Light does not easily penetrate the clouded story of Betty Short, a 22-year-old unemployed cashier and waitress whose body was found cut in half and gruesomely mutilated 50 years ago this month in a vacant lot in Southwest Los Angeles.
The unsolved killing remains Los Angeles' premier myth noir, a tale of a tragic beauty clad in black, prowling the night life, a cautionary fable that rings as true today as it did in 1947.
The legend insists on a shadowed, epic tone. The newspaper photographs look like movie stills from a classic crime film. Even the name of the story is rooted in darkness: the Black Dahlia.
For many who were close to the case, it remains a haunting experience: the detective who for 50 years has felt he interviewed the killer; the 11-year-old boy who turned his obsession into a career as a best-selling author, and the victim's relatives, who have seen Betty Short transformed in death from the good girl they remember into a tramp.
The myth usually goes like this: A penniless but plucky girl from back East comes to Hollywood with stars in her eyes and visions of movies in her head, her wardrobe of nothing but sleek, black clothing winning her the nickname of Black Dahlia. She perseveres in the face of adversity, getting a few bit parts in films, but is horribly slain, a moth consumed by the Hollywood flame.
A darker variation makes her lazy and irresponsible, hints obliquely at stag films (as in John Gregory Dunne's novel and movie "True Confessions" and James Ellroy's "Black Dahlia") and the L.A. underworld.
The myth usually concludes with a doorman at the Biltmore Hotel, where she was last seen, tipping his cap as he ushers her out, watching as the Dahlia vanishes into the night, only to resurface a week later horribly slain.
Pick any element of the myth and you walk into a fog of contradictions. The Biltmore doorman, for example, cannot be found in heated news accounts of the day, which reported on every conceivable contact anyone had with Short in the so-called "missing week" before her death.
Who was Betty Short? Was she really the woman portrayed in the press as the unemployed waitress who prowled the boulevard with a different boyfriend every night, frequently failing to come home? The girl who never seemed to have a job but somehow managed to pay the rent as she shifted from hotel to hotel and apartment to apartment every few months?
Or was she the innocent Central California Army camp PX worker who refused to date servicemen? The daughter who dutifully wrote home to her mother every week, filling her letters with hopeful news that wasn't true? The wide-eyed innocent of the 1975 TV movie "Who Is the Black Dahlia?" constantly fighting off mashers in uniform?
How did the murdered Short, whose badly decayed teeth were plugged with wax, become the seductive Black Dahlia?
The mystery has only improved with age. Ultimately, it seems not to matter whether she was young and pretty and mysterious; legend would have made her so.
'Nice Girl' Becomes a Woman on the Move
She was, at least, secretive, revealing little as she wandered from Long Beach to Hollywood to San Diego in the last year of her life, never making any long-term friends, never staying anywhere very long.
Elizabeth, or Betty as she was usually known, grew up in Medford, Mass., the historic "Medford town" of Longfellow's "Midnight Ride of Paul Revere."
She was the third of five girls born within eight years to Phoebe Short and her husband, Cleo, who built miniature golf courses. Cleo abandoned the family, vanishing in 1930, a year after the Great Depression began.
Betty Short's schoolmates recall her as a nice girl who turned heads whenever she went. Bob Pacios, who grew up around the corner from the Shorts' home on Salem Street, remembers Betty wholesomely, "as by far the prettiest of the five sisters."
Pacios said she liked to tease him.
"She knew I was bashful and liked to see my face turn crimson. She would say, 'We ought to go out dancing together.' But she was a nice girl," he said.
Betty was often ill, so the family decided to send her to Florida for the winter. It was 1940; she was 16. After a few winters in Florida, she tried California.
Step back to Los Angeles, January 1947: A newspaper costs a nickel; so does a phone call. Women's Spectator pumps are $9.95 and a carton of Viceroys is $1.58. Crime is rising after the war and the morning Examiner runs a daily box score on the front page.
In the midst of an acute housing shortage, a home in the 3700 block of Norton Avenue, one block east of Crenshaw Boulevard in the Leimert Park district, is $11,000.
John and Betty Bersinger, who bought a home there in 1945, recall it as a neighborhood of newly married couples with young children; a good place to raise a family.
The war had stopped the housing development at their block. The lots one block south were overgrown with weeds.