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Mother’s Murder Unsolved, Too : ‘The Black Dahlia’ Novelist Spurred by Own Tragedy

Times Staff Writer

The moment his cab pulled up to the curb on that distant summer Sunday, James Ellroy knew the worst had happened.

In the yard of his El Monte home stood a group of police officers. One approached him and said, “Son, your mother’s been killed.”

It was 1958. Ellroy was 10. And his life would never be the same.

“I remember crying,” said Ellroy, now 39 and a successful novelist. “Then I remember thinking how much better my dad would be to me.”

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It Was the Way She Died

It wasn’t so much her death that affected him, he was later to say, as it was the manner in which it occurred. A 43-year-old nurse whom he describes as a “buxom redhead with a taste for low life,” Geneva Hillaker Ellroy had spent the previous night bar hopping. As a divorced woman whose young son spent weekends with his father, she was free to do that on Saturday nights. Only this time she fell in with bad company.

Witnesses saw her leaving a neighborhood drinking establishment about 2 a.m. with a swarthy dark-haired man in his 40s and a blond pony-tailed woman in her 20s. Later they found Geneva’s nude body wrapped in an overcoat in the bushes near Arroyo High School. She had been strangled, and under her fingernails were bits of flesh and stubble from a man’s chin. “She fought hard for her life,” said Ellroy, for whom the event was the beginning of a lifelong obsession.

The crime was never solved. But in the randomness of its violence, Ellroy ultimately found inspiration. And recently he was back in Southern California to talk about his new book based on yet another unsolved Los Angeles murder, probably the city’s most famous. “It’s a book about obsession,” he said of “The Black Dahlia,” published last month by Mysterious Press. “It’s a book about the blighted lives of losers trying to love. It’s a book about greed and ambition. Ultimately, it’s a book about redemption.”

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Unlike the obscure murder of Geneva Ellroy, the Black Dahlia case drew immediate headlines when first reported on the morning of Jan. 17, 1947, a year before the author’s birth. Part of the sensation had to do with the gruesomeness of the crime: the two-day torture/murder of the young woman whose body was found severed in half, surgically devoid of internal organs, carefully drained of all blood and sliced ear to ear in a ghastly grin.

A Life of Transient Fantasy

The rest of the fascination had to do with the Dahlia herself, a beautiful dark-haired 22-year-old named Elizabeth Short who had drifted to Los Angeles a few years before to bask in the glitter of Hollywood and dream of stardom. Characterized by a penchant for tight black dresses (hence, the moniker Black Dahlia), she had lived a life of transient fantasy marked by a seemingly endless array of sexual encounters.

In an era of tidy crimes, this one wasn’t. It dominated the headlines for months, probably receiving more publicity than any other Los Angeles crime before or since. In the end, none of the more than 500 men who ultimately confessed to the murder ever convinced police that they had perpetrated it. So the Black Dahlia faded into history, becoming more the stuff of legends than police blotters.

Ellroy’s novel is true to the facts as they are known. But it provides a fictional solution to the crime consistent with those facts. And in the process, it conducts an uncompromising tour of the obscene, violent, gritty, obsessive, darkly sexual world of the city’s underbelly in the 1940s, complete with names and places.

Some of the details come from the novelist’s own life. For after his mother’s death, he too drifted for a time amid the city’s flotsam and jetsam. And like the main character of his book--the tough boxer-turned-cop named Bucky Bleichert--Ellroy only gradually approached the sort of redemption he now says his work represents.

The seeds of that redemption, Ellroy said, were planted when his father--an accountant and Hollywood hanger-on with whom he had gone to live near Hancock Park--gave him a copy of “The Badge,” a nonfiction book by Jack Webb which, among other things, contained a 10-page summary of the Black Dahlia case. Still deeply affected by the death of his mother just the year before, Ellroy became fascinated. “I was afraid to go to sleep because I would have nightmares,” he said. “The Black Dahlia had the randomness of my mother’s death, but it was a lot more explicit.”

He began reading everything he could get his hands on regarding the case, and in the process, discovered crime fiction and the dream of becoming a writer.

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But something else was happening to him as well. Most of the books he was reading, he was stealing from neighborhood book stores. And late at night as his father worked, the young boy--as obsessed now with sex as he was with crime--was becoming a prowler and a peeping tom.

In 1965 Ellroy, then 17, was expelled from Fairfax High School for excessive truancy and fighting. Later, he said, he conned his way out of the Army by faking a nervous breakdown. And for the next 10 years he lived the life of an alcoholic and drug addict, often homeless, supporting his habit by breaking into houses and shoplifting.

Arrested 60 to 70 Times

During that period of his life, Ellroy estimates, he was arrested 60 or 70 times for drunkenness, trespassing and shoplifting. Eventually he wound up in a hospital with an alcohol-related disease. “I realized that if I didn’t change my life I would die,” he said. So when he got out, he checked into a rehabilitation program. And after landing a job as a golf caddy, he began writing as a sort of therapy in the afternoons and evenings.

His first book, “Bronze Requiem,” was published in 1981. Five others, all crime novels, none very successful, followed. Then came “The Black Dahlia.” “It was time to attack the obsession,” the author said.

Working on a $20,000 advance, Ellroy--who has lived in a New York suburb for the past six years and been sober for the past 10--spent slightly more than a year researching and writing the book. The result is a tome that many consider a breakthrough for him in terms of accessibility to readers beyond the usual small coterie of crime aficionados. Critics and readers have compared him to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Listed 12th on the Doubleday best-seller list, the book has been optioned for a possible movie. And some of the excitement it has generated was evident during the West Coast leg of a six-city national tour organized by the book’s publisher.

“I liked it,” said Peggy Krynicki, 33, a personnel manager and self-professed crime enthusiast who recently showed up at Sherlock’s Home, a Long Beach book store, to catch a scheduled appearance by the author there. “It seems real. You read it and you find yourself speculating about what’s possible. This is the closest to true crime that fiction gets.”

Said Chris Caswell, the store’s co-owner: “His books sold well here before, but it was a fairly narrow group of people who were reading them. This book has gone well beyond that. The Black Dahlia remains a secret fascination for many people. It’s become a Southern California legend.”

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Ellroy seems to be taking his new-found notoriety in stride. Living alone in a $450-a-month bachelor apartment in Westchester, New York, he says he writes six hours a day, works out regularly and still drives without a license, a residual from his lawbreaking days. His favorite extravagance, he said, is buying expensive clothes for women he is attracted to. And he likes to poke fun at the notion of himself as a serious literary artist in the notes he inscribes on his fans’ flyleafs.

Underneath the playfulness, though, is a genuine and lasting tenderness for the longtime object of his obsession. “I always thought I would just catch her (on paper),” he said of the Elizabeth Short/Geneva Ellroy that lives in his fantasies. “Instead, I came to love her just like Bucky Bleichert did.”

So, in a sense, she is with him now as he plans his next project, a three-book series set in Los Angeles of the 1950s. And with him periodically as he continues to physically re-visit the scenes of her past: the formerly vacant lot at 39th Street and Norton Avenue where her body was found; the drugstore at 6th Street and Pine Avenue in Long Beach where, legend has it, people first started calling her the Black Dahlia.

Sometime during the current tour, Ellroy said, he plans to visit the Dahlia’s grave in Berkeley, there to “send up a few prayers for her and tell her I love her.

“Because in a perverse sort of way she’s very much like me,” he said. “At 22 she was probably more together than I was. I was lucky that nobody slashed me to death at 22. Who knows what she could have become?”

Will the truth of the Black Dahlia’s death ever be known? He paused on that one, then answered definitively.

“The truth is my novel,” he said. “And it’s fiction.”


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