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Where the Black Dahlia Comes Close to Home

Alfre Woodard could be heard over half a block away as she screamed at a house on Roberts Street, in Reno, Nevada, which is where the majority of the film crew, including stand-in’s, extras and walk-on’s, not involved directly with the current scene being shot. “Miss Sally Brown! Come on out here. I know you’re in there. Come on out here right now, because I’m gonna whip your ass!” she shouts as character Jimmie Lee, Fauna Hodel’s mother.

The director barks, filming stops and everyone claps and cheers, including Fauna Hodel, who is in that crowd. The movie is “Pretty Hattie’s Baby,” and it’s November 1990.

Nearly three-decades later, Fauna Hodel’s story is in the limelight again. This time it’s a TNT made-for-TV series called, “I am The Night,” starring Chris Pine and India Eisley.

Unfortunately, Fauna isn’t a part of the crowd, cheering the recent incarnation of her life, as she passed away following a year-plus battle with cancer, on September 30, 2017 at the age of 66. She was born on August 1, 1951 in San Francisco and raised in Sparks, Nevada.

In both the 90’s movie and the TV show, the story revolves around Fauna’s struggle to discover her true identity. Growing up in Sparks, both black and white children teased her.

In a 1990 Reno Gazette-Journal article, written by Lenita Powers, Fauna explained that kid’s would ask when her father dropped her off at school, “Who’s that colored man? What are you doing with him?”

“He’s my dad,” she’d answer, “I’m colored, too.”

“I was constantly teased by black children. ‘You’re white! You’re white!’ Even Mama would tease me: ‘Child, you ain’t black.’” adding, “Mama explained who I was [and] she had great empathy for my real mother, who, she said, was forced to give me up. As I grew up, Mama told me the story of how I got to Reno.”

Jimmie Lee Faison was a ladies bathroom attendant at the Riverside Hotel when she met Dorothy Grace Barbe from San Francisco in 1951. On one of her many gambling trips, Barbe asked Jimmie if she would be interested in taking an illegitimate baby.

The mother was a white teen while the father was supposedly black. Jimmie Lee believed that the teen family was looking for a nice black home for the baby of “mixed race.”

According to Jimmie, she didn’t pay much attention to the request until a few months later, when a telegram arrived at her workplace, announcing Fauna’s birth. Soon Jimmie was on her way to San Francisco to pick up the infant girl with fair skin, straight brown hair and blue-gray eyes.

Renamed Patricia Ann, Fauna’s childhood was one of immense hardship as her family was poor and Jimmie Lee, an alcoholic. And when things at home became impossible, Fauna would move in with her aunt, Rosie Love Hawkins Bilbrew, a housekeeper at Harold Club until she retired in 1984.

“Even though Mama was an alcoholic, this woman endured incredible hardships,” Hodel, told Powers, “Mama grew up in the wrong time. She was a pretty black woman who created her own princess tale in her own environment. She wanted more out of life than it was able to give her.”

“I was her baby and she would “do everything she could to keep me,” said Hodel, refusing to speak ill of her ‘Mama,’ “She worshiped the ground I walked on.”

Fauna dropped out of Wooster High School at 15, pregnant with her first daughter, Yvette. This and a second marriage lead to her realizing her mission in life, to finding her real mother.

It took more than a decade, but she eventually located Tamar Nais Hodel in 1971 at the Honolulu International Airport. And with her real mother’s identity came the obvious truth: her mother had made up the story that I she was pregnant by a black boy.

After Jimmie died in 1976, Fauna moved to Hawaii to be near her real mother. She also started writing, “One Day She’ll Darken,” the basis of the show, “I am the Night.”

But the story doesn’t end there. Fauna soon learned that she was born into a family with an infamous history reaching back to the noir-world of late 1940’s Los Angeles and the murder, dismemberment and display of Elizabeth Short, known better by her newspaper-selling moniker, “The Black Dahlia.”

Her grandfather, Dr. George Hill Hodel remains the number one suspect in the killing of Elizabeth Short. He was never formally charged with the crime, and came to wider attention as a suspect after his death when his son (and Fauna’s uncle,) Los Angeles homicide detective Steve Hodel, accused him of killing Short and committing several additional murders, including the ‘Lipstick Murders,’ and those attributed to the ‘Zodiak.’

The senior Hodel first came under suspicion for murder in 1945, following the death of his secretary Ruth Spaulding by a drug overdose. Investigators suspected him of having murdered her to cover up his financial fraud, such as billing patients for tests that were never performed.

Hodel first came under police scrutiny in October 1949 after being accused of molesting then fourteen-year-old Tamar. Three witnesses testified at trial that they had seen Hodel having sex with his daughter, but a jury acquitted him of the charges in December 1949.

The LAPD eventually placed Hodel under surveillance from February 18, 1950 to March 27, 1950, installing two microphones in his home, and assigning eighteen detectives to the case.  In one instance Hodel is heard telling another man, ““Supposin’ I did kill the Black Dahlia. They couldn’t prove it now. They can’t talk to my secretary any more because she’s dead.”

Detective’s were never able to build a case against the elder Hodel, who died of heart failure in 1999. However, documents were later found indicating Spaulding planned to blackmail Hodel.

As for the six-part TV series, here’s a spoiler alert: Pine’s character, Jay Singletary, a Marine and Korean War veteran, who was once a promising reporter but disgraced while pursuing a story about Hodel and is now a lowly paparazzo figure, is nothing more than a plot device. He doesn’t appear in Fauna’s autobiography, created by the show’s writers for the sole purpose of making her story easier to tell.

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