Book Review: Two New Books on Hollywood Scandals
What it's About: The Day of the Locust meets The Devil in the White City and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in this juicy, untold Hollywood story: an addictive true tale of ambition, scandal, intrigue, murder, and the creation of the modern film industry. By 1920, the movies had suddenly become America’s new favorite pastime, and one of the nation’s largest industries. Never before had a medium possessed such power to influence. Yet Hollywood’s glittering ascendency was threatened by a string of headline-grabbing tragedies—including the murder of William Desmond Taylor, the popular president of the Motion Picture Directors Association, a legendary crime that has remained unsolved until now.
My thoughts: I've been obsessed with the murder of William Desmond Taylor ever since I first read about the case in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon (a book that is much reviled by contemporary historians but which was manna from heaven to a teenager who loved classic Hollywood films). Over the years, I've read Sidney Kirkpatrick's A Cast of Killers as well as Robert Giroux's book Deed of Death. Both of these authors came to different conclusions about who the killer was, so I was eager to read William J. Mann's take on the case. I've enjoyed his books in the past, in particular his biographies of Barbra Streisand and Elizabeth Taylor.
I have to be honest, at first I was a little disappointed. The book opens up with a bang literally, detailing the discovery of Taylor's body by his valet Henry Peavey. The book then flashes back and gives a wealth of detail about the current state of Hollywood leading up to the murder, including the death of Olive Thomas, the arrest and trial of Fatty Arbuckle and the installment of Will Hay's as the new watchdog over Hollywood's morals (at least on film). I wasn't quite sure where Mann was going with all this, although most of it was interesting. I admit that I skimmed through most of the stuff about Adolph Zukor. I was more interested in Fatty Arbuckle and learning more details about Mabel Normand and Mary Miles Minter. Unfortunately Mann skims over their back stories for the most part, as well as Desmond Taylor's life before he hit Hollywood.
The book really got going when Mann writes about Patricia Palmer aka Margaret Gibson or Gibby and her struggle to make it in Hollywood, and how her life dovetails and intersects with William Desmond Taylor. I don't want to spoil it for anyone picking up the book who knows nothing about the unsolved murder of Taylor, but Mann comes up with probably the most plausible theory about of anyone who has written about the case in the last almost 100 years since Taylor was murdered. He gives a wealth of detail about the inner workings of Hollywood at the time, not just at the major studios but also on Poverty Row, the studios who cranked out the low-low budget films. He also details the excesses and drug use that was prevalent in Hollywood at the time which might come as a revelation to some who believe that no one was doing drugs until the 1960's and 1970's like my dad.
I won't lie, this book clocks in at a whopping almost 500 pages but once I got started reading, I couldn't put it down. I actually stayed up late on Sunday to finish the book, because I had to know what Mann's conclusion was.