By Jon Lewis

University of California Press. 233 pages. £24.95. ISBN 978-0-520-28432-6

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Los Angeles in the post-1945 period was a city in transition. The population increased from 3.2 million in 1940 to nearly 7.8 million in 1960. To accommodate all these people there was a boom in property development, much of it in an unregulated way. Established and newly developed neighbourhoods sat alongside empty spaces waiting for developers to move in. Jon Lewis quotes Mike Davis, who in his classic City of Quartz, said that Los Angeles “was first and foremost the creature of real-estate capitalism”.

Cities always attract transients. men and women passing through, sometimes staying and forming a subculture around cheap hotels and shabby rooms. If they work, they are in low-paying jobs and often need to boost their earnings in various ways. The film industry drew in people from across the United States, and in particular the young who were lured to Hollywood because of the glamour that seemed to be attached to it. Magazines devoted to the lives of the stars wrote about parties, night clubs, big cars, fancy clothes, the promise of fabulous earnings. A beautiful young girl or a handsome young boy living in a small town in the Midwest, say, looked at their humdrum lives, and  dreamed of getting to Los Angeles and being “discovered” by a talent scout. After all, the magazines described how it had happened that way for more than one hopeful arrival.

It wasn’t true, of course, or at least not in most cases, and as a consequence the city was full of young people eking out a living as waitresses, bell-hops, garage attendants, shop assistants, and anything else that would provide the basics while they attempted to find a way into films. For the women, the “anything else” might include posing for pin-up photos or perhaps outright pornography, and even, in some cases, sleeping with men who could have connections in the film studios. Visiting the bars, restaurants, and other places where they gathered became a routine. The problem was that the studios were in a state of decline. Attendances at cinemas were falling, the tie-up where studios also controlled cinemas so could dictate what was shown and where and when, was breaking down, and there were labour troubles. Hollywood still spelled excitement and success to many people, but all was not well beneath the glossy surface. Star-struck youngsters “imagined a place that no longer existed”.

It wasn’t only men with links to the studios who could be found in bars and night clubs. Los Angeles had a sizeable collection of gangsters of various kinds, not to mention oddballs who preyed on impressionable women, young or old. A woman alone, or with a like-minded friend, might soon be picked up, and there was no assurance that the man involved was not dangerous. But the chance of a way into films, or even just a few free drinks and a meal, was sometimes enough for her to be less than careful about what she was getting into.

In January, 1947, a local housewife saw a woman’s corpse on some waste ground. What was particularly chilling about her death was that the body had been cut in half and also bore evidence of other grotesque mutilations. Needless to say, the Los Angeles newspapers (there were several at that time) had a field day reporting what became known as the “Black Dahlia” murder. The woman was soon identified as Elizabeth Short, aged twenty-two, and originally from a small town in Massachusetts. She had lived at various addresses in Los Angeles, usually sharing with other women, and was known to participate in what is referred to as a “sleazy bar culture”, while trying to find a way into films. Jon Lewis says that she “may well have been the victim of a bad bar hook-up”.

The Black Dahlia case was never solved, though a selection of suspects came and went over the years. And there were several other similar incidents of women being killed and their bodies dumped where they were easily found. None of them seems to have captured the imagination of the press and public in the same way that Short’s death did. The very nature of her death and the mutilation of her body probably kept curiosity alive, though there may also have been a certain amount of lack of interest in later murders due to Los Angeles “earning a reputation as America’s reigning capital of weird crimes”. It was a reputation that was matched by it also being a city “where the style and content of criminal activity reflected the many competing and in many cases oddball subcultures taking root there”.

In an aside, Lewis looks at a small group that clustered around the Surrealist artist and photographer, Man Ray, during his time in Los Angeles. The group included Henry Miller, John Huston, Max Ernst, Edward G. Robinson, and others. There is no suggestion that any of these people had anything to do with the Black Dahlia case, but in what might be just a curious coincidence, a 1945 photo of a reclining woman by Man Ray shows her with her arms above her head in the same way that the murderer had positioned the body, or the upper part of it, of Elizabeth Short.

Years later, a retired homicide detective, Steve Hodel, alleged that his father, a Doctor George Hodel, had killed Elizabeth Short. George Hodel had been a friend of Man Ray. Lewis draws attention to the “exquisite corpse” parlour game in which Surrealist artists “reassembled and reconfigured cut-up images of naked woman”. He refers to works by Dali, Magritte, and Ernst which have a “distinct visual correspondence between the stylised depiction of the female body in these Surrealist artworks and the crime signature of the Black Dahlia killer; the horrible mutilation of the corpse, the carefully posed and sectioned body left by the side of the road”.

I remember seeing an exhibition in Paris some years ago, in which the subject was sex and Surrealism, and being challenged by some of the images displayed. The distorted dolls by Hans Bellmer were particularly disturbing. Was it possible that George Hodel, said by Lewis to be a specialist in sexual diseases who had a police record as the possible killer of another woman, though he was never charged, was a frustrated Surrealist who acted out his creative fantasies with Elizabeth Short’s body?

Girls like Short inevitably came into contact with criminals as they toured the bars, and the presence in Los Angeles of gangsters such as Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and Mickey Cohen was well-known to both the police and many people in Hollywood. The film industry needed money all the time and, the Mob invested in the studios. The result was: “In a relationship business like Hollywood’s, business relationships easily morph into social relationships, so much so that by the mid-1930s mobsters, moguls, and movie stars commingled frequently and often carelessly”.

Lewis also points to gangsters and film industry workers crossing paths “at nightclubs, bars, clandestine gambling establishments, and private parties after the war. The private and professional could and often did overlap at these sites, where interactions and relationships were complicated by alcohol and illicit drugs, human trafficking (prostitution) and the occasional `badger’ or blackmail plot that might accompany sexual procurement and indulgence, as well as the frequent  exchange of cash and credit at card, dice, and roulette tables”.

Criminals were also involved in the “organisation of the movie industry’s labour force,” especially when it came to anything concerning trucks and truckers. The Teamsters ran everything in that line and were Mob controlled. The Conference of Studio Unions (CSU), which represented craftsmen, technicians, and the like, had backing from the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, a union firmly in the grip of the Mob. In 1945 there was a violent strike at Warner Brothers when the CSU clashed with the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) which had Willie Bioff and George Browne in its leadership. Both were “gangsters and fervent anti-communists”. Herb Sorrell, head of CSU, was said to be a communist, though he denied that he was, but with anti-communism coming into fashion, it made sense to smear him that way. The studio bosses, faced with dealing with Sorrell, or co-operating with the gangsters, chose the latter as the safest option. They didn’t want to appear to be pro-communist. Journalists who covered labour relations in the studios were aware of the management/Mob connections, but thought it wiser not to write about them.

The dangers of getting too close to gangsters were highlighted in the case of Jean Spangler, a film extra (she had a small role in Young Man with a Horn, a film featuring Kirk Douglas and Doris Day and supposedly based loosely on the life of Bix Beiderbecke), who got involved with “Little” Davy Ogul, an associate of crime boss, Mickey Cohen. Spangler, like Elizabeth Short, had dreams of “making it” in Hollywood, and thought that Ogul could introduce her to the right people. But she seems to have got caught up in some sort of feud between Cohen and another gangster, Ignazio Dragna. He hired a killer called Johnny Rosselli to get rid of Spangler, who it was said had been working with Ogul to blackmail well-known men she’d slept with. Spangler’s body was never found. It’s of interest to note that Rosselli was a friend of Harry Cohn, the chief executive of Columbia Pictures. This doesn’t suggest that Cohn knew anything about Spangler’s disappearance, but it does illustrate how some Hollywood moguls had cosy relationships with gangsters.

There is so much packed into Hard-Boiled Hollywood that it’s a temptation to carry on quoting from it. The role played by gossip columnists like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons is scrutinised, as is that of the magazine Confidential, which under the guise of performing a service by informing the public about the misdemeanours of their favourite stars, made money by agreeing to withhold stories if they were paid enough. Crime was widespread. There was corruption among the police in Los Angeles, and if an honest cop got too close to anyone important he would warned off by one or other of his superiors.

There are sad stories, too, stemming from a milieu where, as Lewis says, “young women have always been disposable commodities in the movie business”. The saga of Barbara Payton’s brief time in the sun and her decline into alcoholism and an early death is an example. She had featured in supporting roles in films like Trapped (with Lloyd Bridges), Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (with James Cagney), and Only the Valiant (with Gregory Peck), and seemed to be headed for a reasonably-successful career in films. But she was known as “a notorious Hollywood party girl who had been for the past few years hitching her star, such as it was, to a series of wealthy and famous men”. She got involved with the established actor Franchot Tone, many years her senior, but was also having an affair with a minor player named Tom Neal. The outcome was a public brawl between Tone and Neal which put the older man in hospital, and inevitably was widely reported in the scandal magazines and elsewhere.

Payton’s career began to slide. She was in England in 1953, desperately trying to make a fresh start with roles in a couple of Hammer “B” films, and on her return to America picked up work in a few independent productions. Her final screen credit was in Murder is my Beat, described by Lewis as “a cheapie noir”. It was directed by Edgar Ulmer, who has become something of a cult figure among film noir enthusiasts, but hardly rates as a film masterpiece. After that, it was downhill all the way for Payton until, in 1967, she was found destitute, drunk, and near-death, at the rear of some shops in Los Angeles. The refuse collectors who came across her thought it was an old woman lying there, but she was just thirty-nine, and had been working as a prostitute. She died a couple of months later, forgotten by just about everyone.

Marilyn Monroe crops up as another casualty, and Lewis looks into the conspiracy theories surrounding her curious demise. Was it murder, suicide, an accident? With a cast of politicians (Robert Kennedy), mobsters (including Jimmy Hoffa, head of the Teamsters union), film people (what did Peter Lawford know?), and many others, it’s a story likely to run forever. There was even a CIA agent who, on his deathbed, claimed to have carried out an order to kill Monroe and make it look like she’d taken her own life.

As part of his investigation into Hollywood post-1945, Lewis considers three films which, he says, reflect on what was happening to an industry that was changing. Sunset Boulevard angered studio executives with its cynical view of Hollywood’s past glories and its present problems, In a Lonely Place looked into seedy corners of life in the film capital, and The Big Knife focused on how crimes could be committed and covered up when a star’s career was at stake. Based on a bitter play by the HUAC-hounded Clifford Odets, it also had something to say, albeit in an oblique way, about the blacklists.

Hard-Boiled Hollywood is obviously a dark survey of some of the less-salubrious aspects of the Hollywood story. There were, no doubt, more than a few hard-working, quiet-living actors, writers, directors, and others involved in the many fine films that came out of Hollywood in the years after 1945, whose names never got into the newspapers and magazines. But, as Hedda Hopper said, “Nobody’s interested in sweetness and light”.