Saturday, April 28, 2018

Barbara Graham: "Paying for a life of little sins"?

From the trailer for I Want to Live with Susan Hayward
Susan Hayward won the Best Actress Oscar in 1959 for her portrayal of Tokin' Woman Barbara Graham in I Want 
to Live.

The film opens in a jazz club, where two men smoke pot. Nelson Gidding's screenplay for the opening sequence reads:

silver gray whirling sinuously against a black background. As it diffuses and drifts out of frame, more smoke keeps coming. Simultaneously with a crash of modern jazz, a series of stylized shapes and forms appear and disappear....The music is the beat of the beat generation—real cool, cool jazz suggesting sex, speed, marijuana, hipsterism and other miscellaneous kicks. Synchronized with this music, the changing patterns of shape and form are also highly evocative of the fever and the drive, the loneliness and craving, the furies and tenderness—even the rebellion and religion—of BARBARA GRAHAM. 

Barbara Graham was born in Oakland, California, the child of a prostitute; she never knew her father. When she was two years old, her mother—still in her teens—was sent to reform school. Barbara was raised by strangers and extended family members, and she started getting into trouble early. As a teen she was arrested for vagrancy and sent to the same reform school as her mother, the Ventura State School for Girls.

Barbara married more than once, but the marriages failed. Trading on her looks, she soon became a sex worker around navy bases, and for a time at Sally Stanford's famous brothel in San Francisco. When she met her husband Henry Graham in 1950, he introduced her to marijuana and possibly heroin (he was an addict, but she claimed she never was). The Grahams were arrested in 1951 on an unspecified narcotics charge. (Source: Kathleen A. Cairns, Proof of Guilt.)

Through her husband, Barbara met three men with whom she allegedly committed a robbery that turned into a murder. The men said they used her to gain entry into the Burbank home of an elderly woman, and afterwards they claimed she pistol-whipped the woman to death. It's possible they figured that Barbara, the mother of a toddler son, was unlikely to become only the third woman in California to be executed for the crime.

Graham with her son on the day of her execution.
The newspapers had a field day with the trial, focusing on the attractive young Graham and her past. "Buxom Barbara Graham is a woman of many sides, most of them lurid," bleated the San Francisco Chronicle. "Name it and Barbara seems to have done it....the record runs from charges of escape from reform school through prostitution, perjury, narcotics, and bad checks."

In prison for murder, Graham said she was "paying for a life of little sins." In the movie, a police interrogator calls her a "lousy hop-headed slut" and when a kinder priest visits her on death row, he asks, "Are those the hep-cat's pajamas?"

Barbara claimed she was not involved in the crime, but couldn't provide an alibi for her whereabouts on the night of the murder. In desperation, she fell prey to a fellow prisoner who befriended and flirted with her, and set her up with a "friend" who would, for a price, provide her with a phony alibi. The two agreed on a story about them meeting that night for a tryst. It turned out the friend was an undercover cop wearing a wire, and her prison mate got herself released for setting Barbara up.

During the trial, Barbara told another story of her whereabouts that night. She said she came home to find herself locked out of her apartment, and a neighbor named Pitts climbed through her window to let her in. Graham said she gave Pitts some money "to buy something" for her, which she admitted was marijuana.

If that story was true, Graham was possibly unwilling to prove her innocence because she would have had to admit to buying pot. And did an association between Graham and marijuana help convince the jury, and the public, that she could commit such a violent crime? We weren't that far away from Reefer Madness-style movies that depicted young women ruined by marijuana, and Hearst headlines like, "Hasheesh Goads Users to Blood Lust."

Barbara Graham was executed on June 3, 1955 in the gas chamber at San Quentin, just before her 32nd birthday. I Want to Live was remade in 1983 as a TV movie starring Lindsay Wagner.

Other jazz babies who were targeted for arrest in the 1940s included Lila LeedsAnita O'Day and June Eckstine.

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