A Crossroads of Murder and Myth in Hollywood
Somewhere in the late-night shadows of a street lamp just off Hollywood Boulevard lies an intersection of fact and fiction about a 52-year-old murder mystery, shrouded in the fog of memory and mists of imagination.
This is not the gritty Hollywood Boulevard of homeless panhandlers and tourists with camcorders as we know it today, but a thriving, neon-bathed avenue of half a century ago, with throngs of people, clattering streetcars, long and bulbous automobiles, and a sprinkling of movie stars out for a night on the town.
The shadow of a pretty but penniless young woman of 22 has been waiting at this metaphorical crossroads for the last half-century, not mutilated and cut in half as she is so frequently displayed in crime scene photographs, but dressed in a tan topcoat, black suit, frilly white blouse, black suede high heels and her last pair of nylons, the outfit in which she was last seen alive at the Biltmore Hotel.
Her name was Elizabeth Short, known to her family as Betty. She was Jane Doe No. 1, left in a vacant lot in Leimert Park on Jan. 15, 1947, neatly scrubbed and drained of blood, a source of five decades of frustration and failure for homicide detectives. She was transformed into the Black Dahlia, a star-struck girl from back East turned habitue of the Hollywood demimonde. Her story is the city’s premier myth noir, a cautionary tale about what befalls small-town beauties who come to Los Angeles with dreams of getting into the movies.
All the people along this shadowy stretch of pavement, from the screenwriters and novelists at one end to the detectives, reporters and photographers at the other, have done their share to keep this murder stuck firmly in the public imagination. There were other murders at least as gruesome, but long forgotten. Why is this one different?
Part of the reason is the nickname. Until the demise of the Herald Examiner, local newspapers took pride in coining nicknames like the “White Gardenia murder” or the “Red Hibiscus murder,” but could do no better in the killing of Betty Short than “the Werewolf murder.” Then reporters discovered what she used to be called at a little drugstore lunch counter in Long Beach, probably just a customer’s riff on the movie “The Blue Dahlia.” “Black” was mysterious. “Dahlia” was exotic. Two words said it all.
But there is more than just the name and the flood of sensational news stories. Betty Short has become a touchstone for how we want to remember the past. In her brief life are elements that resonate today: being young and pretty, and taking foolish chances on an ill-defined search for a better future, a bit like everyone who comes to Los Angeles with a dream.
The transformation of Betty Short from murder victim to literary property began within weeks of her death, when the evening Herald-Express had a handful of well-known crime authors offer their views on the case. The cavalcade of writers who followed stole lies and mistakes from one another and added new ones in a process like fossilization, in which nearly every fact was gradually replaced by a bit of fiction. The accumulation of errors leaves most modern accounts completely wrong. But like a fossilized fern leaf, the story remains intact and recognizable. Its enduring role as a macabre curio of old Los Angeles, whether it’s as a throwaway joke in the movie “Sunset Boulevard” or as a high-tech computer game, has taken its own victims: Betty’s long-grieving family, the police, as well as the dozens of tawdry confessors.
The poor lost soul glaring out from the photo on Page 1 (The Times rather squeamishly kept the story inside except for this one day) is one of the minor victims. He was Cpl. Joseph Dumais, one of the passing parade of confessors, who was a hot story for a few days and then vanished, only to reemerge four decades later in James Ellroy’s novel “The Black Dahlia.”
In real life, Dumais was a car thief and carnival roustabout who was cleared in the case, but he insisted for years that he had killed Betty Short. He later added the claim that they were married (detectives calculated she would have been 12 at the time) and had a daughter. It was nonsense, but he never let go, for the truth about the Black Dahlia case is that the human mind abhors a vacuum and, in the absence of valid answers, will generate increasingly absurd solutions.
Many scenarios have been put forward over the years. Maybe it was an ex-GI traumatized by the horrors of war, or a lesbian love triangle; take your pick, for nothing seems too improbable. I think the killer might well be a prominent surgeon named Walter Bayley who until a few months before had lived a block from the crime scene on South Norton Avenue, a man in the grips of madness and adversity whose daughter knew Betty Short’s oldest sister. Of course, this is the Black Dahlia case, where so many other solutions have crumbled. I have to be willing to be proved wrong.