Published 2006 by Bulfinch Press, Hachette Book Group USA


Exquisite Corpse is a hypothesis, built from a wealth of visual and factual material. Unlike others who have preceded us, we make no definitive claim to solve the murder of Elizabeth Short, otherwise known as the Black Dahlia murder of 1947. We do suggest that clues about this crime may have been hiding, for decades, in plain sight.

Exquisite Corpse presents the theory that Elizabeth Short's murder may have been informed by surrealist art, and that the killer was familiar with surrealist art and ideas. It also proposes that art created after the murder may have made veiled references to it.

Our book generally supports Steve Hodel's best-selling book Black Dahlia Avenger, which proposes that George Hodel, the author's father, was the killer. We take exception to some of Steve Hodel's claims in Black Dahlia Avenger, however. For instance, his attribution to his father of many other murders is provocative but highly questionable, in our view. In addition, neither of us believes that the unidentified women pictured in his father's photo album are Elizabeth Short.

Foremost, our book asserts that this gruesome but precisely executed murder may have been a deranged attempt to imitate motifs in surrealist art. That said, we do not believe that Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, or any other surrealist artist was directly responsible for the murder, or that the killer himself was an artist.

Surrealism was a fascinating and wide-ranging art movement, filled with wonderful and strange imagery. The Black Dahlia's possible connection to it is a small chapter in surrealism's history, another testament to this art's irrepressible and revolutionary allure.


Downloadable recordings of Mark Nelson's
StoryCorps conversations with George Hodel's
grandson Joshua Hodel Spafford
Part 1 (Large file: 38.3mb) Part 2 (Large file: 40.7mb) Part 3 (Large file: 41.8mb) Part 4 (Large file: 37.6mb) Part 5 (Large file: 41.3mb)

This downloadable PDF documents presents an
argument for the importance of a recently discovered document
George Hodel / Cement Sack

This downloadable PDF documents the
relationship between Man Ray and George Hodel
Man Ray / George Hodel

This downloadable PDF documents
George Hodel's Surgical Experience
George Hodel / Surgical Experience

This downloadable PDF documents
Hodel discussing his own surrealist photography
George Hodel / District Attorney Transcript p. 95


National Public Radio The "Three Books" Series: "Three Grisly Tales of Love and Death in Tinseltown," by Paula Uruburu; Online: October 21, 2010 NPR

Art In America "Surrealism to Die For," by Peter Plagens; Online: April, 2009; Print edition: April 2009, pp. 47-50

Vanity Fair "California Dreamgirl," by Sheila Weller; Online: December, 2007, pp. 1-2; Print edition: December 2007, pp. 359-361 Vanity Fair

MCAD Magazine (Magazine of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design) "A Sharp Eye" by Kim Zimmerman; Print edition: March 2007, pp. 12-13

Art & Australia "Ingrid Periz on Exquisite Corpse," (Short Book Review); Print edition: Volume 44, No. 3, Autumn 2007, p. 44

Artforum "A Bright Guilty World: Daylight Ghosts and Sunshine Noir," by J. Hoberman, Online: February, 2007, p. 5; Print edition: February 2007, p. 315 Artforum

The Village Voice "Top Shelf: Our 25 Favorite Books of 2006," Online: 22 December, 2006; Print edition: 27 December, 2006 - 2 January, 2007, p. 46 The Village Voice

Modern Painters "An Excellent Cadaver," by Ed Park,
November 2006, pp. 48-50 The Dizzies (Ed Park Blog)

The New Republic "Deathworks," by David Thomson,
Online: 15 September 2006; Print edition: 25 September 2006,
pp. 37-41

The Independent "Film Studies: Who killed the Black Dahlia?,"
by David Thomson, 10 September 2006 The Independent

Los Angeles magazine "Living with the Black Dahlia:
The Murder that Changed Los Angeles," by RJ Smith,
September 2006, p. 242

ARTnews magazine "Body of Evidence," by Sarah P. Hanson,
September 2006, p. 44


None currently scheduled


Barnes & Noble Booksellers Park Slope
267 7th Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11215
Thursday, 19 October, 2006 (7:30 pm)


Monday, March 21, 2011

Marcel Duchamp and the Forestay Waterfall

Last May, I was fortunate enough to have been invited to Cully, Switzerland to participate in a three-day symposium called "Marcel Duchamp and the Forestay Waterfall," so named for the waterfall that Duchamp used as part of the backdrop of his final masterpiece Étant donnés. Cradled between vineyards that rise into steep hills and the shore of magnificent lake Geneva, the setting couldn't have been more sublime. Our gracious hosts, Caroline Bachmann and Stefan Banz, planned and executed the event with attention to every detail. A profusely illustrated catalogue, with essays by many major Duchamp scholars, has just been released in the U.S. by JRP-Ringier and is available in bookstores now. Edited and designed by Banz, the book contains my essay, "Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder," a distillation of the argument Sarah and I made in Exquisite Corpse and a presentation of new information discovered since that book's publication.

Mark Nelson

As a postscript, I should note that the essay corrects an erroneous date given in our blog post of November 28, 2007. Denise Bellon's photograph (pictured in that entry) was actually made in 1936 — not in the late 1950s as I reported earlier.

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Sunday, December 07, 2008

The cement sack found at the Black Dahlia crime scene

Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss
Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder

Many things have been said of Steve Hodel -- some of them fair, some of them not so fair. Because Sarah and I wrote a book that cautiously supports Steve's theory, it might surprise you to know that we often took/take him to task when we didn't/don't agree with his theories or conjecture. The most public examples of this can be found in the conversations between George Hodel's grandson (Joshua Hodel Spafford) and myself, which were posted to this blog in October. Well, Steve is nothing if not persistent and, all things being equal, every once in a while he comes up with something that holds our interest. So, this month we're posting an eight page paper with the short and inspiring title: "George Hodel, Lloyd Wright, the Black Dahlia Murder, and the J. A. Konrad bill for cement work." If the title didn't grab you, here is the concluding sentence: "A document showing that ten sacks of cement were used for cement work that was completed at the home of George Hodel, on January 10th, 1947, five days before the bisected body of Elizabeth Short was discovered next to a bloodstained cement sack, on January 15, 1947, increases the probability that Hodel -- a prime suspect in the murder -- killed Elizabeth Short." We'll leave it to you to decide whether you're interested in everything in between. The link for this paper (George Hodel / Cement Sack) is under the map in the Online Content section of this blog.

Mark Nelson

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

StoryCorps conversations with Joshua Hodel Spafford

Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss
Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder

Last December, to our surprise, Sarah and I were contacted by Joshua Hodel Spafford, a working actor here in New York City who also happens to be the grandson of Black Dahlia murder suspect George Hodel. Collaborating with playwright P. Seth Bauer, Joshua was working on a play about his grandfather and he invited us to a stage reading of the production in process. Personally, I was a bit reluctant to go. I suppose I was fearful that I would just get sucked further into something that I was trying to extricate myself from. Sarah was quite game though, and with a little prodding on her part I ended up attending. Needless to say, we were both pleasantly surprised. Though presented in rough form, the play was far from the schlock-fest I anticipated, and clearly worth polishing into a tighter work. Judging from the enthusiastic response of the crowd we were not alone in our appraisal.

After communicating sporadically by email during the following months, Joshua and I decided to sit down together and record an ongoing conversation at the StoryCorps booth in New York City. (If you haven't heard of StoryCorps -- one of the largest oral history initiatives ever implemented -- its worth checking out at Tens of thousands of Americans have taken part since its inception in 2003, preserving the voices and stories of their friends and loved ones in the intimate setting of a small, closed sound booth.)

Over the course of six 45 minute sessions recorded between March and August 2008, we discussed the people and events that have caused our paths to intersect. For both of us, it was a transformative experience. Personally, I feel privileged to have had the chance to learn from (and speak so freely with) someone still coming to terms with his painful family history. His response to my questions and statements during the interview, as well as to Sarah's and my book, has been both gracious and supportive. Even if you have no particular interest in the Black Dahlia murder, Joshua's personal story makes for a fascinating listen. I have posted all 6 recordings in their entirety here on our blog. (The links are at the top of the page). Bear in mind, these are very large files (between 35 and 41 mb each) so some patience might be required when downloading. A note about the recordings: I am planning on adding one more recording sometime in the future to clear up a few mild factual goofs made over the course of our discussion. Like typos in a book, misstatements are an inevitable, if annoying, part of any "off the cuff" conversation and since we we have the platform to fix them we might as well get the scholarship right. I'll keep you posted. Meanwhile, good listening . . . If you've ever wondered about George Hodel, these are well worth the time.

Back to the play: As I mentioned previously, Joshua and Seth, along with director Heath Cullens, have been working hard over the past year to bring the play to the next level. Thanks to Shannon R. Mayers, executive director of the Gerald W Lynch Theater in New York, they will be presenting a stage reading of the play three times, this week and next. Because the play has not been titled yet, it's simply being referred to, shorthand, as "dahlia." I will be giving a short set of opening remarks at the Saturday and Monday readings. I have no real idea what they've been up to since last December so I'm excited to see it again. The readings are free and open the public. I hope you can attend!

Here's the Scoop:
Gerald W Lynch Theater
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
899 Tenth Avenue (between 58th and 59th Streets)
Friday, October 24; Saturday, October 25; and Monday, October 27
All performances begin at 7pm.
Free tickets can be reserved at 212.279.4200 or at

Thanks for reading,
Mark Nelson

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Denise Bellon: Surrealist archetypes; Michelle Phillips: California Dreamgirl

Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss
Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder

In Exquisite Corpse, we argue that the lateral sectioning of the body and upraised arms bent at the elbows were part of a set of mix-and-match motifs used by Surrealists in their depictions of women in the decades before and after the murder of Elizabeth Short. With that in mind, we submit the following:

From September 14 through October 30 of this year Le Fond Photographique Denise Bellon and the Galerie Nuitdencre 64 presented Nus et Désirs: Photographies de Denise Bellon 1935–1959, a well-deserved exhibition of the work of the French photographer Denise Bellon. Bellon's photographs are among the most important documents in the history of Surrealism, appearing frequently in books about the movement, including our own (see pp. 39-40). On the cover of the book that accompanies the exhibition is an image taken by Bellon in the late 1950s. Part of a series she created using a live model in her studio, the image shows Bellon's own understanding and use of the aforementioned motifs.

On an unrelated note, we received a nice mention from Sheila Weller in "California Dreamgirl," her piece on Michelle Phillips in this month's issue of Vanity Fair. Phillips is a lifelong friend of Tamar Hodel and she discussed that friendship (as well as her meeting Tamar's father, George) with Weller for the article. We've attached a link to the online version in the "Press" section of this blog.

Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

George Hodel and ManRay; George Hodel: Surgeon

This month we are updating both of the documents we have written since the publication of Exquisite Corpse. The recent discovery of a portrait of George Hodel by Man Ray, at Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum, requires us to update the document Man Ray and George Hodel. The file on our server, now called GeorgeHodel_ManRay02.pdf, can be retrieved by clicking the link Man Ray / George Hodel under the map on this page. Documents recently retrieved from the U.S. Public Health Service require that we update the document called George Hodel, Surgical Experience and Practice. The file is now called GeorgeHodel_Surgeon02.pdf and can be retrieved by clicking the link George Hodel / Surgical Experience, also under the map on this page. These documents note that George Hodel was appointed a civil officer of the United States and given the title of Passed Assistant Surgeon. His application for that position notes that he was employed as "Camp Surgeon" for the CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] in New Mexico from December, 1936 through June, 1937.

We have added an interesting document, a page from the Los Angeles District Attorney's transcripts of surveillance of the Hodel household (made while Hodel was under investigation for the murder of Elizabeth Short), in which Hodel discusses his own Surrealist photography. We don't make much of the document in Exquisite Corpse (see page 173, footnote 4) but we've included it here to provide additional documentation that George Hodel was interested in Surrealism. You can retrieve this document by clicking the above link, George Hodel / District Attorney Transcript p. 95.

You now need to log in to access Artforum online, so the Artforum link here on our blog now brings you to a log-in page. It's free to set up an account, but if you don't care to do so, here's what Village Voice critic J. Hoberman had to say about our book in his Artforum article A Bright, Guilty World: Daylight Ghosts and Sunshine Noir: "Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder (Bulfinch, 2006) uses horrifying visual evidence to make the case that the Dahlia’s killer was Dr. George Hodel, an artist manqué and a friend and patron of then-local Surrealist Man Ray; the authors further suggest that the disposition of Elizabeth Short’s remains may have inspired or influenced Marcel Duchamp’s secret assemblage, Étant donnés, 1946–66. Published the same month that DePalma’s Black Dahlia opened, Exquisite Corpse is far more frightening, fantastic, and convincing than the film."

Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

William Copley; Dudley Murphy; George Hodel: Surgeon

Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss
Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder

So much to report, so little time. Where to begin?

First, a belated "Blog Thank-you!" to my business partner David Zaza for throwing us an amazing book launch party on October 12, 2006. Thanks also, to Max and everyone at Max Lang Gallery in New York for giving us their gallery space for the evening and for making us feel at home at such a great venue. Among the 200 or so friends and art world associates who came out for the event were the artist Billy Copley and his wife Patty Brundage. Billy's father, the pioneering dealer and artist William Copley, plays a prominent role in our book, and we are grateful to Billy for his support throughout this project.


Around the same time that Exquisite Corpse came out, the University of Minnesota Press released Susan Delson's book Dudley Murphy: Hollywood Wild Card. The definitive biography of an iconoclastic film director, this seemingly quiet book presents an audacious theory: that Murphy, not Fernand Léger, was the driving force behind the early avant-garde film Ballet mécanique. It was during the making of that film in Paris that Murphy became closely acquainted with Man Ray.

After twenty years in the movie business, Murphy became a successful hotelier and restaurateur, owning and operating the Holiday House resort in California. In the early 1950s, he and his wife, Virginia, gave Dorothy Huston Hodel safe haven there after George Hodel (under investigation for the murder of Elizabeth Short) abandoned his family and left for Hawaii.

In Hollywood Wild Card, Delson writes: "During the later years of his self-imposed Hollywood exile, which lasted from 1940 to 1951, Man Ray was a regular at Holiday House. In Self Portrait, [Man Ray] blithely dismissed the career of his erstwhile collaborator. 'Dudley took [Ballet mécanique] back to Hollywood and got some work on big films as a result, made some money, and opened a charming restaurant and motel on the Pacific coast, which I myself frequented during my séjour in Hollywood in the Forties...He was a charming and generous host, but never referred to the movies again.'"

Delson and I met shortly after the publication of our respective books. Surprised by the overlap in our very different works, Susan told me that it was Dorothy Huston Hodel who encouraged Murphy to write his own memoirs later in life.

For more on Dudley Murphy: Hollywood Wild Card,


Though Sarah and I are both busy (who isn't) we intend to add relevant content to this blog when we can. Previously, we posted a document detailing the documents and photographs that track the relationship between George Hodel and Man Ray from 1944 and 1951. This month we submit the document "GeorgeHodel: Surgical Experience and Practice" (a downloadable PDF in the "online content" section near the top of this blog) to collate some of the information on George Hodel's surgical ability. This document doesn't prove that George Hodel killed Elizabeth Short, but it proves that Hodel had the technical skill necessary to perform such a gruesome task.


Finally, thanks to everyone who has written with comments or questions. We will post an "FAQ" document sometime in the near future to address the most common queries.

- Mark Nelson

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Friday, October 27, 2006

"An Excellent Cadaver" by Ed Park

An extensive positive review of Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder, by Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss, appears in the November 2006 issue of Modern Painters magazine. The review is by Ed Park, a founding editor of the The Believer, and the fomer editor of the The Village Voice Literary Supplement. The issue features Anselm Kiefer's Traigo Todos las Indias en Mi Mano on the cover.

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