Red Manley and the Black Dahlia

In his 1991 autobiography, Reporters: Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman, Will Fowler recalled one of his colleagues, Baker Conrad, had noticed a telegram among Elizabeth Short’s belongings. The Examiner’s editor, Jim Richardson, dispatched Fowler to the address on the telegram, 8010 Mountain View Avenue in South Gate.

When Fowler arrived at the bungalow court, a strikingly beautiful young woman greeted him. Her name was Harriette Manley. Fowler let her believe he was a cop.

During their conversation, Harriette said her husband phoned her from San Francisco after he saw his name in the newspapers in connection with Elizabeth Short’s murder. Red reassured Harriette that he’d had nothing to do with the slaying. He said he “loved her more than any man ever loved his wife.” 

At 10:00 pm on January 19th, two LAPD sergeants, J.W. Wass and Sam Flowers, staked out the home of Red’s employer in Eagle Rock. When the suspect’s sedan pulled up, the officers approached him with their guns drawn. An Examiner photographer was there to capture the arrest.

Robert ‘Red’ Manley

The next day, Aggie Underwood interviewed him. Red needed no encouragement to unburden himself. He told her how he’d picked Beth Short up on a San Diego street corner. How they had spent an “erotically uneventful” night in a motel and how he eventually dropped her off at the Biltmore Hotel on January 9th.

Red finished his tale with a heartfelt statement. “I’ll never pick up another dame as long as I live.”

Aggie believed Red and shared her gut feelings with the police. Red was forthcoming in his interview. Aggie knew he wasn’t a killer. Red was a frightened man with goofy ideas about love, marriage, and fidelity.

“I was only trying to test my love for my wife,” he said as he sought to explain his brief escapade with Beth Short.

Red said he first saw Beth standing on a street corner in San Diego while on a business trip ten days before Christmas. “She looked cute, so I thought, well, I’ll make a little test and see if I’m still in love with my wife, or whether I could ever fall for anyone else.”

According to Red, he and Harriette, married for just 14 months, were going through a “readjustment period.” He said they had a “few misunderstandings, but nothing important.”

He swore up and down that Beth was the only woman he picked up since his marriage. When he approached her that day, Beth was coy. “She turned to me and said, ‘Don’t you think it’s wrong to approach a girl this way?’” Wrong or not, she got into his car within a minute or two. Before he dropped her off in Pacific Beach, where she was couch-surfing at the home of Elvera and Dorothy French. they sat in his car and talked. He asked her if she would go out to dinner with him. “That would be nice,” she said.

Red drove back up the highway and rented a motel room. He picked Beth up that evening and they went to a nightclub and danced until midnight. Afterwards, they stopped at a drive-in for a snack. He said they talked for a few minutes in front of the French home. Red kissed her goodnight, but said she was a little cold.

He didn’t see her again until January 7, on his next trip to San Diego. He wired ahead to let her know he would be in town. They went nightclubbing again. Then they stayed together in a motel on their way back to Los Angeles.

Red’s story, and his demeanor, convinced Aggie he was not a killer, but that didn’t mean she let him off easy.

If there was one thing that Aggie detested, it was a sob sister. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a sob sister is a female journalist who writes overly sentimental copy. That sort of journalism was never Aggie’s thing. She said, “A sob sister could have wept with and over Manley, interpolating, editorial gushes to prove what a big bleeding-heart beat in her breast. To hell with that. I’d rather have a fistful—an armload—of good solid facts.”

Her armload of facts made Aggie’s interview with Red Manley riveting. In fact, her city editor, who normally cautioned her to keep her copy short, let the entire interview run without a ton of photos. He knew a great interview when he read one. Aggie was the only Los Angeles reporter to get a by-line in the Dahlia case.

Why, then, amid the covering of the murder, was Aggie yanked off the story? With no warning or explanation, Aggie found herself benched. The city editor let her cool her heels in the newsroom without a thing to do. 

Aggie spent a couple of miserable days at her desk, bored out of her mind. Then she got pissed-off enough to fight back. She didn’t get huffy or raise her voice. She brought in an embroidery project. In no time, the other newsroom denizens were snickering. One newswoman, Caroline Walker, said, “What do you think of that? Here’s the best reporter on the Herald, on the biggest day of one of the best stories in years—sitting in the office doing fancy work!” 

The next day, they reassigned Aggie to the story—only to pull her off a second time. What the hell was going on?

NEXT TIME: The Black Dahlia case continues.

Aggie and the Black Dahlia

Elizabeth Short left the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel on January 9, 1947, and vanished. Where did she go? Is it possible she stopped at the Crown Grill at 8th and Olive seeking a familiar face and a free ride to Hollywood? When questioned by LAPD detectives, none of the employees or patrons recalled seeing her that night.

Biltmore Hotel

People often wonder where Beth was during her “lost week.” I believe she left the Biltmore to go to Hollywood. She knew people there, and might find a place to stay, even if just for a couple of nights. Despite reports, there is no credible evidence that anyone ever saw Beth after she left the Biltmore.

After leaving the Biltmore, it seems likely that Beth accepted a ride from her killer. Did she know him, or was he a stranger, an average-looking Joe in a suit or military uniform? Beth accepted rides from strangers before. Her youthful hubris may have led her to believe she would know a bad guy if she met one. Like most young women, Beth had likely talked her way out of an unwanted pass before. As women, we learn early how to navigate the occasionally treacherous world of men. The encounter with her killer would be unlike anything in her previous experience. By the time his mask slipped to reveal the evil beneath, Beth did not stand a chance.

On the morning of January 15, 1947, Leimert Park housewife, Betty Bersinger and her little daughter Anne, walked along Norton on the way to run errands. The sidewalks were in, but the houses had yet to be built on that block. The war halted building projects. All materials went to the defense industry.

About fifty feet north of a fire hydrant, Betty noticed something white about a foot from the edge of the sidewalk in the weeds of a large vacant lot. As they drew closer, the thing took shape. It looked like a discarded store mannequin. Then, to her horror, Betty realized what she saw was a nude woman, cut in half and posed with her arms above her head and her legs spread wide apart.

Terrified, Betty grabbed Anne and ran to the nearest house to telephone the police. In her excitement, she failed to identify herself.

LAPD officers arrived, and so did the press. The Herald sent Aggie Underwood. Aggie had been with the paper for twelve years and covered many crime scenes. But this one was different. The level of brutality defied comprehension. The killer posed his victim in a way meant to degrade her. With none of her belongings at the scene to identify her, the authorities labeled the victim as the city’s first Jane Doe of 1947.

Aggie described the scene in her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman.

“In a vacant lot amid sparse weeds a couple of feet from the sidewalk lay the body. It 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 above 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.”

Aggie at the body dump, January 15, 1947.

Aggie studied the body and disagreed with some of the police who argued the deceased was a woman in her mid-thirties. Aggie said the condition of the woman’s skin suggested someone much younger.

A couple of days later, when they identified Jane Doe as Elizabeth Short, Aggie’s contention proved true. Short was only 22-years-old.

The Herald originally tagged the slaying the “Werewolf Murder.” They soon dropped in favor of a much catchier moniker.

Several people took credit for giving the case the name that would stick ‘Black Dahlia.’ Aggie was one of them. While chasing dead-end leads, Aggie said she received a call from a friend, Ray Giese, who was an LAPD homicide detective lieutenant. He 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.”

Short got her nickname after she and some friends saw the film, “The Blue Dahlia,” starring Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, and William Bendix during the summer of 1946. They said because she wore black clothes and frequently tucked a flower behind one ear, she was the “Black Dahlia.”

Once they identified Short, they found the last man seen with her, Robert ‘Red’ Manley. The twenty-five-year-old salesman drove Short up from San Diego and left her at the Biltmore Hotel on January 9th. He became suspect #1.

Robert “Red” Manley arrested in Eagle Rock. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Early in the morning of January 20th, Aggie got permission to interview Manley at the Hollenbeck police station on the east side of the city. She sized him up as a guy reporters might meet at a bar and “find a congenial drinking companion, possible criminal or not.”

Aggie said, “You look like you’ve been on a drunk.” Manley replied, “This is worse than any I’ve ever been on.” Perry offered Manley a cigarette, which he accepted with gratitude. Aggie continued. “Look, fella, you’re in one hell of a spot. You’re in a jam and it’s no secret. If you’re innocent, as you say you are, tell the whole story; and if you haven’t anything to hide, people can’t help knowing you’re telling the truth. That way, you’ll get it over with all at once and it won’t be kicking around to cause you more trouble.”

Would Manley open up to Aggie?

NEXT TIME: Red Manley tells his story, and the investigation continues.

Elizabeth Short–January 8-9, 1947

Seventy-seven years ago, on Wednesday, 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 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. 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

Maybe his injury 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.

Elizabeth Short

On a work trip to San Diego, Red met Beth. She stood 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. She introduced herself as Beth Short, and they struck up a conversation. When Red returned to Los Angeles, the two corresponded.

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, who 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 comfortable sofa.

Dorothy French [Photo: theblackdahliain hollywood]

Weeks passed, and Elvera and Dorothy grew tired of Beth’s couch surfing. She did not contribute to the household, she didn’t 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 Year’s 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 houseguest. Despite her claims, Beth never looked for work. Beth wrote to her mother, Phoebe, that she was working for the Red Cross, or in a VA Hospital, but she lied. 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 Florida 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, then he would know that he and Harriette would stay together. Kismet. But if he and Beth clicked, he’d have a 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. 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 invented a story about a possessive boyfriend—an Italian man with black hair living in San Diego—who supposedly scratched her. Beth most likely made the scratches herself. She lied to Red a few times more before their day together ended.

The Manleys embrace. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Following a platonic night in the motel room–Red passed his self-administered love test. Lucky Harriette. He still had a problem. He had not called Harriette for a few days. How would he explain his silence? Any guy capable of devising a ridiculous love test could 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 wondered 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 goodbye to him and be on her way–but he wouldn’t leave. She insisted she would be fine, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

Beth had a few minutes while she checked her bags to concoct a plan to ditch her shadow. When they returned to his car, she told him she needed to go to the Biltmore Hotel to wait for her sister, Virginia. She lied. Virginia lived in Oakland, hundreds of miles to the north.

Red drove her several blocks to the Biltmore Hotel. The main lobby was on Olive Street, 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 he would drive off and leave her, but again, he said that he didn’t feel comfortable putting her out of the car on her own.

Biltmore Hotel

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 around 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.

It is possible that she was heading to 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.

This is a frame from B-roll of downtown Los Angeles. Do you see the Crown?

When asked if they’d seen Beth, most of the patrons were reluctant to talk to the police because the bar led a double life. By day, it catered to the lunch crowd. Dark enough to be cozy for cocktails for a man escorting a woman, not his wife. By night, the clientele shifted to gay men. With homosexuality being illegal, the opportunities for men to meet were limited.

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

That no one missed Beth is tragic. She had no family here, and no close friends. She was the perfect prey. Without any credible sightings, it is probable that Beth’s killer held her captive from January 9th until the morning of January 15th, when he took her life. What did he say to her? Did she plead for her life? It is absolutely horrifying to consider.

NEXT TIME: A werewolf on the loose.