A child star at 7, in prison at 22. Then he disappeared. What happened to Lora Lee Michel? (2023)


When Leslie Hannah and her sister were children, their aunt, Lora Lee Michel, appeared to them as a spectral figure, becoming real only when she appeared on screen.

Child actress in the 1940s, Lora Lee at age 7 was heralded as a "sensation" with "the biggest attraction since Shirley Temple". He has appeared in over a dozen films, sharing the screen with Humphrey Bogart, Glenn Ford and Olivia de Havilland.

“We were watching TV and there were these movies that Lora Lee was on and my mom would call and show them to us,” Hannah said. "It's her. You can hear his voice!"

But Lora Lee was a shooting star, one that would fall quickly.


At age 9, during the height of his celebrity, he was at the center of a scandalous custody trial that made headlines and captured the nation's imagination. This set off a chain of events that not only brought his promising career to a halt, but also led to the unraveling of his life.

Shortly before her 10th birthday, a judge ordered Lora Lee to leave Hollywood and return to Texas.

At age 22, he ended up in a federal prison.

Then she disappeared.

A child star at 7, in prison at 22. Then he disappeared. What happened to Lora Lee Michel? (1)

Lora Lee Michel in Schulenburg, Texas, shortly before moving to Hollywood and shortly after being adopted.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times; Wright family)

A child star at 7, in prison at 22. Then he disappeared. What happened to Lora Lee Michel? (2)

Exhibition of the Historical Museum of Schulenburg dedicated to Lora Lee.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

“I've been looking for Lora Lee for about 55 years,” lamented Barbara Wright Isaacs, her only surviving sister. "I thought to myself, either she has to be dead or she doesn't want to be found."

Long before there were Britney Spears, Gary Coleman or Lindsay Lohan, there was Lora Lee Michel. A small-town girl with big Hollywood dreams caught in the showbiz vortex before there were many protections for child performers. Their story was a classic story of child stardom: the lovable moppet who made it once, but didn't live happily ever after. Her story, I soon discovered, was a parable that revealed the underbelly of Hollywood's Golden Age and the dangers faced by child actors. But it was also one family's search for answers and the buried secrets that eventually come to light.

A child star at 7, in prison at 22. Then he disappeared. What happened to Lora Lee Michel? (3)

All families have their stories. But for Wright Isaacs and his two daughters, their story was a ghost story.

“I don't think there was ever a time when I didn't know about Lora Lee,” Wright Isaacs' youngest daughter, Allison Wallace, 50, told me. “My mom talked about her all her life. I remember my mother crying, saying how much she wanted to find her sister and showing us pictures of her when we were little."


Last September, I traveled to Bandera, Texas, to the home of Hannah, 54, the eldest daughter of Wright Isaacs.

We sat in a room filled with Lora Lee movie memorabilia. Hannah pulled out a large three-ring binder filled with yellowed newspaper clippings from 75 years ago, as well as correspondence and photographs. There, under framed movie posters, Hannah and Wallace told the story of their once-famous aunt and the family's failed efforts to find her.

As they grew up, they began to understand the mythology that surrounded him. Wright Isaacs and Lora Lee were sisters, born into the same family but later adopted by two brothers. However, they have been apart for most of their lives.

For years, the family's search has turned up some leads, some clues, but mostly dead ends. “I don't think there was a moment when they weren't trying to find her,” Wallace said.

Hollywood is known for erasing people. But Wright Isaacs and her daughters refused to forget Lora Lee.

A child star at 7, in prison at 22. Then he disappeared. What happened to Lora Lee Michel? (4)

Lora Lee at an airport in Texas and a "normal childhood".

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times; Associated Press)

They knew the broad outlines of her life: the movies, the brief marriages, and the carjacking arrest that landed her in jail. But little else.


What they knew about Lora Lee was harrowing and dramatic. “I think everyone in her life just wanted to get what they could out of her,” Wallace said.

Wright Isaacs' memories of his sister were bittersweet and fragmented. She still has the doll her sister gave her in 1950. The autographed publicity photo, "Greetings from Hollywood to Barbara by Lora Lee," is framed.

In later years, Wright Isaacs, 78, simply wanted closure; Lora Lee would have turned 81.

“I wish I didn't worry about where [she] is or what happened to her or why she never tried to find me,” he said. “I'd really like to know if he's gone. If she is deceased. So maybe I can find myself resting in peace with her."

I took the folder.

While much of Lora Lee's early life has been well documented, after she left Hollywood there were major gaps in her life story.

Soon I was watching Lora Lee movies, digging through archives, flipping through old movie magazines, reading newspaper clippings, obituaries, bailiff records, court letters and documents. As an anthropologist, I started combing through genealogy reports and tracking down anyone who found her, trying to understand what they could tell me about who Lora Lee Michel was and what happened to her. Eventually I discovered the many hidden threads in her life.

A child star at 7, in prison at 22. Then he disappeared. What happened to Lora Lee Michel? (5)


I started early in Schulenburg, west of Houston, in the heart of the Texas Hill Country.

Hidden inside the Schulenburg Historical Museum in the former Wolters Mercantile is a small exhibition dedicated to Lora Lee. Photos and newspaper clippings that record his brilliant career are displayed among items that date back to the founding of the city by German immigrants 150 years ago: a horse-drawn cart, agricultural equipment, period clothing and 178 pieces of barbed wire.

Schulenburg, a sleepy railway hub, was where farmers and ranchers gathered to ship their cotton and hides. Today, people still refer to Schulenburg as "halfway to anywhere, in the middle of nowhere."

Lora Lee remains its most famous resident and its most enduring mystery.

A child star at 7, in prison at 22. Then he disappeared. What happened to Lora Lee Michel? (6)

Lora Lee's childhood home with her foster parents in Schulenburg, Texas.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Lora Lee Michel began life as Virginia Joy in 1940. She was born to Lena and Willie Walker Willeford in La Grange, a small town in the German belt of Texas located along the Colorado River. She was one of five, possibly six, children the couple had together.


Money was tight. Willie, known as "Red", worked as a truck driver, with an extra job at the local cotton company. He often drank and Lena often ran away.

“She was a runner,” Linda Robbins, one of her granddaughters, told me. "If she got too comfortable, she had to leave."

Their union inevitably fell apart.

When Virginia Joy was 5 years old, Otto Michel, a cotton broker, and his wife, Lorraine, adopted her and renamed her Lora Lee. The childless couple lived in Schulenburg. At 57 and 56, they were old enough to be their grandparents.

However, the story of Lora Lee's adoption has been told in many ways.

In one version, Lena Willeford left (some say with a Baptist minister) and left all her children with Red, who was unable to care for them. She sent the older ones to spend time with friends, but had the younger ones adopted. In another version, local children's services came in and removed the entire Willeford puppy, placing them with new families.

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Willie Walker Willeford, right, biological father of Lora Lee, in an undated photo.

(Linda Robbins)

The account that Lora Lee's adoptive mother, Lorraine Michel, gave to the press was that she first saw Lora Lee in a shop in Schulenburg. The two struck up a conversation and she learned of the family's difficulties. Michels, who had no children, had been raising a grandnephew since he was 6 years old, but he was serving in the US Army Signal Corps in Japan. “We were alone, and when I saw Lora in the store that day, I fell in love with her,” he told the New York Daily News in 1950.

“She was a raggedy child. We took her in and gave her a home, and she loved us like she was our own daughter. We love her too," said Otto Michel in a press release.

Otto's brother, Henry Michel, and his wife, Lillie, who lived in San Antonio, took in Lora Lee's younger sisters, Barbara Ann and Penny. They ended up adopting Barbara and sent Penny to a friend, who adopted her.

The house Barbara found herself in was perfectly ordinary and stark. But with Otto and Lorraine, Lora Lee has been catapulted into a world where childhood fantasies equal money.

Lora Lee was a bright, charismatic girl with warm brown eyes and a smile that could light up a room. Lorraine taught the girl to recite lullabies, she said, and Lora Lee did so with "sparkling charm".

Soon, Lora Lee was lighting up the stage at local pageants.

While performing at a Lions Club banquet in Schulenburg, he caught the attention of a group of Texas dignitaries, including Beauford Jester, then the Texas Railroad Commissioner, who would soon become the state's governor. One big shot was so impressed that he sent a telegram to the heads of Warner Bros. saying, "If you don't look at this kid, you're missing out on $1 million in Texas talent," the family told me.

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First discovered at a Lions Club banquet in Schulenburg in 1945, Lora Lee performed in plays, skits and parades in her hometown.

(Schulenburg Historical Museum)

A child star at 7, in prison at 22. Then he disappeared. What happened to Lora Lee Michel? (9)

Lora Lee performing a play at a Schulenburg Chamber of Commerce dinner in 1951.

(Schulenburg Historical Museum)

In 1946, a year after their adoption, Lora Lee and Lorraine arrived in Hollywood. They moved onto Crescent Heights Boulevard into an impressive French Norman-style apartment building that later housed Marilyn Monroe and Rock Hudson.

Otto stayed home to pay the "growing bills", according to a local report.

Lorraine encouraged Lora Lee's talents, enrolling her in dance classes and hiring a drama teacher, Texan Ona Wargin, who specialized in children.

Before long, Lora Lee began acting in television and radio dramas and plays. Within a few years, she appeared in "I Remember Mama" at the El Capitan Theater and in Clare Boothe Luce's "The Women" at the Key Theater.

Invited to sing and dance at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in front of 500 studio employees, Lora Lee ended the routine by sitting "on every lap of the place," her mother boasted in her hometown newspaper in 1948.

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Lora Lee in the 1948 film "Good Sam" with child actor Bobby Dolan Jr.

Lora Lee could offer as much charm as two or three minutes of uninterrupted dialogue. She landed her first major film role, playing Lulu, the daughter of Gary Cooper and Ann Sheridan, in the 1948 romantic comedy "Good Sam." She chose all 10 girls for the role, telling Leo McCarey, who previously directed the hit film "The Bells of St. Mary's," to "make up your mind so the other nine can go home," according to various media. 🇧🇷 reports.

A succession of casting coups followed.

Lora Lee began appearing in the kind of pulpy film noir that now runs regularly on classic movie channels such as “Mr. Touch Soft” with Glenn Ford. In 1950, he earned $100 a day, according to The Times, which is equivalent to about $1,150 today.


A spirited presence, her scenes with Humphrey Bogart in "Tokyo Joe" capture both her charm and her ability to hold the screen with a Hollywood icon.

VIDEO | 00:35

Lora Lee Michel em 'Tokyo Joe'

A child star at 7, in prison at 22. Then he disappeared. What happened to Lora Lee Michel? (11)

Child star Lora Lee Michel was a vivid presence in her scenes with Hollywood icon Humphrey Bogart in the 1949 film "Tokyo Joe."

In 1949, she played the spunky young version of Jill in "Mighty Joe Young", the story of a girl who lives on an African ranch with her father and raises an orphaned baby gorilla, which she later takes to Hollywood.

“She was stunning. She was fascinating. And every time I see the movie, I can't wait to see it," recalled Terry Moore, who played the adult Jill in the film, in a video interview with Leslie Hannah.

Moore, now 93, who was nominated for an Oscar for the 1952 film "Come Back, Little Sheba," added: . that I've seen in my life. He had what is called star power."

Schulenburg swelled with pride.

The town's only movie theater, the Cozy Theater, used to show a single film twice a week, but made an exception for Lora Lee films, giving them seven showings.


A child star at 7, in prison at 22. Then he disappeared. What happened to Lora Lee Michel? (13)

Lora Lee played Gary Cooper's daughter in the 1948 film "Good Sam".

(Wright family)

When "Good Sam" debuted, the local newspaper devoted a full-page article to the girl they called "a 7-year-old personality pack." In the accompanying photo, it looks like the entire town has turned up with a banner that reads: "Lora Lee Michel, Schulenburg's Own Movie Star."

At 80, Gus Breymann still remembers the emotion vividly. Generations of his family owned the Schulenburg Pharmacy. Breymann now lives in Michigan, but remembers how he and others used to drive past the Michelses' house.

“I think that was part of the surprise, that someone from that small German community could go to Hollywood and become a star as quickly as she did,” she said.

It wasn't long before Lora Lee started playing bigger roles in more ambitious films.

She appeared as the younger version of the emotionally fragile character played by Olivia de Havilland in "The Snake Pit". The 1948 film chronicles a woman's stay in a state psychiatric institution. Nominated for several Academy Awards, it is considered one of the first realistic treatments of mental illness.

A child star at 7, in prison at 22. Then he disappeared. What happened to Lora Lee Michel? (14)

Lora Lee in the 1948 film "The Snake Pit" with actress Natalie Schafer. Lora Lee played the younger version of Olivia de Havilland's character in the psychological drama.

(Wright family)

That same year, Lora Lee received top billing opposite Richard Denning and Frances Rafferty in the murder mystery "Lady at Midnight".


The film's studio, Eagle-Lion, focused its advertising campaign on Lora Lee. “This young woman has the charm and talent to make her one of the preeminent child stars on screen,” her promotional material proclaimed.

Numerous film reviews echoed the breathless treatment.

As a Screenland columnist previously stated, "If handled right, I wouldn't be surprised if she turns into another Shirley Temple."

A child star at 7, in prison at 22. Then he disappeared. What happened to Lora Lee Michel? (15)

On the morning of January 12, 1950, Lora Lee's acting coach, Ona Wargin, arrived at Michels' apartment to take her to a modeling interview. Wargin asked the girl to "dress up very nicely", as Lorraine later recounted.

“I told Lora Lee to be a good girl, kissed her goodbye, and then Mrs. Wargin said, 'Don't worry if we're late. We'll be at the Paramount studio. I said good luck, Ona."

Wargin, however, did not bring Lora Lee to the interview. He went to the authorities claiming to have seen bruises on the actress. Lora Lee told officers she was afraid of her adoptive mother, who she said abused her and starved her to keep her small for roles. She begged "never [to] send her back to that woman".


Within hours, Lora Lee was placed in the care of the Rev. Elford D. Sundstrom, pastor of the United Brethren Church in Burbank.

Lorraine was arrested, charged with child abuse and neglect. She was later released on $1,000 bail.

Four days later, Otto flew to Los Angeles.

"There's a mistake or a trap and I'm going to see it," he told a local Texas newspaper, saying he never supported sending his daughter to Hollywood. Now he planned to "fight and hold my house together".

The couple hired Oscar Cummins, a lawyer linked to Columbia Pictures, where Lora Lee had made several films.

In a letter to his brother Henry, Otto called Cummins "our hot lawyer" and expressed his belief that they would prevail. “I am so sure that God is with us.”

In the same letter, Otto seemed to have changed his mind about Hollywood, enthusiastically describing his visit to the Columbia backlot in Burbank: “I would have thought we were the biggest celebrities here. It was great."

Then came a plot twist. Out of the picture for the last five years, Lora Lee's biological mother, Lena Willeford (now Brunson, after remarrying), took a bus from Nederland, Texas, and traveled to Los Angeles. He claimed that Michels' adoption was obtained through "fraud, deceit and under duress" and that he wanted the child back.


The national press was caught up in the drama unfolding around the lovable child star and the seemingly greedy adults looking to exploit her growing fame. Lora Lee became the subject of a sensational custody trial that pitted her "real" mother against her "adoptive" mother, as the newspapers declared. “Fight for the Child Movie Star,” screamed the front page of the Beaumont Journal in Texas.

Initial coverage portrayed the Michels as profitable for their adopted daughter. "Don't overfeed Lora while I'm gone," Otto told his wife, reported the New York Daily News. “We have to keep her lean. We're broke and she's all we have to support us."

Otto responded that he almost went bankrupt keeping his wife and daughter in Hollywood, telling a newspaper, "I sold all my war bonds and sold some of my property to keep them there where I didn't want them to go in the first place."

In a flurry of letters to his brother Henry, Otto was furious and expounded his own theory.

“We are facing one of the most cunning, slimy and diabolical traps you can imagine,” he said. “Ona Wargin has been working and waiting for this opportunity for two years. She, her degenerate mobster husband and a cabal have concocted... one of the most cunning deals imaginable. It's colossal.

According to Otto, the Wargins planned to gain custody of Lora Lee for their own enrichment. He believed that Reverend Sundstrom, the police and others he called "rich idiots" were part of the plan.


Otto was convinced that the Wargins "lured" Lora Lee's biological mother, Lena, whom he called "poor silly Mrs. Brunson", to Los Angeles.

The Michels now faced litigation on two fronts: a custody hearing and Lorraine's trial for abuse and mistreatment. They hired detectives and private investigators to help with the case. Otto continued to correspond with his brother, often asking for money.

Lora Lee's custody issue was the first to be presented to the court. The hearing began on January 23, 1950 before Judge Alfonso Aloysius Scott.

The hearing was held behind closed doors. Still, significant details made it to the newspapers.

“This is proving to be a global international affair,” Otto wrote to Henry. "You can't imagine the wide publicity."

Lora Lee claimed that her adoptive mother would beat her with a hairbrush if she gained a pound, according to news reports. She told the judge that she was so hungry that she was forced to steal the milk and cheese left on her neighbors' doorsteps.

Her adoptive father, Otto, testified, took her to bars and fed her peanuts while she drank. Lora Lee told the judge that she did not want to stay with the Michels, telling him that she "wanted to go back to my mother [Lena] and live in a shack".

The same press that crowned Lora Lee as the second coming of Shirley Temple now described her as a "problem girl", a "problem actress" and a "poor little rich girl".

Lorraine swore to the judge that Lora Lee had an "uncontrollable appetite" due to a thyroid problem, but denied that he stopped her from eating to keep her small for movie roles.


Lena's time on the stand was tense. She called the adoption a "fraud", insisting that Red, her ex-husband, had threatened to harm her if she didn't sign the papers to give up the child. He had no idea where Lora Lee lived and he didn't have the money to look for her. It was only after seeing "Good Sam" that she realized her daughter was in Hollywood.

Lena's credibility was damaged when the Michels' attorney produced adoption papers signed by Lena and a letter she wrote to the Michels expressing her gratitude for adopting her daughter. He also filed the Texas welfare report stating that Lena had abandoned Lora Lee and her other five children in 1945.

On February 8, 1950, drama spilled out of the courtroom as the parties arrived to hear Judge Scott's decision.

When Lora Lee saw her biological mother in the hallway, she ran into her arms crying. Lorraine then ran into Lora Lee and a tug of war ensued. Photos from the incident show the women with their own hats, dresses and bags. “Battle with fists,” headlines The Times. The bailiffs charged to separate them.

Inside the courtroom, hearing that Judge Scott had denied her request to remove her from the Michels and return her to Lena, Lora Lee burst into tears. “I want my real mother,” she sobbed, according to several accounts.

“Honey, there are many things you don't understand right now. Mrs. Michel is her real mother now. You care about her and you know what will happen if you don't, don't you? Scott warned.

“Yes, they will beat me,” she replied. Scott then playfully flipped her over on her knee, patted her lightly, and said, "Yeah, just harder," the Associated Press reported.

As a phalanx of flashbulbs went off, Lora Lee's attitude quickly changed. He posed for photos, hugging and kissing the Michels. "My sweet mother! My wonderful father!" she cooed.He even jumped on the judge's lap and gave him a kiss.

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In 1950, the trials involving the custody and alleged abuse of Lora Lee made headlines around the world. It was front-page news in the Los Angeles Times.

(Illustration by Jim Cooke / Los Angeles Times; Times Archive)

Scott instructed the Michels to take Lora Lee out of the movies and bring her back to Texas to study like a "normal kid".

“There will be no more performances. Our baby will have a normal and happy childhood," Otto told reporters.

For her part, Lena left the courtroom in silence. He never saw Lora Lee again. (Lena died in 2000 in Jacksonville, Texas. She was 86 years old.)

Three weeks later, Lora Lee made headlines once more when she began work on "Between Midnight and Dawn", a crime noir involving cops, gangsters and a love triangle.

"The 'retirement' of 9-year-old Lora Lee Michel, the petite film actress who was recently the subject of a stormy custody battle, did not last a month," the Times wrote on its front page.

Lorraine explained: “Lora Lee is happy here. He loves acting and loves Hollywood. It would be a shame to stop his career at this point," reported The Times.


Cummins, the family's lawyer, described the return to acting as a kind of therapy to "put the gruesome details of the custody trial out of my mind".

Almost a month later, on the night of March 13, as the family awaited Lorraine's abuse trial in Beverly Hills, Lora Lee ran away from home.

The newspapers gave this account:

At 9:30 pm, an hour after Lorraine watched her daughter pray and put her to bed, she noticed that the front door to her apartment was open. When he looked at Lora Lee, she was gone. Lorraine called the police.

Barefoot and wearing flannel pajamas, Lora Lee hailed a cab. He gave the driver Reverend Sundstrom's address. On the way to Burbank, Lora Lee complained that she was hungry and told the cabbie to buy her a cheese sandwich, milk and a piece of cake at a local drive-thru.

At the pastor's house, he said that he had lost 10 kilos in the last month. "I had to run away," he said, she told him. "I couldn't take it anymore."

Sundstrom called the Hollywood Sheriff's Office. Lora Lee was arrested and sent to a juvenile detention center overnight.

“I can play with other kids and get all the extra milk I want there. I never want to go back to the Michels," he told authorities, adding: "I don't want to be in movies anymore. They are very strenuous. In my last photo I had to scream a lot. I get very tired."


The next day, the front page of the San Antonio Express asked, “What to do with a girl who says she'd rather eat cake than go to the movies? That's the problem baffled youth officials faced yesterday."

For Otto, the episode provided further evidence, as he had previously written to his brother, that he was up against "a dirty and rude plot" to gain control of Lora Lee. Ona Wargin visited the girl at the pastor's house against Judge Scott's instructions. Otto was convinced that the drama coach was behind what looked like a nasty conspiracy.

In the morning, Scott and an investigator from the DA's juvenile department went to see Lora Lee. “One thing's for sure,” he promised. "Let's get to the bottom of this and I mean the real bottom."

But first he needed to get through the pile of discrepancies and contradictions. Lora Lee was examined and found to have gained two kilos; she had not lost 10 kilos as she claimed.

Furthermore, the judge doubted his version of the abuse. “I don't believe his story. What she says are bruises, to me it looks more like she ran into a rosebush."

During the meeting, Lora Lee pouted and acted "like she was on camera," Scott said. “I was severe with her. And I told him I wanted the truth. I told him, 'Don't be light on me.

Before leaving, Lora Lee told the judge that she did not know why she had run away. She also recanted her story, telling Scott that she was never beaten or starved.


"She is a precocious and emotional girl who can get a lot of people into trouble," the judge told The Times. "I can't tell when he's acting and when he's telling the truth."

Scott placed Lora Lee in a courtroom ward, ordered a psychological evaluation, and placed her in the Boys and Girls Aid Society, a children's home in Altadena. The Michels were given visiting privileges.

“Lora Lee has lost so many beautiful things that should have been part of childhood. I intend to make sure he gets them," Scott said, declaring, "He definitely won't be acting in another movie while under my jurisdiction."

Lorraine later told reporters that she was puzzled by her daughter's behavior: “Sometimes I can't understand Lora Lee. He is very smart, but at the same time he is only 9 years old. I think maybe we should get her to a good psychologist."

Looking at the public's account of the whipping and its aftermath, it's not hard to see that this child actor was acting badly. Precocious and intelligent, but still a child, Lora Lee has barely had a chance to discover, let alone develop, her own personality beyond her movie roles. She was separated from her siblings at age 5 and given a new name. Now she found herself toggling between the whims and agendas of the adults around her. And she was alone.

While Otto may not have been one of the early drivers of Lora Lee's film career, he and his wife quickly became embroiled in the Hollywood excitement, the attention the case brought, and, of course, the money it brought in. He was probably not wrong in his assessment of the Wargins and their cohorts, but he also seemed to be working an angle. After all, as one Texas newspaper calculated, Lora Lee's movies made her $14,000 (about $156,000 in today's dollars).

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On March 21, Lorraine's trial for abuse and mistreatment of Lora Lee began in Beverly Hills Municipal Court, with a jury of eight women and four men.

Once again, the trial attracted worldwide publicity.

The issue was whether Lorraine starved Lora Lee and beat her if she gained weight.

Held over four days, the The quick, funny dialogue and theatrical twists gave the trial the cinematic feel of a black-and-white courtroom drama.

Lora Lee testified on the first day.

Wearing a patterned dress with a ruffled neckline and ribbons in her hair, she wept and wrung her hands, describing how her adoptive mother spanked her with a hairbrush after buying candy when she was supposed to be in Sunday school. “I couldn't eat candy because I got fat,” she said. "Movies don't like you to get fat."

Lora Lee testified that she was constantly hungry, wandering the halls of her apartment building "drinking the milk the delivery men left outside the front door".

But during interrogation, Lora Lee abruptly changed her story. Her mother didn't spank her after she stole candy, she said, but put her to bed.

More shockingly, Lora Lee claimed that her interim trainer, Wargin, had given her instructions on what to say. It was Wargin who told her to declare that she wanted to live in a shack with her biological mother and that her adoptive father put her behind bars during the custody hearing. And it was Wargin who told her to have milk and cottage cheese and not ask questions.

Stepping down from the dais, Lora Lee passed Lorraine, who handed her a handkerchief to wipe her eyes.

A parade of witnesses gave testimony about the accusations and the idea that Lorraine had been framed, with Lora Lee caught in the middle.

When Lorraine took the stand, she described feeling anxious in December when Lora Lee did not return from school. “I found her wandering around Sunset Boulevard. He said he was out looking for candy." Lorraine asked where he got the money. Lora Lee "restless and gaping, so I grabbed her arm. She said, 'I got it from my teacher.' I hit her with my own hand. "

Wargin vehemently denied training the girl or instructing her to steal from her neighbors. She testified to seeing "marks on her arms, they were black and blue, her little buttocks were black and blue".

Wargin claimed that Lorraine admitted to beating Lora Lee, leaving marks on her, and asked if she could keep the clothes so it wouldn't show during modeling. Wargin testified that Lorraine said of Lora Lee, "That bitch stole more food and gained a pound and I'm determined to win her voracious appetite."

In closing, Cummins declared that Lora Lee was the victim of a "degrading conspiracy" to alienate her from the Michels. The case, he concluded, was "the most flagrant and rotten thing I ever saw in my life."

After deliberating for seven hours, the jury acquitted Lorraine.


"We all agreed that there wasn't much to support the battery charge," one juror told the media, "but we spent a lot of time deciding on Lora Lee's diet."

Later, Otto told reporters that he had trusted in God and "now we know he was on our side".

Lorraine considered taking a family trip to Europe. She described her most recent visit to Lora Lee, during which her daughter asked, “Mom, when am I going to go back to the movies? But of course we will never put her in the pictures again."

In July 1950 the Michels returned to Schulenburg. Lora Lee, who stayed at the Altadena orphanage during and after the trial, joined them six weeks later. Judge Scott, who retained jurisdiction over the girl, authorized her return to Texas, where local authorities would be overseen.

The Michel case seemed to have hit Scott hard. In the years that followed, he took an active interest in securing the contractual rights of child artists. He also becamea fierce protectorof young apprentice jockeys, implementing trust funds for them and rules for their treatment.

“I know he loved working with young people, trying to help them,” the judge's only surviving son, the Reverend Al Scott, 88, told me. He believed that "there is a pearl hidden in every person, like an oyster shell, and it takes time, effort and love to try to pull it out".


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On the night of August 29, 1950, Lora Lee, accompanied by attorney Cummins, landed at San Antonio Municipal Airport. Her adoptive parents, along with Lillie and Henry Michel and their adopted daughter Barbara, were there to greet her. Fearing that Lena Brunson might show up unexpectedly and cause trouble, detectives took up positions at the airport.

“It's wonderful here. I love Texas. I hate California,” Lora Lee, in a ball gown and tied ponytails, told reporters waiting for her when she landed. “Damn it, I always have enough to eat,” she was heard saying.

A police escort took the family together to the luxurious St. Anthony Hotel, in downtown San Antonio. City dignitaries gathered to join them for a celebratory reception.

Several newspapers published a photo of Lora Lee and Barbara at the airport, embracing and smiling.

Barbara, who was 7 at the time, remembered returning home with her 9-year-old sister. It was the first time they had seen each other since they were adopted, and Lora Lee "was very affectionate," Barbara Wright Isaacs told me. At the airport, Lora Lee gave her doll of her own.

In her hotel room, Lora Lee entertained her sister, "telling me about all her movies and singing me songs she sang in the movies," she said.

Wright Isaacs also recalled how Lora Lee walked down the aisle dressed as Uncle Sam. In front of everyone, she jumped on top of the baroque, gilt-bronze Steinway grand piano, originally built for the Russian Embassy in Paris, and sang “Dear Hearts and Gentle People,” a popular song and ode to a beloved city. native recorded by Bing Crosby a year earlier.

However, upon Lora Lee's return, Wright Isaacs recalled that their mother, Lillie, kept the girls apart. She didn't understand why she was allowed to see her sister only under limited and controlled circumstances, or at all. While all of Schulenburg basked in Lora Lee's cinematic glory, Wright Isaacs was never allowed to see any of her films. Once Lora Lee returned, Wright Isaacs said her mother referred to her sister as "that girl".

According to Wright Isaacs, Lillie didn't like her birth parents and didn't care much for the Michelses either. Despite the public display of affection in San Antonio, Lillie took every opportunity to keep them apart.

After the initial turmoil, Lora Lee's return to a "normal" childhood in Schulenburg was anything but.

First she was sent to live in a convent, then to public school. For the next two years, her every move was recorded: playing with her classmates, going to the movies, and joining Girl Scouts. “Lora Lee appeared plump and in perfect health during her visit to San Antonio,” reported the San Antonio Express.


A child star at 7, in prison at 22. Then he disappeared. What happened to Lora Lee Michel? (19)

Lora Lee, back in Schulenburg after her Hollywood film career. Her activities were often reported in the local newspapers.

(Wright family)

Lorraine told reporters that they wanted to "give her a complete change from the bright lights and excitement of Hollywood". And they did, trading the silver screen for local plays and recitals that Lora Lee now regularly performed in Schulenburg and Houston.

“When you see Lora Lee on stage, it's easy to see that this is where she should be,” wrote I.E. Clark, a local teacher, reporter and playwright, in a newspaper review. "And you have a feeling it won't be long before he's back to doing it professionally and for good."

Despite their private assurances to Judge Scott and publicly in the media, the Michelses continued to harbor movie star aspirations for their daughter.

Just a month after their return, the Michelses were "tempted by film, radio and television offers", according to a letter Clark wrote to an agent in New York. The agent, Annie Laurie Williams, had sold the film rights to Gone with the Wind, and Clark proposed a book about Lora Lee. The Michelses, he said, authorized him to write her life story, with the aim of adapting it into a film in which the girl would represent herself.

By 1953, the landscape had changed considerably. At the age of 65, Otto died of pancreatic cancer. Lorraine followed two years later after a battle with lung cancer. She was 66 years old.

Lora Lee did not attend any of her parents' funerals, Wright Isaacs told me.


This is the point where Lora Lee's story started to fray and sizzle. The Michels were no longer around to pursue film and television roles. And Lora Lee, now a teenager, has begun to lead a darker life, with plot twists seemingly lost to the story.

But armed with family memories, I set out to find out what happened to Lora Lee. I spent months looking for information. I tracked down dozens of people and made requests for public records. Some were rejected. In other cases, I was told that the documents I needed did not exist. Then, in February, I received a trove of long-buried records at a Federal Records Center in Fort Worth. They contained excerpts and summaries of Lora Lee's psychological evaluations, school report cards, criminal records, court papers, and other documents. They made a difficult read.

Wright Isaacs had always heard that, after Otto's death, Lorraine took Lora Lee, then 13, to New York for an audition, and that Lora Lee had been arrested there for theft and ended up in reform school.

But the documents revealed that Lora Lee did not go to New York with Lorraine. She went to Houston. At the time Otto died, she was placed in the care of Catholic charities there. Between 1953 and 1957 he visited four different foster homes.

A Catholic Charities report described Lora Lee as "emotionally unstable", "very insecure" and "without a father figure during her formative early years". The report noted that she had a "very abused childhood, never having a consistent home environment".

Lora Lee briefly attended Mount Carmel Catholic High School, a private school in Houston. She was a poor student who was largely destitute. The Reverend Gerard Benson, principal of the school, told investigators he doubted Lora Lee ever appeared in the movies, saying she was "mentally incompetent". But he noted that she was "always trying to act".


Lora Lee dropped out after 11th grade.

She was married for the first time, aged 17, to a man named Donald Mayo Ford on Feb. 28, 1958, according to court documents. A copy of your marriage certificate is dated February 21st. She was pregnant.

Lora Lee gave birth to a baby girl named Donna Ann, who was given up for adoption by a family in Houston.

According to the documents, Ford told authorities that he had divorced Lora Lee in November or December 1958. But I have not found any record of this.

However, I discovered something else: On February 12, 1959, Lora Lee and Ford had another son, William Henry. The boy was born with congenital atelectasis, a condition in which the lungs fail to expand normally at birth. He survived just three hours, according to a copy of his death certificate.

Seven months later, Lora Lee was admitted to Austin State Hospital, a psychiatric facility, the oldest in Texas. “Be assured that everything possible is being done for your niece's comfort and well-being,” wrote the hospital's social services to Henry Michel, Otto's brother. Wright Isaacs' parents hid this from him, and he didn't learn of the hospitalization until years later.

Wright Isaacs and her daughters did not know why Lora Lee was institutionalized. But an interview with your doctor later He indicated that he had a nervous breakdown.

Lora Lee told her psychiatrist that she was raised by "adoptive parents" who died in a car accident. Her biological parents, he said, also died in a car accident. This, of course, was not true. But the story had an echo: Not only did her character in "The Snake Pit" share her birth name, Virginia, but she had also been committed to a state psychiatric hospital, and a car accident played a key role in her character's trauma. . 🇧🇷

She was discharged from the hospital after nine days.

In a letter to Henry Michel, the hospital superintendent noted that Lora Lee's condition had improved. "We hope that the patient's stay here will be valuable to the patient," he wrote.

Soon after, Lora Lee returned to Houston, doing a variety of office jobs. She sold magazines for a publishing house and worked as a typist for the Houston Transit Co., earning $200 a month.


However, most of the time he went through short marriages and lots of problems.

In February 1960, she met Joe Wendel Owen, a handsome ex-Marine nine years her senior. They were married on March 5, 1960, according to a copy of their marriage certificate filed in Fort Bend County, Texas.

A child star at 7, in prison at 22. Then he disappeared. What happened to Lora Lee Michel? (20)

Joe Wendel Owen, Lora Lee's second husband during his stint in the Marine Corps.

(Andi McWilliams e Kelly Smith)

Days after they were married, Lora Lee wrote to her aunt and uncle saying that she planned to honeymoon in San Antonio over the weekend. “Joe would love to meet you. Since you're the only family I have," he wrote. She added, "It's been a long time since I've seen you and I look forward to seeing you all."

The letter, typed on Houston Transit Co. letterhead, was tucked away in a plastic sleeve inside the folder Leslie Hannah had organized. She told me that her grandparents, Henry and Lillie, did not respond. Wright Isaacs believed that this was the last time Lora Lee would try to contact the family.

I came across an intriguing detail. Owen died in 2013 at the age of 81. But he apparently married another woman five months after his marriage to Lora Lee, according to genealogical records. More intriguing, however, is that the Texas marriage registry for Harris County notes that this union was "unenforced" in 1960. But another record indicates the couple were married in 1985.

Owen had several brothers and two daughters. He was able to locate his surviving sisters and a sister-in-law.

When I got to her sister Frances Reid, she had no idea what she was talking about. "I don't remember any Lora Lee," he told me.

Mary Owen, your sister-in-law, said I must be with the wrong person. “I think he would have known who his wife was,” she insisted.

I left a message for Patricia, her younger sister. She did not answer.

I wanted to know if I had the wrong Joe Wendel Owen.

In the meantime, I emailed one of Owen's daughters, Andi McWilliams. I told him I was writing a story about “a former child actress who was married at one point to a man named Joe Wendel Owen, who I think might be her father. Is this the case?


For the next four weeks, we went back and forth. He asked me why I thought Lora Lee's husband could be her father, but he still wouldn't agree to talk to me.

Then one morning McWilliams called me. "This is a huge drama in our family," he snapped. "So that was my question."

McWilliams was warm, open and fun, not at all what I envisioned in his brief emails. He explained that his father's marriage to Lora Lee was a "deep, dark secret". They were married for two weeks before Lora Lee broke up with him. Owen met his mother soon after and they planned to get married.

There was only one problem. He was still legally married to Lora Lee.

Owen needed to place an ad in the paper. If Lora Lee didn't respond, she could prove abandonment and legally break the marriage. But McWilliams said his mother refused. "She didn't want people to know she was dating a married man."

Owen has only confided his relationship with Lora Lee to his younger sister, Patricia.

McWilliams found out in 1992 when his parents separated. It was then that his father told him that he had never been divorced from Lora Lee, which means his parents were not legally married. Her mother refused to discuss the matter. “Everyone sees themselves as a good Christian family, and good Christians don't do that,” he told me.

Owen saw it differently. McWilliams said he was embarrassed that she left him. "It's like I can't support my wife, you know?" Still, when he confessed their secret union, McWilliams said he spoke fondly of Lora Lee. "He said it looked like it had a lot of light."

McWilliams recalled how her father told her as a child that he had once dated "an actress who looks like Shirley Temple", but she thought they were just words. He said she was in "Mighty Joe Young", which McWilliams confused with "King Kong". “For years I thought Dad dated Fay Wray,” he said with a laugh.

Before speaking, McWilliams tried to speak with his mother. “My mom still claims this was all a secret, that she didn't know my dad had cheated on her,” he told me. But McWilliams was skeptical. His mother recoiled at the mention of Lora Lee, telling her daughter, "I can't believe this woman has come back to haunt me."


While leafing through old digitized newspapers, I came across a line announcing the marriage of “Miss Lora Lee Michel and Mr. Carey Hand Bray” in the Fayette County Register, dated September 6, 1960. They were married a week early, six months later. her marriage to Owen. It provided a new clue, but also another unanswered question.

Lora Lee's family told me they knew she had been married three times. According to press reports, Lora Lee had stolen a car from an unnamed ex-husband who was a "drug addict". Hannah told me she had never heard of Bray. They assumed Owen was the pharmacist. But McWilliams told me that his father was a regional manager for Texaco before starting his own business.

When I investigated Bray, I discovered he was a Houston pharmacist. He died in 2000, aged 81. In February 1963, less than three years after he married Lora Lee, Bray married a woman named Billie June Whatley in Rosenberg, Texas. He died in 2016. They had eight children.

Before dismissing this as a curious coincidence, I tried calling Bray's children, who were scattered across the south.

After most failures, one night, David Bray answered the phone. I described my story and asked if he had heard of Lora Lee Michel or any connection between her and her father in the 1960s.

"I've never heard of her," he snapped at me. "You are asking a 64 year old man something that happened 61 years ago."

Bray explained that Carey Bray had adopted him and his siblings when she married their mother. He didn't understand why she had called him. He asked me if I was a real reporter.


It was a long shot. But before hanging up, she told him that she had one last question. Maybe you remember hearing a crazy story about a woman who stole her father's car?

Bray was silent.

"What's your name again?" He told me he was going to make a call.

Minutes later my phone rang. It was Bray. “I just got off the phone with my sister Penny in Georgia,” she told me. "She knows everything. Call her."

Penny Pearson was Bray's eldest and only child from his first marriage. I needed some directions. "Do you want the backdrop for their little love story?" she asked.

Pearson's mother died in December 1959 after a long illness. Lora Lee met Bray, 20 years her senior, at Tangley Lounge in Houston. “My father was very lonely,” he told me. Pearson had gone to visit relatives in Florida, and when he returned, his father introduced him to his new wife.

Lora Lee was shocking, he recalled. “She had bleached blonde hair and was petite with a very pretty figure. He was dressed very elegantly."

But Pearson immediately didn't like that. "Well, she was really awful. She once told me, 'I fucked her dad on the piano bench.' I mean, and here I am, a 14-year-old girl! She added, "But anyway, I think she was a con artist."

Pearson told me that Lora Lee spent much of her time with the Brays pawning family valuables, including her mother's fur coat, diamond ring, china and even her own record collection.

Lora Lee spoke briefly about her years in Hollywood. Pearson recalls her saying that "child actors grew up with that cuteness" and that "she wasn't getting any roles".


They hadn't been married very long when Lora Lee eloped. When she returned after a month, Bray took her in. “At that point, I made it my life's mission to get rid of her,” Pearson told me.

She needn't have worried because, all too soon, Lora Lee was taking off again.

But not before Bray bought her a new house in Westbury, a new subdivision in Houston, and a new Ford Fairlane convertible. “It was black with a rolled-up red pleated leather interior,” Pearson said, and “they had fun with it.”

Just a few months later, he ran off again, this time in the Ford, forcing Bray to take the bus to work. But, Pearson said, "I had a feeling that one day she would come home and take some more stuff out."

She did exactly what Pearson predicted, driving the Ford without warning one day.

“If you want your car back, you better go home fast,” Pearson told his father. "She's here." Pearson then took off running, letting air out of two tires. But when Lora Lee tried to get into the car, Pearson was afraid she might try to run away, so he reached for the keys. That's when Lora Lee "bit me in the back and made me bleed".

When Bray arrived and saw what happened, Pearson told me, "I hate to admit it, but my dad punched him in the jaw."

Looking back, Pearson laughed it off, telling me that his father remarried a "wonderful woman" and never heard from Lora Lee again.

Bray later told investigators that the couple had been married for about three to four months, saying they were divorced on November 7, 1961, citing "incompatibility". However, she was unable to locate a divorce record.

And while Lora Lee never bothered Pearson again, she didn't leave Bray alone.


In February 1961, Lora Lee moved to Corpus Christi. She was working as a waitress at a nightclub when she met Frank O'Neil Scott, a troubled former Marine sergeant who served in the Korean War. He was 12 years older, went to grade 10 and was a heavy drinker with a "long and serious history of writing bad checks," court records show.

When Scott met Lora Lee, he split from his first wife, Wanda Faye Headley, whom he met while working in Texas, and their four children, according to court records. Although Lora Lee and Scott were still legally married to previous spouses, they were married on July 22, 1961, in "formal infidelity" at First Methodist Church in Corpus Christi, in what court documents called a "bigamous" marriage. .

The couple then embarked on a life of crime.

A few months after getting married, the couple showed up in Scott's hometown, Iowa, and checked into a motel where Scott "whored" Lora Lee, according to parole records. They were arrested after an informant and the sheriff caught them using a marked $20 bill. When the couple was pulled over, the sheriff found the money in the sole of Scott's shoe.

They spent the week of December 31, 1961 in prison. While there, the sheriff told investigators that he "heard her tap dancing".

Bray, her ex-husband, sent money to put her on a train back to Corpus Christi. The Scotts paid $25 in fines for disturbing the peace and were "run out of town".

In February 1962, Scott left the Army (he enlisted after an honorable discharge from the Marine Corps) and the pair began orbiting around Texas, in and out of state, becoming involved in various schemes. Lora Lee's probation officer indicated that he believed she began writing bad checks.

On June 21, while in Jonesboro, Ark., the couple considered purchasing a 1957 Mercury. Rather than test drive it, the couple drove the car to Houston, according to court documents.

In Houston, Lora Lee reconnected with Bray. He agreed to give her the use of his 1962 Ford convertible for the day. She and Scott took the car and embarked on a six-month road trip across seven states, amassing $3,610 (about $34,000 in today's dollars) on three of Bray's credit cards they found in the glove compartment and a fourth in the door. -gloves. Scott stole from someone. most.

They lived in Missouri for three of those months.

There, Lora Lee responded to a housekeeper ad posted by Leonard Voyles, an independent contractor. Voyles lived in Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis, and was divorcing his second wife; he had five children, according to his parole report.

The police described him as a "rowdy, unscrupulous and useless individual who has a violent temper and doesn't care about anyone but himself".

Lora Lee moved in with Voyles. He paid her $40 a week plus room and board.

In town, she called herself Mrs. Voyles and called Scott his brother.

On Dec. 28, Texas Highway Patrol officers arrested Lora Lee and Scott while driving in Bray's convertible near El Paso, according to news reports.

They were charged with two counts of illegally transporting a stolen motor vehicle across state lines and booked at Harris County Jail in Houston. Each faces up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.


For the first time in years, Lora Lee made national headlines. “Former Upstaged actress,” said one newspaper. In a nationally held interview, he was asked what happened to his promising film career. “I grew up,” she replied.

After spending nearly two months in jail, on February 8, 1963, Lora Lee was released on $1,000 bail. She returned to Webster Groves to live with Leonard Voyles.

Both Scott and Lora Lee pleaded guilty to one count of car theft. Lora Lee was sentenced to 13 months in prison. Scott received 27 months.

On March 9, 1963, Lora Lee was committed to the Federal Reformatory for Women in Alderson, West Virginia, court documents show.

Lora Lee's parole officer noted that he found her "very impulsive" and concluded: "By all appearances, she has had a very unhappy past."

If she served her full sentence, Lora Lee would be released from Alderson in April 1964, court documents show.

My efforts to obtain his criminal records were rebuffed.

I contacted Denise Foster in Corpus Christi, one of Scott's daughters by his ex-wife, and left her a message. Her husband Larry called me back. He said that Scott was a touchy subject for his wife. Scott, he told me, was a scoundrel and had multiple social security numbers.


But Larry Foster said his wife told him that she and one of her sisters briefly lived with their father and Lora Lee. He didn't know exactly when, but his wife and sister-in-law called her "Loree" and she helped them get their first training bras. She said she was remembered as "pretty cool", but not much else.

A child star at 7, in prison at 22. Then he disappeared. What happened to Lora Lee Michel? (21)

One of the weird twists in a story full of weird twists was that for years, Lora Lee's biological siblings lived within a 200 mile radius of each other in Texas. But most of them had no idea, even as they wondered what had happened to the others. They were like scattered puzzle pieces.

A few years ago, Leslie Hannah met Linda Robbins, daughter of Bonnie Maner, one of Lora Lee's older biological sisters. Bonnie died in 2001. When she found her younger sister Penny Pellet, she also passed away in 2020.

A child star at 7, in prison at 22. Then he disappeared. What happened to Lora Lee Michel? (22)

“I've been looking for Lora Lee for about 55 years,” Barbara Wright Isaacs, of the center, said of her sister. She and her daughters Allison Wallace, left, and Leslie Hannah in front of film memorabilia from Lora Lee's career.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Robbins told me that his mother, Bonnie, "always said she wanted to find her sisters."

She remembers seeing "Mighty Joe Young" on TV and her mother said, "'That's my sister.' And I said, no, she's not. I said, 'You're lying.' sister. This is Virginia,'" referring to Lora Lee's given name.

Robbins told me that his mother thought that Gary Cooper had adopted Lora Lee. "My mom didn't really know everything, but she knew about her siblings and she knew that three of them were adopted."

Hannah, who inherited the Lora Lee memorabilia portfolio held first by her grandfather, Henry Michel, and later by her parents, wrote a few letters and expanded her research as new digital databases and social media sites emerged.


Hoping someone might respond, in 2010 the family posted it on IMDb.com. They received only one response from a man named Dennis Brown, who lived at the orphanage in Altadena with Lora Lee. He said he couldn't help but locate Lora Lee.

But he remembered, when he was 8 years old, spending time with Lora Lee. “As we all come from broken homes, I think we all feel varying degrees of loneliness,” he said.

It turns out that Joe Wendel Owen, Lora Lee's second husband, was also looking for her.

During my first conversation with Owen's daughter, Andi McWilliams, she told me there was more to the story. When we spoke again, her sister Kelly Smith joined us. Her father kept "abundant notes". Smith had them.

Parts are read to me over the phone.

“Dad wrote that he tried to find her,” Smith told me.

They had a whirlwind courtship and he didn't really know much about her, he said. “She went out with another man a week or two after the wedding,” she wrote.

Owen later met and settled down with another woman, who would become his mother. But the sisters now realize that their parents didn't get married because Owen believed he was still married to Lora Lee.

McWilliams told me that his parents kept secrets and that he still didn't understand many things. But now it made sense to her why, in 1985, instead of celebrating her birthday as they always had, they'd eloped for a weekend in Fredericksburg, Texas, and gotten married again.

According to Owen's notes, earlier that year he had sought the help of a friend, Herb Fisher, to track down Lora Lee, presumably to legally divorce her. Fisher, who also knew her, returned and informed Owen that Lora Lee had died in 1979 of cancer, six years earlier.

Owen's notes didn't say how Fisher discovered this. I couldn't get a death certificate. Now, after living with that secret for 25 years, Owen was free to legally marry McWilliams' mother.

A child star at 7, in prison at 22. Then he disappeared. What happened to Lora Lee Michel? (23)


In March I flew to Texas. Given the wide variety of sorrows she uncovered, it felt right to discuss them personally with the family.

We met at Hannah's house in Bandera. This time, Hannah's husband, Phil, joined us along with her sister, Wallace, and mother, Wright Isaacs.

We talked a little. Wright Isaacs showed me some old photos of Lora Lee, commenting on how beautiful her sister was. In one, a smiling Lora Lee wears a hat; she was 5 or 6 at the time. It was shortly after the Michels adopted her, just before she moved to Hollywood.

Once we were seated around the dining room table, I began. “I wish I could be the bearer of better news,” I said, to a circle of nervous smiles. "But unfortunately, we believe that Lora Lee died in 1979 of cancer."

The room was silent.

A child star at 7, in prison at 22. Then he disappeared. What happened to Lora Lee Michel? (24)

The view from Leslie Hannah's window across the street in Texas. Hannah picked up Lora Lee's search for her mother, Barbara Wright Isaacs.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

A child star at 7, in prison at 22. Then he disappeared. What happened to Lora Lee Michel? (25)

Barbara Wright Isaacs said she was finally able to "wrap up" her long-lost sister, Lora Lee.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)


Wright Isaacs was the first to break the silence.

Well, this is sad news, but it's closure for me. I don't need to wonder anymore. She reasoned that "God has a purpose", before adding, "I knew in my heart that I wasn't alive".

I warned you that some of these things would be difficult. I let the family sit with their thoughts. I asked if they wanted me to stop. No, they said, they wanted to hear everything.

For nearly two hours, I took out my notebooks.

Every detail fell away with a soft, painful thud. They were alternately stoic, contemplative, angry and sad. Lora Lee's life has unfolded in ways her family never imagined. They were shocked by the inventory of sorrows she carried and the missed opportunities. This very intelligent and precocious child became a woman lost in a labyrinth of short marriages and perpetual misfortunes.

They had questions. But most of all, they were stunned.

For years, Wright Isaacs has wondered why Lora Lee never responded within her reach. “He tried really hard to find me when I was young and my mom wouldn't let him. So, you know, what should he do, you know, leave? She did."

The revelation that Lora Lee had given her daughter up for adoption filled them with sadness and hope.

We could find Donna Ann, you know? Wallace suggested softly.

Wright Isaacs and her daughters are kind and gentle people. They found it difficult to understand how their own family could hand Lora Lee over to Catholic charities.


"It's a lot to take in and it's very sad to think that her life could have turned out so differently," said Wright Isaacs. “And I think what bothered me the most is that…she was sent to different foster homes.”

They listened politely as I talked about their marriages. Then Wright Isaacs rolled his shirt into his fists and began to cry. “He's the pimp. This is horrible. That's beyond me."

As morning turned to afternoon, Wright Isaacs reflected on the precariousness of life and how much is left to fate.

“They treated me very well. He had beautiful clothes. I had a nice house, a good place to sleep, food every night on my table,” he said.

“And I'm just thinking about how lucky I was,” she told me.

"Uncle Otto found it, and they used it because they were money-mad, I guess."

Wright Isaacs recalled how loving Lora Lee was to her when she returned to Texas. "If I had gotten in touch with her at some point in her life, maybe things would have been different or maybe they would have been worse, I don't know", she thought aloud.

“She could have been anything. In my heart, I think I always hoped that she would marry someone rich and live a life that would have been great," he said.

For years, much of Lora Lee's life remained a mystery to Wright Isaacs and her daughters.


"I didn't expect his life to be a tragedy," said Wright Isaacs.

And now it was time to let him go. "I won't stay any longer," he told me. “Maybe one day we will meet again in heaven. I would like to believe that, but now I don't."

“I'm sorry it wasn't a better story,” I told them.

A short time later, when we finished talking, I found Wright Isaacs sitting in another room. She had kept her composure for so long and now she was sobbing.

Family members waited so long to find out what had happened. Now they were having a hard time understanding him.

Every family has secrets. I thought about the value of learning them and the pain of it.

So I left the family to the privacy of their own grief.

Wright Isaacs hugged me. “I have closure,” he told me. "But it's heartbreaking."

VIDEO | 08:08

LA Times Today: A child star at age 7, in prison at 22. Whatever happened to Lora Lee Michel?

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