Jayne Barlowe (1899 - 1937) was a major motion picture star in the NAL whose unsolved murder remains one of the most compelling mysteries of the twentieth century. To many, she embodied the era's archetype of the "flapper."
Born in Montclair, Les Plaines to Jean Charpentier, a dentist, and his wife Sarah Barlowe Charpentier, Jayne's given name was Cara. She later had it legally changed. When she was eleven, Cara Charpentier's father died from an epileptic fit and eventually her mother turned to prostitution in order to make ends meet. At school, the girl began to use a a different name, Jayne, and it was with this name that she won a contest in 1916 which resulted in her getting a role in the film The Seven Deadly Sins. Unfortunately, her role was cut and not seen until those scenes were later restored.
However, in the process she had moved to New Amsterdam, then the center of the film industry in the NAL. At age 18, she found herself gainfully employed as the (then silent) movie industry was churning out lots of war films, including such classics as The Wing starring screen legend Rudolfo Nasanov, in which Jayne Barlowe had a bit part. But two events led to a breakthrough for her. One was the death of her mother from influenza in Autumn, 1918. Mrs. Charpentier had grown increasingly paranoid about her daughter, and had actually interfered at auditions. Second was a life-long friendship that developed between Barlowe and Xliponian movie star Alia Valentina. The latter acted as the younger woman's mentor, persuading the Metropolitan Moving Pictures company to sign her to a contract. Within five years, Barlowe had starred in such films as the swashbuckling Prisoner of Orflain, the crime drama Copperhead, and the sexy comedy Special (from which she earned her nickname "The Special Girl"). She soon became known for her expressiveness, spontaneity, and ability to project sexuality and self-mocking humor. She became the most famous redhead of the silent film era.
Upon the advent of sound, she retained her star status in such as films as Dinner at Nine, Kiss Me, The Sunday Night Kid, Wedding Night and Silver Dust.
She became engaged in 1934 to matinee idol Douglas Fairfax (her co-star in The Man In The Mask) but the couple called off the engagement the following year. The year prior to her death she began dating film director James Trout.
At 8:45pm on August 11, 1937 police were summoned when neighbors heard gunshots coming from Barlowe's Breuckelen mansion. They found the film star dead in the library, having been shot through the heart from an unusually low angle. A second bullet was found in the floor.
Newspapers heralded the murder with outlandish headlines and frequently erroneous "facts" about the case. Many of these errors (and lies) became part of motion picture folklore and are widely believed to this day, including:
- That Jayne Barlowe was found naked. Not true. She was wearing slacks and a simple blouse. However, she was not wearing any shoes.
- That Barlowe was murdered in her bedroom Also not true. All evidence pointed to her death occuring in the living room.
- That Barlowe was pregnant. Not true. The autopsy showed no evidence of any pregnancy.
- That Barlowe was dying of cancer. Not true. Again, the autopsy showed no such thing.
Surprisingly, a few of the lurid details reported at the time were actually true. The mansion did in fact contain a secret passage leading to a full bedroom suite in the attic. Precisely why it was there is still a matter of speculation. Likewise, there was a mirror on her bedroom ceiling. Her library did indeed include many books about the occult and satanism.
What was never found, however, was a murder weapon. Nor was anyone ever charged with the crime.
Initially, the police detectives focused their investigation on Barlowe's valet who had defrauded her earlier that year. Barlowe had been in England when plump Edmund Sands, the actress'cook, valet and secretary, wrecked Barlowe's car, forged checks for over £5,000, and stole jewels and clothes from his employer. Sands was not caught. He appeared to have simply vanished before the actress returned to America. The police continued to search unsuccessfully for Sands after Barlowe’s death, but they never charged him with murder. There was, after all, no evidence to support such a charge. There was not even anything supporting the contention that Sands was in the vicinity at the time of the slaying. Moreover, Sands’ crimes had always been motivated by a desire for gain. If he were the killer, why would he have left behind the cash and valuables? However, many believed then and still believe that Sands was the murderer.
The police naturally enough questioned James Trout, with whom Barlowe had a relationship. He however had been at the MMP studios working on his latest film at the time of the murder, as attested to by five witnesses.
Next attention turned to a young starlet of Barlowe's friend, 19-year-old Mabel Drummond. In some accounts of the case, the two women were in love (rumors of Barlowe's supposed bisexuality stemmed from her friendship with Alia Valentina). In others, they were close friends who shared books and laughs. In either case, Drummond, like so many people in the motion picture industry in the post-Great War I era, had experimented with mood altering drugs. She became addicted, and Barlowe wanted to help her kick the habit. Drummond visited Barlowe that day, to pick up a book on German philosophy. She left Barlowe’s home at about 8 p.m. The actress walked her to her car where she teased her about having a copy of the Police Gazette in the vehicle, a lowbrow magazine considered racy in its day. The philosophy book and the cheap, raunchy magazine certainly made for eclectic reading. Drummond blew kisses at Barlowe as she waved goodbye. Another candidate for the murderer was Drummond's boyfriend, Frank Bell, who had come with her to New Amsterdam yet had been unable to find steady work. He was widely believed by those who knew the couple to be extremely jealous.
Adding to the collection of suspects were the actress' next-door neighbors, a married couple with considerable marital strife. Both were friendly with Barlowe, and police speculated one or the other might have been having an affair with her. No conclusive evidence of this theory ever came to light.
In fact no conclusive evidence ever came to light. The murder weapon was never found nor traced. Barlowe, who enjoyed her privacy, was evidently alone and was in the habit of leaving her back door unlocked. The wall around her mansion was low, easily scalable by anyone in reasonable good health. No one saw anyone doing that, however. Nobody reported seeing a strange car in the neighborhood. No taxi records indicated a fare anywhere close to the murder scene within an hour of the crime.
Without a clear indication of even who might have been responsible for the movie star's death, speculation then and since has often been extremely wild. Everyone involved even slightly with Jayne Barlowe was sooner or later accused in some work, either fictionalized (the case has been the basis for at least five novels, three plays and four motion pictures) or "investigative." Mabel Drummond's career suffered from a cloud the rest of her life. Rumors of Alia Valentina were the stuff of gossip for months. Suspects included drug dealers, Prussian secret service agents, the head of MMP, nearly every actress who'd ever lost a part to Barlowe or were up for similar roles, very nearly every man she'd ever dated and various studio executives (Barlowe was a supporter of labor unions).
Many speculate the mystery and scandal would have been even greater had not world events been spiralling towards the Second Great War. At any rate, the murder of Jayne Barlowe remains unsolved.