Walking uphill in Westlake, a neighborhood just north of downtown Los Angeles, I paused at the site of the most intriguing whodunit in local lore, save the Black Dahlia case. Here, on February 1, 1922, in the living room of his duplex bungalow, one of sixteen units at the Alvarado Court Apartments, William Desmond Taylor, an Irish-born film director and former actor, was shot and killed by an unknown intruder, though a number of likely suspects have been identified by professional and armchair detectives, based partly on the eyewitness account of Faith MacLean, who, with her screen-star husband, the since-forgotten Douglas MacLean, lived next door to Taylor. Shortly before eight that night, Mrs. MacLean said, she heard what she thought might be a “muffler explosion,” and when she opened her door to investigate, she saw, standing in Taylor’s doorway, a “funny looking man” dressed “like my idea of a motion picture burglar” in a checked cap, dark suit, and “something tied around his neck.” He—or possibly she, since Mrs. MacLean later allowed that this person could have been female—seemed ready to leave through the garden courtyard that led to Alvarado Street, but he hesitated, as if “Mr. Taylor [had] spoken to him from inside the house.” Then, in perhaps the eeriest detail of the case, he met Mrs. MacLean’s gaze in the darkness. He didn’t panic or advance on her. “No,” she said, “he was the coolest thing I have ever seen,” and in that unruffled spirit he closed Taylor’s door, “then turned around and, looking at me all the time, walked down a couple of steps that go up to Mr. Taylor’s house,” disappearing in name but not deed through an alley that led to Maryland Street.
That alley is gone, but another still exists, the alley where Christina Jewett, the MacLeans’ maid, heard someone pacing in “flat shoes” thirty minutes before the murder. It used to run behind the Alvarado Court Apartments, which were bulldozed in 1965 to make way for what’s now a Ross department store or, rather, for the store’s parking lot. This is where I paused while walking uphill on Alvarado. The alley is flanked on one side by the parking lot, and on the other side by a plaque-colored fleabag with a sign that says MOTEL ENTRANCE and an arrow that points to the roof, as if guests were expected to drop from the sky. There are a number of fleabags in the neighborhood, some in worse shape. There are pawnshops, one with a mural of Jesus walking on water, and cash-advances companies, legal loan sharks for illegal immigrants unwelcome in proper banks, and photo-menu restaurants with names that emphasize speed—China Express, Atitlan Express—and storefront churches next to liquor stores next to bargain stores that sell toiletries and plush toys, “gold” jewelry and “leather” belts, the same items sold by sidewalk vendors across the street from MacArthur Park on Alvarado. MacArthur Park is the heart of Westlake, or West Lake Park as it was called when it was settled by the smart set, including the “picture people” who abandoned it for higher ground, literally, north and west. Douglas MacLean, for example, died of natural causes at age seventy-seven in Beverly Hills, where murder is as anomalous as it used to be in Westlake in the William Desmond Taylor days. It isn’t anomalous now, and while most students of the Taylor case believe he was acquainted—probably well acquainted—with his killer, murder in contemporary Westlake is often random and tied somehow to street crime. Every sort of crime is practiced in and around MacArthur Park, with none of the seedy glamour it might receive in popular entertainment.
But Westlake is entering a new phase. On 6th Street, before I turned onto Alvarado and paused at the parking lot where sixteen duplex apartments once stood, a twentysomething white man rode past me on a bike. He wore a beanie, plaid shirt, and detached expression, all tribal signifiers, just as the bicycle is a totem of his kind, but I never encountered his kind when I discovered Westlake in the 1990s. Occasionally, at the supermarket, though never around the nearby health clinic where I became a patient, I saw ruddy-faced white men buying booze and plump white women policing their giddy or cranky children, but they, as well as the black people I saw occasionally in Westlake, were clearly as indigenous as the Latins who still make up the majority there, unlike the young aspiring “creatives,” prized by corporate America as first-wave colonists in dicey neighborhoods, I was noticing more all the time. This one, the cyclist, passed me beside a construction site where a fifty-three-unit residential building, the so-called Paseo at Californian, is underway at a cost of $28.2 million, according to documents filed in 2014. The Paseo at Californian is among the many buildings being renovated or raised anew on recently razed lots in Westlake and, for that matter, all over Los Angeles as a solution to the city’s housing crunch, or so politicians and real-estate moguls are somehow able to say straightfacedly, as if they weren’t aggravating the crunch by displacing longtime, low-paying renters and pricing out modest-income newcomers. The cyclist, an assumed newcomer, may have been priced out of downtown, an area as shabby as Westlake until a dramatic facelift a few years ago, and if he’s still in L.A. a few years hence, he may find himself priced out of Westlake. First-wave colonists are persona non grata once they’ve braved and bettered conditions for the well-off second wave, and I write from experience as a first-wave colonist on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and again in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, back when New Yorkers carried a little cash in their wallets to appease muggers—$20 was considered a reasonable minimum—and hid the rest in their shoes.
A block from Maryland, at the corner of 3rd and Alvarado, I passed St. Vincent’s Hospital, where I was treated once for a foot injury sustained on a movie set. It was an older and more serious leg injury that concerned me now, and I was headed to my usual clinic five or so blocks away to schedule an appointment with an orthopedist. Then I retraced my route, headed now for the Metro station across from MacArthur Park, and found myself dodging traffic on 3rd Street. Lunchtime was over and rush hour hadn’t begun, so traffic was relatively light, and when I say I found myself dodging it, I mean I was absentminded as always, so that I didn’t fully realize what I was doing until a woman somewhere, possibly the driver of a stalled car, yelled something about jaywalking. I shouldn’t have needed to hear that. I had injured my leg by dodging traffic, a habit picked up in New York, where I had also learned, or hadn’t learned, that daydreaming is a bad idea on streets where crime isn’t unusual. I deserved to be admonished for jaywalking.
But the voice didn’t have an admonishing tone. It was a friendly voice, and when I looked around to place it, I saw an astonishing woman who was following my lead, dodging traffic a lane behind me and smiling as if to imply complicity. She was in her late thirties or early forties and definitely female, though, tall and powerfully built, I wondered for a second if she was transgender, meanwhile wondering if her straight black hair, waist-length and cut in bangs, was a wig. The Ikettes, backup singers for the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, had hair like that, and Claudia Lennear, the ex-Ikette who inspired the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” had a similar espresso complexion, but this woman’s skin was streaked with ashy gray, as if she had just swept a chimney, and she wore a powder-blue hospital gown and matching hospital slippers, while lugging a tote bag that might have contained her street clothes, the ones on her back when she checked into St. Vincent’s, where I was sure she had been a patient. The gown didn’t fit her. It exposed her muscular legs in their entirety, yet she hadn’t bothered to change out of it on being discharged, such was her haste to leave. It couldn’t have been fun in the psych ward, if that’s where she was sent, and while I preferred her collusive smile to the dead-eyed smugness of the cyclist, I picked up my pace to put some distance between us, just as she seemed to be putting some between distance between herself and St. Vincent’s, jaywalking to catch a bus or train, if she didn’t live in the neighborhood.
It’s a photogenic neighborhood, from my perspective. The fleabags, the pawnshops, the vendors and their wares: I’ve photographed them all. The camera likes squalor. It likes grit. It likes the sort of mystery posed by a woman wearing a hospital gown on a city street, or it likes it if the framing is right, and I jogged downhill on Alvarado to scout for a frame that she would complete when she stepped into it unwittingly, assuming that happened, but I hadn’t found an acceptable frame by the time she appeared at the top of the hill, so I abandoned the idea of photographing her and continued on my way. The Taylor murder site was half a block in front of me, and I wondered if either of the two vintage residential buildings across the street, the Roxy and the Ozmun, existed at the time of the murder. The Roxy went up seven years after the murder, I would learn later online, but the Ozmun was completed in 1917, and I imagine its tenants were questioned by police about any suspicious-looking people they might have seen in the neighborhood, maybe especially anyone matching Faith MacLean’s description of a “motion picture burglar,” on that winter night in 1922.
Suddenly, from behind me, I heard a scream. I was sure it came from the woman in the hospital gown, and I was afraid she had somehow divined my aborted plan to photograph her and the scream was the opening shot, as it were, in a confrontation I aimed to discourage by walking on as if I had heard nothing. Then there were sounds of a scuffle and I turned to see the woman charging downhill in my direction while glancing backward and screaming, repeatedly, “Leave me alone!” to invisible attackers, ghosts or demons, hot on her trail.
Then they became visible to me: three or four uniformed cops and paramedics, some wearing latex gloves and all of them bunched together, so that they fairly collided when they stopped short at the curb, abruptly giving up the chase. The woman had leapt off the curb at that very spot, and now she was racing across Alvarado with a lope that made me think of scissors opening as far as they’ll reach on the hinge, her gown inching upward, her thighs streaked with spilled black ink as well as the ashy gray. In fact the black was an illusion and the ink was urine, I realized a second later. She may have been an escaped mental patient with a history of violence—that’s what the chase suggested—but she was frightened to the point of pissing herself, still screaming, again and again, “Leave me alone!” like a battered child trying to fend off worse, and I urged her silently on. Yes, leave her alone. The businessmen behind the Paseo at Californian and its ilk are a greater menace by far in the long run. Persecute them instead.
The northbound lanes of Alvarado were strangely empty, and the southbound lanes were filled with traffic at a standstill. The traffic slowed the woman, who weaved through it, and by the time she reached the sidewalk, two cops were waiting outside the Ozmun as if for a blind date arranged by a poor judge of character. Their appearance startled me. I hadn’t seen them arrive. They moved slowly toward the woman, who backed away from them, then turned and started running toward the Roxy, but two more cops were advancing on her from that direction, after appearing, like the first two, seemingly from nowhere. She was a mouse outnumbered by cats, and they converged on her by the gate of the Hollywood Delux Inn, which is sandwiched between the Ozmun and the Roxy and advertises rooms that rent for $59.95 (“+ tax”) per day. She didn’t try to fight her way out of the trap. It was over and she knew it, and I watched until I was satisfied that she wouldn’t be manhandled, then continued downhill, where two more cops were standing on either side of a patrol car that obstructed traffic on Maryland. There were patrol cars further downhill, I now saw, rerouting northbound traffic on Alvardo, and patrol cars stalling southbound traffic at the top of the hill. The whole block had been quarantined to ensure the capture of this apparently unarmed and demonstrably terrified woman, naked except for a hospital gown and slippers, if she wasn’t wearing a wig; and I looked at the cops on Maryland and said, as I passed them, “What did she do?” Surely nothing short of murder could warrant such overkill.
But the cop nearest to me, young and Mexican, shrugged and grinned as if to say that my guess was as good as his, and I walked on, past the parking lot and the alley where someone was heard pacing a half-hour before a verified murder. Presumably, this was the man, or the woman dressed like a man, seen leaving William Desmond Taylor’s bungalow at a nonchalant pace immediately following the murder by Faith MacLean, the only person who seems to have noticed him, and even she didn’t report it to police until after Taylor was discovered dead the next morning by his black valet. The killer was white. That’s certain, even if his gender has been questioned. No wonder he walked away so casually while staring at Mrs. MacLean and disappeared into an alley that itself disappeared more than forty years later. No wonder he was overlooked by any strangers who may have crossed his path on Maryland or Alvarado. His race permitted him to hide in plain sight in Westlake as it was then and will be again, once the grit and squalor have been expunged and the streets have been cleared of all suspected criminals but the licensed kind.