By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
The public today can't begin to realize how big stars like Chaplin and Mary Pickford were back then," insists Long. These stars were like gods. And because so many of the people involved in the case were known to the public through their movies, this was probably the first murder in America in which people felt such a close involvement." The facts seem to bear out Long's opinion. Eager to catch a glimpse of one of those deities in the flesh, an estimated 30,000 rubbernecks flocked to Taylor's services, turning the event into a mob scene the Associated Press described as the largest funeral in Los Angeles history."
The murder also gave birth to another record. Long claims that the Taylor homicide is generally credited with selling more newspapers than any other event up to that point in American history. (Here in Phoenix, stories about the murder received front-page play for ten straight days in what then was called the Arizona Republican.)
Today, a newspaper basically comes out with a home edition, a street edition and maybe an extra edition," explains Long. Back in the Twenties, though, some newspapers were routinely putting out five and six editions a day. And when the Taylor case broke, there were some papers publishing up to nine editions a day. Because there was virtually no news on the radio back then, the situation was such that people would run out and buy the same newspaper several times a day just to get the latest news on the Taylor murder."
Even long after the investigation had slipped into neutral, reverberations from Taylor's slaying continued to make for good copy. Devastated both personally and professionally by the scandal, Mabel Normand slid deeper into longtime drug addiction, dying of tuberculosis in 1930. Finding herself similarly washed up, Mary Miles Minter holed up in a Santa Monica mansion until her death in 1984. Some believe the reclusive Minter was the inspiration for Bette Davis' crumbling-kid-star character in the '62 thriller Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?.
Bruce Long became interested in the case when he began collecting silent films in the late Seventies. Intrigued by the glaring discrepancies in latter-day accounts of the crime (Long claims that Hollywood Babylon, the legendary scandal bible, manages to pack more than a dozen really bad" mistakes into its five-page rehash of the crime), he headed for the ASU newspaper morgue, where, using interlibrary loans, he eventually collected more than 500 press accounts and documents relating not only to Taylor's murder, but his career as well. There is an enormous difference between press reports published immediately after the murder and the reports published much later," explains Long, who says he hasn't run across an accurate account of the crime in five years. Right from the beginning there were inaccuracies in the press coverage of the case, and those inaccuracies tended to multiply as time passed. Most recaps written more than a year after the case are virtually worthless unless they contain some genuine new information from an authentic source."
Long's research eventually served as the basis of Taylorology, a newsletter about the crime whose first issue appeared in 1985. Advertising his quirky little digest with small classified ads in film and detective magazines, Long sat back and waited for the subscriptions to come rolling in. To his surprise, he discovered that the Taylor murder was a dead issue in more ways than one. Twelve subscribers and three issues later, the magazine folded.
Oddly, Taylorology had one foot in the grave when, in mid-1986, a new book about the case breathed life into the murder case. Titled A Cast of Killers, the best seller claimed to solve the Taylor case once and for all, supposedly presenting startling new evidence that unmasked the culprit as Charlotte Shelby, Mary Miles Minter's mom.
According to a rash of prepublication hoopla, author Sidney Kirkpatrick had stumbled upon the solution in appropriately dramatic fashion: While researching a biography on the late director King Vidor (a contemporary of Taylor's whose career spanned both silents and talkies), Kirkpatrick found a locked strongbox hidden behind a water heater in Vidor's garage. Inside the box, Kirkpatrick discovered a secret file that Vidor had assembled during a 1967 investigation into the murder, material that Vidor allegedly planned to use for a screenplay marking his directorial comeback. Of the thousands of armchair detectives who gobbled up A Cast of Killers when it hit the bookstalls in the spring of 1986, it's probably safe to assume that few did so with as much gusto as Bruce Long. It's equally true that few readers had as much trouble digesting what they were reading.
Asked for his initial reaction to that book, Long smiles wanly. After the first time through, I said, `I've got to read this again.'" By the time he'd made it through a second reading, he'd discovered a host of errata he claims he later shared with Kirkpatrick during a lengthy telephone conversation.
Long wasn't alone in questioning Kirkpatrick's gumshoeing. Betty Harper Fussell, author of a critically acclaimed biography of Mabel Normand, took American Film magazine to task for excerpting the Kirkpatrick book, calling the opus Hollywood hoopla, not history...it should declare itself as fiction and not masquerade as fact." New York publisher Robert Giroux, a close friend of King Vidor, joined the fray when he fired off a letter to the New York Times Book Review complaining about the newspaper's favorable review of Kirkpatrick's book. In 1990 Giroux countered with A Deed of Death, a book-length rebuttal in which he advanced a controversial theory that Taylor was murdered by drug lords after he'd launched a secret one-man campaign to rid Hollywood of narcotics.