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Vol. 10, No. 10
May 18, 1955
WIRETAPPING IN HOLLYWOOD
Hollywood so far has managed to stay out of the most recent headlines about the spreading blight of crooks and busybodies listening in on other people’s phone talk. But actually the film colony is now America’s number one hunting ground for illicit wiretappers. PEOPLE TODAY reveals, for the first time, the astonishing details.
Hollywood’s most famous wiretapper is Jim Vaus, a 6’3” 318-lb. ex-Army officer who was jailed and kicked out of the service for stealing government property. He once worked for the Los Angeles police and gambler Mickey Cohen at the same time, though this profitable coincidence wasn’t known to either client.
Later he helped the Hollywood vice squad by wiring the busy premises of Sunset Strip madam Brenda Allen. Before long, Vaus came to the attention of Hollywood husbands wondering from whom their “wives” telephone bells tolled when they weren’t around. Among the “names” for whom Vaus says he planted listening devices, for a price, were Mickey Rooney, Error Flynn and several others.
Vaus tells with relish how he was introduced to the wiretap gold in the Hollywood Hills. Called to a private detective’s office one day, he met Mickey Rooney, then married to tall Betty Jane Rase, a former Miss Alabama. Rooney’s manager asked Vaus if it was true that he could listen in on a telephone conversation without making contact with the phone line, or going anywhere near the residence.
Vaus said yes. The manager put a $500 bill on the desk and told Vaus the bill would be his if he could cut in on Rooney’s home phone within 5 minutes. Recalls Vaus: “Before 5 minutes was up, my equipment was recording a conversation taking place at that number. I let Rooney and the others listen...”
A ranking Hollywood beauty, who has never let the fact of her marriage interfere with her yen for the more strenuous adult games, recently picked up her boudoir phone and after a spat with her husband. She dialed her current playmate. As she heard him answer, the woman paid loud tribute to the unseen listeners, who, she was sure, had tapped her line on her husband’s order. “Hello,” she said, “Hello, everybody!
Most, But Not All, Film Stars Fear Taps
Such a performance would bring little surprise today, because the electronic espionage of wiretapping is now as established a fact of Hollywood life as vicious whispering campaigns and the badger game. Even the dumber starlets can tell the difference between “tapping” secret prying on a phone lineand “bugging” in which hidden microphones are planted to listen in on all conversations.
Lately Vaus has turned into an evangelist and follower of Bill Graham, but if Hollywood’s population of private eyes keeps growing, and many are proving themselves adept at crossing a few wires in the “drop”, the telephone linkup outside a house. Given time, they usually manage to get at the “B box” atop a telephone pole, too.
For more ticklish jobs, highly skilled operatives are for hire. Of today’s top wiretappers in Hollywood, one is a licensed private detective who does tapping and bugging exclusively. He owns 2 gadget-loaded trucks painted olive green to look exactly like phone company vehicles. The trade considers him unethical. The other has done work for the Los Angeles police in the past, now owns a black truck with unexcelled equipment. When he’s out on a job, his office can reach him by radiophone, and if he’s away from his truck, the horn will blow to summon him. He’s considered fairly ethical.
With distances so great and endless talk seemingly necessary in everything Hollywood does, the phone is indispensable to the conduct of movie business, serious and otherwise. And where there are phones, wiretappers are suspected. California law prohibits the use, for gain, of information obtained by listening in on somebody’s line. So, evidence from wiretaps is never used openly as such. But divorce lawyers are generally believed to order taps for getting leads (names, rendezvous places, etc.) to evidence that’ll be both juicy and admissible.
Then there are reports that wiretappers serve some businessmen in an “advisory” capacity. And certain studios are said to use electronic specialists to help enforce the “morality clause” in their players contracts. Finally, there are deeply shady characters who make wiretap recordings to blackmail the better-heeled stars and producers about their indiscretions. But what sounds like a gambit for seduction may simply be Hollywood business chatter between hard-headed tycoons. Sample: “Hi yah, baby! Whaddya say we get together for a little session? Just to bill and coo. Sure, Max.”
Smart wiretap blackmailers send their threats by messenger, because threats through the mails are federal offenses. The phone isn’t used because so many studio moguls today hitch recording devices to their own wires. At a certain executive level, rare is the man who doesn’t think that his words are worth preserving. These businessmen favor electronic gadgets, but some have their secretaries quietly cut in on the line, using a foot pedal under their desks, to take everything down in shorthand. This has led to subsequent telephone arguments, also recorded, about who said what.
Wiretap Expert: ‘Want To Be Safe? Rip Out Your Phone, Then Keep Quiet’
A Hollywood innovation with both legitimate and felonious applications is the portable recording machine. Some types are worn in a shoulder holster, with a tiny microphone disguised as a wristwatch or a boutonniere. Fan magazine writers use them to record material for articles. Others use them to collect incriminating statement from unwary stars.
The Los Angeles Police Department keeps mum about its current use of wiretapping. But its chief, William H. Parker a lawyer and “scientific cop” openly favors wiretapping by law enforcement officers. His new $6 million headquarters, now being completed is known to be a web of hidden mikes and cut-in devices for overhearing phone conversations. Reportedly on order is a $10,500 worth of listening and recording equipment.
Typical items: 60 microphones, about 1/12” in diameter; 25 voice coil transformers, as commonly used for tapping phone lines; and 2 tape recorders, ready to record within a tenth of a second after they’re turned on.
There’s good money in supplying the expanding wire tapping industry. One manufacturer now has 80 employees.
Wiretapper Bernard Spindel shocked the House Judiciary Committee with disclosures of scientific eavesdropping today Any one of America’s 50 million phones can be used as a listening device, even with the receiver down; listening can be arranged through other phones. A man with a small apparatus in his pocket can loiter near a phone booth or a room and hear everything said inside. A new device can pick up conversations 300 yards away in a boat. People on a beach can be overheard, without wires, from a car parked out of sight.
Various possible wiretap setups many reported now in use
in Hollywood are indicated below. A wire may be attached directly to a phone and run to a listening post in the same building, or to another building nearby. Or, by placing a simple induction coil somewhere near the phone wire, conversation may be picked up without actually making contact with the wire. If the tapper cannot get near enough, he may pick out the wire he wants in the terminal strip in the basement and attach a line there. If that’s not practicable, he can do the same at a bridging point where all phone wires of a neighborhood flow together. There the tapper can “bridge” the line he wants to an unused spare line on which he can then listen in from some remote post. Finally, a tapper may have an accomplice right in a telephone exchange. From there he can do the job without going within miles of his victim’s phone.
One of the most fascinating conversion stories of the 20th century, My Father Was a Gangster tells the dramatic life story of Jim Vaus, former associate of crime syndicate boss Mickey Cohen. In this book, son Will Vaus tells the inside story of his father's nefarious activities in organized crime and describes how close his father came to losing his life in a "Sting" operation. The author then describes the dramatic transformation that took place in his father's life as a result of attending the 1949 Billy Graham meetings in Los Angeles.
This story has been recounted in Time, Life and Reader's Digest, and was chronicled in a motion picture, The Wiretapper. Now it is told from a son's perspective, a son who watched his father reach juvenile delinquents across America with the same message of hope that changed his own life.
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