Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood

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Authors: William J. Mann
film colony was a small town. If it weren’t for the palm trees that stood in for maples and oaks, Hollywood could almost have been mistaken for a New England factory town, with movies replacing brass pipes or rubber tires as the local manufacture. Everyone knew each other, no matter what studio they worked for. They belonged to the same clubs; they ate at the same restaurants; they shopped at the same stores and attended the same dinner dances. Very few lived more than half an hour’s drive from anyone else—and how easy it was to zip around in this auto-centered city! Downtown sometimes got congested at rush hour, with Pierce-Arrow runabouts and Oldsmobile touring cars puffing exhaust. But the movie people had settled, for the most part, at the ends of the long streets that radiated outward from the city center, past the citrus groves and date farms and oil wells. Driving to the studios in the morning in their open-air automobiles, the film folk waved to each other as they passed on the street, and again as they headed home in the evening.
    So when someone died, it was a loss for the entire community. And when many died at once—and in violent and tragic circumstances, as had happened these last few months—it was an issue for everyone, not just the particular studio where the deceased had been employed.
    They came together this afternoon to memorialize their dead. Ormer Locklear and Milton Elliott, aviators who’d been killed in a movie stunt gone wrong. Pretty starlet Clarine Seymour, whose mysterious death had stunned everyone. Bobby Harron, he of the “accidental” revolver discharge. And of course Olive Thomas, whose tragedy was still being played out in the daily headlines.R UMORS OF D RUG AND W INE P ARTIES .G AY R EVELS IN U NDERWORLD OF P ARIS . Even staid papers like the Los Angeles Times reported the“sinister rumors of cocaine orgies” that had swirled around pretty little Ollie.
    All around the country, editorials were lambasting the morals of the movie people. It was Taylor’s task, as industry point man, to mollify such critics. In his eulogy at the Brunton Studios, his goal was to put forward a respectable, decent face of the film colony.
    On the Longacre stage, the largest of the studio’s film sets, eight hundred mourners—“stars and stagehands, producers and supers”—were filing solemnly into the pews that had been hastily arranged by Brunton property men.
    With all eyes on him, Taylor stepped up to the podium to speak.
    Sitting in the audience that day were some of the most important people in the film colony. Adolph Zukor’s partner, Jesse Lasky. Zukor’s rival Thomas Ince. Zukor’s chief director, Cecil B. DeMille. Such top stars as Betty Compson, Harold Lloyd, Mae Marsh, Richard Dix, Thomas Meighan, Lila Lee, Charles Ray, Will Rogers, Bebe Daniels. And the biggest names of all, sitting front row and center, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, whose marriage, after Mary’s quickie Nevada divorce from Owen Moore, had caused its own scandal headlines.
    The whole world was watching them. Everyone in that audience was well aware of that fact. They were all depending on Taylor to say what needed to be said.
    He’d won their confidence over the past few months. In his most recent film, The Soul of Youth , Taylor had very wisely given a small part to Judge Ben Lindsey, a nationally recognized child advocate. It proved a masterstroke of publicity. After the experience of being in a movie, Lindsey became an enthusiastic supporter of Hollywood, offering a powerful counter to those who called movies too permissive and too dismissive of traditional values and religion.“The motion picture is doing great work,” he declared. The effect of movies on children, Lindsey insisted, was “overwhelmingly good.” Taylor’s sagacity in co-opting Lindsey to the movies’ cause had won him fans among the industry chieftains.
    What they faced was the old eternal battle between traditionalists and

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