And now, a bit of real life noir compliments of the photo collection of the Los Angeles Public Library and the real lives of two L.A. femme fatales – the Black Widow and the Vice Queen.
No matter what your business or how great your profit, it pays you to treat your employees well. Just ask Ann Forst. Born Almerdell Forrester in 1907 in Paris, Texas, (and also known as Anne Forrester), Forst made a lucrative living during the 1930s by managing houses of prostitution in California and beyond. While her associate (Bristol Barrett) was in charge of procuring girls for their establishments, Forst acted as the madam, booking girls at the various sites, paying bills, ordering supplies, and making arrangements from her office in a hotel on downtown Spring Street. The business territory extended from El Centro (on the California/Mexico border) to Seattle, Washington. Clientele included prominent businessmen, public officials, and even high-ranking members of the LAPD. Forst became known as the Black Widow for the little black book she always carried that contained names, addresses, phone numbers, and incriminating information on various city officials.
Many of the women working in the houses of ill repute managed by Forst had been coerced into sex work with promises of high pay and a glamorous life. Once inside the "white slave" ring (a phrase often used for prostitution at that time), working girls had little luxury and little control over their own lives. A ruthless madam who quickly dismissed any girl who did not live up to her expectations, Forst did well for herself, living in a spacious home on ten acres in the San Fernando Valley. While her house cost $35,000 to build (it had central air conditioning, very upscale for the 1930s), Forst put it up for sale for $25,000 cash when she was arrested in 1940. She eventually reduced the asking price to $21,000 and sold the home in 1941.
Forst had up to 200 girls working for her at any time and little, if any, interference from the law. She was able to build and run such a huge prostitution ring without attracting trouble due to protection from then-mayor of Los Angeles Frank Shaw. Elected in 1933 and then recalled from office in 1938, Shaw is considered to be the most corrupt mayor in Los Angeles history, mishandling funds, offering protective favors for a fee, and turning a blind eye to rampant corruption. Mayor Shaw’s brother Joe, who was also the Mayor’s private secretary, sold LAPD jobs out of his City Hall office, the result being that the LAPD Central Vice Squad was on the take and under the thumb of the Mayor and his brother (who was very friendly with mob enforcers John Roselli and Jack Dragna.)
Forst also had protection in the form of her little black book (from which she derived her nickname, the Black Widow). This book, which she always kept on her person or in secured enclosures, contained the names and pertinent information of her customers who included the city’s business elite, the LAPD’s command staff, and several political figures. Forst’s little black book could be used to blackmail many a high-ranking man and this (she believed) would keep her safe from legal action.
Many of the women working for Forst had been coerced into sex work with promises of high pay and a glamorous life. Once inside the ring, working girls had little luxury and little control over their own lives. One woman targeted for employment was Maxine Rayle. On April 22, 1940, while being held against her will in one of Forst’s houses, Rayle managed to make a phone call to Captain Walter Hunter, an LAPD sheriff. She reported that she and another woman, Helen Smith, were being held captive and gave the address where they were located. The LAPD then rescued the two women and uncovered the prostitution ring.
Forst was arrested for pandering, a felony which carried a punishment of one to ten years in prison. The definition of pandering was:
(A)ny person who by promises, threats, use of violence, or by any device or scheme, shall cause, induce, persuade or encourage a female person to become an inmate of a house of prostitution, is guilty of pandering.
Forst’s associates, Charles Montgomery and Bristol Barrett, were also arrested and charged with pandering.
Bristol Barrett was known as the “Lieutenant” to prostitution ring boss Montgomery. He was often referred to as “Glamour Boy”.
While Forst felt protected by her little black book – surely no one mentioned in that book would dare to testify against her – she failed to take into account disgruntled employees, of which she had many. Forst, who was often demanding and short-tempered, was not well liked by her team. A number of women who worked in Forst’s houses were called to testify about their lives, livelihoods, and living arrangements. Once on the witness stand, they were quick to turn against Forst, revealing sordid details of their job including being forced to service several men a day, not being allowed to rest when ill, and only getting half their promised pay. The testimony of three women in particular – Donna Stewart, Joan Farrell, and Pauline Skevenski – sent Forst off to prison.
Many other women testified about the mistreatment (and underpayment) they received while working in houses of ill repute run by Ann Forst.
When Ann Forst took the stand, she had a few bombshells of her own to drop. She testified that she delivered money from the vice houses directly to Guy McAfee, who was then head of the LAPD vice squad (and also owner/operator of several brothels of his own). When Fletcher Bowron became Mayor of Los Angeles in 1938 and promised to rid the city of prostitution and gambling, McAfee left L.A. and moved to Las Vegas. He named the Las Vegas Strip in Las Vegas after the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.
Ann Forst was found guilty of pandering and sentenced to ten years in the State Institution for Women at Tehachapi. She left Los Angeles to begin serving her sentence in December of 1941.
Ann Forst served five years at the women’s prison in Tehachapi. (Forst’s associates, Charles Montgomery and Bristol Barrett, also served time, but it is not known how long they were incarcerated nor what they did upon release.) The women’s prison, a modern facility at the time, had an administration building, a sewing and laundry building, full-size kitchens, and a printing press. Inmates lived in cottages that did not have barred windows.
Upon leaving prison, Ann Forst slipped quietly into a less glamorous life. She married and helped her husband run a string of hotels in Arizona and Nevada. She died in obscurity in 1998.
Among the many accounts of the Black Widow pandering trial, there is the story that one of her girls, Brenda Allen Burns (later to become simply Brenda Allen), testified against Ann Forst. Yet there is also evidence that Allen spoke no ill of her madam, but rather stated that while she was unable to resist the sweet talk of “Glamour Boy” Bristol Barrett and eventually did become a prostitute, Allen was not coerced into being a prostitute by Forst. (This is an important legal distinction.) Many of the girls who had worked for Forst liked the way Allen handled her testimony – she was straightforward, well spoken, and accused no one of any wrongdoing. This opened a pathway for Allen’s future plans.
Check back to this blog in two weeks for Part 2 of the story of Seduction, Corruption, Deception, and Protection – The Black Widow and the Vice Queen.
Written by Annie Murphy. Originally published on the Photo Friends Blog on November 28, 2017.