In the preface to A Cast of Killers, Kirkpatrick describes how he set out to write a biography of Hollywood director King Vidor in the mid 1980s. As much material as he had to work with, given that Vidor had seemingly saved every scrap of paper he had ever amassed, Kirkpatrick found a significant dearth of information for the year 1967. Searching one of Vidor’s homes, Kirkpatrick unearthed a hidden strongbox which ultimately turned his account of Vidor’s life into a cold case murder investigation. For the box contained the results of King Vidor’s personal investigation, conducted in 1967, of one of the most sensational crimes of the century – the 1922 murder of his friend and colleague, Hollywood director William Desmond Taylor. Why had Vidor felt compelled to hide away the documents pertaining to his investigation?
This preface sets the tone for an absolutely fascinating and compelling narrative in which Kirkpatrick reconstructs the murder and King Vidor’s investigation of it many years after the fact.
On February 2, 1922, William Desmond Taylor was found shot dead in his bungalow. Witnesses and suspects abounded, yet information was not forthcoming from the police. Information flowed freely from the media, however, and because of the sensational and sometimes downright false coverage of the crime, the truth soon became cloudy, remaining so until 1967.
Actress and comedienne Mabel Normand, a friend of the notorious Fatty Arbuckle, was present at the scene and was reported to have been heavily involved in drugs and possibly an affair with Taylor. Young starlet and apparent naïf Mary Miles Minter, along with her controlling mother Charlotte Shelby, also figured prominently in the events surrounding the crime. William Desmond Taylor’s mysterious secretary, Edward Sands, who may or may not also have been Taylor’s brother, was a significant personality in the drama. And to complicate matters, William Desmond Taylor may not have been William Desmond Taylor at all.
All of these twists and turns make for fascinating reading, and Vidor’s interviews of aging actors, actresses, and others in Taylor’s circle at the time of the murder are enthralling. There is an element of juicy gossip to these interviews, but Vidor made copious notes and documented conversations with witnesses in detail. All events in the book are based on Vidor’s extensive documentation. Kirkpatrick writes the account in the third person from Vidor’s point of view, giving the work a fictional narrative flow and feel and bringing the reader into King Vidor’s world.
Though not ultimately a biography of King Vidor, A Cast of Killers nevertheless reveals an intriguing facet of his personality – the Private Investigator. The result is a most satisfactory treatment of a cold case investigation and a fascinating look into the world of 1920s Hollywood.
Check the WRL catalog for A Cast of Killers.