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Hard-Boiled HollywoodCrime and Punishment in Postwar Los Angeles$

Jon Lewis

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780520284319

Published to California Scholarship Online: January 2018

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520284319.001.0001

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The Real Estate of Crime

The Real Estate of Crime

The Black Dahlia Dumped by the Side of the Road

Chapter:
(p.11) Chapter 1 The Real Estate of Crime
Source:
Hard-Boiled Hollywood
Author(s):

Jon Lewis

Publisher:
University of California Press
DOI:10.1525/california/9780520284319.003.0002

Abstract and Keywords

Elizabeth Short (AKA the Black Dahlia) arrived in Los Angeles filled with aspiration and hope, seduced by a Hollywood narrative fixed in the glamorous studio era. What she didn’t know – what she and so many other Hollywood aspirants and wannabes like her could not possibly have known – was how quickly and systematically the movie business would be transformed and scaled down in the years to come. Short has become the most notorious but hardly the only casualty of an industry and city in transition after the war.

Keywords:   Black Dahlia, Elizabeth Short, True crime, Red lipstick killer, Beulah Louise Overell, The Newport Harbor murders, Unsolved murders, Movieland (Hollywood) murders

The January 15, 1947, edition of William Randolph Hearst’s Los Angeles Examiner ran with the following sensational headline: “Girl Tortured and Slain: Hacked Nude Body Found in L.A. Lot.”1 The crime scene was indeed remarkable, and no photographs were run to accompany the story. Instead the Examiner printed an artist’s rendering: a sketch, really. It was a gesture at propriety—though given the headline, propriety seemed even at first gasp beside the point.

Absent pictures, an image of the crime scene nonetheless found its way into the city’s collective imagination, thanks in part to the Examiner’s ace crime reporter, Will Fowler, who cast the murder scene in colorful, Chandleresque prose, describing a dead young woman “lying there like a discarded marionette.”2 With this news story the body-dump murder entered the paper’s lexicon. And there would be reason to use the term again in just a matter of weeks—which is to say, there would be a second body-dump murder to write about by then. By the decade’s end, the body-dump murder would become a symptom and a symbol of Los Angeles’ postwar sprawl, “an epigram,” as the novelist James Ellroy writes, “on transient lives.”3

The newspapers acknowledged as well the “real estate of the crime”: the unknown site of the murder, the body drained of blood, then transported and discarded in a vacant lot. “The girl had been killed elsewhere,” a January 16th report in the Examiner confirmed, “after hours (p.12)

The Real Estate of CrimeThe Black Dahlia Dumped by the Side of the Road

Figure 1. An artist’s rendering of the Black Dahlia body-dump killing used by the Los Angeles Examiner. Photographs of the crime scene were (for good reason) deemed unsuitable for publication.

(Reality and Fiction: The Story of the Black Dahlia, directed by Laurent Bouzereau: Universal Studios, 2006)

of torture, … her body taken to the lot and left in plain view not three feet from the sidewalk,” mistaken for “a drunken man lying in the weeds.”4

In the initial coverage, the victim was described as “teenaged,” “fifteen or sixteen—possibly older—whose dark brown hair had been hennaed and whose toenails were tinted rose, … a good-looking girl, a pert, turned-up nose, and a high forehead and gray-green eyes.”5 In the twenty-four hours preceding the FBI’s identification of the body, all anyone knew for sure about the murder victim was that she chewed her fingernails.

On the 17th, the body got a name, Elizabeth Short, and the FBI fixed her age at the time of death at 22. Over the next few days a sketchy bio emerged: movie-industry wannabe, party girl, Hollywood fringe-dweller. The crime-beat reporters knew who she was, even though they knew nothing about her. As a result Short emerged from the press coverage of her death as The Black Dahlia, less a person than a character or construct, less one particular and unfortunate young woman who had moved to Los Angeles and met with disaster than, rather, a metonymy for a generation of young women whose dreams were dashed on the streets of the city.

(p.13) Elizabeth Short: Wild Child, Lost Girl, Body Dump

It was a funny neighborhood, 39th and Norton. … You couldn’t even call it a neighborhood, really. A couple of bungalows, the rest of it empty lots and a pile of weeds. There was a beat-up Hudson Terraplane with no axles sitting on one of the lots. No engine, either, and all the seat covers cut away. This woman who lived around there had been the first to see [her]. She had gone out to buy a bottle of milk and when she turned up Norton, she saw this pair of legs sticking out from under a bush. That’s all she saw, the legs.

—John Gregory Dunne, True Confessions

The body of Elizabeth Short was discovered by a twenty-three-year old housewife named Betty Bersinger at 10:45 A.M. on January 15, 1947, in a vacant lot on the 3800 block of South Norton Avenue, between West 39th Street and Coliseum Street in the 1.2-square-mile Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. As the crime-scene photographs reveal, in January 1947 Leimert Park was at once within the city and on its outskirts. Although the severed body in the foreground was the inevitable object of attention, the photographs taken that day offer as well a perspective on the peculiar geography of the body dump: the sprawling, wild landscape of Los Angeles in transition; a city, in the booming postwar years, composed of newly developed neighborhoods abutting empty spaces waiting, destined, to be filled.

Rapid growth fueled perpetual real-estate development in the city after the war. But as Los Angeles sprawled outward, it set the scene, so to speak, for the phenomenon evinced in the Dahlia crime-scene photographs, with developed projects abutting scrubland, lived spaces down the block or across the street from undeveloped land awaiting the bulldozer and building crew. “Los Angeles history has [always] been one of continuous real estate enterprise,” the urban historian David Brodsky writes, “with land speculation a driving force for its never-ending growth.”6 In his landmark book City of Quartz, Mike Davis similarly characterizes the city as a postwar real-estate boom town: “Los Angeles was first and foremost the creature of real-estate capitalism: the culminating speculation, in fact, of the generations of boosters and promoters who had subdivided and sold the West from the Cumberland Gap to the Pacific.”7

A quick look at the U.S. Census offers perspective. Between 1940 and 1960, the population in Los Angeles more than doubled, from 3.2 million to nearly 7.8 million. What to do with all these people—a separate (p.14)

The Real Estate of CrimeThe Black Dahlia Dumped by the Side of the Road

Figure 2. The Black Dahlia crime scene at West 39th Street and South Norton Avenue, January 15, 1947: the city and its outskirts.

(LAPD Archives)

problem from what all these people might do once they got to L.A.—was a question city planners never adequately answered. Looking back on the city’s urban growth in 1981, Brodsky concludes that modern Los Angeles developed “not according to any plan but rather at the subdivider’s discretion.”8

To be fair, there were city planners, even those working in and for the city in that era, who were concerned about unregulated development. For example, in 1942, in anticipation of the population boom after the war, the city-planning commissioner William H. Schuchardt voiced his frustration: “The present situation of the City of Los Angeles, from the standpoint of the city planner, may be couched in one word: Chaos.”9 It was into such a chaotic urban scheme that well over four million people arrived in the 1940s and 1950s—over four million people seeking a new start in a new American city that promised to accommodate their new American dreams. Elizabeth Short was one of the four million.

Short arrived in Los Angeles filled with aspiration and hope, seduced by a Hollywood narrative fixed in the glamorous studio era. What she didn’t know—what she and so many other Hollywood aspirants and wannabes like her could not possibly have known—was how quickly and systematically the movie business would be transformed and scaled down in the (p.15) years to come. The long shot of making it in the film industry got a whole lot longer at the very moment she packed her bags and moved west.

The studios produced more than 370 features in 1941, the last year before the United States’ entrance into World War II. Twenty years later, they produced fewer than 150. This decline in movie production traced a decline in box-office revenues and profits. In 1947, ninety million Americans went to the movies every week. A decade later, average weekly attendance fell to forty million. After sporting record profits of $120 million in the first full year after the war, studio profits fell steadily beginning the following year: to $87 million in 1947, $49 million in 1948, $34 million in 1949, and $31 million in 1950.10

The May 3, 1948, U.S. Supreme Court decision in U.S. v Paramount Pictures, the so-called Paramount Decision, added to the studios’ postwar problems. Writing for the majority, Justice William O. Douglas elaborated the Court’s view that the studios were indeed trusts and that the only available remedy was a forced divestiture of studio holdings in film exhibition.11 The decision rather successfully cut to the heart of the companies’ business plans.12 Forcing the studios to sell off their interests in movie theaters broke a vital link in the vertical integration that began with story ideas and development and ended on screen at movie houses owned and/or controlled in-house. The forced sell-off also significantly diminished studio access to short-term credit, which in turn forced a further cut in production. The Paramount Decision was a death sentence for the old Hollywood, but only lawyers and movie executives would have recognized it as such at the time.

The forced abandonment of the tradition-bound (studio) site of movie production accompanied a darker, wackier postwar Los Angeles, which was increasingly given over to the grim realities of urban sprawl (alienation, poverty) and, in our point of departure here, its most tragic expression in the Black Dahlia murder. L.A. after the war became home for myriad aimless fringe players; journey’s end for those who, like Short, had imagined a place that no longer existed.

In 1947 there were five competing daily newspapers in the city: the Los Angeles Times, the Herald-Express, the Daily News, the Mirror, and the Examiner. The Black Dahlia murder ran on at least one of these papers’ front pages for thirty-two days. The horrific nature of the crime was of course headline-worthy, but all five newspapers continued to follow the story closely because they recognized the larger significance of the crime: they recognized that, as the California historian Kevin Starr writes in retrospect: “The brief and unhappy life of Elizabeth (p.16) Short said something about Los Angeles itself: something about the anonymity, the desperation, the cruelty and brutality life could have in the City of Angels.”13 As L.A. became less and less a movie-company town, recent arrivals found themselves distracted by and attracted to a variety of assembling urban subcultures. For those disappointed and alienated, there was a veritable confluence of science-fiction prophets and quasi-spiritual profiteers hawking Dianetics, Devil Worship, Southern Baptism. A case in point: the advent of rocketry at Cal Tech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena introduced an aerospace industry to the California Southland. The industry’s founding father, Cal Tech’s ever-colorful John Whiteside Parsons, became the quintessential postwar Angeleno, a devotee of Aleister Crowley’s sex-magic cult Ordo Templi Orientis, a friend and confidant of Scientology-founder L. Ron Hubbard (who moved into Parsons’ Pasadena mansion in 1945). The evangelist Billy Graham pitched his 1949 tent show in downtown Los Angeles and proved a sensation, attracting an audience of the spiritually hungry that ranged from vagabonds to crime bosses to movie-industry celebrities. Attractive as well to many new arrivals was a burgeoning bar scene where movie stars, mobsters, con men, movie-industry wannabes, and, alas, sociopathic and psychotic transients commingled, more than occasionally with disappointing, even disastrous results. A whole lot of people descended upon Los Angeles after the war. And not everyone found or got what they were looking for.

The Examiner frequently touted its role in the investigation of the Black Dahlia murder.14 Taking such ownership required developing a story line about the victim. But this proved to be difficult, because she was such an elusive, such an unexceptional subject. “The fiend’s victim was Elizabeth Short, 22,” the paper reported on the 17th. But that’s about all they knew for sure … a name and the fact that she moved around a lot: “She was a Massachusetts girl once employed at Camp Cooke, near Lompoc.” “Once she lived in a hotel at 1611 North Orange Drive, Hollywood.”15 When reporters for the Examiner looked into Short’s brief residency in the Lompoc/Santa Barbara area, they skimmed over her arrest there as a juvenile (for “underage drinking”), focusing on any detail only as it contributed to the larger narrative of Short as a victim. To highlight her martyrdom (as some patron saint of the city’s disenfranchised and disillusioned), they conducted field interviews. But most of what they got was superficial: “five feet four inches tall,” “she weighed about 125 pounds,”16 “the blackest hair I ever saw.” There was talk of a husband (who, given what we know now, was likely imagined (p.17) by Short or deliberately fabricated) and, more tellingly (and for the narrative’s sake, more dramatically), there was mention of a ticket home to stay with her mother, in Medford, Massachusetts, after her arrest, not long before her murder.17

The letters home prompted a familiar tabloid melodrama depicting Short as any mother’s daughter alone and lost. Correspondence between Elizabeth Short and her mother. Phoebe. was in fact sporadic and painfully mundane: “Dear Mother, … I’m in San Diego now. I’m living with a girlfriend, Vera French, and I’m working in the Naval Hospital. I’m feeling fine.” When the Examiner reporters interviewed Phoebe, she introduced a second story line. She described her daughter as “movie-struck,” leaving high school after her junior year because “everyone used to tell her how beautiful she was.”18

How Short behaved when she got out West—what she did when the film career did not materialize—remains subject to debate. Was she “shy,” “neat,” “one of the few girls … who didn’t smoke [and only] occasionally [took] a drink,” as some acquaintances described her after her death?19 Or did she fulfill the “wild girl” tabloid narrative, one with which the reporters in 1947 had to be careful (even though they knew this story line was the more likely). “The girl’s hair was hennaed, but the original dark strands were beginning to regrow,” for example, was less a description than a subtle suggestion of a promiscuous young woman’s vanity and stylishness. And then there was the rose tattoo on her leg mentioned in some of the early articles. It was unusual for women to have tattoos in 1947, and in an Examiner interview with a Santa Barbara policewoman with whom Short lived briefly after her arrest, a simple observation proved plenty suggestive: “She loved to sit so that [the tattoo] would show.”20

The first coverage of the Black Dahlia murder in the Los Angeles Times appeared on January 16 under a page-2 headline: “Girl Victim of Sex Fiend Found Slain.” The article follows the traditional who-what-where-when-how structure, and as such offers unsensational reportage, especially given the content and context of the crime: “Police of the homicide squad described the victim as being about 5 foot, 3 inches tall, weighing about 118 pounds, having a turned-up nose, extremely high forehead, gray-green eyes, brown hair, which apparently had been tinted with henna, and ears with almost no lobes.” The Times’s reporters pondered from the very start the phenomenon of the body dump: “The sadistic killer apparently murdered and mutilated the girl elsewhere, then drove south on Norton Avenue to the deserted spot and slid hurriedly to a stop, as indicated by the marks in the gutter. Why he then (p.18)

The Real Estate of CrimeThe Black Dahlia Dumped by the Side of the Road

Figure 3. An LAPD medical examiner at the Black Dahlia crime scene.

(Reality and Fiction: The Story of the Black Dahlia, directed by Laurent Bouzereau: Universal Studios, 2006)

carried the two sections of the body across the sidewalk to dump them several feet west into the vacant lot puzzled investigators. There was little blood at the scene, and detectives guessed the girl probably was murdered several hours before the killer disposed of her body.”21

The Times struggled with Short’s biography. Eschewing competitors’ more tabloid style, the Times endeavored to depict her as a character in some Hollywood (movie) melodrama, somehow doomed by fate or bad luck. It quoted her former roommate Dorothy French: “When I read of the murder, I had a premonition it was Betty.” Apropos of the missed opportunity to return home (after the arrest in Santa Barbara) to the relative safety of Medford, Massachusetts, the Times cast Short as a character in some nineteenth-century novel who missed her one chance to escape her sorry fate.22

Much as the letters home (recounted in the Times as well) were mundane, they were also untrue. “She was working in Hollywood doing bit parts for the movies,” Phoebe recounted to the Times—this despite letters that placed her daughter in San Diego, where she worked at a military hospital. “She said she left Hollywood because of the movie strike, which made it difficult to get work as an extra.”23 There is little evidence that Short ever got much if any work at the studios. Records from Central Casting and the Screen Actors Guild give no indication that she ever appeared in or worked on a feature film.24

(p.19) However vague her Los Angeles biography may have been, crime-beat reporters certainly knew who to talk to; they knew how to find the sort of people who would have been likely to come into contact with Short during her brief adventure in the Southland. Foremost among those interviewed was Lynn Martin, introduced by the Times as Short’s “onetime roommate” at 1842 North Cherokee Avenue, Hollywood. Martin was a crucial witness. Just fifteen years old (though she appeared “to be in her mid-twenties”), living on her own, and “believed to be a singer with film ambitions” (as the Times described her, choosing the phrase “believed to be” carefully), Martin had a record of eight arrests as a juvenile. She made ends meet through prostitution and petty theft. The police inquiry into Martin’s whereabouts in January 1947 produced few specifics with regard to Short’s last days and nights on earth; Martin hadn’t seen Short since she moved out of the room they shared (with seven other young women, each paying one dollar per day) on Cherokee. But it did offer a glimpse into the lives of the many lost girls on the streets of Hollywood and Los Angeles. Indeed, while Martin was reputed to be “a singer,” who aspired to become an actress, she was for sure in the meantime sleeping around for fun and money. When the police interrogated Martin, tellingly “she described herself as an orphan.”25

When Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Herbert Grossman questioned Martin on January 28, he, and subsequently the readers of the Examiner, got a profoundly unpretty picture of the wannabe-starlet subculture. Martin was a serial runaway; her real name was Norma Lee Meyer, and although the press never reported exactly what had prompted her flight from her adoptive parents in Long Beach, it profiled a young woman who had since fleeing her home used sex to make ends meet. She had married a serviceman on one of her first sojourns to Los Angeles, at age thirteen, and had since divorced, or so she “believed.” As the Examiner reported, Martin put a “spotlight [on] the sordid lives of movie-struck girls—many of them minors—who haunt Hollywood Boulevard in hope of a film opportunity.” Well before she lived to see her twentieth birthday, Martin had given up dreaming about anything good coming of her stay in LA: “There are many like me,” Martin told the Examiner, young women earning “meager salaries [who are] forced to accept ‘pickups’” who will buy them dinner. When Martin boasted that “a girl can have ten pickups by walking two blocks,” she was at once affirming the exchange value of a young woman like herself (or like Short) on the streets and the relative insignificance, in the day-today lives of these young women, of celebrity—of aspirations of any (p.20) sort, for that matter.26 The implication throughout the Times’s and the Examiner‘s encounters with Martin was that she and Short were quite similar and that the horrifying murder was something that could have happened to Martin instead or as well, something that could have happened to any of the these many young women living in L.A. at the time.

The Times subsequently traced Short’s whereabouts from the house on Cherokee to a motel at 10822 Ventura Boulevard, yet another shared habitation, with a new group of young women. This Studio City address was set up much like the Hollywood pad Short had shared with Martin: a random group of young women amassing criminal records instead of acting credits, bar girls (a common euphemism for prostitutes at the time) living wanton, vampiric, futureless lives. Because these young women moved around so frequently, they seldom cultivated strong bonds of sisterhood. They worked with avowed disinterest at odd and unglamorous jobs (as phone operators, for example) and roamed the bar scene at night. Short had a “different boy friend every night.”27 They all did.

When the Times canvassed the downtown nightspots, bartenders consistently recognized Short from a family photograph. On the nights leading up to her murder, reporters were able to place Short at the Dugout, on 634 South Main Street, and at another café at 6818 Hollywood Boulevard, where Short was described as “a regular patron.” In a Teletype message assembled from bar and café interviews and circulated to police at the time, Short was described as “a girl who readily became friendly with both sexes.”28 Imprecise and suggestive as such a description may have been, when reprinted in the Times the murder scenario became less something done by one person to another and more some symbolic sort of retribution or consequence for women embarking upon a certain lifestyle; the body-dump killing was thus figured as an occupational risk for being friendly, naïve, independent, and free. Was her death, then, a consequence of an abandonment of propriety, of rejecting of the postwar suburban resettlement and the baby boom? The answer was there in the asking.

Key here is how we may contextualize not so much the crime that ended Short’s life but the ambitions and dreams that propelled her to Los Angeles in the first place. War’s end brought to a close two decades of economic sacrifice: the Great Depression followed by austerity and rationing during wartime. For women especially, the end of the war augured a return to more settled times, with the baby boom an at-once real and symbolic reaffirmation of traditional social and gender roles. (p.21)

The Real Estate of CrimeThe Black Dahlia Dumped by the Side of the Road

Figure 4. Elizabeth Short, AKA the Black Dahlia.

(Reality and Fiction: The Story of the Black Dahlia, directed by Laurent Bouzereau: Universal Studios, 2006)

The G.I. Bill subsidized higher education and home mortgages for returning male veterans—a social contract that made marriage all the more attractive and made family life—that is, the production and maintenance of families—nothing less than a patriotic service for women in the rebuilding process after such hard times.

Short’s venture to Hollywood may well have included dreams of marriage, motherhood, and homeownership; there is certainly evidence that she was a dreamer, that she dreamed of someday settling down. But Short wanted more, or at least she wanted something else first. She envied the lifestyles of movie stars like Lana Turner, a local girl discovered sipping a soda who became a movie star with seven husbands, hosts of lovers, lots of money, and the freedom to spend it on whatever she wanted whenever she wanted. Short’s murder, then, was in a terrible way the consequence of dreaming of something besides marriage and motherhood.

The Black Dahlia/party-girl narrative that emerged in the press had the unpleasant if not fully intended effect of blaming the victim. The papers accumulated plenty of information suggesting that Short was, in the parlance of the times, a “bad girl.” But what had made her that (p.22) way? The papers tried to find an answer. On the 17th, the Times recounted an interview with an airline pilot named Joseph Gordon Fickling, a World War II veteran to whom Short wrote less than a week before her death. Short had told girlfriends that she was engaged to Fickling, but he refuted the story, affirming only that he had “met her” in 1944 just before being shipped overseas. As the Times reported: “Fickling was wary of the girl’s feelings for him and uncertain that a romance might not be any more permanent than her interest in more than twenty other boy friends.” In a letter dated April 24, 1946, Fickling wondered why Short seemed to “want more than [a friendship],” when in a recent letter to him she mentioned “a ring from Matt [presumably Matt Gordon; see below].” Short’s former roommate, Dorothy French, noted that Fickling sent Short a money order for $100 in December 1946, just a month before the murder. Short was living at the time on no apparent income, “known [only] as a girl with a different boy every night.”29

In addition to her relationship with Fickling, there was a possibly more serious encounter with the aforementioned Matt M. Gordon, Jr., an airman who died in a plane crash in India in 1945. Gordon’s mother knew about Short and her relationship with her son. In fact, she sent a letter to Short informing her of Matt’s death. When the Times contacted Ms. Gordon after the murder, in January 1947, she told the reporters: “My heart goes out in sympathy to that girl and to her mother,” but she insisted that the two were, to her knowledge, never married.30

The Examiner acquired and reprinted Short’s letters to Gordon. They are heartbreaking. “My Sweetheart: I love you. I love you. I love you,” Short wrote to Gordon affirming their bond; “when two people are in love as we are. … I’m yours if you want me, Matt, and I’m praying that you won’t change your mind when you come home.”31 When, on January 25, 1947, Short’s purse was sent to the Examiner by an anonymous tipster calling himself The Black Dahlia Avenger, among its contents was a newspaper marriage announcement for Gordon and a woman whose name had been scratched out. According to one of Short’s acquaintances interviewed by the paper, Short showed the clipping around and said she scratched out the name because the paper had made an error when they identified the wife, implying that the name they printed was not, as she claimed it should have been, hers.32

If readers were looking for a quick psychology of Short, and many were, the lost-love scenario was overshadowed by another abandonment, one having to do with her father. Cleo Short was a nasty piece of (p.23) work. He walked out on Phoebe and Elizabeth, then just five years old, in 1930. He had little to do with his daughter or her mother after that. When the police and newspaper reporters caught up with Cleo after the murder, he was anxious to speak ill of the dead. He told the Times that his daughter had visited him recently; she had somehow tracked him down in Vallejo, California, about four hundred miles north of Los Angeles. She had borrowed two hundred dollars, and then he kicked her out: “[She] spent all of her time running around when she was supposed to be keeping house for me. … I made her leave. … I didn’t want anything to do with her or any of the rest of the family.”33 In January 1947, Cleo was living in an apartment on South Kingsley Drive, near the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Normandie Avenue. Though he was by then living in Los Angeles, Cleo declined to attend the coroner’s inquest. After all, he was never going to get his $200 back.

The Black Dahlia murder prompted an often-confusing right-wing retrenchment at once glamorizing the Hollywood dream of success and celebrity and damning women in their pursuit of it. The women, including Short, were not always or not necessarily to blame in this scenario; indeed, some socially conservative writers and politicians blamed the city—more precisely, what the city had become. A little over a month after Short’s murder, the Examiner published a piece on Agnes Albro (identified as Mrs. Curtis Albro), the president of the YWCA metro board and the only woman on the city’s police commission. Albro proposed increased city regulation on taverns to better protect the many vulnerable young women who frequented these tawdry nightspots. Despite the Examiner‘s predictable tabloid hyperbole, Albro’s account of the situation for these young women was in fact reasonably astute, especially regarding the impossibly dispersed landscape of L.A.: “The girls are lonely,” Albro told the Examiner. “They come from small towns where they are under Main Street control. They are transplanted here with not too much judgment, and they don’t know what they’re getting into. They come here to get a job. What do they do meanwhile? They drop into these places, and they’re in trouble. Unwholesome taverns are hangouts for all sorts of characters, and they lure boys as well as girls.”34 The absence of Main Street control is worth pondering here as we reflect upon the decentered logistics of postwar Los Angeles, the ease with which one might suddenly cross from city into outskirts, from safe neighborhood to bad.

In The Badge: True and Terrifying Stories That Could Not Be Presented on TV, the Dragnet television showrunner Jack Webb, a staunch (p.24) political conservative, was decidedly less generous than Albro when he offered his version of the Black Dahlia story: Short “was a lazy girl and irresponsible, and when she chose to work, she drifted aimlessly from one job to another. … The wrong way of life led to her death.”35 Morality in the movie colony has always been a relative thing: at once elusive, complicated, and not for everyone. Promiscuity was not necessarily encouraged, but it was expected. Many of those, like Short, who aspired to celebrity, embraced—were compelled to embrace—such latitude in their social and sexual relations well before their status in Hollywood permitted it. As unsympathetic as Webb was about the victim in the case, he was right about the risks routinely taken by the many women drifting into the L.A. bar scene.

The LAPD knew that Short may well have been the victim of a bad bar hookup. That was the most likely scenario. And if that was indeed how things played out on that awful night in January 1947, they knew as well that they would never find her killer. The men Short met on the bar scene were a lot like her: transient, promiscuous, damaged, and disappointed. And like her they experienced in some very personal way the rupture between the Los Angeles of their dreams and the bleak reality that they found there instead. Many of these men lived anonymously, adopting aliases as they moved from one temporary living arrangement to another. These men were fundamentally insignificant, and they rather easily evaded notice in their everyday lives. If one of these men killed Short, evading police detection would have been easy; indeed, it was to them second nature.

Who Killed the Black Dahlia?

The murderer was manifesting a sadistic component of a sado-masochistic complex. He evidently was following the law of analytic retaliation, “What was done to me, I will do to you.” These types of killers are usually highly perverted and resort to various forms of perversion and means of torture to satisfy their lusts. … These sadists have a superabundance of curiosity and are liable to spend much time with their victims after the spark of life has flickered or died.

—Dr. Paul De River, LAPD Consulting Psychiatrist, January 17, 1947

When the police canvassed the neighborhood where Short’s body was discovered, they asked two questions: “Do you know anyone in the neighborhood who is mentally unbalanced?” and “Do you know any (p.25)

The Real Estate of CrimeThe Black Dahlia Dumped by the Side of the Road

Figure 5. The search for Short’s killer was front-page news for weeks.

(Reality and Fiction: The Story of the Black Dahlia, directed by Laurent Bouzereau: Universal Studios, 2006)

medical students?”36 Asking the two questions one after the other implied a connection that proved hard to satisfy. Indeed, the first good suspect was neither a mental patient nor a medical student: Red Manley was a traveling salesman who had met Short in San Diego and dallied with her there and in Los Angeles over a few days and nights just before her murder.

Manley went from likely suspect to hapless victim in short order. By January 21, his story would be the stuff of another sort of cautionary melodrama: “Knowing Betty Short has taught me to walk the straight and narrow,” Manley told a reporter from the Examiner once the police realized that he did not commit the crime. “No more trouble for me, if I can help it.”37 In December 1946, Manley figured he’d give infidelity a shot. He explained the dalliance with a comical rationalization: “I decided to pick up Miss Short and make a test for myself to see if I still loved my wife.” A month later he got found out in a manner so public that it was hard to doubt his sincerity when he disappeared from the pages of the Examiner with the exit line “And that’s absolutely the last time I’ll ever try to cheat on my wife.”38

Manley met Short just before Christmas 1946. As recounted by the former homicide detective Steve Hodel in his book The Black Dahlia Avenger: “After hitting all of [his] sales spots,” on or around December 15, 1946, Manley spied Short standing on a street corner in San Diego (p.26) and, as he told the police, “tried to pick her up.” Short got into his car behaving as if that was why she was standing on the corner in the first place. He drove her to Dorothy’s mother Elvera (Vera) French’s rooming house, where Short was staying, in nearby Pacific Beach. Manley and Short then lied to French about their relationship; they said they were co-workers. Manley left Short at French’s to find a hotel room “to clean up,” then returned, and the two went on a date, spending time at the Hacienda Club, where they had a few drinks, and then at a drive-in for a midnight snack. Manley drove Short back to French’s, where they briefly kissed. That was their first date.

Manley returned to San Diego on January 8th. He looked for Short on the corner where they first met. Failing to find her there, he swung by the rooming house, where the two hooked up again. They drove to a hotel, where (Manley maintained) they “didn’t make love in [his] room.” After spending more time together, Manley volunteered to drive Short, who left French’s house with all her belongings, to a bus headed for L.A., then changed his mind and offered to drive her all the way. They made the trip together, and after ditching her belongings at a locker at the downtown Greyhound station, they ventured to the Biltmore Hotel. Short told Manley that she was planning to meet her sister, but he quickly became convinced otherwise. Figuring his opportunity with Short had come and gone, Manley left the hotel alone. That was January 9th, one of the last confirmed sightings of Short while she was still alive. Manley returned home after doing some business in Los Angeles and (so he told the police, at least) did not give Short another thought until he read about her murder in a newspaper while on business in San Francisco.39

Manley had opportunity but no motive. And when he was hauled in for questioning, he produced an alibi and passed a lie-detector test. The Times reported that he fell asleep during the examination.40 After Manley was cleared of the crime, his life fell apart. In August 1954, he was committed (by his wife, Harriet) to the Patton State Hospital, a forensic mental institution in San Bernardino, California. While under psychiatric treatment, he underwent a “truth-serum examination” during which he was asked again about Short. The results were conclusive and “entirely negative”; no new facts were elicited about Manley’s brief encounter with her.41

On January 25th the Examiner’s editorial office received a package containing Short’s purse, in which they found her address book, birth certificate, and Social Security card, along with a note with cut-and-pasted (p.27) letters spelling out “Here! Is Dahlia’s Belongings Letter to Follow.” The newspaper ran a photograph of the note on the front page under the headline “Dahlia Killer Mails Contents of Missing Purse to Examiner!42

What interested the police most was the address book, which they cross-checked against Lynn Martin’s testimony. Interviews followed, tracking a range of Hollywood denizens in the movie industry and crime business with whom the two women consorted. On January 29th, the Times reported on its investigation of the address book, highlighting one lead in particular: that Short and Martin had both been involved in “a widespread Hollywood lewd-photograph ring,” a “garish new angle—which … led investigators through all the muck of the underworld.” Martin confirmed the lewd-pictures story, and following her lead, police interrogated a photographer named George Price, who Martin claimed coerced her into immoral acts and then photographed her in the nude. Price was briefly a suspect after a witness came forward saying that they saw Short in Price’s car on Hollywood Boulevard, where Price trawled for young girls whom he paid to appear in his work. The photographer denied knowing Short and was eventually dismissed as a suspect.43

Just as Price was released, a second cut-and-pasted note from The Black Dahlia Avenger arrived at police headquarters. It read: “Have changed my mind. You would not give me a square deal. Dahlia killing was justified.”44 That was the last anyone would hear from The Avenger. A veritable procession of the homeless, witless, and utterly crazy followed—sex offenders, transients, and lunatics, some of them confessing Sams, others suspects in disgusting and antisocial crimes interrogated only to be released hours or days later. Looking back on this procession today we come no closer to solving the crime, but we learn a lot about the place these men inhabited; we can assemble a collection of character sketches of the Southland’s lowlife subculture—an alternative history of some alternative Hollywood.

The first potentially believable confessing Sam, Daniel Voorhees, arrived at police headquarters on the same day as the second note from The Avenger. During an interview with LAPD Consulting Psychiatrist Dr. Paul De River, Voorhess claimed that he “couldn’t stand [keeping such a dark secret] any longer.” The police knew that Voorhees was not The Avenger; his fingerprints did not match those taken from the first envelope. But a preliminary investigation revealed that Voorhees had registered at a downtown hotel on the day Short’s body was discovered (p.28) and that he had checked out the following morning and hadn’t been seen for thirteen days after that. In most any other American city the police would have assumed Voorhees had for those two weeks gone underground, on the lam; but transients in Los Angeles disappeared and then turned up again all the time. Indeed, the whereabouts of the thousands of vagrants in the city were impossible for police to track. Voorhees did not kill Short; soon after confessing to the murder he disappeared back into the chaos of postwar Los Angeles.

On February 7th, George D. Kidd, a thirty-five-year-old sailor, was arrested after showing nude pictures to a high-school girl. Pretty much anyone picked up on a sex beef got connected to the murder; the dailies needed leads, and the police needed to look like they were doing something. There was nothing to connect Kidd to the crime, and the press quickly moved on. Also on the 8th, the dailies reported on a Fort Dix, New Jersey, MP arrested for theft named Joseph Dumais, who kept a scrapbook with newspaper clippings about the Black Dahlia murder.45 The Herald-Express proclaimed that Dumais “is the Black Dahlia Killer.”46 The Los Angeles Daily News went with a twenty-word headline: “Blackout Murder of Beth Short Confessed: Soldier Admits Crime But Holds Back Horror Details; Corporal Dumais Signs 50-Page Confession.”47 For a couple of days after that, the readers of pretty much any tabloid in the Southland had reason to believe that the police had finally got their man. But on February 10th Dumais was summarily released, and the LAPD issued a press release saying that, according to several eyewitnesses, Dumais was in New Jersey on January 15th. He was, despite all the tabloid excitement, never a plausible suspect.48

Among the zanier plotlines, a thirdhand clue—an informant recalling a conversation with a service-station attendant leaked to the press on February8th—pointed to another new suspect, an “Amazon-sized woman … about 6 feet tall and weighing close to 200 pounds.”49 The story proved at once entertaining and unlikely. Nine days later, Navy Chief Pharmacist’s Mate John N. Andry was arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct in Long Beach and confessed to killing Short. After being transferred to Los Angeles, Andry denied any knowledge of the crime. Asked why he confessed, he replied in a matter-of-fact way: “Because I was drunk.”50

Over a month later, tucked in a shoe amid a pile of clothing found on Venice Beach, police found a confession that doubled as a suicide note: “I have waited for the police to capture me for the Black Dahlia killing, but have not. I am too much of a coward to turn myself in, so this is the (p.29) best way out for me.” The note was not signed, and the clothing gave no clue to its owner. No body was ever found.51

For the March 19th edition of the Times, Los Angeles Police Captain Jack Donahoe recounted an interrogation with a drug-addled car thief named Melvin Bailey, who after his arrest in St. Louis confessed to the Short murder: “Let’s forget about cars. I’ve got something hot. Let me tell you about a murder.” Bailey, who was “hazy about the time and date,” claiming that he was at the time high on coffee and Benzedrine, recounted a story of a wild night with Short, whom he claimed to have met in a bar around Christmastime 1946. When she refused to accompany him on an East Coast trip, Bailey claimed he killed her with the butt end of a marine combat knife and then mutilated her corpse in a stolen car that he planned to drive cross-country. After committing the murder, Bailey stated, he drove the stolen car to a friend’s house in Long Beach, where he disposed of his bloody clothing and borrowed a clean suit for the drive east. Questioned in Los Angeles, William Hughes, Bailey’s Long Beach friend, testified that he hadn’t seen Bailey since well before Christmas; he never found any bloody clothing at his house, and none of his suits was missing. Further investigation revealed that Bailey had traveled to St. Louis via San Francisco by bus, not by stolen car.52

On January 28, 1948, a full year after the murder, the Times ran a page-2 story on an alcoholic transient named Charles Lynch who had accosted two women in a neighborhood bar, threatening them with the same fate as the Black Dahlia. Lynch confessed over the telephone: “I’m tired of fooling around. I killed Betty Short. Come on down and pick me up—and you’d better hurry, because there’s a waitress I’m going to kill too.” Lynch had a rap sheet: a recent arrest for “statutory attack” in Arizona, two for “resorting” (engaging with prostitutes), and an arrest for public drunkenness in Los Angeles ten days after the Dahlia murder.53 But when Lynch sobered up the following day—before making the confession he had eaten the full contents of a Benzedrine inhaler—he recanted.54

The next suspect—the next lowlife in this series of character sketches—was a man whom the Times described as a “confessed hypnotizer of teen-age girls,” Donald E. Hitchcock, who was arrested on a morals charge involving two underage women in February 1948 in Martinez, California. In custody, Hitchcock confessed to hypnotizing the two sixteen-year-old girls from Richmond, California, and having “improper relations” with one of them. What made Hitchcock particularly intriguing were an earlier arrest and conviction for manslaughter (p.30) involving an illegal (surgical) operation—most likely, a botched abortion—that led to the death of a sixteen-year-old girl and a recent stint at mortuary school, where he learned how to dissect bodies.55 Promising as such circumstantial evidence may have been, and creepy as he certainly was, Hitchcock was not the Black Dahlia killer.

Nearly two years after the murder, the Times ran with another stranger-than-fiction Southland story starring Leslie Dillon, AKA Jack Sands, “a former hotel clerk and bellhop with an admitted intense interest in sadism and sexual psychopathia.” The pressure to close the case persisted, so much so that the Los Angeles Chief of Police, C. B. Horrall, somehow kept a straight face when he dubbed this newest transient and Benzedrine addict “the best suspect yet.” Dillon had contacted Dr. De River claiming to know a man named Jeff Conners, who seemed to know a lot about the Black Dahlia murder. Dr. De River encouraged Dillon to arrange a meeting with Conners, because he suspected that Conners was a figment of Dillon’s imagination and that such a proposition might reveal that fact. On De River ‘s authority Dillon was detained—this despite evidence that Dillon had been in San Francisco in January 1947.

Much to the LAPD’s embarrassment, it turned out that Conners did exist; his real name was Artie Lane, and in 1947 he had lived in Los Angeles and was employed at Columbia Pictures, where Short had aspired to work. (When she could get on the lot, Short lingered at the commissary.) Conners’s use of a pseudonym, a potentially incriminating fact, had nothing to do with evading identification and detection. Indeed, AKA’s were commonplace in Hollywood, especially for screenwriters doing genre or B-movie work. When the police interviewed Conners, he admitted knowing Dillon. But he denied ever telling Dillon about the Short murder.

Dillon later filed suit against the city and the LAPD for unlawful detention, which created a brief and minor scandal. He had a good case; he was detained even though the police knew he could not have committed the crime. The police booked Conners though they knew he didn’t kill anybody. Dillon’s lawsuit was eventually set aside when he failed to appear in court. The LAPD had by then assembled a dubious embezzlement case against Dillon dating back to his stint as a hotel clerk.56

When reporters for the Times tracked down Conners’s “attractive blond ex-wife, Miss Grace Allen,” a somewhat sweeter version of the transient-character sketch emerged. She described her ex as “a screwball,” a daydreamer “à la Walter Mitty.” The comparison proved apt; Conners had claimed (falsely) to police that he was once married to a (p.31) dancer named Vicki Evans, who had made news a year earlier when police raided a Laurel Canyon marijuana party that culminated in the arrest of the actor Robert Mitchum. The reporters couldn’t miss the fact that Allen and Evans looked a lot alike; Conners, ever the dreamer, had apparently imagined, maybe even convinced himself, that he was actually married at one time to Evans as well as or instead of Allen.57

In November 1950, nearly four years after the murder, a thirty-five-year-old man named Max Handler, AKA Matt Handler, AKA Mack Chandler, called police from a rooming house in Hollywood: “I’m cracking up. I’ve got to confess.”58 During questioning Handler offered few details about the crime, saying only that he had “met [Short] in a Hollywood bar, danced four hours with her, then realized the following day that he had killed her.”59 What distinguished Handler from the dozens of other false confessors was a remarkable coincidence. In the fall of 1947, Handler was a part-time screen actor—“part-time” being the operative term, since no screen credits can be confirmed. His day job at the time was as a real-estate agent. Among the contents of Short’s purse ferried to police by The Avenger was a business card from the real-estate agency that employed Chandler at the time. A police spokesman kept a straight face when he told the press that among hundreds of Dahlia sightings at various bars in Hollywood and downtown, four included a description of a man fitting Handler’s basic look and type. But then again, among the sightings were descriptions of men fitting nearly any and every type.

By the early 1950s, the LAPD investigation into Short’s murder involved hundreds of leads about dozens of men, all of whom seemed for a while at least possible or even likely suspects. But none of them killed Short. The investigation nonetheless revealed, especially as the newspapers offered their readers a glimpse into these men’s lives, a vivid picture of the real Los Angeles into which Short arrived after the war. These were the sorts of men she met in her search for a Hollywood that was transitioning, shrinking, disappearing.

What these men wanted from her and what she was inclined to give remains the key to her brief L.A. life. The better to understand that exchange, permit one final character sketch of one final damaged resident of Los Angeles County who did not kill Elizabeth Short but did in 1957 and 1958 kill at least three other women, disposing of their bodies by the side of the road in the vast, empty desert due east (and a fast and easy drive) from downtown L.A. Harvey Glatman, whom the press dubbed “the glamor-girl slayer” and “the lonely-hearts killer,” was (p.32) arrested on October 27, 1958, struggling with a pinup model named Lorraine Vigil on the shoulder of the Santa Ana Freeway near Anaheim. The arresting officers found in his possession lurid photographs depicting women bound and gagged. Among the photographs were gruesomely posed images of two women he had raped and killed: the pinup model Judy Ann Dull, whom Glatman had hired under an AKA, and Shirley Ann Bridgeford, whom he, again using an alias, met through a lonely-hearts ad in a newspaper.

After Glatman’s arrest, Sergeant Jack Lawton, working homicide for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, took a long look at Glatman’s photo collection and made the connection to another unsolved body-dump homicide, the murder of (the novelist James Ellroy’s mother) Geneva (Jean) Hilliker Ellroy, who was discovered in late June 1958 strangled and posed in a playground beside a baseball field in El Monte, California, a small San Gabriel Valley suburb in Los Angeles County roughly twenty miles due east of downtown L.A. Ellroy’s true crime novel The Black Dahlia is dedicated to his mother’s memory, and his fascination with Short’s murder is complexly tied to what happened to his mother.60

The murders of Dull and Bridgeford to which Glatman confessed were crimes not of passion but of calculation, Ellroy writes in his memoir My Dark Places, opportunistic crimes in that they exploited the county’s peculiar geography, in that they exploited the victims’ unwavering belief in the mythology of Hollywood discovery however sullied or distorted such dreams had become amid the pornography of postwar Los Angeles. Two of Glatman’s victims—Dull and Angela Rojas, AKA Ruth Rita Mercado—were lured into his company by the promise of a pulp-magazine, True Detective–style, soft-porn photo shoot—the sort of thing that these two women had posed for before. At a certain point the session got strange, and then … with Glatman taking pictures of the entire process from the con to the murder. Examining Glatman’s demented photographs of Dull, Ellroy ponders the murders of Short and his mother, remarking upon the young victim’s seeming confidence: “Maybe she thought compliance equaled poise. Maybe she possessed a skewed pinup-girl bravado: All men are weak and easily moved with the right combination of flattery and pussy.”61 Dull believed in the dream even after it was clear that it was too late. It’s possible Short did too.

If Los Angeles had become what one local tabloid would describe as “the port of missing women”62 (more on that later), it was as much a matter of geography as of psychology. It was a place that made possible (p.33)

The Real Estate of CrimeThe Black Dahlia Dumped by the Side of the Road

Figure 6. Brian De Palma’s spot-on recreation of the crime scene in his 2006 adaptation of James Ellroy’s true-crime novel, The Black Dahlia.

(Universal Pictures)

the very sorts of crimes that its creepier denizens seemed apt to fantasize. In 1947 L.A. was a place without defined neighborhoods, many if not most of them occupied by transients who never stayed in one place long enough to feel or act like neighbors, who never stayed in one place long enough to feel or act as if they had neighbors. It was a place for which the outskirts—an empty lot (The Dahlia), or a playground (the El Monte/Jean Ellroy body-dump site), or the desert (where Glatman disposed of Dull and Bridgeford)—was always just a short car ride away.

The Surrealists

If the crowd really knew who we were and what we represented, we’d probably be lynched.

—Man Ray, surrealist photographer, 1963

There is today no shortage of published and posted work persisting in the attempt to solve the Black Dahlia murder; some of it is purely crackpot, some of it is plausible, and, for my purposes here, some of it is telling about the various subcultures occupying postwar L.A. The most remarkable of the ongoing investigations, I believe, are the memoirs and Internet postings authored by the retired homicide detective Steve Hodel alleging that his father, Dr. George Hodel, killed Elizabeth Short.63

The circumstantial case mounted by the former policeman is compelling. In the 1940s, Dr. Hodel specialized in the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases. The clientele at his clinic included a number of sexually active women who, like Short, frequented downtown bars and in the course of trading sex for food and money came to need a doctor (p.34) with his expertise. There were rumors of abortions performed at his clinic as well.

Dr. Hodel had a couple of run-ins with law enforcement that further support his son’s allegations. In 1945, Dr. Hodel was the prime suspect in the drug-overdose death of his secretary, Ruth Spaulding, who police believed was blackmailing her boss over some fraudulent insurance claims. Four years later Dr. Hodel was accused of incest with his daughter Tamar, then fourteen years old. Though not convicted of that crime, in February and March 1950 Tamar’s allegations prompted the police to put the doctor under surveillance in connection with the Short murder. But that investigation was eventually scrapped.

Steve Hodel’s case hinges on a photograph found among his late father’s possessions. The picture bears a certain resemblance to Short. Steve Hodel compares the picture first to the much-reproduced booking photograph of Elizabeth Short taken in 1943, when she was nineteen, and then again next to an airbrushed crime-scene photograph of Short in 1947.64 The resemblance is subtle and debatable. There’s also a reasonable (and, I’d argue, better) resemblance to George’s second wife, Dorothy, whom the doctor photographed frequently. Steve Hodel notes that the pose of the face in a portrait (tilted down and to the left, eyes closed) taken by the doctor and the position of the head (tilted down and to the left, eyes closed) in the crime-scene picture (ostensibly posed by the murderer) eerily match up.65

Even if the woman in the photograph in question is not Short, Steve Hodel’s true-crime narrative compels us to ponder a possible connection to another fringe subculture taking up residence in Los Angeles at time: the Surrealists. As Steve Hodel points out, his father and Man Ray were social friends. Ray took some gorgeous, flattering photographs of Dorothy, including a 1944 picture of her seated alongside Ray’s muse at the time, Juliet Browner.66

In their provocative book Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder, Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss ask readers to consider Ray’s 1945 photograph of Browner, taken at the artist’s Vine Street studio in Los Angeles.67 The pose of Browner’s arms (up above her head) does indeed foreshadow or resemble (or both) the positioning of the arms of the Black Dahlia corpse two years later. Nelson and Bayliss draw as well a parallel between selected artwork produced from the “exquisite corpse” parlor game in which the artists reassembled and reconfigured cut-up images of naked women (Dali’s 1944 oil-on-canvas Art of Radio and Rene Magritte’s 1930 oil-on-canvas The Eternally (p.35)

The Real Estate of CrimeThe Black Dahlia Dumped by the Side of the Road

Figure 7. Man Ray’s 1945 photograph Juliet, 1245 Vine Street, Hollywood. The model’s pose, especially the arrangement of the arms above the head, eerily foreshadowed the pose of the bisected corpse of Elizabeth Short two years later. (See Figure 3.) The painting on the wall above the couch is Ray’s oil-on-canvas Le Beau Temps, which, consistent with the exquisite-corpse theme, features the bisected figure of a woman.

(© Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris 2016)

Obvious, for example) and the stylized bisection and mutilation of Short’s corpse. They further note how Max Ernst’s 1921 mixed-media collage Anatomy as a Bride foreshadows the “mutilations” revealed in the Short autopsy photographs and how Dali’s 1936 magazine cover for the Surrealist magazine Minotaure, like Ray’s photo of Browner in Hollywood nearly a decade later, matches the pose of the victim’s arms in the crime-scene pictures.68 The images are indeed macabre, and there are distinct visual correspondences between the stylized depiction of the female body in these Surrealist artworks and the crime signature of the Black Dahlia killer: the horrible mutilations of the corpse, the carefully posed and sectioned body left by the side of the road.

A cursory look at the Surrealist subculture that assembled around Ray in L.A. in the mid- to late 1940s reveals a curious set of bedfellows: Dr. Hodel, the A-list actor and director John Huston (to whom Dorothy was married from 1926 to 1933: that is, before she married Hodel), and (p.36) the novelist Henry Miller, all of whom socialized with one another, all of whom shared an interest in Surrealist art and the philosophies of the movement. The L.A. art scene at the time had among its prominent collectors wealthy patrons like Louise and Walter Arensberg and William Copley; the married artists Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning (who frequented L.A. from their home in Arizona), and the Hollywood celebrities Vincent Price, Edward G. Robinson, and Fanny Brice, all of whom collected work by Surrealists.

As André Breton contended, Surrealist art was built upon amoral provocation, “exempt of any aesthetic or moral concern.”69 The uncomfortable mix of images of live women and mannequins, the motifs of sectioned or disassembled women (images of mutilation and amputation abound), the contemptuous dehumanization of otherwise-attractive figure models (bound and gagged, posed in scenes that juxtaposed the human and the manufactured or mechanical), the casual violence (Dalí and Buñuel’s simulated severing of a woman’s eyeball in Un Chien Andalou, released in 1929, seems only the most awful and familiar) likely did not provoke the hideous crime in question. But a close look at Nelson and Bayliss’s book suggests that the artwork may well have influenced its style, its expression.

When the police first canvassed the Leimart Park neighborhood they were looking for someone crazy with surgical skill. Dr. George Hodel fits both counts. So did another doctor in downtown L.A.: Leslie C. Audrain, an abortionist who worked for the notorious Hollywood Madam Brenda Allen. Audrain is implicated in the true-crime study The Black Dahlia Files: The Mob, the Mogul, and the Murder That Transfixed Hollywood, written by the journalist Donald H. Wolfe, whose theory of the crime focuses on the so-called McCadden Gang, an outfit run by a mobster named Albert Louis Greenberg, who worked for Benjamin (“Bugsy”) Siegel. It was Siegel, according to Wolfe, who killed Short, and his cohorts, Maurice Clement (a procurer for Allen) and Audrain disposed of the body. According to Wolfe, Audrain performed the postmortem mutilations as a cover-up for the true (sudden, impulsive) nature of the crime.

Wolfe’s circumstantial case is built upon a reasonable assumption: that, given the sort of life Short lived—the sorts of places she frequented, the people she met, and the men she “dated”—she may well have found herself in the company of gangsters, and she may well have one day required the services of a woman like Brenda Allen or a doctor like Audrain (or both; or, for that matter, Hodel). When we map out Wolfe’s true-crime story, we find a handful of geographic coincidences that at the very least (p.37) reveal the fluid and overlapping movements of L.A. subcultures as different and distinct as those into which Short, Allen, and Siegel moved: the Ambassador Hotel (frequented by Siegel), Audrain’s office (where he performed abortions for prostitutes and barflies), and Allen’s headquarters (from which she managed a prostitution ring) were merely a few blocks away from one another, clustered together in a fairly busy downtown neighborhood that also included the Biltmore Hotel, where Short was last seen alive. Short’s partly incinerated shoes were, according to Wolfe, found in a dumpster outside a café encircled by these first three sites. Leimert Park, where her body was dumped, was a short distance from the home of Siegel’s rival Jack Dragna (leading Wolfe to allege a plan on Siegel’s part to pin the murder on Dragna).70 The densely populated downtown frequented by celebrity gangsters and their henchmen, along with a plethora of Hollywood fringe-dwellers, wannabe celebrities, and aimless vagrants abutted an undeveloped, sparsely populated outskirts. The Black Dahlia body-dump site suited the peculiar urban geography of downtown L.A. at the time. It also, per Wolfe, was altogether consistent with a Mob hit.

Jeanne Axford French, The Flying Nurse

She made friends easy, awful easy. She went out alone sometimes. She’s gone now, and I’m sure she would want me to say the right thing. [But] she made a lot of her own trouble.

—David Y. Wrather, on hearing of the murder of his mother, Jeanne Axford French

Less than a month after the Black Dahlia killing, the press reported on a second body-dump murder discovered by a bulldozer driver en route to the site of yet another new housing development. The crime scene was staged, eerily resembling what had awaited the police at 39th and Norton a few weeks earlier. Jeanne Axford French, aged forty-five, was found kicked to death … killed, transported, and left naked by the side of the road at the corner of Indianapolis Street and Grand View Avenue, near what is now the Venice Reservoir site and the North Venice Little League field. This now-busy corner was at the time vacant; as the Examiner reported, “not a single house or other building is near the spot.”71 Later reports identified the location as a notorious and “lonely lovers’ lane,” known to local residents as The Moors.72

The ever-colorful Hearst reporters at the Examiner dubbed French “Hollywood’s flying nurse.” The moniker was clever and not inaccurate. French had indeed worked as a nurse during the war. And, as the Examiner reported, she had been, in better times, an “aviatrix [and] (p.38) pioneer airline hostess.” To the capsule bio published on February 11th, the paper added that French had also been an “actress known to motion pictures as Jeanne Axford Thomas,” though, as with Short, the job description is generous, and no screen credits can be confirmed.73

The connections between French and Short were then as now well worth highlighting, especially given the circumstances of their deaths. The Examiner elaborated that connection in its coverage of the murder, introducing the story with a terse headline that recalled its initial coverage of Short’s murder.74 The Herald-Express ran with the tabloid headline “Werewolf Strikes Again,”75 which assumed that the police assigned to the French and Short cases were looking for the same killer.

On February 13th, the Examiner described the crime scene in lurid detail: “Stockings and underclothing were missing. Mrs. French’s powder-blue coat with red-fox fur cuffs and her burgundy- hued dress lay over the body. … A flesh-colored brassiere was beside her, and her brown leather shoes lay deeper in the field.” Particularly noteworthy was a message scrawled in lipstick on the victim’s midsection: “A taunting obscene phrase and the letters BD,” the killer’s signature, which the reporters logically concluded was “intended to suggest the ‘Black Dahlia.’”76 Convenient as such an observation seemed at the time, just as likely—and this is something contemporary true-crime aficionados on the Web point out—the message first read as “Fuck you, BD” was instead “Fuck you, PD [police department].” A second oval that turns the P into a B was, or so these Web detectives argue, the killer’s boot mark. Whatever the precise message may have been, the scrawl led the press to dub the assailant “the red-lipstick killer”77 and this second posed corpse dumped by the side of the road “a sign of the times.” The colorful naming of the killers and their victims—the red-lipstick killer, the flying nurse, the Black Dahlia—conferred celebrity upon folks famous only for being victimizers or victims, otherwise-inconsequential nobodies in a city that was otherwise home to such “real” celebrities as movie stars and gangsters.

The police launched their investigation into the murder with a really good suspect in mind: Jeanne French’s recently estranged husband, Frank. The couple had split on February 2nd, eight days before the murder, following his arrest for spousal battery—charges that Jeanne later dropped. Frank subsequently moved to a rented room in Santa Monica, a location from which he called Jeanne at 7:00 P.M. on the night of her murder. She was out, and so Frank left a message with another boarder in the rooming house saying that he wanted to meet and speak with his wife “if she [hadn’t] been drinking … she [knew] where.”

(p.39) Picked up and booked, Frank announced, “Before God, I did not harm my wife yesterday—before your God and mine.”78 The added qualification, “yesterday,” was at once incriminating and honest; he and Jeanne had been fighting a lot. The remark “before your God and mine” struck the police and the reporters covering the case as somewhat baffling.

On February 11th, the Times led with the headline “Another Woman Slain, Victim of a Mutilation Killer.” The Times reporters drew the inevitable connection between the two body-dump killings and pondered Frank French as a possible serial killer. But on the 12th, the Times ran a photograph of Frank French hooked up to a polygraph accompanying a page-2 article under a headline no one in L.A. except Frank French wanted to read: “Lie Test Fails to Link Husband in Nurse Killing.” Captain Donahoe, who was still assigned to the Dahlia case, supervised the interrogation. He told the Times that after two hours of “grilling” and after consulting with the experts administering the polygraph test, he had not acquired “any information that would link [Frank] French with the killing.”79 Within twenty-four hours, the police had the polygraph results, an alibi (the landlady at the rooming house into which Frank had only recently moved vouched for him), the fact that the boot marks on Jeanne French’s body did not match Frank’s shoes or his shoe size, and a handful of character references: Frank was a World War II veteran, a recently retired career soldier with a twenty-eight-year stint in the Marines; even his stepson, David Wrather, Jeanne’s boy by another father, believed in his innocence.80 Frank French did not kill his wife. Admitting that, the cops had no reason to suspect that he had anything to do with the murder of Elizabeth Short.

After they released Frank French, the detectives began to reconstruct the hours leading up to his wife’s death. And though Jeanne French was twice as old as Elizabeth Short and at a different stage in her Hollywood adventure, the investigation led them inexorably and inevitably to the same sleazy bar culture that sprawled from the Pacific Ocean beachfront east to El Monte, north to the San Fernando Valley, and south to Long Beach.

At 9:30 P.M. on the night of her death, Jeanne French had a cup of coffee at a drive-in on Santa Monica Boulevard. She moved on to a bar on Venice Boulevard, where she told the barman that her husband “liked dark things” and that he routinely beat her. After telling the bartender that she was “committing her husband to the neuropsychiatric ward at the Sawtelle Veterans Hospital the following day,” Jeanne French ventured to her husband’s boarding house, where she and Frank (p.40) quarreled, the fight punctuated by Jeanne smacking him in the face with her purse as she beat a hasty exit. Jeanne was later seen in the company of a short, swarthy man. According to the coroner’s office, she was killed just before or just after midnight. A night watchman reported that a man who fit the swarthy man’s general description parked Jeanne’s car in a lot on Sepulveda Boulevard at 3:15 A.M., five hours before the body was discovered and three hours or so after the murder was committed. This testimony, along with fresh skid marks in the dirt adjacent to where Jeanne French’s body was dumped, indicated that the killer had probably made his getaway in her car.

When the autopsy was made available to the men investigating the crime, it rather damned or blamed the victim (in their eyes, at least), just as it supported the bad-pickup random-murder angle: Jeanne’s blood contained 0.31 percent alcohol, easily twice the legal limit in 1947, virtually four times the limit in 2016. The Times asked women to be on their guard against “possible forays by a degenerate believed in the area.”81 Investigators began rounding up the usual suspects, “a score of known sex degenerates.” A handful of these suspects got their names in the paper: Robert Durege, a former wrestler, “ailing mentally”; a Palm Springs–based housepainter named George Whitt who had worked at the boarding house three months before the murder and then, after Frank moved out, dated Jeanne several times. Whitt had burned several pairs of his shoes, claiming later that he did so because he was afraid the cops would try to pin the murder on him. But he needn’t have bothered: his shoe size was not a match, either.82

The public’s fascination with the murders of Short and French accompanied a new Hollywood narrative. Readers of the dailies began to appreciate and understand that Hollywood as a geographical site and as a symbol of social and economic transcendence was in the process of becoming quite a different sort of place, that the city of dreams and dreamers had become the site of a new American nightmare.

L.A.: Port of Missing Women

A girl like that, come on, was always finding herself tangled up with rough stuff. … Hell, it was surprising that more of them didn’t go missing—skip town, run away with a fella, maybe a married guy, or, sometimes, sure, just know too much, simply too, too much.

Megan Abbott, The Song Is You (a fictional reimagining of the 1949 disappearance of the bit-part actress Jean Spangler)

(p.41) On January 12, 1950, the Los Angeles Herald-Express ran a story about a grand-jury investigation into the LAPD’s failure to close a number of murder cases, all of which resembled Short’s and French’s. The front page featured the provocative and telling headline “Unsolved L.A. Crimes Ripped by Grand Jury: They Strayed into Port of Missing Women.”83

The reporters reinforced public perceptions about police corruption, bribery, and collusion with organized crime. And they lent support to an evolving mythology about the murder victims, that they were star-crossed Hollywood aspirants and that their aspirations were unrealistic, their pretensions to the social and sexual freedoms enjoyed by the Hollywood celebrities they so admired brought about their ruin and violent deaths. As the Herald-Express story made clear, by 1950 Short and French were just the two best-known of the city’s many female casualties. They were joined by a long list of murdered young women dumped, literally and figuratively, by the side of the road:

  • Gladys Kern—a real-estate agent found, like French, stomped to death, in a vacant mansion she had shown to a dark-haired stranger.

  • Evelyn Winters—found nude and beaten to death; like Short and French, Winters was a “party girl” last seen cruising the bars of downtown L.A.

  • Laura Trelstad—the victim of the colorfully dubbed “mad-werewolf sex killer,” who, like Winters, was found strangled and sexually violated, her body dumped in a vacant lot by some oil rigs after a night of drinking in the local bars.

  • Dorothy Montgomery, the “butterfly-murder” victim, whose nude body was found dead under a pepper tree, … another casualty dumped by the side of the road.

  • Mae Lorene Preston, AKA Mae Lund, found dressed only in an unbelted blue taffeta kimono, strangled with a clothes-iron wire by the San Gabriel River.

  • Rosenda Josephine Mondragon, her dead body apparently thrown from a moving car, found nude, her right breast slashed, outside 129 East Elmyra Street, near the downtown city hall.

  • (p.42) • Louise Margaret Springer, found in the back seat of her car outside 102 West 38th Street, near the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, concealed under a beautician’s smock. Springer worked in a salon just a few blocks from where Short’s body was discovered. She was apparently the victim of a car-jacking gone south.

At the time, the Winters homicide was a noteworthy case. Found dead in March 1947, she was the third barfly-murder in as many months. But unlike Short, who was a wannabe that never was, Winters had once lived a life of privilege as the wife of an established Hollywood player, Sidney Justin, the head of Paramount Pictures’ legal department. According to the Examiner, after the marriage ended in divorce, Winters fell hard and fast; despite a decent settlement, she was soon among the throng of young women moving from one temporary address to another, spending her time in the same Hill Street bars as Short.

Well before they ran their sensational headline dubbing L.A. the port of missing women, indeed as early as January 23, 1947 (and just over a week after Short’s body was discovered and long before the postwar list had grown so dramatically), the Herald-Express reported on a seeming trend in the murder of young women in L.A. Under another eye-grabbing headline, “Werewolves Leave Trail of Women Murder Victims in L.A.,” the ace crime reporter Aggie Underwood drew a connection between the Black Dahlia case and seven other murders of women in the Southland, including the 1943 “White Gardenia Murder” of Ora Murray, who was found strangled to death on the Fox Hill Golf Course in what is now Culver City, posed with a white gardenia under her shoulder, her undergarments in tatters, her dress draped across her like a sarong; and the much-publicized 1944 murder of the socialite Georgette Bauerdorf, found dead by her neighbors (including the famed drama coach Stella Adler), in her overflowing bathtub: raped, beaten, and asphyxiated.84 (The cause of death was a cloth jammed into her throat.)

To learn more about this subculture of young women living on their own in L.A. in the 1940s, reporters for the Herald-Express consulted an expert, Short’s ex-roommate Lynn Martin: “There are a lot of girls in Hollywood who could end up like Beth Short. … Hollywood is a lonely place. … There are few places for a lonely girl to go to except into a bar.” Martin’s sad, pragmatic description of the scene made for troubling reading in January 1947. Women roomed together on daily or (p.43) weekly agreements, Martin explained, to save on expenses—a practice that generated a pay-as-you-go transient culture pinned on casual friendships and semiformal business arrangements (the sharing of rent, groceries, etc.). The picture that Martin painted of the L.A. party girl circa 1947 seemed at first the stuff of Hollywood melodrama: “Most of the girls are pretty innocent and well meaning at first. The road downhill is gradual. … Sooner or later they become pregnant, and many of them resort to an illegal operation—and sometimes some of them end up like Beth Short.”85 But, as Underwood appreciated, it was as well an uncomfortable matter of fact. The party-girl culture wasn’t really much of a party for the girls involved.

At first glance, Bauerdorf did not fit the lonely-barfly scenario posited by Underwood and Martin. She was the child of privilege; she lived (and was found dead) at the fashionable El Palacio complex on Fountain Avenue in West Hollywood, the rent paid by her parents. But the party-girl culture was inclusive—and seductive, too. Though they had little in common, Short and Bauerdorf were acquaintances, if not fully friends; Bauerdorf’s diary reveals that she knew Short from her nights at the Hollywood Canteen, where young women “entertained” servicemen before they shipped out into World War II.

Short went to the Canteen to do more than just a public service. Situated on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Wilcox Avenue, the Canteen was a great place to make movie-industry contacts. Getting on a studio lot was difficult. But the Canteen was open to everyone, especially to available young women. The staff at the Canteen rotated and occasionally included movie stars like John Garfield, Bette Davis, and Irene Dunne. On any given night any number of celebrities and studio executives might be seen and photographed there.

Short also frequented another watering hole that attracted celebrities, the Formosa Café, across the street from the Goldwyn Studios on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Formosa Avenue in West Hollywood. According to the true-crime writer John Gilmore, Short dallied at the Formosa in the company of the starlet Barbara Payton, where both women chatted and drank with men they hoped might help their careers. The handsome actor Franchot Tone, who would have his own sordid story to tell involving Payton (much more on that in chapter 4), picked up Short one night at the Formosa and took her to an associate’s apartment on the pretense of introducing her to some folks who might someday put her in the movies. As Tone tells the story, recounted by Gilmore, “I thought it was a pickup from the start—she came with (p.44)

The Real Estate of CrimeThe Black Dahlia Dumped by the Side of the Road

Figure 8. Bob Hope entertaining the troops at the Hollywood Canteen in 1945.

(Los Angeles Daily News: UCLA Library Digital Collections, Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, http://digital2.library.ucla.edu/viewItem.do?ark=21198/zz0002qn39)

me so easily, but to her it wasn’t anything of the kind.” As Tone recalled their brief encounter, he and Short talked and kissed briefly, and then he gave her cab fare and sent her on her way. For someone so comfortable in the L.A. bar scene and so invested in making it in Hollywood, Short, Tone recalled, did not seem to understand how the game was played.86

The media regarded the murders of these young women as a symptom of an evolving, increasingly dark, wannabe-celebrity subculture—a subculture awash in social and moral crises endemic to a city in which the movie colony held sway. As such, the series of murders of young women became malleable enough to suit most any socially conservative commentary. The screenwriter Ben Hecht, for example, proffered a peculiar theory of the Dahlia killing in the Examiner, viewing her murder as a symptom of a crisis not of unbridled female freedom but of masculinity in general in Hollywood, a place and an industry in which so many gay movie stars led double lives. Hecht opined with conviction, though without any supporting evidence, “In nearly all torture crime cases and mutilation after death homosexuality is the basic motive.”87

(p.45) However dubious such a theory of these crimes may have been, it does speak to a prevalent gossip discourse of the era, one concerned with policing homosexuality in the Hollywood community specifically and amid American celebrity in general. Readers in the late 1940s were, for example, aware of the ongoing problems of the L.A. sports celebrity “Big” Bill Tilden, unquestionably the most accomplished American men’s tennis player of the first half of the twentieth century. Tilden was arrested on November 23, 1946, on Sunset Boulevard, caught with his hand in a teenaged boy’s pants. He was sentenced to a year in prison and served seven and a half months. The former athlete was arrested again on January 28, 1949, after picking up a sixteen-year-old hitchhiker who accused Tilden of “making advances.” He served another ten months.

In the years leading up to the scandal, Tilden had been photographed often for the society and celebrity pages in the company of Hollywood movie stars like Errol Flynn, Charlie Chaplin, and Joseph Cotton. Photographs of Tilden at the so-called right parties with the right people proved in the end to be a cover for his attraction to a different sort of Los Angeles nightclub culture, one at which he had to be careful about having his picture taken. The Tilden story was regarded at the time as emblematic and symptomatic of a wider-ranging decadence of celebrity culture. And much as the Fatty Arbuckle, Wallace Reid, and William Desmond Taylor scandals had cast celebrity subculture in a certain cautionary, reformist perspective in the 1920s, Tilden’s story marked another shift in the discourse on American celebrity and stardom after World War II.

The Newport Harbor Murders

We had lust, we had greed, we had frustration. Ladies and gentlemen, these are the raw materials out of which murders are made.

—Eugene D. Williams, special prosecutor, opening statement at the 1947 murder trial of Beulah Louise Overell and George (“Bud”) Gollum

A second if not secondary narrative emerged out of the dailies’ coverage of the many body-dump murders; Los Angeles began earning a reputation as America’s reigning capital of weird crimes, a place where the style and content of criminal activity reflected the many competing and in many cases oddball subcultures taking root there. The daily photo-spread on the back cover of the first section of the Examiner routinely featured accounts of such weird crimes, a Ripley’s Believe It or Not of the Southland. Two stories from March 2, 1947, offer a useful sample: (p.46) the first, an animal-cruelty conspiracy, under the headline “Pets Sold for Torture in Night Auction”; the second focused on an unremarkable photograph of fourteen-year-old Albert Jones with the caption “At 14, He Faces Life in Prison,” a sentence earned after the boy’s inexplicable double murder of a playmate (by strangulation) and “a housewife” (whom he shot).88

One of the most intensely followed crime stories of the era covered on the front and back pages involved the murder of Walter and Beulah Overell, whose yacht, the Mary E, burst into flames on March 15, 1947. The explosion, police discovered, was caused by dynamite charges planted on the yacht, which was buoyed just offshore near Newport Beach. The primary—indeed, the only—suspects89 were Walter and Beulah’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Beulah Louise, and her twenty-one-year-old fiancé, the exquisitely named George Rector (“Bud”) Gollum. Along with the Black Dahlia and the Flying-Nurse/Red-Lipstick murders, these so-called Newport Harbor Murders introduced an increasingly popular notion of a city gone wild, growing too fast and uniquely crazy.

Press coverage of the Overell murders and the subsequent trial focused a lot of attention on Louise (the name that she preferred), a teenager engaged to an older man (Gollum) whom her wealthy parents disliked. The papers cruelly described Louise as pudgy, plain, and homely, as “not like other girls her age” because she read books and aspired to go to college.90 (She was at the time of the trial a freshman at USC.) The Santa Ana Register referred to Louise as “a menopause baby, apparently unwanted, misunderstood and unloved; an ugly duckling daughter.”91

Gollum was four years her senior, described in the press coverage as a man whereas Louise was consistently referred to as a girl or teenager. Their devotion, at least through the early days of the trial, was routinely labeled ill-advised, premature, and disapproved-of, as the press cast Gollum as a con man, despoiler, or adventurer and Louise as the homely girl whose head was turned, her defenses dropped as she was flattered by the attention of this handsome older man. Here again the papers preferred melodrama over truth; and in service to that narrative, they focused intensely on the romantic and sexual nature of Louise’s relationship with Gollum. This particular angle got quite a boost when the Examiner got hold of love letters that the couple exchanged while behind bars. (The letters were leaked by the DA’s office, no doubt because their case in part hinged upon motive.) In a city so tied to the glamorous and beautiful, Louise seemed strategically, fascinatingly cast.

(p.47) The melodramatic plot in the story of the Newport Harbor Murders differed from the barfly narrative, resembling instead some turn-of-the-century literary melodrama—most closely, Henry James’s 1880 novel Washington Square, adapted for the screen in 1949 by William Wyler as The Heiress. In the novel and the film, an ugly-duckling heiress falls for a handsome and ambitious suitor of limited means. Her father disapproves and vows to disinherit her if she marries beneath her station, mostly because he can’t believe any man would, money aside, be attracted to her. In the climax of the story’s second act, the heiress waits for her lover to steal her away and elope, but he never shows. The father, alas, has paid the suitor off, as much to prove a point as to get him out of his daughter’s life. The denouement stages her coldhearted revenge; the father is dead, and the suitor returns to the promise of wealth through marriage. But the heiress leaves him to wait outside, much as she waited for him years earlier. In the sordid L.A. update, Louise is a teenager in love: romantic to a fault, steadfast in her loyalty, and as the press, the police, and the district attorney contended, brought to a desperate act by her parents’ refusal to appreciate her love and by the promise of a hefty life-insurance payoff should both her parents die … so, Washington Square meets Double Indemnity.

The initial theory of the crime grew out of the coroner’s report, published on March 25, 1947. It noted that the dried blood found on the corpses matched the blood on a hammer found on the boat. The police surmised that the Overells did not die in the dynamite blast but instead were bludgeoned to death (by Louise and Bud) before the yacht exploded.92 The prevailing theory of the crime was that the young couple had planned a body dump at sea. But they were unsuccessful, as a second dynamite charge set on the yacht, ostensibly to fully destroy the evidence, failed to explode.93

The trial became a national sensation; Time and Life and the New York Times covered it. If the Black Dahlia murder had not fully reconfigured Los Angeles in the popular imaginary, the Overell case rather finished the job. The news coverage was sensational and unpredictable. The Examiner, for example, assigned the former silent-film scenarist Adela Rogers St. John, whose column was syndicated across the Hearst newspaper empire, to cover the trial. She did not disappoint, focusing on appearance over reality at every turn. “Whether Louise Overell is guilty as charged or whether she is only an orphan who lost both mother and father, … she wears in the courtroom clothes which show no acknowledgment of loss.” For St. John, such bad taste for a girl so (p.48) wealthy, for a young woman so homely, looked bad in more ways than one: “Her heavy hair, dark brown and streaked with henna red, … held back by a huge gold pin [was more] suitable for dancing.”94

While the press coverage assumed a guilty verdict, Louise’s attorney, Otto Jacobs, remarked with justification that the state’s case was built on “possibilities, probabilities, and a lot of myths.” Aiming to create reasonable doubt, Jacobs posited an alternative scenario: that Walter had killed his wife and himself because he owed money all over town. (He did—owe lots of people lots money, that is.) Following Jacobs’s logic, it was Walter (and not Louise and Bud) who had set the charge to go off after Louise and Bud had ventured off the boat—late on the night in question the young couple ventured to shore for hamburgers—because he had no interest in harming them.

The key moment in the trial came when an expert prosecution witness testified that a metal screw found in Gollum’s car matched those used in the assembly of the bomb timer. The expert insisted that the screw was extremely rare, used in a very specific sort of watchmaking and repair; the district attorney then posited that the coincidence (that a screw of that type was found in Gollum’s car) was nothing short of remarkable. In preparation for cross-examination, Jacobs went to a local jewelry store and purchased a barrel of identical screws. During his cross-examination, Jacobs emptied his coat pockets, and much to the embarrassment of the expert witness and the prosecutors, the easily found and purchased screws were sent flying and bouncing all over the floor. It was this trial’s “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit” moment.95

When the couple was acquitted, on October 5, 1947, the crowd in the courtroom cheered. The jury had deliberated for nearly eighteen hours, split initially 7–5, then for a while 11–1 for acquittal. Informal canvassing of jurors afterward suggested that several of them were not convinced that the couple was innocent, but nonetheless found reasonable doubt with regard to the state’s case.96

Throughout the trial the newspapers deferred to the romantic scenario of young love thwarted by narrow-minded nouveau-riche parents, a plot line merged with a noir crime story about schemers who commit murder for a life-insurance payoff. After the trial both story lines fell apart. The jailhouse love letters that had been used extensively by the prosecution to supply motive and that had been excerpted in the press to sell papers referred to a relationship that neither Louise nor Bud decided to pursue after the acquittal. Indeed, the two parted company without so much as a gesture of relief exchanged between them. (p.49) As for the life insurance, much of that went to pay off Walter’s debts. As with a lot of folks in Los Angeles after the war, the Overells’ pretense to living well was just that: a pretense. Like Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, Bud may well have killed for the money and the girl and in the end got neither.

Louise died alone and young; yet another young woman in L.A. whose dreams—of wealth, of a future with a handsome man, of whatever that degree from the Univesity of Southern California might have set up for her—were dashed by bad choices and too much booze. Indeed, in the years that followed, Louise squandered what little remained of her inheritance. She married and divorced twice and was dead at thirty-six of acute alcoholism. According to the Los Angeles Times, “her nude, bruised body was found in bed in her Las Vegas home with two empty vodka bottles near her head and a loaded, cocked, but unfired .22-caliber rifle at her feet.” Gollum later served time in prison for assaulting a man he found involved with his wife. But he turned his life around after that; he went back to school, eventually earning a Ph.D. in biophysics, albeit under an assumed name. Gollum subsequently had a brief career working for a company involved in weapons design for the Navy, then moved on to real-estate speculation, in which by all accounts he made a small fortune.97 Of the many Southland aspirants discussed here, Gollum uniquely got a decent second and third act; he got ahead, and he got out alive.

Notes:

(1.) Thus the banner headline on page 1 of the January 15, 1947, issue of the Los Angeles Examiner.

(2.) See Will Fowler, Reporters: Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman (New York: Roundtable, 1991), 73–74.

(3.) James Ellroy, My Dark Places: An L.A. Crime Memoir (New York: Random House, 1996), 125.

(4.) “Fiend Tortures, Kills Girl: Leaves Body in L.A. Lot,” Los Angeles Examiner, January 16, 1947, 1.

(p.202) (5.) Ibid.

(6.) David Brodsky, L.A. Freeway: An Appreciative Essay (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981), 136.

(7.) Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (New York: Vintage, 1992), 25.

(9.) Schuchardt, cited by Michael Dear, “Intentionality and Urbanism in Los Angeles, 1781–1991,” in The City, ed. Allen J. Scott and Edward W. Soja (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998), 93.

(10.) See Thomas Schatz, Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997), 461–66; and Jon Lewis, American Film: A History (New York: Norton, 2008), 193–97.

(11.) At the time of the decision, Paramount owned 993 theaters. RKO owned 187; Fox, 66; Loews/MGM, 21; and Warner Bros., 20. Additionally, the studios jointly owned theaters with each other: Paramount-Fox owned 6; Paramount-Loews, 14; Paramount–Warner Bros., 25; Paramount-RKO, 150; Loews-RKO, 3; Loews–Warner Bros., 5; Fox-RKO, 1; Warner Bros.–RKO, 10. The Big Five studios (Paramount, RKO, Fox, MGM, and Warner Bros.) held interests in 3,137 out of 18,076 theaters nationwide. In the 92 cities with populations exceeding 100,000, over 70 percent of the first-run theaters were affiliated with the Big Five. The Paramount Decision outlawed the many collusive schemes entered into by the studios and many theater chains, including price-fixing, “run clearances,” a standard industry practice that favored first-run houses by assuring them first and regionally exclusive access to big studio films; “pooling agreements,” arrangements under which ostensible competitor-exhibitors operated in collusion in order to share in the profits of a given film’s run; and “block booking,” the licensing of one (choice) feature on the condition that the exhibitor also license a number of other features distributed by the studio over a specified period of time.

(12.) Before his appointment to the nation’s highest court, Douglas was the chairman of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission. His understanding of American business was keen, and the remedy he devised was at once brilliant and, at least initially, effective.

(13.) Kevin Starr, Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940–1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 221.

(14.) See “Girl Torture Slaying Victim Identified by Examiner, FBI,” Los Angeles Examiner, January 17, 1947, 1–2; “Police Aided by Soundphoto,” Los Angeles Examiner, January 17, 1947, 2; Ray Richards, “FBI Head Lauds Examiner for Slaying Case Aid,” Los Angeles Examiner, January 18, 1947, 1.

(16.) “Killer’s Victim Noted in Home Town for Exceptional Beauty,” Los Angeles Examiner, January 17, 1947, 2.

(19.) “Childlike Charm of Girl Got Her Job at Army Camp,” Los Angeles Examiner, January 17, 1947, 2.

(21.) “Girl Victim of Sex Fiend Found Slain,” Los Angeles Times, January 16, 1947, 2.

(22.) “Sex Fiend Slaying Victim Identified by Fingerprint Records of FBI,” Los Angeles Times, January 17, 1947, 2.

(23.) “Phoebe Short Can’t Believe Slain Girl Hers,” Los Angeles Times, January 17, 1947, 2.

(24.) “Daughter Just Quiet, Home Girl, Mother Asserts,” Los Angeles Times, January 17, 1947, 2.

(25.) “Police Quiz Chum of Black Dahlia,” Los Angeles Times, January 22, 1947, 2.

(26.) “Lynn Martin Questioned by D.A.; Accuses 10,” Los Angeles Examiner, January 28, 1947, 1.

(27.) “Black Dahlia’s Love Life Traced in Search of Her Fiendish Murderer,” Los Angeles Times, January 18, 1947, 3.

(30.) “Mother of Hero Doubts Marriage to Short Girl,” Los Angeles Times, January 19, 1947, 3. On the same day, the Examiner ran a story noting Gordon’s mother’s doubts: “Hero’s Mother Doubts He Wed,” Los Angeles Examiner, January 19, 1947, 4.

(31.) “Elizabeth Short’s Letters Told Hero Feelings about Love and Marriage,” Los Angeles Examiner, January 19, 1947, 4.

(32.) “Dahlia Killer Mails Contents of Missing Purse to Examiner!” Los Angeles Examiner, January 25, 1947, 1.

(34.) “Mrs. Albro Urges Girls Be Kept Out of Taverns,” Los Angeles Examiner, February 20, 1947, 7.

(35.) Jack Webb, The Badge: True and Terrifying Stories That Could Not be Presented on TV: http://files.umwblogs.org/blogs.dir/8178/files/2013/10/webb.pdf.

(36.) Steve Hodel, Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder (New York: Perennial, 2004), 162.

(37.) “Exonerated Suspect’s Story Aids Killer Hunt,” Los Angeles Examiner, January 21, 1947, 2.

(39.) The source here: Steve Hodel’s close reading of the police files in Black Dahlia Avenger (above, note 36), 142–50.

(40.) “Suspect Detained for Questioning in ‘Black Dahlia’ Mutilation Murder,” Los Angeles Times, January 20, 1947, 2.

(41.) “Black Dahlia Suspect Gets Truth Tests,” Los Angeles Times, August 16, 1954, 2.

(43.) “Beth Short Slaying Suspect Jailed after Asserted Admission of Crime,” Los Angeles Times, January 29, 1947, 2.

(44.) See “Police Await Black Dahlia Slayer’s Pledged Surrender,” Los Angeles Examiner, January 28, 1947, 1–2.

(p.204) (45.) “Soldier’s Leave Time Checked in Dahlia Murder,” Los Angeles Times, February 7, 1947, 2.

(46.) “Corporal Dumais Is the Black Dahlia Killer,” Los Angeles Herald-Express, February 8, 1947, 1.

(47.) “Blackout Murder of Beth Short Confessed: Soldier Admits Crime but Holds Back Horror Details; Corporal Dumais Signs 50-Page Confession,” Los Angeles Daily News, February 8, 1947, 1.

(48.) On January 12, the Times ran a six-paragraph story on page 2 titled “Ft. Dix Corporal Checked Off ‘Dahlia’ Murder Suspect List.”

(49.) “Amazon-Sized Woman Hunted in Dahlia Case,” Los Angeles Times, February 8, 1947, 3.

(50.) “Boast Holds Suspect in Murder of Dahlia,” Los Angeles Times, February 17, 1947, 2.

(51.) “Suicide Revives ‘Dahlia’ Inquiry,” Los Angeles Times, March 15, 1947, 4.

(52.) “Man in St. Louis Says He Killed Miss Short,” Los Angeles Times, March 19, 1947, 2.

(53.) “Transient Questioned in ‘Black Dahlia’ Case,” Los Angeles Times, January 26, 1948, 2.

(54.) “Dahlia Death Confession Laid to Drug,” Los Angeles Times, January 27, 1948, 2

(55.) “Prisoner Faces Dahlia Inquiry,” Los Angeles Times, February 18, 1948, 19.

(56.) See “Ex-Bellhop Held in Dahlia Murder,” Los Angeles Times, January 11, 1949, 2; and Jacque Daniel’s treatise on how the Dillon affair destroyed the career of her father, Dr. De River: The Curse of the Black Dahlia (New York: Digital Data Werks, 2004).

(57.) “Conners Accused in Dahlia Killing,” Los Angeles Times, January 14, 1949, 2.

(58.) “Clues Tighten in Dahlia Case, Officers Report,” Los Angeles Times, November 10, 1950, 14.

(59.) “Black Dahlia Murder ‘Confession’ Scribbled,” Los Angeles Times, November 9, 1950, A28.

(60.) James Ellroy, The Black Dahlia (New York: Mysterious Press, 1987), 3. See also idem, My Dark Places (above, note 3), 122–27.

(61.) Ibid., 89–94.

(62.) “Unsolved L.A. Crimes Ripped by Grand Jury: They Strayed into Port of Missing Women,” Los Angeles Herald-Express, January 12, 1950, 1.

(63.) Hodel’s website (http://stevehodel.com/) makes the extent of this supposed conviction apparent.

(64.) Steve Hodel, Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder (New York: Perennial, 2004), 504.

(65.) See also Steve Hodel’s revised edition, Black Dahlia Avenger II (Los Angeles: Thoughtprint Press, 2014).

(68.) Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss, Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder (New York: Bullfinch Press, 2006), 14, 37, 44, 63, 76. See also http://exquisitecorpsebook.blogspot.com.

(69.) Andre Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969), 26.

(70.) Donald Wolfe, The Black Dahlia Files: The Mob, the Mogul, and the Murder That Transfixed Hollywood (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 299–309; 313–15; 316–17.

(71.) “Police Jail Mate in Lipstick Killing of Film Actress: Find Nude Body in Vacant Lot,” Los Angeles Examiner, February 11, 1947, 1.

(72.) “Killer’s Trail Grows Colder in Nurse Case,” Los Angeles Times, February 13, 1947, 2.

(73.) There is no entry for Jeanne Axford French or Jeanne Axford Thomas on IMDB. Short has an IMDB page, but the screen credits are composed exclusively of documentaries and features about her brief life and death.

(75.) “Werewolf Strikes Again: Kills L.A. Woman, Writes B.D. on Body,” Los Angeles Herald-Express, February 10, 1947, 1.

(76.) “Slayer May Mail Clews,” Los Angeles Examiner, February 13, 1947, 3.

(77.) See J’aime Rubio, “Jeanne French & The Red Lipstick Murder—Los Angeles 1947,” Dreaming Casually (Investigative Blog), December 27, 2011: http://dreamingcasuallypoetry.blogspot.com/2011/12/jeanne-french-red-lipstick-murder-los.html.

(79.) “Lie Test Fails to Link Husband in Nurse Killing,” Los Angeles Times, February 12, 1947, 2.

(80.) “Another Woman Slain, Victim of Mutilation Killer,” Los Angeles Times, February 11, 1947, 2.

(82.) See “Open Verdict Returned in Mrs. French Death,” Los Angeles Examiner, February 14, 1947; and Stan Mandel, “Colorful Life of Jeanne French Ends in Death by Mystery Killer,” Los Angeles Times, July 16, 1961, WS9.

(84.) Aggie Underwood, “Werewolves Leave Trail of Women Murders in L.A.,” Los Angeles Herald-Express, January 23, 1947, 1.

(85.) “There Are a Lot of Girls in Hollywood,” Los Angeles Herald-Express, January 23, 1947, 1.

(86.) John Gilmore, Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia (Los Angeles: Amok Books, 2015), 36–37.

(87.) Ben Hecht, “Ben Hecht, Author of ‘Front Page,’ Writes His Views on the Dahlia Case,” Los Angeles Herald-Express, February 1, 1947, 3.

(88.) “Pets Sold in Night Auction for Torture,” Los Angeles Examiner, March 2, 1947, 10.

(89.) One competing theory of the crime concerned a letter sent to a Philadelphia newspaper and signed by someone with the initials I. N. N. T. The letter writer (p.206) contended that someone with initials L. W. M. had killed the Overells because Walter owed him money and refused to pay up. There is little indication that the police took the story seriously. With Beulah Louise and Bud, they had motive and opportunity and what they believed to be an open-and-shut case. See “Letter Writer Says L.W.M. Caused Blast,” Los Angeles Examiner, March 27, 2947, 3.

(90.) See Marjorie Driscoll, “Overell Girl Reveals Romance Secrets,” Los Angeles Examiner, April 3, 1947, 1, 2; “Overell Girl Differs from Most Teenagers,” Los Angeles Examiner, April 3, 1947, 3.

(91.) The Register as cited in Brooks Wilson, The Newport Harbor Murders Revisited (self-published, 2012), 17.

(92.) This would later be refuted or at least complicated and confused in a second autopsy conducted on April 23, 1947, in which a panel of doctors disagreed as to the time and cause of death. See Maury Godchaux, “Overell Defense Declares New Autopsy ‘Wins Case,’” Los Angeles Times, April 25, 1947, 2. Court testimony was decidedly inconclusive regarding the timing of the head injuries. See Gene Sherman, “Overell Yacht Batteries Normal Previous to Blast, Mechanic Says,” Los Angeles Times, July 8, 1947, 2. The lack of consensus played a role in the eventual acquittal, along with accusations of police and prosecutorial impropriety. The case’s current reputation as 1940s L.A.’s O. J. (Simpson) trial rather begins and ends, of course, with the seemingly incomprehensible not-guilty verdict.

(93.) “Overells Dead at Least an Hour before Blast, State Says,” Los Angeles Examiner, March 26, 1947, 1.

(94.) See Marcia Dodson, “Overell and Gollum—The Most Famous Trial in the Old Courthouse,” Los Angeles Times, July 23, 1988: http://articles.latimes.com/1988–07–23/news/li-6287_1_famous-trial.

(95.) This refers to Johnny Cochrane’s finest moment in the O. J. Simpson trial—a moment when the prosecution’s case was exposed as flimsy and carelessly assembled. The glove didn’t fit, and because it didn’t, Cochrane established reasonable doubt.

(96.) Gene Sherman, “Beulah, Bud Acquitted; Crowd at Court Cheers,” Los Angeles Times, October 6, 1947, 1.