Legendary actress Bette Davis once summed the business of Hollywood up by saying “Acting should be bigger than life. Scripts should be bigger than life. It should all be bigger than life.”
However the real lives, and mysterious deaths, of many of its stars is proof positive that fact is often stranger than fiction. Take for instance the curious circumstances surrounding the murder of silent movie star and film director William Desmond Taylor. Largely forgotten today Taylor was at the height of his game when, on the 1st February 1922, he was cold-bloodedly shot in the chest in the study of his home in the upmarket Westlake Park suburb of Los Angeles.
Born in Carlo, Southern Ireland, in April 1872, Taylor was used to money – coming from landed gentry, he himself married wealthy New Yorker Ethel May Hamilton following his immigration to America in 1890. However, it was only after divorcing his wife and leaving for Hollywood, that Taylor was able to live the high life to the full.
In the early years of Hollywood’s ‘Dream Factory’, studios churned out numerous films weekly to satisfy increasing public demand for celluloid escapism. Taylor, attractive and charismatic, had little difficulty finding work, acting in twenty seven films between 1913 and 1915. However it was as a director that he really came into his own. Between 1914 and his death in 1922 he helmed an astonishing 59 films, many – like Captain Kidd, Jr. (1919) starring the legendary Mary Pickford – considered classics of their time.
If Taylor was popular with the film going public, offscreen he was the life and soul of the party and as a successful director could have anything, and anyone, he wanted. Actresses like teenage star Mary Miles Minter and his close friend Mabel Normand were all thought to have been romantically involved with him. It is his varied love-life (including rumoured bi-sexuality) which gave rise to the most likely causes behind his murder. A popular theory is that it was drug related. Hollywood, even in those early days, was a cocaine (or ‘joy powder’ as it was nicknamed) playground. Aleister Crowley the infamous occultist and narcotics user summed the city’s inhabitants up when he passed through in 1916 calling them, “the cinema crowd of cocaine-crazed, sexual lunatics”. Normand was a well-known drug addict, a habit which Taylor had tried to wean her from to the probable anger of her pushers.
Significantly, Taylor’s death could have finished Hollywood if the censors had had their way. Worried by the effect the lives of stars like Taylor and Normand were having on impressionable fans, moral campaigners pressurised Hollywood to clean up or shut up, though considering the scandals of today it’s debatable how successful this was. In fact it’s probably just as bad now, in the 21st century, as it has ever been, as highlighted by contemporary chat show host Jay Leno, when he talked about the popular thoroughfare which runs through the heart of film-land. “If God doesn’t destroy Hollywood Boulevard, he owes Sodom and Gomorrah an apology“. Clearly things haven’t changed much.
Whatever the truth about Taylor’s murder, it was hushed up by the studios, and after a lengthy period of police investigation the case went cold, though to this day it remains open and unsolved. Taylor’s influence on popular culture however, both pointedly and subliminally, has remained significant in the years since his death. In Sunset Boulevard (1950) Billy Wilder’s film noir built around the inner machinations of Hollywood’s ‘golden age’, Gloria Swanson’s character of Norma Desmond is a reference to both Taylor’s middle name and that of Mabel Normand.
Another clear reference to the scandal was by writer Gore Vidal, who died recently, when he included an account of Taylor’s murder in his novel Hollywood, an epic satire on Tinseltown’s heyday. Though fictional, Vidal’s prose only enhanced Taylor’s already shady reputation and the continuing mystery surrounding his murder. “On the other hand the telephones of Hollywood had not stopped ringing all that morning and everyone in any way concerned knew of the murder. While the press continued to print salacious stories about Taylor’s womanising the police spoke only to the thief, Eddie, who had vanished.”
Westlake Park is now a nondescript part of Los Angeles, lost within its ever increasing urban sprawl. Taylor’s bungalow on Alvarado Street is itself long gone (a parking lot covers the area on which the house once stood), confined like the murder itself to the annals of Hollywood’s troubled and murky past.