By the time we get to the cemetery in Oakland, I wonder what we’re doing here. We could have taken the train into San Francisco and done one of hundreds of tourist activities. We could have stayed in Oakland and walked around the park. Instead, I have dragged my soon to be husband to Mountain View Cemetery to pay my respects to a woman I have never met.
I think it’s beginning to dawn on him that my interests are particular, and although I don’t consider myself a particularly morbid person, we find ourselves in a lot of cemeteries. We spent my 29th birthday in Pere Lachaise. Yet this time I am in awe of his patience, and his willingness to go along with my great ideas. He’s most definitely a keeper.
Not that it isn’t a pleasant walk, through a residential neighbourhood and along a trendy street in which we will later have coffee. I pass a florist and consider taking flowers. A whole bouqet seems extreme, so I pick a couple of white carnations. The florist wraps them in paper which such care and attention I am almost embarassed at myself. What the hell am I doing here?
I hadn’t thought much about Elizabeth Short, more famously known as the Black Dahlia. It didn’t seem a particularly interesting case. It seemed to fetishise the victim, and my fascination with crime has always been directed at the killer. What drives a person to kill, more specifically. During my Dearly Departed Tour, the subject of the Black Dahlia was touched upon briefly. It made me realise a lot of what I knew was misinformation, or urban lore. She hadn’t been found with a black dahlia in her hair. She hadn’t simply been killed. She had been held, tortured, and abused. She hadn’t been found outside her home, but in a stretch of undeveloped land. The death scene photos are horrific.
During our trip I picked up a book called Severed, about the Black Dahlia case. The best part about the book was that it focused on the life of Elizabeth Short, and not as much on the investigation. It gave a voice to the victim, someone who had lived a complicated life through complicated times. A woman punished throughout her life for wanting to be an actress, for wanting to make something of herself, for being “too beautiful”, and for simply wanting to live.
What saddened me the most is that Elizabeth Short had wanted to be famous. Now it is her dismembered corpse that is most famous, all sorts of rumours generated about her life becoming the myth of this “tragic woman”. Reading this biography reminded me of what I had been like in my early twenties. How I had left home to try and make sense of my life, how working a minimum wage job sometimes leaves you hungry. Not everyone gets out of that alive.
I thought about the parallel with Charles Manson, who had also wanted to be famous. Rotting in jail as he may be, he at least has a life, and a voice. Charles Manson has gone down in history and notoriety for being Charles Manson. Elizabeth Short went down in history for being murdered. There seems to be something to be said about men and the permissions they are given in life, the expectations set upon them that don’t involve being proper, or getting married, or giving up freedom. All you want to be is an actress and you end up brutally murdered. If you’re a mentally unstable psychopathic poor excuse for a man, you end up with your own cult to do your bidding, your surname adopted by a rock star, and your songs recorded by the Beach Boys and Guns N’ Roses.
I read that Elizabeth’s mother had buried her in Oakland, away from the attention of Los Angeles. That she’d moved to Oakland to be close to her daughter. I noticed the cemetery was only half an hour walking from where we were staying in Oakland. It seemed like too good a story to pass up.
Finding Elizabeth Short’s grave took a while. It is a discreet red marble plaque up on a hill, with a beautiful view of San Francisco covered in clouds. Everything about the setting seemed the antithesis to the Los Angeles story. The murder, the brutality, the quest for stardom, the hounding by the press, the loneliness and savagery of her death.
I laid my flowers on the grave and we walked back down the hill. I looked back and could see the green paper the flowers were in, all the way down the road. I thought about her standing there, alive and smiling, in a pretty dress. There’s a photo of her sitting on a wall, looking out at the distance like all the possibility of her particular American Dream is ahead of her. It seems the best way to remember her.