'Black Dahlia' Case Holds Undying Allure

Elizabeth Short, 22, was brutally murdered in a Los Angeles neighborhood in 1947. Her killer was never found. The "Black Dahlia" story continues to generate interest. R. J. Smith, senior editor of Los Angeles Magazine, tells Scott Simon about his recent writing on the subject.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

In the winter of 1947, a 22-year-old girl's body was found packed and severed in a vacant lot in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Crenshaw. Her name was Elizabeth Short. Her killer has never been found. Few murders have continued to inspire the number of books, movies and just plain fascination with the case. Some of the most famous names in old L.A. were linked to the murder, probably without cause, and generations of writers have found metaphorical significance in the story of a young woman with glittering dreams being murdered. By whom and why? In September, Brian De Palma's movie The Black Dahlia will open, starring Hilary Swank, Scarlett Johansson, and Josh Hartnett. The film was taken from James Ellroy's book by the same name.

(Soundbite of trailer for The Black Dahlia)

Mr. JOSH HARTNETT (Actor): (As Bucky Bleichert) It was the most notorious murder in California history. To the public it was a sensation.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) This killer will be caught.

Mr. HARTNETT: (As Bleichert) To us it will become an obsession.

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Woman #2 (Actor): (As character) What do I have to do to keep my name out of the papers?

Mr. HARNTETT: (As Bleichert) To the filth of the gutters.

SIMON: Los Angeles magazine senior editor R.J. Smith wrote about The Black Dahlia case for his magazine's September issue. He joins us from NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. R.J. SMITH (Los Angeles Magazine): Oh, hi there, Scott.

SIMON: When we talk about this as a fascinating case and a continuing literary enterprise and metaphorical significance, I don't want to lose sight of the fact we're talking about an actual human being who was killed, this 22-year-old raven-haired beauty - I'm beginning with the cliques already - Elizabeth Short. What can you tell us about her?

Mr. SMITH: Well, you know I guess the short answer to that is that she was really pretty and really unformed. She was young. Her birth certificate says she was born in Boston, probably born just outside of Boston, and was a drifter. You know, she hadn't figured out what she wanted to do with her life and she ended up in Los Angeles.

SIMON: How did the case become so famous over the years?

Mr. SMITH: The first thing about it was just the horribleness of the crime itself. A body drained of blood, cut in two, arranged in a kind of pose with gestures. It signs to be a sign the murderer was making to all of us in Los Angeles, and we're still trying to figure out what that statement was.

SIMON: How did the case get the name the Black Dahlia?

Mr. SMITH: Well, the year before in '46 there was a film called The Blue Dahlia, a film noir mystery written by Raymond Chandler. She liked to dress in black and she dyed her hair black. One version of how she got the name, I think the most believable is that places she would hang out, a lunch counter in Long Beach notably, the gang at the lunch counter would see her coming and would say, ah, here comes the Black Dahlia, kind of riffing on the movie title. Los Angeles tabloid cultures always tried to come up with flower names, actually, for crimes. There was the Red Chrysanthemum Case and the Blue Orchid Murderer. So when the Black Dahlia came along it was a slam-dunk.

SIMON: How did it happen that so many famous names got linked to the case, if only by rumor? If we mention a couple of them, I want to say strictly rumor, no substantiation.

Mr. SMITH: It was a great tabloid sensation. It was sort of the last great days in Los Angeles of tabloid newspapers. Local TV broadcasting started a few months later, actually, and tabloids started fading out. Hundreds of people confessed to a crime they had nothing to do with. Hundreds of people said they saw her in the final days when they almost certainly didn't. People were drawn to this, this vacuum of information. Orson Wells might have done it. People think surrealist painters did it. Two books have been written by authors who say their father was the murderer.

SIMON: Some of the most - not just famous names but powerful names in town were mentioned as suspects of the case, with perhaps no foundation whatsoever, but the story line seemed to be that she had somehow run afoul of the relatively small group of people that ran Los Angeles.

Mr. SMITH: You know, one of the things about Los Angeles is, we don't have a great sense of how decisions get made. Our mayors - although Antonio Villaraigosa is very probably an exception in this case - our mayors are not high profile, magazine cover boys. We don't know what City Council does. And so with that vacuum I think we look for these mega stories that can sort of explain how everything works. And the Black Dahlia story in a way is sort of our JFK assassination fable.

SIMON: Why do you think there's a resurgence of interest in the case? It seems to be every few years.

Mr. SMITH: Yeah. I guess men like to fantasize and fall in love with pretty, mysterious woman, and there probably aren't anymore mysterious women on a lot of levels than Elizabeth Short. And I think she is a perfect projecting board for all kinds of things that float around in male imaginations.

SIMON: Mr. Smith, is there any way of breaking this case once and for all, do you think?

Mr. SMITH: The case is open and unsolvable. Let's face it, we're never going to know.

SIMON: R.J. Smith, the senior editor of the Los Angeles magazine, thanks very much.

Mr. SMITH: Thank you.

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