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.

Before I began to collect face powder boxes and other beauty ephemera, I collected compacts and vanity cases. I was recently poking around in the historic Los Angeles Times (from September 20, 1926) and I found a story about a young woman who used her vanity case to hold something other than a lipstick, so I thought I’d share it here. 

 

Twenty-four year old Gene Anderson was a lingerie designer , so she she took a particular interest in current fashion, and she loved to wear expensive clothes.  But Gene was in the same predicament as many young women were in the 1920s; she was employed but not very well compensated. The average man earned about $1313 per year (approximately $16,276 current USD) and the average woman made about half that amount.

 

The Myer Siegel & Company advertisement shows a dress that would have appealed to Gene; but it cost a small fortune! The $25.00 frock would be $304.65 in today’s dollars! Gene realized that if she was going to indulge her passion for high fashion, she needed to devise a plan to get her hands on some additional funds.  Finally she hatched what she thought was the perfect solution; she’d write rubber checks all over town.

 

As you may imagine, Gene’s plan was rather short-sighted; and after writing thirty-two bad checks (totaling over $1000!) the law caught up with her. Feigning illness, Gene was able to slip away from the officer who had taken her into custody and leap from the window of her Bixel Avenue apartment.  The slightly injured woman was discovered later in a local hospital, where she was once again arrested.

 

Upon being searched by a matron at the County Jail, it was discovered that Gene was packing a loaded revolver in her vanity bag!  Vanity bags were what modern handbags have become, a home away from home containing everything necessary for spending a day or evening out.  

 

Gene tried to talk her way out of the gun charge to no avail. She finally said “I want to go to San Quentin and get it over with”. She had reason to regret her statement. Her application for probation was denied and she was sentenced to from two to twenty-eight years in prison.  She served fifteen months of her sentence and was released in January 1928.

Years before she became known as the quintessential 1950s daffy housewife, Lucille Ball was the queen of the B movies. It’s no wonder — she was talented and stunning. The above appeared in the Los Angeles Times on August 9, 1942. Lucy was doing what so many other stars would do, lending her name in support of the home front mandate to conserve.