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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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