Film Noir Friday: Between Midnight and Dawn [1950]

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 BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND DAWN, starring Mark Stevens, Edmond O’Brian and Gale Storm.

TCM says:

Rocky Barnes and Daniel Purvis, two policemen working the night shift, have been partners since they served in the war together. Although Rocky believes that even criminals have some good inside, Daniel is more cynical. Daniel is particularly anxious to capture petty criminal Ritchie Garris, but is hampered by the fact that the victims of Garris’ strong-arm tactics refuse to testify against him. Rocky is more interested in the face that belongs to the sultry voice of the night dispatcher than he is in Garris and soon discovers that the attractive voice is that of Katherine Mallory, a policeman’s daughter and the captain’s secretary.

There are some cool shots of Los Angeles.

The Black Dahlia Case Goes Cold

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.

NEXT TIME: The Lipstick Murder

Black Dahlia: The Investigation Continues


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.

A skillfully retouched photo of Elizabeth Short at the body dump site.

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.

Phoebe Short at Beth’s inquest.

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”.

Dr. J. Paul De River

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.

Beth at Camp Cooke (now Vandenburg AFB)

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 related to Dahlia case)

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.

Robert Red Manley

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?

The Wages of Sin: The Ballad of Margie & Dale

I am thrilled that my story, The Wages of Sin: The Ballad of Margie and Dale, appears in Mitzi Szereto’s latest true crime anthology, The Best New True Crime Stories: Partners in Crime.

Long before Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow began their crime spree, Dale Jones and Margie Celano terrorized the Midwest and West, committing robberies and multiple murders.  

Lean more about Dale and Margie and other criminally inclined couples, by picking up a copy of the anthology—released today.

A shout-out to Dwight Haverkorn. His knowledge of Dale and Margie’s exploits is encyclopedic. He graciously shared his research with me, and I owe him a debt of gratitude.

Black Dahlia: The Investigation Begins

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 Blizzard of 1947

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.

NEXT TIME: The search for a killer continues

The Myth of Black Dahlia

Elizabeth Short

I find it intriguing that a 75-year-old Los Angeles murder mystery continues to draw interest. What is it about the case that resonates with people today?

It must be the Hollywood connection.

Hollywood & Vine c. 1945 /The Brown Derby restaurant is in the background. Photo courtesy: Water & Power Collection

Contemporary articles about the case describe Elizabeth Short as an aspiring actress or starlet. Her murder is the ultimate Hollywood heartbreak story with a violent twist.

But there are two stories here. One is the myth of the Black Dahlia, a fictional character based on the life of Elizabeth “Beth” Short.

The second story, and the one I believe to be true, is that of a depressed, confused, and needy young woman looking for love and marriage.

The myth is repeated so often it is accepted as true, but by mythologizing Beth’s story, we ignore the person at its heart. We have lost sight of the troubled young woman who came to California to find her father—not to break into the movies.

The tragedy in Beth’s life is not that she didn’t achieve Hollywood stardom, she never sought it. There is no credible evidence that she went out on cattle calls, spoke to an agent, or asked any of her acquaintances, the ones with Hollywood ambitions, to get her an audition.

Beth was looking for what most people her age in the postwar period longed for—marriage and a home. She vigorously pursued the romantic vision of a husband in a uniform with shiny brass buttons and a bungalow with a white picket fence.

Judging by an undated letter she received from Lieutenant Stephen Wolak, she didn’t hesitate to press for marriage. Wolak’s letter reads in part,

“When you mention marriage in your letter, Beth, I get to wondering. Infatuation is sometimes mistaken for true love. I know whereof I speak, because my ardent love soon cools off.”

Wolak’s response to Beth’s letter is a frank assessment of their relationship—which, in his estimation, was not serious. You can gauge her desperation from his response.   

How many other men in uniform with whom Beth corresponded received letters with suggestions of marriage? 

A depressed and lonely young woman with daddy issues looking for love by sacrificing her pride saddens us and makes us uncomfortable; but the myth of the Black Dahlia is an epic tale worthy of a Greek tragedy.

I imagine in the years to come, we will continue to hold fast to the myth. It is one hell of a story.

Black Dahlia, January 15, 1947: Aggie & the Werewolf

It was after 10 a.m. on January 15, 1947. Mrs. Betty Bersinger and her three-year-old daughter Anne, bundled up against the chill of a cold wave that had held L.A. residents in its grip for several days, walked south on the west side of Norton in the Los Angeles suburb of Leimert Park.

Weedy patches and vacant lots made up most of their view. Construction of new homes ceased during the war and had not yet resumed. As she and Anne passed by one lot, Betty noticed something pale in the weeds about a foot in from the sidewalk.

Betty Bersinger

At first Bersinger thought she was looking at either a discarded mannequin, or maybe a live nude woman who had been drinking and had passed out; the lot was a known lover’s lane. It quickly dawned on her she was in a waking nightmare and the bright white shape in the weeds was neither a mannequin nor a drunk. Bersinger said, “I was terribly shocked and scared to death. I grabbed Anne, and we walked as fast as we could to the first house that had a telephone.”

In her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie Underwood, said she was the first reporter to arrive at the scene. Decades later, it is difficult to sort out exactly who arrived first. Many people have made the claim, but there is sufficient evidence to conclude it was a reporter from the Herald-Express, Aggie’s paper.

It doesn’t matter whether a person was the first to arrive, or the last, because everyone at the vacant lot on Norton that day saw the same ghastly sight.

Aggie Underwood, with her recognizable halo of hair, talks with police and takes notes.

Aggie described the scene:

“It [the body] had been cut in half through the abdomen, under the ribs. The two sections were ten or twelve inches apart. The arms, bent at right angles at the elbows, were raised about the shoulders. The legs were spread apart. There were bruises and cuts on the forehead and the face, which had been beaten severely. The hair was blood-matted. Front teeth were missing. Both cheeks were slashed from the corners of the lips almost to the ears. The liver hung out of the torso, and the entire lower section of the body had been hacked, gouged, and unprintably desecrated. It showed sadism at its most frenzied.”

The coroner recorded the victim as Jane Doe #1 for 1947.

Harry Hansen & Finis Brown

Two seasoned LAPD detectives, Harry Hansen and Finis Brown, headed the investigation. During the first twenty-four hours, officers pulled in over 150 men for questioning. The most promising of the early suspects was a twenty-three-year-old transient, Cecil French. Police busted him for molesting women in a downtown bus depot. Cops were further alarmed when they discovered French had pulled the back seat out of his car. Was a body concealed there? Police Chemist Ray Pinker determined that the floor mats of French’s car were free of blood or any other physical evidence of a bloody murder.

The initial Herald-Express coverage referred to the case as the “Werewolf” slaying because of the savagery of the mutilations inflicted on the victim. Aggie’s werewolf tag identified the case for a few more days until a much better one was discovered, Black Dahlia.

NEXT TIME: With help from the Feds, and a gadget at the Herald, L.A. police identify the victim.

Black Dahlia–Last Seen


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

Robert Red Manley courtesy LAPL

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 Beth’s 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 scratched her. Beth herself probably made the scratches because of itchy insect bites. Beth lied to Red a few times more before their day together ended.

Red and his wife were having problems, so, in the way that only a spouse on the verge of cheating can do, he sold himself on the notion that if he and Harriette were destined to be together, then nothing would happen with Beth.

Following their platonic night in a motel room, Red’s marriage was certified as made in heaven—the fates clearly decreed it. But he had a problem; he’d been out of touch with Harriette for a couple of days. How would he explain his lack of communication to her? Any guy capable of devising a ridiculous love test could surely 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 little or 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 goodbye to him and be on her way—but he wouldn’t leave. He told her he couldn’t possibly leave her in that neighborhood on her own. She insisted she would be fine, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

Beth had a few minutes while she checked her bags to come up with a plan. When they returned to his car, she told him she needed to go to the Biltmore Hotel to wait for her sister. It was another lie. Virginia, the sister she referred to, 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 was 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 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.

Matchbook cover from author’s collect

He parked, and the two of them waited in the Biltmore’s exquisite lobby for quite a while. Beth out waited Red. 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 in the Biltmore at approximately 6:30 p.m. Beth watched him go. She gave him a few minutes, and then she exited the hotel and turned right down Olive Street.

Beth 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. Some patrons of the bar later told cops she’d been there that night, although it could not be verified, and no one saw her leave. 

Beth was never seen alive again.

NEXT TIME: More Black Dahlia coverage.

LET’S CRUISE BETH SHORT’S LOS ANGELES c. 1946

Black Dahlia–January 8, 1947

Seventy-five years ago, on January 8, 1947, Robert ‘Red’ Manley drove to the home of Elvera and Dorothy French in Pacific Beach, in the San Diego area, to pick up a young woman he’d met a month earlier. Her name was Elizabeth Short.

Red was a twenty-five-year-old salesman and occasional saxophone player, with a wife, Harriette, and 4-month-old baby daughter at home. The couple married on November 28, 1945. They lived in a bungalow court in one of L.A.’s many suburbs.

Red enlisted in the Army on June 24, 1942. He was 20 years-old. In January 1945, He entered a hospital for treatment of a non-traumatic injury, and the Army discharged him in April of the same year for “medical reasons—but not for any residual condition.”

Maybe his injury was part of what made it difficult for him to adjust to marriage and parenthood. He said that he and Harriette had “some misunderstandings.” Restless and feeling unsure about his decision to marry, Red decided to “make a little test to see if I were still in love with my wife.” The woman Red used to test his love was twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth Short.

Red traveled for his job and it was on a trip to San Diego that he met Elizabeth Short. She was standing on a street corner and appeared to need a ride. At first, she seemed reluctant to get into his car. But in an instant, she changed her mind and got in. She introduced herself as Beth Short and they struck up a conversation. When Red returned to Los Angeles, the two corresponded.

Aztec Theater, San Diego

Dorothy French met Beth on the night of December 9, 1946 at the all-night movie theater, the Aztec, on Fifth Avenue. Dorothy worked as a cashier at the ticket window and she noticed Beth seemed at loose ends. When her shift ended at 3 a.m., Dorothy offered to take Beth back to the Bayview Terrace Navy housing unit she shared with her mother and a younger brother. Beth was glad to abandon the theater seat for a more comfortable sofa.

Dorothy French [Photo: theblackdahliain hollywood]

If the French family thought that Beth would stay a night or two and then move on, they were mistaken. She stayed for a month.

Elvera and Dorothy grew tired of Beth’s couch surfing and contributing nothing to the household. She did not even pay for groceries. She received a money order for $100 from a former boyfriend, Gordon Fickling, yet she spent much of her time compulsively writing letters, many of which she never sent.

One of the unsent letters was to Gordon. In the letter dated December 13, 1946, Beth wrote:

“I do hope you find a nice girl to kiss at midnight on new years eve. It would have been wonderful if we belonged to each other now. I’ll never regret coming West to see you. You didn’t take me in your arms and keep me there. However, it was nice as long as it lasted.”

The French family had another complaint about their house guest—despite her claims, there was no evidence that Beth ever looked for work. Beth wrote to her mother, Phoebe, that she was working for the Red Cross, or in a VA Hospital, but it was just one of her many lies. Her letters home never revealed her transient lifestyle—nothing about couch surfing, borrowing money to eat, or accepting rides from strange men.

Robert “Red” Manley [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Beth could have found a job if she wanted one. She worked in a delicatessen in as a teenager and at the post exchange (PX) at Camp Cooke (now Vandenberg Air Force Base). Red arranged with a friend of his to get her a job interview—but she didn’t follow-up.

When Red heard from his friend that Beth was a no-show for the job interview, he wrote to her to find out if she was okay. She said she was fine but didn’t like San Diego; she preferred Los Angeles and wanted to return there. Red said he’d help her out.

The drive from San Diego to Los Angeles was Red’s love test. If nothing happened with Beth, then he would know that he Harriette were destined to stay together. But if he and Beth clicked, he’d have a tough decision to make.

Beth and Red weren’t on the road for long before they stopped at a roadside motel for the night. They went out for dinner and drinks before returning to their room to go to bed. Did Red have butterflies in his stomach? How did he want the love test to turn out?

Red must have realized the decision was Beth’s. They never shared more than a kiss. She spent the night in a chair and he took the bed.

The pair left the motel at about 12:20 p.m. on January 9, 1947, for Los Angeles.

Next time: The Black Dahlia–Last Seen