James Ellroy sits reading Jack Webb’s The Badge in the Clark Gable-Carole Lombard suite of the Alexandria Hotel, downtown LA, in the Fall of 1994. I’m there as interviewer—asking him questions for a documentary on the “Demon Dog of American Literature” called White Jazz. A preliminary Q&A was filmed the day before at a motel off Hollywood where Ellroy gave his pitch (“Woof, woof! Hear the Demon Dog bark…”) and want to find out who’s the man behind this well-rehearsed front.
We talk books: Ellroy’s telling me how his father Lee gave him a copy of The Badge for his eleventh birthday—a book of true tales of LA crime and the LAPD, in amongst which was the “brutally, graphically sexually explicit” story of the unsolved murder of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short, which became known as the Black Dahlia killing. Ellroy said this explicit ten-page tale had haunted him.
I thought it a strange book to give a kid who was used to reading the Hardy Boys and especially a child whose own mother, Geneva Hilliker, had been strangled with her own stockings and her body dumped in El Monte just a year before in 1958. So, I ask him: Didn’t he think this was a strange book to give a child? Ellroy stops. He says he doesn’t get the question. I think he’s stalling, but ask again. Still he doesn’t get the question—doesn’t seem to understand or want to understand or really want to answer the question.
The Badge is part of Ellroy’s myth—a key to understanding what he wants to be known about himself as it deflects as much as it reveals. It’s the book that pointed his imagination towards writing crime fiction and was the source of his teenage obsessions where he merged the murder of his mother with that of the Black Dahlia—feeding his fantasy of saving Dahlia/Hilliker from person or persons unknown and setting the world to right. Setting the world to right is perhaps why some writers do write—the world they create is containable.
Director Nicola Black, camera Jerry Kelly with James Ellroy, LA 1994.
The documentary White Jazz was produced and directed by Nicola Black. It came about after Black had filmed Ellroy (in cold damp Victorian prison cell off the banks of the River Clyde in Scotland) for a previous documentary on the world’s first private detective Allan Pinkerton—a drama-doc which starred Peter Capaldi. Made over one intense week with Ellroy in LA, October ‘94, White Jazz followed the Demon Dog around the sites of his childhood, his criminal youth, and sober years as a writer. The film then opens out to follow Ellroy’s personal investigation into the unsolved murder of his mother, with the help of ex-County Sheriff’s Department Detective Bill Stoner—a calm, lean, genial man, eyes twinkling, full mustache, whose quite demeanour belies the horrors he has seen—he helped solve the Cotton Club killing—picking-up a victim’s exploded, shattered teeth on a desolate hillside. Stoner takes Ellroy through Hilliker’s morgue file—the black and whites of crime scene, body, ligature marks, bruises, and autopsy report—before visiting her last known locations where seen and the suggesting possible suspects. Ellroy’s collaborative investigation with Stoner became his non-fiction book My Dark Places (1996).
This award-winning documentary is seldom seen online—though pirate copies can switch hands for mucho dinero—and it’s a moving, fascinating and revealing portrait of James Ellroy, in which he takes the viewer on a personal odyssey through his life, his work and his obsessions with the city of Los Angeles—his “smog-bound Fatherland.”
But time moves on, and Ellroy is currently selling his Hollywood Hills residence for $1.39m—if you want to take a peak at his monkish orderly abode check here. He also has a new book out LAPD ‘53, in which he illuminates 85 duotone photographs from the LAPD archive that are “representative of a day in the life of America’s most provocative police agency.”