You take Sinatra and have yourself a swoon. I’ll take Sonny.
Elaine Monfredi, then 21, after she had eloped with 14-year-old Ellsworth “Sonny” Wisecarver
He’s more of a man at 16 than a lot of men at 35. I love him more than I do my husband.
Eleanor Deveny, 25, after she had run off with Wisecarver
Husbands were a problem. So was the law. And so was a 1940s morality that couldn’t quite approve of young Ellsworth “Sonny” Wisecarver’s behavior. Of course, none of that stopped the Woo Woo Kid, as newspapers gleefully called the California teen with a taste for older women.
Forty years later it’s hard to believe that Wisecarver’s story, told affectionately in the new film In the Mood, was once the nation’s favorite scandal. Now living in relative obscurity in a small California town, Wisecarver was just 14 in 1944 when he ran off to Yuma, Ariz., with Elaine Monfredi and married her. She was then the common-law wife of a Willowbrook, Calif., sheet-metalworker and caring for two young daughters. The newlyweds were caught after Elaine’s wire home (“Mom—broke—wire cash immediately”) was intercepted by her husband. Back in Los Angeles, Sonny’s mother had the marriage annulled and Monfredi charged with child stealing, for which she received three years probation and was required to attend a church of her choice at least once a month. As for Sonny, he got off easy. He was sent to spend several months with relatives in Northern California.
But 18 months later, after a stint in the merchant marine, Sonny was at it again. While working in a Long Beach, Calif., tuna cannery he met a shapely, sassy, married brunette named Eleanor Deveny at a boarding house. They went out together for hamburgers one night and never came back. Eventually apprehended by a sheriff (Deveny’s husband was a Gl stationed in postwar Japan), Sonny was brought back to Los Angeles and slapped into the L.A. county jail. “It was kind of ridiculous,” he says now. “I was the only kid in there with a lot of hardened adult criminals. Fortunately I was kept in a cell by myself.”
A juvenile court judge called Wisecarver a sexual delinquent who was “leading, or in danger of leading, an idle, dissolute, lewd or immoral life.” In addition to his most famous nickname, newspapers called him What-a-Man Wisecarver, the L.A. Lothario, the Love Bandit and the Beardless Don Juan. Sonny’s final sentence: time in a California youth camp until he turned 21. “What no one ever thinks about when my story gets retold,” says Sonny, now 58, “is that they always turned the women loose, and I ended up in jail.”
Not for long. After a confrontation with the camp bully, Sonny escaped, fled to Nevada, and six months later married a girl his own age—17. That union lasted 22 years, after which he married a woman two decades his junior. He has a son, Michael, from that marriage, which ended in 1981.
“What I did wasn’t that unusual,” says Wisecarver of his youthful escapades. “Every young man wanted to do the same thing.” Maybe, but why did Sonny succeed at what others only fantasized about? At 5’11” and 135 lbs., he hardly had the looks of an irresistible ladies’ man. “Ellsworth is a big boy for his age,” his mother explained after the 1944 elopement. Not so, said one judge, who reportedly had Sonny’s sexual equipment measured by a doctor before pronouncing him a “normal” physical specimen. Perhaps girlfriend Eleanor (who later returned to her Gl husband) had the best answer. “You can put in your story,” she told one journalist, “that he really knows how to make love.”
“For me the attraction was purely physical,” Wisecarver admits. “Them? I don’t know. Maybe they were lonely. Maybe I treated them better than they’d ever been treated before.”
For Wisecarver, life since those colorful days has been a bit less generous. Stocky, craggy-faced and bespectacled, he now lives with his sister Patricia on the road to Big Bear Lake near Redlands, Calif. Wisecarver works as an occasional tour-bus driver and as boss of his own telephone installation company. His business isn’t doing so well, he admits, and he’s been charging Lorimar Productons $300 per day every time he does an interview promoting the new movie. He only earned about $14,000 from selling the rights to his life story, he says, and now “I’m waiting for someone to call me up to endorse some motor oil, after-shave lotion or a hamburger chain, so I can make enough to move up into the mountains and stay there the rest of my life. I don’t really like dealing with society much anymore, the way everything’s changed. I’d like to get me an old squaw and a 30.06 rifle and get off in the wilderness somewhere.”
Wisecarver says that In the Mood’s fictionalized, whimsical treatment of his adventures is “just right. By today’s standards, what I did was nothing. It was all a joke.” The film stars newcomer Patrick Dempsey as Sonny and Talia Balsam and Beverly D’Angelo as the older women who caught his youthful eye.
Last month Wisecarver took his son, Michael, to the movie’s Los Angeles premiere. “Afterward he didn’t say much,” notes Sonny. “So I prodded him. ‘What did you think about the picture?’ I asked. And you know what he said? ‘Daddy, is that all you can talk about?’ Still,” the Woo Woo Kid adds with a proud parental smile, “I noticed that he was very impressed with Beverly D’Angelo.”