William Desmond Taylor (1872-1922) was an Irish-American actor and director. Before his premature death, Taylor directed 59 silent films and acted in 27.
William Desmond Taylor was born William Cunningham Deane-Tanner in County Carlow, Ireland, one of five children. In 1891, he left England for a dude ranch in Kansas, where he became really acquainted with acting. From Kansas, Taylor moved to New York City where he did some acting, and met and married Ethel Hamilton.
On October 23rd, 1908, Taylor disappeared from his family. He and his wife were prominent members of New York City society, but friends of the family described him as having “mental lapses” and they thought he wandered off in a state of amnesia. Apparently he wandered through Canada to Alaska to pan for gold and his wife and daughter had no idea he was still alive until they were sitting in a movie theatre and they saw his face on screen.
Four years later, in 1912, William Cunningham Deane-Tanner turned up in San Francisco, now christened William Desmond Taylor. It’s here where he made his mark as an actor and a director.
On February 2, 1922, William Desmond Taylor was found dead in his apartment by his butler Henry Peavey. The initial reports had Taylor dying of a stomach hemorrhage, but when he was turned over, there was one gunshot in his back.
In those days, Hollywood movie studios had “fixers” called in to make sure their employees were never found doing anything that could damage their career. The fixers arrived at Taylor’s apartment before the police did. They removed letters, bootleg liquor and instructed Peavey to clean up the apartment.
The night before, actress Mabel Normand had visited Taylor at his LA bungalow. They drank, talked, Normand played jazzy riffs on the piano, and at 7:45, after staying for three quarters of an hour, Taylor walked her to the car and she blew him a kiss as she drove away.
Mabel Normand was the last person to see Taylor alive.
Neighbours would report hearing what they described as a car backfiring after Mabel Normand left the apartment. A person with an “effeminate walk” and “funny look” was seen retreating from the bungalow. Taylor’s body would not be discovered until the following morning.
The Murder of William Desmond Taylor is dramatic enough, ironically, for a Hollywood film. There is a lovelorn young actress, a domineering stage mother, a drug dealer, and a jealous gay lover. There were rumors that Taylor was gay or bisexual and that his own younger brother killed him. Before we get to my theory about what happened to Taylor, let’s talk about some of the more popular theories.
1) Mary Miles Minter
Mary Miles Minter (1902-1984) was a 20-year-old actress who, despite being 29 years his junior, was in love with Taylor, with whom she had a working professional relationship with. Minter was born Juliet Reilly and when she was 10, her mother, original #momager Charlotte Shelby, obtained the birth certificate of her older sister’s, Juliet’s cousin, dead daughter, making Juliet Reilly Mary Miles Minter.
It was rumoured that Taylor had a nightgown with the initials MMM and letters from Minter in his apartment. I have never put stock in this theory, I can’t imagine a 20-year-old murdering the man she had a huge crush on in cold blood. There’s no motive there.
2) Edward Sands.
Edward Sands was Taylor’s former butler who robbed him. Here’s the thing. Taylor was found with $78 ($1,158.61) on him plus a diamond ring and a gold locket with Mabel Normand’s picture in it. That doesn’t seem like robbery was the major motive for his murder. And I feel like there was a way to extort more money from Taylor, if that was what one wished, without killing him.
3) Mabel Normand
Of course! The last person to see the victim alive has to be a suspect! That’s crime 101. Taylor and Normand were close, and allegedly she was helping him kick his cocaine addiction. Normand was apparently also madly in love with Taylor, who rebuffed her advances as well.
(I think he was gay, honestly. I doubt any straight man could resist the pure beauty that was Mabel Normand.)
When Normand left the bungalow, Taylor was alive. He watched her drive away, she blew him kisses. Normand was put through a brutal police investigation and was eventually cleared of all charges.
Where’s the motive for her to kill her friend? I could maybe buy Mabel desperate and angry he didn’t love her back, but I don’t get that here.
I think my theory is the most common theory, and there’s a reason why.
Charlotte Shelby was Mary Miles Minter’s mother. The domineering stage mother had been an actress in her youth and planted her stardom dreams on Mary and her sister. Honestly, Mary probably sort of liked acting and just wanted to vibe, but Charlotte wouldn’t let her, paving the way for the Kris Jenners of the world.
Allegedly, Shelby wasn’t a fan of how in love her daughter was with the director. Even though it was unrequited, it was distracting, and Shelby kept her eye on the ball at all times. She wanted her daughter to be capital F Famous, and Taylor was a distraction.
I believe that Shelby dressed up as a man and went to Taylor’s home after Normand had left. Maybe they spend some time talking, but Charlotte Shelby doesn’t strike me as a woman who procrastinates. Maybe she caught him by surprise, shooting him in the back when he pulled her in for a hug. (How else could he be lying on his back but also have a gunshot in his back??) Maybe Mary was there, pulling a classic Meredith Grey “pick me, choose me, love me,” and Shelby was enraged at her daughter and the man who was diverting her daughter’s attention.
Charlotte owned the same type of gun used to kill Taylor. When this was discovered, she threw it into a Louisiana bayou. Her alibi was that she was playing cards with a friend, actor Carl Stockdale, from 7:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m. (What’s frustrating is that I can confirm when Mabel left, but I have no idea when Taylor was actually killed, just a 12 or so hour window between Mabel leaving and Peavey arriving. Anyway, it’s a crappy alibi.) Shelby allegedly also paid Stockdale $200.00 ($2970.80) every month for the rest of his life. I think it’s telling that even Mary would eventually accuse her mother of murder, saying “[m]y mother killed everything I ever loved!”
William Desmond Taylor’s death came at a time when Hollywood was in a fledgling state and coupled with the assault and murder of Virginia Rappe, the trials of Roscoe Arbuckle, and the over-sexualization of stars like Clara Bow (which is minor compared to everything else on this list, but remind me to tell you about the time Clara Bow was accused of having intercourse with a dog), times changed, and quickly. The Hays Code was put into action and people who wanted to be Hollywood stars were placed under tight scrutiny.
In my humble opinion as true crime fanatic and mystery author, I think Charlotte Shelby killed him and got away with it.
But what do you think? Let me know what your theories about Taylor’s death is and I’ll be back at you with another case in a couple of weeks.
Further reading (and watching):
William Desmond Taylor: The Unsolved Murder by Dina Di Mambro
Buzzfeed Unsolved: The Scandalous Murder of William Desmond Taylor
The Sordid Murder of this Hollywood Director took the Fun and Sex out of Tinseltown by Laura Smith
The Death of William Desmond Taylor by Heather Monroe