Remembering the Black Dahlia 65 years after her death

Beth Short was 22 when she died.

Today is the 65th anniversary of one of Hollywood’s most famous unsolved murders: the brutal slaying and mutilation of Elizabeth Short, also known as the Black Dahlia.

Her body, which had been cut in half at the waist, was found in a vacant lot at 39th Street and Norton Avenue in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 1947. She was 22 years old.

Born in a Boston suburb on July 29, 1924, Elizabeth was the third of five daughters. Her father abandoned the family and her mother struggled to make ends meet. In 1944, Elizabeth came to California, hoping to live with her father; after a brief stay, he told her to leave.

It’s possible that she hoped to find work as an actress in Los Angeles but, with little education or means to support herself, she was frequently on the move, looking for new opportunities and cheap places to live. A few weeks prior to her death, Elizabeth stayed with a family in San Diego. She rode back to Los Angeles with a man named Red Manley and was seen downtown at the Biltmore Hotel on Jan. 9, 1947.

The Black Dahlia case remains unsolved.

Because the case was gruesome and sensational, and so little is known for certain about her life, theories and speculation, suspects and confessions abound. Police corruption and unethical journalistic practice severely impeded efforts to find justice. Her story spurred a plethora of media coverage as well as non-fiction and fiction books, including James Ellroy’s 1987 novel, “The Black Dahlia,” which was the basis for Brian DePalma’s film of the same name, made in 2006.

While her murder remains unsolved and many details are sketchy, it seems likely that Elizabeth ran out of friends and favors, that in those bleak days of January 1947, now such a long time ago, she had very few places to turn. With that in mind and to remember Elizabeth Short, I hope you’ll join me in making a donation to a women’s charity, such as the Downtown Women’s Center in Los Angeles, or a similar organization in your area.

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‘The Chanteuse and the Devil’s Muse’ combines music, dance and drama to explore infamous Black Dahlia case

Elizabeth Short

“She’s a very noirish character,” says musician/writer/director David J. Haskins of Elizabeth Short, better known as the Black Dahlia. “She’s a blank screen on which anything can be projected. She was a mysterious, glamorous, romantic figure.”

Indeed, very little is known for sure about the brief life of the Black Dahlia, who in death attained the fame she dreamt of in Hollywood. Some say she was an aspiring actress; other accounts portray her as a confused drifter.

Her brutally mutilated and severed body was found, artfully arranged, in a vacant lot near Crenshaw Boulevard and West 39th Street in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 1947; she was 22. The mystery of her death remains unsolved, though there have been numerous theories and potential suspects.

David J. Haskins

Haskins (formerly a member of the band Bauhaus as well as Love and Rockets) puts forward his contention about the murder in his new play, “The Chanteuse and the Devil’s Muse.” It opens Thursday at the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles.

The production uses three interwoven devices: a dramatization; live music from Haskins, Ego Plum and Ysanne Spevack; and butoh dance by acclaimed performer Vangeline. The songs were originally composed for Ramzi Abed’s 2007 film about the Dahlia called “The Devil’s Muse.”

Madi Comfort's boyfriend lived in this house on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood.

Central to the story is real-life singer Madi Comfort (played by Daniele Watts with Tracey Leigh making special appearances throughout the run). Comfort’s lover was a suspect in the Black Dahlia case. Douglas Dickerman plays cop Frank Jemison, a straight arrow determined to get to the bottom of the slaying.

A longtime fan of German Expressionism and film noir, particularly its “very clipped, smart, sharp dialogue with fast delivery,” Haskins names “The Maltese Falcon” as one of his favorite movies and Orson Welles as a much-admired director.

“The Chanteuse and the Devil’s Muse” runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. through Oct. 1 at the Bootleg, 2220 Beverly Blvd., 213-389-3856; tickets are $25, $18 for students and seniors. Run time is just under one hour.

Stay tuned – I’ll be posting video snippets from my recent interview with Haskins.

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