Wild Women of Venice
Back in the mid-70s, I came across a weird occurrence that sort of scared, intrigued and enticed me all at once. It was a slogan written kind of small on a t-shirt, on the left arm I believe. Four simple words: Wild Women of Venice.
Carole Cromwell was the gal wearing the shirt, and she embodied all of those characteristics that scared, intrigued and enticed me about her. Plus her laugh could quiet a noisy barroom, which is where I met her, matter of fact. I remember that gaudy laugh, her contagious smile, and her woman-of-the-world mannerisms as a neat package, all wrapped in the Wild Women t-shirt.
"What’s all this wild women stuff about?" I inquired. "Don’t fuck with these women," was all she replied. Then let out another room silencing guffaw. "Let’s have another drink…"
The brazen audacity behind that shirt got me thinking about the wild women of Venice’s history, women one might not even think had anything really to do with Venice’s unique past.
The first would be a simple girl, born in 1890 in a small town in Ontario, Canada. In early 1908, James Kennedy brought his young daughter Aimee to a tent revival, led by a visiting Pentecostal evangelist, Robert Semple.
Within the space of a few weeks, Aimee’s religious fervor caused her to forego the once alluring secular entertainments of the time, becoming a strong participant in Pentecostalism. Aimee soon found herself in love with Semple; within a few months he expressed an interest in Aimee and proposed marriage. By that August, they were married at her parents’ house; Robert was twenty-seven, and Aimee was seventeen.
By the time of the Semple’s second wedding anniversary, both Robert and his pregnant wife Aimee were in a Hong Kong hospital, suffering from malaria. Robert died several days after their anniversary in August of 1910. There in Hong Kong, Aimee gave birth to their daughter. After weeks of raising money for passage to America, Aimee finally arrived in New York City, then began moving around the country, living in various cities in the U.S. It was ultimately in Chicago that she met accountant Harold McPherson, whom she married in February of 1912.
Harold and Aimee McPherson then moved into his parents’ home in Rhode Island and tried to establish a stable family life. Around the time of the birth of their son in 1913, Aimee began to evangelize occasionally around eastern Canada and the northeastern United States.
It was during the great influenza epidemic, which swept across the U.S. and killed many people in the latter part of 1918, that Aimee said she received a message from God, and that message was to settle down. A voice came to her, telling her to go to Los Angeles, and the Lord would provide. By that December, Aimee Semple McPherson and her family had arrived in California.
By 1923, she had prevailed enough in her devotion to dedicate and erect an immense, circular church, the Angelus Temple in the Echo Park area of L.A. Its $1.5 million cost was funded totally by donations. The main sanctuary could seat 5000 people, and services were usually almost at capacity. Employing a brass band, large choirs, costumes, and elaborate sets to draw people to church, McPherson provided a religious alternative to stage plays and vaudeville. She quickly attracted a huge following and generated a great deal of publicity with her lively meetings, weaving the familiar hymns and Biblical interpretation of many Christian churches of the time with McPherson’s legendary performances, which often included speaking in tongues and faith healing. She had a magnetic personality and adopted an angelic appearance; she usually dressed in a white flowing gown, and carried a small bouquet of flowers. Her services were known for divine healing, where repentants would walk without crutches, regain lost eyesight, heal broken bones, and leave their wheelchairs to walk.
Her novelty as a female religious leader was accented through the use of radio, which expanded her access to the public’s attention. She was a featured performer on various Los Angeles stations in 1923, and became a radio station owner herself in 1924. The strongest press and public attention came when she disappeared on May 18th, 1926 while swimming at the beach here in Venice.
She had checked into her second-floor suite at the Ocean View Hotel, at Ocean Front Walk and Rose Avenue, and then walked to the beach with her secretary. Aimee proceeded to wade into the surf while her secretary read from the bible. When Sister Aimee failed to return from her swim, an intensive headline-capturing search was launched.
Airplanes scanned the water’s surface for signs of the missing woman. Deep-sea divers plodded along the ocean floor. Nets were dragged along the surf line where she disappeared in hopes of finding her. 5000 members of her congregation came to the beach to help with the search and pray for their leader, with one person drowning and another dying of exposure. But not a trace of her body could be found. Police investigated hundreds of leads, including a ransom note, signed by "The Avengers" and demanding $500,000 for Sister Aimee’s safe return.
One month after her disappearance, a memorial was held at the Venice beach, and flowers were strewn over the sea. Two days later, Aimee stumbled out of the desert near Douglas, Arizona. She claimed that she had been kidnapped, tortured, drugged, and held for ransom in a shack in Mexico. It was only after the kidnappers became careless that she managed to escape and walked for some 13 hours back to civilization.
It was soon noted that her shoes showed no sign of a 13-hour hike. And the shack where she claimed that she was held could not be found. There was also no satisfactory explanation for the fact that she disappeared in broad daylight in a swimming suit, but showed up fully clothed, right down to her corset.
Rumors abounded about what had really happened to her. Some claimed that she had disappeared to have an abortion, or that she had run off with a lover. Others claimed that she had been in seclusion to recover from plastic surgery. Ultimately so many questions were raised, and so few answers provided by Sister Aimee, that the district attorney charged her with perjury. In the trial that followed, the prosecution introduced a string of witnesses who said that she had been in various hotels with an Angelus Temple radio operator named Kenneth Ormiston. But Sister Aimee stuck to her kidnapping story, and in the end she was cleared of the charges. To this day, what really happened to Sister Aimee remains a mystery.
It was in September, 1944, while at a church-related event in Oakland, California, that the 53-year-old McPherson died, evidently from an accidental overdose of sleeping pills. At her gravesite, she had a telephone installed in her coffin, in hopes that she would one-day reemerge and be able to phone for help. Boy, I’d like to find out that number, and give her a call, just to see how she’s doing!
But what’s really wild is that there’s a direct connection between this first Wild Woman of Venice, and the second one featured here. Little Norma Jeane Baker was born on June 1, 1926 in the charity ward of the Los Angeles County Hospital, registered under the name of Norma Jeane Mortenson. At 7 months, in January of 1927, Norma Jeane was baptized by the renowned evangelist preacher Aimee Semple McPherson in her Angelus Temple.
Norma’s mother, Gladys Monroe, had married John Baker, a twenty-six year old entrepreneur, in Venice, in the spring of 1917. Venice back then featured flower-laden cottages lining salt-water canals in a storybook setting. Gondolas were used to taxi Venetians around the city. The Bakers shared one of those charming cottages at 1410 Coral Canal, in the very heart of Venice. Today, it’s the southeast corner of Main Street and Horizon Avenue. Financial success had come to Gladys through her marriage to Baker, who owned half interest in a general merchandise business located in the Auditorium Building, and he and Gladys had opened a concession on the Pickering Pleasure Pier.
But John Baker was prone to frequent bouts of temper and by the summer of 1921, Gladys couldn’t tolerate his abuse any longer. So she sued for divorce in June. Nine months later, the courts decided Gladys was entitled to a divorce, and the bungalow on Coral Canal was abandoned. Gladys and Della Monroe, Gladys’ mother, then leased a house at 46 Rose Avenue.
Three years later, Gladys married Martin Mortensen, a meterman for the Los Angeles Gas & Electric Company, in the autumn of 1924. This union lasted only seven months. By then, Gladys Baker had become infatuated with the man in charge of the day shift at Consolidated Film Industries, where Gladys worked as a film cutter. Charles Gifford was a robust, dark haired, dark eyed man with a mustache and a smile. He looked kind of like Clark Gable, strong and manly. They ultimately were having an affair in the spring of 1925, when she walked out on Mortensen, evidently with intentions of becoming the next Mrs. Gifford. But by that autumn, Gifford had tired of his latest fling. Only there was a catch: Gladys had become pregnant. And as the entire world now knows, Norma Jeane Mortensen was born a bastard.
Gladys truly loved her baby, named Norma for Norma Talmadge, and Jeane for Jean Harlow, but had to immediately give her up. So little Norma Jeane was given off to a foster family, where she lived until she was seven. Her mother would come to visit on Saturdays, but still she was raised all alone. She sometimes visited her grandparents in a pockmarked old ruin of a beige stucco building on Venice Boulevard, the third-floor apartment reeking with onions, lye soap, and bunion ointment, and her Grandpa’s pipe of tobacco. But still, inside she remained alone.
It was only after her grandfather’s suicide in a state asylum that Gladys came for Norma Jeane and together they moved to a small apartment on Highland Avenue in Hollywood. But soon thereafter her mother's friend, Grace McKee, had Gladys declared insane and committed to the State Psychiatric Hospital in Norwalk, and took custody of Norma Jeane. Then Grace met Ervin Goddard and married him. Goddard brought one of his 3 daughters back to live with them, so Grace then sent Norma Jeane away at the age of 9 to the Los Angeles Orphans Home where she became occupant number 3463, living there for 21 months. All alone.
Rescued once again in June, 1937 by Grace Goddard, Norma Jeane lived with their family off and on until at 15, she met their neighbor’s son, Jim Dougherty. Three weeks after her 16th birthday, Norma Jeane married him. But he was soon called to military service, and Norma Jeane was once again alone.
While filling her time working in a munitions factory, she was spotted by photographer David Conover and he immediately saw her potential as a model. She signed with The Blue Book Modeling agency and became one of their most successful models, appearing on hundreds of magazine covers. Things were finally looking up for the lonesome gal. One of her first modeling assignments, coincidentally, took place on the breakwater rocks of Venice beach. The photos of her show an innocent, curly light brown-haired beauty, with a definite charm for the camera. But to stand out from the crowd, the photographer, George Zeno, urged her to commit to a hairstyle of straight blonde. And thus history was made.
Back in the day, one would say that Norma Jeane was a "looker," and this was not lost on the fact that Hollywood had always beckoned her in her mind. With strong aspirations of becoming an actress, she interviewed with casting director Ben Lyon at 20th Century Fox, one month after her 20th birthday. Several days later she was called to do her first screen test, which was followed by a contract delivered on August 26, 1946. She was offered the sum of $75 a week.
The contract had one condition, that she change her name from Norma Jeane Dougherty to something more catchy and alluring. At first, the studio decided to change her name to Carol Lind, however the name didn't fit her and it was eventually scrapped. Ben Lyon then suggested the name Marilyn, because it reminded him of his favorite actress Marilyn Miller. Norma Jeane was pleased with the suggestion and added the last name Monroe, which was her mother's maiden name. It was then that Hollywood launched the new face and name - Marilyn Monroe.
And now to our latest wild woman. Born December 2, 1981 in Kentwood, Louisiana, up and coming little Britney Spears first found popularity as a mouseketeer in the mid-90s before breaking out as a solo artist. Brought up in the era of MTV, she knew she had to present herself through well-choreographed videos. Her first video, for her song ‘…Baby One More Time’ was directed by Nigel Dick, and filmed entirely on location where the movie ‘Grease’ had been shot, at local Venice High School. In the video, Britney portrays a hot, young babe dressed in a Catholic school girl uniform, who struts her stuff down the halls, out by the cafeteria area, and all over the gymnasium. She’s even seen looking bored in a classroom. The party is pooped by a teacher, who wakes Britney up from the daydream that was her first music video. So what else is new? The video premiered on December 11, 1998 and quickly rose to the top request on the TRL show on MTV.
I guess Britney liked it here in Venice, enough to persuade her dad Jamie to become a partner in the local JJ Chill eatery, on Windward at Pacific. She’s been known to hang out there occasionally, where one can surreptitiously catch a glimpse of her serving fast food, or in the kitchen learning how to make chili and smoothies. And she was featured in a March 2005 article in People Magazine strolling down Windward with her new husband Kevin Federline and dad in tow, fighting off the paparazzi. Quite the wild life.
As it seems to be with all the Wild Women of Venice. Even now, thinking back on the women I’ve known during my time in Venice, I can come up with some other firsts in the Wild Woman history of this wild city. And I know you probably have your own ideas for nominating other Wild Women, as well you should!