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.
Donald Bashor, 27, confessed to dozens of local burglaries and to the bludgeon slayings of Karil Graham and Laura Lindsay. Under intense police questioning Donald didn’t admit to any further offenses, and as far as investigators could tell he’d revealed the extent of his crimes.
Deputy District Attorney Tom Finnerty issued a subpoena for Officer Donald C. Wesley, who had shot and wounded Bashor during his attempt to evade capture. Among the others called to appear before the grand jury were Detective Lieutenant Jack McCreadie, and autopsy surgeons Dr. Frederick Newbarr and Dr. Gerald K. Ridge.
Bashor was indicted on two counts of murder and two counts of burglary. The burglary charges stemmed from the looting of the apartment at 215 South Carondelet Street shared by Dorothy Cowan, Marcella Drews and Eunis Wingel. Lester E. Olson of 325 South Occidental Boulevard, was also burglarized by Bashor. Both crimes were committed about thirty minutes prior to the murder of Karil Graham.
The twenty-seven year-old killer pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and his trial was set for August 14, 1956 in Judge Allen T. Lynch’s court. Because of the insanity plea Bashor would undergo examination by alienists for the State and the defense before the trial.
There are often delays in murder trials and Bashor’s was no exception, it didn’t get underway until October 4, 1956. The four alienists who examined Bashor deterined that he was sane when he committed the murders.
With the ultimate penalty on the table it was going to be a tough trial. But before the jury could be sworn in the defendant interrupted the proceedings to enter a guilty plea. Terrence Cooney, Bashor’s attorney, was as dumbfounded by his client’s move as was everyone else in the courtroom. Cooney didn’t want any part of placing a banana peel between his client and the gas chamber so he refused to go forward. Bashor fired him.
With Cooney still standing next to Bashor, Superior Judge Allen T. Lynch explained to the defendant that the law prohibits acceptance of a guilty plea in a capital case without benefit of counsel. Cooney must have decided to bend to his client’s will because Judge Lynch accepted the guilty plea. Along with the plea, Judge Lynch also accepted responsibility for determining Bashor’s sentence.
On October 16, 1956, Judge Lynch was ready to pronounce sentence. The courtroom was quiet as the judge began to speak. “This is the most difficult duty I have ever had to perform. For the last four days I have been able to think of nothing else. These were cruel, brutal killings. I find no mitigating circumstances.”
According to newspaper reports Judge Lynch appeared to have difficulty speaking. He paused for several long beats and then continued. “On counts one and three (the two murders) the court sentences you to suffer the death penalty. May God have mercy on your soul!”
It took about a year for the California State Supreme Court to review the automatic appeal and affirm the death sentence in Bashor’s case.
On October 10, 1957, the night before his scheduled execution, Donald Bashor refused a last meal and then he slept from 1:05 a.m. to 7:05 a.m. When he awoke he had toast and coffee. He read a handful of letters he had recently received and then turned to the Bible.
Photograph by Edward Gamer / Los Angeles Times Senior Deputy George Coenen, left, and Sgt. Howard Earle, right, escort convicted killer Donald Keith Bashor on his trip to San Quentin, Oct. 25, 1956. Bashor’s story was the basis of a “Playhouse 90” episode by Jules Maitland. Bashor’s slaying of Graham also plays a prominent role in Jack Webb’s “The Badge,” a not terribly accurate book reissued in 2005.
Unlike many killers, Donald Bashor seemed genuinely remorseful for the murders. His last words were: “I’m glad my crimes are coming to an end. I am sorry I cannot undo the horrible things I did.”
Gas began to fill San Quentin’s death chamber at 10:03 a.m. and at 10:12 a.m. Donald Keith Bashor was pronounced dead.
There was something about Donald Keith Bashor that set him apart from many other killers. It may have been his movie star good looks, or it may have been the fact that he sought atonement for his crimes in the gas chamber. Whatever it was, Bashor’s story became an episode of the prime time TV series PLAYHOUSE 90in 1958. Bashor was portrayed by Tab Hunter and the episode was narrated by former Los Angeles Mirrorcolumnist Paul Coates. The highly rated episode was directed by Arthur Penn who would later direct such great films as The Miracle Worker and Bonnie & Clyde.
The episode was not without behind-the-scenes drama. One of the sponsors for the episode, entitled “Portrait Of A Murderer”, was the Southern California Gas Company. They wanted to eliminate Bashor’s trip to the gas chamber from the script. Producer Martin Manulis flatly refused and the episode aired as written.
Donald Bashor’s story also claimed the attention of ten-year-old James Ellroy. In 1958, his father gave him a copy of THE BADGE written by TV cop Jack Webb who portrayed Sgt. Joe Friday on DRAGNET. Bashor’s case is the first one covered in the book. In large part it was THE BADGE that inspired Ellroy to become a novelist. It definitely sparked his interest in Los Angeles crime. Now it’s time for a shameless plug — I was fortunate to work with James Ellroy, Glynn Martin, Megan Martin, Nathan Marsak, and Mike Fratatoni on the book LAPD ’53. The book project was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.
First, let me direct you to a clip from James Ellroy’s CITY OF DEMONS (2011) in which he glibly recounts the Bashor case.
Next, a far more serious scene from the PLAYHOUSE 90 production of PORTRAIT OF A MURDERER
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 BRINGING DARKNESS TO LIGHT–a documentary on film noir. James Ellroy, Eddie Muller, and other noir aficionados are interviewed–and there are some fantastic film clips. Enjoy the film!
IMDB film summary:
Film Noir burrows into the mind; it’s disorienting, intriguing and enthralling. Noir brings us into a gritty underworld of lush morbidity, providing intimate peeks at its tough, scheming dames, mischievous misfits and flawed men – all caught in the wicked web of a twisted fate.
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 DRAGNET 1966, starring Jack Webb and Harry Morgan.
I’ve show this feature before but I thought that since I’m attending the JACK WEBB AWARDS event tonight it would be appropriate to show it again. I’m looking forward to the evening. It will, once again, be hosted by James Ellroy.
Dragnet 1966 is a made-for-TV movie that initiated the return of the Dragnet series to television. It was intended to be the TV pilot of Dragnet 1967 but was not aired as originally planned. It was eventually broadcast in 1969.
The Internet Movie Database says:
Sgt. Joe Friday is called back from vacation to work with his partner, Off. Bill Gannon, on a missing persons case. Two amateur female models and a young war widow have vanished, having been last seen with one J. Johnson. In the course of tracking down Johnson and the young ladies, the detectives wind up with two different descriptions of the suspect, one of which closely resembles a dead body found in a vacant lot. But the dead man, later identified as Charles LeBorg of France, proves not to be J. Johnson, when a third young model disappears.
The story is based on the Harvey Glatman case which I covered in a series of posts.