Femme Fatale 332.3

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The True Crime Story Behind a 1970 Cult Feminist Film Classic

When director Barbara Loden's Wanda came out in 1970, few could have guessed that it would become a cult classic. Even fewer knew about the real woman who inspired it.

THEY MET IN NEW ORLEANS JUST BEFORE MARDI GRAS, in 1959. He was part-owner of a French Quarter bookshop. She was looking for a job. He was 30. So was she, though she claimed to be three years younger. He said his name was Don Reisinger. She gave hers as Alma Malone. His name was fake. Hers was too, in a way; she hadn’t used her birth name, Stephens, in a long time. She didn’t get the job. She did, however, get the guy. Alma and Don made a strange couple. He was short—five-foot-four without his customary elevator shoes, and 110 pounds on a good day. He tended to squint at the light or when something didn’t suit, but was rarely photographed with glasses on. She was taller, rangier: a natural brunette with an elegant neck. Don tended to disappear for days or weeks at a time. Alma never had warning before he’d take off, and even less when, in early September, he told her they were leaving for Cleveland. She didn’t have anyone to alert, anyway, being estranged from her family. That family included a mother and a younger sister, back in her hometown of Salina, Kansas, both of whom she refused to write. Her father played no part in her life; his repeated molestation of her had driven her to juvenile delinquency, a stint in a Kansas City convent, and a permanent grudge against her mother. She wasn't in contact with her 11-year-old son, Robert, either—who lived with his father—either nor with any of her four ex-husbands, the first of whom she married when she was only 14 years old. Alma and Don arrived in Cleveland on September 7, 1959. Once there, Don revealed that his real name was William Ansley. (He also operated under the aliases Shannon Ansley, William Shannon, and Robert Shannon.) He had drifted into New Orleans two years earlier, after finishing up probation and a suspended sentence in Philadelphia for armed robbery. That sentence stemmed from an earlier, more serious one in Boston, when William decided to hold up the Northeast Airlines offices at the Statler Hotel. It didn’t go well. William bungled the robbery, nearly killed a cab driver, and received a 9-to-12-year sentence for both crimes. But William had a new plan, as he explained to Alma: the newspapers were full of reports about someone who had tried to heist the Lorain Avenue branch of the Cleveland Trust Company bank. William would do one better. “He said if I would help him he could do it successfully, but if anything did go wrong, we could die,” Alma later told reporters. “I kept stalling the job. I suppose I wanted to live, even though I didn’t have much to live for.” Alma and William spent the next two weeks planning the job. She bleached her brown hair blonde and pretended at pregnancy, thanks to a maternity dress and foam-rubber padding. William bought a blonde wig of his own to conceal his bald head, as well as all the equipment they would need for a successful bank heist. By the morning of September 23, William and Alma were ready. He affixed the wig on his head. She threw on a shabby, blue gabardine dress and a pair of faded black loafers. He made a list of 15 steps to follow to the letter, and put the list in his pocket. What happened in no way resembled what they had planned. It did, however, end up immortalized on film.


 

Watching Wanda, Barbara Loden’s 1970 directorial debut, is a revelation. The pace is languid, until it isn’t. Grimy and washed-out, the film makes a point of being naturalistic. Wanda Goronski, played by 38-year-old Loden herself, is drabness personified—a Rust Belt housewife barely awake, listless about cooking, cleaning, and her employment status. She lies on the couch, absorbing her sister’s pointed criticism about her state of apathy. She drifts into bars and mediocre sex. She is robbed while asleep in a movie theater and barely reacts. “I'm just no good,” Wanda declares in court as she loses custody of her two children to the husband she's divorcing. She soon takes up with Mr. Dennis, who she meets in a bar, endures his physical abuse, and goes along with his criminal plans, because she has nowhere else to go. The filmmaker herself could relate. “I used to be a lot like that,” Loden explained to the Los Angeles Times a few months after Wanda was released. “I had no identity of my own. I just became whatever I thought people wanted me to become.” Loden was an ex-Copacabana showgirl with a heavy North Carolina accent who was transformed by Method lessons into an actress of note. (Her Marilyn Monroe-inspired performance in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall won her a Tony Award.) She landed juicy film roles, including one as Warren Beatty’s sister in Splendor in the Grass, and a famous director husband, Elia Kazan, to whom she was married to until her premature death in 1980 at the age of 48. Loden’s marriage to Kazan came after she spent years as his mistress, an affair begun while she was still married to the father of her two sons, Leo and Marco. She endured a heavy dose of public humiliation from Kazan’s depiction of her in his 1967 roman à clef The Arrangement, made even worse when Loden was passed over for a role in the film adaptation in favor of Faye Dunaway. Kazan later tried to take credit for Wanda’s initial script—though he claimed, with mock gallantry, to have stayed out of his wife’s way as she shot the film in and around Scranton, Pennsylvania. Loden’s internal strife provided the emotional motivation for her to write, direct, and act in the film. But the seed for Wanda—which manifests, in the second half of the film, in a bank robbery that goes awry—was planted a decade before the film’s limited release: Loden had chanced upon a March 27, 1960 newspaper story called “The Go-for-Broke Bank Robber,” which described a duo’s failed bank heist in Cleveland that led to the death of the lead robber. Loden seized upon the story of the accomplice, a woman who later thanked the judge for her long prison sentence. The French film theorist Nathalie Léger, in her brilliant 2012 book Suite for Barbara Loden, a hybrid of biography, memoir, fiction, and criticism, identified the woman as Alma Malone. (“She might have been the daughter of Samuel Beckett’s Malone, the one who says at the beginning of the book, ‘I shall soon be quite dead at last in spite of all.’”) Léger found the discovery of Loden’s real-life inspiration deflating: “All the thrill of the quest evaporated. An overwhelming sense of sorrow overtook me during the exhausting period of going through these pages and I immediately lost all interest in the subject for a period of several weeks, filled with regret for ever having allowed myself to be overtaken by the urge to pinpoint the source of the story.”

For Léger, finding out about Alma detracted from her own work, opening up questions she knew she wouldn’t have time to investigate. But had Léger persisted, she’d have discovered a remarkable tale of a woman more like Loden’s creation than the filmmaker herself had ever realized. One whose story has never been fully told.


 

“He said if I would help him he could do it successfully, but if anything did go wrong, we could die.”

 


 

The doorbell rang at 7 a.m. Herbert Fox went to answer. The bank manager’s two daughters, 18-year-old Marilyn and 10-year-old Bonnie, continued to eat breakfast. His wife, Loretta, was washing the dishes. William Ansley and Alma Malone were at the door. “Our car broke down. May we use your telephone?” said William. Alma, the taller of the two, peered over Ansley's shoulder. “Why, uh—” William thrust his foot into the doorway. Then, pointing a .45 at Fox, he went inside with Alma. Fox grabbed at William. Alma set down a hatbox and pulled an automatic handgun from her red handbag. “Let him go!” she cried. Loretta Fox stuck her head out from the kitchen. “What is it, dear?” “Come in here!” cried Alma. The girls appeared in the doorway. “You, too!” The Fox family assembled in the living room. Alma pulled some cord from her handbag and began to tie them up, one by one. William pointed to the hatbox. “See that? That’s a bomb. A real, live bomb. You cooperate with us and we’ll be back here to disarm it before the time it’s set to go off.” William turned to Fox. “You are going to take me to the bank.” “W-w-w-what for?” William chuckled. “To rob it, of course.” No one said anything further. A ticking sound came from the hatbox. “You just sit still,” Alma said. “If you joggle around trying to go free, the bomb will go off.” William motioned for Fox to get his coat and hat. Fox put a rosary beside Bonnie, still tied up. “Pray for all of us,” he said, and walked out of his home with William and Alma following behind. “Go to your car,” ordered William. “Act natural.” Fox obeyed. As they got into Fox’s car, Alma got into a blue Ford with a white top, intending to follow them. But when the men arrived at the bank, she was no longer behind them.


 

Eddie Lee waited at the entrance to the Lorain Avenue branch of the Cleveland Trust. He greeted Fox with a smile that evaporated when he saw William, who spirited both men into the branch. William gave the same spiel to Eddie that he recited to the other dozen or so employees filing into the Lorain Avenue branch: There was a bomb at Fox’s house that would go off if they didn’t follow instructions. Fox was then ordered to fill a cardboard box with money. He was about to hand off the box stuffed with bills to William, when a policeman appeared at the window. “Stall him off!” said William. “Get out there, at the center of the floor.” Fox moved slowly, wondering if his family would survive because of his decisions. Then he saw a second cop.


 

The fictional relationship between Wanda and Mr. Dennis is quite faithful to what Loden knew of the relationship between Alma and William. The film version of the heist stays true to the details of what happened at the Fox residence, down to the ticking hatbox. Wanda’s existential ennui could have, and likely did, come straight from what Alma later told reporters. So one could imagine the real Alma reacting to William as Wanda does to Mr. Dennis when he says this on how to dress and act, and how to stop being so passive: "If you don't want anything, you won't have anything, and if you don't have anything, you're as good as dead."

Or when Mr. Dennis slaps Wanda, and it takes her several beats of quiet shock before responding with a tepid, plaintive, “Hey, that hurt.”


 

“Come on, we’ve got to help Daddy!” Marilyn Fox had broken free of the cord that kept her tied up. She untied her mother Loretta and sister Bonnie. The hatbox kept on ticking. For 15 minutes, the trio prayed. Then they ran over to a neighbor’s house. It was 8:20 a.m. The radio reported “some kind of disturbance” at the Lorain Avenue bank branch. Patrolmen James Gatter and Thomas McNamara were on duty that morning. They heard the police scanner and stopped their car near the bank. Gatter grabbed a shotgun. McNamara fetched his service revolver. They were at the entrance when Eddie Lee ran out the door. A hand holding an automatic gun rose over the bank counter. The robber fired. Gatter fired back. They exchanged fire two more times, as glass shattered around them. Gatter first aimed at the wood near the top of the counter. The next time he aimed at the floor. He reached for more ammunition and found it gone—William’s shot had ripped a hole in his pants, right at the ammunition belt. Gatter got ready to draw his revolver again when a third policeman rushed in. “After that,” Gatter later recalled, “just about every policeman in town came up behind us. It was just like a movie thriller.” Police swarmed up to nearby rooftops by the dozens, dropping tear gas into the bank through an open window. “Come out in ten minutes or we’re coming in,” Cleveland police chief Frank Storey intoned through a megaphone. “It’s your funeral.” William fired more shots. A bank employee jumped through a window, shouting, "Hold your fire! He's letting us out!" The bank staff streamed out. This included Fox, who learned—to his relief—that his family was safe and the bomb had not gone off in his house. The hatbox turned out to be harmless: it held two dry cell batteries, a timer, and fuses of coal dust. That was it. Nothing explosive. Detective Jack Hughes entered the bank. He saw William on the floor, clutching an automatic. Hughes kicked away the gun from the robber’s hand. That’s how he learned William was dead. A shot had gone right through his temple, which had blown off his blond wig and exposed the bald head underneath.


  “It was just like a movie thriller.”  


 

The Cleveland police searched for Alma and found her rented blue Ford, abandoned on the city’s east side. In it, cops discovered a picture of her with William from a New Orleans nightclub. They also found an ID card with the name Billy Jean Carroll, a blonde wig, and her maternity-dress disguise. There was also a book on childcare, some food, a cosmetics case, and men’s and women’s clothing. Alma knew something had gone terribly wrong. Following Fox and William, she would later say that she had “made a wrong turn somewhere”—and by the time she got near the bank, “there were so many people around, a traffic cop directed me away.” Alma figured William had committed suicide as planned. “It was understood that if anything went wrong, Mr. Ansley would kill me and then himself,” she later told local reporters. “I wouldn’t have had the courage to kill myself. With us, it was either make the job good or die, because Mr. Ansley said he would never go back to jail if anything went wrong.” After being directed away from the bank, Alma ditched the car and found a nearby bar. As she drank a beer, the television came on with a news flash. Alma fled as soon as she could. For “three cold days and nights,” she slept under a bridge in the woods near Baldwin Reservoir, about a mile from where she abandoned the getaway car, at East 105th Street and Euclid Avenue. On the third day, she decided to walk back into town and get a room at a rooming house—where, once she saw her own face on TV, she resolved to stay put. For the next two weeks, she didn’t leave the building. She also managed to make a few phone calls to her younger sister, who did not tell anyone else—not their mother, and certainly not the FBI agents looking for Alma. “They are listening in. Your phone is probably tapped,” Alma told her sister. “But I’m okay.” Alma might have remained at the rooming house even longer had she and a fellow tenant (and local drug dealer) not argued, their voices so loud it disturbed the other occupants. A tip went out to the police department. When they arrived, there was Alma. “Thank God it’s over," she reportedly said, “I’m so tired of hiding.”


 

The case made headlines across the country, even the world. Alma’s past as an accessory to another heist came to light—she had been asleep in a car when a boyfriend and two accomplices robbed an inn in New York state in 1954, eventually getting a year in prison. Cleveland police deemed her a “very disturbed person.” On November 25, 1959, Alma was indicted for armed robbery, kidnapping, conspiracy to kidnap, and “malicious entry into a financial institution.” Six weeks later, on January 7, 1960, she pleaded guilty to the last charge, while the others were dropped as part of a deal made with the prosecutor, John T. Corrigan, to reduce her prison sentence. Judge Joseph Artl sentenced Alma to 20 years in prison, which she began on January 21, 1960 at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville. The newly minted prisoner number W-7988 expressed relief to reporters afterward: “Oh, I’m very happy. I really expected him to lower the boom!”


 

Two months later, Loden read about Alma in Ruth Reynolds’s Justice column in the New York Sunday News. She saw the bones of a great movie—“That’s what struck me: Why would this girl feel glad to be put away?” she told an interviewer in 1974—but, after years of rejection by prospective studios and directors, she realized she would have to direct the film herself. “If I wanted to get it done, I’d have to do it myself," Loden told the Los Angeles Times in 1971. “It was like being a housewife. You do everything—you don’t differentiate." A producer friend, Harry Shuster, put up the $115,000 budget, an amount Loden felt she must not exceed. Nick Proferes, the cinematographer, and Michael Higgins, who played Mr. Dennis, were the only professionals Loden hired. The others were amateurs, nonunion workers, or both. “It’s not a new wave … It’s the old wave,” Loden told the New York Times in 1971. “That’s what they used to do. They took a camera and they went out and shot. Around that act this whole fantastic apparatus grew up—the Hollywood albatross. They made a ship out of lead. It won’t float anymore.” Loden disdained most Hollywood films as “too perfect to be believable” and wanted to stay far away from them. “The slicker the technique is, the slicker the content becomes,” she said, “until everything turns into Formica, including the people.” When it was finally time to start shooting Wanda, Loden reached out to the prison warden at Marysville to ask for permission to interview Alma. It had taken Loden many years to find out where Alma was housed, but the warden refused the request. “No, I don’t think it would be interesting,” said the warden, according to Loden. “I don’t think that you should be interested in this story. I’m the person who gives permission for everything here, and that I will not allow.”


 

Shortly before dying of the breast cancer that would consume the last two years of her life, Loden gave an interview in the late '70s for a German television documentary about herself and Wanda. “There’s so much I didn’t achieve, but I tried to be independent and to create my own way,” she said in the posthumously released broadcast. “Otherwise, I would have become like Wanda, all my life just floating around.” Loden didn’t spend her final decade floating around. She did, however, run into difficulty after finishing her film. Though it received critical acclaim—a warm reception at the Venice International Film Festival, a rave from Times film critic Vincent Canby (“Wanda's a Wow”)—that didn’t translate into commercial success. Loden, Higgins, and Proferes were then attached to a film to be called Love Means Always Having to Say You’re Sorry, about a housewife involved with three men at the same time, but it never got made. Nor did Loden’s adaptation of Kate Chopin’s classic story The Awakening. She did direct and produce The Boy Who Liked Deer (1975), an educational short film broadcast on PBS, which was about the horrific consequences of vandalism. Wanda, for Loden, was a declaration of filmic independence. But because she found no way to make more features—a struggle too many female directors still face—it ended up as her own albatross. Criticized by feminists upon its release for its passive nature—which Loden took in stride, feeling she came too late to the movement—the film is now justifiably lauded as a second-wave landmark. But Wanda was more or less forgotten soon after its release, until its revival began in earnest when Bérénice Reynaud wrote an essay about it in 2002. “Wanda’s historical importance [is that] Loden wanted to suggest, from the vantage point of her own experience, what it meant to be a damaged, alienated woman—not to fashion a ‘new woman’ or a positive heroine,” argued Reynaud. Since then Wanda’s cult appeal has only grown; its influence is evident in directorial and acting work by Chantal Akerman, Isabelle Huppert (who spearheaded a French DVD release in 2004), and Deb Shoval.


 

Alma was released on parole from Marysville on April 8, 1970, ten years into her prison sentence. She did not go back to Salina, as she had after her previous incarceration, but instead to the Denver suburb of Commerce City, Colorado, where her younger sister, Dixie, lived with her then-husband and six sons, the youngest not even old enough for school. Alma, now 37 years old, tried to settle in. Her nephews enjoyed her company. Dixie, three years younger, was thrilled to have her sister back in her life. The one time she’d visited Alma in Marysville, taking her mother and one of her sons along, it nearly broke her heart. The years of incarceration had taken a toll on Alma’s psyche and appearance. Dixie knew what others thought of Alma. They judged her for her actions, for being a convicted bank robber. They saw a lithe figure with a five-foot-six frame (although she had gained weight in Marysville, she slimmed down upon being released), and found her beauty dangerous. They grew weary of her lies, of which there were many. They couldn’t see her as Dixie did: as the older sister who had taken care of her, who had tried to look out for her when they were young. The sister who bore the brunt of their father’s abuse, shielding and protecting Dixie, while also refusing to condemn her for loving the man and wanting some semblance of a good relationship with him. The sister who knitted sweaters for the people she loved best. And the person responsible for the best tomato soup recipe Dixie had ever tasted. “She could be anyone she wanted to be and be very convincing,” Dixie said in a telephone interview last month. “I was in awe of that!” Alma could still attract men. “She did not like men, but she could get one and control him,” said Dixie. She met them at dance studios or bars. ”One, named Glenn, had a mother who lived in a nearby suburb. Dixie didn’t recall exactly how Glenn and Alma met, but she remembered, vividly, one of the last times she saw him. She was cooking in the kitchen; Alma and Glenn sat at the table. "Daddy,” said Alma, “Show this Dixie what you have." Dixie had never heard her sister talk like that. Alma’s eyes were all snappy. “Show him your baby,” Alma said. Glenn stood up, opened his jacket, and revealed a gun tucked in his waistband. Dixie wasn’t afraid of such displays; maybe it was her innocence, or because she hadn’t been around guns much. She said, “Oh. That’s nice.” It was the last time the subject, or the object, ever came up. But Dixie remembers the scene well because, soon after, Alma and Glenn disappeared. Alma jumped parole on August 28, 1970, just four months after her release from prison. Dixie paid a visit to Alma’s parole officer, with no luck. Years went by. Then decades. Dixie thought Alma would get in touch eventually. It was her way to go underground for long stretches of time without contact. And if Alma was back in prison, perhaps she couldn’t phone or even write. Eventually, Dixie divorced her husband, remarried, and moved back to Salina. She hoped that eventually, Alma would find her. She hoped Alma would figure it out and find her. But then her mother Helen died of cancer on Christmas Eve 1981, at the age of 66. In 2015, Alma’s son Robert died, also at the age of 66. Still nothing from Alma. “I always wondered,” Dixie told me. “I always thought she would get a hold of me. And then I knew, after all those years not hearing anything, that she was dead. Don’t know why, but I did. Deep down inside, I think she would have contacted me if she could.” Dixie’s voice, a melodic, midrange Kansan lilt, broke periodically during our 90-minute conversation. She would cry as if she hadn’t let herself do so for years. “I’m sorry I didn’t think about what happened to her sooner. Now I feel ashamed of myself. I just tucked it away.” Dixie celebrated her 82nd birthday last August. Alma, if still living, would be 85. So much time has passed. “I just want to know where she’s buried,” Dixie said.


  “She did not like men, but she could get one and control him.”  


  Wanda ends in a bar, not long before closing time. The title character arrives in the aftermath of the failed robbery. She sits down among a group of men. The lighting is coarse and claustrophobic. Fiddle music plays as she drinks her beer and scarfs down a hot dog. Wanda lifts her head, eyes downcast as a cigarette reaches her lips. Her mouth alternates somewhere between a smile and a grimace. Despite the crime, trouble, and tragedy, there is an aura of quiet possibility about her. The likelihood is that Alma Helen Stephens Malone came to a bad end, not long after jumping parole in Colorado. She may be buried somewhere, waiting to be identified. The Ohio Bureau of Prisons lists an “administrative release” from parole of February 23, 1990, but it’s not clear if that was paperwork shuffling or if they had some contact with Alma. Dixie never thought to report her older sister missing. So much time passed, and the shame seemed too great to overcome. But she plans on doing so soon. Perhaps Alma, like Wanda, found some aura of quiet possibility, too. Maybe she did not, as one would expect, heed the wrong call. Perhaps she is still out there, in a disguise of her own making.

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