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” off-the-cuff and listed questions for a documentary called White Jazz. A preliminary Q&A was filmed the day before at a motel near Hollywood where Ellroy hammed it up and gave his pitch (“Woof, woof! Hear the Demon Dog bark…”) and while that was all good screen time, I really want to find out who’s the man behind this way-sharp, way-cool, but 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—an illustrated volume of gritty true tales of LA crime and ye LAPD, in amongst which was the “brutally, graphically sexually explicit” story of the unsolved murder of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short, aka the Black Dahlia killing. Ellroy kinda had a hard-on for this kinda stuff—but this, this was an off-the-scale sicko tale that has haunted him ever since.
But wait, dear reader, wasn’t this a strange kinda book to give a kid? A kid used 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 he think this was a kinda strange book to give a kid who was probably still traumatised 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. Still he doesn’t get the question—doesn’t seem to understand or want to understand or really just truly really 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. But it deflects as much as it reveals. It’s the book that pushed his imagination towards writing crime fiction—that and every 25c crime he could get his hands on—and 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 murderous person or persons unknown and setting the world to right. Setting the world to order is why some writers write—for it allows them to create a world that is containable—imaginable.
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.”