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‘Mystery at the Blue Sea Cottage’: Author says his new book untangles 1923 death with La Jolla ties

James Stewart's new book, "Mystery at the Blue Sea Cottage," has a La Jolla connection.
(Courtesy of James Stewart)

Hooked on unsolved mysteries and “old crime,” local author James Stewart believes he’s solved one of San Diego’s own mysteries and has published his first book detailing the case, which has a La Jolla connection.

The case is “not officially solved,” Stewart said of the 1923 death of Fritzie Mann, a young interpretive dancer whose body was found on Torrey Pines State Beach. But he said he knows “who, where, when, what and why. The exact how is open to some interpretation.”

Mann’s death was “probably the biggest story in San Diego history up to that time,” he said.

Stewart, a resident of Tierrasanta, explores the case in “Mystery at the Blue Sea Cottage: A True Story of Murder in San Diego’s Jazz Age,” available Tuesday, Oct. 5, at wbp.bz/blueseacottagea.

Author James Stewart
Author James Stewart says his new book “is a mystery upon a mystery, from the first page to the last. You’ll have to read it and find out.”
(Courtesy of James Stewart)

Mann, who was 20 at the time of her death, lived with her family on Spruce Street in San Diego. She left one Sunday night to meet a man but refused to say who it was, Stewart said. She told her mother she was attending a house party in Del Mar.

The next day, her body was found “in a strange posture” on the shore near Los Penasquitos Lagoon, her possessions “strewn all over the place,” Stewart said. Authorities launched an investigation as suspects were revealed, some with ties to the film industry. Mann was rumored to have had a secret husband and acting contract in Hollywood.

With the story “[blowing] up in the press,” the search led detectives to La Jolla, where Mann was thought to have gone. There, it seems she and a man checked into the Blue Sea Cottage using the pseudonyms of a married couple. The manager identified Mann’s body.

The Blue Sea Cottage used to stand on Bonair Street just east of Windansea Beach, Stewart said. It was built around the same time as La Jolla’s Red Roost and Red Rest cottages, in the 1890s, but was torn down a few decades after the 1923 crime.

Police canvassed La Jolla during the investigation, following up on rumors and “indications that the killer had gone south” from Del Mar.

That led to one suspect being taken to trial twice, Stewart said. The suspect was ultimately acquitted.

Stewart wrote his book as narrative nonfiction, a genre based in fact with “some of the techniques of fiction,” such as scenes with dialogue.

To ensure accuracy — Stewart said he doesn’t make up or embellish any details or dialogue — he combed through myriad newspaper articles, trial transcripts, court documents and other materials.

Writing about a nearly century-old crime challenged Stewart, as narrative nonfiction often involves characterizations and dramatizations, and digging up details still left “big holes that you try to fill in.”

Stewart found government and other documents that he said provided “new evidence” unknown at the time that jurors never considered.

Stewart won’t give away any of his discoveries but said the book “is a mystery upon a mystery, from the first page to the last. You’ll have to read it and find out.”

“Mystery at the Blue Sea Cottage,” which took Stewart nine years to complete, began as a thesis project as he completed his master’s degree in narrative nonfiction writing from UC Riverside after retiring from the Navy.

“I always wanted to be a writer,” he said. “I discovered early on that it was what I was best at.”

Stewart said he made sporadic attempts over the years, writing a couple of novels but not publishing any of his work before now.

He said he was drawn to narrative nonfiction because of the challenge to write nonfiction like a novel: “Real life doesn’t cooperate with storytelling imperatives.”

Stewart currently is in early research for his next book, about a “bizarre” 1923 crime in Oregon.

“It’s my favorite period,” he said.