The murder of director William Desmond Taylor was one of the biggest scandals of Hollywood’s early era – and it almost destroyed Mack Sennett, the ‘king of comedy’. By Simon Louvish
- The Guardian, Friday 24 October 2003
Mack Sennett: the ‘king of comedy’On the night of February 1 1922, someone shot Hollywood director William Desmond Taylor in the back, between neck and shoulder, leaving him dead on the floor of his duplex at the Alvarado Court Apartments. There appeared to be no sign of a break-in or burglary, and cash was found in the house and on the body.
The murder sparked off a saga of bizarre revelations, which the newspaper empire of William Randolph Hearst was to exploit to the hilt, building up their circulation with daily exposes of Hollywood’s deepest secrets. It was the second major scandal to hit Hollywood in less than six months, and it drew the entire movie colony, including Mack Sennett’s comedy studio, into its direct path. In 1921, silent-movie Hollywood had been booming, and Mack Sennett was still the “king of comedy”. Having launched and lost Charles Chaplin in 1914, Mack’s greatest grossing star was now cross-eyed Ben Turpin, soon to excel in his series of cod-romance satires, such as his pastiche of Rudolph Valentino in The Shriek of Araby.
The main shrieking in Hollywood in the autumn of 1921, however, was being done by the industry’s moguls, caught in the fury of the Fatty Arbuckle scandal. Roscoe Arbuckle had been Mack Sennett’s first popular star, recruited in 1913, and most often teamed with Mabel Normand, Sennett’s primary box-office draw since he had founded his Keystone studio in the fall of 1912. Mabel was said to be Sennett’s sweetheart and lover, although their oft-promised marriage had never happened and she had decamped to Sam Goldwyn’s studio.
In September, 1921, Fatty Arbuckle, the fat man whom all moviegoers loved, was arrested and charged with the rape and murder of a young actress, Virginia Rappe, during a rowdy party in San Francisco. The allegations against him could not have been graver. He had brutally assaulted the girl with a Coca-Cola bottle, jumped up and down upon her with his great weight, rupturing her insides.
In Arbuckle’s first trial, held within weeks of the girl’s death, the defence marshalled plenty of evidence to show the star’s innocence, although the full tale of the prosecution’s mendacity and fraud would not be revealed for some time. A second trial, held in January 1922, ended in a hung jury again. The moguls were ready to dump Arbuckle. Mack Sennett, meanwhile, was keeping out of the scandal, emitting soothing mumbles about Fatty’s innocence, while preparing a come-back feature, Molly O’, for his enduring star, Mabel Normand.
On February 1, however, the roof fell in again on Hollywood’s dream world, this time pulling both Mack and Mabel into the sordid spill. English born director William Desmond Taylor had seemed to be one of Hollywood’s finest minds. Forty-nine years of age, he had directed over forty films since 1914, including several with Mary Pickford. As head of the Motion Pictures Directors’ Association, he appeared to give the movie colony that touch of class that the denigrated “vulgarians of the gutter” – like Sennett or Arbuckle – lacked.
The murder of Taylor seemed at first glance incomprehensible, once the obvious robbery motive had been ruled out. The first ominous fact agreed by most witnesses to Taylor’s last hours was that Mabel Normand had been the last person to see him alive. She said she had dropped in briefly that evening to pick up two books, one a study of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, and been regaled by Taylor’s worries about his secretary, Edward Sands, who had disappeared after forging his cheques, and his butler, Henry Peavey, whom he had to bail out of jail after his arrest for soliciting young boys in the park. Mabel also had a copy of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams with her, thus tying two highly suspicious Germans, and one of them a Jew to boot, into the tale.
The second peculiar fact was that the police had not been called to the scene until twelve hours after the death. Later gossip suggested that they had arrived to find some of Hollywood’s finest, including Paramount bosses, burning papers in the fireplace. A crime of passion seemed most likely. Mabel was in the hot seat, as was Mary Miles Minter, another actress who had allegedly been Taylor’s lover. Then rumours of drug dealing and sex perversions surfaced, and dark whisperings that tied both Mabel and Taylor into the occult practices of the “Ordo-Templis-Orientis” cult of drug-fiend satanist Aleister Crowley. Taylor had been seen in opium dens where men smoked the pipe and had sex with each other. Some said there were obvious clues, in the death-room, to a homosexual revenge killing.
The strangest, and most verifiable fact, however, emerged within two days of the murder: William Desmond Taylor was not William Desmond Taylor at all. He was in fact William Cunningham Deanne-Tanner, one time travelling thespian, Yukon prospector and antiques dealer in New York in the early 1900s. He had been married to one of the Floradora Sextette, Ethel May Harrison, who was now, the New York Herald revealed on February 5, “the wife of ELC Robins, owner of Robins Restaurant and other hostelries”. They had a daughter, Ethel Daisy, born in 1903. Mr Tanner had deserted his wife on October 23 1908 and she had neither seen nor heard from him until a chance viewing of a movie in 1919 revealed to her that the actor named in credits as William Desmond Taylor was her missing husband. To make things worse, or even better, there was a brother, Dennis Deanne-Tanner, who had also disappeared from New York, in 1912.
There was no shortage of suspects. Mary Miles Minter’s mother, Charlotte Shelby, had been known to be enraged with Taylor because he had deflowered her daughter. Mabel Normand confessed that there had been a stack of love letters, which became known as the “Blessed Baby” letters, after his pet name for her, but which had gone missing. Mack Sennett was questioned, along with anybody who had known the victim, and was, for a while, a prime suspect, for the press, if not the police.
In the ensuing press hype, three hundred people, across the United States, walked into police stations and confessed to the murder. Mack himself, one Canadian writer has written, confessed on his deathbed to having been the man in women’s clothing, and having shot Taylor because “he was queer” and “stole Mabel by giving her drugs”.
The one certain fact about the Taylor murder, however, is that the case was never solved. Still today, speculation on this most mysterious of all Hollywood scandals abounds, despite director King Vidor claiming to have established, once and for all, that Charlotte Shelby committed the murder to avenge her daughter’s seduction, and that, in the code of the time, the police hushed it up. A grand website, Bruce Long’s exhaustive Taylorology (Silent-movies.com/Taylorology) exists to sate the appetite of the curious. At the time, the scandal scared Hollywood’s movie folk half to death.
Mack Sennett survived the scandal to continue making comedies. But Mabel was seriously damaged. A further scandal, on New Year’s Day of 1924, involved her in the shooting of an oilman boyfriend, gunned down by her over-protective chauffeur, Joe Kelly, who, in the mode of these matters, was actually one Horace Greer, a chain-gang fugitive from Oakland jail. Her movies were pulled from theatres, her name traduced and vilified, and her early death, aged 38 in 1930, was hurried.
Fatty Arbuckle had been acquitted after his own third trial in 1922, but his movies were formally banned from the screen. He died just as he was expecting a comeback in Talkies, in 1932, at the same time that Mack Sennett produced his last movie short, WC Fields’ The Barber Shop, before going finally bankrupt. “I never hold a grudge,” Mabel told an interviewer for the Sunday News, “life is too short.”
©Simon Louvish 2003. Simon Louvish is the author of Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett
Interview with Key Suspect in the William Desmond Taylor Case
Starlet, Mary Miles Minter, the woman destined to take the place of Mary Pickford at Player-Lasky (Paramount) Studio and in the hearts of the American Movie Audience, was extremely close to Taylor, some say she was besotted with him, some even suggest that she was, albeit inadvertently, his KILLER.
Overview of Leroy Sanderson’s “Overview of the Taylor Murder”
I had a little hope that, as it was a private letter from a Detective Lieutenant to his supervisor– not intended to entertain the public– Leroy Sanderson’s review of the facts of Taylor’s murder investigation might lay things out straight enough for me to at least decide for myself who killed William Desmond Taylor. But as I read, my hopes receded and the only thing that got any clearer was that if anyone ever knew for sure who did it, that person is probably dead now too.
Sanderson makes a pretty good case against Mrs. Shelby, and if I had to lean strongly towards any of the suspects, I’d lean towards Shelby too (or a hit man hired by her). Most of his case, however, is based on testimony taken years after the murder, and I just can’t bring myself to truly trust any of it. The issue of memory lapse is one thing, but I think it’s really that if you read enough about the Taylor murder you get the feeling that everyone is lying.
Now, there is something dishonest about District Attorney Woolwine’s failure to interview people like Charlotte Shelby, her driver Chauncey Eaton, her first daughter Margaret, or their secretary Mrs. Whitney (Sanderson includes their testimonies from 1937, fifteen years after Taylor died). But no matter how obvious it is that Woolwine was protecting Shelby, we’ll never know why–it could be that she was guilty, but it also could have been for totally different reasons.
Woolwine and the police weren’t even the first on the scene. According to Sanderson, Taylor’s servant Harry Fellows immediately called Chas Eyton, the General Manager of Famous Players Lasky. And the servant and studio exec picked through the apartment removing personal items, which many sources say included letters from Mabel Normand. Yet Sanderson doesn’t take Normand seriously as a suspect at all. This is not to implicate Mabel Normand, but just to point out how fudged the evidence and the investigation were from the start.
What about Shelby’s death threats to Taylor? In her 1937 interview, Mrs. Whitney, former secretary to Charlotte Shelby, says that Shelby caught wind of Minter and Taylor’s affair, didn’t like it one bit, and showed up at Taylor’s doorstep waving a gun in his face. Minter met Taylor in July of 1921, so Mrs. Whitney must have been witnessing all of this happening in that year. BUT earlier in his reporter Sanderson states that Mrs. Whitney left Shelby’s employ in 1920, a year before any of this could have possibly happened. Is this a typo? Was Whitney reporting hearsay? It’s not explained.
And what about the murder weapon, the rare gun which it was reported Mrs. Shelby owned? Again, if you look at who did this reporting and when, the circumstance discredits the evidence: Chauncey Eaton, Shelby’s driver, says Shelby owned this gun, but did he make this claim before or after he saw it in the papers or heard it on the radio that Taylor was shot with a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson? The interview Sanderson cites is from 1937. That would give Eaton plenty of time to get a hold of some special lead bullets and plant them in Shelby’s former residence so that he could join in the dazzling media circus surrounding the murder.
Margaret Shelby, Charlotte Shelby’s daughter, (the two do not seem to have had a very healthy relationship) also stated in 1937 that her mother owned a .38 caliber and that she ordered it thrown in to the Louisiana bayou shortly after Taylor’s death. She also admitted to lying in 1926 statements. Does that make her 1937 statements more or less believable?
I think the detectives have to hand this one over to the conspiracy theorists.
Cop Speaks Out on the Taylor Case
In a 1986 interview, former LAPD detective William Cahill recalls the 1922 William Desmond Taylor murder case.
Ed C. King’s “I Know Who Killed Desmond Taylor”
Ed King’s 8 year-long investigation of the Taylor murder makes a good read. But that’s not necessarily something you want from a report by a Special Investigator from the D.A.’s office. King has basically compressed years of wild tabloid speculation into a single, sensational article for “True Detective Mysteries” magazine. Now, he has done some of his own, real detective work, but despite it all King has, sensationally enough, found no actual evidence. And he admits it himself :
‘Yet, at the present time, evidence is so limited that were the guilty person to come forward and confess the murder, “he” would have to produce corroborative testimony before “his” confession could be accepted. “He” would be compelled to substantiate “his” confession by other credible testimony in order to prove “his” guilt and secure “his own conviction!’ (Long, 273)
This is in the second paragraph of the article that King is giving away his ending (which is that there isn’t one) so, if you’re trying to solve the murder, you might as well quit there. But– but!– King’s narrative could be hugely valuable to anyone interested in the history of Hollywood or journalism. It’s a neat, and fun, little record of how the press and the law “worked” in the Hollywood of silent films. It’s also a good summary of all the suspects and their cases.
The full text of the article is available in the online newsletter Taylorology. This version of the article also includes the footnotes from Bruce Long, who probably knows more about William Desmond Taylor than anyone living. Long’s notes are fabulous. Ed King addresses false rumors himself, but Long exposes King’s own mistakes and misconceptions. Of which there are plenty.
And if you’re looking for a shorter version of events, here’s a synopsis of King’s conclusions:
On Mabel Normand: King dismisses Normand as a suspect right off the bat. With typical thoroughness, he cites no reasons, let alone evidence. I guess Ed C. King was just a good judge of character. To his credit, he does follow-up on an anonymous tip, a note directing the DA’s office to look for the murder weapon in Normand’s house. No sign of the .38 caliber revolver there (though plenty of other firearms).
King also acknowledges Henry Peavey’s accusation of Mabel Normand, but then discredits Peavey as a source. Peavey was Taylor’s valet/cook and the first person to find his corpse, so he probably had great insight into Taylor’s life. But Peavey was also black and flamboyantly gay and seems not to have been taken seriously by investigators. King claims that Peavey only mentioned Normand as a suspects after a few rounds of interviewing, but Bruce Long points out in his footnote (Long, 309) that Peavey had actually been accusing Normand all along. Maybe his testimony should have been given more weight?
But, like King, we’ll leave it at: “While she became the central figure in the sensational investigations, I do not hesitate to say that all suspicion cast on her was unjust” (Long, 280).
- On Mary Miles Minter: The other young actress involved in the case also gets a positive character evaluation from King. He seems to have a soft spot. He goes a little more in-depth on Minter than Normand, though.
King recounts, for example, some interesting testimony from Arthur Hoyt, one of Taylor’s former roommates, regarding a certain girl whom King declines to name. Hoyt claims that the night before the murder he found Taylor extremely distressed about this girl’s infatuation with him. It’s pretty obvious that the actress in question is Minter, who was pretty publicly obsessed with Taylor. But it’s not totally obvious why King keeps the name secret. Maybe he was afraid of libel charges? He does accuse the girl in question of lying to him about visiting Taylor in the lead up to the murder, which casts a little doubt on Minter (if we assume that’s who King’s implicating). But that gets overshadowed by the doubt looming over Minter’s mother, Charlotte Shelby:
- On Charlotte Shelby: One popular murder theory was that over-bearing stage mother, Charlotte Shelby, shot Taylor in order to protect her greatest asset, her daughter, basically from theft. King builds up support for this motive by reprinting a couple of Mary Miles Minter’s melodramatic press releases. In one, Minter explains that she wants to sue her mother for withholding her earnings and treating her like “the family meal ticket” (Long, 301), and in the other she waxes poetic about her deep, pure love for Taylor, her plans to marry him (she kept these plans private from Taylor), and her disappointment in having her plans destroyed by certain people with certain interests in controlling her image.
Probably my favorite anecdote from the article, though, is a description of the booby-trap that King laid for Shelby in the Los Angeles Times. King and his co-detective Winn called the paper to report that a spiritualist had seen Taylor’s murderer in a vision, and that the vision had revealed that the murderer was the mother of a beautiful young woman whom Taylor had gotten too close to. This invented spiritualist also threatened to announce her findings unless the murderess stepped forward. King says that only one lawyer ever confronted him about the article and that he traced that lawyer back to the mother of the girl Arthur Hoyt had named in his secret statement. Not a particularly subtle attack on Shelby.
So here’s King adding more to the pile of media B.S. that he himself is trying to sort through. He swallows his own medicine many times over, chasing down false leads on Edward Sands and others supposedly connected to Taylor through dope rings.
- On Edward Sands: Sands was William Desmond Taylor’s chauffeur up until a few months before the murder, when he was caught embezzling. After fleeing, Sands broke into Taylor’s home, stole some jewelry, and pawned it under Taylor’s real name, it seems as sort of a cheeky calling card, a laugh at Taylor.
William Desmond Taylor’s real name, incidentally, William Deane-Tanner. King touches on details of Taylor’s pre-Hollywood life: he left his native Ireland and possible military career for New York, where he married and had a daughter. He then abandoned his wife and child, changed his name and went to Hollywood.
King brings this all up in relation to the theory that Ed Sands, who was also prone to the occasional convenient name change, was actually Taylor’s brother, Denis Gage Deane-Tanner. According to the popular story, this brother had been hanging on to some serious jealousy over a girl. King doesn’t put too much stock in this theory, and rightly so.
Poor old King has to waste his time investigating another Sands-related theory, this time one backed by a formerGovernor, Friend W. Richardson. Another great example of the trustworthiness of the people in power. Ex-Governor Richardson had found a convict in San Quentin prison who said he’d been with Sands on the night of the murder, that they were supposed to be selling Taylor some dope (Sands’ disappearance, in this version of events, was just an elaborate ruse), and that he’d seen a famous actress run from the front door before Sands went in and discovered the body. After a lot of leg work King realizes the story is absolutely made up, so he accosts the convict and gets the man to admit that he’d invented the whole thing as a way to get out of prison for even just a little while.
And then the idea starts to catch on: Everybody thinks the Taylor case is his way out of jail, or her ticket to Los Angeles. King says he would sometimes receive a hundred letters in a day, all from people claiming to have evidence in the case (all claims, keep in mind, heavily informed by media coverage of the murder, a lot of which was itselftotally made up).
The “facts” of the Taylor murder case have a funny way of serving whoever’s presenting them, and in King’s case I think they’ve certainly helped him get published.
New York Times the Day after Taylor’s Body was Found