William Desmond Taylor arrived in Hollywood in 1911 or 12 with only a few dollars in his pocket. He appeared to be in his thirties, was handsome, charming, and generous of spirit. These traits combined with being a natural on the saddle of a horse bagged him his first few parts as an extra. He made fast friends in the budding silent movie industry and began to pick up larger roles. He did admit that he had some previous acting experience in New York but talked very little about the rest of his background.
After 4 years of acting Taylor was getting older and itching to try his hand on the other side of the camera. He got his chance at the Balboa Studios on Long Beach. The studios had been the launch pad for many stars in the previous decade such as Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. He began by making a handful of shorts, on one, The Awakening, Taylor met, fell in love and became engaged to with his leading lady Neva Gerber. She was separated from her older husband who refused to give her a divorce. Their next film, within the same year, was Taylor’s first feature, The Judge’s Wife. The story was about a man’s sacrifice to save a lady’s reputation. Taylor told people during the production that he had spent three years in prison to protect the honour of a woman he had loved. It turns out that there was no actual evidence to back this up. Perhaps Taylor’s skills with fantasy were beginning to bleed into his own reality.
Taylor consistently made movies until 1919 and worked with the likes of Mary Pickford, Wallace Beery, Wallace Reid, Dustin Farnum and other major stars of the era. He grew very close to a lesser known actress called Mary Miles Minter who, (records become a little hazy here) he either became romantically involved with or she was infatuated with him. Sources close to him at the time could not see him falling for her as they met when she was still in her teens and he was in his early 40s. Through her he was acquainted with Miles’ overbearing mother Charlotte Shelby.
As with all directors Taylor made a few flops but some of his biggest successes were with classic book adaptations like Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Anne of Green Gables. Not only had he a string of successful movies, a fashionable address at Alvarado Court Apartments he had a nice car and a valet named Edward Sands.
All was going well and in 1918 Taylor felt the pull of the army as the First Word War still battled in Europe. He enlisted but by the time he was ready the war had ended. He did some administration work and was honourably discharged in 1919. He traveled back to Hollywood. His engagement to Neva Gerber ended amicably and he was connected to the troubled star Mabel Normand.
Normand had been a rising multi-talented writer/director and star, engaged to Mack Sennet (creator of the Keystone Cops in which she appeared regularly) but Sennet cheated on her and a bad movie deal left her low on funds, she then moved to the Goldwyn Motion Picture Company where there were rumours that she had an affair with Sam Goldwyn. Somewhere along the way she became hooked on cocaine which badly affected her career. She then met Taylor and there were rumours that he may have taken drugs with her but he never showed any signs of addiction. Either way Taylor tried to help her quit. The details surrounding their relationship differs from witness to witness, some claim they were in love while others say they were friends. Returning back from a holiday in 1921 Taylor found that his valet, Sands, had swindled him by forging cheques, crashing and ditching his car before disappearing. Taylor took it well, hired another valet Henry Peavey, and continued making movies.
Mabel visited Taylor on the evening of February 1 1922 to borrow a book and left at 7.45pm. A few minutes later his neighbour, Faith McLean, heard a loud noise, looked out the window and saw a man walk out of Taylor’s apartment, he too looked around and went back inside. A few minutes later she noticed him stroll away and presumed that the noise she must have heard was the backfire of a car. It wasn’t until the next morning that Taylor’s Valet No. 2 Peavey arrived to find his boss dead on the floor of the apartment. This is when things began to get very strange.
The police were called and a Doctor arrived examined him and concluded that the cause of death was natural. The Doctor then left and very soon after the police turned him over revealing a bullet wound in his back. Taylor had a huge amount of cash on his person at the time and expensive jewelry so a burglary was ruled out. The Doctor never surfaced and the mystery and gossip surrounding Taylor’s death sprouted legs. All the people close to him were suspected and investigated, his two valets, Sands and Peavoy, Minter and her mother Shelby, Faith MClean and Mabel Desmond. While some of the suspects flung accusations at each other they were all were eventually cleared.
Through the investigation there were rumours of papers being stolen from his apartment after his death, drug dealers, old army enemies arriving into town, talk of Taylor being gay or bisexual and even a massive cover up major studio heads. There may have been some foundation for the last rumour as the young movie industry has been hit by two recent scandals. The Rape charges against Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle and the death by Morphine addiction of supposedly clean cut Wallace Reid. If there had been any nefarious activity on Taylor’s behalf the Studios would have had every reason to destroy any evidence that linked them to the dead director.
As the investigation began to stumble on a new voice entered the fray, one Ethel Hamilton, Taylor’s wife from New York. They had been married in 1901, she was an actress and he successfully sold antiques. Taylor, she said, while being a lovely person, suffered from bouts of aphasia and one day in 1908 he left her an envelope with $500 and disappeared from her and their daughter’s lives. It was only years later when she saw him in a movie that she pointed to the screen and said to her daughter “That’s your Daddy!”. She bore no ill will to him but Taylor and his daughter kept in touch until the time of his death.
Hamilton revealed that Taylor was Irish, his real name was William Deane-Tanner, born in Co. Carlow in Ireland. The third child of a retired British Army Major, by all accounts he got on badly with his father and ran away to the theatre when he was a young teenager. He was then sent to Runnymeade in Kansas, a sort of juvenile home that promised to turn delinquents into gentlemen farmers. Deane-Tanner (Taylor) stayed long enough to become familiar with horses but soon escaped and found himself in New York where he met and married Ethel Hamilton.
The revelation that Taylor’s brother Denis Dean-Tanner had disappeared from his wife in New York two years after Taylor had done the same made the rumour-mill turn even faster. Through the investigation Mary Miles Minter’s love letters were found in Taylor’s apartment and Mabel Normand cocaine habit exposed crippled both actresses’ careers. Multiple actresses made death bed confessions to killing Taylor. There were rumours hat the police were told to cut the investigation short, To this day his murder was never solved.
The mystery referred to as Taylorology has spawned many books and was referenced in Billy Wilder’s 1960 movie, “Sunset Boulevard”, which concerns a murder in Hollywood, the main character’s name is Norma Desmond (Mabel Normand & William Desmond Taylor).
Who Killed William Desmond Taylor?
Further Taylor/Deane-Tanner reading.