The Myth of the Black Dahlia

I was interviewed recently about the Black Dahlia case by Penny Griffiths-Morgan for her Haunted Histories podcast which originates in the U.K. (I have provided a link to the episode below.)  I find it intriguing that a 73-year-old Los Angeles murder mystery has drawn global interest.  What is it about the case that resonates with people even today?

It must be the Hollywood connection.

HOLLYWOOD & VINE c. 1945
THE BROWN DERBY IS IN THE BACKGROUND
Photo courtesy: Water & Power

Almost every contemporary article I have read about the case has described Elizabeth Short as an aspiring actress or starlet, which makes her murder 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.

ELIZABETH SHORT

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

The myth has been repeated so often it is accepted as true, but by mythologizing Beth’s story we have largely ignored the real 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 a cattle call, 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 isn’t the stuff of novels or movies.

Beth’s tragic life 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.

Here is the link to the Haunted Histories podcast.

4 thoughts on “The Myth of the Black Dahlia

  1. Hi Joan
    Very well written story. I think you convey the idea one of the reasons that has kept Elizabeth Short in our collective memories is how normal her desires were and that her goals and desires for safety and love are ones held by all of us.

  2. Beth’s story is part of the Hollywood myth machine. According to booster legends, everyone comes to Hollywood either to make it big or to reclaim former glory. I’m researching the life of vaudeville actress Theo Carew. She came to Los Angeles in 1914 and made a few supporting role appearances in minor films. She returned to Los Angeles in the mid ’30s and lived her last days at the poor farm. When she died, the papers claimed she was a top stage actress, that she left the stage and headed to Hollywood at the urging of DW Griffith, and that her return to L.A. was due to her desire to relive her former glory days. Just one (?) problem, she left the stage because she hated it, there’s zero record that she had anything to do with Griffith, and her glory days were in New York and Italy. Even in death the press offer no peace.

    • Mike,
      I agree with you about the Hollywood myth machine. It feeds on itself and seems to have little to do
      with reality. Are you writing a book about Theo Carew? I’m not familiar with her, but her story sounds
      fascinating.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *