James Ellroy's tour takes in sites of Los Angeles' most notorious deeds
On March 20, 1958, an unidentified reporter talks with Lana Turner, Johnny Stompanato and her daughter, Cheryl Crane, at the Los Angeles airport after they returned from a vacation in Mexico. On April 5, 1958, Cheryl was booked for the murder of Mr. Stompanato at Lana Turner's house in Beverly Hills.
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LOS ANGELES -- A resident at 730 N. Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills peers out a second-floor window to see a tall bald man in a bow tie surrounded by two dozen reporters who have just disembarked from a chartered bus.
Such are the sacrifices of a homeowner whose large white clapboard house is a notorious crime scene caught in the sites of novelist/memoirist James Ellroy, author of "L.A. Confidential." He's the tall, bespectacled man standing in the side yard.
Thankfully for the resident, Mr. Ellroy speaks in respectfully hushed tones, a far quieter volume than a few moments earlier aboard the bus when he loudly tore through his narration of a tour of Los Angeles crime scenes.
This home at the corner of North Bedford and Lomitas Avenue is where one of the biggest Hollywood murder scandals of the 1950s took place.
On April 4, 1958, Cheryl Crane, the 14-year-old daughter of screen star Lana Turner, overheard her mother's lover, Johnny Stompanato, making threats. Ms. Crane ran to the kitchen, grabbed a knife and went back to the bedroom. When Mr. Stompanato opened the bedroom door, Ms. Crane was standing right there. Did she stab him to death to protect her mother or did he essentially walk into the blade of the knife? Only Ms. Crane and the late Mr. Stompanato know for sure, but a jury ruled the death a justifiable homicide.
Mr. Ellroy says Mr. Stompanato became verbally abusive toward Ms. Turner over the course of their relationship, especially after Ms. Turner failed to take him along as her date to the March 1958 Oscar ceremony. (She was nominated for her role in "Peyton Place.")
"Lana liked her men hulking, hunky and hung," Mr. Ellroy said. "She liked to do the dirty-dog deed with the Stomp man, but she didn't like to be seen in public with him, so they kept it indoors."
After the murder, Mr. Ellroy said, rumors spread that Ms. Turner was the killer and colluded with her daughter, knowing the girl was unlikely to face any serious jail time given the circumstances. He deems that theory preposterous.
"People love to think something is inherently more dramatic, more secret, crazier, uglier, more vicious and vile," Mr. Ellroy said. "People love the inside scoop and will deny all the facts even when they are hit directly over the head with them. It's a very, very, very common phenomenon to ascribe more intrigue to a prosaic event than the prosaic event truly demands."
(In reality, Ms. Crane, now 67, acknowledged in her 1988 book, "Detour: A Hollywood Story," and in subsequent interviews that she did indeed stab Mr. Stompanato to protect her mother.)
Mr. Ellroy's early January tour was part of his selling of "James Ellroy's LA: City of Demons," a television series that aired on cable's Investigation Discovery until it was canceled last week midway through its run due to low ratings. The series recounted Los Angeles crime stories, many from the 1940s and 1950s, through re-creations, interviews and Mr. Ellroy's barked, almost yelling-at-the-audience narration. A talking, animated dog named Barko appeared in some segments with Mr. Ellroy, but the less said about Barko, the better.
Mr. Ellroy was born in Los Angeles in 1948, and, he noted, geography is destiny.
"I'm here because I live, breathe and sweat crime," he said. He chalks up that interest to the murder of his mother, Jean Hilliker, in 1958.
"My bereavement was complex and ambiguous. At the time of my mother's death, in true 10-year-old boy fashion, I hated her and lusted for her, and my greatest wish was to be able to live with my permissive dad who my mother had the good, common sense to dump 21/2 years earlier. I got what I wanted; it came at a horrible price."
Mr. Ellroy said crime has been his muse for 50 years with Los Angeles as the backdrop for his period stories, even though he does not consider himself a permanent resident of the city.
"I come back to Los Angeles in odd intervals when women divorce me," he said. "I've been back for four years now after a 25-year hiatus."
Not all the crime scenes on Mr. Ellroy's itinerary are quite so far removed from the present. He included 120 N. Sweetzer Ave., the Tudor-style apartment of 21-year-old actress Rebecca Schaeffer, who was starring with Pam Dawber ("Mork & Mindy") in the CBS sitcom "My Sister Sam" when she was murdered by a crazed stalker fan in July 1989. Robert Bardo, Ms. Schaeffer's killer, had hired a detective agency in his hometown of Tucson, Ariz., to get the actress's home address from the California DMV.
Mr. Ellroy explained that after Ms. Schaeffer's death, California laws regarding the release of personal information through the DMV were changed to protect celebrities from stalkers.
Several blocks up the same street from Ms. Schaeffer's home was another death scene, the home of actress Karyn Kupcinet, who died at age 22 in her West Hollywood home a week after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Ms. Kupcinet was the daughter of prominent Chicago sportswriter Irv Kupcinet.
The official cause of death was listed as manual strangulation. Mr. Ellroy theorizes that Ms. Kupcinet clipped one of her neck bones on a coffee table while "dancing around, bombed out of her mind."
"It's on the books as an unsolved homicide, but is it even a homicide?" Mr. Ellroy said, noting he's read the 6,000-page case file on Ms. Kupcinet's death. "It is the quintessential Los Angeles story of a lost little girl of privilege with a powerful dad, who wants to be an actress. She comes to LA and finds a handsome guy who looks a little like Johnny Stompanato, and she ends up dead. That's the story that gets repeated over and over again in Los Angeles. That's why misogynistic violence and Los Angeles are entwined."
Not every crime in Los Angeles results in death. As the bus pulled up to Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, Mr. Ellroy spoke of the power of scandal magazines of the 1950s that promised to tell readers, in Mr. Ellroy's words, "Who's a homo? Who's a nympho? Who's a lesbo? Who's a dipso? Who's a booze hound?"
Inspired by Confidential magazine, Mr. Ellroy stared out the bus window pointing at random passers-by on the street: "Serial killer! ... Nympho! ... Homo! ... Lesbo! ... Dope fiend!"
"I speak in scandal language," Mr. Ellroy said, explaining his sure-to-offend-some outburst and offering another example: "Sensational Sinatra, a macho-named mama's boy and [kitty-cat]-whipped putz, a punk with a pack of pit dogs to rough up recidivistic reporters."
Mr. Ellroy said Confidential magazine got away with "slandering celebrities for years with great impunity because everything they wrote about [celebrities] was entirely true, and they withheld information in case it went to court just to have some backup dirt to use as an extortion wedge."
But the scandal rags overstepped their bounds, suggesting actress Maureen O'Hara had a sexual tryst with a male movie-going companion at Grauman's. Ms. O'Hara successfully sued the magazine in 1957, and that same year California's attorney general charged Confidential founder Robert Harrison with "conspiracy to publish criminal libel." The trial resulted in a hung jury, Mr. Ellroy said, and before a retrial could get under way, a deal was brokered that effectively ended the magazine's prying. Mr. Harrison sold the magazine in 1958, and Confidential was defanged. Mr. Ellroy believes even without the lawsuits, this particular tabloid culture was on its way out of fashion.
"A new era was dawning," Mr. Ellroy said. Jack Kennedy was about to step into the White House. People were talking about sex and could see nudity in movies, including 1959's "The Immoral Mr. Teas," which Mr. Ellroy saw in another theater a few blocks east of Grauman's. "Our entire 2011 fixation on celebrity culture germinated with Confidential magazine because the rags did then what the tabloids do today: They make celebrities attainable. 'Wow, that celebrity just went into rehab. Maybe I could go into rehab and have sex with them in a vulnerable state.' "
After a night of prowling the slow-moving streets of Los Angeles while hearing historical histrionics in anything but tranquil tones, Mr. Ellroy offered one last refrain of a benediction popularized in his own "L.A. Confidential": "You heard it here first: Off the record, on the QT and very hush-hush."
First Published February 13, 2011 12:00 am