It was February second, nineteen-twenty-two. Two-two-twenty-two. My grandmother always told me that double-double numbers was supposed to be lucky, but my luck ran out not long after lunch.
Jessie, my secretary, came in with a newspaper in her hands. Only she wasn’t holding it as if it were anything important. Her long arms just dangled at her side as she stood with one knee bent slightly in front of the other. The newspaper rested at the tips of her fingers, daring gravity to take it away from her. “Hey, Chandler,” she asked me, “Don’t you know that director, Taylor?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “Who wants to know?”
“Nobody anymore,” she said, “He’s dead.” As she turned to leave she lifted her arm and the paper left her fingers, gliding gently onto my desk. The afternoon edition, hot off the press.
There was a picture of Taylor, all right, with the headline, “Film Director William Desmond Taylor Murdered - Shot in the Back.” It had happened the night before, but nobody had noticed until his valet arrived that morning to fix his breakfast.
I don’t know what I expected to find, but I left the office and drove out to his place. It’s only ten miles up Wilshire Boulevard from downtown Los Angeles to the west side, but it’s a journey to a different world, leaving the traditional business district and entering the realm of the movies. I had plenty of time to think along the way. Maybe too much time.
I’d met Taylor during the Great War: the one that was supposed to end all wars. We’d both enlisted in the Canadian Army. Two guys who were born in the States, we’d each spent much of our childhood in Great Britain, then left from Los Angeles to do our part to make the word safe for democracy.
He’d told me about his life back in Hollywood and before that, in New York. New York, where the wife and child he’d deserted still lived. From New York he was off to the Klondike gold rush. But he didn’t strike it rich, and wound up performing in a theater group in Alaska. But that was good experience for when he made it to Hollywood.
Once he got here he met up with Thomas Ince, and got some acting parts. Ince put him in three films he was making back in 1913. Before long Taylor tired of acting and became a director, figured he’d make more money that way. After shooting “Johanna Enlists” with Mary Pickford, he enlisted himself.
Then in 1919 the war was over, and we were both back in Los Angeles. I was downtown working in the petroleum industry, and he was on the west side, making movies. We’d talk once in a while, and have a drink. That’s what army buddies do. They drink and smoke and talk about old times. Then they go home and try to forget.
I pulled up in front of the Alvarado Court Apartments and readied myself to enter the scene of the crime. There were cars all around, and not all of them police issue. I saw a face I recognized and casually walked up to him, lighting a cigarette. “Terrible thing, ain’t it?”
“Yeah,” he said, still looking off towards the apartment, then nervously added, “Do I know you?”
“We’ve met. I’m a friend of Taylor’s. Or, was a friend. How about you?”
“Friend, I suppose. And neighbor. I live across the courtyard from him. I worked for him, too. He put me in a couple of his pictures.” Then he turned to me and for a moment put on his public smile. “I’m Douglas MacLean.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s why I know you. Taylor put you in ‘Captain Kidd, Jr.’, right?”
“That,” he said. Then, looking back towards the apartment, “And ‘Johanna Enlists’.”
“Not exactly starring roles, were they?”
His tone was raised as he said, “I’ve had starring roles, all right. Ince stars me in a lot of pictures. Just Taylor who gave me bit parts.” He paused a minute, and then calmly added, “But I didn’t kill him, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Hey, buddy,” I said, “no need to get so defensive. I’m not the law. I’m just a friend looking for some answers. Were you around when it happened?”
“My wife and I heard it. It was a little after eight, we looked out the window and saw somebody leaving the apartment, but we didn’t know what it was until this morning. Thought it might have been a car back-firing.”
“Strange thing,” I said. “A car back-firing in somebody’s living room.”
I suddenly lost the desire to talk to Douglas MacLean and made my up the path to the apartment. Once inside I found a man re-arranging items on the desk and on the mantle. Putting out signed pictures of movie stars, taking away what looked to be love letters. I introduced myself and asked, “Are you the officer in charge?”
He looked at me as if I were crazy, then burst out laughing. “No, I’m Charles Eyton. I’m with the studio. Famous Players-Lasky.” He went back to his work, as if dressing the set for a movie shoot. “‘Officer in charge,’ that’s rich!”
“Say, friend,” I asked him, “are you sure you want to be moving all those things around? I hear the police like to keep a crime scene pretty much as it happened.”
“Look, friend,” he said to me, only he dragged out “friend” to about three syllables in a way that let me know he was anything but my friend, “I’m just doing my job here. Why don’t you go on about your business too?”
Just then this walrus of man in an ill-fitting police uniform entered the room looking like something out of the Keystone Cops. “And just what is your business, sir?” he added to Eyton’s question.
“Oil,” I said, truthfully. “I’m in the petroleum business. I don’t see any here, so I guess I’ll just be on my way.”
As I left, Walrus-man and Eyton talked pleasantly to each other. “How long you gonna be, Charlie?” Walrus asked, “I’d like to get back to the station before too long.”
I walked to my car wondering if Los Angeles’ finest would ever be able to handle a show-biz murder without bungling the evidence.
Over the next couple of years my secretary, Jesse, and I followed the investigation. The list of suspects read like a fan magazine. All the leading ladies of the day were implicated at one time or another.
One week it would be Mary Miles Mintor, an actress and under-aged lover of Taylor’s who claimed that the two of them were engaged to be married. The next week Mintor would say they were never engaged, and that Taylor’s true fiancé was Mabel Normand. That didn’t help ease the suspicion of Mintor. It only made her appear to be the jilted lover, with even more reason to murder.
Normand, for her part, always denied ever being engaged to Taylor, but was a suspect anyway. As it turns out, she was at Taylor’s home the night of the murder. She claimed to have left at about 7:45, at least fifteen minutes before Douglas MacLean and his wife heard that car backfiring in Taylor’s parlor.
Faith MacLean was now saying that the figure they saw leaving Taylor’s apartment could have been a woman disguised in a man’s overcoat, and that her maid had seen a “shadowy figure” in the alley earlier that night.
Then there was another actress, Charlotte Shelby, who also happened to be Mary Miles Mintor’s mother. One supposed motive was her outrage over Taylor’ s seduction of her young daughter. Another motive was that she herself was one of Taylor’s lovers.
I knew Taylor was a ladies man, but I also knew that the love letters and photos found around Taylor’s place had been planted by the studios. Even after he was dead, they were still using Taylor as a publicity vehicle for their starlets.
All these names, and then their alibis, went into my notebook. I cross-referenced whereabouts to see if I could catch any of them in a lie. One notebook turned into two, then drawers filled with files.
For a while Mack Sennett was a suspect. He found an alibi in Thomas Ince, who said that Sennett had been with him the night of the murder.
Good old Tom Ince, seemed he was everybody’s best friend. He’d given Taylor his first acting job, helped MacLean become a star, and now he was saving Mack Sennett’s neck. The only person who didn’t seem grateful to Ince was Mabel Normand.
Back in 1915 Ince, Sennett, and D.W. Griffith formed Triangle Pictures and built a studio on Sunset Boulevard just for Normand. Apparently it wasn’t good enough because she left them to go work for Goldwyn. By 1919 it was all over for Triangle.
From there Ince, Sennett, and a few other partners went on to form Associated Producers and set up shop in Culver City, just a few blocks down from MGM, where Normand was working. Ince and Normand never did get a chance to work together.
At first Jessie was interested too. We’d get to the office and look at the paper together to see which of Hollywood’s glittering stars would be implicated next. But as the suspect list grew to include lesser known personalities she lost interest.
“So, are we going to do any work today,” she’d ask me, “or are we just going to play shamus?” She hinted that the talk around the office was that I wasn’t holding up my responsibilities.
“I can’t let you get fired,” she’d say, “or I’ll be out of a job, too.” She’d fill my briefcase with papers and send me off to meetings, but my mind was still on the unsolved murder of my friend.
The truth about Taylor’s former life in New York came out, and rumors spread that the murder had something to do with his deserting his family. It didn’t. His wife had divorced him “in abstentia” back in 1912, the same year his brother pulled a disappearing act on his family. The brother also became a suspect, although nobody knew where he was or what his motive might have been.
Other suspects included a variety of drug dealers and underworld characters. Turns out Taylor was working undercover for the LAPD trying to get them off the streets. Next up was the “moral crusader” theory, saying that Taylor had been assassinated for Hollywood’s excess. Blackmail, opium, bad business dealings in Hollywood, and old enemies from the Klondike and the war were all dragged out, then shoved aside. They even said the butler did it, but that was too trite, even for Hollywood.
As the papers and the cops went through round after round of possibilities I got more frustrated with their inaction, and Jessie got more frustrated with my work habits.
“Since when do oil executives get paid to read the newspaper?” she’d ask me, her arms full of files I should have reviewed and papers I needed to sign. She’d pile them on my desk and add, “Or to solve murders?”
I’d grunt, pick up a pen, and start signing. When she was back in the outer office, I’d clip another article and put it in my Taylor file. Why wasn’t MacLean being questioned more closely? He had his wife for an alibi, and you can’t force a woman to testify against her husband, but I was convinced that he knew more than he had let on. Maybe he didn’t kill Taylor, but he certainly knew who did.
My good luck finally came in the form of a party invitation from the publishing tycoon, William Randolph Hearst. One of his companies was trying to make some sort of deal with our company. Talks were stalled, and he figured he could score some points by inviting a few executives to mingle on his yacht with his movie star entourage.
Jessie threw the invite on my desk. “A night out with the big shots will be good for you,” she said. “Just try to talk about something other than Taylor.” The date of the party was to be November 19, 1924.
Marion Davies was going on about whores. “It’s all about economics, you know. Men keep it illegal to keep the price low. If prostitution were legal every woman would charge for it and men would be ruined. I know I’d charge a fortune.”
“But, dear,” Louella Parsons chipped in, “I thought that was your arrangement with our Mr. Hearst?”
Most of the guests laughed guardedly, not sure which of these women they should indulge: the host’s mistress or the gossip columnist?
Davies was not pleased. She stood up and demanded, “William, are you going to let her get away with that?”
“Well, dearest, she is our guest,” said Hearst. Then, with a smile, he added, “And she does have a point.”
With that the laughter was more open and Davies stormed out of the room onto the deck of the yacht. Charlie Chaplin did not seem to find the situation amusing and quietly slipped out the other door.
Chaplin’s exit opened up a seat by Thomas Ince, and gave me an opportunity to introduce myself. “I was an army buddy of Taylor’s,” I told him. “He spoke highly of you.” I lied.
“Taylor was a Hell of a man,” Ince agreed, but his tone was guarded. Looking down at his own hands he slowly added, “He learned the business fast, and made quite a splash.”
I decided to play my hunch and invited him out on the deck, “There’s some business I’d like to discuss with you. In private.”
He glanced about the room nervously, but followed me out onto the deck where we found ourselves alone. “MacLean told me everything,” I was getting good at lying. “I know what happened that night.”
“MacLean knows nothing. So he saw me leaving Taylor’s place. So what? Doesn’t prove a thing. And believe me, Douglas MacLean has more skeletons in his closet than the public would stand for. Care to hear about him?”
As he talked it all came together for me. “He knows about you and Mack Sennett. How Sennett thought you were helping out by giving him an alibi. But Sennett didn’t know you were using him to create your own out.” Then I went too far, “He also knows how you were jealous of Taylor’s relationship with Mabel Normand.”
Ince laughed, then turned to face me, “You know too much, and you know nothing at all. It wasn’t murder. It was an accident. Taylor was trying to negotiate a deal that would have allowed Normand to be in one of my pictures.”
He turned back to the harbor, “Then I was helping him block out a scene for his picture. I didn’t know the gun was loaded, I figured it would be blanks.”
If I was getting it wrong, I wondered, why was he was spilling it all out to me? Then he gave the answer.
“So, how much does Hearst know?” he asked me. “I knew the bastard wanted my studio, but I didn’t think he’d resort to blackmail to get it.” He looked me in the eye again, “So what’s the payoff going to be?”
I was caught. I stood there like Lot’s wife, frozen in my own stupidity. Just then Hearst burst out onto the deck.
“Marion?” he yelled and got no answer. “Where the Hell is Chaplin? Marion!” Hearst ran off down the deck. Other guests came out on deck, trying hard to pretend their host hadn’t gone on a rampage.
In the confusion Ince slipped away from me. I moved down towards the sleeping cabins and thought I saw him running into one of the units. I tried to follow but was pushed aside by Hearst.
“Chaplin, if you’re with my woman, I’ll kill you!” he was shouting as he entered the cabin Ince had just gone into. The sound of gunfire immediately followed.
A crowed gathered around the doorway to find William Randolph Hearst standing over the bloody body of Thomas Ince, still clinging to life. From the next cabin emerged Marion Davies and Charlie Chaplin, each buttoning and smoothing their clothing as they dispersed into the party.
Ince was dead by morning. The independent papers said he was shot on Hearst’s yacht. The Hearst papers said he died of acute indigestion. The rest of the party guests all received favors from Hearst in exchange for their silence.
Parsons became the best known and most powerful gossip columnist in America, thanks to Hearst’s patronage. Hearst eventually put his RKO Pictures on the lot where Ince’s Associated Producers had been. And my company got the better part of their oil deal with Hearst.
I didn’t want anything for myself. I’d learned the truth about who killed William Desmond Taylor, and I’d seen the killer brought to justice. That was enough. I just wanted to get back to my normal life.
But after that adventure, the petroleum business just didn’t have the excitement I realized I’d been craving. Once the depression came I was only too happy to lose that job, and have to set out on my own. Now I find missing persons and solve murders full time. My name is Chandler. Raymond Chandler. I write books.
Historical Note: Although loosely based on real people and events, this is a work of fiction. Thomas Ince was never considered a suspect in the murder of William Desmond Taylor, which remains unsolved to this day. While Taylor and Raymond Chandler were each in the Canadian Army during the First World War, they likely never met. Although it has long been rumored that William Randolph Hearst shot Ince, the Ince family still stands by the official story that he died of a ruptured stomach. Ruptured by a bullet, perhaps?
© Copyright Ken Goldstein