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The Demon Dog: Filming with James Ellroy in L.A., 1994
10:21 am


Nicola Black
James Ellroy

James Ellroy sits reading Jack Webb’s The Badge in the Clark Gable-Carole Lombard suite of the Alexandria Hotel, downtown L.A., Fall of 1994. I’m there as factotum, Johnny-come-lately interviewer asking the “Demon Dog of American Literature” listed and off-the-cuff questions for a documentary called White Jazz. We filmed a preliminary Q&A the day before at a motel near Hollywood where Ellroy hammed it up and gave his pitch: “Woof, woof! Hear the Demon Dog bark…” While that was all good screen time, I want to now find out who’s the man behind this way-sharp, way-cool, and well-rehearsed front.

We talk books. Ellroy sez how his father Lee—once Rita Hayworth’s manager—gave him a copy of The Badge for his eleventh birthday. In among this illustrated volume of gritty true tales of LA crime and the LAPD was the “brutally, graphically sexually explicit” story of the unsolved murder of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short, aka the Black Dahlia.  Ellroy said as a kid he got a had a hard-on for this kinda true crime story stuff. But let’s be frank: the Black Dahlia slaying was a way off-the-scale tale of torture, mutilation, and sex that has haunted Ellroy ever since.

But then I thought: wasn’t this a strange kinda book to give a kid? A kid used to the Hardy Boys, I Love Lucy, hot dogs, Westerns and Comic Capers? A kid whose mother, Geneva Hilliker, had been brutalized, strangled with her own stockings, body dumped in El Monte just one year before in 1958—a murder that was and is still unsolved. Didn’t Ellroy think this was a kinda strange book for his Dad the big schlonged Lee to give his kid—who was probably still traumatized by his Mother’s murder? Ellroy stops. He doesn’t get the question. He says he doesn’t understand me. Maybe it’s my sub-seanconnery accent. Maybe it’s my question. Maybe he’s stalling. I ask it again. He still doesn’t get it—doesn’t seem to understand or more accurately want to understand or truly want to answer the question.
The Badge is part of Ellroy’s myth—one key to understanding who he is. It also allows him to reveal what he wants to be known about himself. It deflects as much as it reveals. It’s the book that pushed his imagination towards writing crime fiction. That and every 25c crime story he could get his hands on. It was the source of his teenage obsession where he merged the murder of his Mother with that of the Black Dahlia—feeding his fantasy of saving Dahlia/Hilliker from a murderous person or persons unknown and setting the world to right. Setting the world to order is why some writers write—it allows them to create a world that is containable and suitable to their needs.
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 a 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 had starred Peter Capaldi. White Jazz was made over one intense week with Ellroy in LA, October ‘94. The documentary followed the Demon Dog around the sites of his childhood, his criminal youth, and sober years as a writer. The film then opened out to follow Ellroy’s personal investigation into his Mother’s unsolved murder. For this he called in the help of an ex-County Sheriff’s Department Detective Bill Stoner. Stoner is a calm, lean, genial man, eyes twinkling, full mustache, whose quiet 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.”

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
James Ellroy’s obsessive and murderous world

James Ellroy. Often writes. In. One. Word. Sentences. Sometimes two. It’s a style he developed when editing his novel White Jazz—the final volume of his famous (first) L.A. Quartet. He thought the manuscript too long—the action held back by unnecessary descriptive passages—so he slashed whole paragraphs and sentences to one-word blasts. The result was powerful, explosive, relentless—like being punched by a champion heavyweight, or poked in the chest by a speed freak keeping your attention focussed on his latest conspiracy theory.

Ellroy is the greatest living historical novelist/crime writer—historical novelist is how he describes himself—writing rich, complex novels—filled with multiple plot lines and characters—all held together, with Tolstoyan skill, in a single narrative.
Ellroy as a child pictured next to his mother in news report of her slaying.
If the past is a foreign country then Ellroy is a pioneer of that territory. He maps out America’s hidden criminal history—a dark foreboding underworld—which he situates between the twin poles of his personal obsession: the unsolved murder of his mother in 1958 and the slaying of Elizabeth Short, the “Black Dahlia,” whose tortured, brutalized and severed body was discovered in January 1947.
LA Times report on the ‘Black Dahlia’ murder, 1947.
These two murders underscore much of Ellroy’s life and fiction. He was just a ten-year-old kid when his mother was murdered by person or persons unknown. The trauma of this act led Ellroy into a world of petty crime, drug addiction and prison. He daydreamed and plotted and ran movies in his head where he saved a fantasy amalgam of his mother and Elizabeth Short from torturous demise. He knew his life was in free-fall—he was on a one-way ticket to the morgue. After a near fatal incident—a lung infection caused by his drug and alcohol addiction—Ellroy saved himself by writing crime fiction.

Last year, Ellroy published Perfidia—the first volume of his second L.A. Quartet—which follows (in real time) factual public and fictional private deeds across Los Angeles in the days around Pearl Harbor. Perfidia documents the racism and brutality of the cops and everyday Angelenos as Japanese-Americans are rounded-up and dumped in internment camps. It is a remarkable book, an adrenaline charged assault on America’s secret history and is arguably the best book he has written.

In 1994, Nicola Black made an astounding documentary on Ellroy called White Jazz that followed his quest to find his mother’s killer. If that had been available I’d have posted it here. Instead here is James Ellroy’s Feast of Death a BBC documentary form 2001 that covers similar ground but with the added bonus of a round table discussion on the Black Dahlia killing held in the Pacific Dining Car restaurant between Ellroy and a bunch of ex-cops and interested parties—including a briefly glimpsed Nick Nolte.


Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Dance Noir: James Ellroy’s ‘My Dark Places’ inspires modern dance piece
12:00 pm


James Ellroy
Hans Van den Broeck

James Ellroy is not the real name of James Ellroy, did you know that? He was born Lee Earle Ellroy, after his father, whom he would come to despise. He changed his name to James Ellroy around the time he published his first novel.

In 1958, a few weeks after Lee’s tenth birthday, the body of Geneva “Jean” Hilliker Ellroy was found in the shrubs outside of Arroyo High School.

Those of you who have read Ellroy’s My Dark Places know this story. The never-solved killing of his mother has understandably haunted Ellroy his whole life. A year later, when he was eleven, his dad gave him a copy of Jack Webb’s book The Badge, which contained a synopsis of the gruesome 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, who would forever be known to history as “The Black Dahlia.” Ellroy’s breakthrough novel, as well as the first novel of his “L.A. Quartet,” was called The Black Dahlia. Unsurprisingly, the brutal death of a beautiful young woman in Los Angeles resonated with Ellroy. Ellroy spent most of his early years in erratic fashion, he briefly joined the American Nazi Party (mostly for shock effect), and he also became a petty criminal and burglar; he was arrested several times. After he became a successful writer of brutal noirs set in Los Angeles, he hired a private detective to investigate his mother’s murder, a process that led to the writing of My Dark Places.

If you think all of this is horrendously unpromising material for a dance piece, then you aren’t Hans Van den Broeck, of the Brussels-based dance group SOIT (Stay Only If Temporary). He has choreographed a dance piece called “The Lee Ellroy Show,” which premiered in Brussels last November and recently was staged for the ImPulsTanz festival in Vienna, Austria. (Van den Broeck appears to have some prior connection to Vienna; a 2010 piece of his is called Café Prückel, a magnificent old Kaffeehaus on Vienna’s Stubenring.)

The story is set in the 50’s. Divorced and lonely, James Ellroy’s mother moves to El Monte, part of the endless sprawl of greater Los Angeles. The new suburbia, isolated and eerie. A sordid boiling hot place risen from the dessert, a nowhere, where she was prone to meet other lost souls and eventually did. On a ‘cheap’ saturday night she met her killer, the ‘swarthy man’, a murderer who was never found. She had a night out on her own, a few drinks, a talk, a dance and was discovered in the early morning hours in the bushes of a small dirt-road. An existence halted in the grass, a life that never blossomed.

This sudden, traumatic disappearance condemns James Ellroy to a life-long search for the mother he never really knew, a loving mother. He embarks on a disturbing journey ; from a big mouthed young bully, to a shoplifting teenager, a voyeur and finally nearly losing his mind as a homeless young adolescent. About to tip over the cliff, he devotes himself to writing. It will be his salvation and a sublimation of the trauma, a life-long battle with the omen living inside him.


As Van den Broeck has said of the piece, “It has such a tragic and obsessive undertone: that man has really been obsessed by that loss throughout his whole life. It led to him becoming a writer, of course, but also, among other things, to a love-hate relationship with women. I trained as a psychologist and that fixation with an unresolved trauma of that kind really fascinated me. But in terms of language and style, too, it is a hugely inspiring book: obsessional in tone, written in a staccato rhythm, and quite ‘in your face’.” Jake Ingram-Dodd and Anuschka Von Oppen are the two dancers who inhabit “The Lee Ellroy Show.” The piece will have performances in Belgium this coming October and next March.

More after the jump…

Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment
James Ellroy: Mug Shots

Before he started writing, James Ellroy was busted for being drunk and disorderly, DUI, petty theft and trespass. He was hassled as a suspicious pedestrian, was caught squatting, had police shot-guns shoved in his face, and was eventually locked up with pimps, killers, drug addicts and winos.

His diet was bennies and booze, and jail time was his “health retreat”:

I abstained from booze and dope and ate three square meals a day. I did push-ups and worked trusty details and got a little muscle tone going. I hung out with stupid white guys, stupid black guys and stupid Mexican guys—and swapped stupid stories with them. We had all committed daring crimes and fucked the world’s most glamorous women. An old black wino told me he fucked Marilyn Monroe. I said, “No shit—I fucked her too!”

Jail taught Ellroy a few truths—he was big, but not tough; he committed crimes, but was no criminal—but he knew he could ride it out.

I worked the trash-and-freight detail at the New County Jail and the library at Wayside Honor Rancho. My favorite jail was Biscailuz Center. They fed you big meals and let you read in the latrines after lights-out. Jail was no big fucking traumatic deal.

I knew how to ride short stretches. Jail cleaned out my system and gave me something to anticipate: my release and more booze and dope fantasies.

One day Ellroy woke-up tied to a hospital cot, his wrists bloodied by the restraints. He was 27, and near death—an abscess the size of a fist on his lung.

‘If it’s not working, then get the hell out.’ Ellroy once told me. ‘If your life isn’t working the way you want it, then do something to change it.’

We were in a car, driving down the curve of road from the Griffith Observatory. It was Fall 1994, and he was giving me advice he had learned on a hospital gurney some 20-years earlier. We had been filming an interview for a TV documentary. For a week Ellroy had given a guided tour of his life:  El Monte where his mother had been murdered, Hancock Park and the houses he had B&E’d, the panty sniffing, the pill-popping, the drinking, the parks where he jacked-off, the Sav-On where he stole Benzedrine inhalers to get buzzed, the empty apartments where he lived off booze and drugs, bad sex and fantasies.

Then it all stopped. He woke-up in hospital, and knew he was no longer invincible. And that’s when Ellroy started writing.
Previously on Dangerous Minds

James Ellroy: An early interview with the Demon Dog of American Literature


Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
James Ellroy: An early interview with the Demon Dog of American Literature

James Ellroy lies in a darkened room brooding about the past. He thinks about his mother, Geneva Hilliker Ellroy, who was murdered in 1958, when Ellroy was 10-years-old. The killer has never been found.

Ellroy was born and raised in Los Angeles. When his parents divorced, Ellroy lived with his mother in El Monte during the week, and spent weekends with his Father.

His father, Armand Lee Ellroy, was an accountant and one-time business manager for Rita Hayworth. Ellroy usually adds his father had a massive schlong, and schtooped anything that moved. His father gave Ellroy a copy of Jack Webb’s book The Badge. Ellroy read the book obsessively.  He read the story of Elizabeth Short, aka The Black Dahlia, whose severed, mutilated body was discovered on a vacant lot, on the west side of South Norton Avenue, between Coliseum and West 39th, in 1947.

Ellroy merged his mother’s murder with the Black Dahlia’s. He fantasized how he’d save the Dahlia and marry her. He fantasized how he’d save his mother. The fantasies were inspired by guilt and depression.

Before Geneva’s murder, his parents had been going through a rough time. His father was poisoning Ellroy’s mind about his mother. His father let Ellroy do what he wanted. His mother had rules. When she died James had wanted to be free of her. Now he was, he felt guilty.

He grew up lanky, and geeky. He was awkward around girls. He was a WASP at a Jewish school. He hated to be ignored. Ellroy played at being the weirdo. In the schoolyard he riffed on the Black Dahlia, serial killers, and Nazis. He made it look like he didn’t care what others thought. It worked. It made him untouchable.

He flunked school and prowled the neighborhood. He peeped on girls he could only dream about. He broke into their houses, sniffed their panties, drank their parents’ booze, looked in medicine cabinets and popped pills, stole what he wanted. They never knew.

Ellroy lived off T-bird, and the wading from Benzedrex inhalers. It made him grind down his teeth. He tripped. He became homeless. He stole. He did gaol time. His life was in freefall - the parachute was an abscess on his lung, the size of a man’s fist.

Ellroy prayed for a second chance. He got it. He turned his life round and started writing crime novels. Influenced by Hamnett rather than Chandler. At first hooked around his own experience as caddy on a golf course, then the large multi-narrative, police procedurals, re-telling the history of modern America. Ellroy was riffing on the things he obsessed about, the Black Dahlia, sex, violence, bad, bad, bad men coming to grips with their humanity.

He wrote the L.A. Quartet, which included The Black Dahlia, and L.A. Confidential. Then a book about his search for his mother’s murder, My Dark Places. He never found him. Closure is bullshit, he says. Then the trilogy Underworld U.S.A., which includes American Tabloid, and the brilliant Blood’s A Rover.

Now, Ellroy is one of America’s greatest living novelists, and very few come close. He still lives in L.A. and writes everyday, long hand, ink pen, legal pad, and lies in darkened rooms brooding about the past.

This is a rare clip of James Ellroy, in his trademark Hawaiian shirt (worn in pouring rain), interviewed for the French program Cinéma Cinémas in 1989.


Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment