A Slaying Cloaked in Mystery and Myths
Light does not easily penetrate the clouded story of Betty Short, a 22-year-old unemployed cashier and waitress whose body was found cut in half and gruesomely mutilated 50 years ago this month in a vacant lot in Southwest Los Angeles.
The unsolved killing remains Los Angeles’ premier myth noir, a tale of a tragic beauty clad in black, prowling the night life, a cautionary fable that rings as true today as it did in 1947.
The legend insists on a shadowed, epic tone. The newspaper photographs look like movie stills from a classic crime film. Even the name of the story is rooted in darkness: the Black Dahlia.
For many who were close to the case, it remains a haunting experience: the detective who for 50 years has felt he interviewed the killer; the 11-year-old boy who turned his obsession into a career as a best-selling author, and the victim’s relatives, who have seen Betty Short transformed in death from the good girl they remember into a tramp.
The myth usually goes like this: A penniless but plucky girl from back East comes to Hollywood with stars in her eyes and visions of movies in her head, her wardrobe of nothing but sleek, black clothing winning her the nickname of Black Dahlia. She perseveres in the face of adversity, getting a few bit parts in films, but is horribly slain, a moth consumed by the Hollywood flame.
A darker variation makes her lazy and irresponsible, hints obliquely at stag films (as in John Gregory Dunne’s novel and movie “True Confessions” and James Ellroy’s “Black Dahlia”) and the L.A. underworld.
The myth usually concludes with a doorman at the Biltmore Hotel, where she was last seen, tipping his cap as he ushers her out, watching as the Dahlia vanishes into the night, only to resurface a week later horribly slain.
Pick any element of the myth and you walk into a fog of contradictions. The Biltmore doorman, for example, cannot be found in heated news accounts of the day, which reported on every conceivable contact anyone had with Short in the so-called “missing week” before her death.
Who was Betty Short? Was she really the woman portrayed in the press as the unemployed waitress who prowled the boulevard with a different boyfriend every night, frequently failing to come home? The girl who never seemed to have a job but somehow managed to pay the rent as she shifted from hotel to hotel and apartment to apartment every few months?
Or was she the innocent Central California Army camp PX worker who refused to date servicemen? The daughter who dutifully wrote home to her mother every week, filling her letters with hopeful news that wasn’t true? The wide-eyed innocent of the 1975 TV movie “Who Is the Black Dahlia?” constantly fighting off mashers in uniform?
How did the murdered Short, whose badly decayed teeth were plugged with wax, become the seductive Black Dahlia?
The mystery has only improved with age. Ultimately, it seems not to matter whether she was young and pretty and mysterious; legend would have made her so.
‘Nice Girl’ Becomes a Woman on the Move
She was, at least, secretive, revealing little as she wandered from Long Beach to Hollywood to San Diego in the last year of her life, never making any long-term friends, never staying anywhere very long.
Elizabeth, or Betty as she was usually known, grew up in Medford, Mass., the historic “Medford town” of Longfellow’s “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.”
She was the third of five girls born within eight years to Phoebe Short and her husband, Cleo, who built miniature golf courses. Cleo abandoned the family, vanishing in 1930, a year after the Great Depression began.
Betty Short’s schoolmates recall her as a nice girl who turned heads whenever she went. Bob Pacios, who grew up around the corner from the Shorts’ home on Salem Street, remembers Betty wholesomely, “as by far the prettiest of the five sisters.”
Pacios said she liked to tease him.
“She knew I was bashful and liked to see my face turn crimson. She would say, ‘We ought to go out dancing together.’ But she was a nice girl,” he said.
Betty was often ill, so the family decided to send her to Florida for the winter. It was 1940; she was 16. After a few winters in Florida, she tried California.
Step back to Los Angeles, January 1947: A newspaper costs a nickel; so does a phone call. Women’s Spectator pumps are $9.95 and a carton of Viceroys is $1.58. Crime is rising after the war and the morning Examiner runs a daily box score on the front page.
In the midst of an acute housing shortage, a home in the 3700 block of Norton Avenue, one block east of Crenshaw Boulevard in the Leimert Park district, is $11,000.
John and Betty Bersinger, who bought a home there in 1945, recall it as a neighborhood of newly married couples with young children; a good place to raise a family.
The war had stopped the housing development at their block. The lots one block south were overgrown with weeds.
About 10 on the crisp, bright morning of Jan. 15, Betty Bersinger was pushing her 3-year-old daughter, Anne, in a stroller, heading south to a repair shop to pick up her husband’s shoes.
Bersinger was looking down, concentrating on steering the wheels through the broken glass that covered the sidewalk in the 3800 block of Norton. “I glanced to my right, and saw this very dead, white body,” she said in a recent interview.
“My goodness . . . it was so white. It didn’t . . . look like anything more than perhaps an artificial model. It was so white and separated in the middle. I noticed the dark hair and this white, white form.”
It was the carefully posed remains of Betty Short, 5 feet 5, 115 pounds, severed at the waist. She was face up, a few inches from the sidewalk, just north of the middle of the block. Her blue eyes were open, her hands were over her head with her elbows bent at right angles; her knees were straight and legs spread.
Flies were hovering around the body. She had been hit in the head and gashes were cut from the corners of her mouth. Chunks of flesh had been neatly sliced from her body, which had been scrubbed and systematically drained of blood.
Bersinger stopped at a house to call the police. Then, having touched off what would become the largest manhunt of its day, she went off to pick up her husband’s shoes.
Alerted by Bersinger’s call, wave upon wave of police descended on Norton.
So did an equal number of reporters and photographers. In an era of cozier police-media relations, there was nothing to keep them away from the body.
Will Fowler, a former reporter for the L.A. Examiner, which dominated the coverage from the first day, recalls closing Short’s eyes before police arrived.
The Examiner, having brought out its biggest “Extra” since V-J Day, offered to transmit the victim’s fingerprints by the wirephoto system--if police, in exchange, would give the paper an exclusive on the identification. The next day, Short was identified from fingerprints taken in 1943 when she was arrested in Santa Barbara as a minor who was illegally in a bar.
The Examiner broke the news to Short’s mother with a ruse: calling to tell her that Betty had won a beauty contest.
Times sports columnist Jim Murray, then an Examiner staffer, remembers watching rewrite man Wain Sutton make the call as the paper’s much-hated city editor, Jimmy Richardson, sat in a swivel chair and listened.
“I sat there and listened to the poor, dear mother telling [Sutton] about her school-day triumphs,” Murray said. “I can still see him put his hand over the mouthpiece of the old-fashioned upright phone and say, ‘Now what do I tell her?’
“Richardson screwed up his one good eye and said: ‘Now tell her.’ ”
Another L.A. daily, the Herald-Express, prided itself on naming murder cases. There’d been the “White Orchid Murder,” the “Red Hibiscus Murder” and the “White Flame Murder.” But the Black Dahlia nickname was real: Short got it in a Long Beach drugstore, half a block from a hotel where she’d once stayed for two weeks. (The drugstore and its counter still stand, converted to a flower shop.)
The Examiner paid for Phoebe Short to fly to Los Angeles, then hid her from the competition, Fowler said. For two days, Mrs. Short resisted the coroner’s request that she identify the body; she wanted to remember Betty as she was.
Meanwhile in San Diego, reporters found a family that had taken Short into their home in late 1946 after noticing her in an all-night movie theater, where she was seeking refuge.
According to one San Diego paper, Short spent her days loafing, picking up men and going to nightclubs. One of them was Robert Manley, a young redheaded L.A. pipe clamp salesman who met Short on a street corner.
“I asked her if she wanted to ride. She turned her head and wouldn’t look at me,” Manley said in a 1947 interview.
But he kept talking to Short, telling her about himself. “Finally she turned around and asked me if I didn’t think it was wrong to ask a girl on a corner to get into my car.
“I said yes, but ‘I’d like to take you home,’ so she got in the car,” Manley said.
After the holidays, the San Diego family, complaining that their small house was too crowded, asked her to leave. She wired Manley to come and get her, telling him she was going to meet her sister Virginia and go with her to Berkeley--none of which was true.
Short and Manley stayed in a motel in Pacific Beach--platonically, he said. The next morning they drove to Los Angeles. Manley helped her check her suitcases at the bus station and took her to the Biltmore. She asked him to look for her sister in the lobby while she went to the powder room. But Manley didn’t find her.
Concerned about getting back to his family, Manley left Betty Short at the Biltmore at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 9.
Within days of the murder, reporters trailing the mysterious “Red” found the motel where the couple had checked in, using their real names.
After talking to Manley’s wife, reporter Fowler led police to a home in Eagle Rock, where Manley and a business associate had returned from a San Francisco business trip.
“Right away, Manley said, ‘I know what you’re talking about--it wasn’t me; I wasn’t there,’ ” Fowler said.
Manley was booked as a suspect by one of the two lead LAPD detectives, Harry Hansen. But he passed a polygraph test and was released to patch up his marriage.
Suspicion and an earlier history of mental problems trailed Manley. In 1954, his wife had him committed to a mental hospital, saying he was hearing voices. Later that year, doctors from a VA hospital administered sodium pentothal in a final attempt to extract the truth about the Black Dahlia killing. He was again cleared. In 1986 he died alone in an Anaheim apartment, 39 years to the day after he left Betty at the Biltmore. Authorities said death was the result of an accidental fall.
Nine days after Short’s body was found, the apparent killer mailed an envelope full of her belongings to the Examiner. The envelope was addressed with gruesome humor, using letters clipped from a page of movie ads, including part of the phrase “Heaven is HERE!” from the ad for “Stairway to Heaven.”
The envelope contained Short’s Social Security card, birth certificate, snapshots and an old address book with some pages missing. Gasoline had been rubbed on the contents of the envelope to remove fingerprints.
The address book sent police off on another furious round of investigation, tracking down about 75 men who were listed.
The men told similar stories: they met Betty Short on a corner or at a bus stop, they went out for a meal or to a nightclub. Nothing romantic ever happened, and they never saw her again.
Police reached another dead end. Detectives on loan for the investigation were gradually sent back to their divisions. Until they retired, lead Dets. Hansen and Finis Brown chased leads and examined other cases that might have been related. Nothing conclusive ever emerged.
“She just asked for trouble,” Hansen speculated after retirement in 1971. “She probably went too far this time, and just set some guy off into a blind, berserk rage.”
The current guardian of the case and the drab four-drawer file cabinet that holds everything known about the murder is Det. Brian Carr, who was born four years after Short was killed. He refers to the files every month or so when he gets calls about the case.
“If this were any other case, it would all be in some warehouse,” Carr said.
The last living detective from the original investigation is Ralph Asdel, 76, who was in his fifth year with the Los Angeles Police Department when the murder occurred. Within weeks of the killing, Asdel says, he tracked down a man he believes was the murderer, acting on tips and a description of a man seen near where the body was found.
He said he talked to the suspect at a restaurant a few blocks west of the crime scene, but did not confront him with his suspicion. There was no proof beyond the fact that the man had recently repainted a car that seemed to resemble one spotted near the murder scene.
“Sometimes the good Lord gets you these feelings or hunches,” said Asdel, who lives in Santa Clarita. “You get the hair standing up on the back of your neck, whether it’s a routine traffic stop or whatever. You just know.”
The town of Medford, Mass., likes being known as the place where “Jingle Bells” was written. It does not enjoy its reputation as the hometown of the Black Dahlia. The plaque--donated in 1993 by a freelance Dahlia researcher and placed on Salem Street where Short’s house once stood--was strenuously opposed; people said Medford should not honor its most notorious daughter.
An Obsession Becomes Writer’s Inspiration
The toll was higher for best-selling author James Ellroy, who wept after he wrote the last page of his 1987 novel “The Black Dahlia.”
It was the culmination of a 28-year obsession that began on his 11th birthday--eight months after his own mother’s unsolved murder--when his father gave Ellroy a copy of Jack Webb’s “The Badge,” a nonfiction spinoff of “Dragnet.”
He read the section on the Black Dahlia killing 100 times. But his obsession turned to nightmares so vivid that he used to be afraid to go to sleep.
“The nightmares were sophisticated and visual,” Ellroy said. “I would see these odd winch devices and gears and pulleys lowering Elizabeth Short into a bathtub; viscera floating in bathwater, bloody suds, her face with that lacquered hairdo being cut ear to ear, blood gurgling. That was horrible.”
As he grew older, Ellroy imposed a story structure on the nightmares as a way of controlling them and began fantasizing about rescuing the Black Dahlia.
“I hated my mother at the time she died,” Ellroy said. So the Black Dahlia’s killing became a substitute for his mother’s. “I seized on it,” he said. “In looking back I was trying to get at the horror and grief I couldn’t express over my mother’s death.”
In most accounts, Short’s mother disappears after testifying at the inquest, her sympathetic characterization of her daughter overwhelmed by press portrayals of the seductive Black Dahlia.
After her daughters were grown and married, she moved to Oakland to be near Betty’s grave at Mountain View Cemetery, former neighbors said. (Betty was buried there because she loved California, her mother said in 1947.) Betty’s youngest sister, Muriel, now 68, said Mrs. Short moved back East in the 1970s and died a few years ago in her early 90s.
Muriel, who requested that her last name and residence not be disclosed, said she has avoided reading any of the books about the crime. Pain was etched in her calm voice.
“The family has put so much time into trying to get away from it . . . trying to put it behind us,” she said, “and every time someone brings it up, it starts all over again. . . . It’s just too much to bring up all the old hurts again.”
Who killed Betty Short? Today the crime would be “very solvable,” says John Douglas, former head of the FBI’s serial crimes division, who is one of the nation’s leading experts on profiling violent criminals and the author of “Mindhunter.”
The killer revealed so much about himself through the amount of time he spent with the body, Douglas notes. “Old crimes are fascinating,” he said. “It would have been a great case to get.”
After reviewing the coroner’s inquest and a summary of the case at the request of The Times, Douglas suggests this profile of Short’s killer: He was a white man, no younger than his late 20s and possibly older, with a high school education. He lived alone, made his living working with his hands rather than his brains, was adept with a knife and “was comfortable wallowing in blood"--for example, a butcher, a slaughterhouse worker or possibly a hunter who knew how to dress out deer.
He was under great personal and financial stress. He and Short spent several days together and he had been drinking. She rejected him. The mixture of personal stress, alcohol and rejection exploded into murderous rage.
Cutting the body in half was to make transportation easier, Douglas continued. But the level of mutilation reflects a personal rage directed at Short. “You can just imagine him saying: ‘You bitch. Look who has the last laugh now,’ ” he said.
But why Norton Avenue? Douglas notes that there were far better places to dispose of a body. The killer took a high risk to place the body where he did, Douglas said, “because he wanted to put the fear of God in that neighborhood.”
Half a century later, Norton Avenue is still a neat, middle-class block of one-story homes with tidy lawns. Returning there for the first time in 50 years, former reporter Will Fowler said, “is like passing yourself on the street in the fog.”
Fowler, now 74 and living in Sherman Oaks, hopes the crime is never solved. It would ruin the mystery.
Asdel, the last living detective, hopes someone will come forward. Even if the killer is dead, perhaps a relative might break their silence.
And Betty Bersinger, who touched off the mystery, now 76 and living in Santa Monica, asks the question that has been reverberating for half a century:
“When is all of it going to die down?”