Hollywood's Original Unsolved Mystery

Published July 29, 2021
Hollywood's Original Unsolved Mystery


On this date, February 1, 1922, William Desmond Taylor, one of the most famous movie directors in early Hollywood, was murdered in his bungalow in the Westlake District of Los Angeles. At first, it was assumed that he died of natural causes – until someone discovered that he had been shot in the back by a .38-caliber revolver.

Taylor’s murder became one of the most sensational cases in the annals of Hollywood crime and one that has never been close to being solved. The coroner’s jury, at a crowded inquest, had no choice but to return an open verdict. Fantastic rumors made the rounds of the film colony. There was an entire “cast of killers” blamed for his death and the gossips named suspects that ranged from an actress who had killed him in a jealous rage over another actress, the husband of a woman Taylor had elevated to stardom on the proverbial “casting couch, and even a butler with whom the director was having a homosexual affair.

William Desmond Taylor, one of the most famous directors in Hollywood in the early 1920s

Taylor’s murder continues to be talked about today, largely because of the many bizarre facts that were uncovered by investigators as they tried to piece together what really happened in the case. Taylor was known in Hollywood as a man of many romances. Was he murdered by a jealous rival, either a man or woman? Was he killed by some figure from his past, which the investigation discovered was more than a little disreputable? Was he killed by someone who broke into his bungalow to rob the place and was caught in the act? Were two of Hollywood’s most beloved celebrities, Mabel Normand and Mary Miles Minter, who were labeled by the press as “rival lovers” of the dead man, somehow involved in the crime?

None of these questions have ever been answered, largely thanks to representatives from Paramount Pictures (which employed both Taylor and Minter) and their deliberate tampering with the murder scene evidence. It was no secret at the time that the LAPD was under the thumb of Adolph Zukor, the powerful head of Paramount, and the investigation, which had already been bungled by careless police work, was further hampered by his efforts. Paramount could hardly be blamed for attempting some damage control in this latest disaster. It was already trying to cope with the fallout from the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle scandal in 1921. To counter the sordid reputation that had befallen the industry, Hollywood (led by Adolph Zukor) had hired U.S. Postmaster General Will Hays to introduce the Production Code, which would censor Hollywood products and publicly keep the morality of the industry in check. Now, with the facts in the Taylor case pointing to sex, alleged drug dealing, and more, the world was stunned, horrified, and of course, fascinated by every lurid development that came along.

Taylor was born William Cunningham Deane-Tanner on April 26, 1872 in Carlow, Ireland, located south of Dublin. He was the second of four children born to a British army officer and his Irish society wife. His father ran the household like a military barracks and father and son quarreled often. When William was 15 years old, he left home and went to England. By 1890, using the name Cunningham Deane, he began performing on the stage. When his father learned of this dishonor to his family name, he demanded that William enroll at Runnymede, an establishment in Kansas that turned disreputable and wealthy young men into respectable farmers. William traveled to the Midwest and remained at the institution for 18 months. After the school went bankrupt and closed down, he decided to stay in America.

He traveled to New York and earned a living as a manual laborer, a magazine salesman, a gambler, and as the modestly successful owner of a small restaurant. Soon, however, he returned to the stage. In 1895, he went to work on Broadway and then toured with actress Fanny Davenport and her company. That position ended when Davenport died in 1898.

By that time, William had met Effie Hamilton, a pretty young chorus girl from a wealthy family. The couple was married in December 1901 and the following year, their daughter, Ethel Daisy, was born. Effie never returned to the stage and William decided to take up a new line of work to support his family. With a $25,000 loan that he acquired from his in-laws, he bought out two eastside Manhattan antique stores. He was a great success in this new trade and the family lived well in suburban Larchmont.

In 1908, though, everything fell apart. There was gossip that several vintage items sold in his shops were fakes. A planned inheritance from Effie’s uncle never materialized after the elderly uncle married, then died, leaving everything to his new spouse. William began drinking heavily and then it was discovered in the summer of that year that he took a vacation trip to the Adirondacks with a woman who was not his wife. Unable to pay a sizable hotel bill, he gave the owner a diamond ring as security.

In September 1908, William vanished from New York after pilfering $600 from one of the antique stores. He sent $500 of it to Effie and used the rest to start a new life. He never returned to his family and in 1912, Effie filed for divorce. She later married a wealthy restaurant owner. Her former husband, meanwhile, re-created himself as William Desmond Taylor and began working with an acting troupe in New Jersey. Never more than a workman-like performer, he soon turned to other employment, like factory work and gold mining in Colorado, the Yukon, and northern California. He gained a reputation as a ladies’ man and a hard drinker and his years on the road were certainly colorful ones. Eventually, he ended up back on the stage and was performing in San Francisco when he was hired by filmmaker Thomas Ince to appear in silent pictures.

Taylor moved to Southern California and began working at Ince’s studio in Santa Monica. By 1914, he was working for Vitagraph and starring in “Captain Alvarez.” As a side note, this film was re-issued in 1918 and was seen by Taylor’s daughter, Ethel Daisy, in New York, which is how she learned of his new profession. This led to a good relationship between Taylor and his daughter.

By this time, Taylor was in his mid-40s and knew that he would never make much of a success for himself on the screen. He decided to switch to directing. He was working for the Balboa Amusement Producing Company in Long Beach when he met and fell in love with leading lady Neva Gerber. Unfortunately, Neva was 20 years old, married, and had a child and a much older husband who refused to divorce her. She got involved with Taylor anyway, but learned that Taylor was subject to bouts of great melancholy. Sometimes, after completing a new picture, he left on trips to Northern California, and always remained vague about where he was going and what he was doing there. Later, when Neva was single again, she decided that the troubled director was not good marriage material. However, the two remained close friends.

Taylor’s career continued to advance and in the middle 1910s, he switched studios again. Taylor was brought to Pallas Pictures by Julia Crawford Ivers, a screenwriter, producer, and director. When Pallas was bought out by Paramount, Julia and Taylor often worked together and maintained a close friendship that might have been spurred on by romantic hopes on her part. At Paramount, Taylor became very successful, directing a steady stream of major pictures.

In the fall of 1917, Taylor was allowed time off from Paramount to join the Canadian Army and serve in World War I. By August 1918, he was based in Nova Scotia for military pembinaan and then shipped out to England. Although the war was over by the time he arrived, the filmmaker asked to be stationed in France until his discharge. By the spring of 1919, he had risen to the rank of major.

Taylor returned to Hollywood later that year and got right back to work for Paramount. One of his first major films was “Anne of Green Gables” starring Mary Miles Minter. He was named to the position of president for the Motion Pictures Directors Association and settled into an affluent Hollywood life. He moved from the Los Angeles Athletic Club to one of eight bungalows that made up Alvarado Court, located in a pleasant section of L.A. and favored by movie industry insiders. Among those living at Alvarado Court was comedy actor Douglas MacLean, and his wife, members of Taylor’s elite social circle. Taylor hired staff to run his household, including Edward F. Sands as a combination secretary, valet, and cook and Earl Tiffany, who often worked as his driver.

During the spring of 1921, Taylor had surgery and went abroad in June to recover. While he was away, he loaned out his bungalow to playwright Edward Knoblock in exchange for the writer’s London apartment. To make sure that his guest was comfortable, Taylor foolishly left a signed blank check for Edward Sands to use in case of an emergency. While his employer was away, Sands not only cashed the check in the amount of $5,000, but he also forged a number of smaller checks from Taylor’s accounts. A week before Taylor returned home, Sands vanished. When he arrived, Taylor discovered that, in addition to the missing funds, Sands had also stolen much of his wardrobe, some jewelry, a number of personal items, and an automobile, which was later found wrecked. Taylor filed a report with the police and then, a few months later, he received a letter from Sands, half-heartedly apologizing for what he had done. The note also contained two pawn tickets for diamond cuff links that Mabel Normand had given to the director. Sand’s job at Taylor’s home was taken over by Henry Peavey.

Mabel Normand
Mabel Normand, then 27, had built her career as the “Queen of Comedy” working for Keystone Studios, which was run by her mentor and close friend, Mack Sennett. In 1918, she signed with producer Samuel Goldwyn to make features and during this time, the popular actress developed a serious cocaine habit. Later, she became romantically involved with Taylor, who was sympathetic to her drug persoalan. He tried to get her off the drugs and keep her away from the dealers who were feeding her dangerous and, if the public found out, scandalous habit.

Another woman in Taylor’s complicated life was Mary Miles Minter, then 19 years old, whom he had directed in three 1920 features. Under the watchful eye of her controlling stage mother, Charlotte Selby, doe-eyed Minter looked on Taylor as both a father figure and a dashing pahlawan. She fantasized about marrying and continually pursued him, despite his efforts to dissuade her.

Mary Miles Minter
On Wednesday, February 1, 1922, Taylor spent the evening at his bungalow, working on income tax reports from the previous year at his desk in the living room. Henry Peavey, Taylor’s cook and valet, later told the police that he summoned Taylor to dinner at around 6:30 p.m. The director was eating his solitary meal when he received a telephone call. He was still engaged in this conversation (no one knows who the call was from) when Mabel Normand stopped by Taylor’s bungalow to pick up two books that he had recently purchased for her. Peavey let Mabel into the house as Taylor hung up the telephone, and then proceeded to mix a couple of drinks.

Peavey left the house about 7:30 p.m. after first going out to chat with Mabel’s driver. When he wished Taylor good night, he and Mabel were sitting on the sofa sipping cocktails. According to Mabel, she left the bungalow at a little before 8 p.m. Taylor walked the actress to her car, leaving the front door standing open behind him. She waved as her driver pulled away from the curb and Taylor returned to the house. At midnight, actress Edna Purviance, who also lived at Alvarado Court, returned home and noticed that all of the lights were still on at Taylor’s home, but she thought it was too late to stop for a visit.
The following morning, Peavey reported to work at 7:30 a.m. and let himself into the house with his own key. He walked into the living room and found the director’s body sprawled out, face-up, on the living room floor. He looked as though he had fallen and an overturned chair was across his legs.

As news spread around Alvarado Court, several of the residents hurried over and entered Taylor’s home, contaminating the crime scene. When Taylor’s new driver, Howard Fellows, arrived at the house, he telephoned the news to his brother. The brother, Harry, was an assistant director who worked with Taylor at Paramount. He contacted Charles Eyton, Paramount’s general manager, and told him of Taylor’s death. Eyton ordered Harry, along with Julia Crawford Ivers and her son James (Taylor’s cinematographer), to rush to Taylor’s home. Their instructions were to remove any incriminating evidence that could damage the filmmaker’s reputation --- which would look bad for the studio.
At this point, no one had yet called the police.

Taylor’s Alvarado Court Bungalow
Julia, James, and Harry Fellows hurried to the bungalow and gathered up anything they could find that might shed a bad light on Taylor. They took letters to Taylor from Mabel Normand, Mary Miles Minter, and Neva Gerber, as well as notes from Ethel Daisy to her father. They also removed bootleg liquor from the house, just minutes before the police finally arrived.

As law officers were starting to take statements from the Taylor’s staff, and from the neighbors, Charles Eyton arrived. Because of his importance in Los Angeles, the police did not stop him from going into the house for a look around. They also didn’t question him when he came back out, checking to see if her had moved anything or had taken anything from the scene.

A short time later, the deputy coroner and his assistant arrived and it was only then that it was discovered that Taylor had been shot in the back. This was a surprise to everyone at the scene, and the homicide squad was called in to handle the case. The revelation came as such of a shock because the first officers at the scene believed that Taylor had died of a stomach hemorrhage. They came to this conclusion because a doctor had earlier been in the neighborhood making a house call and came by to see what all of the excitement was about. Without turning the body over, the doctor offered his snap diagnosis. The cops made a note of it, but failed to obtain the doctor’s name. The physician left the scene and was never heard from again.

A horde of reporters soon descended on Alvarado Court and a flurry of wild accusations, rumors, crazy theories, and outright lies began to be published all over the country. Some newspapers insisted that the killer had to be the missing Edward Sands, a theory that was eventually dismissed. For a time, journalists also suggested that Henry Peavey was the culprit. Since he was African-American and a homosexual, he was the natural culprit. On the day after the murder, Taylor had been scheduled to appear in court on Peavey’s behalf in a sexual misconduct allegation. Because of this, it was hinted by the media that Taylor might have been a “gay bird” and that this “fact” might have something to do with his murder. Peavey was cleared of murder, but rumors that Taylor may have been gay, or at least bisexual, have remained ever since.

With these kinds of stories, rumors, and innuendoes running rampant, it was hard to tell where the truth ended and fantasy began. Taylor’s closest neighbors, the MacLeans, told the police that their maid heard someone in the alley between their house and Taylor’s after 7 p.m. on the night of the murder. Later, when Mrs. MacLean heard a noise that sounded like a car backfiring, she had looked outside and saw a person leave Taylor’s bungalow and walk calmly away. She described this person as a “roughly dressed man,” wearing a cap and a scarf. However, it was later learned that a friend of Taylor’s had borrowed his car for the evening and had returned it to his house that same night. After parking it in the garage, he went to the door, but when he got no reply, he left. The police believed that he was the figure seen by Mrs. MacLean that night.

Mystery was added to the mystery and the investigation was certainly not helped by L.A. District Attorney Thomas Woolwine, who had close ties to major players in the movie industry. One newspaper accused the district attorney of “erecting a barricade of silence between the searchers for truth and the truth itself.” The investigation was being badly handled, even hamstrung, in an effort to protect Taylor and the studio, but some of the witnesses hindered things even further by withholding information in an effort to protect their own reputations. When Mabel Normand was questioned by the police, she did her best to downplay her romantic relationship with Taylor. She was also deliberately vague on other issues involving herself and the director, especially when it came to her drug duduk perkara and Taylor’s efforts to help her break the habit.

L.A. District Attorney Thomas Woolwine
The newspapers continued to hamper the investigation, as well. In a rush for lurid headlines, journalists were quick to report the discovery of Mary Miles Winter’s monogrammed pink “lingerie” at Taylor’s house. The young actress denied this and the “lingerie” turned out to be a monogrammed handkerchief that she had once loaned him. However, the initial distorted information suggested to the public that the supposedly demure Mary and the much-older Taylor were having a clandestine romance. This theory was given further credence by a note that was discovered tucked inside a book of erotic writing that was on the shelf in Taylor’s well-stocked library. On the stationary were the initials M.M.M. The letter read:

Dearest, I love you. I love you. I love you.
Yours always, Mary

When Mary was questioned about this, she admitted, “I did love William Desmond Taylor, I loved him deeply and tenderly, with all of the admiration that a young girl gives to a man with the poise and position of Mr. Taylor.” Those who knew Taylor were well aware that he had tried to discourage Mary from the crush that she had on him and no proof was ever brought forward to show that they truly were having a sexual relationship.

But this didn’t stop Mary from dreaming about it. At Taylor’s garish, crowded funeral, Mary approached the director’s casket and kissed his corpse full on the lips. She then caused a stir in the room as she loudly announced that the corpse had spoken to her! “He whispered something to me,” she said, “it sounded like ‘I shall love you always, Mary!’”

This bit of theatrics, along with the scandal itself, helped to destroy her film career.

The coroner’s inquest was held on February 4, 1922 and lasted for less than an hour. Not all of the witnesses on hand were called to testify. The coroner’s jury quickly concluded that the director’s death had been caused by a gunshot wound “by some person or persons unknown to this jury.” To many observers, the murder investigation appeared to be a series of contrivances used to hush up potential scandals. A Chicago Tribune article stated, “Twenty people are said to be under suspicion. Twenty thousand theories of the crime are being aired, but there has not been one arrest and not one clue. It is believed that movie interests would spend a million not to catch the murderer, to prevent the real truth from coming out.” To battle such sentiment, the film studios established a special committee, allegedly to help the press deal with the case, which the studios wanted forgotten as quickly as possible. A few reporters who did not bow to pressure from the special committee claimed to be intimidated by the Los Angeles police.

The case was never officially resolved and as the years passed, bits of truth continued to emerge amidst the stories, rumors, and Hollywood legends. Speculation included the idea that Taylor was murdered by a hired killer who was working for one of the drug dealers servicing Mabel Normand. Friends of Taylor knew that he had appealed to the U.S. Attorney a short time before his death to try and combat the narcotics ring that was selling cocaine to Normand.  A dozen known addicts and dealers were questioned and detectives even traveled to Folsom Prison to question two convicts that the warden implicated in Taylor’s murder. One of them said that the other had killed the director at the urging of “a well-known actress” who resented Taylor for interfering with her dope supply. After an exhaustive investigation, detectives became convinced the convicts were lying in hopes of getting transferred to a minimum-security facility.

Another theory surmised that Taylor had been killed by a disgruntled World War I veteran who blamed him for his court-martial, then waited a few years to carry out his revenge. The most popular murder theories have involved Mabel Normand and Mary Miles Minter, one or the other of whom murdered Taylor during a lover’s spat. Another bit of guesswork suggests the killer was Mary’s manipulative mother, who was also a jealous rival for the director’s love.

Mabel Norman’s career was destroyed by the Taylor scandal, as well as by another incident that occurred shortly afterward involving her chauffeur and the murder of a Hollywood playboy. She made a few additional films but by then, her drug abuse had ruined her health. She died in 1930 from tuberculosis and pneumonia. Mary Miles Minter retired permanently from the screen in 1924. She spent the next few decades feuding with her overbearing mother who finally died, leaving Mary in peace, in 1957.  Mary died a recluse in 1984.

Weird stories continued to circulate about the case for years. District Attorney Woolwine, the man who probably knew more about the case than anyone else, resigned due to poor health and died soon after. In 1926, his successor, Asa Keyes, re-opened the Taylor case and announced that an arrest was imminent. Later, Keyes stated that certain vital evidence, kept in a locked cabinet in his office “mysterious vanished” and the case was allowed to lay dormant once more. Keyes later died after going to prison for accepting a bribe in a million dollar oil scandal.

In 1929, the mystery was resurrected again when F.W. Richardson, a former California governor, stated that back in 1926 he had received “positive information” that a “certain top screen actress” had killed Taylor, but he was unable to do anything about it because of the corrupt conditions that existed in L.A. at the time. Richardson implied that the film industry had bribed officials to “bury the investigation.” But Richardson’s startling announcement led to more dead ends.

In 1943, a man arrested on federal narcotics charges in Indiana offered to name William Desmond Taylor’s killer in return for immunity. The government refused to make the deal and the man remained silent and died of pneumonia in the prison hospital.

At that point, any real investigation into the case came to an end. From time to time, writers, reporters, and retired cops will come forward and state that the killer was indeed known to the authorities at the time, but no one could do anything about it. Some have spoken mysteriously of an “actress” or an “actor” who was involved, but no definitive proof has ever been offered. The spectacular William Desmond Taylor case will continue to fascinate for many years to come as a classic Hollywood murder mystery, although it’s one that will never be solved in the last pages of the book or in the film’s selesai scenes.

Early in the investigation, authorities cleared Taylor's valet, Henry Peavey, of any involvement in the slaying. However, a reporter named Florabel Muir was convinced that he was the killer. She believed she could trick Peavey into a confession – and get a great scoop for herself. She enlisted two men, Frank Carson and Al Weinshank, in her plan. Muir went to Peavey and offered him $10 to guide her to the location of Taylor’s grave at Hollywood Memorial Park. 

Peavey agreed and he rode along with Muir and Frank Carson to the cemetery. They found Taylor’s gravesite and got out of the car. As they did, Weinshank, who was covered with a white sheet, came running toward them and shouted, “I am the ghost of William Desmond Taylor. You murdered me. Confess, Peavey!”

Peavey burst out laughing. Then, realizing what the trio had tried to do to him, he loudly and furiously denounced them all. On a side note, Al Weinshank later became one of the gangsters killed during the infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre in Chicago.

The story of William Desmond Taylor’s mysterious murder is included in my book (one of my favorites!) BLOODY HOLLYWOOD. It’s available in an autographed printedition from the situs web and also as a Kindle edition from Amazon.com 


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