Mabel Normand is known for doing some strange things. One of the strangest is her diet, which was odd in the extreme. In this post, I ask whether her bizarre behavior and diet are, in some way, linked.
In his autobiography, Mack Sennett stated that eating ice cream for breakfast was a cause of Mabel’s untimely death. However, ice cream was not the only strange component of Mabel’s diet. Food companies of the 1910s made great claims that movie stars were using their particular products in their own unique recipes. Now, it seems more than likely that many of these recipes are bogus – who ever heard of a movie star preparing their own food? Your average ‘star’ requiring gourmet food would visit a posh restaurant, or have their French / Italian cook prepare it for them. One company claimed that their Carnation Milk was being used by Mabel in sandwiches (other ingredients were cream cheese, jam or lettuce). Now this is ridiculous, isn’t it? The claim could well be true, as it appears Mabel never ate anything but mushy stuff. Mabel was also a chocolate cake addict, who kept her possession of a cake, at any moment in time, secret from everyone (particularly her producer).
On the subject of chocolate cake, we should consider the following magazine article extract:
Play World, June 1918
The Tragic Side of Mabel Normand – Obtaining an Interview Under Difficulties
By David Raymond
“Nothing in the world is more vital to me at this moment than–chocolate cake,” she declared. “I am expecting a four-storied one from the only shop I trust….. “Will it or will it not, I ask myself,” she went on, “be iced on the sides as well as the top? ….. Please go. I must be alone when the chocolate cake arrives. With great sorrows or great joys I seek solitude. I am not like other girls, you understand.”
This is all very strange – did she have a love affair with chocolate?
Here’s another quote:
Motion Picture Magazine, November 1918
Mabel In A Hurry by Frederick James Smith
Between scenes I picked up on other scraps of information. Mabel once lived for 30 days on ice-cream. I don’t know why — or what flavor — but she did. I didn’t have time to ask her.
Hmm, probably not good for you. As noted above, Mack Sennett mused that the ice-cream was responsible for Mabel’s early death. The question is, regardless of whether the diet killed her or not, what could have been the root cause of such an unhealthy diet? Let’s have a look at the possibilities.
Her face was sunken so that her eyes looked uncannily large and dark. Her cheeks were the gray-white of a sea fog. Within her rich clothes she seemed wasted away, their gorgeousness hung loose about her thin frame… And now — this superlative, rejuvenated, curved and sparkling Mabel. “How did you do it?” I asked her a few days later. “I don’t know,” said Mabel smiling.
(From Photoplay, August 1921 Hello Mabel! by Adela Rogers St. Johns).
Bulimia is a disorder that has received a lot of attention over the last thirty years. Of such importance has it been regarded that, over the last two decades, funding has been made available by various governments, in order to find the cause. Bulimia is an illness where the sufferer will binge on quantities of high calorie foods, often of, what we might call, a sickly nature. In fact the person themselves will then often attempt to make themselves vomit, as a result of feeling guilty. How would this affect Mabel, if she were suffering from the disorder? Well, let’s assume that Mabel ate ice-cream for breakfast, a Carnation Milk sandwich or two for lunch, and a chocolate cake for dinner (between 1912 and 1915 she dined with Mack Sennett, but she seems to have eaten little or nothing at these sittings). Whilst this diet is rich in calories, it is unlikely that they would stick to a person who ate the diet regularly, and to excess. In all likelihood, these foods would pass straight through the digestive tract, or make one throw up (non-medical opinion suggests diarrhea would be the result). Mabel , it should be said, never weighed more than 99lbs. In the article extract above, Mabel insists she has to be alone with the chocolate cake, as we might have expected in a case of bulimia. Could it be that she intended to cram the 4-storey cake down her throat? Further, if she didn’t immediately vomit, would she make herself intentionally sick? The same might apply to the Carnation Milk sandwich(es) and ice-cream.
What makes this diagnosis likely, is that Mabel suffered periods of rapid weight loss, followed by periods of weight gain, as in the article above. This would rule out tuberculosis (which she had as early as 1914) as a possible cause.
I have noted above that Bulimia has been intensely researched, but the results have surprised many people – bulimia has an underlying cause – autism. Essentially, we are here speaking about autism in females. In males, we find that autism exerts itself by forcing the sufferer to shun social contact, and devote themselves to their job or hobby (we are here talking, perhaps, Mack Sennett and Charlie Chaplin). The basic symptom of autism is an inability to communicate with peers on a level field. Females, however, do
not, in general, wish to endure exclusion from female society. Like Mabel, they seek to endear themselves to their peers, although they are unable to do so easily. Mabel would act silly, mock her ‘betters,’ babble rather than talk, and live life at a thousand miles per hour. She also sought out those outside her peer group, such as older people, mainly men, that she did not have to compete with on the level field (e.g. Mack Sennett and Bill Taylor). Mabel would have felt psychologically secure in a relationship where there was a steep gradient of authority (a father and child relationship). On the other hand, she loved to be with children, and got on famously at Biograph with that young, never-to-grow-up scamp Jack Pickford (again we see a steep gradient of authority: mother and child).
However, all of this trying to ‘fit in’ came at a mental cost. Mabel almost drove herself insane being chatty, bubbly and the life and soul among her friends, who just loved her antics. She, furthermore, feared being alone, for all the dark thoughts that permeated her mind. It seems she indulged in binge eating only when completely alone. Mabel cried out for help, but no-one listened, and to be honest, no-one had heard of autism (just recognized) or its associated condition, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder – recognized much later. Only Charlie Chaplin (himself probably autistic) and, perhaps, F. Richard Jones ever understood her (there is not enough information on Jones to determine if he was definitely autistic, but he was a genius). Here I quote from another article about Mabel:
From Liberty, Sept. 6, 1930
MADCAP MABEL NORMAND — The True Story of a Great Comedienne
by Sidney Sutherland
…I liked him. Something about each of us must have stirred an answering streak of loneliness in the other — for Charlie Chaplin and I have often been alone, felt alone, when surrounded by the thickest crowds.
In other words, the autistic person feels as though they are on the outside of society looking in. One other thing about those with Autism and ADHD is that, curiously, they tend to gravitate together, and form close relationships that are inevitably of a stormy nature.
Now, what of ADHD? It is not fully understood why this condition should, nearly always, be associated with Autism. However, the almost manic, hyperactive personality produced by ADHD may result from the communication problems of autism. It is probably the ADHD, which was responsible for Mabel’s babbling, her lack of respect for authority, her restlessness, sleeplessness, night sweats, and suicidal thoughts. In terms of her hyperactivity, we should not confuse the real Mabel with the screen version. The latter Mabel is clearly a burlesque (exaggeration) of the former.
It seems clear that Mabel (who was often clinically depressed) attempted to do away with herself on several occasions. Adela Rogers St. Johns is adamant that Mabel once tried to kill herself by flinging herself into the sea from a Santa Monica pier. Mabel’s housekeeper Edith Burns is said to have talked about Mabel having threatened to kill herself on several occasions, with the gun her chauffeur later used to shoot tycoon Courtland Dines. Mabel was, according to Burns, naïve and gullible, and associated with the wrong people (by name Edna Purviance and Courtland Dines). Mabel was also very nervous, ill and suffered from severe night sweats (Nevada State Journal January 12 1924). The naivety, nervousness, and night sweats are symptoms of ADHD (although the night sweats might, alternatively, have been due to tuberculosis).
4. Congenital Syphilis
I include this, because Simon Louvish has suggested that Mabel might have suffered from the condition, although he does not present his source evidence. Mabel, he says, had a brother, Walter, who died at the age of one-year from odema of the lungs caused by Syphilitic Laryngitis. However, from the evidence Louvish gives, we cannot be sure that Walter was related to Mabel. Furthermore, Mabel’s parents lived into their 60s, which would have been unlikely, if they’d had Syphilis. If we accept Louvish’s contention, then this would explain Mabel’s recurring throat problems, years prior to her complete lung failure of 1930. What if Mabel had Syphilitic Laryngitis, can we see the symptoms of the disease? Well, yes, we can. Firstly, Mabel had an almost continuous hacking cough and a throat problem that made her voice sometimes hoarse, and sometimes ‘throaty’. She took a medicine (or ‘goop’ as she called it) to calm her respiratory system and prevent her bringing up blood, according to Minta Durfee (Arbuckle). I would suggest that the ‘goop’ actually soothed her throat, rather than treated her lungs. The recommended diet for a patient with syphilitic laryngitis is a soft one, as there can be sores and ulcers in the throat, which prevent consumption of normal food. Eventually the disease enters the lungs causing medical symptoms similar to Tuberculosis.
Mabel’s cause of death on the death certificate is pulmonary tuberculosis. Unfortunately, Mabel’s final days are shrouded in mystery, as she had spent several months in the Pottenger Sanitorium in Monrovia. The owner of the sanitorium, Dr. Pottenger, was attempting to find a cure for tuberculosis, and clearly kept many patients closeted at the sanitorium for research purposes. No visitors were allowed at the institution, although a patient could have a live-in attendant. Mabel seems to have had a bungalow in the grounds, and her attendant was Mrs Julia Benson. Mrs Benson always claimed to be a friend, although Mabel’s great nephew, Stephen Normand, maintains she was merely an employee – a live-in nurse. Indeed, when Mabel died, The Normand family allocated her $10, 000 from Mabel’s estate for services rendered. For several months Mabel lived, as a virtual prisoner at the sanitorium, and the only information we have is the death certificate signed by Pottenger. Was he aware that several conditions, like syphilitic laryngitis mimic Tuberculosis? Did he know that Mabel’s lifestyle left her prey to all kinds of maladies? The veil of secrecy surrounding the sanitorium prevents us from fully understanding exactly what observation the patients were under, and what treatment they received. The sputum test Pottenger carried out on Mabel is rarely conclusive, even today, especially if it was carried out quickly, with no time for the growing of a ‘culture’. Was Pottenger a ‘quack’, a latter-day medicine man? We will never know, but it is sufficient to say that Pottenger’s diagnosis is suspect.
The problem here is the obvious one that there is no patient to examine, so we are limited to informed guesswork. Mabel’s food fads appear to result from Bulimia, which, in turn, resulted from Autism/ADHD, if we can believe modern research. The depression Mabel suffered from all her life, had the same root cause. If Mabel truly had syphilitic Laryngitis, then she could only have eaten the mushy foods we know she consumed. In time, the infection would have fatally damaged her lungs. Finally, for the reasons listed above, the diagnosis of Tuberculosis remains contentious.
Mabel Normand: A Source book to her Life and Films by Wm Thomas Sherman, 2015.
Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett by Simon Louvish, 2003.
The King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954)