Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J. Mann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
If you ever thought that writers like James Ellroy exaggerate the corruption of old Hollywood, try reading this.
The murder of influential film director William Desmond Taylor has so many viable suspects and motives that it could be the plot for a sequel to Knives Out. For starters, despite being a well-respected figure in the movie industry Taylor was a man who had secrets like a wife and daughter that he had abandoned years before coming to Hollywood and changing his name. He may have also been gay or bisexual, and there were rumors that he had frequented opium dens.
Taylor had already been burned by one man who found out who he really was. His former butler had learned about his former life before stealing from Taylor and vanishing. He was a prime suspect in the murder, but the press latched on to theories that said that Taylor had been killed by a woman as a result of some kind of romantic entanglement. Mary Miles Minter was a young starlet infatuated with Taylor which made her domineering mother furious even as Taylor didn’t return her affections. Another actress, Mabel Norman, was trying to put her life and career back together with Taylor’s help after breaking a drug addiction, and there was wild speculation that Mabel or one of her former dealers angry at Taylor’s efforts to keep her clean might have done it. Another small-time actress named Margaret ‘Gibby’ Gibson wasn’t implicated at the time, but her deathbed confession to killing Taylor decades later would lead many to believe that it was a blackmail attempt by Gibson and some friends of hers that led to murder.
This book leans into the idea that the crime might have been solved back in 1922 if it wasn’t the studio using its influence to steer the police and the press in certain directions. Powerful executive Adolph Zukor already had his hands full holding off reformers and government regulations in the face of scandal, and his minions took all of Taylor’s papers from his house before the police could read them. Later, the papers they gave to investigators may have been cherry picked to lead the police towards Minter and Norman since letting one or two actresses get pummeled in the press and by ‘moralists’ across the country was preferable to having all of Hollywood’s dirty laundry come out at that critical time.
Overall, this is an interesting look at an unsolved mystery. and Mann seems to do a credible job of sticking to the known facts. The backdrop of Zukor trying to hold onto power as he battled reformers is interesting in itself. I particularly found the story of Will Hays fascinating. It’s weird how things evolved so that he’d eventually have to found the infamous Hays Code which would stifle movies for decades even as he was not a moralizing reformer himself, and he was deeply uncomfortable with the idea that he should be a censor or in charge of doing things like banning Arbuckle from making movies.
Unfortunately, Mann falls into the true-crime trap of falling in love with a theory and presenting it as the only possible solution when that’s not the case. Here, he spends a lot of time following Margaret Gibson and her blackmail accomplices to establish how he thinks they were involved later and how their activities indicate a pattern that might have been used on Taylor. And that’s certainly possible, but there’s no new evidence to prove that. Yet, Mann presents this as the obvious solution while blowing by the parts that don’t fit or point to other people. His ideas about how a conspiracy within the studio to steer the cops wrong and throwing their own people like Minter and Norman under the bus while protecting someone like Gibson seems especially shaky.
So if you’re interested it’s good for understanding the basic facts and context of what happened, but wary of the places where Mann speculates without considering alternatives.
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