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Will Fowler, 81; Colorful Reporter in the Golden Age of L.A. Newspapers

Times Staff Writer

Will Fowler, an author and veteran Los Angeles newsman who was thought to be the first reporter on the scene of the infamous Black Dahlia murder case, has died. He was 81.

Fowler, the son of famed newspaperman, screenwriter and biographer Gene Fowler and one of the last links to the Hollywood of W.C. Fields and John Barrymore, died of prostate cancer Tuesday at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank.

On Wednesday, his daughter, Jenny Gene Fowler Adler, faxed The Times a succinct, two-page obituary that her father had written five years ago.

“He was very prepared,” she said. “That’s what happens when you’re a writer -- you write your own obituary.”

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As Fowler reviewed his long and colorful life, he came up with what he deemed the most significant piece of information about himself in the lead paragraph: “Reporter-author Will Fowler, who withdrew as a co-founder of the Greater Los Angeles Press Club in 1947 because famed female city editor Agness Underwood was refused membership in the then all-male organization, died....”

But it’s in the second paragraph that Fowler hits on what others might consider his greatest claim to fame in Los Angeles journalism.

Working for the Los Angeles Examiner covering “gangland crime and Hollywood love-triangle stories,” he said he was the first reporter to arrive at the Black Dahlia scene.

In 1947, the mutilated body of Elizabeth Short, a 22-year-old unemployed cashier and waitress, was found in a vacant lot in southwest Los Angeles.

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Fowler later included the unsolved case in the 1991 book “Reporters: Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman.” Times columnist Jack Smith, who once worked with Fowler, called it “the book every newspaper reporter of the late 1940s and early 1950s meant to write but didn’t. Now Fowler has.”

In the book, Fowler said he and photographer Felix Paegel were returning from covering another news story when they heard a police broadcast directing officers to a vacant lot east of Crenshaw Boulevard. As they approached the body, before the police arrived, Fowler said, he called to his photographer: “This woman’s cut in half!”

“Both halves were facing upward,” Fowler wrote. “Her arms were extended above her head. Her translucent blue eyes were only half-opened, so I closed her eyelids.”

In a 1984 column recalling their early newspaper days, Smith recalled that Fowler “kept a pint of whisky in his desk just for the tour groups that occasionally came into the city room.”

“Shouting ‘copy boy!’ to get their full attention, Will would yank open his desk drawer, pull out the bottle, raise it high, take a snort, draw the back of his hand across his mouth, shout, ‘Aaghh!,’ shudder, replace the bottle and go back to his typewriter. He liked to please people.”

Hal Steward, a former Los Angeles Examiner and San Diego Union reporter who knew Fowler, said Wednesday that Fowler “was an outgoing guy and a very generous man. He was always willing to help people, particularly young writers and journalists.”

And, Steward recalled: “He was a great guy at the bar, a great raconteur. He had unlimited stories about his days as a reporter.”

Not to mention his days writing songs, serving as KTTV’s news director, managing the Southern California public relations campaign for Sen. Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential run, and working as a publicist and interim publicity director at 20th Century-Fox Television.

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Born in Jamaica, N.Y., in 1922, Fowler moved with his family to Hollywood in the mid-1930s. He attended Beverly Hills High School and became an accomplished pianist-composer.

At the age of 17, he debuted his own piano-orchestra composition, “American Nocturn,” over the CBS radio network. He later wrote numerous songs, including “He’s So Married,” which was recorded by Doris Day in 1959.

After serving in the Coast Guard during World War II, Fowler joined the Examiner in 1944 as a cub reporter. Having never attended college, he said, “I received my PhD in the city rooms and on the streets of L.A.”

Fowler left the newspaper business in 1952 and spent one season writing for “The Red Skelton Show.”

He worked for the next six years as a public relations representative for American Airlines and in 1959 became news director for KTTV-TV Channel 11.

His time at the station was short-lived, however. After Gene Fowler’s death in 1960, Will Fowler left KTTV to write a biography of his father, “The Young Man From Denver,” which became a bestseller.

Fowler, whose play “Julius Castro” was produced off-Broadway in 1961, later worked with playwright William Luce in the creation of the 1996-97 Broadway hit “Barrymore,” which earned its star, Christopher Plummer, a Tony Award.

Among Fowler’s books is “The Second Handshake,” a 1980 chronicle of his years growing up with his famous father. The title came from the fact that whenever Fowler was introduced to someone as Will Fowler, he typically got a weak handshake. But when it was pointed out that he was Gene Fowler’s son, he would get a second, more firm and hearty handshake.

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Adler said her father was proud to be the son of the flamboyant onetime Hearst newspaper reporter and top editor, who became a highly paid Hollywood screenwriter -- a man whose friends included Fields, Barrymore, James Cagney, William Faulkner, Ben Hecht and many other luminaries

Will Fowler grew up in that heady atmosphere. He was Jack Dempsey’s godson, and he called Fields “Uncle Claude.”

“I was the only child W.C. Fields was endeared to, because Pop allowed me to sip martinis while in the comedian’s company,” Fowler wrote in a 1968 reminiscence for The Times.

After he received his driver’s license at 14 and his father and his famous friends went out on the town, Fowler wrote, “the privilege of becoming their chauffeur fell upon me.”

When Barrymore died, Fowler rode to the funeral with his Uncle Claude in the back of Fields’ chauffeur-driven, bar-equipped 16-cylinder Cadillac. Fields, working up a sweat in his black wool suit, wasn’t happy about the prospect of being a pallbearer for his old friend. “The time to carry a man,” he told young Fowler, “is when he’s still alive.”

In addition to Adler, Fowler, who lived in Granada Hills, is survived by his four other children, Willie, Michael, Claudia and Kiku; 16 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

An Irish wake is pending.


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