The Strange Life, and Death of William Desmond Taylor

This third instalment in our pre-code, silent era Hollywood drama begins February 1st 1922. The setting? A posh bungalow at 404 B South Alvarado Street, Los Angeles – now a parking lot for a men’s clothing store,  but back then an enclave of Hollywood wealth and privilege. Around 7pm, the occupant – the acclaimed film director William Desmond Taylor – received a visit in the form of his close friend, the actress Mabel Normand. Taylor and Normand had known each other since 1920. During a turbulent time in Normand’s life the two had bonded over a shared love of books. Whether an item or not, Taylor was a rock to Normand – convincing the actress and party girl to check into a sanatorium when she hit rock bottom. Whether a cocaine habit, drinking like a fish, illness or a combination of all of the above were responsible, Normand was burnt out to the point where others feared she was not long for this earth. To compound matters, the recent death of Olive Thomas hit very close to home for her. William Desmond Taylor’s insistence she get some help and/or convalescence that Autumn probably saved her life. 

This night was a ‘school night’, a Wednesday with an early start for both the next day, so Mabel grabbed a book William promised to lend her. The couple had a few orange martinis. William shared the shocking news he had to bail his valet, Henry Peavey out of jail that morning – after Peavey was arrested for ‘lewd conduct’ in a public park the night before. At around 7.35pm Mabel bid William adieu, and left for home. 

Just before 8pm, Taylor’s neighbour Faith Cole McLean – a former actress married to actor Douglas MacLean – was knitting on her porch when a loud noise startled her. Peering across at Taylor’s bungalow, she caught sight of a short, stocky man dressed “Like my idea of a motion picture burglar”. The mysterious figure stealthily vanished into the night. 

At 7.30 the next morning, the peace at the Alvarado Court Apartment complex was disturbed by a rather shaken Henry Peavey. “Mr. Taylor is dead! Mr. Taylor is dead!” the valet screamed, as he ran from the premises. While looking for Taylor, Peavey discovered his boss face down and lifeless on the floor of his study. The police were called, but wouldn’t get there till a little after 8am. By this time a landlord, a couple of curious neighbours, and at least one employee of Paramount pictures had entered the property. The Paramount employee seized a wire basket full of letters. The body of the 49 year old director lay, face down in his office, in his own blood – while the assorted interlopers discussed if his cause of death was a haemorrhage of the stomach, as one suggested, or not. When the police turned the body over, they found Taylor was shot. The bullet pierced his lung, striking him in the neck on it’s way out. 

While this alone was shocking news, it opened a Pandora’s box for Paramount, leaving them in a no-win situation, The ensuing scandals ended the careers of two actresses, and ushered in the Hollywood Production Code era, helmed by former Postmaster General Will H. Hays. This itself was a direct complication of the murder. The industry were now well aware the Christian conservatives who harangued politicians to ban alcohol would win their crusade to censor the industry. Taylor himself, a well thought of, articulate director with 60 films under his belt, was the man the film industry hoped to appoint chief censor when that day came. 

If hoping to tell this story as both a murder mystery and a continuation of the trilogy we have several aspects we need to tackle. The first of these is the alleged women in Taylor’s life. 

Mary Miles Minter was a young actress who started out as a child star, but in her late teens was repositioned as the next Mary Pickford (in other words, America’s sweetheart). Born Juliet Reilly in 1902, to an actress who went under the name Charlotte Shelby, Juliet got her first acting role aged five. Aged 10 she secured a touring theatre role which would’ve contravened child labour laws, so Charlotte borrowed her dead niece’s name and paperwork, and rechristened Juliet as cousin Mary – age 12. At 15, Mary worked with, allegedly had an affair with, and allegedly fell pregnant to her middle-aged director James Kirkwood Sr. Charlotte was alleged to have organised an abortion for her daughter. One would imagine her a far more protective mum after this. 

Mary Miles Minter

The next director she worked with was William Desmond Taylor. Taylor and Minter worked on four movies together between 1919 and 1920. Taylor was a big supporter of and advocate for Mary. Mary fell in love with Taylor, then in his mid 40s. She wrote him several love letters. A lace handkerchief with her initials was found at Taylor’s home – but more on that later. Though the newspapers would report the two were secretly an item, there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest Taylor reciprocated Minter’s feelings, nor that the two acted on Mary’s feelings. Some papers also speculated Taylor was dating both Mary and Charlotte at the same time – begging the question was Taylor killed by one or other spurned lady? Again, people in the know stated Charlotte and William detested one another. 

Mary did draw all manner of attention to herself however, in the wake of the killing. In Hollywood Babylon, Kenneth Anger stated Mary leaned into the coffin, and proclaimed to all in attendance the corpse of William whispered his undying love for her in her ear. While untrue, on being told of his death, she insisted someone transfuse her blood into William, in the hope he’d revive. She only abandoned this plan when taken to view his corpse, and it was all too apparent he was never coming back. 

The hullabaloo around Mary – the press disclosing several details about her which flew in the face of her carefully constructed, demure public image – eventually did her no favours. She made a handful of films following the murder, but was let go once her contract lapsed in 1923. Following the Whodunnit line, Charlotte was considered a suspect in William’s murder. The threesome line was followed up on and eventually dismissed. As was the real line, of their well known mutual dislike for one another. Speculation persisted that Charlotte, herself a gun owner, was the mysterious figure disguised to look like a movie burglar, seen on William’s porch by Faith McLean that night. At one point it looked like the police would charge Charlotte, but there just wasn’t enough evidence. 

Mabel Normand also came under scrutiny, for similar – yet very different reasons. 

Born in 1893, Normand became an actor aged 16, after briefly modelling for the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. She soon caught the eye of Mack Sennett of Keystone studios – where Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle had got his start. A very capable physical comedian who could pull off dangerous pratfalls just as well as Arbuckle himself, she was something of a rarity in her time – and soon carved out a niche for herself that saw her regularly play opposite both Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin. From joining Keystone in 1912, Normand acted alongside Arbuckle in 24 movies. 

A ’Gibson Girl’

Mabel had something of a wild, tempestuous, and sad life. Starting with wild, she was very much the party girl. She loved to party, drink heavily, and occasionally play dangerous pranks on her co-workers. When first the death of Olive Thomas, then the Arbuckle/Virginia Rappe scandals broke, she could empathise with both women. To be blackout drunk enough to drink poison, or to find oneself in a situation like Rappe did were things which could have happened to her at her most hedonistic (though it does bear a quick mention she believed her friend Arbuckle was innocent). 

She had also become an item with Mack Sennett, who may have been physically abusive to her. Just prior to their impending marriage, Mabel caught Mack in bed with another actress. She fought with the actress, and somehow got a heavy bump to her head that left her in a coma for weeks. 

There were rumours she was also a heavy cocaine user – something which could have led to her looking haggard and worn, as mentioned at the top of this tale. It could have just as easily been her childhood bout of tuberculosis coming back for her however. She would die, not terribly out of the frame of this tale – of consumption – in her mid 30s. 

Setting aside the rumours she too, now uncoupled from Sennett, was sleeping with William Desmond Taylor – cause … well, we’ll come to that in a second – A murder theory which was advanced was when Taylor convinced Normand to get medical help in the autumn of 1920, he also chased away a drug dealer who swore he’d get his revenge on Taylor. Hollywood gossip had it not only had William Desmond Taylor upset this one dealer – he was making noises he was going to expose all the dealers who supplied drugs to Normand. This is all supposition. Of course there were some dangerous characters around Hollywood at this time, including an LA Mafia run by Vito De Giorgio – which would soon be taken over by the heavily politically connected Albert Marco. 

Being exposed in the papers as a ‘drug fiend’, and of infidelity; failing health – and another incident a few years after Taylor’s murder soon put an end to her career. 

Sidebar: In 1924, Mabel Normand attended a party packed with various rich and famous people. On parking up, she ordered her driver to come get her at a specified time, and if she was too drunk and belligerent at this point, to drag her away. Her driver, Joe Kelly, attempted to do so – but before he could even get to Mabel, he got into an altercation with a millionaire oil exec and golfer named Courtland Dines. Dines struck Kelly with a bottle, Kelly responded by shooting Dines with Normand’s pistol three times, wounding him. Compounding matters, the driver turned out to be an escaped criminal named Horace Greer, who’d fled from a chain gang in San Francisco some time earlier. This scandal was the final nail in the coffin for Normand’s career. 

Before we move on with this Tale, I must point out much of the talk of William Desmond Taylor’s womanising, and even the speculation he’d been murdered by gangsters, was actually spin from Paramount pictures. They leaked Mary Miles Minter’s love letters, seized prior to police arriving at the scene of the murder. They also paid someone to break into the house after the fact, to leave Mary’s handkerchief. The studio made a sacrificial lamb of party girl Mabel Normand too. Strangely, they also started a rumour a large collection of lingerie was found in 49 year old bachelor Taylor’s home – something we’d take completely differently now, but was then taken as confirmation he was a ladies man. All this was to cover up something they saw as far more scandalous at the time. For starters, he’d been spotted at both opium dens and secretive gay nightclubs. The studio did their best to explain both away by stating he was researching  upcoming films. His back-story was far more complex than all that however. 

William Deane-Tanner was born 26th April 1872 to an aristocratic British family in County Carlow, Ireland. One of five children, he was brought up in a large, Georgian manor situated on 50 acres of land. William’s father, Thomas, was a retired army Major. His uncles and grandparents were surgeons and politicians. In his late teens, William left his life of luxury behind to work on a dude ranch in Kansas, USA. In his 20s he moved to New York, took up acting, and dated the daughter of a wealthy antiques broker and investor, Ethel May Hamilton. The couple met through acting circles, and would marry in 1901. A year later their daughter Ethel Daisy came along. William took up a job in his father in law’s 5th Avenue antique store. 

For reasons never publicly shared, it appears William was utterly miserable. He drank heavily and regularly cheated on his wife. He exhibited many of the warning signs of depression – or what may well have been episodes of dissociative amnesia. Often distant and unsatisfied with his lot, sometimes zoning out completely in the company of others, he mysteriously vanished 23rd October 1908. 

Little is known about his life prior to Hollywood, but it’s speculated he prospected for gold in Canada and the USA, before joining up with a troupe of travelling actors. In 1912 he re-emerged as William Desmond Taylor, in Hollywood. This was the year Ethel finally divorced William – though she hardly knew where he was till she and her daughter saw him acting in a film in 1918. None of this was known to the public at large until after his death. Few in Hollywood knew of his hidden past either. He was an actor for several studios, then pivoted to directing in 1914. In 1914 he also met the actress Neva Gerber – who had separated from, but not yet divorced from her husband. Taylor and Gerber were an item till 1919, but never married.  

By 1922 Taylor appears to have been in a relationship with a young man named George Hopkins. A set designer, he worked with Taylor on the film The Soul of Youth. A distraught Hopkins sat next to Mabel Normand at Taylor’s funeral. Several of the couple’s friends did confirm they were a couple after Taylor’s death – Hopkins being out and a behind the scenes person, he had nothing to lose by this revelation. More controversially, he was also likely the Paramount employee ordered to grab the basket of letters on the day of the murder. Hopkins went on to have a long career in Hollywood, designing sets till the mid 1970s, and winning four Oscars for his work. In 1980 his recollections of his time with Taylor heavily featured in a book about the man’s life. 

For one man to commit pseudocide – to fake one’s death – is one thing. William also had a brother, Denis. Denis was a former military man, who in 1903 moved to New York to be closer to William. For a while the brothers worked together in the antique store. He married Ada Brennan – a woman from a well to do family – and had three children with her. A ‘lunger’, he also gave Ada tuberculosis. On 25th August 1912, on his daughter’s fourth birthday, and while Ada was in a sanatorium, he disappeared just as William had. Soon after, William got in touch with Ada, and took to sending money to her and the children every month. Denis is believed to have been a bit part – a blacksmith – in one of Taylor’s early films. Though his whereabouts beyond this is pure speculation (anyone’s best guess is he died young, in obscurity either somewhere in the USA or Europe – most likely of consumption) – there has been speculation he became the mysterious Edward Sands.  

The allegedly lewd Henry Peavey was a fairly recent employee, having taken on cook and valet duties six months prior to the murder. He was a replacement for a guy called Edward Sands. Sands, like most everyone in this tale, was a phoney. Born Edward Snyder in Ohio, Sands was a teenage thief, turned sailor, turned member of the Coast Guard. Prior to working for Taylor, he’d deserted his post and shown up in Hollywood – one presumes to find fame and fortune on the silver screen, but I’ve never seen anyone state this explicitly. As Taylor’s cook and valet he affected a cockney accent, and the name we all know him by. 

While Taylor was away on business in 1921, Sands stole several of Taylor’s suits, his car and his cheque book, among other items. He’d bragged to Taylor’s driver he had information on him that ensured he wouldn’t get in trouble for his sudden behaviour – indicating his intent to bribe Taylor with said information. William fired both employees on his return. Six months later, he received a letter from Sands with a ticket from a pawn shop for one of the stolen items. The name on the ticket ‘William Deane-Tanner’

While it appears highly unlikely 45 year old Denis was in fact 27 year old Edward – whose spartan documentation does lead back to a troubled young man from Ohio – the rumour has persisted over the years that Sands was his brother. 

Edward Sands was working on Northern California on the day William was killed, but quit his job that same day. He too disappeared without a trace on the day of the murder – in spite of Paramount offering a huge cash reward in the hopes a manhunt would distract from all the other revelations suddenly leaking out everywhere. 

While the murder of William Desmond Taylor remains unsolved, there is one final suspect. We’ll come to them in a second. First however, it should be pointed out the uncovering of Mabel Normand’s alleged drug habit, the alleged love triangle, Mary’s alleged penchant for middle aged men, more fake identities than you can shake a stick at, pseudocides, wife abandonments, and the revelation two Hollywood creatives might just be in a loving, same sex relationship was the final nail in the coffin for Hollywood. Pressure from outraged members of the public led to film bannings across several states. Careers were ended. To placate these wowsers Will H Hays, a former high ranking Republican official who I hope to come back to next year for a completely different Tale, was appointed chairman of the MPPDA, an organisation established to ‘clean up’ Hollywood. 

Now, that final suspect. 

Margaret Gibson & William Desmond Taylor in The Kiss.

Margaret Gibson was an actress who worked with William Desmond Taylor for a short time at Vitagraph Pictures. She was on her way up from bit parts to a number of starring roles when, in 1917 she was arrested in a park, selling opium to passers by. She avoided prosecution, but the very public trial killed any hopes she had of becoming an A list celebrity. She continued to work, in much smaller roles, under several noms de plume – most notably Patricia Palmer. 

In 1923, Gibson was arrested and charged with participation in a blackmail and extortion ring, which may have taken millions of dollars from wealthy businessmen across America. A George W. Lasher, an electrical contractor, paid her over $1,100 to keep quiet about a violation of the Mann Act. I couldn’t find anything more specific, but Lasher possibly transported a minor over state lines for immoral purposes – this information subsequently falling into Gibson’s lap. She was also connected to two men who were jailed the week before for extorting $10,000 from an Ohio bank president named John Bushnell. 

Gibson again avoided jail, but languished in bit roles taken on under false names till 1929, when she suddenly packed up her belongings and moved to Singapore. She met and fell in love with an oil company exec, and appears to have lived a happy, crime free life with no intentions whatsoever of ever returning to the USA. She did return to LA in the early 1940s, after her husband was killed in a Japanese bombing raid. 

Gibson lived a frugal life from a widow’s pension – in humble accommodation – under the pseudonym Pat Lewis. She lived with just a cat called Rajah for company, let the hedges grow high and unkempt to keep people from looking in at her, and did her best to never leave the house – for fear of running into anyone who may know her. 

On 21st October 1964, Gibson had a heart attack. Sensing her time was up she called for a priest and confessed to the murder of William Desmond Taylor. Present at the time, a priest and Gibson’s next door neighbours. When this twist in the tale was finally revealed by the neighbours’ young son – now all grown up – he recalled she did give an explanation, but he was far to young to know who William Desmond Taylor was – let alone take in the intricacies of the murder.  

Did William Desmond Taylor’s killer die in agony, sprawled out on the floor, much like he had? In all likelihood we’ll never know. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s