John Gilmore (1935-2016): The Black Dahlia and the Bunco Artist

By Larry Harnisch

John Gilmore was a liar, a fraud, a con man, and a thief. The author of a string of “outsider” books — including the notorious Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder — Gilmore also had a hair-trigger for lawsuits. If he hadn’t died in October at the age of 81, I would most likely have had to defend in court what I just wrote.

For those who are unfamiliar with his oeuvre, Gilmore was second only to Kenneth Anger, of Hollywood Babylon fame, as a purveyor of fictional trash about conveniently dead celebrities who are beyond the protection of libel laws. Gilmore’s excesses as a sleazerati (he even claimed that he “explored sexual experiences” with James Dean), make E.J. Fleming and Darwin Porter look like Robert Caro.

Gilmore grew up in Los Angeles, where his father was a traffic officer with the LAPD. He had an extremely minor acting career in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and then took up writing. His earliest verifiable book-length publication — and one must verify everything when dealing with John Gilmore — is The Tucson Murders (Dial Press, 1970), which tells the tale of Charles Schmid, who was convicted of killing three teenage girls in the mid-1960s. Rather typically, Adam Parfrey’s preface to the 1996 Feral House reissue, Cold-Blooded, says The Tucson Murders “earned remarkable critiques from the likes of the New York Times” — when it actually received a one-paragraph blurb in a roundup of crime books, with the observation: “Here is a narrative of shadow-life, death and trial that is revealing and shocking and most disturbing.”

One really should put on latex gloves or, preferably, a hazmat suit before delving into Gilmore’s literary legacy — a septic tank of false and repellant allegations and unrestrained name-dropping. A quick scan of his books reveals that Gilmore said he knew Tallulah Bankhead, Sammy Davis Jr., Aldous Huxley, Janis Joplin, Eartha Kitt, Jack Nicholson, Michael J. Pollard, Gore Vidal, Shelley Winters, and Marilyn Monroe. Seriously?

Gilmore’s books are a fact-checker’s shooting gallery. Turning at random to a page of Inside Marilyn Monroe (Ferine, 2007), we find that he says his mother was “a boozing pal” of Jean Harlow and was on the set of Flying Down to Rio when it collapsed in the Long Beach earthquake. With today’s online newspaper archives, we can confirm in a few keystrokes that the quake occurred March 10, 1933, while pre-production for Flying Down to Rio didn’t begin until at least a month later. Once you get wise to Gilmore, the lies jump off the page like fleas.

Gilmore’s magnum opus of mendacity is Severed (Zanja Press, 1994), and I incurred his wrath whenever I described it as 25% mistakes and 50% fiction. He and Mary Pacios, another Black Dahlia writer, were initially collaborators on the book, but they had a falling-out and his dedication to her was removed after the first edition; she is now merely listed in the acknowledgements for use of her material. The odd duo of Gilmore and Pacios was described in Will Fowler’s Reporters (Roundtable Publishing, 1991) as “two Dahlia nonentities.”

Fowler, a onetime Los Angeles Examiner reporter, was another prolific liar and con man, but he was far more imaginative in his tall tales, concocting the claim, for instance, that Marilyn Monroe had been married to a schlub named Robert Slatzer for a few days until the studios intervened. It was from Fowler that Gilmore picked up the germ of a lie he fashioned into one of the more entrenched myths of the Black Dahlia case: that Elizabeth Short was unable to have sex because of her malformed genitalia, a rumor that has spread around the world, leading some baffled writers to describe her as “a pseudo hermaphrodite.”

In Severed, Gilmore used one of his favorite lying techniques in recounting the story about Elizabeth Short’s malformed genitalia. Instead of citing Fowler, who actually reported on the Black Dahlia case in 1947, Gilmore mentioned the two lead detectives, Harry Hansen and Finis Brown, then invented his alleged source, a third detective named Herman Willis, who was supposedly loaned to the investigation and attended Elizabeth Short’s autopsy, where he purportedly learned about her “deformity.” The LAPD states that no one named Herman Willis has ever been with the department, nor is there a Herman Willis or anyone whom Gilmore could pass off under the pseudonym Herman Willis among those listed in the District Attorney’s files as attending the autopsy.

Another dark page in the Gilmore playbook was to write to a famous individual and say that he planned to use a certain quote, a particular story, or a jacket blurb for a book. Gilmore would add that he knew his unfortunate victim was busy being famous, so if he didn’t hear back in a certain time period, he would feel free to use the enclosed material. Given Gilmore’s gift for fraud, is it a coincidence that separate blurbs from Ian Ayres and from Kathleen and Stanley Rubin both call Inside Marilyn “a penetrating memoir”? My money says they’re both faked.

Gilmore’s larcenous nature is best reflected in his archive at UCLA Special Collections. The Gilmore boxes include random newspaper clippings on old Los Angeles crimes, a collection of rejection letters, a baffling assortment of material on Laura Ingalls Wilder, and other telltale ephemera of a fourth-rate writer. The papers would be languishing in off-site storage if it weren’t for the frequent requests for the trove of Black Dahlia photos that Gilmore “borrowed” from the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in the struggling paper’s final years and refused to return.

Also in the archives is the transcription of a 1981 interview with Arnold Smith, alias Jack Anderson Wilson, conducted in a bar in L.A.’s Skid Row. Gilmore originally presented Wilson as an informant on the Black Dahlia case, but after Wilson died in a flophouse fire, Gilmore began calling him the killer, claiming to have solved the case.

The dialogue of the drunk and the bogus author trying to out-con each other is amusing, especially when we find that Gilmore plied Wilson with numerous drinks and $250 to tell him how he killed Elizabeth Short, with the promise of an additional $75 in a matter of days. Who else but John Gilmore would consider it research to bribe a Skid Row alcoholic with liquor and money? Missing from the “archives” are the coroner’s files on Elizabeth Short. Gilmore often claimed to have them, but always refused to show them to anyone.

For a time, Gilmore enjoyed a certain reputation among some crime buffs for having “solved” the Black Dahlia case. He contributed gruesome photos to the now-defunct Dahlia website BethShort.com. Several more respectable books, such as former FBI profiler John Douglas’s The Cases that Haunt Us (written with Mark Olshaker, Scribner, 2000) relied heavily on Severed.

But in 2003, Gilmore was eclipsed by former LAPD Detective Steve Hodel, the author of Black Dahlia Avenger (Arcade Publishing), who has labored tirelessly to establish his father, Dr. George Hodel, as the killer. Rather than being bitter in his interviews about Hodel, Gilmore seemed mildly amused at being outfoxed by another claimant. After that, he found other fertile fields for scandal, though Severed remains in print and sells well.

I never met John Gilmore, but after he died I was told that he hated me, which I take as sort of a compliment. For a devout researcher, being hated by a compulsive liar is not a bad thing. In fact, it may be one of the few times in Gilmore’s life that he told the truth.

 

Header image: John Gilmore, center, with George Mitchell, left, and Henry Hull in a 1960 episode of “Bonanza” titled “The Gunmen.”

Leave a Reply