On a typically mild winter evening right before new year's, 1996, I stood at the corner of 39th and Norton near the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles. Clean-looking, middle class houses stood shoulder to shoulder in a non-descript neighborhood within eyeshot of the famous HOLLYWOOD sign to the north. Despite the fact that Watts and Compton weren't too far away to the southeast, it seemed pleasant enough. Not a bad neighborhood if you have to live in LA.
Standing at the corner of 39th and Norton is not unlike standing next to the ground zero monument at Trinity Site in my home state of New Mexico; the area looks so normal, you'd never guess what kind of insane goings on went down on the same spot 50 years previously.
On 15 January 1947, in what was then a lot to the southwest of the intersection, the body of a young woman was discovered. Her nude, mutilated body was severed in half at the waist. Both halves of her body had been drained of blood and washed clean.
By the following morning, the LAPD learned that she was 22 year-old Elizabeth Short, who had come to Hollywood from Massachusetts to be a star. As a joking nod to the Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake movie The Blue Dahlia, and because her hair and clothes were always jet black, she was known to some acquaintances m L.A. as "The Black Dahlia."
Despite the fact that the murder rocked the city like an 8.0 earthquake, and despite the fact that for months afterwards the police and press battled bitterly to solve the crime, not a shred of evidence surfaced which pointed to anyone who might have been involved with the murder. It remains officially unsolved to this day.
I knew all of that. Years before, I read Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon 11 and came away with the same story as everyone else; Elizabeth Short was a floozy prostitute who slept with every guy she met, finally angering one who butchered her m a fit of jealous rage. It was a case of unbelievable overkill, and all the more intriguing that the perpetrator of something so unspeakably horrible escaped so easily.
But then two years ago I picked up, by chance, a book by famed writer John Gilmore called SEVERED-- The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder (the book is being reissued by Amok Books this winter). In it, Gilmore-- who researched the Dahlia case on and off for some 30 years-- dropped several bombs, probably the biggest being that the LAPD had, years after the murder, found the man responsible for killing the Black Dahlia.
For weeks after I finished the book, I was, for lack of a better word, haunted. The Black Dahlia wouldn't leave my head. And after a time it became my personal quest to figure out why.
I did my homework before I went back to L.A. in July of '96 to do a Black Dahlia tour. From a Black Dahlia Web site I found a bunch of articles, and discovered that there were thousands of others out there like me. More obsessed individuals making pilgrimages to 39th and Norton. Strange stuff-- here we are, 50 years later, and the Black Dahlia refuses to fade away. In the summer of 1991 a crackpot, 54 year-old woman in Southern California went to the police claiming it was her who father killed Elizabeth Short in 1947, and buried the evidence at her former home. A few years ago, James Ellroy's "Novel based upon
Hollywood's most notorious murder case, " The Black Dahlia, was published, even though it had barely anything to do with the case. Freaks with Black Dahlia tattoos walk the streets of America. Goatee-sporting, cappuccino-sipping, wanna-be-arty gothic-types sit in coffee houses rambling on about Elizabeth Short, practically deifying the girl; in 1947, Elizabeth Short was just a confused chick who ran with a bad crowd. In 1997, she's a legend, an archetype of sorts-- the most spectacular unsolved murder America has to offer.
My tour began where all Black Dahlia tours must begin-- 39th and Norton. Even though the intersection is ground zero for Black Dahlia buffs, there's nothing there in 1997 that recalls the Los Angeles of 1947. L.A. is the Rome of the western U.S; it's layers deep in history. The excitement and glamour of Golden-Age Hollywood is now buried under tons of garbage and endless miles of clogged freeways. Likewise, the infamous lot where Elizabeth Short achieved world-wide fame is buried under dozens of houses.
I tried to picture the intersection on January 15, 1947-- vacant lot overgrown with weeds, punctuated by the nude body of a girl cut in half. The crime scene itself is impossible to ignore; for a single image which starkly and brutally sums up the state of affairs between men and women on this planet, look no further than any picture of Elizabeth Short at 39th and Norton. Her murder is a sobering reminder that no matter how far feminists think they've come, you can’t fight tens of thousands of years of evolution. The brutal men of the world have always dominated the Elizabeth Shorts of the world.
I aimed my rental east down Martin Luther King and headed towards 31st and Trinity, where the house in which Elizabeth Short was murdered used to be.
Why do people who have even am accidental brush with the Black Dahlia's story wind up as fanatics? Different people offer different reasons. For some, the story is a link to an older, seedier, noir-like Los Angeles. To others, Elizabeth Short is the primo symbol for any number of social ills, ranging from the irresponsible press to the irresponsible police.
Part of my homework was talking to John Gilmore, who, as it happened, also lived in New Mexico.
For Gilmore, who has written books about Manson (The Garbage People), Tucson's Charles Schmid (Cold Blooded), and James Dean (the newly released Live Fast, Die Young--Remembering the Short Life of James Dean), it's the body itself which laid the groundwork for endless generations of Black Dahlia zealots. "It's like this tremendous, bizarre magnet," he told me. "It gets to our unconsciousness, and it gets to us on a real subliminal level... So much hidden agenda went into that murder that it was inherent at the scene of the murder."
I wasn’t going to argue with that-- Gilmore is, after all, the world's #1 Black Dahlia expert. As a child, he actually met Elizabeth Short-- albeit briefly-- at his grandmother's boarding house. In the early 60s, he hooked up with actor Tom Neal, who wanted to make a movie about the Black Dahlia. Neal assigned Gilmore the task of speaking with potential financiers, one of whom was a "weird, weird guy" in Barstow who wanted to touch Gilmore's hands, because they had touched the field where the body had lain. (A great bit on all of that appears in Gilmore’s latest book, Laid Bare, which chronicles his relationships with, among many others, James Dean, Lenny Bruce, Janis Joplin, and Ed Wood, Jr.)
A bit of a monkeywrench was thrown into the plan when Neal went to jail after murdering his wife in Palm Springs. Although it was no longer his intention to make it into a movie, Gilmore continued to research the Black Dahlia case for years after that ("I suppose over the years I've had all the major Black Dahlia crackpots..."), eventually hooking up with retired LAPD detective Finis Brown, who, having personally worked on the Dahlia case, was a treasure trove of information.
And Gilmore was right; that body does hit you-- and hard-- on an unconscious level. But it wasn't the main reason I was having difficulty ridding my brain of the Black Dahlia. There was more to it than that.
Take the second biggest bomb dropped in his book. Gilmore had access to the previously sealed Elizabeth Short autopsy report, which revealed that because her genitals were not fully developed, Elizabeth Short was incapable of having sex. (A startling release generated for the SEVERED book focused exclusively on this point: "STRANGE BLACK DAHLIA MURDER VICTIM WAS NOT A BEAUTIFUL FEMME FATALE, BUT WAS A MAN." Well no, she wasn't really a man, but she wasn't a whore either.)
Discovering that Elizabeth Short not only wasn't a prostitute, but couldn't have been a prostitute, throws the story under an entirely different light. So much for all the Call-Girl-of - the-Night stories. So much for James Ellroy's fantasy view to the facts.
If a beautiful girl who apparently bounced from guy to guy wasn't sleeping with any of them, then what was going on? "...She knew that she couldn't ever possibly become a full-blown woman in any size, shape, or form," Gilmore told me between sips of coffee. "And she decided she was going to do the role anyway. Because she did. It was just a series of games, a series of encounters with people that would lead to the romance-type situation, and then she would disappear. I think she overlapped relationships, so she always had a place to go, and a place to be transported to."
So the Black Dahlia herself had a secret so dark that she had to keep it from the male acquaintances in her life. Probably the female ones, too. Actually, plenty of folks think it's Short's past-- not her murder-- which is at the heart of the case. The autopsy certainly brought an insane new twist to a story already replete with insane twists, but there was still something else that I couldn't put my finger on.
I turned left onto San Pedro and then left again a couple of blocks later onto 31st. It's amazing how quickly the landscape changes in L.A. Only minutes away from the more-or-less cozy atmosphere at 39th and Norton, the scenery becomes aesthetically destitute at 31st and Trinity. A few bad asses in tank tops glared at me from a garage.
Unlike the Angelinos at 39th and Norton who are tired of countless morbid tourists snapping pictures of their houses, the blokes at 31st and Trinity are oblivious to their area's role in the Black Dahlia case. Although the house in question was torn down over 35 years ago, it was here, as Gilmore discovered through his research, that Elizabeth Short was actually murdered.
And so it's here that Jack Anderson Wilson, AKA Arnold Smith, enters the picture.
The biggest question mark in the Black Dahlia murder has always been, obviously, the identity of the murderer himself. Many, like Sherry Mazingo (USC's associate professor of journalism), would argue that the case's endless momentum and noir mood was built around the fact that Elizabeth Short's murderer was never found. As Mazingo once wrongfully observed: "...Should the (Black Dahlia) murder have been solved, it would take some of the dramatic sheen off this beautifully dramatic story."
I couldn’t disagree more. You do have to understand Elizabeth Short's story to understand the Black Dahlia phenomenon, but it is Smith's place in the action which I find most engrossing. And, if anything, the drama only intensifies with Smith's arrival. Uncovering him gives the Black Dahlia story a beginning, a middle, and for the first time, an ending. It's a stunning ending, too. The kind that would be criticized by a Lit professor as an easy way out.
Elizabeth Short is SEVERED's dark woman of the night, but Smith-- a thin alcoholic who stood around 6'4", walked with a limp, and had a five-page rap sheet and a dozen different aliases-- is the mysterious shadow who lurks throughout the book, whom police could never quite pinpoint.
As the LAPD worked feverishly to solve the Black Dahlia murder, Smith's presence was felt here and there, fleetingly, but never long enough to come into focus. While Elizabeth Short was still alive, rich L.A. socialite Georgette Bauerdorf (an acquaintance of Short's) was murdered and left in her bathtub; police investigated all leads except one. A man who Bauerdorf had dated-- a tall man who walked with a limp-- couldn't be found.
Bauerdorf's murderer fled in her car, which was abandoned near 25th and San Pedro, right around the corner from 31st and Trinity. A week after the murder, Herald Express newspaper reporter Aggie Underwood received a tip that a tall, thin man walking with a limp was seen walking away from 25th and San Pedro.
Many, many years later (in late 1981), Arnold Smith emerged as a suspect in the Black Dahlia case only because he related the story to an informant (that's how it reads in the book; incredibly, Gilmore himself is the one who brought Smith to the LAPD's attention), who in turn gave him money to stay loaded. However, Smith explained that he wasn't responsible for the murder. An acquaintance of his-- one Al Morrison (extensive investigations by the LAPD didn't turn up any proof that Morrison ever existed)-- murdered Short in a house on East 31st near Trinity, and later related the events to Smith.
After Gilmore took taped interviews of him to the LAPD, Smith-- who until that point was always available for a drink-- became "cagey," and impossible to track down. However, the LAPD and Detective Badge Number One, John St. John, were hot to nail him. St. John was sure that Al Morrison was just a "smoke screen" to keep the police off the trail of the real murderer-- Smith himself. On the tapes Gilmore provided, Smith related details about the murder that only the murderer could have known-- details that the hordes of confessed Black Dahlia murderers who had been turning themselves in over the years knew nothing about.
The LAPD felt sure they had their man. Now they had to catch him. With much difficulty, a meeting was finally arranged with Smith.
In the case's most astonishing twist, Smith nodded off while smoking only days before the meeting, and died in a fire in his tiny room in the Holland Hotel near downtown L.A. Carelessness, or suicide? Hard to say.
So the enigmatic specter who was probably responsible for the enigmatic Black Dahlia's murder-- and at least one other-- reared his head years after the murder and then was suddenly gone. And it wasn't, as so many had assumed, a jealous doctor, a physician with the skill to surgically cut Elizabeth Short into two. It was just a drunken loser, one of countless zeros wandering around Los Angeles.
After his death, police learned that when he was younger, Smith had lived for a time with his mother near-- surprise, surprise-- 31st and San Pedro. The whole area is Mr. Smith's Neighborhood.
Leaving 31st and Trinity, I wondered, as I had many times before, why on earth pretty Elizabeth Short had ever given Arnold Smith the time of day.
"With them, I think it was a very strange connection of the cripple," Gilmore told me. "She was crippled. She was a defective individual, and he was a defective individual. And you have a tense situation with people whose nerves are on the surface, where the antennas are very clear with one another. Very clear. I think he was a man who just overrode all boundaries. I don't think he even recognized boundaries in life... plus, he was stalking her, so it was simply a matter of time. "
I took San Pedro north to 8th, and navigated my way through downtown L.A, finally spilling onto 7th street east of MacArthur park. There stood the run-down, decrepit Holland Hotel, where Arnold Smith, the man who could have answered everybody's questions about the Black Dahlia murder, burned to death after eluding police for 35 years. 35 years. Who would have thought that closure for the Black Dahlia story, such as it was, would be found in a dump like the Holland so long after her death?
How sad that Elizabeth Short's insecurities landed her, as they seem to do with so many women, in the wrong part of town with the wrong people, at precisely the wrong time. Gilmore had remarked that she was a driven girl, but afraid of running into herself.
"...She played these games out with men, and reached a point where... it was time to get up and do the act. And she couldn't do the act-- I think it was a moment of great anxiety for her, which might have been all along leading up to a point where she fled. She left and ran. I think (Smith) was there at the right time, at the right place, as if to say, take my hand-- the spider and the fly. And I think she was a willing fly. She was willing herself into the crime, as weird as that might sound.
"So you could look at him as an incidental thing, an appendage to her success or something, as a noir star, a dark star."
For a few minutes, I stood across the street from the run-down hotel where Arnold Smith bid adieu to planet Earth. A more perfect building couldn't have been dreamed up for the final chapter in the Black Dahlia saga; the Holland Hotel looked about as inviting as Norman Bates' house.
To my way of thinking, Smith was more than just an "incidental thing" in the Black Dahlia story. If it really had been a rich surgeon behind the murder, the story's ending would have been most un-noir-like, and boring at that. Throw Smith into the mix, and you have a paralyzingly perfect tale-- one that Hollywood's best writers wish they could’ve thought up. What were the odds that such a slippery, spooky guy was behind the whole damn mystery? How many things could Elizabeth Short have done differently after she arrived in LA to avoid her run-m with Arnold Smith on January 14, 1947? Standing there in the shadow of the Holland Hotel, I finally realized what it was about the Black Dahlia murder.
In its uniquely haunting way, Elizabeth Short's story is a play about randomness-- the Black Dahlia case embodies the consequences of Chance in a stark nutshell. By naive, dumb chance, Elizabeth Short's path crossed that of a murderer. And from that point on, a shortly wound clock was ticking towards her macabre murder. It's a profoundly disturbing, noir take on the worn-out Creation vs. Evolution argument: was all this created, or did it happen by chance? The craziest things happen by chance, and Elizabeth Short-- who may never have seen the end hurling towards her like a freight tram on January 14/15, 1947-- is Chance personified.
- END -
This article was provided to The Black Dahlia Web Site by the article's author. It has also appeared in the magazine Flip Side. The article is copyright to Russell Miller. Unauthorized reproduction of this article or any portion thereof is prohibited. The Black Dahlia Web Site does not own this article.
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