Among classic American murder cases, the 1922 shooting death of Hollywood director William Desmond Taylor is one of the most intriguing. Although Lizzie Borden’s axe murders, the assassinations of Kennedy and Lincoln, the Lindbergh kidnapping, and the O. J. Simpson trial continue to inspire retelling and speculation, these cases are all generally regarded as solved. But no one knows for sure who fired the shot that brought down the handsome and well-liked Taylor, an admired and influential figure in the film community, albeit with a shady past.
Early on the morning of February 2, 1922, Taylor’s valet Henry Peavey found the director dead in his apartment at the fashionable Alvarado Court. Peavey’s screams awoke the neighbors, including actor Douglas MacLean, his wife Faith (who would prove an important witness), and Charlie Chaplin’s leading lady, Edna Purviance. Colleagues from the film industry got to the scene ahead of the police, who were already in thrall to the power of the studios and whose first representative on the scene could find no evidence of a crime. Fellow employees at the Famous Players-Lasky studio were ordered by the general manager to search Taylor’s bedroom and remove anything written. A series of recent Hollywood scandals made it important not to provide ammunition for another.
Taylor was born in Ireland in 1872 as William Cunningham Deane-Tanner, the son of a retired British Army officer. Coming to America in 1890 to work on a Kansas dude ranch, Taylor later moved to New York, married, and entered the antiques business. In 1908, he suddenly deserted his wife and daughter. After some time mining for gold in Canada and Colorado, he became a stage actor and began his career before the camera by starring in the 1914 feature Captain Alvarez.
Taylor’s subsequent directing career was interrupted by a year as a Canadian military volunteer. (He joined in 1918, near the end of the Great War, and continued into 1919.) Returning to Hollywood, he became a leader in the defense of the fledgling film industry against charges of immorality, and he was especially concerned with stamping out narcotics use. Though he had relationships with women, Taylor was bisexual, and his lover at the time of his murder was a set designer named George James Hopkins, who would later win multiple Oscars.
Most notorious unsolved murder cases, such as the Jack the Ripper crimes and the Black Dahlia killing, make for unsatisfactory whodunits since the accused is usually someone unknown to all but a few. The William Desmond Taylor case is an exception: The chronicler can introduce a large cast of possible suspects and attempt to fix guilt on someone known to most readers. Here, William J. Mann does not reveal his murderer-candidate until his closing pages, and up to that point, he misdirects the reader’s suspicions in the best mystery-novel fashion.
Prior to Tinseltown, there were at least five full-length volumes about the Taylor case. Samuel A. Peeples’s The Man Who Died Twice (1976) is fiction closely based on fact, a time-travel variant in which a Los Angeles cop is shot by a fugitive in the present and wakes up in 1922, at which point he gradually realizes that he has entered the body of a still-living William Desmond Taylor and determines to prevent the crime he knows is coming. This preposterous premise is brought off remarkably well, and the main figures appear under their real names, with the exception of the one pegged as murderer. (Caution about potential lawsuits can compromise the whodunit element.)
Sidney D. Kirkpatrick’s A Cast of Killers (1986) is nonfiction, but with its volume of reconstructed dialogue, it reads more like a novel. It is based primarily on the notes and manuscripts of director and amateur sleuth King Vidor, a Taylor contemporary, who chose the same culprit Peeples fingered under an alias: Charlotte Shelby, the mother of actress Mary Miles Minter. By some accounts, Robert Giroux’s A Deed of Death (1990) was written specifically to counter the claims of Kirkpatrick. Giroux doesn’t name the killer, but his well-argued theory is that a hired assassin in the pay of illicit drug interests was sent to kill Taylor because of his efforts to reduce the Hollywood narcotics trade.
The most valuable pure reference source on the case is Bruce Long’s William Desmond Taylor: A Dossier (1991), a compilation of official documents and contemporary newspaper accounts. It also includes sections of possible errata in Kirkpatrick and Giroux. Long even maintains a website devoted to the case.