Sunday, January 12, 2014

Fallen Angel The Tragic True Story of The Black Dahlia by Troy Taylor

More than half a century after her bloodless, marble-white nude bisected body was found lying spread-eagled in a vacant lot on January 15, 1947, the tragic ghost of beautiful Elizabeth Short, known as The Black Dahlia, still haunts the boulevards of broken dreams where she hoped to find love and fame. Her specter  clad in a clingy black dress, has been spotted several times by men in Los Angeles’ Biltmore Hotel, the site of the last confirmed sighting of her before her death.

Elizabeth, or Beth, Short was one of many hopeful young girls who migrated to Hollywood in the 1940s. But while she had the youth, beauty, and a gimmick, dressing in all black clothes to set off her porcelain white skin and jet black hair, earning her the moniker “The Black Dahlia,” inspired by a popular film noir of the day, The Blue Dahlia, she didn't have the drive. She’d rather sleep late than get up early to make casting calls. She became a beautiful drifter, wafting in and out of the hot Hollywood nightspots and shady dive bars, dating men, who bought her dinner and maybe made promises they never kept. She may have been manic depressive according to some reports, up one minute, down the next. One day she longed for movie stardom the next to marry one of the soldiers back from World War II and settle down. She spun fantasies, lies she may have told so many times even she began to believe them, about being engaged or even married to a major in the air force, who died, sometimes she said they had a baby which she also lost.  She wore real black silk stockings at a time when these were hard to come for yet melted candles to fill her decaying teeth in the absence of dental care. An aura of tragic aimlessness surrounds this young woman who is now more famous in death than she ever was in life.

On the morning of January 15, 1947 a housewife out doing errands with her little girl spotted what she first thought was a broken department store mannequin lying in the weeds of a vacant lot. A closer look revealed it was the corpse of a young woman who was soon identified as twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth Short, who had come from Medford, Massachusetts hoping to become one of the glittering stars of Tinseltown. Her mouth had been cut from ear to ear in a grotesque parody of an eternal smile. She had been battered repeatedly about the head with a blunt object. Rope marks on her wrists and ankles told a horrific tale—she had been tied up and tortured, possibly for several days, over a bathtub. Her body had been cut in half and drained of blood and some internal organs were missing. There were lacerations on her breasts, pubic area, and a patch of skin bearing a rose tattoo had been removed from her thigh. Her hair, which all those who knew or had noticed her, always described as jet black had been hennaed at least a week prior to her death, though the dark roots were already starting to show. Her eyebrows had also been lightened. Had Beth been hiding from someone and dyed her hair to try to disguise herself?

The murder became a media sensation. The papers were full of “The Black Dahlia,” the victim of a “werewolf fiend.” The police and press followed up every lead no matter how tenuous but the murder was never brought to justice.

Mr. Taylor’s book offers a thorough account of the victim’s life. He examines the evidence for and against the many suspects, including Red Manley; Orson Welles; nightclub proprietor Mark Hansen; actor Arthur Lake best known for his role as Dagwood in the Blondie movies; vicious mobster Bugsy Siegel; Maurice Clement a procurer for Hollywood madam Brenda Allen; Dr. Walter Bayley; the still unidentified serial killer known as “The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run;” Dr. George Hodel whose son a retired LAPD detective believes his father was responsible for the murders of over thirty women as well as the Zodiac murders; folksinger Woody Guthrie; aspiring crime writer Leslie Dillon; George Knowlton whose mentally disturbed daughter, Janice, penned a memoir based on her recovered memories published in 1995 as Daddy Was The Black Dahlia Killer before her eventual suicide; Harry Hubert Hoffman an ex-convict who was managing a hotel in the vicinity at the time of the murder and whose ex-wife reported finding a bundle of bloody women’s clothing at the time; Norman Chandler heir to a politically powerful publishing dynasty; and petty thug Jack Anderson Wilson a.k.a. Arnold Smith. He also presents his own theory, which is not new, and features a cast of characters from the list above.

Despite a few distracting typos, which are a common occurrence in Mr. Taylor’s books, he has done a very good and thorough job of summing up all the known evidence about Hollywood’s most famous unsolved murder. He may go on a bit long about mob activity and police corruption for some tastes, but for those unfamiliar with the times it’s a good history lesson, although, given his personal theory about the crime it makes his book seem less unbiased.

The one real quibble I have with the book is that the author repeatedly refers to the “brutal murder” of actress Thelma Todd in 1935. The beloved blonde comedienne died under mysterious circumstances, she was found slumped across the front seat of her car in the closed garage of her cafe, dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. There has been much speculation of mob involvement in her death, involving illegal gambling and gangster Lucky Luciano, which has inspired a best-selling true crime book, Hot Toddy by Andy Edmonds, as well as a made-for-television movie, White Hot, starring Loni Anderson, both of which are very interesting and intriguing, however, all this is hotly debated. Some historians believe this is all a fantasy, a juicy story spun out of a real life tragedy with more reliance on rumor than fact. Miss Todd’s death might also have been just a tragic accident, she had been out partying and drinking, and may have passed out behind the wheel of her parked, but still running, car, there is also some evidence that she suffered from some kind of heart ailment. Some have even opined that her death was a suicide. I am not expressing my personal opinion here; just that I think the author should have worded his references to Thelma Todd’s demise a little differently rather than repeatedly referring to her as a murder victim.

I try to read every book that comes out about the Black Dahlia. Most of them seem to be written to push a particular suspect. This one, I believe, despite also pushing a theory, is still the best of the available books to start with for someone new to the case who wants a good overview of the murder, the victim, the world she lived in, and the possible suspects.

1 comment:

lizzie said...

I am fascinated by the black dhalia too and there are just so many suspects I am begining to that they will never find out who murdered her. Great review Brandy.