I was just a little kid, not quite six years old, when Elizabeth Short was murdered in Los Angeles. For years afterwards my parents, like many Angelenos, talked a lot about the case, the most famous of L.A.’s many unsolved homicides. Since then, I’ve read most of the newspaper and magazine articles offering speculative solutions to the crime, and bought most of the relevant books, both fiction and nonfiction—including, most recently, two very good books relating the murder to Surrealist art.
Short was a 22-year-old lost soul with a thing for men in uniform. She’d come to California from Massachusetts looking for a career in the movies or modeling or something. Pretty but not terribly bright, she was always nearly broke and depended a good deal on what Blanche DuBois famously called “the kindness of strangers.” People around a soda fountain in Long Beach that Short frequented dubbed her the Black Dahlia after the color of her clothes and a then-current movie titled The Blue Dahlia. On Jan. 15, 1947, her nude body was discovered in a vacant lot on Norton Avenue between Coliseum and 39th streets in the south central part of the city.
According to Exquisite Corpse authors Mark Nelson (a graphic designer who works with museums) and Sarah Bayliss (an art journalist), police reporters at the scene said the victim looked like a “disassembled mannequin or discarded marionette.”
The murderer had manipulated the young woman’s dead body in disturbing and extraordinary ways. He had cleanly cut her in two at the waist, yet her organs remained almost wholly contained in the two halves of her corpse. Her arms were laid out in a squared-off position above her head. The right breast was missing, and a small geometric section of flesh had been removed from the side of her left breast. The top part of her body lay above and to the left of the lower portion, calling attention to the fact that the woman had been cut in two.
A rectangular shape had been carved in her left thigh. There was a deep, vertical slash in her lower abdomen, similar in placement to a professional hysterectomy incision, and there were lacerations on her limbs. Long cuts had been inflicted on either side of her mouth, creating a grisly smile. The specific positioning of the body indicated that the victim had been not just dumped but purposely readied for discovery.
The corpse was clean and had been completely drained of blood. . . .
The writers go on to assert that “whoever killed Elizabeth Short . . . was someone familiar with the art and ideas of surrealism.” And they even raise “the question of whether the murder was a real-life version of a surrealist parlor game turned deadly. That game was called Exquisite Corpse.” The rules of the game—invented by a group of Surrealists including artist Yves Tanguy and poet Jacques Prévert in Paris in 1925—were that each participant would contribute by secret lot, and in order, one of the following: noun, adjective, verb, object and adjective. The first result, when translated into English, was: “The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine.”
Subsequently, practically all the Surrealists made “exquisite corpse” drawings by folding a piece of paper into three or four horizontal strata and having each artist, going top to bottom, draw in one section without seeing the others. Tanguy, Man Ray, Max Morise and Joan Miró, for example, got together in 1926 to create what looks like an electric eel with a dartboard stomach and amoeba feet. In 1935, Tanguy teamed with Victor Brauner, André Breton and Jacques Hérold to concoct a woman fondling her own breasts while standing in a beaker that grows from the back of a dog-lion with a huge scrotum. Doubtless, thousands of such drawings were made. It’s not impossible to see the disposition of the Black Dahlia’s body as a real-life—or real-death—example of the game.
Surrealism certainly had roots in an imaginative obsession with torture and killing. First, there’s the Surrealists’ admiration for the Marquis de Sade and his hope of fomenting social revolt through sexual libertinage. (Although Sade advocated, and indulged in, sexual torture, he drew the line at murder and became an opponent of the death penalty.) In addition, there’s Europe’s appetite, from the late 18th to the mid-19th centuries, for the roman noir (translated in Jonathan P. Eburne’s Surrealism and the Art of Crime as the “novel of terror”), especially in France, home to the grisly horror plays of the Théâtre du Grand-Guignolin the first half of the 20th century. Many avant-garde artists believed that free imaginings, even at their most gruesome, would help render people unsuitable for social or commercial bondage. “The surrealist experiment, then, might be understood as the attempt to mobilize art to ‘suppress the exploitation of man by man’ by causing an insurrection within thought,” writes Eburne (a professor of comparative literature at Pennsylvania State University). But after you read about André Breton saying that “the simplest Surrealist act” would be to fire a pistol into a crowd of people, and find Eburne himself saying that “the crimes thematized or depicted in many surrealist works are thus metaphorical: dismembered corpses and tortured, violated forms,” his summation that the “path of surrealism through the twentieth century is littered with corpses” seems more on the mark.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.