The daytime television talk show Dr. Phil has been running for 17 seasons but has rarely dipped into art historical drama for its content. That changed yesterday when the eponymous Phillip McGraw invited Steve Hodel onto the show to discuss his almost two-decade-long investigation into the Black Dahlia murder — and how his father may have killed the aspiring Hollywood actress as an emulation of the artist Man Ray’s surrealist aesthetic.
The death of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short in 1947 captivated the country because of its gruesome details of dismemberment and torture. Her brutal demise was the subject of relentless press coverage; the Los Angeles Record reported on the police investigation of the crime on its front cover for 31 consecutive days. And even today, cold-case enthusiasts routinely visit the details surrounding Short’s death to glean new evidence on the unsolved crime.
But few of their hypotheses are as personal as Hodel’s. The former LAPD homicide detective believes his father, George Hodel, is responsible for the Black Dahlia murder and nearly a dozen other lone woman killings in Los Angeles around the same time.
Described as a grandiose doctor with a distinct personality, the elder Hodel was the frequent subject of police investigations. Problems began in 1945 with the drug-overdose death of his secretary, Ruth Spaulding, who detectives believed Hodel murdered to cover up a financial fraud case involving illegal abortion services. In 1949, his daughter Tamar accused him of incest, a charge he was later acquitted from in court. That same year Hodel became a prime suspect in the Black Dahlia case and the subject of the police’s investigation into Louise Springer’s murder. One year later, Hodel abandoned his family to live in the Philippines; he wouldn’t return to the United States until age 83 in 1990.
Steve’s suspicions grew after his father’s death in 1999. Rifling through George’s old possessions, he found a photograph of a woman that looked remarkably like Elizabeth Short; he also found portraits of his family taken by Man Ray, a family friend.
Fast-forward 18 years later: Hodel has made a career investigating his father’s relationship to the Black Dahlia murder and surrealist art. He has written five books about the subject including a New York Times bestseller, Black Dahlia Avenger. And he is certainly not the first person to suggest a connection between Short’s death and avant-garde art at the time. Famously, Marcel Duchamp’s “Étants donnés” (1946–66) was partially inspired by the killing.
However, the driving forces behind Hodel’s argument are the visual similarities between Man Ray’s work and the Black Dahlia murder. The former detective believes that his father was trying to emulate the surrealist artist’s work with mutilation of Short’s body. “This is dad’s surrealistic masterpiece,” he told Dr. Phil. “I talk about his scalpel being his paintbrush and her body was the canvas. It’s that twisted.”
There are a handful of artworks that Hodel analyzes, including “L’Equivoque” (1943). On the talk show, he said that there are “strong indications that [Short] actually could have posed for Man Ray in 1943” and thereafter. In his painting, Man Ray depicts a female subject with a scratched-out face; Hodel believes that his father appropriated this image with his scalpel to create a similar “crime signature” on Short’s body as an homage to his surrealist friend.
Hodel also says that Man Ray’s “Minotaur” (1934) may have also served as inspiration for his father’s alleged mutilation of the Black Dahlia. Made from the torso of a woman’s body, the photograph references the mythological beast imprisoned in a labyrinth on the Greek island of Crete, where youths were sacrificed to appease the gods; as a surrealist work, it also references the suppression of libidinal impulses a la Freud. In 1969, Man Ray also created a lithograph called “Les Invendables,” which he believes matches with the crime scene photography of Short’s body that had circulated through the public at that point in time.
Not everyone agrees with Hodel’s analysis, and although his theories have generated significant interest by the public, law enforcement officials have expressed zero interest in reopening the Black Dahlia case based on his evidence, which critics have called circumstantial and highly questionable. Nevertheless, Hodel stands by his claims that connect his father to one of the country’s most infamous murders and the surrealists.
“One of the early clues was my recognizing through Man Ray’s artworks,” explained Hodel during his segment on Dr. Phil. “This exact picture of a woman bisected at the waist, carefully posed … it’s of course identical to the crime scene photography.”