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Novelist reveals past as dark as his political tales

By Chris Nichols, Daily Planet Staff
Monday June 24, 2002

James Ellroy scraped rock bottom for a long time. Things got so bad for the 54-year-old Ellroy that selling his own blood for money, eating out of garbage cans and waking up in drunken stupors became commonplace at one point in his life. 

But now, as a successful writer, the best-selling crime novelist will tell you the straight and narrow is the place to be. 

"I've been flying high for 20 years. I believe in monogamy, I believe in the good lord and treating people right... What can I tell you? I'm a different guy," he beamed. 

The high-flying Ellroy entertained a full house Friday night at Cody's Books on Telegraph Avenue, reading from his latest novel “The Cold Six Thousand,” a fast-paced thrill ride through the undergound politics of 1960s America. 

Ellroy, whose previous works include a quartet of novels about Los Angeles in the 1940s, among them “L.A. Confidential,” has made exposing the hidden workings and culture of police forces and federal agents an art form. 

In the new novel, Ellroy provides an account of the John F. Kennedy assassination, billionaire Howard Hughes' attempt to buy Las Vegas and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's war against the civil rights movement. 

The book begins in Dallas in 1963 as three individuals – a Las Vegas cop with family ties to the Christian right, an FBI agent turned Mafia cohort and a dope-runner with connections to anti-Castro radicals – meet to clean up the loose ends of the JFK hit. 

The novel darts and whirls from plot to counterplot and includes a number of document inserts from fictionalized conversations between Hoover and FBI agent Ward J. Littell. Ellroy describes Hoover as a man bent on compiling dirt on each and every important liberal figure in 1960s America and condoning the JFK assassination. 

The book also provides an account of Howard Hughes' frequent transfusions of so-called "clean Mormon blood" and his attempt to rid Las Vegas of the "germ-infested" black population. 

During a question and answer session at Friday's reading, Ellroy made no apologies for his thoughts on the Kennedys, Jack Ruby's supposed sexual relationships with animals and his own sordid past.  

When asked about his personal opinion of the JFK assassination, Ellroy responded, "It was a business dispute and in the end, according to the rules he lived by, he got what he deserved." 

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For the author, America's love affair with the Kennedy family is certainly a bizarre and excessive one. 

Many of the dark moments and characters in Ellroy's novels are the result of the author's personal struggles with alcohol, drugs and near schizophrenia.  

When Ellroy was 10, his mother was murdered, an event that left Ellroy at a great loss but also charged his fascination with crime. 

According to his biography, the novelist lived on the streets of Los Angeles for a number of years, experiencing first-hand the grit, grime and brutal reality of a life that would later be used in his novels. 

According to one anecdote, Ellroy, who would occasionally have blackouts caused by binge drinking, began one night in Los Angeles with a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of malt liquor and ended up the next morning completely unaware of his surroundings in a bedroom in a San Francisco apartment building next to a 300-pound woman. According to the story, Ellroy began the night with $9 and ended up with $40 and later presumed that he may have prostituted himself. 

According to Ellroy, his current life, with a home and wife in Kansas City, is the "white-trash comfort zone of which I've long aspired to." He says his next project will be to write the second in a trilogy of novels about America in the 1960s.