Who killed the Masked Marvel?

David Bacon played a crime-fighting superhero on screen, but the villain who murdered the actor in broad daylight has remained a Hollywood mystery for more than 75 years.
June 27, 2019 at 08:00 AM EDT

It was a sunny Sunday afternoon around 5 p.m. on Sept. 12, 1943, in Venice, Calif., when 12-year-old Lorraine Smith happened to look out her window and notice something peculiar. There below was a burgundy Austin sports car heading east on Washington Boulevard. But something was off. The car was bumping and bouncing across the road that runs parallel to her home, narrowly avoiding crashing into a telephone pole before jumping the curb and finally landing in a bean field. Grabbing her telescope for a closer look, the young girl noticed something else: The man behind the wheel was nearly naked. And then things got really weird.

Wearing only blue bathing suit trunks, the driver opened the car door and stumbled about 15 feet before falling to the ground, covered in blood. A man named Wayne Powell, who had witnessed the crash, rushed to the scene. “Help me, please help me!” cried the bloody, half-naked driver while writhing between beanstalks. Powell told him to lie still and save his energy. “Who did this?” Powell asked. The driver could not answer. Ten minutes later, he was dead.

The scene — complete with a steering wheel soaked in blood and bloody handprints on the driver’s-side window — sounds like something that would come straight out of a pulpy 1940s film serial. Which makes the fact that the victim was the star of just such a project all the more eerie.

Twenty-nine-year-old David Bacon was not just an actor; he was the Masked Marvel! A mild-mannered insurance inspector moonlighting as a World War II superhero taking on an evil Axis enemy hell-bent on sabotaging America’s war industry, the Masked Marvel was the seemingly infallible star of a 12-episode serial bearing his name. “When the Masked Marvel goes after a man, he’s finished,” proclaimed one baddie. “The Marvel learns everything and strikes from nowhere!”

But the man behind the mask was struck down himself just two weeks after filming had completed in a mystery that, more than 75 years later, still bursts with intrigue and has yet to be solved. Why did Bacon write a new will shortly before his death? What’s that about a diary written in a secret code? Who was the unidentified “angry” man seen at a Bacon-rented apartment? How come police ruled out a person who confessed to the crime not once, but twice? So many questions remain unanswered, including the biggest one of all: Who killed the Masked Marvel?

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Gaspar Griswold Bacon Jr. was born in 1914 to a prominent Boston family that traced its roots to Plymouth Rock. Bacon’s grandfather attended Harvard with Teddy Roosevelt and served as Roosevelt’s secretary of state and ambassador to France; his father was president of the Massachusetts State Senate and a lieutenant governor for the state. After graduating from Deerfield Academy prep school, Bacon — who would later change his stage name to David — attended Harvard, writing and starring in productions of the famed Hasty Pudding club and acting alongside then-president Franklin Roosevelt’s youngest son, John.

The actor’s big break in Hollywood came while playing a doomed nephew of Benedict Arnold trying to redeem his family’s name in 1942’s Ten Gentlemen From West Point. Though Bacon was far from top billing and was appearing only in his first film, everyone on set — including headliners George Montgomery and Maureen O’Hara — referred to Bacon as “our star,” The Boston Globe reported. “He’s really terrific,” director Henry Hathaway told the Globe. “Half the time he drove us nuts, with muttering his lines between takes, brooding over his method.”

Tall, dark, and handsome, Bacon was described as the next Henry Fonda, and with Hollywood in the midst of a leading-man shortage at the time, the fresh-faced actor hoped to fill the void and start his path toward stardom. “In Hollywood, the greatest sin is to be unnoticed,” wrote Hollywood reporter Mayme Ober Peak. “Such means death to a player’s career. Not so with David Bacon, who is now not only noticed, but well remembered.”

Bacon landed roles in five movies altogether before scoring what he hoped would be his breakthrough in The Masked Marvel. The 12-episode Republic Studios serial was an action spectacular that also served as era-typical wartime propaganda. The hero was trying to take down Japanese spy and saboteur Mura Sukima, a cringeworthy villain notorious for blowing things up in the hope of hampering Allied forces and causing the United States’ war production “to break down.” The big twist (and one that Republic had used in The Lone Ranger) was that neither the characters nor the viewers knew the identity of the titular star until the very last scene of the series, when unassuming insurance agent Bob Barton (played by Bacon) took off his mask to reveal himself as the mysterious crime-fighting hero. Two weeks after filming that scene, Bacon would be dead.

While the Masked Marvel character protected people from harm, those actually appearing in the films were considerably less fortunate. The role of Bob Barton was considered cursed even before Bacon’s untimely demise. In fact, Bacon only got the role after four other actors were injured. Another time, during the filming of a particularly intense fight scene, every single actor participating was hurt except Bacon. “I better look out or something might happen to me,” the actor was heard joking while leaving the set. “I’ll probably get hurt going home in my car tonight.”

And then there is this: David was not the only actor with the last name of Bacon playing an insurance agent in The Masked Marvel who perished prematurely. Rod Bacon (no relation), who played Jim Arnold in the serial, died five years later in 1948 at the age of 33.

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The circumstances surrounding David Bacon’s death form a case that even the Masked Marvel would have had trouble cracking. The weekend of his murder began with a dinner party. Bacon and his pregnant wife, smoky-voiced singer Greta Keller, hosted a soiree that included cocktails for 150 guests followed by a sit-down supper for 50 at Castle Hill, their home in the Hollywood Hills. Keller, who liked to joke that she sang in four languages but cooked in 14, made a traditional Viennese dish, beuschel with dumplings. The next evening, Bacon returned the favor by serving his gourmet-chef wife his two signature dishes: omelets and Jell-O. “He loved Jell-O and I hated it, but I always had to eat it anyway,” Keller wrote later in notes for her biography.

Sunday morning, Sept. 12, was a hot, muggy day. Over breakfast with his wife, Bacon suggested that they go to the beach. Keller wanted to go with him, but because she was in the second trimester of a difficult pregnancy, her doctor advised her to stay home and rest, so the couple instead spent the afternoon writing letters, eventually lying down together to take a nap. When Keller woke up, her husband was gone. She would never see him alive again.

Nobody knows exactly where Bacon went that afternoon, whom he was with, or why anyone would want to murder him. Money was likely not a motive, since Bacon was still wearing a valuable ring and had $13 (along with his Screen Actors Guild card) in his wallet when he died. Inside the vehicle, there was a blood-soaked bathrobe, but it didn’t have a knife hole, so detectives deduced that Bacon wasn’t wearing it at the time he was murdered; he was just sitting on top of it.

And this is where the questions — and contradictions — begin. After the autopsy, medical examiner Frank Webb surmised that Bacon was stabbed with a stiletto while he was leaning forward — possibly releasing the parking brake — but there were no signs of a struggle. When the police dusted the car for fingerprints, they all came back as belonging to Bacon.

Meanwhile, eyewitnesses to the crash told the police varying stories. A gas-station attendant about half a mile away said he saw both a man and a woman in the car with Bacon. A woman who lived across the street from the crash, however, told police that she definitely saw a dark-haired man in the passenger seat. Because of the angle of the knife wound, Webb theorized that the killer was left-handed and not very tall. He said because of the way the knife punctured Bacon’s lung, Bacon could have driven 20 minutes before he died, giving his assailant plenty of time to bail out before the crash.

Almost every day, newspapers across the country reported a new twist or piece of baffling information emerging in the murder investigation — twists like Bacon’s encrypted diary that Keller gave to the police. It seemed to be written in a secret code, mirroring a coded diary that Bacon’s character had examined in an episode of The Masked Marvel. Even odder, shortly before Bacon died, the roof of his Cadillac convertible had been shredded — it appeared to have been slashed with a knife. Keller told police that her husband never gave her a straight story about what had happened. One day he said he was in the car while someone knifed it; another time he said it happened while he was at the studio. Regardless, Bacon traded the vehicle for a used Rolls-Royce and the small British-made Austin sports car that later became a murder scene. Was he trying to hide from someone who knew his ride?

Just days after his death, Bacon’s cousin uncovered and filed a will that Bacon had handwritten three months before the crash. Dated June 14, the will was written in pencil on a piece of onionskin paper; it left everything to Bacon’s wife. Keller later explained in notes for her biography that Bacon refused to come to bed one evening, even though he had to get up to film early the next morning. He told her he was jumping off a second-story building during filming and he wanted a will just in case something went wrong. But was that the real reason? Did the 29-year-old know his life was in danger?

And then there was the apartment. Police discovered that Bacon had rented a small studio apartment in Laurel Canyon a few weeks before his death. The key in his wallet when he died fit the lock. Keller said she helped her husband pick the apartment, then they advertised in the paper for a carpenter to help Bacon execute plans to expand their home in exchange for a place to live. But who lived there? All police found inside the apartment were dirty dishes, coffee, spaghetti, and some books.

An upstairs neighbor, actor Leslie Denison, informed investigators that he never noticed anyone in the apartment — except for the day of the murder. “Someone was there on Sunday,” Denison said. Meanwhile, landlord Charles Hendricks told police that he was driving by the building two days before Bacon died and saw a light on, so he stopped to collect the $20 for rent. Bacon said he didn’t have the cash on him but promised to leave it in the landlord’s mailbox the next morning, which he did. But Bacon was not alone.

“There was another man with Mr. Bacon,” Hendricks said at the coroner’s inquest. “He was dark and slight, foreign-looking, and his face was flushed like he was angry. All the time I was there, he never spoke a word, nor did Mr. Bacon introduce me to him.” The police announced that they were searching for the individual Bacon’s landlord had met. “This man should have come forward by now with an explanation, unless he has left town,” Capt. Thad Brown of the Los Angeles Police Department’s homicide squad told reporters.

Unfortunately, this was just one more wild chase on the trail of false leads and, well, dead ends. But while the “angry” apartment person of interest never turned up, others did, including one hospital orderly who knew the identity of Bacon’s killer. Or so he claimed.

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On Sept. 21, 1943, 22-year-old Blakely Clifford Patterson gave an exclusive interview to the Los Angeles Examiner, saying he knew exactly who’d murdered his good friend Bacon. And he believed he was next. “I have a feeling that if this man is still in Los Angeles, he’ll get me too — that my days are numbered,” fretted Patterson. “He might kill me to silence me.” A hospital orderly who had recently moved to Hollywood, Patterson said he first encountered Bacon at the beach and they became fast friends. He recalled that one day he and Bacon met with the mystery man at a downtown hotel. “This man seemed to be very angry at David,” Patterson said.

Patterson told reporters that Bacon phoned him in a panic around 11 a.m. on the morning of the murder, saying that the man had written a threatening letter demanding money. “He seemed puzzled and nervous, and didn’t know what to make of it,” Patterson said. Bacon begged Patterson to go with him to the beach to meet the man, but Patterson responded that he couldn’t because he had to work. The actor promised to call the next morning, but he was killed later that day.

Any hope by detectives that a key witness was about to blow the case wide open was dashed when they finally interviewed Patterson and asked him to describe his good friend David Bacon. He couldn’t. Patterson recanted his story, telling police that he’d made the whole thing up, admitting that he had never even met the deceased. “I thought I could get into the movies if I had my picture in the paper,” Patterson was quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times. He was arrested and charged with making false police reports, and spent 10 days in jail before returning to his hometown of Hibbing, Minn., on judge’s orders.

Charles R. While also claimed to know who’d killed Bacon — himself. The 23-year-old confessed to the murder of the Masked Marvel, but police let him go after questioning, saying that they didn’t believe he, like Patterson, had ever met Bacon. But While was not done. A month later, he was arrested after attacking a neighbor with a butcher knife, and during his time in custody, While told a Santa Monica police officer that he had murdered the actor. When detectives questioned While a second time the next morning, he said he was drunk and denied his previous confession. Due to the amount of discrepancies, he was once again cleared.

The police, however, had their own suspect. Examining a blue crewneck sweater that was placed under Bacon’s head, taken from the car in the bean field before he died, detectives noted that there was no way it would have fit the 6-foot-2-inch actor. “It is much too small,” Captain Brown told reporters. Police sent the sweater to the crime lab and found blond hairs around the collar and three small feathers that appeared as if they might have belonged to a seagull.

Law enforcement determined that the sweater looked like the kind sailors wore, so they started questioning Army-Navy stores along the coast in an attempt to find the owner. “It is logical to assume that whoever stabbed Bacon departed so hastily, he left his sweater behind,” Brown told reporters. Police searched for a man who was about 5 foot 8 and blond, weighing around 140 pounds. “We are convinced the sweater belongs to Bacon’s assailant,” the LAPD’s Det. Lieut. Harry Fremont said.

And they were convinced that they’d found their man when police arrested 20-year-old Navy deserter Glenn Erwin Shaum for the crime. Shaum had been hired by Bacon as a gardener two weeks before the murder. However, the actor then canceled the job days before his death. But there was a problem: Shaum had an alibi. The deserter couldn’t have murdered Bacon because he’d spent all day Sunday with his wife, which witnesses confirmed. No other leads or suspects were ever made public. “The workaday cops were baffled,” The Boston Globe reported days after Bacon’s death. “Detectives who studied reports and questioned everybody who ever knew Bacon admitted they were certain of nothing.”

Perhaps that is because the investigation was somewhat botched. Police made one critical error, admitting to reporters that Bacon’s body was embalmed before officers examined it or ran any forensic tests. Officers weren’t sure if Bacon was murdered by a close friend or a complete stranger. They even theorized a hitchhiker could be responsible since the actor was known to often give pedestrians rides. “It was like the Jack the Ripper murders,” says film historian Greg Mank, who included a chapter about Bacon in his book about Bacon’s costar Laird Creger. “Somebody got away with killing somebody with a knife in broad daylight.”

Still, 76 years later, the case is not closed. “It is an open case,” a spokesperson for the LAPD tells Entertainment Weekly. “At this time, [we] are not commenting any further.”

The tragedy of Bacon’s murder extended well past the bean field in which his car — and life — came to a screeching halt. Bacon’s widow, Greta Keller, struggled with the loss of her husband. “I cannot find peace,” she said in the days after his killing. Less than two weeks after her husband’s death, the pregnant Keller lost their baby. “I wanted to die,” she wrote in the notes for her biography. “I kept thinking I should be dead, not him.” Bacon’s widow never stopped trying to solve her husband’s murder.

After the miscarriage, Keller invited detectives to her hospital room and suggested where they should look and whom to call. “I said, ‘I’ll give up my fortune, I want to find the killer,'” she wrote. “I called the detectives one or two times. I said, ‘Look there, look there’…. They said, ‘Do you know something?’ I said, ‘I have no idea.'”

Keller even went so far as to hire a New York law firm to investigate the stabbing, but they never solved the case. “I can’t rest until I find the murderer,” she told a reporter who met her at a nightclub in St. Moritz, Switzerland, about nine years after her husband’s death. “David was just a big, lovable kid. Nobody could help liking him. And how could anybody kill him?” Keller spent the rest of her life wondering who did it. “I have had the feeling that [it was] somebody from his former life,” she mused. “Someone who had a kind of power over him.”

Keller never remarried. And most of the relationships she had were with men who either looked like Bacon or somehow reminded her of him, says Wolfgang Nebmaier, who was in a relationship with Keller from 1973 until she died of liver cancer in November 1977. “Greta was absolutely gaga about the man,” says Nebmaier, who is working on a book about Keller’s life called Chanteuse. The singer never quit searching for her husband’s killer, but she never found an answer. And she never watched The Masked Marvel. “I think I would not have survived seeing him before me on the screen, and not in reality anymore,” she said.

Bacon’s other family members never gave interviews about his murder. They never even spoke of it to one another. Seventy-six years after the killing, Bacon’s niece, Marsha Bacon Martin, says that all she knows about her “Uncle Gappy” is that he was very handsome, very talented, and very charming. “Nobody talked about him,” says the 71-year-old Martin. “He was kind of an enigma.” In fact, Martin has never seen any of Bacon’s movies and only learned her uncle was murdered when she recently Googled him. “I’m very curious,” she says. “You probably know more than I do.” When Bacon’s life came to a tragic end in that Venice bean field on Sept. 12, 1943, his final feature film was playing in theaters. The title: Someone to Remember.

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