Issue 190, Fall 2009
Reading James Ellroy’s novels, it’s tempting to imagine the sixty-one-year-old author as a hyperactive, shotgun-toting, trash-talking connoisseur of crime, women, and American history, the kind of guy who pals around with homicide detectives and wears fedoras and bespoke suits. This portrait, as it turns out, is entirely accurate—except for the attire. These days he favors ivy caps and Hawaiian shirts.
The interview was conducted over the course of a week last spring at his Los Angeles apartment, in a thirties art-deco building where Mae West and Ava Gardner once lived. (“You’ve reached Ellroy’s pad,” he says on his answering machine, in the groovy voice of a late-night-radio DJ. When he rented an apartment in Carroll Gardens last winter, the message was: “This is Ellroy’s swinging Brooklyn pad.”) His apartment could double as a film-noir set: dark red walls, heavy shades, dim yellow lights, plush leather furniture. There are posters for the movie adaptations of L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia. Two massive dark mahogany bookshelves frame the entrance to his living room. The bookshelves are full. Every single book is by James Ellroy.
Ellroy is a hulking presence. He is six foot three, with strong eyes and a tall, gruff face that reflexively composes itself into a frown. He does not walk so much as stomp. During rare pauses in conversation he makes deep guttural noises to fill the silence. His tone is relentlessly jocular, conspiratorial, wisecracking. He screams with laughter. Often he sounds like one of the characters from his novels about fifties-era LA: he has a gas or a blast, he vibes women, he digs it. Someone who doesn’t know the score is a dipshit or, worse, a geek. There is always a grin hidden behind his most brazen performances.
We spoke for several hours each afternoon, the sunlight disrupting the darkness of the living room in thin horizontal bars. Ellroy usually nursed his trademark drink, a quadruple espresso on the rocks, and when he got particularly animated he would pitch his torso forward, as if he were about to jump across the table; at other times he’d stand up to full height, blocking out the sun.
When we weren’t in the apartment, we drove around the city. He showed me the houses where the attractive girls in his high school had lived. As a teenager he would peep through their windows, and if the girls weren’t home, he’d break in and look for drugs, alcohol, panties. He still remembers each house’s weak spot, the back door left ajar or the window with the faulty latch.
Ellroy is a charismatic public speaker and rarely turns down an invitation. That week he had two engagements. He exhorted a class of aspiring screenwriters to quit smoking, get rid of their tattoos and piercings, and always address their elders as Mr. or Mrs. “Do this, and people will say to themselves, This kid knows his shit and understands that there is a social contract.” At the LA Police Academy in Griffith Park, he emceed a ceremony in which academic scholarships were awarded to children of police officers. On the way out he tried to buy a Depression-era shotgun from a display case in the LAPD weapons supply store, but was politely informed by a clerk that it was not for sale.
There were also less formal engagements. He talked to women—on the phone, in restaurants, in his apartment. Late one night he drove to the house of his girlfriend. The lights were on: the woman, her husband, and their children were inside. Ellroy opened the window of the car and proceeded to bay like a dog. He drove around the block and howled again. Then he did it a third time. The girlfriend called him the next day, laughing. Apparently he bayed at her several times a month. They had a unique arrangement.
He is now at work on a memoir that links his obsessive skirt-chasing to the main biographical fact about his life, the murder of his mother, Jean Hilliker, when he was ten years old. The killer was never found. The crime, and Ellroy’s reinvestigation of it some forty years later, inspired his first memoir, My Dark Places, which was praised as much for its formal innovation as for its shocking subject matter. But his mother is present, to a varying degree, in most of his novels. This is especially true of The Black Dahlia, his fictional retelling of the investigation into the rape and murder of Elizabeth Short, a young woman whose gruesome death in 1947 transfixed the public and became the stuff of local myth. Like Jean Hilliker, Short was a beautiful, hard-living woman who had moved to LA to escape a difficult past. And like Hilliker’s, her case was never solved—though in his fictional version of events, Ellroy finds the killer.
The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz make up the LA Quartet—a series of novels that won Ellroy a massive readership and critical praise for his manipulation of genre conventions, his unsympathetic depiction of Los Angeles in the fifties, and his manic, staccato, hard-nosed prose, about which Elmore Leonard said, “reading it aloud could shatter your wine glasses.” Ellroy next began work on an even more ambitious project, the Underworld USA Trilogy. American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, and Blood’s a Rover map a secret history of America from the JFK assassination to Watergate through the intersecting stories of government agents, snitches, mobsters, ideological zealots, movie stars, and national politicians. In these books Ellroy refined a style that is all his own, incorporating elements of street slang, FBI officialese, and Hollywood gossip-rag shorthand. The Ellroy sentence is jumpy, overcaffeinated, spring-loaded—always ready to pounce.
Before I could ask my first question, Ellroy cut me off with two of his own: “I’m the greatest crime writer ever, right? Is there anyone better than me?” But as the week went on, and we pressed past the shtick and the riffs, he grew more reflective. He leaned back in his chair, and spoke more slowly. One afternoon he even went to his bedroom, shut the blinds, and took a nap.
You were away from Los Angeles for twenty-five years. Why’d you come back?
One reason: Cherchez la femme. I chased women to suburban New York, suburban Connecticut, Kansas City, Carmel, and San Francisco. But I ran out of places, and I ran out of women, so I ended up back here.
Did you miss the city?
While I was away, the Los Angeles of my past accreted in my mind, developing its own power. Early on in my career I believed that in order to write about LA, I had to stay out of it entirely. But when I moved back, I realized that LA then lives in my blood. LA now does not.
What’s wrong with LA now?
I fear the sloth, the disorder, and the moral depravity. It makes me want to hole up in my pad for days on end.
And what about the LA of the fifties has a hold on you?
A lot of it is simple biography. I lived here, so I was obsessed with my immediate environment. I am from Los Angeles truly, immutably. It’s the first thing you get in any author’s note: James Ellroy was born in Los Angeles in 1948. I was hatched in the film-noir epicenter, at the height of the film-noir era. My parents and I lived near Hollywood. My father and mother had a tenuous connection to the film business. They were both uncommonly good-looking, which may be a hallmark of LA arrivistes, and they were of that generation of migrants who came because they were very poor and LA was a beautiful place.
I grew up in a different world, a different America. You didn’t have to make a lot of dough to keep a roof over your head. There was a calmness that I recall too. I learned to amuse myself. I liked to read. I liked to look out the window.
It’s rare for me to speak about LA epigrammatically. I don’t view it as a strange place, I don’t view it as a hot-pot of multiculturalism or weird sexuality. I have never studied it formally. There are big swathes of LA that I don’t even know my way around today. I’m not quite sure how you get to Torrance, Hermosa Beach, Long Beach. I don’t know LA on a valid historical level at all. But I have assimilated it in a deeper way. I had lived here for so long that when it became time to exploit my memory of the distant past, it was easy.
Whatever power my books have derives from the fact that they are utterly steeped in the eras that I describe. LA of that period is mine and nobody else’s. If you wrote about this period before me, I have taken it away from you.
What did your parents do?
My mother was a registered nurse. She worked a lot. At one point she had a job at a Jewish nursing home where movie stars brought their aging parents. She was fluent in German, and when the patients spoke about her in Yiddish, behind her back, she could understand them. She was a big reader of historical novels, and she was always listening to one specific Brahms piano concerto—I remember a blue RCA Victor record.
I have more memories of my dad. He was a dipshit studio gofer, a big handsome guy, a scratch golfer. He worked for a schlock producer named Sam Stiefel.
He was always snoozing on the couch, like Dagwood Bumstead. He was a lazy motherfucker. God bless him. He was always working on some kind of get-rich-quick scheme. This is what my dad was like: I’d say, Hey, Dad, we studied penguins today in school. He’d say, Yeah? I’m a penguin fucker from way back. Dad, I saw a giraffe at the zoo today. Yeah? I’m a giraffe fucker from way back. That’s my dad. My dad was a giraffe fucker.
He said to me once, I fucked Rita Hayworth. He said that he once introduced me to Hayworth at the Tail O’ the Pup, circa 1950. I would have been two years old at the time, but I don’t recall it. He said I spilled grape juice all over her. I never believed that he had worked for Hayworth, but after his death I saw his name in a Hayworth biography. Sure enough, for a period of time, he was her business manager.
You have said you dislike profanity, but you use it a lot.
I learned it from my father. He was raucous, profane, and freewheeling. I say fuck routinely—my generation is the first generation to say the word routinely, across gender lines. I love slang. I love hipster patois, racial invective, alliteration, argot of all kinds.
What was your childhood like before your mother’s death?
I don’t remember a single amicable moment between my parents other than this: my mother passing steaks out the kitchen window to my father so that he could put them on a barbecue.
I had my mother’s number. I understood that she was maudlin, effusive, and enraged—the degree depending on how much booze she had in her system. I also understood that she had my father’s number—that he was lazy and cowardly.
There was always something incongruous about them. Early on, I was aware of the seventeen-year age gap. When I knew her, my mother was a very good-looking redhead in her early forties. My father was a sun-ravaged, hard-smoking, hard-living guy. He looked significantly older at sixty than I do now. Everybody thought he was my granddad. He wore clothes that were thirty years out of style. I remember that he had a gold Omega wristwatch that he loved. We were broke, and then all of a sudden, one day, the watch wasn’t there. That broke my heart.