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To Sleep with Anger – Review

November 3, 2019

Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger received some glowing reviews when it was released in 1990. It won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival before slipping away into obscurity, largely unseen and very difficult to find. Seldom broadcast on television, the film lacked a decent VHS or DVD release until it was added to the Criterion Collection this year.

So when the chance came for me to see this rare jewel in the cinema, I jumped at the opportunity.

Gideon (Paul Butler) and Suzie (Mary Alice) are an aging married couple living in South-Central Los Angeles. Although they have raised a nice family, they grapple with all of the stresses that such an endeavour entails. Their youngest son Samuel ‘Babe Brother’ (Richard Brooks) is feckless and pliable. Sam’s wife Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph) detests her in-laws and their old-world ways. Gideon and Suzie resent constantly babysitting Sam and Linda’s kids. Babe Brother has a tense relationship with his older sibling named, confusingly, Junior (Carl Lumbly). All in all it is a normal family with a good life: their problems do not outweigh the values that sustain them.

This all changes when there is a knock at the door and in walks Harry, played with scene-stealing relish by Danny Glover. Harry is a friend of Gideon’s from the old days in the South. He has travelled down from Detroit and is looking for a place to stay. A delighted Gideon and Suzie tell him he can stay, not realising that once Harry is in the house, he will have no intention of leaving. Harry is all charm but a mass of contradictions. He claims to be a modern man and rejects Gideon’s churchgoing ways, and yet he is a believer in talismans and curses. He reacts coldly when a boy accidentally touches his shoe with a brush. Believing it to be bad luck, he spits on the brush to free himself of the hex. However, it’s not long before bad luck falls upon the family who are Harry’s hosts. Gideon inexplicably falls into a coma, and Harry starts to take over the house through a mixture of charisma and demonic intent. There are numerous hints that Harry could be the devil in disguise. A motley bunch of his friends arrive, seemingly out of nowhere, and Sam and Linda are reduced to being Harry’s servants, serving him food and drink and carrying out his every whim. Marriages are strained. Relations between family members start to crumble. One wonders if there is enough goodness left in the household to save everyone from Harry’s spell.

To Sleep with Anger doesn’t look like any other LA-set film you’ve likely seen before. There isn’t a smog-bound freeway, imposing architectural structures like the Parker Center, or the faux-glamour promised by the Hollywood sign. The entire world of these characters is contained within these few streets and suburban houses. Little wonder that Harry’s talk of ‘steaming juke joints’ and folkloric superstition of the Old South seems so alluring to a family inured to the blandness of contemporary life.

On its initial release, not all of the reviews were positive. In a largely complimentary review Roger Ebert admitted to struggling with the film, finding the climax ‘too long in coming’. To my mind Burnett has crafted a deliberately anti-climatic film. The sense of impending doom dissipates in the final half-hour as we move towards a denouement which is both beautiful and redemptive. Having pulled the family apart, it is completely in keeping with Harry’s character that he would bring it back together again. As he lies on the kitchen floor (spoiler alert), grinning up at the family he has belatedly united, Harry has made the ultimate Christ-like sacrifice. His ego demands nothing less.

To Sleep with Anger was screened at Picturehouse at Fact Liverpool as part of Black History Month. There can’t have been more than two dozen people in the audience, but sitting alone in the cinema just made it feel like a story that was all the more personal to me.

That said, it would be great if To Sleep with Anger finally found a larger audience. Give the devil his due and track down a copy of this overlooked classic.

Aly Khan, Armand Ellroy and a Royal Biography

October 26, 2019

Prince Aly Khan

On May 12, 1960, Prince Aly Khan was killed in a car crash in the suburbs of Paris. Khan was only 48, and the news came as a shock to everyone who knew and loved the man. Khan behaved like he was going to live forever. His friends would say, ‘He was too alive to die.’ A multi-millionaire Royal, playboy, sportsman, soldier and diplomat, Khan had no difficulty in seducing beautiful women. Although some, like his second wife Rita Hayworth, grew resentful towards him when they learned that fidelity was not part of Aly’s vocabulary.

Leonard Slater was a journalist who worked at NBC News, Time, Newsweek and McCalls. Born in Pittsburgh and educated at the University of Michigan, Slater became a foreign correspondent and had a fairly adventurous life himself, working in Paris, Prague, Tokyo and Hong Kong. In the US, he reported from Washington DC, New York, Los Angeles and once witnessed a nuclear testing at Frenchman’s Flat, Nevada.

Leonard Slater had got to know Aly Khan a few months before he died, ‘visiting him at his Chateau de l’Horizon on the French Riviera; travelling with him to his stud farms in Ireland’. In 1962, Slater decided to write a biography of the late prince. The formidable task would require hundreds of interviews with everyone from ‘Hollywood choreographers to Islamic scholars’. Slater’s research took him from ‘the primitive upcountry of Pakistan to the locked and guarded erotica collection of the British Museum.’ Slater admits that ‘some doors were slammed in our faces’, but he praises the many people who were willing to share their memories of the lovable rogue Aly Khan.

There is one interview I wish to focus on in this article. Slater interviewed a man who was Rita Hayworth’s former business manager and had arranged her wedding to Khan in 1949. He was the father of a little boy named Lee who would grow up to be the greatest crime writer of his generation.

His name was Armand Ellroy.

The Interview

Armando Lee Ellroy

In the early 1960s Armand Ellroy was out of work and, after the murder of his ex-wife, raising his teenage son alone. In his memoir My Dark Places, James Ellroy candidly describes how hard-up he and his father were at this time: ‘We were poor. Our apartment reeked of dogshit.’

Someone Leonard Slater talked to in the movie-biz, it may have been Rita Hayworth herself, suggested he should contact Armand ‘Lee’ Ellroy. An interview was set-up. Alas we don’t know where, but we can assume it was not at Armand’s decrepit apartment which would eventually be fumigated after he was evicted. Slater and Armand met in a cafe or a restaurant. They talked at length, and Armand is quoted several times in the biography.

Armand told Slater about meeting Rita Hayworth when she was a dancer at the Agua Caliente casino and he was a croupier:

“After the evening show,” he (Ellroy) says, “a gang would get together for hamburgers or to go swimming, but most of the time Rita couldn’t go. I can still see her mother sitting there, watching Rita rehearse and keeping her eye out.”

Armand described to Slater how, when he was working as Rita’s business manager, he rented a ‘pink stucco house on Rockingham Avenue (for Khan), opposite Rita’s red brick colonial on Hanover Street.’ Due to the media frenzy surrounding Rita and Khan, Armand had to shield them for reporters who were ‘popping up in the guise of plumbers, telephone repairmen, readers of gas meters.’ Hayworth and Khan usually travelled in separate cars while Ellroy ‘took on the job of transmitting telephone messages to foil eavesdroppers.’

Armand’s greatest coup as Rita’s business manager came when he arranged the movie star’s wedding to Aly Khan. Armand flew to Paris, then made his way down to the Riviera at Rita’s request as she feared the wedding day was going to be a disaster. Armand managed to impose order and clarity on the wedding plans, which leads to one of the most revealing anecdotes in the biography:

Two nights before the wedding, Aly invited Ellroy, who was staying at the Chateau, to accompany him on a 3 am excursion. They went to the Casino at Cannes for some gambling. Aly turned to Ellroy. “You’ve been here a week or so now, haven’t you?” he asked. Ellroy replied in the affirmative. Aly, the host who thought of everything, disappeared and came back a few minutes later with two attractive girls, one a breezy blonde. “Take your pick,” he offered. When Ellroy declined, Aly shrugged and disappeared with the blonde.

Everything James Ellroy has ever written about his womanising father makes me wonder if there is a little more to this story.

Armand Ellroy was a chronic liar, as his son would attest to. Did Armand lie to Slater? Possibly, but as a seasoned journalist one would imagine Slater was skilled at spotting lies. Armand boasted to his son that he slept with Rita Hayworth. There is no mention in the Khan biography of Armand having an affair with Hayworth. As Slater was sympathetic to Khan, then it would not have been prudent for Armand to bring it up. If Armand did sleep with Hayworth one wonders whether it was during her marriage to Khan.

Slater’s inteview with Armand is special for a number of reasons. It marks the only time, outside of James Ellroy’s published memoirs, that Armand’s words are documented in a book. The first biography of Rita Hayworth did not appear until 1974, long after Armand had died. All of Hayworth biographers would use Slater’s interview with Armand as a source to understand the planning of her wedding to Khan, and his role as Rita’s business manager.

Another reason the interview is important is that it very nearly never happened. Armand had the first of several strokes on November 1, 1963. He had to learn to talk again using children’s primer texts. He died in 1965. Slater began his biography in 1962. He was lucky he got the chance to talk to Armand. If he had delayed his plans to interview him, then Armand Ellroy’s role as Hayworth’s business manger may well have been lost to history. James Ellroy did not know the interview took place. He didn’t even believe Armand had been Hayworth’s business manager until years later, when he spotted his father’s name in a Hayworth biography. Of course, Ellroy would never have spotted his father’s name in that book if it had not been for the Slater interview.

The Biography

Once his research on Khan was complete Slater wrote the biography in a ‘draughty villa’ in Beaulieu-sur-Mer. It was published in June 1965, the same month Armand Ellroy died. Reflecting on the book years later, Leonard Slater wrote:

It appeared just as a new concept of morality was taking over from the Puritanism that had inhibited the USA from its earliest days. Sex had been something that consenting adults didn’t discuss in public, contraceptives had been sold under the counter, and books and movies about sex were censored, if not banned. But a new day was dawning in America, demanded by younger people, spurred by the invention of The Pill. TV networks began to take Elvis Presley’s pelvic gyrations for granted. “Hair,” a musical with lots of nudism was a hit on Broadway. Playboy magazine was sold openly on newsstands. The success of my book ALY was part of that new frankness.

Not all of the reviews were kind. The Kirkus Review wrote that the book was full of ‘tasteless speculation’, ‘shallow depth’ and filled with ‘meaningless round(s) of bedhopping.’

I regard the Kirkus review as too harsh. Slater skilfully adapts the key events in Aly’s life into narrative form. Khan’s birth in Italy, his peripatetic upbringing in France, India and England, his service with the French Foreign Legion during the war, his tumultuous love life and two failed marriages, and finally being passed over by the Aga Khan as the heir to the throne and finding a redemptive role as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations, all makes for a compelling read.

If the book has a flaw it is that the constant boudoir antics occasionally read like a Mills & Boon novel. There is some attempt by Slater, for instance, to unravel one of the mysteries of the Orient. Khan was a practitioner of the sexual technique and philosophy of Imsak. I noticed my secondhand copy of the book was a bit dog-eared around these pages…

Leonard Slater died in 2005. His writing career was full of impressive achievements, including authoring an acclaimed book on the foundation of the State of Israel. But I am grateful most of all to Slater for giving Armand Ellroy a chance to tell his story. The interview allowed Armand to happily reminisce about Rita, Royalty and Hollywood’s Golden Age in what were his difficult final years.

Alan Sues: The Laugh-In Star who was Armand Ellroy’s Last Showbiz Connection

October 12, 2019

James Ellroy’s father Armand had many connections in Hollywood. Armand Ellroy was Rita Hayworth’s business manager from 1948-1952. As a non-certified accountant he filed tax returns for actors such as Glenn Ford. He was also friends with Mickey Rooney and producer Sam Stiefel.

By the late 1950s though, Armand Ellroy was out of work. He had lost nearly all of his Hollywood connections. After the murder of his ex-wife Jean Ellroy in 1958, Armand raised their son Lee Earle (James Ellroy’s birth name) alone.

Armand threw himself into various get-rich-quick schemes. None of them worked and the Ellroys sank deeper into poverty. But at least one of his business ideas had potential and it resulted in a friendship which would prove quite valuable to Armand. Armand befriended a young comic named Alan Sues.

Alan Sues

Alan Sues was a comic actor and writer who achieved his greatest fame as a regular on the smash hit sketch show Laugh-In. Sues died in 2011. In 2017, the biography Alan Sues: A Funny Man by Michael Gregg Michaud was published.

Early on in his biography of Sues, Michaud proffers this observation about the acting life: ‘Performers often create and propagate mythologies about their lives. Alan was a master of personal reinvention. “The truth just isn’t funny,” he’d say.’

Sues was a master raconteur, and his stories were often so funny that it seems wrong to quibble about how true they were. One amusing anecdote Sues liked to tell related to when he was drafted into the segregated US army during World War II. An administrative error led him to being assigned to an all-black barracks. Sues was the only white guy, surrounded by black soldiers, for his first eight weeks of basic training. Finally, an army doctor said to him:

“I suppose you’re told this a lot, but you don’t look at all Negro.”

“What?” Alan asked. “This may come as a shock to you, but I’m really not a Negro.”

The officer then accused him of being ashamed of his race. “He said, now, listen, that’s a wonderful race. And you’re going to be very unhappy if you keep putting it down. It’s unfortunate that you don’t look Negro, but you are a Negro. I said, wait a minute, I’d know if I was Negro for crying out loud!” They argued for a moment, and then the officer instructed Alan to come to his office as soon as he returned from leave.

Sues was quietly reassigned.

After the war Sues pursued his dream of being a performer. In LA, Sues and his wife Phyllis performed at the Cabaret Concert Theater in The Holiday Show in 1957.

In My Dark Places, James Ellroy describes how his father ‘managed a stage show at the Cabaret Concert Theater. The show featured young comedians and singers. My father got tight with a comic named Alan Sues.’ The Cabaret Concert Theater was a small cellar cafe that opened in Silverlake, LA in 1950. Comedians and singers would perform there, often unpaid, in the hope of being spotted by an agent or producer. It must have suited Armand well, as he could put on a show with virtually no budget. However, ‘the show bombed’. Before it closed, the show did get some good notices. The LA Times review was very positive, ‘Its wit is sharp and it is fresh and stimulating, a very cleverly put together show. It is a recounting of the old glorious days of vaudeville, and is chock full of fun and memories.’

Sues association with the theater did not end there. He also appeared in the show Tantrums at Nine in 1959. Once again, it was favourably reviewed but less successful commercially. The Cabaret Concert Theater closed in 1961. The venue was transformed into the flamenco club El Cid.

The Hat Shop

Undeterred by the failure of their theatrical venture, Armand Ellroy and Alan Sues ‘opened a hat shop. Sues designed the hats. My father kept the books and flogged the hats by mail order.’ Sadly, this business also failed: ‘The venture went bust quicksville.’

James Ellroy devotes just a few lines to the hat shop business in My Dark Places. However, Michaud examines it in-depth, and it is clear that Sues had a gift for design and the business had the potential to be very successful.

The business began when Sues opened a retail store on Santa Monica Boulevard called Gazebo: ‘Alan designed several hats, and was surprised when customers snatched them up.’ The business took off fast. Sues soon had a wholesale order for three hundred hats and was selling them to ‘Macy’s, Gimble’s, Lord & Taylor, Bergdorf and Henri Bendel, and Bullock’s and Robinson’s department stores in Los Angeles.’ Sues only had Phyllis to help him make the hats, so he hired his actor and designer friends to cope with the heavy demand.

Sues was forced to close the Gazebo which was getting too expensive to maintain, but continued to make hats at home for his wholesale buyers. The business peaked in June, 1959 when ‘TV Guide printed a three-page colour pictorial featuring Alan and several females modelling his hats’

The TV Guide feature on Alan Sues’s hat designs

However, Sues grew tired of the hat design business as it took up a huge amount of his time and it was beginning to impinge on his performing career. He lacked a sound business mind, and he was finding that the high cost of materials was eating into his profits. Sues’s brother John identified the real problem with the hat business:

‘I went over,’ John explained, ‘and I went in the back, and around a table were all these men and women singing and playing the bongo drums. I told him, ‘I think I’ve found your problem.’ All his employees were out-of-work show business friends and they did virtually nothing.’

Armand Ellroy, aging and unwell at this point, could have easily fallen into this category of Hollywood chancers with more enthusiasm than experience who just didn’t have the drive and concentration to help Sues make the business work.

Michaud never mentions Armand Ellroy in his biography. I contacted Michaud by email, and he said that in the forty years he knew Alan Sues, he never mentioned knowing anyone in the Ellroy family. Nor is there any mention of Armand Ellroy in Sues’s archive. Perhaps the friendship was never that important to Sues, or maybe their various failed businesses were something he preferred to forget. Michaud names Don Sheffy as the producer of The Holiday Show, and Sues produced Tantrums at Nine himself. Armand may have exaggerated his role as a producer at the Cabaret Concert Theater.

Fairfax High School

There is one further mention of Sues in My Dark Places that is worth investigating. Lee Ellroy was due to attend Los Angeles High School, but Armand didn’t want him to go there as it was full of tough neighbourhood kids and he ‘figured they’d kill me the first time I opened my mouth’. Armand thought Fairfax High School would be good school for Lee to attend. It was located in the plush Melrose Avenue area of LA, a Zip code far beyond Armand’s budget. Alan Sues ‘lived a few blocks from Fairfax. The old man borrowed Alan’s address and plopped his Nazi son down in the heart of the West LA shtetl.’

Michaud confirms that Sues lived in Fairfax at the time, so Armand’s little scheme would have worked. Lee’s adolescent obsession with Nazism peaked when he was at Fairfax. It would have got him into trouble at any school, but was especially offensive at Fairfax as it had a predominantly Jewish student body. Lee Ellroy was eventually expelled from Fairfax High. Thus, he squandered the only real effort Armand had made in getting him a good education.

It’s not clear whether Alan Sues knew how Armand had used his address to gain Lee the place at Fairfax. Perhaps he wouldn’t have minded if Lee had been a fairly well adjusted teenager. Maybe he did find out and was angered at Armand exploiting his living arrangements.

Laugh-In

Sues’s greatest success would come a few years later. He joined the cast of Laugh-In in 1968. Michaud gives great insight into how this groundbreaking comedy show was produced, and the rivalries and clashing egos that lay behind it. Sues was angry that the hosts Dan Rowan and Dick Martin seemed to take all the credit and only had to put in a few hours a week, whereas he and the other cast members worked round the clock. Furthermore, he became increasingly troubled at the homophobic tone of the show. His character Big Al was required to be outrageously camp, and Sues felt it may have been stigmatising the gay community.

Sues was gay. His marriage to Phyllis lasted only a few years, although they stayed friends. Towards the end of his life Sues felt both proud and vindicated about the role he played in Laugh-In. One of his last public appearances was at an autograph collector’s show in Burbank:

Many gay men stood in line to meet him that day. They told him he was one of the few gay men they saw on television when they were young, and his gay visibility, though myopic in style, made a difference to them. Alan was shocked, and genuinely overcome.

Alan Sues never made Armand Ellroy a fortune with his cabaret shows or hat shop, but he was still a good choice of friend. With a bit more luck, their ‘get-rich-quick’ business ventures as James Ellroy describes them, may well have succeeded.

 

 

The Third Man – 70th Anniversary Screening

September 30, 2019

Shortly after the end of World War Two, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), a writer of pulp westerns, arrives in Vienna at the invitation of his old friend Harry Lime. Martins is shocked to discover that Lime has just been killed, hit by a speeding truck while crossing the road. He attends Lime’s funeral where he meets the stiff upper lip English Major Calloway (Trevor Howard). Calloway gets Martins drunk and pumps him for information on Lime. Martins is shocked with Calloway’s assessment of Lime as being one of the most notorious racketeers in the City of Music. Calloway warns Martins to leave town, but the mourning writer feels compelled to stay and learn more about his late friend. He talks to Lime’s beautiful and melancholic girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli). Anna suspects that Lime has been murdered, but Martins discovers that the truth is even more shocking than that…

third-man-cotten-valli

Alida Valli as Anna and Joseph Cotton as Holly Martins

The 70th anniversary of the cinema release of The Third Man was celebrated with a screening of the film at Picturehouse cinemas throughout the UK. The film was preceded with a performance of Anton Karas’s famous zither score by the gifted musician Cornelia Mayer. Mayer gave some fascinating insights on the composition of the score. Director Carol Reed discovered Karas, a jobbing musician, in a Vienna wine bar. Karas didn’t speak any English. Reed didn’t speak any German. Reed conveyed the story of The Third Man by showing Karas a series of stills. Reed was quite hard on Karas, making him play for six straight hours without a break. An exhausted Karas had blood under his fingernails, and started to play more slowly as a comedown. Reed began to hear what would become the Harry Lime theme. He made Karas play for another hour until he perfected it. In one crucial scene there are two zithers playing. This is to symbolise Harry Lime in his coffin, and the Harry Lime still lurking in the sewers and alleyways of Vienna.

The screening of The Third Man was followed by Q & A featuring renowned script supervisor Angela Allen, who worked as a crew member on the film back in the late 1940s. Allen did not hold back on her opinion of Orson Welles. She described Welles as difficult and elusive. As Welles never turned up on time, the shadow of Harry Lime the audience glimpses in the dark Viennese streets was actually that of Guy Hamilton. Hamilton, who went on to direct four James Bond movies, wore padding to replicate Welles’s considerable girth.

Welles famously refused to shoot any scenes in Vienna’s sewers for the climactic chase, therefore expensive sets had to built in the UK. Allen insisted that the sewers did not actually smell that bad. However, Welles was disgusted when they first tried to shoot in the Vienna sewers as he saw two crew members eating bacon sarnies down there. Allen also refuted any suggestion that Welles wrote his own dialogue or directed scenes, despite Welles’s claims to the contrary. Reed directed the entire picture. Reed was such a workaholic, Allen said, that he took benzedrine so he could work through the night.

‘But, credit where it’s due’ Allen conceded ‘Welles did come up with the “Cuckoo clock” line’.

Perhaps the lesson to be learned, I thought in the cinema, as the moderator continued to badger Allen with questions about Welles was that Welles was the most skilled at making the picture about himself. Funnily enough, Touch of Evil was playing in the screen next door to us. And Picturehouse are screening Citizen Kane next month. I guess Welles was right with his prophecy ‘They’ll love me when I’m dead.’

Watching The Third Man last night I was struck by how many times you can revisit this film and always take something new from it. The spectre of Harry Lime dominates proceedings, but Bernard Lee is also astonishingly good as the bookish and dutiful Sergeant Paine. Wilfred Hyde-White is a comic delight as the put-upon bureaucrat Crabbin. Trevor Howard appears callous at first, but gradually he reveals the humanity driving his relentless quest to capture Lime. And let’s not forget the haunting love-story that is doomed before it starts between Anna and Martins, beautifully portrayed by Alida Valli and Joseph Cotton.

Seventy years from now, audiences will still be drawn to The Third Man.

 

Once a World by Craig McDonald – Review

September 15, 2019

Once a World is the latest novel by Craig McDonald in the Hector Lassiter series. Lassiter is a writer and a warrior. He’s not a soldier of fortune, but he does find himself drawn to bloody conflict and violent intrigue partly as a means to inspire his writing. He was born on January 1, 1900, and his eventful life takes the reader through the twentieth century – one hundred years which certainly had enough brutal episodes for a budding adventurer and scribe to document or turn into fiction. Novels in the series so far, which has never been chronological in design, have put Lassiter in the Spanish Civil War (Toros & Torsos) and at the Liberation of Paris (Roll the Credits). For a comprehensive overview of the Hector Lassiter character, series and its inspirations check out my interview with Craig on this site.

Three Chords & The Truth (2016) brought the series to a nominal end, but now Lassiter is back again in Once a World, a thrilling portrayal of his early life which reveals how by the age of eighteen Lassiter was already a battle-scarred veteran of the Punitive Expedition and the First World War, events alluded to in the previous novels.

We are first introduced to Lassiter as a boy growing up in Galveston. A horrific event leaves him an orphan and he is raised by his wily conman grandfather Beau. While Beau is giving him an education in various complicated swindles, Hector’s first love, the beautiful older woman Hudson Bay Leroux, makes a man of him in the bedroom. However, it is not long before Lassiter feels the need to prove himself on the battlefield as well as in the boudoir. Some military experience, he feels, would help him find his voice as a writer. Lassiter is in Columbus, New Mexico on the night that Pancho Villa launches his foolhardy raid on the border town. Despite being underage, Hector signs up for the Punitive Expedition to capture Villa. At the age of sixteen, Lassiter finds himself travelling through the treacherous Mexican desert with the US Army. Faced with inhospitable conditions and vengeful natives who regard them as invaders, Hector and his comrades soon discover the reality of war, which is a far cry from how it appears to adolescent boys searching for glory. Lassiter wants out, but there is a problem. Due to events loosely connected to the Expedition, America is about to get embroiled into a far deadlier conflict in Europe, and Lassiter has made an enemy of a certain Captain George S Patton Jr. who is determined to put the young soldier in as much danger as possible. There’s a great gag about how Patton has to be restrained from striking Lassiter in a military hospital.

In addition to Patton, Lassiter also encounters such seminal figures as Ambrose Bierce, John ‘Black Jack’ Pershing, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and one other important historical figure whom I shall return to in a moment. With so many characters present from the literary world, it is not surprising that Once a World is one of the best novels you could read if you want to learn about the process of writing. Lassiter writes in hotel rooms and hospital beds, on scraps of paper on lonely desert nights, and huddled down in mud-filled trenches by fading light. Observations and thoughts evolve into booze-fuelled anecdotes and then into the written word, and the reader begins to see how Lassiter will become a successful writer, as episodes of his life are part of a larger ongoing narrative he can only faintly conceive as a young soldier. McDonald beautifully captures the ironies of an author’s life: what a writer conceives in anxiety is often read and interpreted years later as hard-bitten wisdom. And there’s plenty of wisdom and other delights in Once a World. It is a brilliant evocation of a brief but bloody chapter in American history, and it can easily stand alongside the best of Gore Vidal’s Narratives of Empire series in its portrayal of a lost, and too often forgotten, world.

Postscript: I said I’d come back to one historical figure who appears in this novel. Armand Ellroy makes a cameo as one of the soldiers on the Punitive Expedition. Armand was the father of James Ellroy. As his son would attest to, Armand was known for telling whopping lies, such as his claim that he was Babe Ruth’s manager. Armand owned a chestful of medals that even his family didn’t believe he had entirely earned on the battlefield. It is doubtful that Armand was ever part of the expeditionary force that tried to capture Pancho Villa, but he did serve in the military during the First World War. One of my favourite quotes from the many interviews James Ellroy has given is when he says of his father:

I saw a picture of him with his World War I outfit and, you know, there he is. I mean, that was him. It was taken on Armistice Day, so he was over there on Armistice Day. And there he is. That’s him. You can tell.

 

An Interview with PJ Tracy: Author and Creator of the Monkeewrench Series

September 1, 2019

PJ Tracy is the pseudonym of the mother-daughter writing team of Patricia ‘PJ’ and Traci Lambrecht. Their debut novel, Monkeewrench (2003), was hugely successful and launched their popular series of novels featuring Detectives Gino and Magozzi who investigate complex and grisly crimes in modern day Minnesota. Sadly, PJ Lambrecht died in 2016. Traci Lambrecht has continued writing the Monkeewrench series since her mother’s passing, still using the PJ Tracy pseudonym. Ice Cold Heart is the tenth and latest novel in the series. It is a gripping thriller, full of twists and turns, which offers a vivid insight of modern day dangers the police grapple with in our technologically advanced society.

I was delighted that PJ Tracy agreed to an interview with me. The following exchange took place by email:

Interviewer: Tell us a little about the creation of the Monkeewrench series and Detectives Gino and Magozzi. Where did these ideas and characters come from?

Traci Lambrecht

PJ Tracy: PJ and I have always loved a good mystery and solving puzzles, so crime thrillers were a natural for us.  In 2002, when Want to Play? was written, the digital age was in its nascence and PJ and I saw endless potential for a group of eccentric computer geniuses.  My father was an original computer geek, working in the field since the early 1970’s, so we had many acquaintances that provided excellent source material, both in regard to characterization and plot possibilities.  The Monkeewrench gang is part amalgamation of people we knew, and part creation of people we would love to meet at a party.  PJ worked with attorneys and law enforcement for several years, so the detectives were crafted in a similar way.  And of course, we imbued a healthy dose of imagination and they all took on lives of their own.  I half-expect to receive Christmas cards from them all!

Interviewer: A lot of novelists would balk at the idea of a co-writer, but you have always spoken very warmly of working with your mother PJ Lambrecht. What was it like writing the novels with her and how did you resolve any disagreements about the narrative?

PJ Tracy: Writing with her was an honour and an absolute delight.  For two women who wrote about some pretty heavy subject matter, we were laughing constantly.  The back and forth, the flow of creativity during our writing sessions, was magical.  From the time I was a very little girl, we were always creating characters and writing stories together, and that was the genesis of our future working relationship.  She always joked that we shared a brain, but in truth, we melded them and created a voice that was neither hers nor mine, but a unique, collaborative one. As close as we were, it was a seamless process. We rarely had disagreements, but on the rare occasions we had divergent visions, we would talk through them like adults and decide which direction would best serve the book.

Interviewer: Now that you are writing the novels on your own, how would you describe the direction of the series?

PJ Tracy: After ten novels, it’s a very natural progression, I don’t even think about it. It’s terribly hackneyed to say this, but it’s true that the characters do all the heavy lifting and they always surprise me. I’m just along for the ride.

Interviewer: How do you see Gino, Magozzi and the other regular characters as changing over the course of the series? Are they very different people from when the readers first met them?

PJ Tracy: All the characters, particularly Magozzi and Grace MacBride, have experienced tremendous arcs throughout the series. Even the secondary characters have evolved in substantive ways, and are in very different personal places than they were at the beginning.  I’m also a different person than I was sixteen years ago at the series’ inception, so I’m certain I transposed some of my own development and journey onto the characters.

Interviewer: Ice Cold Heart deals with some dark themes, including everything from BDSM to War Crimes. How do you approach handling these disturbing and sensitive themes as a crime writer?

PJ Tracy: That’s a perennial challenge, finding the proper balance between dark and light, both in fiction and in real life. For me, the key is focusing not so much on the horror of a particular crime, but on the humanity of the characters as they are impacted by tragedy. Homicide precludes a happy ending for the victims and their families, so the service of justice is paramount and allays some of the inherent darkness.

P. J. Lambrecht, left, and her daughter Traci write thrillers together from their office near Stillwater under the pseudonym P.J. Tracy, photographed Tuesday, August 23, 2016. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)

ZaSu Pitts and Jean Ellroy: Kindred Spirits?

August 16, 2019

ZaSu Pitts

In his memoir My Dark Places, James Ellroy writes that his mother Jean Ellroy ‘had a full-time gig at St John’s Hospital and wet-nursed a dipsomaniacal actress named ZaSu Pitts on the side.’

ZaSu Pitts was an actress and comedienne who enjoyed a career of remarkable longevity by Hollywood standards. She made her film debut in 1917, and her final role was a cameo in the all-star comic extravaganza It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World in 1963. She loved mystery fiction, and found herself embroiled, quite by chance, in some of the strangest mysteries in Hollywood history. However, real-life mysteries that take place outside of the confines of paperback novels have tragic repercussions, and Pitts was deeply affected by the premature deaths and suffering endured by some of her closest friends. As her health began to decline in the 1950s, Pitts underwent a series of operations and hired a private nurse named Jean Ellroy (whose son later became one of the most acclaimed crime writers of his generation). In this article, I am going to investigate ZaSu Pitts’ professional and personal relationship with  Jean Ellroy.

Pitts’ biographer Gayle Haffner gives a detailed account of the health problems Pitts endured that led her to meeting Jean Ellroy. In 1952, while on tour of New England, Pitts discovered a lump in her breast. A biopsy confirmed it was a tumour and Pitts underwent a lumpectomy. The surgery was successful, but ‘it was difficult for ZaSu to move her arm and perform certain body movements without feeling a pinching or jabbing of pain’. In 1954, Pitts noticed the lump had returned and this time she underwent a full mastectomy. She was convalescing at St John’s Hospital for a week after the operation. She was discharged only to be readmitted two days later in intense pain. She was advised that a private duty nurse would need to check up on her every day. According to Haffner, ‘One of the charge nurses, an R.N. named Jean Ellroy had cared for her postoperatively, and knew exactly how to manage the medications, bandages and other personal care.’

Jean took on the role, which she was grateful for as 1954 was also the year she decided to divorce her husband, Armand Ellroy, and the extra money would be useful to pay for an attorney. She also transferred her son to a private school named Children’s Paradise which ‘set my mother back 50 bucks a month’ Ellroy wrote.

Haffner describes Jean as being a great help to Pitts:

If current medications were ineffective for pain control, (Jean) Ellroy would make adjustments and discuss options regarding different drugs. When ZaSu showed some concern over the use of injectible pain killers, Ellroy confided that in the hands of a professional any such medications could be safely administered and would not necessarily lead to a drug dependency.

Jean Ellroy

Haffner’s account of Jean Ellroy’s  nursing of Pitts is impressively, one might say suspiciously, detailed. There are a few howlers, though, which undermine its authenticity. She refers to Jean’s son as ‘Jimmy’ and her husband as ‘James Sr.’ Ellroy’s father alternated between his first and middle names Armand and Lee. He occasionally employed the pseudonym ‘James Brady’, but this was strictly as a tax dodge for work, and he wouldn’t have used it in the family home. James Ellroy was born Lee Earle Ellroy. He didn’t take the name James until long after his parents died, and there is no reference to them ever calling him ‘Jimmy’. Also, Haffner uses Ellroy’s memoir My Dark Places as a source for her portrayal of Pitts and Jean Ellroy’s meeting, but its difficult to see how useful the book was when Ellroy only gives Pitts a passing mention. For instance, Haffner cites My Dark Places as evidence that Jean was complaining at home about Pitts neediness: ‘Years later her little son would recall his mother’s complaints about her patient, ZaSu Pitts.’ In My Dark Places, Ellroy never claims his mother complained about Pitts. In fact, in his essay ‘Where I Get My Weird Shit’, Ellroy recalls his mother describing Pitts as ‘a sweetheart and a pleasure to nurse.’ Incidentally, Pitts had a recurring role as a nurse in the Francis the Talking Mule film franchise. The first film, in this hugely successful series, had been due to be produced by Armand Ellroy’s close buddies Mickey Rooney and Sam Stiefel. But Rooney and Stiefel passed on the project as they never saw the appeal of the character, and missed out on a small fortune as a result.

Haffner has written an entertaining and readable biography of Pitts, and its clear from the acknowledgements that she interviewed hundreds of people as research. But perhaps Haffner approached the Pitts-Jean relationship as a historical novelist would. She knew Jean Ellroy had treated Pitts, and she decided to creatively expand on the details of their meeting. But perhaps James Ellroy also erred in his depiction of Pitts. Ellroy wrote that his mother did wet-nurse work for Pitts as she was a ‘dipsomaniac’. Neither of Pitts’ biographers (Haffner and Charles K Stumpf) refer to the actress having a drinking problem. This contradiction between Ellroy and Haffner’s accounts is intriguing. Today, Hollywood stars can get the best treatment for addiction that money can buy, but in the 1950s alcoholism was taboo, and it’s easy to imagine that if Pitts needed to detox it could be handled discreetly, at home, with Jean Ellroy’s assistance. It’s also possible Ellroy was simply mistaken about his mother’s role in caring for Pitts alleged dipsomania.

If Jean did treat Pitts for alcoholism, she must have drawn on her own experiences and struggles with the bottle. As Ellroy details in My Dark Places, Jean had first encountered both the allure and dangers of alcohol from an early age, growing up in Tomah, Wisconsin. Her father, Earle Hilliker, was an alcoholic. He was fired from his position as a forest ranger after being found drunk on the job by the State Conservation Boss. It also cost him his marriage. He was transferred to Bowler Ranger Station, over one hundred miles north-east of Tomah. His wife Jessie refused to go with him, preferring to raise Jean and her sister Leoda in Tomah. Jean moved to West Suburban College (now Resurrection University) in Chicago in the early 1930s. With this new-found freedom she developed a fondness for alcohol. She and her dorm-mate Mary Evans became experts at breaking curfew and sneaking back unnoticed after a night on the town. After one boozy evening, Jean lit a cigarette while she sat on the toilet. She carelessly dropped the match in the toilet bowl where it set the toilet paper on fire and singed her bottom. ‘Jean laughed and laughed’ about the incident Ellroy wrote.

In a one-off job, Jean was paid to drive an elderly married couple from Chicago to New York. The couple were planning one last trip together, an Atlantic voyage to Europe, as the wife was dying of cancer. They were both alcoholics and Jean was told to keep them sober: ‘The drunks wandered off at rest stops. Jean found bottles in their luggage and emptied them. The drunks scrounged up more liquor.’ Eventually Jean encouraged them to drink so they could ‘pass out and let her drive in peace.’ Jean had learned something about the mindset of alcoholics, but once the job was over she went on a bender to unwind. The couple let Jean use a hotel suite booked in their name. Jean had her friends from Chicago visit and ‘they partied for four or five days.’ Ellroy is candid in writing about his mother’s fondness for alcohol and partying, but he is careful to state that it did not affect her schooling or career ‘Jean knew how to balance things […] She could stay out late and perform the next day. Jean was competent and capable and deliberate’. Indeed, Jean’s academic achievement and prodigious work ethic, especially in comparison to the ironically teetotal Armand Ellroy, attests to the fact that she could largely control her drinking.

Jean Ellroy was murdered in El Monte on June 22, 1958. Haffner writes of Pitts learning the news of Jean’s murder in the LA press:

June of 1958 was already hot and sweltering. Hoping to relax for the evening, the Woodalls (ZaSu and her second husband Eddie Woodall) opened up the Los Angeles evening newspaper to find full of coverage on a grisly murder which had taken place just Saturday night.

We can only speculate, as Haffner does, about Pitts and Jean’s time together. Did Jean confide to Pitts about her failing marriage? Pitts knew a thing or two about bad marriages, so it’s certainly possible. Her first marriage, to Tom Gallery, had ended in divorce after a long separation. Gallery’s faltering acting career appears to have been one of the reasons the marriage failed. His nadir as an actor came when he was bitten by Rin Tin Tin and nearly burned alive in a stunt gone awry. Gallery quit Hollywood to become a successful sports promoter.

As for Pitts second marriage to Eddie Woodall, part of the reason she needed Jean Ellroy was that ‘waiting on her or being of any consolation was beyond Eddie’s character. He was a rogue and she knew it.’ Haffner draws a parallel between Pitts adoption of her friend Barbara LaMarr’s son Marvin (subsequently renamed Don Gallery) after LaMarr’s premature death, and James Ellroy’s upbringing with his father after the murder of Jean Ellroy. Pitts was able to give Don Gallery a loving home and all of the benefits a privileged Hollywood upbringing has to offer. Armand Ellroy truly loved his son, but he had neither the money nor the inclination to successfully raise a child alone.

Pitts’ cancer recurred and she died on June 7, 1963, almost five years to the day that Jean was murdered. ZaSu Pitts was one of only hundreds, probably thousands, of patients Jean would have nursed during her medical career. We might never know if, in addition to post-operative care, she was helping Pitts deal with a drinking problem. But we can say with a degree of certainty that she showed kindness towards ZaSu Pitts, a kindness that both women had found lacking in their husbands.

The two women had more in common than they may have realised.

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