FEBRUARY 28, 2015
ON A CHILLY Los Angeles morning in February, 1922, reputable film director and head of the Motion Pictures Directors Association William Desmond Taylor was found shot to death in his chic Westlake bungalow. Taylor had just been appointed by Paramount studio head Adolph Zukor to single-handedly overhaul Hollywood’s scandal-blighted image. Ironically, owing to the dodgy nature of his demise, Taylor would end up posthumously enhancing Hollywood’s growing reputation as a debauched, godless American Sodom. And according to veteran biographer William Mann’s recent Edgar-nominated true-crime tale, Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood, the Taylor murder kicked off “an odyssey of greed, ambition, envy, desire, betrayal, accusation, heartbreak, intrigue, triumph, and revenge” that would change the culture of Hollywood, and the business of motion pictures, forever.
“In Tinseltown the truth was unverifiable,” Mann declares, yet his book is the latest attempt at separating truth from illusion in the long-unsolved Taylor murder case. Following through on a childhood preoccupation with the mystery enshrouding Taylor’s death, Mann began doing some casual internet research as a sanity-preserving respite from his day gig as biographer of showbiz divas like Barbra Streisand and Elizabeth Taylor. After filing a simple Freedom of Information Act request and poking around at the National Archives, Mann found himself in possession of enough written and photographic evidence to run roughshod over his predecessors’ Clouseau-like efforts. Tinseltown is preceded by two other book-length studies of the Taylor murder, Sidney D. Kirkpatrick’s Cast of Killers (1986), which was based on director King Vidor’s extensive but incomplete investigation of the crime, and Robert Giroux’s A Deed of Death (1990), which is more of a document of Taylor-era Hollywood film history than a serious attempt at solving the now 93-year-old murder. Mann’s book importantly offers what previous works of Taylorology could not: a plausible answer to the question of who killed William Desmond Taylor.
One overriding factor that has made the Taylor case so tough to crack is the sheer number of film-world personalities close to Taylor whose checkered pasts were not exactly secret. In Tinseltown, Mann opts for a wide-angle view of the murder case and constructs intertwining third-person perspectives of those shady characters: Mabel Normand, intermittent dope addict, silent movie sweetheart, and close platonic friend of Taylor’s; Margaret “Gibby” Gibson and Don Osborn, two-bit actors turned desperate Hollywood con artists; Mary Miles Minter, a 16-year-old actress who had starred in Taylor’s movies and developed an obsessive crush on the 49-year-old director; and Minter’s mother Charlotte Shelby, who packed a .38 pistol and had previously threatened Taylor with bodily harm if he ever despoiled her cash-cow daughter. To add to that unruly fray, Mann also weaves in the dead-end travails of luckless Los Angeles detective Eddie King and his rambling quest to finger someone, anyone, for the Taylor murder.
And yes, even Taylor’s butler was said to have been involved in the killing.
Nobody comes off completely guiltless, least of all the victim himself. Like most everyone else in Hollywood looking for that proverbial second act in life, Taylor had a past he was trying to outrun: William Deane-Tanner was a deadbeat dad who had abandoned his family and absconded for a career in showbiz while still in his early twenties. During his directorial career, he lived a not-so-clandestine “other” life as a bisexual playboy and opium-den pleasure seeker. And eventually his wealth and fame would attract the attention of local actors turned blackmailing gangsters who made a living exploiting the dirty secrets of Tinseltown’s social elites.
Mann reminds us with mantra-like repetition just how secrecy and “hidden pasts” darkened those early days of Hollywood. He’s also a savvy enough historian to know where to look for the most nefarious cover-ups, and as a result much of Tinseltown is dedicated to the megalomania of power-crazed studio overlord Adolph Zukor and his near-monopolistic but precarious hold on the pre-Code film industry. (“Zukor lived with the fear of losing it all,” according to Mann.) The book explains how the new movie colony’s lax self-governance galvanized middle-American arbiters of morality into a force so disruptive and outspoken that even an assumed untouchable like Zukor feared their wrath, lest their cries for reform prompt the Federal Trade Commission to censor his often lurid but profitable movies. Zukor’s cowardice in the face of outraged “church ladies,” small-town Bible-beaters, Boy Scout leaders, temperance groups, and assorted other quasi-religious reformers and moralizers would lead to his collusion in the suppression of crucial evidence that just might have revealed the identity of Taylor’s murderer.
The collapse of the film industry’s pre-Code era is one of Tinseltown’s more interesting yet problematic subplots. Inseparable from Zukor’s part in thwarting the Taylor investigation is the story of “movie czar” and former Postmaster General Will Hays, a public relations whiz hired to act as a buffer not only between the aloof Zukor and the howling masses, but also between Zukor and any potential profit-draining federal censorship. Mann portrays these two movie-world giants in particularly iconoclastic fashion: he demolishes the myth of Zukor as populist hero and then goes about the business of humanizing the often-misunderstood Hays, whose contemporary public image has long been that of a goody-two-shoes demagogue out to turn Hollywood into Sullivan, Indiana.
But even in a book full of unsympathetic movie-colony schemers, Mann’s substantive makeover of Hays as a “progressive and pragmatic” mover and shaker isn’t particularly convincing: Hays comes off as an ambivalent figure at best. After all, not only was Hays complicit in burying evidence in the Taylor case, he and boss Zukor also presided over the ruination of beloved silent film star Fatty Arbuckle. And it’s true that Hays did spend much of his adult life enforcing the strict moral guidelines set out in his own Hays Production Code, which meant the ruthless bowdlerization of Hollywood movies for almost thirty years.
Some questionable revisionist history aside, the book lives up to the scope of its title. The Taylor case often seems like merely a vehicle for the portrayal of a certain time and place, which is to say that Mann’s estimable powers of description only operate at full tilt when evoking the sights, sounds, and smells of the solar-energized hedonist’s paradise that was Jazz Age Los Angeles: and it’s at these moments where his usual Spartan writing yields to brief but prismatic flourishes. Not surprisingly, the sun is made to seem like the only dependably benevolent presence in the narrative, its warm rays falling like a much-needed benediction on a young city quickly losing its innocence:
Like a tsunami wave, the rising sun burst over the eastern wall of the San Gabriel Mountains and flooded the verdant plain of the Los Angeles basin. Golden sunshine spilled across roads and between buildings and through the neat, orderly rows of orange and lemon groves. […] It warmed up swimming pools, opened the petals of poppies, tanned the faces of highway workers, and chased the prostitutes and drug dealers away from the street corners of downtown.
Apart from these lapidary flights, Mann’s prose functions as something of a nudging parody of hardboiled noir-speak, with its tongue-in-cheek nods to the Mickey Spillane tough-guy school of pulp fiction (“Blackie Madsen had gotten nabbed for a scam in Long Beach and spent some time in the slammer”) delivered in tiny, single-clause sentences that sometimes unspool into the odd overexcited simile: “She knew her mother was likely to blow her top like a geyser in Yosemite National Park” and “The tiny blond Southern sexpot was plumped like a boudin sausage on a Cajun grill” being irresistible examples. This punchy style is maintained at a fairly steady pace over the course of 71 micro-chapters, which whiz by in the space of only 400 or so pages, creating the sensation that you’re speeding toward a revelation in the Taylor murder much faster than you actually are.
Considering the lengthy roll call of shady characters associated with Taylor, it would be foolish to expect Mann to mold this messy murder investigation into a conveniently straightforward whodunit. In his ambitious attempt to navigate the many oddball twists and turns of the case, Mann struggles to tie up the many loose narrative strands, all of which compete for equal attention. Unwieldy structural excesses and investigative anti-climaxes aside, however, the real value of the book lies in how Mann expertly situates Taylor’s death in the broader macrocosmic spectacle of pre-Depression-era Tinseltown, with its teeming mad pageant of power brokers, crooked cops, two-bit con men, dope-addict actors, spin doctors, yellow journalists, blackmailers, “bunco” schemers, and gun-toting stage mothers.
Those dangling narrative strands do join up, eventually, and Mann produces the most airtight explanation to date as to who greased Taylor and why. But Tinseltown adds more to its predecessors than a name; it is also a fascinating study of the malleability of history in the hands of the Hollywood power elite during the fledgling years of the American film industry. Mann vividly recreates a pre-Code movie-colony culture where “right and wrong were often determined by their relative effect on the bottom line,” and where publicly accepted “truth” was often just another fictitious Hollywood-land production, co-scripted by conniving studio execs, crooked public relations men, and a sensation-seeking press corps: “Hollywood knew how to manipulate a crime,” writes Mann, “their scenarists had been doing it for years.”
Michael Sandlin is a Houston, TX–based writer and critic whose writing on film and books has appeared in the Village Voice, Bookforum, Film Quarterly, Cineaste, and many other print and online publications.