There was a time when heroes didn’t die. At least, not the big heroes. Not the heroes we saw on TV and in the comics. Lone Ranger. Tarzan. Superman. These guys were immortal. They were forever. Nothing would ever stop them from fighting the good fight. This was the promise they made to the kids of America, and the kids had no reason to doubt them. After all, they were heroes.
That faith, that unbreakable truth, ended on June 16th, 1959 when the world woke up to this headline:
Superman was dead. The man who, week after week, let bullets bounce off him somehow succumbed to one. His life, a life that brought excitement and joy to so many, seemingly ended in tragedy.
Superman was dead. Four year old Joey and seven year old Camille suddenly lived in a post Superman world. A world where, for the first time since 1952, there would be no Man of Steel on the TV. Sure, he lived on in comics, but the man, the flesh and blood and voice that was Superman… he was gone. He died in his bedroom while friends gathered downstairs for an evening of drinks and talk. He died alone, naked as the day he was born, unable to handle the stress the world had put on him. Unable to deal with a career spent in tights.
I first learned about the suicide of George Reeves, the man who so ably brought Superman to life, when I was but a wee boy watching reruns of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN on Nickelodeon. We had what, for the time, was a big TV in the living room that I would sit way too close to when I watched my shows. If luck would have it, I’d have some cookies or other chocolatey snack to devour while I wasted brain cells. If there were no unhealthy snacks, I’d have a PB&J. I don’t remember which it was that day, but I do remember my brother, four years older and infinitely more intelligent than me, coming in and looking at the TV.
“He’s dead, you know? Superman killed himself.”
Then he walked back out, as if he stopped by just to shit in my soul before heading out to the comic shop. I sat there for a good while trying to figure it out – how could this happen? How could Superman kill himself?
That question stuck with me for ages. All through grade school and into high school. It was in my Junior year that I learned about the other story – George Reeves was killed.
But who did it?
These were the facts:
George Reeves died from a gunshot wound at 1579 Benedict Canyon Drive in Los Angeles sometime between 1:30AM and 2AM on June 16th, 1959. Reeves died nude in his bed. From how he was found, it appeared that he was sitting on the edge of the bed, with his feet on the floor.
The wound, a single shot to the temple, came from a .30 caliber Luger. The gun was found lying between Reeves’ feet.
When Reeves died, there were four other people in the house: his fiancee Leonore Lemmon, and friends William Bliss, Richard Condon, and Carol Van Ronkel.
Then come the weird parts:
The shell casing for the .30 caliber bullet was found under Reeves’ back – an odd place for it to land if Reeves had pulled the trigger himself.
There were also two bullet holes in the floor.
Someone was trying to kill George Reeves just a few weeks ago.
We’ll focus on that third bit of weird info, since it is the most interesting and hardest to cast aside…
Shortly before his death, Reeves was almost killed three times. The first was when two trucks nearly crushed him as he drove down the highway. Not long after, Reeves was almost struck by a speeding car that ran a red light – the only thing that saved the actor was his ability to jump out of the way in time. The third time was when Reeves’ brakes failed as he drove down Mulholland Drive, a rather curvy bit of road. Reeves was able to get out of that instance without a scratch, but when his car was checked, it was found that the brake fluid had been drained out. The mechanic said, kind of but not really joking, “Looks like someone was trying to kill you.”
Not long after the Mulholland incident, Reeves began to receive death threats. An unlisted number kept calling his home, up to twenty times a day. Sometimes the caller would just hang up, but every now and then, they would, in rather graphic detail, explain to the actor how they were going to kill him. Reeves reported the calls to the Beverly Hills police and the DA. He even gave them the name of the caller… Toni Mannix.
Toni Mannix, the wife of former MGM VP Eddie Mannix had a very well known secret affair with Reeves. This was the kind of affair that never happens anymore – everyone knew about it, even Eddie, but the press didn’t report it. As the story goes, Eddie, who was 68 and had already suffered multiple heart attacks, wasn’t looking to stand in the way of his younger wife enjoying herself, so he was cool with her spending time with Reeves. Reeves was seven years younger than Toni and was very much her boytoy. It was Toni that bought Reeves the house that stood at 1579 Benedict Canyon Drive.
For a decade Reeves and Toni Mannix carried out their open affair and things were pretty great – the two even planned to marry after Eddie passed, given his health could be at any time. In early 1959, Reeves went to New York to do some promotional junk for Superman. While there, he met the young, beautiful socialite Leonore Lemmon. The superhero and the socialite were instantly taken with each other. Leonore accompanied Reeves back to Los Angeles.
Reeves ended things with Toni.
Toni couldn’t take it. The break-up sent her into a deep depression. In the weeks that followed Toni harassed Reeves, calling him in the middle of the night to both scream at him and to beg him to take her back. No go – Reeves was in love with Leonore now – they announced that they were going to get married. They even set a date – June 19th.
When the wedding announcement was made, Toni stopped calling. She still paid for the house (and Reeves’ account at the liquor store) though.
On that night, June 16th, 1959, George Reeves was drunk and in a bit of a mood. He and Leonore had argued earlier in the day, and George wasn’t all that excited about entertaining guests. All mopey, George excused himself and went upstairs. Leonore turned to their guests and jokingly told them “Well, he’s sulking. He’ll probably go up to his room and shoot himself!”
A few moments later, Leonore and the others heard the gunshot. They ran upstairs to find Reeves dead.
The Luger was Reeves’ but the bullet was unknown – Reeves kept the gun filled with blanks and would often use it to spook guests. He would shoot himself with it, or have Leonore shoot him, playing off the whole bulletproof Superman gag. According to Leonore, as well as Reeves’ business manager and good friend Arthur Weissman, the gun never had actual bullets in it.
Before the sun rose over the Hollywood Hills, Phyllis Coates, who played Lois Lane in the first season of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, was awakened by the ringing of her phone. On the other end was Toni Mannix, crying uncontrollably. Toni broke the bad news to Coates – Reeves had been murdered. Toni would later retract the murdered part, but a question remained with Coates – how did Toni know that George was dead before anyone else?
There lies one of the main theories – that Eddie and Toni Mannix had George Reeves killed for breaking Toni’s heart. There’s plenty to feed into the theory; Eddie Mannix, born and raised in New Jersey was known to have some shady friends. While he was vice president at MGM, some joked that he was really president of vice. Mannix was the guy who got the call when Clark Gable got caught up in a hit-and-run, or when a tabloid got a pic of Greta Garbo with one of her girlfriends and needed some persuading to destroy the photo. The Coen Brothers even made a movie about Mannix – HAIL, CAESAR! is a fictional take on a very real (and to be honest, terrible) man. Mannix and MGM’s head of publicity, Howard Strickling, were the two guys the studio counted on to keep their stars looking clean. Mannix brought the muscle, and Strickling brought the cash.
After Mannix died in 1963, Strickling openly discussed how he had Reeves killed.
Still, an old man talking isn’t evidence. And it sure as hell isn’t the only theory.
Some believe it was Leonore Lemmon who killed Reeves.
Remember the two bullet holes in the floor? Leonore took credit for those when the police asked about them, but later said she didn’t know where they had come from. Leonore and George had been arguing more and more, and Leonore had told friends that she believed George may call off the wedding. She was worried that the man she loved no longer loved her. Already twice divorced, was Leonore unable to deal with the idea of another relationship falling apart?
So, as the theory goes, Leonore took out some of the blanks and replaced them with .30 caliber bullets. Then all she had to do was wait. Sooner or later, Reeves would pull his joke, but this time, the bullet wouldn’t bounce. Could the bullet holes be from a test conducted by Lemmon to make sure her plan could work?
But why would Lemmon kill Reeves instead of just leaving him?
Despite what often gets reported about Reeves at the time of his death, his career was going pretty well. THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN had been picked up for another season, and George was actually looking forward to getting back into the costume. The show had recently been syndicated in Australia and Reeves was paid $20,000 to go there to promote the show – it would have been where he and Leonore spent their honeymoon. The best news of all was that Reeves had signed a deal to direct his first feature – he knew that the Superman thing wouldn’t last much longer, and he wanted to start working behind the camera. For the first time in a while, Reeves was happy with his work. If Leonore left Reeves, or if Reeves called off the wedding, she would be stuck in Los Angeles with no job and no money. Reeves’ death would mean Lemmon would get what was in Reeves’ bank account, which had to be a good amount of cash.
If that was what happened, Reeves got the last laugh, in his will, he left everything to Toni Mannix.
Did Leonore Lemmon kill George? Or did Eddie and Toni Mannix have Reeves murdered? Maybe Reeves really did kill himself. Maybe the upswing in his career wasn’t enough to break him out of his depression. A charity event that Reeves was the headliner of had just been cancelled due to low ticket sales – maybe this put him over the edge. Maybe, unable to even fill a room for charity, Superman felt he had failed and gave up.
Helen Reeves, George’s mother, never believed that her son took his own life. She hired a detective to look into the death, which is where quite a few of the elements that have lead to these alternate theories grew from. Helen died in 1964, still believing that her son was killed.
Not long after Reeves was cremated, Leonore Lemmon moved back to New York. She spent the rest of her life alone, never marrying again. Leonore Lemmon died on December 30th, 1989 at the age of 66.
Eddie Mannix, who made his living by being heartless, finally succumbed to a heart attack in 1963 at the age of 72.
After Reeves’ death, Toni was never the same. She rarely left her home and was constantly self medicating. She built a shrine in her home to Reeves and spent her days watching THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN over and over again, sometimes inviting others to join her, but usually alone.
Toni developed Alzheimer’s and passed away in 1983 at the age of 77. Despite the disease viciously taking her memories, before Toni closed her eyes for the last time, she asked that someone put on her favorite show so that she could see George one more time.
*Photos: THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN; Warner Brothers Television