Friday, March 03, 2006

Blogging the Wolfe Book, Phoning It In

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.” So far we have seen very little of “The Mob” and nothing at all of “The Mogul.” There has been a murder but Los Angeles has yet to be transfixed.

This is tediously slow work and all I can say is that what I’m doing is absolutely the worst way to read a book; most shouldn’t be read at the molecular level, but “Mogul” demands nothing less. In fact, as I looked down Page 42, I saw an incredible whopper. It’s stupefying that someone could run all the Black Dahlia books through a blender, toss in some outright fabrication and come up with such a mishmash covered with a veneer of “research,” but Wolfe has done it.

Page 42

So far, Wolfe is using what has become the “paint by numbers” story structure in the Black Dahlia case: the anonymous, butchered body is found and the tale of discovery is told in flashbacks. This is the “Laura” format, a great framework for fiction that’s lousy for history because in reality the investigation wasn’t linear but was a sprawling mess.

We have reached the point in the story where the Examiner is extracting information from Phoebe Short by telling her that her daughter Elizabeth has won a beauty contest, then revealing that her daughter has been killed. This episode survives as one of the most outrageous and cruelest moments in journalism. Let’s see how Wolfe handles it.

Wolfe attributes this section to the standard sources: Will Fowler’s “Reporters,” Jim Richardson’s “For the Life of Me,” and a 2003 interview with Will, who by that time was fairly far gone as far as I know and died the next year.

Some of these errors are so trivial I was going to let them slide, but I changed my mind. Although one mistake by itself is insignificant, when taken together, the preponderance of errors presents a poisonous atmosphere of indifference to the truth, the facts and reflects a rather stunning lack of skepticism and the willingness to repeat—unchallenged—what is obviously impossible. This, folks, is bad work.

First, Wolfe says Phoebe Short was told that her daughter won a beauty contest in Santa Barbara. Of course by then, everybody knew better than that. Phoebe knew she was in San Diego and Richardson knew that Elizabeth Short had been arrested in Santa Barbara in 1943 and shipped home. And why would a Los Angeles paper be calling about a beauty contest in Santa Barbara? Wolfe is just picking up the extraneous, fabricated details from Will’s account in “Reporters,” Page 79.

Richardson’s version, written in 1954, is slightly different. He says Wain Sutton came up with the idea of the story about the beauty contest, “For the Life of Me,” Page 299. And Richardson certainly doesn’t give a location. That’s one of Will’s foxy grandpa embellishments.

But there’s a worse mistake. Wolfe says Phoebe told the Examiner that Elizabeth was returning to Los Angeles with a man named Red.

Now that’s totally wrong. Phoebe actually told the Examiner that her last note from her daughter was sent from San Diego. So let’s see if we can backtrack this gaffe to “Reporters.” Nope, Will says Phoebe read a letter to Sutton that Elizabeth had written from San Diego. “This information made way for another scoop: The disclosure that Elizabeth had left San Diego with a man known only as ‘Red.’ ”

Compare that with “Mogul.”

“Phoebe told Sutton that many men found Betty to be attractive and commented on a letter she had only recently received from her daughter, dated January 8, 1947: ‘It had been written while visiting friends in San Diego,’ she said, and indicated that she was returning to Los Angeles ‘with a gentleman, Betty referred to as ‘Red.’

In reality, Phoebe Short knew nothing about Red. The letter, as quoted in the Examiner on Jan. 17, 1947, said:

“Dear Mother, I’m in San Diego now. I’m living with a girlfriend, Vera French, and I’m working at the naval hospital. I’m feeling fine.”

Where on earth does Donald H. Wolfe get this nonsense of Phoebe Short knowing about Red Manley? Beats me. This is totally fabricated. For what purpose, I can’t imagine. But it’s completely false.

Page 43

Ah. Wolfe is going to repeat Will’s old tale about the Examiner flying Phoebe Short out to Los Angeles and getting a place for her to stay. None of that’s true, since she stayed with her oldest daughter, Virginia, in Berkeley.
Being in my first year of research on the Dahlia case and still placing trust in Will, I might have fallen for that one myself. I liked the man, he was charming and funny, but he lied his head off to me. I don’t think it was malicious, but Will loved to tell tall tales.

And Wolfe says Phoebe flew out for the inquest, which was scheduled for Jan. 22. In fact, the inquest couldn’t be scheduled until someone (ultimately her) identified the body, so this is all totally wrong. It’s amazing how someone can take the facts and garble them so completely.

Before we knock off for the day, what’s the important lesson here?

Will told a vivid story about Sutton’s conversation with Phoebe Short. But to the best of my knowledge, Will wasn’t there and didn’t witness the incident; he only heard about it through newsroom lore. Richardson’s autobiography isn’t perfect, but he at least he was a participant.

In other words, for a conscientious researcher, secondary sources are the root of all evil—well, at least a lot of misinformation.

I just ran across another headache. Remember that Wolfe says Examiner artist Howard Burke went to the morgue to do a sketch of Jane Doe? And that Will says Burke worked from Felix Paegel’s photographs, not the body? (Surely you remember this tedious detail, no?) Well, I just noticed that Richardson says he sent a staff artist to the morgue, “For the Life of Me,” Page 297. Either way, nobody recorded the reaction of Capt. Jack Donahoe, whom Wolfe describes as furious.

Some days, slogging through this book is like digging coal.

Shout out to:

Israel: (

Queen Mary And Westfield College (

Elsevier Science Publishers (

Ntl Infrastructure – Cardiff (

Chanute Air Force Base (

Hurry back!

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