These days people say if you put something out there on this here internet-y thing, it’s out there forever and you can never take it back. Kinda makes me pine for the old days, when secrets died, or maybe just faded away like old ink on a page.
Trouble is, though, sometimes those old secrets are still out there, not in the ether of the web, but in cardboard boxes in someone’s attic or basement, and those old stories, some never told, some often only told in hushed tones, are outed once more.
These are the stories of Fred Otash, a Hollywood private dick—I always wanted to type that—whose files were recently uncovered in boxes held in a storage locker in the San Fernando Valley by his daughter Colleen, and her business partner, Manfred Westphal, who grew up next door to Otash.
One of the files in Otash’s collection contains a recording of Rock Hudson’s only wife, Phyllis, questioning him about him being a :::gasp::: homosexual:
On January 21, 1958, Rock Hudson's wife confronted him, demanding to know if he was gay and grilling him about a Rorschach test he had taken.
|Rock Hudson and Phyllis Gates|
"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. "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."
Fred Otash was a notorious Hollywood gumshoe who charged hundreds of dollars per day and spied on everyone from Hudson to Marilyn Monroe to John F. Kennedy, Judy Garland and Lana Turner. A former police officer, he was ‘the’ guy for Hollywood attorneys with high-profile clients. Mike Wallace called him the "most amoral" man he had ever interviewed, and Robert Towne used him for inspiration when he wrote Chinatown; "There were several people I drew on," Towne says. "But he was one of them."
After leaving the police force, he set up the Fred Otash Detective Bureau in Hollywood, where he worked as a freelancer and "fact verifier" for notorious L.A. gossip magazine Confidential. Among the cases he allegedly worked on were Confidential's outing of Liberace and a gay pajama party with Tab Hunter.
James Ellroy, writer of L.A. Confidential, says "He was a con artist, bullshitter. 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.”
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."
But, enough about Otash, what about those celebrities upon whom he spied? For one, in his recently uncovered files, is an unpublished book that Otash penned about Marilyn Monroe’s affair with JFK; in it, Otash claims he overheard Monroe having sex with JFK:
"Marilyn wanted a mini-phone listening device," Otash wrote in his unpublished Marilyn, the Kennedys, and Me, noting he spied on her even while she was paying him to install recording equipment so that she could tape her own phone calls.
|Monroe and the Kennedy brothers|
"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.
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 wrote, 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 claims he 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.
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 allowed Otash to move into her Holmby Hills home, where he befriended daughter Liza Minnelli and found a hidden stash of pills.
Note: a representative 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."
|Judy Garland and Sid Luft|
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."
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.
|Lana Turner and Johnny Stompanato|
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.
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 then in 1991, 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."
And lastly, though I’m sure there are more stories in those boxes, we learn about Otash and Bette Davis:
|Bette Davis and Gary Merrill|
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."
Fred Otash worked 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 ended following a much-publicized libel case in 1957—and because of his association with several jockeys who were involved in a doping case. 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 Marilyn book. 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, who entered his apartment and found him lying face down under the kitchen table, dead of a heart attack, it later was concluded.
Soon after, like Otash had done for many of his clients, his own 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.
Manfred Westphal: "He put a shackle on the door, emptied the condo, and nothing inside was ever seen again."
Until someone opened a storage unit in the Valley.
Like I said, you think what happens now never goes away? Well, that’s been going on for years and years and years, because every decade, every century, has a Fred Otash, and every Fred Otash knows where to hide his files.