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Sam Stiefel – The Producer and Conman Who Inspired James Ellroy

May 1, 2019

Armand Ellroy, James Ellroy’s father, was an accountant and Hollywood fixer. His most notable Hollywood connection was Rita Hayworth, whom he met in Tijuana in the 1930s and served as her business manager from 1948-52. But what about his other Hollywood contacts? Two names make fleeting but intriguing appearances in Ellroy’s memoirs when he discusses his father’s movie biz friends — former child star Mickey Rooney and ‘schlock producer’ Sam Stiefel.

Alas, precious little is known about Armand Ellroy’s friendship with either Rooney or Stiefel, whereas Hayworth biographies provide some useful information on Ellroy’s relationship with the movie star he worked for (and claimed to have bedded). However, there is an abundance of material on Rooney and Stiefel’s professional and personal relationship with each other. The two men enjoyed a friendship and business relationship that began with ‘can-do’ American optimism and descended into one of the most bitter Hollywood feuds of the 1940s, as Rooney gradually realised he was being extorted by a conman, charlatan and alleged Jewish Mafia figure. Once he had extricated himself from Stiefel’s influence in the early 1950s, one can imagine that Rooney’s friendship with Ellroy must have also cooled as he didn’t want to be around any of Stiefel’s old friends. James Ellroy described Stiefel as a ‘schlock producer’, and this is a little unfair. Stiefel was both bigger than ‘schlock’ in his achievements, but sometimes smaller than it in his moral actions. He was, in every respect, an unceasingly complex man.

If Sam Stiefel had never gone to Hollywood, then the chances are that today he would be remembered as a liberal, perhaps even a visionary, reformer. Samuel H. Stiefel was born into an entrepreneurial Jewish family in Norma, New Jersey in 1897. The Stiefel family, which traced its roots back to Pokatilovo in the Ukraine, built and owned several theatres on the East Coast. Sam, who eventually took over the family business, opened the Pearl Theatre in Philadelphia in 1923 and shortly thereafter purchased the Howard Theatre in Washington DC. These venues were part of the ‘Chitlin Circuit’, which catered to largely African-American audiences and featured Black performers who, due to segregation, were blocked from appearing in all-white theatres. Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington are two performers who became famous on the Chitlin Circuit.

Mickey Rooney was on a promotional tour for the film Girl Crazy in 1943/4 when he first met Sam Stiefel at a Pittsburgh theatre. Stiefel, never lacking in confidence, asked the stage manager to pass a message to Rooney requesting a meeting, and the diminutive former child star agreed. Stiefel wined and dined Rooney and his publicist Les Peterson, and by the time Rooney was on his way back to Hollywood, he had hired Stiefel to be his business manager. Rooney was clearly naive to hire Stiefel on impulse, and there were already signs that he had misjudged his character. Peterson described Stiefel as ‘a short, squarely built man who wore suits with wide lapels and flashy silk ties and looked about as trustworthy as a pit boss in Las Vegas.’ Attorney Murray Lertzman’s assessment of Stiefel wasn’t much better: ‘He had this rough, gravelly voice […] He carried a wad of bills that would have choked a horse. He was very flashy and quite persuasive.’ Stiefel was itching to make it in Hollywood, and was seething with jealously that his former business partner Eddie Sherman had broken into the business before him after being hired as Abbott and Costello’s business manager.

In Hollywood, Stiefel continued to earn Rooney’s trust. He began extracting Rooney from his contract at MGM (where he had long felt cheated) and persuaded him to put his earnings into a company he had set up – Rooney Inc. Rooney was also a heavy gambler and Stiefel, who owned several racehorses, was happy to cover his losses. He even promised to loan Rooney’s mother cash, if and when she needed it, while the star was away.

In his memoir, Life is too Short, Rooney describes how the night before he was due to leave for his army induction (he served in Special Services during World War II) his by-then ex-wife Ava Gardner seduced him wearing ‘a red nightgown and red peignoir’. The next morning, ‘I couldn’t believe what a lucky guy I was. While I was off fighting for my country, Sam Stiefel would take care of my finances and Ava would be waiting.’

To be thinking about Sam Stiefel so soon after a night of passion with Ava Gardner might seem odd. However, it reveals the complete trust Rooney placed in Stiefel at this time. Armand Ellroy told his son that Rooney ‘would fuck a woodpile on the off chance that a snake might be inside.’ Armand claimed inside knowledge of the movie stars sex lives, something he may have got from Rooney whose memoir reads like a sex addict’s confessional. At a Beverly Hills party, Rooney describes stumbling into a bedroom to find Tallulah Bankhead, ‘her head between the limbs of a beautiful young blonde’. Unfamiliar with lesbianism and embarrassed, a shocked Rooney made some frantic apologies but ‘Tallulah never missed a bite, never looked up.’ Rooney’s bawdy humour occasionally seeped through the cracks of his wholesome onscreen image – did he really slip the word dildo into the aptly titled Girl Crazy?

Although he had been reluctant to join the army, Mickey Rooney had a good war. He was awarded a Bronze Star, a good conduct medal and a World War II victory medal. However, the minute he returned to American shores at New York Harbour, he sensed something was wrong. None of his family were there to greet him — only Sam Stiefel. Stiefel wanted to party with Rooney and see some shows, but Rooney insisted (according to his memoir) that he just wanted to be with his family. Back on the West Coast, Stiefel met Rooney at the Hollywood Park Racetrack. Stiefel was by now enjoying the luxurious life of a Hollywood mogul, living with his family at a showcase home in Bel Air. While puffing away on a huge cigar, Stiefel informed Rooney that he expected full repayment for all of the gambling debts he had covered. In addition, Rooney’s mother had racked up a debt with Stiefel of $159,000 which he expected the actor to repay. Stiefel had also, seemingly without permission, invested Rooney’s earnings in a racing stable which was losing money. In desperation, Rooney agreed to forgo fifty per cent of his earnings to Stiefel until his debts were cleared. ‘Having survived the Nazis, I thought I’d have an easier time when I got back to Hollywood. I was mistaken’ Rooney lamented.

This ruinous situation was affecting Rooney’s mood at MGM. Colleagues began to complain about his behaviour and, in a moment of petulance, Rooney gave Stiefel permission to sever all contact with the studio. He later described this move as:

One of the dumbest things I ever did. I had to forgo my $5,000-a-week salary and my pension […] And I had to pay Metro $500,000 besides, which I was to work off at a rate of $100,000 a picture (and keep only $25,000 for myself)). In other words, Stiefel negotiated me down to $25,000 a picture […] Now, I had to do five pictures for $25,000 apiece, minus 50 percent to Sam Stiefel and minus Uncle Sam’s share. That would bring my take down to less than $10,000 a picture – not even enough to pay my upcoming alimony and child support.

One wonders, given his role as an accountant, whether Armand Ellroy ever intuited just how badly Stiefel was scamming Rooney. There is one small clue to suggest that he may have done. Johnny Hyde was Vice-President at the William Morris Agency. He agreed to take on Rooney as a client– as a favour in return for Rooney introducing him to Marilyn Monroe– and extricate him from his business relationship with Stiefel. Hyde was also Rita Hayworth’s agent and was, alongside Armand Ellroy, one of the few Hollywood guests at her 1949 wedding to Aly Khan which Ellroy helped plan. It’s certainly possible that either Rooney or Hyde confided to Ellroy what was happening with Stiefel. Aside from their womanising, Ellroy and Rooney did have one macabre thing in common. They were both married to women who were murdered. Jean Ellroy was murdered in 1958. Rooney’s fifth wife Barbara Ann Thomason was murdered by her lover Milos Milos in 1966. Milos’s widow, Cynthia Bouron, was herself murdered in 1973.

Rooney eventually confronted Stiefel, accusing him of extortion to the tune of ‘six million, four hundred thousand, six hundred and thirteen dollars. And twelve cents’. Stiefel’s other big catch in Hollywood was Peter Lorre. He formed the company Lorre Inc and pulled off the exact same con, ‘grossly mismanaging his (Lorre’s) business affairs and leaving him in financial ruin.’ Lorre had many of the same vices as Rooney that made him a perfect target for Stiefel. Lorre was too trusting, struggled to control his spending and was battling a morphine addiction. If it is true that Stiefel was a member of the Jewish Mafia, as Murray Lertzman claimed, then he may have been passing some of this extortion money on to his superiors in the LA Underworld. Stiefel did like to flaunt his criminal connections. His friends included mobsters Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen, and he was a silent partner in the latter’s clothing store – Michael’s Haberdashery. According to Stiefel’s granddaughter Adrienne Callander, Stiefel once received a call from Al Capone in prison. Scarface wanted his help in fixing the prison stage. Stiefel had made the connection with Capone after he produced a show for inmates at Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary where Capone was imprisoned on a gun charge.

Although his business relationship with Stiefel was coming to an end, Rooney couldn’t walk away just yet. He was contractually obligated to star in and co-finance three films for the still aspiring producer. First came the run of the mill sporting drama The Big Wheel (1949). The following year came the more impressive Quicksand.

Opening credits to Quicksand

In Quicksand, Rooney plays Dan Brady, a garage mechanic with an eye for a beautiful woman. Barbara Bates plays his ex-girlfriend Helen. Helen still loves him. She’s nice, she’s pretty, she’d be good for him. In a diner one night Dan meets Vera (Jeanne Cagney). She’s blonde, she’s bad, she oozes sex appeal and lusts after a $2,000 mink coat. Dan spurns Helen’s overtures and goes chasing after the femme fatale Vera. This is all going to go very wrong for Dan. Dan steals $20 from the garage till to go on a date with Vera. He buys a $100 wristwatch on instalment payments, which he then pawns for $30 to cover the missing money in the till. Then he is threatened with grand larceny for violating the instalment plan and selling a watch he doesn’t legally own. He has to buy the watch outright in 24 hours or face prison. Now he gets really desperate and mugs a sloshed bar patron, which leads to him being extorted for $3,000 by the crooked owner of the garage where he works. Vera and Dan decide to cover this debt by robbing a penny arcade run by her seedy ex-partner played by Peter Lorre (who only took on the role as he was still in hock to Stiefel). They pull off the robbery, but Vera spends her half on her beloved mink leaving Dan still owing his boss. Then things take a violent turn for the worse.

Dan’s in the quicksand. Each bad decision he makes pulls him deeper into debt and trouble with the law. Quicksand’s narrative of spiraling debt clearly evokes Rooney and Lorre’s predicament with Stiefel. Rooney disliked the film intensely. He poured his money into the production and made a loss on it as ‘Stiefel commandeered whatever cash there was.’ However, Rooney does give one of the most mature and acclaimed performances of his career. He understood the weakness for sex and bad business decisions which drove Dan Brady.

Rooney and Stiefel never collaborated on the planned third film as Stiefel didn’t like the script. And here’s the final irony, as if they had gone ahead and made Francis (1950) together as planned then Rooney and Stiefel would have raked in millions. In the event, Donald O’Connor played the leading part. It was a huge hit for Universal, spawning the Francis the Talking Mule franchise which featured six more films and inspired the TV show Mister Ed. By contrast, the two films Stiefel produced are now in the public domain, which is usually a sign of lax business practices. Both are now free to view on the internet.

Although he must have felt like a horse’s ass for passing on Francis, Sam Stiefel could be proud that he made a good film noir in Quicksand. James Ellroy dismissed Stiefel as a purveyor of schlock, which is not how I would categorise Quicksand.

That said, Ellroy does display a nostalgia for grade-Z, schlock films in his writing. There is the filming of Daddy-O in Dick Contino’s Blues, the ill-conceived comeback vehicle for the titular accordionist. Also, there is the fictional ‘Attack of the Atomic Vampire’ in White Jazz. This stinker of a horror movie is produced by Mickey Cohen in a desperate attempt to revive his standing in LA after his release from prison.

Stiefel’s links to Mickey Cohen suggests another possible influence the producer had on Ellroy’s writing. Ellroy always seemed more interested in and fond of wannabe celebrity gangster Cohen than he was in the Mafiosi of the Underworld USA trilogy – Sam Giancana, Carlos Marcello, Santo Trafficante Junior. Even though these gangsters were far more powerful than Cohen, the reader never really gets to know them as much as the vain, prickly but ultimately quite likable Jewish hoodlum. Giancana is unsympathetic as he is a lifelong gangster and leader of the Chicago Outfit, which was founded in 1910 and still operates today. By contrast, the Jewish Mafia had disappeared within a generation. As gangsters, Cohen and Stiefel really just wanted to be good immigrants and live the American Dream. They may have had a hand in the rackets, but their ambition was to reinvest their ill-gotten gains and ‘make it’ in legitimate business. Like Bugsy Siegel’s dream of building the Flamingo Hotel in the Nevada Desert, Stiefel genuinely wanted to be a great film producer. Although the fate of the Kennedy’s, as fictionalised by Ellroy in American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand, suggests children cannot escape paying for the sins of the father.

Quicksand may not be a masterpiece, but it is Stiefel’s enduring legacy from his time in Hollywood. Stiefel left the movie business for good in the early 1950s, leaving behind a trail of vendettas and ending one of Armand Ellroy’s last connections to the movie world (he was fired by Rita Hayworth in 1952). Stiefel returned to the theatre business in Philadelphia, promoting black musicians at a time when Soul music was beginning to emerge. When he died in 1958, Stiefel’s obituary in Time magazine described him as the ‘Father of Negro Show Business’. The Stiefel family papers are held at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. In the theatre world, Steifel could claim to have made a positive and lasting change.

Stiefel’s time in Hollywood led to a darker, more enigmatic legacy. James Ellroy could have been writing an alternative obituary for Stiefel with the words – It’s time to embrace bad men and the price they paid to secretly define their time.

Here’s to them.



The Tortured Production of Tai-Pan

April 18, 2019

I’ve always had a fascination with the concept of a ‘difficult’ production – whether they be unmade films (White Jazz), forgotten or considered-lost productions (Where is Parsifal? and The Devil’s Crown), films that weren’t released until forty years after they were shot (The Other Side of the Wind) or the downright bizarre, how-the-hell-did-that-get-made picture (Bond director Terence Young’s cinematic love letter to Saddam Hussein is a notorious example of this genre).

I recently came across a film that is the equal to all of the above in terms of never-ending difficulty or, as we might say today, ‘development hell’. The making of this film is a tale of titanic ambition, missed opportunities, horrendous luck, botched compromises and warring egos. I am, of course, referring to the big-screen adaptation of James Clavell’s epic bestseller Tai-Pan.

George MacDonald Fraser is best-known as the author of The Flashman Papers, but he also had a prolific career as a screenwriter and his memoir The Light’s on at Signpost covers his time in the movie biz. In the late 1970s, Fraser was contacted by film director Richard Fleischer. Fleischer was set to direct a big-screen adaptation of James Clavell’s Tai-Pan for Swiss producer Georges-Alain Vuille, and he wanted Fraser to write the screenplay. Tai-Pan is set in Hong Kong in the 1840’s, shortly after the First Opium War, when rival British trading companies are vying for market dominance with mainland China. Dirk Struan is the leader or ‘Tai-Pan’ of the Noble House trading company. His arch enemy is Tyler Brock, leader of the Brock & Sons company. Tai-Pan has all the makings of a rattling good yarn as Struan must navigate the politics of empire, ancient Chinese traditions and treacherous fellow traders for the Noble House to ascend to the peak of Victorian mercantile glory. However, when Fraser sat down to read the novel, he found it to be ‘a wonderful atrocity’, ‘turgid and corny’ and ‘supremely dreadful’. I’m in partial agreement with Fraser here, Tai-Pan has great spectacle and story, but too often I felt like Clavell was rushing from one set-piece to another with little regard for coherence or emotional involvement.

Nevertheless, adapting it for the screen would be an exciting writing assignment for Fraser. He flew to Nice where he met Vuille at the Villa Nelleric. He had great affection for the producer who he described as ‘short, stout, excitable and great fun’. He also met Clavell, who struck him as being ‘a very British Australian’. The Australian born Clavell was actually an American citizen by this point, albeit living as a tax exile in Switzerland. Clavell had enjoyed a brief but successful Hollywood career as a film director. His best-known film is the teaching drama To Sir, with Love. Alas, it had all come to a crashing end when his big-budget historical drama The Last Valley flopped. One of the very few films to be set during the Thirty Years War, The Last Valley starred Michael Caine, Omar Sharif and Florinda Bolkan, and despite its financial failure on release, it is now considered something of a lost classic. Brian Trenchard-Smith gives an excellent appraisal of the film on Trailers from Hell, and Fraser himself admired The Last Valley, writing in The Hollywood History of the World that ‘it must be rated a successful picture’ and singling out the staging of Prince Bernhard’s attack on Rheinfelden Bridge as ‘faithfully done’. Despite his criticisms of Clavell’s writing, Fraser truly admired the man and had a lot in common with him. They had both served in the Far East during the war. Fraser documented his experiences fighting the Japanese in Burma in his memoir Quartered Safe Out Here, and Clavell fictionalised his experience as a POW at Changi Prison in Singapore in his novel King Rat. Both men were historical novelists who had lived and fought through the bloodiest period in history, and, for my money, they even looked alike.


George MacDonald Fraser


James Clavell

Clavell told Fraser he had tried and failed to adapt Tai-Pan for the screen himself. This should have set off alarm bells with Fraser. An earlier MGM production, with Patrick McGoohan cast as Struan and Michael Anderson hired to direct, had fallen apart. Would this new version fare any better? Things started well. Fraser wrote a script that both Fleischer and Vuille liked. Vuille admired it so much he immediately commissioned Fraser to write a sequel – Tai-Pan 2. And when Fraser finished that, Vuille wanted a prequel, this to be set during the Battle of Trafalgar when Struan and Brock first develop their mutual loathing while serving in the Royal Navy together. But Fraser turned down the chance to write a third script. He had become exhausted travelling between Cannes, Gstaad and Spain on constant scriptwriting duty at the behest of Vuille and was beginning to have doubts that Tai-Pan would ever get made. He also had to fend off another screenwriter encroaching on his turf. Carl Foreman had worked on the script to the aborted 1968 version of Tai-Pan and was adamant that Fraser should read his version. Fraser refused, surmising that Foreman just wanted a screen credit. When Foreman mailed him his script Fraser sent it back unopened. Fleischer later told him that both he and Foreman had, coincidentally, written an identical closing scene ‘it involves a shot of the Hong Kong beach in 1841, suddenly pulling back in a colossal zoom to show Hong Kong as it is today.’

The question remained as to who would play Dirk Struan. The role required an actor with gravitas and box-office pull. Fleischer and Fraser flew to Los Angeles to meet Steve McQueen at the Beverley Wilshire. At the time McQueen was the biggest movie star in the world and would have been an ideal choice to play Struan. Fraser found the actor to be courteous but rather aloof at first, but he warmed considerably after learning Fraser was Scottish and talked at length about his own Scotch heritage: ‘I blessed the Scottish mafia of Hollywood’ Fraser wrote.

Director, writer and star had two day-long meetings about the project in which McQueen pored over the script line by line, frequently asking questions that impressed Fraser for their insight and intelligence. Finally, McQueen closed the script and proclaimed, ‘I think we’ve got Gone with the Wind here.’

Everyone left the meeting very optimistic, but sadly the project fell apart shortly thereafter. Vuille had already squandered a fortune on scripts for sequels and prequels, and McQueen was offered a record-breaking $10 million to play Struan. Fraser attributes the film’s collapse to McQueen’s ‘astronomical fee’. It’s possible however that McQueen was already too ill for the role, and he used the inflated fee as a convenient way to drop out of it. He would die of cancer a few years later. As for Vuille, who Fraser described as ‘the talk of the film world’ and ‘the boy wonder who was going to be the new DeMille’, he left show-business after being declared bankrupt with only three producing credits to his name. He died after a lung transplant at the age of 51.

The story of the production resumes when Fraser ‘was watching the Parkinson show [on TV], and was astonished to hear Roger Moore say that he was polishing up his Scots accent for Tai-Pan.’ Moore had in fact been working on an adaptation of Tai-Pan for years. The Bond star had a higher opinion of Clavell’s writing than Fraser did, having selected another novel in the Asian Saga, Noble House, as his choice of book on Desert Island Discs. Moore said of Tai-Pan, ‘all Clavell’s books are brilliant but I have particular affection for this one’, adding that he and Bond producer Cubby Broccoli used to enjoy greeting each other with an insult from the novel: ‘Ye be a bag full of farts’ (it’s worth noting that it is one of the many lines of dialogue that irked Fraser who described it as ‘a bizarre kind of English’). Fraser and Moore had known each other since the Flashman author had worked on the script of Octopussy. Fraser admired Moore for his ready wit, noting that at least one of his bon mots ‘passed into my family’s language’. He also said cryptically ‘Moore and I discussed Georges Alain (Vuille)’. The idea of a James Bond actor as Dirk Struan was not new. Clavell had said to Fraser, ‘It’s got to be Sean, hasn’t it?’ Fraser agreed with Clavell that Connery was perfect for the role, ‘He’s made for it.’

It’s probably no coincidence, given Fraser and Moore’s mutual obsession with Tai-Pan, that James Clavell’s daughter Michaela has a role in Octopussy as Penelope Smallbone, Miss Moneypenny’s assistant. Her character is limited to one scene, but she manages to inject some much needed sex appeal into the offices of Universal Exports at a time when both Moore and Lois Maxwell were getting a bit long in the tooth. In his memoir My Word is My Bond, Moore describes wanting to rethink his acting career after Octopussy. To his surprise he was asked to play Bond once more, finally hanging up his Walther PPK after A View to a Kill and dedicating all of his energies to producing and starring in Tai-Pan. Moore had experience as a producer, after The Persuaders! had finished its run he worked for Brut Films. He was an executive producer on a handful of films in the early 1970s, the best of which was probably A Touch of Class. Moore was proud of the picture: ‘The film went on to win great reviews, and was very successful, with Glenda Jackson ultimately winning the Best Actress Oscar […] What an auspicious beginning.’ Alas, his beginner’s luck as a producer wouldn’t last. He optioned the rights to Tai-Pan and hired John Guillerman to direct, and they began developing the script together and raising the finances. The project seemed to be coming together, with the sets being constructed in Croatia, when suddenly the financing fell through and the whole project collapsed. Why did the money disappear? Moore provides no answer in his memoir, but it’s a common problem in movie-making and the curse of Tai-Pan had struck again. ‘Months if not years of my life had been wasted’, Moore complained bitterly. In 1989, Moore accepted his first acting role in five years, and the press reported that he had come out of retirement: ‘I had, of course, been busy with Tai-Pan but nobody realised that.’

By the time the press were reporting on Moore’s acting comeback, the film of Tai-Pan had finally been made and swiftly forgotten. Dino De Laurentiis bought the rights to the novel after Moore’s production fell through. Bryan Brown played Dirk Struan and Daryl Duke was behind the camera. It’s not a bad film, but it suffers from two major problems. Firstly, condensing a 700 page narrative into a two hour film, and secondly, it features a series of spectacular set-pieces which feel unengaging. It does have one major draw. Joan Chen is superb as Struan’s Chinese mistress May-May. I wonder if it was her performance here that secured Chen her high-profile roles in The Last Emperor and Twin Peaks. She does her best with some dreadful dialogue, and walks away with her dignity intact.


Bryan Brown as Dirk Struan and Joan Chen as May-May

Postscript: The eventual film adaptation of Tai-Pan met with poor reviews and disappointing box-office returns. Was it worth the work and obsession that so many people had put into it over two decades? Well, neither Fraser nor Carl Foreman received a writing credit in the finished film, but the closing shot they had both independently concocted did make it in. The film ends with the camera panning away from the desolate nineteenth-century Hong Kong coast and dissolves into an image of the skyscrapers that make up that Asian metropolis today.

It’s a fitting tribute to Clavell’s tale of the buccaneering Dirk Struan and the epic struggle to get it up on the big screen. And if you can’t take a crumb of comfort from that then ‘Ye be a bag full of farts’.

The Legacy of A.E. Housman: Redivivus

April 2, 2019

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter…

In researching the life of A.E. Housman, I unexpectedly came across more than a few stunning parallels with James Ellroy. Enough for me to dub the Demon Dog Housman’s redivivus, a literary term from the 1600s whose etymology translates to “live again”.

I first sensed a similarity between Housman and Ellroy when I encountered a description of Housman by the critic William Stanley Braithewaite, who, in an introduction for Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, described the poet’s works in a vivid manner that all but evokes the work of James Ellroy:  “What has been called the ‘cynical bitterness’ of Mr. Housman’s poems is really nothing more than his ability to etch in sharp tones the actualities of experience. The poet himself is never cynical; his joyousness is all too apparent in the very manner and intensity of expression.”

Redivivus ellroy housman final

Braithewaite goes on to detail Housman’s characters as well as the poet’s personal identification with his characters, and once again, it’s quite difficult not to think of Ellroy:  “The ‘lads’ of Ludlow are so human to [Housman], the hawthorne and broom on the seventh shores are so fragrant with associations, he cannot help but compose under a kind of imaginative wizardry of exhultation, even when the immediate subject is grim or grotesque.”  Ellroy has often spoken of his own carefully constructed world of cultural creation, and of finding kinship among the gutter-level implementers of public policy, even calling such bottom feeders his heroes.

Finally, Braithewaite concludes his introduction with an overview of Housman’s work that again strangely evokes James Ellroy:  “In many of these brief, tense poems, the reader confronts a mask as it were, with appalling and distorted lineaments, but behind it the poet smiles […] Here is a spirit whom life may menace with its contradictions and fatalities, but never dupe with its circumstance and mystery.”  Any reader of the Demon Dog’s autobiographical material can certainly attest that the deeply haunted Ellroy has been thoroughly menaced, and yet somehow has retained a steadfast wonder that propels him to this day.

Housman’s mother died of cancer on the poet’s 12th birthday, a watershed event for the young poet that became a primary source for his lifelong pessimism and obsession with death. As Housman’s sister Clemence noted, the death of their mother “roused within [Alfred] an early resentment against nature’s relentless ways of destruction.”  Similarly, the 1958 murder of Ellroy’s mother would lead the future crime novelist to his own lifelong fixation on The Big Adios. Ellroy told me as much when I met him for the very first time in 2009: “My mother’s death hotwired me to sex and death and psychopathology, and the secret history of Los Angeles, and later, the secret history of America, and I began to see that there were two, three, four—exponentially more than that—versions of all alleged historical events.”

Novelist and critic B.J. Leggett, who authored an acclaimed study of A Shropshire Lad feels that Housman’s work is more nuanced and complex than the poet’s critics have ever acknowledged: “What has concerned Housman’s critics since the publication of A Shropshire Lad in 1896 is the enigma of Housman the man as it is reflected in his verse… his personality is of more interest to many readers than his poetry.” Some scholars even see Housman’s poetry as only a key to understanding the convoluted personality of the author.

According to Leggett, the dominant theme of A Shropshire Lad is the existential progression from innocence to experience and the painful wisdom gained by such growth.  Housman critic John Stevenson has a tidy—and quite noir—way of explaining it:  The burden of experience ultimately reveals that “ ‘happiness’ and ‘pleasure’ are illusions [and] that life, while perhaps not a sham, is something of a hoax, and that meaning comes only through struggle.”

Meaning wrestled from struggle is something both critics of Housman and Ellroy have frequently failed to grasp. In Jim Mancall’s 2014 companion to Ellroy’s oeuvre, Mancall notes that Ellroy’s 2009 novel Blood’s A Rover (named, appropriately, after a line from A Shropshire Lad) contains a possible allegorical gut punch from the Demon Dog:  “[Ellroy’s Underworld U.S.A.] trilogy places demands upon the reader—easy answers, big picture coherence, will be elusive. Close, careful and repeated readings are required to make sense of what lies hidden… If readers find themselves stymied by [Ellroy’s] dense, code-like style, Ellroy seems to imply they are not trying hard enough.”

Though Housman was raised as a devout Christian, the death of the poet’s mother would begin a process that would lead Housman to committed atheism by age 21. Accordingly, as Leggett noted, A Shropshire Lad presents Christ as “a disillusioned man who is faced with the vanity of his efforts in the light of his knowledge of the true nature of man.”  Such disenchantment is eerily similar to that which plagues Ellroy’s tough guy right wingers, who all struggle with a spiritual and moral exhaustion throughout the Demon Dog’s Underworld U.S.A. trilogy (especially in Blood’s A Rover). The similarity is so striking, that I wonder if the devoutly Christian Ellroy did in fact read A Shropshire Lad, (despite once claiming that he had not) and structure his character’s preoccupations around this point of conflict.

ellroy eye final 1

Housman, like Ellroy, is often expeditiously described as a pessimist. In fact, Hugh Molson said that Housman saw life “as an unmerited ordeal which serves no useful purpose, but from which man obtains his final release after death.” This is echoed by other critics who frequently cite the pervasive violence and depravity of Housman’s work (and Ellroy’s) as proof of their creator’s supposed disgust with life.

In July, 2018, I wrote a piece exploring James Ellroy’s countless contradictions, ultimately concluding that such a distinctive quirk is at best a low-key dimension of his infamous Demon Dog persona. It seems Housman was also a fan of contradictions; something noted by more than a few literary critics.

As Jacob Brownstein observed, “Housman’s poems reel from one standard to another. If one poem finds love worthy… the poem over the page will find it pointless…”  Hugh Molson has also noted Housman’s contradictory ways:  “[Housman’s] running grievance, on examination, can be resolved into two separate complaints that are not at all consistent: First, life is lovely enough, but all too short, and death is the enemy of happiness. In the second, existence itself is a misery only to be endured until the welcome arrival of death the deliverer.”

Housman’s compulsive focus on death has, like Ellroy’s, been widely noted, condemned, and subject to frequent oversimplification and a rigidly literal interpretation (Does any of this sound familiar, Mike Davis?)  However, as Leggett has noted, it is better to view Housman’s death obsession as one component of an overall larger concern with permanence and change, innocence and experience, subjects that also dominate much of Ellroy’s work.

Just as Ellroy and his father Armand were supported by insurance payments disbursed by Ellroy’s aunt Leoda, Housman’s father Edward was eagerly anticipating a substantial inheritance from Housman’s wealthy grandmother, who later cut all beneficiaries from her will in disgust of her son’s financial incompetence. Following a stroke, Housman’s father pursued countless ridiculous schemes including growing and preserving exotic fruits and prospecting for gold, all intent on quickly finding life changing wealth. Like Ellroy’s fast-buck father, Edward Housman also hid his fecklessness behind a façade of hyperbolic joie de vivre.

In Peter Parker’s (no, not that one) 2016 book Housman Country, it is argued that Housman typically remained silent about his own work, often side-stepping the more intriguing and complicated truths behind the writing. While Housman would go to great lengths to explain his process of writing poetry, he almost never discussed its origins.  Ellroy has often done likewise, concealing his motives behind deliberate ambiguity.  When interviewer David Peace noted that the Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy’s format of mixing fictional characters with historical figures, closely resembled a design previously utilized by novelist John Dos Passos, author of The U.S.A. Trilogy, Ellroy tersely remarked that he’d “never read [Dos Passos]”.

Housman’s brother Laurence was among many who noted numerous instances of Housman caught between the warring urges of concealment and revelation. Ellroy is like this too, with his over-the-top love of promotion and egotism juxtaposed against his monastic, Beethovian private life.

Of particular note to Parker is Housman’s friendship with Joan Thomson, a woman who saw a far more personal side to Housman than what the poet ever displayed to his male friends. Writing three years after Housman’s death, Thomson noted the poet’s amazing powers of restraint and self-control, but also something else: “[Housman] was capable of emotion terrifying in its strength,” Thomson wrote, concluding that Housman was “ashamed of the strength of his own feeling,” which is why, according to Parker, Housman made such effort to hide and suppress it.

I’ve often wondered why Ellroy, who had his own catalytic encounter with a fiery femme named Joan, is always so elusive and elliptical when you speak to him. Could it be that the Demon Dog is himself ashamed of the strength of his own emotion?  I’ve always attributed Ellroy’s obscurity to his mimicry of the ubiquitous ambiguity found so richly in film noir, but this possibility certainly opens new avenues for examination.

Housman, like Ellroy, was extremely distrustful of nostalgia, characterizing it as poison air wafting in from an irrecoverable past. Parker argues that “Nostalgia has become debased in recent years through too much careless handling, transformed into a kind of comfort blanket for adults in which they can wrap themselves against the chill winds of the present.” Ellroy would express a systemic disdain for nostalgia, beginning in earnest with the Demon Dog’s second novel Clandestine, in which narrator and protagonist Fred Underhill warns of the dangers of succumbing to nostalgic intoxication. All of Ellroy’s works are haunted by a sneering distrust of popular culture. According to Parker, Housman viewed nostalgia as deadly, characterizing it as the poet’s famous “Land of Lost Content”, a place where past happiness is recognizable, but unattainable.

“Housman’s natural reticence and solitary habits, his apparent failure to form any satisfactory emotional attachment, his devotion to the dryer aspects of classical scholarship, and his habit of brusquely rebuffing those who complimented him or asked about his poetry have led to descriptions of him as austere, unapproachable, aloof, taciturn, arrogant, rude, bitter, morbid, self-pitying, even self-loathing,” Parker writes. “Those who knew Housman well, however, insisted he could also be […] a good conversationalist [and] capable of great kindness and generosity.”

That last part definitely sounds like someone I know.

Jason Carter

Rita Hayworth and the Armand Ellroy Redemption

March 15, 2019


Armando Lee Ellroy

Armando Lee Ellroy was the father of Lee Earle Ellroy, better known today as James Ellroy – Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction. James Ellroy’s father was a veteran of the First World War, an accountant and Hollywood fixer. He was handsome, charming, lazy, venal and constantly working on some get-rich-quick scheme. Ellroy Senior was always living on the periphery of Hollywood glamour, obsessed with an unobtainable woman. In short, he was a typically Ellrovian character minus the violence.

The highlight of Ellroy’s career was his stint as Rita Hayworth’s business manager from circa 1948-52. Ellroy talked to his son a lot about Rita Hayworth, although he was not always gentlemanly when he did so. He claimed to have had an affair with the film star, and dubbed her a ‘nympho’. Ellroy was just a child when his father told him these stories, but he was already so well tuned to his Dad’s braggadocio that he didn’t believe his claims about Hayworth. It wasn’t till years after his father’s death that Ellroy spotted a biography of Rita Hayworth in a bookshop, turned to the index page and found his father’s name:


Ellroy’s name, squeezed between Queen Elizabeth and King Farouk, in a Rita Hayworth biography

So his father had at least been partially telling the truth. In The Hilliker Curse, Ellroy provides more details about his father’s professional relationship with Rita Hayworth.

My dad went back to the ’30s with La Roja Rita. It pre-dated his circa ’40 hookup with Jean. Rita was half Anglo, half Mex aristocrat. My dad working as a croupier in T.J. Rita’s father hired him to watchdog Rita and deter mashers.

When Ellroy’s father first met Hayworth she was still known by her birth name, Margarita Cansino. Her father was the famous Spanish dancer Eduardo Cansino. In 1931, when the future film star was only twelve years old, Cansino moved the family from Los Angeles to Tijuana. They performed a family act ‘the Dancing Cansino’s’ at the famed Agua Caliente, the casino resort where Ellroy was working and which, according to local lore, was the inspiration for Bugsy Siegel to build the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas.

There is a cruel irony to Ellroy being hired by Hayworth’s father to safeguard Rita as Eduardo Cansino was sexually abusing his daughter during this period. This is detailed in Barbara Leaming’s biography of Hayworth If This Was Happiness. Leaming’s source for the disturbing allegation was Hayworth’s second husband Orson Welles, of whom Leaming also wrote a biography, and appeared with him on The Merv Griffin Show the day Welles died. Ellroy is briefly mentioned in Leaming’s book on Hayworth.

In Hayworth biographies, Ellroy is invariably referred to by his middle name Lee. One might assume that he would have gone by his Spanish name Armando around the Cansino Clan. It seems likely Ellroy didn’t go by Lee in the family home, as he conceded to his son that ‘Lee’ was a lousy name when added to the surname ‘Ellroy’, especially when compounded with the middle name ‘Earle’, making the full name sound like Leroy. In Ellroy’s memoirs, he usually refers to his father by the shortened Armand, which is Gallic. This is presumably why Leonard Slater describes Ellroy as ‘the dapper. dark-haired man of French-Spanish descent.’

Slater wrote a bestselling biography of Aly Khan (Hayworth’s third husband). He interviewed over a hundred people as part of his research, including Armando Lee Ellroy and the book was published in 1965, the year of Ellroy Sr.’s death. Ellroy is quoted as saying that it was Rita Hayworth’s mother Volga who was the more protective parent in the Tijuana days:

“After the evening show,” he (Ellroy) says, “a gang would get together for hamburgers or to go swimming, but most of the time Rita couldn’t go. I can still see her mother sitting there, watching Rita rehearse and keeping her eye out.”

After they moved from Tijuana back to LA, Hayworth and Ellroy’s professional relationship mostly faded as she ascended to Hollywood stardom and he settled down to married life with Jean Hilliker. But he must have stayed on her radar, as Hayworth hired him as her business manager in 1948. Slater identifies this as a crucial time for Hayworth financially. She was trying to get out of her ruinous contract with Columbia, presided over by her chief tormentor Harry Cohn, and she was divorcing Orson Welles, who apparently never provided any financial support for their daughter Rebecca.

Ellroy must have had his work cut out for him, and it only got more frantic when Hayworth fell for and got engaged to Aly Khan. Aly was the son and heir to Aga Khan III, worshipped by the Nizari Ismaili sect as a living deity, (although Aly’s playboy lifestyle of beautiful women, fast cars and thoroughbred horses made him better suited for Hollywood than Heaven.) Hayworth and Khan only ever spent a small amount of time in LA together, partly due to the press frenzy following them wherever they went in the City of Angels. Ellroy arranged for Khan to rent a ‘pink stucco house on Rockingham Avenue, opposite Rita’s red brick colonial on Hanover Street.’ Ellroy also did his best to ward off journalists who were ‘popping up in the guise of plumbers, telephone repairmen, readers of gas meters.’ Hayworth and Khan usually travelled in separate cars while Ellroy ‘took on the job of transmitting telephone messages to foil eavesdroppers.’ During a quieter moment in this period, Ellroy introduced Hayworth to his baby boy Lee at the Tail O’ the Pup hot dog stand. Ellroy later told his son he’d ‘spilled grape juice all over her’.

The wedding of Aly Khan and Rita Hayworth took place in Vallauris on the French Riviera. Ellroy was one of only a handful of Hollywood guests who were invited; the others being Hayworth’s agent Johnny Hyde and her press agent Helen Morgan, doyenne of movie columnists Louella Parsons, Charles Vidor and his actress wife Doris Warner, and the Cohn’s (who declined to attend). Ellroy had a key role in planning the big day. He flew to Cannes and ‘brought along her (Rita’s) cocker spaniel, Pookles, and a suitcase full of nylons.’ Khan had wanted a private wedding to take place in his residence Chateau de l’Horizon, but he had an enemy in the shape of the Communist Mayor of Vallauris, Paul Derigon. Determined to wreak as much havoc on the regal nuptials as possible, Derigon cited French law to insist the wedding would take place at the Town Hall and be officiated over by him. Ellroy set up a press headquarters in Suite 131 at the Carlton Hotel and ‘announced that some of the press would be invited to the wedding luncheon. They would be issued special passes and be admitted to a lower terrace; the regular guests, for lunch in the garden, would get pink discs, designed and signed by Ellroy.’ Derigon, thinking of the publicity the wedding could generate for himself, was giving his own rival briefings to the press, but it was Ellroy who had the reporters eating out of the palm of his hand. As Slater reports, ‘the commotion which accomplished each of his (Ellroy’s) statements – more often they were denials – was comparable to the rush of White House correspondents to their phones after a presidential press conference.’

There are many photos of Rota Hayworth’s wedding to Aly Khan online. Alas, I’ve not been able to find one where I can make a positive ID of Ellroy

In the end the wedding was a great success, despite the best efforts of Monsieur Derigon. Communist ideology is no match for a young couple in love, though sadly it was not to last. Khan and Hayworth divorced in 1953. Perhaps it was the failure of the marriage that led Hayworth to terminate Ellroy’s employment. She had wanted to make less films. Khan, whose lavish lifestyle had made his finances as precarious as Hayworth’s, had wanted her to work more. When she did return to Hollywood, Harry Cohn was determined to punish her and only offered work under punitive conditions. It’s no surprise Hayworth needed to make cutbacks and Ellroy was one of the first to go, although James Ellroy claimed it may have been because his father was a ‘lazy ass’.

This still leaves the question as to when Ellroy had the affair with Hayworth he liked to brag to his son about. One hopes that it was not in Tijuana when Hayworth was too young and was trapped under the influence of her abusive father. It was more likely to be during his stint as her business manager. Slater has an anecdote from the wedding that throws more light on Ellroy’s relationship with Hayworth. Khan invited Ellroy for a 3 am excursion to a nearby casino:

Aly turned to Ellroy. “You’ve been here a week or so now, haven’t you? he asked. Ellroy replied in the affirmative. Aly, the host who thought of everything, disappeared and came back in a few minutes with two attractive girls, one a breezy blonde. “Take your pick,” he offered. When Ellroy declined, Aly shrugged and disappeared with the blonde.

This does not sound like the womanising Ellroy Sr. as his son, the novelist, has described him. However, Ellroy was still married to Jean Hilliker at this point so he had a loyalty to her, and also to Hayworth, whom he had been charged with protecting when she was just a teenage girl, far away from home, in Tijuana. Given Khan’s promiscuous ways, it’s no wonder the marriage floundered, and Hayworth took comfort in the protective arms of Ellroy. The film star and her business manager had known each other for the best part of two decades by this point, and Ellroy must have taken some pleasure in cuckolding the libidinous prince. Ultimately, though, Ellroy’s professional and personal relationship with Hayworth would leave him with a profound sense of loss.

In The Hilliker Curse, James Ellroy describes the day his mother took him to see the film Fire Down Below when he was still a child. When Rita Hayworth’s name appeared in the opening credits, Ellroy’s mother glowered at the screen. Ellroy recalls hearing his parents argue behind closed doors when his father ‘shrieked, sobbed and bellowed’ about Rita Hayworth. Ellroy must have hoped to find other Hollywood starlets after he was fired as Hayworth’s business manager, but the truth is that Rita was the one that got away. The residue of Ellroy’s feelings for Hayworth can be found in how James Ellroy portrays the men who wronged Hayworth in his novels. In Perfidia, Orson Welles is portrayed as a callous, over-hyped libertine. In the same novel, Harry Cohn is a corrupt tycoon who is so widely hated that his favourite restaurateur spits in his soup.

While James Ellroy states he was never a fan of Hayworth as an actress, and perhaps neither was his father, who can forget her incredible contribution to film noir, throwing back her flaming red hair in Gilda, or her death scene in The Lady in Shanghai, telling Orson Welles to ‘Give my love to the sunrise.’ Many a man must have fallen in love with Rita Hayworth from these images.

We will never know whether Armando Lee Ellroy truly loved Rita Hayworth. But in his declining years, the memory of Rita must have been as comforting and tormenting as the poster of Hayworth that hangs in Andy Dufresne’s cell in the Stephen King novella:

A little while later, as they filed us out for morning chow, I glanced into his
cell and saw Rita over his bunk in all her swimsuited glory, one hand behind her
head, her eyes half-closed, those soft, satiny lips parted. It was over his bunk
where he could look at her nights, after lights-out, in the glow of the arc
sodium lights in the exercise yard.

But in the bright morning sunlight, there were dark slashes across her face-the
shadow of the bars on his single slit window.



Interview in Brooklyn Rail

March 8, 2019

I’ve been interviewed by novelist Jill Dearman for the latest edition of the Brooklyn Rail. We discuss my most recent book on James Ellroy, The Big Somewhere: Essays on James Ellroy’s Noir World, and my lifelong work/obsession with the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction.

I’ve interviewed many great crime writers over the years, but this is the first time I’ve been interviewed myself for a publication and, unlike Ellroy, I didn’t have to write it myself!

Here’s a snippet:

James Ellroy’s novels and nonfiction are the stuff of obsession. But what kind of an obsessive writer would dedicate his reading, researching and writing time to uncracking the code of the famed L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia author. That writer in question would be a humble and deeply curious British biographer named Steven Powell. Read More.

The Big Somewhere

The Legacy of A.E. Housman: Roverpack

March 1, 2019

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter…

It’s amazing that a single line of text published in 1896 would go on to inspire three generations of writers.

On June 25, 2018, Harlan Ellison’s Blood’s A Rover was published by Subterranean Press, and strangely went immediately out of print. The book is the long-promised expansion of the literary legend’s 1969 Nebula-award winning novella A Boy and His Dog, and contains a 1980 introduction from anthropologist and sci-fi writer Chad Oliver, who authored a 1952 short story with the same title.  “Back in the Paleolithic, I wrote a story […] entitled Blood’s A Rover,” Oliver wrote.  “I extracted the title from a poem by A.E. Housman. Harlan Ellison has now performed the same feat of literary archaeology.” Tragically, just three days after Blood’s A Rover was published, Ellison would die at his Los Angeles home at the age of 84.

chad oliver note to harlan ellison

Chad Oliver note to Harlan Ellison

In September 2009, James Ellroy, the Demon Dog of American Literature, delivered the epic conclusion to his monumental Underworld USA Trilogy… a massive novel of American History from 1968 to 1972 also titled Blood’s A Rover.

As Oliver noted, the title derives from A Shropshire Lad, Housman’s 1896 collection of 63 poems that explore the problem of change and specifically a search for some kind of permanence amid such relentless transformation. With a melancholy tone that could serve as a template for a thousand noir plotlines, the poems tell us that life is brutal, yet mercifully brief. People should expect neither equality nor satisfaction, as misfortune is, Housman contends, a constant human burden.

A Shropshire Lad’s fourth poem, “Reveille”, named for the signal sound for waking armed forces, is a call to action in the face of approaching death. The phrase “Blood’s A Rover” appears in the final stanza, and urges vigorous participation in life while remaining conscious of death’s inevitability…  In other words, don’t waste a moment of your youth, because time waits for no one. This wake-up call, delivered to me with the publication of Ellroy’s Blood’s a Rover, was just what I needed… At the end of 2009 I was at the bottom of the most cavernous rut of my life, after an addiction-addled run of disastrous events that saw me lose my job, house, and health, followed by a brutal and seemingly endless insomnia.

As Ellroy would tell the Birmingham Mail in 2010, he’s never read A Shropshire Lad…  “But I read a page once that had that quote [Blood’s A Rover] on it, and I know a good quote when I see one…  It was 30 years ago, I don’t even remember what I was reading.  I just remember my reaction.  I said ‘that’s a fucking good title for a novel.’”

Harlan Ellison’s Rover chronicles the grim misadventures of Blood the telepathic dog, his boy Vic, and a tough young woman named Spike as the trio struggle to survive in a post-World War IV apocalyptic wasteland.

In a setting that likely inspired Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Vic, Blood and Spike navigate a scorched and degraded world of marauding gangs (called “Roverpacks”) scavenging through the ashes of civilization. Hollywood has exhausted this scenario today, but in the politically paranoid 1950s and 60s, the idea was extremely popular among science fiction writers, as people actively feared nuclear war.

With division and disintegration all around them, Blood alone knows that cooperation offers their only shot at survival. This mutant mutt strives with courageous defiance to find meaning and purpose amid such wanton destruction, more than once mentioning belief as a necessity for survival.         

Ellison’s Rover is assembled from the prolific writer’s files using revised and expanded versions of “A Boy and His Dog”, along with material developed for Richard Corben’s 1989 graphic novel adaptation and an aborted 1977 NBC television series.

For decades, Ellison spoke of wanting to write a lengthy sequel to “A Boy and His Dog.”  However, Ellison’s countless other projects always interrupted. Ironically, it would be the greatest interruption of all—Ellison’s failing health—that would spur Ellison (with assistance from editor Jason Davis), to cobble together all of the surviving material, producing consequently the most coherent rendition of Ellison’s original intention.

It’s hard to imagine this exhaustive reconstructive process without being reminded of Don Crutchfield, the voyeuristic narrator of Ellroy’s Rover, and specifically the window-peeper’s lifetime of scholarship, comprised of “massive paper trails… stolen public files, and usurped private journals.”

A Shropshire Lad is distinguished by its fixation on the loss of innocence and the quest to recover such purity.  The heavily maternal connotations here should remind any Ellroy reader of the orphaned Crutchfield’s quest for redemption, as his “sum of personal adventure and 40 years of scholarship” piece together the shards of the past.

Harlan Ellison is too skilled a writer to mention it directly, but his characters are haunted by the same struggles as Housman’s Shropshire Lad:  The longer you progress on your journey, the more devastation you witness, and that destruction fundamentally alters who you are. Don Crutchfield also learns this grim truth, as such trauma constitutes for him “a dear and savage price to live history.”

Published in the May 1952 edition of Astounding Science Fiction, Chad Oliver’s Blood’s A Rover details the challenges of applied anthropology as a technical assistance team known as Process Planning indelibly alters the way of life for a tribe of nomadic farmers on the underdeveloped planet Sirius 10. Among Process Planning’s ranks is respected sociologist Conan Lang, who learns that the Oripesh natives of Sirius 10 are migratory because the Ricefruit crop they grow renders soil infertile for the following year. Lang gifts the tribe a modified Ricefruit that does not damage the soil, and immediately earns the angst of the village mystic, who quite prophetically calls Lang evil for damaging the tradition their egalitarian society is built around.

Upon returning to Sirius 10 three years later, Lang sees the disastrous effects of his catalytic gesture:  The once nomadic Oripesh now have embraced a horrendously inequitable capitalist class structure based on land ownership. With a king at the top, and slaves at the bottom, Lang immediately draws a parallel with the plight of Earth, whom he views as woefully unprepared for an impending intergalactic invasion. Like Sirius 10, Lang concludes that Earth’s only chance for survival lies in the ingenuity and initiative of its people.

In Ellroy’s Blood’s A Rover, the Demon Dog’s characters adopt Housman’s battle with relentless transformation, and even try to impose permanence (and sometimes false permanence) on such endless change through journal writing. Don Crutchfield’s career-cataloging of such a turbulent time represents the motherless window-peeper’s own retroactive grasp at permanence. In a labyrinthine tale that weaves together multiple narratives, shifting loyalties, and more than a few curveballs, tragedy first scars Ellroy’s players, and later moves them to astonishing—and quite revolutionary—exploits.

A.E. Housman’s depiction of disenchanted or unrequited love, and denouncement of life’s injustices comprise the bulk of A Shropshire Lad’s romantic melancholy mood. It’s a tenor that also prevails in the works of Ellison, Ellroy, and Oliver. Any reader of the Demon Dog knows that Ellroy’s tales of bad men obsessed with unattainable women have always featured a romantic melancholy essence. In Ellison’s Blood’s A Rover, melancholy is a constant companion as Blood, Vic and Spike traverse an America reduced to radioactive waste. There’s even a melancholy quality to Oliver’s Rover, as Conan Lang ponders extensively the crippling price of human apathy.

None of the three works actually mention the phrase “Blood’s A Rover” in the text. Only Ellison’s book comes closest, as Blood, the telepathic dog, is quite literally a rover.  Towards the end of Ellroy’s Rover, narrator Don Crutchfield evokes Housman’s famous phrase more than once, saying “I roved…” Large blocks of Chad Oliver’s text are occupied by Conan Lang’s mental soliloquies about the necessity of boldness while avoiding the cancer of complacency, thus conjuring Housman’s call to action: “Up, lad:  When the journey’s over, there’ll be time enough to sleep.” Ellroy also espouses this notion in his Rover’s repeated phrase “your options are do everything or do nothing,” something the Demon Dog would return to retroactively during a pivotal moment in his 2014 novel Perfidia.

I’ve never asked Ellroy if he met Harlan Ellison, but I wonder if the science fiction legend was a fan of the Demon Dog…  Ellroy’s Rover concludes just before the Watergate scandal, with the seeds of that blundered break-in indicated toward the novel’s end.  Ellison’s Rover seems to provide a subtle hint, as the very last page closes with Blood the telepathic dog giving an oral history lesson about the Watergate scandal.

Jason Carter


The Cornell Woolrich Revival

February 22, 2019


Criminal masterminds. Demented killers. Vengeful brides. The fiction of Cornell Woolrich is rife with the kind of psychological tension audiences have always craved. He has been called the foremost suspense writer of the 20th century, the Edgar Allan Poe of his era. He was a prolific writer in the crime, horror, noir and mystery genres, publishing over two dozen novels and over two hundred short stories and novellas along with those that had been unpublished at the time of his death in 1968. But with so many works published by several different publishing entities over the decades, rights to his stories were granted left and right and transferred many times over, even after his death, creating a complicated web of rights issues that has taken his Estate’s representatives years to clear up.

Alan Nevins and his team at Renaissance Literary & Talent, who represent the various parties that control the Woolrich library, have worked tirelessly to track down and retrieve rights to stories and collections that have been out of print for decades due to these rights issues. They are now making a major push to reintroduce Woolrich’s revolutionary work to audiences new and old with fresh collections of his most well-known and obscure short fiction. They’ve broken ground with two electronic collections so far: a three-part series entitled Literary Noir: A Series of Suspense, which include some of Woolrich’s best suspense stories, and a two-part series published on the 50th anniversary his death, An Obsession with Death and Dying, a frequent subject for Woolrich, with more in the months to come.

Cornell Woolrich Author Image

Cornell Woolrich

Woolrich’s life was as complex as his rights. His parents separated when he was just a boy, and for most of his childhood he lived in various places in Mexico with his father, a travelling engineer. Francis Nevins’ biography on Woolrich tells us he did not have an easy relationship with his devout Catholic father. Even then, Nevins reports, Woolrich knew he wanted to be a writer and at one point was so captivated by the opera Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini that he would later write in his autobiography, Blues of a Lifetime, that the opera gave him “a sudden, sharp insight into color and drama that came back to the surface again years later when I became a writer.”

At the age of 12, Woolrich moved to New York to live with his mother and her family. He was particularly close with his mother’s father, who had taken him to see that fateful Madame Butterfly years earlier. Through his grandfather, teenage Woolrich was exposed to many aspects of American culture including a once weekly trip to the movies. According to Nevins, this was the only male bonding young Woolrich had, save for the unhappy years with his father in Mexico. Woolrich himself would later write at length about the impact his grandfather had on him, while barely mentioning his mother.

In 1921, Woolrich enrolled at Columbia University, the current benefactor of his Estate, taking many classes on literature, but he would never graduate. While there, he contracted a foot infection and was confined to bed for six weeks, at which point he started writing in earnest. His first novel, Cover Charge, a Jazz Age work inspired by the style of F. Scott Fitzgerald, was published soon after in 1926 when Woolrich was just 22 years old. He would go on to write five more Jazz Age novels before 1932, but the era fizzled out with the onset of the Depression, so none of these works managed to launch a serious literary career. His second novel, Children of the Ritz, won him $10,000 in a novel contest put on by College Humor magazine and First National Pictures, a Hollywood film company, giving Woolrich the opportunity to work as a screenwriter adapting his novel in Los Angeles. The few years he spent in Hollywood undoubtedly allowed Woolrich to explore his sexuality. Nevins reports that a short-lived marriage to the daughter of a film pioneer was annulled upon her discovery of a diary in which Woolrich recorded his  promiscuous lifestyle as a gay man. Woolrich was incredibly secretive and ashamed of his sexuality, something that would haunt him for the rest of his life and even propel him into alcoholism.

Woolrich’s screenwriting career ultimately fell flat, and he moved back to New York in 1931 at the age of 27 to live with his mother in the shabby residential Hotel Marseilles. Just a few years after his return, Woolrich’s first crime fiction story, “Death Sits in the Dentist’s Chair,” appeared in the August 1934 edition of Detective Fiction Weekly, kicking off a prolific run of over two hundred short stories and novellas that would appear in dozens of different pulp magazines over the next several decades. His most famous story, “It Had to be Murder” (Dime Detective Magazine, 1942), was adapted into the classic 1954 Alfred Hitchcock thriller Rear Window starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly.

Woolrich’s first suspense novel, The Bride Wore Black, made a huge splash within the genre when Simon & Schuster published it in 1940, earning him rave reviews for the sheer terror that the cunning revenge spree of his titular character, a bride whose husband-to-be was murdered on their wedding day, instilled in readers. It was the first of six within the “Black Series” of novels published over the next eight years, all of which can be found in a digital two-part collection along with Renaissance’s short story collections. As with Bride, The Black Curtain (1941), Black Alibi (1942), The Black Angel (1943), The Black Path of Fear (1944) and Rendezvous in Black (1948) were the pinnacle of noir crime fiction writing. Woolrich was adept at crafting stories that evoked a deep and overwhelming sense of dread in both his characters and the reader. This was true for many of his other famous novels, including Phantom Lady (1942), Deadline at Dawn (1944), Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1945), Waltz into Darkness (1947), I Married a Dead Man (1948), and Savage Bride (1950), among others.

Woolrich was so prolific in the suspense and crime fiction genres that he published several of his novels and stories under the pseudonyms William Irish and George Hopley so they could appear in competing magazines. Many were adapted into major motion pictures by studios like Paramount, Universal and RKO. One of the most famous film adaptations aside from Rear Window was directed by François Truffaut, whose French new wave interpretation of The Bride Wore Black, entitled La Mariee Etait en Noir, premiered in 1968, the year Woolrich died. Dozens of his short stories were adapted for popular network radio and television show episodes including Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Suspense and Molle Mystery Theatre.

The end of Woolrich’s life was just as unusual as his childhood. His mother died in 1957 and for the next several years he lived alone. The same foot infection that plagued him in his 20s returned and he let it rage untreated to the point of gangrene. Doctors were forced to amputate his leg and he died shortly thereafter in 1968 at the age of 64.

Many years after his death, Woolrich was the subject of a Supreme Court case over rights for “It Had to be Murder” and its adaptation, Rear Window, between Sheldon Abend, a literary agent, and James Stewart (Stewart v. Abend, 1990). Woolrich was contractually obligated to renew the story’s copyright when the 28-year copyright was up (a copyright law that has since been revised) and assign it to the film rights owner. But when Sheldon Abend acquired much of the Woolrich Estate in 1971, he refused to assign the copyright for “It Had to be Murder” to the owner of the film rights per Woolrich’s original contract. When Rear Window was shown on television, Abend sued Stewart for infringement of copyright.

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court decided in Abend’s favor, ruling that the author’s heir is allowed to prevent continued distribution and publication of a derivative work (in this case, the film adaptation), as control of the original work reverts to the author or their successor when copyright renewal occurs. This decision, which ultimately protects the author or author’s heirs from being deprived of the value of the original work, had huge repercussions for the film industry. Because the decision only determined U.S. copyrights, it left an unclear path regarding international rights, as those had not been challenged overseas. Many studios found they suddenly no longer owned domestic rights to film adaptations they had made, while still owning the rights overseas, thus causing massive industry-wide complications and adding further complications to Woolrich’s Estate.

Half a century has passed since Woolrich’s death, and in those years, multi-layered rights issues have taken much of his work out of print. After years of painstaking efforts to track down rights and revert them back to Woolrich’s Estate, the Renaissance team, along with those publishers who appreciate the significance of his work, seek to bring his beloved stories and novels back into both the print and digital arena. In addition to Literary Noir, An Obsession with Death and Dying, and the two-part Black Series, Renaissance has made available on their digital publishing platforms many of Woolrich’s individual short stories and novels. It is well past time Woolrich’s groundbreaking writing be reintroduced back into the world. It can be found on the following platforms: Amazon (Kindle), Barnes & Noble (Nook), Kobo and iBooks.

Every story in these volumes is gripping, suspenseful, dark and funny. In short, everything noir fans have come to expect from Cornell Woolrich’s writing.

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