I have a confession to make - I'm addicted to true crime stories. Not the gruesome, Texas Chainsaw Massacre kind, but good mysteries with twists and turns and interesting characters. For some reason, the 1920s seems to have an abundance of these kinds of cases. One of my favorites from this era is the still-unsolved murder of Hollywood director, William Desmond Taylor. For over 85 years, moviephiles and true-crime aficionadoes have been sifting through the evidence - which includes a victim with a mysterious past; a beautiful ingenue; her obsessive, jealous mother; a starlet with a secret drug addiction; a district attorney with a vested interest in hiding the truth; plenty of suspects but no arrests - trying to solve this classic Hollywood whodunit.
William Desmond Taylor (below) was a very successful director of the silent era. In February of 1922, he lived in a bungalow on Alverado Avenue in the Westlake section of Los Angeles, then a favorite neighborhood for the movie community. Handsome, urbane, and courtly, Taylor was enormously popular with the actors he directed, who included Mary Pickford, Wallace Reid, and the up-and-coming young actress, Mary Miles Minter. His past was somewhat mysterious; like that other icon of the Jazz Age, Jay Gatsby, he had reinvented himself into the life he dreamed of. Born in Ireland in 1872, his real name was William Cunningham Deane-Tanner. In 1890, he came to America to pursue an acting career. In 1901, he married Floradora Girl Ethel May Hamilton and had a daughter. One day in 1908, married life not agreeing with him in some way and after an affair with another actress, he walked out and never came back.(Apparently this was a family habit: his brother Denis did the same thing to his family and was never seen again. What happened to him remains a mystery). His wife obtained a divorce in 1912. By this time, Taylor was in Hollywood and meeting with some success in his acting career, although by 1914 he had switched to directing. He was known as an "actor's director," respectful, thorough, and quite successful. The acting community seems not to have known about his past life. In 1918, the final year of World War I, he enlisted in the British Army as a private and served so well that when he left the army in 1919, he had been promoted to lieutenant. By 1922, he was an entrenched, well-respected member of the Hollywood film community. He had also re-established contact with his daughter, who, after seeing one of his films, had written to him; he started sending her a monthly allowance and named her as his legal heir. On the surface, Taylor's life seemed to be well-ordered and peaceful.
Until the morning of February 1, 1922. Taylor's valet, Henry Peavey, arriving for work at about 7:00am, stopped briefly to pick up a bottle of milk left on the front step, opened the door, and let out a shriek that woke up the rest of the neighbors in the little bungalow court. Taylor was sprawled on his back in the little entry room directly in front of the door, dead. Peavey's screams soon attracted a crowd, among them an executive from Taylor's studio, a camerman, and Taylor's friend and colleague, Julia Crawford Ivers. By the time someone thought to call the police, Taylor's friends had entered the house and removed what they considered items liable to tarnish Taylor's reputation, including letters from several women and a pink negilgee hanging neatly in a closet.
When the police finally arrived, the crime scene had been hopelessly contaminated. What they did find was that Taylor had been shot in the side, probably about 12 hours earlier. There was no sign of forced entry. In his pockets, in addition to $78 in cash (a not-inconsiderable sum in 1922), were a gold pocket-watch, an ivory toothpick, and a cigarette case. He was also wearing a two-carat diamond ring. All of these were easily-pawned items, which seemed to rule out robbery as a motive. (Later, Taylor's accountant claimed that Taylor had shown her a large roll of cash the day before. This cash was never found. However, the accountant's claim was never substantiated.) If robbery wasn't the reason, who would want to kill this well-known and well-liked man? And why?
The first thing that the police wanted to do was to reconstruct Taylor's movements the evening before. According to Peavey, Taylor ate dinner at about 6:30pm, then made a phone call to his friend, the actor Antonio Moreno. While he was on the phone, the actress and comedienne Mabel Normand (right) arrived. Normand and Taylor were good friends. Both avid readers, they frequently shared books back and forth. Taylor was also trying to help Normand kick a vicious heroin addiction. They were not, according to those who knew them both and to both of them, romantically involved. After finishing his phone call, Taylor gave Normand a book of German philosophy he had been saving for her (he had called her house repeatedly that day, to see when she was coming to pick it up). At about this time, Peavey left work for the day. Taylor and Normand chatted for a few minutes, then Taylor walked Normand out to her car. He did not bother to close the front door. He teased her when he saw a copy of the "Police Gazette" on the back seat and peanut-shells strewn on the floor - despite her interest in serious literature, Normand like to read the scandal sheet while eating peanuts. They said good-bye, and as the chauffeur drove her off, Normand watched Taylor go back inside the house.
A few minutes later, a neighbor of Taylor in the bunaglow court, Faith Maclean (wife of screen actor Douglas Maclean), heard what sounded like a shot and went to her front door to investigate. She saw someone in an overcoat, cap, and muffler (an odd get-up for Los Angeles, even in February) backing out of Taylor's door. The person did not appear in a hurry and Maclean thought the person must be speaking to Taylor, still inside. Then the person turned, looked directly at Maclean, and walked slowly off. Maclean assumed what she had heard was a car backfiring. Questioned by the police, Maclean said the person was "funny-looking." The police asked her to clarify, and Maclean said it looked as if the person were in costume, and might well have been a woman dressed as a man.
Well, this was interesting. Especially since the coroner reported that Taylor had been shot in lower right side, toward his back, as if he had had his hands up -- or had his arms around someone who used the opportunity to shoot him with a concealed weapon.
More investigating soon uncovered a plethora of suspects. When the police finally got hold of some of the letters taken from Taylor's bungalow, they found several coded ones signed "Mary." The police discovered this was Mary Miles Minter, a beautiful 19-year-old actress whose career Taylor had encouraged (he had directed her in several films, including a very successful version of "Anne of Green Gables") and who, it turned out, was desperately in love with the director. The pink nightgown found at Taylor's home was thought to be hers, although sources differ on whether it was monogrammed "MMM" or not. According to several sources, including Mary, Taylor had been trying to break off the romance, citing their 30-years' age difference. Others thought Mary's overbearing, toxically ambitious mother, Charlotte Shelby, might have had more to do with the director's desire to end things. Either way, Mary was openly distraught over the rejection.
Mary Miles Minter Charlotte Shelby
Other suspects included, for a while, Henry Peavey, who was scheduled to go to court after a "lewd conduct" charge, possibly soliciting young boys. Taylor was planning on appearing as a character witness for Peavey, which seems to counter-indicate any reason the valet would have to murder his boss. Peavey also had an alibi for the night in question. (This story fed rumors of Taylor's bisexuality, never substantiated but certainly the topic of much discussion.)
Another shady character was Taylor's former valet, Edward Sands, a convicted embezzler and forger who had worked for Taylor until he made off with several thousand dollars in checks and belongings while Taylor was in Europe. He disappeared after the murder and was never heard from again, although it seems unlikely that a man with Sands' eye for the valuable would have left Taylor's diamond ring, money, and other expensive items behind.
A third theory was that Taylor was killed by drug dealers. It was well known that Taylor was desperately trying to help Normand kick her drug habit (drugs in Hollywood are nothing new). Maybe an angry dealer snuck in through the open front door while Taylor was saying goodbye to Normand and shot him when he came back inside. Again, though, why would someone like that leave the valuables behind?
Back to Mary and Charlotte. They both had alibis - each other. Mary, however, kept changing her story here and there; not enough to erode the alibi, but enough to arouse suspicion. On top of being heartbroken over the breakup, she was also known for being a bit unstable and prone to hysterics. As for Charlotte - well, Charlotte, according to almost everyone who encountered her, was a beast, a nightmare of a woman who was known for making huge trouble on movie sets and with studio bosses whenever she felt her daughter was being slighted or not managed properly. Also,Charlotte and her other daughter were supported by Mary. Ostensibly Mary's business manager, Charlotte depended on Mary's earning potential to keep her in the lifestyle to which she had become accustomed. An affair with an older man certainly would not help the career of an actress known and loved for playing sweet innocent young girls like Anne of Green Gables. And finally, Charlotte owned a .38 caliber handgun, the same type that had killed Taylor. Surely, there was enough smoke here to do some serious looking for fire. (Left, Mary Miles Minter and William Desmond Taylor)
The District Attorney , Thomas L. Woolwine, however, seemed to feel Mary and Charlotte needed protecting. He refused to prosecute or even investigate further. He also managed to lose important evidence, including the love letters and the pink negilgee that may or may not have been monogrammed with Mary's initials. Two other DAs in the years immediately after Woolwine reopened the case, but declined to prosecute or even continue the investigation. And ever since, people have been asking why. One theory is that the DAs office bowed to pressure from studio bosses, who wielded enormous political power in the 1920s and who were determined to avoid yet another scandal like the Fatty Arbuckle case. By the time the studios had lost their political clout, almost all the evidence from the case was lost or destroyed.
In any event, whether they participated in a cover-up or not, the studio bosses were unable to prevent a public backlash against the perceived immorality and debauchery of the movie community. The drug and alcohol related deaths of actors like Normand, Olive Thomas (who gruesomely drank a flask of bichloride of mercury, prescribed as a topical treatment for her husband's syphilis, thinking it was gin), and Wallace Reid, combined with scandals like the Taylor and Arbuckle cases, brought about "morals" clauses in actors' contracts and oversight by the Hays office, which monitored actors' onscreen behavior and appearances. By the 1930s, Hollywood's public persona had been tamed, although the bad behavior continued underground.
So who killed William Desmond Taylor? Was it heartsick and unstable Mary? Her jealous, controlling mother? Someone else? Theories abound, but we will never know for sure. Many of the people associated with the case had sad ends. Henry Peavey died in the early 1930s from tertiary syphilis. Mabel Normand died in 1930 of tuberculosis, complicated by her drug use. Mary Miles Minter's career was ruined. She and her mother were estranged after Minter sued her for money she claimed her mother had stolen from her. At one point during an argument, Minter's younger sister is supposed to have accused Charlotte of murdering Taylor, but that's just hearsay. Charlotte died in 1960. Minter left the movie business and lived on in invisible but comfortable retirement in California, having invested wisely in real estate. She died in 1984.
In 1986, Connie Chung interviewed William Cahill, one of the first police officers on the scene of Taylor's murder. Despite being 100 years old, Cahill had a sharp memory of events and a clear opinion as to who killed William Desmond Taylor. He maintained his aplomb even after Chung, attempting to drop a bombshell, tells him Taylor might have been homosexual.
This interesting clip showcases a cast of Hollywood folks who have some connection with the case, including Margaret Gibson, who claimed on her deathbed to have killed Taylor. That claim was later dismissed by authorities, for a variety of reasons. The clip also demonstrates Mary Miles Minter's pretty appeal to audiences.
Anyone interested in finding out more about the murder of William Desmond Taylor should consult "Taylorolgy", a website devoted to the case with an exhaustive archive of documents, photos, interviews, and articles.