Boni Buehler – 1953 Boat Propeller Accident
Quick Summary of the Boni Buehler Accident
Much of this quick summary below comes from Los Angeles Times coverage of the accident
Boni Bueheler was a 23 years old aspiring dancer and actress living in Hollywood California working as a stewardess for Western Airlines. Originally from Ogden, Utah, her parent had moved on to Scottsbluff, Nebraska.
She lived in Hollywood with Marjie Millar, described as a starlet, and Nancy Hadley, a model. Boni Buehler and Marjie Millar had been college roommates at Stephens College in Columbia Missouri.
On August 16, 1953 Boni was with some friends in a boat owned by Conrad Hilton (the Conrad Hilton of Hilton Hotels) in a beautiful setting on Lake Arrowhead. The group of four on the outing included:
- Boni Buehler
- Geary Steffen (previously married to the actress Jane Powell and sometimes spelled Gearry Steffan)
- Quary Sargeant described as a weathy Los Angeles juke box chain operator
- Florence Bleck, 20 year old student
The four of them had borrowed Conrad Hilton’s boat while they were weekend guests at Sam Sontag’s home in Shelter Cove. Sam was the founder of the Sontag Drug Store chain.
Geary Steffen was water skiing behind the boat at the time of the accident. Geary was also widely known for being the ice skating partner of the famous skater, Sonja Henie. His divorce from actress Jane Powell was final just ten days ago. Jane said he spent too much time water skiing, playing tennis, and other athletic endeavors and not enough time with her.
As the boat passed by Buster Crabb’s dock (well known Olympic swimmer, actor, and onscreen representation of Tarzan, Flash Gordon, and Buck Rogers) in the exclusive North Bay section of Lake Arrowhead, Boni fell from the boat and was struck by the propeller. Her left arm was severed at the shoulder and her left leg was mangled. It was reported that the backwash of the boat dragged her into the propeller.
Quary Sargeant reported felling something hit the prop, the thought Geary Steffen had fallen from his skis, so he “cut the motor”. Boni had fallen overboard from the starboard front seat of the boat.
The only visual witness of the accident was Geary Steffen who was skiing behind the boat. He dove from his water skis and helped get her back on board. On the way to Santa Anna Hospital he breathed air into her mouth to help keep her alive.
Boni was taken to Santa Anita Hospital where her left arm was described as sheared off an inch from the shoulder, and her left leg was amputated close to the hip later that night making her a double amputee. Her condition was described as “extremely critical”. Boni required three blood transfusions. One of the blood donors was the boat operator, Quary Sargeant. The hospital issued a call for more Type O-positive blood donors.
Eyewitness said the 19 foot boat was going about 30 knots when Boni Buehler fell from it.
Media Coverage of the Boni Bueher Accident, Her Recovery, and Her Life
In addition the resulting trial, Boni Buehler was frequently in the national news for the next four years as America followed the progress of this beautiful young woman full of spunk and optimism through her recovery as a double amputee and entry to at least a somewhat normal family life.
The accident happened on Sunday August 16, 1953. The flurry of news media reports began shortly later.
Among the news stories were:
- 17 August 1953 Los Angeles Times “Speedboat Mangles Girl at Arrowhead” announces the accident on page 1.
- 17 August 1953 Long Beach Press Telegram “Girl Mangled by Boat Propeller”. A front page feature story with a large photo of Boni Buehler on the day after the accident.
- 18 August 1953 Los Angeles Times “Arrowhead Boat Victim Rallying” reports Boni Buehler is rallying after losing her arm and leg in the recent accident.
- 9 September 1953 Spokane Daily Chronicle (Washington) “Girl Who Lost Arm and Leg Still Keeps the Old Chin Up” reports Boni Buehler is now getting around on a roller walker that has a Klaxon horn and a license plate. Boni reports received piles of mail daily from as far away as Korea. Some include marriage proposals. Her mother and her roommate, Marjie Millar, have stayed with her at Santa Anita Hospital since the accident. Boni notes several things broke her way including being near this hospital and her presence of mind to instruct Geary Steffen to breathe into her mouth to help keep her alive. Boni reports telling a priest that came by to administer last rites that she had no intention of dying. She knew she could come through this “come hell or high water.”
- 10 September 1953 Reading Eagle (Pennsylvania) “Plans Career in Hollywood” writes of her courageous outlook and plans to be prepared to come back to Hollywood and carry on with “some sort of a career”.
- 10 September 1953 Spokesman-Review (Washington) “Maimed Dancer Refuses to Cry” visits Boni in a hospital bed overlooking Lake Arrowhead (lake the accident was in). Boni recognizes the accident will slow down her life’s plans a little, but she has full intentions of living a happy life. She wants to get well, begin preparing her body for artificial limbs, and to come back to a career in Hollywood of some sort. As a stewardess for three years she had previously faced the idea of an accident. She does not blame anybody or anything and closes with, “I believe in God.”
- 12 September 1953 Spokane Daily Chronicle (Washington) “It Doesn’t Seem So Bad Now” reports on Boni’s great attitude and notes her youth made the accident seem more tragic, but helps her better deal with her challenges at this time. However, it notes those challenges will become worse in her later life and the limelight will be gone then. It suggests/hopes her current bravery may then be replaced by the philosophy of maturity.
- 14 September 1953 Spokane Daily Chronicle (Washington) “Courageous Girl” includes a large photo of Boni Buehler making her first public appearance since the accident at a Hollywood makeup artists affair (party). She is shown with her mother, Vick Damone (a singer), and Geary Steffen.
- 21 September 1953 Stars and Stripes “Spunky Amputee” includes a large photo of Boni Buehler seated on an airliner chatting with a stewardess on her way home to Scottsbluff Nebraska where she plans so soon begin learning how to use artificial limbs.
- 13 October 1953 The Miami News “Boni Packs Up for ‘Challenge'”. Announced Boni is at her parents packing to return to Hollywood to a job at Western Airlines and to help in the prosthetics training department of the University of California at Los Angeles. She continues to exude optimism, has no regrets about loosing her leg and arm, and has a greater appreciation for life. The story quotes her earlier comments from a hospital bed, “What’s the use of crying now? I have a whole life ahead of me. I’m going to be happy.”
- 14 October 1953 Los Angeles Times “Boat Tragedy Beauty Asks $500,000 in Suit” announced the pending lawsuit naming six defendants. Boni Buehler is asking for $350,000 in general damages and $150,000 for loss of future earnings.
- 14 October 1953 Los Angeles Times “Victim Packs for Return to Hollywood” reports Boni plans to be Palm Springs this weekend for the opening of Charles Farrell’s Racquet Club, and on Sunday to be at the Los Angeles Air Fair where she will be “Queen” of the event. Plus she will soon be returning to a new job at Western Airlines and be helping at the University of California in Los Angeles prosthetics training department
- 15 October 1953 St. Petersburg Times (Florida) “Stewardess Sues Man Who Saved Her Life”. Reports Boni Buehler filed a half million dollar damages suit in Superior Court against Conrad Hilton (hotel baron and owner of the boat), Geary Steffan (water skiing at the time and pulled her from the water), Edi and Elise Juan (maintained the boat), Los Angeles Turf Club (owners of Lake Arrowhead Resort), Quay Sergeant (boat operator), two corporations, and 35 individual John Does. The article notes the “indomitable spirit with which Miss Buehler accepted her handicap and refused to abandon her plans for a normal future drew wide attention during her weeks in the hospital.”
- 16 October 1953 Spokane Daily Chronicle (Washington) “Hollywood Bound” includes a large photo of Boni and her sister packing Boni’s bags after a month’s recovery at her parents home in Scottsbluff Nebraska. She is going to return to work and hopes to overcome her challenges.
- 17 October 1953 Los Angeles Times “Girl Crippled by Boat Returns — Still Smiling” reports a front page story on the return of Boni Buehelr and her being met at the airport by Geary Steffan along with a nice large photo of the event. Her return was said to have been “captured on film by a battery of newspaper and newsreel cameramen who met her as she was assisted from the plane. When Boni was asked if there was anything serious (relationship wise) going on between here and Geary Steffen, she said they were just very good friends and she owed him a lot. Boni reported that when she stopped in Los Vegas on her way to Los Angeles, local hotel men presented her with a check for $1,100. Note – some additional photos of her stop in Los Angeles International Airport are near the bottom of this post.
- 19 October 1953 Coshocton Tribune (Ohio) “Beaming Boni” includes a front page photo of her arrival at Los Angeles International Airport (now LAX) being met by Geary Steffan (water skiing at time of the accident and named in her law suit). She is in a wheelchair and they are both all smiles. The paper (as have others) refers to her positive attitude and her determination as “plucky”.
- Timeline Note – Boni Buehler was scheduled to be fitted with a artificial arm about 1 November and an artificial leg about Christmas 1953.
- Timeline Note – December 1953 with the urging of Geary Steffan, Marji Millan and Boni Buehler were able to rent a Pacific Palisades house with four bedrooms, a swimming pool, and a cook for a moderate rate. Later, in 1954 the two young women roomed together in a small English cottage in Santa Monica.
- 13 March 1954 The Day (Connecticut) “Behind the Hollywood Scene” reports on a Ruth Lewis-Gail Gray party at which single men and women were encouraged to come without dates. The report notes Boni Buehler was having fun in her wheel chair.
- 12 April 1954 Deseret News (Utah) “Hilton Petitions for Exoneration” Conrad Hilton (of the hotels and owner of the boat involved in the accident) petitioned a Federal Court to exonerate his liability under Admiralty Law because he was not present at the accident, the boat was well maintained and equipped. Under statutes in navigable waters where this law applies ship owners liabilities are limited to the value of the vessel and its contents/freight which in this case, Hilton estimates his share at $3,000. If he wins this case AND she wins in state court, his share could be limited to $3,000.
- 23 April 1954 Schenectady Gazette (New York) “Ex-Stewardess Prepared for Artificial Limb” reports Boni underwent minor surgery yesterday to prepare her body to receive an artificial leg. Doctors expect her to be out of the hospital in a few days and be ready for fitting her artificial leg in the near future.
- 24 July 1954 The Day (Connecticut) “Behind the Hollywood Scene” notes Boni Buehler was seen out with Hugh O’Brien at the Harlequin theater. I grew up with Hugh O’Brien as Wyatt Earp, which was launched on TV the next year, 1955.
- 15 April 1955 “Owosso Argus-Press (Michigan) Boni Buehler Happy in Maid of Honor Role” reports Boni Buehler will be maid of honor for her friend, movie actress Marjie Millar at her April 23 wedding to John Florea in Tacoma, Washington. Boni will be wearing a special dress to hide her missing arm while she negotiates her way on “Hermadene”, the pet name she has given to her artificial leg. Marjie and Boni met in college at Stephens College in Missouri, then later roomed together in Hollywood. John Florea was a well known photographer best known for his World War II photos. He had also recently taken some of the now more widely known photos of Marilyn Monroe. Marjie and John’s marriage ended in 1957. John went on to direct many popular tv series including: MacGyver, Chips, Dukes of Hazard, Ironside, Mission Impossible, Gentle Ben, Daniel Boone, Bonanza, The Virginian, Sea Hunt, and Highway Patrol.
- 25 April 1955 Windsor Daily Star (Windsor, Ontario Canada) “Cripple Girl Fulfills Vow” reports Boni made it down the isle at her friend’s wedding (Marjie Millar) on Hermadene (her name for her artificial leg). Boni beamed with pride as a bridesmaid.
- 26 April 1955 Saskatoon Star-Phoenix (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan Canada) “Heroic Maid at Wedding” also reported on Boni Buehler’s performance as a bridesmaid at the recent wedding and referred to her as a “vivacious honey blond”. The paper also noted she was able to stand on her artificial leg for the entire 15 minute ceremony and although visibly tired, she was also able to attend the reception at the home of the bride’s parents.
- 6 July 1954 Los Angeles Times “Girl’s Suit in Hilton Boat Tragedy Tried” reports the long awaited trial began July 5th.
- 8 July 1955 Spokane Daily Chronicle (Washington) “Mistrial is Called in Arm Loss Suit” notes Judge Jesse W. Curtis said the jury might have been influenced by newspaper coverage of a settlement offer, so a mistrial has been declared.
- 12 January 1956 Los Angeles Times “New Trial Date Set for Boni Buehler” reports a new date has now been set for January 30, 1957. The July 1955 trial resulted in a mistrial.
- 28 January 1956 Los Angeles Times “Hilton Pays $50,000 in Accident Suit” reports Conrad Hilton settled his portion of the case for $50,000 yesterday. This indicates Conrad Hilton’s earlier efforts at an Admiralty Law Jones Act defense to limit his liability to $3,000 were unsuccessful.
- 22 February 1956 Los Angeles Times “Airline Hostess’ Injury in Boat Accident Told” reports Boni Buehler’s injuries, and need for lifetime care were presented in court earlier today. Her doctor said he had attended to her about once a month since the accident and he recommends she have assistance at all times. Two Los Angeles Turf Club officials testified they had checked the boat. One of them saw the windshield brace in the back seat that allegedly gave way under Boni Buehler’s grip and allowed her to fall overboard.
- 17 March 1956 Los Angeles Times “Woman Gets $265,000 for Boat Mishap Injury” reports the court awarded her $265,000 in damages today. $165,000 in previous settlements is to be subtracted from this amount. Settlements for $115,000 were reached with the Los Angeles Turf Club, Lake Arrowhead Boat Company, Edi and Elsie Jaun (maintained the boat). No damages were assessed against Quary Sargeant, the driver. Sargeant’s attorney said he was “only the agent of the water skier” in this situation. Conrad Hilton (speedboat owner) settled for $50,000, and Geary Steffan for $100,000. Interestingly it was Steffan who rescued her, breathed air into her on the way to the hospital, and sent her a rose every day of her recovery. Note – Amounts listed are from merging this news report with a Girl Cripple Wins Suit, March 17, 1956 news article in the New York Times.
- 29 June 1956 Lodi News Sentinel (California) “Another Award to Injured Hostess” a UP reports says Melvin Belli, Boni Buehler’s lawyer, announced she had received $165,000 for the loss of an arm and a leg, and will now receive and additional $100,000 from a March 16th Judgement. An appeal by one defendant in the $100,000 judgement has now been dropped. The $100,000 settlement was made by Traveler’s Insurance representing Geary Steffen. The $165,000 settlement was not appealed.
- 11 March 1957 Ellensburg Daily Record (Washington) “Boni Buehler Weds” includes a nice large AP wire photo announcing Bonnie Buehler married Charles (we left her husband’s name off to give them at least a little privacy) were recently married in Las Vegas (May 8th) and are now honeymooning there. She walked down the aisle on her artificial leg. A cape on her dress covered her missing arm and the ring was placed on her right hand.
- 11 March 1957 Spokane Daily Chronicle (Washington) “Woman Amputee, Speedboat Victim, is Wed to Broker” reports some additional information on the wedding and her new husband. Her husband is a financial investment broker and social figure from San Morino California. The couple met on a blind date, an eight month romance followed, and now they are married. Boni’s mother flew in for the wedding. The couple plans to live in California.
- 21 July 1957 St. Joseph News-Press (Missouri) “Boni Buehler Expecting Child” reports Boni Buehler and her husband Charles are expecting a child at the end of the year.
- 27 December 1957 Spokane Daily Chronicle (Washington) “Double Amputee Mother of Boy” reports Boni and her husband Charles gave birth to her first child, a baby boy on Christmas Day 1957. He weighed 6 pounds 2 ounces.
- 27 December 1957 Palladium Times (New York) “Baby Born to Crippled Ex-Airline Hostess” reports a baby boy born to the “plucky” former airline hostess on Christmas Day.
- Timeline Note – 1958 Marji Millar, Boni Buehler’s long time friend and prior roommate, seriously injured her leg in an automobile accident. When she was at risk of loosing her leg, Marji thought back to her experiences with Boni Buehler’s recovery, courage, and success in life after her accident and was able to pull through and save her leg.
- 16 April 1966 Boni’s long time friend, Marji Millar died at age 35. After at least 14 surgeries on her leg, she died of unrelated medical issues. Marji Millar had been married four times and appeared in several television shows and movies, including Dragnet, The Millionaire, and a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis film, Money from Home.
Melvin Belli – Lawyer for Boni Buehler
Boni Buehler’s family counted 90 solicitations from legal firms seeking to represent her. Boni chose none of them, she did not trust them because they approached her. Instead she chose Melvin Belli and Senator James Cunningham.
Melvin Belli was a very prominent lawyer know as “King of the Torts”. He introduced many concepts now frequently used in product liability trials. Mr. Belli later published a book with a photo of Boni Buehler on the cover titled, Ready for the Plaintif.
Melvin Belli was among those introducing many practices now commonly used in court including the use of expert witnesses and the use of video recorded testimony. He is probably best known for defending Jack Ruby (shot Lee Harvey Oswald). Melvin Belli even had a major role in a Star Trek episode and in Murder She Wrote. Born in 1907, Melvin Belli, tall and imposing, was known for presenting graphic gruesome evidence in the courtroom. By the 1950’s his clients included many Hollywood personalities including Errol Flynn and Lana Turner. Melvin Belli went on to represent the Rolling Stones. When he won a case, he ran a Jolly Rodger pirate flag up a pole atop his office building in San Francisco at sundown (or to half-mast if he lost) and fired two signal shots. Other major cases included the MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas in 1980, the collapse of the Hyatt Regency walkway in Kansas City in 1981, and the Union Carbide toxic gas leak in Bhopal India in 1984.
As a longtime personal friend of Raymond Burr (Perry Mason on TV), when Mr. Burr passed, Melvin praised him for showing how lawyers could aid the common man. If you were in the right, you could prevail and win in court.
Melvin Belli was married six times and authored several books. His office was somewhat of a disorganized museum housing objects he collect from cases and his world travels. The 1987 San Francisco earthquake seriously damaged his building, his health declined, and he died in 1996. See American National Biography Online for more information on Melvin Belli.
Boni Buehler’s Trial(s)
While Melvin Belli and Senator James Cunningham represented Boni Buehler, her case was filed by John Lewis King.
Melvin Belli introduced the use of video recorded depositions in this case with his deposition of Gearry Steffan.
As mentioned in the news reports above, Boni Buehler sued six defendants in October 1953 for $350,000 in general damages and $150,000 in future lost earnings. The first trial was declared a mistrial when the press published a report that a settlement offer had been made. The judge felt that if the jury knew the various defendants had offered to settle, it would prejudice the jury against them.
By the end of the second trial in early 1956, she had been awarded a total of $265,000:
- $150,000 from the Los Angeles Turf Club, Lake Arrowhead Boat Company, Edi and Elsie Jaun (they maintained the boat)
- $100,000 from Geary Steffan
- $50,000 from Conrad Hilton, the boat owner
- $0 from Quary Sargeant, the boat operator
Miscellaneous Information on Boni Buehler
We noted a 22 August 1954 Los Angeles Times article on Santa Anita Hospital celebrating its third anniversary this summer. The hospital was donated in 1951 by the Los Angeles Turf Club. The hospital that saved Boni Buehler was donated two years earlier by one of the groups she sued. It is possible she may not have been aware of that.
A few years back we came across an original 1957 press photo of Boni Buehler and her husband honeymooning in Las Vegas for sale on eBay. We captured a copy of it. They appear to be a happy, charming couple that has thought out some of the challenges ahead. We also found an original 1953 press photo of Boni Buehler returning to Hollywood and being met at the airport by Geary Steffan.
The passing decades have changed our language. Several news reports of Boni Buehler’s recovery referred to her as a “Cripple” or “Crippled”. A closer world in time used the word handicapped, and now America seems to be moving away from that term as well.
Early on when Boni Buehler was asked why she included Geary Steffan’s name in the lawsuit when he was the one that breathed air into her to keep her alive and sent her a rose every day of her recovery, Boni said it was just a technicality. She had been asked to list everybody that might possibly have been involved.
Nancy Hadley, who also roomed with Boni Buehler and Marjie Millar at the time of the accident went on to play parts in countless television shows in the 50’s and 60’s, especially westerns like Bonanza, Sugarfoot, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Pony Express, Rawhide, Have Gun – Will Travel, The Rough Riders, Bat Masterson, Sheriff of Cochise, and Frontier.
With the success of Marji Millar and Nancy Hadley in the entertainment world, its very easy to envision Boni Buehler would have had similar opportunities had she not been involved in this accident. While the world of fame and glamor has its advantages, she seems to be the kind of person that makes the best of any situation and is probably truly happy the way things turned out.
If you look ahead just a little ways, Marji Millar was becoming a substantial actress, she went to marry a director with ties to many television shows. Boni Buehler had a very powerful virtual rolodex of Hollywood connections. Those connections along with Boni’s good looks, past experiences, and physical conditioning painted a rosy future for her til that fateful day.
A Sense of Some of the Challenges Boni Buehler Faced in Her Return to California
Previously, she was known as a beautiful stewardess seeking a career in dancing or acting. She had been out and about with many well known celebrities and roomed with two other pretty girl with similar aspirations that were beginning to see some success. It seemed like her hopes would be realized quite soon.
After the accident and recovering from her immediate medical challenges, she returned triumphantly to southern California still harboring hopes of entering the entertainment industry in some capacity.Photos from this era show her on the plane going home to her parents to recover, at her parents packing to come back to California, and a series of photos taken at her return to Los Angeles International Airport. Most of those are taken up close with people close by her side (no sense of her really being alone and facing tremendous challenges). Among them is the news photo at right showing her return to Los Angeles. Up close and down low by her is Geary Steffen (was skiing behind the boat at the time of her accident). Her friend, Marji Millar is crouched down behind her. The photo almost makes it seem possible, that Boni Buehelr is really going to be able to return and still accomplish some of her on stage goals.
A few other photos taken at the same time show a much bleaker reality and some of the tremendous challenges she faced. Even though she faced them with her ever present positive attitude, they show a least a glimpse of what it must have looked like from her eyes.
While the press turned out in mass (we see at least three early day TV cameras in the image below) she was rolled out to address them by herself.
The photo below provides a closer look at what it might have felt like to have been in her shoe (she only had one), there all alone on the tarmac on wheels supported by a bucket of tubing, metal, fabric, and bolts.
The last image, below, hints at how a one legged and one armed woman deplaned at Los Angeles International Airport in those days. Because they were expecting her, in this instance we see a very large male attendant trying to help her down the steps and a wheelchair at the ready. She is wearing one high heel, meaning he probably had to carry her off the plane. In the background inside the plane, we see the ever present Marji Millar.
Later on we never see up close photos of her artificial limbs or the months of effort required to get used to them.
Tribute to Boni Buehler
This young woman faced tremendous adversity and did so cheerfully. She over came the medical and physical challenges, or at least learned how to cope with them, went on to be married and raise a family. We hope our bringing this story back to light, helps Boni Buehler’s spunky, courageous attitude inspire another generation of those facing somewhat similar challenges today.
The story also entails the importance of a true friend that will stand by your side through thick and thin as Marjie Millar stood by Boni Buehler’s side through her recovery, and how Boni went on to be a bridesmaid at Marji’s wedding.
Well done Boni Buehler and Marji Millar.
Boni B. Blalack passed away 27 February 2015.