My latest true crime book, Black Dahlia, Red Rose, is an investigation of one of America’s most notorious unsolved murders – the killing of 22-year-old Hollywood hopeful Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles in 1947. Elizabeth’s body was found by a housewife in a working-class suburb of Los Angeles on the morning of January 15th, sprawled naked beside the pavement. Shockingly, her body had been cut in half. The case became one of the most celebrated of noir mysteries, a symbol of the dangers posed by Hollywood for young women aspiring to be movie stars. Perhaps one of the most curious aspects of the case was the contemporary obsession – completely misplaced – that the killer was a woman. This was, in part, fueled by the fact that several women (along with hundreds of men) did actually ‘confess’ to the murder. Theories put forward by the police as to why the killer was a woman bordered on the farcical. Only a woman, it was reasoned, would have cut the body in half, because the 100lb+ corpse would have been too heavy for her to carry whole. Alternatively, Elizabeth must have been staying with a woman in the week in which she went missing, in order to borrow a makeup kit. My personal favourite, put forward by the screenwriter Ben Hecht, is the proposition that only a woman would have made the grammatical and spelling errors in the various letters and packages sent to the police by the alleged killer. Newspapers played on the compelling image of a female killer, with lurid headlines splashing the macabre actions of a host of women murderers in recent Californian history: the notorious Louise Peete, one of only four women executed by the state of California, who murdered several husbands and buried them in her flower bed; the fearsome Clara Phillips (a.k.a. “Tiger Woman”), who packed the dismembered remains of her victims in a trunk which leaked its contents in the baggage claim section of the local railway station.
The public obsession with a female killer went beyond the assumed practicalities of committing the murder, into the phantasmagoria of the times. The Dahlia killer, so the story went, was not only a woman, but a lesbian. This theory tapped into deeper fears in the recesses of the public imagination. Homosexuality in the 1940s was considered a sickness: the prevailing medical theory was that lesbians were men trapped in women’s bodies. As such, they were doomed to liminal and ultimately tragic lives, terminated by early death or suicide. At the same time, however, the movie-going public was fascinated by the complex and androgynous sexuality hinted at by bisexual movie stars such as Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo. The fixation with a female killer led the police to strange places, and none more so than a most unlikely suspect: Mom Chung, a Chinese lesbian physician who established a medical clinic in San Francisco’s China Town. A colourful and flamboyant personality, Mom Chung became famous for ‘adopting’ a number of soldiers and flyers during the War, whom she called her ‘fair-haired bastards.’ They included stars such as Ronald Reagan. Mom Chung was certainly an eccentric and glamorous figure, and she may or may not have played a key role as a go-between in the War; but she had nothing to do with the Dahlia case.
As I honed in on the person whom I believe to have been the actual killer in this case – or rather two killers, because two people (definitely male) were involved in this murder – I could only marvel at the strange side-show that the ‘lesbian theory’ provided in the convoluted history of the investigation. Like so many other red herrings, it provided great copy for the newspapers – and for the general public, one of many distractions from what I see to have been the truth. It is a truth which is a lot less glamorous, a lot more prosaic, than the Sapphic narrative. And one that targets not the women, but the men – the pimps, the hangers-on, the shadowy world of the casting couch, the crooked cops – that were what was really rotten in Hollywood at the time.
Black Dahlia, Red Rose is publshed by Hodder