Mann, William J. “Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood”, Harper, 2014.
An Untold Story Now Told
“Tinseltown” is a true story about scandal and ambition, murder and intrigue as well as the beginning of the modern film industry. The 1920s were when the movies became the pastime of America and for the first time we were able to see the tremendous influence they had on this country. But there was another side to the rise of the movies and that was that there were tragedies taking place, one of which was the murder of William Desmond Taylor, the popular president of the Motion Picture Directors Association. That crime was unsolved until just recently.
Author William J. Mann went back to the sources and uses them to reconstruct this story. Some of these are recently released FBI files and he brings this story to us with its lively cast of characters which include Taylor, himself, three beautiful and ambitious actresses; stage mother; a devoted valet; and a gang of two-bit thugs, any of whom might have fired the fatal bullet that killed Taylor. Adolph Zukor, the founder of Paramount was, at that time, locked in a struggle for control of the industry and very desperate to conceal the truth about the crime. Mann wonderfully recreates life in Los Angeles during the 20s and we see it as a town that glittered yet was quite schizophrenic town and filled with party girls, drug dealers, religious zealots, new legends and starlets. It was a dangerous place where the powerful and the desperate comingled. This is a great story and the crime is finally solved.
The very first sentence carries us away and we find ourselves in the middle of Hollywood in the 20s. The craziness goes on all day and all night long. We meet some very unsavory characters and there is addiction aplenty—cocaine, morphine, and alcohol. There is prostitution, swindling, blackmail and those who are just mean and nasty. Everyone seems to be wearing a mask and not saying who he or she really is
These movie people and those at the fringes are the people that your mother warned you about. There’s morphine and cocaine and alcohol addiction, prostitution, swindling, blackmailing and simple meanness. No one is who he or she says they are or what they seem. Above them all is Creepy, aka Zukor who controls the world’s largest and most influential movie industry, a megalomaniac to his core.
Surrounding director William Desmond Taylor are Margaret Gibby Gibson who dreams of becoming a star and those who are already stars, Mabel Normand and Mary Miles Minter who become suspects in the murder.
Behind the scenes are Zukor, Marcus Loew and other moguls. It seemed for a moment that things would change when Will Hays was appointed to the MPPDA and told to clean up the image of the movie industry after the scandal of the Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle rape and murder charge.
The book and Tinseltown have it all—murders, rising and falling stars, movie moguls, Prohibition, extortionists, civic reformers, etc. as well as alcohol and drugs.
Taylor’s murder brought out his many secrets including the fact that his name wasn’t even William Desmond Taylor. “Two female stars were directly linked to Taylor and they were suspects for a time. During this same period, Fatty Arbuckle is on trial for the brutal rape and death of Virginia Rappe at a wild party. Some of Hollywood’s biggest stars are addicted to illegal drugs and alcohol (also illegal)”. When the films were silent, big stars belonged to studios, which not only produced the films but also then showed them in their theaters. At the same time, “church ladies,” felt it was their duty to regulate morality through Hollywood movies. Not much has changed on that front—then as now movies glorified sex and sin.
Zukor had a vision of the future. He thought about longer and more complex narratives for films and he took the movies and moved them into the great movie houses of yesteryear. He also saw movies moving beyond silent, and beyond black and white.
Most of these stars that were very big names in the 20s are not thought about today. While the book is centered on the Taylor’s murder, it is much more than that. . And although some have complained that it is too long, I disagree. It’s not just a story about Taylor’s murder—it’s so much more.
Taylor and those who surrounded him were all colorful, dramatic people to some degree and they are Mann’s focus as are the thugs of the period. Although ‘Tinseltown’ does contain a lot interesting revelations and a lot of intrigue, there is also plenty gossip and hearsay. There are wonderful stories and accounts that pull us in and that we want to continue reading about forever. Someone killed Taylor in his Los Angeles home. The director known was a hard worker who went home at five every day and who usually spent the evening alone. The mystery is what he knew that caused his death.
The studios could not afford another scandal. There were several suspects, three women in particular had reason, Mabel Normand, famous in films, but alcohol and drugs had made their mark; Margaret Gibson, a long time friend from the early days, now involved in petty crimes, or Mary Miles Minter, a young star whose mother was driving her to success. The studios did their best to calm things down, the police were corrupt and easily bought, but it was the newspapers that fanned the flames. Sometimes they even made up facts or theories.
Mann claims that the murder of Taylor has been solved –while in fact it has not. It has never been reopened since it was closed on September 29, 1938. Mann instead gives us his perspective of what happened and whether we agree or not is up to each reader. What we will agree on is that this is a well-written and fascinating story.