It reads like a publicity stunt out of the movie Bombshell. Silent film sweetheart Bebe Daniels was ticketed for speeding, tried, convicted, sentenced to jail, and forced to serve time. Rather than being planned like the stunts in that movie, Bebe did like to speed, and she had gotten caught. Her press agent helped her spin a potentially career damaging moment into one that titillated the public. They were not yet weary of or suspicious of Hollywood stars, and speeding seemed like an offense that anyone could get caught committing. Film fans relished each moment of the case as a chance to gossip about a beloved star. Bebe provided them plenty to dish about.
Let’s back up to January 1921 when she was ticketed. Bebe was behind the wheels of her Marmon Roadster, a car favored by those other fast-livers Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Bebe was hurtling down Route 101 to San Diego with her mother Phyllis Daniels, and they were accompanied by “a well-known Los Angeles pugilist.” At least once source cites him as boxer Marty Farrell, but Bebe herself wrote he was her beau Jack Dempsey. Since Bebe was 19 years-old at this point, her pairing with Jack, six years her senior, wasn’t likely to be controversial, and he was single. He had not yet married actress Estelle Taylor. His identity might have been kept out of the papers as a professional courtesy.
When her car was spotted by motorcycle cop Vernon “Shorty” Myers, Bebe had left Los Angeles County, and she was driving through Orange County in the Santa Ana area. The speed limit along that stretch of the freeway was 35. Bebe would be quoted in the press as driving 56.25 MPH, but in the book Bebe and Ben, she bragged in a later personal account that she was driving 72 MPH. After being issued the ticket, she was warned, “You know we put people in jail for going this fast.” Bebe didn’t believe that would happen to her. She was famous and had connections.
What county she sped in mattered. Her Uncle Jack “was an important newspaper man and ‘in’ very well with the Los Angeles police department.” He had her previous parking tickets taken care of, but this time she had sped in the wrong county. He was powerless in Orange County. There a “notorious anti-speeding crusader” ruled. Judge John Belshazzar Cox “was a barber, not a lawyer, and was a bicyclist, not an auto driver.” He had little sympathy for speeders. He fined anyone going over 35 MPH and put in jail anyone speeding over 50 MPH. Worse for Bebe, he courted media attention normally. Trying a movie star would give him even more.
Her first hearing disappointed the public. Only her lawyer W.I. Gilbert attended and pled her case. Judge Cox could not be swayed to dismiss her ticket. He gave Bebe the courtesy of a delayed trial, she was finishing her film She Couldn’t Help It, so the trial was set for March. Her lawyer requested a trial by jury, betting Bebe stood a better chance of defeating her ticket that way. In the interim, she finished her film and worked the press harder than a girl gunner. She made a public appearance at a benefit in Fullerton. Wearing a dress called “revealing” and “scanty,” she sang a tune called the The Judge Cox Blues. Her performance bouquets included one from him! “Days before the trial, her publicity agent made sure all the Orange County theaters premiered her latest film.”
The publicity likely sold more movie tickets, and it resulted in an estimated crowd of 1,500 to gawp at the fashionably turned out star at the courthouse, but her antics and film weren’t that influential over the jury and Judge Cox. “The jurors were all elderly men–mostly retired ranchers and a real estate agent.” They did not believe Bebe’s excuse that she was racing her car to be repaired at a San Juan Capistrano garage. The jury deliberated for about seven minutes before returning with a guilty verdict. The Judge, who exchanged smiles with Bebe throughout the trial, wasn’t swayed either. He would not be vamped. Bebe expected a warning and a fine. He sentenced her to ten days in jail! She became the first woman convicted of speeding in Orange County.
Bebe was told to report to jail on April 16. This second delay was work-related as well. It allowed her to finish her scenes in The Affairs of Anatol. Since she had been convicted of a misdemeanor, she was allowed privileges that other inmates were not. Her mother was given permission to accompany and stay with her daughter. Bebe could wear her own clothes, bring personal belongings, and decorate her cell. Local furniture stores competed to furnish her cell, and area restaurants vied to be the one to provide her meals for free. Bebe being Bebe chose the best of each to supply her. When the pair arrived, her cell looked more like a fine room, “furnished with wall to wall carpet, chintz curtains,” “twin beds with covers to match the curtains,” and “even bedside tables and lamps.”
The judge greeted her with a bouquet in front of the press and escorted her to her cell. While Bebe thought he acted like a “hotel manager” when he wished her a comfortable stay, she very much felt her loss of freedom. She remembered the sound of the “locks being turned and the iron gates clanking behind” them for the rest of her life. Despite all the comforts she had, she was locked in one room that she could not leave except for set times. She had to find ways to distract herself so she did not pace her cell. Meals, reading, exercise, Mom, her Victrola records, and a who’s who of movie star visitors provided her main distractions. She tried not to look at the clock.
The jail was overwhelmed at hosting a popular celebrity. Locals left her gifts ranging from chocolates to kittens. The sixty-three “other female inmates, accused of such crimes as bootlegging, forgery, drunkenness, drug-dealing and bigamy, vied for her attention.” A woman only identified as Sadie, convicted of bootlegging, won the privilege of cleaning Bebe’s room daily. Her jailer helped her screen visitors. No one was approved to see her until Bebe saw his or her visitor’s card. One day Abe Lyman appeared outside her windows with his orchestra. They drove down from the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles to serenade her with Rose Room Tango, her favorite tango song she used to dance to with Rudolf Valentino. The group played for her all afternoon. Her jailer confessed he was exhausted by the end of her stay. The jail had never been so busy.
Due to Bebe’s good behavior, her sentence was ended one day early. Judge Cox returned for her departure and gave her yet another bouquet, this time roses. He had invited the press and insisted that Bebe pose with him for photographs as he presented her the flowers. Their farewell was widely circulated by the papers as he had intended. Bebe never saw him again. Her jail time had curtailed her desire to speed–at least in real life.
Her next picture with Realart was inspired by her experience. It was called The Speed Girl. In this romantic comedy, she played a heroine arrested for speeding. Like Bebe, her character ended up in jail. Unlike Bebe, a love triangle with a naval officer and millionaire complicated the plot. The film was released into theatres in the fall of 1921. Its advertising copy read, “Here is a six cylinder hundred and twenty fun powered and record-breaking comedy with Bebe at the wheel. The brakes are off. Slip her into high. Now step on it!” While it does not sound like the strongest picture (It’s presumed lost), the public positively responded to Bebe’s attempt to move on from what could have been a scandal. Her career survived into the sound era before segueing into radio and TV.
1. Allgood, Jill. Bebe and Ben. London: R. Hale, 1975. Print.
2. “Bebe Daniels: The Orange County ‘Speed Girl.'” Orange County Sheriff’s Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2014.
3. Rasmussen, Cecilia. “A Celebrity Tossed in the Slammer? That’s Old News.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 20 May 2007. Web. 30 Oct. 2014.
4. Mott, Patrick. “Film Star Nabbed in Orange County.” Orange Coast Magazine Apr. 1985: 170-71. Print.
5. Slater, Marilyn. “Bebe Daniel – The Speed Girl.” Looking for Mabel Normand. Marilyn Slater, 1 Aug. 2009. Web. 30 Oct. 2014.
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