Writing Jack Strayhorn and Old Los Angeles

In the first book of my Twelve Stakes series, "One Death at a Time," my main character Jack Stayhorn is a vampire who was turned in 1948 while hunting the Black Dahlia Killer with the LAPD.  In the wake of the bloody mess and chaos that is a turning, Jack is branded a cop-killer and flees town a step ahead of a massive manhunt.  It's been seventy years when Jack returns.  He sees modern Los Angeles and can't help compare it to the city he used to know, the long gone city that he lived and worked in as a corrupt cop who'd "roust black and brown folks in the morning, shake down Chinatown by lunchtime and laugh it up with an all white crew of boys in blue over steaks at dinner."  One Death at a Time, Ch. Four, p.19

Being a vampire, an addict, and a former Irish Catholic, Jack carries the guilt of his past as a heavy burden and longs to atone for his sins.

The more research I did on the Los Angeles of the 1940s, the more I could understand the sense of culture shock and otherness Jack would feel returning after so long.

It was a strange time for a young city entering its adolescence in the years between Prohibition and WWII.  Think Jack Nicholson in "Chinatown"; think Denzel Washington in "Devil in a Blue Dress."  But with twice the violence and none of the heroes.

During a lot of my research on this era, I couldn't help thinking about what this cauldron of money, opportunity and danger was like for my family who moved here in the 1940s.

My father’s parents, Creoles from the French and African mix of Louisiana, came from New Orleans during WWII, chasing well-paying factory jobs in the aerospace industry and running from the nightmares of the Jim Crow era South.  My grandmother, a Puerto Rican immigrant, left behind the bustling Puerto Rican population of New York to follow her wayward Philipino husband's search for maritime work first in San Francisco and then in Los Angeles.

Both families settled in South Central, in what was then a thriving working class neighborhood with a diverse ethnic mix of Jewish, Black and Japanese families. (This same neighborhood was less than a mile away from where "The Black Dahlia" Elizabeth Short's dismembered body was found - an intriguing subject I'll be treating in another blog post).  They would’ve found a still relatively quiet city, but growing exponentially every year.  Los Angeles was informally segregated and the invisible racial lines were strictly enforced by a corrupt police department.

But Los Angeles was also a hustler’s dream, full of opportunity for the people willing to work the fringes of the city’s booming glamor industry.  My great-grandfather worked in the bars and nightclubs of the city.  He wasn't a criminal but somewhere along the way he crossed paths with a mob boss named Mickey Cohen and became the only guy Cohen trusted to make his martinis.  Another grandfather worked as a carpenter, building out luxury yachts.  He counted Errol Flynn and other Hollywood stars amongst his clientele.  A great aunt was a stylist for Rita Hayworth and a grandmother hosted Louis Armstrong at her house whenever he came through town.

Los Angeles history is usually whitewashed and the messier parts are glossed over.  But I specifically set my main character Jack in an era and in a job where he’d live a truer history firsthand.  I wanted to bring his experience of working a racially divided city as a white man with a badge to the forefront of his story.  I sent him over to the Sunset Strip to shake down bookies and down dark, junkie filled alleys on Bunker Hill, decades before it would become host to the Museum of Contemporary Art, The Broad Museum and a herd luxury apartments.  On the other side of his story are people like my great-grandfather.  At one point in the first book, Jack talks about a man named Edmund, who made drinks for the local mobster, Cohen:

“If it was three in the morning and that sawed-off little gangster needed a stiff martini to keep the cards shuffling, Edmund’s phone would ring and he’d head downtown with a big fake smile on his face. When I asked Edmund how a black man ended up as the sole bartender for a Jewish gangster, he said, ‘When Cohen’s in the room, the only color I’m thinking about is green.’”  On Death at a Time, Ch. Twenty-One, p. 103

Bringing in a bit of family history rooted Jack in reality just enough for me to connect emotionally to him as a man with a shady past.  It made Jack more real for me.  I've heard stories all my life what it was like living in Los Angeles under the thumb of corrupt cops like Jack, racist cops.  So I wanted to take one of those guys and force them to keep living long enough to have to confront the changing Los Angeles that's not going to forgive them.  He has to confront what the city is like now, a city that's moved beyond him.  And like it or not, he's got to pay for his sins.

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