LAistory: Who Killed William Desmond Taylor?

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William Desmond Taylor
William Desmond Taylor lived the kind of life that would be tough to live today, in our era of numbers and cards and facial recognition software. In the end, he paid a steep price for that life and so did Hollywood. Maybe he even lived many lives.

He was an antiques dealer, panned for gold, he spent time in either the British or Canadian armies during World War I. He was from Ireland, but he easily morphed into a genteel English gentleman.

Not everything he did was so exciting. He was also an inveterate liar, a deadbeat dad who abandoned his family and a drifter. Like many who flocked to Hollywood in its scandal-free salad days, he invented himself every day.

William Desmond Taylor was born William Cunningham Deane-Tanner on April 26 in Carlow, Ireland. The year is in dispute, though Wikipedia lists it as 1872. When he was 18, he emigrated to the U.S., settling in New York City, where he tried to be an actor and married Ethel May Harrison. He was occasionally subject to some sort of mental lapses where he would just disappear. There is a medical condition where this is known to happen, but it could have just been a clever cover up for his many affairs.

This is what his family thought had happened in 1912, when Taylor vanished, turning up in Los Angeles, replete with his new name and English accent. (Taylor was not the only Tanner to pull this stunt; his brother vanished, abandoning his family as well.)

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Henry Peavy
With a change of scene, Taylor’s acting career took off, but before long, he was directing. His first film was The Awakening in 1914. Before he returned to Britain in 1918 (where he joined the Royal Army Service Core (or possibly the Canadian army) to fight in World War I at the age of 46), he made more than fifty films, many starring greats of the age, including Mary Pickford, Constance Talmadge and George Beban. Even as things began to work out, he continued to lie. He told people he had once spent three months in jail for the woman he loved. He cast aspersions on the mental states of many of his high profile friends.

Taylor had his kindnesses as well. When his ex-wife tracked him down (or rather, saw him on a movie screen), he began a relationship with his daughter and made her his heir. When his brother’s family turned up on his doorstep penniless, he promised to pay them fifty dollars a month until his death. He was very worried about his friend, actress Mabel Normand, who was getting increasingly involved with drugs. He picked a fight with her drug dealers.

He got pretty lucky. But luck in this town can run out fast. Taylor was found dead in his Westlake Park bungalow on the morning of February 2, 1922. From the start, the investigation was a circus. Before the police arrived, a crowd of people descended on the place. A man who said he was a doctor examined the body, declaring that Taylor had died of a stomach hemorrhage. Had this “doctor” decided to turn the body over, he would have discovered the fatal bullet wound in Taylor’s back. Authorities never found the man. There are rumors that an entire troop of people from Paramount came through, removing objects that might have been key in the investigation, including ladies lingerie, all of Taylor’s illegal booze and any letters.

Some things were still evident. Taylor still had a two carat diamond ring, all the cash in his wallet and his pocket watch (among other things). However, there was evidence that Taylor had taken a substantial amount of money from his bank a few days before and that was never found.

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Mary Miles Minter
There are probably more theories as to who killed Taylor than there are lives he lived. Among the suspects were both of his butlers. The first was a man named Edward Sands, who was working under an alias (and a fake cockney accent) who stole money from Taylor and ran off. Some people though that he killed him because he was his brother, Denis Deane-Tanner, bearing a grudge over a stolen fiancé. The other butler (who found Taylor prone on his living room floor) was Henry Peavy.

Peavy had been previously charged with indecent exposure, but this could have meant a number of things less pervy than the words connote - like gay cruising or having to resort to peeing al fresco after not being allowed in a whites only bathroom. Because of the charge, it’s been speculated that Peavy was Taylor’s lover, or was, perhaps procuring boys for him. One enterprising reporter decided he was guilty and took him to a cemetery where a co-conspirator jumped out from behind a gravestone in a sheet and accused him of the crime. Investigative reporting at its best!

A bevy of actresses were also accused, among them Taylor’s protégé, Mary Miles Minter, and her mother. Mary was sixteen, but she’d already been working for years at the behest of her showbiz mom, Charlotte Shelby. At 8, she was playing sixteen. She was in love with Taylor, and may have killed him out of jealousy. Her mother was a suspect because she may have been angry at him for having an affair (that was never confirmed) with her daughter. The ensuing scandal destroyed Minter’s career, but she never gave it a second thought because she hated being an actress anyway.

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Mabel Normand
Another suspect was Mabel Normand, who may have been having an affair with Taylor. She was the last to see him alive the night before he died. She was known as the “female Charlie Chaplin.” She starred in a bunch of Keystone Kops films and did a few with Fatty Arbuckle as well. The police eventually declared her innocent, but there were still rumors that her former fiancé, Mac Sennett or her drug dealers had offed him.

There was a theory involving an old army buddy of Taylor’s, and even a hitman (which could have been anyone.) So soon after the Fatty Arbuckle scandal, people began to see Hollywood as a den of sin. The studios responded by putting morals clauses into their contracts. We were out of Eden.

Though there are still avid conspiracy theorists, most people haven’t heard of William Desmond Taylor, though his death contributed to the way our city and its premiere industry is still seen today. Most of his films are gone, vanished in the river of time. The theories are nearly all we have left and they are all deeply flawed, stories like the ones Taylor told himself and others. There’s only one thing that remains certain, in the midst of all the rumors, innuendo, lies and obfuscations, Taylor died as he lived, one foot in the mist.

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