Tag Archives: Hollywood history

Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J. Mann

But in fact Billy had been a blank screen, onto which Mabel, and so many others, had projected their own hopes and needs.”

While William J. Mann’s non fiction book Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood centres on the unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor, the sensational 1922 murder is set against the backdrop of censorship, scandal and the shifting times. Mann argues that a constellation of dark events which include the death of Olive Thomas, the Fatty Arbuckle trials, and the murder of William Desmond Taylor all paved the road to the establishment of censorship and fed support for the various ‘moral’ crusaders who saw Hollywood as a den of iniquity which threatened the morals of the audience. The book is essential reading for any readers interested in early Hollywood and the development of the Hays Code.

TinseltownThis was an era when “thirty-five million Americans–one out of three–went to the movies at least once a week.” Everyone agreed–politicians, fans, film moguls, and moral crusaders–that the film industry was impacting culture, and this resulted in a range of opinions and a figurative tug-of-war between the opposing camps on the subject of censorship. Film moguls, such as Hungarian immigrant and founder of Paramount Pictures, Adolph Zukor, and Marcus Loew, founder of MGM, for example, were loath to hand over censorship power to any outsiders, and for a period, the film industry self-regulated. This is where William Desmond Taylor comes in as an important figure. He was “well regarded in the film colony” but was a “bit of a cipher.” An “ardent defender against the increasing calls for censorship,” he was a stalwart, well-respected spokesperson for the film industry. His death and the subsequent scandal were building blocks in the road to film censorship. The “murder of Taylor–the man who’d once argued for the decency and integrity of Tinseltown–ratcheted the campaign of the reformers up to new levels.”

The book delves into the months leading up to the crime–Taylor’s increased nervousness and the spate of burglaries at his home. The night of the murder is detailed along with various eye-witness accounts, information regarding the removal of evidence by the general manager of Paramount Pictures, and the initial bungling of the case (Taylor was first thought to have died of natural causes.)  Four women are part of the author’s dissection of the crime: actress Mabel Normand whose cocaine habit (rumoured to be around 2,000 a month) was a matter for the press, Margaret Gibson, who reinvented herself as Pamela Palmer following her arrest in Little Tokyo for prostitution, former child star Mary Miles Minter and her formidable mother, Mrs. Shelby.

There’s so much intriguing information raised here: why, for example was Mrs. Shelby repeatedly given a layer of protection by Woolwine, the DA, and why was Margaret “Gibby” Gibson rehired repeatedly by film producer Jesse Lasky and the Famous Players Corporation against the odds?

With an utterly undistinguished filmography, a record for prostitution, and a desire to form a company that would compete with Famous Players, Gibby should have been a pariah in Lasky’s office. But instead she had now been hired for a second major feature at the biggest, most prestigious studio in the industry.

Author William J. Mann offers plenty of explanation for the events. The personalities of these long-dead people leap from the pages–from Zukor’s megalomania, the sacrifice of Fatty Arbuckle to a vicious witch-hunt, Will Hays’ drive to become independent from the movie moguls, Margaret Gibson’s history of involvement with the criminal element to Mabel Normand’s gentle determination to defy the gossip mongers and survive without scandal. In this compelling book, Mann creates a cogent argument that William Desmond Taylor’s past was involved in the solution to his murder. A must-read for fans of early Hollywood.

Included in the book is a chapter devoted to a confession to the murder and another much-appreciated chapter:”What Happened to Everyone Else.” The author also explains his sources: letters telegrams, FBI files, police reports, news accounts, production records and emphasizes that he “did not venture unbidden into the minds of my subjects. When I write ‘how terribly she missed him’ or ‘Zukor seethed,’ these descriptions are based in interviews or memoirs by the subject on question, wherein such feelings, attitudes, or motivations were disclosed or can be deduced.” I appreciated this clarification. Too many books in this genre tend to offer the thoughts of characters, and as a reader I’m left wondering what really happened and what is made up. Finally the author also acknowledges his debt to http://www.taylorology.com.

And so out had come the censor’s shears. In Pennsylvania, state-appointed moral guardians had even snipped out scenes of a “woman making baby clothes, on the ground that children believe that babies are brought by the stork.” What was next? asked the New York Times. “Will it be a crime to show a picture of a man giving his wife a Christmas present on the ground that it tends to destroy faith in Santa Claus?”


Filed under Mann William J, Non Fiction

Life at the Marmont by Raymond Sarlot and Fred E. Basten

Fans of Hollywood history will enjoy the gossipy  Life at the Marmont: The Inside Story of Hollywood’s Legendary Hotel of the Stars Chateau Marmont by Raymond Sarlot and Fred E. Basten–a book that was originally published in 1987 and was recently released. I’ll admit to a certain fascination with the Chateau Marmont for its architectural cheek–a seeming French château plonk on the fringes of West Hollywood. The book co-written by one-time owner Raymond Sarlot and Santa Monica author Fred E. Basten  goes back over the Marmont’s phenomenal history–a history that is seminal to the story of Hollywood itself.  The Marmont was the brain child of attorney Fred Horowitz who was inspired by a gorgeous château in the Loire. The Marmont was built in 1928, as it turns out an unfortunate time for speculative investments.  Horowitz chose the perfect location–a spot that seemed at the time out in the middle of nowhere:

Sandwiched between the city limits of Los Angeles to the east and Beverly Hills to the west. This portion of Sunset Boulevard and its environs constituted a tract of unincorporated county territory, unattached to either city and entirely independent of their codes and ordinances.

The site for The Chateau Marmont was actually very appropriate as it was built near “The Garden of Allah–a complex of villas owned by silent screen actress Alla Nazimova” which eventually had a reputation as a haven for writers. Horowitz knew that Hollywood would expand and that the seeming remoteness of the Marmont would, in the future, be removed. Once the location was chosen, the project was handed over to Horowitz’s brother-in-law, architect Arnold A. Weitzman, and using Horowitz’s photograph’s of the château he saw in the Loire, Weitzman was supposed to bring in the project for a budgeted $350,000. It was designed to have 43 apartments “of one to six rooms each, with living rooms ranging in size from fifteen by twenty to seventeen by thirty-two feet.” The building included a “revolutionary ventilating system,” and loaded with “decorative filigree masonry” along with “intricately designed murals” and various other “extravagances.” It should be no surprise that when the building was finished there wasn’t much left over for furnishing. The Marmont officially opened in February 1929 with rents “peaked at $750 a month.” In spite of the high price tag, within a few months, the Marmont was almost completely full, but in October the stock market crashed. Horowitz hired real estate developer and investor Ben Weingart to help save his investment, but the reprieve was short-lived. Horowitz, who very correctly predicted the growth of Hollywood and the need for rentals, only owned the Marmont until 1931 when it was sold for $750,000 to “former motion picture producer and investor,” Albert E. Smith. It was Smith who turned the fortunes of the Marmont around and saw the possibilities of turning the fabulous château into a hotel.

Life at the MarmontPart of the history concerns the owners of the Marmont, so we see Albert Smith and his wife loading up on antiques going for a song in the Depression marketplace. My vote for the most peculiar owner goes to Dr. Brethauer and “his diminutive friend, … Dr. Popper.”  More than a nod is given to long-term employees of the Marmont–those who became the face of the hotel beginning with retired actress Ann Little, employed by owner Albert E. Smith as hotel manager who lived at the hotel for decades.  The “legendary Marmont ladies” helped make the hotel a wonderful refuge in a town crazy for fame, notoriety, and gossip.  But the Marmont was not unassailable as Nellita Choate Thomsen, daughter of an “aristocratic Southern family” discovered when she “appointed herself to the unofficial position as the Marmont’s official greeter.”  This was a marvelous spot for the woman who moonlighted as a “crackerjack reporter” for the Hearst newspapers.

Naturally the guests take up a huge portion of the book, and the book traces the history of some of the guests (far too many to name here), so here’s Howard Hughes being peculiar long before he was noted for his many idiosyncrasies, and who exactly was “the matron,” a middle-aged woman who mysteriously appeared when young starlets arrived to keep an appointment with the reclusive millionaire? There’s a glimpse of a cantankerous Dorothy Parker, expensively dressed, mobster, Mickey Cohen, “hush-hush” weekends of Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, and bickering celebrity spouses. One section describes the love triangle between Dennis Hopper, Natalie Wood, and director Nicholas Ray, and there are various poignant anecdotes about Natalie Wood. Another section covers Marlon Brando’s stay at the Marmont; he was surprisingly “quiet and withdrawn,” and very considerate to the hotel staff.

There’s a great section concerning Jean Harlow who stayed at the Marmont for her third honeymoon, and it was a honeymoon that was less than exciting according to various staff members. For this section, of great interest to fans of the Great Harlow (count me in), we read the gossipy impressions of those who worked in the hotel, as well as Jean Harlow’s near death by acute appendicitis (especially poignant considering how she died just a few years later in 1937). What’s so significant with this story is that Jean’s mother was  a Christian Scientist –a religion shared by the Marmont’s Ann Little. When Jean was deathly ill, Jean’s mother telephoned Ann at the Marmont expecting support in expelling any doctors who might arrive to treat Jean. She told Ann to “stall” any doctor who arrived at the Marmont as she didn’t “want any doctor touching my baby.” Luckily the doctor, summoned by Louis B. Mayer arrived in spite of Jean’s mother’s objections and Jean was whisked off to the hospital. 

Chateau marmontThere are many great stories here–perhaps the saddest is the view of the lovely Sharon Tate who lived at the Marmont until she moved into the home she rented with Roman Polanski. She didn’t want to give birth in a hotel, and so she moved to a  rented home in Benedict Canyon, and here she was slaughtered along with her friends and a young, passing visitor to the caretaker by the notorious Manson family.

Written in a chatty, breezy, anecdotal style, this gossipy history also covers those who were rejected by the Marmont (a young Robert De Niro) and those who couldn’t pay their bills (Warren Beatty) and the secret rendezvous suite, Suite 54 kept by Harry Cohn so that his stars could keep out of the gossip rags. This suite was enthusiastically used by Hollywood’s leading men, including: David Niven, Glenn Ford and William Holden. The Marmont also seemed to become the perfect sanctuary of those seeking divorces, so naturally the hotel became the backdrop of some dramatic fights and exchanges–including a drunken, enraged Errol Flynn, engaged to a 15-year-old and seeking a divorce, who stormed the Marmont in 1959 looking for his wife Patrice Wymore.

The Chateau Marmont is more than a West Hollywood landmark; it’s integral to the history of Hollywood, and the saying ‘if walls could talk” seems an apt term to apply to this entertaining book which offers an insider’s look at some of the stars and their private lives.

 Review copy.


Filed under Non Fiction