Dec. 28, 1937: Betty Braun Healy meets with Dist. Atty. Buron Fitts over her allegations about the death of Ted Healy. At the conclusion of the conference, she agreed that Healy had died of natural causes. (Los Angeles Examiner, Dec. 28, 1937)
One of the minor, though essential, characters in the “Wallace Beery beat Ted Healy to death” story is his baby son, whose birth sent Healy on his final binge.
When the son, who adopted the name Theodore John Healy, died in 2011, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s obituary by Rick Badie included this statement:
Mr. Healy was told by his mother, the late Betty Hickman, that his father died of a heart attack, a story that was passed on to family. According to stoogeworld.com, though, the 42-year-old vaudeville performer, comedian and actor got into a fight with three men outside a club on the Sunset Strip. A medical examiner ruled he died from a brain concussion, the site states.
And after spending weeks delving into the case, we can spot the mistakes immediately: Healy was 41, not 42; he didn’t get into a fight with three men, he got into three separate fights; and the coroner ruled that he died, not from a concussion but of “acute toxic nephritis caused by acute and chronic alcoholism, which weakened the heart, kidneys and liver.”
It’s so much easier — with just a few keystrokes — to Google to a website of unknown and dubious reliability and cut and paste an unverified statement rather than go through the pick and shovel work of determining exactly what happened. And after all, the statement is attributed to a source, so Badie can at least pretend that he is being thorough. And so from stoogeworld to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to LexisNexis, folklore is inscribed into the pages of history.
‘History is written by the winners” has become such a popular quotation that no one seems to know exactly who said it. Was it Napoleon? Winston Churchill? Perhaps it was George Orwell, who used it in a 1944 essay.
But if it is anything, “history is written by the winners” is a truism that frequently isn’t true — at least not in the customary sense. This story is a perfect case study of the “losing version” becoming the generally accepted account.
Ted Healy died in 1937 of natural causes. Everyone said so: The coroner, the autopsy surgeon, the police, his widow, his manager, his sister and the district attorney. Even his ex-wife, Betty Braun Healy, the only one to dispute the official findings, eventually agreed and the decision was ultimately unanimous. Ted Healy was a chronic alcoholic who drank himself to death.
If there was ever a story to be written “by the winners” this is it.
Instead, what we find everywhere, whether it’s E.J. Fleming’s “The Fixers” or Jeff and Tom Forrester’s “The Three Stooges” or anything on the Internet — especially Wikipedia — are variations on Betty Braun Healy’s old allegations, although they were disproved by the official investigation, dismissed by everyone involved in the incident and recanted by her.
How did it happen?
In the intervening years, the complicated details of Healy’s death were discarded — three fights at the Cafe Trocadero became one fight with three men — and replaced with new embellishments as the story was transformed into a modern folktale with a beginning, a middle and an end, complete with a moral, just like “The Fox and the Grapes.”
It has been handed down as a “once upon a time” fable set in old Hollywood about a minor celebrity going out on a drunk to celebrate the birth of his son, getting into a fight at a glamorous nightclub, where he was either beaten to death or fatally injured by three other now-marginal Hollywood/underworld figures, and the whole matter was “hushed up” to protect the guilty. The only person to tell the truth was blacklisted and ostracized because in Tinseltown, nobody lives happily ever after.
Moral: The movie studios and “the mob” were all-powerful. “Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
As with any myth, it’s unclear how this transformation began. Was it gossip passed around on movie sets to pass the time between takes? Was it Betty Braun Healy, bitter over losing her large alimony payments and getting nothing from Healy’s estate, reviving her allegations? Did someone stumble across the old newspaper stories and decide to concoct a new “revisionist” version? It could be any and all of these explanations. We may never know.
We can be certain, however, that the allegations that were disproved and rejected years ago found new life and became “the official version” after being published in a couple of relatively recent books, then a few newspaper accounts and finally spreading to the Internet — especially Wikipedia.
And so we return to Wikipedia, where this journey in research began.
Shortly after the discovery of fire, when I took freshman English, we learned the scholarly art of writing a research paper of a certain number of pages, using a certain number of books and a certain number of periodicals, with proper footnoting and bibliography. We were given a choice of three burning topics of the day: abortion, euthanasia and legalizing marijuana (plus ça change).
In those ancient times, before the Internet, diligent researchers would hike to the library, sit at a long table and consult the thick, imposing volumes bound in sturdy green covers known as Readers Guide to Periodical Literature. Next was a trip to the card catalogue – rows and rows of wooden drawers held in rows and rows of wooden cabinets organized in sections by author, title and subject.
Ideally, we would examine the periodicals, hoping that nobody preceding us had cut out the article since photocopying was still in the Thermo Fax era and Xerox machines had yet to be widely introduced in libraries. Then we headed to the stacks, hoping that the books weren’t checked out or stolen. If we were especially lucky, the books’ bibliographies led us to still more books and periodicals on our chosen subject.
When we compiled sufficient material on a stack of 3 by 5 index cards, we sat down at typewriters to produce our research papers, using the proper weight of paper and not cheating on the margins to pad out our precious work of genius to meet the page requirement.
What few of us realized at the time — I certainly did not — was the significance of having all our source material “curated,” as we would describe it today. Readers Guide was selective about which magazines it indexed; Life, Time and Newsweek made the cut while True Confessions, Swank and Nugget did not.
The same was true with the books. People in the library’s Collections Department, given a limited amount of money, had to decide what books to buy based on their knowledge of the subject areas, reviews in various publications and perhaps consultation with the appropriate university departments.
I mention all of this to underscore the contrast with research as it is currently practiced.
Today, we sit down with our soy chai latte at Starbucks, boot our laptops and in between checking Facebook and watching cat videos, we check Google, quickly and painlessly.
The simple — and complicated — problem is that nobody curates the Internet, certainly not Google. I suppose one could argue that something like the Drudge Report acts as a sort of curator, but it deals with only a tiny segment of the Web.
And so we have Google, which at its essence is nothing more a worldwide popularity contest based on a formula that is continually tweaked and prodded because everyone tries to manipulate it to their own advantage — a cyber-voodoo process that has been given the respectable euphemism “search engine optimization.”
As it currently operates, Google represents the ultimate democracy of truth: All facts are equal. Everything is put to a vote. Whatever gets the most clicks wins. If the herd likes the story that Wallace Beery beat Ted Healy to death in the parking lot of the Trocadero, that’s what Google will promote to the top of its search results.
The winner in almost every Google search is Wikipedia.
If Google’s problem is that it isn’t curated, Wikipedia’s fatal flaw (one of them, anyway) is just the opposite: Anyone can be a curator on Wikipedia on any subject at any time. Wikipedia has a place for you whether you are a history buff, a fan of some now-obscure movie star, a conspiracy nut or a vandal who blanks pages and writes “Jason is gay ha ha.” Or maybe you just like to come along and “fix” the work of others.
This makes Wikipedia a perfect place for what I call “fact laundering.” An account from a sleaze-peddling book like E.J. Fleming’s “The Fixers” gets picked up by one of Wikipedia’s citizen scholars — with a proper citation, of course, because Wikipedia is all about form and not so much about content. Another citizen scholar finds the story via Google and spreads it to another website. After all, it’s in Wikipedia, it must be true. And soon our dubious fact has gone viral.
Consider my attempt to find the source of the quote: “History is written by the winners.” The ease and convenience of a Google search is seductive and the results provide a multitude of explanations. The process is so unlike the old days of my college years, when a hunt for the quote might have taken hours, led me to several books and possibly no answer at all.
We find hints of an author in lightly sourced Web pages. But it is only after some persistent digging that we run our quarry to ground in a book: “George Orwell: As I Please, 1943-1946.”
“In each case you get a number of totally incompatible answers, one of which is finally adopted as the result of a physical struggle. History is written by the winners.”
Today, the fight over facts is not necessarily a physical struggle in which one side is declared the victor. In the Google Age, it is an endless conflict waged in cyberspace by anyone with a computer and an Internet connection in a way that Orwell, for all of his prescience, could not have imagined. It is a struggle over which facts will be put to a vote so the majority can decide if not the “truth,” then at least the “truthiness” of the facts.
And because of the impermanence of Wikipedia, it is an endless struggle in which any “victory” is temporary; today’s entry can be quickly and silently replaced by the competing version. Only the entry’s history survives to betray the changes. If one bothers to look.
Here’s a final thought on a puzzling phenomenon that I call “contrarianism.”
At its best, skepticism is an unbiased inquiry, perhaps a challenge, to a certain set of statements. One investigates them and finds them truthful or untruthful. In the Ted Healy story, we investigated the claims that he was beaten to death by Wallace Beery and found that they were false. That’s skepticism.
But what I also encountered on this journey, oddly enough, is “contrarianism”: the desire, the need, the hunger for another reason to replace the findings released by the Los Angeles County coroner in 1937. If Healy wasn’t beaten to death, then it must have been some other cause. Something in the “contrarians’ ” temperament demands a rejection of the official findings from 1937.
In this permutation, which is pure speculation, Dr. Wyant Lamont inadvertently killed Ted Healy by giving him a sedative when he was having convulsions. Lamont did, according to news accounts, give Healy a sedative, but there is no reason whatsoever to believe that it killed him, and yet I find this nonsense already gaining traction among some of my “contrarian” correspondents.
Is it possible that in trying to set the record straight, a new folktale has inadvertently been created? If so, how long before it ends up on Wikipedia?