“From the minute you’re born, you’re running out of time.” ~ Mickey Rooney
Elizabeth Short was born on July 29, 1924 in Hyde Park, Massachusetts to the parents of Cleo and Phoebe Short. She was raised nearby in Medford, where she attended school. Her father deserted the family when Elizabeth and her four sisters were young. Her mother raised the girls alone.
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Before Elizabeth Short ventured out into the world and was given the appellation, “The Black Dahlia,” she was an unknown local girl who grew up in Medford, Massachusetts, one of five daughters raised by a caring mother during the Great Depression.
She was well liked at school, and according to newspaper reports after her death, her school mates described her as a “movie struck girl.” She was called “Medford High’s Deanna Durbin, referring to the widely popular film actress and singer. In Elizabeth’s autograph book, there were 10 references to the nickname. One passage read, “To a friend worth having and Medford High’s Deanna Durbin.” Another said, “To the sweetest and cutest double of Deanna Durbin.”
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When she was old enough, Elizabeth began traveling, something she would do frequently throughout her brief life. Her mother said she left high school during her sophomore year to “venture on her own.” She was an attractive, dark haired woman with light blue eyes and pale, white skin and a feigned air of sophistication. She worked occasionally, but was usually without funds, living from hotel to hotel, often at the expense of others.
Her mother said, “She was a very affectionate, sweet girl and if she was out at night she always stopped in my bedroom to talk. And she would talk and talk and tell everything that she had done and everything.” She was the prettiest of the sisters and wrote to her mother every week when she was away from home.
She first went to Florida as a teenager for her health and later moved around the country, stirring the attention of young men and creating a sense of mystery about herself. When she was only 22 years old, she disappeared from the streets of Los Angeles and was not seen again until her naked, bifurcated body was discovered in a vacant lot in Leimert Park. Her murder was never solved and her incomplete story has become part of Los Angeles lore.
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In 1942, Cleo Short wrote to his wife Phoebe, alerting her for the first time since his disappearance in 1930, that he was alive. Phoebe wanted nothing to do with him, but their daughter Elizabeth accepted rail fare to travel to California to live with her estranged father in Vallejo. Cleo was working at Mare Island Naval Shipyard.
The Los Angeles District Attorney files indicate that Cleo and Elizabeth soon traveled to Los Angeles and stayed at the home of his friend from Vallejo, a Mrs. Yankee, for about three weeks. Her address was 1028 1/2 W. 36th St. Mrs. Monte, a tenant, remembered Elizabeth and recalled that she told her in 1942 that she was going up north to Camp Cooke, an Army base in Lompoc, California.
Elizabeth arrived at Camp Cooke on January 29, 1943. She found work in the post exchange, where Inez Keeling, the manager of the PX, said of her later, “I was won over all at once by her almost childlike charm and beauty. She was one of the loveliest girls I have ever seen- and the most shy.”
According to an FBI memo, Elizabeth was an applicant for a clerk position at the post exchange at Camp Cooke on January 30, 1943. Ralph Aylesworth, manager of the PX, in an interview with author Mary Pacios, said Elizabeth Short “only worked a couple of weeks for me before she took off, not long after being chosen Camp Cutie.”
Elizabeth lived in a number of towns in the area over a brief period of time, including Vallejo, Lompoc, and Casmalia. Bruno Zemaitis, founder and owner of Overland Security Services in Santa Maria, worked briefly on the murder in 1947. He said Beth was a frequent customer at the Snappy Lunch Diner at the corner of Broadway and Cook Streets, where his wife was a waitress.
It was in Santa Barbara, while living with Vera Green at 321-C West Montecito Street, that she was arrested on September 23, 1943. Mary Unkefer, the arresting officer, befriended Elizabeth. The Los Angeles Daily News reported that officer Unkefer let her stay with her in her home for nine days. The January 17, 1947 article quoted officer Unkefer as saying, “She was very good looking with beautiful dark hair and fair skin. She dressed nicely and was a long way from being a barfly.”
Officer Unkefer also said she, “had a rose tattooed on her left leg. She loved to sit so that it would show.”
By October, she was on her way back to her mother’s home in Medford. In a matter of weeks, she was in Florida again.
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According to the Los Angeles District Attorney files, Elizabeth was living in Miami Beach in 1943. She arrived at the peak of the Art Deco movement in the area. Hundreds of structures were built between 1923 and 1943, making the Art Deco District of Miami Beach the largest concentration of Deco architecture in the world. The city, which was incorporated in 1915, was also a leading beach resort destination.
In early December, 1943 Elizabeth worked at Big Dave’s Rosedale Delicatessen and Restaurant, Miami’s premier delicatessen, located at 1437 Washington Avenue in Miami Beach. The Rosedale was one of the first delicatessens that served Jewish-style fare in Miami. Soon after she worked there, the restaurant moved from Miami Beach to Miami. At the time, she lived a little over half a mile away at the El Mar Hotel at 220 21st Street. It was at the El Mar that she received the inscrutable telegram from Washington, D.C. that read, “A promise is a promise to a person of the world.”
The Roney Plaza (“Might I remind you Mr. Halliday, this ain’t the Roney Plaza.”: Alan Ladd, Box 13), the jewel of Miami Beach hotels, built in 1926, was located at 2301 Collins Avenue. It took up the entire block on Collins, between Twenty-third and Twenty-fourth Streets. The hotel faced the ocean and offered gracious accommodations for guests. The Roney Plaza was just three blocks from Mammy’s restaurant (“Where the Stars Come Out at Night and Play Until Dawn”), where Elizabeth worked for Meyer Yedlin in the “latter part of 1944,” according to the D.A. Files. Mammy’s was located at 2039 Collins Avenue on the northwest corner of the Vanderbilt Hotel. Another restaurant, Pappy’s, was located at 2001 Collins Avenue, at the southwest corner of the Vanderbilt.
In March, 1944, Elizabeth was in Atlanta, Georgia, and in April she was back in Miami Beach, where in September, she met Gordon Fickling, a man she would live with in California. In November, she returned to Medford for Thanksgiving, but she was back in Miami in December, staying with Carmelita Devaul, hotel operator at the El Mar. On New Year’s Eve, she met Matt Gordon, the man she would later claim was her husband.
Two people stated she had been in Hollywood as early as 1944. In a Los Angeles Times newspaper article, Gordon Fickling, the boyfriend who lived with her in Long Beach and in Hollywood, said he met her in Southern California in 1944. Arthur Curtis James, Jr, a self-proclaimed artist, who claimed to have sketched her and painted her over a three month period, also said he knew her in Hollywood in 1944. According to a newspaper story, he said he met her in a cocktail lounge in Hollywood in August, 1944. James is quoted as saying, “I was sitting alone at the bar, making pencil sketches on a bit of paper, when a girl who turned out to be ‘Beth,’ sitting beside me, showed an interest in my sketches.”
James, who was also known as Charles B. Smith, was convicted of violation of the Mann act, after being arrested in November, 1944 in Tuscon, Arizona. His story remains largely unsubstantiated.
On August 22, Elizabeth was sent a telegram that told of the death of Matt Gordon, the pilot that she claimed as her betrothed. Word was sent from the young man’s mother, Mrs. Matt Gordon, Sr., who said, ” Just received word from War Department that Matt was killed in crash. Our deepest sympathy is with you.” Afterward, Elizabeth would carry a newspaper clipping of the incident with her, telling people she met that she was a widow.
She did not work from the latter part of 1944 until the first part of 1945. She was employed at St. Clair’s in Boston from March 30 until September 1, 1945. From late December, 1945 until January 9, 1946, she was registered at the Colonial Inn at 2104 Riverside Avenue in Jacksonville, Florida. Her mother sent her checks to the Jacksonville address. No employment records in Jacksonville could be found for her.
By the next month, February, Elizabeth was back in Medford with her mother. By June, she was on the move again. This time she was heading west. “The shipping records of her trunk were dated June 1, 1946,” according to the District Attorney memorandums.
Her first stop was Indianapolis, and then it was on to Chicago, where she stayed at the Park Row Hotel from June 24 until July 12. She also stayed at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago with Jack Chernau.
While in Chicago, Elizabeth became interested in the Suzanne Degnan murder. William Heirens, a young man from the area, was accused of killing the young girl and dismembering her body. The Los Angeles Examiner reported:
In Chicago, Freddie Woods, 23, who described himself as a “friend” of the slain girl, revealed that she was “fascinated” with the brutal slaying of six year-old Suzanne Degnan, which took place in Chicago a year ago.
Woods said he met Miss Short last August when she was in Chicago for 10 days. She told him she was a Massachusetts reporter covering the trial of William Heirens, who was convicted of the Degnan kidnaping and slaying.
“Elizabeth Short was one of the prettiest girls I ever met,” Woods said. “But she was terribly preoccupied with the details of the Degnan murder.”
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Later, she continued west to California and Gordon Fickling, who picked her up at the bus depot in Long Beach. She checked into the Washington Hotel on Linden and stayed there from July 22 until August 3. While there, she became a regular customer at Lander’s drugstore on the corner, attracting men in uniform, just as she would all across the country.
When Elizabeth moved out of her hotel room in Long Beach, acquaintances described her as “radiant.” She told them that she was planning to marry an army officer. Days later, witnesses said she boarded a Pacific Electric streetcar to Hollywood. Investigators believed she lived at the Sunset Motel on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood for about a week in August.