Con Artists and True Believers: J.C. Gabel interviews LA historian and author Kim Cooper

April 5, 2014   •   By J.C. Gabel

SINCE RETURNING to Los Angeles after studying art history at University of California, Santa Cruz in the late 1980s, Kim Cooper has been obsessed with Los Angeles, the Noir City. With her husband Richard Schave she runs Esotouric bus tours, taking tourists not to the mansions of the rich but to eat donuts in the parking lot of Charles Bukowski’s favorite liquor store.

With its terse dialogue, procedural plot lines, and rugged investigator-hero, Cooper pays homage, in her debut novel The Kept Girl, to the worlds of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The story centers on a group of West Coast spiritualist-swindlers who form a cult called the Great Eleven in order to extract money from a few lonely souls looking for enlightenment and meaning among the Southern California orange groves of the 1920s.

Earlier this year, Cooper and I met at the Pacific Dining Car, just two blocks from the Mayfair Hotel where Raymond Chandler would drown himself in booze and hard-boiled plot lines. We discussed the origins of The Kept Girl, and how truth is stranger than fiction, so long as the backdrop is Los Angeles.


J.C. Gabel: You’ve published four books, but Kept Girl is your first novel. How long has it been incubating in your brain?

Kim Cooper: When I was in my early 20s, living in San Francisco, I thought, that’s what a writer does — a writer writes a novel. I started Scram (“a journal of unpopular culture”) and was contributing to other people’s zines. I started thinking about spiritualists at the turn of the century; I don’t know why. I realized quickly I didn’t know enough to write a historical novel and I had no idea how to write fiction, so it was in the back of my mind for a long time.

When I met Richard, my husband, I wanted to do creative stuff with him, but our musical tastes were completely divergent. It’s kind of amazing — the paths that opened up once we got together. I was working on my book about LA crime in 1947, which required me to go to the Glendale Library and go through the microfiche. This was in 2004, just as Scram was ending. It was really slow going, at first. I wanted to read an entire year’s newspapers, and assimilate an alternative history of LA.

Why did you pick 1947? Because it’s the year of the Black Dahlia murder?

It’s the Black Dahlia, it’s the rise of Benjamin “Bugsy” Segal — it’s just an important year. The Hollywood Freeway begins to get built in 1947. We’re still recovering from the war. In the paper, I was finding stories about guys with obvious PTSD coming home and killing their families, and no one understood why it was happening. The VA was making statements like, “There’s no problem. They don’t need psychiatric help. Everything is under control.” There were concerned civilians standing up and saying that’s just not the case.

Everything we know about LA was just coalescing. The suburbs weren’t really settled yet. It was just a really cool year for the city.

So I dived in, but it was slow going. I met Richard and told him what I was doing and he said, “Oh, I’ve got a UCLA library card, faculty level, because my father is on staff. I think I have good database access.” So we logged in and there was ProQuest, the digital LA Times, which now anyone with a library card can access.

Suddenly I had access to the LA Times from the 1880s through the 1980s, which is digitally searchable. I’d been in school and done historic research, but I hadn’t really dug into newspaper research like this. I could follow someone’s path. I didn’t have to read chronologically. I could read cross sections while following certain stories, and that helped shape the work.

Did you do that same level of research for The Kept Girl?

Yes. This story, the real story on which I base the book, is so interesting that I would have written a nonfiction book about it if I could have, but too many things have been lost. I followed the story of a religious group known as the Blackburn Cult (started by May Otis Blackburn in 1922) who said she received revelations directly from angels. The Times reported on strange ritual practices involving animal sacrifice and attempts to resurrect a dead 16-year-old girl named Willa Rhoads.

Good luck getting the LAPD to give you investigatory files, even on something this old. A lot of court documents have been lost. A lot of things were tossed when they revamped the Hall of Justice. It’s really heartbreaking. LA is just not a city where you can access the kind of material you can in New York, where you’ve got the Municipal Archives. We’ve lost a fair amount of own history. But this story was reported, enough of it that I was able to think of it as etymological pins. I have pins all over my map of things that actually happened, when they happened and who they happened to and who was present and how it moved the story forward. I wanted to get it right. Maybe I overdid it.

I love that you have Raymond Chandler in the book as a character, but before he becomes a novelist, and is still working at the oil company. Did you have the idea to include Chandler in the book as a character all along? Or when did that hit you and how did you work that in?

What happened was I found out about the cult, the Great Eleven, when I was researching one of our earlier crime tours. Richard said I should write a blog about it, and that was the origin of my one-crime-a-day 1947 Project. I wrote that in a conversational style, as if telling my neighbor what I found out over the back fence. I was telling lost stories of LA, stories that if they happened in your neighborhood, or in the city where you lived, you would remember them. They would change the way you thought about the place. Angelenos are so transitory. Everybody moves around. No one keeps their stories, so I wanted to bring them back.

So I started doing that and my friend Nathan Marsak volunteered to drive to these locations and blog about the crime scenes themselves. A lot of these crimes happened in South LA, aka “flyover zone,” as some call it. Readers started calling and emailing us. They wanted bus tours because they were afraid to go to these crime scenes by themselves.

We realized that the Great Eleven’s most prominent financial victim was a nephew of Chandler’s boss at the Dabney Oil Syndicate. In 1929 Clifford Dabney came to his uncle, Chandler’s boss, and asked for help because he had lost all his money to the cult. The story went over really well on the bus. I didn’t have a long time to talk, but it was enough to notice people’s reactions.

The Chandler tour gets a lot of film writers, TV writers, and mystery writers, of course, because it’s Chandler. One day it occurred to me that this story is really good, especially when I found out about Thomas James, the real life [man who was inspiration for Chandler’s iconic character] Philip Marlowe, who was raising a ruckus just two blocks from Chandler’s office. Having Chandler, as a character in the book, just seemed natural.

When Richard and I decided to get serious about it, he said, “Well, of course, we have to write literary tours. We have to do Chandler, Bukowski, Fante.” Then I started mapping out zones for neighborhood crimes. We had to get a lot done in a hurry because we realized it was such a great idea. We thought, “If everybody sees you can make a living on a Chandler tour, someone else is going to do the Bukowski tour. We have to launch them all at once.”

I had a digital map. I was finding crimes and I was making routes. It was when I was working on my West Side tour that I found the story about Willa Rhoads. This story was just so bizarre.

The Kept Girl doesn’t read like a historical novel, even though everything in the book actually happened.

It took much longer than it would have otherwise, because I didn't want to fudge the facts. I had a pretty unusual working method, which was to go into the sauna at the Los Angeles Athletic Club — Chandler’s club across the street from his offices — and I would stay in there and plot. I would think about dialogue. Frankly, I would start hallucinating. Sometimes I would almost pass out. It probably caused brain damage. But I could hear their voices and I could see them because I was just so hot and out of it and fantasizing. So I just came out and made notes about what I had imagined. 

What about Thomas James, the real-life Marlowe, who is the hero of the book?

He was fired from the police force for trying to clean up the corruption in the department and City Hall. He went as far as to publish a chapbook of his revelations about the city — it’s an incredible document. He names names — everything’s in there: the racket, the mayor, and the police chief.

When did he publish it?

He did it when they fired him. He was supported by a city councilman who had been set up with a woman, supposedly a constituent who wanted to have a meeting with him. And then she threw her clothes off and suddenly there were photographers and vice cops there. They took [Carl I. Jacobson] to jail and he said, “I’m not going to make deals with you people. You guys are criminals.” Someone told him he had to get out of there because they were going to inject him with syphilis-infected blood from a prostitute. These people were bad. The people who fought them were really brave.

These were the government officials and the cops, not the gangsters.

Yeah. We didn’t have gangsters. We had the Los Angeles Police Department and the mayor’s office. Many of the so-called “gangsters” in LA went into politics and police work. That’s what happened. This was a wide-open town. Nobody had a lot of power. The newspaper guys had power. There were a lot of opportunities. It all made sense. I don’t know if Chandler knew about this stuff, except he was Dabney’s fixer in real life. He was the guy who specialized in legal cases, the guy who took care of problems. He was very smart. No one talks about it but Chandler doesn’t start writing until he’s almost 50 years old and has this incredible understanding of wealthy people and the multigenerational traumas of Los Angeles. There would not be a Ross McDonald, for instance, without Raymond Chandler. This all comes from him sitting at the Los Angeles Athletic Club listening to these rich guys around him yapping, knowing that they were covering up crimes.

Chandler became a writer because he got fired from his day job. He was a failed writer. He wanted to be a poet when he was in England, growing up. He came to LA and spent his entire adult life frittering his time away, helping other people make a fortune. Before he worked at the oil company, he worked at a creamery. He was at the oil company because his friends got him in there. He was one of these guys who always floated along and people took care of him.

Did he have problems with drinking this whole time?

On and off, sometimes worse than others, but he was really unhappy. There’s kind of a popular fantasy that has come out in the last few years due to a recent book about his relationship with his wife, Cissy — that they had a great marriage. I think Chandler wanted people to believe that, but it’s interesting that he destroyed every bit of printed material related to the two of them. I think he got trapped in a marriage. I know because our friend Loren Latker, who is a hell of a researcher, went through every letter C document box in Norwalk at the county records office. He was curious if there was any Chandler material that had been lost and he found the separation document from around the period of my story. Turns out they filed for a legal separation.

In 1929?

Early 1930, around the time he was fired. Cissy and he broke up. He went to Seattle to join an old army friend. He would have stayed, except Cissy, who was 18 years older than him and in poor health, developed pneumonia so he came back. He spent the rest of his life taking care of her, and being more and more isolated. He never had a large circle of friends. Most of them were correspondents. She wouldn’t go out. I don’t know if she was ashamed to be seen with him because she looked so old or if he was ashamed of her. He never took advantage of the “Hollywood scene.”

So 1929 was not a random year. You wanted to tie this all in with the angel-worshiping cult?

Right. The cult starts in 1925 in Bunker Hill. Dabney gets involved almost immediately, but it takes a while for them to take all of his money. It’s only when he’s broke that he looks for help.

Los Angeles is a magnet for troubled souls looking for something, anything — for enlightenment.

It is a very distinctly Los Angeles phenomenon. You have to remember, LA in the 1920s was booming but it had come from being a very small town and people were coming because the climate was being marketed to them. It was affordable. It was warm. It was new. You’ll find this described in Nathanael West and in James M. Cain. They both write about it. People come here but they don’t find anything. What they thought was here is gone. The sunshine is great but you can’t eat it. They’re lonely, they’re isolated, they’re naïve, and, in many cases, uneducated. A lot of them are on pensions or they’re widows. They have some money. They would amble into places, like Aimee Semple McPherson’s Tabernacle, because she was incredibly entertaining and it was a community; there was a feeling of good fellowship. She did a lot of good works, helped the poor. She was sending food to people of all faiths all over town. She fed a lot of people during the Depression. Everyone who came in and put money in the plate knew they were a part of it. Then she would put on this fabulous opera that she wrote herself. And, she was beautiful. She had a sexy voice, and you could hear her on the radio. She’s the most successful of all of them.

You can go home and look up old papers from that era. There’s a religious page and there are ads for everything you can imagine — weird little groups in weird little storefronts, or bigger places. You want to study the Kabbalah? You can study the Kabbalah. You want to do Theosophy? Great. They’re still down there on 33rd and Grand. It’s a beautiful place, untouched since 1927. Some of them were con artists; some of them were true believers. The people here had nothing else. They ate it up. It’s a weird, weird town. It really is. People can’t believe how weird it is. That’s why I love telling these stories because if you take enough time, and actually talk about the psychology of the victims and the perps, this stuff couldn’t happen anywhere else. The environment is perfect. It’s a petri dish for insanity. I love it. 


J.C. Gabel is the editor and associate publisher of The Pitchfork Review, as well as the editorial and creative director of The Chicagoan.