Tag Archives: JFK

‘I didn’t want to drop a turd on the reader’s lap’: Meeting James Ellroy

James Ellroy has a new book out, so I thought I’d republish my interview with him from 2009 when he was promoting Blood’s A Rover. I was unusually nervous before our meeting as I’d heard Ellroy was a difficult man to talk to and his memoir – My Dark Places – saw him plead a strong case for his own insanity. But all in all, it went pretty well. Ellroy seemed sad rather than difficult, although anybody can seem lonely in a Chelsea Harbour hotel on a Sunday morning. I wish I had kept the full transcription of the interview, as we also discussed, from memory, his research techniques and his plans for a new series of book, the first of which has just been published.  

Smart, stern and ramrod straight, James Ellroy sits in his Chelsea Harbour hotel room and broods about women and words. He is upright. Terse. Correct. He doesn’t quite speak the way he writes – hell, nobody speaks they way he writes, in sentences entirely unadorned with commas, adjectives or conjunctions – but his sentences are short, exact, punchy.

‘I love the English-American idiom,’ he says. ‘I love Yiddish. I love racial invective. I love alliteration. I love slang. I love profanity. And the simpler the language, the more direct, the more blunt, the better. When writers try to imitate me they always put in too many words, and none of it works.’

People try to copy Ellroy because his jazzy, rhythmic, slang-strewn pulp-prose is deceptive in its simplicity and addiction in its execution. The latest fix comes from Blood’s A Rover, the Nixonland masterpiece that completes his Underworld USA trilogy, an alternative history of conspiracy, crime and collusion that includes American Tabloid and the psychotic The Cold Six Thousand. Like its kin, Blood’s A Rover is a bloody collision of Johnny Cash, Raymond Chandler and Sam Peckinpah in which Ellroy uses three fictional male characters to explore factual events – in this case, the ascent of Richard Nixon, who joins J Edgar Hoover and Howard Hughes in the pantheon of American personalities Ellroy has slyly redrawn. ‘You’ve got to like Nixon,’ he says. ‘He;s funny, full of shit, drunk half the time. You’ve got to love a guy like that.’

Where this novel differs is in its bold ancillary characters such as Joan Klein, a femme fatale who embodies Ellroy’s tribute to a life-changing lover. ‘It’s about a boy who finds a matriarch, and that’s my story,’ he says. ‘One of the men is asked why he does what he does and he says, “So women will love me” and that’s why I write. I wrote it to honour Joan. There was a dark romanticism to the relationship, it ended badly and I will never see her again. There’s a line from The Hilliker Curse [Ellroy’s second memoir]: “I left bloodspills wherever we went.” She just cut me open.’

Joan is the book’s hinge. She is pursued by all three male characters – Wayne Tedrow Jr, a tortured ex-racist; Dwight Holly, a CIA fixer with shadowy brief and headful of grief; and Don Crutchfield, a teenage voyeur with the knack of being in the wrong place at the right time. All of them represent a part of Ellroy himself and all of them are looking for ‘salvation, redemption’, reflecting what Ellroy calls his ‘misunderstood Christian morality’. Joan brings female strength and left-wing idealism into their (and Ellroy’s) masculine right-wing world.

‘I wanted to write the story of that woman and me, and I wanted to write about symbiosis and synthesis and how the right and left need each other and how that often leads to catastrophe, because everything Joan and Dwight touch turns to shit,’ explains Ellroy.

There are other changes from past books. The prosy style is turned down a notch, the violence less gut-churning, the noir bleached a little. ‘The Cold Six Thousand was too difficult,’ he admits. ‘My ex-wife said: “Babe, it’s the most ambitious novel I have ever read, it’s 100 pages too long, it’s fucking complex, the style is too difficult and I didn’t know what the fuck was going on.” And she was right. So here you have a range of characters who are much more thoughtful, much more, in their weird way, composed and who think about shit a great deal more, so you need a more explicatory style.’

Ellroy breaks up the pace with journal entries written from less testosterone-soaked perspectives, and softens the mood towards a tentatively upbeat conclusion. ‘I don’t feel bleak,’ he says. ‘It’s very much a book about romance. I didn’t want to drop a turd on the reader’s lap.’

As distinct as Ellroy’s style is his setting, a pre-70s America where powers is held by the Feds and CIA, rogue cops, Hollywood players, bent pols and the Mob. Plots are punctuated by historic events, which he uses and interprets as narrative demands. It’s a world Ellroy has made his own, but didn’t invent.

‘The three Underworld USA book were launched by Libra by Don DeLillo [a fictionalised biography of Lee Harvey Oswald] and his take that JFK was assassinated by renegade CIA guys, crazy Cuban exiles and the Mob,’ he admits. ‘Conspiracy is there, I love writing about it, I love exploring the collusive mindset and I can’t prove any of it. What it comes down to is whether it is dramatically viable and whether the human infrastructure of the big public events is believable. That’s my job. I take the ideas, the characters, the milieu, the real-life history, the real-life situations and the research fills it in. Then I lie in the dark, I think of love stories, and I brood.’

London, JFK and Profumo

As fans of conspiracy theories know, there is always a connection if you look hard enough, and the one between JFK and the Profumo Scandal is particularly intriguing.

The connection is called Mariella, or Maria, Novotny. Different sources give her different places of birth – London, Sheffield, Prague – but most agree that she was really called Stella Capes. She almost certainly wasn’t the niece of former Czech President Antonin Novotny as she claimed, nor had she spent four years in a Soviet camp. But what’s undeniable is that she lived quite the life.

It was Novotny who hosted the infamous Man In The Mask orgy in an apartment in Hyde Park Square in December 1961, where various members of high society consorted with glamorous woman such as Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler. Novotny, who called the party The Feast of Peacocks after what had been served for dinner (she also cooked badger), spent much of the evening wearing a corset in bed with a whip and six men. Stephen Ward, the mysterious society osteopath, was there wearing socks and nothing else. Everybody else – among them actors, MPs and judges – was naked except for a man wearing a gimp mask, who was tied between two pillars and whipped by everybody on entry. There has been much speculation as to his identity, with names including minor royalty and Cabinet Ministers, but he has never been named.

The Feast Of The Peacocks became public knowledge after featuring in Lord Denning’s 1963 report into the security implications of the Profumo Scandal. This was written in the wake of Conservative Minister John Profumo’s resignation from the Cabinet following revelations regarding his relationship with Keeler and Keeler’s relationship with Soviet naval attach Eugene Ivanov.

This was not the first political scandal Novotny was at the centre of. Wherever she was born, she had moved to London in 1958 to become a model, and was soon performing as a topless dancer in Soho.

In 1960, she married. Her husband, Horace ‘Hod’ Dibben was in his 50s and moved in serious company. He ran the Black Sheep Club in Piccadilly and knew both the Duke of Kent and the Krays. He was a sado-masochist and a friend of Stephen Ward. Through Hod, Novotny met Harry Towers, a mysterious and sinister figure, who persuaded her to go to New York for some modelling work.

Novotny was soon operating as a prostitute in New York, with Towers as her pimp. Before long Towers had introduced her to Peter Lawford, the film star and John F Kennedy’s brother-in-law whose main responsibility was to find willing women for the insatiable President.  Novotny was soon sleeping with JFK. On one occasion she and fellow prostitute Suzy Chang were asked to dress as nurses, with JFK the patient.

In May 1961, Novotny was deported from the US, returning to London on the Queen Mary where she began hosting her memorable parties. Guests are said to include everybody from Bobby Moore to Felix Topolski. She was also introduced by Ward to both Ivanov and Profumo before Keeler, but nothing developed from this. Novotny believed she had been used to ‘get’ JFK and was wary of the same thing happening again. Keeler was not so smart.

When the Profumo Scandal broke, JFK was said to be fascinated by it, demanding to be kept informed of ongoing events, at least in part because of his own tenuous connection. Robert McNamara, the US Defence Secretary, knew all about the President’s dalliances with this prostitute who claimed to be from Eastern Europe and said ‘he felt like he was sitting on a bomb’. On June 23, one American newspaper even hinted at the President’s involvement, until his brother Robert Kennedy forcefully intervened and the story was dropped. Nobody picked it up and the President took his secret to the grave.

What to make of this? Some believe the fact Novotny was connected to JFK and Profumo was no coincidence and here you could go down a rabbit warren of theories and counter-accusations. One argument is that Novotny was part of a honey trap operation, run by Lyndon Johnson’s office by Towers and Ward with the assistance of the sex-obsessed FBI, aimed at blackmailing powerful men in Britain and America. Others claim it was a KGB sting – Novotny claimed Czech heritage and Chang was Chinese – and Towers was using his women to try to infiltrate the United Nations. Still others  say Ward and Towers were working for MI5 to entrap Ivanov. Conspiracy journal Lobster has more. This stuff could drive you insane.

Novotny later worked for the police in same capacity, and was used to help bring down gangster Charles Taylor. She died of an overdose in 1983. Some, including Christine Keeler, claim it was murder. Novotny had attempted to write a book about her life shortly before her death, but mysterious things kept happening to her and the ghostwriter, causing them to nervously end the project. After her death, her house was burgled and her diaries disappeared.

She did write a book in 1971. It is a fictionalised account of her adventures called King’s Road and one of the worst books I’ve ever read. You can get it on Amazon for 14p.