Revisiting the “Ben-Hur” crime scene

100 years have passed since that sunny Saturday in Culver City. But the gossip and whispers go on:

• Were any of the deaths and injuries attributed to that day somehow more than accidental? If so, who could have been behind it—and why?
• With the stands full of law enforcement, reporters and the Hollywood elite, how could the truth about that day have been kept from the newspapers?

“The Ben-Hur Murders” goes beyond official accounts and the usual studio hype to probe the dynamics of working in Los Angeles at the height of Prohibition.

We meet Grover Link, a young Midwest cowboy on the run from justice, hired by MGM at day-labor wages to help wrangle horses for the big “Ben-Hur” chariot race. There on a massive recreation of a Roman coliseum, Grover is bullied by jealous co-workers and a production honcho whose real job is procuring “bootleg” hootch for studio bigwigs. As shooting begins, Grover falls under the spell of an ambitious MGM beauty named Norma Shearer who has her eyes very much set on the executive box of her industry’s most eligible bachelor, Irving Thalberg.

With the body count rising, “The Ben-Hur Murders” offers an “upstairs/downstairs”-style peek at the Hollywood studio system in its giddy post-adolescence, where lies and deception often became a form of backlot obsession.

About the 1925 “Hollywood Games” …

The coliseum games of Imperial Rome had nothing on the “Hollywood Games” of 1925. Here the contestants were American boys and suntanned immigrants—displaced war vets and weary cowhands who had ridden to the end of the range and just kept heading west. Like any old Roman gladiator, they were just as ready to put their lives on the line if there was money in it.

On that one cloudless Saturday morning in mid-October, a legion of assistant directors, studio hands and camera operators watched the morning fog burn off. Up in the bleachers mixed movie fans with jaded stars. As they paced and waited the bets began to fly. Studio heads were putting up a king’s ransom in gold to the winning chariot team. Everyone knew what it meant. For the first time in a thousand years a full-fledged chariot race was about to be run for real.

Down on the track twelve chosen stunt drivers settled behind their shields, wrapping the bundle of reins around their fists. For them the stakes were life-or-death. There would be betrayals, dirty tricks, maybe even some attempts at sabotage.

But when all was done, the world would have a new masterpiece of the screen. For the ones who were there and knew what they saw, October 17, 1925 would reign forever as the day of “The Ben-Hur Murders.”

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What People Are Saying…

The excitement and danger of the chariot race that made this silent epic a hit is the culmination of The Ben-Hur Murders, and it does not disappoint. Novelist Harding leads up to it and describes it with page-turning verve. The Hollywood background is meticulously researched, and the combination of real and fictitious characters has an E. L. Doctorow flair.

J. Wynn, reviewer The Baltimore Sun

Calling all silent movie fans and amateur sleuths! This is your book. John Harding brings the keen eye of a journalist to this true story, rendering the fictional parts with the sensitivity of an experienced mystery writer. The craft is in good hands here.

Alida Brill, author of Dear Princess Grace, Dear Betty: Memoir of a Romantic Feminist

Delivers a cowboy’s-eye view of old Hollywood intrigue, murder plots, and a lead chariot ride in the greatest race ever filmed!

Henry C. Parke, film and TV editor, True West Magazine

A terrific read! Finished this page-turner (or screen-flipper in my case) in just three sittings. Although not a connoisseur of early-20th century films or actors, I was captured immediately. The characters are fleshed out, the action provocative and the pace—perfect.
Sandra Shapiro, mental health therapist and avid reader