Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J. Mann is a thrilling true-crime mystery that will keep you turning pages for hours.
I have to be honest. After the Deadline interview, I went into this book expecting some insight into the 1918 flu epidemic. While I have to admit that I was disappointed on that regard, this book is a thrilling read. I devoured all 400-plus pages in just over 24 hours.
In many ways, this book continues a theme of books I’ve been reading over the last two months of quarantine: the Golden Age of Hollywood. Paramount Pictures co-founder Adolph Zukor is certainly a key player and while this book isn’t an outright biography, it provides key insights into his life. Marcus Loew, too. Zukor believed Loew to be his rival but it was very much a one-sided rivalry. As I learned weeks ago while reading the William Fox biography, Zukor’s daughter married Loew’s son. This only intensified the one-sided rivalry.
But this isn’t just a book about Zukor and Loew. No, it’s about the murder of a silent era film director, William Desmond Taylor. Mann turns his focus on three different silent actresses of the era: Mabel Normand, Mary Miles Minter, and Margaret Gibson aka Patricia Palmer. Going into this weekend, I didn’t know who killed Taylor. As I continued to devour the pages, I started to have my suspects. I won’t spoil you on who killed him. Let’s just say that the Famous Players-Lasky executives did their due diligence at the scene of the crime by removing his papers. Was it obstruction? You could certainly make the argument.
While the murder and fallout is going on, comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle gets tried a few times for rape and murder. No matter the hung jury or acquittal, the church reformers want him banned from the screen. Will Hays, after taking over the MPPDA, bans him from future pictures but with some regrets. In the early months, Hays was nothing but a puppet to Zukor in the early years. However, he further distanced himself especially with the formation of the Production Code.
Tinseltown may be a true-crime thriller but it’s enough to rival any thrillers written by Brad Meltzer or John Grisham.