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.

1 comment:

Marie Burton said...

I can imagine how the murder deeply affected Mary, especially as the sensationalism marred Mary's sacred memories. It was probably very cathartic for her to write this.