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William Desmond Taylor – A Hollywood Murder Story

William Desmond Taylor 2

William Desmond Taylor was 49 years old when the bullet that killed him ploughed into his back on 2 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.

 

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HIS FAMILY BACKGROUND

 

His father was Major Kearns Deane-Tanner, son of Dr William K Tanner. An officer in the Carlow Rifles and the 99th Regiment, the major had served with the British force that helped crush the Taiping Rebellion in China. [3] He 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.

According to the Cork Examiner of 14 February 1870, Kearns Deane-Tanner  was married in Cahir, County Tipperary, to Jane O’Brien, only daughter of Denis O’Brien, Esq, of Abbeyville, Cahir. She was heiress to the O’Brien family’s Gorteeshall estate at Ballyporeen, South Tipperary. [1]

William was the second of the Deane-Tanner’s four children. According to his birth certificate, his real name was William Cunningham Deane-Tanner and he was born at Evington House, just outside Carlow Town, on 26 April 1872.  During his first years, he and his family lived in Newgarden out on the Athy Road, approximately on the opposite side of the Barrow to Knockbeg College and close to Educate Together. Marc-Ivan brought a BBC crew out there a few years ago:

They later moved to the Elms, where their house stood until it was levelled in the early 1980s to build The Elms housing estate, which abuts Tanner Hall. The estate was built by Carlow developer Jimmy O’Toole, a well-known historian, who named the streets in honour of the Deane-Tanner Family.

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. [4] The Major was an ardent Unionist; his grandfather, Sir Thomas Deane, had been thrice Mayor of Cork. [5]

Another connection may have been Audrey Rose Tanner, elder daughter of Mrs. A. J. Tanner, of Cremona, Chudleigh, Devon. In October 1912, Audrey Rose was married at St David’s Church, Exeter, England, to Ernest Oscar Babington (c. 1884-1958). (See here) Born on Guernsey in the Channel Islands, Ernest was the fourth and youngest son of the Rev. Basil Blogg Babington (1846-1928) and his wife Ella Lugard (the daughter of a Bengal civil servant named Edmund Ford Radcliffe). Basil was born at Ootacamund, Tamil Nadu, India, and served for a time as Chaplain to the Bishop of Barbados. During the 1880s, he lived for a time at The Chestnuts on Leighlin Road, Carlow, since demolished, where John Schwatschke also lived. Ernest was living at Pinhoe, Devon, at the time of the 1911 census, and died in 1958 at Newton Abbott, Devon. Ernest’s three older brothers were Eustace Basil W. Babington (1873-1945), Cyril T. Babington (1874-1918) and Gerard Vincent Babington (1881-1977).

 

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HIS NATIONALIST UNCLE

 

The death of Dr Charles Deane-Tanner, William’s uncle. Illustrated London News, 27 April 1901.

Charles Deane Tanner, William’s father, was the first Captain of the Volunteer Fire Brigade for Carlow.

In But perhaps young Taylor, always silent and withdrawn, was more inclined towards the opinions of his uncle Dr Charles Deane-Tanner (1850-1901), the black sheep of the family, who had rejected the Anglo-Irish world to become Home Rule MP for Mid-Cork. [6] Charles married Elizabeth Andriah M’Donnell, only child of the late Captain M’Donnell Webb of the 4th Royal Dragoon Guards. Charles and Elizabeth were wed at the Hill in Douglas, Cork, on 14 April 1888. [2]

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.

The fall-out 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 seemingly blown Jane’s inheritance on a showy lifestyle.

After 1889, Taylor never returned to Ireland or saw his parents again.

 

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HIS SIBLINGS AND PARENTS

 

Crude sketch of Daisy Deane-Tanner acting in a play at the Portobello Barracks in Dublin, The Social Review (Dublin) 17 March 1894 .

Miss Deane Tanner from the Carlow and Island Hunt Book, 1892. I don’t know if this was Daisy or Nell.

There was certainly a touch of glamour in the family. In 1892, William’s sister Daisy, aka Elizabeth “Lizzie” Mary Deane-Tanner,  was selected to represent Waterford on a map of Ireland’s 32 most beautiful women. [7] She 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, while both she and Major Tanner acted in a local stage production. 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. [8] Daisy died at the age of 25.

William’s sister Ellen Deane-Tanner, known as Nell or Nellie, married Henry Faudel Faudel-Phillips in 1905. (See below) 

Illustration: Derry Dillon

William also had a brother, Denis Gage Deane-Tanner. In 1901, Denis was serving in the Anglo-Boer War, transferring from a private in the Volunteer Service Company to become a second lieutenant with the King’s Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment) by September.  (See here.) He received the Queen’s South Africas Medals, with bars for  ‘Orange Free State’ ‘Natal’ and ‘Transvaal’, as well as the King’s South Africa Medals for 1901 and 1902. (See here). He resigned his commission on 6 May 1902. (The London Gazette, here). After the war, he travelled to America and found employment at the same antique store William worked at. In 1912, Denis Gage Deane-Tanner abandoned his wife Ada and their two children and vanished, just as William would abandon Effie. (See here). He is rumoured to have gone to live in Monrovia, California, and to have had a minor role in one of Taylor’s films.  Ada and the children moved to Monrovia after he disappeared.

In June 1902, William learned that his father had died of blood-poisoning in Dublin. The Waterford Standard carried this account of his death on 11 June 1902

‘We deeply regret to announce the death of Major Kearns Deane Tanner, J.P., which occurred shortly before 10 o’clock on Sunday night, at his residence, 32 Upper Fitzwilliam-street, Dublin. On the Thursday before Easter, Major Tanner, through an apparently very trifling accident, became affected with blood poisoning, and, notwithstanding the exceptional skill of several prominent members of the medical profession, died, as already stated, on Sunday night last.
He was attended by Dr Evans and Surgeon Swan, who were joined at a latter stage of the fatal ailment in consultation by Sir Francis Cruise, M.D., and Surgeon Haughton.
The death of Major Deane Tanner will be widely regretted throughout Ireland. He was a staunch and unflinching supporter of the Unionist cause, and his speeches on many occasions at meetings in furtherance of Irish loyalist opinion were ever regarded as weighty utterances from one who was thoroughly acquainted with the political situation in this country. He had reached the age of 60 years. The funeral has been fixed for this morning (Wednesday), but is expected to be private. Major Deane Tanner was a Justice of the Peace for the Counties of Carlow, Tipperary, and Waterford.’

In 1927, Harry Faudel-Phillips published ‘The Child’s Guide To Horse Knowledge,’ a comprehensive guide to horses and ponies with chapters on anatomy, saddlery, animal care, riding, hunting and showing. A copy he signed at Waltham Cross in May 1936 was available on Ebay, and inscribed with this sentiment – “Do to all animals as in similar circumstances you would wish them to do to you.”

Meanwhile, William’s mother moved from Upper Fitzwilliam street, Dublin, to Fitzwilliam Square, before relocating to London. She frequently returned to Ireland, staying at the Alexandra Club on Stephen’s Green. On 31 October 1905, her daughter Nell married Henry Faudel Faudel-Phillips, 5th Lancers, only son of Mr S. H. Faudel-Phillips, of Mapleton, Kent, and Grosvenor-street . The Fauldel-Phillips were a wealthy landowning family who ran a riding school in England. In 1896, the Rt. Hon George Faudel Faudel-Phillips, a brother of Harry (as Henry was known), became lord mayor of the city of London.  The model-actress Cara Delevingne is a great-great-granddaughter of Sir Lionel Lawson Faudel-Phillips, 3rd Baronet, of Balls Park, Hertford, who also served as lord mayor of London. In 1928, Major Harry Faudel-Phillips, as he was known, would play a key role in founding the Pony Club. (See here). Nell and Harry were married in Holy Trinity Church, Sloane-street, London, and Nell was given away by her brother, ‘Mr Deane-Tanner,’ presumed to be Denis. Nell had an unfortunate incident on the day of her marriage:

‘Mrs. Deane Tanner, who resided some years ago in Upper Fitzwilliam street, and subsequently, when widowed, in Fitzwilliam-square, has been some time past located at 22 Cadogan Court, London, an address from which her daughter was married to young Mr. Faudel Phillips, a lieutenant in a crack regiment of Hussars, at the beginning of the present winter. It happened most unfavourably that the bride, immediately after her wedding, met with a very untoward accident when descending from her husband’s dog cart during the early honeymoon, she slipped and fell, fracturing her knee-cap, and incurring in consequence a ten weeks’ sojourn in bed, forbidden during the time to move hand or foot, and suffering excruciating pain.’

 

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William Desmond Taylor.

The Creation of William Desmond Taylor

 

After two years in Kansas, William 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 who was named Daisy after his sister.

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 2 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?!

 

The Top Seven Suspects.

 

THE COMEDY ACTRESS

Mabel Normand (1893-1930)

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.

Mabel was at Taylor’s bungalow on the night of the murder. She 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 became critically ill in February 1922 (see here) and died of tuberculosis aged 37 in 1930.

 

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 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

Mary Miles Minter (1902-1984)

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 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. 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. Peavey died in a San Francisco asylum in 1931 of syphilis-related dementia.

 

THE MOTHER

 

Charlotte Shelby (1877-1957)

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.

In Minter’s unpublished autobiography, she admitted that she and her mother were at Taylor’s bungalow on the night of the killing.

It is thought that Charlotte 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

 

Margaret Gibson (1894–1964)

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.

 

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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 on williamdesmondtaylor.co for more.

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

 

With thanks to Paul Curran, Jim Kuntz and Marc Ivan O’Gorman.

 

FOOTNOTES

 

Nell Deane Tanner, William’s sister, who married Harry Faudel Phillips, pictured in The Tatler, 23 June 1920.

[1] Ballyporeen is closely linked to another Hollywood star – Ronald Reagan.

[2] The Nation, Saturday, April 21, 1888. P. 14.

[3] Ensign Kearns Deane Tanner became a lieutenant by purchase in 99th Regt in 1861.

[4] 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)

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

[6] 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.) 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.

[7] Nenagh Guardian, Wednesday, December 14, 1892, p. 3.

[8] Kildare Observer, August 17, 1895, p. 5