Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Who Killed William Desmond Taylor?

The Wallace Reid Scandal

The second major scandal that sent shudders through Hollywood was the drug-related death of popular actor Wallace Reid. Blonde, blue-eyed, handsome, musical and athletic, Reid became a star when he was only 23. The movie that catapulted him to fame was Enoch Arden in which he co-starred with Lillian Gish. His best performance was widely considered to be in Forever, the silent movie version of Peter Ibbetson.

Behind the scenes and unbeknownst to his adoring public, Reid was addicted to morphine. When his dependency began to affect his ability to work, the studio bosses did not immediately fire him. He was too valuable for that. Instead, they brought in doctors to try to break his addiction. They were unable to get him to stop taking narcotics. Eventually he agreed to go to the Banksia Place Sanitarium to be cured of his addiction. Unfortunately, Reid was so powerfully addicted that giving it up made him sick. He came down with pneumonia, then suffered a fatal heart attack.

Motion picture executives could not keep the truth about the cause of Reid's death out of the newspapers. This was a time when the usual term for an addict was "dope fiend" and having a supposedly wholesome star stuck with this label after death did little to improve the reputation of Hollywood as a "den of iniquity."

Nervousness over the probability of a fresh scandal explains why some people hurried to the home of the newly dead director for a clean-up operation. They are said to have been desperate to remove anything that could cast aspersions on the dead man and enmesh Hollywood in yet another scandal.

Charles Eyton, general manager of Paramount, the studio for which Taylor was working at the time of his death, is believed to have been behind a hurried attempt to cleanse Taylor's residence of anything that could prove embarrassing. According to some reports, Eyton told Harold Fellows, Howard's brother and Taylor's chauffeur, to accompany Taylor's colleague Julia Crawford Ivers and her son, camera operator James Van Trees, to Alvarado Court. Other reports say Eyton went there himself.

William Desmond Taylor with Mary Miles Minter
William Desmond Taylor with
Mary Miles Minter

Adela Rogers St. Johns claimed in her book, The Honeycomb, that her husband Ike also went to the Taylor house early that morning. She said that the mayor of Hollywood told him to go there because he didn't want his city deluged by more negative publicity. While in the house, St. Johns says, Ike stole monogrammed pink lingerie with the initials M. M. M., those of actress Mary Miles Minter, written on it. 

One of the many mysteries around the Taylor case concerns a man at the scene who said he was a doctor but did not give his name. He told a police officer, Lieutenant Tom Ziegler, that he had examined the body and that Taylor had died of natural causes, probably heart trouble. No one has ever found the supposed doctor or the reason he gave his unsolicited and wrong diagnosis. If he really was a physician, he was extraordinarily careless, since just turning the body over revealed that Taylor had been shot.

When the police car drove up, some accounts claim that Ivers and Van Trees were speeding off. They had taken out Taylor's bootleg booze and all the letters they could find. Some reports say people were burning some papers just as the police walked in although a critique in Taylorology, a magazine devoted to the case, says those accounts must be fanciful since the home had no fireplace. At any rate, people tampered with that crime scene, and they may have inadvertently aided the murderer of the man they knew as William Desmond Taylor but whose family named him William Cunningham Deane-Tanner.

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