Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Black Dahlia

Bette Short

Elizabeth Short embodied the feminine ideal of the 40s, with her meaty legs, full hips and a small, up-turned nose. She was drama personified. She dyed her mousy brown locks raven black, painted her lips blood red and pinned white flowers in her hair. With her alabaster skin and startling light blue eyes, she looked like porcelain doll.

The provenance of her nickname is unclear. Some say her friends started calling her the "Black Dahlia" because of her fondness for the color black and in reference to a 1946 movie called "The Blue Dahlia." Whatever its genesis, the press ran with it, and doing so, made Elizabeth Short a legend.

In the town where she grew up, however, she was known simply as "Bette," according to her childhood friend and neighbor Mary Pacios.

Area of Los Angeles where Short's body was found
Area of Los Angeles where Short's body was found

Born on July 29, 1924, in Hyde Park, Massachusetts, Short was one of five daughters born to Phoebe and Cleo. At some point during her childhood, the family moved half an hour north to Medford, a town famous for Paul Revere's midnight ride in 1775 and as the place where the "Jingle Bells" was written.

Cleo Short launched a successful business building miniature golf courses, but the 1929 stock market crash left him bankrupt. Unable to provide for his large family, Cleo left his car on local bridge to make it look as if he'd jumped into the river in despair, Pacios writes in her book, "Childhood Shadows." When he wrote his wife from California a few years later, saying he was saving up money to move the family there, his wife wanted nothing to do with him.

After Cleo's abandonment, the Short family moved into a meager apartment building next to Pacios, and Phoebe found a job as a bookkeeper. Elizabeth became a big sister of sorts to Pacios, 10 years her junior, taking her out for ice cream or to the movies. The two girls watched all the Ginger Roger and Fred Astaire flicks that were popular at the time as well as the debut of "Gone with the Wind." Perhaps it was in that small-town theatre where Short's Hollywood dreaming began.

Short was born with respiratory problems that developed into asthma and bronchitis as she got older. When she was 16, her mother started sending her to spend winters with family friends in Miami, where she found work as a waitress.

At 19, Short took a train cross-country to move in with her father, who was living in Vallejo, a city just above San Francisco, and working at the Mare Island Naval Station. She hoped the move to California would enable her to break into movies, Pacio writes.


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