Today is the anniversary of the murder of Hollywood film director William Desmond Taylor (1872-1922). This was one of the many topics that General Jinjur and I bonded over on our first date, mixing as it does elements of two of our abiding interests, true crime and silent movies. Our two main sources (although there are plenty of others) were Sydney Kirkpatrick’s ripping yarn A Cast of Killers (a great read, although full of speculation and dicey on some facts) and the obsessive and highly scholarly web site Taylorology. There is a virtual cult, an industry, a subculture devoted to solving this unsolved murder, not unlike the one that surrounds Jack the Ripper. Or, say the JFK assassination. As with the latter, there are so many shady characters, so many motives, so many law enforcement gaffes, so much cover-up, so many distortions in the media and so forth that it makes for an endless round-robin, with the truth impossible at this late date to ever ascertain.
The shadiness began with Taylor himself. Originally a New York socialite named William Cunningham Deane-Tanner, he vanished in 1908, leaving behind a wife and child. It was thought he might have suffered a bout of amnesia and wandered away. In 1912 he emerged in Hollywood as an actor, becoming a director two years later. In the eight years that followed, he was to direct nearly 50 films, including adaptations of Tom Sawyer (1917), Huckleberry Finn (1920) and Anne of the Green Gables (1919). He worked and socialized (and diddled) most of the top stars of the day, so when his body was found face down in his bungalow on February 1, 1922 with a couple of bullets in it, it was inevitable fodder for the rumor mill. This was a year after the Arbuckle scandal hit. The press was primed to go stratospheric with any story reflecting Hollywood wickedness.
Taylor’s murder directly involved many of the folks we write about here. Mabel Normand was close friends with him, the last to see him alive, and, in the beginning, a suspect. Edna Purviance was his next door neighbor and Douglas MacLean in the house just behind; they were among the first on the scene when Taylor’s valet Henry Peavey (another suspect) found the body and began screaming. (MacLean’s wife may have seen the murderer.) Much of the lore and buzz have whirled around Taylor’s possible paramour, actress Mary Miles Minter and her mother Charlotte Shelby. There are other suspects, and much mist swirling around. Margaret Gibson actually confessed to the crime on her deathbed, but there is no evidence to corroborate her story. A doctor who showed up on the scene early, and declared Taylor’s cause of death to have been a “stomach hemorrhage” (as opposed to bullet wounds). Rumors of mysterious visits by studio personnel and destruction of evidence before the police even arrived. Rumored pressure by studios to have the investigation put to bed. And press innuendos about half the people in Hollywood. You can get lost forever in this rabbit hole. Just google the title of this blogpost, or go to Taylorology.com for a start!
For more on silent film history see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc