A DEED OF DEATH
The Story Behind the Unsolved
Murder of Hollywood Director
William Desmond Taylor
By Robert Giroux
Knopf. 275 pp. $19.95
IN "Sunset Boulevard" (1950), Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett's Gothic vision of love and death in tinseltown, the faded queen of the silent era (superbly played by Gloria Swanson) is resonantly named Norma Desmond. On the one hand, the name recalled two Hollywood beauties of the '20s, Norma Talmadge and the Young Norma Shearer, and on the other, a prominent director at Paramount, William Desmond Taylor, who was shot in the back in his bungalow home by an unknown killer on the evening of Feb. 1, 1922. That the motive for the shooting had not been robbery was clear, but there was very little agreement on an alternative explanation, and as conflicting rumors flooded the newspapers and the gossip mills ground, the case blossomed into one of the most sensational crime stories of a sensation-mongering decade.
In our own time, the killing has given rise to two books, A Cast of Killers (1986), by Sidney D. Kirkpatrick, and Robert Giroux's just-published A Deed of Death. Kirkpatrick would not have written his book had he not happened to come into the possession of a bulging file of papers belonging to the late director King Vidor, who had accumulated an astonishing number of facts and opinions pertaining to the case, all of which he began to work into a screenplay for a movie he intended to direct.
The reviews of A Cast of Killers were largely favorable, and American Film, a journal with ties to the American Film Institute, proclaimed on its cover that the murder had at last been solved. Giroux, however, in a scathing dissent in Films in Review, characterized the book as a farce. He derided Kirkpatrick for his gullibility in concluding on the basis of pathetically inadequate proof that the strange man whom a neighbor of Taylor's had seen emerging from his bungalow immediately after the gunshot sounded had actually been a woman in disguise -- namely, the mother of a young actress, Mary Miles Minter, with whom Taylor allegedly had been having an affair. Yet if he was exceedingly tough on Kirkpatrick, Giroux dealt with Vidor most gently, even though Kirkpatrick's views derived from Vidor's. Quite possibly, the reviewer's mercy originated in the fact that, as a book editor in the 1950s he had worked with Vidor on the latter's autobiography, A Tree Is a Tree.
A Cast of Killers is cited in the bibliography of A Deed of Death, but otherwise Giroux writes as if it doesn't exist. This strategy is a mistake, in my estimation. For although Giroux is obviously a more judicious author than his rival, who sometimes gives the impression of having been unable to detect in Vidor's notes where factual data left off and a screenplay writer's fantasies began, there is material in Killers that Giroux ought to have confronted, no matter what. His failure to do so raises doubts about the investigatory objectivity of his enjoyable book -- as does his reticence about the nature of his attraction to the case. In a startling admission, he says he has been collecting materials about Taylor's life and death for 30 years; while he refers to the dead man as one of Vidor's "obsessions" -- which stemmed, he speculates, from the fact that "the victim, like himself, was a director" -- he doesn't describe his own interest as an obsession, let alone confess what has driven it, all these years.
Taylor was a tall, handsome, impeccably dressed, literarily cultivated Anglo-Irishman, and there were rumors in Hollywood that he employed his manifest charms to enthrall male lovers. Kirkpatrick (which is to say, Vidor) found these rumors credible; Giroux, most emphatically, does not. "No convincing evidence" of homosexuality was ever presented, he assures us, and he adds that "only the Paramount art director George Hopkins, who was an acknowledged homosexual himself, implied that Taylor was of similar persuasion." But in the 1960s Vidor conducted interviews with three other individuals in which questions were raised or hints were voiced about a homosexual or bisexual persuasion, so that one has to wonder if a blackmailer might not have been threatening Taylor with public exposure of his habits.
Giroux also undertakes a defense of Taylor on the question of whether he was an unscrupulous Don Juan who took sexual advantage of the vulnerability of emotionally troubled actresses. Letters and other memorabilia in the murdered director's home made clear that Mary Miles Minter and the gifted comedienne Mabel Normand adored him. A Deed of Death would have us believe that these relationships were distorted by headline-hungry journalists. In Giroux's reading, Taylor played a paternal role in the fatherless Minter's life and a heroic role in the drug-addicted Normand's. Inasmuch as the most compelling pages in A Deed of Death deal with Taylor's pugnacious willingness to berate and even to beat up drug pushers (of whom there were many in post-World War I Hollywood), one has to take seriously the possibility that he was rubbed out by a contract killer from the underworld.
Giroux goes too far, however, when he baldly declares that "this book shows why Taylor was killed." For if Taylor was in some respects an admirable man, he also had a curious propensity for hiring questionable characters to work for him, as well as a long history of treacherous conduct that included desertion of a wife and child in New York and a change of name so as to make pursuit of him difficult. Drug dealers, in short, may not have been the only people whose deadly enmity he had incurred.
In 1940, Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret was impressed by the theory that "the police knew perfectly well who killed Desmond Taylor. But they had so little evidence that even if the murderer had given himself up, he would have had to undertake the prosecution himself." Half a century later, a paucity of evidence is still haunting efforts to crack the case.
Kenneth S. Lynn is the author of "Hemingway" and other books on American literature. He is at work on a study of Hollywood during the silent era.