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Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

In the early 1920s sound was still several years off, but the movies didn’t need sound; they were more popular than ever after the First World War. Even without sound, movies were becoming more technically advanced and were evolving into a truly American art form. Every town in America had its own movie theatre. Every movie-goer had his or her favorite star and was willing to plunk down hard cash to see them on the screen. Stars made huge sums of money and their movies reaped enormous profits for the movie studios. Overseas markets held huge potential for additional profits. What a business!

All was not sunny in sunny Hollywood, however. Movie stars lived extravagantly and were often seen by the world at large as unprincipled and immoral. Then, as now, everybody loved a juicy scandal. Just a hint of scandal involving a famous person elicited sensational headlines. Mabel Normand, for example, was a huge comedic star at the top of her game, but she was also a notorious party girl who became as well known for her appetites for booze and cocaine as for her screen performances. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was a popular comedic actor even more famous than Mabel Normand. He hosted a wild party that didn’t turn out so well. A young starlet named Virginia Rappé was seriously injured at the party and later died. There were those who said Fatty Arbuckle raped her, although he vehemently denied it. Popular star Wallace Reid, known for his wholesome good looks, developed a morphine habit. He had morphine delivered to his home every day and died at a tragically young age in a sanatorium. Beautiful young star Olive Thomas died of an accidental poisoning in Paris after an evening of drug- and booze-fueled partying in Paris nightclubs. The effect of all these scandals was to galvanize reformers and do-gooders into calling for censorship and stringent regulation of the movie industry by the government.

The biggest scandal of them all, however, was the murder, in early 1922, of distinguished movie director William Desmond Taylor in his own home. People outside of Hollywood had never heard of William Desmond Taylor, but after he was murdered everybody heard of him. His murder and its solution became a national obsession. This scandal was just one more reason, reformers said, for measures to be taken to “clean up” Hollywood. If the things actors did on the screen weren’t bad enough, their own private lives were ten times worse.

The murder of William Desmond Taylor is the scandal at the center of Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William Mann. All the other scandals paled in comparison. What made the Taylor scandal so sensational and so intriguing to so many people was that it was all but insoluble. Did Mable Normand kill Taylor? She was his “best friend.” Because she was the last to see him alive, she immediately became a suspect. Or could it have been Mary Miles Minter, the little blonde star not yet twenty who was obsessed with Taylor and believed herself in love with him, even though he was almost thirty years older? More likely than not, it was Charlotte Shelby, Minter’s mother. She was known to have a raging temper and was vehemently against her daughter’s association with the much older man. How about light-fingered Edward Sands, Taylor’s former valet, who had a criminal past? Or maybe it was Henry Peavey, Taylor’s swishy valet at the time of his death. If he had a reason for killing Taylor, what might it have been?

And then there was Hollywood bottom feeder Margaret “Gibby” Gibson (otherwise known as Patricia Palmer), a would-be actress who struggled for years to become a star and never made it. She seemed to be willing to do almost anything to get ahead and was known to associate with low-life “bunco” artists who made a living by “shaking down” millionaires. (Just mention the Mann Act and they were almost certainly willing to pay any amount to stay out of trouble.) Did she kill Taylor as part of a scheme hatched by one of her nefarious friends?

Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood is a fascinating true crime story with a rich cast of real-life characters. For those interested in the dazzled and dazzling 1920s (before the bad old Depression) and specifically in the still-young movie industry, this book is going to be hard to resist. I could hardly put it down and that’s something I can’t say about very many of the thousands of books I’ve read in my lifetime. It’s not great literature, but it will transport you to another time and place for a while and there’s a lot to be said for that.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

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