Thursday, February 25, 2016

Theodore Le Berthon (1892-1960)-Part Eight

On December 9, 1925, in "The Merry-Go-Round," his column for the Los Angeles Evening Herald, Ted Le Berthon wrote about a strange young man whose future would prove him to be not just strange but monstrous. The title of that particular column was "Clouded Past of a Poet." Its subject, described as "tall, olive-skinned, with wavy black hair and a strong, bold nose," was George Hodel. (1)

Born on October 10, 1907, in Los Angeles, George Hill Hodel, Jr., was a child prodigy. His IQ tested at 186. At age nine, he played solo piano concerts at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Hodel graduated from South Pasadena High School at fourteen and entered the California Institute of Technology to study chemical engineering. There his precociousness was expressed in a different way when he had an affair with and impregnated the wife of a faculty member. Things were kept quiet, but Hodel was forced out of the university. He faked his age, got a chauffeur's license, and started driving a cab at night. He also became a police reporter for the Los Angeles Record. "He was there to record the lurid details as pimps, prostitutes, and johns . . . were hauled off," wrote his biographer. "The precocious kid from Pasadena was now L.A.'s youngest crime reporter, rubbing shoulders with hoods, murderers, and corrupt officials." (2) He was then sixteen years old, making the year 1923 or 1924.

As of 1923, Ted Le Berthon was also a police reporter, though I don't know for which paper in Los Angeles. Later, as a devout Catholic, he seems to have been drawn to the low life because of his concern for his fellow man. Nodel's motivations were likely far different, as events would prove. He might easily have been described as an aesthete and a decadent. "It's not George's gloom, his preference for Huysmanns [sic], De Gourmant, Poe, Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Hecht that pains us," wrote Le Berthon from the point of view of Hodel's friends, "but his stilted elegance, his meticulous speech!" (3, 4)
George drowned himself at times in an ocean of deep dreams [Le Berthon wrote]. Only part of him seemed present. He would muse, standing before one in a black, flowered dressing gown lined with scarlet silk, oblivious to one's presence. Suddenly, though, his eyes would flare up like signal lights and he would say, "The formless fastidiousness of perfumes in a seventeenth century boudoir is comparable to my mind in the presence of twilight." (5)
Based on those passages, not only aesthete and decadent, but also the phrase adolescent poseur might describe Hodel. That adolescence, along with the preference for fantastic and decadent authors, the name dropping, the evocation of the seventeenth-century past, and the florid language remind me of Lovecraft. Hodel even published his own avant-garde literary magazine called Fantasia. But again, his life went down a different path than that of Lovecraft.

At twenty, George Hodel became a radio host for Southern California Gas Company's Music Hour, a program of classical music, and enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, to study pre-medicine. From there it was on to the University of California, San Francisco, for medical school. Hodel also wrote a column for the San Francisco Chronicle called "Abroad in San Francisco." I don't know of any further contact between Ted Le Berthon and George Hodel after 1925. Maybe Le Berthon's father, John L. Le Berthon, crossed paths with the young doctor, writer, and music aficionado in San Francisco.

After working as a physician in New Mexico, Hodel returned to Los Angeles in the early 1940s. Still drawn to bohemianism and the avant-garde side of life, he was friends with Man Ray (1890-1976), Henry Miller (1891-1980), Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982), and Fred Sexton (1907-1995, the creator of the Maltese Falcon statuette). In the early 1940s, Hodel married John Huston's first wife. (He had been friends with Huston in the 1920s). In all, Hodel had eleven children by five women. In 1949, one of Hodel's children, Tamar, accused him of incest. The case went to trial, but Hodel was acquitted. In 1950, he left the country for the Philippines. He returned to San Francisco forty years later and died in that city in May 1999 at age ninety-one. After his death, one of his sons, Steve Hodel, began looking into his life.

To be continued . . .

(2) Hodel and Pezzullo, Ch. 1.
(3) Quoted in Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder: The True Story by Steve Hodel (Skyhorse Publishing, 2015), Online, "The Voice" (unpaginated).
(4) Poe (1809-1849), Baudelaire (1821-1867), and Verlaine (1844-1896) were published posthumously in Weird Tales. The others were not published at all in the magazine. However, I have written about Ben Hecht (1894-1964) and, in my article about him, a little of Joris Karl Huysmans (1848-1907). Remy de Gourmant (1858-1915) was an associate of Huysmans and a French Symbolist poet. Click on their names in the main body for links. Coincidentally, 1923, the year in which George Hodel got his start as a police reporter, thereby descending physically into the low life (I suspect he had already begun a personal, spiritual, and moral descent by then), was also the year in which Weird Tales began. Despite the bustling Jazz Age in America, the 1920s were a time of decadence in Western civilization. The advent of Weird Tales was just one example of that. The prominence of the psychopathic killer was another. Stay tuned for more.
(5) Quoted in Hodel and Pezzullo, Ch. 1.

George Hill Hodel, Jr., South Pasadena High School Class of 1923, and the subject of "Clouded Past of  Poet," a column by Ted Le Berthon from 1925.

Original text copyright 2016 Terence E. Hanley

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