On the night of June 19, 1959, there was a party in the Benedict Canyon home of George Reeves. Reeves had just ended a 10-year affair with Toni Mannix, the estranged (but still married) wife of Eddie Mannix, vice president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Now engaged to marry Lenore Lemmon, Reeves had been forced to take out a restraining order against Toni, who had been pestering him with phone calls.
Reeves, who was no stranger to drink, may also have been taking prescription painkillers as the result of injuries sustained in a minor traffic accident a week earlier. Lemmon was downstairs with friends but George, who was not in a partying mood, went upstairs to bed, to which Lemmon responded, “He’s pissed off, and he’s going to take a gun out of his dresser and shoot himself.”
Moments later there were two shots. Reeves’s body was discovered on the bed, shot through the head. Then the mystery began:
1. There were five bullet holes in the bedroom wall, but only two shots.
2. Reeves was found on his back on the bed, his body covering the spent shell. How did it get there? Was it the shell from the bullet that killed him, or was it there from an earlier firing?
3. What possessed Lemmon to predict George’s suicide? Or was it part of a cover story?
4. Why was Lemmon allowed to leave town and never questioned by police?
5. Why were people allowed to enter the roped-off murder scene to wash the bedsheets and retrieve liquor and other objects from the house?
6. Why was Reeves’s body embalmed before a proper autopsy could be performed?
7. Why would Reeves kill himself when he had just landed a job in a “comeback” project?
INTERVIEW: The Death of Superman
When George Reeves, the actor best known for playing the title role in Superman, committed suicide in 1959, the headlines screamed “Superman Kills Self.” That would not be the final insult to the 45-year-old performer who, on TV, may have been the Man of Steel, but, in real life, had feet of clay. Almost immediately, the circumstances surrounding his death, augmented by family meddling and police bungling, gave birth to a morbid “Who murdered Superman?” cult that has not diminished in nearly half a century.
Gary H. Grossman, whose 1976 book Superman from Serial to Cereal is available on www.supermanbook.com, has had 25 years to put the mystery into cultural perspective. Now a highly successful television producer, Grossman feels that it has to do with the public’s craving for heroes.
Grossman: We grew up in a time, in the fifies, when there were heroes. Clayton Moore was the Lone Ranger, we had Roy Rogers, we had Sky King, Gene Autry, and George Reeves as Superman. It hurt George as a serious actor, but he was also beloved. We were people, growing up, who had three channels, not 200 channels. We could write our heroes and get a letter or picture back. We could go to a personal appearance in Boston or Albany or New York City or UCLA and 25,000 or 50,000 kids and parents would come in and see those folks.
So when someone who plays a hero dies, you have a connection; when someone who plays an invincible hero dies, that’s suddenly a different emotional reaction, and then when the headline screams “Superman Kills Self” you have an even different [and greater] emotional reaction. And I think, for me in 1959, it was a seminal moment. It was the first contact I ever had with somebody dying, it was the first contact I had with a celebrity dying, and it was the first contact I had with a suicide. Or, an apparent suicide. To this day, it is still an astounding mystery.
Segaloff: The party guests heard two shots, but the police found five bullet holes.
Grossman: Lenore Lemmon claimed that he had been showing her the gun at some point earlier, and that the gun had gone off.
Segaloff: Was it one bullet to the head or two?
Grossman: I’ve heard different things. As I understand it, it is very difficult to shoot yourself twice in the head. The autopsy reports that there was one bullet in his head.
Segaloff: How do we explain the spent bullet shell under his body?
Grossman: That can’t be explained if you’re just shooting yourself. It can be explained if there’s someone else in the room.
Segaloff: We have Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, JFK, and other cultural heroes who society cannot accept are dead. Why do we want to keep people alive when we know they’re dead?
Grossman: People may not believe that George is alive, but people may want to have a sense of completion about his death. But let’s just say that irrefutable evidence came out about his death. I think it would still be debated; people would still hold onto the myth of what they wanted to believe, sparked by people who keep those kind of things alive because it always makes good copy. Resolved endings don’t make a good story.
Segaloff: There’s an industry that has been built up around these dead people?
Grossman: Yes. Mysterious deaths sell.