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Peacock at Hollywood ForeverThis is a love story, and it begins, for me anyway, with the death of Christopher Jones, “an heir apparent to James Dean who starred in such films as The Looking Glass War and Ryan’s Daughter before quitting show business at the height of his brief but dazzling career,” as he was summarized in the lede of his Hollywood Reporter obituary. He had been likened to James Dean since the late fifties, when he was a teenager living in a home for orphaned and abandoned boys in Memphis, Tennessee. He had Dean’s blondish bedhead and a similar build and stature, but with his snakelike eyes and exotic cheekbones, there was also a resemblance to Rudolph Valentino, as noted by a cameraman on the set of Chubasco, the first of six movies Jones made back to back in the late sixties. He played a rock star in the prophetically titled Wild in the Streets and a captive stud in Three in the Attic, and he was ideally suited to both parts as a real-life romantic rival of Jim Morrison and an exhibitionist with just cause, or as he would say to an interviewer long after his heyday, “I wasn’t John Holmes, exactly, but nearly.” He was dangerous to know and a danger to himself. He brandished guns and knives, and narrowly escaped death in two car crackups, the first in Italy, where he made another prophetically titled movie, Brief Season, and the second in Ireland, where he shot most of Ryan’s Daughter, a kind of Irish Madame Bovary directed by David Lean. He claimed to have had an affair with Sharon Tate while making Brief Season—she was working on a different film, her last, in Rome—and when he learned of her murder by the Manson Family a few months later, he snapped and disappeared from the spotlight, even as Ryan’s Daughter, released at the end of 1970, established him as a top-tier star. Offers poured in, and he was already committed to making more movies, but he ignored the commitments as rumors of schizophrenia, of drug addiction and turning tricks on the street, swirled around him. Pamela Des Barres, the celebrated former groupie and author, had an encounter with Jones outside the Psychedelic Conspiracy, a Sunset Strip head shop, in 1973, and as she wrote later in Movieline magazine, now defunct, “his long hair was disheveled, his clothes in tatters, his feet dirty and bare. Since he was obviously having a private conversation with himself, I didn’t intrude.” I read that story shortly after it was published in 1996, and it haunted me to the point where I eventually retooled it for Banned for Life, my novel about a punk-rock pioneer said to be panhandling on the streets of Hollywood following his perplexing withdrawal from the underground music scene.

the alley motel

Walking uphill in Westlake, a neighborhood just north of downtown Los Angeles, I paused at the site of the most intriguing whodunit in local lore, save the Black Dahlia case. Here, on February 1, 1922, in the living room of his duplex bungalow, one of sixteen units at the Alvarado Court Apartments, William Desmond Taylor, an Irish-born film director and former actor, was shot and killed by an unknown intruder, though a number of likely suspects have been identified by professional and armchair detectives, based partly on the eyewitness account of Faith MacLean, who, with her screen-star husband, the since-forgotten Douglas MacLean, lived next door to Taylor. Shortly before eight that night, Mrs. MacLean said, she heard what she thought might be a “muffler explosion,” and when she opened her door to investigate, she saw, standing in Taylor’s doorway, a “funny looking man” dressed “like my idea of a motion picture burglar” in a checked cap, dark suit, and “something tied around his neck.” He—or possibly she, since Mrs. MacLean later allowed that this person could have been female—seemed ready to leave through the garden courtyard that led to Alvarado Street, but he hesitated, as if “Mr. Taylor [had] spoken to him from inside the house.” Then, in perhaps the eeriest detail of the case, he met Mrs. MacLean’s gaze in the darkness. He didn’t panic or advance on her. “No,” she said, “he was the coolest thing I have ever seen,” and in that unruffled spirit he closed Taylor’s door, “then turned around and, looking at me all the time, walked down a couple of steps that go up to Mr. Taylor’s house,” disappearing in name but not deed through an alley that led to Maryland Street.

Once upon a time in New York

I bought my Penguin paperback of Moby-Dick on February 23, 1988. I’m certain of the date because it’s scrawled on the first page, just above a thumbnail biography of Herman Melville. I used to have a habit of noting a book’s purchase date on its first page, and sometimes I would add the store where I bought it, though I only added the city in this case: “NYC.” I remember the circumstances vividly. I bought Moby-Dick at St. Mark’s Bookshop on St. Mark’s Place while headed to see, for the third time, a Brazilian-themed production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream at the Public Theater. Then, at a stationery store, I bought a blank greeting card with a Monet landscape on the front. The card was for Elizabeth McGovern, who was playing Helena in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, and I inscribed the card at a coffee shop cater-cornered from the Public Theater on Lafayette Street. “I’m an actor and writer in town from L.A.,” I wrote, “and I’m planning to see the play tonight and I’d like to say hello afterward,” describing myself briefly—“I’m tall and wearing a black leather jacket”—so that Elizabeth McGovern—or “Liz,” as she was known to friends—could recognize me after the performance. I listed a few mutual acquaintances without mentioning Orrin, as I’ll call him, who was also in the cast of Midsummer and had advised me against trying to contact Elizabeth McGovern, and I certainly didn’t mention that I had seen the play twice already. She might take me, rightly, for a stalker.

Man in clown makeup on LA bus

It was two weeks before Halloween, and I was on a Metro bus headed toward Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard. Ahead I saw the ninety-year-old Vista Theater, which is just down the hill from the strip mall where Jerry’s video store used to be, and this was the season when I particularly missed the store. Its owner, Jerry Neeley, claimed an inventory of 20,000 titles of every genre, but horror was his specialty, so that I would observe Halloween by renting movies that only he would insist on stocking: The Astounding She-Monster, The Hideous Sun Demon, The Thing That Couldn’t Die. In his twenties Jerry had contributed articles to Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, my preadolescent bible, and to rent a movie from him was to invite anecdotes like this one about The Astounding She-Monster: “You’ll notice that the lead actress never turns her back to the camera. That’s because she split the back of her costume open on the first day of shooting and they didn’t have time to repair it.” Jerry’s knack for trivia was a magnet for regular customers, and it was shared by his wife, Mary, an animal lover who taped snapshots of customers’ pets to the side of a filing cabinet behind the counter. She and Jerry could both be peevish, and the store was frankly homely, with its cinderblock walls and ramshackle racks, while its musty smell must have been off-putting to some; but there was no shortage of corporate alternatives that smelled vaguely of plastic and were staffed by cheerful teenagers who consulted computers when asked about offbeat titles and said, as expected, “Sorry, we don’t carry that.” Jerry’s store wasn’t computerized. Everything there was done by hand: the bookkeeping, the checkout slips, the signs that distinguished the Fellini section from the Fassbinder section, the Gable section from the Garbo section, and so on.

Hello Stranger

By D. R. Haney

Movies

The doorway scene in Stranger by Night

By my count, I wrote seven “erotic thrillers,” a largely and justly forgotten genre that combined noir and softcore porn. It was a favorite of tight-fisted producers of the VHS era, since it rarely required special effects, aside from squibs and silicone breasts, and the action was easily confined to a few affordable locations. Much of Stranger by Night, for instance, was set in the apartment of a distraught cop and the office of the female psychologist who was trying to help him determine if he had murdered any hookers during his alcoholic blackouts. She helped him as psychologists usually helped their clients in erotic thrillers: she had sex with him. Her husband was murdering hookers to frame the cop. Spouses in erotic thrillers were almost always predators or prey.

Stag by Arv Miller In 1949, Marilyn Monroe, then an obscure starlet, posed for a beer ad at Tom Kelley‘s commercial photography studio in Hollywood. According to some accounts, a Chicago-based calendar manufacturer, John Baumgarth, saw the ad while visiting Los Angeles and inquired about the model: would she pose nude for a calendar? In other accounts, Tom Kelley recruited Monroe for the calendar job on the day he shot the beer ad, knowing that Baumgarth was shopping for nudes. Either way, nude photos could wreck a Hollywood career at the time, as Monroe was keenly aware, so she only accepted the job after being persuaded that nobody would recognize her. To further protect her anonymity, she asked Kelley to schedule the session for night, with no assistants save for his female business partner. Kelley agreed, and Monroe arrived at the studio at seven p.m. and posed for two hours on a red velvet theater curtain that covered the floor and complemented the color of her hair, then a reddish blonde. Twenty-four shots were taken, and Baumgarth chose one of them for the calendar he marketed as Golden Dreams, a name suggested by Monroe’s blondness, though it also inadvertently referenced the nighttime shoot.

Zapruder Frame 366

The most iconic movie in American, if not world, history was shot on November 22, 1963, with an 8-millimeter Bell & Howell camera owned and operated by the cofounder of Jennifer Juniors, a Dallas, Texas, womenswear company. The movie—which soon became known as the Zapruder film, so called after its maker—is silent and less than thirty seconds long, yet it was effectively squelched for more than a decade. Select frames from the film were published in such magazines as LifeAbraham Zapruder sold the copyright to Time Life the day after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the film’s subject—just as frames were published in the Warren Commission’s voluminous report on the Kennedy assassination, but, except for bootleg copies, the film itself was unavailable to the public. The Warren Commission had concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald, an avowed Marxist and repatriated defector to the Soviet Union, was solely responsible for the death of Kennedy, firing three shots at the presidential limousine from the Texas School Book Depository, where Oswald worked for $1.25 per hour as a stock boy. The FBI had likewise concluded that Oswald acted alone, and many assumed that Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, had established the Warren Commission precisely to corroborate the FBI’s finding and to quiet talk of conspiracy. The scarcity of the Zapruder film had the opposite effect.

Room 32

By D. R. Haney

Nonfiction

adhered

The idea, I thought, was a simple one: rent for a night the West Hollywood motel room where Jim Morrison lived on and off for three years, hold a séance with a few friends, and afterward throw a party. It seemed a fitting homage to Morrison, a party-hardy mystic who believed himself possessed by the spirit of a Pueblo Indian he had seen as a boy while traveling through New Mexico and happening upon the aftermath of a deadly accident. Indians scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding, he famously wrote of the incident in “Newborn Awakening,” his poem set to music by his band, the Doors, seven years after he died. Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile eggshell mind.

Nowhere Men

By D. R. Haney

History

Errol Flynn at the courthouse

I was in the basement of the downtown Los Angeles courthouse, where I was researching a possible nonfiction book about an overlooked film-noir actor whose offscreen brawling and balling led to occasional trouble with the law, as well as comparisons to his better-known colleague at Warner Bros., Errol Flynn. The basement is where old case files are stored on microfilm, and one of the files I needed was lost, so that I kept returning to the courthouse to see if it had been found. I was out of luck again that day, headed to the elevator when I was stopped by a nondescript man of sixty or so. He couldn’t find his way out of the basement, he said. I told him to follow me. He did, remarking on the flatcap I was wearing.

“I used to know somebody who wore a hat just like that,” he said. “She was a big racing-car driver back in the thirties. She was friends with my family.”

He repeated that. He repeated everything he said. Something was clearly wrong with him, though whatever it was, he was in no way menacing. Evidently obsessed with height, he informed me, apropos of nothing, that he was six feet tall. Then he asked how tall I was, and before I could answer, he said, “Six-one, right?  You’re six-one.”

trailer 2

My father’s farm in Virginia is called Oak Hill. When he bought it, not long after he divorced my mother, there was in fact a cluster of enormous oak trees that shaded a white clapboard, nineteenth-century house that stood on the hill in the center of the farm, but the house burned down before my father could move into it. Some of the oaks survived the fire, which occurred on a Halloween night, but despite whispers that the previous owner had torched the house, no charges were ever filed. I remember surveying the charred remains and spotting, not charred even slightly, an old board game called Why, the Alfred Hitchock Mystery Game, which, according to the blurb on the box, involved “real thinking, planning, and memory.” I took the game home with me—I lived a twenty-minute drive from the farm with my mother, brother, and sister—but I never played it, and don’t know what became of it. Maybe my memory wouldn’t be so faulty if I had better developed it by playing Why.

It was around 9:30 P.M., and I was waiting for the bus in Hollywood after being momentarily paroled from my job as a so-called telefundraiser. When I applied for the job, I didn’t think I stood a chance of being hired at that company or any other, having been out of the mainstream work force for the majority of my adult life, which I’ve spent eking out a living as an actor and screenwriter. The entertainment business used to be said to be recession-proof, but if that was ever true in the past, it’s true no longer; the minute the economy went to hell four years ago, I received fewer and fewer offers of acting and screenwriting jobs, until finally I received none at all. Even production-assistant jobs were, in my case anyway, scarce, though I did manage to PA for a couple of days on a teenage space musical financed by NASA, as well as on a Disney Channel spot in which Miley Cyrus was interviewed alongside her achy-breaky father to mark the end of Hannah Montana.

Fifty years ago today in Los Angeles, where I’m writing these words while facing a screen of a kind that didn’t exist in 1962, a thirty-six-year-old woman fatally overdosed on Nembutal and chloral hydrate, sedatives she used, or tried to use, to sleep. She had a documented history of insomnia and attempted suicide, but there’s no conclusive proof that she killed herself intentionally or accidentally or that someone else administered the drugs. Her housekeeper, whom the LAPD thought “vague” and “possibly evasive in answering questions,” reported finding her dead at around three a.m. in the master bedroom of the Spanish Revival hacienda she had bought six months earlier on the advice of her psychiatrist, who supposed it would give her a sense of stability. She lacked that sense, having lived since childhood like a nomad, for the most part in California, where flux was and is the norm.

I never thought I looked like James Dean, as people used to say I did, especially after I moved to New York to study acting. We shared the same coloring, but I was tall and lanky, while he was short and muscular. My face was round, and his was rectangular. Moreover, I strove as an actor to be as natural as possible, and Dean’s acting struck me as excessive, which is now what I most enjoy about it. His excess wasn’t of the soap-opera sort; it was quirkily personal, as when he rolls a cold bottle of milk over his brow to calm himself in Rebel Without a Cause. His character in Rebel is lacking the love—that is, milk—of his shrewish mother, and the symbolic way it’s expressed is one of many Kabuki-like gestures in Dean’s performances, particularly in scenes involving parents. His biography speaks to the reason. His mother died when he was nine, and afterward his father sent him to live on a relative’s farm in far-away Indiana.

1. Both Charlie’s Angels and the Manson girls were guided by mysterious older men named—you know.

2. Charles Townsend, a.k.a. Charlie of Charlie’s Angels, was a de-facto pimp with an apparent harem of young women other than his trio of gun-wielding detectives; Charlie Manson, a.k.a. Jesus Christ, was a convicted pimp with a documented harem of young women other than his trio of knife-wielding assassins.

3. Charlie’s Angels were observed communicating with Charles Townsend via the telephone; Charlie Manson was said to communicate with his girls via telepathy.

4. In the field, as it were, Charlie’s Angels worked alongside Charles Townsend’s male proxy, an ostensible eunuch named Bosley; the Manson girls, in the field, worked alongside Manson’s male proxy, Tex Watson, who, though not a eunuch, strikingly favored the eunuchlike Mr. Spock.

It was 4:30 p.m. by the time we got on the road. Me, Melinda, and Jane.  The sky over the southern San Joaquin Valley was heavy with rain clouds. I drove. The road was slick.  The San Emigdio Mountains were topped with snow.  “You sure are quiet,” I said to Jane. Normally she was ruling the conversation. She called it a “Janeopoly.” I figured she was plotting out her novel, Puro Amor.  Not long ago she told me she could write entire paragraphs in her head and remember them for transcribing later.

An hour or so later we zoomed down the Hollywood Freeway, took the Highland Avenue exit and headed west onto Hollywood Boulevard, on our way to Book Soup. We were nearly late for the reading.

The bookstore was small, cramped, packed floor-to-ceiling with shelves. The reading area was an aisle essentially, a few folding chairs leading to a podium.  Bunched in the crowd were some writers from TNB, several of whom I’d never met. Kimberly M. Wetherell, filmmaker and writer, wore black glasses, her red hair a fire of loveliness. She mentioned that I was no longer two dimensional—no longer just words on a screen. I said something about being a figment of her imagination.

Duke Haney, author of Banned For Life and Subversia, stood in a corner wearing a black newsboy cap and a leather jacket. He was talking to Rachel Pollon, another TNBer.  She stood about half his size and got shy when I asked her to talk on camera.  “Meet Hank,” Duke said, pointing to another tall guy.  Hank stepped forward and handed me a photo of a face with the word “awesome” on it.

Lenore Zion had long, curly hair—different than when I last saw her.  She looked younger.  She asked what I had been up to. I mumbled something about 2010 being a year to write off and later bought her book, My Dead Pets Are Interesting.

Greg Boose came up and offered me a friendly hello.  He was taller than I expected, and handsome. His wife, Claire Bidwell Smith, was taller than expected, too. Both have striking eyes the color of the sea.  Greg asked me how long I was staying in town. I wanted to say a week. I wanted to say I had a suitcase and was looking for a nice padded bus bench.  “Probably headed back tonight,” I told him.  “Though maybe I’ll just stay and find my way back in the morning.”

Joe Daly, TNB’s music editor, came over and introduced himself.  His hair was shaggy, he was unshaven, he looked like rock and roll.  For some reason I had expected his hair to be short.

I met Ben Loory, too.  He has a gentle soul and a contemplative smile. Later, when he read a story of his called “The Well” and said he might cry, I almost started crying myself.

I didn’t get to meet Victoria Patterson. She read an essay about farts in literature, and her hands were shaking as she read.  It was hilarious.  Everyone laughed and held their gas.

Then there was the master of ceremonies, Greg Olear, author of the new novel Fathermucker.  A dark sweater covered his “Brave New World” T-shirt.  He gave me a guy hug and we made small talk.  I met his wife, Stephanie, too—not a writer, but a ferocious singer.  Steph was all hugs. She talked to a college friend from Syracuse, and they laughed about old times.

 

 

WATCH: GREG OLEAR/TNBERS AT BOOK SOUP

VIEW: JANE HAWLEY PHOTOS FROM BOOK SOUP

 

After the event, many of us headed over to Mirabelle, a nearby bar and restaurant. Brad Listi carried a sack of books and asked what I was up to and where I’d been. I didn’t want to dish out my sob story right then, so I just talked opportunities, my new book of poetry, the interest of an agent in my novel Anhinga, and so on.

Inside the bar, Jane came suddenly to life. She talked and talked and I grew quiet as she and a new friend walked to where Ben, Duke and the others were hanging out. Greg was at the bar drinking a beer. He ordered me some water.  I listened to Stephanie and her friend talking about their college days. I was content.

Melinda was quiet. She used to write (Lenore recognized her from her defunct blog), and she does have a voice. But now, for the most part, she just comes to my Random Writers Workshop, where I prod people like her to write novels and dream big. Jesse from the workshop was there, too. He downed a few drinks and talked shop with Ben Loory.

We were there for about an hour before heading home.  Jane fell asleep in the back of the car and began snoring. Rain poured over Interstate 5, turning into slush as we hit the Tejon Pass, the hump over the San Andreas Fault that marks the downward slide into the Central Valley.

“You okay?” Melinda asked. She could tell I couldn’t see the lines on the road.

“I’m fine,” I told her. “Just gotta see the lanes. I don’t mind driving in storms.”  I was smiling a little, eyes  straight ahead. I felt strangely at ease, like I was passing through a kind of personal storm, releasing it, washing it away on the rain-slicked desert road.

As we rolled back into Bakersfield, Jane woke up. By now it was one o’clock, and still raining.  I pulled into Melinda’s driveway.  We got out.  Jane said a quick goodbye, ran to her car, and drove away.  A pile of leaves in the neighbor’s gutter had caused a flood in front of Melinda’s house. I grabbed a hoe from the garage and started moving the pile. Melinda watched me briefly, then went inside, to bed.  I stayed outside and pushed and pulled and hacked at the pile of leaves and branches until a stream was created.  I stood alone in the rain and watched the water flow down the street.  Rain came down against the lawns and streets of Bakersfield in the night.  It was quiet otherwise, no signs of life, and I stood alone in the rain, content to know that the flood was gone.