The Black Dahlia – January 9, 1947

About 12:20 p.m. on January 9, 1947, Elizabeth Short and Robert “Red” Manley left the motel where they had spent the night.

Robert “Red” Manley
LAPL photo

What did Beth and Red talk about during the couple of hours that it took them to drive back to Los Angeles from San Diego? Red noticed some scratches on her arms and asked her about them. She spun a tale of an “intensely jealous” boyfriend – an Italian “with black hair who lived in San Diego”, and claimed that it was he who had scratched her. In truth the scratches were probably made by Beth herself, the result of itchy insect bites. Beth lied to Red a few times more before their day together ended.

Red and his wife Harriet had been having problems. There were so many adjustments to being married with a child, and Red wondered if they were meant to be together.

In the way that only a spouse on the verge of cheating can do, he justified his interest in Beth in his own mind by considering it a “love test”. If he remained faithful to his wife, despite the temptation of being near a beautiful woman, he would conclude that his marriage was meant to be.

Harriet forgave Red.
LAPL photo

Following a platonic night in a motel room, Red’s marriage was certified as made in heaven. But he had a problem; he’d been out of touch for a couple of days. How would he explain his lack of communication? Any guy capable of devising a ridiculous love test could easily come up with an excuse for being incommunicado for a couple of days.

In my mind’s eye I see Beth and Red seated across from each other on the bench seat in his Studebaker, each lost in thought. Beth may have been wondering what she’d do once she hit L.A.  Maybe she’d go to friends in Hollywood. If she was lucky someone would have an empty bed for her. Her immediate difficulty was Red. How would she get away from the well meaning guy for whom she felt nothing?

Once they arrived in the city, Beth told Red that she needed to check her luggage at the bus depot. He took her there and Beth was ready to wave good-bye to him and be on her way – but he wouldn’t leave. He told her that he couldn’t possibly leave her in that neighborhood on her own. She insisted that she would be fine, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

Beth had a few minutes while she checked her bags to conjure up a plan to ditch Red. When they returned to his car she told him that she needed to go to the Biltmore Hotel to wait for her sister, Virginia. It was a lie. Virginia was in Oakland, hundreds of miles to the north.

Red drove her several blocks back to the Biltmore Hotel.  The main lobby was on Olive Street, directly opposite Pershing Square. Beth thanked Red. He had been a gentleman. He’d paid to have taps put on the heels and toes of her pumps, and of course he’d paid for meals and the motel room. She thought that he would drive off and leave her, but once again he said that he didn’t feel comfortable just putting her out of the car.

He parked, and the two of them waited in the Biltmore’s lobby for a couple of hours. Finally, Red realized he couldn’t wait any longer. He said he had to go. She told him she would be fine and that she expected her sister to arrive at any moment.

Red left her at approximately 6:30 p.m. Beth watched him go – gave him a few minutes, and then she exited the hotel and turned south down Olive Street.

She may have been headed for the Crown Grill at Eighth and Olive.   She’d been there before and perhaps she hoped to bump into someone she knew; after all, she needed a place to stay.

When asked if they’d seen Beth, most of the patrons were reluctant to talk to the police. By day the bar catered to the lunch crowd, lots of men escorting women who were not their wives. By night the clientele was mostly gay men. Because homosexuality was illegal there were only a few places where men could meet.

No one who was will to talk could say for sure that Beth had been in the bar on the 9th — and if she was there, no one saw her leave.

No one would ever see Elizabeth Short alive again.

Jane Doe Identified

Jane Doe’s body was removed from the vacant lot on Norton and taken to the Coroner’s Office in the Hall of Justice where she was fingerprinted and autopsied. Artist Howard Burke sketched an idealized version of the young woman—the reality of her condition was too awful for them to print in the Examiner; although they did print a photo of her body in situ. The only way they could print a picture of the crime scene was by manipulating the photo to remove the mutilations to her face and adding a blanket to cover her.

00010486_dahlia bodyCaptain Jack Donohoe, head of LAPD’s homicide department, was understandably in a rush to identify the woman. Her killer already had the advantage of several hours, but to give him, or her, more time to escape could be disastrous. It should have been a simple thing to get Jane Doe’s prints to the FBI in D.C., but the weather back east was conspiring against the detectives.

1947-blog480_snow storm 1947

Blizzard of 1947. Associated Press photo via Baruch College, CUNY.

Normally Elizabeth’s prints would have been flown to the FBI but a blizzard had grounded aircraft in the East.  If cops had to wait for the weather to clear identification could take as much as a week.  Seven days is an eternity in a homicide investigation.

The symbiotic relationship between the police and the press that existed in those days made their next move possible. Without access to planes the LAPD’s investigation was at a standstill.  But, luckily, they had William Randolph Hearst’s resources to rely on. The Examiner had recently acquired a Soundphoto machine which could be the solution to the conundrum. It might be possible to transmit the fingerprints to the FBI via the precursor to the facsimile machine. Of course the newspaper expected a quid pro quo—an exclusive. With the clock ticking, Capt. Donohoe reluctantly agreed.

Photo courtesy ladailymirror.com

Photo courtesy ladailymirror.com

Sending fingerprints over the Soundphoto machine had never been tried before, but it was worth the effort.  To everyone’s amazement and relief the prints, after a couple of minor glitches, were successfully transmitted to the FBI.  It didn’t take the bureau long to identify the dead woman as Elizabeth Short. The last address the agency had for her was in Santa Barbara.  Santa Barbara police had arrested the Massachusetts native in 1943 for underage drinking. She had been sent home to her mother Phoebe.

Now that the dead girl had a name the Examiner’s city editor, Jim Richardson, assigned re-write man Wayne Sutton to break the news to Phoebe.  Sutton was less than thrilled when Richardson instructed him to lie to Phoebe. Richardson wanted Phoebe to believe that her daughter had won a beauty contest. It was only after Sutton had pumped her for information on her daughter that he would be allowed to deliver the news of her tragic death.

After a few minutes of chatting with Phoebe, who was proud and happy to discuss her beautiful daughter with the newspaperman from Los Angeles, Richardson gave Sutton the high sign. It was time to tell Phoebe the truth. Sutton put his hand over the mouthpiece, looked at Richardson and said: “You lousy son-of-a-bitch.”

Phoebe Short. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Phoebe Short. Photo courtesy LAPL.

It may have been shock that kept Phoebe on the line after hearing the worst news of her life. Sutton learned from Phoebe that Elizabeth had recently stayed in San Diego and he was given the address. Sutton told Phoebe that the Examiner would pay her fare to Los Angeles. The paper needed to keep Phoebe close so they could explore leads and milk her for further information on her murdered child.

Examiner reporters were dispatched up and down the coast from Santa Barbara to San Diego to glean whatever they could from interviews with police and anyone else who may have come into contact with Elizabeth.

While reporters were out searching for information, the Examiner received an anonymous tip that Elizabeth had kept memory books filled with photos and letters. The books were allegedly in a trunk that had been lost in transit from the east.  Reporters went to the Greyhound station in downtown Los Angeles. There wasn’t a trunk, but there was a suitcase and some bags.

Robert "Red" Manley. Photo likely taken by Perry Fowler. Courtesy LAPL.

Robert “Red” Manley. Photo likely taken by Perry Fowler. Courtesy LAPL.

A small suitcase turned out to be a treasure trove of photos and letters which offered some insight into Elizabeth’s life. There were letters from soldiers, and letters that Elizabeth had written and never sent. There were photos of her on a beach, and with various men in uniform. Might one of them be her killer?

Examiner reporters in the field received copies of some of the photos which they then showed to clerks at hotels and motels in the hope of finding anywhere the dead woman had been, and with whom.

The reporters discovered that the last man to have been seen with Elizabeth was married salesman, Robert “Red” Manley.  Red and Elizabeth had stayed the night in a motel on their way from San Diego to Los Angeles. Red’s name was printed in the Examiner as a person of interest in the slaying.

Red could be a valuable witness. Or he could be a killer.

NEXT TIME:   A suspect is arrested.