Don't forget to refer to my Contents page for a more convenient reference to past articles.

For More L.A. La Land, visit my writing/art/film appreciation site on Facebook at Quoth the Maven and follow me on Twitter @ Blahlaland. :)

Friday, November 27, 2009

HOT SPOTS in CA: The Hollywood Heritage Museum

It only makes sense, being out of town for the Thanksgiving Holiday, that I grow homesick and devote this week's post to my beloved L.A. La Land and another of its great historical landmarks. The Hollywood Heritage Museum sits across the street from the Hollywood Bowl Theater on Highland Avenue, but most people know it as little more than a place to park when a concert is going on. It is a modest building, tucked just under the 101 Freeway, and easily overshadowed by the busy, electric intersection of Hollywood and Highland. Not much to look at from the outside, inside it possesses many interesting artifacts from cinematic history, including a camera used to shoot Gone with the Wind. But the history of the building makes it far more significant than it may at first appear. It is not just some random building, now used for preservational purposes, but is an actual piece of cinematic history, dating all the way back to the very beginning of California's birth as the Kingdom of Movies. At this time, Prospect was the main street running West to East down Harvey Wilcox's new city. It would be years later that it be renamed Hollywood Blvd.

In October of 1911, David Horsley of the Centaur Film Company, which he had formed with Biograph Director Charles Gorman, came to Hollywood with his brother William. (As a side note, Horsley and Gorman got the name for their company by combining their two names: Horse- + -Man = Centaur). The Horsley brothers' mission was to come to the slowly growing movie town, and set up a camp for their new studio. They met up with Murray Steele who took them to "The Blondeau Tavern" at Sunset and Gower, which was closing due to a ban on alcohol. The property, which included the tavern, a corral, several small buildings, a bungalow, and a barn-- was rented by the brothers from Mr. Blondeau for $35/mo. They used it as a center for their production.

Two years later, in 1913, the land would fall into the possession of Cecil B. DeMille (aboveJesse LaskySamuel Goldfish aka Goldwyn, and Arthur Friend. They had just formed the "Jesse K. Lasky Feature Play Company" in New York, and had been looking for terrain in Arizona on which to film a cinematic version of the play The Squaw Man. After finding Flagstaff unsuitable for the shoot, they moved over to Los Angeles, and happened upon the barn that the Horsley's had rented out two years prior. The current owner was Jacob Stern, who agreed to rent the barn out again on a month to month basis... as long as he could leave his horses and carriage there. And so, the boys of the Lasky team set up shop, filming The Squaw Man, which many regard as the first official full-length feature to be filmed in Los Angeles.

Working out of the barn, where DeMille set up his office, was no easy feat. DeMille had to raise his boots whenever a wash of water came running through the barn, usually the result of the horses being cleaned by Stern. The offices had literally been made out of horse stalls, as were the dressing rooms and projection rooms. Another interesting fact about their time there, was that Lasky was the first filmmaker to hire writers and scenarists to work "in house," and so this barn harbored the first studio story department! Amidst the mud and the chaos, they somehow made it work. Filming officially began on December 29, 1913. The resulting movie was a smash success and helped to take filmmaking to a whole new level of creativity and artistry. 

Still from The Squaw Man

The barn was moved from its original site (what is now 1521 Vine Street) to Paramount Studios, where it often served as a set piece on productions, including television's "Bonanza." It remained there for 55 years, until it was set to be demolished. It was saved, thank goodness, and moved to its current location on Highland. Then, in 1996, it suffered through a horrible fire that destroyed much of its precious artifacts. Thankfully, the building was restored and as of 1999 was re-opened to the public.

Inside, curious history buffs will find a replication of Cecil B. DeMille's private office, a large photographic collection of early Hollywood, film props, and other assorted memorabilia. The barn is surprisingly large on the inside, which makes its outer proportions quite deceptive. The staff hosts tours there, as well as many other interesting lectures about cinema and its history. (I myself went to a discussion about Errol Flynn that was very enlightening, for a personal friend of his, author Steven Hayes, was there, and many unseen photos of him were shared). 

If ever you adhere to the lesson, "Don't judge a book by its cover," let it be to see this great, historical landmark-- if not even to see the treasures that lie within its walls, then to physically set your own two feet upon an official piece of Hollywood History. The Hollywood Heritage Museum is open five days a week, Wed-Sun, from noon to 4pm. It is located at 2100 North Highland Avenue. Call (323) 874-2276 for more information.

Friday, November 20, 2009


In the world of history, all roads intersect. It truly is a small world, but the knowledge that we are all bound together inside of it can be a powerful thing. In studying Hollywood, I am focused on a very particular section of the past, but it is impossible to study the geography of one place without encroaching on other territories. The landscape of human life is forever intertwining, forever overlapping. Sometimes the bridges we forge between worlds is entertaining-- a hysterical bit of trivia-- and sometimes reassuring. Seeing the pieces of a massive puzzle all coming together to form one picture, albeit an ever-evolving one, makes the mystery of life and human connection all the more compelling. Is this not why we burrow into the past? To understand, to learn, to seek a commonality, which gives life a new meaning?

It is interesting to note the strange connections that different celebrities have with each other, outside of well-forged friendships. Chance encounters, life-altering meetings, and brief glimpses of different people from different generations seem to weld together the otherwise disconnected feelings that we have about important historical figures. I admit freely that I tend to think of people as existing within their own time line, so when I research a particular person and am introduced to the peers and acquaintances within their "community," I find it surprising. All of these separate stitches come together to form one large, all-encompassing fabric. It amuses me, and at the same time makes the person I study more tangible. Here are a few random encounters that struck me when I came across them:

~ Rin Tin Tin was one of the most famous, best beloved, and highest paid stars in Hollywood when he died on August 10, 1932. He peacefully met his maker in the arms of a new neighbor who had just moved in with her husband, Paul Bern. The new Hollywood ingenue? Jean Harlow.


~ In 1920, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were returning from a lengthy, European honeymoon. While aboard the SS Olympic heading for New York, they encountered a charming 16-year-old, English lad who was headed for America for the first time. His name was Archibald Leach. He would later be known as Cary Grant.

~ When Carole Lombard's plain tragically went down in January of 1942, it crashed into the mountains of Nevada. Before her husband, Clark Gable, had even heard the tragic news, 2 famous neighbors from the silent film days saw the flames going up over the mountains beyond their ranch. Rex Bell and Clara Bow were unaware of the gravity of the event when Rex went riding out to the scene, being one of the first to offer help.

~ One night in 1929, struggling actor Boris Karloff was leaving the Universal lot after a hard day of extra work. He was tired, and was thus very grateful when a generous man pulled over and offered to give him a lift. Lon Chaney then gave Boris the best career advice he was ever to receive- "The secret of success in Hollywood lies in being different from anyone else. Find something no one else can or will do-- and they'll begin to take notice of you." Clearly, Boris took the words of wisdom to heart.

~ Back in the 1940s, one of Hollywood's most notorious hot-spots was the Florentine Gardens. Many big-wigs went here to see and be seen, flirt with the pretty girls, and spend money on a strong drink. Young wannabe actresses went there hoping to bump into a producer or director, who would maybe give them a screen test. Two ingenues who met here? Elizabeth "The Black Dahlia" Short and Norma Jean Baker, otherwise known as Marilyn Monroe.

I came across another coincidence lately that went beyond the actor-actor connection. This one actually blew my mind, for although the "6 degrees of Kevin Bacon" law unites us all... this one stretches so far back into history, uniting two unlikely people, that all I could do was shake my head at the craziness of it.

                                                                     Wallace Reid                                                     

~Few people today remember the handsome matinee idol, Wallace Reid, although at one point he was one of Hollywood's biggest stars. Even fewer are familiar with his wife, Dorothy Davenport (below, top left), a movie star in her own right, who was descended from a long line of accomplished thespians, including the illustrious Fanny Davenport (bottom left), her aunt. (Fanny had, by the way, started an acting company in which the young actor Cunningham Deane aka William Desmond Taylor was performing in 1896). Dorothy's grandfather, Edward Loomis Davenport (top right) was a huge theater star in his time. So famous had he become, that his face appeared on etched cigar bands. Abraham Lincoln (left) was a fan of his work, and was excited when E.L. invited him to a performance of Othello at the Grover Theater on April 14, 1864. Unfortunately, Mary Todd had already made plans for them to see Our American Cousin at the Ford's Theater where, the night of the play, actor John Wilkes Booth (bottom right) shot Lincoln in his private box. Dorothy Davenport's grandfather very nearly saved Lincoln's life with his invitation, but fate had other plans. (Interestingly, E.L. had made his stage debut with Booth's father Junius Brutus Booth in Providence, RI). Wallace Reid-> Dorothy Davenport-> E.L. Davenport-> Abraham Lincoln. Less than 6 degrees of KB! Amazing! 

Hollywood seems to exist as its own separate universe- a galaxy of luminous stars radiating beyond the realm of the general population. Even living in Hollywood, one feels that there are two separate dimensions: the real world, and then the glossy world of fiction and fantasy-- the Olympus hovering somewhere overhead. It is a place that we cannot see nor touch, but that we are somehow constantly aware of. That is why I take such pleasure in the aforementioned instances of historical convergence, where "Hollywood" comes out from hiding and reveals itself as a real populace, filled with real people.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

MENTAL MONTAGE: The Blurring of Violence

In continuing my exploration of Lon Chaney this month, I thought it appropriate to discuss one of his most notorious films: London After Midnight. However, I do not broach this topic as a means of discussing the usual controversy surrounding the movie, which is that it remains one of the most sought after "lost" silent film in existence-- or, in this case, non-existence. Rather, I want to confront the startling effect the film had on its audiences and on one audience member in particular... 

I have often said that if you investigate early cinema for the first 20 years of its existence, you will have heard the whole story. We continue to interpret darker current events as startling and even devastating when in reality they are tired, tried, and true stories of shamefully recurring human behavior. In Hollywood, from film plots to celebrity self-destruction, it's all been done before, because as it turns out: times may change, but people don't. [Moment of silence for human stupidity].

So it is with London After Midnight, which planted the seed of blame in the land of celluloid for actions of violence in the real world.  Lon Chaney was already known for his horrifying faces and their powerful affect on the public by the time he starred in Tod Browning's latest feature. In fact, during previous screenings of The Phantom of the Opera, ambulances often had to be summoned to attend to the faint of heart who were passion out in the middle of screenings in reaction to the gruesome visage of the phantom "Erik" for the first time. (Friedkin's The Exorcist repeated this phenomenon in the '70s, but again, Lon was first). However, to my knowledge, it wasn't until London that the line between exhilarated viewership-- high on the adrenaline of a good scare-- and paranoiac obsession was crossed, instigating viewers to repeat 2-dimensional sequences of the silver screen in our 3-dimensional world.

Robert Williams was a carpenter living in London when he saw London in 1928. So profound was his reaction to what he saw that he claimed he was afterward "haunted" by the Vampire Lon had portrayed. Overcome with fear and anxiety, he suffered an "epileptic fit," and consequently killed his Irish housemaid, all while supposedly under the influence of Chaney's villain. In court, Williams would plead his innocence, citing temporary insanity as induced by his viewing of the film. The courts, thankfully, did not buy his story, and he was found guilty of the murder.

Clearly, controversy surrounding violence in the media is not a new phenomenon, born in the past few decades but an old dog playing new tricks. The more brutal the stories become and the more graphic the special effects, the more people want to blame film's more macabre moments for instigating horrific actions in reality. The "the movies did it" defense has become an easy fall back for out-of-control, non-fictional villains responding to carefully contrived, fictional worlds.

Most are aware of the infamous story of John Hinckley, and how he became so obsessed witha young Jodie Foster (left) after watching Taxi Driver that he tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981. His goal was to "impress" Foster; to make himself as important and historically relevant as she had become through her acting. And this was not his first attempt. He had stalked Jodie, moved to Connecticut when she began her classes at Yale, slipped notes under her door, and had originally targeted Jimmy Carter as his victim, only to be foiled by a fortunate firearms charge. Hinckley's (below) defense for the attempted assassination of Reagan was to blame the movies. He claimed that he was so effected by the violence and mania of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver that he was driven to murder.

There are other stories, of course, but they are so common these days that they usually don't make as many waves. The television show "Dexter" has lately been blamed for inciting the murder of Johnny Brian Altinger by Mark Twitchell, a fan of the show. In Scotland in 2002, Allan Menzies claimed that he murdered a friend when seduced by Akasha, Anne Rice's anti-heroine from the film adaptation Queen of the Damned. Equally, after the Columbine tragedy, many questions were raised as to the influence that violence in the media had had on the two young killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. 

Ted Bundy was also clever enough to blame pornography for his disturbing, sexually charged murders, and in this instance the public equally jumped on the band wagon. The scapegoat of dangerous images became a convenient way to explain away the psychological conundrum of our species and equally gave us an agenda to, in a sense, kill the messenger to ease our fears, those which in this case we specifically hold against our neighbors. Bundy was just toying with us of course, and his claims offered no real resolutions. However is making the intangible world of, for our purposes, cinema an antagonist in our endlessly chaotic world like blaming the inventor of the hammer for the person who uses it to bludgeon instead of build? The narrow line between artistic interpretation and skewed and repackaged media dramatization wherein we are hypnotized by dirty pictures and salacious advertisements to feed our sado-masochistic tendencies. In America, the Lizzie Borden case is often identified as the source of the strange gluttonous love affair between media and audience. Over 110 years after Lizzie was declared "not guilty," television viewing audiences held their breath watching the OJ Simpson trial.

As showcased in the aforementioned, the irony of the "life imitating art" argument is, of course, that movies are the result of art imitating life. Films are made to translate in a structured fashion the complexities of human behavior; they are meant to act as mirrors, reflecting our own compulsions and emotions back onto us. We go to the theater seeking some truth of ourselves, and whether the image revealed be glorious or ugly, these "truths" were crafted with our own hands by our own collective history. A movie is not a living creature, enforcing its wrath on us; and if it is, it is our breath that gave it that life.

This creates a confusing and baffling cycle, for movies are thus made interpreting old patterns of human behavior only to be blamed for inciting new violence. For example, Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Silence of the Lambs, were all partially based upon the true story of Ed Gein and his horror house of death (below). On November 17, 1957, police arrived at Gein's residence in Plainfield, WI to arrest him for shoplifting, only to find the farmhouse full of dead bodies, chairs made of skin, and belts made of nipples (to name only a few monstrosities). The disturbing evil, which Gein had crafted into his own sick artistry-- fashion of the flesh--  was a prime subject for storytelling. Possessing the worst in all things psychological, social, historical, and human, it is no wonder that Hitchcock swooped in to turn Gein's madness into cinematic genius. Psycho shocked, appalled, intrigued... and apparently inspired, for later murders were blamed on the film. But Psycho did not create the monster; Hitch had simply re-told an old story. This raises other questions, including that asking if cinema had accidentally become a way for serial killer Ed Gein to continue his destruction? Had the vessels of truth become tools of evil?

                                                  Hitchcock's Psycho House                                                    

In the end, blaming movies for the actions a person chooses to perform in life seems to be a desperate and feeble attempt at salvation. The movie screen, in its magnitude and power, sits Godlike on its pedestal over our heads. We look up to it for answers, for help, for healing... We hope for it to take us away from our lives and protect us from the big bad world outside, (if only for two hours). We love it, as long as it loves us, but when it disappoints us, all we tiny humans can do is point our fingers at it and say, "This is your fault! I renounce you!" In this, we only ever renounce our own responsibility.

As in all things, you take from something only what you bring to it, but, the wheel goes round and round-- or should I say the film canister-- and so the blame game continues. In the end, it is not the images we see flickering on the screen that terrify us, but the things they make us see within ourselves-- evoking, provoking, enticing, forbidding, making masochists of us all, because despite protestation, we keep buying tickets.

*** Update: Indiana teen Andrew Conley was arrested for the murder of his 10-year-old brother in November of 2009. He was an alleged "huge Dexter fan," and many are blaming the show's violence for his horrendous acts.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

PERSONAL NOTE: My Year with Bettie

Now that the crazy mayhem of the Halloween Holiday has passed, I am more than ready to rest, recuperate, and enjoy the general gluttonous merriment that is certain to come as Thanksgiving approaches- a much more restful holiday. This past year has been a hectic one for me, and in many ways an eerie one. Twelve months worth of research and grave-hunting has caused me to unearth some, at times, unsettling facts, and I have had more than one spooky experience to make me wonder whether or not I have tarried too long with the ghosts of the past. At these odd moments, when I stumble upon something or someone in the crumbling facade of Hollywood that leaves me- for lack of a better word- uneasy, I fear that these phantoms have followed me into the present. It is a burden that is sometimes difficult to shake off.

When it comes to my research, I feel as though I am guided by a force greater than myself. Almost every time I choose a subject, some odd occurrence or stroke of luck leads me to a happy coincidence that would have completely passed me by had I not ventured down this particular path at this particular moment. These moments of chance, as it were, are often uplifting: me researching Errol Flynn, only to randomly discover that a personal friend of his is giving a lecture on his life that night, (a mere stone's throw away at the Hollywood Heritage Museum); me researching the current month's muse Mr. Chaney, only to discover that his famous makeup bag is on display to the public for a limited time, when it is normally tucked away collecting dust (rubbish). But there are times, when certain situations occur that strike me the wrong way, or rather in asking questions, I get more in answer than I bargained for. I am thence guided still by a force, but it is leading me to darker truths instead of lighter fare.

So it was with my investigation of Elizabeth Short (above): an adventure that culminated this October 31, 2009, when I kept a promise to dress up as her for Halloween. My relationship with her, if I can call it that, is strong, perplexing, and other-worldly. It crept up on me out of nowhere and has stayed with me for 12 months. Perhaps now I can finally put her to rest... though it is hard to imagine a sad soul such as hers ever finding true peace. As a bit of post-Halloween spookiness, here is an account of my experiences with her for the past year:


The exact year that I became aware of the shocking tale of the "Black Dahlia" escapes me. I do know that it was in the 6th grade that my fascination with cinema began to take hold. Alfred Hitchcock led to Cary Grant, who led to Katharine Hepburn, who led to etc. etc. etc. So, I can logically assume that it was sometime in my early junior high-school years that I came to know "Bettie." I asked for the book Severed for Christmas, which probably would have concerned any parents other than my own, who fostered all of their children's curiosities, mundane or macabre as they may have been. I read John Gilmore's tragic reconstruction of Bettie's life and death, shed a tear for her, and put the book away. Armed with a little more knowledge, I let the Sleeping Beauty lie, and went on to my next topic of interest, which I'm sure was a more uplifting one.

I did not seriously think of Bettie again for several years, other than a random cursory thought that flitted in and out of my mind. Even watching De Palma's film, The Black Dahlia, did not incite in me anything more than irritation that Hollywood could have gotten one of its most infamous daughters so completely and utterly wrong. (If you haven't seen the movie, DO NOT waste your time. It does no justice to that poor girl or the way she died).

Then one morning, in November of 2008, I woke up to a normal day, with the afternoon sun pouring through my window (must have been a weekend), and Elizabeth was on my mind. I did not know where she came from, nor why all of a sudden she was so present in my thoughts, but there she was: Elizabeth Short, Elizabeth Short, Elizabeth Short... beating like a mantra in my head. I tried to shrug it off at first as an attack of randomness, but later I decided to pursue her strange re-emergence. It began simply enough. I flipped through the old Gilmore book, still aghast at the horrendous photos of what was done to this beautiful, young girl. Then I got on the internet, looked up the ever accumulating theories surrounding her macabre murder, and later found a site with photographs of the location where her body was found over 60 years ago.

Then, a light-bulb went off! Now living in California, I could add the gruesome site to one of my weekend jaunts! I typically find time to go scavenging about town, looking for former homes of the stars, important landmarks, graves, etc. So, adding this to the agenda, I drove out to 39th and Norton in East Los Angeles, and found myself in an average neighborhood tucked behind Crenshaw Blvd. All of the houses were one level, bearing little ornamentation; the dry grass was cut almost identically the same short length all down the road. Then, I pulled up to 3925 Norton (below), the address that was identified as being closest to where Elizabeth was found in pieces on the morning of January 15, 1947. I got out of the car, took some photos, and stood for a second. For some reason I felt disappointed. I don't know what I expected to find, or see, or feel, but it was not there. So, I tucked my camera back in my pocket, and drove away with an awkward feeling on my shoulders.

This little bit of investigation still did nothing to quell the overwhelming feeling of unease and anxiety that was taking hold. Something was wrong. I felt, as strange as it sounds, that Bettie was trying to talk to me or that she wanted me to "find" her. So, I went to the book store, bought every thing I could find on the Dahlia case, and got to work with my investigation.

For the next month, I delved into the mystery, the theories, the cover-ups, the scandal, the sadness, and most importantly the gruesome death. I was appalled. I now felt that the reason I was so urgently looking for answers was because the explanation I had accepted before as a youngster was not the whole truth, but merely the tip of the iceberg. The book I found that most closely captured the spirit of the media mayhem and the sorrow of the departed, and the book that for me produced the best theory of Elizabeth's death, was the immaculately researched, sympathetic, and intelligent-- The Black Dahlia Files: The Mob, The Mogul, and The Murder That Transfixed Los Angeles by Donald H. Wolfe. In it, Wolfe postulates that Bettie was done away with to protect the image of Norman Chandler, (heir to the family fortune and distinguished owner of the Los Angeles Times), who had gotten her pregnant. He called in a favor to a few cronies, Bugsy Siegel among them, and ordered her killed. Of course, the humiliating and torturous fashion by which she was "done away with" was not part of the plan, but then Bugsy and his retinue were not the most honorable of characters. (For a more descriptive explanation of the case as well as Beth's life and death, visit my Elizabeth Short Bio ). 

All of the information about Bugsy's (right) involvement also unearthed a memory from the not-so-distant past. As I mentioned, I am somewhat of a grave-hunter, and the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Santa Monica Blvd. is thus a goldmine where my scavenging is concerned. I have spent many a day there, going down my list of the interred, and paying my respects to Rudolph Valentino, Tyrone Powers, Marion Davies, etc. After I had searched every nook and cranny, and broken into every shady corner, there was but one "stone" left unturned: Bugsy Siegel. I wasn't too interested in him, as he is not directly linked to film and is more notorious than celebrated. But, since I had reached the end of my quest, I figured "Why not?"

I walked back into the Beth Olam Mausoleum, which lines the south side of the cemetery, and walked toward Bugsy's grave (above). As I approached, a sickening feeling took over. I felt uneasy... "icky," if you will. I stood in front of his marker: "Benjamin Siegel," and for some reason did not want to take a picture. I didn't like it, standing there. I believe my exact reaction was: "Blech." At the time, I had no knowledge of Bugsy, or his violent crimes against men. All I knew of gangsters was what the movies had taught me: they were sexy bad-asses with tommy guns. Feeling foolish, and assuming I was merely spooked by the claustrophobic graves surrounding me, I snapped a quick shot and booked it out of the mausoleum. 

Looking back, I now see that I was having a reaction to Bugsy himself, not his grave. I had felt the presence of a man who was malicious, twisted, and demented. I disliked him, sensed his evil before I knew of the dark nature of his soul. Warren Beatty got it all wrong in his Bugsy, a film that sugar-coated one of the most Devilish human beings who ever lived; humanized what cannot be humanized. My unease those months ago was confusing, but as I read about Bettie's death, they became warrented. It truly sickens me that Bugsy is glamorized today, and receives a kind of hero worship when in reality he was just... well... "Blech!"

Anyway, jumping back to November of '08: having just read about the brutal nature of Bettie's death and the ensuing cover-up, I was enraged! I was angry, fuming, confused, scared... The world around me seemed to change. I had lived a naive life, blessed with the ignorance of a secure childhood, a safe home, and maybe just blind luck. I thought the Good would be protected, the Dirty punished... but No. There was no karma, there was no God, so deep went my frustration and empathy for Bettie and what she had endured. I felt like lashing out, but where, and how?!?! I hopped online again to do some fishing, for something was needling me. I looked up again the location where her body was found, and this time saw my error: the correct address was 3825 Norton, for it was closer to the fire hydrant by which her body was discovered. Arming myself with my camera and canning my nerves, I drove back to the nook behind Crenshaw to see "the spot" (below).

This time, things were different. Perhaps just fueled by the emotions I was experiencing from my research and all the new information I had come across, I stood at the lonely patch of grass and felt an overwhelming sense of despair land on me like a weight. I could barely lift my hands to take a photo. Here Bettie was found ripped in half. I knew it. This was it. I could see it, just as Betsy Bersinger had seen the gruesome sight when she had been out walking her baby on that January morning. I saw the pale, mangled body in the weeds, the face sliced into a brutal, ironic smile, the bloodless mannequin that used to be a living body. I became numb. My fury left, and all that remained was pity, sorrow...

I got into my car, put my hands on the wheel and looked up. There, up in the hills, guarding the golden city, was the Hollywood sign. The same sign (minus the -land) that once had filled Bettie's heart with hope and joy; the symbol of the fame she was sure to achieve, but that she only found in death. The same letters that inspired her to come out to California from Massachusetts had watched coldly from the hills as two men unloaded her bit by bit into the grass like she was garbage. My heart sank; I clutched the wheel as the realization of the great ugliness that had been done hit me. I wept. I wept, and wept, and wept, unable to control myself, as if possessed by Bettie's own sadness. Finally, mustering my strength and realizing the scene I was making before all of the Norton neighbors, I turned the ignition and drove on. But in my mind and in my heart, I could feel Bettie with me, as if she were sitting in the back seat, while I drove us away.

Things shifted after this. My desire to "get to the bottom of things" was still present, but not as intense. Not as manic. I more and more seemed to sink into a deep depression. I felt that the things I had learned had altered me, and I wasn't certain that I would ever be the same again. Even around friends I wondered, "Could they see the change in me? Was my sadness and confusion apparent?" I tried to keep it under wraps, but social outings had become cumbersome and exhausting. Life was not fun, and when it was I felt guilty in the enjoyment of it. Why should I have happiness when Bettie had suffered such torture? Why should I live a spotless life when she had had hers ripped away?

One day, I received word from my manager that I had an audition- a little independent number, scheduled for sometime later that night. While at work, I put the address into Google and printed out directions. Early that evening, I grabbed some dinner to kill time before I made the trek out to downtown L.A, and as I ate I finished reading the last pages of Wolfe's book. In it, he stated that he had discovered the location where Elizabeth was actually murdered- a bungalow, owned by the police protected Brenda Allen, a "Madame," and loaned to Chandler and Siegel for the deed. The address was 835 Catalina Street. Reading the closing remarks, I closed the book and felt a relief. It was over. The journey I had been on was finished. I knew what I believed to be the truth, or as close as I would ever get to it, and I could move on and leave Bettie behind. Or could I?

Going down to my car, I prepped myself for my audition, (for a druggie, by the way), and pulled out the directions I had printed out earlier. Scanning the list of rights and lefts, my eyes landed on one of the last turns... And I froze. The second to last street I had to turn down to reach my destination was Catalina Street.

Was I crazy?! Was the world this chalk-full  of coincidences?! Or was Bettie calling me from beyond the grave, beckoning me to the very place where she had met her death? My mouth hung open for what felt an eternity, and I am sure that the color had drained from my deer-in-headlights face. Shaking, I turned the key in the ignition, and drove out to my audition, which I made it to just in time to pull myself together. (Perhaps my quaking, nervous energy when I walked in the room enriched my reading as a drug addict).

As I left the audition, my heart beat loudly. I got into my car and decided I had to go to the site tonight! I turned onto Catalina, and followed it all the way to 835. As I drove, the streets around me changed. I felt as though I were seeing the Hollywood of 1947. The roads became smoother, the litter disappeared, and the bright lights dimmed to a softer, more romantic glow-- a haunting glow. Reaching my destination, fear began to take over. I parallel parked between the dirty, rusting cars lining the narrow street and looked out my window at Brenda Allen's former bungalow. I opened my door, and stood out in the cold, shivering more from nerves than from the chill in the air.

Peering up at the building marked 835, probably looking like a stalker, I saw the lights of a television screen dancing on the walls. Inside, someone sat enjoying the peaceful calm that comes at the end of the day, indulging in the fake lives on the blue screen. Some unwitting person sat on the same ground, within the same walls, that witnessed Bettie being beaten, sliced, and sawed in half. If those walls could talk, they would scream... but the oblivious occupant now living there heard only the dialogue cascading out of his television set. It seemed odd, how easily the past had been erased, hidden, and written over with such normalcy.

I uneasily moved forward, looking up the staircase that led to the dark alley between the little apartments. I was scared. I half expected to witness the past actions being reenacted by malevolent ghosts; I half expected to see Bettie's sleek, pale form emerge from the shadows and beckon me. I took one last look, closed my eyes, braced myself as the images in my head took hold... And then I let them go. Feeling Bettie with me, I turned around, got into my car, and pulled away from the abyss of the past and back to life.

On the car ride home, I again felt Bettie. I feared that if I looked into the rear-view mirror I would see a pair of pale, blue eyes staring back at me in sorrow. Thanks to my cell phone and an emergency call to my sister, Haleigh, I made it home safely. How I fell asleep that night I don't know. I was disturbed, undone, depressed... And yet I felt myself coming out of a long and tedious labyrinth. I awoke the next morning heavier, now carrying more knowledge than I'd bargained for, but my life slowly returned to normal.

I continued my research of course, though now my intermittent forays back into Bettie's world were done as a hobby and not as a vengeful quest for truth. I felt I had found my truth. Of course, I had chosen to believe Wolfe's theory, but then it felt right. The way things had fallen into place within the pages of his book, and the way things fell into place before my eyes in my own life... I felt like Bettie had guided me through her story, as close as I would ever come to really knowing it. I returned later to the location of her murder on Catalina (below), this time in the daylight. Perhaps the sun made it seem less terrifying, or perhaps my understanding now guarded me from the what I had once feared.

In between books on Greta Garbo or Gary Cooper, I would sometimes return to Bettie. I read The Black Dahlia Avenger, which I found intriguing but inconclusive, as the entire book hinges on a picture of Elizabeth Short that is clearly not Elizabeth Short. I too read Childhood Shadows, and aside from the head-scratching accusation that Orson Welles murdered Bettie, it was a good read, for it introduced Bettie as the girl she had been before Hollywood-- innocent, sweet, nurturing, and undeserving of the fate that awaited her in La La Land.

My year with Bettie ended, as I stated, this Halloween, when I dressed as her. It was a strange promise to make to her, back when I was in the midst of my bewildering encounters, but it somehow seemed appropriate. It was my way of commemorating her, and of introducing her to every stranger who approached and quizzically asked, "Who are you supposed to be?" Halloween now over, and black wig put into storage with the rest of my rarely used junk, Bettie has finally released her entrancing hold on me, but I know I shall never let go of her.

Forever, she will be in my mind, a subconscious presence that I conjure up every once in awhile. Though I have "found" Bettie, I will always be searching for her, for just as her face looks different in every picture taken of her, so the true Bettie seems to hide, evading and inviting at the same time the world that so cruelly turned its cold shoulder on her. Because of all the lies told to cover up the true reason of her demise, Bettie is still remembered incorrectly as a whore, a lesbian, a freak with infantile sex organs... all complete and utter B.S. Of course, the public buys into this because it makes it easier to cope with so devastating a death. If you believe the slanderous portraits painted of Bettie, then "She had it coming."

No one, no one, has that coming. Especially not a naive, albeit mysterious, girl from Massachusetts, whose whimsical dreams led her only to an inescapable nightmare. Though my experiences over the past months have left me shaken and a bit disturbed, I have found a sort of peace with what I have learned. I don't think the preternatural force I rubbed elbows with was meant to frighten me, but to instruct. What all of this means, and what I am meant to do with it, I do not know. Perhaps Bettie wants me to tell people her story; perhaps she sensed in me a soul mate-- a young girl, a hopeful actress, seeking answers in a place not to be trusted. I feel she has guided me to a safer place.

As I continue on my personal voyage into Hollywood history, I continue to see-saw between stories of grandeur and heroism, romance and glory, and stories of madness and self-destruction. All of these twisted truths grow and converge, filling my curious mind, which continues to question. Nothing else that I have researched has been, and I pray will ever be, as ghastly as the Black Dahlia murder, and though my little other-worldly coincidences continue to happen, no pull or embrace has been as strong as Elizabeth's.  All I can say in the end to her is, "Rest in peace, sweet Bettie. Your life is remembered, your beauty overcomes the ugliness said of you, and your martyrdom continues to open the eyes of a jaded and skeptical world." Elizabeth Short: July 29, 1924- January ?, 1947.

Monday, November 2, 2009


Oh, Lon, how I love thee. Let me count the ways... How about 1000, for the "Man of a Thousand Faces!"

If you haven't caught on by now, Lon is my favorite actor. So, this month is dedicated to him- the one, the only, the almighty: ChameLeonidas Chaney! (Yup, I made that one up myself). Lon's gifts as a performer ran deep.  He was a man who was able to use his personal suffering and natural empathy to delve honestly into his characterizations, which were only then enhanced by the brilliant makeups he concocted. Born to deaf and mute parents, Lon learned to use his face and body to communicate emotions, pains, and joys, which the use of words would have dampened. Being born within this silent household, where he didn't even begin speaking until after he was a few years old, Lon would inherit a keen observation of humanity and a sympathy for the underdog, which he would always play, even if some of his characters were a little... evil. Inside each of them beat the heart of a man, usually a heart aflame for a woman who would not have him. Again and again he martyred himself on the pyre of love, his passion for this woman his one redeeming characteristic. There were no cliches, there were no stereotypes. He thought each character out with incite, skill, and compassion, turning the nastiest of devils into a man who was misunderstood and could have been a better guy had he been given a chance. The faces of the Phantom, the Hunchback, and the Vampiric being in London After Midnight have made him legendary, and those unfamiliar with the man are still intimate with the faces he concocted. For those lucky enough to witness the actor in action, perhaps director George Loane Tucker said it best after witnessing Lon's screen test for The Miracle Man: "My God." For all of his contributions to cinema, Lon himself remains The Unknown, shrouded in mystery, hiding behind his many faces, completing and being loyal to the illusions he left on the silver screen, never to be muddied by the knowledge of his private life. What a dirty trick, for Lon Chaney the man was much more fascinating. 

Happy November!