The Hollywood Years: Life in the Fast Lane
Wanna be Starlets, The Playboy Mansion, and Washed Up Actors. 1968–1972 Los Angeles.
Following his misadventures in Texas during the early sixties, Monte di Monti’s whereabouts for the years 1964–1968 are unknown. There are reports that he was employed at the Balinese Room in Galveston, Texas in 1967, but the evidence of this is unconfirmed. There have also been reports that he was living in Las Vegas around 1967 while under the employment of Howard Hughes. It can be speculated that di Monti’s motivation for keeping a low profile during these years was his association with several known players (including Lee Harvey Oswald) in the JFK assassination conspiracy. After the assassination and throughout the rest of the decade of the sixties, many of those directly or indirectly associated with the assassination either disappeared or were found murdered. Shorty following the mysterious April 1964 murder by poisoning of Monte’s close friend Syd Travanty at Houston’s Tidelands Club, diMonte left Texas never to return. Public utility records show he ran out on the lease of his apartment on Hazard Street in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood in May of ‘64.
Contrary to previous reports that place him in California as early as 1964, di Monti’s next confirmed location of residence is 1968 in Studio City, California living with his on again, off again girlfriend, Lavonne St. John in a bungalow she rented.
After leaving Dallas, Texas in late 1964, St. John moved to California to continue working as an exotic dancer on the West Coast burlesque circuit. However as the sixties progressed, there was less and less work for burlesque dancers as America moved toward more permissive pornography laws and the audience for live burlesque shows slowly dwindled. She began to work occasionally as a nude model for men’s magazines such as Swank and Cavalier, which were published out of Los Angeles. According to di Monti’s childhood friend from Brooklyn “Jewboy Al” (real name not given per request), St. John appeared in several adult films but none have ever turned up in the subsequent years. Increasingly, St. John’s income was primarily earned as a waitress working at the Golden State Diner in Studio City.
We recently tracked down and spoke at length with a close friend of di Monti’s from this time Andreas Fontagne. Fontagne and di Monti’s friendship went all the way back to their days hustling billiards together in Brooklyn. He had moved to the West Coast shortly before di Monti arrived in the Bay Area around 1955 to work at the El Rey Burlesk in Oakland. He continued to socialize with di Monti after he moved to Los Angeles, often spending time with Monte and Lavonne at the Frolic Room Cocktail Lounge in Hollywood. Fontagne says that di Monti’s days in 1968 and early ’69 were mostly spent at the Santa Anita Racetrack where for a time he enjoyed great success betting on horse races. Clearly Monte was planning his next move, and he was making an effort to meet all the right “players” in Los Angeles who could help him make it happen.
In the spring of 1969 di Monti met the well-known television actor Robert “Bob” Crane at the Frolic Room. Crane at that time was concluding a successful run as the lead actor in CBS television’s hit comedy series Hogan’s Heroes. They soon became close friends. Later that summer Crane introduced Monte to his friend the actor Sal Mineo. Mineo is well known for his role in the James Dean film Rebel Without a Cause, but by the late sixties his acting career had crashed and burned. The three would often go (as Crane later wrote in his letter to lawyer Stan Sotta) “tom cattin” together around Hollywood. This usually meant cruising the Hollywood bars to pick up airline stewardesses and Hollywood newcomers who were starstruck by Crane, since at that time he was still extremely well known. Because of Crane’s television star status at that time, the three men were popular among Hollywood’s party and nightclub scene.
Around 1969 Crane, through his friendship with John Henry Carpenter, became one of the first people in the United States to own one of the first commercially available video cameras. Very quickly he put it to use filming videos of his and Carptenter’s sexual encounters with the women they picked up in Hollywood.
For several months in 1971, Crane dated Playboy “Playmate of the Month” Catherine Lupot, and often attended parties with her and di Monti at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion in Holmby Hills. The Playboy empire had relocated from Chicago to Los Angeles earlier that year and the Mansion quickly became a social center for many well-known celebrities and athletes. Lupot was extremely well liked by Hefner and had become close friends with his girlfriend Barbi Benton; they often made side trips to Catalina Island together that summer.
Benton refuses to comment in any interviews about her friendship with Catherine for reasons she won’t divulge. Lupot has only recently has begun to talk candidly about her romance with Crane and her feelings about those years she spent in Los Angeles.
“I was absolutely crazy about Bob — he was so much fun. But he was too hard a partier for me. About the time we started dating, Bob was starting to get into hard drugs and also making these kinky home movies that I wanted no part of. Sal was into some of that stuff too. It just wasn’t my scene. Yes, I recall very well his friend Monte. He was a quiet and extremely handsome guy. One time when we were alone Bob joked about Monti’s “mob friends.” When I asked him about it he just laughed. Looking back now, I think there was something to that… there was something going on behind the scenes with Monte. He was not your normal Hollywood-type guy, he always seemed kind of dangerous. A nice person and a total gentleman, but he never seemed to be straight up with anyone if you know what I mean…
I was only 23 at that time, and these guys were all in their forties so looking back on it now I feel like they just wanted a younger woman to be with and date. One night that summer Bob tried to get me to go with him to some swinger’s party his friend was hosting in the Hollywood Hills and after I told him no way, he got real angry and dropped me off on the street corner in front of the Whiskey a Go Go. That was it — he quit calling me after that. I ran into him once at a party about five years later and Lord did he look horrible…. just totally burned out. I think he was heavy into cocaine by then, but who knows? Not long after that I heard he was murdered in Arizona. I was sad to hear the news about him but he was hanging out with the wrong people. I always thought his friend Carpenter was a real creep. I never liked that man.”
It wasn’t long after my time spent with Bob that I met my first husband at a party at Hef’s Mansion. We moved down to San Diego where I’ve been based ever since.”
(Lupot currently owns and runs a talent agency. She is married to her third husband.)
There was talk among the Los Angeles acting community that Crane’s home movies featured several well-known young film and television starlets of the era. We’ve learned from a couple of confidential sources that Crane, Monte di Monti, and Sal Mineo attempted to blackmail one of these starlets and threatened her with publicly distributing their sex video of her. It is possible that di Monti could have been involved in a criminal plan like this — his earnings in 1970–1971 at the racetrack were at best sporadic, and he had no other visible source of income. We do not know for sure if this blackmail plan succeeded or failed, but a series of events indicate that somehow the plan backfired on the three men. It is possible that they chose the wrong young lady to attempt to blackmail… perhaps she had underworld connections or friends in law enforcement. We’ll never know for sure as no legal charges were never filed against the three men.
In April of 1971 Mineo was hospitalized for several days at the California Hospital Medical Center as the result of a physical assault in which he suffered numerous broken bones and facial lacerations. A press release says that he was fighting an intruder during a burglary attempt at his West Hollywood home, but Fontagne says Mineo was jumped in the parking lot near his house by a couple of thugs who were working for the woman that he, di Monti, Crane, and perhaps Carpenter were attempting to blackmail. No arrests were made as a result of Mineo’s beating, and the case remains unsolved.
di Monti and Crane had a falling out sometime in the fall of 1971 and were no longer friends after that. Fontagne recalls asking Monte about Crane around that time, but di Monti was reluctant to talk about him at any length and avoided those questions thereafter. di Monti and Mineo were occasionally seen together but the days of them cruising Sunset Boulevard with Crane in the early morning hours were over. di Monti by all appearances, settled down to a quiet domestic life with St. John as he largely stayed out of the Hollywood limelight. He continued to visit the Santa Anita Racetrack and was also seen at Los Alamitos Race Course.
Much of what is known of di Monti’s activities his last year or so in Southern California is based on our interview with his childhood friend “Jewboy Al”. Coming to visit from Brooklyn, Al arrived on the West Coast in May 1971 and stayed at Monte and Lavonne’s house in Studio City. According to Al, during his visit Lavonne was intimately involved with actress Deborah Paget (Lavonne and Monte shared an ‘open relationship’) which created some odd situations for him while staying at their house. Al also witnessed a nasty spat between di Monti and Mineo one night at the Frolic Room resulting in the two never speaking to each other again. Monte, Al, Lavonne, and Deborah made the rounds of Hollywood parties a couple of times during his visit —; Al told us that while the Los Angeles film crowd liked Monte, they kept their distance from him due to what they perceived as his “shady background.”
Bob Crane was found murdered in Scottsdale, Arizona at the Winfield Apartments on June 29, 1978. His former friend John Henry Carpenter was ultimately acquitted of murder charges after being brought to trial in the mid-90s. The case remains officially unsolved. The 2002 film Auto Focus is about Crane, Carpenter, their relationship, and Crane’s murder. There is no mention of Sal Mineo or Monte di Monti in the film.
Sometime in November 1972 Monte di Monti left Southern California. His destination was Cannes, France and this time Lavonne St. John was with him.