The Dahlia, divined
- Anne Marie DiStefano
- Portland Tribune - Features
As Hollywood revisits famous murder, a friend remembers
It's a terrible thing to learn from a TV news flash that someone you care about has died. Twelve-year-old Mary Pacios was baby-sitting and watching a cowboy movie one winter night in 1947 when she first heard that her friend Elizabeth Short had been murdered. The death haunted Pacios' teenage years; 'The murder was a shadow,' she says now.
Life went on for Pacios. She moved to Portland five years ago and lives in an apartment with a sweeping view of downtown. She's an artist, and hanging on the wall of her small studio is one of her large, mostly black linotypes, a triptych titled 'The Martyrdom of Elizabeth Short.'
Coming to terms with a painful memory is never easy, but few people have had to confront the barrage of harrowing reminders that Elizabeth Short's friends and family have been subjected to for the past 59 years. Short's mutilated body was found in a vacant lot in Los Angeles, where she lived on and off in the mid-1940s. The discovery sparked an instant media frenzy. Reporters dubbed the dead woman 'The Black Dahlia,' and the case made national headlines.
Short died of a blow to the head. There were rope burns and multiple knife cuts on the body, which had also been severed through the waist and then arranged on the grass. There were few clues and hundreds of suspects.
The case was never solved. Unsubstantiated stories circulated about Short: She was a prostitute, she was frigid, she was pregnant, she was a lesbian. And somehow, instead of fading away over time, the legend of the Black Dahlia just keeps getting more convoluted.
A new movie called 'The Black Dahlia,' directed by Brian De Palma, opens Friday - and if you've seen the ads, you know it promises to be scandalous, sexy and violent.
'I hope the movie bombs,' Pacios says of the new film. To her it's just one more case of condemning the victim instead of the killer.
Short and Pacios were kids together in Medford, Mass. The Short family - the mother and five daughters - moved into the neighborhood when Pacios was 4 and Elizabeth, whom they called Bette, was 14.
'She was just very nice,' Pacios recalls. 'She started taking me for walks and to the movies.' Pacios looked up to the older girl: 'When I grew up, I was going to be just like her.'
Short was very pretty, with black hair, pale skin and blue eyes. She was well-liked and meticulous about her appearance. 'She liked attention,' Pacios says. 'When she walked down the street, people would notice her.'
When she was 19 or 20, Short became engaged to a soldier. Barely a week after World War II ended, she received a telegram informing her that he had been killed. She went to Los Angeles, with dreams of becoming an actress. With no job and nowhere to live, Short moved around a lot, staying with friends or in rooming houses. She dated a lot of men, in part, Pacios believes, because they were her best chance of getting a square meal.
Short was last seen in the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel on Jan. 9, 1947. Six days later, her body was found in a residential area, which was instantly mobbed by police, reporters and gawkers. At the time, Los Angeles had five daily newspapers, all vying for the catchiest headline, the most sensational angle.
Reporters inundated Medford. 'They were hanging around the house,' Pacios says, 'they were in my aunt's backyard.' To avoid the reporters, Pacios would walk around town after school instead of coming home, even though it was the middle of January. Eventually she came down with pneumonia.
The people who had known Short quickly clammed up. Their quotes were distorted and misinterpreted. A witness at the Biltmore saw Short in a 'tailored suit' - the newspapers changed it to 'tight skirt.' When a friend said, 'She liked everyone, men and women,' it became an innuendo that she was a profligate bisexual. The phrase 'aspiring actress' was twisted to imply a role in a porn film.
'She was badly smeared at the time of the murder,' Pacios says, 'and I sort of believed it, growing up.' The topic of Bette Short became taboo.
'Over the years, no one would talk,' Pacios remembers. 'If I would bring up her name, my mother would say, 'You're opening a can of worms.' '
In secret ways, though, Pacios continued to pay homage to Short, dressing in black, as Short had, and making plans to become an actress.
Pacios married young, got divorced, and married again. She never spoke of Short, not even to her husband. Then one night in 1975, they were watching television when a teaser came on for a new television movie starring Lucie Arnaz called 'Who Is the Black Dahlia?'
'What's wrong?' Pacios' husband asked. 'I knew her,' she answered.
At an art show in 1986, Pacios first showed her print 'The Martyrdom of Elizabeth Short.' She thought it would provide closure. The next year, crime writer James Ellroy came out with his novel 'The Black Dahlia,' which he based on newspaper clippings. Pacios saw it as another insult - a fictional book, using real names, by an author known for his morbid imagination.
'It was all untrue - lies'
At last, Pacios decided to set the record straight. She published her own book, 'Childhood Shadows: The Hidden Story of the Black Dahlia,' in 1999 (a revised version should be available early next year). Pacios had access to a range of insiders, both reporters and detectives from the original case and her own childhood friends and relatives. She delved into the parts of Short's life that she hadn't known before - her boyfriends, her medical history, autopsy reports and reports from the grand jury investigation into the murder.
'She was so badly trashed,' Pacios says. 'I found out it was all untrue - lies.'
The book received criticism - and publicity - for linking Orson Welles to the murder. Pacios doesn't say he did it, just points out a few strange coincidences.
Pacios has become a Black Dahlia authority. She was interviewed recently on '48 Hours Mystery' and the A and E Television Network's 'Cold Case Files,' and she'll appear on a 'Black Dahlia' segment of Fox's 'America's Most Wanted' on Saturday. Hits on her Web site (www.blackdahlia.info) increased from about 50 a day to more than 200 after the first trailers appeared for the new movie. She's closer to the prying media and the prurient interest in the tale than ever. But the 72-year-old Pacios has her own memories to fall back on, just as she did as a grieving youngster.
'What I did is remember the last time I saw her,' Pacios says. 'I'd play it out like a movie in my head. She comes up the stairs and rings the bell and I go with her, and we cross the street and she talks to the manager of the gas station. I think she was going to meet him the next night. … Then we go down there to the square and we go in the dress store. … She tries on a dress. I never forget the dress. It was black with pink roses and it had these sleeves that fold over, and shoulder pads. … And then we go for ice cream.'
It's not a movie, or a TV show, or a book - just a happy spring day, etched in one woman's memory.