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The William Desmond Taylor Case

(excerpted from: Mabel Normand: A Source Book to Her Life and Films; Revised Edition, copyright 2000 William Thomas Sherman)

"Before we can make any accurate speculations of the causes and guilt of those involved we must know something of the community in which the victim lived and in which he died. It is my first contention that the murder itself and its consequent lack of solution had its roots deeply buried in the inner character of the community. I am convinced of this. I was there!"

~ King Vidor, private papers

The murder of Paramount film director William Desmond Taylor in Feb. 1922 had not only an impact of crucial importance on Mabel Normand’s life, but on Hollywood, and, in turn, the nation itself. Since taking place, there have and will probably never cease to be baffling mysteries surrounding the case, not least of which, of course, the identity of the killer. Despite this, it is not impossible on the basis of what evidence there is available to reconstruct a plausible scenario that might better explain most, if not all, of what happened -- this thanks in no small part due to the priceless and prodigious research of first King Vidor, and later Taylor specialist, Bruce Long. What follows here is an attempt at such. This is not to say that all or any particular of what is offered as explanation is necessary to account for what happened, but only that it is as likely an accounting as any heretofore to come forward. Most especially when dealing with something as puzzling and difficult as the Taylor mystery, it is, needless to say, possible that I am entirely wrong on a given point of speculation or surmise. So that this admitted, I am more than happy to be introduced to new facts and or compelling counter arguments. Whether such are forthcoming, what ensues here is at minimum a framework on which to build a more expanded and intelligent assessment of the case and some of its key aspects. The following examination and conjecture does not pretend to cover every possible point of controversy but only some of the more prominent ones. It assumes some elementary and general knowledge of the case on the part of the reader; which knowledge, and beyond what is already contained in the Mabel Normand Source Book itself, can be found in Sidney Kirkpatrick’s A Cast of Killers and Bruce Long’s William Desmond Taylor: a dossier, and Taylorology series.

Who Was William Desmond Taylor?

Despite numerous post-murder suspicions and rumors, sometimes of a sinister nature and none of which has been proven true, Taylor could reasonably be characterized as a fundamentally and at last a good and high minded man, at least in the worldly sense; and such, at any rate, is my own incliination based on my study and understandng of the case to see him as being. Naturally, exactly what his true character was is important because it more than likely helps to tell us who his killer was. The initial reaction to his death was one of almost universal disbelief among those who knew him. In interviews, time and again, these associates and work fellows of his expressed bafflement as to who would have wanted to kill him. Practically all not only spoke well, but indeed highly of him, as a conscientious, hard working, artist, intellectual and idealist; the only notable exception to this being Charlotte Shelby in private comments to friends, such as Woolwine; where she effectively cast Taylor as a perfidious rascal, and this ostensibly because he rejected her (or else perhaps Mary Miles Minter) romantically. As well, the portrait we get is of someone concerned both with protecting films from outside censorship, while nevertheless maintaining that film makers need to be conscious about their role in protecting public morals -- particularly those of young people.

There is, on the other hand and very oddly and significantly, a suggestively irreverent to the point of immoral and anti-religious side to Taylor as shown in his 1920 film “Huckleberry Finn.” It may be that Taylor at the time of “Finn” was indeed foolishly pandering to and seeking to curry favor with sordid interests in Hollywood, or on the fringes of Hollywood, as a measure of political self-interest. Later and so it might be posited, he found this approach all too hypocritical and distasteful, and consequently turned and endeavored to distance himself from such bad elements in the industry. Possibly therefore it was such as these then, or related,whose ire he incurred.

Of note further is that Taylor was someone who tried to be funny, but didn't actually know how to be so; that is if we are to judge by films of his, such as "Finn" and "Johanna Enlists" (1918), the latter with Mary Pickford. The humor in them, time and again, is from bad to awful. And this perhaps and additionally suggests a Taylor, at an earlier time, trying to be quite what he wasn’t in order to please or win favor with others much different in character and temperament from himself.

Else, his purported forging of antiques when living in New York, recently uncovered by author Charles Higham and his subsequent and mysterious leaving of his wife and daughter in to avoid prosecution on this charge, and assuming them true, are about as bad as anything otherwise we know about him with certainty. Yet even these in turn can be reasonably dismissed as isolated errors of his youth, rather than hard proof the depraved character suggested later by yellow journalists and gossip. His being a not infrequent loner and taciturn man, as sometimes described, may have put some people off, and made him more vulnerable. But this, in and of itself, could hardly be considered grounds for incurring someone’s hatred. It is possible that his involvement with women may have incurred the wrath and jealousy of others, but even granting this, it does not necessarily mean that he himself had done anything wrong per se; only that another had possibly believed he had done so.

Probably one of the more accurate written portraits of Taylor is the following that appeared immediately after his death:

From Los Angeles Record, Feb 2, 1922:

Taylor, the man, was for business first. There was no mistaking that part of his nature.
His tiny mahogany desk, which was placed against the front of the house, was littered with letters, canceled checks and bills.
That he lived to himself was noted by the many personal things that surrounded him. He was a man of modest taste. Even though he was rich and his house luxuriously furnished, there was no sign of extravagance, gaudiness or show about his abode.
A copy of Floyd Dells' "Moon Calf," with a hand-painted ribbon marking his progress in the popular story, was on a stand by the piano.
The dining-room was orderly, save where the police had been forced to move the blood-stained rugs through from the living room.
Strange were the stories told about Taylor today--while his lifeless body was being moved to the Ivy Overholtzer undertaking parlor.
He was tall, handsome, charming to meet--that is, if one was fortunate enough to meet him.
But he was mysterious of habits.
He was quiet, unobtrusive and never entertained women in his bachelor apartments alone.
Four years he had lived in the severe, cold-looking colonial apartment court. Four years he had been there, but in that time he was unknown to others who lived there.
He seldom entertained. And when he did--his visitors left at a reasonable hour. They were always quiet, just like himself.
And when he had work to do, Taylor would not answer the doorbell, the telephone, but would stay locked in his apartment, until everything was finished.
It was just his manner.
Likewise--he did not believe in 'wild parties' at his home.
In the four years he had lived at the place he had entertained upon three memorable occasions, and there were crowds, chaperons, and the parties broke up early.
And they tell how very inconspicuously he dressed. Always he was well groomed--that is what those who were fortunate enough to get a glimpse of the man say--but never what was called 'a fashion plate.'
He hadn't been home of evenings lately much--because the light in his living room had been out. That was the way neighbors knew that the popular director was about.
Taylor was silent about his business affairs. He discussed them with nobody. He kept his own counsel, just as he preferred to live alone.
His heart affairs were also seldom discussed. But that Miss Minter was very popular with the dead man was discerned by the fact that her telephone number led the list in the directory in his telephone booth.
Likewise, other film favorites had their place in his calling list, but his name has not been linked with any of them, although he was known as an eligible bachelor.

If then Taylor was indeed and essentially a "good” man, then who would have wanted and sought to have him slain? As one way of trying to answer this, let's start with the assumption that the pre-murder burglaries and the murder itself are connected. This, of course, has yet to be established. Indeed, among historians, scholars, and most of the detectives, no one has even yet seriously tried to maintain it. For the sake of argument, however, let's look at the case from this angle and see where it might take us. Since the very first investigations, few or none have asserted that the burglaries and murderer are connected other than to suggest Sands as a suspect. Yet more often than not the Sands as killer theory has been brushed aside as unlikely. Consequently, it is concluded that the burglaries and murder are somehow just a coincidence.

The Burglaries

Upon returning from trip to Europe, in July 1921, Taylor found his valet and houseman Edward F. Sands had stolen, money, clothes, and wrecked his expensive sports car. The valet disappeared and Taylor had a warrant put out for his arrest. Then on December 4th Taylor's home was broken into. Jewelry was stolen, apparently, by Sands, who then pawned the goods in Stockton, and then mailed the tickets back to Taylor, accompanied by a mocking note. By Dec. 17, the incidents had taken on such notoriety that they were made a light hearted joke of in a newspaper column.

From New York Telegraph, January 8, 1922:

One of the burglars who robbed William D. Taylor of jewelry worth $1,700 returned two weeks later and smoked a cigarette on the porch of the motion picture director's home. How did Taylor know about the return visit? The nocturnal visitor left the butt of his cigarette on the step. It was gold-tipped, of the exclusive brand used by the director, the entire stock was stolen with the jewelry. Between 8 p.m. and midnight of December 4, burglars battered down the back door of 404-B South Alvarado street. The police found evidence of a leisurely luncheon in the kitchen -- and footprints on the bed upstairs! The visitors had thoroughly ransacked the house for jewels and cigarettes, but overlooked other valuables.

After the murder occurred in February, other reports of intruders, and Taylor's efforts to fight them off appeared.

From Los Angeles Record, Feb. 2, 1922:

1. Taylor had a premonition that death was near, and related his fear to Mrs. J. M. Berger, income tax expert. "If anything happens," he told her yesterday afternoon, "look out for my affairs." 2. Mysterious phone calls and anonymous letters were received by Taylor. He told Mrs. Berger that for three weeks someone had been attempting to find out if Taylor was in his apartment. When Taylor answered, the person would hang up immediately. 3. Taylor was engaged in a telephone call that evidently worried him, when Mabel Normand called at his apartments at 7:15 p.m. yesterday.4 4. Taylor is reported to have told Charles Maigne, a friend, that he feared unknown persons, who invaded his apartments while he was absent, walked on his bed with dusty shoes, and left gold-tipped cigarette stubs. 5. Charles Maigne says Taylor believed an enemy would do him harm. 5

From Los Angeles Examiner, Feb 3, 1922:

The officers were diligently following the trail of the mysterious man after they learned that several times the strange nocturnal visitor had been driven away by Taylor at the point of a gun.
But two weeks ago, the investigators said Taylor found this man trying to gain entrance to the bungalow by means of a bedroom window. The window as half open and Taylor is said to have driven him away.
Many times the murdered director is said to have heard unusual noises about the house and upon investigation found the unwelcome visitor prowling about the building or premises, but each time Taylor flourished a gun and drove him away.
And then again, the police say in trying to weave a chain of incriminating evidence about the hunted man, Taylor received telephone calls which brought forth no response when he answered. It is believed the calls came from this person who was ascertaining if any one was at home at the bungalow.

From Los Angeles Record, Feb 3, 1922:

A guest in the Dumas home next to Taylor said he saw two men last Monday night in the court yard. The men, the guest said, went to the door of Taylor's home, tried the door with a key, then walked away. One of these men, the police believe, is probably the murderer.
Taylor's colored valet, Harry [sic] Peavey, who found the body, said that on several occasions Taylor had been annoyed by mysterious persons walking around his house. He said that on one occasion he asked Taylor why he didn't carry his gun.
"Somebody is liable to walk up those stairs when you're in your bedroom," he said he told Taylor, "and hold you up."
"No, he won't," Peavey said Taylor replied. "I keep my gun on the bureau, and if I hear anyone walking up those stairs and he doesn't answer when I call him, he's a goner."
Peavey said Taylor did drive away these nocturnal visitors on several occasions at the point of a gun....

Sands, the Burglars, and the Killer

It is fairly obvious that it wasn't Sands (as such) who Taylor had in mind in thinking he needed to protect himself. Since Sands was clearly implicated in the earlier robberies, was the miscreant valet somehow connected with the group that later assaulted Taylor in his home?

"Dear Mr. Taylor, So sorry to inconvenience you, even temporarily. Also observe the lesson of forced sale of assets. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. (Signed) "Alias Jimmy V."

It seems very unlikely that a boyish "galoot," such as witness Faith MacLean descried him, would take such a contemptuous tone with Taylor if he were not acting with the support of others. The details of an association between Sands and a criminal group of some kind leave much to conjecture. Nonetheless, it stands as very plausible that some point either before or after the first robbery when Taylor was on vacation, Sands was contacted and enlisted by someone with a grudge against Taylor. This person or persons, already had a gang in place, and Sands, in effect, became a new member or accessory of some kind. Subsequently in the next burglaries which he carried out, Sands was participating with the group in some way. Again, the specifics of such a scenario are hard to guess. Yet if, as we posit, the other person or group wanted to kill Taylor, was this also Sands intent? Not at all, for the simple reason that Sands was deliberately not informed of the other's darker purposes. Indeed, there was perhaps good reason for this; for in point of fact, what happened was that Sands became a patsy for the real killer, which was possibly the killer's intention. Taylor’s subsequent murder then came as much as a surprise to Sands as anyone. At the same time, Sands' complete and permanent disappearance, without police ever really finding him, is persuasive evidence that he was in some way connected with the crime, although not necessarily knowing about it (before the fact.)

Following this line of reasoning, we could know who the killer was if we knew who was in this "gang," and who their "boss" was (if they had any as such). For one thing, the burglaries and assaults were motivated by more than mere material gain (though this no doubt was incentive for some). The stomping on Taylor's bed in dirty shoes, their taking time to sit down and eat in his kitchen, their return visits, and mysterious phone calls, show a decidedly abusive and harassing character.

Clearly, they did not merely want to steal from him; they wanted to purposely and maliciously harm him. This desire to hurt him, in his home no less, strongly suggests our killer, and begins to give us some potential clue as to the his (their) motive. Needless to say, the possibilities as to motive are numerous, and this is no easy question to answer concretely. The group may have been one disgruntled person, heading the gang, who ultimately wanted Taylor killed (à la Wilkes Booth), or the group collectively. Some theorists have gone so far as to suggest an all out conspiracy among important studio figures.

The following seem to recommend themselves as among the most plausible reasons Taylor was hated by someone:

  • 1. Professional or Romantic Jealousy (possibly the jealousy of someone whom Taylor did not know that well, or at all.)
  • 2. Taylor had insulted someone ("he was intolerant of mediocrity" said one contemporary.)
  • 3. Romantic rejection, or else romantic obsession with him.
  • 4. Peculiarly depraved people who, out of psychological derangement, wanted to push an idealist and man of principle to his limits. Moral anarchists if you will.
  • From Los Angeles Express, Feb 2, 1922:

    "Motion picture circles in Los Angeles were shocked when the first news of the murder reached them in an extra edition of the Evening Express.
    "The blow was particularly felt at the Lasky studio; where Taylor was known to every actor, actress, property man and other employees.
    "Immediately on receipt of the news work at the studios and on location ceased and men and women, their pallor showing through the grease paint of their makeups, gathered in knots to discuss the tragedy and speculate on what prompted the crime.
    "Many theories were offered, among them revenge for fancied wrong, desire for gain and jealousy."

    From Los Angeles Express, Feb. 8, 1922:

    Three men have been under suspicion by these officers for the past two days. One of them may be arrested today. It was definitely stated by the sheriff's office that steps would be taken to charge one of them with complicity, at least, in the crime.
    This assertion dovetails with intimation that Taylor was the victim of a sinister plot in which many persons well known to the public are more or less involved. It is whispered that before the investigation is concluded a startling list of names will be bandied about as co-conspirators in the slaying of the noted director.
    Shortly after 9 o'clock deputies were dispatched to look for the one of the trio said to have full knowledge of the murder and to collect further evidence relative to the asserted conspiracy...
    Sand's connection with the case has proved the bone of contention between various officials working on the mystery. The police department, practically to a man, are inclined to believe him guilty of the murder.
    Representatives of the sheriff's office take a diametrically opposite view. There is nothing in the evidence thus far disclosed which would connect the former secretary with the crime, they say.

    From Long Beach Daily Telegram, Feb. 8, 1922:

    Police seeking the slayer of William Desmond Taylor, movie director, were working on the theory today that his assassin was hired to kill him. It is believed that Edward F. Sands, former valet of the director, may have been the hired assassin. In pursuance of this theory, detectives were checking up on members of the movie colony who were acquainted with Sands... The new theory is that the person who desired to have Taylor slain remembered the old enmity between the director and his former valet and used this, as well as money, to secure his death. Taylor is believed to have had enemies, as well as friends, in the motion picture colony. These enemies were men as well as women, and some of the enmities sprang from the numerous love affairs he is understood to have had. One of these enemies employed Sands to do the killing, according to the police theory...

    From Dallas Times Herald, Feb. 9, 1922:

    "A motion picture director can break as well as make an actor, and I believe William Desmond Taylor was killed by some actor or actress whom he recently refused to place in a production," Elzier La Maie, motion picture director and instructor in motion picture acting, said Wednesday.
    Mr. La Maie has recently come to Dallas from the Pacific coast, where he directed motion pictures for a number of years.
    "I knew Mr. Taylor very well," said Mr. La Maie, "and regarded him very highly. He was a splendid director, and was well liked by everybody who knew him. He was regarded as a gentleman always.
    "Many directors have incurred the enmity and hatred of actors whom they refused to cast in certain productions, or by actors who believed the directors were trying to break them or make them unpopular with the public. It is my belief that some one harboring such a grudge is responsible for Taylor's death."

    Possibly Taylor's killer(s) may have been homosexual, as was perhaps Taylor himself, as some have claimed. One ground for suggesting this is that Sands, at different times expressed both strong adoration and contempt of Taylor.

    From Los Angeles Examiner, Feb. 6, 1922:

    [Winifred Kingston, a friend of Taylor's]: "On another occasion Sands did another peculiar thing. Mr. Taylor had two thermos bottles around the house, neither of any particular value.
    There were many other things Sands easily could have stolen of more value, but he took one of these bottles to present to some girl. Her mother did not understand the act at all and didn't want the girl to take it.
    "Most unusual of Sands' actions, however, was a document he once drew up.
    "One day, to show his affection and regard for Mr. Taylor, he wrote, in his own handwriting, a sort of servile contract, in which he said that he would be Mr. Taylor's servant for life and would always be his slave.
    "Mr. Taylor told me about the document and laughed. I don't know what every happened to the paper, but Sands apparently took it seriously.
    "All of this led me to believe that the man was mentally deranged and he is the only man I can think of who might have killed Mr. Taylor."

    Taylor's hiring the effeminate Peavey and fawning Sands may suggest Taylor was homosexual, but aside from this we have no definite evidence. From what we actually know about Taylor, the two may have been taken on out of fatherly benevolence as much -- indeed more so -- than any other reasons. This would be very much in keeping with Taylor's desire, expressed both in his work and privately (as some reported), to be an upholder of ideals and a mentor to youth. In all, I take the interpretation of Taylor himself being homosexual to be a claim without much beyond rumor and gossip to substantiate it.

    The Night of the Murder

    The conventionally accepted story of the night of Taylor's death is: Between 7:00-7:45 pm on Feb. 1, Mabel Normand was having a friendly visit with Taylor in his bungalow. Books were the primary topic, and nothing of particular significance took place (although Peavey later claimed the two had argued.) When it was over Taylor escorted Mabel to her car, during which time someone snuck into the bungalow. The killer concealed inside, Taylor returned to his home and was shot by him shortly afterward. The gunman then made a clean escape. While there were people who passed the scene, including Howard Fellows who actually knocked on Taylor's door, during the night no one other than the killer knew that Taylor had been killed. Next morning, Henry Peavey, Taylor's houseman, came to work and found Taylor's body, shortly after 7:30 am.

    For our purposes here, let's see if a different scenario might not fit better what actually happened, followed by accounts and testimony to gird and reinforce such an interpretation.

    Mabel visits Taylor between 7:00-7:45 pm, Feb 1. Taylor walks her to her car, and having said farewell, goes inside. The killer, however, is not inside. Taylor sits down to go through his canceled checks and account books, having casually left open his door as was often his habit, even in winter. Despite the previous assaults on his home, he may have thought it unmanly to need to be too cautious. As well the good mood he was reported to be in that evening may have caused him to let down his guard. Sometime then just before or about 9:00 pm, the killer, a member of our "gang," is stalking outside Taylor's house. In his moving about, and possibly pausing to prepare himself, he sees the door open, stealthily sneaks up, then rushes inside. Before Taylor can be aware of what has just happened, the gunman has Taylor stick his hands up, possibly getting him to turn around first. Something perhaps is said by one and or the other. The killer then, with the gun pointing right into Taylor's back, pulls the trigger – either with a vengeance or else, perhaps as someone employed, in a casual and matter of fact manner.

    As the assassin goes to leave, he is spotted by neighbor Faith MacLean. However, his nonchalance prevents her from being suspicious.

    At some point from around 9:30 pm or perhaps within a few hours after the deed, someone discovers that Taylor is dead. Who found him? This may have been Taylor's chauffeur, Howard Fellows (although it may be that Fellows was not even at the bungalow at all that night as he later claimed.) Returning with Taylor's car sometime around 9:30 pm or later, he knocks on Taylor's door. At the same time as he gets no response to his repeated knocks, he notices that the light is on in Taylor's bungalow. Curious he peers through a crack in the window blind, and to his shock sees Taylor lying in blood murdered. There is no mistaking it is murder, and he contacts his brother and Paramount studio employee, Harry Fellows.

    From San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 10, 1922:

    Los Angeles--...Dumas said that on the night of the murder he had noticed that Taylor's study window shade was up several inches so anyone could have looked into the room and have seen him lying dead on the floor.

    Another scenario would have the word spread first by the killers themselves, via, the gang. A note, with perhaps a joking tone to it, is sent by a dupe messenger.

    In any case, word gets to Paramount manager Charles Eyton (possibly via Harry Fellows), who then disturbs Jesse Lasky's evening with the disastrous news. Police are not formally informed until Lasky can figure out what needs to be done to make sure studio interests are protected. What exactly followed after this point can only be left to speculation. It may be that Taylor's home was re-entered during the night by the studio people which might account for why Taylor's body lay so neatly on the floor, as well as some of the other evidence later alleged to be found on the scene, such as the three blonde hairs found on his coat lapel.8 This would also possibly explain why Taylor's window curtain was partially up.

    From Los Angeles Times, Feb. 10, 1922:

    Mr. Dumas, director in the Cal-Mex Oil Company, was among those who responded to the alarm after the murder. He also saw the blind in the front room of the Taylor apartment raised about four inches when he came home on the night of the slaying about 11 o'clock. The light was on at that time, but the fact that the curtain was raised was unusual, he said.

    Regardless of whether or not the crime site was actually and subsequently entered during the night, the studio people agree to wait till morning to go through the bungalow, rather than risk creating too much of a disturbance, and unnecessarily implicate themselves. Using his enormous clout as head of Paramount, Lasky goes directly to police heads, and after telling them what happened, says he needs their help to protect studio. It is not difficult for him to convince them he is not the killer, for the simple case that he isn't, and can make his case as such. His purpose is to keep the scandal contained as best it may be, and the police fully understand.

    They decide then that Peavey should “discover” the body in the morning; so as to avoid having to later explain how the body was actually found (and perhaps even handled), or why there was a delay in officially bringing the police onto scene. Peavey is rousted in his bed. After being informed what has happened, they tell him that he is going to be the one who finds the body, and the police, then studio people, will then await their cue to come on the scene. Some among the studio people may have had then correct suspicions as to the killer’s identity or perhaps even knew who the killer was. Yet far from viewing themselves as conspirators, the studio employees and police, in looking out for the studio's interests, saw themselves as the city's first line of defense in acting as they did.

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