Live Fast, Die Young, Leave a Good-Looking Corpse
Author John Gilmore and the Hollywood Death Trip
By Devin D. O'Leary
NOVEMBER 17, 1997: Hollywood biographies are, for the most part, written by complete outsiders, occasional party-goers and star-struck wannabes. Self-serving journalists with stillborn dreams of Tinseltown stardom are mainstream America's tour guides through the back alleys and bedrooms of the rich and famous. Bob Woodward and Kitty Kelley can safely slag Hollywood's elite with a second-hand arsenal of rumor and innuendo. But the best journalists are always the ones willing to jump into the trenches and feel the heat of the mortar shells with the rest of the footsoldiers.
John Gilmore is a footsoldier. He earned his battle scars in the five decades or so he spent chasing that elusive dream of movie stardom under the hot glare of Hollywood's klieg light. A SoCal native, a one-time child actor, a director, a screenwriter, John Gilmore saw all that Hollywood had to offer. The son of a bit player at MGM and a police officer with the Los Angeles PD, Gilmore was exposed early on to the yin and yang of West Coast culture. For as sure as that Hollywood klieg light casts its bright glow on the shining faces of the stars, it also throws a long, dark shadow where the junkies, murderers, has-beens and never-weres dwell. Welcome to John Gilmore's Hollywood.
Gilmore is now in his sixties. Tall, handsome and still possessing those magnetic devil eyes that made him such a popular object of affections in his heyday, Gilmore now resides comfortably and quietly in the anonymous sun-baked environs of Albuquerque. In his years since abandoning Hollywood, Gilmore's leitmotif has become a hardcover chronicling of that city's dark side. Gilmore has written five nonfiction books recounting his life in '50s and '60s Hollywood and the people he met (from James Dean to Charles Manson). Once or twice a year, Gilmore still makes the pilgrimage to the place of his birth. Although a longtime Land of Enchantment convert, Gilmore admits: "I'm a Hollywood writer. I don't write about Indians and pottery." Far from a distanced observer, Gilmore pours his personal experience into every page. Donald Sherper, author and biographer of Jack Nicholson and John Wayne writes of Gilmore, "The French have a name for this kind of writing--témoinage--the literature of the witness; crossing genre, autobiographical or reportage, but most important--fact-lived."
"Having come from being a poet at one time and a creative writer, I probably approached nonfiction as somehow unschooled in what we do here," explains Gilmore. "It took me a while to realize what I was doing. ... There's no buffer. The reader's not protected at all. I remember (the) Santa Fe New Mexican had a long, long review about The Tucson Murders (an early, hardcover version of Gilmore's book Cold Blooded) one time. This (reviewer) was so disturbed, she was so bummed out and bothered by the book. The force of the brutality really freaked her out. I thought, 'What is this?' There's not that much brutality and all that shit in the book. But what I did was I didn't evaluate (the brutality). I didn't have anybody or anything to buffer (it). Like in Dante's Inferno ... you know, he has the angel to take him down there, to guide him through the whole thing holding his hand." Hip, fast and wickedly incisive, Gilmore's writing is not the stuff of fluffy supermarket tabloids. It's a trip to Perdition--Hollywood style.
Gilmore's earliest works were true crime pieces, chronicling the dark underbelly of society and the twisted minds who live there. In The Garbage People (first published in 1971), Gilmore takes a trip to Helter Skelter Land and beyond, courtesy of Charlie Manson. Like Jane Goodall among the chimps, Gilmore immersed himself in the infamous trial, palling around with the lawyers and interviewing Manson face-to-face. Manson was, perhaps, the ultimate Hollywood icon in Gilmore's eyes--a failed musician who lashed out at the world by killing the rich and famous. "That's how you put the fear into people," one member of Manson's "family" told Gilmore. "You butcher what they dream of being." After Garbage People, Gilmore wrote Severed, considered by many to be the definitive portrait of the (still unsolved) murder of wannabe actress Elizabeth Short (a case in which Gilmore's father was involved). Short's gory death in 1947 has become the stuff of Hollywood legend, a mythical symbol of sordid film noir glamour--the ultimate Hollywood dream gone ultimately wrong.
Gilmore's more recent books have taken an even more personal tack, recalling his days and nights in the Hollywood fast lane. Live Fast--Die Young: Remembering the Short Life of James Dean, published earlier this year, examines the brief meteoric career of movie idol James Dean. Gilmore met Dean in New York City in the mid-'50s when the two were both struggling stage actors trying to escape the empty promises of Hollywood. Gilmore and Dean became close friends during those lean Greenwich Village days. Much has been speculated over Gilmore and Dean's "relationship" during these times. That Dean and Gilmore were "intimate" is no secret. Author Paul Alexander in his book Boulevard of Broken Dreams went to great lengths, and occasional fabrication, to posit his theory that James Dean was gay (based largely on Gilmore's confessions).
Gilmore's reaction is quick and to the point. "I really didn't like Paul Alexander's book. It was terrible. I thought he was really off the wall, really off. I don't know what he was doing. He did the same thing with Sylvia Plath. He really gets into (his subjects') heads and kind of thinks for these people. He has no sources attributed. It's bullshit. I mean, he had a bill of goods to sell, which is that James Dean was gay. Which is not the case--he wasn't. He wasn't really anything." In Live Fast--Die Young, Gilmore spreads out the honest facts: "It was a period of exploration. It wasn't so much a physical thing," he writes. "Jimmy said it was probably possible for him to have a relationship with a guy, too--to have a physical exchange without it being labeled 'homosexual,' because he felt it was simply an extension of the friendship. 'Just going to the edge of the friendship or sort of beyond it,' Jimmy said." In reading Gilmore's raw accounting of things, it becomes clear that there are more important subjects to talk about. Sex, in 1950s Hollywood, was a commodity to be bartered and sold. Sleeping with James Dean? Been there, done that. Whereas a lesser chronicler would dwell on the lurid details or pore over the tedious facts, Gilmore zeroes in on his personal encounters with the star-to-be.
"I wasn't gonna write about the movies. I wasn't gonna write about (Dean's childhood in) Indiana, 'cause I didn't care about Indiana. So what I'm left with is a guy's 18-month career. Since I'm not writing about the movies, for a great deal of time I'm dealing with a guy who's sitting in a room looking at a wall or something. I mean, it's a very little space of time. So I wanted to write it (like) a memoir." Dean's constant obsession with danger and death (in the form of fast cars and a peculiar fascination with bullfighting) is delineated more clearly in the tiny moments that Gilmore unveils--as when Dean sits "smoking and staring" at an old Spanish painting of Saint Sebastian tied to a tree and pierced by the arrows of the Roman soldiers. "One sticking in his lower abdomen must have pierced organs, Jimmy said, and he had to be bleeding inside. 'That'd kill him,' he said with certainty."
When the two finally heeded the siren call of Hollywood and returned to the West Coast, Gilmore would see Dean on occasion. Their thundering motorcycle trips up the Pacific Coast Highway gave a fleeting glimpse into Dean's mysterious soul. "Jimmy was obsessed with riding that black ship to hell, and for that quick time I was on board with him," writes Gilmore with poetic candor. Dean, Gilmore and others soon became part of the so-called "Night Watch," a loose collection of young actors, branded as rebels and troublemakers by the tabloid press of the day. It was this association that led, in part, to Gilmore's "blackballing" from mainstream Hollywood society. From here on out, Gilmore was to dwell in the underworld.
Gilmore's recently published book, Laid Bare: A Memoir of Wrecked Lives and the Hollywood Death Trip, rehashes some of his moments with James Dean but weaves around it his other encounters with the Hollywood elite (from old-time mentors like actor John Hodiak and exotic beauty Ida Lupino) and the Hollywood hoi polloi (legendary bad filmmaker Ed Wood and B-movie queen Irish McCalla). Gilmore had many loves (from Jane Seberg to Jane Fonda), many rivals (contemporaries Dennis Hopper and Steve McQueen) and many brushes with greatness (from a parking lot encounter with Hank Williams to a Paris meeting with William Burroughs). "Most of the things I write are from my personal involvement. That's the number one place where I go. How am I involved with this thing? And then where do I go with it? Some things just lead from one to the other. It's been pointed out that I have a kind of thing where people want to confess to me. It's like they want to talk. I mean, I know someone shortly, and they're telling me all kinds of things."
It was always those in the process of self-destructing who seemed to surround Gilmore: Jayne Mansfield, Sal Mineo, Lenny Bruce, Janis Joplin--stellar talent just one step away from going supernova. As Gilmore says, "I think my whole, entire life has been spent more on the dark side than on the light side. I can't ever really think of too much on the light side. I mean, I do experience it in some ways--like with my child. But I've always been drawn to the dark side. I think as a child, I was extremely fascinated with freaks in the circus. I used to go to the carnival all the time and see the freaks, I even talked to a couple of them. And I got to like them in a sense. And like the monstrous, grotesque side somehow. I seem to be drawn to it without fully having it envelop me in some way."
If there is a common signpost on every road leading out of Hollywood and into Perdition, that signpost reads "drugs and alcohol." Whether it's a slow burn out (Janis Joplin) a quick self-immolation (Jim Morrison) or a frazzled survival (Dennis Hopper), drugs are the common link in Hollywood tragedies. "I think the escalation of drugs and alcohol created in some way a blurring of that line between being enveloped by something and being amused by it," explains Gilmore. Perhaps it was Gilmore's disinterest in drugs that made him a survivor. Perhaps it was Gilmore's lack of fame that saved him. After tasting some small success as a child actor, Gilmore knocked around Tinseltown for years, landing bit parts on failed TV pilots and short-lived series. Even Gilmore admits that, given the fame and pressure of a James Dean, a Marilyn Monroe, he too may have given in to the enveloping darkness--surrendered to the sweet anonymity of death.
Of course, Hollywood today is a very different place. The studios are filled with grinning Scientologists, sober Betty Ford graduates and happily married stars flaunting their "family values," their swelling broods and their ranches in Montana. "L.A. is so different from when I was younger," laments Gilmore. "My God, it's a different place. Every time I get nostalgic for Los Angeles, I get nostalgic for something that's only in my own head. Things I remember, things I feel, things I'm particularly drawn to are drawn from my head. They're not in reality any more. Which is one of the reasons I wrote that book (Laid Bare)."
Yes, there's something to be said for those wild days of youth. ... Of course, not all of us spent our youth motoring up the PCH with James Dean.
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