Elizabeth Short was born on July 29, 1924 in Hyde Park, Massachusetts. Shortly after she was born, her parents moved the family to Medford, Massachusetts. Cleo Short, Elizabeth’s father, was making a living designing and building miniature golf courses. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, he abandoned his wife, Phoebe Short, and his five daughters. Cleo proceeded to fake his suicide, leaving his empty car near a bridge leading authorities to believe he had jumped into the river below.
Phoebe was left to deal with the hard times of the Depression and had to raise the five girls on her own. To support her family, Phoebe worked multiple jobs, but most of the Short family’s money came from public assistance. One day Phoebe received a letter from Cleo, who had moved to California. He apologized and told Phoebe that he wanted to come home to her; however, she refused to see him again.
Elizabeth, known as “Betty,” “Bette,” or “Beth,” grew up to be a pretty girl. She was always told that she looked older and acted more mature than she really was. Although Elizabeth had asthma and lung problems, her friends still considered her to be very lively. Elizabeth was fixated on movies, which were the Short family’s main source of affordable entertainment. The theater allowed her an escape from the dreariness of ordinary life.
How Would Others Describe Her?
“Bette was a porcelain China doll with beautiful eyes — think of them as blue, but sometimes would change depending on color she wore, and became greenish.” – Anna Dougherty, Medford Classmate
“Mrs. Short was very strict with other girls. They moved in to the triple-decker next to the Visiting Nurse’s Association about 1937, but Bette wasn’t with them when they moved in. She was at a summer camp for kids who had TB.” – Eleanor Kurz, Medford neighbor and friend
“She was always friendly, never at a loss for words. And it wasn’t just that she was so pretty. There are lots of pretty girls. There was something different. She was someone you liked to watch, the kind of girl boys might sneak looks at but would get tongue-tied if she spoke to you. And that walk of hers. It wasn’t put on. She always walked that way, even in junior high. I always thought that if she had a glass of water on her head she wouldn’t spill a drop.” – Bob Pacios, Medford neighbor and classmate
“Bette was good, sweet, funny, not stuck up, always stopped and chatted, made you feel at ease. And what a walk. The truck drivers and men would stare when she walked down the street. It was a wonder there weren’t more truck accidents when she walked down Salem Street… She just looked so graceful, but eye-catching, something to look at.” – Dorothy Hernon, Medford neighbor
“Dottie [Elizabeth’s sister], Bette, and I were going to be movie stars. We were all entranced with movie stars, star struck. Spent hours talking about movie stars, about going to Hollywood. We performed using the Short’s front porch as a stage. Every Friday as soon as the song sheets came out, we’d pool our money, get the latest sheets, and spend hours singing. Bette imitated Deanna Durbin. Walked like her, talked like her, and in my eyes sang like her.” – Eleanor Kurz, Medford neighbor and friend
“Her hair was very dark, black. She liked to be admired… No one had bad thoughts about her. I just liked her… Once you saw Bette Short, you couldn’t forget her.” – Emma Pacios, Medford neighbor and friend
Journey to California
When Elizabeth was older, Cleo offered her residency with him in California until she was able to find a job. Elizabeth had worked in restaurants and theaters in the past, but she knew she wanted to be a star if she moved to California. Driven by her enthusiasm for the movies, Elizabeth packed her things and headed to live with Cleo in Vallejo, California in early 1943. It did not take much time before their relationship became strained. Her father would scold her for her laziness, poor housekeeping, and dating habits. He eventually kicked Elizabeth out in mid 1943, and she was forced to fend for herself.
Elizabeth applied for a job as a cashier at the Post Exchange at Camp Cooke. The servicemen quickly noticed her, and she won the title of “Camp Cutie of Camp Cooke” in a beauty contest. However, Elizabeth was emotionally vulnerable and desperate for a permanent relationship sealed in marriage. Word spread that Elizabeth was not an “easy” girl, which kept her at home instead of on dates most nights. She became uncomfortable at Camp Cooke and left to stay with a girlfriend who lived near Santa Barbara.
Elizabeth had her only run-in with the law during this time, on September 23, 1943. She had been out with a group of rowdy friends in a restaurant until the owners called the police. Elizabeth was underage at the time, so she was booked and fingerprinted but never charged. The police officer felt sorry for her and arranged for Elizabeth to be sent back to Massachusetts. It was not long before Elizabeth returned to California, this time to Hollywood.
In Los Angeles, Elizabeth met a pilot named Lieutenant Gordon Fickling and fell in love. He was the type of man she had been searching for and quickly made plans to marry him. However, her plans were halted when Fickling was shipped out to Europe.
Elizabeth took a few modeling jobs but still felt discouraged with her career. She went back east to spend the holidays in Medford before living with relatives in Miami. She began dating servicemen, marriage still on her mind, and again fell in love with a pilot, this time named Major Matt Gordon. He promised to marry her after he was sent to India. However, Gordon was killed in action, leaving Elizabeth heartbroken once again. Elizabeth had a period of mourning where she told others that Matt had actually been her husband and that their baby had died in childbirth. Once she began to recover, she attempted to return to her old life by contacting her Hollywood friends.
One of those friends was Gordon Fickling, her former boyfriend. Seeing him as a possible replacement for Matt Gordon, she began to write to him and met with him in Chicago when he was in town for a few days. She was soon falling head-over-heels for him again. Elizabeth agreed to join him in Long Beach before she moved back to California to continue pursuing her dream of being in the movies.
Elizabeth left Los Angeles on December 8, 1946 to take a bus to San Diego. Before she left, Elizabeth had supposedly been worried about something. Elizabeth had been staying with Mark Hansen, who said the following when he was questioned on December 16, 1949 by Frank Jemison.
Frank Jemison: “While she was living at the Chancellor Apartments, she came back to your house and got mail?”
Mark Hansen: “I didn’t see her but she was sitting there one night when I cam home, with Ann about 5:30, 6:00 o’clock – sitting and crying and saying she had to get out of there. She was crying about being scared – one thing and another, I don’t know.”
While Elizabeth was in San Diego, she befriended a young woman named Dorothy French. Dorothy was a counter girl at the Aztec Theater and had found Elizabeth sleeping in one of the seats after an evening show. Elizabeth told Dorothy that she left Hollywood because finding a job as an actress was difficult with the actor’s strikes that were going on at the time. Dorothy felt sorry for her and offered her a place to stay at her mother’s home for a few days. In reality, Elizabeth ended up sleeping there for over a month.
Her Final Days
Elizabeth did little housework for the French family and continued her late-night partying and dating habits. One of the men she became enamored with was Robert “Red” Manley, a salesman from Los Angeles who had a pregnant wife at home. Manley admitted that he was attracted to Elizabeth yet claimed that he never slept with her. The two of them saw each other on-and-off for a few weeks, and Elizabeth asked him for a ride back to Hollywood. Manley agreed and picked her up from the French household on January 8, 1947. He paid for her hotel room for that night and went to a party with her. When the two of them returned to the hotel, he slept on the bed, and Elizabeth slept in a chair.
Manley had an appointment in the morning of January 9 and returned to the hotel to pick Elizabeth up around noon. She told him that she was returning to Massachusetts but first needed to meet her married sister at the Biltmore Hotel in Hollywood. Manley drove her there yet did not stick around. He had an appointment at 6:30 P.M. and did not wait for Elizabeth’s sister to arrive. When Manley saw Elizabeth last, she was making phone calls in the hotel lobby.
Manley and the hotel employees were the last people to see Elizabeth Short alive. As far as the Los Angeles Police Department could tell, only Elizabeth’s killer saw her after January 9, 1947. She was missing for six days from the Biltmore Hotel before her body was found in a vacant lot on the morning of January 15, 1947.