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Bird Thou Never Wert – James Ellroy and Sexuality

May 30, 2018

James Ellroy has always been obsessed with women. He claims the LA Quartet could be subtitled ‘Bad Men in Love with Strong Women’. His second memoir The Hilliker Curse chronicles his lifelong sexual fascination with women, from his mother to a litany of ‘Girlfriends, wives, one-night stands, paid companions’ and voyeuristic fantasies. Ellroy once told me, ‘my books are all about one thing and one thing only, a man needs a woman. This is the Romantic’s code.’

However, critics would be wrong to dismiss Ellroy’s fiction as consumed with macho, heterosexual stereotypes. Ellroy has written about queer relationships in fiction and biography with the same obsessed fervour that drives his portrayal of male/female relationships. In his memoir My Dark Places (1996), Ellroy claims his first sexual contact as a teenager was with another boy, ‘a neighbourhood kid’. Their physical relationship began with acts of mutual masturbation. Ellroy ‘loved it and hated it’. He worried his father might find out if he talked in his sleep through what he described as dreams ‘scarier than my worst Black Dahlia nightmares’. The friendship with the boy eventually became strained to the point where the boy challenged Ellroy to a fight. The bout became an excuse for both lads to reassert their heterosexuality: ‘We heaved, lurched, thrashed, flailed and powder-puff-punched the shit out of each other’ until ‘we ended up dehydrated and falling-down dizzy and unable to lift our arms.’ Ellroy lost the fight, but boxing would prove the perfect metaphor for the sexual obsessions which permeate through his narrative worlds.

The first significant portrayal of gay characters in Ellroy’s work appears in his novel Blood on the Moon (1984). The novel is ‘contrapunctually-structured’, alternating between the lead detective Lloyd Hopkins and the serial killer he is hunting, Theodore Verplanck. Verplanck has become a serial killer, as the rage imbued in him after being raped as a teenager manifests itself in his desire to murder women. The novel opens with the teenage Verplanck being ambushed at his school, Marshall High, by two class bullies. Larry ‘Birdman’ Craigie and Delbert ‘Whitey’ Haines despise Verplanck’s effeminacy and how Verplanck had mocked their swaggering machismo in his poetry. The carefully planned assault becomes chaotic when Whitey discovers the violence has made him sexually aroused:

Now Whitey knew what his hardness meant, and he knelt beside the poet and pulled off his Levi cords and boxer shorts and spread his legs and blunderingly plunged himself into him. The poet screamed once he entered; then his breathing settled into something strangely like ironic laughter.

As Jim Mancall has argued, Ellroy’s early portrayals of gay characters tend to restrict it to being a psycho-sexual motive for murder. Is the reader to believe that Verplanck enjoys being raped, as evidenced in his ironic laughter during the attack? If so, the text hasn’t aged well, and it is possible to see how Ellroy has drawn the wrath of such critics as Mike Davis. That is not to say that Verplanck isn’t sympathetic, despite the murderous acts he embarks on as a consequence of this trauma. Whitey and Birdman become lovers, held together by a mutual loathing.  When Verplanck is stalking one of his female victims, he is overcome with fear when he sees her in an intimate embrace with another woman. Lesbianism further confuses his sexuality and enrages his psychopathic desires. Verplanck kills women before they can be tainted by sexual union. As his only experience of sex was horrific, he assumes it will be the same for all women. Murder is a form of female salvation in his eyes. 

Ellroy would return to the sexually motivated serial killer in greater depth in Killer on the Road (originally published as Silent Terror). The novel is structured as the memoir of mass murderer Martin Plunkett, written at Sing Sing where Plunkett is serving four consecutive life sentences. Ellroy imbues Plunkett with many autobiographical traits the reader will recognise, and makes the later revelation of the killer’s sexuality quite revealing. Plunkett is not a sympathetic character but Ellroy is open about identifying with him anyway. Plunkett is from a broken home in LA. His father is charismatic, workshy and sex-obsessed. Plunkett lives with his disturbed mother, who essentially becomes his first victim when he starts replacing her medication with benzedrine. Her behaviour becomes increasingly uncontrollable until she slits open her wrists in the bathtub. Plunkett drinks the bloody bathwater while waiting for the Emergency services to arrive. This is the beginning of Plunkett’s killing spree. His favourite victims are blonde women. While on his murderous road trip across the US, Plunkett is detained in Wisconsin by State Troopers. One of the Troopers, Ross Anderson, has witnessed him commit a murder. Thinking that the game is up, Plunkett is relieved and surprised to discover that Anderson is also a serial killer. Furthermore, the smooth-talking lawman recognises the sexual orientation which Plunkett has been repressing and seduces him. The unlikely pillow talk of the two lovebird serial killers gives a barbed insight into the sexual motivations that drives them: ‘Apples and oranges. You like blonds, I like brunettes; that guy they caught last year, the Pittsburgh Pistolwhipper, he liked redheads. Like they used to say back in the ’60’s, ‘Do you own thing.” Plunkett is both drawn to and repelled by Anderson. He resists the urge to ‘maim his beauty’, casting Anderson in the role of the sexually attractive female that had been his typical victim. If it is love that stops Plunkett from killing Anderson, then it is also his undoing. When Anderson is captured he quickly betrays Plunkett to the authorities.

With The Big Nowhere, Ellroy began approaching sexuality with more sensitivity and maturity. Although, ironically, the novel was inspired by a film which had been widely denounced as homophobic. Ellroy took inspiration from William Friedkin’s Cruising about ‘a young cop, presumably heterosexual, played by Al Pacino, and there’s gay killings in Greenwich Village circa 1980’. Ellroy freely admitted the film was ‘bad, it’s elliptical, it’s just full of shit’.  At the time, the film was met with protests by gay activists. However, Ellroy took the premise of a detective going undercover and finding himself drawn to the underground LGBT culture for The Big Nowhere. Danny Upshaw is the Sheriff’s Deputy who is tasked with infiltrating a group of Hollywood communist sympathisers, the leader of which is Claire ‘the Red Queen’ DeHaven. Upshaw is gleefully instructed by his superiors that he might ‘have to fuck the pants off of her’ in the line of duty. While he responds in the affirmative, it is clear Upshaw’s heart isn’t really in it, whereas many an Ellroy protagonist would have become sexually-obsessed with DeHaven (as Dudley Smith does in Perfidia). When Upshaw flirts with an attractive secretary to win favours he is ‘disgusted’ when she ‘tried to return the wink, but her false eyelash stuck to the ridge below her eye, and she had to fumble her cigarette into an ashtray and pull it free.’ These hints as to his sexual orientation are later revealed more forcefully when Upshaw encounters the ‘talent agent’ pimp Felix Gordean who taunts him over his failure to hide his sexuality behind a hyper-masculine cop role. With both Upshaw, and Plunkett in Killer on the Road, the repression of sexual desire is so strong that both men are surprised at their sexuality, and it falls on other gay men to reveal it to them. However, even in death, Upshaw conjures up a form of denial. When Upshaw commits suicide he decides to slit his throat open rather than the less painful method of putting a gun in his mouth because of the phallic symbolism of the latter, and the thought that cops might use it for lewd humour. It is his final act of sexual repression, and yet it also acknowledges that a sexual motivation can be found in every act.

Ellroy would offer a radically different portrayal of sexuality with the character of Lenny Sands in American Tabloid. Sands is a Jewish lounge entertainer and Mob associate. He is in no doubt as to his sexuality, but he is still in the closet, as it could lead to a death sentence from his Mob employers. He gets a taste of Mob hypocrisy when, during a visit to the gay haunt Perry’s Little Log Cabin, he sees Outfit hitman ‘Icepick’ Tony Iannone snogging another man. Iannone and Sands lock eyes, knowing they have discovered a secret about each other that could lead to either man’s death. Immediately, a chase and fight ensues which ends with Sands stabbing Iannone to death in a back alley. Sands is coerced by FBI agent Ward Littell into becoming an informer after the murder. Littell is a devout Catholic who had tailed Sands to the gay bar. Upon seeing both the gangster and the lounge entertainer in a gay hotspot a morally confused Littell thinks ‘Tony/Lenny/Lenny/Tony – who knows who’s QUEER?’ Outfit Boss Sam Giancana uses his press connections to suppress reports Iannone’s corpse was found near a Queer bar as he refuses to believe he was gay.

Sands, like Upshaw, also decides to end his life. Yet, his death reads like a proud embracing of his sexuality as he opens his wrists and writes ‘I am a homosexual’ on the wall in his own blood. ‘Who would have believed it?’ Giancana is caught on FBI wiretap discussing Sands sexuality and suicide. Lenny Sands is proof that Ellroy had matured in his portrayal of queer characters. Unlike the dubious pseudo-science of his early serial killers, there was a historical basis in his creation of Sands. The Mafia did extort money out of gay bars (Friedkin needed permission from Genovese mobster Matty ‘the Horse’ Ianniello before he could film in the gay bars for Cruising), and then there was the case of mobster John D’Amato who was murdered by his gangster buddies after being outed.

Gay men would continue to appear in Ellroy’s work. Marshall Bowen, the black LAPD cop in Blood’s a Rover is a reconstituted form of the Upshaw character. Bowen resembles Upshaw in that his undercover status– FBI informant assigned to infiltrate Black militant groups– is also hiding his sexuality. Mancall identifies Bowen as Ellroy’s most mature fictional queer character to date. When the actor Sal Mineo is employed to seduce Bowen in a honeytrap, Bowen intuits and foils the scheme by simply resisting Mineo’s charms. Mancall dubs this as ‘a nearly singular moment in Ellroy’s fiction – a gay man who is mature enough to have some control over his sexuality’. Perhaps Ellroy took inspiration from his fictional portrayal of a real-life gay figure. The scene is a reworking of a plot device in The Cold Six Thousand wherein Mineo is hired to seduce Civil Rights activist Bayard Rustin. The snare fails and J. Edgar Hoover is disappointed he will never get to see the secret recording of the tryst. ‘O bird thou never wert’ he laments, quoting a Romantic poet to an underling.

In Perfidia, Ellroy once again created a character who is visibly marginalised because of race or ethnicity, and is also hiding his sexuality to avoid other forms of discrimination. Hideo Ashida is a brilliant chemist and the only Japanese American who is permitted to work for the LAPD in the early 1940s. While his Japanese compatriots are being interred at Manzanar and Heart Mountain in the wake of Pearl Harbor, Ashida has to deal with daily distrust and loathing from his police colleagues while trying to contain his feelings for Bucky Bleichert. Bleichert, unaware that both Ashida and Kay Lake are falling for him, has also managed to forge a wartime career at the LAPD despite his German heritage.

Bleichert, as readers of The Black Dahlia will know, becomes a star boxer (Mr Ice) for the LAPD. Ellroy is a lifelong boxing enthusiast and has never shirked from its homoerotic aspects. In an interview I conducted with the author, he describes an incident when he was locked up in the LA County Jail. Ellroy got into a fight with a Mexican drag queen by the name of Peaches. Peaches had been teasing him, so Ellroy thought, ‘I know I gotta pop Peaches or people’ll think I’m a sissy and I’ll be subject to some unwanted scrutiny’. Ellroy knocked down Peaches with one punch to the approval of the inmates present. ‘But then Peaches gets up, and Peaches has hands like Muhammed Ali, and Peaches kicked my fucking ass.’ Peaches ‘never got a sex change, he couldn’t afford it, but he kicked my ass!’ Peaches was a strong figure who left a major impression on Ellroy. Ellroy may never be a gay icon, but through Danny Upshaw, Lenny Sands, Marshall Bowen and Hideo Ashida, to name a few, he created queer characters who are all strong and distinct in their different ways. It’s true they struggle to control their sexuality, as Mancall puts it, but this is also a defining characteristic of Ellroy’s ‘Bad Men’ Dave Klein, Pete Bondurant and Wayne Tedrow Jnr who have to reconcile ‘the Life’ with the ‘Strong Women’ they love.

As Ellroy told Rodney Taveira, his obsession with strong, beautiful and often unobtainable women, as well as with sexuality dates back to his first sexual experience and the fight that followed it:

89% of males in 1948 admit to some homosexuality, but it didn’t mean they were a homo. I knew that when I was doing it with my buddy that I wasn’t a homo. But I was afraid people would think I was a homo. I’m an American man who’s straight so that kind of shit scares me. But you want to know why there’s all this gay shit in my books? It’s because in ‘62 this neighbourhood kid and I pulled each other off. It ain’t hard to figure that one out.

For Ellroy, and all of his characters that follow the Romantic’s code, the struggle goes on.

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