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Critically acclaimed author uncloaks three divas and a murder in Hollywood

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Award-winning author, biographer and film historian William J. Mann is about to launch his latest book, Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine and Madness at the Dawn of the Movies through Harper-Collins in October.

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Mann, a popular lecture circuit speaker, is currently on a book tour of the country talking about his three critically acclaimed, best-selling biographies that reveal never before documented facts about Hollywood divas Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Barbra Streisand.

At the Big Book Getaway at the Mohegan Sun Convention Center in Uncasville, Conn. Jacques Lamarre, Director of Communications and Special Projects for the Mark Twain House and Museum in nearby Hartford moderated a talk with William Mann. As Lamarre began: "William,..." the author interrupted with "You can call me Bill."

The author spoke to a rapt audience in the Nehantic/Pequot conference room about his best known biographical portraits of Hollywood legends: Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn, named a Notable Book of 2006 by The New York Times; Hello Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand, published in 2012; and How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood, which Publishers Weekly described as "like gorging on a chocolate sundae." All three were critically acclaimed best sellers.

Mann explained that he seldom ever reads other biographer’s works before he writes his own because many biographies are simply ‘cut and paste jobs’ and that misconceptions and untruths just keep getting told over and over again, eventually being accepted as the truth.

Being adverse to those shoddy shortcuts, Mann has deservedly become widely respected among publishers, critics and readers for his meticulous research, detailed documentation and intellectual integrity.

For instance, after he earned his BA and Masters and got a job at the Hartford Monthly, he decided to write a story about Katharine Hepburn because they were both from Connecticut. Digging in to the archives of Hartford’s birth records, he discovered that Hepburn was born in 1907 – and not, as she had often told the press, in 1909.

After the story was published he sent her a note explaining that he had included the real birth year of 1907 in his article, and hoped she wouldn’t be upset. A few days later he received a letter with Katharine Hepburn’s embossed name on the envelope. It was a two-word note from the Great Kate. It simply said “Dear William Mann, - GOOD SLEUTHING!” He still has the letter, framed, of course.

Although Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn was a story that Mann had always wanted to tell, its success prompted his editor to suggest he write about Elizabeth Taylor and Barbra Streisand. He said: “I wasn’t really interested, and they dragged me kicking and screaming” to do those two biographies.

He finally became enthused about the projects once he decided the Streisand biography would ‘not tell the same old story’ but cover the little-known first five years of struggling to be recognized as a major talent and how she doggedly managed to win the starring role in Funny Girl on Broadway.

Again, methodical research became a key element. Just as he was writing about Streisand the New York Public Library had archived a collection of Broadway legend Jerome Robbin’s papers that were not at that time available to the public. The library finally agreed to let Mann investigate the six boxes of private papers which gave extra legs to the biography. “It was a treasure trove, it felt like Christmas morning” he said. It revealed how the famed choreographer and director took on a floundering Funny Girl production and created a show that ran 1348 performances and won many Tony awards. It was the show that made Streisand an “over-night” superstar.

Mann also had what he called his ‘geek moment’ during the Streisand research and interviews. Phyllis Diller, who had given Barbra one of her first big ‘breaks’ at the famed Bon Soir in New York, was staying at Barbra’s home in California. She invited Mann to stop and chat about Barbra’s early days. (The diva was away at the time and Mann did not get to meet her). When then 94-year-old Diller opened the door in her caftan and wig, waving her famous cigarette holder, Bill ‘geeked out’ when Diller did her ruckus signature laugh. You can read what she told him in Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand.

Mann told us that of the three divas, Elizabeth Taylor was the one who ‘told the truth about everything’ all the time. She grew up in Hollywood, and she ‘wanted us to buy what she had to sell’ so she told her story every day to the world and was right up front about who she was.

So what about the murder in the above headline? William J. Mann’s aforementioned next book Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine and Madness at the Dawn of the Movies is “the story of the rollicking town and how the Hollywood dream factory and studio system came about during the uninhibited and turbulent Roaring Twenties.”

In the book to be released in October, much of the story involves the famous, unsolved murder mystery of William Desmond Taylor, director of 59 silent movies, which Mann promises to solve in the final chapter. Until now, it is the most famous cold case in Hollywood history. Its effect on Hollywood was the establishment of powerful Hays Office that enforced censorship on the move industry. Apropos to solving the murder, Mann urges his readers “don’t tell the ending, and don’t read the final chapter first!” Just like the famous Agatha Christie’s mystery The Mousetrap which has been playing in London for a zillion years, we urge prospective readers of Bill’s newest book, which he calls a ‘whodunit’, NOT to reveal the murderer to anyone else.

A prolific writer, William J. Mann is also the author of Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines, for which he won the Lambda Literary Award; Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood; and Edge of Midnight: The Life of John Schlesinger. He is also the author of six novels including the best-selling The Biograph Girl, based on Florence Lawrence, the first film actor to be given a film credit and thus became the first movie star.

Mann has told us that he has formed a production company with ‘partners who are also friends.’ Work is underway on a musical based on ‘Liz and Debbie’ in which Debbie’s ex Eddie Fisher is a central character. “Eddie is a much more interesting character than Burton” Mann believes. When we asked him if he thinks Debbie Reynolds will like the show, he said “She’s portrayed as bubbly personality and comes up smiling through it all” so she should be pleased.

He’s also doing a screenplay based on Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn, and Wisecracker is being developed separately as a musical and as a film. Hello Gorgeous has also been optioned as a film.

At the end of the Big Book Getaway, Mann joined several other authors in the convention center lobby to sign his books that were being sold on the spot by RJ Julia Booksellers of nearby Madison, Conn., and copies that fans had brought with them to the event. One of his admirers waiting on line told us “I’ve got all three of the biographies that Bill was talking about today, but I forgot them at home! So, I just went and bought three more because I refuse to leave here without getting him to sign these books for me – I’ve read them all and they’re better than all the rest of other writer’s biographies!”

As with all Mann’s bestsellers – non-fiction and fiction – they’re all compelling page-turners. www.williamjmann.com

By Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Out and Travelin’, Critics On The Aisle 2014

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