This Tuesday, April 10th at Film Noir Cinema, Miskatonic University will continue its inspiring series of lectures surrounding cult film and literature with a talk from Rémy Bennett, a New York-based filmmaker, writer, and curator—and occasional Diabolique contributor. Read her great piece on Roberta Findlay for Diabolique. Her upcoming lecture, LA Despair: Chasing Death with John Gilmore, will focus on the life and work of the film noir and true crime writer. According to the Miskatonic site, it will be a multimedia presentation and “meditation on the relationship between pop cultural crime landmarks in the past century and celebrity iconography viewed amidst the landscape of the tragedies [Gilmore] chronicled.”
A fascinating figure who produced a wealth of fiction, true crime, and memoir titles over the years, Gilmore is an underrated figure who deserves to be explored in depth and with such passion. He wrote about everyone from Marilyn Monroe to thrill killer Charles Schmidt and managed to capture a fascinating—and somewhat nihilistic—period in American history. Ahead of her lecture, Rémy Bennett spoke to Diabolique about Gilmore’s hardboiled life and his “Hollywood Death Trip.”
Diabolique: How did you discover John Gilmore?
Rémy Bennett: In 1994 when John’s book Severed about the Black Dahlia came out my father read it and when he was done I took it off of his shelf and devoured it in days. I was 10 or 11 at the time and my fascination for Elizabeth Short’s tragic story and the eerie 1940s dark L.A. milieu became sort of an enveloping fascination for me. The sadness of it all really haunted me. Later I would read in a new edition of the book that John was also 11 when he met Elizabeth Short, this was in 1946, one year before she was found dead. John would often say that his sensibilities were frozen in 1947, the year the Black Dahlia’s death would leave an indelible mark on him, and that all his obsessions sprung from meeting, and falling in love with this beautiful mysterious woman… and then to witness the aftermath of her death so closely had an incredible lasting effect. John’s dad was one of the LAPD officers working on the case, so it all felt tragically fated to him, I think in some way. This all makes me think a lot about how morbid fascinations are developed early on within some of us, and that those fixations and pursuits never quite go away, no matter how odd they might seem.
Diabolique: Where do you think a complete Gilmore novice should begin?
RB: I would definitely recommend reading John’s memoir Laid Bare: A Memoir of Wrecked Lives and the Hollywood Death Trip! This is as close to a biography on Gilmore that there is and it’s really a cross section of an astonishing autobiography that also delves into the subject matter that he tackles in his other books, like those on the Tucson Murders of Charles Schmidt, the Black Dahlia, and Charles Manson.
Diabolique: What about his life and work has made you want to delve so deeply into it?
RB: From a young age my favorite kind of literature was historical crime fiction and non fiction writing in the vein of Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song and Capote’s In Cold Blood… as well as books by Gary Indiana like Three Month Fever about the spree killer Andrew Cunanan. What I found in John’s work was a sadness, almost a tenderness that really mined a sort of haunting tragedy that felt like an undercurrent in American culture that existed beneath so much of what I saw going on in our society. He never sensationalized his subjects, but always humanized them whether they were victims or perpetrators of violence. He was intent on getting to the heart of troubling complexities of the human condition in relation to our society that perpetuated crime and violence, as opposed to titling his readers with gory details.
I think he was really ahead of his time in this regard. He was profiling killers in his writing before that was common practice, even in the FBI. He also demystified the icons of Hollywood and lifted the curtain of this idea of a glamorous Hollywood to reveal a raw reality that was rooted in the currency of sex, greed, and desperation. He showed Hollywood for what it was behind the glitz and glamour: a town full of hustlers and fame seekers, who he liked to call “LA Mutants.” He was also uniquely qualified to speak on this topic, really a true authority, being a native son of the city—and the child of a bit player from RKO pictures and a father who was a cop in the LAPD. He felt strongly about authenticity, and he could see, I think, as his life went on, that it was a quality that was somehow losing it’s value in the popular culture. John was the real thing and sadly a dying breed.
Diabolique: I’m really fascinated by this idea of someone existing, as a writer, in the intersection of fiction, memoir, and true crime. In Gilmore’s case, a lot of the subject matter he worked with seems to lend itself naturally to this. Do you see him as belonging to a particular movement or maybe capturing a particular zeitgeist?
RB: Yeah, I think so for sure! And I think the mingling of personal recollections with theses iconic pop cultural landmarks in history sets his canon of work apart for those reasons. I read that he was credited by some critics for innovating “a disturbing, new kind of writing in which the genres of true crime and investigative journalism collapse under the brutal intimacies of personal recollection.” There is such a personal honesty that his recollections hold and an almost shocking proximity to so many people and events that comprise the cultural landscape of the last century. He was the first ever person to interview Charles Manson, and the transcripts are fascinating. He doesn’t once mention the headline grabbing details of the murders and the movie stars involved, but instead records Manson’s recollections of childhood and documents a fragment of his inner life. He truly wanted to learn from the criminal events that he covered.
Diabolique: For those who can’t make it to your class, are you going to do anything with this subject matter in the future? And what other work of yours should we look out for?
RB: I’m actually working on a feature length documentary about John’s life and work so I hope people can look out for that soon!
Thank you so much, Rémy. And for those of you in the New York area, pick up tickets here: http://www.miskatonic-nyc.com/events/la-despair-chasing-death-with-john-gilmore/.