Dick Contino: The Soul of the LA Quartet
In his essay ‘Out of the Past’, James Ellroy describes how ‘Half-buried memories speak to me.’ A few of these ‘brief synaptic blips […] transmogrify into fiction.’ It was a faded memory of Dick Contino, the star accordion player whose career never fully recovered being imprisoned for draft dodging during the Korean War, that Ellroy claimed was a major, but unconscious, influence on his writing of the LA Quartet.
Dick Contino began his meteoric rise to fame in 1947 when he won the Horace Heidt talent contest at the age of 17. How he won his fame, lost it, and then subsequently rebuilt his career has all the hallmarks of a classic Ellroy story. Contino’s skill as an accordionist made him a heartthrob. He had over 500 fan clubs across the country, dated Gloria DeHaven and Piper Laurie, and appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show 48 times. Ellroy describes his childhood memory of Contino as ‘A man gyrating with an accordion – pumping his “Stomach Steinway” for all it’s worth.’ However, things started to go downhill when Contino was drafted for the Korean War. Contino started suffering from panic attacks, but the army still judged him fit to serve. The day before he was due to be inducted into the army, Contino suffered another bout of anxiety and took off. His disappearance became a media sensation, and the FBI became involved in the hunt to find him. After surrendering to federal authorities, Contino was sentenced to six months in jail and fined ten thousand dollars.
I had some knowledge of Contino’s life through Ellroy’s writing on him, but I wanted to find out more about the man and purchased the only biography of Contino I could find. Accordian Man: The Legendary Dick Contino (1994) is a fairly slim bio written by Contino’s friend Bob Bove. Bove’s writing is suffused with an admiration for his subject that verges on the hagiographic, but the book is useful as a chronological account of Contino’s life, and by the end I found myself being won over by its all-American optimism. There were plenty of snippets of info I found interesting, such as this one from Contino’s trial:
On the day he was to be sentenced, Contino stepped into an elevator and, to his surprise, encountered Judge A.P. Roche who was presiding at the trial. In the solitude of the elevator car, Contino poured out his heart to the judge, telling him that he’d changed his mind – that he would gladly serve his country. To Contino’s surprise, Roche refused his offer.
“I’m not interested in your offer, Mr. Contino,” the Judge stated. “I’ve decided to use you as an example to others who seek to avoid military service.”
And this one, from Contino’s time in prison at McNeil Island:
In prison, Contino became close friends with Jim Coletti, his cellmate and a convicted murderer.
“Jim Coletti was one of the nicest men I’ve ever met,” Dick recalls fondly. “He befriended me at a time when many people turned their backs on me.”
“Often, when I would get the blues, Jim gave me the support that I needed to carry. He encouraged me to continue performing while I’m in prison and, he never missed a performance.”
“No matter what happens, I’ll never forget him.”
The only Jim Coletti I can find who matches this description is James Colletti, who became the Boss of the Denver Crime Family. Contino did occasional private performances for the Mob later in his career, so perhaps his cellmate was the future Mafia Boss. Bove however, is not so much interested in gossip as in vindicating the disgraced accordionist. He details how Contino was shipped to Korea after he served his sentence, and this is where the author met him. Contino served his country with distinction and was honourably discharged with numerous military commendations. Contino slowly and successfully started to rebuild his career, but he found himself blackballed from some gigs and booed by audiences because of his reputation as a draft dodger. The public seemed unaware that after completing his sentence Contino had served his country without complaint. Ellroy himself admits his childhood opinion of Contino was coloured by his father’s dismissal of the accordionist, “That guy’s no good. He’s a draft dodger”, when he appeared on TV. Shortly thereafter, the young Ellroy saw Contino playing the lead in the B-Movie Daddy-O (1958). The film was universally slated and has been mocked in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Clearly Contino took the role as he was struggling to find work, and looking back on the film many years later, Ellroy believes the accordionist acquitted himself honourably as an actor: ‘he can act: he’s an obvious natural, at ease with the camera. Dig: atrocious lines get upgraded to mediocre every time he opens his mouth.’ Bove also dismissed the film as a turkey but praised Contino’s performance ‘Although he did the best he could, Dick was unable to overcome the ‘B’ quality scripts and amateurish production values that hounded each project.’ I’ve never seen the entire film, but there are several scenes available on YouTube and I’d agree with Ellroy and Bove that Contino brings some gravitas to the role:
After watching Daddy-O as a child, Ellroy did not consciously think of Contino again for decades until ‘Fate intervened, via photograph and video cassette.’ The photograph was a picture of Ellroy as a boy, taken on the day he discovered his mother had been murdered. A friend of Ellroy’s dug up the photo and it formed part of a confluence of events that persuaded Ellroy to begin a re-investigation of his mother’s murder which he detailed in his memoir My Dark Places (1996). Ellroy claimed that staring at the photo of himself as a boy sparked a memory of his viewing of Daddy-O. Eventually, the ‘video cassette’ became just as significant to his literary plans as the photograph: after re-watching Daddy-O, Ellroy met with Contino in Las Vegas. They sparked an instant rapport, and Ellroy was surprised to learn of some of the hardships Contino had faced due to the misconceptions built around his Korean War service. Ellroy’s conversations with Contino would form the genesis of his next work of fiction: ‘Dick Contino’s Blues was blasting its way into my consciousness. It seemed to be coming from somewhere far outside my volition.’ Ellroy asked Contino if he could make him the eponymous star of the novella, telling him it would be about “Fear, courage and heavily compromised redemptions.” In the event, Dick Contino’s Blues marked a shift in Ellroy’s writing away from a sparse noir style to a more outlandish, cartoon-like prose which he has, thankfully, limited to his short stories and novellas, and not experimented with in the novels. However, the onset of memories which began with re-watching Daddy-O did not just inspire Ellroy’s future literary plans, it led him to reassess his past work:
In 1990 I wrote White Jazz. A major sub-plot features a grade z movie being filmed on the same Griffith Park locales as Daddy-O.
Jung wrote: “What is not brought to consciousness comes to us as fate.”
I should have seen Dick Contino coming a long time ago.
It is in the novels of the LA Quartet and Underworld USA trilogy where you can best find Ellroy’s expression of the ‘heavily compromised redemption’ that Contino experienced in real life. As Ellroy is now writing the second volume of his new LA Quartet, Dick Contino will continue to inspire him, however allusively.