March 6, 1941 – November 28, 1963
“We pretty much know who did it, but the police weren’t able to get the physical evidence needed to prosecute.” — Irv Kupcinet
It’s a familiar story – a young, beautiful daughter of a successful, well-connected couple seeks her fame and fortune in Hollywood. She meets all the right people, takes all the wrong drugs, and is found face down just off the Sunset Strip in her small apartment bruised, nude, and very, very dead. A few call it a tragic accident. Many call it murder. In West Hollywood, we call it Tuesday.
Karyn “Cookie” Kupcinet was born Roberta Lynn Kupcinet to Chicago Sun-Times columnist Irv “Kup” Kupcinet and his wife Essee. In the world of gossip columnist, Kup was considered by most to be a pretty decent guy. Phyllis Diller stated that Kup was “not a hatchet man like some of those other newspaper writers.” He never passed up an opportunity to help an aging has-been starlet or a struggling restaurateur. After all, in his prime Kup was summoned to the White House by good friend Harry Truman or to the Beverly Hills home of Joan Crawford for an inclusive interview. And if you managed a dinner with Kup and his loud, obnoxious, foul-mouthed wife Essee, well then you indeed had arrived. At his peak Kup delivered six columns a week, hosted a late-night talk show, and added color commentary for the Chicago Bears. There’s the often told story in the 1950s when comedians Jack E. Leonard, Jackie Vernon, Don Rickles, Martha Raye, Phyllis Diller, Milton Berle, Sammy Davis Jr., and Henny Youngman were all at Kup’s place for dinner. It seems no one could finish a joke because they all knew the punch lines.
And while Kup was everyone’s friend, Essee wouldn’t cross the street to piss on you if you were on fire, unless of course, you were on the “A” list. So when Cookie was born, Essee began to groom her to be the star. And why not? Essee was from the Gold Coast (it’s a Chicago thing – look it up) and a failed wanna-be dancer who spared no expense doting on Cookie in those early years. When Karyn reached her early teen years, she began acting in high school and local theaters at the urging of her mother. Friends remember Karyn having the acting range of a Daisy air rifle, but she was in love with the acting lifestyle. She never really bothered to study her craft, supremely confident that she would be a star based on her father’s connections.
There was still one problem that daddy’s connections couldn’t solve – Karyn’s weight problem. Thankfully Essee introduced her daughter to diet pills and crash dieting (thanks Mom!). And around the time she moved to New York City to begin studying part-time at the Actor’s Studio run by Lee Strasberg, Karyn began a two-year odyssey of plastic surgery on her chin, nose, ears, and eyes that resulted in the loss of her natural beauty and expressiveness on camera.
She moved to Los Angeles in 1960 after Jerry Lewis, a close friend of Kup’s, offered Karyn a walk-on part in the “comedy” The Ladies’ Man (don’t even get me started on Jerry Lewis). She continued to work sporadically for the next couple of years including small parts on Hawaiian Eye, Perry Mason, and The Andy Griffith Show – all the while continuing her abuse and eventual addiction of amphetamines. Oh, and I almost forgot – she was arrested for shoplifting. Two books, a sweater and a pair of Capri pants.
In 1962 she met and began dating a young actor named Andrew Prine. Karyn began to take the relationship seriously, talking family and marriage. Prine – not so much. While being seen with another fresh face in Hollywood was good for his career, her constant amphetamine-fueled whiny, clingy, needy, Hollywood actress act was wearing a bit thin and Prine began to pull back. In July of 1963 she was pregnant and with the help of family friends Marcia and Mark Goddard (of Lost in Space fame) drove Karyn down to Tijuana for an abortion.
By then Prine was already seeing another young actress, but that didn’t stop Karyn according to her diary:
July 30th: Andy with Anna. Me watched from hedge. Awful. Nightmares.
August 20th: So humiliated by Andy’s lack of interest.
October 29th: Andy acting ugly. Complete indifference. Scene at his house. I’m hysterical.
November 4th (after hiding in his attic): Wish I were dead.
November 20th: I’m losing reality
I won’t be ignored.
All the while Karyn was stalking Prine, she was cutting letters and phrases out of magazines, composing profanity-filled hate mail and sending them anonymously to her ex-boyfriend.
Karyn resided in the Monterey Village apartments in West Hollywood.
Her apartment is now occupied by the building manager.
The tenants probably got tired of their door being knocked on by curiosity seekers. Imagine. Nice courtyard.
On Saturday, November 30, 1963 (two days after the Thanksgiving holiday) the Goddard’s drove over to her West Hollywood apartment after not hearing from her since their dinner together on Wednesday. The acrid smell of death was emanating from the second story porch, where several newspapers, two magazines and a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer were surrounding her WELCOME mat. Inside, her nude, decomposing body was discovered laying face down on the couch with the television turned on. Glitchy details: “Hemorrhagic fluid exudes and bubbles forth from the nostrils and mouth but no blood is visible in the ear canals. Numerous yellowish-white, rod-like fly eggs are present in the scalp hair but no motile maggot forms are evident. A copious yellowish-white discharge is present in the vaginal orifice but no hemorrhage is observed.”
Nearby a white metal coffee pot and a brandy snifter full of cigarette butts lay overturned on the floor. Sixteen Kent cigarettes are strewn around the couch and an empty cake box sits in the hallway. A cup of coffee was on a stand across the room near a pile of magazines shredded and cutup with scissors. In the other room drawers were pulled out and clothes thrown about the room. In the bathroom, 13 bottles (many empty) of Miltown, Amvicel, Thyroid Extract, Modaline, Desoxyn, and other medications were found in the medicine cabinet.
A cryptic note was found:
“I’m no good. I’m not really that pretty. My figure’s fat and will never be the way my mother wants it.
Why must I be so alone.
What’s the use of living with nothing to believe in?
There’s nothing only phony motives, selfish egoists, selfless people, fat heads and drunks and I want out.
I like President Kennedy, Bertrand Russell, Theodore Reiks, Peter O’Toole, Sydney J. Harris, Albert Finney.”
Her body was removed down these steps and taken to the LA County Coroner.
Sidney Korshak, the Los Angeles based Mob lawyer, identified Karyn’s body at the morgue the following day. According to the coroner, she had been dead since late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning. On the autopsy report the cause of death was listed as “murder by manual strangulation.” Injuries include: “compression fracture, left side of hyoid bone, with deep soft tissue hemorrhage of neck, left side of thyroid gland, thyroid cartilage, base of tongue, epiglottis and larynx.”
She was 22 years old.
Kup’s Column: “Two Sundays ago I sat at my typewriter, groping for the words for a Monday column to portray the majesty that was Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy in her hour of travail. Now it is Sunday again. And again I am groping for words to describe the majesty of another young lady, my very own.”
After the autopsy, her body was flown back to Chicago for burial at Memorial Park Cemetery and Crematorium in Skokie, Illinois. With over 500 people attending her funeral, Andrew Prine was not one of them. She is buried in the Kup family plot.
Lt. George Walsh of the Los Angeles County Police, in charge of the investigation, told the press, “This girl had more friends than anybody I ever heard of. And not a knocker in the bunch. They all loved her.”
A reward was offered.
After a week in the headlines, her unsolved murder fell from public interest yet the Los Angeles Police Department continued to question suspects up through 1966 to no avail. Six weeks after her death Kupcinet’s final onscreen appearance was aired – a small part in an episode of Perry Mason entitled, “The Case of the Capering Camera”.
As the years passed, several theories surrounding her death have emerged. A favorite theory of charter members of the lunatic fringe / JFK conspiracy nuts is that Karyn was overheard by an operator in Oxnard, California screaming “The President is going to be killed!” twenty minutes before the assassination, and that she was the victim of a mob hit. Take $3.00 and go rent an Oliver Stone movie, then call someone who cares.
Irv himself wrote, “The NBC “Today Show” on Friday carried a list of people who died violently in 1963 shortly after the death of President John F. Kennedy and may have had some link to the assassination. The first name on the list was Karyn Kupcinet, my daughter. This is an atrocious outrage. She did die violently in a Hollywood murder case still unsolved. That same list was published in a book years ago with no justification or verification.
The book left the impression that some on the list may have been killed to silence them because of knowledge of the assassination. Nothing could be further from the truth in my daughter’s case. The list apparently has developed a life of its own and for “today” to repeat the calumny is reprehensible. Karyn no longer can suffer pain by such inexcusable mention, but her parents and her brother Jerry can.”
Another theory held by exactly one individual, writer James Ellroy, is that Karyn was stoned to the gills, danced alone naked in the apartment, fell or hit her neck on an object and fell face down on the couch and died. He bases his theory on the fact that a book on the benefits of naked dancing was found in the apartment and the coroner may have been a drunk prone to mistakes. Thanks for playing Ellroy! We have some lovely parting gifts for all of our contestants!
And then there were five: Andrew Prine, Edward Rubin, Robert Hathaway, William Mamches, and David Lange.
According to police interviews, writer Rubin came over to Karyn’s apartment after her dinner with the Goddard’s. They talked for an hour and then Karyn was feeling antsy (amphetamines will do that) and got up to go for a walk around the block. Near her apartment she ran into actor friend Hathaway and asked him to come up to her place. She served coffee and cake while the three watched television (Karyn had the besttelevision, so it was not unusual for friends to drop by). Karyn retired to the bedroom while Rubin and Hathaway stayed watching TV until 11:00 p.m. and then left, locking the door behind them. Karyn then spoke briefly with Prine on the phone around midnight. Unemployed actor (is there any other kind?) Mamches claimed not to have seen Karyn for three weeks. Rubin, Hathaway, and Mamches were all friends of Prine with Mamches and Hathaway sharing a rental house together. Lange (brother of actress Hope Lange) lived directly below Karyn and claimed to return home from his date with Natalie Wood around midnight on Wednesday drunk, and did not hear anything unusual.
Prine’s alibi was that he was out on a date until the call came from Karyn, and didn’t see her at all that night. Rubin and Hathaway stated that after leaving Karyn, they walked down to the Raincheck Room (Now the O Bar) for a drink.
They were there less than thirty minutes and drove over to Hathaway’s house and watched a movie. Prine showed up shortly after (he lived next door) and they all stayed until 3:00 a.m. Prine then stated he went to Gazzarri’s Bar (demolished – where the Key Club is now) right after and then went to bed alone early that morning. In police interviews Rubin, Hathaway, and Mamches all stated that they had never dated, hit on, or had sex with Karyn and all just knew her as a mutual friend of Prine. Lange was questioned repeatedly because he was known as a full-blown, falling-down drunk who had a habit of walking into other neighbors apartments unannounced. He also jokingly claimed to have killed Karyn shortly after her body was found. Funny guy.
That would have been the end of it – five suspects with five alibis. Except three years later Hathaway changed his story, Rubin began to remember detailed facts not offered during the original investigation, Lange stopped cooperating, and Kup and Essee always felt the Prine was the killer. But despite their efforts, after three full years of investigation, useless toxicology results, and a decomposed body that yielded limited forensics, the police still had no solid evidence and the unsolved murder of Karyn Kupcinet became a cold case.
After the funeral Essee took to booze, cigarettes, and psychics. She waged a personal vendetta against Prine, who found it difficult to find work in the sixties. When she died of emphysema in June 2001 at the age of 86, her family tossed in a pack of Pall Malls and a lighter into her casket. She was buried next to Karyn.
Kup lasted a few more years and died at the age of 91. He faired a little better than his wife and continued at the paper up until shortly before his death. But Karyn’s memory was always close at hand. In February of 1966, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper passed away and Kup was offered her job. They even offered to throw in Hedda’s home as part of the deal. But Kup said no. He just couldn’t bear to live in the town that killed his daughter.
Her younger brother Jerry lives in Los Angeles and is a producer and director and has directed such shows as The Dating Game, The Richard Simmons Show, and Susan Powter infomercials, as well as Judge Judy. He is currently working on season 12 ofJudge Joe Brown. His daughter Karyn ‘Kari’ Kupcinet briefly took to the stage and worked in daytime soap operas. However she quit the sleazy underbelly of show business and opened an erotic storefront called G Boutique in Chicago. Sometimes the jokes just write themselves.
Today Andrew Prine lives in the Valley just outside Los Angeles and slowly started working again in television and movies appearing in CSI, JAG, Six Feet Under, and ironically enough, Murder, She Wrote.
Robert Hathaway is still alive, but in declining health. David Lange passed away early 2006 in Connecticut, having never really made it in the movie business. Oddly enough, at the time of her murder, Lange went to work for his sister’s second husband, producer Alan Pakula, as a gopher. Pakula died in 1998 in a freak automobile accident when a steel beam fell from a truck and went flying through his windshield, decapitating him instantly.
In 1971, Irv and Essie established the Karyn Kupcinet International Science School in memory of Karyn.
A few years ago they opened a Planet Hollywood in Chicago – it was huge, and I even stood in the bleachers to see all the stars arriving. Irv and Essie were there.
It’s good to save everything. You never know when it’ll be handy.
Irv Kupcinet is memorialized in Chicago with a (Wabash Avenue) bridge named for him in 1985 and a 9 foot bronze statue unveiled in 2006.
Interesting, the Chicago river below the bridge is traditionally dyed green for St. Patrick’s Day. It (probably still is) used to be so polluted, that they had to use orange dye to turn it green. I remember one instance where a rescue team wouldn’t rescue whomever or whatever it was they needed to rescue, because none of them would immerse themselves in the filthy water for fear of whatever they might be exposed to. Just a few bridges down the river, is the Kinzie St. Bridge. This where the Dave Matthews Band’s bus drenched a boatload of horrified tourists below in poo. From theChicago Tribune: “Passengers on the tour boat, Chicago’s Little Lady, described a downpour of foul-smelling, brownish-yellow slurry that ruined their clothes and made several of them sick.” lol.
PS: Wanna see her mailbox?
Written almost completely by Scott Stanton, a bit of me, and thanks to C., Mark P. and ML. and Lon.