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Will Fowler, first journalist to cover 'Black Dahlia' case

LOS ANGELES - Will Fowler, an author and veteran Los Angeles newsman who was thought to be the first reporter on the scene of the infamous ``Black Dahlia'' murder case, has died. He was 81.

Mr. Fowler, the son of famed newspaperman, screenwriter, and biographer Gene Fowler and one of the last links to the Hollywood of W. C. Fields and John Barrymore, died of prostate cancer Tuesday at Providence St. Joseph's Medical Center in Burbank.

On Wednesday, his daughter, Jenny Gene Fowler Adler, faxed the Los Angeles Times a succinct, two-page obituary that her father had written five years ago.

``He was very prepared,'' she said. ``That's what happens when you're a writer - you write your own obituary.''

As Mr. Fowler reviewed his long and colorful life, he came up with what he deemed the most significant piece of information about himself in the lead paragraph: ``Reporter-author Will Fowler, who withdrew as a cofounder of the Greater Los Angeles Press Club in 1947 because famed female city editor Agness Underwood was refused membership in the then all-male organization, died.''

But in the second paragraph Mr. Fowler hits on what others might consider his greatest claim to fame in Los Angeles journalism. As a reporter for the Los Angeles Examiner covering ``gangland crime and Hollywood love-triangle stories,'' he said he was the first reporter on the scene of the ``Black Dahlia'' case, thus scooping the competition.

In 1947, the mutilated body of Elizabeth Short, a 22-year-old unemployed cashier and waitress, was found in a vacant lot in southwest Los Angeles.

Mr. Fowler later included the unsolved case in the 1991 book ``Reporters: Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman.''

Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Smith, who once worked with Mr. Fowler, called it ``the book every newspaper reporter of the late 1940s and early 1950s meant to write but didn't. Now Fowler has.''

In the book, Mr. Fowler explained that he and a photographer were returning from another news story when they heard a police broadcast directing cops to the vacant lot west of Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

As they approached the body before the police arrived, Mr. Fowler called to his photographer, ``Jesus, Felix! This woman's cut in half!''

``Both halves were facing upward,'' Mr. Fowler wrote. ``Her arms were extended above her head. Her translucent blue eyes were only half-opened, so I closed her eyelids.''

In a 1984 column recalling their early newspaper days, Smith recalled that Mr. Fowler ``kept a pint of whisky in his desk just for the tour groups that occasionally came into the city room.''

``Shouting `Copy boy!' to get their full attention, Will would yank open his desk drawer, pull out the bottle, raise it high, take a snort, draw the back of his hand across his mouth, shout, `Aaghh!' shudder, replace the bottle, and go back to his typewriter. He liked to please people.''

Hal Steward, a former Los Angeles Examiner and San Diego Union reporter who knew Mr. Fowler, told the Times Wednesday that Mr. Fowler ``was an outgoing guy and a very generous man. He was always willing to help people, particularly young writers and journalists.''

Also, Steward recalled, ``He was a great guy at the bar, a great raconteur. He had unlimited stories about his days as a reporter.''

Not to mention his days writing songs, managing the Southern California public relations campaign for Senator Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential run, and working as a publicist and interim publicity director at 20th Century-Fox Television.

Born in Jamaica, N.Y., in 1922, Mr. Fowler moved with his family to Hollywood in the mid-1930s. He attended Beverly Hills High School and became an accomplished pianist-composer.

At 17, he first presented his piano-orchestra composition, ``American Nocturn,'' broadcast on CBS radio. He later wrote numerous songs, including ``He's So Married,'' which was recorded by Doris Day in 1959.

After serving in the Coast Guard during World War II, Mr. Fowler joined the Los Angeles Examiner in 1944 as a cub reporter. Having never attended college, Mr. Fowler said, ``I received my Ph.D. in the city rooms and on the streets of LA.''

He left the newspaper business in 1952 and spent one season writing for ``The Red Skelton Show.'' He spent the next six years as a public relations representative for American Airlines and in 1959 became news director for KTTV, Channel 11, in Los Angeles.

His time at KTTV was short-lived. After Gene Fowler's death in 1960, Will Fowler left KTTV to write a biography of his father, "The Young Man From Denver,'' which became a bestseller.

Mr. Fowler, whose play "Julius Castro'' was produced off-Broadway in 1961, later worked with playwright William Luce in the creation of the 1996-97 Broadway hit, "Barrymore,'' which earned its star, Christopher Plummer, a Tony Award.

Among Mr. Fowler's books is "The Second Handshake,'' a 1980 chronicle of his years growing up with his famous father. The title came from the fact that whenever Mr. Fowler was introduced to someone as Will Fowler he typically got a weak handshake. But when it was pointed out that he was Gene Fowler's son, he would get a second, more firm and hearty handshake.

Adler said her father was proud of being the son of the flamboyant Gene Fowler, the onetime Hearst newspaper reporter and top editor, who became a highly paid Hollywood screenwriter - a man whose friends included Fields, Barrymore, James Cagney, William Faulkner, and Ben Hecht.

Will Fowler grew up in that heady atmosphere. He was Jack Dempsey's godson, and he called Fields "Uncle Claude.''

"I was the only child W. C. Fields was endeared to, because Pop allowed me to sip martinis while in the comedian's company,'' Mr. Fowler wrote in a 1968 reminiscence for the Times.

When Barrymore died, Mr. Fowler rode to the funeral with his Uncle Claude in the back of Fields's chauffeur-driven, bar-equipped 16-cylinder Cadillac. Fields, working up a sweat in his black woolen suit, wasn't happy about the prospect of being a pallbearer for his old friend.

"The time to carry a man,'' he told young Mr. Fowler, ``is when he's still alive.''

In addition to Adler, Mr. Fowler leaves his four other children, Willie, Michael, Claudia, and Kiku; 16 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

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