I am fascinated by the Hollywood Whodunit. One in particular is the story of The Black Dahlia.
Her real name was Elizabeth Short, and her friends called her Betty. She came to Hollywood to be a star. She was called the Black Dahlia because of her beautiful mane of black hair, her milky white skin, and her penchant for wearing black. And like so many who arrived before her with the very same dream, and who never got to see their names in lights, she turned to prostitution. She was murdered and her case has never been solved. Sure, there were suspects, but no one was ever charged; and sadly, there was not enough evidence to bring her killer to justice.
Several years ago, I entered a mystery writing contest. The story we were asked to complete was by none other than James Ellroy. Ironically, he too had written a novel called “The Black Dahlia.”
The contest began by introducing a set of characters, with this lead-in paragraph: A rotund dead detective named Chester and a beautiful movie starlet: Lana Lovely. Next is Willy, a Hollywood gossip columnist who works for “Shh-Shh Magazine.” Willy was on his way to see Chester to get a very big story, but someone killed Chester before Willy got there.
The story begins with Willy entering the room and seeing Chester lying there dead, a single gunshot wound to the head. Lana Lovely is standing in the corner. If you’re wondering where the police are, sheesh, this is Hollywood, mate! The police were always the last ones called. Recall the circus at the home of William Desmond Taylor the night he was murdered? The old way of solving a Hollywood whodunit when someone famous died at the hands of another was to first put a call in to the movie moguls who had the star under contract. Then to the studio lawyers, then the agents, then the publicists… you get the idea. OK, back to the story and what I wrote:
Willy enters the apartment and he’s surprised to see Lana Lovely, the actress with a set of gams clear up to her neck. Willy is mesmerized by her beauty, her golden hair, and ruby-red lips. He was under her spell, when suddenly he snaps out of it, realizing he should check Chester’s vital signs.”
She replied, “Don’t bother, he’s dead,” and with a gloved hand she lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply, slowly letting the smoke out. “Loose lips sink ships, and his fat trap deserved to be silenced. His slime-spewing sardonic venom has been reduced to mere spittle.”
“Wow, I can’t believe this!” said Willy.
“I have an idea,” she replied. “Why don’t you get another one of your henchmen to dig the up the dirt for this Hollywood Whodunit? Everyone knows Chester was on your payroll or is that “Shh, Shh?” A smile appeared on her face.
“Why did you want him dead?” Willy asked her. She stared off into the distance. Finally, he said, “OK, off the record,” his fingers crossed behind his back.
“Dig this Willy-babe. Once upon a time before my feet and hands were sealed in concrete at Graumans, there were two sisters, one blonde, one brunette, who believed in all that glitters.”
He sat down. Lana continued, “My sister and I came to Hollywood after my 18th birthday. No sooner did we get off the bus when a guy named Eddie approached us and said he’d get me a part in a movie. He seemed nice, almost fatherly. He put us up at the Roosevelt Hotel. Never once making a pass, I don’t think he fancied women. He got me the right clothes and sent me on casting calls. We went to all the nice places like the Derby and the Troc. He told me I could pay him back when I became famous.
“About a month later my sister and I had been out shopping and when we got back to the hotel Chester was in the room and Eddie was dead. I was stunned. Chester asked me how I was going to pay the hotel bill? I told him that Eddie had been paying for everything. Chester said he would pay and that I could work it off. He told me to meet him that night at a house in Los Feliz. My sister and I were scared, so we packed and left.
“I arrived that evening at a house filled with men, the kind that old money breeds. None of this nouveau stuff. Wealth handed down generation after generation as if to say your mere birth was cause enough for power and affluence. Chester grabbed me from behind. His breath stank of stale liquor. He said my job was to dance, but I knew that dancing wouldn’t be my only job. After one drink, I felt lightheaded, and the last thing I remember were camera bulbs flashing and Chester’s bloated gin-blossomed face snickering. The next morning, I ran out and never went back. Shortly thereafter I became a contract player for MGM.
“One day Chester showed up in my dressing room and threatened to get my little sister like he had gotten me unless I gave him money. I came here for the one thing that linked me to him. You see, Willy, he had pictures of that dreadful night, and he was going to give them to you. Your big wallop of a story, to show the world what it really takes to get a star on the Walk of Fame. Here are the pictures, take them,” she said.
“Wait!” he yelled, “What about your sister?”
She turned around slowly and started taking off a blonde wig revealing hair as dark as night that fell to her waist. Willy’s mouth dropped as she then took her gloved hand and pulled out a 45-caliber revolver and tossed it to the ground. “My sister’s fine,” she said. And she walked away. Willy was shocked at what just happened, and all he could do was stare. He never found out why she trusted him that night to keep her secret. He was, after all, known as Get-The-Shh-Shh-Story, but something cooled his jets that night. Shortly thereafter, Lana Lovely left the glamour of Hollywood and started a home for runaways.
Willy? Well, he also quit his job at “Shh-Shh” and became a mystery writer.
And on another note, last month marked the 50th anniversary of my grandfather John Roeburt’s passing. I pay homage to him with my version of a mystery story. Thank you, Grandpa, for bestowing the precious gift of the ability to write. I will continue to make you proud.
Jennifer Danny is a Santa Clarita resident.