JUNE 8, 2018
“I WANTED TO SAY something to you,” John Gilmore whispered to Charles Schmid Jr., who was sitting in front of him, alone, during a recess at Schmid’s murder trial in the Pima County courthouse. Schmid (who was known locally as “Smitty”) was accused of killing two Tucson girls, Gretchen and Wendy Fritz, though there was every reason to believe he’d also killed another teenager named Alleen Rowe. Gilmore, Schmid, and the bailiff were the only ones in the courtroom that afternoon in Tucson in 1965.
Schmid leaned back and Gilmore, who was then writing for the Los Angeles Free Press, quietly introduced himself: “I’m a friend of Lois Hudson’s.” (This was a friend of Schmid’s wife.) A bond would soon develop between the actor-turned-journalist and the accused killer, but Schmid’s lawyer, William Tinney, disapproved. “I don’t give a good God-damn if he’s a friend of Jesus Christ,” Tinney told his client. “You don’t say a word during the entire duration of this trial!”
The Charles Schmid case marked the beginning of one Los Angeles writer’s trip into certain dark caves of midcentury American insanity, which he would transform into a series of gonzo true-crime books and Hollywood memoirs. It was the moment when a handsome and promising young television actor named Jonathan Gilmore left Los Angeles and, in effect, disappeared — to be replaced by John Gilmore, nonfiction writer and firsthand witness to some of America’s gaudiest nightmares.
The author of Laid Bare: A Memoir of Wrecked Lives and the Hollywood Death Trip; Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder; Live Fast-Die Young: Remembering the Short Life of James Dean; and The Garbage People, one of the first books ever written on the Manson case, seemed instinctively drawn to negatively charged individuals like Schmid, the so-called “Pied Piper of Tucson,” a talentless wannabe musician whose Manson-like hold over his teenage followers extended all the way to killing-for-fun. (Gilmore would later claim that when he first met Charles Manson in 1969, the latter recognized Schmid’s name and exclaimed, “I love the guy!”)
Not since the gory murder spree of James Dean–aping garbageman Charles Starkweather in the late 1950s had Americans been given such a fright as by the Charles Schmid case. It seemed to represent to Americans in 1965 a collision of everything gone wrong with kids-these-days: not just sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but full-on motiveless homicide. Charles Schmid himself was an oddball to beat oddballs, with his troweled-on pancake makeup, a fake rubber beauty mark on his cheek, and the crushed tin cans pounded down inside his boots for height. He dreamed of becoming a duplicate Elvis, “except I’ll be better.” It was all daydreams and fluff. He played tape recordings inside his amp while pretending to strum his guitar.
To John Gilmore, a 30-year-old of considerable experience in late 1950s Beat circles and in the worlds of theater and television, Schmid was something else: a charmer capable of getting people to do anything he wanted, whose antisocial, rock-hard psychopathy was masked by genuine charisma. Gilmore was enthralled.
Schmid, in turn, recognized the hepcat from Hollywood as someone he could relate to and trust. “Of all these old newspapermen, he singled me out,” the writer remembered, decades later. “Smitty would look over at me whenever there was a mistake or a discrepancy in the testimony: an arched eyebrow, a nod, or a pursed, mocking smile.” This was a meeting between two simpatico personalities, representing flip sides of the artistic outsider: one ambitious, dishonest, pathological and manipulative, the other ambitious, openly curious, and talented.
“He was a consummate actor,” Gilmore recalled. “He’d never get angry. He was always cool, calculated, just calmly telling you, in that very convincing and soft baritone voice of his, ‘where it’s at.’ Talking about the prosecutors, he’d say, ‘this is just more of their way of building a case against me…’ He never raised his voice. Nothing rattled him.” During a recess in the courtroom, Gilmore watched Schmid talking with Diane, his new bride, “his head sort of dipping, insinuating, and I could see her knees sort of getting weak under the chair, shaking.” Any actor, not just John Gilmore, might have frankly admired such a performance.
He was present later, on a windswept afternoon when Charles Schmid led sheriff’s deputies to the lonely spot in the desert near Tucson where Alleen Rowe’s skull and skeleton were found, tightly buried underneath dry, hard-packed dirt. “Tight where he buried her. Shallow,” Gilmore remembered.
“Diane, the girl Smitty had just married, knocked on the door of my hotel room one day,” Gilmore told me in 2014. “At the door she said, ‘Smitty wants to see you.’” They drove to the Pima County Jail. There, behind glass, sat Schmid, who’d already decided to make Gilmore his personal manager: “I’ve already written 120 pages to give you.” Thus began Gilmore’s first business meeting (the first of many) with a murderer.
An agreement was reached. Thanks in part to his sudden ownership of Smitty’s writings, Gilmore was able to write his first true-crime book, The Tucson Murders (Dial Press, 1970). The book treats its readers to long, generous quotations from Schmid’s crazily verbose letters and his jailhouse musings, which carry a very special tang of ’60s kid slang: not just descriptions of his bitchin’ threads (“I sure miss decking out in my Continentals and vest and high-collar shirts like I used to, Baby”) but the sad delusions of his dreams of life after prison (“If this RCA audition falls through, I’ll try again and again and again until I prove I’m good enough to cut my songs. I know I can”). At its worst, the material is pop-psych schlock:
The uncertainties of tomorrow and the lost yesterdays add tangible fuel to my inner rebellion […] As I played and sang I projected sex with intent […] even the basic simplicity of my dancing became tainted with sexual suggestiveness […] Any mask I wear to disguise this becomes far more translucent and my carnal appetite becomes visible to the apparent embarrassment of my onlookers […] I truly wish I could be a great surgeon, or philosopher, or anything constructive, but in all honesty I’d rather turn my amplifier full-blast and listen to the noise until I’m enveloped.
(This reminds me that Gilmore later would mock the convoluted writings of Ed Wood, whom he had known both as a local Hollywood wino and a fellow paperback writer.)
Like James Ellroy, another son of Los Angeles who grew up addicted to crime books, John Gilmore made no bones about his relentless pursuit of fame. The difference was, Gilmore started out in life more or less on the high road. His early ’50s friendship with fellow aspiring actor James Dean is a matter of public record (in most, if not all, Dean biographies). His interactions with the young Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper, as well as with such “successful losers” in Hollywood as Ed Wood, TV horror-hostess Vampira, and actress-turned-prostitute Barbara Payton (all highlighted in his book Laid Bare), naturally became grist for the mill of a writer who’d once worked for Confidential Magazine back in 1958.
As his own half-successful quest for movie stardom seemed about to peter out by the mid-’60s, Gilmore took the advice of a Broadway producer who told him “you’re not an actor, you’re a writer.” Years of churning out cheap paperbacks followed while he was living at the Hollywood Tower on Franklin Avenue (circa 1962–’65) and taking occasional acting jobs, mainly in TV Westerns. His close friendships with Dennis Hopper and avant-garde filmmaker Curtis Harrington during this period should have produced something, but didn’t; though thoroughly committed to “the art life,” Gilmore was never an avant-gardist himself. For him, the human condition was always the target.
When the Schmid story broke nationally, in late 1965, the young paperback writer from Hollywood was able to inject himself into the case without difficulty. His book doesn’t purport to solve the mystery of Smitty’s urge to kill, but the current reprint edition (retitled Cold-Blooded: The Tucson Murders and published by LA-based Amok Books) lets present-day readers enjoy its seedy, mid-’60s desert-town ambience, and the incredulous spectacle of a teenage girl’s strange willingness to help someone lure her “best friend” out of her bedroom one night, after that someone suddenly decided, “I want to kill a girl tonight! I want to see what it’s like, and if I can get away with it!”
Gilmore is on record as stating that, in the 1950s, “if you didn’t want a business degree or want to get married, you were branded as an outlaw.” This chip on the shoulder against ’50s society seems to have cemented his personality (despite his pro-police sympathies; his father was an LAPD patrolman). He nursed lifelong obsessions for certain L.A. crime cases. To his peculiarly open mind, it was a short step from hanging out with James Dean to meeting in cheap bars with a shadowy skid-row character who may have killed the Black Dahlia.
A New York–based writer and filmmaker named Rémy Bennett, 33, has been working on a documentary about Gilmore’s life and work, to be titled L.A. Despair: Chasing Death with John Gilmore. She’s been fascinated by his books since childhood. “I was 13 when I pulled Severed off of my father’s bookshelf,” she remembers. “The story haunted and transfixed me with its sad and darkly beautiful telling of the life of Elizabeth Short, and the eerie atmosphere of 1940s Los Angeles that she inhabited.” Bennett would ultimately read through the entire shelf of Gilmore books, true crime and fiction, and come away fascinated by the writer’s own quixotic, “maverick” life: his relentless search for witnesses-to-the-crime and the damaged survivors of scandal, for the aging criminals, actors, and actresses he’d once known from the aborted movie career that might have been, had his luck run differently.
“Maybe he was too much of a loner himself to make it, in that collaborative world of acting,” Bennett wonders. As Gilmore himself boyishly put it in his Jimmy Dean memoir: “Other people had told me I was misanthropic…”
In late 1969, Gilmore decided to head up to Death Valley and interview Charles Manson, recently arrested and being held in jail in the town of Independence. He snagged the interview, and was appalled by the spastic facial contortions and con-man jive this particular monster was spewing forth. “You can’t really have an exchange with Charlie. You are the target […] for a gamut of histrionics,” he wrote in the resulting book, The Garbage People:
He had the shuck down to a first-rate act. Charlie talked and talked […] and to give his ricocheting mental aberrations a little religious zing, he’d mouth half of what he said […] as cryptic parables: a seer whispering through his beard. But to an eye trained to the cages, it was philosophical mumbo-jumbo. Basically it did nothing more than clog like wax. To me, having repeatedly supped with the Devil, you might say, it is very understandable.
In an April 1971 newspaper article titled “Manson: Happiness Is a Cell,” Gilmore presented extensive excerpts from his interviews, most of which never made it into The Garbage People. Here, Charlie’s crackpot philosophy was laid bare:
If you want to get to people and unlock their minds the basic way you get to them is through fear […] I told Sadie to sweep the floor and make me a sandwich, because this is all a woman is for. That is why God put them here […] (then) I can get to her mind and get inside her soul, and body. The Black Muslims know the way, they’re ahead of us,” said the failed race-warrior. “Fifty years ahead of us, fifty years ahead. They know what’s happening. I turn them on because I’m the only white guy in here who knows about Mohammed […] I have no fear of dying. I’ll know where and I’ll know when it is my time. I’m going to lie down, put a little white tag on my toe with the name Charles Manson on it and then I’m going to lie down and die.
The attraction to this kind of darkness never left Gilmore, but he survived unscathed. “I never had the self-destructive urge,” he once said, unlike so many of his earlier Hollywood friends who would fall by the wayside: Sal Mineo, noir movie actor Tom Neal (I guess you could throw Ed Wood in here, too), and, of course, James Dean himself — “Jimmy had talked about Paris, but he never made it out of the country except to Tijuana to see the bulls.”
Looking back at his work when we spoke in 2014, Gilmore said that he realized his “unconscious intent” was always to insert himself into the books as he wrote them, whether fiction or nonfiction: “The creative artist is always part and parcel of what he’s doing; basically, it’s the world according to me. However that sounds, selfish or not, why should I let that be buried underneath?”
The days of having business meetings with murderers were over by then. He’d spent his 60s writing more books, was interviewed for European TV, and had to shrug it off when a proposed David Lynch movie, to be based on his Black Dahlia book, fell through. He was living in a large, book-filled house in suburban North Hollywood, though he had always dreamed of leaving Los Angeles and retiring to the desert. “I’m a committed indoorsman,” he once told me, over coffee and pancakes at Du-Pars.
John Gilmore died at the age of 81 on October 13, 2016, from leukemia. He no doubt shared his friend Jimmy Dean’s outlook on the afterlife, which he quoted in Live Fast, Die Young: “‘What bullshit!’ he said. There was no God, there was only art, only the composer, the creator of the symphony. ‘No matter what they say, there isn’t any heaven. There’s no hell either. There’s nothing before you’re born and there’s nothing after you’re dead.’” Gilmore’s two children spread his ashes somewhere in Death Valley.
At the memorial held for him at Hollywood’s Museum of Death, writers and L.A. historian-types as diverse as Kim Cooper of Los Angeles Visionaries Association, Stuart Swezey (his publisher at Amok), and filmmaker Richard Connor remembered the maverick who chucked a budding Hollywood career for the hinterlands of the American psyche. “He never compromised,” his son Carson told the assembled. “I’ve seen personal relationships go straight out the window, if it meant giving up what he knew he had to do.”
Rémy Bennett flew out from New York to attend the memorial. When we met at the 101 Coffee Shop on Franklin Avenue, she told me that Gilmore’s empathy for the “Black Dahlia,” Elizabeth Short, had moved her:
She became more than just a symbol of “L.A. despair” to me. I saw a young woman whose yearning I could identify with, and a spirit of tragedy that “echoed” in so many lives of people that were lost and searching in those days in Hollywood. John’s ability to get under the skin of his subjects speaks more to a collective sense of grief, and a desire to understand rather than exploit. Cold-Blooded, I think especially, should be mentioned in the same breath as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. But somehow he’s remained in the shadows as a cult figure, not the innovator of new journalistic crime writing that I think he deserves to be remembered as.
She envisions her work-in-progress as an impressionistic montage of period photos, quotes, and recordings of Gilmore’s writings, talks with surviving friends, and shots of those places conjured in his books, including the Hollywood rooming houses haunted by Elizabeth Short.
At the memorial, one of the actor-writer’s old friends got up to speak. He looked around and said simply, “Well, John was a solo act.” He deserves an encore.