The Murder of William Desmond Taylor
February 1, 2013 marks the 91 anniversary of the death by homicide of William Desmond Taylor. Taylor’s murder is a juicy 20′s Hollywood scandal that continues to intrigue people. While there was a rogue’s gallery of suspects (see below), Taylor’s murder remained unsolved. Here’s a piece I published in April of 2012 on William Desmond Taylor’s birthday.
Today (April 26) is the birthday of William Desmond Taylor, silent film actor and director. Though he acted in or directed over 80 silent films (most considered lost), Taylor is most famous for being rather mysteriously murdered. The investigation of his murder, and the accompanying salacious media frenzy, fanned the flames of Hollywood’s 1920s scandals that eventually lead to “moral turpitude” clauses in studio contracts and production codes meant to contain the moral profligacy of Hollywood.
I decided to celebrate Will’s birthday by ordering myself the graphic novelization of his murder Famous Players: The Mysterious Death of William Taylor Desmond by Rick Geary. Then I thought, that’s selfish – maybe everyone else loves a juicy murder mystery as much as I do. So before we wish William Desmond Taylor a happy b-day, let’s take a look at the most interesting part of his life – his death.
The Murder of William Desmond Taylor
At 7:30 am on February 2, 1922, William Desmond Taylor’s body was discovered in his bungalow at 404-B South Alvarado Street by his valet, Henry Peavey. According to Wikipedia (though no specific source is cited), a crowd quickly gathered outside and a man identifying himself as a doctor stepped forward to say that Taylor had died of a stomach hemorrhage. However, a quick flip over of his body revealed a bullet wound in his back, and the doctor was never seen or heard from again, whether due to deviousness or embarrassment.
The Investigation of William Desmond Taylor’s Murder
Taylor’s murder investigation was mismanaged, to say the least. Much like Fatty Arbuckle’s trials for rape and murder, “evidence” seems to have a been a pretty loosely applied term. This much is known – at the time his body was discovered, Taylor had $78 in cash, a silver cigarette case, a Waltham pocket watch, a pen knife, and locket with a photograph of Mabel Normand on his person. He also had a two carat diamond ring on his finger. Obviously, his murder wasn’t a stick-up gone awry.
Taylor’s accountant claimed that on the afternoon of February 1, Taylor had shown him a large (but indeterminate) amount of cash. That cash was never found or accounted for.
The investigation was not helped by the ensuing media frenzy. Just like in the Arbuckle case, salacious rumors dominated the press and the studios were terrified by the potential damage. According to Robert Giroux, author of A Deed of Death: The Story Behind the Unsolved Murder of William Desmond Taylor, King Vidor later claimed that at the time local police were ordered “to lay off” the case by the studios.
Eventually, more than a dozen people were named suspects by the police and/or the press, but mostly by the press. Again, “evidence” is a spurious term here. For the media, the murder and the subsequent investigation was as entertaining as the movies themselves. Wild speculation abounded and tainted the careers of many of Taylor’s associates. The suspect list reads as part rouge’s gallery, part Who’s Who of Hollywood.
Eddy Sands was nothing but trouble. At one time he worked as Taylor’s valet, but his resume included convictions for embezzlement, forgery, and military desertion. In the summer of 1921, Eddy had stolen Taylor’s checks, forged his signature, and wrecked his car. Later, he broke into the bungalow, stole some shizz, and left footprints all over the bed. After the murder, Sands disappeared for good.
Henry Peavey replaced Sands as Taylor’s valet, but he too was nothing but trouble.According to news reports, Peavey was illiterate and bisexual, and (gasp!) wore flashy golfs clothes, but didn’t play golf. His criminal record included arrests for vagrancy and public indecency involving under aged boys. Taylor had recently put up bail for him and was due to appear in court on his behalf.
Mabel Normand was, of course, a popular actress and frequent co-star of such bright lights as Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle. Allegedly, Taylor was ass-over-tea-kettle in love with her, but her cocaine addiction and frequent relapses were tough on the relationship. Normand is believed to the the last person to see Taylor alive. She left his bungalow at 7:45 pm on the evening of February 1, just 15 minutes before his official time of death. The police grilled her and eventually ruled her out as a suspect. However, the revelations about her drug use and personal life took a heavy toll on her career.
In 1922 Charles Eyton was the General Manager of Paramount Pictures. Multiple sources claimed that Eyton and a group of Paramount employees entered Taylor’s bungalow and removed some stuff, probably compromising stuff. The same sources claimed that Eyton did this with police permission.
Mary Miles Minter was a former child star turned teen screen idol. Either she was engaged in an age-inappropriate love affair with the much older Taylor, or she was engaged in a one-sided infatuation. Never-the-less, her passionate love letters to Taylor were published in the newspapers of the day, shattering her image as a wholesome good girl. Mary got the last laugh, by retiring from acting and marrying a wealthy businessman.
Charlotte Shelby, mother of Mary Miles Minter, was the classic definition of “stage mother.” Due to her own failed stage career, she lived vicariously through her daughter. She also apparently had a history of threatening rouges who messed with her daughter with the business end of a .38 revolver. Questions regarding her whereabouts on the night of Taylor’s murder came up in a 1937 lawsuit brought against Shelby by her other daughter, Margaret Filmore. Those questions were not satisfactorily answered, but the only thing Shelby could be definitively accused of was being “Worst Mother Ever.”
Margaret Gibson was an actress who worked with Taylor when he first came to Hollywood. In 1917, she was indicted, tried, and acquitted on charges of prostitution and changed her professional name to Patricia Palmer. In 1923 Gibson was arrested and jailed on extortion charges but those were later dropped. At the time of Taylor’s murder, her name never appeared in connection with the investigation. In 1934 she married and moved to the Far East with her husband, but returned to LA in 1940. After her husband’s death, she lived out her life on a small pension and converted to Roman Catholicism. Her new found religion allegedly prompted a death bed confession, in front of several witnesses, that she had “shot and killed William Desmond Taylor.” Those witnesses told the story to Bruce Long’s newsletter Taylorology in 1999, and later repeated the account in a televised documentary.
Ultimately, despite the long list of suspects, the innuendo of police corruption, and the deathbed confession, the murder of William Desmond Taylor remains unsolved. If you want to know more, there is a remarkable amount of information out there, including websites, books, and the aforementioned Taylorology newsletter. Everyone loves a scandal and a mystery, and the murder of William Desmond Taylor is an enduring example of both.