THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS: MABEL’S MAID TELLS ALL .

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Press-eye view of the Movie Stars (1922).

Introduction.

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.

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Marcelline Day.

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.

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Mabel’s’ sugar plantation’ house, Melrose Hill.

Ethel’s Story.

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.

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“Ooh, Lookie Mary, that’s just the house I want.”

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.

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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.

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Mabel gets scary in Mender of Nets.

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.

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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.

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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].

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Mabel and Chow on West 7th Street.

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.”

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Mabel in bed with movie star photos around.

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.

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Decency pencilled in: Mabel’s bloomers.

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.

“Yes.”

“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.

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Little girl lost in the desert. Mabel in Suzanna.

 

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”

“What!”

Then, I realised that this was a suite of rooms. I opened a door. Inside was a huge marble bath.

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Mabel’s marble bath pictured during demolition. Late 1920s.

“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.

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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?

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Mabel is popular with the girls.

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.

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“Just a pint more gin, I think.”

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.

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“Don’t worry George, I’ve got a trunk-full at home.

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.

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The trappings of success: Twin-6 Packard and Beverly Hills mansion. Mabel in 1925.

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.

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Dines and girls run a little play on a yacht. Mabel seems to be going for a gun.

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.

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Dines Apartment.

“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”.

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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”.

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Mabel’s wire to Betty. The ‘baby’ bit did not really help.

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.

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Bibliography.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

GOLDILOCKS IN HOLLYWOOD: THE MARY PICKFORD STORY, 1892 – 1920.

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Not many people are interested in silent movies, but most of the ‘non-believers’ have heard of Mary Pickford and her business associate and ‘thorn in the side’ Charlie Chaplin. Of course, there were thousands of other stars in the industry that manufactured new starlets at the rate of around twenty a week. Many people have dismissed both Mary and Charlie as mere money-grabbers, who, if they hadn’t fallen into pictures, would have been big in some other financially lucrative field. This is undoubtedly true, but they were also very good at what they did in the ‘flickers’. Interestingly, neither of these greats were live wires or committed party goers, although Charlie, at the insistence of a certain Miss Normand, did attend parties, even though, unlike Mary, he did not partake of the gargle. Miss Normand and Mr. Chaplin had very interesting lives, but so did Miss Pickford. This is her story, up until 1920. For the period 1920 on, you can read it by following this link:

https://thekeystonegirlblogs.wordpress.com/2019/09/16/a-big-house-on-a-hill-the-feted-days-of-doug-and-mary/

Product of Canada.

Born in Hogtown (Toronto) Canada, in 1892, as Gladys Louise Smith, a citizen of the British Empire, the later ‘America’s Sweetheart’ arrived into a comfortable but not wealthy family. Mary was joined by two other siblings, before tragedy struck and her father was killed in an accident aboard a ship. This plunged the family into poverty, and Mary’s grandmother moved in to help. Mama, Charlotte, had to work to support them, and spent some time in the none too well-paid clothing industry. By all accounts mother was a good seamstress, and Mary had to muck in and learn the trade. Meanwhile, she also had to care for the little ones. This might explain why Lottie (nickname ‘Chuckie’) and Jack grew up carefree, while Mary was forever the rock and confident of the family. Similarly, way down in Ohio, there was a comparable sibling to sibling relationship between Lillian Gish and her younger sister Dorothy. Eventually, the Smith family crossed the border into ‘the states’ where Charlotte found work for all the family in the theatre, which was where they met the Gish family, whose lives were to run parallel with the Smiths. The Smiths first met the Gishes, at a casting selection for a play. Lillian and Dorothy, who appeared small, but weren’t that small (they were just sweet), were sitting on the other side of the room. Mary noticed they were incredibly well-dressed, and the Smiths wondered who they were. Naturally, they would not approach them until they’d been formally introduced. After some little discussion, Jack (the ‘scamp’ of the family) jumped up, saying “I’ll find out who they are?” He went over to the girls, and was soon in a conversation with them in the way he would with girls forever after.  He came back and told his family that they were Lillian and Dorothy Gish. The name Lillian Gish went around Mary’s head for a while, until she suddenly realised something. This was the girl that had stolen a big theatre part from her a short while back. However, Mary wasn’t one to dwell on things, and soon Jack brought the Gish family over, and they all became friends, notwithstanding the fact that Lillian took this part from Mary as well. Jack, naturally, remained much enamoured of Dotty — forever.

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Mary and her mother meet  up with the Gish sisters.

Hair is Everything.

Mary, was now developing her little Lord Fauntleroy or Goldilocks hairstyle, which she hoped would make her unique. The problem was that it required much attention and the use of three different types of roller – one lot for the waves on top, another for the main body of the hair, and yet another for the banana curls. Once the rollers went in, that was it, there was no partying or night out of any kind that day, nor any other day. As Mary once told Claire Windsor, “My success is entirely down to my hair.” The hairdo was so successful that all the actresses began to copy it. Mabel Normand, who preferred the natural look, was later forced by Mack Sennett to adopt the banana curl. Mabel hated them – they were itchy, hot and made her feel uncomfortable. Staying home at night didn’t suit her, so she did what most girls did, and made the ropes (as she called them) using rags. When not in shot, she immediately piled them up on her head. Claire Windsor later revealed that, to prevent the rollers digging into her head while asleep, Mary put her hand between her hair and her head. Over time this resulted in damage to the nerves in her hand, partially paralyzing it. Everyone, including Mary, was glad when the flapper ‘bob cut’ came into fashion and they could shear off those ridiculous ‘ropes’.

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Mabel wears some particularly ridiculous banana curls in Extra Girl, where she’s supposed to be an aspiring movie star.

Down on East Fourteenth Street.

The Smith family were very successful on the stage, but Mama was fully aware that she was no longer in the flush of youth. She would not be able to travel the country, act all evening, and slave all night to make her children’s clothes, for much longer. On top of that the theatrical circuit only operated during the winter months, so, having heard that the flickers worked all year round, she sent her best asset, Mary, along to the Biograph Studio. Was Mary displeased? You bet – she had a good position within the prestigious David Belasco company, and was afraid that pictures would damage her reputation, and finish her for theatre work. However, she always obeyed mama, so down to the Griffith studio she went. After checking that nobody she knew was watching, Mary dashed up the steps. Almost immediately, she was confronted by a tall man with a big, long nose – movie genius, D.W. Griffith. He looked Mary up and down in a most unpleasant manner, and demanded:

 “Are you an actress?”

“Well, what do you think – ten years on the stage and two of those with David Belasco” Mary replied tersely.

“No, don’t think I can use you” and then the genius turned to walk away.

“Why not?” asked Mary.

Griffith turned his head back, pointed at her and said simply:

“Too fat!”

Well, Mary knew she was chubby, but outright fat? No way!

“O.K. Mister high and mighty, let me tell you something – you are the most ignorant, self-opinionated, obnoxious-looking excuse for a man that I have ever met. I wouldn’t work here, even for fifty bucks-a-week.”

Mary turned to walk away, but the guy grabbed her by the arm, and said:

“You know, you might well be worth that fifty a week.”

Mary was of a mind to tell the ignoramus to stick his job, but what would mama say? Mary was put to work straight away, but was slightly put off by the informality of the actors, who greeted each other by their first names! Mary was used to being called Miss Smith. It was on this very day that our Mary ran into the Queen of The Movies, Florence Lawrence. Mary was in the dressing room, when The Queen breezed in, pushing all the girls aside, and snatching up Mary’s compact to powder her nose. Mary glared at her saying:

“Hey, that’s mine!”

The Queen glared fiercely back at her, then swanned off, without uttering a word. Mary was fuming, but the girls told her to calm down, as no-one dared disrespect The Queen. “Queen, I’ll give her Queen.” Mary made a mental note – one day she’d pull the bitch’s head down from up her ass, and knock her clear off her throne. Not long after, The Queen made a huge error, and got herself fired from the studio, and became a blazing, falling star. Good riddance, thought Mary. Mary was somewhat miffed at the familiarity going on, and guys and girls seemed to be disappearing periodically behind the scenery. Not only that, but some of the men were approaching her, apparently with lewd intentions. One was a certain Owen Moore, but as he was called on set, Mary found that she quite liked him. However, there was a big, uncouth animal of a man staring at her. As Owen passed by, the guy caught his arm

“Whose the dame?” He asked.

Well, Mary was incensed. In those days the term ‘Dame’ meant something quite different. She marched straight up to him and asked him why he treated her so disrespectfully. The guy merely grinned and seemed highly amused. Later she discovered his name was Mack Sennett, an ignorant Irishman, who’d been a boiler-maker, a boxer and, they said, a pimp down on the Bowery. Mary went on to make numerous films alongside the future King of Comedy.

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“Ooh” says Mary as she runs into Mack Sennett in 1911.

 

Mary was delighted to find that the studio paid by the day, and she happily collected her ten-dollars pay that evening. She made her way to the theatre where the family were performing. Unfortunately, there was an unusually heavy storm, which soaked her, destroying her new blue serge suit, shoes and straw hat. She made her way to the dressing room, where she found mother and Chuckie were on stage. Jack was curled up like a snail, asleep on top of a trunk. When mother returned, Mary said “I…I.. m…m.. made ten dollars” through chattering teeth. Mother took the sodden ten dollars, and did a quick calculation. The ruined clothes were worth fifteen dollars, but the rest of the week would be almost clear profit. That very night, mama made Mary a new outfit – clothes meant everything in the theatre and the flickers. The most modish person at the studio was Dorothy Davenport, the daughter of actress Alice Davenport, and future wife of Wally Reid. She had relatives who travelled regularly out to Europe, where they acquired Parisian gowns. Griffith often rented hats, dresses, and parasols from Miss Davenport, and gave them to Mary to wear in a picture. The cost? Ten dollars a time. “The movie industry must be mad!” Thought Mary.

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The Pickford bunch or the Romanovs? Mary, enticing Lottie and rascally Jack.

Eventually, the entire Smith family moved over to Biograph. Things went well for Mary, but every actress was made to fight for the roles. Griffith used various tricks, but eventually the girls formed their own unofficial trades union. What they would do was refuse to fight openly over roles, and they would never disrespect each other. Griffith tried to drive a wedge between them, but was largely unsuccessful. During this time, Mary played many parts, some of which she was unsuited to. Often, she had to don a dark wig and play a villainess or some such evil character. This Mary did not like, especially as she had a devil of a job getting said wig over her ‘big’ hair. Then, there came a stroke of luck. As she passed by the dressing room, she saw a beautifully dark apparition sitting there. She had wonderfully big eyes and a gorgeous mouth that was to die for. Mabel Normand had arrived, and she was soon doing the villainous and temptress stuff, all of which she picked up very easily, notwithstanding the fact that she had never acted before. Mary was off the hook, and she could get on with the goody-two-shoes stuff. Mabel was useful in another way. She was man flypaper, and took the heat off Mary, so she could concentrate on her love, Owen Moore. Owen, of course, was mad about Mabel, but being involved with Mary, Mabel would have none of it.

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Left: Mary and Owen. Right: Does Mary know about this? Mabel and Owen.

Later, when Mary and Owen had separated, it was a different matter, and Mack Sennett, by now a producer, would have to drive Owen from his studio, before he ran off with his prized possession, Mabel. However, Mabel was to disappear into the Vitagraph company, as Griffith took the Biograph company out to L.A. on New Years’ Eve 1910. Mary and Lottie were to go to L.A., leaving mama and Jack behind. Mama was on the platform, imploring Griffith to take Jack along. On the train, Mary prayed that he wouldn’t take Jack on board – he was a nuisance, and would cramp her style. Unfortunately, Griffith relented and mama threw Jack onto the train just as it pulled out. End of Mary’s freedom. They made wonderful films under the Golden State sun, and Jack was kept busy standing in for the girls during dangerous stunts. Things were good, but Griffith was becoming a bore and a vicious taskmaster. Something else happened while they were out in L.A. By the end of February, the newspapers were full of praise for a new movie star – a comedienne, Mabel Normand. The whole company raced to the movie house, when Mabel’s films came through. It was her, alright, but far from being the new girl, she was now a capable actress, a dish, and the Queen Bee within the movies of John Bunny. Someone now became very interested in Mabel – the uncouth lout, Mack Sennett. Word was out that he was now writing to Mabel, and boasting that she’d replied, signing her letters “Your girl Mabel.” No-one believed him. Mack however, was now in competition with Mary in the area of screenwriting. Mack, we know, had written the screenplay for her first well-known film, The Lonely Villa. Conversely, Mary had written The Little Teacher, which Mack later adapted for Mabel Normand. The competition was fierce, and Mack always said that Mary’s stories were sold on the length of her curls.

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Mary in The Lonely Villa, adapted by Mack Sennett from the play Au Telephone.

Mary returned to New York with the $1,200 that she and Jack had saved. She put the money in a bag and presented it to mother. Mother looked in the bag and said “Oh, stage money.” Mary became indignant and told her it was real. At this point, Jack snatched the cash, and ran around the room shouting “We’re rich! We’re rich!” Mary and her mother spent half an hour picking up the loot. Mary was glad to be back – she was dreaming of meeting Owen again. They began an affair behind mother’s back. Story is, Mary got pregnant, and had a back-street abortion, which rendered her infertile. Owen and Mary then married in total secrecy.

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“Take Me To Cuba.”

Eventually, Mary had had it with Griffith. She left Biograph and joined the new IMP company. The company and the director were pretty much green, and the decision by them to film in Cuba was a bad one. Now, the lovers told the family of their union, and they got most upset. On top of this, Owen fell out with one of the directors, whom he felled with a single ‘sucker’ punch. Owen and Mary fled on a ship back to the States before the cops arrived. Back in New York they were hired by Majestic Pictures that was involved in a tangled web with Kessell and Baumann of New York Motion Pictures, and with whom, unknown to Mary, Mack Sennett was beginning discussions for the creation of a new comedy unit. Eventually, Mary had to eat humble pie and return to Biograph. On arrival back at the studio, Mary discovered Mabel Normand had returned, but, like Mary, she was magnanimous in her new-found stardom. Also, there was a new comedy unit at Biograph, under the direction of Mack Sennett, which almost monopolised the services of Mabel. Mabel insisted that they should also put her into dramatic films, which Griffith did. Mary found that Mabel had changed greatly, and was now the leader of the pack at Biograph, alongside that scamp of a brother of hers, the indefatigable Jack. Mama thought Jack was becoming far too familiar with Mabel, and told him to keep his hands off her. “She’s too old for you, Jack” She said. Jack was barely fourteen and Mabel was seventeen, going on eighteen. Jack, however, was growing fast, was almost as tall as Mabel and looked about the same age. Mary threw her hands up in despair, as Mabel and Jack regularly disappeared together. Did it really matter, if they were youngsters in love? Mabel, like Mary now, was infertile due to childhood tuberculosis….so what the heck?

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Jack gets close and personal with ‘big sister’ Mabel in What The Doctor Ordered.

Then, one day, the Gishes suddenly appeared, to Mary’s delight. Immediately, Griffith began to pit Lillian and Mary against one another, in order to whip up some competition. Neither took the bait. This was one of the genius’ favorite tricks, but they were not having it. Not long after, Griffith began to go cool on Mary and would shake her by the shoulders if she did not perform as he wanted. Then, one day, in a fit of misogynistic rage, he picked Mary up and threw her bodily across the set. She landed hard on one arm, which seemed to have been broken, but turned out to be just badly bruised. Not long after, he kneed Blanche Sweet clear off the stage, just to show who was boss. Other girls suffered the same treatment, except Mabel. Mabel, naturally, was no slouch with her fists, but Mack Sennett had now moved in on her. Griffith and Sennett were the biggest, roughest brawlers at the studio, and neither wanted to take on the other, so Mabel remained unmolested, even though she constantly ridiculed the genius and launched a tirade of the foulest language at him.

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Mary with DWG.

True to form, the company left for L.A. on New Year’s Eve 1911, but this time there was trouble on board. Free from parental control, Mabel and Jack tore through the train, upsetting plug-hatted gents and old maids alike. Griffith was furious. He went to Mary “Keep that kid under control.” Then to Sennett “Control that girl of yours!” Mary of course could do nothing, and Mabel was hardly Mack’s wife. Eventually, the cops boarded the train, but soon discovered that the villains were minors. Griffith got a stern warning “Control those delinquents or go to jail.” He was not amused. Out in L.A., Mabel began to corrupt the other girls, and was sneaking booze into the makeshift studio. Griffith was furious when he found all his girls drunk and incapable, and confiscated Mabel’s gin bottles. He began to regularly supply bottles of iced India Pale Ale, imported fresh from the home of good beer, Burton-on-Trent, England. Woe betide anyone he found with the hard stuff. It was at this time that Mary got a taste for the booze, and became a secret drinker – for the rest of her life.

Out in California, they were soon hard at work. Mary got some good roles, and played opposite Mabel in ‘The Mender of Nets’. Here Mary got not a little upset. Griffith had strictly controlled Mary, insisting she did all of the classic Griffith mugging and hand movements. Mabel was left very much to her own devices. Incensed, Mary went for Griffith demanding an explanation. “My dear Mary, Mabel performs best when left alone, acting naturally. If you don’t like it, then you can leave.” Mary thought that she might just do that. She heard from Mabel that she and Mack were in serious discussions with Kessell and Baumann, and would be gone from Biograph by the end of May. Mary thought, “Right that’s it I’m out of here too.”

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Mary  did not get much freedom here, but did get to wear Norwegian National dress.

Came the day when Griffith had a great idea for a picture called The Sands of Dee. Mary, Mabel and Blanche Sweet all wanted to have the lead. However, at the same time the genius began to cast for Man’s Genesis. His first thought was to put Mary in as the leading lady. However, when she saw that the part involved the wearing of a grass skirt, she turned it down. In disgust, Mary told the other girls, Blanche, Mabel and Lottie, who all said they’d turn the role down. Griffith had an ace up his sleeve – he’d put little Mae Marsh in as the lead. Mae was a new girl, inexperienced in acting and the girls were horrified. It was then that the first blot appeared in the movie industry’s copy book. ‘The Girls’ blackballed little Mae, kept her out of their club, and held a grudge against her forever. Griffith responded by giving Mae the lead in his The Sand of Dee as well, and later she’d star in Griffith’s greatest picture, Birth of A Nation (Mary, by the way, never did a big Griffith picture). Mae remained in the doghouse as far as ‘The Girls’ were concerned, for the next ten years. In 1922, with her career declining, Mae made a public apology in the press. Mabel and Blanche said that they’d forgiven Mae long ago. Mary was unavailable for comment.

In April 1912, Mabel made an announcement. She was joining New York Motion Picture’s Keystone studio to do comedy at $125 per week. Mary was pleased for her, but the $125 made her eyes roll. She decided she’d aim for $200 a week, rising to $500, then $1,000 by the time she was twenty. Mabel finally left New York that summer, heading for L.A. with Sennett’s ‘University of Nonsense’. Griffith called his actresses together.

“Your leader and Queen has left the studio and this city. Now bear this in mind – she and that jerk Sennett will bomb, and never be heard of again. They have no studio, no camera, and no supporting cast. Don’t make the same mistake! Meeting adjourned….”

Well, Griffith soon had egg (or a pie) on his face, didn’t he? Meanwhile, Mary was contemplating her departure – from films. She decided to return to the stage. Things were getting hot in the movies, and they would not last anyhow. She went straight to David Belasco, to renew her stage career. Belasco agreed to take her back at $125 a week.

“Mister Belasco, I must have two hundred.”

“Well Mary, let’s see how you get on, and we’ll discuss it again in a few weeks.”

Mary accepted, at least she’d equalled Mabel. However, the weeks dragged by, and no mention of the two hundred, but the rumour mill was suggesting that Mabel had hit $200. Mary confronted Belasco about the missing seventy-five dollars.

“Well, I think we can accommodate you on this, but don’t get any ideas of being another Lillian Russell.”

“The thought had never crossed my mind, Mr Belasco.”

Things at the theatre had not gone quite as Mary had hoped. Competition had increased, she worked harder, and come next summer, the theatres would close for the season. Suddenly, the movies looked good, especially as the pay there was increasing exponentially. She thought of going back to Biograph, but that would be embarrassing, and in any case, Griffith himself had left for a studio out on the coast. A new studio called Famous Players had been created under Daniel Frohman and Adolph Zukor, and the company would make theatrically-based films. They offered Mary $500 a week. Mary was over the moon, but news soon came that a group of other actresses had also hit the five-hundred mark. Never mind, she was looking now towards $1,000 a week. Then, guess what – news came that Charlie Chaplin had been offered $1,250 a week by Essanay. Soon after, it became known that Mabel had hit $1,000. This was getting ridiculous “Was there really so much money in the movies?” She soon collected her own one-thousand and looked towards the future. She was being lauded by the critics and her success was written in the stars. She won many press competitions, and in 1915 achieved the status of Best Leading Lady. Mabel was Best Comedienne, but Mary was somewhat dismayed to learn that The Keystone Girl had polled tens of thousands more votes than her. However, Mary was clearly at the top of the game, but something was happening out Keystone way. Mabel had left Sennett, and the newspapers said she’d signed with Mutual to work with Chaplin at $1,500 a week. “It can’t be true.” Thought Mary, and it wasn’t. Soon news came that Mabel had her own studio in East Hollywood under Triangle, with her name above it in five-feet high letters. Everyone, including Mary, was happy that one of their own had made it, but everything seemed to be surreal. The papers said Mabel was making $2,000 a week, while Charlie was now on $12,500.  Mary was running a newspaper column at the time and dropped in on Mabel at her new movie star mansion to interview her. She wrote two touching pieces about Mabel – one called ‘New Year’s Eve On The Train’ and one entitled simply ‘Mabel Normand’. Mary, of course, went out and got her own classical pile at 56 Fremont Place. Although Mary had her own dedicated studio in Hollywood, Zukor refused to put Mary’s name atop the building.

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Go classical, young girl. 56 Fremont Place.

Mary attended the opening party at Mabel’s studio, but left early with her new flame, Douglas Fairbanks. Back at Doug’s hunting lodge in the Beverly Hills, they planned to desert their spouses, divorce them and move in together, at an expanded hunting lodge. Chaplin was now getting quite close to Doug – he needed a bolt hole, for Mabel was closing in on him, harassing him and embarrassing him. She would often throw her arms around him when she saw him in the street, and point and scream at him in restaurants “Charlie, I will be your leading lady some day!” Mary thought “Serves him right for dumping Mabel.” Mary had some reservations about the little limey. Doug, naturally, was all for Charlie, and for keeping Mabel from entering their lives. Mabel had a way of penetrating lives, even marriages, and Charlie had made the mistake of marrying Mabel’s friend, Mildred Harris. One day he came up to the hunting lodge in a fit of despair. Every time that he came home, he’d find Mabel in his sitting room. Together with Mildred, she was planning their lives. This party, that party, go here, go there – even a snowballing party up on Mount Lowe. Charlie was either in a state of euphoric egotism, or deep in depression. Mary wanted him to go away, but Charlie was there for the duration.

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Jack and Mary leave their Swiss chalet bungalow.

The Great War came along, and brother Jack disappeared into the army, but got himself in a heap of trouble with the authorities. Just as the Armistice came about, Mary upped and left Zukor’s company, now called Paramount, and acquired her own autonomous studio within First National. In 1919, a strange thing happened. Doug got word that the big studios and the distributors were planning to combine, and clamp down on the small studios, like Doug and Mary’s, dramatically reduce the star’s pay, and end the star system with a stroke of the pen. Doug, Mary and Charlie got together with D.W. Griffith and decided to create a medium-sized distribution concern, which they’d call United Artists. The big boys were stuffed – they had to call off their dastardly plan. The newspapers carried the headline “The lunatics have taken over the asylum!” The following year, Doug and Mary married, Doug having paid off his wife with $400,000, while Mary handed an estimated $100,000 to Owen Moore. Somehow, incredibly, they avoided the censure of the press, who knew nothing of the pay-offs for a long time. They did, however, report that a baby was on the way, but we know this was impossible, due to Mary’s infertility. We might suspect that Doug understood this well, and thought Mary’s barrenness to be a blessing. The son he already had was one too many.

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Doug, Mary and Charlie in 1918.

Married Life.

Others would have predicted what happen next. Mary seems to have sleep-walked into the marriage, without realising that Doug was a control freak. He gave a list to Mary of the people that could come to the house. Mary was shocked to find that many of her friends were not on that list. In particular, Mabel was left off – “We don’t want ‘the bad-girl’ around here” Said the self-righteous Doug. Doug of course, was one of the few men rejected by Mabel. When Doug tried to home in on her, she simply said “I don’t date gorillas – now fuck off.” Doug had no option but to accept Mary’s family, who all lived at ‘Pickfair’ at one time or another. Jack never believed that Doug loved Mary, and he told Doug Fairbanks Jnr. that he once staked out the marriage bed, just to see if they ever ‘did it’. Jack’s report? “They didn’t.” Doug hated Jack and was extremely jealous of his success with women.

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Jack and Mary.

He once asked journalist Adela Rogers St. John “Tell me, what the hell do women see in that skinny little runt?” The modest Doug considered himself god’s gift, and was playing the field from day one. In a way Doug truly lived in ‘La La Land’ of which he was the centre. Too late, Mary must have realised her mistake – she would become part of Doug’s world of make-believe. The castle, the roof-swinging, the fancy foreign cars and the international tour were all of his conception. Down the years, Mary was pushed into the position of ‘the little woman at home’. Some people say that was all she ever wanted. The record shows, nonetheless, that she dearly wanted to run with Jack and Lottie, the Normands and the Dot Gishes of this world. It’s probably true to say that Mary was cold, icy cold, unable to maintain friendships in the way that other Hollywood starlets did, but that didn’t mean she didn’t want to be close to people. In all probability, she thought that Doug could open the doors of perception for her, but the world he opened was the world of celebrity, within which dwelt the likes of Albert Einstein, Lord Mountbatten and other feted nobles and ‘faces’. It wasn’t long before Chaplin was bringing his under-age wives around every Sunday, and dumping them on Mary, while he and Doug went off into the hills, or swung from the roof gutters of Pickfair.

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The ‘It’ couple: Jack and Ollie.

This article only extends to 1920, but a lot happened in that year. Mary and Doug married in March, and then honeymooned in Europe, where she was almost killed by the crowds of well-wishers. Doug loved it all and encouraged it – Mary did not. Then, brother Jack and his wife, the lovely Olive Thomas, ‘Everybody’s Sweetheart’ hit Europe, and it was there that Olive died from ingesting Bichloride of Mercury. Mary and Doug did not approve of Olive, who was an independent type, a dancing girl, and, as they saw it, a harlot. Ollie’s funeral was in New York, where massive crowds rioted, believing she’d been murdered. Doug and Mary, naturally, chose not to attend the funeral, suspecting the mob would tear them apart. Doug and Mary were suspects of murder by proxy in the eyes of Mabel Normand, although her suspicions soon fell away from Mary and alighted solely upon Doug. The final verdict was that Olive had accidentally poisoned herself.

 

Bibliography.

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).

New Years Eve on The Train By Mary Pickford (1916) Syndicated article.

When the Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith (1924)

Personalities I have Met: Lillian and Dorothy Gish: By Mary Pickford. McClure Newspaper Syndicate June 12th 1916.

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

THE CURIOUS DEATH OF MISS MABEL NORMAND.

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Mabel dies in the arms of Ralph Graves. ‘Extra Girl’ 1923.

You probably think that Mabel Normand died from drug addiction. And well you might, for even books written by reliable authors say this correct. Unfortunately, not one of them has presented any credible evidence – in fact they present no evidence at all. Mabel’s death certificate clearly states: “Cause of Death: Tuberculosis” and it is signed by a qualified doctor. Having said that, Mabel’s eventual demise was, to some extent, unexpected at that time. Mabel hadn’t been seen for five months, with all of her close friends being denied access to the Pottenger sanatorium, where she’d languished since September 1929. Only her personal nurse, Julia Benson, and husband Lew Cody, saw her during those five months. It need not be said that half a year is a long time for any person to stay in a sanatorium, clinic or hospice. Some people claimed to have visited her, including journalist Adela Rogers St. John, but Mrs Benson denies this. With all the controversy surrounding her untimely death, it is worthwhile looking at the all of the alternative options to Tuberculosis.

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The public did not know how sick Mabel was when she did this stunt.

Drug Addiction.

There is a possibility that Mabel did use drugs, but not in the way that some people suggest. Most of those that claim Mabel was an addict, maintain that she used cocaine. Naturally, everyone in Hollywood was using cocaine as a recreational drug, and there were always twists of paper in silver bowls at Tinsel Town parties. Consequently, when they say Mabel was caught by the cops with a bag of white powder in her car, then it is plainly obvious that any starlet’s car was carrying a bag of ‘coke’ at one time or another.  There is no evidence that Mabel used high quantities of cocaine, and there are no photos showing the incriminating ‘nostril rot’. As a general medicinal drug, cocaine would have been of little use to her. The story that Mabel had suffered tuberculosis in childhood is common in statements by those that were central in the film colony at the time. Minta Arbuckle said it, Charlie Chaplin said it, Polly Moran said it, Constance Talmadge said it, and there are many others. Minta had also said that Mabel was often very sick, coughed up blood, and was bad enough to take something that Mabel called her ‘goop’. This was a medicine of some sort, and might have contained codeine and / or cocaine. However, beyond 1916, it seems Mabel was ill enough to require something beyond this preparation, and opium comes to mind. Opium, of course, was illegal, but its derivative, heroin, was not! As Heroin was legal, and, furthermore, considered a safe form of opium, this would have been Mabel’s best choice. Its effects were also long lasting, unlike the buzz-inducing drugs, like cocaine. Heroin was not finally made totally illegal until 1925. Naturally, the drug remained available via the black market beyond that date. Actress turned journalist, Hedda Hopper, made the claim that she’d once found Mabel in a coma, with a bag of cocaine beside her, which she then flushed down the toilet. Unfortunately, this tale is not corroborated by anyone else, and Hedda Hopper has no credibility today. Question: Would cocaine put you into a coma – if so, then why take the stuff? There is, then, some evidence for drugs, but the use of cocaine for anything other than occasional recreational purposes can be discounted.


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Wedding shower:  Mabel in white hat, Hedda Hopper 3rd on her left, wearing the supercilious look. Most of these women aren’t actresses but wives of big shots in the industry.

Tuberculosis and Other Causes.

As this is the official cause of death, then we must take this as the most likely reason for death, especially as this disease was rife in Hollywood and around the world. Two of Mabel’s siblings died in childhood (deaths officially recorded) of the disease, and it is fairly obvious that Mabel could, also have contracted ‘TB’. As seen above, many contemporaries said that Mabel had contracted T.B. in childhood. Chaplin said a little more:

“Mabel’s illness was of long standing. When I first knew her fifteen years ago, she was suffering from tuberculosis; but so brave was her spirit that she tossed off the threat with a gay indifference.”

That Mabel was fatally ill in 1920, is not to be denied. She was saved by a nurse called Julia Brew (Benson) who attended her for the next ten years. She later reported that when she first saw Mabel, she had a massive burn to her chest caused by the application of a mustard plaster, substantiating the story of a respiratory problem. On that day, she realised Mabel was suffering from tuberculosis.

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Mabel and Julia in 1924.

STDs.

There are other causes of death in the mix. Tuberculosis was rampant in Hollywood, but so were STDs, and principally syphilis. Syphilis is known to ‘mimic’ other diseases, and is particularly good at mimicking tuberculosis. Mabel, with her multiple partners, was a prime candidate for this particular SDT, although there is another theory on the source of this syphilis. Author Simom Louvish (Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett) has carried out some research into the Normand family. A Staten Island child named Walter Normand died in 1898 of odema of the lungs caused by congenital ‘syphilitic laryngitis’, suggesting the condition was present in the parents. If so, it might be that Mabel had also inherited the disease. Indeed, Mabel seems to have suffered throat problems, before she encountered full-blown trouble with her lungs. There is no evidence, however, that Walter was a relative, and both parents survived to relative old age (her mother attained 62, and her father around 80).

 

Diet, Booze and Health-Sapping Work.

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Some people have suggested that Mabel died from problems associated with her lifestyle. Mack Sennett is adamant about this, and stated that a lack of rest, along with living on ice-cream and milkshakes took her life. Well, we could also say that the tremendous amount of work she undertook for Keystone between 1912 and 1915, could have destroyed her health. Bad diet was a problem for many actresses at the time, due to the studios insisting that they kept their weight below 99 pounds, which was a ridiculous weight, even for a five-feet tall girl. Mabel began as a voluptuous girl in 1910, but gradually became much thinner in the ensuing years. Of course, the starving actresses would have been prone to ‘hitting the bottle’ and plenty of them were taken by the demon booze. In fact, no small number of them starved to death on a booze diet, right there in Hollywood. It is fair to say, though, that Mabel’s death cannot be attributed to alcohol, although she sank a fair amount of gin.

The Hollywood Disease.

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Gone under strange circumstances.  Clarine Seymour, Olive Thomas, Rudy Valentino.

People with the Hollywood Disease, simply disappeared, or mysteriously ‘popped off’. The numbers of such cases are relatively high and include Bobby Harron, Olive Thomas, Clarine Seymour, Tom Ince, Rudolph Valentino, Virginia Rappe, Martha Mansfield, Florence La Badie, and W.D. Taylor. Sometimes these deaths precipitated riots, with huge numbers of people thinking their stars had been ‘done away with’. Some of the foregoing were shot dead, but many suffered medical emergencies that came out of the blue. Olive Thomas ‘accidentally’ swallowed Bichloride of Mercury, Clarine Seymour and Rudy Valentino both developed intestinal problems overnight, while Florence La Badie was injured in a car crash, but doctors said she’d survive – she died five days later of “blood poisoning.” Virginia Rappe was supposedly squashed flat by Fatty Arbuckle, and Martha Mansfield mysteriously burst into flames. A common factor in many of these cases is that some kind of a doctor emerged from the woodwork to give a different and benign cause of death to that originally proffered. Many of the above can be said to have become a nuisance to the studios, which has led people to imagine that they were actually murdered – by the gun, poison, or the match. Conspiracy theories? Well, maybe.

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This brings us to Mabel and the possibility that she was poisoned, or even starved to death in that Monrovia sanatorium. To understand this view we need to go back to 1922, and the murder of Mabel’s supposed lover, W.D. Taylor. It seems that someone shot Taylor, which caused huge problems for Mabel. Now, up to that point, Mabel had been a ‘gad about town’ spending recklessly and living La Dolce Vitae. However, fearing her career was over due to adverse publicity, she began to get a grip on herself. First, she insisted that Sennett gave her the lead in his biggest film yet, then she went on a nationwide stage tour. She appears to have netted at least $2-million from these two enterprises, but instead of blowing the lot, as previously, she bought a mansion in Beverly Hills, and invested, or put aside her cash. She already had a £50,000 trust fund that had been set up by Sam Goldwyn in 1919, when he feared Mabel would end up penniless on the street. Having stored wealth in Hollywood meant only one thing – she’d become a target, a target for those that wanted to relieve her of her cash. In 1926, she seems to have agreed to a part in Sennett’s next big film, but then something strange happened. Mabel upped and married her former co-star Lew Cody. Next thing Sennett knew, Mabel rejected his new picture. Confused and down-hearted, Mack later said:

“After Mabel became Mrs Cody, I never saw nor spoke to her again.”

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Lew and Mabel on Lew’s doorstep.

Mabel, the eternal spinster, never consummated the marriage, nor did she admit Cody to her house. Mabel was in an anxious state at this time, having suffered three huge scandals in succession, but it was normal for an ex-Biograph girl to consult her old friends from the Griffith studio. Perhaps they concluded that the very broke Lew was after Mabel’s money. The fact that Mary Pickford stepped in later to kind of head Lew off at the pass, does suggest that Mabel was advised to forget about Lew. In 1927, while still at the Roach Studio, Mabel became desperately ill. She had to give up work, but by 1928, had seemingly recovered. During 1928 and half-way through 1929, she was often seen around town and was regularly attending premieres. She made a short film at MGM and appears to have been getting ready to take the lead in a talking picture. Then, in mid-September, she had a relapse, and Cody and nurse Julia Benson, insisted that she go into the Pottenger sanatorium to receive treatment. This made sense, but instead of being there for a few weeks, it seemed that the length of the stay was open-ended. Mabel began to protest, and demanded to go home. The doctor, Lew and Julia decided she should stay. Unfortunately, the X-rays taken at the clinic no longer exist, but Lew claimed they were pretty bad – so bad that he only showed Mabel X-rays of healthy lungs.  Naturally, suspicion arose that he had shown Mabel pictures of heavily diseased lungs, while her own lungs were not quite so badly damaged.

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Doug Fairbanks, Col. Goebells, D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett, Sam Goldwyn, Sid Graumann, Charlie Chaplin, L.B. Mayer, Judge James and Eugene Pallette pay their respects at Mabel’s funeral.

When Mabel eventually died, the news sent a shock-wave through Hollywood. The last they’d heard, a series of blood transfusions had virtually cured her, and so her subsequent demise made everyone highly suspicious. However, Lew contacted the family on Staten Island N.Y. with a view to making funeral arrangements. He discovered that Mabel’s father had also just died, and the journey to the west coast, in time for the funeral, seemed impossible. Consequently, Lew announced that it was unlikely that the family could make the funeral. This is where Mary Pickford seems to have stepped in. She contacted the family and told them that she would make any arrangements required, at any cost, to get them to the coast in time for the funeral. In the event, an aircraft had to be hired in order to bring the family the last two hundred miles or so. At the funeral, everyone was surprised to find the casket lid well and truly screwed down, with nobody, not even the family, allowed to view the body. Lew announced that Mabel had weighed only 45 pounds at death, and no-one would be allowed to view the body – the shock would almost certainly kill Mabel’s ailing mother. There was more suspicion, but Lew, being Mabel’s legal spouse, could over-ride everyone, including the family. It was at the funeral service, attended by thousands, that for the first time ever, Mary Pickford began to cry before Constance Talmadge. This indicates how upset Mary was at Mabel’s untimely passing.. The internment, attended only by the family, Lew Cody and Paul Bern, took place at the Calvary Cemetery, Boyle Heights, where the family discovered that the name on Mabel’s tomb was cut as Mabel Normand-Cody.

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Valentino’s funeral: L-R Mary Pickford, Norma, Constance Talmadge.

After The Funeral.

Lew now busied himself with Mabel’s affairs, but Mary Pickford was not through yet. She arranged for the family to stay in Los Angeles for the foreseeable future, and further arranged an attorney to help sort out Mabel’s affairs from their side. Lew had only been left one dollar in Mabel’s will, and it was important to ensure that he did not get his sticky mitts on anything more. As the estate was being settled, Lew made an application to the Court for Mabel’s $50,000 Trust Fund, which his lawyer said was outside of Mabel’s estate. The family disagreed and fought a legal battle with Cody. The whole thing was very complicated, as, at some time in 1925, the fund had been liquidated and the money used to make further investments, although the specific investments could not be identified. It appears that Cody received nothing. However, Lew had ample time to pry into Mabel’s assets. The family thought that certain valuable items had disappeared from her house, but could not prove it. There was also the matter of cash and jewelry in safe deposit boxes, the location of which no-one knew. The family lived in L.A. for many years, although Mabel’s mother died in 1932, of a broken heart it is said. Claude, Mabel’s brother, committed suicide at his New York home in 1945. Sister Gladys lived many years in L.A., before marrying and moving to Florida.

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Mabel’s will of 1927.

What Was Going On?

There is no smoking gun here, that could tell us if there were any underhand dealings taking place. There were, undoubtedly, deliberate attempts to ‘cage’ Mabel in the sanatorium, and, if so, then Mabel’s nurse comes under suspicion. The family allotted her $10,000 for services rendered, which seems to annoy Mabel’s great nephew, Stephen Normand, today. He tells the story that Julia Benson took some of Mabel’s possessions in 1929, an unknown quantity of which she sold on. Strangely, she had held onto some bloodstained nightdresses belonging to Mabel. Naturally, both Lew and Julia had motives for ‘bumping’ Mabel off, although it cannot be proven that they conspired to do so.  There was, however, plenty of opportunity to feed Mabel some poison or other. Julia’s contention that Mabel was speaking right up until her death is really not credible, if she had wasted away to 45 pounds. For the last few days, at least, she must have been in a coma, and, as is usual in these cases, she just slipped away.

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Something that could have ended Mabel’s life was an overdose of morphine. Morphine is a top-level painkiller, given to patients suffering from a fatal disease. As the disease worsens, more morphine is given, until the dose is eventually and inevitably fatal. This is normal medical practice. Sennett’s idea of Mabel dying from ‘bad lifestyle’ is merely a diversion, and it is possible that her working conditions between 1912 and 1915, could have adversely affected her already fragile health. All we can say is that Cody never gave up on getting his hands on Mabel’s loot, although he quickly followed her to the grave, clutching the one-dollar that Mabel had bequeathed him.

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Claims on the estate: Note $10,000 paid to Julia Benson.

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Mabel Normand poems

PHOTOPLAY, MAY 1930: MABEL NORMAND SAYS GOOD-BYE.
By James R. Quirk:

Mabel Normand
By Margaret E. Sangster

Beneath the gallant sparkle of her laughter,
There always lay the hint of wistfulness,
As if she knew that storm must follow after
the brightest day … Perhaps her soul could guess
That tragedy was waiting, eager handed,
To block her path, to stay her dancing feet,
To leave her lonely, pitiful, and stranded…
Yet who shall say her life was incomplete?
For, oh, she brought swift smiles to sorry faces
She taught a weary-hearted world to sing;
Her presence lent new grace to lonely places,
She had the radiance of waking spring.
Behind her mask of comedy, she waited
For every hurt the future held in store;
She gave herself to all, nor hesitated …
And died when she, at last, could give no more!

———————————————-

Short, Short Story

By Mabel Normand.

I’m bad, bad, bad!

But I’ll really keep my engagement.

If there was one sprig of poison-ivy,

In a field of four-leaf-clovers,

I’d pick it up.

If it was raining carbolic acid,

I’d be the dumb-bell sponge.

Bibliography

Los Angeles Times, February 24, 1930: Hollywood Touched As Gay Spirit Passes
By Edwin Schallert
Mabel Normand is dead!

Will Rogers’ syndicated column, February 24, 1930
Poor little wind-tossed Mabel Normand died. She has given the world much laughter, and strangers and friends much financial aid. I hope no one writes of her — only the ones that had met and known her. Her last press notices would be beautiful.

Variety, February 26, 1930 OBITUARY Mabel Normand.

Los Angeles Times, February 27, 1930 The Heart of Mabel Normand, By Jennie Van Allen.

Probate Records, County of Los Angeles: Last Will and Testament of Mabel Normand.

Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett (2003) by Simon Louvish.

 

 

 

 

 

A FILM MUST HAVE A STORY: THE MAKING OF ‘MABEL AT THE WHEEL’ 1914.

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Mabel in her baby car, powered by a V-Twin motorcycle engine.

The Keystone Comedy Studio, as we all know, was built upon nonsense and slapstick, a product of the fertile, perhaps warped, mind of Mack Sennett. How curious, then, to think that the foundation of Keystone’s success was a small dramatic actress by the name of Mabel Normand. Nobody can really explain why Mabel went off to California with the crazy Irishman, as she had a good career ahead of her in ‘drammer’. In all probability, being an unconventional and impulsive girl, she simply had to do it. However, it is clear that this move would put an end to any chance of a successful dramatic career, and the other actresses, and their stage mothers at her Biograph Studio, begged her not to make this destructive move. The only answer can be that Mack, and his partners, promised her dramatically-oriented comedies, which would allow her to exploit all of her acting talents – in other words she’d have the best of both worlds. So why was it that Mabel ended up performing in films that were almost totally of the slapstick variety? Well, firstly, Mabel was not herself entirely involved in slapstick. Her main job was to use her natural ability to create what Chaplin called the pulchritudinous influence, which would afford balance to the otherwise crazy and nonsensical pictures. This, of course, was not what Mabel had in mind. She was sure that drama and comedy could be combined in equal measure, and a proper story-line would be essential to achieving this. Thus far, the films had merely been situation comedies, albeit very funny and very popular ones.

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Charlie finds Mabel most pulchritudinous. Getting Acquainted.

It seems that by mid-1913, Mabel had had enough of the crazy stuff, and it was about this time that Mabel and Mack began to argue continually, their rantings and ravings being heard right across the lot. Mack fell back by degrees, but a time came when he needed to consult his partners in New York on the Mabel situation. The partners, Kessell and Baumann, were of a mind to allow Mabel the small amount of freedom that Mack had afforded her, but the idea of dramatic comedies scared the living daylights out of them. They had a successful formula for making money – plenty of short, nonsense-based and furious films that ran at mind-numbing speed. No doubt, the telegraph lines were glowing red hot, as wires were sent and received at ever-increasing frequency. Mack explained to New York that Mabel, who he’d won at great personal effort, could be lost to D.W. Griffith, Vitagraph or any number of other studios. Kessell and Baumann responded by engaging private detectives to track Mabel’s movements (they’d had spies tracking Sennett from the outset). Naturally, they mooted the idea of bringing Mabel to their New York Motion Pictures studio, but she was now signed directly to Mack, and he was not about to relinquish his hold on his girl. Mack now made a promise to Mabel that, by the end of the year, he’d be ready to allow Mabel longer films with stronger story-lines.

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“I’ve given him an ultimatum. Give me good stories or it’s a wedding.”

It was at the end of 1913 that a certain Limey called Charles S. Chaplin arrived at the studio to begin his illustrious career, and Mabel seems to have fallen for him immediately. Charlie, naturally, had fallen for Mabel (or at least The Keystone Girl) in the previous year. It goes without saying that Mack was not happy with the young upstart, nor any other young upstart that might run off with his star of stars. Although Mack kept a good eye on the pair, it was inevitable that they’d gravitate together. In fact, it seems likely that Mabel suggested that Charlie take on a character similar to Mack’s own unkempt and irreverent film character, as this would boost Mack’s ego and make him more amenable towards the limey. Charlie concocted his tramp character, and first used the little man in Mabel’s Strange Predicament. Unfortunately, Kessell and Baumann (who’d signed Chaplin) insisted that Charlie be given the first scene, which lasted a full 55 seconds. Mabel was furious and refused to work, or even speak, to Charlie for a full two months.

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Then came an impetus for a new type of film, from the plans of the Pathe (Eclectic) film company that had laid the foundations for slapstick comedy, on which, of course, Mack had built his studio. Now, Pathe intended to wipe Mack out, by beating him at his own game. They, like Mack, would mould their films around a supercharged, but lovable girl, that would have the audience sighing for her. How would they do this? Firstly, by making their ‘Mabel’ blond (by use of a wig), by bringing in a star from the theatre, and by making every film a serialised feature. Mack wouldn’t stand a chance. However, Pathe were not overly confident, so they made their girl upper class, a debutante in fact, to avoid confronting Mabel head-on. Their star and heroine was theatre actress Pearl White, who played Pauline in a series of Perils of Pauline films. In the event, Pathe and Keystone did not lock horns, as the former tapped the ‘never before tapped’ upper-middle class market. The Keystone board, nonetheless, were scairt, real scairt.

So, now was the time for Mabel to get her story-based film, which they called Mabel At The Wheel. This was to be the cream of the Keystone films, and the New York wide boys wanted Chaplin in on it, especially as the cost would be much higher than usual.

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Mack could not refuse, and urged Mabel to be nice to the little limey. Just to make sure that things ran smoothly, Baumann himself would come to L.A., but would not appear at the studio. Instead, he would send his daughter, Ada, to play a role in the picture, so that she could witness any problems that arose.

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Bright young things on a bike.

Making The Picture.

So, Charlie turned up on day one of shooting out in Santa Monica. He was shocked by what he found. Firstly, Mabel was behind the camera, directing. Straight away, the chauvinistic Charlie got hot under the collar – women just did not direct films. Then, Mabel began to brief him on the nature of the picture. This was not a slapstick film, it had a story, and the story was that a villain (Chaplin) kidnaps Mabel’s boyfriend who is due to drive in the Santa Monica 200-mile motor race. Mabel takes the drive and wins the race. Chaplin was outraged – this film had no hero, just a heroine, and Mabel had made it clear that she would not allow too much slapstick, nor too many gags into the picture. Chaplin was stumped – he was a gags man and a knock-about comic, what the hell was he going to do in a semi-dramatic picture? He protested, and insisted that he put gags in, like standing on a hosepipe and wondering why nothing was coming out. Furthermore, he wanted to wear the tramp’s outfit. Mabel put a block on that too.

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Mabel with her friend Ada.

In the film Chaplin, the director puts these words in Mabel’s mouth:

“Charlie, this is not a film about being funny with a hose.”

and it is quite likely that she said something of this sort.  Mabel quietly told him his gags were silly and would tarnish the picture. Chaplin then did something, which was to make him look ridiculous, and taint his career forever. He went into a sulk, sat down, and went on strike. Unfortunately, he’d said a few words to Mabel, and the crew resolved to beat the tramp to death, for having disrespected their Queen. Mabel stopped them, and suggested they go back to the studio. Mack, now seeing his chance, would tell his bosses to fire Chaplin. However, Charlie was signed to NYMP and Mack himself could not de facto fire him. The key to what happened next was Ada Baumann. In all probability, she recounted what had happened to her dad. Baumann insisted that Charlie stay, but the tramp would have to toe the line, and keep his sack-like mouth shut. Big bucks were at stake. The rest is history, and Charlie and Mabel began their nine months of collaboration, which led to Charlie’s later career that could, however, have ended ignominiously at that point.

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Mabel has the hots for a confused Terrible Teddy (Speed Kings 1913).

The film is based on the famous 200-mile races at Santa Monica, where cars raced on an oiled dirt surface. Both Mack and Mabel knew the great drivers of the day, like Barney Oldfield, ‘Terrible’ Teddy Tetzlaff, Doug Pullen, and Earl Cooper, all of which whom had appeared in Keystone films. Terrible Teddy was a particular favourite of Mabel, and she even sponsored his racing. Some people have asserted that they had a love affair, but as Teddy was married, this seems unlikely. Mack’s own transport was a 14-litre chain drive Fiat race-car, and he sponsored racing over a long period of time. It is said that Mabel actually drove a car in the race and the film, but this again seems unlikely. These cars were heavy (way above a ton), had no power steering nor power brakes, and, due to the fixed rear axle (no differential), they needed to be slid around the turns rather than steered. Mabel was described as possessing muscles of coiled cold steel, and she was clearly that rare being, a wiry woman, but even so, she was far too valuable to be splattered all over a racetrack. Huge accidents were fairly common, and the one Mabel had in the film, where the car rolls over, actually happened – to someone else in 1914. This occurred at Dead Man’s Curve (where, in fact, no-one ever died). An injury occurred, though, when a car hit a telegraph pole, shaking a spectator loose, who fell to the ground, breaking his arm. The big crash occurred in 1916, when a car left the track on San Vicente Boulevard, sliced a tree down, which then killed a spectator, the car careering on into a soda stand, killing the lemonade lady, before hitting another tree killing the driver. The front portion of the car broke away, then hit another tree, detaching the radiator, which flew through the air, decapitating an onlooker. Dangerous stuff.

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“Run for it!” Doug Pullen has an appointment with the barrier at Dead Man’s Curve. 1913.

Notes on The Film.

Once the political problems had been sorted out, filming proper began. Harry McCoy is Mabel’s boyfriend and Charlie is the motorcycling villain who wants to grab Mabel for himself. Charlie enters the picture on his motorbike, and Mabel, who’d fallen out with the boyfriend (he wouldn’t let her drive his car), falls for the dashing plug-hatted biker. We might note two interesting things here. One, McCoy’s car is Mack Sennett’s own car, while the motorcycle Charlie rides is a high-quality Thor IV machine. The story goes that Sennett asked Chaplin if he’d ever ridden a motorcycle, to which he answered “yes”, but it turned out he’d only ever ridden a pedal cycle. They began to shoot the scene where Chaplin takes Mabel for a ride on his motorcycle. Charlie was sitting on the bike, and Mabel climbed on . Charlie pushed off, the motor fired, Charlie gave it full throttle and the machine roared off. However, they’d only gone five yards, before the thing went into a huge wobble. After a few high-speed seconds, Mabel was thrown from the bike, and cast unceremoniously into a ditch, in a flurry of Parisian petticoats. They later prised Charlie’s mortal remains from among the wreckage of the cycle.

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Not what the real estate agent promised.

In general, the film is an indictment of the roads in California at that time, no better exemplified than in the scene where Mabel falls off the back of Charlie’s cycle into a very large, muddy puddle. This reminds us that the vision of Los Angeles peddled all over the American mid-west by real estate salesmen was very much rose-tinted. Those that expected paradise found mud or dust, a dearth of drinking water, no electricity and no sanitation. L.A. went from having the highest homicide rate to having the highest suicide rate. Naturally Charlie does not realise that Mabel has been jettisoned, but when he returns to Mabel’s house, he finds he’s as popular as a rattlesnake in a lucky dip. Here Sennett seizes a chance to incorporate some slapstick – he cannot rely on Mabel’s magnetism entirely. Mabel ends up in a brick fight with Charlie, and Charlie comes off worse. Paul Merton in his Birth of Hollywood claims that Chaplin gave as good as he got – don’t believe it! The brick fight follows on from Sennett’s assertion that there was too much builder’s dross and muck hanging around on L.A.’s streets, which would not have pleased the City Fathers, who were already under attack for their incompetence and obvious corruption from all quarters.

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Keystone had become very competent at filming on racetracks, and, as a sponsor, Sennett was allowed to bring his film crew onto the various racetracks. He, furthermore, provided a good medium for advertising. It was at the racetrack (which in Santa Monica was a closed public road) that the next scenes occurred. Mabel’s boyfriend is to drive a car in the race, but Charlie decides to spike his efforts by kidnapping him (the car seems to be a Stutz). The kidnapping involves many of the type of gags that Chaplin was being paid to initiate and carry through.

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“Crikey, It’s Mabel!” Charlie gets a shock.

They were little different to those utilised previously by Ford Sterling.  While Mabel is out looking for the boyfriend, she runs into Charlie, who tries to abduct her, but Mabel reverts to her old trick of gnawing on Charlies hand. Being devoured by the enormous Normand gnashers is not to be recommended! Luckily, Mabel escapes and takes over McCoy’s drive. An amusing scene occurs when Mabel produces a mirror and powder compact, and begins to powder her face before getting into the car. She’s then pushed into the car and sets off with a friendly wave to the crew. The cute wave, of course, was a common feature of Mabel’s repertoire. The powder-the-nose scene, though, was clearly lifted from the 1912 film of Harriet Quimby’s epic flight across the English Channel, where she powders her face before climbing into her aircraft. This is an interesting twist on the women’s liberation movement, then so popular with movie-goers and the general public, and without which stars like Mabel would not have made it to the extent that that they did.

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Chaplin gives as good as he gets (?).

The race itself is interesting, as the thrill of the monster cars sliding around is enhanced by the fact that Chaplin had sprayed plenty of water onto the already well-oiled track. Mabel ends up spinning around and around, and eventually heads the wrong way. In an effort to catch up with the rest of the field, Mabel overdoes it at Dead Man’s Curve, and rolls the car over. The roll-over is obviously one of Mack’s visual tricks, but it must have looked real to the 1914 audience. When the car is righted, Mabel roars off again, and the following scenes show her passing the opposition with ease. At the end of the race Mabel is carried from the car in triumph, and, unusually, she forgets to hide her gnashers, which are fairly prominent in the scene. You know she won because this is what she actually says (or mimes).

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“I won the race.” Mabel brings out her gnashers in celebration.

What happened and what did not happen during filming.

Richard Attenborough casts Mabel as an imbecile in his film Chaplin. He supposedly took Chaplin’s word (printed in his autobiography), but it is clear that Charlie had said no such thing. He had nothing but praise for Mabel, and when he went ‘on strike’ Mabel didn’t scream and shout, as Attenborough suggested, but merely packed up and returned to the studio, as it was already five o’ clock (witness Charlie Chaplin). Chaplin had been misinformed about the nature of the film, which was not based on slapstick. He was not an actor as such, but a gags-man, and this is what he was brought in to do. Drama was outside his remit and training. Charlie, however, does tell a little lie. He claims that Mack wanted to fire him because he’d raised an issue with Mabel – Mack did want Chaplin gone it’s true, as he had always “hated his guts” (telegram from Baumann to Sennett found in the latter’s private papers). Yes, Chaplin did have the support of K and B, but this time they came out in support of Mabel. However, they did tell Mabel to be nice to Charlie, which, naturally, was just what she wanted. Over the next nine months, Charlie was a regular visitor to Mabel’s dressing room, making him the envy of every man on the lot. As usual the rest is history.

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Deadman’s Curve again, and two views of the same 1914 crash.

 

 

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Mabel rights her car  after rolling at Dead Man’s Curve.

 

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Bibliography.

 

Mabel Normand’s Own Life Story by Chandler Sprague. Los Angeles Examiner (February 17, 1924)

Looking For Mabel Normand: http://www.freewebs.com/looking-for-mabel/. Site by Marilyn Slater.

Charles Chaplin: My autobiography by Charles Chaplin (1964).

Charles O. Baumann: The Movie-Maker by Jillian Kelly (2015).

Mabel Normand: A Sourcebook of her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman (2006).

https://archive.org/stream/MabelNormandASourceBookToHerLifeAndFilms/MNSB7_djvu.txt

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

When the Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith (1924).

 

MABEL, W.D. TAYLOR AND THE EUROPEAN TOUR.

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RMS Aquitania

Introduction.

In the annals of Hollywood, the European tour was always de rigueur for movie and theatrical stars. However, Mabel’s tour was somewhat different, for it came hard on the back of the W.D. Taylor murder, in which Mabel had been caught up. If you thought that the two things were related, then you’d be right. Taylor, Mabel’s possible lover, had been shot one night by an unknown assassin, and suspicion fell on Mabel (directly accused by Taylor’s butler) and Mack Sennett (generally thought have had the motive). Eventually, Mabel ceased to be a suspect, and Sennett fell, slightly, out of the frame. Suspicion then fell on another lover, Mary Miles Minter, and then onto her mother. Unfortunately, the scandal didn’t go away, and news that rogue cops intended to abduct the ‘little clown’, and prise open her silent lips, had prompted Mack to surround her house with thugs armed with clubs and concealed firearms. The shooting had taken place in February 1922, but by April, with the LA police getting nowhere, they turned their attentions again to Mack and Mabel. Mabel had already fled to a new house in Altadena, but news of its location had leaked out. As she got close to completing her film Suzanna, Mabel decided that she’d go on a European Tour, which would be a working tour, collecting stories from the best, mainly English, writers.

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Mabel’s hideout in Altadena. Ours for 2.5 million dollars today

Making plans.

For some time, Mabel’s friends had suggested she go abroad, and lie low until the affair died down. Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet, Norma Talmadge, Madge Kennedy, Florence Lawrence and others, had all written to the press, asking them to lay off Mabel, now they were advising her to ‘disappear’ for a while. Mabel had already had the same thoughts, especially as the cops were thinking of taking her ‘downtown’ again. Mary went further with her advice. Keep everything low key, and don’t court attention. Mary, of course, had had a hard time of it in Europe in 1920, and nearly been killed by the onrushing crowd in London’s Kensington. Mabel listened and listened good – she hated crowds, and a single autograph hunter could give her ‘tummy trouble’. Charlie Chaplin was free with advice. He had contacts in London that could be useful to her – writers, actors, movie and music hall producers, as well as minor royalty.

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By now it was time for Mabel to sign a contract for her next film. She was called to Allessandro Street by Mack Sennett for discussions, and there was sure to be the usual titanic argument. On April Fool’s Day she entered Mack’s tower-top office, checking the top of the door for buckets of water, and electrical wires connected to the doorknob.

“Sit down Mabe, I’ve heard you’re thinking of skipping the country.”

“Yes Mack, but don’t get any ideas – I will be coming back.”

“Just as well, baby, as I have a big picture lined up for you, called Mary-Ann – it’s a Cinderella story, ready to shoot in September.”

“Well isn’t that just dandy, Mister Sinnott, another damned Cinderella story, don’t you know any other kind of story? I’ve had it with rags to riches – had it ten years ago.”

“Mabel, it’s all about putting bums on seats, as your pal Charlie Chaplin would say. Cinders is popular and has kept you in Parisian frocks all these years.”

“No Mack, I kept myself in frocks, French or otherwise, and I’m not Mabel – to you I’m Miss Normand, and you’re my producer, not my friend. In case you haven’t noticed you don’t have any friends.”

Mack tried to interject, unsuccessfully.

“And by the way, Mister King of bloody Comedy, don’t mention Charlie to me – you drove him from the studio, then you drove Jack from me.”

“Mabel, Chaplin was a jerk, still is, and Mulhall would have dumped you anyway.”

“Yeah, would have dumped me, would he? We had plans Michael Sinnott – plans to marry, settle down, have kids and get out of this fucking rat race.”

“Wouldn’t have worked Mabel, and you know you’re sterile. Know what that means dearie? It means you can’t have kids.”

Mabel’s face changed at lightning speed, she stood up and made for the door.

“Fuck you, Sinnott, fuck you and your piece of shit studio!”

Mack was just as quick to his feet, wrapped his arms around her, and led her back to her seat.

“Mabel, Mabel, let’s not argue. Sit still, I’ve got something for you.”

Mack went to a drawer and pulled out a diamond bracelet, worth at least $10,000.

“For you” He said.

Mabel took the sparkler, looked at it, bit one of the stones, then walked casually to the window, and shouted:

“Hey, mister, catch this!” She dropped the bangle out.

Mack raced to the window – no sign of anyone, no sign of the bracelet. He charged down the stairs five at a time, and disappeared across the lot. No-one had seen a guy with a bracelet. When he returned, panting, Mabel had gone. Someone else went missing that day. The prop-man disappeared, never to be seen again, although there were alleged sightings – in Monte Carlo, Gay Paree and other high-class locations.

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Jack Pickford suddenly realises Mabel’s a dish. What The Doctor Ordered 1912.

Mabel began to get her plan together. She brought her friends around to help. Mary said she should have someone go ahead of her, to organise things – it was after all, partially, a business trip. The question was, who would accompany her? Mabel quipped that perhaps Mary’s brother, Jack, could travel with her. Mary frowned.

“Look Mabel, we’re here to help you to save your reputation, not make it worse. Don’t joke with your future, you must take a female with you.”

“Oh Mary, you’re such a prissy maid.” Replied Mabel, as she turned and asked her friends which one of them would accompany her. The six weeks’ notice was not enough, they were all engaged in shooting important pictures, and could not find the time. Quietly, Mabel suspected that their husbands had intervened and told their wives to stay away from ‘that evil woman.’ It was Mary that came up with a solution.

“You can get a travel mate to accompany you, and stir some public interest at the same time. Why don’t you run a public competition for an all-expenses paid companion? Of course, you will only pick a person that you already know.

And this was how an old friend of Mabel, Julie Courtell, came to accompany her to Europe. The press had a field day, and hunted down the Franco-American Miss Courtell. The journos didn’t get much out of her, just to say she was excited at the thought of seeing Europe, and especially Olde England and London. Well, they could have guessed that!

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Mabel’s phone had been ringing non-stop for months, always answered by the housekeeper. Since the completion of Suzanna, Mack had been furiously trying to get through to Mabel, unsuccessfully. He phoned producer Joe Shenck, and asked him to send his wife (Norma Talmadge) around to Mabel’s place, and give her the message that he must see Mabel right away. Norma tripped around to Mabel’s house and gave her the message — Mack wanted to see her next day at 2 p.m. Norma phoned back, saying the message had been delivered. Then Norma and Mabel disappeared into the L.A. night to take in a show. Mr. Shenck was not happy when wifey arrived home at 3 a.m. just a little the worse for the gargle.

Mabel arrived back at Mack Sennett Studios. After exchanging pleasantries with the extras, and tweaking the studio kid’s cheeks, she mounted the steps to the office. As she entered the office, Mack looked up from his ledgers:

“Well, well, M’Lady has deigned to honour me with her illustrious presence.”

“Cut the crap Mack, whadd’ya want? I suppose you want that bracelet.”

“No problem Mabel, I’ve put the boys on unpaid overtime, to get the cash back.”

“Just the sort of backhand thing you would do.”

“Whatever – I need to know now, whether you want the film or not.”

“Well, Mack, it’s like this, I’ve spoken to my friends and they said to tell you to stick it somewhere.”

“Your friends, your friends! I knew those little tramps when their mothers carried them into the studio as babes in arms! They’re still wet behind the ears, and not one of them has a brain cell in her stupid head. Never mind your friends – it was me, Mack Sennett, that made you a star.”

“Ha, that’s a good one – you’ve made no-one a star, and I was already a fucking star when I met you!” All you ever did was bring me out to this godforsaken hole and dump me in the mud. Do you know what it’s like to go back to an empty hotel room every night, bruised and aching after being kicked in the ass all day long?

“Come on Mabel, that wasn’t a hotel room – it was a suite, they call it the ‘Movie Star Suite’ now. Anyhow, I spent many nights with you, if I remember rightly.”

“Yeah, you came to me alright – how many times. Five, four? I had needs Mack, but all you were interested in were your pals at the Athletic Club, while I cried myself to sleep every night. You stole my youth Mack – took away my best years.”

“Look Mabel, L.A. was bad back then, but look what we have now. I don’t see you running back to New York.”

“Well, when I return from Europe, I expect a script, and if I like it, I’ll do it, if not it’s so long buster.”

“O.K. Mabe, I’ll put that down as a definite yes.”

Mabel turned and left.

Nearly there.

In mid-May, Mabel sat down and looked at her options:

  1. She could do her tour and return to Sennett.
  2. She could sign with a company within the regenerating British film industry.
  3. She could bag a millionaire and leave pictures forever.

The first option was an easy one and, clearly, a no-brainer, although it would be nice to make the old fella beg for her. The second one was a ‘possible’ but Mabel was no traveller, and working abroad would somewhat distress her. She might, however, persuade a British company to come to the U.S. The third option was a work in progress, as she had a rich guy all lined up. In fact, she had a genuine Shiek lined up  — Prince Ibrahim of Egypt, a former consort of Constance Talmadge. Forget Valentino, this guy was the real deal. Mabel had already got to work on ‘shieky’ in Hollywood, as Mack Sennett’s spies reliably informed him. Ibrahim, had departed the U.S. for Europe, where Mabel intended to meet up with him.

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Mabel shows her ‘shiek’ around Hollywood.

Mabel now got herself a press agent, a guy called Perry Charles, already in Europe. He’d organise everything for her, ahead of her arrival. Press releases were to be low-key, as no-one knew how the Europeans would react to having bad girl Mabel in their midst. The main thing was to organise meetings with writers and movie men in old London town. She’d meet with George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, and J.M. Barrie (of Peter Pan fame). Mabel wanted to meet Thomas Burke, writer of Limehouse Nights, but he was likely to be abroad when she arrived. It was also arranged that she’d meet press magnate Lord Northcliffe and big English stage actor, Harry Tate. Detailed arrangements were made for her to stay at top hotels, but she was to spend some time at the residences of a few big-shots.

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Harry Tate. Archetypal Englishman, although a Scotsman.

Coming close to the day of departure, Mabel needed to obtain a passport. Someone told her she needed a birth certificate for the application – something she did not possess (she was a member of the ‘unborn’). However, the application succeeded. Mabel departed L.A. for New York in June 1922, after loading aboard the train her dozen pieces of very heavy luggage that included a crate of books. Jack Pickford and Marilyn Miller were there to see her off – by the time Mabel returned they’d be married. As her friends, and the inevitable pressmen waved her off, someone else was rolling into town – Will Hays, who’d been sent in to clean Hollywood up, like some latter-day Wyatt Earp, after the Taylor scandal. The third corner of Mabel’s love triangle with Taylor, Mary Miles Minter, had already departed L.A. for Honolulu, but, lying in wait for the ‘dark star’ in the Big Apple, were L.A. detectives investigating the Taylor case. They announced they wished to interview Mabel, but, of course, they had no jurisdiction in the east. On the evening of Mabel’s departure, Will Rogers, the comedian cowboy, stood on a Los Angeles stage and quipped “Two people were shot in L.A. today – Mabel Normand must be back in town!”

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On board the ship, Mabel received numerous bouquets from well-wishers, and she’d already sent one to Mary Miles Minter on her departure from L.A. On board she was pestered by numerous journos, some of whom departed as the ship, The Aquitania, slipped her moorings. Mabel was horrified at the number still aboard, but most of these were later ferried back by launch. A skeleton press force remained aboard, some disguised as normal passengers, and by the miracle of telegraph were sending stories back to their papers. “Mabel had been seen swimming naked in the ship’s pool” (probably untrue), “Mabel had fallen off her bar stool – blind drunk” (probably true).

In The Old Country.

At Southampton, England, Mabel was met by her press agent and numerous English newspaper people, although, as planned, little advance warning of her arrival had been given by the agent. Mabel was in London, by the time most people realised The Keystone Girl had arrived. Mabel was ready to drink Olde England dry.

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New York: (L) “So long suckers.”  (R) Mabel Sneers back at New York.

Holed up in a suite, known as The Fairbanks Suite, at the Ritz Hotel in Piccadilly, Mabel gave some selected interviews. Misguidedly, perhaps, she spoke of politics and how incensed she was about a woman being hung that day for murder. She seems to have identified herself with that woman, but she got away with these ‘mistakes’. It was heard that Queen Mary wanted to meet Mabel (a probable hoax) but the lesser royals then cancelled, when a government minister was blown up by the I.R.A. The problems in Ireland, at that time, meant that Mabel would not be able to visit her ancestral home, and kiss the Blarney Stone. Nor would she meet her hero, the dashing Fienian leader, Michael Collins, for whom, in any case, she would have had to fight Mabel-lookalike Kitty Kiernan for possession.

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Mabel’s suite at The Ritz.

Colleen Mabel, of course, was suspected of having Fienian sympathies, and was no doubt under the surveillance of MI5. Mabel’s meetings with the hallowed authors went well. She received J.M. Barrie in her suite. She described him as being very aged for Peter Pan, and always had a shawl around his shoulders, but she was unable to buy the rights to his Little Minister. GBS was much enthralled at meeting the charming Keystone Girl, but H.G. Wells never did meet her, although he did call. Mabel was in the bath at the time, the bathroom door firmly locked no doubt, for H.G. was a prolific ravisher of women, whose female companion was an American ‘lady’ who espoused free love and lewd carnal behaviour, to the horror of the U.S. authorities. H.G. departed, but left a note saying he’d made up her fire. Lord Northcliffe invited Mabel out to his country pile, where she stayed for a couple of days. Unfortunately, the lady of the house returned early, after being regaled with tales of Mabel swimming in her pool naked (what else?) and kicked her out. Music Hall actor, Harry Tate, invited her to stay with him, and he gave Mabel a guided tour of the west country with Mabel driving, and bouncing off the banks lining the narrow twisting lanes. Almost certainly they visited many Devon pubs and downed plenty of ‘Zider’. After so long living in a veritable desert, Mabel was stunned at how green the countryside was. Charlie Chaplin had regaled Mabel with tales of the Music Hall comedienne Marie Lloyd, and Mabel badly wanted to meet the vulgar  and boisterous actress, who’d once been locked up in the U.S. for ‘moral turpitude’. Unfortunately, Marie was seriously ill at the time, so she could not see her. Marie would be dead by the time Mabel arrived home. However, there was more bad news, Jack Pickford and Marilyn Miller had married. How could her friends have wed while she was away – she couldn’t understand how that had happened. First she suspected Mary, but soon worked out that her husband, the tree-swinging Doug Fairbanks, was behind it. He’d never liked Mabel after she rejected his advances “I don’t date gorillas” She told him. He’d ensured that Mabel was not at Pickfair for the wedding. “The bastard!”

 

Marie Lloyd, a danger to U.S. morals. All flouncy petticoats and frilly knickers.

Now, Mabel wanted to visit a pub in London’s East End, being an avid reader of Jack London and his East End book The People of The Abyss. Her entourage implored her not to go, for she’d be crushed to death in the melee that her presence would surely generate. As usual, Mabel did not listen, and the result was chaos. The drinkers moved in on her chanting “Mybel, Mybel, Mybel” and, locked in a corner, someone held out his hand to her, Mabel foolishly grasped it and was pulled towards the crowd as it advanced.

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Mabel would surely have been crushed underfoot, but for the two burly guys with her, who forced their way in and extricated her. Mabel was shaken, but not stirred, when she arrived back at The Ritz. Now she suddenly wanted to visit the slums of Limehouse. Enthused by Thomas Burke’s book, Limehouse Nights, she simply had to see the place where Burke had given Chaplin a guided tour. Mabel’s people were horrified – didn’t she know this was London’s China Town, and far more dangerous than its equivalent in L.A. where she and Charlie had made films together? Mabel cared not, and summoned a cab. The friends and a journalist piled in and Mabel said:

“Take us to the slums.”

To which the cab driver replied “Which ones?”

The Limehouse ones, silly.”

“Well I don’t know Missy, we don’t normally go dahn there – Fu-Man-Chu, the Tongs and all that.”

“Don’t be a baby, just take us there.”

The driver set off, but grumbled all the way.

“Fourteen-year-old girl givin’ me orders – it ain’t proper, it ain’t.”

Eventually, the driver pulled up on the East India Dock Road.

“Is this Limehouse?” Inquired Mabel.

“Nah, it’s dahn that road there, about two ‘undred yards, I’ll wait ‘ere till yer come back – IF yer come back.”

Mabel and co. set off for the slums, while the cabbie sat and cursed.

“That’s the last anyone will see of those silly bastards, they’ll get their fuckin’ froats cuts, and that mouthy little bitch dripping with jewellery and all.”

Perry Charles remembered the jewellery, and told Mabel to put the stuff in her bag.  She refused – she felt naked without it. They proceeded into the area, just as night was falling, and the people adopted more of a yellow hue. In places, there were stalls set up selling mainly Chinese food, and there were numerous ragged kids running around, some white, some yellow, a few black. Mabel simply loved these types of places, places ‘mother’ had warned her about twenty years back. “Mabel, an evil yellow man will abduct you If you go to China Town, ply you with opium and put you to work on the streets.” Sounded good to Mabel. They passed three urchins sitting on the kerb. Mabel smiled at them, and as soon as she’d passed one said:

“Ere that’s Mybel! Oi, Mybel, ‘ow old are yer? Thirteen ain’t yer?”

His friend said “Well fuck me if ain’t ‘er! Yer twelve ain’t yer Mybel!”

“Of course she ain’t, yer fifteen ain’t yer Mybel?” Said the third kid. Mabel looked back and grinned. If she was back home she’d sign them up, put them in a film called The Little Rascals.

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By now everyone in Limehouse had got the news that the Keystone Girl was in town. A huge crowd was following them.

“Mybel, over ‘ere, Mybel, come over ‘ere, Mybel, Mybel, Mybel.”

They stopped to look into a Chinese café and the crowd gathered around them. Just when it looked like it was curtains for the Hollywooders, a good old British bobby turned up.

“Ay, Ay, what’s goin’ on ‘ere then?”

“My good man – officer – would you mind awfully clearing a way for us.” Asked Mabel, in her best Cavendish Square accent.

“Good God, it really is you – Keystone Mabel. Sorry Miss Mabel, but the crowd’s too thick now to do anything.”

He opened the café door. “Get inside, while I call for reinforcements.”

Once inside, the yanks peered around. The air was thick with a pungent opium tainted smoke, and they could just make out the figures of a dozen Chinamen, sitting at tables, pipes in mouths and coolie hats on their heads. Mabel couldn’t understand the lingo, but she knew the word ‘Mabel’ well enough. The only place to sit was by the window, where kids were pressing their pasty faces against the glass.

“Wonder why she’s ‘ere?” Said one kid “I thought she lived in Yankee-land.”

“Yeah, she’s got a big ‘ouse an’ a swimmin’ pool out there.”

Swimmin’ pool, don’t be daft.”

“She ‘as too…. seen ‘er in the flickers, divin’ into it all day long, she is.”

“Oh yeah, she’s a beauty in that swimsuit – pity she’s in love wiv Charlie Chaplin.”

“Is she?”

“Yeah, saw ‘em at it in that movie comic cartoon.”

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Just then, the cop began blowing his whistle, and, like magic, half-a-dozen bobbies appeared in good old Keystone Kop fashion, and began pushing back the crowd. They beckoned the group to come out, which they gratefully did, Mabel handing a five-pound (25 dollar) tip to the dumbstruck waiter on the way out. The cops escorted the company back to their cab. On reaching it, the first cop drew out his notebook, wrote something down and handed it to Mabel. “Just sign that I’ve written a true account of wot ‘appened.” Mabel signed, and never was a cop so happy. He’d live off that signature for the next thirty years, and regale his kids and grand-kids of the day he met with Keystone Mabel. Of course, nobody ever believed him.

The cabbie was surprised they’d survived two whole hours on ‘Jacob’s Island’ but took them back to Piccadilly. Dismounted, Mabel handed the driver the fare and a ten-pound tip. Well, ever seen a cabbie happy with his tip? – this one was! As he drove off, he turned and waved, and Mabel gave him a good old Keystone raspberry and some unladylike hand gestures.

“Mabel”, Said her journalist “The going rate for a tip is one shilling max, that’s 25 cents, not 50 dollars!”

“Oh, the poor guy, waiting all that time.” By the end of the night, the pub landlord had all of Mabel’s 50 dollars.”

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La Mort Rat, Gay Paree.

Monte Carlo or Bust.

Mabel packed for France, where her darling shiek awaited. She now had two extra trunks, and clutched an unsigned contract from the ABC Film Co. The Prince met her in Paris, and she fell into his open arms. Was there a month’s love-making ahead – you bet! First night, the Pharaoh and his Queen, hit the town. First stop had to be The Dead Rat club, but Mabel resolutely declined to enter the damned place. It was here that her friend Olive Thomas came, before she swallowed that drain cleaner and died. Only the attentions of Charlie Chaplin had saved Mabel from suicide herself. Within a few weeks, Mabel would be consoling Charlie over the untimely demise of Marie Lloyd. For now, it was fun, fun, fun with the Shiek. Then it was pack up for the sub-Riviera, and Deauville racecourse. Every night was party night, then it was off to Nice and the Riviera proper. More fun, more parties, before they hit Monte Carlo. Mabel didn’t break the bank, but she did break the Prince’s wallet, by losing a fortune at the roulette tables. Ibrahim wired home for more shekels. The King considered the request, but news came that the prodigal son was about to marry a fallen woman, a scumbag actress – he ordered Ibrahim home. End of Shiek. Mabel continued her tour, travelling to Holland, Germany, and Italy.

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“Who you lookin’ at asshole?” Mabel at  the Deauville Races.

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Michael Collins and  winsome colleen Kitty Kiernan.

Eventually, it was time to go home. Mabel boarded the ship with her expanded luggage, full of Parisian frocks to the tune of $50,000. A newspaper had been left in the cabin by the purser. She read the headlines: the independent Irish leader, Michael Collins, had been gunned down – by his own men. The paper was full of reports about his poor fiancé Kitty Kiernan, now alone and grieving. Mid-Atlantic, newspapers were passed to her ship, The Olympic, by a Europe-bound boat. Mabel acquired one, and got the shock of her life. The headline told that Lord Northcliffe had died. “I wonder who they’ll blame for that” Thought Mabel. On the front page there was something else:

“Mack Sennett Shooting New Feature Film – Extra Girl, about a girl lured to Hollywood, where she’s conned and fleeced by crooks. Picture stars Phyllis Haver.”

Mabel was confused – Mack hadn’t mentioned any Extra Girl. Phyllis Havers? She’s no actress, just a bathing beauty. Hang on a minute, this was just the film she needed to rehabilitate herself with the public.

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Who wouldn’t want a handful of Phyllis Haver.

Back in N.Y.

Mabel fought her way off the ship, shoving journos aside as she raced to the Customs Hall. At the counter a guy told her the L.A. cops were in the next room, waiting to interview her.

“Tell ’em to go fuck themselves, they’ve got no jurisdiction here.” And they didn’t.

Mabel tried to collect her luggage, only to find that a court had made an ‘Attachment’ on the stuff on behalf of Perry Charles, who claimed he was owed $3,000 for expenses. Mabel wired the cash and got the $80,000 worth of luggage.

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One girl and her luggage.

Mabel went straight to Marilyn Miller’s apartment on 122nd Street. She put the key in that Marilyn had given her, but the door just opened. Mabel was shocked to see Marilyn’s mother standing there – why wasn’t she in L.A.?

“Couldn’t face it Mabel, after those bastards hijacked the wedding. She should have been married here in New York, among her family – should have been in New York.”

Mabel found herself comforting Marilyn’s distraught mother, but at the opportune moment, she asked to make a long-distance call, handing ‘mother’ fifty dollars for the twenty-dollar call to L.A. She got the call made to Mack Sennett’s house. The phone rang and rang – no answer. She left it ten minutes and rang again. Mack answered sleepily:

“Hello”.

“Mack, it’s me, Mabel, can you hear me?”

Mabel? Mabel? Good God, it’s four in the morning!”

“Well, it’s seven-thirty here. Now you listen and listen good, you asshole. I want that film, Mack, I want the Extra Girl.”

“Mabel, I told you, I’ve given you Mary-Ann.”

“Tain’t enough Mack, I want Extra Girl.”                                 

“We’ve been shooting for three weeks.”

“Well, you can just un-shoot, and fuck that fat little trollop right off the lot.”

“I can’t do that Mabel, it’s not on.”

“Well, that’s  fucking fine, I’ll just saunter downtown, see the boys in blue, and sing – like a fucking canary.”

“O.K. Mabel, when ya coming back?”

“Catch the next train back at 2 p.m., NY time.”

Mabel hung up.

L.A.s Looking Good.

Mack Sennett was later to say that Mabel ‘breezed back into L.A. as gay as wisp’. And well she might have, for she was to make the greatest film since Mickey, way back in 1916. Her share of the profits? A cool one-million dollars.

Aquitania Poola

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Mabel’s London Notebook.

Interesting (disturbing) fact.

Phyllis Haver took her own life, two weeks after Mack Sennett died in 1960. Make of that what you will.

Bibliography

Mabel Normand: A Sourcebook of her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman (2006).

https://archive.org/stream/MabelNormandASourceBookToHerLifeAndFilms/MNSB7_djvu.txt

Mabel Normand’s Own Life Story by Chandler Sprague. Los Angeles Examiner (February 17, 1924)

Looking For Mabel Normand: http://www.freewebs.com/looking-for-mabel/. Site maintained by Marilyn Slater.

Love, Laughter and tears: My Hollywood Story by Adela Rogers St. Johns (1978).

Long Beach Daily Telegram, February 2, 1922: FILM PRODUCER ASSASSINATED. Lasky Director is Found With Bullet in Back.

Los Angeles Examiner, February 3, 1922.
REVENGE FOR ATTENTION PAID TO GIRL REGARDED AS MOTIVE FOR CRIME.

Movie Weekly, June 24, 1922: WILL HAYS BATTLES “KID” VICE

THE PASSING OF MARILYN SLATER.

 

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It has been revealed that Marilyn Slater, the champion of Mabel Normand research, has passed on in Los Angeles. Marilyn ran the website ‘Looking For Mabel Normand’ for many years. She was believed to have been above 85 years of age, and made a huge amount of material available to us. Marilyn was the adopted daughter of Julia Benson (Brew) who was Mabel’s personal nurse from 1920 to 1930. She was one of the last people on earth to have personally known Mack Sennett, Julia Benson, and Mabel’s niece (the actress Mabel Normand). She is thought to have also met big producers like Louis B. Mayer and Adolph Zukor.

Rest in Peace Marilyn.

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Looking For Mabel Normand: https://www.freewebs.com/looking-for-mabel/

THE LIFE OF MABEL NORMAND: 1930 – 1970.

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Opening the Mabel Normand Sound Stage in 1940: Louise Fazenda, Mack Sennett, Judy Canova, Wm. Farnum, Charlie Murray, James Finlayson, Chester Conklin and Minta Arbuckle Durfee.

The title of this blog is surely wrong. Isn’t it a fact that Mabel died in early 1930? Well yes, and Mabel was sealed into her tomb on the very day that the silent movie ended, or as Don McLean might say “The day the silence died.” The shock in Hollywood was palpable – how could the girl who’d survived so much, and had the last rites read over her so many times down the years, be gone, taken by tuberculosis. As one star said “It’s impossible, it’s evil.” The tone was set at Mabel’s funeral, where, for the first time in Tinsel Town’s history, Mary Pickford burst into tears before Constance Talmadge. Mary, of course, had known Mabel since her first day in pictures, and if she hadn’t dragged D.W. Griffith to see her, then we would never have heard of ‘the little clown’. Immediately following Mabel’s death, there were accusations of foul play, and the fingers began to point in the direction of Mabel’s pseudo-husband, Lew Cody. It was Lew that had Mabel locked up in the Pottenger sanitorium, and no matter how much she protested, she could not escape. However, many believed he was helping Mabel “…whose mind had gone, and needed constant care.” Gradually, a year or so after Mabel’s death, the Normand family began to smell a rat, and newspaper headlines declared that the Mabel Normand estate was challenging Cody’s right to Mabel’s $50,000 trust fund. It was Mary Pickford that had stepped in as an interface between the family and the unfamiliar world of Hollywood, and she  seems to have worked out that Cody, who was left nothing in Mabel’s will, was a rogue. Eventually, all of this gradually disappeared, but Mabel was still on people’s minds. She had an afterlife, you know.

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Mabel and Lew 1926.

The 1930s.

Mabel remained in the ether of Hollywood into the 1930s – perhaps a restless spirit could not be stilled by mere death.  However, it is clear that Mabel still lived in the minds of real living human beings, and that had nothing to do with the spirit world. The Hollywood journals carried articles about Madcap Mabel well into the 1930s. Charlie Chaplin was undoubtedly ‘haunted’ forever, by the tragedy of Mabel’s life and death. Elsewhere in Hollywood, a certain Mack Sennett was sitting in The Roosevelt Hotel, ruing his bad luck, at being taken down and bankrupted by his distributors, Paramount. In 1936, he sat in the lobby, and watched with interest, as a slowly falling star, by the name of Louise Brooks flitted in and out. The two never spoke, but Louise was well aware that Mack ‘was paying attention’. She was even more aware that, in a previous life, at the Biograph studio, he’d paid particular attention to the antics of a young and vital, daredevil actress called Mabel Normand. Just what was The King of Comedy up to, what was troubling his massive intellect now? Louise was convinced that Mack was, in some way, responsible for Mabel’s demise, perhaps he’d even poisoned her, and she was, in no way, going to get involved with the Irish madman. Louise was right to be suspicious, as Mack had a scheme to bring himself back from the dead – to do that he’d also need to bring Mabel back from the dead.

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“I will bring her back — somehow.”

Louise would have been right if she’d thought Mack had lost all interest in Mabel. On hearing of her death from reporters, he’d rather laconically said: “This  is indeed most regrettable”, meaning he couldn’t have cared less.  Nonetheless, he was now in trouble, and needed Mabel’s help. He’d fed off her in life, and he’d feed off her carcass in death. Miss Brooks had had a lucky escape, for Mack was thinking of a film covering Mabel’s life story, in which she would star. If Mack had got the finance sorted, she would have got the part of Mabel, but not THE star role – that would have gone Sennett himself. In all probability, Mack would have persuaded out of work Louise, by some means, to take the role. Mabel was still in everyone’s minds, not just in Hollywood among the dimming silent stars, but around the world, where her resurrection was eagerly awaited. However, most of the Hollywood wise-guys realised that no-one could play Mabel – her mannerisms, her facial gestures, and her personality were unique, and could not be replicated. Sure, plenty of actresses had bush baby eyes and big teeth, but did anyone have that sweet mouth, which turned up delicately at the corners, and which had so enraptured Charlie Chaplin? If any actress played her and failed, then it would be ‘Bye, Bye Dixie’ – forever.

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Mabel’s facial gestures were her main feature. This may not be the best example, but it’s probably the funniest. His Trysting Place 1914.

And so, the years passed, with Mack pestering everyone for a chance to make a Mabel film. Big wheel, Louis B. Mayer, was very interested. He’d loved Mabel in life, and, if death hadn’t intervened, he’d have had her in major MGM pictures by 1929. Now, though, neither Louis nor Mack could think of an effective way to bring The Keystone Girl back, but if they could have, then they would have had the box office hit of the 1930s. In the meantime, a new cache of stars had hit Hollywood to replace Pickford, Talmadge, Gish and Sweet. They’d grown up with Mabel, and, more importantly, with the concept of Mabel. One thing Mabel had left behind was a study in how to be a Hollywood star. Mabel had set the standard of how a Hollywood star should behave. Certainly, many silent stars swanned around in fur coats and hand muffs, dripping with jewels, and were chauffeured in fancy cars, but no one did it with the poise and magnanimity of Mabel. She considered herself a democratic star, and made the paraphernalia of stardom seem an element of social justice. Of course, many of the 30s stars over-reacted and became gross and somewhat disturbing. Mabel’s speech was laced liberally with the ‘F’ word, but some now thought it was obligatory, and ditto with disgusting and vulgar behaviour.

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What it is to be a film star.

Republic Studios arrive.

Then, a company called Republic came into being, and took over the old Mack Sennett lot out at Studio City. This was a dynamic organisation that set out to re-consolidate some of the old companies bankrupted by the Great Depression. When they decided to produce a film concerning the demise of the old silent movie, they sought the aid, naturally enough, of Mack Sennett. Mack was in his element, but although the picture was to be partly comical, the drama prevailed, and Mack ensured that the film included elements of Mabel’s story. They called it Hollywood Cavalcade. During the making of the film, it was put to Mack that a remake of Mabel’s Sis Hopkins would be welcomed by the public. This was a Goldwyn film, and Mack thought that one of his pictures would do better. Naturally enough, he suggested the story of Mickey, Mabel’s most successful film. The executives considered this, but thought that the film would be impossible to remake. Mickey had been a no expense spared extravaganza, and, anyway, where would they find a stunningly beautiful girl who was willing to leap on a horse from behind, gallop through overhanging trees, hang from a third floor gutter, and dive gracefully from a rock 50 feet high. Nor would any established star want to humiliate herself by sliding down a banister. Gloria Swanson? No way, she’d already told Sennett where to stick his dangerous stunts, back in the 1910s. So, Sis Hopkins it was, starring Judy Canova and a certain Susan Hayward. Judy Canova was a comedienne of no mean ability, but, like so many comic ladies, she was not beautiful. She had a slim lovely body, but she got her comedy, like old Flora Finch, from her rather odd face, and slightly W.G. Fields nose. Most of her lack of beauty, though, was produced by Judy herself, and at rest, she was in fact quite close to being pretty. So, we can see the problems faced when trying to replicate the vivacious Mabel.

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A thousand stars gather at The Mabel Normand Sound Stage. Christmas 1940.

The Mabel Normand Sound Stage.

The executives at Republic were quite happy to refer to their studio as the Mack Sennett studio, but one bright spark thought that a new sound stage they’d built should be named The Mabel Normand Sound Stage. At Christmas 1940, there was a grand opening of the stage, and a massive party attended by a thousand silent and talkie stars. Judy Canova officially unveiled the Mabel Normand plaque, a 300-pound hunk of bronze, 3-feet high on which a dedication to Mabel was cast. Notables attending were John Wayne, Gabby Hayes, Jack Mulhall, Minta Durfee, Mack Sennett, Chester Conklin, Louise Fazenda, Mae Busch, Dorothy Davenport Reid, Del Henderson, William Farnham, and anyone that was anyone in Hollywood. Charlie Chaplin attended, but left when a huge lump came into his throat, as Mack Sennett said his eulogy of Mabel:

“Ladies, gentlemen, pals……this stage is dedicated to the memory of a lady, who was one of the greatest artists the motion picture business ever knew. Briefly, a little girl who had a golden heart, Mabel Normand.”

There can be no doubt that the name Mabel Normand was still in everyone’s mind at this time. But why would they name a sound stage after a silent star? The reason is that Mabel once performed in a short sound film, made on the set of box-office hit Our Dancing Daughters. Said to have been a private film, it was, in fact, a sound test for Mabel. Where that film is now, nobody knows, and only the studio stills still exist. For what follows, it should be remembered that Louis B. Mayer ordered the production of Mabel’s ‘private’ film.

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Mabel on the set of Our Dancing Daughters in 1928.

Strange Happenings on Sunset Boulevard.

Well, the war finally came to America, and Mabel had to be put aside for the duration. In 1946, the genius of the movies, D.W. Griffith left this mortal coil, then Mack Sennett got a shock. Opening a newspaper, he read that a certain Claude Normand had taken his own life back in New York. Claude, of course, was the much-beloved brother of Mabel, and the article said that, finally overcome with the tragedy of his sister’s life, he’d taken a razor, entered the cellar of his house, and cut his throat. He was found dead later by his wife, Winifred. The article had further reported that the house was a shrine to Mabel, and contained an enormous quantity of her effects.

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Mabel Normand II.

Later reports stated that after Claude’s funeral, Winifred, in a rage against ‘that damned woman’ she’d thrown everything out into the back yard, and piled it up in different heaps. Her daughter, Mabel, arrived just as one pile was furiously burning, but saved the rest. Like her namesake, Mabel was also an actress, and her son, Stephen, still owns a lot of Mabel memorabilia, including the famous life-sized picture of Mabel in her Mickey costume. Another person with a shrine to Mabel was Julia Benson, Mabel’s long-term nurse. When Mack was constructing his autobiography, he had many meetings with Julia, going over aspects of Mabel’s life (contrary to what he said, he seems to have known little about Mabel). Julia had an adopted daughter, who became so sick of living in a shrine that she left home as soon as possible. She now runs the Looking For Mabel Normand website.

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Mabel with Julia 1924.

By the late 40s Mack Sennett was having serious talks with the head of paramount Pictures, Adolph Zukor. Mack still wanted his Mabel film, and he had a story sketched out. He was talking to the right guy for Addie had been in love with Mabel in the old days. If this sounds strange, try this. When he died, aged 103, they found several letters from Mabel in his personal papers. They are letters of a personal nature, not love letters, which demonstrate the strength of feeling between them. Zukor thought the time was right to begin a Mabel picture, Mabel having been gone for a respectable period. Our old friend Louis B. Mayer was also in the mix, but it seems that the MGM board were becoming lukewarm towards the great man. The story Mack proposed was called The Keystone Girl, but, surprise, surprise, he would be the star! They tried Mary Pickford for the lead. She turned it down flat, sending a lawyer’s letter, insisting that her name should not be in the script. They tried Betty Hutton, who accepted on the condition she saw the whole screen-play. The script was proffered, then rejected with the comment, “I only accept leading roles, not supporting ones.” Sennett scrabbled around looking for a new ‘lead’, but the scheduled start was perilously close. He tried to run Louise Brooks down, but she was now working behind the counter of a department store, and could not be located. Unbeknown to Sennett, a new Mabel script had emerged, and Paramount executives went for it. Producers of all studios had turned out good films, so why should they raise Sennett to the top? As far as anyone could fathom, the story concerned a silent star who’d gone insane when her career ended. This was safe ground for the studio men, and they again tried Mary Pickford, but, again, she told them where they could put it. Other actresses refused the part, but eventually, Gloria Swanson took the part up, although no-one knows why, as she herself later said she did not know why.

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“None of us floozies was that nuts!” Sunset Boulevard.

The picture, Sunset Boulevard, proved not to be safe ground for the producers. The director Billy Wilder had the script partly rewritten, so that instead of being about a crazy silent star, it appeared to be about how the producers robbed the screen-writers. There was little the big boys could do – the film was complete and ready for release. All hell broke loose when the film premiered. Louis B. Mayer went ballistic, and told Wilder that he’d run him out of Hollywood. Mae Murray offered the statement “None of us floozies was that nuts!” However, if we want to know if Mabel was unforgotten, then we need only remember that her name was uttered three times in the film. This would not have been worthwhile if Mabel had not still been in the public mind. The main issue was that McCarthyism was in the air, and Mabel was long overdue for being exposed, not as a murderess, a whore and a manipulator, but as a socialist, nay, a communist. In people’s minds, Mabel’s persona became blurred with her old co-star Charlie Chaplin, now being investigated for ‘un-American’ activities. The air was electric, as everyone in Hollywood was looking over their shoulder to see who would turn them in to McCarthy. In the end Chaplin was thrown out of the U.S. It was best to forget Mabel, write her out of history.

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J.Edgar says: “I wanna check they’ve nailed that commie down real good.”

It was in 1954 that Mack Sennett appeared on T.V.’s This Is Your Life. During the course of the program, Mabel’s name was carefully avoided. Then, a former lover of Mabel was brought in. His name was Jack Mulhall, and he was determined to mention Sennett’s greatest star. Much to Sennett’s surprise Jack did not slug him, but he did thank Mack for introducing him to Mabel Normand. It was, as we know, during 1954, that Mack published his autobiography King of Comedy, in which the memory of Mabel played a big part. This had some effect on the surviving silent actresses, who took on-board Sennett’s publicised view of Mabel. However, following Sennett, no-one could comment on the more Byzantine aspects of Hollywood.

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Sennett (right) looks worried as Jack Mulhall unexpectedly appears on This is Your Life.

A curious thing had happened. Interviewed ex-stars began to talk of the elf-like Mabel that loved no-one but Mack Sennett, who rejected her and unwittingly destroyed her, exactly as Sennett had stated in his book. No-one, of course, had talked of this in the silent era. Mack died in 1960, but fast forward ten years, and an even more curious thing happened. A play called Mack and Mabel hit the stage in which Mack was presented as having lifted Mabel from the streets and made her a star. Mabel, as we know, achieved stardom at Vitagraph Studios, and no-one there, back in the day, could recall any involvement with Mack Sennett at that time. By the time that Mack took Mabel into his Biograph comedy unit, Mabel was already a confirmed comedy and drama star. Many of Mabel’s acquaintances were also furious about their friend’s portrayal as a drug addict, and a mindless scatter-brain in the play. Mack had never intended to portray Mabel in this manner.

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Mack and Mabel together  in 1960.

Postscript.

In the following 50 years, Mabel’s memory has been consigned to two separate camps: those that saw her as an evil woman, a murderess and a vulgar drug addict, who had her just deserts when she died from substance abuse. Others who say she was misused by Hollywood, an innocent pixie of a girl, who helped others, while disregarding her own interests. For those that say she a murderess, we might say “Prove it”, and for those that say she died from drug addiction we might say “Her death certificate states ‘tuberculosis”. Was Mabel misused by Hollywood? Possibly, but she was adept enough to use Hollywood herself, she surely helped many others, but she never failed to help herself – she was, indeed, a fierce competitor.

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If you don’t want the attention of the authorities , then don’t stand in front of  graffiti saying I.W.W.  (Industrial Workers of the World).  Fatal Mallet, 1914.

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Bibliography.

Madcap Mabel: The True Story of a Great Comedienne by Sydney Sutherland. ‘Liberty’ 1930.

Meet The Stars: The Dedication of The Mabel Normand Soundstage 1940. A Republic film. Video included in The Mack Sennett Collection Vol.1. Blu-Ray by Flicker Alley.

Mabel Normand: A Sourcebook of her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman (2006).

Mabel and The Wobblies: Mabel’s involvement with the I.W.W.  https://wordpress.com/post/thekeystonegirlblogs.wordpress.com/13377

Love, Laughter and tears: My Hollywood Story by Adela Rogers St. Johns (1978).

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).

Sunset Boulevard by Paramount Pictures (1950).

 

 

ESCAPE FROM STATEN ISLAND! ONE GIRL’S QUEST FOR STARDOM.

 

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Manhattan by night 1909.

When Mack Sennett wrote his 1954 autobiography, he said that Mabel Normand had never considered becoming an actress, or she would have tried the stage. This is probably the most misleading thing that Sennett ever said, and it was, certainly, intended to deceive, and make the reader believe that he’d discovered Mabel in the wardrobe of Biograph Studios, then propelled her to stardom. Total nonsense, of course, for Mabel was already the nearest thing, in those days, to a star as you could get. This is the story of Mabel’s early struggle for recognition, and the struggle with herself.

 

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The family home at 91 Tysen Street, New Brighton.

The Little Theatre on Staten Island.

It is strange to think that Mabel had her first taste of acting, at a tiny Staten Island theatre, where old retired sailors would gather to watch improvised plays. This really is where Mabel began her astonishing career. It was her father, Claude Normand, that organised the plays at Snug Harbour, New Brighton, a home for old sailors. Claude delighted in showing off his pretty, dark-haired daughter, and he took her to The Snug on a daily basis, where the sailors, the actors and the cleaning lady spoilt her terribly. The Normands lived in a house belonging to the Snug Harbour, which enabled Mrs Normand to adopt the air of being middle-class, although, as Mack Sennett later said, “they lived in quiet desperation.” Claude and Mary Normand appear to have been complete opposites, which might explain how they remained married for 45 years. Claude, a failed actor of French-Canadian descent, loved vaudeville and the decadent life of its players. Mary Normand was from an acting family, but despised the profession, and, as an Irish Catholic, attended church regularly, and took tea with the vicar. Sundays, especially, were a nightmare for her young daughter, a hyper-active little minx, who fidgeted and squirmed among the congregation. However, for a minx, she was always neat and tidy, never having one sock up and one down, and always inspecting her dresses for the slightest mark – a definite star in the making.

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Snug Harbour Sailor’s Home.

Now we might be wondering how Mabel ever found time for schooling. The fact is, she never had any. In later years, journalist and other nosy people tried to track down the school she went to. They were out of luck, for no-one could remember Mabel, and it seems few local children had even known of her existence. It appears that, if Mabel ever attended a school, then she wasn’t there long – perhaps a week, or less. In all probability she was too weird to fit in. One thing Mabel was known for, among her few acquaintances, was giving her own and her siblings stuff away, something she was to continue doing for the rest of her life. When Mabel wasn’t at Snug Harbour, she was riding around the island on her brother’s bike, much to his annoyance, or swimming in The Hudson. A restless spirit indeed, and she would often look over to Manhattan, and dream of being there. Several times her father had taken her there on the ferry, and she loved the noise and bustle, the cheeky young lads and the vending girls, perhaps ragged, but full of vitriol. It was all so different to the leafy suburbs of Staten Island, which she considered to be something of a gilded cage.  Dad sometimes took her to the theatre on the Bowery, where unbeknown to her, a certain Mack Sennett was trying his luck in the low joints down there, playing alongside the dirty dancer Little Egypt. Claude was known to frequent some of the low theatres on the Bowery, but whether he took young Mabel with him, we don’t know. Some people have suggested he frequented the bordellos, even when he had his child with him. If this sounds a little ridiculous, then Bessie Love records that, when her father visited such places, he took her with him. The painted ladies would make a great fuss of her, plying her with sweets and lemonade, while dad was upstairs with one of their ‘compatriots’.

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The Bowery, Manhattan

Making Of A Star.

Mabel once wrote that “My father taught me to play the piano, and my mother taught me to read.” This is true to form, and reflects the difference between pater and mater. Father, we can be sure, wanted her to be a performer of some kind, mother just wanted her to be a normal girl, who’d marry, have kids, stay at home and attend Mass regularly. If Mabel really had to have a career, then it would be in the arts. She could become a concert pianist, or perhaps a painter. Here we have to say that anything Mabel tried, she mastered and to a high level (except the French language). She picked up the piano in no time, and excelled at it, and she became a tolerably good artist. Unfortunately, there was insufficient money for her to learn to play to concert level, and paint like a master. Horse-riding she picked up by simply jumping on a horse, while out in upstate New York with the Griffith company. No-one could ride bareback like Mabel, and no-one could run up behind a horse and mount it in one smooth movement like Mabel. In swimming and diving she excelled, having taught herself in the Hudson River. Constance Talmadge later said that she behaved more like one of the boys, than a girl. Indeed, she seems to have been a kind of female Tom Sawyer.

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Aspirations of stardom – age 10 and 14.

 

We can imagine the young Mabel looking over at Manhattan across the New York Bay, dreaming of life in the big city. Life on Staten Island was cosy, but incredibly dull. As she grew up, it is highly likely that Claude encouraged her to get out in the world, and grab a piece of it. Eventually, it was time for Mabel to help with the household finances, and, like Dick Whittington, off she went to the big city, not to make her fortune, but to work in the packing department of a big store in Manhattan. No-one really knows what happened, but within half-an hour she was modelling for a commercial artist. The story goes that the packing manager, seeing how beautiful she was, immediately got on to an artist that did advertising work for the store, and the rest is history. Mabel did much work for James Montgomery Flagg, and even became a Gibson Girl, alongside future big stars, Anna Q. Nillson and Alice Joyce. After Alice moved over to pictures,

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Anna, Mabel, Alice as models.

Mabel followed, but must have been somewhat crestfallen, when she realised that Alice was fast becoming a star, one of the first in motion pictures. However, Mabel knuckled down to extra work, which meant being chased hither and thither by Indians, while dressed as a Puritan maid. The work was arduous and dirty, but Mabel learned a lot about the wild west. However, the cowboys were real, genuine cowpokes from the plains – they were lecherous, uncouth and unwashed. Mabel was alone and without a stage mother, and somewhat vulnerable, so she went back to posing for more sophisticated men, the artists. In the studios, she could daydream, while she modelled the latest Parisian gowns, all gold thread and dotted with diamonds. Sometimes she craftily pulled the jewels off, and once managed to disconnect some delicate silver flowers from a fancy frock she was wearing. Spotted by old man Flagg, Mabel became deeply embarrassed, but Flagg, feeling sorry for her, gave her the whole Parisian ensemble, which had been given to him by a titled lady. This set Mabel dreaming of the day she’d have her own posh frocks, and give them away to all and sundry. Perhaps she’d give one to the poor ragged street vending girl that she passed every day on the Lower East Side. Eventually, of course she had more frocks than she knew what to do with, and would buy imported dresses, four or five at a time, wear one then give the rest away. Sometimes, Mabel’s dreaming got away from her, and she’d see old man Flagg transform into Paul Gaguin. Oh, how she longed for Paul, and oh, how she longed to be whisked away to Tahiti by the celebrated man of art.

_Artist48tkcThen the spell would be broken, as Flagg or Gibson said: “Right that’s it for the day.” Forced back to reality, Mabel would sometimes watch the artist complete the picture, and the way he filled in his preliminary sketches. Mabel could already sketch to a relatively high standard, but she wanted to paint, and decided to take art lessons between modelling jobs. In those days, young people were expected to contribute to the family finances. Therefore, she asked mother to forgo some of her money, so that she could pay for the lessons. Mother agreed and Mabel began her lessons. She earned $1.50 in the morning with Flagg and $1.50 in the afternoon, with Gibson or another artist. In between she had her art lessons. As well as the lessons she had to pay for the ferry ride and the subway fare. Then she had to buy lunch, which usually consisted of a milk shake – the complete lunch of the professional model. Later, naturally, men would scrabble to buy her that milk shake, but for now it was an extra expense. To save money, Mabel often walked to the ferry terminal, which was something mother had strictly forbidden, due to the ever-present risk of abduction by certain rough-necked pimps, who’d drug young girls and put them to work on the streets. Life was rough on the East Side, but Mabel loved to watch the people going about their business in the markets of Little Italy and along the Bowery. She became adept at speaking in foreign accents, and in her speech, would flit around from one to another, although her favourite occupation later was to ridicule the accents of other actresses – those with Kansas ‘covered wagon’ or severe Bronx accents. She even ridiculed herself by over-twanging her own Brooklyn accent, so that she sounded like an early version Betty Boop.

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“I Gotta Get Outta Here”

Once back home, life was dull for Mabel. She was growing up and was beginning to notice boys, but hell, how would she ever meet the boy of her dreams on this godforsaken island. The only boys she knew were at the local Catholic church, where the good fathers held occasional dances. She’d often end up holding hands with a pimply lad wearing glasses and sporting a runny nose. Then there was Gladys, her younger sister, who pestered Mabel for tales of the big city and the great artists she posed for. “One day, I’ll be a model, and move to the city, and wear lovely frocks, oh and….and everything.” Mabel thought “Dream on kid.” Gladys had some of the features of Mabel, but some-how she’d been put together all wrong. Both Mabel’s sister, and her brother, Claude, were typically French, or what you might call ‘Froggy French’. Their Irish descent was buried by the French, but Mabel had the additional look of the colleen. None of this helped now, Mabel thought, as she looked out from New Brighton over to the bright lights of Manhattan. Maybe, she could just walk away, and set up alone in the Big Apple. It was hopeless, she just didn’t make enough to live away from home. Like other island girls, she’d end up living at home until her parents married her off to some dim, chinless wonder. In the parts of Manhattan she dreamed of, her Brooklyn accent, although musical and pleasant enough, would have given her away. The artists she worked with spoke in a refined kind of Cavendish Square English, redolent of old London Town. Oh, if only she could speak ‘proper’ everything would surely be O.K. She need not have worried, for in those far off days, the Staten Islanders had not acquired that rough, hard edge of the Bronx that today makes, in some people’s minds, that obnoxious blend of the Brooklyn and Bronx which produces words like ‘Twalk’ for talk,  ‘Bwoys’ for boys with a hissing ‘iz’ at the end of some words. Mabel wondered “How the hell can I get out of this rat-trap?”

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Mabel’s church, St Peter’s New Brighton. In 1920, Mabel bought her mother a house nearby.

Shooting For The Stars.

Mabel didn’t really fit in with the posing game – she was too restless, too edgy. The artists, though, were kind, and ignored her jittery nature – she was, after all, stunningly beautiful, and had an incredibly interesting face, that offered all sorts of possibilities and, as Charlie Chaplin said, “all kinds of indulgence.” Mabel, though, had to do something, or she would go insane, and a friend, Frank Lanning, suggested acting at The Biograph Company on East Fourteenth Street. No cowboys, no Indians, plenty of chancers like herself, and a few trained actors from the theatre. Mabel went along, looked in, and turned to run. A man named Wilfred Lucas grabbed her and brought her back, saying “I think Mr. Griffith ought to see you”, and he put her in a dressing room to await his return. The noise in the brownstone building was deafening, with the players shouting and laughing at each other, and the director barking over the top. Mabel was getting the jitters again, when a small, blond-haired girl in long curls poked her head around the door. She looked at Mabel, then turned and ran off. Before Mabel could make off again, the girl returned with a big hook-nosed man.

“See, I told you she had two-inch eyelashes” said the blond girl.

The man stared at her through screwed up eyes, then extended his hand, saying “Hello, my name’s Griffith, I’m the director down here.”

Turned out the girl was called Mary Pickford.

“Well, if you’re agreeable, I’ll put you to work straight away” said Griffith. “Mary, take her to meet everyone, and I’ll have a word with, Mabel was it, later.”

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Biograph, 11 East Fourteenth Street.

Mary took Mabel and led her into the main studio. Mabel was taken with Mary – she was one of the few girls that was shorter than her – Alice and Anna had towered over Mabel, which wasn’t good for her confidence. The Biograph players were a lively lot, and recognised a swell kid, so that Mabel was soon surrounded by the excited company – such would be her life for the next eighteen years. Her euphoria, though, was soon interrupted by the hook-nosed man. Turning to a thin, silken-haired girl, he said:

“Blanche, take Mabel to the wardrobe, and get her fixed up with a page’s outfit.”

Blanche didn’t want to go, but an order was an order, and she took Mabel to the wardrobe lady. She told the lady to fix Mabel up as a page – and then she was gone.

“Right, my girl, said the lady, “let’s see what we’ve got.”

She rummaged in a laundry basket, then triumphantly held up – a pair of tights!

Well, Mabel nearly died on the spot. She thought of standing on the stage wearing these tights and little else. The wardrobe lady was very kind and sorted out the longest doublet she had.

“There, that’ll cover your embarrassment “ Said the lady. Then she gave Mabel a blanket to cover her while she waited to go on set. Mabel suddenly realised why Blanche had hurried off. None of the regular girls wanted the tights-wearing page part. She’d been had over.

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Page girl Mabel.

Mabel somehow survived, although the blond playing the queen was stunningly beautiful with hair right down her back and enormous eyes – her name was Florence Lawrence, the Queen of the Movies. Of the four pages, there was only one boy, and he was a cheeky devil that kept pinching her bottom and running his hand up her spine, making her shiver. His name was Jack and his big sister was Mary. Jack was good fun, and soon she was pinching his bum, among other things, as they giggled uncontrollably like schoolchildren. Jack was a schoolkid, he was fourteen, and Mabel was seventeen, but with a similar mindset. Mr. Griffith glowered and was not amused. However, Mabel noticed an uncouth Irish type that kept grinning at her. She glowered back at the thick-necked ape. The other girls told her his name was Mack Sennett, and she should steer clear of him. The shoot went on all day, then all night, and Mabel left for home, clutching her ten dollars pay. She arrived home at around 2 a.m. and was met by her furious mother. Mother snatched the ten dollars, then went into a tirade, and said she was barred from going back to the movies. As Mabel got into bed, she heard her mother scream:

“Oh God help me – my daughter’s a whore!”

Mabel was back at modelling the next day, but a curious thing happened. She ran into Mack Sennett on 5th Avenue, and he took Mabel for a milk shake – with an egg whipped into it.

“Look Mabel, I’ve been watching you, you’re great, and you should return to Biograph, as I’m sure you’ll be a success.”

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Fifth Avenue, where, for the first and only time, Mack Sennett bought a girl a milk-shake.

Mabel told him that mother objected, but Mack thought he could fix it. He’d ask Griffith to go and meet her parents, and get their approval. Griffith was good at these things, and never failed. The next afternoon, D.W. and his wife Linda met up with Mabel on 5th Avenue, and accompanied her to her Staten Island home. Mr Griffith was a good, cultured speaker of the Shakespearian kind, while his wife, actress Linda Arvidson, was delightful, and they soon had Mrs Normand eating out of their collective hand. The deal was sealed over a cup of tea, and the fact that D.W. didn’t ask for coffee, made him alright in Mrs Normand’s book.

“We’ll pay Mabel thirty dollars a week, with two checks – fifteen dollars made to Mabel and fifteen to your good self.”

Mother’s eyes lit up, but Mabel was less than pleased. The weeks went by at Biograph, and Mack continued to pester Mabel.

“Just tell him to fuck off’ Said Vivian Prescott “The guy’s a creep.”

Mabel didn’t tell him to fuck off. Mack had a vision of making himself a top producer, and he’d make her his star-of-stars. Naturally, Mabel wished it was true. Mack maintained she’d make enough money to settle among the bright lights of Manhattan and drive around in Pierce-Arrow car, wearing a mink coat and bedecked in jewels. She kept Mack on a string, and waited to see what Griffith had to offer. Unfortunately, in the winter of that year, Griffith moved the Biograph company to California for three months, and left Mabel behind, so she would not be escaping her parents this time around. On the advice of Mack, she went to the Vitagraph Studio in Brooklyn, and got work there as an extra. Soon, roly-poly comedian John Bunny saw her in the lunch room and asked for her. It was like a whirlwind had gathered little Mabel up, and almost immediately she was headlining with the Lord of Laughter. Soon, a letter came from Mack Sennett:

Dear Mabel

Your films are just hitting L.A. to rave reviews – you’re a star Mabel, and everyone knows it. I can’t believe what the papers are saying. They’re using superlatives like “A breath of fresh air”, “A human dynamo”, “The funniest girl around”, The sensation of 1911.”

Mack continued his letter with proclamations of love, and ended it with a poem, stolen from a newspaper column.

Mabel was cautious, and replied, but ended her own letter “Your girl Mabel”.

If Mabel hadn’t behaved in a lewd and unacceptable manner, and consequently got fired from Vitagraph, then the following sequence of events that launched her to the west coast would probably have never happened.

Girl on The Run.

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Mabel was in a quandary, with nowhere to go, except back to boring old Staten Island, where she’d live out her days as a sad old maid. Help came from an unexpected source – Mack Sennett. Hearing of Mabel’s strange predicament, Mack wrote her the following:

Dearest Mabel

I am currently in negotiations with New York Motion Pictures, for the formation of a new comedy studio. Guess what, Mabel, they want you as their number one star. How about that? Expected start date is around 6 to 8 month’s-time, with me as director. In the mean-time the bosses want you at their Reliance Studio in New York. Get down there Mabel, your future depends on it.

All my love

Mack

Alexandria Hotel, Los Angeles.

Mabel had nothing to lose, and down to Reliance she went. The director, Hal Reid (father of Wally) signed her up, but what no-one knew was that NYMP had just sold the company on to film mogul, Harry Aitken. In the changeover period, Hal was totally in charge, and when Mabel started her usual disrespectful behaviour, he promptly fired her.

Mabel was back where she started, but now the Biograph company had returned, and Mack instantly got Mabel back into the studio. Mabel was his meal-ticket, his passport to a great future. Within a few weeks, Mack had been made director of the Comedy Unit, and he asked for Mabel to be given over to him. However, Mabel had slotted into solid dramatics, and saw her future in that sphere. To her horror, Griffith turned her over to Mack. However, he made it clear that she would still play big parts in his dramatic films. Mabel, then, was still moving ahead, but the question has always been ‘Was her association with Sennett a gift from heaven or a poisoned chalice’. Unfortunately, we have only one scenario, and that is that she eventually chose to go with Sennett.

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The Baumann family, L.A. 1912. Ada in front, Charles 2nd right.

To California and Back.

Mabel made many escapes from Staten Island, like when she went on location to New Jersey and upstate New York. No mother, no interfering sister, no vicar, and no boring Staten Island people. It was like oxygen to the restless Mabel, and, as Mrs Linda Griffith tells us, it was in New York State that she began to “daredevil and build her astonishing career.” The Biograph girls marvelled at her complete lack of fear, at her bronco-riding ability and her graceful dives from high craggy cliffs. It was amid this atmosphere that Mabel and the Griffith troupe left for Los Angeles, at the end of 1911, for around three months. Out west, Mabel continued her rise in esteem among the girls, and, in their eyes, she went from starlet to goddess. Yes, to be like Mabel was where it was at.

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Mabel extras as nurse maid out in the orange groves, 1912.

The likes of Dotty Gish and Gertie Bambrick took the Mabel way to the extreme, abandoned their chaperones, swilled some gin, bared their midriffs, and hit the town. Mabel, however, did have a chaperone, in the form of Mack Sennett. Mack kept careful watch over his glittering asset – if she were to be abducted by rampaging cowboys or crazy Mexicans, then he was finished. Dotty and Gertie were, by the way, recaptured by Griffith and Del Henderson within four hours. Between shoots, Mack would divert Mabel to the Alexandria Hotel, where his discussions were proceeding with NYMP bosses, Kessell and Baumann. The New York wise guys couldn’t get enough of Mabel, but it was a matter of look, but don’t touch – until the ink’s dry on the contract. On the film side, Mabel made many comedies with Mack, some with that little scamp Jack Pickford, who kept Mack on his toes, by luring the delectable Mabel into the brush at the end of every scene. Mabel, though, was more interested in the dramatic films she made for Griffith, the most significant being The Mender of Nets. It was at that time not clear as to which way Mabel would fall – into the arms of Griffith or into those of Kessell and Baumann….and Mack.

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Mabel the Griffith girl in 1911/12. Left: The Eternal Mother. Right: Her Awakening.

Back in New York, Mabel was again wondering if she’d ever escape ‘Devil’s Island’, when Mack called her to a meeting at the milk bar on 5th Avenue.

“Mabel” Said Mack “It’s on – we’ll sign up tomorrow, and Keystone will start trading in two-week’s time.”

Mabel was unsure, she’d got cold feet.

“Look Mabel, if you want to escape from that rat-trap, you need to act now. There’s no future for you at Biograph, and the only way any of those girls will ever get on is by leaving for another company. Mary told me today, she’s getting ready to run, so is Blanche, so is Dotty, and, by the way, Griffith will be gone by the year’s end. Act now, or you’ll regret it for ever.”

“Alright Mack, whatever.”

Mabel did not commit herself, and the next day she discussed the move with her friends. They were horrified that she was going off with the crazy Irishman, Mack Sennett. Blanche Sweet was particularly vociferous:

“Don’t do this Mabel, that lunatic will destroy your career. Stick with Griffith, then look for a job with a reputable company. Tell Sennett to stick it.”

Nonetheless, next day, Mabel met up with Mack, and they went off to Kessell and Baumann’s office on Longacre, or Time Square, as they call it today. Unusually, Mack held tightly onto her arm. K and B were as nice as pie, and Baumann’s daughter, Ada, brought Mabel a cup of tea.

“Now then, young lady, you’ve got a chance of a lifetime, a good career, and 125 dollars a week. How does that sound?”

Mabel was gobsmacked – the sum they’d discussed was 70 dollars, now it was 125! Mabel did no more, but took the pen and signed with shaking hand.

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All I said was “we’ll pay you 125 dollars!”

“You’ll never regret this Miss Normand – what do you think Ada?”

“Oh, I think it’s all very exciting daddy.”

Then, she hugged Mabel, saying “I can’t wait to see your new films Miss Normand, I’m sure they’ll be great.”

The party then left for Rector’s Restaurant in the next building, for a celebratory meal. The whirlwind signing had left Mabel dazed, and the thought of entering the poshest restaurant in New York filled her with dread. Anyhow, Ada turned out to be a girl after Mabel’s own heart, very lively, very physical, and a champion ice-skater. The two got on well, and Ada was to play an important part in Mabel’s life over the next few years.

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Filming at Coney Island, NY.

Keystone New York.

The Keystone company, comprising several ‘poached’ Biograph players, worked out of a small office, or closet in Manhattan. Mabel had weighed everything up. She could afford to rent a good apartment in the city, and buy all the Parisian dresses she wanted. She put a deposit down on an apartment on 112th Street, only to find that the company would move entirely to L.A. within a few weeks. The deposit was not a problem, as she now had plenty of money, and the thought of moving 3,000 miles from Mother appealed.

So it was that a few weeks later, the company were at the rail station to catch the train out to the coast. The girls at Biograph were off to New Jersey, and they had a tearful farewell with Mabel in a café next to the ferry terminal. A very wine-sozzled Mabel was later pushed aboard the train, and they were off on their great adventure. As usual Mabel caused a furore on the train, upsetting assorted old maids, but they arrived safe in L.A. five days later, without being arrested. However, Mabel got a shock when she saw the studio lot. Mack had intimated that it was in downtown, but it turned out to be miles out in a nondescript, semi-rural area called Edendale. Charlie Chaplin described it in 1914, when the place had been ‘done up’:

“It was an anomalous-looking place that could not make up its mind whether it was a humble residential area or a semi-industrial one. It had small lumber-yards and junk-yards and abandoned looking farms on which were built a few shacky-looking stores fronting the road. Keystone was one of the latter, it was a dilapidated affair with a rough green fence around it…….the entrance to it was up a garden path and through a bungalow.”

In 1912 the place had been infinitely worse than Chaplin had seen it. Mabel came, saw, and burst into tears. There was a bungalow, with its windows smashed and the doors hanging off. The rest of it looked like the O.K. Corral, which was not surprising, because its former occupiers were cowboys that made western films. All a cowboy outfit needs are a few horses, some grass scrub and a few Colt 45s. Mabel tried to make a run for it, but Mack pulled her back.

“Mabel, Mabel don’t worry, we’ll fix the bungalow up, plant a little garden and you can have it as your dressing room.”

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“This place is a shit-hole — I’m outta here Mack!”

They looked the bungalow over – there was no toilet to be seen anywhere inside. They looked outside – same thing. Suddenly, Mabel realised there was no sewage system on the site. In fact, there was no main sewer anywhere in Edendale, nor electricity, piped water, or gas.

Mabel looked Mack in the eye:

“In case you haven’t noticed Mr Giant Intellect, I’m a film star, and film stars do not squat on poo pots, doing their business for everyone to see. I’m outta here, Mack.”

Mack dragged her back.

Mabel, I’ll install a septic tank right away, and connect it to a proper ‘crapper’. Now let’s go to our lodgings and talk about what we’ll do tomorrow.”

“Whaddya mean lodgings? Forget it, Mack Sennett, it’s the Alexandria Hotel or nothing. Later, you can put me up in an apartment downtown.”

Of course, Mabel could not go home, not without making a fool of herself. So, she saw it out and it was to be more than two years before she finally saw Staten Island again, and then but briefly. In fact, she would hardly ever go home, and when she later worked in New Jersey, she commuted from Manhattan and not Staten Island – an impossible daily commute anyhow. Life wasn’t easy for a young city girl out in the wild west. Few studios were operating in Los Angeles, and few New York actresses had made the move west. Of her friends, only Alice Joyce made the occasional visit. Most of Mabel’s time was spent with aging or married actors, and Mack Sennett struggled to keep her amused in the excruciatingly long evenings after work. However, Mabel had escaped the hell hole that was Staten Island, and established her kingdom in Edendale, and, when the generic term ‘Hollywood’ was coined, she was Queen of that place too.

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Bibliography

When the Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith (1924).

Mabel Normand’s Own Life Story by Chandler Sprague. Los Angeles Examiner (February 17, 1924)

Mabel Normand: A Sourcebook of her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman (2006).

https://archive.org/stream/MabelNormandASourceBookToHerLifeAndFilms/MNSB7_djvu.txt

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

Love, Laughter and tears: My Hollywood Story by Adela Rogers St. Johns (1978).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LIFE IN THE SEWER:  BY LOUISE BROOKS.

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Louise Brooks, the siren of the screen they called her. A big name to live up to, but, even today, forty years after her death, she commands a cult following. One person said of her “She was the only true Hedonist that I ever knew.” Another said “There is no Garbo! No Dietrich – there is only Louise Brooks!” This is the position ‘Brooksie’ holds in the history of Hollywood today, although in her time she was rejected by Tinsel-Town society, but the only account of old Hollywood that contains anything approaching the truth, is Louise’s compilation of essays entitled Lulu in Hollywood, published in 1979. However, her original account of many years earlier was even more revealing, but was consigned to the trashcan, after she’d read producer Mack Sennett’s semi-fictional autobiography. If Mack Sennett could not spill the beans, then, how could she? The thought of a gun barrel coming through the window one dark night did not appeal. This article is written in the first person, and in the style that Louise used in Lulu in Hollywood.

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The Elite Theatre, Wichita, Kansas. 1910.

The Early Days.

I am writing my story in order to allow people to understand the way that Hollywood was back in the day, and how it was that we floozies ended up as camera fodder in the film colony. I grew up in Wichita, Kansas (no Wyatt Earp jokes please) as a member of that select group that we call ‘the first movie generation’. Unlike our parents, we did not know of a time when movies did not exist. There were two ‘movie palaces’ in Wichita, but we tended to gravitate towards the flea-pit five-cent places that showed old movies from around 1907 to 1916. It was there that I first fell in love with Owen Moore, Jack Pickford, and Broncho Billy. I can hear you say “Broncho Billy, don’t make me laugh!” but G.M. Anderson was a hero and a heart-throb in those days. Owen would have me squirming in my hard, wooden seat every time, and I was most upset to hear he was married to Mary Pickford. Then came The Little Teacher, and I abandoned my love for Owen, when I saw him with his arm around the nightie-clad Mabel Normand. Mother and father were not amused by the ‘flickers’ and they only had time for themselves. Father, a lawyer, had his voluminous library of books, and mother was so engrossed in listening to Bach that she had no time for us kids.

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1910. Age 4 with the  original ‘helmet’.

Little wonder then that I grew up as a middle-class delinquent. I was a difficult child, sometimes quiet and brooding, sometimes boisterous and verbally spiteful. I never did learn how to speak to people in a decent manner and this caused life-long  problems. My long-legged, short-bodied look, with a small head perched atop, also doomed me for anything other than dancing. Although I dreamed of Billie Dove bosoms, I had the appearance of a young boy, but this was helpful for my chosen career of dancing. My first dance teacher, a Miss Campbell, from Kansas City (Missouri), had an inner hatred for Kansas, and consequently, for myself. Unfortunately, she was also a teacher of elocution, and she found my ‘covered wagon’ accent most disagreeable, so she soon abandoned me to my fate.

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At age fifteen, I was sent away to learn dancing in New York at the Denishaw school. There I fell out with the school’s New Yorkers, but also the mid-western ‘hicks’, with their marcelled hair and old-fashioned skirts and blouses – all they spoke of was ‘The Statue’ and ‘Grant’s Tomb’ in their terrible ‘plains’ accents. My own interests were limited to the Ziegfield Follies, the dancing troupe that I looked up to. Naturally, the Denishaw girls were let out to dance at various New York functions, and there I learned to love the millionaires that ogled and occasionally groped us. Maybe, I could bag a millionaire, and never have to work – ever. Well, I almost made it. First, though, I had to, at least, dilute my cowgirl accent. A Columbia University student, working as a soda jerk, began to coach me, telling me to forget all the ‘Hot diggerty dog’ stuff. I’d never used such a term, but he insisted anyway. People told me he just wanted to get into my pants, but he made a good job of honing my accent, and, anyway, how did they know I wasn’t after getting into his pants. Soon I wasn’t saying “Hep me” but “Help me”, and I learned that there is no such thing as “watter” but there is “water”. Now, I was almost passable in polite society. By the time I went on tour with The Denishaw, I was reading up on etiquette, a necessity if I was to dine at The Colony with my millionaire. Unfortunately, I never hit it off on the polite social scene, and I was thrown out of one hotel for wearing a very short pink dress (the sign of a prostitute they said) and another for exercising on the roof in pajamas. It was an Italian lady who fitted me out with a dress, slashed at the front to the navel, and completely open at the back. She made me myself, with no reference to anyone else.

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Don’t call me trailer trash.

Two Months With A Tramp.

Late in 1924, I was dancing in the Ziegfeld Follies, and it was in the following long, hot New York summer of 1925 that Charlie Chaplin came into my life. Ziegfeld had already got me into pictures, and Charlie was in New York promoting his Gold Rush film. We kind of gravitated together at a party, where I was wearing my famous ‘slashed at the back’ suit. Charlie moved into my apartment for two glorious months, during which we made constant love in that long summer’s heat. Chas, as you know, was a women’s dream, a real life bohemian, who spoke magnificent ‘proper’ English. Charlie, though, was tormented, and somewhat broken. His brother, the lecherous Syd, had abandoned him for his own career, leaving him scared and distraught. Only one thing annoyed me about Chas, and that was his constant reference to his old co-star, Mabel Normand. He was continually muttering about Mabel, and how he’d thrown her over when he left Keystone. He’d get restless in the night, mumbling something like “Mabel, Mabel forgive me”, then wake up in a cold sweat. I’d had no idea they’d been lovers, but mainly Charlie was disturbed that he’d taken Mabel’s help, then walked out on her. I don’t think he ever got over his treachery towards The Keystone Girl. It was nothing to me, but I was later to learn that Mabel would often stand up in a restaurant, point at Charlie, then shout over at him “Charlie, I will be your leading lady, some day!” Charlie did right by me, and later sent me a cheque for $2,000, no, not for services rendered, but for board and lodging!

In any case our summer of love ended with the publication, by a rogue photographer, of nude photos of yours’ truly. The press went crazy, and revealed our affair, carried on while Charlie’s wife was on the coast having their first baby. Another event in New York upset Charlie. One of his Keystone leading ladies, a Helen Carruthers, now a baroness, had tumbled from a fifth-floor hotel window on the hottest night of the summer and been killed. Soon after, Charlie dropped me like a hot potato. What of Charlie’s wives? They were just common gold-diggers that were only interested in his money.

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Me and Charlie in trouble with the press.

I rapidly found myself in Hollywood, where I began my career as ‘The Helmet’, a reference to my ridiculous neo-Cleopatran hairdo. People were not impressed by my reputation as some kind of Follies prostitute, and the stars were evidently avoiding me, like I emitted some sort of foul smell. I did however, manage to get to some parties, and, my director, Eddie Sutherland the ex-Keystone Cop, took me to one particular tinseled party. As we spoke among a small circle, I became aware that a gorgeous apparition had entered the room. Bedecked in black velvet, a natty bejewelled turban and boa feather, she looked every inch a goddess. As everyone abandoned us for the goddess (who I won’t name) I turned to Eddie saying “Is that who I think it is?”

“Probably, want to meet her?” He asked.

“Well, erh, erh I don’t know that I should” I replied.

Eddie said he’d wait until the crowd now surrounding her had thinned out, and he’d introduce me. Too soon we were walking towards the Goddess’s small entourage, which included none other than Charlie Chaplin.

“Hi ….” Said Eddie. “I want you to meet our new girl Louise, Louise Brooks”.

I held out my hand saying “Pleased to meet you Miss ……..”

Well, if looks could kill, then I’d have died on the spot, for those eyes, so doleful on screen, were glaring at me like daggers in my heart, and, truthfully, I’d never been so scared in my life. Then, the goddess spoke:

“Don’t you dare speak to me! I may be a whore, but I’m no home-breaker, and I don’t fuck with married men!”

I wished the ground could open up and swallow me, I felt like the worst kind of low-life. Then the Goddess simply turned to Eddie like nothing had happened and said:

“Eddie, I’ll come and see you, when I’ve finished talking with Charlie.”

Eddie led me away as I started to blub.

“Oh, don’t worry, she’s like that with everyone.”

I didn’t believe him, and I told him I was leaving straight away, back to New York. Eddie persuaded me to stay, but every now and then, she and Charlie would look over at me, grinning. I said to Eddie that I didn’t like the double standard, where I was a scarlet woman, but Charlie, the philanderer, was a good guy.

“Well, Lulu, that’s the way it is – Charlie can do no wrong in her eyes.”

Then I heard another loud female voice:

“Waal I doh daclayer, I’ve forgutten to mulk the keow.”

This was aimed squarely at me, the bitch was mocking my Kansas origins, but in Kansas we never say “I do declare” so she had it wrong. Eddie got a tight grip on me, preventing me from running away. Now it was charade time, and I discovered that Charlie and my accuser were a double act. They did a couple of charades with the names of Adolph Zukor and Sam Goldwyn, and then Charlie went into a flounce across the floor, like a Ziegfeld girl entering the stage. Now I burst into tears. I’d just made the film It’s The Old Army Game in which the Eddie had made me do the Ziegfeld walk, and now Charlie was ribbing me.

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Walking the walk. It’s The Old Army Game.

Charlie came over and comforted me (or pretended to):

“Louise, I wasn’t imitating you.”

Of course, he was, and when I looked up, there was his partner in mockery, grinning away at me. I got Eddie to drive me home, and we spent a wonderful night together. Not long after, we got married, but I never did that stupid walk again. By the way, I never did get over Charlie. When I once stated that Charlie had everyone sitting at his feet, someone replied that nobody sat at Chaplin’s feet – he just went to where people were already sitting down and stood in front of them! I only made two real Hollywood friends, Clara Bow and English girl Dorothy Mackaill, Clara being the ‘It’ girl and Dotty being ‘The Most Kissable Girl in Hollywood’. Dotty’s bee-stung lips were so adorable that I could have kissed her myself, when we made Just Another Blonde. Clara, of course, was another reject from Hollywood that was spurned by the Hollywood royalty. When we held parties, Eddie would never invite Clara, as she might upset the other guests. Later, I would feel sad, when I saw Clara in the 1950s waddling down Wilshire Boulevard, carrying her 250 pounds weight around. Her inner sadness fed her weight, and her weight eventually killed her – she died aged only 59 from a heart attack. If you are wondering, after my reference to Dot Mackaill, whether I am a lesbian (as many may think) then let me put you right. I am, I think, a bi-sexual, who but rarely snuggles up with a female. No, I never attended those wild all-girl parties at Alla Nazimova’s house and garden, at which I’m sure I would not have been welcome. Young, naked nymphs, flitting around a back-lit pool, simply do not appeal to me. Of course, my lesbian scenes in Pandora’s Box did not help my case.

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Louise with Dorothy Mackaill in Just Another Blonde.  Dotty’s lips are thin here. Perhaps she had the world’s first lips job. Inset:  Bee-stung in Hull, England 1931.

Well, me and Eddie divorced in 1928, neither of us being the faithful kind. I was now out on a limb, and determined to run away from Hollywood – the Hollywood that had destroyed so many actresses. I can remember the shock, when D.W. Griffith dumped his ever-loyal star Lillian Gish in 1925. It was outrageous that he gave up his Lillian for a mere extra girl. Eddie always explained it like this.

“First Griffith got rid of Mary, then he got rid of Lillian, then he got rid of himself.”

Of course, he was right – by firing Miss Gish, he’d shot himself in the foot, and his career ended right there. However, I was now alone, and vulnerable to the sharks of Hollywood. My next film was Beggars for Life, and it was while on location that I realised someone had put it about that I had syphilis. Naturally, none of the cast wanted to come near me (toilet seats and all that), and I could well have been fired. Who put the rumour around? Well, I suspected the ‘Royals’, those aging actresses that held so much power in the film colony. No group was so tight in Hollywood, and even the producers ran scared, and played up to them. While I had thousands of dollars-worth of my own suits ruined on location, the ‘Royals’ had the ‘actress supplies costumes’ bit removed from their contracts. How do I know that? I recently (1970) had sight of a copy of Mabel Normand’s contract for Molly O’ in which the ‘costume supplied by the actress’ clause had been blocked out. The copy was in the Rochester Film Museum, of which more later.

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The Molly O’ Contract.

Escape from the Pirhana tank.

My passport out of Tinsel Town came via an unexpected route. German director G.W. Pabst called me to Europe to star in Pandora’s Box, as Lulu. I’d recently become very friendly with Wm. Randolph Hearst, his cute trick Marion Davies, and her sister Pepi. Things unfortunately soured between us, when Pepi climbed into my open window at San Simeon (‘Hearst Towers’) and found my bed unslept in. They soon worked out that I’d absconded for a night of passion with Jack Pickford, and I fell from favour. The Hearst entourage embarked for Europe, while I was soon on the ship for Germany. After making Pandora’s Box, I made two other films for Pabst, then returned to New York, clutching $3,000. Early 1931 found me back in Hollywood, on the promise of work for Columbia. This never materialised and I found myself playing a supporting role to Carole Lombarde in the two-reeler It Pays To Advertise. On the first day of shooting, I was shocked to see Roscoe Arbuckle sitting in the director’s chair. He looked a ghost of his former self, and said little, and nothing at all to me. I decided to return to New York, rejecting a part in Public Enemy, which was filled by Jean Harlow. Naturally, I was billed as the biggest nincompoop in film history for rejecting a role that could have put me at the top of the movie tree. However, I had to go to the east coast for the sake of my sanity – fame or no fame. There I found a part in a play called Louder Please, but was fired within the week. The Depression more or less put paid to my career and earning possibilities. I made up for my lack of cash flow in the old Hollywood manner, by marrying the wealthy Deering Davis in 1933. We separated after six months, so that I had no option but to go back to dancing in night clubs. Quitting the show in 1935, for the promise of a film role with Greta Garbo that never happened, I found myself stumped once more.

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One of the scenes in Pandora’s Box that labelled Louise a lesbian.

Republic gave me a few weeks grace by putting me in the ‘B’ western Empty Saddles. I had, by then, shorn my head of The Helmet, which was the most stupidest hair-cut ever devised – I was glad to be rid of it, and drifted into anonymity. Any hopes of future stardom disappeared, as I had to take a final dancing role, as a minor player. It was in 1936 that I was staying at the Roosevelt Hotel, L.A. and drifting in and out, as I tried to obtain contacts and work. Watching me closely every day in the lobby was a white-maned, powerfully-built man in his early fifties. I recognised him as the bankrupt Mack Sennett. Was he just ogling my still-intact body, or was something troubling his massive intellect? Then, I received an anonymous phone call. The female voice told me that I was about to receive an offer of a part playing Mabel Normand in a picture of Sennett derivation.

“You must not take that part, which is smaller than they will tell you, and it will finish your career – for good.”

“Who is this, who is this?”

Then the caller hung up. It was clearly someone with insider knowledge, and I knew the voice, but could not place it. Eventually, I concluded that it was Gloria Swanson, although I could not be sure. That very day I bumped into Charlie Chaplin, as I came out of a shop on Wilshire. We exchanged pleasantries, and he suggested we go to a café nearby. I told Charlie about the phone call. Charlie looked at me seriously, but with a wry smile.

“Oh, that’ll be Mabel, calling from the other side.”

I shivered.

 “But Charlie, we buried her six years ago.”

“Well, Louise, buried but not gone – she comes to me in my dreams every night.”

The smile increased, then he said:

“Come on Louise, how about it?”

It’s true I was now too scared to go back to my room alone, but I would be damned if I would share a bed with any guy that had dumped me in the past.

“Sorry Charlie, but it’s all over between us.”

I think Charlie was trying to intimate that he had a part for me, but common sense prevailed – I was no comedienne. The expected call from Sennett never materialised, and I had a minuscule part in a picture alongside the unknown John Wayne. Then ….. nothing, my career was over. Hollywood would have to carry on without me. I was now on the outside looking in – John Wayne reached stardom, Judy Canova became top comedienne, Joan Crawford sprouted, then wilted, and they opened the Mabel Normand Stage at Republic, and hung that 300-pound bronze plaque on the wall. I cared not. The late 30s found me flitting from guy to guy, then it was time to get into the real world and get a department store counter job. I was broke but happy. One day Blanche Sweet came into the shop, the only member of the ‘royalty’ that had been kind to me. She told me she was having trouble maintaining her Beverly Hills mansion. A few years later, and she had taken my place at the store counter. How the mighty had fallen.

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Louise in her dance school.

Back in The O.K. Corral.

However, I’d actually saved a couple of thousand dollars from my pay, and was soon back in Wichita to found a dancing school. It was not long. though, before I found I was as obnoxious as a teacher, as I’d been as a pupil, and the students began to stay away. I would have stayed in Wichita, but I was being pilloried for being a failure, on one hand, and a swollen-headed success on the other. I cleared out for New York, where things would have been really tough if I hadn’t been kept going by three millionaires. In 1953, I decided I needed independence, and went back to store work, and living down on the East Side.

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A life-time of dancing and drinking were taking its toll and irreversible arthritis denuded my body. Desperate for cash, I took the only option open to me, and became an escort girl. I was still a bit of a looker and thought I might net another rich guy. I was wrong. As my looks began to drift away, I took the next available option and became a call girl, working from a seedy room on the East Side. Now I knew I was finished and decided to drink myself to death. However, the silent film era revival had begun, and I was being feted by historic film lovers in Europe. Then, in 1956, there was a knock at my door, and there stood Kevin Card, curator of the Eastman House Museum of Film in Rochester, NY. He’d seen some of my published writing, and thought I should go to Rochester, where he would set me up in an apartment. I thought “How dare he intrude on my road to suicide.” However, what Kevin offered was access to all the material, written and otherwise, in the museum. I grabbed the chance make a contribution to the subject of film history. So, here I still am, in my small apartment in Rochester. I no longer go to the museum, as I am confined to home, but I still write articles, and the museum delivers what I ask for. Young students of film visit me with their questions, as I sit in my bed, but don’t worry, the  siren of the screen is not likely to make a lunge for them. These days The Siren has a job standing up, let alone molesting college boys. “What do I think of Vidal Sassoon stealing my hair-do?” They ask. Well, I’m more concerned that he’s claiming he invented it, and is calling it The Bob Cut, which is exactly what we called it in the 1920s. It seems that what goes around comes around.

Pony-tailed Louise interviewed by Richard  Leacock. 1970s.

My Conclusions on The Film Industry.

The film industry, naturally, grew up as the country grew up, and consequently, film history is our history. Obviously, I have little respect for those at the top that enslaved us, and took us to the cleaners. Everyone says “Oh, you made plenty, and should have kept hold of it.” True, I made a total of $104,000 (2-million today) but I never received that amount. In truth, only $40,000 passed through my hands. I was swindled out of the rest. I paid for my own costumes, my own publicity, transport to location and slaved to answer my fan mail – requested photos costing me an absolute fortune. If my millionaires hadn’t supported me, I’d have ended up in a dustbin in Top Cat’s alley. What then of the fabulous salaries of the silent stars so vaunted today? Well, I have mentioned Mabel Normand’s Molly O contract which states that she was paid $3,000 a week while making the film. However, you might have heard of ‘new to film’ actresses being paid $10,000 or $12,000 a week in 1920. The fact is, they never received it. The studios cleverly conned them out of most of it, leaving the starlet to sort out the income tax mess. This brings us to ‘The Biograph Girls’ that you might also have heard about. ‘The Girls’ were those actresses that got in at the very beginning, working chiefly at the Biograph and Vitagraph studios. Badly treated by Griffith and co. they formed themselves into a tight-knit band for mutual protection. Consequently, when the star system came into vogue, they were well-placed to exploit the situation. Returning now to the Molly O contract, if you could read between the lines, you would find that the actress was paid several more thousands a week, ‘under the table’ and tax-free. We new-comers could not do that. Nor could we negotiate for a share of our film’s profits, as ‘the girls’ did. For Molly O’  Mabel Normand took 25% of the net profit i.e. around a million dollars, or ten times the sum I’d made in my whole career! What I have noticed is that ‘the girls’ were never out of work, unless they wanted to be. I once discussed this with another ‘newish’ actress called Bessie Love. We came to the conclusion that most actresses only had a shelf-life of around four years, after which they were either finished, or spent several years in suspended animation. This did not apply to ‘the girls’. The ring-leader of the gang, as you’ve probably guessed, was Mary Pickford. “And what of Mary Pickford?” you might ask. I might reply “What of her” for I have never spoken to her. If I had so much as even approached her, I would have been steered politely, but firmly, away by her courtiers — of that I am sure. As the newcomers to the industry, we were expected to bare all before the camera, which the royals persistently refused to do. At the same time, the captains of industry were looking down on us, and plotting our quick demise — we were all harlots, you know. And so were many of the royals — how dare they criticise me — many of them were habitual filles de joie and remained so — forever.

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Louise in Empty Saddles, minus ‘the helmet’. 1936.

The first real Hollywood autobiography we knew of was The King of Comedy by Mack Sennett. Awaited by us with baited breath, the book was released with a squeak, rather than a roar. There was nothing in it, which told of the real Hollywood,  and Sennett cleverly skirted around the various scandals afflicting his studio and Tinsel-Town. In my opinion there is not a word of truth in the whole damned book, which renders it worthless as a historical record.

What then of Hollywood scandals. Of course, I was not a little scandalous myself, at least other people made me so – I was Brooksie, the syphilitic prostitute. This label, I think, finished my career. When Roscoe Arbuckle was in trouble over the Virginia Rappe scandal, his studio rushed to his defence, and those that pointed a finger at him were silenced. After much cash had been expended, Roscoe was found not guilty of Virginia’s murder. I don’t know if Virginia was murdered, or if the doctor that pronounced her ‘dead by syphilis’ was genuine, but Roscoe definitely received help. Arbuckle is another guy I never spoke to – even though he once directed me. I know nothing of the W.D. Taylor murder nor Courtland Dines shooting, but I can say that the sound of people rushing to Mabel’s aid was palpable. If I’d been in Hollywood at the time, I believe ‘the girls’ would have trampled right over me in their rush to reach their idol. Some people think I have a star on the Walk of Fame – I do not, nor do I want one. I’m Brooksie, independent woman, tart to the wealthy, and object of ridicule. What more could I want?

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Jack Mulhall gets lucky in Just Another Blonde.

Postscript on Louise Brooks.

Louise’s parents were academics of a kind, so it is not surprising that she was interested in research work. Her film study journals still exist at Eastman House, and are available to interested parties. Today she is regarded as one of the most capable and truthful commentators on old Hollywood.

Interesting facts.

There are a couple of interesting facts about ‘the helmet’. People are surprised to learn that the haircut involves the use of a razor. As can be seen in photos, Louise’s bangs are above her natural hair line, so once the bangs are cut through the centre-line of the ears, a razor must be used to shave off the remaining hair on the neck. The helmet itself was partly-shaped by the razor. Louise always wondered why she was being plagued by wasps. Turned out her hairdresser used a sugar-water based lacquer. When a director thought she should have a ‘normal’ hairdo he tested the idea by lifting her fringe. He quickly pushed it back. Her forehead was as tall as an apartment block, and crossed by ‘worry lines’.

Louise’s father had so many books in his third floor study that the parental home leaned over precariously to one side.

By the late 1970s, Louise had found that she could cope with life if, on just one day per week, she downed a pint of gin. She died in 1985, aged 79.

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Bibliography

Lulu in Hollywood by Louise Brooks (1974).

Pandoras Box

Some guys have all the luck. Gustav Diessl with Lulu in Pandora’s Box.

 

 

 

CHARLIE AND MABEL’S TEARFUL DINNER.

 

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Just before Christmas 1914, two members of the Hollywood film colony met in a restaurant, sometimes used by movie people, when they did not wish to be heard nor seen by other ‘interested’ parties. One was a touselled-haired guy, with the air of the bohemian about him. The other was a small dark girl wearing a leghorn hat, skewed to cover her very recognizable features. The man was a certain Charles Spencer Chaplin, the up and coming London comedian. The girl was Mabel Ethelried Normand, the Queen of Clowns. If you had been there that day, and been observant, you’d have noticed an innocuous-looking man sitting at the next table. He was a private detective in the employ of Mack Sennett, part-owner of the Keystone Comedy Company. At another table sat a similarly-dressed man, also a private detective, but employed by messrs. Kessell and Baumann, controlling partners in the Keystone Company. A few years later, and there would have been others — federal agents keeping a close eye on suspected insurgents — communists, anarchists, tax dodgers, and assorted ‘undesirables’.

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Mack (left) and big bossman Ad Kessell (right) keep a firm hold of Mabel in 1915.

The reason for the dinner, was for Charlie and Mabel to have a final farewell, before Charlie departed for Essanay, at Niles or Chicago. Charlie was fearful of what lay ahead – he’d been called to Essanay by the eccentric cowboy G.M. Anderson, Broncho Billy, much to the chagrin of his partner, George Spoor. The situation was complicated and “not good”. In order to bolster his confidence, Charlie had called his brother, Syd, over from England in the hope that he’d be his manager. Charlie, though, was scuppered by Mack Sennett, who signed Syd to Keystone. Mabel had identified Charlie as her key to leaving the Sennett fold, and this can be explained in terms of the times, when the only way that a woman could get on in movies was by attaching herself to a prominent man. Mary Pickford had Adolph Zukor, Lillian Gish had D.W. Griffith, while lesser actresses fought over the few available millionaires. Keystone girls were to be singularly successful at securing the latter type. Mabel, though, had struck gold in comedy, when she took up with comedy genius John Bunny at Vitagraph, and later tied herself to Mack Sennett, giving up a promising dramatic career in the process. It was the endless slapstick that disturbed Mabel over the next two years.

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Mabel decides that Charlie won’t escape her clutches.

Tonight, Charlie and Mabel were discussing old times, those days of the last twelve months, which had begun when they’d met outside a Los Angeles theatre. They laughed as they recalled their shy reactions to each other on the fateful night. History was made at that moment, but both Chas and Mabel were struck dumb at the crucial coming together. Mack Sennett had brought Charlie out onto the pavement, after watching his show in The Empress Theatre in Los Angeles, but, when the Music Hall’s most eligible bachelor met Hollywood’s most eligible actress, they were both lost for words. The wild-haired bohemian and the dark-eyed, mysterious jazz babe, both were rendered speechless. Mack Sennett broke the ice, and suggested they all go for a meal at Levy’s Restaurant. At the dinner, Sennett did most of the talking, telling Charlie how his studio operated, and the way in which he liased with his New York partners, who had engaged Charlie. The younger pair mostly looked down silently at their dinner plates, although Sennett had already noticed that they were taking sly looks at each other. Then, Mack looked straight at Charlie and said “Sorry Charlie, but I don’t think you’ll do, you’re too young.” Mabel’s head shot up “Well, I think he’ll do just fine Mack”. Mack was not amused, he wanted the young upstart gone, and he was sure the youngsters had been playing footsie under the table. If Chaplin thought he could get his sticky hands on his girl, he’d better think again – others had tried and, well, disappeared. Mabel was a femme fatale — by proxy. 

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Tonight, though, Charlie had some questions for Mabel about the days following their meeting. Why did Mack and Mabel’s film Mabel’s Dramatic Career end with Mack attempting to shoot the tin-type that had run away with Mabel? Mabel denied any knowledge of the ending, saying she’d played a scene of married bliss with Ford Sterling, and only saw the ending, which had horrified her and her friends, when they watched the picture downtown. Charlie confided that the film almost made him forget about going to Keystone. Mabel put her hand on his saying:

“At least you did come to the studio.”

Mabel now did a little fishing.

“What do you think of Essanay’s studio in Niles, there’s not a lot there, out on the edge of the desert.”

“I think it’ll do well enough, Mabe. Broncho Billy has said he’ll get in whatever I want.”

“Yes, but how’s he gonna get a leading lady out to that dismal, godforsaken spot?”

“He says he has a couple of girls in mind out at Niles.”

“Some girls aren’t they, if they’ll put up with stinking cowboys, eating beans out of a can, and crapping in a hole in the ground?”

“Billy says he’s got it covered.”

“Well, if you say so.”

Mabel did a little more fishing and asked why Chas he didn’t think of going to the Chicago studio. Charlie made some excuse about wanting to stay out west, but Mabel didn’t believe him. Like her, Charlie was a city animal, and would die out there in the desert. Mabel was becoming suspicious that Chas was having her over. Charlie knew that Mabel would not pursue him to Niles, and Mabel thought the limey was trying to dump her. Only pride prevented Mabel from putting herself forward as leading lady. She wanted Charlie to woo her and win her. The sensitive Charlie was all alone now – his brother, the lecherous Syd, who he thought would back him, had done the dirty on him and signed with Sennett. He was now vulnerable to Mabel’s advances, but she changed tack, and hit him with some nostalgia:

“Oh Charlie, remember when you used to come to my dressing room, so fearful and discouraged, and I would hold your head in my lap and comfort you, and how we’d steal the boss’s car and drive downtown for some fun.”

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“Mabel! Mack will kill us”

Charlie remembered, and he also remembered that Sennett knew exactly what they were doing, and exactly where they’d been. He had spies under Mabel’s window, and plenty downtown too. Mabel had essentially made Chaplin, the movie comedian, but, if he hung around too long, Mack would ‘un-make’ him. Mack hated Charlie’s guts, and the contract renewal discussions had been a mere formality – it was case of Charlie leaves or gets his head blown off with the Mabel’s Dramatic Career .45. Seeing Charlie drifting into a melancholic state, Mabel decided to throw a few spanners into his mind. She moved the lobsters around her plate with her fork, and without looking up said:

“You know the Page family have moved out to Niles, don’t you Charlie, and that Peggy has been signed by Billy?”

Charlie’s jaw dropped – no, he didn’t know. Peggy had been his leading lady, at times when Mabel was unavailable, but he thought her to be too plain-looking and proposed to ditch her. He had ideas of recruiting a real looker as his foil from now on, but Mabel was out of the question – if he took her, Mack would hunt them down and kill them both. Besides, Mabel was not foil material, she was the biggest, glitziest, and most capable comedy star in Hollywood, and one that diminished his presence onscreen. Mabel, looked up and studied Charlie’s face. She could almost see the wheels turning in his head. Charlie must go to Chicago now.

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Essanay, Niles.

“I don’t know why you don’t move to Chicago, Charlie. They’ve got all the amenities there, and they don’t use poo pots. Can you imagine your leading lady squatting on a pot –  a star’s shit stinks, same as everyone else.”

Mabel smiled inwardly, as Charlie turned not a little green. Charlie became somewhat confused – at Niles he’d fall into the clutches of Peggy, but if he went to Chicago, Mabel would also appear there – perhaps she’d already signed for Essanay! “Oh my god, what to do, what to do?” Mabel allowed herself a little pat on the back. Now, having fooled with Charlie’s mind, she reverted to the cute, charming Keystone Girl.

“Charlie, you know it should never have come to this. We should have been together in our own studio – no Sennett, no interfering director, just you and me.”

“Mabel, you know that’s just an impossible dream. No studio would countenance paying two top comedians to produce films. Good God Mabel, I had job enough getting a thousand dollars a week for myself!”

Mabel was getting just a little annoyed.

“Look Charlie, I spent two years building Keystone with my bare hands – gave up my best years to do it. Don’t you think Billy knows that?”

“We all know that, Mabel, but let’s get real, no producer will touch you – you belong to Mack Sennett, and it’s a matter of producer’s honour.”  

Mabel coloured up.

“This girl belongs to no man, and by the way, isn’t it a bit odd that an actor can get a thousand a week, while an actress, the actor’s mentor, gets only two-fifty!”

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“Mabel, Mabel, we both know you’re on five-hundred a week, and Mary Pickford knows it, and is trying to screw the same out of Adolph Zukor. Thanks for getting me those pay rises Mabel, but each time you got me one, you got one for yourself. Anyhow, Essanay aren’t just paying me to act, I’ve got to be producer, director, and talent scout, and my pay should be nearer three-thousand dollars.”

Mabel was fuming, but, like the onscreen Mabel, any hint of anger left her face in an instant. She decided to cosy up to Charlie:

“Look Charlie, this isn’t a time for arguing, let’s talk about the good times we had. Remember when I fell to the ground on Wilshire Boulevard, pretending I’d had an apoplectic fit, and you telling everyone to stand clear of your wife, while you got her to hospital.”

“Yeah Mabe, that was funny, but how about the time you the swapped kids around at that baby show, just to hear the mothers scream.”

“That was hilarious, Charlie, especially when the cops chased us all the way up Seventh Street. D’you think you’ll have fun with old Spoor, the way we did with Napoleon Sennett?”

“Well, if I stole any of Spoory’s cars, I’m sure he’d have the law on me, guaranteed, and I don’t think he’ll be taking me out for dinner any time soon.”

“We did have some free dinners out of that thick-necked Mick, didn’t we Charlie? I bet he still doesn’t know we’d skip off downtown when the old fella fell asleep after dinner. I wonder if Spoor has a studio cat – remember how Mack used to kick poor old Pepper when he came onto the lot in a bad mood?”

Charlie did remember, but he also realised Mabel was trying to melt his heart with nostalgia and wistfulness. Sure, he longed to have the ‘old days’ back, staying after work in the Keystone girl’s dressing room, cocooned in her adoring arms. How she would smile and coo, her mouth curling up delicately at the corners, expressing humour, and all kinds of indulgence. And those deep dark eyes, that seemed to pull you in, no matter how hard you tried to fight them off. It was, of course, all hopeless. They were destined for different lives, and, to be honest, they were too much alike to ever think of being together for eternity. Looking across the table he saw Mabel getting all melancholy again. However, the spell was broken, as the door close to them flew open. They both looked around, and there, in the doorway, stood a vision of the Old West – Broncho Billy himself, a big western hat tilted back on his head, and diamonds glittering on his shirt.

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“Howdy, partner” said Broncho plonking himself down on a chair “We’ve got just twenty minutes to catch the night train for ‘Frisco.”

He took Mabel’s hand and kissed it. Then, looking at her intently, he said “Miss Normand you’re a knockout.”

“I know I’m a knockout, Billy, I’ve always been a knockout, and the name’s Mabel, not Miss Normand.” 

Broncho continued looking and shaking his head saying “If only, if only…”

Billy meant, naturally, if only it weren’t for Mack Sennett. Mabel was untouchable, ‘unsignable’. The rhinestone cowboy then rose from his seat saying:

“O.K. you two lovebirds, you’ve got five minutes, then I want you outside Charlie.”

As Billy left, Charlie rose, walked around the table and gathered Mabel up in his arms. Mabel was trembling and clearly sobbing, prompting Charlie’s eyes to well up in sympathy. The pair walked out onto the sidewalk, where Mabel’s chauffeur was waiting with her car. Charlie opened the door, Mabel got in, still trembling, she pulled Charlie close and kissed him.

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Charlie said he’d write, then closed the door. Mabel opened the window and said:

“Charlie!”

Charlie turned his head – Mabel’s face had hardened, her eyes now wild and glaring.

“I WILL be your leading lady – some day!” She said with a certain finality. Then the car pulled away and Mabel was gone, into the night.

Postscript.

Charlie went with Billy to Niles, but, finding it unsuitable, carried on to Chicago. On his own, without Brother Syd or Mabel in support, he got into trouble with the studio people and leading lady Gloria Swanson. He fled to Niles, engaged Edna Purviance, then, tiring of roughing it, he arranged for a studio in Boyle Heights L.A., where he would soon come under the remit of the Queen of Hollywood. Charlie never wrote as promised — in fact he never wrote or phoned anybody. The story of Charlie and Mabel lasted fifteen years, but that’s another tale for another day…..

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Bibliography.

Mabel Normand’s Own Life Story by Chandler Sprague. Los Angeles Examiner (February 17, 1924)

Looking For Mabel Normand: http://www.freewebs.com/looking-for-mabel/. Site maintained by Marilyn Slater.

Mabel Normand: A Sourcebook of her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman (2006).https://archive.org/stream/MabelNormandASourceBookToHerLifeAndFilms/MNSB7_djvu.txt ). 

Charles Chaplin: My Autobiography by Charles Chaplin (1964).