Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open. Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. It is burlesque week at Deranged L.A. Crimes–beginning with the post, NO, NO, BABETTE, and wrapping up with tonight’s feature, LADY OF BURLESQUE, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Michael O’Shea and Pinky Lee.
The movie is based on the 1941 novel by burlesque queen, Gypsy Rose Lee. Rumor has it that the novel was ghostwritten by mystery writer, Craig Rice. Rice (Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig) was the first female mystery writer to be featured on the cover of TIME MAGAZINE.
However, there is sufficient evidence to prove that Ms. Lee wrote the book on her own. Either way, it is a fun read and makes for an equally entertaining movie.
Enjoy the movie!
S. B. Foss, owner of the Old Opera House on Broadway in New York City, promotes his new recruit, burlesque dancer Dixie Daisy, hoping that she will draw a large audience. Dixie’s performance draws cheers from the crowds and from comedian Biff Brannigan, who ardently admires Dixie even though she hates comics because of past experiences with them. When someone cuts the wire to the light backstage that signals the presence of the police, the performers are surprised by a raid, and pandemonium ensues.
I’ll open with a short subject, a performance of PUT THE BLAME ON MAME with Gypsy Rose Lee from the 1958 film SCREAMING MIMI. Gypsy’s rendition is okay, but I prefer Rita Hayworth in GILDA.
I research a lot of heinous crimes for this blog. But, sometimes, I tumble down a research rabbit hole and find a character who captures my imagination; then I follow them through their time in Los Angeles.
Each person is a thread in the fabric of the city. Which is how I came to Babette Fontaine. I tugged on a random thread. I saw an article about her and was fascinated. I would describe Babette as an entrepreneur who shared qualities with other transplants to Los Angeles during the 1930s and 1940s. Growing up in rural America, and coming of age during the Great Depression, Babette had nothing handed to her.
Conservative perceptions of women at the time dictated the employment available to them. Even programs in President Roosevelt’s New Deal restricted women.
They could not join the Civilian Conservation Corps, and other programs put them into housekeeping jobs. I imagine, as the daughter of a Kentucky miner, Babette preferred not to be stuck in front of a stove or behind a desk. She became a burlesque performer instead and traveled the east coast for a few years as a dancer.
I love women who defy the conventions and expections of their time. Babette was a rebel.
By the 1930s, American burlesque shows were unrecognizable from their 16th century English literary antecedents. Burlesque during the Great Depression was a training ground for many great comedians and actors whose careers took off in mainstream movies and television during the 1940s and 1950s. Dozens of legendary strippers, Sally Rand, Gypsy Rose Lee, and my favorite, Betty “Ball of Fire” Rowland, began their careers in the 1930s.
Chicago police arrested Sally Rand four times in a single day at the 1933 World’s Fair for her fan dance. Feathers, bubbles, and snakes became props for inspired dancers. Other dancers came up with their own signature acts.
In 1936, Babette Fontaine painted her body bronze in imitation of a statue, and became known professionally as the Bronze Venus. The gimmick made her a featured player in Parlez Vous Paree, a burlesque revue produced by Earl Taylor. Babette wasn’t the only woman to claim the Bronze Venus moniker.
Beginning in the 1920s, black mega-star Josephine Baker was called Bronze Venus. Baker didn’t need paint to glow like a work of art. Others to advertise themselves as Bronze Venus were Ha Cha San, Bobby Lynn, Collette, and La Tonda.
Born to Burns and Maude Mccarty in rural Kentucky in 1916, Babette’s birth name may have been Dorothy. While Dorothy is an ideal name for a schoolteacher or housewife; Babette Fontaine looks better on a theater marquee.
The Parlez-Vous Paree show debuted in September 1936. It was a large production and featured scores of entertainers. They billed one as a stooge-like comedian. I wonder. Did he throw pies or chuckle nyuk, nyuk, nyuk?
A few months following the opening of the show, Babette’s name is prominently displayed in ads. The last mention of her is in November 1938.
Between November 1938 and January 1940, Babette vanished from show business. Then, suddenly, she resurfaced in multiple newspapers in a wire service interview. They described her as the head of a Los Angeles escort service.
Asked, “What would you pay for a date with your favorite movie star?” Babette had a ready answer. She said that if, by some miracle, she could deliver the “oomph girl” Ann Sheridan as a dinner partner to a lonely gent on New Year’s Eve, she would expect to get $1500. To put that into perspective, the 2022 equivalent amount is $30,585.00! If the lonely gentlemen would accept a second-best companion, Babette said she would offer either Dorothy Lamour, Hedy Lamarr, or Claudette Colbert for $750.
Babette gave Greta Garbo a thumbs down as date material. Why? Because
she felt that men would be frightened of her.
What if a woman needed an escort? Babette named Tyrone Power as the perfect date. Clark Gable, not so much. She said, “I am afraid he is a little too much of the aggressive type.”
In April 1941, a few months after Babette rated various Hollywood stars as potential dates for hire, she appeared in newspapers again. Operating an escort agency out of 726 South Wilton Place, she filed an injunction against Columbia Pictures Corp. The company planned to produce a film called “Glamour for Sale”.
And why should the film concern Babette? Because it depicted the escort business as shady, specializing in extortion, blackmail and other criminal activities. Babette took umbrage. She said she had operated an escort bureau in Los Angeles for two years and had never engaged in anything illegal. She worried her reputation would suffer if they released the film.
Babette withdrew her suit in September when producers at Columbia said that they would also show legitimate escort businesses in “Glamour for Sale.”
In a move similar to Babette’s lawsuit, in late 1941, burlesque star Betty Rowland sued Samuel Goldwyn Productions for using her well-known stage name, “Ball of Fire” as the title for his upcoming film starring Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper.
Several years ago, I asked Betty about her lawsuit. She winked and told me that the publicity was good for her and for the classic screwball comedy.
[Note: I’m pleased to report that as far as I know, as of this writing, Betty “Ball of Fire” Rowland is alive and well at 106! I hope she lives forever.]
Following the recall of Mayor Frank Shaw and the dismantling of his criminal empire in 1938, Los Angeles cracked down on vice. Regulations followed. One of the new regulations required escort bureaus to be licensed. Legislating morality is nigh impossible, but that never stopped a city, county, or a nation from trying.
A man seeking an escort sometimes expects more for his money than arm candy. If the woman is willing, they might make a deal without the agency’s knowledge. Of course, a crooked agency would encourage such arrangements and take a cut.
When Babette applied for a license in May 1941, she endured a grilling by the Police Commission. They wanted to know how much income tax she paid, what the girls charged and what she charged the girls.
According to Babette, she selected girls of good moral character, however, they were on “their own” after being introduced to the client. To me, that sounds like ass-covering 101. She said she charged the client $5. She then suggested to the client that he tip his date $5.
Babette claimed none of her girls ever had been arrested, and the only complaints she received about them came from police vice squad officers posing as clients. Sergeant John Stewart of the Central vice squad told a different story about one of Babette’s escorts. He and a few of his men operated an investigation out of the Biltmore and arrested one of the girls for “offering.”
Stewart, questioned about amounts paid to the escorts, said some demanded $50 from undercover investigators, others wanted $100 or more. A far cry from the five bucks Babette quoted.
Babette needed to prove she knew nothing of her escort offering undercover vice investigators a service not on the bureau’s official menu. She provided an alibi. She claimed she was out of town, or out of the office, when the girl was arrested. She played the sympathy card. The stress of the vice investigation caused her to suffer a breakdown. She fled to Dallas, Texas, for her nerves. Then she spent three days at the Hollywood Knickerbocker to further recuperate.
She produced receipts, which showed she was away when the girl was busted at the Biltmore. Babette also claimed a rival agency planted the girl to get her into trouble with the police.
The day after her license hearing, where she learned they postponed the renewal, Babette overdosed on sleeping pills in her car in a service station at Wilshire Boulevard and Detroit Street. She left a note, “Cards stacked—no use.” In her handbag she left a typewritten summary of her testimony to the Police Commission.
Babette claimed the police hounded her for not “playing nice,” and one vice cop in particular, who she nicknamed the “boogeyman”, followed her girls and clients, and prevented her from operating her business.
By July, Babette received the bad news. Her request for a license was denied. Babette’s attorney filed an appeal.
The drama kicked up a notch when, in February 1942, Babette claimed two men kidnapped and beat her.
She said two men followed her as she drove away from her home at 9038 Rosewood Avenue, Beverly Hills. Several blocks later, the men forced her car to the curb. A masked man got into her car and told her to follow his directions or “get a bullet in your back.”
She drove to 135th and San Pedro, where the men forced her from the car into a vacant lot. The thugs told her to “get out of town”, punched her on the jaw and knocked her out. When she revived, she had a gag in her mouth– her wrists and ankles tied. She struggled for an hour before freeing herself. Once freed, she walked into the street and flagged a passing motorist who took her to the Compton Police Station. Police reported Babette’s abductors had used her red lipstick to mark her forehead, cheeks and breasts with crosses. The significance of the red crosses is a mystery.
Babette had a flair for self-promotion. Was her kidnapping real? Without a description of her assailants, the police had nothing to investigate.
In early April, vice cops arrested Babette on morals charges in her home at 1769 S. Crescent Heights Boulevard. Arrested with her were Norma Clark and Harry Barker. Cops took the trio to Lincoln Heights Jail. They charged Babette with procuring and set her bail at $500. They charged Barker and Clark with resorting, and bail was set at $150 each.
Neighbors complained about suspicious goings-on at the bungalow and police staked it out for two nights before making the arrests.
Once her bail was posted, Babette made a beeline to her sister Colleen’s place at 2500 S. Hobart, where she was arrested while packing for a trip to Reno.
At first, Babette refused to appear in court. Then she changed her mind. She pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor procuring charge, and they immediately committed to jail for a medical exam (likely to screen for STDs) pending a probation hearing and sentencing. No word on how that turned out for her.
The Los Angeles Times offered a brief rundown of Babette’s escapades, beginning in 1941 and ending with her March 1943 arrest in Glendale after being found wandering along Brand Boulevard at 3:00 a.m. wearing only a white nightgown with gold trimmings.
This bizarre report ends the newspaper trail for Babette Fontaine—a fascinating and enterprising temporary Angeleno.
The last information I have for Babette is a marriage certificate. In Clark County, Washington, on January 28, 1946, Babette married Will Hayes—seventeen years her senior. Both gave as their address as the Broadway Hotel in Portland, Oregon.
Where they went and what they did as a couple following their marriage, I wish I knew. I hope Babette landed on her feet.
Two years passed with police no closer to a solution for Elizabeth Short’s murder. The 1949 Los Angeles Grand Jury intended to hold LAPD’s feet to the fire for failing to solve the Dahlia case and several other unsolved homicides and disappearances of women during the 1940s.
On September 6, 1949, the jury’s foreman, Harry Lawson, told reporters that a meeting of the administrative committee was scheduled for September 8.
“There is every possibility that we will summon before the jury officers involved in the investigation of these murders. We find it odd that there are on the books of the Los Angeles Police Deportment many unsolved crimes of this type. Because of the nature of these murder and sex crimes, women and children are constantly placed in jeopardy and are not safe from attack. Something is radically wrong with the present system for apprehending the guilty. The alarming increase in the number of unsolved murders and other major crimes reflects ineffectiveness in law enforcement agencies and the courts, and that should not be tolerated.”
In his statement, Lawson places the blame for the unsolved homicides squarely on the shoulders of law enforcement and the courts. What Lawson failed to understand was that crime was changing. No longer could police assume a woman’s killer was her husband or boyfriend. Stranger homicides were nothing new, but neither were they common.
The population of post-war Los Angeles skewed young and, because of a variety of factors, like the acute housing shortage, they were transient. A potent and deadly mix of opportunity and a large victim pool made it easy for the criminally inclined to do their worst. Women had a false sense of security about men in uniform. Behavior considered risky by today’s standards was acceptable during the 1940s.
From the outbreak of the war, the government encouraged women to support men in uniform. Newspapers and women’s magazines devoted countless column inches to ways in which they could aid fighting men. Women formed “Add-A-Plate” clubs. The mission of the clubs was to invite a soldier home for a meal. Women also routinely picked up soldiers and sailors hitchhiking because it was their patriotic duty.
On April 2, 1943, the Pasadena Post wrote about a “ride waiting zone” which gave military men a place to stand and be visible to passing motorists who would then give them a ride. Most of the men were decent and law-abiding, but some returned home severely damaged by their war experiences. How many of those men were capable of murder?
LAPD detectives spared nothing in their investigation of Short’s slaying. They took over 2700 reports. There were over 300 named suspects. They arrested fifty suspects who they subsequently cleared and released. Nineteen false confessors wasted law enforcement’s time and resources.
In 1949, the DA’s office issued a report on the investigation into Short’s murder. In part, the report stated:
“[she] knew at least fifty men at the time of her death and at least 25 men had been seen with her within the 60-day period preceding her death. She was not a prostitute. She has been confused with a Los Angeles prostitute by the same name… She was known as a teaser of men. She would ride with them, chisel a place to sleep, clothes or money, but she would then refuse to have sexual intercourse by telling them she was a virgin, or that she was engaged or married. There were three known men who had sexual intercourse with her and, according to them, she got no pleasure out of this act. According to the autopsy surgeon, her sex organs showed female trouble. She had disliked queer women very much, as well as prostitutes. She was never known to be a narcotic addict.”
Distracted by the continuing saga of local gangster Mickey Cohen, the jury turned their attention away from the carnage. In the end, they passed the baton to the 1950 grand jury–which also found itself sidetracked.
What happened to the women who disappeared? It is unlikely that we will ever know. It is also unlikely that the identity of the killer(s) will be discovered. People will always speculate about the cases, and every few years a book about the Black Dahlia slaying will emerge claiming to have solved the decades long cold case. None of the books I’ve read so far is credible.
I do not accept theories which rely on elaborate conspiracies perpetrated by everyone, from a newspaper mogul to a local gangster to an allegedly evil genius doctor. My disbelief is based in part on the fact that most people are incapable of keeping a secret. Benjamin Franklin said, “Three (people) can keep a secret if two of them are dead.” Eventually, someone talks.
Elizabeth Short’s killer probably kept his depraved secret but, even if he didn’t, anyone who may have known the truth is long dead.
NOTE: This concludes my series of Black Dahlia posts for now. I hope you will stay with me as I unearth more of L.A.’s most deranged crimes.
Six weeks into the Black Dahlia investigation and detectives had little to show for their efforts. Then, suddenly, it looked like they finally caught a break.
On February 26, 1947, a motorist, Clarence F. Gutchem, discovered a young woman on Willow Street in Long Beach. Lying on an embankment, it appeared she rolled there after being tossed from a car. She was partially nude and bound with strips of her underwear. Gutchem notified police.
They transported the girl to Seaside Hospital where doctors found bruises, scratches and a cigarette burn on her left wrist, but no signs of rape. She identified herself as Jacqueline Mae Stang, a seventeen-year-old student at Polytechnic High School in Long Beach. Detective Inspector C.J. Novotny arrived to take Jacqueline’s statement.
She described her attacker as a swarthy, middle-aged man; but she couldn’t recall much else. Doctors released her into her parents’ care.
The day following the attack, juvenile officer Margie Cale paid Jacqueline a visit. Jacqueline told the same story she gave Detective Novotny, but she added more details. She stated she was walking home from school at 6 pm when she noticed a man following her. Spooked, she ran, but the man caught up with her, grabbed her arm and pulled her into an alley. The man put a chloroformed leather glove over her mouth. She struggled, but lost consciousness. She came to and realized she was almost naked. Her attacker scratched her and blew cigarette smoke into her mouth. Jacqueline said, “he laughed fiendishly.” She was frightened she would die until a stray dog appeared and started barking. Startled, the man ran to his car and sped off.
Jacqueline’s account of her attack was harrowing. However, Margie’s experience with kids taught her to read between the lines, and she knew when they were lying. The pieces didn’t fit, and she didn’t believe a word of Jacqueline’s story.
Realizing Margie saw through her, Jacqueline confessed. She said, “I tied myself, I scratched myself and I burned myself.” Margie went to her boss, juvenile superintendent Joseph M. Kennick. Together, they went to Jacqueline’s parents.
What prompted Jacqueline to make up such a horrendous story and harm herself? The attractive teenager refused to answer. Detective Captain L. Q. Martin questioned some of Jacqueline’s school friends. They told Detective Martin that she was fascinated with details of the Black Dahlia murder. They said Jacqueline had asked them, “I wonder if I’d be expelled from school if I should be attacked?”
Newspaper coverage hinted that Jacqueline’s reason for the hoax may have had something to do with a football player. Was she trying to get his attention? Jacqueline remained tight-lipped.
Jacqueline’s confession came as a tremendous disappointment to police, who hoped they finally had a link to the Black Dahlia killer. Kennick said they would take her to Juvenile Court and hold her on a charge of giving police false information.
Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open. Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat.
Tonight’s feature is THE CHASE  starring Robert Cummings, Michele Morgan, Steve Cochran and Peter Lore.
Enjoy the film!
Returning a lost wallet gains unemployed veteran Chuck Scott a job as chauffeur to Eddie Roman, a seeming gangster whose enemies have a way of meeting violent ends. The job proves nerve-wracking, and soon Chuck finds himself pledged to help Eddie’s lovely, fearful, prisoner-wife Lorna to escape. The result leaves Chuck caught like a rat in a trap, vainly seeking a way out through dark streets. But the real chase begins when the strange plot virtually starts all over again…
Police interviewed dozens of men in the murder of Elizabeth Short. None of the suspects panned out. A seemingly endless stream of false confessors appeared at police stations around town; guys like Max Handler, a film bit player, who was the 25th man to claim he had murdered the Black Dahlia. During a lie detector test, he admitted that his confession was false and that he “wanted to get away from a gang of men [400 men with tiny violins] who have been following me constantly”. In the photo, he looks to have been on a lobotomizing bender.
Daniel S. Voorhies, a 33-year-old army vet, confessed to killing Short. He said he’d had an affair with her in L.A. — the problem with his story was during time he claimed he and Short were having a torrid affair, Beth was a teenager living on the east coast.
Every sad drunk and deranged publicity seeker falsely confessed to the murder. Most of the confessors were men; but not all.
A gal named Minnie Sepulveda stepped up and said that she killed the Black Dahlia. She lied.
Mrs. Marie Grieme said she had heard a Chicago woman confess to the Black Dahlia’s murder. It was another dead end.
Even though none of the women who confessed were guilty, the cops would not i possibility that Short’s slayer was a woman. After all, L.A. had had its share of female killers.
The Herald ran side-by-side photos of three infamous female murderers busted in L.A. Louise Peete (one of only four women executed by the State of California) was a serial killer. Busted in the 1920s, she served eighteen years in prison. Following her release, she committed yet another murder for which she paid with her life.
Winnie Ruth Judd committed two murders in Arizona. Police arrested her in L.A. when a trunk containing the dismembered remains of Hedvig Samuelson and Anne Le Roi leaked bodily fluids in the baggage claim section of a local train station.
In 1922, Clara Phillips (aka “Tiger Girl”) murdered Alberta Meadows, the woman she suspected was a rival for her husband’s affections. She struck Meadows repeatedly with a hammer until the handle broke and, possibly to keep Alberta from rising from the dead like Lazarus, she rolled a 50 lb. boulder onto her victim’s chest.
The notion that a woman could be Short’s killer is not far-fetched. The Herald featured a series of columns written by psychologist Alice La Vere. La Vere previously profiled Short’s killer as a young man without a criminal record, but she was open to the possibility of a female killer. She abruptly shifted gears from identifying a young man as the slayer to “…a sinister Lucrezia Borgia — a butcher woman whose crime dwarfs any in the modern crime annals — are shadowed over the mutilated body of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short.”
Obviously, La Vere was an expert for hire, and if the Herald editors had asked her to write a convincing profile identifying the killer as a mutant alien from Mars, she may have done it. She told the Herald:
“Murders leave behind them a trail of fingerprints, bits of skin and hair. The slayer of the Black Dahlia,” left the most telltale clue of all—the murder pattern of a degenerate, vicious feminine mind.”
Even more interesting is La Vere’s exhortation to the cops to look for an older woman. She said:
“Police investigators should look for a woman older than ‘The Black Dahlia’. This woman who either inspired the crime or actually committed the ghastly, unspeakable outrage need not be a woman of great strength. Extreme emotion or high mental tension in men and women give great, superhuman strength.”
If you compare Alice La Vere’s profile of the potential killer to a profile created by John E. Douglas, retired from the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) — La Vere’s seventy-five-year-old profile holds up well.
What I find interesting about La Vere’s profile is her contention that the woman would be older than Short. In recent years, an older woman became an integral part of a theory about the crime.
Retired Los Angeles Times copy editor, Larry Harnisch, wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times for the fiftieth anniversary of Short’s death. During his research, he unearthed an important connection between the body dump site near 39th and Norton, and two medical doctors, Dr. Walter Alonzo Bayley and Dr. Alexandra Partyka.
Dr. Bayley owned a house about a block south of the place where Elizabeth Short’s body was dumped. Bayley did not live there at the time of the murder. He separated from his wife in October 1946 and filed for divorce in Nevada.
Dr. Partyka arrived in Seattle, Washington on August 22, 1940 and ended up in Los Angeles in 1943. In that year, she appears in the California, U.S. Occupational License Directory as a physician or nurse. On July 22, 1943, the Board of Medical Examiners Record of Applications lists her as a medical examiner.
How Partyka and Bayley met is not clear, but by Short’s 1947 murder, the couple lived and worked together in Bayley’s downtown office.
Following Bayley’s death in January 1948, Partyka and Dr. Bayley’s wife, Ruth, fought over control of his estate. Mrs. Bayley claimed Partyka was blackmailing the late doctor with secrets about his medical practice that could ruin him.
There is also a link between Bayley’s family and Short’s. In 1945, Dr. Bayley’s adopted daughters, Barbara Lindgren, was a witness to the marriage of Beth’s sister, Virginia Short, to Adrian West at a church in Inglewood, California, near Los Angeles.
Larry discussed Dr. Bayley in James Ellroy’s 2001 “Feast of Death”. [Note: Be forewarned that there are photos of Elizabeth Short in the morgue.]
A woman could have murdered Elizabeth Short. Was it Alexandra Partyka?
U.S. Army Corporal Joseph Dumais [Photo courtesy of LAPL]
On February 8, 1947, the Herald announced “Corporal Dumais Is Black Dahlia Killer.” Could the women of Los Angeles stop holding their collective breath?
The Herald story began:
“Army Corporal Joseph Dumais, 29, of Fort Dix, N.J., is definitely the murderer of ‘The Black Dahlia,’ army authorities at Fort Dix announced today.”
Dumais, a combat veteran, returned from leave wearing blood-stained trousers with his pockets crammed full of clippings about Short’s murder. Dumais made a 50-page confession. He claimed he dated Elizabeth Short five days before the discovery of her body—then he suffered a mental blackout.
The good-looking corporal seemed like the real deal. He told the cops, “When I get drunk, I get pretty rough with women.” Unfortunately, when police checked his story against known facts, the confession didn’t hold up. They sent Dumais to a psychiatrist.
Two days after Dumais’s false confession, the Herald put out an Extra with the headline: “Werewolf Strikes Again! Kills L.A. Woman, Writes B.D. on Body”.
Jeanne Thomas French’s life was as fascinating as a Hollywood screenplay. She was an aviatrix, a pioneer airline hostess, a movie bit player and an Army Nurse. And at one time she was the wife of a Texas oilman. The way she died was monstrous.
A construction worker H.C. Shelby was walking to work around 8 o’clock that morning along Grand View Blvd. when he saw a small pile of woman’s clothing in weeds a few feet from the sidewalk. Curious, Shelby walked over and lifted a fur-trimmed coat and discovered French’s nude body.
French was savagely beaten, her body covered with bruises. She suffered blows to her head, probably administered by a metal blunt instrument—maybe a socket wrench. As bad as they were, the blows to her head were not fatal. Jeanne died from hemorrhage and shock due to fractured ribs and multiple injuries caused by stomping—there were heel prints on her chest. It took a long time for French to die. The coroner said that she slowly bled to death.
Mercifully, Jeanne was unconscious after the first blows to her head so she never saw her killer take the deep red lipstick from her purse, and she didn’t feel the pressure of his improvised pen as he wrote on her torso: “Fuck You, B.D.” (later thought to be “P.D.”) and “Tex”.
French was last seen seated at the first stool nearest the entrance in the Pan American Bar at 11155 West Washington Place. The bartender later told cops that a smallish man with a dark complexion was seated next to her. The bartender assumed they were a couple because he saw them leave together at closing time.
Police book Jeanne’s estranged husband, Frank, on suspicion of murder. The night before she died, Jeanne visited Frank at his apartment and they’d quarreled. Frank said Jeanne had started the fight, then hit him with her purse and left. He said that was the last time he saw her. He told the cops she’d been drinking.
David Wrather, Jeanne’s twenty-five-year-old son from a previous marriage, came in for questioning. As he was leaving the police station, he saw his step-father for the first time since he’d learned of his mother’s death. David confronted Frank and said: “Well, I’ve told them the truth. If you’re guilty, there’s a God in heaven who will take care of you.” Frank didn’t hesitate, he looked at David and said: “I swear to God I didn’t kill her.”
Frank was cleared when his landlady testified, he was in his apartment at the time of the murder, and when his shoe prints didn’t match those found at the scene of the crime.
Cops followed the few leads they had. French’s cut-down 1929 Ford roadster was found in the parking lot of a drive-in restaurant, The Piccadilly at Washington Pl. and Sepulveda Blvd. Witnesses said that the car had been there since 3:15 the morning of the murder, and a night watchman said it was left there by a man. The police could never find out where Jeanne was between 3:15 a.m. and the time of her death, which was estimated at 6 a.m.
Scores of sex degenerates were rousted, but each was eliminated as a suspect. Officers also checked out local Chinese restaurants after the autopsy revealed that French had eaten Chinese food shortly before her death.
French’s slaying, known as the “Red Lipstick Murder” case, went cold.
Three years later, following a Grand Jury investigation into the many unsolved murders of women in L.A., investigators from the D.A.’s office were assigned to look into the case.
Frank Jemison and Walter Morgan worked the French case for almost eight months, but they could never close it. They came up with one hot suspect, a painter who worked for the French’s four months prior to the murder. He admitted to dating Jeanne several times. The cops discovered the painter burned several pairs of his shoes—he wore the same size as the ones that left marks on Jeanne’s body. Police cleared him despite his odd behavior.
There were so many unsolved murders of women in the 1940s that in 1949, a Grand Jury investigation was launched into the failure of the police to solve the cases.
There have been no leads in Jeanne French’s case in decades; however, there is always a detective assigned to Elizabeth Short’s murder case. A couple of years ago, it was a female detective, and she received several calls a month. To this day, there are people who want to confess.
The detective eliminates the potential suspects with a simple question: “What year were you born?
Elizabeth Short’s murder dominated the front pages of the Evening Herald & Express for days following the discovery of her body.
Even in a murder case as well-publicized as the Black Dahlia, the more time that elapses following the crime, the fewer clues there are on which to report. That the case was going cold didn’t dampen the Herald’s enthusiastic coverage. The paper sought psychiatrists, psychologists, and mystery writers who would attempt, each in his/her own way, to analyze the case and fill column space in the paper as they, and the cops, waited for a break. Decades before the founding of FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), shrinks and writers whose work appeared in the Herald engaged in speculative profiles of both the victim and her killer.
The Herald tapped Beverly Hills psychologist, Alice La Vere, to contribute her analysis of the victim and slayer. The paper introduced La Vere as “…one of the nation’s most noted consulting psychologists”. La Vere regularly spoke to various organizations about the problems of returning veterans. According to the newspaper, Miss La Vere would give readers: “an analysis of the motives which led to the torture murder of beautiful 22-year-old Elizabeth Short”. La Vere’s analysis seems very contemporary.
Here is an excerpt from her profile of Short’s personality:
“Some gnawing feeling of inadequacy was eating at the mind of this girl. She needed constant proof to herself that she was important to someone and demonstrates this need by the number of suitors and admirers with which she surrounded herself.”
La Vere described the killer.
“It is very likely that this is the first time this boy has committed any crime. It is also likely that he may be a maladjusted veteran. The lack of social responsibility experienced by soldiers, their conversational obsession with sex, their nerves keyed to battle pitch — these factors are crime-breeding.” She further stated: “Repression of the sex impulse accompanied by environmental maladjustment is the slayer’s probable background.”
How does La Vere’s profile of Elizabeth Short and her killer compare with the analysis of retired FBI profiler John Douglas? Douglas suggests Beth was “needy” and that her killer would have “spotted her a mile away”. He said that the killer “would have been a lust killer and loved hurting people.”
On the salient points, I’d say that La Vere and Douglas were of like minds regarding Elizabeth Short and her killer.
At the time of Elizabeth Short’s murder, mystery writer Craig Rice (pseudonym of Georgiana Ann Randolph Walker Craig) was one of the most popular crime writers in the country. In its January 28, 1946 issue, TIME magazine selected Rice for a cover feature on the mystery genre. Sadly, Rice has been largely forgotten by all except the most avid mystery geeks (like me).
In late January 1947, the Herald invited Craig Rice to give her take on the Black Dahlia case. She summed it up this way:
“A black dahlia is what expert gardeners call ‘an impossibility’ of nature. Perhaps that is why lovely, tragic Elizabeth Short was tortured, murdered and mutilated because such a crime could happen only in the half-world in which she lived. A world of—shadows.”
The police couldn’t catch a break. Not only were they stumped in the Dahlia case, someone viciously murdered another woman on February 11th. The victim was not cut in half, but evidence at the scene suggested a connection.
LAPD detectives Harry Hansen and Finis Brown headed the investigation into Elizabeth Short’s murder. The case was a challenge from the moment they arrived on Norton Street. The lack of physical evidence at the body dump site posed a problem.
Police officers knocked on doors and interviewed hundreds of citizens to find the place where Beth was murdered, but they were unsuccessful.
The Herald-Express cruelly tricked Beth’s mother, Phoebe, into believing that her much loved daughter was a beauty contest winner, only to be told minutes later that she was a murder victim.
Murder victims lose their right to privacy; all of their secrets are revealed. To fill column space while reporters tracked multiple leads, the Herald looked to psychiatrists, Beth’s acquaintances, and even mystery writers, to speculate on the case, which they did with creative abandon.
The Herald sought the opinion of LAPD’s shrink. Dr. Paul De River. He wrote a series of articles for the paper in which he attempted to analyze the mind of the killer. De River wrote the killer was a sadist and suggested that: “during the killing episode, he had an opportunity to pump up effect two sources — from his own sense of power and in overcoming the resistance of another. He was the master, and the victim was the slave”.
In a chilling statement, De River hinted at necrophilia—he said: “It must also be remembered that sadists of this type have a super-abundance of curiosity and are liable to spend much time with their victims after the spark of life has flickered and died.”
Reporters interviewed people who had only a fleeting acquaintance with Beth. They weighed in on everything from her hopes and dreams to her love life. Beth was, by turns, described as “a man-crazy delinquent”, and a girl with “childlike charm and beauty”. Many people who claimed to be close to her said that she aspired to Hollywood stardom. The interviews yielded nothing of value in the hunt for the killer.
While the experts opined, Aggie canvassed Southern California for leads. She was twelve years into her career with the Herald-Express when the Black Dahlia case broke wide open. In her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman, she said that she came across Elizabeth’s nickname when she checked in with Ray Giese, an LAPD homicide detective-lieutenant. According to Aggie, Giese said: “This is something you might like, Agness. I’ve found out they called her the ‘Black Dahlia’ around that drug store where she hung out down in Long Beach.”
Aggie interviews a woman (not Black Dahlia related).
A few days passed and police located the mystery man, Robert M. Manley, known by his nickname, Red. Early on the morning of January 20, 1947, Aggie interviewed the 25-year-old salesman. The first thing she said to him was: “You look as if you’ve been on a drunk.” Manley replied: “This is worse than any I’ve ever been on.”
Aggie told him he was in one hell of a spot and advised him to come clean. Harry S. Fremont, an LAPD homicide detective, looked over at Manley and said: “She’s right, I’ve known this lady for a long time, on lots of big cases, and I can tell you she won’t do you wrong.”
Manley told his story, and Aggie was smart enough not to interrupt him. Red said he picked Beth up on a San Diego street corner early in December. He confessed that the night he spent with Beth in a roadside motel was strictly platonic and concluded with: “I’ll never pick up another dame as long as I live.”
The story ran in the Herald with the headline: ‘Red’ Tells Own Story of Romance With ‘Dahlia’, and Aggie got the byline. She was the only Los Angeles reporter to get a byline in the case.
The morning following her interview with Red Manley, Aggie was unceremoniously yanked off of the case. She said: “… the city editor benched me and let me sit in the local room without a blessed thing to do.”
The no-assignment routine resumed the next day. Aggie said that she sat for about three hours, then started on an embroidery project. Every person who came into the city room that day and saw Aggie with her embroidery hoop just roared with laughter. She kept it up until quitting time.
Day three—Aggie prepared for more embroidery when the assistant city editor that told her that because of an overnight decision, she was to go back to LAPD homicide and continue her work.
Aggie barely had time to pull out her notebook before management pulled her off the case again. This time, it was permanent. Aggie’s new assignment—the city desk as editor. Nobody was more shocked than Aggie. She became one of the first women in the United States to hold a city editorship on a major metropolitan daily.
Why was Aggie removed from the Black Dahlia case? There are those who believe there was a cover-up, and Aggie was getting too close to a solution to Beth’s murder, so someone with enough juice had her promoted to keep her out of the way. That makes no sense to me. As city editor, she directed the activities of all the reporters working on the case, and she wasn’t a person who could be bought. The timing of Aggie’s promotion remains an intriguing part of the Black Dahlia case.
NEXT TIME: The Black Dahlia case goes cold — or does it?
Local housewife, Betty Bersinger, found the body of Jane Doe #1, in a weedy vacant lot in Leimert Park on the morning of January 15, 1947. The Los Angeles Times, reluctant to tarnish the city’s image, relegated the shocking sex murder to page two.
Just because they balked at splashing the disgusting details of the murder across the front page, doesn’t mean that the Times didn’t indulge in lurid hyperbole worthy of a Hearst newspaper–note the headline below.
Los Angeles police detectives intended to send the victim’s fingerprints via airplane to the FBI in Washington, D.C. as they always did, but a massive storm in the east made it impossible. What could they do?
The Examiner owned a Soundphoto machine, an early fax, and while it had never been used to transmit fingerprints, everyone agreed it was worth a try. They successfully transmitted the fingerprints and subsequently identified Jane Doe #1 as 22-year-old Elizabeth Short. The Examiner expected something in return for their largesse. Because of the crucial role they played in getting the identification, the Examiner leveraged a deal with the police—their continued cooperation with the police in exchange for exclusives. LAPD Captain Jack Donohoe balked. He didn’t relish the paper’s constant meddling, but he knew reporters would pursue the case with or without police approval. The deal was the lesser evil.
During the initial phase of the investigation, many of the stories that Beth told her family and acquaintances surfaced in newspaper articles. On January 17, 1947, under the headline: “Mrs. Phoebe Short Can’t Believe Slain Girl Hers,” her mother repeated the most persistent of Beth’s lies. Phoebe told reporters, “She was working in Hollywood, doing bit parts for the movies until two weeks ago. She said she left Hollywood (for San Diego) because of the movie strike, which made it difficult to get work as an extra.”
Beth was pretty enough to work as a film extra, but there was no credible evidence that she ever did.
In another letter, Beth told Phoebe she was working in an Army hospital in San Diego, or in some connection with the armed services. It was a lie.
To learn more about Beth, and maybe uncover a suspect, detectives questioned dozens of people. No one seemed to know her well.
By January 18, Phoebe Short and her daughters were on their way to Los Angeles from their hometown of Medford, Massachusetts, and the police were no closer to a solution to the crime.