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And The Killer Of Wm. Desmond Taylor Is . . .

February 09, 1986|Deborah Caulfield

One of Hollywood's most notorious unsolved murders may be unraveled this spring with the publication of "A Cast of Killers," a nonfiction whodunit probing the death in 1922 of director William Desmond Taylor.

Although E. P. Dutton, the publisher, has kept a tight wrap on the manuscript by Sidney Kirkpatrick, Outtakes located a draft and Kirkpatrick agreed to an interview.

But first, background: On Feb. 1, 1922, Taylor, the prominent director ("Anne of Green Gables," "Huckleberry Finn"), was shot and killed in his Alvarado Street bungalow. Rumors filled newspapers, among them: That there was a secret closet full of ladies lingerie, each item tagged with name and date . . . porno pictures of Taylor with well-known actresses . . . love letters from comedienne Mabel Normand and ingenue Mary Miles Minter (a frequent leading lady in Taylor films), whose initials were found on a silk nightgown.

When the actresses were mentioned as prime suspects, their careers were ruined. Other suspects: Charlotte Shelby, Minter's mother; chauffeur Edward Sands, rumored to be Taylor's brother, and several drifters who supposedly asked about Taylor's address on the day of the murder.

Investigators also learned that Taylor wasn't Taylor at all; his real name was William Deane Tanner, and he had vanished from Manhattan years before, leaving behind a wife and daughter.

Some 60 years later, Kirkpatrick stumbled upon the real story while researching a biography on another famed director, King Vidor ("The Champ," "Northwest Passage," "Stella Dallas"), who died in 1982.

"I noticed as I went through his papers that everything from the year 1967 was missing and that piqued my curiosity," said Kirkpatrick. "Then one day, 2 1/2 years ago, I was in the basement at his Beverly Hills guest house and discovered a locked black strong box by a water heater."

In it Kirkpatrick found the 1967 papers--and discovered that Vidor had spent that year investigating the murder for the purpose of developing a movie project. Vidor may have solved the murder, but he shelved the project and concealed his findings.

Kirkpatrick put his Vidor biography on hold while he retraced Vidor's steps through 1967, using the director's notes and transcripts and interviewing those principals still alive. Among his purported discoveries:

Taylor was homosexual. Paramount executives, already skittish because of Fatty Arbuckle's rape scandal, sought to cover up Taylor's sexual orientation by feeding false information to the press about closets full of lingerie and dirty pictures. Police reports contained none of that information, yet detectives supposedly never sought to set the record straight.

The reason they didn't, according to Vidor's research: The real killer paid off officials.

(Readers who want to wait for the book for the name of the alleged murderer should stop here.)

The purported killer was Charlotte Shelby, who supposedly was so enraged by her daughter's (unrequited) flirtation with Taylor that she shot the director, possibly in her daughter's presence. The book even suggests that Shelby might have killed another director under similar circumstances years later. Kirkpatrick writes that Vidor concluded this after studying lawsuits filed by Minter, her mother and her sister and from interviews with police officials.

What about the $1,000 reward offered in 1922 by Paramount? "I plan to collect it in King Vidor's name and put the money towards maintaining the King Vidor Collection at USC," the author said.

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