The Story Robert Mitchum Never Told (1950) 🇺🇸
Morals in Hollywood: The Story Robert Mitchum Never Told
He never looked for breaks; he never got them. He grew up like a lot of other kids — with fate laughing at him. He grew up trying to escape a world he hadn’t made...
by Steve Cronin
It happened in Chicago several months ago. Robert Mitchum ambled into a nightclub discreetly followed by his bodyguard, a bulk of muscle named Kemp Niver.
Patrons looked up, caught sight of Mitchum, and began whispering to their neighbors. An ominous air of expectancy filled the room.
Mitchum sat down at a table. He took in the room with a glance like a lasso. In a minute he knew why people were talking.
Less than five tables away from him sat Lila Leeds; she was dressed in a gown that fit like a sunburn. With her was her fiancé, young Gus Arvey, son of the Chicago political boss, Jake Arvey.
Mitchum hadn’t laid eyes on Lila for months, since that fateful day when they’d both been sentenced to serve ninety days in the Los Angeles County jail for possessing marijuana cigarettes.
The patrons tried not to stare. They just couldn’t resist the temptation. What was going to happen? Would Bob go over to Lila’s table? Would she come to his? Would they even acknowledge each other? Their eyes focussed first on Mitchum, then on Lila.
Suddenly, a thin, sallow-faced man with dull, flat eyes edged up to Mitchum’s bodyguard. He spoke softly and with menacing deliberation.
“The boys and I,” he said, “want a grand.”
Mitchum’s bodyguard played dumb. “A grand for what?” he asked. He moved away, and the racketeer followed.
When they reached the lobby, the sallow-faced man explained the setup. “A lot of the boys are in the joint tonight. Your boy’s on pro (Mitchum was placed on probation for two years at the time of his sentence). He can’t afford a scene. We start a fight, and he may wind up pulling a stretch at San Quentin. Let’s have a grand, and everything is very peaceful.”
Kemp Niver is a shrewd man. A former private detective, he knows how to handle himself in the clinches.
“Look,” he said, “I don’t carry that kind of dough on me. Give me a few minutes to raise it.”
The blackmailer smiled, a wan smile of assent. He ambled back to his table and nodded at some of his boys. The gunmen came and joined him, just waiting for the big boss to give his word.
Bob Mitchum’s bodyguard knew full well what could happen. One of these thugs might walk up to Bob and without saying a word, slug him. Mitchum who is handy with his dukes, would strike back. Within a few minutes, the night club would become a shambles, and Bob Mitchum’s name would be smeared again.
Niver thought quickly. He raced over to the pretty blonde employed by the night club to shoot photos of the customers. He squeezed a hundred-dollar bill into her palm. “See all those characters sitting around the ringside tables?” he asked. The girl said yes.
“Well, just as fast as you can,” Niver ordered, “you start shooting pictures of them. And don’t let them stop you, either.”
The cute little blonde followed orders. She took her Speed Graphic and flash bulbs and began shooting. “Beat it, sister,” one of the racketeers muttered. But the little girl wouldn’t. Hundred-dollar bills didn’t grow on trees. She kept her shutter clicking and her flash bulbs popping, and as she did, the gunmen began to turn away. Soon, the big boy himself got up and walked out. The lesser fry followed. Most of them had criminal records. If anything broke, those photographs could surely identify them.
When the last of the hoodlums had left, Niver got hold of Mitchum, and together they kissed Chicago farewell.
The history of Hollywood is replete with blackmail and at the moment Bob is a set-up for any hoodlum thus inclined.
Mitchum can’t breathe near trouble until January 1951. That’s when his two years of probation expire. If he gets involved in the slightest jam, if his probation officer becomes convinced that he isn’t living a respectable life — then Bob has to sit in jail for a year and nine months, the balance of his sentence.
That’s an awful weight for a man to carry around. Few people realize the mental strain involved. Bob has always been a carefree character. These restraints — the inability to leave town without the probation officer’s okay, the checking in every month, the being watched and followed — is doubly hard on a man of his temperament.
But he’s taking it in stride. He gives the same flip, devil-may-care impression that he’s always given. He asks everyone to call him Doll — his favorite name for himself and everyone else — but deep down inside, he knows that he’s the man who’s returned from Hell and will never go back.
The truth of the matter is that Robert Mitchum needn’t have gone to jail. If he had wanted to plead not guilty, if he had wanted to ask for a trial by jury — the chances are that he might have been acquitted.
The story Mitchum never told is the story of two girls, Vicki Evans and Lila Leeds, of how they were being shadowed by the police, and of how he had to drop in on them on the one night when the police had decided to pull a raid.
Many people would have you believe that Mitchum fell for a trap, that the trap was sprung by a girl in the employ of the police. It isn’t so. What actually happened was this: back in 1948 when Bob was temporarily separated from his wife, Dorothy — he took up with a character of sorts, named Robin Ford. Supposedly a real estate agent, Ford was a nondescript fellow who hung around joints, making friendships with a strange variety of people.
Through Ford, Mitchum met Lila Leeds, a young, reckless actress who’d won a minimum of screen fame after starting out in life as a waitress.
What Mitchum never knew was that Lila Leeds was being tailed by the narcotics squad. She herself had no idea that she was being followed. Had she known of the “shadow” thrown on her movements, she certainly wouldn’t have endangered Mitchum’s welfare. She liked him too much.
As things turned out, Lila’s place was scheduled for a raid on August 31st, 1948. When Mitchum and Robin Ford walked in, the two narcotics agents waiting outside were absolutely amazed.
This is what Mitchum told the Los Angeles County Probation Officer about his affair with Lila: He and Ford were invited to see the new cottage she had rented in Laurel Canyon. “I reluctantly consented to stop in for a minute,” Bob explained. “We were met at the door by Miss Leeds and another girl who was introduced as Vicki Evans. Miss Leeds handed me a cigarette and upon accepting it, I looked up and saw what I believed to be a face at the window.
“At that moment there was a loud crash, and two men burst into the room holding Miss Evans as a shield. Without bothering to drop the cigarette, I crouched to throw the small table before me at the men, thinking it was a hold-up, but one of them shouted, ‘Police officers.’
“Sergeant Barr retrieved the cigarette. I observed a package of cigarettes in a crumpled Philip Morris wrapper on the table... and Officer McKinnon attempted to thrust the package into my hands, and said, ‘These are yours.’
“I replied that they were not. He said, ‘Look, don’t give me the business and we’ll get along fine.’
“I did not have any marijuana when I entered the house, nor did I know or believe anyone else there would have any.”
Mitchum was indicted on two counts, possession of marijuana and conspiracy to possess marijuana. Before the trial got under way, his attorney, Jerry Geisler, asked for a severance of counts, and the State agreed to try the actor on the second. He was found guilty and sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary, the sentence to be held in abeyance, upon Mitchum’s serving ninety days in the county jail.
If Bob had wanted to, he could have taken the witness stand in front of a jury.
He could have told the story of his life. It would have been a long, sad, tear-provoking autobiography. But Bob wouldn’t tell his story to the public, although he did tell it, in private, to the probation officer.
Here is the official statement of Robert Charles Mitchum, born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, August 6th. 1917:
“My mother was born in Christiana, Norway, and arrived in this country with her mother, sister, and brother at age 9, to join her father, a steamer captain.
“My father, James Mitchum, a native South Carolinian, was killed in a railroad accident in Charleston, S. C. in 1919.
“In 1927, my mother remarried. Her husband was Hugh Cunningham-Morris, then feature editor of the Bridgeport Telegram...
“In 1928 my mother joined us on the I Delaware farm where my half-sister was born, my step-father remaining at his desk.
“My sister applied for and received a permit to work, and at 14 deserted her junior term in high school for the stage, becoming source of family support.
“During my own fourteenth year, I spent the summer as deckhand on a salvage ship, the Sayomore out of Fall River, Mass. In 1931, the family moved to Philadelphia, and later that year to New York.
These moves I supplemented with occasional excursions of my own, one of which in 1933. ended in the Chatham County Camp in Savannah, Georgia. Riding freight trains in the company of other boys. I was convicted of what I recall was a technical charge of vagrancy and released approximately a week later...
“Returning to Delaware, I learned that my mother had rented a house. But it appeared that our family was in most desperate circumstances.
“Accordingly, I left school and went to work as a garage mechanic, determined that my younger brothers education should be uninterrupted.
“That same autumn I met the girl I was later to marry, Dorothy Spence...
“Joining the CCC, I worked on the Tideland Reclamation Project until July 1934, when with what little money I had saved, I set out for California.
“Arriving with my brother in Long Beach, we were joined by the rest of the family... My brother was enrolled in Long Beach’s Polytechnic High School and I began a series of odd jobs which included dish-washing, truck-loading, stevedoring and building-maintenance and repair.
In September 1935, through the efforts of a friend, I was employed in Toledo, Ohio... The job over, I visited my girl in Delaware, and in May, 1936. returned to California...
“My sister having assumed an active interest in a civic theater project, I was urged by my mother to join an act which began one of the most enjoyable and satisfying encounters of my life.
“For the first time I was privileged to make the acquaintance of young people of my own age who shared my ideas and reflections, and though most of us were threadbare poor, we forgot our fears of the future.
“Throughout that and the next year I acted, directed, and wrote children’s plays with some local success...
“In 1938, approached by a friend to edit the lectures of an astrologer. Mr. Carroll Righter, I was sufficiently intrigued by the novelty to accept, and began a tour of women’s clubs and resort hotels which took us to New England in 1939 and in early 1940 to Palm Beach, Florida.
“Proximity hastened the season, for in March, I left Palm Beach for Philadelphia, stated a formal proposal, and in Dover, Delaware, for better or for worse, Dorothy Spence became Mrs. Robert Mitchum.
“Returning to California with my wife, I dissolved my agreement with Mr. Righter and returned to the haphazard pursuit of specialized writing until early 1941 when the prospects of parenthood suggested more reliable employment.
“In April, the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation accepted me for employment and a month later, my first son was born.
“Dorothy and I were living with my mother, my small earnings serving to partially support that household, an arrangement which became increasingly uncomfortable, in the light of my mother’s and sister’s accusative conviction that my wife was somehow responsible for what they regarded as ‘my enforced labor.’
“Therefore, determined to re-establish direction, I expended my sleepless hours in little theater productions, which association brought me to the attention of one Paul Wilkins, an artist-manager, who suggested that should it be my intent to commercialize my talent, I first contact him.
“In April, my company’s medical supervisor advised my severance in the best interest of health, and prescribed that I seek expression in the work I loved.
“Mr. Wilkins, to whom I announced my plan, began to cart me around on interviews, while generous friends loaned me a presentable wardrobe. This resulted in my employment in May by producer Harry Sherman...
“Encouraged by my progress, Dorothy, Josh, and I moved from a $32.50 rental to a $50 rental, and in October, 1943, my second son was born. In March 1944, I accompanied a motion picture location company to Florida... Home again. I received notice to report for Army induction.
“Upon reporting, I was excused until the next quota call, during which interim a regulation exempting fathers postponed my induction.’’
Bob was later drafted but when he got out of the Army, Bert Allenberg took him on as a client. In less than two years after that, Bob Mitchum was earning $3,000 a week.
The money went to his head. Why shouldn’t it have? He had never known any wealth in his entire life. The reaction was completely normal. He and his wife began to quarrel, and eventually they agreed on a temporary separation. Dorothy and the two boys went back East, and Bob began playing around with Robin Ford and met Lila Leeds.
That’s Bob Mitchum’s whole story. As you read it over, as you look back on his shabby, pitiful youth, as you glean his fine: Victorian literary style, his self-education, the relatively few moments of happiness he’s enjoyed in life — can you believe that a jury, presented with all the facts, would have found him guilty?
Bob Mitchum took a bum rap... and yet, not once, has he ever complained.
He lives today with Dorothy and the two boys in a new, sprawling ranch house in Mandeville Canyon. Whatever spare time he has, he spends with his family.
There are those who still point to Mitchum as the personification of Hollywood’s immorality. Mitchum, however, has shown himself to have more honor and fortitude of spirit than any of his detractors.
When it comes to the case study of this man, currently a moral credit to his community, no concluding statement is more apt than this quotation from the Bible:
“He that is without sin among you: let him cast the first stone.”
Lila Leeds, who was convicted last year with Bob Mitchum on a narcotics charge, is now a nightclub singer. She announced her engagement recently to Erwin Arvey, the son of a Chicago politico.
Collection: Modern Screen Magazine, September 1950