Ellroy’s Black Dahlia as a B-girl: Sex work in fiction

elliott-convention-girlA typical paperback cover from the heyday of pulp fiction makes convention girls look carefree and glamorous. Some might have been and still be, but picking clients up at bars where convention-attendees hang out may be the sex work of everyday women, sometimes opportunist and unplanned.

It seems that Elizabeth Short was such a woman, looking to get ahead in postwar Hollywood. James Ellroy memorialised her in his novel The Black Dahlia (1987), which draws on the actual police investigation as well as the author’s feelings about his own mother’s murder. In Ellroy’s snappy 1940s cop-lingo, women under scrutiny are described:

Together, we questioned fifty-odd people, mostly men, about their association with Elizabeth Short. We heard predictable stories of them meeting Betty in bars and buying her drinks and dinner, listening to her fantasies of being the bride or widow of war heros, bedding or not bedding her. A number of the men did not even know the notorious Dahlia–they were “friends of friends,” their names passed on out of pussy hound camaraderie.

Of our parcel of names, sixteen of the guys were what Fritzie labeled “Certified Dahlia Fuckers.” They were mostly lower-echelon movie minions: agents, talent scouts and casting directors who hung out at Schwab’s Drugstore chasing gullible would-be starlets, empty promises on their lips, Trojan “value packs” in their pockets. They told proud or shamefaced casting couch stories every bit as sad as Betty’s tales of bliss with studs in uniform. Finally, the men in Elizabeth Short’s little black book had two things in common–they got their names in the LA dailies and they coughed up alibis that eliminated them as suspects. And word filtered back to the squadroom that the publicity eliminated more than a few of them as husbands.

The women–just pals–girl talk acquaintances, fellow cocktail lounge cadgers and aspiring actresses heading nowhere. A dozen or so were hookers and semi-pro B-girls, instant soulmates that Betty met in bars. They gave us leads that petered out on follow-up investigation–basically, the word that Betty sold herself freelance to conventioneers at several lower-class downtown hotels. They hedged that Betty rarely peddled it, and could not identify any of her tricks by name; Fritzie’s canvassing of the hotels got him an angry zero.– The Black Dahlia

highPussy-hounds: marvellous. B-girls are bar girls, if you didn’t know. But hanging out waiting for an opportunity leads to terms like semi-pro. What if you have sex with someone who might give you a part in a film, apart from buying you dinner tonight? Did the crime against Betty the Dahlia occur because she was having sex or because she was an opportunist or because it was LA or because there was a sadistic killer at large? To blame it on prostitution is — limiting.

Ellroy includes Mexican migration in The Black Dahlia too.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

The girlfriend experience in Lawrence Block: Sex work in fiction

11473117_icon-realty-picks-up-elizabeth-street-tenement_b40882c2_mLawrence Block is a successful mainstream writer whose plotlines often include sex workers, in a normalising way (call girls, mostly). Matthew Scudder, the detective protagonist in one of Block’s series, has a long-term, friendly, sex-for-favours relationship with a call girl that eventually turns into marriage. The woman invests her money in property, allowing her to retire gracefully. Block doesn’t avoid portraying the dangers and problems inherent in the lives of women who sell sex, but he gives other sides of the picture, too, particularly refreshing given the usual police view of vice and prostitutes.

In Eight Million Ways to Die (1982) one New York call girl explains her lifestyle.

This is something different, she said. The johns who come here, they don’t think they’re johns. They think they’re friends of mine. They think I’m this spacey Village chick, which I am, and that they’re my friends, which they are. I mean, they come here to get laid, let’s face it, but they could get laid quicker and easier in a massage parlor, no muss no fuss no bother – dig? But they can come up here and take off their shoes and smoke a joint, and it’s a sort of a raunchy Village pad, I mean you have to climb three flights of stairs and then you roll around in a waterbed. I mean, I’m not a hooker. I’m a girlfriend. I don’t get paid. They give me money because I’ve got rent to pay and, you know, I’m a poor little Village chick who wants to make it as an actress and she’s never going to. Which I’m not, and I don’t care much, but I still take dancing lessons a couple mornings a week and I have an acting class every Thursday night, and I was in a showcase last May for three weekends. We did Ibsen, and do you believe that three of my johns came? (p 145)

4e52506f1b4d8702331483d23e7a2bb6I was living in New York the year this was published, and my friend Mona lived the same way Block’s character does. Mona also didn’t call herself a prostitute or anything else. Using a casual feminist analysis of the time, we thought she was doing what a lot of wives do, in a careful, selective way and without ceremony. In a context in which rents were sky-high and lots of people were trying to make it in demanding professions, Mona’s choice was sensible. She got to take her lessons and audition for parts, and, in the rare case that she got one, she was free to accept it. I don’t know whether she would have advertised GFE as a service had the term or the Internet been available, but that’s what she was offering.

Mona’s lifestyle illustrates how sex-for-money occurs in casual ways that are part of normal life in informal economies. If you recall the obsessive quality of hustling culture that John Rechy conveyed so well, this Village chick sounds serene (or spacey). But her way of looking at things is also common. In order to bring out more of these situations, I proposed a field called the cultural study of commercial sex. Scholarship without moralising. In my view, in fact, if you are moralising you are not a scholar.

Part of a series on sex work in fiction: scroll back a few days, then again, then again. [First published 19 January 2009]

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Hustling and cruising with John Rechy: Sex work in fiction

You know how it is when you are staying at someone’s house and you finish your own book and have to look around the alien shelves for something you’ll like? That’s how I wound up re-reading John Rechy’s City of Night, published in 1963. I first read it decades ago and had completely forgotten the intensity of his descriptions of cruising and hustling and the symbiosis of human relationships in one kind of sex work.

Here’s an example from the Los Angeles section:

This is clip street, hustle street – frenzied-nightactivity street: the moving back and forth against the walls; smoking, peering anxiously to spot the bulls before they spot you; the rushing in and out of Wally’s and Harry’s: long crowded malehustling bars.

And here too are the fairyqueens – the queens from Everywhere, America – the queenly exiles looking for new ‘husbands’ restlessly among the vagrant hustlers with no place to stay, and the hustlers will often clip the queens (if there is anything to clip), and the queens will go on looking for their own legendary permanent ‘Daddies’ among the older men who dig the queens’ special brand of gone sexplay, seldom finding those permanent connections, and living in Main and Spring Street holes: sometimes making it (employed and unemployed, taking their daddies and being taken by the hustlers) – sometimes, hardly, sometimes not at all.

And the malehustlers live with them off and on, making it from bar to lonesome room, bragging about the $50 score with the fruit from Bel Air who has two swimming pools, jack, and said he’d see you again (but if he didn’t show, you don’t say that), and you’re clinching a dime and a nickel for draft beer at Wally’s or Harry’s or the 1-2-3 or Ji-Ji’s so you can go inside and score early, and make it with one of the vagrant young girls to prove to yourself you’re still All Right.’

From p 100 of the Grove Press 1984 reprint.

There’s a good interview with Rechy in The Independent, in which he recounts what his life was like after City of Night was a success:

In the 1970s, when I was teaching at UCLA, I’d finish my evening classes, then change my clothes somewhat and go down to hustle on Santa Monica Boulevard. One night, a student saw me down there and said ‘Good evening, Professor Rechy. Are you out for an evening stroll?’.

It would be difficult to find a more appealing sex work story than that! But also see Rechy’s other books on his website.

And a final thanks to the friend with the bookshelf – he knows who he is.

[Post first published 11 November 2008]

Part of a series on sex work in fiction (scroll to a few days ago and a few days before that.)

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

James Lee Burke with French Quarter scam: Sex work in fiction

Bayou-Burger-Sports-Bar-features-balcony-dining-Bourbon-Street-New-Orleans-LAIn today’s shrill anti-trafficking culture any differences in forms of facilitating prostitution/ sex work are practically erased. I’m not talking about whether anything is fair or gender-equal or exploitative here but about the many ways humankind has evolved for making money through commercial sex. In James Lee Burke’s Cadillac Jukebox (1996) one swindle involving sex work in New Orleans is described: the Murphy scam.

Vice had identified the hooker as Brandy Grissum, a black twenty-five-year-old heroin addict who had done a one-bit in the St John the Baptist jail for sale and possession.

She worked with three or four pimps and Murphy artists out of the Quarter. The pimps were there for the long-term regular trade. The Murphy artists took down the tourists, particularly those who were drunk, married, respectable, in town on conventions, scared of cops and their employers.

It was an easy scam. Brandy would walk into a bar, well dressed, perhaps wearing a suit, sit at the end of the counter, or by herself in a booth, glance once into the john’s face, her eyes shy, her hands folded demurely in front of her, then wait quietly while her partner cut the deal.

This is the shuck: ‘My lady over there ain’t a reg’lar, know what I’m sayin’? Kind of like a schoolgirl just out on the town.’ Here he smiles. ‘She need somebody take her ’round the world, know what I’m saying’? I need sixty dollars to cover the room, we’ll all walk down to it, I ain’t goin’ nowhere on you. Then you want to give her a present or something, that’s between y’all.’ — p 24, Cadillac Jukebox

320px-Grits_Bar_Interior_New_Orleans_2The Murphy scam is robbery by a couple who lure a client to a room to have sex (in exchange for seemingly reasonable, non-professional fees). After client and woman are in bed the other partner rushes in posing as a jealous husband (or whatever). The client leaves in a hurry and the Murphy artists collect his belongings and money.

In Burke’s description Brandy works with several pimps as well as with Murphy artists, so even though she’s an addict she is not anyone’s slave. We aren’t told what proportion of the takings she gets, so we don’t know how bad a deal she has. The scam is interesting in offering a kind of commercial sex palatable to clients who cannot see themselves as clients and thus lend themselves to being scammed. A different kind of ‘demand’ – that now over-used, less-meaningful-than-ever term. A man who can be ‘lured’ – not much of a monster. More on different kinds of pimping in Nesbø’s Blood on Snow and in my own The Three-Headed Dog.

This is part of a series of posts about sex work in fiction. The other day it was Doris Lessing’s turn.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

The postwar London of Doris Lessing: Sex work in fiction

b9a907e1e2523f49ac6e82860572f05eThe Four-Gated City was published in 1969 by Doris Lessing. The passage quoted below describes a single young woman walking west on the Bayswater Road in 1950. The woman is Martha Quest, recently arrived in London from southern Africa, a migrant from colonies considered peripheral observing life in the presumed cosmopolitan centre. Her route takes her from a middle-class dinner held east of Marble Arch to a poor squat in Notting Hill. The photo above shows another part of London at the same period; the photo below the young Lessing.

29lessing-master675-1Note the absence of moral comment and that the job of the police is to make sure the marketplace functions peacefully.

Now she slowed, almost stopped in surprise at a cool hard getaway look from a young woman who stood with her back to a hedge. Of course, she had passed another invisible boundary. From here until Queensway, the pavements were lined with prostitutes, standing singly or in pairs, dozens of them, along the pavements. But Martha was freer here than she had been in that other territory she had only just left, whose boundary was simply a bisecting street. She was protected precisely by the line of girls for sale, who knew she wasn’t one of their trade union and because their hostile warning faces that said go away, you shouldn’t be here, kept her safe from being accosted. Three kinds of animal here. The women, standing with their backs to the hedges, on sale. The ordinary traffic of the pavement – but a slight traffic, mostly couples hurrying past the marketplace, keeping close under the lights, looking embarrassed, as if they were here by mistake, yet glancing furtively at the buying and bargaining.

NYC39209The customers, men of all ages, walking slowly past the women, or standing under the trees smoking, making choices. And across the street, policemen, spaced out with twenty or thirty yards between each couple, not looking directly at the haggling and dealing, but observing it sideways to make sure that it went on without incident. Martha walked more slowly than she had had to walk in the part of the street she had left. All the way down the street, by lit airy trees, they stood. Although it lightly drizzled, they wore summer dresses, bare necked, bare shouldered; and high thick sandals with bared insteps; and sometimes they held a jaunty umbrella. But there was no elegance here either. They weren’t well-dressed. They shared the national disposition towards gracelessness.

82867b7fe426e102857aaf9970f08b72There has been a war on. Suppose one of these men who was making up for the starvation of the war… approached one of the girls saying: I’d like you to wear … whatever was his fantasy, would she snap back: There’s been a war on, you know? Yes, very probably … Martha found herself imagining rooms where furniture, curtains, objects had charm, had flair, and a girl with charm, flair, undressed slowly to show off wittily charming underclothes – a man’s fantasy? Perhaps in all this city it was only these girls’ rooms where there was anything attractive, gay, rightly made? Well, not from the way they were dressed as they stood on the pavement.

–Laura Agustín, The Naked Anthropologist