TNT’s I Am the Night & the Black Dahlia: Based on a true story of Hollywood murder, deviant sex, & Surrealist art.
The true story of Hollywood’s infamous 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, aka “the Black Dahlia”, is so much stranger than you would think. It is an unsolved tale of Surrealist art, aberrant sex, madness, murder and creative rejection.
For TNT’s upcoming mini-series I Am The Night, here is the real story of one of Hollywood’s most infamous unsolved murders (which forms a part of I Am the Night’s true story) — and its possible connection to Surrealism and Dadaism — the Black Dahlia. Listen to The Deadman’s Tome podcast for more from me and hosts (the 405’s own) S.K. Berit and co-host Becky Narron as we talk about the case on the 72nd anniversary of Elizabeth Short’s murder. Check out The Deadman’s Tome podcast site here on January 15 to listen free.
Some images below include very visceral crime scene photos. Read on at your own risk.
Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. This is an axiom that often holds true in art and in life, but especially when it comes to some true crime cases. Such is the case with one of Los Angeles’s most compelling unsolved homicides — that of the Black Dahlia, which inspired James Ellroy’s novel which in turn inspired Brian De Palma’s 2006 movie of the same name, a character on American Horror Story’s first season (portrayed by Mena Suvari), and a lot more in popular culture.
Finding the body — January 15, 1947
January 15, 1947 was a cold morning in the Leimert Park area of South Los Angeles. The area started as a planned community a few years earlier, with housing construction slowed because of WWII and just starting to come back.
A young mother named Betty Bersinger was out for a walk with her three-year-old when the pair first walked past something oddly posed maybe 10 feet from the sidewalk. Bersinger at first thought what she caught sight of in her peripheral vision was a mannequin of some kind, tossed aside as junk from some nearby tailor, clothing store, or Hollywood costume shop. Still, something compelled her to take a closer look.
What she saw would shake her, veteran LAPD homicide investigators, all of Los Angeles, and indeed the world, to the bone. Lying posed (not just dumped) on the side of the sidewalk was a nude dark-haired woman in her early twenties. She had cuts all over her body and had been severed in half at the waist. One breast was cut off. She had been given a “Glasgow smile” when her killer put a sharp implement of some kind in both her cheeks and sliced upward towards her ears.
Her entire body had been drained of blood before being posed and left at this location (as none was on the grass near her) after being tortured for several days — there were rope marks and defensive wounds on her hands, wrists and ankles. No other bodily fluids were detectable because the killer had taken great pains to wash and clean the body
Identifying the deceased, looking at her history, and beginning the investigation.
It only took LAPD investigators 56 minutes to get identification, after sending the deceased’s finger prints to the FBI via an early fax system called “Sound Photo”. She was a 22-year-old drifter from Massachusetts named Elizabeth Short. Because of the pictures of Short in black that were sent to the press, and the popularity of George Marshall’s 1946 film noir The Blue Dahlia — starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake — which was still in many a LA theater at the time, the January 17 edition of The Herald-Express dubbed her “the Black Dahlia.”
Short had made her way to the glitz, glamour, and neon dream of Hollywood to — like so many — make it big as an actress in the movies. Her fingerprints were in the FBI’s massive (100 million plus) database because she had applied at the Army’s Camp Cooke commissary (also in California) four years earlier. Seven months before that, she had also been arrested in Santa Barbara for underage drinking.
Rounding up suspects: look to the doctors.
Elizabeth Short’s bisection was a very clean cut (a hemicorporectomy which severs the body under the lumbar spine) and consequently had the FBI and LAPD homicide on the trail of any suspects with medical training, despite the relative scarcity of other leads on the case. To quote an FBI memo from February 25, “The manner in which Elizabeth Short’s body was dissected has indicated the possibility that the murderer was a person somewhat experienced in medical work. The Los Angeles Police Department has undertaken to develop suspects among the medical and dental schools in the area, as well as among other students who have anything to do with human anatomy.”
Suspect: Robert “Red” Manley.
Despite schools like USC voluntarily handing over records of their medical students, the first suspect brought in for Short’s murder, Robert “Red” Manley, had no such training. Manley was the last person seen with Elizabeth Short while she was still alive: he had picked her up in San Diego on January 8, and dropped her off at LA’s Biltmore Hotel on January 9.
Manley suffered from mental illness and went through a few different mental breakdowns — and reportedly was experiencing auditory hallucinations — before being discharged from the army. Manley was, however, released rather quickly after being detained on January 20, because of his solid alibi for January 14, and having passed two polygraph tests.
Suspect: Mark Hansen.
Another two suspects of promise were looked at soon after. Mark Hansen, owner of the Florentine Gardens nightclub in LA, had known Short ever since she first arrived in the city in mid-1943. He had also let her stay in a house he owned with his girlfriend sporadically throughout 1946.
What really tied Hansen to the crime in the minds of investigators was a series of occurrences at the Los Angeles Examiner. On January 23, 8 days after Short’s body was discovered, the Examiner received a call alleging it was the killer. He demanded they give better coverage to the crime and ultimately sent a package with Short’s personal effects to the paper. These effects included a planner with “Mark Hansen” inscribed on the front. This call (and subsequent letters), were all from an individual calling himself “the Black Dahlia Avenger.”
Hansen later said that indeed this was his planner but he had given it to Short to use and had never used it himself. He had no history of violence or criminality despite some people believing that he did have ties to gangsters (there is no real evidence of that either). At any rate, Hansen died of natural causes in 1964 without any charges ever having been filed against him, despite still technically being a prime suspect to this day.
Suspect: Doctor Patrick S. O’Reilly.
The next of those two suspects was a Doctor Patrick S. O’Reilly who knew Elizabeth Short through frequenting the Florentine Gardens. He also allegedly was a regular with Hansen at posh “sex parties” all over Malibu where he may have also ran into Elizabeth Short. He and Hansen were alleged to have been in “a group of sex degenerates”.
What makes O’Reilly interesting as a suspect however was two-fold. First, he had a history of sex crimes under his belt after being arrested for “taking his secretary to a motel and sadistically beating her almost to death apparently for no other reason than to satisfy his sexual desires without intercourse,” according to a filing by the District Attorney.
Secondly, O’Reilly had his right pectoral surgically removed, which was very similar to the mutilation of Short. O’Reilly was also married to the daughter of a police captain, and the investigation against him was dropped — this is partly why some have made the assertion of “Dahlia-gate” as an LAPD cover up of the crime, with a Grand Jury report finding, “Deplorable conditions indicating corrupt practices and misconduct by some members of the law enforcement agencies in the county… alarming increase in the number of unsolved murders… jurisdictional disputes and jealousies among law enforcement agencies.”
Suspect: Doctor George Hill Hodel, incest, and tapes.
The next most solid suspect (and our main focus here) got on the investigative radar in a rather bizarre way. A LA area gynecologist who specialized in the treatment of veneral disease named Doctor George Hill Hodel (played by Jefferson Mays in I Am The Night) was accused of molesting his 14 year-old daughter Tamar in 1949 (Fauna Hodel, played by India Eisley in the show, was Tamar’s daughter from this incestuous relationship). The state had 3 witnesses who testified they had seen the doctor having sex with her, yet charges were dropped in December of that year.
The incest case against Hodel is what gave LAPD the impetus to look closer at him as a suspect in the Black Dahlia case. They put Hodel on surveillance and tapped his phones from February to March of 1950 in the hopes of catching the doctor in some sort of incriminating statement on the case. 18 detectives monitored the recording day in and day out (the full transcripts can be read herefor free).
On just the second day at 8:25 PM the recording picked up: “Woman screamed. Woman screamed again. (It should be noted, the woman not heard before the scream.)”
Later that same night, Hodel can be heard talking to someone else: “Realize there was nothing I could do, put a pillow over her head and cover her with a blanket. Get a taxi. Expired 12:59. They thought there was something fishy. Anyway, now they may have figured it out. Killed her.”
Hodel’s most incriminating statement was after both of these, where he said to someone else: “Supposin’ I did kill the Black Dahlia. They couldn’t prove it now. They can’t talk to my secretary any more because she’s dead.”
The secretary he is referring to was Ruth Spaulding who died from a drug overdose in 1945. Hodel was suspected of Spaulding’s murder too because he had been present when she died and had even burnt some of her personal effects before the police arrived. The government ultimately dropped the case because of lack of evidence.
Documents were later unearthed which showed that Spaulding was intent on blackmailing Doctor Hodel for fraud against his patients, which included intentional misdiagnosis, and fraudulent tests, treatments, and even prescription medications.
Steve Hodel and “The Black Dahlia Avenger”.
It is Doctor Hodel’s son, former LAPD homicide detective turned private investigator and author Steve Hodel, who believes that Elizabeth Short may have been a patient of his father’s. The younger Hodel has written several books (the most famous of which is “Black Dahlia Avenger” published 4 years after his dad’s death in 1999) which point the finger at his father for Short’s murder.
There are other historical tidbits which tie Doctor Hodel to Elizabeth Short in other ways. A February 20, 1951 Grand Jury report authored by Lieutenant Frank Jemison of the LA District Attorney’s Office, contains testimony from a Lillian DeNorak who lived with Doctor Hodel and identified Elizabeth Short as “one of his girlfriends” and that Doctor Hodel was known to frequent the Biltmore Hotel.
LAPD also found a photograph of a nude Elizabeth Short in a private stash of photos amongst George Hodel’s personal items. They tracked down a model from another photo in this collection who said she did not know of any connection between Short and Hodel. Yet another person who knew both the doctor and Elizabeth Short said he also knew nothing of them knowing each other.
The report also quotes Tamar Hodel as saying her mother Dorothy had told her that her father had “been out partying” the night of January 14, 1947 and that “they’ll never be able to prove I did that murder.”
The Black Dahlia, Dadaism and Surrealism.
A more speculative — yet very interesting — connection between Doctor George Hodel and the Black Dahlia is Surrealist and Dadaist visual art. Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss wrote a fantastic and very-telling book called “Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder” which gets into quite a bit of detail on that. I encourage anyone reading this who is interested to check their book out in addition to Steve Hodel’s books.
Exquisite Corpse was a favorite game of Surrealist visual artists (and sometimes writers with the written variant). In it, a sheet of paper would be folded several times, one person would start the drawing on one part of the fold then fold over to a new section where someone else would draw another part and so on until the page was full. The goal here is to channel the forces of psychological free association into visual art (like much of Surrealism). See an example of exquisite corpse below.
Steve Hodel also gets into some detail here. His family knew artist Man Rayexceptionally well. He became their family photographer in the early 1940’s when he arrived in LA and stayed in that capacity until he returned to Paris in 1947.
This is not to say Man Ray or any other surrealist artist was a participant in any criminality by George Hodel or whoever killed Elizabeth Short, but there can be no doubt luminaries like him, Dali, and Marcel Duchamp influenced Hodel’s (or whoever the murderer may be) aesthetics, as warped as they may have been — a point which will be elaborated on below. In fact, Steve Hodel points this out rather explicitly in looking at Man Ray’s 1969 lithograph “Les Invendables”. “Les Invendables” may have been inspired by the Dahlia.
The killer was an artist and Elizabeth Short was his most macabre canvas. Steve Hodel even went so far as to say the killer was expressly influenced by the Surrealist and Dadaist manifestoes in what he did.
The first relevant bit of physical evidence to this interpretation — beyond Short’s body being essentially artistically posed — is the fact that she was bisected. Bisected women and female mannequins — along with women missing various parts à la the Venus de Milo — are a huge theme in Surrealist work of that period, because the theme of divided complexity is what makes us human. We’re all a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Surrealism taught that that is the essential beauty of humanity.
The magazine of record for European Surrealism in this period was also called “Le Minotaure”, named after the mythic beast that is half man and half bull. Short’s posing was very much in the fashion of the minotaur as can be seen below, along with Man Ray’s “Les Amoureux” which Hodel believes was the work his allegedly murderous father plagiarized when he murdered Elizabeth Short.
A further point of order with the Surrealist/Dadaist hypothesis involves a relatively small wound on Short’s right hip which Steve Hodel believes shows a visual artist’s cross-hatching — a technique of drawing fine parallel hatch lines which are perpendicular to each other (creating a mesh-like pattern) on a drawing for an illusion of texture or shade. Hodel believes this cross-hatch-esque wound was meant to act as a literal signature (as opposed to a killer’s signature), much as an artist signs a painting.
Dr. George Hodel and other murders.
Steve Hodel is confident that his father (Short’s murderer) was indeed a serial killer linked to other murders in California, Chicago, and even in Manila (where he fled the US for) — all of which were dissected and posed in a fashion eerily similar to Elizabeth Short. LA’s 1947 “Lipstick Murder” is also a possibility as a tie-in to the Dahlia.
Interestingly, George Hodel may be connected to more unsolved serial homicides across California than just these. The woman who was dissected in the Philippines 1967 was dumped on a street called “Zodiac”. Steve Hodel took this as a clue, telling the Guardian, “I thought, no, no, no, there’s no way… I had spent all of this time and effort and blood, sweat and tears establishing my credibility in Black Dahlia. And now this guy’s saying his dad is also the Zodiac? It’s like, oh man.”
Of course, all this is basically conjecture as it will be impossible to ever know unequivocally who killed Elizabeth Short (or the victims of the Zodiac Killer). Yet, that does not detract from the essence of this story as a mystery — in fact, it enhances it. Yet, nothing could possibly detract from the inhumanities vested on Elizabeth Short and all the victims. All we can do there is never forget the case and her.
And Don’t miss I Am the Night either — starting January 28 on TNT.
Wess A. Haubrich is the contributing editor of the film section of The Nu Romantics and London’s award-winning culture website The 405. He is also a “top writer” in “movies”, “mental health” and “culture” on Medium.com. He can be reached on Twitter or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org as he is always looking for cutting edge undiscovered cinema especially and innovative forms of all kinds of art to bring to his readers by probing the minds of their creators in interviews and features.