Originally from London, James T. Bartlett has written for the Los Angeles Times, BBC, ALTA California, Hemispheres, Westways, Atlas Obscura,Crime Reads, Real Crimes and others, and is author of the alternative Gourmet Ghosts guides to the history, crimes and ghost stories of LA's oldest bars, restaurants and hotels. His latest book is The Alaskan Blonde and he recentlytalked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
How did you first hear of the Wells murder case?
I wanted the sequel to Gourmet Ghosts – Los Angeles to be more about true crime, especially forgotten or unknown ones, and I was surprised to find out that the Cecil Wells murder case, while it happened in Fairbanks, Alaska, also had a major connection to the Hollywood Plaza Hotel on Vine, and the Drake Hotel on Hollywood Blvd. It's a spoiler to say what that connection is, but I found a couple of Los Angeles Times articles about it via the LAPL research/archives site (which I use all the time), and thought: "What a story! I must read the book about it." And there wasn't one.
What about the case inspired you to write The Alaskan Blonde?
Aside from the glamorous and scandalous film noir elements (the young blonde, the dead rich husband, the secret Black lover, the far-off location of Alaska), I immediately felt that despite the murder happening nearly 70 years ago, many of the circumstances then were still relevant today. I was also curious to know what happened to Marquam, the young son of Cecil and Diane, who was orphaned before he was even four years old, and that soon became a desire to find out as much as I could for the respective family members.
How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write The Alaskan Blonde? Can you describe your process? How did you approach researching a decades-old, unsolved murder where most of the people involved have died?
It was about 4-5 years, on and off. Google, Facebook, and Ancestry.com were utterly invaluable. Still, there was plenty of old-fashioned cold-calling, many FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests, reading many, many hundreds of newspaper reports, archive material, and official documents, and giving and then transcribing interviews. I also visited Fairbanks and Texas, bought endless books and other items off eBay and Amazon, and went down a lot of rabbit holes trying to find everything I could about the case. You have to become a bit obsessed, I think, and then come to terms with the agonizing fact that you just can't put all of it in the book.
I was worried about what people might say to me when I told them I was looking into a case with which I had no family connection, but this "outsider journalism" aspect (which I recently wrote about for the Crime Reads website) really helped me. My English accent broke the ice too, but then I found out that the living relatives (most of whom were children at the time) knew little about the murder. It was officially unsolved, and several of them felt it had been swept under the carpet in Alaska's long fight for Statehood (which finally happened in 1959). Almost everyone I talked to was keen to know about anything I found out, and only a couple balked at the idea.
What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?
I'm sure it often happens in true crime research, but time after time, I end up thinking: "You couldn't make this up. No one would believe it." There were three things I found out: that "Third Suspect" William Colombany was allegedly involved in the murder of his first wife and that Diane wasn't officially divorced when she and Cecil were married. Additionally, a couple of weeks after Cecil's murder, a man named Donald Pratt shot and killed his partner, Annette, in Fairbanks. Perhaps fearing the worst, Annette had recently written an "in the event of my death" note leaving the care/adoption of her daughter Suzanna to Johnny Warren and his wife. A few days later, Johnny and Donald ended up sharing a cell together—very temporarily, as you might imagine.
Elements of this case, the rich, older husband, the young trophy wife, and the illicit affair with an African-American musician can be found in the pulp detective stories of the time. Do you know if the Wells case was ever used as the basis for a detective novel and/or film?
I wish! And I really did look! For a minute, I hoped that Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner, who was asked by the Wells family to recommend a private detective to look into the case, might have included it in his Court of Last Resort magazine articles, which were adapted into a television series—but alas he hadn't. Some have said that the case is a bit like The Postman Always Rings Twice or even Double Indemnity.
These same elements made the case a nationwide scandal at the time. If something like this happened today, do you think it would be handled differently, or would it still be as sensational?
As I mentioned, I think that today the case would still be a sensation, but there would be other elements that would play a role now and didn't then: the understanding of mental illness, domestic abuse, and post-natal depression, to name but a few.
Are you a fan of noir fiction or films? Do you have a favorite writer, novel, or movie?
Yes, and I have read and watched most of the genre classics, but I'm going to cop out and say that it's impossible to name just one favorite writer, novel, or movie!
You intimate that Alaska's quest for Statehood had a direct impact on how the Wells case was handled and that the statehood goal was always lurking in the background. How do you think that impacted the investigation and how things were portrayed in the media?
Like any territory looking for Statehood, the issue of law and order was an important one. Fairbanks was the second biggest city in Alaska (albeit a long way behind Anchorage in terms of highest population), and Cecil Wells—an Alaskan pioneer and noted businessman—was shot in his bed in Fairbanks, and no one was jailed for the crime was, as we would say today, "not good optics." Another successful local businessman, Tommy Wright, had also been killed in a similar home invasion earlier that year too, and his killer hadn't been caught either.
Add in the new Fairbanks Chief of Police clashing with the new Fairbanks D.A. over a second high-profile unsolved murder, and it was a failure all around. The FBI and local law enforcement continued to investigate for years, but for several reasons, they never had a strong case. As such, many people told me that they thought it was pretty much swept under the carpet for the "greater good" of Statehood.
If you had the chance to say something to Cecil Wells, Diane Wells, or Johnny Warren, what would it be? If you could ask them something beyond the obvious "what really happened?" what would it be?
I would be fascinated to hear Cecil's stories. He had a fascinating life—including an early spell in jail for living with a married woman when he was also married—but he also met Walt Disney when he and his daughter came up to Alaska! Johnny, I think, would be fun to hang out with, and I'd love to hear him play and sing (in the book, I talk about a 7" record I found that I think might have been his only professional recording). As for Diane, that's such a hard question to answer because I know so much more about her and her children. Just to meet her and try to make her feel I was someone she could talk to—or would help her—would be a start.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
Hell’s Half-Acre by Susan Jonusas, which is the book for my monthly Zoom true crime book club (free to join if anyone is interested—just send me an email). Also, The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes, about the founding of Australia, and Early Graves by Joseph Hansen, the excellent but underrated writer of the Dave Brandstetter mysteries. They are all books I borrowed from the library.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
I'm going to do the cowardly thing and say that it's impossible to make a list like that, as it's always changing. Looking at my bookshelf, I see that works by J.G. Ballard, Gore Vidal and British author/playwright Alan Bennett turn up frequently, but there’s also a variety of others ranging from The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith, The Terror by Dan Simmons and The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger.
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
Is there a book you've faked reading?
David Copperfield—but I (sort of) remedied that recently at the Tuesday "Tea & A Tale" Zoom event organized by Northridge Library, where it’s being read aloud of the next few weeks by members of the group (including me).
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
I sometimes buy books from thrift stores just for the covers—ones from the 50s, 60s, and 70s can be wild—and my most recent was Spectrum II, a 1964 collection of science fiction short stories edited by Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest.
Is there a book that changed your life?
Not one specifically, though so many have inspired me or taught me something new—and continue to do so.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
Naked Lunch, which I guess is predictable for someone my age. But there are so many more.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
I guess those ones listed above, though I have read them all several times now.
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?
The Aboriginal art I saw in Australia really opened my eyes and made me read more about the country's history; the same goes for Alaska in some ways. Also, I lived in Belfast, Northern Ireland, for five years from 1999 (just post-Peace Agreement), and I absolutely loved it. It was essential, though, that from early on, I read about the country, and especially the 30 years of "The Troubles." When I was there, I was constantly asked: "Why did you move here?" as English people didn't usually go by choice. Now Belfast is hip and expensive and a popular place to live and visit; the change in just a generation has astonished me.
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
If I can travel back in time for this, then obviously, I want to go to Fairbanks on the night of October 16, 1953, and hang around for the next few days (or weeks).
What is the question that you're always hoping you'll be asked but never have been? What is your answer?
"Can we write you a check so you can go anywhere in the world, spend your days in libraries and archives, and do nothing but research your next book?" My answer would be "Yes. Yes, you can."
What are you working on now?
I'm putting together a Gourmet Crimes book (an updated/greatest hits/new collection with the emphasis on crime), but there is another Alaskan true crime—again from decades ago, about a suspicious military murder—that I might look into. Right now, though, I am doing talks and interviews for The Alaskan Blonde, and looking forward to a trip to Anchorage and Fairbanks in October to promote it there. Some of the people I interviewed for the book will be there, and I cannot wait to meet them in person.
—Daryl would like to offer a special thank you to Daniel Tures, Adult Librarian at the Edendale Branch, for his invaluable insights and assistance with this interview!