Tonya Harding never won an Olympic medal and Barbara Graham was snuffed in the gas chamber at San Quentin but both women knew one of America’s darkest secrets
I don’t know why—or maybe I do—but the recent dramatized biopic about Tonya Harding, I, Tonya, made me think about Barbara Graham. The poor white trash backstories for both women are similar as is the fact that each is best known for a scandal that ended their career (in Harding’s case) and life (in Graham’s case). When the real Tonya Harding appears on screen in I, Tonya and, puffing on a cigarette, says, “America, they want someone to love, and they want someone to hate,” she speaks deep truth. But she is probably wasting her breath. I mean, come on, look around you.
We all know about Harding, right? The trash-talking, foul-mouthed, drag-racing girl who dared to conquer the “foo-foo chi-chi” high class world of figure skating. Her presence there, among the giggling rich kids in the tiaras, was as unlikely as John Lydon being invited to Buckingham Palace for high tea.
We all know what happened, right? Her trash-talking, foul-mouthed ex-hubby hired a goon to whack Tonya’s greatest competition on the U.S. Olympic skating team, Nancy Kerrigan, in the kneecap with a metal baton, in an attempt to put her out of the running. Lost in all the ensuing scandal, besides any viably decent future for Harding—like some sort of reverse trajectory of fame, she would go on to celebrity boxing and doing commentary for The Smoking Gun Presents: World’s Dumbest…—was the fact that Tonya could skate her ass off.
“There ‘s no such thing as the truth. Everyone has their own truth.”
– Tonya Harding character in “I, Tonya”
Here is a trailer for the Harding film, featuring a song by Sufjan Stevens, one that echoes the mournful beauty of his song about John Wayne Gacy:
Barbara Graham (1923-1955) never even got in the door of the respectable world where Tonya Harding briefly resided before her fall from grace. Graham was, in fact, a thrice-married former prostitute when, in 1955, she was convicted of murdering Mabel Monahan, a sixty-one-year-old widow who was believed to have more than $100,000 in cash stashed in her house. Graham was one of three convicted of Mrs. Monahan’s death, which resulted from a beating administered when it was learned that she didn’t have the expected motherlode on the premises. The pair convicted along with Graham were hardened criminals Emmett Perkins and Jack Santo, who were suspects in other murders. It was more than likely that one, or both, of the men did the actual beating of Mrs. Monahan, but both refused to testify at Graham’s trial.
“Good people are always so sure they’re right.”
– Barbara Graham
While Graham was indisputably a “shady dame,” it’s hard to imagine a petite woman, as she was, administering a fatal beating to a woman who was not nearly as elderly and frail as the prosecution purported. Nonetheless, Graham was scheduled to die in San Quentin’s gas chamber on the same day as Perkins and Santo. Perkins and Santo had been sent to San Quentin’s Death Row to await their execution while Graham was incarcerated at the state women’s prison in Corona. The day before her execution, she was transferred from Corona to San Quentin, and placed in the holding cell around the corner from the gas chamber on the lower floor of North Block.
To circumvent what San Quentin’s warden, Harley O. Teets, feared was a potential media circus, Graham was scheduled to die first thing in the morning, and Perkins and Santo would be executed side-by-side in the afternoon. As planned, all three were executed on June 3, 1955. Contrary to the Teets’s wishes, however, the day was a media circus.
On the morning of her execution, the attractive Graham ate a hot fudge sundae. She then applied crimson lipstick as she was prepared for the procession of “thirteen steps” between the holding cell and the gas chamber, a stroll now commonly known as “dead man walking.” Bernice Freeman, the San Francisco Chronicle correspondent, described the scene she witnessed: “Right to the end, she was dressed as if for a luncheon in one of San Francisco’s swanky hotels. She wore a well-fitted champagne wool suit with matching covered buttons. Her brown high-heeded pumps were a fashionable contrast. Small gold pendants fell from her ears, and on her left hand was Hank Graham’s gold wedding band.” She was meeting her Maker, in other words, like the classy dame she had always wanted to be.
However, at a little after her scheduled departure time of 9:05 a.m., the authorities called to postpone the execution until the California Supreme Court could hear a new argument from her attorney.
This legal maneuver was rejected. An hour later, as the prison guard was taping the stethoscope over Graham’s heart, a second call came in, causing a further legal delay in her inevitable rendezvous with death. The psychological torment of this ordeal was nearly intolerable. At one point, according to eyewitnesses, Graham asked tearfully, “Oh God, why do they torture me?”
By 11:30, Graham was finally readied for her date with death. She asked for the sleeping mask to be placed over her eyes, the only person in San Quentin history to opt for the mask. Her reasoning for wearing it, as she bitterly told the executioner, was, “I don’t want to watch those sons of bitches watch me die!”
She was led into the chamber by two priests—one on each arm—strapped into the chair, a tube attached to the stethoscope on her chest, so that the doctor could examine it from outside the chamber. She was told that the easiest way to go was to wait until she heard the cyanide pellets plop into the vats of sulfuric acid, then to count to ten and inhale deeply. As the priests and prison captain left her, Graham’s last words were, “Good people are always so sure they’re right.”
Santo and Perkins died in the same chamber at 2:30 that afternoon, grinning, chatting amiably and glowering at the witnesses. Santo’s last words were, “Don’t you fellows do anything I wouldn’t do.”
I Want To Live
But here’s the real dramatic coda on Barbara Graham’s life:
A Hollywood film, I Want to Live! (1958), was adapted from letters that Graham wrote while awaiting her execution, combined with articles about her case by Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter Ed Montgomery. The film was directed by Robert Wise, produced by Walter Wanger and starred Susan Hayward as Barbara Graham. Hayward would go on to win an Oscar for Best Actress in I Want to Live!, giving a sad irony to Graham’s life—three years after her death, one of Hollywood’s most beautiful stars would win the film business’s highest award for pretending to be her.
Here’s the original trailer for I Want to Live!:
In hopes of attracting a younger, hipper (read: beatnik-friendly) audience, Wise included a scene with Graham/Hayward snapping fingers to a jazz combo that featured icons Gerry Mulligan, Shelly Manne, Red Mitchell, Art Farmer and Bud Shank. The excellent, jazzy film score itself was composed by Johnny Mandel.
I Want to Live! depicts Graham’s life and death accurately, due largely to the reliable reportage of Montgomery, a Los Angeles Times writer who was sympathetic to Graham. He felt she’d been given bad legal advice and railroaded through the system.
Like Tonya Harding, too, Barbara Graham was street smart and not untalented. She had some literary gifts (poetry, mostly) and a relatively high IQ (114). Unfortunately, she also had a long and detailed criminal record, making it doubly easy for society at large to hate her (triply easy, in her case, as a “loose” woman). The conservative newspapers in Los Angeles, where the Monahan murder took place, were unanimous in loud, sustained condemnation. Not to overstate the case, the 1950s were simply a time when any vestige of appearing out of step, or overly gifted and intelligent, was deemed suspicious.
As great as Hayward’s performance was, the real star of the film was set designer Victor A. Gangelin. Because cinematographers were not allowed to record visual images of the actual gas chamber, the filmmakers re-created the scene at a Hollywood backlot with almost perversely accurate detail. Hired consultants simulated with eerie accuracy the experience of an execution by lethal gas. Moviegoers saw the testing of the equipment, the synchronizing of the time on the wall clock via Western Union, the agonizing silence of the “airlock test”—opening and closing the chamber’s door by means of a miniature steering-wheel-like lock—and the actual outlay of death-dealing chemicals. The cyanide pellets, like little eggs or mothballs, were placed inside cheese-cloth bags that were then dipped like crab nets into buckets of acid on the side of Graham’s death chair. And the last several minutes of I Want to Live! are exactly as eyewitnesses had depicted them in their written accounts of Graham’s execution. They square with an account given by Byron E. Eshelman, who was San Quentin’s chaplain at the time.
The result is as close to an actual execution by gas as has ever been filmed. Indeed, there was very little “Hollywood” in the film. As such, it was considered “shocking” at the time.
Here are the final five minutes of the film, and the final five minutes of Barbara Graham’s life, as depicted by Susan Hayward.
More than half a century later, it’s still capable of eliciting a visceral response in a viewer, shuddering revulsion coupled with heart-stopping tension.
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