Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Who Killed William Desmond Taylor?

Career Switch

As he grew older, Taylor believed he would do better behind the camera than in front of it. Hearing of an opening for a director at the Balboa studio, he applied for it and was hired. Balboa assigned him to direct The Awakening, released in October 1914.

While making The Awakening, Taylor fell in love with Neva Gerber, the lead actress. Gerber was married but separated. She was the mother of a small daughter. Her estranged husband was much older than she. He did not want a divorce and, in those days when divorces were much more difficult to obtain, easily blocked his young wife's attempts to get one.

In 1914, The Judge's Wife, a film directed by Taylor and starring Neva Gerber, was released. It told the story of a man's sacrifice to save a lady's reputation. Taylor apparently enjoyed romanticizing his own life because he told people that he had served three years in prison to "protect the honor of a woman he loved." There is no evidence to support his assertion.

Balboa went out of business in 1917. Taylor and Neva dissolved their engagement in 1919. The love affair had simply died so they parted as friends and continued to see each other on occasion with Taylor sometimes extending financial help to his former fiancée.

Allan Dwan was to say, "I gave Taylor his big break" because Dwan hired him at the American Film Company after Balboa went under. Dwan was something of a directorial kingmaker for he also helped jumpstart the early careers of both King Vidor and Victor Fleming.

The American Film Company was nicknamed the Flying 'A.' Just before Taylor came on board, it had started a serial called The Diamond from the Sky. Mary Pickford did not want to play the heroine so the studio hired her sister Lottie. Unfortunately Lottie was not a dependable actress because she had a drinking problem. She was also pregnant although not yet showing. The director, Jacques Jaccard, abandoned Flying 'A' for Universal and William Desmond Taylor directed the remaining episodes of The Diamond from the Sky. He did an excellent job in finishing up the troubled project. The serial was a box-office smash and a grateful Flying 'A' cast presented their new director with a two-carat diamond ring as a special gift of appreciation.

He would work for other studios and direct many films, some of which were bombs and others that were successful both critically and commercially. Favorite Players, Pallas, Morosco, Fox, Famous Players-Lasky, Select, Realart and Paramount all made use of Taylor's directorial talents.

The actor-turned-director took a break from the glamorous Hollywood life in 1918. World War I was raging and Taylor wanted to do his bit for the Allies. Although the British Army had turned him down in his youth, he was allowed (depending on the source) into either the British or its Canadian army in middle age. However, the war ended before Taylor could see combat. He was honorably discharged in 1919.

Returning home, he directed Anne of the Green Gables and The Green Temptation, and met his tragic demise soon after the latter project.

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