Photo: Lobby of the Biltmore Hotel, Jan. 9, 2012, 6:30 p.m. Credit: Larry Harnisch/L.A. Daily Mirror.
I wandered over to the Biltmore on Monday night to keep my annual appointment. I’m not compulsive about being there, and I don’t bother when the date falls on a weekend, but if it’s convenient, I manage a stroll through the building about the time Elizabeth Short walked out the doors in 1947 and into the infinite fog of memory and myth.
By 5:30, the streets of Los Angeles are cold and dark this time of year. The merchants who run the little dress shops and electronics stores on Broadway were getting their displays off the sidewalks and the last few customers were straggling out of Grand Central Market. Hill Street around Angels Flight was a sea of red taillights as cars headed home – or at least tried to get out of downtown.
In the dim light, I cut across the broad, sloping apron of black asphalt where Philharmonic Auditorium used to be. In the distance, a man’s voice announced “Pershing Square” from a bus picking up passengers on 5th Street, like the ghostly chatter at Disneyland late at night, when the park is closing and the shrieking laughter and songs from all those rides echo across the empty Main Street of the Happiest Place on Earth.
Long after Christmas, the tree trunks in Pershing Square are still wrapped in red and green lights, and big snowflakes hang across the entrance to the ice skating rink set up for the holidays. Outdoor ice skating in sunny Los Angeles? Well, it is the land of make-believe.
Outside the Biltmore, one of those human scarecrows from skid row, dressed in rags and a stocking cap, was begging for money as he roamed among cars stopped for the traffic light at Olive and 5th. I crossed the street and was nearly run down by a panicked lady with a shopping bag rushing to catch a bus, doing that clumsy, awkward jog that women do when they try to run in heels. If I was on a journey into the past this night, I was certainly making it alone.
Los Angeles in the 1940s is another Fantasyland, cooked up by a thousand two-bit Raymond Chandlers pounding the keys of their crinkled black Underwoods and Remingtons like Steinbeck’s chimpanzees, knocking out pulp detective thrillers and cheap B movies while they dreamed of making enough money to retire with the wife and kids to a safe little cul-de-sac in Encino and finally writing that big Hollywood novel.
In Chandlerland, all the cops are crooked and all the politicians are on the take. All the men are Humphrey Bogart or Alan Ladd and all the women are some starlet who was supposed to be the next Virginia Mayo.
Everything here happens at night. Daylight is only good for making shadows in this fictional land of nightclubs and alleys, cheap diners and seedy rooming houses; too much sun reveals the painted backdrops, the phony rain and the leading man’s toupee.
I wandered onto the set of Chandlerland in 1996, the earnest reporter searching for the truth — not about Rosebud, but the Black Dahlia.
The basic myth is easy: Once upon a time in the long-ago 1940s, a pretty, naive young girl from back East comes to Hollywood, sleeps with everyone but Elmer Fudd and ends up mutilated, cut in half and left in a vacant lot.
From there, people blend their own Black Dahlia martini from the gin of lousy books, the vermouth of Wikipedia, and an olive from one of those websites run by folks with tinfoil hats. They can even throw in the grenadine of George Hodel or the Kahlua of Orson Welles. As long as the last ingredient is the shot of bitters about her gruesome death giving her the fame she wanted all her life. And with a Black Dahlia martini, the facts are shaken and stirred.
Running the AA in Chandlerland is the most thankless job I know. Try taking away someone’s bottle with a dose of reality and they fight and scratch and bawl like a drunk. With the reasoning of an alcoholic, they can talk any angle into being a straight line. Up is down, black is white and night is day. Was it Jack Wilson in the conservatory with a saw? Col. Mustard in the Sowden House with a wrench? Or Miss Scarlet in the Biltmore with a knife? It’s like playing “Clue” with actual people and a real body.
Elizabeth Short isn’t forgotten. She’s worse than forgotten, exploited by fast-buck writers and overrun with crackpots; turned into the patron saint of “lost gurls” in black who leave cigarettes at her grave although she didn’t smoke and buy the Biltmore’s Black Dahlia martini — even though she was pretty much a teetotaler.
I wonder if I saw some of them the other night when I wandered through the Biltmore. There were a couple of young women — in black, of course — when I passed through the new lobby — the one that didn’t exist in 1947, despite its starring role in “Black Dahlia Avenger.”
In contrast, the old lobby was almost deserted when I wandered through on Monday about 6:30. Just one couple, a young man photographing a young woman in black. Was it for Elizabeth Short or was she just being fashionable? Should I tell her that Elizabeth Short never got the memo about always wearing black? Only if I want an argument.
I walked out the doors and back to work, marveling at the renaissance in downtown Los Angeles, which has changed so much since I arrived in 1988. The old, derelict buildings have been turned into lofts, and instead of the homeless and their cardboard condos, we have people walking dogs and pushing baby strollers.
I guess the transformation proves the old line: We cannot forget the past. But we also cannot live there.
I usually prune back my roses on the anniversary of Elizabeth Short’s death. I used to do it on Valentine’s Day, but Jan. 15 is better for the roses and seems more appropriate. And I have a nice crop by her birthday, July 29, which I find a much better day to celebrate.