On Sept. 25, 1936, the body of 28-year-old Reid Russell was found in the backyard of a home on what is now 2nd Street in Manhattan Beach. There was a bullet hole in his head and a .32 caliber pistol in his hand. It was officially ruled a suicide, but many clues point to another conclusion.
When Russell died, Gouverneur “Govie” Morris and his wife Ruth Wightman Morris, along friend and actress Lila Lee and her 12-year-old son Jimmy Kirkwood lived in the house. The house, built in 1933, still stands.
“It's hard to accept the suicide explanation,” said writer John A. Greenwald. “There were just too many facts in the case that just didn't add up. Whether it was the missing cartridge casing or the position of the body didn't line up ... the fact they didn't believe that the gun had been fired makes you wonder how in the world that could have been suicide.”
In the recently published book, “Wild Bird: The True Jazz Age Tale of Ruth Wightman Morris,” Greenwald examines Ruth's unconventional and dramatic life—race car driver, bull fighter, aviator to film producer—leading up to the mysterious death by “suicide” of their distant relative in Manhattan Beach.
Road to discovery
The journey of “Wild Bird” began in 2012 when Greenwald was looking through the archive files at the Monterey Museum of Art. He came across some documents including three letters and a copy of a typed letter. Decades earlier, the museum had been the lavish home of Govie and Ruth before their financial luck ran out during the Depression. The letters had been locked away in a hidden safe until renovations in the 1990s uncovered the safe and the letters. The letters were buried away again in a manila envelope until Greenwald discovered them.
“I read the letters and realized what they were suggesting that Ruth had inadvertently set a letter intended for her lover, but it had gone to her husband,” Greenwald said. “She got the envelopes mixed up. Then there was the husband writing to the lover who was Alec Waugh, the writer (brother to Evelyn Waugh), telling him to stay away from his wife. Then Alec sending a telegram to London (to Govie) saying 'It will be as you wish.' That was the last time they ever saw each other. That exchange of letters ended what had been a three-year affair.”
Stranger than fiction
Intrigued by the letters, Greenwald began investigating Ruth's life, proving that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
“I felt like an archeologist and I'd find a little fragment over here and I'd dig some more and find another little fragment,” Greenwald said. “But when you keep digging over time you start to get enough fragments that I could put together a picture. It took a lot of work, but I sort of embraced the challenge. I didn't know at a certain point if I would get enough for a story.”
According to Greenwald, Ruth Wightman was born in 1897 in New York to traveling evangelists. Her family eventually ended up in San Diego where she showed her rebellious side by marching for free speech in 1912. She was arrested in Sacramento in 1914 for being a Caucasian woman wearing Chinese clothing. By 1917, she was bucking broncos, taking flying lessons and performing stunts. Ruth became one of the first female race car drivers, making history by setting the woman's speed record in 1918. Her short time as a driver ended when a competitor was killed in accident during one of her races.
Ruth was introduced to Govie, a successful contract writer at Goldwyn Pictures, through Charlie Chaplin, who she had befriended during her short time in the spotlight. She was hired as Govie's secretary, but she quickly became more than that professionally and personally. She began writing scenarios, or adapting screenplays, from Govie's stories.
Even though he was married, their working relationship became an affair. Govie was still married when they moved to Monterey, and they eventually were married in 1924. The couple started traveling the world. On a trip to Spain, Ruth dabbled with bull-fighting and had flirtations with a bull-fighter. On a cruise headed to San Francisco from Tahiti, she met Alec Waugh.
By the early 1930s, Govie and Ruth had made acquaintances with Jack Dempsey, Charles Lindbergh, William Randolph Hearst, Rudolph Valentino, Henri Matisse and Diego Rivera. But their heavy spending and the Depression finally caught up with them. They lost the house in Monterey. They moved back to Hollywood where Govie landed a job at Universal Pictures. Still, the couple had run up a debt and hadn't paid their taxes. They were “always living up stream,” Greenwald said.
“They had gotten to a slightly less perilous financial situation and I think they saw an opportunity to live in something other than a cottage,” said Greenwald about the couple's move to Manhattan Beach. “Because of the Depression, somehow they came to know this is available and they were able to get it really cheap. They sort of had the semblance of living in a mansion. It was no longer in Beverly Hills, but it was a multi-story building and they had enough room so that when Lila Lee needed a place to live with her son for a period of time they had rooms for it. My suspicion is that they were able to get in a slightly better financial situation than they had been before, not great, but at least they could afford to move where they lived before.”
Manhattan Beach tragedy
The letters that Alec Waugh saved from Ruth were essential to Greenwald's research. But, the affair ended soon after the Ruth moved back to Southern California. So there's little detail about Ruth and Govie's life leading up to the suicide scandal.
Much of the information about the “suicide” comes from newspaper reports from the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Examiner. Reports from the Manhattan Beach Police Department no longer exist, according to local historian Jan Dennis. She had started research on her book on the history of the Manhattan Beach Police Department when she inquired information about the Reid Russell incident.
“I had contacted the police department for the police reports on it and they were all destroyed,” said Dennis, a former mayor who lobbied the city to purchase the house on 2nd Street because of its “phenomenal history.” But that never came to fruition.
On the day of the body's discovery, according to Greenwald, Victoria Russell, Reid Russell's mother and distant relative of Govie, called the Morris house worried that she couldn't get in contact with her son. Ruth reportedly told Victoria that she hadn't seen Reid, but the young Jimmy Kirkwood, who would later attend Redondo Union High School and win a Pulitzer Prize for co-creating “A Chorus Line,” said he saw Reid's car down the road. A search for Reid ensued. Ruth, reportedly, spotted part of the body with binoculars from her home. Govie and gardener John Munolo found the lifeless Reid.
Greenwald said there are a “lot of reasons to believe there was foul play.” The mistakes began, Greenwald believes, when Manhattan Beach Capt. Percy Jones and motorcycle officer H.M. Eagles were “operating under the assumption that it was suicide” and were looking for evidence to support that theory. However, said Greenwald, there was no shell casing found and investigators tossed a .22-caliber bullet lodged in a settee behind the lawn swing because it didn't match the gun in the victim's hand. The bullet was never recovered and it wasn't mentioned in their report. There were reports of shot fired in the house, but that was denied by its occupants.
Everyone was questioned in the house, including Lila Lee, a silent screen star known for starring opposite Rudolph Valentino in the classic “Blood and Sand.” But it was Ruth's actions that were a little bizarre. One of her stories was that she found a suicide note from Reid, but later burned it. Lee had confirmed Ruth's story.
“Ruth clearly was acting like someone who had something to hide,” Greenwald said. “What she was trying to hide is not entirely clear to me, but there something in the manner in which she was seemingly making up stories … the manner in which was revealed seemed suspicious.”
Greenwald added, “There was something about his death in which I believe she felt some guilt.”
The investigation ended abruptly, according to Greenwald, when District Attorney Buron Fitts unexpectedly shut it down and officially ruled the death a suicide.
Author Greenwald, who currently lives in Monterey, continues his discussion about the Morris case with his blog that can be found at johnagreenwald.com. The book can be found on amazon.com or through his website.