Taylor, William Desmond (1872–1922), silent film director and celebrity murder victim, was born William Cunningham Deane-Tanner at Straw Hill House, Carlow town, Co. Carlow, on 26 April 1872, second child and oldest son among two daughters and three sons (one of whom died in infancy) of Captain Thomas Kearns Deane-Tanner of the Royal Rifle Corps (Carlow Rifles) and JP for Tipperary, Carlow and Waterford, and his wife Jane (née O'Brien), heiress to an estate at Gorteeshall, Ballyporeen, south Co. Tipperary. (William was often described erroneously as having been born in Mallow, Co. Cork, where he claimed his maternal grandfather, the architect Sir Thomas Deane (qv), had an estate.) William was privately tutored in history, German and French, and also became a skilled horseman; he later claimed his father had wished him to become an army officer. The family fortunes declined in the 1880s, partly through his parents' extravagance (involving moves to Cappoquin and Dublin) but possibly also due to the effects of the land war on rents.
In 1889 Deane-Tanner was sent to work on Runnymede 'dude ranch' near Harper, Kansas, USA, founded by Francis Turnly of Drumnasole, Co. Antrim. (It was fairly common for the Irish and English upper classes to dispatch unsatisfactory sons to North America as 'remittance men'.) He appears to have had little subsequent contact with his parents and siblings other than his brother, Denis. After the ranch closed on Turnly's death in 1892, Deane-Tanner became a wandering labourer, salesman and waiter in Missouri and (from 1893) in Chicago. In 1895 he joined the touring theatre company of the celebrated actress Fanny Davenport, taking the stage name 'Cunningham Deane'. (His previous acting experience is unknown; the claim that as a schoolboy he appeared with Charles Hawtrey's company in England is a later fabrication.) After Davenport's death in 1898, Deane-Tanner appeared with other touring companies. After receiving an inheritance on the death in November 1899 of his sister Elizabeth ('Daisy'), he settled in New York city and became a furniture maker and interior decorator in association with one Arthur J. Taylor. This trade has obvious links to his past theatrical and future directorial activities; it has also been suggested that Deane-Tanner, who was probably bisexual, was assisted by relationships with older gay men in the same line of business.
On 7 December 1901 Deane-Tanner married Ethel Hamilton, a chorus girl whose father was a first-generation Irish-American railway contractor. They had one daughter, Ethel Daisy (1902–74). Deane-Tanner's brother Denis, who emigrated to America in 1903, joined him in business, but within a few years the interior decoration trade was severely affected by an economic downturn. On 23 October 1908 Deane-Tanner walked away from his debts and his family, shaving his moustache and changing his name to 'William Desmond Taylor'. (William Desmond was a popular actor; Taylor derived from his former business associate.) In 1911 his wife obtained a divorce and later remarried. She subsequently re-established contact with Taylor (allegedly after recognising him onscreen in a cinema), and in the years after the first world war Taylor corresponded with his daughter, who inherited his estate after he died intestate. (Film historian Simon Louvish uncovered a reference to a William C. Deane-Tanner of New York being engaged in the lumber business in 1905 and having a wife called Florence; it is unclear whether this indicates bigamy, bad record-keeping or mistaken identity.) Taylor's brother Denis absconded in 1912 and is believed to have gone to California and remained in contact with Taylor, who later gave financial assistance to Denis's wife and family.
By May 1909 Taylor reached Dawson in the Yukon territory of Canada, where he worked as a contract labourer (possibly exploiting his knowledge of horsemanship) and was an unsuccessful gold prospector. He then joined a touring company of actors that appeared in British Columbia, Seattle and Denver (he also seems to have gone gold-hunting in Colorado). After two other visits to the Yukon (punctuated by a period of vagrancy in San Francisco in 1911 and a visit to Hawaii with a theatre company in 1912), Taylor moved to Los Angeles in November 1912 and began to work as an extra for the pioneering producer-director Thomas Harper Ince at the New York Motion Picture Company studios in Santa Monica. At first, Taylor took advantage of his lean athletic build and riding skills to appear as an extra in cowboy films, but rapidly advanced to more substantial roles. After appearing in eleven Ince films in seventeen months, he moved to the Vitagraph Film Company. Taylor's most celebrated film as an actor was one of the first feature-length movies made in California, Captain Alvarez (June 1914, dir. Rollin S. Sturgeon, six reels, believed lost), in which he performed daring horseback stunts while playing a Zorro-like character with two separate identities leading resistance to the nineteenth-century Argentine dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas.
Taylor, who had already written some vaudeville sketches and a screenplay, now made a breakthrough into directing for Balboa Amusement Producing Company. In his subsequent career he directed some fifty-seven films (of varying lengths); from 1916 most of his films were made for Paramount Pictures, and he worked closely with the screenwriter Julia Crawford Ivers. Taylor was highly regarded in the motion picture community for his competence and reliability, personal financial generosity, highbrow intellectual interests, and willingness to experiment with technology and effects. One of the few directors who edited his own films, he was credited with several minor technical improvements, and experimented with superimposing titles on the action instead of interrupting it with intertitles; it is quite possible that he personally wrote the occasional articles on the art of the motion picture that appeared in the industry press over his name (reprinted in Long, Taylor: a dossier). He recovered from the tension of motion-picture shoots by hunting and fishing treks in the California mountains, and was a regular at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. He was president of the Los Angeles lodge of the Motion Picture Directors' Association for three terms: 1917–18, 1918 (ending with military enlistment in May), and 1921–2.
The loss of most of Taylor's films (Paramount's copies were burned for their silver in the 1950s) makes it difficult to assess his achievement as a director. Bruce Long states that his surviving films in the Library of Congress, the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and the International Museum of Photography and Film (George Eastman House) in Rochester, NY, do not suggest that he was a great director; William K. Everson, however, argues that, whereas his two-part adaptation of Tom Sawyer (1917; starring Jack Pickford) is 'stodgy, unimaginative … saved only by some quite pleasing locations', his Huckleberry Finn (1920; with Lewis Sargent as Huck) is 'a superb piece of Americana … visually quite breath-taking … possibly still the best screen adaptation of Mark Twain', and suggests that the latter film's shortcomings may derive from studio interference. In the first half of 1918, Taylor directed the celebrated Mary Pickford (1892–1979) in three films (one lost, one extant, one incomplete).
Contemporary journalists often referred to Taylor as Irish (suggesting that he retained an Irish accent), though he was also described as English or 'an Englishman born in Ireland'; the Los Angeles Times of 1 September 1920 noted that most of the unit working on his film The witching hour were of Irish descent. Film historians disagree about whether he can be classified as an Irish-American director; Ruth Barton favours this identification because of his origins, while Gary Rhodes would dispute it because Taylor does not appear to have been particularly interested in Irish or Irish-American subject matter.
Taylor joined the British army in May 1918 (probably as the result of a recruiting drive among British subjects in Hollywood); enlisting as a private, he trained in Windsor, Nova Scotia (August 1918), rose rapidly to sergeant major, and staged several theatrical shows for the men. On arrival in England (December 1918) he was assigned to the Army Service Corps, and was then stationed in France near Dunkirk, attaining the rank of lieutenant.
On returning to Los Angeles in May 1919, Taylor directed Huckleberry Finn. He then directed the rising Paramount actress Mary Miles Minter (1902–84) in three films, including Anne of Green Gables (1919; now lost), which she considered her best work. Minter, celebrated at the time for her Pickfordesque screen image of girlish innocence, developed a strong emotional attachment to Taylor; whether and how far he reciprocated her feelings is a matter of dispute. The critic Charles Higham suggests that some of Taylor's films depicting urban vice and impoverished youths threatened with corruption (e.g., The soul of youth and The furnace, both released in 1920) contained covert homoerotic material. In his first years in Hollywood Taylor was engaged to the actress Neva Gerber, while at the same time conducting an affair with the set director George James Hopkins. Taylor was subsequently romantically involved with the comedienne Mabel Normand (1892–1930), the last person known to have seen him alive on the night of his death.
On the night of 1–2 February 1922, Taylor was shot dead in his bungalow in downtown Los Angeles by an unknown assailant, at close quarters and with the gun pointing upwards (suggesting an inexperienced killer shorter than Taylor, possibly a woman). The case has provoked widespread speculation ever since, the most favoured theories of the perpetrator's identity being: a spurned Mary Miles Minter; her possessive mother Charlotte Shelby, allegedly fearful that a marriage might deprive her of control over her daughter's money; drug dealers antagonised by Taylor's hostility to their activities among film personnel, including Normand; Taylor's former valet and secretary, Edward Sands, who, after embezzling some of Taylor's money, had burgled his bungalow, pawning the stolen goods under the name William Deane Tanner, and sending the pawn tickets to Taylor accompanied by facetious messages.
The handling of the case was complicated by an incompetent (and possibly corrupt) investigation by the police and legal authorities, by studio attempts to manage the bad publicity (for example, a studio employee removed numerous letters from Taylor's bungalow and destroyed them, claiming he was protecting the reputation of a married woman who had been one of Taylor's lovers), and by a flood of wild rumours (such as claims that Taylor had been killed by Irish nationalists, or by a gay drug cult of which he had supposedly been a member).
The Taylor murder attracted a wave of newspaper publicity and speculation across North America, focusing on the real and imagined debaucheries of Hollywood in general, and Taylor and his associates in particular. The careers of Minter (who retired soon afterwards to live off real-estate investments) and Normand were damaged; the fact that Taylor (who regarded himself as Normand's intellectual mentor) had given her books by the notoriously godless Freud and Nietzsche at their last meeting attracted indignant comment in the Hearst press. The scandal fed into the existing furore surrounding the trials of the popular film comedian Fatty Arbuckle for allegedly raping and murdering an actress, and reinforced the calls for censorship that stimulated the creation of the 'Hays office'. (Ironically, as president of the Motion Picture Directors' Association, Taylor had regularly issued statements declaring that censorship was undesirable and unnecessary since Hollywood was getting its own house in order.)
The combination of Hollywood glamour and unsolved crime has ensured that numerous accounts of the Taylor case have appeared in print. The indispensible source for study of the Taylor murder (particularly contemporary news coverage) and critical analysis of the various accounts is Bruce Long's website Taylorology (referenced below). The veteran film director King Vidor conducted extensive research into the murder in the 1960s with a view to developing the story into a film; Sidney D. Kirkpatrick's A cast of killers (1985), a semi-fictionalised account of Vidor's inquiries, incorporates interviews and material from police files. The Taylor murder is one of the sources of inspiration for Billy Wilder's film Sunset Boulevard (1950), whose demented silent film star Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson) combines the names of Taylor and Mabel Normand. The film's producer, Charles Brackett, later claimed that he had considered Mary Miles Minter for the part, but decided that asking her to portray a character who murders her lover might be awkward. Taylor is portrayed as a villainous seducer in the 1974 Broadway musical Mack and Mabel (a fictionalised account of the love affair between Normand and the director-producer Mack Sennett (1880–1960), sometimes suspected of murdering Taylor), and he appears in Gore Vidal's novel Hollywood (1990), which includes a fictitious account of the murder.
Although William Desmond Taylor is primarily remembered as part of the history of Hollywood, his personal history of transient labour, periodic self-invention, ambiguous identities, and entrepreneurial aspirations and failures can also be seen as representative of a wider section of the Irish emigrant experience than might appear at first glance. In 2012 to mark 140th anniversary of Taylor's birth a Taylorfest was launched in Carlow town as an annual arts and film festival celebrating the Irish contribution to silent cinema.