NO TIME TO LOSE! THE CRAZY WORLD OF MABEL NORMAND.

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Run, Mabel run!

There must have been a tornado spinning into Rhode Island on the fateful day that Mabel Normand was born. From that day on, Mabel seems to have never stopped running, leaving a distinct breeze behind her, wherever she went. It was, then, for no small reason that she became known as ‘The Girl in a Hurry’. Why the hurry? Several reasons have been suggested: Firstly, having suffered, and survived, tuberculosis early on, she thought she could die at any minute. According to another theory she had congenital syphilis. Nonetheless, detailed examination of her early life suggests she had the cognitive problem, ADHD, and no small amount of Autism. She was, however, determined to succeed – at something.

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Mabel aged 8 (L). Dreaming of stardom. Age 10 (R).

 

Whatever the problem, Mabel became increasingly uncontrollable, unreachable and feral. It seems she was only at public school briefly, where she was probably too wild to fit in. Her father was in charge of entertainment at the sailor’s home in Snug Harbor, and it was there, perhaps, that she learned to play the piano. Here, she might have developed a passion to be an artiste of some kind. She would also have, no doubt, picked up some unsavoury habits from the inmates. Eventually, it seems, Mabel became completely untamable, and she was sent away, by her Catholic parents, to a convent, not to be educated, but to be ‘corrected’. Mabel had become a juvenile delinquent. Unfortunately, this did not work, and there is every reason to suppose that she became worse, after coming into contact with some wicked and wayward convent girls. Blanche Sweet was to later say that Mabel had ‘corrupted’ all the girls at Biograph, and, although very beautiful and cute, when Mabel opened her pretty mouth, toads came out.

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A convent laundry used for the correction of wayward girls.

 

A Model on The Run.

Eventually leaving the convent, Mabel was sent to work in a New York department store. How she ended up as a model is anyone’s guess. Probably, she knew that the department store used artists to paint girls wearing the store’s clothes, and asked about modelling, rather than packing patterns. The dreamy Mabel was soon posing for top commercial artists, and her image appeared in prestigious magazines. Mabel was interested in becoming an artist herself, and seems to have taken art lessons, paid for out of her meagre pay of 3 dollars a day. One thing Mabel later admitted to was stealing things she fancied from the artists’ studios. She had two colleagues in modelling, who later became hugely famous, Anna Q. Nilsson and Alice Joyce. Alice disappeared off the scene for a while, and when Mabel next saw her, she said she’d been appearing in movies at double the pay. Mabel didn’t hesitate, and zoomed down to Kalem Films, and bagged work as an extra. However, the work proved tedious, as it consisted mainly of dressing up as a red Indian, and being chased up steep hills by cowboys. Just for variety, sometimes the cowboys chased them downhill. She returned to modelling, but soon heard there was work at Biograph down on 14th Street, where conditions were slightly better. There are several stories about what happened on the day Mabel arrived at Biograph. Mary Pickford said she saw Mabel waiting in the dressing room, and thinking Mabel might flee, she told D.W. Griffith she was there. Mabel says she did flee, but was brought back by Wilfred Lucas.

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Coca Cola Girl Mabel.

The reason why she’d left, she says, was that she’d  seen the Biograph Girl, Florence Lawrence, all made up as a queen, and she thought she could not  possibly compete with her. Both these stories are probably complete nonsense, as Mabel was an award-winning model, and had an ego at least equal to those of Miss Lawrence and Miss Pickford. She almost certainly began with the idea of acting the established pair off the set. Miss Lawrence soon disappeared from the studio, eventually leaving the movies, and turning up dead after swallowing ant paste. However, Mabel had her first screen role in a Florence Lawrence film, as a page wearing tights. This was most embarrassing for an Edwardian girl, and Mabel was even more embarrassed by a grinning Irishman, leaning against a pillar, who had his eyes fixed on her – his name was Mack Sennett. Mabel was glad to finish her long shift, and left for home, at midnight, clutching her ten dollars in earnings. Arriving home after one in the morning, she was confronted by her irate mother, who banned her from the movies, but snatched the ten dollars off her anyway. Mabel returned to modelling, but there was a chance meeting with Mack Sennett on 5th Avenue, and, over a milk shake (or more likely a beer), he persuaded her to return to Biograph.

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Mabel becomes a page.

A Madcap on the loose.

Increasingly, Mabel began to make herself a nuisance to the management at the company, skylarking around, pulling chairs out from under the director, and using foul language constantly. Having formed a close relationship with Irish clown, Mack Sennett, Mabel’s confidence was probably pushed skyward. Slowly the demure young girls at the company began to fall under Mabel’s spell, so that Mabel clones began to appear everywhere. This worried the management, and Griffith left Mabel behind, when, early in 1911, he took the company to L.A.

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For once and once only Mabel plays a vamp in The Eternal Mother (1912).

Unfortunately, trouble arose immediately, when Mabel fans Dorothy Gish and Gertie Bambrick, slipped their chaperones, and hit the bars of L.A., where they intended to get drunk and raise a ruckus, just like their heroine. They’d even hitched up their skirts to expose their ankles (oh my god!). Griffith spent a whole day hunting them down.

Mack had gone to L.A. but advised Mabel to get over to Vitagraph. Mabel blew into the studio like a whirlwind, and demanded she be put with John Bunny and Flora Finch, so she could learn comedy. Mabel was soon into her stride and made some good comedy films.

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Unfortunately, the crazy, high speed behaviour of ‘thousand-mile-an-hour’ Mabel, around the studio, was of concern, and, when she stuck her bare backside out of the window, mooning at railway passengers, she was fired. A letter from Mack Sennett told Mabel that there was work to be had at the Kessell and Baumann company, Reliance. Racing into the studio like a storm, the director down there, Hal Reid, soon found Mabel’s behaviour ‘unacceptable’ and dismissed her after just two hours.

On the return of Biograph to New York, Mack Sennett persuaded Griffith to re-employ Mabel. Reluctantly, Griffith agreed, because he was in need of a tragedienne, and Mabel was the best there was (according to Mary Pickford). The films she made with Biograph in L.A. in early 1912 proved the point, and Mabel had found her metier. However, Mack soon became director of the relatively new Biograph comedy unit, on the return to New York. He immediately asked that Mabel be assigned to him. Griffith did not argue, and handed Mabel over. He could finally be free of the Madcap. However, Mabel was a much beloved member of the dramatic company, and some of the actresses were unhappy that Mabel was going off with that mad Irishman, Mack Sennett. They were even more shocked, when Mack departed to join New York Motion Pictures new comedy arm, Keystone Studios, and took Mabel with him.

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Off to the Orange Groves.

More shocks were in store – Mabel, Mack and Keystone decamped for L.A. Blanche Sweet was full of foreboding at the news, and, at the eleventh hour, tried to stop Mabel leaving New York, with the screwball Sennett. It was to no avail. Mabel knew exactly what she was doing, she was going to take a shortcut to stardom, and put her name up in lights before everyone.

Going Crazy in L.A.

The 4-day train journey to California was going to be trouble. With Mabel hyped up at the thought of her new independence, life would be hell for the other passengers on the train. The movie group were indeed lucky that nobody called the police – Mabel, who looked around 13, was being carried across state lines by half a dozen middle-aged men. Mabel cared not.

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The first two years of Mabel’s term at Keystone were, quite simply, manic. The studio became her entire life, and there was little time for socializing – indeed in L.A. at that time there was little to do anyway. Social life consisted of horse-riding with Sennett, shooting with Sennett, and dining with Sennett. As more and more actors and actresses came to the studio, Mabel found herself under more pressure – keeping the new girls at bay, while also securing them as allies, against the big bad Sennett. The huge arguments with Mack that had always been a feature of their relationship, began to reach titanic proportions, and Mabel could be heard all over the studio, ranting and raving at her producer, in language liberally interspersed with undeleted expletives.

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Fatty and Mabel on  Allesandros Street, Edendale 1915. Not much to do here.

Mabel claimed that she returned home to Staten Island for the first time in mid-1914. This is unlikely, and a time in early 1915, is more plausible. During 1914, Mabel had to keep an eagle eye on the burgeoning company, and particularly on Charlie Chaplin. After Chaplin left, it was now possible for Mabel to go to New York, and have serious talks with big bosses Kessell and Baumann. She wanted big changes made at Keystone, and she wanted the place smartened up. Mabel was embarrassed by the condition of the studio, as all her old friends were now stars at new, state of the art studios. It seems, though, that she had demanded a marble Roman bath-tub, just like Sennett’s. Mabel probably stayed in Manhattan, and seems never to have stayed more than one night, at mother’s Staten Island house, where huge arguments would have ensued. Once back in L.A. Mabel was followed in a few weeks by bossman Adam Kessell, who supervised the remodelling of Keystone. A new dressing room block was erected, and Mabel got one of the rooms, resplendent with Roman bath (much to Sennett’s dismay).

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The wreckage of Mabel’s bathtub and dressing room during demolition.

A Tramp Leaves and A Fat Man Steps In.

Through 1915, Mabel became ever more agitated. Chaplin had spurned her as his leading lady at Essanay, and now she was doing pure slapstick with Roscoe Arbuckle, interspersed with sickly puppy love scenes. Both Mabel and Roscoe were unhappy with their work, and planned to abscond. After a torturous, and upsetting 1915, Mabel persuaded Kessell and Baumann to send them to the new NYMP/Triangle studio at Fort Lee New Jersey. Sennett agreed to lose the Mabel / Roscoe company for two months, but Mabel had no intention of going back to Edendale. Mabel knew there was a new Keystone feature film studio being built on Fountain Avenue, Silverlake, and she was determined to grab it for herself. Although Kessell and Baumann loved Mabel, her behaviour at the studio was disgusting, and she was often late for work, having been out on the town all night. Weighing everything up, they decided that the sooner Mabel was back in Edendale the better. Then, when the time came to return, Mabel was nowhere to be found, and, in an article in the newspapers, it turned out that Mabel had been signed to Mutual to lead in Chaplin films. Mabel sat back laughing, as the bosses of NYMP and Keystone tried to hunt her down. Eventually, Mabel’s mother took a call to the effect that a new company had been formed, The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, and Mabel could have the new studio for her own use. The hurry and rush was over – Mabel had beat every actor in Hollywood to having her name over her own studio. Even Sennett, Griffith, Chaplin, or Mary Pickford didn’t have that!

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Having achieved the ultimate goal, you’d suppose that Mabel would settle down. It made not a jot of difference. Mabel was the same old Mabel, rushing hither and thither, staying out all night, and, at one time, disappearing for a whole three weeks. The film Mabel made at her studio, Mickey, turned out to be the greatest film ever made by a comedy company. However, internal troubles at Triangle caused Mabel to consider her position, and despite being watched by the management, she ran away again to New York, where she intended to start work for Sam Goldwyn. The whole Triangle set up was now at each other’s throats, and nobody had time to bother with Mabel. This time Sennett could do nothing, and Mabel disappeared into Goldwyn Pictures.

Life With The Glove-maker.

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“So, a new girl on the lot, eh?”

Mabel started as the one and only star, but soon other established stars began to fill the stages. The second actress Sam signed was Mae Marsh, who Mabel had a falling out with at Biograph. As stars like Madge Kennedy and Geraldine Farrar arrived, Mabel flew into a complete rage, and began to ridicule and abuse Madge and Gerry on the set, standing legs wide apart, hands on hips, guffawing loudly, while rocking on her heels. When artists put up screens to keep her out, Mabel simply climbed onto the top of the sets, and launched a barrage of foul language at them, from on high. When an actress had her dressing room redecorated, Mabel demanded a $2,000 refit for her own dressing room. The executives weren’t free from the madcap’s antics either, and she hurled constant abuse at them, and even sprayed them with perfume. Naturally, most of the problems resulted from Mabel never coming to the studio before 2 in the afternoon. At one time the studio manager had calculated that the studio had lost $36,000, due to Mabel’s lateness. Mabel replied by offering him the new Pierce-Arrow car she had on order. The executive refused, and when he next opened his office door, a pail of water  mysteriously fell on his head.

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Sam Goldwyn, Mabel, Charlie.

In sheer desperation Goldwyn sought advice from Charlie Chaplin, who knew and understood Mabel better than anyone. The conversation went something like this:

“Charlie, I need help, I just don’t know what to do about Mabel, she’s refusing to work with the directors, except George Loane Tucker.”

“Well Sam, just hand him over to her”.

I can’t do that Charlie, I need George to save my lacklustre films, and he also writes many of the scripts”.

“O.K. throw Mabel out.”

“Come on Charlie, you know I can’t do that. All those cameramen, electricians, carpenters and and young actors that dote on her, would kill me in seconds. Help me, you owe it to me. It was you that unhinged Mabel, when you walked out on her at Keystone.” Take Mabel on, and throw that useless Edna Purviance out”.

” Edna’s far from useless, old chap, she’s compliant and the world’s greatest foil. There’s only room for one ultra-ego at my studio, and if Mabel came, well, there’d be big trouble. Mabel’s a colleen, so get that Celtic Dick Jones in to direct her, he understands her.”

“Very funny, Charlie, you know Dick Jones is unobtainable, you’ve tried to prise him from Sennett yourself.”

“Then send her back to Sennett, with the stipulation that she must be directed by Dick Jones.”

“You know Charlie that might just work.”

The Luck and Misfortune of The Irish.

Mabel was now going out of her mind, but the situation was only saved by Charlie Chaplin. Mabel, of course, demanded a mountain of cash from Sennett, much more than the $3,000 per week written into the contract in 1921. For the first time ever in the history of Sennett Studios, Mabel demanded that the clause, making her responsible for costume costs, be struck from the contract. And so it was done.

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Mabel ‘directs’ as  Dick Jones looks on (1923).

 

Mabel, as everyone knows, took a thousand lovers, but her craziness led her into several love triangles, one fatal. Her competitive spirit was unleashed when she took director W.D. Taylor, as a lover. By doing so she was standing between Taylor and another actress, Mary Miles Minter.

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Mabel and Dick together after 4 years.

However, Mabel’s desire to get into Taylor’s prestigious studio, Paramount, was another reason for the affair. During the Taylor inquest (someone shot him) and the ensuing Courtland Dines trial (someone shot him) the real manic personality of Mabel was revealed to the world. Her career was only saved by the representation of fellow actresses, who vouched for her humanity, generosity and naivity.

 

Running For Europe and a New Start.

Following the first shooting Mabel departed for Europe, but controversy followed her. Newspaper reports had her falling off her bar stool when drunk, swimming in a ship’s pool naked, and doing the same  in lord’s pool. The crazy Mabel was going to dangerous parts of London, like the East End and Limehouse. Mabel was losing the plot. However, she was still hitting the town, Paris, Madrid, Berlin, Rome, Monte Carlo. Her escort was a real life royal – Prince Ibrahim of Egypt. Arriving back in New York, Mabel jumped the gangplank, ready to run to  Hollywood, if necessary. However, she’d heard some bad news. A big Sennett feature film was being shot, and she was not playing the lead. She was straight on to Mack Sennett long, demanding the part. Hugely agitated and irritated, the hyperactive Mabel screamed down the long-distance phone at Sennett – “I want that part!” Mack prevaricated at first, but soon gave in, when Mabel threatened him with something.What it was, we don’t know, but we might suspect it was to do with the Taylor case. Mabel raced to the coast in a very agitated state, she’d just learned that Mary Pickford had married her friend Jack Pickford off to Marilyn Miller while she was away.  The other actress, Phyllis Haver, had fled the scene before Mabel returned.

Having completed the film Extra Girl, from which Mabel would make a million dollars, we might think that Mabel would settle down, slow down. She didn’t. Instead she involved herself in another love triangle, got drunk as often as possible, and broke her collar bone falling from a horse when ‘legless’. The latter event would come back to haunt her later, but another shooting, resulting from the triangle brought her into a legal mess, once more. Statements made to police by her chauffeur and housekeeper, gave an insight into Mabel’s life. She was a manic depressive who raced around at supersonic speed, slept little, ate little, but drunk a lot. When she wasn’t giving money away, she was threatening to shoot herself.

Mabel’s storm-tossed life continued. Instead of curling up and dying, she raced into stage work, touring the country in the show The Little Mouse. Well-attended, but slammed by the critics, the play ended half-way through the tour. Mabel picked up a cool million from the work she’d carried out, then returned to the coast, where she bought a Beverly Hills home, and seemed to settle down. However, within days of first putting her feet up, she was out on the Hollywood circuit again, partying and forming liaisons with various movie men. The whirlwind had hit town once more, but suddenly Mabel did a Peggy Sue and got married. A shock-wave passed through the movie colony. The Madcap married? Surely not! However, if groom Lew Cody thought he was moving in with Mabel, then he thought wrong, He was told to ‘fornicate off’.

The Final Act.

Everyone in Tinseltown became worried for Mabel’s sanity and well-being, and friends like Mary Pickford, Constance Talmadge and Dick Jones bombarded producer Hal Roach with demands that he sign Mabel up. To his ever-lasting regret, perhaps, he did exactly that. Too late did Hal realise his mistake – Mabel had friends at Roach Studios, including the General Supervisor, Dick Jones. She soon recruited screenwriter Stan Laurel and Anita Garvin into her fold, or gang. Then droves of Mabel’s friends arrived and Hal became beleagured, as they pursued the ‘thick necked Irishman’ around the studios,  cursing him, belittling him. Then, in early 1927, Mabel became too ill to continue. Friends tried to get her to look after herself,  but, between recurring bouts of illness, Mabel continued hitting the town and partying all night, and she even took a voice test for the talkies. However, in September 1929, her ‘friends’ cried enough, and carried her kicking and screaming, to a sanitarium in Monrovia. Thirty years later this same thing was to happen to Mack Sennett. By December, it was clear there was no hope of recovery, but Mabel was kept locked down in the sanitarium. Mabel Ethelreid Normand died at 2.25 a.m. on February 23rd 1930, weighing just 45 pounds, her brave heart having been stilled. Her funeral was, along with that of Valentino, the  largest ever seen in Tinseltown, and she was borne to her grave by the good and the great of the movie industry.

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Spot the producers. Mabel’s funeral 1930.

 

Legacy of a Madcap.

So Mabel died and was forgotten, or was she? The name Mabel Normand had become toxic, and could not be uttered in polite society. Yet, Mabel still exists deep in the psyche of Hollywood, and she remains ‘Hollywood’ in all but name. The archetypal Hollywood star is bad-ass, wealthy beyond belief, fills the air with blue language, and is usually canned, out of her mind. She is Mabel Normand, the first true Hollywood star. Two big films with characters based on Mabel, Hollywood Cavalcade and Sunset Boulevard, the latter starring Gloria Swanson (she who was put forward by movie moguls as the safe, inert face of Hollywood) were produced in 1940 and 1950. “Mabel Normand was crude and vulgar” declared the ‘innocent’ Miss Swanson. Many people today bemoan the fact that no plaque exists for any Hollywood star. There is, however, such a plaque. It is located on a sound stage at the place known as Republic Studios, and is three feet high and cast in bronze. Set up at ‘the gathering of a thousand stars’ in 1940 , the text begins “TO THE MEMORY OF A GREAT ARTIST…. MABEL NORMAND.” Not bad for a delinquent convent girl.

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MABEL’S FRIENDS: ALICE HOWELL.

 

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As usual it is difficult to know if Alice Howell was a friend of Mabel, as she never wrote about the actress. However, while Mabel was doing her first stint at Keystone, Alice was a glorified extra. This meant she was no threat to the Queen of the studio, and so she was probably regarded as a friend. Alice was described at the time, as “domestic and docile”. Like Kate Bruce and Alice Davenport, Alice Howell was somewhat older than Mabel, and married to boot, so did not become one of Mabel’s ‘gad about town’ friends. It’s possible that Alice might have been one of those actresses that Mabel regarded as a ‘mother figure’, her father figure being Mack Sennett. One person who paid attention to Alice was Charlie Chaplin. He’d obviously noticed her around the studio, and she’d been ‘atmosphere’ in Mabel’s Busy Day and Caught in a Cabaret. To some extent Alice stood out, being attractive, but also somewhat ‘cuddly’ in the manner of the later Bathing Beauties.

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Alice extras in Mabel’s Busy Day (far right).

It was Chaplin who made Alice the madcap she was later to become, allowing her to brush the lower limits of stardom. The tramp created Alice Howell in the same way that Mabel created the screen Chaplin, although Mabel instilled pathos in Chaplin, while he, in turn, put an element of ‘madness’ (or ‘Madcapescence’) into Mrs Howell. This, then, is the reason that Alice was called ‘the female Chaplin’. Chaplin himself was the ‘male Mabel Normand’, having taken onboard the notion of incorporating pathos within slapstick comedy.

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Alice Howell was born Alice Florence Clark, in New York in 1886, so was Chaplin’s senior by around 3 years, and, like most U.S. actresses she was, she claimed, Irish by descent. Sometime in late 1912 or early 1913, after serving time on the stage, Alice arrived in L.A. with her invalid husband, and found work at Keystone for $6 a week. Some weeks she earned $9. Alice had a child, Yvonne, who she could not afford to keep, so the girl stayed with her grandmother, who eventually sold her on for $50. Alice bought her back. Alice, then, represented the majority of actresses, who struggled to survive on their meager wages, and, more often than not, resorted to extra-mural means of earning a living.

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Roscoe and Mabel’s ‘mansion’ out at Malibu. Fatty and Mabel Adrift 1915.

Whether Alice did ‘other work’ we don’t know, but there were people at Keystone, who could guide girls in ‘the right direction’. In fact, Alice was one of those actresses who were forced to live, as well as work, in crummy old Edendale, a bleak outpost of L.A. that possessed little charm, but had a lot of dust and mud on its unmade, unlit, and undrained streets. For those that couldn’t stomach this vision of the Wild West, there was cheap housing in those days, out on the coast at Santa Monica and Malibu (!) but it came with the penalty of a two hour ride by road, or a little less on the trolley. The stars, of course, like Mabel, lived in hotels or rented houses in downtown. Some lucky actors even lived in Hollywood, a stuffy, middle-class neighbourhood, where boarding houses had signs declaring ‘No Tin-types, and No Movies’. Only one hotel in Hollywood would take tin-types, and that was the Hollywood Hotel, where the management watched ‘the vulgarians of the gutter’ like hawks – no food throwing, and definitely, no spooning.

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So, Alice muddled along with the rest of the extras, but, in 1914, she was noticed by Charlie Chaplin, who thought her cute, attractive and more amply endowed than average (see her behind Charlie and Mabel in Mabel’s Busy Day). This was her big break, and Chaplin coached her, and gave her a biggish role in Laughing Gas. Armed now, with a kind of slapstick persona, Alice was ready for semi-stardom. For the rest of 1914, Alice did supporting roles for Mabel and Charlie, in which she is very recognisable. Moving up the scale was now possible, and she had attracted public interest, by ably running around in her bloomers, in Laughing Gas, after Chaplin had ripped her dress off.

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You need big bloomers to jump like this. Laughing Gas 1914.

Would Mabel have done this? Certainly not, she was a good Catholic girl, and, in any case, she never wore these passion killers, only wearing, it seems, the briefest of underwear, befitting of a film star. As explained in an earlier blog, the bloomers you might have glimpsed in one frame of Mabel’s Busy Day were almost certainly drawn in.

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Spot Mabel’s bloomers in Mabel’s Busy Day.

Chaplin came, conquered, then left. Alice stayed on only long enough to wave goodbye to the Tramp, but had managed one starring role, in Shot in The Excitement, towards the end of 1914. At this stage, Alice was self-conscious, and somewhat stiff and unbelievable in the Mabel-like young lover role. In fact, there is so much mugging and speed-up in the film that, today, it looks like a modern parody of a silent film. Mabel, by comparison, had fluidity of movement, even in the most slapstick of situations. Like many, if not all, of the Keystone female stars, Alice was not to share in Mabel’s exemption from grotesquely made up faces and silly clothing. Of course, Mabel wore rough old slavey outfits on occasion, and, in one film (Mabel’s Busy Day), a full-blown tramp’s outfit, resplendent with huge shoes, befitting of a super-tramp, or of Alladin. Detailed examination of her films, reveals that Mabel was also exempt from a lot of rough and tumble that was meted out to the men and more than a few women. For instance, although she was kicked in the posterior a hundred times, she never had to suffer being kicked in the stomach, like, say, Marie Dressler.

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Kicked in the stomach. Good job Charlie was in bare feet.

This reflected Mabel’s unique kind of comedy, and her unique position at Keystone – she was a gamin but also an ingénue, with a real name befitting of a real person. Naturally, you cannot go around beating up an ingénue – if you did, her chauffeur would probably shoot you. Mabel only performed a 108 very rarely, but always made a very good job of it. Her energetic stuff was of the ‘heroic’ kind – high diving, broncho riding, car racing. Mabel was, in reality, a mere slip of a girl, and oh, so precious. If she was ever to be gravely injured, then, the whole studio would collapse. No problems, though, for Alice Howell, who was much more robust, and, indeed, much more expendable. However, when Mabel was knocked out by a wayward brick, she fell in a naturally limp manner. Alice, when knocked senseless in Shot in the Excitement, falls like a rigid tree trunk.

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Mabel does a well executed 108. Those Country Kids (1915).

1914 had been the turning point for Keystone. The advent of Chaplin had instilled a sort of anarchy among the company, and even Mabel began to mutiny against the great

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‘Napoleon’ Sennett. Mabel stayed on, but right hand man Henri ‘Pathe’ Lehrman had bailed in the summer of 1914, and Chaplin ‘likeables’ Peggy Page and Alice Howell, departed at the same time as their mentor. Peggy, we think, followed Chaplin to Essanay, while Alice threw in her lot with Lehrman, who’d started his own studio L-KO (‘Lehrman Knock Outs’). Alice was the only person to say anything good about Lehrman – Chaplin demonized him, Mrs Linda Griffith ridiculed him, and Mabel (who, Lehrman comically claimed, loved him) couldn’t stand the slimey ‘fake Frenchman’. Apparently, Lehrman did have a lover in Virginia Rappe. But, if this was true, then we must wonder why he sent Miss Rappe out on the streets to be a prostitute. It is clear that Lehrman gave Alice the big chance – her career, as one of the multitude of actresses fighting it out under Mabel, would have gone nowhere.

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Chaplin and the evil Henri ‘Mr. Suicide’ Lehrman (right).

On January 1st 1915, then, we have Alice Howell presenting at L-KO, to make pictures alongside ‘fake Charlie Chaplin’, Billie Ritchie. Hank Mann, Mack Swain, Peggy Pearce, and other Sennett regulars who’d absconded from The King of Comedy’s closet. Interestingly, Hank Mann, Henry Bergman, Mack Swain,  and others eventually absconded, in turn, to Chaplin. No matter, because Alice Howell was going to stay. Chaplin had done the dirty on her, as well as Peggy Page, and even Mabel Normand! She was in no way going over to The Tramp. Alice had got herself into a good berth, and, with her broad gestures, and crazy slapstick and makeup, she was not going any further. She took what Mabel later called the ‘short cut’ to comedy success. “Open your eyes wide” said Mabel “and put your hair in a little loop on your forehead, and you’ll be funny” (a clear jibe at Louise Fazenda).

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Peggy Pearce in A Film Johnnie (1914).

She was not going to bang her head against a brick wall, and drive herself nuts, seeking the elusive summit of stardom. Alice became popular, and made a good wage – that was enough. While Peggy Pearce attempted a push to the top and failed, Alice dubbed along, complying with all of Lerhman’s requests, some of them highly dangerous – it was not for nothing that Lehrman was called ‘Mr Suicide’. Alice had now made it in pure slapstick, although by 1916 many of the top slapstickers, e.g. Charlie C and Mabel N, were moving towards combining funny business with (almost) straight dramatics and pathos. For those willing to risk their lives and reputations there was a good future in slapstick (as Mack Sennett once said).

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Shades of Ford Sterling. Alice, the little Dutch girl.

Due to the amount of slapstick in her films, Alice was called, in the 1910s, ‘The Female Chaplin’. Of course those writers did not have access to Chaplin’s 1920s work, so they had no idea how far The Tramp would venture from true slapstick. At her peak, Alice earned good money, had a lovely home in Hollywood, and invested in property. Her main priority remained her family, right up to her retirement in 1933. As time progressed, she became everyone’s favorite grandmother, a job to which she was highly suited, with younger members of the family not realising that ‘granny’ had been a star of motion pictures.

 

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“If you want to be funny, put a little curl on your forehead” or wear a ridiculous topknot. Left: Louise Fazenda. Right: Alice Howell

Two different careers, two different outcomes.

In 1913, two actresses were riding the crest of the movie boom. One was given the chance to appear in pictures, as an extra, thereby avoiding the tedium and seasonality of the stage, not to mention the horrors of a factory or a department store. The other was zooming to stardom, and would soon be voted best U.S. comedienne. They were, of course, Alice Howell and Mabel Normand. Alice was more of the 1890s theater type, pretty but buxom – all over. Mabel was more of a thoroughly modern Edwardian girl, an ingenue, but in the current vogue of being a daring high-diver, a fearless horse-rider, demon car racer and airplane nut (according to the hype). The jazz babe, could handle guns and knives, and took no truck from villains, tramps or nasty guys with droopy mustaches and plug-hats.  Mabel moved on from this, and, in the vacuum Polly Moran, Marie Dressler, and Louise Fazenda filled her place.

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Alice, however, left Keystone early on to achieve her place in comedy. Siding with the opposition in the form of ‘Suicide’ Lerhman, she was pushed to achieve by Sennett’s aspiring nemesis. Her apparent lack of success early on may be down to the age that she started in films. Mabel’s compatriot in modelling, and Alice’s equal in age, Anna Q. Nillson, was already heading for stardom in 1911, held back only slightly by Mabel’s other friend from modelling, Alice Joyce.

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Stars of Tomorrow: Anna Q. Nillson, Mabel Normand, Alice Joyce.

Moving from studio to studio, Alice Howell kept on top of the producers and her pay. She was always keen on real estate, and devoted herself to this investment, after retiring in 1933, having penetrated the ‘talkies’. Mabel was a different kettle of fish. She had little or no interest in family affairs, and was glad to escape to the coast in 1912, and leave the clutches of her mother. Her main contact with family was through her brother, Claude. Mabel preferred the company of literary / artistic people, and lived in Greenwich Village type courtyards, or in hotels, around areas such as 7th Street. She had no interest in real estate or investments of any kind, and resisted putting down roots by not marrying, or buying a house (she did buy her parents a house, but only bought her own, in 1925, in order to appear settled after the Dines shooting). Whereas Alice mostly went home after work, Mabel hit the town as early as possible on most nights. Not for Mabel was domesticity and docility.

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Left: Mabel’s rented house in Hollywood Right: The house she bought in Beverly Hills.

The basic difference between the two actresses was the point at which they were aiming in the industry. Mabel wanted to be the biggest, brightest star in comedy, dramatic art and tragedy, and put in the effort to achieve that. The screen Mabel was a burlesqued version of the real Mabel, and she retained her good looks, having no need for grotesque make-up, and crazy hairdos. She also had no need for mugging, nor broad gestures, and if she did perform the later, it all seemed natural and flowing. Money itself was unimportant to her, although she became a multi-millionaire. Cash to Alice was a necessity, and she only made enough effort in the studio to get sufficient loot for a retirement nest egg. Mabel had no intention of getting old, and retiring to the fireside, so, at the very moment when silent movies died, she died. In conclusion, Alice created a breeze, while Mabel kicked up a whirlwind.

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Don’t mess with the Irish: Alice gets a left-hander from Mabel.

Addendum: On the book Alice Howell; She could be Chaplin by Anthony Slide.

While Mr. Slide has produced a tolerably good book on Alice Howell, he has, unfortunately,  strayed beyond his remit and knowledge by passing judgement on Mabel Normand. He says that Mabel died from drug addiction, but gives not a scrap of evidence in support of this statement. Mabel’s death certificate clearly gives the cause of death as tuberculosis, and the correct means of diagnosis – investigation of the blood. Mr. Slide maintains that Mabel rose to stardom on the back of Charlie Chaplin’s success. Let’s be clear about this – Mabel was a big star (bigger than Mary Pickford), before Chaplin came on the scene, and, importantly, she was still the star, on the day he left. Chaplin, by his own admission, was afraid to leave Keystone, and the comfort of Mabel’s support (he probably left at the point of Sennett’s gun barrel). He actually played second fiddle to Mabel, and when he dared attempt to steal a scene from her (in Mabel’s Strange Predicament) he incurred Mabel’s wrath. Chaplin took the seeds of his later success– the pathos with which Mabel endowed him – with him when he departed Keystone . The movie industry rated Mabel as a great tragedienne, but tragedy / pathos was something that Chaplin had not even considered before his arrival at Keystone.

Mr. Slide has made the comment that Mabel had everything she wanted, but we can say, without fear of contradiction, that Mabel took everything she wanted. She ‘brooked no bridle’ and, as she said herself, no one accustomed her to a star’s way of life, she accustomed herself to it. Mabel did not direct Alice Howell – a bit strange, as Alice was in films known to have been directed by Mabel. Alice Howell had her own company at Keystone – equally unlikely, as for most of her time there she was an extra. Alice Howell did falls, but Mabel didn’t – Mr. Slide shouldn’t be so intellectually lazy, and would be well advised to look at the films.

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DIXIE CHENE GOES SPLASH.

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Dixie Chene with Slim Summerville in Their Social Splash.

Their Social Splash is a Keystone film made and released in April 1915. The film stars, equally it seems, Slim Summerville, Dixie Chene, Polly Moran and Charlie Murray. There are rumors that Mabel Normand extras in the film, dancing in the background. This is impossible, as Mabel never paid second fiddle to anyone, and if she appeared in a film where she wasn’t the star, then she played a cameo role in which she was instantly recognizable  – for example, alongside Charlie Chaplin in The Masquerader.

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Does this mean she was a swelled-head, spoiled starlet. Sort of, yes, but no-one spoiled her, she spoiled herself. No actor or actress ever stole a scene or a picture from Mabel, except the once, when the top brass at Keystone’s parent company, New York Motion Pictures, decreed that Charlie Chaplin should have 45 seconds of the opening scene of Mabel’s Strange Predicament to himself. This was all contrived in the editing, where, almost certainly, the scene showing Mabel entering The Hollywood Hotel, would have been intended, as the opening scene (Mabel’s name was in the title, after all). Mabel refused to work with Chaplin for two months after Mabel’s Strange Predicament, and, when forced to appear with the tramp for Mabel At The Wheel, she insisted on having directorial control. To counter possible problems, big bossman, Charlie Baumann, sent along his daughter, Ada, to play a role in the film.

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Mabel with Ada Baumann in Mabel At The Wheel.

The General Atmosphere at Keystone Studio.

So, what relevance does Their Social Splash actually have, in regard to Mabel. In order to understand this, we need to look at what had been going on at Keystone from 1912 to 1915. From the summer of 1912, Mabel had been engulfed in a film whirlwind, chasing around in slapstick movies, with not a moment to stop and draw breath. Keystone had to carve a place for itself in the burgeoning movie business, and Mabel trusted Mack Sennett to do precisely that. She was, according to journalist, Adela Rogers St. Johns, “In awe of Sennett” although to say “He created a world of Make-Believe around her” is stretching it a bit far. Then, in late 1913, everything changed – Charlie Chaplin happened along. Every male actor around Mabel at that time was either middle-aged or married.

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Mabel in Wonderland.

All of a sudden there came this fresh young, tousled-haired artiste, to all intents and purposes, a poet straight out of Greenwich Village. Sennett was not at all happy about this new, young upstart, and he tried to keep him away from the precious Mabel. As recorded above the whole situation blew up, but by April 1914, Charlie and Mabel became inseparable and many were the hours they spent together in Miss Mabel’s dressing room, and downtown L.A. So close did they become that Mack found it expedient to take the young, restless pair out to dinner every night, just to keep an eye on them. When they were in Mabel’s dressing room, Mack had spies listening at the windows. Mabel co-starred in and co-wrote around 11 films with Chaplin, but Chaplin made something like 35 films at Keystone, so he had many other leading ladies.

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The lovely Dixie Chene with Chaplin and Peggy Page (checked coat).

Most of these, like Peggy Pearce, realized it would not be good to incur The Queen of Keystone’s wrath by getting all romantic with Chaplin. However, a certain Peggy Page (AKA Helen or Gladys Carruthers) was determined to undermine Mabel, and, with the help of her mother and sister, began a campaign to monopolize the Limey to their own advantage. Mabel, of course, was not standing for this, and, when she realized Chaplin was thinking of leaving Mack’s poverty row fleapit, she grabbed as many Chaplin leads as she could. The Page (or Carruthers) family put up a good fight, but after several films with Peggy playing the lead to Charlie, Mabel suddenly struck back in October and monopolized Charlie in a series of four films – Gentlemen of Nerve, His Trysting Place, Tillie’s Punctured Romance, and Getting Acquainted. 

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“I’m ready to be your leading lady Charlie”. 

A curious thing happened in The Masquerader (August) when Mabel made a cameo appearance and stole the first scene. Peggy was prominent in this film, and we can only imagine her face, when she saw Mabel taking the first scene – perhaps in a cinema! The aim was, it seems, to make it clear that Mabel and Charlie were a team. And, just in case anyone had any doubts, there was a pressman taking notes. In Gentlemen of Nerve (November) Mabel rules the roost, while Peggy sits it out glumly behind Chas and Mabel in a motor race stand. Peggy seems to be with her mother, no doubt for comfort, as Mabel gets all amorous with Charlie, not 2 feet away. Peggy does seem, nonetheless, more annoyed that Chaplin is flirting with Dixie Chene over a pop bottle. Peggy probably perked up a bit, when Mabel graciously stood aside for Chaplin’s final Keystone film, His Prehistoric Past. Of course, Mabel knew that such a film, inevitably involving a see-through grass skirt, was not good for an Edwardian girl’s career. THE STRANGE CASE OF HELEN CARRUTHERS AKA PEGGY PAGE.

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Mabel takes the opening scene in The Masquerader.

The Departure of Charlie Chaplin.

After His Prehistoric Past, Chaplin left Keystone, and Mabel and he had dinner together, before his departure for Chicago. They both had a little cry, but any mention of later co-operation was absent. Mabel, we know, expected Charlie to call her, and offer her a permanent role as his leading lady. This never happened, and Charlie hired an unknown stenographer called Edna Purviance to be his permanent lead. How could he, after all, tell his new bosses at Essanay that he’d hired movie-land’s biggest star at $1,000 a week? Mabel carried on, as a friend of Charlie and as the Queen of Keystone, but with a deep resentment in her heart. Meanwhile Peggy had gone to Chaplin’s new employers, at Niles. If she thought to get in with Chaplin, then, she was disappointed.

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“Oi! You two! No spooning!”

Following the departure of Chaplin, Mack Sennett thumped the table, and declared that, henceforth, pathos in films would be severely restricted. Mabel was put with Roscoe Arbuckle to make slapstick comedies,underlain with a sickly pervading medium of puppy love. Undoubtedly, Mabel and Roscoe openly argued with Mack, about this shift of emphasis, and a chasm opened up between the stars and management. It’s curious to think that, for the Chaplin films, Mabel was ordered to always pull away when the tramp went for a kiss. Sure, Chaplin was smelly, but so was Clara Bow, who had plenty of screen kisses. Mack got his way, but Mabel and Roscoe began plotting their escape. For his part, Mack was acutely aware of this, and set out to create a new Keystone Girl. In 1915 he began to gather a bevy of beautiful girls called the Bathing Beauties, from which he could pull actresses at will, and make them into stars.

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Dixie demonstrates her height alongside Mabel in Tillies.

The Lead up to Their Social Splash

Slightly earlier than this, however, Mack had already begun the process of instilling Mabelescence into existing extra girls. Most noticeable among these was the lovely Dixie Chene. Like Mabel, Dixie was very dark, and almost Spanish or Mexican in

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appearance. Dark girls, Sennett knew, could play a multiplicity of parts, whereas blonds were restricted in their roles. Dixie was extremely pretty, and gay as a wisp, like an Irish colleen. At the same time could be brooding, menacing and Spanish-like (Mack Sennett’s words). In regards to the latter quality, she was better, perhaps, than Mabel. When Mabel played a Spanish lady she was somewhat unconvincing, no matter how big her hoop earrings were. On occasions, when Mabel became crazy and violent onscreen (e.g. Mabel’s Dramatic Career), she vented the fury of an Irish woman, and appears distinctly Hibernian. Dixie differed from Mabel in terms of height (she was all of  five feet eight) and even towered over the majority of contemporary male actors. At a little over five feet Mabel was demure and cute, even when falling off a bridge or kicking someone’s ass (she was, perhaps, the first, and the last, cute comedienne). Sennett had publicly announced that ‘cute’ was out, and he began to turn even shortish actresses (like Louise Fazenda) into gawky specimens of girlhood. Polly Moran readily fell into the ‘crazy’ category, and needed little special attention. Mack chose, nonetheless, to turn spindly Dixie into a Mabel clone, by forcing Mabel’s actions and gestures onto her.

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Left: All smiles from Mabel, Charlie and Dixie. Right: Mabel goes all Hibernian.

Dixie Becomes a Star – Almost.

In the film Their Social Splash, Dixie had her chance of stardom. Although surrounded by other Keystone starlets, the film was clearly intended to showcase her talents, as a Mabel lookalike and actalike. In the first scene, Dixie is cute, but a bit funny, using gestures and facial expressions similar to Mabel, and does reveal some very long and hyper-mobile fingers. However, there are no Mabel lightning quick changes of facial expression.

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Dixie exercises some ultra-long fingers.

As Polly Moran goes ever more crazy, so Dixie falls back a little bit, but, in the naive Mabel way, she allows things to happen around her, and looks on with disbelieving eyes. So far, so good. Unfortunately, when the time comes for a bit of tragedy, everything goes awry. Dixie is ordered out of her bedroom, as boyfriend Slim Summerville goes to shoot Charlie Murray. Dixie runs from the room and races up and down screaming, whilst pulling her hair out. In doing so she drives Polly Moran beserk, and Polly starts jumping around, like an agitated puppy. Polly is simply veryfunny, but Dixie isn’t.

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Dixie and Polly run amok.

Miss Chene goes through the accepted stock Griffith-inspired actions, but is simply out of her comfort zone. Her heart isn’t in it, and no wonder. The registered club for comical tragedy was small, and has only ever had two members – Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand. Mack Sennett was incredibly astute, and must have realized instantly that he was barking up the wrong tree, and poor Dixie went backwards. Too late did Mack realize his error, for his two top comedians were now totally disillusioned, and plotting their escape.

The Endgame.

By the end of 1915, both Mabel and Roscoe had departed Edendale, although Mack was able to briefly lure Mabel back with a sackful of cash, and her own studio. Roscoe also returned, briefly, but merely lingered, until his moment came, and he departed – forever. The lovely Dixie Chene also stayed on for a time, but eventually left for better things.  She probably objected to playing someone else, and being made to look ridiculous. Dixie signed for straight dramatic work, but bombed, and was soon on the Hollywood scrapheap. This was a great tragedy, for the only crime Dixie committed was that, like Virginia Kirtley and many others,  she was playing Keystone, at the time when Mabel Normand reigned as Queen.

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PEOPLE I WOULD LIKE TO HAVE MET BUT DIDN’T, BY MABEL NORMAND.

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Anyone who has trawled through the mass of contradictory material on Mabel Normand, some of it written by herself, will understand the difficulties of grasping her true personality. However, from what we know of the real Mabel (as opposed to the screen Mabel) it is clear that she was passionate, altruistic and a champion for social justice. In relation to the latter quality, and being “As Irish as the Glocca Mist”, she was undoubtedly a staunch supporter of the Fenian cause. Consequently, the authorities on both side of the Atlantic took a keen interest in The Little Clown. On the other hand, Mabel was clearly fiercely competitive, indeed ruthless, in her chosen field, as well as in romance, and would use all available methods  to neutralize her opposition. The following essay is written in the kind of language that Mabel would have used, and gives an insight into the way she thought and acted.

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Having started a series on personalities I have met, I thought it a good idea to let you know about people I would have liked to have met, but never did.

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Brigid Kiernan: Potential film star.

I will start with Michael Collins, who, you will remember from my W.D. Taylor 2 article, I had fallen in love with, but never met. My mother, a closet Fenian, raved about Collins constantly, and through  publicized accounts of his exploits against the big bad British, I fell for the dashing I.R.A. man. As Charlie Chaplin never tires of telling people, I am ‘as Irish as the Banshees’. Before going to Europe in 1922, I had my friend make inquiries about meeting with Collins in the new Irish Republic. Word came back to me that he loved my films, and would gladly meet with me. My friend warned me that Collins was engaged to marry a certain Brigid ‘Kitty’ Kiernan, and so I would have to watch what I said to him – and no fluttering of eyelashes or twinkling of legs. As you can imagine, I regarded this as a challenge, and colleen Mabel was determined to elbow colleen ‘Kitty’ out of the way. The fact that she looked very much like me (same height, apple round cheeks, two-inch eyelashes, and large dark eyes) made me even more determined – I could feel another love triangle coming on. However, due to civil war breaking out in the Republic, I was unable to go to Ireland, and sadly my dream lover died in August of that year, in an I.R.A ambush.

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The Post Office, Dublin Easter, 1916. Inset: James Connolly.

 

There were two other Irish rebels I would like to have met – James Connolly is one. He had been a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (also known as I.W.W or the Wobblies). As you will know I, Charlie Chaplin and Mack Sennett, were members of the ‘Wobblies’ although Mack eventually went all capitalistic on us, and left. James Connolly was in the U.S.A. in the early 1900s, and led numerous workers’ rallies in New York. I was then living on Staten Island, but managed to sneak away to one rally in Manhattan, and actually saw the great man, speaking before a huge crowd. I made a mental note to meet him one day. Then, at Easter 1916, just before we opened The Mabel Normand Studio in East Hollywood (well, almost in Hollywood), we read that Connolly had led what is known as the ‘Post Office Rebellion’ in Dublin. James Connolly, in a very shot-up way, and unable to stand, was tied to a chair in Kilmainham Jail and executed by a Brit firing squad on the May 12th 1916. Like myself, Connolly had been against The Great War, and I’ll always remember what he said:

 “I know of no foreign enemy of this country (Ireland) except the British Government.”

‘James Connolly’ Song.

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Left: Jim Larkin: The impassioned orator. Right: Kevin Barry.

Jim Larkin was another Irish rebel, allied to James Connolly, who had a great presence in the U.S. and in the I.W.W. Again, I was not fortunate to enough to meet the great man, but, a certain Charlie Chaplin did – in Sing Sing Prison, right here in America. He told me all about his visit in 1921, when Larkin was serving 10 years for ‘Criminal Anarchy’. While on the subject of Irish rebels, I’ll mention the 18-year old Kevin Barry, who I had never met, as the first I knew of him, was when he was executed in 1920 by the British. The whole of Hollywood, indeed, the whole of America and the world, was up in arms in disgust. I think, at 18, I was as big a rebel as Kevin Barry, and under different circumstances, it could have been Mabel Normand facing those 12 gun barrels in Mountjoy Jail. Incidentally, the song ‘Kevin Barry’ was, like so many ‘Irish’ songs, written by an American. ‘Kevin Barry’ song.

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Marie Lloyd in 1890.

A slight change of tack now, to women I’d like to have met. Firstly, I regret never meeting Marie Lloyd, the English Music Hall star. As I explained in another article, my father always tried to sneak over to Manhattan to see her, when she was in New York, although my mother always stopped him going to see “That buck-toothed, fat-bottomed cow with the lewd act”.  I admired Marie’s stance, when the New York cops ran her in for ‘Moral Turpitude’ during 1913. At that time I had my nose hard to the grindstone out in L.A. I am glad to say Marie supported the Music Hall workers’ strikes of 1907. Charlie Chaplin, of course, knew her quite well, having traveled the Music Hall circuits with her in England, although, like me, he never got to see her in the U.S. Marie died on stage at the age of 52, in 1922. Both Charlie and me were saddened to hear this news, but I met her sister, Alice, when she came to Hollywood in the 1920s to do films. Marie Lloyd recording, 1910s.

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Charlie Chaplin and Alice Lloyd in 1926.

Marie Doro was someone I would like to have met, especially as Charlie was always raving about her. “She’s the most beautiful girl in the world” said Charlie, who’d appeared in a couple of her stage plays. He said this, as we sat in my bungalow dressing room at Keystone. I gave him the hard Mabel stare, and he immediately corrected this to “Oh, of course, the 2nd most beautiful girl in the world”. Charlie realized he could soon be roughing it in the men’s communal dressing room. However, Charlie was right, and Marie really was the most beautiful girl in the world – bar none.

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Marie Doro as Oliver Twist in the 1916 film.

I once saw her show in downtown L.A. with Charlie. After the performance, Charlie rushed me backstage to meet her, but my courage deserted me (as it did when Mack went backstage to see Charlie in 1913). I told Charlie I’d meet him outside on the foot way. I stood there, shaking like a leaf, as I hate meeting people I don’t know, especially stage people, who I consider to be the top of the acting profession. Within twenty seconds, I was doing what I always do in these situations – running away. Charlie brought Marie out to meet me, and there was no-one there! Charlie met her numerous times down the years, but I was too embarrassed to ever see her. Here, I need to clarify something. It is true that I have turned nasty towards some stage artists, but only those that are in direct competition with me, like, for instance, Geraldine Farrar and Madge Kennedy. I became good friends with vaudevillians Charlie Chaplin and Raymond Hitchcock, the latter, and his wife, being good enough to hide me in their New York apartment, when the Triangle Company and Mack Sennett were trying to hunt me down.

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Marie Doro: ‘The most beautiful girl in the world’.

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Hitchy hangs on grimly, as Mabel takes he and his wife for a spin in her ‘Roller’.

Thomas Burke, who wrote the book Limehouse Nights was an Englishman I wanted to meet with, while on my European tour, but he was apparently out of the country when I was there. As usual Charlie did meet him, and was shown around the dangerous slums of Limehouse by the great man in 1921. I had to make my own way around those slums with a couple of friends for company. I am grateful to the police constable who got us out of a sticky situation when the locals recognized me.

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The baying crowd pursued us with the usual shouts of “Oi, Mybel – how old are yer!” One bright young lad yelled “You’re thirteen, ain’t yer Mybel”. His friend corrected him. “Of course she isn’t, she’s nineteen, aren’t yer Mybel?” I daren’t tell them I was a movie star before they were even born!

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Lucky Luciano mixes with Hollywood celebs.  He was once found ‘well carved up’ near Mabel’s Staten Island home in the 1920s.

 

Charlie (Salvatore) Lucania was a youth I met in 1916, when he was working for certain movie producers in New York that I briefly did a few films with. I actually fell for this ‘Latin Lover’ at the time, and there were whispers that he was behind certain ‘occurrences’ in Los Angeles in the mid-late twenties, when he was known as Charlie Luciano. I think I saw him twice in New York, and we spoke not more than a dozen words together. Although I often wandered Little Italy when I was in New York, I never saw him again. However, he almost found me, one time, at my house on Staten Island. He was discovered by cops not half a mile away, having been ‘carved up’ real good by rival mobsters, acquiring the nickname ‘Lucky’ in the process. I’ve heard he’s back in Hollywood again, so if you’re out there somewhere, Charlie, drop in and see me sometime [Footnote 1].

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Al ‘Scarface’ Capone is someone who makes the headlines, and is, therefore, a person I’d like to meet. Unlike ‘Lucky’ I could never fall for ‘Big Al’ – a fat, arrogant hoodlum.  Guess what? Charlie Chaplin met him – almost. Chas came to me one day in 1927, and told me he’d seen a very tall replica of Fatty Arbuckle at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown L.A. He’d almost approached ‘The Big Fella’ as he was then looking for a ‘Fatty’ lookalike for a film he had in mind. However, he had such an entourage with him that Chas thought he was some kind of big shot, so did not speak with him. You could have knocked us down with a feather next day, when we read in the papers that he’d actually seen one Alphonse Capone, right here in L.A! Turns out he’d detoured from a trip to Florida, with the express idea of buying up a film studio, and the papers said he’d already visited one such establishment. He’d also, I’m told, been driven around Beverly Hills, and stopped outside my house,  intending to knock on my door (seems he’s a Mabel fan). His side-kick, though, warned him I was a bad girl, and, consequently, bad publicity. Fortunately for all of us, the cops ran him out of town the next day. I sometimes wonder, if I hadn’t gotten into movies, whether I would have ended up a gangster’s moll.

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Mabel’s dressing room with Olive’s photo in pride of place.

Now many of you might think I was a friend of Olive Thomas, ‘Everyone’s Sweetheart’. The truth is, I never actually met her. Wasn’t she at my studio opening party in 1916? No, although she’d just married Jack Pickford, who I had invited, she was, then, away on location. Unfortunately, she was often on location, and when in L.A. Jack dragged her up to ‘Pickfair’ whose hallowed halls I was never allowed to sully. It is my deepest regret that I never met her, although the autographed photo she sent me held pride of place in my studio dressing room, and, nowadays, holds that place in my living room. Everyday I use her gold vanity set, which I bought at auction for $1,400, following her untimely death. I still curse myself for sending that huge bouquet of flowers to the ship, when she and Jack left for Europe. The poor girl returned home in a coffin.

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In a previous article, I mentioned that I would like to have met T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) but there was another Lawrence from England that I would like to have met, D.H. Lawrence. We started hearing about Lawrence in around 1917, and some friends gave me copies of his works. I had already read some of his short stories, and simply loved his blue language and unusual way of thinking. We were, in fact, soulmates. Indeed, some people advised me not to meet E.H. as we were too much alike, and there’d be trouble. In 1928 I got an illegal copy of his Lady Chatterley’s Lover which was just fantastic, even more so because it was banned in the U.S. I never got to meet E.H. but it wasn’t through lack of trying. If I’d met him I would have had a quiet word with him, for, after the book’s release, they started to call me Lady Chatterley. However, let’s get one thing straight – I do not have sexual relations with the hired help! [Footnote 2].

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Jack London with his wife in Hawaii, 1915.

Keeping on the subject of literary figures, but closer to home, I never managed to get in touch with Jack London. He came from, and sometimes lived, in San Francisco, but PeopofTheabyssjl90rseemed to be always away in London, Hawaii, Tahiti, Australia, or less exotic places in the U.S. He was a passionate author, and I found his stories mesmerizing, so that it was impossible to put the things down until the end. I had immense respect for Jack, who, like my old friend Bill Taylor, had been a prospector up in The Klondike. His real name was not Jack London, and I imagine he picked up the name from the city. Like me, Jack was a socialist, and even wrote an article entitled Why I am a Socialist. It is unfortunate that Jack had his last days at the time when I was hard at work on my career, after my my studio folded. Incidentally, I took Jack’s book The People of the Abyss (along with Limehouse Nights) when I visited London’s slums – both books dealt with London’s East Side (East End). I would recommend Jacob Riis’ book How the Other Half Lives if you’re interested in slum conditions in New York.

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London’s East End: Dorset St. 1902

Edgar J. Hoover. Now there’s a man I’d like to meet, but not for any high-minded reasons. Hoover’s politics are diametrically opposed to mine, and, according to Charlie C (who has met him) he’s a bigot, and a racist, who is intent on doing his best to create a dictatorship in this country – probably with himself as dictator. I have one question for Mr. ‘Big Mouth’ Hoover – “Why have you got your goons following a poor, innocent girl around?” I’m not too concerned about these idiots, but Hoover should realize that numerous other agencies and studios are tailing me, including Mack Sennett, the LAPD, the Secret Service, and Randolph Hearst’s cronies.

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I now know most of them by sight, and always give them a friendly wave and hello. I’m currently writing a screenplay about private detectives. One scene always makes me split my sides with laughter. A girl ducks into a cafe, while being tailed by spies. She orders a cup of tea, but as soon as it is served, she rises and exits the cafe. The spies, who’ve followed her in, all spring from their seats sending tea and coffee everywhere. You’ve guessed it – they all race for the door, where they collide in the doorway, ending up in a sprawling, kicking mass on the floor. I’ve shown the screenplay to Charlie, and he says he might make the film, but declines to appear in it, as he would not be the star. Roscoe Arbuckle is currently at a loose end, so I might get him involved [Footnote 3].

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Desert Island Dreaming.

Everyone will know that I started out as an artist’s model, and I had dreams of becoming an artist myself. This never happened, and I became a mere movie star. However, I did not just dream of Valentino, like most stars – in my dreams Paul Gaguin came to me. Oh how I longed to be whisked away to the South Sea islands by the talented Paul. But it was not ordained to be, and, in any case, I do not travel well. I would have jumped overboard out of sheer boredom, on any long oceanic voyage.

The list of people I’d like to meet is extensive, and would probably fill a whole book, so I’ll stop here, before I get too carried away.

Footnote 1: Mabel was very fortunate. When ‘Lucky’ got into his stride, in the 1930s, he left bodies lying all over Hollywood and Beverly Hills. One film star who got too close to Luciano, Thelma Todd, ended up dead.

Footnote 2: D.H. Lawrence died one week after Mabel, aged 45 years.

Footnote 3: Mabel was regarded as a subversive, and a closet anarchist by the authorities. With her popularity, Mabel could have become very dangerous for the establishment, should she have turned her political views into action. Consequently, many people think that the two shooting scandals Mabel was involved in, were contrived by the Federal Government. Specifically, W.D. Taylor was thought to have given Mabel a channel, through which she could exercise her anarchic views – therefore he needed to be taken out. The peculiar circumstances of the Dine’s affair, it is suggested, indicate that ‘shooting chauffeur’ Horace Greer was a deliberate plant, intended by ‘the Feds’ to bring Mabel into disrepute. Charlie Chaplin? It took 35 years to finally rid the country of this ‘red scourge’.

 

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MABEL’S FRIENDS: MRS BURNS.

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Mabel with her lawyer and the D.A. (Right) following a previous shooting (W.D. Taylor).

Mrs Burns and the Normand Household

Who was Mrs Burns, you might ask? Mrs Ethel (sometimes called Edith) Burns was a member of Mabel’s household. She claimed that she was Mabel’s housekeeper, although it is unlikely she was defacto the housekeeper, a position seemingly held by Mamie Owens. It seems that Mrs Burns was one of those numerous friends that Mabel took in, when they were in trouble, and she thought of herself as someone equivalent to a housekeeper.

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Horace Greer. in love with Mabel, but he was no Valentino.

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Mabel and full-time nurse, Julia Benson.

Here we have to explain the circumstances surrounding the Mabel Normand household. Down the years Mabel took on a number of servants, but, even those employed strictly on a contract basis, became devoted to her, and Mabel treated them as friends rather than as servants or slaveys – one of the perks of being employed by a committed socialist. The only thing Mabel really detested was disloyalty. That is, she expected her staff to keep her secrets to themselves, and to never speak to the press. Most people towed the line, but all of them fussed excessively over their diminutive employer. Everyone knew Mabel was sick, had been for many years, and employed a personal nurse by the name of Julia Benson (nee Brew). Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, the staff conspired to keep Mabel alive, as long as possible, and this created problems. Mabel did not look after herself, and often came home from the studio mentally and physically shattered, but insisted on going straight out on the town. This often led to ugly confrontations and arguments with the staff.

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Dines 1st floor apartment at 325-B N. Vermont. January 1924.

Mrs Burns and the Dines affair.

This, then, was the background in which Mrs Burns lived and worked. We would never have known anything about Mrs Burns, if it was not for the infamous Dines Affair. You will remember that Courtland Dines was a millionaire oilman, playing around Hollywood. Edna Purviance, whose career was ebbing away, decided she would like to marry a millionaire, and made a play for Dines. Unfortunately, Mabel Normand entered the scene, and was soon seeing Courtland behind Edna’s back (Mabel simply relished a love triangle). The story goes that Edna rang Mabel on New Year’s Day 1924, and asked her to come over to Courtland’s apartment for a drink. Mrs Burns later recalled that she tried to stop Mabel going out, because Mabel had an appointment next day for an appendix operation. As usual, there was a fierce argument between Mabel and her staff. Then, Mabel ordered her chauffeur, Joe Kelly, to drive her to Dine’s apartment at 325-B, North Vermont Drive. On arrival there, she apparently told the chauffeur to pick her up in about an hour. From that point, all of the testimonies, differed by a country mile.

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Courtland, Mabel and Edna make an impromptu film on a yacht. Looks like someone’s reaching for a gun.

 

Somehow, when the chauffeur returned to pick up Mabel, Dines was shot at three times (hit twice) with Mabel’s .25 caliber pistol. All present, including the chauffeur, agreed that Kelly fired the shots, although Kelly said he did it in self-defence. However, it seems clear that everyone in the apartment was intoxicated. Mabel, herself, would be drunk after two drinks and stone dead drunk after three. How was it that Kelly had Mabel’s gun, normally kept in her lingerie drawer in her bedroom? Kelly said that Mrs Burns had told him where the gun was, and that he should take it with him to defend himself against Dines – a known hot-head. She told Kelly that Mabel had phoned home, saying that Dines was preventing her from leaving, so there could be trouble? In any event, Courtland ended up in hospital, while Joe, Mabel and Edna were held at the police station. After questioning, Edna and Mabel were freed, and went to the Good Samaritan Hospital where Dines had been taken.

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Different chauffeur, different place. Mabel, Beverly Hills 1925.

The Revelations of Joe Kelly and Mrs Burns.

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There are many peculiar aspects of this case, which will be dealt with in a separate article. However, testimonies by Kelly, who was actually a chain-gang escapee called Horace Greer, and Mrs Burns, reveal some strange, but disputed, facts about the Mabel Normand household. Kelly’s story goes beyond the actual circumstances of the shooting, and, by sheer good fortune, gives an insight into the workings of the household. Firstly, he said that everyone in the household was 100% committed to Mabel, and adored her – apparently Kelly (Greer) received a pair of platinum cuff-links from her as a Christmas present (the ears of the press instantly pricked up). He went on to say that Mabel never looked after her health, even though she was constantly sick, and she was far too fond of the ‘gargle’. Mrs Burns had apparently told him that Mabel was often distraught and worried, whenever she came home from the studio. When the staff tried to calm her, she would simply put on a coat, and head for the door. On several occasions Mrs Burns caught hold of her arm to prevent her leaving. She would then call other staff members to help her restrain Mabel. Kelly stated he’d heard that, when Mabel had apparently calmed down, she’d sometimes say “Right if I’m that stupid, and can’t look after myself, I’ll get my gun and blow my brains out”.  She would then make for the stairs, and the staff would have to restrain her again.

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Mabel’s Colt .25 pistol.

On the night of the shooting, he said that Mrs Burns took a call from Mabel at Dines’ residence, in which she said she was coming home. According to Kelly, Mrs Burns heard Dines’ voice shouting that he wouldn’t let her go home. Kelly said he’d pick Mabel up straightaway, and Mrs Burns urged him to take Mabel’s pistol, as Dines was a somewhat crazy guy. She told Kelly where the gun was, and he went and fetched the weapon. He then jumped into the car and sped to N. Vermont. He entered the apartment, and Dines was shot soon after. The events that occurred in the apartment, which led to the shooting, are beyond the scope of this essay, as those events are complicated and disputed. They will be discussed in a later blog.

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Most of the testimony given by Kelly was disputed by Mrs Burns, and the occupants of 325-B N. Vermont, who as we have seen were drunk at the time, judging by the empty monster-size Haigh whisky bottle, and the behavior of the oilman and the two actresses, when the police arrived. However, although Mrs Burns cast some doubt on Kelly’s story, she wholeheartedly supported both the actions of Joe and Mabel. Of Kelly she said:

“If there ever was a boy so fine, it was that driver. A better man never lived, and I hope he gets out of this trouble.”

Of Mabel’s association with Dines and Purviance she said:

“I want you to understand that my efforts to keep Mabel away from Dines and Edna were not on account of any malice against them, but they did not exert a good influence over her”.

Thoughtless companions were responsible for all her troubles Mrs Burns further explained. On Mabel’s character and personality she said:

“If people only knew Mabel as she really is, she’d be pitied, rather than censored. Night after night I have ministered to her, when she was ill and nervous. I have found her shivering in bed, with clothes tossed aside. I have made hot water bottles for her, and gotten her into a condition where she could carry on her work at the studio”.

Here Mrs Burns gives us a clue to Mabel’s actual medical condition, and how Mabel was struggling to keep going at her work, but still insisting on going out all night. Mrs Burns continues:

“No-one can ever understand the strain I have been under. Mabel would leave for a party with jewelry valued at nearly $100,000. I knew she could never look out for herself. she was just like an impulsive child”.

Mrs Burns is now into the deep psychology of Mabel, and adds this:

“I pity Mabel from the bottom of my heart…..for if there was ever a generous, whole-souled girl, who was always ready to give her last cent to a person in distress that girl is Mabel Normand. Never has a girl been the victim of more bitter circumstances and calumny.”

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Mabel enters the courtroom.

Courtland Dines, himself, added more to the heady mix of strange facts. It transpired that, although Edna Purviance claimed she was engaged to Courtland, he took Mabel out on numerous occasions. Mabel, as with other men, was somewhat blasé with Courtland, who may have even proposed marriage. When a girl is loved by more than two million men worldwide, she can afford to pick and choose. There are indications that he resented the involvement of the household staff in Mabel’s affairs. It is further relevant to this case that Dines thought Mabel to be ‘impossible’ when drunk. He revealed that Mabel’s much-publicized hospitalization in 1923, said to be due to being thrown from a horse, actually had another cause. Apparently, Mabel had, despite warnings, tried to mount the horse whilst intoxicated. She simply fell off the other side, and broke her collarbone (leading eventually to another scandal over a certain Mr Church).

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Edna Purviance.

In conclusion it appears that Mrs Burns was mostly concerned about Mabel’s involvement in yet another love triangle. The housekeeper, then, was keeping a profound secret, which was difficult to conceal, when Edna and Courtland were in Mabel’s house. The question is, was Mabel as naive as Mrs Burns purported her to be?  The press generally thought this to be nonsense, and put the spotlight on Mabel’s relationship with her chauffeur, and the fact that she was the third side of a love triangle. The specific questions they asked were: Did Mabel pull the trigger herself, or did she tell Kelly to pull the trigger? In relation to these two possibilities, did Mabel set out to put herself between Courtland and Edna? Two years previously, Mabel had done precisely that, by intervening in a love affair between Mary Miles Minter and Bill Taylor.

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“Gonna marry Edna was ya?”

Another question, of course, came up: Was Mabel as friendly disposed towards Edna Purviance, as she purported to be? Mabel was known to bear grudges for ever. Ordinarily, these grudges would never surface, but when she was drunk it was a different matter. One grudge she bore against Charlie Chaplin, for many years, was over  the fact that he never called her to be his leading lady, post-Keystone. It could be that instead of taking it out on Charlie, she decided to let all her resentment out on Chaplin’s foil, Edna Purviance. In early 1924, Charlie was about to let Edna go (her solo attempt had just bombed), so wouldn’t it be just dandy, if her millionaire boyfriend also let her go? This all came to pass, and Edna ended up on a meager lifetime pension from Chaplin.

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As for Mrs Burns, she disappeared from history, although Mabel had said she would allow her back, having ‘let her go’ for talking to the police and giving them access to her bedroom. We do not really know who Mrs Burns was, and like so many others in Mabel’s life, she could have traveled under a false name (there is no image of her). Not long after the Dines affair, another Mabel employee disappeared from the scene. Her name was Betty Coss, and she was Mabel’s personal secretary. She had been mentioned by Kelly, as one of the conspirators who proposed to get rid of Mabel’s pistol, before she used the weapon on herself (she’d also engaged Kelly as Mabel’s chauffeur). A series of arguments between Betty and her employer eventually led to her departure, leaving Mabel in the manure, as various letters between them show. One telegram begins “Betty don’t be a baby…” Not a good route to reconciliation.

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Epilogue: Courtland Dines was committed to The Colorado Springs Psychopathic Hospital in March 1931, on the grounds of insanity. Edna Purviance died aged 63 from throat cancer.

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PERSONALITIES I HAVE MET, BY MABEL NORMAND * MARY PICKFORD.

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Mary and Mabel in Mender of Nets. 1912.

I have pondered writing this series of articles for a long time, in fact, ever since Mary Pickford ran her newspaper column, ‘Personalities I have met’ in the mid-teens. Of course, having been at Biograph from the earliest days, when motion Pictures were first being noticed, I know all of the stars that form the core of Hollywood today.

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You might have wondered why we ex-Biograph and Vitagraph girls never put each other down in public. We have an unwritten agreement not to do so, and this dates back to the early days when actresses were regarded as whores having a day off. Our enemies weren’t just outside the studio, but inside as well, one being the ‘World’s Genius’, D.W. Griffith.

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D.W. Griffith directs at Biograph.

I might just as well start, therefore, with Mary Pickford. As you know Miss Pickford (or Gladys Smith as I know her) slightly predated my time at Biograph. She always referred to me as a friend in any article she contributed to, but we are not really friends as such, nor are we staunch enemies. Since we arrived in Hollywood, we’ve kept a respectful distance from each other, and this, I suppose, has prevented us from falling out big time. I have never been invited over to Pickfair, and neither have I invited her to my house, except once for an interview. Mary always has loads of celebrities up at Pickfair, but makes sure I am never there, as I might embarrass them. Of course, my old friend Charlie (Chaplin) is now an almost permanent fixture at Pickfair, and if I hear the Pickfords (Fairbanks’s) are having Albert Einstein, The Duke of Windsor, or Lord Mountbatten around, I’ll bawl Charlie out, and shout across the restaurant or movie theater we’re in:

“Don’t worry Charlie, I won’t be up at Pickfair tonight”.

Poor Charlie, it’s not his fault, but he takes all the flack. Can you imagine me with dopey old Albert Einstein, after I’d had a couple of drinks. We’ll not go there.

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Doug and Mary at Pickfair.

Back in the day, at Biograph, I was known for my mocking tones and irreverent manner with the executives and director. I did mock some of the regular company as well, but usually kept my opinions at the level of a mumble. For instance, I’d make snide comments about the way The Sweetheart always waved her hair on top. You will have noticed that the average actress, however much she fussed over her banana curls, always frizzed up the top, or lets it run a bit wild. This was a token of humility, designed to thwart any claims of us being swell-headed. Gladys (Mary) always went the whole hog, and, rather than make her curls with rags, she used hard rollers with spikes in ‘em. How did she sleep at night? She put her hand between her head and the rollers, and this seems to have damaged her right hand, which now appears limp to me.

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Envy of all my friends: The Mabel Normand Studio.

People often ask me why I am so unbelievably ambitious. Well, there’s one simple answer – Mary Pickford! She once told me she wanted to earn $200 a week by the time she was 20 years old, and then make $1,000 a week by 22. Furthermore, she wanted to be the first named movie actress (we didn’t count Florence Lawrence as she had faded very quickly). Mary also reckoned she could get her name over a studio before anyone else. Poor Mary, I beat her on every count. Of course, I achieved all of this because I had linked myself to Mack Sennett – took a shortcut, you might say. However, no one should dismiss me for that – every Biograph actress had the same opportunity to do likewise, but they did not realize how deep his understanding of films, and their mode of sale, actually was. Mack Sennett, like many of us, could never see anything in Mary, and would say:

“I don’t see why everyone’s so crazy about her – I think she’s affected!”

Obviously, Mack was incensed that Mary regularly ate at the top table, while most of us munched at dry, curled up sandwiches. I didn’t mind so much, as I could sit with the proletariat, and not have to suffer those stuck-up assholes, like D.W. Griffith. Mary was a Belasco trained stage actress, and Griffith instinctively thought she was good. Although Mack was a bit of a clown, we all reckoned that Mary’s films were greatly enhanced by his presence in them. Want to know something? Mack Sennett wrote the screenplays for some of Mary’s early films –  you might remember The Lonely Villa – screenplay written by The King of Comedy in 1911.

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The Pickford family.

Mary Pickford is a prodigious star of films, but how good an actress is she? Fortunately, I once discussed this with The Sweetheart herself, and she told me that her brother Jack and sister Lottie, were better actors than she was. She says her success was all down to her hair. I’m glad she said this, as it saved me the embarrassment of putting her straight. I would add that Dot Gish is  a better actress than Mary – Dot is also far more competent than her sister, Lillian. How does Mary compare with me? Well, modesty forbids me from saying, but, after co-starring with me in Mender of Nets, she refused to play opposite to me again, and very soon after, she was gone from the studio altogether. Her main problem has always been her rigidity and staidness. She appears almost musclebound and wooden on the screen, and I always think that a star player should glide around as though on wheels. As I have said before, Mary throws her feet down, in a cavemanish way, even when wearing dainty shoes. Griffith always wanted her in his films, due to her static appearance. However, her lack of passion and animation infuriated him, and he would often be seen shaking her by the shoulders. I believe he once threw her across the stage, almost breaking her arm. Lottie tells me that Mary is completely devoid of emotion – her abilities lie elsewhere.

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The giant and the dwarf. Sweetheart Mary with Genius D.W. Griffith. 1919.

 

At Biograph, there were many huge egos being polished around the place. First there was Griffith  himself, then there was his one-time star-of- stars Florence Lawrence, followed by Miss Pickford and yours truly. Consequently, there was a lot of jostling for position. We never went for each other’s throats though, and would often just mimic each other’s accents. You will understand that, in America, your accent tells everything. Not everyone in the studio came from New York, and there must have been 50 variations of English being played out. In New York there are five different ‘big apple’ accents, and we New Yorkers would tease one and other relentlessly. In those days, I  had just about the worst Brooklyn/ Staten Island accent, you’ve ever heard. The actors would call me over saying:

“Cwome over wid de bwoys Mwabel, and have a twawk with izz”

And all said in a twangy sort of way. I’d reply by throwing a megaphone or some stage prop at them.

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Mary with Mildred Harris, Mrs Gish and the Gish sisters.

If you had a Kansas accent you were a marked girl. We would never give her a moment’s peace. “Come on Miss so and so, say ‘I milked the cow’. If she was idiotic enough to comply she would say:

“I mulked the keeyow”

and we’d all fall about laughing. Mary Pickford came from Canada, but unlike Mack Sennett, she had not yet adopted a true yankee accent (or “damned yankee accent” as Griffith used to say). To my American ears she sounded vaguely Scottish, saying ‘about’ as ‘aboat’ and such like. I reveled in talking to her, in my idea of a Scottish accent, adding an eh(?) on the end of every sentence. She had a peculiar way of pronouncing her ‘r’s which I cannot replicate. It was all ridiculous really, but in those days we thought this type of thing very funny, and I was, as usual, going over the top.  I know what you’re wondering – what did we say to the English actors. The English were unassailable, and were mostly highly respected thespians, so we sat at their feet. If anyone did mock one of them, you can bet, like me, they’d later be cajoling the actor to teach them to speak ‘proper’. As today, an aristocratic way of speaking in Hollywood was as good as money in the bank. I was lucky, I had Charlie Chaplin to teach me, but the studios spent thousands on old English school ma’ams to train their Bronx-accented starlets (although our films were silent, we were expected to speak in public). By the way to the English, Canadians sound exactly the same as Americans.

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Mary Pickford birthplace, Toronto, Canada.

When Mary left Biograph, temporarily, for IMP studios, it was like a rubber band releasing its tension. She and I could breathe at last. One of the things that annoyed me was the way that her brother and sister did whatever she told them to. I said to them one day:

“Why don’t you tell that prissy bitch to fuck off.”

“Oh no, no, we can’t do that, she’s the head of the family.”

“How come she’s head of the family, when your mother’s still alive. Look at me, I have no stage mother, and no stage sister, yet I still get by.”

“Come on now Mabel” said Jack Pickford “You’ve got Mack Sennett, a six foot muscle-bound monster who clears a path for you” .

I couldn’t really argue with that, but at least Mack was a man, and not a silly curly headed Little Lord Fauntleroy. It was hopeless arguing with them, and the whole family decamped with Mary, when she left for IMP. This was a shame for Lottie was simply adorable, and Jack, well I’ve been in love with Jack since, like, forever (what girl isn’t?).

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Jack and Lottie Pickford.

 

 

Eventually, only Mabel’s and Mary’s souls remained at Biograph. We both became entrenched 3,000 miles west, in the strange part of Los Angeles known as Hollywood. It’s odd to think that we never lived more than a mile from each other, and yet we hardly ever met. In late 1914, I was at some studio party or other, where I was talking with Blanche Sweet, Lottie Pickford and Dot Gish. Suddenly, Mary came over from the other side of the room, where she’d been sucking up to Adolph Zuckor. This was unusual, but Charlie Chaplin had just walked in, and she was badgering me to introduce her to him. I obliged, and introduced her to Chas, as Hetty Green (the millionairess stock market investor). I said this because Mary was very good in business, and worked hard and successfully, on the financial aspect of her career.

“Oh, come on Mabel, stop messing around and introduce me properly.”

“O.K. this is Mary Pickford.” I said condescendingly.

I’m glad to report that Chas was less than impressed, and only vaguely knew of dramatic actresses. He’d heard of Mary, obviously, but drama was outside his comfort zone. At that time, Charlie and I were in what I call our ‘dreamtime’, a mix of passionate love and professional respect. Chas excused himself and went off to speak with Tom Ince, leaving Mary stuck, uncomfortably, with me. Mary crept off to Zuckor, as soon as possible, and a little later Charlie came over:

“What is she, some kind of Goldilocksian dwarf?” He said, nodding in Mary’s direction.

We all laughed, including Lottie. Charlie only became mildly interested in Mary, after she’d become Mrs. Fairbanks. However, Charlie now turned his attention to the beautiful Blanche, a platinum blond, billed as ‘the girl with the silken hair’. I believe Charlie was keeping half an eye on me, to see how I’d react. There was no reaction. I could have told Chas that Blanche only had eyes for Marshal Neilan, the husband of Gertude Bambrick. As with Mary and myself, Blanche and Gertie had fallen out somehow, during their time on the stage. Blanche held some sort of life-long grudge against Gertie, hence her determination to steal Marshal away from Gertie, something she finally achieved 8 years later. Here’s a quest for you: Find a photo of Gertie and Blanche socializing together. You’ve as much chance as you would have of finding one of me with Griffith or Miss Pickford.

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Blanche Sweet and Marshal Neilan

I have, in the past, called Mary ‘The Great Persuader’. First, she persuaded Griffith she was a great actress, then persuaded Owen Moore that she was worth marrying. Soon after she persuaded some of us to go on strike, because Griffith had put little Mae Marsh in a star role she thought she should have had. Poor Mae, she was very young, and suffered abuse for years after from the girls, including myself. Then, one day I woke up, and realized I’d been duped by The Sweetheart.

For many years I had an uneasy truce with America’s Sweetheart. Then, everything happened. Firstly, it came to my attention that Jack Pickford had fallen in love with ex-Zeigfield dancer Olive Thomas. Jack told me that Mary disapproved, and had forbidden them to marry. They married anyway, with the only guest, also the best man, in the form of Tommy Meighan.

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Mabel with Owen Moore. The Little Teacher 1915.

At this very time, the sweet Mary, married to Owen Moore, was conducting an affair with married man, Doug Fairbanks. Of course, I was incensed, being a good catholic girl. On top of that I considered Owen to be a good friend, and did not like to see him treated so shabbily. I was not invited to Doug and Mary’s wedding, which was kept pretty much secret. Doug was the type of he-man gorilla that I despised, and I was less than pleased when he appeared at the opening of The Mabel Normand Studio in 1916. I found him conceited and full of himself. He was essentially a man’s man, and, as many know, I like my men to be more intellectual, more philosophical, and devoted entirely to me. I doubted that The Gorilla could even read or write. Charlie later told me later that Doug had an intense disliking for me, so the feeling was mutual. I would pit my sarcastic wit against his he-man tree-swinging any day of the week. Fortunately, this meant I would never attend any boring functions at Pickfair. Surprisingly enough, his son, Doug Jnr. (by Doug’s first wife) was a sweet young boy, who I spoiled terribly whenever I met him. In a way I envy him, for he’s lived all over the world with his mother, and met everyone worth meeting. I daren’t ask him what he thinks of his stepmother, but I wish him every success in his acting career.

Mary never had children herself, and, as you might have heard, she was infertile. You might have read that this was caused by a botched appendix operation. Well, it was caused by a back-street abortion, before she married Owen Moore. Whose baby was it – well, your guess is as good as mine.

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Douglas Fairbanks jnr. with Ginger Rogers 1938.

 

Around 1925, Doug and Mary had become very reclusive, locking themselves away at Pickfair. It seems, though, that Mary had told Valentino he could come around at any time. One particular Sunday, Doug and Mary were sitting in their garden, when Valentino suddenly appeared on the Pickfair lawn. Doug flew out of his chair, screaming

 “What the fuck are you doing here, you greasy Greek wop!?”

He grabbed poor Valentino by the collar, marched him to the gate, and threw him out. Turning to Mary he shouted:

“Don’t you ever invite that slimey, olive oil spic around here again!”

Speaking with Valentino later, he told me he was shocked, and didn’t even know where Greece was! This incident serves to show the true nature of the ‘swashbuckler’. He was ignorant and racist – even more racist than Albert Einstein, or Edgar J. Hoover.

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Mary Pickford and two of the Talmadge sisters at Valentino’s funeral in 1926.

The Bad Times.

It was when Jack’s wife Olive Thomas died that I really lost it with Miss Pickford. Jack came to me distraught, and we cried together all night. I felt a little cheated, as I had hoped to meet her, but she was often away on location. I don’t know why, but I suspected Mary was behind Ollie’s death. Her rejection by the Pickford matriarchs, Mary and her mother, could have caused her to take her own life on that fateful night in Paris. After that day I don’t think I ever spoke to Mary again – I just couldn’t. Over the next few weeks I spent every Sunday sitting with Ollie’s grief-stricken mother, out on the beach at Santa Monica.

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Everyone’s Sweetheart: The gorgeous Olive Thomas.

Ollie’s mother was not, as I have said elsewhere, the only grief-stricken mother I sat with, on account of that poisonous dwarf, Mary. In 1922, the sweet Mary arranged the wedding of Jack and Marilyn Miller at Pickfair, curiously enough while I was out in Europe – now isn’t that strange? The wedding, of course, should have been in New York, where Marilyn’s family lived. The first Marilyn’s mother learned about the wedding was when she received an invite from the thoughtful Mary. She threw it away. About a month later, I arrived in New York from Europe. Now it had been arranged that I’d stay at Marilyn’s apartment in Manhattan, and, as I’d heard about Jack and Marilyn’s marriage, I’d expected to find it empty, as everyone, I presumed, was in L.A.. You could have knocked me down with a feather, when Marilyn’s mother opened the door, just as I inserted the key.

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Marilyn Miller’s wedding or the Charlie and Mary Show?

Marilyn’s mother told me the whole sordid story, and said Mary had sent her a film of the wedding. We watched the film on Marilyn’s projector, and what we saw was nauseating to say the least. We saw The Sweetheart running around controlling things, totally overwhelming the newly-weds. I felt physically sick.

Political Collusion on The Playing Fields of Pickfair.

As you might know, Mary and I are at opposite polls when it comes to politics. While I am a committed socialist, she hails the new fascist parties coming up in Germany, Italy and the U.S. I read a piece by her in the newspaper in which she blames the Jews for The Great War, and the current situation in Germany. She thinks the U.S. fought on the wrong side in that War To End All Wars. What right has she to say that, when only her brother was involved in the conflict, and he never left U.S. waters! Meantime, my brother Claude was out fighting on the Somme, up to his neck in muck and bullets. It’s about time the government owned up, and told us why we were involved in a conflict that did not concern us. Now, Charlie Chaplin almost certainly had Jewish ancestry, and I asked him why he associated with those fascists up at Pickfair. He simply shrugged his shoulders, but when I mentioned that Chaplin imitator Adolph Hitler he colored up, and ranted that he was going to prosecute Hitler for impersonating him. I wish him luck, but I am sure there is no copyright on toothbrush mustaches and lank hair. Lord save us all, if that madman Hitler ever becomes head of the German government.

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A Jew with Fascists on the Pickfair lawn in 1922. Far left: Charlie Chaplin, 3rd and 4th from left: Lord and Lady Mountbatten.

Finally.

In a way we were all like Mary Pickford, always looking for an angle , so as to get ahead. Mary took it farther than most, but then she had more time to devote to it. While the Biograph girls were out, loose on the town, Mary stayed home, and, between sewing her dresses and curling her hair, she schemed and schemed, then schemed some more. She may not  be the best actress in the world, but she is certainly the wealthiest. I’ll let Mack Sennett have the final word:

“She was the greatest confidence trickster the movie industry has ever known.” 

That’s something, coming from ‘The Master of Illusion’.

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*I will, periodically, release more of these articles in the future.

Bibliography:

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).

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

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

Mabel Normand: The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap by Timothy Dean Lefler (2016).

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

W.D. TAYLOR AND MABEL NORMAND. PART 2.

Mabel continues her story about the Taylor murder. Here she tells of the aftermath of the affair.

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Mabel faints during Taylor rites.

The Cops Arrive.

It wasn’t very many hours before it was discovered Bill had actually been shot, and my housekeeper rang the studio, telling me to come home, as the police had arrived. I rushed home cursing and swearing that the police had violated my abode, a duplex at 3089 West 7th Street. On arrival, I found my gardener and the chauffeur holding the LAPD at bay.

“Sorry ma’am” said one of the officers, “But we’ll have to interview you, and search the house.”

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“What? Mabel Normand at it again. We’re on our way!”

 

I was livid, but I thought it best not to antagonise the flat-foot goons. The first thing I did was to ring Mack, and tell him the cops were all over the house:

“Don’t worry, Mabe, I’ll sort something out.”

True to form Mack himself did not turn up, but three of his studio guards came over, accompanied by around ten private detectives. The chief dick approached the police sergeant and informed him that they’d come to secure the house, and that they were all bone fide detectives, licensed to carry firearms within the city limits. I gave the police sergeant a nod, accompanied by a sarcastic grim. It was check-mate. While the private dicks spread themselves around the front door, the boss dick accompanied the cops as they searched the house. Up in my bedroom one cop went to open my lingerie drawer. I went for him, asking if he always rummaged through ladies’ underwear?

“Sorry ma’am, we’ve got to do it”.

Our dick nodded it was O.K., but there were dainty items in there that only my lovers ever saw. “Oh my god, it’ll get in the newspapers, what will my mother think?” Unfortunately, when the cop turned over my pants, he discovered my .25 pistol.

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“Gun? What Gun?”

“Have you a license for this” said the cop.

“Don’t need one – the gun never leaves this room.”

“What about the other gun” he asked.

“Haven’t got one.”

“That’s not what we heard” he said grapping a bag lying on the bed and searching through it.

Fortunately, I’d rushed home so fast, I’d left my day bag at the studio, and it contained my other .25. I had no license to carry it abroad, so I was lucky. Then, I was interviewed about what I knew of the murder. Were there any men or women that might be jealous of my relationship with Taylor? Of course, they knew about Mack and MMM, but I said a firm “No.”

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Mabel and her dog at 3089 W. Seventh Street.

Following the interview, the cop rang his station, from the house phone, and then announced to us that the D.A. was coming over. At this point he went to pick up my gun, but our dick put his hand across his and said “You can’t touch that.” Check-mate 2. I then asked to be left alone in my room, and everyone went downstairs. While a constant verbal hum ran through the house, I changed out of my Suzanna costume, and, as I was getting hot and bothered, got into a little silky camisole. I wondered how the cops knew I had a second gun. Then, I remembered something Mack had told me two years back.

“Be careful, Mabel, the cops are building up a dossier on us.”

Apparently, they thought I was naughty girl.

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An actual silk camisole worn by Mabel.

MMM comes to visit.

My thoughts were interrupted a few minutes later, when I heard a female voice downstairs. I imagined it was Constance Talmadge, who’d rang me earlier, saying she was coming over to give me moral support. I shouted downstairs:

“Who is it?”

“It’s Mary, Mary Miles Minter.” Came the reply.

“Come on up, Mary.” I shouted down.

Oh my god, MMM, what’s she doing here? Mary came up, and I took her hand and led her into the bedroom. This was the first time I’d been within 30 feet of the girl. Was she crazy coming here, and how did she know I wouldn’t kill her – she must be so naïve. She stared at me for a couple of seconds, probably wondering why, in a houseful of cops, I was wandering about in a filmy camisole. In any case, I was going to give her one of the famous Mabel put offs. She might not know how close I’d been to Bill. So that the police would not hear what we said, I led Mary into the bathroom and turned on the taps. Her hand seemed very hot and sweaty, and her fingers felt fat and sausage-like. She was, in fact, very podgy all over, for a movie star, and had a somewhat acrid sweaty odour about her. She told me she’d been down to the morgue and viewed the body, telling the coroner there to take her blood and transfer it to Bill, in order to bring him back to life. I thought:

“You’ve been watching too many Frankenstein films, dearie.”

 She carried on, saying that, as I knew Mr Taylor quite well, perhaps I could  shed a light on the murder? No, I replied, who would want to kill Bill? At the mention of “Bill” she looked at me in a strange way – later I discovered she had never called him anything but Mr Taylor. She was starting to get suspicious. I thought quickly on my feet, and told her:

 “Oh Bill was so in love with you, he worshipped the ground you walked on.

Then I added, “You were the only one he could do it with”.

This, hopefully, got me off the hook – under the circumstances I could not allow people to know I was Bill’s lover.

After a little more banter, Mary said she was going home, as she was feeling faint. Thinking quickly again, I called down the stairs for a cop to drive her home. Mary didn’t fall for it, and realized that arriving home in a cop car was not a good idea. I watched Mary walk off from my bedroom window, and realized she was more like Miss Pickford than I’d thought. Like her namesake she threw her feet down, as though she was wearing divers’ boots – a star should always glide along as though on wheels.  I used to have great fun at Biograph mocking ‘The Sweetheart’ whenever she walked, or thumped, across the set.

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Weird stuff from MMM.

With the D.A. and an Incriminating Nightdress.

The D.A. arrived as promised, and I was grilled all over again, questioned mainly about Mack. As soon as ‘His Lordship’ had left I got dressed and headed for the door. The cops tried to stop me, but were soon set to rights by Sennett’s dicks.

“If you try to stop her, you’ll have to answer before a judge later today!”

Anyhow, my people bundled me into a car, and we set off for Bill’s house. We arrived at Alvarado Court, in a cavalcade of three cars, like so many gangsters. We marched to the front door where we were met by yet more flatfoots. Our guys explained that we were there to collect my possessions, principally the ‘Blessed Baby’ letters I had written Bill. As I argued with the ‘guard’ a detective poked his head out of the door, and called me in. He began to grill me, and told me everything in the house had been attached by the LAPD, but my chief dick stopped him in his tracks, and told him I was entitled to the letters.

“I can assure Miss Normand that there are no letters here, however, we have found this” said the cop.

He picked up a flimsy black satin nightdress and held it out, and I came close to fainting on the spot. They said they’d found it in the cardboard box I spoke of in the first part of this article. However, on inspection, I found the monogram ‘MMM’ embroidered on it, instead of the ‘MN’ I’d expected. Another one up for Mabel.

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Mabel’s hideout in Altadena

Black clouds descend

Over the next week everything turned bad for me. The press laid siege to my house, and more than one disreputable journo ended up thrown bodily into the road by our people. Things turned ugly, when a pressman tried to sneak into my back door, and had the barrel of a detective’s .38 pushed against his head. The newspapers began to issue Mabel stories every hour, it seemed. “Mabel was bad, bad, bad”, “Mabel was a whore”, “Mabel dodged her taxes”, “Mabel was a murderess and a drug addict”, “Mabel was a gutter snipe from the East Side”. “Mabel, Mabel” on and on. The words “Mabel Normand, Mabel Normand” were constantly going round my head whether I was awake or asleep.

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I had two days off from the studio, but had to go back for my own sanity, as well as to save the film. Every day, the private dicks had to force a path for me through the assorted pressmen and idle onlookers. My direct neighbor, Wilnat Films Production Manager, Harry Cohn, was less than happy at being besieged in his home. This prompted Mack to move me to a house out in Altadena. Eventually, there was a piece saying that someone had got together a force as large as Mack’s and was coming to kidnap me, and get to the bottom of the shooting:

Chicago American, February 25, 1922

By Wallace Smith,

“Hired guards, armed with pistols and clubs, were rushed to the home of one of the woman suspect in the murder of William Desmond Taylor today, following the report that detectives investigating the weird case were ready to mutiny, ignore their superiors, seize the famous player and submit her to a real examination.

They were prepared, it was said, to storm the house in which the woman is hiding, overpower the guard and kidnap their quarry. The report declared motors were to carry the kidnapping party into the foothills for questioning — for the “third degree,” such an extreme if it was found necessary, to unlock the screen beauty’s stubborn lips. Officials were quick to deny that such a mutinous plot existed. But it was known that they had checked carefully on the activities of their men supposed to be running down various angles to the strange case and it was known, too, that the mutinous spirit has been seething.”

____

Of course, this was just so much hot air – certain people had actually kidnapped Peavey, and achieved nothing. At Keystone, we managed to finish Suzanna, but the studio had to spend thousands on publicity to negate all the bad stuff coming out about us. Of course the mad butler, Peavey, carried on saying that I shot Bill, and even said so at the inquest. Nobody believed him, but the question as to how much I knew remained. I have already alluded to the pack of lies about me that could not be proved, but were put about, nevertheless. Here’s an example. In 1920, three movie stars committed suicide, and the press noted that I knew them all. They were Clarine Seymour, Bobby Harron and Olive Thomas. Yes, Clarine was a good friend, so was Bobby, and I knew of Olive but I’d never actually met her, but hoped to, one day. Then the press dug deeper and came up with two attempted suicides, Helen Carruthers and Nellie Elsing. Helen I had known vaguely, but under the name Peggy Page. The reports that she swallowed poison, because I hounded her out of Keystone are ridiculous. As for Nellie Elsing, the big movie star, I’d never even heard of her! On top of that the press claimed I’d been at the San Francisco hotel, when Virginia Rappe died, a few months back, and that I had been out of my mind on heroin.  If I had been there, so what? This is free country, and everyone can go where they please.

In the end everything got too much, and I skipped the coop, and traveled to Europe. I met with some nice people on the ship, but when they discovered who I was, they sort of disappeared. In fact the ship was full of spies, and newspaper men undercover. Stories reached the press that I was intoxicated most of the time, and twice fell off my bar stool. The story that I swam in the ship’s pool naked is totally untrue – as if I would?

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Nellie Elsing: Mabel had never heard of her.

Locked out of The Old Country and the Royal Court.

Once in England, I looked forward to meeting all the literary and theatre celebrities. It was also arranged that I’d meet some minor royals, and then meet the King and Queen. However, I was in London at a most unfortunate time, as the troubles in Ireland began to escalate. I had read in the papers that Southern Ireland had become independent, but a civil war was now breaking out in that country. As I arrived in England, a prominent member of the English government was blown up by the I.R.A. and the King and Queen cancelled all engagements. Whether this was a true argument, I don’t know, but I imagined they’d decided they did not want to meet an Irish colleen, especially one as barmy as me, who downed gin by the bucketful, and shot people at will.

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Left W.D. Taylor. Right Michael Collins.

Of course, the troubles meant I could not go to Ireland – no one could. This was a great shame, as I’d promised everyone I’d go and kiss the Blarney Stone. I’d also fallen in love – with Michael Collins, the dashing I.R.A. man who was now in the legitimate Irish Republican government. However, true to form for me, the lover I’d never met died in a hail of I.R.A. bullets on August 22nd. I felt very bitter about this, as I, like so many Irish- American Catholics, had contributed greatly to the coffers of the I.R.A. I also missed out on another hero while in London, the romantically famous T.E. Lawrence, commonly known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. Although I had scouts out trying to locate him, the ‘sheik’ had completely disappeared.

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Lawrence of Arabia on his Brough Superior motorcycle. He followed Mabel to the grave in 1935, when he crashed this very machine.

 

I was told he’d worked at the Foreign Office in London, until, a little after Bill Taylor’s demise, he simply walked out and evaporated into the ether. He was, I discovered, as strange as Madcap Mabel. I puzzled over The Arab’s whereabouts many times, then, in 1926, a friend invited me over to see a newly-issued book she’d obtained by subscription called The Seven Pillars of  Wisdom – by ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. I tried to find the publisher – there wasn’t one. I thought of inviting him over to L.A. at my expense, so I contacted that conjurer-up of celebrities, Charlie Chaplin. Charlie was very excited about this, and wrote to a literary friend in London, who might make contact. The friend wrote back, saying ‘The Arab’ refuses to meet film people, and we had to understand that he would never give movie rights to his works.

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Mabel was almost crushed to death in this East End pub.

 

A Brush with Special Branch.

 

Strangely enough, it was while in England that I learned more about the enigmatic Bill Taylor, and it was astonishing. In London I met with a couple of peers that had

Secret agentwatching450bfclose ties with the government. I was quite glad to be with these two illustrious gentlemen, but at seventy years plus, they were twenty years beyond my age of interest. However, I considered them useful, but one turned out to be extremely useful indeed. This particular ruddy-faced, retired colonel wanted me to have dinner with him, as a guest at his club. After being in London for a week, I realised I would be mobbed, and after running for my life from an East End pub and a Limehouse café (in London’s Chinatown) I needed a rest! I suggested we dine alone in my room at The Ritz. This produced a glint in grandpa’s eye, but I can assure you that I had no intention of being bedded by a booze-sozzled oldie – If people found out, I’d die of embarrassment (a star has to keep up appearances, you know). Anyway, after a few drinks at my table, the colonel became very free with information. Through his slurred speech he communicated the following:

“Of course, you know Bill Taylor had a double life, don’t you?”

“Oh yes, I’d learned he was an Irishman by the name of Dean-Tanner, had a wife, and he’d been a gold prospector in the Yukon”.

“Is that all you know?”

“Good god, old bean, isn’t that enough!”

He moved closer across the table, prompting me to pull back, in case the old fellow made a lunge.

Well, if you don’t know, I’ll tell you – Taylor was a British secret agent.”

“A secret agent!!  He cawn’t have been!” (as Charlie Chaplin would have said).

“Oh yes, I can assure you he was.” He was a weapons procurer for the I.R.A. but the British got some stuff on him, and turned him, don’t you know. Then the I.R.A. found out and had him shot.”

I was gobsmacked, then I remembered a short press piece I’d read that the British Secret Service had been present at Alvarado Court, soon after Taylor had been shot. This appeared in just one paper, then, the story evaporated into the air. In fact, I believe they were there when I called to get my letters back.

“Mabel, I have to tell you that you’re being tailed by Special Branch, be careful”.

“Oh, my god, they could be listening right now!”

The old boy gave a wry smile: “Don’t worry, Mabel, there are no bugs in here.”

Then it hit me, this portly old gentlemen was a government agent. Having imparted this information, would he now shoot me? I considered my chances of getting to my gun, before he reached his. Then I thought “It’s hopeless Mabel, they’d just hunt you down and kill you, anyway.” I dropped the idea. Eventually, the aging peer left, as I was feeling dizzy. This was no lie – my head was spinning, especially as I’d also learned that, in the U.S., I was being tailed by the American Secret Service.

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“Watch what you say, Mabel. The Feds are listening.”

 

A Swim With a Peer of The Realm, and a Playgirl runs Loose on The Continent.

What of the second peer? Well, he was a different kettle of fish, and His Lordship invited me down to his stately home in the country for the weekend. I was picked up at the Ritz by his chauffeur in a monogrammed Rolls Royce, and numerous pressmen photographed me getting into the limousine. The photogs loved me, and I felt as though I was a movie star. On the way to the mansion, I considered my position. I assumed my career was probably over, and a holy union with a millionaire lord, would undoubtedly help. Did the peer have a son who might want a movie star for a wife? I smiled, as I thought of upper-crust Lew Cody, chasing me around his mansion in Mickey. To keep it brief, yours truly was in trouble again, as the lady of the house returned early. Someone on the staff told her that I’d got plastered, then, swum in her pool naked, so the miserable old hag kicked me out of the ancestral home.

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The playgirl and the prince hit Monte Carlo.

While in London, I met many literary and stage people, including H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw and Harry Tate (actor), whose house I stayed in for a night. I did not meet with Thomas Burke, who wrote Limehouse Nights, which was unfortunate, as I wanted him to accompany me into to the slums of the dreaded Limehouse.

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Harry Tate.

Out on the continent, I lived the life of a playgirl, running around Paris and Monte Carlo with numerous eligible men. As you may know, my chief escort was Egyptian Prince Ibrahim, whose wealth I squandered at the roulette tables. You will also know that I turned down his offer of marriage, as I didn’t fancy being a member of his harem, stuck in a baking hot tent, somewhere out in the eastern desert. My idea of a sheik in those days was Valentino.

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Valentino: The movie star’s dream.

Epilogue.

Who killed W.D. Taylor? I don’t know. I’m sure if it was the secret service, I‘d be dead by now. It is typical that the movie colony and cops have planted the blame on someone only loosely associated with the film industry, MMM’s mother – how convenient. Was it me? Hardly. Was it MMM? Possibly. Was it Mack Sennett? Quite probably – his alibi stank at the time, and still stinks now. I have no proof, except the following. When I returned from Europe, I discovered he’d cast another actress in the lead of my next film. I was straight on the long distance phone to him, and told him to fire her or else. The ‘or else’ was that my next call would be to the D.A. The actress, Phyllis Haver, left (sprinted) from the studio rather rapidly, as soon as she heard I was on my way. Although not personally involved with Bill’s murder, I would like to apologize to all those caught up in it’s web. In particular, I would like to apologize to Claire Windsor, a not-so-young actress just beginning her career, who had been escort to Bill on just one occasion (in my place as I was ill), and was almost fired by her boss, Adolph Zukor for this ‘misdemeanor’ following the Taylor shooting. I never met Miss Windsor, and assumed that the great Adolph had kept her away from that bad influence Mabel Normand.

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Modern Update: Long after Mabel was slipped into her tomb, Mack Sennett admitted to killing W.D. Taylor. He was, seemingly, drunk at the time, and claimed he’d taken the ‘Blessed Baby’ letters. The letters, in this case, could have been the reason for the killing, and, although the police claimed to have eventually found them stuffed into a boot, they have not been seen since that fateful day in 1922.

 

 

 

W.D. TAYLOR AND MABEL NORMAND. PART 1.

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The W.D. Taylor Murder: The Truth by Mabel Normand in Her Own Words.

Down through the years, I have given many interviews, but still everyone asks me about the murder of W.D. Taylor. Up until now I have always declined to talk about that terrible shooting. In the following, I will tell you all that I know. I will leave out most of the detail about the actual murder, as these have been well-published elsewhere.

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Bill Taylor’s house in Alvarado Court.

I first met Mr. Taylor a couple of years before his death. I think it was at small party, and it might have been at Mack Sennett’s house. I had known of Bill for some time, as he’d been a director to my old pal Jack Pickford, principally in the film Tom Sawyer. What a great film that was, and Jack was absolutely superb, so superb that I would have fallen for Jack, if I hadn’t already fallen for him long ago. Did you know we’d once planned to marry? It was all pie in the sky, though, as the Pickford family matriarch, the ‘Blessed’ Mary, intervened – she thought I was not good enough for her brother. Yes, I had always been a naughty girl, but nowhere as bad as Mary thought I was. Jack had a lucky escape, though, as life with ‘The Madcap’ would have been hell.

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Mary Miles Minter.

A Triangular Situation with MMM.

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Bill Taylor teaches Jack Pickford how to eat an apple for Tom Sawyer (1917).

Getting back to Bill, we gradually grew together through our love of literature. Of course, we could have carried on in a platonic relationship, but Bill had a girlfriend – Mary Pickford-lookalike, Mary Miles Minter. MMM was everything I despised, fair-haired and chubby, just like the other Mary. She reminded me of the cherubs you see painted on some Catholic church ceilings. Perhaps it was my strict Catholic upbringing, but I despised anything seen in a church. Anyhow, she brought out the ‘Bad Mabel’ in me, and I determined to undermine the little upstart, and take Bill for myself. It wasn’t difficult for me to muscle in and snare Bill – I was a mature woman, a big star, who read Nietzche, and Freud. Mary was just a silly little girl, who thought she could gain stardom by aping someone else, and hopping into the sack with her director. It is said Bill was a homosexual, but he was actually, like Mack Sennett, bi-sexual. Me? Well you might have heard I have lesbian tendencies, but I suppose I’m also bi-sexual. It’s like this, in a studio filled with the most gorgeous women in the world, well, even a girl’s head can be turned. Anyhow, getting back to my story, there came a time when little Mary realized she was out of her depth with me around, and retired to her plush mansion on 7th and New Hampshire. I could see the house from my bohemian pad, further up 7th Street, and found it hard not to smile, when I imagined poor little Mary sitting all alone in that huge pile. I used to think of her turning into Dickens’ Miss Havisham, covered in cobwebs, and directing her hatred towards all men.

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Mary Miles Minter mansion on 7th and New Hampshire.

I should not have laughed, for Mary was pretty much screwed up, and totally controlled by her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. They took all the millions Mary earned, and spent it on themselves – flashy cars, mansions, yachts, and big nights out. Oh, the joys of having a stage mother! I have to be honest, and say I was screwed up too – by my household staff.  Knowing my mother was 4,000 miles away, they fussed and fretted over me, as if I was a child. They were particularly concerned about me going out at night, getting well-oiled on the gargle, and coming home in the early hours, or not at all. Well, if I’d worked my way into the bed of some big, dreamboat actor, like Jack Mulhall, I’d get up around mid-day, then, go direct to the studio. I’ll let you into a little secret, a wise actress always carries an overnight kit in her bead-decorated bag. I don’t mean just a nightdress, but a full change of clothes. Can you imagine a star turning up at the studio, all creased up, and looking like she’d been rolling around the floor with Valentino all night!

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Valentino: one of Mabel’s few failures.

Anyhow, I had a good way of dealing with my over-exuberant staff. If they barracked me too much, I’d run up the stairs, yelling that I was going to get my gun, and blow my brains out. The poor dears got in a real palava, and usually jumped on me and pinned me down. What they didn’t know was that I had two guns, one in my bedroom, and one I always carried in my bag – you can’t be too careful around L.A.

The Studio Clips My Wings.

This was the background to my relationship with Bill Taylor. I didn’t tie myself to Bill, and probably  never would have, but for a conversation I had with Sennett’s studio supervisor. I think it was John Waldron, although he could have left by that time.

“Mabel”, he said to me, after I was called into the office “Mack is becoming more and more concerned about the number of men your name is being linked with in the newspapers.”

“Well, you can tell Mr Big-Head Sennett that he can take a long run off a short pier, and I’ll do what I please, with who I please. And don’t tell me Mack read it all in the press, he’s got spies everywhere, and knows exactly what I do, and who I do it with.”

“It’s not as simple of that, Mabel. The way you’re going, your career will be destroyed, along with this studio. Mabel, get your head together”.

O.K. Mr Giant Intellect, I’ll stick to one guy – I was thinking of getting married anyway” I said, fingering my new diamond ring.

A look of shock came over John’s face.

“The studio absolutely forbids you to marry!” Came the expected reply.

Of course it would be foolish for me to marry, when I was supposed to be the eternal ingénue, but I gave him some shit anyway “You can go stick your head up your ass.”  I said, as I walked out, slamming the door behind me.

Of course, Mack and John were right, and I had just the right guy to be my one and only – Bill Taylor. I began to hunt Bill down big-time, harassed him on the phone at his home, and at the studio (“Bill, it’s that tiresome Keystone girl again!”). Little Mary, or any other tartlet from his goddamned studio was not going to get a look in. There was another advantage of being with Bill, and that was the opportunity to get signed by his prestigious studio, Paramount. Most of my friends were either at Paramount, or one of the other big companies. Where was I? Stuck in a low-rent, ‘poverty row’ joint, where the producer filmed middle-class properties downtown, and put them onscreen as his own studio. I had to get out, or go crazy.

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Macfarlan car and luxurious interior.

Sunshine and Shadow With Bill Taylor.

Bill and I got on real well, and we were soon almost living in each other’s pockets. He was such a dear, and always called in on me on his way to work. Sometimes, if my Sennett studio car was late, he’d drive me to Edendale in his luxurious Macfarlan motor, then drive 4 miles back to Paramount, in Hollywood. The main problem with Bill was that he was a ‘gent’ and a true Englishman, so was into candlelit dinners in plush restaurants, or at his home. He would go to dinner parties, you know, stuffy white shirt things, but hated straight forward parties, where the booze flowed free, and there was always a silver bowl with paper wraps containing white powder.

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Bessie Love plays a ukulele in the front of her house in the Silverlake part of Fountain Avenue.

On one particular night, I persuaded Bill to accompany me to a party. We were planning on going to a show downtown, but we dropped in on the party on Fountain Avenue, on the ‘wrong’ side of Hollywood. We just popped in to say hello, but, surprise, surprise, after a couple of drinks, I got ‘tipsy’ as usual. I soon began my normal drunken repertoire, consisting of foul language and equally foul jokes. The actors present were known to be the most ‘disgusting’ in Tinseltown, which was alright with me, but less than alright with Bill.

“Come on Mabel let’s get out of here, these people are losers”.

I told the Limey-Irishman where to get off, and he marched off towards the door, causing a storm of laughter among my friends. Bill glared back at us, and left, leaving us all rolling around in stitches. This is the way it was with us, all the way through. In early 1922, however, things became very bad between us, as I suspected he’d started seeing that little blond slut up on New Hampshire again. I suppose I usually slept with Bill about twice a week – it was difficult to make it more often due to work schedules, and I can tell you that copulating all night long does little for your energy levels next day. Anyway, around New Year time, Bill became very distant; something was troubling him, but he said it was just problems with his former valet, who was making life difficult for him – Sands I think his name was. Anyway, damn Sands, I was getting paranoid, and very unhappy about the possible re-emergence of the ‘Blessed Mary’ (Miles Minter).

Mack Goes on The Warpath.

My attendance and work at the studio began to suffer, due to a lack of sleep, itself caused by being up crying all night, and I was hauled before the great Napoleon Sennett to explain myself:

“Mabel, what the hell is the matter with you?” asked his highness.

I tried to bluff it out, but it was hopeless, and I broke down.

“It’s that fucking Limey-Mick bastard Taylor isn’t it? I’m going to fucking kill him”.

Mack then started marching up and down saying “I’ll kill ‘im, I’ll fucking kill ‘im – then I’m gonna kill that asshole Chaplin!”

All I could do was sob and produce floods of tears, but Mack seemed oblivious of me.

“First Chaplin cost me thousands of dollars, now this pile of Anglo-Irish shit comes along, and tries to put me out of business! And YOU, you worthless, ungrateful piece of trash, I know what you, and that big-foot tramp got up to in your dressing room!”  Mack came towards me with his hands out, as though to strangle me.

“Go on then Mack, you big man, kill me, but I can guarantee that every person on this lot will come in here and tear you apart”.

There can be no doubt that Mack realized that I was taking the opportunity to try to get my butt into Paramount. Why wouldn’t I? It was deeply humiliating for me to sit in a movie theater with my friends watching a double bill of one of my films along with one of, say, Alice Joyce. The average movie star (and Alice was a huge star) could play a vamp, a criminal, or a naughty woman, whereas I was stuck with being The Keystone Girl, an eternal ingénue. Of course my friends were always very kind and complimentary, saying things like “Oh, you’re so good Mabel, we could never play that part”. What they neglected to say was that they wouldn’t want the part, and I can tell you that none of them would ever work for the crazy Mack Sennett. However, it was brought to my attention that Adolph Zukor, head of Paramount, had let it be known that he’d fire any of his executives that signed Madcap Mabel. I don’t know why he had it in for me, but the reason might be that I’d once tried to brain ‘the dwarf’ with a heavy book.

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Midnight-golfer and butler, Peavey.

Me, Bill and a Gay Butler.

By late January, I was hyped up enough to constantly argue with Bill. I would go round his house in that little courtyard on S. Alvarado Street on any pretext, just to see what he was up to. Any man I was going with was my exclusive property, as far as I was concerned. I started to get uptight with his new butler, Peavey, a gay negro, who went out at night haunting the parks, wearing golf clothes. He always gave me a strange look, as though he didn’t trust me (I was after all a woman). One day, I determined to teach Bill a lesson, and intimated that I was dropping him, by taking all the photos he had of me and cutting them up. Peavey saw me sitting on the floor cutting away, and called me a spoiled little brat.

“Think what you like Mister dumb butler, but I’m entitled to cut up my own photos” I replied.

I turned to Bill and demanded all the sickly, lovey-dovey letters I’d sent him. I felt embarrassed at having written such school girl stuff. Good God, I was thirty years old, and should be married and have a family by now! Bill said he’d thrown them away, but I didn’t believe him. Those letters were signed ‘Blessed Baby’ and really were an embarrassment. Then, I rushed upstairs, to search the bedroom. Bill flew up behind me, and caught hold of my arm, as I began turning out the drawers and closets. I could see a long cardboard box, and I made a grab for it, but Bill got to it first, and threw it to Peavey, who took it to Bill’s garage and locked it in.

“My letters are in that box, aren’t they? I screamed.

“No Mabel that box has nothing to do with you.” Bill said in reply.

I then trawled the closets for the clothes that I had left there. I grabbed a canvas bag, and stuffed them into it. Then I went to the drawer where my lingerie was kept, and taking out my frilly satin knickers, I pushed them into his face.

“You won’t be seeing me in these again” I screamed.

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Mabel shows her bloomers, or does she? Mabel’s Busy Day.

“What’s this about satin knickers?” you ask. You might think I wore bloomers, like in the Keystones, but I can assure you, no star wears bloomers. What’s that, you saw my bloomers in Mabel’s Busy Day? Sorry, but Mack Sennett drew those on the film. It was like this. It was so hot when we shot the picture, and I was wearing a teapot hat, a tight bodice and a heavy skirt, so I wore no underwear, just to keep cool. As I had been high-kicking Chaplin in the film, Mack perused the rushes with great care, making sure I didn’t show too much. Suddenly, he ordered the film wound back.

“Stop right there” he said. “Oh my god, Mabel, you can see almost up to your crotch”.

“That’s alright Mack, it’ll give the boys a thrill”.

“It’ll give the critics something to beat us with, more like”

He thought for a moment then said “We’ll cut that shot down to one frame, and draw some bloomers in. It’ll thrill the boys, but they won’t know if they’d really seen your pants or not”

We all chuckled at the thought.

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Left: Flapper Colleen Moore. Right: Mabel in typical Edwardian garb.

 

By the way, these young flappers today don’t know how lucky they are, wearing short shift dresses, the briefest of underwear and bobbed hair, just right for the L.A. climate. We had to run around in heavy Edwardian clothes, had masses of hair, and always wore big hats, supporting a huge weight of flowers and fruit salad. We needed massive fans blowing cool air, to stop us passing out in the 100 degree heat.

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1921 Telegram to Bill Taylor in London, from Mabel. The Albany alluded to is not a hotel, but a prestigious Georgian House in Piccadilly. See photo below.

Bill Taylor’s Last Day.

On Bill’s last day on earth, I went to his house during the evening to pick up a book he’d obtained for me. We’d renewed our friendship by that time, although we did not see each other so often. I was only at the house for around half an hour, during which the butler constantly glared at me. Bill suggested we go to dinner downtown, but I’d noticed he’d already had dinner. Clearly he wanted to talk – about something. The butler came downstairs dressed in his usual golfing outfit, and I smirked as he glared. He said “Goodnight, Mr. Taylor”, opened the door and stepped out.

“And don’t fucking come back” I mumbled under my breath.

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Edna Purviance. Told of Taylor’s death, but two years later she was to suffer at the hands of a wrathful Mabel.

As I said I didn’t stay long, as I had an early call at the studio next day. I went home, had a bath, then, had the housekeeper serve me dinner in bed. Unusually, I soon nodded off, and slept the sleep of the dead. The housekeeper roused me the next morning at seven. As I was making up as Suzanna for my current film, the maid came to me, saying Edna Purviance was on the phone. Edna? What does she want at this ungodly hour? She told me that Bill had been found dead at his house, possibly from a stroke. Edna lived right next door to Bill, and apparently, she’d seen his front door wide open, when she came home the that morning at 1 a.m. This was strange, but she thought nothing of it, and carried on by.

*This is how I heard about Bill’s murder, and in the next blog, I tell you all about the aftermath.

 

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Albany, Piccadilly. A Viscount’s town-house converted into bachelor apartments in 1802.

 

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HEADING WEST: MACK AND MABEL’S FLIGHT TO L.A.

 

The Tourists

 “Bye, Bye New York, we ain’t coming back!”

In the summer of 1912, Mack Sennett, Mabel Normand and several other Biograph escapees were heading out of New York, bound for California. Not quite as green as the ‘49ers, the pair had little real idea about the vast environs of Los Angeles. Like many eastern folks they knew only of the outlying districts from Helen Hunt Jackson’s book Ramona. Indeed, the name Allesandro Street comes from a character in this work [Footnote]. Sure, Mack had sauntered down to Glenvale earlier on in the year, to check out possible studio sites, and had even passed through archaic Edendale, taking a cursory look at the old, now empty, Bison Studio. Mack gave Edendale the thumbs down, but very much liked the middle-class Glendale, although, it seems, Glendale did not like him.

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Riding the trolley in Edendale: Allesandro Street, 1914.

Mack was a ‘movie’, a lowlife, and the good citizens of Glendale disapproved very much of both ‘movies’ and lowlife. Hollywood? The denizens of Hollywood were even more ‘stuck up’ than those in Glenvale, so Mack didn’t even take a peek in there. As for Mabel, she’d been in downtown L.A. with the Griffith company during their winter sojourn, but seems only to have seen the area between the downtown studio and Santa Monica. On arrival in L.A. later that year, this semi-suburban girl had little interest in the wild and woolly west, and was an urbanite at heart. “Give me 7th Street or Greenwich Village” she would have said. Her idea of rusticity was probably Hollenbeck or Echo parks.

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One of the perks of working in L.A., beautiful parks (Echo Park).

 

In the end Mack had to give in, and accept the ‘poverty row’ ex-Bison lot on Allesandro Street, Edendale, miles from downtown. It seems certain that Mabel didn’t have a clue about the wild west, or 3rd world conditions down in Edendale. If she had, she would never have gone off with Sennett, who was regarded as a dangerous crank at Biograph. We can imagine Mabel’s countenance becoming harder and harder, as she rode out to Edendale, alongside Mack on the trolley. The roads they traveled along were weed-strewn, and unpaved, although Mabel might have noticed that curb stones lined some of the roads. Clearly, the City intended laying a proper road surface, at some future time.

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Down on the strip: Sunset Boulevard 1908.

 

Mabel was far from amused when she alighted from the trolley and saw the so-called studio for the first time. Bison, whose cowboys were normally away on location, had little need of a proper studio. Consequently, there were precious few amenities on the site. In keeping with other ‘cowboy’ outfits, some of the red-necks would live on site – in extremely poor conditions. Water was a rare commodity in L.A., and a well or water cart were the only means of getting water in Allesandros Street, until reliable piped water

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came, following the Owen’s River aqueduct scheme in 1913. Disposal of waste water was another problem, for there were originally no drains in places like Edendale, so no toilets. Can you imagine it, big stars like Mabel, squatting on chamber pots? However, that’s the way it was. Furthermore, all the starlets’ excreted products had to be transferred to a septic tank, somewhere on the lot. Presumably, the Keystone tank was big enough, but it is interesting to ponder the fact that many houses built around Mabel’s home on Staten Island, in relatively recent years, had septic tanks installed, many built too small.          Septic tanks Staten Island

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“When’re them darned drains coming, Mack!”

Mack often liked to tell the story that Mabel once fell down a manhole while crossing Allesandros Street in the rain, but at that time there was no drainage, so no manholes! A major change had occurred, as regards water supply, when the Silver Lake reservoir was constructed in 1906. So great was the change that the area is now known as Siverlake, the Edendale name having now disappeared.  This supply, however, was not reliable for Edendale, at that time, as some of the water went to Hollywood, Glendale and other areas.

Electricity? Lodge $800 with the City, and wait, wait, wait for the cabling to arrive. What is noticeable in the early Keystone films is the lack of power poles. Cables were going underground by 1890, but the process of hiding cabling  was still in progress in the 1950s. Chaplin described the environs of L.A. in 1914, saying there were endless roads leading out to the foothills surrounding the city. Many of them just suddenly ended, and many were not lined with houses, and no proper road surface had been laid. Some, however, had lamp-posts, but the globes had all been shot out. In the pages of the L.A. newspapers there were numerous stories about crooked city officials taking money from developers for road completions that never happened. On the other hand, developers took money from house buyers for roads they had no intention of building.

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The joys of motoring around L.A. pre-1930.

 

It’s an interesting fact that as Mack and Mabel arrived in California, a certain Carl Stearns Clancy set out from the Milwaukee factory to ride around the world on a Henderson motorcycle. He arrived in California in 1913, and found the roads of the state to be the worst in the world.      C S Clancy Centenary Run.

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“That’s it, Mack, I’m  going straight back to New York.”

Something that never comes up in the contemporary writings on L.A. is the murder rate. In the early 20th century L.A. had one of the highest homicide rates in the U.S. L.A. then was a dangerous place to walk around in, even in the 1910s. Of course, Mabel roamed all over Los Angeles, at all hours of the day and night, sometimes returning home in the early hours on the back of a milk-wagon. This was not quite as dangerous for the fur-coated, bejeweled and moneyed Mabel as we might think, as she always packed a pistol, and she knew how to use it.

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L: Mary Pickford as Ramona. R: Mabel as Suzanna.

 

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Dangerous L.A:  L.A. Times blown up by disgruntled union men. 1910

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“Howdy pardner, going to Echo Park?” Things were rough in the early days.

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Don’t mess with these Angelenos down in the Mexican district.

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Footnote: Most people will be aware that Mack and Mabel were fascinated by the notion of old Spanish California – hence a number of their films have a Spanish / Mexican flavor. Mabel’s film Suzanna appears to be based, loosely, on the story of Ramona.

 

 

 

 

“I ONLY BABBLE BECAUSE PEOPLE EXPECT ME TO BABBLE.”

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Babbling Mabels: Speed Kings and That Ragtime Band.

In answer to a question asked by an interviewer, Mabel replied that she only babbled because people expected her to babble. Why did people expect her to rattle on, seemingly without taking a breath? Well, if they were movie-theater goers, then they would have observed that, even though the films were silent, Mabel was seen to babble away in many scenes (incidentally, there is no indication that she babbled cuss words. If she had, then her credibility as an innocent ingénue would have been destroyed, along with her

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A strangely ethereal Mabel in this photo from 1900.

studio. What about the notion that babbling was something she did in the real world, as well as in the surreal world of the studio films? Mabel was the center of attention wherever she went, and it was often stated that when she entered a room, everyone would leave whatever they were doing and flock to her, like bees around their queen – hence her nickname Queen of The Hive. Of course, if Mabel had been a sad sack, then no-one would have bothered. But Mabel was sure to acknowledge everyone, and babble away, leaving no person out.

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Lucky man Teddy Tetzlaff has babbler and madcap, Mabel,  all over him.

From: Photo-Play Oct 1923.

“Why is it, do you suppose, I’m not happy?  People think I am.  I babble because they expect just that.  But, cross my heart and hope to die, I’m not Pollyanna by a long shot.  There’s something missing.  Sometimes I think it’s because I know people too well – see through them too easily – and it makes me want to hide myself away from it all.  You know I really love to be alone where I can think things over but – you answer the telephone, darling – say that Miss Normand has gone over to Staten Island to see her mother.”  Fortunately this fib swept the current of Mabel’s introspection into happier channels – happier, without doubt, for her visitor, who had the sudden qualms of one who might be keeping Mabel from thinking things over.

The bit about Mabel seeing through people is interesting when considered together with the photo of the young Mabel. She is clearly seeing through the cameraman, and viewing him through a medium of mistrust, or even paranoia.

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Mabel is Queen of the Hive in Hot Stuff (1912).

A natural trait or a mask of deception?

What Mabel implies in the above is that she talks nonsense very fast, simply to keep everyone happy. She admits to an amount of paranoia, not trusting anyone uttering kind words, or professing friendship. In this case the babbling is really just a mask, put on to fool people, or perhaps to keep a lid on her own insecurity. When confronted by an interviewer, Mabel would set an alarm clock, then  babble away, asking the questions and giving the replies – the alarm would ring and the interviewer would be guided to the door, while being regaled with complete nonsense from Miss Mabel.

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“Your ten minutes, Mr. Newspaper Man, are up…”

She claimed she liked to be alone to think things over, but in another interview she stated she had dark thoughts, which we might imagine could only be dispelled by being in a crowd (the nights held terror for Mabel and she suffered acute ‘night sweats’). Mack Sennett agreed that Mabel could be dark and brooding. In yet another interview she claimed she, like Charlie Chaplin, always felt alone in a crowd. This can only mean that the Mabel the outside world saw was different to the inner Mabel.

 

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The magnetism of Mabel. At least Harry Hyde is very interested.

This is all very complicated, and it is difficult at this distance in time to get a handle on Mabel’s personality. Some more information was provided by Mary Pickford in 1916. Surprisingly, she said Mabel was shy and reserved when she first went to Biograph. What’s this, Mabel Normand shy and reserved! Are you nuts Miss Pickford? Not really, for what she is really saying is that Mabel must, at some point at Biograph, developed some kind of mask that disguised her anxieties. That mask may have been Madcap Mabel. Madcap Mabel made her presence felt by screaming obscenities at people, mooning at pompous old ladies, and pulling chairs out from under fat men – when she wasn’t corrupting the other girl with cigarettes, gin and some very

dirty jokes.

The main difficulty of understanding Mabel, is the lack of reliable evidence for her early years. Although Mary Pickford said she was shy, it seems her family thought differently. Mabel, they said, was somewhat manic, stole things with one hand, but gave stuff away with the other hand. Things we know she stole, were her brothers cycle, her mother’s jewelry, and later, an umbrella and some silver dress roses from the artists she worked for. She would also idly pick things to bits, like her aunt’s wax flowers. When challenged, she met her challengers with a stream of profanities and abuse, but, curiously enough, she afterwards become the sweet, lovable Mabel, able to soothe the savage breasts of those she’d abused. Among the abused, we can find few that would criticize her for it. Not even D.W. Griffith, who bore the brunt of Mabel’s irreverent language, ever ran her down (but he did avoid her!).

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Mabel being slightly ordinary, in California with Biograph 1912.

When not stealing or breaking things, Mabel was running around uncontrollably, and diving into, and swimming the Hudson River. Sound familiar? It’s an accurate description of Tomboy Bessie. The real-life Mabel, then, was taken by Mack Sennett, burlesqued, and thrown onto the Keystone set. The screen Mabel is a curious mix of innocence, shyness, and hyperactivity – just as Mack Sennett found her.  James Quirk in an August 1915 copy of   Photoplay, said “Just take Miss Normand at her screen value, and you know her he was not, entirely, correct, although Mack Sennett would have you believe it.

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1924 and still running.

Mabel was a complex mix of shyness, abusiveness, excitability, depression and anxiety. Whereas, this would have driven her crazy in the real world, in the make-believe world of the screen, it meant, with good direction, she could encompass comedy, tragedy and cuteness in her work.

What were the causes of of Mabel’s peculiar psychological make-up, only part of which has been noted here? One clue might lie in the photo of the young Mabel above. Look at the expression on Mabel’s face. Any parent of an autistic child will instantly recognize this look. She has a slightly confused appearance, but there is also a hint of mistrust or paranoia. It is the outward face of autism. Many are those that have tried to understand the psychology of Mabel Normand, but she would have been readily diagnosed today with a combination of autism and ADHD.

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Feeding Mabel. Needs as needs must.

Within the world of film, there can be no doubt that Mabel was unique. There was, and is, no shortage of film stars suffering from autism, and, indeed, it is almost a prerequisite. An element of naivity, as Jimmy Cagney once said, is required to convincingly pretend to  be someone else. However, Mabel became prominent in films at a unique time, and under unique circumstances. At Biograph, it was a fight for recognition. Eventually all the nascent stars fluttered away, and Mabel was one of the first to go. Allied to Mack Sennett, she soon became the first (apart from Florence Lawrence) to become a named star. Mack more or less took control of Mabel’s life, not just by supervising her films,  but

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by ensuring his ‘little clown’, who he considered a ‘scatter-wit’, did not get herself into trouble [Footnote]. Mabel was kept under close surveillance, and spent much of the majority of nights with Sennett. He also wrote most of the articles allegedly written by Mabel. For a long time it was thought that her 1924 life story article was her’s and her’s alone. However, the discovery of a large part of the article in typed form, with handwritten corrections, within Sennett’s private papers, more than suggests that The King of Comedy actually wrote the piece. He did allow Mabel to do her own interviews on a few occasions, but seems to have briefed her to say as little as possible. No doubt the alarm clock alluded to above was his idea.

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Mabel with supposed enemy Madge Kennedy.

This practice was welcomed by Mabel’s friends who did not want to see her put herself in a perilous position. Chief among them was Adela Rogers St. Johns, who applauded the fact that Sennett built a ‘World-of-Make-Believe’ around his Keystone Girl. Problems arrived, when Mabel ran away to Sam Goldwyn. Mabel soon babbled her way into a whole lot of trouble, when theatrical stars and other competent actresses arrived on the scene. Geraldine Farrar, and other ‘stars’ became the butt of Mabel’s biting wit and sarcasm. Mabel created mayhem around the studio, and was none too amused when it was revealed Goldwyn had hired arch-enemy Mae Marsh. Although Sam bent over backwards to help Mabel, the situation worsened, and Mabel began to hurl a constant stream of abuse at the studio executives, and even spray them with perfume. That was when she was at the studio. Often Mabel was put on the ‘missing list’ for days or weeks at a time. At one time, her absences had cost Goldwyn $30,000 in accumulated losses.

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Goldwyn, Mabel and Charlie.

Without Mack’s guiding hand, Mabel was heading for oblivion, and Charlie Chaplin stepped in, and advised Goldwyn to send her back to Sennett. Sennett Studios, naturally, was now something of a lost cause (in regard to feature films) without Mabel, and Mack was getting mad. He would soon start lashing out, and Chaplin, who’d ‘messed’ with Mabel, and turned her mind a few years back, was a .prime target.

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“Where’s that Chaplin…I’ll kill ‘im.”

Mabel returned to Sennett in January 1921, at an enormous cost to The King. Immediately, she began to babble again, and, after a few weeks convalescence, it was noticed by journos that she’d returned to her former outgoing self, which pleased everyone. Unfortunately, with her newly returned confidence, Mabel began to put herself around, forming relationships with several men, and eventually alighting on director and literary man, W.D. Taylor, thereby getting herself involved in a dangerous love triangle. Nobody knows how Taylor turned up dead, one February day in 1922, except that he’d been shot. The butler, Peavey, said Mabel did it, others believed it was the other woman in the triangle, Mary Miles Minter, and perhaps her mother. The police added Mack Sennett’s name to the list. Unsurprisingly, the movie colony turned the spotlight hard on the mother, who was barely on the fringes of Hollywood. The police made MMM’s mother the prime suspect, while Mabel was dropped from suspicion. However, Mabel was hounded by police and press alike, as they suspected she knew the identity of the killer. Under extreme pressure, and going insane, she departed for Europe.

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Butler Peavey: “It was Mabel wot did it”

On Mabel’s return, she had another actress removed from a star role in the upcoming feature Extra Girl. Some say she threatened Sennett, others say she threatened the actress, who fled the studio, in terror of the gun-toting Mabel. After completion of Extra Girl, in early 1924, another friend of Mabel turned up with three slugs in him. As related previously in other blogs, this time she was present, and the gun belonged to her. When the press came after her, Mabel went into a curious mode of speaking, using some serious sarcasm, as a not too effective weapon. When the cops had first arrived they found a woman, Edna Purviance, kneeling over a blood-soaked man, crying.

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The ‘Madcap’ persuades the DA to pose with her outside court, 1924.

Mabel was standing there, and when the cops asked what had happened, she replied “I guess someone shot him mister!” It transpired that Mabel’s chauffeur, Joe Kelly, had shot the guy, ostensibly Edna Purviance’s boyfriend, Courtland Dines, and Mabel gave evidence at the trial. At the trial, Mabel talked a blend of nonsense and sarcasm, all carried out in an aristocratic English accent. She was lambasted in the press for this, and it seems Mabel was beginning a journey into insanity. Although still seen around Hollywood, in the press, and at various functions, Mabel had, according to her Roach co-star Anita Garvin, completely lost her mind by 1926.

However mad she might have been, everyone continued to love her, and many were those whose hearts were broken when she finally expired at the very young age of 37 years.

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Footnote: It is said that Mack had Mabel under surveillance, by private dicks, for almost twenty years, even when she was not in his employ.