Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood, by William J. Mann (HarperCollins, 289 pp., $29.00)

In Hollywood’s Jurassic Era (c. 1920–29), before actors could talk fluently and adults could drink legally, a major movie director was shot to death in his Los Angeles home. William Desmond Taylor’s 1922 murder was never solved. This true-life whodunit was the subject of several previous books, but William J. Mann’s Tinseltown beats them all by a long shot—indeed, a series of long shots, plus close-ups, jump cuts, reverse angles, montages, dissolves, and fadeouts. Mann’s noir account seems far too cinematic to be credible. Yet every word of it is true.

Photo by Sam Leighton/Flickr
Photo by Sam Leighton/Flickr

In 1922, a Hollywood star earned in a week what the average moviegoer made in a year. Most marquee names splurged on expensive wardrobes, big houses with servants and swimming pools, and first-class trips to New York and the Riviera. For one flamboyant group, however, all this wasn’t enough. Its members made a habit of getting high on illicit sex, booze, and drugs. As long as their behavior was sub rosa, producers kept their mouths shut. But on movie turf, then as now, a secret was as rare as a great film. All too soon, gossip columnists were revealing the private sins of the film colony. Preachers and women’s groups closed in, attacking Hollywood as the New Babylon.

As Mann demonstrates with melodramatic but scrupulously researched material, these scandals could be a gateway to social disaster and financial ruin. Anxious studio moguls realized that something had to be done—promptly. Chief among them was Adolf Zukor, a diminutive (5’4”) Hungarian Jewish refugee, who had founded Paramount Pictures. With unceasing effort, notes Mann, Zukor had transformed “a jumble of careening, colliding, freewheeling interests, with dozens of companies in various cities, all of them risky, unstable ventures, into the fourth largest industry in the country, behind steel, railroads, and automobiles.” A world-class paranoid, Zukor had already used unscrupulous means to crush many competitors—his own staff referred to him as “Creepy” when he was out of earshot. He would annihilate more en route to the penthouse. (Though Creepy retired in 1959, he held the title of chairman emeritus of Paramount until his death in 1976 at 103.) But he could not injure, much less demolish, the do-gooders who wanted to ride herd on the American cinema.

To head them off at the pass, Zukor made a desperate move. He and his colleagues hired Will H. Hays to do for Hollywood what Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis had done for professional baseball in the aftermath of the “Black Sox” scandal at the 1919 World Series. Hays was a former GOP chairman and postmaster general known to be upright, incorruptible and, better still, a film fan.

Zukor failed to consider, though, that the $100,000-a-year appointee might also be an independent thinker who would take his role seriously. Though Hays disliked what he called the “anvil chorus” of strait-laced complainers, he oversaw the much-hated Hays Code that would remain in force for four decades (no double beds for couples, no prolonged kissing, no blasphemy, etc.) Seeing that public momentum was with Hays, Zukor tried to inoculate his industry. He threw comic superstar Fatty Arbuckle under the limo because the funnyman had been accused (falsely) of rape, and he ordered every incriminating letter in the Taylor house destroyed. Faced with a lack of evidence, the police were, in every sense, clueless.

Even so, Creepy could not keep the press at bay. Reporters discovered that Taylor wasn’t the avuncular bachelor he was supposed to be. Despite well-publicized friendships with women, he had been leading a closeted homosexual life. Front-page stories and columns began to note the late director’s visits to “queer places.” Could a blackmailer be the murderer? Or was it one of the actresses the director saw so frequently? Under Mann’s direction, the candidates pass in review. What about Mary Miles Minter? The ingénue was known to have a powerful crush on the director. Suppose he had scorned her attentions? What if her volatile mother, Mrs. Shelby, had sought revenge on her daughter’s behalf? After all, the lady walked around town with a pistol in her purse. Then there was Mabel Normand, once Charlie Chaplin’s co-star, now an unstable cocaine addict. And Margaret Gibson, a prostitute turned actress, who had sought Taylor’s career advice. Or perhaps the perpetrator was Desmond’s gay butler, himself a man with a shadowy past.

It would be unsporting to reveal the guilty party. Suffice to say that the author spins a terrific yarn, though he frequently goes into overdrive, with staccato, machine gun-style sentences, as if to keep his readers’ attention from wandering: “Three long blond hairs. Clearly not Taylor’s. With a tweezers, the detective removed the hairs and placed them in an envelope. Now he just needed to match them to someone’s head.”

Given the distractions of smartphones, Netflix, iWatches, et. al., Mann might have the right idea. His lively account ought to compete successfully with any modern device. Tinseltown provides the most acerbic, mordant look at silent-screen Hollywood since Sunset Boulevard. You remember that one: Written and directed by Billy Wilder. Premiered in 1950. Sixty-four years ago. But even when the subtitle is “Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood,” there’s no guarantee of success in the book business these days.


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