William Desmond Taylor

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William Cunningham Deane-Tanner

Also Known As: "William Desmond Taylor"
Birthdate: (50)
Death: 1922 (50)
Immediate Family:

Son of Kearns Deane-Tanner and Jane Deane-Tanner
Ex-husband of Ethel May Deane-Tanner
Father of Ethel Daisy Deane-Tanner

Managed by: Private User
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About William Desmond Taylor


William Desmond Taylor (born William Cunningham Deane-Tanner, 26 April 1872 – 1 February 1922) was an Irish-born American actor, successful film director of silent movies and a popular figure in the growing Hollywood film colony of the 1910s and early 1920s. His murder on 1 February 1922, along with other Hollywood scandals such as the Roscoe Arbuckle trial, led to a frenzy of sensationalistic and often fabricated newspaper reports. In the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, the name Norma Desmond is a reference to both Taylor's middle name and one of his actress friends, Mabel Normand. Taylor's murder remains officially unsolved.

Life and career

He was born William Cunningham Deane-Tanner into the Anglo-Irish gentry on 26 April 1872, in Carlow, Ireland. He was one of four children of a retired British Army officer, Major Kearns Deane-Tanner of the Carlow Rifles, and his wife, Jane. His siblings were Denis, Nell, and Daisy. The Home Rule MP Charles Kerins Deane Tanner was his father's youngest brother. He sailed for America in 1890, when he was 18 years old.

Deane-Tanner briefly pursued a career on the New York City stage before marrying Ethel May Hamilton. The Episcopalian ceremony took place on 7 December 1901, at the Little Church Around the Corner; they divorced in 1912. Although she appeared as a member of the Florodora sextette as Ethel May Harrison, she was the daughter of a wealthy Wall Street broker who provided him with funding to set up the English Antiques Shop, through which he could support a family. The Tanners were well-known in New York society until he abruptly vanished on 23 October 1908 at the age of 36, following an affair with a married woman, deserting his wife and daughter, Ethel Daisy. Tanner (Taylor) had suffered "mental lapses" before, and the family thought at first that he had wandered off during an episode of aphasia. Deane-Tanner's brother, Denis, a former lieutenant in the British Army and a manager of a New York antiques business, disappeared in 1912, abandoning his wife and two children.

Changing his name to William Desmond Taylor, he was in Hollywood by December 1912 and worked successfully as an actor—including four appearances opposite Margaret "Gibby" Gibson—before making his first film as a director, The Awakening (1914). Over the next few years, he directed more than fifty films.

In July 1918, towards the end of World War I, Taylor enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force as a private at the age of 46. After training for four and a half months at Fort Edward, Nova Scotia, Taylor sailed from Halifax on a troop transport carrying five hundred Canadian soldiers. They arrived at Hounslow Barracks, London on 2 December 1918.

Taylor was ultimately assigned to the Royal Army Service Corps of the Expeditionary Forces Canteen Service, stationed at Dunkirk and promoted to the temporary grade of lieutenant on 15 January 1919. At the end of April, 1919, Taylor reached his final billet at Berguet, France, as Major Taylor, Company D, Royal Fusiliers.

Returning to Los Angeles on 14 May 1919, Taylor was honoured by the Motion Picture Directors Association with a formal banquet at the Los Angeles Athletic Club.

After returning from military service, Taylor went on to direct some of the great stars of the era including Mary Pickford, Wallace Reid, Dustin Farnum and his protégée, Mary Miles Minter, who starred in the 1919 version of Anne of Green Gables.

Between 1914 and 1919 Taylor was engaged to serial actress Neva Gerber, whom he had met during the filming of The Awakening. Gerber later recalled, "He was the soul of honour, a man of personal culture, education, and refinement. I have never known a finer or better man."

By this time, Taylor's ex-wife and daughter were aware that he was working in Hollywood. In 1918, both were attending the film Captain Alvarez, when they saw Taylor appear on the screen. Ethel responded, "That's your father!" In response, Ethel Daisy Deane-Tanner wrote to her father in care of the studio. In 1921, Taylor visited his ex-wife and daughter in New York City and made Ethel Daisy his legal heir.


At 7:30 am on the morning of 2 February 1922, the body of William Desmond Taylor was found inside his bungalow at the Alvarado Court Apartments, 404-B South Alvarado Street, in the Westlake Park area of downtown Los Angeles, which was then known as a trendy and affluent neighbourhood.

A crowd gathered inside and someone identifying himself as a doctor stepped forward, made a cursory examination of the body, declared the victim had died of a stomach haemorrhage and was never seen again, perhaps owing to his own embarrassment, because when doubts later arose, the body was rolled over and it was discovered the 49-year-old film director had been shot in the back.


Taylor's funeral took place on 7 February 1922 at St. Paul's Pro-Cathedral. Despite having reached the Western Front after the Armistice, Taylor's casket was draped in a Union Jack and buried with full military honours. After an Episcopalian ceremony, Taylor was interred in a mausoleum at Hollywood Park Memorial Cemetery. The inscription reads, "In Memory of William C. Deane-Tanner, Beloved Father of Ethel Deane-Tanner. Died 1 February 1922."


In Taylor's pockets were a wallet holding $78 in cash, a silver cigarette case, a Waltham pocket watch, a pen knife and a locket bearing a photograph of actress Mabel Normand. A two carat (400 mg) diamond ring was on his finger. With the appearance of the money and valuables on Taylor's body, it was clearly apparent that a robbery was not the motive for the killing, but a large but undetermined sum of cash which Taylor had shown to his accountant the day before was missing and apparently never accounted for. After some investigation, the time of Taylor's death was set at 7:50 in the evening of 1 February 1922.

While being interviewed by the police five days after the director's body was found, Mary Minter said that following the murder a friend, director and actor Marshall Neilan, told her Taylor had made several highly "delusional" statements about some of his social acquaintances (including her) during the weeks before his death. She also said Neilan thought Taylor had recently become "insane".

In the midst of a media circus caused by the case, Los Angeles Undersheriff Eugene Biscailuz warned Chicago Tribune reporter Eddie Doherty, "The industry has been hurt. Stars have been ruined. Stockholders have lost millions of dollars. A lot of people are out of jobs and incensed enough to take a shot at you."

According to Robert Giroux, "The studios seemed to be fearful that if certain aspects of the case were exposed, it would excacerbate their problems." King Vidor said of the case in 1968: "Last year I interviewed a Los Angeles police detective, now retired, who had been assigned to the case immediately after the murder. He told me, 'We were doing all right and then, before a week was out, we got the word to lay off.'"

Suspects and witnesses

More than a dozen individuals were eventually named as suspects by both the press and the police. Newspaper reports at the time were both overwhelmingly sensationalised and speculative, even fabricated, and the murder was used as the basis for much subsequent "true crime" fiction. Many inaccuracies were carried forward by later writers who used articles from the popular press as their sources. Overall, most accounts have consistently focused on seven people as suspects and witnesses.

Edward Sands

Sands had prior convictions for embezzlement, forgery and serial desertion from the US military. Born in Ohio, he had multiple aliases and spoke with an affected cockney accent. He had worked as Taylor's valet and cook up until seven months before the murder. While Taylor was in Europe the summer before, Sands had forged Taylor's checks and wrecked his car. Later Sands burgled Taylor's bungalow, leaving footprints on the film director's bed. Following the murder, Edward Sands was never heard from again. Some accounts claim that Sands' body was found in the Sacramento River in the early 1930s.

Henry Peavey

Peavey was Sands' replacement, Taylor’s African American valet who found the body. Newspapers noted that Peavey wore flashy golf costumes but did not own any golf clubs. Peavey was illiterate and bisexual. He had a criminal record which included arrests for vagrancy and public indecency involving underaged boys. Taylor had recently put up bail for him and was due to appear in court on his behalf.

According to Robert Giroux,

Even though the police decided, after severe questioning, that Peavey was not the murderer, the Hollywood correspondent of the New York Daily News, Florabel Muir, came to a private conclusion that Peavey was the murderer. In that era of ingenious women reporters, Muir thought she could engineer a scoop by tricking Peavey into a confession. She knew (from the movies) that blacks were deathly afraid of ghosts. With the help of two confederates, Frank Carson and Al Weinshank, she offered Peavey ten dollars if he would identify Taylor's grave in the Hollywood Park Cemetery (which she had already visited). Weinshank had gone on ahead with a white sheet, and Muir and Carson drove Peavey to the site. Weinshank, who came from a tough section of Chicago, spoke with the accents of a hoodlum. When he loomed up in the sheet and cried out, "I am the ghost of William Desmond Taylor. You murdered me. Confess, Peavey!" Henry laughed out loud. Then he cursed them roundly. Unfortunately for Muir, she was unaware that Taylor had a distinctive British accent. Weinshank, as Muir revealed in her memoirs, not only spoke like a hoodlum but was one of the Chicago mobsters who later were gunned down in the infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

Eight years later, in 1931, Harvey Peavey died in a San Francisco asylum where he had been hospitalised for syphilis-related dementia.

Mabel Normand

Normand was a popular comedic actress and frequent costar with Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe Arbuckle. According to author Robert Giroux, Taylor was deeply in love with Normand, who had originally approached him for help in curing her cocaine dependency. Based upon Normand's subsequent statements to investigators, her repeated relapses were devastating for Taylor. According to Giroux, Taylor met with Federal prosecutors shortly before his death and offered to assist them in filing charges against Normand's cocaine suppliers. Giroux expresses a belief that Normand's suppliers learned of this meeting and hired a contract killer to assassinate the director. According to Giroux, Normand suspected the reasons for her lover's murder, but did not know the identity of the triggerman.

On the night of his murder, Normand left Taylor's bungalow at 7:45 pm in a happy mood, carrying a book he had given her as a loan. They blew kisses to each other as her limousine drove away. Normand was the last person known to have seen Taylor alive.

The Los Angeles Police Department subjected Normand to a gruelling interrogation, but ruled her out as a suspect. Most subsequent writers have done the same. However, Normand's career had already slowed and her reputation was tarnished by revelations of her addiction, which was seen as a moral failing. According to George Hopkins, who sat next to her at Taylor's funeral, Normand wept inconsolably throughout the ceremony.

Ultimately, Normand continued to make films throughout the 1920s. She died of tuberculosis on 23 February 1930. According to her friend and confidant Julia Brew, Normand asked near the end, "Julia, do you think they'll ever find out who killed Bill Taylor?"

Faith Cole MacLean

MacLean is widely believed to have seen the killer. MacLean was the wife of actor Douglas MacLean and the couple were neighbours of Taylor. They were startled by a loud noise at 8 pm. MacLean went to her front door and came face to face with someone emerging from the front door of Taylor’s home whom she said was dressed "like my idea of a motion picture burglar". She recalled this person paused for a moment before turning and walking back through the door as if having forgotten something, then re-emerged and flashed a smile at her before disappearing between the buildings. MacLean decided she had heard a car back-fire. She also told police interviewers this person looked "funny" (like movie actors in makeup) and may have been a woman disguised as a man.

Charles Eyton

Eyton was the General Manager of Paramount Pictures. Several sources claim that in the hours following Taylor's murder, Eyton entered Taylor's bungalow with a group of Paramount employees and removed compromising items, either before police arrived or with their permission.

Mary Miles Minter

Minter was a former child star and teen screen idol whose career had been guided by Taylor. Minter, who had grown up without a father, was only three years older than the daughter Taylor had abandoned in New York. Love letters from Minter were found in Taylor’s bungalow. Based upon these, the reporters alleged that a sexual relationship between the 49-year-old Taylor and 19-year-old Minter had started when she was 17.

Robert Giroux and King Vidor, however, dispute this allegation. Citing Minter's own statements, both believed that her love for Taylor was unrequited. Taylor had often declined to see Minter and had described himself as too old for her.

However, facsimilies of Minter's passionate letters to Taylor were printed in newspapers, forever shattering her screen image as a modest and wholesome young girl. Minter was vilified in the press. She made four more films for Paramount, and when the studio failed to renew her contract, she received offers from many other producers. Never comfortable as an actress, Minter declined them all. In 1957, she married Brandon O. Hildebrandt, a wealthy Danish-American businessman. She died in wealthy and comfortable obscurity in Santa Monica, California on 4 August 1984.

Charlotte Shelby

Shelby was Minter’s mother. Like many "stage mothers" before and since, she has been described as consumed by wanton greed and manipulation over her daughter's career. Mary Miles Minter and her mother were bitterly divided by financial disputes and lawsuits for a time, but they later reconciled. Shelby's initial statements to police about the murder are still characterised as evasive and "obviously filled with lies" about both her daughter's relationship with Taylor and "other matters". Perhaps the most compelling bit of circumstantial evidence was that Shelby allegedly owned a rare .38 calibre pistol and unusual bullets very similar to the kind which killed Taylor. After this later became public, she reportedly threw the pistol into a Louisiana bayou. Shelby knew the Los Angeles district attorney socially and spent years outside the United States in an effort to avoid official inquiries by his successor and press coverage related to the murder. In 1938 her other daughter, actress Margaret Shelby (who was by then suffering from both clinical depression and alcoholism), openly accused her mother of the murder during an argument. Shelby was widely suspected of the crime and was a favourite suspect of many writers. For example, Adela Rogers St. Johns speculated Shelby was torn by feelings of maternal protection for her daughter and her own attraction to Taylor. Although (like Sands) Shelby feared being tried for the murder, at least two Los Angeles county district attorneys publicly declined to prosecute her. Almost twenty years after the murder, Los Angeles district attorney Buron Fitts concluded there wasn't any evidence for an indictment of Shelby and recommended that the remaining evidence and case files be retained on a permanent basis (all of these materials subsequently disappeared). Shelby died in 1957. Fitts, in ill-health, committed suicide in 1973.

Margaret Gibson's 1964 confession

Margaret Gibson was a film actress who worked with Taylor when he first came to Hollywood. In 1917 she was indicted, tried and acquitted on charges equivalent to prostitution (there were also allegations of opium dealing) and changed her professional name to Patricia Palmer. In 1923 Gibson was arrested and jailed on extortion charges which were later dropped.

Gibson was 27 and in Los Angeles at the time of the murder. There is no record her name was ever mentioned in connection with the investigation. Soon after the murder she got work in a number of films produced by Famous Players-Lasky, Taylor's studio at the time of his death. One of these films was among the last made by Mary Miles Minter. Gibson (in her words) "fled" the United States to the Far East in 1934, where she married her husband who worked for Socony (later Mobil Oil). However, she returned to Los Angeles in 1940 for medical reasons. Her husband, Elbert Lewis, died in a March 1942 Japanese attack on the Socony oil refinery at Penang, Straits Settlements (now Malaysia) during World War II. Lewis left Gibson with a small pension, which she lived on until her death.

In 1999, the widely cited newsletter Taylorology published an account that on 21 October 1964, while living in the Hollywood hills under the name Pat Lewis, she suffered a heart attack. As a recently converted Roman Catholic, before dying she confessed she "shot and killed William Desmond Taylor" along with several other things the witness didn't understand and could not remember more than 30 years later. The witness to her confession later repeated his recollection in a televised documentary.


From 1993 to 2000 Bruce Long, a staff member at Arizona State University (later retired), transcribed several hundred newspaper and magazine articles from the 1910s and 1920s relating to Taylor, his murder, the suspects, many of Taylor's contemporaries and their links to Taylor. The compiled result is a journal called Taylorology, which contains over a thousand pages of text and has been noted as a significant archive of primary and secondary source material relating both to Taylor's murder and the early Los Angeles film colony.

Lack of evidence

Through a combination of poor crime scene management and apparent corruption, much physical evidence was immediately lost, and the rest vanished over the years (although copies of a few documents from the police files were made public in 2007). Various theories were put forward after the murder and in the years since, along with the publication of many books claiming to have identified the murderer, but no hard evidence was ever uncovered to link the crime to a particular individual. Given Margaret Gibson's thoroughly documented background, the report of her dying confession attracted the attention of film historians, but aside from circumstantial evidence, no independent confirmation has emerged.

Hollywood legacy

A spate of newspaper-driven Hollywood scandals during the early 1920s included Taylor's murder, the Roscoe Arbuckle trial and the drug-related deaths of such stars as Olive Thomas, Wallace Reid, Barbara La Marr, and Jeanne Eagels, which prompted Hollywood studios to begin writing contracts with "morality clauses" or "moral turpitude clauses", allowing the dismissal of contractees who breached them.

The 1950 film Sunset Boulevard with William Holden and Gloria Swanson featured a fictional, ageing silent screen actress named Norma Desmond whose name was taken from Taylor's middle name and Mabel Normand's last name as a way to resonate with the widely publicised scandals of almost thirty years before. Gore Vidal's 1990 novel Hollywood features a fictionalised account of the Taylor murder.

Taylor directed or acted in over eighty films, most of which are believed to be lost. As of 2009 the unmarked murder site was the asphalt parking lot of a local discount store.

Directorial career

Taylor directed more than 60 films. The notable among these include:

The Diamond From the Sky (1915)
The Heart of Paula (1916; *co-directed with friend Julia Crawford Ivers)
Tom Sawyer (1917)
How Could You, Jean? (1918) with Mary Pickford
Anne of Green Gables (1919) with Mary Miles Minter
Huckleberry Finn (1920)
The Soul of Youth (1920)
Judy of Rogue's Harbor (1920)
view all

William Desmond Taylor's Timeline

Age 31
Age 50