I’m endlessly fascinated by silent era Hollywood (I blame Singin’ in the Rain and, later, Barbara Hambly’s wonderful book, Bride of the Rat God). I may have purchased an embarrassing number of books about the subject of early Hollywood and silent film stars when I was researching Silent Sin. Actual events of late 1921 and early 1922 form the skeleton of the book’s plot, which I call out in the Author’s Note at the end of the book. But if you haven’t read Silent Sin, or it’s been a while, here’s that note!
Silent Sin Author’s Note
Try to imagine a world without movies. Without the cult of celebrity. Without Hollywood.
The film industry and its connection to Hollywood are so entrenched in our culture now, in our consciousness, in our daily lives, that it’s somehow shocking to realize how very young it is, barely over a century old. The first film studio wasn’t built in Hollywood until 1911.
In its early days, many were convinced that it would never last, and in those early days, dismantling it would have been far simpler than it would be today. Nobody was more terrified of an industry collapse than the studio heads themselves. When scandals rocked the town—not only the Taylor and Arbuckle cases, but the deaths of actors Olive Thomas and Wallace Reid, and producer Thomas Ince among others—they were ready to sacrifice almost anything to protect themselves and their budding empire.
What did it matter if a few stars’ careers were destroyed (especially if they were expensive ones like Arbuckle) as long as the industry itself endured and as long as the producers’ control over their world remained inviolate?
When it appeared that motion pictures would be subjected to government censorship, they invited in their own watchdog—Will Hays, former Postmaster General, and the progenitor of the infamous Production Code that would shape what appeared on-screen for decades.
It’s ironic in a way—the producers thought they were protecting themselves from strict oversight, yet they had introduced a censor they couldn’t escape because they’d invited him in and willingly subjected themselves to his authority.
Nevertheless, the studio system and its stranglehold on its assets—performers who were forced to toe the line if they expected to work in films—was so great that it kept actors like Cary Grant, Randolph Scott, Gary Cooper, and Ramón Novarro in the closet for their entire careers, sometimes for their entire lives. Louis B. Mayer was able to essentially erase William Haines from history. Haines had been the top box office draw for several years in the late twenties and early thirties, including making the transition from silent films to talkies. But Haines refused Mayer’s order to abandon his lover, Jimmie Shields, and marry a woman. His studio contract and acting assignments suffered, but rather than repine, Haines quit acting and became one of the most successful interior decorators in Hollywood. Joan Crawford, a lifelong friend, was one of his first clients.
If the Taylor murder and the Arbuckle case gave me the framework to hang my story on, Billy Haines and Jimmie Shields (who were together until Billy’s death in 1973) supplied the inspiration for Martin and Robbie’s romance. Two men could build a rich and happy life in Hollywood by evading (and ignoring) the studios’ hold.
William Desmond Taylor’s murder has never been solved. Given the corruption in the police department at the time and the hopelessly compromised crime scene, it’s unlikely that it will ever be. That doesn’t stop people from speculating. King Vidor was convinced Charlotte Shelby, controlling stage mother of starlet Mary Miles Minter, was the guilty party. Some believe Mary Miles Minter herself, who was romantically obsessed with Taylor despite being thirty years his junior, pulled the trigger. On her deathbed in 1964, Margaret Gibson, another actress who had fallen on difficult times back in 1922, reportedly confessed to killing Taylor. There were other suspects, none of whom ever panned out. Speculation is all we’ll ever have.
A note about timelines….
The documentation for some events in those early days can be a bit sketchy. Whenever possible, I used the first-person accounts of those who worked in silent films (historian Kevin Brownlow’s excellent The Parade’s Gone By includes many such anecdotes). My primary source of the sequence of events in February of 1922 is King Vidor’s account of his own investigation into the murder, as related by Sidney Kirkpatrick in A Cast of Killers. Vidor was actively working in Hollywood during the silent era and knew many of the principals in the case. A Cast of Killers includes Vidor’s story of filming scenes from Sky Pilot in the Sierras, getting caught in a blizzard, and walking into Truckee to be greeted by his father with the news of Taylor’s death.
I’ve taken some liberties about where certain premieres might have taken place, but you know, this is fiction. I can do that!
But the story of the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party’s trip to California, including Moses Schallenberger’s ordeal and subsequent rescue by Dennis Martin? That’s all true. Members of the Donner party sheltered in Moses’s still-standing cabin during their later (and vastly less successful) trip. If you visit the Donner Memorial today, you can see a commemorative plaque on the site.