STYLE ICON: Vera West

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Although Vera West’s name isn’t as recognizable as those of some other costume designers working in Hollywood, she was nevertheless highly prolific, designing the gowns for almost 400 Universal Studios films during the period between 1928 and 1946 — including Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Working mainly in the horror and mystery genres, her most famous designs are Ava Gardner’s single-strapped black dress in The KIllers (1946) and Elsa Lanchester’s costume in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

Little is known about West’s early life; however, she there are records of her attendance at the Philadelphia Institute of Design. Following her graduation, West worked at an atelier owned by the famous Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon (who worked under the professional name “Lucile.”

Sometime in the mid-1920s, West hastily packed up and moved from New York to California. There are rumors about her move — a crime, an illicit affair, or an illegitimate child — have never been substantiated, but whatever drove her from New York was serious enough to dog her footsteps for the rest of her life.

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West did well in Hollywood and was named head costume designer at Universal in 1927. She provided the costumes for every female lead Universal’s golden era (The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and The Wolf Man, and all of their sequels!). West’s last film at Universal was in 1946. At that point West left the studio and opened a boutique in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

On June 29, 1947, West, dressed in a nightgown, was discovered floating in the pool behind her North Hollywood home. The police found two notes in West’s bedroom: “This is the only way. I am tired of being blackmailed,” and “The fortuneteller told me there was only one way to duck the blackmail I’ve paid for 23 years — death.” At least one of these notes was scrawled on the back of a torn greeting card. Both notes were addressed to “Jack Chandler” and police surmised that they were intended for her husband, Jacques “Jack” C. West. An empty bottle of sleeping pills was also found in the house, but both Vera and Jack habitually used them.

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When questioned about the references to blackmail in the notes, Jack West denied knowing anything about the issue and later said that the blackmail was a figment of his wife’s imagination. He also reported that her health had not been good of late, she was subject to periods of depression, and had been emotionally upset. According to Jack, “she had threatened to do that many times before.”

He believed she had committed suicide as a result of their fight (on the night of her death) and her general ill health.

Police detectives looked into West’s case but it ultimately went cold. Her blackmailer was never found. Nor was her fortuneteller, even presuming they were two different people. I looked and couldn’t find even a trace of a story discussing the final autopsy report.

Soon after the case went stale, Jack West had the house and all buildings on the lot bulldozed, sold the land, and vanished. No further information can be found on him after 1947.