One-time Mizer model killed actor from Hollywood’s Golden Age

Education , History Comments
One-time Mizer model killed actor from Hollywood’s Golden Age

Many types of men appeared throughout the pages of Bob Mizer’s "Physique Pictorial" over the years. The former all-American high school athlete. The dedicated bodybuilder. The hoodlum. The ruffian.

And at least one killer – a monster, depending on who is telling the story. 

When young Paul Ferguson, photographed by Chicago artist Chuck Renslow, appeared nude in Mizer’s “Physique Pictorial” in 1964, there was little in the way of physical features that distinguished him from other models who needed a quick buck or wanted greater exposure. The lean, cherubic-faced Ferguson appears in two images, standing in a shower, his lower body covered in suds. His hair, slicked back in a pompadour style, appears to be untouched by the water. Yet the young man’s sullen eyes, seemingly caught in a candid moment, peer into Mizer’s lens, mouth slightly agape. According to Out Magazine, Renslow recalled, "(Paul) was gorgeous. His butt was beautiful."

Paul Ferguson

Little did Mizer know that such a largely unremarkable young man, only one of the thousands he would promote throughout his lifetime, would soon find himself at the center of one of the bloodiest slayings in recent memory. It would be a murder that would end the life of a once-great star of the silver screen. Paul’s own life and freedom, already fragile due to his attraction to trouble, would be forever changed as well.

Ramon Novarro’s star had burned bright in the early days of talking films, but that star had faded long ago. Born Jose Ramon Gil Samaniego in 1899 in Mexico, he began acting in films in 1917, and enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity due to his exotic good looks. Upon urging from a friend, Samaniego adopted the stage name ‘Ramon Novarro.’ Inevitably, he began to draw comparisons to the Italian heartthrob Rudolph Valentino in the early 1920s. Like Valentino, Novarro set aflutter the hearts of his female fans. And, like Valentino, rumors and speculation about his sexual orientation dogged him for the duration of his life.

Novarro’s greatest celluloid success, “Ben Hur,’ was released in 1925, a mere year before the untimely death of Valentino at the age of 31. Novarro’s first talking film, “Devil-May-Care,” was released in 1929, only two years after “The Jazz Singer” heralded the arrival of “talkies.” Follwing the height of his career in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Novarro continued to work sporadically throughout the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s.

A lifetime of turmoil

Despite his huge popularity in Hollywood, Novarro remained conflicted between his Catholic upbringing and his own homosexuality, and turned to alcohol for most of his adult life to soothe the existential battle within. Like so many others in Hollywood’s “Lavender Closet,” Novarro went to great lengths to conceal his homosexuality from those around him. It worked for many acquaintances and even friends. Others, aware of his sexual orientation, inevitably spread gossip throughout the circles of the Hollywood elite, even romantically linking Novarro with Valentino.  Privately, later in life, Novarro enjoyed the company of male escorts. Most of the time, of course, sex was a part of their time together. More often, as he aged, Novarro simply longed for the companionship and friendship they provided, if only superficially.

It seemed that Paul Ferguson, meanwhile, was doomed from birth. Born in 1946 in Alabama, around the same time when Novarro began acting in American films, Paul and his brother spent most of their youth working odd jobs and wandering from one community to the next. Though Paul, like Novarro himself, was a fervent Catholic, he had been married four times by the age of 22 and had long abandoned any childhood hopes of entering the priesthood. And, like Novarro, Paul even turned to being photographed in the nude in order to make a few much-needed dollars.

Ramon Navarro

Dennis Bell, president of the Bob Mizer Foundation, says this lack of focus is a defining characteristic of many of Mizer’s models.

“Many of those models were very troubled, and Mizer himself did his best to provide them with structure and routine that they were lacking in their daily lives,” Bell says. “Bob would cook for them, provide them with a place to live, if only temporarily. Some stayed with him, and others were soon gone. It is hard to say whether and to what extent men like Bob might have helped Paul Ferguson, but what we do know is that there were many others like him.”

One murder, two stories

The year 1968, one of the most tumultuous in the country’s history, was limping toward its end. As the world changed, however, Novarro’s hospitality, friendliness and charm remained a quaint reminder of the remaining silent films stars who had tried to settle into comfortable lives for themselves as the flame of their careers flickered.

According to Andre Soares’ 2002 biography, “Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro,” when Novarro received a call from a 22-year-old male hustler from an unnamed agency – who appeared eager to spend time with the star –he trimmed his goatee, took a shower, applied cologne and dressed in a silk robe and blue canvas shoes. When the Ferguson brothers arrived, Novarro chatted with the boys about finding them work, they ate dinner, he conducted a palm reading for Paul – and even showed them a clip from “Ben Hur.” The younger Ferguson commented, according to Soares, that the “handsome man in the picture looked nothing like the elderly man standing before him,” likely a testament to the ravages of decades of alcoholism.

What happened next varies wildly depending on which brother you ask, according to Soares’ biography. Initially, Paul stated that he fell asleep on Novarro’s sofa but was shortly awoken by Tom, who simply stated to him, “The guy is dead.” Paul followed Tom into Novarro’s bedroom, where the actor’s nude body lay on the floor. They moved Novarro’s body to the bed, and Tom suggested they call police and make the whole thing look like a robbery. Tom confessed to accidentally killing Novarro himself.

Tom, for his part, insisted that as he placed a call to his girlfriend in Chicago, he heard a piercing scream come from Novarro’s room. When he entered, he found Paul, clad only in blood-covered boxer shorts. Novarro was badly beaten and only semi-conscious. As Tom urged Novarro not to say anything to Paul to further agitate him, Paul demanded that Novarro disclose the hiding place of $5,000, which Novarro was rumored to keep in his home. Novarro was barely able to mutter his assurances that no such sum of money was in his home. Tom left the room to urinate, and when he returned, Novarro lay motionless on the floor; Paul insisted that Novarro had attempted to rise from the bed and, thinking he was going to be attacked, punched Novarro, who slipped on the bloodied floor.

After this point, the Ferguson brothers’ story matches. The two swept through the house, overturning furniture, breaking dishes and “scratching his neck with a knife to make it look as if a woman had clawed him,” according to Soares. Paul wrote the name “Larry” four times on a notepad, as well as on Novarro’s bedsheets. ‘Larry’ referred to Larry Ortega, Paul Ferguson’s brother-in-law, who also worked as a hustler.

The two escaped the house with a paltry $20, ditching their bloody clothes over a fence that straddled Novarro’s property.

The brothers would sweat out the next few days, watching TV reports about the murder, playing pool and discussing the possibility of fleeing to Mexico. It took police a week to interview those who had last seen Novarro, dust his house for fingerprints and come up with a match in Paul Ferguson. The brothers, holed up in a house in nearby Bell Gardens, were arrested in connection with the murder of Ramon Novarro on Nov. 6, 1968.

The beginning of the end

Even though his funeral was well-attended by members of the Hollywood elite, rumors, speculation and gossip continued to follow Novarro in death as they had in life. One of the most outlandish bits of gossip appeared in film director Kenneth Anger's magnum opus of tabloid trash, "Hollywood Babylon." In the book, Anger stated that Novarro was found with a black Art Deco dildo shoved down his throat -- a charge that Paul has always vehemently denied. Despite Paul's protests, the rumor has persisted for decades. 

The trial of Paul and Tom Ferguson began on July 28, 1969 in Los Angeles, with Deputy District Attorney James Ideman, the prosecutor, recounting the ghastly torture inflicted on Novarro by the defendants. Ideman painted a picture of a robbery gone horribly awry, ending with 22 different injuries on Novarro’s body.

The first injury, Ideman noted, was likely inflicted using a cane, a piece of which had been found on Novarro’s body by police. The brothers bound Novarro’s hands with electrical cord, dealing 21 additional blows to Navarro’s exposed body before, ultimately, the elderly actor choked on his own blood.

Cletus Hanifin, defending the Ferguson brothers, called as a star witness a court-appointed psychiatrist, who diagnosed Paul as having sociopathic tendencies. Perhaps even more notable, the psychiatrist told the court, was that Paul was a self-loathing homosexual who made Novarro the target of his own hatred of his sexual identity.

Paul’s own testimony, in addition to insisting the murder was accidental and not a robbery, revealed his deep-seated loathing. Thirty years later, in a phone interview, he told the same story. “When (Novarro) kissed me, I reacted like a Catholic, what they call a homosexual panic,” Paul recalled. “It’s inbred … I was too drunk to be civilized. … It had nothing to do with Novarro, nothing to do with his being homosexual. It all had to do with how I saw myself. And the fact that my brother was there. And that he could see me in that homosexual act.”

Throughout the course of the six-week trial, a menagerie of witnesses offered testimony, ranging from Paul’s former landlord to his fourth wife, who testified that Paul had mentioned to her that he was going to steal the $5,000 rumored to be hidden in Novarro’s house.

The jury deliberated for eight hours on Sept. 17, 1968, before delivering the verdict of ‘guilty’ of first-degree murder to L.A. Superior Court Judge Mark Brandler. Both of the Ferguson brothers were sentenced to life in prison.

 Life after Novarro

In order to spare his older brother from the death penalty, Tom Ferguson initially took the blame for Novarro’s death, Upon one investigator’s discovery of written statements implicating Paul in the murder, however, Tom asked that the case be reopened, and Paul eventually took responsibility for the killing. Tom was released from prison on probation, but returned in 1977 after a parole violation.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Tom returned to prison twice – once, in connection with the alleged rape of a middle-aged woman, and then again when he failed to register as a sex offender. After again being released on parole, Tom later committed suicide in a Motel 6.

In the early days of his incarceration at San Quentin, Paul did his best to become a model inmate, earning an associate of arts degree in epistemology and later teaching creative writing courses to fellow inmates. He was paroled in 1978 and discharged in 1981. For most of the 1980s, he worked sporadically in the construction business.

He didn’t stay away from prison for long, however. In the late '80s, Paul was arrested on charges of first-degree rape and sodomy; he was sentenced to 60 years in prison but, thanks to an appeal, had the time trimmed down to 30 years.

Now nearly 70 years old, Paul has stated he has never fully shaken the effects of Novarro’s death, according to Soares’ biography.

“Mr. Novarro’s death still affects me, both personally and in society,” Paul said more than a decade ago. “It pretty much crashed my world, and the dust has never settled.”