Monday, March 06, 2006

Blogging the Wolfe Book, Limbo



I’m blogging in real time as I read Donald H. Wolfe’s “The Black Dahlia Files: The Mob, the Mogul and the Murder That Transfixed Los Angeles.” At the moment we’re enmeshed in the backstory on 1940s newspapers that hasn’t transfixed anyone.

The two-minute executive summary:

After spending several days slogging through Elizabeth Short’s autopsy and pondering the absence of John Gilmore’s key source on the Black Dahlia’s purported “infantile genitalia,” the nonexistent Detective Herman Willis, we've found the late Will Fowler, former Examiner reporter and Dahlia source, played several tricks on Wolfe. We also discovered some more ties between Wolfe’s stepfather and Joseph P. Kennedy, but a troubling disinterest in saying anything about Wolfe’s Great-Uncle Bernard Baruch, one of Kennedy’s close associates.

Worst of all, we have found some random smears against Elizabeth Short in which Wolfe cites a source and then embellishes it for no apparent purpose. There are times when I wonder if the man is capable reading what’s in front of him.

Wolfe is telling the story in “Laura” format, in which the discovery of the anonymous, butchered body sets off a series of flashbacks. We’re at the point where Wolfe introduces Elizabeth Short’s father, Cleo, who is going to say she’s no good. It’ll be interesting to see how Wolfe portrays him. And of course Elizabeth Short and the murder have gotten completely lost by now, which is the problem with the “Laura” format when it comes to history. Then again, I’m not sure we can call this book “history.”

Page 50

So far Wolfe picks up the standard newspaper quotes, citing, let’s see… the Herald-Express, Mary Pacios’ “Childhood Shadows” and John Gilmore’s “Severed,” the two former writing partners reunited again.

Page 51

But aha. Here’s another gratuitous smear thrown in for some effect or other:

“It was said that Elizabeth had begun dating a number of servicemen, and Cleo complained that she was seeing a different boyfriend every evening and staying out very late—sometimes all night. A churchgoing Baptist, Cleo admonished Elizabeth for living a licentious life.”

“It” was said? Who is “It?” And what’s the source for this little factual bonbon?

Not again, my dear Holmes!

You know where to take us, Watson.

Ha! Just as I thought. We’re meant to think this is from the Herald, but there’s nothing about her staying out all night. And while the Shorts certainly attended the Baptist Church in Medford, it was only after Cleo abandoned the family. There’s no evidence that he was a regular churchgoer, although being from the South, I’m sure he had been taken to church at some point in his life. (Bonus fact, St. Peter’s Chapel on Mare Island was the Navy’s first nondenominational church in the West. A very cool building).

Oh this is interesting. Wolfe quotes Elizabeth Short’s youngest sister, Muriel, but I doubt very much if she spoke with him. Hm. Let’s check “Severed,” Page 18, the purported source.

Quick, Watson, to the pile of Dahlia books!

Let’s hope it’s not JonBenet Ramsey
. Nope, a perfect word for word quote from “Severed.” I think that’s a first. Of course it’s good to be careful about people who are still alive.

Page 52

Ohhhh. I don’t remember this quote.

“Unlike her sisters, Elizabeth had mood swings, emotional ups and downs. ‘She was happy one moment—sad the next,’ Phoebe said.”

OK, now so far that’s seems to be one of the standard newspaper quotes that everybody uses. But Wolfe adds this:

“I guess she was what you would call a manic-depressive.”

Ooh. This is exciting (OK, “exciting” being a relative term; exciting at least to a research drudge). Source, please!

Los Angeles Examiner, Jan. 19, 1947. Any bets on whether there’s a line about manic depression before I check?

To the file cabinet, Watson. (The first thing anybody should do in tackling the Dahlia case is buy a bunch of four-drawer file cabinets. I promise, if you do the job right they’ll be jammed before you’re done).

OK, Los Angeles Examiner, Jan. 19, 1947.

“Trail New Suspect in Torture Slaying.”


Guess what.

Let’s go back and check the end notes, just to be sure. Yep. Jan. 19, 1947.

Fine. Here are Phoebe Short’s actual quotes (she was interviewed in Los Angeles en route to Berkeley to stay with her oldest daughter, Virginia, until the inquest):

“If I ever get my hands on him, I believe I’d kill him myself.”

Speaking of her return here later in the week, she added:

“The worst is to come.”

In a sidebar, she says:

“Thank goodness the Los Angeles Examiner made it possible for the FBI to identify my daughter in such a short time.”

“Your quick action perhaps saved me many weeks of anxiety and anguish. I prayed that it wouldn’t be she… but it was. I can do nothing more.”

Now isn’t that a fine kettle of fish? Nothing about mood swings, and certainly nothing about being a manic-depressive.

If I were an attorney in court, I’d say it’s not there (correctly) and be done with it. But since I’m taking a scholarly approach, let’s dig up the exact quote. It’s in the Herald-Express for Jan. 18, 1947.

“Elizabeth always wanted to be an actress,” she [Phoebe Short] said. “She was ambitious and beautiful and full of life, but she had her moments of despondency. Sometimes, she would be gay and carefree one moment—then in the depths of despair another.”

That still isn’t Wolfe’s quote, but it’s what you might recall if you were trying to summarize it. Poor work all the same and there’s nothing about manic depression. That’s strictly Wolfe’s embellishment.

Here’s something really cool: A concordance to the Sherlock Holmes stories.

And a cool view from somebody's office:

Shout out to:

Lucas Film (63.82.98.50) (Running Linux, I’m so impressed).

Bergen (85.164.217.243) and Monet (84.53.11.22), Norway. I’m waiting for my homies in Andoya (current temperature 25 degrees)!

Mr. Pocket PC in Seattle (67.150.216.66)

Reston, Va. (152.163.101.5) MSIE 5.5? Upgrade!

And the same goes for all of you with outdated versions of Firefox!

Hurry back!

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