Ellroy's Obsession With the Black Dahlia


Sept.15, 2006 — -- Though she was dead at 22, the Black Dahlia is in her 60th year of haunting minds.

For novelist James Ellroy, a lifelong obsession began with her brutal killing.

"We are looking for the language to explain how one human being can do something that is so utterly depraved to another human being," Ellroy said.

The woman known for decades as the Black Dahlia is the subject of a new movie, based on Ellroy's novel and directed by Brian DePalma, because she is the victim in the most famous unsolved murder in the history of Los Angeles.

On a sunny morning in January 1947, she was discovered in a vacant lot on an L.A. street, 54 feet from a fire hydrant that has remained on the site, by a woman pushing a baby stroller.

That woman, as Larry Harnisch of the Los Angeles Times knows only too well, would be only the first to be horrified by what she saw there.

"She saw the mutilated and dismembered body of Elizabeth Short," said Harnisch, an expert on the case. The victim's body was "cut in the middle... and then about a foot and a half apart [from the top of her torso], her legs were straight, sort of spread out, hands over her head. And as one of the detectives said, cut up in a real bad way," he said.

The body had been ravaged, drained of blood, sliced in half, brutalized in a manner that stuns even DePalma, no stranger to candid crime-scene photos.

"What's amazing about the Black Dahlia, besides the fact that her body is in two parts, and the way her mouth is slashed... she's displayed in like a horror show," DePalma said. "It's like a human body displayed for you to look at and go 'Oh, my God.'"

She was Elizabeth Short from Medford, Mass. Friends called her Betty. But in the headlines of the day, and ever after, she would be the Black Dahlia, inspired, it would be said, by the way she wore her hair.

She became a tabloid sensation, hot copy in a five-newspaper town. Now she has been incarnated on screen in "The Black Dahlia," a ferociously imagined fictional take on the brief life and cruel death of Elizabeth Short.

It stars Josh Harnett and Aaron Eckhart as cops on the case, Scarlett Johanssen as the siren they both love, and as the Black Dahlia herself, Mia Kirshner.

The Black Dahlia remains the prototypic, mythic Hollywood murder.

"The myth of Elizabeth Short is this is what happens to star-struck girls from... little towns back East... who come out to big bad Hollywood with ideas of getting into movies," Harnisch said. "Terrible things happen."

"Don't, don't, don't come to L.A. to become a movie-star," Ellroy said. "Fatuous dreams die hard."

No one has found himself more in the Dahlia's grip than Ellroy, because his childhood imagination forged the most personal of connections: between the dead Dahlia and his own slain mother.

"On June 22 in '58, when I was 10, my mother was murdered outside L.A, unsolved rape-homicide, 11 years after the Black Dahlia case," he said. "It was a gaspingly quick, horrible death -- nothing like the attenuated death of Elizabeth Short."

Yet, he said, "The two merged symbolically and imaginatively for me."

Ellroy would intertwine these two murders into one life-altering obsession, steeped in eroticism, and death, and mystery, and vengeance.

"'Cherchez le femme,'" he says, quoting a key line in his novel. "My mother was murdered, I got hooked on the Black Dahlia. I grew up an only child with my desiccated old man where no women were around. I just grew up hungry for women."

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."

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