(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN 2012)
Sixty-eight years ago today, a 22-year-old beauty by the name of Elizabeth Short was found brutally slain in a vacant lot at 39th and Norton streets in
. Her body was cut in half at the waist with surgical precision, her face and breasts slit, and there was a large gash where her vulva should have been. She had been drained of fluids as if prepared for an embalming and she was left in a garish pose, her head turned to the side and one arm above her body. Los Angeles
The case became known as the Black Dahlia Murder because Betty, as the wannabe actress liked to be called, wore her hair and clothes black.
The lurid crime shook Angelenos usually inured to the rampant crime in their midst, and a huge team of detectives was assigned to track down the perpetrator. Many suspects were pursued, but all were released and the case technically remains unsolved.
I'm somewhat of an armchair expert on the Black Dahlia Murder and have looked pretty deeply into it in connection with research on another brutual murder for my true-crime book, The Bottom of the Fox, that also does not lack for suspects and hasn't been solved.
I was involved in many homicide cases during a long newspaper career, and you haven't really lived until you've stood in a morgue and watched a coroner in a white lab coat open one of those stainless steel drawers and slide out a sheet-covered corpse. Yup, just like in the movies. I also have read dozens of criminology and forensic texts and true-crime books in order to steep myself in investigative methodology and police jargon for my own tome.
Steve Hodel's Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius For Murder was the best of the true-crime books I read, although it may be the least well written.As for literary pretension, it certainly cannot be compared to the Black Dahlia, the first of the novels in James Ellroy's acclaimed "L.A. Quartet" and the book on which The Black Dahlia, film director Brian De Palma's 2006 bomb, was based. But Hodel's Black Dahlia Avenger is in its own way an extraordinary stemwinder.
Here's the story:
Hodel was a career Los Angeles Police Department detective and a model of the good cop. He was retired in 1999 when Dr. George Hodel, the brilliant but troubled father from whom he had been estranged for most of his adult life, died at age 91.Included in his father's personal effects was a small palm-sized photograph album. The doctor's wife -- the last of four -- thought that the son should have it.
Among the photos were Hodel as a child on his father's knee, Hodel's mother and two photos of a young Eurasian woman that Hodel, to his horror, recognized as Kiyo, his own former wife. Yet Kiyo is much younger in the photos than Hodel ever saw her and can only be a Kiyo whom his own father had known years earlier.
The mystery deepens when Hodel looks at two photos of another young woman -- a white woman with two flowers in her black hair, her eyes cast down. He wonders if she was asleep when the photos were taken. Or dead.
Hodel is struck by the face but can't remember why until he later realizes to his shock that the flowers are dahlias and the woman could be . . . you guessed it, Elizabeth Short.George Hodel was tall, dark, suave, handsome and a connoisseur of fine art and women. He also was an abortionist and a devotee of the Marquis de Sade and Jack the Ripper.
He ran orgies in Steve Hodel's boyhood home frequented by avant-garde artist and photographer Man Ray, legendary film directors John Huston (who previously had been married to George Hodel's wife, Dorothy) and Orson Welles, among other notables. One orgy involved the gang rape of Steve Hodel's older half sister, Tamar. George beat the rape rap because he told the LAPD that Tamar had made the whole thing up. Investigators were notably uncurious about whether the well known doctor was lying.
Steve Hodel began working on the Black Dahlia case despite a lack of physical evidence, which was destroyed by bumbling and corrupt detectives trying to cover up an unrelated conspiracy involving crooked pols and gangsters and a number of notes possibly written by the murderer to throw them off the trail.
I am not spoiling the book by stating the obvious -- that the son came to believe that his father, acting out his obsession with De Sade and The Ripper, murdered Betty Short (who is shown atop this post with an autopsy photo superimposed). There also are intriguing indications that Wells may have been an accomplice, although Steve Hodel says he has found no evidence that he was.
Welles's alleged involvement is circumstantial but intriguing: Production of The Lady From Shanghai, the movie he was making, shut down on the day Short was murdered, the way she was mutilated is uncannily like that of a woman in The Lady, Short's body was found on a vacant lot once used by Welles's The Mercury Wonder Show, a circus in which he famously sawed a woman in half, Welles took out a passport a few days later, Short wrote in her diary of dining with a man called "George" (Welles's first name) at a restaurant he frequented, and most bizarrely of all, a few days before the murder he had applied to register as an assistant with a local mortuary.
Meanwhile, Hodel has published a sequel to Black Dahlia Avenger that sheds little new light, but do further cement the George Hodel-Elizabeth Short link.
PHOTOGRAPHS (From top): George Hodel and Elizabeth Short; Black Dalhia murder newspaper clipping; Detectives kneel over Short's body; One of the notes sent to police to throw them off the trail; Photos from George Hodel's album; Salvatore Dali with Man Ray; John Huston; Mia Kirshner as Short in DePalma's Black Dahlia.