The year is 1922. Warren G. Harding is in the White House. Prohibition is the law of the land. And construction is beginning on Yankee Stadium. Meanwhile, 3,000 miles away, in the fledgling dream factory known as Hollywood, silent movies have minted a new breed of hedonistic celebrity. They work hard and play harder, reveling in opium dens, drinking bathtub gin, and indulging in libertine carnal relations out of wedlock. In the 30 years since the birth of motion pictures, the film business claims to have become the fourth-largest industry in the country behind steel, railroads, and automobiles. But that revolution hasn’t come without a price. All the sun and sin leaves Americans with the impression that Tinseltown is a modern-day Babylon. They’re not far off, either. Every week, it seems, some actor or actress is swept up in a lurid, headline-grabbing scandal involving sex or drugs. But murder, that’s a different story. At least until the morning of Feb. 2 — when director William Desmond Taylor is found shot to death in his Los Angeles home.
For nearly a century, Taylor’s murder has remained one of the most notorious unsolved crimes in Hollywood history. And it’s one that author William J. Mann digs into with lip-smacking gusto in his true-crime page-turner Tinseltown. Mann, a biographer of such gold-plated movie stars as Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, tirelessly exhumes the cold case and offers a fresh theory on whodunit. Was it Mabel Normand, the A-lister with a sweet tooth for cocaine? Mary Miles Minter, the flighty ingenue with a fatal attraction to the fatherly director? What about her overprotective, pistol-packing mother? Or the hard-luck actress with the ex-con playmates? Or Taylor’s embezzling former valet, who knew all of his secrets, including that his boss was a closeted homosexual? And how did this affect Adolph Zukor, the all-powerful head of the biggest studio in town? All had their motives. Taken together, 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 (to some of them, that’s the only place they felt alive anyway). With his dogged pick-and-shovel reporting and jeweler’s eye for detail, Mann makes a bygone era feel as familiar as the latest TMZ exposé. And while he never quite fingers the murderer with the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt certainty that the dust jacket trumpets, he may very well have his mystery man — or woman. Hell, with a story this juicy, it almost doesn’t matter. A-