In this episode of Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories, hosts Carter Roy and Wenndy MacKenzie review the life and grisly murder of the Black Dahlia.
Chasing the dream of becoming a movie star, Elizabeth Short left her home in Boston for Hollywood at the age of twenty-two. It is there that the infamous starlet, soon to be known as “The Black Dahlia,” meets a gruesome and untimely end. Severed completely in half at the waist and a Glasgow smile carved onto her face, Short’s unsolved murder inspired numerous works of fiction including novels by John Gregory Dunne (1977) and James Ellroy (1987) and the films True Confessions (1981) and The Black Dahlia (2006).
The catalogue of Short’s injuries was quite extensive. Before she died, she had been beaten about the head and face. Her nipples were cut off, and more disturbingly, her reproductive organs had been removed and her rose tattoo had been sliced off her leg and shoved inside her genitals. The killer drained the blood from her body, washed her skin, shampooed her hair and then arranged her limbs so that she would be found with her legs spread apart and arms above her head.
While out for a walk on January 15, 1947, Betty Bersinger and her young daughter find the grotesquely mutilated body of a woman in a Los Angeles neighborhood lot.
Through a series of flashbacks, the episode gives listeners a glimpse into Elizabeth Short’s life. A social butterfly, notorious flight risk and teller of tall tales, Elizabeth was attracted to the glitzy Hollywood lifestyle and always looked to have a good time. She couldn’t hold down a job, bounced from one friend’s house to another and bickered with her friend Sheryl, father and various employers about dental hygiene, men, timeliness and rent.
Her many screen tests and audition attempts were unsuccessful, so she worked odd jobs on movie sets in hopes of getting noticed by someone willing to put her on the big screen. She supposedly had a fiancé in the United States Air Force named Lieutenant Matthew Gordon but none of her friends had met him. However, that did not stop her from frequenting all the exclusive Hollywood dinner and nightlife scenes with the strange, shady men she met outside these places.
When the handouts run out and her numerous debts catch up with her, Elizabeth skips town and heads for San Diego. The homeless aspiring actress sleeps in a movie theater until one of the employees, Dorothy French, finds her and offers to take her in. She tells Dorothy phony stories about her life, acting career and the death of her “husband” Lt. Gordon. A week turns into a month and the still jobless Elizabeth has outstayed her welcome.
After being kicked out of Dorothy’s house, Elizabeth hitches a ride back to Los Angeles with her married, salesman friend Robert “Red” Manley. After their stay in the L.A. Biltmore Hotel, Robert leaves for a meeting with his employer and never sees Elizabeth alive again.
Homicide investigators consider him a suspect and are skeptical when Robert tells them during interrogations that Elizabeth was seeing a jealous drunk who left scratch marks on her arms. Thinking of his pregnant wife back home, he also insists that their relationship was purely platonic.
Robert is cleared as a suspect when he passes a polygraph and a sodium pentathol test.
Several hours after Robert leaves the Biltmore Hotel, Elizabeth tells Bell Captain Harold Studholme that she’s going to a producer’s get-together in Beverly Hills. He offers to hail her a cab, but she politely declines and continues on her way down Olive Street.
He is the last to see Elizabeth alive and a week later her body is found by Betty Bersinger and her daughter. No one can account for her whereabouts or activities during that time, only the horrific end result.