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Fred Otash – Private Eye to the Stars

January 27, 2010

I have just finished reading Investigation Hollywood! (1976), the memoirs of Fred Otash, Hollywood’s most famous Private Detective. Throughout the 1950s and 60s– when Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer, Lew Archer and a hundred other literary P.I.’s were popular with the American public– Otash was the chief investigator for the tabloid scandal rag Confidential. During that time, he made a considerable amount of money on assignments that included arranging abortions for the mistresses of movie stars.

Otash appears as a character in several of James Ellroy’s novels. Ellroy knew Otash well, and Otash told Ellroy the contents of his files on J.F.K., which had been confiscated by the F.B.I. Otash had been hired by the Mob to wiretap Kennedy in a rendezvous with his mistress. Otash only refers to the incident elliptically in his memoir, but he seems to have done a good job for the Mob, as he told Ellroy that Kennedy was a ‘two minute man’ and was ‘hung like a cashew’ . Kennedy, according to Otash, used his bad back as an excuse for his lack of virility in the bedroom. In Ellroy’s novel  American Tabloid (1995), Kennedy is referred to as ‘Badback Jack’.

Ellroy thought Otash to be good company but  not trustworthy. Ellroy had been considering making Otash one of the leading characters in American Tabloid. He was going to pay Otash money with the stipulation that Otash would not publicly contradict how Ellroy portrayed him in the novel. But Ellroy never trusted Otash to keep his word, thus he created Pete Bondurant (one of his greatest characters) for the role that he originally conceived for Otash in American Tabloid.

Reading Investigation Hollywood! it is tempting to concur with Ellroy’s opinion that Otash is entertaining, but you’re never really sure whether or not he’s telling you the whole story. Still, Investigation Hollywood! is a fascinating glimpse into the seedy side of Hollywood in the 50s and 60s. The book features an introduction by Mickey Spillane and reads like one of the sleaziest editions of Confidential. It is also the only book, that I know of, in which the author boasts about how he would have committed the Watergate burglary properly!:

If I were going to engage in that kind of illegal activity, the first thing I would do is have a key made for those locks. My man could look at a lock and give you a series of sixteen master keys.

I would have had a key for each of the offices and I would have used sound equipment so sophisticated that the thing could have been hidden in the inkwell, a picture frame, or under a chair – someplace where you can wire the equipment beeper for months and where it would transmit to a receiver two or three miles away.

And the idea of using their xerox. Another blunder. Nothing is ever xeroxed anymore. You use your own equipment. Camera equipment is superior to anything else. You set the camera and then just keep sliding the papers under it, photographing to your heart’s content. You walk out with nothing more than a roll of minifilm that may have a thousand documents recorded on it.

I still can’t believe the Republican party could have hired such a bunch of idiots. First off, the people in party headquarters are not going to do much talking about anything strategic because they probably don’t know that much anyway. If you really want to know what’s going on you put a tap on George McGovern’s phone at home. That’s where all the important conversations are taking place.

You have to hit two or three phones – like the campaign manager and the finance manager who is hustling all the funds to see what deals he’s making for the candidate.

Those are the people you want. That’s the way you find out what’s happening!

The University of Texas has a video available online of Otash being interviewed by Mike Wallace in 1957. It is clear from this interview that Otash consider himself, quite simply, as man doing his job. You can watch the interview here.

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