These things are true: the Hotel Bel Mar was completed in in 1907 in Paloma Alta, California; it was built by the wealthy and eccentric industrialist Horace Van Driesen. In the wake of the 1906
San Francisco quake, Van Driesen had planned to transform Paloma Alta from a sleepy fishing community into a cultural and economic powerhouse. The hotel was his only success in that effort. The hotel and its grounds were built on a rocky peninsula
with sandstone cliffs surrounded on three sides by the pacific ocean. The view of the ocean from there is magnificent, the drop from the cliffs precipitous. I've seen pictures of the place before its destruction. It was a sprawling wooden construction of the type no longer found. It had gables and cupolas
and a long collonaded portico that ran along one of the cliffs. The floors in the grand entrance were tiled with marble imported from rome. The grand staircase was made of hand-carved teak
. The gentleman's lounge was paneled in dark, fragrant mahogany
. In its time it was a place of elegance and prestige. Its name was once synonymous with luxury and grace. But the name of the grand hotel has become associated with evil and locals shun the place where it once stood. I have tried to piece the story together as best as I can. But the more questions I ask, the more remains unanswered.
My involvement in this began when I was doing research on the infamous 1953 mass murder at the Hotel Bel Mar that was dubbed "The Twilight of the Stars" by the press. I went to the site of the old hotel looking for a fresh perspective on the massacre, but found Paloma Alta natives surprisingly relunctant to talk about the events that led to the Hotel's closure in 1954. The land where the hotel once stood was bequested to the State of California in 1977, and in 1979 opened as Bel Mar state park.
Pampas grass now covers most of the old grounds of the Hotel Bel Mar. A careful observer can sometimes find traces of the old building's foundation peeking out from beneath the grass. Sometimes wild strawberries grow near the concrete remains. The only building in the small State Park is the Visitor's Center. The visitor's center has been converted from the former home of architect Dennis Mobley and as such is an oddly beautiful assymetrical building with the startling angles typical in Mobley's work. Inside the visitor's center you can purchase postcards with pictures of the Hotel Bel Mar. The mostly friendly staff will not, however, answer any questions about the gruesome 1953 murders.
There's a reinforced iron staircase that snakes down the sides of one of the cliffs to the shore, where there's a small pebbly beach protected from the worst of the oceans relentless abuse by a crumbling rock wall. At certain times of day you can see tide pools. Sea spray sometimes crashes high against the cliffs, and I found the iron staircase to be slippery and treacherous. A sign at the top advises caution. On my third tip to Bel Mar State Park, I slipped and fell down the final flight of the stairs and landed face down in the wet sand. My glasses had been knocked away from me and half-blind I groped around for them. My hands closed on something thin and metallic. It was something vaguely rectangular and badly tarnished. It took a few minutes before I was able to recognize the shallow, ornamental box as a cigarette case. After I found my glasses, which were cracked, I tucked the cigarette case in the pocket of my windbreaker and headed back up the stairs.
When I got back to my motel, I cleaned the cigarette case with toothpaste and my extra toothbrush. After a few minutes of vigorous scrubbing, details became clear. The case was worked with a design of roses and peacocks. It was monogrammed with the letters LSF in ornate letters. There was a inscription engraved on the inside. It read, "To my beloved Laura. May all your tears now be tears of joy."
The next morning, there was a small book tucked underneath my car's left windshield wiper. It was a red and black diary with a rusted brass lock that no longer functioned. It, too, was monogrammed with the initials LSF. When I opened it there was a smell of must and age. The pages were yellowish-brown and crumbly at the edges. The ink has faded to a chocolate brown. The name on the inside cover is Laura Sutherland Fischer. Fascinated, I read took the diary back into the hotel room with me and read it cover to cover.
I have not been able to verify the
diary's authencity. It is very possible that this is all part of some elaborate hoax. But it is certain that Laura Sutherland Fischer actually existed and stayed at the Hotel Bel Mar in 1946. It is also certain that Laura Sutherland Fischer died at the hotel Bel Mar one day after the date of the final entry in the red and black diary.
I have transcribed the contents of the diary as faithfully as I can, some parts are smudged, some have faded so much as to become illegible. However, the writer in the diary had neat penmanship and I believe I was able to recover most of the material. Here are the entries from days that correspond to Laura Sutherland Fischer's stay at the Hotel Bel Mar:
July 19, 1946
It was so marvelous of John to think of this place for our little vacation! The hotel is gorgeous, and the bracing ocean air is exactly the thing, I think, to restore good humors to my Nicholas. I fell in love with this place as soon as the car turned around a bend and I got my first glimpse; it reminded me so much of a fairy tale castle, all white and tall against the blue sea. We had tea and little sandwiches in the garden that afternoon, I must remember to get a recipe for those cream cheese and cucumber ones, just the thing for summer parties!
My beloved husband has not been the same since his return from the War last year. He still refuses to talk to me about it. But his temper seems to have improved since we've arrived here. He sounded positively boyish when the concierge mentioned the fireworks display happening tonight. I've missed the way he smiled. He's been so sour.
Oh! The strangest thing, late last night I could have sworn I heard a woman crying or singing. The voice echoed up the cliffs from the shore. It woke me from a sound sleep. Nicholas slept through it. When we discussed it the next morning he said that it was probably a mother seal calling for her young.
It didn't sound like a seal to me.
July 20, 1946
Although I know Nicholas will be awfully upset if he finds out that I've been talking to the help, I'm really just a country girl at heart. The other wives here have been nothing but nice to me, but I grew tired of polite conversation. Really, how many times can you comment on the weather in a single hour? I've been talking to the maids. At first they were very standoffish, and I can imagine why. I think the hotel management frowns on what Nicholas would undoubtedly call "fraternizing". But I got one of them to be friendly, and eventually some of the others came around.
One of the maids is named Agnes. She's a silly, superstitious thing! She shivers with fright if she sees a mirror on a bed, won't walk under ladders and is always knocking wood. But she tells the most interesting stories. Of course she had an answer when I asked about the crying or singing woman by the shore. She crossed herself first and then said that the crying woman is the ghost of a woman who lost her mind when her husband left her. Agnes said that woman drowned her children, all seven of them! Then when she realized what she had done, she drowned herself. She's doomed, Agnes said, to cry and sing for her children until she can replace them.
Ghosts! What nonsense! I must admit that someone must have been walking over my grave when Agnes told me that story, because I certainly shivered.
July 22, 1946
When I pulled out Nicholas' dinner jacket from one of the steamer trunks to be cleaned for the ball on saturday a heavy envelope fell out, spilling perfumed stationery onto the floor. I was gathering the paper up when my eye happened to chance on a feminine signature, marked with the perfect prints of a woman's lips in tawdry red lipstick. I read the letters. They were some Frenchwoman who swore undying love to Nicholas. She wrote the most obscene and profane things to him. She referred to me as old baggage. Me! Nicholas' wife, who stayed behind and waited lonely in that drafty Pennsylvania house while he was out gallivanting around Europe. I wanted to tear that filth up and throw it at him, but I suppose I owe him a chance to explain.
Her name is Genevieve Ste. Marie. She lives in Paris. It is a good thing to know one's enemies.
That crying woman is getting louder, and the sounds aren't just happening at night anymore. It's no seal.
July 23, 1946
I confronted Nicholas about the letters today. He didn't deny anything. He has been arranging for his French Mistress to come to the States. He says he's been thinking about getting a divorce, but didn't want me to be in disgrace. He said that marrying me was a mistake. The worst thing about this is that he never once raised his voice at me. I was furious but found myself unable to respond with anything besides, "oh."
As if this were all just a polite misunderstanding.
The last page of the black and red diary has been torn out. But this is true: On the evening of July 24, 1946 Laura Sutherland Fischer was dead. Whether her death was a suicide or an accident was a matter of some contention. It was eventually ruled an accident. Her Obituary reads:
Laura Fischer (nee Sutherland) fell to her death from a cliff overlooking the Ocean at the Hotel Bel Mar in Paloma Alta, California. Mrs. Fischer was 25 and a noted patroness of the arts, particularly music. She studied Opera at the Van Graaf Conversatory of Philadephia, Pennsylvia. She leaves behind her parents, a sister, and her devoted husband, decorated War Hero, and noted philanthropist Nicholas Sutherland.
The obituary does not, of course, mention Genevieve Ste. Marie. A little digging turns up her fate. Although she somewhat scandalously married Nicholas Sutherland seven months after the death of Laura Sutherland Fischer, she died two months after her wedding, drowned in her own bathtub. Nicholas Sutherland was out of the country at the time, and suspicion never fell on him. Genevieve Ste. Marie's death was ruled as an accident, although one of the initial investigators claims that there were two pairs of wet footprints leading away from the bathroom.
The Hotel Bel Mar's reputation did not suffer following the death of young Laura. In fact, partially due to the post-war boom, it became more popular than ever. It became one of the premiere West Coast vacation destinations. It was known in certain circles as the place to see and be seen. The frenzy surrounding the hotel reached its height in 1953 when the executives at Lodestone Studios reserved an entire wing of the hotel. They were planning a grand coming-out party for their newest ingenue, Dolores Raymond. Dolores was an astonishing beauty, and Lodestone executives were sure that she was next big star. But Dolores had a secret; an agressively obsessive ex-boyfriend named Fred Bryant who had been sending her increasingly disturbing letters. Afraid that her chance for stardom would be ruined if the truth was leaked, Dolores hid the letters and never told anyone about Fred's death threats. This decision resulted in tragedy as is recounted in this newspaper clipping from San Francisco Explorer, dated June 16, 1955:
Twilight Killer gets Chair
Fred Bryant, age 27, was executed today by electrocution. Bryant, also known as "The Twilight of the Stars Killer", is responsible for the deaths of thirteen people, including Hollywood leading man Jason Pierce, Lodestone Studio Executive David Nelson and actress Delores Raymond. Bryant admitted to the murders of twelve men and one woman, mostly connected to the entertainment industry, all guests at the Hotel Bel Mar in Paloma Alta. Hotel representatives refused to comment on this matter, but Lodestone Studio president Van Worley had this to say, " Those were good people that died that night. Luminaries. That scum who killed them deserved worse."
Bryant showed no remorse and refused counsel from the prison chaplain. When asked why he committed the heinous crimes, Bryant responded, "I only meant to kill Dolores."
The newspaper article does not complete Fred Bryant's statements, but there are plentiful eye witness accounts that do. They all agree that Bryant said, "I only meant to kill Dolores, the twins made me do the rest."
What the newspaper article also does not say is that Dolores Raymond was strangled with a pair of silk stockings. The twelve men who were killed all had their throats slit with a butcher knife from the hotel's massive kitchen. All of the men who died were in bed with someone who was not their spouse. None of their companions woke up while the murders were being perpetrated. Jason Pierce was found next to Alexander Robison, a nineteen-year-old former child actor. Robison woke up covered in congealing blood from Pierce's partially severed head. He was later institutionalized.
What the newspaper articles also ignore is something that can be found in police reports and other eyewitness statements. Byant continually repeated that he only meant to kill Dolores, but that there were twins with seaweed in their hair and cold, wrinkly hands who made him kill the others.
The Hotel Bel Mar became financially insolvent following the horrific murders of June 14, 1953. On February 2, 1954, the Hotel closed its doors forever.
On July 24, 1961, the fifteenth anniversary of the death of Laura Sutherland Fischer, the Hotel Bel Mar was struck by seven bolts of lightning and burned to the ground. Its remote position made it difficult for the fire department to access the burning ruin, and it smoldered for fifteen days after the fire.
After that, the spot stood empty for more than ten years. There's an apocryphal story of a fisherman blown off course near the former site of the Hotel Bel Mar during the storm. One of the residents of Paloma Alta told me this, it was the only thing she was willing to say about the place. She said that the fisherman spent three days in a sea cave at the foot of the cliffs, terrified of anything that moved. He had chopped off his own fingers and had eaten them raw. When they found him, she said, he wouldn't stop babbling about the three horrible singing women. He said their hair was wet and covered in seawood. When the rescue teams tried to remove him from the sea cave, he wouldn't stop screaming. I could find no newspaper accounts to corroborate this story.
In 1973, the land was bought by Architect Dennis Mobley and his wife, award-winning confessional poetess Rhonda Keats. Mobley admired the view and had planned a dream house that would take advantage of the location. He finished construction of the house in July, 1974. He and his wife moved in shortly after. Mobley and Keats had somewhat reclusive tendancies, so it's difficult to find any information on what happened during their stay at their new house. What is known is that Rhonda Keats appeared for functions with bags under her eyes and broken jagged fingernails, sometimes poorly groomed. Before moving to Paloma Alta, Keats was known for her immaculate style of dress. In August 1976, Keats published her final book of poetry, La Llorona. La Llorona was a National Book Award finalist, and was widely applauded for its lyricism and for Keats' brave change in style. Previously, she had written only in vers libre and had scoffed at other poets who allowed themselves to be restricted by archaic forms. La Llorona was entirely in iambic pentameter. All of the poems had regular rhyme schemes. Vengeful ghost women figured heavily in the imagery.
In May, 1977 tragedy occured again on that spot as reported in the New Paloma Times on May 21, 1997:
Poetess, Architect dead in apparent murder suicide.
The bodies of National Book Award nominated Poetess Rhonda Keats, 38 and husband, noted architecht Dennis Mobley, 43 were found in their Paloma Alta home yesterday morning. Mobley appeared to have suffered multiple blows to his head from a blunt object as well as having been stabbed 32 times. Keats was found hanging from an electric cord tied around a light fixture in the master bathroom. Coroners have scheduled an Autopsy for Wednesday.
What the newspaper article does not mention is that Rhonda Keats had written a terse, final note in the master bathroom before hanging herself. The note was in red lipstick and read, "I wanted to keep it".
The autopsy later revealed that Keats was three months pregnant. Keats and Mobley had no heirs, and Mobley had bequeathed the house and surrounding property to the state.
Locals don't visit Bel Mar State Park. The employees who work in the Visitor's Center sometimes commute from as far as one-hundred miles away. But the spot has its charms, and is relatively popular with visitors to the area. Schools sometimes arrange field trips to see the tide pools or study the rock formations on the cliffs. In 1981, during a rain storm, a school bus from St. Mary's Academy in San Jose careened off the cliffs into the choppy waters below. It seems the bus driver had misjudged how far away the edge was while attempting to park. Twenty-five girls and two teachers were also on that bus. The only survivor was the driver who said four pretty young women had beckoned for him to move forward, and that he couldn't see much of anything because of all the rain.
Things happen. Terrible things happen. Sometimes all at the same place. The human mind tries to make things into patterns, put connections where there are none. The idea of ghosts being behind dreadful events is laughable to the rational mind. However, I have no explanation for what I found tucked beneath the windshield wiper of my car this morning. It was a single page, yellow and crumbly around the edges. It had been torn out of a diary. The ripped edges matched the diary that claims to be Linda Sutherland Fischer's, exactly. It reads:
July 24, 2006
I have talked to her. She has long wet hair with bits of seaweed in it. Her eyes are hollow and very sad. But she understands me. And I know what I must do. I can sing counterpoint to her song. She said to me that we would only be two in the beginning, but in time we would be many. And those who are careless with hearts will behold the many and tremble. She makes sense.
Tonight, I think.
Scrawled across the bottom of the page in red lipstick is a terse note, "They must know". And while this may all be part of an elaborate hoax, there are things I cannot explain. There was the smell of seawater all around my car; I live in Gunnison, Colorado, far from the ocean. And there was a limp bit of kelp lying on the ground nearby, still wet.