Friday, February 10, 2006

Blogging the Wolfe Book, a Moment of Silence, Please


Today is the anniversary of the Feb. 10, 1947, Jeanne French murder. Frequently linked to the Black Dahlia in the popular imagination and absurdly claimed as one of the umpteen victims of Dr. George “Evil Genius” Hodel in “Black Dahlia Avenger,” French was a tragic, broken-down alcoholic. Spending the last night of her life in a Westside cafe, she dumped the contents of her purse on the bar and picked through the debris in hopes of finding enough money for just one more drink. She had no paper money, nothing more than a few coins. Whoever killed her beat her with the handle of a socket wrench, pushed her out of his car into the street and stomped on her until a rib broke and punctured her heart. A bleak, terrible death.

Her son, David Wrather, told the coroner’s inquest: “She’s gone now and I’m sure she would want me to say the right thing—she made a lot of her own trouble.”

Incidentally, I’m not the only one faulting “Mogul.” Carolyn See’s Washington Post review calls the book: “Old-fashioned porn for those who look at a pretty girl and think of a chain saw.”

Pages 9-11

Now it’s time for Will Fowler’s well-worn story about being the first person at the crime scene, Felix Paegel taking a picture of him with the body (“all aloonnnnnee” “nooooobody around”), the cops showing up and pulling their guns (below a Smith & Wesson .38 Victory Model), Will distracting the police with the boy on the bicycle, heading back to the Examiner to put out an extra and then returning to the crime scene to “throw off the competition.”

I fell for this story, even though Will couldn’t produce the picture of himself with the body—and it turns out nobody has ever seen it. He always claimed "somebody swiped during a drinking party or I gave it away or something."

But like most of Will’s yarns (closing Elizabeth Short's eyes, loading the body into the hearse, walking through the crime scene so he could fire off the quip: “You know how much these suicides upset me” and the infantile genatalia) it’s simply not true. Will wasn’t the first person at the crime scene and the Examiner never put out an extra. Of the dozens of crime scene photos, not a single one shows him or any reporter anywhere except the sidewalk or the street.

Wolfe lifts Will’s explanation of a 390W, right down to the erroneous meaning of a 415. Will calls it indecent exposure, but any fan of Jack Webb knows it’s disturbing the peace (“The Badge,” Page 305). Will made sure anyone who interviewed him knew it was a 390W as an attempt to get that detail in a story. He once asked me: “Isn’t it amazing that I remember the radio call after all these years?” He fooled me with some of his tall tales, but even I recognized that as an obvious plant.

“Mogul” takes Will’s story pretty much verbatim from “Reporters,” but even here mangles some of the quotes:

“Reporters,” Page 72: “Jesus, Felix, this woman’s cut in half!”

“Mogul,” Page 9: “God, Felix, this woman’s been cut in half!”

And “Mogul’s” facts are wrong too, referring to Officer William Fitzgerald instead of Wayne Fitzgerald, but this is to be expected since Wolfe is referring to “Severed,” Page 3. (If I didn’t mention it, although I’m fairly sure I did, “Severed” is 25% mistakes and 50% fiction).

Good grief! Wolfe can’t even quote from “Severed” without making an error.

Actual name: Wayne Fitzgerald

“Severed”: Will Fitzgerald

“Mogul”: William Fitzgerald

Yet another lesson in why any good writer should do his own research. And avoid secondary sources.

More important, Wolfe ignores Will’s time line.

In “Reporters,” Page 71, Will puts himself at the crime scene at 9:05 a.m., nearly 90 minutes before Betty Bersinger discovered the body, according to Elizabeth Short’s inquest.

Uh-oh.

Instead, “Mogul” rolls the clock ahead to place Will at the crime scene at 10:45 a.m. This is still a neat trick, because according to the inquest, police didn’t get the original call reporting the body until a little before 11 a.m.

What's this? My eyes just fell on Page 11, in which Wolfe calls it a 309W. (Did I mention this is a $30 book? Where are ReganBook’s proofreaders?)
And I have to come to the defense of Aggie Underwood. Wolfe picks up Will’s story about her kneeling over the body when Will made his second trip to Norton Avenue. In reality, Underwood had been to the crime scene and was long gone by the time Will got there, as shown in pictures taken by the police and news photographers.

Worse yet, Wolfe picks up “Severed’s” claim that “You could see the color drain right out of her like you’d opened a spigot on her bottom side.” Although Aggie had seen many murder victims in her career, the sight of the mutilated body lying in the weeds near the sidewalk knocked her off balance, and [Officer] Perkins remembered that she “staggered backwards, almost right off the edge of the curb—and almost fell down on her keester.”

Can Wolfe quote “Severed” correctly? Of course not.

“Severed” Page 6

“It sort of tickled us standing there,” he says, “and watching her back up—walking backwards almost right off the edge of the curb—almost down on her keester.”

Luckily, we have Underwood’s own account of the Black Dahlia, in her 1949 biography “Newspaperwoman,” written with Foster Goss.

“Newspaperwoman” Page 6.

“One of the four radio patrolmen, who had arrived ahead of homicide detectives, tried to stop me. I said I was from the Herald-Express and brushed past him. I’ve learned that to halt for explanations brings arguments and wastes time.

“In a vacant lot amid sparse weeds a couple of feet from the sidewalk lay the body. It had been cut in half through the abdomen, under the ribs. The two sections were ten or twelve inches apart. The arms, bent at right angles at the elbows, were raised above the shoulders. The legs were spread apart. There were bruises and cuts on the forehead and the face, which had been beaten severely. The hair was blood-matted [note: this is wrong, lrh]. Front teeth were missing [also wrong]. Both cheeks were slashed from the corners of the lips almost to the ears. The liver hung out of the torso, and the entire lower section of the body had been hacked, gouged and unprintably desecrated. It showed sadism at its most frenzied.

“Some of the police argued that she was a woman of thirty-six. Noting the youthful condition of the breasts and the smooth thighs, I said she was much younger.”

Not exactly the account of someone who nearly fell on her keister (note proper spelling).

For the record, here’s a shot (swiped off the Internet) of Aggie Underwood at the crime scene. I have a better version but you don’t need to see it. Nobody does. But note that she’s standing out in the street, well away from the body. The police protected the scene much better than crime authors would have you believe.

Will did get one thing right about the Dahlia case, however. He dispensed with the books in one word: "Lies!"

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