On the evening of September 8, 1935, a car on California’s Pacific Coast Highway crossed over into a lane of oncoming traffic, hitting two cars. One person was killed at the scene and two others died from their injuries soon afterward. Those killed were Ada Von Brieson, her son William Von Brieson, and Dorothea Daly.
Five survivors were injured – including the driver of the car that crossed the lane. That driver was Busby Berkeley, already famous for his work as a choreographer in movie musicals. Just before the crash, he had attended a party at the residence of Warner Brothers Production Chief William Koenig.
In the collision’s immediate aftermath, Berkeley got out of his car. William A. Hudson, who had been driving home when Berkeley struck Hudson’s car, later testified in court that he, Hudson, pulled friend Clarence Burtless, Jr. from Hudson’s car and placed Burtless on the pavement. Hudson recalled, “As I straightened up from bending over [Burtless], there was Mr. Berkeley, looking down on him.” Hudson also said that Berkeley’s “face was covered with blood from a cut over the eye. He wore a linen suit and appeared dazed.”
Although Berkeley was initially charged with manslaughter, a judge raised the charge to second-degree murder because of the allegations that Berkeley had been drunk and speeding. Berkeley biographer Jeffrey Spivak noted, “An extremely possible sentence of life imprisonment hung over [Berkeley’s] head.”
Berkeley’s life before this tragedy had been one of great success. He was born on November 29, 1895 in Los Angeles, California to Francis Berkeley, a stage director and actor, and Gertrude Berkeley, an actress. The family moved to New York City when Busby was three. The child made his stage acting debut when he only five. Young Busby suffered a major heartbreak as a child when his Dad died.
According to Shawn Dwyer at tcm.com, “Berkeley enlisted in the army during World War I, serving as a second lieutenant in the artillery where he found himself conducting trick parade drills for as many as 1,200 men and training as an aerial observer – two experiences that clearly shaped his approach to dance on film.”