1. Mabel’s origins and date of birth are unknown. She did not have a birth or baptismal certificate.
2. She was born in either Rhode Island, Boston, Philadelphia, Staten Island, Atlanta, or Quebec.
3. Mabel did not attend school for long. Possibly she spent about a week at Public School No.17, in New Brighton, Staten Island.
4. No one seems to have known Mabel on Staten Island. One very old woman came forward in around 1970, saying she knew Mabel as a girl. However, her description of Mabel was too much like Mack Sennett’s autobiography version to be believed.
5. Mabel started out as a model. Later, she trained as a dramatic actress under D.W. Griffith at Biograph. She re-trained for comedy at Vitagraph under the great John Bunny and Flora Finch. The rest is history.
6. Mabel was fired from two studios in her early career – Vitagraph and Reliance, both times for ‘unacceptable’ and ‘lewd’ behaviour.
7. Did you know Mabel is the darling of the occultists? There is a certain group that think she is not dead, but un-dead. She still, apparently, walks this earth, sprinkling ‘Mabel Dust’ into people’s eyes as they sleep. If you’re lucky, she might even come to you in your dreams. When you think about it, is it possible that so great a spirit could really be quenched by mere death?
8. Mabel’s spooky, Gothic-style house still stands in the St. Mark’s area of Staten Island. The present owners say the place is haunted by a friendly ghost. On dark, moonless nights, they sometimes hear the sounds of a cane, tapping its way up the garden path. Charlie Chaplin coming to visit to visit his Keystone Girl? Incidentally Mabel’s brother, Claude committed suicide in this house, which he’d turned into a shrine to Mabel, in the mid-1940s. Apparently, he was overcome by the tragedy of his sister’s life.
9. Before entering the movie business, Mabel was a model for top artists like James Montgomery Flagg and Charles Dana Gibson. Her colleagues were the later, big-time movie stars Anna Q. Nilsonn and Alice Joyce, who the diminutive Mabel beat for the 1908 ‘Fluffy Ruffles’ modelling prize.
10. Although present day film buffs bemoan the fact that there are no blue plaques to honour the stars in Hollywood, there is such a plaque at the old Republic Studio. It is solid bronze and weighs 200 lbs. The final words on the memorial read:
“SHE BROUGHT LAUGHTER AND BEAUTY OTHERWISE DENIED MILLIONS BURDENED WITH DESPAIR AND DRABNESS” Republic Studio. Dec. 27 1940.
It is dedicated, of course, to the memory of Mabel Normand.
11. Mabel had many titles assigned to her during her astonishing career. They include The Biograph Girl, Vitagraph Betty, Madcap Mabel, The Little Clown, The Girl in a Hurry, The Keystone Girl, and The Water Nymph.
12. Everyone knows that Mabel had millions of fans worldwide, but it is less well known that her greatest fans were the girls at the Biograph, those silver screen nymphs that went on to become the great stars of Hollywood. They included Blanche Sweet, Dorothy Gish, Gertrude Bambrick, Mary Pickford, and anyone who was someone in Hollywood. They adored her pluck, her courage, and the way she sassed the management.
13. Mabel had her own heroines. The first of these was Alice Joyce, who she worked with as a model. Alice was tall, womanly and mysterious, and was someone the much younger Mabel looked up to.
14. Charlie Chaplin and Mabel remained great friends during her lifetime. The Mabel and Charlie duo were essential to get a party going, although Mabel was usually plastered, while Charlie remained sober – he didn’t drink. Often, if they got bored at Keystone they’d ‘steal’ a company car, and drive into L.A. to have a little fun.
15. Mabel received a lot of flak from the W.D. Taylor murder of 1922. Did you know that Mack Sennett admitted, to his biographer in 1950, that he’d shot Taylor?
16. Mabel bought two houses, one in Beverly Hills and one on Staten Island. They cost $20,000 each.
17. Mabel died in 1930, aged 37 and 3 months. Her closest friend for 15 years, director, Richard F. Jones, and her greatest heroine, Harriet Quimby, died at exactly the same age. How bizarre is that?
18. Mabel hated travelling. It was fortunate, then, that her unique work rarely involved going on location. All she required was a park, a policeman and herself.
19. The ‘Madcap’ was a committed city girl. He mother was exactly the opposite, and rarely left the leafy suburbs of Staten Island. It seems her father was the driving force behind Mabel.
20. When the World’s Sweetheart, actress Olive Thomas, died aged 24 in 1920, Mabel set out to buy her gold-plated vanity set at all costs. She outbid all the top collectors at the auction of Olive’s effects, and acquired the set, and a photo of Jack Pickford, for $1,400 ($35,000 today). The reserve price was $600. In photos of Mabel’s dressing room at Goldwyn, the vanity set can be seen on her dressing table, alongside Olive’s photograph.
21. At the instant Mabel died, 2:25 a.m. on February 23nd 1930, the silent movie died. Only one ‘silent’ was made after that date. Appropriately, it was Chaplin’s City Life. Mabel’s funeral was the last big event of the silent era, following which, everyone knew ‘the game was up’.
22. Mabel died weighing 45 lbs. All that remained of her time in Pottenger’s Sanitorium were several blood-stained nightdresses, originally in the possession of Mabel’s personal, long term nurse, but whereabouts unknown today. For obvious reasons, Mabel’s casket remained firmly closed during the funeral service, and any accounts that the casket was open were clearly false. It is unlikely that the family ever viewed the body.
23. There is no existing recording of Mabel’s voice. There were two known to have existed – a sound test in 1928 or ’29, and a recording of her singing with Mack Sennett. She is said to have had, originally, a pronounced Brooklyn accent, and her voice was described as ‘throaty’. Like Helen Kane/Betty Boop, but without the squeak. She seems to have dropped the Brooklyn accent by degrees, so that, by 1922, the press was able to ridicule her for her pompous aristocratic accent “so reminiscent of Old Lonnon Town.”
24. There is no evidence to support the popular story that actress Mae Busch once smashed a vase over Mabel’s head. Contrary to some opinions, they were always good friends, and Mae helped unveil the Mabel Normand memorial, at the Republic Studio in late 1940.
25. Was Mabel a drug addict? It’s a matter of “you show the evidence, and we’ll believe it.” There is no evidence for this, and one source was journalist Hedda Hoppa, who was just about the most unreliable witness ever to walk the hallowed pavement of Hollywood.
26. Mabel died from drug addiction. Well, the same applies – prove it. Her death certificate states the cause of death as tuberculosis, and the diagnosis we know was carried out in the correct manner – by blood test.
27. Mabel self-medicated for her tuberculosis. Minta Arbuckle records that Mabel was constantly coughing up blood in 1916, for which she took a ‘goop’. What was in the ‘goop’? Probably it had an alcohol base, to which was added a little cocaine, and perhaps, an opiate of some sort. This was standard stuff at the time, and still is today (on prescription). Comedienne Polly Moran later recorded seeing a tube sticking out of Mabel’s back, which was draining a lung. Charlie Chaplin, who knew Mabel better than anyone, stated that she was suffering from tuberculosis as early as 1914, but “so great was her spirit that she tossed her illness aside with a gay indifference.”
28. Mary Pickford and others claimed Mabel had 2-inch long eyelashes. The truth is they were only ¾ inch long, long enough to prevent her wearing glasses. Mabel seems to have had poor eyesight, which might explain her sultry, hypnotic eyes.
29. No one knows what caused her unique and peculiar personality. It is difficult to reconcile the shy little girl, described by Mary Pickford, who could not deal with meeting people, with the boisterous, vitriolic Madcap Mabel of a few years later . Theories abound – Mack Sennett walked into her life, she was maltreated as a girl at a convent, she suffered from ADHD and Autism. The combination of ADHD and Autism would certainly account for her contrary characteristics of scheming but altruistic, withdrawn but manic, devious but naive.
30. Mabel was the first actress (or actor for that matter) to have their name, in five feet high letters, over a studio. The studio still exists on Fountain Avenue, Silverlake L.A. She was the first actress, destined to reach the top, that was named by her studio (Florence Lawrence was the very first, but she had soon fizzled out).
31. Mabel cared not a jot for money. At Goldwyn’s Studios, she did not pick up her pay checks for many months. Of course, when Mabel did collect her pay, she usually blew it, or simply gave it away. Fearing that she would end up penniless, Sam Goldwyn started to hold back some of her pay to put into a trust fund. In 1919, when Sam was going bankrupt, Mabel offered him the trust fund, along with a heap of jewellery to help him out. Sam turned her down – he was in debt to the tune of millions of dollars and eighty thousand dollars would have been of little help. Mabel’s family liquidated the trust fund after she died. Its total value was $50,000 ($1.25 million today).
32. In spite of the story put out by Richard Attenborough in his film ‘Chaplin’, Mabel didn’t cease to make films after the Taylor shooting of 1922. In fact, she made around $3 million between 1922 and 1924, when she picked up her profits share for the films Suzanna, Extra Girl and stage play The Little Mouse. She ended her career at Hal Roach Studios in 1927, where a certain Stan Laurel was her script writer.
33. Mabel bought her first Beverly Hills house in 1925, not because she was wealthy, but to prove she’d settled down after the scandals. Prior to that she’d lived in rented houses, duplexes and hotels. In the early days of Hollywood, performers thought they’d soon find themselves back in New York or Fort Lee N.J., so they never invested in property. The first to dare to was Douglas Fairbanks, who bought the famed ‘Pickfair’ in 1918. It was the very first movie mansion in Beverly Hills. Mabel’s rented colonial style home on Melrose Hill was a match for mock-Tudor Pickfair, although it didn’t sit within an 18-acre estate. The Keystone Girl’s most famous house was 3089 West 7th Street, which was besieged by the press during the scandals of 1922 and 1924. She’d also lived lived on the second floor of the Baltic Apartments, 1127 Orange Street, Hollywood during 1918, and had a brief sojourn at 1159 Altadena Blvd. whilst she was ‘in hiding’.
Of Mabel’s Melrose Hill home, Mary Pickford said:
“Last summer I went to visit her in her beautiful little bungalow in Hollywood, and found it one of the most artistic little precede-on-the-top-of-a-hill homes I have ever seen.”
Daily Talks by Mary Pickford, 1916.
It seems Miss Pickford was so impressed that she soon married Doug Fairbanks, and moved into her own ‘precede on top of a hill’ home.
34. Mabel once arranged a ‘snowball party’ for Charlie Chaplin and wife, Mildred Harris, up on Mount Lowe, where she’d had a snowball fight with Jack Pickford in 1912 for the film What The Doctor Ordered.
35. According to producer Hal Roach, Mabel was the dirtiest-talking girl you ever heard (she usually called him ‘That fucking thick-necked Mick’). Blanche Sweet once said, “When Mabel opened her mouth, toads came out.” Gloria Swanson claimed Mabel was “Crude and vulgar.” There is no doubt that her sentences were liberally laced with the ‘F’ word. As Mabel once told a reporter
“I am not like other girls, you understand.”
36. The last living person to have known Mabel was Douglas Fairbanks Jnr. who said of her:
“I knew Miss Normand, and she never allowed her personal sorrows and problems to show and be a burden to others. She exuded all the happy charm of a fresh, lovely, bright flower.”
Doug Jnr. died May 7th 2000. He was interred with his father at the Hollywood Forever cemetery, in Hollywood.
37. Mabel loved beautiful clothes, especially those designed in Paris. She’d spend tens of thousands of dollars on designer dresses, wear one, and give the rest away. Unfortunately, she had a habit of designing stuff herself, an occupation for which she had little talent. She designed a whole range of ghastly hats, of which the worst was that used in Extra Girl. An over-the-top dress that she wore in Mabel’s Strange Predicament, cannot be traced in any 1914 catalogue, so this must have been one she designed herself, or found in an early Victorian closet.
38. Mabel’s ideas for lower-class and ‘slavey’ characters, were dreamed up among the vast throng down on New York’s Lower East Side. In later interviews, Mabel gives credit to D.W. Griffith, for prompting her to get out and observe people in their own environments. In all probability, however, Mabel was already doing this in the early 1900s, as it is known that she often crept out of the parental home, and roamed Staten Island, as well as Manhattan. Mabel developed some strong lower-class characters between 1912 and 1927. Memorable ones are the girls in Mabel’s Dramatic Career, Mabel’s Busy Day and Raggedy Rose. A staunch defender of the poor working girl, Mabel’s zenith would undoubtedly have come during the Great Depression of the 1930s, had she lived.
39. Mabel mentioned D.W. Griffith in another interview, in which she said that the ‘Genius’ was responsible for developing her trademark lightning quick changes of facial expression. Rather than trying to help Mabel, Griffith was probably trying to ‘break’ her. He soon discovered, however, that Mabel was unbreakable.
40. Most people will know that Mabel made her last films at Hal Roach Studios in 1926/27. Despite huge support from F. Richard Jones, Lew Cody and many others, Mabel eventually had to give up for health reasons. However, Mabel, and most other Hollywooders, didn’t know that her lungs were completely shot. This was because she was only ever shown X-rays of healthy lungs. The consequence was that Mabel thought she could recover and make a comeback. Fortunately, she had friends at the very top of the movie industry, and in 1928, Louis B. Mayer, boss of MGM allowed Mabel to make a private film on the set of the studio’s Our Dancing Daughters ostensibly for Lew Cody. However, it is known that Mabel had a ‘sound’ test around this time. It is therefore likely that this ‘private’ film was actually a screen test, but why would an actress of twenty years standing require a screen test? The film was intended to show the Board of MGM that, even when sick, Mabel could still perform, so it followed that, after a period of convalescence, Mabel would be back to her former self. Unfortunately, it was not to be.