John Gilmore is a legend amongst the Hollywood literati. From the tough streets of pre-Giuliani New York, to the glimmering lights of Hollywoodland, Gilmore’s sensual, all knowing noir has captured the journeys of those whose lives have crossed with his—Dennis Hopper, Marilyn Monroe, Jack Kerouac and James Dean. He writes about them, not always literally, but rather the stories and the people that these celestial mavericks have inspired. And unlike many others, his take is the real deal, told from the inside.
Early on, Gilmore wanted to be an actor. Then someone read his first manuscript and told him "Why are you wasting your time trying to be an actor? You're a writer whether you like it or not." He kept acting but after a successful review of his story about the criminal Charles Schmid and his work on Charles Manson and The Family, he found the energy to mirror the truth, a “creative fire” that comes from looking towards “real people who lived desperately”, telling their shattered and sensual stories.
Schwab's drugstore on Sunset is long gone, so too are Dean, Monroe and Kerouac, even Hopper, but Gilmore continues to breathe life into these very real people, and their ilk, beyond the screen. I can’t put his life into words the way he does. Check out his bio. (http://www.johngilmore.com/Biography/biography.html)
And I have to thank the wonderful Kathy Charles for turning me onto this remarkable writer.
If you were writing the book about your life, what would an editor write on the back cover blurb?
John Gilmore has lived a naked life and his work lays bare a naked truth. In his literary explorations, he has uncovered a fragment of the human condition heretofore unrecognised.
Who is your favourite writer (lyricist, novelist, scriptwriter etc)?
John Gilmore is my favourite novelist. He is relentlessly relentless.
What text (book, play, movie, TV show, song) do you covet and wish you'd written?
There is nothing I covet or wish I’d written. I’ve done what I’ve done and that’s where it stands.
What was the first piece you ever wrote?
I don’t have anything I wrote that far back. The UCLA Special Collections of the Research Library has collected my stuff since about 1972. I think there’s 30 or so jammed-full boxes, but my apprenticeship in the early 60s was served by writing potboilers right out of my head, about ten or so one on top of the other, and in those novels I carried forth ideas I’d had since way back when I was still obsessed with being a movie star—which leads us into the next question:
What’s your fascination with Hollywood and, dare I say it, dead people?
My mother was a friend of Jean Harlow, a drinking buddy from the MGM days where my mother was under a contract. I was born in L.A. County General Hospital, same as Marilyn Monroe, and I started quite young as a juvenile actor (check Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Gilmore_(writer) for those details). I was made for it. Tyrone Power was my hero. I met him a couple times; the first time he kissed me and the second time—I was older—he shook my hand.
Being an actor was not a fascination but an occupation. Nor have I been fascinated with “dead bodies,” though I confess to being fascinated with live bodies and the extent of my tomfoolery in that area over three-quarters of a century knows no bounds.
How do you see your role in the making (and defining) of popular culture?
I don’t really see it personally, though a few years ago Phaidon published a book, Star Culture, that related to your question. J.G. Ballard, Iggy Pop, John Gilmore, Cicciolina, John Waters, David Bowie, etc, etc., sort of ties up into a package stressing the culture rainbow of the 90s. I don’t know where the fuck any of it is now, nor do I care.
What do you find particularly challenging about writing?
I don’t find anything challenging about writing anymore; it’s a natural process for me, intuitive and non-intellectual. I sit at a certain time and begin as though I am pouring tea from a Japanese iron pot. I had one once, and the Japanese characters engraved into the metal translated as Mind Like Stone And Iron. There is no challenge involved because the creative process is segregated from its surroundings.
When did you “quit your day job" for writing? How and when did know it was time?
Never really had a day job other than acting, then the transition into writing (a dozen or so motion picture scripts—where the bullshit really begins). When my star chase faded and TV mediocrity prevailed, I knew it was time to bite the bullet; throw all the junk to the wind. Marilyn’s death at 36 convinced me I’d been barking up the wrong tree.
How do you get started writing a new story? And how do you go about choosing your subjects?
I never choose subjects… somehow I get involved in them (the nonfictions) via others, except for the novels and those just evolve out of what I am, what I know. I write what I feel impelled to write, like an expressionist painter feels impelled to paint. They’ll log around in my brain for years like I’ve got some mixture cooking somewhere and the fire never goes out. I start writing them for real when the time comes about on its own.
What's a typical writing session like for you?
Used to be eight hours a days or less; now I write (the serious stuff) staring at 7 in the mornings and I go nonstop (except for getting more coffee) until maybe 10. I do a day’s work in those two-and-a-half or three hours. I rewrite a lot as well, so sometimes the revisions get confusing but it all works out in the end. In ’92 I went to my first computer. It was a great change—bringing my artist’s visual sense to hold hands with the words. Very thrilling.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on a big novel that’s bounced around in my head for years; it’s about a young maverick who becomes an actor, circa 1954 through 1965. About five more months should see it done. Then I go instantly into the next, already working in my head. No break. No celebration. Just work. I’m older and I can see the end of the road down there. I have a lot of money, I own property in Hollywood and New Mexico; I’m no longer married; have three girlfriends, love to go to old Hollywood restaurants and the finer places.
What was the last book you read, and what made you read it to the end?
I read. I have a couple thousand books and read everything. I have not owned a TV in probably 20 years. I watch movies all the time. I have a room full of movies from silents to noir; very few new movies. Hundreds of old movies.
What is the most important thing you would tell a new writer if they came to you for advice?
I’d say this: I’ve been saying for half a dozen years that the publishing world is collapsing. Book stores are folding left and right; publishers are going out of business. Big printing companies going broke. But what’s positive? A whole new world is opening: E-BOOKS. It is like the gold rush in California, or the old west land grab way back. It’s virgin territory where the author can be a king. And I would say to a new writer this: DO NOT WRITE WHAT THEY WANT YOU TO WRITE; WRITE WHAT YOU WANT TO WRITE. Not from the head but from the gut and the heart.
After the Lucky 13 were despatched to John, I got an itch. I needed to know more. After all, I’m not the first, nor the last, person to have themselves photographed next to James Dean’s bust at LA’s Griffith Observatory. James Dean lived a very short, but very significant, life filled with men, women, fast cars and three enduring movies in the 18 short months he flew through Hollywood.
Here, John graciously talks frankly about James and his connection to Hollywood’s gritty stories.
JV: Who was James Dean – not the public person – and what was it about everything that was happening around him (film, fame, broads, men etc) that made him retreat?
JG: I did write two books about Dean and both are memoirs, in as much as they are from my point of view. I do cover biographical material but it is coloured by my take on it. James Dean was a maverick in the true sense, separated from his mother as a child and doomed to wander uninformed of the mores and manners of the larger society. I always thought he was from Santa Monica; only learned later that he’d been shipped back to a farm in Indiana as a little kid where he was rejected by his father, who never liked him very much. He then shipped the kid out of California, along with the body of his wife—Jimmy’s mother, in a coffin on the same train. He once said to me, “Maybe he’d’ve got a bigger kick if I’d croaked as well and he’d’ve wangled a smaller, cut-rate coffin for me.”
I think he “retreated”, as you put it, from the time he was a small kid; crawled into himself only to be peeking out from time to time through a self-made manhole lid. What made him odd and practically difficult to manage, was a streak of perversity as wide as a freeway lane. By “perverse” I don’t mean a pervert, but I mean stubborn and psychologically unruly as well as unreasonable and with an iron-like wilfulness. He was in so many ways reckless. Rationalising this by the deadest determination that unless you took chances you wouldn’t make discoveries. Of course I agreed and still do. Break free, find the river in the heart of the jungle. So the “retreat” is fairly layered upon the subject (Dean), since he’s not doing something our way and there’s no other way he can do it except his way. And his way shot him straight into mega importance as an actor—and now, an indelible icon, galaxies out of reach from the ordinary person.
It is the same with Marilyn Monroe. My acquaintanceship with her ran from ’53 until ‘60 when it appeared we’d star in a picture together. More than once we talked about Dean and, as she put it, “his sadness” and his “nagging loneliness”.
JV: How did you manage to stay close to James when he turned away so many?JG: The secret to riding shogun with Jimmy was you had to have broken away from what today would be called “the suits”, and any others that tended to negatively categorise his actions, i.e., “Wow, man, that’s not so cool, I mean...” etc. etc. I never criticised him or showed in any manner that what he was doing, thinking, saying was to be frowned upon. It was an unspoken agreement that leaked through both our natures. Remember, we had a history; our friendship began in ’53 in New York before he made East of Eden. We had a mutual friend in TV director James Sheldon. I didn’t like some of the others who likened themselves to him, but at base level, neither did Jimmy.
JV: What real life story has most intrigued you?
JG: It’s all personal. I’ve been most intrigued to the point of total distraction by the “life story” of Marilyn who lived her brief whirlwind existence in a kind of capsule of pain, loneliness and anxiety. Then dying. The same with Dean—speed, speed at all costs. He was unskilled as a driver and his recklessness was tragically pronounced.
JV: From the perspective of the “craft” of writing, in what way is biography different to fiction? How is the approach to writing and creating different?
JG: I’ve never really written biography, though so much is autobiographical. Creation comes from the inside—from grabbing the ding en sich and not letting go. It is expression—emotional and sexual—and words are the colours or the music notes transcribed, always honing in as if creating a funnel through which to filter the guts of the subject, the truth of it—love, hate, death, killing, pain, anguish, desperation and loneliness. True works of art or literature are never “cute” or clever or related in any way to a concept of selling a story. It has nothing to do with money and deals. Irving Wallace once said if he wasn’t making a lot of money with his books, he wouldn’t write at all. In other words, he had nothing to say—and nowhere to go—except to the bank.
JV: They say that “fact is stranger than fiction”, given your career has been to document real life crimes and life accounts, what’s your take on that line?
JG: It’s a dumb line, like saying, “You know, dreams are not really real life!” Duh. But like the poet Rilke saw it, to succeed at making a discovery, you had to go for the ding en sich—the thing in itself. And so often that wriggling, molten kernel is too hot to handle for most people. So you’re pegged into a cult, like me. They say you’re a cult writer when actually you’re simply a real artist.