Director Taylor’s Murder Ruins Mabel Normand’s Acting Career Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Mabel Normand, the first superstar of film comedy, was the last person to see director William Desmond Taylor on the night of his murder. The murder, the first major unsolved crime of the film community, rocked Hollywood. Scandal-seeking newspaper reporters and headline-seeking district attorneys focused on Normand, although she clearly was not the killer. She was hounded by the media, which followed her into another scandal in 1924, and her career was ruined.

Summary of Event

Prominent silent-film director William Desmond Taylor was shot on the night of February 1, 1922, in his Los Angeles, California, home. Mabel Normand, famed for her roles in director Mack Sennett’s slapstick comedies, had stopped by his home before his murder about 6:45 p.m. to pick up a book Taylor had purchased for her. About one hour later, Taylor walked her to her car, where her chauffeur had been waiting. No evidence suggests that she returned to Taylor’s home. [kw]Taylor’s Murder Ruins Mabel Normand’s Acting Career, Director (Feb. 1, 1922) [kw]Murder Ruins Mabel Normand’s Acting Career, Director Taylor’s (Feb. 1, 1922) [kw]Normand’s Acting Career, Director Taylor’s Murder Ruins Mabel (Feb. 1, 1922) [kw]Acting Career, Director Taylor’s Murder Ruins Mabel Normand’s (Feb. 1, 1922) Normand, Mabel Taylor, William Desmond Minter, Mabel Miles Normand, Mabel Taylor, William Desmond Minter, Mabel Miles [g]United States;Feb. 1, 1922: Director Taylor’s Murder Ruins Mabel Normand’s Acting Career[00250] [c]Murder and suicide;Feb. 1, 1922: Director Taylor’s Murder Ruins Mabel Normand’s Acting Career[00250] [c]Publishing and journalism;Feb. 1, 1922: Director Taylor’s Murder Ruins Mabel Normand’s Acting Career[00250] [c]Film;Feb. 1, 1922: Director Taylor’s Murder Ruins Mabel Normand’s Acting Career[00250] [c]Hollywood;Feb. 1, 1922: Director Taylor’s Murder Ruins Mabel Normand’s Acting Career[00250]

William Desmond Taylor.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The next morning, Taylor’s servant, Henry Peavey, returned to work at Taylor’s home. (Peavey was present during Normand’s visit with Taylor the day before.) He discovered Taylor’s body and called for help. Before police arrived, crime-scene evidence was contaminated by neighbors and by at least one studio troubleshooter who either removed or planted evidence of Taylor’s sexual involvement with Normand and with young actor Mabel Miles Minter. No actual evidence, apart from affectionately signed photographs, was produced to support the allegations that Taylor had affairs with the two women. In part because of such investigative bungling, the murder remained, perhaps deliberately, unsolved.

Los Angeles district attorney Thomas Woolwine, who had a reputation for corruption, focused his investigation on Normand to gain press headlines and to suggest he was actually trying to solve the crime. He focused less upon Minter and her family, although Minter’s mother, Charlotte Shelby, had apparently made death threats against Taylor; Woolwine, too, was a family friend and may have been one of several district attorneys paid off by Shelby. Carl Stockdale, who provided the family with an alibi, was allegedly paid by Shelby to do so. There were other suspects, but the focus remained on those who created the best headlines and photo opportunities. Journalists, led by reporters from papers owned by William Randolph Hearst, William Randolph Hearst, created scenarios of jealousy and uncontrolled passion that rivaled silent-film melodrama.

Despite rumored evidence of sexual liaisons, Taylor’s relationship with both women was probably paternal, not sexual. Normand and Minter had been badly exploited by Hollywood. Minter, groomed unsuccessfully to supplant star Mary Pickford, had been kept childish, even infantile, and her income was confiscated by her overbearing mother. Normand had been exploited and underpaid by director Sennett; they had planned to marry but she apparently discovered that he was unfaithful with a friend of hers shortly before their wedding.

By 1922, Normand also had forcibly learned the fragility of success. Her frequent film partner Fatty Arbuckle was tried several times for a Rape;and Fatty Arbuckle[Arbuckle] rape and murder in San Francisco, California, of which he was innocent. Public reaction against Arbuckle was hysterical, inflamed by an ambitious San Francisco district attorney and irresponsible journalists. Normand and other friends were not allowed to defend Arbuckle in public; no defense appeared in Hearst-owned newspapers.

Taylor, too, was not who he seemed, but he had mastered the Hollywood system as Normand, Minter, and Arbuckle could not. Taylor, an Irish-born one-time adventurer and actor, originally named William Cunningham Deane-Tanner, had abandoned his wife and daughter in New York. He had reinvented himself as a cultivated establishment director. He served three terms as Motion Picture Directors Association president and was an outspoken enemy of censorship and narcotics. He was not known for having relationships with women, leading to rumors that he was gay or bisexual. Normand and Minter, however, were obvious objects for compassion. Minter fantasized about him as her future lover and husband. For Normand, he was a teacher, although some criticized Normand and Taylor’s reading of works by Jewish psychoanalyst Freud, Sigmund Sigmund Freud. It was clear that both young women found solace from a person who treated them as human beings, and not commodities.

Of the two actors, Normand was the most successful, so she had more to lose from the scandal. A talented actor, comedian, and athlete who performed dangerous stunts, she also wrote scenarios and produced and directed, making her a Hollywood superstar. She also was a cocaine addict, and she blamed her addition on the cough medicines she had taken for hemorrhages that she attributed to tuberculosis. (Cocaine was widely used during the 1920’s, even though federal legislation banned it in 1914.)

Never a model of self-restraint and decorum, Normand’s behavior became riotously erratic after Taylor’s murder, making her even more suspect. Her audience remained loyal for a time, and her career might have at least temporarily survived had her chauffeur not shot millionaire playboy Courtland S. Dines at Normand’s New Year’s Eve party on January 1, 1924. Her chauffeur had used her pistol in the shooting and was later found to be an escaped convict. Again, no evidence implicated Normand, but state censorship boards in Kansas and Tennessee banned her films; other similar threats followed.

In September, a woman named Georgia Church cited Normand in a divorce suit, accusing Normand of having had an affair with her husband, Norman Church, while both were patients in a hospital. Once again, evidence was lacking, but reporters seized on the allegation. By then, too, film distributors noted changes in Normand’s appearance. Her despair, ill health, and hard living were reflected on her face, changes that jeopardized her career in a day of harsh lighting and relatively crude makeup.

Impact

After World War I and the success of the Russian Russian Revolution Revolution, would-be censors found moral weakness everywhere among the working classes and immigrants. Normand was among the most conspicuous victims of these censors, who were primarily religious moralists, members of women’s clubs, and social conservatives. Attempts were made to ban films, newspapers, and sports on Sundays, the one day that working-class people would be free to enjoy them. Prohibition Prohibition was part of the same movement. Newspaper and magazine articles not only frequently denounced film but also jazz and new forms of dancing. Shaken by rapid social changes, the moral censors, associating vice with the working classes and immigrants, urged that films uplift the masses, not pander to their tastes. By the time of Taylor’s murder, former U.S. postmaster general William H. Hays already had been hired as Hollywood’s first censor.

In her final films Normand modified her behavior for a more genteel set of standards, as the age of her brand of tomboyish comedy and Sennett’s knockabout Keystone Kops comedies was over. These films had been produced for a working-class audience that had relished custard pies being thrown into the faces of the priggish and authoritarian. Sennett had costumed Normand and his bathing beauties in skimpy swimsuits, now seen by censors as insults to the ideals of American womanhood, while the comic ineptness of the Keystone Kops was considered subversive of law and order.

Associated not only with Arbuckle’s and Sennett’s comedies but also with a murder, an attempted murder, a divorce, and illegal drug use, Normand’s career was over. In 1926, she married minor actor Lew Cody. In 1929, when still another district attorney threatened to implicate her in a reopened Taylor case, she was too ill to be summoned. She died of tuberculosis in a California sanitarium on February 23, 1930, perhaps unaware that the silent-film era itself had come to an end. Normand, Mabel Taylor, William Desmond Minter, Mabel Miles

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Basinger, Jeanine. Silent Stars. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. Provides a brief, insightful overview of Normand’s Keystone Kops comedies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fussell, Betty Harper. Mabel. New ed. New York: Limelight Editions, 1992. Well-written biography that includes, however, much weakly supported speculation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Giroux, Robert. A Deed of Death: The Story Behind the Unsolved Murder of Hollywood Director William Desmond Taylor. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990. Argues that Taylor’s intervention into Normand’s drug addiction led to his death.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Higham, Charles. Murder in Hollywood: Solving a Silent Screen Mystery. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004. Argues that Minter, unstable and jealous of Normand, killed Taylor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kirkpatrick, Sidney D. A Cast of Killers. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1986. Posits Minter’s mother as Taylor’s killer, indicating that the careers of Normand and Minter were sacrificed to conceal Taylor’s homosexuality. A former best seller.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Long, Bruce. William Desmond Taylor: A Dossier. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2004. Provides documents relating to Taylor’s life and death, including newspaper articles, essays, and critiques of other studies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Louvish, Simon. Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett. New York: Faber & Faber, 2003. Scholarly, balanced, and readable. Includes documentation of events in Normand’s life and career, stripping away much myth and romanticizing.

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