Monday, June 5, 2017
Dick Contino's Blues by James Ellroy
I’m enjoying a half-assed Renaissance these days.
Some dago festa gigs, some lounge work. A gooood spot on an AIDS Telethon—my “Lady of Spain” reprise goosed ten grand in contributions and got me a surreptitious blow job from a college girl working the phone lines. Daddy-O was released on video, and film critics hooked on ’50s kitsch have been bugging me for interviews.
Their questions have my memory turning cartwheels. It’s ‘58 again—I’m an accordionist/singer top-lining a “B” flick for chump change. Did you write “Rock Candy Baby” and “Angel Act” yourself? Did you pour the pork to your co-star, that blonde from the Mark C. Bloome tire ads? Who did your wardrobe, who did your stunts—how’d you get that ‘Si Ford airborne, the fuzz in hot pursuit—the footage looked real, but hastily spliced in.
I always try to answer truthfully.
I always write off the leaping car as movie magic.
In all candor, I made that supercharged/dual-quad/cheaterslicked motherfucker FLY. There’s a story behind it—my loving farewell to L.A. back then.
I was bombing.
Atom bombing: sweaty hands, shakes pending. My back-up combo sounded off-sync—I knew it was me, jumping ahead of the beat. BIG ROOM FEAR grabbed my nuts; headlines screamed:
“Contino Tanks Lackluster Crowd at Crescendo!”
“Contino Lays Pre-Easter Egg at Sunset Strip Opening!”
“Bumble Boogie” to “Ciribiribin”—a straightfor-the-jugular accordion segue. I put my whole body into a bellows shake; my brain misfired a message to my fingers. My fingers obeyed—I slammed out the “Tico-Tico” finale. Contagious misfires: my combo came in with a bridge theme from “Rhapsody in Blue.”
I just stood there.
House lights snapped on. I saw Leigh and Chrissy Staples, Nancy Ankrum, Kay Van Obst. My wife, my friends—plus a shitload of first nighters oozing shock.
“Rhapsody in Blue” fizzled out behind me. BIG ROOM FEAR clutched my balls and SQUEEZED.
I tried patter. “Ladies and gentlemen, that was ‘Dissonance Jump,’ a new experimental twelve-tone piece.”
My friends yukked. A geek in a Legionnaire cunt cap yelled, “Draft Dodger!”
Instant silence—big room loud. I froze on Joe Patriot: boozeflushed, Legion cap, Legion armband. My justification riff stood ready: I went to Korea, got honorably discharged, got pardoned by Harry S Truman.
No, try this: “Fuck you. Fuck your mother. Fuck your dog.”
The Legionnaire froze. I froze. Leigh froze behind a smile that kissed off two grand a week, two weeks minimum.
The whole room froze.
Cocktail debris pelted me: olives, ice, whisky sour fruit. My accordion dripped maraschino cherries—I slid it off and set it down behind some footlights.
My brain misfired a message to my fists: kick Joe Patriot’s ass.
I vaulted the stage and charged him. He tossed his drink in my face; pure grain spirits stung my eyes and blinded me. I blinked, sputtered, and swung haymakers. Three missed; one connected— the impact made me wah-wah quiver. My vision cleared—I thought I’d see Mr. America dripping teeth.
I was wrong.
Joe Legion—gone. In his place, cut cheekbone-deep by my rock-encrusted guinea wedding ring: Cisco Andrade, the world’s #1 lightweight contender.
Sheriff’s bulls swarmed in and fanned out. Backstopping them: Deputy Dot Rothstein, 200 + pounds of bull dyke with the hots for my friend Chris Staples.
Andrade said, “You dumb son-of-a-bitch.”
I just stood there.
My eyes dripped gin; my left hand throbbed. The Crescendo main room went phantasmagoric:
There’s Leigh: juking the cops with “Dick Contino, Red Scare Victim” rebop. There’s the Legionnaire, glomming my sax man’s autograph. Dot Rothstein’s sniffing the air—my drummer just ducked backstage with a reefer. Chrissy’s giving Big Dot a wide berth—they worked a lezbo entrapment gig once—Dot’s had a torch sizzling ever since.
Shouts. Fingers pointed my way. Mickey Cohen with his bulldog Mickey Cohen, Jr.—snout deep in a bowl of cocktail nuts. Mickey, Sr., nightclub Jesus—slipping the boss deputy a cash wad.
Andrade squeezed my ratched-up hand—I popped tears. “You play your accordion at my little boy’s birthday party. He likes clowns, so you dress up like Chucko the Clown. You do that and we’re even.”
I nodded. Andrade let my hand go and dabbed at his cut. Mickey Cohen cruised by and spieled payback. “My niece is having a birthday party. You think you could play it? You think you could dress up like Davy Crockett with one of those coonskin caps?”
I nodded. The fuzz filed out—a deputy flipped me the bird and muttered, “Draft Dodger.”
Mickey Cohen, Jr., sniffed my crotch. I tried to pet him—the cocksucker snapped at me.
Leigh and Chris met me at Googie’s. Nancy Ankrum and Kay Van Obst joined us—we packed a big booth full.
Leigh pulled out her scratch pad. “Steve Katz was furious. He made the bookkeeper pro-rate your pay down to one half of one show for one night.”
My hand throbbed—I grabbed the ice out of Chrissy’s water glass. “Fifty scoots?”
“Forty and change. They counted it down to the penny.”
Demons hovered: Leigh’s obstetrician, the Yeakel Olds repo man. I said, “They don’t repossess babies.”
“No, but they do repossess three month delinquent Starfire 88’s. Dick, did you have to get the Continental Kit, ‘Kustom King’ interior, and that hideous accordion hood ornament?”
Chrissy: “It was an Italian rivalry thing. Buddy Greco’s got a car like that, so Dick had to have one.”
Kay: “My husband has an 88. He said the ‘Kustom King’ interior is so soft that he almost fell asleep once on the San Bernardino Freeway.”
Nancy: “Chester Boudreau, one of my favorite sex killers of all time, preferred Oldsmobiles. He said Oldsmobiles had a bulk that children found comforting, so it was easy to lure kids into them.”
Right on cue: my three-girl chorus. Chrissy sang with Buddy Greco and sold Dexedrine; Nancy played trombone in Spade Cooley’s all-woman band and pen-palled with half the pervs in San Quentin. Kay: National President of the Dick Contino Fan Club. We go back to my Army Beef: Kay’s husband Pete bossed the Fed team that popped me for desertion.
Our food arrived. Nancy talked up the “West Hollywood Whipcord”—some fiend who’d strangled two lovebird duos parked off the Strip—just blocks away. Chris boo-hooed my Crescendo fracas and bemoaned the end of Buddy’s Mocombo stand two weeks hence.
Nancy interrupted her: Whipcord mania had her by the shorts. She was laying odds already: the Whipcord would reign as 195 8’s #1 psycho-killer.
Leigh let me read her eyes:
Your friends co-sign your bullshit, but I won’t.
Your display of manly pique cost us four grand.
You fight the COWARD taint with your fists, you must make it worse.
Radioactive eyes—I evaded them via small talk. “Chrissy, did you catch Dot Rothstein checking you out?”
Chris choked down a hunk of Reuben Sandwich. “Yes, and it’s been five years since the Barbara Graham gig.”
“Barbara Graham” tweaked Nan the Ghoul. I elaborated: “Chrissy was doing nine months in the Woman’s Jail downtown when Barbara Graham was there.”
Nancy, breathless: “And?”
“And she just happened to be in the cell next to her’s.”
Chris jumped in. “Quit talking about me like I’m not here.”
“And I was doing nine months for passing forged Dilaudid prescriptions. Dot was the matron on my tier, and she was smitten by me, which I consider a testimonial to her good taste. Barbara Graham and those partners of hers, Santo and Perkins, had just been arrested for the Mabel Monohan killing. Barbara kept protesting that she was innocent, and the D.A.‘s Office was afraid that a jury might believe her. Dot heard a rumor that Barbara went lez whenever she did jail time, and she got this brainstorm to have me cozy up to Barbara in exchange for a sentence reduction. I agreed, but stipulated no sapphic contact. The D.A.‘s Office cut a deal with me, but I couldn’t get Barbara to admit anything vis-a-goddamnvis the night of March 9, 1953. We exchanged mildly flirtatious napkin notes, which Dot sold to Hush-Hush Magazine, and they published with my name deleted. I got my sentence reduction and Barbara got the gas chamber, and Dot Rothstein’s got herself convinced that I’m a lezzie. She still sends me Christmas cards. Have you ever gotten a lipstick smeared Christmas card from a two hundred pound diesel dyke?”
The whole booth howled. Kay squealed with her mouth full— some club soda spritzed out and hit Leigh. A flashbulb popped—I spotted Danny Getchell and a Hush-Hush camera jockey.
Getchell spritzed headlines: “Accordion Ace Activates Lethal Left Hook at Crescendo Fistfest.’ ‘Draft Dodger Taunt Torches Torrid Temper Tantrum.’ ‘QUQ Vadis, Dick Contino?—Comeback Crumbles in Niteclub Crack-Up.”
Nancy walked back to the pay phones. I said, “Danny, this is publicity I don’t need.”
“Dick, I disagree. Look at what that marijuana contretemps did for Bob Mitchum. I think this portrays you as a good-looking, hotheaded gavonne who’s probably—excuse me, ladies—got a schvanze that’s a yard long.”
I laughed. Danny said, “If I’m lyin’, I’m flyin’. Seriously, Dick, and again, excuse me, ladies, but this makes you look like you’ve got a yard of hard pipe and you’re not afraid to show it.”
I laughed. Leigh sent up a silent prayer: save my husband from this scandal rag provocateur.
Nancy shot me a whisper. “I just talked to Ella Mae Cooley. Spade’s been beating her up again… and… Dick… you’re the only one who can calm him down.”
I drove out to Spade Cooley’s ranch. Rain slashed my windshield; I tuned in Hunter Hancock’s All-Request Show The gang at Googie’s got a call through: Dick Contino’s “Yours” hit the airwaves.
The rain got worse; the chrome accordion on my hood cut down visibility. I accelerated and synced bio-thoughts to music.
Late ‘47, Fresno: I glommed a spot on Horace Heidt’s radio program. Amateur night stuff—studio audience/applause meter— I figured I’d play “Lady of Spain,” lose to some local babe Heidt was banging and go on to college.
Bobby-soxers swarmed me backstage.
I turned eighteen the next month. I kept winning—every Sunday night—weeks running. I beat singers, comics, a Negro trombonist and a blind vibraphone virtuoso. I shook, twisted, stomped, gyrated, flailed, thrashed, genuflected, wiggled, strutted and banged my squeeze box like a dervish orbiting on Benzedrine, maryjane and glue. I pelvis-popped and pounded pianissimos; I cascaded cadenzas and humped harmonic hurricanes until the hogs hollered for Hell—straight through to Horace Heidt’s grand finals. I became a national celebrity, toured the country as Heidt’s headliner, and went solo BIG.
I played BIG ROOMS. I cut records. I broke hearts. Screen tests, fan clubs, magazine spreads. Critics marvelled at how I hipsterized the accordion—I said all I did was make schmaltz look sexy. They said where’d you learn to move like that?—I lied and said I didn’t know
The truth was:
I’ve always been afraid.
I’ve always conjured terror out of thin air.
Music and movement are incantations that help keep it formless.
1949, 1950—flying high on fame and callow good fortune. Early ‘51: FORM arrives via draft notice.
FORM: day sweats, night sweats, suffocation fears. Fear of mutilation, blindness, cancer, vivisection by rival accordionists. 24-hour heebie jeebies; nightclub audiences packing shrouds. Music inside my head: jackhammers, sirens, Mixmasters stripping gears.
I went to the Mayo Clinic; three headshrinkers stamped me unfit for Army service. My draft board wanted a fourth opinion and sent me to their on-call shrink. He contradicted the Mayo guys— my I-A classification stood firm.
I was drafted and sent to Ford Ord. FORM: the Reception Station barracks compressed in on me. My heart raced and sent livewire jolts down my arms. My feet went numb; my legs fluttered and dripped sweat. I bolted, and caught a bus to Frisco.
AWOL, Federal fugitive—my desertion made front page news. I trained down to L.A. and holed up at my parents’ house. Reporters knocked—my dad sent them away. TV crews kept a vigil outside. I talked to a lawyer, worked up a load of show biz panache and turned myself in.
My lawyer tried to cut a deal—the U.S. Attorney wasn’t buying. I took a daily flailing from the Hearst rags: “Accordion Prima Donna Suffers Stage Fright at Fort Ord Opening,” “Coward,” “Traitor,” “Yellow Belly,” “Chicken-Hearted Heartthrob.” “Coward,” “Coward,” “Coward.”
My BIG ROOM bookings were cancelled.
I was bound over for trial in San Francisco.
Bird chirps made me flinch. Rooms closed in coffin-tight the second I entered them.
I went to trial. My lawyer proffered Mayo depositions; I detailed my fear on the witness stand. The press kept resentment fires stoked: I had it all, but wouldn’t serve my country. My response went ignored: so take away my fucking accordion.
The judge found me guilty and sentenced me: six months in the Federal pen at McNeil Island, Washington.
I did the time. I put on a sadistic face to deter butt-fuckers. Accordion slinging gave me big muscles—I hulked and popped my biceps. Mickey Cohen, in for income tax evasion, befriended me. My daily routine: yard trusty work, squeeze-box impromptus. Ingratiating showman/psycho con—a schizophrenic performance that got me through my sentence unmolested.
Released—January, ‘52. Slinking/creeping/crawling anxiety: what happens next?
Winter ‘52—one big publicity watch. Big “Contino Out of Jail” coverage—most of it portrayed me as a coward case-hardened by prison.
Residual fear: would I now be drafted?
Winter ‘52—no gigs, BIG ROOM or otherwise. My draft notice arrived—this time I played the game.
Basic training, communications school, Korea. Fear back-burner-boogied; I served in a Seoul-based outfit and rose from private to staff sergeant. Acceptance/taunts/shoving matches. Resentment oozing off guys who envied what they thought I’d come home to.
I came home to tapped-out momentum and DRAFT DODGER in red-bait neon. I received an unsolicited presidential pardon— my COWARD taint rendered it toilet paper. I became a vanishing act: BIG ROOM stints replaced by lounge gigs; national TV shots down-graded into local stuff. Fear and I played peek-a-boo—it always seemed to grab my balls and twist just when it felt like something inside me could banish all the bullshit forever.
I hit Victorville. L.A. radio had faded out—I’d been listening to shitkicker ditties. Apt: I pulled up to the Cooley ranchhouse soundtracked by Spade’s own, “Shame, Shame on You.”
The porch reeked: marijuana and sourmash fumes. TV glow lit up windows bluish-gray.
The door stood ajar. I pressed the buzzer—hillbilly chimes went off. Dark inside—the TV screen made shadows bounce. George Putnam spritzed late local news: “… the fiend the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s have dubbed the ‘West Hollywood Whipcord’ claimed his third and fourth victims last night. The bodies of Thomas ‘Spike’ Knode, 47, an out-of-work movie stuntman, and his fiancee Carol Matusow, 19, a stenographer, were discovered locked in the trunk of Knode’s car, parked on Hilldale Drive a scant block north of the Sunset Strip. Both were strangled with a sash cord and bludgeoned post-mortem with a bumperjack found in the back seat. The couple had just come from the Mocombo nightclub, where they had watched entertainer Buddy Greco perform. Authorities report that they have no clues as to the slayer’s identity, and—”
A ratchet noise—metal on metal. That unmistakable drawl: “From the size of your shadow, I’d say it’s Dick Contino.”
Ratch/ratch—trigger noise—Spade loved to get zorched and play with guns.
“I should tell Nancy ‘bout that ‘Whipcord’ sumbitch. She just might find herself a new pen pal.”
“She already knows about him.”
“Well.. . I’m not surprised. And this old dog, well… he knows how to put things together. My Ella Mae got a call from Nancy, and two hours later Mr. Accordion himself shows up. Heard you tanked at the Crescendo, boy. Ain’t that always the way it is when proving yourself runs contrary to your own best interests?”
A lamp snapped on. Dig it: Spade Cooley in a cowboy hat and sequin-studded chaps—packing two holstered six-guns.
I said, “Like you and Ella Mae. You beg her for details on her old shack jobs, then you beat her up when she plays along.”
Fluttering flags replaced George Putnam—KTTV signing off for the night. The National Anthem kicked in—I doused the volume. Spade slumped low in his chair and drew down on me. “You mean I shouldn’t have asked her if those John Ireland and Steve Cochran rumors were true?”
“You’re dying to torture yourself, so tell me.”
Spade twirled his guns, popped the cylinders and spun them. Two revolvers, ten empty slots, one bullet per piece.
“So tell me, Spade.”
“The rumors were true, boy. Would I be sittin’ here in this condition if those dudes were any less than double-digit bulls?”
Spade put both guns to his head and pulled the triggers.
Two loud clicks—empty chambers.
I stopped laughing.
Spade did it again.
I grabbed for the guns. Spade shot ME twice—empty chambers.
I backed into the TV A leg brushed the volume dial—the Star Spangled Banner went very loud, then very soft.
Spade said, “You could have died hearing your country’s theme song, which might have gotten you the posthumous approval of all them patriotic groups that don’t like you so much. And you also could have died not knowing that John Ireland had to tape that beast of his to his leg when he wore swimming trunks.”
A toilet flushed upstairs. Ella Mae yelled, “Donnell Clyde Cooley, quit talking to yourself or God knows who, and come to bed!”
Spade aimed both guns at her voice and pulled the triggers.
Two empty chambers.
Four down per piece, two to go—SO-SO odds next time. Spade said, “Dick, let’s get blotto. Get me a fresh bottle from the kitchen.”
I walked to the bathroom and checked the medicine cabinet. Yellow Jackets on a shelf—I emptied two into a glass and flushed the rest. Kitchen recon—a Wild Turkey quart atop the ice box.
I dumped it down the sink—all but three finger’s worth.
Loose .38 shells on a shelf—I tossed them out the window
Spade’s maryjane stash—right where it always was in the sugar bowl.
I poured it down the sink and chased it with Drano.
Spade yelled, “I am determined to shoot somebody or something tonight!”
I swirled up a cocktail: bourbon, Nembutal, buttermilk to kill the barbiturate taste. Spade yelled, “Go out to your car and get your accordion, and I’ll put it out of its misery!”
On the breakfast table: a TV remote-control gizmo.
I grabbed it.
Back to Spade. On cue: he put down one gun and grabbed his drink. One six-shooter on the floor—I toed it under his chair.
Spade twirled gun #2.
I stood behind the chair. Spade said, “I wonder if John used masking tape or friction tape.”
Blip, blip—I pushed remote-control buttons. Test pattern, test pattern, Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman in some hankie epic.
I nudged Spade. “I heard Rock Hudson’s hung like a horse. I heard he put the make on Ella Mae back when she played clarinet on your old Hoffman Hayride Show”
Spade said, “Ixnay—Rock’s a fruit. I heard he plays skin flute with some quiff on the Lawrence Welk program.”
Shit—no bite. Blip, blip, Caryl Chessman fomenting from his death row cell. “Now there’s your double-digit dude, Spade. That cat is legendary in criminal annals—Nancy Ankrum told me so herself.”
“Nix. Shitbird criminals like that are always underhung. I read it in Argosy Magazine.”
Blip, blip, blip—beaucoup test patterns. Blip, blip, blip—test drive the new ‘58 Chevy, Ford, Rambler, et fucking a!. Blip—Senator John F. Kennedy talking to reporters.
Spade pre-empted me. “Hung like a cashew Gene Tierney told me he screws from hunger. Hung like a cricket, and he expects a standing ovation for a two-minute throw”
Blip—more West Hollywood Whipcord re-bop. Shit—running out of channels. Blip—an American Legion chaplain with 2:00 A.M. prayers.
“… and as always, we ask for the strength to oppose our Communist adversary at home and abroad. We ask—”
Spade said, “This is for Dick Contino,” raised his gun and fired. The TV screen imploded—wood splintered, tubes popped, glass shattered.
Spade passed out on the floor rag doll limp.
TV dust formed a little mushroom cloud.
I carried Spade upstairs and laid him down in bed next to Ella Mae. Cozy: inside seconds they were snoring in unison. I remembered Fresno, Christmas ‘47—I was young, she was lonely, Spade was in Texas.
Keep it hush-hush, dear heart—for both our sakes.
I walked out to my car. February 12, 1958—what an all-time fucker of a night.
Bad sleep left me fried—hung over from my rescue run.
The baby woke me up. I’d been dreaming: I was on trial for Crimes Against Music. The judge said the accordion was obsolete; a studio audience applauded. Dig my jury: Mickey Cohen’s dog, Jesus Christ, Cisco Andrade.
Leigh had coffee and aspirin ready. Ditto the A.M. Mirror, folded to the entertainment page.
“Brawl Deep-Sixes Contino Opening. Nightclub Boss Calls Accordion King ‘Damaged Goods’.”
The phone rang—I grabbed it. “Who’s this?”
“Howard Wormser, your agent, who just lost ten percent of your Crescendo money and ten percent of your sixty-day-stand at the Flamingo Lounge. Vegas called early, Dick. They get the L.A. papers early, and they don’t like to sit on bad news.”
A Mirror sub-head: Draft Dodger Catcalls Plague Fading Star. “I was busy last night, or I would have seen this coming.”
“Seeing things coming is not your strong suit. You should have accepted Sam Giancana’s invitation to be on call for Chicago Mob gigs, and if you did you’d be playing big rooms today. You should have testified before that grand jury and named some Commies. You should—”
“I don’t know any Commies.”
“No, but you could have gotten a few names from the phone book to make yourself look good.”
“Get me some movie work, Howard. Get me a movie gig where I can sing a few songs and get the girl.”
Howard sighed. “There is a certain wisdom to that, since young snatch is your strong suit. I’ll look into it. In the meantime, play a few bar mitzvahs or something and stay out of trouble.”
“Can you get me a few bar mitzvahs?”
“That was just a figure of speech. Dick, be calm. I’ll call when I’ve got you ninety percent of something.”
Click—one abrupt hang-up faded into noise outside—brake squeals, gear crunch. I checked the window—fuck–-a tow-truck had my bar bumper-locked.
I ran out. A man in a Teamster T-shirt held his hands up. “Mr. Contino, this wasn’t my idea. I’m just a poor out of work union man with a family. Bob Yeakel said to tell you enough is enough, he read the papers this morning and saw the writing on the wall.”
The bumper winch ratched my trunk open. Record albums flew out—I grabbed an Accordion in Paris.
“What’s your name?”
“Uh… Bud Brown.”
I pulled the pen off his clipboard and scrawled on the album cover. “To Bud Brown, out-of-work union man, from Dick Contino, out-of-work entertainer. Dear Bud: why are you fucking with my beautiful Starfire 88, when I’m just a working stiff like you? I know that the evil McClellan Committee is harassing your heroic leader Jimmy Hoffa, in much the same way I was harassed during the Korean War, and thus you and I share a bond that you are trespassing on in your current scab status. Please do not fuck with my beautiful Starfire 88—I need it to look for work.”
The tow-truck driver applauded. Bud Brown fisheyed me—my McClellan shtick hit him weird.
“Mr. Contino, like I said, I’m sorry.”
I pointed to the albums.
“I’ll donate those to your Teamster Local. I’ll autograph them. You can sell them yourself and keep the money. All I’m asking is that you let me drive this car out of here and hide it somewhere.”
Raps on the kitchen window—Leigh holding baby Merri up. Brown said, “Mr. Contino, that’s fighting dirty.”
Worth the fight: my baby blue/whitewall tired/fox-tailantennaed sweetie. Sunlight on the accordion hood hanger—I almost swooned.
“Have you guys got kids with birthdays coming up? I’ll perform for free, I’ll dress up like a—”
The tow-truck radio crackled; the driver listened and rogered the call. “That was Mr. Yeakel. He says Mr. Contino should meet him at the showroom pronto, that maybe they can work out a deal on his delinquent.”
“… and you know I’ve got my own TV show, ‘Rocket to Stardom.’ My brothers and I do our own commercials and give amateur Angeleno talent a chance to reach for the moon and haul down a few stars. We put on a show here at the lot every Sunday, and KCOP broadcasts it. We dish out free hot dogs and soda pop, sell some cars and let the talent perform. We usually get a bunch of hot dog scroungers hanging around—I call them the ‘Yeakel Yokels.’ They applaud for the acts, and whoever gets the most applause wins. I’ve got a meter rigged up—sort of like that thingamajig you had on the Heidt Show.”
Bob Yeakel: tall, blond, pitchman shrill. His desk: covered with memo slips held down by chrome hubcaps.
“Let me guess. You want me to celebrity M.C. one of your shows, in exchange for which I get to keep my car free and clear.”
Yeakel yuk-yuk-yukked. “No, Dick, more along the lines of you produce and celebrity M.C. at least two shows, and perform at the Oldsmobile Dealers of America Convention, and spend some afternoons here at the lot auditioning acts and bullshitting with the customers. In the meantime, you get to keep your car, and we stop the clock on your delinquent interest payments, but not on the base sum itself. Then, if ‘Rocket to Stardom”s ratings zoom, I might just let you have that car free and clear.”
“Is that all I have to do?”
Yuk-yuk-yuk. “No. You also have to pitch all your potential contestants on the ‘58 Oldsmobile line. And no jigaboos or beatniks, Dick. I run a clean family show”
“I’ll do it if you throw in two hundred a week.”
“A hundred and fifty, but off-the-books with no withholding.”
I stuck my hand out.
The Oldsmobile Dealers Convention at the downtown Statler. Dig it: five hundred car hucksters and a busload of hookers chaperoned by a V.D. doctor. Bob Yeakel opened for me—shtick featuring “Peaches, The Drag Queen With An Overbite.” Chris Staples sang, “You Belong to Me,” and “Baby, Baby, All the Time”—Yeakel ogled her and cracked jokes about her “Tail Fins.” I killed the booze-fried crowd with a forty-minute set and closed with the “Rocket to Stardom” theme song.
Birthday parties—Cisco Andrade’s son, Mickey Cohen’s niece. The Cisco gig was East L.A. SRO—Mex fighters and their families wowed by Dick Contino as “Chucko the Birthday Clown.” Degrading?—yeah—but the guests shot me close to a C-note in tips. The Cohen job was more swank: a catered affair at Mickey’s pad. Check the guest list: Lana Turner and Johnny Stompanato, Mike Romanoff, Moe Dalitz, Meyer Lansky, Julius La Rosa, and the Reverend Wesley Swift—who explained that Jesus Christ was an Aryan, not a Jew, and that Mein Kampf was the lost book of the Bible. No gratuities, but Johnny Stomp kicked loose two dozen cases of Gerber’s Baby Food—he bankrolled a fur van hijack, and his guys hit the wrong truck.
Work—long days at the Yeakel Olds lot.
I called the girls in to help me: Leigh, Chrissy, Nancy Ankrum, Kay Van Obst. Word spread quick: Mr. Accordion and female coterie LIVE at Oldsmobile showroom!
We bullshitted with browsers and referred hard prospects to salesmen; we spritzed the ‘58 Olds line-up nonstop. We grilled burgers on a hibachi and fed the mechanics and Bud Brown and his repo crew.
Nancy, Kay and Leigh screened “Rocket to Stardom” applicants—I wanted to weed out the more egregious geeks before I began formal auditions. Bob Yeakel drooled whenever Chris Staples slinked by—I convinced him to put her on payroll as my assistant. Grateful Chrissy gave Bob a thank-you gift: her Nugget Magazine fold-out preserved via laminated wall plaque.
My Yeakel run nine days in: a righteous fucking blast.
Nine days sans “Draft Dodger” jive—some kind of Contino world record.
We held auditions in a tent behind the lube rack; Bud Brown stood watchdog to keep obvious lunatics out. The girls had compiled a list: forty-odd individuals and acts to be winnowed down to six spots per show
Our first finalist: an old geezer who sang grand opera. I asked him to belt a few bars of Pagliacci; he said that he possessed the world’s largest penis. He whipped it out before I could comment— it was of average length and girth. Chrissy applauded anyway—she said it reminded her of her ex-husband’s.
Bud hustled the old guy out. Pops was gone—but he’d set a certain tone.
Check this sampling:
Two roller skating bull terriers—sharklike dogs with plastic fins attached to their backs. Their master was a Lloyd Bridges lookalike—the whole thing was a goof on the TV show “Sea Hunt.”
An off-key woman accordionist who tried to slip me her phone number with Leigh right there.
A comic with patter on Ike’s golf game—epic Snoresville.
A guy who performed silk scarf tricks. Deft and boring: he cinched sashes into hangman’s knots.
Over two dozen male and female vocalists: flat, screechy, shrill, hoarse—dud Presley and Patti Page would-be’s.
A junkie tenor sax, who nodded out halfway through a flubbednote “Body and Soul.” Bud Brown dumped him in a demo car; the fucker woke up convulsing and kicked the windshield out. Chrissy summoned an ambulance; the medics hustled the hophead off.
I confronted Nancy. She said, “You should have seen the ones that didn’t make the cut. I wish the ‘West Hollywood Whipcord’ had a viable talent—it would be fun to put him on the show”
Only Nancy found sash cord strangling/bumperjack bashing fiends alluring.
I braced Bud Brown. “Bud, the show’s forty-eight hours off, and we’ve got nobody.”
“This happens sometimes. When it does, Bob calls Pizza DeLuxe.”
I walked into Yeakel’s office. Bob was eyeballing his wall plaque: Miss Nugget, June ‘54.
“What’s Pizza De-Luxe?”
“Are your auditions going that bad?”
“I’m thinking of calling those roller skating dogs back. Bob, what’s—”
“Pizza De-Luxe is a prostitution racket. An ex-Jack Dragna goon who owns a greasy spoon called the Pizza Pad runs it. He delivers pizza 24 hours a day legit, and if you want a girl or a dicey boy on the side, a male or female prostitute will make the delivery. All of the hookers are singers or dancers or Hollywood riff-raff like that, you know, selling some skin to make ends meet until they get their so-called ‘big break.’ So … if I get strapped for decent contestants, I call Pizza De-Luxe. I get some good pizza, some good ‘amateur’ talent, and my top-selling salesman of the month gets laid.”
I checked the window A transvestite dance team practiced steps by the grease rack—Bud Brown and a cop type shooed them off. I said, “Bob, call Pizza De-Luxe.”
Yeakel blew his wall plaque kisses. “I think Chrissy should win this next show”
“Chrissy’s a professional. She’s singing back-up for Buddy GreCo at the Mocambo right now”
“I know that, but I want to do her a solid. And I’ll let you in on a secret: my applause meter’s rigged.”
“Yeah. It’s a car battery hooked up to an oscilloscope screen. I’ve got a foot pedal I tap to goose the needle. I’m sure Chris would like to win—it’s a C-note and a free down payment on a snappy new Oldsmobile.”
I laughed. “With debilitating monthly payments?”
“Normally, yes. But with Chrissy I’m sure we could work something else out.”
“I’ll tell her. I’m sure she’ll play along, at least as far as the ‘free’ down payment.”
Bob’s phone rang—he picked up, listened, hung up. I scoped the window—Bud Brown and the fuzz type saw me and turned away, nervous.
Bob said, “I might have a way for you to buy out of your second “Rocket to Stardom” commitment.”
“I’ve got to think it over first. Dick, I’m going to call Pizza DeLuxe right now. Will you…”
“Talk to Chrissy and tell her she just won an amateur talent contest rigged by this car kingpin who wants to stroke her ‘Tail Fins’?”
“Right. And ask for what she wants on her pizza.”
Chris was outside the sales shack, smoking.
I spilled quick. “Bob’s bringing in some quasi-pro talent for Sunday’s show He wants you to sing a couple of songs. You’re guaranteed to win, and he’s got mild expectations.”
“If he keeps them mild, he won’t be disappointed.”
Smoke rings drifted up—a sure sign that Chrissy was distracted.
“Something on your mind?”
“No, just my standard boogie man.”
“I know what you mean, but if you tell me you’ll probably feel better.”
Chris flicked her cigarette at a Cutlass demo. “I’m 32, and I’ll always earn a living as an entertainer, but I’ll never have a hit record. I like men too much to settle down and have a family, and I like myself too much to sell my tush to clowns like Bob Yeakel.”
“And nothing. Except that a car followed me after my Mocambo gig last night. It was scary—like the driver was checking me out for some reason. I think it might be Dot Rothstein. I think she got re-hipped on me after she saw me at your show at the Crescendo.”
“Was she at the Mocambo last night?”
“Yes. And it’s in L.A. County jurisdiction, and she’s an L.A. County Deputy Sheriff, which means… shit, I don’t know. Dick, will you and Leigh come to Buddy’s show tonight? Dot knows you’re friends with Mickey Cohen, and it might discourage her from making any moves.”
“We’ll be there.”
Chris hugged me. “You know what I envy about your career?”
“That at least you’re notorious. At least that draft dodger thing gives you something to… I don’t know, at least overcome.”
A lightbulb went POP!—but I didn’t know what it meant.
The Mocambo JUMPED.
Buddy Greco was belting “Around the World”—working it scatman style. Buddy not only sells you the song—he drives it to your house and installs it. Chrissy and another girl sang counterpoint— nightclub eyeball magnets.
Leigh and I perched at the bar. She was pissed: I’d told her Bob Yeakel gave me an out on “Rocket to Stardom” number two— work repo back-up for Bud Brown and another finance clown named Sid Elwell. Bob had a shitload of Darktown delinquents— I was to divert the owners while Bud and Sid grabbed their sleds.
I accepted Bob’s offer—the repo runs were scheduled for tomorrow. Leigh’s response: it’s another courage test. You don’t know how to pass on things like that.
She was right. Chrissy’s lightbulb POP! flickered: “At least the draft dodger thing gives you something to overcome.”
Buddy snapped lyrics—“I traveled on when love was gone, to keep a big fat swingin’ rendezvous”—the crowd snapped fingers along with him. Danny Getchell hopped ringside tables—snouting for Hush-Hush “Sinuendo.” Check Dot Rothstein by the stage: measuring Chrissy for a bunk at the Dyke Island Motel.
Leigh nudged me. “I’m hungry.”
I leaned close. “We’ll go to Dino’s Lodge. It won’t be long— Buddy usually closes with this number.”
“No more will I go all around the world, cause I have found my world in you—ooblay-oooh-oooh-baa-baa-doww!”
Big time applause—jealousy ditzed me. Dot sidled up to the bar and dug through her purse. Dig the contents: brass knucks and a .38 snubnose.
She threw me a sneer. Check her outfit: Lockhead jumpsuit, tire tread sandals. Chrissy signalled from the stage door—the parking lot, five minutes.
Dot chug-a-lugged a Scotch; the bartender refused payment. I stood up and stretched—Dot bumped me passing by. “Your wife’s cute, Dick. Take good care of her or someone else will.”
Leigh stuck a leg out to trip her; Dot sidestepped and flipped me the finger. The barman said, “She’s supposed to be here on a stakeout for the West Hollywood Whipcord, but all she does is drool for the chorus girls. The Whipcord’s supposed to like good-looking women, though, so I guess that let’s Dot out as a decoy.”
“The Whipcord’s Dot’s kind of guy. Maybe he can turn her straight.”
The barman roared. I doubled his tip and followed Leigh out to the parking lot.
Chrissy was waiting by the car. Dot Rothstein stood close by— bugging loiterers for ID’s. She kept one eyeball on Chris: strictly x-ray, strictly a scorcher.
I unlocked the sled and piled the girls in. Ignition, gas, zoom— Dot’s farewell kiss fogged my back windshield.
Heavy traffic on the Strip—we slowed to a crawl. Chris said, “I’m hungry.”
I said, “We’ll hit Dino’s Lodge.”
“Not there, please.”
“Because Buddy’s taking a group from the club there, and I’m betting Dot will crash the party. Really, Dick, anyplace but Dino’s.”
Leigh said, “Canter’s is open late.”
I hung a sharp right. Headlights swept my Kustom King interior—the car behind us swung right abruptly.
South on Sweetzer, east on Fountain. The Dotster had me running edgy—I checked my back mirror.
That car was still behind us.
South on Fairfax, east on Willoughby—that car stuck close. A sports job—white or light gray—I couldn’t make out the driver.
Deputy Dot Rothstein or ??????
Scary alternatives: Chrissy’s old boyfriends, old dope customers, general L.A. friends.
South on Gardner, east on Melrose—those headlights goose goose goosed us. Leigh said, “Dick, what are you doing?”
“We’re being followed.”
“What? Who? What are you—”
I swung into a driveway sans signal; my tires plowed some poor fucker’s lawn. The sports car kept going; I backed out and chased it.
It zooooomed ahead; I flicked on my brights and blipped its tail. No fixed license plate—just a temp sticker stuck to the trunk. Close, closer—a glimpse of the last four digits: 1116.
The car ran a red on 3rd Street. Horns squealed; oncoming traffic held me back. Taillights flickered eastbound: going, going, gone.
Leigh said, “I’ve got no more appetite.”
Chris said, “Can I sleep at your place tonight?”
Cleotis De Armand ran a crap game behind Swanky Frank’s liquor store on 89th and Central, flaunting his delinquent 98 right there on the sidewalk. Bud Brown and Sid Elwell came in with cereal box badges and shook him down while I fed Seconal-laced T-Bird to the winos guarding the car. BIG fear: this was combustible L.A. Darktown, cop impersonation beefs probable if the ubiquitous LAPD swooped by. They didn’t—and I was the one who drove the sapphire-blue jig rig to safety while the guard contingent snored. Beginner’s luck: I found a bag of maryjane in the glove compartment. We toked a few reefers en route to our next job: boost a ‘57 Starfire off Big Dog Lipscomb, the southside’s #1 streetcorner pimp.
The vehicle: parked by a shoeshine stand at 103 and Avalon. Customized: candy-apple red paint, mink interior, rhinestonestudded mud flaps. Bud said, “Let’s strip the upholstery and make our wives fur stoles”—Sid and I were thinking the same thing.
The team deployed.
I unpacked my accordion and slammed “Lady of Spain” right there. Sid and Bud walked point on Big Dog Lipscomb: across the street, brownbeating whores. Someone yelled, “Hey, that’s Dick Contino”—Watts riff-raff engulfed me.
I was pushed off the sidewalk—straight into Big Dog’s coon coach. An aerial snapped; my back hit the hood; I played prostrate and didn’t miss a note.
Look, Mom: no fear.
Foot scrapes, yells—dim intrusions on my reefer reverie. Hands yanked me off the hood—I went eyeball to eyeball with Big Dog Lipscomb.
He swung on me—I blocked the shot with my accordion. Contact: his fist, my keyboard. Sickening cracks: his bones, my breadand-butter baby.
Big Dog yelped and clutched his hand; some punk kicked him in the balls and picked his pocket. His car keys hit the gutter—with Bud Brown right there.
I was flipped and tossed in the car—Sid Elwell with some mean Judo moves. The sled zoomed—Sid with white knuckles on a mink steering wheel.
Look, Mom: no fear.
We rendezvoused at Teamster Local 1819—Bud brought the back-up sled. My accordion needed a face-lift—I was too weedwafted to sweat it.
Sid borrowed tools and stripped the mink upholstery; I signed autographs for goldbricking Teamsters. That lightbulb POP! flickered anew: “Draft dodger thing… gives you something to overcome.” That car chase crowded my brain: temp license 1116, Dot Rothstein after Chrissy or something else?
Bud shmoozed up the Local prez—more information pump than friendly talk. A Teamster begged me to play “Bumble Boogie”—I told him my accordion died. I posed for pix instead—the prez slipped me a Local “Friendship Card.”
“You never can tell, Dick. You might need a real job someday.”
Too true—a wet towel on my hot fearless day.
Noon—I took Sid and Bud to the Pacific Dining Car. We settled in behind T-bones and hash browns—small talk came easy for a while.
Sid put the skids to it. “Dick… ask you something?”
“You know… your Army rap?”
“What about it?”
“You know … you don’t impress me as a frightened type of guy.”
Bud piped in: “As Big Dog Lipscomb will attest to. It’s just that
I said, “Say it. It feels like I’m close to something.”
Sid said it. “You know … it’s like this. Someone says ‘Dick Contino’, and the first thing you think of is ‘Coward’ or maybe ‘Draft Dodger’. It’s like a reflex, when you should be thinking ‘Accordion player’ or ‘Singer’ or ‘Good repo back-up.”
I said, “Finish the thought.”
Bud: “What Sid’s saying is how do you get around that? Bob Yeakel says it’s a life sentence, but isn’t there something you can do?”
Closer now—lightbulb hot—so HOT I pushed it away. “I don’t know.”
Sid said, “You can always do something, if you’ve got nothing to lose.”
I changed the subject. “A car was tailing me last night. I think it might be this lezbo cop who’s hipped on Chrissy.”
Bud whooped. “Put her on “Rocket to Stardom.” Let her sing ‘Once I Had a Secret Love.”
“I’m not a 100 percent sure it’s her, but I got the last four digits of the license plate. The whole thing spooks me.”
“So it was just a temporary sticker? Permanent plates only have three letters and three digits.”
“Right, 1116. I thought Bob could call the DMV and get a make for me.”
Bud checked his watch, antsy. “Not without all nine digits. But ask Bob anyway, after the show tomorrow It’s a Pizza De-Luxe gig, and he always bangs his favorite ‘contestant’ after the show. Mention it to him then, and maybe he’ll call some clerk he knows and tell him to look up all the 1116’s.”
A waitress crowded up menu first. “Are you Dick Contino? My daddy doesn’t like you ‘cause he’s a veteran, but my mom thinks you’re real cute. Could I have your autograph?”
“Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Dick Contino welcoming you to ‘Rocket to Stardom’—where tomorrow’s stellar performers reach for the moon and haul down a few stars! Where all of you in our television audience and here at Yeakel Oldsmobile can seal your fate in a Rocket 88!”
Canned applause/hoots/yells/whistles—a rocket launch straight for the toilet.
Somebody spiked the punch—our live audience got bombed pre-showtime.
Sid Elwell ID’d the crowd: mostly juiceheads AWOL from the County dry-out farm.
Act #1—a Pizza De-Luxe male hooker. Topical patter de-luxe: Eisenhower meets Sinatra at the “Rat Pack Summit.” Ring-a-fucking-ding: Ike, Frank and Dino swap stale one-liners. The crowd booed; the applause meter went on the fritz and leaked steam.
Act #2—A Pizza De-Luxe prostie/songbird. Tight capris, tight sweater—mauling “Blue Moon” made her bounce in two directions. A pachuco by the stage kept a refrain up: “Baby, are they real?” Bud Brown sucker-punched him silent off-camera; the sound man said his musings came through un-squelched.
Act #3—“Ramon and Johnny”—two muscle queen acrobats. Dips, flips, cupped-hand tosses—nice, if you dig shit like that.
Whistles, applause. Bob Yeakel said the guys worked shakedowns: extorting married fags with sodomy pix.
Some spurned lover out-of-nowhere yelled, “Ramon, you bitch!”
Ramon blew the audience a pouty kiss.
Johnny spun in mid-toss; Ramon neglected to catch him. Johnny hit the stage flat on his back.
The crowd went nuts; the applause meter belched smoke. Kay Van Obst drove Johnny to Central Receiving.
#4, #5—Pizza De-Luxe torch singers. Slit-legged gowns, cleavage, goosebumps—both sang Bob Yeakel-lyriced ditties set to hit records. “The Man I Love” became “The Car I Love”; “Fly Me to the Moon” got raped thusly: “Fly me to the stars, in my souped-up 88; it’s got that V-8 power now, and its traction holds straight! In other words, OLDS IS KING!!!”
Cleavage out-tractioned lyrics—the drunks cheered. Sid Elwell hustled a new car battery/applause meter on stage for Chris Staples’ bit and final bows.
Running on fear—that car chase spooked her. I told her I’d have Bob Yeakel tap some DMV slave to trace the license—my backstage pitch shot her some last-minute poise.
Scorching “Someone to Watch Over Me” like the Gershwins ALMOST wrote it for her—going hushed so her voice wouldn’t crack—the secret of mediocre songsters worldwide.
Shaking it to “You Make Me Feel So Young”; putting the make out implicit: she’d call you at three o’clock in the morning.
Wolf whistles and scattered claps first time out. Better luck at final bow time: Bob Yeakel hooked the applause rig up to an amplifier.
The crowd was too drunk to know they got bamboozled.
Bob congratulated Chris and stroked her tail fins on-camera— Chris swatted his hand.
Ramon moaned for Johnny.
The sales crew snarfed Pizza De-Luxe pizza.
Leigh called to say she’d caught the show on TV “Dick, you were better off as Chucko the Clown.”
I grabbed Chrissy. “Tell Bud and Sid to meet us at Mike Lyman’s. You gave me an idea the other day.”
Bud and Sid made Lyman’s first. I slipped the headwaiter a five spot; he slipped us a secluded back booth.
We huddled in, ordered drinks and shot the shit. Topics covered: “Rocket to Stardom” as epic goof; would my repo work spring me from my second producing gig? Bud said he spieled the car chase to Bob Yeakel; Bob said he’d try to DMV-trace the temp license. Sid reprised the Big Dog repo—I used it to steer talk down to biz.
“I’ve been stuck with this ‘Coward’ tag for years, and I’m tired of it. My career’s going nowhere, but at least I’ve got a name, and Chrissy doesn’t even have that. I’ve got an idea for a publicity stunt. It would probably take at least two extra men to pull off, but I think we could do it.”
Bud said, “Do what?”
Chris said, “I’ve got a hunch I know where this is going.”
I whispered. “Two hoods kidnap Chrissy and I at gunpoint. The hoods are psycho types who’ve got this crazy notion that we’re big stars who can bring in ransom money. They contact Howard Wormser—he’s the agent who gets both of us work—and demand some large amount. Howard doesn’t know the gig’s a phony, and either calls the fuzz or doesn’t call the fuzz. In either case, Chrissy and I heroically escape. We can’t identify the kidnappers, because they wore masks. We fake evidence at the place where we were held hostage and tough it out when the cops question us. We’re bruised up and fucked up from the ordeal. The kidnappers, of course, remain at large. Chrissy and I get a boatload of publicity and goose our careers. We pay off the fake kidnappers with a percentage of the good money we’re now making.”
Three-way silence—I clocked it at one minute.
Sid coughed. “This is certifiably nuts.”
Chris coughed and lit a cigarette. “I like it. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, Dick and I go to jail. We’ve both been to jail, so we know we can survive. I say maybe this is the real “Rocket to Stardom,” and if it isn’t, c’est-la-goddamn-guerre. I say better to try it than not to. I say the entertainment business thrives on bullshit, so why not try to shovel some of our own?”
Bud strafed me: wary eyes, working on sad. “It’s dangerous. It’s illegal, probably to the tune of a couple of years in jail. And you’re what the cops would call a ‘known associate’ of me and Sid. I could probably set you up with some guys more removed, so the cops couldn’t link you to them. See, Dick, what I’m thinking is: if you’re determined to do it, then maybe we could make some money by cutting down the chance you’ll get caught. If you’re determined to do it, hell or high water.”
Those eyes—why so sad?
Bud pushed his drink aside. “Then it has to look real. Let’s go, there’s a place you should see.”
We convoyed up to Griffith Park and went hiking. There it was: a shack tucked into a box canyon a mile north of the Observatory.
Hard to spot: scrub bushes blocked the canyon entrance off.
Tumbleweeds covered the roof—the shack couldn’t be seen from the air.
The door was open. Stink wafted out: dead animals, dead something. Dig the interior: a mattress on the floor, blood-encrusted pelts stacked on a table.
Chris said, “Scalps,” and covered her nose.
I looked closer—yeah—SCALPS.
Sid crossed himself. Bud said, “I found this place a few years ago. I was on a hiking jaunt with a buddy and stumbled onto it. Those scalps spooked the living bejeezus out of me, and I checked with this cop pal of mine. He said back in ‘46 some crazy Indian escaped from Atascadero, killed six people and scalped them. The Indian was never captured, and if you look close, you’ll see six scalps there.”
I looked close. Six scalps, all right—one replete with braids and a plastic barette.
Chris and Sid lit cigarettes—the stink diminuendoed. I said, “Bud, what are you saying?”
“That at least one of your kidnappers should be made up to look like an Indian. That this dump as the kidnapper’s stash place would gain you some points for realism. That a psycho Indian who might be long dead makes a good fall guy.”
Chris said, “If this works and my career takes off, I’ll give you each 10 percent of my gross earnings for the next ten years. If it doesn’t work, I’ll cash in some stocks my dad left me and split the money between you, and I’ll sleep with both of you at least once.”
Sid howled. Chris poked a scalp and said, “Ick. Icky lizard.”
I said, “Count me in, minus the bed stuff. If the gig doesn’t fly or get results, I’ll fork over the pink slip on my 88.”
Four-way handshakes. A bird squawked outside—I flinched wicked bad.
Indian fall guys.
Encore: Dick Contino, truculent guinea hood.
Who didn’t tell his wife: I’m knee-deep in a hot kidnap caper.
Monday morning twinkled new-beginning-bright. I walked out for the paper—a fuzz type was lounging on my car. I’d seen him before: hobknobbing with Bud Brown at Yeakel Olds.
I eeeased over guinea hood coool. Fear: my legs evaporated.
He held up a badge. “My name’s DePugh. I’m an investigator for the McClellan Senate Rackets Committee. Bud Brown snitched you for Conspiracy to Kidnap, Conspiracy to Defraud and Conspiracy to Perpetuate a Public Hoax, and believe me, he did you a big favor. Hand me the contents of your outside jacket pockets.”
I complied. Felony bingo: repo run reefers. Bud Brown: lying rat motherfucker.
DePugh said, “Add Possession of Marijuana to those charges, and put that shit back in your pockets before your neighbors see it.”
I complied. DePugh whipped out a sheet of paper. “Dear Dick: I couldn’t let you and Chrissy go through with it. You would have gotten caught in your lies and everybody would have gotten hurt, me and Sid included. I told Mr. DePugh, who is a nice guy, so that he would stop you but not get you in trouble. Mr. DePugh said there is a favor you could do for him, so my advice is to do it. I’m sorry I finked you off, but I did it for your own good. Your pal, Bud Brown.”
My legs returned—this wasn’t a jail bounce. Shit clicked in late: Bud pressing the Teamster Prez for info; Bud hinky on the kidnap plan from jump street. “Brown’s an informant for the McClellan Committee.”
“That’s correct. And I am a nice guy with a beautiful and impetuous nineteen-year-old daughter who may be heading for a fall that you can help avert.”
DePugh smiled and clicked into focus: a cop from Moosefart, Minnesota, with a night school law degree. “Dick, you are one good-looking side of beef. My daughter Jane, God bless her, goes for guys like you—although I’m pretty sure she’s still a virgin, and I want to keep her that way until she finds herself some nice pussywhipped clown that I can control and marries him.”
“Dick, you keep asking me that, so I will now tell you that one hand washes the other, a stitch in time saves nine, and if you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours. I.e.: I’ll let your fake kidnapping happen, and I’ll even supply you with some muscle far superior to Bud and Sid—if you do me a favor.”
I checked the kitchen window—no Leigh—good. “Tell me about it.”
DePugh tossed an arm around me. “Jane’s an undergrad at UCLA. She’s flirting with pinko politics and attending some sort of quasi-Commie coffee klatch every Monday night. The klatch is an open thing, so anybody can show up, and with that bum Korean War deal of yours, you’d be a natural. See, Dick, I’m afraid the Feds have infiltrated the group. I’m afraid Janie’s going to get her name on all kinds of lists and fuck her life up. I want you to infiltrate the group, woo Janie, but don’t sleep with her, and make it look like she just joined the group to chase men, which Janie implied to her mother is true. You join the ‘Westwood People’s Study Collective,’ put some moves on Jane DePugh and pull her out before she gets hurt. Got it?”
Holy Jesus Christ.
“And no reprisals against Bud and Sid. Really, Dick, Bud did you an all-time solid by bringing me into this scheme of yours. You’ll see, I’ll find you some good boys.”
I said, “I like the scalp angle. I want to keep it.”
DePugh pulled out photos. The top one: a dead Indian on a morgue slab. Three bullet holes in his face; “Sioux City, S.D. Coroner’s Office 9/18/S 1” stamped on back.
“Bud Brown and I are old pals from Sioux City. When I was on the Sheriff’s there, Chief Joe Running Car here got drunk and scalped his wife. I picked him up, and he copped to those Griffith Park snuffs. Chief tried to escape, and I killed him. Bud and I are the only ones who know that he confessed to the L.A. killings, and the only ones who’ve got the shack pegged. Chief Joe here—he’s your fall guy.”
Three bullet holes/one tight circle—DePugh took on a new panache. “Show me the other picture.”
He held it up. “Aah, my Janie.”
Nice: a redhead hot for some mischief. Sleek—Julie London minus 10,000 miles.
Leigh banged on the window and drew a question mark.
DePugh caught it. “You’ll think of something. Just don’t fuck my daughter, or I’ll kill you.”
Green eyes scorched me—I shaved some miles off Jane DePugh’s odometer.
In session: the Westwood People’s Study Collective.
The boss Pinko droned on: the labor strike aesthetic, blah, blah. Some collective: me, a few beatniks, a Hollywood “Producer” named Sol Slotnick—a wolf with fangs for sweet Janie.
My mind wandered. Sol and Jane made me walking in—Jane’s horns grew right on-cue. Now it was Commie biz as usual.
Blah, blab—the LAPD as management enforcers. A cheap oneroom pad; shit-strewn cat boxes placed strategically. Bum furniture—my chair gouged my ass.
“It is well known that Chief William H. Parker has formed antilabor goon squads at the request of wealthy contributors to LAPD fund drives.”
I called Chrissy and spilled on Dave DePugh’s shakedown—she agreed not to tell Leigh about it. I told her the kidnap scheme was still on—with DePugh supplying some pro muscle. Scared Chris: a light-colored sports car tailed her briefly last night. I mentioned Yeakel’s DMV contacts—a temp license trace might be possible.
Chrissy’s new instinct: Dot wasn’t the tail fiend. “I don’t know, Dick. I think maybe Dot’s too fat to pull shit that sinister.”
“… it is thus not untoward to state that police violence is violence aimed at subjugating the lower stratas of society.”
I flicked a cat turd off my chair. Jane crossed her legs my way— ooooooh, daddy!
A man walked in and sat down. Thirty-fiveish, hipster garb: sandals, Beethoven sweatshirt. I made him: an FBI face in the crowd at my desertion trial.
He made me: a 1/2 second quizzical look.
He didn’t make me make him—I glued on a deadpan quicksville.
Fed sharks circling—Janie, watch your mouth.
The Head Red called for questions. Jane said, “My dad’s an investigator with the McClellan Committee. They’re investigating corrupt labor unions, so I hope you’re not going to tell us that all unions are squeaky clean.”
Sol Slotnick raised a hand. “I ditto that sentiment. I made a picture once called Picket Line! I had some connections in the garment rack—I mean trade, and I had a kickback—I mean a reciprocal agreement going with the owner of a sweat sh—I mean factory, who let me film his peons—I mean workers, at work. Uh … uh… uh, I saw good on both sides of the picket line, which … uh… is why Picket Line! was the title of the movie.”
Sol looked at Jane. Jane looked at me. The Fed inched his chair away from a cat box.
The beatniks walked out oozing boredom. The Commie Commissar harumphed.
Sol, eyes on Jane: “I’m, uh, thinking of making a picture about that killer that’s strangling those kids up on the Strip, you know, the West Hollywood Whipcord. I want to show him as a… uh… out-of-work union guy who got fucked—I mean loused up by corrupt management practices. And… uh … when the cops shoot him, he’s gonna decry the corruption of the system while he spits blood and repents. It’s gonna be like Picket Line! I’m gonna show good and bad on both sides of the fence. I might even go the whole hog and have a Negro cop! See, this schvartze gas station attendant I know has taken some acting classes. I think I could do good business with this picture and do some social good to boot. I think I’ll call it Sunset Strip Strangler!”
Sol looked at Jane.
Jane looked at me.
The Fed looked at Sol.
The Boss Pinko said, “Mr. Contino, you’re acquainted with the dark side of the police experience. Would you care to offer comments?”
“Yeah. I agree with everything Jane said.”
Jane threw me a swoon. Sol muttered, “Goyische prick”—I barely caught it. Mr. Commissar sighed. “Sometimes I think I’m running a lonely hearts club. And on that note, let’s call it a night. We’ll have coffee at the usual place, and I’ll do my best to upgrade the conversation.”
We hit Truman’s Drive-In and commandeered a booth. Sol slid in next to Jane; I sandwiched her from the flip side.
The Fed and the Red sat buddy-buddy close. Jane pressed into me—her nylons went scree-scree.
I signalled a waitress—coffee all-around.
The Fed said, “My name’s Mitch Rachlis.”
Introductons flew quick—the Commie tagged himself Mort Jastrow. I ditzed Rachlis: “You look familiar, Mitch.”
Smart fucker: “My wife’s a fan of yours. We caught you at the El Rancho Vegas way back when, and a couple of times at the Flamingo lounge. We always sit up close, so maybe that’s why I look familiar.”
Smart fucker/good improvisor.
Sol moved on Jane. “Have you ever considered a career in motion pictures?”
Jane scrunched my way. “I’m keeping that option open. In fact, right now I’ve narrowed my career choices down to doctor, lawyer or movie star.”
“I could help you. If Sunset Strip Strangler! floats, you could play one of the victims. Can you sing?”
“I certainly can. In fact, that’s my fourth career option: recording star.”
“Sweetie, that’s wonderful. See, I could cast you as a nightclub songstress that attracts men like flies on sh—I mean like moths to the flame. The West Hollywood Whipcord gets a big boner—I mean a big thing going for you, and you get to perform a few numbers to showcase your singing skills.”
Mitch Rachlis butted in. “What are you working on now, Mr. Slotnick?”
“A picture called Wetback! It blows the lid off the treatment of migrant fruit pickers. It’s gonna stir up a load of shit—I mean controversy, and establish me as a producer of socially conscious pictures that deliver a message but don’t fuck with—I mean sacrifice a good story in the process. Sweetie, write your number down for me. I might need to call you soon for an audition.”
Jane complied—twice. One napkin slip went to Sol; one snaked into my pants pocket. Jane’s hand/my thigh—oooh, daddy!
Mitch the Fed looked at Sol—stone puzzled. Mort the Red scoped the whole group—stone disgusted.
Janie pressed up to me. “We should get together. I’d love to hear about your political struggle and what it’s like to play the accordion.”
“Sure, I’d like that,” came out hoarse—our leg to leg action crossed the line.
The Fed said, “See you all next week,” and hotfooted it. Jane lit a cigarette—Miss Teen Sophisticate, 1958. I checked the window—and spotted Rachlis outside by the pay phones.
Janie smiled—teen steam wilted my pompadour. I put a dollar on the table, mumbled good nights and split.
The parking lot spread out behind the phone bank. Rachlis stood in an open booth, his back to me. I eased by just inside earshot.
“… and of all people, Dick Contino was at the meeting.”
“… the whole thing wasn’t exactly what you’d call subversive.”
“… no, I don’t think Contino made me … yeah, right, I was there at his trial.”
“… yes, sir … yes, sir … Slotnick is the one we’re interested in. Yes, that wetback movie does sound pro-Communist… yes, sir, I’ll …”
I walked down Wilshire, relieved: Joe Fed wasn’t after Jane—or me. Then guilt goosed me: this extortion gig felt like a blight on my marriage. Another phone bank by the bus stop—I called Chrissy.
Her service answered: “Miss Staples will be spending the night at OL-24364.”
My number. Chris probably called Leigh and asked to sleep over—that car probably tailed her again.
Shit—no kidnap scheme/extortion scheme confidante.
A directory by the phone. I looked up Truman’s, dialed the number and paged trouble.
Jane came on. “Hello?”
“This is Dick. Would you like to have dinner tomorrow night?”
“Oh, yes! Yes, I would!”
Please God: protect me from this Teenage Temptress—
The mail arrived early. I went through it on the sly—half expecting notes from the dangerous DePughs. Irrational: I only met them yesterday.
Leigh was still asleep; Chrissy sawed wood on the couch. She confirmed it last night: the light-colored sports car tailed her again—and she thought the driver was wearing a Halloween mask. I insisted: you’re our guest until this bullshit resolves. Her DePugh Dilemma advice: warn Sol Slotnick on the Feds and let Jane down easy. Buy her dinner, be her pal—but no wanka-wanka. PROTECT OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH DAD AND OUR BOSS KIDNAP CAPER.
Bills, Accordion Quarterly Magazine. A letter to Miss Christine Staples, no return address on the envelope.
Waa! Waa!—baby Merri back in her bedroom.
Chrissy stirred and yawned. I said, “There’s a letter here for you.”
“That’s odd, because nobody knows I’ve been staying here on and off.”
I tossed the envelope over; Chris opened it and pulled a sheet of paper out. Instant heebie-jeebies—she trembled like Jell-O with the DT’s.
I grabbed it—one yellow legal pad page.
Swastika decals circling the borders—model airplane stuff. Glued-on newspaper letters: “I WANT TO FUCK YOU TO DEATH.”
My brain zipped:
Dot Rothstein or ???? The tail car, temp license 1116—who? The tail car geek might have followed Chris here and glommed the address—but why send a letter here? The fiend might have seen Chris and I on “Rocket to Stardom”; he could have bagged my address from the phone book. Longshot: he could have resumed his tail after I chased him that first night Chrissy slept here.
Chris reached for her cigarettes; a half dozen match swipes got one lit. I said, “I’ll take this to the cops. We’ll get you some proper protection.”
“No! We can’t! It’ll screw the kidnap thing up if we’ve got cops nosing around!”
“Sssh. Don’t wake Leigh up. And don’t mention the kidnap gig when she might hear you.”
Chris spoke soto voce. “Talk to Bob Yeakel about checking with his DMV people on the license again. Maybe we can get a name that way, and turn it over to Dave DePugh. Then maybe he can lean on the guy to make him stop. I don’t think this is Dot Rothstein, because I don’t think she could squeeze into a sports car.”
“I’ll talk to Bob. And you’re right, this isn’t Dot’s style.”
Chris stubbed her cigarette out. Shaky hands—the ashtray jittered and spilled butts. “And ask Bob to give us some time off. Remember, he said he’d cut you loose on your second show if you helped out with those repossessions.”
I nodded. Leigh walked in cinching her robe; Chris held her mash note up show-and-tell style. My stoic wife: “Dick, go to your father’s house and get his shotguns. I’ll call Nancy and Kay and have them bring some ordnance over.”
My dad kicked loose two .12 gauge pumps. I called Bob Yeakel and batted 500: yes, Chris and I could have a few more days off; no, his DMV contact was out of town—there was no way he could initiate a license check. I buzzed Dave DePugh’s office to pitch a kidnap skull session—the fucker was “out in the field.”
The White Pages listed Sol Slotnick Productions: 7481 Santa Monica Boulevard. I drove out to West Hollywood and found it: a warehouse down the block from Barney’s Beanery.
I shoved the door open; industrial smells wafted up. Sweat Shop City: rows of garment racks, sewing machines and pressers. Signs in Spanish posted, easy to translate: “Faster Work Means More Money”; “Mr. Sol Is Your Friend.”
I yelled—nobody answered.
Cramped—I scissor-walked to the back. Three Border Patrol cars stood on blocks; a nightclub set stood on a platform: bar, tables, dancefloor.
Homey: sleeping bag, portable TV Foodstuffs on the bar: crackers, Cheez Whiz, canned soup.
“Yeah, yeah, I live here. And now that you have witnessed this ignominy, state your business.”
Sol Slotnick, popping through bead curtains in a bathrobe.
“I also swiped this robe from the Fountainbleu Hotel in Miami Beach. Contino, what is this? First you steal Jane DePugh’s heart, and now you come to torment me?”
Why mince words?
“I’m happily married, and I’ve got no interest in Jane. I was sent in to pull her out of that Commie group before she hurts herself. You should get out, too. There’s an FBI plant in the group, and he’s interested in you. The local FBI’s got some bee in its bonnet that Wetback! is pro-Red.”
Sol grabbed a bar stool and steadied himself. Rainbow time: he went pale, then flushed bright-red. Lunch time: he wolfed a stack of saltines and Cheez Whiz.
His color stablizied. A belch, a smile—this clown digested grief fast. “I’ll survive. I’ll shift gears like when I lost my backing for Tank Squadron! and doctored the script into Picket Line! Besides, I just joined that fakoktah group to chase trim. I saw Jane on the street up by UCLA and followed her to my first meeting. You know, I think I want to marry her as well as drill her. I’m forty-nine years old, and I’ve had three heart attacks, but I think a young cooze like that could add another twenty years to my lifespan. I think this is one Jew she could seriously re-JEWvinate. I could make her a star, then trade her in for some younger poon before she starts cheating on me with handsome young greaseballs like you. Contino, tell me, do you think she’d consent to a nude screen test?”
The spritz had me reeling. Sol built a cracker/Cheez Whiz skyscraper and snarfed it. Fishbelly white to red and back again—the spritz hit overdrive. “You know, I’d love to use you in a movie— you and Janie, what a pair of filmic lovebirds you could be. Most of your publicity has been poison, but it’s not like you’re Fatty Arbuckle, banging starlets with Coke bottles. Dick, a wholesome young slice of low-fat cheese like Jane DePugh could ream me, steam me, dry clean me and get me off this B-movie treadmill to Nowheresville that has had me exploiting aggrieved schvartzes and taco benders to glom the cash to make these lox epics that have given me three heart attacks and a spastic colon. Dick, I own this factory. I hired illegal aliens to sew cut-rate garments until the INS nailed me for harboring wetbacks, because I let them sleep here on the premises in exchange for a scant one-half of their pay deducted from their checks. The INS nailed me and fined me and shipped most of my slaves—I mean workers—back to Mexico, so I glommed some Border Patrol cars for buppkis at a police auction and decided to make Wetback! to atone for my exploitation sins and defer the cost of my fine. Now the Feds want to crucify me for my egalitarian tendencies, so I won’t be able to shoot Wetback! I’ve got these Mex prelim boxers lined up to play illegals, but they’re really illegals, so if I shoot the movie, the INS will round them up and put them on the night bus to Tijuana. Dick, all I want to do is make serious movies that explore social issues and turn a profit, and slip the schnitzel to Jane DePugh. Dick, I am at a loss for words. What do you recommend?”
My head whizzed. I ate a cracker to normalize my blood sugar. Sol Slotnick stared at me.
I said, “I’ve got a date with Jane tonight, and I’ll put in a good word for you. And I know an FBI man pretty well. I’ll tell him that you’re not making Wetback!, and ask him to pass the word along.”
“You’re friends with one of J. Edgar Hoover’s minions?”
“Yeah, Special Agent Pete Van Obst. His wife’s the President of my National Fan Club.”
“What’s the current membership? We might make a picture together, and statistics like that impress financial backers.”
“The current membership is sixty-something.”
“So you add a few zeros and hope they don’t check. Dick, be a gentleman with Jane tonight. Tell her I think she has movie star potential. Tell her you’ve heard rumors that I’m hung like Roy Rogers’ horse Trigger.”
Dismissal time—Sol looked exhausted. I grabbed a few crackers for the road.
Kay Van Obst brought three .45 autos—FBI issue, “borrowed” from husband Pete. Nancy Ankrum brought a sawed-off loaded with rat poison—dipped buckshot—Caryl Chessman told her where to find one. Add my dad’s .12 gauge pumps and call the pad “Fort Contino”—L.A.‘s cut-rate Alamo.
Ammo boxes on the coffee table.
Front and back window eyeball surveillance—four women in rotating shifts.
Four women packing kitchen knives in plastic scabbards—Kay hit a toy store on her way over.
Time to kill before my “Date”—I took a snooze.
COWARD REDEEMED; KIDNAPPERS STILL AT LARGE!
CONTINO FOILS FIENDS; SAVES BACK-UP SINGER FROM TORTURE AND RAPE!
L.A. FUZZ NIX PUBLICITY STUNT SPECULATION: “THIS CAPER WAS REAL!”
Chris held down by salivating psycopaths.
Cops swarming the kidnap shack.
Chief William H. Parker holding up scalps.
CONTINO KIDNAP PLOT REVEALS BIZARRE LINKS TO UNSOLVED MURDERS!!!
REDSKIN RESERVATIONS RAIDED IN SEARCH FOR KIDNAPPERS!!!
APACHE CHIEF SAYS, “HEAP BAD BUSINESS! ME SEND UP SMOKE SIGNALS TO TRAP SCALP KILLER!”
Chris woke me up. “You should get ready. I told Leigh you were jamming with some studio guys, so take your accordion.”
A last headline flickered out:
CONTINO CONQUEST CONTINUES! KIDNAP TOPS LINDBERGH SNATCH IN POPULAR POLL!
“I’m sure you must think that I’m just a naive young thing. You must think that any girl who hasn’t narrowed her career choices down any better than doctor, lawyer, movie star or recording star must be rather silly.”
Jane picked the restaurant: a dago joint off Sunset and Normandie. The Hi-Hat Motel stood cattycorner—“Vacancy” in throbbing neon made me sweat.
I drank wine. Jane drank ginger ale under protest—feeding minors liquor was a contributing beef.
“I don’t think you’re silly. When I was nineteen I was a recording star, but I just fell into it. You should finish college and let things happen to you for a while.”
“You sound like my dad. Only he doesn’t push the ‘let things happen’ part, because he knows that I have the same appetites my mom had when I was her age. I look like my mom, I act like my mom and I talk like my mom. Only my mom married this rookie cop from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, who got her pregnant when she was eighteen, and I’m too smart for that.”
Scorch/scorch/twinkle—green eyes offset by Chianti bottle candlelight. “Sol Slotnick might fit that ‘let things happen to you’ bill. He likes you, and he’s a legit movie producer who could get you work.”
Jane futzed with her bread plate. “He’s a lech and a fatty-patty. He followed me to my first collective meeting, so he’s one step up from a wienie wagger. My dad used to drive me around when he was a detective in Sioux Falls. He wanted to show me what I had to look forward to as far as men were concerned. He showed me all the pimps and panty sniffers and winos and wienie waggers and rag sniffers and gigolos that he dealt with, and believe me, Sol Slotnick fits right in. Besides, he has small hands, and my mom told me what that means.”
I sipped dago red. Jane said, “You have big hands.”
Questions throbbed: Who’s gonna know? Who’s gonna care? Who’s gonna tell?
“Jane, Sol’s the kind of guy that makes dreams come true.”
“Sol Slotnick is a long-distance wrong number. My mom reads Variety, and she said Picket Line! was one of the big low grossing losers of 19S1. Sol Slotnick, ick.”
I dipped some bread in my wine glass and bit off a crust. Jane said, “You’re both earthy and sensitive. You’re politically aware, but not didactic. You’ve been wronged by society, but you’re not a martyr. My mom said that men with ambiguous qualities like that make the best lovers, because they keep you guessing, and that postpones the inevitable letdown of sex getting stale.”
“Your dad must be quite a guy.”
Jane giggled. “You mean my dad’s brother Phil. I figured that out because Uncle Phil used to come around a lot when my dad was out of town on extradition assignments, and I got sent to the movies all the time. And, I used to sneak peeks at my mom’s diaphragm, which sure was out of its case a lot when Uncle Phil was around. And you know what? Uncle Phil’s hands were much bigger than my dad’s.”
I checked out my own mitts. Big—accordion practice gave them their girth.
A waiter hovered—I signalled him away. Jane laced fingers with me. “Did you ask me out just to shill for Sol Slotnick?”
“Did you join the Westwood People’s Collective just to chase men?”
“No fair. You answer first.”
I pulled my hands free. “I was bored and shopping around for kicks, so I went to the meeting. You looked like kicks, but I’ve decided not to cheat on my wife.”
Hot potato—Jane winced. “Okay, so I joined the group for the same reason. And you can tell Sol Slotnick that I won’t sleep with him until the twelfth of never, but I will audition and strip down to a bikini if you’ll chaperone me.”
“I’ll tell him, and I’ll chaperone you. And I’ll warn you now: you should quit going to those meetings, or your name will end up on some goddamn blacklist that could break your heart.”
Jane smiled. My heart swelled—just a little.
“There’s a meeting tomorrow night that I have to go to, because Mort’s going to discuss FBI malfeasance, and I want to get some lines to tease my dad with. Besides, that man with the Beethoven sweatshirt looks cute.”
“He’s an FBI agent taking names.”
“Well, then at least my dad will approve of him. My dad’s so right-wing. He thinks that slavery should be reinstated and that streets should be privately owned, so the owners can charge protective tariffs. My mom’s a liberal, because she had a Brazilian lover once. He had really big hands, but he tried to pimp her out to cover some track bets he made, and my mom said ‘No, sir,’ and called a cop.”
“What did the cop do?”
“The cop was my dad. He got her pregnant.”
I called for the check. “Come on, I’ll drive you home.”
Jane snuggled close in the car. Chanel #5 tickled my nose—I cracked the window for relief. The McGuire Sisters on the radio— I let “Sincerely” wash over me like Jane and I were for real.
It started drizzling. I hit the wipers and adjusted the rearview— a car was glued to my back bumper.
I punched the gas; the car behind us accelerated.
Jane slid off my shoulder and into my lap.
I hung a sharp left, sharp right, sharp left—that car birddogged collision close.
Jane burrowed into my lap.
I felt myself responding.
Left turn, right turn—the steering wheel brushed Jane’s hair. Hands on my zipper—something told me to hit the brakes.
BAM!—two car bumper-locked pile-up—in the middle of a pissant L.A. side street.
I quit responding. Jane said, “Shit, I think I chipped a tooth.”
I got out. French kissing: my Continental Kit and a ‘56 De Soto grille.
???—no white sports job—???
I ran back.
The De Soto driver got out, weak-kneed. Streetlamp glow lit him up good: Danny Getchell, Hush-Hush Magazine.
“Dick, don’t hit me, I’ve got pictures!”
I charged him. A flashbulb popped and blinded me—Getchell bought some seconds.
“The waiter at the restaurant recognized you and called me!”
My sight came back blurry—I charged and sideswiped a tree.
“Dick, I’ve got pix of you and the redhead holding hands!”
A flashbulb popped—I picked myself up seeing stars.
“I’ve got a shot of you and the twist walking by the Hi-Hat Motel!”
I charged the voice—“Dick, you can buy out with money or trade out with a story! Don’t you know some queers you can rat?”
I tripped on a hubcap and went sprawling. Jane yelled, “My dad’s a policeman and a lawyer, you extortionist cocksucker!”
Flashbulb pop-pop-pop—my whole world went bright white.
“Dick, your zipper’s down!”
I flailed on my knees and glimpsed trouser legs. Those legs went spastic—I caught a blurred shot of Jane shoving Getchell.
Gray flannel up close—I grabbed and yanked. Getchell hit the pavement; Jane smashed his camera on the curb.
“I dropped the film off, you dumb guinea shitbird!”
My hands/his neck—made for each other. My voice, surreal to my own ears: “If you tell Leigh, I’ll kill you. I’ve got no money, and the only story I’ve got is too good for you.”
Choking out raspy: “You bluff. I call.”
I tightened my grip. Choking out bone dry: “You bluff. I call.”
Door slams, background voices. Jane said, “Dick, there’s witnesses. My dad says eyewitnesses get killers the death penalty.”
Getchell, bedrock bone dry: “You bluff. I call.”
I let go. Getchell hunkered up and ass-scooted away. I pulled him back by the hair and whispered, “I’m working out a fake kidnap thing with some pros. I won’t give you the exclusive, but I’ll give you first crack at my own account.”
Getchell choked out, “Deal.”
Jane helped me up. Miss Teen Temptress was snaggle-toothed now
Fort Contino, cabin-fevered up.
Leigh and Chris practiced knife throws; the “I want to fuck you to death” note corkboard-mounted served as a target. Nancy Ankrum kept her snout stuck in the Herald: the West Hollywood Whipcord hit again. Kay Van Obst on maintenance duty: oiling pistols and shotguns.
The girls had spent the night—“Barracks Contino.” Bob Yeakel sent a food supply over: a half-dozen Pizza De-Luxe pizzas. A note accompanied them: “Chrissy Dear, be of strong heart. My pal at the DMV goes back to work in a week, and I’ll have him start checking temporary licenses then. Dinner soon? Romanoff’s or Perino’s?”
Leigh kept me under fisheye surveillance: I came home last night with ripped pants and a mangled car. My excuse: some punks tried to hijack my accordion. Leigh was skeptical. I kept smelling Jane’s shampoo—maybe Alberto VOS, maybe Breck.
I got Kay alone. “Can you call Pete and deliver sort of a cryptic message? I’ll explain later.”
“Well … sure.”
“Tell him to talk to the agent assigned to the Westwood People’s Study Collective. Tell him to tell the agent that I know for a fact that Sol Slotnick is not going to shoot the movie Wetback! Tell Pete that Slotnick is not a Red, he’s just a movie clown trying to make money and get laid.”
Kay got it straight and grabbed the hall phone; I covered her so Leigh wouldn’t hear. Whispers, whispers—a nudge in my back.
“Pete said he’ll pass it along, and he said that you’ve got a certain credibility. He said that if the agent isn’t at the meeting tonight, you’ll know he bought your story.”
Good—some intrigue resolving my way. The doorbell rang— Nancy checked the peephole and opened up smiling.
Pizza De-Luxe with three piping hot pies. Sizzling cheese and anchovies—unmistakable. Ramon of “Ramon and Johnny” trilled, “Buon Appetite!”
I got lost: lunch by myself, a cruise to the beach, dinner solo. I stewed, I fretted—shakedown Danny Getchell, my ratched-up car. Dave DePugh and Janie, Sol Slotnick, the kidnap—some four-orfive-or-six-horse parlay buzz-bombed my brain. Wires crossed, sputtered and finally made contact—I drove straight to the Westwood Collective and parked with an eye on the door.
7:58—Sol Slotnick walked in.
8:01 to 8:06—assorted beatniks walked in.
8:09—Jane DePugh walked in.
8:09 to 9:02—no Fed man in sight—Pete Van Obst probably put the fix in.
9:04—I stationed myself by that door.
Jane and Sol walked out first; I gathered them up in one big embrace. “Not Wetback!, Border Patrol! You’ve got the cars, and you can hire some non-illegals to play illegals! The movie stars Janie and me, and we can start working on the script tonight! Sol, I pulled the Feds off your ass, so now we can work this deal free and clear!”
Jane said, “I’ll call my dad and tell him I’ll be home late.”
Sol said, “Border Patrol!… . Riiiiiiight… .”
I zoomed by Googie’s and copped some bennies off Gene the Queen, this transvestite that deals shit from the men’s room. Va va voom!—I chased a handful with coffee and hit Sol’s warehouse hummingbird buzzed.
Sol and Jane filled their fuel tanks: Maxwell House, double x Benzedrine. Pencils, notebooks, the Wetback! script to work from, go—
We changed heroic fruit picker Pedro to Big Pete—a Border Patrolman/accordionist hot to foil a Communist band exporting wetbacks to a secret slave labor camp in the Hollywood Hills. Big Pete is in love with torch singer Maggie Martell, formerly leftist earth mother Maria Martinez. Maggie is being pursued by evil scientist Dr. Bob Kruschev, who’s brainwashing the wetbacks and implanting slogan devices inside their heads. Big Pete/Maggie/Kruschev— a hot love triangle!!! Big Pete serenades illegals from the back of a truck; his accordion lures them into surrender and deportation! Kruschev sends his sloganeering robots into the bracero community, where they spout Commie rebop and corrupt a youth group that Big Pete has been indoctrinating into Americanism. The robots and corrupted youths advance on a Border Patrol station; Big Pete makes an impassioned anti-Red speech that instantly un-corrupts the young pachucos and inspires them to attack their corruptors. The robots are demolished; Dr. Bob Kruschev makes a last-ditch effort to corrupt Maggie with a pinko love potion that makes all Commies and fellow travelers irresistible! Maggie unknowingly drinks the evil brew and puts the make on a roomful of visiting Soviet spies! Big Pete arrives on the scene, lures the spies outside with accordion music and guns them down! The movie ends with a citizenship swear-in: all the wetbacks that fought the Reds are issued green cards!
We finished the script at 6:00 A.M.—Benzedrine blasted, exultant. Jane called her dad to say she was a movie star—Sol just offered her five hundred scoots to play Maggie Martell.
I wondered how “Dad” would react.
Jane cupped a whisper. “Dick, Dad wants to talk to you.”
I grabbed an extension; Jane hung up. DePugh came on the line. “I approve, Contino. But I want this Slotnick clown to up the payoff to six hundred. Plus: no gratuitous cleavage during her nightclub scenes. Plus: no heavy make-out scenes with you. Plus: I say we tie the kidnapping in to the movie. I say we do it just as the movie starts shooting. I’ve got some Teamster guys to play the kidnappers, and I think you should audition them. Dick, this caper is tied to Janie’s career now, so I want to do this right. We want a realistic abduction backed by eyewitness testimony. We want—”
Rabid dog stage-daddy—whoa!
I said, “Dave, I’ll call you,” and hung up. Sol was taking his bennie-jacked pulse—at 209 when I walked over.
“Can you stand some more excitement?”
“Just barely. The way Jane re-wrote that love scene is gonna get us Auschwitz’d by the Legion of Decency.”
I whispered. “I’m getting kidnapped right before we start shooting. It’s a put-up job with some pro muscle working back-up.”
Sol whispered. “I like it, and you can count on me to keep mum. What about Jane as your co-victim? Add cheesecake to beefcake for a real publicity platter.”
“That spot’s already filled.”
“Shit. Why are we whispering?”
“Because amphetamines induce paranoia.”
The warehouse door slid open; two pachucos struck lounging poses. Slit-bottom khakis, Sir Guy shirts—bantamweight punks on the stroll.
“Hey, Mr. Sol. You got trabajo?”
“When we get our movie work? Hey, Mr. Sol, what you got for us?”
Sol flipped. “I’m doing a new picture! No trabajo! No work! Get your green cards and you can play robots in Border Patrol! Amscray! Get out of here, I’m having a heart attack!”
The punks split with middle finger farewells; Sol broke out the saltines, took his pulse and noshed simultaneously. My fair co-star: dozing in a Border Patrol car.
I walked outside for some air. Heralds in a curbside newsrack— “New Whipcord Slayings!” on page one. Photos of the dead couple—the woman looked oddly like Chris Staples.
My bennie jag was wearing down—I stifled a yawn. A carload of pachucos cruised by; one vato eyeballed me mean. I walked back in to give the script a last look.
Sol had a saltine Dagwood going: peanut butter, lox spread, sardines. Jane was sCoping her chipped tooth in a compact. I said, “Get your dad to set you up with a good dentist.”
“No. I’ve decided it will be my trademark. Dick, we were so close when that car hit us. We were so close that you couldn’t have refused me.”
Sol sprayed cracker crumbs. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
Noise: front door scrapes, a bottle breaking. Then KAAAWHOOOOOOSH—fire eating sewing machines, garment racks, air.
Rushing at us, oxygen fed—
Sol grabbed his Cheez Whiz and ran. Jane’s knees went; I picked her up and stumbled toward the back exit. Big time heat behind us—I caught an over-the-shoulder glimpse of mannequins sizzling.
Sol hit the exit door—cool air, sunshine. Jane moaned in my arms and actually smiled. I risked a look back—flames torched the Border Patrol cars.
BOOM—an air clap hit me. Jane and I went topsy-turvy airborne.
A dim voice:
“… yeah, and we held it back from the press. Right… we had an eyeball witness on the last Whipcord snuffs. No, he only saw the killer’s vehicle. No license numbers, but the guy got away in a ‘53 Buick Skylark, light in color. Yeah, needle in a haystack stuff
there’s probably six thousand of the fuckers registered in California. Yeah, right, I’ll call you—”
Bench slats raked my back. Not so dim: a phone slammed receiver to cradle. My eyes fluttered open behind a huge headache— a police squadroom came into focus.
A cop said, “You’re supposed to say, ‘Where am I?”
Lightish ‘53 SkylarklWhipcord vehicle/Chrissy.
I said, “Did the eyewitness say the car had a temporary license?”
Quick on the uptake: “No, the witness didn’t specify, and temp licenses only account for eight percent of all registered vehicles, so I’d call it a longshot that’s none of your business. Now, you’re supposed to say, ‘How did I get here’ and ‘Where’s the redhead that I was passed out with.”
My head throbbed. My bones ached. My lungs belched up a smoke aftertaste. “Okay, I’ll bite.”
Fat Joe Plainclothes smiled. “You’re at the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Substation. You may not recall it, but you refused medical help at the arson scene and signed autographs for the ambulance attendants. The driver asked you to play ‘Lady of Spain,’ and you passed out again walking to your car to get your accordion. Sol Slotnick is in stable condition at the cardiac ward at Queen of Angels, and the redhead’s father picked her up and drove her home. There’s an APB out for the spics that tossed the Molotov, and Mr. DePugh left you a note.”
I reached out woozy; the cop forked a memo slip over.
“Dick—the bar at the Luau tonight at eight. There’s some boys I want you to meet. P.S.—Slotnick got the script pages out, so we’re still on schedule. P.P.S.—what happened to Janie’s tooth?”
Woozy—weak legs, hand tremors. The cop said, “Your car’s in the back lot with the keys under the mat. Go home.”
I woozy-legged it outside. Clear, smogless, so bright my eyes stung. Soot hung in the eastbound air—R.I.P., Sol Slotnick Productions.
Leigh was waiting on the Fort Contino porch. Armed: a .45 in her belt, a black & white glossy held up.
Jane DePugh and I—passed out entwined behind Sol Slotnick’s sweat shop.
“Marty Bendish from the Times brought this by. He owes Bob Yeakel a favor, so it won’t be printed. Now, will you explain your behavior for the past week or so?”
Chrissy, Bud Brown, scalps, redskin fall guys—publicity kidnap extroardinaire. Dave DePugh and horny daughter extrication; the People’s Collective/Sol Slotnick/Border Patrol! The off-chance that the tail car man and Whipcord were one; DePugh as the new kidnap mastermind.
Leigh said, “When you get out of prison I’ll be waiting.”
“That won’t happen.”
“My mother said Italians were all suckers for big gestures, which is why they wrote such great operas.”
“Don’t act disingenuous and don’t look so handsome, or I’ll try to talk you out of it. And don’t let that chipped-toothed vixen french kiss you during your love scenes, or I will fucking kill you both.”
Anchovy pizza on Leigh’s breath—I kissed her long and hard anyway.
“This is my daughter’s movie debut, so I want a good deal of publicity surrounding it. You need men with no police records to play the kidnappers, in case any eyewitnesses get called in to look at mugshots, but they’ve got to be real hard boys who can act the parts convincingly. Now, check these guys out. Are they not the stuff criminal nightmares are made of?”
Fritz Shoftel—blond, crew-cut, fireplug-thick Teamster thug. Wire-rimmed glasses, acne scars, six extra knuckles minimum per hand. Pop/pop/pop—he stretched a few digits to show me they worked. Loud—a man in the adjoining booth winced.
Pat Marichal—dark-skinned Paraguayan beanpole with a stark resemblance to the morgue pic of Chief Joe Running Car. A smiler—tiki table torch light made his too-bright dentures gleam.
I said, “I’m impressed. But Slotnick’s Border Patrol cars got fried, so I’m not entirely sure there’s going to be a movie.”
DePugh sipped his Mai-Tai. “I have faith in Sol. Any man that can eat cheese dip in the middle of a heart attack is resourceful.”
Shoftel stretched his fingers. “I studied acting under Stella Adler. My kidnapper’s motivation is that he’s a rape-o. I’ll maul the Staples babe a little bit for verisimilitude’s sake, you know, give her a few hickeys.”
Marichal chewed the fruit out of his Zombie. Those teeth— fucking incandescent. “I was a contract Indian at Universal until I got my Teamster card. My motivation’s a hatred of the white man. I drop a load of redskin grievance shit on you and Chris while I get ready to scalp you. You grab my tomahawk and slice me, then make your getaway. When you bring the cops back to the shack, they’ll see those scalps from those unsolved snuffs back in ‘46. See, Fritzie’s the guy with the ransom-sex perv motives, and I’m the out-of-control guy that fucks this genius plan up.”
I said, “Who do you hit up for the ransom?”
DePugh: “Sol, and Charlie Morrison, the owner of the Mocambo. You see, Dick, I’m a cop, and I know what all cops know: that kidnappers are brainless scum who don’t know shit from Shinola. You and Chris are not exactly big name kidnap bait, and Morrison and Sol wouldn’t lift a finger to save you. This crime has to reek of vicious incompetence, and Fritz and Pat are two guys who know how to play the part.”
Shoftel said, “My parents abused me when I was a kid, so that’s why I’m a rapist.”
Marichal said, “The white eyes stole my people’s land and got me hooked on fire water. I need scalps to sate my blood lust and the ransom money to set up an Indian curio shop outside Bisbee, Arizona.”
DePugh tiki-torched a cigar. “We do the snatch in broad daylight outside your house. Pat and Fritz will haul you and Chris out to a mud-smeared Chevy, then transfer you to another car and drive you to Griffith Park. Fritz will call Sol with the first ransom demand, and Sol will haul ass to the Hollywood Police Station. You said that Getchell guy gets first crack at the story, and you said he hangs out at the Hollywood Station chasing tips. Okay, he’ll be there and overhear Sol tell the cops about the ransom demand. These are solid embellishments, and we’ve got time to set things up right, because we can’t move until Sol gets financing for the movie and it’s ready to shoot.”
Fiends by torchlight: rape-o/scalper/stage-door dad/rogue accordionist. We shook hands all around—Shoftel’s knuckles popped castanet-loud.
I went by Queen of Angels to see Sol.
A clerk told me he’d checked out against doctor’s advice. His forwarding address: Pink’s Hot Dogs, Melrose and La Brea.
I doubled back west. Pink’s was SRO—feed lines counter to curb. Sol hogged a pay phone and table at the rear—spritzing with one eye on a row of half-gnawed wienies.
Spritzing: “I’m not wedded to Border Patrol! at the expense of your script, and I can get you Contino for an even grand!”
Spraying: sauerkraut strands, french fry morsels.
His color rose and fell; his medic-alert bracelet jangled. “Elmer, all right, your girlfriend can co-star. Yes, Elmer, I’ll relinquish my producer’s credit for a profit percentage! Listen, there’s a publicity angle rigged to Contino’s participation that I can’t reveal the details of, but believe me, it’s a doozie!”
Hot dog meat flew.
A pickle chunk hit a babe in a low-backed sweater; the midspine bulls-eye made her go, “EEEK!”
Sol saw me and smothered the phone to his chest. “Border Patrol! is now Daddy-O.”
Wetback! into Border Patrol! into Daddy-O. Pedro into Big Pete into Phil “Daddy-O” Sandifer: truck driver/singer/romantic lead. Maria Martinez to Maggie Martell to Jana Ryan; Jane DePugh to Sandra Giles—pitch-girl for Mark C. Bloome Tires, semi-regular on Tom Duggan’s TV gabfest.
Jane gave up her “Movie Star” option and switched her major to pre-law—“So I can be more like my dad.” She sent me a farewell gift: her chipped tooth enshrined in a locket.
Dave DePugh continued to boss the kidnap plot—“Hollywood publicist might be a shrewd career switch.”
Pat Marichal and Fritz Shoftel stayed on-board—Sol Slotnick promised them SAG cards if the scheme succeeded.
Ten days raced by.
Chris, Kay, and Nancy continued to bunk at Fort Contino.
Bob Yeakel sent Pizza De-Luxe over with daily injections of grease.
Chrissy seduced pizza boy Ramon.
Ramon renounced his homosexuality.
Ramon told Kay he had to pretend Chris was a man.
Yeakel double delivered: some DMV flunky was collating license slips. Leigh was helping him out—she wanted the Chrissy problem resolved and the Fort Contino red alert suspended.
No more “Fuck You To Death” notes arrived.
No cars tailed Chris on her out-of-fort journeys. My journeys ditto—no suspicious vehicles, period.
I spilled my insider lead to Nancy and Chris: the West Hollywood Whipcord drove a light-colored ‘53 Skylark. Crime Queen Nancy cut me off short: the Whipcord only snuffed couples; single-o women and hate notes weren’t his MO.
“Sex killers never change their modus operandi. I’ve been intimate with enough of them to know that’s true.”
Sol Slotnick found a pad down the street from Pink’s and secured his Daddy-O financing via high-interest loan from Johnny Stompanato. Stomp said he’d use his payback cash to market a new woman’s tonic—a Spanish fly compound guaranteed to induce instant and permanent nymphomania.
Chris and I joined Pat and Fritz for acting practice. Both men were “Motivation” obsessed. Fritz picked up a lightweight case of paranoia—sometimes he imagined a primer-gray sports car tailing him. Practice, dress rehearsals—waiting for a Daddy-O GO date.
I rehearsed with the Scalper and the Rapist; I rehearsed with the Daddy-O director, Lou Place. David Moessinger’s Daddy-O script replaced Border Patrol!—it was tighter, but lacked political punch. Sol rescued his nightclub set from sweat shop rubble—it would serve as both the “Rainbow Gardens” and “Sidney Chillis’ Hi-Note”—major Daddy-O venues. The new screenplay called for me to sing—I learned “Rock Candy Baby,” “Angel Act” and “Wait’ll I Get You Home” pronto. My Daddy-O co-stars—Sandra Giles, Bruno VeSota, Ron McNeil, Jack McClure, Sonia Torgesen—were swell, but Scalp Man and Rape Man claimed my soul.
We’d hike up into the Griffith Park hills and bullshit. Pat Marichal brought fire water—he was working the “Method” on his Chief Joe Running Car persona. A few shots, a few yuks. Then the inevitable segue to the topic of courage.
My best take: you never knew when it was real or just moonshine to impress other people.
Pat’s best take: you know when you’re scared, but do what you’re scared of anyway—nobody else can ever know.
Fritzie’s best take: give the world what it respects to get you what you want, and keep close watch on your balls when nobody’s looking.
Time schizzing by—this fine L.A. winter fading out breezy.
Sol called and hit the brakes: Daddy-O was set to go four days hence.
The word flashed:
Mastermind/Scalper/Rapist to Victims—forty-eight hours until kidnap morning.
Tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick.
Leigh left for the DMV early.
Nancy and Kay left with her—baby Merri ditto.
Tick tick tick tick tick.
Chris and I watched the door.
Tick tick tick—my pulse worked triple-digit overtime. Chrissy’s neck veins pop-pop-popped—every cigarette drag made them throb.
8:00 even—the doorbell.
“Hello? Is anyone home? My car’s broken down, and I need to call the Auto Club.”
Good neighbor Dick opens up.
Two men in stocking masks sap him prone. He’s grabbed and hauled outside, good neighbor Chris likewise—she gets off her muffled scream right on cue.
Manhandled across the street—Stanislavsky Method tough. Weird: no mud-smeared Chevy in view.
I made Pat Marichal through his mask. Nix on the other man— he was half a foot taller than Fritz Shoftel.
Slammed into a copper-colored sport coupe. Skewed glimpses: “Skylark” in longhand chrome, a spanking new metal license plate. My shoulder rubbed the door—paint smeared—a primer-gray spot showed through.
The car MOVED—Chris and I backseat-tangled—Pat driving.
The other man held a cocked Roscoe on us.
Down into Hollywood, speed limit cautious. Pat spoke out of character. “This is Duane. Fritz had an appendicitis and sent him in as a sub. He says he’s solid.”
Blip: Fritz said he’d been tailed by a primer-gray car.
Blip: Skylark/fresh paint/new permanent license.
Blip: tails on Chrissy.
Blip: light-colored and primer-gray = similar.
Chris shook from plain tension—she didn’t waft hink. The other man spoke in character. “Baby, you look so gooooooooooood. Baby, It’s gonna be so gooooooooooood.”
Talking stretched his mask. I recognized him: the scarf trick geek from the “Rocket to Stardom” try-outs.
Silk sashes—fashioned into hangman’s knots.
Blip: THE WHIPCORD.
Fountain and Virgil looming—the car switch—our only chance.
Chris, improvising nice: “You’re a filthy degenerate shitbird.”
Whipcord/sash man: “Baby, I want to fuck you to death.”
Neon bright hink—Chris flashed me this big HOLY SHIT!
On-cue—Pat pulled into the deserted Richfield Station.
Off-cue—I kicked the Whipcord’s seat and slammed him against the dashboard.
Whipcord—stunned. Pat, stunned—this wasn’t in the script. A ‘51 Ford by some gas pumps—the transfer/getaway car.
Very very fast:
I kicked the seat again.
Chris tumbled out the passenger door. I got one leg out—and kicked Whipcord with the other.
Chrissy stumbled and fell.
Whipcord shot Pat in the face—brains spattered the windshield.
I tripped and fell out of the car. Whipcord kicked me—I rolled into a ball and dervish-spun toward Chris. Shots zinged the pavement—asphalt exploded shrapnel-like.
Chrissy got to her feet.
Whipcord grabbed her.
I stood up, charged, and tripped over a pump hose. Whipcord pistol-whipped Chris into the Ford and peeled out eastbound.
“I Want To Fuck You To—”
I pulled Pat out of the car and wiped his brains off the windshield with my sport coat. Keys in the ignition—I peeled eastbound.
25, 40, 60, 70—double the speed limit. Blood streaks on my windshield—I hit the wipers and thinned it red to pink. No sight of the Ford; sirens behind me.
Sticky hands—I wiped them on the seat to grip the wheel better. Sirens in front of me, sirens wailing from both sides, ear-splitter loud.
Black & white police cars—a four-point press descending. Bullhorn roar—garbled—something like, “Buick Skylark pull over!”
I obeyed—very very slow.
I got out of the car and raised my brain-crusted hands.
Cop cars fishtailed up and boxed me in. Somebody yelled, “That’s Contino, not the Whipcord!” Harness bull stampede— gun-wielding fuzz surrounded me.
A plainclothesman got up in my face. “Your wife called us from the DMV She got a make on that 1116 temp license and traced it to the Skylark, which just got a paint job and some permanent plates. She told us how the car was tailing your friend the Staples woman, and Sheriff’s Homicide just got a second eyewitness who tagged this as the West Hollywood Whipcord’s very own—”
I cut in. “I’ll explain all this later, but right now you’ve got to be looking for a light-blue ‘51 Ford. The Whipcord’s got Chris Staples, and he’s heading east with her in that car.”
The cop shrieked orders; black & whites shrieked eastbound rapidamente. My brain shrieked—
Spill on the kidnap caper?—no, don’t implicate Chrissy. Dead certain—the Whipcord killed Fritzie—don’t reveal that either. Would Whipcord take Chris to the Griffith Park shack—NO—he wouldn’t go near it.
“Fuck You To Death” implied slow torture implied Chris with a chance to survive.
The plainclothesman said, “The Whipcord’s got an apartment near here. Follow me in the Skylark, maybe you’ll see something that will help us.”
Plastic dolls sash cord strangled, dripping nail polish blood.
Stuffed dolls ripped open, spilling kapok.
Polaroids of bumperjack bludgeoned lovers.
Thousands of silk scarves tossed helter-skelter.
Chris Staples publicity pix, semen-crusted.
Chrissy’s Nugget fold-out defaced with swastikas.
Barbie and Ken dolls going 69. Crudely glued-on photograph faces: Chris Staples, Dick Contino.
A photo-faced pincushion voodoo doll: Dick Contino with a hatpin stuck in his crotch.
It hit me:
He thinks Chris and I are lovers. He wants to kill us both. This fixation will make him indecisive—he’ll keep Chrissy alive for awhile.
The plainclothesman said, “His name’s Duane Frank Yarnell, and I don’t think he takes too kindly to you and Miss Staples.”
Those dolls—Jesus fuck. “Can I go now? Can I take the Skylark and drop it off later?”
“Yeah, you can. I yanked the APB on it, but the Sheriff’s have a want on it, so you’ll have to get it back by tonight. And I want to see you downtown at LAPD Homicide tonight, no later than 6:00. There’s a dead man with a stocking on his face and a bullet in his head that you have to explain, and I’m just dying to hear your story.”
I said, “Just find Chris and save her.”
He said, “We will make every effort. Are you sure there’s nothing you can tell us now that will help us?”
I lied: “No.”
Tears in my eyes, a blood-smeared windshield—luck got me to Fritz Shoftel’s pad intact. I laid some jive and a tensky on his landlady—she unlocked his apartment and bugged out.
The living room and kitchen—nothing amiss. The bedroom—
Fritzie hung from a ceiling beam—cinched up by at least fifty neckties. Eviscerated: entrails oozing from deep torso rips. Viscera piles on the floor—shaped into a swastika.
I ran for the bathroom and hurled just short of the door. Towels atop a hamper—I soaked one in cold water, swabbed my face and got up the juice for a search.
The bedroom, first glance:
A bookshelf crammed with acting texts. Knife wounds on Fritzie’s arms—figure Whipcord tortured him for kidnap info. A dresser and closet—be thorough, now.
Work clothes. Teamster tshirts. A photo of Fritz and Jimmy Hoffa—someone drew devil’s horns on the big man. Rubbers, women’s undies—Fritz admitted he was a longtime panty sniffer. Rolls of dimes, Playboy magazines, a Playboy rabbit keychain. A group picture: Fritzie’s World War II outfit. More panties, more rubbers, more Playboys, an L.A. Parks and Recreation Field Guide dog-eared to a Griffith Park page.
I examined it. The kidnap shack location was x-marked; pencil press indentation lines grew out of it. I found a magnifying glass and traced them to their terminus: a cave area a half mile southwest of the shack.
I re-checked the map. Tilt—dirt roads marked off—Observatory to cave turf access.
Somebody charted escape routes and other hideouts on tracing paper. They weren’t part of the initial kidnap plan—I would have known. Double tilt: Whipcord gets us to the shack and kills Marichal there. It’s just a short hop to the caves—where he can kill Contino and Staples at leisure.
Leisure = time = go NOW, don’t buzz the fuzz.
I hauled up to Griffith Park. Danny Getchell lurked by the Greek Theatre, backstopped by some movie camera schmuck. Oblivious shitbird—he didn’t know the whole scheme had gone blooey.
I ditched the Skylark in the Observatory lot. Access roads would take me straight to the caves—but I couldn’t risk car noise that close to Whipcord. Sprint time—I ran straight up to the kidnap shack.
Empty—scalps on the table, biz as usual. I followed tracing paper lines southwest; adrenaline jacked my heart up to my pompadour.
There—a clearing offset by cave-dotted hills. Tire marks on the road; a ‘51 Ford covered with camouflage shrubs.
Four cave openings.
I crept up and re-conned, ears cocked for horror. One, two— silent. Three—squelched screams and insane ramblings.
“I have worshipped the Great Fire God for lo these years, and I have heeded the teachings of His only son, Adolf Hitler. He has asked me for silk scarf sacrifices, and I have given them to Him. Now the Great Fire God wishes me to take a wife, and first consecrate her with the markings of His son.”
I crept in. Pitch dark, twisty, damp—I hugged the cave wall. Motor hum, then light—Whipcord had an arclamp set up.
Shadows, shapes half-visible. Shadow bounces, full light on pale skin: Chrissy’s back, marked with a red swastika.
Trickling blood—not a gouge—still TIME.
I tiptoed outside to the Ford. Adrenaline: one good yank ripped the back seat out clean. I found a siphon tube in the trunk, popped the gas cap and sucked.
Lip traction caught—I soaked the seat cushion with ethyl. Springs and a baseboard to grip—I hoisted the hundred pounds of vinyl and foam up easy.
Unwieldy—but I got a match lit. WH000000000SH—the Fire God stormed the cave.
Smoke, screams up ahead. Flames snaking sideways—my arm hair sizzled. Godawful heat, shots—I felt foam rip close to my heart.
Whipcord screamed gobbledygook. Bullets smashed my shield of fire and exploded.
Heat, smoke, wind sucking flames away from me.
Whipcord kept firing—two guns—very close range. The top of the seat cushion blew off—I held on to red-hot springs and kept coming.
A blue halo behind Whipcord: clear sky.
I piled into him.
His hair caught fire.
I kept pushing toward the blue.
Whipcord ran backwards, screaming.
I chased him.
He hit thin air—I hurled the cushion at him.
Flaming pinwheels off a hundred foot cliff.
I grabbed Chris, ran her out to the Ford, tucked her low in the passenger seat. Fire God fast: down dirt roads, through the lot, Vermont south. Roadblocks by the Greek Theatre; Danny Getchell, camera ready. Cops yelled, “Stop!”—I got the notion this Fire God Buggy could fly. I worked the clutch/gas/shifter just right—the fucker went airborne. Shots behind me, residual shouts—magically audible. I heard “CONTINO,” but no one yelled, “COWARD.”
That was thirty-five years ago.
History in ellipses: the cops covered all of it up.
I skated on kidnap plot charges—a police bullet meant for the Ford killed an old lady. Shoftel, Marichal and the Whipcord— stonewalled.
Chris Staples healed up nicely—and avoids low-cut gowns that expose her faint scarring. She married a right-wing nut who digs swastikas—they’re big in born-again Christian TV fraud.
Sol Slotnick has survived nineteen heart attacks on an all-junk food diet.
Spade Cooley beat Ella Mae to death in 1961.
Jane DePugh had an affair with President John F. Kennedy.
Dave DePugh is a major JFK snuff suspect.
Leigh died of cancer in ‘82. Our three kids are grown up now.
Daddy-O bombed critically and nosedived at the box-office. My career never regained its early momentum. Lounge gigs, Dago banquets—I earn a decent living playing music I love.
“Draft Dodger,” “Coward”—every once in a while I still hear it.
It’s only mildly annoying.
LAPD goons muscled Danny Getchell for his flying car footage.
He dumped it on the Daddy-O cinematographer. It was spliced into the movie—not too convincingly.
People who’ve seen the raw film stock deem my driving feat miraculous. The word has spread in a limited fashion: one day in 1958 I touched God or something equally powerful. I believe it— but only to an ambiguous point. The truth is that at any given moment anything is possible.
Every word of this memoir is true.