On January 15 1947, the body of a murder victim was found in a weedy, vacant lot in Los Angeles—the severed body of a beautiful young woman named Elizabeth Short, nicknamed the Black Dahlia. Her mutilated corpse has since launched a thousand theories, books, films, websites, suspects…but no definitive solution to the murder. Anthony Mostrom revisits this most infamous of cold cases for PKM.
It’s hard to imagine now, in a time when the idea of “noir” seems to have run its course in popular culture, but back in the 1980s very few people knew about the once notorious Black Dahlia murder. That scabrous torture killing took place on January 15, 1947. The victim was beautiful Elizabeth Short, a would-be actress whose dead body was found cut in half and drained of blood and strewn across a weedy vacant lot, not far from the campus of USC in South Los Angeles.
The sensational but old, cold case seemed to slowly reenter the American consciousness thanks to a number of fictionalized accounts: there was John Gregory Dunne’s 1977 novel True Confessions which included the murder as a backdrop to something else while including very few elements of the actual historical case (later adapted by Dunne and his wife, Joan Didion, for a 1981 feature film). Then came James Ellroy’s spectacular (and spectacularly intricate) novel The Black Dahlia, also based loosely on the facts, a book that itself would be butchered later on in the form of a ridiculously bad movie by Brian de Palma.
All of this was followed by true crime author John Gilmore’s groundbreaking book Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder, published in 1994 by renegade L.A. book publishers Amok Books. Severed was the first nonfiction to focus on the real-life Elizabeth Short, and the first book ever to offer a possible suspect for her murder.
Since then, other books and other films have grappled with the mystery and the noirish allure of the most notorious murder case in Los Angeles history, one that has inspired documentaries, art gallery shows, gothy “Black Dahlia beauty contests,” and even the name of a rock band: The Black Dahlia Murder.
But as the case becomes more and more “cooked” and the outlines blurred by popular culture, the more the raw facts need to be brought back into focus, on this 74th anniversary of the crime.
On the cold winter morning of January 15, 1947 near the corner of 39th and Norton in southeastern Los Angeles (an underdeveloped area at the time with plenty of empty lots and few houses), a young mother pushing a baby carriage spotted what she thought was a broken and discarded store mannequin, lying face up among the weeds just off of the sidewalk. Looking closely, it turned out to be the nude body of a young woman, cut in half at the waist.
Police and newspaper reporters arrived in a flash, and soon it was determined that this odious object was the blood drained corpse of the once beautiful Elizabeth Short, 22. The body was bone white, the severed halves abuzz with flies and splayed angularly apart in the dirt and trash and the broken glass, the girl’s once lovely mouth cut into a loose, hanging gash that stretched from ear to ear.
“The killing seems to be based on an unbelievable anger,” said LAPD homicide detective Harry “the Hat” Hansen, who would end up working on the case.
Along with all the knife cuts and slashes and other evidence of prolonged torture that covered the body, medical examiners discovered that a tattoo from the girl’s left thigh had been cut out and inserted well up inside her feminine parts, a detail kept out of news reports for more than the obvious reason…it also allowed the police to weed out any false confessions from a real confession. To top it all off, human excrement was found inside her stomach.
The Los Angeles Times offered a bit of speculation about the method of Short’s killing: “From the nature of the knife wounds, the severing probably was done while the girl was in a semi recumbent position, possibly in a bathtub.” In other words, the stiffened lower half of the corpse was bent at the waist.
Few murder cases ever presented as obscene a crime scene tableau as Elizabeth Short’s butchered cadaver did, and few victims were ever so exceptionally glamorous and beautiful in life, which helps to explain the continuing fascination with the case even today. Some of that allure comes from the fact that Miss Short was drawn to postwar Hollywood, like the proverbial moth to a flame, to get into the movies herself.
She came to the West Coast from Medford, Massachusetts in 1946 and lived in Los Angeles on and off through early 1947, the very era when “film noir” was being born. Unfortunately, Bette Short spent most of her time partying among the transient young wannabes and film extras who haunted Hollywood’s nightclubs and bars, places like Boardner’s, where she liked to drink while resisting the advances of horny young jitterbugs but encouraging the endless flow of free drinks and meals that they were only too happy to pay for.
Periodically, she slept on couches. It’s clear that she had no money and no plan. She was just one more hot-looking party girl in postwar Los Angeles, while on the side she pursued some fruitless marriage dreams over a number of dashing, WWII flying ace boyfriends who had all been off fighting in the war. None of those panned out either.
By January of ’47 she had done a lot of moving from place to place and city to city, avoiding a job and never knowing quite what she was really about. But now after a brief but pointless trip to San Diego, she was back in L.A., biding her time and enjoying new friends, some of whom were shady. “She hung out with thugs,” her own father later complained to the LAPD. This was surely the reason for her sad, sorry end.
Here again she took no concrete steps to advance her dreams. And here begins the most puzzling interlude in the life of Elizabeth Short, the “missing week” between January 9th, when a friend dropped her off at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown L.A. (she was essentially homeless at this point) and January 15th, the day her body was found a mile south, butchered, battered and beaten and covered with cigarette burns and strange crisscross knife patterns.
One witness was able to place her in Hollywood at the beginning of January, at the CBS radio studio on Sunset Boulevard, where she and a date had gone several times to be part of the studio audience at comedian Jack Carson’s radio show.
The witness Jack Egger was head usher at CBS Columbia Square Playhouse, where radio shows were performed live for broadcast. In 1950, Egger told investigators that he saw Elizabeth Short there “at least 20 times” and that on one occasion, just after New Year’s Day of 1947, she was accompanied by a man whom he remembered as a Chicago policeman. Egger said he recalled seeing the man’s badge, a Chicago police badge.
He recalled that at this time Bette and the man were waiting in the patio area and were not in line. An usher who worked for Egger brought the two to him and he admitted them into the studio without tickets, “as a courtesy.”
When Egger later looked over the schedule for the Carson program (a weekly situation comedy sponsored by Campbell’s Soup), he at first thought this happened on January 8th, but after questioning said it could have been on January 1st, just before the beginning of the now famous “missing week.”
Here is a clip from the New Year’s Day 1947 Jack Carson program, which may have included the Black Dahlia and her date sitting in the audience:
Police would later discover that it was Bette Short’s friends in Long Beach (a group of regulars who hung out at one particular drugstore soda fountain) who first gave her the famous nickname, thanks to a recent Alan Ladd movie called The Blue Dahlia, tied in with Short’s habit of wearing glamorous, all-black outfits, complete with a little black choker around her pale snow-white neck.
The Blue Dahlia Original Trailer (George Marshall, 1946)
Of her inner life we know little, except that she harbored dreams of stardom from her earliest days, growing up in small town Medford. Virtually everything we know about her as a living, breathing person comes from the memoirs and memories of her friend and neighbor in Medford, a woman named Mary Pacios, who today is an artist living in Portland
Mary was much younger than Bette Short. In her 2007 memoir Childhood Shadows, Pacios remembered many things about Bette, not least that she was a comforting presence for her after an incident in which the little girl was molested by a local boy…and that Short was well known in Medford as the neighborhood knockout beauty whom everyone assumed would someday try her luck in Hollywood.
Pacios’ book includes testimonials and memories of Short from her friends and family members who were still living in Medford in the ‘80s and ‘90s:
“She was a very sweet girl.”
“I always thought of Bette as a porcelain china doll, fragile.”
“Bette didn’t laugh a lot, more like quiet smiles. She had a soft voice: low, refined, not tough. I remember her flawless white, white alabaster skin and black, black hair. She had lipstick shaped full lips, no rouge…”
“I could never equate Bette with the ‘Black Dahlia.’”
“I sometimes think about the nights that I watched her walk up Salem Street, watching until I no longer heard the clicking of her heels on the pavement and she disappeared from sight.”
“An unbelievable walk! Her body moved smoothly, didn’t bounce. I felt she could have had a full glass of water on her head and wouldn’t have spilled a drop. I remember her as being tall and slender…very pale skin, and blue eyes. Quite something. How the wolves did howl when Bette walked by!”
“You can take your Marilyn Monroe. She’s nothing compared to the way Bette walked down the street!”
“Maybe it was her walk…maybe that was her downfall.”
As Mary Pacios said to this writer only recently: “If there were people I talked to who claimed to have known or seen Bette and they didn’t mention her walk, I knew the person they were talking about wasn’t Bette.”
Pacios also talked to a local Medford politician who’d once been a platonic boyfriend of Bette’s during WWII:
“She never took me home. I had a good reputation at the time. We’d always meet at places. She seemed to want companionship. If I tried to talk serious, she’d say, ‘let’s just live for today…just enjoy the time together…’ I told her I wanted to wash the makeup off her face, wanted her to be her natural self. She was a loner. And seemed to be floating, wandering with no direction. I was questioned by the FBI. They said my name was in her address book.”
Mary Pacios spent years crisscrossing the country to conduct the interviews for her book. When I met her in 1990 through a mutual friend (the writer Lionel Rolfe) she had just met with the famous “Jigsaw John,” LAPD Homicide detective John St. John, who had inherited the still unsolved Dahlia case. St. John had definite opinions about what kind of person would have committed the crime.
“There was never one like it before, and there hasn’t been another one like it since. The perpetrator combined a number of elements that have never been seen together…a unique signature.
“The perpetrator may have had some knowledge of anatomy, but he wasn’t necessarily in the medical profession.
“All we can know for certain, is that the perpetrator had a car or access to a car, and that he most likely was between twenty and thirty-five years of age because those are the ones more apt to use knives. He was very powerful, judging by the force of the blows (to the head). But he may not have set out to murder anyone. He may have been operating on a short fuse and something could have set him off, driven him over the edge.”
(Like other Dahlia researchers, Pacios favored the “doctor” angle at the time.)
So there lay the remains of Bette Short in the crummy vacant lot at 39th and Norton. It was obvious to cops and reporters arriving at the crime scene that the victim had been tortured over the course of many hours, if not days, her pathetic remains covered with cuts, gashes, rope abrasions on the neck, wrists and ankles.
If anything in the history of crime ever deserved the old newspaper headline term “fiendish,” here it was.
L.A. newspapers were quick to call her a woman who had “hundreds” of men friends based on the names found in her address book, implying that she was a loose, fallen woman. On this point, it’s worth noting that serious research into Bette Short’s life and personality have revealed just the opposite…if anything, she was known in her various circles as a tease, someone who would not put out for casual acquaintances, which brings us back to LAPD homicide detective Harry Hansen and his theory that the murder was the possible result of a “terrific” case of blue balls: “I suppose sex was the motive, or at least the fact that the killer was denied sex.” This was also the likely, perverse reason a round hole had been cut into Short’s pelvis just above the vagina: the killer was making a statement.
Clearly the worst “end of the road” for an aspiring starlet in Hollywood history.
So who tortured and murdered this lovely, comely young woman who had just spent an aimless year on the fringes of Hollywood, convincing every salivating young “wolf” she met (whether in or out of uniform) to buy her a meal, bunking in cramped boarding house rooms and cheap apartments with equally desperate young roommates all dreaming of stardom, all at the very moment an ambitious young redhead across town named Norma Jean Baker was hustling and getting herself photographed at modeling shoots down on the beach and concentrating on success?
Very Early Marilyn Monroe Film (Screen Debut) 1948 “Dangerous Years”
John Gilmore’s Severed book claims that Short probably knew her killer through hanging out with too many random Hollywood lowlifes and criminals, including certain members of a group of burglars in town known as the McCadden Gang. Gilmore claimed that she was friends with a girl named Shirley Hassau, who was married to Henry Hassau, a criminal and part-time singer. Both were members of the McCadden gang and both were arrested when they were all rounded up in January of ’47 and charged with robbing the famous Mocambo nightclub in Hollywood.
In fact, the arrest of the McCadden gang was reported in the Los Angeles Times on the very same page as the story of Bette Short’s dismembered body having just been found in southeastern Los Angeles.
(Interestingly, this writer has discovered that Shirley Hassau herself had once made the local news on her own back in 1943, when it was revealed that she was suing that well-known Hollywood horndog, actor Errol Flynn, in a paternity case.)
Author Piu Eatwell’s 2018 book Black Dahlia, Red Rose: The Crime, Corruption and Cover-Up of America’s Greatest Unsolved Murder is an important book that revived a long forgotten list of suspects that the LAPD of the late 1940s considered to be very strong candidates, until they didn’t.
One of them was a scrawny, ineffectual looking young man from San Francisco named Leslie Dillon, an unemployed bellhop and connoisseur of detective magazines with definite morbid and criminal inclinations himself. He became so fascinated by the Dahlia case that in 1948 he wrote several letters to the LAPD’s police psychiatrist, Doctor Paul de River, freely speculating on the case.
The letters seemed suspiciously well informed, which led to de River proposing a “meeting” with the young man, resulting in Dillon being forcibly confined to a series of hotel rooms where he was interrogated for several days. Lo and behold, de River convinced himself that Dillon murdered Short…but others, including the 1949 Los Angeles grand jury, considered Dillon to be merely a victim of the overzealous de River.
Eatwell’s book tries to make the case that Dillon was guilty. But one may ask, why did the LAPD let him go? The answer is complicated enough to fill up many pages of her extremely interesting book, which brings to light some interesting facts that were known to the police at the time…facts that at the very least point to Dillon and a number of other likely suspects.
But what most piques the armchair detective’s interest in Eatwell’s research is this: there is every indication that on the very same day the Black Dahlia’s body was found, an extraordinarily grisly discovery was made in a seedy motel room just south of downtown Los Angeles, less than a mile from the body dump site. There, at the dingy Aster Hotel, the manager found that inside cabin 3 the bedsheets, the walls and the bathroom were thoroughly covered, splashed, soaked with blood and excrement.
“There were human footprints in the blood and fecal matter smeared over the floor.” All of this was investigated by the LAPD (however briefly, according to Eatwell), but for some reason no registration records for January existed once the owners were questioned.
Not only had Leslie Dillon “theorized” to Dr. de River that the murder probably took place in a motel room, but as Eatwell reveals, records showed that he stayed at the Aster Hotel himself in April, three months after the Dahlia murder!
Author and former LAPD patrolman Steve Hodel is by now the best-known “Dahlia writer” in history, thanks to a series of books in which he claims that his own father Dr. George Hodel, an old time, high society surgeon and abortionist in L.A. not only murdered Short, but also killed most of the best-known murder victims on the West Coast over several decades. Hodel is also the most attacked Dahlia author in publishing history for making such claims.
His posthumous prosecution of his late father started with the book Black Dahlia Avenger, and there was no doubt it had some sexy ingredients: not only was Doctor Hodel a brilliant and high-profile figure in wartime era Los Angeles, he was also a well-known rake…not to say rapist, having been publicly accused of raping his own daughter, though he was eventually acquitted of that charge. And he was pals with surrealist artist Man Ray, movie director John Huston, and that famous author and pussy hound, Henry Miller.
What Hodel has on his side is the fact that the LAPD did consider his father a suspect at least for a while, even going to the trouble of bugging the doctor’s house and getting this provocative line straight from Hodel’s mouth and onto their primitive, 1949 vintage wire recorder:
“Supposin’ I did kill the Black Dahlia? They couldn’t prove it now. They can’t talk to my secretary anymore because she’s dead.”
You would think at first glance this would’ve had the cops running in and arresting him right then and there, right? But the transcripts of these recordings make it clear that Hodel knew he was being recorded by this point, and was merely taunting them.
What’s not on Hodel’s side is the fact that the police eliminated the not so good doctor as a suspect in due course, before moving on to others, such as the aforementioned Dillon.
Meanwhile, new Dahlia suspects kept on coming and going. False confessors, known to wisecracking L.A. news reporters as “confessing Sams,” were wasting lots of the LAPD’s time and manpower. The Department never landed on a suspect they felt completely sure about. The case is still officially unsolved today. Various theorists have spent decades trying to solve it, offering up suspects that go from the plausible to the random to the ridiculous.
Severed was published in 1994. It was the first nonfiction book on the case and was written by John Gilmore, a former Hollywood actor from the ‘50s who had once palled around with James Dean.
Being the first nonfiction book on the case, Severed drew instant praise from countercultural big shots like writer Gary Indiana and filmmakers David Lynch and Kenneth Anger, and even the British philosopher turned criminologist Colin Wilson called it “the best book” on the case many years later. Since that time, Severed has been criticized for its lack of footnotes and sources, and its conclusions have been challenged by other writers.
Nevertheless, the book includes what the author purports is an actual, blow-by-blow description of the murder of Elizabeth Short.
The person who shared this information with him was a lowlife sex offender and burglar with a long rap sheet, a man named Jack Anderson Wilson who went under many aliases. A lifelong drifter and alcoholic from Ohio, Wilson met Gilmore in various downtown L.A. bars around 1980 for a series of “chats” in which he more or less described the murder of Short, claiming that he’d heard the story from a “friend.”
From Severed: “Information was received by the police department that a certain individual wanted to talk about the murder. Detective Marvin G. Engquist was the first in Homicide to be in contact with the informant.
“Engquist listened to a nine-minute section of a tape recording the informant brought with him, which was garbled in places. Did the informant have any objections to leaving the cassette with them? No, he said, he had transcribed what was on the tape.”
According to the book, Gilmore (the informant) met Jack Anderson Wilson (who was then using the pseudonym Arnold Smith) several times at Harold’s 555 Club, a dark and rundown gay bar established in 1944 in a raunchy part of downtown Los Angeles on Main Street. Gilmore plied the man with drinks and cash to get him to finally talk to him about what he knew about the murder, an old, old subject the two had danced around for years. Smith now wanted to tell the tale.
The transcript of Smith’s at times garbled (and drunken) description of Short’s imprisonment and torture inside a dingy, creaking old rooming house in South Los Angeles makes for some of the spookiest true crime testimonial ever committed to print:
“She gets sad and gets back in the car, and he heads south on La Brea. She wanted to know where he was going and he headed down to Washington and then east as far as Flower. She was complaining about having to get back because of Henry’s wife.
“There was a red bottle, had a glass stopper you use for putting fancy perfume in. And he could’ve taken her eyes out with that. But you understand, that’s what he had said. Because his mind was gone. You know, half those hoods had their mind eaten away because of syphilis. I know his mind was gone to have done what he did to her…
“I remember being told something about pulling the car into the dirt driveway and to the back by the incinerator. This is the Chinaman’s house in the 200 block on East 31st Street by San Pedro Street and Trinity…
“This place smelled bad…you get the idea to go there and it smells so bad like it’s been closed up for a long time…he has to tell her to be quiet, again…but she says she has to make a call and when she starts to use the phone there he says, ‘you can’t.’ He put it back down. She said something like she is a prisoner and he says, ‘that’s right, you’re a prisoner…’
“She didn’t say anything and he said okay. And he went to her and grabbed her arm like this, and started to pull her back but she hauled off and let him have it with the purse. Just swung it out and caught him across the side of the face. He slugged her once and her knees got weak…”
“When he got outside he heard the funniest sounds he’d heard. He could almost hear voices like they were talking, you understand?
“It was in his mind all the time. Everything that was going to happen. He said he didn’t have to think about anything, because it was laid out in front of him. He got a small knife or he got the knife on the back porch, like a paring knife, and on the back porch was a rope, this clothesline hunk of rope. This is what he had in mind for the waitress. Then he said there was a larger knife, like a long butcher knife that was two inches, the width of the blade near the handle. He said he thought that such a knife could be used to dismember her body. He said he didn’t know what he was going to do with the knife, except to scare her or keep her back up in the room.
“He went upstairs, but she hadn’t gotten up off the floor, but up on an elbow or an arm and was looking around.
“She kept saying, ‘what are you going to do?’ Drinking that, and she said her mouth hurt. She was scared of the knife and got up and was moving but he ran to her and hit her again, but it didn’t put her out and didn’t seem to stop her. So it was necessary at that point to indicate that he was going to hurt her with the knife.
“He tore at the clothes, not tearing but cutting at the clothing. I don’t know what…I didn’t know he said something and I can remember him scared or his face was white and his eyes didn’t even look anywhere near like it was real eyes. Like they were glass and they were shining…
“He used her underpants and he knocked her out a few times. She was all tied up to that couch and she’d been stripped of all the clothes and cut up bad. I couldn’t even tell you how bad it was. I mean, this is from the information I have that I know about. I knew it had to be some other Chinese. They’d cut her mouth across it and there was blood on the couch. He knew he’d get stuck with it and had to get rid of it.”
The LAPD, meanwhile, had speculated that the torture and mutilation of Bette Short probably took place in an “isolated dwelling.”
According to Dr. Jonathan Pincus, a neurologist at Georgetown University consulted by Gilmore and quoted in Severed: “Drug or alcohol use by the killer would be suspected when the victim has been ’overkilled,’ such as in the Elizabeth Short murder.”
Bette Short’s rather uncaring father told the LAPD “she hung out with thugs,” and in this connection it’s interesting to know that Short had once told a friend she was moving down to San Diego in late 1946 because “a screwball” had been bothering her in L.A. She may have learned all too late the old admonition, “if you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas.”
In 1957, British author David Rowan wrote a compendium style true crime book called Famous American Crimes, and therein summed up one of the sad facts about Elizabeth Short’s sojourn in postwar Hollywood:
“Down in the heart of Hollywood, well away from the…glamour of the film stars’ mansions, some of the side streets tell a sad story. Here is all the cardboard tawdriness of the disused film sets stacked behind the big studios. Here, a short ride from the world’s most expensive hotels, the cheapjack stores shriek a thousand vulgar boasts in garish neon…but when the lights are out…and for hundreds of the pretty girls who arrive each year in search of a Hollywood fairy tale, this is the reality: nobody cares.
“Elizabeth Short was murdered. The manner of her killing has ensured that her name will be remembered when those of the lucky few, the ones for whom the Hollywood fairy tale came true, have sunk into oblivion.
“She was just another of the countless failures, the forgotten souls sacrificed on the altar of a gaudy myth. Yet she alone broke through the callous flow of public indifference.”
Short’s mother remembered her differently, telling a reporter in the ‘80s: “She was a very affectionate, sweet girl. And if she was out at night, she always stopped in my bedroom to talk.” In Mary Pacios’ own words: “She was beautiful, statuesque, and had a real warmth about her. She loved people.”
It’s tempting to speculate here that, with her beautiful alabaster white “Irish geisha” skin and pretty face, Elizabeth Short might have realized her dreams and possibly gone on to become the black-haired “Veronica” to Marilyn Monroe’s blond “Betty” in the collective American psyche…clearly, she was that exceptional. But that was nixed early on by someone.
One of the biggest Black Dahlia mysteries is this: what self-respecting murderer displays his victim to the world the way Bette Short’s killer did, dumping the body right out there in the open for all to see? Doesn’t the average killer try as hard as he can to conceal the corpus delecti, to burn, or bury the body, unless he was so intensely proud of his handiwork like some diabolical murderous sculptor? Because here was just the opposite: someone who deliberately was taunting and daring the police, the press and everyone else to “come and get me,” which of course no one ever did.
But as it turns out there was one person of whom we can say with certainty that he at least talked to the killer of Elizabeth Short…on the telephone. This was Jimmy Richardson, the chain-smoking City Editor of the old Los Angeles Examiner. As documented in Eatwell’s Black Dahlia Red Rose, Richardson received a phone call at his office during a moment when it seemed that fresh leads in the Dahlia investigation were starting to peter out. His phone rang on January 23, 1947.
“Is this the city editor?”
“What is your name, please?”
“Well, Mr. Richardson, I must congratulate you on what the Examiner has done in the Black Dahlia case.”
“You seem to have run out of material.”
“Maybe I can be of some assistance.”
“We need it.”
“I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll send you some of the things she had with her when she, shall we say, disappeared?”
“What kind of things?”
“Oh, say her address book and her birth certificate and a few other things she had in her handbag.”
“When will I get them?”
“Oh, within a day or so. See how far you can get with them. And now I must say goodbye. You may be trying to trace this call.”
“Wait a minute…”
Here was proof positive that Dr. Paul de River was right when he said famously: “the type of mind that conceived the Elizabeth Short murder will someday have to boast about it.”
One of the most telling and potent quotes about the Elizabeth Short case comes from the woman she lived with briefly in San Diego, before fatefully returning to L.A.: “She seemed constantly in fear of something. Whenever anybody came to the door, she would act frightened.” That is real food for thought.
Some researchers claim there is documentation that Leslie Dillon was in his hometown of San Francisco when the murder occurred. Jack Anderson Wilson was never on the LAPD’s radar in the 1940s at all, which leads many to dismiss him out of hand. George Hodel, meanwhile, the bad boy surgeon and friend to John Huston and Man Ray, was eliminated as a suspect by the police quite early on, so why prosecute him again now, decades later?
A number of other Dahlia books, meanwhile, have become prime examples of “overreach,” of speculation gone far off the rails: Donald Wolfe’s The Black Dahlia Files has as its solution the famous gangster and founder of Las Vegas, Bugsy Siegel, presiding over the chopping up of Bette Short’s body while the famous publisher of the Los Angeles Times no less, Norman Chandler, stands by watching with approval.
Meanwhile, the late Janice Knowlton’s fever dream of a book, Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Killer, stands today as an odd entry in the otherwise impressive canon of serious true crime books written by her “as told to” author, Michael Newton.
The hard truth is that no one seems to have really produced a completely satisfying solution to the Black Dahlia murder: every suspect brought forth by researchers and writers seems to have a set of “yes, buts” attached to him, that in the end takes him off the table.
Phoebe Short was the mother of Elizabeth Short, or Bette or sometimes Beth, the “hot tomato” her friends liked to call the “Black Dahlia” while she was out enjoying her aimless, starry-eyed adventure in Los Angeles. According to Mary Pacios, Phoebe told her daughters years later about a very strange incident that occurred one night in January of 1947, when Bette was far, far away out on the West Coast.
Quoting Bette’s sister Muriel: “Mama had a premonition. Mama told me she knew something was wrong, before the phone call and before the police knocked on the door. The night Bette was murdered, Mama came home from work very tired and went to bed right after supper. Around midnight, Mama felt her blanket being yanked off the bed and woke up with a cold chill. Thinking the wind had blown it off, she went over to close the windows. But the windows were shut. Mama said that she knew then that something was wrong, that something had happened to Bette.”
In an unmailed letter found among her effects, Elizabeth Short wrote to a former boyfriend just one month before her murder:
“As I write, I am spending the holidays with my girlfriend whom I worked with in Hollywood. Her mother has a home here in San Diego. She and I feel the same about Hollywood. I couldn’t bear to be alone during the holidays, so she and I are spending it with her mother. We all get along fine and I am happy for now.
“I honestly did believe that I would be well here in the west. Time has proved differently to me. You didn’t take me in your arms and keep me there, however, it was nice as long as it lasted. I’m human, dear, so much so, but you can’t understand it. I want someone all for myself. Don’t you?”
And in one of her last letters home from California, Bette Short said that a movie director was about to give her a screen test. She was probably making this up, as she was not above telling fibs to get by.
Still, even the lie disproves some recent unfounded claims that the Black Dahlia, Elizabeth Short, the girl who became famous the worst possible way, was someone who had no interest in getting into the movies…a ridiculous assertion.
Mary Pacios: “The murder can never be solved, because the one piece of evidence that would have had DNA on it, the packet mailed by the killer, disappeared…the postage stamp in those days was licked, along with the flap of the envelope.”
John Gilmore: “She encountered somebody who absolutely believed she had to die. And in so doing, left this parcel on the doorstop of popular culture that we will never, ever, ever forget.”
James Ellroy: “I think he’d been having awful, awful fantasies of hurting women for some time and he never acted on them. I think the exact right victim and the exact right victimizer met at the exact right time.”
For one of the best sources of information about Elizabeth Short’s time in Hollywood, see the excellent website, The Black Dahlia in Hollywood