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COLUMN ONE

A Slaying Cloaked in Mystery and Myths

The truth about Betty Short's gruesome murder may never be known. But 50 years later, the 'Black Dahlia' story still holds the power to fascinate.

January 06, 1997|LARRY HARNISCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

About 10 on the crisp, bright morning of Jan. 15, Betty Bersinger was pushing her 3-year-old daughter, Anne, in a stroller, heading south to a repair shop to pick up her husband's shoes.

Bersinger was looking down, concentrating on steering the wheels through the broken glass that covered the sidewalk in the 3800 block of Norton. "I glanced to my right, and saw this very dead, white body," she said in a recent interview.

"My goodness . . . it was so white. It didn't . . . look like anything more than perhaps an artificial model. It was so white and separated in the middle. I noticed the dark hair and this white, white form."

It was the carefully posed remains of Betty Short, 5 feet 5, 115 pounds, severed at the waist. She was face up, a few inches from the sidewalk, just north of the middle of the block. Her blue eyes were open, her hands were over her head with her elbows bent at right angles; her knees were straight and legs spread.

Flies were hovering around the body. She had been hit in the head and gashes were cut from the corners of her mouth. Chunks of flesh had been neatly sliced from her body, which had been scrubbed and systematically drained of blood.

Bersinger stopped at a house to call the police. Then, having touched off what would become the largest manhunt of its day, she went off to pick up her husband's shoes.

Alerted by Bersinger's call, wave upon wave of police descended on Norton.

So did an equal number of reporters and photographers. In an era of cozier police-media relations, there was nothing to keep them away from the body.

Will Fowler, a former reporter for the L.A. Examiner, which dominated the coverage from the first day, recalls closing Short's eyes before police arrived.

The Examiner, having brought out its biggest "Extra" since V-J Day, offered to transmit the victim's fingerprints by the wirephoto system--if police, in exchange, would give the paper an exclusive on the identification. The next day, Short was identified from fingerprints taken in 1943 when she was arrested in Santa Barbara as a minor who was illegally in a bar.

The Examiner broke the news to Short's mother with a ruse: calling to tell her that Betty had won a beauty contest.

Times sports columnist Jim Murray, then an Examiner staffer, remembers watching rewrite man Wain Sutton make the call as the paper's much-hated city editor, Jimmy Richardson, sat in a swivel chair and listened.

"I sat there and listened to the poor, dear mother telling [Sutton] about her school-day triumphs," Murray said. "I can still see him put his hand over the mouthpiece of the old-fashioned upright phone and say, 'Now what do I tell her?'

"Richardson screwed up his one good eye and said: 'Now tell her.' "

Another L.A. daily, the Herald-Express, prided itself on naming murder cases. There'd been the "White Orchid Murder," the "Red Hibiscus Murder" and the "White Flame Murder." But the Black Dahlia nickname was real: Short got it in a Long Beach drugstore, half a block from a hotel where she'd once stayed for two weeks. (The drugstore and its counter still stand, converted to a flower shop.)

The Examiner paid for Phoebe Short to fly to Los Angeles, then hid her from the competition, Fowler said. For two days, Mrs. Short resisted the coroner's request that she identify the body; she wanted to remember Betty as she was.

Meanwhile in San Diego, reporters found a family that had taken Short into their home in late 1946 after noticing her in an all-night movie theater, where she was seeking refuge.

According to one San Diego paper, Short spent her days loafing, picking up men and going to nightclubs. One of them was Robert Manley, a young redheaded L.A. pipe clamp salesman who met Short on a street corner.

"I asked her if she wanted to ride. She turned her head and wouldn't look at me," Manley said in a 1947 interview.

But he kept talking to Short, telling her about himself. "Finally she turned around and asked me if I didn't think it was wrong to ask a girl on a corner to get into my car.

"I said yes, but 'I'd like to take you home,' so she got in the car," Manley said.

After the holidays, the San Diego family, complaining that their small house was too crowded, asked her to leave. She wired Manley to come and get her, telling him she was going to meet her sister Virginia and go with her to Berkeley--none of which was true.

Short and Manley stayed in a motel in Pacific Beach--platonically, he said. The next morning they drove to Los Angeles. Manley helped her check her suitcases at the bus station and took her to the Biltmore. She asked him to look for her sister in the lobby while she went to the powder room. But Manley didn't find her.

Concerned about getting back to his family, Manley left Betty Short at the Biltmore at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 9.

Within days of the murder, reporters trailing the mysterious "Red" found the motel where the couple had checked in, using their real names.

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