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On Top of the Underbelly

Peter Gilstrap recently moved from L.A. to Nashville to write for the Tennessean.

Weather-wise, it’s a Sunday afternoon that could have been lifted from a long-gone Los Angeles: sunshine, sizzling blue sky, slight breeze. The air smells good--a touch of bus exhaust laced with Pacific. John Gilmore, all six feet and seven decades of him, stands in the middle of Pershing Square in the middle of the city that’s been the backdrop for all the murder and bloodshed and pain and death that he’s brought to life in the pages of his books.

The square is virtually empty, tranquil even. A cop, some tourists, a couple of slumbering individuals who are either homeless or tired or both. Nothing like what Pershing Square was when Gilmore first came here as a child, back when Liz Short was flashing her eyes at off-duty sailors, back when folks still knew who Pershing was.

“There were people everywhere, everywhere,” he recalls. “Guys were shouting and yelling, talking about the Depression and unions and things. It was all grass in the center, big fountains in the middle and dense with palm trees. It’s still beautiful, you look at the old Biltmore and the newer architecture. It’s just a wonderful feeling, a wonderful rising feeling.”

It’s safe to say that most people don’t stop to read inscriptions on public monuments, but Gilmore wants to point something out, some words carved into a gently curving wall many feet long. It is a passage written in 1946 by activist-author Carey McWilliams. In part it reads:

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I had spent an extremely active evening in Hollywood and had been deposited toward morning, by some kind soul, in a room at the Biltmore Hotel. Emerging next day from the hotel into the painfully bright sunlight, I started the rocky pilgrimage through Pershing Square to my office in a state of miserable decrepitude. In front of the hotel newsboys were shouting the headlines of the hour: an awful trunk-murder had just been committed; the district attorney had been indicted for bribery; Aimee Semple McPherson had once again stood the town on its ear by some spectacular caper; a University of Southern California football star had been caught robbing a bank; a love-mart had been discovered in the Los Feliz Hills; a motion-picture producer had just wired the Egyptian government a fancy offer for permission to illuminate the pyramids to advertise a forthcoming production; and, in the intervals between these revelations, there was news about another prophet, fresh from the desert, who had predicted the doom of the city, a prediction for which I was morbidly grateful. In the center of the park, a little self-conscious of my evening clothes, I stopped to watch a typical Pershing Square divertissement: an aged and frowsy blonde, skirts held high above her knees, cheered by a crowd of grimacing and leering old goats, was singing a gospel hymn as she danced gaily around the fountain. Then it suddenly occurred to me that, in all the world, there neither was nor would ever be another place like this City of the Angels. . . .

Gilmore only recently discovered this passage, which describes his own attraction to the perverse beauty of Los Angeles, a land of bright sunlight, a land of trunk murders.

“One day I got downtown early ‘cause I wanted to beat the traffic, and I had a cup of coffee on Grand,” he says. “I was walking through Pershing Square--I remember being there as a kid--and I read that inscription on that wall. I looked up, and there were all these enormous buildings, all shining like Thermos bottles in the morning sun, and I thought, ‘It ain’t like the old days,’ and I suddenly realized the city keeps changing, see, it changes and changes and changes, and suddenly it’s this huge thing rising out of the dust, rising out of the old city, and there it is, and either you’re with it or you’re not. That’s what I felt. It was very invigorating, very exciting.”

This from a man who has spent most of his life moving around this country and others, from city to city, looking for a career, a creative existence that would fit a time and place.

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“I’ve come to believe that where you’re born and where you’re raised initially, it imprints on you somehow,” he says. “You can go other places, but there’s still that distant voice--you can kind of make it out at times, you know?”

A young Latina in wickedly tight pants and high heels sashays past. Gil-more gazes appreciatively.

“There’re a lot of other things to L.A. too.”

John Gilmore’s Los Angeles is populated by legions of the deceased. This is a good thing; these are the characters he’s drawn to. Over the course of 11 books of mainly autobiographical and crime writing, he’s become the Boswell of the city’s scarred underbelly, the chronicler of good people gone bad, bad people gone worse and things gone very, very wrong.

In his 71 years he’s been an actor, a painter, a director, a pulp novelist, a journalist, an underemployed bohemian. He’s been a friend, a confidant, an eavesdropper to countless Hollywood names--Blue Book and black--and it is from these experiences that he writes, offering hard-boiled glimpses of life on the lurid side in spare, raw prose. Beyond the autobiographical “Laid Bare: A Memoir of Wrecked Lives and the Hollywood Death Trip,” most of his material is familiar local noir fare: “Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder,” “The Real James Dean,” “Manson: The Unholy Trail of Charlie and the Family.” His most recent revelation, “L.A. Despair: A Landscape of Crimes and Bad Times,” presents the distinct Gilmore take on events such as the Wonderland killings, the sad implosion of ‘50s bombshell Barbara Payton and country fiddling star Spade Cooley’s brutal slaying of his estranged wife. Yet Gilmore is no smarm peddler or vindictive show-biz has-been trotting out withered gossip. He is a skilled firsthand storyteller, a true-crime craftsman capable of humanizing legends and monsters.

From “Laid Bare,” on seeing Hank Williams perform in the early ‘50s:

It’s been written that Hank dipped his knees as he sang, but he alsoswung them from side to side in slow motion Charleston, half-bent and almost crouching over the guitar, face breaking out in a sweat. He kept his upper body stiff like the bones were somehow fused, and turning his head he had to turn his shoulders, too. His eyes were almost angry--he didn’t love anybody in that crowd. The skin barely moved on his rigid face, except to wrinkle at the edges like a stiff decal smudged off under water.

Desperate is the way I’d describe Hank’s singing, like a man cornered by something. He’d look through people as if seeking some secret exit through which to make a mad dash.

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From “L.A. Despair,” a vision of John Holmes as he speeds away from the bloodbath on Wonderland Avenue:

Crowded in the rear seat, but like he was alone--a condemned man--the thought struck Holmes that he should have killed himself. Should’ve eaten poison or thrown himself from the moving car, but he lacked the guts. He was an empty man, turned inside out. The black man gave him a rock of cocaine like dropping a chunk of rice into a beggar’s cup. Holmes’ bloodstained fingers shook as he fired a lighter and sucked at the fumes. Grunting noises leaked from his throat as the L.A. night swallowed the car.

Gilmore’s books have been published by small fringe presses such as Amok, Scapegoat and Thunder’s Mouth, and the author eschews footnotes and bibliographies, making it difficult to verify quotes and interior monologues, which has drawn criticism. Not that Gilmore cares. “Everything I’ve written about I’ve had some level of personal involvement with,” he says.

“I’m interested in emotional and psychological things with people and what they do and why they do it. I paint bleeding sides of beef. I’m not a morbid, dark, weird guy, but yet that’s my work, that’s what I paint. My only criteria are, does it ring absolutely true, and does it make a statement about the time in which we live.”

Though he’s lived in New York, New Mexico, Arizona and, briefly, Paris, Gilmore is a true son of Los Angeles. He was born just after midnight on July 5, 1935, in the charity ward of L.A. County General Hospital, to an MGM bit-player, Marguerite McFarren (later exoticized to LeVan), and a frustrated actor soon-to-turn LAPD officer, Robert T. Gilmore Jr.

“I have a photograph of my mother, who was pregnant with me at this little house on London and Micheltorena,” he says of his prenatal Silver Lake neighborhood. “I think it was June 26th. And there’s her, me and my dad. That’s the only photograph that exists of my family, of the three of us.”

Six months after his birth, the marriage ended, and the only child was left in the care of his paternal grandmother.

“My mother was very involved in her life and didn’t have a way to deal with a kid, and my father didn’t want to deal with a kid so he let my grandmother deal with me, but she didn’t give me anything I needed emotionally as a human being,” Gilmore says. “So I was very open emotionally, and I let everything in--people, places, things, dialogue. I can remember monologues from when I was 5 years old. I’ve just spent my life as this wide-open thing.”

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World War II-era Los Angeles was a frothing petri dish of crime and punishment, and young Gilmore was weaned on it. “Trunk murders and bathtub murders and holdups and beatings and robbings and rapings and knifings and shootings. I just lived with it, and the war and everything. I didn’t know that there was a life that didn’t involve war. It was always in the background. It was always there.” He was still living with his grandmother when, he says, he encountered the woman who would become his muse--and a tragically iconic figure in the annals of L.A. noir.

Young, sexy Hollywood fringe-dweller Elizabeth Short was found bisected in a vacant lot at 39th and Norton and forever dubbed “the Black Dahlia” in January 1947, the same year Gilmore learned to swim at the downtown YMCA. (He says he still has the certificate.) But the year before Short met her fate and Gilmore braved the deep end, he claims, something happened that is truly bizarre and improbable: One sunny afternoon in 1946, Liz Short dropped by his house.

“She was an obsession to me, from when I first met her when I was 11 years old,” he says. “She showed up with two gay guys who were movie extras, though as a kid I didn’t know anything about gay. One guy was a boarder we had called Jack McCormick, and he was alcoholic and filled with great talk about the most recent murders.

“The other guy’s name was Ed Miller. I remember him very clearly. He lived down at the beach with his mother. We used to go grunion hunting down there. She came with those two because she wanted to talk with my grandmother’s sister, who was Sarah Short, who’d married Pat Short. She somehow thought they were related.

“So she came to the house and I was there, and she was all dressed in black from head to foot. Head to foot, everything. And she had these black gloves--I remember it like it was yesterday--she had these tall, tall black gloves on, and I remember the wrinkles in the kid gloves, and she never took them off.

“She was talking to my grandmother and she kept glancing over at me--'cause I was staring at her--and smiling, kind of. So finally I took her into my bedroom. I had a great interest in magic and I had a lot of magic posters, and she was very interested in that. We talked for about 15 or 20 minutes about magic. I remember there were two beds, one was mine and the other was a stepbrother’s who wasn’t around, and she sat on that bed and I was leaning on the floor by my bed. I had kind of a neat view.”

Never one to skimp on salacious details, Gilmore makes a quasi-Oedipal admission that takes the story to another level.

“She was like my mother in some ways. There was something sexual, whatever you want to call it, in me that I felt for her that also was tied in somehow with a maternal thing, somehow tied in with my weird psyche. When she left, I told my grandmother I was going to marry her. She was my first love, really, except for this little Geraldine down the street.”

Although Geraldine’s destiny is unknown, the still-unsolved Black Dahlia murder has been the spark of many volumes, from James Ellroy’s fictionalized take (the basis for the new Brian DePalma picture) to Steve Hodel’s “Black Dahlia Avenger” (in which he makes the claim that his father committed the crime) to the recent “The Black Dahlia Files” by Donald H. Wolfe. Gilmore calls the latter two “commercial hogwash.” His own “Severed,” published in 1994, offers up another possible perp, one Jack Anderson Wilson, a.k.a. Arnold Smith.

“I went as far as I could go with the information from Smith,” Gilmore says. “Every time I wrote an article or something appeared on the crime, he’d contact me. The last time I talked with him, he said, ‘I think it’s time we talked about the murder.’ I said, ‘What murder?’ He said, ‘Her murder.’ It was always ‘her murder.’ And it was an open case, so I had to go to the police. I told him that. I mean, this was a murder--we’re talking about real life, real death, real blood, all that. He died in a hotel fire not long after that. I don’t say this is the guy who did it, I only say that he had information for me that was very significant. It all happened 59 years ago, man. It’s an unsolvable crime.”

By the time he got to Hollywood High School, Gilmore was becoming well educated in the ways of non-high school Hollywood. The precocious teenager was spending his evenings socializing at Sunset Strip hot spots, sipping gin and tonics. He was tall and good-looking, and directors, agents and screenwriters of both sexes were wining, dining and hitting on him.

When he wrote about the action at Ciro’s and the Mocambo for class, an English teacher suggested that he consider becoming a writer. He considered it long enough to decide to become an actor. Inspired by the tough-meets-tender Method emoting of Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, he made the pilgrimage to New York to sit in on classes at Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio. He was 17. A short time later, at a drugstore near Times Square, a friend introduced him to another struggling young iconoclast, James Dean. They hit it off, remaining close as Dean’s star ascended and Gilmore starved.

After a brief stint in the Army, Gilmore returned to Hollywood. He reconnected with Dean, whose bad-boy movie star image was now going full tilt. They rode motorcycles together and hung out at Googies on the Strip, smoking and squinting and mumbling into the early hours as the squares slept. Gilmore moved back and forth, New York to L.A., barely scraping by. Dean died. (Years later, Gilmore says, Jim Morrison approached him, believing that he owned Dean’s bloody death clothes. He didn’t, but spent some quality time with the Lizard King anyway, drinking and dropping acid.)

He went to Paris for a role in a Jean Seberg film that never happened, hung out with William Burroughs, Gregory Corso and other literary expats, came back to L.A. and got into TV--a pilot for “The Aquanauts,” a lead role on “Lawman.” He found himself working further and further away from the glittering epicenter of Hollywood, becoming the type of almost-was that he would someday write about. As with his late pal Dean, Gilmore was forced to watch running buddies such as Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson make it, something he found perplexing.

“Nicholson, I was surprised he became a big movie star,” he says. “He was nobody. People laughed at him, kind of. He’s been good at times because he’s been extremely confident in what he’s doing, but overall he’s just lacking. And he has no sex appeal whatsoever. You know who I realized had sex appeal? Broderick Crawford.”

It was increasingly obvious to Gilmore that an acting career meant a lot of dishwashing. “I couldn’t make it. I couldn’t do it as an actor,” he admits. “I quit being an actor in about 1960, then I committed to writing, which was real difficult for a long time. From ’62 to ’66 I wrote a lot of dirty novels. Just ground ‘em out. I used to do ‘em in nine days.”

All of Gilmore’s quickie potboilers were penned under different names--"Dark Obsession” by Mort Gilliam, “Hot Spot” by T.J. Howard, “Strange Fire” and “Lesbos in Panama” by the prolific Neil Egri--and are now sought-after collectibles. It wasn’t art, but it was writing, and it brought Gilmore hope. It also brought him into a bizarre, discount social circle that included burned-out cross-dressing director Ed Wood Jr. Once named the fastest typist in New York state, the alcoholic Wood was churning out the same sordid fare that Gilmore was.

“Ed was a neat guy. A complete lunatic, though,” he recalls. “It was weird to sit and talk to somebody wearing a girl’s shirt and lipstick, always sweating because he drank so much. A part of me was repelled by him, in a way, but another part of me really felt sorry for him, and I wanted to caress him or know him or give him something other than what he had.”

The siren of crime called to Gilmore in 1966, the year he connected with his first killer. Charles Schmid had been accused of murdering two of his girlfriends and a sister of one and ditching their remains in the Arizona desert. The author writes that the charismatic slayer was the “first murderer I’d encounter, the first high-profile killer who’d recognize in me some peculiar sameness mirroring himself.”

“In the courtroom there was the press, mostly older guys, and I noticed Schmid kept connecting with me, maybe because I was younger, but there was something else as well,” Gilmore recalls. “I got involved with Smitty, and that went on for a long time. His parents had me stay in the little house where he committed the murders, and I was really aware of them. I couldn’t sleep. I got a motel.”

Published in 1970, “The Tucson Murders” was Gilmore’s first step into the guise of true-crime scribe and a style that was part clear-eyed observer, part mouthpiece for the malefactor, all designed to draw the reader into his vision of a dark, unhinged world. In the language of his early Method training, Gilmore describes the discovery of his inner author: “I wasn’t a reporter, a chronicler. I was the artist, and these experiences and encounters were as paints, hues, tones, values and varnishes I was laying across a space to form a vibrating picture, mirroring the human experience.”

His work began getting attention, and positive reviews--and though the money did not come pouring in, he was publishing legitimate writing. Early post-arrest jail interviews with Charles Manson and his still-free “girls” Sandra Goode and Squeaky Fromme resulted in 1971’s “The Garbage People.” Other works followed, among them the twisted sex-and-noir novels “Fetish Blonde” and the recent “Crazy Streak,” all running in the same gloriously disturbing vein as his nonfiction.

“I feel I have a very misanthropic view,” Gil-more says. “I’m drawn to the absolute bleak existential quality of life and death. . . . It’s just kind of dog-eat-dog.”

Look at almost any photograph of John Gilmore--it doesn’t matter if it was taken 50 years ago or yesterday--and the pose is the same: head slightly bowed, eyes boring straight through the camera lens. The handsome devil, the dangerous character.

“That’s the maverick, the rebel maverick,” he clarifies.

His status as an actor may have declined decades ago, but the attitude lingers on, an old-school cool credibility anointed by the passage of time, by not dying. For fans of the dark side of Los Angeles and those who savor the unsavory, Gilmore has himself become intertwined with the people and the lore and the eras he’s written about. He’s a living link to the dead great and small, a man who drank with Hank Williams as the wasted legend urinated in his pants, a man who chatted with the Black Dahlia about magic, a man who kissed James Dean.

Gilmore says he’s no longer interested in writing about true crime, that “L.A. Despair” is his blood-drenched swan song to the genre. “I’ve left crime. I’m no longer a substitute criminal. It doesn’t hold me anymore,” he says. “At some point I’d like to write a story about an LAPD homicide detective who’s pushing the burnout edge. Right now I’m working on a big novel about a bowling queen who comes up from the Mojave Desert. I began this book in 1963 when I lived at the Hollywood Towers. I love bowling alleys. I used to be a pinsetter when I was a kid, at the Emerald Cove bowling alley in Hollywood. No one even knows what that is anymore.”

A novel about a bowling queen may not exactly set sales records, but that is of no concern to the ex-pinsetter.

“I don’t honestly think I’ve ever thought of my career,” Gilmore says. “When I was a young actor I did, because then you have this other thing that’s really not you and you’re chasing it down the hallway or something--'My career! My career!’ I see myself as a creator, and this is what I compose that is extremely right for me. By that I mean it works, it gives me what I’m after.”


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