Sunday, July 27, 2014

13 Castle Walk by DeWitt Bodeen





This novel is a thinly veiled fictionalization of one of Hollywood’s most famous unsolved murders. In 1922, director William Desmond Taylor was discovered dead in his home with a fatal gunshot wound in his back. Two famous actresses of the era, Mary Pickford wannabe Mary Miles Minter and popular comedienne Mabel Normand, were rumored to have been romantically involved with Taylor and had their careers tarnished as a result of his murder. Since some of the cast of players and suspects and known associates were still alive at the time it was published in 1975 (the year I was born) all names and many identifiable characteristics have been changed in the novel, but if you know the case it’s still possible to tell who’s who, and even if you don’t know a thing about it you can still enjoy this book for what it is—a novel about an unsolved murder mystery from Hollywood’s silent screen era.

The book begins with Hannah Winters being paroled from prison. The young woman, whom many regard sympathetically, was condemned for the mercy killing of her terminally ill husband. Her parole officer arranged a job for her as a live-in housekeeper/secretary/companion for the eccentric elderly former silent movie queen Jennie Jill Jerard.

Still a lovely blonde from the neck up, after Jennie disappeared from the screen in the aftermath of the scandalous demise of her director, and the only man she ever loved, Andrew Riley Rutherford (the thinly disguised William Desmond Taylor), she became an obese virgin recluse, living in her opulent Hollywood villa at 13 Castle Walk, alone with a succession of housekeepers, her memories, prize-winning rose garden, the perpetual See’s candy box, and her white Persian cat.  Jennie is obviously modeled on Mary Miles Minter whose virtuous image was destroyed after her romantic involvement with or romantic idealization of (depending on what you believe) William Desmond Taylor became public knowledge.  Both the Jennie Jill Jerard of this novel and the real life Mary Miles Minter wore their hair in long golden ringlets a la Mary Pickford, dressed in beautiful lacy Valentine gowns, and had faces you might find on the lid of one of the beribboned candy boxes of the day, and specialized in playing demure, sweet, and pure heroines on the silver screen.

Hannah and her employer instantly hit it off. They quickly become friends, not just employer and employee. And a handsome reporter, who sympathetically covered Hannah’s trial, and also just happens to be curious about the decades old mystery, also comes into their lives, and quickly becomes Hannah’s love interest.

In this novel, taking the place played by the real life Mabel Normand is the fictional Molly Carfax, who is modeled on Mary Pickford. Since Mary Miles Minter and Mabel Normand played different types of roles onscreen, they really could not be seen as rivals, except possibly for William Desmond Taylor’s affections, so this makes a very interesting substitution. In this novel Molly Carfax and Jennie Jill Jerard were both the girls with the golden curls, playing the same kinds of roles, both backed by ruthless, ambitious stage mothers willing to do anything to further their darling’s career. Retired from the movies, Molly lives in her mansion, and her brother, a hopeless alcohol, lives in the guest house with a retired boxer as his caretaker to keep him out of trouble.

Molly’s brother, and Jennie’s occasional costar, Johnny Carfax is also a prime player in this work of fiction. Obviously modeled on immature, hard-drinking party boy Jack Pickford, who lost his beautiful Ziegfeld Follies showgirl bride Virginia Knight (inspired by Olive Thomas) to an inexplicable suicide on their honeymoon.

The past comes back to haunt Jennie when a man, claiming to know the truth about Andrew Riley Rutherford’s death, tries to blackmail her and then is found dead, shot through the back, in her front yard at a time when both she, and her new housekeeper, are getting a fresh start in life, Jennie through an unexpected return to the screen, and Hannah when love comes into her life.

SPOILER ALERT! Because 13 Castle Walk is a rare and pricey book, at the time I’m writing this used copies range from $75 and up, I am going to break my usual rule and reveal the rest of the story. If you don’t want to know the solution to the fictional mystery please skip to the final paragraph.

Gradually the truth is revealed. The blackmailer and corpse in Jennie’s front yard turns out to be a forgotten actor who drifted into a life of obscurity and petty crime after his career fizzled with the advent of sound. Andrew Riley Rutherford was (as William Desmond Taylor was also rumored to be) a discreet homosexual. In this novel he infected Johnny Carfax with a particularly virulent form of syphilis, which he unwittingly passed on to his bride. This led her to take her own life and Johnny, unhinged by grief, took a gun and shot the man he held responsible. Molly Carfax, and her protective mother, covered up the truth, even submitting to blackmail, to protect Johnny.


Overall, this was an interesting but not remarkable read, certainly not worth the high price used copies usually go for, which I fortunately didn't pay. I only have this because of my longstanding interest in the William Desmond Taylor murder case and the lives and films of Hollywood’s Golden Age. If this review has aroused your curiosity, I recommend the highly readable, nonfiction account A Cast of Killers by Sidney D. Kirkpatrick; real life movie director King Vidor became intrigued by the Taylor case and launched his own investigation and this book details it in a lively manner that reads almost like a novel. A Deed of Death by Robert Giroux, though it draws a different and much less dramatic conclusion, also makes interesting non-fiction reading. Both of these can be found at much more reasonable prices than 13 Castle Walk. There are a couple of other fictional treatments of the Taylor murder case which I have, but have not yet read, so watch for those in the hopefully not too distant future. 

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