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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

PERSONAL NOTE: My Year with Bettie

Now that the crazy mayhem of the Halloween Holiday has passed, I am more than ready to rest, recuperate, and enjoy the general gluttonous merriment that is certain to come as Thanksgiving approaches- a much more restful holiday. This past year has been a hectic one for me, and in many ways an eerie one. Twelve months worth of research and grave-hunting has caused me to unearth some, at times, unsettling facts, and I have had more than one spooky experience to make me wonder whether or not I have tarried too long with the ghosts of the past. At these odd moments, when I stumble upon something or someone in the crumbling facade of Hollywood that leaves me- for lack of a better word- uneasy, I fear that these phantoms have followed me into the present. It is a burden that is sometimes difficult to shake off.

When it comes to my research, I feel as though I am guided by a force greater than myself. Almost every time I choose a subject, some odd occurrence or stroke of luck leads me to a happy coincidence that would have completely passed me by had I not ventured down this particular path at this particular moment. These moments of chance, as it were, are often uplifting: me researching Errol Flynn, only to randomly discover that a personal friend of his is giving a lecture on his life that night, (a mere stone's throw away at the Hollywood Heritage Museum); me researching the current month's muse Mr. Chaney, only to discover that his famous makeup bag is on display to the public for a limited time, when it is normally tucked away collecting dust (rubbish). But there are times, when certain situations occur that strike me the wrong way, or rather in asking questions, I get more in answer than I bargained for. I am thence guided still by a force, but it is leading me to darker truths instead of lighter fare.

So it was with my investigation of Elizabeth Short (above): an adventure that culminated this October 31, 2009, when I kept a promise to dress up as her for Halloween. My relationship with her, if I can call it that, is strong, perplexing, and other-worldly. It crept up on me out of nowhere and has stayed with me for 12 months. Perhaps now I can finally put her to rest... though it is hard to imagine a sad soul such as hers ever finding true peace. As a bit of post-Halloween spookiness, here is an account of my experiences with her for the past year:


The exact year that I became aware of the shocking tale of the "Black Dahlia" escapes me. I do know that it was in the 6th grade that my fascination with cinema began to take hold. Alfred Hitchcock led to Cary Grant, who led to Katharine Hepburn, who led to etc. etc. etc. So, I can logically assume that it was sometime in my early junior high-school years that I came to know "Bettie." I asked for the book Severed for Christmas, which probably would have concerned any parents other than my own, who fostered all of their children's curiosities, mundane or macabre as they may have been. I read John Gilmore's tragic reconstruction of Bettie's life and death, shed a tear for her, and put the book away. Armed with a little more knowledge, I let the Sleeping Beauty lie, and went on to my next topic of interest, which I'm sure was a more uplifting one.

I did not seriously think of Bettie again for several years, other than a random cursory thought that flitted in and out of my mind. Even watching De Palma's film, The Black Dahlia, did not incite in me anything more than irritation that Hollywood could have gotten one of its most infamous daughters so completely and utterly wrong. (If you haven't seen the movie, DO NOT waste your time. It does no justice to that poor girl or the way she died).

Then one morning, in November of 2008, I woke up to a normal day, with the afternoon sun pouring through my window (must have been a weekend), and Elizabeth was on my mind. I did not know where she came from, nor why all of a sudden she was so present in my thoughts, but there she was: Elizabeth Short, Elizabeth Short, Elizabeth Short... beating like a mantra in my head. I tried to shrug it off at first as an attack of randomness, but later I decided to pursue her strange re-emergence. It began simply enough. I flipped through the old Gilmore book, still aghast at the horrendous photos of what was done to this beautiful, young girl. Then I got on the internet, looked up the ever accumulating theories surrounding her macabre murder, and later found a site with photographs of the location where her body was found over 60 years ago.

Then, a light-bulb went off! Now living in California, I could add the gruesome site to one of my weekend jaunts! I typically find time to go scavenging about town, looking for former homes of the stars, important landmarks, graves, etc. So, adding this to the agenda, I drove out to 39th and Norton in East Los Angeles, and found myself in an average neighborhood tucked behind Crenshaw Blvd. All of the houses were one level, bearing little ornamentation; the dry grass was cut almost identically the same short length all down the road. Then, I pulled up to 3925 Norton (below), the address that was identified as being closest to where Elizabeth was found in pieces on the morning of January 15, 1947. I got out of the car, took some photos, and stood for a second. For some reason I felt disappointed. I don't know what I expected to find, or see, or feel, but it was not there. So, I tucked my camera back in my pocket, and drove away with an awkward feeling on my shoulders.

This little bit of investigation still did nothing to quell the overwhelming feeling of unease and anxiety that was taking hold. Something was wrong. I felt, as strange as it sounds, that Bettie was trying to talk to me or that she wanted me to "find" her. So, I went to the book store, bought every thing I could find on the Dahlia case, and got to work with my investigation.

For the next month, I delved into the mystery, the theories, the cover-ups, the scandal, the sadness, and most importantly the gruesome death. I was appalled. I now felt that the reason I was so urgently looking for answers was because the explanation I had accepted before as a youngster was not the whole truth, but merely the tip of the iceberg. The book I found that most closely captured the spirit of the media mayhem and the sorrow of the departed, and the book that for me produced the best theory of Elizabeth's death, was the immaculately researched, sympathetic, and intelligent-- The Black Dahlia Files: The Mob, The Mogul, and The Murder That Transfixed Los Angeles by Donald H. Wolfe. In it, Wolfe postulates that Bettie was done away with to protect the image of Norman Chandler, (heir to the family fortune and distinguished owner of the Los Angeles Times), who had gotten her pregnant. He called in a favor to a few cronies, Bugsy Siegel among them, and ordered her killed. Of course, the humiliating and torturous fashion by which she was "done away with" was not part of the plan, but then Bugsy and his retinue were not the most honorable of characters. (For a more descriptive explanation of the case as well as Beth's life and death, visit my Elizabeth Short Bio ). 

All of the information about Bugsy's (right) involvement also unearthed a memory from the not-so-distant past. As I mentioned, I am somewhat of a grave-hunter, and the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Santa Monica Blvd. is thus a goldmine where my scavenging is concerned. I have spent many a day there, going down my list of the interred, and paying my respects to Rudolph Valentino, Tyrone Powers, Marion Davies, etc. After I had searched every nook and cranny, and broken into every shady corner, there was but one "stone" left unturned: Bugsy Siegel. I wasn't too interested in him, as he is not directly linked to film and is more notorious than celebrated. But, since I had reached the end of my quest, I figured "Why not?"

I walked back into the Beth Olam Mausoleum, which lines the south side of the cemetery, and walked toward Bugsy's grave (above). As I approached, a sickening feeling took over. I felt uneasy... "icky," if you will. I stood in front of his marker: "Benjamin Siegel," and for some reason did not want to take a picture. I didn't like it, standing there. I believe my exact reaction was: "Blech." At the time, I had no knowledge of Bugsy, or his violent crimes against men. All I knew of gangsters was what the movies had taught me: they were sexy bad-asses with tommy guns. Feeling foolish, and assuming I was merely spooked by the claustrophobic graves surrounding me, I snapped a quick shot and booked it out of the mausoleum. 

Looking back, I now see that I was having a reaction to Bugsy himself, not his grave. I had felt the presence of a man who was malicious, twisted, and demented. I disliked him, sensed his evil before I knew of the dark nature of his soul. Warren Beatty got it all wrong in his Bugsy, a film that sugar-coated one of the most Devilish human beings who ever lived; humanized what cannot be humanized. My unease those months ago was confusing, but as I read about Bettie's death, they became warrented. It truly sickens me that Bugsy is glamorized today, and receives a kind of hero worship when in reality he was just... well... "Blech!"

Anyway, jumping back to November of '08: having just read about the brutal nature of Bettie's death and the ensuing cover-up, I was enraged! I was angry, fuming, confused, scared... The world around me seemed to change. I had lived a naive life, blessed with the ignorance of a secure childhood, a safe home, and maybe just blind luck. I thought the Good would be protected, the Dirty punished... but No. There was no karma, there was no God, so deep went my frustration and empathy for Bettie and what she had endured. I felt like lashing out, but where, and how?!?! I hopped online again to do some fishing, for something was needling me. I looked up again the location where her body was found, and this time saw my error: the correct address was 3825 Norton, for it was closer to the fire hydrant by which her body was discovered. Arming myself with my camera and canning my nerves, I drove back to the nook behind Crenshaw to see "the spot" (below).

This time, things were different. Perhaps just fueled by the emotions I was experiencing from my research and all the new information I had come across, I stood at the lonely patch of grass and felt an overwhelming sense of despair land on me like a weight. I could barely lift my hands to take a photo. Here Bettie was found ripped in half. I knew it. This was it. I could see it, just as Betsy Bersinger had seen the gruesome sight when she had been out walking her baby on that January morning. I saw the pale, mangled body in the weeds, the face sliced into a brutal, ironic smile, the bloodless mannequin that used to be a living body. I became numb. My fury left, and all that remained was pity, sorrow...

I got into my car, put my hands on the wheel and looked up. There, up in the hills, guarding the golden city, was the Hollywood sign. The same sign (minus the -land) that once had filled Bettie's heart with hope and joy; the symbol of the fame she was sure to achieve, but that she only found in death. The same letters that inspired her to come out to California from Massachusetts had watched coldly from the hills as two men unloaded her bit by bit into the grass like she was garbage. My heart sank; I clutched the wheel as the realization of the great ugliness that had been done hit me. I wept. I wept, and wept, and wept, unable to control myself, as if possessed by Bettie's own sadness. Finally, mustering my strength and realizing the scene I was making before all of the Norton neighbors, I turned the ignition and drove on. But in my mind and in my heart, I could feel Bettie with me, as if she were sitting in the back seat, while I drove us away.

Things shifted after this. My desire to "get to the bottom of things" was still present, but not as intense. Not as manic. I more and more seemed to sink into a deep depression. I felt that the things I had learned had altered me, and I wasn't certain that I would ever be the same again. Even around friends I wondered, "Could they see the change in me? Was my sadness and confusion apparent?" I tried to keep it under wraps, but social outings had become cumbersome and exhausting. Life was not fun, and when it was I felt guilty in the enjoyment of it. Why should I have happiness when Bettie had suffered such torture? Why should I live a spotless life when she had had hers ripped away?

One day, I received word from my manager that I had an audition- a little independent number, scheduled for sometime later that night. While at work, I put the address into Google and printed out directions. Early that evening, I grabbed some dinner to kill time before I made the trek out to downtown L.A, and as I ate I finished reading the last pages of Wolfe's book. In it, he stated that he had discovered the location where Elizabeth was actually murdered- a bungalow, owned by the police protected Brenda Allen, a "Madame," and loaned to Chandler and Siegel for the deed. The address was 835 Catalina Street. Reading the closing remarks, I closed the book and felt a relief. It was over. The journey I had been on was finished. I knew what I believed to be the truth, or as close as I would ever get to it, and I could move on and leave Bettie behind. Or could I?

Going down to my car, I prepped myself for my audition, (for a druggie, by the way), and pulled out the directions I had printed out earlier. Scanning the list of rights and lefts, my eyes landed on one of the last turns... And I froze. The second to last street I had to turn down to reach my destination was Catalina Street.

Was I crazy?! Was the world this chalk-full  of coincidences?! Or was Bettie calling me from beyond the grave, beckoning me to the very place where she had met her death? My mouth hung open for what felt an eternity, and I am sure that the color had drained from my deer-in-headlights face. Shaking, I turned the key in the ignition, and drove out to my audition, which I made it to just in time to pull myself together. (Perhaps my quaking, nervous energy when I walked in the room enriched my reading as a drug addict).

As I left the audition, my heart beat loudly. I got into my car and decided I had to go to the site tonight! I turned onto Catalina, and followed it all the way to 835. As I drove, the streets around me changed. I felt as though I were seeing the Hollywood of 1947. The roads became smoother, the litter disappeared, and the bright lights dimmed to a softer, more romantic glow-- a haunting glow. Reaching my destination, fear began to take over. I parallel parked between the dirty, rusting cars lining the narrow street and looked out my window at Brenda Allen's former bungalow. I opened my door, and stood out in the cold, shivering more from nerves than from the chill in the air.

Peering up at the building marked 835, probably looking like a stalker, I saw the lights of a television screen dancing on the walls. Inside, someone sat enjoying the peaceful calm that comes at the end of the day, indulging in the fake lives on the blue screen. Some unwitting person sat on the same ground, within the same walls, that witnessed Bettie being beaten, sliced, and sawed in half. If those walls could talk, they would scream... but the oblivious occupant now living there heard only the dialogue cascading out of his television set. It seemed odd, how easily the past had been erased, hidden, and written over with such normalcy.

I uneasily moved forward, looking up the staircase that led to the dark alley between the little apartments. I was scared. I half expected to witness the past actions being reenacted by malevolent ghosts; I half expected to see Bettie's sleek, pale form emerge from the shadows and beckon me. I took one last look, closed my eyes, braced myself as the images in my head took hold... And then I let them go. Feeling Bettie with me, I turned around, got into my car, and pulled away from the abyss of the past and back to life.

On the car ride home, I again felt Bettie. I feared that if I looked into the rear-view mirror I would see a pair of pale, blue eyes staring back at me in sorrow. Thanks to my cell phone and an emergency call to my sister, Haleigh, I made it home safely. How I fell asleep that night I don't know. I was disturbed, undone, depressed... And yet I felt myself coming out of a long and tedious labyrinth. I awoke the next morning heavier, now carrying more knowledge than I'd bargained for, but my life slowly returned to normal.

I continued my research of course, though now my intermittent forays back into Bettie's world were done as a hobby and not as a vengeful quest for truth. I felt I had found my truth. Of course, I had chosen to believe Wolfe's theory, but then it felt right. The way things had fallen into place within the pages of his book, and the way things fell into place before my eyes in my own life... I felt like Bettie had guided me through her story, as close as I would ever come to really knowing it. I returned later to the location of her murder on Catalina (below), this time in the daylight. Perhaps the sun made it seem less terrifying, or perhaps my understanding now guarded me from the what I had once feared.

In between books on Greta Garbo or Gary Cooper, I would sometimes return to Bettie. I read The Black Dahlia Avenger, which I found intriguing but inconclusive, as the entire book hinges on a picture of Elizabeth Short that is clearly not Elizabeth Short. I too read Childhood Shadows, and aside from the head-scratching accusation that Orson Welles murdered Bettie, it was a good read, for it introduced Bettie as the girl she had been before Hollywood-- innocent, sweet, nurturing, and undeserving of the fate that awaited her in La La Land.

My year with Bettie ended, as I stated, this Halloween, when I dressed as her. It was a strange promise to make to her, back when I was in the midst of my bewildering encounters, but it somehow seemed appropriate. It was my way of commemorating her, and of introducing her to every stranger who approached and quizzically asked, "Who are you supposed to be?" Halloween now over, and black wig put into storage with the rest of my rarely used junk, Bettie has finally released her entrancing hold on me, but I know I shall never let go of her.

Forever, she will be in my mind, a subconscious presence that I conjure up every once in awhile. Though I have "found" Bettie, I will always be searching for her, for just as her face looks different in every picture taken of her, so the true Bettie seems to hide, evading and inviting at the same time the world that so cruelly turned its cold shoulder on her. Because of all the lies told to cover up the true reason of her demise, Bettie is still remembered incorrectly as a whore, a lesbian, a freak with infantile sex organs... all complete and utter B.S. Of course, the public buys into this because it makes it easier to cope with so devastating a death. If you believe the slanderous portraits painted of Bettie, then "She had it coming."

No one, no one, has that coming. Especially not a naive, albeit mysterious, girl from Massachusetts, whose whimsical dreams led her only to an inescapable nightmare. Though my experiences over the past months have left me shaken and a bit disturbed, I have found a sort of peace with what I have learned. I don't think the preternatural force I rubbed elbows with was meant to frighten me, but to instruct. What all of this means, and what I am meant to do with it, I do not know. Perhaps Bettie wants me to tell people her story; perhaps she sensed in me a soul mate-- a young girl, a hopeful actress, seeking answers in a place not to be trusted. I feel she has guided me to a safer place.

As I continue on my personal voyage into Hollywood history, I continue to see-saw between stories of grandeur and heroism, romance and glory, and stories of madness and self-destruction. All of these twisted truths grow and converge, filling my curious mind, which continues to question. Nothing else that I have researched has been, and I pray will ever be, as ghastly as the Black Dahlia murder, and though my little other-worldly coincidences continue to happen, no pull or embrace has been as strong as Elizabeth's.  All I can say in the end to her is, "Rest in peace, sweet Bettie. Your life is remembered, your beauty overcomes the ugliness said of you, and your martyrdom continues to open the eyes of a jaded and skeptical world." Elizabeth Short: July 29, 1924- January ?, 1947.


  1. This is one of the best things I have ever read on any blog anywhere ever. Absolutely fantastic. I totally agree with your take on the story - especially your views on the glamorising of Siegel and de Palma's libellous fantasies - and it's all so beautifully written.
    Glad you endorse Wolfe's book, as do I. That interview at the end haunted me for weeks: it all seems pretty definitive to me.

    You may find something of interest in a piece I wrote about her here:

    Once again: this is exceptional.

  2. Thanks!!! Sorry for all the typos! I just re-read it and was like, "MY GOD!" Haha. Thanks for your comments, I really appreciate it, and will definitely check out your piece as well. Take care. ;)

  3. Wow! Beautifully written and amazing information. I love your blog and this is one of the most interesting posts I have ever read. Usually I am the one that comes up with this crazy research! Have a great Thursday! Kori xoxo

  4. Fantastic entry! I feel similar in regards to this case as well as other, much less notorious historical crimes. Often I wonder if they will ever be officially solved, for the sake of posterity and all the victims involved. It keeps me going with research, even if the details surrounding the cases are less than ideal- gruesome and saddening, more often than not.

  5. I agree. It is an odd thing to be inspired and driven by things that are so dark, but I suppose it is better to jump in full throttle rather than ignore completely the more dismal aspects of life. You'll have to fill me in on some of the other cases that fascinate you. Have a great weekend!

  6. I can't wait to see your next post girlie. It seems like we have so many of the same interests! Thanks so much for the comments on my Wineville post. It is a really interesting story. You should look into it. Have a great day! Kori xoxo

  7. Fantastic post! Really enjoyed it!

  8. Thanks, Amanda! Glad you enjoyed it. Have a great weekend :)

  9. I think Miss Short was really trying to possess you. I feel that same way when I am investigating old Hollywood . I enjoyed your episode as well

  10. Thanks, Billy! Glad I am not alone in this. Sometimes I feel like I am going crazy, haha! It was definitely my strangest adventure. Good luck on your hunts!