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On Top of the Underbelly

In his true-crime books and scandalous novels, John Gilmore illuminates the dark side of Los Angeles

September 17, 2006|Peter Gilstrap | Peter Gilstrap recently moved from L.A. to Nashville to write for the Tennessean.

Weather-wise, it's a Sunday afternoon that could have been lifted from a long-gone Los Angeles: sunshine, sizzling blue sky, slight breeze. The air smells good--a touch of bus exhaust laced with Pacific. John Gilmore, all six feet and seven decades of him, stands in the middle of Pershing Square in the middle of the city that's been the backdrop for all the murder and bloodshed and pain and death that he's brought to life in the pages of his books.

The square is virtually empty, tranquil even. A cop, some tourists, a couple of slumbering individuals who are either homeless or tired or both. Nothing like what Pershing Square was when Gilmore first came here as a child, back when Liz Short was flashing her eyes at off-duty sailors, back when folks still knew who Pershing was.

"There were people everywhere, everywhere," he recalls. "Guys were shouting and yelling, talking about the Depression and unions and things. It was all grass in the center, big fountains in the middle and dense with palm trees. It's still beautiful, you look at the old Biltmore and the newer architecture. It's just a wonderful feeling, a wonderful rising feeling."

It's safe to say that most people don't stop to read inscriptions on public monuments, but Gilmore wants to point something out, some words carved into a gently curving wall many feet long. It is a passage written in 1946 by activist-author Carey McWilliams. In part it reads:

I had spent an extremely active evening in Hollywood and had been deposited toward morning, by some kind soul, in a room at the Biltmore Hotel. Emerging next day from the hotel into the painfully bright sunlight, I started the rocky pilgrimage through Pershing Square to my office in a state of miserable decrepitude. In front of the hotel newsboys were shouting the headlines of the hour: an awful trunk-murder had just been committed; the district attorney had been indicted for bribery; Aimee Semple McPherson had once again stood the town on its ear by some spectacular caper; a University of Southern California football star had been caught robbing a bank; a love-mart had been discovered in the Los Feliz Hills; a motion-picture producer had just wired the Egyptian government a fancy offer for permission to illuminate the pyramids to advertise a forthcoming production; and, in the intervals between these revelations, there was news about another prophet, fresh from the desert, who had predicted the doom of the city, a prediction for which I was morbidly grateful. In the center of the park, a little self-conscious of my evening clothes, I stopped to watch a typical Pershing Square divertissement: an aged and frowsy blonde, skirts held high above her knees, cheered by a crowd of grimacing and leering old goats, was singing a gospel hymn as she danced gaily around the fountain. Then it suddenly occurred to me that, in all the world, there neither was nor would ever be another place like this City of the Angels. . . .

Gilmore only recently discovered this passage, which describes his own attraction to the perverse beauty of Los Angeles, a land of bright sunlight, a land of trunk murders.

"One day I got downtown early 'cause I wanted to beat the traffic, and I had a cup of coffee on Grand," he says. "I was walking through Pershing Square--I remember being there as a kid--and I read that inscription on that wall. I looked up, and there were all these enormous buildings, all shining like Thermos bottles in the morning sun, and I thought, 'It ain't like the old days,' and I suddenly realized the city keeps changing, see, it changes and changes and changes, and suddenly it's this huge thing rising out of the dust, rising out of the old city, and there it is, and either you're with it or you're not. That's what I felt. It was very invigorating, very exciting."

This from a man who has spent most of his life moving around this country and others, from city to city, looking for a career, a creative existence that would fit a time and place.

"I've come to believe that where you're born and where you're raised initially, it imprints on you somehow," he says. "You can go other places, but there's still that distant voice--you can kind of make it out at times, you know?"

A young Latina in wickedly tight pants and high heels sashays past. Gil-more gazes appreciatively.

"There're a lot of other things to L.A. too."

John Gilmore's Los Angeles is populated by legions of the deceased. This is a good thing; these are the characters he's drawn to. Over the course of 11 books of mainly autobiographical and crime writing, he's become the Boswell of the city's scarred underbelly, the chronicler of good people gone bad, bad people gone worse and things gone very, very wrong.

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