Who killed William Desmond Taylor? More than 90 years after the unsolved murder of the renowned director, film historian and biographer Mann (Hello Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand, 2012, etc.) takes up the cold case.
The result is a gripping true-crime story that encompasses a colorful period in film history. On Feb. 1, 1922, an unknown assailant shot the prominent director in the living room of his Los Angeles apartment. A botched police investigation, false leads, studio coverups, blackmail and a media frenzy ensued. The executives at Famous Players–Lasky, the film studio where Taylor worked, were more concerned about bad publicity than the loss of one of their leading directors. They made haste to collect Taylor’s papers, lest they contain any whiff of scandal (they did), and stored them at the studio, compromising the investigation. The timing couldn’t have been worse with the trials (there were three) of popular comic actor Fatty Arbuckle, who was accused of murdering a young actress, already in the headlines. The studio didn’t want another Hollywood scandal stirring up the public. In this context, Mann seamlessly weaves the details of the murder investigation, witnesses and newspaper accounts into the rich history of early film. The author also profiles movie power brokers, including Adolph Zukor, who founded and built the mighty Paramount. Like the movies, the story has its beauties. Mabel Normand, a comedic star who had returned to the screen after kicking a cocaine habit, was Taylor’s longtime friend and became a suspect due to her past associations with drug dealers. Mary Miles Minter, a teenage starlet, was obsessed with Taylor to the point of stalking him. Margaret Gibson (aka Patricia Palmer), an actress on the fringe who knew Taylor when they were both starting out in the movies, associated with petty criminals involved in scams and blackmailing schemes.
While searching for a solution to the sensational crime, Mann masterfully captures the zeitgeist of Hollywood in its early days.