Wheels of misfortune: Bus tours Dahlia haunts

By Norma Meyer

September 15, 2006

LOS ANGELES – The most notorious body dumpsite in L.A. history is now the manicured front lawn of a post-World War II home on a quiet street lined with similar one-story stucco houses.

There’s no memorial plaque or hint this is it – the macabre magnet where, nearly 60 years ago, the Black Dahlia’s naked corpse was discarded in two cleanly cut hunks in a weed-choked vacant lot.

“She was very deliberately posed to be seen,” says crime connoisseur Kim Cooper.

The 39-year-old Angeleno lingers on the same Norton Avenue sidewalk where a stroller-pushing young mom discovered the blood-drained Dahlia, her mouth sliced on each side to form a deranged clown grin.

In Brian De Palma’s “The Black Dahlia,” this horror landmark, along with most of 1940s Los Angeles, is actually Bulgaria, where the movie was mainly shot. Noir hipsters Cooper and Nathan Marsak bring luxury buses to the real thing: This weekend they will launch the expanded Real Black Dahlia Crime Bus Tour, a doomed heebie-jeebies journey that includes Hollywood flophouses and hangouts frequented by 22-year-old cash-strapped Elizabeth Short.

It’s a cold, cold case. In that vein, bus-traveling groupies will gorge at a Hollywood gelato shop debuting 12 unique Black Dahlia flavors. One is Vanilla and Whiskey.

As it’s been said before: The Dahlia is to Los Angeles what Jack the Ripper is to London.

Massachusetts-bred Betty Short was a transient unemployed ex-waitress who hit town in mid-1946, left for a while to live in San Diego, and returned here six days before her mutilated body turned up in the Leimert Park neighborhood on the clear morning of Jan. 15, 1947.

An aspiring starlet, she was among the wannabes who flocked to a Hollywood still in its heyday. Around the time, a homegrown ingénue named Norma Jeane changed her name to Marilyn Monroe. “The Big Sleep” star Humphrey Bogart immortalized his handprints and footprints in the famous forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theater. The poignant classic about WWII vets, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” was about to sweep the Oscars.

And singing cowboy Gene Autry rode Champion in a parade down Hollywood Boulevard, the nightclub-dotted street that a roommate said Short often prowled.

But the social climate was changing in the City of Angels.

“A lot of women who had worked and been independent during the war were in the process of being pushed out by servicemen returning home,” says Cooper, who with Marsak and Dahlia expert Larry Harnisch deftly blog the city’s bygone murders and mayhem on the Web site project1947.com.

“There was a lot of conflict. There was also a huge housing crisis and people were forced to move in with their family and rent rooms.”

Back then, a pimento cheese sandwich cost 20 cents. A top sirloin steak dinner was $1.65. A glass of port, 17 cents. Short didn’t have much money for any of it: Friends told police she sponged off men for meals.

The flower-fond brunette – she dyed her brown hair jet-black – was last seen alive Jan. 9, 1947, in the marbled and chandeliered lobby of the downtown Biltmore Hotel. She had been dropped off by Robert Manley, a married traveling salesman who drove her up from San Diego and, along with hundreds of suspects and crazed confessors, would be cleared in the case.

Detectives, after finding two votive candles in Short’s checked bags at a nearby bus station, questioned Biltmore bathroom attendants to see if she was seen fixing her bad teeth. The Dahlia used candle wax to plug cavities.

No one knows for sure what happened to Short after she left the Biltmore. “She may have gone to the Crown Grill. Some people said they saw her there,” Marsak says. The long-gone downtown bar is now Club Galaxy – “100 Beautiful Girls,” the sign outside beckons.

Short did stay at the nearby Figueroa Hotel in September 1946, when she met a uniformed Army soldier on a street corner, according to FBI files. The serviceman said he took the “very friendly” and “very well-dressed” Short to see Tony Martin’s broadcast at the CBS studios in Hollywood, and to dinner at Tom Breneman’s restaurant, the home of a popular morning radio show. At Breneman’s, the headwaiter recognized Short and waved her through a line of waiting patrons.

The soldier said he spent the night at the hotel with Short and she mentioned “Los Angeles was a tough city and that it was dangerous for a girl to be alone on the streets at night.”

In Hollywood, Short bunked at several places until she landed at the still-standing, then $1-a-night Chancellor Apartments, where she shared a room with five women. The manager once held Short’s suitcase as collateral when she tried to skip on the rent.

In early December 1946, Short left for San Diego. Dorothy French, an usher at the downtown Aztec Theater, took pity on the sad soul she saw hanging around and invited her to stay with her family at the Bayview Terrace housing project in Pacific Beach, according to news reports. The Frenches were about to boot the jobless, partying Short when on Jan. 8 she checked into a Pacific Beach motel with Manley, whom she’d met a few weeks before. He told police they spent a platonic night together and then he drove her up to the Biltmore, ostensibly to meet her sister.

When Manley left her that evening, she was a pretty black-clad drifter who got her nickname from a Veronica Lake movie of the time, “The Blue Dahlia.” Today, the morbid icon is a cottage industry: There are Internet sites, a TV movie, a coffee-table book that connects her killing to surrealist art, and a tome that implicates Los Angeles Times publisher Norman Chandler and mobster Bugsy Siegel in her sadistic slaying.

The 1947 Project online offers Dahlia T-shirts and beer steins and a baby bib for snookums that reads, “Elizabeth Short Got A Ride to 39th & Norton – and all I got is this dumb bib.”

The Dahlia bus will drive by the site of the trash dump – several miles from the crime scene – where Short’s black shoe and patent leather purse that smelled of her perfume were found (it’s now a parking lot next to a commercial building).

And it’ll ferry by homes of men fingered as the murderer in some of the umpteen Black Dahlia books and essays. There’s the Mayan-like Hollywood mansion of venereal disease physician George Hodel, who was posthumously branded the butcherer by his former cop son; the house a block away from where the body was found that was inhabited by Walter Bayley, a now-dead surgeon whom Dahlia-whiz Harnisch theorizes did it; and the south Los Angeles ‘hood where alcoholic lowlife Jack Anderson Wilson may have drained his prey’s blood in a bathtub, according to John Gilmore, who authored “Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder.”

Gilmore says Wilson provided details to him only the killer would know shortly before he died in a 1982 hotel room fire. But now the true-crime writer isn’t convinced the case is solved.

“It will always be one of L.A.’s darkest mysteries,” Gilmore says. Then he compares the Dahlia’s haunting legacy to the movie-star handprints and footprints she surely ogled on Hollywood Boulevard.

“It’s like Grauman’s Chinese. Her name is carved in the concrete of L.A.”


Published by

Kim Cooper

Kim Cooper is the creator of 1947project, the crime-a-day time travel blog that spawned Esotouric’s popular crime bus tours, including The Real Black Dahlia. She is the author of The Kept Girl, the acclaimed historical mystery starring the young Raymond Chandler and the real-life Philip Marlowe, and of The Raymond Chandler Map of Los Angeles. With husband Richard Schave, Kim curates the Salons and forensic science seminars of LAVA- The Los Angeles Visionaries Association. When the third generation Angeleno isn’t combing old newspapers for forgotten scandals, she is a passionate advocate for historic preservation of signage, vernacular architecture and writer’s homes. Kim was for many years the editrix of Scram, a journal of unpopular culture. Her books include Fall in Love For Life, Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth, Lost in the Grooves and an oral history of Neutral Milk Hotel.

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