Not long after I returned from my sojourn on Broadway, my mother was seriously injured when a drunk woman ran a red light at the corner of 8th Street and Harvard Boulevard and broadsided their car. Mom’s leg was badly cut and she would have bled to death had an anonymous serviceman not appeared and staunched the bleeding until she could be rushed to the hospital. We never found out the identity of her good Samaritan.
In those days before health insurance, the hospital bills were well beyond my dad’s ability to pay on his mechanic’s salary. Though I was still a teenager, I told my dad that he needed to sue the driver of the car who hit them to help pay the bills. I took the initiative and began looking for a lawyer. I didn’t have to look very far.
One of the most famous lawyers in Hollywood at the time was Jerry Giesler. He had gotten Errol Flynn acquitted in his famous statutory rape case, the lurid details of which my mother and I had eagerly followed along with the rest of the country. Giesler had also represented Charlie Chaplin, Robert Mitchum, Lili St. Cyr, and Busby Berkley among many others in high profile trials. Jerry Giesler was a household name in Hollywood.
(Years later, he would represent Cheryl Crane, the daughter of actress Lana Turner, who was accused of stabbing to death her mother’s abusive lover, Johnny Stompanato. Jerry’s skillful arguments would convince the jury to return a verdict of justifiable homicide.)
Two days after Mom’s accident, while she was still in the hospital, I announced to my dad that I was calling Jerry Giesler to represent us. I was still Joan Olander, aspiring actress, and Daddy scoffed at the idea that a famous lawyer like Giesler would even talk to me, much less represent a traffic case. Determined to help my mom, I ignored him. And when I am determined to do something, there is no stopping me.
Before I phoned Giesler’s office I wrote a list of everything I wanted to say. I took a deep breath and called. His secretary took a message and said I’d get a call back. When the call hadn’t come by the next day, I tried again to no avail. By the third call I was sounding so desperate the secretary put me through.
After a few moments a soft voice came on the line, “This is Jerry Giesler.”
I gathered myself and explained the situation of my mother’s accident and her mounting hospital bills. “I don’t have any money, Mr. Giesler,” I ended, out of breath, “but maybe you could take a percentage of the settlement—” I had heard that lawyers did that—“and my mom and dad sure need the help.”
There was a silence, then Giesler asked if there had been a police report. I told him there was and that the police had found the drunk woman driver definitely at fault. “I’ll send one of my investigators to check out the skid marks at the scene and get the police report,” he said. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Late the following day, Giesler’s secretary phoned to say that he wanted to see me. I dolled myself up and went to Jerry’s office. It looked like a a lawyer’s office on a movie set, darkly paneled and lined with law books. He motioned me to a chair at the corner of his large oak desk.
Jerry Giesler, like all great trial attorneys, was a consummate actor. He had a habit of squinting his eyes as though looking for something in the distance. It was disquieting, but I returned his gaze with all the calm I could muster. He looked at me that way for a long time, then said, “How old are you?” I told him and he smiled. “You are a very bright young lady. May I call you Joan?”
I nodded. “Will you take our case?” I blurted out.
“Oh yes. I will need your parents’ signatures on some paperwork, but we are ready to file against the woman’s insurance company.” I must have let out a loud sigh of relief. “It will be fine, Joan. My investigator found some very short skid marks at the scene—and a good bit of your mother’s blood still on the pavement. We have pictures. It looks like the woman barely hit the brakes before she broadsided them. How is your mother?”
“She lost a lot of blood. There were some bottles of beer in her lap they were bringing home. The broken glass cut her badly. Luckily the doctor had experience picking out shrapnel in the war. But she would have died if that soldier hadn’t been there to stop the bleeding.”
“Your mother is very fortunate,” Jerry said, “not the least because she has such a determined daughter. It will take a little time, but we’ll get her a good settlement. And I’ll let the hospital know that there is litigation underway, so they won’t be nervous about getting paid.”
Jerry stood up, signaling the interview was over. I got up and shook his hand. “Joan,” he said, smiling, “would you mind if I kissed you?”
My eyes got big and I was on guard. “Okay.”
Jerry kissed me on the lips, much the way Vivian Leigh kissed the young man in Street Car Named Desire—with a purpose, but endearing and chaste. Jerry took a $100 bill out of his money clip and pressed it into my hand. “You and your family may need this.”
I visited Jerry many times at his office during the trial, but that never happened again. He obtained a large settlement for my mother that made it possible for us not only to pay her hospital bills, but to move out of the rented house on Harvard Boulevard where we had lived for more than a decade and buy a new home in the then growing San Fernando Valley.
As fate would have it, our house in the Valley was a ten minute drive from Universal Studios, where I would be under contract in a few short years.
When I spoke to Jerry Giesler again I was Mamie Van Doren, this time with a manager I needed to get rid of. He laughed out loud when I told him I had been the brash young Joan Olander. Jerry would get me out of many scrapes over the years, and we remained friends until his death in 1962.