Call it the case of the dime-store Anastasia.
Like the North Carolina woman who went to her grave insisting she was the sole surviving heir of the last Russian czar, Nicholas II, Margaret Kozma of Santa Monica claims she is the illegitimate daughter of Mary Miles Minter, one of the golden girls of the silent screen, entitled to inherit her $3.3-million estate.
Hers is an intrigue, with all the elements of a suspenseful film, involving one of the most celebrated murders in Tinseltown, a movie star whose career was ruined by scandal, a baby born in secret who grew up in a traveling Hungarian circus, a beauty queen on a global quest to find her mother.
It is also a story of a woman who appears to have written this kind of script before, a script that may be fiction.
The denouement is due in a few weeks in a trial to determine who will get Minter's estate. It will be the last chapter in legal proceedings that began almost four years ago and which has already resulted in one trial and many hearings.
Like Margaret (or Margit) Kozma, Mary Miles Minter used many names.
According to government and Catholic church records unearthed by writer and small-time actor Ken Du Main, who owns the dramatic rights to Kozma's life story, Minter was born April 25, 1902, in Shreveport, La., and christened Mary M. Reilly. The actress, however, had often told people she was an April Fool's baby.
In 1911, the girl with the golden curls starred in "The Littlest Rebel," a long-running Broadway play, under the name Juliet Shelby. When the play was to open in Chicago, where a local ordinance barred children younger than 16 from the stage, the show dropped the underage Juliet Shelby in favor of a new actress named Mary Miles Minter.
Du Main has turned up documents that show Juliet Shelby and Mary Miles Minter were the same person. It was, he said, a change of identities achieved by Minter's domineering stage mother, Charlotte Shelby, through the birth certificate of a cousin who had died.
Soon Minter was in Hollywood, where she trailed only Mary Pickford and Clara Bow in popularity. She starred in more than 50 films, only two of which are known to exist today.
Body in a Bungalow
Then on the morning of Feb. 2, 1922, director William Desmond Taylor was found face up on the floor of his South Alvarado Street bungalow, his body concealing the small pool of blood from the .38-caliber slug in his back.
Along with Fatty Arbuckle's trial for a rape and murder that occurred five months earlier, the Taylor murder scandal dominated Hollywood reporting by the Roaring '20s press.
Banner headlines declared Minter a suspect in Taylor's murder. Adela Rogers St. John, the Hearst gossip columnist, reported that pink lingerie with the initials "MMM" were found in Taylor's apartment, which was quickly described as a "love nest."
Minter's career was ruined and she apparently fled to Europe. But, according to "A Cast of Killers," a best-selling 1986 book by Sidney D. Kirkpatrick, her love for Taylor had actually gone unrequited. The book, a case study of the murder, further argues that Minter's mother, Charlotte Shelby, shot Taylor to keep control of her daughter's career and her millions, and that at least two Los Angeles County district attorneys took bribes from Shelby, who sought to avoid prosecution.
By 1926, Minter was living in Paris, still under the influence of her mother. Photoplay magazine found her living in a hotel off the Champs Elysees under the name "Miss Shelby" in 1928.
In 1929, on Feb. 1 or May 1, Kozma claims, Minter secretly gave birth in Paris; the baby girl was delivered by a doctor named Etienne Bernard. By the end of that year, Minter was back in the United States, for a time at a Santa Barbara fat farm, where medical records give her complete medical history and show no mention of a birth.
Kozma's story, drawn from her testimony, statements she made to Du Main and an interview, boils down to this:
Charlotte Shelby, apparently ashamed that her unmarried daughter had become pregnant, took her 3-month-old grandchild to Hungary and persuaded distant relatives, brick mason Josef Sajban and his wife, Gizella Mohacsi Sajban, to adopt the girl in return for payment of $1,000.
Turned over with her, Kozma said, were several items including a gold bracelet bearing this inscription: "To my daughter Margaret Reilly Shelby Sajban, born in France, from Juliet Mary Reilly, who was born April 25, 1902, in Shreveport, La."
Kozma, who gave a deposition regarding her claim to Minter's fortune, has testified that "my stepfather told me that my real mother was in America, but I never heard anything about my father."