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.