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Dahlia Noir

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Nowadays, fairy tales have been cleaned up (and often outfitted with boring pop culture referential comedy that mitigates the timelessness of the stories) Cinderella's evil sisters don't cut off parts of their feet to fit into the glass slipper. The little mermaid lives happily ever after instead of sacrificing herself to save the life of her beloved. These stories were made to tap into children's deepest fears, to give weight to the shadows the crept up on them so they could be dealt with and expunged.

Some fairy tales have happy endings, others are sad. In Los Angeles, more often than not, they become the latter. This is a town where the big bad wolf eats all three of the little pigs and Little Red Riding Hood, where beings as malicious and evil as anything imagined in the old world wander the streets -- and haunt studio lots -- all over town.

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Phoebe Mae and Cleo Short moved their family of five daughters -- Virginia, Dorothea, Elizabeth, Eleanora and Muriel, to Medford, MA in the '20s hoping for prosperity. Their dreams were dashed by the stock market crash. In 1930, as the family was going heading toward bankruptcy, Cleo disappeared. They found only a suicide note and his car near a local bridge. Phoebe Mae was on her own. She took odd jobs to support her family. The middle daughter, called Betty or Bette by her family, had little interest in school, but loved going to the movies, where she escaped the poverty and shame of her home life. Naturally, she dreamed of being a part of that world.

It was easy to see her succeeding at such aspirations. Betty was a natural beauty, with her heart shaped face and pale blue eyes. She began to dye her hair a more dramatic black as a teenager. It was about this time that Cleo Short resurfaced. He had been living in California and wished to rejoin his family. Phoebe forbid it. He kept up a relationship with his girls through letters.

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Betty spent a year in high school, but an indifferent student, dropped out before long. Because of her asthma, she spent winters in Florida, hanging around the beach and waitressing to support herself. It was in Miami that she met Major Matt Gordon, a young pilot and member of the Flying Tigers. There's some disagreement as to whether Matt and Betty became engaged (she certainly claimed they were. And he introduced her to his sister so they could begin a correspondence. He gave her a watch as an engagement gift.) She was in Medford when she heard that he had been killed on his way home from the war in the Pacific Theater in a telegram from Matt's mother. Curiously, Beth asked his family for some money so she could go out west and start a new life, a move that may seem scheming, but could have been made out of desperation.

In 1943, all of nineteen, she decided she would join her father in Vallejo, California. She needed a change from Medford and Florida, where all she could think of was Matt. It would be better for her health, she reasoned, and then she would be closer to Hollywood. Maybe she would get discovered.

Life with her father was not like Betty (now calling herself Beth) thought it would be. She worked all day, as a cashier at Camp Cook (where she was voted the "Camp Cook Cutie") and when she came home, her father expected her to clean and make him dinner. She didn't come all this way to be locked up with an old man -- she'd come to see things, to have a good time. Eventually, he kicked her out for being lazy and staying out late. Then Beth was on her own. Eventually, she was picked up for underage drinking, and sent back to Medford. But one taste of California left Beth wanting more. She drifted back.

Not associating with her father this time, she lived life on the edge of poverty. She spent her days hanging out at soda fountains, hoping to be discovered, at night she worked as a bar or "b-girl," someone employed by bars to make men stay and buy more drinks. Though she did some small-time modeling, there's no proof that she ever made it to celluloid. She lived in apartments she shared with other girls in similar situations, or when nothing else was available, she would get a cheap hotel room.

Could she feel the walls closing in? Beth fled to San Diego on December 8th, 1946. Dorothy French, who found her asleep when she was closing her theater for the night. The girl took Beth to her home in Pacific Beach, where she lived with her mother. She stayed on, irritating Dorothy's mother by not looking for work and sleeping late. One night people pounded on the door. The family didn't answer at Beth's behest. A few days later, on January 9th, she beat it back to Los Angeles, getting a ride from a traveling salesman, Robert "Red" Manley, she'd been seeing in San Diego. She met him when he spoke to her from his car while she was standing on a street corner.

He dropped her off at the Biltmore Hotel, downtown at seven pm. She claimed she was meeting her sister there and they would go up to Berkeley together. Beth hung around the bar for hours. Agitated, she made a number of phone calls. She left on foot, around 10 pm, observed by the doorman, walking down Olive, and into Los Angeles history.

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January 15th, 1947, was a cold morning in the Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Betty Bersinger took her infant son for a walk in his carriage. She was approaching the 3900 block of Norton Avenue, which was paved, but not yet built up. Grass was growing wild in the vacant lots. In the grass, Betty saw a white form -- like a mannequin, but in two halves, sprawled in the grass. She never got close enough to think it was anything other than a dummy, but something about it felt so wrong that instead of investigating, she turned heel, went to the nearest house to call the police.

There's some question as to whether the police or the reporters showed up first. However, there's no doubting the horror they found there. She was naked. She had been bisected (some would say with medical precision) and cleaned, her body laid out in a very specific and lewd manner. She had chunks of flesh missing, but they think she died from the lacerations to her face -- incisions that went from the corners of her mouth up through the cheeks.

It was chaos at 39th and Norton. The crime scene was compromised by people tramping all over it. There were also some problems due to the rivalry between two different police factions. Though taunting notes in cut up newsprint were sent to the police, directing them to Beth's purse and other belongings, the case was never solved.

They did do something right though. Morgue techs collected her and sent her fingerprints through a primitive fax machine. Because she had worked at Camp Cook, they identified her by the end of the day.

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Over fifty people have confessed to killing the Black Dahlia. All of them have been checked out by the LAPD, and they concluded that none were guilty. Even now, people have all kinds of theories as to what happened and who did it. There's more than one person who feels their father did it. A childhood friend believes Orson Welles did her in, and another writer basically wrote a novel, which has somehow become the authoritative text on the subject. One blames a doctor with a tangential relationship to Beth's sister. A curious website hashes it all out with some arcane numerology. James Ellroy wrote a mystery based on the case called The Black Dahlia, which became a crappy film.

Most of these theories make interesting reads, though they tell you more about the writer than about Elizabeth Short herself. She gets a bit lost in the shuffle. But there's no denying that she's caught the imagination of thousands over the years. Would she have felt that her long and painful death was worth it?

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Like any legend, stories have grown up around Elizabeth Short -- and not just the kind in books. They say she was a hooker, a virgin physically unable to have sex, a loose woman who was "asking for it." She had an affair with Marilyn Monroe. She worked at the Hollywood Canteen (a place where actors and actresses showed their appreciation to soldiers by serving up free pie and coffee while chatting and dancing.) None of these stories are true. But many of them sprung from the attitudes of the time.

During the war, when Beth was coming of age, women were expected to be independent, to work, support their families, to hang around in bars, drinking and entertaining soldiers. They were finding their own way in the world. She grew up in a family supported only by her mother, and spent lots of time away from home in the winters in Florida. When she had troubles living with her father, she had no compunction about leaving him and finding a job. She knew she could find her own way in the world.

In 1947, the war had been over for two years, but culturally speaking, men were having trouble getting women back into the kitchen. They wanted their jobs and authority back. The family unit needed to be reinforced and the only way to do that was for women to go home. Having a beautiful young girl preyed upon, horrendously violated because she was vulnerable in the world served a cultural need. The papers reinforced this notion as the weeks progressed, calling the killer a werewolf, drawing attention to similar crimes -- independent young women, slain. Go home ladies; get a man to protect you.

Though Elizabeth Short died, she fired the imaginations of so many that she lives on in a funny way -- as an icon, perhaps enduring longer than she would have had she lived. I don't mean to diminish of the suffering or the life of Beth Short, but when we still laud her beauty, and wonder at the circumstances of her death sixty-one years later, we have to look at the deeper meaning. Why is she so enduring? Why her and not young heiress, Georgette Bauerdorfer, who died around the same time and whose case went unsolved? Or Jeanne French, whose death was often linked to the Dahlia case? Or countless others since?

The easy answers are that Beth is very beautiful, and the press picked up an excellent nickname for the case. But it also tapped into the dark side of Hollywood, and the Hollywood dream that very few cases do. A young girl comes west, full of dreams and finds only pain and death. It's a worst case scenario -- certainly much worse than many of those that exist today, not getting into the right clubs, not having your agent do anything for you, getting fired. What happened to the Black Dahlia exists on an entirely different plane than everyday life. Yet, we all know that Los Angeles, despite its endless sunshine, its lush foliage, and friendly grin, will gut you if it gets the chance, and never look back. This is why the Black Dahlia, in her own way, belongs to each and every one of us. She embodies those dark moments where you think you might not make it out alive.