By: Renee Montgomery
An Exhibition Review:
On display at the LAPD Museum until June 16th is the special exhibition “James Ellroy Presents: Elizabeth,” including letters, reports and photographs never before exhibited or published from the murder investigation of actress Elizabeth Short. Developed by crime writer James Ellroy working with museum staff and the current detective for cold cases in LAPD’s Robbery and Homicide unit, this riveting exhibition consists of key documents selected from the mountain of LAPD “Black Dahlia” files. At the time of Short’s death in 1947, approximately 300 police staff were involved in the multi-year investigation which still lacks a conclusion despite many popular theories.
Among the many chilling artifacts on display is the report of the police first-responder to the crime scene: ”. . .we drove approximately 10 miles per hour, looking on the west side of the street for the man down. About in the middle of the block between 39th Street and Coliseum on Norton we observed a nude woman’s body . . .” Later that same January day, a report from the morgue describes the decedent as “Jane Doe,” Elizabeth Short’s body pending identification at that point. The first major follow-up report from the police investigators lists the grisly body mutilations but ends with this poignant detail: ”Mrs. [Phoebe] Short was contacted by a Medford, Mass. police and advised of her daughter’s death.”
Weirdly disturbing is the exhibition section regarding certain suspects, and crank letters from the public wrongly accusing others or containing false confessions. The documentation clearing singer Woody Guthrie of the murder represents just one of the many fantastic twists in this murder investigation, a media sensation that continues to capture the public’s imagination 65 years later. James Ellroy has furnished gallery labels for the different exhibition sections in his stylish noir prose, for instance, the writer’s description of the various suspects or confessors evaluated by the police: ”. . . [the] pimps, punks, perverts, pedophiles, panty-sniffers and putzes that pounded at the patience of the LAPD.” Those attending the exhibition opening were fortunate to participate in sold-out tours led by the colorful Ellroy, a big supporter of the museum. Other sections document police technology at the time and the post-WWII Southern California mood during the era of the horrific killing.
The exhibition ends with a focus on the oft-maligned innocent victim, 22 year-old struggling actress “Beth” Short. Museum staff are careful not to promote any particular suspect or rumor in this unsolved case. When asked to point out the most revealing document in the exhibition, Associate Executive Director Michael DeCoudres repeatedly points back to some newly-seen snapshots of the hopeful actress girlishly posing for a friend’s camera several months before her death. In one photo Beth is shown framed under a Hollywood theatre marqée with the word “Beautiful.”
Los Angeles Police Department Museum hours are: Monday through Friday 10am to 4pm; and the third Saturday of each month from 9am to 3pm. 6045 York Blvd., Highland Park. Phone (323)344-9445
Renee Montgomery is Assistant Director of Risk Management at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where she has worked in various capacities since 1979. She holds an MA in Art History, various certificates in international business and fundraising, and has served as Chair of the AAM Registrars Committee, and on the AAM board.