Blogging the Wolfe Book, The Houyhnhnms

Our story so far, the two-minute executive summary:

Donald H. Wolfe’s book “The Black Dahlia Files: The Mob, the Mogul and the Murder That Transfixed Los Angeles” has introduced the character of “Uncle Vern,” not a blood relative but the boyfriend of the author’s grandmother.

Uncle Vern is presented as:

  • a disgraced former prosecutor, which he wasn’t (disgraced, yes; prosecutor, no)

  • a mob lawyer (lawyer, yes; mob mouthpiece, not a chance)

  • a house-sitter for Bugsy Siegel in 1946, which is impossible because Siegel didn’t live at the house in question until 1947. Uncle Vern is the source of a story about the murder of Thelma Todd by Bugsy Siegel, buttressed by the book “Hot Toddy” that is entirely suspect.

“Mogul” continues a studied disinterest in the truth, confusion about the jurisdiction of various local government agencies and a nasty phobia about original documents. On the good side, Uncle Vern was an actual person, attorney Vernon R. Hamilton, unlike many of the people in “Severed.”

And in what raises the bar several notches in terms of bizarre endorsements/non-endorsements, “Severed” author John Gilmore is listed in Wolfe’s acknowledgements and even contributed the book jacket blurb: “A haunting account, destined to become a true-crime classic. A must read!” then repudiated this book and told L.A. Weekly he couldn’t appear to support this book in any way.

That’s bizarre—even in the genre of “true” crime.

Above, Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels.” Although several segments of the book are quite well known, such as Gulliver’s encounter with the Lilliputians, the final portion of the work, a somewhat utopian society of horses called the Houyhnhnms is largely ignored. They are perfect for our purposes, however, since their vocabulary doesn’t have a word for lying and Gulliver must explain it as “the thing that is not.” Alas, we have found in “Mogul” many instances of “the thing that is not” and I suspect there are more occurrences ahead.

And no sign of how the death of Thelma Todd is in any way related to the Black Dahlia.

Page 26

“On the night Bugsy Siegel was shot to death while sitting on the sofa in his living room reading the Los Angeles Times of June 20, 1947, Vern and one of his pals lugged a large padlocked steamer trunk over to our house and stashed it in the garage. It contained something that belonged to Bugsy and remained in the garage for a number of months.”

Quick, Watson, the end notes. Ah, this is interesting (at least to a total research drudge, I suppose). Page 25 is attributed to the FBI’s files on Siegel, released through the Freedom of Information Act. Unfortunately, there are 2,421 pages in Siegel’s files and we’re not given the document number. An oversight, I’m sure. Luckily they are online (although heavily censored) right here.

Hm. Another volume from Wolfe’s five-foot shelf of secondary sources, “We Only Kill Each Other” by Dean Jennings. I checked to see if Florabel Muir’s “Headline Happy” is in the bibliography (it is) but there’s no use of her description of the crime scene, an unforgettable account (unless you are the author of “Mogul,” apparently) about Siegel’s eyelid being plastered on the wall and blood puddled on The Times dripping down on her satin evening slippers.

Curiously, Wolfe’s bibliography is missing “Beverly Hills Is My Beat,” by Beverly Hills Police Chief Clinton H. Anderson. Although Anderson was out of town on the night Siegel was shot, he fills in details about security in the city, including the fact that police cruised past Siegel’s house every 30 minutes. Given the basic procedures for crowd control and crime scene protection in place in the 1940s and depicted in Anderson’s book, the notion that Uncle Vern and an unidentified friend could spirit away something as large as a steamer trunk is virtually impossible. In light of the many “things that are not” concerning Uncle Vern, I wouldn’t believe this story unless I saw a picture of him and the trunk.

“Uncle Vern also knew a lot about the Black Dahlia case.”

This is a neat little way to tie the murder of Elizabeth Short into what so far has been a long and not terribly accurate digression into vintage malfeasance. Of course, given all the “things that are not” it’s hard to imagine Uncle Vern, the old souse, knowing much about anything.

Page 27

Once again, Wolfe shows an increasingly annoying ignorance of the difference between city and county jurisdictions, saying that Ray Pinker, head of the LAPD crime lab, inked Elizabeth Short’s fingers and obtained prints. This would actually be the job of the coroner, a Los Angeles County agency. Not the city of Los Angeles.

“When Donahoe learned that Examiner staff artist Howard Burke had been allowed into the morgue to make a sketch of the murder victim for identification purposes, Donahoe became angry and questioned the merits of the procedure.”

This is such junk. Attributed to a 2002 interview with Will Fowler, who by that time was barely lucid—at least whenever I talked to him. Will never told me anything like this and I spent lots of time with him. Let’s see if his book “Reporters” says anything about this.

Good for you, Will. Reporters, Page 77: “With no pictures other than the body of the unidentified girl to publish, artist Howard Burke created a likeness of the dead girls’ face from Paegel’s photos.”

That’s enough for today. I have to get going.

ps. OK regular readers (you know who you are)…. Should I keep going or have I made my point? Let me know. I may even enable commenting if you promise to behave yourselves.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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