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People Top 5
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- December 14, 1987
- Vol. 28
- No. 24
The Nightmare of His Mother's Murder Is Echoed in James Ellroy's Grisly New Novel, The Black Dahlia
Not the sort of taped phone message you'd expect from a man of letters. But then Ellroy, whose ambitions veer wildly from the mainstream, is not expecting a call from the Nobel committee. "I want to be the greatest writer of crime novels who ever breathed," he says.
That may be wishful thinking as long as genre kings like Elmore Leonard and Joseph Wambaugh draw breath. But Ellroy, 39, wants to bellow about The Black Dahlia, the latest and most gruesome of the seven violent romans noirs he has written since 1979. That was two years after he effected his escape from the cycle of alcoholism, drug addiction and petty crime that formed his learning experience as a writer.
Two of Ellroy's first six books, Blood on the Moon (a film version starring James Woods is due early next year) and Clandestine, nominated for the 1982 Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, have been reviled as sensationalist and hailed for their manic energy and suspense. But not until The Black Dahlia has Ellroy been accused of committing a masterpiece, as he has been by author Harlan Ellison, who calls Dahlia "the shocker other writers would kill to have written."
For Ellroy, whose mother was murdered when he was 10, the 40-year-old Black Dahlia case has been a lifelong obsession. The real Dahlia was Elizabeth Short, a would-be actress who left her Massachusetts home for L.A., soon to become a bar-hopping tramp known for wearing black. On Jan. 15, 1947, Short was found in a vacant lot, cut in two, her hair shampooed, her freshly bathed body drained of blood. The sensational case "got more ink than the Manson murders," says Ellroy.
Ellroy and film producer David Yorkin, who optioned the movie rights for $12,500, believe the case remains as compelling now as it was for tabloid readers then. "Elizabeth Short was emblematic of her times," Ellroy says. "She came from the East to be a movie star, like many girls of that more innocent era. Then this act of absolute random brutality. She was tortured for days. Rather than dump this girl who wouldn't be missed in the ocean or bury her, the killer drives around with two halves of a naked body in the trunk and deposits it six inches off the sidewalk in the middle of Los Angeles."
Unlike the legions of LAPD detectives who worked the real case, Ellroy's fictional cops solve the crime. The Los Angeles Times found his book "turgid with passion and violence," but Ellroy defends it as genre crime fiction, which he calls "the great popular language of American tragic realism. The crime writer has to look for the deepest and the darkest inside himself. And it's there in me in abundance."
That for Ellroy is understatement. A compulsive writer, he is also a confessional conversationalist. He describes his late father—a veteran of the Seventh Cavalry's Mexican incursion against Pancho Villa who was later, briefly, Rita Hayworth's business manager—as "a spellbindingly handsome, extremely well-endowed, tender and gentle womanizer who was eaten up inside for having blown all his promise. He was 50 when I was born."
Ellroy's mother was a nurse in L.A. who divorced Ellroy's father when James was 6. "She was a boozer, lazy and semipromiscuous. A big-breasted redhead. I had the hots for her in the worst way." A furious bundle of Freudian urges, Ellroy says he grew up all id. "I was a big, geeky, sex-obsessed kid. Almost 6' tall at 10. And strange." Another understatement.
Reciting the facts of his mother's murder, Ellroy sounds as dispassionate as if reciting from a police blotter: "Her body was found naked, wrapped in an overcoat, not raped, in the bushes by Arroyo High School in El Monte. She'd been seen leaving a bar the previous night with a dark-haired, heavy-bearded, pale-skinned man and a blond woman with a ponytail. My interpretation: a sex deal that went bad. She was sharp-tongued, articulate and bad-tempered. She mouthed off to the last guy in the world she should have." Her killer was never found.
Turning to crime literature for escape, Ellroy read a "haunting" account of the Dahlia case in a book, The Badge, by Dragnet's Jack Webb. "It brought my mother's death home in very brutal terms," he says. "I began to have awful nightmares of Elizabeth Short being killed. I was afraid to sleep."
An "angry and alienated" student at L.A.'s predominantly Jewish Fairfax High School, Ellroy was kicked out for breaking up a folk-song-club meeting with a song he wrote about anti-Semite George Lincoln Rockwell. His father died of stomach cancer four months later. "His last words," remembers Ellroy, "were, 'Try to pick up every waitress who serves you.' "
The next 12 years were a blur of drink and drugs. Living in abandoned houses and city parks, Ellroy supported himself as a burglar and shoplifter. He estimates that he was arrested more than 30 times for drunkenness between 1965 and 1977, until he finally hit bottom. Suffering from "amphetamine psychosis," aural hallucinations, a lung abscess and double pneumonia, Ellroy was scared straight: "It was quit or die. I quit." Two years later he started to write. "I couldn't diagram a sentence if you put a gun to my head," he says. "I have no formal training, but I had a story I had to tell."
Today, Ellroy is as addicted to work as he once was to booze. He lives alone in a rented basement room in Eastchester. Owning neither a car nor a TV, he bicycles and listens to classical music, big-band jazz and '50s rock on the radio. He occasionally takes the train to New York for nights of "meat and violence" with an editor friend. "We get steaks and see slasher movies on Times Square," he reports.
Ellroy is aware that these are not the sort of interests that women ordinarily look for in a man. "I would like children someday," he says. "But my last woman said, 'These are the reasons I can't be with you: One, you're too intense. Two, you're too limited in your interests,' which she listed as war movies, boxing, L.A. in the past, sex, big-band jazz, oldies but goodies, and crime."
Was he crushed?
"She's a smart woman," Ellroy says. "I'm torchin' for her."
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