Sunday, February 28, 2016

Theodore Le Berthon (1892-1960)-Part Nine

On January 15, 1947, Betty Bersinger of Leimert Park, Los Angeles, was on an errand with her three-year-old daughter when she saw, lying in a vacant lot, what she thought to be a department store manikin. A closer look revealed the truth. Mrs. Bersinger rushed from the scene to phone the police. They arrived shortly thereafter to find what she had found, a woman's body, neatly cut in two at the waist. That was the beginning of the infamous Black Dahlia murder case.

The so-called Black Dahlia was Elizabeth Short (1924-1947), a young woman from Massachusetts who had arrived in California at nineteen, and who, after having bounced around for a while, was murdered at age twenty-two in a yet unknown place. Her killer, also unknown, bound her, beat her, and cut her face and body. He further mutilated her body, drained it of blood, washed it, and carefully arranged its severed parts in the vacant lot where Mrs. Bersinger found it the next morning. The police questioned hundreds of people, suspected scores, and finally narrowed their list of suspects to about two dozen. About a third of those suspects were physicians or surgeons. One was Dr. George Hill Hodel, Jr., about whom Ted Le Berthon had written in 1925.

The murder of Elizabeth Short remains an open case, despite nearly seven decades of investigation by police, journalists, authors, and amateur detectives. After George Hodel's death in 1999, his son, Steve Hodel, began investigating the Black Dahlia murder. He is convinced that his father was the killer and has presented his investigations in Black Dahlia Avenger (2006), Black Dahlia Avenger II (2014), Most Evil (with Ralph Pezzullo, 2009), and Most Evil II (2015). (1) With his books, Mr. Hodel has convinced others as well, although there are dissenting opinions, especially about his later allegations.

Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder by Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss (2006) "presents the theory that Elizabeth Short's murder may have been informed by surrealist art, and that the killer was familiar with surrealist art and ideas." They, too, suppose that Hodel was the murderer, although they don't make an outright accusation. Their hypothesis is compelling, especially in view of images like those shown below. (2) There have been other books and theories as well. Some agree on the killer's identity. Others are more eccentric.

The idea that George Hodel was a murderer fits with themes I have written about on this blog:

First, the intellectual, very often a writer, artist, or philosopher, who sets himself above the world and all the people in it; who throws off traditional constraints, particularly moral constraints, and does or advocates to be done whatever he wills. Very often, that intellectual is strictly a man of words or ideas. He doesn't take any action, in which case he is sometimes seen as a comic figure or buffoon, as Hodel looked in Le Berthon's profile of 1925. When he does take action, however, he is very often deadly.

Second, and related to the first, a special kind of depravity that emanates especially from the middle class, from individuals with ambitions not so much to greatness as to be seen or recognized by the rest of humanity for their greatness; to be considered great thinkers or theorists, as great actors in society or history, as among the élite; to make their mark, often, if not exclusively, to make up for their sense of failure or their fragile sense of self-esteem; who see other people as mere objects or abstractions for them to use, manipulate, and, if necessary, destroy in their pursuit of recognition and the esteem of their fellows.

Third, the physician as a psychopath who, because he is himself a soulless machine--in other words a kind of materialist--believes that other people are machines as well, and yet is puzzled by the animation the unseen and unknown soul provides those people, and so cuts them open to find out what makes them alive and human.

Finally, the general effects of moral decay, dissolution, and chaos, and where they lead the individual and the society in which he lives.

No one knows that George Hodel was the Black Dahlia murderer, but even if he wasn't, we can still brand him a monster for what he did to his daughter.

To be concluded . . .

(1) The publication history of these books and their various editions or revisions is hard to puzzle out. We live in an age in which a "book" may not actually be a book and can be revised and republished and revised again without end, even several times a day if the author wants it. These are the titles and dates I have, though, and they'll have to do.
(2) I have not read the book, so I don't know the details of the authors' hypothesis. However, the online documents I have read supporting their case are measured, well argued, and well presented. See the authors' blog by clicking here. The quote is from that blog.

A young George Hodel (1907-1999), attending to a patient. 

Is that George Hodel on the left? No, it's actually Salvador Dali (1904-1989), his near contemporary. On the right is Man Ray (1890-1976), who lived in Los Angeles from 1940 to 1951 and who was friends with Hodel. Dali is comic in his intensity. Man Ray is something else. This picture was taken in Paris in 1934 by Carl Van Vechten. 

Here is Dali again in a photograph by Denise Bellon (1902-1999), perhaps from around the same period. In their book Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder, authors Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss make a connection between the Black Dahlia murder and surrealist art and photography. Note especially the breasts of the manikin on the left and the separated torso of the manikin in the middle. When you look at photographs like this one and compare them to photographs of Elizabeth Short's body, you begin to see that Mr. Nelson and Ms. Bayliss' case could be a strong one. 

Or this one, also by Denise Bellon.

More yet, this one, by the same photographer.

So why were surrealists so fascinated by manikins? By mutilation and dismemberment? By distortions and mutations of human anatomy? Was it the dehumanizing effects of world war and a decaying civilization? Was it a kind of materialism among the artists themselves? And if it was a kind of materialism, how is materialist surrealist not an oxymoron? The answer begins with recognizing surrealism not primarily as art but as an intellectual theory. André Breton (1896-1966), author of the first surrealist manifesto (Manifeste du surréalisme, 1924), was a Marxist, i.e., a materialist. Surrealism was--strangely and remarkably--a communist and/or anarchist intellectual movement. As we know, Marxists, communists, socialists, and other assorted leftists have no compunctions about murdering or otherwise inflicting violence on their fellow human beings. That, too, has been a theme in this blog. One more strange and remarkable thing: André Breton trained in medicine.

Original text copyright 2016 Terence E. Hanley

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