It was 8:15 a.m. on Feb. 10, 1947. A sleepy Monday morning in West Los Angeles. H.C. Shelby, a 42-year-old bulldozer operator, was on his way to a job site, one of the endless housing tracts springing up in the postwar boom. Just off Grand View Boulevard, on an isolated, weedy stretch of land nicknamed “the Moors,” Shelby noticed a pile of stylish women’s clothing. When he went to investigate, he found the naked body of a dark-haired woman, face up beneath a dew-covered red dress and blue coat with fox-fur cuffs. According to a police report, “Her body was completely covered with bruises, blood and mud. The face had been apparently beaten to a pulp.”
“Fuck You B.D.” was written on the victim’s torso with her own vividly hued, red lipstick. Just below were the letters “TEX.” She had been stomped and beaten so violently that she suffered massive internal bleeding, a broken neck and a punctured heart.
The victim was quickly identified as 44-year-old Jeanne French. Not surprisingly, French’s horrific death made front-page news and was quickly dubbed “the lipstick murder.” “WEREWOLF STRIKES AGAIN! KILLS L.A. WOMAN, WRITES 'B.D.' ON BODY,” the Herald-Express blared in a special edition the day French was found.
From the very beginning, as the newspaper headline suggests, the mystery of French’s murder played second fiddle to another gruesome killing. French’s death was instantly tied to that of the “Black Dahlia,” aka Elizabeth Short, whose nude, bisected body had been found in an empty lot in Leimert Park only three weeks earlier. While Short’s brief, tragic life and unsolved murder have captivated the popular imagination for decades — a cautionary, noir tale of a pale, pretty Red Riding Hood swallowed up by the Hollywood wolves — French's life has been reduced to little more than a footnote, despite its fascinating mix of triumph and tragedy.
Jeanne “Nettie” Axford was born into a large family in Texas on Oct. 6, 1902. At the age of 18, she married David Yandell Wrather, often described as a “wealthy oilman,” who owned several large farms. That same year she gave birth to David, her only child. The couple settled in Amarillo, where Jeanne worked as a nurse at St. Anthony’s Hospital. But the marriage was short-lived, and in 1924 the young couple divorced. The pretty, restless divorcee soon moved to Los Angeles with her son and continued working as a nurse. In 1925, she married a man named David Thomas in Long Beach. They divorced soon after.
Over the next few years, Jeanne lived an adventurous, unconventional life. She was put “in charge of a band of nurses employed by a large oil company in South America.” Flying over jungles from oil field to oil field, she soon became captivated by the skies and learned to fly herself. She was a member of the Women’s Air Reserve and the 99 Club, an organization of pioneering women aviators. By 1931, “the flying nurse” was gaining notoriety. One story, syndicated nationwide, featured a photograph of a beaming Jeanne in a formfitting aviatrix uniform:
Maybe patients won’t want to get well when Miss Jeanne Axford Thomas of Dallas, Texas, returns to Columbia [sic], South America, as a nurse. After flying over jungles in her professional capacity a few years ago, she quit nursing to study aviation. Now she is trying for a mechanic’s license, in Dallas, and will then fly back to Columbia [sic].
Jeanne’s love of flying consumed her personal life as well. In October 1931, she married a fellow aviator named Curtis Bower, in Dallas. The couple separated only five weeks later. In February 1932, Jeanne again made national news, when she became the first person in Southern California to attempt to obtain a divorce by “airmail” from the liberal Mexican courts. That summer, her story hit the wires again, when she was reported missing by her mother:
Mrs. Jeanne Axford Thomas, Los Angeles aviatrix, was reported missing today from Mexico City by her mother, Mrs. Oma Randall, who told authorities her daughter intended to fly from Mexicali to the Mexican capital the latter part of June. Mrs. Randall said Mrs. Thomas left Los Angeles June 27, travelling [sic] by automobile with two Mexican flyers whose names she did not know. She said she has received no word from the aviatrix and asked police to aid in the search.
Jeanne soon sent word to the United Press by cablegram that she was “safe and okay” in Mexico City. “I can’t understand the worry I have caused in the United States by flying to Mexico,” she said, frustration evident in her words. “I am flying back for the Olympics.”
Over the next decade, it is unclear what Jeanne was up to. It has been reported that she worked as a nurse, as a stewardess and for the Red Cross, and that she continued to fly. It also has been written that she acted in bit parts in films and traveled the world as part of the “international set in Paris, London and New York” with her friend, heiress and fashion icon Millicent Rogers. But these accounts are difficult to corroborate or source.
What is certain is that, by 1947, these glory days had long since passed. Newly separated from her fourth husband of two years, aircraft plant employee Frank F. French, Jeanne lived in a small apartment at 3535 Military Ave. in Palms, little more than a mile from where her broken body was found. She seems to have succumbed to a drinking problem, and had accused Frank of beating her on Jan. 26, during a drunken brawl.
The last hours of Jeanne’s life were a confusing, baffling tangle. At around 7:30 p.m., on Sunday, Feb. 9, she had dinner and drinks at the Plantation Café on Washington Boulevard. She was there with two men, one of whom waitress Christine Studnicka described as having “dark hair and a small mustache.”
While the men ordered food, Jeanne went to a pay phone, apparently already intoxicated (Jeanne’s autopsy reported her blood alcohol level as .31 percent. At the time, a person was considered intoxicated at .15 percent.) According to author and former LAPD detective Steve Hodel, whom we interviewed via email:
During the phone call, Studnicka said people nearby could hear French bark into the receiver in a very loud voice, “Don’t bring a bottle, the landlady doesn’t allow it.” While still on the phone, the victim yelled to the two men in her booth, “Don’t put any liquor in the car” and “Don’t take any liquor.” Studnicka observed that the two men appeared “to be arguing between themselves,” and it was her impression that they were “arguing over which one was going to accompany the victim.”
Roy J. Fecher, the operator of a drive-in café on Santa Monica Boulevard, reported that Jeanne came into his establishment around 9:30 p.m., alone. She drank a cup of coffee with Fecher, and told him her woes. “She said her husband was sadistic. She said he liked ‘dark’ things, and said he had beaten her several times,” he reported. “Then she raised a pair of dark glasses she was wearing to show me a couple of black eyes she said he had given her.” At 10:30, Jeanne appeared in a Venice Boulevard bar and “announced she was committing her husband to the neuropsychiatric ward at the Sawtelle Veteran’s Hospital the following day.”
Jeanne then went to visit her estranged husband at his rooming house in Santa Monica. Frank claimed that she tried to convince him to go out with her before hitting him on the head with a handbag. “She was mean when she’d been drinking,” Frank told police. “She had been drinking Sunday night but did not appear intoxicated.”
Sometime after midnight, Jeanne was at the Piccadilly Drive-In on Washington Place, with a “medium-small, dark-complexioned” man who bragged about the large tip he gave their waitress. At around 1:30, Jeanne sat on the first stool of the Pan American bar and drank a Seven-High. She put 25 cents in the kitty and asked pianist Sam Young to play for her. At 2 a.m., the bar closed and the bartender noticed Jeanne and her friend fighting. Young went outside just in time to see Jeanne and her companion get in an old, beat-up sedan. He was the last person, besides her killer (or killers), to see Jeanne alive. “The crime was an immediate high-profile event covered by all six of the local L.A. newspapers,” Steve Hodel says.
The murder scene’s similarity to the Black Dahlia’s was immediately recognized, per the Los Angeles Times:
Written with her own lipstick in huge letters across the front of the torso were the letters “B.D.” Police surmised they might have been scrawled there as a false sign pointing to the killing as the work of the slayer of Elizabeth Short, the “Black Dahlia,” whose bisected torso was found Jan. 15 in a vacant lot on Norton Avenue. Also written with lipstick, but in smaller letters, were two obscene words.
As the article attests, LAPD was unwilling to publicly link the murders to one unidentified, on-the-loose serial killer, choosing to see it (at least publicly) as a copycat clue. They instead focused on Frank French, Jeanne’s “tall and taciturn” husband, who may have been suffering from PTSD after years in the Marine Corps, including a stint as a gunnery sergeant in World War II. Brought in for questioning, French initially denied having seen Jeanne the night before. When he finally did admit to having been visited by her, he emphatically denied hurting her, claiming he wouldn’t have “harmed a hair on her head.”
Jeanne’s son, David, a 25-year-old father living in Redondo Beach, also was questioned. When he ran into his stepfather at the police station, the two men had a curious conversation, reported breathlessly by the Los Angeles Times:
“Well, I’ve told them the truth.” [David] Wrather said, “if you’re guilty, there’s a God in heaven who will take care of you.”
“I swear to God I didn’t kill her,” French stated emphatically.
“There was a time this afternoon when if I had seen you, I can’t say what might have happened. You know I loved Mom very much. “
“I loved her too,” French replied.
Later, David would confuse matters more, with a statement that seemed to exonerate his stepfather: "She made friends easy, awful easy. She went out alone sometimes. She's gone now, and I'm sure she would want me to say the right thing. She made a lot of her own trouble. Her husband tolerated a lot from her. He was a tolerant man, a very tolerant man."
French passed a lie-detector test, and was soon dropped as a suspect. “We thought we had this one wrapped up at the start,” said one homicide officer. “Now we are just as far from a solution of this one as we are from the ‘Black Dahlia.” Some police officers, including LAPD Homicide captain Jack Donahoe, also started publicly admitting that they believed the “Elizabeth Short and Jeanne French murders were committed by the same man.”
1947 was proving to be a dangerous year for L.A. women. On March 12, Evelyn Winters, a graduate of Vassar, who was “addicted to liquor,” was found on a riverbank in Norwalk with electrical wire and a dressing gown tied around her neck. With three brutal, unsolved murders in as many months, Angelenos were “convinced that a maniac killer was on the loose and would likely strike again,” Hodel says.
On March 14, the Los Angeles Examiner published “11 Points of Similarity,” a document written by members of LAPD, informing the public that they believed the three women had all been murdered by the same killer. But no suspect was ever publicly identified, and investigators were unable to identify and locate vital witnesses/suspects, including the two male “friends” Jeanne had been seen with on her final night out.
So who killed Jeanne? Steve Hodel believes the killer was his father, Dr. George Hodel. In Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder, subsequent books and a written interview, he lays out a detailed and convincing argument. George Hodel, owner of Sowden House, was a suave and sadistic doctor who counted among his friends the artist Man Ray and director John Huston. Hodel believes that Elizabeth and Jeanne were two of nine “Lone Woman Murder” (including Evelyn Winters) victims who were killed by his father during the late 1940s in Los Angeles. George Hodel was investigated by police but never charged with murder.
However, Steve Hodel believes his father matches the description of the mysterious man seen with Jeanne the night of her death. A handwriting expert has found that “it is highly probable that the lipstick letters were written by Dr. Hodel.” And that message, “Fuck You B.D.”? Hodel believes it was a response to a newspaper ploy to get the man already known as the “Black Dahlia Avenger":
George Hodel’s “message” was a direct response to a ploy initiated by the newspapers to get the “Black Dahlia” killer to turn himself in to the police. The ploy, suggested by popular Hollywood crime and screenwriter Steve Fisher, was published in the newspapers two days before the crime. Fisher, in writing his article for the newspaper, suggested that the press publish a headline claiming the “case was solved and the killer had confessed … .” [Fisher] believed the publishing of the false confession would so upset the real killer that he would turn himself in rather than allow someone else to take credit for his crime.
Incredibly, The Herald Examiner newspaper followed Fisher’s advice and published an extra in 6-inch print that read, “CORPORAL DUMAIS IS BLACK DAHLIA KILLER: IDENTIFIES MARKS ON GIRL’S BODY IN LONG CONFESSION.”
“The reason for Jeanne French’s murder was nothing more than a message on a body,” Steve Hodel sadly concludes. “A macabre response instigated by a naive and thoughtless Hollywood crime writer’s suggestion on how he thought a fictional Raymond Chandler sleuth would catch a killer. Her sadistic murder was tragic and senseless. She was simply a pawn in George Hodel’s cat-and-mouse game with the police and press.”
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But others do not believe that George Hodel killed French. In her popular 1947 Project blog, author and Esotouric owner Kim Cooper lays out her theories regarding the crime. She points to the coroner’s report, which she says states that B.D. is actually a smeared P.D., perhaps for police department. She also points to the fact that TEX was written on Jeanne’s body, and theorizes that maybe someone from her past in Texas committed the murder as an act of revenge.
What we do know is that in 1950, a grand jury, tasked with looking into the string of brutal, unsolved murders and disappearances, blasted LAPD, charging that corruption had tainted the investigation of a “long series of violent sex slayings.” According to the Los Angeles Times:
Because of the nature of these sex crimes, the jury said “women and children are constantly placed in jeopardy and are not safe from attack.” From its study of evidence in various cases, the jurors decided something is “radically wrong with the present system for apprehending the guilty,” and said that “the alarming increase in the number of unsolved murders and other major crimes reflects ineffectiveness in law enforcement agencies and the courts that should not be tolerated.” In the report the Grand Jury focused upon “deplorable conditions indicating corrupt practices and misconduct by some members of the law enforcement agencies of this county.”
In April of that year, Jeanne’s case was reopened and police said they had a “hot suspect.” They also admitted that the initial investigation had been “considerably below standard.” However, no charges ever came from this investigation. The murder remains unsolved, another tragedy for a woman whose life was so much more than her senseless, sensationalized death, now a mere footnote in the annals of L.A. noir.