"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, May 28, 2018

Hollywood's Greatest Mystery: Review of "Tinseltown," by William J. Mann

William Cunningham Deane-Tanner was born in Ireland in 1872. His father was a retired Army Officer. William had the classic upbringing of the Victorian gentry. His most unconventional feature was a fondness for amateur theatricals. In 1890, he spent time at a dude ranch in Kansas. While there, his interest in acting was rekindled, and he settled in New York.

In 1901, Deane-Tanner married a well-to-do ex-Floradora girl named Ethel May Hamilton, and he settled down to work in an antiques store on Fifth Avenue. Although the couple was prominent in local society and had, on the surface, a privileged life, William was not happy. He was bored and frustrated with his comfortable but stultifying life, and reportedly dealt with his misery by heavy drinking and a succession of affairs.

In October 1908, William Deane-Tanner vanished, without so much as a word to his wife and young daughter.

The next few years of Deane-Tanner's life are largely lost to history. All we know for certain is that he led an itinerant life, traveling though Canada, Alaska and the U.S. northwest, mining for gold and performing with various acting troupes. By the time he landed in San Francisco some time around 1912, "William Deane-Tanner" had gone forever. He had reinvented himself as "William Desmond Taylor." The newly-christened runaway settled in Los Angeles, where he found work as an actor in the fledgling film industry. In 1914, he switched to directing films. He directed more than fifty films, with his work finding both commercial and critical success. In a twist straight out of Hollywood, failed family man William Deane-Tanner had become the successful filmmaker William Desmond Taylor. He was very popular with his peers (who knew nothing about his past life.) Women especially adored him, seeing him as the epitome of the cultured, courtly gentleman. He was considered to have a spotless personal reputation.

Ethel Deane-Tanner knew nothing of her ex-husband's whereabouts until 1918, when--in yet another Hollywood-like twist--she and her daughter went to see the film "Captain Alvarez." When one of the actors came onscreen, she told her child, "That's your father!" Ethel contacted William via his studio. Although he refused to publicly admit his real identity, he did visit his former family and made his daughter his legal heir.

On the morning of February 2, 1922, Taylor's straight-out-of-a-film-script life had one hell of an ending when his dead body was discovered in his Los Angeles bungalow. He had been shot to death. Although it's doubtful he would have appreciated the honor, his murder has remained Hollywood's strangest and most famous mystery, spawning at least four books and an endless number of theories that claim to "solve" the riddle of his death.  Over the years, virtually everyone who ever knew Taylor has been accused of murdering him.  His death has arguably spawned more "suspects" than the Jack the Ripper killings.

Taylor's Alvarado Street bungalow

What makes the crime particularly impenetrable is that there were deliberate efforts from people high-up in the movie industry to ensure that the case remained unsolved. It is virtually certain that there were a number of people who knew--or, at least, had a pretty good guess--who shot the film director, but for their own reasons, they launched a conspiracy that allowed someone to get away with murder. Evidence was concealed, misleading rumors were launched, and mouths were kept firmly shut. As all the people "in the know" are now long dead, we will never learn for certain who was behind the killing, and why it was done. As very little reliable evidence about the mystery survives--all the trustworthy known facts about the case could fit on a postage stamp--all theories about the case are necessarily based on speculation.

"Tinseltown" is no exception to this rule, but William J. Mann offers one of the fullest, richest accounts of the Taylor killing to date, introducing several new details, a novel, intriguing "solution," and--most valuable of all--offering a fascinating look at Old Hollywood. The Taylor murder is, in fact, only a plot element in the complex, often sordid, but always exciting history of the film industry's early days.

The anti-hero of our story is Adolph "Creepy" Zukor, the ruthless film mogul who likely engineered the Taylor cover-up. Other stars of the show include the drug-addicted comedienne Mabel Normand (one of the few sympathetic characters in this story,) the lovely but tormented ingenue Mary Miles Minter, Taylor's black, gay valet Henry Peavey (depicted much more sensitively and positively than most other accounts of the case,) and a host of grifters, blackmailers, film idols, main-chancers, lost souls, politicians, killers, and desperate wanna-be stars.

Mann's scenario of how Taylor died is interesting, if impossible to prove. It centers around an obscure early film actress, Margaret Gibson. Gibson was a classic Hollywood failure story: a beautiful young girl enters the film industry with dreams of stardom, but never gets beyond the lowest rung of the ladder. She turned to drug dealing and prostitution. Gibson soon found a more lucrative market: blackmail. Even in those early days, the film industry was rife with corruption and disgusting, even criminal behavior. Couple that with being a business dependent on keeping the favor and good will of the public, and you've got a blackmailer's Eden.

Margaret Gibson

Gibson and a number of other Hollywood fringe characters formed an extensive extortion and blackmail ring, preying on those who had a lot of money and even more dirty secrets. In 1923, these exploits led to her arrest, although the charges were eventually dropped. She continued her struggle to find legitimate work in the industry, but she never graduated beyond bit parts before permanently retiring from acting in 1929. For reasons unknown, she moved to Singapore in 1935, where she married an oil company executive, Elbert Lewis. The marriage appears to have been a happy one. After Lewis's death in 1942, Gibson (who was now calling herself "Pat Lewis,") moved back to the Los Angeles area, where she led a reclusive existence living off a small "widow's pension" until her death in 1964.

Gibson was never linked to the Taylor murder until 1996, when a man named Ray Long, who had known Gibson in her final years, went public with a startling tale. He stated that he was present at Gibson's last moments. As she was dying, she suddenly blurted out that many years before, she had shot a man named William Desmond Taylor.

Mann seized upon this story. He pointed out that Gibson had performed with Taylor in 1910, when he was still just another traveling actor. The two later appeared together in a few early silents. Mann's thesis is that this early acquaintance enabled Gibson to acquire "dirt" on Taylor. Perhaps she knew of his past life as "Deane-Tanner." Perhaps she knew something about his sexual history that Taylor would also wish to keep hidden. (Mann asserts as fact that Taylor was gay, a claim that so far as I know has never been corroborated.)

Taylor and Gibson in "The Kiss," 1914

Mann argues that Gibson and her merry band of blackmailers went to Taylor's bungalow to demand money for their silence. Taylor refused, and in the resulting altercation, one of Gibson's more excitable confederates shot the director. Afterward, industry executives initiated a cover-up, deliberately thwarting justice lest Hollywood's many dark secrets should emerge from any real investigation of Taylor's death.

Mann's scenario cannot be accepted as the "final word," but it's certainly not impossible. However, it should be emphasized that his premise rests entirely on one woman's alleged death-bed confession. If you question whether this elderly, mentally unstable woman was speaking the truth--or for that matter, if she made this confession at all--Mann has no evidence on which to base his theory.

As thorough as Mann's book is in most respects, he does make a few odd omissions. He barely mentions the curious fact that in 1912, Taylor's brother, Dennis Deane-Tanner, also abandoned his family and disappeared. It has been proposed that Dennis was really Taylor's sinister former valet, Edward Sands. Not long before the murder, Sands robbed Taylor and vanished--yet another puzzling element to this endlessly peculiar case. (Mann states that Sands was never seen again, although other accounts claim that the ex-valet was eventually found dead under suspicious circumstances.) I believe Mann made a mistake in dismissing all possibility that brother Dennis and Sands the valet somehow figured in the murder. Like so many researchers who fall in love with a particular theory, he seizes upon any scrap that might prove his pet thesis, while deliberately ignoring anything that argues for rival "solutions."

Although I believe "Tinseltown" does nothing to solve Taylor's essentially unsolvable murder, this book is wonderfully absorbing reading. Even if you have little interest in true crime, the soap-opera like saga found in these pages is almost certain to draw you in.


  1. Very interesting. Do we know that Gibson was a blackmailer, or is it supposition on Mann's part? Even if she were an extortionist, there is no proof she had anything on Taylor - though the fact that everyone who had power tried to block its solution suggests something nefarious involved them. Hollywood couldn't be the opposite of a land of dreams if it had been devised by a writer of pot-boilers.

    1. Although Mann is irritatingly lax about providing sources or evidence for much of what he says, Gibson's blackmail ring does seem to have existed. However, there's nothing aside from this alleged "confession" linking the ring to Taylor.

  2. Somehow I'd bet that the LAPD knew exactly what happened. We can only hope that someone finds a long hidden evidence file.

    1. It's a pretty good bet they did. And I'm even more sure that any truly useful evidence files were destroyed a long, long time ago...

      Whatever the truth about Taylor's death may have been, people in high places were sure anxious to keep it private.

  3. I wouldn't be too sure the files were destroyed, you never know just when even old dirt can grow new money.


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