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The Murder of William Desmond Taylor


III) Taylor's Secret Past

William Desmond TaylorWhile King and Winn were carrying out their investigations, colleagues looking into Taylors past to see if he could have been the target of a blackmailer, made a surprising discovery.   William Desmond Taylor was not actually William Desmond Taylor at all…

Taylor was born on 26th April 1872, the son of a British colonel and an Irish gentlewoman.   He had a privileged upbringing and attended fine schools with a view to a career in the military.   However, his poor eyesight prevented him from following the life-plan that had been mapped out for him, and at the age of 18 he became a member of the Charles Hawtrey Company after being introduced to the actor by a friend.   Taylors father was not impressed with this career change, however, and bought his son a ranch near Harper, Kansas.   But his efforts were to no avail, and after two years on the ranch, Taylor succumbed once more to the allure of the stage when he signed a three year contract to play juvenile leads with the Fanny Davenport Company.

 By the end of 1913, Taylor had found his way to the new movie colony called Hollywood, which was fast becoming the movie-making capital of the world.   He appeared in many films for the likes of Vitagraph and Kay Bee before taking up directing.   That same year, with war declared in Europe, he enlisted as a private in the British army, and quickly rose to the rank of Captain.  

 Much of this was common knowledge by the time of his death.   But there was a side to the directors life that he had kept carefully closeted from his friends and colleagues in the filmmaking community.   His name wasnt Taylor, but Tanner: William Cunningham Deane-Tanner and he was born in Carlow, County Cork, Ireland.   On 7th December 1901 he had married Ethel May Harrison, a Floradora Girl and daughter of a broker, and together they had a daughter, named Ethel Daisy.  This seemingly happy family lived in New York, where Taylor worked as an antiques dealer.   On the surface, life looked comfortable, but Taylor was growing increasingly depressed over mounting financial debts.   His anxiety grew to such a degree that he simply walked away from this life in October 1908, never to return.   His wife, who subsequently remarried a restaurant owner named E. C. L. Robins in August 1914 after obtaining a divorce from Taylor in 1912, said that Taylor frequently had lapses of memory which were possibly brought on by the excruciating pain of facial neuralgia and the drugs he took to combat the condition., and believed this was the reason he disappeared without warning.

   Taylor resurfaced - with a new identity - in San Francisco in early 1909 where he secured employment as a timekeeper and commissary clerk for one of the Yukon Gold Company’s mines in Dawson.   In another curious twist to the story, it is known that Taylor’s brother, Denis Gage Deane-Tanner, disappeared from his New York home in nearly identical circumstances when his wife, who had suffered a nervous breakdown, took their two small daughters to the Adirondacks to recuperate.   Investigations shed no light on why Deane-Tanner had so suddenly disappeared: he was not in any financial difficulties and had an apparently contented home life. 

William Desmond Taylors past was not completely hidden he still had links to it, although the circumstances by which contact with his family were re-established were entirely down to coincidence rather than any desire on the part of Taylor.   In 1916, Ada Deane-Tanner, his brothers abandoned wife, had recognized a picture of Taylor and made contact with him to ask for financial aid.   Taylor initially denied his true identity, but eventually relented and sent her a monthly allowance of $50 until his death six years later.

 Ethel May Robins had also learned of her former husbands new identity just two-and-a-half weeks after marrying E. C. L. Robins in 1914 when she took her daughter, Ethel Daisy, to a film show.   One of the films showing in the program featured Taylor in the cast, and Ethel excitedly advised her daughter that the man on the screen was her father.   Keen to make contact with the father she had never known, Ethel Daisy wrote to Taylor.   He wrote back to her, and they corresponded frequently until, upon his return from a trip to Europe, Taylor met his daughter and promised to make her his heir.

 While this new information about Taylors previously unknown past may have shed a new light on his character, it did little to aid the search for his killer.    The police did receive a letter from a man in Colorado who claimed to have known both the Tanner brothers.   He claimed that Denis Gage Deane-Tanner and Taylors former house servant Edward F. Sands were actually the same person, and that the younger brother had hunted down his older sibling in order to exact revenge for a love triangle involving Deniss fiancée.   This lead proved to be a red herring, however, and the possibility of Deane-Tanner and Sands being the same man was eventually disproved.

Next: False Leads and Dead Ends

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