Saturday, February 04, 2006

Blogging the Wolfe Book, Extra! Extra!

P. 5

Extra! Extra!

I was raised on the wrong side of the tracks in Beverly Hills.

This is the most marvelously amusing statement. I suppose there are people—somewhere—who might find this believable. But for anybody local, especially a homebuyer, a comment like this is almost indescribably hilarious and I’m starting to wonder if Wolfe was a comedy writer at some point in his career.

In the 1940s, Beverly Hills was a ritzy, exclusive, lily white enclave separate from the city of Los Angeles, with rigidly enforced deed restrictions to keep out non-whites. The only people of color ever seen in Beverly Hills in this era were the maids and chauffeurs. The deed restrictions were so vital to the people of Beverly Hills that several of them filed lawsuits that forced non-whites out of their homes; a very ugly period in Los Angeles history.

The average reader would probably skip by this comment en route to more important things, but then I’m not the average reader and I have a few extra tools at my disposal. So let’s pull the comps on all of Wolfe's riff-raff neighbors on South Camden Drive. (Note to out-of-towners, Camden is one block west of Rodeo Drive).

On Feb. 18, 1940, the house at 473 S. Camden Drive sold for $13,000 or $172,992.24 USD 2005.

May 25, 1941, a real estate sales report describes a nine-room Spanish home being sold at 309 S. Camden Drive.

June 10, 1941, a report described the sale of a two-story Colonial at 474 S. Camden Drive.

Jan. 31, 1943, the two-story Monterey home at 426 S. Camden sold for $11,500 ($130,353.54 USD 2005).

July 25, 1943, two-story Spanish home at 416 S. Camden sold for $15,000 ($170,026.35 USD 2005)

Aug. 21, 1949, two-story Colonial home, four bedrooms, two baths, den with a half-bath, breakfast room and servants quarters (ahem) at 446 S. Camden Drive. No price listed.

Mind you, even the inflation-adjusted prices are misleading. Anything with four walls and a roof in Beverly Hills goes for megabucks today. For example, the starter house at 344 S. Camden Drive is currently on the market for a little over $2 million.

What’s especially interesting in "Mogul" is that Wolfe's neighbors included “strictly name below the title folks” like Joe E. Brown. In 1940, Brown sold his house at 707 N. Walden for $35,000 ($465,748.34 USD 2005), a considerable sum for the era.

And if I were writing this story, I wouldn’t be so hard on Brown. A little research shows that he pretty much abandoned his movie and stage career after his son Don was killed on a training flight in 1942 and Brown, shown with servicemen in Alaska, devoted the following years to entertaining the troops in his son’s memory.

Now granted, I don’t read most books at the molecular level as I’m doing here. But most books don’t need to be read at the molecular level either. I warned you this would be tedious. But when Wolfe complains about his pitiful youth on "the lower depths of the south side" it's a bit much. Of all the Dahlia authors, I'd say Steve Hodel, whose mother went to jail for child neglect, has a genuine right to talk about a harsh childhood. But the wrong side of Beverly Hills? Oh really. It is difficult to generate much sympathy for someone who first saw “Gone With the Wind” in the living room of the producer’s home.

But wait…. there’s more

Page 6

After my parents divorced in 1943, my mother married Jeffrey Bernerd, a movie producer, and we moved north, across the tracks to the land of the majors, where we lived behind one of those mansion doors where “there’s often a great deal of unhappiness.”

The name Jeffrey Bernerd means nothing today, but lists him as working on such cinematic triumphs as “Women in Bondage” (1943) and “Black Market Babies” (1945). Bernerd’s Aug. 11, 1950, obituary says that he lived—what’s this?—at 226 S. Camden Drive.

Time to go to the files and dig out the 1946 map of streetcar routes and see exactly where these horrid tracks were (again, not everybody has a 60-year-old streetcar map just sitting around waiting to be consulted, but as I think we’ve conclusively established, not everybody is me and certainly most people don’t read a book this way).

Ah! The map shows a Red Car headed west along Santa Monica Boulevard. Those poor people living in the ghetto south of Wilshire Boulevard—how did they ever make ends meet?

But let’s have a little more fun. We find with a little digging that Wolfe’s mother, Elizabeth, married Bernerd on April 2, 1945, at Bernerd’s home. We also learn that Wolfe’s father was Sailing Wolfe, a real estate salesman who was a nephew of Bernard Baruch. (Sailing Wolfe was apparently named for Baruch’s grandfather).

I’m blogging this as I read, so I have no idea what’s coming up. But I just flipped to the index to see if maybe we’re going to learn something about Sailing Wolfe or Bernard Baruch, left, in one of his three appearnces on the cover of Time magazine.

Not a word.

Hm. This is starting to look bad. I think if I were the grand-nephew of one of the world’s leading financiers I might just drop it in somewhere. Not make a big deal out of it but maybe I’d allude to it.

And about that impoverished childhood? We find that in 1941, Mrs. Sailing Wolfe was a member of Beverly Hills Assistance League (helping the less fortunate, presumably) and seemed to have had enough disposable income to collect Currier and Ives prints.

I have to go for a walk.

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Friday, February 03, 2006

Blogging the Wolfe Book, "The Monster"

Page 3

There wasn't much nightlife in Los Angeles back in the 1940s.

Most people went to bed early.

Even in Hollywood the streets were empty and the town was pretty dead by 10 p.m.

My goodness, I had to go for a walk around the block and clear my head after that.

Entire books could be written on the subject of Los Angeles nightlife in the 1940s—fairly entertaining ones, at that; but they would be more than a little off the subject. It’s difficult to imagine a simple declarative sentence that presents such sweeping absurdity with such bold confidence and authority, except to say: “There wasn’t much water in the ocean in the 1940s” or something similarly ludicrous. As any competent historian—or fan of the 1947 Project—knows, Los Angeles had a thriving entertainment industry during World War II and the postwar period and the liquor flowed freely.

P. 4.

Wolfe paints a vivid portrait of "the Monster," the presses at the Examiner coming to life—with one problem. He describes the paper putting out one edition, when it published something like seven throughout the day.

When the Black Dahlia murder hit the headlines on January 15, 1947, it led to one of the biggest press runs in the history of the newspaper. More copies of the Los Angeles Examiner were printed and sold on that day than any edition during World War II.

This is more or less Will Fowler’s contention, amended slightly. Will always maintained that the Examiner’s extra on the Dahlia killing was the biggest edition since V-J Day. In “Reporters,” P. 76, Will says “It ended up being the second-largest run in the Examiner’s history, bettered only by the VJ Day extra in 1945.”

But in reality, no copy of this mythical extra has ever been found. It doesn’t exist on the microfilm nor among the original newspapers, according to people who have seen them. I can only conclude that the fabulous extra edition was only to be found in the tales of William Randolph Fowler. The Examiner and The Times printed nothing about the Elizabeth Short murder on Jan. 15, 1947, and the Herald-Express ran a brief story on Page 1. Only the Daily News put a picture on the cover with a story. The headlines didn't really hit until the next day, Jan. 16, 1947.

…there were those in the City of Angels who knew what was printed in the L.A. newspapers about the Black Dahlia case wasn’t worth two cents.

This is another sweeping absurdity made with simple, brazen confidence. As police officers at the time bitterly complained, reporters were so aggressive in gathering and reporting the story—accurately—that detectives were afraid the papers would jeopardize the investigation.

Gosh… I think I need to go for another walk.

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Blogging the Wolfe Book

People keep asking me: "Have you read the Wolfe book?" meaning Donald H. Wolfe's "The Black Dahlia Files: The Mob, the Mogul and the Murder That Transfixed Los Angeles." My answer is always the same: I bought a copy but I haven't read it yet.

Still, people keep telling me it's a wonderful job and solves the murder, usually prefaced by the statement that "I don't know anything about the case, but..."

So here we go, in excruciating detail, with frequent detours, asides and references to the five-foot shelf of Black Dahlia books. Since I have to read this turkey, you might as well suffer right along with me. If you’re not interested in Black Dahlia minutiae you will find this a painfully tedious process, which is why I don’t read other Black Dahlia books—they're junk.

The dedication: “To Vince Carter... and all the honest cops who took the oath and kept it."

Vincent Carter is, in fact, the author of a 1993 crackpot, self-published book titled "LAPD's Rogue Cops, Cover Ups and the Cookie Jar." At right, the cover (not that one can always judge the quality of a book this way, but the outsider artwork doesn't exactly say: "I'm a definitive source, trust me."). More—much, much more—about “Cookie Jar” later. At least Vincent Carter actually exists, however, unlike the nonexistent Detective Herman Willis who is one of the purported sources in John Gilmore's "Severed."

Next page: "It was that name, Black Dahlia, that set this one off..." quoting Detective Harry Hansen.

This is from The Times’ often-cited March 28, 1971, article titled "Farewell, My Black Dahlia," by Todd Faulkner. One of the more interesting aspects of this article is that Faulkner mysteriously christened Elizabeth Short with a fictitious middle name, Ann, that is now taken as gospel—even infecting her FBI file, and used rather amusingly as a smoking gun in Steve Hodel’s “Black Dahlia Avenger” to prove his father’s guilt, an "exacta" that shows 1) “Dahlia Avenger” is poorly researched and 2) mercilessly distorted to support its reverse-engineered assumption that Dr. George Hodel committed every unsolved murder in L.A. for several decades.

The Faulkner article isn't listed in the book's bibliography, so apparently we're to assume it's from an interview (a neat trick since Hansen died in 1983). But any thorough researcher would recognize the source immediately.

More to the point in the 1971 piece, however, is Hansen's emphasis that Elizabeth Short "was a man-crazy tramp but she wasn't a prostitute." This is the sort of thing that a conscientious and dedicated researcher is going to take to heart—and a quick-buck artist is going to sweep under the rug in favor of a shadowy conspiracy involving circles within circles of purported corruption, call girls and mobsters.

Preface Page XI

“Often referred to as ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma….’ ”

The Black Dahlia case was often described that way by the late Examiner reporter and foxy grandpa Will Fowler (see the readable but heavily fictionalized “Reporters: Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman,” P. 92). I’ve never heard anybody else ever call it that. “Mogul” certainly doesn’t credit Will for this statement.

The Black Dahlia case remains stamped “Open and Unsolved.”

It’s unsolved all right, but nobody went through the pages pounding them with a rubber stamp. That’s a little ridiculous.

Page XII

In 2002, Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley began establishing an archive of historic twentieth century crime investigations culled from the immense LAPD warehouse and files of the district attorney’s office.

Now wait…. This is not just wrong; it’s a serious error. The district attorney is a Los Angeles County jurisdiction while the Los Angeles Police Department is a city agency. It’s amusing to think of Cooley traipsing into the city archives at the C. Erwin Piper Technical Center on Ramirez and making the staff hand over their material from the LAPD.

What actually happened is that the district attorney’s office was cleaning house and shoveled papers that looked important into boxes. The papers aren’t the least bit organized and material from one investigation is mixed up in another. I should know—every Wednesday for a year, I visited the district attorney’s office and read old murder cases, thanks to the very generous people there.

In the case of the Black Dahlia material (which I thoroughly inventoried and indexed, and yes, I have a copy of every bit of it except for the body shots—which nobody is allowed to copy) items from several other murder investigations have been erroneously included to rather awkward results. An unlabeled photograph in the Dahlia files is identified in "Mogul" as poor old Maurice Clement—when in fact it’s Salvadore Torres Vara, a suspect in another murder. The only people who would know better are those of us who have seen not only the Dahlia files but other cases.

I’m getting way ahead of myself. But it’s disturbing when a purportedly well-researched and well-documented book about a crime tries to sound authoritative while making a gross factual blunder on such an elementary issue.

For the first time, the district attorney's files reveal the bizarre modus operandi of the crime, establish a time line of where the victim lived in the last years of her life, identify the people she knew, and provide a list of all the suspects....

Well, not for the first time. The transcript of the inquest appears in one form or another in several books. But the time line in the district attorney's files is quite pertinent to "Mogul," for it shows conclusively that Elizabeth Short wasn't anywhere near Los Angeles in 1944 or 1945 (despite the lengthy treatment in "Severed" or "Dahlia Avenger." There goes the Georgette Bauerdorf/Hollywood Canteen connection) . Another inconvenient little detail swept under the rug because only the people who have seen the files know better.

The files also reveal the Herculean effort by the upper echelons of the Los Angeles Police Department to cover up the nature of the crime.

In a word: No. There's nothing about any sort of cover-up in the district attorney's files. In fact, the files reveal just the opposite--no sign of anything other than a harried and harassed Police Department victimized by the overzealous police psychiatrist, Dr. Joseph Paul DeRiver, who sincerely but erroneously believed he had solved the case by accusing Leslie Dillon. DeRiver's actions prompted the 1949 Los Angeles County Grand Jury to investigate the case, the reason for the district attorney's files on Elizabeth Short. The Dillon matter constitutes the vast majority of the district attorney's files.

The next paragraph is quite handily done. Wolfe quickly dispenses with "Dahlia Avenger," Mary Pacios' "Childhood Shadows," Janice Knowlton's "Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Killer" and makes peace with "Severed," paving the way for inclusion of John Gilmore's book, which is 25% mistakes and 50% fiction, as we'll see later.

Will Fowler, first reporter on the scene....

Ah, no. Even I fell for that one. Will was one of the last ones there. His story about arriving at the crime scene with Felix Paegel, getting his picture taken with the body (he always claimed the photo had "vanished"), rushing to the Examiner to put out an extra, and returning to the crime scene to "fool the competition" is utterly false. No copy of the supposed extra has ever surfaced and photos of the crime scene completely disprove his claims of being the first reporter at the crime scene.

Gosh, we’re not even through the preface and we’re out of time for the day. This is not a project for anybody in a hurry. Stay tuned....

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