Who killed Bill Taylor?
Who killed Bill Taylor? ‘I don’t know’, said Mack Sennett, and neither did anyone else. Some 300 people admitted to the killing, but no-one was ever charged with the murder. The only one without a real alibi was Charlotte Shelby. The ex-butler, Sands, was never found, and Mack Sennett had a good alibi. Mabel was never a suspect, as she would have been foolish to return to Taylor’s house, and shoot him, and, furthermore, she possessed no gun of the right caliber. At least one person had seen her at the house right before the shooting, and her household staff backed her story of going straight home. Charlotte Shelby was the prime suspect all the way through. However, when we look into it, we
find Mack Sennett had the most to gain from the killing. How sound was his alibi? Thomas Ince claimed Sennett was with him when Taylor was shot. However, Ince was joined at the hip, through business, with Sennett, and it is certain that Sennett had some ‘dirt’ he could dish on Ince. With these facts in mind, Mack’s alibi looks less strong. It is for this reason that police interviewed Mack several times. Later, in the early 1950s, Mack actually admitted killing Taylor, and taking thecontentious ‘Blessed Baby’ letters. He said he did it because Taylor was ‘queer’. Taylor may have been ‘gay’ but this was not the main reason for shooting the director (especially as Mack himself was gay). As Taylor was thought, in the movie colony, to be gay, then perhaps The King believed no-one in the industry would snitch on him. It has to be said, nonetheless, that Mack was drunk at the time he confessed. In his book, Sennett stated that Taylor had stolen Mabel from him with drugs. He says this out of the blue, just like that. You can make of that whatever you wish.
Now, what of Mabel, why was she suddenly so concerned to destroy her photos, and retrieve her letters? Did she have a premonition that the King of Comedy was gunning for Taylor. The police thought she knew that Taylor was going to be killed, and that Sennett was one of the likely killers. Mabel was constantly quizzed, ‘Was there a man who was jealous enough to want Taylor out of the way?’ Mabel replied, ‘No’. When asked if another woman was involved with Taylor, she again said ‘No’. The police knew the correct answers to these questions, and Mabel’s answers at Taylor’s inquest were greeted with derision by the press. ‘She’s a liar’, they said. What else could Mabel say – if Mack had killed Taylor, he might come gunning for her. If she’d told on Mary Miles Minter, how could she be sure that Paramount boss, Adolph Zukor, wouldn’t ‘send the boys round’. Mabel had walked into a neat trap, as big a trap as Keystone itself. Sennett now had private guards installed around her house, in order to prevent journalists, and anyone else, pressing Mabel for a story. He got Mabel into a new house in Altadena. The press became evermore confident, and reported all kinds of nonsense.
The Ramifications of the Taylor affair
Leaving aside the murder itself, what effect did the event, the inquest, and the newspaper reports have on Mabel’s life. The effects were huge and long-lasting. They sent Mabel into a down-hill spiral, arrested slightly by Mack and Dick Jones, who pushed her to continue with Suzanna. Unfortunately, the film was not as successful as hoped, probably due to the ‘Taylor effect’ and calls to ban Mabel’s films. It was even reported that a certain group of vigilantes were going to storm Mabel’s house, knock the hell out of Sennett’s guards, drag Mabel off, and force her to tell what she knew. Presumably, Mack doubled the guard. The papers remained full of anti-Mabel rhetoric – she was ‘a gutter-snipe, who laughingly thought she was an intellectual’. She ‘read Freud and Nietzsche, but the books had scandalous magazines, like The Police Gazette, hidden inside them.’ ‘She couldn’t read, so only ever looked at the pictures in cheap magazines’. ‘Mabel could have lived on caviar, but only drugs, gin and roasted peanuts ever passed her lips’. As an example of Mabel’s stupidity, they pointed to her actions in the early Keystones, and her affair with Taylor, a married man (no-one knew he was married at the time of the murder). On top of this the churches began to attack ‘this sinful woman’.
On completion of Suzanna, Mabel took off for Europe, and was filmed with an unsurprising sneer on her face as she passed ‘The Statue’. A huge weight was lifted from her shoulders, and she enjoyed life in Paris and London, where she was lionized by the rich and famous. Mabel spent $100,000 on gowns, according to Sennett, but Mabel, in an interview, claimed she bought little in Europe, and preferred American designers. For once, Sennett was probably right. It seems likely that Mabel spoke to French and British movie-makers, and might have considered staying in Europe permanently. However, Mabel would have realized that she would be a guinea pig, as the age of Hollywood stars (like Bebe Daniels and Bessie Love) leaving for the Old World was still a decade away.
After kicking over a good many champagne buckets, Mabel returned to New York, where Sennett claims he tried to reach her. There is no evidence for this attempted contact, and, indeed, Mack had started a new feature film, The Extra Girl, with Phylis Haver as the leading lady. He seemed to have told Mabel that his next feature film would be Mary Ann, and she would star in it. When Mabel heard a ‘Bathing Beauty’ was in her place, she was furious, and rang Mack, demanding the part. Curiously, Mack fired Phyliss after a month’s filming had been completed, and replaced her with Mabel. One can only assume that she had something on Mack, for he had almost certainly dispensed with her services. That something might have related to the Taylor murder. Unbelievably, Mabel signed for a massive (for her) $3,000 per week plus 25% of the net profits.
Another shooting clouds the horizon
No sooner had The Extra Girl been released (Nov. 1923), than Mabel was involved in another shooting. This time, someone at the scene admitted the crime – it was Mabel’s chauffeur, the chain-gang escapee Horace Greer. The circumstances this time were slightly different, for Mabel was actually present. Unfortunately, Edna Purviance was present again, only this time as a witness to the shooting. Edna, Mabel and the shot man, Courtland Dines, were drunk, and so the statements they gave were at variance with each other. The press were preparing for another feeding frenzy.
The newspapers were fully reporting the events, as they knew them, but pounced on the way Mabel spoke about those events. ‘I guess someone shot him, mister’, said Mabel when the police entered Dines’ apartment. Oh dear, not a good start. Reports were then made about Mabel’s statements to the police at the station. ‘There seems to be some discrepant of the fads’, she reportedly said. She was, of course, still slightly drunk, and chauffeur Greer stated to police that Mabel was always getting drunk, and, for this reason, he had considered throwing in the job. The newspapers, of course, had to refer to the fact that Mabel and Edna were attired in the usual movie star manner. Gold this, gold that, plush velvet, ostrich feathers etc. etc. A further attack was made on Mabel’s speech on arrival at Dine’s hospital bed. ‘Hoy’s the sweetie’, she allegedly said, in her best Brooklyn voice. Furthermore, Mabel threatened to shoot the chauffeur. Unfortunately, Mabel appeared to have a change of personality at the court hearing, and entered into some eloquent speech on the stand, all given in an aristocratic manner, with a few ‘French’ hand gestures thrown in. The press had another field day – ‘How dare someone who’d crawled from the gutter put on airs and graces in a court of law’. Mabel could not win, whatever she did!
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