I Am the Night is several different things: a loose adaptation of a memoir by Fauna Hodel, who was conceived after her grandfather, George Hodel, allegedly raped and impregnated his then-14-year-old daughter, Tamar; a melodramatic period noir overlapping true-life characters like Fauna and her adoptive mother, Jimmie Lee Greenwade, with fictional creations, à la Chris Pine’s Jay Singletary, a traumatized war vet and journalist with addiction issues; and a tantalizing rehashing of the still-unsolved Black Dahlia murder, which over the years has zeroed in on George Hodel as a prime suspect.
A lot happens over the Patty Jenkins–produced mini-series (of which she also directed two episodes), and it can be difficult to differentiate twisty fabrications from fact, particularly with the real Fauna having succumbed to breast cancer in 2017. So to that end, we offer this guide addressing what are likely your most pressing investigative questions inspired by I Am the Night — though let’s all safely assume that there was not an actual snorting bull stalking George from inside his house.
Was George Hodel really an incestuous, Satanist monster trained by Rachmaninoff?
I Am the Night’s portrayal of Hodel introduces some fictionalized elements, but the salacious core of his character is mostly based in fact. As the Daily News reported in 1949, Tamar had leveled charges of incest against her father George, an act that she claimed occurred during a deviant, hypnotic orgy at his home. The famed physician and VD clinician was eventually acquitted before the end of that year. But as it happens, FBI bugged his home for much of 1950, having pegged him as a prime suspect in the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, a.k.a. Black Dahlia. (Note the bureau’s assessment about how “cleanly cut” Short’s body was.) Recordings surfaced of George dismissing the possibility of being proven guilty in the Dahlia case.
Much of the revelations about George, who died in 1999 after decades spent living in both the Philippines and San Francisco, surfaced when his own son Steve — a longtime LAPD detective — began digging into his dad’s Dahlia connections. Steve has also asserted in recent years that George was responsible for the Zodiac killings, among other sensational crime sprees, though the one rumor he has tended to debunk is his father having fascination with Satanism and the occult. (He was, however, abidingly fixated on Surrealist art.) And, indeed, legendary pianist Rachmaninoff was said to have visited George during his prodigious adolescence, though there’s nothing to prove he outright dismissed the young charge as emotionally inert.
What is Fauna’s racial makeup, exactly?
She is, by all accounts, white. Despite I Am the Night’s suggestion otherwise, Fauna herself conceded that she couldn’t be 100 percent positive whether George was both her biological father and grandfather, and Tamar insisted that Fauna was, tragically, conceived during an assault by a separate white man following a court-mandated stay in juvenile detention. Though as I Am the Night details, Tamar did indicate on Fauna’s birth certificate that she was half-black, having felt — as the show also outlines — that the black community was kinder and warmer than the white community.
Did Jimmie Lee know the full extent of Fauna and Tamar’s backstory?
It would appear that way. The title of Fauna’s memoir, One Day She’ll Darken, purportedly comes from a comment George made when Jimmie Lee hesitated to take in the infant girl after seeing that she was white. And I Am the Night is accurate in explaining how Jimmie Lee’s partner, Reverend Chris Greenwade, persuaded her to follow through with the adoption. It’s likewise true that Jimmie Lee and Greenwade soon broke up, but the show omits Jimmie Lee’s subsequent, long-lasting relationship with a shoeshine man named Homer Faison, who raised Fauna as his own during a period when Jimmie Lee was struggling with alcoholism. Jimmie Lee was never assaulted by George — a scene in I Am the Night that marks the shows significant departure from reality — but she and Fauna did remain close until her death.
Did Tamar flee to Hawaii and live a hippie-ish lifestyle with her children?
Per Tamar’s one and only interview with a journalist for DuJour, the answer is yes. But not without ups and downs along the way. She married an abusive husband at 16, before divorcing and then marrying a musician who introduced her to a world of artists and poets. (They would later divorce as well.) Their daughter, Deborah, has asserted that Tamar forced her into childhood prostitution and left her vulnerable to George’s advances. But mother and daughter did eventually move to Hawaii, alongside Tamar’s three sons, and as the DuJour piece puts its, Tamar was “often stoned on psychedelics as a way to blunt her pain.” The timeline is a bit different than I Am the Night, which opts to dovetail Fauna’s coming of age with the tumultuous mid-’60s and Watts Riots. Fauna did track Tamar down in the Aloha State, but in 1972, at which point Fauna had already become a young mother herself. (One of Fauna’s daughters, Rasha, now runs an LGBT-geared fashion line with her partner in Washington State when she’s not podcasting about her family’s lore.) Tamar passed away in her sleep in October 2015.
Is Jay Singletary a complete fabrication, or a composite or approximation of real people?
It’s more that Pine’s character is a composite of period-noir protagonists and private dicks. Patty Jenkins explained to GQ that her I Am the Night co-writer (and husband) Sam Sheridan had the light bulb go off about introducing Singletary to help thread the needle of drama and memoir. Or as Sheridan himself describes it to Metro, “I quickly figured out that if there was this guy, this character who’s the classic noir foil, then this would be a way to structure the story of Fauna Hodel. It’d be a great way to get audiences engaged and invested in what’s happened to her and what she’s going through.”
Who else in the show’s ensemble was real?
Big Momma was Jimmie Lee’s real-life mother, and Fauna did spend time living with Big Momma and her extended family (whose names have otherwise generally been altered for the show) in California to learn more about her past — though she did not wind up engaging in a bloody standoff with George, or even come face-to-face with him. Fauna’s step-grandmother Corinna (played by Connie Nielsen) is a stand-in for George’s onetime wife Dorothy Hodel, mother of Tamar’s half-brother Steve and ex-wife of George’s childhood pal, Hollywood legend John Huston. (Got all that?) And Dorothy (who started going by Dorero, or “Dorarro,” as Fauna spells it in her memoir) did do her best to caution Jimmie Lee and Fauna about George’s sordid ways. George’s sidekick, Sepp, was dreamed up by the show as a secondary antagonist for Jay and to help underscore George’s narcissistic tyranny. As for evil Detective Billis and the other lawmen we encounter through Jay, they are creations of the series, though rooted in decades of speculation about LAPD’s culpability in letting George run amok.
Did Fauna and George ever cross paths?
The show has an early scene in which George exchanges pleasantries with Fauna at a California bus stop, an image Fauna flashes back to as she connects the dots. As it happens, that near miss occurred decades on, with Fauna’s daughter Yvette present. Not for Fauna’s lack of trying in the interim years. Perhaps she was better off.
Is that house for real?
Yes, and it is fabulous.