In the sunny city of Pasadena, just north of Los Angeles, stands a distinctive home known as the House of Deefenbach. The home was built in 1943 by Harrison Deefenbach and designed by the famed architect Joshua Almondo. Deefenbach was a mogul who produced some of the most important movies of his time. When he moved into the home, he was forty-two years old and at the height of his Hollywood powers. He had some of the most important movie stars, writers, and directors under contract, but because of the power he held over the stars, many of them despised him.
Since it was the war years, Deefenbach felt the need to finish as many movies as possible in as short a time as possible, to feed the insatiable appetites of the movie going public. The war weighed heavily on most people in America, and they were desirous of an escape from the horrors they knew were happening around the world. For that reason alone, most of the stars and directors put aside their distaste of the man and conformed to his demands.
But for those stars who weren’t happy putting their distaste aside, they often found themselves without roles or projects to direct. Harrison was known to hold grudges against those who challenged his supremacy. Once such star, Sarina Gastonne, who in 1941 was at the top of the Hollywood “It” list, found out how ruthless Harrison could be. By the time the war ended in 1945, Sarina’s life was in a shambles. Two years had gone by without being cast in a movie. She lost her lavish home and had to move into a rather squalid flat off Hollywood Boulevard. To say that she had fallen fast and hard would be stating the obvious, and she was only twenty-six years old with much of her career ahead of her.
To help pay the rent, Sarina finally had to get a job as a waitress at Lloyd’s Prime, a diner that was within walking distance to her small flat. She worked five days a week from 7:30 in the morning to the 9:30 PM closing time. To say that she was a wreck at the end of the workweek would be an understatement. To say that she was angry and resentful about what Harrison did to her career would also be an understatement. Often she thought about getting her own revenge against the man who destroyed her life and career. On the evening of February 5, 1946, Sarina would go to bed not knowing that by the next day at noon her life was going to be turned upside down and backwards. Luckily she slept well that night, as it might have been her last decent slumber for a long time.
On the morning of February 6, 1946, a call came into the Pasadena police department. The frantic voice on the other end of the line was Harrison’s assistant, Dianna Westbrook. She told them she found Harrison’s body floating in the pool. She was certain that he was dead.
By 10:15 in the morning, the Pasadena police and emergency services were at the home. Deefenbach’s body was recovered from the pool and the coroner noted a large welt just above the right eye. The lead homicide detective, Ralph Crandle, interviewed Westbrook. She told Crandle that around 4:30 PM on February 5th, a call came in from Sarina Gastonne who wanted to meet with Harrison, who agreed to the meeting because he wanted to try and set things right with his former star. Westbrook also told the detective that it was well known that Sarina hated Harrison and that she had talked about seeking revenge against her former boss; and that Sarina arrived at the home around 5:15 PM, the time that Westbrook said she left to head home after a trying day at work.
By noon Sarina was in the back of a police squad car that was headed to police headquarters. She looked out of the car’s window and wondered how much worse her life could get. It certainly seemed to have hit rock bottom. She thought to herself, What the hell do they want with me? What the hell is going on here?
Sarina paced around the interrogation room feeling like she could explode. Five minutes went by, then ten, twenty, thirty. She was ready to scream when the door opened, and detective Crandle came in and sat in one of the two chairs. “Have a seat, Sarina. We need to talk.”
“Talk about what,” she said angrily.
“Why’d you kill him,” Crandle asked without revealing the victim.
“Kill who,” she asked.
“You know damn well who, Deefenbach,” he said quickly.
“What? Harry’s dead,” she asked, as a look of shock came over her face and she began to cry.
“Oh, stop with the stupid crocodile tears. You were at his house last night and you were the last one to see him alive.,” Crandle said, accusingly.
“No, I was not the last to see him alive. The last one to see him alive, was the killer,” Sarina stated strongly as tears poured down her cheeks.
Crandle looked at Sarina for what seemed like minutes, and then said slowly, “You had every motive to kill him. We know for certain that you hated him and wanted to get your revenge for how he destroyed your career. We can get at least ten witnesses to testify to that fact.”
“You want to know why what you’re saying is so stupid,” she sobbed.
“Tell me,” he said.
“You might be able to get ten people to testify about how much I hated Harry, but there’s probably at least fifty actors, writers, or directors who hated him as much as I did who wanted to see him dead. I can give you names. Of course I was at his house last night, Westbrook let me in. I went out to the pool where Harry was sitting, and we hugged. I told him how sorry I was that our relationship had gone off the rails. He apologized to me for acting like a schmuck. He wanted us to get back to how things used to be between us. As we sat there talking, he reached over to a table and handed me an envelope with five grand inside. He told me it was a down payment and that he was going to make sure that my acting career would get back on track. This morning I went to the bank and deposited the money into my meager savings account. And now you’re telling me he’s dead. Now for sure my career is over,” she said as the tears flooded out from her eyes.
“What time did you leave Deefenbach’s house,” he asked.
Sarina looked at Crandle wondering why he wanted to know that. “At 6:15. We said our goodbyes, hugged, and I drove home. Since I had a new-found fortune in my purse, I decided to stop for dinner at the Brown Derby. Got myself a great steak and a bottle of champaign. Saw some of the old waiters who came up to my table and told me how much they missed seeing me. I finished dinner, then went home, which is what I’d like to do right now.”
“We’ll see about that,” Crandle told her. He got up and left the room. He called Dianna Westbrook who confirmed what Sarina said, that a lot of people wanted to see Deefenbach dead. She apologized for pointing the finger at Sarina, telling Crandle that she was so distraught she wasn’t thinking clearly.
Crandle went to the police chief to give him an update and see what they should do about Sarina. The chief sat quietly for a moment then said, “let her go, unless you have a lot more on her than you’re telling me.”
Crandle replied, "We got nothing.” A half hour later, Sarina was in the back seat of a cop car being driven to her apartment. Once inside, she collapsed on her small couch and sobbed until she fell asleep from the stress of the day.
On the morning of February 7, 1946, Sarina got a call from Andy Wallace, one of Deefenbach’s assistant producers. He told her that Harry had left word that he wanted her to star in the new Clark Gable movie, “When the Wind Blows.” Andy also had some additional good news for Sarina. A few months before he died, Harry bought her old house and put the title in her name. She would own it free and clear. A limo was headed to her apartment to pick her up and take her back home. She was stunned by all this good news and sat on her couch trying to comprehend what had transpired over the last few days. She realized it would take a while for everything to sink in.
A few days later, the coroner determined that the time of death was around 7:30 PM, which, of course would let Sarina off the hook. Crandle looked into many of the other possible suspects, but nothing panned out. The Pasadena police continued to investigate the murder, but after five years of dead-ends, they closed the case.
In Deefenbach’s will, he stipulated that his home was to be transformed into a museum dedicated to the people who made the movie industry the envy of the world. There is a special room devoted to Sarina Gastonne, who retired to the south of France after a long and celebrated movie career.