Posted by Susan Doll on December 8, 2008
Hollywood — home to the film industry where spoiled stars engage in drug and alcohol benders, host lavish, cash-draining parties, and get away with — murder. Though this may sound like a description of the contemporary Hollywood scene taken straight off the Internet, I am actually referring to the film community of the silent era. Back in the early 1920s, the Film Colony — as it was known then — got away with behavior that makes today’s Hollywood seem like a kindergarten.
The lifestyle and outrageous antics of the “Colony” have always fascinated me. As the film industry rapidly turned Los Angeles into a company town during the 1910s, the business was so new that there were no rules or conventions — either within the business or in the social structure that formed around it. Thus, women could become powerful stars, prominent screenwriters, or important directors; those from the poor or working classes with little or no education could enjoy unlimited wealth and fame if they got the right break; anyone with a shady past could reinvent themselves with a new name and new biography. By the end of WWI, the Colony boasted an oddball assortment of people who would never have been thrown together anywhere else — former vaudevillians, ambitious glamour girls, legitimate actors, ex-cowboys, lost runaways, con artists, and just plain drifters. But, they had in common their fame in the motion picture business.
Clannish and isolated by their fame and fortunes, Hollywood stars and industry bigwigs were protected by the studios as long as they brought in the money. Many silent film stars and creative personnel indulged in vices and illegal activities that were tolerated and covered up by their studios — sex, drugs, alcoholic binges, gambling. An aura of privilege hung over the Colony. They were America’s royalty, or so they thought. Even city officials turned a blind eye toward the activities of the Colony; after all, L.A. was a company town.
A Cast of Killers by Sidney Kirkpatrick effectively captures the peculiarities of the Hollywood Colony while investigating one of its most infamous murders — that of director William Desmond Taylor. Not only is it rich in detail about silent-era Hollywood, the book also boasts a peculiar conceit: It is told through the eyes of director King Vidor, who was supposedly investigating the unsolved murder for a film project he wanted to do. So, Kirkpatrick, who finished the book in 1986, chronicled the murder through the point of view of Vidor, who investigated it in 1967.
Vidor enjoyed a highly successful career during the silent era, directing such classics as The Big Parade and The Crowd, and then moved into the sound era, where he went on to direct Dual in the Sun and The Fountainhead. In the mid-1960s, he was trying to get his career back on track, having not directed a film since 1959′s Solomon and Sheba. In the 1960s in Hollywood, the old studios, along with their systems and practices, were in their death throes, and old-timers like Vidor became casualties of the New Hollywood. (Vidor directed one more film in 1980 called The Metaphor, which was a short documentary about painting.) That Vidor wanted to make a film about a Hollywood era long gone just as his own age was passing into the history books seems sad somehow.
The unsolved murder of William Desmond Taylor is a famous case in Hollywood lore and literature, largely because it was one of the scandals that led to the first organized censorship in Hollywood. The rape scandal of Fatty Arbuckle, the murder of Taylor, and the drug overdose of movie star Wallace Reid played out in the press in sleazy detail during the early 1920s. These scandals revealed the sordid offscreen lives of Hollywood’s rich and famous to a public that was growing weary of the sordid onscreen antics of the characters they played. The press stirred up the public with accounts of weekend-long parties, stars dallying with young girls in search of their big break, and illegal substances flowing like water. Then the public stirred up civic and religious groups, who in turn stirred up elected officials. Soon threats of government censorship of Hollywood movies grew so loud that industry leaders brought in former postmaster general Will H. Hays in 1922 to help Hollywood censor itself. Hays, dubbed the censorship czar by the press, adopted a list of do’s and don’t's for the film industry to follow to control onscreen behavior, persuaded publicists to stop leaking stories about parties and extravagant lifestyles, and suggested that the studios adopt moral clauses in their contracts with stars. Thus began Hollywood’s long history of self-censorship in one form or another.
Taylor’s murder exposes a wicked tale of drugs, sex, lost souls, ruined careers, corrupt officials, and secret identities. It’s too bad that Vidor never got to make a movie of the Taylor case because it would have been a wild one.
On the morning of February 2, 1922 (or, 2-2-22), Taylor’s African-American valet Henry Peavey found the director’s dead body in the living room of his apartment at the exclusive Alvarado Courts overlooking Westlake Park. Peavey screamed at the sight of his dead employer, which set off a series of strange events that unfolded throughout the morning. After the police were called, a crowd of onlookers and film industry big shots began milling about the crime scene. A Paramount exec named Charles Eyton (husband of actress Kathlyn Williams) arrived, went straight to Taylor’s bedroom, and retrieved letters and other items belonging to the director while the police did nothing to stop him. Later Eyton burned the items. An unknown doctor who happened to be passing by, though he never gave his name, examined the body and declared that Taylor died of natural causes. Later, Eyton turned the body over to reveal a pool of blood slowly leaking from a gunshot wound. Taylor had money and checks in his house and on his person, which ruled out robbery. Searching for the motive for this infamous murder — and therefore the killer — has occupied several generations of amateur and professional sleuths.
After the body was taken away by the coroner, the police began a thorough search of the five-room apartment. Over the next few weeks, their discoveries were exaggerated and embellished in the press. A stash of love letters were found, including those from Mary Miles Minter, a teenage actress whose star image as a youthful, spunky heroine rivaled that of Mary Pickford. Minter was in love with the middle-aged director, which was exposed in the press, much to the chagrin of her stage-mother-from-hell, Charlotte Shelby. Other letters were recovered from the toe of Taylor’s riding boot. Some newspapers claimed the riding-boot letters were signed “Mary,” while the Los Angeles Times stated they had been penned by popular comedienne Mabel Normand, who had gained fame as one of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studio stars.
A rash of claims, rumors, lies, and accusations followed in the press, as the papers competed to name the most likely suspect. Police questioned everyone from Normand to Minter to ordinary citizens who claimed to have given rides to hitmen on their way to dispatch Taylor. When new leads proved scarce, some reporters did their part to keep the story alive. An unbelievable incident (not reported in the book) involving Henry Peavey reveals just how low reporters sank to uncover more information. Two reporters from the Hearst paper, the Los Angeles Examiner, kidnapped poor Peavey. They took him to the paper’s offices and held him there without food or drink while trying to get him to talk. The reporters thought that he must be withholding information to protect Taylor, and they were determined to find out what it was. In what must be an all-time journalism low, the reporters then dragged the valet to the cemetery where Taylor was interred. They told Peavey that Taylor’s ghost was going to get him if he didn’t talk. At that point, another reporter with a sheet over his head came out from behind a crypt, groaning and moaning as he pretended to be the dead Taylor. When they finally let Peavey go, the angry valet went to the authorities. District Attorney Thomas Woolwine condemned the actions of the reporters to the press, but he did nothing to punish them. I am sure if Peavey had been white, the outcome would have been different.
Vidor re-investigated the many suspects and suspicion persons surrounding the case. There was the Edward Sands, who may or may not have been Taylor’s shady brother Dennis Gage Deane Tanner. Sands, who occasionally worked as Taylor’ valet and/or chauffeur, had robbed the director on more than once occasion, even stealing his car. But Taylor did not want to press charges. Sands may also have provided Taylor with connections to obtain drugs. In some accounts, Taylor was using the drugs himself; according to others, he was heroically trying to track down the drug peddlers who had hooked notable Hollywood stars, including Taylor’s good friend Mabel Normand. Normand was a drug addict by 1922, and her dependency on drugs ruined her health.
Normand may have been the last person to see Taylor alive, visiting him on the evening of February 1 to borrow a book he thought she might like. Normand was woefully undereducated, and Taylor was supposedly mentoring her on the finer things in life, though her tastes in literature still ran to The Police Gazette. While the police never seriously suspected her in the murder, the press condemned her with rumor, distortions, and speculation about her relationship with Taylor. The next year, when her chauffeur shot and killed another member of the Colony, oil tycoon Courtland Pines, her reputation suffered further and her career continued its downward spiral. She died in 1930. The official cause of death was listed as tuberculosis, but her drug habit undoubtedly played a part in her untimely demise.
Minter also suffered as the result of her involvement in the scandal. Her image as youthful innocence incarnate was scarred by revelations that she was in love with a 50-year-old man. Insipid love letters that read, “I love you, Oh, I love you so. God, I love you so. I love you, I love you. I love you,” made her seem ridiculous as well as tainted. A pink nightgown was discovered in Taylor’s apartment, and the press erroneously reported that it was embroidered with the initials “MMM.” Minter did little to help the public perception of her by constantly reporting to the press information about her relationship with Taylor, Normand’s supposed relationship with Taylor, and Minter’s estranged relationship with her greedy mother. For all intents and purposes, the Taylor scandal ended Minter’s career, but her mother fared much better. In fact, Charlotte Shelby may have actually gotten away with Taylor’s murder, though no one knows for sure. Shelby’s alleged involvement in the murder resulted in her bribing at least three district attorneys. The district attorney at the time of the murder, Thomas Woolwine, who personally knew Charlotte Shelby, ordered all evidence in the case brought to his office, where it was eventually “lost.” Anything solid that may have implicated Shelby was gone.
The strangest story was undoubtedly Taylor’s. Dead men supposedly tell no tales, but the death of the refined director revealed his true identity. Taylor had mythologized himself to his friends in Hollywood as the son of an English or Irish noble family who had grown up on a ranch in America, and then heroically served in the army. Some of those stories were true; some weren’t. But, what was true was that he abandoned his family. Born William Cunningham Deane Tanner, he married Ethel May Harrison in 1901. The couple had a daughter, Daisy. He ran a successful antiques business, but in 1905, he disappeared, leaving behind his wife and daughter to fend for themselves. Three years later, his brother Dennis Tanner pulled the same stunt, also abandoning his family. In 1913, Taylor showed up in Hollywood as an actor. What happened during the eight years between abandoning his family and turning up in the movies is unknown, though there is evidence to suggest he was in the Klondike for awhile.
After appearing in a number of movies in the 1910s, Taylor quickly discovered that his talents were better suited behind the camera, and he became a prominent director for Paramount, guiding major stars, including Mary Pickford, in important, big-budget films. Taylor loved the lifestyle of the Colony, joining the country club, buying several cars, and hiring a staff for his apartment. In a twist that sounds like it could have been part of a movie melodrama, his wife and daughter were at the movies one day and recognized Taylor onscreen. Ethel Tanner journeyed west to find him, pleading with him to meet with her or their daughter. Eventually Taylor agreed, and he and Ethel met the year before he died.
Vidor suspected that William Desmond Taylor had been a homosexual, though Taylor kept that part of his identity under wraps. If he were a homosexual, then why was there “proof” in his home of affairs with two prominent actresses? Evidence suggests that the studio executives milling around the murder site the morning the body was discovered may have planted some of the letters and the nightgown to either preserve Taylor’s reputation or to ruin the careers of Normand and Minter, who were becoming liabilities to the Colony. What’s worse than a director who abandons his family, an actress whose mother may have committed murder, or a star who allows herself to fall into hopeless addiction? That’s easy — the studio who manipulates such a tragic situation to its advantage.
A Cast of Killers is not a great book, but I recommend it because of the real-life mystery behind one of Hollywood’s most important scandals, which did change the course of film history. And, I recommend it because it is told through the eyes of Vidor, a real-life Hollywood character whose own life and career were significant and interesting.
Most of all, I recommend the book because the Taylor murder is a tragic account of the moral distortion created by the fame and fortune of the film industry. The Colony was truly a strange milieu — more rarefied than today’s Hollywood. Vidor had known Taylor personally because they were colleagues in Hollywood during the silent era. He had also been friends with many of the other famous residents of the Colony, and several of them were still alive at the time of his investigation. He interviewed such giants of the silent era as star Gloria Swanson and director Alan Dwan, in addition to others who were well-known in their day, including Minta Durfee, Tony Moreno, and Claire Windsor. There is something downright sad about how Vidor tracks down these once glamorous denizens of Hollywood who had become old, ill, broke, and forgotten. Little more than ghosts from the past, they recalled life in the Colony when youth, money, and fame granted them a privileged existence that, like fame itself, never lasts.
(For all things related to the murder of William Desmond Taylor, visit the website called “Taylorology.” Type “Taylorology” into your browser, and the site will pop up in different guises.)
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