Blogging the Wolfe Book, Tell It to the Marines

Large ImageI’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.” Wolfe is using the “Laura” format, in which the anonymous, butchered body is discovered and the narrative proceeds in flashbacks. We are at the point in the story when police are questioning Robert M. “Red” Manley, a traveling salesman who gave Elizabeth Short a ride from San Diego to Los Angeles in January 1947.

The two-minute executive summary:

We have seen that although this book is titled “The Black Dahlia Files” half of it is taken from Will Fowler’s “Reporters,” John Gilmore’s “Severed” and the Los Angeles Examiner. The district attorney’s files account for 8% of the book so far. In relying on “Severed,” Wolfe picks up and embellishes Gilmore’s ruthless smear of Elizabeth Short as a lazy tramp. Wolfe also reduces the vast number of detectives working the case to three: Homicide Capt. Jack Donahoe and Detectives Harry Hansen and Finis Brown, forcing them to be supposedly be in San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Lompoc at the same time. A neat trick, you must agree.

Large Image
In addition, “Mogul” shows once again that Wolfe isn’t shy about citing a source and then contradicting it completely, in this case the account of retired Officer Vincent A. Carter. Wolfe states that according to Carter, Red admitted having an affair with Elizabeth Short, while Carter’s own book states the exact opposite.

A regular correspondent writes to share a news release on an upcoming appearance by “Black Dahlia Avenger” author Steve Hodel at the Centre Pompidou. I don’t think anyone has ever accused the French of lacking a sense of humor.

Page 75

Wolfe is doing what Raymond Chandler used to call “passage work” in covering Red’s background and Elizabeth Short’s fairytales to the people who befriended her that Red was a Marine pilot. Then he picks up more of Aggie Underwood’s jailhouse interview with Red.

But not so fast. Wolfe attributes the Red Manley material to the district attorney’s files. Here’s his exact citation: “Manley’s service record and the notations regarding his ‘Section Eight’ are included in the Black Dahlia Case files at the office of the Los Angeles District Attorney.”

I really wish Wolfe could sort out the various agencies in play here. The district attorney is an elected officer for Los Angeles County and Wolfe keeps treating the job as if it were part of the city of Los Angeles bureaucracy. That would be the city attorney, another elective office.

Large ImageBut the real humor, of course, is that Wolfe’s citation leads to two boxes of jumbled paper. Somewhere in there, supposedly, is Red’s service record and material about his discharge from the Army for being mentally unfit.

Let’s go pull the box of district attorney’s files in the Dahlia case and see what we’ve got, eh?

Now I can tell you before I even look, that Red’s Army records (when he enlisted, when he was discharged, evaluations, etc.) are not there. There is a transcript of his interrogation by Frank Jemsion of the district attorney’s office, conducted Feb. 1, 1950, but there’s nothing about his service record in it.

Hm. Nothing about Red’s Army record in the LAPD summary of the case.

Let’s keep looking. Well, how about the list of 22 suspects?

Nope.

Let me check my index of the district attorney’s files.

Guess what.

Nada.

Large ImageThe truth is I could spend an entire day digging through these files and might still come up empty-handed. The point being that the material on Red’s service record isn’t in the main places you’d look: His interview, the LAPD summary and the list of suspects (in fact, in the interrogation, Jemison goes out of his way to emphasize that Red was not a suspect).

Now let me skip over some of the Underwood interview to get to:

Page 76

Because Wolfe is going to fabricate out of thin air, a tryst between Red and Elizabeth Short at the Mecca Motel.

OK, folks, watch a master fabricator at work. If you ever want to know how to make up some bogus material, this is how it’s done:

“At this point Manley hesitated in his story. Correcting himself, he said, ‘No—we started to drive to the Club, and it took us two and a half or three hours to find it… Boy it’s sure easy to get lost in San Diego!’ ”

Large ImageThat’s verbatim from Underwood’s interview, except that she didn’t capitalize “club.” A point apparently lost on ReganBooks, the publishing house without proofreaders or fact-checkers.

Ready? Here we go!

“Before correcting himself, Manley may have been about to say that they left and tried to find a motel. Though Manley told Aggie that he had left Elizabeth Short at the Frenches, and then found a ‘room’ up the coast, and registered ‘for myself,’ the Examiner reporters had discovered that both Manley and Elizabeth Short had registered at the Mecca Motel on the day in question—December 16. The ‘two and a half or three hours’ supposedly spent trying to find the Hacienda Club were more than likely spent at the motel where they had both registered before going to the club, which was only a fifteen-minute drive from the French residence in Pacific Beach and only ten minutes from the Hacienda Club. Manley continued: ‘When we got to the Hacienda Club, we had a few drinks and danced a few times. Then it was twelve o’clock. We went to a drive-in, had a sandwich, and I took her home.’ ”

Large ImageNotice that this makes no sense. Let’s run that again:

The ‘two and a half or three hours’ supposedly spent trying to find the Hacienda Club were more than likely spent at the motel where they had both registered before going to the club, which was only a fifteen-minute drive from the French residence in Pacific Beach and only ten minutes from the Hacienda Club.

In other words, the nightclub is only 10 minutes from itself. OK California geography can be complex, but not that complex. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume (or “speculate with confidence” as Hodel is so fond of saying) that Wolfe means the motel was 15 minutes from the Frenches’ home and 10 minutes from the Hacienda Club.

Of course, for this to work, Wolfe must have found the Hacienda Club. Think so? Let’s dig through the book and see if he says where it is. I’ll bet he doesn’t know.

Nope. Wolfe hasn’t a clue where the club was. In truth, the reason Red had such a hard time finding the club is because it wasn’t anywhere near Mission Valley.

Oops.

But there’s more.
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Red didn’t stay at the Mecca Motel on the December trip, but on his second trip in January.

Excuse me? What’s my source? It’s an unidentified newspaper clipping in the Gilmore archives at UCLA. Box 16, Folder 3.

Here’s the headline:

‘Red’ Here Night Girl Slain. L.A. Police Checking His Alibi.

Tell them I sent you.

And here’s something really peculiar. Gilmore doesn’t even use his own material (“Severed,” Page 106).

Time for my walk.

Shout out to:

Riverdale, Ill. (12.100.216.67)

Salem, Ore. (67.166.94.152)

France (80.124.192.14) (Tiens! Going to the Hodel appearance?)

Windows 98 user in Portland, Ore. (24.21.137.251) Upgrade!

Hurry back!

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About lmharnisch

I work at the Los Angeles Times
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One Response to Blogging the Wolfe Book, Tell It to the Marines

  1. Yeah, the idea of Steve Hodel at the Centre Pompidou is just a laff-riot. Lets just say the credulous reception Hodel has gotten over there has disabused me of any notions I might have had about the superiority of the French educational system.Somehow I doubt Steve Hodel would be so cavalier about showing his lying, dead-guy-slandering face if Man Ray’s ex-cop brother-in-law were still living in Paris. Unfortunately, that gentleman seems to have departed the City of Lights for the next world a couple of years ago. Hey, Steve, that means you can start saying HE was involved in the Black Dahlia murder, too!Small consolation: the thought of Steve Hodel sharing a bill with Dennis Cooper is genuinely mirth-inducing.

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