Albert Teitelbaum – The Man Who Sued James Ellroy
James Ellroy is often asked whether his fictional portrayals of real-life historical figures have ever lead to legal problems. In 1996 he told interviewer Paul Duncan, ‘I have never gotten into trouble using real people in my books because they are dead and can’t sue me. […] The Kennedy’s, for instance, would never sue. So much is written about them that, if they were to sue, they’d be in court all day, every day, and that way they wouldn’t have time to [text deleted].’
However, within a few years of this statement, Ellroy had inadvertantly broken his own cardinal rule and was being sued to the tune of $20,000,000. The plaintiff was not a member of the Kennedy clan, but a retired and long- forgotten Hollywood furrier named Albert Teitelbaum.
‘Tijuana, Mon Amour’ is a typical piece of work from Ellroy’s short story/novella period. Hush-Hush editor Danny Getchell alliteratively narrates a sordid tale of 1950s Hollywood shenanigans loosely revolving around a payola scandal, a fake fur heist and a child Labour camp in Tijuana (a locale which has become the Sodom and Gomorrah of the noir world). Heavily reliant on pastiche and Ellroy’s willingness to offend, it ranks among my least favourite of the Demon Dog’s works. It is rather apt then that the most notable thing about the story is it led to Ellroy being sued.
In the story Getchell and cohort Sammy Davis Jr become embroiled in a fake fur heist and insurance scam arranged by Teitelbaum. Ellroy had rashly presumed Teitelbaum was dead and based the fur heist on a real-life ‘robbery’ which happened at Teitelbaum’s fur store on December 27, 1955. Teitelbaum reported to the police that four men bound him and an assistant at gunpoint and then stole furs worth $280,000, but a county grand jury later indicted him for faking the heist. Teitelbaum was found guilty and sentenced to one year in the Los Angeles County Jail (years later, Ellroy would do time in the same institution). Teitelbaum could hardly complain that Ellroy fictionalised the fur heist. After all he was found guilty and the conviction was upheld despite several appeals. However, the basis of Teitelbaum’s claim was that Ellroy has the fictional Teitelbaum caught ‘buck-naked’ in the boudoir with Linda Lansing and real-life murderess Barbara Graham. In addition, Ellroy elaborated on the heist to have Teitelbaum using Lansing to fence the furs for him in Tijuana, a detail Teitelbaum’s lawyer Charles Morgan, who hounded The New Yorker for ten years in an infamous libel case, was adamant never occurred. Subsequently, when ‘Tijuana, Mon Amour’ was reprinted in the anthology Crime Wave (1999) the Teitelbaum character was renamed Louie Sobel, amusingly after Ellroy’s literary agent Nat Sobel who rescued his career in the 1980s (although they have recently parted ways). Here’s how the heist is described in the story (in recognition of the Teitelbaum lawsuit, the furrier below is named Louie Sobel):
I went in as the Wolfman. Sammy crept in as the Creature from the Black Lagoon. We moved our minkmobile into the back lot and barged in the back door.
Fourteen minutes to filch furs and fill up the van. Fourteen minutes to fuck the fur-filchers already assigned to the job.
We monster-minced down a mink-lined hallway. We froze by the freezer vault. Louie Sobel latched eyes on on us and laughed long and loud.
He howled and heaved for breath. He broke a sweat and swatted his legs. He swayed and pointed to a pile of pelts on the freeer floor.
He hocked into a hanky. He said, “Go, you fershtunkener furmeisters. Go, before I die of a fucking coronary.”
Sammy popped the pelts into a large laundry bag. I shot my eyes into the showroom. I scanned scads of sensational sables and choice chincillas and magnificent minks. Our paltry pile of pelts paled in considered contrast.
Sobel said, “Hit me once, tie me up, and get out of here. Your theatrics are wearing me thin.”
I pulled my piece and pistol-whipped him to a pulp. I decimated his dentures. Blood dripped on my dress blues.
Sobel sunk into dreamland. I dropped him in the freezer and gagged him with a gorgeous gaggle of furs. Sammy gloated and glared at the ofay oppressor. He muttered mau-mau musings and metamorphosed into the Creature from the Coon Lagoon.
Although Ellroy has said little about the Teitelbaum controversy since, probably as a consequence of the settlement which I imagine was a lot less than the 20 million asking price, it can not be overstated the negative affect it had on his career. At the height of the lawsuit, GQ Editor-in-Chief Art Cooper (who had personally hired Ellroy) threw a party in Ellroy’s honour (Ellroy has been awarded GQ Novelist of the Year award twice). Carl Swanson reported from the event: ‘Mr Ellroy did not look to be in much of a partying mood. In fact, guests noted that he did not work the room much, and they spotted him talking solemnly with Mr Cooper by the stairway at the end of the bar.’ It’s also probably not a coincidence that within a few years both Cooper and Ellroy would be fired by GQ. Ellroy would lament in an interview with Craig McDonald a few years later, ‘Astonishingly, I got the boot. Odd.’
So who then was Albert Teitelbaum, the man who somewhat inadvertantly caused Ellroy so much grief at the height of his literary career? The more I read about him, the more I feel a soft spot for the self-styled ‘furrier to the stars’. For instance, he designed a ermine eye patch for Elizabeth Taylor, but she couldn’t wear it ‘because of the dangers of fur next to my eye. But I loved the idea’ Taylor is reported to have said by biographer William J. Mann. In addition to his splendidly Ruritanian career as a furrier, Teitelbaum also spent time as the manager of Mario Lanza. As Lanza’s biographer Derek Mannering put it:
Why or how anyone thought that a Beverley Hills furrier would be an appropriate person to handle the career of the most famous – and to some the most infamous – tenor in the world is not clear. But to Teitelbaum’s credit he lost no time in getting to work.
Lanza and Teitelbaum and their wives had been friends for years and the tenor took a chance on Teitelbaum when his career was floundering. Unfortunately for Lanza, Teitelbaum’s fortunes had also turned and Lanza’s reputation would be tainted in an impending scandal. Lanza was among a host of Hollywood celebrities who acted as character witnesses for Teitelbaum at his trial, others included Joan Crawford and Louella Parsons. Lanza was integral to Teitelbaum’s defence as he arrived at the store shortly after the staged robbery and testified he found Teitelbaum ‘upset and shaking’. Unfortunately for Teitelbaum, Lanza’s arrival at the store may have been his undoing as legal documents show it was unlikely 280 furs could have been removed between the time of the alleged robbery and his meeting with Lanza:
The crux of the entire case was whether the furs for which appellant made claim against his insurance carrier were stolen on the night in question, i.e., did a robbery take place on that night or was there merely a fake robbery. Appellant offered no direct evidence to controvert the testimony of Weiss as corroborated by the confession of the appellant that the alleged robbery was faked and that no furs were stolen. The only witness called by the defense as to the event was the witness Stan. His testimony practically dovetailed with that of Weiss. While the evidence produced by the appellant showed that it was possible for four men to remove 280 fur garments from the vault to a vehicle in the alley within the short period of time that elapsed before the witnesses Lanza [163 Cal. App. 2d 224] and Walge arrived at appellant’s place of business, there was not an iota of evidence that more than one alleged robber was in the store.
According to Lanza’s biographer Roland L. Bassette the tenor ‘was dragged into the sordid mess by circumstance and association. His fortunes were not advanced by the publicity that resulted.’ However, Lanza and Teitelbaum would not part ways immediately. Teitelbaum was with the singer in Italy when Lanza was starring in the movie Seven Hills in Rome (1958) when he learned his conviction was upheld on appeal. He resigned as Lanza’s manager and returned to the U.S. to serve his sentence. According to Jeff Rense, whatever Teitelbaum’s faults he had a massively beneficial effect on Lanza’s life, and especially his movie career: ‘I can also state that without Al Teitelbaum, we would NOT have either Serenade or The Seven Hills Of Rome (and probably For The First Time) to view and treasure today. […] The story of how Al was flown to Italy by MGM on a moment’s notice to save and oversee the floundering production of Seven Hills is, well, amazing. Al literally guided the day by day production of the entire film.’ Nicky Pelligrino’s novel When in Rome (2012) gives a fictional portrayal of Lanza’s time in Italy with Teitelbaum helping the singer overcome his alcoholism and making his appearance in the film possible.
Teitelbaum died in May 2011 aged 95 or 96, and a full twelve years after Ellroy first presumed he was dead when writing ‘Tijuana, Mon Amour’. Although he cost Ellroy both money and credibility, in many ways Teitelbaum was the ultimate Ellrovian character and I doff my fur hat to him.