MIKE ‘BLACK IRISH’ O’HARA
The Lady From Shanghai, 1947, USA, Director Orson Welles
Mike O’Hara used to say that there were no happy endings but the same man went to his bed and died before he woke up. With what is happening inside my body these days I can be too easily persuaded that any unconscious death counts as a happy ending. Mike wrote two good novels. The rest were uninspired library fodder but at least they had a beginning, a middle and an end. He produced a novel a year, which meant that I was in no position to complain, even when it was obvious his heart was not in writing anymore. His best work was non-fiction, certainly in his later years, although the American market for his kind of politics was limited.
Somehow I managed a deal for a collection of the articles he produced in the late ‘50s for a not too popular left wing magazine. They were good articles or at least well-written. Norman Mailer was an admirer, and I am convinced Mailer copied Mike’s style when he wrote for The Village Voice. Those political columns of Mike led to a few TV chat show interviews for which he was paid quite well. As his agent, I took the same percentage from him as I did everyone else but Mike was not really interested in money. He bought a small remote house on the edge of LA and close to the desert. His place was near Llano del Rio where there had been this socialist colony at the beginning of the century. For Mike the idea had appeal. Llano del Rio later became a dull suburb.
Mike, stop trying so hard to be like Jack London, I used to say. There is no harm in that, Mike would reply. Before Mike came to Los Angeles, and before he met me, Mike liked to travel the world and mingle with what he thought were the oppressed. Unlike Jack London he avoided alcoholism. All Mike ever drank was beer. His big heavy frame was like a sponge. I don’t think I ever saw him drunk. His father fought for the Irish and against the British which might have been one of the reasons why 16 years old Mike O’Hara left Ireland and set off around the world. The other sailors called him Mr Poet. Mike learnt how to handle boats, and if he hadn’t, he would never have become involved with Elsa.
The two good books that I admire are ‘Kiss The Sunrise’ and ‘Death Of A Spy’. ‘Kiss The Sunrise’ took advantage of what happened to Mike in San Francisco. I advised against the title but Mike insisted. Kiss the sunrise were not the final words Elsa uttered when she died but that was how Mike wanted everyone to remember her. What Elsa called Mike O’Hara with her dying breaths I would rather not repeat. ‘Death Of A Spy’ may have been the better book but it was ‘Kiss The Sunrise’ that provided for Mike and me a substantial part of our income. Hollywood purchased the rights to ‘Kiss The Sunrise’, and a whizz kid director was hired to make the movie. From what I heard the production was plagued from the beginning. Mike watched half an hour of the movie and walked out of the cinema. He drank a lot of beer that night. I attempted to secure a screenwriting deal for Mike but, because of the Hollywood Ten and Senator McCarthy, the last thing that any movie producer wanted was another scriptwriter with a fondness for left wing polemics.
‘Death Of A Spy’ would have made a half decent movie but the wisdom within Hollywood was that while wars were good box office the Spanish Civil War was of no interest to the average American. I still argue that ‘Death Of A Spy’ was superior to ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’. No one admires Ernest Hemingway more than me but his prose was always unsuited to novels. Papa’s short stories, though, are in a class of their own. Since they were published I have re-read them every year. That would be the perfect ending for me. Reading one of the short stories of Hemingway, switching off the bedroom light, putting my head on the pillow and dying before I wake up.
‘Death Of A Spy’, like ‘Kiss The Sunrise’, was also based on something that occurred in real life. Mike had to kill a fascist spy in the Spanish Civil War, a man he liked and thought was a friend. Him fighting against Franco was predictable. The real surprise is that somehow he survived the bullets and the Spanish senoritas. Maybe it was because he had dark hair himself. His thick black mop and overall gloom earned him the nickname Black Irish. Of course, with a war against Franco to endure Mike would have had other things on his mind besides Spanish senoritas.
Elsa had a Spanish father but when Mike met her she was a blonde and she really did turn his head. The woman was beautiful. Mike had a collection of photographs that he took when they were on the boat and when he was taking Elsa and her husband from one picturesque port to another. I do not have to look at those photos for something to catch in my throat. All I have to do is close my eyes and remember how she looked. Imagine a memory of a photograph persisting like that. But I know Mike, and he was too complicated for simple lust. When they met, the beauty of Elsa Bannister obliged Mike O’Hara to offer her his last cigarette. And if she had said no, he might have remembered for the rest of his life a beautiful woman that once smiled fleetingly but said no, no more. We all have memories and fancies. But to let a dangerous woman sink her claws into you and want nothing else but those moments with her, well, that is different.
Elsa was suffering, and that was probably the reason she was alone in a Hansom cab and riding around Central Park that first evening. The oppressed had a fatal attraction for Mike, and, no matter how much wealth her husband Arthur Bannister had, Elsa belonged to the oppressed. I remember Mike talking about Elsa. He did it more than once. It wasn’t just that she had a gorgeous figure and beautiful eyes, he would say, there was pain in those eyes. I was born to be the chump that tried to rescue her. A critic said something similar about his novels, that they were all about chumps desperate to be knights errant.
Mike was always on his guard with women after Elsa Bannister. Of course, the beer and the food did not help how he looked. That helped him keep women at a distance but it was more than that. We all get burned I would say to Mike. I wasn’t burned, he would say, I was scorched. That kind of pain doesn’t heal, and I think that surprised him. Mike had seen a lot of pain on his travels. He had witnessed the slaughter of war and seen the poor scrambling to survive. His politics insisted that there was a way of reducing that suffering. A scorched heart that remains a crisp cinder until the day you die, that shocked the life out of him.
We all know what happened. Arthur Bannister had a partner called Grisby. Elsa and Grisby thought it would be a good idea to kill Arthur. Grisby wanted Bannister’s money, and Elsa wanted a life without her husband but not without his money. The plan was that Grisby would kill Bannister but he needed an alibi. Grisby said nothing to Mike about the plan of Elsa and him to kill husband Arthur. What Grisby said to Mike was that he needed to escape to an island but for that to happen, and for the insurance company to pay up, the authorities needed to think Grisby was dead. For $5,000 Mike would sign a false confession saying he killed Grisby. There was no danger of Mike being arrested, so Grisby said, because there would be no dead body. If that sounds complicated, what actually happened was even more unbelievable. The detective employed by Bannister discovered the plan, and Grisby killed him. Elsa needed to cover her tracks, and as far as I can see, panicked. She killed Grisby. Because of the signed confession of Mike, everyone assumed that Mike was the killer. He would have gone to jail if he had not escaped from the court and if Elsa and husband Arthur had not decided to shoot one another. Mike had a lucky break. He found the gun that Elsa had used to kill Grisby, and Arthur had left behind a letter explaining what really happened.
I had a phone call from Mickey Cohen not long after he came out of prison. Mickey was fascinated by the story of Mike, Elsa and Arthur. The papers were full of the trial and the killings. Mickey reckoned that Mike was a guy, these are his words, who knew how to get out of a jam. Mike was the man that Mickey wanted to write his autobiography, these are his words again, tell his side of the story and how the big guys always pick on the little man. I mumbled something about existing contracts and gave him the names of a couple of agents I had never liked. I was relieved to put the phone down. Mike thought the incident hilarious when I mentioned it. I have a horrible suspicion that he might have even been tempted by the idea of working with LA’s biggest gangster. I know he entertained the notion of doing a book on the Black Dahlia murder. I said no to that idea as well. The Black Dahlia will be a crowded field for authors, I told him. But we talked about the idea. Do you think the victim with blonde hair would have looked like Elsa? I asked Mike. No one looked like Elsa, Mike said. And he gave me a long stare that I have never forgotten, so much despair and anger in a pair of eyes. No wonder they called him Black Irish. Maybe when you’re that lonely that is how you die, quietly.
Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest travel book No Tall Heels To Tango is now available here.