The Real Deal
by E.J. Russell
While Silent Sin is about a purely fictional couple who are surrounded by a mostly fictional secondary cast, there are some references to people who lived and worked in Hollywood at the time (although mostly they’re simply mentioned). Some of these names may be familiar to readers—others might not. But because they deserve to be remembered, I’ll introduce you to some of them here.
J. Warren (Jack) Kerrigan
The fan magazines called him “The Great God Kerrigan,” and he was the fledgling film industry’s first bona fide superstar. He was also gay, living in his “Komfy Kerrigan Kottage” with his mother, his lover tucked away downstairs as his “secretary.” His sexuality, of course, was never overtly stated: when confronted with the infamous Marriage Question, his usual response was that he hadn’t yet found a woman who measured up to Mother. He topped the fan magazines’ popularity polls from 1913 through 1916, but then, in May 1917, when a reporter asked him if he was going to join the war, Kerrigan shot his own career in the foot when he said he said no—“… first they should take the great mass of men who aren’t good for anything else…” He went on, unfortunately for him, and the papers picked it up: The Great God Kerrigan thought he was better than everybody else and too good to fight for his country. His popularity never recovered.
William S. (Bill) Hart
Bill Hart was a former Shakespearean stage actor who transitioned to films at the age of 49 and became a star of early film westerns—he’d actually been a friend of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson and owned Billy the Kid’s six-shooters. His films were grittier and more authentic than the flashier stars like Tom Mix who later supplanted him, and his popularity waned. He retired in 1925 following the lackluster performance of his self-financed film, Tumbleweeds. His damaging public statements about Roscoe Arbuckle’s presumed guilt prompted Buster Keaton (Arbuckle’s best friend) to produce, direct, and star in The Frozen North, a parody of Hart (the premise written by Arbuckle) that presents him as a thief and a bully. Hart didn’t speak to Keaton again for years.
Thomas Ince, the “Father of the Western,” was associated with over 800 silent westerns in his career—some of them starring Bill Hart. Ince was the first producer to build his own self-contained studio on nearly 19,000 acres in Santa Ynez Canyon between Santa Monica and Malibu. Its official name was the Miller 101 Bison Ranch Studio, but it was generally referred to by its nickname: Inceville. Not only did Inceville contain shooting stages, outdoor sets (and not just for westerns), dressing rooms, production offices, printing labs, and a huge commissary—it was also home to its own stock performing company. Ince leased the entire 101 Ranch and Wild West Show from the Miller brothers and installed the troupe (comprising cowboys, cowgirls, horses, cattle, bison, and an entire Sioux tribe) at the site. Ince’s death is another early Hollywood scandal/mystery: in 1924, when he was just 44, he was taken ill following a party on W.R. Hearst’s private yacht, spawning gossip and rumors that persisted for years. The 2001 movie, The Cat’s Meow, with Cary Elwes as Ince, Edward Herrmann as Hearst, and Kirsten Dunst as Marion Davies, is based on the rumor that Hearst shot Ince, mistaking him for Charlie Chaplin, whom he suspected of having an affair with Davies.
So Hollywood almost didn’t need movies—the lives of film’s early practitioners provided plenty of drama on their own.
About Silent Sin
When tailor Marvin Gottschalk abandoned New York City for the brash boomtown of silent-film-era Hollywood, he never imagined he’d end up on screen as Martin Brentwood, one of the fledgling film industry’s most popular actors. Five years later a cynical Martin despairs of finding anything genuine in a town where truth is defined by studio politics and publicity. Then he meets Robbie Goodman.
Robbie fled Idaho after a run-in with the law. A chance encounter leads him to the film studio where he lands a job as a chauffeur. But one look at Martin and he’s convinced he’s likely to run afoul of those same laws—laws that brand his desires indecent, deviant… sinful.
Martin and Robbie embark on a cautious relationship, cocooned in Hollywood’s clandestine gay fraternity, careful to hide from the studio boss, a rival actor, and press on the lookout for a juicy story. But when a prominent director is murdered, Hollywood becomes the focus of a morality-based witch hunt, and the studio is willing to sacrifice even the greatest careers to avoid additional scandal.
Available at: Amazon
An Excerpt from Silent Sin
Dottie shook her head, grabbed Robbie by the elbow, and towed him, unresisting, out of the room. She didn’t say anything to him until they were settled at a table in the corner of the commissary.
Dottie unwrapped her ham sandwich. “What did you get?”
Robbie looked down at the table in front of him. “I—I’m not sure.” He lifted one corner of the wax paper. “I think it’s a pickle.” He peered into his cup. “And tomato soup?”
She set her sandwich down. “Rob, did Antoine knock you that far off your pins?”
“I just—What—How did he—” He gave up and took a bite of his pickle, and as the sourness hit the glands at the back of his tongue, he remembered that he hated pickles. He dropped it onto its wax paper.
She sighed. “I think we need to talk about a few things.”
He nodded and then took a sip of his soup. And I hate tomato soup too. “I think that’s probably a good idea.”
Propping her elbows on the table, she leaned toward him. “The thing is, Rob, some men like men.”
“Of course they do. Everyone has friends.”
“I don’t mean that kind of like. Not as in friendship. As in love. As in sex.”
Robbie gaped at her for what might be forever. Dottie waited patiently until he’d gotten his head around the fact she was speaking about that. Nobody spoke about it. Even Frank had whispered things in bits and pieces, never giving Robbie the whole picture—never naming it—until they were hunkered down in that basement hallway, waiting for their turn in there.
But Dottie acted like she was talking about whether to order lemonade or iced tea with her sandwich.
“I—I know that.”
“You do? Then that makes this easier. In Hollywood, there’s regular work—” She held out one hand, palm up. “—and there’s queer work.” She held up the other hand.
“Queer. Is that what they call them? Men who… who like men? Do they make them all stay together? Where the queer work is?”
Dottie chuckled. “They don’t make them, but there are definitely certain places where producers think it’s okay for queers to work. The costume shop is one place. Set design and decoration is another.”
Her expression darkened. “Not openly, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t queer actors. See, for all the power the studio heads have, they’re working stiffs under the skin. The artistic types, the sophisticates they call ’em, have class. So the producers depend on fellows like Antoine or George Hopkins, over at Famous Players-Lasky.”
Robbie nodded jerkily. “I’ve met George.”
“Honey, everyone’s met George. He’s been here since he was seventeen and started designing for Theda Bara. But George and Antoine…. Well, the producers defer to them because they make the studio’s pictures look good.” She shrugged. “And if the pictures look good, audiences pay to see ’em. Which makes the producers happy.”
“Okay. That makes sense, I guess.”
“But the thing is, those same producers—and all the ‘regular’ folks—don’t want queers to show up anywhere else. Directors? Stuntmen?” She pointed to a table nearby where the sausage-slinging actors were eating hot dogs. “Actors? Nope. They’ve got to be he-men. Because what they do isn’t ‘queer work.’” She jerked her thumb over her shoulder toward the corridor leading to the costume shop. “In there, it’s safe for Antoine to be who he is, because he’s where he belongs. But to be queer on the set? Behind the camera?” She shrugged. “You’ve got to have thick skin, a convincing cover story, and the courage of a whole pride of lions. You also need someone to stand by you, or you’ll get kidded by every bull-necked yahoo on the lot.” She took a huge bite of her sandwich.
“Does that happen? The… the kidding?”
She swallowed, then took a swig of her lemonade. “It can. If a director thinks an actor isn’t he-man enough for him, he’ll let a scene go on a little too long before calling ‘cut’—not long enough for any real injury, but long enough for discomfort and fear. That happened to Jack Kerrigan all the time.”
“Somebody should have stood up for him.” Robbie’s throat was tight. I didn’t stand up for Frank.
“Rob. God, your face.” She reached across the table and grabbed his hands. “It doesn’t happen all the time. Look at George. He and Bill Taylor are pretty much untouchable because they work together, so they’ve always got each other as backup. Although when Bill was in London last year, George could have had a little trouble if it weren’t for the fact that his mother has almost as such influence as he does.”
Robbie’s stomach dropped. “Bill Taylor? As in Mr. Taylor, the director?”
“Yep. William Desmond Taylor.”
Robbie tried to speak but could only manage a croak. He took a gulp of his cold soup. “You mean they’re… they’re….”
“Together. Yes. Like that.” She let go of him, although she still watched him as if she were afraid he was about to burst into flames. She’s not wrong. “Not that they make a production out of it in public. What Hollywood tolerates here in town, in our own circles, is different from what the ladies in the temperance unions or the preachers in the revival tents can handle.”
Robbie clutched his knees, his head whirling. If someone like Mr. Taylor could do that, be that, and have his… his lover by his side….
“But Mr. Taylor is such a gentleman. He makes all those speeches to the ladies’ temperance clubs and all. Even the censorship groups listen to him.”
Dottie gave him a pitying look. “Rob, just because a man likes men more than girls, it doesn’t make him a monster.”
About E.J. Russell
Multi-Rainbow Award winner E.J. Russell—grace, mother of three, recovering actor—holds a BA and an MFA in theater, so naturally she’s spent the last three decades as a financial manager, database designer, and business intelligence consultant (as one does). She’s recently abandoned data wrangling, however, and spends her days wrestling words.
E.J. is married to Curmudgeonly Husband, a man who cares even less about sports than she does. Luckily, CH loves to cook, or all three of their children (Lovely Daughter and Darling Sons A and B) would have survived on nothing but Cheerios, beef jerky, and satsuma mandarins (the extent of E.J.’s culinary skill set).
E.J. lives in rural Oregon, enjoys visits from her wonderful adult children, and indulges in good books, red wine, and the occasional hyperbole.