Tag Archives: Americas

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

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

Sexwork and migration fiction (4): To go with sex tourists or smugglers?

urlOf all the characters destined to work selling sex in The Three-Headed Dog, Marina has the most experience. Now in Spain for the second time, Marina comes from a backwater of la República Dominicana. Sharing the island of La Española (Hispaniola) with Haití, Dominicana is a poor, weakly governed nation popular with tourists on tight budgets. Many of these are called sex tourists by critics, meaning a central purpose for their visit is to buy sex and romance with natives, in a typically tropical setting. Marina reflects on how she got started in her present career.

d5d43c2ca5485db793354630fd176c90… if nice trees and flowers were enough to live on she would never have left home. She would have made do with slaving away as shop assistant in her aunt’s colmado or as a maid to some pretentious lady in the city, either way for pennies. Instead she took a job as hostess in a beer-hall, and her mother sobbed like it was the end of the world. It was okay for a while, but Marina was always looking to better herself.

Schafer_Whores&Madonnas_05

http://www.hookstrapped.com/peter-brian-schafer-portfolios

She got taken on at an open-air nightclub in a larger town. It had twenty rickety tables, strings of coloured lights and loud music equipment. There was a platform made of two-by-fours where a single spot was turned on women dancing naked. It was close enough to beaches that tourists rode up on flimsy motoconchos, guys of all different nationalities, some who could barely stay on the bike. Motos with five Dominican kids would pass them roaring with laughter. Marina learned which men danced the best, which were most polite, and which gave the biggest tips.

scene_typique_ambatalok_nosy_tnThe craziest thing was the lines they spun! Come with me to Berlin, you’ll be a queen. There’s no one like you in my hometown. You’re a real woman, like we don’t have anymore. What a beautiful colour your skin is. Foreigners said island girls were sweet and willing to do anything they were asked. She fell for it only once, but the Romeo gave away his plan when he let slip how nice she would be able to make his apartment. If she wanted to be someone’s wife, she could have stayed home.

Marina wants to strike out on her own, not tied from the outset to anyone who believes he has the right to control her. She wants to go abroad like other women she has known; traditions to go to Europe are old in her country. She chooses to buy papers and services from small-time ‘travel agents’. On her second trip to Spain things go wrong, but not because of smugglers’ evil intentions against her; rather they are competing with each other for pieces of the smuggling pie.

Discussions of the fate of women like Marina generally talk over their heads. The wrongness of sex tourism and lack of options for females under patriarchy are the topic, while the pragmatic decisions women make in the here and now are sidelined. In The Three-Headed Dog, as in Sex at the Margins, their actions are the story.

hqdefaultMany times, their goal is to make enough money to build a simple house back home. Other times, they decide to try to stay abroad.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Migrants in novels: James Ellroy, The Black Dahlia

imageIt wasn’t always all called trafficking. Whether or not migrants were officially or sentimentally designated refugees, they were portrayed as taking action. Getting screwed – certainly – but that’s another thing. If your goal is to get over the border without official documents, then you make pay-offs.

Migration has long been included as part of normal, if unjust, social life, in many works of literature. In James Ellroy’s 1987 The Black Dahlia the Los Angeles cop-narrator heads south from Tijuana looking for his lost partner. The year is 1947.

Car traffic was scarce, with a steady trickle of pedestrians walking north: whole families lugging suitcases, looking scared and happy at the same time, like they didn’t know what their dash across the border would bring them, but it had to be better than sucking Mexican dirt and tourist chump change.

Approaching Ensenada at twilight, the trickle became a migration march. A single line of people hugged the northbound roadside, belongings wrapped in blankets and slung over their shoulders. Every fifth or sixth marcher carried a torch or a lantern, and all the small children were strapped papoose-style onto their mothers’ backs… The wetback line originated out in the scrubland, and only cut through Ensenada to reach the coast road–and to pay tribute to the Rurales for letting them through.

It was the most blatant shakedown I had ever seen. Rurales in brownshirts, jodhpurs and jackboots were walking from peasant to peasant, taking money and attaching tags to their shoulders with staple guns; plainsclothes cops sold parcels of beef jerky and dried fruit, putting the coins they received into changemakers strapped next to their sidearms. Other Rurales were stationed one man to a block to check the tags… (216-17)

immigrant_crossing_san_diego_03-18-2004This is Baja California just south of Tijuana and a border that used to be so easy to cross that this sign was widely visible to warn drivers on the US side. To get to that line required the permission of police along the way, achieved via bribes. I regard this migration as a close relation of that portrayed in The Three-Headed Dog.

The Black Dahlia herself sold sex out of bars in downtown LA. More about that another time.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist