Los Angeles is a city that dreams in Technicolor, but lives in black and white – at least in my mind. For me L.A. is classic film noir, a Raymond Chandler novel, Bugsy Siegel wearing a county morgue toe tag (with his last name misspelled!), and a newsboy on a downtown street corner bellowing out a Herald-Express headline, “Hungry Ex-Wife Slays Hollywood Astrologer”.
For the entirely of the 20th Century Angelenos were treated daily to a litany of the city’s evils exposed in newspapers such as the Los Angeles Record and the Herald-Express. Deranged L.A. Crimes looks behind the headlines to scrutinize the social history of the city.
The inspiration for Deranged L.A. Crimes is the life and times of a local reporter, Agness “Aggie” Underwood.
I was first introduced to Aggie through her reporting of the infamous 1947 mutilation murder of twenty-two year old Elizabeth Short (aka The Black Dahlia). Following the discovery of Short’s bisected and eviscerated body in a vacant lot in Leimert Park on January 15, 1947, every reporter in town began scouring the city for clues and evidence in the vicious slaying. Aggie was fortunate to be working for the Evening Herald & Express during the Dahlia case. The paper’s owner William Randolph Hearst had deep pockets, so it was easy for his reporters to grease the right palms and beat the other local newshounds, and often the cops, to key evidence and interviews.
Aggie initially tagged the slaying the Werewolf killing because of the savagery of the post-mortem mutilations inflicted on Short’s body. However, once Elizabeth Short’s Long Beach acquaintances had been interviewed and had revealed that they’d nicknamed the twenty-two year old beauty the Black Dahlia, the headlines changed forever. The Black Dahlia label even turned up in official LAPD files!
I was intrigued by Aggie, a woman in the largely man’s world of the newspaper business, who had lived and worked in Los Angeles during the decades that I find among the most compelling in the city’s history. It was as if Aggie was my childhood fantasy come to life – a woman investigating crimes and uncovering the hidden truths concealed beneath layers of lies. I had often imagined myself in similar scenarios (truthfully, I still do) operating as a grown-up Nancy Drew.
As I started digging deeper my interest in Aggie’s life and career grew, and in 2011 I gave a lecture at the Los Angeles Central Library in which I talked about Aggie and a few of the outrageous crimes on which she’d reported. I was gratified by the response; people loved Aggie’s personality and were as captivated by her tales of L.A.’s worst criminals as I was. I realized that I wanted to expand the lecture into a blog, which I did in December 2012.
I seek to bring the darker side of Los Angeles to life through the blog. When possible I will use Aggie as a guide. She knew killers, cops, celebrities, and politicians. She wrote hundreds of headline stories that made residents shake their heads in disgust at the rampant corruption that was pervasive in city government; and many of her stories horrified the locals when they realized that there were monsters living among them.
Aggie’s decades of reporting on Los Angeles has left us with a road map of headlines to follow from the desert to the sea, and from Beverly Hills mansions to Bunker Hill apartment houses. Headlines such as: “Doheny Kidnap Plot in Killing”, “3 Missing Inglewood Tots Found Murdered”, and “Find Thelma Todd, Film Star, Dead in Mystery” captured the attention of Angelenos every day for decades.
There have been many great reporters in Los Angeles, and a incredible numbers of deranged tales to tell. So put on some comfortable shoes and together we’ll walk through historic Los Angeles and bear witness to crime, scandal, and the occasional natural disaster.
I sincerely hope that you will enjoy Deranged L.A. Crimes.
P.S. The wonderful header photo for this site is courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.