February 28, 2017
Los Angeles, California
Former Met Opera Singer Paul Veglia, age 84 describes to me his connections and personal contact with Elizabeth “Black Dahlia” Short when he was a young farm boy of twelve in 1943. (Photo taken at Art’s Deli, Studio City, 2017)
Investigative “tips” come to me these days, usually as an email or phone call. This time it was the latter. A late afternoon call from my brother, Kelly and his wife, Angel.
“Hi Bro. Had a strange thing happen the other day. I was doing one of my harmonica gigs for some Seniors and this guy walks up to me, looks at the name printed on my fatigues. (Kelly was a Navy Corpsman, like me). And he says, ‘Hodel’ that’s strange I was just reading this book last night by a guy named Steve Hodel.’
Kelly responded, “Yes, that’s my brother. He’s written several books about the Black Dahlia.”
Kelly went on to inform me that the man claimed to have met and spent time with Elizabeth Short back during the war years.
I explained to my brother that I get a lot of those kinds of claims. Most are psychos who are obsessed with the Dahlia story who email me and want to give me clues and tell me what she was really like.
My brother backed up by his wife, Angel, persisted.
“I don’t think that is the case with this guy Steve. I think he’s the real deal. He gave me his name and phone number. Maybe just call and talk to him. See what you think. Guy’s name is Paul Veglia. His phone is 310-936—-. He lives in Santa Monica.”
Angel, backed him up, “I also got the impression he was telling the truth, Steve.”
I thanked my brother and Angel for the call, took the name and phone number and threw it into the “To Do” box on my desk.
An hour later, my curiosity got the best of me. Though confident this was just another delusional crank, I knew that I would be able to ferret out the truth within five or ten minutes of conversation. I made the call.
“Yes, this is Paul Veglia. Oh, hello Mr. Hodel, yes thank you for calling.
He talked, I listened. Twenty minutes later, convinced that he and his story claiming personal contact with Elizabeth Short was as my brother had said, “the real deal” we agreed to meet at Art’s Delicatessen, in Studio City, the following morning.
Paul Veglia is a handsome, gregarious man of eighty-four. Physically fit, Intelligent, and extroverted. He is a man who knows the world and its streets. He opened our conversation by saying,
“Now please bear with me. I have ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). It has affected my life since I was a boy, so if I lose my train of thought or repeat myself, just understand it’s the ADD. However, it doesn’t “add” it subtracts and has been the cause of missed opportunities for most of my life.”
SKH Note- Here is the Merriam Webster Medical definition of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
A developmental disorder that is marked especially by persistent symptoms of inattention (such as distractibility, forgetfulness, or disorganization) or by symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity (such as fidgeting, speaking out of turn, or restlessness) or by symptoms of all three, and that is not caused by any serious underlying physical or mental disorder.
My interview with Paul at Art’s Deli in Studio City lasted three hours. He talked about his remarkable life, his career as an opera singer (he performed twice at the NY Met) and performed in national tours in KISMET (1962) and CANDIDE (1971) and ‘La Boheme’ at the Santa Monica Civic Opera. Paul performed the role of “Elder Hayes”, in “Susannah” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1966. Paul was married to Monika Henreid, the daughter of famed actor, Paul Henreid. (Played “Victor Lazlo” in Casa Blanca)
Paul Henreid Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart in Casa Blanca (1941)
While it was fascinating to hear about Paul’s life and personal anecdotes, for the purpose of this blog I am going to focus and present his verbatim memories of a two-month time period in the Summer of 1943, when he was a farm boy of twelve.
During those two months, he came into daily contact with then nineteen-year-old, Elizabeth Short, who four years later would become Los Angeles’ most infamous murder victim, known as “The Black Dahlia.”
(SKH Note- In 1947, the victim, Elizabeth Short (initially a “Jane Doe No. 1) was identified through fingerprints from an arrest for “Minor Possession” (being present in a bar in Santa Barbara under age.) Work records showed in 1943 Elizabeth was employed at Camp Cook (Vandenberg Air Force Base) in the PX as a salesgirl just 8 miles north of Casmalia. This narrative takes place during those months in 1943.
Here is Paul’s verbatim recounting of those two months.
“In 1943, I was twelve years old. I was a farm boy growing up in Casmalia, California.
Casmalia is a small town about seven miles north of Camp Cook. (Vandenberg Air Force Base.)
I met Elizabeth Short, is it OK if I call her Beth, it’s shorter to say? I met Beth when she was staying at a cabin at the Ranch House in Casmalia. Dave Thompkins was a twenty-four-year-old farm boy and he had met Beth somewhere and he said to her (I’m assuming this) said, “Why don’t you stay at the Guest House at my ranch?
That cabin where Beth stayed was about a quarter mile from my bedroom. At that time I was living in the back of the Hitching Post, which is now a world famous restaurant. Back then it was a ten-room hotel. Later, in 1948, after the war, Boyd Wyse came and offered my dad, Mario, a deal and they became partners and opened it up as a restaurant. It became famous and still is for “The Best Bar B Que in the world.”
For two months in the summer of ’43 I saw Beth every day. We never really spoke other than for her to say, “Good morning Paulie.” I was just a kid of twelve and she was about nineteen or so.
Physically, she had black hair. It was almost touching her shoulders. She usually wore black slacks and a white short sleeved blouse. She would come out from her cabin when I was sweeping her porch. She would come out and say to me, “Good morning” or I would say it to her too. Then she would thank me for sweeping off her porch and she would walk barefoot across the pasture and through a clump of Willow trees to the Post Office and store. The water would collect on the ground and she was barefoot and would walk through the water to the Post Office.
September 1943 Santa Barbara PD Booking Photo of Elizabeth Short.Arrested for being a minor and present in a bar. This photo would have been taken just a few months after Paul Veglia saw her on a daily basis at her residence in Casmalia.
Paul continued his narrative:
Beth had Post Office Box 66, which was right next to our box which was 65. My mother later told me, or somebody told me that Beth would come to pick up her letters every day.
During school vacation I would get up during school vacation sometimes at 4:00 a.m. and Johnny Tyler, my schoolmate would drive and come and pick me up in his car. We would drive back to Camp Cook and we’d sell a hundred newspapers each for five cents apiece. I’d make two cents per paper, so I made $2.00 every morning during the summer.
I’d be back home at 7:00 a.m., go to the ranch, pick up my shovel, feed the cows some hay, the horses alfalfa, and the chickens some grain. Then I’d sweep Beth’s porch and sweep all the chicken manure off it.
My father owned the Hitching Post and I am one of three sons. I started working for my dad peeling potatoes when I was seven. My mother was the bartender at the Hitching Post. I remember one time when I saw Beth with David Tompkins there at the bar. My mother served them drinks. I think I remember that Beth had a cherry in her drink. Beth was pretty, but she wasn’t Elizabeth Taylor beauty.
I was born in Santa Maria, California about eight miles from Casmalia. My mother gave birth to me at sixteen. I was the first born, named after my grandfather who was a Deputy Sheriff up there.
Beth and I really had no conversations, just, “Good morning Paulie.” No, I never saw her with guys. We never even shook hands.
In 1952 or 1953 I came in to California for 4-5 days, in uniform on furlough. I was in the Air Force. My mother came up to me and said, “Paulie, remember Elizabeth?” I said, Elizabeth? Oh, you mean Dave Tompkins girlfriend?” That’s when my mom said, “She was murdered.” My mom didn’t even know about the body being divided, just that she had been murdered. Oh, I thought she was murdered in ’52 or so? 1947? I was still in high school in Santa Maria then. My mother didn’t hear about it until 1953.
Beth went to Camp Cook AFB every day, just like me. I have no idea how she got there? Maybe her boyfriend, David Tompkins took her? He was six or seven years older than me.
(Paul draws a map on restaurant paper.)
Beth’s guest house was here. A corral was here. Dave Tompkins lived here with his brothers and sisters. Here’s the store, where I worked. I stacked vegetables for twenty-five cents for Boyd Wyse, who became partners with my dad and later on, they opened the Hitching Post Bar B Que.
My three-hour interview with Paul came to an end. I thanked him for sharing his memories of Elizabeth Short and the stories of his life with its trials, tribulations, and successes.
It wasn’t’ until I returned home and transcribed the taped interview that I became aware of how powerful an impression Paul’s story and description of Elizabeth had made on me.
It was not Paul’s conversation with her that had impressed me. In truth, there were no conversations between them, just a regular morning “Hello” and “Thank You Paulie.”
But, the picture, Paul his shared with us, as seen through the eyes of a twelve-year-old farm boy, is very real and very powerful.
After hearing his story, I find myself haunted by his personal description of Elizabeth Short more than any other “witness” I have interviewed over the past fifteen years. Why?
Because he confirms and has made real what I have always felt and suspected was the essence of Elizabeth Short—Her Loneliness.
A young woman alone, with few or no real friends. Living in a rural broken down cabin with a porch covered with chicken manure that needs to be swept away each morning.
She walks barefoot out her front door, through the wet pastureland, passing through the clump of standing Willow trees, walking the quarter mile to the Post Office. On her slow walk, she has hope in her heart. Hope that someone has written her to say, “I love you”. Come join me.” But, it was not to be.
Thank You, Paul, Veglia for lending us your twelve-year-old eyes that saw more of the truth in those two short months than all that have come forward since to claim “they knew her well.”
SKH Note: In a follow-up call to me last night Paul wanted to thank me for meeting and talking with him. I asked him had he been interviewed by anyone or the media over the years on his meeting with Elizabeth Short? He told me that he had been interviewed “ten or fifteen years ago, by a man from the LA Times who was doing research on the Black Dahlia, possibly for a book?” They too had met at a restaurant and talked for about “ninety minutes.” While he could not recall his name, I am sure this must have been the retired LA Times copy-editor, Larry Harnisch. Harnisch who for the past twenty years has been “ in the process of writing his Black Dahlia book” and to this day still claims to be, “the leading expert on the Black Dahlia murder.” In 2001, two years before my publication of BDA made some public claims that he suspected the Black Dahlia killer to be a “Dr. Walter Bayley who lived in the neighborhood and was a surgeon with L.A. County Health Department. The first witness to the crime, Mrs. Betty Bersinger, had run south after discovering the body in the vacant lot and used the Bayley’s telephone to call the police to the scene. In a radio interview, Harnisch when asked what Dr. Bayley’s motive for the crime might be, speculated that it might have been “pent up rage because his young son was killed in an unrelated car accident some twenty-five years earlier.”
Paul Veglia singing at 3:22 on the video.