Betty's Last Days Part 2: How A 70 Year Old Murder Resurrected My Work (and Myself) Back to Life: Black Dahlia
Los Angeles gets a bad rap for having no culture. I especially find this opinion strongest from people who move from NYC, England and France. They sit around and bash LA for having “utterly zero culture”. Yet, they don’t mind our warm winters and continuous sunshine, now do they? I’m an Angeleno, I’m second generation, having both of my parents born and raised in Los Angeles. So I am particularly proud of LA and no one gets to bash this city unless you’re like me and are born and raised here. I have earned rights to bash: yes, the traffic sucks, the people can tend to be pretentious ( they usually come from other parts of the world to “make it” in the film industry and they are particularly annoying …… you find them bragging at Starbucks about their screenplays, etc ) and there are no real true seasons which is something I’ve grown very fond of now that I live on the East Coast. But Los Angeles is NOT without it’s culture.
One particular culture I am very fond of is the 1940’s culture in LA. It was rife with corruption. LAPD was ruled by politicians and underworld figures and sometimes they were one in the same who ruled the city with payoffs and blackmail. There were rum smugglers, underground speakeasy’s, bars that were fronts for houses of prostitution, and criminals like Bugsy Siegel and Micky Cohen making LA their home.
Los Angeles was a hot bed for scandalous murders that were covered up by the police department and politicians and the newspapers. My parents were teenagers during the ’40’s and the stories they told me were off the charts. LA has always had this seediness to it. It’s even nicknamed “The Port of Missing Persons” and it’s this culture that really intrigues me. In Part 1 of this 3 part post I write about how I took a big long break from shooting and while in the height of my aforementioned “nervous breakdown” I was looking for hobbies. One hobby I chose to take on was looking into my ancestry. Remembering my father’s stories of his grandfather and his crooked ways, I was particularly interested in my great grandfather’s career as a Los Angeles Police Detective because he served during the time of the Black Dahlia murder and Lipstick Murder and he was as corrupt as you can get.
I will keep his identity anonymous to protect my family name but my great grandfather was one scandalous man. There are all kinds of rumors and some facts that are documented of him having affiliation with The Gangster Squad and covering up some not very great things. So as I was digging I found a few ties that led me to believe he was part of the investigative team on the Black Dahlia murder case. This led me to start researching the murder and I found myself landing on Steve Hodel’s incredibly well-researched and thorough book, Black Dahlia Avenger. Steve Hodel is the son of George Hodel who he now believes is the genius mastermind of the Black Dahlia and countless more murders that took place in Los Angeles in the late 1940’s. As I researched my family history, I found very strange and sad truths as well. For instance, my grandmother was found face down in a gutter on Figueroa Street outside the Figueroa Hotel in 1948 and was immediately taken to Camarillo State Mental Hospital where she remained for 15 years. Why did her father not help her? Why did my great-grandfather, a detective in the Los Angeles Police Department, not step in and save his own daughter? As I unravelled my own family history time-line I found shocking evidence that made me both sad and intrigued. And the most intriguing parts led right back to The Black Dahlia murder.
It’s strange that I have always been fascinated with this murder. Even when I was young. Perhaps now I know a little bit more as to the “why”. In a weird zig zag way, my only family history rode shot-gun beside the gruesome murder. In typical fashion of the era, the media was shameful during the investigation. Saying things like, “She paraded up and down Hollywood Blvd wearing those black get ups” as if she was just asking to be raped, killed, mutilated and dissected and then posed as an art statement! (How many times in my youth did I parade up and down Hollywood Blvd wearing “those” black (rock and roll) get ups?? ) Apparently Elizabeth Short went “missing” for a week before they found her dissected body in a vacant lot near downtown Los Angeles in January 1947. But there were plenty of eye witness sightings of Ms. Short and plenty of evidence that LAPD pretty much knew who the #1 suspect was. Dr. George Hodel, a prominent physician who ran a VD clinic in downtown LA was their suspect but to this day, the crime has never been solved.
Violence was an everyday affair back in 1949 and what’s worse, the LAPD seem to be as bad or worse than the thugs, bootleggers and gangsters that they were trying to eradicate. It is my belief that my family ancestry was part of this corrupt past in LA, which doesn’t make me necessarily proud, but it does make me fascinated with wanting to find out more.
So here’s what happened: It was mid-December last year. I was out in LA for a Breed Portfolio Building Day. I was terribly unhappy about the state of things career-wise. I was looking to make some drastic changes for the upcoming new year. I was staying with my best friend of 40 years, a fellow Angeleno. We got to talking about The Black Dahlia murder as her loft in DTLA is 2 blocks from the famed Biltmore Hotel, where Elizabeth Short was last seen. Supposedly.
Ceci (my best friend) and I are talking for days about Dr. George Hodel, his family, and his ties to Man Ray the photographer. Now what most people don’t know is that Man Ray plays a very major role in this murder. Yes, the very Grandfather of Photography, the man who’s work was literally crammed down my throat for years and years in art history classes and the history of photography classes as being a master photographer, one we heralded and studied and revered, there is suggestion that while he may not have physically been at the murder, the murder was an homage to his work and to surrealism. Totally fascinating!! This concept led me to another book Exquisite Corpse which discusses how the body was posed to mimic The Minotaur, one of Man Ray’s most famous photographs.
A few days later I’m having lunch with another dear friend, Maria Tara, and at lunch she mentions it’s the birthday of a mutual friend and did I want to go over and say Happy Birthday to him? And she mentioned that this friend, Arab, lives in an apartment that a famous photographer lived in. I”m like naming names, going down the list of famous photographers who might have lived in this Art Deco Hollywood Apartment building but she’s saying no they don’t sound familiar.
So we drive over to Arab’s apartment and when I asked him who lived in his place he says, “Man Ray. It was his studio, the guest bedroom was his darkroom and he slept upstairs in what is now our bedroom”. Chills ran up my spine. Dr. Hodel had frequented Man Ray’s apartment many times. It has been suspected that Elizabeth Short posed there as well for either Man Ray or Dr. Hodel. There’s a lot of information that I can’t possibly go into at this point, just know that I was totally engrossed in this whole idea that I was very close to possibly the murder sight but at the very least, standing in the middle of the studio of the great master photographer Man Ray and on ground that Dr. Hodel stood on, quite possibly discussing the murder.
When Arab invited me to shoot at his place “anytime”……well now how can I hold on to a creative block with such a serendipitous moment like this one?
I’m not sure where the fascination with The Black Dahlia murder comes from and why my obsession with it circled back around late last year. Perhaps it was my own “death” that I felt was imploding on me, a death of the situation I found myself in my work, in the industry, in my career and even with Breed. And the absolute necessity for change, to shed the old, to embrace again what I discarded, but to take it on in a different way. Perhaps I relate to Betty. Women are always victimized, no matter how you consider it. It’s still a man’s world and sometimes I feel exhausted having to prove myself or to constantly have to pull on the shirt sleeve of a man to have my voice heard. It’s fucking heavy and it’s debilitating to be honest. It fucking makes me want to quit sometimes. Maybe I felt my own work, dissected, slain, mocked, mutilated. Maybe I felt responsible for allowing that to happen. Maybe I just felt like disappearing myself. Pursue something new. Be left alone, never to be seen or heard of again. Maybe a part of me wanted to walk out of The Biltmore Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, throw my iPhone in the nearest trash can on Olive Street and vanish. Into thin air.
Well, instead of quitting, (sorry, boys) I decided to throw my angst into my art.
These images and the ones below form an informal “mood board. They are the from all the inspiration I used to create the shoot. I can’t show you all of them, my collection for this shoot was over 150 images of inspiration. I actually read both books mentioned here cover to cover to prepare myself as well. If you are inclined to actually put your iPhone down for a bit and read a book about art, surrealism and the history of photography, I strongly suggest Exquisite Corpse or Black Dahlia Avenger. I believe if you are going to call yourself an artist it is important to you AND your work to make yourself as knowledgeable as you can from the artists that walked on this earth before you did. Why in the hell would you A: idolize and B: try to copy some kid, who picked up a camera last July, and just got published in a magazine that probably won’t be here in a year? Think about that.
My final and 3rd part of this story will be the images.
I know I must been on the right track again. Because I own Breed now. And my entire Black Dahlia series (21 prints) just sold to a private collector in Los Angeles for a pretty nice sum of money.
So I guess my work doesn’t suck entirely, millennials.