Saturday, February 11, 2006

Location Sleuth

Look what I found while watching the opening of "Some Like It Hot." Why it's signage for a 1950s Standard gas station. Hey isn't that going to be in the shot? Naw, don't worry about it.

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Blogging the Wolfe Book, the Riddler

Pages 12-15

Here's a riddle: Let’s suppose for a moment that you are writing a historical piece; nothing terribly esoteric for a scholarly journal but something for the average reader. You have a choice between a schlocky, sensational paperback and original documents that few people are allowed to see.


If you’re Donald H. Wolfe, you’d forget the LAPD summary in the district attorney’s files and pick the schlocky, sensational paperback, “Severed.”

“Mogul,” Page 12; “Severed,” Page 9

“By the time Hansen and Brown reached the new location, reporters from L.A.’s newspapers had converged on the area, littering the street and sidewalk with cigarette butts and blackened flashbulbs from cameras. Several more police and onlookers had found their way to the site—some were driving around the block while others parked and stood on the roofs of their cars for a better view.”

Let’s have fun with this. Here’s a better picture of Aggie Underwood at the crime scene. Note 1) that she is standing in the street. Note 2) the police officer next to her also isn’t permitted to get any closer to the body and 3) notice that the news photographer has to stand on the roof of a car because he isn’t allowed any closer to the body. Also note that nobody is tromping through the crime scene. The books that insist the crime scene was violated are lying.

We turn to Wolfe’s bibliography to check his sources and Ach! Mein Gott this is worse than I thought! Wolfe reproduces the first two pages of the police summary (“Mogul,” Page 325-326) and totally ignores it. In-cred-i-ble.

As clearly stated in the LAPD summary as reproduced on “Mogul,” Page 325, police officers present at the crime scene included, along with responding Officers Perkins and Fitzgerald: “Sgts. Wynn, Vaughn, Forensic Chemist Ray Pinker, photographer Laursen from Sci. Investigation Division, and representatives and photographers from the newspapers. Pictures had been taken by the newspapers of the body. They were later joined by Lt. Leland V. Jones of the Scientific Investigation Division.”

Do any of these people appear in Wolfe’s treatment of the crime scene? Except for Pinker, no. For an alleged history, this is extremely poor work. It’s one thing not to have access to material and quite another to be granted access and ignore it.

Instead Wolfe recycles “Severed’s” treatment of the crime scene, with Hansen bellowing at Pinker in the best Moe Howard fashion “Get over here!” (Cue SFX: bop, slap, bonk!). I almost expect Gilmore to have Hansen say: “Spread out!

More important, the contention in “Severed” and all the books that follow is an insult to the men who worked the Black Dahlia case. This was not a case of dozens of police officers tromping through the grass, as portrayed in either “Who Is the Black Dahlia?” or more likely “True Confessions” (sorry, I know it’s in a film, but I forget which one).

For the record, there isn’t a single crime scene photo showing anyone in the grass and weeds to the west of the body except for the two lead investigators, Harry Hansen and Finis Brown, and they don’t approach the body until they have been cleared by Gilbert Laursen, the gent in the sweater seen in so many gruesome pictures on the Internet.

Take a look at the picture above: Nobody is standing in the grass but keeping carefully on the sidewalk. People aren't circling the block to get a better view. There's nobody standing on a car except the photographer who took this picture, and that was because he couldn't get any closer. Bonus fact: This picture is from a website that doesn't reveal its extreme manipulation of photos. This image has spread and is now deemed an authentic picture of the Daily News front page. In fact, the real Daily News front page had a large white arrow painted on the picture to indicate the body.

If you’ll notice in the pictures, Ray Pinker—one of the leading forensic chemists of his day—has his hands either in his pockets or otherwise secured so he won’t touch anything. These investigators were the elite of their era. Any statement other than that is simply not supported by the facts.

This is why I keep saying "Severed" is 25% mistakes and 50% fiction.

(And let’s backtrack for a moment to “Mogul,” Page 11. Wolfe puts the Hollywood Citizen-News at the crime scene, but that’s not so easily established. The Citizen-News’ Page 1 story reads like a rewrite of the Herald but makes a significant error, wrongly stating that Elizabeth Short’s right leg was broken, virtually ensuring that the writer didn’t see the body. This error gets picked up in a few minor treatments of the Dahlia case, but luckily hasn’t assumed the status of an Internet virus).

"Watson, you see, but you do not observe."--"A Scandal in Bohemia"

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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.


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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Thursday, February 09, 2006

Blogging the Wolfe Book, Neutral Milk Hotel

I was at a signing at Book Soup last night for Kim Cooper’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” (important note: there’s parking behind the store, otherwise you have to contend with West Hollywood’s insane parking situation. Those people aren’t cruising Sunset Boulevard, they’re just looking for a parking place). The attendant at the lot two blocks away ($7) asked me if I was headed for the Roxy, which made me laugh all night. Yeah, that’s me, Mr. Viper Room.

A common question at the signing: C’mon, Harnisch, are you really going to blog the entire Wolfe book?

I don’t know. People tell me what a great book this is, so I’m obligated to read it. Especially since 1) I met Donald H. Wolfe at the district attorney’s office when he was researching the Dahlia case and even sent him some documents, and 2) he uses some of my material (sans permission or acknowledgement) without changing a comma.

Still, there are rewards to reading a book at the molecular level. For example, I’m continually entertained by “Black Dahlia Avenger’s” absurdly confident statement (Page 3) that the Los Angeles Police Department handled such important murder cases as the “Red Light Bandit” (Caryl Chessman, left, was executed even though he never killed anybody, which was one reason his case was so controversial), Bugsy Siegel (Beverly Hills Police Department) and Fatty Arbuckle (take that, San Francisco Police Department).

Here’s the two-minute executive summary on “Mogul”:

This book is bad. It is based on secondary sources (and doesn’t even handle them well), misspells names, mangles the facts, exaggerates details and suppresses crucial information. All this in the first eight pages of background. Believe me, if a book can’t be trusted with simple information, it isn’t going to suddenly get better when the material gets more complicated.

OK, executives, you can stop reading now. Anyone else, as they say in the Marines: “Follow Me.”

Page 8

The legs were disconnected from the waist… The breasts seemed to have been detached…

I don’t like talking about the condition of the body but this makes it sound as if the legs were separated at the pelvis. Elizabeth Short was cut just above the waist. And the claim about the breasts is wrong, according to the transcript of the autopsy included in the inquest.

Mrs. Bersinger noticed that the head had been badly damaged and that there were red marks on the face. She suddenly stopped pushing the baby stroller and stared at the broken head in frozen disbelief as she realized that the red marks were congealed blood…

This is a nice bit of literary three-card monte (shout out to Nathan Marsak, thanks for the picture, crime buddy). Wolfe needs to introduce the condition of the body so he hangs it on Bersinger, except it didn’t occur that way.

Let’s take “the breasts seemed to have been detached.” To whom did it seem that way? Bersinger? For the record, she doesn’t give interviews. I was lucky enough to talk to her and her husband, John, in 1996, and they are wonderful, gracious people. But she does not like discussing the Black Dahlia murder doesn’t talk to the media any more.

In her interview with me, however, she described her encounter as being very brief. She did not stand and gape at the body, but saw it out of the corner of her eye as she was focusing on the stroller, looked just long enough to realize what was in the grass and hurried down the street to report it.

Since she didn’t talk to Wolfe, he used the original Examiner story and “Childhood Shadows.”

And what do we find in “Childhood Shadows” Page 68?


“The head was turned slightly toward her, but Mrs. Bersinger couldn’t see the features. Everything was blurry.”

But what about: “Mrs. Bersinger noticed that the head had been badly damaged and that there red marks on the face”? What about she “stared at the broken head in frozen disbelief”?

Nope. Nobody has ever said that. Not Wolfe’s two supposed sources and especially not Bersinger in her interview with me. Historians don’t get the protection of artistic license—this is called lying.

I mean, don't you think if you cite something in your bibliography you should use it rather than completely contradict it? Otherwise it's window dressing. I'm sure they taught students how to write a research paper, with proper footnotes and bibliography, at Beverly Hills High. ("Mogul," Page 6). That's the least we demand from students doing elementary research papers in remedial English. Why should we expect less from a $30 book? This means you, ReganBooks.

And for the record, the killer washed and scrubbed the body, so there wasn’t any congealed blood.

I have to go for a walk.

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

A "C" From the Health Inspector

Page 8

In those days Leimert Park was a nice, middle-class neighborhood on the fringe of the more fashionable Adams District west of downtown Los Angeles.

Here, in a few words, “Mogul” demonstrates its lack of familiarity with two historic Los Angeles areas that are nearly three miles apart, a definition of “West Adams adjacent” that even the lowest real estate agent would find excessive. Wolfe’s psychological map of Los Angeles (an exercise wonderfully described in “Shotgun Freeway”) is a little distorted. (Here’s a clip of the movie).

Sunrise was at 6:53 a.m. on Wednesday, January 15, 1947.

Incredibly, even this simply verified fact is wrong. Does this matter by itself? Not unless your faith dictates that you make a religious observation at a particular time. Does it become worrisome when added to all the other errors? Absolutely. More important, if a researcher can’t get simple things correct, how can he be trusted with far more complicated material still to come?

What “Mogul” is setting up in all of this is the discovery of the body, which I assume (remember I’m blogging in real time and not reading ahead) will be followed by the rest of the story told in flashbacks.

This is the standard “Laura” treatment of the Black Dahlia murder, following the structure of the Vera Caspary novel made into the 1944 movie with Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews and Clifton Webb. As Caspary discovered, this is a wonderful structure for a novel—which is quite good and I recommend it—a classic film noir, a crummy play and above-average radio play that aired on the Lux Radio Theatre several times.

Flashbacks are the standard structure used in “Severed,” John Gregory Dunne’s “True Confessions” and James Ellroy’s “The Black Dahlia.” Even Robert Lenski used it in the Lucie Arnaz TV movie “Who Is the Black Dahlia?” Of course the problem is that although this is fine for fiction, it’s terrible for history because the investigation wasn’t linear or chronological. So we’ll see how Wolfe handles this.

At about 10:30 a.m. a Leimert Park resident, Betsy Bersinger….

Uh-oh. This is bad. Really, really bad work. In our mythical restaurant inspection, this would be like the health department discovering roaches in the guacamole. The woman who found the body (a very gracious lady whom I interviewed) is named Betty, not Betsy. This is like writing a history of World War II and referring to Arnold Hitler.

The literary health inspector has just slapped a C on “Mogul.” One more slip and I’m closing you down.

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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Blogging the Wolfe Book, the Boy on the Bicycle

Page 7

What’s this? Another day on Page 7? Theological scholars don’t scrutinize the Bible this carefully and this is a book you could read in a few hours waiting for a plane at LAX. Don’t give up, we’re closing in on Page 8. I warned you from the beginning that this would be tedious. But you asked why I don’t read Black Dahlia books. This is why. It’s painful.

In the small hours after midnight, Bobby Jones, a young man in his early teens, wheeled his bicycle through a vacant lot near Thirty-Ninth Street and Norton Avenue in Leimert Park.

This is the elusive story about the Boy on the Bicycle at the crime scene. It’s one of Will Fowler’s yarns and the original version goes like this: Will was at the crime scene with photographer Felix Paegel (Will usually threw in lots of distracting details about what kind of flashbulbs Paegel used to divert attention from the fact that Will didn’t have a copy of the picture Paegel supposedly took of him with the body. “And nooooooobody around,” Will always said. “All alooonnnnne.”

In his often-told tale, the cops showed up, pulled their guns and Will explained who he was, suggesting they go talk to the Boy on the Bicycle who was standing nearby.

My first hint that anything was wrong with this was when I told Will I’d found one of the first two police officers at the scene and was going to interview him (which I did). Will became extremely uncomfortable and said something like: “Gee, (nervous laugh) I wonder if he’ll remember pulling his gun?”

When I sat down with the officer, Wayne Fitzgerald, he said: “Bullshit!” And then to make sure I got the point, he said it again: “Bullshit!”

And as time proved, Will wasn’t the first reporter at the crime scene. It took me years to untangle the truth and by then Will was in terrible shape, dying of cancer and in mental decline. One time I was coming over to visit and asked if there was anything I could bring him. Will asked me to pick up some Kleenex and toilet paper. At his apartment on Stern in Sherman Oaks, Will told me where to put the items and when I opened the cabinet, the shelves were full of Kleenex and toilet paper. He was embarrassed and said: "I guess I forgot."

He got even worse. Before his death in 2004, Will called up and said he’d been institutionalized for six months because he had become violent with someone (Will was a boxer—or at least claimed he was a boxer in his early years. His father, Gene, was friends with Jack Dempsey so I assume at least some part of his boxing stories is true). I never had the heart to call him after that.

I have never located the Boy on the Bicycle, but it isn’t for lack of trying. He’s never mentioned in any of the news reports or documents in the Los Angeles County district attorney’s files.

Here’s Will’s version of the Boy on the Bicycle from “Reporters,” Page 75: “As [the officers] started their investigation, I pointed toward Crenshaw. There was a pre-teenager straddling his bike a block away. 'Why don’t you question that kid over there? Maybe he knows something,' I said. I was anxious to get to a phone.”

He next turns up in “Severed,” Page 1:

“Shortly after six o’clock that morning, a boy walked his bicycle through the weeds of a stretch of vacant lots south of Hollywood.”

I read something like that and I just sigh. Leimert Park, despite what you read elsewhere is nowhere near Hollywood.

“Severed” continues: “The boy slowed down to glance back at the sound of a car, an older black sedan, possibly a Ford. The early morning light reflected on the windshield and he couldn’t see anyone behind the wheel…. Almost late for his paper route, the boy gave no further thought to that lone car on Norton. But soon he would find out that someone—whoever had been in that car—had left something so terrible in the vacant lot that for the rest of his life the boy would remember that windshield. He would try to picture a face behind the glass but he never could see one.”

Note that Will puts the Boy on the Bicycle a block from the crime scene on Crenshaw at the time the body is found while John Gilmore, in “Severed,” rolls the clock back to dawn and puts him on Norton Avenue. Wolfe places the Boy on the Bicycle even earlier, “in the small hours after midnight.” And “Severed” never identifies him or gives his age, while Will gives his name as Bobby Jones and calls him a preteen. Wolfe, however, makes him a bit older.

But of course there’s more to the story. Let’s flip back to Todd (also known as Tod) Faulkner’s 1971 feature in The Times. Aha! It’s our friend, the Boy on the Bicycle. But wait. Here’s what Faulker says:

"[Harry] Hansen remembers that reporters and photographers were already on the scene when he and [Finis] Brown arrived. So was a man who had been out walking his dog. So was Bobby Smith, an 11-year-old from down the street who usually played in this field and who now sat quietly astride his bicycle and watched and would remember."

Nothing about a paper route, nothing about him seeing a car, nothing about spending the rest of his life trying to visualize the face behind the windshield of the car, as portrayed in “Severed.” Faulker wraps up the story of the Boy on the Bicycle by saying: “Bobby Smith, the 11-year-old who sat and watched it that morning from his bike, works for a motor home company out in Van Nuys.”

I’ve never found this kid, nor the motor home company in Van Nuys where he supposedly worked. The Times did publish his picture, however.

Here’s the genealogy of the Boy on the Bicycle story:

1971, Todd Faulkner, Los Angeles Times (making his debut as Bobby Smith)

1991, Will Fowler, “Reporters” (name changed to Bobby Jones)

1994, John Gilmore, “Severed” (not identified)

2006, Donald H. Wolfe, “Mogul” (using the name Bobby Jones), crediting “Severed” and a 2003 interview with Will, who was barely coherent at that point in his life—at least when I spoke with him.

Fortunately “Black Dahlia Avenger,” either misses or ignores this story, or the Boy on the Bicycle (evil genius George Hodel in disguise perhaps?) would be swept up in the vast, shadowy conspiracy in which the LAPD concealed dozens of murders because Dr. Hodel knew who was walking around Los Angeles with a case of VD. I hope that sounds as absurd to you as it does to me.

So how does the story go from Will Fowler to John Gilmore? Through Mary Pacios, author of “Childhood Shadows.” Will describes his encounter in “Reporters,” Pages 88-91:

“Then there was a 13-year-old boy named John Gilmore, the son of a Los Angeles policeman at the time of the Dahlia murder. The elder had little to do with the case then. But after many years of listening to his father recount the unsolved slaying over and over, young John finally published a Black Dahlia piece in what is known in the industry as a ‘junk magazine.’ ”

“It was my impression that John finally succumbed to the fictional bizarre when he claimed to have met Elizabeth [Short’s] killer, ‘Mr. Jones.’ And… heavens to Betsy… John’s informant, who led him to Mr. Jones, was no other than the reliable source: nationally respected ‘Mr. Smith.’ ”

Will continues to describe meeting Mary Pacios, (then Mary Humphrey).

“As a down payment in order to more closely study this woman who desperately yearned for some kind of recognition, I offered to guide her along the difficult route of writing a first book. In good faith, I handed her my Dahlia chapter, the Crane scenario [too much Dahlia insider stuff even for me—lrh] some photo negatives and John Gilmore’s erroneous magazine piece. This, with the proviso that the material would serve only as a guide, and that she would not publish or publicly refer to any of the same until after ‘Reporters’ was published.”….

“It wasn’t until 1990 when Mary sent me her final letter. She wrote that she and John Gilmore had met and the two were going to collaborate on a Dahlia book.”

“My God,” I thought, “now two confused Dahlia nonentities have coupled.”

“Some time later I happened to catch the two on a television talk show where they starred as the ultimate Black Dahlia authorities. They had unblushingly enlarged on their fancies. Now John claimed the murderer had confessed to him before death, and not to police. And Mary had raised Elizabeth in her social station, having had her double-dating with Marilyn Monroe and appearing at fashionable Hollywood nightclubs with the likes of Franchot Tone.”

Does the Boy on the Bicycle really exist? The Times ran a picture of somebody in 1971. But the smart money says he is fiction.

The larger question, however, is why Wolfe draws on "Severed" as well Will Fowler and "Reporters," which is so dismissive and sarcastic about John Gilmore. Since I'm blogging this as I read in real time, I don't know the answer. Maybe we'll find out and maybe not.

Whew. I have to go for a walk. But as promised we are on Page 8.

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Monday, February 06, 2006

Blogging the Wolfe Book, Weather Report

Page 7 (Continued)

If the temperature dropped below 35 degrees F in the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys, the ranchers had to go out and light their smudge pots to ward off the frost that could damage the citrus crops.

On the night of Tuesday, January 14, 1947, the fruit frost warning had been posted and broadcasted on the ten o'clock news. At that hour few people were out on the streets.

At left, a smudge pot, now nothing but an unpleasant antique in California. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, hundreds of these evil devices, burning diesel fuel, made the air over Los Angeles so polluted that there were days you couldn't see City Hall from across the street.

I just sighed when I saw this. Time to cue the leaden skies from "Severed." (Hm. I'd forgotten I was using a flier on hemorrhoids from the National Institutes of Health as a bookmark in "Severed" Clearly I don't refer to either one very often).

Smudge pots burned for the first night that winter to keep the frost from killing the citrus. The cold had settled in from the cloudless sky that by dawn shone like dull gray metal that revealed no shadows. ("Severed," Page 1).

Now to dig out the files on the weather, because it's always reported incorrectly. First with "Severed" and then everyone who follows.





Los Angeles



Jan. 15. 1947

L.A. Ground Temperature



Jan. 15, 1947




Jan. 15, 1947




Jan. 15, 1947

San Gabriel



Jan. 15, 1947

Los Angeles



Jan. 16. 1947

L.A. Ground Temperature



Jan. 16, 1947



51 (probably an error for 31)

Jan. 16, 1947




Jan. 16, 1947

San Gabriel



Jan. 16, 1947

Southern California forecast for Jan. 15, 1947: Generally sunny today and tomorrow, but with some scattered cloudiness. Slowly rising daytime temperatures but continued cool.

Sunny today? What about "a cloudless sky that by dawn shone like dull gray metal that revealed no shadows?" A cloudless sky that revealed no shadows? How is that possible? And where are the smudge pots?

The answer: On Jan. 16, 1947, the Herald-Express ran a story headlined "31 Degrees; Smudge Darkens L.A. in Cold Wave." Of course, since the Herald was an afternoon paper, it was speaking about the day after the body was found: "As a teeth chattering 31-degree temperature greeted Los Angeles today, the coldest since Feb. 15, 1942, clouds of smudge smoke from the citrus belt blanketed the city."

Tsk, tsk, tsk. This is what happens when you trust someone else's research instead of doing your own, especially when you take anything from "Severed," which I'm fairly sure I mentioned is 25% mistakes and 50% fiction.

As everyone who knows me is well aware, I don't like the crime scene pictures, but this photo of Los Angeles Times reporter Marvin Miles at the crime scene is appropriate because he's wearing sunglasses. Regardless of what you read in any of the Dahlia books about brooding darkness and leaden skies, it was a bright, sunny day.

Is it being too petty to note that ranchers have cattle and farmers grow crops? And wonder why Wolfe writes 10:00 p.m. and ten o'clock on the same page instead of 10 p.m. and 10 o'clock? I suppose it is. Broadcasted? ReaganBooks should really hire a couple of good copy editors.

As a writer, I have a visceral reaction to finding books in the trash. They're so much work. Writers should never be allowed to see the overfilled trash barrels at any publication that does book reviews, where prerelease copies are unceremoniously dumped, not even read, like dead leaves in the fall. So when I took some boxes to Out of the Closet over the weekend I had to rescue a copy of Walter Mosley's "Devil in a Blue Dress" that was in the dumpster behind the store. The book was annotated on nearly every page, as follows:

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Sunday, February 05, 2006

Blogging the Wolfe Book, Sniff Test

And how are we doing? Some glaring omissions, a few mangled facts and some major errors. In all, the book isn't doing well and we’re only on Page 6. If this were a restaurant, the health department would give it a “B” grade and start looking for vermin infestations and improper storage of food. The suppression of any information about the author’s links to Los Angeles Realtors and one of the leading financiers of the 20th century is particularly troubling—and certainly raises the question of whether the book is going to play fair with the reader.

In all honesty, if this were any other book, I would have already quit, because it’s clear that this is going to be a problematic manuscript all the way to Page 402, and life is short.

Still, people keep telling me what a great book this is, so let’s forge ahead.

Page 7

In the 1940s you could listen to … Edgar Bergin.

Oh dear. Clearly, along with purging the staff of fact-checkers, ReganBooks has fired its proofreaders. “Gang Busters” instead of “Gangbusters” might be forgivable. But Edgar Bergen as Bergin? That’s really no way to treat one of the Beverly Hills neighbors.

But by 10:00 p.m. the entertainment came to an end and you knew it was time to go to sleep when the fruit frost warnings came on.

Hm. Let’s dig into the radio logs, shall we? Looks like programs ran until at least a bit past midnight on Jan. 15, 1947.

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