The Distinguished…Extinguished

Albert Dekker, still dapper at sixty-three, and his longtime fiancée, Geraldine Saunders, made a distinguished couple. The cultured actor's marriage to the svelte fashion model was set for less than a month away. On Thursday evening, May 2, 1968, they attended the opening of Zero Mostel's new play, The Latent Heterosexual, at Hollywood's Huntington Hartford Theater. "He was in fine spirits," Saunders said in a later interview. "We were going to go out again on Friday, but my numerous phone calls to him that evening went unanswered." Indeed, the next time she would see Dekker he would neither be distinguished nor alive.

When Saturday night passed with still no word from Albert, his fiancée grew increasingly concerned. First thing Sunday morning, she went to his Hollywood apartment at 1731 North Normandie only to find his door covered with notes from friends who were also trying in vain to contact him. She slipped a note of her own under the door. When she returned that evening and found it still in place, she went immediately to the manager. The manager opened the front door which had been locked but not bolted. Everything seemed to be in order until they tried the bathroom door. It was chained from the inside. They forced it open -- and Saunders passed out. "It was so horrible," she said.

The 6 feet 3 inch, 240-pound Dekker was kneeling nude in the bathtub, a dirty hypodermic needle sticking out of each arm. A hangman's noose was around his neck but not tight enough to have strangled him. A scarf was tied over his eyes and something like a horse's bit was in his mouth. Fashioned from a rubber ball and metal wire, the bit had chain "reins" that were tightly tied behind his head. Two leather thongs were stretched between the leather belts that girded his neck and chest. A third belt, around his waist, was tied with a rope that stretched to his ankles, where it had been tied in some kind of lumber hitch. The end of the rope, which continued up his side, wrapped around his wrist several times and was held in Dekker's hand. Both wrists were clasped by a set of handcuffs. Written in lipstick, above two hypodermic punctures on his right buttock, was the word "whip" and drawings of the sun. Sun rays had also been drawn around his nipples. "Make me suck" was written on his thorax and "slave" and "cocksucker" on his chest. On his lower abdomen was drawn a vagina. He had apparently been dead since Friday and his awkward position had colored his lower body a deep blood purple. "This one has everything but a vampire bite," remarked a deputy coroner.

During the brief investigation, detectives noted that there were no signs of forced entry or a struggle. They labeled the death "indicated suicidequite an unusual case." Finding no convincing evidence for suicide, the coroner rejected that theory. His final report said "accidental death, not a suicide."
Another of Dekker's respected colleagues, Paul Lukas, emphatically defended his friend. "Al would never have left the world in such a shambles. He was a man of culture and breeding." Dekker had been a happy man. He was a well-known intellectual and student of classical literature, a poet, and a sculptor. Lukas was sure that he was murdered. It was a complete, grotesque, horrible puzzle to his friends.
As a young graduate of Bowdoin College in Maine, Dekker intended to become a psychologist or psychiatrist. But a persistent alumnus who had seen Dekker in several school productions urged him to pursue a career in the theater. He wrote a letter of introduction for him to take to one of the most formidable actors on the stage, Alfred Lunt. "Al has a fine mind," Lunt later said of the man who became a life-long friend, "and a soul in which unkindness is wholly absent." In 1927, Dekker made his impressive stage debut opposite Lunt, playing four varied character roles. By the time he made his film debut a decade later, he was a well-established Broadway star.

The sandy-haired, blue-eyed Dekker excelled in character roles, especially multidimensional villains. He appeared in more than 100 films, among them Gentleman's Agreement, Two Years Before the Mast, East of Eden, Suddenly Last Summer, Beau Geste, Strange Cargo and The Man in the Iron Mask. He played the title role of the bald, mad scientist who reduces five humans to doll size in Dr. Cyclops. He often said that he found it much more challenging to play a heavy than a hero. "Who wants to be America's sweetheart?" But in private life, he seemed like the perfect good guy -- a family man and a champion of liberal causes. He married New York actress Esther Guernini in 1929, and they had two sons and a daughter. Dekker was long active in Democratic politics and won a California State Assembly seat by a landslide in 1944. He was known as an ardent supporter of unwed and indigent mothers' rights. He introduced a bill against capital punishment, but it died in committee, with some people opposing it because it would take the excitement out of a murder trial. He served a two-year term, then went back to his first love, acting.

In the early fifties, Dekker was a triumph on British television, and on Broadway in the weighty Death of a Salesman. He was so convincing in the role of Willy Loman that his nine-year-old son raced backstage after the suicidal scene to make sure his father was still alive. Dekker won a Tony for his portrayal of the Duke of Norfolk in A Man for All Seasons, and got rave reviews in New York opposite Spencer Tracy in Conflict and in the role of the worn matinee idol in Grand Hotel. Dekker loved the theater. "New York is a small town. Everyone on the street stops an actor to say hello when he's in a current show."

Then suddenly, his charmed life came crashing down, victim of the mid-fifties, Senator Joseph McCarthy-inspired maelstrom. Dekker watched the witch hunt for communists, and couldn't remain silent. When he publicly denounced the red-baiting McCarthy, calling him "insane," he began receiving death threats. Though he'd served in the California legislature, his political views were suddenly suspect. He was on the blacklist. He couldn't work as an actor for the next nineteen years. "All I could do was lecture at colleges and women's clubs."

During that bleak time, his sixteen-year-old son, Jan, died of an accidental but self-inflicted gunshot wound. "He had been experimenting for over a year on a rifle silencer," the grieving Dekker said in an attempt to explain. Dekker was one of Hollywood's blacklist victims who managed to hang in until the nation's political climate about-faced in the late sixties, and yesterday's "reds" became heroes. In April of 1968, just a month before his death, he completed a role in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. Peckinpah, William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan were still on location in Mexico when they got word about Dekker. They all agreed that suicide was out of the question. He was the life of the set, they said. He'd entertained them day and night with "his endless dialects and stories."

Technically, the details of Dekker's horrendous finish began to look more and more like the work of an assassin. "The-most-puzzling-sentence-ever-in-an-obituary" -- from UPI -- "The police said he had been found bound and handcuffedand they listed the death as a suicide," wrote one New York columnist. Another obvious question was, if Dekker had been alone, how could he have legibly written on his own backside? The police confirmed that he'd been injected with a drug, but after three days it was unidentifiable. Geraldine believed that Albert could have been bound and choked only if he was unconscious; after all, he was a very large, healthy man, quite capable of defending himself against an attacker.

The puzzle had one more potentially significant clue. "Al was very trusting. He flew home from Mexico with his pay, thirty thousand dollars," Geraldine revealed. "We were about to close a deal on a house in the Encino Hills. Al was staying alone at the Normandie Street apartment until our house went through escrow. He'd only lived there a week." Also in the apartment was $40,000 from two television roles. Dekker was using straight cash as a bargaining leverage for the house. "When he died," his fiancée continued, "the whole seventy thousand dollars was missing. I think it was someone he knew and let into the apartment." Dekker chose the Normandie Street building because a friend managed it. That "friend" disappeared after Dekker's death and Saunders has always believed he had something to do with it.

Also missing were some expensive camera equipment and his tape recorder, which he'd been using to prepare for a role he'd been offered in Fiddler on the Roof. The police toyed with a theory that Dekker was a closet homosexual who practiced his eccentricities very discreetly with anonymous male prostitutes, and that this time, something had gone wrong and the frightened partner had quietly let himself out. They made inquiries, but Dekker had no reputation among male hustlers. Nor did any of his friends consider him the least bit "kinky." However, Los Angeles County Coroner Thomas Noguchi had a theory of his own: autoerotic asphyxia, a surprisingly prevalent sexual practice in which orgasm is achieved by chancing death. Noguchi explained that during the solitary experience, the victim is "almost always handcuffed sometimes blindfolded...and some don transvestite clothing." The rope is rigged as a pulley that the participant can control, but things can go wrong -- that's the risk. But no one could ever prove Noguchi's theory. It's entirely possible that the murderer "arranged" the whole bizarre tableau. In reflecting on the puzzle and all of its pieces, one detective admitted to Saunders that "Dekker was slickered." But she couldn't get the police to reverse the "accident" decision.
The case is closed to further inquiry. The death of the scholarly Albert Dekker remains a frustrating, confounding mystery.