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Thursday, October 1, 2009

HISTORY LESSON: WHO KILLED WILLIAM DESMOND TAYLOR???



On the morning of February 2, 1922, William Desmond Taylor was lying peacefully on his back in his 202 Alvarado Street Bungalow in Los Angeles, CA. A handsome, fashionable man and famed film director, his appearance was immaculate. Not a hair was out of place, his arms were neatly at his sides, and his face was serene. At 7:30, his houseman Henry Peavey reported for work as usual, and he was quite surprised when he found his boss lying so quietly. On the floor. With an overturned chair on one of his legs. Henry drew closer. Bill wasn't breathing. Henry ran from the bungalow! Soon, all of the neighbors, including Edna Purviance, David and Faith MacLean, and Hazel Gillon heard the frightened black man screaming that his boss was dead.

Who killed Bill Taylor??? When the police first arrived at 8am that morning-- after the studio PR department, of course-- they didn't think WDT had been killed at all. He had suffered from severe stomach cramps for which he took milk of magnesia, and it was assumed that he had suffered a fatal hemorrhage. However, when the coroners lifted his body, they discovered a pool of blood on the carpet and a bullet in Bill's back. Because the entry wound did not match the hole in his jacket, it was clear that Bill had had his arms raised in surrender when he was shot. One hour after detectives had ruled his death one of natural causes, they re-opened the case. It was murder.

And so, the media mayhem began. Rumors ran wild, conspiracies were concocted, and suspects piled up like Saturday night ticket stubs. The shot that killed William Desmond Taylor became the shot heard 'round Hollywood. In time, myth and fiction would bury the truth, innocent people would be crucified, and poor, poor Bill would lie dead without redemption. It was rumored that the crazed finger-pointing that resulted was a calculated attempt to draw attention away from the real killer and the LAPD's massive cover up, as well as to utilize the opportunity to take down two movie stars that studios no longer considered worthy investments--
Mabel Normand and Mary Miles Minter. Before the search for truth was corrupted, and there were honorable detectives tirelessly looking for answers, the entire city was on the hunt for a ruthless, cold-blooded killer. What was found, and not found, made Hollywood history.

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Evidence found at the scene went as follows:


  • WDT was shot at close range with a .38 snub nosed revolver. The bullet passed through his lungs, hit his collarbone, and stopped beneath the skin of his lower neck.


  • Cigarette butts were found behind the bungalow, where the killer presumably waited for the right opportunity to make his/her move.


  • The killing was not the result of a robbery, for Bill had $78 in his pocket, a diamond ring oh his finger, and a $2000 platinum watch on his wrist.


  • Throughout the house were numerous letters, photographs, and gifts from both Mabel Normand and Mary Miles Minter.


  • A set of keys was found, but they mysteriously fit none of the locks.


  • Witnesses and neighbors in the court, David and Faith MacLean, heard shuffling footsteps behind the bungalow at 7:40pm.


  • David reported hearing what sounded like a muffled shot between 8 and 8:15pm.


  • Faith saw a man, or a woman dressed as a man, leaving the building not long after. He or she was about 5'10" and of medium build, wearing a long coat.


  • Witness Hazel Gillon would later testify to seeing a dark figure depart.

As time passed, questionable and even completely fabricated evidence would also come into play. It was falsely reported that Mabel Normand had been at the bungalow the morning of Feb. 2, searching for love letters she had written to Bill. Untrue. Studio employee Charles Eyton was later sent by the studio to retrieve incriminating evidence, and he grabbed some of Mabel's letters. When he found them to be completely harmless, he turned them over to police. Mabel was not there that morning. A piece of lingerie was also found, bearing the insignia MMM, apparently belonging to Mary Miles Minter. Mary denied the existence of such an article, and after it was found, it just as quickly disappeared. This led to rumors that Bill had a large closet upstairs filled with pornographic photos and underwear belonging to major Hollywood starlets. Also false.

Another mystery came in the form of a handkerchief, which was rumored to be lying on the floor beside WDT with the monogram "S." A neighborhood doctor randomly appeared and offered his services to the police. After making his false diagnosis of "death by natural causes," the doctor quickly disappeared. The hanky went with him. It was also reported that 2 Hartley Service Station attendants and 1 Redline train conductor had testified to seeing a man that matched Faith MacLean's "description" the night of the murder, who  in both cases asked directions to Bill's house. Due to the fact that Faith's remembrance of the culprit was vague at best, it is difficult to accept their corroborations. From the beginning, it was clear that someone was tampering with evidence, feeding phony information to the press, and keeping the public away from the truth.

Suspects were aplenty. At the top of the list were Mabel and Mary, who by now the public was certain were both having a torrid affair with WDT. Normand would staunchly defend her platonic relationship with Bill, though Mary would never deny her feelings for the director, whom she claimed to love. The infamous love triangle, which suggested one of the women had killed her lover out of jealousy, would ruin the careers of both women, whom studios failed to protect.


Mabel (right) had in fact been the last to see Bill alive. She had come over to his home around 6:45 the evening of February 1, to pick up a book he'd bought for her. She waited outside for a few minutes in her lilac limousine as Bill finished up a phone call. Then, she went inside with her peanuts and popcorn and enjoyed a night of relaxation and conversation with her good friend. By 7:45, Bill had walked Mabel out to her car, she pressed her lips to her window, and kissed her pal farewell. (The lipstick smudge she left would later be used as evidence in her favor). After she was questioned, Mabel was fully exonerated of all suspicion because of her lack of motive as well as the alibi provided by both her chauffeur and her maid. She was completely innocent, yet the stigma of "murderess" would stick with her the rest of her life. Since she had a history of drug addiction, people also started spreading rumors that the bag of peanuts she had brought over to WDT's was actually cocaine.

Mary (left) was also (legally) let off the hook. Despite her numerous love letters, no motive could be found. It seemed she had truly loved Bill.  Her abili for that evening was corroborated by both her sister, Margaret, and her grandmother, Julia, who confirmed that she had been reading The Cruise of the South Sea Island to them at the time of the murder. Her little pink neglige did manage to forever label her as a tramp, and her work in films came to a screeching halt. The other suspects were the following:

  • Henry Peavey, houseman: Along with the immediate suspicion he garnered for being the one to find Bill's body, Henry had a prior arrest for public indecency in park for soliciting young men. Ironically, Bill was supposed to testify on his behalf the day his body was found.

  • An Army Officer: When Bill fought in WWI, it was rumored that he testified against a fellow officer at a court martial. Some speculated that the said officer returned to take his revenge on the suddenly famous director.

  • Drug Dealers: Bill made it part of his mission to make a war on the dope ring. He personally took it upon himself to send his troubled friend Mabel to a sanatorium for rehabilitation for her growing addiction. It was theorized that some miffed leaders of the drug ring wanted to shut the revolutionary man up.

  • Charlotte Shelby: The mother of Mary Miles Minter, she was a greedy, possessive woman, who was known to both own a gun and use it to threaten her daughter's suitors.

  • Ada Tanner: Ada was the wife of Bill's brother, Dennis, who had skipped town on her many years ago. When she received a tip that Dennis was working with her rich brother in Hollywood, she came running with her hand out. Bill paid her monthly checks on Dennis's behalf. Did it prove to be too little?

  • And the most mysterious: Edward Sands. Ed was WDT's secretary, who some believed was actually his brother Dennis, living under a false identity. Though this proved to be untrue, it did appear that Ed had been blackmailing Bill. He then skipped town with $5000 in forged checks and many of Bill's valuables, which were later found at a pawn shop. Ed was found dead 6 weeks after Bill's murder with a self-inflicted bullet in his brain. Guilt for thievery or murder???

The list went on and on, and by 1923 there were 300 suspects, most of whom were "confessing Sams," unbalanced individuals who wanted their name in the papers. The case grew stranger and stranger as the years passed, with the facts becoming increasingly jumbled. Digging into WDT's past unearthed many ghosts as well, and people were shocked to learn that the compassionate gentleman was not all that he had appeared to be.

Born April 26, 1867 in Carlow, Ireland, William Deane Tanner (pictured right on set of "Captain Alvarez") was a modest and bashful youth with a penchant for the arts. His father, a gruff British Major, envisioned a different life for Bill in the army. At 15, content no longer, Bill broke his engagement to Eva Shannon and left to pursue a career on the stage. By the age of 17, his father had tracked him down and sent him to Runnymeade, a ranch that rehabilitated disobedient youths. After "serving his time" there, he left home for good. He struggled through odd jobs, even ironically serving in the military. By the time he was 34, he was living in New York, married to Ethel Harrison, actress, and working in an antique shop. He then abruptly disappeared with $500, Ethel divorced him, citing infidelity as the cause, and a few years later he had re-emerged as an actor and director in Hollywood, CA. (Many consider his masterpiece to be Huckleberry Finn).

At first glance, this would make Bill seem like an irresponsible cad, but in truth he remained on good terms with ex-wife Ethel and his daughter Daisy Deane Tanner, whom he supported financially even after Ethel remarried. He also put Daisy through school. What reason, then, could he possibly have for leaving them? And why would Ethel be so understanding of it? The answer was discovered by none other than King Vidor when he was researching the murder for a movie he wanted to make. According to Vidor's findings, William Desmond Taylor was a homosexual. No longer being able to hide the truth from himself or his family, he and his wife amicably split, and he took the blame of infidelity in order to  save Ethel the shame and embarrassment.  This was the information Edward Sands had been blackmailing him with.

His sexual orientation was corroborated by many of those who worked with him and knew him well. WDT was always described as being gentlemanly, respectful, and consummately professional. He was never a "lady chaser," and in Hollywood, a hot-shot director like himself could have had his pick of many a beauty. It was also said that the awkward argument he got into one evening before the murder at the athletic club occurred because friends Marshall Neilan, Jimmy Kirkwood, and Tony Moreno confronted him about his sexuality. Friend and set decorator George Hopkins was also a homosexual, and he told Vidor that he was sent to Bill's house the morning of the murder specifically to clean up any incriminating evidence that would point to his homosexuality. The notorious pink nightie was planted by the studios, who wanted to protect the director's reputation as a ladies' man, and their own reputation as well. The mystery keys the police found belonged to the home of Bill's lover, and there was even a hotel room Bill rented, supposedly for Henry Peavey, that he actually used for himself and his male guests. Henry Peavey, who was in fact not a homosexual, was arrested for soliciting men on Bill's behalf, which is why Bill was going to testify for him. The debacle had been his fault, and he was guilt-ridden. This also equally explains the platonic relationship Mabel and Bill had with each other.

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It does, however, leave curious Bill's relationship with Mary Miles Minter. It turns out that Mary was not his lover, but a lovesick, little girl who was rumored to stalk the caring director in the hopes that he would offer her salvation from her controlling mother. The rumored love triangle was a bust-- complete publicity. However, Vidor also found another bit of evidence that had been buried. Three of Mary Miles Minter's hairs had been found on WDT's body!!! How and why was this covered up!? It turns out that it was not Mary whom the police were trying to protect, but her mother, Charlotte Shelby, who had easily bought the corrupt District Attorney Thomas Woolwine's silence. It was the evil, manipulative Mama Shelby who had killed Bill Taylor. Here are the facts:

Mary never wanted to be an actress, but when Charlotte, who had always favored elder daughter Margaret (pictured at left with Charlotte), saw Mary's natural talent, she decided to use her daughter as a meal ticket all the way to Hollywood. In her claustrophobic clutches, Mary was always looking for a way out. She had an affair with Jimmy Kirkwood, whom she hoped would rescue her. All he got her was pregnant, which of course led to Charlotte's insistence on an abortion. Not much later, Mary fell for the sturdy, fatherly, and compassionate Taylor, whom more than one actor relied on as a trustworthy confidante and pillar of strength. She was head over heels for the sensitive man, who for once stood up to her mother and protected her. He wasn't afraid of Charlotte, but he should have been.

Charlotte felt cornered. If WDT gave Mary the strength to break out on her own, Charlotte would lose her easy income and expensive lifestyle. It was known that Charlotte carried a .38 Smith and Wesson revolver. When pushed to the limit, Mary had even tried to kill herself with it. She fired into her mouth three times, but the safety was luckily on. Charlotte had also driven to Bill's before and threatened him with the gun, but he failed to get the message.

On the evening of February 1, Charlotte locked her disobedient daughter in her bedroom. Julia, Mary's grandmother, who was the only one to ever really love her, let her out, and Mary high-tailed it over to Bill's. Charlotte was enraged and started searching everywhere for Mary. She started at Marjorie Berger's, who was the accountant Bill and Mary shared. Marjorie called Bill after her "interrogation" to alert him to be on his guard, and this is whom he was on the phone with when Mabel drove up for their night together. Hiding upstairs all this time, unbeknown to Mabel, was Mary. Hovering somewhere behind the bungalow, was Charlotte. When Mabel left, and Bill walked her to her car, Charlotte made her move and slipped in. This was her only opportunity, as all of Bill's doors automatically locked when they closed. Bill waved goodbye to Mabel and re-entered his home, not knowing the evil awaiting him inside. We'll never know what exactly occurred once he closed the bungalow door behind him, but within minutes, he was dead.

Charlotte and Mary both fled the scene, which would account for differing descriptions of the culprit's appearance. Later, Adela Rogers St. Johns would claim that Faith MacLean did in fact accurately i.d. Charlotte as the man/woman leaving the scene that night. Charlotte created the false alibi that Mary had been reading to her grandmother and sister all night, which Julia obligingly corroborated to protect her innocent granddaughter. For herself, Charlotte claimed that she had been having dinner that night with Carl Stockdale, who just happened to be a close, personal friend of D.A. Woolwine's.

It would have been easy to pin the murder on Charlotte had she not had Woolwine in her pocket. On the morning of Feb. 2, Charlotte called Marjorie Berger between 7 and 7:30 and told her about Bill's death. Her gloating clouded her thinking, for this was a dead giveaway. Henry Peavey did not find Bill until 7:30, so how could Charlotte have known he was dead? She made the same mistake at 8am when the police were just arriving at the scene. This time she told her chauffeur, Charles Eyton, about the murder, then handed him her .38 and told him to empty to bullets.

The whole mess was hushed up by Woolwine, who was paid handsomely for his silence by Charlotte, with Mary's hard earned money of course. All incriminating evidence disappeared and the facts were altered when given to the public. Even the description of the crime scene was false. Apparently, Bill's body had not been as immaculately composed as originally described. His face may have been peaceful, but there was blood on his nose. His arms and legs were also in more disarray and lay not perfectly at his sides. While studio publicity cleaned up Bill's image, they didn't stop the dirtying of Mary's, who was left alone, jobless, and soon, all but insane. Charlotte on the other hand was fine. Even when daughter Margaret sued her mother in later years, testifying that she had been forced by Mama to give false testimony in the WDT case, no arrests were ever made. The payoffs continued when future D.A. Buron Fitts found the murder weapon, which Julia was supposed to get rid of. Fitts, one of the most corrupt SOBs that ever lived, offered to destroy all evidence once and for all if paid a hefty sum. He killed himself in 1973 with a .38.

With one shot, Charlotte took down Bill Taylor, Mabel Normand, and Mary Miles Minter, who once said: "My mother killed everything I ever loved." Who would have known she was being literal? Of course, Mary remained unwaveringly loyal to her mother, never uttering the truth of what happened to anyone. She even came to believe her own lies. Family was all she had left, after all. After Charlotte died, there were those who theorized that she faked her own death and still stalked  her then overweight and mentally unstable daughter Mary, who in later life was a recluse suffering from diabetes. Whether alive or dead, Charlotte continued to haunt her.
 
Photo taken by the coroner

William Desmond Taylor rests now at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in the Cathedral Mausoleum. But he does not rest in peace. His story is but one of many ghosts that haunt the diabolical place called Tinsel Town-- so pretty, so dangerous. With all the major players now dead, how can justice ever be done? I suppose simply by honoring the gifted director and his plentiful contribution to cinematic artistry, which is one thing that will thankfully never die.


*Update: I just encountered information regarding Margaret Gibson aka Patricia Palmer et al, a silent screen actress who reportedly confessed to Will's murder on her deathbed in 1964. As she was involved in extortion, and knew and worked with Taylor, the motive would seem to lean toward blackmail-gone-wrong, if she did in fact pull the trigger. I still stand by the aforementioned theory of my article, as I am not familiar enough with the evidence surrounding Gibson's plea, but will keep you posted as I learn more. Was her confession the raving of a delirious old woman, or is there truth??? (There is more information about her at Taylorology.com). To be continued...

8 comments:

  1. Mickey Neilan was a wild man. Blanche Sweet and him lived kitty-corner from Mabel and were good friends

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  2. I lived In the carriage house over the garage of MMM 's house in Santa Monica. She was in her 70's at the time. She took me into her confidence and insisted I call her " Grand Mama ". She slept in a lazy boy chair in her living room and had a loaded pistol by her side at ll times. She denied killing Taylor and despite having had a bad relationship with her mother, she would not say outright that her mother had killed him, although she did say her mother ruined her life and stole her love from her.

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    1. Wow! That's amazing! You must consider yourself very lucky to have been able to get to know such an icon. The mystery of that case will go on for the ages, I'm sure, but I am definitely in agreement that Mary had nothing to do with the murder. She seemed like another innocent crushed by the boot heel of Hollywood at its worst. She must have liked you a great deal to confide in you like that. What an incredible story! Thanks for sharing. :)

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  3. this case has a lot of mythology build around it, almost all of which seems to have been able to be wiped away, leaving a simple case. Locks OF MMMM's hair were found on the victim. He was fastidious so it would seem the hairs were left from the murder. The crime was done at close range (gunpowder burns on the victim). MMM had access to a gun similar to the murder weapon (She fake suicided with it previously). MMM also had came to Taylor's apartment at odd hours previously. She loved him but he was probably a latent homosexual. On that night she probably threatened suicide with him and accidentally shot him. Her mother, a commonly mentioned suspect, was too clever for the facts of the case. The DA probably figured out the truth early on but did not arrest MMM because in a recent case a society woman had been freed in a case she was obviously guilty. Female juries of the era could not believe women were capable of male crimes such as murder. Anyway it was manslaughter at best. MMM said crazy things the rest of her long life. The hair was the key.

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    1. This case continues to be so fascinating, doesn't it? Why is it that mystery keeps us so transfixed! I agree, MMM was clearly associated with the death and I wouldn't be surprised if she pulled the trigger. I guess we'll never know for sure... Such a tragic story, but so perfectly Hollywood. Thanks! :)

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  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  5. Her mother did it.

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