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This story first appeared in the June 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
On January 21, 1958, Rock Hudson‘s wife confronted him, demanding to know if he was gay and grilling the actor about a Rorschach test he had taken. “You told me you saw thousands of butterflies and also snakes,” she said “[A therapist] told me in my analysis that butterflies mean femininity and snakes represent that male penis. I’m not condemning you, but it seems that as long as you recognize your problem, you would want to do something about it.” She also complained about “your great speed with me, sexually. Are you that fast with boys?”
“Well, it’s a physical conjunction [sic],” replied Rock, then 32. “Boys don’t fit. So, this is why it lasts longer.”
Added Phyllis: “Everyone knows that you were picking up boys off the street shortly after we were married and have continued to do so, thinking that being married would cover up for you.”
“I have never picked up any boys on the street,” Rock insisted. “I have never picked up any boys in a bar, never. I have never picked up any boys, other than to give them a ride.”
This eye-popping dialogue — tape-recorded surreptitiously by a detective whom Phyllis had hired to check on her husband, and transcribed on thin, crinkly paper — is just part of the startling material that comprises the secret files of private eye Fred Otash. Now unveiled for the first time to The Hollywood Reporter by the detective’s daughter, Colleen, and her business partner Manfred Westphal (a veteran publicist with APA, whose parents were Otash’s neighbors), the records fill 11 overflowing boxes that for two decades have been hidden inside a storage unit in the San Fernando Valley.
BUT WHO IS FRED OTASH?
Otash was the Anthony Pellicano of his era, a notorious Hollywood gumshoe who charged hundreds of dollars per day and spied on everyone from Hudson to Marilyn Monroe to John F. Kennedy. A big, burly man who left the Los Angeles Police Department in 1955 after falling out with Chief William H. Parker, he was the go-to guy for some of Hollywood’s top attorneys, including Melvin Belli and Jerry Giesler, and operated from the mid-1950s until he lost his private investigator’s license in 1965.
Mike Wallace called him the “most amoral” man he had ever interviewed, and Robert Towne used him for inspiration when he wrote his Oscar-winning screenplay for 1974’s Chinatown, about a morally dubious private eye played by Jack Nicholson. “There were several people I drew on,” Towne says. “But he was one of them.”
Born in 1922, the 6-foot-2 Otash grew up in Methuen, Mass., but left home to serve in the Marines before joining the LAPD. After exiting the police force, he set up the Fred Otash Detective Bureau on North Laurel Avenue in Hollywood, where he worked as a freelancer and “fact verifier” for notorious L.A. celebrity tattle magazine Confidential. Among the cases he reportedly worked on were Confidential‘s outing of Liberace and a gay pajama party with Tab Hunter. He once said: “I’ll work for anybody but communists. I’ll do anything short of murder.”
Using a gun strapped to his calf and a specially designed truck loaded with surveillance equipment, Otash was hardly modest about his achievements.
He was “unreliable and unruly,” says John Buntin in his 2010 nonfiction work L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City.
“He was a con artist, bullshitter,” insists novelist James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential), who met Otash several times before his death. “He did a lot of bad things [including] revealing secret details, mostly sexual in nature, about the lives of celebrated people, causing them to endure personal shame, emotional hardship, financial privation — and doing this for a living. … He was always talking about bugging [JFK brother-in-law] Peter Lawford‘s beach pad and getting the goods on Kennedy. He told me Jack [sexually] was a two-minute man. But I did not trust him not to dissemble. I got what I could, and he died.”
Otash is a recurrent figure in Ellroy’s work and the subject of his recent e-book Shakedown, in which a fictionalized version of the detective looks back on his life from “Pervert Purgatory” and describes himself as a “rogue cop, private eye, shakedown artist. Soldier of fortune and demonic deus ex machina. The hellhound who held Hollywood captive. The man with all the sicko secrets you irksome earthlings want to hear.”
In Shakedown, Otash gloats about his misdeeds and also about having an affair with a transsexual communist named Miss Bonvillain — which Ellroy says should be interpreted as a joke. But that’s not the way Colleen sees it.
“I was stunned,” she says of the novella, admitting she never finished it and wondered, ” ‘What can we do to stop him from taking my father’s life and turning it into just a horrible fictional depiction?’ It was really insulting to me. I was very aggrieved.” Adds Westphal, “Real-life franchise characters like Otash come along once in a lifetime, and Colleen and I are committed to setting the record straight. Here, the truth is far more entertaining than fiction.”
In an attempt to counter Ellroy’s view (and perhaps anticipate an even more negative portrayal in a pilot about the private eye that Ellroy is developing for FX), Colleen and Westphal recently allowed this reporter access to several of the files and an unpublished book Otash wrote about Marilyn Monroe in which he claims he overheard Monroe having sex with JFK.
Among the highlights:
TAPING MARILYN MONROE
“Marilyn wanted a mini-phone listening device,” Otash claims in the notes, adding that he spied on her even while she was paying him to install recording equipment so that she could tape her own phone calls. “You could hide it in your bra. The microphone was a wristwatch. You could also put a suction cup on the phone. Later on, she wanted a sophisticated system put in her house. We wired up her phone because it started looking stupid with a suction cup.”
Otash listened in on Marilyn having sex with Kennedy when he was watching Lawford’s house in Malibu, allegedly while working for Howard Hughes, who was seeking general information with which to discredit the Democrats. “When the original Lawford house was wired, Monroe was not part of the plan,” Otash says in the files. “It was to find out what the Democrats were up to on behalf of Howard Hughes and Nixon. Monroe became a by-product.”
The files include notes that he left for Colleen, in which he says he was conducting surveillance of Marilyn Monroe on the day she died.
“I listened to Marilyn Monroe die,” he claims in the notes, without elaborating, adding that he had taped an angry confrontation among Bobby Kennedy, Lawford and Monroe just hours before her death: “She said she was passed around like a piece of meat. It was a violent argument about their relationship and the commitment and promises he made to her. She was really screaming and they were trying to quiet her down. She’s in the bedroom and Bobby gets the pillow and he muffles her on the bed to keep the neighbors from hearing. She finally quieted down and then he was looking to get out of there.”
Otash only learned that Monroe had died when Lawford called him in the early hours of the following day and asked him to remove any incriminating evidence from her house. There is no record of what was removed, and the alleged tapes have since disappeared.
Shortly before Otash’s death in 1992 at the age of 70, he told Vanity Fair: “I would have kept it quiet all my life. But all of a sudden, I’m looking at FBI files and CIA files with quotes from my investigators telling them about the work they did on my behalf. It’s stupid to sit here and deny that these things are true. Yes, we did have [Lawford’s house] wired. Yes, I did hear a tape of Jack Kennedy f–ing Monroe. But I don’t want to get into the moans and groans of their relationship. They were having a sexual relationship — period.”
GUARDING JUDY GARLAND
One of the files also centers on Judy Garland, who hired Otash to protect her after she split from her third husband, Sid Luft, in 1963. The actress even got him to move into her Holmby Hills home, where he befriended daughter Liza Minnelli and found a hidden stash of pills. (A rep for Minnelli declined comment.)
The files elaborate on an experience he outlined in his 1976 autobiography, Investigation Hollywood: “I was shocked when I met Judy Garland the first time. She was no longer the little girl I remembered but a grown woman, puffy-faced and more than a little plump. … I was only in Judy’s house a couple of days when I realized that she was taking something. I wasn’t sure if she was using narcotics or boozing it up. But she was obviously out of it most of the time.”
He continued: “I gathered up all the bottles and locked them up. Then I began the search for pills. You wouldn’t believe the cleverness of that woman in stashing her drugs so nobody could find them. And there were all kinds. Uppers, downers and some I didn’t even recognize. They were stuffed into a hole she’d cut under the mattress and in rubber fingers tied at the top with the string tied again around the faucet of the washbasin. The pills were down in the crook of the pipe, and when she wanted them she just pulled them up by the almost invisible string. I dumped all that junk down the toilet and flushed it away.”
When Otash confronted Garland, she demanded to know why he had destroyed the stash. He told her: “Narcotics and alcohol are the best evidence he [Luft] could ever produce in court. Believe me.”
CLEARING LANA TURNER?
The detective also might have been involved in one of the most celebrated murders of the era, that of mobster Johnny Stompanato, though he gave various accounts of precisely how. Documents in the files indicate that Giesler (who represented movie star Lana Turner) called Otash and asked him to come to the actress’ house the night of the gangster’s death.
Stompanato had been dating Turner when, on the night of April 4, 1958, police were called to her house, where they found the gangster stabbed to death. Turner’s teenage daughter, Cheryl Crane, then 14, took the blame, explaining that Stompanato had attacked her mother and that she had acted in defense — an explanation accepted by the courts, where the death was ruled justifiable homicide. (The files indicate that Cheryl’s father, Stephen Crane, had asked Otash to keep an eye on his daughter, and that he was afraid she was the object of Stompanato’s desire.)
Westphal says Otash told him that he was on the scene of the crime before the police and actually removed the knife from the dead man’s body, placing it in Crane’s hand.
But in a 1991 Los Angeles magazine profile, Otash gave another account, saying: “Beverly Hills police chief Clinton Anderson once accused me of removing the knife from Stompanato’s body, wiping off Lana Turner’s fingerprints, putting on Cheryl Crane’s fingerprints and then shoving the knife back into the body. Crazy.”
BETTE DAVIS’ EYES
Within the files, there also are surveillance records dating from the time Otash was hired by Bette Davis to snoop on her husband Gary Merrill while she was in the process of divorcing him, after which two Otash operatives testified in court that they saw Merrill leave a Newport Beach, Calif., hotel while he “went out on the town” and made “flirtatious gestures with girls.”
THE END OF THE LINE
Otash kept working as a P.I. until his license was revoked by California’s Bureau of Private Investigators, partly because of his connection to Confidential (whose reign of fear effectively ended following a much-publicized libel case in 1957) and partly because of his association with several jockeys who were involved in a doping case. Later, he earned a living as head of security for cosmetics company Hazel Bishop Inc.
His tapes have vanished, and now only his files remain as evidence of his secret activities. But more information may yet emerge.
On the night of his death, Otash left his West Hollywood apartment to attend a Friars Club dinner celebrating the completed first draft of his unpublished book, Marilyn, the Kennedys and Me. He came home later that evening then, mysteriously, at around 4 a.m. called for a taxi to take him to LAX.
At about 7 a.m., the taxi arrived, but there was no Otash. A doorman called Westphal’s parents (Otash’s neighbors and friends), who entered the snoop’s Park Wellington apartment in West Hollywood and found him lying facedown under the kitchen table, dead of a heart attack, it later was concluded.
Soon after, his executor, famed attorney Arthur Crowley, arrived and stripped the condo of its contents — including a red filing cabinet that contained material nobody close to the detective ever got to read.
Says Westphal: “He put a shackle on the door, emptied the condo, and nothing inside was ever seen again.”
Shirley Halperin contributed to this story.
See the transcript of Rock Hudson’s gay confession below:
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