I first read about the strange- and fascinating- case of William Desmond Taylor a few years ago and it's haunted me ever since. I expect you've never heard of it (most people haven't, there's no particular reason why you should have done either), but back in 1922, the mysterious events leading up to his murder became a sensational cause célèbre of the day.
William Desmond Taylor
Desmond Taylor was a famous (and hugely successful) British silent film director: suave, handsome, urbane, cultured, a former British army officer, charming, erudite, built like an athelete with a reputation for integrity; a bibliopile and collector of rare books. I'm sure you get the picture: he enjoyed numerous "friendships" with all sorts of charming young actresses- and quite possibly their mothers too.
Anyway, at 7:30 am on the morning of 2 February 1922, the body of William Desmond Taylor was found inside his bungalow at the Alvarado Court Apartments, 404-B South Alvarado Street, Los Angeles. He had been shot in the back. The evening before, his neighbour claimed to have the sound of a gunshot ("like a car back-firing") and seen a "funny looking" stranger leaving Taylor's bungalow wearing a muffler and a plaid cap pulled down over his- or her- eyes.
The case remains unsolved to this day. There's a whole cast of sinister suspects: Edward Sands, Taylor's dodgy valet; Henry Peavey, Taylor's camp butler; Mable Normand (the silent era comedienne); Mary Tyler Minter (the Hollywood film star), Charlotte Selby (Minter's mother) and starlet Margaret Gibson, who apparently, confessed to the murder on her deathbed.
And the case gets stranger. It turned out that Desmond Taylor wasn't really Willliam Desmond Taylor at all. His real name was William Cunningham Deane-Tanner, son of an Anglo-Irish British army major. Deane-Tanner had emigrated to New York where he had set up business as a Society antique dealer. On the 23 October, 1908, he had suddenly vanished, leaving behind a wife and young daughter, only to resurface four years later with a changed name, and a discovered talent for acting. The intervening years remain a bit of a mystery- he may have worked as a rancher; he may have laboured in the gold mines of Yukon. What I find striking is the contrast between Deane-Tanner the unhappy, hard-drinking antique dealer (there are rumours of forgery, his disapperance coincided with a dubious affair with a married women) and Desmond Taylor the distinguished film director- of whom, not one person would say a single bad word about after his murder. If ever there was an example of someone completely re-inventing himself, this is going to be it.
What's all this to do with food?, I hear you say. Not much, I admit, but William Desmond Taylor did enjoy an Orange Blossom cocktail with Mabel Normand a few hours before the shooting. They played the piano, discussed Nietzsche and Freud (as one does) until a quarter to eight; Taylor walked Normand to her car, they blew kisses at each other as her chauffeur drove off. With the exception of the murderer, she was the last person to see Desmond Taylor alive.
Here's a suitably grainy, film noiry photograph of that very cocktail tray; can't you just imagine the bungalow swarming with over-excited photographers, the smell of flash powder, the utter sensation of it all?
The Orange Blossom cocktail was an extremely popular cocktail during Prohibition. It's essentially just a mixture of orange juice and gin; although there are many different versions using a wide variety of ingredients. The Old Waldorf Astoria Bar Book has a recipe for "Orange Blossom No. 1":
3/4 oz gin, 3/4 oz sweet vermouth (ie Cinzano Bianco), 3/4 oz orange juice. Pour the ingredients into a mixing pitcher or glass filled with ice cubes, stir well and strain.
This is going to be pretty sweet in taste, maybe too sweet for modern sensibilities? An interesting historical fact is that people seemed to have much sweeter tooths (or is it teeth?) at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. The Edwardians loved German wine and Hungarian Tokay for instance. I gather that these wines fetched far higher prices than clarets or Burgundies.