What Happens When James Ellroy Gets Mixed Up with Marilyn Monroe?

In the spring of 1995, dozens of snakes appeared on the beaches of Southern California. Panic. A Biblical curse, some held, to punish the wicked. “California has been given so many signs: floods, drought, fires, earthquakes lifting mountains two feet high in Northridge,” the California congresswoman Andrea Seastrand declared. “Yet people turn from His ways.” The Los Angeles Times made soothing noises, counselling against the curse theory. But the obvious person to consult would have been a native son of Los Angeles who saw geography as destiny, who specialized in snakes of all stripes, and whose characters find, in natural disasters, their only competitors in the making of mayhem.

James Ellroy, the neo-noir eminence of L.A. crime fiction, is back, with his favorite snake, Fred Otash, in tow. The real Otash, who died in 1992, was a disgraced former cop turned private eye and freelance menace who worked with the notorious Hollywood tabloid Confidential; he claimed to have hot-wired every bathhouse in L.A., to have spied on Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter, and to have eavesdropped on Marilyn Monroe as she died. Ellroy knew the man a little and loathed him a lot. “You don’t go out and wreck lives en masse the way he did with Confidential and retain your humanity,” he once told an interviewer. But Freddy Otash had his uses—that was the point of him—and he sure can shoulder a novel. He has been a sturdy muse: reportedly the inspiration for Jake Gittes in “Chinatown,” and, as a sweeter, more humanized heavy, a supporting character in Ellroy’s “Underworld U.S.A.” trilogy (“American Tabloid,” “The Cold Six Thousand,” and “Blood’s a Rover”). He has since been given top billing, and he narrates Ellroy’s latest novel, “The Enchanters” (Knopf).

It’s the summer of 1962. The assignment: Deliver the dirt on Marilyn Monroe. The clients: Jimmy Hoffa, the Kennedys, the L.A.P.D. The complications: Where to begin? A starlet is kidnapped by men wearing Fidel Castro masks; an industrious Peeping Tom paws through the lingerie drawers of local divorcées. Marilyn herself is unrecognizable; she has been leaving her house in baffling disguises, bloating and distorting her face with collagen injections. There is also the small matter of Freddy’s affair with a very married Pat Kennedy, whose husband, Peter Lawford, procures women for his brother-in-law the President. Oh, and that catalogue he so thoughtfully arranged, of nude photographs of prospects, full “woof-woof” on display—anyone seen it lying around?

To pick up a James Ellroy novel in the year 2023 is to know the score. We—“the peepers, prowlers, pederasts, panty-sniffers, punks and pimps,” as he refers to his readership—do not arrive expecting much in the way of lavish scene-setting, characters who confound us with complexity, or commas. We are here for the short, stabby sentences and percussive rhythms. Stories are sheared down to bare-bones plot, almost stage directions, almost, at times, demented square-dance calls: “Pete rotates. Wayne rotates. Pete moves stateside. Laurent’s there. Ditto Flash. They funnel stateside. Stanton stays in-country. Ditto Mesplède. Tiger Kamp runs low-supervised. The war escalates. More troops pass through. The kadre hits Saigon half-assed.” We expect redheads and racists, shock and schlock, pearl-gray suits and straw fedoras, weak men and strong women—noir stock types, surely, but not only.

The world of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the pulps Ellroy loved as a child, and his own private California are distilled into a gab, a grammar for brutality, shame, misogyny, and unresolved mourning. Violence is taken lightly, and desire with utmost seriousness. Ellroy, like Patricia Highsmith, has never really got over the fact of sex. There’s a joke he enjoys telling: “I want to find the guy who invented sex and ask him what he’s working on now.”

Beyond the syntax, beyond the quick, greasy fun, there’s a world view shaped by personal tragedy. When Ellroy was ten, his mother was strangled to death; her body was dumped, her killer never found. Receiving the news, he felt as if a veil had been lifted. “I wanted to canonize the secret LA I first glimpsed the day the redhead died,” he wrote in his memoir, “My Dark Places,” from 1996. His novels inspect that secret L.A.—the hidden life of his mother, the unknowable life of her killer, the networks of corruption, which he depicts with a matter-of-factness, and with none of the condemnation or hushed awe of DeLillo, otherwise an important influence. “America was never innocent,” Ellroy tells us in “American Tabloid” (1995). “We popped our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets.” Ellroy once said that he wanted to destroy the cheap empathy of the crime novel, and, later, that he wanted to move past the genre entirely, to “move uptown” to the historical novel, to an examination of politics as crime: “My big thematic journey is twentieth-century American history, and what I think twentieth-century American history is, is the story of bad white men, soldiers of fortune, shakedown artists, extortionists, leg-breakers. The lowest-level implementers of public policy. Men who are often toadies of right-wing regimes. Men who are racists. Men who are homophobes. These are my guys. These are the guys that I embrace.”

What does it mean to embrace such men? For Ellroy, this is literary vision—to see the world for what it is, to love it as it is without flinching, and to see yourself in the same way. In effect, it means that he can never fully abandon his psychosexual plots; they burn at the core of everything he writes. You even find it in the section headings of “The Enchanters”: “Sex Creep,” “Bait Girls,” “Wife Swap.” Public history does not feel as alluring to him as furtive genealogies of violence, dramatized in obstinate orphic repetition from one book to the next: a woman (a redhead, a divorcée, someone love-hungry and secretive) is resurrected and rescued, only to be lost again. This repetitiveness, this obstinacy, is a distinctive feature of Ellroy’s writing. His fiction, at its most potent, is driven less by plot than by ritual. He has been canonized and censured; he writes now, in his mid-seventies, on a plane beyond the exigencies of either, enjoying a rare kind of freedom. What does he choose to do with it? And how will he—a writer, impelled by personal history, whose work glows inwardly, with private signifiers—contend with postwar Hollywood’s brightest neon sign?

She is the bait girl nonpareil; no one can touch her. About seven hundred Marilyn Monroe biographies have been published in English alone. There have been biographies by her friends, her foes, her siblings, her household staff, two of her husbands, and two of her stalkers. Norman Mailer didn’t hesitate to publish a glossy art-book appreciation of the actress. Why? Money, honey. “I’ve really gotten to the point where I’m like an old prizefighter,” Mailer told Time during the book’s launch, in 1973. “And if my manager comes up to me and says, ‘I’ve got you a tough fight with a good purse,’ I go into the ring.” Nothing makes an old fighter madder than having to do a charity benefit. Few books could have made the old fighter come off worse. “She looks fed on sexual candy,” he croons. “Never again in her career will she look so sexually perfect as in 1953 making Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, no, never—if we are to examine a verb through its adverb—will she appear so fucky again.” A blessing, perhaps. But she remains flypaper for all sorts of agendas and desires. Many years later, Gloria Steinem imagined a feminist future that gave us Marilyn as a “student, lawyer, teacher, artist, mother, grandmother, defender of animals, rancher, homemaker, sportswoman, rescuer of children.” Why shouldn’t James Ellroy have a turn?

Yet it’s curious that he would choose to. The sirens of the fifties (more than a few of whom have walk-on roles in “The Enchanters”) exert a powerful hold on his imagination—Rita Hayworth, in the luxuriance of her red hair, Kim Novak, in her close-fitting dove-gray suit in “Vertigo.” Ellroy still sends flowers to Lois Nettleton’s grave, in the Bronx, and gives her choice roles in his novels. He has always seemed indifferent to Monroe, however, and evidently remains so. He speeds through her scenes. Even Freaky Freddy Otash, rifling through her belongings, sniffs her sheets with only perfunctory enthusiasm.

This is not necessarily a flaw; it’s rare to encounter a portrayal of Monroe unconcerned with diagnosing, rescuing, or rehabilitating her. And there’s no question that Monroe could have provided all the details and darkly funny lines needed to carry an Ellroy novel. (Her regular makeup artist fixed her up after the autopsy; he still had a money clip that she had given him, inscribed “Whitey Dear: While I’m still warm. Marilyn.”) But Ellroy seems determined to curtail her presence. He can only write about her, it appears, because she is so often in disguise. What risk does she pose?

Ellroy and Monroe were born five miles apart, in Los Angeles; they both took on names of their own devising. They endured the early and decisive absences of their mothers, and struggled with addiction. They cultivated over-the-top public personas that courted ridicule, beneath which they remained, in many ways, canny operators. And they seemed to work the same neighborhood. “When you’re famous, you kind of run into human nature in a raw kind of way,” Monroe once said. “You’re always running into people’s unconscious.” No matter Ellroy’s grand claims of excavating American history; he remains the trawler of the male id, the uncontainable unconscious.

Perhaps there’s a frequency between them that feels too close—and makes him intent on keeping his distance. Perhaps her own winky performances, her awareness of the role she played in fantasy life, make her unavailable to star in his. Through Freddy, we follow Marilyn across the city in scenes that could have been taken from Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”: “There’s Marilyn. She’s done up movie-star incognito. Dark slacks, tight jumper. Wraparound shades and Hermès scarf.” Marilyn remains fragmented and removed, strips of celluloid; it’s only Freddy whose body heat we feel.

Freddy was last seen in “Widespread Panic” (2021), dangling in Purgatory, confessing to his crimes and hoping for a more permanent placement. The Freddy we meet in “The Enchanters” is tragic, cowed, and inexplicably more taciturn, even as he goes to work with brutal efficiency on some quarry of the hour. “The drop ran eighty feet,” Freddy observes in the novel’s opening sequence. “I held his right arm. Max Herman held his left arm. Red Stromwall jammed his head down and force-fed him the view.” The sequence is as tight, mean, and poised as anything in Ellroy. A flicker of hope: the novels of late have been uneven—perhaps this one has a chance?

It does not. “The Enchanters,” which takes place during L.A.’s August heat, is at once panting and sluggish. Ellroy creates a world and refuses to enter it. While the reader is keen for him to go in, he merely goes on (and on). He is known for crafting detailed outlines that stretch to hundreds of pages, and that is what it feels we are left with—the ribs and spine of a book, delivered with strange weariness despite the cheerful, enabling amorality of Freaky Freddy. It’s Freddy as Whistler’s Mother, permanently parked in a chair. He waits, watching a quarry’s home: “Spots popped in front of my eyes. My arteries pinged. My feet went numb. I lost weight as I tried to sit still.” “Snoresville,” he sums it up. It’s possible to compile a taxonomy of yawns in “The Enchanters”: stage yawns, stifled yawns, stifled stage yawns, yawns to stay awake, yawns to fall asleep, yawns of our own.

Between the yawns, the naps, the waiting, we get disquisitions on how uninteresting the characters find one another. Freddy on Marilyn: “She worked people. She used people. She possessed three modes of address. She was bossy, she was demure, she was effusive. I didn’t like her. I didn’t get her. Her acting chops and alleged va-va-voom hit me flat.” The real action arrives in “skull sessions,” when characters deliver unseasoned hunks of exposition to each other over coffee. It’s Ellroy’s preferred information delivery system: “You hit it on the head, doll. Marilyn always had a coterie of sycophants, brown-nosers, and quacks calling the shots for her, and telling her she was a genius. She was hooked on this quack shrink, who palled with this dyke drama coach of hers, and they shot her up with collagen, to pudge her up in the face. She moved into a house near Marilyn, to coach her. I swear it’s all true!”

It’s perplexing to see Ellroy let his story go so slack, to see the tension flatlining, resistant even to the defibrillations of jokey, jittery tabloid-speak. Monroe, who could have been the book’s making, is instead its undoing—which is, consoling thought, an odd sort of triumph on her part. But, for all the novel’s exasperations, its author’s talent for mayhem still has its charms. Under the L.A. heat dome, he sends snakes among the sunbathers and challenges us to tell them apart.

The last film that Ellroy saw before his mother died was, in fact, “Vertigo.” The movie is structured like a spiral and populated with them—from the opening sequence, designed by Saul Bass, with its animated spinning spirals, to the spirals found in hair styles and in the structure of the famous staircase. The themes and shapes of the story would become Ellroy’s—losing a woman, remaking other women in her image, the lurching and discomfiting transposition of past and present, obsession.

There’s a shot Hitchcock popularized in “Vertigo” that involves the spiral: the dolly zoom, known as the “Vertigo” effect. You’ll notice it when the private investigator, played by James Stewart, is climbing the spiral staircase, despite his fear of heights, pursuing a woman he is trying to save. He looks down, foolishly, and the floor seems to surge farther away. Hitchcock’s trick is that the camera has physically moved back from its subject while zooming in—conveying a lurching disorientation.

Something of the sort takes place with “The Enchanters.” In the course of a long, prolific, and galvanic career, Ellroy has revisited the same scenes, the same characters, killing them off, reviving them. Now, in this novel, he zooms in again, but what we experience most powerfully is blur, distance—and the passage of time. The story seems to yawn away, as if it is happening in the past, happening in his past. Yet he feels no less powerfully yoked, no less in inexorable pursuit. What does a writer do with freedom? Caught in this novel’s spirals, pulled deep, again, into the same grooves, one wonders: Is there such a thing? ♦

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top