Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Blogging the Wolfe Book, the Subject Is Roses


I always cut my roses on Jan. 15 as a memorial to Elizabeth Short, because I remember that on the night before the body was found a neighbor had a strange encounter at the crime scene when he went there to dump some rose clippings.

Frankly, it’s scary to chop my roses down to sticks but sure enough by Valentine’s Day they are coming back to life, especially now that they’ve gotten some 12-18-6.

A couple things before we move on.

I thought it would be interesting to see how Steve Hodel, the retired homicide detective, treated the handling of the crime scene in hopes that “Dahlia Avenger,” despite all its problems, would be more accurate than “Severed” and “Mogul.”

The depiction of the press isn’t all that accurate (“Dahlia Avenger” talks about keen competition for a byline when even the briefest glance at the 1947 papers show that reporters never got bylines except in rare instances). And “Avenger” uses Will Fowler’s yarn—of course I fell for that myself the first time around. Will worked for years to embed himself in the Dahlia case.

But there’s none of the absurd claims of discarded cigarette butts and flashbulbs, curiosity-seekers circling the block and people standing on cars.

Here’s the two-minute executive summary before we move on to Chapter 2:

In the preface and first 20 pages, Donald H. Wolfe’s “Mogul” has made sweeping statements of staggering fiction (“there was no nightlife in the 1940s”), gotten access to original documents but rejected them in favor of a sleazy, sensational paperback written in 1994 (“Severed” instead of the original LAPD summary of the case) and shown a complete disinterest in minor details of spelling names (Betsy Bersinger instead of “Betty Bersinger”).

He has also relied on two mutually exclusive accounts (Will Fowler in “Reporters” and John Gilmore in “Severed” even though Will voices utter disdain for Gilmore). Further, he cites other books as sources but completely contradicts them (Mary Pacios’ “Childhood Shadows” on Betty Bersinger not recalling anything about the body, while “Mogul” goes into great detail on what Bersinger supposedly remembered).

In short, “Mogul” is a $30 book with lousy proofreading and even worse fact-checking that wouldn’t pass muster as a high school research paper.

I’m blogging “Mogul” in real time and not reading ahead, though I did skip to the footnotes and bibliography as any historian would. I don’t know any more about this book aside from the “high concept” (Elizabeth Short gets wrapped up with call girl Brenda Allen, is carrying the love child of Times executive Norman Chandler and refuses to get an abortion, so she’s killed by Bugsy Siegel). But the prospects that “Mogul” is going to suddenly turn into a model of scholarship are not good.

I warned you this would be tedious for readers. It’s even more tedious for me. I don’t need to read another word to know I’m going to find many more gaffes ahead. The only reason I’m doing it is because people keep telling me what a wonderful book this is.

Still, I must say I find the interest in this blog so far quite gratifying. Here’s a shout out to:

Loyola Marymount University, Cal State Northridge, University of Missouri at Rolla, Rutgers University and Tufts University in Elizabeth Short’s hometown of Medford, Mass.

Buena Vista Datacasting (12.31.170.30), Turner.com (64.236.221.6) and castandcrew.com (63.113.17.130).

The U.S. Senate sergeant at arms (156.33.165.26).

Someone in Falls Church, Va., the home of a law enforcement expert whom I respect tremendously.

Somebody in Salt Lake City, home of an enthusiastic but fairly reclusive collector of Elizabeth Short material. Twenty-three visits totaling 5 hours and 17 minutes, thank you, 70.56.97.241!

And who knew the Dahlia would be so popular in Sweden. Four visits for a total of 16 hours? Thank you, 213.80.115.71!

And Pendleton, S.C. Now that’s a surprise. Hurry on back!

Let’s move ahead.

Oh dear.

“The Los Angeles Times put the murder story on the front page of the morning edition of January 16; the headline was less lurid, yet the article vividly described the mutilated victim.”

For the record, as the conservative family paper of Los Angeles, The Times was the only newspaper to keep the Black Dahlia story off the front page except for one day when it covered the false confession of Joseph Dumais. My story on the 50th anniversary was only the second time in half a century that the Black Dahlia made Page 1 of the Los Angeles Times.

This book is brimming with instances in which Wolfe seems absolutely incapable of reading what’s directly in front of him.

I’m going to go check my roses.

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