Tuesday, December 5, 2017
BOOKS: BLACK DAHLIA, RED ROSE
As far as unsolved murders go, the killing of Elizabeth Short in 1947 has a special place in the pantheon. She was a 22-year-old woman living on the fringes of Los Angeles, allegedly making a few bucks as a nude model for a cut-rate porn ring. One morning her body was found in a vacant lot, severed in half, drained of blood. When acquaintances mentioned her habit of wearing a black flower in her hair, Short was fitted with a nickname that would live for decades: "The Black Dahlia." A few years of garish headlines followed, with hundreds of weirdos coming forward to offer phony confessions. Theories were plentiful. Some speculated that the killer had been a crazy lesbian, or an insane surgeon. Even folk singer Woody Guthrie was a suspect after sending a series of sexually suggestive letters to a friend's sister. The Dahlia case gave L.A. a mystery to rival the crimes of Jack the Ripper.
The circumstances around this grisly homicide - the poor woman's body was not only bisected, but mutilated in many strange ways, as was her face - and the peculiar behavior of the Los Angeles police, are thoroughly examined in Piu Eatwell's Black Dahlia, Red Rose. Eatwell had access to rare files, and even interviewed the few living relations of various people involved in the investigation. If her writing style is a bit reserved, her commitment borders on the heroic . I've read a lot about Elizabeth Short, but this is the closest I've come to understanding what may have actually happened.
Short was actually a Massachusetts girl, from a suburb north of Boston, transplanted to L.A. with hopes of becoming a movie star. She ended up nearly destitute, living in rooming houses and relying on a string of "boyfriends" to keep her in nice dresses and fancy shoes. As one news editor described her, she wasn't good or bad, she was just lost, trying to find her way out of the hole she'd dug for herself. It wasn't long before she was in the company of some shady types, of which there was no shortage in 1940s LA.
Among the shadiest was an unemployed bellhop named Leslie Dillon. By all accounts he was "an insignificant, sloop shouldered man in glasses," with a penchant for dying his hair different colors. He was also a small-time pimp with an interest in psycho-sexual crimes. Many months after the murder, he began a correspondence with Dr. Paul De River, a psychologist working on the case. Perhaps, Dillon wrote, Elizabeth Short had "mocked" someone and, out of revenge, the killer had, in the process of annihilating her, "experienced a new sensation by accident..." During the remainder of the correspondence and an eventual meeting, Dillon revealed details that only Short's murderer could've known. He was, as the cops say, a live suspect.
Dillon did everything but provide an outright confession. He drew pictures; he gave details; and when he agreed to meet with Dr. De River in Las Vegas, he packed a suitcase full of razor blades, women's shoes, and a bloody dog leash, as if to say, This is how the well-dressed psychotic travels in late '40s America. Put simply, he was a strange cat, a sex-fiend, and he was quite likely the one who killed Elizabeth Short and cut her in half. But with the type of cunning usually reserved for super villains in a Thomas Harris novel, Dillon slipped out from the investigators' grip. It seems he had enough dirt on the LAPD, probably from his days pimping, that he was virtually untouchable. This was a time, after all, when the LAPD was at its most corrupt, freely mingling with gangsters; Dillon, Eatwell guesses, knew where the bodies were buried. He walked, and was never heard from again. Whether he killed anyone else is unknown, but Eatwell suggests the possibility. Cheekily, Dillon later married and named his daughter "Elizabeth."
Eatwell has worked as a producer and researcher for various BBC documentaries and has a passion for dark crimes and sinister characters. With the Dahlia case, she's knee deep in depravity and cover ups. It's unfortunate that Dillon vanished into the night, for he's certainly the most intriguing suspect. There was, recalled one investigator, something about Dillon "that raises a man's animal instincts, makes the hair on the back of your neck bristle up." From admitting that he liked to knock women out with drugs, to his knowledge of what was done with the Dahlia's pubic hair, Dillon convinced Dr. De River that he was "either guilty of the Dahlia murder, or heavily implicated in it."
Killing a woman in such a manner is a big job, and there's plenty of evidence suggesting that Dillon didn't work alone. Eatwell's theory is that a runty nightclub owner named Mark Hansen had approached Short to work for him as a prostitute, or perhaps to be his lover. When she refused, he hired Dillon to knock her off. Dillon, a lover of true crime tales and sadistic fiction, went about killing her with, shall we say, too much enthusiasm. Yet, he was so pleased with his work that he couldn't help but taunt the police and De River.
Dillon may have vanished, but the story of the Dahlia never goes away. It's been turned into a few forgettable movies (including one starring Lucy Arnaz!) and has inspired a cottage industry of books, including a couple where authors accuse their own fathers of being the killer. There's even one where the killer is said to have been Orson Welles. The result is that the books and films are interesting to a point, and then fall apart in vague accusations and hearsay.
Eatwell does better than most who have tried. By focusing on Dillon, who is usually a footnote in the investigation, and having fun with the film noir aspects of the story - she names each chapter after a movie of the period, ie. The Lodger, Panic in the Streets, The Glass Alibi etc - Eatwell turns in a taught, thought provoking crime story. Especially effective is her depiction of the Aster Motel, "a place of secrets, where men in dark suits paid cash to closet themselves in cabins with nameless associates and women in red lipstick and high heels."
The day after Short's body was found, a cabin at the Aster was reportedly covered in blood and feces. Witnesses claimed to have seen a man there resembling Dillon, and a woman resembling Short.
Eatwell's style is elegant and understated, a long cry from the hyperventilating spin used by most so-called Dahlia experts. At first you may be underwhelmed by the low key tone of Black Dahlia, Red Rose, but it works. You'll also be introduced to some great characters, like Aggie Underwood, the city editor at the Los Angeles Evening Herald & Express, who worked doggedly to cover the case, and the "Gangster Squad," a crew of veteran L.A. detectives who came very close to cracking the Dahlia mystery.
She doesn't quite pinpoint why the LAPD seemed so determined to forget the case, but alludes to key members of the department being friendly with Hansen, who had probably set up more than a few cops with women, possibly procured by pimp wannabe Dillon. The cover up of a murdered girl was easy in an era noted for the "cozy relationship played out in downtown bars between police and mobsters, the wads of dough traded at the doors of the gambling dens and whorehouses as a price for being left alone."
Newspaper editors effected the case, too, if only because of their handling of the Dahlia's image, taking her from a mysterious beauty to a kind of sleazy loser. Were they under orders to portray her as a whore, to cool the public's interest?
My own experience with a Dahlia-type of murder was back in the 1990s, when I lived in a shabby studio behind a Pizzeria Uno's outside of Boston. One Sunday morning I saw several police cars parked in the Uno's lot. The commotion was because of what someone had seen in the Uno's trash dumpster: a pair of female legs. I don't recall the torso being found, and I'm pretty sure the case, like Elizabeth Short's, was never solved. It didn't get a glamorous name like "The Black Dahlia," and after a few days no one gave a damn about it. Many murder cases go this route, especially when the victims are women, especially when the victims aren't rich. The horror isn't that these things happen, the horror is that the killers can just about get away with it.
The killers of Elizabeth Short got away with it, but Piu Eatwell presents compelling evidence involving some players previously lurking at the outskirts of the story. She's onto something.