Did you ever make a friend who gave you “the creeps” now and then?
Celebrity and author James Kirkwood, famous son of former silent film star, Lila Lee, told me much of the true story behind the shooting death of his mother’s lover at a Manhattan Beach mansion. Acting as his literary confidante, I was both a simpleton of fan loyalty and grew to become a suspicious close reader of his tales. He told me much, often surprising in its frank detail, but I think he wanted me to be one of the recorders for posterity of his life. “Keep teaching me,” he said till his death in 1989. I hope to keep the flame alive, even if it means besmirching his memory.
I believe Jimmy Kirkwood was a serial killer, having disposed of at least five people during his youth. There could have been more. His list of dead friends changed constantly in our conversations—some he found earlier than others, but not always. He dropped enough kernels of the mystery to whet my curiosity.
We played a kind of chess game over the facts of these deaths, which he wove into his stories (with variations of truth to suit plot conventions). During our acquaintance, he scared me often with his powerful sudden anger, seemingly what underlay the deaths of so many characters in his stories and plays. Though I wanted to believe he wasn’t guilty of really killing people, that I was imagining these strange deaths and his odd connection, he constantly gave me more clues to the contrary.
When I tried to dig up the facts—or through him, he flared, calling me “the goddam D.A. You’re like a district attorney.” But the game was afoot, and he gave me wild mental images: he was zooming off in a private jet with me tearing across the airstrip trying to stop him; of me running down a wharf just as he gunned the speedboat away in a nick of time. I was the warden, and he the escaped convict. When it got this bad, I realized we were re-enacting a scene from one of his novels… Good Times/Bad Times). On occasion I wondered why he chose to tease a professor from a small Boston college like a playmate. But, he had knighted me as his Boswell. He knew I would gather together the facts at one point—and try to set the record straight. Jim Kirkwood was quite aware I suspected him of being a serial killer.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Kirkwood is best known for A Chorus Line, now in revival on Broadway. His cult classic, P.S. Your Cat is Dead is well-known within the gay community, done often on stage and lately in a film version. His Legends toured with Linda Evans and Joan Collins. But, his first novel was based on his traumatic days as a son of Hollywood movie stars. A movie with Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Wagner, made about 40 years later, gave us a fictional side of his experiences.
First, Jim Kirkwood wrote of his boyhood trauma in There Must be a Pony as short story, later as a novel; then he penned it as a three-act play, followed by a two-act play, and eventually the one-act play. He scripted a radio production, staged reading, revival staging, and several screenplays of it. At long last, the nonfiction version reaches you, told by Kirkwood over the years to his friend!
At twelve, Jimmy Kirkwood reported finding a body with a bullet in its head at his Manhattan Beach home; the victim was his mother’s fiancé …and the boy’s close companion. The case was never solved, confounding police, and causing Kirkwood to be haunted by the scene of the crime throughout his creative life. Kirkwood knew who did it.
What really happened to Jimmy Kirkwood as a boy? Why was he called “The Body Finder”? In my intimate recollection of one of the most prolific show business personalities of the twentieth century, I finally and reluctantly have written Kirkwood’s story, revealing dozens of conversations and letters about the five deaths that made him the Body Finder.
Jim sent me a teasing confession about the true story: “I will make everything extremely clear to you when I get my hands around your throat. You will be shot at sunrise, disemboweled on the Boston Common, etc., etc… and I will have a wild gypsy lady I know read your entrails.” So said Jimmy Kirkwood in a letter to Bill Russo.
Now you can read the entire story, including how Jim returned to the scene of the crime endlessly. Now in e-book format on Kindle at Amazon.com, it’s called Riding James Kirkwood’s Pony.