And now, a bit of real life noir compliments of the photo collection of the Los Angeles Public Library and the real lives of two L.A. femme fatales – the Black Widow and the Vice Queen.
No matter what your business or how great your profit, it pays you to treat your employees well. Just ask Ann Forst. Born Almerdell Forrester in 1907 in Paris, Texas, (and also known as Anne Forrester), Forst made a lucrative living during the 1930s by managing houses of prostitution in California and beyond. While her associate (Bristol Barrett) was in charge of procuring girls for their establishments, Forst acted as the madam, booking girls at the various sites, paying bills, ordering supplies, and making arrangements from her office in a hotel on downtown Spring Street. The business territory extended from El Centro (on the California/Mexico border) to Seattle, Washington. Clientele included prominent businessmen, public officials, and even high-ranking members of the LAPD. Forst became known as the Black Widow for the little black book she always carried that contained names, addresses, phone numbers, and incriminating information on various city officials.
Ann Forst at age 33.
Herald Examiner Collection, photo dated August 6, 1940.
Many of the women working in the houses of ill repute managed by Forst had been coerced into sex work with promises of high pay and a glamorous life. Once inside the white slave ring (a phrase often used for prostitution at that time), working girls had little luxury and little control over their own lives. A ruthless madam who quickly dismissed any girl who did not live up to her expectations, Forst did well for herself, living in a spacious home on ten acres in the San Fernando Valley. While her house cost $35,000 to build (it had central air conditioning, very upscale for the 1930s), Forst put it up for sale for $25,000 cash when she was arrested in 1940. She eventually reduced the asking price to $21,000 and sold the home in 1941.
Home of Ann Forst at corner of Devonshire Street and Tampa Avenue in Northridge, California.
Herald Examiner Collection, photo dated August 6, 1940.
Forst had up to 200 girls working for her at any time and little, if any, interference from the law. She was able to build and run such a huge prostitution ring without attracting trouble due to protection from then-mayor of Los Angeles Frank Shaw. Elected in 1933 and then recalled from office in 1938, Shaw is considered to be the most corrupt mayor in Los Angeles history, mishandling funds, offering protective favors for a fee, and turning a blind eye to rampant corruption. Mayor Shaw’s brother Joe, who was also the Mayor’s private secretary, sold LAPD jobs out of his City Hall office, the result being that the LAPD Central Vice Squad was on the take and under the thumb of the Mayor and his brother (who was very friendly with mob enforcers John Roselli and Jack Dragna.)
Mayor Frank Shaw in court.
Herald Examiner Collection, photo taken in 1938.
Jack Dragna in court.
Herald Examiner Collection, photo taken on July 30, 1949.
Forst also had protection in the form of her little black book (from which she derived her nickname, the Black Widow). This book, which she always kept on her person or in secured enclosures, contained the names and pertinent information of her customers who included the city’s business elite, the LAPD’s command staff, and several political figures. Forst’s little black book could be used to blackmail many a high-ranking man and this (she believed) would keep her safe from legal action.
Ann Forst enters court to testify in libel case involving (then-former) Mayor Frank Shaw.
Herald Examiner Collection, photo taken November 24, 1941.
Many of the women working for Forst had been coerced into sex work with promises of high pay and a glamorous life. Once inside the ring, working girls had little luxury and little control over their own lives. One woman targeted for employment was Maxine Rayle. On April 22, 1940, while being held against her will in one of Forst’s houses, Rayle managed to make a phone call to Captain Walter Hunter, an LAPD sheriff. She reported that she and another woman, Helen Smith, were being held captive and gave the address where they were located. The LAPD then rescued the two women and uncovered the white slave ring.
Details of the ring’s operations and its takedown in Daring Detectives magazine. Maxine Rayle, who blew the whistle on the operations, is the woman with pencil in hand on the right in the far left photo.
Herald Examiner Collection, July 13, 1940.
Forst was arrested for pandering, a felony which carried a punishment of one to ten years in prison. The definition of pandering was:
(A)ny person who by promises, threats, use of violence, or by any device or
scheme, shall cause, induce, persuade or encourage a female person to become
an inmate of a house of prostitution, is guilty of pandering.
Forst’s associates, Charles Montgomery and Bristol Barrett, were also arrested and charged with pandering.
Charles W. “Monty” Montgomery, leader of the operation (on the left), and his assistant,
21-year-old Bristol Barrett.
Herald Examiner Collection, photo dated May 9, 1940.
Bristol Barrett was known as the “Lieutenant” to white slave ring boss Montgomery. He was often referred to as “Glamour Boy”.
Bristol Barrett upon being charged for pandering.
Herald Examiner Collection, photo dated April 23, 1940.
While Forst felt protected by her little black book – surely no one mentioned in that book would dare to testify against her – she failed to take into account disgruntled employees, of which she had many. Forst, who was often demanding and short-tempered, was not well liked by her team. A number of women who worked in Forst’s houses were called to testify about their lives, livelihoods, and living arrangements. Once on the witness stand, they were quick to turn against Forst, revealing sordid details of their job including being forced to service several men a day, not being allowed to rest when ill, and only getting half their promised pay. The testimony of three women in particular – Donna Stewart, Joan Farrell, and Pauline Skevenski – sent Forst off to prison.
Donna Stewart (aka Donna Steward).
Herald Examiner Collection, April 29, 1940.
Joan Farrell, who was arrested in a downtown hotel two days after Ann Forst’s arrest.
Herald Examiner, photo dated April 24, 1940.
Pauline Skevenski, who provided the court with shocking details of working for Ann Forst.
Herald Examiner Collection, photo dated July 12, 1940.
Many other women testified about the mistreatment (and underpayment) they received while working in houses of ill repute run by Ann Forst.
Jane Leggitt (left) and Patricia Joapes voluntarily went to the sheriff’s vice squad headquarters and gave detailed information about Forst’s houses and white slave ring.
Herald Examiner Collection, photo dated April 26, 1940.
Lorraine Harvey, a former car hop, told of being coerced into prostitution
by promises of high income and lavish living quarters.
Herald Examiner Collection, photo dated July 23, 1940.
Florine French spoke candidly about the white slave life.
Herald Examiner, photo dated May 9, 1940.
Serena Peine testified that girls only got half their earnings.
Herald Examiner Collection, photo dated May 15, 1940.
Dolly Dupree, who ran one of the houses of ill repute in San Bernardino, testified against Forst.
Herald Examiner Collection, photo taken on May 8, 1940.
Irene Moore, who claimed she fell in love with “Jitterbug” (not known whether she
referred to a person or the dance), spoke about her life as a prostitute.
Herald Examiner Collection, photograph taken on May 2, 1940.
Sara Mathews gave testimony regarding the white slave ring and Ann Forst’s part in it.
Herald Examiner Collection, photo dated on April 24, 1940.
Lupe Brooks took the stand during Forst’s pandering trial.
Herald Examiner Collection, photo dated May 30, 1940.
Mildred Hinchcliff spoke of her life of shame due to being seduced into the white slave ring.
Herald Examiner Collection, photo dated May 15, 1940.
When Ann Forst took the stand, she had a few bombshells of her own to drop. She testified that she delivered money from the vice houses directly to Guy McAfee, who was then head of the LAPD vice squad (and also owner/operator of several brothels of his own). When Fletcher Bowron became Mayor of Los Angeles in 1938 and promised to rid the city of prostitution and gambling, McAfee left L.A. and moved to Las Vegas. He named the Las Vegas Strip in Las Vegas after the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.
Ann Forst testifies in court regarding collaboration with LAPD Vice Squad.
Herald Examiner Collection, photo dated August 5, 1940.
Guy McAfee, Head of the Vice Squad of the Los Angeles Police Department in the 1930s.
Herald Examiner Collection, photo taken on May 23, 1931.
Ann Forst was found guilty of pandering and sentenced to ten years in the State Institution for Women at Tehachapi. She left Los Angeles to begin serving her sentence in December of 1941.
The Black Widow leaves Los Angeles to begin her jail sentence. Accompanying
her (on the left) is Jail Matron Vada Russell.
Herald Examiner Collection, photo taken on December 9, 1941.
Ann Forst served five years at the women’s prison in Tehachapi. (Forst’s associates, Charles Montgomery and Bristol Barrett, also served time, but it is not known how long they were incarcerated nor what they did upon release.) The women’s prison, a modern facility at the time, had an administration building, a sewing and laundry building, full-size kitchens, and a printing press. Inmates lived in cottages that did not have barred windows.
Detention building where new prisoners live at Tehachapi Women’s Prison.
Herald Examiner Collection, photograph taken by Perry Fowler on March 29, 1935.
Upon leaving prison, Ann Forst slipped quietly into a less glamorous life. She married and helped her husband run a string of hotels in Arizona and Nevada. She died in obscurity in 1998.
Among the many accounts of the Black Widow pandering trial, there is the story that one of her girls, Brenda Allen Burns (later to become simply Brenda Allen), testified against Ann Forst. Yet there is also evidence that Allen spoke no ill of her madam, but rather stated that while she was unable to resist the sweet talk of “Glamour Boy” Bristol Barrett and eventually did become a prostitute, Allen was not coerced into being a prostitute by Forst. (This is an important legal distinction.) Many of the girls who had worked for Forst liked the way Allen handled her testimony – she was straightforward, well spoken, and accused no one of any wrongdoing. This opened a pathway for Allen’s future plans.
Brenda Allen Burns at the pandering trial of Ann Forst.
Herald Examiner Collection, photo dated July 18, 1940.
Check back to this blog in two weeks for Part 2 of the story of Seduction, Corruption, Deception, and Protection – The Black Widow and the Vice Queen.