Black Dahlia: ‘Heaven Is Here!’ Progress Report

Dec. 18, 2015, Mystery Photo

A little over a year ago, on Dec. 18, 2015, I walked out the doors of the Los Angeles Times after 27 years, having asked a security guard to take this picture of my farewell. And yes, I’m wearing my 25-year watch and my Thank God It’s Friday Hawaiian shirt. As one of 92 people leaving the newspaper in the Class of 2015, I was through with copy editing, through with daily journalism and most certainly through with The Times. I have only been back to the newsroom once and I found the mood among my former co-workers so bleak that I have no plans to return.

I had already canceled my subscription to The Times that morning. The day after leaving the paper, I deleted all my bookmarks to latimes.com and laobserved.com and embarked on a new life, refashioning myself as a writer and literary person.

Retirement in America today is a full-time job of navigating bureaucracies and filling out paperwork. Do be sure to sign up for Medicare as soon as you can to avoid lifetime penalties. Making the mental transition to retirement is not a quick process: It was a considerable adjustment to devise a new framework for my life after working to support myself since I was 19. Some of my former colleagues have taken other jobs and some are doing nothing, in fact, one friend plans to write a book about doing nothing consisting of 200 blank pages. But I left The Times for one reason: to write about the Black Dahlia case – and I’m posting this as an anniversary update for everybody who asks about the book.

I began researching the 1947 killing of Elizabeth Short in the summer of 1996 and wrote about it for a 1997 “nondupe” or Column One, which was the second time the Black Dahlia case had been on the front page of The Times in the newspaper’s history. Unlike the other Los Angeles newspapers, which gave the killing heavy front page play every day, The Times was squeamish about crime news and relegated the story to the inside pages except for one day when police mistakenly assumed the killer had been captured. Alas, Cpl. Joseph Dumais was just another fraud – one of so many who have attached themselves to the case.

The only option for me this year was to start writing all over again. I’m not who I was 20 years ago and I certainly don’t write the way I did then. Neither of my first two drafts could be salvaged, although they serve as terrific notes.

Fortunately, our friends the genealogists have done magnificent work in the last 20 years in getting old newspapers online and gaining access to official records. Not even The Times was entirely online when I began my research. Now anyone can get online access to The Times and dozens of other historic newspapers, although the Los Angeles Examiner, Herald-Express, Daily News and the Mirror remain maddeningly inaccessible except on microfilm. In 1997, I was told by one petty bureaucrat that I would need a court order to get certain information. Now, thanks to the legions of genealogists, it’s gladly handed over for the cost of copying.

I have also found someone to transcribe the hours and hours of taped interviews – now converted to mp3s — that I conducted back in the 1990s. Many of my subjects are gone now or no longer giving interviews, so I’m fortunate to have everything preserved.

I envision the book’s basic structure in four parts: The life of Elizabeth Short; her death and the police investigation; the myth – in which the Black Dahlia case has been transformed into fiction and folklore; and then – and only then — a possible solution.

At the moment, I am writing about Elizabeth Short’s bus trip from Boston to Los Angeles in the summer of 1946. I had hoped to be further into the book, but writing about this particular killing and this particular young woman is a laborious, time-consuming task – unless you are the sort of “post-factual” author who fills several hundred pages with fictional nonsense. I have to say that for the first time in my life I am able to focus all my energy on the book without the demands of a full-time job, a labor-intensive blog, etc. It feels great.

Stay tuned.

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About lmharnisch

I work at the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1947, Black Dahlia, Books and Authors, Cold Cases, LAPD and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Black Dahlia: ‘Heaven Is Here!’ Progress Report

  1. ellde2012 says:

    Look forward to read it!

    Like

  2. Candy Cassell says:

    Thank you for the update, Larry. I am anxiously awaiting your Black Dahlia book, but appreciate your process and ethics. I am one of those legions of active genealogical researchers, so thanks for the recognition of efforts to get history accessible online. (Not all of us can get to L.A. to sit at a microfiche reader day after day.) Your posts bring me back to the Los Angeles of my childhood and early adulthood, which is an oasis in the desert of navigating the bureaucracies of retirement (as you noted).

    Like

    • lmharnisch says:

      The genealogists have done a fabulous job of providing a robust market for online resources. FamilySearch.org is free, but Ancestry.com and Genealogybank.com are by subscription. They have all been useful.

      Like

  3. Eve says:

    I envy you. I am never going to be able to retire; I’ve had two careers shot out from under me by the 21st century, and would LOVE to be able to walk out and work on a book. I’ll never be able to write again (too expensive!), and after this job ends, it’s Over The Hill To the Poorhouse.

    Whine, whine, whine. Gripe, gripe, gripe. I hate this stupid century.

    Like

  4. Diane Ely says:

    Larry: You are one handsome dude!

    Like

  5. James Scott says:

    I look forward to getting an autographed first edition.

    Like

  6. Earl Boebert says:

    Keep going, Larry. But let me warn you: when you finish it will be like retiring a second time 🙂

    Like

  7. E. Yarber says:

    Writing a book is like that point in a wedding where they ask you to “speak now or forever hold your peace.” Once your work is in print, you won’t get a chance to clean up all the clinkers you may discover later. You’ll be glad you took the extra time. For now, think of the progress you’ll have made by this time next year. Best of luck and Merry Christmas!

    Like

  8. Sam Gorden says:

    I am looking forward to your book. Thanks for your dedication and hard work.

    Like

  9. Sam Flowers says:

    All power to you in your decision to leave the Times. It certainly is not the same newspaper it was in the years past. Please take your time in completing the book, accuracy and truthful information is a must. I have not abandoned your website and am waiting for the announcement of the sale and book signing at yours or mine favorite book store.

    Like

  10. Richard Wegescheide says:

    I’ve been waiting for your book for a while. I’ll keep waiting. When your done I might buy two copies so I can read it twice. Keep plugging away!

    Like

  11. Anne Redding says:

    It will be a distinct pleasure to read a well-researched book on this case. It will be a singular achievement as it is clear, this has never been done. I, too, will be waiting in line to get a signed first edition!

    Like

  12. B.J. Merholz says:

    You won’t mind if I start at the solution and work back?

    Like

  13. Howard Decker says:

    Good luck. But just remember a “Free Lance” is most of the time just an underfunded business person. Been there done that.

    Like

  14. Lee Rivas says:

    Thanks for the update on the book and your personal and enlightening views on retirement. I spent about 30 years up 1st Street from you at Superior Court and have never been back since retiring 6 years ago. I envy your passion and wish you continued godspeed in your endeavor. Oh, save me a book….

    Like

  15. Robert Anderson says:

    Thanks! I know your book will be the most accurate on the subject.

    Like

  16. Drew says:

    Hi Larry, I’ve been anticipating your new book and look forward to reading it. I have a question about your prime suspect, Walter Bayley. I’ve always wondered who’s house Betty Bersinger visited to call the police after the discovery of the body. Steve Hodel is claiming that she went to Mr. and Mrs. Bayley’s house to make that call. Do you agree with this and if there is evidence, would you mind sharing the source? Thanks!

    Like

    • lmharnisch says:

      If Steve Hodel is saying that, he got it from me. But as always with Steve Hodel, there is a caveat. She went down the street knocking on doors until someone answered and she asked to use the phone. She never revealed the address, but she did say at one point something like “I believe it was a doctor’s house.” I will leave it to those who enjoy research as much as I do to determine for themselves how many doctors lived on South Norton Avenue in 1947.

      Like

  17. mandymarie20 says:

    I can’t wait to see how the book turns out. After seeing this photo, I was pleasantly surprised I recognized you from E’s Mysteries and Scandals, I assume it was the ‘Black Dahlia’ episode, the show which sparked my interest in old Hollywood, eventually leading me to this site several years ago in my quest to learn more.

    Like

  18. William Desmond Taylor says:

    Great to hear about your progress and your new life. News about your progress helps the rest of us move on as well.

    Still miss the old web site, but we know that your research and insights are well worth waiting for!

    Please keep us informed.

    Like

  19. Justin says:

    Very exciting about this case! Rare is the author that relies entirely on facts, research and historical information to back-up his claims within his non-fiction work – especially in 2016. Curious if yours will be a “theory” book or a straight-forward look at the case without speculation as to the culprit? Either way, I’m sure it will be stellar.

    Like

  20. Stephen Karadjis says:

    Very best of luck with the research and your book. Take care.

    Like

  21. Mike Mynahan says:

    Good for you (and us!) Larry! I’m facing the life’s-sea-change this spring after 45 years of order and routine. Thanks for all the hard work you’ve done – from the 1947 Project to today. Stay well, and prosper!

    Like

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