The following interview was conducted in July of 2011 with the late author/artist/actor John Gilmore. It is offered up here today out of love and respect in gratitude for the things I learned from him and will carry with me always.
John Gilmore is more than a former actor; he is also one of the best known writers to deal with the glamour as well as the darker days of Hollywood. He was born in the Charity Ward of L.A. General Hospital, and raised in Hollywood. From his seven year friendship with Marilyn Monroe which spawned Inside Marilyn Monroe, to his rather personal relationship with James Dean which began in 1953 and led to the books The Real James Dean, and Live-Fast, Die Young: Remembering the Short Life of James Dean, he introduces the world to a Hollywood sub-culture few could even imagine. He delves into the darker side with works like, Manson: The Unholy Trail of Charlie and the Family, formerly The Garbage People. He is the author of the classic true crime book, Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia, and Laid Bare: A Memoir of Wrecked Lives and the Hollywood Death Trip (wherein he recounts his experiences with Janis Joplin, Hank Williams, Jack Nicholson, Brigitte Bardot, Dennis Hopper, and Jayne Mansfield among others). He is currently working on his “Magnum Opus” novel, set in Hollywood’s 50’s and 60’s, and On the Run with Bonnie and Clyde a creative nonfiction on Bonnie and Clyde, due out in spring of 2012.
What was it like growing up in Hollywood?
As a kid I was facing interchanging phases of L.A. life, of course I’d lived nowhere else, so this was it, especially on the Hollywood side of the fence; movies three times a week, radio and seven daily newspapers; then crime-time L.A., cops, murders, stick-ups, the bleak fog of war hanging over all of it; war-time L.A., with round the clock defense and munitions plants, with nightly black-outs that brought fear and paranoia, the roar of airplanes overhead—were they ours? At the same time we listened to the Lone Ranger, to I Love a Mystery, to Inner Sanctum and Lights Out… Mix all that with swimming or horseback riding, the Clyde Beatty Circus or ice skating or hot dogs on the beach, the amusement piers Venice and Santa Monica, the drive-in movies and drive-in restaurants,–chocolate malts and cheeseburgers and Hollywood High and pretty girls…all that on the surface of the life I led growing up in Hollywood.
What led you to first try your hand at acting?
Wasn’t a ‘try,’ but more of an obligation I didn’t mind. My father, who I didn’t live with, always a frustrated actor and artist, wound up as an influential L.A. police officer, and at one point was shooting police safety movies and guess what,? They had a kid actor on hand—me. I did several of those short films, even some radio shows out of Station of the Stars on Sunset Boulevard, a police public service that also featured many promising movie starlets as well as established actresses like Bonita Granville, Ann Rutherford, Acquanetta the “jungle girl,” Joan Davis, Hillary Brooke, Ann Jefferies, Brenda Marshall and other players I was acquainted with. I did a couple other kid parts on radio, and then worked in a few films.
What was it like to appear in a Gene Autry film? Were you a fan of his work as a child?
Gene Autry was Gene Autry—you took him or not. Before he became a big star in westerns, he was a strong singer—kind of blues and folk, like Jimmie Rogers. What I did in the Autry picture was a small part, then a couple bits at Republic Studios, plus a bit part in a serial. Serials were very big as I grew up. Usually I’d be the kid standing in the dust as the horses galloped past. Later in Hollywood High School, my girlfriend’s father was a cameraman for Gene Autry Productions, right across the street from the high school. My step-grandfather had been a head carpenter at RKO studios, and I was out there a number of times, but Dean Stockwell had been a big kid star, so I was kind of out of luck. I did meet and talk to Dana Andrews and Merle Oberon, and both said, I had to wait a few years because I was caught in that “in-between state” where life, Andrews said, “looks like a bowl of limbo.”
What was James Dean like? Is it true you, he and Eartha Kitt used to ride motorcycles across Sunset Boulevard? What was that like?
I’d actually met Marilyn Monroe before I knew Dean, both occurring in 1953. I was advised to go to New York, get in a Broadway play, and then brought back to Hollywood with a studio contract. I had two mentors, Ida Lupino who was doing television, and John Hodiak who I’d met at MGM. My mother, who I did not live with, had been a bit player at MGM, always wanting to be in pictures but never making the grade. She’d been a drinking pal of Jean Harlow. Separately, both Ida Lupino and John Hodiak suggested I head for the Big Apple until I got out of that “in-between state” in the bowl of limbo. It was in New York when I met James Dean, and hung around together, both of us mavericks in the real sense—separated from the mother, Jimmy by his mom’s death when he was a kid, and mine by divorce when I was six months old, then ‘fostered’ to my grandmother in Hollywood. Our troubled pasts made both Dean and myself a little crazy, but withdrawn, intense and knotted into ourselves. We somehow understood one another without all the games, and then in ’54 he went back to Hollywood to star in a movie that would shake the city like an earthquake. Strangely, he was starting at the very top and there’d be no further place to climb to. I got to know Eartha Kitt from the dance studio where Jimmy’d sometimes fooled around, and we’d go to Horn and Hardart’s, drink coffee and eat pie, sometimes in Greenwich Village, a blast back then. I went to San Francisco for a play, then back in Hollywood where I picked up my friendship with Dean. We both had motorcycles and buzzed around, especially a couple times on Pacific Coast Highway. One night Eartha rode on the back of Jimmy’s bike and we all had a laugh. She didn’t ride that much, just a couple times. He was half-way through Rebel Without a Cause, and set to go to Texas on Giant, like immediately upon finishing Rebel, when went back to New York for a television show. I remained in New York through the summer, and late September I learned Jimmy had been killed in a sports car on his way to a race. He’d only spent eighteen months in Hollywood, made just three movies, two hadn’t even been released yet at the time of his death.
Do you remember first meeting Marilyn Monroe? What was running through your mind at the time?
I’d met Marilyn earlier, through John Hodiak, which I was still in Hollywood. She lived in the same apartment complex as Hodiak. Meeting her that first time was an experience that affected me deeply—one I’d never forget. She was so beautiful, all in skin-tight white, and except for big dark sunglasses, she looked like an angel. John and I were on the second floor and she was down in the patio. He was kidding her about the party she was having, and introduced us.
Do you consider yourself blessed to have known such truly talented people?
I think of the life I’ve known, like I’ve lived in the glass bubble that’s Hollywood—a kind of reality disconnected from the rest of the world. I’ve never known too many other regular people, by that I mean who were not artists or attached to the artistic or theatrical or motion picture way of life. In my friendship with Marilyn, she was in some ways much like Jimmy Dean, always alone. Marilyn had developed a façade into which she’d hide and simply push this façade through social encounters and work, though she never really got out of these encounters what she believed she was after. She was under contract to Fox, got sick of the ‘dumb blonde,’ roles, so she walked out. She flew off to New York. This is also set back a little in what I’m saying, and she sort of holed up with Actor’s Studio under the guise of Lee Strasberg. I knew his daughter, Susan, who didn’t like her father or her mother, and she befriended Marilyn, both looking to the other for emotional support. Such support never came.
Is there any one moment from that time that stands out most in your mind?
There are so many, I wouldn’t know where to begin… Paris and Brigitte Bardot? Then by 1960 Marilyn and I were practically set to star in a movie together, Jerry Wald’s production of The Stripper, based on the William Inge play, A Loss of Roses. I’d had the lead in the Los Angles production. Those times Marilyn and I discussed the project were some of the best moments I’ve had. At any moment being alone with her had been branded into my mind. We never made the movie, due to problems at the studio followed by Marilyn’s overdose with pills, classified as an “apparent suicide.” She’d just turned thirty-six.
What was the best advice any of them ever gave you?
That I should stop chasing the movie star dream and settle to writing. “A writer?” I’d say. “I just scribble, fool with ideas…” Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, and William Burroughs advised me to consider writing. I’d met Burroughs in Paris where I knew Francois Sagan, the writer, and met Brigitte Bardot at a party. Something clicked with Brigitte in that brief time that stands out in my mind. Brief, too brief. She too thought I should be a writer. “Vous devriez écrire un livre, cher…” she said.
Do you have any one work that you would consider your favorite? Which of your works holds the most meaning for you personally?
Of the dozen or more books to date, I suppose I’d have I’d have to nominate the Black Dahlia book—Severed, considered critically as an American classic, but I don’t think about those things. I do the work and move on. I was haunted by the young woman, Elizabeth Short, who came to my grandmother’s house when I was eleven years old, trying to find a cousin my grandmother’s sister might have known. Not long after, the young woman became one of the most sensational murder victims in L.A. history. I’ve never forgotten her. I’ve been married three times, divorced three times, spent two years in San Francisco with a ‘substitute Marilyn,’ been all over and now live alone in the Hollywood Hills, the work on-going. It sustains itself as the only time I’m operating on all eight cylinders.
How do you think Hollywood has changed most since the golden days? How would you most like to see it change next?
Hollywood now, from it was, is only an abstract idea. Everything that was Hollywood is no longer. The motion picture industry as I knew it, as Marilyn, Jimmy Dean, Dana Andrews and Merle Oberon knew it, died along with them, and even Hollywood’s corpse has ceased to exist. The same is now happening with the publishing industry: further erosion and collapse. Hollywood Boulevard, once an enchanting street, is now a dirty gutter.
What was it like to write The Garbage People? What was your first impression of the Manson family?
Writing that book was an education in the decomposing of the human spirit. That period contained, or should I say festered, a social disease that’s now of epidemic proportions.
Were you surprised by the events that unfolded later on?
No. Nothing about the falling-apart skeleton of a culture or the rotting corpse surprises me.
Why do you think people in this day and age are so taken with more violent ideas and are so fascinated by such terrible acts?
The violent ideas and terrible acts are the obvious symptoms of the social disease that threatens us all.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Watch old movies, silent films, noir films—all from the classic time when Hollywood was in bloom like a gigantic rose. I also read all the time. I have not watched television in over twenty years. I think of myself as a lifelong student of Ancient Egypt, a fascination with that imperial culture that’s been ongoing since I was seven, Years later, in 1959 I contracted to write a present-day (’59-60) movie to be set in Cairo. The movie was never made but the rights reverted to me. I will still write a novel based on memoirs of that time in Cairo. I’d met a beautiful young Egyptian actress who was to be cast in the movie when they got that far (which they never did), but the actress and I covered much territory. She showed me life in the back streets and alleys of old Cairo, showed me mummies and monuments and how to dance to ancient Egyptian music. We corresponded for close to a year, but she later married a lawyer.
Do you ever miss acting?
Never. Paradoxically I miss the abstract energy that radiates from an active sound stage. I miss the buzz of creating an alternate reality (but I do that as a writer; it’s in my head).
Do you think Hollywood will ever be as glamorous as it once was?
Never number two. I maybe watch five-percent of movies made today. They are trivial and the actors are facially and talent-wise simply as trivial as the movies. “Glamorous” is an obsolete concept. The studio system built long-lasting careers. There are no such players today as Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. There’s no James Dean or Marilyn Monroe, no matter how they argue. The desperation in their mimicking becomes visibly pathetic.
Can you tell us a little about your latest work, On the Run with Bonnie & Clyde? What led you to write that?
Bonnie and Clyde were ambushed the year before I was born. My step-grandfather kept all the newspapers and other items relating to their short lives and the incredible over-kill of their deaths. I tracked Bonnie and Clyde’s travels in New Mexico, Texas, and spent four years in Louisiana. I met three people who knew them. One man had worked with Clyde. Bonnie’s middle name was Elizabeth. She could not bear children, nor could Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Short (the Black Dahlia). Bonnie had never killed anyone. She was very small, almost the size of a child (she wore a size 3 shoe). The only criminal charge against her was for transporting a stolen car across a state line. She did not have a gun in her lap—it was a sandwich—when six Texas and Louisiana lawmen in ambush, each firing heavy caliber ammunition, sent twenty-six bullets into Bonnie’s thin body, three shots to her head and face. She’d been so shot up, the embalming fluid they tried pumping into her, leaked out of the holes in her body.
What projects are you looking forward to bringing your readers next?
Two novels and the book on Bonnie and Clyde, within the next two and half years…
When your time comes, how do you hope to be remembered?
As one who refused to compromise.
Anything you’d like to say before you go?
“Nuff sed,” as Barney Google used to say in the funny papers.