(Warning: Disturbing images)
A few years ago I was an Avon Lady (seriously) and it was an odd combination with my day job as an autopsy technician: I’d automatically refer to my little moisturiser samples as ‘specimens’ and dish out tiny perfumes from police evidence bags left over from forensic autopsies. I loved it but it’s probably not surprising that Avon didn’t seem to want me, with my unorthodox events and insistence on using the term ‘Avon Lady’ rather than ‘part-time sales representative’. I wanted to be just like Edward Scissorhands’ mum!
I think Avon are missing a trick by not utilizing their ‘vintage’ legacy more in their advertising like I did – I used to hold vintage tea parties during which I discussed the make-up of Hollywood starlets, or Lily Munster and Elvira. I had a Grease ‘Pink Ladies’ party to raise money for breast cancer as well as a 90s ‘slumber party’ where we accessed our inner Drew Barrymore and Courtney Love, and played Dream Phone. I was a make-up maverick! (You can read about it if you’re so inclined on my old blog Cake It On!)
Anyway, the reason I mention this strange part of my past is that my very favourite event was the one based on The Black Dahlia which took place around this time last year:
On this day (Thursday 15th Jan) at 10am in 1947, the body of 22 year old Elizabeth Short was discovered in Liemert Park, Los Angeles by a woman (Betty Bersinger) walking her 3 year old daughter. Betty initially believed the victim was a broken shop mannequin as she had been bisected (cut into two pieces) but on closer inspection the horrified woman realised it was indeed a murder victim: severed, bloodless and brutally mutilated around the face. The victim came to be known as ‘The Black Dahlia’ and the case is one of the world’s most well known yet unsolved murders.
I’m not an expert on this case having only assisted on a couple of dismemberment cases during my time in mortuaries (they’re quite rare) but I’m fascinated by this murder and what occurred subsequently. Through my research for the Avon event (and a separate one I held at Barts Pathology Museum with a Forensic Pathologist and a James Ellroy expert) I stumbled across someone who was living a similar double life to me: Joan Renner. She is the prolific author of two blogs, Deranged LA Crimes (about crime) and The Vintage Powder room (about make-up) and both blogs had intersected unusually because of Elizabeth Short’s peculiar make-up habits. Joan had been able to build up a personality profile of Elizabeth via her make-up choices, and this assisted her when giving crime tours around Los Angeles to groups who appreciated learning a little extra. And it’s not an unusual topic in this case: Elizabeth’s toilette is spoken about constantly in the book ‘Severed’ by John Gilmore and seems to remain an important aspect of the folklore of the case.
Elizabeth is frequently referred to as glamorous but vain and unhappy, ultimately wanting to become a starlet yet drifting around without any real aim. Room mates of hers reportedly say they watched her apply her make-up to perfection, then remove it with cold cream only to repeat the whole process again and again some days. However her chosen look was unusual for its time: mainly black clothes, a very pale face, dark eyebrows and deep red lips – when she was found dead her fingers and toes were painted red – and the conclusions drawn indicate that she was as we’d say in modern parlance, ‘a Goth’. It’s been stated that her evident dark personality and her unhappiness with her physical self contributed to her becoming a murder victim: that somehow because she was more attracted to the darker side of existence and easily swayed by complements and attention she was a prime target for this type of heinous crime.
The case has echoes of the UK’s ‘Jack the Ripper’ with films, books and news articles (like this one from 2013) proposing theories about the killer which sound completely plausible until someone else comes along and disproves it. But what I find more interesting is the sexualisation of Elizabeth Short who went from murder victim to slutty temptress/film noir fodder in the space of a few hours, simply because of what was written by the LA press at the time – press who, incidentally, completely sabotaged the investigation into her death with their constant underhand attempts to get ‘a story’. It’s worth reading up on in it’s entirety but for example, after her death, she was no longer plain old Elizabeth Short but “The Black Dahlia” which makes her sound like a burlesque artist or black widow (although there were other crimes at the time given names of flowers, such as The Gardenia Murder). She was wearing a tailored black suit when she was last seen by witnesses, but this became a “sheer blouse and tight skirt” once it was reported in the news. It was claimed she had unusual genitalia despite the fact the autopsy report made no mention of that, and researchers now believe she was confused with a prostitute who worked the same area, also called Elizabeth Short, which is where the tales of her sleeping with men for money or food really came from. The insinuation is that perhaps she brought about her own death because she “led an unsavoury life”. This is a common coping mechanism for the general public, particularly after gruesome murders, because they are safely distancing themselves from it and saying “Well, it wouldn’t happen to me because I’m a good person and I don’t deserve it.”
The result is that 22 year old murder victim Elizabeth Short or ‘The Black Dahlia’ has a cocktail named after her which is currently served at the Millenium Biltmore Hotel in LA (the last place she was sighted, the week before her mutilated body was dumped and discovered. What happened during that horrendous week, we’ll never know) She also has make-up and perfumes named after her. The portrayal of her by Mia Kirschner in the 2006 neo-noir film is highly sexual, as is that by Mena Suvari in the first series of American Horror Story.
All these things have given her the allure and longevity of a Hollywood star (but what a price to pay) and cemented her place in history as posthumously the world’s sexiest murder victim.