Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Angels with Dirty Hands

Earlier today, I posted a column on the Kirkus Reviews Web site looking at the noteworthy new historical crime novel, The Kept Girl (Esotouric Ink), and its author, Kim Cooper. As that piece explains, Cooper and her husband, Richard Schave, are the operators of Esotouric, an almost 7-year-old Los Angeles “bus adventures” company that offers city tours “mixing crime and social history, rock and roll and architecture, literature and film, fine art and urban studies.” Cooper was also responsible for the 1947 Project, a now-archived blog that “spen[t] one year documenting the offbeat and criminal history of 1947 Los Angeles,” and its successor site, On Bunker Hill.

In the middle of the last decade, she happened across the story of the Blackburn Cult, aka the Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven (or simply the Great Eleven). As I write on the Kirkus site, it was
an especially wacky religious cult founded in the early 1920s by May Otis Blackburn and her reputedly seductive, 20-something daughter, Ruth Wieland Rizzio, a onetime paid dance partner in L.A.’s notorious Jazz Age ballrooms. Those two women claimed to have been chosen by the angel Gabriel to hear divine secrets about heaven and earth, life and death--and, not incidentally, the whereabouts of substantial hidden mineral wealth. They went on to establish a community of about 100 true believers at an isolated retreat called Harmony Hamlet, in the Santa Susana Mountains northwest of L.A. Mother and offspring were supposedly kept busy transcribing their angelic communications, yet they also found time to sucker prosperous suitors into loaning them money, which they of course never paid back.
For several years, the cult maintained a relatively low profile, though there were rumors among Harmony Hamlet’s neighbors and local forest rangers of nude dancing and animal sacrifices (mules, it was said, being frequent victims). But that all began to change (nay, crumble) around New Year’s Day of 1925, when Willa Rhoads--the beautiful 16-year-old adopted daughter of two steadfast Great Eleven followers--died. Her grief-burdened parents, William and Martha Rhoads, appealed to May Blackburn for help. The “prophetess” apparently assured the Rhoadses that Willa could be preserved using a combination of ice, spices and salt, and someday revived. The girl’s parents were instructed to inter her beneath their home in Venice, a then recently annexed beachfront section of L.A., together with seven puppies representing “the seven tones of the angel Gabriel’s trumpet.” After complying, the Rhoadses kept the burial secret. And it might have remained that way had it not been for Clifford Dabney, the abundantly spoiled and gullible nephew of Joseph Dabney, head of the prosperous Dabney Oil Syndicate. After being bilked of $40,000, he was encouraged by his uncle to file a civil complaint against May Blackburn and her daughter, which brought law-enforcement attention to the Great Eleven’s activities. One result of that attention was the discovery, in 1929, of Willa Rhoads’ corpse in a “sleeping chamber” beneath their Venice abode.

Cooper builds The Kept Girl’s plot around the Great Eleven’s downfall, but she goes beyond the facts of the case to imagine Raymond Chandler--then a 41-year-old executive with Dabney Oil, not yet an author--being recruited to investigate the disappearance of Clifford Dabney’s $40,000. He, in turn, asks for help from Muriel Fischer, his resourceful, redheaded, and much younger secretary; and Thomas H. James, a member of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), a sometimes impolitic police reformer, and perhaps (according to this novel’s author) an inspiration for Chandler’s eventually renowned fictional private eye, Philip Marlowe.

To learn more about The Kept Girl, I encourage you to read my Kirkus column. As part of the research for writing that piece, I interviewed Cooper briefly via e-mail. I used several parts of our exchange in today’s column, but there wasn’t room for everything. So I am posting the bulk of that interview below. In it, Cooper talks about her original curiosity about the Great Eleven, why she thinks Tom James could have been a model for Marlowe, why she chose to publish The Kept Girl independently, and a whole lot more.

J. Kingston Pierce: When and how did you first learn about the Blackburn cult? And how extensively did you delve into its activities?

Kim Cooper: My first encounter with the Great Eleven ... came in 2006, while I was researching unusual crimes for inclusion on an Esotouric bus tour called “Wild Wild West Side.”

(Left) Author Kim Cooper

Since my preliminary crime bus research methods consist of throwing terms like “ghastly” and “weird” into the ProQuest digital L.A. Times search bar, it didn’t take long until the unfortunate Willa Rhoads was on my radar.

The first article I found was a doozy, referencing years of strange rituals, missing persons, financial fraud, the Santa Susana hills (best known as the hideout of the Manson Family), runaway wives, and divine resurrection.

I added the Venice address of Willa’s secret burial to the tour map as a good prospect, and during the next stage of research I downloaded every mention of the cult and its leaders from the Times and read the stories chronologically. It took hours, and was completely fascinating. I ended up putting two cult-related stops on the bus tour, Willa's secret burial site and her final, official one, and made the Great Eleven a major part of the tour. Other tales of abused children and bizarre faiths provided a sort of thematic harmony. It was a very dark, peculiar tour, which felt fitting since my own early years in Venice had been dark and peculiar.

Our passengers loved it, and it became one of my favorite stories to tell on the crime bus. I was saddened when we put our west L.A. tours in mothballs, but very pleased when my husband, Richard, announced that I could start sharing a truncated version of the tale on his Raymond Chandler tours.

JKP: Before we move on, let me ask: What is the Venice address at which Willa Rhoads’ parents kept her body secretly buried?

KC: 1094 Marco Place, Venice. The houses seem have been renumbered, possibly in response to the scandal, making it tricky to determine the exact spot today. Probably for the best, as far as the current residents are concerned.

JKP: About Chandler … We know that he worked in more than one capacity for the Dabney Oil Syndicate during the 1920s and ’30s. But let me just be sure of one thing: The story of company head Joseph Dabney assigning the future novelist to look into the Great Eleven cult is a fictional concoction of yours, not a fact--right?

KC: As far as I (or anyone) knows, Raymond Chandler did not investigate the Great Eleven cult for Joseph Dabney. But he was a high-ranking executive with a reputation as a legal “fixer” within the company, and it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t have been aware of and interested in the situation.

JKP: I’ve seen suggestions that you tried to emulate Raymond Chandler’s storytelling tone or style in The Kept Girl. Is that correct?

KC: I didn't set out to copy Chandler’s style, and made a point of not reading any of his work while plotting or writing. The idea of aping such a distinctive stylist is distasteful to me. Even if the pastiche is done very well, it seems to diminish both writers.

(Right) May Otis Blackburn and Ruth Wieland Rizzio

But it probably isn’t possible to write about a fraud investigation set in mid-century Los Angeles without echoing the master at times, and I’m OK with that. If readers of The Kept Girl do hear some Chandler, I think that’s very flattering.

The book’s style is, I think, an amalgam of my true-crime blogging and crime bus monologues, shot through with the descriptive techniques that I honed while writing about obscure music for my own pop-culture ’zine, Scram, and in liner notes for various reissue labels. And the complexity of the love relationships owes something to the romantic memoir I recently wrote with my grandmother Cutie, Fall in Love for Life: Inspiration from a 73-Year Marriage (Chronicle).

JKP: You allude in the Acknowledgements section of your novel to a “scarce self-published pamphlet,” 1931’s Chief Steckel Unmasked, by investigator Thomas H. James, which you suggest “showed him to be a very likely model for Chandler’s white knight detective, Philip Marlowe …” How did James’ pamphlet convince you of that investigator’s influence on Chandler? Did the two men know one other?

KC: When my old ’zine world pal Lynn Peril--that’s her on the cover of RE/Search’s Zines! Vol.1--gifted me with Chief Steckel Unmasked, I immediately turned to ProQuest to see what the L.A. Times had to say about the interesting fellow who had written and self-published it.

It turns out Thomas H. James … was famous for preaching civic reform from his LAPD beat at Seventh and Broadway--the same intersection where, a few years later, the “Cafeteria Kid,” Clifford Clinton, would effect the recall of corrupt L.A. Mayor Frank Shaw.

[James] was perhaps more famous for his flamboyant attention to service while helping people cross the street, being featured in a Los Angeles Times column by Ben S. Lemmon about the lively intersection that ran in April 1929. James would be reassigned to the deep San Fernando Valley, then fired in 1931 for bad-mouthing the mayor and police chief to a couple of undercover investigators. His pamphlet followed this sting operation.

Chandler’s office was two blocks to the west of Seventh and Broadway. Did they know each other? Know of each other? Circumstantial evidence suggests they easily could have. At the time, of course, James was much more famous than Chandler.

Thomas James was the first person who suggested the possibility of a “real-life Philip Marlowe.” My husband, Richard, has since built a list of such characters, including [homicide detective] Aldo Corsini and George Contreras [once an investigator with the L.A. district attorney’s office]. They’re tarnished and conflicted men, but fascinating ones, and in researching their careers we’ve learned a lot about the very odd ways in which the police, vice, and politics intersected in Prohibition-era Los Angeles.

The longer we looked into Chandler, the more winking tributes to real people we found in his writing. I’m particularly proud of sleuthing out the source of the name “Treloar Building” from The Lady in the Lake [1943], a nod to the athletic director at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. He sets murders in real buildings and builds entire plots around real crimes. Why shouldn’t Philip Marlowe be a real person, or a composite of several?

(Left) Raymond Chandler,
circa 1920s

Finally, there’s the little matter of Chandler’s [1935] short story “Spanish Blood,” which is based on David Clark’s notorious shooting of gambling boss Charlie Crawford and Herbert Spencer in May 1931. Spencer published a muckraking political magazine with which Thomas James may have had an affiliation. Clark worked for the D.A.’s office, and had prosecuted Albert Marco in the [1928] Ship Café shooting. The backlash from the Marco case was what led to Thomas James’ removal from the [L.A.] Police Commission investigator’s roll and his demotion to beat cop. At Clark’s trial, James testified that Clark had asked him to intercede with Spencer on behalf of gambling boss Guy McAfee, who supported Clark’s political ambitions. James later sent a letter to the Los Angeles Times, thanking them for not smearing Spencer posthumously, as other papers had.

The connections are there, and they run deep.

JKP: What did James go on to do later in his life, post-1920s?

KC: After fighting for and winning the right to return to police work, James retired early and got back into journalism, publishing a trade magazine for police officers. He married a society woman who shared his prohibitionist interests, and was living in a very nice house in Glendale at the time of his premature death in 1949.

JKP: Wait, what do you mean James “got back into journalism”? Did he work as a journalist before signing on with the L.A. force?

KC: I consider his self-published pamphlet to be journalism, but there is also a strong probability that Tom James clandestinely provided information to the muckraking journal The Critic of Critics before he was drummed out of the force.

JKP: Is it really true, as you suggest in the novel, that May Otis Blackburn and her daughter, Ruth, moved their angel-worshipping organization from southern Oregon, where they’d started out in the godly grifting game, to Los Angeles primarily because that California city “had angels in its name?”

KC: Oregon had gotten pretty hot for May and Ruth following some sexual and economic shenanigans with another credulous heir. I think they came to Los Angeles to avoid conflict, and because the pickings were so good in the southland. There’s also some suggestion that Ruth really had ambitions to appear in motion pictures, and that the cult made their own movies, which have been lost.

(Right) Willa Rhoads pictured in the Los Angeles Times, October 7, 1929

As for “had angels in its name,” that’s one of those lines that just came to me as I was channeling the thoughts of poor William Rhoads in the sauna of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, Chandler’s old club, where I did much of my plotting in a state of semi-delirium. Is it true? It felt true.

JKP: The Kept Girl is an independent publication of Esotouric Ink, which is affiliated with your L.A. historical bus tours company. Did you try to bring it out with a larger publisher, and were unsuccessful? Or had you always intended to publish it through your own Esotouric Ink?

JKP: I’ve published books with presses large (Chronicle), small (Feral House), and middling (Continuum, Routledge), and could certainly have sought a home for this book with an established house.

I did think about going the traditional route and letting another publisher take the risks and reap most of the rewards. But as Richard and I talked about our options, we realized that one of the biggest markets for The Kept Girl was on our bus tours and at our cultural Salons, and to our blog visitors and the thousands of subscribers to our newsletter. I published a music ’zine called Scram for many years, and so was comfortable with the idea of doing this ourselves.

Other benefits are that we have other titles we want to publish in the future and that we enjoy the craft of hands-on marketing and working with graphic designers and the printer. We also soon determined to partially fund the first pressing through a deluxe Subscriber's Edition, a tactic that proved quite successful and encouraging.

Esotouric Ink will be a reflection of all the aspects of Southern California that fascinate us. The Kept Girl is such a rich synthesis of crime, literature, bus tours, good fellowship, and synchronicity, and seems like just the right thing for our debut.

JKP: Since you’re so obviously passionate about L.A. history, let me ask you what it is about the city’s past that you find so interesting?

KC: Oh, please, neither of us has all night! If I can boil it down to the essence, it’s simply that Los Angeles is a completely unique environment in which so many of the iconic aspects of 20th-century life coalesced: motion pictures, aerospace, television, the music industry, architectural modernism, the hard-boiled school of American letters, and on and on. The most interesting people were drawn here, loved and grew and died (sometimes by weird murder) here. Their stories are endlessly beguiling. I want to know them all.

JKP: Then let me ask this: If time travel were possible, at what point in the city’s past would you most like to live there?

KC: Time travel’s fine for short hops, but I like my modern life too much to go away for good. If I could only visit one day in old Los Angeles, I’d book a ticket to spring 1929. I’d have a seafood snack at Goodfellow’s Grotto, catch a burlesque show at the Follies, ride up and down in the famous open-cage elevators of the Westminster Hotel, enjoy an illegal cocktail in the King Edward Cellar, people-watch in lovely, shaded Pershing Square, ride Angels Flight up and stroll around old Bunker Hill, ride it back down and shop for printed rayon dresses on Broadway, rack my brains for some way of securing them safely for retrieval in the 21st century, let Tom James help me across the street twice, visit a gay café on Main Street, catch a streetcar to Echo Park to attend a musical lecture by Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, prank-call my sassy 12-year-old grandmother, shop for books along Hollywood Boulevard, catch a streetcar back downtown and make an appointment with Mr. Raymond Chandler of the Dabney Oil Syndicate, who will be so perplexed by my odd manner and questions that he will sit for a long time at his desk after I leave, wondering what that was all about. No stop in 1929 Los Angeles would be complete without a visit to Gay’s Lion Farm in El Monte [see video here]. If I’m very lucky, which I will be, I’ll arrive in time to see Mrs. Gay bottle-feeding the kittens. I’ll probably fall asleep on the train back into town, and wake up in the present, crying that my beautiful city is gone.

JKP: Finally, is it true that you’re hoping to place Raymond Chandler and Tom Jones (and, I hope, Muriel Fischer as well) in a sequel to The Kept Girl? Have you actually started work on such a book?

KC: Oh, you’d like to see more of them? Me, too. Yes, I think we haven’t seen the last of Ray and Tom as an investigatory team. As for Muriel, she’s going to have to think about it. I’ve got the germ of a plot in mind, and have begun researching a very different milieu of late 1920s Los Angeles. So stay tuned!

READ MORE:Los Angeles and the 1920s Cult Explosion,” by Paul Shapera (A Steampunk Opera [The Dolls of New Albion); “The Blackburn Cult,” by Jason L. Morrow (Historical Crime Detective); “Debunking the Myth of Raymond Chandler’s Perfect Marriage: A Guest Post by Kim Cooper” (Hard-boiled Wonderland).

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