Drugs, Sex, and Murder in 1920s Tinseltown
A Manufactured Mystery
The mystery of the murder of William Desmond Taylor is not the only mystery. Equally as mysterious is how so many for so long could carry out such an inept investigation. What makes the Taylor case so mysterious is the ineptitude of those who reported it.
One can begin with the press. Following the Fatty Arbuckle case, a climate of sensationalism gripped the Los Angeles journalistic community. Facts became inconsequential, and the fabrication of facts in order to enhance the juiciness of the reporting became common. The newspaper reports on the case are essentially useless. Added to this low level of accuracy in reporting were the columns by various Hollywood gossip mavens, such as Adele Rogers St. John, which alluded to salacious aspects of the murder and put forth — if not explicit accusations — innuendo about favorite suspects. The official records of the police and district attorneys were incomplete, missing, altered, or suppressed. Even the so-called interviews of officials conducted by the three principal authors of the books on the Taylor murder were tainted. The King Vidor transcriptions of the police and D.A. files were made from audiotapes while the documents were being read, and are themselves suspect.
There's also the unfounded bravado of the authors Sidney Kirkpatrick and Charles Higham, and, to a lesser extent, the more tentative Robert Giroux. Using tainted records, both journalistic and official, they leap to astonishing conclusions, particularly when one realizes the meagerness of their sources. Further, the interviews they conducted with survivors of the era are bizarre examples of how not to obtain information. Their primary approach was to allow each interviewee to put forth their respective theories of the murder. Second, each author would seize on one or two statements and shoehorn them into his overall theory of the case. Giroux is the most cautious (and the best writer), but even he relied on the gossip dredged up by unreliable participants, and then many years after the fact. Given the relative unreliability of his interviewees' recollections and the paucity of the record, Giroux came to a vague conclusion, that the murder was a drug-related hit, carried out because of Taylor's interest in helping Normand break her habit.
Fitzpatrick's Cast of Killers is almost a work of fiction, supposedly based on the extensive files of King Vidor, a man with a rich, self-aggrandizing imagination. It contains information on Vidor, his romances, and his dogged determination. The most recent book, Higham's Murder in Hollywood, has more research than the other two, and has a somewhat stronger conclusion — Mary Miles Minter accidentally shot Taylor, and then spent a lifetime (along with her mother) covering up the event. Higham's deduction is plausible, although tainted by his reliance on the suspect King Vidor materials.
The problem with all of this material is its lack of coherence. Facts are contradictory, such as who were actually in the bungalow that morning; whether Taylor was straight or gay (and what relevance that question had to the solution to the crime); and even Taylor's actual date of birth. These contradictions themselves form a conundrum, in that what is important and what is irrelevant is never made clear.
Finally, the entire case was rife with conspiracy theories. Cover-ups by the three principal district attorneys; the collusion of Minter, her mother, her grandmother, and her sister to cover up the crime; the attempt by the Hollywood studios to suppress damaging information; and the assumption that Taylor's brother might have been Edward Sand — all of these, in addition to blackmail and gay sex, complicated a rational investigation of the murder. The case was never solved.