Sunday, January 13, 2013


Elizabeth Short's Mug Shot.

On Jan. 15, 1947, somebody killed Elizabeth Short, a pretty, dark-haired girl with bad teeth from Medford, Massachusetts who lit out for Los Angeles to find fame and fortune or maybe just true love depending on which version of her story you choose to accept.

Most prefer to go the course of that tired old Hollywood dream: Some small-town girl boards a bus to the City of Angels and ends up in Hell.

Certainly, Ms. Short infamously found her name in the headlines in due course. But the happy flavor of fame and fortune “Beth” or “Betty” Short sought tragically eluded her. On January 15, 1947, she became Los Angeles’ “Jane Doe, Number One,” now, of course, better known to us as “The Black Dahlia.”

That moniker is one with a noir pedigree all its own—allegedly lifted from a Raymond Chandler-scripted film by some druggists who hung Beth with the handle.

Or, maybe not.

Contemporary D.A. investigator reports say it was actually a cynical, headline-driving newspaper concoction.

Like so much of the stuff of Beth’s dark legend, securing even the trivial stuff as solid fact is more than a little like trying to nail down mercury.

Regardless, “The Black Dahlia,” is a name that conjures up images of a curvy, black-clad femme fatale. By all accounts, that sexy, sable specter is pretty damned far from the reality of the pale-skinned, asthmatic, dreaming girl from Massachusetts.

When her nude, bisected and savaged corpse was found on display in Leimert Park in sinful L.A., Beth Short deftly and darkly passed into the stuff of noir dreams. Her mug shot from a 1943 arrest for underage drinking was plastered over newspaper covers coast-to-coast. (Beth’s body was first identified through a revolutionary use of fingerprints and an early form of newspaper facsimile technology.)

Once the newsboys (and gals) got a hold of her, Beth was variously portrayed as a man-devouring vixen, an aspiring actress, a ditzy and dipsomaniac farm girl, a lesbian, a stag actress and/or hooker and as a luckless party girl who enticed the wrong pick up.

Over the years, she’s collected some other pieces of eyebrow-raising casting from conspiracy mongers—ranging from Orson Welles’ girlfriend, to victim of mobster Bugsy Siegel.

Beth’s sketchy background—and several missing days before her body was discovered—fire conspiracy theories and the imaginations of novelists.

Actor, director, and magician Orson Welles

Depending on the theorist, she was maybe murdered by Orson Welles, film director, actor, and amateur magician, her severed body dumped on almost the same spot where Welles previously sawed actresses in half to raise money for the war effort.

Maybe she was killed by a twilight character named Jack Anderson Wilson, or maybe somebody’s psychopathic daddy. Maybe it was night club owner Mark Hansen or maybe one of several L.A. doctors (Hodel, O’Reilly and Bayley, please stand up) or, if you buy one long-gone mystery writer’s solution, a dwarf who had to cut the body in half for easier transport.

And the crazy conspiracy beat goes on… (Perhaps the oddest suspect is folksinger Woody Guthrie, who was notorious for drawing nude and sometimes disturbing sketches of women, some of which drew him official attention after Short’s murder.)

TOROS & TORSOS, the second novel in the Hector Lassiter series,
uses Beth Short's murder as a key plot point. 

Hell, maybe a band of killer surrealists did the deed, a notion I explored in my second Hector Lassiter novel, Toros & Torsos, inspired by haunting concepts put forth by authors Steve Hodel, Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss.

MINOTAURE, the notorious surrealist magazine. This Dali piece, and its carvings in the thighs, anticipate similar mutilations to Elizabeth Short's body.

I suppose Beth Short first entered my consciousness through the 1975-TV movie, “Who Is The Black Dahlia?” It was pretty heady stuff for a kid from Ohio. Beth was played by Lucille Ball’s darkly fetching daughter, Lucie Arnaz. Efrem Zimbalist Jr., who I then knew mostly as Inspector Lewis Erskine on the old “F.B.I.” series, played the lead detective.

After that viewing, I’d seek out the occasional true crime account of the murder…maybe stumble across some reprint of Craig Rice’s musings on the killing and so forth. In a Walden’s bookstore, I stole a look at the grainy morgue photos in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon.

It was James Ellroy, of course, who put her back on the pop culture map in the late 1980s with his corner-turning novel, The Black Dahlia.

Sometime after that I picked up John Gilmore’s Severed, a haunting but controversial “True Crime” account of Beth Short’s murder whose perceived veracity is not helped by a decided lack of sourcing or even basic footnoting.

I went on to interview Gilmore at some length in 2002. When I pressed him for documentation for many of his claims—when I pushed him to explain why he didn’t provide even the most basic of bibliographies—he said, “The books are an experience. The books are portraits of these bleeding sides of beef. That is what as a creative writer I was interested in doing. I’m not a historian in that sense. The reason I didn’t put dates and such in the book is that I want the reader to be thrust into the thing. I don’t want to take the reader by the hand and say, ‘Okay, now we’re going to learn about this crime.’ I want the reader exposed to the crime as it goes down. The reader becomes a part of it. When Dante goes down to Hell, he has a guide, but, remove the guide, and he is just thrust into Hell. I wrote them as literary pieces. I have a novelist’s mind. I chose in Severed not to put in dates because—and I am still convinced I am right—that the minute a reader sees a date, he logs it into his mind and moves on. That date shuts off your experience of what’s being told. It takes the reader out of the experience.”


He may not have been saying it so many words, but I think the gist of Gilmore’s point was we prefer the story; we crave the myth, however dark and bloody.

I interviewed Ellroy a few times, too. Several times, we spoke of the Black Dahlia case and various theories pointing to suspects.

James Ellroy

As Beth Short’s most obsessive scribe, it seems appropriate to give The Demon Dog the last word on the subject of Beth Short and her legend on this 66th anniversary year.

In a 2006 interview I conducted with Ellroy during his tour in support of the film adaptation of The Black Dahlia, we discussed the continuing fascination and fictionalizing of Beth Short’s horrific murder.

Ellroy concluded, “We’re trying to find a language for this horrible act—the murder of Betty Short. Imaginative people want to certify their language as authentic. I don’t. I gave you the most psychologically sound, pathologically valid, lunatic language that I was capable of in describing Betty Short’s death. And I have not the slightest idea who did it.”

Craig McDonald’s current novel is EL GAVILAN, published by Tyrus Books. The fifth novel in his Hector Lassiter series is coming soon.Toros & Torsos, the second Lassiter novel, is centered around Elizabeth Short's murder.

(This article originally appeared in slightly altered form in Crimespree Magazine.)

1 comment: