Like so many others, I got hooked on crime nonfiction back in the mid-70s when Helter Skelter came out. The best-selling true crime book of all time begins with a warning: “This book will scare the hell out of you”—the best introductory teaser for a book I’ve seen and absolutely true. Over the years I developed a fondness for narrative nonfiction books in the tradition of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, particularly those about vintage crimes such as The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson or Midnight in Peking by Paul French. I’ve wanted to write about true crimes almost as long as I’ve been reading about them.
I finally got around to it thirty-five years after reading Helter Skelter. After retiring from active duty in the Navy and settling in San Diego, I went back to school, earning a BA in English from National University followed by an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside. The UCR course is a top-rated low-residency program where the majority of the work is done online, with intense ten-day residency periods twice a year. In 2012, while preparing to start the MFA program, I began searching for a thesis subject. I wanted to write a narrative nonfiction book—using the literary techniques of fiction but sticking to the facts—about an old crime, preferably obscure, unsolved, and untold. If possible, I wanted it set near my home in San Diego because I knew extensive research would be required. As I started the search, I came across a number of crimes that met these criteria, but none stood out and most of them aren’t well-documented. Access to source material became an additional criterion.
As I asked around, several people mentioned the Fritzie Mann case. Local historian and author Richard Crawford had recently rescued the story from obscurity by publishing an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune called “1923 Death of Butterfly Dancer Becomes Shocking Mystery.” As I began looking into it, I noticed that the story seemed to have attained something of a cult status around town as an unsolved mystery, no doubt largely due to Richard’s article. A young woman who worked at the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park referred to it as the city’s “Black Dahlia case.” She steered me to an old scrapbook packed with newspaper clippings, mostly from the 1920s, the majority of which covered the Fritzie Mann case.
The case, which met all of my criteria, drew me in at once. It had the added bonus of being set in the Jazz Age, to me one of the most fascinating periods in U.S. history. Over the next several years, during what proved to be a daunting research project, I learned that the story of Fritzie’s tragic death was much more than an intriguing Jazz Age murder mystery, although it was certainly that; in many ways it seemed to define the era, an era of change and societal conflict with striking parallels to today.
Telling the story, however, proved to be more challenging than I’d anticipated. In some cases, I found hard-to-fill gaps in the historical record that made it difficult to reconstruct scenes with the detail and characterization I wanted. In other cases, such as contemporary newspaper articles, I found an abundance of information but of questionable veracity. I learned some hard lessons about writing a narrative nonfiction book, at least a book about an obscure hundred-year-old murder mystery. The most important lesson: Real-world events don’t always cooperate with your story-telling desires and those pesky facts can get in the way of a good true story. I found that the best—and probably only—way to solve this problem was to get creative with how I told the story without getting creative with the facts.
My book is about the tragic unsolved death of Fritzie Mann, a beautiful interpretive dancer from an immigrant Jewish family. She left her San Diego home one evening in January 1923 to meet a mysterious man, telling her mother only that it was a “man from L.A.” who was taking her to a “house party in Del Mar.” The next morning Fritzie turned up dead on Torrey Pines beach, then a lonely spot. The scene, with her body in an odd posture and her belongings scattered around the beach, mystified the police. Was it an accident, a suicide, or a homicide? They couldn’t tell for sure and neither could the inquest but ultimately the coroner ruled it a homicide.
Two intriguing suspects emerged right away, a playboy actor and a debonair doctor, both sophisticated men from the east. Each of these men had a motive, a shaky alibi, and circumstantial evidence against him and in the early stages of the case both looked guilty. The doctor walked unbidden into the police chief’s office with his lawyer in tow. The cops couldn’t locate the actor for three days; when they finally did, it was in L.A. and it looked like he was about to flee out of state. The investigation uncovered Fritzie’s connections to Hollywood, her clandestine meeting on the night of her death at a beach cottage in La Jolla with a man called the “mysterious Mr. Johnston,” and secrets she’d been keeping that had threatened to ruin her killer.
Newspapers in San Diego and Los Angeles covered the case from the beginning. With each revelation the hype grew and the story spread to front pages across the nation. The more the papers sensationalized the story in this era of “yellow” journalism, the more the coverage shaped and distorted it. Later, an ambitious District Attorney battled a high-profile L.A. attorney in the most sensational trial in San Diego’s history amid allegations of corruption and legal dirty tricks on both sides.
But at the end, big questions remained. In my research I found information unavailable to the jury and newspapers at the time that sheds new light on this true Jazz Age murder mystery. Set against a backdrop of yellow journalism, notorious Hollywood scandals, Prohibition corruption and a lively culture war, this is the tragic story of a spirited young woman who practiced a now-forgotten art and loved the wrong man at a time women had few options.
In upcoming blog posts I plan to cover topics related to Fritzie’s story and the time and place: Ten things you didn’t know about the Jazz Age; San Diego’s unique law enforcement situation and corruption during Prohibition; the string of notorious Hollywood scandals in the early 1920s (e.g. Fatty Arbuckle, William Desmond Taylor); the fact-challenged, sensationalized style of reporting called “yellow” journalism; and the history of the lost art of interpretive dance and Fritzie's experiences in the dance world. I also plan to cover side stories about some of the characters such as a prosecution witness who later became notorious for perpetrating one of the most audacious literary hoaxes in U.S. history involving fake letters from Abraham Lincoln and a colorful brothel madame who followed a successful system to stay one step ahead of the law—until her luck finally ran out.