A continuation of Mabel Myths and Legends
Mabel was a lesbian
This myth seems to have come about, as a result of the fact that Mabel never formed a close relationship with any man. Her only boyfriend (if we may call him that) was a gay film producer, by the name of Mack Sennett. Mabel never lived with any man, and no man ever stayed overnight at her house. Mabel always had a male escort for social occasions, as was required in the first decades of the 20th century. She once attended a party with a female friend – the friend ended up being hit in face by a woman brandishing a heavy handbag. The woman thought the pair to be sluts trying to pick up men. The story may not be true, but it well illustrates the mindset up to 1930 (and perhaps beyond). As well as escorts, it is clear that Mabel used men to further her career,
and her association with Mack Sennett was almost certainly a means for her to get her career off the ground. What could be better, the undivided attention of the boss, no female competitors, and a historic place in the formation of a new studio. Sennett made no demands on Mabel farther than acting, and participation in publicity work…oh and having dinner with him every night … ‘zzzzz’. This was a fairly simple life, but other men lurked on the horizon. Mabel became the most eligible spinster on the block, or the world for that matter. Letters by the ton arrived at Keystone proposing marriage, and madmen got into the studio lot, and tried to enter Mabel’s dressing room. Mabel was universally loved, and many actors, director, and producers fancied their chances with the Keystone Girl. Some, Mabel kept on the back-burner, for later professional use, while others became immediate escorts (although they weren’t aware of it). Charlie Chaplin became both of these things, but he was also a confidant. The story Chaplin told was that he once kissed Mabel, and she kissed him back. The next time, she turned away saying, ‘No Charlie, I’m not your type, and neither are you mine’. The possibilities are: Mabel plain wasn’t interested; she didn’t want to spread an infectious disease; she thought Mack was having them watched. All three might be true. By the time Mabel was seriously thinking of leaving Keystone, she was certain that Chaplin would employ her at his new studio, but Chaplin either threw her over, or considered Mack would come after him, if he stole his prime asset away.
Mabel had numerous ‘escorts’ down the years, including Bill Taylor, whose murder almost ended Mabel’s career. This led some observers to think she was a loose woman. However, those in the movie industry that knew Mabel, understood that she only entered into platonic relationships. According to Adela Rogers St. Johns, Mabel was
‘unusually pure, with no desire, no sex, no nothing.’
In this case, Mabel is no lesbian, but is, seemingly, neutral, asexual, and this might fit in with another remark of St. Johns that Mabel was ‘not of this world’ [see note below]. In a newspaper article Mary Pickford stated that Mabel was very feminine. This seems to be stating the obvious, but perhaps, Mabel was overly feminine, implying she was a possible target for ‘butch’ women.
It seems, then, that Mabel had no latent desires for women either, although many women stayed at her house, and Mabel did take up with that well-known lesbian Alla Nazimova. The reasons, though, were professional. Mabel was going on the stage, and needed help from a theatrical person to train her voice. In conclusion, we cannot put Mabel in any definitive box. Like Chaplin, she was a genius, and genii behave in very strange, unworldly ways.
Note: According to Chaplin’s part-time lover, Louise Brooks, the tramp-man was also ‘not of this world’ (Lulu in Hollywood).
Mabel was just a ‘dumb broad’ who allowed herself to be dominated by men.
Let’s consider how dumb Mabel actually was, by noting what she achieved in an industry that was cut-throat, highly competitive, and male-dominated. Mabel beat Mary Pickford to stardom, but by an admittedly small margin. She also bested Pickford, in that she had her name above a studio before America’s Sweetheart. In this respect she also beat Chaplin and Sennett. The Keystone Girl also managed to commanded the best director in the business for almost ten years – his name was F. Richard Jones. How many comedy actresses would have died for the chance to have Dick Jones in their film credits. None of this could have been achieved by someone who was of the brainless variety, or by your average shrinking violet.
Ostensibly, Mabel was dominated by Mack Sennett. However, it was not all one-sided. Mabel was warned not to go off with Mack Sennett in 1912. She would, everyone told her, be giving up the security of regular employment at the Biograph, for a company that had no studio, no camera, and no money, all headed by that insane Irishman, Mack Sennett. However, Mabel had calculated that success would lead to unprecedented fame and wealth, and if she failed, well, there was always Biograph. Although Mack was a control freak, Mabel was savvy enough to she realize that he needed her as much as she needed him, and if the pair fell out, then she could capture another man with her charms. Not any man, of course, but one capable of running a studio, and maintaining her star status. In late 1914, her intended Sennett replacement was Charlie Chaplin, but Charlie was also savvy, and realized that Mabel was too much trouble, too unpredictable, and too darn expensive. Mabel was never called to his new studio.
As a result of the failure with Chaplin, Mabel sought to ingratiate herself with Mack’s partners, Kessell and Baumann. It seems Mabel was well up to speed on the subject of the Keystone / New York Motion Pictures/ Triangle deal. She began to press Kessell and Baumann for a transfer from Keystone to the new NYMP / Triangle facility at Fort Lee, N.J. Kessell and Baumann might have had the same thoughts themselves, as it would have been beneficial to have a big star at the Triangle Studio. Kudos then, for Kessell and Baumann, and a new start for Mabel. Things changed at the Triangle set-up, within a few weeks, and Mabel was faced with the possibility of returning to Keystone. Clearly, she needed to get out, but the Triangle group moved fast, and, by means mostly unknown, The Mabel Normand Feature Film Co. was founded [Endnote]. Mabel found herself back in L.A. but in a studio with her name over the door. All the Triangle bosses had been forced to get something done for Mabel, the exception being, perhaps, Griffith. Sennett found himself in the unenviable position, where he’d have to supply a studio and a film director. Mabel must have been chuckling, as she carried pot plants and flowers into her new studio, while men were fitting carpets, Louise XIV mirrors and heaters. For these bits and bobs, Mabel took out a $1,000 loan from Keystone. No-one knows if she ever repaid it.
After Triangle failed, Mabel ran immediately to Sam Goldwyn, although this was not done on a sudden whim. Mabel had been in discussion with Sam for some time, and knew he was starting a new studio. It’s possible Sam had told Mabel she would be the only actress under contract for the time being (his real intention was to corner the market in stars). Apparently, Kessell and Baumann had Mabel under surveillance for a while, suspecting she might ‘run’. After signing for Sam in late 1916, Mabel was in New York by early 1917. But she did not go straight to Sam. No, Mabel was smart, she sat in a hotel room announcing she might work for Sam, or might go elsewhere. The aim was to make other producers, including Sennett, aware that she was available – at a price. Her price was her own studio, with a nice signboard over the door saying ‘Mabel Normand Studio’. Unfortunately, the only taker was Mack Sennett, who was shrewd enough to get Goldwyn out of the way, before he negotiated with Mabel. Once Sam had been forced to let Mabel go, she would have been like a fish floundering on a riverbank, with nothing left to bargain with. As Sam began a legal suit against Mabel, Mack’s lawyers set about negotiating a new contract between her and Sam, the aim being to price Mabel out of Sam’s reach. The proceedings, however, were strung out, and Mabel settled with Sam for an extra $500 per week, giving her some $18,000 per week less than Chaplin was now getting. Mabel had miscalculated – this time.
Mabel was in a sticky situation at Goldwyn, which became over-run with female stars, although friends like Jack Pickford were based there, but were often away on location. It turned out to be a nightmare contract for Mabel, with no means of ‘getting in’ with Sam, who was, unlike Sennett, a hands-off producer. Mabel began to sicken, and, on the advice of Charlie Chaplin, Goldwyn returned her to Sennett in 1920.
The story of what happened back at Sennett is well known. Mabel was soon in action again, and almost turned out two films under direction of Dick Jones. Unfortunately, Mabel had entered the risk business again, and attempted to get into Paramount Studio via director W.D. Taylor. Mabel’s magic touch seemed to have deserted her, and her efforts failed. At about this time someone put a bullet into Taylor, and Mabel was caught up in events. No-one was charged with the murder, but Mabel’s reputation was damaged, and, after finishing her latest film, she went off to Europe for two months. On her return, she found Sennett had started another actress on the big film The Extra Girl. Mabel was livid, contacted Mack, and demanded the part. As I related in another blog, Mabel somehow persuaded him to drop Phyllis Haver, and give her the part. This was an aggressive move on Mabel’s part, but quite what hold she had over Sennett we do not know. In another blog, I speculated that it related in some way to the Taylor affair in which Mack was a police suspect.
The Extra Girl was released in November 1923, but, in January 1924, Mabel was involved in another disaster, when her chauffeur shot her friend Courtland Dines. Extra Girl was in trouble, but Mabel saved the day by going on tour, and plugging the film. It worked, and Mabel picked up enough cash to keep her for the rest of her life. This was Mabel’s last payoff as far as Mack was concerned. He cancelled Mabel’s next film, as his star left for the stage.
Mabel had taken a huge gamble by going on the stage, but she was a risk-taker at heart. Unfortunately, Mabel knew little about the theater, and if she had, she would have known that the play she had signed up to was a loser. It had been a loser since forever – under various names. Within weeks Mabel was back in L.A., where, loaded with dollars, she bought a movie-star mansion in Beverley Hills.
It seemed Mabel was ready for retirement, but life at the fireside, even in a mansion, was just too boring. The ex-Keystone girl began to bleat and wail to her friends about being bored and lonely, and, as usual, those around her fell for the fairy dust she sprinkled. Mary Pickford, Lew Cody, Dick Jones, and several other Hollywood luminaries pleaded with Sennett’s arch enemy, Hal Roach, to sign Mabel up. Roach did not want to take the ailing Mabel on, but probably thought he could get one over on Mack Sennett. To conclude this story, Mabel did not give up pushing herself forward, and spent her time at the studio mocking and abusing Roach. She married Lew Cody, but refused to live with him, and constantly, and publicly, threatened to divorce him. In various ways she continued to capture the headlines until she finally entered a sanitorium in late 1929. The headlines fell silent, as Mabel was kept isolated by doctors and friend Julia Benson. The Keystone Girl herself finally fell silent at 2.25 a.m. on 23rd February 1930.
The conclusion of this essay is that Mabel was no pushover. According to Mabel’s great nephew, Stephen Normand, Mabel’s sister, Gladys, was very fierce and very determined. Mabel almost certainly possessed these traits, although she had a veneer of the ingenue about her. Inside she was dark and brooding, according to Mack Sennett. Charlie Chaplin used different words – ‘She was as Irish as the banshees’.
Endnote: Mabel might in fact have forced her paymasters’ hand, as it was reported at the time that Mabel had signed with Mutual on the understanding that she would appear in Chaplin films. It seems Chaplin again rejected Mabel’s services, and the deal fell through.