Heroin, Hookers, and Hostesses in the 1950s
1953 Crime Scene Investigations
This is a book review of a mystery novel that is based on the real life drama of the era that unfolded into heroin addiction, gambling, and drug trafficking among nightclub hostesses in Los Angeles, California and Las Vegas, Nevada.
This is also a story of the role of women in crime scene investigations in the US in the 1950s, led by the well-known Frances Glessner Lee. In her 70s in 1953, she taught crime scene investigation techniques to hand-selected professionals in a series of lectures she presented at Harvard University.
Lee had actually helped to develop the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard in 1938. Having been a consistent law reform lobbyist, she had also been adept at problem solving, interesting herself in medicine related to the law of the 1930s. Being also rather well-to-do, she put up the large funding necessary to open and maintain a Criminal Investigations learning unit of sorts at Harvard within Legal Medicine.
All of this was unusual for an American woman to accomplish in the 1930s-1950s. In the 1940s, she had devised a set of models that looked like doll houses filled with miniature crime scenes, every piece handcrafted herself. She used them to teach newer police officers to view different types of death scenes with a critical eye and careful observations, even to find "indirect" evidence for crime reconstruction.
Famed photographer Corinne May Botz recorded all of these scenes in The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, used by the National Library of Medicine within the National Institutes of Health to point to Frances G. Lee as the major contributor to the history of forensic science. The Harvard Associates in Police Science still employ many of Lee's models in its regular teaching seminars. The author Erle Stanley Gardner attended them and dedicated more than one of his mysteries to Lee, brining awareness to the American public of her work and of forensics overall..
The Nutshell Crime Scenario Collection
Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
Recreational Drugs of the 1950s
In the late 1960s, Gene Roddenberry would not allow the drug problem to be highlighted on Star Trek®, using the excuse of "production costs."
Drugs, Sex, and Censorship in the 1950s and 1960s
Erle Stanley Gardner's The Hesitant Hostess (1953) discusses a number of women that were unusual for the times - Francis G. Lee, Della Street (based on his fiancée and later wife Jeanne Bethel Gardner), Mary Brogan (likely based on Ms. Lee and Ms. Bethel), night club chain owner Martha Lavina, two hostesses named Kaylor, and dead hostess Daphne, who had asked too many questions about heroin smuggling. Drug smugglers found her to be "too smart" and therefore, dangerous.
Gardner's story was played as a Perry Mason TV Mystery in the late 1950s, openly discussing the problem of drug smuggling in America, coming from such places as Mexico and Cuba.
Compare this to Harlan Ellison's® original script (as opposed to the script Gene Roddenberry changed) for City on the Edge of Forever that included a focused awareness of the problem of heroin and other recreational drugs on America's streets.
Ellison never smoked, drank, or used drugs, because he lost friends to drug overdoses and spent time in a street gang to learn about them for a TV manuscript and novel. He learned the devastating effects of crime in that gang and tried to educate Americans when the media under President Nixon seemed to to deny drug problems in the USA..
You'll find that Gene Roddenberry would not allow the drug problem to be highlighted on Star Trek®, using the excuse of "production costs."
This is the difference in production values, mission, and just plain guts of the producers of Perry Mason in 1958 and Star Trek in 1966, only eight years later.
In the late 1960s, Ellison pointed to sectors of the GOP that were into high censorship of television, which included the drug problem. This is discussed in Ellison's critical TV analysis columns in the news, now in anthologies called The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat from the late 1960s and early 1970s. He did not like much of what he saw on the small screen, because he felt it to be mostly sanitized and mindless. Meanwhile, the drug problem in America raged on.
The changes in the Mason teleplay from the novel include
- Changing the scene of the illicit drug smuggling to a low-class Dance Hall and
- Changing the hostess Daphne into a taxicab driver to highlight drugs rather than drugs and prostitution in a single episode.
- There was also heavier censorship of sexual material on American television in the 1950s, which loosened somewhat in the 1960s.
Leading Production Areas of Heroin, 1950s and Today
Plot Points of The Case of the Hesitant Hostess
Retired salesman Albert Brogan suffered a nervous breakdown and had to give up working at age 51. Living in a trailer park on a modest disability pension, he is unjustly charged with
- A daring armed holdup of a car stopped at a traffic light and
- The murder of a night club hostess later the same night.
The legal system assigned the renowned Perry Mason to defend Mr. Brogan pro bono and Mason puts every effort available to himself, his confidential secretary Della Street, and the Paul Drake Detective Agency into solving the double crime. He does it all without a fee, paying expenses out of pocket in the name of a justice that is not upheld under the corruption along some parts of the American West Coast in the 1950s (and likely in NYC and others).
Mason is confident in the testimony of nightclub hostess Inez Kaylor to clear Brogan of both crimes. However, she disappears from the witness waiting area during the trial on a Friday afternoon, leaving Perry Mason with just 65 hours to solve both cases by Monday morning.
The appearance in the case of two Inez Kaylors, a chain of illegal gambling establishments, the hint of prostitution, and the smell of heroin from Mexico and Cuba convolute the case until the very end.
Just like drug addiction, the forces behind the frame-up of Uncle Albert Brogan are devious, ruthless, insidious, and nearly indestructible. Uncle Albert's niece Mary takes her two-week vacation early to join forces with Perry and Della to try save her Uncle from an unjust prison sentence and possible execution. just like Della and Frances Lee, she is a quick study and goes into the breach unafraid and even eager to find the truth.
Perry Mason Mysteries
A crime story about heroin and its results. Drug smugglers found a nightclub hostess to be "too smart" for her own good. The appearance in the case of two Inez Kaylors, a chain of illegal gambling establishments, the hint of prostitution, and the smell of heroin from Mexico and Cuba convolute the case until the very end.
A Different Kind of Perry Mason Mystery
I liked this mystery novel, because it was different from many Perry Mason mysteries. First, Mr. Mason was assigned by the court as the defense lawyer for an indigent citizen, because he had just "happened to have been in the courtroom" at the time. We see him in action in the courtroom on the every first page of the story, rather than in his office wondering who it is in the waiting room that will present him with the next odd case for him to consider.
Next, the story begins with a case of a hold-up and not a murder. Being assigned to the case, Mason had no choice as to the type of case he was given. He prefers murders. However, he gets his preference of a murder later the same night as the early evening holdup attributed to Brogan is also pinned on his client. Now he has TWO crimes to solve in less than 60 hours.
Throughout the story until the last pages, the case against Albert Brogan waxes stronger and more solid, but Mason refuses to give up --Just as Erle Stanley Gardner never gave up on his own clients when he was an attorney.
The novel shows Gardner's sincerity of the lawyer-as-public-servant through the sincerity of his character, Perry Mason - an attorney that fights for his client no matter what. pay or no pay. In my own experience, 98% of attorneys I have hired have expected me to do 99% of the legwork and case preparation myself - and then pay THEM. The other 2% of attorneys I have known are golden. They may not do everything themselves, but they try to get at exactly what DID happen in the cases they handle.
This novel also shows the rising abilities of women in forensic science and crime investigations. in the 1950s. It portrays how Della Street and Mary Brogan quickly learn to lift fingerprints and go into dangerous regions to gather important evidence. One is even bound and gagged as a hostage. Another woman is found drugged in a coat closet, but recovers. Only the hostess that tried for a cut of the income form illicit drug sales dies.
The book also illustrates cooperation among private and police detectives with a common goal of delivering justice. America wants this to happen more often.
Hostess or Hooker?
Prostitution is described in a roundabout way in this novel. Hostesses at a string of nightclubs wear nothing under their form fitting gowns. They solicit drinks from men and are paid commissions for these. They also select wealthier gentlemen to ride in a limousine with them, curtained off with dark draperies, to a secret gambling site where they will most likely lose a couple of hundred dollars at least. The women earn commissions from these losses as well. Back in the limousine, they are free to make sex-for-money deals of their own.
In this story,Mason sees what is happening pretty quickly, rejects the hostess that has taken his witness's name as a cover, and goes back to find the gambling casino on his own. He finally learns the connection between the hostesses, the gambling, and the smuggling of heroin into the US by the hostesses - unbeknownst to them. They do not know that are carrying heroin. Daphne was the only one smart enough to figure it out, and asking for a cut, she was paid in murder.
Men of Women of the 1950s CSI
Gardner's Forward to The Case of the Hesitant Hostess mentions two greats of crime scene investigations: Frances G. Lee and Dr. Milton Helpern, experts in forensic medicine.
Dr. Helpern was one of the Chief Medical Examiners (MEs, like television's Quincy, ME) of New York City for 20 years, in addition to his position as a professor at NYU Post Graduate Medical School. His specific and singular diagnosis of a spontaneous cerebral hemorrhage saved a defendant from a murder sentence. He also found the tip of a knife in the skull/brain of a corpse, making a seemingly natural death into an actual murder scene that trapped the perpetrator and meted out justice.
Perry Mason is all about finding out what really happened in each crime, and so are the greats like Lee and Helpern, among dozens of others Gardner knew and worked alongside, shoulder to shoulder. All of them, including Gardner, helped to make forensic medicine, forensic science & technologies, and crime scene investagations what they are in the 21st century. They join other greats that have made possible the Careers in Criminology through the teachings of Walter Reckless and Simon Dinitz.
Perry Mason Episodes Online
Many of the early hour-long Perry Mason TV Mysteries of the 1950s, patterned after the stories of Erle Stanley Gardner, are available at no charge online.
Watch The Case of the Hesitant Hostess and other episodes of Perry Mason at a website sponsored by AOL at
Opening Theme - Perry Mason
Questions & Answers
© 2008 Patty Inglish MS