Friday, May 4, 2012

The William Desmond Taylor Murder: Mystery, Murder, Movie-Stars, Mothers, Morphine, MMM and Mabel

When it comes to unsolved mysteries, the murder of William Desmond Taylor is one that continues to fascinate. There have been reams written about this case. This is just a tiny summary of an endlessly intriguing mystery. Like everyone else, I have no answers, only questions.

One of the things I love about the old Hollywood stories is how people from all over the country flocked there and invented a new identity for themselves. Many times it was just a name or history, but often they were running from a past they'd rather forget. This story is loaded with those who ran to Hollywood, but couldn't run away from themselves.
the scene of the crime
On the morning of February 2, 1922, Taylor was found murdered in his home on on Alvarado street in downtown Los Angeles. One of Hollywood's most respected directors had been shot to death. That much is known. The rest remains speculation.

Who was William Desmond Taylor?

At the time of his death, William Desmond Taylor was a pillar of the Hollywood community. Born William Cunningham Deane-Tanner in Ireland, he sailed for America at the age of 18, became an actor in New York and married a lady by the name of Ethel May Hamilton.  Ethel's family was well-to-do and set up their new son-in-law in business in an antique shop. Tanner and Daisy were well known in New York society and eventually had a daughter named Daisy. After a few years of married life, Tanner, who not only had the wanderlust, but a wandering eye, as well, abruptly abandoned his family and headed west where, a few years later, he turned up as an actor named William Desmond Taylor. Like so many of Hollywood's early inhabitant, he invented a new life and a new identity and left the old one behind. Why? We will never know.

Captain Alvarez
In 1914 he had some success in a serial called "Captain Alvarez," with Taylor playing the title character. He moved from acting to directing and, in 1918, at the age of 46, joined the Canadian army and attained the rank of major for his service during World War I. Upon his return to Hollywood after the war, he was welcomed home as a hero. Meanwhile, Ethel found out what happened to her missing husband one afternoon at the movies while watching "Captain Alvarez."  Taylor established contact with his daughter, Daisy, and remained in touch with her until his death. One common thread that runs through all accounts of William Desmond Taylor: despite his rather mysterious background, everyone who came in contact with him, including his abandoned family, spoke of him as a gentleman of the highest principles. Even an ex-fiance, actress Neva Gerber, said "I have never known a finer or better man." 

From 1919 until his death, Taylor was one of Hollywood's busiest directors, steering films that featured such stars as Mary Pickford, Wallace Reid and Mary Miles Minter. After his death, he emerged as a man nobody really knew. Was he having affairs with multiple women? Was he homosexual? Was he working against the drug syndicate? So many questions, but none were answered.

Mary Miles Minter

The very picture of beautiful, blonde innocence, Mary Miles Minter was once a serious rival to Mary Pickford. Not much of an actress, her youthful beauty and seeming purity was quite popular for a time until the Taylor murder killed her career. Not as innocent as she looked (who is?), MMM was born Juliet Reilly. In order to elude the child labor law enforcers, her mother, Charlotte Shelby, changed little Juliet's name to that of a deceased cousin who happened to be old enough to work (if she had lived - so complicated). Thus, little Juliet became Mary Miles Minter. The young girl's beauty was undeniable and useful in Hollywood, so off they went: Mary, mama and big sister Margaret. MMM would work to support them all. While working with Taylor on a film, Mary fell hard for the older man and pursued him relentlessly. The general consensus is that he did not reciprocate her feelings. After Taylor's death, MMM never wavered in her devotion to Taylor, proclaiming her love for him until her dying day. By all accounts, she grew quite eccentric (read nutty as a fruit cake) as she got older. Here's a 1970 audio interview with Mary where she recalls seeing Taylor's body at the mortuary:




Ah, Charlotte Shelby, the mama from hell. Wildly protective of her little meal ticket, she regularly shooed men away from her sweet little darling like flies at a picnic. Did she really disguise herself as a man and shoot Taylor? Did she manage to pay off the LAPD in exchange for their silence? Was she having a an affair with Taylor at the same time her daughter was? Did she fake her death and live out her years years after under an assumed name? This was one shifty, unlikable woman and she makes a great suspect. Whether she did it or not, it seems Charlotte Shelby should have been locked up for something.

Mabel Normand
Unlucky Mabel Normand - the last person to see Taylor alive
Poor Mabel Normand. If you've never seen Mabel in action, you are missing one of the most delightful personalities in movie history. Generally accepted as the screen's first great comedienne, Mabel Normand was a jolly girl in her films, but an unlucky and tragic one in real life. Mabel's great love, Mack Sennett, did her wrong. Added to other unhappy romances, Mabel became a drug addict and that, along with tuberculosis, severely impacted her health. Always striving to improve herself, Mabel and Taylor struck up a deep friendship. Whether or not there was a romance is unknown. However, Taylor was reported to have been trying to get Mabel off drugs and cared very deeply for her. After a brief visit to his home on February 2, 1922, Mabel got into her car and left Taylor behind. She was the last person to see him alive. Although never a suspect, her association with Taylor added to her many troubles that lead to the end of her career and early death.

Studio Cover-Up and the LAPD
District Attorney Thomas Woolwine
Taylor's murder came fast on the heels of the Fatty Arbuckle scandal and Hollywood did not want another blemish on its already suspect reputation. Once word of Taylor's death got out, Paramount Studios acted fast. It is reported that compromising items were removed before the police got there (or with the LAPD's knowledge). However, a mash note from Mary Miles Minter and either a nightie or a hankie belonging to MMM was also found. Why would the Paramount masterminds (as Norma Desmond called them) leave those incriminating items behind? Did they actually plant them?Many people were interviewed, many leads were followed, but, in the end, they lead no where, either by lack of evidence or by design. District Attorney Woolwine and later DA Buron Fitts were suspected of being paid off by Mrs Shelby, but it was never proven. Studio intervention, bad reporting and a corrupt police force all combined to make this the Hollywood scandal that wouldn't die.

Theories and Suspects
There are lots of theories about who shot William Desmond Taylor. Some of the most popular are:
Mary Miles Minter killed him in a fit of jealous passion.
Margaret Shelby donned a man's overcoat, plugged Taylor and calmly walked away.
Edward Sands, a con man and once Taylor's valet, turned up to murder his old boss.
Henry Peavy, Taylor's valet and the man who discovered his body, killed him apparently because he was homosexual and black.
A professional hit man hired by local drug lords targeted Taylor because he was trying to stop the drug trafficking at the movie studios.

Margaret Gibson Confession
Throughout the years following Taylor's murder, there were a handful of confessions that amounted to nothing. However, one confession is intriguing. Margaret Gibson was an actress who worked with Taylor during his earliest days in Hollywood. She acted under a series of different names, was a drug addict and, shortly after the Taylor murder, was charged with extortion and blackmail (but not convicted). She fled the country and lived in Singapore for many years and did not return to the USA until 1949, when she returned to Hollywood and lived in obscurity. She made a deathbed confession in 1964, but the people who heard the confession did not even know who William Desmond Taylor was. 

The conclusion is that nobody really knows and the case remains unsolved.

Sources and references
A Deed of Death by Robert Giroux. Giroux advances the professional hit man as killer theory.
A Cast of Killers by Sidney Kirkpatrick. Here, King Vidor's and Colleen Moore's research is related, with the conclusion being that Charlotte Shelby was the culprit.
Murder in Hollywood by Charles Higham. This one is big on the bisexuality of Taylor angle and not as well researched as the first two.
Taylorology: a voluminous amount of articles related to everything and anything about the William Desmond Taylor murder. Endlessly fascinating reading!

For more on the life, works and murder of William Desmond Taylor, check out There are some interesting upcoming developments!

As for all the theories put forth by authors, it's a case of pick your poison. You can't make this stuff up.
Taylor's daughter used his real name on his grave. In the end,
there is no escaping who you really are.

Each of the characters involved has a fascinating story. Once you start digging into this story, you've fallen down the rabbit hole and never hit bottom.


The Lady Eve said...

One of my two favorite Hollywood mysteries - along with the equally curious demise of Thomas Ince on Hearst's yacht.

If Mary Miles Minter in her youth was even vaguely as bizarre as she sounds in that interview clip, I can understand why she was a suspect in the case. She also sounded like she never gave up on acting...

I'm guessing the butler did it...

Kimberly J.M. Wilson said...

It sounds like a movie! When you were speaking of a possible mother/daughter love triangle with Taylor I immediately thought of Mildred Pierce--a litte of the movie, but mostly the book.

Diane said...

Very interesting post. I too guess the butler did it.

FlickChick said...

Lady Eve - Mary sure did sound like a bit of a nut case. No wonder Taylor was running away from her. I read something recently that advanced the theory that he could have been shot be her based on the angle of the gunshot wound and the fact that there were blonde hairs on his dressing gown. Sadly, we will never know.

FlickChick said...

@ Kim - this would make one delicious movie - if only the characters were not portrayed as cartoonish and instead, as real flesh and blood people.

FlickChick said...

@ Diane - I think the butler was the only innocent party.

Page said...

A really enjoyable read! I just finished reading A Cast of Killers for a 2nd time. It's a good book only in the fact that we get to follow King Vidor around, see what his day to day activities were in later years. Unfortunately with all of his interviews, research he came no closer than solving WDT's murder than the cops did.

I don't think WDT's leading ladies had a thing to do with his death and the outrageous gossip that centered around the case was put out there to sell papers, keep the mystery going.

Another murder that will never get solved (file it away with The Black Dahlia and Thomas Ince's death) In the meantime it's a lot of fun to speculate. : )

FlickChick said...

I tend to agree, Page. Everyone loves the "crazy mama" angle, but it was probably a hit man. Also, who knows what transpired in his "former life." A great mystery, for sure.

Karen said...

Enjoyed your write-up -- I've heard about this case for years (I even have one of the books on your list), but your post really laid everything out so that it makes sense. Well, as much sense as any of this can make! Fascinating interview with MMM -- poor thing, she was like Norma Desmond's nuttier little sister.

Christian Esquevin said...

I really enjoyed your great summary of the WDT case and the various players in the story. As you indicate, we'll probably never know what happened. But that's what makes this such an interesting mystery, and can therfore continously feed theories and maybe even be the subject of a movie someday. Just think of the male lead possibilities.

FlickChick said...

@ Karen: yes, you are right - she sounds nuttier than Norma Desmond! What's really sad is that there are probably people who did know what happened, but they obviously took it to their grave.

FlickChick said...

@ Christian - oh how I wish a quality movie could be made of this story. Hmmm.... who to cast, who to that's a dilemma! (But a fun exercise).

Gilby37 said...

Great and fascinating piece. My dad read "Cast of Killers" and found the book had some good points about Charlotte Shelby being the murderer. The only thing that seems certain here is that various studio masterminds saw this tragedy as a way to get rid of 2 stars who were starting to lose their appeal: MMM and mabel Normand. The fact that belongings of MMM were found and new that Normand was supposedly the last to see WDT alive would have been covered up or downplayed if the powers that be wanted the women protected. MMM and Mabel were sacrificed in my opinion.

FlickChick said...

@ Gilby: although it's fun to floow along with King Vidor and colleen Moore in "Cast of Killers," I am leaning more toward Girroux's conclusion that it was a professional hit probably related to his investigation into drug dealing. I agree that the masterminds saw MMM as a liability and Mabel just as someone who was easy to shift the focus onto. It's fun to think about.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful summation of the William Desmond Taylor Murder mystery. We produced a radio drama/documentary about Taylor's story.

Here's a trailer:

It airs on Newstalk Radio ( this weekend under the 'Different Voices' Strand.

We're also hosting a film festival of his films in his hometown of Carlow, Ireland in September 21 -23. You can follow the developments here:


FlickChick said...

marcivan - thanks so much for that - I just updated the page to include your site.

Dawn said...

This is the first time I have heard of this interesting mystery.. Thank you for writing such a wonderful piece on it.

Thank you so much for the pink ribbon in my support. You do not know how much it means to me.. You all have been so wonderful..

FlickChick said...

Yay! It's Dawn!!!! As for this murder mystery - it is by far my favorite real-life crime. Such intrigue!