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The Black Dahlia: Not Such a Mystery

October 22, 2014 • Los Angeles

John Gilmore's SeveredOne of Los Angeles’s perpetual favorite noir mysteries is the 1947 Black Dahlia murder. I had a six-degrees connection to the story through my former mother-in-law’s partner, who used to work in a movie-theater box office on Hollywood Boulevard. She remembered running across Elizabeth Short in the 1940s in Hollywood, and would see her walking by the theater on Hollywood Boulevard. LA was a much smaller town in those days, so it’s not all that surprising that people who were around then would have known her.

The body was discovered just north of Leimert Park, on the west side of Norton Avenue, halfway between Coliseum Street and 39th Street. Today, that neighborhood is called Leimert Park too, but originally that neighborhood was only south of Santa Barbara Avenue, now called Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. I’m not sure if a body-dump site is worth an excursion, but if you haven’t been in the neighborhood before, it’s a unique part of the city that’s worth a look. Coliseum Street is a short walk from the Crenshaw Expo Line Metro station, and there’s a lively Starbucks at Coliseum and Crenshaw in a preserved Googie-style building. The area had a large Japanese American population at one time, and you can still see Japanese-style horticulture in the front yards along some of the streets parallel to Norton. Walk another mile south along Degnan and you’ll find Leimert Park Plaza, a little patch of green that locals like to call the heart of black LA. The parallel stretch of Crenshaw is under construction for the foreseeable future, with the payoff being a light-rail Metro line from the Expo line almost to LAX, but Degnan and other streets east of Crenshaw are great for walking.

Take a look at a map of the neighborhood and you’ll notice that Norton Avenue and Degnan Boulevard curve together in a V shape near King Boulevard; in his definitive book on the Black Dahlia murder, Severed, John Gilmore implies that the killer dumped the body here because of the street layout’s resemblance to the female form. Reading Gilmore’s book, there doesn’t seem to be much mystery left to the Black Dahlia story, despite the fact that it comes up every few years when someone has a new theory about who the killer was. The police may call the case unsolved, but that’s really only because there wasn’t an arrest or a trial, and they never had a chance to nab the killer. Gilmore did the work in the 1980s of tracking down the likely suspect and even interviewing him; his book is a thorough examination of the case and makes intense reading.

So, in my opinion, based on reading Gilmore’s book, the mystery has been solved. I don’t think there will ever be more compelling evidence pointing at anyone but the guy that he identified. The fact that the case keeps coming back as an “unsolved mystery” says a lot more about our culture and human nature than it does about the Black Dahlia crime—the mystery is more valuable and enduring than the gritty prosaic truth. As the story recedes farther into the past, expect more fiction and wild speculation presented as solutions to the case.

As an aside, the nickname Black Dahlia came from a film that was popular at the time, The Blue Dahlia, written by the king of LA noir, Raymond Chandler. It’s a great film, sometimes running on TCM but not available on streaming services, as far as I can tell. The hard-ass protagonist is played by hottie Alan Ladd, who seems so gay from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, although there doesn’t seem to be any definitive evidence, only rumors and speculation, that he was a friend of Dorothy.

If you’re curious at all about the Black Dahlia, don’t believe the wild accusations hurled around every few years; read Gilmore’s book and decide for yourself. It’s called Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder, and it’s pretty graphic and gruesome, but as Raymond Chandler knew, the truth is rarely neat and pretty.

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