It's hard to imagine now, in terms of both L.A. lore and American pop culture, but only a generation ago few people knew the name of L.A.'s most notorious murder victim, Elizabeth Short. But times have changed: First came James Ellroy's sales-topping novel The Black Dahlia, followed by John Gilmore's true-crime book Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder.
In different ways, these and other books have grappled with the mystery and "allure" (to use Gilmore's word) of that outrageously grotesque discovery near USC on the morning of Jan. 15, 1947 — the once-beautiful Miss Short, naked, dead, cut in half at the waist, the two body parts splayed next to one another in the weeds of a vacant lot, her once-lovely mouth cut jaggedly from ear to ear.
That allure has spawned several theories of who might have tortured and murdered "the Black Dahlia." But, as Gilmore's book notes, "Crime hides." The case is still officially unsolved. No one was ever charged for it. Some writers have spent years, even decades, trying to solve this seemingly unsolvable case.
Why the continuing fascination?
You can see it in her photos: Bette Short was knockout-gorgeous. Of her inner life we know little, except that she harbored dreams of Hollywood stardom from her early days growing up in Medford, Massachusetts, until the very end. Short's childhood friend, artist Mary Pacios, still remembers her male relatives going nuts whenever Bette happened to walk past their house in Medford: "My father ran [out] from the kitchen, almost tripping over a chair. ... My Aunt Dot thought it was a wonder we didn't have more car accidents when Bette walked down the street...."
We know only a few things about Short: She acquired the nickname "Black Dahlia" from some friends in Long Beach, thanks to her preference for wearing stylish, all-black outfits; like many American girls during WWII, she "loved a man in uniform," and dated lots of them; she artfully avoided getting a job while living in Hollywood, preferring to date for her dinner and live, more or less, from couch to couch. We know that she didn't seriously pursue acting here, not really. And most consequentially, according to the cops and press, we know that she was "considered a tease" by men: "The killing seems to be based on an unbelievable anger. I suppose sex was the motive, or at least the fact that the killer was denied sex," according to LAPD homicide detective Harry "the Hat" Hansen, who worked on the case.
British author Piu Eatwell's new book, Black Dahlia, Red Rose: The Crime, Corruption and Cover-Up of America's Greatest Unsolved Murder (Liveright, $26.95), is an important one because it revives the long-forgotten fact that a few "very strong" suspects came to LAPD's attention at the time. One of them, Leslie Dillon, was an unemployed bellhop with criminal tendencies.
Dillon was what you'd call a morbid young man, so fascinated by the sensational case that in 1948 he wrote letters (from Florida) to Dr. Paul De River, LAPD's "police psychiatrist," theorizing about it. These suspiciously well-informed letters led De River to set up a meeting, resulting in Dillon being forcibly confined to a series of hotel rooms, where De River and others interrogated him for several days.
De River was convinced that Dillon murdered Short. Others considered him a victim of the police shrink. Eatwell makes the case that Dillon was guilty. So why then did LAPD let him go? We won't spill the beans here, but the book examines why many Angelenos in 1948-49 felt there was something fishy with the famously corrupt LAPD; that something involving "payola" had caused the cops to back away from pursuing Dillon. (Somebody, it seems, had friends in high places.)
As for Bette Short's harried life, one of the book's most telling and potent quotes comes from a San Diego woman named Elvera French, with whom Bette lived briefly before returning to L.A.: "She seemed constantly in fear of something. Whenever anybody came to the door she would act frightened."
That is real food for thought.
Some readers will be convinced by Eatwell's decision to home in on Leslie Dillon and will agree with the author that he was guilty (after being set free, he lived a wandering life and died in 1988). Others won't, but they can't ignore the book's most startling revelations, which involve the Aster Motel, a seedy, old haunt that still stands today, just south of downtown, on Flower Street.
As Eatwell thoroughly documents here, there was every indication that on the same day as the Dahlia killing, a particular room at the Aster (less than a mile from the Dahlia dump site) was discovered to be the blood-drenched location of someone's horrific death: Witnesses describes the walls, the bedsheets and the bathroom as being thoroughly covered with blood. (Dillon had "theorized" to Dr. De River that the murder had taken place at a motel.)
(Eatwell tells me that she's recently received information from someone connected with the original investigation that blood had indeed been found under the room's floor tiles by LAPD chemists in 1949; that was denied by the police, she says, when the cover-up was in full swing. "My source has never seen the grand jury transcripts, but what he says ties in broadly with what I wrote, which was based on them," she says via email.)
This is not, strictly speaking, a book that presents a brand-new Dahlia theory from newfound evidence; instead, using the grand jury transcripts, period newspaper stories, interviews and memoirs, Eatwell has resurrected facts that were, at least in part, known to the public at that time but had long since faded from memory. ("Once more, the waters closed over Elizabeth Short," as the author writes.)
It's easy to speculate that with her Irish geisha face, Elizabeth Short, if she had lived, may have realized her Hollywood dreams and gone on to become a black-haired "Veronica" to Marilyn Monroe's blond "Betty" in our collective movie psyche. But that was nixed early on, by someone.
As James Ellroy said of the elusive killer in 1997: "I think he'd been having awful, awful fantasies of hurting women for some time and he never acted on them. I think the exact right victim and the exact right victimizer met at the exact right time."
Short's own father had complained to LAPD: "She hung out with thugs."
But her mother remembered her differently, telling a reporter in the 1980s: "She was a very affectionate, sweet girl. And if she was out at night, she always stopped in my bedroom [afterward] to talk."
Friend Pacios recalled: "She was beautiful, statuesque and had a real warmth about her. She loved people."
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In an unmailed letter, found among her effects, Elizabeth Short wrote to a former boyfriend just one month before her murder:
"As I wrote, I am spending the holidays with my girlfriend whom I worked with in Hollywood. Her mother has a home here in San Diego. She and I feel the same about Hollywood. I couldn't bear to be alone during the holidays, so she and I are spending it with her mother. We all get along fine and I am happy for now.
I honestly did believe that I would be well here in the West. Time has proved differently to me.
You didn't take me in your arms and keep me there, however, it was nice as long as it lasted. I'm human, dear, so much so, but you can't understand it. I want someone all for myself. Don't you?"