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A James Ellroy Playlist: Obsession

August 1, 2022

‘Since I Don’t Have You’ is one of James Ellroy’s greatest short stories. Turner “Buzz” Meeks is hired by Howard Hughes to locate one of his favourite “actresses” (a polite euphemism for Casting Couch victim). Her name is Gretchen Rae Shoftel. Hughes has lost track of her and is suffering from a severe case of absence makes the heart grow fonder. Things get complicated when Meeks is also hired by Mickey Cohen to find Gretchen. Cohen had a one night stand with Gretchen and has grown obsessed with her since she disappeared. Another associate of Meeks is RKO Film Producer Sid Weinberg. Weinberg is described as a ‘Filthy rich purveyor of monster cheapies’. He completes the trinity of men obsessed with women who have vanished, ‘he was known to be in love with a dazzling blonde starlet named Glenda Jensen, who hotfooted it off into the sunset, never to be seen again’. Meeks notes that Glenda ‘looked suspiciously like (Gretchen)’. Meeks locates the troubled Gretchen, and in order to keep her out of the clutches of Hughes and Cohen he introduces her to Sid Weinberg, and the actress and producer begin a happy partnership making ultra-cheap but profitable films together.

Gilda, Amado Mio

In his study of Ellroy, Peter Wolfe notes that a ‘possible source for Glenda’s name is the title character of the 1946 movie, Gilda, played by redhaired Rita Hayworth, whose income taxes Ellroy’s father prepared.’ Glenda Jensen may be a forerunner to Glenda Bledsoe in Ellroy’s White Jazz, who is also an actress Howard Hughes is trying to obtain information on. It’s worth noting that Ellroy often loosely based his female characters on his partners, and The Big Nowhere was dedicated to a woman named Glenda he was in a relationship with at the time. However, in White Jazz there is a reference to Gilda which suggests the film may have been a source of inspiration to the author. Lieutenant Dave Klein is reading a file on a suspect who is a paedophile named ‘Rita Hayworth’

‘Panty sniffers, sink shitters, masturbators – lingerie jackoffs only. Faggot burglars, transvestite break-ins, ‘Rita Hayworth’ – Gilda gown, dyed bush hair, caught blowing a chloroformed toddler. The right age – but a jocker cut his dick off, he killed himself, a full-drag San Quentin burial.’

In the film Gilda, the titular character performs two songs. The most famous is “Put the Blame on Mame”, a sexy number in which she wears the ‘Gilda gown’, a strapless black dress which helped to cement the image of the femme fatale. All of Hayworth’s singing in Gilda was dubbed by Anita Ellis. The more tender love song is “Amado Mio”, in which the dubbed Hayworth gets to showcase her dancing which was how her career began as a member of “The Dancing Cansinos”.

In “Since I Don’t Have You”:

Gretch also starred in the only Sid Weinberg vehicle ever to lose money, a tear jerker called Glenda about a movie producer who falls in love with a starlet who disappears off the face of the earth. The critical consensus was that Gretchen Rae Shoftel was a lousy actress, but had great lungs. Howard Hughes was rumoured to have seen the movie over a hundred times.

Since I Don’t Have You

Rewatching a film endlessly isn’t the only manifestation of Howard Hughes’s obsession. Meeks narrates:

A biography I read said that he (Hughes) carried a torch for the blonde whore straight off into the deep end. He’d spend hours at the Bel Air Hotel looking at her picture, playing a torchy rendition of “Since I Don’t Have You” over and over.

“Since I Don’t Have You” was a hit for The Skyliners in 1958. It has been covered many times since, and one might argue that by adopting the title and its pining for lost love themes Ellroy has covered it himself. There are chronology issues here. Ellroy’s “Since I Don’t Have You” is set in the 1949, and in LA Confidential Meeks is killed by Dudley Smith in February 1951. But the Meeks of this short story is an old man, perhaps a little ghostly, and is prone to some pining himself, ‘I miss Howard and Mickey, and writing this story has only made it worse.’

Below is a video of The Skyliners performing “Since I Don’t Have You”. The choreography isn’t great, but there’s something about its cheap B-Movie Western look that makes me a little nostalgic. It strikes me as something Sid Weinberg would produce starring his beloved Glenda.

Listen to this song and pine for your own Glenda/Gilda/Gretchen:

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan permalink
    August 1, 2022 9:58 pm

    It’s truly bizarre but I was just thinking about the seeming contradiction between the fate of Buzz in LAC vs a seemingly old man version reminiscing in “ Since I Don’t Have You” literally minutes before I saw the essay above.

    I think it may be an error but not as big as it first appears. The Big Nowhere and the short story were both written and originally published around the same time ( a couple years before LAC was published). Ellroy probably had not decided yet on Buzz’ eventual fate but I’m guessing his apparent death at the hands of Dudley is the “official” version as it came out later and is a novel versus a short story. A lot of the confusion comes in because most people have read the short story through Hollywood Nocturnes, the collection of previously published short stories that came out several years after LAC and made it look like Ellroy was retconning what happened to Buzz.

    • August 2, 2022 6:21 am

      Hi Dan, I think you’re right that ‘Since I Don’t Have You’ is more of a trial run and shouldn’t be considered canonical like the LA Quartet. As with much of his short fiction, it’s also more overtly comic than the novels but is easier to take seriously than the Danny Getchell stories. I think any continuity errors here are less egregious than the process that began with Perfidia. Ellroy claimed he reread and annotated the original Quartet to make sure he didn’t write himself into chronological error but many of the characters feel as if their different people.

      • Dan permalink
        August 2, 2022 11:15 pm

        While on the topic of continuity, I’m interested to see what Ellroy does on the next Otash novel. From the bits and pieces revealed in the past year it sounds like much of it will cover ground similar to American Tabloid to where it’s almost the lost Otash chapters of that novel. Also wondering if the scope of the new book will acknowledge The Cold Six Thousand and Blood’s a Rover where Otash played a more sinister role than the Otash of Widespread Panic.

      • August 3, 2022 7:34 am

        It will cover much of the same ground, at least in terms of timeframe, but it will have the setting and feel of an LA Quartet novel. From what I gather, Otash’s role won’t be the sinister marginal figure of TCST or BAR but a moving, tragic figure. Thankfully, Ellroy is planning to steer clear of the alliterative jive-speak of Widespread Panic as he considers it too challenging for a novel. Many of us feel it is too challenging for a novella. Let’s hope he sticks to his plans.

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