Tinseltown – Murder, morphine, and madness in the Dawn of Hollywood

William J. Mann. Review by Rose.

In the 1970s they found the elderly woman: a once beautiful silent screen actress, a girl that radiated purity on-screen, her haunted eyes illuminating more about her personal life than the part she was playing. She had vanished into obscurity having never liked acting. She told the interviewer. ‘I loved him.’ Her feelings stormy, her memory as colourful as the letters she penned as a young infatuated girl. ‘They crucified Jesus; they crucified my mate.’

Love – a wild, mad desperate love – sprang from her like a blistering fever sweeping all logic far aside. It was like a roaring, stormy ocean crashing inside her body; she could not control it. This love would oscillate inside her mind and live just as fiercely decades later when she recalled him. At the time, people on film sets whispered about her obsession. She dreamt and daydreamed about him. Yet it is impossible to blame Mary Miles Minter for her behaviour, as she had been abused by her mother: her toys were burnt and she was used as an object to create money and plunged into adulthood too soon.

The young actress with a heart-shaped face, blue eyes and wavy hazel hair who looked gentle and beguiling  – a sweet child he called her  – became enraptured by the calm much older filmmaker Desmond Taylor. The author discusses Minter’s upbringing with no father figure, hypothesising that this could be the reason for her infatuation. She had spent her life dominated by a grotesque bullying mother. A mother that painted her underage daughter in thick make-up, forcing her onto a stage, training her to sing and dance for gatherings like a pet in a circus parade and pocketed all the cash. Minter’s mother even used the birth certificate of a dead relative to accomplish her mission to make her daughter an actress.

Minter was allowed little freedom by her mother, Charlotte Shelby, who monitored her every move, her delusional and paranoid personality influencing the young girl’s mind and life. Everybody at the studio was afraid of Minter’s steely mother. Desmond Taylor, ever the gentleman, escorted her to some events but kept his distance, telling her, according to this book, that he was December and she was May. Nevertheless, after a while, the author explains that her fascination with him created problems, with Minter’s mother Charlotte Shelby threatening to kill him. The love letters released after Taylor’s murder were printed in the newspapers and revealed a love mania that left some shocked by the young girls’ feelings. “I love you; I love you; I love you; I love you”. A giant kiss covered part of the page. People in Los Angeles opened their newspapers reading the love letters, some written in special code.

The church women that often demonstrated against the film world thundered, threatening action against the sin and debauchery that they believed was created in films and infecting society and lived within Hollywood. Minter would later be linked to sin, her career faltering. In the mortuary, she insisted they take her blood and put it into Taylor’s body and bring him back to life. And somewhere in a studio across from Desmond Taylor’s elegant home, a young sweet boy most likely closed his eyes in a surge of emotional pain, unable to voice his love, to talk about his pain and the love he had felt for the murdered Desmond Taylor. The fear of being caught in society causing more and more stress over time and making many in the 1920’s vulnerable to blackmail.

Zukor, the king of film, the giant of superpower watched over this newest scandal. He knew it required a clean-up man to prevent the church women from destroying his empire. If all films were policed and censored to the extent they wanted, it would adversely impact his empires profits. According to the author, Taylor was known to be exceedingly private about his life, he is described by one man as camouflaged. Taylor carried tragic secrets and he had a complex past. He meticulously concealed parts of his life from everyone. Even when he allowed people close, he closed many doors to his life.

Taylor was a man of mystery. He looked more like a University professor, had a clear set of morals, and did not indulge in any of the drug-taking that was part of Hollywood. Yet, like all people touched by early tragedy, there was a sombreness in his demeanour. Many said he looked and carried himself like a ‘bishop’ he certainly would have played a good priest, with his long face and solemn expression.

People of his standing in the industry did not often move to help someone in the lower ranks of society and leave their social comfort zones to help people in trouble. Yet, the day before his death when his African American valet told Taylor he was in trouble, Taylor told him that he would pay the police fee after he was arrested for being in a park and come to the station and stand up for him. He was not a man that hid behind his societal status, he reached out to help other people. He even helped his best friend, the actress Mabel Normand when she became addicted to drugs.

Did Taylor wonder what kind of hate some human beings carried in their minds just before his story ended? When the bullet hit his left side the killer standing close. But then, Taylor had always known what some people were capable of; that is why he hid parts of his intricate life. After his death, the media tore him apart, he had been seen in places frequented by gay men, the reporters asked if Taylor had been gay?

This is not simply a story of Desmond Taylor's murder, Mann has impecabilty the film empire of the 1920's run by giant's like Zukar, a man that was known to be a cold person, infatuated with film, wealth and ownership of as many buildings as possible. Called a meglomanic by many at the time, some of parts of his personality may have been created by having no parents at a very young age and having to fend for himself, despite his faults, and there were many, he had built an empire from a past where he had been a poor orphan with no funds at all and no family. Like many children coming from this background, it may be that his coldness was simple a barrier he'd had to create from such a tough impoverished childhood in order to survive. Children without parents have to adopt a very reslient outer layer in order to survive in a harsh world without a mother and father. Any threats to Zukor's film empire where he held great power were met by anger, but in Tinseltown his greatest enemby seemed to be 'the Church women' as described in the book. Though this is a statement on gender, there were male religious reformers that were obsessive, talking of the film world causing sin and creating lifestyles full of orgies and drugs and partying. The problem was as the author explains, many followers of the religious male leaders were women. The church women held great power in the 1920's and often protested about themes in films, some believed that the film world should be heavily policed and censored. The reason they were such a pain to Zukor was because if they were censored by the Church women he would lose money, the film world would not be as profitable and this would destroy his world.

Mann describes the problems of censorship with the churches, and tells the story of Zukor hiring men that were there to help clean-up any scandals caused by actors and actresses, scandals that would be used by the Church women to fuel their cause of film censorship. His hiring of such men, men that could make great speeches and keep an eye on what was happening within hollywood was to keep the church from taking too much control.

Scandals were often blown out of proportion in the 1920's by the media. The Roscoe Arbuckle case is one that is discussed in the book, even though he went to court and was pronounced innocent by a jury, because of the way the church regarded him and his films after what happened at the party, Zukor and others allowed him to be dropped into obscurity. They had to make sacrifices when the church put too much pressure on them and he was one of those cases. The Desmond Taylor murder was yet another scandal in Hollywood that could be used by the church as an example of the sinful behaviours taking place in Hollywood at the time.

Another theme in the book is the drugs that were used that created addictions within Hollywood and the drug peddlars of the time, often visiting the actors and actresses they had hooked time and time again to sell. Addiction was a real problem at the time Desmond Taylor was killed. Desmond Taylor had tried to help rid Hollywood of some of these problems, which also made him disliked by many of the drug peddlers.

People that were suspected of murdering Desmond Taylor

Mabel Normand - Taylor's best friend and actress whose whole film history can be found in this book. He purchased flowers for her three times a week, shared all his treasured books. She was the last person to see him alive, this is the only reason she was a suspect.

Charlotte Shelby - The mother of Mary Miles Minter who had threatened to kill Desmond Taylor if he took a real interest in her daughter. She did not want her daughter married as it would mean she did not get all the money her daughter earned, so she spent a great deal of time getting rid of anyone interested in the young woman. Despite Taylor saying he had done everything to put her off, the mother was enraged by the feelings her daughter had for him. Some people even suspected she liked Taylor herself.

The ex-valet - one of the most interesting suspects. He was hired by Desmond Taylor after he lied on employment papers about his criminal background. He committed fraud and stole a great deal of money from Taylor, he also wrecked his beloved car and rifled through his private papers. He was a nasty con man. Though the police tried to find him after Taylor's death, the valet vanished completely into obscurity and was never found again, this indicates that he possibly did commit a criminal act at the time of his disappearance.

A Drug peddlar - Taylor had rowed with the drug peddlar of Mary Miles Minter not long before his murder, when he found him selling drugs at her home.

Mary Miles Minter - despite being in love with Taylor, Mary Miles Minter was obsessional. Some believed this obession may have turned to jealousy and hatred over time.

A Blackmailer - in the book Mann tells us that Taylor's account books were missing funds, one of the signs of blackmail, they wondered if it was actually a blackmailer that killed Taylor.

This book has many complex stories woven within each other, it's a story of the Los Angeles environment in the 1920's, about one of the most mysterious unsolved murders in Hollywood history. It is a tale of madness, drug addiction, obsessional love, people who live parts of their lives in secret, the history of early film and power giants like Zukar that ruled like kings over their film empire. It is also about the effect of religion on the film and film finances and the power of the media to destroy or bolster film careers. It is well-researched and skilfully written bringing to life another era with all the lustre, intensity and human cruelty that would make a magnificent film.