Orange County Sheriff's Museum
Bebe Daniels: The Orange County “Speed Girl”
Judge Cox reveled in the
publicity of the Daniels
case, and presented Bebe
with this bouquet of
roses upon her release
from nine days in jail,
insisting that a
photographer record the
event. Daniels appears
The above photo appears to show Bebe Daniels in her cell at the old Orange County Jail in Santa Ana, January 1921. Just as likely, this was a re-creation of her cell scenario, in the front window of William H. Spurgeon's store—complete with painted-on window bars. Spurgeon, indeed, did nicely furnish Daniel's actual cell, and received so much nationwide publicity that he replicated the cell in his store window.
Daniels wrung publicity from the incident―fans sent her flowers, Santa Ana businesses sent furniture and gourmet meals to her cell, and Abe Lyman and his Orchestra arrived from the famed Cocoanut Grove night club in Los Angeles to serenade Bebe in her jail cell. The orchestra remained the afternoon, playing all of Bebe's favorites, including the "Rose Room Tango"—a dance that Bebe and Rudolph Valentino often danced at the Coconut Grove.
Orange County's jailhouse in 1921 entertained probably its most famous “guest” ever, when the youthful actress Bebe Daniels tangled with the county's notorious anti-speeding crusader, Judge John Belshazzar Cox.
Cox was a barber, not a
lawyer, and was a
bicyclist, not an auto
driver—but as the sole
Not another car was in sight on the gravel road nearing Santa Ana from Hollywood on February 11, 1921. Accompanying Bebe on this motoring adventure were here gentleman friend of the moment, heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey,* and Bebe’s devoted mother Phyllis. Some years later, Bebe wrote her recollections for her biographer.
“One of the things I enjoyed most, when I wasn’t making films, was speeding. I had a fast car which, in the twenties, did over 70 miles an hour—quite a speed in those days; and I was constantly being caught by speed cops for driving too fast. Not that I ever had an accident or hurt anyone. But all I had to do when I got a ticket for speeding was to call up my Uncle Jack who was an important newspaper man and ‘in’ very well with the Los Angeles police department.”
Trouble was, this time, Daniels had crossed the border into Orange County. “The speedometer ticked up to seventy-two miles an hour, a crazy speed in the twenties,” Daniels recalled. “Then suddenly I heard a siren, and two motor-cycle policemen roared up alongside and flagged me down. The usual ticket followed.” Her explanation was that her Marmon’s radiator was overheating, and she was rushing to a repair shop in San Juan Capistrano.
So Bebe telephoned Uncle Jack. “Where are you?,” he inquired.
“Baby, you’re in the wrong county.”
“I asked him what he meant. He told me that Judge Cox, who was the judge of Orange County, put everyone in jail who drove over 50. He had even put an admiral of the American Navy in jail. Quite undaunted, I said, ‘Well, you can fix it, can’t you, Uncle Jack?’”
This time, the “fix” was not in, and on March 28 Daniels found herself on trial in Santa Ana’s old stone courthouse, where John Belshazzar Cox often boasted that his “court knows no royal blood.” The Cox system produced as much as $24,000 a year in fines, and the judge once flogged a man in court for wife-beating; personally shaved vagrants’ heads before putting them on the chain gang; and was said to have married nearly 10,000 couples in everything from autos to airplanes. Cox, a tippler, occasionally dozed off during attorneys’ closing arguments, and he thoroughly enjoyed publicity.
As Bebe and her entourage climbed the courthouse steps that March day, 1,500 onlookers gathered to get a glimpse of her. In court, the two motorcycle cops, one of them “county motorcycle officer” Vernon “Shorty” Myers (or Meyers), were called to testify, and illustrated their case on a blackboard, presenting their stopwatches to the elderly male jurors for inspection. The case had generated worldwide publicity for Santa Ana, for Daniels, and for the Cox court. Daniels’s lawyer, W. I. Gilbert, lamented that “this poor little girl who has been subjected to so much” deserved the court’s leniency. Daniels later recalled: “As Judge Cox listened to the evidence, he was looking at me with a smile, and I smiled back at him. I continued smiling at him when I was called to the witness stand, thinking he would let me off with a warning and a fine. At that time I was working for Paramount film studios and they had already sent a thousand dollars to the Court to pay any fine. So I was not in the least bit worried; but Judge Cox’s smile proved to be very deceptive.”
Thus it was that Bebe Daniels became the first woman to be convicted of speeding in largely agricultural Orange County, and the sentence was 10 days in the old stone jail. It probably did not help her cause when she commented to a reporter: “I suppose if you live in a small town you get like that. I bet 56.25 mph sounds awfully fast if you’ve never driven anything faster than a plow.”** Nonetheless, she deemed Cox “a nice, fatherly old gentleman,” and he summoned photographers to take pictures of the two of them together.
The judge ordered Bebe to report to jail on April 16, enabling her to complete the filming of “The Affairs of Anatol” for Paramount. The judge allowed Phyllis Daniels to reside with Bebe in her daughter’s cell. On Bebe’s arrival at jail, John Belshazzar Cox greeted her with: “I hope you will be very comfortable.”
And certainly she was. The cell was filled with floral arrangements, and had been tastefully redecorated and furnished by Santa Ana furniture magnate William H. Spurgeon. (Which generated so much additional publicity that Spurgeon re-created Bebe’s jail cell in his front window—complete with painted-on cell bars!) Santa Ana residents were quick to make the visiting Hollywood star feel welcome, bringing her fresh oranges and lemons, bon-bons with her initials swirled on each piece, and a Victrola with 150 phonograph records. Her Hollywood friends visited as well, and her guest book eventually showed 792 names—88 a day!
Bebe would recall: “The jailer [Theo ‘Budge’ Lacy Jr.] and his wife were sweet people. The jailer’s wife allowed mother and me to use her private bathroom. . . . back in our cell, breakfast was served . . . coffee, grapefruit, scrambled eggs, bacon, hot rolls—anything we wanted—brought in from the restaurant by an impeccable waiter dressed in a morning suit.” “Sadie,” a bootlegger, asked and received permission to tidy up the famous actress’s cell every day. One afternoon, Abe Lyman and his Cocoanut Grove Orchestra from Bebe’s favorite Los Angeles nightclub set up their instruments on the jailhouse lawn and serenaded her with the “Rose Room Tango,” which she had danced at “the Grove” with Rudolph Valentino. We cannot know what the 63 other female inmates who came and went during Daniels’s stay might have thought of these unusual courtesies.
After a day of well-wishers, reading, watching the clock, and exercising by grasping her cell bars and pulling herself up, the waiter, now in full evening dress (tails, white tie), brought filet mignon, fried chicken, fish and lobster, and sometimes caviar! After dinner, jailer Lacy—“getting more confused and tired looking every day” from the extra activity and duties—allowed Bebe and Phyllis to visit a park across the street, as long as they were back for lights-out at 10.
Despite amenities, Bebe later wrote that “each night, I had the recurring feeling of how awful it was to be locked in a cell . . . I shall never forget the ominous sound of locks being turned and iron gates clanking behind me, and the sound of my cell door being locked on my mother and myself. I was really very miserable. It was a terrible feeling to be locked in one room, even though it was beautifully decorated and my mother was with me. However, I was so furious with Judge Cox that I would not allow myself to cry.”
Bebe Daniels’s sentence finally ended—with one day off for good behavior. Again, Judge Cox presented her with flowers (and summoned a photographer). The Daniels case had inspired a story about Cox in the Saturday Evening Post, and a song, “The Judge Cox Blues,” which Bebe performed at a benefit in Fullerton.
Daniels attested to her biographer that she never sped again—except in a quickie movie after her release, “The Speed Girl,” based on her nine days in jail. The publicity said: “Here is a six-cylinder, one-hundred and twenty, fun-powered record-breaking comedy with Bebe at the wheel. The brakes are off—Slip her into high—Now step on it!”
Fifty years later, when asked by her biographer to list any “particular aversion,” she offered two: “Spiders and motor cops.”
Bebe never forgot.
Charles Swanner, in his 50 Years a Barrister in Orange County, recalled the time when “Judge” Cox was arrested for intoxication and held overnight in the Los Angeles jail. The following morning he persuaded the arresting officer that because of his judicial position in neighboring Orange County, as a professional courtesy it would be a good idea to release him, with no publicity and no charges. At some subsequent point, a friend of the arresting officer came before Judge Cox for a traffic infraction in Orange County. The arresting officer telephoned the judge with a reminder of the consideration earlier extended to the judge in the Los Angeles case, suggesting that the judge reciprocate. “Just because you violated your duty as a law enforcement officer is no reason that I should violate mine,” was the judge’s response. Judge Cox never visited Los Angeles again, or so it was said.
* Daniels stated that she was accompanied by Dempsey, but another source identifies the passenger as middleweight boxer Marty Farrell.
** Daniels admitted to her biographer that she was traveling 72 miles an hour, but several accounts say that she was charged with doing only 56.
The principal biography of Bebe Daniels Lyon is Bebe and Ben (London: Robert Hale & Company, 1975), in which she writes of her jail experience in her own words. The Daniels case also is addressed in the various histories of Orange County and of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, and in newspaper articles, especially Cecilia Rasmussen in the Los Angeles Times of May 20, 2007. The Rasmussen article is important because it draws on contemporary coverage of the Daniels case by the Times. The Orange County Sheriff’s Department Archives, almost 100 years later, still receives inquiries into the Daniels matter, which has become a favorite anecdote of the Department.
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