Turtle Bunbury

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AN IRISH MURDER IN HOLLYWOOD

William Desmond Taylor was 49 years old when the bullet that killed him ploughed into his back on 2nd February 1922. The murder of the popular Irish film director was to become one of the greatest unsolved crimes in Hollywood history. It is not known whether he died instantly or was still alive when his murderer left. Perhaps, as he lay dying in his bungalow in downtown Los Angeles, he had time to think back to the childhood he spent in County Carlow in another century and another world.

Taylor’s real name was William Cunningham Deane-Tanner. Born just outside Carlow Town on 26th April 1872, he the second of four children for Major Kearns Deane-Tanner, an officer in the Carlow Rifles, who had lately served with the British force that helped crush the Taiping Rebellion in China.[i] Major Tanner was also the first Captain of the Volunteer Fire Brigade for Carlow; fire protection of sorts had hitherto been provided by the Military and members of the Constabulary.

William’s mother was heiress to the O’Brien family’s Gorteeshall estate at Ballyporeen, South Tipperary.[ii]

The Deane-Tanner’s social circle included many of the leading gentry families of Victorian Ireland. It was a privileged world of lawn tennis, musical soirees, horse races and loyalty to the empire.[iii] The Major was an ardent Unionist; his grandfather, Sir Thomas Deane, had been thrice Mayor of Cork.[iv]

But perhaps young Taylor, always silent and withdrawn, was more inclined towards the opinions of his uncle Dr. Charles Deane-Tanner, the black sheep of the family, who had rejected the Anglo-Irish world to become Home Rule MP for Mid-Cork. [v]

In 1889, Charles became a household name when he declared that if politics failed to bring about home rule, he was willing to resort to physical force. That same year, 18-year-old Taylor and his father had a massive row, about an unknown subject, which culminated in the Major dispatching his firstborn son across the Atlantic to work on an experimental dude ranch in Kansas run by Ned Turnly, a wily entrepreneur from Co. Antrim.[vi]

Taylor never returned to Ireland or saw his parents again.[vii] After two years in Kansas, he took up life as a wandering labourer, working variously as a railroad yardman, a door-to-door salesman and a waiter. At length, he arrived in New York, set up an antique shop on Fifth Avenue and married Effie Hamilton, the daughter of an Irish railroad contractor, who had just been hailed as New York’s prettiest chorus girl. In 1902, they had a baby girl, Daisy.

He simultaneously wooed his way up through the Long Island elite, charming families like the Astors and Vanderbilts with his songs. However, his marriage proved unhappy and, in 1908, he abandoned his wife and daughter and fled west.

After four years in the wilderness, he remerged as a Hollywood actor, William Desmond Taylor. In 1912, he starred in four silent films alongside Margaret Gibson who would later claim to be his murderer. By 1914, he was directing films with icons such as Mary Pickford and Mabel Normand. He served briefly in the army at the end of the First World War and then returned to Hollywood to direct an acclaimed version of ‘Anne of Green Gables’ with his protégé Mary Miles Minter.

In 1917, Ethel and Daisy went to see a movie called ‘Captain Alvarez’ in New York. To Ethel’s astonishment, the actor playing Alvarez was her long-gone husband. She tracked him down and there was a surprisingly successful family reunion in July 1921 after which Taylor made Daisy his legal heir.

And then, on 2nd February 1922, one of Taylor’s neighbours saw a stranger strolling rather effeminately up and down in an alleyway near his bungalow. Soon afterwards, she heard a loud bang. It sounded like a car back-firing, a common noise in those times. She saw the stranger again and this time the person waved, but she was unable to identify the sex, let alone the face. She wondered whether it was a woman dressed up as a man. The stranger was almost certainly Taylor’s murderer.

Taylor’s body was discovered by his valet, Harry Peavey, the following morning. In one of the more curious twists of the case, Peavey decided not to call the police. Instead, he phoned Taylor’s bosses at Paramount Pictures. The studio swiftly dispatched Charles Eyton, their General Manager, to the crime scene. It is widely believed that Eyton’s role was to remove anything that might have incriminated Miss Minter. The studio had invested a fortune in marketing the teenage starlet as a pure and wholesome girl-next-door. That investment would sink without trace if she was in any way implicated. Eyton’s team did a fine job of making the crime scene utterly unreadable to the detectives who arrived an hour later, including the removal of various letters by Mabel Normand. A large sum of money also disappeared. But the team failed to find a series of passionate letters Minter had written to Taylor and which were subsequently published in the newspapers.

The case quickly became the talk of gossip columns the world over as newspapers cashed in on the sensational tale, assigning reporters to dig as deep as the detectives. But nobody has yet managed to prove who done it, or why, and the case was further banjaxed by allegations of police mishandling and corruption. Like the vast majority of the sixty-plus films Taylor directed, the evidence that might prove his murderers’ guilt has long since vanished.

The case racked up more suspects than JFK. There's a YouTube film for starters that reels off sixteen silent movie stars who all had a motive. Who didn't done it?! Anyway, here’s the line up of the top seven suspects.

THE COCKNEY CHEF

In the summer of 1921, Edward Sands, the trusted Englishman whom Taylor employed as his cook and valet, absconded with his chequebook. When investigators probed Sands past, they discovered that, far from being a Cockney, Sands came from Ohio and was wanted by the US Navy for desertion. He also had prior convictions for embezzlement and forgery. Sands was arrested in Nevada, following claims by two men that they had seen him in Los Angeles on the day of the murder. He was subsequently acquitted and then disappeared. Rumours say he drowned in the Sacramento River in the early 1930s.

THE VALET

After Sands ran away, Taylor recruited Harry Peavey, an illiterate African-American as his new valet. One of the more sordid allegations is that Taylor was bisexual, and that Peavey was sourcing young boys for his bedchamber. Peavey had a criminal past and had been arrested for public indecency shortly before the murder; Taylor was due in court to testify in his favour. Peavey died in a San Francisco asylum in 1931 of syphilis-related dementia.[viii]

THE COMEDY ACTRESS

Mabel Normand was one of the most popular actresses in Hollywood at the time and the wise-cracking New Yorker had played a key role in launching Charlie Chaplin’s stardom. Taylor was apparently infatuated with her, and became obsessed with saving her when she spiralled into cocaine addiction. She was at his bungalow on the night of the murder and was seen blowing kisses at him out her limousine window when she left at 7:45pm. Taylor’s death was later timed to 7:50pm. Normand was the prime suspect for a while. Although acquitted, the disclosure of her cocaine addiction sent her film career crashing down. She died of tuberculosis aged 37 in 1930.

THE HITMAN

When Taylor got wind of Mabel Normand’s cocaine addiction, he was so furious that he began helping the FBI track down the drug dealers. One theory runs that the dealers simply hired a contract killer to whack him.

THE STARLET

19-year-old Mary Miles Minter, born Juliet Reilly, was a former child star on the cusp of making it as a screen idol. She and Taylor were extremely close – he was her father figure and confidante, she was only three years older than the daughter he had deserted. Love letters from Minter found in Taylor’s bungalow hinted at a sexual relationship but most commentators believe Minter’s crush was unrequited. Not even Paramount could protect her when the letters were published, leading to widespread vilification of the unfortunate actress. She made four more films for Paramount, none successful, before marrying a wealthy businessman. She died ‘in comfortable obscurity’ in 1984.

THE MOTHER

Charlotte Shelby, Minter’s mother, is generally considered Suspect No. 1. Shelby was the prototype of the pushy mum, determined that her daughter would succeed where she, an aspiring Broadway actress, had failed. Her insatiable scheming and her hunger for money caused a good deal of friction with Minter. She was also a pathological liar. Shelby owned a rare .38 calibre pistol whose bullets were almost identical to that which killed Taylor. She apparently hurled the gun into a Louisiana bayou after the murder, and then fled the USA. It is thought she killed Taylor either because she believed he was involved in a career-destroying relationship with her daughter, or because she had fallen in love with him and could not bear his rejection.

THE OUTSIDER

In 1964, an elderly woman dying in the Hollywood hills summoned a priest to her side and confessed that she had ‘shot and killed William Desmond Taylor’. The woman was Margaret Gibson, the actress who Taylor worked with when he first came to Hollywood. Gibson’s career had floundered when she became entangled in a prostitution case but she was working for Taylor’s Famous Players-Lasky studio at the time of his murder. Arrested and jailed for extortion in 1923, she later fled to a new life in the Far East. Most people doubt she actually killed Taylor.

Marc Ivan O'Gorman has been following the Taylor murder story for many years. he hosted the Taylorfest in honour of WDT in September 2012. In May 2012, his two-part radio documentary 'Who Killed Bill?' aired on Ireland's Newstalk radio. Click here for more.

With thanks to Paul Curran and Marc Ivan O'Gorman.

FOOTNOTES

[i] William Desmond Taylor’s birth certificate states that he was born at Evington House, outside Carlow Town

[ii] Ballyporeen is closely linked to another Hollywood star - Ronald Reagan.

[iii] Ensign Kearns Deane Tanner became a lieutenant by purchase in 99th Regt in 1861. In August 1886, Major and Mrs Deane Tanner attended a lawn tennis party given by the officers of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in Naas, Co. Kildare. (Kildare Observer, Saturday, August 07, 1886 Page: 4)

William's sister Daisy was something of a beauty. In 1892 she was selected to represent Waterford on a map of Ireland’s 32 most beautiful women. (Nenagh Guardian, Wednesday, December 14, 1892, p. 3.) Daisy’s name was also noted as a chorus girl for some of the amateur theatricals which took place at the military barracks in Ireland where her father served. It seems likely that this was also where Taylor first learned the art of the thespian. She performed as a chorus girl at a military show at the Queen’s Theatre in 1895. (Kildare Observer, August 17, 1895, p. 5).

[iv] Major Kearns Deane-Tanner served on the Grand Jury for Counties Carlow and Waterford, as well as South Tipperary.

[v] Charles, Kearns and Jane were the children of W. K. Tanner, D.D. Charles was later sensationally ejected from the House of Commons when he accused another MP of being a liar. (Kildare Observer, Saturday, August 17, 1895, p. 5.) On April 14 1888, Charles Kearns Deane Tanner, MD, MP, married Elizabeth Andriah M’Donnell, only child of the late Captain M’Donnell Webb of the 4th Royal Dragoon Guards. They were wed at the Hill in Douglas, Cork. (The Nation, Saturday, April 21, 1888 Page: 14). After his death aged 5 in April 1901, his sister Jane Deane Tanner was his executor; details of his will were published in the Weekly Irish Times, Saturday, July 27, 1901, p. 13.

[vi] The huge fall may have been caused by the younger man opting to take his radical uncle’s side in the increasingly bitter debate about Irish home rule. William may also have been furious that his parents had blown all of Jane’s inheritance on their lifestyle.

[vii] In June 1902, word came that his father had died of blood-poisoning in Dublin. His mother moved first to Fitzwilliam Square, and then to London. She frequently returned to Ireland, staying at the Alexandra Club on Stephen’s Green.

[viii] The Hollywood correspondent of the New York Daily News tried to spook him into a confession with the aid of an actor dressed up as Taylor’s ghost. The ruse failed when the actor spoke with a deep Chicago accent, rather than Taylor’s clipped British tongue.


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