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The Issue That Cares

Hard-Boiled Hollywood

I'm generally not thrilled when friends push books on me. "You have to read this. Here, take my copy," they'll say, and then try to extract progress reports the next five times I talk to them.

by Steve Lafreniere
Sep 9 2011, 4:00am

Portraits by Jeaneen Lund


Archival photos provided by John Gilmore in conjunction with the Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA



I’m generally not thrilled when friends push books on me. “You have to read this. Here, take my copy,” they’ll say, and then try to extract progress reports the next five times I talk to them. But when someone slipped me John Gilmore’s Laid Bare some years back, curiosity trumped annoyance. The cover was good—an orange duotone of Gilmore’s face with a yellow Futura subtitle: A Memoir of Wrecked Lives and the Hollywood Death Trip. The back included wow blurbs from V. Vale, Gary Indiana, and Genesis P-Orridge (“We are catapulted through an imploded catalog of carnality of unremitting exploitation.”). And sure enough, I couldn’t put it down.

The subjects in Laid Bare—all celebrities and other notables that Gilmore knew in the 50s and 60s—are characters in a kaleidoscopically bad dream about the weirdness and putrescence of fame. Janis Joplin, Hank Williams, Lenny Bruce, Steve McQueen (“almost absolute self-absorption”), Brigitte Bardot, Dennis Hopper, Jean Seberg, Jack Nicholson (“a shadow with gloating eyes”), sensationalized murderers Charles Schmid and Charles Manson, Jane Fonda, Curtis Harrington, and James Dean. Especially James Dean. Gilmore met Dean in New York, just before he dove headfirst into movie stardom, and, Gilmore writes, their friendship was an erotic parry-and-thrust of bizarre come-ons and feel-ups.

Gilmore grew up in 1940s LA, his mother a bit-role movie actress and his father an LAPD officer. It wasn’t long before he started acting, and by his teenage years he was already headed down the path to Hollywood glory. His gregarious nature allowed him to float between dozens of cliques and scenes in 50s and 60s LA and New York. Later, when he abandoned acting for writing, Gilmore’s connections served him well as he turned detective/journalist for a series of jaw-dropping true-crime books. I’ve read them all, including Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder (through decades of meticulous investigation, Gilmore basically solved LA’s most notorious murder case), Garbage People (on the Manson family, and superior to both Helter Skelter and The Family), Cold-Blooded: The Saga of Charles Schmid, The Notorious “Pied Piper of Tucson” (oh, lordy), and his latest, LA Despair: A Landscape of Crimes & Bad Times (with gut-wrenching pieces about actress-monster Barbara Payton, murdering sociopaths Billy Cook and Barbara Graham, the Wonderland Avenue “Four-on-the-Floor” drug killings, and Spade Cooley, a country-swing fiddler who once hosted the most successful music show on TV, before beating his wife to death in a hallucinatory explosion of jealousy).

Then there are the novels: Fetish Blonde, Hollywood Boulevard, Crazy Streak, and... oh, wait, did I mention his friendships with Marilyn Monroe, Jack Kerouac, Ed Wood, Jayne Mansfield, Darby Crash... the list goes on ad infinitum.

John recently turned 76. He still lives in and loves Hollywood to death.

VICE: Your most recent true-crime book, LA Despair, centers on five separate, equally tantalizing stories. The first is about John Holmes, the donkey-dicked 70s porn star involved in the Wonderland Avenue “Four-on-the-Floor” murders. But you focus on the guy who most likely pulled the strings, an oily creep named Eddie Nash. Was Nash a born psycho, or was it just the 24/7 freebasing?
John Gilmore:
That certainly helped. Eddie was a guy who just wanted to make as much money as he could and live the ultimate cool life in Hollywood. And that’s what he did. He opened a little hamburger stand on Hollywood Boulevard in 1959. I remember going there a couple of times with [actress] Susan Oliver. He got increasingly involved in the porno thing in the Valley, and it got bad. There was a producer-director guy shooting a movie for him, and the girl OD’d in the middle of screwing him. He was only concerned about the footage. “Turn her around, we can finish it with an over-the-shoulder shot. We won’t show her face.” As the years went by I accumulated bits and pieces of things that interested me. I thought, “I’m just going to write about all of these things as short pieces.” That’s how LA Despair came into existence.


John Gilmore enjoying a nice slice and cup of joe at his local diner in LA.

What’s weird is that Eddie Nash wasn’t busted for the Wonderland murders at first. He was busted for cocaine possession and got out early because he bribed a judge. Then later, when he was under the gun again for another aspect of the killings, he got off by bribing a juror. Did he ever do any hard time?
He only served 30 months or something.

Any idea what he’s doing now?
Nobody knows what Eddie Nash is up to these days. He bought a home for his mother.

Do you think John Holmes had a criminal mind? Or was he just in the wrong place at the wrong time?
John wanted fame. He wanted to be admired and respected, not simply because he had a big dick. He started getting into porno and getting heavily into dope. He’d go through thousands of dollars of coke in one weekend.

Which seems like the wrong drug to take if you’re trying to maintain an erection.
Yeah, that bothered him a lot. And then people just took advantage of him. He got himself in way over his head. Basically he was a nice guy. The first time I met him was on Santa Monica Boulevard. It was a vacant lot and they used to have swap meets there. He was selling some kind of Indian jewelry and leather jackets. This was way back, before he was famous.

You were connected to the Black Dahlia case because your dad was a cop who worked on it.
That was something that haunted me since I was 11 years old. She [Elizabeth Short, the Dahlia murder victim] came to my grandmother Short’s house once, inquiring about my family’s genealogy because of the shared surname. I was enraptured by her because she was just so absolutely, stunningly beautiful. I just never forgot it. Over the years I kept wheedling people, finding out whatever I could. By the early 80s I was taking out ads in newspapers seeking information. I got a lot of stuff that way.


A publicity shot of James Dean from the set of Rebel Without a Cause. Photo by John Gilmore.

In your bios it’s always mentioned that you were an actor in movies in the 50s and 60s, before you found your calling as a writer. Did you like acting?
I enjoyed acting. It was fun, especially stage work, which I enjoyed more than film. But I never felt that I was able to give it my all like I do with writing. It was the same thing when I used to paint. It just isn’t enough.

You quit acting because of a situation involving your friend Marilyn Monroe. Earlier you told me a story about a group that gathers at Westwood Cemetery in Hollywood every year on the anniversary of her death.
A. C. Lyles is this big fixture at Paramount; he’s been there for like a hundred years. He gave a talk at the memorial a couple of years ago. He asked everyone in the chapel, “How many of you think that Marilyn was murdered?” Most of the people raised their hands. “How many people believe that she committed suicide?” Two or three people raised their hands. “How many think that she died from an accidental overdose?” One person raised his hand. And the reality is just that: She died from an accidental overdose. There’s no way that it could be otherwise. Norman Mailer wrote his book, and that crackpot anticommunist guy [Frank A.] Capell, wrote that little piece-of-shit pamphlet, saying the Kennedys had something to do with it. I was going to star in a movie with her then, which would have been the climax of everything I ever wanted as an actor. And [after her death], I didn’t care anymore.

What was the movie?
The Stripper, based on a William Inge play called A Loss of Roses. I met Inge in New York, when I was auditioning for Splendor in the Grass. At that time he was writing A Loss of Roses, he told me, “Every time I write the character of Lila, it’s Marilyn speaking. I’m writing what Marilyn is saying.” I loved that. I thought it was very cool. She was in New York at the time, and he said she was the only one who could do it. Of course [Lee] Strasberg wouldn’t let her, convincing her that she really shouldn’t have anything to do with the stage. In a way he was right, she would have had a lot of problems. She couldn’t remember things too well sometimes. Then I did the lead in Loss of Roses in Los Angeles. Brando’s best friend, Sam Gilman, directed it. Based on that I got the part [in The Stripper]. They were going to make it starring Marilyn and, hopefully, me. But it didn’t pan out, because of her troubles going back to New York and the big problems with Fox. They fired her.

And then came the writing. How long have you been at it now?
Since I was a kid. I never gave it much thought, but after I stopped acting I started getting more and more involved in writing movies and trying to write a novel. I got connected with a fly-by-night publisher and every story or character I’d ever thought about I’d turn into a novel, whipping out these books quickly.

Were they erotic?
No, they weren’t dirty or anything. They were stories that I’d thought a lot about, on and off. I just turned them into books. I wrote each one in about ten or 12 days.

Laid Bare features this huge cast of characters you knew back then. Your description of Steve McQueen makes him out to be a self-obsessed reptile. How is someone who acts like that in real life capable of having such a strong on-screen allure?
Well, he entered into an alternate reality, being someone else and not radiating who he truly was. For example, one would not think that Raymond Burr, from the parts he’s played, was gay. But that’s the case. There’s nobody more villainous than Raymond Burr in some of the things he did. It was the same with McQueen. He was a complete asshole, but he seemed like Mr. Nice Guy.


John Gilmore in 1955 at the apartment of Cyril Jackson, one of the era’s most talented percussionists. James Dean and John had stopped by Cyril’s to check out his new congas. The photo is dedicated to Jack Simmons, another of James’s closest friends. Photo by James Dean.

Did he get into the Actors Studio just because everyone else was doing it? And once there, how was he able to practice Method acting if he was so dishonest?
It’s real easy. [laughs] No problem. I don’t think he even understood Method acting. He was Steve McQueen. He got his lines down and performed a certain way, and if he did about 13 takes of a particular shot he was bound to look good. I mean, Marilyn did 30 to 35 takes for almost every shot.

In the book you claim that McQueen said he’d suck any cock to get a part. I’m sure that had something to do with his success.
That’s exactly what he did. He got into the Actor’s Studio through someone I knew, John Stix. John had just directed his first big movie, The St. Louis Bank Robbery [starring McQueen]. He was chairman of the board at the Actors Studio, and he finally got him. But McQueen didn’t really go to class or anything; he just became a member. He got a part in A Hatful of Rain [on Broadway] because he hung out with this or that person. He was just absolutely terrible in it. Then he came to Hollywood, and from there manipulated his way into everything he ever did. He married Neile Adams, a dancer. Meanwhile I’d broken it off with a girl named Diane, whom McQueen had been with before she was with me. When Neile was off doing a show on Broadway, he would be with Diane in Neile’s apartment, having an affair with her while his wife was out working.

How did he seem to you?
I disliked McQueen from the first time I met him on 14th Street. Diane told him that I’d been a friend of James Dean’s. The first thing he said to me was, “I’m glad Dean’s dead. It makes more room for me.” I kind of laughed and then realized he was dead serious. Diane would tell me how he would stand in front of the mirror trying to imitate Jimmy and doing everything he could to be like him. But he just wasn’t that tough.

I think his face sold it a little, but he was always too macho in a way that made his masculinity seem like a put-on.
It was definitely fake. He just kept living that role. The way he got reassurance, I guess, was by balling every girl he could find. He’d pick them up on street corners—a girl at the bus stop, or waitresses, that kind of thing. He had a couple of garages he rented where he could park his car so people wouldn’t recognize it and think, “McQueen’s here.” He used to go to Cyrano’s, this nice late-night dinner place on the Strip. He bought this Ferrari and would park it right in front of the door. People coming from the parking lot would have to walk around it to get in. Everyone would be forced to notice that Steve McQueen was there.

Including you.
I was there once when I was seeing Jean Seberg, and he was a couple of tables away just staring at her. She kept saying, “That fucker keeps staring at me. He wants to fuck me or something.” [laughs]

Let’s talk about Jack Nicholson. When I first interviewed you years ago, you told me that he was the last guy you ever expected to make it. How do you think he succeeded against the odds?
Opportunity. Jack did anything [to get ahead]. In the 60s, when New York actors were coming to Hollywood, for them it was like going to the dump or something. Jack was from here. This was his home ground, and if they turned their nose up at [Roger] Corman parts, he’d go do them instead. Casting people aren’t going to hire anybody that doesn’t have any film work behind them, so Jack did a lot of stuff and his name got around. He was part of a little group with Warren Oates; Jack just wormed his way in somehow.


James Dean’s life mask, which John Gilmore owned before hawking it on the cheap in the early 70s. It used to be common practice to cast these creepy keepsakes—the converse of death masks—from the faces of still-breathing celebrities and other notable individuals. Photo by John Gilmore.

He had a strong woman behind him, too.
He was married to [actress] Sandra Knight for a long time, and she would help steer him. But it was strange, he never introduced her at all. He was falling-down drunk one time on Melrose, and Wild Bill Elliott and I took him home to her little house by Gardner. We laid him in the front yard because he wouldn’t move. I went and knocked on the door, and she came out. That was the only time I ever had an interaction with her. Actually, it’s not strange; it’s how people live their lives out here.

Everything is such a secret in Hollywood. I respect you for disregarding that. You’ve even written—quite extensively—about your good friend James Dean’s secrets, including his supposed bisexuality.
Jimmy would get really depressed at times. Once, between the making of East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, I remember he was playing around with a gun. A beautiful Colt Peacemaker. He was practicing because he was right-handed and was going to do a movie called The Left-Handed Gun, about Billy the Kid. He confessed to me that he didn’t feel that he was becoming “solid.” That’s the word he used. I understood what he meant. He had just made East of Eden, which would have been the dream of any young male actor in creation. At that time, Elia Kazan was like the god of directors, and this was a major Steinbeck movie with an incredible cast. And it was the first picture Jimmy did with a major starring role. Where do you go from there?

There’s only one direction after something like that.
Going slowly downhill. Eventually he would have killed himself in some way.

I read a few biographies of James Dean before reading yours. But you were his friend, which gives your book the ring of truth. It didn’t mythologize. When I got to the section where you describe yourself—a straight young guy—being sexually seduced by him, it was like a lightning bolt.
OK, I’ve never really said before what I’m going to tell you now. I knew this guy named Jack Simmons from way back, long before I ever went to New York in the 50s, and he was an intelligent and decent person in a lot of ways, but an oddball guy. Very fruity. I remember we were at a drive-in one night. He’d been drinking, and he found a piece of film on the ground and was running around doing Gloria Swanson [from Sunset Boulevard]: “My movie!” Later I went to New York, and that’s when I met Jimmy. I stayed there for a while and then finally came back to LA. Jimmy was here and he’d already made East of Eden. And I was very surprised that he was with Jack Simmons.

How do you mean “with”?
James Dean had become everything to Jack Simmons. Jack had wormed his way into Warner Brothers to meet, attract, and stalk him. When they finally met, Jack told him plainly: “I will lay down my life for you. I’ll put myself in the mud and you can walk on me.” Jack would do anything for him. And Jimmy really was a very isolated person. He loathed going places and being in public. He was a real loner. So it was gorgeous. Jack was the perfect friend. In fact, he was Jimmy’s only close friend, his confidante. Now, this is what I was going to tell you, something I’ve never really said: I think that Jimmy was more gay than he was bisexual. That’s my personal feeling. Even though I indicated that he was bisexual [in the biography The Real James Dean], and everybody hated me for it. [laughs] Except the gay crowd.

Fans don’t like hearing anything that distorts their image of the beloved.
I’ve never even been to Indiana [Dean’s home state] because of that. They hate me there.

So you’re saying that James Dean mostly slept with women, but what he was really more interested in was men?
I don’t think he bedded that many women. Elizabeth Taylor, who loved gay men, got extremely close to him—without anything going on between them. Screenwriter Bill Bast wrote this phony book in 1956 about their friendship. It was a bunch of bullshit. Although they had been close friends while they were both at UCLA, Jimmy broke off with him when he went to New York with Rogers Brackett, who was a TV and radio director. And, of course, Brackett was gay. I think Jimmy had an affair with him. The guy took Jimmy to New York and set him up and did this and that for him. Those things really aren’t in anyone’s book.


Charles Manson being escorted down the stairs of the LA County Jail. Photo by John Gilmore.

OK, let’s fast-forward a bit to another LA story that has become part of the American psyche. You wrote what many consider to be the best book about Charles Manson, The Garbage People. In later editions you added some revelatory interviews with Manson Family member Bobby Beausoleil, who was convicted of the murder of Gary Hinman. How did you get those interviews?
After The Garbage People came out, one of the [Manson family] girls called me and said, “Bobby Beausoleil wants to talk to you, and he’s going to write you.” He wrote me these very flowery letters and wanted me to come see him. At that point, he was on death row. So I went up and did this two-day interview with him. He told me, “I’m not really a follower of Charles Manson. I have my own following. I have my own thing.” He wanted me to write a book about him. He said there was a publisher in North Hollywood who was interested in putting it out, and he wanted me to be the writer, which was exciting and interesting. I tracked down various people I knew who had known him, and then it all fell apart. I think Bobby was basically turning tricks in Hollywood. I know a couple people whom he shacked up with, in their back rooms, and that kind of thing. They would have sex with him. He was a very beautiful young guy. And talented. He did that stupid movie where he played an Indian, running around in a loincloth [The Ramrodder].

So there was Manson, who was short and ugly but famously charismatic. And then next to him is Bobby Beausoleil, who was actually beautiful. The pairing could’ve only added to Manson’s allure.
I think he used to give Charlie blowjobs. Of course, Bobby’s not going to confess to all of that now. He’s always begging to get out of prison, trying everything that he can. But none of them are ever going to get out.

When the Tate-LaBianca murders went down, you were one of the first people to interview Manson himself. How many times did you visit him in jail?
Nine or ten.

Were you allowed to record these conversations?
No, Charlie didn’t want to tape things.

How did you get involved?
Shortly after the murders, I was sitting in a barbershop when I read about them in the newspaper. I was working for a producer, grinding out movie scripts, and he thought it would make a great one. Charlie was still up in Independence, California, where they were holding him for destruction of county property. However, some of the girls had already been brought down and charged in the murders, basically because Susan Atkins told everybody everything. She loved to talk about it. That was one of the sinister things. I’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve committed murder, and there’s nothing particularly sinister about them. But many times if you get close to them, if you’re looking in their faces, it’s like you’re not looking at another person. You’re really looking at... like, a dog. That was Susan Atkins.

I’ve always been under the impression that Manson himself, as crazy as he likes to appear, is much more rational than he lets on.
Charlie was a manipulator, and his entire life had been spent manipulating people. He physically had no way to defend himself against 200-pound guys in prison. He’d been through that all his life, and realized he had to find another way to survive. So he could manipulate anyone into doing anything. But he couldn’t get Doris Day’s son [Terry Melcher] to finance his music career [laughs], so he got pissed off.

Is it true that you had a falling out with John Waters over the Manson Family?
John told me that as long as I thought that [Manson Family member] Leslie Van Houten shouldn’t be released from jail, then it couldn’t be publicly known that he was a friend of mine. He has been trying to get Leslie out for ages. He wants to get her out so he can put her in one of his dumb movies.


James Dean in his classic “How much you wanna bet I can’t make belt loops look cool?” pose. Photo by John Gilmore.

How did you get to know Darby Crash? Were you into punk?
I wasn’t a fan of punk, but I understood it. A girl I was seeing in ’81 in Hollywood, Jane Lee, was into the Chinatown scene, the Santa Monica clubs, and Madame Wong’s. She knew Lorna Doom [of the Germs], and hung out after-hours on First Street in Downtown LA. One night she passed out on a bus bench and fell into the gutter. A couple of bums were trying to pull off her cowboy boots when some people who had just left the Atomic Cafe, including Darby Crash, intervened. He told the bums to fuck off and took her home. Darby and another one slept on Jane’s couch and floor, and the next day they all went to breakfast at a bar around the corner and James Dean’s name came up. Jane told them she was friends with a writer who had known him. Later Jane told me that Darby said it was “compulsatory and imminent [sic]” that he should meet me because he would be starring in a film about his parallels to Dean.

Weren’t you planning to work on a project with him?
I knew who he was, who the Germs were, and was well aware of the punk scene and the full-out blasting away of restrictions. Darby was blazing a trail—anarchy without bombs. Jane brought him to my apartment and we drank beer, ate tamales, and whipped up a tub of sour cream, mashed avocados, and a ton of garlic. We drank wine, and then Darby started on a bottle of Jim Beam. He reminded me of Jim Morrison when he was with the Doors. But Darby transcended—or descended or transmogrified—and was eons further into orbit. In person he was a bright, creative kid. But in performance—he called it his “art”—he was a wild, wounded animal crying out, screaming as if in a cage of bamboo. Falling, stumbling, shrieking in some exploding inner world.

So did he come across to you as a tragedy waiting to happen, as he’s always portrayed?
We talked about Rimbaud, his obsession joining in a disturbing way with my own. “A movie,” he kept saying. “A movie!” He had to play Rimbaud because Rimbaud was inside of him—reaching through his arms and sinews, and he said he could feel him in his fingertips. It would be a Rimbaud in black leather and he’d be yelling his poetry to an otherwise deaf environment, like he was “cast alone in the middle of a desert,” as he said. I didn’t see Darby as a tragedy waiting to happen, but more like a walking, self-contained explosion. I introduced him to an actor friend, Chris Jones, who lived beneath me. And so Chris drove off with Darby, who said he knew an antiques dealer who’d acquired a plaster bust of Adolf Hitler. As soon as they were gone and the air cleared, Jane asked me what I thought about his Rimbaud ideas, and if I would consider writing a screenplay with him. I said I was impressed. I understood and had empathy for Darby, but it was like we were foreigners speaking separate languages. Yet I said yeah, I’d probably work with him. But I didn’t. He was dead not long after that meeting. A suicide by heroin overdose.

We could go on with these anecdotes for days, so let me wrap up by asking the question people ask me: “How did Gilmore know all these people?”
Well, I started when I was about 15 years old, and I was an actor even before that, when I was a kid. I wanted to be a movie star. The way you become a movie star is you meet people. You get connected.

I love the fact that even when you were a kid you dove right into the glamour and guts. You were hardwired for it from birth, and LA probably wouldn’t be the same without you.
For a long time, I lived a love-hate relationship with LA. I listened to people like John Hodiak and Ida Lupino, who were mentors to me at one time. Both independently suggested that I should go to New York and be on Broadway, and then I could come out to Hollywood and be a star. So I did what they said. But now I don’t want to go to New York anymore. I don’t want to go to Louisiana. I don’t want to go to Arizona or New Mexico. I’m here, and I’m going to stay here and die here. I’m home. The traffic is bad, but I don’t care anymore. It doesn’t matter. Fuck it. So what.