Urban Myths: Busting the Black Dahlia Avenger
"It doesn't look anything like her," he says. "Has the whole world gone mad? How anyone could look at those photos and see Elizabeth Short is beyond me."
Former LAPD Homicide Detective Steve Hodel's Black Dahlia Avenger is open on the table at Clifton's. John Gilmore's hawklike features scrunch in disgust as he looks the book over. In it, Hodel accuses his deceased dad, Hollywood physician Dr. George Hill Hodel, of being a serial murderer whose victims form a laundry list of some of the LAPD's most notorious unsolved cases. Among them, the brutal 1947 slaying of Elizabeth Short, known to most as "The Black Dahlia."
The photos that have gotten Gilmore's gander appear on Page 45 of Hodel's long, weepy indictment of his father. These snapshots, reproduced from a tiny album given to Hodel by his dad's widow, are what the former detective considers to be the most damaging evidence against Hodel Sr., who died in 1999. In one, a pretty girl with flowers in her hair looks downward. Another shows what Hodel says is the same gal, with full lips and a slight sneer. Hodel asserts there is "no question" that these photos show the Black Dahlia. Based on them, circumstantial evidence and speculation, Hodel came to the conclusion his father killed the Dahlia and about 20 other women in L.A. around the same time.
"These two don't even look like the same woman," laughs Gilmore, author of Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder, considered by many to be a true-crime classic. "Certainly there's no similarity to Short. The shape of the face is different. The Dahlia had a very high forehead, unlike these girls. That's why she wore her hair big all the time, to conceal her high forehead."
If anyone could assess the book's claims, it would be Gilmore, who just happened to be in town around the same time a press conference was held at the Roosevelt Hotel last Friday to announce the book. The silver-haired savant and author of several tomes of noirish nonfiction spent 25 years investigating the crime. His sleuthing resulted in several controversial revelations, one being that a criminal named Jack Anderson Wilson confessed the crime to him during a series of meetings in the early '80s. The alcoholic Wilson burned to death in a fire at his SRO flat before the LAPD could close in on him. Renowned FBI profiler John Douglas states in his book The Cases That Haunt Us that if police had been able to interrogate Wilson, the murder might have been solved.
Homicide Detective Brian Carr, keeper of the LAPD's Dahlia files, says, "It's difficult to tell," when asked if he thinks the photos on Page 45 are the Dahlia. "Pressed for an opinion, I'd say no," he adds.
"I was looking for one shred of solid evidence linking Hodel's father to the murder, and I couldn't find anything," Gilmore says dismissively, not slowing down to savor his lunch of steak and onions. "'My daddy killed the Black Dahlia.' It's not even new!"
Gilmore, who's seen his share of Dahlia dilettantes, is referring to Janice Knowlton's Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Killer. Based on recovered memories, Knowlton's book claims that she'd witnessed her father dismember Short's body. There's also Childhood Shadows, by Mary Pacios, a childhood friend of Short, suggesting Orson Welles did the deed.
Hodel's text turns wilder with each page: Two works by surrealist Man Ray inspired his father's arrangement of the corpse; an accomplice of Dr. Hodel's may have been involved in the murder of writer James Ellroy's mother; Hodel's childhood drawing of a "Chinese Chicken" is a critical piece of evidence, etc.
Why would a retired LAPD homicide detective with 24 years of experience write such gobbledygook? Hodel's manuscript suggests he had plenty to be angry about with his father. According to his book, Hodel's polyamorous father abandoned his son and family to a life of penury, living lavishly abroad after the doctor was acquitted of incest with Steve Hodel's half sister. To top it off, Steve Hodel alleges his father had an affair with Steve's ex-wife, Kiyo, a beautiful Japanese astrologer who may have married the son only to get back at the father.
Neither Steve Lopez's mildly skeptical pieces in the L.A. Times nor any of the très gullible TV segments on the book have mentioned that in the same secret scrapbook in which Hodel's dad kept the purported "Black Dahlia" photos, there were also pictures of Kiyo. Hodel's discovery of these photos after his father's death riles him.
To be fair, Detective Carr says he's planning to research whether Dr. Hodel's fingerprints were ever matched against those lifted from missives sent to newspapers back then claiming to be from the "Black Dahlia Avenger." But even if some match were made, this would not link Dr. Hodel to Short's severed body, which had been washed clean before being dumped in a vacant lot at 39th Street and Norton Avenue.
"You know, there were 50 'confessing Sams' at the time of the murder," sighs Gilmore, sinking back into his chair. "Everyone wanted to be connected with it. I guess they still do, 56 years later."
O n the second floor of the Hollywood YMCA, around the corner from a roomful of Stairmasters and down the hall from the racquetball courts, a bulletin board is covered with column after column of bright-green cards, each an anonymous dialogue between patron and staff.
"Why do men get couches and a TV in their locker room, and the girls don't?" read a recent posting.
The reply beneath it was measured and circumspect. "We conducted a survey of the women last year, and with a score of 97 to 18, they voted against a TV." (Okay, but what about the couch?)
The comments posted on the suggestion board change regularly, and offer a candid window into the gym's efforts to please the approximately 6,500 members who pay $40 every month to use the North Schrader Boulevard facility. A handful of the cards on the YMCA's wall praise the club's careful upkeep, or speak glowingly of the enthusiasm of a particular spinning-class instructor. But most record a litany of complaints, each one answered with a thoughtful response from the staff. Even the most inane criticism, no matter how unfounded the objection or how poorly articulated the complaint, merits an earnest reply, often decorated with exclamation points and smiley faces.
One note that appeared in February detailed an indignity suffered just as one patron was finishing "an awesome qigong class." The complaint alleged that an aggressive yoga teacher, who was slated to use the room next, hustled out the still-cooling-down qigong-er. Rudely was underlined on the description of the offender's actions, and an addendum emphasized shock over the fact that the violation was committed not by an aerobics teacher or a boxing coach (as, presumably, one might expect), but "by a yoga instructor!"
In the staff's concise reply, apologies were offered, actions promised, and assurances made that such incidents will not happen again.
Often the comments are prefaced with boosterish words about the YMCA in general, the kindness of its staffers, the warmth of its pool. Others get right to the point.
"Who keeps taking the Jacuzzi clock?" demanded one patron, the words scored onto the note card in a frenzied scrawl. "Stop taking the Jacuzzi clock!!"
"P.S.," he/she added thoughtfully, "I like Annie! & Kelly & Dallas & Greg."
The staff put this one to rest quickly: "The Jacuzzi clock gets damaged from the steam, and must be replaced often."
Sometimes it's clear that complainants are just being humored, their suggestions so vague or esoteric that it takes only a simple "OK" to appease them.
"Shower curtains need to be washed on a regular basis," one member pointed out helpfully.
"Sounds like a plan," a staffer wrote back, no doubt suppressing a giggle. "Thank you!"
Other missives touch on greater themes gender and equality, for instance.
"Can it possibly be true that the only person affiliated with the Hollywood YMCA who is qualified to change a light bulb in the women's locker room is a man??" wrote one irate patron, perhaps still smarting from last year's landslide vote against TVs in the women's locker room. "YIKES!" and "Viva la revolucion!!" were added for effect.
"If so," the lament continued, "how about waiting until after closing hours to change it, instead of 10:30 on a Wednesday morning when the room is FULL of ladies of all ages in various stages of undress!!!
"Shock!" she railed in closing. "Dismay! Outrage!"
Response to this hot potato was brief and mindful of the delicacy required when negotiating the minefield of locker-room politics: "I think we can arrange to do that. Thanks!"
At times, personal crises creep onto the board, manifestations of some deluded member's irrational blame casting. Such was the case with the patron who complained that the scale in the women's room is "DONE FOR." (Her quotation marks.) "I know I didn't just gain five lbs!" Community outreach being a cornerstone of the YMCA mission, at such times staffers aren't afraid to offer a little tough love.
"Scale checks out fine," they advised, and added, perhaps with an eye toward heading off any further dispute, "Try measuring your success in inches vs. pounds. Inches can be much more accurate."
Space on the board is made for the occasional philosophical rant or rhetorical question, a little food for thought for members who've grown to love the wisdom that the suggestion wall dispenses one note card at a time.
"Why is it difficult for people to follow the rules!" wondered one member, more or less summing up the sentiments of the board as a whole.
"We're not sure," the YMCA sighed, "but if you figure it out let us know.
Infuse the typical added-onto suburban home (think ad-hoc corrugated walls, Home Depot cacti still in pots, no windows, etc.) with L.A. artist Chris Burden's keen ability for innovation, his rigorous detailing and his deadpan humor, and you'll get his newest piece Small Skyscraper: a 35-foot-tall structure that encloses up to five 8-foot-tall "floors" which are vertically stacked upon one another like some levitating elevator shaft.
Last Wednesday evening at SCI-Arc's weekly visiting-artist forum, Burden described it like this: "I wanted to build a little skyscraper that a couple guys with a donkey could put up, and when the neighbor calls the building inspector, the guys can take it down again and build it somewhere else . . . then the neighbors might call back up again and say, 'Hey, wait, now it's up on the hill.'"
This scenario elicited evil giggles from most of the rumpled architecture students and professional downtown types at the lecture. But gasps rippled through the gathering when Burden later addressed the current high-end-museum building craze, asserting that a museum's buildings should function primarily to "keep the wind and rain off the art."
Burden was initially a sculptor and then a performance artist (he's most famous for Shoot, the 1971 performance in which a friend shot him in the arm). The artist's new pieces harness the unexplored possibilities of space. He's built a series of small-scale cantilever bridges from Erector Set toys, and sprawling, room-size urban landscapes from ephemeral junk. "The doing is the art," Burden said. He described his work in general as "performative," whether it's performance art alone or a veering off toward inhabitable space as an installation that lets others undergo the "doing." He pointed out that architecture is inherently experiential this way obviously you are doing something when you're in it.
Interpreting Los Angeles County's building codes in his favor, Burden explained that Small Skyscraper is "quasi-legal" because in the county you may build small outbuildings (sheds or greenhouses) up to 35 feet high, as long as they do not exceed a 400-square-foot envelope. Burden came upon the loophole when he was designing a studio for his own property back in 1994. With the Small Skyscraper design he could build almost a whole house without a single building permit. For Manhattan architects Alan Koch and Linda Taalman, who recently curated the Houses X Artists exhibition series (the L.A. incarnation is up now at the MAK Center at the Schindler House), they saw in Burden's crafty scheme a potential project that melded their design interests with his arty experimentation. They contacted him to offer their "architectonic" services.
Burden already had the design and some rough drawings worked out, but, he says, "I wanted it to float, like a houseboat . . . and originally the design called for cement blocks and steel." Koch and Taalman knew they could make the tower superlight, movable and collapsible with the right materials. They convinced Burden to use aluminum tubing (the kind used in office furniture and cubicle construction) as the skyscraper's main building element. To Chris Burden's delight, Small Skyscraper is now able to pop up in almost any site in the desert, on the beach, off a cliff, even hunkered down in Topanga Canyon (where it will end up in August).
Following the question-and-answer period at the SCI-Arc lecture, Burden called his collaborators "the nuts and bolts" of the project since they helped with materials and with composing the blueprints. But he confessed (thankfully not in front of too many architects), "I don't really like computer drawings." Then, the feisty artist, perhaps remembering that this all started with the typical suburban homeowner's desire to add on, said, "But it's my concept . . . and I didn't find the loophole, I made up the loophole."
We Have Our Issues
LOOKING BACK AT
In the euphoria of this stunning victory, the White House may well opt to expand the permanent war economy and to replay the easy victory somewhere else. But there are restraints to moving in this direction . . . The politically sophisticated generals, who crafted the Gulf operation, having restored the reputation of the armed forces, are in no hurry to risk it again. They understand that other crises will not offer such promising terrain and that long, inconclusive wars are just as dangerous to the health of the military as they were before President Bush announced that he had exorcised the Vietnam Sydrome. But the most powerful restraint is the growing awareness of the limitation of financial resources and the weakening of the American economy as a result of neglect of domestic investment.
Richard J. Barnet "Now What? The War and Its Aftermath," March 8, 1991
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.
- Shot Twice in the Back: Family of Brendon Glenn Sues LAPD
- Driver of Uber-Marked Car Fatally Shot
- Hollywood Hates Women a Little Bit Less This Year