Friday, September 5, 2014

Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood

Author:  William J. Mann
Genre:  Biography/History

Five Stars
 
The Day of the Locust meets The Devil in the White City and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in this juicy, untold Hollywood story: an addictive true tale of ambition, scandal, intrigue, murder, and the creation of the modern film industry.
 
By 1920, the movies had suddenly become America’s new favorite pastime, and one of the nation’s largest industries. Never before had a medium possessed such power to influence. Yet Hollywood’s glittering ascendency was threatened by a string of headline-grabbing tragedies—including the murder of William Desmond Taylor, the popular president of the Motion Picture Directors Association, a legendary crime that has remained unsolved until now.

In a fiendishly involving narrative, bestselling Hollywood chronicler William J. Mann draws on a rich host of sources, including recently released FBI files, to unpack the story of the enigmatic Taylor and the diverse cast that surrounded him—including three beautiful, ambitious actresses; a grasping stage mother; a devoted valet; and a gang of two-bit thugs, any of whom might have fired the fatal bullet. And overseeing this entire landscape of intrigue was Adolph Zukor, the brilliant and ruthless founder of Paramount, locked in a struggle for control of the industry and desperate to conceal the truth about the crime. Along the way, Mann brings to life Los Angeles in the Roaring Twenties: a sparkling yet schizophrenic town filled with party girls, drug dealers, religious zealots, newly-minted legends and starlets already past their prime—a dangerous place where the powerful could still run afoul of the desperate.

A true story recreated with the suspense of a novel, Tinseltown is the work of a storyteller at the peak of his powers—and the solution to a crime that has stumped detectives and historians for nearly a century.

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In February of 1922 the famed director William Desmond Taylor was murdered.  His murder was never solved.  What made it so spectacular was the fact that he was a Hollywood director and involved - in one way or another - with three women:  Mabel Normand, a top star; Mary Miles Minter, an up-and-coming young star; and Margaret "Gibby" Gibson, a fading actress who refused to accept her lot.  But Mr. Taylor was not a womanizer; far from it.  This, I will let be known, is not a sordid tell-all.  Although Mr. Mann does lay forth many interesting facts, everything he imparts is of importance, and is crucial to the story.
 
I hesitate to use the words "page turner," since I don't like them at all, but there is no other way to describe this book (the reason being that the words are overused and really don't impart any information on a book.  Telling me it's a 'page turner' doesn't tell me anything about why I should read it).  It is so well-researched that each chapter drew me irresistibly into the next.  There is no other way to say it. 
 
The book begins with the murder and the discovery of his body the next day by his valet, Henry Peavy.  From there Mr. Mann backtracks, beginning sixteen months earlier into the life of Mr. Taylor.  He gives us an unusual view into the lives of all those I listed and more - Adolph Zukor, Marcus Loew, Don Osborn (a small time grifter), Wallace Reid; and others who were connected with Mr Taylor and/or the studio system.  He gives us an especially detailed account of the beginnings of the Hollywood film structure, as seen through the eyes of Mr. Zukor.  We are even given an account of the Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle trial; and allowed to see the perceived decadence of Hollywood drugs and scandals; we see the press at work, willing to go to any lengths to get a story.
 
One finds sympathy with the characters within this book - Misses Normand, Minter, and Gibson.  The tale is so well woven that I even found myself shedding a tear upon the death of the beloved Marcus Loew (and I am not one to get emotional that way).  But knowing this was not a novel, but the history of people who were once living and breathing as you or I made it that much more real.  This was history.  And while the murder remains unsolved to this day, Mr. Mann gives us a supposition that is actually the only thing that makes sense, and, in my opinion, was probably how it occurred.
 
I highly recommend this fascinating look into American history and the Hollywood system, and a murder that was not only sensational for its time but remains so today.
 
 
 


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