Mary Miles Minter: The Child Star At The Heart Of A Scandal

September 13, 2022

On February 2, 1922, William Desmond Taylor, one of the better-known directors of the silent era was found murdered in his Los Angeles house. One of the central characters in his unsolved murder was Mary Miles Minter, who had gotten her start as a child actress, and performed in 53 films during her short career.  

Mary Miles Minter in 1917. Source: (Wikipedia/colorized).

Born in 1902, in Shreveport, Louisiana, Mary Miles Minter’s birth name was Juliet Reilly. Her mother, Lily Pearl Miles, was also an actress, whose stage name was Charlotte Shelby. Minter got her start acting after she followed her older sister, Margaret Shelby, to an audition, when Minter was five. At the time, Chicago child labor laws would have forbidden her from acting, so her mother used her deceased older sister’s birth certificate to get around them. She debuted in 1912 in the short film The Nurse. In her next film, The Fairy and the Waif (1915), she starred as the fairy, Viola Drayton. In 1916, when she was 15, she “married” one of her directors, James Kirkwood Sr., although there was no clergy present. She got pregnant, and her mother paid for her to have an abortion, after which the relationship ended.

The Unsolved Murder That Helped To End Her Career

Starring as Anne in Anne of Green Gables. Source: (IMDb/colorized).

Her acting career grew steadily after The Fairy and the Waif although her ability was disputed. One director she worked with, Edward Sloman, stated that “Without a doubt, she was the best-looking youngster I ever saw, and the lousiest actress,” but not everyone felt that way. One film historian believed that if more of her films had survived and if her career had not been cut short, she may have been ranked among the greats. The photogenic young actress played demure young women, and was in a number of films before, playing Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables (1919). During the filming of Anne of Green Gables, she met William Desmond Taylor, who was directing the film. She was 17 at the time, and she had grown up fatherless; Taylor mentored her, and supposedly a romance began, or at least that’s what Minter claimed. Several people who knew them both said that Taylor never reciprocated her feelings.

With Taylor’s 1922 murder, Minter found herself at the heart of a scandal. According to newspapers, love letters written by Minter had been found in Taylor’s bungalow, although later they were shown to be written in 1919. However, the fact that she was romantically associated with Taylor created fodder for the media. Her mother also found herself embroiled in the mess. Taylor was shot in the back by a small-caliber pistol; allegedly, Charlotte Shelby’s gun was a .38 caliber pistol with unusual bullets. These bullets were similar to those that killed Taylor. Additionally, Shelby’s maid reported that Shelby left the house the night of Taylor’s murder with a gun. The murder weapon was never found, and Shelby reportedly threw the gun into a Louisiana bayou when the information about the gun became public.