William Desmond Taylor

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William Desmond Taylor (April 26, 1872February 1, 1922) was a US film director who was a successful and popular Hollywood figure. He was the victim of a murder that remains officially unsolved.

William Desmond Taylor

Born William Cunningham Deane-Tanner in Ireland, he came to the United States in 1890. A short acting career in New York City followed, but he quit acting after marrying the daughter of a wealthy Wall Street broker, who provided Taylor with funding to set up a business. He and his wife were well known in New York society, until he deserted his wife and daughter in 1908. From this time he was known by the name William Taylor.

He moved to Hollywood and worked as an actor, before making his first film as director The Awakening in 1915. Over the next few years he directed more than forty films, served in the Canadian Army, and served as President of the Motion Picture Directors Association.

He directed some of the great stars of the day including Mary Pickford, Wallace Reid, Dustin Farnham and his protégée Mary Miles Minter.

On the morning of February 1, 1922 his body was found inside his residence in the Westlake Park area of downtown Los Angeles, California by his valet. He had been shot in the back.

Suspects and associates

Henry Peavey was Taylor’s valet and he discovered his body. His prior history before working for Taylor included arrests for vagrancy and public indecency. Taylor had put up bail for him and was due to appear in court on his behalf later in February. Initially suspected of the crime, he was cleared by police. Before his death in 1937 a magazine published an interview in which he stated that the murder had been committed by “a well known actress and her mother”; another rival magazine published his comment as “a well known actress”, with neither magazine qualifying the statement.

Mabel Normand was a popular actress and close associate of Taylor. They had a friendship which some people believed to be a sexual relationship, and Taylor was alleged to have been deeply concerned by Normand’s cocaine addiction. She was the last person known to have seen him alive, and was seen leaving his home at 7.45 pm on the evening of the murder. She was in a happy mood as she left.

Faith McLean was the wife of actor Douglas McLean and the couple were neighbours. At 8pm she heard a loud noise which startled her and when she went to her front door to investigate came face to face with a young man emerging from Taylor’s home. McLean described how he paused for a moment before turning back and entering the door in the manner that he had forgotten something. His casual manner caused no suspicion in McLean and she reasoned that she’d heard a car backfire.

Charles Eyton was the General Manager of Paramount Studios. After Taylor’s death, several people stated that he had orchestrated a party of employees to go to Taylor’s home and remove incriminating items, before police had been notified of the death. Director King Vidor later recalled a conversation with one of these men, art director George Hopkins who said that they had removed items that linked Taylor sexually to several Hollywood actresses, as well as a number of underage males that Peavey had procured for him.

Mary Miles Minter was a popular actress who had been guided through her career by Taylor. Letters found in Taylor’s home suggested the possibility of a sexual relationship between the 50 year old Taylor, and 22 year old Minter, and that it had started when Minter was below the age of consent.

Charlotte Shelby was Minter’s mother. She was described as having an obsessive hold over her daughter, and a vested interest in her career. Writer Adela Rogers St. John wrote that Shelby was torn by her maternal protection for her daughter who was being exploited by a male predator, and her own attraction for Taylor.


Various theories were put forward immediately after the murder and in the years since, but no evidence has ever been uncovered to link the crime to a particular individual.

Theories include: Taylor’s jealous and bitter first wife returning to kill him, his current valet killing him to hide evidence of the valet’s sexual proclivities, murder by a disgruntled young man who had offered sexual favors to Taylor only to be rejected, a former employee returning to rob him, an associate from the Canadian Army killing him because of a grudge, Mabel Normand committing a drug-related murder, Mary Miles Minter killing him in a fit of jealousy, and her mother Charlotte Shelby killing him out of either maternal sentiment or jealousy.

Various books have expounded upon each theory, but no person has ever been charged with the crime. The case remains officially open.


The person most vilified after Taylor’s murder was Mary Miles Minter. Her suggestive letters were completely at odds with the demure young girls she played in films. Rejected first by her fans, and immediately thereafter by the Hollywood Studios, she left films entirely. Never comfortable with her career as an actress, she lived anonymously until her death in 1984.

Mabel Normand also suffered a temporary rejection by her fans as her reputation was tarnished by her association with such an unsavoury event. She was able to make a comeback to films a few years later and enjoyed renewed success, until her drug addiction and tuberculosis killed her in 1930.

In 1999 there was a report that in 1964 silent film actress Margaret Gibson (aka Patricia Palmer), who had worked with both Taylor and Minter and was by then living in the Hollywood Hills on a widow's pension from an oil company, confessed to the murder while dying from a heart attack. About a year after the murder, Gibson had been indicted (but not convicted) in an unrelated blackmail scheme.

The Taylor murder, along with the Fatty Arbuckle scandal and the drug related deaths of such stars as Olive Thomas, Wallace Reid, Barbara La Marr and Alma Rubens were catalysts in the effort of Hollywood to purge itself of undesirable influences. In the future contracts would include morality clauses which would allow for contractees to be summarily dismissed if they breached them.