WHEN AND IF Oliver Stone ever signs off the Kennedy assassination, the muckraking moviemaker needn't look far for his next conspiracy epic. Buried right in Hollywood's own backyard is a legendary mystery that, in its own way, is every bit as Byzantine as the 1963 Dallas rub-out. Who says the grassy knoll is always greener in the other fellow's lawn?
Death, sex, drugs, movie stars, corrupt officials, a smoke screen manufactured by a major movie studio and more red herrings than a fish market-the unsolved 1922 murder of film director William Desmond Taylor had it all. And 70 years later, insists one Tempe-based Taylor buff, it still does. Only more so.
There were only two socially dynamic decades this century, the Sixties and Twenties," says 45-year-old Bruce Long, an Arizona State University computer staffer whose dogged dedication to the case once prompted Los Angeles magazine to call him the world's most dedicated `Taylorologist.'"
The Sixties had the Beatles, hippies and Neil Armstrong landing on the moon," says Long. The Twenties had Rudolf Valentino, flappers and Charles Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic." Both decades had something else in common, Long continues: One American murder which shocked the nation and stood out above all others."
In the Sixties, it was JFK.
In the Twenties, WDT.
Bruce Long has spent the past 15 years trying to unravel the mystery behind the mystery.
FLASHBACK TO THE morning of February 2, 1922:
William Desmond Taylor, one of the screen-world's leading directors, is found dead on the floor of his Los Angeles living room, his body perforated by a single bullet from a .38 revolver. When police officers arrive at the stylish bungalow court where the distinguished-looking director made his home, they discover that several employees from Paramount-the studio where Taylor worked-have beaten them to the scene, ransacking the bachelor pad in an apparent effort to destroy incriminating evidence.
While rumor has it that the Paramount pack spirits away everything from bootleg booze to celebrity pornography, the team's search-and-destroy mission is far from a total success. Thanks to a silver locket found in Taylor's pocket and hidden love letters found elsewhere in the house, America is shocked to learn that two of the country's favorite silent-screen actresses-slapstick queen Mabel Normand and virginal-looking teen star Mary Miles Minter-appear to have been entangled in a romantic triangle with the 49-year-old director.
While police never consider Normand or Minter serious suspects, Hollywood quakes while practically anyone else who ever knew Taylor (or knew of him) eventually finds himself or herself on the receiving end of the finger of guilt. Other lesser-known names that are bandied around in connection with the crime eventually include Charlotte Shelby (Minter's monstrous mother) and Edward Sands (Taylor's chauffeur, who mysteriously disappeared several weeks before the murder, leaving behind a trail of forged checks in the director's name).
All speculation aside, the strongest lead comes from Faith MacLean, one of Taylor's neighbors. MacLean, wife of another film director, tells police she thought she heard a shot around eight o'clock the previous evening. Stepping outside to investigate, MacLean spotted a young man in a coat, cap and muffler walking out of Taylor's apartment. Because of the man's extremely casual behavior (after making eye contact with MacLean, he turned and stuck his head back into Taylor's apartment, as if he'd just remembered something he'd forgotten to tell the director), MacLean surmised that the noise she heard was actually a backfiring car. The incident was so insignificant that MacLean promptly forgot about it until the next morning. (Five other people are believed to have seen the same man. Years later, this person's identity is still a mystery.)
Police immediately rule out robbery as a motive; the victim has more than $50 in his pocket and is still wearing a diamond ring and expensive wristwatch. As police delve further into the mystery, the plot thickens. As it turns out, William Desmond Taylor isn't even the victim's real name. In truth, Taylor is actually one William Deane-Tanner, a smalltime actor who deserted a wife and daughter in the East years earlier. Furthermore, the reputed ladies' man was reportedly seen slumming in opium dens and homosexual hangouts in the weeks prior to his death.
For a murder case in which nothing was quite what it appeared, it seemed only fitting that even the corpse had a closetful of skeletons.
AMERICA WENT GAGA over the star-studded Taylor murder. No Hollywood murder has ever had so many stars so close to the vortex," says Bruce Long. The Taylor case, after 70 years, remains the Hollywood murder."
There have been several books about the case, but the latest and most scholarly is Long's William Desmond Taylor: A Dossier, a pricey ($50), heavily footnoted treatise aimed at serious film students and research libraries. Long jokes that unlike other books about the murder, his particular take on the case is so uncommercial that he'll be doing good to make back the photocopying costs." Like the unsolved murder it examines, Long's book is open-ended. That's the big criticism of my book," he admits. Everyone wants a solution I haven't got."
Were an identical scenario to unfold today, Long doubts that it could even begin to have the same impact as the 1922 escapade even with the substitution of contemporary stars like Julia Roberts or Kevin Costner.
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.
New Times' attempts to reach Kirkpatrick for comment were unsuccessful. However, responding to charges against his book in a 1987 Los Angeles magazine interview, Kirkpatrick is quoted as saying, I don't see any purpose in replying... . I believe I did the best job humanly possible."
Long takes issue with numerous points in Kirkpatrick's book. In A Cast of Killers, Kirkpatrick claims that several studio executives at the scene were incinerating papers in the fireplace when police arrived at Taylor's home the morning of the murder. Long points out that the director's bungalow did not even have a fireplace, nor was a fireplace ever mentioned in early press reports of the crime.
In one of the most fortuitous interviews in the history of crime detection, Vidor discovered (according to Kirkpatrick's book) that Taylor was a pederast, that Taylor paid his male housekeeper to solicit young boys for him in public parks and that Taylor had a secret hideaway that he used for his taboo trysts. But the source of this-a set designer who worked with Taylor-is never quoted as saying any of it. Instead, Vidor hypothesized the chicken-hawk scenario while thinking aloud, and the set designer confirmed" the story-in-progress through a series of silences which Vidor somehow managed to variously interpret as affirmative, negative or noncommittal.
Kirkpatrick strongly suggests that Charlotte Shelby, whom he pins as the culprit, struck again 15 years later. But as Long points out, there's evidence that the second Ôvictim" died of complications linked to chronic alcoholism.
Shelby was only a stage mother back in the Twenties, but she became a major player in the Taylor murder story. King Vidor's notes indicated that he thought the mystery man seen leaving the murder house actually was the middle-aged Charlotte Shelby disguised in men's clothes.
That doesn't fly at all," says Long, pointing out that the fiftyish Shelby didn't resemble the young man" leaving the house. Mary Miles Minter clearly didn't think her mother killed Taylor, either, and certainly she was very close to the situation."
Had Minter known Shelby had committed the crime, says Long, the actress would certainly have blown the whistle on her. Both Minter and her sister allegedly hated their mother, and the pair found themselves involved in lawsuits against Shelby on more than one occasion. So whodunit?
Whoever it is, the culprit probably is long dead. Mary Miles Minter, the last surviving principal, died almost ten years ago. And even if someone were to come forward tomorrow and confess, the case is so convoluted by this time that anything he or she said probably would be challenged.
You've also got to remember," says Long, that a certain percentage of murders do go unsolved." Factor in strong evidence of a deliberately sloppy police investigation (Long's research suggests that Paramount executives may well have been in cahoots with the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office) and it becomes clear that the person who shot William Desmond Taylor got away with murder.
Perhaps the case was doomed from the start. The killer owes a large debt of gratitude to another Paramount luminary who'd made unsavory headlines just six months before Taylor's body was found. Following a gin-soaked soiree held the preceding Labor Day weekend, popular silent-screen comedian Fatty Arbuckle had been charged with the death of a guest named Virginia Rappe. The victim, a prostitute and sometime actress, died of a ruptured bladder after her corpulent host allegedly sexually brutalized her.
Although Arbuckle was eventually cleared of wrongdoing, the lurid escapade took its toll on Tinseltown. Called on the carpet by outraged newspaper editorials, the fledgling film colony vowed to sweep future scandals under the rug.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
The town had just been through two Arbuckle trials and a third one was pending at the time Taylor was killed," explains Long. The last thing that Hollywood wanted was another trial. The powers that be really didn't want Taylor's murderer to be found. They just wanted the whole thing to die out as quickly as possible."
Long has a storehouse of information, but he's still not ready to finger the perpetrator of the murder that will not die. I really just have degrees of probability," he says. Certainly there were plenty of detectives who were totally convinced that Charlotte Shelby was the one, and they had more information than I did. I'd put Shelby at about 30 percent in my mind, but no higher than that."
Pressed to suggest an arrest, Long smiles. I've personally always liked the theory that the murder was committed by a vengeful Canadian army veteran who'd served under Taylor years before," he says. But I'll admit the odds on that aren't too good-particularly since Taylor was in the British army.