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The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Secret Abortionist (Exclusive Book Excerpt)

Before Roe? v.? Wade, Inez? Burns became wealthy performing abortions for movie stars and the poor. Some thought she was doing a public service. But to future Gov. ?Pat Brown, she was a menace.

“This case is going farther than anybody thinks,” San Francisco District Attorney Edmund G. (Pat) Brown teased reporters at an October 1945 press conference designed to snare as much publicity as publicity-hungry Brown could summon. Ambitious and enterprising, the 40-year-old was going gangbusters to put Inez Burns, one of California’s most politically connected women, behind bars.

There was nothing illegal about knowing everyone who was anyone in California, but there was plenty illegal about exactly how millionaire Inez had joined the state’s wealthiest women. For two decades, she had owned and operated the largest and most successful abortion clinic in California. Spick-and-span sterile and hygienic, Inez’s clinic looked more like an elegant ladies’ tearoom than a facility for terminating pregnancies.

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Inez was able to stay open for so long through bribes to legions of cops and politicians. Physicians, lawyers, industrialists and pharmacists referred patients to her, as did an underground woman-to-woman network.

Word circulated, as it always does, when what you do, you do exceedingly well and your particular skill is highly specialized, in-demand and illegal. Women came from around the corner and across the nation to Inez’s clinic. Whether they arrived in San Francisco by bus, automobile, train or plane, they’d discreetly ask other women, sometimes strangers on the street, “Know where that Burns woman lives?”

She performed as many as 30 abortions a day at her clinic on Fillmore Street, a staggering 50,000 abortions overall. For 20 years, Inez’s clinic was California’s worst-kept secret.

But a grand jury had just voted against indicting Inez, despite the prosecution’s overwhelming evidence. Brown publicly pledged that he wasn’t done trying to get her convicted. He trumpeted that records seized at Inez’s properties showed “the names of a number of prominent San Francisco women,” along with dates when abortions were performed and fees paid, adding that many of Inez’s patients had come from throughout the state, “including Hollywood.”

In the first half of the 20th century, long before the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, Inez was California’s go-to fixer for “women in trouble.” With her team of assistants, clad in crisp, white nurse’s uniforms, Inez, who had no formal medical training, performed what many considered a public service during a time when even the wealthiest wives or Hollywood starlets had few options if they found themselves with an unwanted pregnancy. Inez performed safe abortions on rich and poor alike; the majority of her patients were married women who couldn’t afford another mouth to feed. Many never bothered to tell their husbands where they were going for the day.

Studios sent under-contract starlets to her San Francisco facilities, whisked away from the prying eyes of the scandal sheets, gossip rags and the tattler press. Through it all, Inez became extraordinarily wealthy. She’d drop tens of thousands of dollars on the latest Paris fashions. She also owned half a dozen properties in San Francisco, an 800-acre horse ranch in La Honda, nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and at least two properties in Los Angeles.

But in 1943, Brown had been elected San Francisco district attorney. Megawatt Pat thrived on the limelight his new job afforded him. He’d intentionally walk into the wrong hotel ballroom 15 minutes before he was scheduled to deliver a speech, only to be “persuaded” to toast a pair of unsuspecting newlyweds. It was all part of Brown’s manic drive to make himself into a celebrity and sprint up the political ladder as quickly as possible. He admired a onetime law-and-order D.A. across the bay in Oakland, Earl Warren, who had already been elected state attorney general and governor. Brown’s aspirations, meanwhile, started at governor. And that’s where stylish, gorgeous, coquettish Inez came into Brown’s focus. Inez would serve Brown’s own purposes, propelling his meteoric career to statewide, then national fame.

Born in 1886 in the hardscrabble neighborhood south of Market Street to an alcoholic cigar-maker and a tyrant of a mother, Inez blossomed into a 17-year-old beauty with long reddish-brown tresses, a 21-inch waist and a seductive smile. She worked as a manicurist at the city’s best hotel, The Palace. She began an affair with one of her customers, Dr. Eugene West, a bon vivant, 54-year-old abortionist, who offered Inez a job as his assistant. Inez was a quick study, so quick that West, who was a cocaine addict, didn’t mind stepping aside and letting her fill in.

Inez found herself pregnant, presumably the result of an affair with 42-year-old George Washington Merritt, who operated a horse-drawn emporium of snake oils. But employing a pregnant assistant proved unseemly for an abortion clinic. (She ultimately kept the baby, a son.) On her last day, Inez stole a canvas satchel of medical instruments and two vials of quinine pills and chloroform.

The petty larceny would come in handy. After San Francisco was struck by the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906, Inez found herself among tens of thousands of homeless encamped in tents at Golden Gate Park. There, she ran into a childhood friend, also pregnant, and one clear evening as a full moon was rising, she performed an abortion in Sharon Meadow on the park’s eastern side. Word spread of Inez’s prodigious talent, and soon a queue of women started forming for her makeshift clinic.

By 1915, Inez had her own clinic. Word circulated of her skills, and more and more pregnant women began showing up around the clock. By 1928, she had opened what at the time was likely the largest and best-equipped abortion clinic in the U.S. at 327 Fillmore St. The 6,275-square-foot facility was custom-built and state-of-the-art.

The prevailing standard in San Francisco and other American cities was that if women undergoing abortions didn’t die, the local police looked the other way. Women and not just a few men understood how essential her services were, and Inez was viewed by most as a kind of public utility, not unlike the water or fire department.

Inez’s personal life was always full of men, often several at the same time. In 1924, she married a brawny Italian national by the name of Charlie Granelli. After several years, she found herself bored. She also found herself attracted to a four-term assemblyman who represented San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood. Handsome, blue-eyed Joe Burns, who sported a wavy pompadour, had heard about Inez’s rollicking parties and stopped by one evening to introduce himself. Granelli was soon out of the picture, and Joe Burns never left.

Inez was a savvy businesswoman. She became known for her Wednesday evening soirees and poker games, where politicians, cops, physicians and prostitutes gathered for a good time. During the day, she realized too that the women who came to her clinic deserved elegant surroundings to help put them at ease, rather than feel shamed. An abortionist’s office ought to reflect a woman’s touch, not the drab surroundings of a male physician or, worse, a flophouse room rented by an ill-equipped handyman by the hour. Inez furnished her clinic with priceless antiques, rugs and furniture. An art nouveau arch of wrought iron flowers separated two large sitting rooms. Crystal chandeliers hung in twin waiting rooms, velvet-upholstered sofas and matching Chippendale-style chairs accommodated waiting patients. Oil paintings graced the walls.

Inez’s business flourished during the 1930s and ‘40s, particularly during the booming World War II years. San Francisco was America’s port of embarkation for tens of thousands of GIs. By then, Inez was accommodating as many as 30 patients a day, charging from $150 to $300. The fee was wholly dependent on how much Inez thought her patients could afford. Occasionally, she offered her services for free, but only with the guarantee that the patient never tell a soul. The last thing Inez needed was for word to get around that she was a softie.

She spent lavishly. She and Joe were regulars the San Francisco Opera, chauffeured there in a black Pierce-Arrow limousine. Inez had a particular weakness for hats, and collected more than 500 original designs; she had so many that she had a hat room custom-built to accommodate them all. As essential were furs, and at any given time, Inez kept more than a dozen mink coats in cold storage. She would spend hours studying herself in the mirror and weighed herself every day. If she tipped past 110 pounds, she’d fast. She had two toes surgically removed to fit into stylish high heels and two ribs removed to accentuate her hourglass figure.

She poured much of her profit into real estate, often using aliases. She owned property throughout San Francisco, including her custom-built home on Guerrero Street, another in the affluent neighborhoods of St. Francis Wood and the Marina overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as two homes in the posh Peninsula enclave of Atherton. By then, she also had bought the Great Gatsby compound in La Honda in San Mateo County, where she employed servants, cooks, horse groomers and trainers. Burns Ranch was where Inez entertained a raft of San Francisco and Hollywood celebrities, including police brass and attorneys as well as comedian Pinky Lee, entertainers Dwight Fiske and Burl Ives and a fez-wearing magician by the name of Gali-Gali, who plucked chickens out of thin air.

Even if authorities could have pieced together all her real estate holdings, it wouldn’t have included all the hundreds of thousands of dollars she had hidden. Inez once put $60,000 in a lockbox and buried it in the basement of her Guerrero Street house, only to remember it years later, and when she dug up the box, she found termites had gnawed through the bills. Another time, she told a maid to remove the living room drapes and have them cleaned — but had forgotten that she had $20,000 sewn into the hem.

Seeking to launder more and more of her income, Inez looked toward L.A. On a trip there in 1938, she fell in love with a bungalow, adjacent to where bandleader Xavier Cugat and his wife, actress Abbe Lane, lived not far from the Hollywood Reservoir. She and Joe got to know the couple and went to parties at their home. There she met Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth, who had starred with Cugat in You Were Never Lovelier in 1942. She also owned property on Hilts Avenue in Westwood.

Inez’s nod toward Los Angeles was all part of a cagey business expansion. She would take the Lark, a deluxe all-Pullman-car Southern Pacific express train that left San Francisco in the evening and pulled into L.A.’s Union Station the following morning. She’d spend the weekend partying with Hollywood A-listers.

Back in San Francisco, one of Inez’s clients was Nordic skater and Hollywood actress Sonja Henie. She was 38 at the time and, while working for 20th Century Fox mogul Darryl Zanuck, had turned into one of Hollywood’s wealthiest stars. Henie had recently married her second husband, Winthrop Gardiner Jr., a society scion, but the marriage quickly skidded. Henie had had well-publicized affairs with heartthrob Tyrone Power, heavyweight boxer Joe Louis and Van Johnson.

Henie swept into Inez’s house, wearing a white mink, teetering heels and a hat with a triad of pheasant feathers. Dangling from her ears was a pair of giant diamond drops. Inez profusely greeted the star and whisked her upstairs. Two hours later, Inez and Henie walked down together, where the actress was greeted by a man in a heavy overcoat who escorted Henie to her favorite San Francisco hotel, the Huntington on Nob Hill.

Henie’s was among the last abortions Inez ever performed. When Brown got elected D.A. in 1944, the civil attorney, who had never tried a criminal case, eyed Inez as his political conquest. Two raids of her clinic left him empty-handed. But after a third raid on Sept. 26, 1945, police found Inez at her Mission District home, where Inspector Frank Ahern ordered her to open a safe in the walk-in closet where she stored her hats.

“My god,” Inez exhaled to Ahern. “What are you trying to do to me? I’d rather die first before opening the safe.”

Ahern drew his revolver.

“You can put that way,” Inez said, turning toward the officer with a half-smile. Inez played the hand she knew. Why would this cop be different from the others?

Inez checked Ahern, a straitlaced, barrel-chested, 45-year-old cop with a square face and chiseled chin out of central casting. Ahern holstered the gun. That was more like it.

“You wanna see what’s inside?” Inez said, nodding toward the safe. “You wanna see why everyone comes to me?”

Inez was playing with Ahern.

“Just open the damn safe and shut up,” Ahern barked.

“Let’s see what you’re made of, Inspector.”

“Open the damn safe, I said!”

“You talk that way to all the ladies?” Inez teased.

“You open it here or we take it downtown,” Ahern said. “Either way, this safe of yours is gonna git opened.”

Inez knelt and spun the dial. She cranked the handle and the heavy door swung open.

“Holy God!” Ahern exclaimed.

He’d never seen so much money. There were 27 three-inch-thick bricks of cash, each tied with a red rubber band. Inez looked Ahern squarely in the eyes, their noses no more than six inches apart.

“Drop the whole thing,” she said, lowering her voice to a whisper, “and all this cash is yours.”

Ahern didn’t reply. Did he want more?

“I’ll make it three hundred thousand. And no one’s ever gotta know. Between you and me. That’s an awful lot of money, Inspector.”

By now, Ahern’s forehead was soaked. “I don’t do business that way,” he shot back.

“I’ll sweeten it by fifty thousand more. You ain’t never gonna git another offer like this.”

“I don’t gotta think long and hard about nothing. You’re getting charged with bribing a cop. And a lot more. Now clear away.”

Inez reared back. “You got any idea how many cops I’ve paid off? I can count on one hand the number of cops I haven’t paid off. Who do you think you are?”

Inez gave Ahern 10 seconds to man up.

When nothing came, she said, “You know what? You’re a damn fool! That’s what you are. Take the money for Christ’s sake!”

“Tell it to the judge,” Ahern repeated and grabbed Inez by her arm.

Ahern handed Inez off to a pair of cops downstairs, then went back upstairs to the closet to scoop up the bricks of cash, totaling more than $300,000. All the while, cops were rampaging through the downstairs parlor, knocking over lamps, tables and chairs and tracking mud on Inez’s Persian rugs. One cop brushed against Inez’s statue of Aphrodite, and as the statue was about to topple, Inez lunged to save it.

Despite all the evidence police had amassed, a grand jury refused to indict Inez. She had too many connections around town and insiders were scared of what might spill. Undeterred, Brown brought his own criminal charges against her, and at a blockbuster trial, her attorney, Walter McGovern, a man of enormous girth, attacked Brown’s political aspirations as his sole reason for going after Inez. McGovern painted Inez as an honorable public servant. Calling San Francisco the “Port of Last Fling,” he told jurors, “Women are the particular victims of war.” Many young women “were patriotic and wanted to do something for the men” headed “across the Pacific sea, where danger lurked. Other women went into bars and were seduced. They made a mistake. They became victims of seducers.”

Inez’s abortion trial ended 11 to 1 deadlocked; the judge had no choice but to declare a mistrial. A second trial commenced in May, and that also ended in a mistrial, this time, seven to five. An unprecedented third trial followed, presided over by a no-nonsense crony of Brown’s, and this time Inez was found guilty and sentenced to a two- to five-year prison term at Tehachapi State Prison for Women. She served 29 months and was released in 1950, the same year Brown was elected attorney general.

Out of prison, Inez resumed her abortion practice but was hounded by the IRS for back taxes. The case was hopeless to defend, and Inez had no choice but to plead guilty to tax evasion, spending 10 months at the Federal Reformatory for Women in West Virginia along with Iva “Tokyo Rose” Toguri d’Aquino and Mildred “Axis Sally” Gillars, both convicted of aiding the enemy in WWII. Kathryn Kelly, the accomplice of husband Machine Gun Kelly, was an inmate, too.

Free again, an unrepentant Inez was arrested once again for performing an abortion, this time in cahoots with the former city coroner. This time, she served 25 months at the California Institution for Women at Corona. Three years later Brown would be elected governor of California.

With nearly all her real estate and illegal gains confiscated by the feds, Inez moved to a fog-shrouded convalescent home in Moss Beach, south of San Francisco. Joe died in the fall of 1975. She died Sunday, Jan. 25, 1976, at the age of 89.

Her last wish — that the abortion instruments she stole from Dr. West be buried with her — never was realized. A tenant in home on Guerrero Street found them one day in a sliding compartment and tried to sell them but found no takers.

Adapted from The Audacity of Inez Burns: Dreams, Desire, Treachery & Ruin in the City of Gold by Stephen G. Bloom (Regan Arts, Feb. 6, 2018). Purchase the book here.

This story first appeared in the 2017 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.