William Desmond Taylor was born William Cunningham Deane-Tanner, in the civil parish of Painestown in County Carlow on the 26th of April 1872. Born into the Irish gentry, Taylor grew up in Evington House. His father was a military man. Taylor was one of five children.
As a young man, Taylor emigrated to the United States. It was there that he rekindled a love of acting which he had first been introduced to in his school years. He originally arrived in America to work on a dude ranch in Kansas, but soon found himself making his way to New York City. It was there that he met his wife, actress Ethel May Hamilton. The two were married on the 7th of December 1901 and had a daughter a year or two later. The relationship was a tempestuous one. Taylor was said to have had a numbe of affairs with other women. On the 23rd of October 1908, Taylor vanished, abandoning his wife and child. Friends had commented on his poor mental state in the run up to his disappearance, and it was generally accepted that he had wandered off during a bout of amnesia. His wife was able to get a state divorce in 1912.
That same year, Taylor reappeared in San Francisco. He had changed his name and no longer went by his birth name of William Cunningham Deane-Tanner, but William Desmond Taylor. Little is known about where he went during his 4 year absence but it is generally accepted that the travelled through Canada and Alaska, picking up whatever work he could in mining and acting. Upon his reappearance, some of his old friends from New York gave him money to get set up on the west coast.
In 1913 Taylor's acting career took off as he began to take on roles in movies. A year later he made his directorial debut, and would go on to direct more than 50 movies over the next few years.
In 1918, towards the end of World War I, Taylor enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He was sent to Dunkirk where his regiment was stationed. Taylor was one of the lucky soldiers to come home alive, and he did so to a hero's welcome. The same year as he enlisted in the military, Taylor was found out by his ex wife and child. Ethel recognised him on screen and wrote to the studio to inform her ex-husband that the jig was up. Taylor visited Ethel and their daughter in 1921 and officially made his daughter his legal heir.
With such a mysterious life, it is hardly surprising that Taylor came to an equally mysterious end. On the 2nd of February 1922, his body was found in his home. A self-proclaimed doctor who arrived on the scene pronounced that Taylor had died of a stomach hemorrhage, but forensic investigators examined the body, they found that he had been shot in the back. The doctor was never seen again. Taylor's killer was never found. Although there were many theories and suspects, there was no hard evidence to convinct anyone and the crime went unpunished.
The life and death of William Desmond Taylor has become one of the great mysteries of early Hollywood.