February 6, 1899 – October 30, 1968
by Allan Ellenberger
Ramon Novarro, whose career spanned silents, talkies, the concert stage, theater, and television, was Ben-Hur to moviegoers long before Charlton Heston. Novarro, known as “Ravishing Ramon,” was once considered to be Valentino’s successor. Novarro’s descent into alcoholism, and despair over his homosexuality and his waning career, finally culminated in a grisly murder on Halloween eve.
On October 30, 1968, Novarro received a call from a young hustler who wanted to visit that evening. Novarro was accustomed to entertaining young men recommended by a local escort service and assumed he had his telephone number from them. Usually dinner and drinks – lots of drinks – would be served before it was decided whether the evening would end in sex. The hustler told him that he also wanted to bring his younger, underage brother – ewww! Novarro agreed, which would be the last and worst decision of his life.
The following morning, which was Halloween, Novarro’s secretary, Edward Weber, arrived at Novarro’s home on Laurel Canyon Blvd as usual. As he entered, the living room appeared to have been ransacked. Furniture was wrecked and pictures were askew on the wall. Ramon’s broken eye glasses were on the floor next to an over-turned chair and a bloody footprint. A garbage can outside was filled with empty liquor bottles. Weber searched for Novarro, room by room.
In the bedroom Weber peered into the darkness and noticed something lying on the bed. As he pulled the drape cord, it jammed. A sliver of light broke through and fell on the blood-caked face of Ramon Novarro. Weber immediately called the police, Novarro’s priest and then his brother.
When the police arrived they found Novarro’s body lying on his back, on the right side of the bed, with his head near the headboard. He was completely nude except for a sheet which partially covered his legs from the knees down. There was evidence of a struggle, and blood was smeared on the floor and ceiling of the bedroom. A tooth was lying on the floor at the foot of the bed.
Novarro’s hands had been tied behind his back with brown electrical cord. It was about 10 feet in length and had been doubled and made into a half loop and secured around his ankles. It had then been drawn up to the right wrist, where it had been wrapped three times. The other end had been used to draw the left hand to the right behind his back, causing the left arm to be bent horizontally across the small of his back.
On the right side of Novarro’s neck, the initial “N” or “Z” had been carved. Lacerations were noted on his face and head. A broken, silver-tipped, black walking cane had been placed across his thighs, resting between the knee and hip of the right leg. As the body was turned over, the name “Larry” was found written on the sheet underneath him in letters approximately 12 inches high. In Novarro’s left hand was a ball point pen, and between his thumb and index finger of his right hand was an unused white condom. On the bedroom mirror was written in brown stick makeup, “Us girls are better than fagits.” Charming. A check made out to “Cash” in the amount of $20 was found on the dresser. His body was removed, and taken downtown for autopsy.
Los Angeles County Coroner, Thomas Noguchi, reported that Novarro’s autopsy revealed that the actor had died of “suffocation due to massive bleeding due to fracture of the nose and laceration of the lips and mouth.” In other words, he drowned in his own blood. His scalp was split, and there were contusions on his chest, neck, left arm, knees and penis. Outside the house, on top of the hill overlooking the house, a pile of bloody clothing was found, including a small blue jacket, a small blue shirt, two large T-shirts, and two pairs of jockey shorts.
Because of the sexual overtones of the murder, oral and anal smears were taken to check for semen and sperm. The anal smear proved negative, but the oral smear mysteriously disappeared. There was 0.23 percent alcohol in his blood, and the death was set between 9 and 9:30 p.m. of the previous evening. Even though the injuries were serious, they alone would not have been enough to cause death.
His viewing was at Cunningham and O’Connor Mortuary (Now a glass company) on W. Washington Boulevard.
More than 1,000 people filed past the open casket during the six hours the actor’s body lay in state. The funeral was conducted at St. Anne’s Melkite Catholic Church in North Hollywood. Novarro’s brother Eduardo was the architect of the church. Novarro’s family attended as did several friends from his Hollywood days including Ida Lupino, Gilbert Roland, MGM publicist Howard Strickling, and actors Neil Hamilton, Les Tremayne and Eddie Foy, Jr. Novarro’s body was interred in the family plot at Calvary Cemetery next to his parents.
The police investigation was dominated by the main clue – a 48 minute telephone call to Chicago at exactly the time the coroner claimed Novarro was murdered. Chicago police interviewed Brenda Lee Metcalfe, the recipient of the phone call, which led to the arrest of a pair of brothers, Paul (21) and Tom Ferguson (17), for the murder of Ramon Novarro. Paul Ferguson, his wife Mary and Tom were living at Oasis Apartments in Gardena.
Yes kids, the glamour never stops.
At the trial, the District Attorney, James Ideman, claimed that the Ferguson brothers went to Novarro’s home to rob him of $5,000 they thought he kept hidden in the house. The prosecution’s star witness, Brenda Lee Metcalfe testified that while she talked to Tom, she could hear screaming.
Each brother blamed the other for Novarro’s death. Paul testified that after Novarro served them dinner and drinks, Tom and Novarro went to the garden while he crashed on the couch. Tom later woke Paul and said that Novarro was dead. Paul followed his brother into the bedroom and found Novarro in bed with his arms tied behind his back and listened to his heart. Paul claimed he wanted to call the police but Tom wanted to make it look like a robbery. Tom wrote the “fagits” message on the mirror and cut marks on Novarro’s neck to make it “look like scratches, like a girl.” Paul claimed that Novarro promised to make him a big star so why would he kill him.
Tom’s version was different. He claimed that it was Paul, and not he, who beat Novarro to death. After dinner and drinks, Novarro agreed that both brothers could spend the night. Tom was shown to the guest room and asked his hosts permission to use the phone. He was talking to Brenda in Chicago for almost an hour while Paul was alone with Novarro.
Tom testified that after his phone call, Paul called for him. He saw Paul, looking dazed and wearing blood-soaked underwear. Novarro was sitting, bent over on the bed, bleeding from his face, lips and forehead. Paul ordered Tom to take him to the shower, where he washed away the blood. Tom returned Novarro to the bedroom. “Hail Mary, full of Grace. The Lord is with Thee,” Novarro mumbled. At this point in Tom’s testimony, Paul flew into a rage and threw a pen at his brother, screaming, “Oh you punk liar- you son of a bitch. Tell the truth.”
Tom continued his testimony. As he helped Novarro back into bed, Tom looked up and saw Paul in the bathroom, dancing in front of a large mirror, with a soft gray fedora on his head. He was twirling an ivory crooked, black cane, and mumbling aimlessly to himself. Paul said he should have been in vaudeville. Paul stormed from the bathroom and Tom stepped in to urinate. As Novarro stood up Paul thought that he was going to attack him and began beating the actor with the cane. Novarro was knocked off balance and slipped on the blood, falling to the floor. When Tom reentered he found Paul dressed, standing over Novarro, who was again covered with blood. Tom leaned down and placed his ear on Novarro’s chest, listening for a heartbeat.
They tied his hands with the lamp cord and turned Novarro’s body on its side, wrote the name “Larry” on the bed sheet, and put the pen in Novarro’s hand. They found a box of condoms and placed one in Novarro’s right hand. They replaced their bloody clothes with some from Novarro’s closet. Tom closed all the drapes, locked the front door, turned out the lights and waited outside for Paul, who remained inside. Paul broke the cane he used to beat Novarro and placed each piece across his thighs. As they headed for Laurel Canyon, Paul ran to the fence and threw the bundle of bloody clothes into the next yard. Another smart move.
At some point, Paul convinced his younger brother to take the blame for Novarro’s murder because he was only 17 at the time and could not get the death penalty. Paul however was of legal age and could be sent to the gas chamber. Paul’s reasoning worked on Tom. At the sentencing phase, Tom again took the stand and told the court what he claimed was the truth about that evening:
“I didn’t kill him. It was my fault that he died. Mr. Novarro came up to me when Paul was asleep on the couch. We had a sex act – oral copulation. He kept trying to put his fingers up my rectum. I started hitting him. He then got up from the bed and went into the bathroom to remove the blood from his face. I forced him back into the bedroom and began hitting him. I looked at him and it made me sick. I was just mad. I tied him up and I got the glove and cane out of the closet, twirling it like a baton. Then I hit him on the face and threw it on the floor. Just sickening he was. I went to wake up Paul. I told him he was trying to force me. He was like a sick punk.”
When the DA asked him if he was saying this now to save his brother, Tom replied:
“No, I am saying these things because I want to tell the truth and I’d hate to send my brother to the gas chamber for something I did, while I sat in prison like Mr. Cool. He was supposed to get manslaughter and I was supposed to get off. It’s not our fault that we got a dumb jury.”
Very charming, however this new twist caused enough confusion for the jury to return with a verdict of life imprisonment for both brothers. The Fergusons were sent to San Quentin to serve their life sentences. In 1974, Paul confessed to a journalist that it was he who killed Novarro. Because of that confession, Tom Ferguson was released on probation in 1976 and placed on a work furlough. He later violated the terms of his parole and was returned to prison but was released again several months later. In 1977 he was arrested again and sent to prison for a sexual offense. After being released, he failed to report to the local police as a sex offender and was returned to jail. Tom Ferguson died on March 6, 2005.
Paul Ferguson used his time in San Quentin to volunteer at the fire house and taking writing courses. In 1975 he won a $100 first prize for fiction from the P.E.N. Prison Writing Committee. Paul was paroled in 1978 and found work in construction and eventually moved to Missouri. In March 1989 he was arrested for rape and sodomy and sentence to 30 years in prison. He is currently serving out his sentence in Missouri and should be released in 2022. He will be 75 years old.
Thanks to Find a Death Friend Doug – here is a photograph of the delicious Paul Ferguson now. Karma’s a bitch.
One obituary for Novarro declared: “It was ex-star Ramon Novarro’s tragedy not to recognize two bad actors when he saw them.”
Thank you, Allan. We are so fortunate to have the author of Ramon Novarro’s biography contributing to Findadeath.com.
Please visit Allan’s blog – constantly updated with fascinating Hollywood information.
I didn’t want to soil Allan’s piece (heh) by intermingling the following foul text with his accurate account of this crime, but I do believe it’s necessary to address the fictional rumor created by poisonous Hollywood Babylon author Kenneth Anger.
This direct quote from the ridiculous book:
“the memory of Rudy (Valentino) was cherished by Ramon Novarro, who kept a black lead Art Deco dildo embellished with Valentino’s silver signature in a bedroom shrine. A present from Rudy. ”
Of the murder:
“The lead Art Deco dildo which Valentino had given him forty-five years earlier thrust down his throat.”
But here’s something true and cool – courtesy of my friend CC:
Did you know that Dave Navarro is named after Ramon Novarro? Tis true, CC says.
Turns out that Ramon was a family friend, and Dave was named in tribute. The spelling change was the result of a secretary’s typo at the studio. Evidently she misspelled the name and Dave was like, “Fuck it. Let’s just leave it like this.”