Mabel’s colonial-style house on Melrose Hill.
If you’d been standing on the corner of Melrose Hill and Marathon, Los Angeles, on a certain day in mid-1916, you’d have seen a small Maxwell cabriolet car, drive up Marathon, turn into Melrose Hill, and stop. You might have also noticed the driver, a young girl, apparently aged about twelve, with a mass of golden curls streaming behind her in the breeze, and you’d also, perhaps, note that she’d stopped outside an impressive colonial or sugar plantation-style mansion. Her name was Gladys Smith, usually known by her stage name Mary Pickford, and she’d come to visit her old friend, the sensation of 1916 Hollywood, Mabel Normand. Mary walked up the garden path to the front door and yanked the bell cord, thereby releasing the chimes of old London town’s Big Ben.
As she waited, Mary went over her reasons for seeing Mabel. This was no social visit, for Mary and Mabel rarely met, and, in fact, avoided each other – they were about as incompatible as chalk and cheese. No, Mary was there to interview Mabel for her daily newspaper column, and Mabel really was newsworthy, having just become the first actor or actress to have their name emblazoned above a film studio. Should she, perhaps, curtsy before the newly-crowned Queen of all Hollywood? But now the door swung open revealing Mabel’s Japanese butler, who ushered her in with the words “Madam, you are most truly welcome, M’lady is expecting you.” The butler led Mary into what he called ‘the lounge’ and there was Mabel, sitting on a sofa, wearing…. a filmy negligee. She stood up, the negligee only dropping a couple of inches, as she walked to meet Mary, who she proceeded to hug and kiss. This embarrassed Mary – being hugged by a girl in a nightie was not what she was expecting. She should have known – Mabel was famous for walking around the Biograph dressing room in the altogether – the intention being, as now, to embarrass and intimidate, especially the newer girls, who would disappear behind the screens to change costumes.
At that point, the butler arrives with a tray. “Tea, M’lady?” asks the butler. Both Mary and Mabel take their tea, but Mary notices a strong alcoholic aroma from Mabel’s dainty cup, “Is that gin?” she asks herself. Indeed, it was, but should Mabel have had asked Mary if she wanted some spirits, she knew she’d turn it down. In fact, Mary was already a secret alcoholic. Now she is staring at Mabel.
“You know, Mabel, you’re just so darned feminine.”
“Of course, Mary, I am female you know.”
“Yes, but look at me, I’m alright until you get down to my boxer’s chin, then it all goes wrong. I’m fat and podgy, and I walk like I’m wearing diver’s boots, while you glide around, as though on wheels. You’re so, so pretty, Mabel”
“Well, if I am, I had nothing to do with it – it’s all down to Mr and Mrs Normand.” Returned Mabel.
In fact, it was said that Mabel, although very pretty on screen, was unbelievably stunning in real life, or radiantly beautiful, as Charlie Chaplin once said.
The pair now began to reminisce about the ‘old days’ at Biograph.
Mary began “Do you remember, when Griffith told me he would never star me in a big film, because I was too fat, and you came over, and slammed him in the chops for being so impudent.”
“Indeed, I do Mary, that man was a phoney – an asshole of the first water.”
“I don’t know, Mabel, how you had the nerve to do such things. You had no stage mother to back you up”
“That’s true Mary dear – but I did have a stage father, Mack Sennett, and if anyone had laid a finger on his Biograph Girl, then he would have punched their lights out. Simple as that.”
Griffith had, in fact, later thrown Mary across the set, leaving her with a suspected broken arm, and had once pushed Blanche Sweet clear off the stage, in a violent temper. Their stage mothers, anxious for the Griffith dollar, said nothing.
Mary looked around the room.
“Oh, Mabel, I just love your oriental furnishings.”
Naturally, the furnishings were out of sync with the house, but that was Mabel’s style, heavy and very Edwardian, even Victorian. Thus, it would be for the rest of her life.
“Would you like to have a look round?” Asked Mabel.
“Would I? You bet I would!”
Mary revelled in the opportunity, although, if she’d turned up at Mabel’s house-warming party, as invited, she’d have seen the house already. Mary did not come, nor did she ever come to Mabel’s legendary parties, where she’d have run into the scurrilous, and incorrigible rogues that Mabel liked to party with. She only ever came to a Mabel ‘do’ once, when her mother sent her to find out why, at 4 a.m., her sister, Lottie, had not come home. She found Lottie comatosed on the floor, lying in a pool of vomit, with a drunken Mabel, and her equally drunken gigolos, stepping around and over her. She called brother Jack to help get Lottie up, but the stoned Jack simply shouted “Oh, leave her alone, she’s having a good time, which is more than you’ve ever had!” Like so many others, Mary’s siblings had come under Mabel’s spell at Biograph, and remained the playthings of the Goddess to this very day.
Mabel led Mary on the tour of the 8-bedroomed, 6-bathroomed pile, redolent of a small country hotel. It was fantastic, and the views over rural Los Angeles, out to the hills, were to die for, as, indeed, was Mabel’s 4-poster bed, surrounded by photos of movie stars. One was missing — Mary Pickford. Mary took a mental note. One day she’d have a place like this, where she could hold court for the world’s greatest celebrities. How had Mabel done this, it cost a lot of money to persuade a Hollywood resident to allow a scumbag actress to rent such a place. “I know”, she thought, “It was Mack Sennett’s doing.” The wheels began to turn – her husband, Owen Moore, was a dead loss, but if she left him, she might be able to marry into real money, or at least double her income. She mentioned nothing of this to Mabel, as she was on far more friendly terms with Owen than his goldilocksian wife. Part of the thinly veiled rift between Mary and Mabel, was due to how Mabel perceived the way she treated Owen. Sure, Mabel was polite to Mary, in public, but, in private, she vented her fury at the ‘prissy bitch’, as she called her. Secretly, of course, and like the other ex-Biograpgh Girls, Mary admired Mabel. Mabel who would accept no bridle, was unafraid of any man, any high cliff, or bucking bronco. If she wanted a role, she took it, if she yearned for any man, she took him as well. Oh to be like Mabel, and party all night, ‘dis’ the director and not worry about letting forth a constant stream of obscenities from her sweet mouth. For all this Mabel received payment in the form of diamonds by the cartload, from the men that fought to know her.
The pair now got down to the interview, but Mary soon put down her notebook and pencil, and sighed.
“Mabel, you’ve made it.”
“Yes Mary, I think I have.”
“I don’t know how you did it, but you’ve taken on the big shots of the movies and won. The whole world sits at your feet, the first actress (or actor) to have their name over a studio gate. What do you think about that?”
“Well, I’m quite pleased, naturally, but it’s not such a big deal.”
“Not a big deal! Do you remember how Florence Lawrence used to strut around The Biograph, rubbing it in that she was the big star of the movies.”
“Yeah, I remember, helped herself to other girl’s cosmetics, without a by your leave.”
“That’s right Mabel, but she’s all washed up now, and you’re in her place! Then you went and beat me in the Motion Picture Star contest by a whole 100,000 votes last year.”
“Well, Mary, I was top comedienne, but you were top leading lady.”
“Oh lord, do you remember, when you were the great tragedienne at Biograph, how you got all the girls, and no small number of men, crying real tears. You were good Mabel, real good, but I can’t hardly believe that you’re now the world’s greatest comedienne.”
“Yeah, that’s true Mary, but this film Mickey is my last comedy. After this I want to get back to drama and tragedy, of which you’ll see quite a lot in Mickey.”
“I can’t wait Mabel, I’m sure you’ll be wonderful. Remember, how you used to win all our crying contests – you’d be in floods of tears in a split second.”
“I’ve got a confession to make Mary, I used to cheat, by reading the Death Notices in the newspaper, before the contest.”
“Well, you won anyway, and do you remember those great films we made together, where you played the tragic under-dog, and how the crew gave you standing ovations after every scene.”
Mabel did remember, but she also remembered that they only made one film together, ‘The Mender of Nets’, after which Mary refused to work with Mabel again. Mary claimed that she’d suffered nightmares, for weeks following Mender, due to Mabel’s eyes being so scary, after Mary stole her screen boyfriend. Mabel was scary, when in the zone, as Virginia Kirtley and Alice Davenport attested, after Mabel chased them down, and beat them with a stick in Mabel’s Dramatic Career, a film in which she also whacked Mack Sennett in the nose. 300-pound women also posed no terror for Mabel, and she’d glibly flicked Marie Dressler in the nose in Tillies Punctured Romance. Mary was lying anyway, the reason she bailed out of Mabel films, was that Mabel had effectively acted her off the set.
“By the way, Mary, how’s that little scamp Jack getting on. I haven’t seen him for ages.”
Mary’s face hardened, although she tried to hide it. She was certain brother Jack had had an affair with Mabel at Biograph. As far as Mary was concerned, 14-year old Jack had been seduced and bedded by the 17-year old Mabel, and he was now a rampant womanizer, and an alcoholic, all due to Mabel. What she’d forgotten, though, was that both parties would have been regarded as minors in most states, so apart from being slightly immoral, it was not illegal. Mary made her reply:
“Jack is holed up with that Ziegfield dancing whore, Olive Thomas. He says he’s going to marry her – it’s all very disgusting. “
“Oh, I simply love Olive, don’t you? I saw the stills from the film she’s starring in – she’s got to be the most beautiful girl in the world.”
Mabel had completely ignored what Mary had said, and was simply rubbing the salt in. Mary coloured up, but forced herself to remain calm – Mabel had a way of surreptitiously taking people apart, but, if Mary had known that Olive would later be called The World’s Sweetheart, she’d have gone out of her mind. Mary, of course, was merely America’s Sweetheart.
Her business completed, Mary said her goodbyes, and departed. As the door closed, Mabel turned to her butler, muttering “Two-faced bitch.” To Mabel, Mary was just that, a fraud, a prim and proper slime-ball, who’d only recently crawled from the gutters of Toronto.
Thoughts on Mabel.
As Mary drove off, she felt herself gritting her teeth. That cow, she thought, did not deserve a posh house and her own studio, and she made a mental note to achieve producer status, and gain a top-of-the-hill mansion that would better anything The Keystone Girl had, and she would not flounce around her pile in a nightie, when visitors were present. Nightie indeed! The memory of her husband putting his arm around nightie-clad Mabel in The Little Teacher, the previous year, came into her mind. Then it hit her – they’d been having an affair! The girl’s trash, she thought, and I’m going to expose her rubbish in my column. “Keystone Girl is a whore” the headline will read. Could she do this? Of course, she couldn’t. Mary was a serial philanderer, a cheap manizer, someone who’d had a backstreet abortion, and was currently in an extra-marital relationship with Doug Fairbanks. Hollywood, let alone the press, would crucify her. Her future career, her own mansion and studio were at risk, if she squealed on Mabel. “Let it go, Mary, let it go.”
Mary wrote her story, eulogising Mabel, but she was determined to equal Mabel in the house and studio stakes. The following year, she moved into 56 Fremont Place, a classical villa, redolent of ancient Rome, but this, although impressive, was un-American. Imagine – America’s Sweetheart living in an Italianate house. Things changed, and a year later, Mary is married to Doug Fairbanks, and moves into the fabled Pickfair – Doug’s hunting lodge up in Beverly Hills – the first in that illustrious place. Not only was this house of Anglo-Saxon style, but it was quintessentially Olde English in character, and stood in 18 acres. However, it barely equalled Mabel’s estate house, and the Fairbankses were soon turning it into a 28-room, four-story English country house, with the first in-the-ground pool in Los Angeles.
Doug and Mary soon had their own studios, and created their own distribution company with Griffith and Chaplin. Everything was ready for the celebrities, Albert Einstein, Ghandi, Lord Mountbatten that they proposed to have around. Maybe she could even persuade the Prince of Wales to come around for tea. Mabel, though, had moved on. She was working in Fort lee, New Jersey, for Sam Goldwyn in New York until 1918, then chose to rent apartments, when she moved back to L.A., as she could soon be back east. Around 1921, she moved into the bohemian area of L.A., out at 3089 West 7th Street, where she’d be among literary and artistic types. Her house was a rented duplex, with a movie director next door. Such houses tended to be fairly small, and hardly palatial, but, with Mabel in her bohemian period, and still single, she had no need of a huge mansion. The house reminded her of the artists’ loft home she’d lived in Greenwich village, while recovering from a severe illness. Also, around this time, she bought her parents a large Gothic-style house in St. Georges, Staten Island, replete with ‘damsel-in-distress’ turrets, for $20,000 – not bad, considering you’d need a million to buy it today.
Mabel lived on 7th Street, while she was embroiled in the Fatty Arbuckle, W.D. Taylor, and Courtland Dines scandals. Fingers pointed at Mabel, as it was thought that she was present at the wild Roscoe Arbuckle party, where actress Virginia Rappe died, and knew more about the shootings of Taylor and Dines than she’d admitted. On all occasions, Mary Pickford wrote letters of support to the newspapers, on behalf of Mabel and Roscoe. However, following the Dines scandal Mabel had to go on tour, in order to publicise and save her new film, Extra Girl, whose release run was endangered by calls to ban Mabel films. Following the successful tour, Mabel left L.A. on a second tour, this time a theatrical tour for her stage play The Little Mouse, which, although playing to packed houses, was abandoned half way through, but Mabel came back to L.A. clutching a million dollars, to join the more than a million gained from her profits share from Extra Girl. It now became necessary for Mabel to show she’d settled down, and, in mid-1925, she bought a Spanish, adobe-style mansion at 526 Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, for $20,000. Again, the house, although eye-catching, was not palatial, nor pretentious, but, like Mabel, it was petite and beautiful, and oh so Spanish.
A worrying time for the ‘silents’.
Following the Dines scandal, the denizens of Tinseltown began to worry about their future careers, as they were now tarnished, and, undeniably, ‘talkies’ were on the way. Doug and Mary were fretting more than most, and, in 1925, pulled up the Pickfair drawbridge, and withdrew from Hollywood society. Henceforth, admittance to the Beverly Hills pile was strictly by invitation only, and, unless you were Charlie Chaplin, a great scientist, a US President, or a member of the English aristocracy, you were not welcome. When Valentino unexpectedly appeared on the Pickfair lawn one day, Doug grabbed ‘the Greasy Greek’ (as he called him) by the scruff, marched him to the gate, and threw him out. He would not have an oily dancing boy, sniffing around his wife. This just about summed up the couple’s problems – neither had been entirely faithful during their marriage.
In early 1930 Mabel left this mortal coil, a harbinger of the uncomfortable fate awaiting the Hollywooders. Chaplin began his slide into insanity, Keystoners, Roscoe Arbuckle and Marie Prevost, along with Florence Lawrence and Renee Adoree, among many others, breathed their last as the 1930s rolled on. Of the Pickfords, once a tight family group of four, only one, Mary, was left by 1938. The matriarch, Charlotte, had died of cancer, while Lottie and Jack passed on early, as a result, ‘tis said, of their riotous lifestyles. Doug and Mary had separated in 1935, but, by 1939, Doug too was no more. Alone in her hill-top mansion, Mary had begun to go ‘aging silent star crazy’, and was only saved by the intervention of, and marriage to, the understanding Buddy Rogers. Buddy kept Mary on an even keel for decades, until Mary began to lose her mind in around 1960, as the alcohol seeped deep into her brain. By 1965, The Sweetheart had retired permanently to her bed, before dying of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1979.
What, then, of the Hollywood mansions.
In spite of many people thinking that Pickfair still exists, it has, in fact, been demolished. Who, you might ask, would have dared lay insolent hands on the greatest monument to the silent era? The perpetrator was one Pia Zadora, who bought the house in 1989, for $7-million (the present house is valued at $28-million). Doug and Mary’s English country mansion, was replaced by an ostentatious ‘Venetian-style palazzo’, in other words an Italianate palace, or just what Mary had avoided. Pia had some explaining to do, and she initially claimed the house was infested with termites, which could not be eradicated. However, she later claimed the house had been haunted by the ghost of a woman, sometimes seen as well as heard. The fleeting apparition passed through walls, being apparently attired in a translucent nightdress, and emitting a hoarse, mocking and dirty laugh, reminiscent of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. This does not sound like Mary, but does sound very much like Mabel, perhaps attempting, from the other side, to have Mary’s house knocked down. Nah, there’s no such thing as ghosts – is there?
Unlike Pickfair, 56 Fremont is extant today, standing proud in its classical magnificence. Mabel’s rented colonial-style house on Melrose Hill, is said to have been demolished, but a remarkably similar house stands in its place. If this is the same house, then the 360-degree veranda has been taken away. 3089 West 7th Street, staked out for 4 years by the press, is now a supermarket, but 526 Camden still stands, currently valued at $8-million. In St. Georges, Staten Island, the Gothic house Mabel bought her parents, still stands, and once again appears to be haunted, by a benign female spirit. Contrary to what many believe, Mabel’s brother, Claude, did not commit suicide in the basement of this house in the 1940s. He cut his throat, at another house, in a fit of depression over the tragedy of his sister’s life. One other Mabel house still stands, the Altadena house, where Mabel holed up during the Taylor murder investigation. The current value is $2.2-million.
You do not need to know much about L.A. and its environs, to realise that Mary and Mabel never lived more than a mile a part in that city. And yet, there is no evidence that the pair ever made regular house calls on each other, or attended functions together. When the Mabel Normand memorial plaque was unveiled in 1940, during the Night of a Thousand Stars at Republic Studios, both Mary and Charlie Chaplin were notable by their absence. Outside of stills for The Mender of Nets, it is noteworthy that there is not one extant photograph of these two premier stars together.
Mary and Mabel really were chalk and cheese. For all of her business acumen, Mary was socially inept, while Mabel was a financial scatterbrain, who was socially adept. Mary had little in the way of small talk, and leaned greatly on the men she married, which is why she ditched the somewhat incapable Owen Moore. Doug Fairbanks was not just a tree-swinging ape (as Mabel might have called him) but he also had a marvellous business brain. He was, however a chauvinistic bigot of the first order, and thought nothing of ridiculing and belittling his wife in public. It was Doug that decided on the visitors that came to Pickfair, and a number of Mary’s old acquaintances from Biograph, were kept away. From the available evidence, it appears that, while small-town American mothers were cooing over lovely couple Doug and Mary, their red-blooded daughters were held spell-bound by Mabel, the emancipated daredevil, who brooked no bridle, always had the headlines, and seemed to have a new man on her arm every week — men that she would regularly discard, along with her empty gin bottles. It is worth considering whether many of the starry-eyed girls that were lured to Hollywood, came there as a result of their perception of the Mabel Normand rags to riches story. Mabel was, after all, a legend in her own lifetime.