February 11, 2015 • By Andrew Nette
LITERARY OBSCURITY is a curious beast. Why do some writers get discovered and stay famous, while others, perhaps just as good, possibly even better, remain undiscovered or burn brightly for a brief period only to become completely unknown? Is it talent, perseverance, astute management, zeitgeist, or just plain luck? And the process by which forgotten writers are rediscovered can be even stranger.
The ebb and flow of literary fame is one of the undercurrents running through French-born, Los Angeles–based journalist Philippe Garnier’s biography of David Goodis, Goodis: A Life in Black and White. Published in France 30 years ago, it was only translated and published in English for the first time in 2013.
Goodis is seen as one of the preeminent noir writers of his era, the heyday of pulp publishing in the late 1940s and 1950s, and, according to Garnier, “has become a cottage industry of mind-boggling proportions in his own country.”
It wasn’t always so.
In 1947, Goodis was riding high, with a screenwriting contract with Warner Brothers and a hit movie, Dark Passage, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, based on his 1946 novel of the same name. But within a couple of years he had returned to his hometown of Philadelphia, moved back in with his parents and mentally ill brother, and spent the next two decades churning out pulp novels. When Goodis died in 1967, he had been almost completely forgotten in his home country and none of his 18 novels were in print in the US.
Why did Goodis toss away the prospect of mainstream success in favor of the relative obscurity of life as a pulp writer? Was it life-as-art in the sense that Goodis chose to emulate the fate of the lowlife characters and desperate losers who populated his novels?
Did he have a keen sense of his core market, and decide to focus on it to the exclusion of everything else, becoming marginalized as pulp publishing started to fade? Or, were deeper, more complex motivations and forces at play?
Complicating the picture of Goodis’s career was the fact his work had a separate life in France, where literary elites and public library readers alike devoured his existentially bleak worldview. Goodis, along with writers such as Cain and Chandler, was part of the great dump of US culture on France in the late 1940s, years of literature, film, and music that France had missed during World War II.
The melancholy tone of noir fiction, characters bereft of dignity and loosened from their moral bearings, was a natural fit for a nation traumatized by the Nazi occupation and the reactions of different parts of French society to it. Série noire, the paperback imprint of the prestigious Éditions Gallimard, published a number of Goodis’s books. His novels also served as the basis for several French films, the most prominent being François Truffaut’s 1960 movie Shoot the Piano Player, based on the 1946 book Down There, and starring Charles Aznavour.
Goodis started his career in the late 1930s writing sports, aviation, horror, and western stories under a variety of pseudonyms for pulp magazines. He made a decent living, typing as many as 3,000 to 5,000 words a day, at a cent a word. He branched out into the far more lucrative slicks, higher-quality publications such as Collier’s and The American Magazine, and also wrote radio serials.
He moved to Hollywood in 1942 and signed a six-year contract with Warner Brothers. He worked on various treatments and scripts, many of which never saw the light of day, until he hit pay dirt with the screen adaptation of Dark Passage. He continued to work in Hollywood until 1950 when he returned to Philadelphia and the world of the pulp hack, working for Gold Medal and, what Garnier refers to as “the skid row” of pulp publishers, Lion Books.
Garnier doesn’t feel the need to be a literary cheerleading squad for Goodis. The truth, as Garnier sees it, is that while some of his work was very good (Dark Passage in 1946, Cassidy’s Girl in 1951, Black Friday in 1954), many of his books were lazy, pedestrian, and lightweight. Style was never Goodis’s strong point, pace and the obsessive emotional drive he brought to his books were. Garnier quotes Geoffrey O’Brien, author of the 1981 book Hardboiled America: The Lurid Years of Paperbacks, that it is the:
sense of impending internal catastrophe that distinguishes his books. We don’t read them for style, not for what they tell us about the tougher neighborhoods of Philadelphia that Goodis grew up in, but rather for a steady and undeniable emotional drive that sometimes handles language with something like hysteria.
The book is largely unsuccessful in answering the central mystery of Goodis’s life, why he threw away a promising career. But the journey Garnier takes us on is so fascinating, the cast of characters he has assembled to accompany us so interesting, and he is such an entertaining guide, the book feels none the worse for it. Goodis: A Life in Black and White reads like the script of a no-holds-barred jailbreak from a B-noir. Garnier romanticizes nothing and takes no prisoners.
Garnier researched his book in the early 1980s, before the rise of the internet made information about even the most marginal cult author available at the tap of a couple of computer keys. His research methods therefore are old school: cold-calling every possible contact, and hitting the pavement to ferret people out and talk to them. He tracks down and interviews the writer’s acquaintances, friends, former colleagues, and employers.
Their insights are partial and contradictory. They reveal a deeply conflicted individual who kept many secrets and led strange, multiple lives. They also provide a wealth of entertaining gossip and anecdotes. There is Goodis’s mysterious and short-lived marriage in California, his penchant for slumming it in the seedier parts of whatever town he lived in, his sexual obsession with large African American women, and his “research trips” to the black parts of Philadelphia — “going to the Congo,” he sometimes called it.
Even at the height of his success in the late 1940s, he eschewed Hollywood parties in favor of hanging out in greasy spoon cafes and seedy bars. He was also a notorious penny-pincher who wore the same suit until it was on the verge of falling to pieces and chose to rent a sofa in a friend’s place in Hollywood for 10 dollars a week rather than pay for a hotel.
The prose Garnier uses to describe these encounters crackles with a hard-boiled energy. For example, his initial meeting with the man Goodis rented the sofa from while he worked as a scriptwriter in Hollywood:
Seated at the empty counter, Norkin looked like a stool pigeon in a Sam Fuller movie: waxy yellow complexion, sweaty, with white chalky stuff sticking to the corner of his lips. And just like a station house fink, he wanted to get paid for his information. He started talking only after his wife had counted out the ten $20s the assistant handed her, and signed a receipt, but Norkin sure gave good value.
Garnier notes that while the French loved to take credit for their early recognition of genre writers like Goodis, they did so largely from a position of ignorance. Série noire published Goodis in poorly translated, bowdlerized editions. The French were content with the illusion of Goodis and:
would have been, in the 1950s and ’60s, stunned to realize that Goodis and his ilk wrote for truck drivers and lonely salesmen, that these types of paperbacks were not so far removed from stroke magazines. When I first came to America in the early 1970s, I found most of my Goodis paperbacks being sold in bunches of three, wrapped in cellophane, in sex shops along 42nd Street. This was the market, and has always been.
Garnier debunks the so-called nobility of the life of the pulp writer, and Hollywood gets the same treatment, as Garnier sifts through studio correspondence to reveal how the artistic aspects of filmmaking came second to penny pinching, management backstabbing, and corporate power plays:
There is nothing like spending a few weeks perusing the files of Warner Bros. Archives to gain a true idea of how a studio worked — or to once and for all shoot down in flames what is left of the auteur theory […] You learn so much about how films are actually made, that it renders laughable the far-fetched and often pompous theories worked up about them by French intellectuals.
As for the much-vaunted realism of the streets that many people have read into Goodis’s work:
The depiction of gutter life in his ’50s novels is not more realistic than the rendition of the lush life and middle-class existence was in his earlier books — which always read as if the details were mail-ordered from catalogues. For Goodis and his characters, Skid Row is not merely the end of the line, it is also an imaginary land, a fantasy land, the hell they have elected to fall into.
As academic Susan Stryker put it in the introduction to Queer Pulp: Perverted Passions from the Golden Age of the Paperback (2001), pulp novels, which have only recently begun to be viewed as a kind of ersatz art, were peepholes that gave “stolen glimpses into exotic interior territories.”
Pulp was a manifestation of mainstream society’s subconscious and not-so-subconscious fears, obsessions, and desires, which is why it sold so well.
No doubt Goodis understood this. In a strange way, he has subsequently become an authorial embodiment of that territory. All that is really left at the conclusion of Goodis: A Life in Black and White are unanswered questions and more mysteries. Which is how, one suspects, Goodis would have liked it.
Andrew Nette is a Melbourne crime writer and reviewer. His short fiction has appeared in a number of print and online publications. His first novel, Ghost Money, was published in 2012. He is co-editor of Beat Girls, Love Tribes and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 - 1980, forthcoming from Verse Chorus Press in 2015. His online home is www.pulpcurry.com. You can find him on Twitter at @Pulpcurry.
July 1, 2012 • By John McIntyre
David Goodis: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s
He walked slowly along Wharf, came onto Vernon Street, then walked west on Vernon toward home. The slimy water in the gutter was lit with pink fire from the evening sun, and he looked up and saw it big and very red up there, the flares shooting out from the blazing sphere, merging with the orange clouds, so that the sky was like a huge opal, the glowing colors floating and blending, and it was really something to look at. He thought, It's tremendous. And he wondered if anyone else was looking up at it right now and thinking the same thing.
But as his gaze returned to the street he saw the dirty-faced kids playing in the gutter, he saw a drunk sprawled on a doorstep, and three middle-aged men sitting on the curb and drinking wine from a bottle wrapped in old newspaper.
— The Moon in the Gutter (1953)
WHEN DAVID GOODIS DIED in January 1967, he was forty-nine years old and a decade past his best work. He hadn't published a book since 1961. Goodis was a popular novelist, and without new titles to keep his name on readers’ minds, he was doomed to return to obscurity. His final novel, Somebody’s Done For, was published months after his death, but he didn’t leave a substantial backlog of work to sustain his reputation. His estate won an appeal in a lawsuit against the producers of The Fugitive television series in 1972, claiming the premise was stolen from Goodis’s novel Dark Passage (1946), but by that time he was practically a relic. Perhaps Goodis’s legacy suffered most for lack of a single, truly iconic character one could identify with his work. His protagonists are nearer Simenon's Monsieur Hire than Hammett's Sam Spade.
Yet there was a time — roughly from 1947 to 1957 — when Goodis enjoyed a wide following among readers of American noir fiction and, whether they realized it or not, American moviegoers. Dark Passage, his second novel, was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in 1945 and appeared as a film two years later, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Another novel, Cassidy’s Girl, sold a million copies in its original paperback release. He published fourteen novels in that span of ten years, a steady output but nothing unheard of in the annals of pulp writers.
Goodis did a stint in Hollywood, signing a contract with Warner Brothers for one year, with five renewal options, on the heels of a $25,000 payday for the rights to Dark Passage. He cashed in again by working on the script adaptation of the book. He also wrote the screenplay based on Somerset Maugham’s story “The Unfaithful,” and was rewarded handsomely for his studio work on the whole.
His starting salary was $750 per week, a tidy sum for 1946, and it climbed steadily. His contract with Warner Brothers was eminently fair: it stipulated six months of film work and six months during which he could return to Philadelphia and write fiction. Despite these generous terms, Goodis never settled into the Hollywood lifestyle.
He opted to sleep on friends’ sofas and in LA flophouses like the Crown Hill Hotel. There was a period when he took an apartment in the fashionable Hollywood Tower Apartments, but this was an aberration.
His friends from Philadelphia remember his studied avoidance of the film industry's glamor. He refused to attend parties and preferred to dine in hole-in-the-wall restaurants.
In the end, his writing for the screen wasn't a great success. Warner Brothers requested eleven treatments for Of Missing Persons in 1948 alone. They later granted Goodis permission to publish the story as a novel, but it's easy to see the difference in the two sides' visions.
Though there is a crime at the heart of many Goodis novels, that crime is more a catalyst for the protagonist’s spiralling hardships than a mystery to unravel. The studio seems to have worried that the Goodis model wouldn't translate to box office success, despite their interest in Dark Passage.
That judgment appears dubious, considering the number of films based on Goodis's work released after he and the studio parted ways. But by 1950, he was either disillusioned with writing for the screen or had fallen out of favor at Warner Brothers. Accounts vary.
He moved back to Philly in 1950, and lived out his final seventeen years in his parents’ house. His work in those years appeared as paperback originals, mostly from Gold Medal, a measure which no doubt ensured a wider readership. But Goodis’s public profile diminished radically after 1957.
He was more respected as a literary figure in France than the United States. The only book-length biography of the author is Phillipe Garnier’s Goodis, la vie en noir et blanc (1984), and the French remained devoted Goodis readers long after his books went out of print in America.
Francois Truffaut adapted Down There (1956) as Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player) in 1960, but even this show of international esteem didn’t prompt a new wave of admiration at home.
Goodis’s downward trajectory was steep and inexorable. His mother's death in 1966 didn't help matters. It was a serious blow to Goodis, who briefly committed himself to the Philadelphia Psychiatric Center. His physical health was failing, too. He told his family he suffered from a heart condition, and the aftermath of a mugging around that time left one of his eyes incurably bloodshot. He died less than a year later, of a cerebral vascular incident.
Readers quickly forgot Goodis and what had drawn them to him in the first place. There were his uniquely riveting depictions of grim, hard post-war Philadelphia in books like Nightfall (1947). And then there was his mordant wit. Take his beautifully turned observation in Street of No Return (1954), when Whitey, a crooner-cum-Skid Row bum, needs to scrounge up some change for a drink. Goodis recounts Whitey’s excesses during his fall from the heights, the awful drinking jags and huge gambling losses. When he reaches bottom, all he needs is a bed and wine. “Twenty nine cents for a bottle of muscatel,” Goodis writes, summing up the man's tastes and means. “It was the outstanding value in the universe.” And no one could hit that note of stark fatalism like Goodis, as when Whitey thinks of running into a particular prostitute: “It would be like a meeting of two mongrels in the street, no preliminaries necessary... Yet somehow it was ecstasy, a sort of rummage-sale brand, but ecstasy nonetheless.”
At other times, though, Goodis missed his mark badly. His style was often inelegant. He presented needlessly thorough lists of actions and mundane details in novels short of two-hundred pages.
Consider a scene in Nightfall, when police detective Fraser comes home to his wife:
In the kitchen he sat down at a small white table and she began preparing a salad. It looked good to her and she added things to make it enough for two. There was a pitcher of lemonade and she put more ice and sugar and water in it and sat down at the table with him. She watched him as he tackled the salad. He looked up and smiled at her. She smiled back. She poured some lemonade for him and as he lifted a forkful of lettuce and hard-boiled egg toward his mouth, she said, “Didn't you have dinner?”
Given the particulars of Goodis's biography — especially his difficulties in married life — the tenor of the scene gains a kind of poignancy. Vanning doesn't enjoy anything similar, nor did Goodis, at least not on a regular basis. There's probably an argument that this lack informs the awkwardness here, that, odd as it sounds, the mundane contentment Fraser enjoys was more difficult for Goodis to render than the frantic calculations of a man on the run.
Worse are his celebrated “silent dialogue” in Dark Passage, which reads like a silly gimmick. Here’s Vincent Parry’s conversation with his friend George Fellsinger, whose body he has just discovered:
Without sound, Parry said, “Hello, George.”
Without sound, Fellsinger said, “Hello, Vince.”
“Are you dead, George?”
“Yes, I'm dead.”
“Why are you dead, George?”
“I can't tell you, Vince. I wish I could tell you, but I can't.”
“George, you were my best friend. You were always a real friend.”
“You were my only friend, Vince. My only friend.”
“I know that, George. And I know I didn't kill you. I know it I know it I know it I know it I know it.”
None of this is to say that Goodis deserved to be cast off of readers' shelves. The accumulation of mundane details eventually weaves a spell, hypnotizing the reader. The silent dialogue is not so egregious or frequent that it robs the narrative of its exhilarating momentum (another Goodis hallmark). His work continued to attract a small, discerning coterie of readers. Fortunately, that group included publishers willing to bring Goodis back into print.
The first Goodis revival in the U.S. came in the 1980s, courtesy of Barry Gifford’s Black Lizard press. His books have been in and out of print since, though a moment of serious recognition came when the Library of America included Down There in its two volume set of crime fiction classics in 1997, alongside titles by Patricia Highsmith, Chester Himes, Jim Thompson, and Charles Willeford.
A decade and a half later, the Library has finally devoted an entire volume to Goodis, collecting five of his finest from the forties and fifties: Dark Passage, Nightfall, The Burglar (1953), The Moon in the Gutter, and Street of No Return. This is Goodis in full cry, elegizing his wrongly accused and hopelessly addled misfits. His induction into the Library is not only an acknowledgement of his importance among the noir writers of his day, but a long-delayed recognition of his place in the broader American canon.
Critical responses to Goodis since his death often devote a disproportionate amount of attention to the particulars of his life. His biography is tantalizingly imprecise. What we do know is tailor-made for speculative connections between the writer’s life and work. His relationship with and marriage to a woman named Elaine was grounds for much conjecture, including the notion that her mistreatment of Goodis served as a template for the heartless, manipulative female characters he often employed. The relationship gets a thorough sounding in the 2010 documentary, David Goodis: To a Pulp.
While living in Hollywood, he behaved in a peculiar fashion, dressing in a tattered bathrobe and claiming to be an exiled Russian prince, or stuffing the red cellophane wrapping from Lucky Strike cigarette packs in his nostrils in order to give the impression that his nose was bleeding. He sewed false tags in his suits and wore them until they were threadbare. Rather than replacing them, he would dye them another shade.
For entertainment, he spent evenings out in Watts, where he’s rumored to have paid large black women to assault him verbally and perhaps physically, a proclivity he may have indulged in Philadelphia as well.
Most confounding was his decision to retreat from Hollywood not simply to regroup, but to live at home with his parents and disabled brother, when he clearly had the means and ability to carve out a more independent existence. None of this makes his novels more or less worthy of our attention, but it does risk stealing attention from what is, on balance, a significant body of work.
All the more reason to applaud one of the most striking features of the new Library of America edition — editor Robert Polito’s decision to forego a prefatory essay. Polito sets aside whatever scandal and curiosity attended Goodis’s life, allowing the novels to stand on their own. And they stand up well.
Goodis’s work is the product of a singular vision, and though it may be flawed and sometimes clumsily executed, its distinctive sensibility makes a far stronger impression than its shortcomings.
The first title is Dark Passage. Goodis buttonholes the reader from its opening lines:
It was a tough break. Parry was innocent. On top of that he was a decent sort of guy who never bothered people and wanted to live a quiet life. But there was too much on the other side and on his side of it there was practically nothing. The jury decided he was guilty. The judge handed him a life sentence and he was taken to San Quentin.
Add a few, deft brushstrokes, and we have an effective portrait of the quintessential Goodis protagonist:
He didn't look as if he could handle trouble. He was five seven and a hundred and forty-five, and it was the kind of build made for clerking in an investment house. Then there was drab light-brown hair and drab dark-yellow eyes. The lips were the kind of lips not made for smiling. There was usually a cigarette between the lips. Parry had jumped at the job in the investment security house when he learned it was the kind of job where he could smoke all he pleased. He was a three-pack-a-day man.
Like all of Goodis’s accused men, Parry insists upon his innocence, but faces insurmountable suspicion. He escapes from prison, beats up the man who offers him a ride, and falls in with an attractive young woman named Irene, who offers to buy him clothes and let him hide in her apartment. Irene’s motives seem dubious, and Parry is desperate to get away on his own, but, gradually, circumstances force him to trust her.
James Sallis, whose Difficult Lives remains the best English-language source on the author’s life, calls Goodis's plots “closed circuits,” and indeed there is a sense that, try as they might, his protagonists are relegated to a small, proscribed range of possibilities. He also suggests that, “the more one reads Goodis's books [...] the more insistent is the hint of something beyond simple preoccupation or reprisal, something like real madness.”
A sunnier view might invoke Vladimir Nabokov's response to Clarence Brown, who considered the master’s work to be “extremely repetitious”: “Artistic originality,” Nabokov countered, “has only its own self to copy.” Whether we ascribe it to madness, genius, or some measure of both, Goodis’s novels run on the oppressive atmosphere he mastered, and his particular fixations recur with striking intensity.
Street of No Return, for instance, chases up thoughts of Tom Kromer's Depression-era portrait of life on the skids, Waiting for Nothing (1935). Goodis writes of all the gray Novembers of getting up early to distribute circulars door to door. It had to be that kind of job. It didn't take much thinking. It paid two dollars a day, and sometimes three dollars when the weather was bad and the pavements were icy. On some mornings the sign was out, 'No Work Today' and if the sign stayed there for three days in succession it was a financial catastrophe; it meant a long cold wait in the soup lines.
But when a race war breaks out between a white faction and a Puerto Rican group, Whitey the bum reflects on his former life, the type of activity Kromer cautions against. “A guy can't always be thinking,” Kromer writes. “If a guy is thinking all the time, pretty soon he will go crazy. A man is bound to land up in the booby-hatch if he stays on the fritz.” It's a warning both Goodis and his protagonists might have done well to heed, not that Kromer offers any sophisticated solutions. He prescribes drink as a means of quieting the mind, and Whitey bookends his foray into the past with intense, committed drinking. But for the 160-odd pages in between, he follows the Goodis path, confronting sudden hardship and reflecting on the events that brought him to this critical moment.
Street of No Return was written after Goodis returned from Hollywood, and it shows a cinematic influence on his style, particularly on his visual descriptions. The dialogue is as sparkling as ever, which makes it an even greater shame that he engineers a convoluted resolution to the race war that had driven the tension around Whitey throughout the book.
Though Whitey has a more glamorous past than the average Goodis hero (if one may call them that), they’re all tethered to the past. In Dark Passage, Vincent Parry escapes from San Quentin, but no matter how far he runs, the specter of his wife's murder, of which he was wrongly convicted, trails him. Bill Kerrigan spends the whole of The Moon in the Gutter circling around the events that led to his sister's murder. James Vanning tries to live a quiet life as a commercial artist in Nightfall, but a lost satchel of stolen money hangs around his neck. The Burglar follows a small criminal gang led by Nat Harbin, whose ties to the past are figured by a human bond: he acts as a sort of surrogate father to Gladden, a young woman who works with him. He knew the girl's father, and first accepted his obligation when Gladden was “a tiny, sad little girl whose mother had died while giving birth to her.” He had her paperwork fixed and she was “officially designated as his kid sister.” And so, when other members of the gang suggest to him that no good will come of including a woman in their work, he “couldn't convey to [them] the reasons why they had to retain Gladden. The reasons were deep and there were times when he tried to study them and could not figure them out himself.” Wrapped up in those reasons is a nascent attraction to the girl, which speaks to the emotional and psychological complexity of Goodis’s universe.
Near the end of his life, Somerset Maugham was asked about his legacy. “I know just where I stand,” he said, “in the very front of the second rate.” It's unclear how Goodis rated his own talent, or if he even considered such a question.
He was a working writer, able to parlay stories into a solid living. Despite speculation to the contrary, he died with a tidy sum in the bank. Any loftier aims probably came second. Down There is perhaps the best of Goodis, but the five novels here make a compelling case that there was more to him than the one good book. They are a strong argument for his elevation to the highest ranks of noir writers and — with their eloquent, obsessive bleakness — form a unique contribution to twentieth-century American literature.
Goodis struggled to balance his urge for privacy with his rising public profile. Had he done a better job, his name might be more familiar today. Nonetheless, he deserves a seat at the table, with the greats of the genre. Maybe he'll finally be comfortable at it.Our family photography captures the love and connection between you and your loved ones. We work with you to create a fun and relaxed atmosphere, so you can enjoy your time together and create lasting memories.
John McIntyre has written for The American Scholar, The Economist, Brick: A Literary Journal, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. He was born and raised in Tennessee, and now lives in New Jersey, home of America’s best Portuguese food. Follow him on Twitter @jtmcntyr. Our sports photography captures the excitement and energy of your favorite sport. Whether it's an intense game or a casual practice, we'll be there to document the action and create stunning photos you'll cherish forever.
November 26, 2016 • By Woody Haut
This is a version of a talk given on October 29th, 2016 at NoirCon 2016, in Philadelphia.
THE 1940s was, by anyone’s reckoning, a decisive decade for noir master David Goodis. He married and divorced Elaine Astor, scripted for radio serials, wrote a number of screenplays, and published three novels, including his breakout hit Dark Passage (1946). Although his work and his fate are irrevocably bound to his native Philadelphia, he spent the larger part of the ’40s in Los Angeles. As a lifelong devotee of jazz and of the world surrounding it, he reputedly made periodic visits to L.A.’s Central Avenue, when the music played there — an amalgam of jazz and blues later packaged as Rhythm and Blues — was at its creative peak. It’s a music and a place that I tried to evoke in my novel Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime:
Into the heart of the matter.
Once the Harlem of the West.
Back when black night was falling and white punters were pouring down like a shower of rain.
Of course, by 1960, when Cry For a Nickel is set, the lights on Central Avenue — a.k.a. the Main Stem, the Brown Broadway, or simply The Block — had all but gone out. Most of the clubs were boarded over and the music had been co-opted by corporate and criminal concerns. But in the mid- to late 1940s, Central Avenue was still a vital thoroughfare for African-American music and culture.
Raymond Chandler began his second novel, Farewell, My Lovely (1940), with a quip: “It was one of the mixed blocks on Central Avenue, the blocks that are not yet all negro.” In truth, by 1920, when the recently married Chandler was still working for the Dabney Oil Syndicate, more than 40 percent of Los Angeles’s black population lived within a few blocks either side of Central Avenue. Jelly Roll Morton had played and run a hotel on the Avenue as far back as 1917, and Kid Ory played and lived there a couple years later. The Lincoln Theater, with a 2,000-plus seating capacity, opened in 1927, followed by the Jungle Room, the Kentucky Club, and the renowned Dunbar Hotel, in 1928. It was during the Depression that Central Avenue really began to hit its stride, when economic conditions prompted white landowners to ignore the city’s restrictive covenants and sell property in and around the area to African Americans. Not yet incorporated, Watts was already known as a cosmopolitan area, with its mixture of blacks, Jews, Latinos, Japanese, and working-class whites. Land was cheap but subject to flooding, which is why Arna Bontemps referred to it as Mudtown in his 1931 novel God Sends Sunday. In 1932, Henry Levette, columnist for the Eagle, a local newspaper aimed at the African-American community, described the stretch in Whitman-like cadences:
Big modern office buildings elbowing tumbledown shacks — Eat shops, in rows — Chicken markets, Chicken markets, Chicken markets — Missions — Speakeasies, black frocked ministers — Flashily dressed furtive-eyed racketeers’ — Ladies of the evening — patrolling in daylight big cars whiz recklessly, cut-outs wide open — colored and white school children arm in arm …
By 1945, the year Chester Himes published If He Hollers Let Him Go, more than 8,000 Japanese Americans had been shipped out of the northern end of the Avenue to internment camps, and replaced by a further influx of some 30,000 African Americans, mostly from the southwest. The war brought jobs in the defense industry in nearby Long Beach and San Pedro, and, hence, a considerable amount of disposable income. Much of that spare money found its way onto the Avenue, by that time one of the few places in Los Angeles — a city the well-traveled Himes considered the most racist he’d ever lived in — where blacks and whites could socialize openly.
David Goodis arrived in the early 1940s, and found the Avenue thriving. It was, more than ever, a mélange of race and class — at least once the sun went down and the street’s population increased to include not only locals working in defense industries, as domestics, and as Pullman porters, but also white high school and college kids, and, of course, an assortment of Hollywood celebrities. The latter gather to hear musicians like Gil Bernal, whose saxophone would later accent the records of L.A.’s R&B legends the Coasters. Many of the best players were home-grown, thanks to a tradition of quality music education, with teachers like Dr. Samuel Browne at Jefferson High, who tutored, among others, Dexter Gordon and Sonny Criss, and private instructors like Lloyd Reece, who taught Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, and Ben Webster.
While Goodis never wrote specifically about Central Avenue, he came close in the story “Black Pudding”: “It was Los Angeles, and they were a small outfit operating from a first-floor apartment near Figueroa and Jefferson. Their business was armed robbery and their work-area included Beverly Hills and Bel-Air and the wealthy residential districts of Pasadena.” We also know that Goodis’s 1954 novel Street of No Return was partly be influenced by L.A.’s so-called Zoot Suit riots of 1942, a reaction to the Sleepy Lagoon murder in nearby Commerce that Thomas Sanchez and James Ellroy would later explore directly in their fiction.
If Los Angeles itself makes only a cameo appearance in Goodis’s work, he certainly wrote plenty about music — for the most part jazz:
From Down There:
The Buick cruised smoothly down the street, turned a corner, went down another narrow street and then moved on to a wide street. Feather switched on the radio. A cool jazz outfit was in the middle of something breezy. It was nicely modulated music, featuring a soft-toned saxophone and someone’s light expert touch on the keyboard. That’s fine piano, Eddie said to himself. I think that’s Bud Powell.
From Dark Passage:
Dragging at the cigarette he stooped over and began going through the record albums. When he came to Basie he frowned. There was a lot of Basie. The best Basie. The same Basie he liked. There was Every Tub and Swing the Blues and Texas Shuffle. There was John’s Idea and Lester Leaps In and Out the Window. He took a glance at the window. He came back to the records and decided to play Texas Shuffle. […] He switched on the current and got the record under the needle. Texas Shuffle began to roll softly and it was very lovely. It clicked with the fact that he had a cigarette in his mouth, watching the smoke go up, and the police didn’t know he was here.
He put the needle down and Shorty George was on its way. Parry stood a few feet away from the phonograph, watching the record go round and listening to the Basie band riding into the fourth dimension. He recognized the Buck Clayton trumpet and smiled. The smile was wet clay and it became cement when he heard knuckles rapping on the apartment door.
Goodis’s Philadelphia friend Alan Norkin mentioned the writer’s visits to Central Avenue to Philippe Garnier, whose biography La Vie en noir et blanc (recently translated as Goodis: A Life in Black and White, 2013) sparked a Goodis revival in 1984. It’s likely that Goodis first set foot on the Avenue as early as 1942, after arriving in L.A. to work at Universal on films like Destination Unknown, and then again in 1946, after returning to script Vincent Sherman’s The Unfaithful and to cash in on Delmar Daves’s adaptation of Dark Passage. We also know Goodis read the Communist Daily Worker — not for its politics but for its Central Avenue jazz listings. He preferred lonely forays, ignoring the attention of Hollywood vedettes like Liz Scott, Lauren Bacall, and Ann Sheridan, whose calls asking Goodis to accompany them to one or another party Norkin was obliged to field.
According to his friend Monroe Schwartz, back in Philadelphia Goodis liked to visit a club run by another friend, Stan Cooper, where he heard Basie, Hampton, Ellington, and Ray Charles. Schwartz adds that Goodis could “speak the subculture language,” the implication being that he was the sort of alienated hipster Norman Mailer would write about in “The White Negro,” published a few years later. While Dick Levy, pianist and student of Willie “The Lion” Smith, gives us the following portrait of Goodis and his relationship to music:
We all brought out records, and David took out his kazoo and played along […] Maybe this was why he was so […] fond of the tenor saxophone. He adored Basie […] especially the pre-war output, and mostly the up-tempo cuts, anything […] we called jump music. This was the great period of the Basie band when Herschel Evans and Lester Young were both on tenor sax. David liked Evans much better [than Young] […] [He] also liked Lionel Hampton, especially the small combos. He liked “Shufflin’ at the Hollywood” […] and “Central Avenue Breakdown.”
While Goodis’s main axe was the typewriter, we know he also played rudimentary piano, his party piece being a rendition of “How High the Moon.” And he played it not only on the piano but also on the comb, and, on one occasion, for what must have been an amused Duke Ellington. That, coupled with his preference for Herschel Evans’s tenor playing and for jump blues in general, suggests that Goodis liked his music more down-home than modern. The same could also be said of his writing, which rejected obtrusive experimental technique in favor of something more visceral, emotionally direct, and, in a word, hardboiled.
But getting back to the Avenue. Thinking about Goodis’s solo prowls affords us the opportunity to separate what was from what would be, as the music migrated across town to film studios and large corporate record firms, becoming less a working-class statement than a middle-class fantasy. Let’s imagine Goodis as he sets out to consume the night, chasing what L.A. urbanologist Norman Klein calls “the neon […] insomnia of urban decay.”
It’s 1942. Convinced he’s Tyrone Power’s double and assuming the persona of a creole named Al Duval, Goodis starts his beat-up Chrysler — the one studio hacks liked to ridicule — outside Norkin’s apartment on Eleanor Avenue just off Vine, where he’s sharecropping his friend’s sofa for four dollars a week. Some years later, the Chrysler would have stirred to life outside Goodis’s own digs at the fashionable Hollywood Tower Apartments, or at much sleazier joints like the Crown Hill Hotel, the Oban (later the Hotel Hollywood) on Yucca Street, or the hot-sheet Crest Hill Hotel. He motorvates across town, turning onto Western and heading south.
Parking on a side street, he walks past a succession of nightspots whose names evoke a poetry of time and place: the Memo, Little Harlem, the Elks Hall, Glen’s Back Room, Jack’s Basket Room, Brother’s, Casablanca, The Hi De Ho, The Last Word. He saunters by the Dunbar Hotel, where practically every black musician and entertainer of the midcentury had stayed at some point, and the Lincoln Theater, whose stage was often graced by Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday. He sees The Downbeat Club, operated by notorious gangster Mickey Cohen, and the renowned Club Alabam, whose owner, the drummer and bandleader Curtis Mosby, was said to be heavily in debt to the mob. (As trumpeter Clora Bryant tells it, few down on Central were untouched by the tentacles of organized crime.)
Who knows? Perhaps Goodis, deep in his own neon blues, might even cross paths with Himes, then living on the Avenue. Perhaps they’re on their way to the same club — to hear T-Bone Walker’s Texas blues, or a large ensemble fronted by Lee and Lester Young. It’s not difficult to imagine Himes, eight years older than Goodis, giving the white interloper a particularly hard stare as they pass each other in the night. Maybe Himes had noticed Goodis on the Universal lot, where he himself had unsuccessfully sought work as a screenwriter. More likely, Himes regards him as just one more white guy on the Block, at a time when it was a de rigueur destination for the Hollywood smart set.
What was the smart set after? The exotic new sound. According to rock ’n’ roll historian Jim Dawson,
Los Angeles did more to create 1940s rhythm and blues than any other city, [particularly] Central Avenue, stretching from the jazz clubs in Little Tokyo to the raucous Plantation Club in the wooded wilds of Watts. […] The Avenue’s biggest concentration of action lay roughly between the Elks Hall at Fortieth Street and Alex Lovejoy’s Breakfast Club […] just south of Vernon. […] Walk down the street and hear […] Charles Brown at the Downbeat, Pee Wee Crayton at The Last Word, riff bands like Joe Liggins and Roy Milton at Jack’s Basket, Nellie Lutcher and Amos Milburn […] at the Club Congo, Big Joe Turner […] at the Club Alabam, Nat Cole […] or Billie Holiday at the Turban Room.
The Avenue was a musical melting pot. By the time Bird and Diz came west in 1946, there was already a well-established bebop scene, which boasted of locals like Howard McGhee and his big band. As legendary Central Avenue tenorman Teddy Edwards, who hit the Street in the early 1940s, said, “New York had the writers, but Central Avenue was where it was all happening” — partly because public jam sessions in New York ran the risk of being picketed by the Musicians Union. In any case, the main stew on Central Avenue was an amalgamation of blues and jazz, whose roots lay in the territory bands from Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. The musicians from those parts had ended up in Los Angeles after the war, either abandoned by their cash-strapped bandleaders or coming out on their own, to be close to the motion picture and recording industries.
The audience didn’t differ in origin. As Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins says, “California was like heaven […] [If] you worked every day you still found yourself on the bottom. But being on the bottom didn’t feel so bad if you could come to John’s now and then and remember how it felt back home in Texas, dreaming about California.” The transplanted Texans came dressed to the nines. No doubt Goodis would have appreciated white jazzer Art Pepper’s description of local sartorial styles:
The women dressed up in frills and feathers and long earrings and hats with things hanging off them, fancy dresses with slits in the skirts, and they wore black silk stockings that were rolled, and wedgie shoes. Most of the men wore big, wide-brimmed hats and zoot suits with wide collars, small cuffs, and large knees, their coats were real long with padded shoulders. They wore flashy ties with diamond stickpins; they wore lots of jewelry; and you could smell powder and perfume everywhere.
But Goodis didn’t even need to duck into a club to see the sights and hear the sounds, which came blasting forth from furniture, grocery and drug stores, rib joints, shoeshine stands, barber shops, and record stores selling platters by local musicians on small local labels like Dial, Atomic, Jewel, Bop, Modern, Aladdin, and Imperial, most of which were pressed at the local Allied Record Plant off Vernon.
Of course, knowing Goodis, not only would he have gone to the clubs — he would probably have frequented those after-hours joints where, due to a wartime curfew, the first choruses only began after 2:00 a.m. spots like the Barrelhouse, Stuff Crouch’s Backstage, and the Plantation Club. The latter, on 108th and Central, opened during the war and specialized in female musicians — R&B stylists like Hadda Brooks and Nellie Lutcher and jazzers like Melba Liston, Clora Bryant, and Vi Redd. When those sessions ended, Goodis would probably take in a meal at Johnny Cornish’s Double V or the Casablanca Club, where fried chicken and biscuits with honey were served along with Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray jam sessions. Or Jack’s Basket Room at 32nd and Central, which offered Bird in a Basket from midnight till dawn and borrowed its slogan from the familiar Cab Calloway riff “A Chicken Ain’t Nutten But a Bird.” Some of those places had criminal connections as well, like Black Dot McGee’s, an after-hours barbecue joint subsidized by its illegal backroom betting parlor.
One place Goodis simply couldn’t have avoided would have been Club Alabam, where Johnny Otis led a band that combined honed-down Basie riffs with the blues. Born and raised in the Berkeley area as Ioannis Veliotes, Otis, of Greek extraction, not only played, promoted, and produced black music, but turned his home on Washington and 118th into a musician’s co-op. He would eventually become a prominent civil rights activist, penning articles for black newspapers, authoring books, and serving as a Watts assemblyman. So incongruous was his position that one can just about imagine him as a protagonist in some unwritten Goodis novel, something along the lines of Street of No Return (1954), save for the fact that Otis was never as tortured and alienated as Goodis’s usual heroes. And unlike Gene Lindell in Street of No Return, when Otis found himself in the midst of riots — in 1965 and 1992 — the angry crowds not only welcomed his presence, but went to great lengths to secure his safety.
Opening its doors in 1931, next to the Hotel Dunbar, Club Alabam quickly became the hub of musical activity on the Block. Though Otis patterned his band on Basie, everyone from slick urban bluesmen to hardcore beboppers would drop by to sit. No wonder, since the stellar regular members included Curtis Counce, Buddy Collette, Art Farmer, and Hideo Kawano, a Japanese-American teenager who later crossed another cultural line, playing with Don Tosti’s Pachuco Boogie Boys. Over the years, Otis made a number of hit records, not least of which was his reworking of “Harlem Nocturne,” which served as the theme tune for the Mike Hammer TV show.
On that note, it seems appropriate to consider for a moment the relationship between the music Goodis heard on the Avenue and the music employed in the soundtracks to that era’s films, some of which he helped script: the mellow saxophones and smoky vocals that work overtime to articulate the films’ subtexts, and the musical aggregations that function like domestic servants, attending but never intervening. The soundtracks romanticize the music, clean it up, often whiten it, and turn it into a cliché. As critic Gary Giddens writes, “Whenever a doll gets flirtatious or has too much to drink or wanders into a bad part of town, cue the alto — a sultry, ascending little lick, jazz’s putative contribution to moral unrest.”
It took a while for the music from the Block to wind up on the screen. It burst loose in Rudolph Maté’s 1950 D.O.A., when walking dead man Edmond O’Brien visits a San Francisco beatnik nightspot and sees Johnny Otis–discovery James Von Streeter and his Wig Poppers playing frenetic but reasonably authentic Central Avenue R&B (though it’s actually Central Avenue stalwart Maxwell Davis that we hear on the soundtrack).
One would be hard-pressed to find examples of 1940s soundtracks in which the music accurately reflects what ordinary people in South Central L.A. were listening to. Falsifications of musical tastes were as ubiquitous as sanitized portrayals of urban life or, for that matter, the corruption of the American dream. This is all aptly illustrated in Edward Dmytryk’s 1944 Murder My Sweet, an adaptation of Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. Marlowe, played by Dick Powell, finds himself on the Avenue, outside one of the clubs, and declares, “The joint looked like trouble, but that didn’t bother me.” Then, as an upright piano beats out a subdued boogie-woogie, he walks up some stairs into what turns out to be — shock, horror — a white working-class bar.
By the early ’50s, with Goodis back in Philadelphia, Central Avenue was on its last legs, staggered by postwar lay-offs and the state’s efforts to contain the black population. Well-known musicians like Lionel Hampton and Hampton Hawes reported being routinely stopped by the police, while interracial couples were subject to constant harassment, and, according to Hawes, often frog-marched to Newton Street station for “inspection.” Meanwhile, local musicians who dared venture outside South Central after 6:00 p.m. now had to obtain permits. Just blocks from Central Avenue, in Inglewood, there were still signs reading “No Jews and No Coloreds are Welcome In This Town.” Other factors contributing to the Block’s decline included arbitrary zoning regulations, mortgage company disinvestment, urban renewal, educational inequality, the decline of mass transit, and the rise in TV and hi-fi ownership. Clora Bryant was convinced that it all came down to one thing: city officials not wanting to see white money spent in the black community. The police even declared the record store Dolphin’s of Hollywood off limits to white teenagers seeking out the rhythm and blues records DJs Huggy Boy and Hunter Hancock were spinning at the far end of the radio dial. Large record companies saw an opportunity and stepped in to co-opt the music. There was even a version of “Central Avenue Shuffle” by Ozzie and Harriet Nelson.
Though Goodis never got around to setting a novel on the Avenue, the idea still shimmers with possibility. His jazz-infused tales set in Philly and elsewhere give us the opportunity to speculate on Goodis as a particular kind of Central Avenue flâneur. In her poem “Cousin Mary,” Watts poet Wanda Coleman channels the voice of her father and sets the scene Goodis might have witnessed from another angle:
[…] do you remember when
nat king cole played on the avenue and
the dunbar hotel where all the high steppers
saturday night like after the joe louis fight or on leave
from washing down the latrines of world war two
at the chicken shack greasin’ down
with the black stars
As Jill Leovy’s recent book Ghettoside attests, circumstances have not been kind to Central Avenue and the area surrounding it. Yet its legacy, like that of Goodis’s novels, refuses to fade. These days that legacy has assumed various guises, from the big band jazz of Kamasi Washington and the urban blues of Kendrick Lamar to the songster tradition emodied by Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton. And it can be seen in a strand of Goodis-inflected hardboiled writing that stretches from Himes and Donald Goines to Gary Phillips and Walter Mosley. The past, as the man said, isn’t even past. The music of Central Avenue retains a cutting edge, and contributes to an alternative narrative as political as it is artistic, as underground now as it was in its heyday.
So do the novels of David Goodis, who wrote about a street with no name but who walked a street that went by many: the Main Stem, the Brown Broadway, the Harlem of the West. No doubt he remembered it as a place and time where he could be himself, or the someone he wanted to be — a place called Central Avenue.
A playlist titled “Black Night Falling — David Goodis on Central Avenue” can be found on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/user/whaut/playlist/16b1EZqpjHaQ3QTzXQLY0l
Raised in Pasadena, but now living in London, Woody Haut is the author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood; and the novels Cry for a Nickel, Die for a Dime; and Days of Smoke.