It has all the things that make a movie great: a famous director, a love triangle involving two well-known actresses, and the biggest cover-up in Hollywood history. But there was no happy ending for this story. All that was left was an unsolved murder, two careers destroyed, and more questions than answers. In his book A Cast of Killers, author Sidney D. Kirkpatrick presents the evidence gathered in 1967 by director King Vidor regarding the death of Hollywood director William Desmond Taylor.
At 7:45 pm on February 1, 1922, Taylor escorted actress Mabel Normand to her waiting limo, waved goodbye and walked back to his bungalow at Alvarado Court. By 8 p.m., he was dying on the living room floor. The next morning, his manservant found him, and the cover-up began. People from the Paramount studio hurried to the bungalow and removed anything that might be harmful to Taylor or the studio. In the following days, the newspapers would report that: Normand was being questioned, a nightgown with the initials “MMM” was found in Taylor’s bungalow, a young man was being sought for questioning, Normand fainted at Taylor’s funeral, Normand was subpoenaed to testify at inquest, and that the inquest ended after one day with a verdict of death by “persons or persons unknown”. Over the next few years, small articles would appear about the unsolved murder, but it would remain just that: unsolved.
Forty-five years later, Hollywood director King Vidor, who had been a friend of Taylor’s, would begin an investigation in the hopes of solving Taylor’s murder. But it would not be an easy task because several of the key players had passed away: Taylor’s manservant, Henry Peavey, who was the one who found Taylor’s body; Charlotte Shelby, mother of actress Mary Miles Minter; Charlotte’s eldest daughter, Margaret; and Mabel Normand herself. But that was not Vidor’s only problem. He could not get access to the official investigation files because Taylor’s death was still considered “open” and any information contained within could compromise the case.
So Vidor turned to those he knew best, the old Hollywood guard: actresses Gloria Swanson, Claire Windsor and Minta Durfee; directors Emmett J. Flynn and Allan Dwan. From book publisher and Hollywood historian Robert Giroux (who would write his own book about Taylor’s murder, A Deed of Death in 1990), Vidor learned about Taylor’s childhood and early adult life. Taylor had been married to Ethel May Harrison, a wealthy stockbroker’s daughter, with whom he had a daughter. He settled into a quiet married life, and then suddenly left it all behind, disappearing without a trace. Taylor eventually settled in California for a career behind the camera.
Vidor managed to accomplish what many people had been unable to do: he got a look at the police files. One of the most puzzling things to come out of the files was the fact that there were so many witnesses on that fateful night, yet none of them were called to testify at the inquest. Aside from the police, the only person called to testify was Normand. Why weren’t the other witnesses allowed to tell about the person they had seen hanging around Alvarado Court shortly before Taylor’s murder?
Just as Vidor would eliminate a suspect, evidence would surface that would put them back on the list. Conversations with Raymond Cato, former chief of the California Highway Patrol, and former district attorney Burton Fitts did nothing to help him disprove the intricate lies that had been told throughout the course of the original investigation. But it was the final conversation that he had, with actress Mary Miles Minter, that would clear up his confusion and point to the real killer of William Desmond Taylor. But instead of presenting his evidence to the police, Vidor put all of his notes in a black strongbox and hid it in the basement of his office.
After Vidor’s death, Kirkpatrick, Vidor’s authorized biographer, was given access to Vidor’s things by his daughter. Kirkpatrick wanted to know what Vidor had been up to during 1967, yet no one could tell him. He hoped that by going through Vidor’s things, he would be able to discover the reason for the missing year. But what he found was more than he bargained for. Using Vidor’s notes, Kirkpatrick wrote A Cast of Killers, reconstructing the investigation as it happened in 1967. The real question is: was Vidor right about who the killer was?