“This is the story of a murder, of a single soft-nosed bullet that traveled upwards through a man’s rib cage, piercing his lung and lodging in his neck after being fired by an unknown assailant ninety-two years ago on a cold Los Angeles night.”
On the morning of February 2, 1922, film director William Desmond Taylor was found murdered in his Hollywood hills bungalow. The previous night, he had entertained his long-time friend, silent film star Mabel Normand. Shortly after Mabel departed, Taylor’s neighbours heard a sound that may have been a gun shot, and witnessed a man leaving his house. They did not investigate, and Taylor’s body was not found until the next morning, when his valet Henry Peavey arrived for work. In the time before the death was declared a murder, Paramount studio representative Charles Eyton took the opportunity to remove many of Taylor’s papers from the house. Subsequent mishandling of evidence by the district attorney further complicated the investigation, and the murder was never solved. This cold case is delved into by William J. Mann, the biographer of other Hollywood legends including Katharine Hepburn, and a historian whose biography of actor William Haines won the Lambda Literary Award in 1999. Mann examines the evidence, and puts forward his own candidate for the murder of William Desmond Taylor, while also rendering a perceptive portrait of 1920s Hollywood.
After describing the discovery of the body, Mann goes back in time several years and presents the significant events leading up to the murder. Even if you know nothing about the silent film era, Tinseltown is an accessible and engaging read, as Mann paints a fascinating picture of the rise of studio system in order to contextualize the murder mystery. Mann slowly lays out the players, assembles the evidence, and unspools the details, tantalizing the reader with secrets, and amping up the suspense and foreshadowing as the date of Taylor’s death draws near. 1920s Hollywood was erupting with scandals, from the suicide of actress Olive Thomas, to the multiple trials of comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle for rape and manslaughter. Taylor’s friend, Mabel Normand, who was with him the night of the murder, was rumoured to be a drug addict. Taylor, a respected and seemingly upright citizen who was a spokesperson for defending films from censorship, turned out to have more secrets than anyone would have suspected.
More than just following the suspects and witnesses involves with Taylor’s murder, Mann portrays the tense public atmosphere into which the scandal of Taylor’s murder erupted. Key to this portrait is the head of the Famous Players-Lasky theatre chain, Adolph Zukor, who also controlled Paramount studios, which produced the films screened in his theatres. Zukor was a shrewd businessman who had built an empire out of nothing after coming to America from Hungary as a seventeen-year-old orphan. By 1920, film was the fourth largest industry in America, and the power and influence of the pictures was causing heart palpitations among those who were concerned about the morality of the stories and the lives of the actors playing them out on screen. Each new scandal in the press increased the calls for censorship, as the same church ladies who had advocated for Prohibition a few years before turned their attention to arranging boycotts of the films of scandal-plagued actors. Zukor’s fears were two-fold: censorship of films, and regulation of the industry that would break up his vertically integrated business model. Tinseltown is an education in Old Hollywood politics, as Zukor maneuvers to try avoid an anti-trust lawsuit, and manage the scandals that were driving the demand for censorship.
Like most true crime writers, Mann believes he has discovered the correct solution, even though he is writing about a murder that is nearing its centennial. Admittedly, his solution hinges on an uncorroborated death bed confession that relies on one man’s word about what he heard. But from that word, Mann extrapolates an intriguing theory that jibes with both the physical and circumstantial evidence in ways the popular suspects of the day never did. Ultimately, it is too late to know for sure, but Mann builds a plausible case while also entertaining and educating. You could take the question of whodunit out it entirely, and still have a riveting portrait of silent film era Hollywood.