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."