Loonies in Hollywood
CHAPTER ONE MURDER
I am not a detective, not even close to being that smart. I write stories and scenarios for the
movies, yet it was me who solved the murder of top movie director William Desmond Taylor. I said I
solved the case, but the truth of the matter is the killer confessed to me knowing that I would not tell
the police, indeed would tell nobody, not even my darling wife whom I love with all my heart. I wished
the police had figured it all out, not me, though I suspect they have solved it and like me are keeping
quiet. I had no choice; I had to keep the secret. I am sure you will understand.
The piercing screech blaring from the telephone so early in the morning is a jolting jimjam that
means one thing. Bad News. Still, I was surprised when I picked up the receiver and an executive at
the studio told me Bill was dead; Bill being William Desmond Taylor, one of the top directors in
Hollywood. I was told to head to his bungalow and find out the details. I did as I was told for I am a
company man in a company town.
In the following week I would learn more about Bill than when he was alive and what I learned was
that every life is a lie. That sounds cynical, but this was a week where I learned more than I wanted to
know. It wasn’t so much what I learned about Bill, or what goes on in this town, it was what I learned
about me. Bill’s life may or may not have been a lie, you can determine that for yourself. I learned that
my life is a lie, at least in the moral sense.
Instead of going to my office at the studio, I drove to apartment 404 B on South Alvarado. I won’t
say who phoned from Famous Players-Lasky and told me to rush over to Bill’s. I am good at keeping
The apartment was one of sixteen in eight, two storied, white stucco buildings that overlooked the
luxuriant and well kept Westlake Park, which seventy years ago was a fen filled bog, and by the 1890’s
was a vacation spot with opulent hotels, manicured lawns, palm trees, and sailboats gliding through
clear waters on the lake.
Today it is a popular area for motion picture people and others with enough money to live the
good life. The neighborhood was a bit out my reach financially, yet some of the people who lived there
were my friends.
The two storied apartments formed a horseshoe; three separate bungalow apartments on either
side facing each other, with two apartments at the far end; an arbor, still being landscaped, with box
trees, shrubbery, a manicured lawn, and a trellis was in the middle of the horseshoe with sidewalks on
the outside of the arbor.
Bill’s portly Negro servant, Henry Peavy, greeted me on the porch.
“So did you call the police?” I asked.
“No sir Mr. Chet. I didn’t call anyone. Like I told the policeman inside, I came to work this morning
about 7:30, opened the door as usual, came inside and saw Mr. Taylor on the floor. I walked over,
looked down, got scared, and ran out yelling for help. I don’t know which of the neighbors called.”
“Excuse me,” a voice interjected by the open door. “My name is Emile Jesserun. I am the landlord
here. When Peavy came rushing out screaming, my wife called the police and I came over here to see
what was going on.”
“When do you think the policeman will leave? I still got my dusting to do.” asked Peavy.
“But your employer is dead. What’s the point?” noted Jesserun.
“Well sir, the police are going to ask a lot of questions I’m thinking. And I’m getting a bit nervous,
so I think I’ll clean up to keep my mind occupied.”
“You sure you ain’t got anything to hide?” asked Jesserun.
“No sir. Well, I mean to say I got arrested the other day and I have to go to court in a couple of
days. I really don’t want no more police visits. So that is making me kind of anxious. All I know is what I
been telling Mr. Koski here. And that is little to nothing, but that don’t mean the police are going to
“You mind if I ask what you got arrested for?” I asked.
“I don’t mind you asking, but I do mind me telling,” answered Peavy.
“Excuse me,” I said, “I want to check inside for a moment.”
The reason Famous Players had called me, and who knows who else, is simple. Look for anything
incriminating, not just to Bill, but any moving picture star, anything the press or police might learn that
could lead to damaging or embarrassing stories about the studio and its stars. With millions of dollars
invested in stars, directors, and pictures, there were lots of reasons to worry, especially when some
of the members of this company town walk on the dark side of the street. Even if there is nothing to
hide, even if everything is above board, on the up and up, things that seem innocent, can in the
wrong hands be made to seem hurtful, damaging, and downright evil; the bad press, whether truth or
lies, creates a downward spiral in profits. Protect and defend, lie if you have to, but keep the image,
keep the profits.
Two months short of fifty, tall and lean, with a muscular build, an aristocratic face topped with grey
hair, Bill was lying on his back, his left arm by his side, his right arm stretched out as if pointing. His
blue grey eyes slightly open, jaw slack, thin lips parted a bit. I had seen many dead bodies, having
been in the Great War a few years back. Those bodies were mangled, twisted, torn up, in positions
you could not imagine with arms and legs every which way. It was pretty gruesome stuff. But Taylor’s
body was so straight it looked like it had been placed there, like it was being displayed. He laid on the
floor impeccably dressed in his gabardine suit as if waiting for the mortician to wax up his face for his
last public appearance. One odd thing was a chair positioned slightly over one of Taylor’s feet. He had
to have fallen, so why was the chair not overturned? How did his foot get under the chair?
The room was surrounded by bookcases with books on philosophy, sociology, history, the Greeks,
the Romans, the Egyptians, archeology, and fictional classics. Bill also had souvenirs from the war.
He joined the British army-he was born in Ireland- and came home from the war a captain, or maybe
lieutenant, I can’t remember which. Framed pictures, most of them autographed from famous stars,
mostly female, were on the piano and desk. One autographed photo was of Mary Pickford who wrote
that Bill was the most patient man she ever knew. I wondered what he had been patient about.
One on the piano was a framed photograph signed, “For William Desmond Taylor-artist, gentleman,
man. Sincere Good Wishes. Mary Miles Minter.”
The room was tastefully decorated, neat and orderly, a room of a cultured man of letters and taste,
a man of thought, a man of intelligence; though, to my finding, if you looked closely, a wee bit
effeminate. Purple velveteen seats on dining room chairs, the cushy arm chairs, velvet curtains with
purple sashes, and the purple shawl on the small piano, all of it somewhat gaudy. The wallpaper was
gold and olive, though most of the space on walls was covered with photos of movie
stars and other show people. Maybe he had a woman decorator.
An old friend, Detective Tom Ziegler, greeted me as I walked past Bill’s body.
“Hello Chet. You must be a friend of Mr. Taylor’s, because I can think of no other reason for you to
be here, unless you are here to congratulate me on making detective.”
“I am a friend of Bill’s, but congratulations of course. Any word on how he died?”
“A doctor said it was stomach hemorrhage.”
Peavy who followed me into the room said, “That fits. He had problems with his stomach. That is
why I always brought him his milk of magnesia every morning. He had those ulcers, you know.”
Faith Maclean was standing next to her husband Douglas, her hand wrapped around his left arm,
leaning into him, her head resting on his shoulder.
Douglas, a fine actor, had matinee idol looks and a smile that lit up a room. His hair, parted just
right of center, was slicked back, and perfect. At least in the publicity stills. It looked a little
disheveled this morning. I had been at his birthday party last month when he turned 32, an age I will
reach in October.
Movie fans loved him, but they know the image, they know what Douglas, or any actor or actress,
chooses to show through the character they play. But I know that what is seen on the screen is not
what is seen in real life. Smiling eyes in a photo can be cold in three dimensions. Not that anyone
should draw any conclusions about Douglas from what I am saying. Douglas could be likeable. But
then he was an actor.
Walter. a guy from the studio, bounded into the room, tipped his hat, said good morning, looked
quickly around the room, saw something, said excuse me, and went over and picked up a case of
booze not far from the small piano. “I’ll just take this out to the car Chet. No need for a public scandal,
“Just don’t drink it before you get to the car.”
“Hey, got to get rid of evidence, don’t you think.”
Tom looked at me, smiled, and said, “There is a law against liquor you know.”
“Well you can’t arrest Bill for that. Walter is just doing his job, protecting Bill and the studio from
“I know the score,” said Tom. “No problems from my end or anyone on the force. We don’t want the
press hounding us about hooch or anything else. This looks like nothing more than a normal death,
nothing the papers will make much of. Still, I don’t want the body touched until the coroner arrives.”
Bill was a friend of mine. I had worked as an assistant for him on some of his movies. He always
was respectful of people, always the gentleman, always carried himself with dignity, always the
straight arrow, the decent and good man.
It was hard for me to look around for something that might put him in a bad light. I didn’t think
there was anything distasteful to find, but I didn’t want to be the one to find it if there was something.
I heard movement and voices coming from the second floor and when I looked up, Tom said, “That
would be Deputy Sheriff Francis Wallis and Lieutenant Parsons. They are upstairs looking around. And
while we have a moment, does anyone have anything to add to what Peavy has told us when he
discovered the body. Anything unusual happen last night?”
Douglas said, “We heard a shot last night, though it could have been a car backfire. We hear that a
lot around here, car backfires I mean. My wife and I live in the apartment across the way. I think it was
about eight, maybe just before or just after, but my wife thinks it was later.”
“How much later mam?”
“Oh I don’t know. It was some time last night. It just seems to me it was later a lot later than eight,
maybe around nine.”
Douglas said, “It may have been a shot, but you hear so many backfires, a shot isn’t going to stand
out, you just get used to the noise.”
“You don’t think you could tell the difference?” asked Tom.
Douglas shrugged his shoulders.
“I too heard a noise about that time, but I thought it was just a car. You don’t expect to hear a
gunshot, so you don’t think of it,” said Jesserun.
“Do you mind if I continue my dusting sir?” asked Peavy
“Yes, I do mind. We have a dead body and I don’t know if it was murder or natural causes. I see no
blood, but nobody does any dusting until I say so, because I don’t want any possible clues to be
As Peavy backed away into a far corner, Charles Eyton came downstairs with a wire basket full of
envelopes and papers.
“Well Charles, when did you get here?” asked a surprised Tom.
“Good morning Tom. When I arrived you were busy chatting so I went upstairs to look for some
things. The guys upstairs said I could take this basket of letters. Studio business is all. Bill was a
friend. I thought based on our friendship, it might be best if I looked for some letters that may have
been sent him. He had a lot of female admirers as you know. I just want to make sure they don’t fall
into the wrong hands.”
“And whose hands would that be Charles?”
“Oh, I don’t know, that’s what worries me.”
Charles Eyton, the general manager at Lasky, and also president of the Los Angeles Athletic Club,
was married to actress Kathryn Williams. I didn’t really know him that well as I like to avoid the big wigs
at the studio, just hide in my small office and write stories, but Bill spoke highly of him.
Charles sat the basket down on the desk and looked at Bill.
“A doctor was just here, said he thought it was stomach hemorrhage,” said Tom.
“Based on what? Was he Taylor’s doctor? What kind of examination did he do? What was the
“I don’t recall his name. He seemed to be okay. He looked at Bill’s face closely, did some probing
around his stomach. I told him not to disturb the body. Coroner’s on his way.”
“Help me turn the body over.”
“No. That is for the coroner to do.”
“If he was murdered, then time is being wasted. I want to know why he died and if he was
murdered, then I want the person responsible caught.”
Tom was hesitant.
“Have you taken a close look at the body?” asked Eyton, “If not, let me look. Let’s just turn Bill on
the side and see what can see.”
“Can’t do that. We wait for the coroner.”
“Well then I’ll wait.”
We did not have long to wait as less than a minute later the deputy coroner came in.
“Please tell me no one has disturbed the body,” he said.
“I made sure of that,” said Tom, as he eyed Charles.
The deputy coroner noticed, as we all did, that there was a small tickle of blood at the corner of bill’
s mouth. He turned the body slightly and felt under Bill’s head. He pulled back his hand and I saw
some blood on it. He moved the body some more and we saw a pool of blood directly under Bill’s
head on the floor.
“Humph,” said the deputy coroner.
Charles bent down and pulled back the right side of Bill’s jacket and opened Bill’s vest, saw
nothing, and opened the left side. There was some blood about six inches under his left armpit.
“You don’t mind if I do my job do you?” asked an irritated deputy coroner.
“Sorry, I am a bit anxious.” said Charles.
Someone got a pillow, put it under Bill’s head, and Charles and the deputy coroner turned Bill on
his side and pulled up his shirt and saw a bullet hole.
On closer examination of Bills jacket and vest the deputy coroner saw what had been missed.
“A bullet is going to travel on a straight line through the jacket and vest, so if you line up the
holes, you will notice that for that to happen . . .” and here the deputy coroner carefully stepped over
Bill’s body and raised up Bill’s left arm until the holes were aligned.
“So he raised his arm to protect himself,” said Tom. “He must have been surprised and tried to
defend himself I guess. Or raising his arms as if someone was robbing him and he was told to stick his
hands up. But then why shoot him after he raised his arms?”
“An autopsy will have do be done, but it looks to me as if he was murdered.”
Charles asked Tom if it was all right to leave, Tom nodded it was, and Charles left with his basket
It must be admitted that studio men besides myself, and of course Walter who took the illegal,
hooch were coming and going during all this, not many, about three or four, all going upstairs, or the
kitchen, anywhere but the front room.
Like me, their job was to find anything that even hinted at what could be a scandal, it did not
matter whether Bill had died of natural causes or not, get rid of anything that showed William
Desmond Taylor to be less than a well respected gentleman. And the police would not get in our way.
There was an understanding you might say.
My job, as it now appeared, was to check out the front room, hard to do with so many people
already here, including a police detective, even if he was a friend.
I walked over to the desk and saw an open check book and a pen. The checkbook showed a
balance of $6,000 which is a lot of money for most people, except that Bill, with the money he earned
would, to my thinking, have a lot more than $6,000 in checking.
Tom was looking in the top drawer of the desk. “I found his income tax form that he was in the
process of filling out,” said Tom. He claimed to make $40,000 this year. Not bad. I also found a
canceled check for $2,500 made out to cash dated about a week ago. And there was $2,300 deposited
into his account early morning yesterday.”
“OH GOD NO!!!!” shrieked a woman’s voice.
Tom and I turned towards the door.
“IT’S TRUE! IT’S ALL TRUE!”
It was Mary Miles Minter. She started to walk in the room, stopped, and started to gag and gasp for
air. Her hand went to throat. She was wearing a long black silk Prunella skirt, a light orange linen
blouse with a wide Peter Pan collar, and a dark, medium brimmed, velvet cloche hat.
I walked over and tried to lead her out of the room, but she twisted free, and went to Bill. Without
looking at Tom, she asked, “He is dead isn’t he?”
“Yes, he was …” Tom started to answer before I interrupted.
“Mary, it is best you are not here. Let me take you home,” I said.
She looked at Tom. “You are a policeman aren’t you? There are more outside; one said dear Bill
was murdered. Oh my God, who would want to kill such a dear, dear man, full of such love and
kindness? Bravo!” She started to gag and I thought morning’s breakfast-if she had any-would soon be
splattered on Bill’s suit.
Hovering behind Mary was an older woman I thought might be her mother Charlotte Shelby. Her
cold blue eyes stared at me with contempt. I wondered why she was scowling as she didn’t know me.
But she gave the same look to each one in the room as she scanned the faces.
Tom guided Mary away from the body and had her sit in a nearby chair. No sooner had she sat,
when she stood and paced around the room, her voice sobbing and moaning, her body quivering and
shaking, muttering incomprehensibly, her hands clenched tightly, her arms waving up and down. I lost
track of how many were in the living room, but they all made sure to get out of the way and let Mary
have the stage. I could only make out a few of her mumbled asides, like “love of my life…dear friend . .
. never love again . . . bitch.” Though I could hardly believe she said that word, not dear, nineteen
year old Mary, cute, diminutive, sweet as can be, maybe the next Mary Pickford. Could the word have
been ditch? Hitch? Mitch? Witch? . . or list, maybe pitch. Letch? Was she saying Bill was a letch?
Maybe the word was bitch. Did I see her quickly, almost imperceptibly, glance at the older woman
when she said bitch, if indeed that was the word.
Mary looked again at Bill’s body and looked to be near fainting, so I rushed over, grabbed her, and
led her out of the room. Outside the fresh air seemed to revive her. I told her to go home and I would
check on her later.
Already at her side was the old woman, seeming to come from nowhere. She might look a bit
doughty, but she moves swiftly and quietly. She said nothing, but she was no longer scowling at me.
Mary looked dazed, not sure of where she was. She just nodded and moved through the growing
gaggle of onlookers, got in the backseat of a car with the woman and they drove off with a man at the
I had found all I needed to know and not wanting to get in the way of the police, I told Tom I was
going to the studio and would call him later.
It was my intent to drive to the studio, report what I learned, check in with
Mary, get back to Tom for any new information he had uncovered, and then go home to Eveleen, the
woman who takes the monotony out of my life, though murder of a friend is anything but monotonous.
As I said, that was my intent, but someone had other ideas.