His murder has not yet been solved, some eighty years after the fact. His death has been the subject of four books, countless articles, and continues to inspire one web site dedicated to researching the dastardly deed. Generations later, the legend of actor/director William Desmond Taylor continues to fascinate and absorb: but is it his life, or his death, that keeps us intrigued?
William Cunningham Deane-Tanner was born in Mallows County Cork, Ireland, on April 26, 1872. His family later made residence in America, New York to be precise; in 1908 William, 36, left the home and security of family and made his way to Hollywood.
His first work out West was as an actor on the live stage and in motion pictures, and his reviews in such films as The Criminal Code (1914) and An Eye for an Eye (1915) were universally positive. He made his directorial debut late in 1914, and rose to prominence in a short time as the director of several successful Mary Pickford vehicles. In 1918, he signed a contract with Famous Players-Lasky, which would eventually become Paramount Pictures.
Quickly, Taylor’s reputation as a director of importance blended with his social acceptance as a suave, handsome man-about-town. He was tremendously popular among the ladies of Tinseltown; he was elected to the influential post of President of the Screen Directors’ Guild, and he was vocal, on behalf of his fellow directors, on numerous subjects of importance to his craft (e.g., the importance of the release of films, which were based on books, to encourage reading and to stimulate the live stage; the view that music in silent films must be “subservient” to the picture itself, enhancing, but not overpowering, the story, and, the warning against extravagant prologues and extras in the theatres, with a eye towards nothing topping the film itself). Taylor was an important part of a September 1920 memorial service which honored five Hollywood luminaries that had, in the past months, died early deaths: Olive Thomas, Robert Harron, Frank Elliott, Clarine Seymour, and Ormer Locklear, each, were young, popular, and prematurely dead, and for Taylor to have the honor of eulogizing these stars was a testament to his worth and respectability. Taylor was growing to be a man of stature, opinion, and importance, in Hollywood. Then, on a cool evening in the City of Angels, everything changed, for many people.
The dawn of the Roaring Twenties was an extravagant and exuberant time, while also being an era known for its scandals. Just as the last rites were being read over the career of Roscoe Arbuckle (he was tried three separate times, finally aquitted, and ultimately exonerated, for the 1921 death of actress Virginia Rappe), the entertainment world was rocked yet again. On February 1, 1922, William Desmond Taylor was found murdered, shot to death, in his Westlake mansion – he was two months shy of his 50th birthday. The circumstances of his demise remain mysterious, even to this day. Police arrived at Taylor’s home to find a hubbub of activity: two Paramount executives were burning papers in the fireplace; Mabel Normand, close friend and supposed lover of Taylor, was feverishly ransacking his bureau for compromising documents. Police found the closets crammed with pornographic material; narcotics use was mentioned in the case; as well, lingerie bearing the monogram “M.M.M.” was found in the home (the initials of actress Mary Miles Minter, then nineteen years of age, who worked under Taylor’s directorial tutelage from age 17, and who was rumored to be intimately involved with him since). Both actresses, Normand and Minter, had visited Taylor on that tragic night; although neither star was suspected of the actual deed, the scandal first tainted, and ultimately ended, both careers.
Coming, as it did, on the heels of the Arbuckle scandal, the Taylor murder resulted in increased pressure on the behavior of the influential, and highly watched, Hollywood community – demands such as this led to the 1922 initiation of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc., designed to improve the image of the studios both off and on the screen (in 1930, the MPPDA, by then known as The Hays Office, created the Motion Picture Production Code, a strict self-regulatory charter of do’s and don’ts that, in time, became known as the Hays Code) .
Among the books written with the express purpose of assessing the crime and pointing the finger of guilt, was the 1986 tome A Cast of Killers, by Sidney D. Kirkpatrick: Kirkpatrick was the authorized biographer of director King Vidor who, in 1967, began his own thorough investigation of the murder, taken up by his biographer after Vidor’s 1982 death. It, as well as the other books on this sad subject, have not definitively solved the crime – it may never be solved – but they have injected renewed interest into the career of William Desmond Taylor, a director who, had he not died such a premature and violent death, might have languished in obscurity along with so many of his contemporaries. As his films are re-assessed in new generations (of particular import is his direction of the 1918 Mary Pickford classic Johanna Enlists, as well as the first screen pictorialization of Anne of Green Gables, in 1919), his prominence and vision as a director will be a welcome reminder of why we should remember William Desmond Taylor – not just for how he died, but for what he accomplished while he lived.