Piu Eatwell’s latest book is a narrative history of the notorious Black Dahlia murder in Los Angeles. The inspiration for a number of novels and movies, it’s an interesting new account of the murder that gripped the headlines. Here’s the synopsis:
On 15th January 1947, the naked, dismembered body of a black-haired beauty, Elizabeth Short, was discovered lying next to a pavement in a Hollywood suburb. She was quickly nicknamed The Black Dahlia.
The homicide inquiry that followed consumed Los Angeles for years and the authorities blew millions of dollars of resources on an investigation that threw up dozens of suspects. But it never was solved.
In this ground-breaking book, Piu Eatwell reveals compelling forensic and eye witness evidence for the first time, which finally points to the identity of the murderer. The case was immortalised in James Ellroy’s famous novel based on the case, in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon and Brian de Palma’s movie The Black Dahlia.
This is a dark tale of sex, manipulation, obsession, psychopathy and one of the biggest police cover ups in history.
Now, read on for an excerpt from the first chapter…
PART 1: FALLEN ANGEL
“This is a rotten town with a lot of rotten people in it.”
— A Man Alone (1955)
Chapter 1: Farewell My Lovely
Sunrise was at 6:58 a.m. in Los Angeles on the morning of Wednesday, January 15, 1947. The month had been an unusually bleak one for Southern California. Dense fog had descended on the coastal towns of Long Beach and Redondo. The sea fog was accompanied by a razor-edged wind that whipped up the Pacific rollers and sent raw blasts through the boulevards of a city more accustomed to the hot, dry, dusty winter gusts of the Santa Ana winds.
The previous night had been a rare one in Los Angeles because there had been a hard frost on the ground. Black smoke trailed across the sky from the smudge pots lit to protect the orange groves that, in those days, still carpeted the slopes of the San Fernando Valley. A slice of waning moon hung over the orange trees, their pale blossoms and fragile perfume already in the process of being obliterated by rows of white concrete grid housing. Farther south from San Fernando, in Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles, trolley cars shuttled their late-night cargo of drunks, streetwalkers, and transients around the city, seemingly oblivious to their impending annihilation even as they rattled along in the shadow of the construction work on the latest phase of the Hollywood Freeway. In just a few years, the freeway would become the major road linking northern suburbia with Tinseltown. The old central tramway would be demolished as part of a lofty plan to transform the City of Angels into, in actor Bob Hope’s words, “the biggest parking lot in the world.”
Like much of Los Angeles, Leimert Park in the south of the city was the planned master community of an ambitious property developer. When Walter H. Leimart† began his dream project in 1927, he envisaged a model community of homes in the newly fashionable Spanish Colonial Revival style, which would give white middle-income families their piece of the American dream. Sandwiched between Jefferson Park to the north, Hyde Park to the south, and Baldwin Hills to the west, the residential district boasted its own town square, movie theater, and shopping malls. Even more impressive, it was designed by the firm Olmsted and Olmsted, sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, the man who landscaped New York’s Central Park.
In the 1940s, Leimert Park was the perfect place for young, white married couples to start a family. So it was for John and Betty Bersinger, who in 1945 had purchased a bungalow with a neat garden and wrought-iron grilles in the 3700 block of Norton Avenue — one of a series of narrow ribbon-roads to the north of Leimert. As elsewhere, the war had stopped housing development on their block, and the lots one block south were covered with weeds: stiff horseweed, yellow mustard, and stinging nettles in the spring and summer; clumps of wiry grass, ranging Mexican oleander, and hard, black earth in the winter. Nothing stood on the vacant scrub other than a row of electricity pylons, a line of black masts linked with skimming wires that leaped and ducked to the horizon.
Despite the unfinished housing developments, sidewalks had been put in along the vacant lots, and this part of the park was a popular recreation area for mothers and children. It was also where Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey sometimes had their circus. So it was that, at 10:00 a.m. on the clear, cold morning of Wednesday, January 15, 1947, Betty Bersinger packed her three-year-old daughter, Anne, into her stroller and headed out south across the vacant lots, making for a repair shop to pick up her husband’s shoes. The crunch of broken glass underfoot at the 3800 block of Norton caught the young housewife’s attention as she tried to steer the stroller clear of the shards scattered on the sidewalk.
Then, glancing up, Betty saw the flies. There was a big black cloud of them buzzing low over something. Squinting, the young mother could just about make out what appeared to be a white shop mannequin sprawled on the rough grass by the sidewalk. Bizarrely, it appeared to have been cut in half. “My goodness, it was so white,” said Betty, many years later. “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.” The presence of the palely glinting object, in a place where children played, was troubling. “It just didn’t seem right to me,” said Betty. “I could see these kids on their bicycles, and I thought, maybe it will scare those kids if they ride to school and see this, so I’d better call somebody to come along at least and have a look, and see what it is.” The thought that what she had seen was anything other than a broken store dummy barely entered Betty’s head.
Hurrying past the vacant lots, Betty tried the doorbell of the first house on the next block. There was nobody home. At the second house, however, a woman opened the door. Betty explained that she had seen something strange a block back. She asked to use the telephone. When the call was answered at the police station, she briefly outlined what she had seen and told them someone should come check it out. Then — having triggered what was to become one of the biggest manhunts in the history of modern America — Mrs. Bersinger trundled on her way with her buggy and her child to the shopping mall.
The call came through to the police complaint board at 10:55 a.m. A shrill-voiced female — who hung up abruptly without identifying herself — complained that there was an unsightly object off the sidewalk in the vacant lot on Norton Avenue between Thirty-ninth Street and Coliseum, in the middle of the block on the west side, and could someone please take care of it. At 11:07 a.m. a radio car was dispatched to the scene, with uniformed patrolmen Frank Perkins and Will Fitzgerald of the University Division. Accustomed, as regular flatfeet, to booking the streetwalkers, dope peddlers, and drunks who were the usual detritus of Skid Row, Perkins and Fitzgerald were ill-prepared for the sight that awaited them. They immediately radioed in to the Homicide Division.
By 11:30 a.m., word of there being a “man down” on Norton between Thirty-ninth Street and Coliseum had spread through town. A throng of newspapermen with heavy camera equipment and phosphorescent flashbulbs gathered to join Sergeant Finis A. Brown and Lieutenant Harry L. Hansen, the Homicide Division detectives who had been dispatched to the scene. “‘A 390W–415 down’ meant a female drunk passed out sans clothes,” recalled Los Angeles journalist Will Fowler, twenty-four years old at the time. Fowler had never had his picture taken with a dead body before, so he cut a deal with news photographer Felix Paegel to split a bottle of bourbon if Paegel took a photograph of him kneeling beside the corpse. A circle of fedoras, jabbing fingers, and smoking flashbulbs soon surrounded the form with its cluster of buzzing flies.
One of the first to arrive on the scene was Agness Underwood, veteran crime reporter of the Los Angeles Evening Herald-Express. Agness, known to all as “Aggie,” had been born in San Francisco in 1902. Her mother had died when she was six years old. She had subsequently been dumped by her itinerant, glass-blower father into a series of charity homes and foster families around the country. Finally, abandoned as a teenager in Los Angeles by a relative who had tried unsuccessfully to get her into the movies as a child actress, Aggie had managed to find her way to a Salvation Army hostel downtown. She had worked as a waitress and married a young soda jerk, Harry Underwood, for fear of being turned over to the authorities for living on her own underage. The pair had settled in Ocean Park in 1920, running a soda fountain lunch counter. Aggie was a housewife in Los Angeles when she applied for her first newspaper job, working vacation relief on a metropolitan switchboard. She later claimed she only wanted the job to buy new silk stockings, which her husband told her they couldn’t afford.
By January 1947, Aggie had worked her way up from switchboard operator to the Herald-Express’s premier crime beat reporter. She was forty-four years old, a short, sturdy woman with a square jaw, pugnacious appearance, and a ready grin. “She should have been a man,” said the Herald-Express managing editor, J. B. T. Campbell. She was “a rip-snorting, gogettum reporter that goes through fire lines, trails killers, weeps with divorcees and rides anything from airplanes to mules to reach the spot that in newspapers is usually marked with an arrow or an x.” Aggie took great pains to distance herself from the sob-sister line of reporting that was the traditional beat for female journalists. “To hell with that. I’d rather have a fistful — an armload — of good, solid facts,” she said. Underwood wrote like a man, cussed like a man, and joined in her male colleagues’ pranks. Once, she slapped the city editor in the face with a fish that had been brought to the office in a tank. She dressed in the shabby, slapdash fashion of the male journalists: rumpled and unremarkable dresses, no makeup, low-heeled shoes. Colleagues recalled that her hair often looked as if it had been combed by an electric mixer. “She was a raggedy-looking woman,” said Jack Smith, a high-profile columnist who worked with Aggie. But Aggie could also work her gender to advantage, when it suited her. She sewed back the wayward buttons of her male colleagues’ shirts, invited them home for spaghetti dinners, and brought her kids into the office to hand out gifts at Christmas. From the very beginning, she saw the big picture: skillfully mapping out a strategy where she would be seen as an exceptional journalist who just happened to be a woman. Within two years, she was to become the city editor of the Herald-Express, one of the first women to be appointed to the position on a U.S. national newspaper.
It was a matter of great pride to Aggie that she was tougher than any man when it came to covering gruesome crime stories. “I was no sissy in my control of my reaction to blood and guts,” she said. Once, when police discovered two rotting corpses on a living room sofa, male officers and newspapermen waited outside for the room to air. Aggie marched straight in, climbed over the corpses, retrieved their IDs, and phoned in her story. Afterward, she sent her brown dress to the cleaners, but complained that “the odor persisted.”
But even Aggie was shocked at what she saw on Norton Avenue the morning of January 15, 1947.