It’s the kind of house Hancock Park is famous for: unemphatic but impressive, with a perfect lawn, fresh coat of paint and ivy crawling up the walls. By Los Angeles standards, this is old-school cool.
James Ellroy, all 6 feet 3 of him, is stomping across that manicured lawn, sporting a Hawaiian shirt and golfer’s cap and pretending to walk a nonexistent dog. He mimics staring into the window, then simulates masturbating to what he sees inside.
“Just like that,” he offers.
This was how the writer, then a gangly teenager living off inhalers and stolen booze and dreaming of literary greatness, spent his youth. Or at least that’s the story he’s telling today.
Ellroy often behaves as if he’s on camera -- offering off-color anecdotes, barking like a dog and generally acting out. But today he actually is: He’s walking around this old-money neighborhood (and, the day after, through the city of El Monte) with a video crew from Playboy.
They’re shooting a documentary to accompany “The Hilliker Curse,” a four-part serial he’s writing for the magazine about his relationships with women. The first installment appears in the April issue, which has just hit the stands. The video, meanwhile, will appear at Playboy.com to launch a “Walkabout” series with important writers.
The “L.A. Confidential” author later says he never masturbated on neighbors’ lawns -- “That was just hyperbole!” -- but he was a dedicated peeper and self-described “perv” during his teenage years.
“I have been inside that house, illegally, on numerous occasions,” Ellroy says proudly, pointing to a handsome Spanish Colonial near the intersection of 2nd Street and Plymouth Boulevard.
He’s stolen pills, underwear, a turkey breast and “a five spot” from this place he still thinks of as “Cathy Montgomery’s house.” All this despite the fact that security signs started to appear on well-tended L.A. lawns in the summer of 1969, thanks to the Manson family.
Ellroy has covered this ground before. In 1996, he published “My Dark Places,” a memoir that even those skeptical of his overheated crime novels consider a literary accomplishment. With that book, he revisited his mother’s unsolved murder in El Monte -- in 1958, when he was 10 -- as well as his lost years as a peeper, binge drinker and neo-Nazi in Los Angeles.
Much of the book concerned his search, with a Los Angeles County sheriff’s homicide detective, for his mother’s killer.
“That was a great book,” Ellroy declares unapologetically, “but it’s largely a crime book. This is a love story.”
Of course, not quite a conventional love story.
“I’m always,” he says, head hanging like an abashed 12-year-old’s, “looking for love.”
“The Hilliker Curse” -- Hilliker was his mother’s maiden name -- appears as Playboy is, like most print publications, going through strange times.
Declining circulation (about half its 1970s peak) is a worry, but not as much as the sense that, like founder Hugh Hefner -- who recently starting charging for parties at the Playboy mansion -- the magazine no longer reflects its time.
“Hefner’s aura of Gatsby-esque sophistication is ever more at odds with his advancing years, and a changing world,” London’s the Independent judged in October. Plummeting stock prices, the recent resignation of his daughter, Chief Executive Christie Hefner, and a rumor, since denied by Playboy, that the company might be for sale, haven’t helped.
It’s also a period of transition for Ellroy. His celebrated “L.A. Quartet” of novels -- “The Black Dahlia,” “The Big Nowhere,” “L.A. Confidential” and “White Jazz” -- published in six years. But it’s been eight years since his last novel, “The Cold Six Thousand.”
Such a drought will end this fall with the publication of “Blood’s a Rover,” which completes the “American Underworld Trilogy” begun with “The Cold Six Thousand” and “American Tabloid.” It also marks what the author calls his farewell to “the autobiographical elements,” although it’s not clear where he’ll go next.
“This is the end of Act 2 of my career,” he says of the trilogy and his Playboy project.
Besides the enormous success of Curtis Hanson’s “L.A. Confidential,” films of Ellroy’s books have not worked out. Still, he remains a powerful writer, especially for fans of a style that mixes the minimalism native to the hard-boiled tradition with his own maximalist overkill.
“The Hilliker Curse” has the mix of hyped-up prose and rapid storytelling that readers expect from Ellroy’s novels, blended with a reflective quality he’s rarely shown in the past.
Whereas the first installment revisits his childhood, the unsolved murder and his teenage peeping, ensuing chapters look at how his mother’s death drove him to search for the perfect woman, to seek out both prostitutes and (fruitlessly) women of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, to pass notes with his phone number in coffee shops, to send literally thousands of dollars in flowers.
Now 61, he is, he says, in “an erotic frenzy.” (“James Ellroy: Why I Chase Women,” Playboy’s April cover boasts.)
Amy Grace Loyd -- the literary editor who scored a coup by bringing National Book Award-winning novelist Denis Johnson to Playboy last year with a serial novel -- calls Ellroy “a good fit” for the magazine.
“One of the things about Playboy,” Loyd says, “is that it’s always been a marriage of high and low. Ellroy has innovated genre fiction into something more sophisticated, but he’s also driven by appetite, driven by urges.”
Loyd is with Ellroy in Hancock Park, following as he leads the video crew past a row of houses that goes from Spanish revival to mock Tudor to Florentine in the space of half of a block. She playfully pulls her Egyptian cotton shawl over her head each time he goes too far.
Walking down 2nd Street, Ellroy waxes rhapsodic: “Girls in sherbet-colored gowns going to cotillions, Marlborough girls in uniforms. . . .”
As for his current taste in women, he says, “I want rectitude, brain power and passion.”
But: “Quite often I take what I can get.”
A few days later, Ellroy is talking again, this time in the Rossmore Avenue Art Deco-era condo where he has lived since 2006. The place is decorated with framed Deutsche Grammophon records, black-and-white photos of 1940s and 1950s Los Angeles and dozens of copies of his books. He’s an exemplar not just of romanticism, he says, but of the “symphonic romanticism” he learned from Beethoven and Bruckner.
“The Hilliker Curse,” he believes, is “a spiritual document. There’s never been a male memoir like this one. It was the desire to consistently update my state of mind and spiritual condition pertaining to women. To honor the women I’ve been with, to chart this journey of transcendence.”
He discusses the three great loves of his life -- ex-wife Helen Knode and two other women he prefers not to name -- and describes the evenings he spends stretched out on his couch, speaking to them in his mind.
And yet, he claims, he’s no longer exorcising a demon, as with “My Dark Places,” but exploring his obsessive soul.
“I’m made for obsessiveness,” Ellroy says. “I’m built for it. I’m big and skinny, and I run at a high rev. I love to be alone most of the time. I’m emotionally hungry, I’m horny, I have a profound conscience. I have never messed around with a cheesy woman.”
Will “The Hilliker Curse” destroy his tough-guy image?
It may, he says, but “only with a bunch of authenticity-seeking young men. You know how men seek authenticity through the most specious and vile male human beings?
“Thinking artists like Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson are authentic. Au contraire. It’s puerile. Real guys love God, Beethoven and women.”