Columns > Published on January 15th, 2015

LURID: Written On Her Body - The Black Dahlia

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

The devil does the most lurid deals in Hollywood, always has, always will.  He keeps a facilitatory fuckpad off Vine, a couple of blocks from where the Greyhound buses stop, perfect for passing trade from the Boulevard of Broken Dreams.  Sometimes it’s all too easy. Hand a card labeled “Agent” or “Casting Director” to the dreamers and fools and they come flocking. So he likes to add a frisson to negotiations, handle the details with finesse.  He likes to think there is art in his dealings, not simply witchcraft.

He had art on his mind that summer night in ’46, with the softly spoken brunette. She wasn’t a bad person (they rarely are), just a little lazy-greedy, too willing to coast on her good looks, and far, far too easily led.

“I want to be famous,” she said (as they all do). “My face on the front pages, my exploits in the headlines, for years and years to come. I want to be a tourist bus stop.  I want to live forever, a Hollywood great. I want the whole world to know my name.”

“As you wish, Betty,” said the devil, thinking for a moment before plunging her head back between his knees. “So it shall be.”

And so it was. On the morning of January 15, 1947, a young mother with a toddler in a stroller was walking south past the empty lots at 39th and Norton when she noticed what she thought was a broken mannequin lying in the weeds.  It was not a mannequin.  It was the bisected corpse of a young woman, the two halves lying about a foot apart, legs akimbo, arms raised above her mutilated head.  No attempt had been made to cover the body. It was posed for public display, inviting a response.

It was not a mannequin.  It was the bisected corpse of a young woman, the two halves lying about a foot apart, legs akimbo, arms raised above her mutilated head.

It caused a frenzy. Police and reporters raced to the scene, hip to the career-making ramifications of such a gruesome discovery.  The dead, naked, white girl belonged to them now. Legend has it that the Los Angeles Examiner guys made it to the crime scene before the LAPD.  Without interference, shutterbug Felix Paegel began documenting the site. His exclusive, graphic images led to an extra-early edition of the Examiner that afternoon, two hours before its rivals hit the streets. From the get-go, her body was a battleground.

Fingerprints revealed her identity as twenty-two year-old Elizabeth Short, no fixed address. She was one of the many appealing blue-eyed girls who roamed the bars and nightclubs of Hollywood looking for attention.  They aimed to catch the eye of movie producers and casting directors. Instead, they found themselves palling around with sailors and salesmen, trading bright smiles and flirty banter for a drink, a meal, a five-spot to keep them out of trouble and off the streets. 

These girls denied their past, put their future on hold, and devoted themselves to living the delusive dream.  They wanted to tell stories on the grandest stage in the world but they were not permitted to create their own narratives. They lacked authorship, or any sort of tonal control. An aspirant could only establish setting, accentuate eyes, lips, bosom, hair, the flash of inner thigh through a slit skirt, in the hope that a man might choose to write his story along her curves.  Some hoped for romance, marriage, the simplest of stories written on women’s bodies (“With this ring, I thee wed”).  Others hoped for a glorious Hollywood ending as a bona fide shooting star. But they all knew, the longer they eked out a B-girl existence in nightclubs run by the Mob, the more likely their genre was to default to noir.

On the surface, they were glamorous movieland creatures, lips stained red, hair high; underneath, a heartbeat away from homeless. These girls crammed into eight-bed dormitories for a dollar a night.  They packed the cavities in their teeth with candlewax to maintain a temporary gleam. They sucked married men’s cocks in parked cars in exchange for stockings, perfume, a pair of shoes.

In a dark bar full of rivals, it pays to increase the contrast. Elizabeth Short learned to play up her assets, dying her hair a deep black, pinning flowers above her ears, caking her face in white make-up and accentuating her figure with sleek black dresses.  She stood out amidst the deep fried blondes thronging the Florentine Gardens, a pale, slender-stemmed bloom ready for her close-up.

Through the summer and fall of 1946 she honed her sob story, the hero husband shot down over the Pacific, the longed-for infant equally deceased. She had her nickname, the Black Dahlia, her brand, and a black book full of contacts.  She eagerly anticipated her inciting incident, the moment that would pluck her from obscurity.  In letters home she wrote of opportunities, job leads, positive meetings, indicating she was on her way to stardom.  Yet in her final months, friends reported her constantly looking over her shoulder, wary of who might be watching, following.  She seemed afraid of the turn her story was taking.

On January 9th, 1947, after an evening spent pumping change into the lobby phone, apparently running through her contacts looking for a place to stay, Betty turned right, towards Olive & 6th, out of the front door of the Biltmore Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles. She was never seen alive again.

No one knows where she went, who she met, how or why they took her. For six whole days Elizabeth Short dropped off the map.  No one knows exactly what happened during this time, but for poor Betty, the end was horrible. Whoever killed her tortured her too. Tied her up, beat her, force-fed her feces, smashed the butt of a gun into her forehead, throttled her, and slashed her cheeks open with a knife. Official cause of death was “hemorrhage and shock due to concussion of the brain and lacerations of face”.  She may have still been breathing, albeit slowly choking on her own blood as he began to slice her in half.

The act of killing was inconceivably brutal, a sustained attack over hours or even days.  It’s hard to imagine a human life being extinguished with more blunt force or hatred.  Yet as soon as he (if it was a he) was done, the killer turned artist. Having stripped Elizabeth Short of all her sentience, all her agency, he commandeered her cooling corpse for his own story.  Once he had edited her flesh to suit his narrative, he rewrote her ending by sluicing away the blood and gore, even using a brush to scrub the more stubborn stains, restoring her trademark alabaster skin. He shampooed her hair.  Then he took her to a place he knew and arranged her as a tableau, reminiscent of the surrealist art of Man Ray.  He wrote over the brief, hopeful life of a pretty girl from Boston, using her as raw material for a grotesque new tale.

When she reappeared in public on the morning of January 15th, his Black Dahlia was an instant sensation.  The case of the century. By nightfall the headlines screamed about a WEREWOLF FIEND, poised to pounce on the young ladies of Los Angeles. Reporters from rival tabloids, the Evening Herald and Los Angeles Examiner hit the ground running, determined to scoop each other – and the LAPD – with exclusives on the hottest story since the war.

Chasing circulation and facing looming deadlines, the reporters wanted to tell the Dahlia story their way.  The Examiner airbrushed a blanket over the severed halves of the corpse and repainted her butchered face so they could run Paegel’s crime scene image.  Later, reporter Will Fowler would claim he closed the Dahlia’s eyes before the photograph was taken.  Just hours after her horrific, sexually abusive murder, she was re-written for the Examiner front page as a fairy tale: Sleeping Beauty, an innocent teenage girl “around 15 or 16”, slain by a ravening wolf. 

The following morning the chief autopsy surgeon for the coroner, Frederick Newbarr, edited the Dahlia too.  He detailed the injuries written across her flesh and bone, but in collusion with the lead detectives on the case, withheld key pieces of information about the state of the corpse, specifics only the killer could have known. His full autopsy report was shown only to select eyes within LAPD and has never been made available to the public.  If the killer wrote a coded message on and in the Dahlia, it was never fully transmitted.

She took on a second life as a macabre muse and became an integral part of L.A. crime lore, an object of fascination for young boys growing up in the city in the 1950s.

As soon as word hit the streets, the confessors came in from the cold, eager to assert authorship of the dead girl. Around fifty of them, men, women, crazies, all with their own account of the crime, some more carefully crafted than others.  A few were well known to downtown detectives, itinerant drunks looking for three hots and a cot.  Others were obviously attention-seekers, or weirdos wanting to bask in the glow of the Dahlia arclights.  Yet others were convincing enough to play into the LAPD desire to shape the narration their way, to turn it into an epic yarn about courageous cops dedicated to bringing the killer to justice.  No one knew the answers to the secret autopsy questions, however, automatically eliminating themselves from the line-up.

After the sensational splash of the body dump, there was no new evidence, no leads, no viable suspect. The newspapers reworked their original vision of the Dahlia to keep the public’s interest piqued: the fairy tale innocent became a good-time girl, a habitual liar, a slut.  Nonetheless, as the weeks went by, the case looked as though it would go cold and disappear from view.  But the killer had a coda.  On January 24, the editor of the Examiner, James Richardson, received a mysterious phone call. The voice congratulated him on Examiner coverage of the Black Dahlia case, then said “You seem to have run out of material… Maybe I can be of some assistance?”

The call was followed by a special delivery to the Examiner offices, an envelope containing the contents of Elizabeth Short’s purse: her ID, birth certificate, business cards, and, pitifully, the obituary of Matt Gordon, the war hero she never actually wed.  Her address book kicked the case into media overdrive once more.  Here, in Elizabeth’s handwriting, were the names and numbers of a long list of potential suspects, with many prominent Angelenos and movie personalities among them.  To add to the intrigue, certain pages had been torn out. The entire package had been soaked in gasoline to remove any fingerprints prior to sending.  It was certainly an incendiary device, fueling years of speculation, conspiracy theories and controversy about the extent of Elizabeth’s acquaintance, and the reasons they might have for wanting her dead.

On the killer’s part, the rest is silence. For this person or persons unknown, the Black Dahlia was their one-hit wonder, their masterpiece.  They were never caught, and, if the signature MO is anything to go by, they didn’t kill again. There was no need to say anything more. Other voices took up the story.

The police investigation fizzled, but the Dahlia was too good looking, too horrifying, too mysterious to be forgotten.  She took on a second life as a macabre muse and became an integral part of L.A. crime lore, an object of fascination for young boys growing up in the city in the 1950s. They never forgot the raven-haired, red-lipped porcelain beauty gazing out from underneath the Werewolf Killer headlines. She haunted them.  And, when they grew up to be cops and journalists and novelists, they wrote on her too.

James Ellroy is the first to admit his debt to the Black Dahlia.  In My Dark Places he describes reading about the case for the first time at eleven years old, in the Jack Webb (of Dragnet fame) true crime compendium, The Badge. She kickstarted his adolescent obsessions with sex and death.  She was both erotic object and stand-in for his murdered mother.

My Dahlia obsession was explicitly pornographic. My imagination supplied the details that Jack Webb omitted. The murder was an epigram on transient lives and impacted sex as death. The unsolved status was a wall I tried to break down with a child’s curiosity… the story thrilled me and moved me. It filled me with a perverse sense of hope.”

Ellroy kept the Dahlia with him until the mid 1980s, when his novelization of the case, The Black Dahlia (1987), was the first major hit of his career.  He rewrote the crime as hard-boiled noir, with a flawed detective hero who solves the murder and deals out justice to the perpetrators on the down low.  He reinvented her as tragic, broken and bisexual, a stag film star like her contemporary, Norma Jean Baker, the ultimate femme fatale.  She made his reputation as a writer.

Thanks to Ellroy, interest in the case reignited in the 1990s, and a new generation lined up to write their stories on the tabula rasa of the Dahlia.

Janice Knowlton was ten years old in 1947.  In 1991, she persuaded police to search her childhood home, claiming she had accessed previously repressed memories of watching her father batter the Dahlia to death with a claw hammer in the detached garage.  They found nothing, but that didn’t stop Knowlton doing the rounds of talk shows and publishing her account as Daddy Was The Black Dahlia Killer in 1995.  Mr. Knowlton lacked any credibility as a suspect, but the power of the Dahlia narrative gave his daughter a significant showcase for her personal stories of abuse.

For a while, John Gilmore’s book, Severed: The True Story of The Black Dahlia (1998), was considered the definitive non-fiction version of the case. Gilmore grew up in L.A., the son of an LAPD detective serving at the time of the Dahlia murder.  After a career as an actor, screenwriter and pulp novelist, he returned to the siren who had long obsessed him (“She was my light in this shadow world”) and documented the case as a non-fiction book.

Severed is a revealing study of post-war Los Angeles, and the corruption that reached to the top of all the high places in the city. It’s a cracking yarn. Gilmore writes convincingly of the behind-the-scenes machinations of William Randolph Hearst, media mogul who dictated the news agenda – and other elements of the case. He digs through the minutiae of Elizabeth Short’s life as a small town beauty queen with celluloid dreams.  He exposes the incompetence and poor choices of the LAPD (particularly with regard to the coerced confession of Leslie Dillon).  But Gilmore was not a journalist, nor even an academic. He included no index references, cited few sources. His version of events, though entertaining, is speculation. His rendition of the Dahlia as a biological freak, a prick tease who couldn’t go all the way with her many boyfriends because she had a malformed vagina, is factually incorrect.

The Dahlia myth machine trundled on into the 2000s, with the publication of Black Dahlia Avenger: The True Story (2003).  The author, Steve Hodel, a former LAPD detective, made the sensational accusation that his father George, a wealthy Hollywood doctor, was the killer.  Moreover, Hodel suggested the murder took place inside an architectural landmark, the Sowden House designed by Lloyd Wright.  Hodel Sr. had a genius level IQ, a reputation for throwing kinky parties, and was indeed on the LAPD list of suspects (the Sowden House was bugged for a period during the investigation).  However interesting the accusations, the book proves nothing.  Like Knowlton, it seems Hodel was writing his personal story of family dysfunction onto the ever-willing Dahlia. 

Author, film editor and screenwriter Don Wolfe was fifteen years old in Los Angeles in 1947, when he also fell under the Dahlia’s lifelong spell.  He could never quite escape her, and when the opening of the LAPD archive in 2002 meant that case files were available for public scrutiny for the first time, he added his own tome to the Dahlia bookshelf: The Black Dahlia Files: The Mob, the Mogul and the Murder That Transfixed Los Angeles.  He uses the official documents to debunk earlier accounts, and comes up with a neat theory of his own.  He goes full noir with the gangster’s moll angle, tying Elizabeth Short to the downward trajectory of Bugsy Siegel, another L.A. legend. But his theory is just that, based on another fiction, that the Dahlia was pregnant at her time of death.

The case is too cold to be solved now, almost seventy years after the fact.  The main players are long dead, or rotting in dementia homes.  Elizabeth Short, had she lived, would have been ninety years old, an undistinguished grandmother, dreaming of a brief stint on the fringes of Hollywood and mourning her lost good looks. But as the ever-youthful Dahlia, she retains her fascination, and her position as queen of noir pop culture. Acolytes continue to write stories on her body. She pops up in an episode of American Horror Story, as the inspiration for Michigan death metal band The Black Dahlia Murder, as the muse for Givenchy’s perfume, Dahlia Noir.  Her face beams out from book covers and news stories (especially as Steve Hodel persists in making his claims about the Sowden House).  She will be remembered forever as the dead white girl who turned a city upside down: many heads rolled at the LAPD and the case was part of a Grand Jury investigation into police corruption and cover-ups. 

Truly, if you’re seeking stardom, and happen to run into a dapper little man around the intersection of Hollywood and Vine who tells you, baby, you’ve got what it takes, be careful what you wish for.  Like the Dahlia, your dreams might come true.

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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