I’m blogging in real time as I read Donald H. Wolfe’s “The Black Dahlia Files: The Mob, the Mogul and the Murder That Transfixed Los Angeles.” Wolfe is using the “Laura” format, in which the anonymous, butchered body is discovered and the narrative proceeds in flashbacks. We’re at the point in the story when police are questioning Robert M. “Red” Manley, the last person known to have been seen with Elizabeth Short.
I took a holiday from the Dahlia last night to attend a lecture at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens by Elliott Gorn on John Dillinger. Given the pouring rain, it was a fairly small crowd, but we were rewarded with an interesting portrait of the famous Depression-era bank robber. Gorn’s lecture was quite a change of pace from the Huntington’s usual fare, especially the long discourse on the myths about what precisely is (and is not) in the Dillinger archives at the Smithsonian.
For those who are interested, here’s a lo-fi version of Gorn’s presentation.
Wolfe is in the middle of lifting Aggie Underwood’s jailhouse interview with Red. Recall that Wolfe offered a snippet from the material in the district attorney’s files, merging a quote from Page 3 with a quote from Page 6 without warning.
Oh, that confusing California geography.
“The Greyhound bus station was on Sixth and Los Angeles Street—just four blocks from the stately Biltmore, a fashionable luxury hotel on Olive between Fifth and Sixth Streets that had been built in 1929 by Harry Chandler and a group of wealthy Los Angeles businessmen.”
Here’s the Google map (note that Google takes account of the one-way streets in planning the route).
Now maybe it’s the aging process, but I don’t recall hearing anything about Harry Chandler when I took the L.A. Conservancy’s tour of the Biltmore. (A fine tour it is, and I highly recommend it. I’m a member of the L.A. Conservancy and a big fan of its “Last Remaining Seats” movie series).
The end notes, Holmes?
Lead on, Watson.
But my dear Holmes!
Yes, yes, Watson, I know. No attribution.
Just for fun let’s see if Harry Chandler had anything to do with the Biltmore.
Of course, Wolfe is entirely wrong in saying that the Biltmore opened in 1929. It actually opened in 1923 (Los Angeles Times, Sept. 23, 1923). Even the simplest of facts seem to be very slippery things for Wolfe. Remind me again how well-researched this book is, will you?
Now what about the Harry Chandler connection? I mean I really don’t want to get derailed into the complicated financing behind construction of the Biltmore. Ah. Apparently Harry Chandler was among a raft of people involved in the Biltmore.
Next, another straight lift from the Underwood interview.
Hm. What’s this?
“As Manley walked toward the Olive Street door, he glanced back to wave at Elizabeth, but she had already turned and was talking to the clerk at the tobacco stand and getting telephone change. She was still standing there when Robert ‘Red’ Manley exited the hotel at approximately 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, January 9, 1947.”
Now isn’t that just too, too interesting. Red turned to wave but she was getting “telephone change.” That, presumably, would be change for the pay phone. I’ve never read a word about Red turning to wave and I’ve been through the original material fairly closely. It’s certainly not in Underwood’s jailhouse interview with Red, nor in any other original source. So where does Wolfe get it?
My dear Holmes! Why, there’s no attribution whatsoever!
It appears, Watson, that our friend Mr. Wolfe has an extremely active imagination.
“ ‘That is the last time I ever saw Miss Short,’ Manley told Aggie Underwood. ‘I’ll take truth serum or anything they want to give me. And I’ll swear on a stack of Bibles, and tell my minister, too—that was the last time I saw Beth Short. I did not kill her!’”
Herald-Express, Jan. 20, 1947
“That is the last time I ever saw Betty Short. I’ll take the truth serum or anything they want to give me. And I’ll swear on a stack of Bibles and tell my minister too that was the last time I ever saw Betty Short. I did not kill her.
“But brother I’ll never cheat on my wife again!”
Note that Wolfe drops the important last line of the interview and note the discrepancy between “Miss Short” and “Betty Short”; and “Beth Short” and “Betty Short.” Now whom do we know who refers to Elizabeth Short as Beth?
Hm. Wolfe attributes this to the Herald interview. Let’s check John Gilmore’s “Severed,” which is unique in referring to Elizabeth Short as Beth.
“Severed,” Page 117
“She [Elizabeth Short] was just looking at him—smiling at him. Her eyes looked very clear and blue and they seemed to be shining. He [Red Manley] said, ‘Well…all right,’ and told her she could send him a letter at the business address and let him know where she was going to be. She said she would do that and he turned around and headed for the Olive Street door. He glanced back to wave to her, but she was talking to the cashier at the cigar stand. She handed him a dollar and he returned some change. She was still standing there when Red left the hotel.”
It is a continuing mystery how Gilmore can call this book “crap” when so much of it is based on his own work. Of course he also called it a “destined to become true crime classic.” I guess he’s got all the bases covered that way.
Hm. “Severed” isn’t indexed and I can’t find Underwood’s jailhouse interview with Red. I don’t want to spend more time poking through the nonsense in “Severed,” so let’s press on. I want to finish this chapter today. Maybe the “Miss Short” and “Beth” thing is simply Wolfe’s error. Lord knows they wouldn’t be his first.
“Biltmore Hotel employees recalled noticing Elizabeth Short in the lobby and the ladies room attendant remembered seeing her at the ladies’ room mirror, where she had lit a paraffin candle and applied the melted paraffin to her teeth.”
This has to be pure Wolfe. Nobody else is quite so wordy (“a ladies room attendant remembered seeing her at the ladies’ room mirror”? “she had lit a paraffin candle and applied the melted paraffin”? Cal Morgan, Anna Bliss or some other editor at ReganBooks was taking a nap to let that get through).
As I recall, there was speculation that Elizabeth Short might have put wax on her teeth in a Biltmore restroom, but nobody saw her do it.
“Bellboy Captain Harold Studholme told the police that he saw her make several telephone calls and wait in a chair near the Bell Station for some time before crossing the lobby and walking out of the Olive Street door at about 10:00 p.m.—approximately three-and-a-half hours after her arrival. The doorman remembered greeting her as she exited the hotel and walked toward Sixth Street before vanishing into the night.”
Now this is what’s actually in the district attorney’s files, from the LAPD summary of the case:
“She was observed alone by employees of the Biltmore until approximately 10 p.m. Jan. 9. Mr. Studholme of the Biltmore Hotel stated that he observed the girl get up from the lobby as if she had been signaled by someone on the outside and walk out of the Olive Street entrance. He last saw her walking south toward 6th Street on Olive, on the west side of the street. Investigators were unable to determine whether she made a phone call while there or not, but witnesses state they observed her on several occasions go toward the telephone booths.”
And there’s nothing in the district attorney’s files about the fictitious noble doorman tipping his hat as Elizabeth Short went out into the night. In fact, the noble doorman was concocted by Jack Webb in “The Badge” as a way to write the Black Dahlia out of the picture.
Time for my walk.
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