Death Becomes Her
Examining the morbid fascination with the Black Dahlia.
Twenty-two-year-old wannabe starlet Elizabeth Short, later christened the Black Dahlia by the tabloid press, was murdered sometime after midnight on Jan. 15, 1947. Short's naked, bisected corpse was laid out on the edge of a vacant lot in Los Angeles. Her legs were spread-eagled, and there was a gash where her vulva should have been. Drained of its blood and scrubbed clean, Short's body appeared to be a hollowed-out, waxen effigy. Her head was snapped to the right, her left arm cocked above her shoulders. Her breasts had been slashed. Her nose was broken, her face was slit from ear to ear; the result was a garish simulacrum of a fiendish smile. Much of this horror was inflicted during the hours, and perhaps days, before Short finally, mercifully died. Some of it occurred post-mortem. Her murder has never been solved.
As James Ellroy wrote in his memoir, My Dark Places, "Dead white women always stirred things up," and that's certainly been the case with Elizabeth Short. Even without an obvious celebrity tie-in, her murder resulted in a media feeding frenzy on par with the Nicole Brown Simpson case four and a half decades later. Her death inspired the 1953 noir film The Blue Gardenia; Jack Webb, who played Joe Friday in the Dragnet TV series, included a factually challenged chapter about the Dahlia case in his 1958 book The Badge; and in 1977, John Gregory Dunne used a murder reminiscent of Short's as a jumping-off point for his novel True Confessions. Finally, in 1987, Ellroy published his own fictional account of Short's murder and the attendant LAPD investigation, The Black Dahlia. Ellroy has written repeatedly about his obsession with Short's death, an obsession that stemmed from the case's parallels to the murder of his own mother, who was killed in 1958 and whose body was also left in a field in Los Angeles. Since the runaway success of Ellroy's novel, the case has drawn renewed interest, the most recent example being director Brian De Palma's screen adaptation of The Black Dahlia, which opens nationwide today.
James Ellroy was 10 when his mother, Geneva, was killed. He initially buried his grief; later, he dealt with his feelings by channeling them through a morbid, erotically charged preoccupation with the Dahlia murder. "Betty Short became my obsession," he explained in My Dark Places, "my symbolic stand-in for Geneva Hilliker Ellroy." As a teenager, Ellroy imagined himself as Short's lover, protector, avenger, and killer, and his escalating mania fueled an increasingly fetishistic sexuality ("my Dahlia obsession was explicitly pornographic"). When he was in his late teens and early 20s, Ellroy would break into houses to smell women's underwear; at night, he'd embark on eight- and 10-hour masturbating jags. "She spawns my lifelong dialogue on misogyny," Ellroy said about Geneva and the Dahlia. Readers of his ultraviolent, hard-boiled crime novels will know that's quite a dialogue.
The Black Dahlia is, with its overlapping themes of obsession, sublimated lust, revenge, trust, and incest, the most personally revealing of Ellroy's novels. It transformed the murky facts surrounding Short's life and death into art, the unknown "dead white woman" becoming a tabula rasa on which the author could wrestle with his anger and affection toward his mother. Women are frequently referred to as "cunts," Short is forced, in an amateur stag film, to violate herself with a fanged dildo, and the book's narrator has rage-fueled sex with a Dahlia doppelgänger. His dark places, indeed.
Ellroy's book introduced the paradigm of Short as an unknowable Everywoman to a new generation. Since then, two widely publicized books whose authors claim their fathers killed Elizabeth Short have been published. Unlike Ellroy, neither of these writers has come close to the unvarnished self-examination Ellroy embraces: They've used Short's murder as an excuse to indulge their hatred of their fathers instead of truly exorcizing demons of their own. Not surprisingly, both accounts are unsatisfying and unconvincing.
The first daddy-as-Dahlia-killer tome was Janice Knowlton's Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Killer, published in 1995. Knowlton, a self-proclaimed victim of paternal incest and abuse, claimed to have recovered memories of watching her father murder Short before being forced to help dispose of Short's body. Her account—Knowlton said Short's body was stored in her basement for days and was drained of blood so it would sink after being thrown off a fishing pier—is almost comically preposterous.
Next came former LAPD detective Steve Hodel. In 2003, he released Black Dahlia Avenger, in which he claimed that it was his father, Dr. George Hodel, who'd killed Short (possibly in concert with Man Ray and John Huston). Hodel, whose father had been accused and acquitted of incestuous rape by his daughter, also claimed his dad had been a Hannibal Lecter-esque madman who butchered up to a dozen women. He based his case on inconclusive handwriting analysis and a pair of pictures that are almost certainly not of Short that he found in his father's belongings. Because of his résumé, Hodel's theory got even more attention than Knowlton's, and Hodel talked the LAPD into examining what he said was definitive proof of his father's guilt. The police were not convinced.
These accounts are bookended by two works that are more plainly investigative. In 1994, John Gilmore released Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder, in which he fingered a dead, alcoholic, petty thief named Jack Anderson Wilson as Short's killer.
Then, last year, Donald Wolfe came out with The Black Dahlia Files. Wolfe claims Short was murdered by mobster Bugsy Siegel (with help from Wilson, a back-alley abortionist, and one other man) because she refused to abort Los Angeles Times publisher Norman Chandler's illegitimate child. Both Gilmore's and Wolfe's works are intermittently persuasive, although starkly contradictory evidence, an abundance of fantastical conspiracies, and a reliance on drunken (or senile) witnesses means they can't be treated as anything close to conclusive.
Once De Palma's movie vanishes from theaters, Elizabeth Short, dead white woman par excellence, may find her tenure as a literary and artistic inspiration is finally coming to an end. Short's rejuvenated role as muse sprung from Ellroy's fearless, frenzied explorations, and even Ellroy, the twisted paterfamilias of Dahlia lit, seems to have been sucked dry. The publication of The Black Dahlia in 1987 heralded a creative explosion in which Ellroy produced his four best books— The Big Nowhere (1988), L.A. Confidential (1990), White Jazz (1992), and American Tabloid (1995)—over the next eight years. In My Dark Places, which came out in 1996, he finally examined (and attempted to solve) his mother's murder. While doing so, he discovered—as he had both fantasized and feared—that that she was both a charming and vivacious woman and an occasionally drunken floozy. Ellroy says that his investigation has helped him come to peace with his past. Since then, he's only published one more novel, 2001's unwieldy The Cold Six Thousand.
Seth Mnookin is the author of the New York Times best seller Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts and Nerve Took a Team to the Top and Hard News.
Photograph of Elizabeth Short by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.