MURDER, ALL THREE OF THEM WROTE
The director lay face up on the floor of 404-B S. Alvarado St. He was a famous movie man--but he wasn’t playing dead. By the time his valet found him that morning--Feb. 2, 1922--he’d taken the big sleep. His escort to eternity had blasted him into the history books with a .38.
After countless police detectives tried and failed--or possibly squashed the truth at the behest of corrupt district attorneys--three private citizens have launched their own investigations into one of the most notorious unsolved crimes in Hollywood history: the murder of film director William Desmond Taylor.
These amateur gumshoes have cumulatively logged about 30 years of research time. They dug through archives, tapped the memories of Taylor’s few remaining contemporaries and tried to get a glimpse of police records. (“As a matter of policy, unsolved murder case files are closed to the public,” Los Angeles Police Department Cmdr. William Booth told Calendar. “Exceptions maybe could be made, but I’m not aware of any having been made in any (unsolved murder) case.”)
Winding through what one described as an “endless maze,” the three researchers encountered a crush of contradictory information.
Sidney D. Kirkpatrick, 30, West Hollywood, has been the first of the three sleuths to go public with substantial new theories on the vintage mystery. His evidence is so persuasive that his colleagues have temporarily put their investigations on hold--and are reevaluating certain of their own theories about the case.
When the journalist and documentary film maker stumbled on a treasure chest of evidence three years ago, he was so afraid of being scooped that, at first, he wouldn’t even tell his agent whodunit.
But word of Kirkpatrick’s findings broke early this year in Calendar (Outtakes, Feb. 9) and the researcher-author now finds himself in a whirlwind of publicity--and a possible film deal--in advance of the official June 30 publication date of his book, “A Cast of Killers” (Dutton), which is reviewed in today’s Book Review.
An excerpt has become a cover story in the June issue of American Film. Publisher’s Weekly tagged the book a “riveting mystery.” Time magazine called Kirkpatrick’s prose “merely serviceable” but his story a “spellbinder.” According to Kirkus Reviews, the author “may lack the wizardry of a Ross Macdonald or a Mario Puzo,” but the book should still “blow the lid off the best-seller charts.” Esquire, Newsweek, People and other publications are reputedly readying articles. And Kirkpatrick, a native New Yorker, starts a multi-city tour July 8 to further promote the book.
The author buried himself in the basement of a downtown office building for two years to write “A Cast of Killers,” based on director King Vidor’s secret 1967 investigation of the case.
“It was the opportunity of a lifetime,” Kirkpatrick said of his discovery in 1983 of a locked strongbox full of Vidor’s findings in the garage of the late director’s Beverly Hills guest house.
Taylormania has also driven Canadian Douglas J. Whitton, 58, to the typewriter. What began as a hobby 18 years ago has all but replaced his other interests--jazz, painting, reading mystery novels. A father of four who lives in a Montreal suburb, Whitton had hoped to finish his book--"The Shot That Shocked Hollywood"--this summer, a deadline now put off by the new discoveries.
“My wife is very long-suffering,” he said by phone. “She allows me to work on it in most of my spare time.”
Bruce Long, 39 and single--who’s contributed research to Whitton’s book--became intrigued by the Taylor case 10 years ago. Last year, he took a job as a clerk at Arizona State University at Tempe to be close to the campus library, where he conducted the bulk of his research--as many as three visits a day.
“I’ll admit, at times it resembles more an obsession than a hobby,” Long said.
Even in death, it’s as if Taylor is still directing certain people, enticing them to take on roles they never expected to play, to become characters in a mystery that keeps him in a fading spotlight.
Each of the amateur investigators began his quest with a simple but keen interest in the pioneers of the Hollywood film industry. Whitton and Long were silent-film buffs. Kirkpatrick studied film at New York University (and still looks as young as the average undergraduate).
“Hollywood was just climbing into long pants,” said Kirkpatrick, smoking a pipe and talking about the 1920s. “Virtually overnight, you had former circus actors, vaudevillians, nickelodeon owners becoming millionaires. It was an incredibly volatile time, and the Taylor murder epitomizes what was going on.
“What’s interesting is not the clues,” he added. “It’s the people.”
Back in 1922, as the case unfolded in the press, skeletons tumbled out of everyone’s closet:
Taylor. Born William Cunningham Deane Tanner, he shed this identity--along with a wife and child in New York--before coming to Hollywood, where he directed more than 50 films. (He got noticed with “The Diamond in the Sky” in 1915.) Was the venerable president of the Motion Picture Directors Assn. the ladies’ man that reporters made him out to be? Or were tales of his cache of women’s lingerie and kinky pictures just a convenient cover for his homosexuality?
Mabel Normand. The career of this Keystone comedies star was ruined when reports linked her to the case, exposed her drug addiction and placed her at the scene of a later shooting. She died in 1930, after an abortive attempt at a stage career. Was she Taylor’s second-to-last visitor--or the final one?
Mary Miles Minter. Her reign as a favorite teen-age ingenue ended once her steamy love letters to Taylor were published. Rumors that her nightgown was found in his home didn’t help. She died in 1984. Had she lived with the murderer?
Charlotte Shelby. This Southern belle propelled daughter Minter’s career--and pocketed a tidy profit for herself. The two later waged a nasty court battle over this money. Before Taylor’s murder, Shelby was reportedly seen practicing with a gun of the same caliber as the murder weapon. Did she pull the trigger on Taylor?
Edward Sands. Taylor’s personal secretary took off in 1921 with many of his employer’s valuables. Some believed he returned to blackmail and murder his ex-boss. Police called him the prime suspect. Why wasn’t he ever arrested, despite a nationwide manhunt? Was he really Taylor’s brother, Dennis Deane Tanner, as some thought?
Kirkpatrick, Whitton and Long have uncovered what they consider a mine field of misinformation. Cover-ups allegedly instigated by studio and public officials have made it difficult to separate fact from fiction. And errors in the newspaper accounts are being re-perpetuated to this day. Here are a few tall tales repeated recently in major publications:
When police arrived at Taylor’s home the morning after the murder, they found a Paramount executive burning papers in the fireplace. Meanwhile, Mabel Normand was searching the bungalow for letters that she’d written Taylor. Police found a collection of ladies’ underwear, mementos of Taylor’s conquests. Kirkpatrick’s book--and the independent research of Long and Whitton--debunks these myths.
How do researchers cope with such a plethora of misinformation?
“You have to rely on intuition up to a point, and one’s knowledge of the participants,” said Whitton, who became hooked on Taylor while preparing himself trivia-wise for a French-Canadian TV game-show appearance. “It’s detective work. One little clue, one little name leads to another. You keep going through libraries, writing to people, checking here and there, and it snowballs.”
Whitton, a bespectacled, baldish man who comes from three generations of policemen, has combed libraries and film collections from Montreal to Washington, financing his research from his earnings as a TV/video equipment salesman.
He relied on a wide variety of original accounts of the case (“what one leaves out, another puts in”), rather than recaps. He’s even consulted Cuban and Australian newspapers.
Although he has conducted some interviews, he was skeptical of their value. "(It) was so traumatic for many people in Hollywood that they either unconsciously invented stories to cover up or brushed it into the back of their minds.”
Long, a tall, thin man with a big smile and a bald patch of his own, has also relied mainly on original press reports, sifting through them to eliminate obvious inaccuracies. (His collection of clippings from 200 publications weighs 30 pounds.) Last year, hoping to shatter common misconceptions, he published a journal called Taylorology--A Continuing Exploration and Review of the William Desmond Taylor Murder Case. Long folded it after one issue--and only 12 subscribers. But his correspondence with subscriber Whitton led to their collaboration. (After working strictly by mail for nine months, they would eventually meet during a research expedition to Los Angeles.)
Kirkpatrick had the good fortune to unearth the locked trunk filled with King Vidor’s notes on Taylor’s murder. (Vidor’s family had asked Kirkpatrick to write the late director’s biography. Vidor, Kirkpatrick discovered, spent most of 1967 investigating the case, in preparation for what he hoped would be his comeback film, but eventually shelved it out of respect for the feelings of his sources.)
“On top were the police records, which had been closed to the public,” recalled Kirkpatrick. “I knew how special they were, that a lot of people had tried to read them.” (Among them, Long, who couldn’t secure permission from the LAPD.) Vidor got a peek, thanks to police connections made through his brother-in-law’s weekly poker game. The director, said Kirkpatrick, had a tape recorder built into his briefcase, then read the files aloud and taped their contents.
Kirkpatrick financed his research with his wife’s help (“she footed the bills”), plus a small publisher’s advance and income from teaching a writing class at Cal State Los Angeles. Unlike Whitton, he championed the importance of interviewing those involved in the case. Among his other sources: Minter’s diaries and court records chronicling the legal battles between the Shelbys.
“You’d be surprised what a little digging in this town can turn up,” said Kirkpatrick, who collects gravestone rubbings as a hobby.
What have Kirkpatrick, Whitton and Long dug up?
All agree that Sands, the former secretary whom police ballyhooed as their prime suspect, was not Taylor’s brother, Dennis Tanner. Whitton dismissed the notion as “a lot of nonsense put in by journalists to beef up the story--as if the story needed any beefing up.”
Long traced the rumor to a “made-up interview” published by a Denver paper approximately a week after the murder. Disparities between the men’s handwriting samples and ages rendered the story “ridiculous” in his opinion. “Sands was about 27 according to the Army discharge,” said Long. “Tanner was in his 40s.”
(Dennis Tanner, like his brother, had abandoned a wife in New York to come to California. In the late 1930s, she came forward to clear her husband’s name, producing handwriting samples and photos to prove he hadn’t masqueraded as Sands. Tanner never surfaced after the murder, but Kirkpatrick said he tracked him to Riverside.)
Kirkpatrick’s book offers a simple explanation for why police never arrested Sands, despite a highly publicized, coast-to-coast dragnet: He died six weeks after the murder. Long and Whitton disagree.
Long recalled a case in Connecticut, a suicide: “After he was buried they thought, ‘Gee, maybe that was Sands.’ But finally they decided it wasn’t.” In a 1926 newspaper article, he noted, a private detective claimed Sands took a boat to Cuba a few days after the murder and said he was going from there to China.
According to Kirkpatrick’s book, Paramount went to great lengths to cover up Taylor’s homosexuality, at that time a major scandal if made public. (Taylor was closely associated with the studio.) Shortly before the murder, Taylor’s valet was arrested in a park for soliciting young boys. And Vidor learned that the boys were for Taylor. Paramount threw the press off the track by painting Taylor as a Lothario--and destroying the careers of Minter and Normand in the process.
Whitton agreed Taylor had homosexual tendencies, citing as his source a masseur who provided “confidential services” for 1920s film stars. But Long hesitated to label Taylor gay (“I haven’t seen any conclusive evidence”) until he saw some of Kirkpatrick’s information earlier this year. (One of the more bizarre clippings Long found suggested Taylor led a cult of opium-smoking homosexuals and was murdered for breaking his oath.) Long now agrees that Taylor was gay.
But what about the big question: Who killed William Desmond Taylor?
Kirkpatrick’s book claims that Shelby, anxious to end her daughter Mary’s flirtation with him, did the deed. It also alleges that she paid off three district attorneys to escape prosecution. Among its other theories:
Shelby may also have killed director Emmett J. Flynn. Flynn married Margaret, Shelby’s other daughter, in 1937. The marriage was quickly annulled, thanks to mama, who promptly committed Margaret to an asylum. Flynn died soon after. Vidor suspected foul play.
A death certificate for Shelby was issued in 1957, but witnesses claimed they saw her alive in the early 1960s. Comparing her to a vampire, another source told Vidor in 1967: “She could still be sucking blood out of poor little Mary.” When Vidor visited Mary later that year, he wondered if Shelby was upstairs.
The murder weapon allegedly wound up in the hands of Buron Fitts, who supposedly was the third district attorney bought off by Shelby. Fitts committed suicide in 1973--and the book states that he used a “vintage Smith and Wesson blue break-top revolver, similar to the one used in the Taylor murder.” Readers are left to draw their own conclusions.
Shelby’s been a popular suspect throughout the years. A neighbor reported seeing a man--or a woman in drag--leave Taylor’s bungalow shortly after the fatal shot sounded. Some have suggested the figure was Shelby. The journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns all but named her as the murderer in her 1969 autobiography, “The Honeycomb.” And North Hollywood playwright Franklin Hall cast Shelby as the killer in his 1978 play, “Ben Turpin, Private Eye.”
But until a recent visit to Los Angeles and a look at part of Kirkpatrick’s files, Whitton and Long were doubtful about Shelby’s alleged guilt. Previously, Whitton had felt that her extreme sense of propriety precluded her becoming a murderer. Long’s reservations: Shelby didn’t resemble the person seen by witnesses near Taylor’s home on the fateful night. Her alibi placed her at a bridge game. She also requested the 1937 grand jury investigation into the murder. (“Not normally the act of a guilty person,” Long observed.)
Now, after viewing only a fraction of Kirkpatrick’s evidence, both concede he may be right about Shelby, although Whitton feels “the last word” on the case may not have been spoken.
With the publication of “A Cast of Killers,” the debate will undoubtably catch fire again.
And the ghost of William Desmond Taylor will again have its moment in the spotlight.