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The Strange Case of The Wasp Woman

By Don Stradley

Anna May Wong

Susan Cabot came to a bad end. Beaten to death by her son in their shabby San Fernando Valley home, her macabre death was to tabloid journalism what table scraps are to starving dogs. It was a slow news week, the highlights being another round of confusion over the Iran-Contra arms scandal, and Jerry Lee Lewis walking out of the Betty Ford Clinic because he didn’t like the rules. The sheer Hollywood Babylon vibe of Cabot’s death was a godsend for sleazy news merchants, and only partly because of her long career in B movies.

True, the early press coverage depicted Cabot as a Norma Desmond type living in filth and prone to mental breakdowns, but the real story was Timothy, her 23 year-old son. To combat his dwarfism, Cabot had him placed on an experimental growth cure that involved hormones taken from human cadavers, a process later discontinued because of a link to neurological disorders. After 15 years of treatments, Timothy ended up a 5’ 4” man-child known for mood swings. One night in December 1986, he used a weight-lifting bar to bash his mother’s head in.

His legal defense claimed the growth treatments had affected Timothy’s mind, and ongoing tensions with his neurotic mother had driven him to violence. In the end, Timothy was charged with involuntary manslaughter and received a laughably light punishment – three years probation. The strange case not only provided fodder for news columns and cheesy shows like Current Affair, but also created morbid interest in one of Cabot’s movies, a 1959 Roger Corman feature called The Wasp Woman. In it she played the aging owner of a cosmetics firm who restores her youth with a serum taken from wasps. The formula has only one side effect: she turns into a wasp creature with an insatiable hunger for victims. Now available on The Film Detective, The Wasp Woman was one of Cabot’s final roles, ending her career not with a bang, but a buzz…

Just prior to The Wasp Woman’s release, Cabot gave a rambling interview to Hollywood gossip columnist Earl Wilson. She had plans to act on Broadway, to sing opera, to raise horses, and to leave behind her past as a B movie star. The big news was Cabot’s relationship with King Hussein of Jordan, which ended as soon as he learned she was a Jewish girl whose real name was Harriet Shapiro, a disclosure that wouldn’t play well in Jordan.

Cabot made no mention to Wilson of The Wasp Woman, nor did she mention it when she visited her Boston hometown later in the year to rehearse a play at the Wilbur Theater. She depicted herself as a woman who yearned to act in Shakespearean dramas, but was supporting herself with stints on cowboy flicks and TV game shows. If she’d wanted The Wasp Woman to sneak by unannounced, she must’ve forgotten that Corman was involved. Any money he’d saved on his low-budget productions went directly into splashy advertising campaigns. Corman favored outrageous movie posters, and The Wasp Woman was one of his most memorable, an exercise in kitsch that couldn’t have been more associated with Cabot if it had been tattooed on her back.

It featured Cabot’s face, larger than it had ever appeared on any previous movie ad, superimposed over the body of a giant wasp. The horrible creature held a frightened male victim in its claws, while hovering over a pile of human skulls. The tagline was typical of Corman in those days: “SEE: A BEAUTIFUL WOMAN BY DAY – A LUSTING QUEEN WASP BY NIGHT!” For weeks and months the garish advertisement appeared in theater lobbies, billboards, and newspaper movie sections. Cabot may have yearned to recite Shakespeare, but she was now and forever stamped as the one and only Wasp Woman. The incredible image eventually appeared on everything from postcards to coffee mugs to kitchen magnets. Nowadays an original print of the one-sheet appears on eBay for as much as $7,000. Indeed, it is a great piece of memorabilia, and long after movie fans had forgotten Susan Cabot, The Wasp Woman poster lived on…and on… and on…

The Wasp Woman was sent out into the world on a double bill with Beast from Haunted Cave during the autumn of 1959. Though many dismissed it as a rehash of The Fly, the responses were generally positive. It was a cheap thriller, no more and no less. The movie had legs, though, playing the drive-in circuit throughout the 1960s. In 1963 the Hillsboro Drive-In in Tampa, Florida placed it on a bill with The Snake Woman, The Leech Woman, and Voodoo Woman. It also went on to have a healthy life on late night TV, and as a staple of Saturday afternoon “creature feature” programs. In Corman’s 1998 memoir, How I made A Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, he declared The Wasp Woman a “success,” and claimed to have made it in two weeks for $50,000. He also praised Cabot as “very talented,” remembering her as “terrific” opposite Charles Bronson in Machine Gun Kelly.

By the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Cabot was making potato chip commercials and appearing in regional theater productions. By then she’d been through a couple of marriages and had a son, Timothy, who would eventually kill her.

Cabot’s Encino neighbors recalled her as a quiet woman who rarely spoke to anyone. According to testimony from her psychiatrist, she spent her final years battling depression, often contemplating suicide. The squalor of the home she shared with Timothy reflected her deteriorating mental state in those years, or so said the armchair analysts. As for Timothy’s odd growth treatment, many parents subjected their children to it during that era until it was finally discredited. Yet Cabot was depicted throughout her son’s trial as ghoulish and unstable. This tactic of blaming the victim apparently worked.

Timothy first claimed an intruder dressed as a ninja had killed his mother. He later changed his story, saying 59 year-old Cabot had attacked him and that he may have killed her in self-defense, though he wasn’t sure. Judge Darlene Schempp bought it, stating Timothy’s actions were “not the result of a criminal mind,” and that the 2 ½ years he’d spent in prison awaiting trial were enough. Timothy’s suspended sentence proved you could beat your mother to death and barely suffer consequences, provided you were a dwarf on hormones, and your mom had been the wasp woman.

And what of The Wasp Woman? In the months prior to the killing of Susan Cabot, it was enjoying the usual life of an old movie in those days, airing now and then on small market UHF channels, usually during the wee hours of the morning when no one was watching television.

Two days after Cabot’s death, however, it was on HBO in a much better time slot.


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