Tuesday, January 15, 2008
The Black Dahlia
I have a theory about certain murder cases. When a crime goes unsolved for years and years...the Black Dahlia, Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac...it somehow allows us to see into a period in history more than any other cultural phenomenon or byproduct could. For me, there is something about an unsolved murder case that serves as a window in time. By keeping the momentum of the crime going, via the evidence, photos, and narratives of those who were there, the era becomes frozen, available, alive. This tangible link, coupled with the continued interest in the event on the part of writers and readers and researchers, keeps the crime alive, and I believe it keeps the historical era alive as well. It's as if the idea of "open" in an unsolved murder case carries over into the world itself, creating an opening in time.
When I look at the crime scene photos taken in Mary Kelly's tiny hovel of a room, or the pictures of the hotel where Elizabeth Short was last seen alive, or even reading an account of Catherine Eddowes' last night on earth, the people and places I see and read about remain alive in some way. It's as if in order to understand what happened, contemporary readers need to actually go 'back there' and see when and where it happened. When I read about the Ripper crimes, I experience Victorian London as if it were still there physically, much more so than I would if I simply read an account of life during Queen Victoria's reign. When I look at photos of the neighborhood where Beth Short's severed body was found, Los Angeles of the 1940's looks back at me, real, alive, tangible.
Today marks the 61st anniversary of the discovery of the body of Elizabeth Short, better known as the Black Dahlia. If you don't know the case, there is a good overview here. Beth/Betty/the Dahlia lived a life that, like most, was mostly hidden from those who knew her. Part of the intrigue of the crime is trying to piece together her Hollywood self (and I honestly didn't intend the pun at all...) based on testimony given by those who knew her. She moved to LA from Medford, Massachusetts, partly to find the father that deserted her family when she was a child, partly to find a new start, and probably, partly out of sheer boredom with small town life during World War II. But what she did during that time is shadowy and speculative, especially the last few years.
Her life of moving from place to place, occasionally returning to Massachusetts before setting off again for a new destination, suggests a dissatisfied woman, but was she really miserable, or is this just conjecture? Who knows what Beth Short really thought of her life. She is painted as a Hollywood wannabe, a prostitute, a tease...but what do we really know about her? She was just a person like any one of us, looking for her life and more than likely, not finding it.
In any event, one night in January of 1947 she met up with evil. She was found six days later, her body cut in half, drained of blood and washed clean, in a vacant lot in a middle class neighborhood. She was last seen at a hotel where she told the sometime boyfriend who drove her there in his car that she was going to meet her sister. She got out of his car and walked into six days of hell, torture and eventual death, a time about which no one knows much of anything.
So Betty Short goes down in history, another woman we feel like we knew, but we didn't know at all. Another woman with secrets to tell, secrets of a mundanely mysterious life and a horrible death, secrets we will never know. Another woman wanting fame during her life, yet only finding it in the brutal mystery surrounding her death. Elizabeth Short, rest in peace.