At 7:30am on Thursday 2 February 1922, valet Henry Peavey walked through the affluent neighbourhood of Westlake, Los Angeles, towards a bungalow in the Alvarado Court Apartments. His destination was 404-B South Alvarado Street, the home of his employer, movie director William Desmond Taylor. Peavey opened the front door, and screamed. At some point during the previous 12 hours, someone had shot Taylor. The movie director was very evidently dead.
The murderer had shot Taylor with a .38 calibre pistol. The bullet entered his body low on the left side and travelled through his lung before reaching his neck. The odd trajectory of the bullet suggested that the murderer had been around five feet tall, had stooped in a crouched position, or was holding the gun at an unusual angle.
William Desmond Taylor
We often learn more about people in death than we do in life, and that is certainly true of William Desmond Taylor. Within days of the murder, the case took a bizarre twist: the police discovered that the director was not William Desmond Taylor at all. His real name was William Cunningham Deane-Tanner, and he was born in Carlow, Ireland, on 26 April 1872.
In the 1880s, ‘Taylor’ attended either Marlborough or Clifton College – much of his background and life remains shrouded in mystery. In 1891, he left Ireland for a dude ranch in Kansas. From there, he moved to New York City. On 7 December 1901 in New York, Taylor married Ethel May Hamilton, an actress and the daughter of a wealthy broker. Eighteen months later, the couple produced a daughter, Ethel Daisy.
Taylor established himself in New York society and ran an antique business. But on 23 October 1908, he disappeared, deserting his wife and young daughter. Unaware of his whereabouts, Ethel May obtained a divorce in 1912. Then in 1918, in a scene straight out of a Hollywood movie, while watching the film Captain Alvarez, Ethel turned to her daughter, pointed to an actor on the screen and said, “That’s your father!”
From New York, Taylor travelled to Alaska where he participated in the gold rush. He then made his way to California and joined the growing Hollywood movie colony. As an actor, he appeared in 27 silent movies, before directing 59 films.
At the murder scene, police found a wallet holding $78 (over $1,000 in today’s money), a silver cigarette case, a pocket watch, a locket containing a photograph of actress Mabel Normand, and a two-carat diamond ring on Taylor’s finger. With so many valuables untouched, the police ruled out robbery as a motive.
Taylor’s valet, Henry Peavey, had a penchant for wearing outlandish clothing and talking in an affected manner. Three days before the murder, Peavey had been arrested for ‘social vagrancy’ and charged with being ‘lewd and dissolute’ while ingratiating himself to young men. In 1931 he died in a San Francisco asylum, where he had been hospitalized for syphilis-related dementia.
One is tempted to ask, why did Taylor employ such a seemingly dubious character as his most trusted servant? Or was Peavey simply a target because of views about homosexuality during that era?
Mabel Normand was a popular comedic actress who shared a close bond with Taylor. It was rumoured that she was in love with him, but that he was reluctant to be more than friends. It was also rumoured that Normand had drug addiction issues, and Taylor was trying to assist her.
One theory is that drug traffickers resented Taylor’s involvement and hired a hitman to murder him. However, there is no hard evidence to support this. Normand called on Taylor at around 7pm on 1 February 1922, and left his apartment at 7.45pm. The couple waved and blew kisses as they parted.
On the night of the murder, Normand claimed that she left Taylor’s bungalow in a happy mood, carrying a book he had bought for her. It’s evident from her comments and demeanour that she held Taylor in great respect and looked up to him. The Los Angeles Police Department questioned her, and ruled her out as a suspect. She was in poor health and her career, once glittering, was fading. She succumbed to tuberculosis on 23 February 1930, aged just 37.
A motion picture burglar
Faith Cole MacLean, the wife of actor Douglas MacLean, was one of Taylor’s neighbours. She was startled by a loud noise at 8pm; either a gunshot or a car backfiring, she couldn’t be sure which. She opened her front door and saw someone emerging from Taylor’s apartment.
MacLean described this person as “my idea of a motion picture burglar”. She also told police that the person looked and walked “funny”, which led to speculation that the person was a woman disguised as a man.
How did the murderer enter Taylor’s bungalow? The favoured theory is that he or she sneaked into the bungalow while Taylor escorted Normand to her car, at around 7.45pm. Other theories should also be considered, namely that someone was already in the bungalow, invited there by Taylor, and that that person emerged upon Normand’s departure. Equally, the 8pm timeframe could be a red herring. Perhaps someone called on Taylor later that evening.
Who murdered William Desmond Taylor? A hitman hired by drug runners, a burglar, an estranged female lover, an estranged male lover? (There are suggestions that Taylor was homosexual, but hard facts on that matter are difficult to find). Someone from his murky past, or a member of the Hollywood community? Stay tuned for part two of this story, two Fridays hence, when prime suspects and the police investigation will be examined.