Mrs Ethel Burns was Mabel’s ‘assistant’ housekeeper and sometime maid, for a number of years, and was a member of Mabel’s staff during the trauma of the Dines’ scandal. Her comments on Mabel were published by newspapers, following this scandal involving the shooting of Courtland Dines. Ethel’s words give us a unique insight into the Normand household, which we otherwise would not have had. What follows is a narrative in the first person based on what Mrs Burns told journalists, but first, some words on the nature of Hollywood. As most people that delve into the early film industry will know, Hollywood was a closed shop, a black hole from which it was virtually impossible to drawn any reliable information. Some people have described Tinsel Town as a hall of smoke and mirrors, in which you are forever lost, and where, if you do think you have made it through, you find you’re confronted with a vision of yourself. The fact is the silent stars, the directors and producers did not want you to know who they were, who they really were, nor did they want you to know where they came from. If you asked questions about this star or that star, you were presented with a studio still of the star in question. Hollywood dealt in dreams, and that’s why their star photos were so well crafted, and were a vision of something that did not, could not, in reality exist. Who can forget the studio photo of Marceline Day in her Little Miss Muffett costume, so lovely you could eat her, and butter would definitely not melt in her mouth.
Another star, in whose mouth butter would not melt, was Mabel Normand. She drank like a fish, smoked like a chimney, fornicated all over town, but, to her public, her only vice was a little tipple after work. So religious was she, that she never missed church on a Sunday, and often had the vicar round for tea. Many journalists knew what the ‘dark stars’ were getting up to, and what annoyed them most was that they could not speak to those stars directly. The general rule was – interviews only at the studio, but in many cases, the reporter would simply receive written answers from the producer. This stoked up anger within the newspaper fraternity, and they vowed that, one day, they’d reek their revenge on those dark stars. When the moment came, they tore Fatty Arbuckle apart. Then, due to unhappy circumstance in 1922, they got the chance to rip into his compatriot in crime, the ‘Blessed Baby’ Mabel Normand. Mabel survived, and bobbed up unscathed. However, the pressmen were astonished to find, just over a year later, that they had a second chance to knock the goddess off her pedestal.
I first drifted into Mabel’s life, sometime in 1916, when the former Keystone Girl was acquiring her own studio, and had become the biggest star in the universe. A friend of mine was close to Mabel, and when I was sick in hospital, without money to pay the medical expenses, Mabel stepped in and paid the $1,000 bill. After that, I saw quite a lot of Mabel, and often visited her at her hotel suite. Acquiring the studio, via the new movie company Triangle was a big deal, but Mabel soon found that the deal included abandoning her care-free hotel life, for what big boss, Harry Aitken, called a ‘movie star mansion’. He said it proved she’d settled down, had a stake out on the coast, and was not just another fly-by-night floozie. Mabel was most upset by this, as she’d always said she could never live in a big, ostentatious house. Of course, she was over-ruled, and Aitken, via Mack Sennett, rented a palace on Melrose Hill, overlooking Hollywood. Mabel asked me to accompany her to see the house. Well, when Mabel saw the place, she almost collapsed, and would have hit the deck if I hadn’t caught her. The house was beautiful, and built in the colonial style, like a sugar plantation owner’s house-on-a-hill.
“Ethel” She said “I can’t live here, I’m a democrat, not some bloated, slave-owning Republican. That place must have eight bedrooms.”
I flicked through the agent’s details.
“Says here, it’s got twelve bedrooms and six bathrooms.”
“Oh no, I’m not having it, what would I do with six bathrooms, for fuck’s sake!”
“Of course, her friends were all for it – by our reckoning a Queen should have a palace. There followed a lot of discussion to-and-fro with New York, and eventually Mabel moved in, but only because she’d persuaded six of us to move in with her. It was from that house that we all went to the opening party for Mabel’s studio in East Hollywood.
The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company.
Now it was my turn to cringe – everyone that was anyone in Tinsel Town was there. As things became more Byzantine, more Bacchanalian, I left and went back to the house. I really didn’t want to see my favourite starlets, lying around in pools of their own vomit, their lovely dresses ruined, and more over their heads than covering their embarrassment. But that was Hollywood, the real Hollywood.
At the party that night was ‘America’s Sweetheart’, the lovely Mary Pickford. Mary left early that night also, for a night of illicit love with her new flame, at his hunting lodge in the Beverly Hills. His name was Doug Fairbanks, who later became her husband and, in my view, her nemesis. It was, I think, at the end of August, that Mary came to our country pile to see Mabel, and kind of interview her for her newspaper column. Now, I was well-used to greeting stars at the door, but Mary always stunned me. She was under five feet tall, and looked like a ten-year-old, all dressed up in her mother’s clothes. Mary, though, was formidable in the area of finance, and Mabel called her Hetty Green, after the famous millionairess. Mabel phoned to say she’d be around half-an-hour late, which gave me time to speak to ‘The Sweetheart’. I gave her a cup of tea (she didn’t drink coffee).
“You know, you’re so lucky to live with Mabel, if I wanted to live with anyone it would be our little clown.” Said Mary.
From that followed a long discussion about Mabel, and their early days together at the Biograph studios. She told how the current stars had all grown up from kittens, under the tutelage of the great D.W. Griffith, or ‘old big nose’ as Mabel called him. Mabel was Queen Bee in those days, and it goes without saying that the men clustered around her, if they could get through the girls that is. Mabel was a particular draw for Mary’s young brother, Jack, and she had a job keeping his sticky hands off the dark-eyed beauty – Jack and Mabel were the two imps that caused all the trouble around Biograph, she told me. Jack was just fourteen, but Mabel, at seventeen, should have known better — but nobody minded. As our conversation went on, I realised something about Mary – she was magnanimous in her stardom. There were no airs and graces about her, and she was clear that Mabel’s dramatic abilities were way above those of anyone else.
“You know, Ethel, there was only one part she could not play – the vamp. Mabel was a natural man-magnet, and found it amusing that she would consciously attempt to vamp anyone. Griffith was furious, when Mabel giggled during a vamping scene.”
“How many films did you shoot with Mabel.”
“Oh, only the one, ‘The Mender of Nets’. I played a young hussy that stole Mabel’s boyfriend, but she played her part so convincingly that she scared the life out of me. It’s those eyes Ethel, so lovingly doleful one minute, but blazing with hatred the next. I had nightmares for the next two weeks. Her looks were like stilletos in my heart.”
I knew what she meant, I’d experienced the blazing-eyed Mabel myself.
Then the front door opened and Mabel stepped in.
“Oh, Mary, I do apologise for keeping you waiting.”
The two ran together into each other’s arms, to all intents, like lovers who’d been separated for years. The Hollywood way always embarrassed me, for in those days, two women showing affection for each other had a certain connotation. I was soon to learn that the old Biograph girls were a tightly-knit group, or ‘Witches’ Coven’ as Mack Sennett called them. Combined they were formidable, and greatly feared by the movie bosses. The girls always called each other by their first names, but they insisted that the producers call them ‘Miss This’ or ‘Miss That’. It was during that conversation with Mary that I realised Mabel was a heroine to Hollywood’s heroines. Mary wrote a touching article about her friend Mabel.
The collapse of Triangle in late 1916, caused Mabel to lose her studio, and even D.W. Griffith lost his shirt. Sennett fought tooth and nail with Harry Aitken, and came out with a studio sporting his own name. However, he lost Mabel, who signed with Sam Goldwyn. Goldwyn’s studio was in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and we were all devastated to lose her. At the rail station she dithered, but we pushed her aboard, as the train pulled out. We all cried real tears that day. The actual reason for the move east, was that America was entering the Great War. Mabel’s beloved brother had been called up to fight, and she felt she needed to be close to her family. No-one was ever closer to Claude than Mabel, and she feared, as he packed up his old kit-bag for Flanders Field, that he would not come back — he’d surely be killed fighting some-one else’s war. A hundred thousand of our boys never came back, their bones still lying today in a corner of a foreign field that will forever be America. To everyone’s relief, Claude did return. Mabel, of course, had campaigned publicly against the war, and made herself deeply unpopular with the authorities. When the war began, Mabel campaigned for war bonds money. She came up with the idea of ‘a bond for a kiss’, where anyone that bought a bond would get a kiss from Mabel. Well, she was almost killed in the ensuing rush. Surprisingly, the women that bought bonds did not forgo their peck on the cheek. Predictably, Mabel was all kissed-out by the end of the day.
So, Mabel was gone, our little group had split up, and we went our separate ways. I saw all of Mabel’s Goldwyn films, but they seemed to lack something that was present in the old films. Sure, they were lavish, but unfitting of an actress of Mabel’s standing. Then we heard that Goldwyn was opening a studio in Culver City, and Mabel was coming back. Soon, I received a message from Mabel, asking if I would be her housekeeper. I had a job behind the counter of a department store, and would not have considered leaving, but I really wanted to be on the perfume counter, and my chances were slipping away. So, in late 1918 or early 1919, I took up Mabel’s offer. She had a large suite in a hotel, but eventually took a duplex at 3089 West Seventh Street, in the heart of the bohemian district. Mabel was much happier here than in the big house, and her friends, intellectual types, were all around. A big director lived in the other duplex. Strangely, Mabel bought a big house for her parents on Staten Island, costing $20,000 [est. value today $1million].
Things went fine, and a regular visitor was Mildred Harris, a lovely bright girl of sixteen, a Ziegfield dancer Mabel had met in NY. Mabel went everywhere with Mildred, who had a mindset similar to hers – I do not think Mabel ever grew up, she was a kind of female Peter Pan (her family called her ‘Baby’ after the Peter Pan character). Mabel introduced Mildred to Charlie Chaplin, who up and married her. Charlie, however, soon found that Mabel was a third part of their marriage – she came around so often. Mabel organised their social lives, as Charlie, who Mabel by the way, loved forever, was a social dunce. I remember one snowballing party she held on Mount Lowe for Charlie and Mildred, which everyone enjoyed, although Mabel developed pleurisy, then pneumonia. Whether this had any bearing on what happened next, I do not know. In 1920, Mabel fell sick, I mean really sick – in fact she was dying. Some say the death of her friend, actress Olive Thomas (‘Everyone’s Sweetheart’) made her give up on life, and certainly she sobbed inconsolably for weeks. Everyone at the studio held their breaths, as Mabel lay prostrate at home. Her breathing became strained, she coughed up an ocean of blood and had the ‘death rattle’ in her throat. The doctor came and examined her, while we waited outside the room. He came out shaking his head. “It’s tuberculosis, there’s nothing I can do. Send for a priest. If you need me tomorrow, you can let me know.” What he meant was he’d call back, if we needed a death certificate. We entered the room, and there lay Mabel in her flannelette nightdress and pigtails. She looked so small, like a child in that huge four-poster bed. Around her, six women were sobbing, which reminded me of the scene of the dying Cleopatra. We called the priest, who arrived with bell, book and candle. He read the last rites over our little girl, then left, leaving the bell by Mabel’s feet. I called Charlie Chaplin.
“She’s going Charlie, get over here quick.”
“Oh, my God!”
He must have dropped the receiver for I heard scampering feet and a door slamming. Ten minutes later, he was at the front door, and ran up the stairs. He took Mabel’s hot, little hand, and knelt down by the bed.
“Mabel, it’s me, Charlie.”
Mabel’s eyelids twitched weakly.
“Mabel, please don’t leave us. We need you. Please, please don’t go.”
We respectfully withdrew. Ten minutes later, Charlie emerged.
“Did she whisper anything.”
“Yes, she half-opened one eye and said “Fuck Off.” I think she’ll live Ethel.”
“Thank God” We all exclaimed. There could be no life after Mabel.
“Ethel, it’s those Goldwyn films that are killing her – she’s losing the will to live. Y’know what, I can’t bear to watch those pictures. I’ll talk to Sam and get him to drop Mabel – she must go back to Sennett.”
To say Charlie doted on her over the next few weeks, would be an understatement. True to his word, he got Mabel out of contract, and arranged a permanent nurse. The nurse was Julia Brew, a former nun, a lovely lady, who kept Mabel with us for another ten years. Now it was time for me to marry, and I left Mabel, as she moved over to Mack Sennett Studios. As expected, her first feature with Sennett was great, although I was shocked by the last scene, where you get a full view up Mabel’s dress. Well, that’s progress, I suppose – our age of innocence was over, and the boys got to finally got to see what Mabel wore under underneath – except they didn’t. I’ll let you into a secret, Mabel rarely wore underwear whilst filming. Due to her illness, she suffered real bad hot flushes, which caused her to sometimes pass out. Under the boiling sun, covered from head to toe, as we all were in the old days, and running around to boot, she had to let the heat our somehow, so she skipped the undies. Occasionally, like when she was kicking Chaplin in the derriere in Mabel’s Busy Day, the camera picked up something it shouldn’t. Mack saved the film by drawing bloomers on the negative in one frame. They don’t appear in any other frame, but they should have if she actually wore them.
Gloom and Shadow.
It was on the morning of 2nd February 1922 that we read with horror of the murder of W.D. Taylor, the film director. Mabel’s picture was splashed all over the front page. They claimed she was his lover. The butler further claimed that Mabel was the culprit — Mabel was ‘bad, bad, bad’. I tried to phone Mabel, but the thing was permanently engaged. I told hubby I was going to see her, but he thought I should stay away. Anyhow, I walked over to Mabel’s house, but my resolution failed when I saw the place was surrounded by cops. They’d certainly question me, and this might get into the press (the old man would not be happy). I left it a week, then returned to the house, but it was surrounded now by Sennett’s thugs armed with clubs, which they were clearly itching to embed in someone’s skull. A few days later, I went to the studio, where the gate-man asked me to wait. The bastard didn’t ring Mabel, but Mack Sennett. ‘His Master’s Voice’ came to the gate, and glared at me.
Whadd’ya want?” The King said gruffly.
“I want to see Mabel, I’m a friend – Ethel Burns.”
Just then, Norma Talmadge and Lottie Pickford passed through the gate – they’d clearly been to see Mabel.
“Oi! You two! D’ya know this woman?” Sennett bellowed at them.
“Sure, she’s Mabel’s friend, Ethel.”
“O.K. Edith, go see the guard on the dressing rooms, and tell Mabel to get her ass down here”
As I walked towards the dressing block, I heard Sennett say:
“Damned women, we’ll never get any work done at this rate.”
The girls blew Mack a raspberry, as they left.
“You want to see Mabel?” Asked the female guard.
“Good, she needs all the visitors she can get. Up the stairs, turn right, and it’s the last room.”
I reached the room, and knocked on the door, unmarked with a star.
“Come right in” Said Mabel.
I walked in. There was Mabel sitting on the other side, under the window. This was one of those times, when instead of looking fourteen, she looked about nine. She seemed tiny. Mabel was wearing her Suzanna costume, a Mexican outfit and a huge sombrero, almost as big as herself.
She got up and ran to me throwing her arms around me, whereupon we both burst into tears.
“I’m sorry, Mabel, are you due on set?”
“Yeah, but fuck it, old snot-face can wait.”
She looked out to where Sennett was standing, feet wide apart and arms akimbo, glaring up.
“He’s annoyed cos I’ve been in the bath for two hours.”
“You mean you’ve got a bath here?”
Of course, it’s in the bathroom”
Then, I realised that this was a suite of rooms. I opened a door. Inside was a huge marble bath.
“Good God, Mabel, Cleopatra must have bathed here.”
“Oh yeah, but she filled it with milk, I use perfumed water. I let the others use it too”
“You mean Charlie Chaplin bathed here?”
“Nah, Charlie hasn’t had a bath for years, scared of water, you know. That’s why he has that big tide mark around his fucking neck.”
“I suppose the guard stops the men from getting up here.”
“Sennett’s got me locked down, like some fucking vestal virgin. See that rope over there – when I want to escape, I throw that out into the street, and climb down.”
Then there came a banging on the door. It was our guard. Mack wanted Mabel now, on pain of death.
“I have to go Ethel, thanks awfully for coming.” I went with her down onto the lot, where I saw that they were shooting an indoor scene for Mabel’s film in the dusty area between the dressing rooms and the main stage building. I had no idea that films were made this way.
The next I knew, I received a letter from Mabel, postmarked ‘London’. She’d gone on a European tour. A few weeks later, I heard she was back in L.A. and beginning a new film called Extra Girl. The paper said this was the biggest film since Mickey in ’16, and would surely bring Mabel back into the fold. I sent her a bouquet and a Best Wishes card. Imagine my surprise, when Mabel phoned me – she wanted to offer me a job.
“You won’t believe how important this new film is, Ethel. It’s absolutely vital that I have someone to keep me on track – make sure I get to the studio on time, and all the other little things I need done. It’s a live-in job, as it’s so important, but I’ll make sure you do well out of it. How does $75 a week plus board grab you.”
I almost fainted, Mabel was generous to a fault, but seventy-five a week, my god! I don’t know if she knew, but I’d separated from my spouse, so I was raring to go. I moved into 3089 West Seventh in late March 1923. Mabel’s secretary was snowed under with work associated with Extra Girl, but she also had to deal with the contacts Mabel had made in Europe. Several companies wanted her to go out there, after Mabel had completed Extra Girl. I was surprised, also, that her fan mail had increased exponentially. The secretary, Betty Coss, said that many more letters were coming from females. Everything had changed, and her fan-base was now 65% female to 35% male. Getting a hold on the female audience had been difficult for the industry in the past, but Mabel had cracked it. I was commandeered to help Betty, on a part-time basis. She and I worked on getting fan photos printed as cheaply as possible. Betty suggested reducing the photos’ size, but Mabel refused. She was the consummate star, and nothing mattered more than her fans – she was not going to short-change them. Postage cost a fortune, but Betty decided to send photos only to people that enclosed a stamp addressed envelope. We saved many thousands of dollars by working this way. Stars would have to send a photo of themselves to get one from us. Want to know something? We pulled three or four engagements rings a week from the mail. Betty said they should be cashed in, but Mabel would not hear of it and had hundreds of them — I think of her as a human magpie that cared not one jot for money, but loved shiny things. The house had become part living quarters, part office and part studio, with Mabel’s rushes, developed and drying in the kitchen. Having already seen the studio’s copies, she produced her own ‘different angle’ shots, filmed with her own camera. Did I mention she was a consummate professional?
Something in the house had not changed. Mabel was still the good-time girl of old, but her general health was deteriorating. Years of partying, running all over town every night, eating ice-cream for breakfast and milk-shakes for lunch was taking its toll. She often had a hacking cough, and brought up blood from time to time. One of my jobs was getting the blood out of her nightdresses, and if it proved impossible, dispose of them surreptitiously i.e. burn them. Mabel was often worn out, when she came home from the studio, and sometimes she could hardly stand up. I always had a bath ready for her, but fifteen minutes after getting out, she’d don her movie star ‘clobber’ (as Charlie Chaplin termed it) and leave the house. I always tried to stop her going out, telling her she needed to stay in more often, especially when she had an early morning start at the studio. Mabel was impossible, and called us selfish by making her stay home for our own amusement. It’s true, we loved it when she stayed home. We were, after all, there for her, and when she was out, we felt redundant. Of course, she had to maintain her Hollywood contacts – attend parties and premieres. There was another thing – she could not have men around overnight. She was a single girl, and believe me, people (pressmen) were watching to see that men entering the house were gone by nightfall. In Hollywood they called her “She of a thousand lovers” an exaggeration of course, for they numbered less than a hundred, perhaps around seventy in her lifetime – as her box of engagement rings attests. Some people, outside Hollywood, called her a whore, but I can say that she never charged even one red cent for her ‘services’. She was, of course, blessed (or cursed) with a great passion for men, created, I think, by her desire to be loved. Men were probably the source of all her problems, as will be seen further on. Many times, she’d stagger home at 6 a.m. after a night’s partying and rutting with some hunk she’d met at a party. Of course, I had the unenviable task of bringing her around, and getting her fit for the studio. I always managed to get her to Allesandro Street by at least 2 p.m.
At the house we always had interrupted sleep, when Mabel was at home. Mabel was a notoriously bad sleeper, and suffered from severe night sweats and night ‘terrors’. Consequently, she often wandered the house all night long. In the morning, I’d often find her comatosed in bed, and frozen stiff, as she’d thrown the bedclothes completely off. She became a mini-radiator during the night. That made we wonder how a man could lie close to her hot little body. Then it hit me – when she was in the arms of a lover, she was much calmer, and did not suffer the night terrors. Why didn’t she marry? Mabel knew Hollywood unions never worked, and the standard joke was “Don’t worry, if you miss your friend’s wedding, you can always go to the next one in about twelve month’s time.” Mabel took the sensible approach – had all the men she wanted, gained dozens of diamond rings, and had the option of dumping the guy along with her empty gin bottles.
Big Success and A Mad Chauffeur.
Late 1923 brought a big change down Hollywood way. At the house, there was talk, among the visiting starlets, of the advent of ‘talkies’ being close. I heard Connie Talmadge say she was persuading her sisters to bank their cash and ‘get out’, or, if all fails, grab a millionaire. Mabel was quietly worried I’m sure, but her film Extra Girl was a huge success, and critics said it was the greatest thing since Mickey. We went along to the pre-release screening and sat with Mabel and her movie friends – all furs, boa feathers and diamonds. If I told anyone that I’d been out with the stars, they’d have said I was nuts. Sitting with us was Edna Purviance, Chaplin’s leading lady, with whom Mabel had been on friendly terms for many years. Her own film, A Woman of Paris, was also released about this time. I went to the premiere with Mabel, and got a shock. Charlie’s name was in the credits, but he did not appear on the screen. The audience began shuffling their feet, and there were mutterings of “Where’s Chaplin?” Edna was led sobbing outside by Mabel, who mouthed “Keep watching” to me, as she went. The film bombed. Now you might have heard that Mabel was furious at Chaplin for not taking her as his leading lady. I cannot give an opinion on whether she held this grudge or not, but she did hold grudges – like for ever. Whether this has any bearing on what happened next, I do not know.
It was around about this time that a new gardener-chauffeur came to the house. Mabel had just bought a flashy Packard Twin-six (12 cylinder) motor car, and the chauffeur (Joe Kelly) was included in the package. He was quite liked by all of us, and, naturally, lived out. Mabel herself was kind of crumbling at this time, with all the worry of the impending talkie takeover. There were many furious arguments with Mabel, over her crazy lifestyle. I remember physically grabbing her, as she tried to leave for a party one night, all togged up with $100,000 worth of jewels. “Look Mabel, you’ve got an early start tomorrow, stay home and have an early night.” She stood and adopted the blazing-eyed look, then screamed:
“O.k. if I’m too stupid to know when to go out, I’ll get my gun and blow my head off.”
She ran for the stairs, as Mamie Owens screamed:
“Stop her, someone stop her!”
Mabel ran halfway up the stairs, turned and screamed at us:
“When will you lot leave me alone!”
This gave me the chance, and I ran up and grabbed her ankles, upending her. The others piled in, and we got her off the stairs. Eventually, Mabel calmed down, and for the first time in months she had a meal at home. Eating her portions every night, we’d all got as fat as butter. Next day we discussed getting rid of the gun. Well, she might not miss the one in her bedroom, but we knew she always carried its twin in her bag. If we removed this one, she’d notice straight away. Now we entered a different time. Edna had acquired a new boyfriend, a multi-millionaire called Courtland Dines. I was somewhat dismayed, when Edna and ‘Courts’ kept calling around. They were both very immature, and I thought them to be a bad influence on Mabel. A couple of times they brought a pet monkey with them which greatly annoyed housekeeper Mamie Owens “If that darned thing shits in here once more, I’ll shove it down Edna’s throat!” Another threat made by Mabel was to bob her hair, which caused us to run around in a blind panic, trying to hide all the scissors.
Now things began to change. Courts kept phoning, arranging to meet Mabel alone in this restaurant or that restaurant. Mabel seemed to encourage this, but I thought she might have initiated the affair. Why? The fear of the future, naturally – he was her fall back if everything went wrong. In any case, Mabel was fiercely competitive, and had stolen no end of starlet’s boyfriends in the past. I think she just HAD to do it, to prove herself. Then, Mabel began to go cold on Courts. I think she realised her career was not going to just end, and she did not need someone like Dines, who seemed to me, to be insane. But he was greatly annoyed and often phoned, screaming obscenities down the line. On New Year’s Eve 1924, Mabel went to two parties – one at Dines’ apartment and one somewhere else – probably it was at Mack Sennett’s place. Anyhow Mabel came home in the early hours of New Year’s Day, on the back of the milk cart. I found her lying on the doorstep along with the milk. We brought her in like a sack of fur-covered potatoes, and put her to bed. Mabel woke up about three p.m., as right as rain, but about 5 o’ clock, Edna phoned, asking Mabel to come around for a few drinks. I don’t think Mabel wanted to go, as she had an appendix operation booked for the next day and was in the middle of taking her Christmas tree down. However, she decided to go around there for just an hour, and told Kelly to bring the car round. I was concerned, as Dines was acting strangely, and I thought he might turn violent. As Mabel left, I reminded her of the military brushes she’d brought Courts for Christmas, but having forgotten them, they still lay on a small table by the door.
“Oh, fuck him, I’ll give that ignorant bastard nothing.”
Mabel was generous with Christmas presents and even Joe, an employee of 6 weeks, received a pair of platinum cuff-links. We had great problems buying for Mabel – just what DO you buy for the girl that has everything? Anyhow, when Joe came back, he came in for a sandwich and a coffee. He told us Dines was in a strange and violent mood. He was fuming over those brushes, and picked an argument with Mabel, but Joe bit his tongue. Joe, like everyone, was very protective of his diminutive employer, and I remember Chaplin telling me that, when he’d once had words with Mabel on set, the crew decided to beat him to a pulp. If Mabel hadn’t stopped them, he’d be playing his harp right now. It was about 8 o’clock, when Mabel phoned a little the worse for the gargle. She asked that Joe come and collect her. In the background, I could hear Court cursing and swearing – in fact he was sneering at Mabel and said she wasn’t going home.
I said to Joe:
“Go get her now, Dines is holding her against her will.”
Joe did no more but flew up the stairs and grabbed Mabel’s gun. I tried to stop him, but he got the weapon and flew out the door. The next I heard was that Joe had shot Dines, and Mabel and Edna were down at the cop shop. Mabel phoned and said she’d be home soon. When she got back, it was discussed as to whether she should go for the next day’s operation. I said she should, as it would keep the L.A.P.D. off her back. Mabel agreed, and left early to avoid the law, in case they turned up. However, Mabel did end up as a witness in court, and was pilloried by the press for being jokey with the judge, and speaking in a high-class English accent, “totally unsuited to a guttersnipe, who’d only just crawled from the trashcan”.
Such was her treatment at the hands of the law that, when I gave a short statement to the press, Mabel got very angry with me. Kelly (actually an escaped convict called Greer) told the press that I’d given him the gun to defend himself, but I said that he’d taken the gun from Mabel’s lingerie drawer in the bedroom on his own initiative. This obviously meant that Kelly knew his way around Mabel’s bedroom. The press had a field day and said it proved the innocent Keystone Girl was little better than a prostitute. Mabel confronted me with blazing eyes:
“You know what that means, Ethel. It means that I fuck with the help! They think I’m someone that hires men just to bed them!”
I burst into floods of tears, I’d thought I was helping Mabel, but I’d helped crucify her. Mabel, then, changed right back again, and began to console me. Of course, I’d made another mistake, I’d told the cops, that the Kelly gun was one of a pair — Mabel carried the other gun in her bag. This meant that there were TWO guns in the room that night!
“Look Ethel, I’m having a bad time right now, and I must ‘let you go’ to save my neck. I’ll give you three month’s pay, and when the fuss has died down, I’ll bring you back”.
It was the same old Mabel, generous to a fault. She suspected that Sennett had planted Kelly, to ensure that she didn’t marry Dines, meaning, naturally, she would come under the sway of another man (by the way, Dines was committed to an asylum for the insane, just a few years later). Mabel confronted The King, and forced him to find me an apartment and pay the rent. The events that followed are too horrible to mention, but eventually Mabel fell out with Betty Coss, and in a drunken rage, accused her of hiring Kelly, in collusion with Sennett. Betty stormed out, and despite two years of pleading, she never came back, so hurt was she. On the good side, Mabel wrote Betty a reference so she could get another job, while Betty supported her in relation to Mabel’s third scandal, where a Mrs Church named her in a divorce petition. I also never returned to Mabel, whose life changed dramatically in 1925/6, when she bought a Beverly Hills mansion, settled down (sort of) and married (sort of). The last time I had anything to do with Mabel was on February 28th 1930 – the day we buried The Keystone Girl.
Los Angeles Examiner, January 2, 1924 COURTLAND S. DINES SHOT by Chandler Sprague. From Mabel Normand: A Sourcebook of Her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman.
“Daily Talks by Mary Pickford,” (syndicated column), July 1916
PERSONALITIES I HAVE MET.: Mabel Normand. From Mabel Normand: A Sourcebook of Her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman.
Nevada State Journal: GAY COMPANIONS ARE RAPPED FOR MABEL’S MIX UPS, January 12th 1924.