Fame, Love, and Murder: The Story of Actress Mary Miles Minter

by Sara Catherine Lichon.

Mary Miles Minter, silent film star and suspect in her lover’s 1922 murder.

Sometimes the stories and scandals of celebrities come up when researching for the JAPP. Oftentimes, the famous are only mentioned briefly in one of Addams’ letters, and their scandals become known when we research their lives to write their biographies. One such person is the silent film actress, Mary Miles Minter. In December 1911, Ida White Parker interviewed Anna V. Morrison, a dramatic agent, who discussed Jane Addams’ opposition to a child actor exception to the 1903 Illinois Child Labor Law, one of the first strict child labor laws in the United States. Minter was only mentioned in passing, as an example of how child actors in Illinois could easily bypass the law by providing fake birth certificates or lying about their age. Little did anyone know then that Minter would later figure in a case of unrequited love and murder.

Mary Miles Minter was born in 1902 in Shreveport, Louisiana, as Juliet Reilly. Her mother, Lily Pearl Miles, was known professionally as Charlotte Shelby, an actress. Juliet’s sister, Margaret Shelby was also an actresses, and when Juliet was five she followed her sister to an audition. A director noticed her and gave her a role, marking the beginning of her acting career. When she was ten, her mother used the birth certificate of her elder sister’s deceased daughter in order to bypass the child labor laws in Chicago, and she adopted the stage name Mary Miles Minter. In 1912, Minter made her screen debut when she appeared in the short film The Nurse. Her next role was that of Viola Drayton in the 1915 feature length film The Fairy and the Waif. From there, Minter became a silent movie star.

Director William Desmond Taylor, Minter’s lover who was murdered in 1922.

In 1919, Minter was in Anne of Green Gables, directed by William Desmond Taylor. Despite a thirty year age difference, the two began a romantic relationship. However, Taylor eventually called the affair off because of their ages, and many who knew the couple said Taylor never reciprocated Minter’s feelings. Minter, however, claimed that she was the one to end the relationship, though it had been on and off for quite some time.

On February 1, 1922, everything changed for Minter when Taylor was found shot and murdered in his home. Minter and her mother became prime suspects, and Minter’s reputation was destroyed. Stories circulated of unrequited love, jealousy, and ambition; Taylor had reportedly been romantically involved with the actress Mabel Normand, and both she and Minter were reported to have visited Taylor the night of his murder.  Minter claimed she hadn’t seen Taylor since December 23rd. Charlotte Shelby’s maid reported that Shelby left the house that night with a gun. The murder was never solved, but Minter’s reputation never recovered. In an interview fifteen years later, she stated “Shadows have been cast upon my reputation. . .  My career was blasted and my private life ruined.” The scandal followed her to the point that she demanded “that I either be prosecuted or exonerated.”

After Taylor’s death, Minter appeared in four more movies, the last being The Trail of the Lonesome Pine in 1923. Though she received offers after 1923, she never accepted them, claiming she could not be happy as an actress. Despite declaring that she would always love Taylor and no other, Minter was engaged for a short period to movie critic Louis Sherwin, and in 1957 she married real estate developer Brandon O. Hildebrandt.


Listen to Minter’s 1970 interview about the murder.

Despite wanting to step out of the spotlight, Minter’s later life was anything but calm. In 1925, she sued her mother for keeping the money Minter made from movies as a child. Much later, in 1981, Minter was severely beaten when her home was robbed, and a former companion of hers and three other people were charged with the crime.

Regardless of the scandal that followed her throughout her life, Minter was loved by many for her acting. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and some of her movies have survived and still exist today (see Nurse Marjorie, directed by Taylor on You Tube). In 1984, Minter died, and her cremated ashes were scattered at sea.

We may never know who Taylor’s murderer was, or to what extent Minter was involved in the murder. All we can do is speculate, and remember Minter for her talent – and the fact that she bypassed Illinois’ child labor laws, much to Jane Addams’ chagrin!


Sarah Catherine Lichon wrote a series of blog posts about interesting characters that she comes across while working as a co-operative education student for the Project. Her work involves identifying and describing the over 5,000 unique individuals mentioned in Addams’ correspondence

Sources:

“Fifteen Years after the Murder: Mary Miles Minter Speaks,” Los Angeles Examiner, February 3, 1937, reprinted in Taylorology p. 74.

“Illinois Child Labor Law,” Los Angeles Herald, no. 249, June 19, 1903.

Mary Miles Minter, Find-a-Grave.

“Mary Minter, a Golden Girl Tinged With Scandal, Dies.” Los Angeles Times. August 11, 1984, p. 1.

“Miss Minter Reported Engaged,” The New York Times, December 6, 1922.

“Mother is Sued by Miss Minter,” Los Angeles Times, January 30, 1925.

Statement of Mary Miles Minter (LAPD) February 7, 1922.

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