Saturday, July 7, 2007

Golden Bloody Oldie

The title suggests I've been co-opted by British colloquial use, wanting to make a pointed emphasis, but this is about a crime, a bloody crime, and I come to this entry having just done a review of a book about it.

January, 1947. South central Los Angeles, in the residential section near the massive sports
arena constructed for the 1932 Olympic Games, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the discovery of the grizzly remains of Elizabeth Short, aka The Black Dahlia.

In my weekly review column for the Montecito Journal, I'm alternating a current release with something published in the past, having at one point reached all the way back to Gilgamesh (although in a modern, poetic rendition) and slipped in one of my favorites, Humphrey Clinker, from the eighteenth century.

This week, the subject was what I consider John Gregory Dunne at the top of his form, True Confessions, a fictionalized version of the famed, unsolved Black Dahlia case.

The Black Dahlia case was one of the first cases an LAPD cop by the name of John St. John was assigned to. Turns out nobody did well on that case, but St. John cracked some of the big LA cases, including the notorious Hillside Strangler, and became a legend in law enforcement. I met him when a student of mine tracked him down and persuaded him to collaborate with her on a book about his career. The chemistry between them was incredible: This tough, no-nonsense Irish cop finds a friendship and purpose with the wife of a small-town doctor. I got in on many a ride, including one where St. John gave me a tour of LA "dump sites," places where grotesquely mutilated bodies had been discovered. I developed a fondness for a less grotesque kind of butchery, the steak sandwich at Taylor's Steak House on Eight Street, that and a Molly Salad,
which was a quarter of a tightly packed iceberg lettuce, doused with a dressing of cheese, diced onions, and tomatoes.

True Confessions used a fictional version of The Black Dahlia case, setting it against two brothers, a cop who was as gritty (but not as honorable) as St. John, and his brother, the monseigneur, each on the make in his career, tied to the case by a gritty political inevitability. The payoff is a lovely bit of moral irony.

The real Black Dahlia lived in Santa Barbara, apparently honing her game in this small town before trying the big time in L.A.
She lived right he
re at 321 Montecito Street, and as I slid by this afternoon to take a picture of the place to send along with the review, I tried, oh how I tried, to feel a sense of her presence. No go. A nice, small cottage adrift on a sea of neatly tended grass, considerately walled off and protected from direct contact with a gritty, funky neighborhood. A place I wouldn't mind having for an office or a get-away cottage.

From what I've read of her, The Black Dahlia was warm-hearted and open, eager to make something exciting of her life in the optimistic bustle and overnight possibilities exploding in post-war Los Angeles. Earl Muntz, the Babbit-gone-wild used car dealer was advertising that he wanted to give his cars away but his wife wouldn't let him. You could get a complete paint job on a car for $19.95 at Earl Scheib, and for an extra ten, you could get a deluxe job, meaning in time that any car thief with twenty bucks in his pocket could keep the cops off his trail. Republic Studios was cranking out Western movies, car hop waitresses at drive-in restaurants were being given screen tests and contracts, talent scouts and agents hung out at The Hollywood Ranch Market on Vine and the world must have seemed filled with limitless promise to Elizabeth Short. Living so close to it all, at 321 Montecito Street, must have filled her with the impatience of her throbbing beauty and youth, steering her to LA with the same kind of blind instinct that sends moths crashing into light fixtures.

There was none of this at 321 Montecito Street today, just a neat, quiet cottage on a Saturday afternoon, across the street from a Santa Cruz Market and around the corner from a 7-11 convenience store, neither of which were likely there when she was.

I first read True Confessions when it came out in 1977, and have returned to it at least twice before thinking to take it out again, go through it, and blend it with my memories of St. John.

The last time I saw him was during the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference of 1993, when it was held at the Miramar Hotel, now a relic awaiting the wrecking ball and some considerable cosmetic surgery. Because my workshop runs sometimes into the early ours of the following morning, it was held in the large basement room directly under the main auditorium. It was already growing late and I was in a listening trance, focused on some manuscript being read when I became aware of someone in the front row, waving to get my attention. He pointed just over my left shoulder toward the entryway, where St. John stood, blue suit, brown shoes, a truly offensive necktie, and a broad, bewitching smile. "Hey, kid," he said.

I moved swiftly for a hug and a handshake. "Buy you a drink sometime," he said, then he was gone.

"Who was that man?" someone in the audience asked.

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you."

I couldn't get The Black Dahlia out of where she used to live, but I got St. John all evening, writing that review of True Confessions.

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