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.

 

Los Angeles has always had more than its share of creative felons, so it stands to reason that it would take an equally creative, gutsy, and dedicated reporter to cover them.  One of the most revered reporters who ever worked in Los Angeles was Agness “Aggie” Underwood.

Aggie Underwood interviewing mourner at funeral of Aimee Semple McPherson

Underwood began her career at the LOS ANGELES RECORD in the 1920s. She was sharp, but there were lots of sharp people in the news business at that time.  What made Aggie great were her instincts.  She seemed to know just how to approach a story to get the most from it.  By relying on her gut feelings she managed to keep several paces ahead of her competition, and to earn a reputation for solving crimes. 

When the Los Angeles Record folded in the mid-1930s Aggie, who by this time loved the newspaper business (and needed the money), agreed to work for William Randolph Hearst’s Los Angeles daily, THE HERALD-EXAMINER.

Her decision to join Hearst’s paper was the making of her career.  Twelve years after joining the paper she was promoted to editor. Agness Underwood was the first woman in the U.S. to become the editor of a major metropolitan newspaper.

Aggie Underwood’s work as a reporter inspired the lecture that I’m going to give on October 8, 2011, 2 p.m., in the Taper Auditorium at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles.

The lecture is entitled “GOLD DIGGERS & SNAKE HANDLERS: Deranged L.A. Crimes from the Notebook of Aggie Underwood” and it is sponsored by Photo Friends.  Photo Friends is a non-profit whose mission is to promote and to preserve the photographs in the collection of the Los Angeles Public Library. 

 I hope that you’ll join me as I examine two murder cases from 1936, both of which were covered by Aggie Underwood.

 

I’ve been on a lipstick kick for days now. The wicked little cosmetic can end a marriage. A tube of lipstick can bring about the meeting of two people who ultimately commit murder (as in the classic film noir “The Postman Always Rings Twice”).

With lipstick so much on my mind, how could I have forgotten this gem of a song performed in 1959 by Connie Francis?

Lipstick on your collar – gonna tell on you.

 

Lipstick is a wonderfully versatile cosmetic.  For many women it is the one beauty item they’d take with them if stranded on a desert island. I know that it would be my choice.

William Heirens

But, as we’ve seen over the past couple of posts, lipstick can be a trouble maker. It casts a spell on some men which lures them into liaisons with women other than their wives. It leaves tell-tale traces on clothing and skin, and lingers provocatively on cigarettes smoldering in an ashtray, or imprinted on a cocktail glass – so much power in such a little tube.  Is it possible that lipstick may drive men’s passions with a force so great that it may culminate in murder?

Take the 1946 case of William Heirens. It was alleged that between June 1945 and January 1946 the 17 year old had murdered two women, and murdered and dismembered a little girl. At the scene of the second murder, that of Frances Brown a former U.S. Navy WAV, there was message  from the killer scrawled in the victim’s lipstick. 

The Chicago press dubbed the fiend “The Lipstick Killer”, and residents of the city spent several nerve jangling months until William Heirens was arrested and they breathed a collective sigh of relief.

But did Heirens commit the murders, or was the teenager coerced into confessing by hard nosed Chicago cops desperate to make an arrest?

Sixty-four years later Bill Heirens is still alive, and still in prison.  At 81 years of age he is considered to be the longest serving prisoner in Illinois state history, and it seems that he may die there.  Death in an Illinois prison would be justice if he is guilty, but if he is innocent…

There have been many other crimes in which lipstick was used to scrawl a message on a nearby surface, or even on the body of the victim.  It doesn’t matter what words are used, or if the message consists only of cryptic symbols – there is something about the act of using lipstick that makes a compelling and strangely intimate statement.

My favorite lipstick as a portent of evil  moment comes in a scene from the 1946 film noir “The Postman Always Rings Twice” .  Frank (John Garfield) has just arrived at a small cafe. He’s a drifter and is considering responding to the “Man Wanted” sign outside when he’s greeted by the cafe’s owner, Nick (Cecil Kellaway), and urged to come in for a burger. Nick tosses a burger on the grill behind the counter, but is called away for a minute to pump gas at the station outside.

As Frank waits at the counter he hears something drop to the floor, and observes a tube of lipstick rolling toward him. As he stoops to pick it up he notices white open-toed pumps at the ends of two extremely shapely legs.  The dame wearing the pumps is also wearing white shorts, a white cropped top, and is a blonde. The blonde  is holding a compact and powdering her nose.  Frank has just met Nick’s young wife Cora (Lana Turner).  The tension between the two  is palpable.  Their eyes meet and they immediately engage in a power play.  It’s obvious from Cora’s demeanor that she is a woman who is accustomed to getting the attention of men, and having them do her bidding. She waits for Frank to bring her lipstick to her, but he doesn’t budge. Which of them will acquiesce to the other?

As you’ve seen, Cora finally gives in.  But that’s just in the short run – in the long run the breathtaking blonde convinces the drifter to commit murder. It is a perfect noir moment, made all the better in my book because a tube of lipstick is the catalyst.

A  lipstick tube introduced Frank and Cora, and it comes full circle with Cora’s death – just as Cora is promising Frank that they’ll share many kisses that “come from life”.

Ladies, when you apply your lipstick the next time  you may wish to pause and to reflect upon the power implicit in such a simple act.

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.

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.

 

Because of my interest in Los Angeles history, crime, vintage clothing, and cosmetics history, I rushed out to see The Changeling last weekend. As a result, I decided to feature the Elite hair net package from my collection. The woman  on the envelope is from the same era (c. 1928) as depicted in the film, and the hairstyle resembles that worn by Angelina Jolie who stars in the movie.
  
The story that inspired the The Changeling is even more compelling and repellent than the story told by the film. Compelling because it is based upon an actual case from Los Angeles in the 1920s. Repellent because of the nature of the crimes (the kidnapping, molestation, and murder of young boys), and also because of the criminal — a sociopath by the name of Gordon Stewart Northcott. (Warning — spoilers for the film to follow.)
Walter Collins

Walter Collins

 
On March 10, 1928 Walter Collins, aged nine, vanished from his home at 217 North Avenue 23 in Lincoln Heights, CA. By August, Los Angeles police claimed to have located Walter in De Kalb, Illinois. The boy was returned to Los Angeles, but as soon Christine Collins, Walter’s mom, clapped eyes on the boy she knew that he was an imposter.
 
Corruption was rife in Los Angeles at the time and some members of the LAPD, as well as local politicians, were involved in bootlegging, gambling, and prostitution. The police department couldn’t bear further scrutiny or negative press, and they were anxious to have a public relations win. Returning the Collins boy to his mother was just what they needed. The difficulty that they couldn’t overcome was that the boy that they brought back to Los Angeles to be reunited with Christine was not Walter!
Arthur Hutchins, Jr.

Arthur Hutchins, Jr.

Christine resisted, but was finally convinced by LAPD Captain J.J. Jones to take the boy home with her. No amount of wishing, or coercion by Jones, would make the faux Walter morph into the genuine article. Christine kicked up a fuss and was summarily committed by Captain Jones to a local psych ward. It took about 10 days to pry the truth out of the devious counterfeit Walter.

After giving authorities at least two more aliases, the boy finally admitted that he was Arthur Hutchins, Jr. from Marion, Iowa and that he’d pretended to be Walter Collins to get a free trip to Los Angeles. It seems that young Arthur was a big fan of cowboy films — particularly Tom Mix.
 
Meanwhile, out in Wineville, CA (now Mira Loma) the depraved and profoundly evil Gordon Northcott was molesting, torturing and murdering young boys. One of whom was probably Walter Collins.
Gordon Stewart Northcott

Gordon Stewart Northcott

 
Then in a deus ex machina worthy of a Greek tragedy, a Canadian cousin of Northcott’s, Sanford Clark (aged 15) entered the drama. He’d been gone from his home for two years when he was arrested at the Wineville ranch as an illegal alien and held for deportation.  While in custody the young man broke down and told police a story so heinous that it was difficult for them to believe him. He said that Gordon Northcott had forced him to assist in the kidnapping and murder of several young boys.
 
Murder chicken coop

Murder chicken coop

Even as newspaper headlines screamed “Murder Farm” from the newsstands, Gordon and his mother fled to Canada to avoid prosecution. They could run, but they couldn’t escape the long arm of the law. The two were soon located and returned to California to stand trial.

 
In a noir twist echoed decades later in the Roman Polanski film Chinatown (“she’s my sister, she’s my daughter”) during his trial Gordon would learn that his mother was in fact his grandmother, and that he was the result of an incestuous relationship between his sister and his father.
 
Gordon was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. His mother/grandmother (who had initially confessed to killing Walter Collins, then recanted) was sentenced to life in prison, but she was paroled after serving only 12 years.
 
I loved being able to identify some of the buildings used in the film, and found the interior sets to be  faithful to the era. 
Angelina Jolie as Christine Collins

Angelina Jolie as Christine Collins

Angelina Jolie’s wardrobe in the film was gorgeous, and the credit goes to costume designer Deborah Hopper who has worked with director Clint Eastwood for over 20 years. According to Wikipedia, Hopper had to find 1920s style clothing for approximately 1000 people! Archive media featuring the real Christine Collins was used to create Angelina’s authentically styled wardrobe (note the cloche hat and the coat with the fur collar).  Jolie’s makeup was also correct for the time; but as you can see in the photo the real Christine wore few, if any, cosmetics.

One thing I noticed was that Angelina’s shoes are almost certainly reproductions made by an LA-based company called Remix Vintage Shoes.  Check out their site and see if you agree.
Christine Collins

Christine Collins

 
In the film, as in life, Christine Collins never stopped believing that Walter was alive. She pinned her hopes in part on Northcott’s cynical and cruel manipulations.  From death row he continued to taunt and torment the parents of the victims by sometimes accepting responsility for the killings, and then later insisting that he’d had nothing to do with the slaughter at the ranch. Remains found at the chicken ranch in Wineville could not be positively identified as Walter’s, and this too kept Christine’s hope alive. Her dream of a reunion with her son must have been rekindled when a boy believed to have been murdered by Northcott turned up several years later alive and well.
 
Sadly, Christine never saw Walter again in this life and she eventually disappeared from public view. The last mention of her that I could find was on January 21, 1941 in the Los Angeles Times.  The newspaper reported that she had renewed a suit for damages against Captain J.J. Jones, the cop who’d had her committed to the psych ward when she refused to accept Arthur Hutchins, Jr. as her son.
 

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.