William Desmond Taylor, famous movie director, was known around town as a well-liked gentleman -well-liked enough to become head of the Motion Picture Director's Association. Unfortunately for Taylor, somebody out there didn't find him quite so charming. On the morning of February 2, 1922, Taylor was found lying dead in
What had happened? Who killed William Desmond Taylor? There were several likely suspects - possibly more than the police could handle. Famous comedienne Mabel Normand was found at the scene of the crime, rummaging through Taylor's drawers. Mary Miles Minter, the young star who was supposed to be the next Mary Pickford, had left love letters behind in Taylor's apartment - and blonde hairs were found on Taylor's coat. Minter's mother, Charlotte Shelby, was the stage mother extraordinaire, controlling her daughter's life down to her meals. She certainly wouldn't have wanted her daughter in a love affair with a 50-year old man - and she owned a .38 caliber pistol. Any of these people could be the murderer.
Then again, Henry Peavey, Taylor's servant, found the body -
Taylor had a reputation as an anti-drug crusader, attempting to clean up Hollywood after seeing the sufferings of the addicted Normand and others. Many thought that his courage in confronting the drug trade made Taylor a marked man. Yet, after his death, rumors sprang up that Taylor had been a member of a mysterious Oriental "love cult" where men would gather, smoke opium, and enjoy each others' company in a way that was considerably more than brotherly.
No one ever found out who killed William Desmond Taylor. The case is still open today, with partisans arguing for the innocence or guilt of certain figures. One of the most interesting aspects of the Taylor case, however, was just how many people were accused of murdering the director. It's hard to believe that Taylor was gunned down by a conspiracy of jilted opium-eating men and women and stage mothers. What made each suspect so plausible to the police, to the media - and to the fans outside Hollywood?
The suspects in Taylor's murder were all part of Hollywood archetypes that had been brewing for years before (and continued after) the director's death. Each of these archetypes held something threatening, not just to the health of movie directors, but to the entrenched ideas of American moviegoers. In Mary Miles Minter and Mabel Normand, fans could see the dangers of the new sexual liberation. Men of unknown sexuality, such as Peavey and Sands (and Taylor himself) were connected to the threat to masculinity that the actor presented to the "real" American man. And the "love cults" and opium dens provoked xenophobic reactions in a time when racial "purity" was all-important.