Why are we focusing on Elizabeth Short, commonly known as The Black Dahlia this week? Would not one of Hollywood’s most famous murder victims be a better pick for, say, Halloween?
Well, I was actually planning to do Empress Sisi – who had a really disordered relationship with food, and exercise, and probably body dysmorphic disorder, and who is just generally interesting – but then I went to England. You know how it is. Your friend wants to go on some Jack The Ripper tour (despite the fact that it costs $40 each way to Whitechapel, British cab prices are insane, my Lord) and you find yourself muttering “they call these murders? Elizabeth Short. There was a murder.”
I don’t know why I felt the need to marginalize the deaths of innocent women. Because England makes me monstrous? I think it’s the British food. The sugar in millionaire’s shortbread brings out the elitist in all of us.
Suffice to say, the USA has the best murders. Team USA!
But really, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a stranger and more interesting case than the Black Dahlia murder. You probably already know about her. Either you’ve read the – perhaps a bit overblown – crime novel The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy, or you’ve seen some of her depictions onscreen. Mena Suvari played Short as naive, vulnerable and murdered by a drug addled ghost in American Horror Story:
While Mia Kirshner played her as more of a troubled seductress not murdered by a ghost in The Black Dahlia:
Adaptations of the story go back to the 1950’s – you can see one magazine clip from 1953 where Mara Corday was signed to play the Black Dahlia. Hell. Let’s all read it:
I don’t think Mara looks as much like Elizabeth Short as she thinks she does – I think Elizabeth’s sexy, sexy, sex appeal is actually blown somewhat out of proportion – but never mind that.
What’s interesting – at least to me, is the fact that this story has been being adapted essentially since it happened in 1947. Elizabeth Short was beautiful, but she wasn’t famous (yet). She was not, for instance, Sharon Tate. She wasn’t married to someone particularly notable. And yes, her murder was horrible, but all murders are horrible.
This story is old enough to be your grandmother, but we’re still not over it.
What people say is horrifying about the Black Dahlia is the extremely graphic nature of the pictures of the body. They’re right. The pictures are graphic, and awful, awful in such a way that the woman who first saw Short’s body lying on the sidewalk thought that she was a discarded mannequin. No matter what the Nip/Tuck intro (remember Nip/Tuck?) would lead you to believe, people who are not Kim Catrall are rarely actually mistaken for mannequins. I’ll show you those pictures, but not just yet. It’s not because you’re not ready or I’m trying to build suspense or anything. It’s that I’m not googling them until I have a bourbon.
But the thing that really bothers me about the Black Dahlia, more than the pictures, more than the kind of trashy highly successful novel based on it, is that I can never seem to find a definitive account of what happened. I can’t even really tell you if the murder is any closer to being solved. There are accounts that claim that the culprit has been revealed (one woman implicated her own father and – maybe?) and others that claim that it will never be solved. That, at least, is what keeps drawing me back, fascinated, into this one particular story. So. Because some of the facts are so uncertain, maybe it’s best to begin with what we do know.
We know, for instance, that Elizabeth Short, one of the women most associated with Hollywood, was actually born in Boston in 1924. She was raised in Medford, MA. Her father was a miniature golf-course builder until he lost his fortune in the stock market (the windmill holes are always the first luxury to go). In 1930 he abandoned his car by the side of the road. People assumed, as was fairly common during that time, that he’d committed suicide. He certainly disappeared.
But it turns out, while they might look approximately the same, a disappearance is very different than a suicide. Cleo Short wasn’t dead at all! He sent Elizabeth’s mother, Phoebe, a letter some years later begging for forgiveness, and to come home. Phoebe did not forgive him.
That doesn’t mean it was easy for her being a single mother. She found work as a bookkeeper. Elizabeth was asthmatic and fairly sickly, and spent much of her time at the movies. She desperately wanted to be an actress. And so, unsurprisingly, she moved to LA. Her father was living there and was, at first happy to take her in.
For a while, anyway. The two quickly began quarreling, and Elizabeth set off to make her own way.
Elizabeth began work on a Naval Base when she was 18. She was arrested for drinking with sailors, and picked up by a policewoman named Mary Unkefer. Mary said that when she found Elizabeth “she was very good looking, with beautiful dark hair and fair skin. She dressed nicely and was a far way from being a barfly.”
Mary claimed she then took Elizabeth back to her own apartment, where Elizabeth lived with her for 9 days. Then Mary put her on a bus home. She later received a note from Elizabeth which read “I’ll never forget you – thank God you picked me up when you did.”
Well, that lasted for only so long. She was soon back in Hollywood, trying to make it in the movies once again. Perhaps assuming that you need a gimmick to make it big, she began wearing only black clothing and dyed her hair a deep shade of jet black. It was around that period that she picked up the nickname: the Black Dahlia.
Dahlias are not, in case you were wondering, black. She did wear dahlias in her hair – as was a fashion at the time – though some newspapers overrated her fondness for them (they literally had her wearing a crown of dahlias). Her sister claimed, “She never wore flowers all over her head only one on her ear. She always loved Hawaii and I think it made her think of that and Dorothy Lamour.”
Here’s the famous studio shot of Dorothy Lamour that might have inspired Elizabeth:
But it’s more commonly said that she picked up the nickname because she loved a movie called The Blue Dahlia. The movie, interestingly, which is still shown on TCM from time to time, is a thriller about a woman who may (or may not) have drunkenly killed her sexually intimidating date. I won’t extrapolate too much about Elizabeth’s feelings, but I will say that is in the Thelma and Louise vein, and is a movie to watch if you happen to be feeling fairly angry at men.
She also had a rose tattooed onto her thigh. Acquaintances said that she loved to wear high cut, or high slit, dresses and flash it to passerbys. It’s uncertain whether or not that part of the story was true (or if it just went along with tales of her sexy sexiness) but she was found with a gash on her leg where the tattoo had supposedly been carved out. You can see where it was located in this absolutely terrible picture:
But The Black Rose does not trip off the tongue as well, and certainly doesn’t have the same movie connection.
I think Elizabeth probably would have liked the movie connection. She never did make it in the movies. In 2003 there was a Dateline special that thought they identified her off of some stock footage, which reported:
It’s VJ Day, 1945. The Second World War is over and Hollywood Boulevard, the main drag of the movie capital, is one big party. Look closely at these home movies and you’ll see a famous face. We’re not 100 percent sure, but that dark-haired girl about to kiss the sailor seems to be the Black Dahlia, the soon-to-be victim in perhaps the most sensational unsolved murder in American history.
That is as close as anyone can find to an actual clip of her in a movie. But she was soon to become the most famous actress in the world.
Incidentally: I AM ABOUT TO SHOW THE PICTURE. PLEASE BRACE YOURSELVES.
In 1947, housewife Betty Bersinger was walking down a residential block in LA with her 3 year old daughter. She was on her way to pick up a pair of shoes at the shoe repair man’s. She saw something in the street that she assumed was a discarded mannequin.
I know this seems like a crazy notion now – how could you see that body in the street and not realize it was a body immediately? – but honestly. If you saw a body in the street carved in two, you would not think that it was a body either. At least I wouldn’t. I don’t even recognize people I know when I run into them in situations where I don’t expect to see them.
So, yes, no one would expect that.
Especially since the body was meticulously cleaned and sawed apart to look, well, not human. However, a 3 inch long cut was made across her face to make it look as though she was bleeding. That kind of cut is called a “Glasgow smile”. The police report claimed her death was due to “hemorrhage and shock due to concussions of the brain and lacerations of the face.” However, her body also appeared tortured (grass was shoved into her vagina, the killer may have taken the rose tattoo as a trophy, and she was likely sodomized after death. I’m putting these facts in parentheses as though the parentheses will somehow keep us safe from them.)
Mostly, I worry about what happened to the three year old who saw this. Do you think they remembered it? I think if they remembered it it’s possible they were really sincerely troubled afterwards. Every time I hear this story I try to think about how much I can remember from when I was three. The answer is “nothing” so that’s pretty reassuring.
Weirdly, the details of the murder are not what horrifies me most.
This is what horrifies me most: after the story got out, reporters from The Examiner called Elizabeth’s mother, Phoebe Short, and told her that her daughter had won a beauty contest. Phoebe talked to them excitedly all about Elizabeth before they informed her that her daughter was actually dead.
Her mother claimed she’d had a letter from Elizabeth in San Diego two weeks ago, and that “as far as I know, she was working in a naval hospital there.”She also said that Elizabeth was considering moving to Chicago to be a fashion model.
The coverage in the Los Angeles Herald was much more sensational, and claimed that Elizabeth “prowled Hollywood boulevard.” It later suggested that her lifestyle set her up to be a victim. Short was supposedly set up to be… literally chopped apart? Surgically? The newspapers during this period are insane.
Basically, there is an implication that she brought this on herself by wearing a sheer blouse. That also indicated that she was a prostitute.
She was not wearing a sheer blouse.
The newspapers made that up to get more attention for the story.
She was also said to have been a drunk who’d been out lounging at the Biltmore bar before getting killed. Again, she was once picked up for underage drinking, but her autopsy showed almost no presence of liquor, and the mention of the Biltmore was PR hype.
PR hype. For the Biltmore. Oh, God, and we think publicists today can sink low.
The New York Times later (in 2004) ran a retraction claiming that Short was not a prostitute as they had previously claimed. There was, seriously, no evidence of that, despite the fact that Elizabeth is constantly depicted as being a wanton woman in an outfit the newspaper made up for her. The sexy, sexiness is, at best, traced back to that one time she got picked up for underage drinking with sailors.
That did not stop people from later coming up with a rumor that Short was having an affair with Marilyn Monroe.
Honestly, it’s not even certain that she had the equipment that would be required of a prostitute. It’s quite possible she never even had sex, despite being turned into a sex symbol. The picture of her anatomy indicates that her genitals were deformed in a way that would render sexual intercourse impossible – she was said to have infantile genitalia, a case of genitals that have never fully developed. However, this theory is deemed unreliable.
Largely, this is because during her time at a naval base Elizabeth did become engaged. At least, maybe she became engaged. This is where the details of the case become a bit fuzzier.
When she was working on the naval base, Elizabeth met Major Matthew Michael Gordon Jr. He was soon deployed oversees and, following a plan crash in India, Elizabeth claimed that he sent her a letter proposing marriage. Following her death, his friends confirmed that he was engaged to Short. However, his family denied this entirely.
It’s also possible that during their time together, Elizabeth and Matthew never actually had sex. This was, after all, the 1940’s. In their letters to one another it sounds as though they were planning to wait until the night of their honeymoon to consummate their relationship.
Now, it’s possible his friends were lying because they wanted more publicity. People do that. Or it’s possible his family was lying because they wanted to defend his reputation from someone who was being depicted in every newspaper as a prostitute prowling the boulevard.
That seemed somewhat unnecessary though, given that Matthew had died in a plan crash. The event shook Elizabeth to such an extent that she told her friends that she had a husband who had died – and that she had a child who died in childbirth. The “husband” in question seems to be Matthew, though there is no evidence that she ever had a child.
The publicity from the event – which seemed to have everything a B movie could desire – sex! Beauty! Torture! – meant that people began rushing in droves to confess. The police received over 50 confessions they deemed false. A few examples:
Joseph Dumais: The man collected clippings on the case and remarked “It is possible that I could have committed the murder. When I get drunk I get rough with women.”
John N. Andry: The pharmacist claimed he was great at cutting up bodies, and insisted he had killed Elizabeth Short. When questioned he said, “Well, I’m capable of doing it.” Not the same thing, John.
Barstow Woman: “I know who killed Beth Short, and if the reward is big enough I’ll talk.” It turned out that she had two boyfriends who had cheated on her (not at the same time) and was trying to turn them in.
It was, for some, almost uncontrollable, and for those few minutes they could act out an actual link to “that pale white body severed in two…” Beauty and darkness and death. Three irresistible elements burning brightly like a dying star.
These men are still considered possible suspects:
Dr George Hodel, Joe Scalis, Salvador Torres Vera, Marvin Margolis, A Chicago police officer Dr A. E. Brix, George Bacos, Glenn Wolf, Maurice Clement, Michael Anthony Otero, James Nimmo, Jacob Fisk, John D. Wade, Mark Hansen, Sergeant Chuck, Dr Patrick S. O’Reilly, C. Welsh, Dr Artnur McGinnis Faught, Carl Balsiger, Dr M. M. Schwartz, Francis Campbell, Dr Paul DeGaston.
I’m just saying so you don’t friend them on Facebook.
But not everyone was so easily dismissed.
A more likely suspect was William Heirens, who was found guilty of murdering Suzanne Degnan and who scrawled on a mirror “For heaven’s sake catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself.” Since Elizabeth’s body was found on Degnan Boulevard, it’s possible it was meant to act as a kind of “arrow” to Heirens’ other crime.
Jack Anderson Wilson was strongly implicated in the book Severed. He was said to be a small time gangster with connections to Bugsy Seigel – and he was acquainted with Elizabeth before her death. However, evidence beyond that hasn’t been seen to hold up.
LAPD homicide cop George Hodel was also pointed to by son, because he claimed his father was photographed with someone who looked like The Black Dahlia.
And these are the likely suspects. Want to know the unlikely suspects?
Woody Guthrie and Orson Welles. Welles because the mannequins he used in the House of Mirrors scene in Lady From Shanghai looked suspiciously like Elizabeth’s corpse, and Woody because of some sexually explicit letters he wrote.
The takeaway from this is – pretty much anyone can be blamed for the Black Dahlia murder. You can pick someone at random, in your office, and claim they were a time traveler who killed her and you’ll have about as good a case as anyone.
But maybe what’s most terrifying isn’t that unresolved nature, or even the pictures of the body – it’s that Elizabeth Short, really, wasn’t a wild sexpot who was out looking for trouble, as all the newspapers anted to suggest. She was just a 22 year old girl who wore a lot of black. That is to say, she was just like you or me. And if something so terrible can happen to her, then terrible things can happen to all of us.
Next week: Empress Sisi! A comparatively happy story.