On January 15, 1947, a housewife walking with her three-year-old daughter on a routine errand to the cobbler was met with a horrific sight. A bloodless, pale body was dumped face-up, inches from the sidewalk, on an abandoned lot in a Los Angeles residential neighborhood. The body was severed in half, shockingly nude, with the legs splayed out and the intestines tucked beneath the buttocks. Ghastly, three-inch long gashes extended the mouth into a gruesome smile. It was so unreal that the woman who spotted the body first thought that it was a discarded broken mannequin.
The mutilated corpse was the body of 22 year old Elizabeth Short, known to the world as the Black Dahlia. Her murder was never solved and remains one of the most enduring mysteries in the history of Los Angeles crime. It’s unclear whether the nickname the Black Dahlia, inspired by a recent noir film called The Blue Dahlia, was a name she carried in life or one invented by the press.
When I was planning my recent weekend trip to San Francisco, it was important to me to pay tribute to the tragic heroine of noir. The story, mythologized though it is, strikes a chord with me. Like Elizabeth, I came out to Los Angeles at a young age chasing dreams, stardust and excitement. While she was vivacious and social, Elizabeth did not really have any close friends and I tend to follow a similar pattern. Following her death she was smeared with allegations of promiscuity and wanton behavior which people believed led to her downfall. I benefit from the great strides women made in the second half of the twentieth century to become more independent, but there are still plenty of people who don’t approve of my lifestyle. I see us as kindred spirits and mourn her abbreviated life.
Elizabeth is buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California. My friend, rock and roll artist and photographer, John Charles, was kind enough to accompany me. The cemetery is sprawling, green and tranquil. It was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the landscape architect of New York City’s Central Park and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (you may remember him from my favorite book, Devil in the White City by Erik Larson).
Elizabeth’s headstone is a modest pink and grey marble plaque, nestled on a hillside amongst other similarly simple tributes. John and I spent several minutes looking for it. It seems wrong to me. It’s too sedate for the adventurous, glamour girl who dreamed of becoming a movie star. So many mysteries and secrets are concealed beneath this stone.
After spending a few minutes at the grave, we decided to explore some more of the beautiful cemetery.
A huge thank you to John Charles for taking me out to the cemetery! If you want to learn more about the Black Dahlia case, I recommend Larry Harnisch’s website introduction (though it’s a little hard to read because something with the formatting is weird and there are question marks scattered throughout the text). If you blindly google Elizabeth Short or Black Dahlia, you’re going to get all sorts of misinformation so tread carefully and consider the sources.