Light does not easily penetrate the clouded story of Betty Short, a 22-year-old unemployed cashier and waitress whose body was found cut in half and gruesomely mutilated Jan. 15, 1947, in a vacant lot in Southwest Los Angeles' Leimert Park.
Over the years, it has become a tale of a dark, tragic beauty clad in black prowling the Los Angeles night life, a cautionary fable that rings as true today as it did in 1947.
It is a legend that insists on a shadowed, epic tone: the newspaper photographs look like movie stills from some long-lost classic crime film. Even the name of story is based in darkness: The Black Dahlia.
Tackling this enduring myth head-on is like driving into a midnight fog with your brights on. It is far better to pick your way slowly and carefully among the self-appointed experts, avoiding most of them in favor of those who played a role in the mystery.
A few of the people who were close to the killing were hardly touched by it. But for many others, it remains a haunting experience: for the detective who for 50 years has felt he interviewed the killer, but whose lead was ignored; for the 11-year-old boy who turned his obsession into a career as a best-selling author, and especially for the Short family, for whom the crime is as fresh and painful today as it was on that crisp, clear day in January so long ago.
Perhaps it even haunts the days of the killer, if he is still alive, as he relives his cruel and bloody crime, arrogant in the knowledge that he has eluded justice for so long.
For the LAPD, the Black Dahlia murder--its most famous case--is still open. Everything known about it sits in a file cabinet in a corner of the Robbery-Homicide Division at Parker Center. Once or twice a month, the detective assigned to the case, who wasn't even born when murder occurred, gets a phone call about it. Even the crank calls need to be investigated.
She perseveres in the face of adversity, getting a few bit parts in films, but is horribly slain, a moth consumed by the Hollywood flame, achieving in death the fame that eluded her in life.
A darker variation (as in John Gregory Dunne's "True Confessions") makes her lazy and irresponsible, hints obliquely at stag films (as in James Ellroy?s "Black Dahlia") and the Los Angeles underworld.
The myth usually concludes with a doorman at the Biltmore Hotel, where she was last seen, tipping his cap as he ushers her out, watching as the Dahlia vanishes into the night, only to resurface a week later horribly slain.
But little of it is true. In fact, the "noble doorman" is an excellent example of how fiction is passed from writer to writer until it becomes entrenched as truth. The "noble doorman" cannot be found in news accounts of the day, which reported on anyone's contact with Short or possible sightings of her in the so-called missing week before her death, no matter how unlikely or tangential.
The "noble doorman's" earliest known appearance is in Jack Webb?s book "The Badge," a "Dragnet" spinoff about the LAPD written in 1958. From there, it's a small step to Kenneth Anger's 1984 "Hollywood Babylon II," Marvin Wolf and Katherine Mader's 1986 "Fallen Angels" and John Gilmore?s 1994 "Severed."
Multiply the "noble doorman" by hundreds of mistakes and generations of fiction and you get an idea of what it's like to search for the real story: It doesn't matter whether the victim was young and pretty, or whether she was on the verge of Hollywood stardom or whether she was mysterious; legend would have made her so.
Part of the reason she remains mysterious is because she was so covert about her life, revealing little about herself as she wandered from Long Beach to Hollywood to San Diego, never making any long-term friends and never staying anywhere very long. A few weeks here, a month or two there and she was on the move again.
The biographical facts of her early life are easy to come by: She grew up in Medford, Mass., the historic "Medford town?"of Longfellow's "Midnight Ride of Paul Revere."
Elizabeth, or Betty as she was usually known, was born July 29, 1924, the third of five girls born within eight years to Phoebe Short and her husband, Cleo, who built miniature golf courses.
After the stock market crash and the beginning of the Depression, Cleo abandoned the family, vanishing in 1930, when Betty was 6. She suffered from asthma and had a scar on her back from her surgery for empyema, a scar that would clinch the identification of her body years later.
Betty Short's schoolmates recall her as a nice, attractive girl who turned heads whenever she walked down the street or entered the Medford Cafe, a local cafeteria. Bob Pacios, who grew up around the corner from the Shorts' home on Salem Street, remembers Betty "as by far the prettiest of the five sisters."
Pacios said she liked to tease him. "She knew I was bashful and liked to see my face turn crimson. She would say, 'We ought to go out dancing together.' But she was a nice girl," he said. Pacios tells of a friend who dated her a few times, but never even kissed her. "She wouldn?t let him," he said.
"She had an unusual walk," Pacios said. "It was almost a mincing-type thing. I think she could have balanced a book on her head. She glided; she walked like a model on a runway."
She was an indifferent student at Medford High, getting C?s and D?s, and she quit school after her freshman year. The family decided to send her to Florida to spare her the harsh New England winters.
It was 1940; she was 16. After a few winters in Florida, she tried California. At one point, she was living in Santa Barbara, but got sent back to Medford by juvenile authorities.
??The last time I saw Betty was 1945 and I was getting ready to go overseas,?? Pacios said. ??My wife and I, and my family were sitting down near City Hall on some grass. Betty walked by on Salem Street. My father said, ?Gee, there goes Betty. Bob, you ought to go over and say hello to her.? With my wife sitting beside me I thought, ?no way.? She probably didn?t even see us.??
But who was she really and what was she like? Getting the answer to those questions is like trying to grab a fistful of fog, for in many ways she seemed to be two opposites.
Was she the nice, polite, attractive girl with pale skin and dark hair who liked to dance and made friends easily? The girl who was always careful about her appearance, but chewed her fingernails and wore too much makeup?
The innocent and sincere Army camp PX worker who, in her childlike charm and beauty, refused to date servicemen? The daughter who dutifully wrote home to her mother every week, filling her letters with hopeful news that wasn?t true? The girl who wrote love letters that she never mailed?
The fiancee of a highly decorated Army major who was killed overseas shortly before they were to be married? Or the opportunist who asked his grieving parents for money?
??Betty could not stand up to trouble and she was always in hot water,?? said Ann Toth, an aspiring actress who rented a room at the home of nightclub business manager Mark Hansen at the same time Short lived there. ??However, we used to think the world of that kid,?? Toth said in 1947. ??She was always well-behaved and sweet when I knew her.?? Toth added that Short was ??skeptical of people?? but even so she often ??stumbled into trash.??
Was Short really the woman portrayed in the press as the unemployed waitress who prowled the boulevard with a different boyfriend every night, frequently failing to come home? The girl who never seemed to have a job but somehow managed to pay the rent as she shifted from hotel to hotel and apartment to apartment every few months? Or was she the wide-eyed innocent of the 1975 TV movie ??Who Is the Black Dahlia??? inexplicably accosted by mashers in uniform?
How did the murdered Short, whose badly decayed teeth were plugged with wax, become the seductive Black Dahlia? The questions baffled detectives half a century ago and the mystery has only improved with age.
??Elizabeth always wanted to be an actress,?? her mother said in 1947. ??She was ambitious and beautiful and full of life but she had her moments of despondency. Sometimes she would be gay and carefree one moment?then in the depths of despair another.??
What is known is that in 1942, her long-lost father sent her some money. ??She came out [to Vallejo, Calif.] and we set up housekeeping,?? he said in 1947. ??But she wouldn?t stay home. . . . [Betty was always] running around when she was supposed to be keeping house for me. I made her leave. . . . In 1943 I told her to go her way, I?d go mine.??
Reporters and homicide detectives would spend months sorting out the fragmented, wandering life that followed.
In the movie theaters, there?s ??It?s a Wonderful Life,?? ??The Best Years of Our Lives and ??The Razor?s Edge,?? along with ??Stairway to Heaven?? and ??Till the Clouds Roll By.??
Crime is rising after the war and the morning Examiner runs a daily box score on the front page. On the day Short?s body was found, it reported 47 burglaries, 13 robberies and two murders. In a letter to the afternoon Herald-Express, a woman offers $10 toward the construction of a whipping post for L.A.?s ??sex-crazed hoodlums.??
And in the midst of an acute housing shortage, a 3-bedroom 1-bath home in the 3700 block of Norton Avenue, one block east of Crenshaw Boulevard, is $11,000. John and Betty Bersinger, who bought a home there in 1945, recall it as a ??nice, middle-class, very congenial neighborhood,?? mostly newly married couples with young children; a good place to raise a family.
But the war had stopped the housing development at their block. The rest of Norton was paved, and curbs, sidewalks, street lights and a fire hydrant had been installed in the next block south. But the lots in the 3800 block between Coliseum and 39th were otherwise neglected and overgrown with weeds and small bushes.
See a map of the neighborhood as it appeared in 1945
In the days after the killing, when the nation?s attention was focused on the broad, flat, overgrown landscape of Norton Avenue, it was described as a notorious lovers? lane. But retired LAPD Officer Wayne Fitzgerald, who once lived on Norton, spent his 27-year career in the area and was one of the first two policemen to respond to the crime scene, said: ??It was a very nice neighborhood in those days.??
About 10 on that crisp, bright morning of Jan. 15, Betty Bersinger was pushing her 3-year-old daughter, Anne, in a ??Taylor Tot stroller,?? heading south to a repair shop to pick up her husband?s shoes.
Bersinger was looking down, concentrating on steering the wheels of the stroller through the broken glass and debris that covered the sidewalk along the vacant lots, when: ??I glanced to my right, and saw this very dead, white body,?? she said recently.
??My goodness . . . it was so white. It didn?t look quite . . . like anything more than perhaps an artificial model,?? she said. ??It was so white and separated in the middle. I noticed the dark hair and this white, white form.??
It was the carefully posed remains of Betty Short, 5-5, 115 pounds, who had been severed at the navel. She was face-up, about eight inches from the sidewalk, 54 feet north of the fire hydrant at the middle of the block. Her blue eyes were open, her hands were over her head with her elbows bent at right angles, and her knees were straight and legs spread.
Flies were hovering around the body. She had been hit in the head and gashes were cut from the corners of her mouth up toward her ears. Chunks of flesh had been neatly sliced from her body, which had been scrubbed and drained of blood. The autopsy surgeon later found that she died of shock due to concussion of the brain and loss of blood from the gashes in her face.
Bersinger stopped at a house to call the police, but no one was home. A woman at the second house let her call the LAPD. The officer asked her what number she was calling from?but not her name?and hung up.
After touching off what would become the largest manhunt of its day, and a story that would rage in the newspapers for months, Bersinger went off to pick up her husband?s shoes.
Sheriff Eugene W. Biscaluz issued badges to reporters in lieu of press passes and provided a daily liquor ration to some members of the working press, notably Herald-Express police reporter Beverly Lafayette Means, who got the nickname ??Bevo?? from an old brand of near beer (it seemed that Bevo was always "near" beer) and who was in a Long Beach bar when he discovered that Short was called the Black Dahlia.
The LAPD?s headquarters were still in City Hall. Police officers, with their Sam Brown belts and black-and-white radio cars, were feared and respected in those days long before Miranda rights. There might be an occasional bump when one reporter got too eager to get a scoop, but in general it was a mutually beneficial alliance.
In the newspaper business, four publications were locked in a fierce competition for readers. In the morning there was The Times and the city?s largest paper, the Examiner. In the afternoon, there was the Herald-Express, and the Daily News, a tabloid, was published around the clock.
The newsrooms clattered with the sound of typewriters and window-shattering calls of ??boy!?? or ??copy!?? Reporters phoned in information to a bank of rewrite men, who pounded out stories as copy messengers tore slips of paper from the typewriters in mid-sentence to get the story into print.
These newsmen?for they were almost all men?were a notoriously hard-drinking bunch and they rushed to fill seven or eight editions a day, with editors demanding that stories be updated for every edition.
Competition between the papers was keen, but the Black Dahlia case was the Examiner?s story all the way, starting with the extra it brought out the first day. It was the Examiner that notified Short?s mother that her daughter was dead, the Examiner that found Short?s suitcases, checked at the bus station, and the Examiner that located top suspect Robert M. ??Red?? Manley, a salesman who explained that he was ??testing his love for his wife?? when he picked Short up in San Diego and later drove her back to Los Angeles.
Upon arriving on Norton that day, retired Officer Fitzgerald said: ??The first thing we thought was that it was a mannequin. That someone was playing a trick because there was no blood. Then we realized what the hell we had. We started calling all our supervisors, telling them this was something big.?? Wave upon wave of police officers, sergeants and detectives, including lead Detectives Harry Hansen and Finis (pronounced Fine-iss) Brown, descended on Norton, as did an equal number of reporters and photographers.
But there was no crime scene tape, nothing to keep curious reporters and eager photographers away from the body or from climbing on top of emergency vehicles to get a better shot. Examiner reporter Will Fowler recalls closing Short?s eyes before police arrived. Later, crime lab chief Ray Pinker told Fowler to stop walking through the crime scene; Fowler replied in gallows humor, ??I?m sorry, but you know how these suicides upset me.??
When investigators were finished, Fowler said, he helped load the bottom half of Short?s body into a vehicle to be taken to the morgue. When he picked up her heels, ??her body was so light it was like nothing,?? Fowler said.
He describes a gruesome picture of her body being weighed on a freight scale at the loading dock of the Hall of Justice and being taken into the morgue in the basement.
In those days it was common for reporters to observe autopsies of prominent people. Famed City Editor Agness ??Aggie?? Underwood, whose last big story as a reporter was the Black Dahlia killing, recalled being among a throng of reporters observing the autopsy of actress Thelma Todd, and of being the last observer in the room when it was concluded.
Fowler grimly describes the autopsy room, recalling pathologists sticking knives in a large piece of balsa wood when they weren?t in use. Because the killer had washed Short?s body thoroughly, the skin on her fingers had wrinkled, making it hard to take fingerprints. Finally technicians lifted a set and planned to send them to the FBI for identification. Bad weather was delaying airplane flights, so the Examiner offered to transmit the prints by the wirephoto system?if it got an exclusive.
And so by the evening of Jan. 16, Short was identified from fingerprints taken when she was arrested in Santa Barbara in 1943.
The Examiner, Fowler said, sent one pair of reporters to San Diego and another pair to Santa Barbara and had them work toward Los Angeles, checking at every motel along the main highway to see if she had checked in.
And the Examiner broke the news to Short?s mother, in perhaps one of the cruelest tricks of yellow journalism. The task fell to rewrite man Wain Sutton as notorious City Editor Jimmy Richardson sat in a swivel chair and listened in on the conversation.
??Richardson said to tell her that she won a beauty contest,?? said Times sports columnist Jim Murray, then a fellow rewrite man on the Examiner desk. ??Wain called the mother and asked all these questions and took all these notes. I sat there and listened to the poor, dear mother telling him about her school-day triumphs. I can still see him put his hand over the mouthpiece of the old-fashioned upright phone and say, ?Now what do I tell her??
??Richardson screwed up his one good eye and said: ?Now tell her.?
??You son of a bitch,?? Murray said in imitating Sutton, who drew out each word for maximum impact.
??That tells you all you had to know about Hearst journalism right there,?? Murray said.
Phoebe Short refused to believe that her daughter was dead. It wasn?t until Medford police contacted her that the grim reality sunk in. But her suffering was far from over. If there is a tragic figure in this case, it is Phoebe Short, who not only had to raise five girls after being abandoned by her husband, and have one of them brutally murdered; now she had to fly to Los Angeles alone and identify the body.
Her oldest daughter, Virginia, and son-in-law Adrian West, who lived in Berkeley, joined her. But because Virginia hadn?t seen Betty in years and Adrian had never met her, it was left to the mother to identify the remains.
She resisted for two days, explaining that she wanted to remember Betty as she had been the last time she had seen her, and not the way the killer had left her. But when Phoebe Short finally agreed, she had a difficult time identifying her daughter because Betty?s face was puffy from the killer?s beating.
In Santa Barbara, reporters talked to Police Officer Mary Unkefer, who befriended Short in 1943 after she was arrested for being in a bar as a minor. ??She was dressed nicely and was a long way from a barfly,?? Unkefer said in 1947. The officer, who took Short into her home until she was sent back to Medford, said the girl had a rose tattooed on her left leg.
??She loved to sit so that it would show,?? Unkefer said. Perhaps it was this tattoo that the killer cut from her leg. Or perhaps it was a vaccination scar. Even today, the police still won?t comment.
The next year Short went back to Florida, where she met Maj. Matt Gordon Jr., a pilot who may have been the love of her life. He died in a plane crash in India in 1945. His obituary said he had been planning to come back to Medford to marry his sweetheart, but after her death his parents disclaimed Short, saying they were never engaged and that Short had asked them for money after their son died.
According to a time line published in one paper, she spent most of her days loafing, interspersed with picking up men and going to nightclubs. One of the men was Robert Manley, a young redheaded Los Angeles salesman who met Short on a street corner.
??I asked her if she wanted to ride. She turned her head and wouldn?t look at me,?? Manley told Underwood in 1947. But he kept talking to Short, telling her about himself. ??Finally she turned around and asked me if I didn?t think it was wrong to ask a girl on a corner to get into my car.
??I said yes, but ?I?d like to take you home,? so she got in the car,?? Manley said. He reportedly arranged a job interview for her, but she never showed up. They went out four nights in a row before he headed back to his wife and young son in L.A.
After the holidays, the family asked her to leave, so she wired Manley to come and get her. She told him she was going to meet her sister Virginia and go up to Berkeley, none of which was true.
Short and Manley stayed in a motel in Pacific Beach, platonically, he said. She spent the night sleeping in a chair, fully dressed, Manley told Underwood. He made some sales calls in San Diego the next morning and they drove up to Los Angeles. Manley helped her check her suitcases at the bus station and took her to the Biltmore Hotel.
She asked him to look for her sister in the Biltmore?s lobby while she went to the powder room. Manley paged Virginia and asked several women if they were Betty?s sister; they thought he was trying to pick them up. But he didn?t find her. Concerned about getting back to his family, Manley left Betty Short at the Biltmore at 6:30 p.m. It was already dark.
Reporters trailing the mysterious ??Red,?? (the San Diego family that took Short in didn?t know Manley?s name) found the motel where they had checked in, using their real names. Armed with the address found at the motel, Fowler visited the home in Huntington Park, looking for Manley.
??I knocked on the door and found this beautiful woman holding this beautiful baby,?? Fowler said. After making sure she saw his badge, ??I told her I wanted to talk to Mr. Manley about 20 parking tickets. She was so scared,?? he said. She said her husband was with a friend on a business trip to San Francisco and was returning to the friend?s home the next night.
Fowler got the address and led police to the home in Eagle Rock, where Manley and his friend returned from San Francisco.
??Right away, Manley said, ?I know what you?re talking about,???? according to Fowler. ??It wasn?t me; I wasn?t there.??
He was booked by Detective Harry Hansen and, as police used to say, given the third degree. But Manley passed a polygraph test and was released to patch up his marriage.
Manley told Underwood after his release, ??Brother! I?ll never cheat on my wife again.??
But even if he was exonerated, the case wasn?t over for Manley. Suspicion and mental problems trailed him. In 1954, his wife had him committed to Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino. Later that year he was given ??truth serum?? at the VA hospital in Brentwood in a final attempt to extract the truth about the Black Dahlia killing. He was again cleared. But it didn?t seem to matter. ??It destroyed their life,?? Fowler said of the Manley family.
The Examiner recovered her suitcases from the bus station and turned them over to police with the provision that it got to see whatever was inside; detectives found a trove of snapshots and unmailed letters tied with ribbon, which were published in the Examiner.
Confessions poured in, dozens of them, from all over the country. They were all disproved.
Ten days after the body was found, the killer mailed an envelope full of Short?s belongings to the Examiner. He addressed it with gruesome humor, using letters clipped from a page of movie ads, including part of the phrase ??Heaven is HERE!?? from the ad for ??Stairway to Heaven.??
See the Original Ad for "Stairway to Heaven
It contained the bus station?s receipt for the suitcases, her Social Security card, birth certificate, snapshots, the clipping she always carried about Maj. Matt Gordon Jr., a membership card to the Hollywood Wolf?s Club, and a 10-year-old address book?with some pages missing?that had belonged to nightclub business manager Mark Hansen.
The address book sent police off on another furious round of investigation, tracking down about 75 men who were listed. The men told similar stories: they met Betty Short on a corner or at a bus stop, they went out for a meal or to a nightclub. She might have asked them for money under the pretense of having difficulties cashing a check. Nothing romantic ever occurred, and they never saw her again.
Police reached another dead end as yet another case-breaking clue came to nothing. On Jan. 28, police issued an appeal to the killer to turn himself in. A few days later, Capt. Jack Donahoe, head of the Homicide Division, said the case was at a standstill.
Detectives on loan for the investigation were gradually sent back to their divisions. Until they retired, Brown and Hansen chased leads and examined other cases that might have been related. Nothing conclusive ever emerged.
In 1971, Hansen, then living in retirement in Palm Springs, said he had learned a lot about Betty Short over two decades, but he never liked her. ??She was a man-crazy tramp, but she wasn?t a prostitute?? Hansen said.
??There were all kinds of men in her life, but we were able to only find three who had any sexual experience with her,?? Hansen said. ??She was a tease; she gave a bad time to quite a few guys. She just asked for trouble. There wasn?t very much to like about her. . . . She probably went too far this time, and just set some guy off into a blind, berserk rage.??
Another generation of detectives took over. The legendary John St. John had the Dahlia case for about 15 years, mostly checking tips that were phoned in, but none of them ever amounted to anything. Weeks before his death in 1995, he was still talking about solving the case.
The current guardian of the case and the drab four-drawer file cabinet that holds everything known about the murder is Detective Brian Carr, who was born four years after Short was killed. He refers to the files every month or so when he gets calls about the case.
??If this were any other case, it would all be in some warehouse,?? Carr said of the marbeled boxes of index cards, reams of yellowed police reports, fingerprint sheets, notebooks, ledgers and odd bits of crumbling ephemera: untold thousands of hours of work by several generations of detectives?all of it ending in failure.
On Jan. 25, 1947, someone at a restaurant in the 1100 block of Crenshaw Boulevard found a new pair of shoes and a purse on top of a trash can, but they were taken by trash collectors before police arrived.
Several purses and pairs of shoes were recovered from the dump and taken to University Station, where Asdel asked Manley to come down and see if he could identify them as belonging to Short.
Manley was reluctant, Asdel said, because he was trying to put his marriage back together and didn?t want any more publicity. Asdel gave his word that the press wouldn?t be tipped off, but somehow they were. Despite the media onslaught, Manley picked out one of the shoes, which he had paid to have repaired, and the purse, recognizing the fragrance of the perfume Short used to wear.
Asdel believes he talked to the killer in 1947 and has kept his case notes at his fingertips for 50 years, waiting for a break. A neighbor who was found in a house-to-house canvass of the area told police that about 9 on the night before the murder was discovered, he went to Norton to dump a carload of shrub cuttings. As the neighbor drove past the spot on the west side of Norton where Short?s body was later found, he saw a light 1935 sedan with the right rear door open. Next to the car was a thin man about 5-8 and in his mid-40s, wearing a tan topcoat and dark hat pulled low.
The neighbor drove a bit farther down Norton and stopped on the east side of the street. The thin man standing next to the sedan was startled and looked up; the man crossed Norton and slowly walked down the sidewalk, past the neighbor, with his hands in his pockets, scrutinizing him and stretching to look inside the neighbor?s car.
The neighbor said he was afraid he was going to be robbed, but the thin man crossed Norton and went back up to his sedan. The neighbor drove away and circled the block. When he passed the thin man a second time, the back door of the sedan was closed and the man was behind the wheel. As soon as the thin man saw the neighbor?s car, he sped off, grinding his gears and squealing his tires.
Asdel thinks he located the driver, working at a restaurant a few blocks due west of the crime scene. When he interviewed him, Asdel noticed that his car was freshly painted black. He wrote up the report and turned it in to his superiors?and 50 years later, he?s still waiting, still hopeful.
??Sometimes the good Lord gets you these feelings or hunches. You get the hair standing up on the back of your neck, whether it?s a routine traffic stop or whatever,?? Asdel said. ??You just know. I could be 500 miles off base, but I don?t think so.??
The Herald-Express prided itself in those days on naming murder cases; there was the ??White Orchid Murder?? and the ??Red Hibiscus Murder?? and the ??White Flame Murder,?? all of them made up by the paper. In fact it concocted the nickname ??Werewolf Murder?? early in the case before Short?s body was identified.
But the Black Dahlia nickname was real. Short got it in a Long Beach drugstore half a block from her hotel, although it seems to have been confined to that single business. The late Times columnist Jack Smith said the druggist, Arnold Lander, told him that customers at the soda fountain called Short the Black Dahlia because of the way she wore her dark hair. Others say that she got it from customers teasing her about the movie ??The Blue Dahlia,?? then playing at a nearby movie theater.
Joseph Gordon Fickling, a boyfriend who had known Short in Florida and in Long Beach, said in an interview that he never heard Short call herself the Black Dahlia and never heard the nickname while she was alive. But he added that he had never been to the drugstore or to her hotel room.
Underwood sometimes claimed credit for finding the name, saying she got it from Los Angeles police; Smith got it from the druggist, while Bevo Means overheard two police officers discussing it in a Long Beach bar, all on the same day. After decades of insisting that he nicknamed the case, Smith conceded the honor to Means in a 1970s column, adding: ??It?s kind of like losing the Pulitzer Prize.??
Ironically enough, the drugstore?and the counter?where the Black Dahlia got her nickname still stand, although the building at 1st and Linden now houses: a flower shop.
The town of Medford, Mass., just across the Mystic River from Boston, has American history in its bones. Paul Revere?s stop in Medford on his famous call to arms is commemorated every year. This is where the tunes ??Jingle Bells?? and ??Over the River and Through the Woods?? were written.
Medford likes being known as the home of Tufts University and cookbook author Fannie Farmer. It does not enjoy its reputation as the hometown of the Black Dahlia, and the plaque donated by filmmaker Kyle Wood in 1993 near the spot on Salem Street where her house once stood was opposed by people who said Medford should not honor its most notorious daughter.
??People wonder what the values are of Medford people,?? Thomas Convery, head of a local business association, told reporters in 1993. Convery, who wanted the plaque removed, said: ??We have enough positive figures from Medford; we don?t need the negative.??
Questions from outsiders about Short and her family, no matter how diplomatically phrased, are greeted warily in her hometown. And yet there is a collection of material at the local library and a recently donated archive at the Medford Historical Society.
People may not like the notion that Betty Short grew up in Medford, said Historical Society President Jay Griffin, the way they don?t like attention drawn to the town?s former slave quarters. But the Black Dahlia plaque, like the one on a wall of the slave quarters, is ??just stating a historical fact,?? Griffin said.
The toll was higher for best-selling author James Ellroy, who wept after he wrote the last page of his 1987 novel ??The Black Dahlia.?? It was the culmination of a 28-year obsession that began on his 11th birthday?eight months after his own mother?s unsolved murder?when his father gave Ellroy a copy of ??The Badge.??
In his book, ??My Dark Places,?? Ellroy calls ??The Badge??: ??a nonfiction ode to the Los Angeles Police Department . . . . 1950s male angst?alienation as a public service announcement.?? He read the section on the Black Dahlia killing 100 times. As soon as he got a bike, Ellroy began riding it down to Norton Avenue and trying to imagine what it looked like when Short was killed. But his obsession turned to nightmares so vivid that he used to be afraid to go to sleep.
??The nightmares were sophisticated and visual,?? Ellroy said. ??I would see these odd winch devices and gears and pulleys lowering Elizabeth Short into a bathtub; viscera floating in bathwater, bloody suds, her face with that lacquered hairdo being cut ear to ear, blood gurgling. That was horrible.??
As he grew older, Ellroy imposed a story structure on the nightmares as a way of controlling them and began fantasizing about rescuing the Black Dahlia, eventually resulting in the novel, which was the foundation of three later books that form Ellroy?s ??L.A. Quartet.??
??I hated my mother at the time she died,?? Ellroy said. ??My father had poisoned my mind against her and at the time my wish was to live with my dad.?? So the Black Dahlia?s killing became a substitute for his mother?s. ??I seized on it,?? he said. ??In looking back I was trying to get at the horror and grief I couldn?t express over my mother?s death.??
Today, Ellroy says he is done with the Black Dahlia but it is unclear whether the Black Dahlia is done with him. He was forced to get an unlisted phone number after the ??Black Dahlia?? novel appeared because ??I didn?t want all these Dahlia freaks calling me.?? But he still hears from people about the case.
She insisted to reporters that her daughter was a good girl, but her protests were overwhelmed by portrayals of the seductive Black Dahlia. After her daughters were grown and married, according to former neighbors, she moved to Oakland to be near Betty?s grave at Mountain View Cemetery. Phoebe Short moved east in the 1970s and died a few years ago, in her early 90s.
??My poor mother,?? Betty?s youngest sister, Muriel, said in an interview. ??There was nothing then?? in the way of support groups for the families of murder victims. Muriel, who requested that her last name and residence not be disclosed, said that she has avoided reading any of the books about the crime, although her daughters had, ??because after all she was their aunt.??
Talking to Muriel about her sister Betty is a gnawing, unsettling experience, for it touches into a well of profound grief. The unleashed sorrow is a powerful, elemental force; like being hit by a train.
??The family has put so much time into trying to get away from it . . . trying to put it behind us,?? Muriel said. ??And every time someone brings it up, it starts all over again. . . . It?s just too much to bring up all the old hurts again.??
Underwood suspected nightclub business manager Mark Hansen, from whom Short had rented a room, while in ??Severed,?? Gilmore says he tracked down the killer in 1982 only to have him die in a suspicious fire a few weeks later. Based on recovered memories, Janice Knowlton thinks it was her own father and tells her story in the book ??Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Killer.?? Still others say it was the ??Cleveland Torso Murderer,?? making a reappearance after a hiatus of nine years.
And then there is John Douglas, former head of the FBI?s serial crimes division, who is one of the nation?s leading experts on profiling violent criminals and the author of ??Mindhunter.??
After reviewing a transcript of the coroner?s inquest (which includes most of the autopsy) and a summary of the case, Douglas suggests this profile of Short?s killer: He was a white man, no younger than his late 20s and possibly older, with a high school education. He lived alone, made his living working with his hands rather than his brains, was adept with a knife and ??was comfortable wallowing in blood,?? for example a butcher, a slaughterhouse worker or possibly a hunter who knew how to dress out deer.
The killer was familiar with prostitutes. He was rigid, patient, compulsive and deliberate. He drank alcohol and when he was drunk he became argumentative; he probably had a police record for either threatening or assaulting someone with a knife.
The killer was under great personal and financial stress, like one of the Southland butchers taking part in the six-week strike that lasted all through Christmas and New Year?s. He and Short spent several days together. He had been drinking. Maybe he had a physical handicap or stuttered and Short made fun of it. But she rejected him. The mixture of personal stress, alcohol and rejection exploded into murderous rage.
Cutting the body in half was simply to make transportation easier, Douglas said. But the level of mutilation reflects a personal rage directed at Short. ??He was dehumanizing her and defeminizing her and then he cuts that smile in her face,?? Douglas said. ??You can just imagine him saying: ?You bitch. Look who has the last laugh now.? ??
But why Norton Avenue? Douglas notes that there were far better places to dispose of a body in the Southland, where it would have never been found?the mountains, the desert, even the ocean?than a broad, flat area that was visible for blocks in all directions.
The killer took a high risk to place the body where he did, Douglas said, ??because he wanted to put the fear of God in that neighborhood. . . . Under the influence of alcohol, he is drawn like a magnet to that area.?? He must have had some connection to the neighborhood, Douglas said. The killer might have suffered a financial setback when housing construction was halted because of the war. Maybe he used to play baseball there, or worked in a building that was torn down to make way for housing.
If he was a striking butcher, maybe the head of the union lived nearby. Whatever the reason, Norton Avenue was a deliberate choice.
What would have given the killer away, Douglas said, is his behavior afterward. When he sobered up after the killing, he would have begun worrying that he had left his fingerprints somewhere, or that someone had seen his car or remembered his license plate number, Douglas said.
Neighbors would have noticed that he washed the inside of his car as well as the outside. He would have suspended his other interests, like sports, for his preoccupation with the case, reading all of the newspaper accounts and switching radio stations from newscast to newscast for the latest coverage.
He might have even gone to neighborhood bars or cafes and been vocal in his criticism of the police investigation. He could have said, ??We used to think this was a safe neighborhood and now look what?s happened.??
Perhaps he approached the police with false information?saying he had seen something suspicious?just to gauge their progress. The fact that he mailed Short?s belongings to a newspaper instead of the police shows that he wasn?t seeking to taunt the police; he liked the publicity, Douglas said.
The killer would have kept a souvenir, although it could have been nothing more than a lock of hair, Douglas said. He might have visited the crime scene or Short?s grave; not out of remorse, but to ??symbolically roll in the dirt.??
Today, Douglas said, ??the killing would be very solvable?? because the killer revealed so much about himself through the amount of time he spent with the body. ??Old crimes are fascinating,?? he said. ??It would have been a great case to get.??
Why weren?t there other killings? Maybe the killer was never under the same kind of stress. Perhaps he died, as the character does in Dunne's ??True Confessions.?? Douglas suggests that the killer took himself out of circulation by going on a binge of self-destruction, committing himself to a mental institution or committing other types of crimes so he would be sent to prison. Or maybe he just drifted off . . . arrogantly secure in the knowledge that he could never be found.
He hopes the crime is never solved because it would ruin the mystery.
Asdel, the dogged detective, hopes that it is; that even if the killer is dead that someone, maybe a relative, will finally reveal his identity.
And Betty Bersinger, who touched off the mystery half a century ago, asks: ??When is all of it going to die down? It?s been so long.??
Of course the answer is that while the characters in Betty Short killing are subject to the frailties of age, the Black Dahlia myth is not. It perversely grows stronger with each passing year, covering itself with layer upon layer of fiction and falsehood while the participants? the youngest of whom are in their 70s?dwindle into eternity.
The Black Dahlia mystery is like the unresolved fate of another onetime Medford?and Los Angeles?resident: Amelia Earhart. The quest for answers endures.
The Dahlia myth will live as long there are dark streets and pretty young girls and handsome young men who seek refuge from the troubles of the day in the glittery night life of the city, as long as a killer lurks among us, and as long as there is someone to pursue him.