So I’ve written a book that solves a 40-year-old Hollywood murder.
It’s a story about fame, fortune, sex, drugs, money, the mob and Hollywood. But mostly, it’s a story about my mother’s cousin, a beautiful little girl named Jenny Maxwell my mom adored who went off to Hollywood and became a star.
Her life on screen could not have gone better. She was one of the biggest stars in the business in the early 1960s.
Her life off screen could not have gone worse. She had two failed marriages, became a teenage mother who lost custody of her child, and was brutally murdered outside her Beverly Hills condo in 1981, alongside her estranged second husband.
According to all the press accounts at the time, the murders were never solved. They all said it was a “possible botched robbery.” If you look up Jenny Maxwell on Wikipedia or anywhere else, the sites all say she was murdered as part of a botched robbery attempt.
That’s what my family was always told. We never believed it, though, and it always nagged on us that Jenny’s murder was never solved. My mom was especially troubled that nobody knew who killed her beloved cousin.
So a couple of years ago, I decided to start looking into it. I wanted to find out what happened. I wanted some closure for our family. Mostly, I wanted my mom to have some peace of mind.
And what I found is that it wasn’t a robbery at all.
I found out that the police actually solved the case in 1981, just a couple of weeks after the murder, but that it was never reported.
For the past 40 years, the truth has been sitting in a police file at the Los Angeles Police Department.
I got hold of that information, I researched Jenny’s amazing (and heartbreaking) Hollywood life, and I’ve spent the last two years putting it all into a book.
The book is called “Murder of an Elvis Girl: Solving the Jenny Maxwell Case,” and it’s available now on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle versions. It’s the first book I’ve ever written and I hope you decide to read it. You can order a copy here.
That was the short version of the story. Here’s a little longer explanation.
My grandfather, Elling Myksvoll, grew up in a small town in Norway called Myksvoll (named for the family). He was the eldest son in a family of 11 brothers and sisters. In the early 1900s, he came over to America, and a few years later, his younger brother, Jonas, also came over. They were eventually joined by a third brother, Harald.
Elling was my mom Vera’s dad, and they lived in Illinois. Jonas was Jenny’s dad and they lived in Brooklyn.
My mom was six years older than Jenny, but in the summers, Vera would take the train out to New York and spend a few weeks babysitting her. She adored Jenny, and from what I heard, Jenny adored her. They looked very much alike when they were kids, too.
They also shared a mutual love of theater and acting. And when Jenny was 16 years old, she was literally “discovered” by Hollywood. Film director Vincente Minnelli (Judy Garland’s ex-husband, Liza’s dad) spotted Jenny in an acting class in Brooklyn and told her she had to fly out to California to screen-test for a Frank Sinatra film he was shooting, called “Some Came Running.”
Jenny didn’t get that part, but she did land a couple of sitcom roles right away, in “Bachelor Father” and “Father Knows Best.” The casting directors fell in love with her, she got a big-time Hollywood agent, and she was officially on her way to becoming a star.
That was 1958. By 1961, she was one of the brightest young stars in town. The pinnacle of her career came in November of 1961, when she co-starred in the Elvis Presley film “Blue Hawaii.”
If you’ve ever heard of Jenny Maxwell, or if she looks familiar to you now, it’s probably because of “Blue Hawaii.” It’s still on TV all the time, and it made her a star.
Her career continued to skyrocket after that. She made a film with Jimmy Stewart, she was on a Bob Hope special, and she appeared on dozens of TV shows.
Here’s a video – beautifully edited by my filmmaking pal Brian Kruger – that shows some of Jenny’s TV and movie highlights:
Off the screen, though, Jenny’s personal life was a mess. She had gotten married at 17 to an assistant film director named Paul Rapp. Then she became a mom at 19, giving birth to a son, Brian. She wasn’t ready for marriage or motherhood, and she was really bad at both of them.
She got divorced a couple of years later, and while she initially won custody of Brian, she lost it soon afterward. Jenny was so heavily involved in the Hollywood lifestyle of partying, drugs, men and drinking that the judge decided to take Brian away from her.
In 1968, Jenny elected to give up her Hollywood life altogether in an effort to win back her son. She figured she couldn’t be both a mom and a star, so she chose being a mom.
The last TV or film appearance she ever did was an episode of “The Wild, Wild West” that aired in 1968. At the age of 27, Jenny Maxwell – who was once the brightest young actress in town – was out of show business entirely.
In 1970, she married a well-known Los Angeles divorce attorney named Ervin “Tip” Roeder (pronounced “Raider”) who was 20 years her senior. He was loud, brash, obnoxious and rich. Jenny liked the “rich” part, because she didn’t want to get a regular job after quitting acting. And Tip loved having some Hollywood arm candy who was 20 years younger than him. It was truly a marriage of convenience for both of them.
Tip represented a host of Hollywood types in divorce cases and other matters, and while he wasn’t mobbed-up himself, he spent a lot of time around mob guys. As a former cop, Tip knew every bad guy in town, and they all knew him.
Their marriage was awful. They fought constantly, cheated on each other and disagreed on everything. Jenny filed for a divorce a couple of times but never followed through.
The one great thing in her life, though, was the relationship with her son. She and Brian were getting along splendidly now, much more friends than they were mother and son. Jenny didn’t start out as a responsible mother, but she was doing a much better job now. She and Brian adored each other.
In 1981, Jenny finally got up the courage to leave Tip. They officially separated, she moved out and got her own condo in Beverly Hills.
On June 11, 1981, my mom got a phone call from one of her cousins in Norway, a woman named Wenche. My mom had zillions of cousins on the Norwegian side of her family – both in Norway and America – and Wenche (pronounced “Venk-ee”) was the most plugged-in as to what was happening in the family.
Wenche was calling with horrible news. “Jenny just got murdered! Somebody shot her and her husband. That’s all we know.”
A little while later, my mom called me, crying. “Somebody shot Jenny yesterday. She and her husband were both murdered. We don’t know anything.”
I was 20 years old, entering my senior year at the University of Michigan, and I was working at the Michigan Daily, the student paper. This was in the days long before the Internet, so there was no way to access newspapers from out of state and it wasn’t a big enough story that the Detroit papers would have covered it. Nobody in the family knew anything, and we obviously wanted to know.
As the lone journalist in the family – albeit a sports writer on a college paper – I offered to see what I could find out.
I called the Los Angeles Times and asked to speak to someone in the library (the place where all the archives were kept). I asked the woman if they had done a story on the murders, and if so, could she read it to me over the phone.
She did. This is the story she read to me from the L.A. Times of June 11, 1981:
I told my mom, she called Wenche in Norway, and Wenche spread the word to the rest of the family.
And that’s all we ever knew. That our cousin was killed in “an apparent robbery attempt.”
Books have been written about Jenny since then. Websites have popped up. She has bios on the Internet Movie Database, Wikipedia and everywhere else. And they all say the same thing: that Jenny and her husband were killed as part of an “apparent robbery attempt.”
We would talk about this a lot through the years in our family, and it just never sat right. Why were the murders never solved? What about Tip’s mob connections? Did that have something to do with it?
Mostly, though, for my mom, it was the pain in her heart that comes from not having closure after a crime like this. Her beautiful little cousin, the little girl she babysat and played with and loved, had been brutally murdered and nobody knew who did it or why.
To the rest of the world, Jenny Maxwell was the movie star who romped around with Elvis in “Blue Hawaii.” To my mom, she was the little girl she played with so many years ago in Brooklyn.
And she really wanted to know who would have killed her, and why.
In early 2019, my mom was in failing health, and I got it in my head that I wanted to see if I could find out what really happened with Jenny Maxwell. Maybe I could contact the police in Los Angeles and convince them to reopen the case. Whatever.
I asked my mom to tell me everything she could remember about Jenny and what she had heard in the years following the murder. I asked my uncle the same thing. I reached out to a few more cousins and asked them the same thing.
I scoured websites looking for clues. The first big break came when I tracked down a woman who was Jenny’s best friend in her post-Hollywood days. She told me a lot. Another big lead came when I found the cop who was the first guy on the scene after the murders. He shed some light, too.
But nobody knew the real answer I was looking for: Who killed Jenny Maxwell and Tip Roeder, and why?
The biggest break came when I called the Los Angeles Police Department’s Wilshire Detective Bureau. A very helpful cop there spent a day digging through old boxes of files that hadn’t been digitized yet. He found an initial file on the murder case that didn’t have much information inside, but it did have the names of two detectives on it: Thies and Rogers.
Jerry Rogers passed away many years ago of a heart attack, but Mike Thies, the lead detective on the case, was still around. I tracked him down by phone, and he told me the bombshell that my family hadn’t known for four decades: “Yeah, we solved that case back in 1981. I know exactly what happened.”
He told me, and I called my mom and told her. My brother and sister were on the line, too. A few days later, my mom passed away, and it made me happy to know that while she was here, she was able to get some closure in her heart about her beloved cousin.
What really happened is wild and almost unbelievable, if you’re thinking this is a ploy to get you to read the book, you’re right. It’s also extremely complicated and what led up to the murders would take far too long to explain here. You need to hear the entire story in context.
In any case, I learned the truth in February of 2019. In May of that year, I flew to Los Angeles and met with Mike Thies. He took me to the murder scene on South Holt Avenue in Beverly Hills and explained exactly what happened that day in 1981. He told me every detail of how they investigated and solved the crime.
While I was out there, I also knocked on the door of Brian Rapp, Jenny’s son. My second cousin. A man I’m closely related to but had never met.
He answered the door and we spent the next three hours talking about his mom, their life and what happened in 1981.
Soon after that, I made the decision that I had to write a book about all of this. I’ve written a zillion things in my life, but never a book. Writing a book, as I discovered, is waaaaaay different from writing a snotty column about roundabouts or Taco Bell.
After much consultation and thought, I decided to write it in the style of a novel based on a true story. I stuck as closely to the facts as possible, but I had to imagine a lot of dialogue, situations and even some characters. The main events in the book are all true, but almost all of the dialogue is imagined. I hope it’s a more readable book that way.
I lived on newspapers.com and painstakingly researched every historical detail to stay as true to the story as possible.
For instance, I knew that Jenny’s favorite actress was Audrey Hepburn and that she fell in love with Audrey Hepburn as a young girl. I looked back and found out exactly what Audrey Hepburn movie would have come out at that time in Jenny’s life (“Roman Holiday”), I found out exactly where the movie would have been playing in New York (Radio City Music Hall), exactly what the date was, and then I put a scene in the book where Jenny and her mom take the train into the city to see it.
Last spring, when COVID kept all of us homebound for several weeks, I used my time in the evenings to start writing the book. I chipped away a chapter at a time, and several months later, it was finally done. My friend Maria Stuart, the best editor I know, edited it for me.
And now, the story is out there for all to see. If you’re into true-crime books or Hollywood stories, you’ll hopefully find it interesting. I’m too close to the story to know if anyone else will find it interesting, but I certainly did.
So it’s been a fascinating couple of years, researching and writing a book. Traveling to Hollywood. Meeting a second cousin for the first time. Solving a family mystery.
And the best part of all: Knowing that my mom was able to learn the truth before she left us.
Rest in peace, mom. And rest in peace, Jenny.