, author “Serge Wolsey” and 12 “Jane Does,” charging plagiarism and accusing “Wolsey” of paying her “girls” to get information about her. The case was settled out of court in 1945.
Soon after, Francis seems to have pursued publication of her own book. In November 1946, radio and newspaper gossip writer Jimmie Fidler announced in his syndicated column “Hollywood is bracing itself for a sensational new expose written by Lee Francis, author of the much censored book Call House Madam [sic].” Later that month, Walter Winchell wrote in his own column: “Lee Francis’ new book will rock coasters” (Winchellese for California and New York). But again, the book did not appear.
Twenty years later, in April 1965, Francis, working with ghostwriter Joe Guild of the publisher Holloway House, came out with her own version of Madam titled Ladies on Call (hereafter cited as Ladies). Ladies appears to be a reworking of the 1939 Madam manuscript, gutting much of its detail and adding the two additional chapters she’d wanted as well as other filler. More on this below.
Both books jump around in time and what little useful information they contain has to be extracted from digressions, and digressions from the digressions, consisting largely of random stories about other people. Francis presents herself in the most favorable light possible and the books reflect Francis’ version of events and/or the influence of their ghostwriters with little way to verify the accounts. Madam, written before Francis’ arrest and while she was still active, obfuscates anything that could lead to her exposure. Ladies, while it uses- selectively- real names and locations, gives little in the way of facts, omits persons and events referred to in Madam and has altogether a different chronology for her madam career. Below is an attempt to put the Lee Francis story into chronological order and, to the limited extent possible, fact check it.
“Beverly Davis” admits to age 45 in Madam. Lee Francis gave her age as 45 in January 1940. For what it’s worth, Madam says her birthday was September 15 and it can be assumed the year is c. 1895. The 1940 census, taken while she was in jail, records that she was born in California; Madam specifies the place as San Francisco. But Madam also asserts that her parents were from Alsace-Lorraine (technically German but French by culture), that she was the youngest of 5 children- three boys and two girls, and her father, “Gaston,” was a physician. This information, all or in part, is almost certainly false.
Madam also says her real name was Isabelle Dubois, which it definitely wasn’t, and that “Beverly” (Francis’ pseudonym in the book) was a nickname bestowed by her mother.
According to Madam, at age 6 (that is, c.1901) her father sent her away to St. Mary’s convent school in Los Angeles and she remained a pupil there until “almost” 14 (c. 1908-1909).
If true, that would presumably be St. Mary’s Academy, founded in 1889 by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Caroldelet and then located on 21st St. near Grand Avenue. (Immaculate Heart Convent and high school in the Los Feliz neighborhood, founded by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, didn’t open as a girls’ school until 1906, and would not have taken in a 6 year old in any case).
None of this biographical information is included in Ladies.
Madam says that she ran away from the school when she was “almost” 14 and went to the train depot, determined to get from Los Angeles to her brother’s house in Sacramento.
This would presumably be the Southern Pacific’s wooden Arcade Station at Central Avenue and Fifth St., built in 1889 as its Beaux Arts replacement was still a few years off.
Without funds, she stowed away on the train and there met a woman who paid for her ticket, helped her change trains at San Francisco and accompanied her to Sacramento, delivering her to her brother. Unhappy at her brother’s house, she contacted this new woman “friend,” who promptly invited her to the theater and introduced her to a man of 60, whom Madam gives the pseudonym ‘Colonel Dashfield.”
“This gentleman was the uncle of America’s ‘Beau Brummell,’ one of the foremost actors of the legitimate stage, a matinee idol of parts.” (Madam, pg. 49)
The play, she thinks, was Hermann Sudermann’s “Magda.’
Afterward the trio went for supper and one of them slipped something into her drink. She woke up in a hotel room with the old man. She was kept in the hotel for three months, she says. When she became pregnant, they took her for an “operation.” It’s a tragic story that could have come right out of a pamphlet by Wiley J. Phillips on the dangers of white slavers.
Francis omits all these details from Ladies, saying only, “I won’t go into how I became a prostitute. It isn’t a pretty story” (Ladies pg. 53), but later does imply that there was an old man involved: “As a youngster just out of school, I became the spoiled darling of a doting old man.” (Ladies pg. 195)
The man described in Madam is actor John Drew, uncle of fellow thespian John Barrymore. (I am not saying John Drew seduced a young girl, only that he is the person she describes in the book).
John Drew was in California during the approximate time period of c. 1908 or 1909. In 1908 he was touring the West with the play ‘My Wife.’ In May 1908 My Wife played in San Francisco, Stockton, Sacramento, Marysville, Fresno and Los Angeles for sure. The following year, he again toured the West, appearing in ‘Jack Straw’ in San Francisco, Stockton, Sacramento, Fresno and other California towns.
Sudermann’s play Heimat (German for ‘Home’), commonly known as Magda, debuted on Broadway in 1894. English actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell appeared in ‘Magda’ in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area in 1908. Actress Nance O’Neil also toured California with ‘Magda’ in July and August 1908, appearing in Stockton, Sacramento, San Francisco and Los Angeles as well as other towns.
Madam vaguely indicates some sort of a payoff arrangement, $10,000, assured the whole thing was hushed up. “I knew after a while my brother was looking for me, the law was on the street after Dashfield. But money wins” she says.
A young girl going missing as Madam depicts, even for a brief time, warranted headlines in early 1900s California. Potential ‘white slave’ stories were also big news. In one example, in 1906, a 14 year old girl who ran away from home in Sacramento was lured into prostitution by a “Pauline Devere” and two male accomplices and kept prisoner at 135 Mason Street for 3 weeks, after which her captors suggested she go into Mamie Wood’s brothel on O’Farrell Street. She went to the police. The trio were arrested, though Mme Pauline was soon back in business.
In both Madam and Ladies, Lee Francis/Bee Davis began her career as a prostitute in San Francisco and ended up in the plush parlor house of a madam known by Francis’ time as Jessie M. Hayman (“Jessie Sherman” in Madam and “Ruthy Raymond” in Ladies).
According to Madam, the procuress delivered the 14 year old straight to Jessie’s, where most of her $10,000 was forked over toward her required wardrobe. In Ladies, however, Francis says she “wandered about from House to House” before going to work “steady” for “Ruthy.” (Ladies pg. 53).
Starting in late 1907, Hayman was operating out of 44 Mason St. It was here on August 25, 1908 that she was raided by federal immigration officials, accused of harboring a young girl, Ethel May Southweed, who had only just arrived from England on March 7 and immediately entered Jessie’s brothel. This was a violation of federal law, which prohibited the “harboring and maintaining of a house of ill-fame who has not been in this country three years.” Hayman claimed the girl was there only as a singer and pianist, that she had no idea of her nationality, and was under the impression that she was American. Hayman was indicted by a federal grand jury on September 18, 1908, found guilty on December 14 and ordered to spend 30 days in Alameda Co. jail. Nevertheless, she continued at 44 Mason until 1912, when she moved to 130 Eddy St. This appears to be the location described in Madam.
Ladies does not describe “Ruthy’s” in any detail, but notes that most of the clients were members of what it calls the “Bohemian Family Club,” (the Bohemian Club), San Francisco’s exclusive, secretive, all-male fraternity.
There is a notable difference between the two books in describing Francis’ time in San Francisco that affects the chronology. According to Madam, “Bee Davis” became a madam while in San Francisco at age 16 and moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
In Ladies, Francis describes being a prostitute in San Francisco, but was not a madam there, and says that she moved from San Francisco to Reno and from Reno to Los Angeles.
In Madam’s version of events, she had been at Jessie’s for 2 years and was 16 (c. 1911), when an “Ellington from Seattle” set her up in business as a madam with Jessie’s blessing. Her brothel, occupying the entire top floor of an apartment hotel at the corner of “Davis and Sloane” streets, operated until the vice reforms of the Reverend “Saul Jones” forced her to close along with all the other parlor houses in the city. The vice reforms she describes occurred in January 1917. However, she also says she had “just opened” her house before reform effort began. (Madam pg. 76).
As Madam tells it, she gets word through her underworld sources that the police are going to be cracking down, so closes and retreats to Monte Rio (incidentally the summer retreat of the Bohemian Club). While there, one of “her girls” comes to tell her of the scolding Rev. “Jones” received from a contingent of Tenderloin prostitutes, and the clergyman’s son was soon after hit by a beer truck and killed.
She goes back to San Francisco, and with the parlor houses closed tight as a drum, upscale cafes such as the “French Poodle,” which had private elevators and side entrances for couples and dining rooms with beds, were filling the void. She tells a story of arriving at the “French Poodle” with her “date” and running into his wife, with her own “date” as they stepped off the elevator.
At this time, she says she was living at a top hotel. “Seven big shots of the Bay City, believe me when I say so, each thought he was paying the rent for my 4-room suite there, something like $350 a month…I managed to keep them apart. Each one of the 7- all of them- had a photo of me, about the size of a postage stamp, in the back of his watch, just to feel he owned something for the money he spent.” (Madam pg. 155). This arrangement lasted 10 months, she says, before the men compared pictures and found her out. It was after this that she decided to start again in Los Angeles.
In the Ladies chronology, Francis was never a madam in San Francisco therefore there’s no “Ellington of Seattle” setting her up as a madam. In this version of the “seeing 7 wealthy men at once until they compared pictures” story, a “wealthy admirer” from the Bohemian Club wanted her all to himself so, with “Ruthy’s” ok, he sets her up in her own apartment. During his frequent absences, she continues to “date” other men, 6 in all, and gives each of them a little photo of herself that they keep in their watch cases. One night, the man who thought he was keeping her exclusively showed off his copy of the photo, the 6 other men compare notes, and he promptly stops paying her rent. So she goes back to “Ruthy’s.” But she’s developed a taste for the high life and is restless.
In the Ladies chronology, her first marriage takes place at this point (to a man named “Syd” on a “warm June afternoon) whom she soon divorced. This is the reason Ladies gives for her leaving San Francisco. She tells “Ruthy” she’ll be back in “six weeks” and departs for Reno.
Francis, in Ladies, says that while in Reno she passed herself off as a wealthy divorcee, playing wealthy men for whatever she can get. She tells a version of the “her date ran into his own wife and her date in the restaurant elevator” story here, placing this restaurant in Reno.
In Madam, she says that this first marriage took place when she was 15 and still working at Jessie’s. She barely mentions Reno, other than to say that was where she got a divorce. “Some big actress has just got a divorce from a millionaire there and put the place on the divorce map.” [Madam pg 84] She says her second marriage took place “two years later” in Los Angeles.
Ladies has it that while in Reno, she casually meets a madam, “Nora,” whom she calls “one of the singing Everly sisters.” (I have no idea what she’s talking about- perhaps trying to be cute with a play on the “Everleigh sisters” of Chicago. Who knows). Anyway, she says she was 22 at the time of her Reno jaunt, and that she and Nora moved to Los Angeles together in 1919. If this is correct, it puts her in Reno c. 1917 (the year of Paul Smith’s reforms, though they aren’t referred to in Ladies).
The reverend “Saul Jones” was Rev. Paul Smith, pastor of Rev. Smith, pastor of the Central Methodist Church on O’Farrell & Leavenworth, who did spearhead a citizen-led campaign against protected vice, much as Clifford Clinton and others would do in Los Angeles in the 1930s. He organized a meeting at Dreamland skating rink, where 200 citizens gathered on January 25, 1917 to protest against organized vice operations. Smith named not only the parlor house operators but the property owners they rented from, who, under the state’s 1913 Red Light Abatement Act, could be prosecuted as well.
Police Commissioner Woods announced that day: “We are going to rid the whole uptown district of parlor houses. Our order will not be limited to the houses along Mason St. but will include the houses in all streets within the whole uptown district as described by the Rev. Paul Smith. These houses are unlawful. They have become an offence to the whole section of the city and they must go. If they should relocate themselves it shall be at their peril because the Police Board will not lend official sanction to the transfer of such resorts from one place to another.”
The January 25 meeting of Rev. Smith is mostly remembered today for the confrontation by 200 women of the Tenderloin, which actually did occur as described in Madam.
The parlor houses named by Rev. Smith were scheduled for closure on January 31, 1917. As reported in the San Francisco Examiner the following day, they included Jessie Hayman’s. Hayman was now operating at 140 Taylor St., while Bessie Maitland was at 130 Eddy St. Pearl Morton, formerly of Los Angeles, was at 15 Mason St.
Unfortunately, the tragic story told in Madam of Rev. Smith’s son being killed by a beer truck accident was also true. Rev. Paul Smith’s 4-year old son ran into the street outside his home, was struck by a beer truck on March 5, 1917 and died from his injuries. In the book she incorrectly states that this occurred “not 12 hours” after the confrontation with the Tenderloin women (Madam pg. 80), which as noted took place back on January 25.
The restaurant described in Madam as “French Poodle” restaurant was the Poodle Dog, a French restaurant and definitely in San Francisco, not Reno. Located at 117 Mason St.. the Poodle Dog and other high-end cafes also came under Rev. Smith’s fire, as it didn’t escape his notice that they were taking up the slack left by the closed parlor houses.
Reno had become the divorce capital of the USA by 1909 due to its lax divorce laws and minimal 6 months residency requirement. It was Laura Corey, wife of Pittsburgh’s William Ellis Corey, president of U.S. Steel Corporation who put Reno on the “divorce map” when she arrived to establish residency in February 1906. She filed for divorce on grounds of desertion in June 1906 and left Reno with her decree in November 1906. The residency requirement was briefly lengthened to a year in 1913, then back to 6 months in 1915. Not until 1931 was the requirement reduced to a mere six weeks, as Francis indicates in Ladies.
Both Madam and Ladies tell essentially the same story about her arrival in Los Angeles: she and another Madam attend the opening of a cafe on the pier near Santa Monica, where she meets the man who after a whirlwind days-long courtship becomes her second husband. She quits the business to be a wife but he fritters away all their money and they split up; she is introduced to LA’s crime boss Charles H. Crawford and with his backing opens the first of many high-dollar brothels in Hollywood.
The differences are in the details. In Madam, the person who attends the opening with her is “Melanie Claire,” an older, retired madam “being kept by a man concerned with the race track in lower California.” “Davis” says “It was about 1912″ and that she was “under 20.” The cafe they go to was owned by an actor the papers used to make fun of due to his multiple marriages.
The time line here is very mixed up.
The person she calls the race track man likely refers to Baron Long, owner of the Ship Cafe at Venice. California State law banned betting on horse racing in 1910. The government of Mexico legalized gambling in 1915. James W. Coffroth of San Francisco that year formed the Lower California Jockey Club that operated at Tijuana (later the Tijuana Jockey Club) with Baron Long.
The much-married cafe man she describes is Nat Goodwin, who did open a pier cafe in 1913. However, this is either an error or a deliberate mistake as in 1913, the 1917 Paul Smith reforms in San Francisco had not yet occurred. Nat Goodwin’s was acquired by Baron Long and became the Sunset Inn.
In Ladies, it’s 1919 and the cafe opening she attends is the Dome Cafe. The Dome Cafe opened on Ocean Park pier on February 22, 1919, run by Baron Long’s front man, Fred Harlow.
In both books, she has a meet-cute with husband #2 at this cafe. In Madam his pseudonym is “Roark Beverly Davis;” much is made about the fact that they have the “same name.” She says that they remained married for two years, then she went to Reno (again).
In Ladies, he’s a “professional gambler” that she names as John Ogden Francis and that they split up after a few months.
True or not, there was a person named John Ogden Francis, born in New York in 1879 and per his WWI draft registration card, was in Los Angeles at this time. He worked as a “clerk” at 336-1/2 South Spring St. That was above the old Jeffries Bar, which was taken over by gambler Zeke Caress in 1918 after the city’s Gandier Ordinance put (legal) saloons out of business. Stanley Page, former jockey and brother of Farmer Page, was arrested at this location in a gambling raid conducted by LAPD vice squad officers Guy McAfee and future police chief James Davis in October 1916.
In both books it’s asserted that Davis/Francis quit the business while married to John Francis but opened a Los Angeles brothel after being divorced for the second time. Again, the details are different.
Madam has her meet “Paul Cavanaugh,” “the man who made Hollywood’s sophisticated comedies” at the country club and he, another “big director,” “Bob Dowling” introduced her to a “politician,” “Jim Hanford” (Charles Crawford). Hanford knew her name from San Francisco, she said. Handford asks her to throw a party for himself and rum-runners “Eddie and Frank Luce.” (Madam pg 106-107). She locks up their cash and jewelry in a safe. Hanford is impressed and tells her:
“Looks like the party was a hit with Eddie Luce. He’s the big shot when it comes to staking houses. I’ll be in, of course. I go along with Eddie any time.”
She had dinner with “Eddie Luce” a few nights later. He tells her “We want a little playhouse for our friends. You do the entertaining. Run it as a call joint, but keep the standard up. High prices. A minimum $25 fee…You go down to this address. It’s a real estate office. Ask for the boss. I’ll tip him to what it’s all about. He’ll show you to an estate on South Belmore. It’s in the Hampshire district. It’ll cost you about a thousand a month.” (Madam pg. 109)
Of this property, she says “It was a rich man’s estate….Grounds all of three hundred square. With a wide box hedge around the outside, lawns and flower beds…Belmore was in the choicest part of town in the heart of the millionaire mansion district.”
Hanford initially put her in touch with a Pasadena madam “Lillie Gentry” and another madam in Salt Lake City to supply “girls.” The Luce brothers (Farmer Page and his brother Stanley) kept her supplied with liquor through their front man, “Nicky Arcaro” (Albert Marco): “The Luces were rum-running- importing through British Columbia and Nicky was their front man.” (Madam pg. 308).
Ladies’ version of events eliminates any mention of her Hollywood partners and claims that, without any apparent connections, she opened for business in a rented bungalow on Norton Ave., which she says just happened to become popular with the Hollywood crowd.
On the night of Mayor Cryer’s election to office, she got a call from “one of the political bigwigs in town” who wanted her to host a party at Norton Avenue for three “important gentleman.” (Ladies pg. 88). One was Charlie Crawford, a “big, gray-haired, red-faced kind of Los Angeles politician of the era- the boss of the town.”
George Cryer was first elected mayor June 21, 1921 on a platform of fighting corruption and ending the machine politics represented by the incumbent “Pinky Snyder” but his right hand man, Kent Kane Parrot, said to be the real power behind the office, was a Crawford crony.
Ladies tells essentially the same story as Madam of the 3 men arriving and of her locking up their diamonds and cash, but doesn’t name the Page brothers and attributes their words and actions depicted in in Madam to Crawford. In this retelling, it’s Crawford, not Farmer Page, who offers to stake her business over lunch, not dinner:
“Lee, we need a little queen for our Political Playhouse. I think I’m going to make you the Queen of good old Los Angeles.” (Ladies pg. 89)
Crawford then outlines the plans for “a really gorgeous home, a virtual mansion, with 15 to 18 stunning girls.” She notes that for this venture, Crawford wanted her to play “Lone Wolf.” That is, to appear to operate on her own.
The house she rented was at 4th and Virgil. “It was a huge, pretentious mansion, formerly the home of one of the city’s wealthiest department store kings.” (Ladies pg. 91) She is presumably referring to 400 South Virgil, which belonged to the Coulter family, of Coulter’s department store.
This brothel, however, didn’t open as planned. In Ladies, Francis explains that a rival madam, “Blondie Mildred,” duped her into thinking the party was going to be raided. Consequently, Francis moved, forfeiting $750 rent.
Crawford later assured her the police were “absolutely squared” and told her to find a different location, which she did. Ladies, however, has little to say about this new location, other than, vaguely, that business boomed. Madam describes an elegant mansion on “South Belmore Dr.” in the “Hampshire” district and doesn’t mention the embarrassing 4th & Virgil debacle at all.
After that, the timeline in both books becomes vague. Most of the 1920s are glossed over. Nor are there newspaper reports to fill in the picture. “Of all my years in Hollywood, I was never raided. Often the police would come and advise me to move, but that was all” Francis says in Ladies (pg. 173).
Lee Francis and John Ogden Francis did come to the attention of police in 1924 as material witnesses in the shooting death of Harry I. Katz, a wealthy man murdered in the doorway of his Wilshire district apartment at 618 South New Hampshire Street (The Ambassador Apartments) on November 10, 1924.
Newspaper accounts identify “Mrs. Lee Francis” as the “roommate” or “companion” of Dorothy Carroll, one of Katz’ girlfriends. Her husband John O. Francis (whom the LA Times notes was known to his friends by the strange nickname ‘Step Easy’) and his mother, Fanny L. Francis, had been living with Rosita Marstini- a former love interest of Katz’- at the Windsor Apartments, 970 Wilshire Boulevard (opposite the Rex Arms). The couple did not have much to say to authorities. Lee Francis told the DA’s office that Dorothy Carroll had visited Katz at his apartment and went for automobile rides with him. Katz had visited Carroll at Francis and Carroll’s “handsomely furnished apartment” the weekend before he was killed. Neighbors said Katz often had women visit him at his apartment but he didn’t seem to have any one particular lady friend.
John O. Francis told authorities he’d known Katz about five years and that they were both investors in the failed California Motor Car Co. He claimed that Katz had attempted suicide at Marstini’s apartment during a dinner party two years before the murder, and two weeks later had threatened Marstini with a gun until he, Francis, disarmed him.
An actress and dancer, the French-born Marstini had made her Los Angeles stage debut at the Pantages theater in 1916 in “A Woman’s Wit.” She also appeared in motion pictures.
Despite an ocean of ink devoted to the case by local newspapers and dozens of suggested motives behind the slaying, the case was never solved.
Needless to say, no version of these events are mentioned in either Ladies or Madam.
Madam sticks with breezy stories about bootleggers. “Bee Davis” depicts an incident involving “Nicky” (Marco) the bootlegger, whom she gives a cartoonish Italian accent, when she visited his Sixth St. warehouse to pick up some liquor and was caught in the middle of a gangland shooting. She could be referring to the gang warfare between the Page faction and rival rum-runner Tony Cornero that took place in the summer of 1925. It could also be completely fictional. Marco was convicted in federal court for violation of the Volstead Act in 1927.
We do know of at least one other madam working for the Crawford syndicate during the same period using the alias June Taylor. She had been associated with Crawford since early 1925 when “she had been seen a great deal with Crawford.” and had a string of arrests under various aliases; June Taylor was not her real name. Like Francis, her name was mentioned with Crawford’s in the papers for the first time in 1931 when it came up during the Crawford murder.
Madam tells us that “Bee Davis” was associated with “Hanford” for 7 years and that they had a personal relationship but had broken up due to his jealousy, about 8 months before his murder. Crawford ran into legal trouble throughout much of 1929 and 1930 and was in the news far more than he had been at any time since 1919, his name linked to that of Albert Marco. Kent Parrot and Mayor Cryer had a falling out and Cryer opted not to run for another term. As Crawford’s political power waned, Guy McAfee, his onetime protoge now rival, rose within the LA underworld ranks.
Crawford made a public show of getting religion and quitting the rackets but was rumored to be plotting a “comeback” when he was shot to death along with journalist Herbert F. Spencer on May 20, 1931.
Of the murder Madam says: “When he tried to shove over his last big political deal seven years later, a gangster shot him through the window as he sat in his lawyer’s office. The trial was red hot. I streaked for New York. By that time I had been Hanford’s mistress over a period of years and knew too much to keep my health in Los Angeles until the dust settled (Madam pg. 108).
If Madam is to be believed, on July 4, 1931- only a month and a half since the double slaying- “Bee Davis” was in Reno, attending the Max Baer-Paulino Uzcudun boxing match, or as she puts it, “the prizefight between the California bear and a Spanish larruper” (Madam pg. 1).
Crawford was shot point blank (not through a window) in his own “real estate office” at 6665 Sunset Boulevard (not his lawyer’s office). The confessed shooter was not a gangster but a former deputy D.A., David H. Clark. Clark had successfully prosecuted Albert Marco for assault with a deadly weapon in 1928 (Marco committed this second crime while free on bond and having failing to report to US Marshals to begin serving time for his federal liquor conviction) and Marco was in San Quentin. Through this association with Marco, papers said, Clark was introduced to June Taylor. Police were seeking as a witness not Lee Francis but June Taylor, whom it was believed had driven with Clark to Crawford’s office and was said to be a frequent visitor of Marco’s at the prison. If anyone was looking for Lee Francis, it wasn’t reported. Authorities were, however, keen to locate June Taylor, who seemed to have fled to San Francisco. She finally surrendered to police on June 4, but had little to say. Taylor remained closed-mouthed before the grand jury as well. She fled the city again before the first Clark trial began and wasn’t called.
Lee Francis’ name didn’t come into it publicly until the middle the second Clark trial, the first having ended in a hung jury. On October 6, 1931, the Los Angeles Evening Express reported that the defense was demanding that special prosecutor W. Joseph Ford turn over a 130 page [sic] statement assertedly made by an asserted associate of Crawford’s, Miss Lee Francis, “Hollywood resort keeper,” to investigator Blaney Matthews, then of D.A. Fitts’ office, at 2am one morning before the first Clark trial, asserting that it would prove Crawford had not been retired from the underworld at the time of his murder. Ford admitted such a statement “might” exist. Matthews would neither confirm nor deny. D.A. Fitts claimed he knew nothing about it, according to the Express. Per the Times, however, Fitts testified on the 6th, bringing a copy of what the Times said was a 30 page [sic] statement taken from Francis “some time ago.” Fitts was unwilling to make the statement public, but to prove it had “no bearing on the present case,” offered to let the judge read it. The judge declined.
That evening of October 6, the Express reported, sheriff’s vice squad deputies, led by Capt. A.R. “Casey” Jones, raided Lee Francis’ supposed “elaborate Hollywood establishment at 1252 N. Crescent and found Francis home alone. She’d been tipped off the raid was happening, Jones declared. Shortly after the raid, subpoena servers for Clark’s defense attorneys found her gone. Jones, however told the Times that his “visit” to Francis’ “home” did not “in any way resemble” a raid. Oh, no. Jones had been seeking the whereabouts of Francis “for some time for “purposes of making an investigation regarding her which had reached his office. When he “learned” of her address, he went there and, after looking around and talking to “Mrs. Francis,” left convinced there were no illegal operations being carried out in the house.
In fairness, Jones had been appointed head of the sheriff’s vice squad fairly recently- on May 16, 1931, just 4 days before the Crawford-Spencer murders. He succeeded a veteran officer, James M. Benton, who on May 11 had shot himself at his home in what Coroner Nance ruled a suicide but Benton’s bride insisted was an accident.
After Crawford, Francis had new underworld bosses, likely Guy McAfee, Page, and other remnants of Crawford’s syndicate. In Ladies she describes how, “with the fatal shooting of my ‘protector’ in a gangland rub-out situation,” her protection arrangement changed. “The vultures descended quickly and I found myself paying tribute, not to one but to three or four different people. Each was powerful in the political set-up of the town and none of them could be ignored.” (Ladies pg. 188) “There was a period in 1934, 1935, and 1936, when I was paying $150 a week to one party, $50 a week to another and 25% of my net profits to a third of these ‘protectors.’ ” (Ladies pg. 173), and “In Los Angeles I paid very high protection money- as much as 50% of the gross” (Ladies pg. 49)
Both books mention the need to move frequently, despite the protection she enjoyed. A change of scenery might be prudent for “political reasons,” or if neighbors complained. The houses didn’t all operate at the same time, but she did sometimes have more than one going at once.
In 1933, the McAfee-backed Frank Shaw was elected mayor, and the town was wide open again. Vice flourished. National prohibition was repealed in December 1933, so the underworld had to alter its illegal liquor activities from rum-running to shaking down those seeking licenses from the new State Liquor Control Board.
In 1936, Francis moved to a craftsman house in Beverly Hills with expansive grounds at 910 N. Bedford Dr., the former home of actor Norman Kerry. Food was brought in from The Tropics, Harry M. Sugarman’s newly-opened Polynesian-themed nightclub, situated nearby at 421 N. Rodeo Dr. (Ladies pg. 141) There’s no indication of how long she operated here; it can only be surmised that it was typically brief.
At roughly around this same period, she also operated a house on Kings Road off the Sunset Strip (“Princes Rd.” in Madam).
In 1937, Bee Davis/Lee Francis tried to get out of the madam business and open her own nightclub and open a legitimate nightclub, to be known as The Versailles (The Marseilles” in Madam) at 8588 Sunset Blvd. on the Sunset Strip.
In Madam, this event comes about halfway through the book. She discusses it with “Frankie Luce” and her other backers (she mistakenly includes “Hanford” in this conversation, but Charles Crawford was long dead. She may have meant Guy McAfee), though she doesn’t say anything about quitting the madam business. “They wouldn’t have backed me in that.” Even so, the boys were lukewarm. “Lady, I’d stick to my own line of business if I were you.” Frank Luce tells her. “Your business you mean,” she retorts. “You’re all taking a pile out of the call houses. You wouldn’t let me quit.” (Madam pg. 169). This conversation is omitted from Ladies.
She plunges ahead with it anyway. “I knew I had no business to open Marseilles and quit the call house racket because everybody wanted the call houses. The men who backed them and used me to font them, and the men who patronized them, The politicians who got and the public that paid. But I went ahead in spite of [sic].” (Madam pg. 180)
Ladies says that she invested $43,000 in the project (Madam has it as $88,000 for decorations alone), that she had the building constructed, had it furnished and decorated by W. & J. Sloane Co., leased the adjacent spaces for legitimate businesses, hired staff from cigarette girls to parking lot attendants, and issued invitations to the grand opening using her client list.
Madam says that she covered up her association with the club, forming a corporation to front for her, as the State Board of Equalization in Sacramento would never issue a liquor permit if they knew a madam was behind it. But word leaked out anyway.
In his Los Angeles Times “Around and About in Hollywood” column of December 2, 1937 local gossip writer Read Kendall reported that “The swank new Club Versailles is scheduled to open its doors on December 10.”
Another Times columnist, Maxine Bartlett, reported on Sunday, December 12, that those with reservations for the December 10 opening of the Versailles included Harry Sugarman, Edmund Goulding, and Irving Glasser. The grand opening, however, didn’t happen.
“The night came and went. The cars were half a mile down the Strip in a line and parked, waiting for the doors to open at Beverly Davis Marseilles Club. And I didn’t open because I couldn’t serve liquor.” (Madam pg. 183). She had been denied a liquor permit by the Board of Equalization in Sacramento.
Francis writes bitterly in Ladies: “It developed that the owner of a nearby rendezvous, with powerful newspaper and political affiliations, had been the one to put the crimp in the deal…A certain well-known personality from the East came along and offered to take over my club with its attendant obligations. He gave me a note for $4000 in payment for my assets,” adding that three years later, she’d yet to collect. Madam puts it more bluntly: “I took notes from a certain thug who had a big name in Hollywood, promoting talent. He never paid. Incorporated himself. Left me holding the sock.”
Francis declined to name this mystery figure. But Read Kendall reported on February 23, 1938, that “Phil Selzick’s Versailles Club opened to a swanky crowd last night.”
Both books are more or less in agreement up until this point. Afterward, however, the chronology is quite different.
According to Madam, she resumed madaming after the failed venture, taking over the running of a house on “La Reina Drive” near Santa Monica that one of her “best girls” had opened using Davis’ client list (Madam pg. 185). Ladies too refers to this house, and agrees it was run by one of her “girls” with Francis’ client list. But Ladies doesn’t mention Francis running this house, as it maintains the fiction that she retired from madaming after the nightclub failure (Ladies pg. 190). It seems clear that this was not true, but rather Francis’ reworking of the 1939 draft manuscript to better mesh with her post-arrest defense.
Both books also describe her renting an entire apartment building at 1345 N. Hayworth Ave. (called Estabrook Dr. in Madam) in West Hollywood right off Sunset. In Ladies, it was before the nightclub venture. In Madam, it occurs after.
The charming, rambling Spanish-style building opened as Casa De Contenta in 1929, owned by Dorothy Davenport (Mrs. Wallace Reid). It had a 3-story main building with a 2-story wing and had a swimming pool, gymnasium, and cafe on the ground floor, originally called The Doll House. Unlike her other ventures, this one was meant to be long-term, and both books describe a substantial investment and remodeling effort. To avoid any association with her name, she incorporated and made all the arrangements through this corporation.
Madam says she called the restaurant “The Bee Hive” and it became a regular hangout for society ladies. Her description of a dinner party held in the restaurant at the opening of this house for a group of visiting “French” aviators who had just spanned “the Atlantic,” seems to be referring to a group of Russian aviators who had just flown to the South Pole and visited Hollywood in July 1937.
As usual, it’s not clear how long it operated. But the weekly ads for apartments, which suddenly stopped after December 11, 1936, resume on September 8, 1938- only a week before the September 16, 1938 recall election that resulted in the ousting of Mayor Frank Shaw.
Neither book makes any mention of the reform effort that led to this event. In Ladies, Francis says only “I was in strong with the administration and when that administration ended, I ended.” (Ladies pg. 49) During her long career, she went through 5 different mayors, but here was apparently referring to the Shaw administration as she goes on to describe leaving the money each week in a tin can in the backyard so that a City Hall messenger could pick it up.
Shaw’s successor Fletcher Bowron reformed the police department and the new chief purged officers suspected of being on the syndicate’s payroll. McAfee and Page made a big show of leaving town in June 1939, relocating to Las Vegas, where they indeed opened legal gambling casinos. But Bowron had no jurisdiction over unincorporated county territory such as parts of the Sunset Strip, where Bugsy Siegel was trying to squeeze out the local rackets, and McAfee did not cut all ties to Los Angeles.
In late 1938 or early 1939, Francis approached her ghostwriter about drafting her memoir. As noted above, the draft manuscript was completed by the end of 1939.
In the Ladies version of events, after her nightclub venture failed, “I didn’t have the heart to start again in the old business, to buck crooked police and politicians, to fight that desperate battle again” So she says she got a job at a small club on Beverly Boulevard, entertaining celebrity customers, but didn’t like it. (Ladies pg 193)
Then came Francis’ arrest on January 16, 1940. At the time, Francis claims in Ladies, “I was still at the club, living alone in the Coronet Apartments on Sunset Boulevard” (Ladies pg 196). She occupied apartment 204 under the name Ruth Marion.
Her lawyer was Morris Lavine, who curiously enough had been convicted of extorting Charles Crawford.
In the end, Lee Francis’ madam story played out the same way madam stories always played out in Los Angeles, whether it was 1890, 1908, 1913, 1931, 1940 or 1949:
A. Madam arrested. Takes the fall. Her backers are not arrested.
B. A black/red/green book- or in this case a tell-all memoir- is revealed, said to contain the names of all her celeb or important clients, who are quaking in their boots lest their names be exposed.
C. Then never are.
D. Madam fades into obscurity.
E. The backers start over with a different madam.
Francis’ arrest didn’t happen in a vacuum. Charles Rittenhouse, the deputy sheriff who raided her apartment, raided the Farmer Page-run Clover Club on Sunset on March 24, 1940 along with George Contreras. In May 1941, Rittenhouse was accused by Page-McAfee linked bookies of shaking them down for protection money. Rittenhouse was indicted for extortion but ultimately acquitted.
On April 22, 1940, 4 days before Francis was released from jail, Ann Forrester, another madam affiliated with Guy McAfee, was arrested for pandering. “June Taylor” was again implicated. Ann accused Contreras of shaking her down. Ann also later told of a payoff system that was in keeping with Francis’ description of the tin can in the backyard.
Contreras wrote an article about the raid and arrest of Lee Francis titled “Smashing Hollywood’s Secret Sex Racket,” published in Crime Detective magazine, July 1940.
Ladies tells us that after her release, Francis left for a new residence in San Fernando she’d had a relative acquire for her. Her neighbors learned her true identity and she was forced to move, taking an apartment in Hollywood again. Curiously, John Ogden Francis surfaces in the public record again at this time, and is living with a woman in the valley.
She contemplates returning to madaming, but definitely never wanted to operate in Hollywood again. “Maybe New York or Manilla”
“I don’t know what I will really do.” she writes (Ladies pg 217).
It’s clear this was written in the 1940s, c. 1945-1946 and had not been edited since. Though not published until 1965, Francis doesn’t update readers on what she did end up doing. Instead, the book simply tacks on a letter, “received from Lee Francis only recently” purported to be from a former customer heaping praise on Francis.
What she did during the years 1940 to 1965, therefore, is generally unknown. She did remain in Hollywood.
October 1942 saw the publication, sans Francis, of Call House Madam. Francis surfaced in February 1943 to file her lawsuit, which she settled out of court in 1945. In 1946 she was reportedly writing her own book, but nothing came of it.
In August 1960, gossip writer Mike Connolly (“Mr. Hollywood”) wrote that Hartz-Lyon was planning a film version of Call House Madam, and adds that Francis was “now out of the racket (happily) and managing an apartment hotel in Los Angeles.”
Finally her version of Call House Madam was published, as Ladies on Call, in 1965, when Francis was 70 years old.
She did some publicity for the book, including an interview with Ted Connor of WLAC’s “Talk Back Tennessee” in June 1966 and others, but then faded back into history.
THE LOS ANGELES HOUSES FACT & FICTION
Norton Ave., Hollywood (Here c. 1921 per Ladies) Not mentioned in Madam. Says she rented a bungalow on this street in Hollywood and began operating as a madam. Note, the Times reported in January 1940 that the two young women arrested with Francis were taken into custody at a house “in the 8600 block of Norton Avenue.”
400 S. Virgil (Here c. 1921. per Madam). Never opened. This was the Coulter property, as in B.F. Coulter, the department store founder. Leslie Elizabeth Coulter, daughter-in-law of B.F., died here in 1942.
S. Rossmore Ave.? (Here c. 1921-to unknown) Called “South Belmore Ave.” in Madam; not mentioned in Ladies. Her first operating brothel under Crawford. Madam calls it A “rich man’s estate” in the “Hampshire” (Wilshire) district.
1252 N. Crescent Heights Blvd. (Here supposedly c. July-October 1931 per Clark trial newspaper reports). On July 14, 1931, a classified rental ad for this property describes it as having “7 large rooms, luxurious furnishings, oriental rugs, baby grand reproducing piano, patio, large yard, double garage.” Rent was $250. The ads stop after this date and resume October 31, 1931. During the second Dave Clark trial in October 1931, it was reported in local papers that Lee Francis was living here.
Knickerbocker Apartment Hotel 1714 N. Ivar St., Hollywood (Here for 6 months c. 1935, unverified). Called the Mainbocher Hotel in Madam. Not mentioned in Ladies. Madam says that sometime during the Depression, she says she approached the financially troubled “Mainbocher Hotel” in the heart of Hollywood, and told them to put a cocktail bar in the lounge, and to turn over to her their freight elevators as well as three triple suites. “I had seven girls in them, busy every minute, and plenty of girls on call from the outside…In six months I put that hotel out of the red, into the cash. It’s operating now, a good-paying proposition, strictly hotel, but with a liberal policy.” The LA Times reported on January 21, 1935 that “plans are being prepared for the installation of an elaborately designed cocktail room: at the Knickerbocker. The Times noted that it opened February 16.
N. Fairfax Ave.? (dates unknown). Called N. Fairmont in Madam. Not mentioned in Ladies. Refers to it as a “House of all Nations” brothel (Madam pg 201)
910 N. Bedford Dr., Beverly Hills (Moved here 1936): Former Norman Kerry home. “It sat gracefully in the middle of an acre and a half of beautiful green lawn. There was a swimming pool, a rose garden, an enclosed patio. The living room was spacious and beautiful with Oriental rugs, antique love seats, and French doors leading out to a fragrant garden.” A thumbnail photo of this property appears on the back cover of Ladies and says it rented for $650 a month.
Kings Road (dates unknown). Called “Princes Rd.” in Madam. Neither book says much about it.
2300 block La Mesa Dr., Santa Monica (c. 1937-1938) Called La Reina Dr. in Madam, which describes it as “a swell little estate near Santa Monica.” Identified as 2300 block in the Santa Monica Historical Resources Inventory Update Historic Context Statement, March 2018.
1345 N Hayworth Dr. (Here c. 1936-1938). Called N. Estabrook Dr. in Madam. The property was advertised steadily until the ads suddenly stop December 11, 1936. No more ads were found until September 8, 1938. A thumbnail picture of this property appears on the back cover of Ladies and says it rented for $4500 a month. Madam says she was running this house at the same time as “N. Delaware” and that it was “The handsomest all house I ever ran…3-story, Moorish in style with white stucco and a red tile roof. I fitted up the first floor as a French restaurant.” This description fits that of 1345 N. Hayworth.
S. New Hampshire Rd. (c. 1936?) Possibly the house called N. Delaware in Madam. Ladies mentions S. New Hampshire but doesn’t say much about it. Madam says she was running this house at the same time as “N. Estabrook” (N. Hayworth) “The grounds were fairly large and beautifully laid out.” Says this property abutted on the West the estate of a Hollywood couple: “There’s a red-haired dame from Brazil whose a screen siren and she’s got the hottest temper in the land of bad tempers. She’s married to a man whose business it is in the films to leap lightly from tree to tree…” Changing hair color and nationality could hardly hide the fact that she was describing Lupe Velez, the “Mexican Spitfire,” and Johnny Weissmuller, Tarzan of the movies. She says their fights made so much racket she was forced to move. (Madam pgs. 400 and 406-408) However, the Velez home was located at 732 N. Rodeo Dr. and did not back up to S. New Hampshire St.
Franklin Ave.? (c. 1937?) Frankfort Ave. in Madam. Moved here from “N. Delaware.” “I took a place consisting of 5 triple apartments. It stood on a hill, the apartment house I had a joint in, in the central residential district off Hollywood Blvd., a sneeze’s throw from a convent.” (Madam pg. 408). Possibly 5640 Franklin, which opened as the Hasonia Apartments in January 1930, and is roughly “a sneeze’s throw” from the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary convent at 5515 Franklin. A “Mrs Lee Francis” was registered to vote at this address in 1930. But, again, it’s a common name.
Sunset & Vermont (dates unknown). Doesn’t say much about it, only that it was open 24-hours. (Ladies pg. 175). Not sure if it is mentioned in Madam.
DeLongpre Dr.? (dates unknown) Called De Lambert Ave. in Madam. Not mentioned in Ladies.
Delfern Dr.? (dates unknown) Called Redfern Dr. in Madam. Not mentioned in Ladies.
Unknown (dates unknown) Called Sedgmont Dr. in Madam. Says house was rented from a former star, backed up to the “Pinto Polo Field” and the “Los Amigos Country Club.”
8439 Sunset Blvd. (c.1938-January 1940). Coronet Apartments. Arrested here January 1940. Not mentioned in Madam. Ladies says she was living here, and was retired from madaming at the time of her arrest. This is almost certainly false, though it’s clear that what she was running here was not a brothel but a call operation. Ann Forrester was testify at her trial in August 1940 that after Mayor Bowron’s reforms, the syndicate stopped using houses and switched to an on-call basis.
Born in Los Angeles in 1891, Lewis also wrote under the name Georges Lewys. Anyone wishing to build on this research should start with the Gladys Adelina Lewis papers 1909-1975 Collection #7763, Division of Rare Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library. The collection includes the draft 1939 manuscript of what became Call House Madam, incomplete drafts, and files on Francis’ lawsuit.
In 1904 the Sisters acquired land for a new, larger campus on Slauson Avenue. Classes moved there in 1911, after Francis’ time.
Ladies doesn’t mention any family at all except on pg. 193, where she says “my mother had just died and I had buried her.” This was at the time of her failed nightclub venture, so c. 1937-1938. In Madam, she describes a chance meeting with her sister “Therese” that led to a reunion with her mother, and that her mother died the following week. These events supposedly occurred after her second divorce/before she began working for Crawford, so c. 1921. Her father, Madam says, had abandoned the family and returned to “France.” Madam also describes a near-encounter with her college-age brother, “Gaston Jr.” while she was still working at Jessie’s, and later indicates that she put her “brothers” through college by madaming.
John Drew Jr. was born in 1853; he died in San Francisco, 1927.
A procuress named Pearl Sanborn, aka “Mme Pauline,” was arrested on January 23, 1917 after being caught in a sting trying to recruit a young woman for prostitution.
There are no photos in Ladies other than the 4 tiny images of 4 of her houses on the back cover.
Notes for San Francisco:
By September 1916, Hayman was at 140 Taylor St. Another madam, Bessie Maitland had taken over 130 Eddy. Hayman died in 1923.
Francis claims one of her first customers at “Ruthy’s” was John Barrymore. She (or the ghostwriter) also makes a whopper of a lie, claiming: “It was sometime in the Twenties” that she heard “a great deal of commotion” in the parlor and was told Jean Harlow, the “Blonde Bombshell” had come in…” The book goes on to detail a pornographic story about this supposed visit. Of course, Hayman’s was long closed by “the Twenties,” and Francis was running her own houses in Los Angeles by then. Besides that, Harlow was not even in California until the late 1920s and was not yet a star much less known as the “Blonde Bombshell” at that time.
A person named “Lee Francis” is in the San Francisco City Directory as 144 Eddy St. (the Empress Hotel). A Lee Francis also registered to vote in 1914 at the same address. Women earned the right to vote in California in 1911, so this Lee Francis could be either a man or a woman. It’s a common name, however.
The different chronologies create more questions about the origin of Francis’ real name. In Madam, “Beverly Davis” says she dropped the name she’d adopted as prostitute, “Violet Adair” and took the name “Davis” from the street her brothel fronted on (Madam pg. 73). Since Ladies doesn’t refer to Francis having been a madam while in San Francisco, there’s no comparable discussion. She does indicate that her name was already Francis when she met her second husband, John Francis.
The Poodle Dog was raided by federal authorities and the police Morals Squad on June 9, 1918 and the proprietor, Antonio Bianco, charged with keeping a “disorderly house.” The raiders found two young girls who had been plied with liquor, as well as a number of couples in the dining rooms with beds upstairs. The SF Examiner wrote on June 10, 1918: “One aged man, who gave his name as John Rose, found in the company of a girl registered as Margaret Rose, after being placed under guard, telephoned one of the leading hotels for a house detective. The detective responded and was caught attempting to assist Rose to get away through a window leading to a secret exit from the house.” Bianco later promised to go out of business and the hotel/restaurant’s assets were sold off July 11. This Poodle Dog is not to be confused with the old Bergez-Franks Poodle Dog, which was then located at 415 Bush; it was raided by federal prohibition agents in September 1921 closed in April 1922.
Rev. Paul Smith produced a film in 1918, The Finger of Justice, loosely based on this anti-vice campaign. He retired from the church in 1922 and lived quietly until his death in 1936, age 60.
Notes for Los Angeles:
Nat Goodwin died in 1917.
John Ogden Francis was still alive, and in Los Angeles, in 1940. He died in 1947.
Jones, coincidentally, had been the officer in charge in January 1929 when two prisoners in the county jail, Johnny Hawkins and Zeke Hayes, were being brought back to their cells from a court date. One of the men somehow had got hold of a gun and was shot dead by Jones. Albert Marco, who was in custody in the jail at the time, was questioned but claimed to know nothing about the gun. Hawkins and Hayes had hinted that they had information to reveal about the LA underworld.
Dorothy Davenport made an anti-white slavery film in 1925 called The Red Kimono based on a real life case that occurred in New Orleans in 1917. The real-life woman involved, Gabriel Darley Melvin, whose name was used in the film, sued and won. Davenport had to forfeit her lease of the property, which by 1932 became known as El Jardin.