What Really Happened to 1960s Starlet Jenny Maxwell?

A relative of the actress and ’Elvis girl’ and a retired LAPD detective think the botched robbery that resulted in Maxwell’s unsolved murder was something much more sinister

Tip Roeder was screaming. The successful attorney was on his hands and knees on the sidewalk in front of a condo on South Holt Avenue in Beverly Grove, yelling for help. A nearby store clerk had heard three shots and Roeder’s cries, and rushed over to the scene. It was soon evident to the clerk why 60-year-old Roeder was yelling: he had been shot in the stomach. The wound killed him.

There was more horror to be discovered on that sunny June afternoon in 1981. Sprawled in the lobby of the condo building, half her head blown away, was 39-year-old Jennifer Roeder, Tip’s soon to be ex-wife. In a former life, many tequila sunrises ago, she’d been known to the world as Jenny Maxwell, a successful, blond starlet with wide-set eyes and a thin, mischievous smile.

In Michigan, members of Jenny’s extended family received news of her brutal murder. Twenty-one-year-old Buddy Moorehouse had grown up hearing about his mother Vera’s famous cousin Jenny, who had acted alongside legends like Jimmy Stewart, Michael Landon, and Elvis Presley. Though he had never met Jenny, Moorehouse’s mother assigned him the task of gathering more information on her favorite cousin’s mysterious death.

“I was working at the time as a reporter for the student newspaper at the University of Michigan, and she knew I knew at least something about how to make calls and investigate a story,” Moorehouse recalls. “She said, ‘Is there anything you can find out?’ I remember calling the Los Angeles Times from the campus office of the Michigan Daily and asking them what they knew, and somebody read the story to me over the phone.”

The Los Angeles Times reported that the murder had probably been an attempted robbery gone bad, but Jenny’s family suspected there was more to the story. Though Jenny had lost touch with most of her once tight-knit Norwegian-American clan, they believed that Tip Roeder, a sheriff’s deputy-turned-lawyer, was a shady character.

“The big rumor in our family is it was some kind of a mob hit,” Moorehouse says.

No one was ever charged with the murders, and Jenny’s family filed away the memory of her in their hearts and went on with their lives. Biographical mentions of Jenny, both in books and online, repeated the story of an unsolved burglary. In 2018, Moorehouse, now a veteran journalist and documentarian in Michigan, decided to find out what really happened to Jenny. This decision would lead him across the country to Los Angeles, to Jenny’s remaining friends and son, and to a retired Los Angeles Police Department detective named Mike Thies, who believed he had discovered the truth about the four-decade-old Roeder murders.

In his new self-published novel, Murder of an Elvis Girl: Solving the Jenny Maxwell Case, Moorehouse reveals the fruits of his investigation, weaving the true story of Jenny with his own imaginative elaborations. But the story is fascinating without embellishments, a classic Hollywood tale of fame, betrayal, and the dark side of life in the fast lane.

jenny maxwell
Jenny Maxwell and Elvis in ‘Blue Hawaii’

Paramount Pictures

Jenny Maxwell was born in Brooklyn on September 3, 1941. The coddled only child of hard-working Norwegian immigrants, she was a bubbly, strong-willed, and charismatic imp from the start. In 1958, she was discovered at her local drama school by director Vincente Minnelli. He brought her to Hollywood to shoot a test with Frank Sinatra for the film Some Came Running. Once in L.A., she never looked back.

Though Jenny didn’t get the part in Some Came Running, she was soon booking roles on TV shows, including a gig on Father Knows Best. There, she met 24-year-old Paul Rapp, an assistant director and son of famous comedy writer Philip Rapp. According to Moorehouse, Rapp, who had previously dated Sandra Dee, fell quickly for the pert blond and the two eloped in April 1959, without telling their parents. Jenny was only 17.

In 1960, Jenny gave birth to her son, Brian. That same year, Jenny was named a “Hollywood Deb Star of 1960,” along with up-and-coming actresses Shelley Fabares and Paula Prentiss. As a Deb Star, she was introduced on The Bob Hope Show by none other than Hope and Joan Crawford, who repeated the popular PR line that Jenny and Marilyn Monroe were related (due to a convoluted tale of shared Norwegian blood):

Bob Hope: “This bitsy blonde is Jenny Maxwell from California Studios.”

Joan Crawford: “She has been in 30 television shows and the feature film Blue Denim. She is a second cousin of Marilyn Monroe.”  

Bob Hope: “Kind of makes you wish you were a playwright.”

As the two Hollywood legends talked, Jenny walked on stage wearing a tiara and evening gown, looking much too wide-eyed, casually modern, and jaunty for her elegant attire. This fresh teenage attitude kept her career humming, with roles on popular TV shows The Twilight Zone, Dr. Kildare, and Bonanza. In 1961, she played a spoiled rich girl in the wildly popular Elvis flick Blue Hawaii, earning infamy as the actress who in one scene Elvis spanked for being naughty.

Still barely out of her teens, Jenny began to party. According to Moorehouse, she was increasingly part of a young Hollywood scene with friends including Sharon Tate and Peggy Lipton. Her career continued, in a rather erratic fashion. In 1963, she acted alongside A-listers Sandra Dee and Jimmy Stewart in Take Her, She’s Mine, and starred as a hillbilly sexpot in the ridiculously camp B-movie Shotgun Wedding, written by the legendary Ed Wood.

But Jenny’s career–and home life–soon fell apart. She and Rapp divorced, and Jenny eventually lost custody of Brian. By the mid-‘60s she was almost broke, estranged from her parents, and only allowed to see her son occasionally. “She had things that other actresses would kill for, she had the kind of life that they would just kill for, and she just apparently wasn’t ready to handle any of it,” Moorehouse says.

jenny maxwell
Jenny and Tip’s wedding

Courtesy Buddy Moorehouse

In the late 1960s, Jenny realized things had to change. She reconciled with her parents, regained partial custody of her son, and scored roles on My Three Sons and The Wild Wild West. Determined to stop acting and focus on being a mother, she started dating Ervin “Tip” Roeder, a man more than 20 years her senior with five kids and a rough reputation. He had become a lawyer after years as a cop, working under Louis C. Blau, a Hollywood heavyweight who represented Stanley Kubrick, Lana Turner, and Berry Gordy.

Roeder was known around Hollywood as the best friend, lawyer, and business manager of former teen star Nick Adams, famous pal of Elvis and James Dean. In 1968, it was Roeder who found Adams’s body in his bedroom after an apparent overdose.

Moorehouse says Roeder was known as a brash bully, who liked people to think he had connections to the mob. He could often be found at the La Cienega steakhouse Red Tracton’s, a known hangout for mobsters-types and their wannabe pals.

Roeder’s shady reputation didn’t stop Jenny from marrying him on February 17, 1970. The couple moved into a large home on Cherokee Lane in Beverly Hills, which Jenny decorated in a bold “safari” theme. She settled into the life of a fun-loving Beverly Hills housewife, taking her skateboarding son to get sushi, building bonfires at the family vacation home in Idyllwild, and throwing parties her husband reportedly rarely attended.

According to Jenny’s friends who spoke with Moorehouse, the marriage was a disaster. By 1978, Jenny decided she was done, but was encouraged by her lawyer to wait until the marriage had lasted ten years so she could get a larger settlement. The days ticked by, and once the ball dropped on their ten-year anniversary Jenny lawyered up. She bought her own condo, and was determined to restart her life.

But the Roeders’ toxic tango continued. “Their relationship was fragile at best,” Detective Mike Thies tells Los Angeles via email. “By 1981 they had separated a couple of times and Jenny had already filed for dissolution. They were living apart at the time of the murders. Numerous interviews with friends revealed that both were engaging in extramarital relationships while they were living together and even that Jenny would regale Roeder with details of her dalliances.”

A few months before his death, Tip began to act even odder than usual, Thies says. “Less than a year before his death, Roeder claimed he had been shot by a prowler in his backyard,” Thies recalls. “The wound was further described as a superficial graze. Roeder didn’t initially want to report the incident to the police. Some of his associates opined that Roeder was less than candid about the source of the gunshot and suspected it was self-inflicted.”

Tip Roeder was reportedly furious that Jenny would get a hefty divorce settlement. According to Moorehouse, Tip disinherited Jenny, stating: “It is my intention that Jennifer Helene Roeder will receive nothing upon my passing. I do not want a lying, cheating, deceitful woman to profit.”

But, according to Thies, Tip may not have been planning for Jenny to be around to contest his new will. “Three separate associates of Roeder shared that in the months prior to the murders, Roeder had approached them about retaining a person to kill Jenny and one of her ‘lovers,’’’ Thies says. “One of the associates claimed that Roeder wanted a person to kill Jenny and Roeder himself. All of those associates claimed they rejected Roeder’s request but felt certain that he eventually located someone who did.”

If Tip was, in fact, planning something untoward, it seems Jenny certainly wasn’t aware of it. On June 9, 1981, she had minor surgery at Cedars-Sinai, only a block away from her new condo. According to Moorehouse, she told a friend that Tip had offered to drive her home from the hospital the next day, which greatly worried the friend. But Jenny accepted the ride, and had lunch with Tip at a nearby restaurant. By 3:15 p.m., Tip was dying and Jenny was dead.

Despite the conclusions drawn at the time, Detective Thies says its his belief the burglary theory was bunk. Nothing had been stolen from the Roeders, and rounds of the rare ammo used to kill them were found in Tip Roeder’s Lincoln Continental. Thies believes that Tip had probably hired a hit man to murder his expensive, estranged wife.

“My opinion for the motives for [the] ‘hit’ on Jenny was for Roeder to avoid paying spousal support and just retribution for her behavior in general,” Thies says. “I feel that Roeder’s ‘wounding’ was orchestrated to provide plausible deniability of his involvement in the killing of Jenny.” Unfortunately for Tip, if that was the case, the hitman did his job too well.

Police were never able to locate a suspect, and no leads on the killer’s appearance were ever fruitful. “The case can never be closed sans the identification of the actual killer,” Thies says. “But I feel we achieved a level of satisfaction in ferreting out the underlying issue in the case.”

Though the Hollywood press never looked into the Roeders’ slaying, for Jenny’s family there is finally something like closure. “I flew down to Florida and I was actually able to let my mom know what had happened, and so she got some resolution, and then she passed away about a week later,” Moorehouse says. “We knew it wasn’t just a botched robbery, that never sat well with us, so I said I’m gonna try to find out and, luckily, I didn’t have to solve the case! Because the case was already solved. I talked to the guy who solved it.”

RELATED:  Forty Years Ago, the Sunset Strip Killers Terrorized L.A.

Stay up to date with everything you need to know about L.A. by following us on Facebook and Instagram.