Today it is an otherwise unassuming residential street on the 3800 block of Norton Avenue in Leimert Park, but on January 15, 1947 it was the dump site for the body of the Black Dahlia (real name Elizabeth Short) whose gruesome and still unsolved murder remains a horrific mystery. At 10:30 a.m. that chilly January morning, the body of 22-year-old Short was discovered bisected and drained of blood. According to the coroner's report, Short died from trauma to the head which meant most of the mutilation to her body occurred posthumously, including the rose tattoo on her thigh that was cut off and placed inside her vagina.
Sixty-two years later, I found myself standing on the exact same sidewalk once captured in the famous Daily News crime scene photograph of reporters and detectives peering into the grass where the body lay. What was once an undeveloped plot is now the front lawn of a man's house. He stared out from his open garage at the 20 or so of us that hopped off the crime tour bus in front of his property. With the push of a button he lowered his motorized garage door, shutting us out. Dahlia fanatics and tourists must stop there often and I was reminded of our tour guide Kim Cooper's warning before we got off the bus, "Please don't lay down on the grass like someone did on our first tour."
This stop at the body discovery site marks the end of The Real Black Dahlia, one of many Esotouric crime bus adventures run by Cooper and her husband Richard Schave (the couple also runs the Hippodrome and Hazard's Pavilion shuttles each month at the Downtown Art Walk). The Real Black Dahlia tour does not examine who may or may not have killed her so much as it looks a bit deeper into the cultural climate of 1947 Los Angeles, who Elizabeth Short was as a person and where and how she spent the last days of her life, looking for love and living hand to mouth, favor to favor.
Here are some of the Dahlia landmarks and tour highlights I found most interesting:
The tour kicked off earlier that morning at 11:30 a.m. at the historic
Biltmore Hotel downtown off Olive Street, one of the last places the
Black Dahlia was seen alive on January 9, the night she went missing.
Myself and the other crime geeks gathered in the Biltmore lobby before hopping on the bus
where Cooper and Schave filled us in on the chain of events that
led to the Dahlia's death.
On January 9, 1947, the Dahlia hitched a ride with male friend Robert "Red" Manley from San Diego to Los Angeles where she checked a suitcase containing all of her belongings at the Greyhound Station. Manley decided it wasn't safe for her to wait there at night so they went to the Biltmore. There the Dahlia "waited for her sister" for a few hours until Manley left to return home to his family, when she then left the hotel (with about $1 in her purse) and walked to the Crown Grill Bar at Olive and 9th.
In 1947 the Crown Grill Bar was a businessman-friendly joint during the day; the kind of place where a guy could grab a hearty lunch and head back to
the office. But at night it catered to the gay underground and was
considered a place where one could be his or herself. This was the last
place the Dahlia was confirmed alive and it's assumed that whomever she
left with from the Crown Grill Bar had something to do with her
murder. Today, the Crown Grill Bar has been replaced with Club Galaxy and its "100 Beautiful Girls."
One of the next landmarks we hit was the old Greyhound Terminal off 6th and Maple (now a wholesale mart) where the Dahlia had checked her suitcase that night.
Our guides explained that after the murder, her suitcase and its contents became like "King Tut's tomb" for reporters and the morbidly curious Angelenos who obsessed over the details of the case.
Schave, Cooper and Joan Renner, our third guide, gave us a rundown of what was found in the Dahlia's suitcase -- painting a portrait of the young woman through snapshots, unsent letters to male admirers, a letter from her sister Virginia called "Remember Me," and other items she cherished. Renner read the poem aloud, along with a letter from the Dahlia's one-time gentleman caller Gordon Fickling. Fickling's letter read:
"You say in your letter you want us to be good friends, but from your wire you seem to want more than that. Are you really sure just what you want? Consider what your coming here to me would amount to. I have always remembered you, I cannot deny that. Your letter gave me the impression that you didn't want to consider you had a particular claim on my heart and I started letting things drift along. You really should have forgotten me. I get awfully lonesome at times and wonder if we really haven't been very childish and foolish about the whole affair. Have we? Your devotion is my most precious possession. Darling, how many lips have joined with yours since ours last met? Sometimes I go crazy when I think of such things."
The letter was signed, "May I Love you?"
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After the old Greyhound Terminal, our next stop was the abandoned Herald Examiner newspaper building and our guides filled us in on the key reporters and newspapers involved in the case. Before the Herald Express and the Examiner merged in 1962 to form the Herald Examiner, the two newspapers both played important roles in the Dahlia murder investigation. Though the Examiner was first on the scene the morning of January 15, 1947 and the most active paper on the case, it was accomplished Herald Express crime reporter Aggie Underwood, also one of the first on the scene, whose coverage helped shape the Dahlia mythology that we know today. Later she was promoted at the paper, becoming the first female City Editor in the United States.
Below is the crime scene photograph taken and run by the Examiner in 1947, complete with rudimentary Photoshop skills (the blanket over the bisected body and the serene face were hand painted over the original to make it less shocking).
One thing people hope to come away with after a crime tour like The Real Black Dahlia is insight into what really happened and who really killed Elizabeth Short. And though that is not the main focus of the tour, after we left the corpse discovery site and headed back to the Biltmore, Kim Cooper shared with us what she considers the best theory on who murdered the Black Dahlia. The theory is the hard work of Larry Harnisch who wrote a story in the L.A. Times in 1996 for the 50th anniversary of the Dahlia's murder. During his research he noticed an important detail that everyone else had overlooked -- a witness signature on the marriage certificate of Elizabeth Short's sister Virginia that provided the key to his killer theory.
I'm not going to give away anything more here out of respect, but if you're interested, check out Harnisch's Heaven is Here website or hop on board the next Esotouric crime bus tour to see it all for yourself.