The Girl in the Media
A drifter. A prostitute. A loose woman. A lonely girl. A disillusioned girl seeking fame. All of these have been used to describe the quiet, pretty girl from Medson Massachusetts. In fact Elizabeth Short was an attractive, ordinary girl with no special acting talent who decided she might want to be a movie star if nothing else surfaced. Heck, for a time she thought she would be married to a military pilot. Short was a drifter for at least one to two years before she ended up in Los Angeles. Short didn’t quite make it into the heart of Hollywood. She didn’t acquire a publicity agent or a manager. Short knew the value of her beauty and knew she embodied the feminine ideal of the 40s, with her meaty legs, full hips and a small, up-turned nose. She was drama personified. She dyed her mousy brown locks raven black, painted her lips blood red and pinned white flowers in her hair. With her alabaster skin and startling light blue eyes, she looked like porcelain doll. As she sashayed down the sidewalk in peep-toed heels, she held her head high, primly aware of her effect on male passersby. They gawked, they whistled, they offered to buy dinner. Frequently, she accepted. They paid for her meals, bar tabs, rent, clothes but in return she seldom offered any “favours.”
Over the next couple of years, Short drifted back and forth across the country, taking trains from Medford to Chicago, to Florida, to California and back to Massachusetts again. Waitressing gigs paid her way wherever she went and fed her compulsion to experience new places and people. Her lust for life was overwhelming. Whatever money she managed to accumulate on her own through waitressing she used to expand her wardrobe. She’d rather go hungry than wear outdated or worn clothing. When she stepped outside, she was always dressed to kill (pun), favoring tailored black suits, feminine ruffled blouses, high heels and long gloves. She embodied the cool sophistication of a 40’s working gal. And gullible to the end, Short believed that her fine company was payment enough for the attention et al that men paid her. She did some modeling. She wanted to be famous but it would appear either she didn’t know how to make connections or she didn’t want to make the effort. Being a rather self-contradictory woman, either explanation could have applied in her case. There were many more complexities to Elizabeth Short, leading to the question that will never be completely answered: Who was Elizabeth Short?
Cleo Short, Elizabeth’s father, abandoned the Short family when Elizabeth was 8 years old. He was a handsome man, a reasonably successful man and unfortunately, a heavy drinker. This development traumatized Elizabeth who, for many years, believed he was dead. Actually he’d faked a suicide and moved to Vallejo, California. After this, Phoebe Short had no choice but to move her daughters into a meager apartment building. Phoebe found a job as a bookkeeper. The family lived very poorly for several years. Muriel, Short’s sister, was two years old when Cleo left. Phoebe was left to deal with bankruptcy and creditors but somehow she managed it. Twice a week, Short walked little Muriel to the firehouse to get free milk for the family. Even then, Muriel was embarrassed to be getting free food, but it was a necessity. Welfare clothing and financial assistance were also received by the Short family. Muriel hated wearing what was termed “welfare shoes,” even though they were pretty with little flowers on them. “Everyone knew they were the welfare shoes,” Muriel claimed.
Elizabeth became a big sister of sorts to a child named Mary Pacios who lived in the same building. Pacios was 10 years her junior, taking her out for ice cream or to the movies. The two girls watched all the Ginger Roger and Fred Astaire flicks that were popular at the time as well as the debut of “Gone with the Wind.” Perhaps it was in that small-town theatre where Short’s Hollywood dreaming began. Eventually Pacios would write a non-fiction work about Short, entitled Childhood Shadows: The Hidden Story of the Black Dahlia Murder.
At 19, when Elizabeth discovered her father was very much alive, she wrote to him and asked if she could travel to Vallejo and live with him. In exchange she would mind the house. Cleo agreed and sent her $200 for her expenses, however this arrangement soon soured. Elizabeth refused to keep up her end of the agreement, sleeping all day, ignoring the chores that needed to be done, and staying out all night. After a particularly volatile argument one day, Cleo threw her out and Elizabeth was back on the road.
As she drifted about, Short was arrested once in Santa Monica for drinking underage (19). When she arrived in Hollywood Short didn’t venture into the heart of the famous town. Instead she loitered on the shady outskirts, meeting friends who hung out in bars Short was always broke. She worked from time to time as a waitress but she never kept a job for very long. It was tedious. She’d rather sleep and party. This didn’t make her a shady character; just young and immature as many people are at 19 and 20.
Short had a particular fetish for men in uniform. In July 1946, she returned to Southern California to be close to Joseph Gordon Fickling, an intensely handsome air force lieutenant with sensual dark eyes. They’d met in California two years earlier, shortly before he was shipped overseas. It was a rocky relationship from the start. In their private letters — which were confiscated by the police and put in newspapers after Short’s murder — Fickling expressed impatience with Short’s flirtations, wondering if he ranked higher in her heart than any other man. Short didn’t try to convince him that he did. He moved to North Carolina to work as a commercial airline pilot, but they stayed in touch. He continued sending her money, including a $100 wire transfer the month before she died. The last letter Fickling received from Short was dated January 8, 1947, seven days before her murder. She told him she was moving to Chicago, where she hoped to become a fashion model.
Mary Unkefer of the Santa Barbara police department said Beth was, “very good looking with beautiful dark hair and fair skin. She dressed nicely and was a long way from being a barfly.” She also said, “She had the blackest hair I ever saw.” Inez Keeling, the manager of the Camp Cooke PX where Short waitressed for a time before she went to Los Angeles, said, “I was won over at once by her innocence. She was one of the loveliest and most shy girls working for me.” Yet even at Camp Cooke PX this shy girl was voted Campus Cutie.
Then one happy day Short met a U.S. Air Force pilot named Major Matt Gordon (coincidence) Jr. The two fell in love and were seen together constantly. They planned a future together, then Gordon was relocated overseas. Matt wrote to his sister that Bette was someone he was seriously interested in and asked his sister to correspond with Bette. He gave Bette a watch as a pre-engagement gift. “He is not like other men,” she wrote her mother. Bette returned to Medford to await Matt’s return. A few days after the war ended she received a telegram from Matt’s mother that he had been killed en route home. Gordon was to be sent home but he was sent out to fly for one last day and was killed. “My sympathy is with you,” the telegram said. Short was devastated and never quite recovered from her fiancee’s death, that is, if he was indeed her fiancee. Short told everyone they’d been engaged but there was no evidence to support her story.
After Gordon ‘s death Short returned to her previous boyfriend, Gordon Fickling, and they moved into the Brevoort Apartments, on Lexington near Vine Street in Hollywood. However, soon after moving in together, they separated.
Short then contacted a girlfriend from Boston, Marjorie Graham, who was living in Hollywood and the two women roomed together, sometimes with a third person, at five different locations from late August until October 22 when Marjorie returned to Massachusetts. Marjorie was no glamour girl as evidenced by her picture. Whether or not she also wished to become a movie star hasn’t been revealed. The womens’ temporary residences included the Hawthorne Apartments in Hollywood, the Figueroa Hotel and the Florentine Gardens Nightclub owned by Mark Hansen and the Guardian Arms Apartments, also in Hollywood.
After the murder when Margie returned to Cambridge, she was contacted by authorities. She told them Beth was planning to marry a lieutenant after his release from a hospital. Margie said, “I worked nights out there, and she was always going out as I was getting up for breakfast. Betty had an inferiority complex and wanted to become a movie star to prove to her family that she could make good.” She also said her friend was “very flighty and fickle.”
The next few months, Short was broke, seemed lost, moving about. Her twice-a-week letters home continued and they were always upbeat, positive, not mentioning difficulties. For a few weeks in October and November Short shared a room with Ann Toth, again at the home of Mark Hansen, owner of the Florentine Gardens. Short’s last Hollywood address was on Cherokee Street. For some odd reason, the press asked Toth whether Short was a lesbian. Toth scoffed and replied, “no, she always made the statement, very queer people in this town, queer people, referring to both men and women I guess. That is the only thing referring to queers that she ever mentioned, but I doubt it very much. Why did she go through the trouble of wearing false and all that to attract a queer lesbian, because either they go for you or they don’t go for you, they don’t care if you haven’t any shape. As far as that goes, in my estimation, I think she was definitely out to attract men. I can’t see any way of her wanting to attract a woman, because I would definitely notice it. I have been around enough to notice it in this town — I would notice it.” In a police investigation, Toth made the ambiguous observation that there was “nothing malicious about her. She had a lot of high ideas, that Betty, believe me, with her Boston family and all that stuff-.” Toth said she was fastidious about herself. “She was the type that didn’t want anybody to touch her clothes and she didn’t want to touch theirs. She washed everything, she was a very meticulous person.”
Coincidentally, Short was obsessed with the brutal murder of a woman named Suzanne Degnan, one of the victims of William Hierens, known as the Lipstick Killer (rather like victim French, whose murder became known as the Red Lipstick Murder). On January 7, 1946, six-year-old Suzanne Degnan was discovered missing from her first floor bedroom at 5943 North Kenmore Avenue, Edgewater, Chicago. After searching the apartment and not finding the girl, her family called the police. Police discovered the girl’s head in a sewer in an alley a block from the Degnan
residence. They discovered her right leg in a catch basin, her torso in another storm drain and her left leg in a drain in another alley. Her arms were found a month later in a sewer three blocks from the Degnan residence. Searches of an apartment building near where her head was found uncovered a basement laundry room with four tubs that where she had been dismembered. The press called it the “Murder Room“. It was a horrible irony that Degnan had been dismembered into pieces, and that Short was fascinated with the girl and her death. Eventually Heirens was arrested for the murder. He confessed and was given a life sentence in prison.
A Temporary Family
From November 13 to December 15, Short lived in a cramped two-bedroom apartment in Hollywood with eight other young women, cocktail waitresses, telephone operators, dime dancers, and other out-of-towners who hoped to break into showbiz. These were all decent girls who were not prostitutes. The women paid $1 a day for a bunk bed and some closet space.A corridor separated the girls’ room from a narrow kitchen at the other end of the apartment, with a bathroom in between, off the small corridor. When the landlord came to collect his
money Short usually managed not to be at home or she’d hide outside the room until he left. Although some of her roommates said kind things about her to the press after her death, not all of the girls were impressed. Roommate Linda Rohr said Beth wore too much makeup, “an inch thick.” After a time, Short had to leave this apartment since she wasn’t able to pay her rent.
Eventually, a 21-year-old usherette and cashier named Dorothy French found her sleeping in The Aztec Movie Theatre. She and her mother Elvera and younger brother Cory took Short in to live with them, but after only a few weeks they too grew tired of her slovenly habits and asked her to leave. Some research stated that it was from this residence that Red Manley went to pick her up. Other research stated Manley picked her up for a date at the Biltmore Hotel. At any rate, it would appear that Short wasn’t a welcome addition to any family. In part for this reason, Short would soon be dead.
You might wonder how it was that Short managed to eat when she was usually jobless. Short was very attractive. She met many dates in the bars she frequented. These men often took her out to dinner. Sometimes they gave her trinkets or cash to spend. In return Short usually gave them nothing, certainly not sex. However her dates had the privilege of dining in the company of an attractive, upbeat girl whose attitude must have been, at the very least, entertaining. In the last six months of her life, Short moved constantly between a dozen hotels, apartments, boarding houses and private homes in Southern California. She crashed free where she could, paid as little as possible where she couldn’t. She was chronically short on cash yet she never altered her lifestyle to improve her finances. She had a quiet demeanor and beauty, but she was an unhappy young woman. Her mother recalled “moments of despondency.” Yet an acquaintance from Long Beach, Robert Robertson, confirmed that Short had no end of suitors. He recalled, “She was a beautiful girl and well built and seemed like a nice girl.”
The condition in which Short was found on the corner of Norton and Coliseum was so appalling that no other L.A. murder has quite been compared to that of the Black Dahlia, as she became known. Short was severed in two at the waist. her internal organs, except her intestines, were removed. She was drained of blood and had obviously been tortured with a knife and multiple blows to the head and face. She was covered with cigarette burns. All total, Short had been “missing” for 5 nights with no one but the killer and Short herself knowing where she was being held. 40 police officers scoured the neighborhood, going house to house looking for evidence. They checked gutters and laundromats for blood-stained clothing, interviewed residents, poked through dumpsters but gained no solid leads. They questioned more than 20 of Short’s former “boyfriends,” but weren’t satisfied that any of them were viable suspects.
Losers in the Limelight
After the story hit the newspapers, more than 30 “confessing Sams” stepped forward, ranging from certified nutjobs to attention-starved losers looking for a moment in the spotlight. The police wasted precious manpower proving they were innocent while searching for the real killer, Det. Hansen complained to the press. His office had to sort through letters from “pranksters” and “wiseacres” (nowadays known as freaks) writing from as far away as El Paso and the Bronx. The homicide bureau was inundated with letters to J. Edgar Hoover from individuals claiming to know who the murderer was or blaming the crime on someone they held a grudge against. “This suspect swindle[d] $75 out of me, which he promised would put me in motion picture and make me famous,” one woman wrote the bureau on May 23, 1947. Seriously. However Hansen came to theorize that whoever killed Elizabeth Short wasn’t someone she knew, but a “pick up.”
Investigators were not so impressed. They disproved rumors that she was a prostitute, but agreed that she was a moocher and walked too close to the edge. They weren’t shy in passing along that information to the press. Nowadays that sort of opinion would conclude with the victim’s family bringing a lawsuit against the police department and rightly so. Jim Bacon, a retired news reporter for the Hollywood Columnist, was one of the media vultures who added to this negative reputation: ” I think that name (Black Dahlia) kept the story going ’cause that girl was a hooker around town, you know…”
Detective Harry Hansen
Hansen retired and wrapped up a 43 year career, but the unsolved mystery of the Black Dahlia murder wouldn’t set him free. In interviews, he discussed the murder: “The killing seemed to be based on unbelievable anger. I suppose sex was the motive, or at least the fact that the killer was denied sex. From all accounts, Elizabeth Short liked to tease men. She probably went too far this time, and just set some guy off into a blind, berserk rage. There was no evidence of forcible entry. She didn’t seem to have any goals or standards… she never had a job all the time she lived in Los Angeles. She had an obviously low IQ, lived hand to mouth, day to day. They found out during the autopsy that her teeth were
full of cavities. She had filled them up with candle wax. She was a man-crazy tramp, but she wasn’t a prostitute. There were all kinds of men in her life, but we were only able to find three who’d had any sexual experience with her. She was a tease; she gave a bad time to quite a few guys. She just asked for trouble. There wasn’t much to like about her. There were crimes that same year that were at least as heinous and victims at least as pretty and not one of them got anywhere near the same attention. It was that name, ‘Black Dahlia,’ that set this one off… just those words strung together in that order turned Elizabeth Short’s murder into a coast-to-coast sensation. “
Mark Hansen, owner of the Florentine Gardens where Short
worked for a time, said she, “appeared to be a very nice girl,” and “she appeared to be a more domestic type girl.” Clearly, people who described their impression of Short could be highly inaccurate. He also said, “Well I thought she was fair looking, average. If it wasn’t for her teeth, she had bad teeth. Other than that she would have been beautiful,” confirming that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Hansen said, “I didn’t like the caliber of people she showed up with.” But he also sympathized with her. “I felt sorry for her. She said there was bad company over there [the Chancellor] and she couldn’t stand it.” Ironic, considering short dated two members of the Mafia she met through Hansen’s establishment.
The Last Day
The day she met Red Manley was the beginning of the end,
and a horrible end it would be. By now Short was living at the Biltmore Hotel. The Biltmore was exactly the sort of place Short loved to hang out in. It was as glamorous as she aspired to be, filled with wealthy travelers and luxuriously appointed. Built in the early 20s, it was the largest hotel west of Chicago, with 1,000 rooms. Its lobby was its centerpiece, featuring hand-painted cathedral ceilings, crystal chandeliers, and marble floors. The pair stayed in a local motel but Short slept in her clothes and the pair didn’t have sex, he later told a reporter. The next day, January 9, he drove her to Los Angeles and helped her check her luggage at the bus station. She told him she was going to Berkeley to stay with her sister, whom she was meeting at the Biltmore hotel Manley gave her a ride into Los Angeles, dropped her off at the Biltmore and left. He was a salesman with business appointments to attend.
For her part, Short made several calls, but these were by telephone. Finally bell captains saw her leave the hotel and head along Olive Street. Probably Short was going to meet a man she’d spoken to on the phone. This man was the last Short would ever meet. Most likely he was the sick individual who tortured the poor girl for two days, and in doing so, murdered her.
Her roommates cruelly told the LA Times after her death that Short was out “with a different boyfriend every night” and didn’t have a job…She was always going out to prowl [Hollywood] boulevard,” Linda Rohr, 22, told the paper. Short’s sister Virginia, who lived in Berkeley, California, didn’t help to improve that image. She claimed she hadn’t heard from Short in “at least two years” when she learned of her death. A brief acquaintance, Harold Costa, remembered that Beth’s friends, Margie and Lynn, said, “the kid was broke and hungry.” One evening, the girls were going out together to a party Costa was throwing and they asked that she be invited along with them. Costa said Short didn’t join the others once because “her hair needed another henna rinse.” It would appear that very few of the people who knew Short towards the end of her life had anything of merit to say about her.
Phoebe Short said her daughter was a “good girl.” At the time of Beth’s murder, Phoebe said, “She was working in Hollywood doing bit parts for the movies until two weeks ago.” Of course, this was false, but it was information Short had told Phoebe, probably trying to reassure her mother of her success. Phoebe didn’t understand why newspapers painted such a negative portrait of her daughter. Beth’s sister, Virginia, who lived in Berkeley, California, hadn’t heard from her in “at least two years” when she learned of her death. Ginny said “She was always being told how pretty she was and I guess it went to her head.” Classmate Clara Fisher recalled, “She was such a beautiful girl. I remember her very well because she was so popular and dressed exceptionally well.” Her roommates told the LA Times after her death that Short was out “with a different boyfriend every night” and didn’t have a job. She was always going out to prowl [Hollywood] boulevard,” Linda Rohr, 22, told the paper.These comments and others about Short, from kind to ambiguous to downright cruel, were part of the process that unfairly painted Short less as a victim and more of someone who was looking for trouble.
The press also wished to know who Short had been in life. In the cruelest manner possible, Wayne Sutton of the L.A. Times called Mrs. Short and told her Short had won a beauty contest, and he wanted more information about her life to print in the newspapers. Before Mrs. Short began to speak Sutton’s conscious kicked in and he told her that her daughter was actually dead. If the killer doesn’t brutalize a victim and family enough, you can be sure the press – and jealous roommates – will do the job.
After Short’s murder a beautiful model named Toni Smith moved into her last residence. A man called her and warned her in a gruff voice, “well, Toni, you are next.” Police were nice enough to give the “pretty girl” a bodyguard. Just another one of those creeps looking for his 15 minutes of macabre fame.
Detective Hansen stated, “It’s fairly realistic to figure the killer is no longer alive. By now, he would have attracted attention. If he is still alive, he’s got it made unless he just completely slips up and blows it. That’s a lot of years that’ve gone by; it would be hard now to go back and dig up new witnesses, new evidence. I know for certain that I never met the killer face to face. I know he didn’t manage to slip through with the other suspects. We considered the possibility of his coming right in, making a confession, then cleverly side-stepping the ‘key question.’ We watched for that, had taken measures to expose him in that event. You’d never believe the amount of checking we did on this case; we followed everything as far as it would go and then we’d turn right around and walk through it again.”
So has a fascinated public and crime historians for the past 60 years.