The cosmic tumblers that align the universe must’ve required a factory re-lubing after the caskets were nailed shut. To blame the events of February 1941 and what followed on happenstance’s spinning needle is just too blighting, too painful, the kind of soul-crusher that converts a devout monk into a rabid atheist. This, I tell myself, was meant to be. Had to be. Always did. The San Quentin gas chamber was inevitable from the very first handshake of the principals in the underbelly of pre-war Los Angeles. Nat Ross, a champion of second chances, needed a worker. And Maurice “Mike” Briggs wanted a job. It was no coincidence they intersected any more than the moon’s gravitational orbit around the Earth.

Cotton Products Corp., a moderate-sized rag-making factory south of Los Angeles City Hall at 1627 South Broadway, was swimming in contracts when they met in mid-1940 at what today is a vacant lot between a red-trimmed Jack-in-the-Box franchise and a blah, government-gray freeway overpass. Briggs, who’d originally traveled to the West Coast to visit his father, seemed like a winner. In short order, he elevated himself to foreman of the washing machines. A smart aleck sort, he’ might’ve called himself the Grand Poobah of them. 

The 26-year-old newcomer with an Errol Flynn moustache and glinting smile wanted the factory women to know he was a bachelor, as well. An attractive, pouty-lipped woman named Betty Susan, 21, certainly was impressed. They flirted over textile orders, probably went on a few dates and got sweaty between the sheets. Betty deemed him such a keeper that after a brief courtship she agreed to his marriage proposal. Mrs. Maurice Briggs was pregnant mere weeks later. She quit her job in preparation for out-of-nowhere domesticity they’d romanticize for their children one day. 

On breaks from the grind, Nat, my great uncle, might’ve giggled to himself at how farfetched love stories can be, if not how ironic considering that he last film he was supposed to produce for Columbia Pictures was entitled “Accidental Father” before zigzagging life planted him here. 

Briggs, meantime, had never been happier. A ho-hum job had led to a spouse and a future. Then again, when had happiness hung around him for more than the shelf life of a jar of mayonnaise? Before the newlyweds had celebrated three months together, they began quarreling and couldn’t stop. In their last fight, Betty accused him of cold-cocking her in the face and tearing off her garments with the promise that he wasn’t going to leave her “with a stitch of clothing” to her name if she resisted him. Briggs, who’d buried his molten temper hidden behind his hunky jaw and cigarette smoke, was tossed out of his place on South Grand Ave. in December. Nearby flophouses reserved for broken men was now where he slept. 

Still, he’d kept his job with a plant, which gave him hope of reclaiming Betty’s heart. It’s just that the woman he’d swept off the floor there was already dead-set on eliminating any trace of him. In the days after he moved out, she told him that she’d lost the child in a miscarriage and, in a second whopper, had already fallen in love with another man named Gene Sperry. Give me a break? Briggs responded with an incredulous cluck. After he grilled her, she admitted she was still pregnant. The lie bothered him little. Over and over, he bleated for her to take him back, promising to change his stripes and night-work schedule for the sake of their relationship. Every time she shook her head “No!” By January 1941, she’d lined up a Long Beach divorce attorney. Briggs said he’d go along with annulling their marriage if she kept his child, presuming she’d eventually want the baby’s father residing under the same roof. 

Briggs, however, was losing things left and right in a city bulging with transplants like him. After he’d worked shifts at Cotton Products evidently blotto, Nat had to let him go. A factory with heavy machinery and dozens of employees was no place to be sauced. A softy about people down on their luck, he soon re-hired Briggs with a probationary caveat. Briggs ignored it, coming in plastered again around Feb. 10, which got him shitcanned a second time. He applied for unemployment benefits cursing his need to do it.

Reuniting with Betty remained his No. 1 obsession. Two days after Nat gave him the second heave-ho, Briggs made a Hail Mary to win her back. Please, he said. He’d do anything. Any-thing. As before, his desperation held no truck for her. She was terminating the pregnancy for real this time. Since he’d refused to help pay for the operation, she’d found someone chivalrous who would. Not only was Nat a benevolent boss, he’d awarded her back her old factory job so she could be her own breadwinner again. 

Hearing this development, the creeper maniac in Briggs fully took over the rest of him. He contacted the Los Angeles Police Dept. to prevent the abortion, which in the Fedora age was whispered as an “illegal procedure. The department refused to entangle itself in the soap opera on Broadway Street. Be that way, Briggs thought. He’d play detective, telling some that he believed Nat was having a fling with his girl. On a stalking trip to Cotton Products, he spied her departing with Nat in his car. He went to a Red Car bench close to her house to wait for her, seeing her return at 2 A.M., perhaps after visiting a back-room abortion doc. “I didn’t get a chance to talk,” Briggs said afterwards, “because she ran up the steps and locked the door in my face.” 

Soon enough, he was on plant grounds again, pie-eyed, clutching a pocketknife and hissing in Nat’s face that “he wasn’t going to be around much longer.” Nobody took the threats much more than the predictable ranting from a wife-beating, alcoholic drifter rather than a ticking time bomb. “I’m not mad at you, but am going to kill Ross,” he told his soon-to-be-ex-wife. Either on that visit or another one on Valentine’s Day, the LAPD arrested him on a seemingly minor charge. He’d blown every chance afforded him to fly straight, or at minimum fly away. Why hadn’t he just stuck to his washing machines?

Ten days later, on Feb. 24, 1941, Briggs’s divorcing spouse informed him that she was with child no more. More trickery, Briggs said. Show him proof. She did – a bloody towel used to staunch the post-procedure hemorrhaging. Briggs was floored numb, as if everything leading up to this moment was surmountable drama attached to a happily-ever-after. In his delusional head, it was conflicting work schedules, not his sometimes-psychotic conduct, at the root of their troubles. 

Now that he knew there’d be no baby, Briggs framed an incendiary exit plan. Thin out the city’s population by one. The next morning he cashed his unemployment check and spent $8 at a Main street pawnshop and a few bucks for accessories at another shop. Around sundown, he picked up his merchandise, strolled some blocks and stashed them near an apartment house close to the factory.  

Read this next part with appreciation it was the subplot of a destiny bitch-slap that yours truly was meant to stumble upon decades later. Just after 10 P.M. Briggs knocked on the side door at Cotton Products. All polite-like, he told the person who answered it that he’d like a brief word with his ex-boss. Nothing heavy. Nat, who’d been chatting with some floor workers as they rushed an order for Navy battleships, sighed when he heard you-know-who had reappeared. “What does he want now?” he mumbled. “I’ll be back, girls.” 

BOOT TIPS IN THE SILT

Nat Ross, my mother’s favorite uncle, already had enjoyed the sort of heartbreak-to-fame feel-good story upon which legacies are wired when Briggs asked to see him that evening. Many are crowned a wunderkind in the breathy hyperbole of our showbiz town. Few, however, lived the archetype like him. And if Nat had a fondness for men named Maurice, it might’ve been due to its familiar ring.

He was born in teeming San Francisco in June 1904 as the middle child of Maurice and Sonya “Dearie” Rosenberg. Seattle would’ve been safer place for him. When the monster earthquake pancaked the Bay Area two years later, killing thousands and destroying more than three-quarters of the city, he barely survived it. Nat’s father had to jump from the stoop of their collapsing home with his toddler-son in his arms before they were buried under tons of debris. The quick action should’ve been celebrated. Instead it was lost in the cold.

Despite hailing from an affluent, industrial family with a home on Nob Hill, little assistance was provided to Maurice because his relatives were livid that he’d wed a commoner, pretty, plump and vivacious as she was. Natural disasters, it turns out, can sway crystal chandeliers, just not stubborn heads from nouveau riche money beneath them. So Nat, his older sister, Rose (my maternal grandmother), her baby brother, Harold, and their parents made do. For a year, they supposedly lived in a tent in Golden Gate Park with other people made instant indigents by tectonic convulsions.

Unable to see a future there after being snubbed for emergency cash, Maurice fixed his gaze on the American Southwest, where a relative he liked had relocated to El Paso. That vision was a catalyst. The industrious, gregarious Maurice packed everybody up, got out of California and went into business with him in Texas. Within a few years, the transition was complete. Maurice had reinvented himself into a prosperous merchant selling commodities and used goods from a store. 

El Paso, though within shouting distance of the Mexican Revolution across the border, brought his family money, shelter and a driver in an age when cars were crank-started “machines” and men combed waxy, handlebar moustaches. Sometimes, Maurice’s buddy, Franciso “Pancho” Villa, would drop by the home on Montana Street for laughs and drinks when he wasn’t otherwise occupied on raids in places like Tierra Blanca and Chihuahua.

Maurice’s second life in Texas was going aces until J.E. Mullen, a young, dark-eyed entrepreneur, breezed into the shop. Mullen was selling animal hides at a low cost. Interested? All Maurice had to do was drive with him to a clearing to inspect the hides. Four days later, in February 1915, workers trenching a ditch along the Rio Grande River discovered Maurice’s boots protruding from the silt and then the mutilated, bullet-riddled corpse attached to them. My great-grandfather was 36.

Identified as the leading suspect, Mullen was chased by Villa’s security men by car on dusty back roads. After he gave them the slip, he fled to Juarez, Mexico, where police tracked him to a boardinghouse and arrested him. Back across the border he was sent and into the arms of El Paso detectives. Prosecutors charged Mullen, 21, with murder. Pinning down his motive was something else. Why, detectives asked, would a lowlife arms dealer selling munitions to both sides of Mexico conflict bother baiting a stranger into a deadly trap. If Mullen was after Maurice’s jewelry, why had he only lifted some baubles, like a gold-encrusted watch, while leaving others? Had Mullen panicked in a robbery-gone-wrong, or was he part of a conspiracy – one involving a personal vendetta or even Villa — to stage it that way?  

The trial, sensationalized lickety-split by the newspapers as the most twisted murder case in El Paso history, was the hot ticket in town. People elbowed each other to secure courtroom seats to hear the evidential particulars. How the victim was forced to dig his own grave. Maurice’s wealthy status and his macabre end at the hands of shadowy, cocky Mullen was raw titillation. One of the District Attorney’s star witnesses, a 14-year-old girl among the last people to see Maurice alive, hyped interest more. Pointing at the defendant in his blue serge shirt, she said, “He left with that man (over there) and I did not see him again until his body was found.”

So cosmically annihilated was she after her testimony that someone had to escort her to another city to recover. That “girl” was my future grandmother. 

The electrifying scene ended with a guilty conviction and a sentence of 35-years-to-life, but no death penalty, for the man friends called “Red.” He’d been shamelessly indifferent during the proceedings, chewing gum, smoking a briar pipe and resting his legs flippantly on a chair, and he was just as detached after the verdict. He declined to appeal the ruling, saying he was “no fool,” whatever that meant. His motive stayed a mystery.

UNCLE CARL’S CAMERA BOY

Maurice’s widow, Sonya, now had three children care for, virtually no work experience and not much sympathy from her husband’s wealthy kin in San Francisco. The only compass point that made sense was northwest, where her older brother, actor Alexander Carr, performed on the Broadway stage with a foghorn voice. Once they arrived, Carr subsidized their living expenses in a cramped Brooklyn apartment. Even so, compared to where they’d been, New York was frigid, squalid, unwelcoming and bitterly anti-Semitic. Her family’s conversion from to Christian Science – Rosenberg becoming Ross — only made their hardscrabble existence marginally better. 

But it didn’t have to be this dispiriting, suggested Sonya’s eldest son, Nat, now about 13. He was capable of bringing money home in his father’s absence. Missing some school to contribute toward the rent was a noble tradeoff. Though no one knows he did it, Nat persuaded Lewis Selznick, a Russian émigré who’d chartered a feature film and distribution company called World Pictures, to be his reception clerk. He parlayed that starter-job to a better one with Stanley Maustbaum’s theater chain. Well on his way before he could vote, he became assistant manager director of New York’s Strand Theatre and from there, an East Coast film salesman for an outfit called Universal Pictures.

Come 1920, the eager beaver had switched coasts to be at Universal’s 230-acre lot astride the Cahuenga Pass, where silent films, serials and newsreels were pumped out en masse. Nat, who stood 5’8” with penetrating blue eyes, short-cropped, curly black hair and an imagination that matched his ambition, longed to be a storyteller. In dues-payment before he could get behind a camera, he became personal assistant to studio founder Carl Laemmle. Some film sites contend that Laemmle was Nat’s uncle, which is news to my current generation. Others suggest there was so much nepotism in Hollywood then that Laemmle was everybody’s “Uncle Carl.”

Nat’s vim and vigor and knack for learning things on the fly dazzled Laemmle, whether he was Nat’s relation, mentor or both. In the lad he spotted executive material to be one of the Universal’s first leaders. Laemmle discerned the same potential in one of Nat’s early L.A. roommates, who the studio hired straight from high school. Sometimes Nat and Irving Thalberg would have supper with Nat’s mother, who he’d brought out from Brooklyn. After a dose of palace intrigue over the right cadre to groom, Thalberg was promoted to management while Ross bowed out. He’d rather earn his stripes as a writer-director than sitting in an office. 

During the Roaring Twenties, he called the shots for more than 50 Universal films, the bulk of them silent Westerns, romantic comedies and madcap sports’ sendoffs. In 1922’s “The Galloping Kid,” he directed cowboy star Hoot Gibson. The next year he oversaw “The Ghost Patrol,” a short written by Sinclair Lewis. His cachet rising as one of Hollywood bright young talents, Nat next oversaw episodes of the boxing series “The Leather Pushers.” In 1926’s “April Fool,” about a hapless pants-presser, Nat cast himself in a role and used his uncle, Alexander Carr, as the lead. In that same year he led production of “Two Can Play” about the daughter of a wealthy financier and her two competing suitors. The heroine actress was a tortured beauty that Helena Bonham Carter could play today in a biopic. Clara Bow was Hollywood’s sexualized “It Girl” — and someone grateful Nat believed in her. Three years later came his most commercial movie, 1929’s “College Love,” about a university football star who took the blame for a drunken escapade the night before the big game. 

Nat’s storybook arc suddenly ran ashore as inspirationally as it took off. He filed for bankruptcy in July 1929. He barely escaped serious injury the next year when a team of horses frightened during filming brook loose and knocked over a 15-foot-high camera perch, sending Nat tumbling down an embankment in the hills of Killer Canyon near Universal. His life seemed to regain its buoyancy during the teeth of the Depression when he married actress-dancer Audrene Brier, who he’d met while directing her in a comedy. Nat by then was actor Jack Holt’s manager and a producer for Universal. Yet something soon happened, perhaps a falling out with Laemmle himself. Nat and his wife moved from Longden Avenue in Van Nuys to England to produce films for Columbia and MGM. On the eve of World War II, they came home. 

Nat was now co-owner and one of the superintendents at Cotton Product with a plan in place – literally in his trouser pocket — to return to the craft that enlivened his blood. He had a paunch now and receding black hair and yet his face held on to its youthful earnestness. But February 24, 1941, when Maurice Briggs rapped on the door of Cotton Products asking to speak with him, was destiny’s way of ridiculing human plans while oxygenating distant generations.

LEAD DESTINY

As Nat grudgingly approached the man who’d assaulted his pregnant wife, Briggs reached for something behind the door. A .25-.35-caliber Winchester rifle was in his arms. Before Nat could snatch it away, Briggs pointed the rifle at his chest and fired at his target from point-blank range. Nat screamed a ghastly scream, collapsing onto the factory floor. According to some accounts, he lay there moaning, not long for this world, when Briggs fired an insurance shot into him. The butchery had happened wordlessly.

Twenty-five employees watched the execution. Some ran with clattering shoes into the bathroom. Others fainted or shrieked. Plant worker Frank Anderson raced over to disarm the gunman, but Briggs aimed the Winchester at him with a deranged smile that implied, “Don’t even think about it.” Job done, Briggs tranquilly exited the property, walked two blocks to Olive and Seventeenth streets and chucked the Winchester onto a vacant lot like it was an empty Budweiser bottle. When a passerby asked him what he was doing, Briggs, clad in a sport coat and black T-shirt, was honest. “Oh, I just killed a guy,” he said. “Better call the cops.” LAPD officers clapped handcuffs around him not far away. They paraded him in front of Cotton Products, too, where Briggs paused before his wife. “You won’t need,” he said, “to get a divorce now.”

In the commotion that ensued, Ross’ slaying became a tabloidesque feeding-trough for L.A.’s dog-eat-dog newspapers. Workplace violence was rare, and this homicide sparkled with Hollywood angles, a dashingly defiant suspect and beautiful women in the center, movie-noir all of it. “EX-PRODUCER OF FILMS SLAIM BY EMPLOYEE,” the L.A. Times’ read. “NAT ROSS SLAIN BY DISCHARGED WORKER,” said Variety. “JEALOUS HUSBAND KILLS’ WIFE’S BOSS,” blared the Examiner

“Why did I do it?” Ross was asked from the LAPD’s Central Jail at the beginning of the spectacle. “Because I didn’t like him. That ought to be enough.” Sure, sure, but he was repentant, remorseful, the cops and media wanted to know? A human life, after all, had been deleted. “Am I sorry I did it?” Briggs famously gloated. “Yeah, I’m sorry I can’t do it again! I’m ready for gas or whatever they give you in California.” 

His sick bravado after he was booked earned him another wicked, front-page story in the Times. ‘SUSPECT IN MAN’S KILLING QUOTED AS HAVING NO REGRET.” Originally, he’d planned to kill Nat with his own hands until he’d decided, “it’d be too much trouble.” He’d wanted to shoot him ten days earlier, but hadn’t had the money to acquire a gun and ammo. A photograph of him that accompanied one article depicted the stocky Briggs with the self-satisfied smile of a World Series winner and a face, you’d swear, chiseled from a Justin Timberlake ancestor. 

Briggs’ motives were as one-dimensional as his sadism. Hatred. He was “suspicious” that his married, ex-boss was having an affair with his wife after they’d separated. Even if he wasn’t, Briggs didn’t appreciate the “attentions” Nat showed her, nor his assistance ending the pregnancy, nor anything about him, really. Betty Susan Briggs was emphatic that she was not sleeping with Nat. Brier herself was indignant at the notion her husband of five years was unfaithful. Come on. If he’d wanted to philander, he knew plenty of Hollywood starlets. But he wasn’t that sort of fella. The District Attorney concurred, saying there was “no evidence” that Nat was “in any way to blame.” 

Journalists and movie columnists clamored to get interviews with his widow, who’ soon move to Europe. Through sobs – and probably tranquilizers – from a friend’s Beverly Hills home, Brier was at a loss to explain how such a gentle soul wound up with a bullet hole in it. “He was the kindest man I ever knew – a man who helped hundreds get their start (in Hollywood) and said that there is good in everyone if only you can bring it out …” Brier said. “He often remarked that violence never accomplished anything.” 

As events show, my great uncle was wrong in his view about the futility of bloodshed. It’d achieved his death by the same man to whom he’d shown crates of compassion. It’d been Nat, Brier explained, who had “pleaded” to get Briggs his job at Cotton Products, probably with the other part owner, Joseph Rosenberg, one of Nat’s San Francisco relations. It’d been Nat willing to bring him back until Briggs’ wild, alcoholic behavior doomed him. Now this?

Briggs, still riding bravado and a “dispassionate” veneer, refused to testify at the coroner’s inquest on Feb. 27, 1941. “Nothing,” he said, “can incriminate me that isn’t already down on paper.” The District Attorney subsequently charged him with murder with malice aforethought and remanded him to County jail without bail. This was not his first rodeo behind bars. Not that anyone from Cotton Products had known it beforehand. As a teenager, Briggs had served time in Connecticut for felony breaking and entering and in South Carolina three years after that for felony bank robbery.

Whatever the premeditated nature of his crime, Briggs pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity so the gas chamber he’d welcomed before would not book his reservation. Unsurprisingly, that sneering swagger and delight with his gory handiwork had evaporated when his trial under Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles W. Fricke commenced four months after the shotgun echoes. 

Briggs testified that he’d pulled the trigger less because he loathed the victim and more out of suicidal depression. But why had he pre-planted the rifle at Cotton Products? Why had he mowed down Nat and not himself? Briggs, the cowardly avenger, sputtered an answer. “When I definitely learned that she wasn’t going to be a mother, I bought a rifle to kill myself. I remember going to the factory with the gun. I shot (Nat), but I certainly hadn’t intended to.” Crazy people do irrational things. A few days later, the panel of three women and nine men announced their verdict. “GAS CHAMBER DEATH VOTED JEALOUS SLAYER,” the Times headline said. Other than gulping once when he heard the sentence, the accused was stoic. Trial observers heard him whistling as he was led away from the courtroom. 

The second trial phase automatically kicked off using the same jury to ascertain if Briggs was insane during the murder and thus not responsible. He wanted them to know he was sorry. That he’d “never learned to control his emotions.” That his comment to police about wishing to re-commit the murder harkened from self-anger to make “everything look as bad for myself as I could.” Unlike before, Briggs looked “deathly pale” in court. Rightly. Three alienists testified that he was “entirely sane” throughout his entire debauchery. Briggs’s bid to yank the jurors’ heartstrings had yanked air.  

CYANIDE DREAMS

Judge Fricke sentenced him “to death” on Aug. 7, 1941. Briggs immediately appealed to the California Supreme Court, citing errors with jury instructions, legal interpretations and the verdict itself. The appeal was tossed out in March 1942. In May, the judge signed the death warrant for a state execution in July at the state’s oldest prison in San Marin in north San Francisco Bay. San Quentin was ready for him.

When it came to murder sentences in our grandparents’ eon, Golden State justice felt a little like modern Texas. Capital punishment was incorporated into the penal code in the rough-and-tumble 1870s and county sheriffs were assigned to carry it out in their own jurisdictions. After 1891, the job was transferred from men with badges on their shirts to prison wardens at San Quentin and Folsom. The ultimate punishment, officials understood, required exacting professionalism. Execution by poisonous inhalation, which replaced hanging as the official procedure for government execution, was inaugurated in late 1938. Close to 200 inmates would be gassed at a facility one writer likened to “an antiseptic form of hell” before lethal injection became Lady Justice’s way.

If you were on death row in Briggs’ time, you probably wouldn’t grow arthritic there. While Hollywood melodramas played up eleventh-hour reprieves from the Governor’s office, the reality was a fairly steady use of the gas chamber to mete out punishment, especially for homicides involving kidnapping and cop-killers. Change would soon blow. A reverberating 1972 California Supreme Court ruling that the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the state constitution halted executions. The decision, which the U.S. Supreme Court backed the following year, whisked 107 people off death row. It’d take until 1992 — 15 years after California voters approved a sweeping capital punishment law opposed by former state Supreme Justice Rose Bird and other liberal jurists —before another condemned man would exhale his last breath on the public dime. By the point California’s death penalty was reinstated, the criminal justice landscape was far more polarized and complex, oiled by lawsuit-happy interest groups, victims’-rights organizations and DNA testing that freed dozens of innocent people. 

But none of that was in play for the man who cancelled Nat Ross’ life just as it was starting to re-bloom. Briggs’ last hope was for a pardon or commutation of his sentence by Governor Culbert Olson, a New Deal Democrat elected in 1939. In a formal statement to Olson’s staff, Briggs sought human forgiveness from a world that never much appreciated him. At 3, he said, his parents “deserted” at an abusive orphanage. At 13, he’d gone to live with a farmer until he died and Briggs lived form place to place, so malnourished he was willing to break into a food store or associate himself with bank robbers. Released from prison, he heard his father was stationed in Washington-state and came out to see him. From there he dipped south to L.A.

The State Advisory Board agreed to review his application for executive clemency. Gov. Olson must’ve wondered whether Briggs’s past infected his head, whether his environment made him a killer, because on July 8, 1942 he granted Briggs a 30-day reprieve. At the end of it, Briggs had exhausted his legal avenues. He had to eat his infamous words along with his terror. Much like Gary Gilmore, the double murderer who thirty years later was executed by firing squad in Utah, Briggs had bluntly said he’d rather meet his maker on the state clock than rot away in a cinder-block box. Wish granted!

The doors of the San Quentin gas chamber were sealed airtight on August 7 when he “calmly” entered it. The former Cotton Products washing machine foreman glanced around at the witnesses assembled for his state execution and, unrepentant to the end, mock-saluted them with an arm that the prison guards had neglected to strap down. Minutes later, after authorities fixed their oversight, the cyanide pellets were dropped, and Briggs’ little goodbye became his last act.

You might be wondering after digesting all this how Nat’s blood relations reacted to the drip-drip coverage. Hard as it is to believe, they emotionally covered their eyes and plugged their ears. Nobody can remember them stepping foot in the courtroom to eyeball Briggs, nor where they quoted in any story or a witness at San Quentin. 

Nat’s big sister (my grandmother, Rose Zahler) had already experienced a snoot-full of personal loss in a hugely publicized trial as a key witness in her father’s murder in 1915 El Paso. Besides, when Briggs did his deed, my grandmother and her only son, Gordon, who Nat adored, had their own problems. That’s because 14-year-old Gordon was fighting for his life with metal tongs drilled into his skull at County General Hospital in East L.A. after a horrific Pasadena junior-high gymnastic accident broke his neck (and nearly decapitated him) in October 1940. Ever since, his mother had been at his bedside trying not to accept doctor’s prognoses that her boy would most certainly die while her husband, veteran Hollywood composer Lee Zahler, tried frantically to pay the medical bills. 

Had my grandmother been at the hospital when Briggs unleashed his bullets at Cotton Products, she might’ve sensed the vibration a short four miles away across the L.A. River. She’d now lost her father and brother to murderers, and she dealt with it by dwelling on the darkness as little as possible and trying to serve others.  

Years back, I took it upon myself to untangle the killings’ misconceptions from their verifiable facts, to crack open the crust of family repression that refused to give the fallen men the sunshine, I felt, their heroism deserved. When I took the birds-eye view of what I’d unearthed, I was aghast at the parallel lines. Maurice Rosenberg and his son, Nat Ross, were both murdered at the same age (36), during the same month (February) by men who hoodwinked them in similar fashions almost exactly a generation apart. My age when I discovered the non-coincidence: 36. 

Once I finally shook off my own paranoia that I’d researched my way into the family curse that either killed its most promising men or cut them off cruelly from their dreams, an epiphany set me straight. Gordon, the emaciated quadriplegic and former rascal of his hometown Sierra Madre, miraculously made it out of County General and eventually to Hollywood, where despite not feeling a thing from the neck down, ran a successful post-production company, hobnobbed with famous celebrities, married and damn near brought television to apartheid-gripped South Africa. Told he’d die within weeks of his accident, he lived 35 years. 

Somehow, the cosmos’ plot-points dictated that Gordon should be our family’s breakthrough figure precisely because of his ridiculous survival, because able-bodied Maurice and his son had dropped long before they hit old age. Nat’s murder by bloodthirsty vendetta was, thus, one agonizing clip of his own fruitful journey through the ether. Our creator had to have planned every molecule of it, because the alternative is unbearable. Do you know what the LAPD found in Nat’s trouser pocket when they inspected his corpse? It was a contract, a contract to return to moviemaking, as if his life wasn’t already cinematic enough.