Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Drugs, Sex, and Murder in 1920s Tinseltown

Taylor's Past

Taylor was a man of mystery. Did his complicated past relate to his murder?

William Desmond Taylor was not his real name. It was William Deane Tanner. A member of the movie business changing his name is not all that remarkable, but when high profile speculation is running rampant, the smallest tidbit can be used to build a major case.

The clear implication was that Taylor (or Tanner) had something to hide. This idea was reinforced by the fact that Taylor, in 1903, abandoned a wife and baby daughter in New York and struck off for points west. "Abandoned" is rather a strong term for Taylor's act, since his wife had a wealthy father and was not economically inconvenienced by her husband's leaving. She married a well-off man not long after she divorced Taylor, and she appeared to not harbor any particular anger at her errant husband. Hence, Taylor's flight from domestic bliss doesn't seem to be a reasonable explanation for changing his name. It is more likely that "William Desmond Taylor" had more of a theatrical flourish to it than (in his view) the more prosaic "William Deane Tanner."

Interestingly, Taylor's younger brother, Denis Cunningham Deane-Tanner, also abandoned his wife. Other than suggesting that a lack of marital commitment seemed to be hereditary in the Tanner family, there was not much there either.

William Desmond Taylor's past, then, was more of an irritation to the case than a reasonable cause for his murder. There were a number of years (between his leaving New York and arriving in Hollywood) that were sketchy, but no more so than the average itinerant actor of the first years of the Twentieth Century. And if Taylor was vague or intentionally deceptive about his background, it was more likely to be the mystique that movie people liked to create.

It is true that Denis Dean-Tanner's abandoned wife recognized Taylor in a movie, and that Taylor, when confronted, denied that Denis was his brother. But it is also true that he relented and helped to support his sister-in-law for the rest of his life. At one point, there was speculation that Denis Deane-Tanner was really Edward Sands, but the two men looked nothing alike. The only thing that Denis and Sands had in common was that they both disappeared, Sands in 1921 or 1922, and Denis some time before 1930. This coincidence has fed the fires of conspiracy.

The problem with suggesting that Taylor's murder was somehow connected to his past didn't seem to hold water.  Even the questionable suggestions that Taylor was gay or bisexual could not be tied to a possible explanation of why he was murdered.

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