Photo: Walter Wanger, left, and Jerry Giesler. Courtesy of Mary Mallory.
Long before Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., Richard “Racehorse” Haynes, or F. Lee Bailey hit the scene, soft-spoken, circumspect Jerry Giesler iced his competition as Los Angeles’ top criminal defense lawyer. Representing everyone from gangsters Mickey Cohen and Ben “Bugsy” Siegel to such celebrities as Charles Chaplin, Errol Flynn, Marilyn Monroe, Busby Berkeley, Robert Mitchum, and Lili St. Cyr, Giesler mowed down his competition with smarts, over-preparation, and working the system.
Giesler spent big sums hiring detectives to hunt down evidence, screen witnesses, and perform surveillance work. Film studios lavished huge fortunes for him to defend their world-famous stars from scandal and scathing publicity. High-profile personalities utilized his services in messy personal matters to overpower and muscle their opponents. Giesler excelled at putting the prosecution and its own witnesses on trial.
Hollywood producer Walter Wanger desperately required the steely services of Giesler in December 1951 after shooting talent agent Jennings Lang. A five-time president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and producer of such films as “Bitter Tea of General Yen,” “Queen Christina,” and “Stagecoach,” Wanger suffered from financial problems and career setbacks, as well as suspicions that his wife, actress Joan Bennett, was carrying on an affair with Lang.
On Dec. 13, 1951, about 2:30 pm, Wanger drove by the MCA Beverly Hills office at Santa Monica Boulevard and Rexford Drive, noticing Bennett’s car in the parking lot. An hour later, he again drove by to see it still parked in the same location. Wanger decided to wait for her return. When Bennett and Lang drove up in Lang’s car at 5:30 p.m., Wanger approached them as they stood around her car and fired two shots at Lang with his .38-caliber pistol. One shot grazed Lang’s thigh and another hit him in the groin.
A nearby garage attendant drove Bennett and Lang to his doctor’s office while Wanger remained at the scene. Police took him into custody within minutes, having heard the shots across the street at the police station. Beverly Hills police booked him on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon with the intent to commit murder, charges which could lead to a 14-year prison term. Author Matthew Bernstein relates in “Walter Wanger, Hollywood Independent,” that a Life reporter described Wanger’s walk from his jail cell to the police desk surrounded by “popping flashbulbs and whirling newsreel cameras” as resembling that of Norma Desmond descending her staircase at the finale of “Sunset Boulevard.”
Newspapers soon reported that Wanger had warned Lang months earlier that “he would shoot anyone responsible for causing him domestic difficulties,” though both Wanger and Bennett engaged in extramarital activities. Bennett told police that Wanger seemed unhappy and depressed over severe financial problems and thought he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and denied any affair.
At the plea hearing, Wanger pleaded “not guilty,” with Giesler immediately stating, “by reason of temporary insanity.” Giesler faced the press afterward and claimed that “the shooting occurred in a ‘bluish flash through a violet haze’ as the culmination and the closing of a vicious circle of deception. When all the facts are developed, we are satisfied that it will be obvious to anyone that the act charged against Mr. Wanger was the climax of many unfortunate facts and accusations.”
Giesler tried the case in the press, showing them clippings from a Hollywood trade paper after the court delayed trial proceedings. The Feb. 8, 1952, Los Angeles Times reported them to say, “Jay Kantor, whose apartment was used in the Joan Bennett-Jennings Lang meetings, has been moved to New York permanently by MCA… .”
On April 15, 1952, Wanger and Giesler requested that Superior Court Judge Harry Borde decide the case from grand jury transcripts rather than face a jury. In less than six minutes in court, Giesler stated that he would withdraw the temporary insanity plea until the judge read the transcript, and moved that the psychiatrists’ reports be withheld. Giesler informed the press that Wanger decided to “throw himself at the mercy of the court” to avoid lurid testimony ‘for the sake of his children and all the other children’ who might be affected.” Wanger was later found guilty of simple assault with a deadly weapon, which required only a four-month sentence.
Wanger served his time at the Sheriff’s Honor Farm in Castaic starting June 5, 1952, where he was assigned to work in the institution’s library. He asked for parole in August after serving two months, but was denied.
Giesler makes no mention of the case in his 1960 autobiography, but does describe defending stars as the hardest kind of work. He goes on to report what he calls overly exaggerated labels of himself by others, that he is “a miracle man…,” “magnificent mouthpiece,” “Jerry Giesler, the man who beats the rap,” “Jerry Giesler, the man who handles the film capital’s troubles, from peccadillo to perjury, including potshots at Pooh-Bahs.” Giesler smoothly gamed the system for Wanger, reducing attempted murder charges to simple assault.