The Black Dahlia of Leimert Park

As Los Angeles neighborhoods go, the 1920s-era planned community of Leimert Park manages to hover well beneath most Angelenos' radar. If they know Leimert Park at all, it's for its fertile jazz and literary scene, the long-promised light rail station that's finally within sight, or--most likely--as the place where a young Massachusetts drifter named Elizabeth Short found the special sort of fame that only clings to attractive victims of murder.

As one of the proprietors of Esotouric bus adventures, a tour company dedicated to revealing the lost lore of Los Angeles, I've guided hundreds of people through the flats of West Adams and down to Norton Avenue, where we walk smooth sidewalks to the site where the corpse of the unfortunate Miss Short was discovered, cut in two and horribly displayed, on the morning of January 15, 1947.

Our tour company grew out of the 1947project, a 2005-06 blog series I co-wrote with my colleague Nathan Marsak, and featured one 1947 crime or offbeat public interest story, posted each day on its anniversary.

In 2007, my husband Richard Schave and I got serious about bus tourism, formed Esotouric, and I wrote my first fully realized neighborhood-based crime tour: Pasadena Confidential. Word of our tours spread, and in time, The Real Black Dahlia became our most popular tour; focusing not on who killed Beth Short, but on who she was and how she navigated the postwar city.

The facts of the case are these: a married traveling salesman had dropped a young woman, without fixed address, at the Biltmore Hotel on the evening of January 9. She left and walked south on Olive Street. There are no confirmed sightings of her after that night. Her body showed signs of restraints, a brutal beating and posthumous knife wounds. The severing was also posthumous. She was quickly identified through fingerprints, and despite a thorough homicide investigation, her murder remains unsolved.

Leimert Park residences ca. 1940 | Image: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

Today, the crime scene is unassuming: a well-kept lawn in front of a boxy, beige home which was not yet built when the murder occurred. It's our job to peel back the layers, provide context, and tell the story of how Beth Short's body might have come to this particular place. We walk in her footsteps in a spirit of compassion, are deeply curious about her experiences, and strive through our stories to honor the life that was cut short.

With the exception of the Black Dahlia case, we specialize in long forgotten crimes. And while Beth Short has gained grim celebrity in death, she is typical of the victims whose stories we tell. They are generally anonymous civilians whose lives would have passed largely unnoticed under any other circumstances. But in their violent death everything about them is illuminated. We can draw on news reports and law enforcement investigations to reveal all the fascinating facets of a truncated life.

Which brings us back to Leimert Park, and the Black Dahlia murder...

Beth Short spent the last year of her life in constant, restless motion. Deeply depressed after the accidental death of the man she loved, Short reeled frantically among strangers, asking some for a few dollars, others for a bed for the night. Although she had worked in service jobs since her teens, she didn't seek employment. Nor did she, contrary to popular mythology, make any attempt to become a movie star. She simply drifted, and did much of that drifting in Southern California.

She accepted a little help from a lot of people, but with rare exceptions didn't form deeper attachments. Like all great mysteries, she was in her life and death opaque: a perfect screen for the projection of other peoples' fantasies.

Since she is so hard to know, we look to the places where she spent time. In learning about Beth Short's world, we expand our understanding of the woman. We can track her movements from Long Beach to Hollywood, Downtown to San Diego and back again. She stays in cheap hotels and decent ones, apartments, flophouses and private homes. She stays in a bungalow full of showgirls behind the Florentine Gardens, and sleeps sitting up in an all-night movie theater. She travels by bus and train, streetcar and private car. But there's no sign of her anywhere near Leimert Park, nor any reason for her to be there--not until the Wednesday morning when someone carefully arranges the two halves of her corpse by the curb on Norton Avenue. She was 22.

Black Dahlia murder scene (altered photograph), ca. 1947 | Image: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

Leimert Park was built by the canny developer Walter H. Leimert as his personal showpiece, on 231 acres of largely-undeveloped Rancho La Tijera lands acquired from Lucky Baldwin's daughter. The elegantly curving avenues with their fine concrete streets, tall trees and neat parkways were laid out by the Olmsted Brothers. Spacious homes in the fashionable Spanish mode were attractive to solidly middle class Angelenos.

Records from the 1940 U.S. Census show a cross-section of the professional workforce: car and cigar salesmen, managers, dentists, firemen, hairdressers, bank executives, bakery owners, furniture designers. Family people. Nice folks who presumably appreciated the restrictive housing covenants which Leimert attached to this old Spanish land grant, barring non-whites from buying their piece of the California dream.

During the war years and for some time after, urban development was stalled due to shortages of materials and skilled labor. So although the northern portion of the community had been mapped out, with streets laid, sidewalks poured, curbs cut and water and sewer pipes installed, vast swaths of the neighborhood remained open fields, weedy and strewn with garbage.

Betty Bersinger: the woman who discovered the body.1947 | Image: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

It was to one of these dump sites that the city's attention was drawn on that January morning. It began when a young housewife named Betty Bersinger, wheeling her toddler on a shopping errand, came upon Beth Short's brutalized body. She snatched up her daughter and ran south across 39th Street, to where the people and the houses and the telephones were. Betty, who was incoherent, called the police, and reporters heard the alert go out over the radio. Within the hour, the quiet avenue teemed with people. Before night fell, all of Los Angeles was talking about Leimert Park, and not in the way the real estate boosters liked to hear.

A few blocks to the west, construction crews were racing to finish the Broadway-Crenshaw Center, which would become California's first regional shopping center and the start of a revolution in merchandising. A year later, with the mall and its massive 13 acres of open parking beckoning, busy housewives like Betty Bersinger would be more likely to trundle their babes into automobiles, for familial excursions in mass consumption.

But at this moment, the old pedestrian world still lingered, allowing a killer to lay out a horrible tableau, a scene meant to be taken in by the first stroller to happen by.

The Black Dahlia Murder, as it would soon be dubbed, was a sensation. Although numerous women had been murdered in Los Angeles in recent years, none of their deaths inspired such relentless media coverage. Dozens of suspects were considered and rejected, many of them volunteering for the scrutiny. But the case went nowhere. Within two years, investigative improprieties would scuttle the career of the celebrated LAPD psychiatrist J. Paul De River, and both the FBI and DA's office would take an interest in the case and the police force that had failed to solve it.

Reporters at murder scene. 1947 | Image: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

Beth Short slipped into the realm of myth. Semi-fictionalized accounts of her life and death would build upon each other, with each new chronicler parroting such apocrypha as an imaginary Biltmore doorman, a non-existent middle name and an impossible career as a high-class prostitute. The crime novelist James Ellroy, traumatized by the unsolved murder of his own mother, made Beth Short his muse. Rock stars would paint and write musicals about her. Two people would write books naming their fathers as the killer. The crime remains unsolved, and its victim remains the perfect blank slate on which to write the nightmares of each observer's preference.

This Beth Short is the ideal victim, mysterious and eternal and forever fascinating.

But we're still left with the problem of Leimert Park, and the real Beth Short's incongruous presence on this suburban avenue, miles from her real-life haunts. How satisfying then to find L.A. historian Larry Harnisch's theory implicating Walter Alonzo Bayley, a mentally unstable surgeon who owned a home a block south of the body dump site on Norton Avenue, whose daughter Barbara served as the witness at the wedding of Beth's sister Virginia, and who at the time of Beth's murder was enmeshed in a complicated extramarital affair with an Austrian physician who would, after Dr. Bayley's 1948 death, threaten his widow with the exposure of terrible secrets.

Although the case is open, and the LAPD still regularly reviews the evidence, we will almost certainly never know who killed Beth Short. The trail is cold and all the players dead. But four times each year, when we gather up our passengers and leave the little patch of grass that grows now where once were weeds and a terrible flower, and I tell the story of Dr. Bayley's life on Norton Avenue, his traumas and his mysteries, the bus becomes very quiet, and filled with a frightening and very convincing vision of brutality and horror.

Places are powerful--but only so long as their histories are kept alive. They hold memories and resonance, maps of experience. But in Los Angeles, where people are always moving away, these histories are often lost. So we roll through the old city on our bus, bearing witness, to remember and understand the people who came before, and to pass the stories along. We like to think this keeps them just a little bit alive. And at this time of year, when the living and the dead are as close as the breadth of a hair, we can almost hear them whisper as we pass.


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For more info on the Black Dahlia murder and Esotouric Tours:

Esotouric
www.esotouric.com

1947project
1947project.blogspot.com

Larry Harnisch's Black Dahlia website
www.lmharnisch.com

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