“Violence and murder were always a big part of my growing up,” says John Gilmore, his deep voice echoing through the Original Pantry restaurant one recent wind-bitten night. “Some people have television, I had sensational tabloid newspapers and acid baths and butcheries.”
It sounds so natural, coming from the author of Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder; Manson: The Unholy Trail of Charlie and the Family; and his newest true-crime work from Amok Books, L.A. Despair: A Landscape of Crimes & Bad Times. “When Barbara Graham was executed in ’55, I was devouring the newspapers,” he continues, referring to the once-notorious murderess and one of five vintage murder cases chronicled in L.A. Despair. “I watched the TV news reports on her trial obsessively. I was living with my mother at the time in Silver Lake. ‘Oh, why do you watch that morbid crap so much?’ She didn’t approve.” Gilmore hunches down, sneering, “?‘Oh, I don’t know, Mom — maybe I’ll be a murderer someday.’?”
What is both striking and inspiring about the 70-year-old author who once rode motorcycles up and down Pacific Coast Highway with James Dean is his, let’s call it, youthful irreconcilability. When he says, “My work is not mainstream; if somebody wanted me to write a book on Lawrence of Arabia, I’d rather go shoot myself,” you tend to believe him. And when he recalls a 1940s Silver Lake childhood spent as the son of an LAPD cop and, in fact, meeting the Black Dahlia — Elizabeth Short — just months before her murder, you realize you are in the presence of a mind thoroughly soaked in, formed by, its atmosphere.
Surely this accounts for the fact that Severed evokes some of the spookiest corridors of old-time Los Angeles: the wartime world of Hollywood bars, dance halls and rooming houses, a world of “substance and shadow,” where “no one remembers the names”; the world the beautiful but aimless Dahlia herself haunted, before her naked body was found, famously cut in half at the waist, in an empty lot on January 15, 1947.
Gilmore’s name has been turning up lately in a spate of recent books on different aspects of L.A.’s past. Some are Hollywood histories, including James Dean: At Speed (David Bull Publishing), a sort of James Dean–obsessive’s scrapbook filled with Gilmore’s memories of Dean and other young, antisocial actors of the 1950s, and The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson (Carroll & Graf), which tells the story of ’50s homosexual Hollywood agent Henry Willson, whose advances toward the aspiring young actor Jonathan Gilmore did not end “successfully.” By far the most important, though, is author Donald Wolfe’s new perspective on the Dahlia case, The Black Dahlia Files, a book that presents recently unearthed, interesting facts and documents, but also some fanciful-sounding theories (including an unlikely gang of exceedingly high-profile conspirators). Significantly, Wolfe also accuses Gilmore’s primary suspect — a lowlife criminal named Jack Wilson — and, like Gilmore, dismisses out of hand Steve Hodel’s elaborate “my big nasty father did it” fantasy of a few years ago.
L.A. WEEKLY:You declined to appear with Donald Wolfe at the L.A. Press Club last month. Why?
JOHN GILMORE: After Donald Wolfe sent me a copy of his book, I went through it carefully and I realized that we are on such divergent paths that there was no way I could appear to be supportive of him in any way — because, simply, it’s wrong. His whole take is wrong. There were no gangsters, all that crap, involved. He claims that the D.A.’s office has made public the “secret files,” but there’s nothing in them. The names of the people he accuses of participating in the plot to kill the Black Dahlia — Bugsy Siegel, L.A. Times publisher Norman Chandler, for God’s sake, the “Hollywood madam” Brenda Allen — the names never appear in those files.
What about this suspect of his, Maurice Clement, who was said by Elizabeth Short’s roommate to know her? Wasn’t he connected to Bugsy Siegel and Brenda Allen?
He was a guy who worked at Columbia Studios, who the cops knew, and he was dismissed as a suspect. They questioned him, and he was simply dismissed. So everybody that was dismissed, Donald Wolfe has taken and said, “Well, the reason they were dismissed is that there was a big cover-up .?.?.”
Because of Siegel? Or because of Norman Chandler?
He’s saying that all of the LAPD brass were involved in payoffs and cover-ups. So, yes, basically he’s saying they were covering ?up for Chandler, because Elizabeth Short was a whore who was pregnant withhis baby. My God, it’s the National Enquirer. Donald Wolfe has constructed an elaborate house of cards, and he had ?to make Elizabeth Short a whore, as other people have done. ?But if you pull that Elizabeth Short card out, saying she wasn’t a whore, it all totally collapses and blows away.
Why do you think this case has remained permanently unsolved?
Because there were no leads. They talked to most everybody who knew her or chanced upon her during that time, and there was nothing beyond that! Nothing! It was a perfect murder. Absolutely perfect homicide.
So you never claim to flatly solve the case in Severed. You don’t say “This man, Jack Wilson, definitely killed her.”
No, I never said that, though I know the publisher indicated that on the back cover of the book. I went as far as I could, with some very viable information on this person. I tracked him down, and it appeared that certain things he was saying seemed remarkably, ah, relevant to the case. I told him that I was going to have to show this information to the LAPD. And he said, “All right, but I want you to understand that this is hearsay,” these details about the murder that were told to him by this so-called Al Morrison, whom I never could find any trace of. So that’s how Morrison thought he had himself covered. But then, what can we do? The guy burns up in a hotel fire.
What are you going to say in the new prologue to Severed?
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I want to make it clear, once and for all, that the Black Dahlia murder case is an unsolvable case. It was a cold, cold case from the beginning. Stone cold. And I was very pleased, in a way, when this New York Times writer told me that they talked to James Ellroy, and Ellroy believes that the case is “unsolvable.” I was kind of impressed. I thought, “That’s fine! That’s cool, at least the guy is being honest about that.”
Can you still see Elizabeth Short in your mind’s eye?
Oh, God, like it was yesterday. I can see the red toenails through the black mesh stockings, sticking out from her pumps, with the strap going over. She was talking to my grandmother, in the kitchen, and her eyes kept glancing over at me. Here I was, an 11-year-old boy, obviously thinking she was beautiful. And she, of course, knew that.
John Gilmore and photographer Justice Howard’s photo exhibition, “Sharp Edges,” a benefit for Children of the Night, opens for one night only on May 20 at 910 Broadway. For info, call (213) 550-7335.