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On June 16, 1959, a popular actor beloved by children and adults alike died under suspicious circumstances. Some say George Reeves, who is best known for his portrayal of Superman in the popular TV series, The Adventures of Superman, had grown despondent in the face of a waning career. Others believe it was the women he loved who ended up being his Kryptonite. Either way, his untimely death remains a mystery and the subject of much speculation.

George Reeves as Superman with his hands on his hips on a promotional poster
George Reeves | LMPC via Getty Images

Reeves’ path to super stardom

Reeves was born on January 5, 1914, in Woolstock, Iowa as George Keefer Brewer. His parents, Don and Helen Lescher Brewer, divorced months later and Helen moved with her son to Pasadena California. There she married Frank Bessolo, who eventually adopted the boy. That marriage would also end in divorce.

The young Brewer, now Bessolo, having taken his stepfather’s last name, attended school in Pasadena and enjoyed acting, singing, and playing guitar. In 1935, he began acting at the Pasadena Community Playhouse. There he met actor, Ellanora Needles, who he married in 1940, and he was discovered by Hollywood casting director, Maxwell Arnow. Reeves signed a contract with Warner Bros. Studios, which gave him his stage name. In 1939, the newly renamed Reeves made his first movie appearance as Stuart Tarleton in Gone With The Wind.

Over the next 10 years, Reeves appeared in a number of lackluster movies until his starring role opposite leading lady Claudette Colbert in So Proudly We Hail. The 1943 film was a hit, but patriotic Reeves felt compelled to serve his country and put his career on hold to enlist in the army. He joined the entertainment division of the Army Air Corps, made a number of training films, and even appeared on Broadway in the production, Winged Victory while stationed in New York.

After leaving the army in 1946, Reeves found roles in what Biography terms, “low-budget embarrassments like Jungle Goddess and Thunder in the Pines (Both released in 1948.)” Reportedly unhappy with the movie roles available to him, Reeves moved to New York in 1949. In 1951, he accepted the starring role in the TV series, The Adventures of Superman, which would define him for posterity.

Reeves’ personal life seemed to mirror his mother’s. His short-lived marriage to Needles ended in divorce in 1941. His second marriage would have taken place just three days after his death and may well have been a factor in it. The 2006 movie, Hollywoodland starring Ben Affleck as Reeves, explores his life and relationships in greater detail.

The ex-girlfriend who couldn’t let go

Beginning in 1948, Reeves had a 10-year affair with a married woman, Toni Lanier Mannix. IMDb describes Mannix as a former Ziegfeld Follies showgirl with a legendary sexual appetite. Rich and beautiful, she showered Reeves with expensive gifts and even bought him the house at 1579 Benedict Canyon Drive in the Hollywood Hills where he would later be found dead. Her husband, Eddie Mannix was a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer executive rumored to have mob connections. He knew of and even consented to the affair. According to The Guardian, “He and his own mistresses often went on double dates with George and Toni, and when they traveled it was Mannixes in first-class, sexual playthings in coach.”   

In 1958, Reeves dumped Mannix for a young socialite from New York. Leonore Lemmon was a party girl and reputed gold digger with a volatile temper. Reeves and Lemmon were soon engaged, and he moved her into the home his ex had bought for him. 45-year-old Reeves told friends that she made him feel young again, but by all accounts, the couple had a tumultuous relationship and argued frequently.

Mannix, who was eight years older than Reeves, was devastated and her actions following the breakup led Reeves to file for a restraining order. As reported by The Unredcated, “Reeves himself was convinced it was Mannix behind a string of strange incidents that had befallen him in the aftermath of their breakup. He was inundated with menacing silent phone calls at all hours of the morning and someone even abducted his beloved dog, Sam.” Two months before his death, Reeves was injured in a car accident after which, his mechanic reported that the brake lines had been cut.

How did Reeves die?

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Reports vary as to what exactly led up to the speeding bullet that took his life in the early morning of June 16, but it’s no secret that Reeves and Lemmon liked to drink and often to excess. Right before he died the highly intoxicated couple had an argument witnessed by house guest Robert Conden and two other people.

 The LA Times reported, “The actor and Condon had retired to their rooms and Miss Lemmon was downstairs when, about 1 a.m., two visitors came calling. They were William Bliss, 45 … and Mrs. Carol Van Ronkel, 33 … Dr. Reeves came downstairs, irate at being disturbed by the late callers, declaring that he was ‘in no mood for a party,’ the others told police.” Reeves threatened to throw them out, but the guests apologized and Reeves returned to his room. “‘He’s going upstairs to shoot himself,” Lemmon reportedly said. When a noise was heard in Reeves’ room, Lemmon allegedly added, “See, he’s opening the drawer to get the gun.” When a shot rang out Lemmon apparently said, “See there, I told you; he’s shot himself.” 

Lemmon later claimed she was just kidding when she made those remarks and the other witnesses were reportedly too intoxicated to make coherent statements to the police. Neither Reeves nor Lemmon were previously acquainted with Bliss.

Reeves was found dead on his bed, face up with a gunshot wound to the head, a shell casing under his body, and a pistol between his feet, which according to BuzzFeed, had no fingerprints on it. It is interesting to note that two additional bullet holes were later found in the floor beside the bed. The body, which was not tested for gunshot residue and had no powder burns, had already been washed and embalmed before arriving at the coroner’s office.

Police ruled the death a suicide but admitted the motive was unclear. Phyllis Coates, who had played Lois Lane on The Adventures of Superman, received a phone call from Mannix at 4:30 that morning claiming that Reeves had been murdered. Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olson on the series, maintained that Reeves had been depressed about the cancellation of the show and his inability to find work. He also refuted reports that Mannix, who died in 1983 of complications related to Alzheimer’s disease, confessed on her deathbed to Reeves’ murder. Lemmon went back to New York after the incident and neither she nor Mannix attended the funeral.

Did Lemmon kill her lover in a fit of rage, did Mannix use her husband’s connections to have him killed by the stranger who came to the party, or did an intoxicated falling star decide to end it all? Those who knew the truth took it to their graves.