A Furrier With a Shady Past Sues James Ellroy for Libel

A character in the latest book by James Ellroy has turned on the author.

Albert Teitelbaum, a retired furrier and ex-convict, filed a $20 million lawsuit in the Federal District Court in Los Angeles on May 20.

“Ten for invasion of privacy,” said Charles Morgan, the lawyer for Mr. Teitelbaum. “And 10 for the libel.”

The lawsuit targets Condé Nast Publications, since the Condé Nast-owned GQ magazine was the original publisher of the James Ellroy work in question.

It’s safe to assume that no writer or publishing company wants to hear from Mr. Morgan, a $400-an-hour attorney who practices libel law out of San Francisco. After all, in his last high-stakes libel gambit, Mr. Morgan represented psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson against writer Janet Malcolm and The New Yorker . Mr. Morgan, 78, battled for 12 years on behalf of his client, through a deadlocked jury and a retrial, before losing the final appeal in 1997.

His new client, Mr. Teitelbaum, now lives in Oregon, but was apparently once a bit player in the postwar Los Angeles that has so captured Mr. Ellroy’s imagination. He was the owner of Teitelbaum Furs on Rodeo Drive, “a fairly well-known business in Beverly Hills at that time,” conceded his lawyer. But Mr. Teitelbaum claims that Mr. Ellroy did not get his facts right when he described scenes and incidents purported to be taken from his life.

Mr. Ellroy’s technique is to mix factual events and actual characters-people like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.-with the stuff of his own fevered brain. It’s an old technique, dating back to Defoe and now used by writers as disparate as E.L. Doctorow, Don DeLillo and Kurt Andersen.

It seems that, usually, the real-life characters who populate Mr. Ellroy’s books and stories are 100 percent libelproof because they are (1) public figures and (2) dead. Mr. Teitelbaum, however, was never famous, and, at the age of 84, he is very much alive.

He’s a major character in the Ellroy novella, Tijuana, Mon Amour , that GQ ran in two parts across its February and March 1999 issues. Like Mr. Ellroy’s best-known work, L.A. Confidential , this one is narrated by Danny Getchell, the editor of the (fictional) gossip magazine, Hush-Hush .

In Tijuana, Mon Amour , Getchell tells a murky whodunit tale about a mobbed-up Frank Sinatra (“Sex-sational Sinatra-the thrill-seeking Three-Way King,” as he’s called in the novella) and his addiction to ménages à trois . Mr. Ellroy’s Sinatra gets involved with a lady singer named Linda Lansing, who desperately wants to be a star. In the story, she also serves as the “model and pitchwoman” for Teitelbaum Furs. And Al Teitelbaum ends up caught “buck naked” in photos with Linda Lansing and another woman, Barbara Graham, a real-life human being who was executed on June 3, 1955, for murder-a fact mentioned frequently in Tijuana, Mon Amour .

Later in the story, Mr. Teitelbaum (“the furtive furrier”) is “broke,” so he stages “a fake fur heist to get some insurance money.” The heist of Tijuana, Mon Amour -which Mr. Ellroy manages to set up in such a way that it involves Sammy Davis Jr. and a syringe full of LSD-takes place on the same date, Dec. 27, 1955, on which the real-life Mr. Teitelbaum committed the crime involving a false insurance claim that sent him to jail. As part of the fictional plan, Linda Lansing was to sell the furs-”fence” them, in the Ellroy lingo-south of the border.

In the May 20 lawsuit, Mr. Teitelbaum asserted that he “has never met either Barbara Graham or Linda Lansing, has never lain in a bed with either or both of those women; has never been photographed with either or both or those women; has never used any woman by the name of Linda Lansing to advertise his furs, nor has he ever engaged in any arrangement to have his furs transported to any ‘fence’ for stolen furs … nor was he ‘broke’ at that time.”

Mr. Morgan-who won a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court early on in the Malcolm case, setting down that misquotation can be libelous-elaborated in an interview: “There are basically two issues. They’ve got him in bed with Barbara Graham, who was executed for murder here, so she was a real person, and Linda Lansing, who we don’t know if she was real or not. Which is totally false and outrageous, really. They have him broke and sending her down to fence furs in Tijuana. None of which ever happened. And none of which anyone ever said happened.”

But Mr. Teitelbaum was no saint: In 1956, he was convicted of conspiracy to commit grand theft, attempted grand theft and the presentation of a false insurance claim. He spent six months in Los Angeles County Jail. Since then, his court papers insist, Mr. Teitelbaum “has lived a quiet life avoiding notoriety.” His lawyer said he “had grandchildren who didn’t even know about it. It was really very devastating to him. He has lived an exemplary life since then … He’s 84. He didn’t need this at the end of his life.”

Mr. Cooper said he couldn’t talk about the suit. “We don’t comment on cases in litigation,” said Condé Nast spokesman Maurie Perl. Mr. Ellroy didn’t return a voice mail message. Mr. Morgan wouldn’t give his client over for an interview.

Mr. Ellroy and GQ first learned of Mr. Teitelbaum’s displeasure on Feb. 17, when Mr. Morgan put in his call to Condé Nast. The lawyer said he wanted his client’s name expunged from the upcoming March installment of Tijuana, Mon Amour and he wanted an apology, too. But by that time it was too late.

Now, many writers of Mr. Ellroy’s stature have heard that kind of talk from angry lawyers-but it’s hard to laugh it off when it comes from the man who took Ms. Malcolm and The New Yorker to the mat.

The same day of Mr. Morgan’s phone call, GQ editor Art Cooper threw a little party for the author at Joe’s Pub on Lafayette Street. They were toasting Mr. Ellroy’s new book, Crime Wave (Vintage Crime), which is made up entirely of pieces that ran first in GQ … including Tijuana, Mon Amour . (The book publisher was not named in Mr. Teitelbaum’s lawsuit.) Given the phone call from Mr. Morgan, Mr. Ellroy did not look to be in much of a partying mood. In fact, guests noted that he did not work the room much, and they spotted him talking solemnly with Mr. Cooper by the stairway at the end of the bar.

Copies of Crime Wave were on display at the party. The copyright page of the book dutifully noted that Tijuana, Mon Amour and several other stories were a “works of fiction” wherein “names, characters, businesses, places and incidents in those stories are the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously.”

In his introduction to Crime Wave , Mr. Cooper praised Mr. Ellroy’s use of a star-studded “band of merry miscreants” in his stories, including Lana Turner, Oscar Levant and Rock Hudson. “There is a raunchy ring of verisimilitude, a truly bizarre believability, to the way Ellroy makes them behave,” he wrote.

Which is where the problem begins.