The obsession transformed as Ellroy got older and became a writer with a capacity to craft mesmerizing prose turbocharged by tabloid argot, 40s copspeak, and profound heartbreak.
Asked how much what had happened to his mother played into how he had imagined Elizabeth Short in The Black Dahlia, Ellroy says, "It was the emotional subtext of my novel. When I finished my novel -- and the last word in the novel was 'love' -- I wrote the dedication page: 'To Geneva Hilliker Ellroy 1915-1958 Mother: Twenty-nine Years Later, This Valediction in Blood' and I wept for hours. I had been waiting so many years to write that book."
Years later, a writer of renown via the Dahlia and "L.A. Confidential," he'd explicate those feelings in "My Dark Places," for which he tried to find his mother's killer.
Those feelings and their intensity made a partnership with DePalma seem ideal.
"We have similar obsessions," DePalma said. "He writes books about beautiful women and I like to photograph beautiful women. He writes obsessive stories, very intense characters, worlds of greed and corruption. Things I like to make movies about."
From "Dressed to Kill" to "Scarface," obsession is familiar DePalma territory. In this film, the obsession comes to life courtesy of imaginary screen tests with Mia Kirshner as Elizabeth Short and DePalma as her unseen director.
"I wanted to break her down," he said. "I wanted to break her down and show her vulnerability."
"I was initially against the idea of having mock screen test footage of Elizabeth Short," Ellroy said. "Mr. De Palma overruled me, and there are breathtaking moments of Ms. Kirshner as Elizabeth Short, the indestructibility of her hope, in context with her imminent hopeless destruction."
The search for her destructor bears bitter fruit in the film.
In real life, the murder of the Black Dahlia has remained unsolved, spawning ever more theories of whodunit and why.
"She is all our dreams of the fulfillment of love dashed, and we want to know why," Ellroy said. "We want the entire psycho-sexual journey of the killer. We want to know Elizabeth Short's victimology on a very, very deep level, and we're not gonna get to know."
Harnisch concurs: "No, never."
"It's just one of those things," DePalma said. "When the crime remains unsolved, the pictures are there, and always that question of who and why will haunt you forever."
And what has this obsession cost James Ellroy?
"It cost me the fatuous knowledge that closure exists. There is not closure: my mother and I continue; Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, and I continue," he said. "And I would not have it any other way."