I was interviewed by Grant Nebel and John Anderson for Ellroycast, their podcast which examines all things James Ellroy.
Grant and John are big fans of Ellroy’s work. His novels, screenplays, articles and LAPD ’53, the photo essay book I was fortunate to work on with James and his co-author Glynn Martin.
Grant, John, and I talked about Ellroy’s novel, The Black Dahlia, vis a vis the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short. There is an astonishing number of misconceptions about Beth Short. Over the decades the myth has not just obscured reality, it has devoured it.
As a historian, I have an obligation to uncover and tell the truth. It isn’t easy with a case as infamous as the Black Dahlia.
Each time I read an article that begins with Beth arriving in Hollywood to pursue dreams of stardom I want to hurl the offending document across the room, or set fire to it.
Did Beth write to her mother and tell her she was seeking an acting career? Sure. Was it the truth? Emphatically no! There is no evidence that she went on a single cattle call, appeared as an extra, or did anything other than have the occasional Hollywood address.
Why, then, do the myths persist? Maybe because to some people they seem sexier than the truth. As far as I’m concerned Beth’s real life is more fascinating than the myth.
Her death reveals the dark side of the Greatest Generation. Beth’s story is not the trope for a wanna be Hollywood glamour girl. If you’re seeking a Hollywood tragedy metaphor, then read about Peg Entwistle who jumped 50 feet to her death from the “H” in the Hollywood sign on September 16, 1932.
Beth, and many other young, single women, coped with the chaos of Post-War Los Angeles by drifting from man-to-man, room-to-room and bar-to-bar. Los Angeles was a place where a fixed address was a luxury few could afford (even if they could locate a vacant apartment), and violent crimes committed by troubled vets frequently made headlines.
I’m glad that Ellroycast is visiting his world. His novels capture the zeitgeist of Post-War Los Angeles: the darkness and danger, the violence and the victims.
“I never knew her in life. She exists for me through others, in evidence of the ways her death drove them” ― James Ellroy, The Black Dahlia
Thanks again to Grant and John for inviting me to Ellroycast.
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. The fact that the case was going cold didn’t dampen the Herald’s enthusiastic coverage. The paper sought out 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 FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) was founded the shrinks and writers whose work appeared in the Herald were engaging in speculative profiles of both the victim and her killer.
One of the psychologists tapped by the Herald to contribute her analysis of the victim and slayer was Alice La Vere. La Vere was introduced as “…one of the nation’s most noted consulting psychologists”. According to the newspaper, Miss La Vere would give to readers: “an analysis of the motives which led to the torture murder of beautiful 22-year-old Elizabeth Short”. La Vere’s analysis is surprisingly 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 went on to describe 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 by retired FBI profiler John Douglas? Douglas suggests that 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, Craig Rice was invited by the Herald 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, another woman was viciously murdered on February 11th. The victim was not cut in half, but evidence at the scene suggested a possible 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.
Beth’s mother, Phoebe, was cruelly tricked by the Herald-Express 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 multiple leads were being tracked, the Herald looked to psychiatrists, Beth’s acquaintances, and even mystery writers, to speculate on the case, which they did with creative abandon.
The psychiatrist whose expert opinion was sought by the
Herald was Dr. Paul De River, LAPD’s shrink. He wrote a series of articles for
the paper in which he attempted to analyze the mind of the killer. De River
wrote that the killer was a sadist and suggested that: “during the killing
episode, he had an opportunity to pump up affect from 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 one of his most chilling statements, 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”.
People who had only a fleeting acquaintance with Elizabeth Short were interviewed and 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 Beth’s killer.
While the experts opined, Aggie was busy canvassing
Southern California for leads. Underwood had been with the Herald-Express for
twelve years when the Black Dahlia case broke wide open. In her 1949
autobiography, Newspaperwoman, she said that she came across Elizabeth’s
nickname when she was checking 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.”
A few days passed and the mystery man known only as Red, was located. He was Robert M. “Red” Manley, a twenty-five-year-old married salesman. Early on the morning of January 20, 1947, Aggie interviewed Manley. 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 that 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. He told of having picked Beth up on a street corner in San Diego
early in December. And he also revealed that the night he’d spent with Beth in
a roadside motel had been strictly platonic. He 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! Anyone who came into the city room that day and saw Aggie with her
embroidery hoop just roared with laughter. She kept at it until quitting time.
Day three — Aggie prepared to do more embroidery when she
was told by the assistant city editor 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 she was pulled off the case again! This time it was for good. An announcement was made that Aggie’s new assignment would be the city desk. She was flabbergasted. She had just become 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 that there was a cover-up and that Aggie was getting too
close to a solution to Short’s murder, so someone with enough juice had her
promoted to keep her out of the way. That makes little sense to me, as city
editor she’d have been directing the activities of all the reporters working
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?
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.
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.
are two stories here. One is the myth of the Black Dahlia, a fictional
character based on the life of Elizabeth “Beth” Short.
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.”
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
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.
Bundled up against the chill of a cold wave that had held Los Angeles residents in its grip for several days, Mrs. Betty Bersinger and her three-year-old daughter Anne walked south on the west side of Norton in Leimert Park, a Los Angeles suburb. Midway down the block Bersinger noticed something pale in the weeds fifty feet north of a fire hydrant and about a foot in from the sidewalk.
At first Bersinger thought she was looking at either a
discarded mannequin, or a live nude woman who had passed out.
It took a moment before Bersinger realized she was in a
waking nightmare. The bright white shape
in the weeds was neither a mannequin, nor a drunk.
Bersinger later recalled, “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.”
Over the years several reporters have claimed to have been first
on the scene of the murder. One person who made that claim was Will Fowler.
Fowler said he and photographer Felix Paegel of the Los Angeles Examiner approached Crenshaw Boulevard when they heard an intriguing call on their shortwave radio. It was a police call and Fowler couldn’t believe his ears. A naked woman, possibly drunk, was found in a vacant lot one block east of Crenshaw between 39th and Coliseum streets. Fowler turned to Pagel and said, “A naked drunk dame passed out in a vacant lot. Right here in the neighborhood too… Let’s see what it’s all about.”
Paegel drove as Fowler watched for the woman. “There she
is. It’s a body all right…” Fowler hopped out of the car and approached the woman
as Paegel pulled his Speed Graphic from the trunk. Fowler called out, “Jesus,
Felix, this woman’s cut in half!”
That was Fowler’s story, and he stuck to it through the
decades. He said he closed the dead girl’s eyes. But was his story true?
There is information to suggest that a reporter from the Los
Angeles Times was the first on the scene; and in her autobiography, Newspaperwoman,
Aggie Underwood said that she was the first.
After 73-years does it really matter? All those who saw the murdered girl that day
saw the same horrifying sight and it left an indelible impression. Aggie described what she observed:
“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
The coroner recorded the victim as Jane Doe #1 for 1947.
Two seasoned LAPD detectives, Harry Hansen and Finis Brown,
took charge of 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. He was busted 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. Had he concealed a body there? Police Chemist, Ray Pinker, found no blood or any other physical evidence of a bloody murder in French’s car. He was dropped from the list of hot suspects.
In her initial coverage Aggie referred to the case as the
“Werewolf” slaying because of the savagery of the mutilations inflicted
on the unknown woman. Aggie’s werewolf tag would identify the case until a much
better one was discovered—the Black Dahlia.
NEXT TIME: Jane Doe #1 is identified.
Fowler, Will (1991). “Reporters” Memoirs of a Young
Gilmore, John (2001). Severed: The True Story of the
Black Dahlia Murder.
About 12:20 p.m. on January 9, 1947, Elizabeth Short and
Robert “Red” Manley left the motel where they had spent the night.
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.
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.
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 JOHNNY O’CLOCK, directed by Robert Rossen and starring Dick Powell and Evelyn Keyes and Lee J. Cobb.
Johnny O’Clock, a sharp-witted New York gambling house overseer, has many “friends” in the city’s underworld: His associates include Pete Marchettis, Johnny’s senior partner and owner of the lavish casino he operates, and Chuck Blayden, a crooked, trigger-happy cop who is investigating other gambling houses in town. After trying to cut into the casino’s profits and warning Johnny under threat of death not to interfere with his intention to become Marchettis’ partner, Blayden ends his relationship with cigarette and coat check girl Harriet Hobson, then disappears. Harriet is later found dead of an apparent suicide in her apartment, and Inspector Koch begins his investigation into her death by questioning Johnny.
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. Today’s feature is BRUTE FORCE starring Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, Charles Bickford, Yvonne De Carlo, Ella Raines, Ann Blyth, Anita Colby and introducing Howard Duff.
Enjoy the movie!
Captain Munsey, the prison captain of the Westgate Penitentiary, is despised by inmates and prison officials alike for his brutal treatment of the inmates. While Munsey’s enemies include prison doctor Walters and Warden Barnes, he is supported by some inmate stool pigeons. One of the stool pigeons, Wilson, is killed when a group of prisoners force him into the workshop steel press. As living conditions at the prison continue to deteriorate, some of the inmates, including leader Joe Collins, who landed in prison for stealing money to support his wheelchair-bound wife, Spencer, Tom Lister and Soldier, plan a breakout.
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. Today’s feature is KISS OF DEATHstarring Richard Widmark, Victor Mature and Coleen Gray. This is one of my favorites.
Enjoy the movie!
On Christmas Eve, down-on-his-luck Nick Bianco, an ex-convict, and his three cohorts rob a jewelry store located on the top floor of a New York skyscraper. Before they can exit the building, however, the proprietor sets off his alarm, and Nick is apprehended by the police. Later, Assistant District Attorney Louis D’Angelo tries to persuade Nick, who has two young daughters and a wife, to name his accomplices in exchange for a light sentence. Sure that his lawyer, Earl Howser, and cohorts will look after his family while he is incarcerated, Nick refuses and is given a twenty-year sentence.
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 BRASHER DOUBLOON starring George Montgomery, Nancy Guild and Conrad Janis.
Enjoy the movie!
Philip Marlowe (George Montgomery) gets involved when limp-wristed and snidley Leslie Murdock (Conrad Janis) steals a rare doubloon from his mother (Florence Bates) to give to a newsreel photographer in exchange for film that is being used for blackmail purposes. Marlowe’s involvement has him encounter a girl who goes into hysterics when touched by a man; a husband-killing woman; three corpses; a couple of scuffles in which he gets his clock cleaned; a secretary who thinks she has killed her boss, which is the reason Raymond Chandler called his story “The High Window”, and a son (who qualifies as a S.O.B. by two definitions) who blackmails his widowed mother. So, what’s not to like.