K Paoletter 32: The Real Deal

“Over the years, television and movie audiences have been flooded with imitations of James Bond.” It was June of 1975, and Geraldo Rivera was introducing a new guest to the audience of his after-hours newsmagazine, “Goodnight America.” “In my opinion,” Rivera continued, “the person who comes closest in real life is Jay Armes. And his achievement is even more impressive because Jay Armes has established himself as a world-famous detective despite the fact that he lost his hands in a freak accident at the age of twelve.” While Rivera spoke, footage rolled of a dim restaurant where a man in a white suit used hook-like metal prosthetics to wipe his mouth, before being accosted by two assailants, who he easily threw to the ground with those same hooks.  

Born as Julian Armas in the town of Ysleta two decades before it was annexed by El Paso, the accident happened in 1946 when Armas and a friend named Dickie Caples got a hold of a box of railroad torpedoes, the miniature explosives used to signal the need for an emergency stop to a train conductor. As his father, who worked as a butcher, relayed to the El Paso Times, “Julian said he had a torpedo cupped in the palm of his hand. He put his hands together, and began rubbing, with the torpedo between them. Then the explosion occurred.” In a less innocent version of the story, Armas stabbed the incendiary with an ice pick.

After Armas became a newspaper boy for the Times, the paper wrote a feel-good, follow-up story two years after the accident, picturing him on the front page with a tied bundle of newsprint dangling from his right hook. According to reporter Cecilia Napoles, Armas had learned to do just about everything with his hooks: he could “climb trees, comb his hair, shoot a gun” and even “played end and guard on his grammar school football team.” Armas, she wrote, said he wanted to become a lawyer, though she also noted that, “Theatrically inclined, he records little programs which he improvises himself. His hobbies are collecting coins and military souvenirs and reading detective books.”

According to the memoir he published the year after appearing on “Goodnight America,” Armas left for California after graduating from high school, where “I broke into the movies, although I never got to be a star.” In his telling, Armas appeared in 36 movies and 28 TV shows over the course of six years, enough work to finance an apartment in Beverly Hills and a Cadillac. When he wasn’t on call, Armas capitalized on his “natural flair of the mimic” by studying German, Italian, French, and Chinese. He only returned to El Paso because “being a small-time movie actor wasn’t the only thing I wanted to do with my life.” Curiously, the stint in L.A. was completely absent from the story Armas told Rivera. Wearing his white suit and reclining on a soundstage in Hollywood, Jay Armes — which he referred to as “his real name” during the interview — said he enrolled in college at the age of fifteen, young enough that the older students called him “shorty,” and quickly earned a degree in criminology.   

It’s impossible to say what the early years of Armes’ career actually entailed, both before and after he established his PI shop, The Investigators. What’s clear is that he did manage to make a few friends in the entertainment business. In 1972, he got a call from Marlon Brando, who asked him to recover his son Christian from Baja California, where he’d been taken by hippie associates of his mother, Anna Kashfi, who was then in the midst of a bitter divorce from Brando. According to Armes, he rented a helicopter to execute the mission, personally piloting it all over the peninsula until he spotted a red VW bus hidden above a small bay near San Felipe. Armes landed his helicopter a mile away, then single-hookedly rescued Christian from his eight supposed kidnappers, including a bearded man wielding a speargun and a woman he discovered naked in her sleeping bag. “Don’t worry, lady,” Armes told her, “You’re not my type.”

An initial story about the rescue that the AP headlined “El Paso Investigator Finds Movie Stars’ Son” triggered a raft of national coverage.That summer, the Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, and Miami Herald all ran a feature about Armes by Ivor Davis. The legend grew in the years that followed, with Newsweek writing Armes “keeps a loaded submachine gun in his $37,000 Rolls Royce as protection against the next—and fourteenth—attempt on his life” and The Atlantic naming him one of its “25 Most Intriguing People in 1975.” The many journalists who visited El Paso to meet Armes were all baffled by the juxtaposition of a real life James Bond with his down-and-out hometown. Ivor Davis described his “$1 million, four-acre estate” in the city’s economically depressed Lower Valley, where he kept a menagerie of safari animals in addition to a helicopter and a fleet of nine cars around a “colonial-modern, white-pillared home” which he’d transformed into a “virtual fortress” with a 10-foot-high fence and surveillance cameras.

In his memoir, co-written with Frederick Nolan, Armes cited a long list of impressive clients, including the chairman of a San Francisco electronics company, a German diplomat, a New York City con-artist, and the “Onion King of America.” His retellings of the various “capers” they sent him on were full of the sort of overwrought detective schtick that Armes had familiarized himself when he was fifteen, back when he was eagerly reading pulp novels in the downtime from either delivering newspapers or attending college criminology classes. “It gets so you hardly even blink when a strange woman calls you in the small hours of the morning and whispers desperately into the telephone that her husband is trying to kill her,” he wrote, and related the con-artist’s confession: “I’m a fraud, Mr. Armes…. My whole life is like a charade played inside a nightmare. I’m thirty-two years old and everything is built on lies and deceit.”

When Texas Monthly’s Gary Cartwright visited Armes’ home in 1976, he excused himself from an extensive discussion of the detective’s gun collection to telephone a friend. Through a porthole window in the house’s bar, he could see the famous helicopter. “From appearances, it hadn’t been off the ground in years,” Cartwright wrote. “Its tires were deflated and hub-deep in hard ground, the blades were caked with dirt and grease, and the windows were covered with tape instead of glass. Armes had told us that the chopper had a brand-new engine. I wondered why he hadn’t put glass in the windows.”

Cartwright ably debunked the myths that Armes had clothed himself in, rejecting Geraldo Rivera’s assertion that Armes’ life was “a classic tale of truth being more exciting — or stranger — than fiction.” He pointed out the numerous discrepancies in Armes’ backstory, offering instead a friend’s remembrance of Armes returning from his brief stint in California in “an old, raggedly-topped Cadillac with a live lion in the back and a dummy telephone mounted to the dashboard.” Though he lacked the resources to do the character he had created for himself justice when he returned home, Armes had already reinvented himself as an international man of mystery. Now he just needed some money.

With the season of wintertime quietude in full effect, I’ve been listening to a lot of languorous music — preferably with a beat, otherwise who knows how deep into hibernation I might sink. No one fits the bill quite like DannyLux, an 18-year-old from Palm Springs with one of the most enchanting voices I’ve heard in ages. Since 2020, he’s released a number of silky corridos, including “Amor,” his collaboration with the Mexican band Alta Elegancia, and last year’s “Tristeza y Tración,” where his tenor prances in tandem with a rugged Spanish guitar. I discovered those songs only after hearing DannyLux’s most recent single, “El Hombre Perfecto,” on New York Naomi’s unmissable monthly show on NTS Radio. DannyLux goes full bachata in this one, and has poked fun at himself on TikTok with a couple videos showcasing his, uhhh, very much in-progress dance moves. Still, with a voice like that nobody cares what it looks like when you jiggle your hips.

That’s all for now. Thanks, as always, for reading and subscribing. You can find me on my website, or looking fearfully at the ever-growing mass of research for the book, which long ago fully overspilled its designated bookcase to engulf my desk, but has only recently colonized enough of the floor that my office chair is beginning to experience navigational difficulties. 

Your pal,

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