Givenchy recently launched a new version of its Dahlia Noir perfume; the first thing I thought of when I heard the name was the infamous 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short which was front page news in Los Angeles for weeks, has been the subject of dozens of books, and remains unsolved 65 years later. Was the brutal murder Givenchy’s inspiration?
In 1940s America, the siren call of the Dream Factory lured Elizabeth Short from Massachusetts to Hollywood. Though the Dream Factory promised much, Elizabeth Short’s dreams were modest: to fall in love with a soldier and live happily ever after. Those who knew her during that time described her as “shy and sweet,” “immaculately dressed,” and someone who “didn’t smoke or drink.” In her letters to her fiancé Major Matt Gordon, she looked forward to their future together, writing in May 1945, “I love you, I love you, I love you. Sweetheart of all my dreams.”
But Elizabeth’s dream was destroyed when Gordon was killed in a plane crash on his way home from India. Although bereft, Elizabeth stayed in Hollywood and met someone else who would prove to be not her dream lover but rather the demon of her destruction. All these years later, the question of how the “good kid” Elizabeth Short crossed paths with a sadistic killer remains unanswered.
Newspapers referred to the murdered Elizabeth Short as the Black Dahlia, the name coined most probably by Elizabeth’s friends who were influenced by the 1946 movie The Blue Dahlia, and Elizabeth’s black hair and penchant for black clothes. Ironically, The Blue Dahlia also tells the story of a vicious murder. After Short’s death, the daily papers screamed headlines such as: “Police seek mad pervert in girl’s death,” (Washington Post 1/19/47), and the name Black Dahlia undoubtedly helped to keep the murder the lead story for many weeks.
All of the circumstances surrounding the death of Elizabeth Short are not known; however, what is known is that one day before she was killed, Elizabeth feared for her life. Running up to policewoman Myrl McBride in downtown Los Angeles on January 14, 1947, “sobbing in terror” Elizabeth exclaimed “someone wants to kill me.” But a few minutes later, after assuring McBride that she was going to meet her parents, Short got into a car with two unidentified men and a woman and was never again seen alive. The next morning, January 15, 1947, 22 year old Elizabeth Short’s nude body was discovered in a vacant lot in a residential section of Los Angeles. The dead woman appeared to be posed; There were rope marks on her wrists, ankles and neck, suggesting that she had been tied and tortured, and it was also clear that Elizabeth had been killed somewhere else and dumped in the lot as there was no blood on her body or the ground. Short’s body was mutilated, bisected at the waist, drained of blood, legs spread apart, arms positioned above her head, with her mouth slit open from ear to ear in a grotesque smile.
Los Angeles Examiner reporter Will Fowler and photographer Felix Pagel were first on the scene, and their story and gruesome crime scene photos were published that same day. Such was the savagery of the murder that the photos were retouched with a blanket airbrushed onto the brutalized body.
If the placement of Elizabeth’s body was deliberate, its positioning was a puzzle. The posing of a dead body, even today, occurs in less than one percent of all homicides, and so it seems probable that Elizabeth Short’s killer was sending some kind of message. Her arms were raised above her head, the right arm at a forty-five degree angle away from the body and bent at the elbow to form a ninety degree angle, the left arm positioned the same way to form a second ninety degree angle; her mouth was slit open from ear to ear. Her body had been cut in half with the top half set twelve inches above the lower and slightly to the left of it. But what was the message?
The police never deciphered it. Many theories have been posited and dozens of books written about the murder. One credible decoding of the message and unmasking of the murderer comes from Steve Hodel in his book Black Dahlia Avenger and its sequels. Hodel claims that his father, Dr. George Hodel, killed not just Elizabeth Short but dozens of other women. The explanation of the body’s positioning, suggests Hodel, can be found in Surrealism, especially the work of Man Ray, a close friend of Dr. Hodel.
Steve Hodel asserts that George Hodel was paying a perverted homage to the art of Man Ray, perhaps even playing a game of one-upmanship—“what you can do in art, I can do in reality.” As sinister as that seems, Man Ray’s photos are compelling. As evidence, Steve Hodel points to two of Man Ray’s photos. One is Les Amoureux (The Lovers, 1934); the second is the Le Minotaure (The Minotaur, 1935). Les Amoureux shows a pair of very red lips stretched across a horizon providing a possible template for the slitting of Elizabeth Short’s mouth from ear to ear. If one accepts this theory, then Le Minotaure helps to explain the posing of Elizabeth Short’s body.
While I was at first skeptical of this evidence, I became more convinced of its validity the more closely I compared Man Ray’s photographs to the crime scene photos. Even more persuasive for me, George Hodel, thinking he was about to be arrested, left the country in 1951 and stayed away for 40 years while Man Ray left the United States in 1951 never to return.
Elizabeth Short was tortured, sexually mutilated, killed, and abandoned. Givenchy, as an ad for its perfume Dahlia Noir, has created a video that seems to draw from Short’s sad life. In it they fetishistically film a woman who appears to be writhing in pain. It’s decidedly creepy.
Rather than capitalize on her murder 65 years later, we should instead wish Elizabeth Short the peace in death she never found in life.
Susan Amper, author of How to Write About Edgar Allan Poe, still mourns the loss of her Nancy Drew collection.
Read all of Susan Amper’s posts for Criminal Element.