January 15, 1947, is one of the uglier anniversaries in Los Angeles history, one immortalized in a number of books, movies and endlessly proliferating websites. It started out as a clear, cold, average L.A. winter day.
A housewife named Betty Bersinger was pushing her baby in its stroller down Norton Avenue, a residential street near USC:
“It was about the time kids were going off to school … and I had to go by this plot that was undeveloped ... covered with weeds and what have you … there was [broken] glass on the sidewalk … as I was walking along I glanced over to my side and saw this strange sight … it looked like a mannequin, that had been cut in half, and was separated, and it was lying there … The thought of a dead person did not enter my mind! I though it was a mannequin because it was so white!”
Mrs. Bersinger walked quickly to a nearby house and called the police.
The "mannequin" turned out to be the bisected corpse of a murder victim. She was 22-year-old Elizabeth Short, an aspiring actress from Medford, Massachusetts. It's been said her nickname among friends had been the “Black Dahlia” (after a 1946 noir film, The Blue Dahlia). The two halves of her body had been completely drained of blood, and blunt force trauma to the head was the cause of death, according to the coroner’s report. Gouged-out chunks of flesh were found stuffed inside the body. “The young woman’s mouth,” the L.A. Times reported, “was slit with a knife three inches on each side while she was still alive.”
Of course it was a press sensation. In life, Short always wore black dresses, her beautiful ivory-white face topped with a full, luxuriant head of jet-black hair. Photographs, found later in her trunk at a Greyhound bus station, showed that the girl’s heavy makeup often gave her the appearance of a geisha. The LAPD had to deal with scads of false confessions from psychologically disturbed young (and old) men. But nothing stuck, and it remains officially an unsolved case.
Fast-forward to 1982: John Gilmore, a former actor and freelance journalist for the old L.A. Free Press, was now telling the L.A. Herald-Examiner that he had been in touch with a good, likely suspect in the 35-year-old open case: a man he’d met with several times in “crummy” Main Street bars, who told him certain things about the murder of Elizabeth Short that jibed with certain little-known facts, facts Gilmore knew because his father, an LAPD cop, had worked on the case.
His suspect was an aging, alcoholic drifter with a long criminal record named Jack Anderson Wilson, alias Arnold Smith. Gilmore had first met him back in 1966 at the Hollywood apartment of a mutual friend, who happened to be a burglar. Now Gilmore was appearing on the TV news with artist Mary Pacios, a childhood friend of Short’s, and giving out a few, select details about the suspect. It seemed like something was finally in the offing.
Meanwhile, a onetime alcoholic and petty criminal with a giant appetite for crime novels was drying out and working as a golf caddy in Hancock Park; he also was working on an ambitious novel based on the Dahlia case. Born with a name he hated, Lee Earle Ellroy, he was determined to write masterpieces of L.A. crime fiction in the mold of Ross Macdonald and Elmore Leonard. By 1982, he was James Ellroy, 34, with several published books already under his belt.
Twin obsessions, both picking up steam.
Beth Short always liked to be seen “on the town” in 1945 and ’46, in nightclubs and swanky Hollywood restaurants, but she was lousy at networking. She wanted fame, but was scatterbrained. Despite later rumors of “lost screen tests” and possible involvement with porn, Short’s efforts toward starting a career never amounted to anything more than having some cutie-pie shots taken in front of John Marshall High School in Los Feliz late in 1946. Friends would remember her as kind and warm; she also seems to have been lazy and perhaps too timid to compete. She often dated for dinner because she was always broke and sleeping on couches. But Beth Short wouldn’t sell herself. Many men later recalled her as a tease.
Skeptics might ask: How likely was it that John Gilmore would run into someone connected with the Black Dahlia murder? Remember that the population of L.A. before the early 1980s was much smaller than it is now and had been relatively stable for decades. Factor in, too, that criminal circles were even tinier. It’s not that huge a stretch. In his book Corroborating Evidence, author Craig Rasmussen states that a “known sodomite” named Jack Wilson was a suspect in the unsolved Cleveland Torso Murders of the late 1930s, and speculates that Gilmore’s suspect, Jack Anderson Wilson, who was born in Ohio, had “stalk[ed] Elizabeth Short when she was in Chicago in 1945.” (The Cleveland Torso Killer had sent the police a taunting note: “Gone to California for the winter.”)
John Gilmore eventually put all of his findings into a book, Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder, published by AMOK Books in 1998. David Lynch hailed it as “the most satisfying and disturbing conclusion to the Black Dahlia case.” Severed quotes L.A. Sheriff's detective Joel Lesnick, who makes the connection between Beth Short (who “hung around with thugs,” according to her estranged father) and a group of thieves and robbers in Hollywood known as the McCadden Gang, all of whom frequented Boardner’s Bar, a favorite hangout of the Dahlia (a former landlord of Short’s also complained that her friends all seemed to be “hoodlums”).
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Wilson, according to Lesnick, “was the outsider of the … gang.”
Ellroy’s classic novel The Black Dahlia is, of course, pure fiction: “I never knew her in life,” the book begins. “She exists for me through others, in evidence of the ways her death drove them.” In the autobiographical My Dark Places, Ellroy reveals that after his own mother’s unsolved murder in 1958, gorgeous, dead Elizabeth Short supplanted all of his seething, barely suppressed desire for the late Jean Hilliker Ellroy: “I was in the tub … I saw my mother naked, fought the image and lost.”
Other suspects: the controversial Black Dahlia Avenger by Steve Hodel certifiably established (if nothing else) that the author’s father, Dr. George Hodel, was a sexual sadist who hung out with fellow libertines such as novelist Henry Miller and artist Man Ray, airily swapping theories of murder-as–self-expression. But Dr. Hodel, an early Dahlia suspect, was cleared by a grand jury. A look at Steve Hodel’s current blog indicates that his once-focused research has lately devolved to comparing Man Ray sculptures with the shapes of Elizabeth Short’s knife wounds, seeking revelations there.
James Ellroy no longer comments publicly on the Elizabeth Short case. He never met John Gilmore, who died last October. For his part, the author of Severed once told L.A. Weekly, “Ellroy said it’s an unsolvable case. I thought that was kind of cool.”