I Never Knew Her in Life: The Black Dahlia Case in Popular Culture
Back in January I gave a talk at St Barts Pathology Museum on the sixty-sixth anniversary of the discovery of Elizabeth Short’s corpse on 39th and Norton, an abandoned lot in the Leimert Park residential neighbourhood in Los Angeles, by local resident Betty Bersinger. Bersinger’s discovery was the beginning of the Black Dahlia murder case, one of the most enduring mysteries in LA history.
The lecture was filmed, and I had planned to embed the video on this site, but I was recently informed that there was a problem with the recording. I have therefore decided to publish an edited version of the transcript here. For the sake of brevity, I have cut out information about Miss Short’s life and the murder investigation and references to true-crime books which attempt to solve the case, so that I could focus solely on the cultural depictions of the Black Dahlia that followed. You might enjoy this essay more if you already know a fair bit about the Dahlia case, if you don’t know much about it, there is a huge amount of material online, see here, here and here.
I had a wonderful time at St Barts and met some lovely people. I hope you enjoy this version of the lecture:
I never knew her in life. She exists for me through others, in evidence of the ways her death drove them. Working backward, seeking only facts, I reconstructed her as a sad little girl and a whore, at best a could-have-been – a tag that might equally apply to me. I wish I could have granted her an anonymous end, relegated her to a few terse words on a homicide dick’s summary report, carbon to the coroner’s office, more paperwork to take her to potter’s field. The only thing wrong with the wish is that she wouldn’t have wanted it that way. As brutal as the facts were, she would have wanted all of them known. And since I owe her a great deal, and am the only one who does know the entire story, I have undertaken the writing of this memoir.
James Ellroy’s novel The Black Dahlia begins with this first-person narration by Bucky Bleichert. Bleichert’s view of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia murder victim, broadly conforms to how cultural depictions of the case have reflected the prejudices and obsessions of their creators. Elizabeth Short’s brief life and violent death have been much scrutinised, and in cultural terms she has become a blank canvas to which authors and their characters create an identity which fits their own obsessions.
One of the first films to even loosely approach the Black Dahlia murder as a subject was the 1953 film noir The Blue Gardenia. Directed by Fritz Lang from a story by crime writer Vera Caspary, The Blue Gardenia concerns a young switchboard operator (played by Anne Baxter) who is engaged to a serviceman stationed in Japan. On the night of her birthday, she sets two places at the dinner table, one for her and one for the photo of her fiancee. She then sits down to read a letter from him, which she has saved for the occasion, only to discover that he has fallen in love with a nurse and has written to say goodbye. Depressed, she decides to throw caution to the wind and go on a date with the caddish Harry Prebble, a man who hangs around her office trying to pick up vulnerable women. He takes her to the nightclub The Blue Gardenia where she starts to drink too much and is quickly intoxicated. She finds herself back at his apartment, but when he comes on to her too strong, she defends herself from his unwelcome advances with a poker before falling into a drunken unconsciousness. She awakes the next day in her apartment only to discover in the newspaper that Prebble is dead and the police are looking for the woman he was seen with in the nightclub, who is now the prime suspect. An ambitious journalist labels the missing woman as ‘The Blue Gardenia’ and the case quickly becomes a press sensation. Unfortunately, The Blue Gardenia is one of the more routine film noir’s of the period. Some critics believe that the influence of the Dahlia case does not extend beyond the title. Although the Dahlia influence may be only minor and allusive, it is interesting nonetheless: there is the near-fantasy relationship with a serviceman, a possible sex crime which escalates into a murder and an intense public interest in the case which develops after a journalist gives the murderess an intriguing nickname. As the story is told mostly from Baxter’s point of view and portrays her sympathetically, the viewer sees the ‘Gardenia’ woman as both victim and murderess, although the final twist deconstructs this merging of identities (but I won’t reveal it to you as I don’t want to give the game away).
The next chapter in the cultural history of the Dahlia case comes from Jack Webb, creator, producer and star of the hit television police show Dragnet. Webb starred as Sergeant Joe Friday in Dragnet. The show was a phenomenal success when it first aired from 1951 to 1959 and was considered ground-breaking in its realistic depiction of police work. According to Webb’s opening narration, many of the episodes were based on actual LAPD cases making the show an early example of the police procedural sub-genre. Although much of this realism would seem horribly contrived to a modern audience (as the show was partly conceived to be LAPD propaganda). A point further made by the fact that LAPD Chief William H. Parker was credited as a consultant to the original radio show. Joe Friday is less a man than a machine: he speaks almost entirely in monotone and carries a black and white moral system, black being any infringement of the law. The Black Dahlia case was too graphic for television, which at the time was under heavy censorship. Publishing was more liberal and so as a companion piece to Dragnet, Jack Webb authored The Badge. First published in 1958, The Badge featured ‘True and terrifying crime stories that could not be presented on TV’. In the opening chapter, there is a ten page synopsis of the Black Dahlia murder. It differs in tone from the rest of the book in that it freely admits the LAPD were never close to cracking the case, and it even expresses a cynical dark humour in mocking the frustrations of Detective Finis Brown’s inability to make any progress in the investigation:
But with the monster who slowly, delectably tortured The Black Dahlia to death, they have never felt that they were anywhere near close. They have never known the motive, nor whether the slayer was man or woman, nor where the agony was perpetrated.
Was the killer The Dahlia’s lover or husband who felt he had been betrayed? But what betrayal, even unfaithfulness or a mocking laugh, merited revenge like this?
Was it perhaps a woman who had taken The Dahlia as wife in Lesbian marriage? Was that why the body had to be bisected, so that she could carry out the parts to her car?
Was the killer, man or woman, a sadist with a blood fetish who slashed for no comprehensible reason at all?
All LAPD can say is that its detectives have exonerated every man and woman whom they’ve talked to, including the scores who insist to this day that they are guilty.
Beyond that, you are free to speculate. But do him a favour – don’t press your deductions on Finis Brown.
Jack Webb had relatively few roles outside of Dragnet, although he did have a small and memorable role in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. In one scene he jokingly introduces William Holden’s character at a party with the line ‘Fans, you all know Joe Gillis, the well-known screenwriter, uranium smuggler, and Black Dahlia suspect’. I wonder if he ad-libbed the line.
The Badge was a treasured birthday gift for the eleven-year-old James Ellroy, or as he was known at the time Lee Earle Ellroy. Ellroy’s mother, Geneva Hilliker Ellroy, had been murdered the year before. She had been seen on a date with an unidentified man near their home in El Monte and was found strangled to death the next morning outside of the nearby Arroyo High School. The case had gone unsolved, and the young Ellroy, who had been at odds with his mother for some time, went to live with his father without seemingly any emotional trauma. After reading The Badge, however, Ellroy would link the Dahlia case with his mother’s murder in his mind and sow the seeds of one of his greatest works as a novelist some twenty-eight years later. Ellroy was to describe the discovery in his autobiography:
Betty Short became my obsession.
And my symbiotic stand-in for Geneva Hilliker Ellroy.
Betty was running and hiding. My mother ran to El Monte and forged a secret weekend life there. Betty and my mother were body-dump victims. Jack Webb said Betty was a loose girl. My father said my mother was a drunk and a whore.
My Dahlia obsession was explicitly pornographic. My imagination supplied the details that Jack Webb omitted. The murder was an epigram on transient lives and impacted sex as death. The unsolved status was a wall I tried to break down with a child’s curiosity.
I applied my mind to the task. My explication efforts were entirely unconscious. I simply told myself mental stories.
There would be many turbulent years ahead for Ellroy before he would reinvent himself as a novelist, yet before his version of the case, there would be two major Dahlia depictions in popular culture. The first would come from a woman who was one of the most promising novelists of her generation. Her contribution to Dahlia mythology was her ninth novel, The Other Girl. The novel was published in 1962. When Theodora Keogh died in 2008, the Daily Telegraph was the only major newspaper to run an obituary. I, like many other readers, was for the first time given insight into the life of an extraordinary woman who in her later years spurned the public eye for a life of obscurity. Theodora Keogh was born Theodora Roosevelt in New York in 1919, granddaughter to President Theodore Roosevelt, and was educated at the Chapin School in Manhattan, and later in Munich by the pro-Nazi Countess Montgelas. She formed a ballet company with Alexander Iolas and joined a musical revue at the Copacabana in Rio. She was known to dance in the street, wear boyish clothes and carry a knife for protection. After the war she worked in costume design on several Hollywood films before she began writing novels. Keogh’s novels were popular and acclaimed: the composer Ned Rorem described her as ‘our best American writer, certainly our best female writer’. Broadly categorised as lesbian pulp fiction, alongside such novelists as Ann Bannon and Marijane Meaker, Theodora Keogh’s novels are sinister, darkly sexual tales. The Other Girl is no exception. The novel’s main focus is on Marge Vulawski, the daughter of immigrant workers who has grown up on a farm just outside of L.A. Marge came to the City of Angels with high hopes but has become bitter and cynical, as her practical know-how with farm machinery and her broad build have led her to an unexciting job as a garage mechanic. Around Marge, Keogh creates an eccentric collection of oddball characters including a woman named Zoe who refers to herself simply as ‘the Duchess’ and the sleazy Hollywood agent Herman Lee. Then, of course, there is the girl, Betty, whom the reader will recognise as Elizabeth Short. Betty is an aspiring actress who becomes the focus of Marge’s sexual desire, a desire merged with an increasing anger. During an orgy with some French sailors, Betty and Marge have their first sexual contact:
But her [Betty’s] breasts themselves were surprisingly small; fresh and round and shiny like a peeled twig with dark, insulting nipples. The fresh, tender lower curves of these breasts entered into Marge’s memory for ever. They merged with childhood dreams, with infancy. They became the salty, threaded stuff of her generation.
Was what followed called an orgy? The French sailors hadn’t treated it as such. To them it appeared natural, neither odd nor perverse.
The novel ends with Betty’s murder, and it would be the end of Theodora Keogh’s literary career. According to an expert on Keogh, Robert Nedelkoff, she wrote one more novel, ‘The Love Life of Sometime Malone’ which was rejected by her publisher and practically disappeared from public life. Nedelkoff also speculates that The Badge may have reminded Keogh of the Dahlia case, as she had been working in LA as a costume designer at the time of the murder. She ended her days living on a farm in North Carolina, although since her death there has been a renewed scholarly interest in her work.
In 1975 came the television film Who is the Black Dahlia? The film jumps between the investigation of her murder and flashbacks of key moments of her life. The film broadly follows the facts of the case, although there are a few jarring changes, for instance Elizabeth’s hometown is said to be Portland, Maine, and she is raised by her grandmother when in reality she was raised by her mother in Medford, Massachusetts. The film is not particularly distinctive, hampered by a low budget and confusion as to what it wants to achieve; however, it does feature a moving portrayal of Elizabeth Short by Arnaz and is available to watch in its entirety on YouTube.
Then, in 1977 came one of the key Dahlia works. John Gregory Dunne’s True Confessions tells the story of two brothers working in post-war Los Angeles: Tom and Des Spellacy. Tom is a detective and Des is a priest. Both are cynical and corrupt in their own way. Des is in line for a bishopric but is increasingly uncomfortable with the archdiocese’s links to the crooked businessman Jack Amsterdam. The Black Dahlia case is a loose but important influence on the novel. Tom Spellacy is investigating the murder of a woman found naked, chopped in half and dumped on an abandoned lot. Here Elizabeth Short is renamed Lois Fazenda, and the tone is more than a little misogynistic. When Spellacy and his partner Frank Crotty are trying to fend off an eager journalist by coining a nickname for the victim, they come up with ‘the Magic Pussy Murder’, ‘the Sliced-up Slit Case’, and ‘the Missing Clit Caper’ before finally settling on ‘the Virgin Tramp’. Tramp in American slang, more so than in the UK at least, refers to promiscuity which makes the sobriquet oddly contradictory, like the flower that cannot be black, it cancels itself out while exuding a mysterious aura. It may also be a reference to Dunne’s lapsed Catholicism. Dunne’s family originated in the Irish immigrant communities of Frog Hollow, Hartford, Connecticut. Dunne transposes the deeply Irish areas of New England, particularly Hartford and Boston, onto post-war LA, a city which was not as ethnically Irish as his portrayal. The novel is laced with raucous black humour and heavy cynicism in its depiction of the inner politics of police work and the Catholic church: priests have heart attacks in bed with young hookers and an ambitious policeman chokes to death on his steak dinner on the day he becomes chief. Despite this, there is a degree of humorous affection in the portrayal of the Church. Also, the Virgin Tramp evokes the Virgin Mary, or, on another level, the severed body of Christ, as although the resolution of the murder mystery is somewhat banal, anyone who had any contact with the Virgin Tramp finds their careers destroyed by the scandal. But through his unhappy association with the victim, Des Spellacy returns to a humble parish church with a renewed faith, her blood having paid for his sins.
True Confessions was an immediate bestseller when it was released and lead to a faithful film adaptation in 1981 with Robert Duvall and Robert De Niro in the roles of Tom and Des Spellacy. Despite this, the novel seems to have disappeared from popular consciousness in recent years, overshadowed perhaps by the definitive cultural depiction of the Dahlia case.
James Ellroy was recovering from alcoholism and drug addiction when True Confessions was released, and the book had a profound effect on him. The success of True Confessions deterred him from making the Black Dahlia case the subject of his first novel, despite having a burning ambition to write about it. Ellroy briefly touched upon the Dahlia case as back story to his second novel Clandestine. Clandestine was a fictional retelling of his mother’s murder and the case is solved in the book.
The novel contains a scene where the Irish-American cop Dudley Smith, who would later become one of Ellroy’s most notable characters in his LA Quartet novels, describes rounding up a series of psychopaths who are natural suspects in the Dahlia murder. Smith encourages them to disfigure the corpse of an Elizabeth Short lookalike in an attempt to identify the killer. Ellroy would return to this voyeuristic reenactment scene in his Dahlia novel. Knowing that Dunne had only adhered to the facts of the case in regards to some of the torture details, Ellroy’s ambition was to replicate the details of the case as much as possible into a narrative and then create a fictional solution. Ellroy began his formal research into the case by taking three, triple-reinforced pillow cases filled with quarters into a New York City library and ordering through inter-library loan the original LA newspaper articles covering the Dahlia case.
It is in the fictional aspects of the story that Ellroy recreates the emotional relationship he formed between himself and the Dahlia and his mother. One of the most striking aspects of the novel is the emergence of unstable trinities. At the centre you have the two police officers Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard. The relationship is complicated by Blanchard’s girlfriend Kay Lake, whom Bucky is deeply attracted to, complicating matters for all three of them. As the narrative evolves, the trinity reinvents itself. Bucky and Blanchard become obsessed with the Dahlia, Blanchard to the extent that his relationship with Kay crumbles and he disappears. Bucky then starts a relationship with Kay, but he too is obsessed with Elizabeth Short and starts seeing living women as proxies for his emotional love for a dead woman. This is further complicated when Bucky has a fling with Madeleine Sprague, a femme fatale who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Elizabeth Short. The dedication to the novel reads:
‘To Geneva Hilliker Ellroy 1915-1958 Mother: Twenty-nine Years Later, This Valediction in Blood’
And in his memoir My Dark Places Ellroy goes into some depth as to how his mother’s murder fuelled the narrative:
I was burning a lifelong torch with three flames […] My mother. The Dahlia. The woman I knew God would give me. […] I locked myself up for a year and wrote The Black Dahlia.
The year flew by. I lived with one dead woman and a dozen bad men. Betty Short ruled me. I built her character from diverse strains of male desire and tried to portray the male world that sanctioned her death. I wrote the last page and wept. I dedicated the book to my mother. I knew I could link Jean and Betty and strike 24-karat gold. I financed my own book tour. I took the link public. I made The Black Dahlia a national bestseller.
I told the Jean Ellroy – Dahlia story ten dozen times. I reduced it to sound bites and vulgarized it in the name of accessibility. I went at it with precise dispassion. I portrayed myself as a man formed by two murdered women and a man who now lived on a plane above such matters. My media performances were commanding at first glance and glib upon reappraisal. They exploited my mother’s desecration and allowed me to cut her memory down to manageable proportions.
A film adaptation of The Black Dahlia appeared in 2006 directed by Brian De Palma. The film divided critical opinion. Some people hate it. I take a more charitable view of the film. In fact, I like it. One aspect which the critics seemed to agree upon was Mia Kirshner’s hauntingly beautiful performance as Elizabeth Short. Here’s a clip:
The examples I have given her are what I consider to be the main fictional works on the Black Dahlia, although it has been referenced or alluded to in many other works. The case has proved fertile ground for each author’s creative vision. Public fascination with the Black Dahlia case is likely to grow in the years to come, and we can probably expect to see many more cultural depictions of one of the most gruesome and fascinating murder cases in American history.