Sunday, September 27, 2009

Childhood Shadows: The Hidden Story of The Black Dahlia Murder by Mary Pacios

Beginning with a stark, poignant dedication "For Bette," Mary Pacios' "Childhood Shadows" is a moving testament to the fact that behind every gruesome crime-scene photo, behind every sensational, blood-dripping headline, and every tale of violence, murder, and assault on the nightly news, there is always a human being; victims are not generic, they are not just names. Ms. Pacios' book tells the story of one of the most famous murder victims of all, Elizabeth Short, a would-be actress who found fame only in death as "The Black Dahlia" when her nude body was found cut in half, drained of blood, and lewdly posed, in a vacant lot in Los Angeles on January 15, 1947.

Behind the mass of black curls, geisha-pale face, and eye-catching black wardrobe that earned her the famous moniker that captured the attention and imagination of the press and public alike, there was Elizabeth Short, but Mary Pacios knew her simply as Bette. And, contrary to legend, she didn't always wear black, her favorite color was pink, and she also liked light blue. Bette left her hometown of Medford, Massachusetts at sixteen, when her worsening asthma and lung problems required her to spend the winters in a warmer climate such as Florida or California. She worked as a waitress and a hat model and dreamed of becoming a movie star, and the denizens of her quiet New England hometown fully believed they would see her face on the silver screen someday; Bette was a girl who was going places, who would make something of herself. Those who knew her always spoke well of her, her politeness and kindness, marveling that such a beautiful, graceful, poised girl was not the least bit stuck-up.

Mary Pacios was five years old in 1939 when she was sexually assaulted by a local high school boy. Too little to understand what had happened to her, she was left feeling guilty, as if she herself were in someway to blame for the angry reactions of the adults around her. Then one day her next-door neighbor, Bette Short knocked on the door and asked if she could take Mary to see a movie. Bette had a way with children, she didn't talk down to them, always listened to them and appeared interested in what they had to say. And going to the movies with Bette soon became a ritual Mary eagerly looked forward to. Together they saw all the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies, animated features like "Hoppity Goes To Town" and "Gulliver's Travels," and they sat through "Gone With The Wind" twice; Bette even bought Mary a book of Scarlett O'Hara paper dolls and help her cut them out. The two would sit at the table while Mary drew pictures and Bette, still a high school girl, did her homework or wrote letters. They also frequently went out for ice cream. And Mary would watch Bette try on dresses at the local dress shop; she particularly remembers a black dress with a pattern of pink flowers.

Mary was twelve when word reached Medford of Bette's brutal death. Reporters descended on the little Massachusetts town like a flock of vultures, and everyday there was another sensational headline, and the maligning of Elizabeth Short began, the blaming of the victim for her own grisly end via the implication that she had in some way deserved to fall prey to a sadistic modern-day Jack the Ripper. Some accounts even went so far as to call her a whore, to say that she was a prostitute, either a common streetwalker or a more refined call girl; a false accusation as ironic as it is cruel since Bette may have suffered from some sort of vaginal abnormality that either prevented sexual intercourse or made it difficult.

Bette's savage and degrading death and her public metamorphosis into "The Black Dahlia," "the perfect murder victim," "a primer on how certain women get dead," left an indelible mark on the mind and heart of Mary Pacios. She never forgot Bette, even as she grew up to become an artist, married, and had children, Bette was always there like a ghost in her dreams, sometimes making appearances in Mary's artwork. But it was not the identity of Bette's killer or his motive that preyed on Mary's mind, it was more the blackening of her memory to match "The Black Dahlia's" wardrobe, and Mary decided to do somethng about it. In 1987 she embarked on a journey to the past, to interview those who had known Elizabeth Short before death made her immortal. What she thought would only take a few months, ended up consuming ten years. "Childhood Shadows" was born of that labor of love and fond memories.

When reading the book one has to remember that Mary Pacios was a child when she knew Elizabeth Short, and saw her through a child's eyes, as she herself acknowledges. Most of the people she spoke with knew Bette when she lived in Medford, and the beautiful drifter who haunted the boulevards and popular nightspots of Hollywood in her trademark black clothes hoping to be noticed by the right person and become a star might have been somewhat different. But she did not deserve to have her life taken in an act of sadistic violence or for her nude, bisected body to be splayed out in a vacant lot and later in countless true crime books for the curious to gape at. Elizabeth Short was a human being with feelings, hopes, and dreams, and all that was taken from her at the tender age of twenty-two by a monster who eluded justice. Ms. Pacios book is a lovely , heartfelt tribute to her.

As part of her research, Ms. Pacios spoke with some of the reporters who originally covered the story, as well as with other authors who have written books about the case, including John Gilmore, James Ellroy, and the emotionally troubled Jan Knowlton, and Detective John St. John, who had charge of the still open, but cold, case at the time. She also presents a suspect of her own: actor and director Orson Welles, citing peculiarities in his personality and behavior, and suggestive set decorations in his film "The Lady From Shanghai" to bolster her case.

The book is actually much shorter than it looks; double-spacing makes it appear longer, and several appendices at the end, with photos, inquest testimony, and information about suspects, add additional length.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


Little Tabby is two years old today.

Here she is with her birthday cake.

The birthday girl all tired out after her ice cream and cake.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara by Eve Golden

Eve Golden is one of my favorite biographers, ever since I read her wonderful biography of Jean Harlow, my favorite actress, I have always eagerly awaited her next book. I cannot praise highly enough her plainspoken, no-nonsense style, she does not indulge in flights of fantasy or sensationalism. When writing about these often unjustly forgotten and long-dead stars she is both honest and respectful. If something is unknown or open to interpretation she makes that clear, just as a biographer should.

"Vamp," published in 1996, is the first full-length biography of Theda Bara, the movies' first sex symbol, who skyrocketed to overnight fame by portraying a type of femme fatale that would become known as "the vamp," a non-supernatural female vampire who drained men of their vital energies and left them wrecked and ruined, more dead than alive, while she went on to her next victim.

This brief book has lots of great photographs, and sadly it is primarily by still photographs that we know Theda Bara today. Of the 42 films she made in her brief career, which spanned less than a decade, only four survive. The rest are lost, due to neglect and the highly unstable nature of the nitrate film-stock used in the silent era, including the big-budget historical extravaganza "Cleopatra," the most famous and eagerly sought after lost silent film. "Madame DuBarry," "Salome," "Camille," "Carmen," and "Romeo and Juliet," are also amongst the missing. Sadly, with the exception of "A Fool There Was," the film that made her famous with its immortal catch-phrase "Kiss Me, My Fool!", only mediocre, low-budget, poorly scripted films survive to give modern viewers a fleeting glimpse of Theda Bara's talent.

In my opinion, this book, and the life and career of Theda Bara, also serves as a splendid example of the fleeting nature of fame, the whims of the public, and how times and tastes change. Those who see Theda Bara's picture today often laugh incredulously at the idea that this full-figured woman was the movies' first sex symbol, though personally curvy little 5'3" me finds that somewhat comforting.

Those longing to read a life story filled with excitement, tragedy, and romance, may be a tad disappointed in the real life hidden behind the veil of lurid legend, as Theda Bara was in reality a quiet, home-loving, bookworm. If she ever had a love affair before she married her British husband in 1921, a love match that lasted over thirty years, the details have not come down to us. Nor did she have the drug, alcohol, or emotional problems that bedeviled other Hollywood sex symbols such as Clara Bow, Jean Harlow, and Marilyn Monroe. But for those hungry to know more about the woman with the hungry eyes, who personified that "devourer of men's souls," "the vamp" and to catch a glimpse of a bygone era, I highly recommend "Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara."

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Zarafa A Giraffe's True Story From Deep in Africa To The Heart of Paris by Michael Allin

This is one of my comfort books that I've read several times over the years. For anyone who loves history and animals, Zarafa combines the two as perfectly as peanut butter and jelly. And giraffes have always had a special place in my heart. So how could I not be captivated by the story of France's first giraffe?

Zarafa, as author Michael Allin calls the unnamed giraffe in this fascinating true story, was chosen as a gift for King Charles X of France by the Viceroy of Egypt. The book charts her two year journey from the time when she was captured as a calf in Ethiopia and taken to Egypt via camel caravan. She sailed down the Nile and then crossed the Mediterranen standing in the ship's hold with her head sticking out of a hole cut specially for this purpose in the deck. Once this lovely stranger disembarked in Marseille she became an instant celebrity. And when she made her 600 mile walk to Paris thousands of onlookers lined the way just to catch a glimpse of this gentle giant docilely following the cows that provided her daily milk. She inspired fashions galore, everything from coiffures to crockery, wallpaper to pastries. A new strain of influenza was even named after her. For the next eighteen years she made her home in le Jardin des Plantes, the Paris zoo founded with animals saved from the mob when they attacked the royal menagerie at Versailles during the French Revolution, and people flocked to watch the gentle, docile Zarafa drink her milk and be groomed by her faithful Arab attendant, Atir, with a currycomb attached to a long stick. She was so gentle that even a child could have led her along by a string, and she was not shy of people, not even large crowds, and would even bend down to sniff and lick them.

As Michael Allin charts Zarafa's journey the reader encounters numerous colorful characters and fascinating nuggets of history, zoology, and science, along the way. And for fans of Egyptian history, there is a generous dollop of Egyptology too. Though some readers might complain all this information is over padding the giraffe's story, I enjoyed every moment of it. This slim little volume is just as enchanting as its subject, and I think, long before the reader reaches the last page, they also will have succumbed to Zarafa's charm.