A good publicity blurb knows what to omit. Take the item in The Film Daily on January 26, 1934 announcing that Robert Tasker has been signed to “write some special scenes” for RKO’s The Crime Doctor. It notes the scribe is “regarded as an authority on stories having a crime background” while eliding how Tasker acquired this reputation: serving over five years at San Quentin for robbery.
Tasker parlayed his criminal career into success as a screenwriter during the Golden Age of Hollywood. He wasn’t alone. Ernest Booth, who matriculated at several California penal institutions including a stint alongside Tasker at San Quentin, also had a second act in Tinseltown. Decades before Norman Mailer advocated for the release of convict writer Jack Henry Abbott, a major figure of American letters lobbied on behalf of Tasker and Booth because of the quality of their literary output. Convicted felon Eddie Bunker would achieve acclaim as a novelist (No Beast So Fierce) and screenwriter (Runaway Train), but Tasker and Booth blazed that trail well ahead of him.
The intertwined sagas of both men proved irresistible to me and my wife/writing partner, Rosemarie Keenan. As authors of the Lillian Frost and Edith Head mysteries under the pen name Renee Patrick, we are constantly searching for lesser-known facets of Hollywood history. Our second novel Dangerous to Know is built around two of them: the now-forgotten 1938 scandal in which Jack Benny and George Burns, then among the biggest stars in show business, were indicted on smuggling charges by the federal government; and the recently unearthed story of the pre-war spy ring monitoring Nazi activity in Los Angeles that was funded by predominately Jewish studio moguls. We first tumbled to the tale of the ex-convict duo spinning their shady exploits into box office gold in Philippe Garnier’s 1996 book Honni soit qui Malibu: quelques écrivains à Hollywood, about to receive a long-overdue English translation this year when Black Pool Productions publishes it as Scoundrels & Spitballers: Writers and Hollywood in the 1930s. Our third novel, Script for Scandal, revolves around a fictionalized contemporary of Tasker and Booth, plying his trade on the same Paramount Pictures lot where Edith Head established herself as a premier costume designer. The true stories of both men are far stranger than any fiction we could devise.
Of the two, Tasker would amass more screen credits, but Booth was a far more industrious lawbreaker; as Oakland Tribune literary editor Nancy Barr Mavity put it when reviewing Booth’s 1945 crime novel With Sirens Screaming, Booth presents a more “complex and psychologically interesting problem” than Tasker as “he is a bona fide criminal who accidentally can write—not a writer who incidentally served time in prison.” Booth got started early, breaking out of reform school in 1914 following an arrest for burglary. When he briefly escaped authorities while being transported across country to face a forgery charge in 1917, he made sure to mail a newspaper clipping detailing his flight to the jailer who had held him. In 1920, he convinced his then-paramour, twenty-year-old fellow parolee Norma Gardiner, to embezzle eight hundred dollars from her employer, a superior court judge; consequently, the Los Angeles Times reported, Gardiner “says her faith in all men is shattered.”
Booth had been married to his wife Valverda for only a week when he was apprehended in May 1924 for robbing a bank in Oakland, California, holding tellers at bay with a bottle of ammonia. He effected a getaway from the Alameda County Jail in October only to be picked up a month later having breakfast across the bay in the company of “one of the most picturesque characters of San Francisco” according to that city’s Examiner, “Salvation Nell” Barry. (“For years she has been known as the friend of the sailor and the ‘down-and-outer.’”) But his most daring bid for freedom was yet to come. During the hullabaloo of the annual New Year’s Eve show at San Quentin in 1926, Booth, being treated for tuberculosis at the prison hospital, attempted to descend three stories on an improvised rope of blankets and sheets. He fell, breaking both legs in the process. Later, it was revealed the rope had been cut by a fellow inmate, Bernard Schwarze, seeking to curry favor with prison authorities. Schwarze’s gambit did him no favors; the Los Angeles Times reported in January 1930 that he had become “the man in the iron cage,” wasting away from TB while locked in a special cell “in the old men’s yard. He would meet violent and instant death from other convicts if he left it.”While incarcerated, Tasker took an interest in writing, furthered by a class taught by pulp veteran Sidney Herschel Small. Tasker was soon penning prose for San Quentin’s inmate-edited journal, the Bulletin.
Tasker, meanwhile, blamed a broken heart for his fall from grace. The scion of a Portland, Oregon family hit with sudden financial ruin, he was romantically involved with his childhood sweetheart. Determined to keep her in the style to which they had both become accustomed, he began robbing Oakland restaurants in May 1924. Known as “the coffee bandit” for his modus operandi of ordering a small meal before pulling a pistol that was, according to reports, broken, unloaded, or both, Tasker sought a bigger payoff by impulsively knocking over a dance hall only to be immediately arrested. Members of Portland society stood up for the young man now being mooned over by Bay Area papers as “the love bandit,” but an unmoved judge bound the lad over to San Quentin.
While incarcerated, Tasker took an interest in writing, furthered by a class taught by pulp veteran Sidney Herschel Small. Tasker was soon penning prose for San Quentin’s inmate-edited journal, the Bulletin. That work came to the attention of H. L. Mencken, then editing The American Mercury. Tasker’s Mercury essay “The First Day” poetically recounts his arrival at prison: “My first impression was of pained order, and I sought wildly with my eyes for another thing. I found it—a great, ragged dahlia with a wealth of vivid color and a careless grandeur of design—a gesture of poetic insurgence.” Aspiring writer Booth had read Tasker’s Bulletin articles when they had a chance encounter on the yard. “When we parted that day,” Tasker wrote, “it was with high hopes of being helpful to each other … In the end we drew up an oral compact that I would write only of prisons, and he would write only of criminals not yet in prison.”
Soon Booth’s byline also appeared in The American Mercury. His quasi-autobiographical August 1927 essay “We Rob a Bank,” according to the Oakland Tribune, “has just enough fact in it to convince the police of its verity, and not enough detail to permit them to decide whether he is taking literary license, giving a composite picture of bank robberies, or actually thumbing his nose at the sleuths over his skill in perpetrating a robbery that was not accredited to him.” So great was the response to Booth and Tasker’s work that other inmates wanted in on the act. Variety reported San Quentin was forced to hire additional clerical staff to handle the flood of outgoing manuscripts and rejection letters. The situation grew so dire that in March 1928, Booth and Tasker were barred from sending out submissions, with Judge C. E. McLaughlin of California’s State Board of Prisons declaring, “We’re running prisons, not literary bureaus.”
Mencken vouched for both scribes, dispatching “hobo writer” Jim Tully to interview them and other inmates. Tully told the San Francisco Examiner in September 1927 that Booth and Tasker “are the only really promising writers ever developed in American prisons. They are great artists, and I am hoping that after they have satisfied society they will be given a chance by the world to realize their genius.” His private view, however, was markedly different. A December 1927 item in Variety claimed Tully told his Hollywood cronies that Booth had mined a fellow inmate’s life for his essay “Texas Chain Gang,” and declared “that Booth should be kept in jail for life … Members of the coast’s motion picture literary colony did not take kindly to Tully’s attitude toward the lifer.” Mencken wrote in a November 13, 1927 letter to Tully, “Booth, I believe, is hopeless. The most that can be done for him is to get him permission to write.” Mencken also confirmed Tully’s assessment of Tasker, saying “he is much lighter stuff than Booth. Nevertheless his book on his experiences at San Quentin contains a great deal of excellent stuff and I believe that Knopf will do it … I think it is extremely unlikely that, in case he is liberated, he will ever engage in crime again. He has had enough.”
Putting his reputation on the line, Mencken sent what would become Tasker’s Grimhaven (1928) to editor Blanche Knopf with his personal recommendation. Tasker demonstrated a canny pragmatism in writing the book; a reasonably well-behaved inmate, he had never experienced solitary confinement, and believed if he contrived some offense to get thrown into the hole “it would be of little value, for my attitude would lack the proper sense of guilt.” His enterprising solution: have another con “who had spent a little time in the dungeon” tackle the subject. The bigger question was how the manuscript was smuggled out of San Quentin in defiance of prison rules. The mystery was solved in 1955 when legendary San Francisco columnist Herb Caen revealed that Tasker’s writing teacher Sidney Herschel Small had ferried the book’s final pages out from behind bars in his “plus-fours,” which, “for the benefit of the kiddies, were extra baggy golf knickers, very stylish in the Twenties.”
Knopf published Ernest Booth’s memoir Stealing Through Life the following year, by which point he’d already made a killing in Hollywood. One of his American Mercury pieces became the 1928 Paramount movie Ladies of the Mob, starring Clara Bow. (This lost film holds special interest for us, as it’s one of Edith Head’s earliest screen credits.) Booth adapted another Mercury essay, “Ladies in Durance Vile,” into a play, which would be filmed in 1931 and 1940, the latter with a script by hardboiled novelist Horace McCoy.
On December 8, 1929, after sixty-seven months behind bars, Robert Tasker received parole. The “blundering boy bandit,” in the words of the San Francisco Examiner, left San Quentin “impeccably dressed and looking for all the world like John Gilbert.” The comparison to the silent screen heartthrob proved prophetic. Tasker went to Los Angeles, where Mencken had arranged a job with Photoplay magazine; a condition of his release forbade him from writing about crime for the length of his parole. (We had Script for Scandal’s fictional screenwriter face the identical stricture, leading to him cranking out “costume pictures where Lady Wetherby has the vocabulary of a cooch dancer.”)
Tasker did not waste time moving up in the film industry. The Examiner reported in February 1930 that he had been hired as “technical director”—more likely technical advisor—on MGM’s The Big House. A still-potent drama starring Wallace Beery, Chester Morris, and Robert Montgomery, it helped establish the template for the prison movie and earned Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor for Beery. Frances Marion would win the Oscar for her script, becoming the first woman to take home screenwriting honors. Marion visited San Quentin briefly to research the project, and afterward took an interest in Tasker’s situation. She taught him the mechanics of screenwriting; soon, the two were lovers. That relationship cast a shadow over Marion’s authorship of The Big House. Rumors persisted for years that Tasker violated his parole by working on the script. John Bright, Tasker’s writing partner in the late 1930s, told author Lee Server that Tasker “ghost-wrote” the film “word for word.” Film historian Cari Beauchamp largely debunks that claim in her book Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, tracing The Big House’s development so definitively the only inference to be made is that Tasker’s sole contribution, if any, would have been providing the occasional insider detail.
In 1931, Tasker wed Lucille Morrison, “said to be one of the first New York society women to go on the stage.” Her family fortune derived from the laxative Fletcher’s Castoria, prompting Tasker to refer to his bride as “the shit-pill heiress.” The unlikely twosome became gossip column fixtures, with reports on their Palm Springs vacations and the construction of their swank home in Bel-Air Canyon, where their neighbors included screenwriters Charles Brackett (The Lost Weekend) and Jules Furthman (The Big Sleep). Their union would end in 1934, by which time Tasker had made his name as a scribe in his own right.
His early credits are meager: additional dialogue on the middling Mary Roberts Rinehart adaptation Miss Pinkerton (1932), the same year’s Technicolor horror film Doctor X. But his sole acting appearance, an uncredited turn as a triggerman in 1931’s Quick Millions, put him in the orbit of idiosyncratic filmmaker Rowland Brown. Renowned as an “idea man,” Brown wrote films as varied as A Star is Born forerunner What Price Hollywood? and Angels with Dirty Faces. The Los Angeles Times described him as “dynamic and often rebellious,” a diplomatic way of calling him a hellraiser who moved in a range of demimondes. Legend has it he once punched producer David O. Selznick, and after Brown warned an actress to stop seeing Los Angeles crime kingpin Bugsy Siegel—also a character in Script for Scandal—the two got into a public confrontation that ended with the kind of apology only Siegel could give: a tip on a fixed horse race that paid out. Brown, Tasker, and Samuel Ornitz share script credit on 1932’s Hell’s Highway. The film, ripped from headlines literally shown onscreen, is an exposé of prison labor in the American south. Highway may not be as well-known as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, released several months later, but Brown’s visual inventiveness and the film’s muckraking spirit still pack a wallop. Featuring LGBTQ characters, open acknowledgement of racism, and scenes of shocking brutality, Highway, as writer Woody Haut noted, “would reach a level of truthfulness rarely seen in Hollywood,” with Tasker’s firsthand experience of incarceration contributing mightily. (Rowland Brown was subsequently attached to an adaptation of Ernest Booth’s Stealing Through Life to be produced by Irving Thalberg, inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, but the proposed film never came to fruition.)
Tasker continued collaborating with Samuel Ornitz, who would become one of the “Hollywood Ten,” filmmakers cited for contempt of Congress after refusing to testify about their alleged membership in the Communist Party. But his partnership with the politically active John Bright proved more meaningful, with Bright even writing a novel (1961’s It’s Cleaner on the Inside, published in the U.K. only) with a thinly-veiled Tasker as its protagonist. Ex-newspaperman Bright burst onto the Hollywood scene by helping to establish the screen persona of James Cagney in a series of punchy scripts co-written with Kubec Glasmon (The Public Enemy, Smart Money, Blonde Crazy ; The Crowd Roars, Taxi ). Bright, an avowed Communist, said in a 1988 oral history about his own subsequent blacklisting that Tasker “was in the process of being radicalized at the time that I broke up with Glasmon,” and observed with a laugh that an ex-convict “was a logical person for me to collaborate (with).” The close friends would carouse together as well as write numerous films, among them the 1937 Humphrey Bogart prison drama San Quentin, which features an inmate-turned-writer based on Tasker; and, in a strange quirk of fate, two movies starring Paul Kelly, the actor who drunkenly killed the husband of his lover Dorothy Mackaye and served his manslaughter conviction alongside Tasker. The final Bright/Tasker teaming, 1939’s Back Door to Heaven, was conceived as a comeback for director William K. Howard, an early Hollywood force fallen on hard times. The resulting film is an intriguing failure. At times unbearably maudlin—the climax involves gunplay at a class reunion—with an aesthetic out of the silent era, it’s also an empathetic and forward-thinking portrait of a habitual criminal, with a keen understanding of the sociological burdens faced by members of the underclass.
As America entered World War Two, Tasker dreaded the prospect of being drafted. Bright told Lee Server, “Bob looked on military service as a variation on prison, and he wasn’t going to go back to prison.” Tasker did what many a noir hero has done: lammed south of the border. He kept writing pictures, though. Variety reported in September 1943 that Tasker “just finished revamping five stories suitable for Mexican pictures.”
In December 1944, Robert Tasker was found dead in his home in Mexico City. The circumstances remain murky, but the overdose of sleeping pills was deemed a suicide. John Bright said that Tasker, then married to the granddaughter of Costa Rica’s former president, had beaten up his wife’s politically connected lover. Rather than face a return to prison, he took his own life. But Tasker hadn’t yet outlived his usefulness in Hollywood. He was said to have made substantial contributions to the Academy Award-nominated screenplay for Dillinger (1945) credited to Philip Yordan, a screenwriter infamous for putting his name on others’ efforts. And in 1951, Tasker was identified as a Communist by multiple witnesses appearing before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. An ex-convict nearly seven years in the ground wasn’t in a position to complain.
Ernest Booth would have to wait for his parole. He didn’t help his own cause with a ludicrous 1931 scheme in which he enlisted his wife Valverda and brother Edward to create counterfeit court records to be slipped in with official ones in order to facilitate his release; Edward would go to prison as a result of this inept caper, while Valverda received probation.
Still, in May 1937, Ernest Booth would leave prison “broken in health but free after serving thirteen years for bank robbery,” in the words of the Los Angeles Times. Like Tasker, he was initially barred from writing about crime. Audiences for 1938’s Penrod’s Double Trouble would have been surprised to learn Booth Tarkington’s whimsical tales of Midwestern childhood had been adapted by a notorious bandit. The San Francisco Examiner ran an admiring profile of Booth when his parole ended in February 1940, in which Booth claimed to be writing love stories for women’s magazines under various pseudonyms. The article features a photo of Booth and Valverda at their Santa Cruz home, Booth looking every inch a man reinvented.
The façade collapsed a year later. In September 1941, Booth was arrested on suspicion of murder in connection with the slaying of Florence A. Stricker, a 42-year-old heiress beaten to death with a hammer at her Silver Lake home in Los Angeles. Her body was found by her husband George Stricker, a physician who treated Booth for tuberculosis during his parole. The couples regularly socialized, although as the investigation proceeded it became apparent Mrs. Stricker loathed Booth; several witnesses testified that she feared him, resented his constant requests to borrow money, and once found him searching her bedroom.
Booth protested his innocence, insisting “Since my release I have earned my living from writing.” That livelihood became a point of contention. Booth claimed he had visited the Stricker residence on the morning of the murder because he was writing an article about physiotherapy with Dr. Stricker’s advice—although this later became a mystery story on which he sought Dr. Stricker’s input. The LAPD obtained a letter from the editor of a detective magazine stating Booth had not been commissioned to write the story in question. Booth also boasted, “If I was guilty and wanted to get up an alibi, I’d have punched a time clock in one of the movie studios where I sometimes work on scripts.” He claimed to be on staff at Columbia Pictures at the time, but it soon came out he hadn’t been employed there in months. Valverda Booth stood by her accused husband’s side, citing the new leaf he’d turned. “Ernest is still of value to society,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “He’s intelligent and well-educated, and I’m sure he’ll make his mark in the world of writing—if he has a chance.”
Another suspect soon emerged: Dr. George Stricker. For all her inherited wealth, Florence Stricker kept a tight rein on her money, shopping only at estate sales and insisting her husband repay her loan to him on strict monthly terms. When the police poked holes in Dr. Stricker’s story of discovering the body, he suffered a breakdown that sent him to a private sanitarium. The investigation took on the flavor of a James Ellroy novel: Captain Vernon Rasmussen of Homicide commandeering a glass-bottom boat in a fruitless search of Silver Lake for the murder weapon; news reports of cops shuffling “written and telephonic tips in hopes that one might be an ace—a ‘squeal’ on the bludgeon killer.” By late September, Booth was being held on a weapons charge after guns were found in a search of his home. When he lobbied for a reduction in bail, a D.A. pointed at him in the courtroom and told the judge, “This man is the number one suspect in the Florence Stricker murder.” Captain Rasmussen told the Los Angeles Times, “The man who killed her is someone she knew, for she opened the door and let him in.”
Stricker was eventually cleared. He quickly remarried and moved to Newport Beach with his first wife’s money. Booth served the minimum sentence of one day on the gun charge. The two men were the only publicly identified suspects. As the San Francisco Examiner’s Dayton Stoddart wrote when revisiting the affair a decade later in August 1951, “So ended official interest in the murder of Florence Stricker, millionaire collector of old-style sharp pointed shoes.” The case remains unsolved.
1942 saw the release of last film bearing an Ernest Booth writing credit. Men of San Quentin, from Poverty Row studio PRC, boasts the typical B-movie excess of plot but still finds time to plead for compassionate treatment of inmates. It ends with a prison variety show much like the one Booth used to cover his 1926 escape attempt from the same institution.
A year later, Booth had given up the screenwriting racket in favor of a steady job as a shipping clerk, only to be arrested on suspicion of grand theft for stealing a thousand dollars’ worth of women’s slacks from his employer and selling them at cut-rate prices to stores in Hollywood. He’d also be questioned extensively about the theft of nearly a quarter-million dollars in securities in Oregon. He was still a free man in 1945 when he turned up as a witness before a California State Assembly committee on prison conditions, claiming “he has been investigating conditions in various jails and found them deplorable.” Clearly, he was researching the next and final stage of his life.
The FBI arrested Ernest Booth in the parking lot of Hollywood’s iconic Musso & Frank Grill in March 1947. He was a prime suspect in a string of savings and loan robberies across the Southland. Booth pled guilty to armed robbery, and later to securities theft—turned out he was involved in that 1943 Oregon heist—and finally sent back to prison. He died of tuberculosis at Washington State’s McNeil Island Penitentiary in 1959.
If their own words provide any indication, neither man would confess surprise at their fates. Booth, in Stealing Through Life, blasted the emphasis on suffering and repentance in prison literature, with the protagonist typically earning renewal of “some childish state” of hope and optimism: “It seems to me that one does not go back. One progresses—either to chaos or to understanding.” Robert Tasker was far blunter in Grimhaven. “The beauty of prison,” he wrote, “is not that it builds men, but that it bludgeons them.”