“This was some evil, evil stuff,” says Yvette Gentile, 51.
The San Francisco resident grew up being told that her great-grandfather, George Hill Hodel, was the killer of the Hollywood murder victim known as the Black Dahlia. The most glaring clue, say those of that opinion, is the grotesquely artful way in which the woman’s body was cut up and arranged.
In January 1947, 22-year-old Elizabeth Short was found dead in a vacant lot in the Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, her face deeply slashed and her body posed dramatically on the ground in two bloodless halves.
“The killer had performed a hemicorporectomy on her,” says Steve Hodel, a former LAPD homicide detective who’s spending his retirement working to prove his late father, the surgeon George Hodel, was the elusive killer. “It’s a unique procedure that was taught at medical school in the 1930s, when he was there, where you cut between the second and third lumbar vertebrae. It’s the only way you can divide a body without cutting through bone.”
Hodel and the Black Dahlia case are central to the plot of TNT’s new series “I Am the Night.” Co-created by Patty Jenkins, director of “Wonder Woman,” the show stars one of that movie’s leads, Chris Pine, as a down-and-out LA reporter seeking the truth about the mysterious doctor. Very loosely based on the memoir of Fauna Hodel, George’s granddaughter, it also follows the adopted young woman (India Eisley) in her search for her biological parents and her eventual intersection with Pine’s fictional character.
The late Fauna’s two real-life daughters, Gentile and her half-sister, the 40-year-old Rasha Pecoraro, host a podcast, “Root of Evil: The True Story of the Hodel Family and the Black Dahlia,” an eight-episode companion piece to the show from the company Cadence13, which debuted Wednesday. The duo will interview crime experts and various members of the sprawling Hodel family, talking to relatives about what they know, when they knew it and whether they think the Hodel patriarch is the perpetrator of one of America’s most notorious unsolved murders.
As for the hosts themselves, “I one-hundred-million percent believe that George Hodel killed Elizabeth Short,” Pecoraro tells The Post. Gentile concurs: “It just all makes sense.”
By all accounts, George Hodel was a brilliant eccentric, a musical prodigy and academic whiz who would eventually become one of Los Angeles’ top medical officials.
“He was the head of the LA County Health Department’s hygiene division,” says Steve Hodel. “He specialized in venereal-disease control, informing the public about how dangerous it was.”
He was also an art lover with a particular interest in the surrealists. Running in high-flying social circles (his third of four wives, Dorothy, had previously been married to director John Huston), he befriended famed photo artist Man Ray, who became the unofficial family photographer.
George, Dorothy and their three sons lived from 1945 to 1950 in a bizarre, one-of-a-kind mansion built by Lloyd Wright (son of Frank Lloyd Wright) and modeled on a Mayan temple. It’s often called the Sowden House, after its first owner.
Scenes from “I Am the Night” were shot at the actual Sowden House, and while Gentile and Pecoraro were on set for much of the series, they both opted not to enter their great-grandfather’s house again on those production days.
“I didn’t want to go back,” says Gentile, who had visited the house with her mother before. “Some heavy s–t went down there. The first time we went, I had a panic attack down in the basement. My mom got on her knees and started speaking in tongues, which isn’t something she does. You just knew . . . you just knew evil was lurking in those walls.”
On another visit, she says, her mother broke her ankle immediately after walking out of the house. Both daughters are spooked by the place: “I’ve only been there in the daylight,” says Pecoraro.
It’s in the basement of this house that Steve Hodel maintains Elizabeth Short was murdered. According to his research, his father was acquainted with Short as a patient and eventually began dating her on the sly.
Steve Hodel was not involved in the production of the show and doesn’t put much stock in it being an accurate representation of the story.
“I have not viewed it and probably will not, as it is a fictional account and creates myth-making and imagined events that simply did not occur,” he says.
At 77, he knows more about the real case than most; he’s been researching and writing books about it for two decades (his latest is “Black Dahlia Avenger III: Murder As a Fine Art”). Surprisingly, he says he began with every intention of proving his father’s innocence.
“I loved my father,” he tells The Post. “People say this is a ‘Daddy Dearest’ thing, but far from it. I was confident I’d be able to show he had nothing to do with these crimes.”
In addition to the Black Dahlia murder, Steve Hodel has linked his father to the Chicago “Lipstick Murders” of 1945-46, which included a 6-year-old girl who was also given a hemicorporectomy, as well as the 1945 murder of his own secretary.
He believes his father could even have been the Zodiac killer, who terrorized Northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“My investigation began when certain information came to me in the days following my father’s death at age 91 in 1999,” says Steve. He had been retired from the LAPD for
14 years at that point. One of his early tip-offs, he says, was seeing a note the Black Dahlia killer mailed to an LA newspaper that matched his dad’s block handwriting.
George Hodel first came to cops’ attention in 1945, when his secretary, Ruth Spaulding, died of a drug overdose. In 1949, he went on trial for molesting his 14-year-old daughter, Tamar. He was acquitted after Tamar’s mother, Hodel’s second wife, testified that her daughter was a liar.
Hodel eventually became a serious enough suspect in the Black Dahlia case that law enforcement bugged his house in 1950, yielding some chilling moments his son found in the transcripts, including a woman screaming. They also include this quote from George Hodel: “Supposin’ I did kill the Black Dahlia. They couldn’t prove it now. They can’t talk to my secretary anymore because she’s dead.”
Steve Hodel believes his father’s gruesome hobby stemmed from an obsession founded in the world of art.
“My father’s personal insanity was directly linked to his belief in surrealism,” he says. “Where his close friends, Man Ray and William Copley and Marcel Duchamp and others talked the talk, George Hodel walked the walk. He really believed there was no difference between dream and waking states. He was a nihilist, a misogynist and a sadist of the highest order.”
Unlike an in-house gallery depicted in “I Am the Night,” Steve Hodel says “there was no surrealist artwork in our house, nothing like that. [The murder] was his homage to Man Ray in replicating his artwork. Man Ray lived just a couple of miles from us. My father would have seen ‘Minotaur’ and ‘The Lovers’ — these were photos he did in the ’30s.”
Both photos are renderings of a disembodied female torso, evocative of the way in which Short’s bisected body was posed at the crime scene.
Steve Hodel says he had initial doubts that the murder could have happened at the house while he and his brothers and mother were there — but then he learned that they actually weren’t. “We were in and out of there a lot of the time. I thought, ‘How’s he going to have pulled that off with Mom and three boys there?’ But once I got into the secret files, there’s documentation of an interview the lieutenant did with my mom where he established that we weren’t there during that three-week period. We were with our uncle, three miles away.”
‘He really believed there was no difference between dream and waking states. He was a nihilist, a misogynist and a sadist of the highest order.’
He also found, in 2008, documents from 1947 establishing “a direct link between 50-pound cement sacks left at the [Sowden] House by workers, contracted by Lloyd Wright for renovation, to identical paper cement sacks used by Elizabeth Short’s killer to transport her body parts to the vacant lot, just five days later. This is hard physical evidence connecting items from the Hodel residence used to transport the body to the dump site.”
Cumulatively, he says, he’s got enough evidence that his dad was the killer. “[The case against George Hodel] was a slow thing, and over the years it kept building,” says Steve. “The fact that the killer had to have been a surgeon. The handwriting. The fact that Dad knew her. It kept building to a point where I presented it to the DA and he said, ‘There’s enough here to build a file.’ But you can’t file on a dead man.”
In August of last year, Steve Hodel discovered yet another piece of damning evidence: a handwritten letter from an LAPD-paid informant, dated 1949, naming a “GH” as Elizabeth Short’s killer.
Fauna’s daughters, meanwhile, never knew their great-grandfather, but their grandmother — Fauna’s birth mother and Steve’s half-sister — let them know where she stood on the issue of her father’s guilt.
“Tamar would always be telling us nonchalantly that George was the killer of the Black Dahlia,” says Pecoraro. “We shouldn’t have known the stuff we knew at such a young age.”
Gentile did have one chilling experience with him when she was 8 years old. “Mom and I lived in San Diego, and we were down at the harbor looking out at the ocean one day, and we see this long limo, and this older man gets out of it,” she says.
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“He looked sort of like Colonel Sanders, with white hair and a mustache. And he just stood there and looked at us. I just remember Mom and I were frozen in that moment.”
Then, the man — whom Fauna would later tell her daughter was George Hodel — got back into his limo and left without saying a word to them.
Also, claims Gentile, “He had our phones tapped,” so he could keep tabs on Fauna, even though the two, according to Steve, never actually met. “It was very creepy. I remember many times getting on the phone to talk to one of my friends, and I could hear this clicking sound.” They say he was also tapping Tamar’s phone. “He always knew about Fauna, and he never let anyone slip away,” says Pecoraro.
George Hodel’s third wife also eventually believed something was very wrong with her husband. In August 1950, Steve Hodel says, she sent a panicked telegram to Huston, her ex. It read: “Your hunch about George true, can you help children and me get out of the house, today if possible.”
George Hodel moved to Hawaii in 1950 and then, in 1953, to the Philippines, where he was based for almost four decades. But “he regularly traveled back and forth on projects throughout the decades to and from the US,” says Steve. “I and my brothers would see him almost every year until 1990, when he relocated to San Francisco.”
Steve Hodel says in spite of everything he’s learned, he can’t help remembering the good things about the man: “In the last 10 years of his life, we became very close. He was a kinder, gentler George . . . He was a true Jekyll and Hyde. He could have done anything — he had so much potential. How do you un-love a father?”
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