As Brian De Palma’s “The Black Dahlia” heads for theaters this spring and “60 Minutes” unveils its own investigation into the still-unsolved 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, aka The Black Dahlia, author John Gilmore reflects on his own experience with the crime and how that put him on a crash course with some of showbiz’s top talent: from Rose McGowan to Sharon Stone, from David Fincher to David Lynch.
Rose McGowan says, “You’ve got to be one of the only people living who met the Black Dahlia.” Yeah. Probably true. I was 11 years old. “Did you fall in love with her?” Rose asks. “Are you carrying a torch?”
A small torch that isn’t throwing much light. Shrinking the older I grow. Soon it’ll be on a key chain, like so many other different faces, eyes and lips.
Elizabeth Short’s lips were a ripe red like the heart of a cherry. Eyes so pale she looked blind. A visit to my grandmother’s house and we talked about magic. She said, “Magic lives in the shadows. It must be a thrill to know you can make someone disappear in front of your eyes … ”
I typed her words on the Underwood in my grandmother’s closet for a diary I kept beneath my bed.
The Black Dahlia was murdered months later. My father, an L.A. cop, was on the scene. I mapped the place where her cut-in-half body had been found, and I walked the same path, crushing underfoot the newsmen’s spent Graphex flashbulbs. I couldn’t help writing about it.
Jump a half-century to 1997. I’m in a hotel room on the Sunset Strip, so different from the Hollywood I’d traipsed around for years — then living elsewhere, writing movies and books — now home once again in L.A. and pounding out Elizabeth Short’s words in a place that would have struck her as make-believe: electric-blue carpets and chrome lamps, plants made of glass in a Tiki wonderland.
This time I’m writing a screenplay based on my book published three years earlier, “Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder,” the first on the actual Black Dahlia case. A hot seller, but could I shape it into a movie? Elizabeth’s haunted face, haunted eyes. Could even Rose bring it across? Is there something sacrilegious in proposing such a project? I look out the window at the Sunset Strip and wonder if anything could be sacrilegious in a town like this. But what star could bring that mysterious quality to the screen?
Allesandro Camon, VP of production at the Edward R. Pressman Film Corp., grabbed an option on the book the year it was published. “Passionate,” he said. Sharon Stone agreed, but halfway into the book she took for the hills. “Too dark!” she fumed. Others followed suit, often with the same results — the lightness of enthusiasm eclipsed by the darkness of The Black Dahlia. I wonder what Elizabeth would think of all this. Her picture is taped to my laptop as I attempt to breathe life into her scenes and dialogue.
Floria Sigismondi, an artist with exotic, doe-like eyes, is now set to direct. It’s nearly six years after the book was published, and she tells me, “We’ll do it!” Floria’s the fourth or fifth director who’s been “attached.” David Fincher came on board in ’95 but freaked when he saw the story focused on the girl. “Relationships? I can’t do a film about relationships.”
Then David Lynch got involved about a year later but hated the script that Camon came up with — a script written by his then-girlfriend. Now it’s Floria’s turn. She wants to add fish. “Big fish with gaping mouths coming at the camera,” she says.
I don’t know what fish have to do with Elizabeth Short. But I don’t care. I just keep writing.
Haunted face. Haunted eyes. The mystery that reached to those she encountered and, stunned by her murder, recoiled into silence. I was now giving words to a world almost two generations gone.
The fish? They had to go.
Typically, as Robert Evans would tell me, things come together and fall apart, like the melted blue goo in a postwar lava lamp. I’m writing about the intangible. Pale eyes in the picture look into mine. I see dim rooms lit by blinking hotel signs; a gritty dance floor, soldiers and sailors holding girls nobody knows, moving slowly in the shadows to music you can hardly hear.
Days later I’m sitting in a Mexican restaurant with Camon and Don Murphy, a London girl sandwiched between them; short hair, Goth makeup. She’s read “Severed.” “It’s totally keen!” she says. “But the Black Dahlia’s an enigma.”
A round of rubber enchiladas and Murphy searches his pockets. He finds his wallet — as thin as a tortilla. He scribbles on a blank card while Camon pays the check. Camon’s wallet is thick with cards and plastic. “See the difference between a successful producer’s wallet and mine?” Murphy laughs.
The wafer wallet proves prophetic. Murphy goes into hibernation. Eight months later Floria’s back with a Warbucks in tow, but he fails to grasp the significance of the story. “Could it be white dahlias instead of black?” he asks. We dance the two-step of who’s got the check.
Then ICM does a little housecleaning. Chairs, decor and agents all disappear as fast as Linda Lovelace might’ve brushed her teeth. Is that a faint smile on Elizabeth Short’s lips? I wonder if she’s watching.
Brian De Palma lands a Dahlia movie on Bulgarian turf last year, based on James Ellroy’s idea of an “L.A. Confidential”–like, boxing-gloves approach to the murder. They skedaddle home with a picture that hardly includes the cherry-lipped Elizabeth. That’s okay. The torch still burns.
Four years with Universal, producer Stuart Swezey says cryptically, “Let us pray the real Dahlia will soon bloom.”
Cars are gridlocked on the Sunset Strip. Looking past the potted purple plants, I remember the trolley clanging on Hollywood Boulevard, the soldiers and the sailors and the girls — and Elizabeth Short, just 22, planting a kiss smack on my forehead.
Novelist John Gilmore spent his early career as an actor and playwright, both in Los Angeles and New York. He has since authored numerous screenplays and novels, including the recently released “Crazy Streak,” and several books of non-fiction, including “Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder,” and his latest, “L.A. Despair.” He is currently working with producer Stuart Swezey on an indie film based on the life and tragic death of Elizabeth Short.