How to Get Away With a Hollywood Murder
The Daily Beast
October 10, 2014
The author William J. Mann was about nine years old when he first learned about the 1922 murder of the Hollywood director William Desmond Taylor. Taylor, who was also a popular president of the Motion Picture Directors Association, was killed at his Hollywood home, and his murder—despite a massive police investigation and many books on the subject—remains officially unsolved.
The night of the murder, February 1, one of Taylor’s neighbors reported seeing a man on his doorstep. Early the next morning, Henry Peavey, Taylor’s cook and valet, found his boss, dead on the floor of his living room, “head towards the west,” Mann writes, arms at his side. There was a patch of congealed blood behind his head: “Except for the blood…the dead man looked immaculate.” The neighbors first on the scene wondered how Taylor could have died “so neatly.” The first detective on the scene thought Taylor had died from a stomach hemorrhage; the bullet wound in his back was discovered later when the body was lifted.
After dishy biographies of Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbra Streisand and the gay actor and designer Billy Haines, Mann claims to solve Taylor’s murder in his latest book, Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at The Dawn of Hollywood—and he does so in a thrillingly written book, storylined like a detective yarn, and brimming with the personalities and atmosphere of 1920s Hollywood.
Mann couldn’t have wished for a better cast of characters who converged at a time of radical change in Hollywood. His central three are actresses: Mabel Normand, Mary Miles Minter, and Margaret “Gibby” Gibson. Normand and Minter were close to Taylor—Normand as a friend, Miles Minter was desperate to marry him—while Gibby, who like the other two wanted fame, was apparently entangled with a group of extortionists and blackmailers, who may or may not have been connected to Taylor’s murder.
Of the three women, Mary was a chief suspect, as was her mother, Charlotte Shelby—Taylor’s spurning of Mary a supposed motivation. Normand had seen him earlier on the night of his death. Many years later, Gibby would dramatically claim her own involvement in the killing.
Alongside the twists and turns of the case, Mann also tells the story of Paramount founder Adolph Zukor, his ruthless play for studio supremacy, and his fraught relationship with Will H. Hays, whose name become synonymous with the notorious censorship-enshrining “Hays Code” of 1930.
The book burrows everywhere: into the police investigation, the life of Peavey (who features in the book’s best scene, in a graveyard), and into other scandals of the era, principally the one that enveloped Fatty Arbuckle—and Zukor—after the actress Virginia Rappe died after attending a party with him; Arbuckle was acquitted of any involvement in her death after three trials.
It’s quite a canvas, and Mann skillfully and convincingly weaves the disparate strands together to make a case for who he believes the murderer to be, a case made even more complicated by Taylor himself, a man of many secrets and identities.
“Being fascinated by old Hollywood, I devoured every history of motion pictures that I could lay my hands on, and I just became spellbound by all the mysteries and scandals of the very early days,” Mann told The Daily Beast. “There was the strange death of Olive Thomas (a young actress who died in 1920 after drinking mercury bichloride) and the Fatty Arbuckle trials and (the actor) Wallace Reid’s drug death (in 1923) and most of all, Taylor’s murder, because it had never been solved and had all these great, archetypal suspects.”
For Mann, “it was rather like the old game of Clue, I thought. Mary Miles Minter did it in the drawing room with the pistol.”
Hollywood in the 1920s was really not that much different from Hollywood today, the author says. “Celebrities had become more famous for their off-screen antics than for any work they did on-screen. Religious conservatives were decrying the influence of ‘Hollywood values.’ Mergers and acquisitions were turning the movies into big business and the government was trying to regulate all the money.”
It was fascinating for Mann to see how some things never change. “Adolph Zukor, who pretty much invented the business structure of the American film industry—essentially the same structure we have today—was obsessed with conglomeration. He was an early advocate of the doctrine, ‘Too big to fail.’”
The book is so evocatively written, right down to the weather, characters’ glances, and what they are feeling, I ask if Mann took some dramatic license.
“I tried really hard so that everything I wrote, whether it be ‘It was raining’ or ‘Mabel was devastated,’ was sourced in some way,” Mann said. “I have something like seven hundred notes, the vast majority of which are primary, contemporary sources.”
More than that, Mann used photos, postcards, old maps, atlases, train schedules, and weather reports to corroborate even the smallest detail or description. When he describes the peeling yellow paint of an apartment block, or the sun-dappled, eucalyptus-lined Melrose Avenue, he is basing it on actual evidence.
The resulting story is seductively cinematic, and should be made into a film itself. The film critic Rex Reed said that Tinseltown was written as if “shot by James Wong Howe in the shadow and fog of glorious smoking-gun black and white.” Mann kept thinking of his book as a movie or miniseries as he wrote it, with the catchphrase in his head: “Your secrets will kill you”—because, he said, “everyone in Tinseltown has secrets and they really did kill quite a few.”
Mann wanted to solve the crime knowing that the murder “could really be seen as just an old chestnut by someone who doesn’t understand how important it was at the time.” Even though the unsolved case fascinated Mann and hardcore ‘Taylorologists’ (there’s a “terrific” website, Taylorology.com, that was a “huge help” to Mann), the author knew he would have to set his story against the vivid context of the birth of the American film industry.
In the half-decade that Mann covers—1920 to 1925—all the major institutions of Hollywood took shape: the studio system, the exhibition system, the Hays office. “The key issues that would drive American movies for the next sixty years came into play: censorship, regulation, the star system, publicity, marketing,” Mann said.
The Taylor murder happened in the midst of that, and played “a huge part” in how the system developed, said Mann. “The stakes were so high for the studios—indeed for the entire film industry—when Taylor was killed, and I wanted to explore the reasons for that,” Mann said. “I knew it was not going to be enough to just tell the story of the murder and the investigation. I had to show why it mattered.”
The chief suspect for years was Charlotte Shelby. Ed King, the chief detective in the case, was frustrated that all the evidence he had accumulated against her—a gun, a weak alibi, Mary’s suspicious behavior—had not led to charges being brought. And they never were, despite a grand jury being convened in 1937 to reopen the investigation. Charlotte Shelby demanded to be exonerated. She got her wish, Mann writes: in 1938 the case was closed for good.
The story “pretty much just wrote itself,” Mann said, though it “helped” that he was also a novelist and (soon) a screenwriter. “The trick was to find the inherent drama in the true-life accounts of these people and then construct the narrative in such a way that presents some details and withholds other details until later. That’s how you build suspense.”
The most surprising characterization is that of Hays, who is less the crusading moralist of received thought, and more a well-meaning, thoughtful man. “Will Hays gets such a bad rap in film history,” Mann said. “He was really a decent guy, called in to do an impossible job at a very difficult time. He was the best kind of religious man: humble, moral, filled with integrity to do the right thing. He never passed judgment on anyone. He went up against extremists and opportunists and did his best to keep the movies free of government regulation and censorship.”
Hays was very progressive, a follower of Teddy Roosevelt, who, said Mann, “deserves some reconsideration after so many years of being called a puritan and a prude. As I was researching the book, Hays’s power struggle with Adolph Zukor really fascinated me. These two men, neither of whom stood much more than five feet tall, immeasurably shaped the most influential industry of the first half of the twentieth century.”
Zukor was Mann’s favorite character to write. “What a great figure to write about, to bring back to life. Zukor’s so important historically but he’s also such a complex, complicated, contradictory man—a poor orphan from Hungary showing up penniless on American shores, who goes on to become the confidante of presidents and industry titans. Zukor wasn’t going to let anything—no scandal, no murder—keep him from consolidating his gains and achieving his goals.”
Of his chief female characters, Mann “rather fell in love with Mabel Normand, and she’s another one I try to rescue from myth and legend. Mabel was a bright, funny, ahead-of-her-time woman who doesn’t deserve to be remembered as just a drug addict. She kicked the habit and despite the career troubles caused by the Taylor scandal, she really triumphed—alone among the three women at the heart of my story, Mabel survived. Tinseltown tried to buy her, merchandize her, and then destroy her, but Mabel fought back and, I argue, won.”
Then there’s “poor little deluded Mary Miles Minter,” who Mann thinks has gotten a raw deal in past accounts. She was just seventeen and eighteen when Mann’s story starts—abused by her mother—and the fact that she got caught up in all this is, he says, truly tragic.
For the first time, Mann also tells Gibson’s story, which is the complete inverse of the usual Hollywood movie star story, he says. “Gibby and her friends represent the rotting underbelly of the Hollywood dream—I call her and her friends ‘locusts,’ in homage to Nathanael West (who wrote The Day of the Locust, the 1939 novel set in Depression-era Hollywood). For every one person who made it in Tinseltown, there were ten who didn’t, and they had to find other ways to survive.” Gibby was the most fascinating of the three for Mann, “because she was the most desperate.”
As it was for me to read, Mann’s favorite scene to write was Peavey’s confrontation with some goons in a graveyard, refusing to be bullied. “In that moment, he defies every stereotype of African-Americans and gay men—he just really asserts his power and puts them all to shame. I loved writing about Henry Peavey. He’s been treated very badly by previous chroniclers, at the time and ever since. I hope I’ve given him back a little of the dignity he possessed in life.”
In Taylor, Peavey, and the women of the book, Mann shows how tangibly homophobia, racism, and sexism operated in 1920s Hollywood. “Henry Peavey was nearly destroyed by an incredibly racist and homophobic press. And the prevailing sexism—indeed misogyny—of the times worked against Mabel, Mary, Gibby, and Charlotte Shelby, Mary’s indomitable stage mother, too.”
Shelby was a terrible woman in many ways, said Mann but no previous accounts have taken into consideration why she had to be so ruthless. “She was a rare woman who made it, on her own terms, in a man’s world. Of course Shelby was going to be hated.”
What also comes out in the book, Mann said, “is the really vile anti-Semitism that was directed at Hollywood’s leaders by conservative Christian so-called ‘reformers,’ who saw the movies as nefarious plot to undermine traditional values.”
As for Taylor himself, his private life, like his identity, was incredibly muddied.
“The victim remains an enigma in many ways,” Mann said. “There’s a lot about Taylor’s backstory that I didn’t get into. I had two whole chapters about his wandering life, living in New York and Colorado and the Yukon, but ultimately it slowed the story down. But my feeling is, he was gay; his story is so familiar to so many gay narratives of the era, chronicled in important histories of gay American life by people like George Chauncey and Martin Duberman.”
The key moments in a gay man’s life of that era were all there in Taylor’s own, Mann said: “The disappointment he proved to be to his father; the leaving of home to seek a new life; the attempt to ‘toughen up’ as he did on ranches and in the Yukon; the unhappy marriage and the sudden abandonment of his wife and daughter.”
The friendship with Normand “sealed the deal” for Mann. “Everyone insisted it was just platonic, and they all seemed to be telling the truth. For Mabel, at that point in her life, after so many horrible experiences with men, a gay best friend was exactly what she needed. Besides, we know from (the set designer) George Hopkins’ memoir that he and Taylor were involved in a romantic relationship at the time.”
Taylor had recently broken off an engagement with the actress Neva Gerber, who complained of his melancholic moods. Hopkins wrote of a happy and cheerful Taylor. “I think, with Hopkins, he finally found some happiness,” Mann said. “But of course that wasn’t to last.”
Mann, whose books are always engagingly revelatory, himself came of age in the 1980s when, he recalled, all the exposé sort of biographies were being written by and about the great movie stars—Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall.
“So I got hooked on finding the real stories of these people and these movies and these cultural influences,” he said. “When I began doing my own research, my first subject was Haines (for Mann’s book Wisecracker), and so I got to know these really wonderful old men and women, mostly gay, who shared with me the other side of the Hollywood myth.”
As a gay man, Mann was interested in telling an untold piece of gay history; but as a historian he was even more fascinated. “You mean to tell me it didn’t happen that way? Spencer Tracy was hiring a male hustler? Katharine Hepburn had a longtime female partner? Louis B. Mayer paid off District Attorney Buron Fitts to cover up the murder of Jean Harlow’s husband? Lana Turner didn’t tell the whole story about the night Johnny Stompanato was stabbed to death? Elizabeth Taylor marketed her tracheotomy to win an Oscar? Barbra Streisand wasn’t just discovered based on her voice alone?”
Learning how to spot a press agent’s talking points “became second nature” to Mann, “and finding the truth became my calling.”
The Taylor murder case didn’t end in 1938 with its official closure. In 1964, Gibby, then an ill old woman living under another name, dramatically asked a young male neighbor to fetch a priest, claiming, “I killed William Desmond Taylor.” But Mann doesn’t think it was that simple, and in Tinseltown’s dénouement he names his suspect, with necessarily suppositional analysis of the evidence available to him.
“Would my evidence stand up in a court of law? I don’t know,” Mann said. “Obviously it’s been more than a century and so much evidence is gone. I was fortunate that FBI records existed—not on the Taylor case per se, but on some of the figures around him, which helped me to draw some key conclusions.”
There will be people who disagree with him, Mann accepts. “No one really wants cold cases solved. That takes away all the fun for armchair detectives. Look at the pushback to the recent claims that the killer of Jack the Ripper was found.” Patricia Cornwell made the same claim several years back, but that hasn’t stopped new solutions to the crimes from popping up, Mann points out. “There will always be people who want the glory of claiming to have ‘cracked the oyster, as Ed King, the lead detective on the Taylor case, used to say. I’m happy to read other theories.”
Mann submits Tinseltown, then, as “one more piece of the lore of ‘Taylorology’” and will let readers draw their own conclusions on whether he has found the true killer or not. “But I do think my solution is the only one that fits what we know and doesn’t contradict any of the available evidence. And, when you read the book, there are just so many compelling bits of circumstantial evidence that the solution I came up with seems to be the only one to account for them all.”
Mann would love to tell the full story of corrupt District Attorney Fitts in the 1930s, who had his hand in so many Hollywood scandals, but thinks he needs a break from writing about Hollywood (“I’ve been doing it for the past 16 years”).
His next book is called Alice and Eleanor: The Wars of the Roosevelts. It’s about two very remarkable women, he says, first cousins, “whose personal rivalry and family dynamics helped shaped American politics for the first half of the twentieth century and beyond. But when you come down to it, politics and Washington isn’t really all that different from moviemaking and Hollywood.”
So much of the mystery is gone in Hollywood today, Mann concludes, but it’s still a land of dreams.
“There are still people as bright as Mabel Normand and as brilliant as Adolph Zukor and as desperate as Gibby Gibson and her locusts—there’s perhaps a lot more of those today. And while your secrets can still occasionally kill you, it doesn’t happen so often anymore. Seems today you can usually get away with anything.”