Truth is wilder than fiction in this fast-paced journey through 80 years of Hollywood mayhem.
The lives of many Hollywood celebrities were as dark and twisted as the plots of their noir films; sometimes, they even died in a noir-ish explosion of violence. That mirroring of life in art—or perhaps vice versa—inspires Di Mambro’s book, a journey through celebrity bedlam, from the fatal shooting of director William Desmond Taylor in 1922 to the assassination of actor Robert Blake’s grifter wife Bonnie Lee Bakley in 2001. The author asks: “Could it have been the plots [the stars] played out during the day at the studio that contributed to the sense of drama and roller coaster emotions in their private lives?” Di Mambro has some tough acts to follow, since many of the cases she explores have been the subjects of entire books or lurid TV documentaries, including Taylor’s death, Natalie Wood’s drowning and the demise of Hogan’s Heroes star Bob Crane. But in briskly written chapters, she captures much of the scandal and corruption underlying the glamor of Hollywood, a world in which the studios—with the help of the cops, lawyers and prosecutors they controlled—were often able to stifle scandal at the expense of truth. Los Angeles District Attorney Thomas Lee Woolwine “wished to protect the studio at all costs,” Di Mambro says in speculating why actress Mary Lee Minter might not have been charged with Taylor’s murder. To the author’s credit, she doesn’t rely solely on secondary sources, getting some of her material from her own interviews. “I could have put an ice pick in her eyeball,” Blake confidant John Solari says of Bakley. “I couldn’t stand her.” Di Mambro also finds cruel irony in the stars’ lives. For instance, after Jean Harlow’s husband was found with a bullet in his head, MGM had her play the showgirl wife of a man who committed suicide. And Gig Young, eventually an apparent suicide victim himself, once lamented, “[Y]ou play a loser long enough, and you end up a loser—at least you are convinced you are a loser.”
Ably captures the sleaze simmering under Hollywood’s stars.