The Murder of William Desmond Taylor
VI) - The Shelby's Feud
On 10th August 1923, Mary Miles Minter issued a statement to the press confirming persistent rumours of a split between her and her mother, Charlotte Shelby. She revealed that she intended to bring legal action against Shelby in an effort to gain possession of the money she had made while Shelby was her agent.
Four days later, the Los Angeles Examiner published an interview with the actress in which she claimed to have been engaged to Taylor at the time of his death. (However, in a statement to the Los Angeles Times on 15th August 1923 she wrote, "We were never engaged in the sense that he had asked me to marry him and I had promised. I had always hoped that sometime we would be married. But I had planned in my own mind--never with Mr. Taylor--that as soon as I had made enough money so that mother and sister could be assured of a comfortable income for the rest of their lives--that perhaps we would be married. But not engaged in the sense of wearing a ring, or of telling one's friends of an intention to marry or of telling my mother. Marrying Mr. Taylor was just my dream--a dream which, voiced to film, always met with the answer that it was impossible.)
The media delighted in the public scrap: The gauntlet is down, they quoted Minter as declaring, I want no reconciliation with mother. I most assuredly am going to file a legal suit against her for the return of at least a million dollars which I feel is rightfully mine. My salary while in motion pictures was more than a million dollars. Mother has handled all my money, made wise investments and prospered.
I have been the wage earner--the family meal ticket ever since I was five years old. I wasn't given a chance to get more than three or four years of actual schooling. Mother was ambitious socially and financially, and I had to turn beauty and talents into cash. My last contract called for eighteen pictures for which I was to receive one million, three hundred thousand dollars. When I asked mother for an accounting, she showed me figures--one hundred and seventy-five thousand credited to her; one hundred and sixty-five thousand credited to me; all household expenses for the three of us, mother, my sister Margaret, any myself, had been deducted from my share.
If I wanted ten dollars I had to ask mother for it. I am determined to live like other people--to live a life unhampered by maternal restrictions. I am sure there is no real love in my mother's heart for me. I have attained my majority now, and have reached a point where I am willing to lay my case before the public to gain my rights.
On 25th January 1925, Minter filed an action under the name of Juliette Shelby for accounting of funds she alleged her mother had received for her as her guardian. She cited one instance alone where Charlotte Shelby received $700,000 from Famous Players-Lasky for her daughters services in her role as Minters trustee and business representative. Minter declared she had no idea of the total sum of money her mother had received on her behalf, how it was invested, or the income received from it. Charlotte Shelby, she alleged, had received all her earnings for stage and screen work since she was six years old.
Minters claim was finally settled out of court. She and her mother signed a settlement at the US consulate in Paris on 24th January 1927 which entitled Minter to $150,000 in bonds plus ownership of Casa Margarita in settlement of all claims against her mother.
On 3rd April 1937, Minters sister, Margaret Fillmore, made allegations against Minter and their mother, Charlotte Shelby, in a deposition that once again prompted the re-opening of the investigation into the fifteen-year-old murder of William Desmond Taylor. Fillmores allegations in a civil suit she brought against her mother to recover $48,500 in cash resulted in District Attorney Buron Fitts issuing a subpoena ordering her, her mother and sister, to appear before a Grand Jury in Los Angeles on 6th May 1937.
Much of the testimony focused on an agreement Fillmore claimed she made with her mother in 1923 in which her mother agreed to give her the profits allegedly $144,000 on the sale of a tract of land called Laughlin Park. The payment, Fillmore contested, was a moral, rather than legal, obligation on the part of her mother, in return for Fillmores protection of her from the public in 1922 and 1923. In Margaret Fillmores words, she protected her against the Taylor murder case. When Attorney Clyde F.Murphy, representing Charlotte Shelby, asked her whether it was her contention that her mother killed William Desmond Taylor, Margaret Fillmore simply replied, I dont have to answer that.
The battling mother and daughter were back in court in August of the same year, this time to settle their dispute over the sum of $48,500, which Shelby had removed from a joint account in 1936 after having Margaret committed to a psychopathic ward because of her erratic behaviour due to excessive drinking. During the case, the subject of Taylors slaying once more arose. The Los Angeles Times reported the following testimony of Fillmore under questioning by Clyde F. Murphy.
"Did you have any damaging information which may have implicated your mother?" Murphy asked Mrs. Fillmore.
"I protected Mrs. Shelby from reporters and others to keep her from making those wild and sensational statements," Mrs. Fillmore replied.
At another point in the proceedings she said:
"Mrs. Shelby would say impulsive things incriminating herself. She did not want Mary's reputation as the flower of American girlhood to suffer."
Questioned concerning the whereabouts of Mrs. Shelby and Mary Miles Minter on the night of the Taylor murder, Mrs. Fillmore said:
"Mary came in about 9 p.m. in a very hysterical manner. She picked up a book and began reading about the South Sea Islands. The book seemed to amuse her, but I picked it up later and found it dry and uninteresting.
"Mrs. Shelby was not at home that day. I knew she was out all day and night hunting certain men to locate Mary."
Mrs. Fillmore also cited an instance in which a former film executive openly accused her mother of having murdered Taylor.
Fillmore was awarded $20,000 on that occasion.
On 10th June 1937 an unexpected witness came forward with an alibi for Charlotte Shelby. Carl Stockdale, a 63-year-old character actor and friend of the family, stated that he was with Shelby at her home from 7pm until 9pm on the evening of the 1st February 1922. He also claimed he was the first person to break the news to Shelby when he phoned her at around 9am the following morning. Stockdale testified to this in court in August 1937.
At around the same time that Stockdale was providing Shelby with an alibi, Mary Miles Minters former chauffeur, Chauncey Eaton, was leading detectives to a bullet he claimed to have hidden in the rafters of the cellar in the house on Fremont Place that was once owned by Shelby. He claimed he was instructed to remove five bullets from a gun that was given to him about one year after Taylors murder and to hide them. When questioned about the bullets, Shelby claimed they were removed from the gun before Taylors death after Minter, in Shelbys opinion, had pretended to attempt suicide in her room. Minter claimed it was a genuine attempt, but that the shot had been fired accidentally before she went through with it.
A little over one year later September 1938 the court once more played host to the mother and daughters ongoing feud this time over furniture worth $50,000. This time Fillmore came as close as she ever would to claiming Charlotte Shelby murdered William Desmond Taylor. The Los Angeles News dated 13th September 1938 described her testimony:
Mrs. Fillmore, as in previous suits, again shot implications at her mother, quoting the latter as stating Mrs. Shelby's mother had thrown the Taylor death gun into a Louisiana bayou.
"This mad woman," Mrs. Fillmore said, staring straight before her, and referring to her mother, "would cut your heart out for a dime..."
Mrs. Fillmore was being questioned by Clyde F. Murphy, attorney for the mother, concerning ownership of the disputed furniture.
After Mrs. Fillmore made the statement that her mother had not owned any furniture since Taylor was murdered, Murphy asked: "Did she tell you she wanted to be in a position to get out of the country in a hurry?"
"Many, many times," was the answer.
"What were her reasons?"
"She was frightened by the Taylor murder case--she still is--it is still pending."
"What did she tell you?"
"She told me they were pinning it pretty close to her. She was awfully worried. And she was very grateful that her mother had gone to Louisiana and thrown the gun that had killed William Desmond Taylor into a bayou on the plantation."
After the court session ended, Mrs. Fillmore explained that the plantation mentioned belonged to the Miles family and was located at Bastrop, La., near New Orleans.
She explained that Mrs. Shelby mother was Julia B. Miles, who had died in 1925.
Mrs. Fillmore testified:
"Mrs. Shelby was scared to death that if they ever pinned it on her she couldn't get out of it. That was what she told me time and time again."
"Did she ever tell you that she killed Taylor?" Murphy asked.
"She never told me that she had murdered Taylor but what else could I think?"
"When was the first time you came to the conclusion that your mother killed Taylor?"
"I am not accurate. I didn't see the murder done but Shelby (her mother) would kill anybody for $1000. Particularly Mary when she was working--this mad woman would cut out your heart for a dime--
"She hates men. She's a man hater--money is her god--she was scared that someone would take away Mary, the goose that laid her golden egg."
On this occasion, Fillmore failed in her action. In November 1938, the court ruled that Shelby could keep the disputed furniture, and that Fillmore must return articles she had removed from Shelbys Laguna Beach home.
Next: The Fates of the Players
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