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An Interview with David Adams Cleveland: Author of GODS OF DECEPTION

June 24, 2022

Gods of Deception is the brilliant new work of historical fiction by David Adams Cleveland, who takes the reader on an epic, revisionist sweep through post-war American history. The nonagenarian Judge Edward Dimock is writing his memoirs. The most troubling episode is his role as the defence attorney to Alger Hiss in the ‘trial of the century’. Dimock’s conscience is stricken at the thought that Hiss could have been guilty of espionage. Dimock enlists his grandson, Princeton astrophysicist George Altmann, to research the case. It’s the beginning of an investigation that could change their understanding of America’s Cold War history.

David Adams Cleveland is a novelist, historian and former correspondent and arts editor for Voice of America. I had the pleasure of talking to him about Gods of Deception. Interviewing David is a joy. It’s like sitting back with a snifter of brandy and listening to Gore Vidal or E.L. Doctorow wax lyrical about American history. Enjoy the interview and buy the book.

Interviewer: What motivated you to write Gods of Deception?

I found the Alger Hiss spy trial—the “trial of the century” as it was known, to be fascinating on many levels, especially for a fictional treatment.  In Alger Hiss (and we now know for a certainty that he was guilty of spying) you have a spy’s spy who never, to his dying day, admitted his guilt, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.  In this, he was very unlike the infamous British spies, the Cambridge Spies: Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, and Kim Philby who were plagued by fear of exposure and so escaped to the Soviet Union where they died early of alcoholism in their Moscow dachas.  Hiss maintained his equanimity to the end, refuting his accusers and seeking redemption.

Equally mesmerizing was the clash of Hiss and his accuser and one-time GRU (Soviet military intelligence) handler, Whittaker Chambers, who testified in intimate and telling detail about his days photographing top secret State Department documents passed to him by Hiss, many copied by his wife, Priscilla Hiss, on their Underwood typewriter. In the trial and later in his memoir, Witness, Chambers wrote at length about their relationship—everything from trade craft, to renting summer homes together, to rearing their children and bird watching. And yet Alger and Priscilla Hiss denied everything, only admitting that they might have known Chambers under a different name and for a very short time. These clashing stories—parallel universes in which both parties claimed to be telling the truth, were catnip for a writer trying to sort fact from fiction.

And then there is the astonishing way the guilty verdict returned against Hiss divided the country for almost five decades. Half believed vehemently in his innocence, that he was framed by Whittaker Chambers and the FBI and perhaps Richard Nixon as well; the other half believing he was a spy and a traitor. How could opinion be so drastically divided? For some, the elegant well-spoken Alger Hiss represented the ideals of the Eastern establishment and Roosevelt’s New Deal, and so the accusations levelled against him seemed an attack on the very foundations of liberalism. While his accuser, Whitaker Chambers, an admitted ex-communist and spy, was, oddly enough, seen by those of more conservative views as a soul who had confessed his sins and so offered witness to the dark underside of socialism in the guise of Stalin and the totalitarian state. As a subject of fiction such competing world views and how they played out in three generations of one family seemed a perfect opportunity to explore the mystery of how humans are drawn to various ideological viewpoints and often dragged down by a misbegotten allegiance.

David Adams Cleveland

Interviewer: Our understanding of the Alger Hiss case has changed with time. By telling the story across three generations of the same family do you find it easier to portray the complexity of that change?

What changed over the decades since Hiss’s conviction in 1950 was the very slow accumulation of new evidence confirming Hiss’s guilt along with changes in attitudes toward Stalin and the Soviet Union. These shifts certainly lent themselves to fictional exploration over three—actually, four generations of the Dimock family. Even during the two trials (the first ending in a hung jury) these tectonic shifts in public opinion were taking place with the imposition in Eastern Europe of the Iron Curtain and the test of a Soviet atom bomb in August of 1949, followed by the outbreak of the Korean War and the Soviet invasion of Hungry in 1956 and Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes.  Support for the Soviet experiment and the American Communist Party (numbering 200,000 at its height) declined rapidly. And with it an uneasiness among the far-left supporters of Hiss and the possibility that he may indeed have flirted with the communist party or worse. The most damning evidence of Hiss’s guilt didn’t come out until the mid-90s with the release of the Venona decrypts of Soviet cable traffic from the 1940s, and the brief opening of Soviet intelligence files during the Boris Yeltsin presidency of Russia. The cumulative evidence was damning.  Not only was Alger Hiss a spy but an agent of influence who sat at Roosevelt’s right hand at Yalta, where he was debriefed each morning by his Soviet handler—giving away the US and Allied negotiating position. Hiss and his fellow spies in the White House, Lauchlin Currie, and Treasury, Harry Dexter White, had done Stalin’s bidding throughout the war years and beyond. On his way back from Yalta, Hiss and members of the Yalta delegation stopped in Moscow, where Hiss was taken aside in a secret ceremony and given the Order of the Red Star for his service to the Soviet Union.

I designed my narrative to flesh out this often-complex changing perspective on Alger Hiss by having my lead protagonist, George Altmann, a Princeton astrophysicist, explore the Hiss affair by questioning his grandfather, “the Judge”, who had been on Hiss’s defense team. Through George’s eyes, and his grandfather’s memoir, along with the Judges three daughters, the reader becomes aware of how attitudes towards Alger Hiss have evolved over time, a changing picture that is reflected not just in the characters’ lives but that of the country as well.

Interviewer: The novel implies Soviet penetration of the US government at the highest level which affects key events in American history. Did your research into the case inform this narrative approach?

When I began my research on the Alger Hiss case, I assumed that Hiss was probably guilty as spelled out in his perjury conviction: passing top secret State Department documents to his GRU (Soviet military intelligence) handler, Whittaker Chambers, in the late thirties. I was stunned to find that the real damage Hiss and his confederates did was as agents of influence, along with close to 500 of Stalin’s willing spies who infiltrated the US government and related war industries. We now know that Harry Dexter White, an undersecretary at Treasury, did Stalin’s bidding by pushing for harder and harder sanctions on the Japanese in 1941—Operation Snow, in hopes of provoking the Japanese to attack south into the Pacific rather than continuing to attack Soviet positions in northeastern Asia along the border of Mongolia and Siberia. Pearl Harbor was the result.

Another Soviet agent in army intelligence, William Weisband, tipped off his KGB handler that the US had broken Soviet military logistic codes, at which point the Soviet military changed their codes, so leaving the US in the dark as Stalin shipped war materials to North Korea. If Truman’s White House had been able to monitor this movement of supplies, tipping off the US about the buildup for a North Korean attack, the US might well have been able to warn off Stalin and prevent the invasion of South Korea and the Korean War. Of course, the story of the Rosenbergs and how their ring of spies stole US atomic bomb secrets is well known. But I speculate in the novel, based on my research for Gods of Deception, that Soviet fears that their technical spy networks might be compromised and uncovered caused them to do everything in their power to prevent Alger Hiss’s conviction, which they feared, as indeed was the case, would open a Pandora’s box of spy fever, and so endanger their ongoing operations to steal details about the hydrogen bomb, then in development. There were a number of unexplained deaths and disappearances of potential witnesses in the Hiss spy case, ambiguous falls from buildings (a KGB specialty), or exile behind the Iron Curtain, much remarked on at the time, which I have explored in Gods of Deception. A title that references the fervent self-image of many American followers of Lenin and Stalin who saw themselves in the vanguard of history.

The 1950 conviction of Alger Hiss for perjury, even if only for passing top secrets documents to the Soviets in the late thirties, alerted the country that they had a very real problem with Stalin’s KGB and GRU spy networks. The great irony is that by the time this had all sunk in with what is now known as the “Fifties Red Scare”, most of the damage was long done and Stalin’s spies had either been exposed or had slunk away never to be heard from again.

Interviewer: Tell us a little about your journalistic background. How did your experiences inform the writing of Gods of Deception?

My years working for Voice of America covering the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China during the perestroika-glasnost period left me with a pretty good understanding of how totalitarian regimes employ the big lie and disinformation to hold their societies in check, while falling back on force and repression when all else fails. This made the Alger Hiss case all the more problematic for me: how was it that at least 500 other Americans were so willing to do Stalin’s bidding (they were not paid but were eager supplicants). Not to mention the 200,000 members of the American Communist Party, which served as a recruiting ground and underground infrastructure for these spies and their handlers.  Except for Whittaker Chambers’ autobiography, Witness, and a few other spy memoirs very little about these people and why they chose a path of subversion has surfaced, even seventy years later. This seemed inviting territory for a fictional exploration of the motivations of these American spies, the compromises they made, the lies they lived, and the pain and loss bequeathed to their families.

Interviewer: With Putin fighting a hopefully unwinnable war against Ukraine, what happens next in the US’s relationship with Russia? Is a military confrontation between Nato and Russia inevitable?

It has been eerily strange for me to have Gods of Deception come out with the onset of Putin’s war against Ukraine—Dracula pulling out a silver stake and walking the earth again. Everyone thought that Putin, trained in the dark arts of the KGB, could not reconstitute the terrifying days of Stalin’s Soviet Union with its use of the “big lie” and false flags, repression backed by brutal force, and—even with the internet, imposing state sponsored propaganda to mold public opinion. It looks like Putin has managed to bring down another Iron Curtain—if not another Cold War, at least for a time, possibly a fleeting moment in the great sweep of history, but a moment for which the Ukrainian people are paying so dearly.

I’m hopeful that the Russian people will soon realize that Putin is a tyrant intent on bringing about another dark age in Russia, and so find a way to replace him and his circle of aging ex-KGB sycophants. Putin’s military is looking more and more inept even as they inflict horrific suffering and destruction. So, I don’t see the war in Ukraine spreading any wider, especially since recent advancements in military technology now seems to favor the defense. Sad to say, when I started Gods of Deception it seemed a story about a distant past—now, suddenly, a cautionary tale for our times.

Gods of Deception is published by Greenleaf Book Group

Highbrow Lowbrow

June 19, 2022

Highbrow Lowbrow is a new podcast created by Dan Slattery and I. We took the basic idea from conversations we have at work. My taste in films is a little more highbrow, and Dan prefers genre films.

In each episode one of us recommends a film that might be termed “highbrow” and the other recommends a “lowbrow” film. We then have to defend it, knowing that it’s a film which the other person hates.

We realise that “highbrow” and “lowbrow” are completely subjective terms (how would you classify noir?) and in future episodes we are going to shake things up a bit. In the meantime, enjoy episode one. My Highbrow pick is Barry Lyndon directed by Stanley Kubrick and Dan valiantly defends The Expendables directed by Sylvester Stallone. You can listen here.

Highbrow Lowbrow will give you hours of entertainment

A James Ellroy Playlist: The Beat Poets

June 14, 2022

James Ellroy’s LA Quartet is set predominantly in the 1950s and the influence of jazz and film noir on Ellroy’s narratives is fitting given the cultural trends of the decade. But just as the 1950s was the apex of the film noir age, many other genres and art forms were thriving. The Western, Musical, Swashbuckler and Biblical epic all enjoyed their heyday during the 50s.

In this article I am going to explore a lesser-known cultural influences on Ellroy’s work – beat poetry. The Beat movement was peaking during Ellroy’s childhood and had an inevitable impact on him.

High School Drag

Given Ellroy’s conservative views, it’s not surprising that even as a child he associated Beat Poetry with the derogatory term Beatnik. The Beatnik was a media stereotype which portrayed the Beat Generation as a motley crew of drug addicts, criminals and hilariously pretentious artists.

High School Confidential was the first film Ellroy saw at the cinema after the murder of his mother – Jean Ellroy. It’s not surprising, given the timing, that it had a profound effect on the young Ellroy. Produced by legendary schlockmeister Albert Zugsmith, the film is nominally a crime story. A police officer poses as a student to go undercover in a high school and bust a narcotics ring run by the enigmatic ‘Mr A’. However, the film is too consistently outrageous for the crime narrative to be taken seriously, as it perpetuates stereotypes about beatnik culture. All of the students speak in jive and several are portrayed as sex-obsessed, while Zugsmith takes great pleasure in rubbing the audiences’ face in smutty content. Please don’t take this as overly critical. High School Confidential is a riot from start to finish, partly as it can’t help being a little fond of the subculture it is ‘warning’ against.

Ellroy was quite taken by the attractive actress Phillipa Fallon, whose reading of the beat poem ‘High School Drag’ is the highlight of the film. Do you see elements of Ellroy’s bookstore performances in this jive kats?

Vampira and The Beat Generation

Zugsmith followed High School Confidential with The Beat Generation. Once again, it’s a crime film drowning in beatnik satire. The basic premise is chilling. Ray Danton plays Stan Hess, aka ‘The Aspirin Kid’. Hess is a rapist who worms his way into women’s homes while their husbands are away. Charming and handsome, Hess knocks at the door claiming that he owes the woman’s husband money. Once inside, he feigns a headache and pulls out a tin of aspirin. While the woman is distracted getting a glass of water for him, Hess sneaks up from behind, assaults and rapes the woman.

Although he doesn’t murder his victims, Hess could be modelled on the serial killer Harvey Glatman. Known as the ‘Glamour Girls Slayer’, Glatman selected his victims by contacting aspiring models with offers of work. While in prison, Glatman was interviewed by detectives in connection with Jean Ellroy’s murder. As if the film couldn’t get more Ellrovian, Dick Contino performs a song at the climactic ‘Beat Hootenanny’, wherein Hess and Detective Culloran (Steve Cochran) fight it out amid a group of enraptured beatniks, who happily sing and dance and are completely oblivious to the duel unfolding before their eyes.

The Beat Generation features an actress who is referenced in Ellroy’s White Jazz. Maila Nurmi was a Finnish-American actress better known as Vampira, a character she created as the host of The Vampira Show. Part Two of White Jazz is titled ‘Vampira’, although reference to the character is quite brief. Dave Klein spots the portrait of ‘a ghoul woman’ on the shelf of Glenda Bledsoe, an actress he is keeping under surveillance for Howard Hughes. Glenda says of Vampira:

She’s the hostess of an awful horror TV show. I used to carhop her, and she gave me some pointers on how to act in your own movie when you’re in someone else’s movie.

The mention of Vampira must be something of a turn-on, as Klein struggles to hide his attraction for Glenda when she is describing the horror host: ‘Shaky hands – I wanted to touch her.’ Billed as Vampira, the alluring Maila Nurmi appears in The Beat Generation as ‘The Poetess’. She recites a beat poem, not dissimilar to ‘High School Drag’, with a cigarette in her hand and a white rodent on her shoulder. Although the poem is typically hilarious, the scene is quite chilling. Detective Culloran is watching The Poetess, and her recitation is interspersed with clips of Hess who is at that moment using his usual routine to enter Culloran’s house:

Love Me Fierce in Danger: The Life of James Ellroy is available for pre-order from Bloomsbury.

An Interview with Richard O’Rawe: Author of Goering’s Gold

May 25, 2022

Goering’s Gold is the latest novel by Richard O’Rawe, and the second novel to feature O’Rawe’s protagonist Ructions O’Hare. Ructions is a former IRA operative turned adventurer. When a piece of Nazi memorabilia leads Ructions to suspect that Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering may have hidden his looted booty in Ireland towards the end of World War Two, Ructions can’t resist the temptation of going on a treasure hunt. But when Ructions goes hunting for gold, he soon finds himself in the cross hairs of vengeful former comrades in the IRA, fanatical Neo-Nazis and dogged Security Services. It all amounts to a terrific romp, entertaining and hilarious in equal measure. I would put Goering’s Gold straight onto your Summer reading list.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ricky O’Rawe about the novel… at least the conversation was supposed to be about Goering’s Gold. Ricky is a natural raconteur and has had such a fascinating life that we got a bit sidetracked. Like Ructions, Ricky is a former IRA operative. But I won’t say anymore here. I’ll let him describe his life in his own words:

Interviewer: Is there a touch of you in Ructions?

O’Rawe: Ructions has a wee touch of my personality. I always think that when you’re writing these things, there’s always a bit of you in the protagonist. Having said that, I wouldn’t be as clever as Ructions right. But I know people from my time in the Republican movement. People who were very, very smart, who would have been able to think on their feet, who would have a touch of the Ructions guy about them. Probably an amalgamation of three or four different guys who I met along my journey. There is a touch of me in him, I have to be honest. I like his humour. Sometimes he comes off with wee bits of humour, and that’s definitely me.

Interviewer: For the benefit of my readers, will you tell me a little bit about your background. It’s interesting that Ructions has fallen out a bit with the IRA leadership which is somewhat similar to you.

O’Rawe: My whole family is very republican. I’m one of these guys who come from a fairly pristine republican background. My father was one of the OC’s of the IRA in Belfast during the 1940s campaign, and he was interned and escaped out of prison. Tunnelled his way out of Derry jail and escaped with others. And he was interned again during the IRA 50’s campaign – the IRA has a campaign virtually every ten years. They never go anywhere! I was brought up in this republican culture, or ethos, call it what you may. When The Troubles broke out in ‘69, I was a student. I was doing A Levels. I’d just finished my O Levels, and the next thing was that The Troubles broke out and I joined the IRA and in no time at all I was on the run. And I ended up on the prison ship Maidstone in February 1972 and that was my studies. I couldn’t go to school because I would have been arrested and interned a lot earlier. So that was the sort of place my life was in for the next fifteen years. It was dedicated to the Republican struggle in the IRA and struggle for Irish freedom and, as I say, some of the people I’ve met along the way were Ructions type guys. Highly intelligent people. You would look at them and say, he looks a bit of a dodo but in actual fact there’s a great brain behind this guy’s bland facade. But I was in and out of prison four times. I was interned without trial twice. I was in for a kidnapping, which I beat in court, and then I got eight years in 1977 for a bank robbery. And I spent three and a half of those eight years on what was called the Blanket protest.

Interviewer: And that was the start of your drift away from the IRA?

O’Rawe: Well it was some ways. I ended up, during the second hunger strike in 1981, in the leadership position being PR of the Republican prisoners and de facto I was number two in the prison behind a guy called Brendan McFarlane. And four of the guys had died  – Bobby Sands, Frank Hughes, Raymond McCreeesh and Patsy O’Hara – they had already died on hunger strike, and we were coming up to the critical point with the fifth guy, a friend of mine called Joe McDonnell. And the British Government, I put out a statement on the fourth of July, which was very conciliatory which broke down the five demands. And broke them down in a conciliatory way because we needed to reach out to the British to give them a way out. You can’t expect outright victory. And the British did respond. They responded with an offer which me and McFarlane accepted. They were gonna give all prisoners their own clothes, which is what we asked for. And they were gonna give us letters and stuff. The big one was the clothes, that was the one that defined whether you were a political prisoner or not, and they had broken that. So we accepted that offer, and sent a communication to the outside leadership. A call came in from Gerry Adams saying that they were surprised we accepted the offer. And they didn’t think that it justified the deaths of the first four men. So as a result of that, the hunger strike continued and another six men died. I was in an awful state. Truth be told, it was the most traumatic time of my whole life. And there’s nothing I could do to stop this thing, and it ended on October 3, 1981 with ten men dead. I got out two years later and I go back to the Republican Movement because I was still a Republican. I wasn’t one of these midnight guys who come in, have a wee look and nipped out again. I was there for the fight. I came out and Gerry Adams came to the house and grabbed me to do PR for the Republican Movement during the 1982 elections. I stayed until 1986 when my wife gave me an ultimatum. I was doing fifteen hour days down in the press centre. She says look, here’s the choice: you either stay with the Republican Movement or you come with me and your daughter, but you can’t have the two. So I picked my wife and my daughter. And that was when I left the Republican Movement – blackmailed out of it (laughs)!

By the way, (it was) the best decision I was ever forced to take in my life. She and I were only married six months and I was away for six years. And I come out of jail and I am right back in the business, knocking out 15 hour days, not earning any money for the house. Senior Republicans got £30 a week, a lot of guys only got a tenner. And I was getting thirty quid a week and my whole family, my daughter, my wife were suffering. And she was right, she just took the attitude – you’re shiteing on us again and I’m not having it.

Interviewer: You’re still quite involved in politics and you’re working a little with the SDLP.

O’Rawe: The SDLP invited me on to what they call their experts committee. It’s a very broad committee of environmentalists and ex-government ministers and people from the various political parties down south etc. And they said to me, would you like to come on and give some sort of republican perspective? I said, why not, of course, so I do work with the SDLP in that sense. I’m far too busy to be involved in party politics because I’m always writing. I’ve always got something in the pipeline. So I don’t have time to start immersing myself in party politics, and I never would anyway. I could never again commit to the discipline that comes from being in a political party. If somebody told me to believe something that I didn’t believe in it would be chaos. I would never be political again, but I do have opinions and I do express them if I’m asked, and I wouldn’t be behind the door criticising the SDLP, Sinn Fein, DUP, whoever. If they deserve criticism and I’m asked, they’ll get it.

Interviewer: While we’re on the subject of nonfiction, I’m very intrigued by the Gerry Conlon biography that you’ve written. How did that come about?

O’Rawe: Me and Gerry were lifelong friends. We lived beside each other, We were born and reared together in Peel Street in the Lower Falls. We lived in 6 Peel Street and the Conlons lived in No.7. There was three months between us in terms of age. So he and I virtually grew up together. I lived in his house, he lived in my house, and we grew up together and we were always great friends. And Gerry was different from me. Gerry was a crazy sort of a child right, one of these wee fuckers that was breaking into houses when he was about 10 or 12 you know. Whereas, I had a very strict upbringing and I wasn’t into any of that. Gerry was the sort of a kid that was just wild but I loved him. He was like a brother to me, truly. After he got out of the Old Bailey in 1989 I met him again in Belfast, and he and a guy called Brendan ‘Darkie’ Hughes, a very famous Republican, we all got drunk. Darkie Hughes was actually the guy who said to his (Gerry’s) father back in 1973 ‘get him out Giuseppe or he’s gonna get shot.’ So the three of us had a drink and got mad drunk. but then he went away to England and he had his tribulations in England. He ended up on crack cocaine. He ended up in Plymouth, moving down from London, trying to break the habit. He lived like a hermit in Plymouth. Very lucky to have a psychiatric nurse called Baz who talked him through it and walked him through it and he got clean. He came back in 2006. The minute he came home he phoned me up and said, come on out for a drink. So we met a lot of old friends, but it was about me and him. So we started going out for breakfast every week, sometimes twice a week and it was one of those situations where you could tell him anything. There’s very few people in life that you’ll meet like that. You can say whatever you want to say and it’s not going to be carried, and he and I had that sort of relationship.

I released Blanketmen, my first book, in 2005 and he loved it, absolutely loved it. And we were walking up Royal Avenue in 2006 and he said to me, I want you to write my biography. I said, Jesus Christ they made a film about you. Daniel Day Lewis portrayed you, and you’ve already written your own book, Proved Innocent, you’re well covered Gerry. He said, you’re talking balls. My life didn’t start until the day I got out of jail. That’s when the Gerry Conlon story begins. 

And I had other commitments at the time. I had a screenplay with Northern Ireland Screen with a producer guy in Dublin and we were talking about running it as a film. It didn’t work out. He (Gerry) says, are you gonna do it? I says, well… He says, are you gonna do it, I want a commitment? I says, I’ll do it but it won’t be in a day. It won’t be tomorrow. So I gave it no more thought. Neither did he push me for it, because he knew eventually we’ll get round to it. I get a call from his sister Ann. She says, Gerry wants to see you. He’s in hospital. I says, what’s he doing there? She says, it’s not good. She told me he had two or three weeks to live at the most. He has cancer. It’s such a shock. So I went down to see him. It was very emotional for the two of us, because I knew I wouldn’t be seeing him again. He said to me, are you doing the story? You said you would and you haven’t done it yet. So I said, I’m gonna do it. Believe me, I will do it. So we had a very emotional farewell, and he died within about a week.

I had another book, I had Northern Heist lined up to do next. I had to set it aside and get whacked into the Gerry Conlon book, and started doing all the interviews. Had to travel down to Devon, had to go to London, had to go to Glasgow, Derry, down to Tipperary. It was one of those books you had to get on your bike and go and actually talk with people about him. It was one of those books which was very funny in places because Gerry was one of those characters, some of his stories were funny. I mean the antics of him and Johnny Depp. Johnny Depp was fantastic for me. Johnny Depp wrote the foreword. That’s a story on its own. I didn’t think he was gonna do it. It was actually Siobhan MacGowan (Shane MacGowan’s sister). She was a lovely wee girl and we were down interviewing her, down in Tipperary, myself and my daughter. We were walking away, she said to me ‘why don’t you ask Johnny Depp to do the foreword. Ask him, I think he’ll do it. He loved Gerry.’ So she gave me his email address. I bounce away an email, Johnny would you be up for it? I heard nothing for two weeks, I thought let’s get someone else to do it, and then word came through from Johnny Depp, ‘Ricky, I would love to write the foreword to Gerry Conlon’s biography. That is such an honour, and thank you so much for asking me.’

Interviewer: That is an extraordinary story.

O’Rawe: They’d (Depp and Gerry) been on this crazy drinking binge down in southern Ireland and they’d drunk the place dry, all around Cork and Killarney and all. They’d been to all these places and had a great time with the chicks, just real guys going let’s go mad. And he says ‘I remember going into a bookshop in Dublin and Gerry bought a book on The Beatles and I bought Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy. I have it in my hands as I’m writing this.’

The story itself is fantastic. It’s now a screenplay. We released it in the Lyric Theatre in Belfast and it sold out every night. It’s actually in the biggest theatre in Belfast, 1100 seater, the Grand Opera House at the end of July and it leaves there to go the way over the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for a month. And it’s called In the Name of the Son. If I say so myself, it’s fucking brilliant! Humour, pathos, everything that’s lovely and hard times and funny times. You couldn’t really go wrong because his life was such a rollercoaster. He got through a million quid in under a year, and he ended up rifling through bins because every penny went to drugs. Went to cocaine.

Interviewer: I heard he had PTSD.

O’Rawe: But he fought it. He fought it like a champion and he beat it. I talked to his mate. His mate was also a crack cocaine addict, and he said he went on heroin to get off crack cocaine. He said he couldn’t beat it, but Gerry beat it.

Ricky O’Rawe Credit: O’Rawe Family

Interviewer: What made you turn your hand to fiction with Northern Heist?

O’Rawe: I don’t like to be pigeonholed. I will write whatever takes my fancy, and Northern Heist came about… actually these things always come about with one single thought, and usually it’s a ‘what if’. Me and my daughter was sitting in a pub down in Belfast at Christmas. She doesn’t drink. She was having a coke and I’m having a pint of Guinness and we’re talking about the Northern Bank robbery. They got away with twenty-six and a half million quid. It’s all over the papers. The government down south, the government in London, in Belfast, all the political parties are saying that the Provos, the IRA done it right, carried the robbery out and truth be told, there’s no one else in Ireland who could have pulled it off, other than the IRA. It was such an intricate job, brilliant job. It was one of those jobs you’d give your right arm to be on (laughs).

Interviewer: Yeah? (laughs, a little nervously)

O’Rawe: So we were sitting talking about it, and she said to me ‘but what if the IRA didn’t do it?’ I said ‘Who would do it?’ And then we started talking and we came up with this genius of a criminal. This was a hell of a bank robbery. I mean, whoever thought of this was extremely alert, well tuned in and the genius of it was two parts. The first thing, it was a tiger kidnapping where they held the two families. They send the two bank employees in, and one of them brings in a big Manchester United kitbag, and they say to him, ‘fill that up with money, bring it up to the end of the street’ which he does. He goes up to the end of the street, sits at the bus stop. A guy comes up beside him, takes the bag and walks away and in that instance they got away with a million quid. But they also realised this bank is ours for the taking. There’s no cops, there’s no security. We can take this out, and not just take it out, take every fucking penny out of it. And then a big lorry lined up with two guys. They bring down the lorry. In the meantime, the organiser phones the two boys in the bank and says, start filling up the big trolleys. Fill them up with money, seal them up and bring them out to the loading bay. Which is exactly what they do, they throw some rubbish on it, and in the first haul they get away with 16 million quid. They send the lorry back again and take another 10 million pound out of it. And the genius of the thing was the IRA had to phone the cops up and tell them the place was robbed. From a writer’s point of view, it was fantastic. From a dramatic point of view it was potentially a great story, great novel. But it couldn’t be a great novel if it was the IRA who done it, so I invented this guy Ructions who, as I say, I knew the type of man that he was. I’ve met this type of guy right, on two or three different occasions, not often. These guys don’t grow on trees, but I met this type of guy and I amalgamated three or four different personalities and there’s a touch of me in him as well. So he then becomes the driving force behind it, and it works, but like in all novels you’re problem solving all the time. Number one: how does he get to know who’s working what, when and where, the intelligence on the bank? So I have to solve that. But I loved writing about this guy Ructions.

Goering’s Gold was challenging. Walking Ructions into a scenario where he’s chasing Nazi Gold belonging to Hermann Goering was challenging. You have to sit down and say how would this happen. You make it work because it’s human experience.

Interviewer: Have you always been interested in World War Two?

O’Rawe: I love Modern European History. I was actually studying in prison, before I came out. I love Modern European History and I love World War Two. I don’t love Hermann Goering. He was an absolute monster. But out of all the Nazis he was, far and away, the most gregarious right. He’s a total hedonist, and if he had had his way, there wouldn’t have been a Second World War. He advises Hitler not to invade Poland. He advises him not to invade Russia. Hitler, of course, ignored him. But all I think Hermann Goering wanted to be was the Minister of the Hunt and the Minister of Good Wine and the Minister of Champagne and the Minister of the Party. Even when you look at the Nuremberg trials, he was by far and away the most coherent and intelligent Nazi there. The rest of them were dour. He was laughing and he was almost enjoying it. They’re not sure, for definite, how he got the cyanide tablet. And in that wee mystery lies the nucleus of your book. 

Interviewer: Have you had any feedback from old comrades who say, ‘I don’t like what you’re writing about us’?

O’Rawe: They all want to be Ructions! I don’t hang around with the lads anymore. I just don’t do it. After Blanketmen I was ostracised, but I went to a funeral not long after Northern Heist was released and not one but about twenty came up to me and said, ‘Am I Ructions? Was Ructions based on me?’ They all want to be this maverick, this genius who can pull this stuff off. They love the thought of it.

Tales From The Mall

May 10, 2022

I had the honour of being interviewed by Brendan (one of the EllroyBoys, whose show I appeared on a couple of times) for his podcast series Tales From the Mall.

The format of Tales From The Mall is intriguing. Brendan calls his friends, usually writer/artist types, from the Arizona Mills mall in Tempe, Arizona. He has a free-form interview style and no subject, be it politics, relationships, cinema, literature or religion is off-limits. Brendan and I talked for two hours and I decided it was time to openly discuss a book I have been dropping hints about on this website for some time.

Love Me Fierce in Danger: The Life of James Ellroy is the first full-length biography of James Ellroy and will be published by Bloomsbury early next year. You can find more information on the book on Bloomsbury’s website where it is available for pre-order. I’ll be discussing the book on this site in the months ahead. But in the meantime, you can listen to me discuss it with Brendan on Tales From The Mall. He has a great show and it was huge fun to be his guest.

A James Ellroy Playlist: Rags to Riches

May 1, 2022

Scott Joplin: Piano Rags was released in 1970. Featuring Rags composed by Joplin and performed by Joshua Rifkin, the record was a critical and commercial success, leading to a revival of interest in Ragtime and a glowing reassessment of Joplin’s role as the ‘King of Ragtime’.

In the mid-1970s, while working at the Hillcrest Country Club in Los Angeles, a young caddy by the name of Lee Earle Ellroy gives a copy of Piano Rags to a close friend. His favourite track, Ellroy tells his friend, is ‘Magnetic Rag’.

Magnetic Rag

The Ragtime revival of the 70s continued apace. The Sting won Best Picture at the 1974 Academy Awards. The soundtrack featured Joplin compositions, adapted by Marvin Hamlisch. Joplin was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1976, and his life was adapted into a 1977 film starring Billy Dee Williams. It all amounts to an extraordinary, albeit bittersweet, legacy for a composer who died of syphilis, penniless, at the age of 48 in 1917. Ragtime abruptly died with him, although it lived on as an influence in Swing, Jazz and the Blues.

EL Doctorow’s novel Ragtime was published in 1975. Set at the height of the Ragtime era from 1902 to 1912, the narrative focuses on a wealthy white family who live in New Rochelle, NY. Lee Ellroy loved the novel. He had writing ambitions of his own and was working on a manuscript at home in the afternoons, after caddying in the morning. In 1981, Ellroy’s first novel Brown’s Requiem was published under his new name James Ellroy. Ellroy moved to Eastchester, close to the New Rochelle setting of Ragtime, and pursued his new writing career with burning ambition and boundless enthusiasm. Although his debut had been a crime novel, Ellroy ultimately wanted to write historical fiction. As an influence, Doctorow’s Ragtime was a work Ellroy admired but also struggled with. There is no dialogue in the text. Instead, the reader discerns the characters motivations through interior monologue as they react to the great events around them. Real-life historical figures are presented in an irreverent, sometimes unflattering, fashion. Their actions are not always logical or rational. Sometimes it feels like they have given themselves to the rhythm of their times. Ellroy himself would write about romantic dreamers who ‘dance to the music in their own heads’. Every time I listen to a rag it sounds like a short story told through musical mannerisms. It’s perfect music to accompany a flirtatious glance across a room or a happy walk on a Summer’s day.

The film adaptation of Ragtime hit the big screens in November 1981 while Ellroy was settling in at his new home in Eastchester. Directed by Milos Forman, Ragtime is a lavish spectacle which sadly died at the box office. The film does a good job of fleshing out the characters through dialogue and action. The narration to the trailer ends ‘Bad Time … Good Time … Ragtime’. The production of the film was caught in its own turmoil that, for better or worse, captured the spirit of Ragtime. A footballer turned actor lobbied hard for the role of Coalhouse Walker Jr. He felt the role of Walker (a well-mannered Ragtime pianist who ingratiates himself with a white family but is radicalised after experiencing racism), would have been the perfect part to make people take him more seriously as an actor.

Fortunately, OJ Simpson did not get the part. The role of Colehouse Walker went to the excellent Howard Rollins.

By the late 1980s, Ellroy’s reputation as a historical novelist was starting to grow. Today he is considered one of the greatest writers of historical crime fiction, although recent works have tended to be overblown. Perhaps that is the point. Ellroy described the WWII Los Angeles setting of Perfidia as a “time of fabulous fistfights, brief and passionate love affairs, populated by great real-life characters interacting with great fictional characters. It is the secret human infrastructure of enormous public events. It’s Ellroy’s Ragtime.”

NB: This post came about through conversations I’ve had with Ellroy about his musical tastes and how they have changed over time. His interest in Ragtime has waned over the years. The Ragtime revival, like the Swing revival of the 90s, has come and gone. We absorb our cultural environment and then we move on, sometimes not realising until years later the influence it had on us. Ellroy has always maintained that he ‘lives in the past’ and while he spurns the internet for that reason, the web has made these cultural gems of bygone days so much easier to rediscover. Doctorow’s Ragtime is a fine introduction to the era and its music. In one scene, Colehouse performs several rags to the unnamed New Rochelle family, and the description of his playing is as beautiful as the music itself:

The musician turned again to the keyboard. ‘Wall Street Rag,’ he said. Composed by the great Scott Joplin. He began to play. Ill-tuned or not the Aeolian had never made such sounds. Small clear chords hung in the air like flowers. The melodies were like bouquets. There seemed to be no other possibilities for life than those delineated by the music.

Wall Street Rag

The Murder of Jean Ellroy – The Search for Answers

April 16, 2022

Take a look at the photograph below. It was taken in the late-1950s and is quite suggestive by the standards of the time. The woman in the picture is Jean Ellroy. The man she is in a passionate clinch with has never been identified.

And on the night this photo was taken, a serious crime took place.

Jean Ellroy and an unidentified man

Jean Ellroy

Jean was born in Tunnel City, Wisconsin in 1915 to Earle and Jessie Hilliker. The family moved to Tomah, WI, in 1930. Jean finished high school in 1934 and moved to Chicago to study Nursing at West Suburban College. Jean graduated from West Suburban in 1937. She first visited Los Angeles after winning a beauty contest in December 1938. Shortly thereafter, she moved to LA and had a brief and mysterious marriage. Jean’s family never met her husband and knew him only as ‘the Spalding Man’. Jean was good at keeping secrets. She married ‘the Spalding Man’ in Yuma County in November 1940, and it quickly ended in annulment or divorce. It wasn’t until March 2020 that it was revealed, on this website, that Jean’s first husband was the real-estate heir Easton Ewing Spaulding.

Jean married Armand Ellroy in August 1947. Armand was a non-certified accountant and minor Hollywood player. They had been living together for several years prior to their marriage while waiting for Armand’s divorce from his first wife to come through, and Jean was two months pregnant on her wedding day. A botched abortion, several years earlier, had perhaps made Jean think she was unlikely to conceive again. Jean and Armand’s son, Lee Earle Ellroy, was born on March 4, 1948. As an adult, Lee would change his name to James Ellroy and go on to become the greatest crime novelist of his generation. But let’s keep the story with Jean for the time being.

Titian Red, the Dishwater Blonde and the Swarthy Man

Jean and Armand divorced in 1956. Jean moved with Lee to El Monte in 1958. On Sunday morning, June 22 1958, Jean Ellroy’s corpse was discovered outside of Arroyo High School in El Monte. She had been beaten and strangled to death. The previous evening Jean had been seen wearing a ‘navy blue duster dress’ in the company of a man, who due to his olive complexion and dark hair would later be dubbed ‘the Swarthy Man’, at the Desert Inn in El Monte. Several witnesses remarked on Jean’s beauty and described her hair as Titian Red. The Swarthy Man was less attractive. He had an extremely thin jaw. One witness remarked ‘you might think he had no teeth until you saw him smile’. Only one witness recalled speaking to him. The Swarthy Man had asked for ‘just coffee’ in a flat voice. Nevertheless, Jean seemed to be happy and relaxed in his presence. The man folded Jean’s coat and pulled back her chair. He knew how to behave like a gentleman in public, albeit in a brooding fashion. A ‘dishwater blonde’ woman was accompanying Jean and the Swarthy Man at the Desert Inn. The same night Jean visited Stan’s Drive-In twice with the Swarthy Man, sans blonde woman.

Neither the Swarthy Man nor the blonde woman were ever identified and the police were unable to solve the murder. Decades later, James Ellroy exhaustively re-investigated his mother’s murder with the help of retired LASD detective Bill Stoner, which he chronicled in his memoir My Dark Places. The murder of Jean Ellroy has been the subject of much speculation and theorising. In this article, I will present an overview of the various theories regarding Jean’s murder and then, tentatively, proffer one of my own.

Jean Ellroy

Profile of a Killer

In My Dark Places, Ellroy writes ‘A Desert Inn witness called my mother’s male companion a Mexican. The fact surprised me. Jean Ellroy was right-wing and obsessed with appearances. I couldn’t see her out in public with a cholo.’ Ellroy’s attitude here might seem surprising, especially as at one point in his memoir he appears to be unfazed by the suggestion that his mother had a lesbian fling at college. You have to take into account social attitudes of the 1950s. Latino stars such as Ricardo Montalban and Desi Arnaz were married to white women but, outside of Hollywood, for a single mother like Jean to be dating a Mexican might have opened her up to judgment. Of course, assigning ethnicity to the Swarthy Man just on the basis of his skin tone is fraught with risk. Another witness said the Swarthy Man ‘looked like he might be of Greek or Italian extraction.’ Rereading the witness statements, it’s humorous to note that in 1958 people were as prone to tie themselves in knots talking about race as they are today. One witness said, ‘His tan was, seemed like he wasn’t dark enough to be a Mexican. ‘Course, I know there’s lots of light ones, but-‘

Just as the Swarthy Man’s identity has remained elusive, so too has that of the Blonde woman. If the police had been able to locate the Blonde then they would have almost certainly cracked the case. According to Ellroy, Armand’s theory was that ‘my mother balked at a three-way with the Blonde and the Dark Man’. It might seem fanciful, but then why did the Blonde never come forward. Was she scared or in hock to the Swarthy Man in some way? The last time Jean was seen alive was her second appearance at Stan’s Drive-In with the Swarthy Man in the early hours of June 22. The carhop, Lavonne Chambers, noticed that Jean now looked dishevelled, as opposed to her earlier neat appearance, as though she had been ‘necking’ with her male companion. Chambers observed ‘they didn’t seem overly friendly together.’

Naturally, the young Ellroy was influenced by his father’s views on Jean’s murder. And for the next thirty years or so, he broadly believed Armand’s theory. He was certain that the Swarthy Man had not killed again after he murdered Jean. He was under the impression that Jean had not been raped. Even when he began his re-investigation and read the autopsy report that Jean had sexual intercourse on the night she was killed, Ellroy still wanted to believe it was consensual. He thought the Swarthy Man had killed her after sex as Jean was drunk and clingy. He wanted to ditch her and move on. Bill Stoner told him this was implausible. He surmised that Jean had resisted sex all evening, although may have indulged in some heavy petting, which lead to a slowly creeping rage in the Swarthy Man. He drives her by Arroyo High School as ‘he decided that the evening wasn’t over for him’ and demands sex one last time. Jean refuses, at which point the Swarthy Man beats her, rapes her and then strangles her to death. Jean had been on her period. The coroner ‘found a tampon at the rear of the vaginal vault’. Ellroy came round to the view that his mother’s murder was a ‘date rape that went bad’.

I took this photo on a visit to El Monte in 2009. It is near the spot where Jean’s corpse was discovered outside of Arroyo High School.

Having killed Jean, what would the Swarthy Man do next? He probably spent the next few months living in abject fear which slowly evolved into relieved shock. So many people had seen him that night and yet the police never came knocking at his door. If Lavonne Chambers had noted the licence plate number on the Swarthy Man’s ‘dark green oldsmobile’, as she was under instruction to do from her employers to deter customers from leaving without paying, then he would have been arrested the following day. The Swarthy Man was lucky, but he wasn’t a criminal genius. Did he kill again? Stoner certainly thought it was possible after he dug up the file on the unsolved murder of Elspeth ‘Bobbie’ Long, a woman who was killed four miles from El Monte, shortly after Jean’s murder and in very similar circumstances.

Stoner commissioned Carlos Avila, a former colleague of his turned Criminal Investigative Profiler, to compile a psychological profile of the Swarthy Man. Avila concluded that ‘unless the offender was arrested and incarcerated for some extended period of time, we would expect the offender to continue killing, if not in this state, in others.’ Avila differed from Stoner’s theory in one important respect. He felt that the sex had been consensual, ‘Whatever circumstances triggered the offender’s anger occurred after the victim reinserted the tampon.’ Had Jean belittled the Swarthy Man’s sexual prowess? Lavonne Chambers noticed Jean had been wearing a pearl ring on her wedding finger, ‘It was an enormous pearl, it was so big… It looked like it went all the way around, because I could see the big part of the pearl.’ When detectives were examining Jean’s corpse they noticed she was wearing ‘a fake-pearl ring on the third finger’. Was the ring a gift from the Swarthy Man and had Jean been idly switching it from one finger to the next? Perhaps the killer moved the ring.

As Ellroy’s father had influenced his views on his mother’s murder, it’s worth examining where exactly Armand fits into theories regarding Jean’s murder. On paper, he appeared to be the perfect suspect. His divorce from Jean had been rancorous. Court records show that he had stalked her. On one occasion he peered through her window and watched her having sex with a man. Years later, when Ellroy discovered the level of abuse his father had inflicted on Jean he wrote, ‘I knew how she came to King’s Row (in El Monte).’ Jean’s sister Leoda ‘thought my father killed my mother. My father got a kick out of the notion. He told me Leoda suspected him from the start.’ Armand lied in his police interview, ‘He told them they met in ’39 and got married in ’40. They got divorced in ’54’ Jean and Armand married in 1947. The divorce was finalised in 1956. Jean married Easton Spaulding in 1940. She may have met Armand around the same time, and was juggling the two men. One was a real-estate heir and the other was a Hollywood fixer. Both of them must have appeared to be good prospects as a husband and, given their roles, would have been smooth talkers. Perhaps, given societal pressures at the time, Armand didn’t want to admit to the police that he had shacked with Jean for years before they married. But this was LA, not the Bible Belt. And the fact that he would lie about dates in a police interview is telling. It probably accounts for why there is no record of the police interviewing Spaulding.

However, we need to look at the evidence from the night Jean was murdered. Jean was on a date with the Swarthy Man and, at the time, she wasn’t on speaking terms with Armand. Witnesses put the Swarthy Man as being in his late thirties or forty, and Armand was twenty years older than that. Armand had a cast-iron alibi, his son, for the night Jean was killed. Leoda must have known this and probably believed that, although he didn’t murder Jean, Armand’s campaign of abuse had somehow psychically contributed to her death. Unless it was more concrete than that. What if the Swarthy Man had been hired by a third party? This seems unlikely. Romeo spies may be trained in the art of seduction, but it’s beyond implausible to think that a contract killer could have been paid to worm his way into the affections of an El Monte divorcee and then murder her. Ockam’s Razor suggests Jean’s murder really was just a ‘date rape that went bad’.

If Armand couldn’t have killed Jean then how about her first husband? This appears to be another dead-end. Easton Ewing Spaulding didn’t remotely resemble the Swarthy Man. Besides, there isn’t any evidence to suggest that Jean had any contact with Spaulding after their brief marriage in 1940. The fact that Jean’s marriage to Spaulding remained a mystery, even from her own family, for eighty years appears to have been just an adjunct puzzle to the main enigma. It was a mystery to the groom’s family as well. The Spaulding family is sprawling and distinguished (not to mention very helpful to me in my research), and Easton’s marriage to Jean is not recorded in their comprehensive family history The Spaulding Heritage.

Ellroy and Stoner identified a number of possible suspects (Jim ‘Boss’ Bennett, Will Lenard Miller and John LoPresti for example) to Jean’s murder. But upon investigating these leads, they were soon able to discount them. By the time you finish reading My Dark Places, you get the strong impression that no one who is named in the book could have been Jean’s killer. Outside of the several suspects mentioned in My Dark Places, the only other suspect who has been named in print is Fred Sexton. In the critically-lauded Black Dahlia Avenger, Steve Hodel identifies Sexton (an associate of Hodel’s father Dr George Hill Hodel, who is now the main suspect in the Black Dahlia murder) as a potential suspect in the murder of Jean Ellroy. However, Hodel has always stressed that this is only a possibility and there is no evidence that Jean and Sexton ever met.

So where does that leave the investigation?

Police Sketch of the Swarthy Man

The Identity of the Swarthy Man

Now I have to make a confession. You may have begun this article thinking the photo of Jean (at the top of the page) was taken in The Desert Inn on the night she was murdered. In fact, it was taken during Christmas 1957 while Jean was visiting Leoda in Madison, Wisconsin. The serious crime that took place that night was one of sexual molestation. In his memoir, The Hilliker Curse, Ellroy recalls that his mother went clubbing on New Year’s Eve with Leoda and her husband Ed and left him in the care of a German au pair who gave off ‘Hitler-Jugend vibes’. The woman molested Ellroy in an assault which culminated in her fellating him before he kicked her away and she ran from the room cursing in a ‘Kraut blue streak’. Ellroy may write about the assault in a flippant style, but I have spoken at length with him about it and his recall of the incident is vivid. Jean never knew it happened, but several years later Ellroy told his father. Armand ‘thought it was funny, because it was a girl doing it.’

While in Madison, Ed sold Jean a red-and-white Sedan and she used it to drive back to LA. Once they were back home, Jean broke the news to Lee that they were moving to El Monte. The Christmas trip seemed to harden her belief that she needed to move, perhaps after taking advice from her family. Six months later, Jean was dead.

This brings me to a final hypothesis. What if Jean met her killer on that Christmas trip to Madison? They hit it off and he said he would visit her in Southern California, perhaps as soon as he could get time off work in the Summer. They went on a date to Stan’s Drive-In and the Desert Inn, but Jean was resistant to sex. This infuriates the man, who has been fantasizing about sleeping with Jean for six months and has travelled across the country to do it. He rapes Jean and murders her and then leaves town. The police are unable to trace him as no one knew him in El Monte.

Before I get too carried away though, I am duty-bound to try and falsify my hypothesis. If Jean had met a man in Madison who wished to visit her, and who had the potential for violence, then why didn’t her family flag this to the police at the time? They were with her the night she went clubbing. The photo of Jean in the arms of another man is not unusual given the circumstances. She was recently divorced and had been dating several men. If the ‘Swarthy Man’ was Mexican then it seems more likely he was from one of the Southern Border States, rather than from Wisconsin.

Once again, the hypothesis doesn’t quite fit. We may never know who killed Jean Ellroy. Too much time has passed. The best we can do is shake the tree.

We owe her that.

A James Ellroy Playlist: Another Country

April 2, 2022

LP Hartley’s novel The Go Between has one of the most famous opening lines in twentieth-century literature: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ Actually it’s just as famous for being misquoted as ‘another country’, which is what I thought it was until recently. It might be sacrilegious of me but I prefer the quote this way. The past isn’t foreign exactly, but it is ‘other’. Hartley, like James Ellroy and all of the great historical novelists, understood the romantic appeal of the past, and at the same time acknowledged that many of the social battles that were fought in bygone days and which ruined peoples lives have now been resolved, and the only debate that remains is why did anyone ever argue so passionately about them?

In the following post I am going to continue my examination of Dick Contino’s musical influence on the writing of James Ellroy. Contino’s promising career was virtually destroyed by the ‘draft-dodging’ stigma that stuck to him when he fled from pre-induction barracks during the Korean War. He was sentenced to six months imprisonment at McNeil Island, later served in the military and received a presidential pardon, but he never regained the stardom he had enjoyed at the peak of his popularity. However, during the 1990s, Contino enjoyed something of an Indian Summer. Thanks in part to his collaboration with Ellroy, which in turn formed part of a wider resurgence of interest in the Swing Era.

Hollywood Nocturne

Ellroy writes about the unexpected nature of memory in his essay ‘Out of the Past’. Dick Contino suddenly re-entered Ellroy’s consciousness in the early 90s. Ellroy’s recollection of him was faint. He recalled seeing Contino on television once as a child and his father making a derogatory comment about him being a ‘draft dodger’. Shortly thereafter, he saw Contino play the lead in the film Daddy-O. Ellroy did not think about Contino again until much later, although at least one event in his life paralleled Contino’s. Ellroy enlisted in the US Army in 1965. He quickly realised he had made a bad mistake and faked a nervous breakdown in order to be discharged, with the added bonus that this made him ineligible to be drafted for service in Vietnam. In Ellroy’s novel White Jazz, ‘a major sub-plot features a grade Z movie being filmed on the same Griffith Park locales as Daddy-O‘. Once he saw the influence Contino had indirectly played on his life, Ellroy resolved to find him. By the early nineties Contino had dropped off the map and Ellroy wasn’t sure if he was still alive. Ellroy re-watched Daddy-O and listened to ‘half a dozen of his [Contino’s] albums, revelling in pure Entertainment.’ Ellroy had to flesh out his personal memories to get a sense of how he might use Contino in fiction. It worked. Ellroy was able to locate Contino. They hit it off and Contino agreed to be the lead protagonist in Ellroy’s novella Dick Contino’s Blues.

Ellroy and Contino performed onstage together, with Ellroy reading from the text and Contino playing his beloved accordion. And then, as if by magic, that other country that is the past began to form around them in a big nostalgia boom. 1989 is usually regarded as the year the Swing Revival began in the US, the apex of which was the release of the double-platinum album The Dirty Boogie by The Brian Setzer Orchestra in 1998. Brian Setzer composed the song ‘Hollywood Nocturne’ for a big-screen adaptation of Dick Contino’s Blues which has yet to materialise (although those of who care hope that it will one day). The song later appeared on The Dirty Boogie. Listen to the lyrics ‘beneath a buzzing neon sign dressed in style so cool and refined stands a man from another time who’s calling out to you’ and think of Contino and how great this would sound over a Dick Contino’s Blues title sequence.

This Could Be the Start of Something

By the mid-90s Ellroy had taken to singing during public appearances on his book tours. Perhaps he wouldn’t have had the confidence to attempt this if he had not already shared a stage with Contino. With Pink Floyd the Barber (later renamed The Double Naught Spy Car) as his backup band in the US, and touring with The Jackson Code in Australia in 1996, Ellroy’s signature song was his unique cover of ‘This Could Be the Start of Something’ by Steve Allen. Ellroy considered it a great Swingers song, although he employed the term in a different sense to Swing music! He rewrote the song with profane and topical lyrics. It traditionally begins ‘You’re walkin’ along the street, or you’re at a party’. Ellroy revised this line so that the song begins ‘You’re beating up Rodney King and starting a riot’.

Imagine how incendiary this would have been to Nineties audiences when the LA riots were still a recent memory! Sadly, footage of Ellroy performing his version of the song doesn’t appear to exist. But if you watch footage of the original then you can see why Ellroy loves it, and why it was a good song to revive in the nostalgia-laden Nineties. It’s a great LA song with a dash of innuendo. My favourite rendition is below. A star-studded affair recorded for The Steve Allen Show.

Another Country? Truly, they don’t make ’em like this anymore:

Ship of Blood: An Interview with Charles Oldham

March 19, 2022

Have you heard of the Berwind Mutiny? No? Neither had I, until I read Charles Oldham’s terrific new book Ship of Blood: Mutiny and Slaughter Aboard the Harry A. Berwind, and the Quest for Justice. It’s a true crime tale with an intriguing premise. On October 10, 1905 the schooner Harry A. Berwind was drifting aimlessly about thirty miles off Cape Fear. Boarding parties were dispatched from shore to investigate and they discovered the Berwind was the scene of a bloodbath. The captain and four of his crew were dead. Three surviving crewmen were locked up and charged with mutiny. Were the murders were committed by one rogue member of the crew or was it a conspiracy involving all three men who had been charged? The crux of the matter was that all but one of the victims was white, whereas the three men charged with mutiny were black. In the South at a time when slavery and the Civil War were still a living memory for many people, one would think there was only ever going to be one outcome. However, this landmark case defied everyone’s expectations.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Charles Oldham about the Berwind Case and his writing of Ship of Blood. An Attorney based in Charlotte, North Carolina, in person Charles comes across as everything you would want a lawyer to be – measured, analytical, empathetic, a gentleman orator and a good listener. Moreover, he’s a Carolinian to his core.

My opening question to Charles was how did he first get interested in the story:

I came across the story almost by accident. It was about three or four years ago after I had finished working on my first book (The Senator’s Son), which also dealt with a true crime story that happened in eastern North Carolina. It was around the same time period as Ship of Blood, the early 1900s. After writing that book, it had got some favourable responses and I knew I wanted to do a second one. So I was looking around for a subject and I came across the story of the Berwind Mutiny by chance. I found an article that was written about it and it was published in a Historical Review Magazine here in North Carolina. It’s not a very old article. It was written in 2014, but it summarised the basic dynamics of the story – the mutiny, murder trials and what happened afterwards.

I was really stunned that I had never heard of that case before as I am someone who grew up in North Carolina. I have spent most of my life being really familiar with eastern North Carolina, vacationing there. It’s part of my family heritage but I was really surprised that I had never heard of that case with all the twists and turns and how fascinating it was. I was very surprised that nobody had yet written a book about it. So I thought I’m looking for a subject for another book and this needs to be it.

Ship of Blood has a great sense of time and place. The culture, values and speech of North Carolina are beautifully evoked. Charles puts this down to North Carolina being:

Where I’ve grown up. It’s my family heritage, both sides of my family have North Carolina roots and I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve always been a history buff ever since I was kid. It comes naturally.

I ask Charles to tell me more about his background as an attorney. Did it help him when it came to researching and writing the book?

When I was practising law most of what I did was Criminal Defence, Civil Litigation. With a background like that I know my way around the courtroom quite well. So I’ve always had a thing for a really interesting courtroom drama which obviously this is. When I first came across the story I thought the history itself is fascinating with all the new studies which have focused on the Wilmington Insurrection over the past few years. I came across the story and I saw this is just a very fascinating postscript to everything that happened in 1898. I was very fortunate to find the transcripts of the trials. I found all of the appellate court documents. There’s a wealth of material out there.

I’m not gonna claim that I was the best attorney around, which I certainly wasn’t, but just having enough of a background to know my way around a court transcript and to have a pretty good idea of what I’m looking at when I dig up those old documents. I thought an attorney who has some experience in that type of thing is probably the best storyteller for this particular case. Not to toot my own horn too much, but I thought it was a convenient confluence of events.

Newspaper Article Covering the Case

We live in an age when race relations are back on the agenda. Did the parallels affect the writing process?

I’m coming along at just the right time frankly because when you look at the setting of the case – Wilmington, North Carolina, 1905 – the inevitable reality is that race and politics were inextricably bound up in that case. That was just unavoidable because of the history. It’s just within the past twenty or twenty-five years that a lot of other historians have looked seriously into the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, and we’ve had several really good accounts that have been published within the past few years. Up until then it was a very neglected chapter in our history here. And all of that is to the good as we’ve become more aware of the tragedy that occurred back then. I’ve certainly been the beneficiary of all that and what I’ve written expands and expounds on what has come before.

I’m just glad that I came across the story and I’m happy to say that the story ends well. The particular case of these three men who were put on trial when everyone was expecting that they surely would be convicted and hanged very quickly, but it actually turned out not to be the case. A lot of people in Wilmington acted against type, against prejudices that you would have expected them to hold and because of that justice actually prevailed in the end, which makes it a really fascinating tale. 

What can the story of the Berwind tell us about justice and race relations in the US today?

I look at the story in the way people used to think about Watergate for example, and the Dreyfus Case in France. In the end the good guys won in both of those instances, and here in Eastern North Carolina in 1905, even in the very worst days of the White Supremacist movement there were a surprising number of people in Wilmington who actually listened to the evidence in this case and they realised that out of those three men who were put on trial, three black men charged with killing four white men, they listened to the testimony of these guys and they realised well one of them probably is guilty, and if anyone ever deserved the death penalty he did and that’s what he got. But they recognised that the other two were probably not guilty and people acted upon it and the newspapers acted upon it, and a number of people in Wilmington, even people who had taken part in that insurrection in Wilmington several years ago realised that justice needs to be done here. They were the ones who got behind these guys and found legal counsel for them and eventually took the case to the Supreme Court and eventually to the White House, the presidential clemency petitions.

I hope if anyone gathers anything from the book it’s a message of hope. Even in the worst days justice can prevail. Fast-forward more than a hundred years to where we are right now. As much as we hear in the press about Black Lives Matter and nasty incidents like George Floyd, our situation today is incomparably better than it was back then. Politics today is nasty but politics back then was nasty, brutal and bloody. If justice can prevail back then we are in much happier times today. If people can draw some sense of perspective from that then I’ve accomplished my purpose. 

You’ve managed to accomplish that purpose by avoiding sensationalism. So many books in the True Crime genre rush for easy answers or jump to far-fetched conclusions.

I try not to go beyond what’s actually in the historical record. When I speculate about what might have happened I make it as explicit as I can that I’m sort of going beyond the record right here and I’m speculating a little bit. I try to keep everything footnoted and documented as best I can and make it clear to delineate what’s in the record and what goes beyond that.

Writing is an addictive, rewarding and frustrating process. Now that Ship of Blood has been published will you follow it with another book?

I have a couple of ideas that I’m mulling around a little bit. I definitely want to do another one. I’d like to find a topic which might have more of a national appeal. My first two books have both dealt with local stories from Eastern North Carolina, from the same time period, and I’d like to get beyond that but I’m not going to venture into the details on it yet because I’m not sure exactly what direction I’m going to go in. But I fully anticipate there will be a third book.

Ship of Blood is published by Beach Glass Books.

Charles Oldham

It All Went Down: Bobby Beausoleil, the Gary Hinman Murder and Lucifer Rising

March 6, 2022

Nicola Black is a Scottish filmmaker whose work includes Designer Vaginas, When Freddie Mercury Met Kenny Everett and the excellent White Jazz, which is perhaps the greatest of all the documentaries which have been produced on the life and work of James Ellroy.

I’ve been corresponding with Nicola for some time, and when I recently published a piece examining the parallels between Ellroy and Manson Family victim Steven Parent, she notified me of a documentary she had been working on for several years, provisionally titled It All Went Down, which tells the story of Bobby Beausoleil and the murder of Gary Hinman, its links to the Manson Family, and most intriguing of all, Beausoleil’s role in Kenneth Anger’s cult independent film Lucifer Rising.

Lucifer Rising

Bobby Beausoleil was born in Santa Barbara in 1947. He had a fairly typical Californian upbringing for the time. He would visit his grandparents in El Monte where, by coincidence, one of the Manson Family’s victims (Steven Parent) grew up. His interest in music was sparked, as a child, when he discovered a guitar in his grandmother’s attic. As a teen he started getting into trouble, and after a spell in Los Prietos Boys Camp he began to drift between Los Angeles and San Francisco, becoming involved with the growing counter-culture movement. Beausoleil joined several bands and came to the attention of independent filmmaker Kenneth Anger. Anger was smitten by the good-looking Beausoleil and cast him in the eponymous role of his short film Lucifer Rising, in which Beausoleil would play the Fallen Angel. However, no sooner had filming commenced when things began to fall apart. There are various accounts as to why the production ground to a halt. According to Nicola, ‘One story is that the money for the film was spent on drugs rather than film stock; the other version is that Bobby stole the rushes after he and Kenneth argued, leaving for LA where he ran into the Manson family.’ Anger later completed the film Invocation of My Demon Brother using left-over footage of Beausoleil he had from the Lucifer Rising shoot.

The Murder of Gary Hinman

It was Beausoleil’s encounter with Charles Manson that would seal his fate. At first glance Manson and his lifestyle seemed very attractive to Bobby. Manson was an aspiring singer-songwriter with a handful of showbiz connections, and a bevy of beautiful followers eager to indulge in his free love philosophy. Another acquaintance of Manson’s was the music teacher Gary Hinman. Beausoleil and Hinman, at least nominally, became friends. They were both talented musicians and Hinman had once played at Carnegie Hall. Manson was under the impression that Hinman was the heir to a sizable fortune and sent Beausoleil, accompanied by two female followers Susan Atkins and Mary Brunner, to Hinman’s home in Topanga Canyon with orders to extort a slice of it. Hinman refused to give them any money. Manson travelled to the house by car, driven by his right-hand man Bruce Davis, carrying either a samurai sword or a bayonet (reports vary). He slashed Hinman’s face and ear with the blade. This began several days of torture. Manson told Beausoleil by phone to kill Hinman and make it look like the work of black revolutionaries. After he stabbed Hinman to death Beausoleil wrote ‘Political piggy’ on the wall with Hinman’s blood. Beausoleil was arrested on August 6, 1969 after falling asleep in Hinman’s fiat which he had taken after the murder. The Tate-LaBianca murders by the Manson Family began on August 8.

Lucifer Resurrected

In 1968 Kenneth Anger travelled to Britain, where he ended up hanging out with the cream of Swinging Sixties entertainers. Eager to get Lucifer Rising back into production, he offered the lead role to Mick Jagger. Jagger declined, but recommended his brother Chris for the role. Soon after shooting restarted however, Anger started having arguments with Chris Jagger and sacked him. Anger met Jimmy Page at a Sotheby’s auction for Aleister Crowley artefacts. Both men were fascinated by Thelema and the Occult, and Page agreed to compose the score for the film. Anger and Page did not have a happy working experience together, and Anger was so incensed with the Led Zeppelin guitarist that he is rumoured to have put a curse on him. This is roughly when Bobby Beausoleil reenters the story of the film’s production.

Beausoleil had experienced some tough and turbulent years in prison. After being found guilty for Hinman’s murder, he was sentenced to death, but this was commuted to life imprisonment when the Supreme Court of California ruled that Capital Punishment was unconstitutional in 1972. During his trial and a subsequent sanity hearing for Manson Family members, Beausoleil appeared belligerent and still, it seems, in thrall to Manson.

Truman Capote interviewed Beausoleil at San Quentin prison in 1973 for a one-hour CBS special (which now appears to be lost). Capote’s In Cold Blood had been published in 1966 and quickly became a publishing sensation, but it was not well-known at the time how Capote had manipulated the prisoners at the heart of the story, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, for his own ends. If it had been, perhaps Beausoleil would never have agreed to an interview. History would repeat itself. Beausoleil had the youthful looks and buff jailhouse figure which Capote found very attractive. A transcript of their interview makes for strange reading. Time and again Beausoleil is moved to silence, as though he is wowed by Capote’s formidable intellect. One can’t but wonder if this is how their conversation really played out, or is it merely all part of Capote’s fantasy. Needless to say, it did nothing to rehabilitate Beausoleil in the public’s eyes.

Beausoleil had been transferred to Tracy Prison when he learned that Jimmy Page was no longer involved in Lucifer Rising. He wrote to Anger offering to compose the soundtrack himself which he did over a three-year period with the Freedom Orchestra, musicians made up of his fellow inmates. Recording the score was particularly difficult given that band members would be paroled and transferred to other prisons, and they had restricted access to a small recording studio which had been built with the proceeds of a grant. Nevertheless, Beausoleil’s score perfectly complements the film which by the time it was finally released in 1980, played like a demonic cocktail of the 1960s psychedelia and 1970s fascination with devil worship. I’m not saying it’s necessarily a good film, but it is filled with striking imagery, weirdly memorable moments and it almost seems to be anticipating the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Despite Anger’s penchant for falling-out with the people he worked with, there are still appearances by Jagger, Page, Marianne Faithfull and Donald Cammell. Even if you do not enjoy the film, Beausoleil’s score is a haunting and moving piece of music, full of creative and well-judged experimentation, which stands up well on its own.

Reinvention and Redemption

Beausoleil continued to compose and release music throughout the 1980s and the experience appears to have been life-changing for him. He began to increasingly distance himself from the Manson Family. His story about the Hinman murder also began to change. His most consistent account of the murder is that Hinman was killed over a drug deal gone wrong. In this version, Hinman supplied Beausoleil with mescaline to sell to a biker gang called the Straight Satans. But the drugs Hinman provided were sub-par. Fearing retribution from the bikers, Beausoleil confronted Hinman in his home and demanded he provide compensation. They argued and ultimately Hinman was killed. Another story which has spun off from this is that the Manson Family committed the Tate-LaBianca murders two days after Beausoleil’s arrest in an effort to fool the police. ‘Pig’ was written in blood on the front door of 10050 Cielo Drive by Susan Atkins to try and make the LAPD think that Hinman’s murderer was still at large, when in fact Beausoleil was already in custody (remember Beausoleil had written ‘Political piggy’ at the Hinman crime scene). If this story is true (and that’s a big if) it backfired spectacularly. The LAPD only linked the Manson Family to the Tate-LaBianca case once Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office Homicide Detectives informed them of its similarities to the Hinman murder. By trying to help Beausoleil, the Manson Family only ended up incriminating themselves.

When Nicola began work on her documentary, Beausoleil had been recommended for release by the parole board, and she envisaged her film ending with Beausoleil telling his story as a (relatively) free man. However, Governor of California Gavin Newsom reversed the parole board’s decision (as he did more recently with Sirhan Sirhan) and Beausoleil remained incarcerated. The spectre of the Manson Family continues to haunt him. Clearly Manson and his followers’ horrific crimes still cause the families of the victims emotional suffering, and there is no doubt that Beausoleil committed the worst crime of all in taking another man’s life. But perhaps after spending more than fifty years in prison, and working hard to be a constructive member of society from behind bars, it is time he was released. Whatever happens, I do hope Nicola gets to complete her film. The footage I’ve seen so far is excellent. She has audio interviews with Beausoleil, a terrific interview with Kenneth Anger and much more. More importantly though, she has a story which, in all its complexity and mythology, needs to be told.

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