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.

 

  

As soon as I saw the roadster (a  Duesenberg?)  in the illustration on the hair net package,  I knew that the  jaunty young lady at the wheel had to be the world renowned girl detective Nancy Drew.   

When you were a child did you ever want to be Nancy Drew?  I did.  And all these years later I’m still so captivated by the idea of being a gal gumshoe, a dame detective, a she shamus, that I give crime tours with the LA-based company Esotouric on most weekends.  But even the tours aren’t enough to satisfy my longing be a PI, cop, or a stylish and witty helpmate, like Myrna Loy in the Thin Man films.   

Just because I never became a private investigator or cop (I like to believe that I DID become a stylish and witty helpmate) that doesn’t mean that I can’t pursue my crime busting dreams.   I’ve discovered a few ways in which to get my crime  fix – the aforementioned tours, and I volunteer at the Los Angeles Police Historical Society (LAPHS).   

Diana Rigg as Mrs. Peel

The historical society has a fantastic museum which is housed in an old police station. I spend my time there organizing and digitizing a collection of Daily Bulletins, and Juvenile Reports.  The Bulletins began in 1907 and were distributed to each officer, every day (with the exception of Sundays and holidays). The Bulletins provide a daily snapshot of life in the growing city of Los Angeles, as reflected in the criminal behavior of its citizens. 

Nancy Drew did her sleuthing in River Heights, not in Los Angeles, and she began her amateur detecting as a 16 year old in 1930. The early books depict Nancy as a very modern girl — just as she should have been in the years following WWI.  She had a litany of accomplishments including: dancer, driver, cook, car mechanic, swimmer, seamstress, painter — and she was fluent in French!  If she’d had a leather cat suit, I’m sure she could have given Mrs. Emma Peel (of the  1960s series The Avengers) a run for her money.  

Mildred in mid-dive c. 1925

The woman who ghosted the Nancy Drew books for the Stratemeyer Syndicate from 1929 to 1953 was Iowan, Mildred Wirt Benson.  Mildred was nearly as accomplished as Nancy. At the University of Iowa she participated in swimming, soccer, and was a student journalist.  Following graduation  she worked as a general reporter for the The Clinton (Iowa) Herald.  

Mildred was only 21 when, in 1926, she answered an ad placed by the Stratemeyer Syndicate for ghost writers. Her first assignment resulted in the novel, Ruth Fielding and Her Great Scenario.   

Mildred appears to have remained as feisty as Nancy Drew ever was, because she began to take flying lessons at age 59.  I’m glad to report that Mildred lived a long life – she passed away in 2002 at the age of 96.  

Nancy Drew has gone on to have a long and eventful life too. There were some terrific films in the 1940s featuring Bonita Granville as Nancy, and more recently (2007) Emma Roberts played the girl sleuth. In 2002 the first Nancy Drew book, The Mystery of the Old Clock, sold over 150,000 copies!

  

 Oh, and if you think that Nancy Drew was a pre-feminist bimbo who couldn’t possibly have had an impact on intelligent and strong women, think again. Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton cites her as an early influence, and so do Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Sonia Sotomayor.  

For more information on Mildred Wirt Benson visit the University of Iowa Digital Library.