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I want to express my thanks to those of you who attended my lecture last Sunday in the historic Egyptian Theater in Hollywood.  The lecture was co-hosted by the Los Angeles Art Deco Society, and American Cinematheque, and was followed by a screening (with LIVE musical accompaniment provided by pianist Robert Israel) of the 1927 film “It”, starring Clara Bow.

Here’s a clip from the film:

 

Clara sure had “It”, and her sassy bob was a major part of her appeal.

Irene Castle

Irene Castle

What about bobbed hair? Did Clara Bow create it? And if she didn’t, who did? There is evidence which suggests that Antek Cierplikowski (aka Mssr. Antoine) may have bobbed the hair of French actress Eva Lavalliere as early as 1909 — but it was dancer Irene Castle who popularized the style in 1914 when she cut her own hair in advance of elective surgery. Irene may have clipped her locks for convenience, but thousands of women were smitten by both the style and the ease of her adorable cropped ‘do and they immediately followed her lead.  Scissors were  soon flying in barbershops all over the U.S.

 

Irene Castle gave the bob its first little nudge into popular culture, but silent film star Colleen Moore brought the bob to mainstream America in the film “Flaming Youth” in 1923.  Writer  and chronicler of all things flapper,  F. Scott Fitzgerald, said: “I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth, Colleen Moore was the torch. What little things we are to have caused all that trouble.”

Colleen’s hair was styled in a sweet dutch boy crop; but there was plenty of room for different interpretations of the bob from Clara Bow’s carefree tousled hair, to Louise Brooks’ sleek black helmet.

Louise Brooks

Louise Brooks

Despite their different on- and off-screen personas, all three women epitomized the flapper in general, and the glorified the bob hairdo in particular. The bob has survived to be 100 years old is because it has readily adapted to the whims of fashion.

Bobbed hair was de riguer for flappers, and of course flappers were glorified in film, literature, poetry — all of the arts.  I believe that no single person did more to immortalize the flapper than writer F. Scott Fitzgerald.  And he didn’t just talk the talk — he and his wife Zelda led others of the “Lost Generation” on a decade long party.

Years after the flapper had taken her last illegal drink, and attended her final petting party, Fitzgerald’s short story, “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”, was brought to television by PBS.   The 1976 production starred Shelley Duval (Bernice) and Bud Cort (Warren).  In this clip Bernice asks Warren for his opinion on the hair bobbing issue.

Conversations like the one Bernice and Warren were having on the dance floor, were taking place in thousands of American homes during the 1920s.  The hair bobbing issue was a hot topic and caused broken engagements, divorce, and even the spanking of a wife by her husband!

From our vantage point it may be difficult to believe that something as simple as a haircut could cause so much controversary — we’re accustomed to choosing our personal style with virtually no constraints (and that may not always been a good thing.)

Nevertheless, whether you have long hair, or short, props must be given to the women of the 1920s who paved the way for all of the rest of us — we owe them a debt.

 

Elizabeth Short

This coming Saturday, November 14, 2009, it will once again be my pleasure to co-host Esotouric’s “The Real Black Dahlia” tour. The tour isn’t so much a “who done it” as it is an exploration of Beth’s last couple of weeks in Los Angeles.

My abiding interest in vintage cosmetics, social history, and crime led me to create a thumbnail sketch of Elizabeth Short’s personality based upon her choice of cosmetics. What was it about Beth’s make-up that set her apart from her contemporaries?  Join us on Saturday and find out.

Beth Short's mugshot

Her make-up selections may have been unusual, but in many ways Beth Short was typical of a certain group of young women characterized as the “Children of the Night” by Caroline Walker in an interview she conducted with Lynn Martin (who had been one of Beth’s roommates in Hollywood). These young women floated from man to man, and occasionally from job to job (they weren’t often employed).  They weren’t prostitutes, they were simply a part of the post-war generation who gravitated to Hollywood for reasons of their own.  Maybe they believed what they’d seen in the movies, that Hollywood was glamorous place where a pretty girl could parlay her looks into riches and fame. 

For the rootless young women in Beth’s set Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles were often desperately lonely places offering little more than dark barrooms in which to hang out and wait for a man to buy them a drink and dinner. Any of them could have ended as Beth did — dead and dismembered in a vacant lot in Leimert Park within view of the Hollywood sign.

Hollywood Boulevard

Hollywood Boulevard

 Join us on the tour and learn more about the woman at the heart of Los Angeles’ most infamous unsolved murder.

See YOU on the bus!

Beth Short

Beth Short

Beth Short (aka “The Black Dahlia”) would have been 85 years old today.

It’s difficult for me to imagine her as anything other than a lonely, melancholy, enigma of a girl trying to navigate the frequently treacherous streets of postwar Los Angeles searching for someone to take care of her. Someone to love. During the late 1940s there were countless numbers of girls like Beth who were trying to find their way to different dreams: Hollywood stardom for some, and for others a cottage with a white picket fence, a loving husband and beautiful children.

If anything, the mystery of her murder has deepened since January 15, 1947 when her body was discovered on a vacant lot in Leimert Park. Her killer has never been positively identified.  There have always been theories, ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. The truth is that we’ll never really know for certain who murdered her. But if we can’t bring her killer to justice, maybe the best we can do is to learn something of Beth’s life and by so doing, we can honor her memory.

Beth at Camp Cooke

Beth at Camp Cooke

Beth was one of thousands of young women who had flocked to Los Angeles during, and immediately following, WWII. There were good times to be had drinking and dancing with soliders, sailors and, Beth’s favorite, pilots. But the city was also a dark and dangerous place to be. Many of the former soliders returned to civilian life with demons that could not be vanquished with a bottle of beer or a spin on the dance floor with a lovely girl.

Because of my passion for vintage cosmetics and historic crime, I became interested in Beth’s makeup after reading comments made about her by one of her former roommates, Linda Rohr. Linda was 22 years old, and worked in the Rouge Room at Max Factor in Hollywood. When she was asked about Beth, Linda had said: “She had pretty blue eyes but sometimes I think she overdid with make-up an inch thick.”  Linda went on to say that the effect of Beth’s makeup was startling, that she resembled a Geisha.

Makeup in the 1940s emphasized a natural look, and it seemed from Linda’s statement that Beth was applying her makeup contrary to the latest trends — something that women in their 20s seldom did. I began to wonder; what was Beth hiding? She wasn’t concealing a physical defect, she had lovely skin and as Linda had noted, pretty blue eyes. It struck me that Beth was subconciously using makeup as a mask — a way to keep the world at arm’s length and to become the character she needed to be in order to go out and hustle for drinks, dinner, or a place to stay.

For more information and insights into Beth’s last couple of weeks in Los Angeles, including the REAL last place that she was seen alive (no, NOT the Biltmore Hotel) join me on Esotouric’s The Real Black Dahlia tour this Saturday, August 1, 2009. Kim Cooper will tell you about the news coverage of the case, especially as reported by legendary newswoman, Aggie Underwood. Richard Schave will have tales to tell, and I’ll expand upon my personality sketch of Beth. Our special guest, Marcie Morgan-Gilbert, will treat tour goers to a look at fashion from 1940s.

Esotouric is the Los Angeles based, family run, tour company that was founded by the husband and wife team Kim Cooper and Richard Schave.

Rita Hayworth in Gilda

Rita Hayworth in "Gilda"

So many noir events in November — where do we begin?

Esotouric kicked off the month with the Real Black Dahlia tour on November 1st. What’s next on the agenda?  How about The Birth of Noir: James M. Cain’s Southern California Nightmare on Saturday, November 8, 2008? Among the sites we’ll visit: Mildred Pierce’s home, Forest Lawn Memorial Park, and the Glendale Train Station.

We’re inviting everyone to dress in their favorite 1940s attire. So ladies, channel your inner Joan Crawford and slip into something with wicked huge shoulder pads. And gentlemen, this is an opportunity to become your favorite noir tough guy, so don a trenchcoat and a battered fedora (but leave your snub-nosed .38 at home, please). The tour departs from Phillippe’s The Original — be sure to order a slice of pie, won’t you? 

The Los Angeles Conservancy (for which I volunteer as a docent) is hosting a one day Noir-chitecture event on Sunday, November 9, 2008.  I’ve heard that it is sold out, so I hope that you have signed up! Each site on the self-guided tour is a gem and all have a connection to noir literature and/or film. You’ll find me at the Glendale Train Station (twice in two days — I love it!) from 12:45 to 4:00 on tour day.  The lovely old station was built in the 1920s and served as a location in the classic film noir, Double Indemnity.

I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn’t get the money… and I didn’t get the woman Walter Neff in Double Indemnity

"From the Moment they met it was Murder!"

Check out Barbara Stanwyck (left). Isn’t she the epitome of 1940s style? Her classic pageboy ‘do (which was a wig), red lipstick (doesn’t it just HAVE to be red?!) and her sunglasses! Absolutely wonderful. You can’t see it in the photograph, but Barbara wears an anklet in the film. Delicate and lovely, the chain will come to symbolize the noose which will grow tighter and tighter around the necks of the murderous lovers.

Double Indemnity, written by James M. Cain, was inspired by an infamous murder case. On March 20, 1927, housewife Ruth Snyder of Queens, New York and Nelson Gray, a corset salesman, garroted Ruth’s husband Albert, stuffed his nose with choloformed rags, then staged the scene as a burglarly gone wrong.  Snyder and Gray murdered Albert so that they could collect a nice fat insurance policy and live happily ever after.  

The couple turned out to be hopelessly inept at crime and was quickly busted for the murder. They were subsequently convicted and both were sentenced to death by electrocution.  

The crime had nothing to distinguish it — lust and greed are hardly unique motives for murder; and the case would likely have faded into obscurity if not for the efforts of innovative newspaper photographer Thomas Howard of the New York Daily News. He was a witness to Ruth’s execution and he was determined to get a scoop.

The wiley shutterbug strapped a miniature camera to his leg, and at the moment that “state electrician” Robert C. Elliott flipped the fatal switch Howard captured Ruth’s death throes for posterity.

Welcome to the dawn of modern tabloid journalism.

On January 15, 1947 the body of a young woman was discovered in a vacant lot in a suburb of Los Angeles. She would later be identified as Elizabeth Short, and dubbed the Black Dahlia.

Over the decades many people have attempted to solve the crime. Steve Hodel in his book [Black Dahlia Avenger] arrived at the conclusion that his own father was the killer! And he’s not alone. Janice Knowlton wrote a book [Daddy Was The Black Dahlia Killer] accusing HER father of the murder.  Neither book is credible. The crime has been depicted in fiction too, most notably in James Ellroy’s neo-noir novel The Black Dahlia.

So much attention has been focused on trying to solve the mystery of her killer, that surprisingly little effort has gone into unraveling the enigma of Beth herself.

Max Factor ad c. 1947

Max Factor ad c. 1947

One of the ways in which to unmask the real Elizabeth Short — who she was, and who she wanted to be — is to deconstruct the face she presented to the world.

Murder and pancake makeup. What’s the connection? 

Join us on the Esotouric crime bus on Saturday, November 1, 2008  and find out. 

I dare you.

 

 

The streets were dark with something more than night.
Raymond Chandler

Deadly dames, snub nosed revolvers and gin gimlets — have I died and gone to noir heaven? No!  I’ve just climbed aboard the Esotouric bus for In A Lonely Place: Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles.  Please join us this Saturday, October 11, 2008 as we explore the mean streets of Chandler’s LA. It’s also a swell chance to visit the venerable Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena (the tour will depart from there).

Details at Esotouric.

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