Black Dahlia Murder: the Crime, the Cosmetics, and the Folksinger

Imprint illustration: Scott Gandell.

 

So I’m at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood to scope this 1933 Stanwyck flick about broads behind bars, but before it starts this dame gets up in front, name Joan Renner. Says her passion is historic crime and vintage cosmetics: sounds to me like a lethal combination. Then she gives the whole audience the inside skinny about the real characters behind the motion picture story, and about femmes fatales in general.

And then the lights go out.

After the movie, I do a little gumshoe work on this Renner. She works out of a site she calls the Vintage Powder Room, devoted to “history, women, and art.” She lectures around town regularly, and has even been on the small screen, in a film noir segment for the Turner Classic Movies series “Film Fanatics” and in an episode of the ID Discovery Channel’s “Deadly Women” series.

On weekends she’s a tour guide for Estotouric, and her most popular tour is “The Real Black Dahlia.” It covers the story of Elizabeth Short, who was just another babe who hit Tinsel Town with pipe dreams of stardom until her bisected and mutilated body was found on a vacant lot in Leimert Park in 1947. She was only 22. Her murder caused a media frenzy, and reporters gave her the monicker “Black Dahlia.” The coppers never nailed the perp, and books and films – and bus tours – about Short have kept the story alive over the decades.

Photo courtesy of LAPL.

Renner also helped put together an exhibit about the investigation that just opened at the Los Angeles Police Museum over in Highland Park. It’s sponsored by crime fiction’s James Ellroy, who penned “The Black Dahlia” in 1987. The top dirt from large piles of police files are displayed in vitrines: never before seen photos, news clippings, police memorabilia, and various other artifacts. The show is up through June 16th.

So I decide to get Renner on the horn for the full lowdown.


Clara Phillips a.k.a. Tiger Girl, Hammer Murderess. Photo courtesy of LAPL.

Joan Renner: I’m a social historian with an interest in the rich crime history of Los Angeles, circa 1910-1960, so I poke around in libraries and tomb-like government buildings to uncover Los Angeles’ criminal past. L.A.’s felons are as flamboyant and unhinged as the city itself.

For example, in the early 1930s there was the case of a woman who, for years, kept her lover concealed in the attic of the home she shared with her clueless husband. When the husband was murdered, the woman and her “Bat Man” lover were front page news for weeks.

Robert James. Photo courtesy of LAPL.

One of the most diabolical cases I’ve ever presented in a lecture was the 1936 slaying of Mary James by her husband Robert. A homicidal husband isn’t news, but what made this case interesting was Robert’s weapons of choice, two venomous rattlesnakes named Lethal and Lightning. When the snake’s poison didn’t kill Mary quickly enough to suit him, Robert dragged the poor woman into a bathtub and drowned her. He was the last man to be hanged by the state of California.

And I’m currently researching a book on – what else? – true crime in Los Angeles. I’m also involved in a book project with the Police Museum that will use crime scene photos from the 1930s through the 1950s.

LAPD Chief James Edgar "Two Gun" Davis. Photo courtesy of LAPL.

Michael Dooley: What led you to your life of crime history?

I first became interested in crime as a kid in Chicago which, given the city’s reputation, makes sense, right? My parents subscribed to the Chicago Tribune, and I would read the funnies and the crime coverage. When I was eight years old I read about the discovery of the body of a boy, about my age, in a sewer drain. He’d been murdered. That story was scarier to me than any imagined monster hiding under my bed. I followed the story trying to make sense of it, but there’s no way to make sense of child murder. My recollection is that the coverage ended with a report that the boy’s father had died of a broken heart. I imagined a heart literally breaking into pieces, and that made a profound impression on me.

Photo by Lucy Cook.

What’s been your role in “Elizabeth,” the L.A. Police Museum’s Black Dahlia exhibit?

For over two years I’ve been an archivist at the Police Museum. And I’ve been involved in all aspects of the Black Dahlia exhibit from the moment that the museum was given permission by Chief Charlie Beck to access files in the case.

The museum’s executive director and I pored over transcripts of suspect interviews, eliminated suspect reports, photographs, and crank letters. Out of the mass of material loaned to us by LAPD’s Robbery Homicide Division, we sought to create an exhibit that would not dwell on the horror of the crime, but would focus instead on the investigation undertaken by LAPD.

Robert "Red" Manley submitting to a polygraph. Photo courtesy of LAPL.

And what have you uncovered?

I’ve read the contemporaneous newspaper coverage of the case, and all of the books that purport to offer a solution to the murder. The newspaper coverage is illuminating, the books, not so much. I’m absolutely convinced that none of the authors of any of the books have solved the case.

Robert Manley. Photo courtesy of LAPL.

There is a mind-boggling amount of misinformation regarding Elizabeth Short’s case. The most common misconception is that she was last seen at the Biltmore Hotel. It’s true that she had been dropped off there by Robert “Red” Manley, the original suspect in the murder. However, once she’d convinced Manley to leave her, she walked a couple of blocks down Olive Street to a bar, The Crown Grille, and it was from that location that she vanished.

I combed the LAPD’s Black Dahlia case files hoping to find anything that would lead me to the identity of the killer, but skilled police detectives have been reviewing those same files for 65 years without success. I didn’t stand a chance.

I may not have solved Elizabeth Short’s murder, but while searching the files I discovered a celebrity suspect who, to my knowledge, has never before been publicly connected to the case, musician/activist Woody Guthrie! Guthrie had previously been rousted by the Feds for sending obscene material through the U.S. mail, and even though the material was nothing more than a few erotic letters he’d written to a woman he knew, it was enough to make him a suspect. He was quickly eliminated. He is, however, a part of the exhibit.

I’ve also developed a personality profile of Elizabeth Short based upon her choice of make-up, which was unique for her age and her time.

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In part two of her story, Joan shares intimate details about her period cosmetics collection.

Unless otherwise noted, all photos of the Los Angeles Police Museum’s “Elizabeth” exhibit, below, are by Lucy Cook.

Photo by M. Dooley.

Photo by M. Dooley.

10 thoughts on “Black Dahlia Murder: the Crime, the Cosmetics, and the Folksinger

  1. Joan Renner

    Hi Pat,  I am very interested in women’s issues. My particular interest is in historic LA crime, especially when the perpetrator is female. Your book sounds fascinating, and right up my alley. I’ll be sure to check it out. If you’re in LA I hope that you’ll visit the LA Police Museum in Highland Park — there is always something going on.  Best,  Joan

  2. Pat Hill

    Hi Joan, I didn’t know how other to contact you than through this website.  In the LA Times I read that you were interested in women’s issues/studies and thought you might be interested in my new book, Everybody’s Woman.  It’s a book on interviews about women and includes a variety of people including an advertising agent, rape victim, police detective against sex crimes, social scientist, housewife, etc. 
    Good luck with your archiving.  I think that’s great.  Pat

  3. Joan Renner

    Mike - It seems to me that historians (art or otherwise) have a great deal in common with detectives. Both groups will dig beyond the point where others would throw down the shovel. The Exquisite Corpse is the definitely the most creative take I’ve seen on the murder of Elizabeth Short.  It’s interesting that you compared the detectives at the crime scene to partrons at a gallery opening; there are some discomforting similarities between the two that I’d never noticed before.

  4. Joan Renner

    Hugh – I absolutely agree with you that, if nothing else, Steve Hodel’s book proved his father to be a sadistic monster. I think that Dr. Hodel may have been the type to torture and torment, not kill. Sort of the ‘pull the wings off flies’ kind of creep. Even though I don’t subscribe to Steve Hodel’s theories about his father being involved in various murders, I’ll read his latest book with interest.

  5. Mike McCarthy

    “EXQUISITE CORPSE; Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder” by Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss use ART HISTORY to solve an unsolvable murder. If Hodel didn’t do it, he most certainly should have. http://exquisitecorpsebook.blogspot.com/
    The onlookers in the Black Dahlia crime scene photograph on the backcover of this book appear to be patrons at the opening of an art show. All they need are wine glasses and plates of cheese. The Death of Elizabeth Short is the death of Surrealism.
    See Manray’s last piece which is in the Philadelphia Art Museum.
     
     

  6. Hug Bronson

    If nothing else, Hodel convinced me that his father was a sociopath and a murderer, even if he did not murder Elizabeth Short.  The story of George Hodel is a fascinating one.  Steve Hodel’s evidence such as it is may be nothing but circumstantial.  But his investigation to me was the most compelling, for the reasons that Steve was a cop, and George was provably beyond strange.  His book is well worth reading.  Plus, it throws the artist Man Ray (a proven sadist) and John Huston into the mix, which really solidifies the fictional LA conspriacy-scape of “Chinatown” with the real life history of the LAPD under Chief Parker.  Spooky stuff.

  7. Joan Renner

    I don’t agree with Steve Hodel’s conclusion that his father, George, was responsible for the murder of Elizabeth Short. However, Steve Hodel actually has credentials as an investigator, which is something other authors who have claimed to solve the case lacked. I do enjoy reading the various theories about the case, but none of them hold together for me — at least not yet! 

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