Lulu Atwood knew everyone at the El Palacio Apartments in West Hollywood. Each day, she cleaned the luxury, two-story rentals from top to bottom; the beautiful Spanish-style apartments were popular with celebrities and social elites, like Georgette Bauerdorf, a 20-year-old oil heiress.
On the morning of Oct. 12, 1944, Lulu arrived, mop in tow, to Georgette's apartment. The front door was open. She stepped cautiously in. "Anyone here?" she called. Lulu could hear water dripping in the second-floor bathroom, but no one stirred anywhere in the unit. Seeing no one on the lower level, she went up the stairs.
As she leaned into the bathroom, Lulu was met by a horrible sight. Half submerged in the bathtub was Georgette, the tepid water pink with blood. Lulu screamed, bringing her husband, a groundskeeper, running. One look and they both knew: Georgette was dead.
LAPD were soon crawling all over the scene. Detectives thought it might be an accident. Perhaps she'd slipped, hitting her head on the tub and drowning. But then one eagle-eyed officer spotted the automatic light outside of Georgette's unit. Although people kept walking past, it didn't click on. He grabbed a chair and inspected the bulb. It had been carefully unscrewed two turns to the left, just loose enough to no longer automatically activate.
The night Georgette died in her bathroom, the apartment was pitch black. Someone had made sure of it.
Although once mentioned in the same breath as the Black Dahlia, history has largely forgotten the mysterious murder of Georgette Bauerdorf.
Georgette was born in 1924 to Wall Street financier and independent oilman George Frederick Bauerdorf and his wife Constance. Georgette was 11 when her mother died, prompting the family to move from New York to Los Angeles. There, Georgette attended the exclusive Westlake School for Girls and graduated just as the United States was entering World War II. The patriotic type, Georgette got a job as a hostess at the famed Hollywood Canteen.
It was a great honor to be a Hollywood Canteen hostess — and a great thrill. The nightclub was co-founded by Bette Davis as a venue for troops about to deploy overseas. Servicemen were feted with food, drinks (of the wholesome, nonalcoholic type) and entertainment, often from other Hollywood stars like Rita Hayworth or Ginger Rogers. Hostesses like Georgette helped pass out food and drinks and were always game for a dance with an eager soldier.
The job suited Georgette perfectly. She had a big smile and a welcoming charm. Hollywood Canteen hostesses were banned from leaving the club in the company of a soldier, but Georgette, like so many others, got around this by meeting up with men outside of work. She was known to give soldiers keys to her apartment if they wanted to crash there — always on the downstairs sofa while she slept upstairs, friends said — and she loved dating. Her diary was filled with dinner plans. She always paid, and she always drove in her smart Oldsmobile coupe. Friends sometimes warned her to be careful with her generosity, but she waved their concerns off. “I think if these boys are willing to fight for us, we ought to do anything we can for them," she would say.
On Oct. 11, 1944, Georgette met up with her father's secretary for lunch and a bit of shopping. She was excited and a little nervous; she'd just bought a plane ticket to see her new soldier boyfriend in El Paso. After a trip home to get dressed for work, she drove to the Hollywood Canteen. Her best friend and fellow hostess June Ziegler found Georgette in the parking lot, knitting in her car to kill time before her shift started. "She seemed very happy," June would later recall to reporters.
The pair headed inside and had a fairly ordinary shift, save for one insistent soldier who wanted to "jitterbug" with Georgette, a style of dance she didn't care for. June saw Georgette trying to kindly decline the man, but he kept urging her onto the dance floor. Eventually, though, he moved on, and Georgette wrapped up her evening.
Around 11:30 p.m., she headed home, alone, in her car. The drive from Cahuenga Boulevard straight down Fountain Avenue took about 10 minutes. Once home, she made herself a snack of canned string beans and some melon. A maintenance man who lived in the basement apartment below her told police he heard the sound of high heels clacking on the kitchen floor around midnight, followed shortly after by a "crash as if somebody dropped a tray or something." But then the Bauerdorf flat went quiet again.
It's unlikely Georgette knowingly had someone in her apartment at this time, because it seems she went along with her usual bedtime routine. She went upstairs, switched into pajamas and appeared to be settling in for the night, with her diary and a newspaper found on her bed (friends also swore Georgette would never have entertained while in her pajamas). Around 2:30 a.m., a neighbor heard a scream somewhere in the apartment complex.
"I sat right up in bed and listened," he said. "It was a feminine voice, screaming, 'Stop, stop, you're killing me.' Then I didn't hear any more, and I decided it was just a family row."
In the morning, the maid found Georgette, naked from the waist down, in the bathtub. Despite initial suspicions of an accident, the autopsy showed Georgette was obviously the victim of a violent sexual assault. She had abrasions on her hands and face from fighting her assailant, and multiple contusions, consistent with being punched, on her head and abdomen. Bruises on her shoulder and face may have come from her attacker forcing her down onto the tub. The cause of death was asphyxiation from a rag shoved down her throat. There was no water in her lungs, suggesting she was dead by the time the bathtub was filled with water to stage the scene as a slip-and-fall fatality.
Missing from the home were her car and $100 from her purse, although pricey jewelry and even more cash were left undisturbed. The car was soon found abandoned, out of gas, about 12 miles away on San Pedro and East 25th streets. Left behind in Georgette's apartment were cigarettes, stubbed out on the living room floor (Georgette didn't smoke), and blood on the bedroom floor, smeared as if someone tried to clean it up.
The case was an instant media sensation with no shortage of suspects. Every soldier who had ever come into contact with Georgette at the Hollywood Canteen needed to be ruled out. Luckily for police, any soldier who missed curfew would have been noted down as going AWOL, allowing them to exclude suspects en masse. Among those cleared was the pushy soldier who loved to jitterbug; he was back at the base when Georgette was being murdered.
Detectives ran into another problem: Georgette lost house keys often. She had duplicates made several times, and the originals were long gone. The clues investigators did have were more mystifying than clarifying. It was discovered that the rag used to strangle her was an extremely unusual, European-issue medical bandage. It hadn't been seen in common usage in the United States in decades, and it didn't appear to have come from Georgette's medicine cabinet. But the rare item was a dead end, and police could only speculate that perhaps it came from a soldier on leave from a European tour.
About all detectives had for sure were fingerprints found smudged in the car and on the unscrewed lightbulb. But they couldn't match them to anyone, including the massive national database of enlisted men. Suspects ranged from the Black Dahlia killer to former janitors at the apartment complex. Over the next decade, police hauled in suspect after suspect for questioning. In December 1944, a San Francisco man turned himself in for the murder, but police quickly realized he was either "deliberately playing dumb" or mentally unwell; among his belongings were numerous newspaper clippings about Georgette. The next year, police thought a 29-year-old suspected in the slaying of a sanitarium patient in Glendale might have killed Georgette. But he too was cleared.
The last suspect was questioned in 1950 in Sausalito. Cpl. Chester Vukas was believed to have strangled an 18-year-old newlywed on a public footpath, and Los Angeles sheriff's deputies raced up to Marin to see if the Army paratrooper was their man. At only 23, he would have been about 16 at the time of Georgette's death. In the end, he wasn't charged with her murder — and he was acquitted in the slaying of the 18-year-old the next year.
The leads, sadly, have long since dried up. Georgette now rests in the Bauerdorf family mausoleum in the Bronx's Woodlawn Cemetery, surrounded by her mother, father and sister Constance, who died in 2014.
Georgette's murder briefly made the El Palacio Apartments the most notorious address in Hollywood, but even that notoriety soon faded. Celebrities moved in, and celebrities moved out, and life in the tony complex went on as before.
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