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

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

3.8 13
by William J. Mann

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In the early 1920s, Hollywood was threatened by a string of scandals—including the murder of the handsome, secretly haunted actor and director William Desmond Taylor, a crime that went unsolved for nearly a century. Now, in this fiendishly involving New York Times bestseller—hailed as "a must-read" by Liz Smith—William Mann draws on a rich

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In the early 1920s, Hollywood was threatened by a string of scandals—including the murder of the handsome, secretly haunted actor and director William Desmond Taylor, a crime that went unsolved for nearly a century. Now, in this fiendishly involving New York Times bestseller—hailed as "a must-read" by Liz Smith—William Mann draws on a rich host of sources, many untapped for decades, to revisit the case of the enigmatic Taylor and the diverse cast that surrounded him—including three loyal ingenues, a devoted valet, a gang of two-bit thugs, and moguls Adolph Zukor and Marcus Loew, locked in a struggle for control of the exploding industry. Along the way, Mann brings to life Los Angeles in the Roaring Twenties: a town filled with celebrities, party girls, and drug dealers—a dangerous place where the powerful could still run afoul of the desperate.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 08/04/2014
Many readers will come away from this stellar and gripping true-crime narrative utterly convinced by Mann's solution to the unsolved 1922 gunshot murder of William Desmond Taylor, president of the Motion Pictures Directors Association, in Hollywood. Mann (Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand) hooks the reader from the start, describing the discovery of Taylor's corpse by his valet in a prologue that reads like fiction. The author then provides the backstory with an engrossing and comprehensive look at the birth of the motion picture industry and the highs and lows it faced in the early 1920s, including the economic downturn of 1920–1921 and increasing efforts to censor its productions. Mann weaves these dynamics into the portrayals of Taylor and other key players, including movie baron Adolph Zukor, and three actresses, all of who become suspects in the crime. With a gift for evocative phrasing (one figure is described as having a face like a "living mug shot"), Mann has crafted what is likely to be a true-crime classic. Agent: Malaga Baldi, Baldi Agency. (Oct.)
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-08-19
Who killed William Desmond Taylor? More than 90 years after the unsolved murder of the renowned director, film historian and biographer Mann (Hello Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand, 2012, etc.) takes up the cold case. The result is a gripping true-crime story that encompasses a colorful period in film history. On Feb. 1, 1922, an unknown assailant shot the prominent director in the living room of his Los Angeles apartment. A botched police investigation, false leads, studio coverups, blackmail and a media frenzy ensued. The executives at Famous Players­-Lasky, the film studio where Taylor worked, were more concerned about bad publicity than the loss of one of their leading directors. They made haste to collect Taylor's papers, lest they contain any whiff of scandal (they did), and stored them at the studio, compromising the investigation. The timing couldn't have been worse with the trials (there were three) of popular comic actor Fatty Arbuckle, who was accused of murdering a young actress, already in the headlines. The studio didn't want another Hollywood scandal stirring up the public. In this context, Mann seamlessly weaves the details of the murder investigation, witnesses and newspaper accounts into the rich history of early film. The author also profiles movie power brokers, including Adolph Zukor, who founded and built the mighty Paramount. Like the movies, the story has its beauties. Mabel Normand, a comedic star who had returned to the screen after kicking a cocaine habit, was Taylor's longtime friend and became a suspect due to her past associations with drug dealers. Mary Miles Minter, a teenage starlet, was obsessed with Taylor to the point of stalking him. Margaret Gibson (aka Patricia Palmer), an actress on the fringe who knew Taylor when they were both starting out in the movies, associated with petty criminals involved in scams and blackmailing schemes. While searching for a solution to the sensational crime, Mann masterfully captures the zeitgeist of Hollywood in its early days.
Out Magazine
“Mann spins this yarn with all the suspense and intrigue of a Dashiell Hammett novel. From beginning to end, the engrossing true tale will keep you guessing.”
Liz Smith
“If you love a good mystery and vintage Hollywood lore-which doesn’t read much differently than current Hollywood lore-I recommend Tinseltown without reservation.”
Living Read Girl
“For folks interested in true crime and the heyday of Hollywood, this book is a match made in a rather sinister version of heaven.”
Rex Reed
“Sex! Drama! Scandal! If you have the slightest curiosity about the dark purple scars of Hollywood history, this is the go-to book you cannot miss. . . Epic and fabulous—every page is haunting, every chapter a film noir. I was up all night.”
Patrick McGilligan
“William Mann fires on all cylinders in this fascinating real-life crime story that has stumped film fans since 1922. A page-turner with incredible research and prose double-boiled, Tinseltown is a whodunit tour de force, revealing the dark heart of Hollywood.”
“A gripping true-crime narrative. . . . Mann expertly juggles the various threads of the narrative to a satisfying conclusion that is sure to please both true-crime and film-history enthusiasts.”
Entertainment Weekly
“Mann’s call sheet of colorful characters is so richly painted, they not only make the Roaring ‘20s come to life, they’re so bizarre they seem like they could only exist in a movie.”
McClatchy News Service
“Tinseltown is an immensely enjoyable read as a recreation of a murder, and a fascinating time [and] place.”
Connecticut Post
A lucid solution to the crime that feels almost as airtight as the final chapter of an Agatha Christie mystery.”
Washington Post
“Mann tells his story expertly . . . When it’s all over, Mann has argued so ably for his killer-candidate that he finally may have put this controversy to rest.”
Daily Beast
“The book is so evocatively written, right down to the weather, characters’ glances, and what they are feeling, . .. [and] seductively cinematic . . . should be made into a film itself.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review
Tinseltown is entertaining enough to feel illicit, but its reporting makes it an essential addition to any respectable bookshelf of L.A. history.”
“Author William J. Mann paints a striking portrait of 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.”
Wall Street Journal
Tinseltown does a fine job of parceling out its complex plot, and its author brings early Hollywood to life with the flair of a popular historian.”
The Best Books of 2014 NPR
“[Mann] brings the early days of the movie industry to sparkling life on the page, whether he’s evoking Los Angeles’ demimonde or explaining how the era’s scandals drove the film industry toward protectionism in the face of morality campaigns.”
Choire Sicha
“Mann’s got the goods . . . Tinseltown may well be the most completist murder mystery of all time.”
Library Journal
Hard-core old-movie heads and Hollywood true crime fans know about the 1922 murder of director William Desmond Taylor (formerly William Deane Tanner), which remains unsolved 90 years after the crime. "Hollywood chronicler" Mann (Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood, 1910–1969) posits his own theories about whodunit in this overwritten, overlong title. The breathless writing style conjures scandal rags of the past, but the staggering succession of cliff-hanger chapter endings and one-sentence paragraphs, along with the many leaps of faith and major conjecture, become tiring rather quickly. However, Mann's thorough examination of the many suspects and the (always intriguing) underbelly of Hollywood at the time are done well. The author's seemingly intense personal dislike of Paramount Pictures founder Adolph Zukor grates a bit, but the chapters about "movie czar" Will H. Hays, who was hired by the studios to sanitize the industry after so many scandals, shine a new light on the man and his work. While Mann claims to have solved the case, his conclusions are unconvincing; however, his characterization of Tinseltown and its denizens is flavorful. VERDICT Fans of historical true crime and those who enjoy Old Hollywood gossip will like this title, which could spur the curious to further research of the Taylor case.—Liz French, Library Journal

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.70(d)

Meet the Author

William J. Mann is the New York Times bestselling author of Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn; How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood; Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand; and Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines, winner of the Lambda Literary Award. He divides his time between Connecticut and Cape Cod.

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Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
tictac More than 1 year ago
Tinseltown by William Mann is a detailed investagative story of the murder of Hollywood Director William Desmond Taylor. This story is full of drama, suspense, and colorful scoundrels with information from FBI files. Is Mr. Mann's conclusion conclusive? I don't know. Is it probable? yes. As was Robert Giroux' "Deed of Death. I doubt if there will ever be justice for Taylor but this book was of great interest in describing the times of Hollywood, Studio owners, stars, and directors. Paramount had already been through the death of Wallace Reid due to drug addiction, at the time of Taylor's murder, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was on trial for manslaughter, and their star Mary Miles Minter was known to have had a mad crush on Taylor. Now add Mabel Normand's supposed drug addiction and Taylor's loathing of the drug dealers, you have another piece to add to the puzzle. There is also sloppy police work, a studio employee stealing various items from Taylor's house, and a powerful studio head who refused cooperation and blocked the investigation at every turn. The murder was not solved because powerful and corrupt people didn't want it solved. Now add to the mix a pretty actress named Margaret Gibson who supposedly confessed to killing Taylor when on her death bed it really gets complicated. In 1917 Margaret Gibson was arrested for vagrancy under circumstances which included allegations off drug dealing. After a largely attended public trial the actress was acquitted but the publicity forced her to change her screen name to Patricia Palmer. She continued to work in films but had very few leading roles, many bit parts with no acclaim. On November 2, 1923 (91 years ago today) Gibson was arrested on federal felony charges involving an alleged nation-wide blackmail and extortion ring and was said to be connected to two convicted blackmailers who had pleaded guilty to extorting thousands of dollars from Ohio banker John L. Bushnell. The charges were later dropped by the district attorney's office. We do have many suspects and motives but you need to read the book and see if you agree with Mr, Mann's conclusion. I did enjoy this book and would recommend it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It was fascinating to read about how corrupt Hollywood was in the beginning. I never realized the movies back then were suggestive either. And it seems dope and alcohol were very prevalent. The back stories about those involved with William Desmond Taylor made the story that much more real and lent credence to the book. I agree with the author's conclusions on who murdered him. If you are a fan of the movies and want to learn more about Hollywood in the 1920's read this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great read about early days of Hollywood and fascinating story of murder of William Desmond Howard. The author's research brings a fitting resolution to the murder as he weaves together all the characters who played a part in the story. Most enjoyable read.
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