The Three Lives of Dan James : In a Los Angeles Barrio, the Elderly Screenwriter Found an Alter Ego and a Pen Name; Now, His Literary Voice Is Finding a Wider Audience

Times Staff Writer

Daniel James led three lives. He needed all of them to make a bid for immortality.

One was his “real” self, affluent Ivy Leaguer, screenwriter, playwright, sometime Communist, volunteer social worker and--at the end of his life--unmasked novelist.

But inside the aging, dark-humored radical, a street-wise teen-age boy also lived and roamed the East Los Angeles barrio--boosting a car, blasting a dinner chicken in the neck with a .45 pistol, making mostly wrong moves with the girls and redecorating the “pure satin-finish plaster” of a Bank of America branch with graffiti.

Closer to the surface, there was James’ artistic alter ego, Danny Santiago, the medium between the old gringo and the rebellious kid. James adopted the Santiago persona when he wrote, distorting his identity and his 6-foot-6 frame as he bent over his ancient portable typewriter to tap out the adventures of Rudy Medina Jr., a.k.a. Chato, the hard-luck hero of the novel “Famous All Over Town.” And Danny Santiago was the pen name James imprinted on this, his only novel, published when he was 73.

Prize-Winning Novel

Greeted by glowing reviews in 1983, “Famous All Over Town” won a prestigious prize for first novels but failed in the bookstores, selling fewer than 10,000 hard-cover copies, according to Carl Brandt, James’ New York agent. At the time, few knew that Santiago--supposedly a tough hombre from a mean neighborhood--had a Broadway musical to his credit, a spectacular house at the ocean near Carmel and a social life replete with movie stars and literary giants.

“Famous All Over Town” probably would have been quickly forgotten if it had not gained a second life, spawned by the notoriety and controversy of James’ self-styled “mild little deception,” revealed in 1984 by friend and fellow writer John Gregory Dunne. As a result, this coming-of-age novel, which has been compared with J. D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” probably is better known as an object of debate than for its content. Predictably, when Dan James--and Danny and Rudy --died last month at 77, his passing was marked by obituaries that recalled the storm over the Anglo who had assumed a brown skin.

But like its author, “Famous All Over Town” may be taking on a third life that could transcend its earlier incarnations. It is the life James wanted for the book--a work of fiction standing alone, independent of its creator and the arguments about his phony ethnic background and the validity of his perception.

Read in Schools

Although it never came close to a best-seller list, the novel has been continuously in print as a trade paperback for more than four years. It has gained a small foothold in Los Angeles high school and college classes where it is enthusiastically taught to small numbers of students every year--by teachers who believe the novel is a too-rare commodity, a faithful portrayal of the modern urban Latino experience.

For instance, Roberto Cantu, an associate professor of Chicano studies at Cal State L.A., said he has used the book in a Mexican-American literature class for about the last three years, even though “the novel was not accepted by many Chicano critics because he was not a Chicano . . . . In fact a colleague of mine and I almost ended our friendship over it.” Cantu said he has remained a fan of the book despite his surprise about the real identity of the author. “I was one of the duped ones. I would have bet that he (the author) was a Chicano from East L.A., about 28, 29 years old.”

But since Danny Santiago was really someone else, Cantu hopes the novel will help “destroy the myth that only Chicanos can write about Chicanos,” he said. Cantu added that he will try to organize a one-day conference of Latino academics this fall to discuss the novel and its current status among Latino intellectuals.

At Roosevelt High School, English teacher Leticia Andujo estimated that about 200 of her students have read the novel over the past three years. For some, it has been the first book they ever finished reading, she said. “They’re amazed that they’ve been able to read a book,” she added, explaining that the character Chato might well be one of their friends or acquaintances. Ironically, Andujo said she doesn’t reveal the true identity of the author to her classes but when some students have found out on their own “overall it hasn’t taken away from the book.”

Perhaps more tellingly, former residents of Clover Street--the neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles that fired James’ imagination--eagerly assisted the author, opening their homes and lives to James and his wife, Lilith, during the 25 years or so the couple were volunteer social workers in the barrio. And when James was polishing his manuscript, some helped by checking it for accuracy in such matters as street talk and graffiti.

Bobby Verdugo, a 37-year-old bus driver-dispatcher for the City of Montebello, recalled his first impressions of the novel:

“He brought over the rough draft because he wanted us to help with slang expressions, the time references, things that were happening, what were some of the fashions. We were going, ‘Wow! This is neat. This is a trip. Why couldn’t I have done something like this?’ Here was this man, at the time 71, I guess, and he’s writing as a teen-ager and he’s doing it believable.”

Verdugo, who honeymooned with his wife, Yolanda Rios, at the Jameses’ house in Carmel, also sensed that Dan James was looking for approval from Latinos.

“I think he was real concerned, real torn in the beginning, kind of a guilt feeling,” he said. “He knew he was going to be writing under a Latino pseudonym and he thought it was pretty important to get our feedback on how we would react to it: Would we feel offended? Would we be taken aback? At first we didn’t know how to react, really. He was going to go for it anyway, but he was asking around.”

Suddenly In Demand

After the book was published, James got a kick out of the way Danny Santiago was suddenly in demand, Yolanda Rios said. He told her, “ ‘I’m really beginning to like this because they want my picture and people are calling now that it’s out and they want interviews and I’m saying, “No.” ’ He was so tickled because there was this mystery, this aura around Danny Santiago. That was the best for him.”

But Danny Santiago was not simply a facade to give a slumming Anglo credibility, Rios said. James once said that, “ ‘Sometimes I sit here and I see myself as Dan James and I can’t write, so I have to think about the community and I have to think Santiago and I’ll go play a record or something and then I can write.’ If he could assume the part, then it would be easy. He was Santiago.”

Much of the pleasure of the book was in recognizing that the Clover Street neighborhood--where tiny houses practically bumped against one other and familiarity was welcome and inevitable--had made the leap to literature, Verdugo and Rios said. In “Famous All Over Town” James renamed Clover Street, calling it Shamrock Street. Many other streets and locations, however, retain their names and it is possible to follow events in the novel on a city map.

The once-teeming two-block street is gone now, the houses, the noise and the people replaced by trucking facilities and warehouses servicing a railway freight yard. The only tangible signs that tell of the street’s history are the scattered graffiti of a gang that bears the name Eastside Clover.

Yet the pull of memory is strong. Former residents of the street have formed a group, Ye Olde Clover Assn., and hold annual reunions. At the gatherings four years ago James was honored, Verdugo said.

James himself once told a reporter a story that illustrated the tug of the old street and the vanished way of life. One night a former resident, his nostalgia amplified by alcohol, parked on Clover to commune with his memories. After a while the man fell asleep, James said. A policeman woke him, ordered him to move on, then asked why he was there in the first place. When the man explained, the policeman responded, “Funny, you’re the third guy this month who’s said the same thing.”

It isn’t clear exactly how long James took to write “Famous All Over Town.” In a newspaper interview, James once said he had worked on the book 15 years before its publication. John Gregory Dunne reported in the article that revealed Santiago’s true identity, that James had shown him short stories that grew into the novel in the mid-1960s. James’ widow, Lilith, said he actually worked on the book seven years.

At any rate, it is certain that the novel would not have been written without the long friendship that began in the 1940s between Dan and Lilith James and the East Los Angeles Latinos.

Connie Rios, Yolanda’s mother, remembers the first day the Jameses came to see how the other half lived. They were the first Anglos she had ever seen in the area, she said.

“It was early ‘40s, like 1942 or ’43, I don’t know exactly, and all of us teen-agers . . . I was then about 14 or 15--there were about 10 or 12 kids and we used to play kick the can on the street or play hide-and-go-seek or baseball around this time (twilight),” she said. “So it just happened that one day here comes this blue convertible two-door, and here they come. Naturally we wondered what are they doing here. We didn’t know. So they watched us and we played baseball and finally they approached us and said, ‘Would you kids like to organize a club?’ We asked them, ‘Well, where? Who are you? How come you want to organize a club?’ ”

Organized Youth Clubs

From that first group, the Hepkitties, the Jameses organized a series of clubs for young people, taking them on trips to the beach and museums. “They showed us a lot of places we never would have gone,” Connie Rios said, displaying the club’s yellowed account book that includes the Jameses’ names and their attendance record at club meetings. Eventually, the Jameses’ work spanned two generations to include Rios’ daughter. Over the years, the couple became godparents to many of the Hepkitties children.

The relationship wasn’t all one-way, Connie Rios said, recalling the many times she and her friends and family visited the Jameses at the big house they once owned in Hollywood.

Through the Jameses’ connections with the movies, Connie Rios’ husband, Lalo, a construction worker who died in 1973, landed major acting parts in several movies, including “The Ring” and “The Lawless.”

Yolanda Rios picked one moment that signified the change in their lives: “When my father started into film making and I was a little girl, my mom came home and said, ‘Look, I have Bette Davis’ address. I got it at Lilith’s house.’ ”

Yet James was “just a regular person” to her, she said. “He and my father would go down to the Cozy Corner for a couple of beers and they they would come back and wake me up: ‘Hey, you could have taken that guy. Why didn’t you take him?’ He was a macho man. He would go out to a bar and want to pick fights.”

‘We Had a Lot of Fun’

Without apparent regret, Connie Rios, who was once berated by an Anglo teacher for the burritos she brought to school for lunch, summed up that part of her past. “He (her husband) worked and made a little money and we blew it all out. We had a lot of fun . . . . I got to see a lot of beautiful houses and nobody ever asked me to take off my shoes.”

Three hundred miles north of the East Los Angeles home where Connie and Yolanda Rios and Bobby Verdugo reminisced, Lilith James, 70, has begun her widowhood in the architectural fantasy house near Carmel where she and her husband lived the final years of their 48-year marriage.

The house--built early this century by Dan James’ father, a wealthy Kansas City businessman--sits atop a cliff overlooking the Pacific. The view is priceless and almost unreal. During storms, spray from waves sometimes arcs over the house into the garden, Lilith James said.

Throughout their life at the seaside house and in Hollywood, she and her husband met and entertained many big names in 20th-Century literature, she said, listing writers John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Nathaniel West and Isak Dinesen, playwright Arthur Miller and movie director John Huston.

But glamour wasn’t enough.

Lilith James, who was once a ballerina, said she and her husband went to the barrio because “it fulfilled a need we had.” They had inherited money and had made more on their own, she said, including that from a 1944 Broadway hit musical “Bloomer Girl,” which they wrote together.

“Both Dan and I had a lot of WASP guilt about being rich,” she said. ". . . Both of us had been in families that didn’t suffer from the Depression.”

In the 1940s, she and her husband, attracted to the left from their student days, had joined the Communist Party, an association that eventually put Daniel James, who helped write Charlie Chaplin’s classic “The Great Dictator,” on Hollywood’s blacklist, Lilith James said.

But when they went to the barrio, both had become disenchanted with the party, which they left shortly after World War II, she said. Using their loose association with a church group, they began their long avocation in the barrio.

“We saw a real need and we had given a lot of our time and energy to the Communist Party and that was over, without much result,” she said.

“Dan had a little Spanish from when he was at Yale and I had a lot of French and it made it easier for me and we just went right in and became part of their social world. It was not just, you know, licensed people who came down as do-gooders. We knew them much better than any of the other social workers. We got drunk with them, went to parties. We had really wonderful times. And we lived in a great huge house in Hollywood. Instead of being over-awed by that or bothered by it, they were proud of it. They used to rave, ‘Oh wait until you see the Jameses’ house.’ ”

Her husband, she said, never let his background get in the way of his work in the barrio.

An Easy-Going Man

“Dan was a very open kind of person,” she said. “The kids could tease him and he could give them back as good as they gave him. He had no concern about personal dignity. You know, you could see him sitting down shooting marbles with the little guys.”

Neither she nor her husband ever had any scrapes with the local toughs, although the neighborhood was a gang area, she said.

“We had a tremendous sense of security in Lincoln Heights,” she said. “I can walk down the street in Lincoln Heights now and people will say hello. The last time I was in L.A., someone I had never seen came up to me in a restaurant and said, ‘My parents would never forgive me if I didn’t come over and tell you how much you did for my little brother.’ This is what, 25 years later?”

In the absence of her husband, she seems satisfied with that.