Consider the story depicted by Veronica Lake in Sullivan’s Travels (1941). Lake is every girl who had a dream of Hollywood, only to have the dream broken. Made cynical by failure, she’s on her way back home and entirely unaware that the bum she’s bought ham and eggs for is a Hollywood director, and her luck is about to change. The story Lake is telling was her own, along with that of thousands of others. She had done the rounds as a Hollywood hopeful; the beauty contests, the meetings, the auditions, the extra work. She got bit parts at RKO, and an MGM contract that led to little more than days spent hanging around the lot, quite like Marilyn Monroe early in her career. Elizabeth Short, of course, was a long way behind. She met the agents, trudged round the auditions, but so far as we know, never even got a screen test.
But Lake made another imprint on Short’s mythic afterlife. It is a common misconception that ‘Black Dahlia’ was Short’s nickname in life. De Palma’s film encouraged it by showing her wearing black flowers in her hair: There is some debate whether the nickname was given to her by the proprietor of a drugstore in the summer of 1946, or if it had been a journalistic invention, or even a play on the movie The Blue Dahlia, simply because it had been released the year before Short’s death.
The irony is that it was Veronica Lake who starred in The Blue Dahlia. Elizabeth died in January of 1947, Veronica’s film was released in April of 1946. If she was known as the Black Dahlia, it was for less than a year. The ‘Blue Dahlia’ itself is not a person but a nightclub, and there seems to be no obvious reason why Elizabeth and the title became conflated. The ‘black’ applies to her penchant for black dresses and jet black hair (in actual fact dyed henna by the time of her death), but the idea that the ‘dahlia’ referred to her habit of wearing flowers is generally considered untrue. The woman pictured here is Mia Kirshner, the actress who portrayed Short in The Black Dahlia, released in 2006. The most likely explanation is that whoever invented the name mistaken the title of the movie. Either way, it is now entangled in the folkloric undergrowth surrounding the case, to the extent that a popular rumour still circulates to the effect that Elizabeth actually has a walk-on role in the film.
Eventually Lake also became a victim of bad luck and personal despair. She became known as an actress who was difficult to work with and many directors stopped calling. By 1962, the year Marilyn Monroe died, Lake was living in poverty, living in an old hotel and working as a lounge waitress. Monroe, too, had a reputation of being a difficult co-worker but this never prevented directors from seeking her out for significant movie roles until her death on August 5, 1962 at the age of 36. Like Monroe, Lake struggled with alcoholism and bipolar disorder. Lake however did return for minor parts in 1966 movies. In the early 1970s she made her final film then was hospitalized due to poor health in a Vermont medical centre. Another eerie commonality with Monroe: during the last days of her life she was relatively cheerful, and looking forward to the future. In 1973, Lake succumbed to ill health. No friends or family visited her. in the end Monroe, Lake, Short, and Payton all died alone and for a long time, most were forgotten.
During the long days in Hollywood, Short got herself hostess work at the Hollywood Canteen, the famous nightclub created by Bette Davis and John Garfield, that allowed servicemen to eat and be entertained for free while served by a staff of Hollywood notables. This was the closest she ever got to her goal, and her letters home make much of the experience. She became well acquainted with the actor Arthur Lake, as did another hostess with whom she socialised, Georgette Bauerdorf. Georgette, too, was murdered during the time that both were working at the Canteen; her brutal killing shares many weird similarities to Elizabeth’s. It was speculated that she had been killed by a serviceman who had followed her home from the Canteen. Hollywood was not a safe place to be for a starlet in the 1940s.
Another of the Hollywood hopefuls that Elizabeth encountered around this time was one who would rise far higher up the ladder of stardom than she ever would, but whose eventual fall would prove equally dramatic. This was gorgeous Barbara Payton. She briefly took Elizabeth under her wing, introduced her to some useful names and took her to the Formosa Café, where studio executives would often grab a quick meal, and anything else that might be available, from the all-night establishment. Across the road was the studio of Sam Goldwyn. Upstairs was the office of Bugsy Siegel. Barbara was more pragmatic than Elizabeth when it came to getting ahead and was willing to audition on the casting couch. Though she would eventually land significant roles in a number of major films alongside Cagney, Cooper and Gregory Peck, Payton was volatile and wildly promiscuous, keeping the scandal magazines busy with lurid accounts of her affairs.
Most famously, she was the cause of a vicious fight between actors Franchot Tone and Tom Neal, that left her with a black eye and Tone critically injured, with broken bones and a brain concussion. Tone’s ex-wife Joan Crawford was one of many who urged him to sever connections with Barbara, but he was besotted, and they married after his recovery. Mere weeks later, however, she returned to Neal.
Her career was unable to withstand so much extra-curricular scandal, and she was assigned to B-pictures like Bride of the Gorilla (1951), an enjoyable jungle horror with silver-tongued Tom Conway. Soon, even these offers deserted her. As an ex-actress who’d had a taste of fame and wealth, she drifted into alcoholism and prostitution, suffering frequent savage beatings from her clients. She died of alcohol-related heart and liver failure in 1967, at the age of 39. Most of the female movie star wannabes who knew Elizabeth Short seemed to be destined for a bleak future.
Franchot Tone offered a glimpse of Short in Hollywood, in those moments when her shadow falls over a still extraordinary film called Phantom Lady, made for Universal in 1944. Why is it that there are so many dark ironies surrounding Short during this period in her life? While Tone was making this film, he encountered Elizabeth at the Formosa Café. Tone asked her what she was doing there: “She said she was waiting for someone, and I said, ‘Of course you are, you’re waiting for me!'” He then told her that he knew of contacts in Hollywood who were looking for girls with her kind of looks, and offered to take her to meet some of them. In reality, he was taking her to his own apartment. “I thought it was a pick-up from the start,” he recalled later; “she came with me so easily, but to her it wasn’t anything of the kind.” His attempts to seduce her were rebuffed, so he gave her some money and sent her home in a taxi: “There was something sad and pathetic about her.” That comment may have been influenced more by Short’s demise than her actual personality.
The heroine in the 1944 film Phantom Lady was the strikingly beautiful Ella Raines, and the most famous scene in the movie is the still-extraordinary one in which she disguises herself as “a real hep cat”. Raines looked somewhat like Elizabeth; she has her shiny raven-black hair and clinging black dress. The film is one of darkness and peril, the women are all dark haired, and slick city life eventually reveals a dangerous underside, inhabited by people who live on the edge of the night. In the film is a walk-on named Ruth, a secretary at Raines’s office. This brunette actress is completely uncredited, so unimportant is her role. She gets a tiny scene, with nothing dialogue. But it is dialogue, and the camera does look at her. It’s the break Short wanted. The woman who played Ruth looks like Short. Short could have done it: it’s a try-out part, no talent required, just looks. But in Short’s dark parallel universe, there are no on-screen breaks. Instead it is Short herself who is broken; a tortured, twisted doll, staring offscreen lifelessly, not at a studio lot, but at a vacant lot on a July morning near a busy Los Angeles intersection, and the place where she would be discovered in her final role.