Mysterious death of a casting-couch director.

William Desmond Taylor directing Mary McAvoy in a 1921 silent film, Top of New York.
William Desmond Taylor directing Mary McAvoy in a 1921 silent film, Top of New York.

THE BRAKES OF THE BUS let out a long hiss. “If you will look off to the right there folks, that is the location of the former bungalow of director William Desmond Taylor. His murder in 1922 was never solved.” This is what the guide of the Thrifty Tinseltown Tours bus had to say over his microphone.

The passengers craned their necks but all they saw was the parking lot of a clothing store.

“That was a juicy case, Gladys.” Agnes said to her traveling companion. “Do you remember the gist of it?”

“I vaguely remember it, Agnes. Quietly fill me in on the details if you don’t mind.”

“I have a book on it right here—with pictures. I thought it might be interesting since we were in Hollywood and all. I chanced across it at that second-hand store on Sepulveda yesterday.” Agnes pulled the small volume out of her canvas tote bag. The two women were sitting near the back of the not-completely filled bus, and she felt she could discuss it without causing a disturbance.

 

William Desmond Taylor
William Desmond Taylor

“Wasn’t he a casting-couch director, or something?” Gladys asked in a whisper.

“That is what they said.” Agnes began her story. “This man, Taylor, had dreams of making it in Hollywood, but he had married a well-fixed woman, had a child and lived in New York. He was making a stab at a conventional life—then one day he just disappeared.”

“Disappeared?”

“Yes, in 1908. For a while his wife was convinced that something unfortunate had happened to him, but he had quite simply abandoned his family for a more exciting life.”

“He headed for Hollywood.” Gladys said this with a knowing nod.

“Right. I don’t know how he made it, but he did. After a time this man, whose real name was William Dean-Tanner, had become the Chief Director of Players-Lasky, a subsidiary of Paramount. He was able to accumulate several lady friends through his line of work. Most were starlets trying to advance their careers. There were probably many more, but he was rumored to have had relationships with Mabel Normand, Mary Miles Mintner, and Mary’s mother, Charlotte Shelby had a friendly relationship with him herself.” Agnes pointed to photos of the people in her book. The pure and innocent Mary Pickford was even a friend of his.”

“You don’t say!”

Agnes continued. “Taylor was killed sometime on the night of February 1, 1922. He was shot twice in the back. Two .38 bullets were in him, in or near his heart. A household employee, Henry Peavey found the body and became hysterical. Taylor was on his back, trance-like, his arms outstretched. On his legs was a chair that had fallen on top of him. There were no signs of a robbery. Some of his flashy jewelry was still on him. The outbursts of Mr. Peavey woke up other residents of The Alvarado Court, and one of them placed phone calls to interested parties.”

“You mean the police weren’t called?” Gladys asked.

“No, Edna Purviance who lived nearby was busy calling up anyone who may have a stake in the mystery. Even Paramount bigwigs were swooping in to gather documents. The police were not called, not at first. Taylor’s friends and associates were called first and they came over to the murder scene to gather up their own personal items—clothing, letters, papers, and notes, in order to avoid scandal. And they had no idea exactly where to look, but they tried. They either removed the items or burned them in the fireplace, which was still going.”

“I doubt if they were able to get all of it.”

“No they weren’t. In fact some love letters were found in one of Taylor’s riding boots later. There was also a stash of feminine clothing that Taylor had saved as mementoes. Some of them had the owner’s names or initials embroidered in them.”

“Oh what a scandal this must have caused!”

Mary Miles Minter, a 20-year-old suspect in the murder.
Mary Miles Minter, a 20-year-old suspect in the murder.

“It did. Henry Peavey continued to walk up and down Alvarado Street wailing miserably in his high voice. When the police were finally summoned, hours later, a neighbor, Mrs. McClean, was questioned. She claimed to have heard a loud noise in the night, like an explosion. She looked out her window and saw a man leaving Taylor’s house. He had on a heavy coat with a cap and muffler high upon the neck. He was dressed like a man, but he walked like a woman.”

“Well now, that was interesting.”

“Charlotte Shelby was suspected. She had owned a pearl handled .38 at one time, witnesses stated. She had also threatened to kill another director that had become too attached to her innocent daughter, Mary. She may also have been in a jealous rage if she was in love with Taylor, herself. These were ideas that went through people’s heads, but there was no real evidence and she was somehow allowed to slip off to Europe. I don’t think she was even questioned.”

“I would have thought they would have at least questioned her!”

“Another bit of intrigue that may have figured was that it was rumored that Taylor had been the cause of another starlet’s suicide some time earlier.”

“Who was that?”

“A Famous Players actress, Zelda Crosby. She and Taylor had been thick at one time. At any rate, Henry Peavey was sadly now without a job. Mabel and Mary’s Hollywood stars dimmed and they did not get much work after that. Another interesting aside is that Taylor’s butler went missing the night of the murder.”

“His butler?”

“Yes, and this is the kicker. Taylor had trained his own younger brother, Sands, to be his butler. The brother had a nefarious past. Taylor had offered him a soft spot to land and practically given him actual acting lessons to perform adequately as his butler, act subservient and the like.”

“Now that is too much.”

“Later, Mary Miles Minter began to put on the pounds, and she and her mother, Charlotte Shelby went to court in regards to Charlotte spending some of Mary’s acting earnings, or misusing it somehow.”

“That happens way too often, and poor Paramount. They had just gone through the scandal surrounding Fatty Arbuckle.”

“Yes, we may never know what actually happened in either case, and a lot of scape-goating went on.”

“I would say so. Taylor could have been killed by a totally unknown person—maybe even someone back in New York.”

“Yes, Gladys, that crossed my mind too. Several people had reason to be irritated with him, his wife, jealous young starlets, friends of Zelda Crosby that couldn’t let go, a stage mother possibly turned lover, and maybe even his own brother had had a heated argument with him that evening—one that got out of hand.”

The bus remained stopped there on Alvarado Street while the driver made some notes in his logbook. Gladys and Agnes gazed at the parking lot. “This is what it looked like,” Agnes said as she pointed to a picture in her book. The Alvarado Court consisted of eight two-unit apartments, Spanish style bungalows.   It was bulldozed in the 1950s to make a parking lot for the clothing store.

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of the mystery/thriller, Dark Continent Continental.

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