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.