Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Stories from the Sixties by Libby Fischer Hellmann

Libby Fischer Hellmann, an award-winning crime fiction and thriller author, has released her 7th novel. Set the Night on Fire, a stand-alone thriller, goes back, in part, to the late Sixties in Chicago. She also writes two crime fiction series. Easy Innocence (2008) and Doubleback (2009) feature Chicago P.I Georgia Davis. In addition, there are four novels in the Ellie Foreman series, which Libby describes as a cross between "Desperate Housewives" and "24."

Libby has also published over 15 short stories in Nice Girl Does Noir and edited the acclaimed crime fiction anthology Chicago Blues. Originally from Washington D.C., she has lived in Chicago for 30 years and claims they'll take her out of there feet first.

Stories from the Sixties
by Libby Fischer Hellmann

When Kaye asked me to blog for her, I asked her what she wanted me to write about. I offered to put together a new quiz about the Sixties (the old one can be found here) or I could tell some of my stories about the time period.

It wasn’t even close. Stories, she said. I love stories.

So I want to tell you two stories from the Sixties. Both are true. An abbreviated version of one is in SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE, but the other has an ending I just discovered about a month ago, so it’s not in the book.

I lived in Georgetown during what I now call “The Summer of My Discontent.” I shared an apartment with four other people above a movie theater at 28th and M. (Both are gone now). I was working at an underground newspaper, selling them on the streets, and generally trying to make sense of the world. Next door to the movie theater was a head shop run by a weird – but sweet -- guy named Bobby. He wore black all the time, before there were Goths. The scent of Patchouli oil hung in the air of the shop.

I used to drop in every once in a while. Often two of his friends, Donna and Linda, would be there. They were a couple: Linda had long brown hair and appeared to be kind of spacey. Donna had short blond hair and wore a leather jacket, even during July. They were cool, though, in the way that everyone was cool back then, and we’d smoke a joint, laugh a lot, and discuss what a shitty place the world was becoming. Then, around August, they disappeared. After not seeing them for a week or so, I asked Bobby where they went. He hemmed and hawed and wouldn’t tell me. Finally, he did.

Donna used to be Don, he said. And was going through the process of becoming a woman, but hadn’t completed it when she met Linda. They fell in love, and because of that, they jointly (no pun intended) agreed that Donna should turn back into Don. So they hustled some money from someone and were off to California to reverse Donna’s transformation.

I never saw them again. But I still think about them.

The other story is more political. As I said, I worked at an underground newspaper in DC for a summer. I was just a flunkie, not even considered staff. But there was a photographer, Sal, who was in and out all the time. He took photos at every demonstration, interview, and event that could be considered “alternative.” I actually had a crush on him at one point. (Yes, I know. Very bourgeois).

At any rate, the editor of the newspaper was very cautious about trusting people, almost to the point of paranoia. He always thought the paper was being infiltrated  by CIA or FBI types (these were the days before COINTELPRO proved the FBI was indeed infiltrating radical groups) At the time, I thought his paranoia was exaggerated. Triggered perhaps by an inflated sense of self-importance.

I left at the end of the summer to hitchhike across country (That’s a different story), but I heard a few months later that Sal had left too, and was off to Paris. He stayed there for a while, then disappeared. I never knew what happened to him.  Then, about a month ago, well after I finished SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE, I Googled some of the people from the newspaper. Suddenly a photo of Sal popped up.  It turns out he had been featured in Secrets: The CIA's War at Home by Angus MacKenzie.

You guessed it. Sal had been a CIA agent, recruited when he was in college in Chicago. The entire time he was taking photos for the paper, he was reporting to his CIA handler. Eventually, I think the editor suspected him. Maybe he even confronted him, which precipitated his abrupt departure.

It doesn’t end there. According to MacKenzie’s book, Sal went to Paris, befriended Philip Agee, himself a former CIA agent turned whistleblower, and fiddled around with the typewriter on which Agee was writing his story. Agee discovered it, and Sal fled. From what I understand he changed his name and now lives in Southern California.

True stories. Really. I mean, who could make this stuff up? Comments and questions welcomed. 

And as a bonus:  Here's that old quiz about the Sixties: 


L.J. Sellers said...

That must have been a little shocking, yet satisfying, to discover what became of someone who disappeared. This is why we write crime fiction. Thanks for a unique post.

Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall said...

How about crime non-fiction? In my recent memoir THE MOST REVOLUTIONARY ACT: MEMOIR OF AN AMERICAN REFUGEE(, I write about being targeted (illegally) by the FBI for my political activities. I currently live in exile in New Zealand.

Mason Canyon said...

I've always heard truth is stranger than fiction. I can see where life could lead to some very interesting stories here. Best of luck with your latest release Libby.

Kaye, thanks for hosting Libby and this intriguing post.

Thoughts in Progress

Libby Hellmann said...

Thanks, LJ. I had chills when I read the piece about him.

Dr. Bramhall, tell us your story.

Vicki Lane said...

Great stories! Things aren't always what they seem...

Earl Staggs said...

Fascinating stories, Libby. I'm sorry to say I bombed out on the 60's quiz. Heck, I don't remember where I was that far back.

You and I haven't crossed paths since the early days of SMFS, back when you made a big splash in the short mystery pond with Miriam Hirsch. You've soared since then and I wish you continued success.

Libby Hellmann said...

Earl: What fun to reconnect! Thanks for posting. Hope you're doing well... is SMFS still around? I miss Babs.

And thanks, Kaye, for "Fixing us up" again...

Earl Staggs said...

Sorry to say, Libby, Babs' health went downhill along with Futures Magazine, but she hangs tough and still has her spirit and sense of humor. SMFS is bigger and stronger than ever.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Libby, Thank you for this (i do love a good story!), and thanks for SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE - LOVED it!

I should have known you and my buddy Earl knew one another - small, small world, isn't it?! Earl Darlin' - is there anyone in the mystery world you do not know? I don't think so!

LJ & Vicki - Thanks so much for stopping by!! It was a unique post, wasn't it? And I agree Vicki - stories are not always what they first seem.

Dr. Bramhall - Like Libby, I'd love to hear more.

Julie D said...

Great stories, Libby. Can't wait to read the book, as I knew NONE of the answers! :)