Tuesday, 19 May 2009

THE BLACK DAHLIA AND THE BIG BAD WOLFE

The Black Dahlia Files
Donald H Wolfe
Time Warner 2006, £9.99 ISBN 0316727261

James Ellroy propelled Los Angeles' 1947 'Black Dahlia' murder back into our consciousnesses, after a long period in which it had lain dormant and forgotten, an artifact of a time and place as dead to the modern world as the huge shoulders and lapels of Jack Webb's suits on Dragnet. So why has the case attracted so much renewed interest? Is it an American Jack the Ripper? Or is it simply that it involves sex and Hollywood, and that Beth Short's story can be told as the girl from the sticks who arrives in Tinseltown hungry for fame and gets eaten alive? Or is it simply the butchery, like a Patricia Cornwell novel come to historical life? Or maybe the fact that the crime went unsolved, and their could be an 85 year old killer in some old age home somewhere, still relishing his big event?

It's probably because we know so little, really, about exactly what Elizabeth Short did in LA that makes the case so intriguing. She came from Boston and speculation has her as a B-girl, a whore, a consort of gangsters, an actress in stag films, a figure flitting around the edge of Hollywood, a hustler working cons on men drawn to her black hair and alabaster skin, her exotic good looks and her bad teeth, which she covered with paraffin before going out for the evening.

Since Ellroy, a number of books have tried to 'solve' the killing, or at least benefit from the publicity. The most interesting, if not convincing, was probably John Gilmore's Severed. I recall Ellroy, for one, pointing out to me that one problem with Gilmore's book, his claim that Beth Short's genitals were not fully developed, was simply false, and thus the idea that rage at her 'cock teasing' resulted in her murder fell apart. Donald Wolfe's book, which likewise appears to have a major contradiction to the heart of its conclusion, neatly weaves Gilmore's story into his own, and thus is able to include Gilmore's killer into his own conspiracy.

As drama it works very well. Wolfe's theory is that Short was murdered, in a frenzy, by Bugsy Siegel, in order to protect Arthur Chandler, the playboy father of her aborted child, presumably because Short was going to sing. Chandler was the son of Otis Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, and a major power in the city, who virtually controlled much of city hall, including the police department. In fact, the corruption of the police department, especially its 'gangster squad' is where Wolfe is at his best—the LAPD's position in the pockets of the rich has been an element of any number of great novels and films, particularly from that boom era, and Wolfe draws those connections very well—all the way up to the death of Marilyn Monroe, about which he has also written.

But it is one thing to trace that alternate history, and another to turn those connections into the actual solution of the killing. Wolfe's approach invites skepticism; he opens by saying 'there wasn't much nightlife in Los Angeles in the 1940s', which seemed odd when I read it, and became exceedingly odd as he detailed the extensive night life of Short as a B girl and the mobsters and others he's chronicling. Similarly, he goes to great lengths to establish himself in the milieu about which he writes, describing himself as growing up on the 'wrong side of the tracks' in Beverly Hills, which are good tracks to be on any side of, and were even in the 1940s. These may not seem like big things, but they set off warning bells.

Wolfe's solution has the added benefit of drawing on the disappearance of Jean Spangler, a story which, like the Dahlia killing, has been regenerated through fiction, in this case Megan Abbott's brilliantly atmospheric The Song Is You. The note she left behind, mentioning going to see Dr Scott, has generally been assumed to mean she was seeking an abortion, and that the letter was addressed to Kirk has meant people assumed Kirk Douglas was the father (Spangler had worked on a movie with Douglas, who at first denied having known her.) Wolfe is trying to draw a parallel here: his theory is Mickey Cohen found out about the scrape, and sent one of his, Davy Ogul, to shake down Douglas. Kirk's agent then called on Johnny Roselli for help; exit Spangler and Ogul, who disappeared two days after Spangler's body was found.

This scenario has the beauty of virtually repeating his theory of Short's death, with the addition of the gory mutilations, which he attributes to Ben Siegel going, well, bugsy. In this version, Siegel is then killed by the mob precisely because he has gone out of control. Gilmore's killer turns out to be involved as a Siegel henchman, and the bisection of the body is carried out by one of the mob's abortionist doctors. It has the beauty of fitting together beautifully, although among all the distracting hand-waving of moblife in LA, we might easily pass by the fact that Siegel's life was already in danger, and only personal interventions from Meyer Lansky had stopped the contract from being issued earlier.

But the biggest problem is also the simplest one. Wolfe claims the police withheld information about Short's pregnancy, and the fact that the corpse had been given a hysterectomy, as a 'control', to check those who claimed to be the killer. He notes how the coroner's testimony at the inquest was stopped before he got to the crucial details, and of course how, once the cover-up began, this information, which would provide motive, was buried. The problem is, according to what I recall reading about the original coroner's report, Beth Short showed no signs of pregnancy and had a small uterus, an indication she had never had a baby (and possibly the origin of Sinclair's theory). Wolfe never goes into this anomaly, because if that first finding were correct, all that's left is speculation and innuendo which, although it makes for a slick solution, would not be correct.

After finishing the book, I went to check Wolfe's story elsewhere. Larry Harnisch, the LA Times reporter whose own theory about the Dahlia, which forms part of the documentary about James Ellroy, depended on the characterisation of Beth Short as a hustler, conning men lured by her looks, and perhaps too confident of herself in those circumstances. This is something which Wolfe's book reinforces, though of course the abortion motive would not.W hen the book appeared, Harnisch began a page by page demolition of it, starting with the same nightlife comment which had caught my eye. Some of it picks nits, but much of it shoots huge holes into Wolfe's sourcing and footnoting, and, before he apparently gave up the project, revealed one piece of Wolfe's evidence which seems to have been cut and pasted together from two different documents.

All of which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to accept Wolfe's findings. The book is great on atmosphere, it conveys the era well, and its photo section is the best of any of the Dahlia books so far. Interestingly enough, Wolfe devotes an appendix to debunking another of the recent Dahlia books, George Hodel's Black Dahlia Avenger, which also suffered from a very simple basic problem, in that the photos that Hodel claimed showed his father with Short very obviously were of another man, and those of Short he claimed he found in his father's scrapbooks were equally obviously not of Short. It was easy for Wolfe to demolish Hodel's claims, and it appears that it is almost as equally easy to demolish Wolfe's, though Wolfe does tell the better story.

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