|William Desmond Taylor|
William Desmond Taylor
|Born||William Cunningham Deane-Tanner
April 26, 1872
|Died||February 1, 1922 (aged 49)
Los Angeles, California
|Other name(s)||William D. Taylor
|Spouse(s)||Ethel May Hamilton (1901-1912)|
William Desmond Taylor (April 26, 1872 – February 1, 1922) was an actor, successful US film director of silent movies and a popular figure in the growing Hollywood film colony of the 1910s and early 1920s. His murder on February 1, 1922, along with other Hollywood scandals such as the Roscoe Arbuckle trial, led to a frenzy of sensationalistic and often fabricated newspaper reports. In the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, the name Norma Desmond is a reference to both Taylor's middle name and one of his actress friends, Mabel Normand. Taylor's murder remains officially unsolved.
William Cunningham Deane-Tanner was born in to the Anglo-Irish gentry on April 26, 1872, in Carlow, Ireland. He was one of four children of a retired British Army officer, Kearns Deane-Tanner, and his wife, Jane. His siblings were Denis, Nell, and Daisy. He sailed for America in 1890, when he was 18 years old.
He briefly pursued an acting career in New York City before marrying Ethel May Hamilton on December 7, 1901, at the Little Church Around the Corner; they divorced in 1912. Though she appeared as a member of the Florodora sextette as Ethel May Harrison, she was the daughter of a wealthy Wall Street broker who provided him with funding to set up the English Antiques Shop, through which he could support a family. The Tanners were well-known in New York society until he abruptly vanished on October 23, 1908 at the age of 36, following an affair with a married woman, deserting his wife and daughter, Ethel Daisy. Tanner (Taylor) had suffered "mental lapses" before, and the family thought he had perhaps wandered off during an episode of aphasia. Deane-Tanner's brother, Denis, a former lieutenant in the British Army and a manager of a New York antiques business, disappeared in 1912, abandoning his wife and two children.
Changing his name to William Desmond Taylor, he was in Hollywood by December 1912 and worked successfully as an actor—including four appearances opposite Margaret "Gibby" Gibson -- before making his first film as a director, The Awakening (1914). Over the next few years, he directed more than fifty films. In July 1918, towards the end of World War I, Taylor enlisted in the British Army as a private at the age of 46. He was ultimately assigned to the Royal Army Service Corps of the Expeditionary Forces Canteen Service, stationed at Dunkirk and promoted to the temporary grade of lieutenant on January 15, 1919. Returning to Los Angeles, Taylor became president of the Motion Picture Directors Association. He directed some of the great stars of his era including Mary Pickford, Wallace Reid, Dustin Farnum and his protégée Mary Miles Minter who starred in the 1919 version of Anne of Green Gables.
In 1914 Taylor had fallen in love with prolific serial actress Neva Gerber during the filming of The Awakening. By this time Taylor's former wife—now married to Edward L.C. Robins, a restaurateur who owned Delmonico's, and mother of a young son, Samuel M. Robins—was aware he was in Hollywood. A few years later she was in a cinema with their daughter, saw Taylor on the screen and said, "That's your father!" They began exchanging letters. In 1921 Taylor visited his daughter, Ethel Daisy, in New York and made her his legal heir.
At 7:30 a.m. on the morning of February 2, 1922, the body of William Desmond Taylor was found inside his bungalow at the Alvarado Court Apartments, 404-B South Alvarado Street, in the Westlake Park area of downtown Los Angeles, California, which was then known as a trendy and affluent neighbourhood.
A crowd gathered inside and someone identifying himself as a doctor stepped forward, made a cursory examination of the body, declared the victim had died of a stomach hemorrhage and was never seen again, perhaps out of embarrassment, because sometime later doubts arose, the body was rolled over and it was discovered the 49-year-old film director had been shot in the back.
In Taylor's pockets were a wallet holding $78, a silver cigarette case, a Waltham pocket watch and an ivory toothpick. A two carat (400 mg) diamond ring was on his finger. A large but undetermined sum of cash which Taylor had shown to his accountant the day before was missing and apparently never accounted for. After some investigation, the time of Taylor's death was set at 7:50 in the evening of February 1, 1922. Whilst being interviewed by the police five days after the director's body was found, Mary Minter said that following the murder a friend, director and actor Marshall Neilan, told her Taylor had made several highly "delusional" statements about some of his social acquaintances (including her) during the weeks before his death. She also said Neilan thought Taylor had recently become "insane".
More than a dozen individuals were eventually named as suspects by both the press and the police. Newspaper reports at the time were both overwhelmingly sensationalized and speculative, even fabricated, and the murder was used as the basis for much subsequent "true crime" fiction. Many inaccuracies were carried forward by later writers who used articles from the popular press as their sources. Overall, most accounts have consistently focused on seven people as suspects and witnesses.
Sands had prior convictions for embezzlement, forgery and desertion from the US military. Born in Ohio, he had multiple aliases and spoke with an affected cockney accent. He had worked as Taylor's valet and cook up until seven months before the murder. While Taylor was in Europe the summer before, Sands had forged Taylor's checks and wrecked his car. Later Sands burgled Taylor's bungalow, leaving footprints on the film director's bed. Following the murder, Edward Sands was never heard from again. Some accounts claim that Sands' body was found in the Sacramento River in the early 1930s.
Peavey was Sands' replacement, Taylor’s African American valet who found the body. Newspapers noted that Peavey wore flashy golf costumes but did not own any golf clubs. Peavey was illiterate and bisexual. He had a criminal record which included arrests for vagrancy and public indecency involving underaged boys. Taylor had recently put up bail for him and was due to appear in court on his behalf. Peavey repeatedly accused Mabel Normand of the murder (she had teased him about his wardrobe) and was initially suspected of the crime himself. Eight years later, in 1931, Peavey died in a San Francisco asylum where he had been hospitalized for syphilis-related dementia.
Normand was a popular comedic actress and a close friend of Taylor. They might have had a romantic relationship. Although she and Taylor may have argued on the evening of his murder, she left his home at 7:45 p.m. in a happy mood, carrying a book he had given her. She was the last person known to have seen him alive. The police quickly dismissed her as a suspect as have most subsequent writers. However, Normand starred in many films with Roscoe Arbuckle whose career had become awash in scandal by the time of Taylor's murder. Her career had already slowed and her reputation was tarnished through these two scandals, along with revelations of her drug use and a third scandal involving a lover shot by her chauffeur, but she continued to make films throughout the 1920s. Normand died of tuberculosis in 1930.
MacLean is widely believed to have seen the killer. MacLean was the wife of actor Douglas MacLean and the couple were neighbors of Taylor. They were startled by a loud noise at 8 PM. MacLean went to her front door and came face to face with someone emerging from the front door of Taylor’s home whom she said was dressed "like my idea of a motion picture burglar". She recalled this person paused for a moment before turning and walking back through the door as if having forgotten something, then re-emerged and flashed a smile at her before disappearing between the buildings. MacLean decided she had heard a car back-fire. She also told police interviewers this person looked "funny" (like movie actors in makeup) and may have been a woman disguised as a man.
Eyton was the General Manager of Paramount Pictures. Several sources claim that in the hours following Taylor's murder, Eyton entered Taylor's bungalow with a group of Paramount employees and removed compromising items, either before police arrived or with their permission.
Minter was a popular actress and teen screen idol whose career had been guided by Taylor. Minter, who grew up without a father, was only three years older than the daughter Taylor had abandoned in New York. Coded letters found in Taylor’s home suggested that a romantic relationship between the 49-year-old Taylor and 19-year-old Minter had started when she was 17. Although Minter said Taylor had been against their romance almost from the outset and had often declined to see her, the letters (which she had written in 1919) were at odds with her screen image as a modest young girl. Minter was vilified in the press. She made four more films for Paramount, and when the studio failed to renew her contract, she received offers from many other producers. Never comfortable with her career as an actress, she declined them all, left films altogether and proclaimed her love for Taylor throughout the rest of her long life, dying in obscurity (although financially comfortable due to smart investments) in 1984.
Shelby was Minter’s mother. Like many "stage mothers" before and since, she has been described as consumed by wanton greed and manipulation over her daughter's career. Mary Miles Minter and her mother were bitterly divided by financial disputes and lawsuits for a time, but they later reconciled. Shelby's initial statements to police about the murder are still characterized as evasive and "obviously filled with lies" about both her daughter's relationship with Taylor and "other matters". Perhaps the most compelling bit of circumstantial evidence was that Shelby allegedly owned a rare .38 caliber pistol and unusual bullets very similar to the kind which killed Taylor. After this later became public, she reportedly threw the pistol into a Louisiana bayou. Shelby knew the Los Angeles district attorney socially and spent years outside the United States in an effort to avoid official inquiries by his successor and press coverage related to the murder. In 1938 her other daughter, actress Margaret Shelby (who was by then suffering from both clinical depression and alcoholism), openly accused her mother of the murder during an argument. Shelby was widely suspected of the crime and was a favourite suspect of many writers. For example, Adela Rogers St. Johns speculated Shelby was torn by feelings of maternal protection for her daughter and her own attraction to Taylor. Although (like Sands) Shelby feared being tried for the murder, at least two Los Angeles county district attorneys publicly declined to prosecute her. Almost twenty years after the murder, Los Angeles district attorney Buron Fitts concluded there wasn't any evidence for an indictment of Shelby and recommended that the remaining evidence and case files be retained on a permanent basis (all of these materials subsequently disappeared). Shelby died in 1957. Fitts, in ill-health, committed suicide in 1973.
Margaret Gibson was a film actress who worked with Taylor when he first came to Hollywood. In 1917 she was indicted, tried and acquitted on charges equivalent to prostitution (there were also allegations of opium dealing) and changed her professional name to Patricia Palmer. In 1923 Gibson was arrested and jailed on extortion charges which were later dropped.
Gibson was 27 and in Los Angeles at the time of the murder. There is no record her name was ever mentioned in connection with the investigation. Soon after the murder she got work in a number of films produced by Famous Players-Lasky, Taylor's studio at the time of his death. One of these films was among the last made by Mary Miles Minter. Gibson (in her words) "fled" the United States to the Far East in 1934, where she married her husband who worked for Socony (later Mobil Oil). However, she returned to Los Angeles in 1940 for medical reasons. Her husband, Elbert Lewis, died in a March 1942 Japanese attack on the Socony oil refinery at Penang, Straits Settlements (now Malaysia) during World War II, leaving Gibson with a small pension.
In 1999 the widely cited newsletter Taylorology published an account that on October 21, 1964, while living in the Hollywood hills under the name Pat Lewis on her modest pension, she suffered a heart attack and as a recently converted Roman Catholic, before dying confessed she "shot and killed William Desmond Taylor" along with several other things the witness didn't understand and could not remember more than 30 years later. The witness to her confession later repeated his recollection in a televised documentary.
From 1993 to 2000 Bruce Long, a staff member at Arizona State University (later retired), transcribed several hundred newspaper and magazine articles from the 1910s and 1920s relating to Taylor, his murder, the suspects, many of Taylor's contemporaries and their links to Taylor. The compiled result is a journal called Taylorology which contains over a thousand pages of text and has been noted as a significant archive of primary and secondary source material relating both to Taylor's murder and the early Los Angeles film colony.
Through a combination of poor crime scene management and apparent corruption much physical evidence was immediately lost and the rest vanished over the years (although copies of a few documents from the police files were made public in 2007). Various theories were put forward after the murder and in the years since, along with the publication of many books claiming to have identified the murderer but no hard evidence was ever uncovered to link the crime to a particular individual. Given Margaret Gibson's thoroughly documented background the report of her dying confession in the Hollywood Hills attracted the attention of film historians but aside from circumstantial evidence, no independent confirmation has emerged.
A spate of newspaper-driven Hollywood scandals during the early 1920s included Taylor's murder, the Roscoe Arbuckle trial and the drug related deaths of such stars as Olive Thomas, Wallace Reid, Barbara La Marr, and Jeanne Eagels, which prompted Hollywood studios to begin writing contracts with "morality clauses" or "moral turpitude clauses", allowing the dismissal of contractees who breached them.
The 1950 film Sunset Boulevard with William Holden and Gloria Swanson featured a fictional, aging silent screen actress named Norma Desmond whose name was taken from Taylor's middle name and Mabel Normand's last name as a way to resonate with the widely publicized scandals of almost thirty years before. Gore Vidal's 1990 novel Hollywood features a fictionalized account of the Taylor murder.
Taylor directed or acted in over eighty films, most of which are believed to be lost. As of 2009 the unmarked murder site was the asphalt parking lot of a local discount store.