Books

Book review: A notorious unsolved Fairbanks murder is at the center of new book

“The Alaskan Blonde: Sex, Secrets, and the Hollywood Story that Shocked America,” by James Bartlett

“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 not in dispute. Early on the morning of Oct. 17, 1953, a badly beaten Diane Wells staggered out of her downtown Fairbanks apartment, awoke her neighbor, and explained that two masked men had gained entry into the unit she shared with her husband and attacked both of them. 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 gunshot wound to the head. His body indicated that he’d been sleeping when he was killed. No one heard the gun. A few things were missing from the apartment, but so little that a robbery gone awry seemed unlikely. Rumors that Cecil had at times been violent toward Diane and that Diane had been unfaithful to Cecil were supported by enough circumstantial evidence to have credence. And one of the men she was likely involved with, a Black musician named Johnny Warren, had left Fairbanks for Los Angeles that very night.

The killing, which involved wealth, sex, race and a rising federal district attorney named Ted Stevens, remains unsolved seven decades later. What might be most surprising is that it took this long for a book to be written about it.

Veteran journalist James Bartlett has accepted the challenge. Originally from Britain, he lives in Los Angeles, where some of the crucial scenes in this drama took place, including Diane’s suicide in a Hollywood hotel room. Bartlett grew 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, presented in the final chapter, but like all the other possible explanations, it requires filling in some blanks and lacks a smoking gun — the gun used in the murder was never found. And like many true crime books, this one shows how trauma from one violent event leaves lasting scars on survivors.

Cecil Wells was a wealthy businessman with numerous enterprises in Fairbanks. But while he did well in his professional life, his personal life was rocky. Diane was his fifth wife, and she was on her second marriage and had two abandoned daughters, personal details she kept under wraps, perhaps 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 poshest place in town to dwell — hard to believe now, but it’s true. The downtown Fairbanks social scene was active and, by Alaska standards at least, glittering in those giddy 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, with often tawdry coverage.

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Bartlett does a fine job of reconstructing the broken lives of Diane and Cecil and the Fairbanks they inhabited. He also explores the backgrounds of the numerous people possibly tied to the case. It’s too byzantine to summarize here, but suffice to say that the list of primary characters included at the outset of the book is handy, because it’s not easy keeping up. This isn’t Bartlett’s fault. There are simply so many players in this story that even investigators struggled to sort it all out.

Diane and Johnny emerged as early suspects. Within months, however, Diane had committed suicide — her autopsy revealed she had recently been pregnant; whether she miscarried or obtained an abortion is unknown, but this detail adds to the mysteries swirling around the case. Johnny, meanwhile, was never charged, though he wasn’t formally exonerated for seven years.

Another player was William Columbany. Originally from El Salvador, he was of mixed Latin American and Italian heritage, and was close to Diane, especially in the months between Cecil’s murder and her suicide. He was the only person ever tried and convicted in relation to the case, although it was for perjury, not murder.

Stevens remained convinced to his death that Diane and Johnny plotted the killing, but evidence Bartlett lays out makes Johnny an unlikely participant. Columbany’s possible involvement is harder to discount, as is Diane’s. Yet the city had already seen one fatal home invasion by two unknown assailants, and a nonfatal one followed, which lends support to 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 couldn’t have proven them in court. In 1950s America, there were many places where a Black man, a white woman, and a wealthy murdered husband would have resulted in the conviction and possible execution of the Black man regardless of what the facts indicated. That Stevens didn’t rush the case to trial suggests that while potential Fairbanks jurors likely harbored racist sentiments common for the time, they would still demand convincing evidence. That’s noteworthy.

The other thing, which Bartlett touches on near the end, is how intergenerational trauma from violence and fractured relationships can reverberate for decades. “Among the Wells, Warren and Columbany families,” he writes, “there are stories of orphanages, broken homes, divorce, estrangement, violence, abuse, mental illness, secrets, and suicide. With few exceptions, it seems like everyone who was touched by this case has suffered in some way.”

For all the lurid details that the media of the time dialed in on, there’s a human tragedy here reaching beyond those at its center. Murder does permanent damage to many more people than just the victim. And while Bartlett’s writing style is more reportorial than literary — he is a reporter after all — he tells that story well. These were troubled, deeply flawed human beings. It didn’t end well for most of them.

David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based critic and freelance writer. He can be reached at nobugsinak@gmail.com.

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