With the return of The Backstreet Boys and Jenny McCarthy, the ’90s are back in a big way. I could not think of a better time for A.J. “Fame…ain’t it a bitch” Benza to stage his comeback. If you were not watching the E! Mysteries and Scandals show back in the late ’90s, you need to YouTube it. I forgot how much I loved that show until I read the new True Hollywood Noir: Filmland Mysteries and Murders by Dina Di Mambro.
In today’s TMZ-dominated gossip culture, the bar has been lowered so far that a misplaced pout from one of the Kardashians qualifies as an outrage. With True Hollywood Noir, Di Mambro delivers the goods. She details 11 Hollywood murders, spanning the years 1922-2001, plus a twelfth chapter celebrating the life of gangster Mickey Cohen (1913-1976). Benza would be proud, if not a little jealous.
The books begins with the unsolved murder of director William Desmond Tyler in 1922. I like the fact that the author chose an opening case that was not quite as well-known as some of the others here, as it makes things more interesting. Besides the fact that all of these murders occurred in Hollywood, and involved prominent people, there are also multiple possible suspects.
Tyler may not have been as famous as D.W. Griffith, but as a three-term president of the Motion Picture Directors Association, he was a serious player in the business. When he was found shot in the back on February 22, 1922, the industry’s first reaction was to try and cover it up. Scandals were already a major problem in movie-land, thanks to the Fatty Arbuckle case. It appears that there are two main possibilities in the Tyler murder. He was very anti-drug, and could have stepped on some toes with his stance. And of course, there is the jilted-lover angle, of which there appears to have been numerous candidates as well.
A woman by the name of Margaret Gibson actually made a death-bed confession to the murder in 1964, and it seems pretty plausible. She was a former prostitute, opium-addict, and silent film actress, who knew him. They are all gone now though, and the case certainly offers an intriguing set of “what-if’s”.
I mentioned that I was impressed with Di Mambro’s choice of a lesser known scandal to open with, but she also includes a couple of well-known ones that I never tire of. The most recent case dates back to 2001, the same year that A.J. Benza was (hilariously) banned for life from the Howard Stern show.
For those who may not remember, Robert Blake was accused of murdering his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley that year. One of the things that set that case apart was just how bizarre the whole situation was. Blake was found innocent, but after reading about how Bakley tricked him into marrying her, one has to wonder if the jury just agreed that she needed to go.
My favorite chapter in the book has to be “The Secret Life of Bob Crane (1978).” This is another fairly well-known case, but it is a wild one. Crane starred as Colonel Robert Hogan on Hogan’s Heroes from 1965-1971. How they ever sold a situation comedy set in a Nazi prison camp is beyond me, but they did. It was hilarious and made him a star.
Although he was married, Crane used his status as a high-profile TV star to pick up women. Lots of women, as it turned out. In fact, he had what you could call an over-flow of willing women, who his buddy John Carpenter was all too willing to help him out with. In today’s world, with sexting all the rage, and the admission of being a “sex addict” enough to clear a guy of major repercussions, it is hard to believe the Crane scenario. Yet it happened.
Carpenter was his friend because he had video equipment. Very few people outside of the studios owned such expensive toys, but Carpenter did. So they videotaped their antics. Crane and Carpenter may not have been the first to do this, but in the early ‘70s, they were members of a very exclusive club. For various reasons though, Crane cut Carpenter out of the picture in 1978. He was found dead on June 29, two days after the two of them had been seen arguing in a bar. Although Carpenter was always the main suspect, he was never convicted of the grisly murder. Di Mambro details it all, and it is quite a story.
All of these cases are fascinating, as a matter of fact. It is not only the gossip factor at play in the deaths of people such as Natalie Wood, George Reeves, and the others. The author has chosen to describe situations that are incredibly unusual in and of themselves. The situations make for fascinating reading whether the people were famous or not.
The strangest chapter is the final one, “The Real Mickey Cohen.” It is the lengthiest chapter in the book, double the space of most of the others, and written as something of a tribute. Di Mambro talks about all sorts of good things that Mickey Cohen did in his life, including an incident with a young, female child in Las Vegas. She credits Cohen’s help in saving this girl’s life, and states that the girl would have surely died without it. She never says who the now-grown woman is, only that she is eternally grateful for Cohen’s help.
I bet even A.J. Benza could connect the dots on that one. Meanwhile, Dina Di Mambro does an excellent job of presenting the cases for us to connect the dots ourselves, in some of the strangest Hollywood murder mysteries of all time. True Hollywood Noir is an excellent read.