William Desmond Taylor was a very lucky man, until he wasn’t. In just a couple years, the Irish-born director went from complete obscurity to the number two director at Paramount—then the most powerful film company in the world. His ride to the top came to an abrupt halt on February 1, 1922, when Taylor was found shot to death at his Los Angeles home. A massive scandal ensued that sent reverberations through Hollywood. Despite all the interest, Taylor’s murder is still officially unsolved more than ninety years later.
In Tinseltown, William Mann, a CCSU alumnus and current adjunct professor of history, brings readers into Taylor’s world, where Hollywood was just beginning to form. Tinseltown won the 2015 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime. Mann accepted his award from two of his literary heroes, James Ellroy and Stephen King. “It was really gratifying. This was my first venture into the genre. It was a great honor just to be nominated. So when they opened up the envelope, I was in shock,” he said.
Mann is no stranger to Hollywood tales. Previously, he has written biographies of film giants like Elizabeth Taylor and Katherine Hepburn. However, this was his first venture into true crime. “I wanted to write in that genre for an awfully long time. It felt like a challenge, but also exhilarating,” said Mann. “What makes the story of Tinseltown interesting to me is that the murder happened right in the middle of the studios coming together. The structures of the industry were just beginning to form,” said Mann.
It was the looseness of these emerging structures that allowed William Taylor to rocket to the top. After spending time in Kansas learning farming and acting in plays, Taylor ended up in New York. There, he started a family before quickly abandoning it. He then wandered through the country and ended up in Los Angeles. With his middling acting experience, he was soon able to book acting jobs and work his way up to directing. “He was a company man. The top brass liked him. He was articulate. He was smart and professional,” said Mann.
Taylor’s murder was one of a string of Hollywood scandals that shocked the nation one after the other. Just a year before Taylor’s murder, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle fell from grace after he was put on trial for manslaughter and rape after aspiring actress Virginia Rappe died at a party Arbuckle hosted. Although Arbuckle was tried and acquitted (then tried and acquitted twice more), the damage to his career was done. In 1920, A-lister Olive Thomas died after ingesting poison. Although Thomas’s death was accidental, that didn’t stop the press from painting lurid tales of suicide and murder. Taylor’s death was another upset a fragile Hollywood had to deal with—and fast. “In many ways, the progression of the studio system was influenced by the response to his murder. The studios had to learn how to manage bad publicity.”
Adolph “Creepy” Zukor was the mastermind who was quickly learning to handle the press at the same time he was inventing the studio system. Many believed Zukor initiated a cover-up of Taylor’s murder to protect his business interests. “Zukor was brilliant and ruthless. He understood what sold and how to sell it. He was able to rise to the top by being one of the very few, if not the only one, to have a vision for this industry. He saw what movies could be,” said Mann.
Zukor also saw the writing on the wall. Scandals combined with increasingly salacious films were leading Hollywood inevitably toward a crackdown. Zukor handpicked William Hays to lead the MPAA and develop the Production Code, which set self-imposed standards on what was allowed in films. Hays has become a figure of utmost scorn among film buffs for taking the edge out of cinema, but Mann sees him in a more prudential light. “These scandals saved Hollywood. If censorship had been government-run, we would have a less rich history because films would’ve been state-approved like in the Soviet Union. Hays in some way is a savior because he kept the government off the back of Hollywood.”
So, who killed Taylor? When Mann started researching for Tinseltown, he was unsure if he would find a conclusion. “The goal was to tell the stories of the scandals and how they influenced Hollywood… I thought it would be great if I could solve it, but it wasn’t an imperative. I just wanted to tell as good of a story as I could. But as I did the research, the answer began to form in my head,” said Mann. In the book, Mann has identified a suspect never before associated with the case. It started when he was unsatisfied with the most popular answer to “whodunit”—stage mother Charlotte Selby. “She was a popular suspect because she was a very nasty woman. People wanted to believe it, but it just doesn’t hold up. When I realized that, I thought maybe there is someone else,” said Mann. He began to focus on a deathbed confession by Margaret Gibson, a troubled actress in Taylor’s orbit. But in case you think this case is open and shut, Mann doesn’t believe Gibson did it either.