Aaron Kaplan & Tracy Katsky Acquire Hot Hollywood Mystery Book ‘Tinseltown’ For TV Series Adaptation
Nellie Andreeva wrote on Deadline
November 14, 2014 Just thought you would like the update
“In a competitive situation, with multiple film and TV producers pursuing, Aaron Kaplan and his Kapital Entertainment, along with Tracy Katsky through her pod deal with Kapital, have landed the rights to William J Mann’s best-selling book Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood.
Based on extensive research, including recently unsealed FBI files, Tinseltown is set Los Angeles in the Roaring Twenties. Described as a true tale of ambition, scandal, intrigue, murder, and the creation of the modern film industry, the book centers on the famously unsolved murder of William Desmond Taylor, the popular president of the Motion Picture Directors Association, with Mann laying out his theory who the killer was.
Kaplan and Katsky plan to adapt Tinseltown as a cable drama series, with Season 1 chronicling the Taylor murder and the scandal that surrounded it, set against the backdrop of censorship and the emergence of the movie business. Followup seasons would likely focus on subsequent decades in Hollywood, starting with the 1930s.
Mann, repped by APA, is a well known Hollywood chronicler who has previously written Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn; How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood; Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand; and Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines. Tinseltown, published by HarperCollins, is his latest book, which came out last month to strong reviews.
Katsky first teamed with Kaplan in May when she launched a production company and set it up at Kaplan’s Kapital Entertainment as a pod. The two recently extended the deal for another year after a successful first selling season that netted Katsky six comedy sales”
By Tim Teeman
.October 10, 2014
…THE DAILY BEAST”
How to Get Away With a
The author William J. Mann was about nine years old when he first learned about the 1922 murder of the
The night of the murder, February 1, one of
After dishy biographies of Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbra Streisand and the gay actor and designer Billy Haines, Mann claims to solve Taylor’s murder in his latest book, Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at The Dawn of Hollywood—and he does so in a thrillingly written book, storylined like a detective yarn, and brimming with the personalities and atmosphere of 1920s Hollywood.
Mann couldn’t have wished for a better cast of characters who converged at a time of radical change in
Of the three women, Mary was a chief suspect, as was her mother, Charlotte Shelby—
Alongside the twists and turns of the case, Mann also tells the story of Paramount founder Adolph Zukor, his ruthless play for studio supremacy, and his fraught relationship with Will H. Hays, whose name become synonymous with the notorious censorship-enshrining “Hays Code” of 1930.
The book burrows everywhere: into the police investigation, the life of Peavey (who features in the book’s best scene, in a graveyard), and into other scandals of the era, principally the one that enveloped Fatty Arbuckle—and Zukor—after the actress Virginia Rappe died after attending a party with him; Arbuckle was acquitted of any involvement in her death after three trials.
It’s quite a canvas, and Mann skillfully and convincingly weaves the disparate strands together to make a case for who he believes the murderer to be, a case made even more complicated by Taylor himself, a man of many secrets and identities.
“Being fascinated by old
For Mann, “it was rather like the old game of Clue, I thought. Mary Miles Minter did it in the drawing room with the pistol.”
It was fascinating for Mann to see how some things never change. “Adolph Zukor, who pretty much invented the business structure of the American film industry—essentially the same structure we have today—was obsessed with conglomeration. He was an early advocate of the doctrine, ‘Too big to fail.’”
The book is so evocatively written, right down to the weather, characters’ glances, and what they are feeling, I ask if Mann took some dramatic license.
“I tried really hard so that everything I wrote, whether it be ‘It was raining’ or ‘Mabel was devastated,’ was sourced in some way,” Mann said. “I have something like seven hundred notes, the vast majority of which are primary, contemporary sources.”
More than that, Mann used photos, postcards, old maps, atlases, train schedules, and weather reports to corroborate even the smallest detail or description. When he describes the peeling yellow paint of an apartment block, or the sun-dappled, eucalyptus-lined
Mann wanted to solve the crime knowing that the murder “could really be seen as just an old chestnut by someone who doesn’t understand how important it was at the time.” Even though the unsolved case fascinated Mann and hardcore ‘Taylorologists’ (there’s a “terrific” website, Taylorology.com, that was a “huge help” to Mann), the author knew he would have to set his story against the vivid context of the birth of the American film industry.
In the half-decade that Mann covers—1920 to 1925—all the major institutions of
The chief suspect for years was Charlotte Shelby. Ed King, the chief detective in the case, was frustrated that all the evidence he had accumulated against her—a gun, a weak alibi, Mary’s suspicious behavior—had not led to charges being brought. And they never were, despite a grand jury being convened in 1937 to reopen the investigation. Charlotte Shelby demanded to be exonerated. She got her wish, Mann writes: in 1938 the case was closed for good.
The story “pretty much just wrote itself,” Mann said, though it “helped” that he was also a novelist and (soon) a screenwriter. “The trick was to find the inherent drama in the true-life accounts of these people and then construct the narrative in such a way that presents some details and withholds other details until later. That’s how you build suspense.”
The most surprising characterization is that of Hays, who is less the crusading moralist of received thought, and more a well-meaning, thoughtful man. “Will Hays gets such a bad rap in film history,” Mann said. “He was really a decent guy, called in to do an impossible job at a very difficult time. He was the best kind of religious man: humble, moral, filled with integrity to do the right thing. He never passed judgment on anyone. He went up against extremists and opportunists and did his best to keep the movies free of government regulation and censorship.”
Hays was very progressive, a follower of Teddy Roosevelt, who, said Mann, “deserves some reconsideration after so many years of being called a puritan and a prude. As I was researching the book, Hays’s power struggle with Adolph Zukor really fascinated me. These two men, neither of whom stood much more than five feet tall, immeasurably shaped the most influential industry of the first half of the twentieth century.”
Zukor was Mann’s favorite character to write. “What a great figure to write about, to bring back to life. Zukor’s so important historically but he’s also such a complex, complicated, contradictory man—a poor orphan from Hungary showing up penniless on American shores, who goes on to become the confidante of presidents and industry titans. Zukor wasn’t going to let anything—no scandal, no murder—keep him from consolidating his gains and achieving his goals.”
Of his chief female characters, Mann “rather fell in love with Mabel Normand, and she’s another one I try to rescue from myth and legend. Mabel was a bright, funny, ahead-of-her-time woman who doesn’t deserve to be remembered as just a drug addict. She kicked the habit and despite the career troubles caused by the
Then there’s “poor little deluded Mary Miles Minter,” who Mann thinks has gotten a raw deal in past accounts. She was just seventeen and eighteen when Mann’s story starts—abused by her mother—and the fact that she got caught up in all this is, he says, truly tragic.
For the first time, Mann also tells Gibson’s story, which is the complete inverse of the usual
As it was for me to read, Mann’s favorite scene to write was Peavey’s confrontation with some goons in a graveyard, refusing to be bullied. “In that moment, he defies every stereotype of African-Americans and gay men—he just really asserts his power and puts them all to shame. I loved writing about Henry Peavey. He’s been treated very badly by previous chroniclers, at the time and ever since. I hope I’ve given him back a little of the dignity he possessed in life.”
In Taylor, Peavey, and the women of the book, Mann shows how tangibly homophobia, racism, and sexism operated in 1920s
What also comes out in the book, Mann said, “is the really vile anti-Semitism that was directed at
As for Taylor himself, his private life, like his identity, was incredibly muddied.
“The victim remains an enigma in many ways,” Mann said. “There’s a lot about
The key moments in a gay man’s life of that era were all there in Taylor’s own, Mann said: “The disappointment he proved to be to his father; the leaving of home to seek a new life; the attempt to ‘toughen up’ as he did on ranches and in the Yukon; the unhappy marriage and the sudden abandonment of his wife and daughter.”
The friendship with Normand “sealed the deal” for Mann. “Everyone insisted it was just platonic, and they all seemed to be telling the truth. For Mabel, at that point in her life, after so many horrible experiences with men, a gay best friend was exactly what she needed. Besides, we know from (the set designer) George Hopkins’ memoir that he and Taylor were involved in a romantic relationship at the time.”
Mann, whose books are always engagingly revelatory, himself came of age in the 1980s when, he recalled, all the exposé sort of biographies were being written by and about the great movie stars—Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall. “So I got hooked on finding the real stories of these people and these movies and these cultural influences,” he said. “When I began doing my own research, my first subject was Haines (for Mann’s book Wisecracker ), and so I got to know these really wonderful old men and women, mostly gay, who shared with me the other side of the
As a gay man, Mann was interested in telling an untold piece of gay history; but as a historian he was even more fascinated. “You mean to tell me it didn’t happen that way? Spencer Tracy was hiring a male hustler? Katharine Hepburn had a longtime female partner? Louis B. Mayer paid off District Attorney Buron Fitts to cover up the murder of Jean Harlow’s husband? Lana Turner didn’t tell the whole story about the night Johnny Stompanato was stabbed to death? Elizabeth Taylor marketed her tracheotomy to win an Oscar? Barbra Streisand wasn’t just discovered based on her voice alone?”
Learning how to spot a press agent’s talking points “became second nature” to Mann, “and finding the truth became my calling.”
“Would my evidence stand up in a court of law? I don’t know,” Mann said. “Obviously it’s been more than a century and so much evidence is gone. I was fortunate that FBI records existed—not on the
There will be people who disagree with him, Mann accepts. “No one really wants cold cases solved. That takes away all the fun for armchair detectives. Look at the pushback to the recent claims that the killer of Jack the Ripper was found.” Patricia Cornwell made the same claim several years back, but that hasn’t stopped new solutions to the crimes from popping up, Mann points out. “There will always be people who want the glory of claiming to have ‘cracked the oyster, as Ed King, the lead detective on the
Mann submits Tinseltown, then, as “one more piece of the lore of ‘Taylorology’” and will let readers draw their own conclusions on whether he has found the true killer or not. “But I do think my solution is the only one that fits what we know and doesn’t contradict any of the available evidence. And, when you read the book, there are just so many compelling bits of circumstantial evidence that the solution I came up with seems to be the only one to account for them all.”
Mann would love to tell the full story of corrupt District Attorney Fitts in the 1930s, who had his hand in so many Hollywood scandals, but thinks he needs a break from writing about
His next book is called Alice and Eleanor: The Wars of the
So much of the mystery is gone in
“There are still people as bright as Mabel Normand and as brilliant as Adolph Zukor and as desperate as Gibby Gibson and her locusts—there’s perhaps a lot more of those today. And while your secrets can still occasionally kill you, it doesn’t happen so often anymore. Seems today you can usually get away with anything.”