It was in June 1922 that Mabel departed the shores of the United States for her European tour, which would begin in Southampton, England. Of course, she wasn’t the first Hollywooder to tour the old countries – notably Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks had preceded her. Mabel, however, had a different reason for leaving the U.S. Since the murder of her friend, W.D. Taylor, her life had been under close scrutiny by the press and the authorities. Her producer, Mack Sennett, had used his considerable resources to keep the heat off of his star, but his attempts were limited, due to the fact that he was a main suspect in the case. Mack had put a ring of thugs, armed with clubs and guns, around her duplex on West 7th Street, but the constant presence of the press and rubber-neckers, meant he had to move her out to a ‘safe house’ in Altadena. There was also a rumour that the cops intended to kidnap her, and give her a truth drug, to “loosen her pretty lips.” Under the constant strain of scrutiny and giving evidence at an inquest, Mabel decided she’d leave the country until the heat had dissipated.
Now, Mabel was not a good traveller. She hated the train journey east, and could always be found, blind drunk, in the bar. Sure, Mabel was a dreamer, and had thoughts of sailing to the South Seas and other exotic places, but she was settled in Hollywood, and there she intended to stay. Tinsel Town was her kingdom, where she reigned as Queen, or as actress Madge Kennedy tells us, as Goddess. Mabel once said “There was nothing interesting in my life before I got into pictures.” Mabel, like Charlie Chaplin, was an introvert by nature, and so travelling alone was difficult for her. Consequently, the Queen got together an entourage to travel with her. Due to the circumstances, Mabel had to think everything through very carefully. The world was her oyster, but one wrong move could be her last.
Mabel relied very much on her friends, chiefly those that had been at the Biograph studio in the early days, and collectively called the Biograph Girls, a set formed around Mabel that closed ranks against the evil producers and company executives. One friend, Mary Pickford, had formed the idea of moving, with husband, Doug Fairbanks, to Europe – England, France or Italy. Her view was that these places had an atmosphere more conducive to good film-making than the U.S. Mabel listened, and considered. She would put feelers out to the European film-makers, and see what they could offer. If the tide turned for the better in the U.S. she could always return.
Mabel’s close companion was Julia Brew, her personal nurse, who had now married and was not therefore keen on international travel. Mabel needed someone who was able to leave home for three months, and was untroubled by the constant press intrusion. A news editor, friendly towards Mabel, suggested running a public competition for her companion. Julie Courtell, a former Keystone actress, before she saw sense and left, won the competition, but, as she was a long-term friend of Mabel, this does suggest a rigged competition. The newspapers hailed the lucky girl, who would accompany Mabel on her foreign travels. There was much to be done, as this would not be a holiday as such – instead it would, in part, be a business trip, for Mabel to ferret out opportunities abroad. She employed friend Perry Charles as an agent in Europe, but he also had to tread carefully, and keep publicity to a minimum. Word was out beyond American shores that Mabel was bad, bad, bad; a murderess, a woman of easy virtue etc, etc. There was a chance that she could be arrested and deported, like some latter-day Dr. Crippin, or Marie Lloyd. She would slip into Britain quietly, and unbeknown to anyone, but those in the theatrical and movie business – Perry would make no formal public announcement of her arrival.
As stated above, Mabel was a dreamer, she’d read books on London by Dickens, Thomas Burke, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, and was much interested in London’s Chinatown, having seen D.W. Griffith’s film ‘Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and The Girl’ starring Lillian Gish. Oh, how Mabel would have loved to be Lucy, and how much more pathetically could have played her. She had, of course, wandered New York’s Chinatown as a girl, and its counterpart in Los Angeles, the exotic nature of these places appealing to her passionate nature, and she couldn’t bear to miss the London version.Mabel was closeted with Charlie Chaplin on more than one occasion, questioning the Limey on various aspects of England, France, Germany, and Italy. As regards London, he recommended visiting Jack London’s East End, ‘The Abyss’. She should make sure she had a drink in a real East End pub, and she should write to Thomas Burke, requesting a guided tour of Limehouse (Chinatown). He’d write a letter of introduction to famous actor Harry Tate, but warned her to keep a watch his roving hands – he might have also mentioned H.G. Wells. He warned the girl who wore her heart on her sleeve, not to mention anything vaguely political, as she would almost certainly be watched. The fact that she’d fronted a ‘Stop The War’ campaign in 1917, didn’t make her popular with either the U.S. or U.K. authorities. Both Mabel and Charlie were keen supporters of the worker’s union the Industrial Workers of The World (IWW), and as the union’s founders were Irishmen, James Larkin and James Connolly, both of a Feinian persuasion, anyone praising them was considered an anarchist. James Larkin was currently in a U.S. jail and Connolly had been executed by the British, as a leader of the 1916 Easter Uprising. On top of that there was civil war in the new Irish Republic that might spill over into Britain, so the British government were suspicious of any Irish-Americans that could be bringing in I.R.A. funds. Mabel qualified on that point.
Skipping out of L.A.
In spite of a certain amount of secrecy, and embarking from San Bernardino rail depot, having travelled from Altadena, Mabel was met by many flashbulbs. Knowing something was up that day, the press could follow any one of her friends – Mary Pickford, Norma Talmadge, Dotty Gish etc. to discover where the Keystone Girl was. The Hollywooders showered her with bouquets, as she boarded the train, and every one of the stars secretly hoped for a Parisian gown in return. The shock was that many newspaper men got on the train, and Mabel was immediately being questioned. She also received some information – L.A. and New York cops were waiting to interrogate her in Manhattan. They had, of course, been unable to locate her at the Altadena hideaway. In New York, Mabel did not go to her hotel, but instead stayed at Marilyn Miller’s Manhattan apartment, and it was there she learned from a newspaper that the cops wanted to ‘interview’ her. Mabel left it till the last minute to board the ship, and disappeared into the horde of newspaper guys, so, if the police were there, they couldn’t find her. However, the press followed her onto the Cunard ship ‘Aquitania’. Inevitably, they bombarded her with questions about the Taylor case. “Please don’t ask me about that” She replied “I’m going away to forget.” She looked back at from the ship’s rail at New York with a distinct sneer, “I won’t be coming back.” “Are you visiting any British studios out there, Miss Normand?” Mabel pretended innocence. “Well, I never knew they made films there!” By the time the ship had left New York Bay, many of the pressmen had departed by launch, but it appeared that others had tickets for the voyage, and would stay aboard. By the miracle of telegraph, they were sending stories back to New York. To her dismay, Mabel realised there were British and French journalists aboard, ready to send stories in the other direction. She wouldn’t exactly be creeping into London.
If Mabel had been able to see a U.S. newspaper at this time, she’d have been shocked to read the following:
“Mabel gives swimming and diving demonstrations in the ship’s pool – naked.”
“Mabel falls off her bar stool – twice”
“Travellers shocked, as Mabel turns the air blue with foul language.”
The first story is totally untrue, and the others are an exaggeration.
Mabel discovered that people were friendly disposed towards her, until they discovered her identity, then they began to avoid her. Others were fascinated by her reputation as a murderess and Hollywood whore, both based, of course, on a false premise.
Southampton to London.
If Mabel had expected a low-key reception, when the ship docked at Southampton, she was to be disappointed. The press, by the British nature of being inscrutable, mainly stayed clear of ‘bad girl’ Mabel, but enough of them turned up to make her feel uncomfortable. Her fans were welcome, of course, and the movie journalists likewise, as long as they avoided certain subjects. Perry Charles was waiting for her, and the American entourage were bundled into a Rolls Royce car, and driven to London. Mabel took note of the lush green countryside, so different to California, as they motored along. It reminded her of her early days out in upstate New York, with D.W. Griffith. She expressed a wish to hire a motor and tour the English west country. Perry though was keen on briefing Mabel about what to say and do in London:
“Here’s the brief, Mabel. You must not make any social or political statements in this country, and you must steer totally clear of the Irish question, even if you’re asked about it.”
“Right, here’s the thing, Perry, I will be going to Ireland, and I want you to arrange for me to meet Michael Collins.”
“Michael Collins may be Head of State, but he is also an ex-I.R.A. man. In any case Irish borders are firmly closed right now.”
“That’s a damned nuisance, I so much adore Michael.”
Julie Courtell interrupted.
“Mabel, you so much adore anything in trousers, but forget about Collins, he’s got a fiancé.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard about her, Kitty Kiernan. People say she looks like me, but I think I trounce her, because I’ve got bigger eyes.”
“We all know you’re up for a challenge, Mabel, but this time you should keep away.”
[Michael Collins was to die two months later, in a hail of gunfire in the Irish Republic].
Perry came back “Give up the manising Mabel, or you’ll get into even bigger trouble than you’re already in. For God’s sake, if you meet a good guy out here, marry him.”
“You know I’m not the marrying kind Perry, but when I meet my Prince out in Paris, I might just elope with him.”
“Prince? What do you mean Prince?”
“I mean Prince Ibrahim of Egypt, he’s a real-life Sheik, not one of these phoney Hollywood things.”
Julie reminded Mabel that ‘The Prince’ was betrothed to another – her friend, Constance Talmadge, in fact. Mabel assured her that the Prince was back on the market, and a prime catch for a salacious girl like herself. Mabel also mourned the fact that she was not going to kiss the Blarney Stone, nor take mass with the Cardinal in Dublin Cathedral.
Arrival in London, meant signing the register at the Ritz Hotel, for the best suite, the one formerly occupied by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Perry had Mabel edged through the throng of British, French and U.S. reporters outside, then, once Mabel was safely ensconced in her room, he called for the British agent for Photoplay magazine a journo from British movie mag, plus a man from ‘Boys’ Cinema’. After allowing two hours for Mabel’s customary bath, she received the pressmen in her suite. Only the Boys’ Cinema guy was shocked to see Mabel in her normal post-bath attire of a filmy negligee. In safe company, Mabel jabbered, jabbered and jabbered. She was booked to meet some minor royals, was meeting George Bernard Shaw, J.M. Barrie, H.G. Wells and other authors, as well as some British actors. Mabel was cagey, when questioned about British film-makers. She’d been asked over to a couple of studios for talks, but she expressed the view that she was on holiday, and did not really want to look around grim studios. One of the guys had heard that the ABC Company was interested in signing her, but Mabel dismissed the idea, saying she’d never even heard of ABC. One thing the journos noticed was that Mabel had an upper-crust ‘Cavendish Square’ accent. The information they had was that she had a pronounced Brooklyn accent. That was, however, before she’d met Charles Spencer Chaplin in 1914, who’d cultivated an aristocratic accent by that time. Mabel took it on board, and it wasn’t long before all the studios were sending their Bronx and country bumpkin actors to English school m’ams for elocution lessons. Something that soon shocked Mabel was the receipt of nine-thousand fan letters a day, for which she cursed Perry Charles, although he’d done his best to keep Mabel’s publicity to a minimum.
Events in The City.
Over the next few days, several authors arrived to see Mabel. One of the things she wanted to do was gain the film rights to some good stories. J.M. Barrie arrived, and Mabel was shocked to find that he was a little old man, with a shawl round his shoulders. He was sorry but he couldn’t give her the rights to his ‘The Little Minister’ as an American, Charles Frohman, had purchased them. Well, at least she had appeared in ‘The Little Teacher’ penned by a seventeen-year-old Mary Pickford. Barrie left, after making up Mabel’s fire. Mabel mused on the fact that her family called her Baby, after the giggling baby in Barrie’s Peter Pan. George Bernard Shaw was a fine figure of a man, if old, witty and very, very Irish. Mabel wondered if she should make a play for him, as he was good fun, but he was also married. So, what of the lecherous H.G. Wells? Well, H.G. turned out to be a damp squib, he never tried to molest Mabel, even though he’d clearly had ‘inside’ information from Charlie Chaplin. The exponent of free love was terribly polite and kissed Mabel’s hand when he came into her room and when he left. Anyhow that was the story she later told her friends.
Of disappointments there were a few. Thomas Burke, it transpired, was in America, and would not return until the Fall, by which time Mabel would have left. Then, the I.R.A. decided to blow up a member of the British Parliament, and all hell broke loose. The minor royals cancelled, and she noticed some suspicious looking guys hanging around the lobby. A red-faced lord of somewhere or other, invited her for tea and was keen to ‘discuss things’ with her. After a while, he got to speaking of Ireland, and was clearly ferreting for information on Mabel’s views. Again, the guy was very polite, and kissed Mabel’s hand when he left. Later, she discussed the meeting with Perry. “Mabel” He said “Be very careful, for I’m certain that man is an MI5 agent. Say the wrong thing, and you could disappear one dark night.” Mabel thought him to be overly dramatic, but Perry spelled it out “Everyone knows you’re as Irish as the banshees, and very much under suspicion.” Naturally, there were those at the top in the U.S.A. that thought it would be convenient if Mabel failed to reappear in her homeland.
As usual, Mabel began to acquire friends by the truck load, whilst avoiding most of the reporters. She took some ‘tame’ journalists into her entourage, all bright young things, and up for laugh and a joke. At a small day-time party in the Ritz. Mabel suddenly stood up and announced she wanted to see the slums of the Abyss, the East End. Some of the locals advised against the trip, it was far too dangerous.
“Look I want to walk the streets that Jack London walked – oh, I simply love Jack London, don’t you? If he was here now, I’m sure he’d waft me into the slums.”
Mabel, then, would have none of it, and soon they were heading east in a taxi cab. As they drove around Stepney and Bethnal Green, suddenly Mabel screamed “Stop the car, let’s all have a drink in that pub.” The cab-driver was not happy. “We’ll all get our fuckin’ froats cut around here. You’d better lock that fur coat and those diamonds in the trunk.” Mabel would have nothing of it, and marched through the door. There was some murmuring, as the strangers approached the bar. As one of them ordered the drinks, some more murmuring, including the word “Mybel”. Then – “It’s ‘er, it’s ‘er, gawd blimey, if it ain’t Mybel.” The pub was packed, and the mob surged in Mabel’s direction – one guy reached out to her, she grasped his hand, and was pulled into the adoring crowd. Thinking quickly, the biggest guy in Mabel’s group grabbed her, and threw her over his shoulder, as the others cleared a path to the door. Back at the Ritz bar, Mabel pouted, as her friends warned her never to try anything like that again. Once more, very suddenly, Mabel stood up, and announced she was off to Limehouse…..Chinatown.
Now she was sure to be killed. But nobody could dissuade her from going. Again, they piled into a taxi “Take us to the slums” Said Mabel. “Which ones?” Asked the driver. “The ones in Limehouse” Came the reply. The driver turfed them out on the East India Dock Road, and pointed them in the direction of Chinatown. He refused to go any further, so Mabel handed him a ‘fiver’ (25 dollars), and told him to wait. “That’s the last anyone will see of them“ Mumbled the cabbie “The Chinamen will slit their fuckin’ froats for sure, and that silly bitch dripping in jewels an’ all.” However, the group had more to fear from the local Mabel fans, than any razor-swinging Fu Man Chu. Before long, the familiar cry “Mybel, it’s Mybel” went up, and the yanks were forced to retreat into a Chinese café. The local truncheon-swinging cop, set up guard on the door, and the Limehouse urchins pressed their noses against the windows, anxious to get a glimpse of the Keystone Girl. Mabel, being a sucker for kids, went to the window and conversed with her fans, although she was warned not to encourage them. Eventually, more cops arrived, and everyone left to a police escort. The braying crowd pursued them, the kids screaming out “Oi, Mybel! ‘Ow old are yer – yer fifteen ain’t yer!?” Others shouted that she must be seventeen or nineteen, while still others threw questions like “What’s it like in Yankee-land Mybel?” Reaching the cab, they made their escape, a dozen ragamuffins running alongside the car for at least a quarter of a mile, with Mabel throwing notes and coins to them. Mabel expressed the view that they should go to Limehouse at night, when they would not be recognised. The rest of the group were horrified at the thought, suspecting that movie-fan urchins were less of a threat than the cut throats that would clearly crawl out of the brickwork after sunset.
So, Mabel’s slum-hunting days were over, but stage-actor Harry Tate invited Mabel to his country home, outside London, in Sutton. He drove Mabel down to the house, giving her the chance to admire his personalised licence plate ‘T 8’. Harry was a star in his field, but was much interested in hearing about the movie business. “What do you think of Charlie Chaplin?” Asked Harry. Mabel was reticent and said she didn’t want to speak about him. She still carried a torch for the tramp, but his treachery towards her in 1914, meant that she dared not speak of him, in case she said something derogatory. Harry said that Charlie had spoken very highly of Mabel, and had told him, in a whimsical way “She knows more about comedy and timing, than any of us will ever know.” “I’m sorry, Harry, but even if he said I was made of green cheese, I still wouldn’t speak of him.” Harry was a party man and Mabel was a party girl, originator of the wild Hollywood party, so the four days went pretty quickly, and Mabel’s contact book began to fill up. A wealthy and influential Lord of the Realm then whisked Mabel away to his country pile. She was shocked to find that his lordship’s wife was away, but no matter, for her ladyship soon returned, having heard that a Hollywood whore was messing around, naked, in her pool. Mabel was pushed into a chauffeured limo, and returned to London forthwith.
Her diary had several meetings scheduled with film bosses, and she was invited to Ealing, and other studios at Cricklewood and Beaconsfield. Although the British film industry was just about decimated in the Great War, the industry was on the brink of recovery in 1922. One thing that interested Mabel was the fact that more than one company offered to buy her good stories from big authors. However, she would have to sign a contract, so that the company could get the credit to buy the stories – her name, of course, was big in Britain and opened doors. Mabel actually signed a letter of intent with one company, but she stipulated that her films would have to be made in California. She had suddenly realised that London weather was similar, or worse, than New York’s, and it was affecting her breathing. If the deal had actually gone through, Mabel would have been the first U.S. star to work for a British Studio. However, this would all have to wait until Bebe Daniels and Bessie Love crossed the Atlantic in 1935, to take their places in the British entertainment industry (both died in ‘the old country’).
The news-hounds were still snapping at Mabel’s heels, as she left on her tour of the West Country. Hiring a car, she set out with three others, to partake of the landscapes of Dorset, Devon and Somerset. Unfortunately, Mabel found that West Country roads were very narrow, and although better surfaced than in the States, they were bounded by immovable stone walls and/or trees. The car was returned five days later, with every panel bashed in, and the body rocking loose on the chassis. Back in London, everyone was keen to know if she was about to marry this lord or that earl. A huge diamond on her finger indicated that she’d become engaged to someone. Mabel dismissed this, saying “Oh the ring? Mr D.W. Griffith gave it to me for being such a fine actress.” Then, Mabel’s sheikh beckoned, and she packed hurriedly for Dover and Calais. Paris, Rome, Berlin and Monte Carlo felt the breeze, as the Keystone Girl swept through. Another visit to London was on the cards, but Mabel had decided that Hollywood was the place for her, and she’d heard that Mack Sennett was making another big feature film. She was ready to fight all-comers for the lead, and eventually pushed out a younger actress for the starring role in ‘Extra Girl. Back in the U.S.A., there were just two more scandals to come.
There are some inconsistencies in the chronology of this period. Mabel, we know, left for Europe in June 1922, and returned in September of that year. However, she did not reappear straightaway in Los Angeles. The press announced her homecoming to New York, and were soon reporting her attendance at parties and functions. However, before she ever thought of heading back to Hollywood, it seems she got some friends together and left again for Britain. This was reported by the press, who reported her outburst about a woman being hanged for murder in England, although she was just an accessory after the fact. The woman was sentenced in late October. No-one has turned up a ship’s manifest with Mabel’s name on it, but the filming of Extra Girl didn’t take place until late Spring 1923, so there was plenty of time, and plenty of Mack Sennett’s money to spend. The story of how Mabel took the part from Phyllis Havers, and how the film was made made is another story that has been covered in another blog.
Mabel Normand: A Sourcebook of her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman (2006).
King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).
Looking For Mabel Normand: http://www.freewebs.com/looking-for-mabel/. Site maintained by Marilyn Slater.
Mabel Normand: http://themabelnormand.com
Madcap Mabel: The True Story of a Great Comedienne by Sydney Sutherland. ‘Liberty’ 1930.