OBITUARIES : Daniel James : Writer Who Masqueraded as a Latino
Daniel Lewis James, who used a Latino pseudonym in a series of books and short stories about life in East Los Angeles, setting off an academic and ethnic furor over the former screenwriter’s sense of propriety, is dead.
The 77-year-old James, who was blacklisted in the 1950s for his past communist affiliations, died Wednesday night at Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. He had lived in nearby Carmel Highland.
In 1983, using the name Danny Santiago, James published “Famous All Over Town,” a novel about life in East Los Angeles as seen through the eyes of young Rudy (Chato) Medina. It was praised for its authenticity and its insight into the often troubled Mexican-American culture. It won the prestigious 1984 Rosenthal Award for literary achievement sponsored by the American Academy and Institute of Arts.
Suspicion about the author first surfaced when James-Santiago didn’t show up in New York to pick up the $5,000 award he had won. He also refused to supply a biographical sketch to his unsuspecting editors at Simon & Shuster who wanted to submit the book for a Pulitzer Prize.
Unknown even to his agent, Carl Brandt, James had for years been writing books on Latin subjects, not from the vantage point of a Latino, but as the son of a wealthy Kansas City businessman. He had graduated from Yale and helped Charlie Chaplin write “The Great Dictator.”
For many years to come that film remained the high point of his career. The fear of communism was spreading throughout the land and the House Un-American Activities Committee, aware of James’ onetime membership in the Communist Party, subpoenaed him and his wife to testify.
Afterward he was relegated to writing B-grade movies and eventually vanished entirely from the literary scene.
It was as a church social worker in East Los Angeles, where James and his wife were to spend the next 25 years, that he learned the folkways and mores of Latin culture that became the staples of his work. It was there, he said, that he developed a love of the people, their traditions and their frustrations.
In an interview with The Times shortly after his masquerade ended, James poignantly defended himself.
“The book. The book. That’s the important thing. Not the skin color or the ancestry of the author. I had to become Danny Santiago to write. I couldn’t explain it to my friends or wife. Perhaps a psychiatrist in two or three years might find the root causes of my need to be someone else. But the fact is, I did.”
The first of the Danny Santiago stories had been written in the 1950s, immediately after the blacklisting.
“I was like a lot of people. I lost confidence in myself. In my ability to write. Danny Santiago had that confidence.”
It was only by chance that the Santiago books were ever published at all.
James and his wife, Lilith, with whom he wrote the hit Broadway musical “Bloomer Girl,” had rented a home in Hollywood from writer John Gregory Dunne. James showed Dunne the Santiago writings and Dunne sent them to his agent in New York without disclosing that Danny Santiago was Daniel James.
Ironically, it was Dunne, writing in the New York Times Review of Books in 1984, who ultimately disclosed the deceit, writing that ethically he no longer was able to maintain the facade.
Afterward James said the disclosure actually worked to his advantage. He now was free to talk to others about his work and pointed out the appraisal by one critic that he had written a book about Mexican-American culture “from the inside but for outsiders.”
And a fan, a young Latino girl in Montebello who had been assigned one of the Santiago stories in an English class, wrote to say: “I like it. Can we have another?”
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.