April 24, 1957
Los Angeles

Note: Bylined stories were rare in the 1940s and 1950s. Here’s the handiwork of Jack Smith, doing rewrite on a celebrity brawl involving Yma Sumac and Fred Otash, former police officer, private detective and one of James Ellroy’s inspirations.

By Jack Smith

Singer Yma Sumac’s home yesterday was the scene of the champion brawl in fighting Hollywood’s history–featuring the Peruvian beauty herself, her estranged husband, two hot-blooded Inca dancers, three private detectives, a male Peruvian harpist and a collie dog named Prince.

The head-thumping, hair-pulling Donnybrook took place in the entry hall of the Cheviot Hills home as the tension in the Sumac household finally snapped into a shrieking extravaganza with sound effects in two languages, not to mention the barking of the dog.

The spark that touched off the swirling free-for-all was the strained relationship between the exotic songbird from the Andes and her high-strung Peruvian husband, Moises Vivanco, 38, whom she sued for divorce only a week ago.

The luxurious house shook from the piercing screams from Miss Sumac’s celebrated five-octave voice as clothes ripped, flesh and bone struck flesh, blood flowed and at least one 220-pound private detective hit the deck under a tangle of assorted Peruvians.

Flashbulbs and television lights bathed the colossal action in an eerie glare and photographers and reporters scrambled to the walls for points of vantage as the struggle unfolded before them like the climax of a high-budget Western.

Miss Sumac herself was credited with one of the most telling strokes of the con [text missing here–lrh]

after Miss Sumac and [private detective Fred] Otash, accompanied by one
of Otash’s operators, Norman Placey, 37, drove up to her home at 3065
McConnell Drive in Otash’s blue Cadillac.

Miss Sumac was wearing a  long fur coat and her almond-shaped eyes with
their arched eyebrows were hidden behind the dark glasses.

went there with Otash, explaining that she wanted to pick up some of her her personal things and also to look for her 1957 Cadillac Fleetwood, which she said Vivanco had hidden from her.

Vivanco opened the door and beckoned to eight newsmen waiting outside.

“Please come in,” he invited. “I want you to see this.”

Miss Sumac swept regally through the large living room and into the den. There she found Farfan playing the alpa, an ancient Incan harp that stands on three legs.

Miss [Esmila] Zevallos was singing.

Farfan had arrived from Peru only yesterday morning, just in time for the festivities. He speaks no English, which turned out to be of little disadvantage in the events to follow.

Miss Sumac began questioning Zevallos about the night before–a preliminary skirmish in which, Vivanco charged, he was strong-armed and threatened with a gun by two of Otash’s detectives.

Miss Sumac asked Miss Zevallos if she had seen the gun. Otash has said his men carried none. Miss Zevallos said she saw it.

Miss Sumac, said witnesses, slapped her.

Miss Zevallos called Miss Sumac a “bad woman” and the battle was engaged.

“I have work for you like a servant,” cried Miss Zevallos. “Me and your
cousin, Yola. You’re going to throw me and your cousin out. I work for
you. I washed your…your… your many things. You are bad woman!”

Otash glided in from the living room, sensing trouble, to help keep the peace.

Farfan leaped up from his harp and helped Otash–for the time being.

The action subsided temporarily.

Peace was restored. Miss Sumac and Vivanco stood at the front door to pose for pictures.

“She knows how to pose,” he said gallantly. “She has many years of practicing.”

“Yes,” said Miss Sumac, smiling. “He taught me.”

Those were the last pleasant words spoken.

Vivanco spotted Otash and brought up the incident of the night before and the gun.

Otash said his man didn’t have a gun.

“If you say he didn’t have a gun,” cried Vivanco, his temper rising,”you are a big, fat liar!”

He exploded into Spanish and struggled back into English.

“You get out of this house!” he roared.

At this critical point,Vivanco noticed Private Detective Placey, who was standing mildly against the wall.

“There is the man,” he accused, “who had the gun!”

Vivanco lunged for Placey.

Another private detective, Bill Lowe, who had been staked out across the street, looking for the missing car, slipped up behind the irate Peruvian and grabbed his arms.

Otash moved in to separate the men.

Miss Rivero grabbed Otash from behind–by the hair–and yanked downward.

Otash backed against the wall, squirming to get free from the determined Inca woman.

Miss Sumac grabbed at Vivanco. Miss Zevallos danced onto the scene and grabbed Miss Sumac.

Miss Sumac’s dark glasses flew to the floor. Somebody tramped on them.

Prince, the collie, loped into the ring, threading among the struggling legs, tossing his head and barking joyously.

Miss Sumac flipped a smart backhand across Miss Zevallos’ mouth.

Farfan slithered in from the den, still speaking no English. He flung
his medium-sized figure at the bull-like Otash, trying to shove him
through the door.

Vivanco fell into a wrought iron planter.

Then, suddenly, the storm subsided.

Hair was patted and stroked back into place by the panting gladiators.
Yanked clothing was rearranged. Otash hunted on the floor for a missing
coat button. Miss Rivero dabbed at blood from a gash on the back of her
neck and assorted scratches on her arms.

But tempers still were on edge.

Miss Sumac slipped her mink coat down over her left shoulder and displayed a bruise the size of a dollar.

“How did I get this mark,” she demanded of Miss Rivero.

Haltingly, Miss Rivero recounted an incident of Thursday night, the import of which was that Vivanco had inflicted the bruise.

Vivanco smiled scornfully.

“This is your lover’s marking,” he said.

About this time, a district attorney’s car hove up on the curved driveway and three investigators spilled out.

In a few moments Sgt. V.A. Peterson and Det. Merle Pagh, who had investigated the incident of the night before, joined the show.

They had hardly taken charge before a patrol car raced up–somewhat
belatedly–in response to an alarm that a brawl was going on.

In the resulting powwow today’s meeting in Santa Monica was scheduled.

Otash later gave a stirring version of his own involvement, with comic overtones.

“This Vivanco grabbed my arm and his buddy grabbed  my coat. Vivanco
took a couple of shots at me with his fists. I was afraid to hit him
back. I was afraid he’d go into another world.

“Then one of the maids jumped in and started pulling my hair. The other maid came up behind me and grabbed me by the coat.

“One minute I’m up–the next I’m down.

“They were pulling me and pushing me. I was spread-eagled. I couldn’t
hit anybody. The whole pack of them wouldn’t weigh in at more than 225

“Miss Sumac let one of the maids have it in the mouth–backhand. I told
her to be quiet and take it easy. Boy, it was a ball there for a while!”

Monday night affair that roughened tempers for the main event of
yesterday began when Miss Sumac called at the house to pick up some
things. She was accompanied by two Otash operators, Placey and Henry P.
Cohen. Also with her was her son by Vivanco, Charles, 8.

Vivanco said he tried to talk to the boy and the two detectives
manhandled him and threatened to shoot him, one of them drawing an
automatic. He later signed a complaint against the two men charging
assault with intent to commit great bodily harm.

Otash scoffed at the charge, insisting “none of my men have a gun
permit and none of them even own a gun.” Police who were called to the
house Monday night said they searched the two private detectives and
their car and found no weapon.

Miss Sumac left her son without bothering to pick up any of her
belongings but the detectives did accomplish something. They served
Vivanco a Santa Monica Superior Court order to show cause why Miss
Sumac should not retain custody of the boy, and a second paper
advancing the hearing into the matter next Friday.

Troubles between Miss
Sumac and Vivanco, who has been her musical director for years, began
when he lost a paternity suit filed by her former secretary, Maureen
Shea, 24.

Miss Shea charged that Vivanco was the father of twin girls born to her
in 1954 as the result of a backstage romance carried on while Miss
Sumac and her troupe were on tour. Her claim was upheld here in
Superior Court last January after a three-week trial.

Otash said yesterday that he will demand his detectives and Vivanco take lie detector tests
to determine the truth of their stories on Monday’s incident.

“I told Vivanco he’s going to get in trouble for making false crime reports,” the detective said.

Before the situation boiled over into violence yesterday, Vivanco talked reminiscently of his long career with Miss Sumac, which he described as a Pygmalion and Galatea relationship.

“Yma was nothing–musically and artistically,” he told reporters. “I made her. Like you make an image from clay–a puppet.”

Miss Sumac was born 35 years ago in the Andean village of Ichocan. She was given her professional name by Vivanco. It is the name of a legendary daughter of an Inca ruler. Miss Sumac’s voice, which is said to range over five octaves, has electrified audiences the world over.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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