On January 15, 1947, a mutilated corpse of a young woman was found in an abandoned lot in Leimert Park. At first, the police dismissed the frantic call of the person who discovered the body as merely a drunken rant.
It wasn’t long before the press arrived at the scene and began photographing the grisly find. The woman was soon identified as an unknown aspiring starlet Elizabeth Short. But she was soon dubbed the Black Dahlia.
The case became an immediate tabloid sensation and continues to capture the imaginations of writers and filmmakers today. Crime writer James Ellroy wrote a book about the case. So did John Gregory Dunne. Brian De Palma made a movie based on the Black Dahlia. Recently, a character in the television show, American Horror Story, was based on Elizabeth Short.
Nearly seventy years later, the Black Dahlia’s murder remains unsolved.
However, at least one person claims to know the identity of the murderer.
Retired LAPD homicide detective Steve Hodel spent over three years carefully researching the case. Hodel presented his findings in a thoroughly detailed book Black Dahlia Avenger in 2003.
The murderer was his own father, Dr. George Hodel and the crime likely took place at the Los Feliz family home inside the iconic Lloyd Wright creation, The Sowden House.
The Sowden House was built in 1927 for photographer John Sowden. Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright, continued his father’s exploration of Mayan-inspired design in his own career. The home’s striking facade shares an obvious pedigree with the elder Wright’s nearby homes, the Ennis House and the Hollyhock House.
In the bohemian atmosphere of the times, the house was conceived as a performance space and gathering spot for artists of the day. The highly theatrical design certainly creates an impression. Locals have nicknamed the property the “Jaws” house for the unusual entranceway.
By Steve Hodel’s account, Dr. George Hodel was a musical prodigy, a genius, was a popular socialite and successful doctor.
He was also a sadist and murderer.
Dr. Hodel’s social circles included many of the prominent artists of the time. The surrealist photographer Man Ray was a close family friend. In his book, Steve Hodel draws many connections between the darker aspects of surrealism and the ritualistic and symbolic murder of the Black Dahlia. Steve Hodel tells of a childhood filled with debauchery, wild parties and celebrities.
The Hodel family referred to the house as simply the “Franklin House” because it sat boldly on a hillside lot on Franklin Avenue.
“The Franklin House had become, in those days, almost like a salon where artists flouting convention and social mores gathered around my father, who had the means to entertain them.”
The house itself is certainly worthy of a movie set. Walking through the intimidating entranceway and its ancient-looking cast stone blocks is very much like stepping into the world of Raiders of The Lost Ark. The home is designed around a central atrium with long corridors along either side. The original layout included a proscenium theater space at the rear of the courtyard.
No doubt the home exudes an air of fantasy and mystery. In Black Dahlia Avenger, Steve Hodel describes growing up in the Sowden House and playing around the gardens and secret rooms throughout the residence.
“Growing up in that house, my brothers and I saw it as a place of magic, that we were convinced could easily have greeted uninvited with pits of fire, poison darts, deadly snakes, or even a giant sword-bearing turbaned bodyguard at the door.”
Black magic indeed.
The Sowden House still stands of Franklin Avenue. After an extensive renovation in 2003, it is once again an extravagant showplace. The property has served as a set for tv shows including America’s Top Model and Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator.
Next week, we’ll take a peek inside one of Hollywood’s most infamous homes.