“True Hollywood Noir” Indeed
October 18, 2013 § 1 Comment
Those interested in old Hollywood and/or true crime will find Dina Di Mambro’s True Hollywood Noir: Filmland Mysteries and Murders (Classichollywoodbios.com Publications) a worthy addition to their library. Although the topics–mysterious deaths, from Silent Era director William Desmond Taylor’s to Natalie Wood’s–have been explored many times before, Di Mambro’s exhaustive research and attention to detail set her book apart from the rest.
William Desmond Taylor’s murder–notoriously unsolved since 1922–provides a good example of her technique. After describing the crime scene–“once he was turned over, it was evident that he was lying in a pool of blood…shot once in the back”–Di Mambro painstakingly describes the possible suspects, as well as those who obstructed justice. The list is mind-boggling: Paramount Studios, the LAPD, the actress Mary Miles Minter and her mother Charlotte Shelby, his “sociopath” houseman Edward Sands, the actress/prostitute Margaret Gibson, his younger brother Denis Deane-Turner, a professional hit man. (No wonder the crime remains unsolved.) In sifting through the various theories, Di Mambro makes a good case for Margaret Gibson, who after changing her name to Pat Lewis twice confessed to the murder, the second time on her deathbed.
Other chapters shed new light on old crimes as well. I had always thought Thelma Todd’s death–her body was found in her car, in the garage of her Pacific Coast Highway house/restaurant–was a murder, possibly mob-related. Di Mambro makes a good case for accidental death by carbon monoxide poisoning, possibly abetted or covered up by Todd’s on-again, off-again lover, the director Roland West. As with Taylor’s murder, the case was muddied by a studio cover-up–in this case Hal Roach’s decision “that letting the matter go was in the best interest of his studio and the film industry as a whole.”
More recent cases–Natalie Wood’s, Bob Crane’s and Robert Blake”s–are not only thoroughly reviewed but updated. After a new inquest into Wood’s 1981 drowning, Di Mambro notes the actress’s death certificate was amended from “accidental drowning” to “drowning and other undetermined factors.” She adds a welcome familial angle to Bob Crane’s sordid 1978 murder by noting that the 2001 biographical film “Auto Focus” sparked a fight between his two sons (from different marriages) over Crane’s portrayal. The murder of Robert Blake’s wife Bonny Lee Bakley–in which Blake was found not guilty, though he subsequently lost a civil case–contains a poignant transcript. Blake and Bakley’s teenaged daughter, adopted and raised by Blake’s older daughter Delinah, no longer has contact with her father “because Delinah thought it was better that way.”
Not being a true crime fan, I sometimes felt overwhelmed by this litany of untimely deaths, whether accidental or homicidal. Yet I enjoyed the book’s unexpected theme: that fame, however big or resilient, is no match for the Grim Reaper, whose Hollywood work is some of his grimmest. Those who relish such tales will love True Hollywood Noir.
True Hollywood Noir: Filmland Mysteries and Murders is available at http://www.amazon.com/True-Hollywood-Noir-Filmland-Mysteries/dp/0615572693