by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the early 1920s, roughly a dozen years after the start of the Hollywood film industry, scandal rocked the movie world with such notorious incidents as the murder trial of popular comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and the unsolved murder of prominent director William Desmond Taylor. As the industry skyrocketed in seemingly untrammeled growth, it was widely understood and even more broadly rumored that Hollywood was rife with alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual deviancy and other illegal and unseemly behavior.
As the United States turned increasingly conservative in an era of “red scares” among fears of rampant socialism and communism and as concerns about the changing ethnic demographics of the country led for a push for immigration laws, there was a growing focus on the film business and its real or presumed deleterious effects on the morals of Americans who were largely movie-mad.
In fact, just about a month before Taylor’s killing, the newly created organization, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, hired Postmaster General Will H. Hays, and paid him the substantial salary of $150,000, to bring about “higher standards and the general uplift of the business.” It wasn’t just the actual or imagined shenanigans of film stars, directors and others in the industry that was of mounting concern, but a great deal of attention was paid by moralists to the content of pictures, especially those that dealt with sexuality in ways that rubbed the puritans in society the wrong way.
The Taylor murder, however, was in its own class of controversy, because there were allegations of sexual licentiousness, substance abuse, and jealousy swirling around the matter, while the incident shined a bright light for those determined to find in it the epitome of the utter sinfulness pervading the industry and to stamp it out. Ultimately, the case went unsolved with the rumor mill working overtime to discern why and the fascination with the matter continued for decades, though Taylor is now largely forgotten.
The featured object from the Homestead’s holdings for this post is an Underwood and Underwood press photograph, with a caption date of 8 February 1922, filed in the reference department of the News Enterprise Association, with its own date two weeks later, of Los Angeles County Coroner Frank Nance, who held the position from 1921-1945, and Los Angeles Police Department detectives examining the .38 caliber bullet, held in Nance’s left hand, that was fired into the back of Taylor’s neck and killed him.
Taylor, who resided in an apartment near Westlake Park, was born William Deane-Tanner in Ireland in 1872 to a retired British Army officer and his Irish wife and it has been reported that, after catching the acting bug while attending school in England, he was sent to Kansas to work on a ranch owned by an Irish native. When the ranch closed after its owner died, the young man worked as a salesman and waiter in the Midwest, acted under the stage name of “Cunningham Deane,” and then, receiving an inheritance from a deceased sister, moved to New York and worked as a furniture building and interior designer with a man named Taylor.
He was joined by a brother, Dennis, and continued in that occupation for several years. He married chorus girl Ethel Hamilton in 1901 and the couple had a daughter, also Ethel, though, when business floundered in the Depression of 1907, he abandoned his family and changed his name with William Desmond taken from a well-known thespian, and Taylor from his late partner. In 1909, he was in the Yukon gold rush town of Dawson, but did not succeed in mining, so he joined a troupe of actors working in the western United States. After a few years of wandering, Taylor, in late 1912, came to Los Angeles.
He became an actor for noted studio chief Thomas Ince as well as for the Vitagraph company before turning to directing, with most of his work for Paramount Pictures. He became very successful and was a rare director and editor and worked with Mary Pickford, Mable Normand and Mary Miles Minter, among others. During the First World War, he enlisted with the British Army and served in France, mustering out as a lieutenant with the service corps, and then returned to Hollywood, where his Anne of Green Gables, starring Minter, and Huckleberry Finn, were among his best works—though most of his films, as was the case generally, are lost.
There has been much speculation on Taylor’s relationships with Normand and Minter as well as his purported homosexual affairs, while Normand’s drug addiction was said to have led the director to try to help the actor with the result of angering her drug dealers. Minter openly longed for a romance with Taylor, which, in turn, angered her mother, Charlotte Shelby, who either blamed the director for her daughter’s loss of virginity or for assuming control over her career when Shelby sought to continued managing Minter.
On the morning of 2 February 1922, Taylor’s body was found in his house and, a report claimed that a doctor appeared on the scene and declared he died of natural causes, even though staff from the coroner’s office quickly discovered the bullet wound. It was determined that death took place the previous night, very soon after Normand left the house and, thereby, was the last known individual to see the director alive. The wife of actor Douglas MacLean, who were neighbors, told police that she saw a man come out of the Taylor residence and there were other reports of a man in the area, asking about where he lived.
Sensational news coverage, including by the Hearst syndicate and reporter Adela Rogers St. John, was rampant and it was obvious that the detective work of the Los Angeles Police Department was shoddy, in terms of evidence collection and preservation, if not influenced to “drop the matter” by those involved in the murder. It has also been suggested that the county district attorney’s office had too cozy of a relationship with Paramount executives.
Moreover, there was more than enough lurid attention to such alleged details as that Taylor kept a closet full of women’s lingerie belonging to his lovers, that he kept pornographic photos of him and his lovers, that Paramount officials rifled through the residence for incriminating letters and other documents, that he had his servant solicit teenage boys for sex with his boss, and much else. It was also noted that his former secretary and valet, Edward Sands, embezzled from Taylor and had apparently been stalking him just before the murder.
After an intense period of press coverage, however, the Taylor murder went unsolved. Charlotte Shelby was long suspected of being the killer and she and another daughter left the area, including spending several years in Europe, which added to the speculation, and she gave a lengthy 1929 interview denying any involvement. Her daughter, Minter, found her career almost instantaneously waned and she left Hollywood and became reclusive, though she lived until 1984. Normand also receded from the spotlight, though she was financially supported by her director and leading man Charles Chaplin, until she died of tuberculosis in 1930—another theory was that comedy studio owner Mack Sennett, for whom Normand worked and had a tumultuous relationship, was involved in Taylor’s death.
As the years went by, the murder was all but forgotten. In the 1960s, however, the director King Vidor, thinking he’d found a way back to moviedom relevance after some years out of the spotlight, pursued intensive research on the Taylor murder with the intention of making a film about it. Apparently because there were still enough people connected with it who were still living, the idea was dropped, but a box of his papers was later found by Stanley Kirkpatrick, whose 1985 book, A Cast of Killers, revealed that the murderer was Shelby and claimed that the man Faith McLean saw was actually her in disguise.
Five years later, however, publisher Robert Giroux, of the prominent publishing firm Farrar, Straus and Giroux, wrote A Deed of Death, which castigated Kilpatrick’s work (though said nothing about Vidor’s research and conclusion,) but with a similar level of certainly, determined that the murder was committed by those connected with the drug dealers who supplied Normand and many others in the film world.
The undisputed authority on all things Taylor, however, is Bruce Long, a graduate of Pioneer High School in Whittier, whose Taylorology website is a remarkable resource. Long has stated that he first became fascinated with the director through a book he acquired in his teens that featured headlines over the years from the Los Angeles Times. He tried to find information about the murder, but found it difficult to locate much, but, in the 1970s, having become a silent movie buff and, having done some searching in 1922 newspapers, put together a short article for the magazine, Classic Film Collector.
After moving to Phoenix and discovering at Arizona State University the interlibrary loan system, Long discovered a wealth of newspaper accounts outside of Los Angeles and California as well as film magazines and managed to get a job at the university, which gave him readier access. He met others working on projects related to the murder, including Kirkpatrick, as well as launched a simply fanzine called Taylorology, that did not receive much general interest, while he shared information with writers like Giroux. Electronic versions of Taylorology followed, starting in 1993 with a new online project launched a quarter century later.
While Long has observed that Sands was a possible suspect, for the reasons noted above, while Shelby was even more likely because she happened to own a .38 caliber pistol (a 1930 account published in a true crime magazine and from an interview with a district attorney investigator appears to have indicated, based on an ex-convict’s account, that she was responsible), he also believed that is was more likely that someone else was the killer. He also also observed that, while those interested in the Taylor murder want a definitive answer as to who carried it out, there are no shortage of such crimes that go unsolved. Meanwhile, there are those who have said that Los Angeles Police Department detectives were making solid progress on the case and were quickly told to drop the matter—evidently because Paramount and other studios saw likely lasting damage if the truth was to come out.
This photo of the bullet used in Taylor‘s killing is an interesting document of one of the most sensational Hollywood-related incidents of its time and certainly is one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” stories with which the history of our region is filled.