A Ladder of Dreams

Sgt. Joe Friday of the Los Angeles Police Department was a hopeless square.

As he went about his job of interviewing witnesses or persons of interest, we could watch his eyes narrow with suspicion when an apartment door opened to reveal, say, a bearded man with a headband and a tie-dyed tee, the sort of person who smacked of a counter-culture ideology that collided with Friday's own deeply-rooted middle class values of decency, an honest day’s work, and conventional grooming.  After listening to the crazed musings of the occasional unrepentent hippie or strident neo-nazi, Friday sometimes couldn’t help letting loose with a stern, gravel-voiced lecture, always delivered at such a breathless clip that we could imagine him practicing it into a mirror every morning while knotting his tie.

In “The Big Make” a radio episode of Dragnet from 1950, as Friday and his partner investigate a robbery and shooting at a bakery run by an immigrant Swedish family, one of the cast members joining  Jack Webb at the microphone was Hollywood bit-player Greta Granstedt.  

The former starlet from Scandia, Kansas, was not the only “Greta” in the cast that day, though neither Ms. Granstedt nor Danish beauty Greta Thyssen was exactly showcased in the episode.  While none of the supporting cast is credited, my guess is that the 43-year-old Granstedt played the part of Mrs. Stendahl, whose lines are spoken in heavily accented and broken English.  Greta Thyssen, 25 years younger than the former Kansan, may have played the Stendahls’ daughter, or essayed the slightly meatier role of the young housewife who provides an alibi for the ex-con who is first suspected of the crime.

Twenty years earlier, the lovely and ambitious Ms. Granstedt had been exactly the sort of free spirit who might have received a tongue-lashing from the no-nonesense police sergeant.

A poem contributed by the future actress to the Mountain View High School annual when she was still Irene Granstedt, not yet the delinquent banished from town for shooting her boyfriend, reveals that clouds were already swirling about the young teenager's head. 

"I build a ladder made of dreams
That reaches to my star;
From the height
It seems,
An earth dream drifted far!"

The landmark shooting occurred in 1922, four months before Irene turned fifteen, and around the same time Theo Granstedt, younger than his sister by two years, ran away from home.  Theo was soon reunited with his family but took off again a few years later, adopting the name of pirate captain Henry Morgan and shipping out to sea.  By 1927 he was rooming with Irene in San Francisco, in an apartment they shared briefly with Bessie Haley, a student at the California School of Fine Arts, where the young Granstedts earned extra money as life models.  They were the hippies of their day, iconoclasts drawn to the Bohemian culture in San Franciso.  As the late Ted Granstedt, Theo’s son, told writer Brad Dimock, “Those two were doing things that just weren’t socially acceptable.  They were pushing the edge of society.”

When I contacted Greta’s nephew Patrick Moore to ask his permission to use a photo of his grandmother, Emma Granstedt, he suggested that I look at Dimock's 2001 book Sunk Without a Sound.  There is a fascinating chapter on Greta and Theo, though they are only fleeting characters in the tale of the mysterious disappearance of Bessie Haley and her new husband Glen Hyde, during the couple’s apparently fatal attempt to run the Colorado River while on their honeymoon in 1928.  The Hydes had planned to enjoy a grand adventure together, one which would put Bessie in the spotlight as the first woman to navigate the river's treacherous rapids.  They would photograph every mile of their trip and keep a detailed journal, then write a book about the feat and spend the next few years showing slides and recounting their story to rapt audiences on the lecture circuit.

Like her friend Bessie, Irene Granstedt was hoping for a fast rise to fame and riches.  Besides shooting Harold Galloway and spending a stint in reform school, Greta had already squeezed in two marriages, both annulled, all before she turned eighteen and began posing nude for art students to help pay the rent.  She changed her name twice, first calling herself Eraine before settling on Greta, took acting lessons, auditioned for parts in local theatre, and had publicity photos made.  In the most-familiar shots of young Greta, she either stares demurely downward or lifts her head high and turns sideways, as if reluctant to face the camera head-on.    

Viewed in profile, the five-foot one-inch actress cut a pixyish figure, suggesting the art deco chrome hood ornament of a classic car.  She might give the photographer a come-hither sidelong glance, but only after smearing on enough mascara to thrill silent-screen siren Theda Bara.  Much as Greta wanted her eyes to smolder with romance and mystery, they just didn’t.  Instead, they sparkled with an impish sense of fun.  

Her strong suit was light comedy, as she demonstrates in They Never Come Back, a boxing picture with Regis Toomey, who is remembered by some of us for providing one of the cast names in Johnny Carson’s recurring “Teatime Movie” bits.  We have to wonder whether Greta drew on her time looking after Theo for the scene, shown below, in which she alternates between doing housework and getting Toomey to pitch in, while giving him a pep talk.  When I explain to someone who Greta Granstedt was, this is the scene I usually play for them.  

While Greta never became the sizzling screen siren she dreamed of being, she definitely generated more than her share of Hollywood gossip, and managed to make a living in motion pictures, radio and television, for more than half a century.  

An inch shorter than the diminutive Greta, Bessie Haley Hyde was just as eager to scurry up her own ladder of dreams, perhaps because she needed to make up for lost time.  Bessie had married and divorced a young man and apparently either had a child with him or ended the pregnancy shortly before moving in with the Granstedts.  Instead of a single poem in the school annual, Bessie composed an entire volume of poetry, which remained unpublished during her lifetime.   According to the most popular version of her story, she ran into adventurer Glen Hyde while accompanying Greta to Los Angeles on a party boat that sashayed into international waters where the booze could flow freely all night long.  

In the end, Glen and Bessie Hyde achieved the enduring fame they craved, but only posthumously, their story living on in several nonfiction books, a novel, a musical, and a Ken Burns documentary.  The Hydes' homemade scow was found drifting in the Grand Canyon on December 6, 1928, fully loaded with their gear.  Their bodies were never discovered.  

Sgt. Joe Friday could have told them things might turn out that way for young people in a hurry.

© Dale Switzer 2016  dale@lovewellhistory.com