THE STORY starts like a classic film noir. The early morning peace of a suburban Los Angeles neighbourhood is shattered by a terrified scream.
The residents of the Alvarado Court Apartments rush to their front doors to find Henry Peavy, the manservant of the famous Hollywood director, William Desmond Taylor, emerging distraught from 404-B. It is 7.30am, February 2nd 1922 and he has just discovered his employer lying dead on the living room floor, shot in the back. Hollywood would never be the same again.
It was a long way from Carlow town where Taylor was born on April 26th, 1872 to British army officer Maj Kearns Deane-Tanner and his wife, Jane. Taylor or William Deane-Tanner, as he was christened, was expected to join the services but had ideas of his own. He was interested in the stage. Perhaps to make a man of him, or perhaps to get him out of sight, William was sent, at the age of 18, to Runnymede Ranch in Kansas, a Wild West finishing school for wayward British Gents. It was here Taylor would fall in love with the freedom of America and make it his home for the rest of his life.
After several years criss-crossing the US working in menial jobs, Taylor ended up in New York City. He immediately gravitated to the theatrical circle. He found himself a glamorous wife, a member of the hugely popular dance troupe, the Florodora sextette, a Miss Ethel May Harrison.
He exploited his background of old world gentility to enter the antique business. The Tanners had a daughter Daisy, but before Daisy saw her seventh birthday Taylor disappeared.
Why exactly he left is unclear but he was never to return. Once again William found himself wandering throughout the US and Canada working variously as a hotel night clerk, in a paper mill, and at a gold mine before finally arriving in Los Angeles. He was now in the right place at the right time, for Hollywood of 1913 needed men with his refined looks, his skill with horses, and his education. At the age of 31, the former antique dealer ditched the name Deane-Tanner and reinvented himself as William Desmond Taylor, actor.
He would appear in 27 movies, most notably in the eponymous role of Captain Alvarez (1914), in which, the publicity department claimed, he performed the most dangerous stunt in cinema history by riding his horse at full gallop across a rope bridge. But it was also in this year that his directing career began. He went on to direct 59 films, including the first screen adaptations of Tom Sawyer (1917) and Huckleberry Finn (1920).
If the story ended there Taylor would have been just one of the many Irish pioneers of early Hollywood. He rubbed shoulders with the showbiz elite, like America’s Sweetheart, Mary Pickford, and author Somerset Maugham. Well born, well-paid, and well-liked in an industry on the verge of global domination, he had it all. So where did it go wrong? Taylor’s murder was never officially solved, though there are no shortage of theories as to who pulled the trigger. He was avowedly anti-drug and yet his best friend, and the last known person to see him alive, actress Mabel Normand, had a history of drug abuse. It is claimed he confronted dealers, of which there were many preying on the film community at the time. Perhaps he antagonised a murderous drugs peddler? Another
theory suggests Mary Miles Minter, a rising star with a penchant for older directors, came to his house with a gun threatening to kill herself in a melodramatic act of unrequited love and in a struggle to restrain her Taylor got shot. Some point to Mary’s controlling mother, Charlotte Shelby, who had a history of threatening her daughter’s co-workers with her 38.
The stories abounded – this was Hollywood after all.
With the killer on the loose, press speculation dragged on for months. This was the industry’s worst nightmare. At the moment of Taylor’s death Tinsel Town’s image was already becoming tarnished. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, America’s biggest (in both senses of the word) comedic star was awaiting the jury’s verdict on the second trial for manslaughter of aspiring actress Virginia Rappe. Arbuckle was soon acquitted but the story of Taylor’s murder would run and run.
The studio heads knew that in an era of prohibition they had to act fast or public perception of a “Hollywood Babylon” would bring on government regulation or, worse, a complete shutdown. So they recruited Will Hays, the man who had cleaned up baseball, to set up the Motion Picture Production Code, or Hays Code, which would determine the moral standards of Hollywood both on and off the screen for the next 40 years. The film industry would become respectable.
From the first newspaper reports on the day of his death, to the many books devoted to the subject, to the profusion of theories currently circulating the web, there has been a continual fascination with the Taylor story. A story that is said to have inspired Billy Wilder’s movie classic, Sunset Blvd (1950), and consumed generations of movie directors from King Vidor to Kimberly Pierce. Ninety years later, it’s still a compelling tale: of how an Irishman’s murder became Hollywood’s greatest mystery.
MARC-IVAN O'GORMANis writer and director of Who Killed Bill? a docu-drama on Newstalk, May 12th & 13th. Taylorfest is a 140th anniversary event screening a selection of Taylor's films, September 21st-23rd in Carlow. See: william-desmond-taylor.org/taylorfest.