Hard-Boiled Hollywood: Crime and Punishment in Postwar Los Angeles / Edition 1 available in Paperback
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Crime and Punishment in Postwar Los Angeles
By Jon Lewis
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
The Real Estate of Crime
The Black Dahlia Dumped by the Side of the Road
The January 15, 1947, edition of William Randolph Hearst's Los Angeles Examiner ran with the following sensational headline: "Girl Tortured and Slain: Hacked Nude Body Found in L.A. Lot." The crime scene was indeed remarkable, and no photographs were run to accompany the story. Instead the Examiner printed an artist's rendering: a sketch, really. It was a gesture at propriety — though given the headline, propriety seemed even at first gasp beside the point.
Absent pictures, an image of the crime scene nonetheless found its way into the city's collective imagination, thanks in part to the Examiner's ace crime reporter, Will Fowler, who cast the murder scene in colorful, Chandleresque prose, describing a dead young woman "lying there like a discarded marionette." With this news story the body-dump murder entered the paper's lexicon. And there would be reason to use the term again in just a matter of weeks — which is to say, there would be a second body-dump murder to write about by then. By the decade's end, the body-dump murder would become a symptom and a symbol of Los Angeles' postwar sprawl, "an epigram," as the novelist James Ellroy writes, "on transient lives."
The newspapers acknowledged as well the "real estate of the crime": the unknown site of the murder, the body drained of blood, then transported and discarded in a vacant lot. "The girl had been killed elsewhere," a January 16th report in the Examiner confirmed, "after hours of torture, ... her body taken to the lot and left in plain view not three feet from the sidewalk," mistaken for "a drunken man lying in the weeds."
On the 17th, the body got a name, Elizabeth Short, and the FBI fixed her age at the time of death at 22. Over the next few days a sketchy bio emerged: movie-industry wannabe, party girl, Hollywood fringe-dweller. The crime-beat reporters knew who she was, even though they knew nothing about her. As a result Short emerged from the press coverage of her death as The Black Dahlia, less a person than a character or construct, less one particular and unfortunate young woman who had moved to Los Angeles and met with disaster than, rather, a metonymy for a generation of young women whose dreams were dashed on the streets of the city.
ELIZABETH SHORT: WILD CHILD, LOST GIRL, BODY DUMP
It was a funny neighborhood, 39th and Norton. ... You couldn't even call it a neighborhood, really. A couple of bungalows, the rest of it empty lots and a pile of weeds. There was a beat-up Hudson Terraplane with no axles sitting on one of the lots. No engine, either, and all the seat covers cut away. This woman who lived around there had been the first to see [her]. She had gone out to buy a bottle of milk and when she turned up Norton, she saw this pair of legs sticking out from under a bush. That's all she saw, the legs.
— John Gregory Dunne, True Confessions
The body of Elizabeth Short was discovered by a twenty-three-year old housewife named Betty Bersinger at 10:45 A.M. on January 15, 1947, in a vacant lot on the 3800 block of South Norton Avenue, between West 39th Street and Coliseum Street in the 1.2-square-mile Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. As the crime-scene photographs reveal, in January 1947 Leimert Park was at once within the city and on its outskirts. Although the severed body in the foreground was the inevitable object of attention, the photographs taken that day offer as well a perspective on the peculiar geography of the body dump: the sprawling, wild landscape of Los Angeles in transition; a city, in the booming postwar years, composed of newly developed neighborhoods abutting empty spaces waiting, destined, to be filled.
Rapid growth fueled perpetual real-estate development in the city after the war. But as Los Angeles sprawled outward, it set the scene, so to speak, for the phenomenon evinced in the Dahlia crime-scene photographs, with developed projects abutting scrubland, lived spaces down the block or across the street from undeveloped land awaiting the bulldozer and building crew. "Los Angeles history has [always] been one of continuous real estate enterprise," the urban historian David Brodsky writes, "with land speculation a driving force for its never-ending growth." In his landmark book City of Quartz, Mike Davis similarly characterizes the city as a postwar real-estate boom town: "Los Angeles was first and foremost the creature of real-estate capitalism: the culminating speculation, in fact, of the generations of boosters and promoters who had subdivided and sold the West from the Cumberland Gap to the Pacific." A quick look at the U.S. Census offers perspective. Between 1940 and 1960, the population in Los Angeles more than doubled, from 3.2 million to nearly 7.8 million. What to do with all these people — a separate problem from what all these people might do once they got to L.A. — was a question city planners never adequately answered. Looking back on the city's urban growth in 1981, Brodsky concludes that modern Los Angeles developed "not according to any plan but rather at the subdivider's discretion."
To be fair, there were city planners, even those working in and for the city in that era, who were concerned about unregulated development. For example, in 1942, in anticipation of the population boom after the war, the city-planning commissioner William H. Schuchardt voiced his frustration: "The present situation of the City of Los Angeles, from the standpoint of the city planner, may be couched in one word: Chaos." It was into such a chaotic urban scheme that well over four million people arrived in the 1940s and 1950s — over four million people seeking a new start in a new American city that promised to accommodate their new American dreams. Elizabeth Short was one of the four million.
Short arrived in Los Angeles filled with aspiration and hope, seduced by a Hollywood narrative fixed in the glamorous studio era. What she didn't know — what she and so many other Hollywood aspirants and wannabes like her could not possibly have known — was how quickly and systematically the movie business would be transformed and scaled down in the years to come. The long shot of making it in the film industry got a whole lot longer at the very moment she packed her bags and moved west.
The studios produced more than 370 features in 1941, the last year before the United States' entrance into World War II. Twenty years later, they produced fewer than 150. This decline in movie production traced a decline in box-office revenues and profits. In 1947, ninety million Americans went to the movies every week. A decade later, average weekly attendance fell to forty million. After sporting record profits of $120 million in the first full year after the war, studio profits fell steadily beginning the following year: to $87 million in 1947, $49 million in 1948, $34 million in 1949, and $31 million in 1950.
The May 3, 1948, U.S. Supreme Court decision in U.S. v Paramount Pictures, the so-called Paramount Decision, added to the studios' postwar problems. Writing for the majority, Justice William O. Douglas elaborated the Court's view that the studios were indeed trusts and that the only available remedy was a forced divestiture of studio holdings in film exhibition. The decision rather successfully cut to the heart of the companies' business plans. Forcing the studios to sell off their interests in movie theaters broke a vital link in the vertical integration that began with story ideas and development and ended on screen at movie houses owned and/or controlled in-house. The forced sell-off also significantly diminished studio access to short-term credit, which in turn forced a further cut in production. The Paramount Decision was a death sentence for the old Hollywood, but only lawyers and movie executives would have recognized it as such at the time.
The forced abandonment of the tradition-bound (studio) site of movie production accompanied a darker, wackier postwar Los Angeles, which was increasingly given over to the grim realities of urban sprawl (alienation, poverty) and, in our point of departure here, its most tragic expression in the Black Dahlia murder. L.A. after the war became home for myriad aimless fringe players; journey's end for those who, like Short, had imagined a place that no longer existed.
In 1947 there were five competing daily newspapers in the city: the Los Angeles Times, the Herald-Express, the Daily News, the Mirror, and the Examiner. The Black Dahlia murder ran on at least one of these papers' front pages for thirty-two days. The horrific nature of the crime was of course headline-worthy, but all five newspapers continued to follow the story closely because they recognized the larger significance of the crime: they recognized that, as the California historian Kevin Starr writes in retrospect: "The brief and unhappy life of Elizabeth Short said something about Los Angeles itself: something about the anonymity, the desperation, the cruelty and brutality life could have in the City of Angels." As L.A. became less and less a movie-company town, recent arrivals found themselves distracted by and attracted to a variety of assembling urban subcultures. For those disappointed and alienated, there was a veritable confluence of science-fiction prophets and quasi-spiritual profiteers hawking Dianetics, Devil Worship, Southern Baptism. A case in point: the advent of rocketry at Cal Tech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena introduced an aerospace industry to the California Southland. The industry's founding father, Cal Tech's ever-colorful John Whiteside Parsons, became the quintessential postwar Angeleno, a devotee of Aleister Crowley's sex-magic cult Ordo Templi Orientis, a friend and confidant of Scientology-founder L. Ron Hubbard (who moved into Parsons' Pasadena mansion in 1945). The evangelist Billy Graham pitched his 1949 tent show in downtown Los Angeles and proved a sensation, attracting an audience of the spiritually hungry that ranged from vagabonds to crime bosses to movie-industry celebrities. Attractive as well to many new arrivals was a burgeoning bar scene where movie stars, mobsters, con men, movie-industry wannabes, and, alas, sociopathic and psychotic transients commingled, more than occasionally with disappointing, even disastrous results. A whole lot of people descended upon Los Angeles after the war. And not everyone found or got what they were looking for.
The Examiner frequently touted its role in the investigation of the Black Dahlia murder. Taking such ownership required developing a story line about the victim. But this proved to be difficult, because she was such an elusive, such an unexceptional subject. "The fiend's victim was Elizabeth Short, 22," the paper reported on the 17th. But that's about all they knew for sure ... a name and the fact that she moved around a lot: "She was a Massachusetts girl once employed at Camp Cooke, near Lompoc." "Once she lived in a hotel at 1611 North Orange Drive, Hollywood." When reporters for the Examiner looked into Short's brief residency in the Lompoc/Santa Barbara area, they skimmed over her arrest there as a juvenile (for "underage drinking"), focusing on any detail only as it contributed to the larger narrative of Short as a victim. To highlight her martyrdom (as some patron saint of the city's disenfranchised and disillusioned), they conducted field interviews. But most of what they got was superficial: "five feet four inches tall," "she weighed about 125 pounds," "the blackest hair I ever saw." There was talk of a husband (who, given what we know now, was likely imagined by Short or deliberately fabricated) and, more tellingly (and for the narrative's sake, more dramatically), there was mention of a ticket home to stay with her mother, in Medford, Massachusetts, after her arrest, not long before her murder.
The letters home prompted a familiar tabloid melodrama depicting Short as any mother's daughter alone and lost. Correspondence between Elizabeth Short and her mother. Phoebe was in fact sporadic and painfully mundane: "Dear Mother, ... I'm in San Diego now. I'm living with a girlfriend, Vera French, and I'm working in the Naval Hospital. I'm feeling fine." When the Examiner reporters interviewed Phoebe, she introduced a second story line. She described her daughter as "movie-struck," leaving high school after her junior year because "everyone used to tell her how beautiful she was."
How Short behaved when she got out West — what she did when the film career did not materialize — remains subject to debate. Was she "shy," "neat," "one of the few girls ... who didn't smoke [and only] occasionally [took] a drink," as some acquaintances described her after her death? Or did she fulfill the "wild girl" tabloid narrative, one with which the reporters in 1947 had to be careful (even though they knew this story line was the more likely). "The girl's hair was hennaed, but the original dark strands were beginning to regrow," for example, was less a description than a subtle suggestion of a promiscuous young woman's vanity and stylishness. And then there was the rose tattoo on her leg mentioned in some of the early articles. It was unusual for women to have tattoos in 1947, and in an Examiner interview with a Santa Barbara policewoman with whom Short lived briefly after her arrest, a simple observation proved plenty suggestive: "She loved to sit so that [the tattoo] would show."
The first coverage of the Black Dahlia murder in the Los Angeles Times appeared on January 16 under a page-2 headline: "Girl Victim of Sex Fiend Found Slain." The article follows the traditional who-what-where-when-how structure, and as such offers unsensational reportage, especially given the content and context of the crime: "Police of the homicide squad described the victim as being about 5 foot, 3 inches tall, weighing about 118 pounds, having a turned-up nose, extremely high forehead, gray-green eyes, brown hair, which apparently had been tinted with henna, and ears with almost no lobes." The Times's reporters pondered from the very start the phenomenon of the body dump: "The sadistic killer apparently murdered and mutilated the girl elsewhere, then drove south on Norton Avenue to the deserted spot and slid hurriedly to a stop, as indicated by the marks in the gutter. Why he then carried the two sections of the body across the sidewalk to dump them several feet west into the vacant lot puzzled investigators. There was little blood at the scene, and detectives guessed the girl probably was murdered several hours before the killer disposed of her body."
The Times struggled with Short's biography. Eschewing competitors' more tabloid style, the Times endeavored to depict her as a character in some Hollywood (movie) melodrama, somehow doomed by fate or bad luck. It quoted her former roommate Dorothy French: "When I read of the murder, I had a premonition it was Betty." Apropos of the missed opportunity to return home (after the arrest in Santa Barbara) to the relative safety of Medford, Massachusetts, the Times cast Short as a character in some nineteenth-century novel who missed her one chance to escape her sorry fate.
Much as the letters home (recounted in the Times as well) were mundane, they were also untrue. "She was working in Hollywood doing bit parts for the movies," Phoebe recounted to the Times — this despite letters that placed her daughter in San Diego, where she worked at a military hospital. "She said she left Hollywood because of the movie strike, which made it difficult to get work as an extra." There is little evidence that Short ever got much if any work at the studios. Records from Central Casting and the Screen Actors Guild give no indication that she ever appeared in or worked on a feature film.
Excerpted from Hard-Boiled Hollywood by Jon Lewis. Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
1 The Real Estate of Crime: The Black Dahlia Dumped by the Side of the Road 11
2 Mobsters and Movie Stars: Crime, Punishment, and Hollywood Celebrity 50
3 Hollywood Confidential: Crime and Punishment in Postwar Los Angeles 106
4 Hollywood's Last Lonely Places: The Sad, Short Stones of Barbara Payton and Marilyn Monroe 152