The Ghastly One: The 42nd Street Netherworld of Director Andy Milligan by Jimmy McDonough is now available to pre-order from FAB Press. It’s a revised, updated, and massively expanded new version of McDonough’s original masterpiece, so, please, click that link now and order yours immediately. Then come back.
Somehow, The Ghastly One initially slid between even cult film fan’s cultural cracks, despite being one of the greatest cinema biographies ever written, and that its subject—a gay sadist who pioneered New York’s avant-garde theater world and made 29 astonishingly (let’s say) unique exploitation movies between the 1960s to the ’80s—is endlessly fascinating.
Indeed, The Ghastly One failed to break big after Richard Corliss deemed it “brilliant” in Time magazine, as he had done for Rudolph Grey’s Nightmare of Ecstasy (which eventually became the 1994 film Ed Wood), and John Waters singled the book out as being eminently worthy of a Broadway musical.
All this is not to say The Ghastly One simply vanished, though. The book’s reputation endured in underground circles while its author thrived above-board. The same year as Ghastly, McDonough published another milestone, Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography, and he’s since definitively chronicled Russ Meyer (Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film) Tammy Wynette (Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen), and Al Green (Soul Survivor: A Biography of Al Green).
Despite its revitalized reincarnation, The Ghastly One harkens straight back, as it always did, to McDonough’s roots as co-editor—with a berserk visionary named Bill Landis—of New York’s legendary frontlines-of-42nd-Street ’zine, Sleazoid Express.
The new Ghastly One also emanates directly forth from McDonough’s present ongoing project, which may well be the most mind-blowing gift he’s given us to date. McDonough curates and edits the website ByNWR.com, the astounding art and culture outlet presided over by filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn.
With justice at last at hand for The Ghastly One, Jimmy McDonough took some time to talk to Teen Movie Hell author Mike McPadden for Diabolique about all the topics mentioned above—and more. Their conversation follows.
Mike McPadden: Right off the bat, what’s new about the new version of The Ghastly One?
Jimmy McDonough: Well, I always had in my mind to do a more visual, revised version of this book. It kind of haunted me. I’m a pack rat, and I had held onto all this stuff from my Andy years—even my tattered visitor’s pass when I saw him fading away in the hospital at the end. I wanted to share this archive with the world, and Nicolas Winding Refn—NWR—graciously undertook the task. I thought it would be easy. This was over three years ago.
I don’t know what it is about this book. It’s kind of cursed. So many things went wrong, took a left turn, trying to get it back in print. I often wondered if Andy’s spirit had put a hex on the project. Until I actually have it in my hands, I won’t believe that it’s real.
MM: Why now for the update?
JM: Like so many things in my life, it just happened. Nicolas offered, and I was ready to go.
It’s a daunting thing to go back and revisit something you’ve already done. I don’t recommend it. Because I didn’t want to fuck it up. There seems to be a few people out there who really like this book. It weighed heavy on my mind.
Actually, though, the reason I wanted to revive it was just one sentence. There was one new sentence I wanted in the fuckin’ book, OK? And I went on from there, with great trepidation…but if somebody’s expecting there’s going to be a secret chapter revealing Andy had an extra head, or committed some act of depravity that went undocumented, they will be disappointed.
Like “Andy’s secret heterosexual life!”
[Laughs] Yes. Now, wouldn’t that would be shocking? Actually, he had a few sexual encounters with women. I don’t think they were his cup of tea [laughs].
I just fine-tuned some things…I wanted to be more accurate about others. And I added a few new details from Andy’s interviews when I thought they meant something.
Once I got it all done, I looked at that one sentence I wanted to put in the book to begin with and I thought, “Fuck! This doesn’t work,” so I took it out. That was the last change I made, funnily enough. Harvey Fenton, my publisher, did an incredible job putting up with my insanity. What an eye for detail. Fabulous guy.
Are you going to tell us now, or ever, what that sentence is?
Yeah. In the year 2525. Exhume me, Mike, and I’ll spill the beans.
When I initially read The Ghastly One, I was gobsmacked by its greatness and convinced that it would have the same or greater impact for Milligan that Nightmare of Ecstasy did for Ed Wood. Why do you think that didn’t happen when the book came out?
I actually helped get Nightmare of Ecstasy published, because I put author Rudolph Grey together with the publisher. Five minutes into perusing the huge stack of dog-eared research papers he brought over to my place, I knew it was gold – and that it would be a movie. I told Rudolph exactly that. I think he thought I was nuts [laughs].
I’m glad it was published, but I wish somebody else had put it out, because the guy who did wound up treating Rudolph badly, which is but one reason I cut this particular joker out of my life. He was going to put out Ghastly, too, for half a second, but I came to my senses and took it away from him.
Rudolph. What a solid-gold guy. I love him to death. Every so often I call him up and we bitch about modern life. I have to admit he beat me to the punch with Nightmare…and I helped him! That’s the way the cookie crumbles. At the time there was only room in the world for one book about a lunatic no-budget director. And I knew Rudolph’s tome would captivate the imagination at large. How could it not? Nightmare of Ecstasy is one of those books that you can open to any page, any time, day or night, and there’s always a surprise. I keep pestering Rudolph to do another edition, because great material was left out and it deserves a better presentation.
You can kind of cuddle up to Ed, nestle in the angora. Not Milligan. Andy’s a little difficult to take, he’s like a spoonful of castor oil, with legs.
Imagine if Andy Milligan were alive now. He’s just read The Ghastly One. Describe, in detail, how he would react to it and what he’d say/do to you?
He’d kill me and then defile my headless corpse… and I’m quite certain a slight smile would grace his face as he did it.
The momentum of The Ghastly One has never waned. Through the years, I think there’s been a slow-motion snowballing effect. Now, there’s this whole new appreciation of Milligan since NWR came into the picture. Is that what we call him—NWR?
I call him many things, but… [laughs].
[Laughs] Okay! What are your thoughts on NWR as the new champion of both Milligan and you?
Nicolas, my partner in crime. Like Sinatra, he does things his way. I’m Editor-In-Chief of his crazy website—byNWR.com. It’s a 24/7 obsession, no mere job. Nicolas is just one of these guys who, when he takes something on, doesn’t do it halfway – he takes it to the fucking moon.
But, yeah, do you think I wasn’t surprised when the BFI put out Nightbirds? I still kind of feel like that was the heist of the century. Turns out that was just the beginning. [Laughs]
And when it comes to Milligan, Nicolas shows respect. He just wants Andy to get the recognition and appreciation he deserves. It’s admirable. Some strange event will happen out in the world, and he’ll ask me, “What would Andy do? What would Andy think of that?”
So why is the Andy Milligan moment arriving at last?
The things Andy created remain unusual. Within a minute or two of watching his films you can tell it’s Milligan’s world. Anybody can list their many deficiencies. Easy to do. But a certain strangeness remains, so they stubbornly hang in there – and I have to say that, over the years, my appreciation for his peculiar talents has only grown. His films have become old friends to me. Demented old ghosts.
So I’m just happy about Andy these days. He deserves recognition. And if I played some tiny role in it, well, you know, great. He was a hell of a guy to hang out with. I watched him make his last movies. I got to see it actually happen. Hell, I was even in one for a second. [laughs]
Let’s talk about Andy’s movies on Blu-ray. On TV and on VHS, it was like you couldn’t see what was going on. I didn’t finish a single Milligan movie until they started coming out on Blu-ray. Now that I can actually see them, I’ve been like, “Oh, my God! There is fantastic stuff here. This is a genuine artist at work!”
I think there’s something to be said for Andy Blu-ray, funnily enough. Technology was frequently Andy’s enemy. I don’t mean that in a holier-than-thou way. He just didn’t have the patience to do make the necessary adjustments – like having a working mic, or a camera with a functioning viewfinder – that would have made his movies much more accessible. He made these movies in a mad frenzy. He was a punk. Andy was going to do things his way, and that was: top o’ the world, Ma! Ka-blam!
But I do think in this case technology has come to his aid. Sometimes movies made in a toilet bowl can benefit from our seeing the bacteria more clearly.
[Laughs] That’s it!
You notice a lot more what’s going on, you see the wiggly little tails on the paramecium. With his sound, which was marginal at best, you are now able to discern a bit more of his pungent dialogue. This additional clarity allows you to immerse yourself in his murky, malevolent vision. So the verdict is in: Andy Milligan was made for Blu-ray [laughs].
I’ve used The Ghastly One as a sort of “secret handshake” among those of us who love it. And we’ve also become fascinated by you. Are you aware that there’s a Cult of McDonough out there?
No, no. I’m a recluse. A loner. I’m like the J.J. Cale of biographers. Or maybe the Howard Hughes, minus the bankroll. I avoid groups, panels, sharing a crumpet with colleagues. I prefer invisibility.
Now, I say that, and here I am editing ByNWR.com! I’m dealing with writers and layout people and arranging film shoots…I’m out in the world. I wrote about this a bit in the introduction to the first volume. So for me to claim I’m a lone wolf these days, maybe that’s phony. I don’t know. ByNWR has dragged me into the light.
We’ve had a lot of laughs due to byNWR. Nicolas has sent me to fancy events in Milan, Paris and Germany, just to stink up the joints. Monkee Puppet, this friend of mine, let’s say, made an appearance before the lofty audience at the Cinematheque, only to insult French people at large – and it was documented by three cameras [laughs].
The biggest thrill for me is unleashing people on the world that I find talented – like Charlie Beesley and his found photographs, which we run every month as a featured column, “Charlie Beesley’s Discarded America.” Or publishing the very first prose by Molly Scott, a wickedly talented individual. Or writing about the fabulous Keiley Mynk and her crazy life and art. I love sharing these people with the world. LOVE.
Where are you from? Where did you grow up and what was that like?
I was born in New York, moved to New Jersey for the early part of my childhood, then to Indianapolis in my high school years. I left home there at about 15 or 16 to live with friends.
I was very crazy when I was younger. People who know me these days might say, “Oh, really? And what’s the difference now?” I nearly burned down my high school. Then I put my arm through a glass table arguing with my mother about a forged report card. I remember pulling my arm out of the glass and spraying her with blood. It makes me laugh when I think about it, but I don’t think ol’ Mom thought it was too funny.
I always think of this line that Hubert Selby used to say, “I could never live with the intensity of my feelings.” And that was really the case. It’s a wonder something really bad didn’t happen with my name on it when I was a young punk. I’m a lucky guy…to even be alive [laughs].
So, anyway, I consider myself, like, half East Coast and half Midwest. 50/50 split between The Deuce and the drive-in. The Man with Two Heads.
How did you land in Portland?
Funny story. I had finally completed the deal on Shakey, the Neil Young book, which took two excruciating years, and I had this odd notion that I had to live in the country to write that story. My friends were like, “Jimmy, you don’t even know what a fucking cow looks like!”
Originally I came up here to interview Neil’s tour manager, this cranky old guy by the name of Bob Sterne. The Redhead was with me – aka Natalia – and we had been living in L.A. in just utter, grinding poverty. That couple of years getting the book deal for Shakey settled was murder. I had been utterly naïve – I actually thought Mr. Young’s handlers wanted the book to happen [chuckles darkly].
I throw myself into whatever I do, and here I was researching this book without any funds to do it. The day I interviewed David Crosby, he generously gave me an armload of box sets and CDs – and I had to pawn them that night so I could have gas money in order to drive out the next morning and interview Neil’s producer, David Briggs. Eventually I had an advance – but I never wait for things like that, I just jump in at the deep end. Always. I shudder every time I go back to L.A. now, because I see that fucking penny jar Natalia and I were living on.
Anyway, I drove up here to the Northwest, and Natalia and I found this old farmhouse (with no heat besides a wood stove) way out in the middle of absolutely nowhere, on the edges of this primitive town near Mount St. Helens – it was like The Land Where People Just Discovered How to Walk Upright. I loved it out there, but Natalia had to commute into town daily and finally she just couldn’t hack it anymore. So about eight, nine years ago we moved down to the big city of Portland, where I remain now. Civilization. I actually see less people here that I did in the country [laughs].
What were the first movies you loved as a kid?
Hard question, because, as anybody who knows me will tell you, I remember nothing of my own life, particularly my childhood. Natalia’s always saying, “How can you write about anybody’s life? You remember nothing about yours.”
I became fascinated by many things as a kid. I had this maniacal Abraham Lincoln obsession. I remember going to Ford’s Theater and they had to trot out a different tour guide, just to answer Little Jimmy’s questions. How fucking annoying I must’ve been. Then it was sharks. I had to know everything about sharks. Which I now have an unnatural fear of…
Here’s one movie I remember: Birdman of Alcatraz with Burt Lancaster. The whole thing purports to be about this ‘real’ person and his little birds. It just fascinated me. Later, I found out the movie was far from accurate. It made him into this kind of saintly animal lover, when the actual Birdman was a vicious psychopath who was using a prison lab he’d conned out of the authorities not only for researching his feathered friends but as a still to make booze [laughs].
And that stuck in my head. I thought, “That’s interesting. Here’s this portrayal of a life that’s not really true.” And that set me on my way a bit.
Another movie: when I was four or five, I remember seeing The Nutty Professor with my brother and my father, and Jerry Lewis scared me so they had to leave the theater and take me home. I found Jerry terrifying. I wasn’t alone, apparently. (Later on in life I’d watch his yearly telethon religiously, high out of my mind.)
Then there was a movie called Eyes Without a Face. It was on television in New York – on “Chiller Theater” maybe, under the title The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus. It was dubbed, cut up, but it still made an indelible impression. Big influence, that one. It stayed with me.
There’s a rumor you’ve kept a vast amount of the paperwork surrounding Sleazoid Express. Is there any chance we could get a complete collection published?
I’m all for it. But there are other forces at work here. I know somebody who would publish it right now, today, in an edition similar to this insane Ghastly One book – guess who –but, so far, any inquiries to other parties involved have been greeted with deafening silence. So it’s anybody’s guess. I was just in the basement yesterday, looking at all that shit. I have it all.
How did it end with you and Sleazoid founder Bill Landis?
We stopped talking after the last issue of the original run. Eventually I got this call in the middle of the night [imitates the nasal whine of Bill Landis], “Jimmy, it’s Bill. I gotta move! Right now! The landlord’s threatenin’ me!” So I drove over there with my then-girlfriend Carole. He was living in terror of this landlord. I’m sure Bill had done some bad antics to provoke this guy and he was really in fear.
Anyway, I carted Bill and [his wife] Michelle, who had a terrible cold, plus all of their crap to my apartment in Hoboken. As I remember I did most of the lifting. When we got there, Michelle puked all over the front steps to our apartment. I thought, “Yeah, that sums up this situation perfectly.”
Bill didn’t want all his stuff, so it was going to end up in the dumpster. I said, “Fuck, man, I’ll take it!” I’ve had it forever. I’d love for somebody to do the book in the right way, the appropriate way. I have dreams of seeing the last issue, “Ecco: The Story of a Fake Man on 42nd Street,” in a large format so you can see all the tiny, awful details.
By the ’90s I hadn’t talked to Landis for years. He called me out of the blue and told me he was going to resurrect Sleazoid and wanted me to be a part of it. I felt it was a terrible idea and I told him so. Why go backward? It just wasn’t my life anymore. That was it – I had now joined the Landis Enemies List, which was longer than Nixon’s. That means you get endless crank phone calls, nasty emails from seven addresses, plus a smattering of satanic postcards. It didn’t even manage to mildly annoy me, but whatever. It was inevitable. He turned on everybody.
One of my favorite passages in Shakey is your observation that when you think about the 1970s, three things come to mind: strip malls, the Zuma album, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s a minimalistic capsule of extremely evocative power. What three personal things like that come to mind when you think about the 1960s?
Little Kiddles; “Walk Like a Man” by the Four Seasons; and Bloody Pit of Horror.
How about 1980s?
Freeway, “Serve the Servants” by Nirvana, Bob Dole shilling for Viagra.
And how about the 2010s?
The phrase, “A very stable genius;” Leaving Neverland; and “You Want It Darker” by Leonard Cohen.
Give us your next three dream biography subjects—fast!
Charlie Feathers, Moms Mabley, and Lana Del Rey.
What are three recent movies you loved?
The Irishman. Saw it in the theater three times in the first five days it ran. The first six hours are the usual shenanigans, but that last hour…. Mamma mia. First time I saw it, it completely unnerved me. Casino is my all-time favorite movie, I think I’ve seen it 32 times. It’s a love story [laughs].
I thought episode five of Too Old to Die Young was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. That’s a master class in mayhem, that one. I laughed so hard I was crying. And it even ends with a song by my buddy, the great honky-tonk Frankie Miller. Although I don’t know if I should show it to him, his cowboy hat might explode [laughs].
I can’t think of loving a third recent one.
What are three recent movies you hated?
To paraphrase Andy Milligan, “Hate is a strong word, my dear.” I can’t get worked up enough to hate a movie.
But I would say The Favourite struck me as a bad Andy Milligan movie. And that’s saying a lot! When I saw it, I thought, “Man, if Andy had been given this idea and this budget – and if he had any patience – he would have concocted something crackpot brilliant.”
I fell asleep during The Other Side of the Wind. Funny to see Welles become Russ Meyer for a few minutes, though.
I could have really done without that Scorsese Dylan documentary, Rolling Thunder Review: A Bob Dylan Story. I thought the mock footage was a lazy, off-putting trick.
I’m a true crime fanatic. True crime writers like Gordon Burn and Brian Masters were inspirations to me. I watch all these true crime miniseries, no matter how stupid. These days they all have to be 112 episodes, padded and stretched out like molasses; it makes me yearn for the days when a story had to be told in one shot.
There’s four things. I actually hate criticizing any of them, but you asked. That’s about as much as I can complain about anything.
OK, a movie I actually did hate: The Joker. Walmart counterculture for the Trump era. Would’ve been funny to watch it with him, though.
Have you read any other good film-related books lately?
No, I haven’t. But I’ll tell you one of my favorite books. The Room by Hubert Selby, Jr. Utterly depraved, beautifully written. When Selby aka Cubby signed my copy in 1987 he wrote, “I’m glad you found your way out of The Room. Just stay out, my friend.” I wish I had taken his advice.
First song you were obsessed by?
“My Cricket”, by Leon Russell. Sucker for a sad song.
A song you’ve committed unspeakable acts to?
“Lil Darlin” by the Demolition Doll Rods. I’m not telling. It always brings a smile to my face.
Song you want played at your funeral?
There’s two. “Beneath Still Waters,” by George Jones and “Remember Me” by Jimmy Lomax. I want all those dames in the front row crying, tears staining their fine black silk.
So finally, let’s dive deep into ByNWR. Tell us in detail about the site.
A book could be written about this project…a very deranged book. ByNWR is the craziest thing I’ve been involved in, which is saying a lot. I met Nicolas back when I was trying to find a home for Andy’s archive. He called me and wound up taking it all. I hadn’t seen any of Nicolas’s movies; I didn’t really know who the guy was. Sorry, Nicolas! I know you’ll hate that!
Anyway, Nicolas started buying up odd, low-budget movies left and right, and picking my brain about each one. Now, I’ve got to tell you, once I stopped hanging out on 42nd Street, my life took a whole different turn, and I went with it. So it wasn’t like all this shit was fresh in my mind, OK? I’m just not that way. Whatever I’m into is what’s around me. Let’s forget about the past, as Clyde McPhatter once sang.
But Nicolas forced me to look back, and he has a very different approach as to how he sees these films, which enabled me to come at them with a fresh eye. Suddenly he had stacks of these movies and he was, like, “Well, what am I going to do with them?” The idea of creating this site came up. Little by little he roped me into it.
He wanted to do ByNWR.com as a free site, which I told him was a terrible idea from the get-go. [Laughs] Give the films to the world, no strings attached… It started mutating. He came up with this idea of having a whole bunch of content that was loosely connected to the films. And when I say loosely…
MM: Can you give us an example?
JM: In my volume of the site, which was called Regional Renegades, the first film was The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds and there are some mannequins in it. A friend of mine, my ex, Carol Nicksin—who somehow lived through all the Sleazoid years—was originally going to do a thing called “Sleazette Express.” And one of the stories she did for it was “Barbie and Me,” a nifty little booklet about her obsession with Barbie dolls and collecting them. I thought it was fantastic.
One night I dug out this booklet and sent it to Nicolas, who said, “This is just fantastic! It has to go on the website! Has to! Has to! Has to!” And I countered, “But there’s no connection,” to which Nicolas pointed out, “There are mannequins in Nest of the Cuckoo Birds and these are dolls – that’s the connection!” Good enough for me.
What’s an especially interesting connection you’ve explored on the site?
In our second volume, we show a Dale Berry atrocity, this crazy, no-budget excuse for a movie called Hot Thrills and Warm Chills. An actor, Berry wanted to be a country-western star, make it big in Hollywood. Oddly enough, he thought the best way for him to break into Tinseltown was to make a crappy, low-budget movie with a bunch of non-acting strippers in Texas.
So here we are ready to show this movie and I couldn’t find out anything about Dale Berry. Not a goddamn thing, really, and I’m a pretty good detective. Berry, who later actually had a little career doing Western parts mainly on TV, never talked about making these movies. Ever. Not even to his family. I didn’t know if he was embarrassed or just wanted to forget them, but there was zero information to be had. I felt the whole idea was boring anyway – nutty guy makes nutty movies, heard it before. Then I thought, “Why not zero in on all the women he put in these films? They were the ones that had to endure being in them.”
I set out to find out to find as many of these women as I could, so I might learn how they felt about being Dale Berry superstars and discover what they’re doing now. Find them I certainly did, although that wasn’t easy. And none of them remembered a fucking thing about the movies or Dale Berry, really. [laughs] But they were doing crazy, interesting stuff in their lives. Right now. The kind of situation I relish. So I did a mammoth 60,000 word five-part opus for the site called “Hot-Blooded Women: The Dames of Dale Berry.”
One of these women being the extraordinary Beverly Oliver Massegee, who starred in one of Dale Berry’s other tawdry masterpieces – the fabulous Hot-Blooded Woman, which we also show on the site – and went on to witness JFK’s assassination, giving her another career as the so-called “Babushka Lady.” Beverly claims to have shot 8mm film of the assassination, which she says was confiscated by the FBI.
Then Beverly married a mobster and witnessed all sorts of horrible things. She got addicted to smack, then kicked it and became an evangelist—in fact, a Christian ventriloquist! And she sings as well. She worked as a nightclub singer back when she did Hot Blooded Woman. No one had ever put all the different Beverlys together in one place. I did a massive interview with her.
Then Nicolas said to me, “If Beverly’s still doing her thing, why don’t we go film her?” I’m something of a 3D fanatic, and when I learned our cameraman was well-versed in shooting stereo, we decided to film her in 3-D as well. Beverly was absolutely incredible. So was her little Christian dummy, Erick! As was her daughter and duet partner Pebbles! It’s all there on the site, and it’s a beautiful thing.
Recently I wrote a 20,000-word ByNWR article on carny queen Georgette Dante, who starred in a crazy 1968 picture by the Ormonds called The Exotic Ones, and the article features more than 400-plus pictures from her life. It’s gigantic, and I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. Our motto is: sky’s the limit. Go for broke! Bet the house on the lucky number and watch the wheel spin round…who the hell else is doing this stuff? Nobody, that’s who. It’s a big thrill for me.
It’s a big thrill on this end, too. And the site is so huge, I get lost in there, and I’m happy to be lost in there and I never want to come out sometimes.
Yeah, you know, I get complaints all the time from people saying, “I can’t find that story, where is it?” “It’s not like other websites, I have to look around,” waah waah waah. Tough luck. Nicolas wants it that way, like an Easter Egg hunt. You have to be a scuba diver to find what’s there. Swim around, a fish might go by. Or some larger with more teeth. As we like to say, ByNWR comes with a mystery attached.
For better or for worse, I can’t think of anything else like byNWR in this $1.98 world, it’s a little jewel in the night.
It’s nice to have a new obsession in life…am I right?