Taylor was born as William Cunningham Deane-Tanner in Mallows County Cork, Ireland. He went to the United States in 1890 and worked in a variety of jobs before finding work as a bit part player on the New York stage, under the name Cunningham Deane.
After marrying the daughter of a wealthy Wall Street broker, Taylor, with financial assistance from his father-in-law, set up an antique furniture business. Now known as "Pete" Tanner, Taylor became a popular member of New York society. Then suddenly in 1908, Tanner disappeared, deserting his wife and a young daughter. It was during this time that he took the name of William Desmond Taylor.
He made his break into films in 1915, appearing in several forgettable silent films before making his directorial debut in 1914 with The Awakening. He directed more than forty films over the next seven years, taking a break to serve as a Captain in the Canadian Army during the latter part of World War I. He also served as president of the Motion Picture Directors Association.
But one morning, Taylor's body was found in his home, in the exclusive Alvarado Court Apartments on South Alvarado Street, Hollywood, a bullet in his back. Neighbors reported hearing a gunshot during the night.
During the inquest that followed several witnesses came forward, reporting that they had seen a young, dark-haired man leaving Taylor's house the night before the murder, and one of them not only saw the man, but heard the shot that killed Taylor immediately before seeing the man. Despite a long list of potential suspects, nobody was ever arrested or tried for the crime.
Although much was made in the press about the suspected affairs of Taylor with some women, it was also a widely held belief that no such affairs could have occurred as Taylor was a known homosexual. This was also supported by his association with Henry Peavey, a known homosexual. Charles Sands, Taylor's former personal secretary, was also gay.
After Taylor's death, rumors sprang up that he had been a member of a mysterious Oriental "love cult" where men would gather, smoke opium, and enjoy each others' company in a way that was considerably more than brotherly. Men of "dubious" sexuality, such as Taylor himself, were connected to the threat to masculinity that the actor presented to the "real" American man...