Ellroy and the Black Dahlia

EllroyFrom the 'Black Dahlia' commercials that began running this weekend and the four-page ad wrap in Sunday's Times, it looks like we're going to be inundated with the catch phrase "most notorious unsolved murder in California history." Expect also to see and hear a lot of James Ellroy, whose novel is the basis of the film. He contributed an essay to the summer Virginia Quarterly Review that talks about the film and his mother, who Ellroy fans know was murdered in L.A. eleven years after Elizabeth Short.

Motion pictures pervade the culture far more broadly and immediately than books. Itís a quick-march progression of advance publicity and saturation screen-time. My signature novel will now be a film in wide release. The film will possibly expedite book sales in career-unprecedented numbers. Because of the film, more people may read The Black Dahlia than have read all my other books to date. This affords me a narrative opportunity of stern moment. I will gratefully capitalize on it here. A personal story attends both novel and film. It inextricably links me to two women savaged eleven years apart. These women comprise the central myth of my life. I want to honor them both. I want this piece to redress imbalances in my previous writings about them. I want to close out their myth with an elegy. I want to grant them the peace of denied disclosure and never say another public word about them.

Meanwhile, fact checks roll in, as they usually do, on the Black Dahlia story. Larry Harnisch, a Times copy editor, 1947 Project partner and student of the case, has posted a 21-minute photo documentary at Google Video. He also emails that the afternoon papers the Herald and Daily News had Short's nickname on Jan. 17, 1947, a day before the Times. The Herald, though, decided to call it the "Werewolf" murder for a few days. Harnisch disputes the often-repeated story that Examiner scribe Will Fowler (who died in 2004) was the first reporter on the murder scene.

His widely reported story (even I fell for it) was total b.s. The first reporter photographed at the scene may well have been Marvin Miles, aviation correspondent of the L.A. Times, followed by Aggie Underwood of the Herald Express.

In contrast to Hearst's Examiner and Herald Express, and the Daily News, which led with the story ever day, The Times put the Black Dahlia inside except for 1) when it looked like Joseph Dumais was the killer and 2) my story on the 50th anniversary of the case. How is that for news judgment? The Times also wrongly gave Elizabeth Short a middle name, Ann, in a 1971 story in West magazine. Note that it lives on in the current publicity as Betty Ann Short.

Harnisch previously fact-checked the Donald Wolfe book and was one of many who were critical of Steve Hodel's book fingering his father for the murder. (Hodel just signed his own movie deal.) Another word on Fowler comes from Tom Paegel, a former Times editor with a family connection to the case:

It is always said that Will Fowler was first on the scene of Dahlia, but even Will points out in his book, The Reporters, that my Dad, Felix Paegel, an Examiner photographer, was right there with him and shot the exclusive photos of the body before and after the cops arrived. Those photos are published in the book.

Carolyn Strickler, the former curator of the Times archives, emails with another angle from the late columnist Jack Smith, who covered the case as a reporter:

In his column of January 23, 1975, Jack Smith recalls: "I have always supposed that I was the first one to get 'the Black Dahlia' into print, though I didn't make it up. As I remember, one of our reporters picked up a tip that Miss Short had frequented a certain Long Beach drugstore for a time. I looked the number in the phone book and got the drugstore and talked to the pharmacist. "Yes, he remembered Elizabeth Short. 'She used to hang around with the kids at the soda fountain. They used to call her the Black Dahlia--on account of the way she wore her hair.'" So, the neighbors didn't give her the name, the soda fountain kids did, as stated in this current posting. Too trivial for the record, but little things like this drive me crazy.

And what about Bevo Means (legendary Herald- Express reporter)? Cecil Smith's story credits him with the Black Dahlia label. The last question is, does anybody care? Sadly, we know the answer to that.

Photo: Red Diaz/Duende Publishing at IdentityTheory.com


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