Black Dahlia: A Two-Year Update and a Look Ahead

The second anniversary of my retirement from the Los Angeles Times coincided with lots of questions prompted by a Fox News piece on Piu Eatwell’s “Black Dahlia, Red Rose.” Even though I had blogged about the book repeatedly, people still wanted to know what I thought of it.

Executive summary: Eatwell’s purported killer, Leslie Dillon, was absolutely, positively in San Francisco when Elizabeth Short was killed, rendering all other questions irrelevant.

When folks ask me how my Black Dahlia book is going, I usually give a brief answer: “Very well, thanks” (which is true) rather than a long explanation, such as: “At the moment a certain archive in Los Angeles is closed until January, an unanticipated obstacle blocking the wheels of progress”  (which is also true).

To those who might ask “Is there really anything left to research after 21 years?” the answer is “absolutely.” Since 1996, the doors have swung open on many resources that were restricted or unknown when I began. Not long ago, I received material that would have required a court order to obtain in the 1990s, or so I was told at the time. Some questions can only be answered with painstaking research and analysis at the molecular level. A few months ago, I spent the better part of a week building a spreadsheet from the FBI’s uniform crime reports from 1940 to 1949 to determine Los Angeles’ ranking among the deadliest American cities. All for one or two sentences — an amazing amount of work that will invisible to readers.

The passing years have also affected the project in other ways. My first draft, begun in 1997, was a rambling narrative that threw in all sorts of interesting (at least to me) but utterly unrelated research. Although I didn’t realize it then, I was still “learning” the case. (Is that really that much to learn about the Black Dahlia murder? Oh my, you have no idea about the complexity of this case).

I put the 1997 draft aside in 2001 for several reasons, including a labor-intensive and ultimately  abandoned magazine article written in the first person. Rather than return to my old style of writing in the third person, I began a second draft, writing in the first person and putting myself into the story, an approach that I had originally resisted.

Along the way, I became involved in the 1947project, followed by the L.A. Daily Mirror blog. In addition to being a copy editor at The Times, I was given the chance to write feature stories, a few columns in the space usually reserved for Steve Lopez, Sandy Banks and other luminaries,  and to blog about local history. The years flew by, with the Black Dahlia more or less on the back burner — except to try to deflate Steve Hodel’s outrageous claims in the “Black Dahlia Avenger” franchise and Donald Wolfe’s ridiculous fiction in “The Black Dahlia Files.” (I spent several months debunking Wolfe’s book — in 88 posts).

It eventually became apparent that a full-time job and a blog were incompatible with a book — at least the book I wanted to write, which is why I’m not going to bother debunking Eatwell’s “Black Dahlia, Red Rose.” I haven’t read her book, but I have read the source material many times and it is impossible to reach her conclusion from those documents without ignoring a lot of inconvenient data.

So I accepted a buyout offer in December 2015 to devote all my attention to the Dahlia book. As longtime readers will recall, I have been on a relative sabbatical since then, doing just enough on the blog to keep it going, but avoiding any major commitments of time.

Still, readers continue to contact me about old posts (I have done something like 10,000 entries on Los Angeles history over the years) so it seems like a good idea to repost my 2006-2007 articles on 1907 from the 1947project. For most people, L.A. history begins with Bunker Hill and Chavez Ravine, and admittedly 1907 is an acquired taste, but like all eras of Los Angeles history, it’s full of drama.

I’m also contemplating another project:

One of my main complaints about the original 1947project (begun by Kim Cooper and Nathan Marsak in 2005) was that it was based on that year’s Los Angeles Times, a staid, conservative Republican paper that marginalized people of color. Since then, the Los Angeles Sentinel, an African American weekly, has been digitized and is available from the Los Angeles Public Library. I thought it would be interesting — and particularly relevant in the current political climate — to take another look at Los Angeles in 1947, viewed through the prism of a black newspaper. Stay tuned for more details.

Thanks for reading!


About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1907, 1947, African Americans, Black Dahlia, Books and Authors, History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Black Dahlia: A Two-Year Update and a Look Ahead

  1. James Scott says:

    All the more reason to look forward to your excellent book. I’m sure it will be the definitive book on the Black Dahlia.


  2. Santos L. Halper says:

    I’m still hungry for more Parker Center cop shop scans! That stuff was fascinating. Happy New Year and good luck with the book.


  3. William Desmond Taylor says:

    Thanks so much for the update about your book and I look forward to seeing your hard work soon. Yes, for us writers it would be great if you could give us any more tidbits, insight into your day-to-day methods and working process for such a big project. Always loved your fact checking series and great to see more posts here these days, including African American LA.


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