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A Considerable Town

James Ellroy Gives Us a Tour Through the LAPD History Museum

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Thu, Dec 6, 2012 at 7:00 AM

click to enlarge Copies of internal Daily Police Bulletin magazines at the L.A. Police Historical Society Museum - JAMES BARTLETT
  • James Bartlett
  • Copies of internal Daily Police Bulletin magazines at the L.A. Police Historical Society Museum
See also:
*Best L.A. Novel Ever: The Tournament

*5 Freaky L.A. Crime Sites from James Ellroy's City of Demons

Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, novelist James Ellroy breezes into the Los Angeles Police Historical Society Museum, collapses into a chair, puts a foot up on the table and wonders aloud where the coffee is. Jet-lagged from a quick-turnaround flight to Spain, he's fighting off a cold, and freely admits he was just catching some zzz's in his car outside. 

Once coffee appears, he half-jokingly mentions his hatred for the press (one of his ex-wives was a journalist), then discusses how one of his favorite female reporters reminded him of his parole officer. 

Readers of Ellroy's 1996 memoir, My Dark Places, will know all about his criminal past, which included habitual shoplifting, burglary and theft. 

Yet everyone here welcomes him warmly. They talk like old friends about past cases, recent vacations and family pets. Later, two of the staffers sincerely describe him as the museum's "patron saint." 

In fact, Ellroy is a regular visitor and supporter -- one with a deep interest in LAPD history. He's writing the narrative to accompany a book being published on the museum's imprint, featuring crime-scene photos from LAPD's archive. He also has a plan to bring more visitors to the out-of-the-way location in Lincoln Heights. 

More Dragnet than CSI, former Police Station #11 was reopened as a museum in 2001. It's now run by a small team of enthusiastic volunteers and ex-cops. Aside from hosting many television and movie shoots (including the upcoming Sean Penn/Ryan Gosling movie Gangster Squad), it's home to the expected displays of vintage LAPD vehicles, uniforms, badges, guns and souvenirs from famous cases. 

It also houses the force's photo archive from 1890 until the late 1970s. Some photographs are here on a side table, in piles of small, square envelopes, each topped by a code number -- 187, 261 or 273 -- or a brief description like "Abortion," "Narco" or "Home Invasion."

Black-and-white images strewn across the table show working cops, fedora'd detectives, crumpled bodies found under bridges and in cupboards. They're the stuff noir dreams are made of. 

The book based on those archives is to be titled LAPD '53, a year that happened to have a number of notable crimes -- "We got lucky, some people got unlucky," Ellroy laughs. It's meant to be the first in a series, although, with such a small team, it's been a slow process. 

Ellroy has a stronger connection to the police department than just his rap sheet. His mother was murdered in El Monte in 1958, and his well-documented search for her killer has given him an encyclopedic knowledge of crime in that era. 

People often call the museum looking for answers, too, and sometimes they even walk through the doors with stories -- and evidence and souvenirs -- from that time. The No. 1 request, by far, is about Elizabeth Short, nicknamed the Black Dahlia after her gruesome 1947 murder. She's followed by the 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, says museum executive director Glynn Martin. 

After that it's Charles Manson, with the Night Stalker and the Hillside Strangler bringing up the rear behind those curious about the Symbionese Liberation Army and the North Hollywood Shoot-out (both of which have extensive exhibits here). 

Recently a woman walked in and asked about her father, a former detective. Were his stories true? "He'd been at the Elizabeth Short autopsy," Martin says, "and worked on the case -- his name is all over the files. Back then there were only 50 to 80 murders a year, and information was shared with everyone -- cops, the press -- and she had his scrapbook from the case. We treated her like a rock star." 

In those days, photographers had their own cots in some police stations so they could be first on the scene of a crime. But then came the blaze of bad publicity following the brutal (and still unsolved) murder of Short, which Ellroy detailed in his book The Black Dahlia

Ellroy gets serious when he talks about the media and its "adversarial" relationship with LAPD. He believes that, more than any other police force, LAPD has its controversial shoot-outs and car chases beamed across the world. Yet many thousands of people are helped by officers on the beat every day -- and that never gets a line of print. 

Martin notes that the murder rate is the same now as it was when LAPD was first formed -- around 300 annually -- but back then they marshaled a wild city of 5,000 people, whereas today it has a population closer to 4 million. The city has changed in countless ways, Ellroy adds. "L.A. is a social experiment gone wrong. After the post-WWII boom and the idea of wide-open spaces, it became too many people, too much pollution and too many automobiles." 

The snuffling novelist then begs his leave, stopping only to show everyone his favorite exhibit. It's not the grim, gray cells, the "bullet camera," a ransom letter, the endless pairs of handcuffs, the "batter ram" V100 tank or even another LAPD event-turned-novel, The Onion Field: It's an action shot of a K-9 German shepherd, one of the many photographs taken by ex-officer Glenn Grossman. 

"I dig the dog. He's thinking, 'Fuck this shit. I didn't join the LAPD, I was pressed into service against my will. You got some hopped-up dipshit in some backhouse, he's barricaded himself in there ... it's 116 degrees right now.' And he's out front. There's no body armor on this dog. He's thinking, 'I should be up at Ellroy's swank pad. Yeah, he'd let me sleep up on the bed. Yeah, he'd feed me steak. Yeah, I could go out and hunt cats in his backyard. I could be drinking tasty, bracing toilet water, sniffing crotches. Instead I'm out here risking my life for the motherfucking LAPD. Nobody asked me if I wanted this fuckin' job. I am truly a victim of the LAPD.' " 

LAPD '53 is due for release late next year, but in January the museum begins a series of "LAPD Noir" evenings, a double bill of classic noir movies introduced by Ellroy: "We want a meeting of the tribes -- hipsters and cops and everyone in between -- and there will be pizza and all the beer you can possibly drink." 

Not perhaps the best invitation to make around a group ostensibly concerned about DUIs, but, Martin says, Ellroy "gets much more salty when he's had his usual few espressos." Doubtless the writer would be thrilled to know that he easily elbows aside St. Michael, patron saint of police officers -- in this place, at least.

See also:
*Best L.A. Novel Ever: The Tournament
*5 Freaky L.A. Crime Sites from James Ellroy's City of Demons

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