Interview: William J. Mann tackles murder, morphine, and madness in Tinseltown

Interview by Michael G. Ankerich

 

William J. Mann serves up a delicious plate of M’s in his new book, Tinseltown.

Mary, Mabel, and Margaret.

Murder, Mystery, and Madness.

Mary and Momma.

I devoured every morsel of the buffet.

The unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor in 1922 is one of the reasons I stepped back into the silent film era — and stayed! It’s the classic whodunit.

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Who did it? Was it Mary Miles Minter? Mabel Normand? Charlotte Shelby, Mary’s mother? Starlet Margaret Gibson? His valet? Drug dealers? Gangsters?

Bill Mann, one of my favorite authors of old Hollywood, thinks he has solved the mystery.  You’re going to have fun with this one, friends! Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood reads like a novel, yet the dialogue is not drawn from the author’s imagination. The words between the quotation marks came from the mouths of those who spoke them.

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Bill reconstructs the riveting case using primary sources — including witness testimonies from police records, coroner’s inquest files, newly uncovered FBI records, and court records and transcripts.

Running alongside the murder mystery are complex and interesting portraits of legends like Adolph Zukor and Will Hays, the first czar of Hollywood.

So who killed William Desmond Taylor?  Listen in on my conversation with Bill and find out.

My collection of William J. Mann books

My collection of William J. Mann books

 

Michael: I first started reading your books in the 1990s.  I must have read The Men From the Boys when I was coming out or shortly after. Then I read your novel around the “afterlife” of Florence Lawrence. Two of my favorites are your William Haines biography and Behind the Screen, about gays and lesbians in Hollywood. I’m intrigued by your body of work and the range you’ve covered. Most writers find an era or genre, but you’re all over the place.  What do you look for you when you’re selecting a subject to write about?

Bill: It’s always about the story. Is it a good, compelling story? Can I say something new? I think being a novelist helped me discern the story within a life or within a topic. For example, when my editor wanted me to write about Streisand, I was reluctant. Not really my thing. But when he suggested we call it “Becoming Barbra” that hooked me — because I could see the story, of an unknown, unlikely kid becoming a huge star in just five years time. So it’s always Story, Story, Story for me.

Hello, Gorgeous

Hello, Gorgeous

Michael: So let’s talk about Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood. After over 92 years of wondering, do you really think you’ve solved the mystery of who murdered William Desmond Taylor?

Bill: Would my evidence stand up in a court of law? I don’t know. After nearly a century, so much of the evidence I present is necessarily circumstantial, since so much physical evidence is gone. I was fortunate to find FBI records —not on the Taylor case per se, but on some of the figures around him, which helped me to draw some key conclusions. Also, the fact that so many newspapers are now digitized I was able to find proverbial needles in the haystack that allowed me to make connections. There will be people who disagree with my conclusion, and that’s okay. I have always said that I submit Tinseltown into the lore of “Taylorology” and will let people draw their own conclusions. No one really wants cold cases solved. That strips away so much of the fun for armchair detectives. There was a lot of pushback to the recent claims that the identity of Jack the Ripper was discovered. But I do think that my solution is the only one that doesn’t contradict other available evidence and the only one based on surviving documental evidence, even if it’s circumstantial. That’s really important—to show where and how you drew your conclusions. I have got something like 800 footnotes and will be posting a lot of the primary documents I used on Taylorology, courtesy of the really brilliant Bruce Long, who more than anyone has kept the taylor case alive.

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Michael: In the history of Hollywood, has there ever been anything like the murder of a leading director, a mystery that has gone unsolved for so long?  The one that comes to mind is the mystery around the death of Thelma Todd.

Bill: I am very intrigued by the Todd case, but even that wasn’t as huge as the Taylor case. The reasons are a few: one, Taylor was really very prominent, a key figure high in the industry with the support of bigwigs like Zukor and Lasky. Two, the scandal ensnared so many other leading figures in the industry. Three, and most important, it occurred right at the moment when the stakes were so high for the film industry, when not only the threats of bad publicity and censorship hung over the movies but also federal regulation. That’s why it was so important to contain the fallout from all the scandals of the 1920-1923 period, and Taylor’s death was, in my opinion, chief among them.

Michael: Why are we still interested in a story that happened so long ago?

Bill: I think we’ll never tire of whodunits. And the characters in this story are just so complex and fascinating. Mabel Normand—I fell in love with her. So strong, so resilient, so full of integrity, so ahead of her time. Mary Miles Minter, so young, so deluded, so abused, so tragic. Margaret Gibson, so determined, so ambitious, so cunning. And Adolph Zukor— he created the movies as we know them, and he always so desperate not to lose everything and go back to being penniless and irrelevant. Will Hays, too, really fascinated me. Hardly the prude and puritan he’s long been considered, he was actually quite pragmatic, progressive, and nonjudgmental.

Mabel Normand

Mabel Normand

 

Mary Miles Minter signed this photo to "My Mammy"

Mary Miles Minter signed this photo to “My Mammy”

Margaret Gibson / Patricia Palmer

Margaret Gibson / Patricia Palmer

Michael: How hard was it to sell this type of idea to your agent / publisher?

Bill: I thought it might be terribly difficult. After chronicling three huge names — Hepburn, Taylor, Streisand — this was a bit of a departure and I know how publishing works. They always want an easy sell. So I worked on the idea for several years before I sold it. I’d stay up at night when I was tired of writing about divas all day. In that way, I had the story all fleshed out, and to my great surprise and pleasure, we had several editors bidding when we finally offered it. The editor I ended up with, Cal Morgan, at HarperCollins, is a real advocate of early film studies and popular culture histories. He’s been fantastic.

Mary Miles Minter and her mother, Charlotte Shelby

Mary Miles Minter and her mother, Charlotte Shelby

Michael: When I interviewed those still left from the silent film era, most believed that Taylor’s murderer was Charlotte Shelby, the mother of actress Mary Miles Minter. She was an easy scapegoat, not the most loved in Tinseltown. It doesn’t sound like, after reading Tinseltown, that Mary ever referred to her mother as Mommie Dearest. In the long line of stage mothers, was she really that bad? Does she get a bad rap from film historians?

Bill: I think she was pretty monstrous to Mary. Some of the things I write about in Tinseltown—like burning Mary’s doll when she was a child—are just shattering.

Mamma and Mary

Mamma and Mary

But I think we also have to respect her professionally. Pretty much all on her own, Shelby took on the system and won—a rare example of a woman succeeding in an industry dominated by men, and winning on her own terms at that. A strong, forceful woman is always going to attract more enemies than a strong, forceful man.

Michael: The murder of Taylor impacted so many lives. Besides the obvious, Taylor himself, who, in your opinion, ended up the biggest loser in the whole Taylor murder saga? How and why?

Bill: Well, so many suffered, but I would say it was Mary who really ended most tragically. Obsessive, a bit of a manic-depressive, terribly self-absorbed and delusional— but after her horrible childhood and the abuse she endured in the press, you can understand how she ended up that way. Her life after Hollywood was so sad. Taylor’s death followed her right until the end of her life.

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Michael: Another intriguing part of Tinseltown revolves around censorship and the influence of the religious right on the film industry during those days.  It seems that, every so often, this influential group latches onto a cause and creates headlines. I think of abortion and gay rights in our day, but in the early 1920s, it was the content of movies, movie stars, and bathtub gin, wasn’t it?

Bill: In many ways, Hollywood of 1922 reminded me so much of Hollywood in 2014. Stars becoming better known for off-screen exploits than their on-screen work; religious conservatives were decrying “Hollywood values” and the effect they were having on the nation; companies were buying each other up; and the government was trying to get a cut from all that cash. I think the reformers who were trying to censor movie content and censure star behavior recognized the secular, modern world that Hollywood was creating, and they were trying to stop it. Of course, the influence of the movies couldn’t be stopped. So much of the public in those pre-mass-market days hadn’t seen beyond their local communities. But Hollywood opened a window for them and after seeing the big wide world, they weren’t ever going back to more provincial views. I think an analogy can be made to movements today that are trying similarly to stuff the genie back into the bottle. Just ain’t gonna happen.

Michael: I want to touch on several of your other books. Was How to be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood the first biography that you wrote about a living person? How does that compare to writing about someone, say William Haines, who had already lived their life?

Bill: With Elizabeth, her people—her friends and family—were very cordial about me writing the book; some spoke to me; some did not. But Elizabeth was too ill at that point to cooperate. It does make it more sensitive writing about someone who’s still alive. Part of the reason I loved researching and writing Tinseltown was because I did not have to beg or cajole anyone to talk to me. They were all dead.

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Michael: I thoroughly enjoyed The Biograph Girl: A Novel of Hollywood Then and Now, which has Florence Lawrence, filmdom’s first movie star, who supposedly died in 1938, still alive at 106. Where did your inspiration for that book come from?

Bill: It was just a wild idea I had one day. Florence Lawrence had always fascinated me. She was so huge, so adored—and then so utterly forgotten. She had started this whole crazy business of stars and celebrity — well, with some help from Carl Laemmle who rigged up the first movie-star publicity stunts for her. I just felt she ought to get one more shot at fame.

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Michael: You dedicated The Biograph Girl to your mother and father who bought you your first typewriter when you were only nine. Were you writing then and how influential were they in your development as a writer?

Bill: I absolutely was writing then, back in those prehistoric days before computers. I thought a typewritten set of pages would look more like a “real book” than all the ones I’d been writing out in pen. My Mom and Dad absolutely loved that I became a writer. My Dad passed away last year but he would read every volume and ask lots of questions afterward. I just gave my Mom Tinseltown. At 88, she was insistent that all this was “before her time.”

Michael: You always credit your husband, Tim Huber, in your work. How interested is he in old Hollywood?  Does he share your interest?

Bill: He loves it through me. After 26 years together, he’s seen enough classic Hollywood films with me to know quite a bit. But every once in a while, while we’re flicking through Netflix, he’ll say, “Can’t we watch something from this century this time?”

Michael: How and when did you first become interested in Hollywood of the silent film era? Were there writers whose books inspired you back then? Who and which ones?

Bill: When I was a kid, those of us who loved silent film and early sound film really struggled to find anything to increase our knowledge about these wonderful movies, which were almost completely inaccessible. So I devoured the books of Kevin Brownlow and Anthony Slide. I was also really fascinated with the very early films, and had a correspondence with Charles Musser, whose research into the nickelodeon era was so groundbreaking. I remember him being surprised that this teenager was so interested in Edwin S. Porter and Georges Melies!

William J. Mann

Keep track of William J. Mann through his website, williamjmann.com

Michael: What’s next for you? Are there any projects in the works that you can tell us about?

Bill: My next book is my first non-Hollywood project. It’s called Alice & Eleanor: The Wars of the Roosevelts, about the rivalry between those two first cousins, one Republican, one Democrat, one beautiful, one plain, one gregarious, one shy—and both brilliant. But what I’m discovering is that Washington and Hollywood aren’t really all that different. They’re both about the creation and merchandizing of public images. That book will be out in 2016, hopefully in time for the presidential campaign.

* * *

Bill and I never got around to discussing who committed the murder.  That, my friends, is up to you to discover for yourselves!

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Lucille Ricksen, reincarnation, and my television debut

By Michael G. Ankerich

Destiny turns a dime, or so says the old Pam Tillis tune.

Three months ago, in early May, I thought my weeks ahead were inked into my calendar. I was busy working on my new book, Hairpins and Dead Ends , and packing the house for a move across town.

A phone call changed all that!  Welcome to Mi Vida Loca . . . and my television debut.

On the line was Sandra Alvarez, a producer for Ghost Inside My Child, a Lifetime Movie Network series. She talked about me coming to Los Angeles later in May to film a scene for an upcoming episode that would air in the fall.

I listened.

The company was developing a story around a 17-year-old teenager in Minnesota who, since the age of 12, believed that the spirit of silent film actress Lucille Ricksen lived within her. The crew had gone on location to Minnesota to film Amy and her mother and father in their home. The crew was then returning to Hollywood where Amy and Theresa, Amy’s mother, would visit some spots that might trigger memories.

Sandra was interested in filming a scene in Los Angeles where I meet Amy and Theresa and tell them about my research into the life and tragic death of Lucille Ricksen.

I devoted a chapter to Lucille in my book Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels. I have also written about her in Lucille Ricksen: Sacrificed to Hollywood, this blog. The story of the teenage actress who became a leading woman overnight has stayed with me since I dove into the details of her short life and tragic death.

Lucille’s mother, Ingeborg, brought Lucille and brother Marshall to Hollywood to seek fame and fortune on the silver sheets around 1920. Lucille was 10 years old.  Success came to the youngster. She played a happy-go-lucky juvenile in the serial The Adventures of Edgar Pomeroy for Goldwyn.

Lucille around 1920

Lucille around 1920

In three short years, Lucille became trapped and exploited in the industry’s publicity machine. Overnight, she went from being a 13-year-old spunky kid doing what she loved to a 16-year-old leading lady, portraying all the struggles of adulthood.  Those dramas spilled over into her private life.

In one year, Lucille completed 10 feature films. Exhausted from her work, the actress disappeared behind closed doors in her Hollywood home. Ingeborg kept vigil. One morning, the emotionally drained mother collapsed and died across Lucille’s sick bed. Less than a month later, the broken-hearted actress joined her mother in death.

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After all these years, the lingering question has not been answered.  How did the young actress really die?  Tuberculosis? Exhaustion? Botched abortion?

The invitation to meet Amy and to appear on the show had all the elements that intrigued me: a walk into the supernatural; a look back at early Hollywood; and contact with someone intensely interested in old Hollywood. But reincarnation?  I had given little thought to the subject over the years. I, too, feel pulled to Hollywood, especially the Hollywood of the 1920s. For some unexplainable reason, it feels like home to me when I am out there in the middle of all of it. Does a spirit who lived there in that time now reside in me?  If I were to even ask the question, my Baptist roots would wrap around me and yank me down the backslidden trail. Now, as an Episcopalian, I have room for exploration and wonder.

In the end, I decided to venture out to Hollywood and meet Amy and her mother. (Click here to read more about my most recent Hollywood adventure). I even filmed a scene for the show. Sandra, the producer, asked where I thought we could shoot our scene. I suggested the old Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Built in 1923, the grand hotel is steeped in Hollywood history. It provided the perfect setting for our meeting.

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The grandeur of the Biltmore Hotel, Los Angeles

 

Sandra insisted that I not meet the Pierces until we filmed our scene. That way, our conversation would be fresh and spontaneous. As the cameras rolled, Amy and Theresa walked in and we introduced ourselves. CUT!  The action then moved to a table where, for the next 30 minutes or so (it seemed like days), I told Amy about my research.  I asked her questions; she asked me questions. It was everything Lucille!

 

Michael, Theresa, and Amy

Michael, Theresa, and Amy

When our work was done at the Biltmore, the crew took us to a deli for lunch. In the afternoon, we drove into Hollywood, to the home where Lucille died in 1925. The crew filmed Amy and her mother walking down the street, across the yard, and onto the front porch.

Amy and her mother get their first look at the house where Lucille died in 1925

Amy and her mother get their first look at the house where Lucille died in 1925

Amy was overwhelmed. She said she had definitely been in the house. It was in the front left room where she insisted she died almost 90 years before.

Meeting Amy and her mother was the highlight of my 2014 adventure to Hollywood. Amy has the glamour and look of old Hollywood. Her mother was fun to be around, down to earth, and engaging.

Does the spirit of Lucille Ricksen, who died so tragically from mistreatment in a profession she loved, live on in a 17-year-old teenager living quietly in Minnesota.  That is a question, my friends, that I can’t answer.  Decide for yourself.

Mark your calendars for August 23, only weeks away. Tune in to see this haunting episode of Ghost Inside My Child on Lifetime Movie Network, hear Amy tell her story, see my television debut (that is, if I don’t end up a face on the cutting room floor). Visit the show’s website and read my revealing interview with Amy in an upcoming blog entry.

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The world according to Fontaine La Rue and other upcoming Hollywood adventures

By Michael G. Ankerich

If you know me at all, you know that I have a thing for actress Fontaine La Rue. I can’t call her my favorite actress because I’ve never seen one of her films.  I like her as a personality and for so many other reasons.

Fontaine La Rue

Fontaine La Rue

When I began searching for her about two years ago, I had no idea she would be so hard to track down. I devoted a blog to her early last year, Where are you, Fontaine La Rue?, when my frustration over dead ends almost led me to the attic on a quest for my old Ouija board.

Just about the time I opened the door and was headed into the dark attic to connect with the supernatural, the most amazing thing happened. Fontaine’s family got in touch and told me all about their grandmother, their aunt, their great aunt. It turns out that Fontaine was even more interesting than I realized.

The mysterious Fontaine La Rue

The ever mysterious Fontaine La Rue

I’m dusting off my wings and revving my engines for a flight out to Hollywood this weekend. I will continue the research for my new book, Hairpins and Deadends: The Perilous Journeys of 20 Actresses Through Early Hollywood, and will type away on some chapters that are ready to be written.

My main focus is getting better acquainted with Fontaine. I’m not meeting her face-to-face or chatting with her over tea, of course, but I’m visiting her final resting spot (since 1964) at Calvary Cemetery and those places that were special to her: her mansion on North Van Ness Avenue in Hollywood and St. Vincent de Paul, the church where Fontaine exchanged wows with her first husband, the father of her three children.

I’m devoting a chapter to Fontaine’s life and film career in my new book — how could I not? — so I’m not telling everything I know. I can tell you that everything I thought I knew about her at first was wrong.  How did Matilda Fernandez, a young immigrant from Mexico, survive family tragedy in her native country to find her way into the studios of the 1910s as Dora Rogers (later Fontaine La Rue) and vamp her way into the hearts of movie fans over the world.  That’s the story I want to tell.

There’s more in store for me in Los Angeles than just Fontaine. I’m doing some hiking and biking. I’m pouring through the Los Angeles Examiner archives, visiting friends, and dining at my favorite Chinese and Italian restaurants. Did I also mention that I am filming a scene for a documentary about a silent film actress I’ve written about in the past? Yes, my first experience before the camera, but I can’t miss the opportunity to talk about an actress whose heartbreaking story still haunts me.  I’ll fill you in on the details when I can.

Oh! Here’s another plea.  If you are a relative of actresses Vivian Prescott, Lolita Lee, Evelyn Gibson, or Lila Chester, please let me hear from you.  I have lots of clues, but I’ve reached a dead end on whatever became of them.  I’m also deep into research about Estelle Mardo. I want to know where she went after she disappeared and was never heard from again. Members of her family, equally perplexed, would also like to know.

There’s a lot of mystery about the early days of the film industry and those actresses who made their livings before the camera. It’s frustrating to someone who is researching and writing a hundred years after the fact.

That’s the way it is, my friends, with hairpins and dead ends.

 

Hair Pins and Dead Ends, Ankerich’s new book, on the horizon

Relax, friends, I have not pulled a Howard Hughes or Doris Duke on you and slipped into seclusion on some exotic island in the Pacific. If I ever became a recluse, it would be in Manarola, Italy, but that’s another story.

Michael in Manarola

Michael in Manarola, 2013

I am hunkered down and working on my next book, Hair Pins and Dead Ends: The Perilous Journeys of 20 Actresses Through Early Hollywood. This book is a companion volume to Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels, which was released in 2010.

Hair Pins and Dead Ends tells the stories of 20 young women from all walks of life who, despite the odds against them, rose above thousands of other hopefuls to enjoy various level of success in films.

 

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Like Dangerous Curves, I selected the names for this book because I wanted to know more about their struggles in Hollywood. Some were well known and it was fairly easy to research their lives. Others existed only in fragments, a mention in Variety here, a photo in Motion Picture Classic there. Family members and public documents brought these women back to life.

I wrote extensively about Barbara La Marr  in Dangerous Curves, from her birth in 1896 to her death in 1926. She lived life so fast that I thought we should slow the action down and focus on her formative years, her life before  films.

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In Hair Pins and Dead Ends, I piece together those years using La Marr’s own diary and the unpublished memoirs of Robert Carville, an early lover. I discovered that the “girl who was too beautiful” was really the girl who was too unhappy.

 

Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa was equally as mysterious on the silver sheet as she was on canvas. Like Barbara La Marr, this shadowy figure from silent films lived fast. Her publicity campaigns and brushes with the law made her private life more interesting than any films she made.

 

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Margaret Gibson’s 1965 deathbed confession brought her name back to life. A neighbor who had been with Margaret as she lay dying recalls her confessing to the murder of director William Desmond Taylor. While playing virginal maidens on the screen, Margaret drifted into Hollywood’s underworld.

 

Marjorie Daw

Marjorie Daw

Both Marjorie Daw and Virginia Lee Corbin had mothers who brought their families to Hollywood in search of fame in the flickers. Marjorie’s mother died in 1917, leaving the 15-year-old  to raise her teenage brother.

 

 

Virginia Lee Corbin

Virginia Lee Corbin

By the time Virginia could crawl, her starstruck mother was pushing her into the spotlight. Virginia married young to escape her mother’s talons, but found it difficult to let go of her career.

 

Alice Lake

Alice Lake

 

Alice Lake, Helen Lee Worthing, and Lottie Pickford drowned their broken dreams of Hollywood in booze. Alice clung to a career long gone.

Helen Lee Worthing

Helen Lee Worthing

Helen rebounded from mental illness and suicide attempts, but her major sin in life was falling in love with the wrong man.

Lottie Pickford

Lottie Pickford

Lottie never gave a damn about much, preferring to party life away in the shadow of her sister, Mary, America’s Sweetheart.

 

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Sisters Katherine McDonald and Mary MacLaren were the Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine of silent films. They were as different as night and day. Early tension in their lives led to a rift that never healed. Katherine struggled with alcoholism.

Mary MacLaren

Mary MacLaren

Mary, referred to (by some) as a crazy cat lady, spent her last days in her dilapidated home in the heart of Hollywood.

 

Fontaine La Rue

Fontaine La Rue

After a tragedy in their native land, Fontaine La Rue and her mother came to the United States. Fontaine soon married and became the mother of three children. Defying the odds against her, she found her place in the motion picture industry as a comedienne and vamp. I devoted a post to Fontaine when I was searching for her story.  I knew bits and pieces, but lacked the critical piece needed to put her life together.  Her family got in touch and filled me in. Her remarkable story is ready to be told.

 

Belle Bennett

Belle Bennett

Belle Bennett became a teenage mother while appearing in her family’s traveling circus. Once in Hollywood, she denied her motherhood, passing her son off as her brother. Ironically, an accident took the boy’s life, just as Belle was preparing for the mother-of-all roles in Stella Dallas (1925). Belle was stricken with cancer and died at the dawn of talkies.

 

Edwina Booth

Edwina Booth

While Edwina Booth survived the mysterious illness she contracted in the wilds of Africa while on location for Trader Horn, the beautiful blonde was never the same. She disappeared from public view. For years, the world believed she had succumbed to her illness. Edwina, comfortable in her seclusion, never came forward to prove them wrong. Her family sheds light on her illness and later life.

 

Marie Walcamp

Marie Walcamp

Florence Deshon

Florence Deshon

 

Evelyn Nelson

Evelyn Nelson

Marie Walcamp, Florence Deshon, and Evelyn Nelson escaped illness, heartbreak, and disappointment by bringing down the curtain on their own lives. Suicide, it seemed, was the only way to set themselves free.

 

Jetta Goudal

Jetta Goudal

Valeska Surrat

Valeska Suratt

Jetta Goudal and Valeska Suratt committed professional suicide through out-of-control temperament and typecasting.

 

Peggy Shannon

Peggy Shannon

Peggy Shannon came to Hollywood as a successor to Clara Bow, The It Girl, who had broken down from too much “It.” In time, Peggy lost her own way. Hollywood was particularly cruel to this former showgirl and helped her realize that, while she might have been a replacement for Clara, she was a poor imitation.

 

Lolita Lee

Lolita Lee

Lolita Lee, a struggling dancer and movie extra, was hired to replace Barbara La Marr in the film Barbara was making when she finally burned out. Being an imitation of or replacement for anyone never guaranteed success. Lolita soon vanished.

Look for further information about the release of Hair Pins and Dead Ends.

You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave

I’ve been back from Los Angeles for over a month now, but I feel that part of me is still there. Like that line from Hotel California, “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”

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I first came to Los Angeles almost 30 years ago. In many ways, part of me never left.

Hollywood, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, the Valley, they have a certain pull on me. They’re places where you can just be. I’m beginning to think my most recent former life may have been 1920s Hollywood.  Don’t ask me who I was in that time.  I’m still figuring it out.

My most recent trip to LA was late August.  It revolved around a speaking engagement at the annual Rudolph Valentino Memorial Service, a book signing at Book Soup on Sunset, and research at the Academy Library (or “Aunt Maggie’s” as Eve Golden likes to call it).

I’m working on a companion volume to Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels. The working title is Hairpins and Dead Ends: The Perilous Journeys of 20 Actresses Through Early Hollywood.  The book should have been on the shelves by now, but I keep adding new actresses to the marquee.  Fontaine La Rue and Mona Lisa have joined the table of contents. Yes, Mona Lisa!

My Mona Lisa autographed portrait

My Mona Lisa autographed portrait

When flying west, I try to get a window seat on the plane so that I can be sure to see Los Angeles and Hollywood when they come into view.

Here’s my first view of the Los Angeles area in the mid-1980s.

The first time I set my eyes on Los Angeles

The first time I set my eyes on Los Angeles

Here is my view last month as I approached the city.

Los Angeles from the air, 2013

Los Angeles from the air, 2013I think I see the Hollywood Sign in the middle left of this one

I think I see the Hollywood Sign in the middle left of this one

On the day that I fly into the wild blue yonder, I try to take the earliest flight I can get. That way, I am in Los Angeles by 9:30 a.m. By the time I get my luggage and the car and head into Hollywood, it’s lunch time and I’m pumped.

I’ll never forget the day in the late 1980s when I landed at LAX and had to rush to get to the Days of Our Lives set at Sunset and Gower, known in the 1930s as the Gower Gulch. As a newspaper reporter, I had interviewed Drake Hogestyn, the actor who played Roman Brady, at a charity baseball game in South Carolina earlier that year. I was also his bowling partner in a celebrity tournament.

Not sure what Drake and I were discussing in this photo.  Probably our pitiful bowling score. We didn't win.

Not sure what Drake and I were discussing in this photo. Probably our pitiful bowling score. We didn’t win.

Drake invited Denise (she worked with me at the newspaper) and me to stop by the set and say hello on my next trip to Los Angeles.

Drake signed this photo for my mom

Drake signed this photo for my mom

After we put the top down on our Chrysler LaBaron, we headed into Hollywood. Our traveling companions dropped us off at Sunset and Gower and went to check into the hotel while we visited with Drake. It was a fun afternoon with Drake cutting up with the rest of the cast. By the time he was ready to leave the studio for the day and drive home to Malibu, it was getting dark.

He asked us how we planned to get to the hotel.  We were hoofing it!  Concerned for our safety and the distance to the hotel, Drake insisted on driving us to the Holiday Inn. Before we left the studio, he drew a map of Hollywood and the surrounding area.

Drake's map and photo as he signed photos for his fans

Drake’s map and photo as he signed photos for his fans

I crawled in the back of his jeep; Denise took the front. Drake was stopped by fans as we drove out of the parking garage.  He sat behind the wheel and signed autographs and talked to his fans.  He was an awesome gentleman.

Drake and Michael at the Holiday Inn in Hollywood

Drake and Michael at the Holiday Inn in Hollywood

But, I digress. That was a long time ago. I want to tell you about August 2013.

It has become a tradition for me to watch the sun go down behind the Hollywood Hills on the first night I’m in town.  I find a place to prop at the Griffith Park Observatory and watch the sky turn purple and orange as the sun sinks behind the hills.

Here’s how it looked last month.

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The nightlife comes to life

The nightlife comes to life

The Sign rests for the evening

The Sign rests for the evening

The day after I arrived in Los Angeles, I was guest speaker at the annual Valentino Memorial Service. Read about that here.

The next day, Chris and I planned to drive around Hollywood until my book signing that afternoon at Book Soup on Sunset Blvd. We spent the morning hiking the Hollyridge Trail.  The walk up was hotter than the hinges of hell. We came with no water.  What were we thinking?

Michael and Chris on the Hollyridge Trail

Michael and Chris on the Hollyridge Trail

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The Hollywood Sign from above

The Hollywood Sign from above

After I dragged my hot, tired, sweaty self to the top, I stood amazed at the view.  I thought about the 1920s and what it must have looked like in those days of early Hollywood.  Take a look at this comparison. Look closely and you can see Beachwood Drive in the photos (in the middle left third of both photos). That long straight road takes you into the Hollywood Hills and near the Hollyridge Trail.

The view from the Sign in 2013

The view from the Sign in 2013

The view in the 1920s

The view in the 1920s

Mack Sennett Beauties enjoying the view

Mack Sennett Beauties enjoying the view

Before going the book signing, Chris and I hydrated ourselves and stopped off in Beverly Hills at Church of the Good Shepherd.  The sacred place is a who’s who of Hollywood when it comes to weddings and funerals.  In June 1926, Mae Murray married her prince, David Mdivani. Rudolph Valentino and Pola Negri were best man and bride’s maid.  Two months later, Hollywood’s brightest stars crowded into the church to say goodbye to Valentino.

Approaching the church from the side. Chris swore this beam of light my camera picked up was a  welcoming sign

Approaching the church from the side. Chris swore this beam of light my camera picked up was a welcoming sign

 

I took a seat in a pew.  Chris  stretched out at the altar to soak in the spirit of peace

I took a seat in a pew. Chris stretched out at the altar to soak in the spirit of peace

 

The book signing at BookSoup was fun.  I wish I could say I got writer’s cramp from signing so many books, but I’d be lying to you.

Michael and Mae at BookSoup

Michael and Mae at BookSoup

Here I am at the booksigning with Chris and Miles Kreuger. Miles knew Mae and provided the anecdote that opened Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips.

Here I am at the booksigning with Chris and Miles Kreuger. Miles knew Mae and provided the anecdote that opened Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips.

The rest of the week went something like this.  I did research at the Academy Library during the day. The library is closed on Wednesday, so Richard and I hiked the Hollyridge Trail to the Hollywood Sign.  This time, we saw some shirtless gents scale the fence and to get a better look at the Sign.

Two teens stripped bare-chested and scaled the fence. They took photos right before they went over.

Two teens stripped bare-chested and scaled the fence. They took photos right before they went over.

IMG_0338I was content to pose once more with all of Hollywood at my back. I could see me scaling that fence. I’d catch my privates halfway through the jump and have to shriek for a helicopter to fly over and pull me out of the links.

Michael over Hollywood

Michael over Hollywood

In the afternoon, I drove to the beach to spend a few moments with Thelma Todd. There in the sand, with her beach house in sight, I thought of poor Thelma and how her untimely death in 1935 stills cries for justice.

Michael and Thelma's house

Michael and Thelma’s house

Thelma’s house back in the day.  It’s changed very little over the years.

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Thelma's place

A panoramic view with my lone shadow in the middle

Malibu and Duke’s was my next stop. I got a table by the sea and sipped chilled white wine.

An old haunt of mine

An old haunt of mine

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Late in the afternoon, during a tedious rush hour, I went down to Culver City and found the old entrance to MGM. I looked around and wonder whether this was the street that a naked Mae Murray ran across during her war with Erich von Stroheim on the set of The Merry Widow.

The gates to MGM

The gates to MGM

The gates in Mae Murray’s day.

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Before my time in Hollywood ran out, I drove south to Holy Cross Cemetery. I looked for Pola Negri in the Great Mausoleum. The building closed before I could find her. I walked and walked in the baking sun looking for Ramon Novarro. The markers all began to look alike. I never found him.  Next time!  With the help of the cemetery office, I found one actress I had come here to find: Fontaine La Rue. If you have followed this blog, you know about my frustrating quest to determine what ever happened to this siren of the screen.  I will tell you more about her in my new book.

 

Fontaine La Rue, an screen siren who has held my attention for a long time

Fontaine La Rue, a screen siren who has held my attention for years

Of course, I spent time with friends. I had dinner one evening with writer Jim Parish and Allan Taylor, the godson of Margaret Mitchell. They are my oldest Hollywood friends. We’ve been buddies since the 1980s. I had lunch with Susie and Bob Archer. She is the niece of actress Marjorie Daw, to whom I am devoting a chapter in my book.

The last evening, I told myself it had to be an early night. I had a 5:25 a.m. flight to Atlanta, which means the clock was set for 3:30. Wishful thinking.  I sat up until almost midnight with Andre Soares, the author of Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro. We finished our Thai dinner, then went around the corner for a milkshake.  When Andre and I get to talking about silent film stars, the night slips away.

It’s always sad when I pull away from the hotel, enter the freeway and head for the airport. Part of me stays behind.

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The line from the old Eagles song is true. “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

Who are you? Help me solve a 25-year mystery.

The identity of these lovely ladies has haunted me for at least 25 years.

whoisthis

 

 

 

Take a closer look.  Please!

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I bought it as an Anita Page photo.  I sent it off to for an autograph in the late 1980s.  She returned it with this note on the back.

whoisthis3

 

Okay, so it’s not Anita Page.  Lay off me, film friends!  I know now it couldn’t be Anita Page.

The question is, who it is?

Where are you, Fontaine La Rue?

I admit that I’m a bit obsessed with Fontaine La Rue, the actress who started out in films in the mid-teens as Dora Rogers (Rodgers), a comedienne with Mack Sennett.  In the late 1910s, she changed her name to Fontaine La Rue and moved from comedy to vamps, vixens, sirens, and sorceresses.

When I say obsessed, here’s the story.  I want to include her in the book I’m currently working on, Hairpins and Dead Ends: The Perilous Journeys of 20 Actresses Through Early Hollywood, a companion volume to my 2010 Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels.

Michael's Fontaine La Rue puzzle

Michael’s Fontaine La Rue puzzle

I have a folder full of pieces of the puzzle that made up Fontaine’s life, but I don’t have the missing pieces that complete the picture. She is one of those rare subjects for which I have solid information for the middle of her life.  However, I don’t know whatever became of her. I don’t know (for sure) when or where she died. I don’t even know where and when she was born.

Fontaine La Rue, where are you?

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The International Movie Database has dates for her birth and death. That’s all well and good, but lay down your cards. Show me the proof. As a meticulous researcher, I need to match those dates with birth certificates and death records.

I can find neither for this enchanting woman.

I have followed her rather successfully  through the decades. There she is in the 1920 U.S. Census  and numerous  Los Angeles city directories. She called herself married to one Louis La Rue, but records and other pieces of information show she was  living with a professor-turned-screen actor she’d been living with since the mid-1910s.

When she signed with Goldwyn in the early 1920s, she fills out a personnel profile, giving her parent’s names as Diego Monroy Bourbon Ferrar and Charlotte Bouchet. Her ambition in life is to educate her three children. Where did they come from?

She claimed decorating her home was her hobby, but her home life seemed a far cry from knitting afghans and hanging curtains. Somewhere in the ’20s, she was walking along her street in Hollywood when she was approached by a man dressed as a cop. He told her he was trying to arrest a man who was following her — that old story!! When she stepped into an orange grove with him, the man grabbed her around the neck and attempted to throw her to the ground.  The whistle she carried in her handbag saved the day — and her neck!

By the early 1930s, she was living with a real estate broker from Iowa. He later returned to Iowa and died there in the late 1930s. Dead end. No one in his family will talk with me.

After Fontaine La Rue faded from the silver sheets in the late 1920s, a notice appeared in Variety that one Ruth Madonna Antonelli was splitting from her husband.  Professionally, she was Fontaine La Rue, a dancer.  Several death and marriage certificates later, I concluded there had been two professionals by the name of Fontaine La Rue. As disappointed as it was, this Fontaine La Rue was NOT the one I was looking for.

I’ve traced Ms. Rodgers/La Rue to 1946.  After that, the trail goes cold. Dead end!

Fontaine as Dora Rogers

Fontaine as Dora Rogers

This old researcher believes there must be numerous dangerous curves in the life of this actress.  I want to know her story.

So far, I’m stumped! What do I do?

I’m almost to the point of contacting the spirits. I realize there are problems with that idea.  I can’t afford a psychic, I broke my crystal ball, I’m too chicken to have a seance, and my Ouija board is somewhere in the attic.

I also run the risk of getting dear Fontaine on the line and not being able to get rid of her. My life is too complex right now to have a spirit who played sorceresses and vixens hanging around the house and scaring my poodle puppies.

Finding Fontaine online and buried in a census report sounds like the way to go.  I’ll keep trying.