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Unafraid to venture into no-man's-lands both real and surreal, Oates takes readers deep into dangerous territory in eleven stories that showcase the keen rewards of her relentless brio and invention. Whether charting the inner lives of two beautiful and mysteriously doomed women in 1940s Los Angeles—Elizabeth Short, otherwise known as the Black Dahlia, and her roommate, Norma Jeane Baker, soon to become Marilyn Monroe—the psychological compulsion of a well-to-do businessman's wife who is ravished by, and elopes ...
Unafraid to venture into no-man's-lands both real and surreal, Oates takes readers deep into dangerous territory in eleven stories that showcase the keen rewards of her relentless brio and invention. Whether charting the inner lives of two beautiful and mysteriously doomed women in 1940s Los Angeles—Elizabeth Short, otherwise known as the Black Dahlia, and her roommate, Norma Jeane Baker, soon to become Marilyn Monroe—the psychological compulsion of a well-to-do businessman's wife who is ravished by, and elopes with, a lover who is not what he seems, or the uneasily duplicitous relationships between young women and their parents, Black Dahlia & White Rose explores the menace that lurks at the edges of and intrudes upon even the seemingly safest of lives—and maps with rare emotional acuity the transformational cost of such intrusions.
Co-winner of the 2012 Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Fiction Collection
BLACK DAHLIA & WHITE ROSE: Unofficial Investigation into the (Unsolved) Kidnapping- Torture- Rape- Murder- Dissection of Elizabeth Short, 22, Caucasian Female, Los Angeles, CA, January 1947 Material assembled by Joyce Carol Oates
K. KEINHARDT— PHOTOGRAPHER: They were lost girls looking for their fathers. So I knew they'd come crawling back to me.
NORMA JEANE BAKER: It is true that I was lost— but I knew that no one would find me except myself— if I became a Star in the sky of Hollywood where I could not be hurt.
He was the one— "'K.K."' we called him— who took pictures for the girlie mags & calendars— the one I begged "'Please don't make me into a joke. Oh please that is all I ask of you.
ELIZABETH— "'BETTY"'— SHORT: Nasty lies told about me postmortem, but none nastier than that I did not have an actual father— only just a pretend father like Norma Jeane whose crazy mother would show her studio publicity photos of Clark Gable— whispering in the child's ear, "'Here is your father, Norma Jeane! But no one must know— yet."'
Poor Norma Jeane! Some part of her believed this craziness, why she was always looking for Daddy. Why Norma Jeane made bad mistakes seeking men like she did, but that was not why I made my bad mistake winding up postmortem in a weedy vacant lot in a dingy neighborhood of Los Angeles so mutilated the hardened LAPD detectives shrank from seeing me & quickly covered my "'remains"' with a coat for I had an actual father named Cleo Marcus Short who favored me above my four sisters Kathryn & Lucinda & Agnes & Harriet & wrote to me solely, in 1940, when I was sixteen, to invite me to live with him in California— which Daddy would not have done if he had not truly loved me.
Postmortem— is the Latin term. Postmortem is this state I am in, now. That you do not know exists when you are "'alive"' & you cannot guess how vast & infinite postmortem is for it is all of the time— forever & ever— after you have died.
Later, Daddy would deny me. Daddy would be so shocked & disgusted by the newspaper headlines & photos— (which were not the coroner's photos or the LAPD crime scene photos which could not be published of course— too ugly & "'obscene"')— but photos of Elizabeth Short, a.k.a. THE BLACK DAHLIA— (for since the age of eighteen when I came to L.A., I wore tight fitting black dresses with dipping necklines & often black silk trimmed in lace & undergarments as well in black & my hair glossy- black & my skin pearly- white & my mouth flame- red with lipstick)— which were glamour photos striking as any stills from the studios— Daddy refused to identify me still less "'claim"' me— the (mutilated, dissected) remains of me in the L.A. coroner's morgue. Or maybe Daddy thought he would have to pay some fee. He would have to pay for a burial, Daddy would fear.
Oh, that was mean of Daddy! To tell the L.A. authorities he would not drive to the morgue to make the "'I.D."' (For there is no law to compel a citizen in such circumstances, it seems.) If Daddy had not already broke my heart this sad news postmortem would do it.
But that was later. That was January 1947. When you were all reading of THE BLACK DAHLIA shaking your hypocrite heads in revulsion & chastisement A girl like that. Dressing in all black and promiscuous, it is what she deserves.
When Daddy wrote to me, to summon me to him, it was three years before. I had dropped out of South Medford High School to work (waitress, movie house cashier) to help Momma with the household for we were five daughters & just Momma and no father to provide an income for we had thought that Daddy was dead & what a shock—Daddy was not dead but alive.
Cleo Short had been a quite successful businessman selling miniature golf courses! All of us brought up swinging miniature golf clubs & hitting teeny golf balls & our photos taken— five short daughters of Medford businessman Cleo Short take to the "'miniature links"'— & published widely in Medford & vicinity for we were all pretty girls especially (this is a fact everyone acknowledged, this is not myopinion) "'Betty"' who was the middle sister of the five and the most beautiful by far. & Then the Depression which hit poor Daddy hard & soon collapsed lapsed into bankruptcy & utterly shamed so Daddy drove to the Mystic River Bridge & what happened next was never made clear but Daddy's 1932 Nash sedan was discovered on the riverbank & not Daddy, anywhere— so it was believed that Cleo Marcus Short was a tragic suicide of the Depression as others had been, & declared dead two years later, & Momma collected $3,000 insurance & was now officially a widow & we were bereaved for our beloved daddy, for years.
Oh but then one day a letter came postmarked Vallejo, Cal! & the shocking news like in a fairy tale that Cleo Short was not dead in the Mystic River as we had believed but "'alive and well"' in Vallejo, California!
Momma would not reply to this letter, Momma had too much pride. Momma's heart had turned to stone in the aftermath of such deception, as she called it.
& Bitterness, for Momma had to pay back the $3,000 insurance which had been spent years before. In doing so Momma had to borrow from relatives & wherever else she could & out of our salaries we helped Momma pay & everyone in Momma's family was hateful toward Daddy for this trick as they called it of a callow heart.
Of the five daughters of Cleo Short only one would forgive him. Only one would write back to him & soon travel to live with him in faraway California in a new life that beckoned.
For the old life was used up & of no promise, in Medford, Mass. And the golden California life beckoned— Los Angeles & Hollywood. Betty you're a terrific gal & sure the beauty of the Short females. Look at you!
It did not seem a far fetched idea to Betty Short as to Cleo Short or anyone who knew them, that daughter Betty was pretty enough & "'sexy"' enough to be a movie star one day.
That was a happy time, those months then.
They did not last long but Norma Jeane said to me when we were new & shy to each other sharing a room in Mr. Hansen's "'mansion"' on Buena Vista Avenue, "'Oh Betty you are so lucky!"' for Norma Jeane said she had not ever glimpsed her father even from a distance but now that she'd been on the covers of Swank & Stars & Stripes maybe he would see her & recognize her as his. & if ever she was an actress on screen he would see & recognize her— she was sure of this.
(Poor Norma Jeane had faith, if she worked hard & made the right connections among the Hollywood men, like all of us, she would become a star like Betty Grable, Lana Turner, & earlier Jean Harlow, who was Norma Jeane's model & idol. It was so: Norma Jeane was very beautiful in a simpering baby way with a white rose-petal skin that was softer than my skin even & did not show fatigue in her face as I did, sometimes. We were not jealous of Norma Jeane for she was so young seeming though at this time nineteen years old which is not so young in Hollywood. We laughed at Norma Jeane, she was so trusting & innocent & you had to think, hearing her weak whispery voice, Norma Jeane Baker was just not smart & mature enough to make her way in the shark waters where her white limbs would be torn off in the predators' teeth.)
It was the New Year of 1947 when this terrible act was perpetrated upon me. That was a later time.
We did not crawl back to that bastard K.K.! Except he owed us money, he'd kept promising to pay. & he knew "'gentlemen"'— he said—of a "'dependable quality"' & not the kind waiting like sharks in the surf for some trusting person to wade out.
Anyway— I didn't crawl to K.K. like he boasted. Betty Short did not crawl for any man not ever.
So it was the Bone Doctor inflicted such hurt upon me: that I would not submit to him in the disgusting way he wished. For not even $$$ can be enough, in such a case.
Of course— I did not know what would befall me. I did not know what my little cries No! No- no- NO! would unleash in the man, who had seemed till then a sane & reasonable man, a man who might be handled by any shrewd girl like Betty Short!
Postmortem you would not guess that I had had dignity and poise in life as well as milky-skinned brunette beauty though it is true that I had not (yet) a film career— even a "'starlet"' contract like many girls of our acquaintance at the Hollywood Canteen. (Norma Jeane Baker had not a real contract yet, either— though she led people to think she did.) Postmortem seeing me naked & white-skinned (for my body had totally bled out) & covered in stab wounds & lacerations— my legs spread open in the most ugly & cruel way in mockery— & my torso separated from my lower body & twisted slightly from it as if in revulsion for the horror perpetrated upon me— postmortem you would not guess that I had been a vivacious young woman whom many men admired in Hollywood & LA. & a favorite at parties & very popular with well-to-do older men & Hollywood producers & Mr. Mark Hansen, who owned the Top Hat Club & Mesa Grande movie house & invited me to live in his "'mansion"' on Buena Vista with other girls— (some were "'starlets"' & others aspiring to that status)— to "'entertain"' guests. Dr. M. was not one of these. Dr. M. was known by no one except K.K.— & Betty Short.
It was such cruelty— to ask if he might kiss me & when I shut my eyes, to press the chloroform cloth against my nose & mouth!
For in the romance movies always the kiss is with shut eyes—the camera is close up to the woman's beautiful smooth face & long-lashed shut eyes.
And the romance music.
Except in actual life— there is no music. Only the sound of the man's grunting & the girl trying to draw breath to scream, to scream, to scream— in silence.
& Such cruelty, to slash the corners of my mouth smiling in terror & hope to "'charm"'— slashing my mouth to my ears so that my face that had been a beautiful face would become a hideous clown-face that can never cease grinning.
& My breasts that were milky-pale & beautiful— so stabbed & mutilated, the hardened coroner could barely examine.
& The autopsy revealed contents of my stomach too filthy & shameful to be stated— the man would subordinate the girl utterly in all ways, & why could not be imagined ...
What I am hoping you will comprehend— if you would listen to my words & not stare in horror & disgust at the "'remains"' of me— (the morgue photos have been published & posted everywhere in the years following— there is no escape from shame & ignominy, in death— the two halves of me "'separated"' with a butcher knife the Bone Doctor wielded laying my lifeless body on two planks across a bathtub— in the house on Norfolk, that I had never seen before in all of my life— with this knife the cruel maniac tore & sawed at my midriff— my pearly pale skin that was so beautiful & desirable— that my blood would fall & drain into the tub— & these halves of my body he would wrap in dirty plastic curtains to carry away to dispose of like trash in a public place to create a spectacle for all to stare at in revulsion & titillation enduring for years)— if you would listen to my words post postmortem, I am trying to explain that though Norma Jeane has become famous throughout the world, as MARILYN MONROE, it was a chance thing at the time in January 1947, it was a wisp of a chance, fragile as those feathery spiraling seeds of trees in the spring blown in the wind & catching in your hair & eyelashes— it was not a decreed thing but mere chance that Norma Jeane would become MARILYN MONROE & Elizabeth Short would become THE BLACK DAHLIA pitied & scorned in death & not ever understood, & the cruelest lies spread about me. What I am saying is that if you'd known us, Betty Short & Norma Jeane Baker, in those days, when we were roommates & close as sisters you would not have guessed which one of us would ascend to stellar heights & which would be flung into the pits of Hell, I swear you would not.
K.K. had photographed Norma Jeane when she was working in a factory in Burbank— but she'd never do a nude for him, she said. A "'nude"' is all the calendar men want— if you don't strip, forget it. No matter how gorgeous your face is— nobody gives a damn.
When K.K. saw us in the Canteen, & invited us to his studio to be photographed, it was Betty Short he stared at most, & not Norma Jeane he'd already photographed and had hit a dead-end— he thought. 'Cause she would not pose nude.
It was Betty Short who engaged K.K. in sparky repartee like Carole Lombard on the screen not Norma Jeanne who bit her thumbnail smiling & blushing like a dimwit.
It was Betty Short who said yes maybe. Can't promise but maybe, yes. It was Norma Jeane who just giggled and murmured something nobody could hear.
Excerpted from Black Dahlia & White Rose by Joyce Carol Oates. Copyright © 2012 by Joyce Carol Oates. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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