William Desmond Taylor, world’s greatest director, British Army captain, art connoisseur, traveller, dilettante, divorcée, bon vivant, occultist, et cetera, et cetera, as well as sole proprietor of the finest, best appointed, most frequently visited and most generously occupied love nest in the city of Los Angeles – William Desmond Taylor, Love Avalanche is found dead!
– Seattle Union Record, 2 February 1922
On the morning of February 2, 1922, the Los Angeles police arrived at the home of William Desmond Taylor, in what was then a wealthy suburb of the city (for what it’s worth, his house is now a 7-Eleven parking lot) to find the prominent film director dead on the floor of his study. With the agreement of Police Lieutenant Ziegler, a doctor from the crowd of onlookers made a preliminary examination of the body and declared death from natural causes, possibly heart trouble.
The case was closed.
Moments, later the body was turned over to reveal a pool of blood and a neat bullet hole puncturing his left lung.
The case was swiftly re-opened.
The identity of the “doctor” was never discovered, nor was he seen again and ultimately his existence was questioned. He formed just the first of many mysteries concerning the murder of the man described in the memoirs of Special Investigator Ed C King as a ‘cultured, dignified gentleman with a charming personality and considerable magnetism.’
The investigation into the untimely death of said cultured, dignified gentleman spanned decades, left countless reputations in tatters and caused the Seattle Star to remark: ‘every time there is a shooting scrape in the movie colony some screen star finds out where the rest of her clothes are.’
99 years later, the murder remains unsolved.
I’ve been fascinated by the case since I stumbled across a copy of A Cast of Killers, an account of director King Vidor’s investigation in the sixties, at a used book sale in LA years ago. It was the OJ case of its day, pushing even the Fatty Abuckle scandal from the front pages, and kept the US rapt for years afterwards. It’s got everything: murder, sex, gossip, secret identities and feuds going back decades.
The fall out destroyed careers and very possibly changed the face of Hollywood and the film industry forever.
Mary Miles Minter was one of Paramount’s golden girls. She had done well in the teens as Paramount’s answer to Mary Pickford — basically, spunky little girl has adventures kind of thing. However, unlike Pickford who continued playing little girl characters well into her thirties, at twenty Miles Minter was already starting to look like an adult.Her last couple of films hadn’t done so well, and she had a couple of years left on her (very expensive) contract at Paramount.
And then William Desmond Taylor was murdered and all the juicy details of their (unconfirmed) affair were leaked to the press. Supposedly, investigators found lingerie and love notes from her at his bungalow. There is a photo of one of her notes floating around online. It reads much like the sort of fangirly nonsense I used to write to Jason Donovan (I didn’t post them! 😂) and there is no evidence that the 49 year old, possibly gay, Taylor ever reciprocated her crush. For the rest of her life she described him as her friend and mentor, but shockingly enough, the hot and heavy rumours stuck.
Then her mother Charlotte Shelby — basically the original pushy stage mum, the entire family lived very nicely off the teenaged Mary’s earnings — emerged as the prime suspect (in the tabloids, at least; she was never charged) — and it was all over for Mary. Her contract quietly limped to an end and she retired from the screen at the grand old age of twenty one.
In 1937, she begged the Los Angeles Examiner:
“Now I demand that I either be prosecuted for the murder committed fifteen years ago, or exonerated completely. If the District Attorney has any evidence, he should prosecute. If not, then I should be exonerated… Shadows have been cast upon my reputation.”
She was also the original Winona Ryder incidentally, being sued for shoplifting in 1934 (she claimed that she had invested in the shop that sued her and was taking the dress in lieu of interest). Other than the odd foray into the gossip columns, she seems to have lived a fairly quiet life in Beverly Hills — like a sort of sweet version of Norma Desmond — until her death in 1984.
Now, I’m not suggesting that Paramount arranged the murder to get rid of an expensive contracted star, BUT it’s hard to deny that the scandal turned out to be… convenient. What really interests me is that Miles Minter was out on her ear in 1922; Mabel Normand (who was also connected, will do a post on her very soon) did keep on working until her death in 1928 but was never again a headline star. Lois Weber, one of the three “great minds” of cinema along with DW Griffith and Cecil B DeMille, was put out to pasture around the same time, and June Mathis was fired from MGM a couple of years later after being blamed for the seeming financial disaster of Ben Hur (and wasn’t reinstated when it turned around to become one of the highest grossing films of all time).
There are obviously a lot of reasons that powerful woman after powerful woman saw her career tip off a cliff in the early twenties, the main one most likely being that as production and also distribution got more sophisticated, studios turned to Wall Street for investment and Wall Street chose to invest in films made by men.
But it’s hard not to feel as though something shifted with the murder of William Desmond Taylor, which means that today the 99th anniversary of the beginning of the end for women in Hollywood.
Happy motherf*cking anniversary, ladies 🥴