William Desmond Taylor was a former actor turned director in early Hollywood. He was also one of the more colorful personalities of the time. But he is best remembered now for the manner of his death.
Taylor, whose real name was William Cunningham Deane-Tanner, was born April 26, 1872 in Ireland. He came to the United States in 1890 and worked in a variety of jobs before finding work as a bit part player on the New York stage, under the name Cunningham Deane. After marrying the daughter of a wealthy Wall Street broker, Taylor, with financial assistance from his father-in-law, set up an antique furniture business. Now known as "Pete" Tanner, Taylor became a popular member of New York society. Then suddenly in 1908, Tanner disappeared, deserting his wife and a young daughter. It was during this time that he took the name of William Desmond Taylor.
He made his break into films in 1915, appearing in several forgettable silent films before making his directorial debut in 1914 with "The Awakening". He directed more than forty films over the next seven years, taking a break to serve as a Captain in the Canadian Army during the latter part of World War I. He also served as president of the Motion Picture Directors Association.
On February 2, 1922, Taylor's body was found in his Hollywood home, a bullet in his back. Neighbors reported hearing a gunshot during the night. During the inquest that followed several witnesses came forward, reporting that they had seen a young, dark-haired man leaving Taylor's house the night of February 1, and one of them not only saw the man, but heard the shot that killed Taylor immediately before seeing the man. Despite a long list of potential suspects, nobody was ever arrested or tried for the crime.
What was the motive behind Taylor's murder? One interesting theory that came out at the inquest involved the woman Taylor was seeing at the time of his death, actress Mabel Normand. She was a cocaine user, and Taylor had gone to the federal government for help in stopping the pushers who were selling her drugs. Seeing their business threatened, this scenario goes, the pushers decided to hire a hit man to "silence" Taylor. Taylor had been a prominent member of the Hollywood set, giving and attending parties where liquor was served (this was during Prohibition), so the press made much of his so-called wild personal life.
Coming as it did on the heels of the Fatty Arbuckle scandal and the drug-related death of actor Wallace Reid, Taylor's murder spurred Hollywood to clean up its act. Will Hays became president of the newly formed Motion Picture Producers and Directors Association, and a new age of censorship and studio control was born in Hollywood.
As an unsolved crime, Taylor's murder has continued to intrigue and tantalize people. Over the years, conspiracy theorists have drawn up a long list of potential suspects - both individuals and groups that may have had a hand in the killing. Most seem fairly outrageous, but the continuing fascination illustrates our enduring fascination with both crime and Hollywood.
- Giroux, Robert. A Deed of Death: The Story Behind the Unsolved Murder of Hollywood Director William Desmond Taylor. New York: Knopf, 1990.
- Doheny Book Stacks HV6534.L7G57
- Hynd, Alan, "Murder in Hollywood," American Mercury 69(November, 1949),594-601.
- Kirkpatrick, Sidney. A Cast of Killers. New York: Dutton, 1986.
- Cinema-TV, Leavey HV6534.L7K57 1986
- This web page provides access to electronic versions of a newsletter devoted to the murder. The various issues offer lists of suspects and supporting evidence, as well as interviews with people who knew Taylor.
- William Desmond Taylor, not dated. Los Angeles Examiner collection, Regional History Collection.
Last updated July 2, 2000.