Death Becomes Her
The gruesome murder of Elizabeth Short transformed her from a small-town waitress into a glamorous and mysterious seductress – the Black Dahlia, a figure with an allure so powerful that innocent people would confess to the crime. Now, 59 years after the unsolved murder, directors, authors and conspiracy theorists are dreaming up new suspects – including Orson Welles – and fanning her fame. DUFF MCDONALD looks at a death that was stranger than fiction.
Strictly speaking, the 1947 murder of the woman known as the Black Dahlia belongs in the cold case files. After all, any killing that took place 59 years ago, that hasn’t been solved and where the main suspects have since died is an unlikely source of heat; be it in the form of new leads or otherwise. But the grisly Hollywood slaying, in which 22-year-old Elizabeth Short was brutally beaten, mutilated, killed and then literally cut in half before being dumped in a vacant Los Angeles lot, wasn’t just any old murder. And today, more than half a century after the event, there is ample evidence that the most notorious homicide in the history of Tinseltown is getting hotter by the day.
Exhibit A: director Brian De Palma – the man who gave us Scarface, The Untouchables and Carlito’s Way – is putting the finishing touches to a $60 million feature film based on James Ellroy’s 1987 novel The Black Dahlia, a noir classic that’s loosely based on the case itself. Exhibit B: the film is scheduled to debut at the Cannes Film Festival and Hollywood it-girl Scarlett Johansson is playing the heroine.
Because Ellroy’s book is largely fictitious, moviegoers won’t be seeing an Oliver Stone-style production that looks set to break new ground in the real-life case. For that, they’ll need to go to the bookshop and choose from the growing number of attempts to do just that. The latest? Exhibit C: The Black Dahlia Files by Donald H Wolfe, which pins the murder on mobster Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel – the man who brought gambling to Las Vegas.
Although Wolfe tells quite a convincing tale, there’s no shortage of different theories for the muderer’s identity. But such controversy is quite fitting for a crime that took place in Hollywood, a town that values fantasy over fact; that doesn’t care if your story is true or not, as long as it comes in a three-act structure. De Palma’s film, which also stars Josh Hartnett and Hilary Swank, will muddy the waters even more, based as it is on a story from Ellroy’s imagination. But this much is indisputable: nearly six decades after her death, the Black Dahlia has achieved Hollywood’s holy grail – she has become a legend.
Being murdered in Hollywood in the 1940s didn’t make you special. From the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943, which Ellroy vividly recreates in his novel, to rival mobsters shooting each other as they battled for control of Los Angeles, there were plenty of killings to go around. If wannabe actress Short had been killed in a more traditional fashion – shot once or twice in the chest with a .45, for example – few would remember her today. But Short’s murder wasn’t traditional. It was so savage as to be nearly incomprehensible, and that’s what has made it unique.
The basic details of Short’s demise are not in dispute. On 15 January 1947, at about 10.30am, Short’s body was discovered by a woman named Betsy Bersinger who was walking with her three year-old daughter past a vacant lot at the corner of 39th and Norton Avenue in Los Angeles’ Leimert Park. Bersinger first thought she was looking at a mannequin that had broken in two, and was horrified to realise it was actually a human body that had been cleanly severed at the waist.
The summary of the crime scene by the Los Angeles Police Department, which Wolfe includes in the appendix to his book, documents the depravity of the murder: rope burns to Short’s legs and arms suggested she had been tied up, her face had been beaten repeatedly with a blunt instrument, both breasts were mutilated, her cheeks were sliced open from the mouth upward for three inches on each side, and strangulation marks were found on the neck. The coup de grâce was that the body was cut in half, drained of blood and scrubbed clean before being dumped. Wolfe doesn’t include the coroner’s photos in his book, but the curious can view them on the internet. A word of warning: they’re absolutely not for the faint-hearted.
FBI fingerprint experts identified the body the next morning as Elizabeth Short of Medford, Massachusetts, born 29 July 1924. Her prints were on file as the result of an arrest in September 1943, when police busted up a party and found the underage Short drinking with some soldiers near Camp Cooke outside Santa Barbara, California. The identification of the corpse kicked off a mad scramble by reporters and police to fill in the details of Short’s last days (they would never entirely succeed) but the broader morality play required no muck-raking whatsoever: East Coast girl with stars in her eyes chases Hollywood dream, falls in with the wrong crowd and heads in the wrong direction from the very start.
Family, friends and acquaintances filled in further details that kept story in the headlines for a month. Short became the product of a broken home when her father abandoned his wife and five daughters in 1930. She left home as a teenager and grew up way too fast, bouncing between Miami, San Diego and Los Angeles; her most frequent job being that of a waitress. A romantic at heart, she seemed on a perpetually unsuccessful quest to find a good man from the day she first headed to Los Angeles in December 1942 up until the very end.
Lost in the flurry of titillating details about the crime was what is invariably forgotten when someone makes the transition to legend: their humanity. When some of Short’s belongings were found in a Railway Express agency in Los Angeles, writes Wolfe, there were numerous unsent love letters, including a handful to a Major Matt Gordon. Short wrote to tell her mother that she had become engaged to Gordon, but he died in a plane crash in November 1945. (Her affinity for servicemen – not unusual in post-war America – did not end with Gordon. There were more letters to other soldiers in her baggage.) Yet more letters told of Short’s habit of keeping paraffin candles on hand because she used the wax to disguise her bad teeth.
When she arrived in Los Angeles, Short seems to have fallen victim to two weaknesses: her trusting nature (she made friends fast, but usually the wrong ones) and her apparent inability to hold down a day job and pay the rent. Instead, she became a creature of the night, noticed for her combination of jet-black hair and slinky black clothing, the source of the name she would come to be known by: the Black Dahlia. Bouncing from room to room and man to man, she befriended anyone, it seems, who would help pay the bills. For a time, it must have been fun. Wolfe says she had more than 50 ‘boyfriends’ in the last five months of her life. Along the way, she crossed paths with the rich and famous and Wolfe says she had a passing acquaintance with Marilyn Monroe (the pair met through mutual friends at a notorious nightclub called the Florentine Gardens; news of Short’s killing horrified Monroe, and she never went there again). But, in the end, Short was broke with few real friends or a permanent home. She had clearly stepped off the straight and narrow for a single girl of the time, but how far, and in what direction, remains in dispute to this day.
Universal Pictures, which paid a reported $10 to $15 million for the distribution rights to De Palma’s film, is clearly hoping that the crime’s continuing notoriety will translate into box-office gold. When the studio purchased the rights last May, vice-chairman Marc Shmuger called it ‘one of the greatest crime stories ever told’.
True-crime fans, mind you, will have nothing but Ellroy’s novel against which to judge Johansson’s performance. Hers is the role of Kay Lake, the woman between two boxers-turned-cops who were obsessed with finding Short’s killer. Lake never existed; she’s a figment of Ellroy’s imagination – as are the roles to be played by Hartnett, Swank, and the film’s fourth star, Aaron Eckhart. (Mark Wahlberg and Gwen Stefani were also considered for the film.) ‘It is not the story of Elizabeth Short,’ De Palma has said in a recent interview. ‘The movie is about the characters who are impacted and obsessed with what happened to her.’ Adapted for the screen by Eric Bergren and Josh Friedman, the film’s producers began working with De Palma three-and-a-half years ago, and some of the filming was done in Bulgaria – half a century and a continent away from the real Elizabeth Short.
A fan of true crime and detective fiction himself, De Palma was nonetheless amazed by the public’s fascination with the case. ‘There are all these books. It just goes on and on. People get new information, having recovered old memories or old files, and they make new theories. There aren’t many cases with the mythic quality of Dahlia’s. London has Jack the Ripper; America has the Black Dahlia.’
In the real-life saga, the Los Angeles Police Department wound down its main investigation into the murder in 1950, three years after Short died. Records show that the police had 22 serious suspects at one time, but the investigation never resulted in a trial and was noteworthy more for its failures than its successes. Remarkably, the police received some 50 false confessions from a curious human contingent known in police circles as ‘confessing Sams’, but none proved reliable. One of them, an army corporal in New Jersey named Joseph Dumais, went so far as to write a 50-page confession that was later discredited. (A similar character shows up in Ellroy’s story as Joseph Dulange.)
Early pressure to produce a culprit led to the arrest of a married man who had met Short during a business trip to San Diego and drove her to Los Angeles shortly before her murder. Robert ‘Red’ Manley became the first major suspect, but was cleared when he passed a polygraph (lie detector) test and the police failed to find any physical evidence linking him to the crime. Manley would also be the first example of collateral damage from the Short case: although he was not implicated in the murder itself, Wolfe writes that the exposure of Manley’s apparent infidelity led to the loss of his wife and his job. He was later institutionalised, and ultimately committed suicide.
In January 1949, two years after the murder, police arrested Leslie Dillon, a bellboy and aspiring mystery writer living in Florida, who contacted the police as a result of his interest in the case. Wolfe suggests that Dillon’s arrest was more to do with keeping the Dahlia case off a list of unsolved crimes to be put in front of a grand jury investigating police corruption. A similar lack of evidence forced the police to release Dillon 12 days later when he proved to have an airtight alibi.
And that, as they say, was about it. Two ‘hot’ suspects in two years, and two men released owing to lack of evidence. It’s undoubtedly the lack of closure that has kept the story alive for so long and allowed for so many different answers to Hollywood’s favorite question: whodunnit? Ellroy invented his own ending, called it a novel and left it at that. Six others chose a different route – the ostensible search for truth – and came back with different answers.
In The Black Dahlia Files, Wolfe presents the most recent and complicated of theories as to the identity of Short’s killer. Armed with new material released by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office in 2003, he tells a tale sure to drive conspiracy theorists into paroxysms of ecstasy. ‘It is very complicated,’ he told me by phone in early February. ‘And believe me, I would have loved to simplify it, but there was no simplicity.’ The story was so complicated, in fact, that it took Wolfe two years to write his book after researching it for more than a decade.
In short, the theory goes something like this: down on her luck, Short fell in with a crowd that included Brenda Allen, the madam of a notorious call-girl ring that served the city’s elite. The ring was controlled by Bugsy Siegel, a gangster with matinee-idol good looks, who brought gambling to Vegas and set up gambling rackets in California. Siegel was thought to have had a hand in a number of mob murders and bootlegging operations, and he was also a notorious womaniser.
Wolfe never comes right out and says that Short worked as a prostitute, but he does tell us that she was often seen in the company of a man named Maurice Clement, a Siegel associate and procurer for Allen’s stable. One of Allen’s ‘A-list clients’, says Wolfe, was the actor and playboy Arthur Lake, who would often bring women to a private apartment owned by Hollywood mogul Norman Chandler, whose family owned the Los Angeles Times. Another source told Wolfe that he had heard that Chandler had got Short pregnant, at which point she would have become a problem that needed to be dealt with. The responsibility for that, he reasons, would have fallen on the man behind the prostitution ring, Bugsy Siegel.
The reason the police didn’t stumble on this possibility was because they were in on the cover-up, writes Wolfe. Chandler’s father Harry practically handpicked the town’s politicos during his heyday, and the family’s connections to the city’s halls of power ran deep. Wolfe goes so far as to suggest that Jack Donahoe, the original commander of the homicide division overseeing the Dahlia case, spent more energy orchestrating a long-running effort to throw out false leads than he did trying to solve the crime. His most successful conclusion, Wolfe reports, was the suggestion that Short had infantile sex organs and was unable to engage in intercourse. The rationale for such a theory was to throw people off the scent that any man – Chandler, for instance – might have wanted their pregnant lover to disappear.
The deceit led to rumours that Short was a lesbian, and that maybe an angry female lover had throttled her. But included in the trove of documents released by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office in 2003 was evidence that Short had normal sex organs and that she had been given a post-mortem hysterectomy, raising the distinct possibility she had been pregnant when she was murdered.
Siegel, Wolfe points out, was obviously capable of such a brutal murder. Already a nervous wreck because of financial challenges at his Las Vegas hotel, the Flamingo, Siegel had a hair-trigger tendency to inflict grievous harm on those who angered him. He was undoubtedly in a state of mind that could allow him torture Short before he killed her. Wolfe’s list of Siegel’s accomplices in the murder includes an assortment of low-level hoods: a man named Jack Anderson Wilson; an abortionist with mob ties named Dr Leslie Audrain (the man capable of cutting Short in half and removing her organs); and Maurice Clement.
Wolfe’s 2005 book builds on a near-confession from Siegel’s lackey, Wilson, that was published in John Gilmore’s 1998 tome Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder. Gilmore placed the blame solely on Wilson after he interviewed the ageing alcoholic in 1982. Although Wilson steadfastly clung to a ‘my friend told me this story’ routine, the interviews did seem to reveal knowledge of the crime that only the killer might have known. Like many suspects in the Black Dahlia case who died in unusual ways – Dr Audrain purportedly committed suicide in May 1949, for example – Wilson died in a hotel fire not long after Gilmore alerted the police to his findings.
Other theories have an entirely different cast of characters. In 2003’s Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder, author Steve Hodel, a 29-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, pinned the slaying on none other than his own father. ‘The realisation [that he thought his father was the murderer] cut and seared my heart,’ says Hodel. ‘It’s a pain that will never leave me. I see him now as a real-life Jekyll and Hyde.’ Hodel’s claims were investigated by the CBS television show 48 Hours in 2004, and although the story had plenty of critics, it had an equal number of supporters – including the Los Angeles County deputy district attorney, Stephen Kay.
Hodel’s theory has tantalising aspects: his father, George Hodel, was on the Los Angeles Police Department’s list of suspects and the police had been tapping his phone for six weeks; he was a doctor with the surgical skill needed to sever the body; and he had pictures of Short that his son found after his death. Hodel even suggests that the position of the corpse when it was found was a tribute to his father’s friend, surrealist photographer Man Ray. (A ‘friend to the stars’, George threw sex parties at his Hollywood home reportedly attended by actor John Huston, among others.) In a soon-to-be-released update of his book, Hodel promises new forensic evidence to support his claim. (There is a hitch, though: many dispute that his pictures are of Short, including members of her family. Wolfe includes them in his book and, in truth, they don’t look much like her, but Hodel insists they are.)
Blaming one’s own father in the case isn’t even a new motif: witness Janice Knowlton’s 1995 contribution to the canon, Daddy Was The Black Dahlia Killer. Undoubtedly the most unstable of all the Black Dahlia obsessives, Knowlton claims that memories of the murder came to her in flashbacks later in life. She was never taken quite seriously and she committed suicide in 2004.
Short’s childhood acquaintance, Mary Pacios, waded even further into implausibility. Pacios was just 12 years old when Short was killed, yet she claims that they went to the movies together. In her 1999 book Childhood Shadows: The Hidden Story of the Black Dahlia Murder, she pins the crime on Orson Welles. Among the clues that led to her conclusion were ‘strange incidents’ taken out of Welles’ biographies, and an unused carnival funhouse set for Welles’ 1947 movie, The Lady from Shanghai, that was decorated with female body parts, a mannequin face mutilated like Short’s, and a woman’s body cut in half.
And last, but not least, there’s Larry Harnisch, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times. He hasn’t written a book, but has been working on one since 1997. His theory is the simplest of all: that Short was killed by a Los Angeles surgeon named Walter Bayley, the father of a friend of Short’s whom she had met at her sister’s wedding; again, someone capable of surgically dismantling a corpse. The final sting: Bayley’s estranged ex-wife lived at 3959 South Norton Avenue, and Bayley left Short’s body where he did as a perverse gift to his former spouse.
When I ask Harnisch how he thinks the other theories stack up, he’s as blunt as a hard-boiled cop in a James Ellroy novel: ‘None of them are true. Knowlton was just crazy, unfortunately. Gilmore got tired of research and decided to end with the guy who had recently died – his book is 25 per cent mistakes and 50 per cent fiction. Wolfe built on Gilmore’s foundations, and thus his is just the latest cynical attempt to cash in. Pacios? She may have written from true feelings, but her investigation is just another conspiracy theory – that whole Orson Welles thing was just very unfortunate. Steve Hodel really believes his dad did it, but he’s wrong, too. I mean, how long does it take to look at those pictures to see it’s not her?’ And so the controversy lives on.
Despite there being no shortage of possible endings to choose from, it’s actually no surprise that De Palma chose to go with the only one we know for sure isn’t true: James Ellroy’s novel. Even if we are so lucky as to be presented with the absolute truth – and it’s increasingly doubtful we ever will be – there will always be more questions than answers. Ellroy’s version, on the other hand, comes wrapped up in a nice, neat bow – the killer even takes a couple of pages to tell us a motive. That doesn’t mean the film won’t be controversial in other ways. In casting for one of the roles, De Palma put out a call for a woman who looked 13 years old and was willing to engage in nude lesbian scenes.
Far from slating the public’s thirst for Black Dahlia trivia, it seems De Palma’s film will only stoke a burgeoning industry of armchair detectives. Short might never have starred or even appeared in a single movie herself, but in death she has emerged as the mythical leading lady, one with a role that’s set to run and run.