If investigative journalist Mark Ebner had three wishes, his first would be for a paid-off beach shack in his home-state of Rhode Island.
For the record, Ebner is the best investigative journalist since Hunter S Thompson. If you visit his web page, ‘Hollywood Interrupted‘ you’ll see the long list of his accomplishments. An award winning investigative journalist, Mark Ebner has covered all aspects of celebrity and crime culture for ‘Spy’, ‘Rolling Stone’, ‘Maxim’, ‘Details’, ‘Los Angeles’, ‘Premiere’, ‘Salon’, ‘Spin’, ‘Radar’ and ‘New Times’.
If that isn’t enough, then please note that for his journalism Ebner has put himself at some considerable risk, when investigating subjects as diverse as Scientology, Pit Bull fighting, the Ku Klux Klan, celebrity stalkers, drug dealers, missing porn stars, sports groupies, college suicides and Hepatitis C in Hollywood.
Now add to that his best-selling books – the now classic ‘Hollywood Interrupted’ (co-written with Andrew Breitbart) and ‘Six Degrees of Paris Hilton’.
Okay, if you’re still not impressed, let’s briefly mention his TV work as host and writer on the ‘Tru TV’ show and working with Trey Parker and Matt Stone on the Emmy nominated episode of ‘South Park’, ‘Trapped in the Closet’.
With such blue chip credentials, you begin to appreciate the talent that is Mark Ebner.
Born in Rhode Island in 1959, Mark’s earliest memories are of his mother, Eleanor, bathing him in a stainless steel sink. She died at the age of 28.
One of Ebner’s literary favourites is the Demon Dog of American crime fiction, James Ellroy. There is a connection here between these two distinctive and talented writers. Firstly, both lost their mothers at impressionable ages: Ellroy’s mother was murdered when he was 11, and her slaying has been an obsession and a focus for his writing since.
Unlike Ellroy, Ebner has kept quiet on his loss, and one can only wonder at the effect it has had on him.
Secondly, both had ambitions kicked started by television series. Ellroy was given a book ‘The Badge’, a compendium of true-life crime tales, which included the murder of Elizabeth Short, aka the Black Dahlia, written by ‘Dragnet’ star Jack Webb.
While Ebner’s ambitions to become a newsman were rooted in his childhood liking for the old b&w ‘Superman’ TV series. But unlike most kids of that age, Mark was more impressed by geeky newshound Clark Kent than his alter ego, the man in tights.
Ebner went on to attend the liberal-arts Bard College, whose notable alumni include the director Todd Haynes, actor Larry Hagman and Hollywood screenwriter Howard Koch, winner of the Academy Award for ‘Casablanca’, and lofty ambitions are reflected its motto ‘Dabo tibi coronam vitae’ (‘I shall give you the crown of life’). It was here that Mark first fulfilled his Clark Kent ambitions, as editor of the ‘Bard Times’.
After Bard, Ebner spent: “everything possible to avoid my calling until I got my first paid magazine gig at 25, for 25 cents-a-word. I could only fool myself into thinking I could write marketable screenplays for so long.”
He came up old school in his bid to start his career as an investigative reporter. The long hours putting together a “clip file” of published work, which he often did for free, then sending it on to editors with original story ideas. Okay, he received a lot of knock-backs and rejection letters, but ultimately, his nose for a good story won out.
And it was his dogged determination for a good story that paid off in 1996, when his now legendary undercover story on Scientology appeared in ‘Spy’ magazine. From its opening lines to its obvious that a maverick talent had arrived.
“I am an ex-drug addict who has solicited prostitutes in my day. I’ve also masturbated and inhaled at the same time, and I have been arrested more than once in my life. I dropped out of high school, and I’ve been under psychiatric care. Oh yeah, and I owe the IRS roughly six thousand dollars that they are well aware of.”
To steal a line from what a critic once wrote about John Lennon‘s first post-Beatles’ album, ‘The Plastic Ono Band’, Ebner had put his balls on the railway track and the train had stopped out of respect.
But there was method in his words, as he explained:
“In the language of Scientologists, the above information reflects what they include in their “Dead Agent Packs”-dossiers of all the dirt they dig up on people critical of their “religion.” Often they disseminate damaging information like this to the friends, family, landlords, and employers of anyone who dares speak of–or worse, publish anything derogatory about the “church.” So what I’m doing here is Dead Agenting myself before we begin, beating them to the punch.”
When he wrote this article most people didn’t know much about Scientology or that they were an organisation you didn’t f–k with. I asked Mark was he concerned about the consequences of investigating such a cult?
“When my first-person Scientology expose dropped in Spy magazine in 1996, I wasn’t worried about the cult as much as I was concerned about my ability to navigate Hollywood circles. You see, in this town of hypocrites and back-stabbers, most of the powerful bunch were still blindly siding with cash cows like Travolta and Cruise. These people would pat me on the back for a job well down on the side, and then run from me at dinner parties. F–k them. I told them so, didn’t I? Scientology did threaten to sue me on publication, and Spy magazine wound up paying a good deal on 1st Amendment lawyers, but my attitude was, “You’re going to sue me? Bring it on, because I have a subpoena in my back pocket for all of your celebrity adherents, and I’ll serve them myself.” In the States you have to prove damages to succeed in such a lawsuit. I made it clear that I would open the books on everyone in that cult if I had to, and they knew to back off when they realized I was serious.”
Undercover work is a tough and lonely business, and Ebner has kept only a few close friends who know the man behind the hard-nosed journalist. It is to these friends that Mark gives his second wish of “Health, wealth, prosperity and joy for my handful of true friends.”
One friend is former film actor and now writer Douglas Steindorff, who describes Ebner as “incorruptible,” and “The unwitting voice of reason and truth. Despite himself he champions the weak and disenfranchised. He is what good cop wishes to be and a bad cop lives his life in fear of. A journalist, the kind of writer Mencken would like.”
Ebner lives in Los Angeles, a city that seems to be always reinventing itself, yet generally remains the same. A city of transience, whose oldest buildings are hotels, and a cultural inheritance inspired by Hollywood and its palaces of dreams.
H. L. Mencken was the ‘Sage of Baltimore’, who exposed frauds, ignorance and intolerance. In 2004, Ebner co-wrote a book with Andrew Breitbart, that did something similar with a now classic study of Tinsel Town.
‘Hollywood, Interrupted: Insanity Chic in Babylon – the case against celebrity’ is possibly the best analysis of the crass stupidity of modern Hollywood written, examining the excess and folly of Robert Downey jnr, Courtney Love, Michael Ovitz, Robert Evans, John Travolta, Angelina Jolie, Winona Ryder, Barbara Streisand and Heidi Fleiss amongst other. Of course, some of these tales are now infamous, but it was Ebner and Bretbart who put them in print first. The books beginnings came from an online correspondence between the two writers.
“Hollywood, Interrupted started writing itself via AOL Instant Messenger. Breitbart and I were so awestruck by Barbara Walters allowing Ann Heche to literally break down, jabbering in an alien language on national television, that we decided to define ‘celebrity’ as a disease and prescribe the antidote for it.
“Breitbart handled the moral outrage end of the book, and I shoveled in some investigative chestnuts. We kept filing chapters until our editor told us to stop. There is, was and always will be a grudging respect between me and Breitbart. He is one of the funniest, generous men I know.”
The book launched Ebner and Breitbart into their own celebrity, with appearances on network television and a nationwide book tour. While Bretbert went onto forge his own ambitious and controversial career with Breitbart.com, Ebner returned to his first loves – writing and reporting.
After the success of ‘Hollywood Interrupted’ some may have been tempted to opt for the easy option as guest pundit on the ubiquitous day-time chat shows. Not Mark, he stuck to his own rules, his own personal code that makes him exceptional, and brings together the style and nature of his life and work
“My life experience is my style, and my vision. I sacrificed every alternate ideal (white-picket and otherwise) to do what I do as a way of life.”
Returning to investigative reporting Ebner turned up another trump card with his next book ‘Six Degrees of Paris Hilton‘.
“I had written a story for ‘Radar’ magazine about a break-in at Girls Gone Wild goon Joe Francis’ home in Bel Air. Once the dildo-wielding perpetrator Darnell Riley had settled into prison life alongside Charlie Manson and Sirhan Sirhan, I started writing him letters – knowing there was more to the story. Darnell agreed to tell me everything, “and then some.” The “then some” became ‘Six Degrees of Paris Hilton’.”
The book reads like a factual account of James Ellroy’s fiction, exposing the connection between low-life criminals and high-end celebrities.
A typical work day for Ebner involves endless phone calls, a lot of door-knocking, and waiting. And waiting… He still keeps a reporter pad to hand, and has only recently upgraded to a digital tape recorder. His life is his work - period. Something that becomes obvious when you realise over 85% of his most successful story ideas have been self-generated.
“My research is old school, gumshoe-style reporting. I hit the ground running, and immerse myself in the scenarios of my subject matter. Crime writing has its hazards, but I have good survival instincts, and I treat all my interview subjects with respect and transparency – unless of course I’m undercover.”
And as for the future?
“I am currently finishing up a non-fiction book for Berkley Books/Penguin on a high-profile kidnapping, developing a documentary television series called ‘Kill File’, and working on an unusually sexy drug trafficking story emanating out of Buenos Aires, Argentina.”
It’s seems a hard and often thankless occupation, but one that delivers books, articles and stories of such quality and insight, that we should all be thankful for Mark Ebner.
The dedication that he has to his talent and craft, is perhaps captured in a small life changing moment form his childhood, when he watched his father bring a dead tropical fish back to life with a heart massage. It was a great, if not perplexing moment for him, one that made him realise the fragility of life and that every moment is a life-changer.
Mark’s third and final wish is a wish for all of us: that we may have freedom from debt and financial insecurity. It says something of the man that he thinks of others before he thinks of himself.