So what’s the connection between composer Vernon Spencer (1875-1949) and the infamous Black Dahlia murder case of 1947? As it turns out, Spencer was the piano teacher of the young George Hodel, who would grow up to become, among other things, one of the more intriguing suspects in the investigation of the murder of Elizabeth Short, known as the “Black Dahlia.” In his 2003 book The Black Dahlia Avenger, Hodel’s son Steven details his father’s promising beginnings as child prodigy under the tutelage of Spencer, who was then director of the Music College of Los Angeles. By the age of 9, Hodel was publicly performing works by composers such as Massenet and Chaminade, and apparently received a visit from Russian composer Rachmaninoff and his wife, who were treated to a private recital. Spencer, whose studio also included future composer Harl McDonald, is said to have predicted an excellent musical career for Hodel, but he could not have predicted the bizarre turns that his young student’s life would soon take.
Though Spencer’s legacy may be eclipsed by the strange notoriety of one of his star pupils, he has left behind pieces and studies for violin and piano, and numerous songs, several of which are now part of the NEH project.