Forgotten precursors to Phil Spector.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
April 16 2009 7:39 PM

Spector's Forgotten Precursors

John Wilkes Booth was not, it turns out, the last celebrity to take a murder rap.

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Readers also alerted me to several gangsta rappers convicted on murder charges: Cool C (Christopher Roney), currently on death row for killing a police officer during a bank robbery; Steady B (Warren McGlone), now serving a life sentence in connection with the same murder; Big Lurch (Antron Singleton), currently serving two consecutive life sentences for killing and cannibalizing a female roommate while high on PCP; X-Raided (Anerae Brown), currently serving a 31-year sentence for the gang killing of a community activist; and Mac Minister (Andre Dow), currently serving a life sentence for killing two fellow musicians. C.-Murder (Corey Miller) was tried and convicted for killing a 16-year-old fan  but is now awaiting a retrial due to alleged prosecutorial misconduct. In at least some of these instances, it bears noting, true celebrity did not arrive until after these rappers established their authenticity through pathological acts of violence.

Other examples get progressively shakier.

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Paul Kelly's moderately successful career as a Broadway actor during the 1910s and '20s was interrupted for two years, but not appreciably damaged, by his 1927 manslaughter conviction for killing Ray Raymond, a vaudevillian with the Ziegfeld Follies with whose wife, an actress named Dorothy Mackaye, Kelly was having an affair. Two years in the pen might seem insufficient for such a crime, but Kelly's culpability was a little murky. Raymond got drunk and confronted Kelly, the two men engaged in a fistfight, and Raymond died some days later from a brain hemorrhage. Raymond's alcoholism was judged a factor in his death. After Kelly's 1929 parole, he resumed his career on Broadway and in the movies, eventually winning a Tony in 1948 for his lead performance in Command Decision by William Wister Haines. Kelly later originated the role of Frank Elgin, the alcoholic actor at the center of Clifford Odets' well-known 1950 play The Country Girl.

Jim Gordon was the drummer for Eric Clapton's band Derek and the Dominos, and co-wrote Clapton's signature song "Layla." In June 1983 he attacked his mother with a hammer and a butcher knife and killed her. Later he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, but because he stated that it is wrong to kill, he was not, under California law, able to plead insanity. He was convicted of second-degree murder and remains in prison. Gordon's documented schizophrenia and the dubious circumstances of his continued incarceration calls into question, I think, his suitability for this cavalcade of villains. An online petition urging Gordon's parole can be found here.

Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a middleweight boxer, was convicted of triple murder. I had heard of Carter, of course, before a reader flagged his case to me. But Carter doesn't belong on this list at all because, as Bob Dylan made clear, it was "somethin' that he never done." The convictions were set aside in 1985.

[Update, April 17: Another borderline case is Tom Neal, a B-movie actor with a penchant for violence. Neal's acting career mostly ended  in 1951 after he broke actor Franchot Tone's nose and cheekbone in a fistfight over the affections of Barbara Payton, a starlet who would later suffer setbacks of her own and become a prostitute. Although Neal continued to act occasionally on TV, after his fight with Tone he was reduced to working as a restaurant night manager and eventually started a landscaping and gardening business. In 1965 Neal shot his third wife, Gale Bennett, in the back of the head and killed her. He beat the murder rap but was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served six years in prison. He died in 1972, one year after his release on parole. Today Neal is remembered mainly by cult fans of the 1945 low-budget noir film Detour.]

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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