The big signboard displayed outside the Biltmores dimly lit Gallery Bar suggests a tricky balancing act of historical gravitas and self-promotion. The words Black Dahlia Martini float above images of a classic V-glass and the ghostly face of Elizabeth Short, her picture taken from the ill-fated starlets mug shot. The Black Dahlia name is printed in ransom-note font a coy allusion to both the cop-taunting letters the Dahlias killer allegedly sent to the Herald Examiner and to the eviscerated condition in which he left the 22-year-olds body on a vacant lot on Norton Avenue and 39th Street. Someone had a lot of fun putting this ad campaign together.
For the past year, companion table tents placed throughout the Biltmores wood-paneled lounge have promised A Mysterious Dark Martini With a Legendary Past and list the cocktails ingredients: 31/2 ounces of Absolut Citron vodka, along with one-half shots of Chambord raspberry liqueur and Kahlua, topped with a coil of orange rind. On any given night youll find at least one or two drinkers in the Biltmore bar confronting the dark behemoth. Like Hollywood, its a sweet but enervating drink; if youre partial to a simple whiskey on the rocks or to traditional martinis, the Black Dahlia is likely to send you into diabetic shock, and youll find yourself drinking the last third of it out of habit or to justify its $14 price tag.
There are several Black Dahlia martini variants appearing at bars around town, each promoted by a different vodka company. The Biltmores carries considerably more cachet because, as the table tents remind us, It was on January 15, 1947, that . . . the Black Dahlia was last seen in the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel. Thats pretty strong product placement with that fact tucked in its pocket, the Biltmore probably couldve gotten away with sticking a steak knife into a Bloody Mary and calling it a Black Dahlia. But the Grand Avenue hotel is one of the few places that can pull off such a collision of carnage and commerce its Gallery Bar ranks among L.A.s most atmospheric booze grottos and merely sipping a Coke in its gloomy recesses puts you in the mood to read The Big Sleep or to watch The Shining.
After my Dahlia encounter at the Biltmore, I couldnt help but wonder what Boardners, the crusty old Hollywood bar on Cherokee Avenue, was doing about the hotels claim on L.A.s most infamous murder victim. Boardners, after all, was a hangout of Short when she lived in a womens rooming house a few blocks up the street. So I called co-owner Tricia La Belle and learned that the place, which caters to longtime regulars while cultivating a new generation of goths and scenesters, actually has two Black Dahlia martinis.
We have an old-timers Black Dahlia for the day crowd, La Belle told me, and a nighttime Black Dahlia.
The first version, a decades-old favorite that goes for $10 a pop, is a shot of Blavod vodka (the black-hued liquor that goes into many another Black Dahlia), triple sec and Chambord and garnished with cherries on a skewer that, in its own Grand Guignol way, makes more sense than an orange peel.
People have been coming in and asking for it for as long as anyone here can remember, La Belle said, suggesting how much Boardners and its regulars have come to adopt Elizabeth Shorts memory over the years.
Boardners night clientele is generally much younger than the day shift of drinkers, and for them bartender Kelly McCann concocted a $12 Dahlia with Stoli vanilla vodka, Chambord and Kahlua. Its been around for about half a dozen years, roughly the time when Elizabeth Shorts brief life began appearing on hipsters radars.
Of course, Elizabeth Short probably wouldnt be caught dead drinking a Black Dahlia. Depending on the bar, her namesake drink can taste like a Manhattan that someones spilled some coffee into and, while the genteel folk of her day drank syrupy cocktails, working girls like her went with whatever put them in the mood the quickest. A few years ago, I interviewed Steve Boardner, who remembered Short as someone who would show up at his place with a couple of sailors in tow and drink whatever was cheapest.
Shed come over here from Bradleys Five & Ten, Boardner said, which sold short beers for a nickel, longs for a dime and shots of bourbon for 15 cents.
Even adjusting for inflation, Short doesnt seem to have been a $14-a-drink gal. Who knows what her final cocktail may have been before she stepped out of the Biltmore and into that winter night? If her last drink ever gets discovered, watch out for a lot of new table tents.