Imprint Illustration: Scott Gandell

 

I was recently interviewed by Michael Dooley for Print Magazine. Dooley is the creative director of Michael Dooley Design, and he also teaches design history at UCLA Extension, Loyola Marymount, and Art Center College of Design. The interview is in two parts, and we covered everything from my interest in historic crime to my love of vintage cosmetics ephemera.

Follow the link to part one of the interview entitled: BLACK DAHLIA MURDER: THE CRIME, THE COSMETICS, AND THE FOLKSINGER 

 

 

Photo © Joan Renner.

 

In part two of my interview with Michael Dooley of Print Magazine, I talk about my collection of vintage cosmetics ephemera, and I also discuss my personality profile of Elizabeth Short (The Black Dahlia) based upon her choice of makeup.

Follow the link to part two of the interview entitled: BLACK DAHLIA MURDER, PART 2: THE VICTIM’S MAKEUP

I’m pleased and proud to announce that a project on which I’ve been working for the past few months at the Los Angeles Police Museum has been completed and it opened to the public on Monday, March 19, 2012.

The project is an exhibit entitled ELIZABETH, and it is comprised of material used in the investigation of the most infamous unsolved homicide in Los Angeles’ history, the 1947 mutilation slaying of Elizabeth Short, The Black Dahlia.

LAPD Chief, Charlie Beck, gave the Los Angeles Police Museum unprecedented access to the files in the 65 year old Black Dahlia case; and from those files we selected artifacts that represent the depth and breadth of the investigation mounted by the LAPD six decades ago.

James Ellroy

The museum owes a debt to novelist James Ellroy, who has played a crucial role in getting previously unseen material in the Black Dahlia case to the public for this exhibit.

Being able to examine files kept by the detectives who originally investigated Elizabeth Short’s murder has been a phenomenal experience for me.  Everything I saw and read made an impression on me, but it was the scope of the initial investigation that stunned me.

We identified 329 individual officers who knocked on the doors of well over 10,000 separate addresses that were scrupulously recorded!  Failure to locate the crime scene and identify and apprehend the killer was never due to a lack of willingness on the part of the LAPD to allocate resources to the investigation. The manpower expended on the search for Short’s slayer was staggering.

View of a couple of the display cases for ELIZABETH

Among the items that we discovered in the files was an envelope filled with photographs of Elizabeth Short taken in Hollywood on a summer day in 1946, a few months before she was murdered. The photos were taken by a young man, a former soldier, she’d met while she was living in Long Beach.  Beth and the young man spent a day in Hollywood seeing the sites and taking pictures.

Earl Carroll Theatre

In one of the photos Beth is posed beneath the marquee of the Earl Carroll Theater which declared “The Most Beautiful Girls in the World”.  The young man was obviously smitten with Beth’s loveliness.  Not all of the photos taken of Beth that day in Hollywood are on display at the museum; however, what’s there is a representative sample of what we discovered.

The photos wouldn’t come to the attention of the police until 1951 when the man was busted for beating his wife. In his statement to LAPD detectives he said that he and a friend, who had also known Elizabeth Short in Long Beach, had considered coming forward immediately following the news of her murder, but they’d decided not to get involved. The man may have been guilty of spousal battery, but he was eliminated as a suspect in Short’s murder.

Suspects & Confessors

And what, you may well ask, does the murder of the Black Dahlia have to do with vintage cosmetics ephemera?

As a tour guide for the Los Angeles based company ESOTOURIC, I have created a personality profile of Elizabeth Short based upon her make-up for THE REAL BLACK DAHLIA tour.

Yes indeed, when there is a way to combine my twin passions of historic Los Angeles crime with vintage cosmetics ephemera I’m all over it!

A few years ago I was rereading some of the original newspaper coverage of Short’s murder and I was intrigued by a comment made by one of her roommates, Linda Rohr.

Linda Rohr (seated), Marian Schmidt (standing)

Linda was one of the women with whom Beth Short shared an apartment on Cherokee near Hollywood Blvd.  Rohr, a worker in the “Rouge Room” at Max Factor in Hollywood, stated that she was fascinated by the way in which Beth Short applied her make-up.

Dita Von Teese

According to Rohr, “She had pretty blue eyes but sometimes I think she overdid with make-up an inch thick.” She went on to describe Elizabeth Short’s finished look as startling and almost geisha-like.

Rohr’s description of Beth Short’s make-up caused me to wonder exactly what Beth was trying to accomplish with her look.  During the post-war era women used make-up to enhance their natural beauty, not to alter it. Women such as actress Ingrid Bergman personified the ideal of natural beauty that was so popular at the time.

Beth Short lived decades too early for a Goth look, yet her reported penchant for make-up a shade or two lighter than her natural skin tone  would give her more in common with Morticia, or Dita Von Teese, than with her contemporaries.

In my eyes the fact that Linda Rohr worked at Max Factor imbued her observations on Beth’s make-up with a degree of professional credibility – this was a woman who was familiar with current trends in cosmetics and their application.

Max Factor testing make-up

As a result of Linda’s description, I concluded that Beth was using her make-up as a mask, a way in which to keep people at arm’s length.

I don’t think that it was a conscious decision; I believe that without ever realizing it Beth created the character she would become in death, the Black Dahlia.  And I also believe that her distinctive look played a crucial role in her abduction and subsequent slaying.  I don’t mean to suggest that Elizabeth Short deserved her death, or that she brought it upon herself, only that her killer was drawn to her because she fulfilled the criteria for his (or her) perverse desires.

For more on my personality sketch of Elizabeth Short hop aboard Esotouric’s crime bus for the next THE REAL BLACK DAHLIA tour (April 14, 2012).  This particular tour is always a sell out so purchase your ticket soon!

I highly recommend that you visit the Los Angeles Police Museum to see the Black Dahlia exhibit.  The exhibit opened Monday, March 19, 2012 and will run through Saturday, June 16, 2012.

 

When I’m looking through my collection trying to decide on a subject for a post, I rely on free association.  According to Wikipedia free association is defined as:

 ”The method of free association has no linear or preplanned agenda, but works by intuitive leaps and linkages which may lead to new personal insights and meanings. “

When I picked up the Flamingo hair pin card a few days ago and flipped it over, I saw that it was dated 1947.  The first leap in my free association was to the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, which I’d thought had opened in 1947 (actually it opened in December 1946).  The next few associations I made were easy and seemed to me to be a natural progression: Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel who was responsible for building the Flamingo Hotel (and was murdered in June 1947), Virginia Hill (Siegel’s mistress, nicknamed “Flamingo”), and last I thought of Elizabeth Short (aka the “Black Dahlia”) who was found murdered in Leimert Park in January 1947.

Someone else may have thought of the lovely pink birds, but that’s just not how my mind works!

Virginia Hill was a stunner. Red haired, vivacious and headstrong, she was bound to get attention from men.  She was born in Alabama in 1916, and as a teenager she went to Chicago; however,  it’s not clear if she went there to ply her trade as a prostitute at the 1933 World’s Fair, or work there as a dancer.  In any case it was only a matter of time before she’d come to the attention of rich and powerful men looking for a little arm candy.  In Chicago in 1933 the rich and powerful men were primarily mobsters, or politicians.  She met Joseph Epstein, an associate of Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik (member of the Capone gang), and then she moved up through the mob hierarchy subsequently becoming mistress to Frank Costello, Frank Nitti, Charles Fischetti, and Joe Adonis.

Virginia testifying at Kefauver hearings.

Virginia testifying at Kefauver hearings.

“She was smart and she knew how to keep her mouth shut,” said Bea Sedway, the wife of mobster Moe Sedway.  Eventually Virginia’s smarts, and her tight lips, led her to become a courier for the mob. She’d deliver funds all over the country, and even make occasional trips to Switzerland with bags of cash for deposit in numbered bank accounts.

By 1940 Virginia had moved to Los Angeles where she met and fell for married wise guy Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel.  He would give her the nickname, “Flamingo”. The relationship between the mobster and his mistress was volatile and their fights were legendary.  But they did make a handsome couple – the gorgeous red head and the mobster with the movie star looks.

Ben Siegel

Ben Siegel

Ben had met his match in Virginia.  She couldn’t stop his womanizing, but she knew how to hold his attention in a way that his other lovers did not.  In a situation that could have come out of a Noel Coward comedy, Siegel once had three of his mistresses lodged simultaneously at the Flamingo Hotel: Virginia Hill, Wendy Barrie, and Countess DiFrasso.  Virginia couldn’t abide the Countess and when she discovered that the woman was staying at the hotel she confronted her, and nearly broke her jaw. Virginia was definitely a tough broad. But then living and consorting with mobsters wouldn’t have appealed to a dame with a weaker constitution.

When Siegel became involved in building the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas it soon became clear that he wasn’t much of a businessman.  Cost overruns were adding up at a reckless pace. The local contractors were robbing Ben, literally!  They’d heist materials from the job site, and then re-sell them to Siegel at an enormous profit.  While the contractors were stealing from Ben, Ben was stealing from the mob.

The Flamingo opened in December 1946.  The weather was horrendous, and the hotel wasn’t even finished, so crowds of celebrities weren’t beating down the doors to get in. The big opening night was a total bust. Nursing a wounded ego, and fearing that the mob’s multi-million dollar investment in the hotel wouldn’t show a profit, Ben  scurried off to Beverly Hills where he holed up in the house that Virginia rented there on 810 N. Linden Drive. 

On the night of June 20, 1947 Ben would pay the price for his mismanagement of the Flamingo Hotel deal with his life.   As  Siegel sat with his associate Allen Smiley in Virginia’s Beverly Hills home reading the  Los Angeles Times, an unknown assailant fired at him through the window with a .30-caliber military M1 carbine. He was hit several times – twice in the head. No one was charged with the murder, and the crime remains officially unsolved.

Virginia was in Paris when she received the news of Ben’s death. It’s said that she fainted dead away.  There would always be speculation about Virginia’s possible role in Ben’s assassination.  But it’s highly unlikely that Virginia would have been tipped off about the plan to rub out Siegel, and even more doubtful that she’d have left one of her brothers in his company with the knowledge that a stray bullet could make him collateral damage.  

The truth is that she and Ben had had an argument, and she stormed out in a huff and left for Paris.  Any knowledge that Virginia may have had about the killing went with her to her grave. She’d been a mob gal for way too long not to understand that her best chance for survival was to keep quiet.  In fact right after Ben’s murder she was denying everything, including being his lover: “If anyone or anything was his mistress, it was that Las Vegas hotel. I never knew Ben was involved in all that gang stuff. I can’t imagine who shot him or why,” she reportedly told the police.

In 1950, Virginia would take center stage at the Kefauver hearings.  Senator Estes Kefauver headed a senate committee that was investigating organized crime.  The hearings were even televised; introducing Mr. and Mrs. America for the first time to the Mafia.  The televised hearings were compelling, but it was Virginia’s comments in the private sessions that would raise eyebrows.

She’d spent most of her time during the public hearings denying knowledge of, or involvement in, the rackets. But privately she was much more candid. She admitted to never having worked, and told the commission that she was able to survive on the generous gifts that were given to her by some of her admirers.  Time magazine reported in its obituary of Hill on 1 April 1966, that Hill spent her time on the witness stand “boggling Senators with her full-grown curves and succinct explanation of just why men would lavish money on a hospitable girl from Bessemer, Alabama”.   

What WAS her explanation for the gifts and money she received from mob big shots?  According to Virginia it was her unparalleled skill at giving oral sex!  Although I suspect Virginia would have phrased her explanation a little differently.

Virginia would eventually settle in Europe with her third husband, a former Sun Valley ski instructor, Hans Hauser. She was trying to avoid the IRS, and probably some of her former mob acquaintances. 

By 1966 Virginia was broke, and it may have begun to occur to her to tell her story in a book or film.  In 1962 retired mob boss Charles “Lucky” Luciano had reportedly considered a film deal and was supposed to meet with a producer at the airport in Naples, Italy; however, his famous luck ran out before the deal could be made. He died of a heart attack at the airport on January 26, 1962.

Maybe a visit she’d had from her former lover, Joe Adonis, days before her death was a meant to be a reminder that people don’t tell tales about the Mafia and live. Maybe their meeting was just the two ex-lovers chatting about old times.  We’ll never know.  

In March 1966, Virginia Hill’s body was found in a snow drift in Koppl, Austria.  She’d allegedly taken an overdose of sleeping pills.

Oh, and before I forget – the last leap in my free association exercise led me to Elizabeth Short (aka the “Black Dahlia”).  Her bisected body was discovered in a vacant lot in Leimert Park on January 15, 1947.  Beth Short’s murder is arguably the most famous in Los Angeles’ history, and remains unsolved.

The reason I thought of Beth is simple, the 63rdanniversary of her murder is fast approaching; and as a tour guide for Esotouric, I’ll be a part of the “Real Black Dahlia” tour this coming Saturday, January 9th.  I’ll be reading from some of the letters that Beth carried in her suitcase, as well as giving a thumbnail personality sketch of her that I’ve developed based upon her choice of make-up.   For tour information visit Esotouric.com.

 

References:

  • 1. Time Magazine
  • 2. Los Angeles Times
  • 3. Wikipedia
  • 4. Tru TV Crime Library
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

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.

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.