Back again after a few weeks away with some forgotten Movieland news about a would-be comedy bathing beauty. . .
DEATH IN VENICE
Robert S. Birchard
All rights reserved
Early Monday, March 5, 1923, Los Angeles County Undersheriff Eugene Biscailuz was called to 1567 Rialto Avenue in the beach suburb of Venice. There, “Arline Zimmerly, pretty 22 year old movie bathing girl,” lay dead with a bullet to the head. When police entered, they found Arline’s boyfriend, Ben Bojarguez, covered with her blood.
“. . . Bojarguez was weeping all over the girl’s body,” said Biscailuz. “The only thing he would say was, ‘I want the gun.’ I looked for the gun and found it, not on the mantelpiece, where he later told police [Arline’s roommate] Betty Miller had placed it, but behind a bookcase on the other side of the room from where the body lay.”
Bojarguez told officers Zimmerly committed suicide. Betty Miller, who claimed to have been asleep in another room, said Arline and Bojarguez argued before the shot was fired. No powder burns were visible on Arline’s scalp, and because of their conflicting stories Bojarguez and Miller were detained pending further investigation.
Perhaps not surprisingly in the wake of three major scandals that had rocked the movie colony—manslaughter charges against comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in 1921; the unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor in 1922; and the death–just weeks before in January 1923–of popular movie idol Wallace Reid—Los Angeles papers gave short shrift to this sordid tale of a movieland “wannabe,” for fear it would further blacken Hollywood’s reputation. But halfway across the country, International News Service wire copy aroused curiosity at the Rockford, Illinois, Republic.
“Rockford relatives of pretty Eileen Zimmerle . . . formerly of Rockford, and now residing in Los Angeles, Cal., are wondering if she is the Arline Zimmerly, motion picture bathing girl who shot herself . . .”
It turned out to be true; Eileen and Arline were one and the same–although the reported 22-year-old was in fact only 18. “With the lips of the beautiful girl sealed in death,” the Rockford paper declared, “authorities have been unraveling the mystery.”
Born September 22, 1904, Eileen Zimmerle attended Rockford schools and St. Mary’s Academy before eloping with soda jerk Richard Henrickson to nearby Belvidere on March 17, 1920. With Richard claiming to be 23 and Eileen declaring she was 19, the Reverend D. C. Jenson of St. John Evangelical Church performed the ceremony.
“Richard was making slender wages at the time, and was not in a position to satisfy all her wishes,” declared a relative in the stilted newspeak of the day, “She was extravagant but we were not harsh with her for we realized she was but a child.”
Married at 15, and likely with a baby on the way, Eileen was deemed unfit to attend the local high school where she might corrupt other students; but on Saturday, June 5, 1920, she was one of ninety-four in Rockford Continuation School’s first graduating class. Soon afterward, the Henricksons left Rockford for Los Angeles. Eileen’s mother, Bessie, and step-father William E. Kelly, followed and took up residence at 5603 South Main Street.
“Coast moving picture men,” it was said, “were impressed by the young wife’s unusual beauty and striking form. She expected soon to become a mother, however, and did not do any movie work.”
Eileen’s baby died only hours after birth, and, “Then the girl-wife was stricken with brain fever as a result of which she hovered between life and death for several weeks,” the Rockford Republic reported.
With no child to bind them, Richard Henrikson let Eileen file for divorce on grounds of desertion, and walked out of her life.
When Rockford relatives last heard from Eileen, sometime before Christmas, 1922, she wrote she had just left a motion picture acting school to accept a contract working in movies as a bathing beauty for an unnamed comedy company. It was then that Eileen Zimmerle Henrikson took Arline Zimmerly as her nom du screen. If she did find work in the movies, however, it was likely as an extra girl for three or five dollars a day when she worked.
Being a bathing beauty required putting in time at the shore, and Eileen would take the streetcar from her parent’s home to Venice beach, where she met her chum, Betty Miller, and Ben Bojarguez, the new soda jerk in her life.
Detective Captain Hunter of the district attorney’s office told reporters, that when Betty Miller met James Nash, who lived in the newly-built Rialto Avenue house, she claimed to be homeless. Nash invited Betty to stay at his place and she accepted. Sometime around June 1922, against the wishes of her mother, Eileen moved in with Betty, Steve Nash and occasionally Ben Bojarguez, who also took up part-time residence.
There is little doubt Eileen/Arline was head over heels for Ben Bojarguez. On November 18, 1922, she wrote:
I’ve given everything for you—you are all I have—and without you the world would end for me.
Honey, if I was all yours, your own little wife, would you keep on caring until we were separated by death? I want to make sure my next attempt is going to be the last.
Mother just left, so this is my first chance to write a few lines to my lover. She hasn’t mentioned moving, so we will be here for a while anyway. I’m so glad, honey. I would so hate the thoughts of leaving my sweetheart.
Of course, [if I moved back home] I’d be down real often [to visit you], but just the same, not enough. I’m loving you more and more every day and I hope you are also—one can never sometimes tell, you know.
I’d surely be one miserable heart-broken girl if you cease loving me.
I’m sure for myself that you are made for me. I could never, never grow tired of you—my lovest. I’m so afraid if I were your wife, you’d grow tired and want something different . . .
Some day, some where, some how, you will realize the truth in my words. Will be able to see you in a short while–until then, believe that I love you—always, always—my dearest boy.
Your little wife to-be.
In the sappy way young lovers have, 22 year old Ben bared his soul in return, expressing fear that Eileen’s mother would force the girl to move back home:
I sure do love you, honey, and I wish the whole world knew it so they would leave you alone. When you are my lil wife, oh what a grand and glorious feeling that will be.
I am a very peculiar lover, dear. I have never noticed words from a girl’s lips before. Nothing seemed to bother me. I was just a happy-go-lucky fellow. You are my first love, honey.
Let’s forget all of this trouble and laugh in the face of misfortune. I fear nothing and, as you say, we will show a little action from now on.
However, despite the lovesick brooding, it seems Eileen was pressuring Ben to put his hands on some cash.
Dear Sweetheart, Bojarguez wrote, I love you and want to marry you. $5,000? $2,000 at least. I’ll get it by hook or crook. Your real and true lover.
In Eileen’s effects, police found another missive suggesting Ben might have been serious about the “crook” part: Don’t be surprised if I disappear for a few days. I might go out and do my stuff and then we can go to Canada.
But he wasn’t always so eager to please. After her daughter’s death, Mrs. Kelly claimed Eileen “was in great fear of Bojarguez,” and Betty Miller related that he would become quarrelsome when drinking,
I drank, drank and drank, Bojarguez wrote, and then my heart turned to stone. I must have been insane; yes, insanely jealous and now I know why there are so many murders and suicides in the height of love.
I never cared for anything or anybody, dearie. I knew of nothing only you. You do not know this, but I guess if you had hit me with that glass I would have . . . . . .you. [this space, according to newspaper accounts, was left blank] I guess I was insane because my heart felt like a piece of ice. I felt my heart give way and that was the last I remembered until next morning.
And when you told me that I had hit you it made me feel cheap. One little sentence in your letter overcame all the rest. Do you really mean that I spit on you, Doll? That hurt the most. All I can tell you is that I don’t remember a thing.”
The letters penned by Bojarguez aroused the suspicion of Deputy Sheriff J. B. Fox and Detective Captain Watson of Venice, who made it clear they were not satisfied with the suicide theory.
Those familiar with cops and robbers movies of the era can picture what happened next. Police likely pressured County Coroner Frank A. Nance to declare a non-committal verdict–“suicidal or homicidal unable to determine” read the death certificate–and the inquest panel returned the opinion that Eileen’s death resulted from a “gunshot wound fired by a person or persons unknown to the jury.”
With the open-ended coroner’s verdict as a lever, Deputy District Attorney L. M. Powell ordered a murder probe. Ben Bojarguez and Betty Miller were grilled multiple times. It isn’t hard to imagine Eileen’s lover and friend sitting under harsh lights in darkened interrogation rooms undergoing the third degree.
So, what really happened? No one account from the time tells the whole story, but pieces from varying press reports suggest this:
Despite her professed love for Ben Bojarguez, Eileen apparently also went out with housemate James Nash on at least one occasion, sending Bojarguez into a jealous rage. Although Nash was now in county jail for a liquor law violation, on Saturday March 3rd, Ben and Eileen quarreled over her betrayal, and he stormed out.
The next evening Eileen and Betty Miller were home alone when they noticed a car drive by several times then stop in front of the house.
Eileen–or perhaps Betty–took a small caliber revolver from a drawer and placed it on the fireplace mantel, “in case he attempts to come in here,” she told Betty, or Betty told her.
It turned out their fears were unfounded, and the two went to bed; but just before midnight they heard someone enter the house using a passkey. They got up and found Ben Bojarguez in the living room. Although Betty Miller claimed Bojarguez was “fighting mad,” she soon left the angry lovers, returned to bed and fell asleep.
At about 3 AM, Eileen asked, “Ben, we’re going to be married pretty soon, aren’t we?”
“Ben, don’t you love me any more?”
“No, anyway, my mother doesn’t want me to marry a second-hand girl.” Bojarguez started to leave, but as he reached the door he turned and saw Eileen standing by the fireplace holding the gun to her head.
“Don’t do that!” he screamed as he attempted to stop Eileen from pulling the trigger, but, “a shot rang out and the girl fell to the floor,” according to Bojarguez.
On Tuesday, March 13, 1923, the District Attorney threw in the towel, notified the coroner that Eileen had committed suicide, and declared her death “officially solved.” The quotation marks appeared in all the news stories, guaranteeing Ben Bojarguez would be tainted in the court of public opinion for as long as people remembered the death of the “pretty” bathing beauty–at least until the papers were recycled to wrap fish or line the bottom of bird cages.
Eileen Zimmerle’s story became lost in time until her photo was sold by a newspaper “morgue” seeking to extract cash from its dwindling assets in this digital age so far removed from the Age of Jazz.