In one of the Surrealists’ favorite murder cases, the servant sisters Christine and Léa Papin killed their mother-daughter employers, in the process gouging out the victims’ eyes with their bare hands while the two were still alive. They also knife-notched the women’s arms and legs, says the writer Janet Flanner (as quoted by Eburne), “the way a fancy French baker notches his finer long loaves.” Knowing this, it’s difficult to look at, for instances, René Magritte’s painting The Rape (a female torso/face on which nipples are the eyes, a navel the nose, and a pubis the mouth) or one of Hans Bellmer’s poupées in the same way they were presented (as merely cleverly inventive) to people of my age when we were in college art-history classes.
By 1947, Nelson and Baylisstell us, “surrealism had transitioned from a revolutionary art and literary movement to a fashionably irreverent voice in American culture.” While Surrealism was still (pardon the pun) cutting-edge in L.A.’s behind-the-times art scene, the movies—e.g., Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) with a dream sequence featuring sets by Salvador Dalí—had already appropriated it.
Five years before Spellbound’srelease, Man Ray arrived in Los Angeles after having lived for two decades among the Surrealists in Paris. In fact, he’d designed the cover of a Surrealist book about another one of their favorite murders, Violette Nozière’s poisoning of her abusive father. The photographic image depicted a broken “N” lying atop a bed of violets.
Man Ray soon made friends with a physician and eccentric polymath named George Hodel, who in 1945 bought a spacious, arty house on Franklin Street in Hollywood. Although Hodel—once a child prodigy—never made it as a concert pianist, he did become a classical-music radio announcer, crime reporter, literary magazine publisher, head of the L.A. County Health Department’s venereal disease office, public health administrator with the U.N. in postwar China and aspiring photographer.
Hodel was no prince. In 1949, he was indicted (albeit later acquitted) for incest with his 14-year-old daughter, Tamara, during a Franklin Street orgy. He quickly left the country and stayed away in the Philippines until 1990, when he came back to San Francisco. He died there, age 92, in 1999. In Los Angeles, Hodel also fathered three sons, one of whom, Steve, became an L.A. homicide detective. It was Steve who, thumbing through a photo album after his father’s death and thinking that a couple of the shots might depict Elizabeth Short, first came to believe that his own father committed the Black Dahlia murder.
Man Ray visited the Hodel family frequently, and also photographed them. “The intimate nature of some of these images,” write Nelson and Bayliss, “suggests that the relationship was more than professional.” Several photographs were nude shots of Tamara, which have somehow disappeared. One of Man Ray’s more famous Surrealist photographs shows the torso and arms of a young female, lit Caravaggio-fashion so that she looks like the horned head of the Minotaur. That mythological, half-human sexual superbeast was enough of a Surrealist icon to have had a magazine named in its honor, and Man Ray’s photograph served as its featured image in a 1935 issue. George Hodel was in all probability familiar with Minotaure, if not from Man Ray bringing the publication to the house, then from the L.A. art galleries he often visited, where a few copies were on sale. Disturbingly, the upper half of Short’s body was neatly arranged to resemble a minotaur’s head—or so it appears from the crime scene photographs, which are plentiful in Exquisite Corpse.
But did Hodel actually know Short personally? Man Ray—who hung out with Hodel for eight years starting in 1944—might have settled the matter, but nobody asked him while he still lived in L.A. The two alleged portraits of Short that Steve Hodel discovered in his father’s keepsake volume don’t really resemble the photos of her taken, for instance, on the steps of John Marshall High School the year before she was killed. Nelson and Bayliss don’t think there’s much of a likeness, either. Hodel did have a place on the LAPD’s original shortlist of suspects, but his unavailability for more than 40 years obviously hampered his being investigated further.
Steve Hodel thinks his father knew the Black Dahlia, and in his own 2003 book, Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder—whose theory of the crime Nelson and Bayliss accept as the basis for their exegesis of the case—he offers a detailed, though largely speculative, timeline of the alleged acquaintance and murder. Several parts of the story seem over the top—especially the author’s belief that additional kinky murders were committed by George Hodel and a sicko friend.
Nelson and Bayliss’s theory that Man Ray (who knew some L.A. crime reporters) conveyed stolen crime-scene photos to Marcel Duchamp via William Copley to serve as a basis for the corpse in Duchamp’s last work, Étant donnés, is also a bit of a reach. But after you’ve plowed through Eburne’s rich, scholarly Surrealism and the Art of Crime as deep background, read Nelson and Bayliss’s clear-headed explanations, and looked at the crime scene photographs, autopsy pictures and reproductions of various Surrealist works of art in Exquisite Corpse, it’s difficult to deny that there had to be some Surrealist connection to the Black Dahlia murder, if only of the “inspired by” variety.