Sunday Times, 10 September 2017
Black Dahlia, Red Rose
America’s Most Notorious Crime Solved for the First Time by Piu Eatwell (Coronet £20)
On a frosty morning in 1947, the owner of the Aster Motel in downtown Los Angeles made a spine-chilling discovery. The interior of cabin 3 looked like a slaughterhouse, with blood and faeces spattered on the floor of the bedroom and all over the bathroom. In cabin 9, meanwhile, someone had left a bundle of women’s clothes, also stained with blood, and wrapped up in brown paper.
The owner, Henry Hoffman, was an ex-con who had been arrested only four days earlier for beating his wife. His distrust of the police overcame any curiosity he felt and he set about cleaning up the mess, soaking the blood-stained sheets before sending them to the laundry and instructing his wife to burn the clothes.
Astonishingly, he didn’t say a word, even when the police came round later in the week, making inquiries about a body that had been found not far from the motel, on the very morning of his gruesome find. The victim, 22-year-old Elizabeth Short, was lying on a grass verge in an unfinished housing estate. Her injuries are too horrific to describe, but the most striking detail was that the body had been cut in half through the abdomen. A post-mortem suggested that Short had been tortured before she was killed.
Thanks to Hoffman’s extraordinary negligence vital evidence was destroyed, and it was only a chance remark by the mother of a suspect that led the police to the motel (and the probable site where Short’s body was bisected) when the case was reinvestigated two years later. By then, it was well on the way to becoming one of the most sensational crimes in US history, occupying a role
in American culture that resonates to this day.
In death, Short quickly acquired a sinister soubriquet: the Black Dahlia. It became the title of a well-known novel by James Ellroy, which was turned into a sprawling film by Brian De Palma in 2006.
What is clear from Piu Eatwell’s heart-rending book, though, is that Short’s sad life and horrible death were far removed from the legend that grew up around her.
Eatwell is a British author, and in this second foray into legal history she demonstrates how great a role chance played in creating the Black Dahlia story, beginning with the fact that a classic film noir — The Blue Dahlia, starring Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd — was released only a year before Short died.
Eatwell traces the origin of the Black Dahlia name to a pharmacist in Long Beach, who obligingly told reporters that Short had hung around the soda fountain in his store the previous summer, when she was drifting. He claimed his male customers nicknamed her the Black Dahlia because of her jet-black hair and fondness
for lacy black clothes.
In reality, far from being a film noir femme fatale, Short was a naive and frequently homeless young woman from the East Coast. Irresistibly drawn to California, she had been arrested for underage drinking four years earlier while she was working as a clerk at a US army camp. Her body was identified from fingerprints and a mugshot dating back to that arrest.
After the murder, Short’s attraction to men in uniform quickly became public knowledge, cementing the idea that she had been a kind of man-eater. Eatwell writes brilliantly about this mythologising process, showing how Short came to embody southern California’s “girl problem”. Anxious commentators fretted that it was impossible to control the “chastity” of all these unattached women converging on Hollywood.
Among other things, Eatwell’s book is a vivid portrait of late 1940s Los Angeles, where gangsters, pimps and corrupt cops mixed in the same circles — and exploited vulnerable women. All Short had going for her was her youth and her looks, which brought her to the attention of a wealthy Danish businessman, Mark Hansen, who had connections with the mob.
Hansen allowed young women to stay in his house behind a nightclub he owned. Short stayed there on two occasions, but their relationship was stormy and Hansen eventually threw her out. She refused to go quietly and Eatwell’s theory is that Hansen then asked a low-life associate named Leslie Dillon to get rid of her, not realising he had put her in the hands of a sadistic psychopath.
Hansen’s name came up early in the murder inquiry, but he was one of many suspects. Reporting of the case was so lurid that just about anyone who had come into contact with Short was dragged into it. Even the singer Woody Guthrie, who had attracted police interest because of his communist sympathies, was briefly considered as suspect.
The truth, according to Eatwell, was more prosaic. She has trawled through thousands of official documents, including previously unseen files compiled during a grand jury investigation in 1949, and makes a compelling case that Short was murdered by Dillon at the Aster Motel, with or without the knowledge of Hansen. Dillon escaped trial, despite a mass of evidence identifying him as the most likely culprit, solely because the cops were by turns incompetent, riven by departmental rivalries and trying to protect Hansen.
One of the few contemporary observers who got close to the truth was the city editor of the Los Angeles Examiner, Jimmy Richardson: “[Short] was a pitiful wanderer, ricocheting from one cheap job to another and from one cheap man to another in a sad search for a good husband and a home and happiness.”
By the time of her murder, her teeth were falling out
and she was filling cavities in her mouth with candle wax, a detail that exposes the grim truth behind the Black Dahlia legend. After decades of cultural appropriation by journalists, novelists and film-makers, Eatwell has finally offered Short a type of belated justice. Her book reads like a thriller, but it never loses sight of the real woman whose life was so savagely extinguished.