Death has cast a long shadow over Hollywood
Several days after Hollywood publicist Ronni Chasen was found shot to death in her Mercedes-Benz, a friend voiced the hope to KNBC-TV news that the case wouldn’t turn into “another Black Dahlia.”
The friend was referring to the 1947 slaying of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, which has never been solved.
Of course, mysterious deaths with links to Hollywood date to at least 1922, when debonair director William Desmond Taylor was found slain in his fashionable bachelor pad near the corner of 4th and Alvarado streets.
Taylor’s valet cried out the news that morning and an actress neighbor quickly notified the director’s acquaintances, including those in the habit of writing love letters.
By the time officers arrived, author Sidney Kirkpatrick wrote in The Times, there “appeared to be a party at Taylor’s bungalow: Paramount actors, actresses and executives rummaging through bedroom drawers and closets, a butler washing dishes and an unnamed extra walking out the front door with a case of bootleg gin.
“Everyone in the bungalow seemed to be looking for something, except the host, who was neatly laid out on the living room floor with a bullet hole in the middle of his back.”
“Persons of interest” abounded: an actress with a crush on Taylor; an actress’ mother with a crush on Taylor; an actress’ drug dealer; a thieving valet (who may have secretly been Taylor’s brother); a wife whom Taylor had deserted in the East; and a soldier from his wartime regiment whom Taylor had court-martialed for theft.
Police were pretty sure the butler didn’t do it, but they were certain of little else. No one was ever arrested.
Mystery has also surrounded cases in which the authorities concluded no homicide took place.
In “Deadly Illusions,” for instance, authors Samuel Marx and Joyce Vanderveen argue that director Paul Bern did not shoot himself in 1932, as the coroner had ruled. They contend that an ex-lover did in Bern, the husband of bombshell actress Jean Harlow.
In another case, the body of beautiful actress Thelma Todd was discovered in December 1935 in her Lincoln Phaeton convertible in a garage near her cafe in Pacific Palisades.
The coroner ruled she died of carbon monoxide poisoning after turning on the ignition and striking her head on the steering wheel.
But others theorized she may have been killed by a film director or an abusive ex-husband or even minions of Lucky Luciano, whom she had angered by refusing to allow casino gambling on the property.
Todd’s death followed a series of show-business scandals, and “the studio bosses were worried that many of the Americans who paid to see movies wouldn’t tolerate yet another,” wrote authors Marvin Wolf and Katherine Mader in “Fallen Angels.”
“An official finding of death by her own hand, accidental, or otherwise, put an end to speculation about murder.... A neat and tidy solution.”
Then there was the case of George Reeves, TV’s " Superman,” who died in 1959 not by jumping out a window — as one urban myth has it — but by gunshot.
It was ruled a suicide and connected to Reeves’ inability to land serious roles after his “Superman” days.
But in “Hollywood Kryptonite,” authors Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger assert that he may have been killed on orders of a studio executive whose wife was having an affair with Reeves.
No one, of course, thought the 1978 bludgeoning death of Bob Crane — the star of TV’s “Hogan’s Heroes” — in a Scottsdale, Ariz., apartment was anything but murder.
In 1994, John Henry Carpenter, a friend of Crane’s and a longtime suspect, was tried for the slaying but acquitted.
Prosecutors alleged that Carpenter, who was with Crane the night before the killing, had had a falling out with the actor.
Their case hinged in part on a photograph of a speck found on the door of Carpenter’s rental car, which prosecutors said was fatty matter from Crane’s skull.
Unfortunately, the speck was lost before the trial started. “What was the speck?” asked the jury foreman later.
Officially, the case remains unsolved.
The Times’ Larry Harnisch attributes fascination with the Black Dahlia case to the fact that the killing was a “gruesome, unsolved murder of an attractive victim with a haunting nickname.”
She picked up the nickname because of her black outfits and black hair and because a movie of that era was titled “The Blue Dahlia.”
Short’s mutilated body was found Jan. 15, 1947, in a vacant lot on Norton Avenue in the Leimert Park area.
More than 50 delusional characters confessed. No one was ever arrested.
Over the years, the villain has variously been identified as a pipe salesman, a doctor, a cop, a mobster, a cafe owner and an actor.
Meanwhile, it is too soon to predict the outcome of the investigation into the Nov. 16 slaying of Ronni Chasen. But, as the above cases illustrate (all too brutally), not every Hollywood story has a happy ending. And some have no ending at all.