“Bette was a porcelain China doll with beautiful eyes — think of them as blue, but sometimes would change depending on color she wore, and became greenish.”
– Anna Dougherty, Medford Classmate
“Elizabeth Short was a pale, pie-faced, blue-eyed, dark-haired Irish Protestant girl from the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts. She was by all accounts imaginative, flighty, given to prevarication, she may have been a habitual liar; she was certainly a romantic. She was a tormented, sweet natured, love starved, lost little girl who never got the chance to grow up. Her dream was entirely silly, and it was the dream of countless other fatuous girls of the American 1940’s – she wanted to be an actress, she wanted to be a movie star.
We’ll never know if she had talent.”
– James Ellroy, author of “The Black Dahlia”
“It’s going to be so wonderful, darling, when all of this is over. You want to slip away and be married. We’ll do whatever you wish, darling. Whatever you want. I love you and all I want is you.”
– Elizabeth Short, in an un-mailed letter to her “fiance'” dated May 8, 1945.
Elizabeth Short. Her badly mutilated remains were discovered in a vacant lot in Los Angeles on today’s date, January 15 in 1947. She soon became known as “the Black Dahlia”. Beyond that, what can one say about her? So much of what one can or perhaps cannot say about her is summed up in the fact that I have been obliged to place the word “fiance'” in quotation marks above. So much of what I have read about her in the past few days while researching her story has been stated as clearly settled fact in one seemingly authoritative source, only to be dismissed, or brought into question in another source. So please bear with me as I say a lot of words or phrases like “apparently”, or “seems to”, etc. in the coming paragraphs. Also: since this subject is primarily about the murder of a young woman and the subsequent mutilation and dismemberment of her body, some of the details which I will be discussing are graphic to say the least, so WARNING: READERS DISCRETION IS ADVISED.
Elizabeth Short Moves to Hollywood
Elizabeth Short was born, the third of five girls on July 29, 1924 and grew up in the town of Medford, a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. Her father was Cleo Short, and her mother was Phoebe May Sawyer. Cleo had a business of building Miniature Golf Courses , and was making enough money to put his wife and children in a decent home. But like many Americans, he lost all his assets in the Stock Market Crash of 1929. Unable to support his family, Cleo Short in 1930 drove his car to a bridge and just vanished, a presumed suicide. Her mother had to go to work as an accountant, and move herself and her girls into a smaller apartment. Elizabeth soon developed asthma, and doctors recommended that she spend the winter months in Florida. So for the three years between age 16 through 18, she would spend the winter months in Florida, apparently staying with relatives, and the rest of the year in Medford. Elizabeth, known to her friends as Beth, Betty, or Bette, was a bright, personable and very attractive young girl who loved the movies, and dreamt of going to Hollywood and becoming a movie star. Her father resurfaced in 1942, and wrote to his now ex-wife to tell her that he was alive and working in Vallejo, California (outside of San Francisco). Phoebe wanted nothing to do with him, but Elizabeth begged to be allowed to move out to sunny California and live with him. So in December of 1942, she boarded a train and made the move to the land of sunshine, stars, and shadows.
Beautiful Young Beth Drifts, Looking for Love.
While in Florida, Beth developed a flirtatious manner and a model-like appearance and bearing. With her alabaster white complexion, her flashing blue/green eyes, and her full mane of black hair, she presented a striking picture to the world. Her friendly, easy-going manner, and sweet smile made her very popular with men – a fact which she knew and cultivated. She spent two months living with her father. Cleo was a difficult man, expecting his daughter to be a house-keeper and general servant to him. But Beth was enjoying the company of young men, and spending a lot of time on evenings out with them. So they fought, and either Cleo ordered her to leave, or she had had enough of domestic servitude and she left of her own accord. Either way, she left Vallejo to move to southern California. She acquired a job at the PX at Camp Cooke. Naturally popular with the GIs, she was voted “Camp Cooke’s Cutie of the Week” in the Camp Newspaper. But in September of 1943, she was out partying with friends, and was arrested for underage drinking (back then you had to be 21). She was sent back to Medford by the local authorities.
At this point she resumed living in Florida, and earned money as a part-time waitress. She spent as much money as she could on fancy clothes, and spent her evenings out with a dizzying variety of young soldiers and sailors, a different guy almost every night according to friends. It was during this time that Short met Major Matthew Michael Gordon Jr. (with whom she is pictured above, left), a decorated Army Air Corps officer who was in training for deployment to China Burma India Theater of Operations. Beth told friends that Matt proposed marriage to her via the mail and that she had accepted. Major Gordon’s friends in the Air Corps later confirmed the engagement, although his family denied any connection. But it made no difference, as Gordon survived the war, only to be killed in an airplane crash on August 10, 1945. Elizabeth’s search for a place in the world went on.
Elizabeth Short Disappears Into the Night
(Pictured: the Biltmore Hotel)
In July of 1946, Elizabeth returned to Los Angeles. She seems to have embarked on a fairly transient existence, living with friends, boyfriends, and acquaintances, never staying at one residence for more than two weeks. Continuing to date men and hanging around theaters and swanky restaurants and looking for work in the movies, she wound up at the home of her friend Dorothy French. She wore out her welcome though, by staying out late, sleeping into the afternoon, and making no effort to find work. She spent much time with a boyfriend whom she called “Red”. One afternoon, a man and a woman came calling for Beth at the French home. Clearly frightened, she refused to answer the door. She would not tell Dorothy what she was afraid of, but called Red to come and get her. Red, who turned out to be a married man named Robert Manley in Los Angeles on a sales trip picked her up and the two then drove around for awhile spending the night in a motel, although Manley later claimed that Short would not sleep with him. On the afternoon of January 9, he dropped her off at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown L.A. after helping her to check her luggage at the Greyhound Bus station. She told Manley that she was to meet her sister at the Biltmore, although her sister said that she had no such appointment. Manley had to go, so he left her there. She was observed making phone calls before finally leaving at 10:00 p.m.
The body of Elizabeth Short was found in a vacant lot in the Leimert Park district of L. A. on January 15. Her remains had been left on a vacant lot on South Norton Avenue. The body was found by local resident Betty Bersinger, who was walking with her three-year-old daughter. Mrs. Bersinger thought as she approached that the body was a discarded department store mannequin. The severely mutilated body had been severed at the waist and drained of blood and her face was slashed from the corners of her mouth toward her ears, in a kind of grotesque smile. The body had been washed and “posed” with her hands over her head and elbows bent at right angles. The bottom portion of her body had been placed about a foot away from the rest, and her legs had been obscenely spread apart. The autopsy said Short was 5 feet 5 inches tall, weighed 115 lbs. and had badly decayed teeth. There were marks on her ankles and wrists made by rope, consistent with being tied either spreadeagled or hung upside down. Her skull had not been fractured, but Short had bruising on the front and right side of her scalp consistent with blows to the head. The cause of death was blood loss from the lacerations to the face combined with shock due to a concussion of the brain. The rope marks suggested that Short had been tortured, and also several of her internal organs had been removed after death. There was no sign of sexual assault.
Elizabeth Short Becomes “The Black Dahlia”
At a time when the murder rate was not nearly so high as it is now, the death of this beautiful young woman caused an immediate sensation. The papers started referring to her as “the Black Dahlia” for reasons which remain unclear to this day. It may have been that some of her friends called her that because of her preference for dark clothes contrasting her milky white skin. And it may have been because of the murder having taken place around the time of the release of the film “The Blue Dahlia”. Whatever the reason, the application stuck. But the investigation went poorly. Reporters who had rushed to the scene to take pictures of the grisly sight were allowed to trample all over the vacant lot, which was thus hopelessly contaminated as a crime scene. L.A. had five competing newspapers at the time each trying furiously to beat the other to the scoop. Lurid rumors, and increasingly wild stories poured in along with countless phony confessions from cranks. There were reports on one hand that Short had been a prostitute, along with some suggestions on the other hand that she had a deformation of her genitals which made it impossible for her to have normal sexual relations. No evidence has ever been found to label her as a prostitute. And the autopsy made it clear that there was no truth to the genital deformation rumor. Her luggage was later found at the Greyhound terminal, but yielded no substantial clues; only her clothing and some papers. Among these were a newspaper clipping: the obituary of Major Gordon, and letters such as the one quoted above; the sad wreckage of love secured but then lost, and of a search that went on. But the identity of the mysterious couple who called at the French home, whom it was she was calling from the Biltmore, and her whereabouts during the period of her departure from the Biltmore and the discovery of her body – almost a full week – are all things which have never been explained. Her murder remains unsolved. Elizabeth Short sought love and a sense of belonging and never found it. But she also sought fame and sadly, she did achieve that in death.
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“The Black Dahlia Files: The Mob, the Mogul, and the Murder That Transfixed Los Angeles” by Donald H. Wolfe, Harper Collins Publ. New York, 2005.
“The Black Dahlia (Widescreen Edition)” Dir. by Bryan DePalma, 2006