Friday, February 10, 2006
THE BLACK DAHLIA FILES
The Mob, the Mogul, and the Murder That Transfixed Los Angeles
By Donald H. Wolfe
HarperCollins. 402 pp. $26.95
Donald H. Wolfe lives in a strange, convoluted and very small world. He's finally found out, he says, who murdered "the Black Dahlia," as the tabloids called the aspiring movie star found dead, naked and bisected, in a vacant lot in Los Angeles back in 1946. It's been on his mind since he was in his mid-teens. His family, including his grandma, lived just across an alley from the gangster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel in Beverly Hills at that time, and his grandma's garrulous boyfriend did odd jobs for him. It was a shock to everyone, of course, when Bugsy was rubbed out in 1947, but this elderly boyfriend also had been very upset when Elizabeth Short, aka the Black Dahlia, was killed horribly several months earlier. Could there have been a connection? That's Wolfe's starting point.
Still, one has to ask: Has too much time gone by for this sort of thing? Are people beginning to forget that Bugsy Siegel, for all his murderous habits, was also "the father of Las Vegas" who built the Flamingo hotel and casino, or that he was shot soon after its opening while peacefully reading the newspaper in his living room? Is there a new generation coming up who may not remember Short as the unfortunate woman who was not only murdered but also cut in half, disemboweled and left with her mouth cut in a hideous smile from ear to ear? All of this happened in the 1940s; some of it should be fading from public memory. It was just one murder in our violence-ridden world, committed 60 years ago.
But oh! How there are people who still prize this kind of material. Names like Charles "Lucky" Luciano make their hearts beat faster. In fact, anybody with a colorful middle name and a pistol-whipping habit turns them straight to jelly. And the Black Dahlia! My God! When you think of all the women murdered and whipped and insulted and locked up and bonked on the head and abandoned -- it's simply astonishing that the mere mention of this little butchered lady still transfixes a certain section of the American population. Like longing to listen to a beloved fairy story, they yearn to learn all over again how she was bisected by a trained surgeon, how she had used paraffin to patch up her bad teeth, how her perfume was strong and cheap, how she was drained of all her blood.
Let's leave out Bugsy until later. (Although you see it coming a mile away in this crummy book: Bugsy was the Black Dahlia killer! It's like saying the butler did it.) Of course, lots of people like gangsters; think of "The Godfather" or "The Sopranos." But lots more get -- let's just say it -- aroused by the death of a helpless, tortured, underclass chippy, B-movie girl and probable sometime whore. So many authors have written beautifully or horribly about this almost anonymous kid. Two marvelous novelists, John Gregory Dunne ("True Confessions") and James Ellroy ("The Black Dahlia"), put the full weight of their imaginations to bear on her and made works of art from her sad death.
But besides these two thoughtful novels, we have account after account by obsessed crackpots with fifth-rate minds who feel compelled to construct narratives that concur with their own crazy fantasies, often fingering a family member as the Dahlia killer. (What nice home lives those writers must have had!) Now here's another addition to this creepy bibliography from Wolfe, who just loves these dead ladies (he's already written a book titled "The Assassination of Marilyn Monroe"). He says he has obtained access to previously hidden files and has come up with something like this:
Elizabeth, Wolfe writes, was pregnant by Norman Chandler -- the Norman Chandler, then the publisher of the Los Angeles Times. So, naturally, Chandler prevailed upon his pal Bugsy to kill Elizabeth right around the same time that someone else was giving her an abortion. Bugsy -- who, according to Wolfe, was an accomplished murderer in his own right -- required the assistance of three other men, as well as the abortionist, to commit the Black Dahlia murder and dispose of Short's body.
My favorite part (unfortunately not included in the text, perhaps because Wolfe doesn't have proof of any of this) is the bit where Chandler, probably wearing a silk smoking jacket, phones up the notorious gangland figure and purrs, "Bugsy, I mean Benny, there's a little matter I need you to take care of." And what would Siegel say? "Of course, Mr. Chandler. I've always preferred the cadenced prose of the Times to the overwrought tropes of the Examiner! It's a pleasure to be of service!"
This is a book where the words "fashionable," "notorious" and "procurer" occur again and again and where girls flock together in bevies, as in a "bevy of chorines." (You don't see too many of them around, nowadays.)