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the alley motel

Walking uphill in Westlake, a neighborhood just north of downtown Los Angeles, I paused at the site of the most intriguing whodunit in local lore, save the Black Dahlia case. Here, on February 1, 1922, in the living room of his duplex bungalow, one of sixteen units at the Alvarado Court Apartments, William Desmond Taylor, an Irish-born film director and former actor, was shot and killed by an unknown intruder, though a number of likely suspects have been identified by professional and armchair detectives, based partly on the eyewitness account of Faith MacLean, who, with her screen-star husband, the since-forgotten Douglas MacLean, lived next door to Taylor. Shortly before eight that night, Mrs. MacLean said, she heard what she thought might be a “muffler explosion,” and when she opened her door to investigate, she saw, standing in Taylor’s doorway, a “funny looking man” dressed “like my idea of a motion picture burglar” in a checked cap, dark suit, and “something tied around his neck.” He—or possibly she, since Mrs. MacLean later allowed that this person could have been female—seemed ready to leave through the garden courtyard that led to Alvarado Street, but he hesitated, as if “Mr. Taylor [had] spoken to him from inside the house.” Then, in perhaps the eeriest detail of the case, he met Mrs. MacLean’s gaze in the darkness. He didn’t panic or advance on her. “No,” she said, “he was the coolest thing I have ever seen,” and in that unruffled spirit he closed Taylor’s door, “then turned around and, looking at me all the time, walked down a couple of steps that go up to Mr. Taylor’s house,” disappearing in name but not deed through an alley that led to Maryland Street.

Man in clown makeup on LA bus

It was two weeks before Halloween, and I was on a Metro bus headed toward Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard. Ahead I saw the ninety-year-old Vista Theater, which is just down the hill from the strip mall where Jerry’s video store used to be, and this was the season when I particularly missed the store. Its owner, Jerry Neeley, claimed an inventory of 20,000 titles of every genre, but horror was his specialty, so that I would observe Halloween by renting movies that only he would insist on stocking: The Astounding She-Monster, The Hideous Sun Demon, The Thing That Couldn’t Die. In his twenties Jerry had contributed articles to Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, my preadolescent bible, and to rent a movie from him was to invite anecdotes like this one about The Astounding She-Monster: “You’ll notice that the lead actress never turns her back to the camera. That’s because she split the back of her costume open on the first day of shooting and they didn’t have time to repair it.” Jerry’s knack for trivia was a magnet for regular customers, and it was shared by his wife, Mary, an animal lover who taped snapshots of customers’ pets to the side of a filing cabinet behind the counter. She and Jerry could both be peevish, and the store was frankly homely, with its cinderblock walls and ramshackle racks, while its musty smell must have been off-putting to some; but there was no shortage of corporate alternatives that smelled vaguely of plastic and were staffed by cheerful teenagers who consulted computers when asked about offbeat titles and said, as expected, “Sorry, we don’t carry that.” Jerry’s store wasn’t computerized. Everything there was done by hand: the bookkeeping, the checkout slips, the signs that distinguished the Fellini section from the Fassbinder section, the Gable section from the Garbo section, and so on.

Hello Stranger

By D. R. Haney

Movies

The doorway scene in Stranger by Night

By my count, I wrote seven “erotic thrillers,” a largely and justly forgotten genre that combined noir and softcore porn. It was a favorite of tight-fisted producers of the VHS era, since it rarely required special effects, aside from squibs and silicone breasts, and the action was easily confined to a few affordable locations. Much of Stranger by Night, for instance, was set in the apartment of a distraught cop and the office of the female psychologist who was trying to help him determine if he had murdered any hookers during his alcoholic blackouts. She helped him as psychologists usually helped their clients in erotic thrillers: she had sex with him. Her husband was murdering hookers to frame the cop. Spouses in erotic thrillers were almost always predators or prey.

Author Karen KarboThe Diamond Lane was first published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in 1991, Overlook Press published a trade paperback in 1993. What’s it like to have a book go out of print, then be reissued in a gorgeous new edition with sexy French flaps, and an introduction by Jane Smiley?

Long before The Diamond Lane was published the first time, Dr. Egon Spengler prophesied that print was dead. And yet, it lives on. The only way print can continue to survive can is in beautifully designed editions like this new one from Hawthorne Books. So far, there’s no app that can completely satisfy the human need for the tactile experience, and if you’re a reader, eventually you’re going to tire of Kindle, that cheap floozy, and settle down with something you can gaze upon, you can feel and hold. Also, crack open a book and take a whiff. There’s no smell like that ink-on-paper smell. As far as being lucky enough to have Jane offer to write an introduction, I am humbled beyond measure. I have been a huge fan of hers since The Age of Grief. She’s one of our greatest contemporary writers, plus a kick ass horsewoman.

Stag by Arv Miller In 1949, Marilyn Monroe, then an obscure starlet, posed for a beer ad at Tom Kelley‘s commercial photography studio in Hollywood. According to some accounts, a Chicago-based calendar manufacturer, John Baumgarth, saw the ad while visiting Los Angeles and inquired about the model: would she pose nude for a calendar? In other accounts, Tom Kelley recruited Monroe for the calendar job on the day he shot the beer ad, knowing that Baumgarth was shopping for nudes. Either way, nude photos could wreck a Hollywood career at the time, as Monroe was keenly aware, so she only accepted the job after being persuaded that nobody would recognize her. To further protect her anonymity, she asked Kelley to schedule the session for night, with no assistants save for his female business partner. Kelley agreed, and Monroe arrived at the studio at seven p.m. and posed for two hours on a red velvet theater curtain that covered the floor and complemented the color of her hair, then a reddish blonde. Twenty-four shots were taken, and Baumgarth chose one of them for the calendar he marketed as Golden Dreams, a name suggested by Monroe’s blondness, though it also inadvertently referenced the nighttime shoot.

frankenstein behind the scenes

Last Halloween, I’d asked a few Nervous Breakdown contributors to share their favorite terrifying movie scenes, and D. R. Haney was among them with his contribution from Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I, on the other hand, had picked the tunnel scene from Willy Wonka, which I explain so you understand why I like collaborating with Duke. My brain grows three sizes bigger by association. He’s like a cinematic moral compass for which true north is James Dean. And this year for Halloween, Duke and I decided to discuss the classic tale that produced another old-school Hollywood icon.

I finished trying on the umpteenth pair of vintage eyeglass frames and walked back out into the heat towards the hospital. A woman stopped me. I’d noticed her earlier mostly because she seemed lost in thought, and her yellow t-shirt said in spangly old glitter iron-on MOZART. She looked out of place at Vermont and Barnsdall simply because she looked so lucid. The rest of us seemed to drift around her like whirlpools of air on the sidewalks.

Nowhere Men

By D. R. Haney

History

Errol Flynn at the courthouse

I was in the basement of the downtown Los Angeles courthouse, where I was researching a possible nonfiction book about an overlooked film-noir actor whose offscreen brawling and balling led to occasional trouble with the law, as well as comparisons to his better-known colleague at Warner Bros., Errol Flynn. The basement is where old case files are stored on microfilm, and one of the files I needed was lost, so that I kept returning to the courthouse to see if it had been found. I was out of luck again that day, headed to the elevator when I was stopped by a nondescript man of sixty or so. He couldn’t find his way out of the basement, he said. I told him to follow me. He did, remarking on the flatcap I was wearing.

“I used to know somebody who wore a hat just like that,” he said. “She was a big racing-car driver back in the thirties. She was friends with my family.”

He repeated that. He repeated everything he said. Something was clearly wrong with him, though whatever it was, he was in no way menacing. Evidently obsessed with height, he informed me, apropos of nothing, that he was six feet tall. Then he asked how tall I was, and before I could answer, he said, “Six-one, right?  You’re six-one.”

It was around 9:30 P.M., and I was waiting for the bus in Hollywood after being momentarily paroled from my job as a so-called telefundraiser. When I applied for the job, I didn’t think I stood a chance of being hired at that company or any other, having been out of the mainstream work force for the majority of my adult life, which I’ve spent eking out a living as an actor and screenwriter. The entertainment business used to be said to be recession-proof, but if that was ever true in the past, it’s true no longer; the minute the economy went to hell four years ago, I received fewer and fewer offers of acting and screenwriting jobs, until finally I received none at all. Even production-assistant jobs were, in my case anyway, scarce, though I did manage to PA for a couple of days on a teenage space musical financed by NASA, as well as on a Disney Channel spot in which Miley Cyrus was interviewed alongside her achy-breaky father to mark the end of Hannah Montana.

I accepted a job out past a boulevard named Rampart, the last name anyone would ever dream up as a short diagonal through Los Angeles, California. I crossed Rampart in the morning going east, retreating over the last stretch of continental pavement I’d traveled months before. The downtown by now looked exposed, without the fortified walls.

Fifty years ago today in Los Angeles, where I’m writing these words while facing a screen of a kind that didn’t exist in 1962, a thirty-six-year-old woman fatally overdosed on Nembutal and chloral hydrate, sedatives she used, or tried to use, to sleep. She had a documented history of insomnia and attempted suicide, but there’s no conclusive proof that she killed herself intentionally or accidentally or that someone else administered the drugs. Her housekeeper, whom the LAPD thought “vague” and “possibly evasive in answering questions,” reported finding her dead at around three a.m. in the master bedroom of the Spanish Revival hacienda she had bought six months earlier on the advice of her psychiatrist, who supposed it would give her a sense of stability. She lacked that sense, having lived since childhood like a nomad, for the most part in California, where flux was and is the norm.

Go Set, Go

Starting over. A lot of shampoo sets and haircuts went up in smoke, along with the tragic loss of all my children’s photographs.

Richard took us to the Malibu Inn Hotel for a few days. We needed fresh air. Billy was still living at Richard’s, but the phone was disconnected. We found Billy, booted him out, and Adam, Daisy, and I moved into the bachelor pad with nothing but new toothbrushes—that was it. My kids were confused.

“Mommy, what happened, how come our house burned down?” Adam asked.

We are all networking these days and The Conversation is no longer in the first instance a Coppola film made in the 1970s – it’s actually an exchange of lucid, super-intellectual commentary on Kim Jong-Il’s cognac collection, Kate Perry’s divorce, the latest news from the Straits of Hormuz and Jonathan Franzen’s views on the eBook.

Please explain what just happened.

I searched through my email to see which interviews I needed to do for my upcoming tour that features Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show, Parts 1 & 2 and the films What is It? and It is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.  And I decided that The Nervous Breakdown was next.

This is a Hollywood story, and it starts simply: A car drives through the streets of Los Angeles. It is March 2, 1994, and behind the wheel sits a man who has found a level of success that eludes the desperate majority here. Simon Lewis is a film producer and, at 35, an accomplished one. His is not a household name, but it is becoming an industry one. He makes light stuff mostly, and brings it in on time.