Movies and the dreaded taxman.

In his autobiography, Mack Sennett had this to say about the economics of the movie industry, “It was difficult to find out if any money had been made, and who had made it, and who had it.” He goes on to say the industry was disorganized. How confusing, and how convenient! Producers may not know if their partners were creaming off the top, but, if this was so, then the tax authorities also could not fathom out what was going on. Yes, the federal taxman began to rampage over the entire continent by 1913, following the Revenue Act. At first, there was a 1% tax on personal income above $3,000 per year, with a top rate of 7% on income over $500,000. This shocked some of the newly rich, but did not really hurt them. However, World War I changed all that, and rates soon hit 77%, on income above $1,000,000. On average, however, wealthy Americans paid 15% – still a tidy sum.


Reaction to an 1878 attempt to introduce income tax.

D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation was released on 21st March 1915, but profits were still being made through into the war years, and the ‘influenza outbreak’. Total takings are estimated to have been $15,000,000, so someone, somewhere, made a lot of money. However, with the complicated state of the movie industry, with its complex mix of companies, distributors and cinemas, it was virtually impossible for the tax authorities to work out where the money had been made, and who had it. With Mabel’s 1918 film Mickey, said to have grossed $18,000,000, we are really on sticky ground. Mack Sennett’s private papers contain nothing relating to the film, or the Mabel Normand Feature Film Company. Of course, the film and the MNFFC were owned by New York Motion Pictures and Triangle, while Mack Sennett (not Keystone) owned the studio on Fountain Avenue. Exactly how much did NYMP make, how much did Triangle make, and how much did Adam Kessell, Charles Baumann, and Harry Aitken make – no-one knows. Sennett made money by renting the studio, and grabbed a sackful of cash by selling the worthless goodwill of Keystone to Harry Aitken, just as Triangle began to fall apart. Strictly speaking, Sennett should have only received the rental money for the Mickey studio, plus a payment for work he carried out for the MNFFC, including supplying the director, F. Richard Jones (Sennett tried to use lesser and cheaper directors before Jones). As shooting came to an end someone ‘kidnapped’ the film negative. Sennett said that Jones, who had not been paid, was responsible. However, it could have been Sennett who took the film, in lieu of unpaid bills (if Sennett went unpaid, then Jones also took a knock).

The Keystone Tip

How much money was made at this tip of a studio?

It seems then, considering the length of time that has elapsed since 1917 that the shenanigans surrounding the MNFFC, are now impossible to untangle. What then of Mabel? It is not known how much Mabel was paid for acting in Mickey, but we might suppose it was in the order of $1,500 per week. We may say this as, when Mabel left for Goldwyns on the completion of Mickey, Sennett argued the Goldwyn contract salary of $1,000 was not enough, and sent lawyers to get the salary increased. They got Mabel’s salary raised to $1,500 per week. In all probability, then, this was the figure Mabel had received for Mickey. From Sennett’s private papers we can see that Mabel was the top earner at Keystone, receiving, it seems, $500 per week pre-Mickey.  Mabel and Charlie Chaplin were already running safe-deposit boxes at this time, as well as several bank accounts. Why they required safe-deposit boxes is a mystery. Mabel later said she kept old check books in her box, but these could have been stored easily at home. There is also evidence that she kept costume jewelry there, and occasionally removed this to wear at various functions. Of course, there might have been no small amount of loose gems in the boxes. Like Chaplin we know she also kept cash in the boxes, although whether she kept large amounts, like the Tramp, we do not know.


Mabel and Rolls Royce. She was Keystone’s highest earner.


The continuation of high-rate income tax after 1918 spelt trouble for movie moguls, as well as screen stars, who were now earning enormous salaries. Roscoe Arbuckle had been the first movie star to hit a million a year, while Mabel, at Goldwyns, was now commanding $4,000 a week. The top tax rate was reduced to 58% in 1922, to 25% in 1925 and finally to 24% in 1929. These tax rates still dented the income of the stars, and so much so, that Chaplin is suspected of secreting his wealth in Mexico, and Mabel adherents will know that she also made regular trips to that country. Others, like Mack Sennett, moved as shadows crossing and re-crossing the border. It has been long suspected that stars earned considerably more than they had contracted for. They seemed to have much more spending power than their several thousand dollars a week, followed by months of inactivity, allowed for. These people seemed to have the ability to buy numerous monstrous-sized houses and ranches, while running multiple $10,000 cars, even more expensive yachts, and partying like it was 1999. The inference was that part of their pay came in untraceable cash. If we think that the film companies would not do such a thing, we should recall that Mabel had no trouble in having her first week’s pay at Goldwyn ($1,500)  paid to her in cash, so she could distribute the money among the studio workers.

Mab Gls

Mabel hands out paper dolls at Goldwyn.

Producers were among the top earners in the industry, and, in the time of low tax rates in 1915, Thomas Ince paid income tax to the tune of $20,222. He received a salary of $35,200 from Triangle, was paid $1,100 for each scenario he submitted, received $325,000 dividend from Triangle shares,  $22,848 dividend from Keystone, $12,600 from Broncho, $800 from Kay-Bee, $2,000 from Empire, and $15,200 from Domino. Gross income was $436,550, equating to $8,395 per week (or 7 times the salary Chaplin was getting at that time). It will be noticed that Ince’s tax payment was 5% of income, and that by stating his income at under $500,000 he avoided the top rate of tax. The I.R.S undoubtedly noticed this, but the authorities were not keen on pursuing taxpayers at this time.


Charles S. Chaplin: came under IRS scrutiny

Post – 1920

By the late 1920s, the taxman was baring his teeth, preparing to bite recalcitrant movie people. In January 1927, he turned on Charlie Chaplin, demanding back taxes of $1,000,000, dating back to 1915. The easy days were over, and a public fed up with the antics of a Tramp, and the Normands and Arbuckles of movie-land, gleefully watched the sinner squirm. United Artists settled the tax claim for an undisclosed sum.

On October 17, 1931, a certain Alphonse Capone was convicted of tax evasion and jailed, while actress Marion Davies received a tax bill for around $1,000,000 in unpaid taxes. The agency claimed that Davies, the owner of several buildings in Manhattan, failed to report income from her real estate. She eventually settled with the agency for $825,000. In 1936, the I.R.S. were back, and Davies was forced to pay out another $30,000. During the 1930s, several other actresses were pursued by the I.R.S. The reason? They’d listed clothing as part of their expenses. Of course, top actresses, like Mabel Normand, commanded a clothing allowance from their producers, although Mabel does not appear to have availed herself of this perk, at least at Goldwyn. We might, however, guess that such payments were made in unrecorded cash.

Mabel Normand died in early 1930, and left property and possessions to the value of $73,835. This was made up as follows:

$20,000 Beverley Hills House

$35,702 Jewelry and silver

$18, 133 Notes and Real Estate

There was, furthermore, a trust fund to the value of $50,000, which the Normand family claimed over Mabel’s husband, Lew Cody. It is not known what the outcome of the case was, and there is no record, as to who took the trust income, or the final fate of the fund’s assets. The trust fund is not the only mystery about the Mabel Normand estate. It seems the family thought that much was missing. This suspicion is not surprising, as actresses who’d died much younger had left estates almost as large. Olive Thomas, who died aged 24 in 1920, left $30,000 dollars,following an extremely brief career.

Olive T4

Olive Thomas: died young.

The 1930s, when taxation rates again rose, as a result of the Great Depression, saw the beginning of the major crackdown on tax evasion in the U.S. Mack Sennett always appears to have been under suspicion from 1918 until he was declared bankrupt in 1933. The question was, at the time of his bankruptcy, was whether Mack was truly ‘broke’. The doubt never went away, and, after Mack published his autobiography in 1954, the I.R.S. renewed investigations on the ex-producer. He must have made money from the book, but the contents themselves made interesting reading. Firstly, Mack claimed he was worth $18,000,000 in the late 1920s. Ears pricked up! He also claimed claimed Chaplin kept his money in safe-deposit boxes. Well, if Chaplin did this, then, so did Sennett. More ears pricked up! Even W.C. Fields was outed. According to Mack he deposited his money in banks spread right across the States, and, although some vanished in the Depression, much remained in bankers’ hands after Field’s demise. Could Sennett’s money have been deposited in a similar way? In 1955, the I.R.S.began an investigation into Sennett’s affairs. In spite of money made from his book, Sennett was found to be truly broke, and living off funds distributed by a movie-industry charity. However, Sennett still had friends around him, suggesting he was not penniless. Those friends later moved him, kicking and screaming, into a geriatric home. If Mack did have any residual funds, then these must have ‘disappeared’ at around this time. Only one personal tax return survives in Sennett’s personal papers.



  • In the next post, we endeavor to discover where the money went.



The Life and Times of Mabel and Julia.

Mabel Julia

Mabel and Julia

Julia Benson (nee Brew) was a catholic nun, who, in around 1918, became Mabel’s part-time nurse. Julia was a few years older than Mabel, and almost the same age as Charlie Chaplin. She’d been brought up in New York, but was sent away at a young age to a convent. Around the age of 14, Julia began training as a nun. However, while still a novice, it was decided that Julia would be better suited to social service. Consequently, she was transferred to a convent in Los Angeles that was connected with a hospital. While living at the convent, she trained for nursing at the hospital. On completing her training, Julia was assigned special duties, caring for the clergy, and other selected patients. One of these selected patients was Mabel Normand, who had been badly burned by a mustard plaster that had been applied to treat a chest infection. This seems to have occurred at the end of 1918, whilst Mabel was making ‘Sis Hopkins’ for Goldwyn. When Julia first visited Mabel, she was astonished as to how small she was. “I found a little girl with pigtails, in bed wearing a flannelette nightdress” she later said. Notably, Julia made many comments, in support of Mabel, during the Taylor and Dines affairs.

In bed_pigtails1

“I found a little girl with pigtails.”

Julia was a prop for Mabel for many years, in fact, right up to the day the star died. During the dark days following the Dines affair, Julia travelled with Mabel on her ill-fated theatrical tour. One bright moment occurred when Mabel told Julia to guard the golden symbolic keys of the cities, presented to her by various mayors. Julia had to tell her that the keys not of gold, but gold-painted wood! As she once said, she was always the last to know everything.

Julia Benson

Julia Benson in later life.

In the following years Mabel became sicker and sicker, and along with Mabel’s new husband, Lew Cody, and F. Richard Jones, Julia Benson attended the Hal Roach Studios when Mabel was on set. By this time Mabel required a lot of support. Julia was present in the room, when Mabel breathed her last at 2:25 a.m. on 23rd February 1930. Both Julia and Mabel had realized this would be her last day, and Mabel’s last words were, reportedly, “Julie, don’t leave me.”


Julia Benson was always a friend and private nurse to Mabel, although Mabel’s great nephew, Stephen Normand, has stated that Julia was simply an employee. He points out that Mrs Benson was never a beneficiary of Mabel’s will, although the Normand family allocated $10,000 ($200,000 today) to her from the estate money, for services rendered. Marilyn Slater, who grew up in Mrs Benson house, has claimed that the place was a shrine to Mabel . As Stephen Normand discovered when he stayed at the house, Mrs Benson had almost as many of Mabel’s possessions there, as the Normand family had. Bizarrely, she had also retained blood-stained nightdresses from Mabel’s last days at the sanatorium. A trunkful of Mabel memorabilia had been sold off before Stephen Normand arrived at the house. Of course, a large amoun tof Mabel memorabilia had been destroyed by Mabel’s sister-in-law, following the suicide of her husband, Claude Normand in the 1940s. She had come to regard Mabel as a curse on the family.


A modest pile.

All of the revelations about Julia Benson have, somewhat, blackened her name, although Mabel was, in her lifetime, happy for her friends and supporters to have a share in her wealth. Mabel was, we can be certain, much wealthier than we suspect today. People like Sennett, Chaplin, and W.C. Fields retained and concealed their money in obscure U.S. or Mexican banks. Chaplin, it seems, sent a proportion of his money to Switzerland. Mabel kept her wealth portable. Her house in Beverley Hills was modest by movie star standards, although the house and her safe deposit boxes were stuffed full of jewels and cash. Some of this disappeared when Mabel was confined to the Pottenger Sanitorium, but, as Mack Sennett might say, how much there was, where it was, and who had it is a mystery. One thing is certain, Mabel’s enforced sojourn at Pottenger’s was a cruel act, which prevented Mabel from spending her final days in her own home.  I leave it to others to determine who was responsible.


Claims against Mabel’s Estate



Bibliography  Site maintained by Marilyn Slater

Mabel Normand: A Source book to her Life and Films by Wm Thomas Sherman, 2015.

The King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954)


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.


Think he’ll notice if I tip this on the floor? Fatty and Mabel Adrift 1915.


Let’s eat.

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).

Carn Mabel

Don’t eat it, Mabel!

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.

1. Bulimia

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.


Mabel goes manic in Mabel’s Busy Day (1914).


2. Autism 

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


A depressed Mabel is comforted by Mary Pickford (Mender of Nets 1912).

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).


Mabel and Biograph baby: California 1912.

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).

04 01 St John Arburckle unknown Mabel and Minta with soda1

‘Goop’ or gin? Mabel enroute for New York 1915.

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.

5. 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.


Mabel’s  Death Certificate



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)


* Having seen what Chaplin said about Mabel in the last post, we now move on to comments Mabel made about Chaplin. At the end we pull it all together, and draw some conclusions about their relationship.

Mabel on Chaplin

From: Liberty Magazine.

Madcap Mabel Normand, by Sidney Sutherland

6th September 1930.

Then I decided to help my new friend. In my little dressing room I had a kerosene stove that autumn and winter, and long after everybody had left the studio, Charlie and I would sit there and talk. “What a lovely memory it is! How the great genius of today crept, humble and discouraged, into my bungalow and told me his dreams and listened to mine; how we planned bits of business and little mannerisms; how he decided to develop the queer shuffling little walk of an old coster-monger he once saw in Whitechapel  —  the famous Chaplin walk with the big shoes and little skip and hop when he turned aside.

Note: The first part of this statement is a little dig at Chaplin, but she does not overdo it, and says Chaplin was her friend. She says there was collaboration between them, and this seems perfectly logical. Notice Mabel does not claim to have invented The Tramp, as some people think. Mabel would not have considered making such a claim, as everyone then knew that English music hall performers carried many characters in their heads, one of which was the tramp. For this reason, along with their goldmine of gags, and pantomime abilities, music hall stars were much in demand in early Hollywood. Incidentally, the details of the Tramp, the perched derby hat, the tight jacket, and the baggy trousers are almost certainly taken from Sennett’s own film character (a very wise move, Charlie!).


Chaplin was famous pre-Keystone.

Nappy turned him over to me and I directed several of his pictures, in some of which I also played. And while it would be folly and untrue for me to say I am responsible for very much of his present standing as the screen artist beyond compare, yet I’m proud to say that he held my hand while he found his way through the swamp of learning the game. That Charlie is prompt to acknowledge the strength he found in my arm is one of the happy spots in my life.

Note: Mabel is keen to say that she had directed several films of the world’s greatest comedian. In reality, they were joint directors of the Keystones the pair appeared in (apart from those Sennett personally directed). Mabel never directed Chaplin films in which she did not appear.


Life, before the shadows came to both of us, was one long riot of laughter for Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand in those glorious days. Studio automobiles were scarce, but when Chaplin or I got tired of working we’d wink at each other, sneak off the set when Sennett’s back was turned, beat it out to where the cars were parked, and climb into a big touring car with the top down. The drivers loved me and risked Nappy’s wrath to take me for a ride.

Note: The important thing that Mabel taught Chaplin was how to enjoy life. This was essential for survival in the movie colony. Chaplin later became the life and soul of the party around Hollywood, as Lita Grey, Claire Windsor and Louise Brooks later attested. Note Mabel says that the drivers loved her. At one point she had stated that if a man said he loved her, or said she was beautiful, she knew she had control of him.

Mab_Rosc_ Chap car

Roscoe looks unsure, as Chas and Mabel prepare to ‘steal’ Sennett’s racing Fiat.


 It makes me proud to have worked with those two men consummate artists, laugh-evokers without peer, tragic clowns in the misadventures that overtook them (Arbuckle and Chaplin)

Well, I didn’t mind; there were enough laughs to go around, and nobody ever stole a picture from me! And most of the kickers are in oblivion.

Note: That nobody ever stole a picture from Mabel, is true, but, at Keystone, she was always able to ensure that no high-order actresses, or bathing beauties, got into her films (except Tillie’s in which she and Chaplin played supporting roles). It seems the only time that Mabel got angry with Chaplin, was when Sennett (or his partners) gave him the opening scene in Mabel’s Strange Predicament. It is likely that Mabel thought the scene where she enters the hotel was going to be the opening scene (her name, after all, graced the film title). This may be the reason why the pair was kept apart for two months, until Mabel At The Wheel. The bust up in the latter film may have been due to Mabel insisting on her being the director, if she was ever to appear with Charlie again. The battle royal that ensued in Mabel’s Strange Predicament, resulted in a draw, I would suggest, although leading ladies and men are never in direct competition with each other. Considering Mabel’s medical condition at the time, she may have been mentally and physically drained by the end of the one-day shoot.


This made Chaplin very unhappy, so he wrote us asking if the job was still open at seventy-five dollars and a three month’s contract. I ran across the letter a week or so later and scolded Nappy for not showing it to me. After some delay he wrote Chaplin in Denver, offering him seventy-five dollars a week and a three month’s contract.

Note: Mabel had three different versions of the Chaplin coming to Keystone story. This particular one is out of kilter with every other known Chaplin story. Furthermore, Mabel seems unaware that Charlie started on $150 a week. It is highly likely that Sennett kept a letter ‘on ice’, but this was probably the letter from Adam Kessel informing him that they’d signed Chaplin, and for Sennett to see him when he arrived in L.A. Sennett was probably not happy, although Mabel was keen to have a great vaudevillian around the place – she’d got on very well with Raymond Hitchcock, a famous stage actor, much hated by Sennett. Hitchcock had, probably, come to Keystone via Kessell and Baumann, and had had ‘words’ with Sennett in his stage days. The actor was to play a major part, along with his wife, in helping Mabel in her professional squabbles with Sennett.


Mabel at a 1926 premiere with Lew Cody (L) and Raymomd Hitchcock (R).


Charlie left the show and came out to us, and we began a friendship that has never wavered or weakened in the lights or in the shadows that have come to darken both our lives.

Note: Mabel alleges a constant friendship, but alludes to the disasters that fell upon Hollywood’s greatest comedy stars.


From: Mabel’s mini-autobiography.

Los Angeles Examiner, 17th February 1924.

Charlie met Broncho Billy Anderson, who was making pictures for Essanay at Niles, Calif. Mr. Anderson realized Chaplin’s tremendous talent and offered him $500 per week to sign with Essanay. Charlie told me about it at the time and we were both thrilled. But he didn’t want to go to Chicago, where the head office of Essanay was located, and he didn’t give Mr. Anderson a definite answer. The next day I met Charlie on the street and he told me that Essanay had offered him $1000 per week. Well! Neither of us said a word. We just put our hands on our hips and stood and looked at each other. Again I was speechless. And so was Charlie. “Do you think they mean it?” he asked me. “Do you really believe they can be serious? Is there that much money? “It was so amazing that he should jump, overnight, from $100 to $1000 per week that we couldn’t believe it. We thought Essanay were just talking for exercise. But it was all true and Charlie signed the contract and went to Chicago at the first really big salary in the history of motion pictures.

Note: More secrecy from Charlie, he actually got $1,250 a week from Essanay, plus a $10, 000  signing bonus. However, it is clear from this that Mabel and Charlie discussed just about everything. Later, Mabel said they had dinner together, and shed a few tears over Chaplin’s departure.


All smiles, but Charlie intended leaving her behind at Keystone.


From Picture Play, April 1916.

Behind The Scenes With Fatty And Mabel

 by Wil Rex

For a long time, I directed all the pictures I played in, the best known of which are the Chaplin series. Lately, however, I have given up that end of the game, finding enough to do with acting.

Note: Contrary to what most people think, Mabel had given up directing by the end of 1915. The new feature films coming along, required expert direction from professionals, like F. Richard Jones. Mabel was never given the chance to direct Chaplin films alone. Where she did direct Chaplin films, it was in concert with the self-styled genius. There is, furthermore, no indication that she directed Chaplin films in which she did not appear (she was, clearly, too busy with her own films to direct another actor’s films).


From Motion Picture Magazine, November 1918:  Mabel In A Hurry

by Frederick James Smith).

She thinks Charlie Chaplin the screen’s greatest actor.

Note: speaks for itself


Mt_Lowe Pick

Young scallawag Jack Pickford puts snow down Mabel’s back in 1912.

From: Los Angeles Herald, January 21, 1919

Chaplin’s Bride In Snow Battle

How would you like to stage a snowballing party in Southern California? Ridiculous, you say. You’re all wrong, and if you don’t believe it write to Mrs. Charlie Chaplin (Mildred Harris) and ask her about one she and Mabel Normand staged. It was on the top of Mount Lowe, the famous peak of the Golden State, and the two screen queens and a party of friends had a royal time battling with each other. Mrs. Chaplin was captain of one of them and Mabel Normand led the other.

Note: Undoubtedly suggested by Mabel, who had a great time in 1912, exchanging snowballs with 15-year old Jack Pickford on Mount Lowe (What The Doctor Ordered). Notice she does not disapprove of Chaplin’s ‘child marriage’. As well as maintaining friendship with Charlie, she became good friends with Mildred Harris (in social terms Mabel also had the mindset of a 15 year old, even when approaching 30).


From Albany NY Times Union, November 25, 1921


by James W. Dean

Mabel Normand’s latest

Mabel Normand’s Art

Mabel Normand ranks closer to Chaplin than any male comic artist. She has a little walk all her own, mannerisms of expression that are individually hers. Her features are plastic. Pathos sweeps across her face like a cloud shadow sweeps across the water on a sunny day. Her every gesture means something. Her acting is realism caught by the camera and projected across the screen.

Note: Mabel was always the mistress of pathos, as can be seen in her Biograph work. Under Sennett, she had little opportunity to combine pathos with comedy. However, with the advent of Chaplin, Mabel made good of combining the two. Mabel’s Busy Day and His Trysting Place are just two examples.

Tramp wlk

Mabel does the Chaplin walk., but she did not invent the tramp.


From Movie Weekly, April 19, 1924

“Would I Have Been Happier If I Was Married?” Asks Mabel Normand. Speaking of the Dines’ shooting, and how she has had to fight for herself all alone since that tragic New Year’s afternoon, the little comedienne pointed out that Charlie Chaplin protected Edna Purviance in a very efficient manner.

“But there was no one to fight for Mabel Normand,” she said sadly. Suddenly her slenderness tautened; her eyes blazed. Mabel was once more the courageous girl who has dared to go up and down the long, long trails alone, unaided and unshielded, “I’m  not going to be the goat in this case. I’m not going to be led to slaughter. It isn’t fair!” she cried.

Note: Louise Brooks was patently aware that Sennett could have done more to help Mabel following the W.D. Taylor and Dines affairs. However, he seems to have dumped Mabel after Taylor’s death, although somehow Mabel fought back, had Phyllis Haver removed from The Extra Girl, and the star role handed to her. Mabel felt he owed it to her, especially as it was her last chance to play a star role, and the last chance to make real money. Brooksie notes that Chaplin helped Edna Purviance, following the Dines affair, in which she was a co-witness with Mabel.


Extra G00014d_b

From Los Angeles Times, April 20, 1930

Grace Kingsley

[Extract of article “The Evolution of the Wild Party”]

…Mabel Normand, whose death we are now all mourning, was queen in those days. If she was in  a café, the party was a success. I remember seeing her one night at [Al “Pop”] Levy’s when Charlie Chaplin was there. She delighted in embarrassing the modest, little English comedian. She sat across the room from him and every time she could catch his eye, she would wave gladly and sing out, “I’ll be your leading lady yet!”…


From: Variety, March 17, 1916

Mabel Normand with Mutual

It was stated that Mabel Normand had signed a contract with the Mutual Film Corporation on Tuesday afternoon of this week. Miss Normand was closeted with President Freuler for almost an hour late that afternoon, and is said to have affixed her signature to a contract. There is a possibility that she will work in the Chaplin releases.

Note: We can well imagine that Mabel was extremely upset that Charlie did not call for her to be his leading lady at Essanay in 1915. However, she never gave up, and her chance came after Chaplin’s 1916 signing with Mutual.  Mabel was in a no lose situation, if the strategy worked with Mutual all was well and good, if not, then, New York Motion Pictures might be so wound up about Mutual, that they would give Mabel her own studio. Nothing came of the Mutual deal, possibly because Chaplin did not want Mabel, who was unpredictable, troublesome, and very expensive. Chaplin always chose actresses he could obtain at a peppercorn rate, and mould into the shape he wanted. Mabel, nevertheless got her studio, albeit briefly. Further note that, by taking an aggressive stand, she had her name above a studio long before Sennett, Chaplin and Pickford.


From:  The Los Angeles Times, October 29, 1921

Mabel Normand Plans

Will Go Abroad To Make Film Next Year

By Grace Kingsley

 I cried when I told Douglas and Mary good-bye, and I cried again when I said good-bye to Charlie Chaplin,” said Miss Normand, “and I’m determined to go abroad within the next few months. I want particularly to make a picture in Spain.

Note:  Although Mary Pickford had been a friend of Mabel for more than 10 years, many would be surprised that she would cry over Chaplin going away to Europe. We can be sure that Chaplin coached her on what to see London and Paris. Unfortunately, he seems to have told her to visit an East End pub in London. Poor little Mabel was almost killed in the rush of drunken fans wishing to see her.

From Photoplay, May 1930


By James R. Quirk

Away from Sennett, she ceased to be the great artist of the screen and became commonplace. Mostly I think it was a matter of understanding. Sennett, as Irish himself as the banshees, alone knew how to get the best from Mabel’s wayward, rebellious Irish heart.

Note: This, Charlie Chaplin told Sam Goldwyn (Goldwyn’s autobiography).


Mack & Mabel. As Irish as the banshees.


What can we deduce from the mass of available evidence on the Charlie and Mabel relationship? Firstly, we can say they remained lifelong friends, although neither was above giving the other a dig in the ribs. Charlie was fiercely egotistical, but, in her own way, so was Mabel. However, Mabel was responsible for toning down Chaplin’s ego, and making him recognize that he had to get on with people to advance his career. What Charlie brought to Mabel was the notion that she could combine both her skills in tragedy and comedy, if she challenged Mack’s idea that she should always act like a crazy, run around like someone possessed, get kicked in the rear, and receive a faceful of pies and bricks.

Mabel never, as we might have expected, criticised Chaplin for having such young wives, and she was on good terms with a couple of them. However, this may be just part of the Hollywood experience – one should never openly criticise your peers. This would bring the press down on them, but, in all likelihood, the whistle-blower would be next on the list (note that the old Biograph / Vitagraph crowd who ruled Hollywood for almost 20 years, never publicly ‘dissed’ each other). Louise Brooks, who had a two-month long affair with Chaplin in 1925, had nothing but praise for him, but had scathing criticism for his wife, Lita Grey, who was then having Chaplin’s child. By being a friend of Mabel, Chaplin was admitted to the exclusive ex-Biograph circle, an honour that not all stars were to receive. Notably, the overtly-sexual ‘It Girl’, Clara Bow, along with some others, was excluded.

Chaplin’s criticism of Mabel in Mabel At The Wheel was of little consequence, as he was only critical of her directing skills. A year or so later, and she had ceased directing in any case. What Chaplin bitterly regretted for the rest of his life, was the apparently callous way in which he rejected Mabel as leading lady in his films – twice. Unfortunately, Mabel had become un-mouldable, and was doomed to be the eternal Keystone Girl, although she was, thankfully, re-modelled, and updated, by super-director Dick Jones. Chaplin had been entirely responsible for getting Mabel released from Goldwyn, and transferred back to Sennett and Jones, where she was able to produce three wonderful films, before W.D. Taylor, and Courtland Dines intervened.  After 1925 Charlie and Mabel only met up very occasionally, at industry functions and the odd party, but this applied to most other friends she’d known down the years. Chaplin, however, never forgot her, and some years after Mabel’s death, he seems to have resurrected her in Modern Times, as the gamine played by Paulette Goddard (but somewhat toned down to suit a modern audience).



‘Mabel Normand: A Sourcebook of Her Life and Films’ by William Thomas Sherman  Site maintained by Marilyn Slater  Site maintained by William Thomas Sherman

‘The King of Comedy’ by Mack Sennett (1954)

‘Madcap Mabel’ by Sidney Sutherland (1930)

‘Lulu in Hollywood’ by Louise Brooks (1982)

‘Charles Chaplin: My Autobiography’ by Charles Chaplin (1964)













I first discovered Mabel Normand (who I had never heard of) within the pages of Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography. At first, Chaplin briefly mentions her, then, goes into the famous Mabel At The Wheel diatribe.  “Hmm … just another screen ‘bimbo’, methinks”. However, having dismissed The Keystone Girl, Chaplin goes on to talk about her again, and then again, but in an entirely different fashion. Clearly there was something special about this ‘bimbo’, and so I looked her up. What I found was someone who did not fit the Mabel At The Wheel bimbo mould. However, today, the ‘rumour’ of the dumb Mabel persists, and the reason is Chaplin’s comment on her performance in Mabel At The Wheel.


Mabel and co-driver rescued from her car, crashed by Chaplin.


Mabel and Charlie were regarded by the press, as experts on each other, so that in every interview there were the inevitable questions and answers. With so many of these comments it might be possible to determine facts about their relationship. The question is, did Chaplin really think Mabel was stupid, or did he see something in her that led him to form a profound lifelong friendship with her? The answer to this is important, as the future of screen comedy was almost certainly hammered out at Keystone in 1914. In this essay I will list some of Chaplin’s Mabel comments, along with some of the comments Mabel made about Chaplin, and add some brief notes. At the end, I will attempt to draw conclusions about what they thought of each other, and the nature of their relationship.

Mabel in Chaplin’s words.

From Charles Chaplin: My Autobiography 1964

 Signing up for Keystone.

“Had I seen a Keystone comedy?” asked Mr. Kessell. Of course, I had seen several, but I did not tell him that I thought they were a crude melange of rough and tumble. However, a dark-eyed girl named Mabel Normand weaved in and out of them, and justified their existence.

Note: Chaplin implies that Keystone used Mabel in cameo roles, to make their films palatable. Mabel also appeared in cameo in Chaplin’s A Film Johnnie and The Masquerader. Chaplin, then, had a preconceived idea of what Keystone was about. He was, furthermore, keen on meeting a real live movie star.


Mabel cameo in Chaplin’s The Masquerader

Meeting Mack and Mabel

“I thought you were a much older man”, he (Sennett) said …. Mabel Normand, however, was more reassuring.

Note: Mack, we can be sure, was never keen on having any vaudevillian on-board. His ego had been dented long ago by his failure on the stage. When Sennett first saw Chaplin, he had a panic attack. The Englisher was about the same age as Mabel! He had probably noticed some chemistry between his Keystone Girl and Charlie, and wondered if they would run off together (a common occurrence for leading ladies and men, according to Sennett’s autobiography). Mabel might have heard a little about Chaplin from Mary Pickford, who had seen him in a restaurant in 1912 (she waxes lyrical about the early Chaplin in her autobiography).

Later in his section on Mabel’s Strange Predicament, Chaplin leaves Mabel out of his story altogether. The important thing was to tell readers how great he was, and how rubbish the original director Pathe Lehrman was (Sennett states that he took over direction himself, due to disagreements between Lehrman and Chaplin).


Who will steal the picture? Mabel’s Strange Predicament

Mabel At The Wheel.

… he (Sennett) assigned me to Mabel Normand, who had just started directing her own pictures. This nettled me, for, charming as Mabel was, I doubted her competence as a director; so the first day there came the inevitable bust up.

Out on location, Chaplin suggested a gag with a hose, but Mabel quickly shut him up; saying

“We have no time! We have no time! Do what you’re told”. That was enough, I could not take it – and from such a pretty girl. “I’m sorry Miss Normand, but I will not do what I’m told. I don’t think you’re competent to tell me what to do”… Sweet Mabel, she was only about twenty at the time, pretty and charming, everybody’s favourite, everybody loved her. Now she sat by the camera bewildered: nobody had spoken to her so directly before. I was also susceptible to her charm and beauty and secretly had a soft spot in my heart for her, but this was my work. Charlie tried to set out his point of view, but Mabel simply said “Very well, if you won’t do what you’re told, we’ll go back to the studio”.

Note: This was Chaplin’s most damaging remark, intended to assure readers that he was a genius, and everyone else, including Mabel, was a dithering idiot. Having got that out of the way he then proceeds to talk in a more sincere and constructive manner. We now know Mabel was approaching 22 at this time.

Charlie faces the boss.

Back at the studio a very mad Sennett burst into the dressing room, and confronted Charlie, threatening to fire him. He stormed back out slamming the door behind him. Charlie arrived at the studio next day expecting to be fired, but Mack took him to one side and said

“Listen, Mabel’s very fond of you, we’re all fond of you, and think you’re a fine artist”. “I certainly have the greatest respect and admiration for Miss Normand,” said Charlie,” but I don’t think she is competent to direct, after all she is very young”.

Note: Sennett got a kick-back from his partners telling him under no circumstances was he to fire Chaplin, as he was making the company lots of money (they did not care for Mabel’s feelings, as they did not think she would walk out on them). When Sennett told Chaplin he was fond of him, he was lying, as Sennett hated Chaplin’s guts (as revealed in a later letter from Kessell and Baumann to Sennett). Paradoxically, Mabel really was fond of Chaplin, and, for reasons explained below, needed him to stay.

A Description of Mabel

The ‘he-man’ atmosphere of the studio would have been almost intolerable, but for the pultchritudinous influence. Mabel Normand’s presence, of course, graced the studio with glamour. She was extremely pretty, with heavy lidded eyes, and full lips that turned up at the corners of her mouth, expressing humour and all sorts of indulgence. She was light-hearted and gay, a good fellow, kind and generous and every one adored her. Stories went round about Mabel’s generosity to the wardrobe woman’s child, of the jokes she played on the cameraman. Mabel liked me in a sisterly manner, for at that time she was very much enamoured of Mack Sennett.

Note: Truly, everyone loved Mabel, and Chaplin realized Mabel was more than a pretty face. If Mabel had deep feelings for Chaplin, then she had to hide them, for Mack had spies everywhere. It was understood that Mack and Mabel were sort of an item, although this can be better viewed as a sentimental attachment, due to the fact that they had started up together.


The well-known Vitagraph photo of Mabel.

A Famous Trio Ride Out

Because of Mack I saw a lot of Mabel; the three of us would dine together and afterwards Mack would fall asleep in the hotel lobby, and we would while away an hour at the movies, or in a café, then come back and wake him up. Such propinquity, one might think, would result in a romance, but it did not; we remained, unfortunately, only good friends.

Note: Mack probably adhered to the proverb ‘keep your friends close, but keep your enemies even closer’. Mabel was a friend, and Charlie was definitely an enemy – he came from the stage for god’s sake! Mabel was smitten by theatrical people, and it could be that Charlie was at dinner by special request of Mabel. Mack was seen as a terrible social bore, who talked ‘shop’ all day and all night.


Mabel referees the Mack and Charlie spitting contest. The Fatal Mallet.

The following happened at a charity event in San Francisco.

She (Mabel) looked radiantly beautiful, and, as I placed her wrap over her shoulders, I kissed her and she kissed me back. We might have gone further, but people were waiting below, outside in the car.  Later, I tried to follow up the episode, but nothing ever came of it. “No Charlie, she said good-humouredly, I’m not your type, neither are you mine.”

Note: This is often taken to mean a personal rejection of Chaplin. However, Mabel thought it wise to reject all suitors. However, Adela Rogers St. Johns once stated that Mabel was “unusually pure – with no desire, no sex, no nothing”, giving yet another explanation for her universal rejection of suitors. Mack, though, was different – he made no romantic demands on her.

Gentlemen of nerve

“No Charlie, I’m not your type.” Gentlemen of Nerve.


From Photoplay, June 1929

The Butterfly Man And The Little Clown By Adela Rogers St. Johns:

Mabel Normand was the greatest comedienne the screen ever knew. I would not dare to make that statement upon my own opinion alone. I heard it said first by Charlie Chaplin. No one, I think, would dispute his authority. I have heard it said often since by those who should know.

Note: Those that think Chaplin never appreciated Mabel’s ability should think again.

When Chaplin learned of Mabel’s death he said, 

She was one of the truest friends I have ever known and one of the most remarkable, brilliant and self-sacrificing women any one has ever known. She was a great woman and a great character.

Note: need I say more?


Mabel’s illness was of long standing. When I first knew her fifteen years ago, she was suffering from tuberculosis; but so brave was her spirit that she tossed off the threat with a gay indifference.

Note: He says more on this point than Sennett, who claimed Mabel brought about her own death by eating ice-cream for breakfast. Minta Durfee said that Sennett would have worked her to death if he could (recorded interview 1974).


In later years, this malady was aggravated by grave troubles and worries. Mabel was the Patsy who got the blame for what other people did. She suffered humiliation and disgrace in silence when she could have set herself right — by “telling on” someone else.

Note: I wonder who the someone else was? It couldn’t have been Sennett, could it? As Louise Brooks said, Sennett could have done more to defend Mabel from the press feeding frenzy after the Taylor shooting. He could have defended her like Chaplin defended Edna Purviance. (Lulu in Hollywood).

* This concludes Charlie’s comments on Mabel. In the next post we look at Mabel’s comments on Charlie, and try to understand what it all means.


A continuation of Mabel Myths and Legends



Left: Alla Nazimova  Center: Charlie Chaplin and Mabel   Right: W.D. (Bill) Taylor


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,

My Hero

‘My Hero!’ Mack prepares to dispatch Charlie (The Fatal Mallet).

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.


Never mess with a colleen. Chas and Mabel in His Trysting Place

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.


Mabel being feminine at home.

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.


Oh dear, they don’t look happy.


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 PicturesTriangle 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.


Mabel to Goldwyn.

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 with Goldwyn and his stars.

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.

Xtra Gl

Demonstrating her acting skills. Mabel in Extra Girl.

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.

Mabes Car 24

Mabel and Camden Drive mansion.

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.

Pottenger Sanatorium Monrovia, CA

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.






Most people have heard of Mabel Normand, the first female film director, the first woman to gain a U.S. pilot’s licence, the first woman to wear a swimsuit, the first woman to be a film producer, the first woman to win a car race, the first woman motorcycle stunt-rider, and so on. How much truth is in these statements? Let’s have a look.


Mabel not at the wheel controls. A Dash through the Clouds flying scene.

First woman to gain a U.S. pilot’s licence.

There is no evidence Mabel ever held a pilot’s licence, although her sister, Gladys, used some of Mabel’s estate money (probably obtained through her mother) to get a licence. This notion may come from the 1912 film A Dash Through The Clouds in which Mabel was filmed aboard an early ‘string-bag’ aircraft. Keystone hyped this up as ‘that magnificent girl in a flying machine’, and stated this was the first time a woman had flown in an aircraft. As many people know, Harriet Quimby had made a solo flight across the English Channel in 1911, and had been filmed on board the aircraft. She was later killed performing an outside loop, or bunt, around the time A Dash was made.

Mabel Director

‘God save us’ says Dick Jones, as Mabel takes the megaphone.

First Female Film Director.

It is impossible for Mabel to have been the first, as several female directors preceded her. Yes, like many Keystone performers, she was designated as director for some films, but remember, these were short films, made under the supervision of Mack Sennett. One ‘short’ that Mabel and Chaplin directed was Mabel’s Busy Day, in which pathos and melancholy was introduced, and Mabel played a tramp-like coster-girl. The film may be seen as as a sort of tragedy, but it is obvious that Sennett intervened, and ensured the violence was upped in recompense. When Mabel set out to do feature films, she demanded the best direction money could buy – in the form of F. Richard Jones. Good direction became more important as comedy artists left pure slapstick behind. When Mabel and Roscoe Arbuckle went it alone with ‘He Did and He Didn’t’ they seemed to have directed each other, although Roscoe had the credit.


Mabel, the eternal ingenue

However, they made a huge mistake in casting Mabel as a ‘vamp’, or, at least, a naughty married woman. When we see the close up of Mabel in vamping mode, we can clearly see she is being heavily directed by someone off-camera, and it is entirely unsuccessful. Mabel’s later claim that she was not a ‘vamp’, and nor had she been portrayed as a ‘vamp’ is not quite true. How different is the direction Mabel received for Mickey. Jones realized he could not play Mabel as a vamp, and, if he did, Mabel’s audience would quickly evaporate. They wanted to see Mabel as the adventurous, scatter-witted ingénue, or the slighted young mother. Noticeably, Mabel progressed from slap-sticker extraordinaire to polished starlet under the competent direction of Dick Jones. Jones got the best from Mabel down the years, and even in her final days, he coaxed good performances from an actress who was clearly dying. In conclusion, beyond early 1916 Mabel did not direct any films.

First Female Film Producer

Again, there were female producers before Mabel, but was Mabel even a producer? Well, it depends what you mean by ‘producer’. In a way, Mabel was a producer, when she directed her Keystone films, but the real producer was Mack Sennett, or, indeed, Keystone.


Another incredulous look for ‘producer’ Mabel.

Why should this be? The reason is that the producer arranges and pays for the screenplay, and scripts. He usually provides the studio, although sometimes he rents it, and he pays for electricity, transport, most of the costumes, actors and support staff salaries, and all the other one-thousand sundries relating to film production. He also has to arrange loans, or persuade others to contribute funds. Furthermore, he has to continually look over his shoulder for other producers, who might be getting the long-knives out, or, perhaps, be planning to steal his stars. This is life enveloping work, and only a committed workaholic would attempt it. Mabel worked hard at acting, but when the 4 o’ clock studio whistle went, she was straight into her furs and diamonds, and hitting the town, before the boss could grab her for a photoshoot. In other words she was unsuited to being a producer in the way ‘midnight toiler’ Mary Pickford was. In particular, Mabel was lousy with finances, and rightly called Mary Pickford ‘Hetty Green’.

One thing people often bring up is the Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, the existence of which, they maintain, proves Mabel was a producer. However, the MNFFC did not belong to Mabel, it belonged to Triangle, by way of New York Motion Pictures. The studio on Fountain Avenue belonged to Mack Sennett and Keystone. Ever since 1912, NYMP had a series of Mabel Normand companies, which regurgitated old films, sold Mabel dolls, and all sorts of other Mabel stuff, and the MNFFC was no different. Mabel, though, had pushed for this company, and beat Pickford, Chaplin, and even  Sennett, in getting her name above a studio door, demonstrating she was as ambitious and mercenary as anyone else. So pushy was Mabel that she even signed with Mutual (ostensibly to appear in Chaplin films) in March 1916, in order to force NYMP to heed her demands.


Mabel At The Wheel: Left: Mabel applies race-winning cosmetics. Right: Looking like Marie Lloyd, Mabel wins the race.

First woman to win a car race

I looked into this, and tried to discover which car race(s) this related to. Plenty of 1910s car races are documented, but in none of them did I find the name Mabel Normand, or any other actress. I did find an article, which said Mabel would be driving a car in a certain race, but she is not recorded as actually being in the race. Clearly, this is a Keystone story, and Mabel might not have even known about it.  Perhaps this article related to certain scenes in Mabel At The Wheel, which was filmed partially at the Santa


Mabel at the wheel of her ‘Roller’.

Monica racetrack. Another story, which may have been put out by Keystone, is the alleged car race challenge between Mabel and Marie Dressler. Apparently, Mabel suddenly stood up in the Keystone commissary, and challenged Marie Dressler to a car race. It was said that Mabel hated Marie, and was annoyed that Marie had taken over her dressing room. There is no evidence that Mabel hated Marie, who was, in fact, well liked at the studio. It is possible that Marie was installed in Mabel’s old, crumbling bungalow dressing room, but Mabel would have moved into the new dressing room block, where she could hold court among the other actresses. In any case, Mabel’s old bungalow was vulnerable to infiltration from the street by nut-cases. I think Marie was probably big enough to throw any nut straight back into the street. There is only a record of Mabel and Marie entering cars in a race with experienced drivers at the wheel, although both cars probably belonged to Mack Sennett.


Mabel in The Diving Girl.                                                            Vera Thulin

Mabel wore the first swimsuit

More nonsense, but not from the ‘King of Comedy’. Modern style swimsuits (as opposed to bikinis) came into vogue for competitions purposes long before Mabel was filmed wearing one. In publicity material for 1912 The Water Nymph, Keystone announced that the day of the staid old woolen contraption was over. Henceforth, women would be freed by the new non-restrictive swimsuit (1912 was the year of the Olympics and women’s suffrage, was a big deal). Notable wearers of the sleek swimsuit were Olympic swimmers Vera Thulin, and Mina Wiley. If Mabel’s films, The Diving Girl and The Water Nymph are anything to go by, she was an accomplished diver. It is said that Mabel was of championship standard, and Minta Arbuckle avowed that Mabel and Roscoe Arbuckle swam from Santa Monica to Venice pier and back every Sunday.

Mabel the trick motorcyclist

There is no evidence, whatsoever, that Mabel either owned or rode a motorcycle.The whole story comes from Goldwyn studio publicity photos, which shows Mabel standing


Mabel with Jack Pickford and carrying out a stunt. In both photos the cycle is on its stand.

on the Indian’s seat, as though performing a stunt (the machine belonged to her brother). It is clear, though, that the cycle is well and truly on its rear stand. Nowhere did Mabel ever say that she rode a motorcycle, but there is the evidence, from Mabel At The Wheel, that she was once the passenger on a motorcycle, piloted by none other than Charlie Chaplin. Mabel’s story is that Chaplin said he could ride a motorcycle, when, in actual fact, he didn’t have a clue. This resulted in Mabel and Charlie ending up in a ditch, soon after they had set off. A good story, even if untrue.

Mabel_Thor IVb

Bright young things: Mabel and Charlie aboard the Thor IV motorcycle.

Why didn’t Mabel ever obtain a motorcycle,  they were common enough in California at this time? Quite simply, outside of the studio, she was usually attired in the latest Paris designed dresses, furs and diamonds. This was not suitable attire for motorcycling, and her poke bonnet would have provided little head protection.

Mabel was a drug addict

This is a difficult question to answer. Mabel had a serious, and, indeed, fatal medical condition. The exact condition is unknown, but Charlie Chaplin had said Mabel was suffering from tuberculosis as early as 1914. Tuberculosis appears on her death certificate. It is known that Mabel self-medicated, and this is confirmed in Minta Durfee’s interview of 1974. Mabel called the medicine her ‘goop’, although no-one knows what it contained, although we might guess it included an opiate of sorts, plus alcohol, just like numerous other prescription medicines. Minta said that on bad days filming Mickey, when she was coughing up blood, Mabel treated herself with the ‘goop’. The question


Madwoman loose with a big knife! Mabel’s Busy Day

now is, did she graduate from goop to heroin, as has been suggested? Of course it is possible, but no-one, as yet, has come up with the evidence. Heroin use could be implied from the ‘crazy woman’ scene of Mabel’s Busy Day, when Mabel ran, wild-eyed, at a race meeting, brandishing a big knife. However, she could just as well have been drunk, or maybe she was just a good actress. After 1925, Mabel was becoming very much ‘out of it’, and her bad days were very bad indeed. Anita Garvin said that Mabel was ‘losing her mind’ during the making of Raggedy Rose, and was distant, and confused. Undoubtedly, Mabel was taking some medication, but the mental vagueness was probably caused by the reduction of oxygen to her brain, caused itself by Mabel’s failing lungs.

It was never in Mack Sennett’s interest to even mention drugs, especially as Keystone was said to be the center of L.A.’s drugs trade. However, in his autobiography, he makes this claim: ‘W.D. Taylor stole Mabel from me using drugs’. Very curious indeed, as it is often mooted that Taylor got Mabel off drugs. If we take the accepted view that Sennett was an accomplished liar, then we come to the conclusion that Mack put Mabel on drugs. Perhaps the drugs (whatever they were) helped Mabel when she was really sick, but Mack could not be unaware that this would increase her dependence on him, thereby giving him complete control over her. That Mabel began to drift away from him, and over to Taylor and Paramount, must have hit a sensitive nerve in Mack. The King, after all, claimed to have ‘raised Mabel from a kitten’, so we must speculate that he could have had Taylor removed from the equation. However, the story of Taylor’s murder is long and complicated, and we must leave that to another date. The conclusion must be that there is no evidence for Mabel being a heroin or cocaine addict, although she certainly used some drug, or other, for medicinal purposes. It could not have been otherwise.


Next post: More Mabel Myth and Legend.







Lovers or no?


What are we to make of the story of the two Biograph outcasts, who once had the great D.W. Griffith tearing his hair out, and later, had the director wanting to boil himself in oil? Essentially, this is the tale of the ugly ducklings that turned into swans. It is often claimed that the builders of Keystone were lovers, and that this enabled them to succeed, when all had expected them to fail. What is the truth?

Firstly, as we have seen, there is no evidence they were lovers in the accepted sense. They may have behaved as an item, but any romantic assignations must have been very private indeed. In fact, the pair had no private lives to speak of in the early days – Mack was in his famous office watchtower during working hours and early evening, while Mabel worked all day, then waited for ‘the maestro’ to take her to dinner at the Athletic Club. This was undoubtedly boring for Mabel, unless Ford Sterling happened along.


The Malibu beach house: Fatty and Mabel Adrift. The Arbuckle’s had one just like it.

Evidence would suggest that Mack dropped Mabel back at home after dinner, and then returned to his apartment at The Athletic Club. The pair did not seem to have associated much at weekends, and  Mabel often visited the Arbuckles at their Santa Monica beach-house on a Sunday, something that Mack admitted he never knew about. Now, the Arbuckles were a married couple, and Mabel openly stated that she loved to visit her married friends. This fact might tell us something about Mabel’s psychology. It seems she enjoyed the apparent permanency of her friend’s relationships (although Hollywood marriages were seldom permanent), and it gave her relief from her own thoughts, which were mainly dark. Later, Mabel fatally took up with another ‘couple’, Edna Purviance and Courtland Dines, of  ‘death by chauffeur’ fame. This revelation might shock some people – wasn’t Mabel the world’s most eligible girl? Yes, she was, but Mabel spent her time fending off suitors , and the alleged affair with Sennett helped in this respect. The general public, however, were mainly unaware of the love story (something to do with perceived availability), and proposals of marriage continuously arrived at the studio. No small number of the letters contained diamond engagement rings – very useful for a star who liked to ‘glitter’ (it seems she ended up with a trunk full of diamonds).


Mary Pickford: ‘Affected’                               Florence Lawrence: ‘Talked baby talk’

In earlier posts, it was demonstrated that Mack latched onto Mabel at an early date, whilst at Biograph. Mabel was naïve and gullible at that time, but, according to Mary Pickford she was also very shy. Mack was annoyingly boisterous, and pushy, having been a boiler-maker, and an ‘entertainer’ at bordellos down on The Bowery. Mabel came from a respectable lower middle-class family, based in quiet Staten Island. Whether Mack was always a ‘control freak’, or whether he became that way after meeting Mabel, is unknown, but he quickly became Mabel’s ‘Svengali’. This is illustrated by the fact that the other Biograph girls became alarmed at Mack’s influence over Mabel. It seemed that Mabel was changing, she was becoming more rebellious, more ready to ridicule her ‘betters’. She was turning into – Mack Sennett! What precisely does being Mack Sennett


Mack and Fred Mace serenade Mabel in 1912.


mean? It means anti-authoritarian, it means belittling your peers, and it means never letting anybody get the better of you. In the beginning, anti-authoritarian equaled stoving cop’s helmets in; belittling your peers equaled calling Mary Pickford ‘affected’ and Florence Lawrence a talker of ‘baby talk’. Mack responded to people trying to get one over on him by getting in with the ‘boss’, W.D. Griffith. Later he seems to have taken direct revenge against those that stood in his way. Mabel, an impressionable young girl, took these traits on board, and this probably led to her becoming a crazy ‘babbler’, with an element of facetiousness.  It seems Mack taught Mabel two more things, how to ride a horse, and how to shoot a gun.


Mabel Indian-leaps onto her horse 1916                              Airplane Mabel fires her pistol 1912

Having discussed the Sennett ‘traits, we now come to the sticky subject of Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin came to loom large in Mabel’s life at Keystone, from what Charlie and Mabel had to say about the matter.  I have covered the Charlie and Mabel story elsewhere, so I will summarize, and say that Charlie was the antidote to Mack. Charlie had the aura of a bohemian poet or writer, and, as Mary Pickford tells us, was very attractive to women. The two formed a relationship that was probably even more profound than the one between Mack and Mabel, but unfortunately the full details are unknown. It appears that


Charlie and Mabel get musical.

Chaplin was driven from Keystone by Sennett, much to the angst of his partners Kessell and Baumann. Chaplin, for one reason or another, was unable to employ Mabel at his new studio (as she expected), and Mabel inevitably fell back into the clutches of Mack ‘Svengali’ Sennett. The minor head injury Mabel received in October 1915, was probably caused by a  shoe thrown in a wedding scene, as reported at the time. No credence can be given to the notion that the injury was caused by a love rival, although Mabel may have been upset by the number of actresses Mack was pushing to prominence. Of the reported marriage plans, there is not a shred of evidence.

As previously told, Mabel stayed on at Keystone until a lifeline was thrown her by Kessell and Baumann, presumably after she complained about the level of slapstick, and being hit in the head with shoes. She moved to the NYMPC (Triangle) studio in Fort Lee, and then to The Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, set up by Kessell, Baumann, and Ince, but soon to be controlled by Sennett, who provided the studio lot and buildings. [Endnote].


The Sennett will of 1919.

The real break up with Sennett occurred at the end of 1916, when Mabel ‘ran away’ to Sam Goldwyn. Mabel realized that she was doomed to 2-reel slapstick comedy if she returned to Keystone (now Sennett Studios). Mabel’s health was declining, and the old fast-speed nonsense was becoming impossible. Sennett, however, was prepared to work her to death, according to Minta Arbuckle. This is why he sent lawyers to pursue her in New York, and attempted to have the Goldwyn contract annulled. They failed, and Mabel was saved – this time. A few years later a curious thing happened. Mack made out his will, leaving everything to his mother, but naming Mabel as beneficiary, should his mother  predecease him. However, this will was found in Sennett’s private papers, and was not lodged with any attorney. In other words it could be a Sennett fake.


‘Told you I’d get the part’. Mabel, Mack, Dick Jones. Extra Girl still 1923.

Of course, whilst we all believe that Mabel was created by her parents, Mack believed that he had created her, and that she was, therefore, his property. So sure was Mack that he could make another Mabel that he set to work on Gloria Swanson. Gloria later stated that Mack said these words to her,

“I’m going to make another Mabel Normand out of you”. To this the eternal diva replied, “Oh no you’re not! If you think I’m going to do prat falls, 108s, and fall off cliffs, you can think again!”

Miss Swanson left soon after.

Mack and Mabel were reunited again in 1920, when Goldwyn gave up Mabel. From this time onward, the pair remained at arm’s length to each other, and only spoke when it was absolutely necessary. Dick Jones became her only director, but just one film was completed before disaster struck. This was the W.D. Taylor affair, where that director was shot dead, minutes after Mabel left his house. Sennett intervened to protect his investment, and shooting of a 2nd film continued. Sennett was a major suspect, but he had an alibi. Mabel left for Europe, and did not return for 2 months. In the meantime Sennett had begun filming The Extra Girl with another actress, but Mabel, on hearing of this, contacted Sennett saying the part should go to her. Mack relented, although he had no reason to do so, suggesting Mabel had something on Mack – perhaps to do with the Taylor shooting. Following The Extra Girl Mack had no more to do with Mabel, until he attended her funeral as a pall-bearer in 1930.


A very blue-eyed Mabel hits town in Mack and Mabel



There was no love affair between Mack and Mabel, although they, understandably, developed a sentimental attachment from their early work together. Strangely, it appears, from Mack’s autobiography, that he knew very little about Mabel, and he certainly didn’t understand her. Later developments more or less ended their association, due to Mack briefly dropping Mabel after the Taylor affair, Mabel was probably always under the impression (or knew) that Mack had shot W.D. Taylor. Mabel’s final pay-off was the The Extra Girl, from which she, perhaps, received a half- a-million dollars, and was set up for life. The blame for the fabrication of the story of Mack and Mabel, lies firmly at Sennett’s door, who took advantage of Mabel’s death to produce a pack of lies. The purpose was to relaunch his career, via the vehicle of his autobiography. There is little to commend this mish-mash of a book, and Louise Brooks has claimed there is only one line of truth in the whole worthless thing. What is so intriguing is the fact that Louise had written her own memoirs, exposing the evils of Hollywood, then thrown the lot in the trash can. Could it be that, when even Sennett was unable to reveal the truth, she did not have the nerve to publish?



The Mack and Mabel romance – you either believe it or you don’t. For those that do, it is possible that they want to believe it. It’s a great story, from the master of illusions. Undoubtedly we will be bombarded down the years by Mack and Mabel this and that, but remember this — Mabel’s memory and reputation does not depend on it.

Endnote: Things were not quite as simple as suggested. Before the MNFFC was created Mabel had signed a contract with Mutual to appear in Chaplin films. The deal fell through, probably due to Chaplin rejecting Mabel for his films.



‘Mabel Normand: A Sourcebook of Her Life and Films’ by William Thomas Sherman

‘When The Movies Were Young’ by  Linda Griffith (1925)  Site maintained by Marilyn Slater  Site maintained by William Thomas Sherman

‘The King of Comedy’ by Mack Sennett (1954)

‘Madcap Mabel’ by Sidney Sutherland (1930)

‘Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett’ by Simon Louvish (2003)

‘The Fun Factory: The Keystone Film Co. and The Emergence of Mass Culture’ by Rob King (2009)

‘Lulu in Hollywood’ by Louise Brooks (1982)

‘Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory’ by Brent E. Walker (2010)

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

‘My Life in Pictures’ by Charles Chaplin (1974)

‘Charles Chaplin: My Autobiography’ by Charles Chaplin (1964)

The Mack Sennett Papers: Held at The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences







Am I downhearted – of course not!


Mabel held her ground, although she’d managed to trip herself up, and should have been more respectful of the court, so that the press had nothing to get their fangs into. Charlie Chaplin often used to say, ‘Are we downhearted? I should jolly well rather say not!’ Mabel continued on, and saved her investment in The Extra Girl by touring the country drumming up business. This worked better than expected, and the takings were good. It could be that Mabel eventually made a million dollars from the film, due to her contract for 25% of the net profits. Mabel realized this was her swansong, and sat back for a while, and enjoyed a little relaxation. Mack and Mabel now had an amicable enough split, and Mabel was well recompensed for her troubles, caused perhaps by Mack. The film Mary Ann was dropped, and eventually the screenwriting costs were written off as a loss.


Mabel in Wonderland. A still for The Extra Girl.

There was little personal contact with Mack over the remaining years of Mabel’s life. After seeing The Extra Girl get off the ground, Mabel consulted friend and ex-theatre star Alla Nazimova, with a view to going on the stage. Nazimova helped Mabel project her weak voice, and thought it powerful enough for the theater. Unfortunately, the attempt failed, and Mabel returned to L.A., where she bought a mini-mansion in Beverley Hills, and entered a life of relative ease, until she became restless, and secured, or was secured, a place at Roach Studios. What did Mack think about this? Roach was his greatest enemy, except for Lew Cody, who finally snared the ‘the little clown’ in marriage (of sorts) in 1926. Mack never admitted that Mabel ended up at Roach, and also claims Dick Jones never went there. Well, we have to face it, Dick and Mabel made tolerably good films at Roach, considering Mabel’s medical condition, and Mack never saw Mabel at all after 1926. Mack’s next appointment with his Keystone Girl was in 1930, when he was an honorary pall-bearer at her funeral.

Mabel funeral 01

The good and the great attend Mabel’s funeral (1930)

The continuing story…

Strangely, the Mack and Mabel story does not end there. Mack made sure that it was never forgotten, or, at least, his version of it. In 1933 the great Mack Sennett empire tottered and fell – Mack had gone bankrupt. Of course, it wasn’t Mack’s fault, it was the fault of his business partners, chiefly Adolph Zukor of Paramount Pictures. Paramount, quoth Mack, had blown its cash on Byzantine lobbies and plush seats in their cinemas. When the Great Depression hit, they found themselves over-leveraged. However, Mack himself had been acting the great property magnate, and owned massive amounts of land around L.A. Problem was he didn’t really own it, the banks did. Hollywoodland was

Calvary Mauso

Mabel Normand resides here (The Mausoleum, Calvary Cemetery).

his biggest failure, and today only the sign (partially) remains. As he sat alone in a hotel lobby in 1936, Mack, must have recalled Mabel’s prophetic words ‘That man will end up broke and alone.’ Ghostly, cutting laughter was heard around Mabel’s mausoleum. Nonetheless, Mack wasn’t finished yet. He’d used Mabel to launch his career, and now he’d use her memory to reinstate it. It seems he intended to make a film on the story of Mack and Mabel – not the real story, obviously, but a sentimentalized version of the truth. Mack was a showman, and story-teller par excellence, and if anyone could pull it off it was him, The King of Comedy. Before he did the rounds of the studios, Mack needed


Louise Brooks

to determine who would play the role of Mabel. Clearly, it could not be a current star who commanded a hefty salary, but someone with star appeal who could be had cheaply – what about a young, but washed-up actress? There was such an actress, and Mack saw her everyday going in and out of the hotel. Her name was Louise Brooks, and she was still attractive, but finished with show biz. Louise could feel Mack’s eyes burning into her as they followed her across the lobby, She didn’t exactly know why, but guessed he was ‘paying attention’, as he had in his prime. Mack did get a film of sorts made, loosely based on the Mack and Mabel story (without Louise), but no-one would touch the full screenplay. Scroll forward to 1940, and we find Mack paying for, and presenting, a plaque for the Mabel Normand Sound Stage, at his old Studio City base, now occupied by Republic. This was no obscure naming ceremony – anyone who was anyone in Hollywood was there for the glitzy affair that was filmed for posterity.


Mabel Normand Plaque

Fast forward another 14 years, and Mack was completing his autobiography, courtesy of Cameron Shipp. The book was intended to ‘big up’ The King of Comedy, but even The King had to admit it was all about a long-forgotten star, Mabel Normand. There is no question as to why the book was written – T.V. was becoming big, and Mack wanted part of it. By this time, however, Mack was past his sell by date, and new people were at the forefront of T.V. programming. His story was never taken up, but the book, with his version of events, still existed, and it seemed obvious that someone would eventually forge something from it. in 1974, fourteen years after Mack’s death, there appeared the musical stage show Mack and Mabel based on the fallacious story Mack had been purveying [Endnote]. Although the show itself was a ridiculous travesty, it did bring Mabel’s name to the fore, and she has not been forgotten since. Mabel is now commemorated at the studio where the Mabel Normand Feature Film Company had once been ensconced. It’s called the Mack Sennett Studio.


The opening show generated a fair amount of interest, and was attended by members of the Normand family. Since then, Mabel has received more recognition, and she is  not left out of Hollywood documentaries, as she was in the 1950s.

Next Post: Pulling the evidence together – was there a Mack and Mabel Romance, or just a Mack and Mabel story?



 W.D. Taylor                                  Mary Miles Minter                    The Butler: Henry Peavey

Who killed Bill Taylor?

Who killed Bill Taylor? ‘I don’t know’, said Mack Sennett, and neither did anyone else. Some 300 people admitted to the killing, but no-one was ever charged with the murder. The only one without a real alibi was Charlotte Shelby. The ex-butler, Sands, was never found, and Mack Sennett had a good alibi. Mabel was never a suspect, as she would have been foolish to return to Taylor’s house, and shoot him, and, furthermore, she possessed no gun of the right caliber. At least one person had seen her at the house right before the shooting, and her household staff backed her story of going straight home. Charlotte Shelby was the prime suspect all the way through. However, when we look into it, we

_Bill Taylor

On the job: W.D. Taylor directing

find Mack Sennett had the most to gain from the killing. How sound was his alibi? Thomas Ince claimed Sennett was with him when Taylor was shot. However, Ince was joined at the hip, through business, with Sennett, and it is certain that Sennett had some ‘dirt’ he could dish on Ince. With these facts in mind, Mack’s alibi looks less strong. It is for this reason that police interviewed Mack several times. Later, in the early 1950s, Mack actually admitted killing Taylor, and taking thecontentious ‘Blessed Baby’ letters. He said he did it because Taylor was ‘queer’. Taylor may have been ‘gay’ but this was not the main reason for shooting the director (especially as Mack himself was gay). As Taylor was thought, in the movie colony, to be gay, then perhaps The King believed no-one in the industry would snitch on him. It has to be said, nonetheless, that Mack was drunk at the time he confessed. In his book, Sennett stated that Taylor had stolen Mabel from him with drugs. He says this out of the blue, just like that. You can make of that whatever you wish.

_Mab DA

‘Taylor, what Taylor?’: Mabel poses with the D.A. and Asst. D.A. in 1922

Now, what of Mabel, why was she suddenly so concerned to destroy her photos, and retrieve her letters? Did she have a premonition that the King of Comedy was gunning for Taylor. The police thought she knew that Taylor was going to be killed, and that Sennett was one of the likely killers. Mabel was constantly quizzed, ‘Was there a man who was jealous enough to want Taylor out of the way?’ Mabel replied, ‘No’. When asked if another woman was involved with Taylor, she again said ‘No’. The police knew the correct answers to these questions, and Mabel’s answers at Taylor’s inquest were greeted with derision by the press. ‘She’s a liar’, they said. What else could Mabel say  –  if Mack had killed Taylor, he might come gunning for her. If she’d told on Mary Miles Minter, how could she be sure that Paramount boss, Adolph Zukor, wouldn’t ‘send the boys round’. Mabel had walked into a neat trap, as big a trap as Keystone itself. Sennett now had private guards installed around her house, in order to prevent journalists, and anyone else, pressing Mabel for a story. He got Mabel into a new house in Altadena. The press became evermore confident, and reported all kinds of nonsense.

_Mabel hse 1159 Altadena Dr

Mabel’s Altadena house in the 21st century

The Ramifications of the Taylor affair

Leaving aside the murder itself, what effect did the event, the inquest, and the newspaper reports have on Mabel’s life. The effects were huge and long-lasting. They sent Mabel into a down-hill spiral, arrested slightly by Mack and Dick Jones, who pushed her to continue with Suzanna. Unfortunately, the film was not as successful as hoped, probably due to the ‘Taylor effect’ and calls to ban Mabel’s films. It was even reported that a certain group of vigilantes were going to storm Mabel’s house, knock the hell out of Sennett’s guards, drag Mabel off, and force her to tell what she knew. Presumably, Mack doubled the guard. The papers remained full of anti-Mabel rhetoric – she was ‘a gutter-snipe, who laughingly thought she was an intellectual’. She ‘read Freud and Nietzsche, but the books had scandalous magazines, like The Police Gazette, hidden inside them.’ ‘She couldn’t read, so only ever looked at the pictures in cheap magazines’. ‘Mabel could have lived on caviar, but only drugs, gin and roasted peanuts ever passed her lips’. As an example of Mabel’s stupidity, they pointed to her actions in the early Keystones, and her affair with Taylor, a married man (no-one knew he was married at the time of the murder). On top of this the churches began to attack ‘this sinful woman’.


A different kind of Mabel leaves New York aboard The Aquitania

On completion of Suzanna, Mabel took off for Europe, and was filmed with an unsurprising sneer on her face as she passed ‘The Statue’. A huge weight was lifted from her shoulders, and she enjoyed life in Paris and London, where she was lionized by the rich and famous. Mabel spent $100,000 on gowns, according to Sennett, but Mabel, in an interview, claimed she bought little in Europe, and preferred American designers. For once, Sennett was probably right. It seems likely that Mabel spoke to French and British movie-makers, and might have considered staying in Europe permanently. However, Mabel would have realized that she would be a guinea pig, as the age of Hollywood stars (like Bebe Daniels and Bessie Love) leaving for the Old World was still a decade away.

After kicking over a good many champagne buckets, Mabel returned to New York, where Sennett claims he tried to reach her. There is no evidence for this attempted contact, and, indeed, Mack had started a new feature film, The Extra Girl, with Phylis Haver as the leading lady. He seemed to have told Mabel that his next feature film would be Mary Ann, and she would star in it. When Mabel heard a ‘Bathing Beauty’ was in her place, she was furious, and rang Mack, demanding the part. Curiously, Mack fired Phyliss after a month’s filming had been completed, and replaced her with Mabel. One can only assume that she had something on Mack, for he had almost certainly dispensed with her services. That something might have related to the Taylor murder. Unbelievably, Mabel signed for a massive (for her) $3,000 per week plus 25% of the net profits.

_aPhyllis Haver1

Blonde bombshell Phyllis Haver looking very Mabelish

Another shooting clouds the horizon

No sooner had The Extra Girl been released (Nov. 1923), than Mabel was involved in another shooting. This time, someone at the scene admitted the crime – it was Mabel’s chauffeur, the chain-gang escapee Horace Greer. The circumstances this time were slightly different, for Mabel was actually present. Unfortunately, Edna Purviance was present again, only this time as a witness to the shooting. Edna, Mabel and the shot man, Courtland Dines, were drunk, and so the statements they gave were at variance with each other. The press were preparing for another feeding frenzy.

edna purviance

Edna Purviance

The newspapers were fully reporting the events, as they knew them, but pounced on the way Mabel spoke about those events. ‘I guess someone shot him, mister’, said Mabel when the police entered Dines’ apartment. Oh dear, not a good start. Reports were then made about Mabel’s statements to the police at the station. ‘There seems to be some discrepant of the fads’, she reportedly said. She was, of course, still slightly drunk, and


chauffeur Greer stated to police that Mabel was always getting drunk, and, for this reason, he had considered throwing in the job. The newspapers, of course, had to refer to the fact that Mabel and Edna were attired in the usual movie star manner. Gold this, gold that, plush velvet, ostrich feathers etc. etc. A further attack was made on Mabel’s speech on arrival at Dine’s hospital bed. ‘Hoy’s the sweetie’, she allegedly said, in her best Brooklyn voice. Furthermore, Mabel threatened to shoot the chauffeur. Unfortunately, Mabel appeared to have a change of personality at the court hearing, and entered into some eloquent speech on the stand, all given in an aristocratic manner, with a few ‘French’ hand gestures thrown in. The press had another field day – ‘How dare someone who’d crawled from the gutter put on airs and graces in a court of law’. Mabel could not win, whatever she did!

Next Post: ‘Am I downhearted, of course not!’