Taking the wrapper off a Texas legend.
On the road home to Brownwood in her green ’74 Cadillac with the custom upholstery and the CB radio, clutching a pawn ticket for her $3000 mink, Candy Barr thought about biscuits. Biscuits made her think of fried chicken, which in turn suggested potato salad and corn. For as long as she could remember, in times of crisis and stress, Candy Barr always thought of groceries. It was a miracle she didn’t look like a platinum pumpkin, but she didn’t: even at 41, she still looked like a movie star.
For once, the crisis was not her own. It was something she had read a few days earlier about how the omnipotent, totalitarian they were about to jackboot the remnants of the once happy and prosperous life of a 76-year-old Dallas electrician named O. E. Cole. Candy had never heard of O. E. Cole until she spotted his pitiful tale in the Brownwood newspaper. She didn’t know if Cole was black or white, mean or generous, judgmental or forgiving. She only knew he was in trouble. For nearly fifty years Cole had been an upright, hardworking citizen of a city Candy Barr had every reason to hate; then his wife Nettie suffered a stroke and lingered in a coma for eighteen months while their savings were sucked away. According to the newspaper account, Cole spent $500 for Nettie’s headstone, which left him a balance of $157. Before he could use that money to cover mortgage payments on his home and the electrician’s shop at the back, a gunman shot and robbed him. Now, when he was too old to apply for additional credit, they were prepared to foreclose.
“This is a goddamn crime!” Candy raged, throwing her suitcase on the bed and barking a string of orders to her houseguests: Scott, her 22-year-old boyfriend of the moment, and Susan Slusher, her 17-year-old niece who had recently come to stay with “Aunt Nita” from a broken home in Philadelphia.
Scott and Susan had been around just long enough to know that when Candy blew—as often as she did without warning—to look not for explanations but for something sturdy to hang onto. Try to imagine a hurricane in a Dixie Cup. The laughing tropical green eyes boiled, and the innocence that had made that perfect teardrop face a landmark in the sexual liberation of an entire generation of milquetoasts became the wrath of Zeus. They say she once sat waiting in a rocking chair talking to sweet Jesus and when her ex-husband kicked down the door she threw down on him with a pistol that was resting conveniently in her lap. She shot him in the stomach, but she was aiming for the groin. When she caught mobster Mickey Cohen talking to another woman, she slugged him in the teeth. She carved her mark on a dyke in the prison workshop: this was not a lovers’ quarrel, as an assistant warden indicated on her record, but a disagreement stemming from Candy’s hard-line belief that a worker should take pride in her job.
Candy had a cosmic way of connecting things, which to the more prosaic mind might appear coincidental. So it was that the ill-fated placement of a Citizens National Bank of Brownwood ad next to the article outlining the plight of O. E. Cole ignited her fuse. The bank ad suggested that had it not been for a Revolutionary War banker named Robert Morris, we might all be sipping tea with crumpets and begging God to save our Queen. What the average eye might take as harmless Bicentennial puffery hit Candy’s heart dead center.
“I watched the bastards do the same thing to my daddy,” Candy fumed, removing her mink from the cedar chest and raking bottles and jars of cosmetics into her overnight bag. “I sold my hunting rifle three times to help my daddy. It’s a crime what they can do to people, a goddamn crime. Don’t call me a criminal if you’re gonna be one.”
With the skillful employment of her CB radio, “The Godmother” and her two young companions made the 160 miles to Dallas in less that two hours. Candy hocked her mink for $250, then called on dancer Chastity Fox and other friends to help raise another $150. Then Candy painted her face with soft missionary shades of tan and gold and called on O. E. Cole, introducing herself as Juanita Dale Phillips of Brownwood and presenting the goggle-eyed electrician with $400 and a copy of her book of prison poems, A Gentle Mind … Confused. Cole couldn’t have been more confused if he had found Fidel Castro in his refrigerator. When I spoke with Cole two weeks later, there were still some blank spaces behind his eyes, but the crisis had passed.
“I didn’t know who she was till I saw her name on that little book,” he told me. “Oh, yes, I knew the name Candy Barr. You couldn’t live in Dallas long as I had and not know that name. But it wasn’t for me to judge her. What is past is past. It’s what a person is now I go on, and she was awful nice. We sat around and talked for hours. In fact, we talked all night long.”
Cole hadn’t stayed up all night in years. He had never seen Candy Barr’s famous blue movie, or watched her strip at Abe Weinstein’s Colony Club, or read about her romance with Mickey Cohen, or paid much attention when his fellow citizens gave her fifteen years for possessing less than one ounce of marijuana. In fact, he couldn’t remember what he had heard about her, only that it seemed unsavory. “That was a long time ago,” Cole seemed to recall. Roughly twenty years.
To place her properly in time you had to go back to Sugar Ray Robinson, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Bridey Murphy, Joe McCarthy, John Foster Dulles, the Kefauver Committee, RAF Group Captain Peter Townsend, Mort Sahl, and Sputnik. Texas was still the largest state in the union, and Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” was the number one song. Playboy magazine was an under-the-counter novelty, less than three years old and tame as a pet goose. Brigitte Bardot was being banned in Philadelphia, Fort Worth, and Abilene. The Dodgers were in Brooklyn, Russian tanks in the streets of Budapest, Fidel Castro in the jungles of Cuba. It was a time when the National Organization for Decent Literature was putting pressure on bookstores and enlisting local police to threaten booksellers who were too slow to “cooperate” in removing from their shelves such filth-spreaders as Hemingway, Faulkner, Dos Passos, Zola, and Orwell. Thirteen million Americans spent Tuesday nights watching a TV charade called The $64,000 Question. Someone with a dark sense of humor labeled it “The Age of Innocence.”
Candy Barr was a household word then, an authentic Texas folk hero. To the absolute surprise of hardly anyone, Candy Barr would still be a name twenty years later. What precipitated a revival in her long-dormant career was a photo layout and interview in the June 1976 issue of Oui: how many 41-year-old grandmothers ever posed for split beaver shots? Now Candy was talking of college fan clubs, of posters and T-shirts. “If I don’t get into it, somebody else will,” she said. “I’m tired of being ripped off. I’m not even aware of how to be a star, I just am one.” It was time to move ahead with her autobiography. “All the lies and tackiness that have been written about me … now I’m going to set the record straight.” She calls her as yet unwritten memoirs Bits and Pieces, and speaks of “leaving my legacy for my daughter and granddaughter.”
In the three months since the Oui photographs, Candy has received maybe five hundred fan letters, from all across the United States, from Mexico, from Canada, from Puerto Rico, from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, from members of the U.S. Navy stationed on Diego Garcia somewhere in the Indian Ocean. There was the usual sprinkling of nut mail—a man in Syracuse sent a tracing of his private parts—but the vast majority of the letters were from true fans, properly reverent and begging only to speak, just once, of loneliness and isolation, of dark fantasies and repressed urges and wives that would never understand, of their recurring feeling that life had them by the nose and would never let go. An Indian from a place called Bull Mountain sent her a flower. A Los Angeles Dodger invited her to a doubleheader. A retired fire fighter from California wrote that he had pasted her picture to his locker years ago and there it remained “until my last days of fighting fires.” A man from New Jersey accompanied a gentle note of adoration with three pair of sheer panty hose. The president of the Chamber of Commerce of a small Southern town wrote: “It seems rather bizarre to me that a 36-year-old man with a responsible job, family, and being reasonably well adjusted would sit down and write a fan letter to someone he has not met, and never will meet. Yet, that is exactly what I find myself doing.”
Maybe half the letters came from men, and a few women, in prison. One convict wrote that Candy’s picture had once sustained his father during a long prison stretch and “now I can understand why.” It was these letters from men inside the walls that moved her most. She intended to answer every one of them, although she was uncertain how she could afford to mail pictures to all those who requested them. She would have to find a way. “Nobody is ever going to make me feel dirty and cheap and ugly again,” she swore.
To Scott and to Susan, neither of whom was born when Juanita Dale Slusher was transforming herself into Candy Barr, this whole episode must have seemed like a pilgrimage to a mystical shrine. Scott had forsaken his first passion, mountain climbing, to sit at the feet of Candy Barr and follow orders explicitly. Susan walked around with a glazed expression, saying “far out” and rubbing her fingers over the faded newspaper clippings as though to verify they were real. “I never really knew who Aunt Nita was, just that she was someone famous,” Susan Slusher said. “When I was about nine or ten she visited us in Philadelphia. She was so beautiful in her mink coat and high heels and all. She wasn’t like an aunt, she was someone I could talk to.” Susan had been in Brownwood less than one week when the O. E. Cole mission cleaved the pattern. Now she was wondering if maybe she ought to move to Dallas and look for a job. When you got past the talking, there wasn’t a helluva lot to do in Brownwood.
Scott did the driving back to Brownwood, mountain climbing never far from his mind. Candy thought of biscuits and talked on the CB. The only thing those good buddies out there knew about “The Godmother” was that she had a husky, rapid-fire Loretta Lynn voice and a way with the double entendre. Could anyone look as good as that voice sounded? Candy Barr could. She still had it. What to do with it, that was the problem. That had always been the problem.
Juanita Dale Slusher encountered the joy of sex at age five with the aid and comfort of an eighteen-year-old neighbor named Ernest. She remembers that he was gentle, and not at all unpleasant. It wasn’t until she encountered the Dallas police force some years later that Juanita Dale associated sex with guilt.
When she was nine her mother died and her father remarried: Doc Slusher, brick mason and handyman, a whiskey-drinking harmonica player and all-around rowdy, already had five kids, and right away there were four more, then two more after that. With all those Slushers around, you’d think the work would get done, but it never seemed to.
“I know in the fourth grade I was a real good student,” Candy recalled. “I got to hand out the Spelling and Spanish exams.” After school it was three or four hours washing bedsheets over a rubboard next to a boiling iron kettle under a Chinaberry tree. “When girls ask me about breast development, I say, ‘Honey, get yourself a rubboard.’”
At age thirteen and painfully confused, Juanita Dale took her baby-sitting money and grabbed a bus out of Edna, an independent decision that would become socially acceptable, even laudable, to future generations, but an act worse than rebellion in those days: it was the act of a bad girl. For a while she lived with an older sister in Oklahoma City, then a year or so later moved to live with another sister in Dallas. The Dallas sister soon hooked up with a man, and Juanita Dale was on her own.
Many talent scouts have taken credit for discovering Candy Barr: Barney Weinstein, who paid her $15 to act as a shill for his amateur night at the Theater Lounge; his brother Abe who hired her away to become his headliner at the Colony; Joe DeCarlo, a Los Angeles entrepreneur and pal of Hefner and Sinatra, who got her away from Abe; and Gary Crosby, who once advised Mickey Cohen: “Goddamn, one thing about that broad, she can make ya feel like a real man.”
To be technically correct, it was the old Liquor Control Board (LCB) that first discovered the girl who would become Candy Barr. They discovered her posing as an eighteen-year-old cocktail waitress—the minimum legal age. She wouldn’t be eighteen for another four years, but girls from tough backgrounds develop early, or they don’t develop at all. She kept changing jobs, and the LCB kept discovering her. Once they sent her home to Edna, but she caught the next bus back to Dallas.
The only place a teenage runaway could count on steady work in Dallas was at the Trolley Courts, or the other hot-pillow motels located out Harry Hines Boulevard, or along the old Fort Worth Highway. Pimps, thugs, and night clerks traded around young girls as they pleased. Candy’s arrangement with the hotel consisted of making beds by day and turning tricks at night. There were buses out of town, but they went nowhere. There were other jobs, but she had already put in her time on the rubboard. An old crook named Shorty Anderson decided she had too much class for the Trolley Courts, so he claimed her as his own and took her to live in his trailer under a bridge where he ran a school for young burglars. Candy’s first husband, Billy Debbs, was a graduate of Shorty’s academy. Billy was a good lover but a poor student. He went to the pen, got out, then got shot to death. Somewhere in there—she can’t fix the exact time—a pimp spotted her jitterbugging in a joint called the Round-Up Club and launched Candy’s movie career. She must have been about fifteen when Smart Aleck was filmed. The thousands (perhaps millions) who have seen this American classic will recall that she was a brunette then. Smart Aleck was America’s first blue movie, the Deep Throat of its era, only infinitely more erotic and less pretentious. It was just straight old motel room sex; the audience supplied its own sounds. I remember seeing Smart Aleck at the Wolters Air Force Base NCO Club in Mineral Wells about 1955. There had never been anything like it, and for my generation there never will again. All of us had seen stag movies before, threadbare hookers sweathogging with some jerk hung like Groggin’s mule, but this was different: this was a beautiful fifteen-year-old sweetheart type and you could just tell she was enjoying it.
Candy claims that she had never seen her movie until she went to Chicago to pose for Oui. When I asked how it felt watching herself perform, she said it felt like nothing. “It didn’t turn me on,” she told me. She could barely remember having performed.
“They may have drugged me, or maybe I blocked it out of my mind,” she said. “I suppose they took me to a motel, I don’t know where. In Dallas, I guess. I had been forced into screwing so many times I wasn’t really aware that this was different. I don’t think they even paid me. I’ve read that that movie made me Candy Barr. That movie made it because I became Candy Barr.”
One of the fringe benefits of being in films was that Candy got invited to all the best stag parties. Several prominent and wealthy Dallas business and professional men, on my oath that their names would not be revealed, recalled a Junior Chamber of Commerce stag where Candy was the star attraction. One auto dealer told me, “She went for two hundred, three hundred, even five hundred bucks. There was a banker who paid five hundred every time he put a hand on Candy.” Bill Gilliland, the manager of the Doubleday Book Store in downtown Dallas, recalled that when he was a student at SMU in the mid-fifties Candy was the sensation of the Phi Delta Theta stag held at the Alford refrigerated warehouse.
“What I remember most about Candy was her enthusiasm,” Gilliland said. “Later, when she was stripping at the Colony, I saw her many times. Sometimes my wife went with me. A lot of women were turned on by Candy. Here was one woman willing to flaunt it.”
“She made me a lot of money,” Abe Weinstein freely admitted. “The biggest draw I ever had at the Colony was Rusty Warren. What a sweetheart. But Candy ran her a close second.”
Abe, who lives alone now in a north Dallas townhouse, enjoying the fruits of retirement, actually “discovered” Candy Barr, as opposed to Juanita Dale Slusher. The first time he watched Candy upstage the amateurs at his brother Barney’s Theater Lounge, he said to himself, “That’s raw talent.” The name Candy Barr was Barney’s inspiration (she really did eat a lot of candy), but it took Abe’s sound business philosophy and promotional acumen to bring Candy uptown where she belonged. The Colony was the Stork Club of Dallas, the Cocoanut Grove, the butterfly of the Commerce Street neon patch where Jack Ruby ran the sleazy Carousel and conventioneers intermingled with cops and hustlers and drug merchants.
“I didn’t make Candy a headliner,” Abe told me as we drank coffee in the living room of his townhouse. “She made herself a headliner. Of course those stag parties and that famous movie—it made a flat million over the years—that didn’t hurt her image, but Candy was a real pro from the start, one of the best strippers to ever hit the stage. I don’t want to say anything about how she was offstage—she’d probably come up here and kill me—but onstage she was number one, the best. She drove ‘em crazy, women too. No, I didn’t make her a headliner, but I can say this without bragging: I knew how to make the most of what she had to offer.”
Abe cited several examples of his promotional genius, including daily newspaper ads (“I called her my Sugar and Spice Girl”), the life-size cardboard cutout of Candy with her cowboy hat and cap pistols outside the Colony, and a deal Abe negotiated whereby Candy got a percentage of the door for playing the Jayne Mansfield role in a local production of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? She memorized the script in three days, and opened after one rehearsal.
Another example, which Abe failed to mention, was how he seized the moment when Candy shot her ex-husband, Troy Phillips. State Senator Oscar Mauzy, the attorney who represented Candy in that case, filled in the details: “They set the normal bond in the case, about five thousand, as I recall. There wasn’t much chance the grand jury would indict: Troy had a bad habit of getting drunk and kicking down her door, and he wasn’t hurt very bad anyway. When Abe heard the bond was only five grand, he hit the ceiling. He called his friend [Sheriff] Bill Decker and got it raised to $100,000. Then he paid it and called a press conference. I heard about it and got the hell over to the Colony Club. There was Candy in her costume with the toy pistols and every TV and radio newsman in town. They were just about to start when I grabbed her and got her out of there.”
Abe recalled that the Colony did near-record business in the days just after the shooting. When she got popped for marijuana twenty months later (in October 1957), the place was packed every night. And when Candy was released after serving three years and four months of her fifteen-year sentence, it was standing room only. By then Candy was making $750 a week. “I don’t know how much money you make,” Abe told me, “but I only wish you had half the money she brought in those three weeks.” Abe showed me a copy of Candy’s poetry which, I gathered, had been placed on the coffee table for my benefit. It was inscribed: “Nov. 27, 1972. To Abe, dear Abe.”
Abe shook his head sadly and said, “I read an article where she said nobody ever visited her in prison and it really irritated me. My late wife, Ginny, God bless her, and I visited her twice a month, which was all that was allowed. Never once missed a visit. Not in the whole time she was down there.”
He refilled my coffee cup and asked a question he had been leading up to. He asked me what Candy had to say about Abe Weinstein.
“Nothing very unkind,” I said. “I don’t think she’s bitter. At least she says she isn’t.”
“Then you’ve seen her.”
“Yes,” I said. “It took me twenty years, but I finally saw her.” I told Abe that I remembered the first time exactly: it was February 1, 1956, the night after I got out of the Army. Jim Frye and I were walking down Commerce Street toward the Colony Club, toward that life-size cardboard cutout which was so close to the real thing I could smell it. I had dwelled on it many times: a fat cook in our barracks who later got sent up for armed robbery had a smaller version pasted to his locker. In the age of innocence that was the face and the body and the telltale blonde hair that seemed to focus all the guilts and fantasies of the fifties. She epitomized the conflict between sex as joy and sex as danger. The body was perfect, but it was the innocence of the face that lured you on. I know the secret, it said, I can enjoy sex without guilt. But the cap pistols in her hand were a clear warning of danger. Three days earlier Candy had thrown down on poor Troy. It was front-page stuff. Now those cap pistols had a frame of reference: they were directed at me.
“How did you like the act?” Abe asked.
I told him I never saw the act. One block before Jim Frye and I reached the Colony Club two Dallas cops jumped out of their car, wrestled us to the sidewalk, clapped us in handcuffs and took us to jail. They said we were drunk. We weren’t drunk, though that was certainly our intention. Those were the days of the old How Dare You Squad in Dallas: intent was sufficient cause for arrest and confinement. Candy knew that a lot better than I did, but I bygod knew it, too. All those women’s clubs and all those wives of all those fine men who paid $500 to get their hands on Candy Barr were actively applying pressure to the powers that were, most particularly to the Dallas Police Department’s special service bureau and its hard-line director, Captain Pat Gannaway, scourge of the drug peddler and sex merchant and guardian of community sensibility. I wanted to ask Abe Weinstein, master of media manipulation, if he had ever considered that maybe he did his job of promoting Candy Barr too well. Had he ever considered that at least 10 per cent of that fifteen-year prison sentence rightly belonged to Abe Weinstein?
Old memories are masters of deceit. It wasn’t that hard growing up on a farm, and John D. Rockefeller didn’t ride around Central Park on the backs of orphans. Japs weren’t all that evil, Harding wasn’t that dumb, and Lindy wasn’t that lucky. If we cared about the truth, Alan Ladd had to stand on a soapbox to kiss Maria Montez, and Mickey Rooney couldn’t walk under a billy goat’s belly. I mention this because now, twenty years later, when they should feel remorse and more than a little guilt, the nabobs and psalm singers of Dallas still remember Candy Barr as an epic force of evil.
As far as I am able to determine, Candy made only one blue movie, Smart Aleck. Yet many of the men I spoke with put the number at eight or ten or even fifteen. The prominent auto dealer seemed to recall that her co-star in one flick was an Army mule. District Attorney Henry Wade had a recollection that she once went before a camera with a black man, which didn’t help her image, especially with the police. An old-time police reporter recalled that “everyone knew she was chipping around with the stuff,” meaning drugs. One of her defense attorneys in the marijuana case, Bill Braecklein, now a state senator from Dallas, didn’t remember the quantity of grass she was charged with possessing, “but it looked like one hell of a lot in that court room.”
In fact, the Alka-Seltzer bottle of grass that Candy surrendered to Captain Pat Gannaway and his armada of undercover agents weighed 375 grains, or 24.3 grams. Less than one ounce—a small-time misdemeanor today. We would call it a short lid. If, as Lieutenant Red Souter testified, this was an amount sufficient to roll 125 joints, I would like to invite Red to my next birthday party.
Nobody in the Dallas Police Department wanted to talk about a marijuana case from twenty years ago, and Pat Gannaway, who retired a few years ago to join the Texas Criminal Justice Division, wasn’t available for an interview. But I know this: Pat Gannaway spent a lot of man-hours bringing one stripper to justice. The confluence of these two forces—Candy Barr, desecrater of all that is decent, and Pat Gannaway, the terrible swift sword—is surely the quintessence of a morality frozen in time. Captain Pat Gannaway was referred to in newspaper accounts of the time as “Mr. Narcotics.” As a lad he had been so eager to join the Dallas Police Department that he lied about his age. For twelve years, until he was kicked upstairs (he was put in charge of rearranging the Property Room) in the 1968 department shake-up, he ran the special services bureau as his private fiefdom. He reported only to the chief. “His passion,” reporter James Ewell wrote in the Dallas Morning News on the occasion of Gannaway’s retirement, “was police work, down on the streets with his men.” He loved the Army, too. He served in Army intelligence and was an expert wiretapper. When he wasn’t swooping down on the vermin that afflicted his city, Gannaway and his entire force were making speeches to civic clubs, warning of the peril. Those recent 1000-year sentences that made Dallas juries such a novelty may have been the direct result of Pat Gannaway’s tireless crusade. Gannaway told James Ewell: “It was always a good feeling to see someone on those juries you recalled being at one of those talks. We always told our audiences if you got rid of an addict or pusher, you were also getting rid of a burglar, a thief, or a robber.”
In the autumn of 1957 Gannaway assigned Red Souter (now an assistant chief) and another of his agents, Harvey Totten (now retired), to rent an apartment near Candy Barr’s apartment and establish surveillance. A telephone repairman would testify later that he discovered a “jumper tie-up” connecting Candy’s telephone to the telephone in the apartment occupied by Souter and Totten, but the jury either ignored this or didn’t believe it. A few days after the surveillance began, Candy received a visit from a friend, a stripper named Helen Kay Smith, who laid out a story about her mother coming to visit and asked Candy Barr to hide her stash—the Alka-Seltzer bottle of marijuana. Candy agreed and slipped the bottle inside her bra, next to her big heart. Two hours later, as Candy was talking on the telephone to a gentleman friend (and therefore obviously at home, in case anyone with a search warrant wanted to drop in), there was a knock at the door. Candy’s defense attorneys claimed the search warrant was a blank that Gannaway filled in after the arrest, but the court didn’t buy that either.
Candy’s gentleman friend, who asked to not be identified, told me what happened next:
“Candy said hold on, someone is knocking at the door. I heard some noises and someone hung up the phone. All I could think of was she’s in some kind of trouble. I got over to her place. When I walked in I saw Gannaway, Totten, Red Souter, Jack Revill, and I think one other narcotics officer. Gannaway picked up a chair and said something like, ‘Well, well, that looks like a joint on the floor.’ I swear to you, it was the first marijuana cigarette I ever saw. That’s when Candy, God bless her, said to Gannaway, ‘He’s just a square john kid. He doesn’t know anything about this. If you let him go, I’ll give you what you came for.’ She reached in and pulled out the bottle. Gannaway decided he would take me in anyway, and that’s when Jack Revill said, ‘Captain, if you do that, I’m turning in my badge.’ So they took her away.”
Candy’s four-day trial the following February was a farce, which didn’t prevent it from also being a sensation. In its year-end review the Dallas Morning News headline read: Candy’s Trial Led ‘58 Scene. Judge Joe B. Brown, who would later make his mark as the buffoon judge in the Jack Ruby trial, borrowed a camera and during one of the recesses snapped pictures of “the shapely defendant.” Defense attorneys Bill Braecklein and Lester May realized from the beginning that their problem was much larger than a bottle of marijuana, although, as May explained, “In those days marijuana was worse than cancer.”
“It was a time when the pendulum had swung far to the right,” May told me. “If the police decided you were guilty of something, they made a case and you were found guilty. It was just that simple. Candy’s real crime was she wouldn’t cooperate with the vice squad.”
No, the real problem wasn’t the marijuana, it was Candy Barr herself. It wasn’t merely her reputation, though God knows that was strong enough to kill a rogue elephant, it was that combative stubbornness, that unwillingness to throw herself at the feet of the jury and beg forgiveness. Chief prosecutor James Allen offered her two years for a guilty plea, and if Les May hadn’t got her out of the room she would have spit in his eye, or worse.
They decided not to put her on the stand; without her testimony, of course, it would be almost impossible to challenge state witnesses: she was in possession of marijuana, regardless of Helen Kay Smith’s testimony. That mysterious cigarette on the floor, though, was something else entirely. The attorneys worked out a way to let Candy make a statement to the jury without actually testifying, which meant that she could not be cross-examined. No one remembers Candy’s exact words, but it must have been a stirring oration. When she had finished, the jury just retired and voted her fifteen years in the Big Rodeo. It was Valentine’s day 1958.
“She was a very naive young lady,” Braecklein recalled. “While we were waiting to come to trial, she was out in Las Vegas, doing her act. Just one week before we came to trial, I got word that she was going to be a bridesmaid in Sammy Davis, Jr.’s wedding [to a white actress]. Anyone who grew up in Texas knew you couldn’t do that right before a trial.”
In retrospect, observers on both sides acknowledged that the strategy to pick an all-male jury backfired. In his book The Super Americans, John Bainbridge quotes a “native of Dallas who is possessed of a philosophical cast of mind and a family pedigree going back to Sam Houston” with a theory that, in one form or another, I heard many times: “… those eleven men [there was one woman], they got a chance to go home that night and say to their wives: ‘Well, Maude, you can brag on me for what I did today. We put that shameless creature away for a good long spell.’”
Although they didn’t anticipate anything approaching fifteen years, the defense team had braced itself for a verdict of guilty. They had already drafted a list of reversible errors that would have choked the Star Chamber. The real shock came when they lost a 2—1 decision in the State Court of Criminal Appeals. In the eleven months that separated the trial from the appeals verdict, Candy had reinforced her public image by moving in with hoodlum Mickey Cohen: one assumes justice is blind, but just how blind is an open question.
In a hotly worded fourteen-page dissent, Judge Lloyd Davidson wrote, “If that is equal justice under law, I want no part of it. If a conviction obtained under such circumstances is due process of law, then there is no due process of law.”
District Attorney Henry Wade, who took no part in the most sensational trial of 1958, beamed serenely when I asked him twenty years later if it was possible Candy Barr had been railroaded into prison. “Far as I know,” he said, “that wasn’t the case.” One of the jurors told Wade some time later that the reason Candy’s fellow citizens slapped her with so much time was something she said. She called chief prosecutor James Allen “a liar.” “That’s when her true colors came out,” the juror told the district attorney.
“At that period in time,” Wade told me, “it wasn’t unusual to get life for one cigarette. I recall we had a letter from the governor’s office, inquiring into the severity of her sentence. The governor asked us to check our records and find out what was the average sentence for a marijuana conviction. So we did. It turned out the average sentence at that time was eighteen years. So she received less than the average sentence.”
Referring to my notes, I told the district attorney that in 1960 shortly after the final appeal had been exhausted and Candy had gone inside, a survey conducted by the Dallas Times Herald revealed that nine defendants recently convicted of the same crime had received much shorter sentences for substantially larger quantities of killer weed.
“I think that if you’ll check that again,” Henry Wade smiled benignly, “you’ll find that all nine of those defendants were women.”
I checked again. Damned if Henry wasn’t right.
I spent three weeks trying to arrange an interview with Candy Barr, and although I was now calling from a telephone booth beside a Brownwood liquor store less than seven miles from her lake cottage, I had the recurring feeling I wasn’t even close. She told me to call back later. I had already called back five times. She told me that her mind was too scattered to talk right now, the house was a mess, she hadn’t been able to locate the scrapbooks she had promised to show me, she was still worried about O. E. Cole, she hadn’t even had time to shower and wash her hair.
“Why don’t you look over the town,” she said, not very convincingly. “Call me back after a while.”
I had already experienced the pleasure of touring Brownwood. It’s a pleasant, folksy little town where men wear business suits and women dress up to shop at the Safeway and motorists park in the middle of an intersection to exchange gossip with pedestrians. Big church town. Trees. Home of Howard Payne College, the Douglas MacArthur Academy, and the onetime golden boy of Texas politics, Ben Barnes, as well as small industries untroubled by labor problems, some ranches, a pecan research station, a model reform school, and a farm where little pigs—potty trained and dressed in plastic boots—never touch the ground from conception to skillet. In the summer, people play softball all night long. The remainder of the year they talk about their high school football team, which is usually one of the best in the state. Hardly a coffee break passes that someone doesn’t remember 1940 when a wee halfback named Chili Rice personally defeated arch-rival Breckenridge for only the second time in 36 years. Every Friday during football season, the town shuts down.
The people were friendly and proud to be right there. They all knew Candy Barr of course; but, of course, they didn’t know her. There is a custom among the businessmen of Brownwood that the first thing you say on meeting a stranger inquiring about Candy Barr is: “For Godsake, don’t use my name.” “My wife would leave me if she knew I’d even spoken to her,” one businessman told me. “Not that I’ve ever fooled around. But just try telling that to my wife.” Another man told me, “if you want to know about Candy, ask my son.” It was the young men who knew her best, and if they refused to talk about her it was not peer pressure but respect for her privacy. “She’s been through enough,” a college-aged man said. “She just wants to be left alone.”
“People here know how to forgive and forget,” Sheriff Danny Neal said. “Not just Candy … anyone who paid a price and is back on the street. Nobody here gives her a hard time.”
“She comes in here and shops just like anybody else,” a druggist said. “No, I can’t think of anything special about her. She buys a lot of cosmetics that I wouldn’t ordinarily stock, that’s about all.”
Though Candy lives her private life in her lake cottage with no visible means of support, she arouses little curiosity. The menfolk assume she is supported, at least partially, by a certain Brownwood banker, or by a former member of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles who at one time “kept her.” The women just naturally assume she is a hundred-dollar-a-night hooker. Candy has learned to live with the whispers. “That’s a hundred dollars an hour, man,” she jokes among friends. Recently, Candy made an unexpected appearance at a fundamentalist church, where she gave a brief testimonial to Jesus as a “superstar.” Nobody was shocked.
But, why Brownwood? She had tried Dallas, L.A., Vegas, New Orleans, Mexico City, Huntsville. She had seen their bedrooms, their bars, their jails. When Candy returned to Edna after her parole in April 1963, overweight and overwrought and badly jolted by the experience, she met a woman named Gloria Carver and they became fast friends. When Gloria moved to Brownwood a few years later, Candy followed. “I felt safe here,” she had told me in one of our telephone conversations.
That feeling of security didn’t last too long. In 1969, she made headlines again when a Brownwood cop acting without a search warrant found a handful of seeds and stems in a shoebox in her apartment. Candy was out of town at the time. The case was dismissed, to the great relief, I gathered, of almost everyone. Brownwood wasn’t that kind of town.
Certainly those were difficult times: sewing men’s trousers in a prison workshop and appearing once a year at the Rodeo hadn’t exactly prepared her for a new career. Old friends like Mickey Cohen and Sammy Davis, Jr., had their own problems now. Under the conditions of her parole she couldn’t even set foot in a place that sold alcoholic beverages. “What was I supposed to do, work in a root beer stand?” she had said. “They were pushing me into a corner all over again. It was either get on my back or do something silly.” The one old friend who did help was Jack Ruby. Jack gave her $50, an air conditioner, and two breed dogs “so you won’t have to go out and sell yourself.”
After Abe Weinstein pulled a few strings in Austin, Candy made a brief comeback at the Colony, then she just sort of wandered off. There had been a lot of talk about movie and recording offers in the weeks following her parole, but all of it came to nothing. Abe, who was still technically her manager and agent, tried to hustle her prison poetry—scrawled, overlabored cries on sheets of paper decorated like some fifth-grade art project with glossy photographs clipped from Vogue and Ladies Home Journal. Abe even spread the word that the poetry was “in the hands of Doubleday right this minute.” To Abe’s way of thinking, this was true. He had stashed the pages with is friend Bill Gilliland at the Doubleday Book Store in downtown Dallas.
After Candy had saved and borrowed enough to publish her poems, she would make brief, unannounced appearances at events such as the chili cookoff in Terlingua, trying her best to promote the book. Even then, she played the star. She would wait for a crowd to gather, then she would pop from a trailer, looking sexy and posing for pictures with the book in her hand. Some people bought out of curiosity, but most of them just gawked and waited for something else to happen. Nothing did.
She made many tentative agreements with writers and editors to do her life story. “She must have sold ten per cent of herself about two hundred times,” writer Larry King says. Then, unexpectedly, in October 1975 Oui offered her $5000 to pose and be interviewed. The idea originated with writer Gay Talese, who suggested to a friend at the magazine, “Instead of those teenybopper dipsos, how about some pictures of a mature woman?”
Talese’s motive was not altruistic. A year earlier he had visited Candy in Brownwood, hoping to do research on his own long-awaited book on sex, society, and the law. The interview had been a disaster. Candy refused to talk into a tape recorder, and when Talese asked specific questions about Jack Ruby, Mickey Cohen, Joe DeCarlo, prison, and Dallas in the fifties, she wouldn’t talk at all. Instead, she wanted to talk about her memoirs, which she assumed Talese wanted to write. Talese tried to explain that he had enough problems with his own book, which he had been working on for several years. After a day and a half of wrangling and getting nowhere, Candy did one of her dramatic flip-flops. She stripped naked and positioned herself on the floor, as she had so many other times when there didn’t seem to be another choice. What happened next depends on which party you care to believe, but shortly afterwards Talese grabbed the first plane out of town.
The purpose of the Oui offer then was a second chance for Talese. Unfortunately, it developed pretty much as it had a year earlier. Candy still refused to answer questions. The interview, such as it was, was finally accomplished by flying Candy and her companion Gloria Carver to the Chicago offices of the magazine. Talese told me that he accepted no fee, other than expenses, for his troubles. He wished Candy well and hoped that the $5000 and publicity helped.
“Good luck with your own story,” he said.
When I telephoned for what I already knew was going to be the final time, Candy invited me to come for supper and spend the night.
I thought of Commerce Street and my old Army buddy Jim Frye as I stood in front of her small, white clapboard cottage, shielded from prying eyes by an unpainted plywood fence and a yard of junk. She called her cottage Fort Dulce, dulce meaning sweet. Like Candy. The license plate on the Cadillac was Dulce 1. Dulce Press, Inc., was the publisher of her poetry. On the shelves which separated the living room from the kitchen there were many jars of candy—candy kisses, lemon drops, jelly beans, peppermint, candy corn. Twenty years of waiting and I felt like a character out of a fairy tale.
Susan, three dogs, and four cats met me at the front door. She said Candy was still dressing. Two hours later, Candy was still dressing. When she finally made her appearance, shortly before 10 p.m., she hit the room like one of Sgt. Snorkel’s ping-pong smashes. Her blonde hair was in curlers. She had scrubbed her face until it was blank and bleached as driftwood. Her green eyes collapsed like seedless grapes too long on the shelf. She wore a poor white trash housedress that ended just below the crotch, and no panties.
“Don’t think I dressed up just for you,” she told me.
The next twelve hours were like being trapped on the set of a Fellini movie, without Fellini. On one level Candy was doing her best to cook supper, and on another I was trying to interview her: the stereo blasted top volume with rock and Jerry Jeff and the kind of blues you heard in the black hovels of Dallas in the fifties; dogs and cats prowled under foot; a pet spider named Brutus spun a web above a portrait of Jesus saving New York City. I was confused because I couldn’t hear what she was saying, and she was angry because I wasn’t listening. I asked questions about her life as a teenager on the streets of Dallas, and she rambled about Jesus, daddy, and Lord Buckley, three of the men she found worth remembering. She accused me of having a secret tape recorder, and when I told her I hated tape recorders, she scolded me for using the word hate in her presence.
She smoked Virginia Slims and made bad puns about “coming a long way,” and sometimes she broke out with a few lines from a song that happened to cross her mind. Susan watched the TV set with the sound turned off, and every ten or fifteen seconds walked to the front door to let the dogs and cats in or out. Scott attempted to make himself obscure.
“My God, what have you done!” she shrieked, lifting a dripping black iron skillet from the sink where Susan had put it to soak. “Don’t ever, ever put that skillet in dishwater. And I told you to sharpen this knife. Look at it!” Candy whacked the knife blade into a tomato, disfiguring the inoffensive fruit. Susan said she would try to do better.
“Before my mother died,” Candy said as she dipped pieces of chicken in flour, “she instilled in me a lot of wonderful things like tolerance and patience. After she died, I talked to Jesus a lot. I wanted to be a missionary.”
“Then tell me about that,” I said.
“I walk around talking to the Chief a lot,” she went on. “I tell him: you’re a groovy cat. He was far ahead of his time. I argue with Him. I ask a lot of damn questions and get some answers. Sometimes I don’t agree. Sometimes He seems too severe. Hey! Give me some slack! Daddy never gave me pain seven days and seven nights. But nobody is gonna make me change about what I feel about Him. Not even Him.”
She started to tell me about “an incident that scared me for years, something that happened a year or two after mama died,” then she got interested in mashing potatoes and refused to think about it. Instead, she talked about what a luxury it was to visit her grandmother, the big feather bed, the indoor plumbing, the jars of candy, being able to go to church, and the unexcelled biscuits her grandmother made. Those biscuits will never be duplicated, Candy said, taking a can of store-bought biscuits from the refrigerator and cracking them against the corner of the table.
She looked straight at me and her green eyes swam. “This is very, very hard for me … talking to you,” she said in a little girl’s voice. I could see that it was. Candy’s necessary illusion was control: no matter how chaotic or predoomed the situation, Candy required the illusion that she was in control. No matter how counterproductive it appeared, when Candy detected the irresistible forces of logic and authority, she became the immovable object. When Pat Gannaway put the heat on, she threatened to sue him. She remembered that when she was a child, “I kept my eyes closed so nobody could see me.”
“Let’s go in here for a while,” she said, leading me to the bedroom with the pink wallpaper and the elaborate dressing table. It was the bedroom of a star, though one fallen on hard times. The floor was carpeted and old publicity photographs collected dust on the wall by the screened porch. The bed was extra large, and so was the bathtub. Carefully crossing her legs, Candy seated herself in front of the dresser mirror, so that the face I saw was her reflection. She raked the clutter of tubes and jars and cosmetic brushes aside.
I offered her one of my cigarettes and asked about Mickey Cohen. Cohen had personally guaranteed her $15,000 bond while the marijuana appeal ran its course. In a cruel way, those were the peak years for Candy Barr. She lived in a villa in the notorious Garden of Allah on Sunset Boulevard in L.A. and earned up to $2000 a week stripping there and in Vegas. Simultaneously, a pack of lawmen and profiteers howled like hungry dogs in her shadow—FBI agents, CIA agents, treasury agents, IRS agents, L.A. cops, Vegas cops, Dallas cops. The pressure was so enormous that the El Rancho Vegas had her replaced with Nelson Eddy. She was also in and out of the hospital with hepatitis. Candy recalled that the first time she ever heard of Mickey Cohen was when he sent an orchid in a champagne glass to her hospital room in L.A., along with this note: “Don’t worry, little girl, you got a friend.”
I had heard from good sources that the reason that Cohen got rid of Candy was she was giving him a bad press. The vast majority of those agents were interested in Mickey Cohen, not his girl friend. Word came down from “the Eastern organization” that if Cohen didn’t drop Candy, they would. Somewhere between Catalina Island and Hawaii.
“When I finally went to prison,” she said, and I realized now, watching her face in the mirror, this was the only way she could answer the question, “it was with a great sense of relief. Otherwise, I would have been dead or laying on some gangster’s couch. Of course I didn’t know what prison was. I guess I thought it was a private club. I ordered all these new clothes from a place in Florida—ten dresses, twenty bras, cosmetics—hell, I was gonna be there a long time. The only thing I didn’t think to take with me was the only thing I needed—money. Everything else they took away.”
She reached for another cigarette and said, “I started to tell you a story earlier. About something that scared me for years. It was one night when I was babysitting, I was dead tired from washing bed sheets all afternoon and trying to study and the baby was crying. I walked over and put my hand on the baby’s nose. That’s all there was to it, a moment of darkness, but just for a moment I knew I was capable of killing. I thought about that many times in prison. Women who had killed or harmed children were horribly ostracized in prison. I could understand why they struck out at me, but those poor women—didn’t they understand how those women hurt inside? Couldn’t they tell by the depth of their tears? Didn’t they understand that brief moment of darkness?”
Scott attempted to slip through the bedroom carrying an armload of clothes from the dryer, but Candy froze him with her eyes. She stood him in the corner by the blasting stereo and barked five or six terse, no-nonsense commands; bring in some fresh drinking water, go into town and pick up the mail, check the tires on the car. “Now repeat all that back to me,” she demanded, holding him with her eyes. Scott repeated it all, a trait, I gathered, that was recently acquired.
“Goddamn,” Candy snapped at me, “I’m supposed to be in there cooking supper. See what you’re doing to me!”
I mixed a drink from a bottle of Scotch I had brought for just such emergencies (Candy doesn’t drink) and studied the modest collection of books on her living room shelf. There was The Complete Works of Emily Dickinson, Dream Dictionary, a book of Living Magic, a book called Oddities: A Book of Unexplained Facts, and another called Enigmas: Another Book of Unexplained Facts. There were random copies of Reader’s Digest and Ladies Home Journal.
A collection of men’s hats hung like trophies from antlers. A rack containing seven or eight briar pipes sat solemnly beside a large can of Prince Albert.
It was after 4 a.m. when we sat down to a meal of fried chicken, potato salad, corn, red beans, sliced tomatoes, canned biscuits, and iced tea. Candy’s spirits improved with each mouthful. She winked and asked was everything OK. Clyde McCoy blew his bluesy harmonica on the stereo and Candy began a monologue recalling her daddy, old Doc Slusher—how the deputy back in Edna used to ride into the yard on a white horse to question Doc about some groceries that had disappeared from the local market; how when they came to repossess his car Doc sloshed a ring of gasoline around it, struck a kitchen match on the seat of his pants, and invited them to come ahead.
“Ride the rhyme, that’s what Lord Buckley taught me,” she said. “I learned to dance when I was two … on my daddy’s knee. Daddy played the French harp. He was a blues man. Saturday was his blues day. He’d set a bottle of whiskey on the table for anybody that came around and he’d play the blues on that harp.”
She went on about how she picked cotton and made soap and bacon for the family, the big black wash pots in the yard, hunting with the hounds, the taste of possum which she couldn’t stand, and fried armadillo, which was still a favorite.
Candy showed me her fan mail and some old publicity pictures. Maybe it wasn’t much of a legacy, but it was a start. There were those who remembered her well, many more than you would ever think. “I know my kids have been hurt by what’s been written about me,” she said. “I’m not saying it’s totally incorrect, it’s the way they say it.” Sure she’d done a little dope, and turned some tricks. She’d never stolen or hurt anyone, except when it was necessary. “I’ve rebelled,” she said, “and I’ve learned that in rebellion you can become what you’re rebelling against.” Even now there were moments when she wasn’t all that certain she had it together. Not too long ago a sheriff from Bell County had called and said he’d heard Candy was working his area. “I just cried,” she told me. “Then I got it together and told him, ‘If and when I do, you’ll know it all right. I’ll be there in my Cadillac blowing your doors off.’
“I almost let them make me feel ugly,” Candy said, studying the twenty-year-old photo of the young girl with the toy pistols. “I look at these old pictures, and what I see is people grabbing my ass. From five years old on. I had my heart broke many times. I didn’t even know why people were snotty to me. I was making a living. But it was like they had a bleeper on my ass. I was making $85 a week as a cigarette girl at the Theater Lounge, and all I could think of was, I had a car, a place of my own, and now nobody could throw me back in a motel with a night porter.
“But they wouldn’t let up. Do you know what it’s like working onstage with a couple of harness bulls sitting two feet away? Why did I have to take them to the backseat? Why did I have to call them sir when they were watching me take my clothes off? They were on my level then.”
It was nearly dawn when Candy made a bed for me on the living room sofa. She covered me with an imitation bearskin rug and tucked it in. An early autumn cold front had passed through West Texas: the thin walls of Fort Dulce rattled, and I lay there in the changing shafts of light thinking not of the woman whose essence filled the room, but of a life-size cardboard cutout of Candy Barr. I knew what Jim Frye would ask. He would ask: did you get any?
It was all a fantasy. Twenty years ago Candy Barr was forbidden fruit, a symbol for the agony of our tightly corked libidos, a martyr to repressed yearnings for violence and identity, a solitary being bending into the prevailing winds of injustice and insensitivity. When you got right down to it, Candy Barr did not apply to be our symbol. Like Patty Hearst, she just got carried away.
After a few hours sleep we all felt better. The sudden cold snap had turned the lake bronze as the warmer bottom water floated to the surface. I walked down by the lake and watched Scott dig the cottage intake pipe from the mud and blow it clean so there would be clear water for Candy’s morning shower. After her shower, Candy seated herself at the dressing table and, like one of those time-lapse Disney films where a desert flower appears to blossom before your eyes, performed the ancient miracle of her sex. The blonde hair brushed out soft and glossy. Mascara arches defined the eyes which sparkled now like polished turquoise. That cave-dweller’s pallor that had appeared so unflattering in the harsh light of the kitchen took on tones of finely dusted nutmeg. In her tight hip-hugger jeans and red halter she looked like a young girl ready for a hayride.
Momentarily, she reappeared as Candy Barr, a lost vision of great beauty, warmth, and charm.
She popped open a can of biscuits and asked me to sit beside her.
“Now we can talk,” she said. “What do you want to know?”
“I want to know how you feel,” I said.
“I feel like . . . like I’m not vulnerable anymore,” she told me.