Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia by John Gilmore

Elizabeth was of the night. She was the dark…
— Lauretta Ruiz, friend of Elizabeth Short

Nearly 60 years later, the monochrome photographic portraits and snaps of Elizabeth Short, aka “The Black Dahlia,” still have a disturbing, shocking effect on anyone who sees them. She has a clear affinity with the lens — she stares directly into it, almost challenging the viewer to work her out. She wears a smile that’s almost a rictus, a trained, fixed grin, apparently switched on in the millisecond before the flash ignites. In the photo with Tim Mehringer she looks like a Pierrot, heavily made-up, uncomfortably posed, one shoulder notably higher than the other; in the government mug shot for her employment ID card, she resembles nothing so much as an eighties pop icon, windswept, lips pouting, a slight frown of enforced, almost ironic seriousness folding over her eyes.

John Gilmore’s book, first published in 1998 and now reissued by Granta, features several such images, along with horrific post-mortem shots, and offers itself as an authoritative documentary narrative of one of the most famous unsolved murder cases of post-War America. The “Black Dahlia” murder took place in Los Angeles in January 1947. The body of a woman was found, mutilated, severed at the waist, on a patch of ground two blocks south of 39th. The event has been fictionalised, even mythologised, in gothic-noir melodramatic style, by James Ellroy, as a murder linked to land crime and political corruption in Hollywood. Gilmore, following a different and perhaps more historically reliable route, offers his own version of the case and its probable solution, and recounts his own meeting with the probable murderer.

Severed is a tough read, packed with relentless detail, mixing its genres — biography, fiction, crime case-history, police-procedural — with aplomb, and dragging its reader through all the circles of the hell that Elizabeth Short’s short life (she was 22 when she was murdered) ended up being. As the graphic photographs suggest, we’re spared little here, and, at times, the information gleaned or quoted from autopsies and coroners’ reports becomes a grim recital.

Nevertheless the narrative that Gilmore constructs is powerful, seductive and forcefully argued. He harnesses eyewitness testimony, contemporary police documents, interviews with key players and more marginal figures, and extensive, sometimes exclusive material turned up from decades of research. His credentials are impeccable (a family connection with the “Dahlia,” a meeting with her “in late ’46 when I was 11 years old … she talked to me about magic,” a father in the LAPD, a career writing true crime and neo-noir fiction). He critiques with clarity and incision what one LA councillor called the “high-handed bungling and illegal methods” used in the re-opened investigation, and is well aware of the pitfalls of “the obsession developed by men with the Black Dahlia in death.” As documenter of the case, he is prepared, and able, to look further and harder than most into the dark night of the Dahlia’s life.

And looking, it turns out, is what this narrative version of the case revolves around. Just as the photographs of the corpses of Elizabeth Stride and Mary Jane Kelly somehow bring the victims of Jack the Ripper closer to us by letting us see them, so Elizabeth Short exists now as an image, the victim of what Gilmore calls “crime as a spectacular act.” The crime scene, he suggests (reversing a famous adage of Walter Benjamin), resembles “a work of art, a reflection of a mind and personality” with its own “signature” testifying ownership. Gilmore comments that the prime suspect, “horribly frustrated artist and dreamer that he was, had devised the most horrendous picture to thrust back at an unappreciative world.”

And yet, this pictorial metaphor gets muddied by the continual implication that the picture is both obscure, and, in part, contains a key element constructed by the victim, which is, of course, herself. “It seemed impossible,” writes Gilmore, “for detectives and newsmen to get a clear picture of the girl.” Most men interviewed about the victim comment on her excessive makeup: Gilmore notes that Phillip Jeffers, the “war bond boy wonder,” “wanted to shake her and tell her to wipe all that makeup off her face,” and Martin Lewis, who had a brief affair with her, comments that a woman in a pornographic movie he’s shown, alleged to be Elizabeth Short, “had heavy makeup like a black mask over her eyes.” Gilmore twice cites descriptions of her resembling a Geisha: “With her mass of black hair and the bright red lipstick,” he writes elsewhere, “she had given herself the look of something like a porcelain China doll.”

From the first page we’re warned that “It was difficult not to look at it” (the corpse). Elizabeth Short seems, in Gilmore’s reading, and in her documented Hollywood aspirations, to conform to what Laura Mulvey once called “to-be-looked-at-ness,” the woman’s role as specular object in patriarchy. Severed analyses this aspect of the Black Dahlia’s construction, clearly establishing the dominance of the image, her image, in her life, but reminding us always that this dimension exists firstly for male eyes. In one bizarre twist on her name and her image, Dr John Money of the Johns Hopkins Medical School discusses autopsy reports that the Dahlia may have had a “blind,” “short” vagina.

In the end we’re brought back to the photographs, the look, the rigid smile, the blankness in the eyes. Examiner reporter Tommy Devlin talks of the “haunting kind of beauty” he saw in the Dahlia’s mug shot — Severed looks the haunting horror of her death in the face.