“The Alaskan Blonde: Sex, Secrets, and the Hollywood Story That Shocked America”
By James Bartlett; Territory Books, 2022; 252 pages; $19.99
The basic elements of the story are undisputed. Early in the morning of October 17, 1953, a badly beaten Diane Wells emerged from her downtown Fairbanks apartment, woke her neighbor and explained that two masked men had entered the unit she shared with her husband and attacked them both. . Officers arrived on the scene and soon found Cecil Wells dead in his bed, apparently beaten as well.
From there it gets confusing. Cecil Wells, it soon became clear, had died from a single bullet to the head. His body indicated he was asleep when he was killed. Nobody heard the shot. There were a few items missing from the apartment, but so few that a robbery gone wrong seemed unlikely. The rumors that Cecil had sometimes been violent towards Diane and that Diane had been unfaithful to Cecil were supported by enough circumstantial evidence to be credible. And one of the men she was likely involved with, a black musician named Johnny Warren, had left Fairbanks for Los Angeles that evening.
The murder, which involved wealth, gender, race and a rising federal district attorney named Ted Stevens, remains unsolved seven decades later. What might be most surprising is that it took so long for a book to be written about it.
Veteran journalist James Bartlett accepted the challenge. Originally from Great Britain, he lives in Los Angeles, where some of the crucial scenes of this drama took place, including Diane’s suicide in a Hollywood hotel room. Bartlett has become obsessed with this mystery, and his new book “The Alaskan Blonde” is the result of more than five years of research. It’s a snapshot of mid-20th century Fairbanks and a detailed examination of a complicated case. Bartlett has his theory of what happened, laid out in the final chapter, but like all other possible explanations, it requires filling in a few blanks and lacks a smoking gun – the weapon used in the murder did not never been found. And like many true crime books, this one shows how the trauma of a violent event leaves lasting scars on survivors.
Cecil Wells was a wealthy businessman with many businesses in Fairbanks. But while he was doing well in his professional life, his personal life was difficult. Diane was his fifth wife, and she was in her second marriage and had two abandoned daughters, personal details she kept secret, possibly even from Cecil. They lived in a two-apartment suite on the top floor of the Northward Building, which in 1950s Fairbanks was perhaps the fanciest place in town to live — hard to believe now, but it’s true. The downtown Fairbanks social scene was active and, at least by Alaskan standards, scintillating in those dizzying days when statehood was imminent. And Diane was a beautiful woman, coveted by many in the disproportionately male town. This combination of circumstances drove the story to the front pages of newspapers across America and beyond, often with poor coverage.
Bartlett does a great job of rebuilding the shattered lives of Diane and Cecil and the Fairbanks they inhabited. It also explores the backgrounds of the many people possibly connected to the case. It’s too byzantine to summarize here, but suffice it to say that the list of main characters included at the start of the book is handy, as it’s not easy to follow. It’s not Bartlett’s fault. There are so many players in this story that even investigators have had a hard time sorting it all out.
Diane and Johnny emerged as prime suspects. Within months, however, Diane had committed suicide – her autopsy revealed that she had recently become pregnant; whether she miscarried or got an abortion is unknown, but this detail adds to the mysteries swirling around the case. Johnny, meanwhile, was never charged, despite not being officially exonerated for seven years.
Another player was William Colombany. Originally from El Salvador, he was of mixed Latin American and Italian descent and was close to Diane, especially in the months between Cecil’s murder and his suicide. He was the only person ever tried and convicted in this case, although it was for perjury and not murder.
Stevens remained convinced until his death that Diane and Johnny plotted the murder, but the evidence presented by Bartlett makes Johnny an unlikely participant. Columbany’s possible involvement is harder to ignore, as is Diane’s. Yet the city had already seen a fatal home invasion by two unknown assailants, and another non-fatal one that followed, supporting Diane’s claims. Readers, like Bartlett, will have to draw their own conclusions.
Two interesting takeaways from this book lie mostly unstated between the lines. First, the reason neither Stevens nor his successors ever brought charges was that they could not have proven them in court. In 1950s America, there were many places where a murdered black man, white woman, and wealthy husband would have resulted in the conviction and eventual execution of the black man, regardless of the facts. The fact that Stevens did not rush the case to trial suggests that while prospective jurors in Fairbanks likely harbored racist sentiments common at the time, they would still demand compelling evidence. It’s amazing.
The other thing, which Bartlett touches on near the end, is how intergenerational trauma from abuse and broken relationships can reverberate for decades. “Among the Wells, Warren and Columbany families,” he wrote, “there are stories of orphanages, broken homes, divorce, estrangement, violence, abuse, mental illness, secrets and of suicide. With few exceptions, it seems that everyone affected by this case has suffered in one way or another.
For all the grim details that the media of the time pored over, there is a human tragedy here that goes beyond those at its center. Murder causes permanent damage to many more people than just the victim. And while Bartlett’s writing style is more journalistic than literary – he is a journalist after all – he tells that story well. They were troubled and deeply flawed human beings. It didn’t end well for most of them.