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The Ladies’ Man
Can true love tame James Ellroy, the Demon Dog of L.A. fiction?
Portrait by Karin Catt
James Ellroy is sitting in a corner booth at the Pacific Dining Car, the 6th Street steak joint, brooding about women. It’s the perfect place for it. The last time L.A. fiction’s Demon Dog, as Ellroy likes to be called, recited wedding vows, he was right here in this windowless cave of a room. On October 4, 1991, he married his second wife, the writer and critic Helen Knode. The bride wore a peach pink ’40s vintage dress and “looked stunningly cougarlike and hip/feral,” Ellroy recalls in his new memoir, The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women. The groom wore a kilt, and his eyes darted around too much. There were steaks off the menu and a custom wedding cake.
When it came time to toast, Ellroy “threw out a mock-impromptu rock song, replete with lurid lyrics,” he writes. “Helen whooped and busted me to the guests. ‘That’s a retread, Big Dog! You wrote that for one of your ex-bitches!’?” Knode pirouetted, prompting whistles from the male guests, and then quoted Doris Lessing: “Marriage is sex and courage.”
“Helen said it in this room: ‘Sex and courage.’ And it’s entirely true,” Ellroy tells me now. At 62 he is tall, even when seated, and almost gaunt from daily devotion to his elliptical machine. He has a clean-shaven skull and a manic glare that burns through his wire-rim glasses. His voice is reverent, if only for a beat. Pushing aside his Caesar salad (he’s eaten only the filet mignon off the top), he lets loose a tirade that somehow manages to sound both fond and furious: “The food here sucks Chihuahua dicks! Shih tzu dicks! Yorkie dicks!”
What led Ellroy’s second marriage to disintegrate—the overwork, the competition, the neglect, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” open relationship—occupies a large chunk of The Hilliker Curse, which is due out this month from Knopf. Has Knode vetted it? The answer is no. None of the women in the book have, but for one.
“Basically, Helen is tired of my shit, except for the alimony check that comes every month,” Ellroy says when asked whether he’s worried about her reaction. Knode lives in Texas now with a pit bull that doesn’t like him, he says. How does Knode feel about Ellroy? “She loves me. She’s the best friend I ever had. We had a great run. But she’s tired of my shit.”
Ellroy’s shit is legion. A pervert (his word) at 9 years old—“a peeper, a scaredy-cat, a follower. I always had my snout up to the glass.” A murdered mother’s son (his phrase) at 10. An addict, an alcoholic, and a derelict by 20. And then, at 33, after getting sober and toiling for years on fiction many deemed too violent and disturbing, a published novelist. He’s been exploiting his shit ever since.
The central event that informs his personal story—the vein he’s tapped more than any other—is the death of his mother, Geneva Hilliker Ellroy, in 1958. A tall, striking redhead from Wisconsin, she was strangled near their home in El Monte by an unknown assailant. She was 43. In 1987, Ellroy dedicated the first volume of his acclaimed “L.A. Quartet”—the novels The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz—to her. Later, in his first foray into memoir, My Dark Places, he teamed with a retired sheriff’s investigator named Bill Stoner to try to solve her murder. Now he regards that book as inferior, not because he didn’t bring the killer to justice (“I knew damn fucking well we weren’t going to find the guy”), but for a more fundamental reason: “My mother and I are a love story. We’re not a crime story.”
Hence his 19th book, The Hilliker Curse. It takes its title from something Ellroy said to his mother just months before she was killed. They’d had a fight, and she had struck him. So he cursed her. He doesn’t remember the words exactly, but he knows the gist, which was inspired by a library book about witchcraft whose mystical message—you can conjure your own world—excited him: Ellroy wished his mother dead. Then she was.
“I was a sex-crazed little boy before the death I mandated,” Ellroy writes in the book, recounting how he dealt with his guilt. “The fount of my will was and is the ability to exploit misfortune…. I was already a seasoned brooder and watcher. I started telling myself stories to rein it in.”
The Pacific Dining Car is filled with echoes for Ellroy, only a few of them matrimonial. He was born a block away, at Good Samaritan Hospital. He ate here for the first time on March 4, 1958, his tenth birthday. “My dad took me,” he says. “I had a top sirloin steak and a shrimp cocktail. Tasty shit.”
He has drunk gallons of coffee here, often while being interviewed. He has wooed many women here, sometimes while being interviewed. Ellroy is such a fixture here that the restaurant functions as a de facto mail drop. When the maître d’ appears with a letter from a French fan (it begins, “I am one of the grains of sand that admire your work. I am a 36-year-old man with a very mediocre intimate life…”), Ellroy shrugs his big shoulders and hands the mash note to me.
I remind him that I interviewed him (sans wooing) just one booth over in 1995, a few months before the publication of My Dark Places. He reminds me that a key scene in his new book, with a married woman named Karen whom he was doomed to love and lose, took place in the next room.
To look at Ellroy, gangly and intense in his short-sleeved button-down shirt and sensible shoes, you might not immediately understand his success with the ladies. He doesn’t entirely understand it himself. All he knows is that from boyhood, he’s been obsessed. As he grew up, that jones turned into a full-fledged compulsion.
Ellroy has told and retold the stories of how, as a teenager, he peered through the windows of neighbors’ and classmates’ homes, broke into their houses when they weren’t there, went through their underwear drawers. He was expelled from high school, joined the army for a short stretch, and devoted himself to self-destruction. In addition to alcohol, Benzedrex inhalers were his poison of choice. Sometimes homeless, sometimes in jail, he drifted until a bout of pneumonia created an abscess in one lung that was the size, he has said, “of a large man’s fist.” He stopped drinking and started writing, working as a golf caddy to pay the bills.
From the start his fiction was old school and pulp inspired yet always fresh. His debut book, the detective story Brown’s Requiem, was published in 1981. Clandestine followed one year later, then Silent Terror in 1986. Next Ellroy embarked on the first of two trilogies. This one centered on Lloyd Hopkins, a tall LAPD homicide detective with a Mensa-level IQ and an addiction to sex (sound familiar?) who solves crimes by getting inside the heads of the killers he hunts.
Ellroy kept caddying until the sale of his sixth book. By then he had begun to establish himself as the best-known chronicler of low-life Los Angeles. His clipped sentences can recall Ernest Hemingway’s; his settings can evoke Raymond Chandler’s. But no one captures his characters—a hard-up crew he likes to call “the unsung leg breakers of American history”—quite the way he does. Take Don Crutchfield in Blood’s a Rover, Ellroy’s most recent novel (on the heels of American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand, it is the final volume in his second trilogy, “Underworld USA”). The book begins in the late ’60s, before no-fault divorce became law in California, and Crutchfield is an L.A. “wheelman”—the guy you hire to follow your cheating spouse if you want to build a divorce case. Ellroy didn’t imagine Crutchfield; he based him on someone he knows, one of L.A.’s “dipshit, alcoholic, drug-addicted white guys,” he once told an audience. The kind of man, in other words, Ellroy relates to, writes for, and basically is.
Keeping it real, or at least real-ish, with the volume turned up a notch, is a point of pride for Ellroy. History (both personal and cultural) has been the through line of his fiction. He revels in looking at the past unflinchingly, depicting the humor of racist jokes, for example, without any overlay of political correctness. That eagerness to shock and his in-your-face style (for years he sported a Hitlerian mustache) have caused some to view him as a provocateur first, an artist second. His is a gonzo persona seemingly intended to keep everyone off balance. The result: You often end up wondering whether he’s being authentic or simply putting on a show.
“Good evening, peepers, prowlers, pederasts, panty sniffers, punks, and pimps,” he’ll tell audiences who gather to hear him riff. “I’m James Ellroy, the demon dog, the foul owl with the death growl, the white knight of the far right, and the slick trick with the donkey dick.” As famous for his braggadocio as for his brio, he commonly calls his books “masterpieces all” that will “leave you reamed, steamed, and dry cleaned, tie dyed, swept to the side, true blued, tattooed, and bah fongooed.”
It can feel like clever shtick—as if by revealing the worst and best about himself before anyone else gets the chance, he believes he can maintain control. Yet for all his blunt self-appraisals and vulgar patois, Ellroy up close—his retro vocabulary, his sonorous oratory—exudes an oddball warmth.
He has always cultivated his contradictions. He’s the wild man in a seersucker suit and crisp bow tie, the introvert who loves to perform, the blasphemer who believes in God, the man’s man who’s obsessed with the feminine. But the voice he summons in The Hilliker Curse may be his most shocking. This Ellroy is besotted, lovestruck. This Ellroy wants a family—daughters, to be exact. The Demon Dog, it seems, yearns to be tamed.
“All I want is the hotel suite, the woman, the cheeseburger and a cup of coffee,” he tells me at one point, explaining giddily that he has set himself a goal of staying in the Beverly Hills Hotel at least 300 times before lights out. “I’m going to die broke. But that’s all I want. That’s all I want.”
To hear him tell it, Ellroy did his damnedest to find that woman, too. As his marriage with Knode dissolved (along the way he wound up overdosing on prescription pills, then cleaning up for good, he says), he fell for Joan, a Sacramento professor 17 years younger and prematurely gray. Next came Karen, another professor (this one in L.A.). Married with children, she seemed to him the real-life embodiment of a woman he’d dreamed of more than 20 years before. That idea—that he can “conjure” women out of his fantasy life and make them real—runs through The Hilliker Curse.
In it he describes how he and Karen met for their first date at the Pacific Dining Car. Their lunch was three hours long; their embrace, a “four-point collision.” Eventually they talked about having a baby together. Here was Karen’s take, at least according to Ellroy: “The cloven hooves and trident tail would be tough for me.” He told her about Lessing—the sex, the courage. He told her to leave her “fruit” husband and marry him. She said, “You don’t understand family. All you’ve got is your audience and your prey.” Twice a week for months they hogged a back booth at the Pacific Dining Car. But ultimately, Ellroy says he had to admit, Karen was right.
Now there’s another woman in Ellroy’s picture, the writer Erika Schickel. She was married when she met Ellroy, finding him in what he calls “the backwash” of Joan and Karen. She had two daughters. She had written her own memoir, and its title, You’re Not the Boss of Me: Adventures of a Modern Mom, showed how divergent her life experience was from his. Still, Ellroy says, she conjured him.
“She was the loveliest woman I had ever seen,” Ellroy writes. She liked “dirty-girl talk for shock value. She was Ellrovian that way. If-you-can’t-love-me-notice-me.” They courted, and Schickel dumped her husband. Not that Ellroy feels any pangs about her marriage ending. “It was a tanker,” he says. “A fucking Exxon Valdez tanker.”
Ellroy considers his and Schickel’s relationship divinely designed. Of all the women in The Hilliker Curse, Schickel alone got to read it before publication. It’s no surprise that the memoir is dedicated to her. Knode, to whom he’s dedicated two previous books (Joan’s gotten a dedication, too), pointed out to him how much Schickel resembles Ellroy’s mother—“tall redhead syndrome,” she calls it.
Ellroy writes that with Schickel, “I’ve never been loved or taught this gently or with this much precision or decorum.” That’s pretty tender stuff from a man known for his muscular prose, a detail not lost on Schickel. During an event at the Hammer Museum last fall, Ellroy was onstage being interviewed by Schickel, who’d stepped in at the last minute after Knode was unable to make it. Schickel noted that in The Hilliker Curse, which Ellroy was still polishing, he repeatedly asserted that he’s been motivated throughout his life by the mantra “So that women will love me.” Had Ellroy considered, Schickel asked, that finding what he calls “the mother, the female, the Other” would be his undoing?
Ellroy believes it will make him even more prolific. “I don’t want to be one of those older guys that writes skinnier and skinnier and skinnier and more and more solipsistic books,” he said, prompting applause. “I want to write big motherfuckers.”
Sitting in our well-worn booth, the lunch dishes cleared away, Ellroy lets slip that his next books will be his most ambitious. He’s planning a new L.A. quartet—call it a prequel—that will begin in 1941, before the attack on Pearl Harbor (and six years before the Black Dahlia’s murder). Turns out LAPD officer Dudley Smith, a central player in the earlier books, hasn’t gone bad yet, Ellroy says. He’s in love with a striking redhead from the Wisconsin boondocks, a woman by the name of Jean Hilliker.
As in his mother, Geneva?
“Oh yeah,” he says. “Oh yeah! Why not?”