An hour after sunset on Feb. 1, 1922, while smudge pots warmed nearby orange groves and a streetcar rattled through Westlake Park, a killer lurked in the shadows behind Hollywood film director William Desmond Taylor’s stylish bachelor’s bungalow at 404 Alvarado St.
At 7:45 the next morning, when a pair of Los Angeles Police Department patrolmen arrived on bicycles, routinely checking out a case of “natural death,” they barged into what appeared to be a party at Taylor’s bungalow: Paramount actors, actresses and executives rummaging through bedroom drawers and closets, a butler washing dishes and an unnamed extra walking out the front door with a case of bootleg gin. Everyone in the bungalow seemed to be looking for something, except the host, who was neatly laid out on the living room floor with a bullet hole in the middle of his back.
By nightfall, Feb. 7, national press coverage trumpeted the crime as the height of Filmland depravity, and hastened the eclipse of the two box-office sensations romantically linked to the murdered director-- comedian Mabel Normand and teen-age silent-screen siren Mary Miles Minter. But despite full-scale investigations in 1922, 1927 and 1941, the Taylor murder remains one of Hollywood’s most scandalous unsolved crimes.
Now, more than 70 years after Taylor’s death, Robert Giroux, the celebrated editor-in-chief of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, has published “A Deed of Death,” a re-examination of the director’s rise to prominence in the days of early Hollywood and a re-investigation of his murder. As in his last two books, “The Education of an Editor” and “The Book Known as Q,” Giroux brings his own superior reportorial skills to the subject, but he still fails to address adequately the most fundamental issue: Who killed William Desmond Taylor.
Without question, Giroux is at his best sorting through the vast newspaper and print archives that he has used to chronicle the life and times of Taylor and his associates. We learn, for example, how Taylor had come to live on a Kansas dude ranch in the late 1800s; how Mabel Normand started out as an artist’s model from Staten Island in the early 1900s, and how, a few years later, Charlotte Shelby, Mary Miles Minter’s mother and stage manager, lied about her daughter’s name and age to keep her from losing a starring role in “The Littlest Rebel,” at the Chicago Opera House.
Our three characters come together in Hollywood, where Minter develops a childhood crush on Taylor, now her gentleman director, and Taylor pays to have Mabel Normand sent to a sanatorium to help her kick her cocaine addiction. Then, in a series of chapters devoted exclusively to an examination of the crime, we are taken on a step-by-step tour of the Alvarado Street bungalow complex where Taylor lived, and follow the daily activities of the reporters who covered the murder. Finally, in the last two chapters, Giroux “solves” the murder by a process of elimination, and closes his book with a remark about Hollywood’s alleged cover-up: “In the decades that followed, the Taylor case continued to reverberate. But, as Hollywood had hoped, the truth was buried with William Desmond Taylor.”
All of this material, enhanced with rare black-and-white photographs, is presented in a clear and scholarly fashion, and frequent use of footnotes makes “A Deed of Death” irresistible to anyone tackling a biographical subject as buried in Hollywood legend as Taylor. But the end result is that this book becomes more a film history than the inside track on a sensational murder. By relying almost exclusively on archival newspaper accounts, Giroux misses the point of his investigation, and omits the most colorful and pertinent material about the murder.
Perhaps the best example of the inadequacies of Giroux’s source material concerns the LAPD investigation. Giroux never tells us about the men assigned to investigate the case, or exactly what evidence the various district attorneys have collected. Instead, the reader is given the results of interviews that reporters conducted with a streetcar conductor and two service-station employees in 1922.
As a result, the reader never is told that Mary Miles Minter once tried to shoot herself with a pistol identical to the one used in the Taylor murder; that her mother, Charlotte Shelby, had threatened the life of another film director she believed had made amorous advances toward her daughter, and that large sums of money were paid to Carl Stockdale, Charlotte Shelby’s alibi. Omissions such as this are surprising since all of this information has now become public record in a series of civil proceedings on file in the City of Los Angeles’ archives.
Another example is Giroux’s examination of the testimony at the coroner’s inquest, held three days after the murder. In reprinting the testimony, with gracious thanks to Mabel Normand’s biographer, Betty Fussell, Giroux leaves the reader with the impression that the five people who testified at the inquest were the only significant witnesses to give sworn testimony in the Taylor murder case. As any of the LAPD officers assigned to the investigation could have told either Giroux or Fussell, there were more than 400 pages of additional testimony that took place in closed session, involving more than 20 friends, neighbors and employees of Taylor. Much of it, especially those of Taylor’s intimates, contradicts statements made earlier.
Police reports aside, Giroux also fails to take advantage of the explosive new information that has emerged since Mary Miles Minter’s estate went into probate in 1984. Among the items recently made public were family journals, two unpublished autobiographies and private correspondence that details Mary’s and her mother’s frantic last trip to Taylor’s bungalow on the night of the murder, a trip never even alluded to in Giroux’s book. Here again, this is not privileged information available only to Minter intimates. The late actress’s private papers were offered for sale in Publisher’s Weekly, and a prominent Los Angeles book dealer has displayed the diary that Minter kept at the time of the murder.
After seven years of my own research, I am more inclined to believe the version as expounded by film director King Vidor, another amateur detective obsessed with the crime. He pointed his finger at Charlotte Shelby, Mary Miles Minter’s vindictive mother, long suspected of killing Taylor in a fit of jealous rage when she discovered that the 58-year-old man she loved had amorous designs on her teen-age daughter.
Giroux dismisses this scenario in favor of a popular theory promulgated by the New York press and a Washington political hopeful after the murder: that a professional assassin from out of state, named in Giroux’s book only as Mr. X, was hired by an international narcotics syndicate to kill Taylor because the director had helped Mabel Normand kick her cocaine habit.
This might indeed explain why someone might want Taylor dead, but it doesn’t begin to explain what the cover-up was all about.