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The Keystone lot before Keystone. 1906.

In her lifetime Mabel Normand only touched briefly on her role in setting up and keeping Keystone Studios going. She was also cagey about the role she played in Charlie Chaplin’s rise in film comedy. As Chaplin would have said ‘Modesty forbids.’ But let’s suppose she had free reign to talk, what would she have said on these subjects.


Mabel Normand: The Face of Keystone.

1. Keystone.

When you read the title of this piece, you might wonder “Has the Little Clown gone all swell-headed on us?” Well, what I intend to say here is the truth, with no arrogance, self-aggrandizement, nor pomposity.

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Keystone has a unique place in the history, not just of American comedy, but of the burgeoning industry as a whole. For that reason, it is worth examining the history of the studio, and the way that great edifice came into being. If you think that Paramount, MGM and the other big studios were the top dogs, they were not even thought of in 1911, when my story begins. Furthermore, Adolph Zukor had only recently walked away from his rag stall, and Sam Goldwyn was still peddling gloves to farmer’s wives across America. I called the former ‘The Poison Dwarf’ and the latter ‘The Waddler’ (Mack Sennett, by the way, I called ‘Nappy’). It is true that companies like Biograph and Vitagraph were flying the stars and stripes for the U.S. industry, even though a certain irreverent, dark-eyed girl, called Mabel, was doing her level best to push them back to the Stone Age. Meanwhile, most of the U.S. studios dealing in comedy had gone under, while trying to fight against the kings of the art, the French studio Pathe.

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Max Linder meets Charlie Chaplin.

In 1911 there was only one man crazy enough to think he could take on the French, and produce comedy that would equal Pathe and their star, Max Linder, on the screen. His name was Michael Sinnott (Mack Sennett), and he had a girlfriend called Mabel Normand. Both Mack and I were of French extraction, with a little Irish madness thrown in, and both appreciated the Gallic humour portrayed by Max Linder. Oh, how we prayed we’d one day meet Linder, and so certain were we that we would meet him that we spent our hard-earned treasure on a French phrase book (years later a little Limey called Charlie Chaplin was to do the same thing).

You may know that neither Mack nor Mabel were very popular with the King of Biograph,  director D.W. Griffith. He thought Mack was insane, and he thought I was a disgusting and irreverent little girl. Having had to put up with the constant stream of profanities I threw at him, and my penchant for belittling him, and pulling chairs out from under him, it’s not surprising he grew to detest me. For these reasons, neither Mack, nor I, got the best parts. At least we can say we never bowed to the ‘Southern Gentlemen’ and while other girls had stage mothers and aunts to push them forward, I had no such help. I did, however, have Mack, a big, strong man, who’d been a boxer in a former life, and, should Griffith have laid violent hands on me (like he did with Mary Pickford and others) Mack would have instantly knocked ‘The Genius’ out.

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‘Madman’ Mack Sennett hitches a ride in Faithful, 1911.

As time went on Mack began to get ‘lunatic’ roles, and I became Biograph’s resident tragedienne, who always died before the final scene. In early 1911, Biograph departed New York, to winter in California. Mack went along, but I was left behind, as my mother refused to chaperone me, and Griffith refused to take responsibility for ‘that stupid, reckless girl’. Mack stayed in touch by letter, and advised me to go to Vitagraph, where I could learn comedy under Flora Finch and John Bunny.


Mabel with John Bunny in Troublesome Secretaries (1911).


This went well, until I was fired for mooning out of the window at passing train passengers. Can you imagine how horrified the church ladies and plug-hatted gents were at seeing a girl’s rear-end before their eyes! I still laugh about it today. In the meantime, Mack had met up with two New York wise guys, in L.A. called Kessell and Baumann. They had a studio in N.Y. named Reliance, and they told Mack I should get down there. This I did, but I only lasted four hours before the director (Wally Reid’s father, Hal) threw me out for ‘unacceptable behaviour’. My mother was livid, as she was relying on my earnings, but I told her I’d left, as the director had tried to molest me (not an unusual occurrence in a 1911 studio). In actual fact, I had told Hal he was “a fucking overweight slob”, and pulled the chair out from under him. Exit Miss Normand.


Mack was ever ready to defend Mabel’s honor.

When Biograph returned from California, I met up with Mack on 5th Avenue for a milk shake. He told me not to worry about the trouble with Reliance, as he had persuaded Griffith to take me back at Biograph. Although we spent much of the next year arguing, we made plans for our futures. Mack gradually ingratiated himself with D.W., and began to turn the great man’s thoughts towards comedy. In early 1912, we were both taken on for the Biograph trip to California. Mack and I were thrown big time into Biograph pictures, in California and back in N.Y. It was after returning to N.Y. that Mack was taken on-board the new Biograph comedy unit. Mack soon recruited me, and we began making comedies. It wasn’t long before the comedy unit director sickened and left. With great delight, Mack took over the job, and I found myself the director’s girl.

“Mabel” Mack said to me “We need to work hard on our films – I’ve spoken to Kessell and Baumann, and they’ve agreed to form a new comedy unit, led by yours truly, as long as our Biograph comedies turn out good.”

During the making of these films, it became obvious that ‘Mabel’ had to be central to the scenes, as this would make them more palatable to Kessell and Baumann, who were avidly watching. They intended to put a clause in Mack’s contract that Mabel had to be part of the package Mack brought from Biograph. I was made the Queen of the Hive, around whom everything revolved, and my bust (I was voluptuous in those days) became critical to almost every picture. Mack spent as much time organizing the exposure of my cleavage, as he spent directing behind the camera. This was a tricky affair in those far off Edwardian days, as a certain exposure was good, but too much was bad taste.


How a couple of loosened buttons can sell a film. Mack and Mabel in 1912.

After several films, Kessell and Baumann were ready to go, and soon Mack and Mabel were employees of the new Keystone Company, with me on $125 per week, and Mack, as director, on $60 per week, together with a share of the profits (he held 33% of the shares). We stole Ford Sterling, Pathe Lehrman and others from Biograph, and had a rudimentary office in Manhattan. Using me, as a center-piece, was a masterstroke by Mack. We needed no exotic locations, just me, a park and a policeman. As Griffith had discovered, we were big money-makers. Now Mack began to agitate for a studio in L.A. where filming weather was better, and there were plenty of usable parks, and empty countryside. Once K and B had agreed, we were off to the land of orange groves. However, many of my Biograph friends were unhappy that I was going 4,000 miles with that ‘mad Irishman’ Mack Sennett. Blanche Sweet was particularly vocal in her disapproval, but for 125 a week, I was out of there – no Griffith, no mother, nothing to hold me back.


All Mabel needed was a park, a policeman and herself  — and a tramp.

We arrived in L.A. after a rail journey in which I angered all my fellow passengers with my uncouth behaviour. As I have previously related, the snobs on the train were disgusted that a girl, seemingly about 13, was travelling sleeper class with 5 adult men. Fortunately, no-one called the cops. We booked into the Alexandria Hotel, and then I got my first shock. The studio was not in downtown, but miles out in Edendale, a wild-west type area, which, I was told, was dusty in summer and knee deep in mud in winter. There were no made up roads, no electricity, and no drainage. I immediately turned on my heel, and headed back to the rail-head. Mack caught hold of me, and placated me with stories that K and B had lodged 800 dollars with the city for electrical connection, and the roads and drainage would be coming soon.

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Who lives in a place like this?

I reluctantly agreed to go and take a look. We rode out to Allesandro Street on the trolley, and alighted in a sea of mud (there are summer rains in L.A.). The so-called studio was a field, or yard, of around 4 acres on which stood an abandoned grocery store, a barn, a corral, and a rickety bungalow. There was no fence, and I turned, and began to run in the direction of L.A. Mack again caught my arm, saying:

“Give it a chance Mabel, have a look around”.

I looked, and did not like what I saw. We went to the bungalow, which looked like something Wyatt Earp had lived in. Half the windows were hanging out, and when we opened the door, the whole rotten thing fell straight in, sending up a thick cloud of dust.

“Don’t worry, we’ll fix it up and live here … save the trolley fare from L.A.” said Mack.

My reply was curt:

“Now you listen to me, Michael Sinnott. The Keystone Girl does not, and never will, live in a shed. Nor does she fornicate in such a place. I’m a good Catholic girl, Mack, and I decide where I live, and I decide who I sleep with. That does not mean a thick Irishman like yourself, in a shack like this.”

Like Dick Whittington, I turned again, and, once more, Mack caught hold of me, saying

“O.K. Mabel, you stay at The Alexandria, and I’ll fix this up as an office.”

“Whoa, hold on a minute, mastermind” I said. “You fix half of this up as a dressing room for me, and I want thick carpet throughout, Louise XIV fittings, a stove, and an oven. Oh, and a bathtub, and walnut paneling on the walls.”

Dress Room Mabe

Fit for a star. The Queen Bee’s hive at Keystone.

Mabel had spoken and so it was done. While I lived in plush surroundings at the Alexandria, Mack had to move into The Athletic Club, in order to save company money. It cost Keystone $160 for the first few weeks, to keep me in splendor and booze at the Alexandria – I was worth every penny.

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The hallowed halls of the Alexandria Hotel.

In 1914, Charlie Chaplin said to me, as he first looked around the lot

“What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this.” 

Well, Mr. Chaplin didn’t know the half of it. By 1914, with my constant bickering the lot had been transformed. It was still a dump, but an atmospheric dump. Charlie found out what living in a shack was like, when he moved into a cowboy shed on the Essanay lot, with the very eccentric cowboy Broncho Billy (G.M. Anderson). There was no electricity, no drainage, and sand came out of the faucets. All for a lousy $1,000 a week paycheck! Without me, the Keystone would have been a horrific place in which to work. In 1914, big bossman Charlie Baumann sent his daughter Ada to Keystone, and I pointed out to her all the crappy things about the studio. She reported back to dad, and, in early 1915, his partner, Adam Kessell visited us, with the express intention of kicking Sennett’s ass.


Kessell, Mabel, Stirling and a glum-faced Mack during renovation work.

He berated old ‘Nappy’ in front of the assembled company, and pretty soon the place was spruced up, and a new impressive Spanish-style frontage was erected, together with a more civilized dressing room block for the actresses. Previously the girls had changed in an old rickety barn, before Mack moved to the old grocery store, freeing up half the bungalow for them. I felt such a heel, as I dressed in relative luxury in my bungalow, but I could only invite so many of the actresses over to my dressing room. It was all so embarrassing, and I always tried to keep my friends (all big stars with prestigious studios) away from the lot. They believed the Keystone hype, which showed the lot as a bona fide studio, somewhere in downtown. Remember, I was the biggest star in the universe in 1915, but if my admirers had discovered I made my films in the municipal dump, I’d have become a laughing stock.

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Ada Baumann fends off a dirty old man (Mack Sennett) in Mabel At The Wheel. (1914).

All of the changes at Keystone happened because of the constant threats I made to leave the company. Why didn’t I leave, early on? Mainly it was due to the pleading of most of the company, who believed the studio would topple if I left. Chaplin’s excuse for not taking me with him to Essanay, was that I was like a raven in the Tower of London – if the ravens left, England (or in this case Keystone) would be no more.

The main problem at Keystone was that I had no right of say in the company affairs. If I had held shares, I could have influenced company decisions. But I was young and foolish, and full of excitement at leaving home for the coast. Financial matters were far from my mind. The only influence I had was my own presence, and I used it to influence everything at the studio. I made myself popular with the actors and actresses, and took up their concerns with the management. When the stock company and extras complained about being fed dry and curled up sandwiches, I ordered Mack to build a canteen, or commissary as we called it back in the day.

“A canteen, Mabel!” howled Mack.

Yes” I said “But not an ordinary canteen, I mean a proper restaurant, with chefs and dickie-bowed waiters.”

Again, Mabel had spoken, and so it was done.


Director Dick Jones enjoys Mabel’s restaurant.


The restaurant proved a big hit, and I’m sure actors stayed put more often than they would have done. I further ordered that Mack dole out sick pay, and holiday pay for the workers – not the stars. By this means, I became the heroine of Keystone, and therefore indispensable for preventing dissent. Of course, I stayed in touch with Ada Baumann, who ensured that problems were communicated to her dad.

As 1915 went on, the assimilation of Keystone with other studios under Triangle became to take effect. Sennett became snowed under with the formation of Triangle, and his lack of control at Keystone became obvious. He had no time for me, and my improvements began to disappear. Under Triangle it would be difficult for Mack to hide the fact that the studio was controlled by a mere slip of a girl. That asshole began to create more obedient Mabels from the sluts and harlots he called Bathing Beauties.


Standby Mabels: Mae Busch, Virginia Kirtley, Dixie Chene.

I persuaded Kessell and Baumann to bring me, and a company of actors, to Triangle’s Fort Lee studio in New Jersey. This was a temporary situation, intended to promote Triangle, but I had no intention of returning to Edendale. When the time came to go home, there was no sign of little Mabel. Then a piece appeared in the newspapers, stating that The Keystone Girl had skipped the coop, and gone over to Mutual and Chaplin. Panic ensued, as Kessell and Baumann, and Mack Sennett realized they were screwed. They bought little Mabel back with a $100,000 studio, all for herself, in East Hollywood. They paid me a huge salary, which I used to make the studio fit for habitation. There were carpets throughout, pot plants, balconies on the dressing rooms, and fresh flowers every day. I’d brought Keystone into the modern world. Sennett, however, lost his grip, within a year, and the Keystone fell flat, as Mabel made good her escape, for the second time.


The Keystone lost its way from 1917 to 1920, when it proved almost impossible to make decent feature films without Mabel. Stars came and went, as conditions deteriorated at the studio. In 1920, I spoke with Charlie Chaplin on several issues. He was dismayed at how Keystone (now Sennett Studios) had deteriorated, and he was dismayed at how my health and well-being had deteriorated. He begged me to return to Sennett, and I gave it a lot of thought. Unknown, to me my producer Sam Goldwyn had consulted Charlie, as he was at a loss to know what to do with me. His stories and screenplays, straight from the stage, were unsuited to me, and he was in danger of becoming the person that destroyed a great star – not good. Mack Sennett was ready to go, with a new Cinderella story for me, so off I went, but director F. Richard Jones thought I needed a good rest before we began shooting. Naturally, everyone at the studio was glad to see me back as their figurehead, but I was immediately sent east to Staten Island to recuperate. I made a slight detour to Greenwich Village, where I had Bohemian friends, who were keen to help me. I shared in their vegetarian diet, went to bed early, and they forbade me to touch the gargle.


Mabel with Goldwyn and Chaplin.

I returned to Sennett, gay as wisp and ready to start work. I set to it, and worked hard, as I’d contracted for a share of the profits. Going to work was a pleasure, as everyone was so friendly, and too lovely for words. They knew I brought prestige to their studio. I conferred only with F. Richard, and told Sennett to stay away. He obeyed like a begging dog, but I knew he still had private dicks tailing me, and always knew where I was, and who I was with. Some people say Mack saved me from disaster, and that may be true, but I say I saved his studio. There was stiff opposition out there, like Hal Roach, but the big studios were fielding glamorous stars in comedies. There was only one person that could stall them at the box office – me, Madcap Mabel.


Mabel as Suzanna, 1922.

As most people know my time with Sennett ended in 1924, after people I knew started turning up either dead, or near-dead. Sennett helped me out greatly, putting armed guards on my house, and moving me out to Altadena. It was all too much, and after collecting a million for my film Extra Girl, I bailed out for the stage, and picked up another million. Mack kept phoning me to come back, but I’d had enough, and so, in 1925, I bought a house in Beverly Hills, intending to settle down. I kept a fairly low profile, but, getting bored, I considered an offer made by Mack Sennett. He wanted to make a film starring a whole load of his former stars. The idea would have renewed interest in his studio, and would also helped me back onto the screen. I returned to the studio for talks, and this time everyone went crazy:

Mabel’s back” they thought “Everything will be alright now.”

I feel sick that we could not make it work, but the actors and actresses he wanted to use were now big stars, and commanded huge fees. I wanted $15,000 a week and 25% of the profits, and I can tell you that stars like Gloria Swanson most certainly wanted the same. Mack was gutted, but even if I worked for nothing, he still could not have afforded it. Following this, I signed with Roach Studios, where F. Richard Jones was now studio supervisor. The loss of F. Richard was a mortal blow to Mack, who was now involved in complicated financial maneuvers. On top of this he had to rebuild for sound. He built a new sound stage out at Studio City, and let the old Keystone place rot.



Already deep in financial trouble, two local children were killed while playing on the Keystone site, and Mack was sued for tens of thousands. The City ordered that the studio be torn down – another massive expense. Ever the showman, Mack brought journalists to the lot, to witness the tearing down, and one of them invited me along. We wandered through the wreckage, and Mack came up to me saying:

“Mabel, Mabel how did it ever come to this? Things could have been so different”

Now, Mack had treated me like a doormat for years, but I shed a sentimental tear with him – the old times were clearly over. All I salvaged, from the wreckage of my former dressing room, was an old world globe that I used to spin, trying to find the places from which fans had written me. Later, F. Richard asked me how it all went with Mack.

“That man” I said “Will end up alone and broke”.


Addendum: I cannot remember when I heard about it, but it became known to me that Mack Sennett had left all of his worldly possessions to me in his will. For your information, he gave the reason that I was entirely responsible for his, and his studio’s success. [Up to date note: the will still exists]

* Sorry about the length of this section, but I’ll move on to Charlie Chaplin in the next part.






Mabel once wrote a piece titled ‘Would Things Have Been better, Had I Married?’. In this article Mabel did not explain exactly why she had not got hitched to some tin-type, or millionaire. The following blog gives an inkling of what she might have said, if she was asked, in, say, 1929, why she hadn’t married.

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Unbelievable! Mabel Marries Ford Sterling.


There are two questions everyone asks me:

One: What really went on between me and Charlie Chaplin. On this one I have to be absolutely clear. It is private matter, and I’m not telling, and neither is Charlie – some things have to remain secret and sacrosanct.

Two: Why did I never marry? This was a perennial question prior to 1926, when I married Lew Cody. However, Cody and I never took up the option of being live-in spouses. The reason was that I would never give up my freedom to any man. Let me explain.


Mabel marries Kate Toncray to Mack Sennett in 1912.

While playing The Keystone Girl, I must have been married off a hundred times to guys like Ford Sterling and Roscoe Arbuckle. Often, before the ceremony, I ran off and married someone else. On one occasion I married Mack Sennett off to Kate Toncray (Tomboy Bessie). I wish they had really married, because they were highly suited to each, although Kate was older by 12 years, and died a couple of years back. Of course, with so many marriages under my belt, I was totally familiar with marriage vows. The idea of ‘love, honor and obey’ did not appeal to me, as these vows meant enslavement to one man. Most of my friends married at least twice, and their divorces were very messy, with arguments about ownership of assets. Should you ever miss a friend’s wedding, it did not matter – you could always go to the next one. If I had not been a wealthy movie star, in my own right, then, things might have been different.

“Why didn’t you marry Mack Sennett?” Everyone asks.

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Mack & Mabel. Never an item.

Well, firstly, he never asked me. Strangely, it was his mother that asked me to marry her son. This surprised me, for Mrs Sinnott had been incensed, when she first came out to LA, and discovered how close we were. She told me exactly what she thought of me:

“I sent my son to America to make good” She said “Not to take up with a two-bit whore like yourself.”

I was furious, but things were soon smoothed over, and Mother later began to be concerned over my health. Taking me to one side, she said to me:

“Look Mabel, you know you are very sick, why don’t you give up the pictures, marry Michael, and stay at home.”

Can you imagine it, me, just about the most popular actress in the world, sitting at home around the fireside, while my husband fiddled with his wobbling Bathing Beauties? No way! I was determined to die on the set, no matter what.


Keystone boss Adam Kessell auctions Mabel off to the highest bidder. March 1915.


Was I, then, a lesbian. Certainly not, and I have had numerous relationships with men, since I first went to Manhattan in 1907. Shocked! Well, you shouldn’t be. I was a fit, passionate and emotional young girl, and the artists that painted me were just as passionate. Being older men and very bohemian (if commercial), I was drawn to them, and they were drawn to me. The fact that I was never painted nude, means nothing – it’s just that I believe clothes maketh the woman. No man, or woman, has ever seen me naked. My dream in those days was to be whisked away to Tahiti, not by a sheik, but by an artist, who’d paint me endlessly against the backdrop of palm trees and a violet-blue ocean. Unfortunately, I never found my Paul Gaguin, and I became, much to my disappointment, just Mabel of the Movies.


Dreaming of Paul Gaguin.

Now you may ask “Was I drawn to D.W. Griffith at Biograph? You must be kidding! Lord save me, that long-nosed jerk was just about the most unpleasant thing that ever crawled out of the South! I may be a tart, but I never prostituted myself in the way Mary Pickford did (for a short time) or Lilian Gish did (for a long time). When he tried it on with my close friend, Dot Gish, she simply pushed him away with the words “Get lost, you hook-nosed Kike!” Oh, my god, if only I’d thought of that, full marks to Dotty. It was here that I became the Queen of the Hive, and began to amass a crowd of adoring girls around me that I could use against swelled-heads like Griffith. I felt sorry for his long-suffering wife, Linda, who had to pretend to not know that D.W. was developing the industry’s first casting couch. It was me that first put her wise. Do you remember Owen Moore, who later married Gladys Smith, as Mary Pickford was then called? He was my first conquest at Biograph, or perhaps I was his first.


Jack  puts snow down Mabel’s back on Mt Lowe. 1912.

Moving on, I had several short flings with various actors, including my life-long friend Jack Pickford. Then I got friendly with a certain Michael Sinnott, who you probably know as Mack Sennett. We were both Griffith rejects, and the genius treated us both with contempt. Mack vowed to wreak his vengeance on Griffith one day. In 1912, we made him eat excreta, with the instant success of our Biograph comedies. We twisted the knife in his guts in 1916, when the Mabel Normand Studio was opened, just 2 blocks from his Reliance Majestic Studio. His wife told me he nearly had a fit, when he saw my name go up on the studio. Apparently, he collapsed into a chair muttering something like “She’s a success….” And so I was – the first of the acting profession to have their name over a movie studio.




Mack said he had great love for me, and was going to make me a star. That made my eyes grow bigger than they already were, but I did not really take the Irishman seriously. Although, being a ex-boxer he might be useful, if Griffith started any rough stuff, as he had with Mary Pickford and Blanche Sweet. As I have related previously, I drove Griffith insane with my antics around the studio, but all he could do was go home and smash holes in the doors. I dreamed of holding The Genius, while Mack punched his lights out. You might have read that a story arose that I was engaged to Griffith in the mid-1920s. This came about because the press spotted me wearing a huge diamond on my finger. When asked about it, I said Griffith had given it to me, for being such a good actress! (as if he would).

What about the story that I was engaged to Mack Sennett? A complete fabrication! There never was any real engagement, it was all a ruse, carried out in 1912, to convince my parents that I was not going 4,000 miles to the coast with just anybody. Edwardian girls did not go anywhere without a chaperone. Of course, once on the train westward, we got plenty of funny looks from gents in plug hats, and prudish old ladies. Four middle-aged men, towing along a girl who seemed to be 13 years old, across numerous state lines – a clear contravention of the Mann Act. Mack told me to keep out of sight. As if… I fronted those pompous idiots out, shouting “What’s the matter, dearie, never seen a white-slave girl before!”


Mabel, Edna Purviance and Courtland Dines party it up.

As I have said, my supposed engagement to Mack came to naught. From 1918 onwards people like Adela Rogers St. Johns, who thought I was unhappy, begged me to marry Mack. But it was not just me who didn’t want to marry, it was also Mack. I had many male lovers over the next few years, and I will not name them, for everyone knows who they are. In 1922, when my friend W.D. Taylor was shot dead, the calls for me to marry increased. Everyone thought that by remaining single, I was tempted to get involved in complicated love triangles. This is true, but if I married, would it make any difference? None of my friends remained faithful, and neither did their husbands. It was only after the Courtland Dines shooting occurred in 1924 that I realized I had to be seen as settled down. Living out of apartments and short-term lets, while gadding around town was not doing my reputation any good. Consequently, I bought a house in Beverly Hills in 1925, then left town on a theatrical tour. When I returned later that year I signed for Roach Studios, and secretly married my old friend Lew Cody. I could now say I’d settled down, and I believe this helped sell the films.


Left: Lew’s house. Right: Mabel’s house.

My marriage to Lew helped me immensely, but, as I have said, I never allowed him too far into my life. When I became too weak to get up the stairs of my house, he used to send his valet over to carry me up. I never let Lew into the house, having previously had a devil of a job to get rid of Mack Sennett, once the maid had let him in. I suspect Lew is after my money, but the cash and jewels are hidden out of plain sight. Even I would have a hell of a job getting my hands on them. I can tell you that some of it is in Mexico, alongside Mack and Charlie’s cash. Charlie persuaded me to send a big wad to Switzerland, and warned me not buy into investments. He thinks there will be a stock-market crash this year.


Consummate Englishman, Harry Tate.

I can honestly say that I never kow-towed to any man, not an actor, not a producer, nor a president of the United States. I did once meet Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, though, and had a long chat with her in 1918. When in Europe, I was in great demand, and I enjoyed the company of Prince Ibrahim of Egypt, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and Harry Tate, but Louis Mountbatten adroitly avoided me, as did the King and Queen of Great Britain (although they enjoyed my films, their courtiers thought it was not wise to be seen with me). Little Miss Mabel, ran all over Paris and Monte Carlo, with Prince Ibrahim, but I turned down his proposal for marriage, as I did not fancy hanging around in a harem for years on end, swatting flies, in a tent somewhere out on the desert. One English lord offered his hand, and I almost accepted union with this Baronet, at whose stately home I stayed. Unfortunately, his wife returned home unexpectedly, and kicked me out when she heard I’d swum in their pool naked (if I did, I was drunk at the time).


Mabel, out on the town with a genius.

I was worried about Wells, as he had a reputation for ravishing women. When he visited me, in my Ritz apartment in London, he was a perfect gentlemen, and he graciously made up my fire, but then began to regale me with his latest sexual adventures. What about Albert Einstein, you might ask? The people around him, Mary Pickford, Doug Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin knew the great doctor was a social wet fish, and so they kept him away from me, in case I treated him to a tirade of ridicule. Lita Grey, a Chaplin wife, told me Einstein was just a dirty old man.


Lita Grey.

The mention of Lita Grey brings me to the nitty gritty of why I never married. Lita, an actress, busied herself for years, having babies, and doing housework . Neither of these things am I interested in, especially when I can be sure that my husband is out on the town with some cheap dame, like Louise Brooks. Yes, that’s right Chaplin was having an affair with Brooksie, at the very moment Lita was having his second child. When confronted about this, the delightful Miss Brooks, in her defense, said it didn’t matter about his wife, as she was just a cheap gold-digger who was after Chaplin’s money. Well, no-one is going to call me a cheap anything, especially the piece of wild-west garbage called Louise Brooks! I’m definitely not one for having babies, and I haven’t a clue what housework entails.


Mabel loved babies — as long as she could give them back.

This is about all I can say about not getting married. Things would not have turned out differently, if I had married earlier. The two hot favorites in the Hollywood marriage stakes were Charlie Chaplin and Valentino. Charlie would have ended my career, and chained me to the kitchen sink. I can tell you that Valentino had no time for women, only his automobiles. I know I chased him for two solid weeks, before giving up on the Latin lover!






Harriett Quimby, ready for take-off.

Mabel, was at various times said to be a great aviator, a car racer, a boxer, a high diver and lord knows what else, all while being the lovable and charming Keystone Girl. In fact Mabel was never allowed to fly an aircraft – she was considered too much of a scatter-wit. Mabel was not, as is often claimed, the first woman to be filmed in an aircraft.

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Mabel and Jack Pickford cosy up on Claude Normand’s Indian.

Harriett Quimby had that honor, and she was also the first woman to fly the English Channel, on the same day The Titanic sank. Mrs D.W. Griffith was on the airfield, the day Harriett made the flight, although Mr D.W. was incandescent with rage at all of Miss Quimby’s success – she was a talented screen writer, and made more money than ‘The Genius’. Harriett died in an air crash about the time Mabel starred in A Dash Through the Clouds in 1912. Mabel did drive cars, and better than many of her movie contemporaries, who spent most of their time wrapped around telegraph poles. Mabel is said to have once stated ‘When I run into someone, I hardly ever maim them, permanently’ [Footnote].

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Teddy pilots his Fiat, while Mabel holds the drive chain on!

She never, contrary to popular opinion, drove in a race. Her drive in Mabel At The Wheel, was staged after the famous Santa Monica race that Sennett filmed, probably, in 1913. The cars were massive, had huge 20+ litre (1220 cubic inches) engines, and driving one of these monsters for 200 miles, on packed and oiled dirt roads, would have required Mabel to recuperate for at least a week afterwards, assuming she hadn’t been killed. Mack could not afford the risk, but allowed Mabel to enter her own car with a proficient driver at the wheel. Mack always entered his own chain-drive Fiat in the races, and this is probably the race car Mabel drives (and crashes) in the film. Her racing hero was ‘Terrible’ Teddy Tetzlaff, the racer turned movie star (see The Speed Kings).

So what about motorcycles? Most of the hype about Mabel being an aspiring Hell’s Angel, comes from a set of photos taken at Goldwyn Studios, showing Mabel and Jack Pickford on Claude Normand’s Indian vee-twin Indian. The photos appeared, originally, in an article in a March 14 edition of Motorcycling and Bicycling.

1920 Motor-Cycle

Stunts and cycle know-how from Mabel, who’d apparently learned to read by this point.


The photo captions infer that Mabel is performing stunts on the cycle, although the machine is clearly on its stand. When Mabel clings to Jack, as he pilots the monster, the machine is also on the stand. Jack and brother Claude Normand, were Mabel’s greatest friends, alongside her long-term director Dick Jones. One of the photos shows Mabel reading an instruction manual, and ‘adjusting her butterfly’. If Mack Sennett had seen this, he’d have laughed his head off, as he was the author of most of the dumb, scatter-witted Mabel stories.


At least he missed the pole! Charlie crashes his Thor motorcycle in Mabel At The Wheel.


Of course, Mabel had ridden pillion on the back of a motorcycle once for Mabel At The Wheel with Charlie Chaplin up front. Mabel later told the story of how Sennett asked Chaplin if he could ride a motorcycle. The indignant Charlie replied that he had once ridden a bicycle 30 miles across London, so a motorcycle would surely be no problem!


Charlie drops Mabel off, but not at home.


Sennett then presented Charlie with a Thor IV motorcycle, and told him and Mabel to get aboard. The courageous young things mounted the machine, Charlie pushed off, cracked the throttle wide, and the machine roared off down the dirt road like a scalded cat. With the front wheel close to rearing up, Charlie soon lost control and the bike went into a massive wobble. When the machine finally pitched over, Mabel was thrown into a ditch, while the remnants of Charlie and the screaming cycle scraped and bounced along the road. As the dust settled Charlie was heard to mumble something about having broken his neck, while Mabel screamed “My clothes, my beautiful clothes!” Of course, Mabel had her priorities right, and was therefore unconcerned, about the cuts and bruises she’d suffered, and the yards of skin hanging from her torn arms. The crew scraped the mortal remains of Mabel and Charlie up, then spent half an hour locating Mabel’s very expensive hat. Fortunately, the fashionable, floral-topped item had done a ‘frisbee’, and landed 30 feet away – dirty but relatively undamaged. Time for some lessons for Charlie.

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A modern restoration of Charlie’s Thor IV.

As already stated Chaplin’s bike was a Thor IV, probably a 1912 model. The engine was a single-cylinder, 588c.c. (30 cubic-inch) model, giving 4 HP. Some people had identified the machine as a Harley Davidson single-cylinder, and it is easy to see why. In effect it was a Harley Davidson (and an Indian) due to the fact that Thor made the engines, and other components for HD and Indian. So advanced were the parts Thor produced that Indian were able to race their machines on the Isle of Man TT in 1911, and take the first 3 places. This was the first year of the mountain course, and Indian’s counter-shaft chain drive system (as opposed to direct belt drive) and slim construction, defeated the Stone Age relics fielded by the Brits. Not long after this, another American, Carl Stearns Clancy, rode a Henderson-4 cylinder around the world, finding that the worst roads on the planet were American, and the worst of those were in Northern California and Oregon.

X Thor eng4

They’re still building ’em today. Engine is 488 c.c and 4HP.

Looking at Charlie’s bike we can see it was fitted with an aftermarket pillion perch. This has been very crudely attached, and not the kind of thing you’d normally balance a delicate movie star on. But, hey, this is 1914 and stars are expendable and entirely replaceable. Of course once the machine gets moving, Mabel’s ‘bum’ (as Chaplin would have called it) began to suffer from the pounding of the rough Edendale roads. This could have been predicted, as Keystone got most of it’s laughs from people’s backsides. Strange guy was Mr. Sennett.


“Charlie! Stop!! My bum!!”

Not only did Mabel get a sore backside, but it is clear that the exhaust silencer would have released hot gasses onto Mabel’s right foot. One interesting thing is how quickly Mabel gets on the bike. She’s wearing almost a hobble skirt, but she rides in the the normal fashion, with legs straddling the machine, rather than side-saddle as we might expect. Presumably the skirt was modified in some way – it certainly has some slits in it. Danger would have come from the unguarded drive chain that would have severely slashed Mabel’s leg, should it have flown off. In fact, how she kept her skirt out of the chain is a mystery. Mack Sennett was to use motorcycles regularly in his films down through the years.


Indians on the warpath.

Many people would have noticed that Mabel At The Wheel gives us a historical account of the condition of L.A. roads in the 1910s. Some of the film must have been made in Edendale, and Charlie rides along a dusty road that has curbs, but no surface. This road is in a cutting, so efforts had been made to create a flat roadway. Of course he also drives on a dirt track, where he makes a turn through 180 degrees,  driving into a mud pool, and dropping Mabel off the back of his cycle. This ‘road’ might have been on the Keystone back lot, at the east end of Aaron street, where the actual road petered out, and formed two dirt tracks, linked at almost 180 degrees.

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Last jaunt on 2 wheel. 1926.



There is no evidence that Mabel ever swung a leg over a running motorcycle, after the Chaplin fiasco. Movie stars just did not do oily bikes, and in her daily life Mabel was too occupied with being feminine to consider two-wheelers, as a mode of transport. Zooming along mud tracks wearing gold shoes, an Edwardian frock, a fur coat, all the while dripping with diamonds, was not on.



Heroic Mabel Pictures



Left: A Sunday drive with Barney Oldfield. Right: Into the sunset with ‘Terrible’ Teddy Tetzlaff.


Every driver should powder their nose before a race…….


…then crash their car. Mabel At The Wheel.

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You’re wasting your breath Mabel! Terrible Teddy’s far too busy reveling in being  a movie star. Speed Kings (1913).


Footnote: Mack Sennett, however, did seriously injure a couple of people, and appeared in court at least once. Once, he failed to turn up at a hearing, and his attorney told the court that ‘The King’ was unable to appear, as he was too busy earning $10,000 a week. The judge warned the attorney that if Mr. Ten Thousand Dollars’ did not appear before him the next day, he was going to jail! Mack was later seriously injured, when the car, in which he was a passenger, rolled over, killing one person.

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Mabel has trouble seeing over the steering wheel of her Rolls Royce.

If you’d have picked up a newspaper in 1924, you’d have seen the name Mabel Normand staring at you from the page, with the sub-title ‘Drug-Crazed Sex Maniac, Murderess, and Ice Cream Addict’. Read further on and you might have read that Mabel was a sewer rat, that, although but recently crawled from the gutter, liked to adorn herself with the latest Parisian fashions and ridiculously large diamonds, almost as big as her golf ball eyes. It might also state that she never bought anything American, liked to swan around in a Rolls Royce, and took Frenchmen, Englishmen and even Egyptians for lovers (presumably her preference was for an Arab Sheik).

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Mabel and Egyptian Prince Ibrahim, putting it about in Monte Carlo (1922).

Anyhow, who was Madcap Mabel? Nobody ever found out where she originated, and no person on Staten Island had ever heard of her before 1912. She never even had a birth certificate, goddamn it. Who else didn’t have any identity papers? Why, that gutter snipe Charlie Chaplin, that’s who. Chaplin, that lover of whores, like Louise Brooks, and like Mabel Normand, the girl who’d spent more time closeted with The Tramp than his many wives. Perhaps she’d also had carnal relations with that scoundrel Fatty Arbuckle – behind his wife’s back. Perhaps she’d been there when Fatty allegedly crushed Virginia Rappe to death during a sex session in 1921. Perhaps she’d been rutting with Courtland Dines behind Edna Purviance’s back, before her chauffeur shot him. Can we discover the truth behind these allegations? Let’s see.


Mabel was lucky to avoid headlines like these in 1925.


The first thing to say that it was none of the press’s business what anyone does in their private life. Nor is it, indeed, any of our business. However, as the allegations have been made, we might legitimately judge their validity. On the face of it, Mabel was involved with many men. She was as emotional and passionate, as any other actress, and she was, once, very, very fit. Mack Sennett noted in his autobiography that leading ladies would often fall in love with, and run off with, their leading men at the drop of a hat. He should know, for Gloria Swanson did just that when she met Wally Beery on her first day at Keystone. Unsurprisingly, Mack was furious when he and Mabel first met Charlie Chaplin, and he realized that his big star had gone all dewy-eyed over the limey.


Mabel does a ‘Public Enemy’ on Charlie in His Trysting Place.

This was what Mary Pickford called the ‘bohemian poet’ effect. To placate his bosses, Mack had to keep Chaplin on, but he determined to have Mabel constantly watched, in her dressing room and after work. The young pair became an item, and it is difficult to imagine nothing happened between them, even though they feared Mack’s vengeance. Yes, Chaplin did say that Mabel rejected his advances, but he was writing while Mack was still alive. As already noted above, although Roscoe Arbuckle was closely watched by his wife, Minta, she could do nothing about Mabel coming to their Santa Monica beach-house every Sunday, and going off with her co-star. They would swim together from Santa Monica to Venice pier, which was convenient, because Minta couldn’t swim. It’s not known if they stopped off in some lonely spot on the way, although it would be unusual for Mabel to be involved with a married man.


Fatty and Mabel.

If Mabel was so prone to falling for movie stars, we might wonder why she did not make a play for the great Italian Romeo, Rudolph Valentino. Well, the fact is she did, at least according to Keystone director, Henri ‘Pathe’ Lehrman, who was quick to inform Sennett of Mabel’s crush on the olive oil ‘shiek’. Unfortunately, Valentino was no womanizer, and thought more of his cars than cooing actresses. Mabel would have ended up squatting in his drafty garage while the Latin lover tinkered with his latest motorized acquisition. In spite of the Keystone hype, Mabel was in no way interested in greasy spanners and sticky oil cans.


“I said I wanted a virile young Sheik not a fat Sultan!”


One thing that interested Mabel greatly was love triangles. Why she involved herself so, is difficult to understand, as this was a risky activity. Mabel, however, was reckless in the extreme, and she might have wanted to hurt another woman, as she had once been hurt herself. The basis of the two shooting scandals that she was involved in, was the love triangle. She’d made a play for men, already emotionally involved with other actresses. Whether Mabel was indirectly involved in the Taylor shooting is not known, but Taylor’s butler was adamant that Mabel was somehow behind it (Taylor had returned to his old flame Mary Miles Minter). Courtland Dines was shot, apparently, by Mabel’s chauffeur, with her gun (Dines was thought to be close to marrying another actress). This was more serious for Mabel, and it seems strange that the other woman involved was Edna Purviance, who Mabel always thought was in her place at Chaplin’s studio. Incidentally, it was noted with interest at the trial that the chauffeur knew exactly where Mabel’s pistol was kept – in her bedroom, in the lingerie drawer. This led to the belief that Mabel was some kind of Lady Chatterley, fond of having the odd fling with the hired help. Both Edna Purviance and Mary Miles Minter had their careers terminated by the two scandals.


Love triangle blues. February 1922.

It is plainly obvious that we do not know the nature of Mabel’s numerous relationships. There is a clear difference between Mabel and other actresses in this respect. Miss Sweetness herself, Mary Pickford was, perhaps, underage when she had her first affair. It also seems she had a backstreet abortion, which left her infertile. Mary eventually married Owen Moore, but a while later began an affair with Doug Fairbanks. There is nothing like this recorded for Mabel, and only one voice rings out, saying she had an abortion, and the father was Sam Goldwyn. Against this we have Adela Rogers St. John’s contention that Mabel “…was unusually pure, with no desire, no sex, nothing.” This is equally unlikely, as Mabel was certainly no Lilian Gish. It is possible that Mabel was the first movie star to realize that, by publicly having numerous partners, her status would be enhanced – so long as she never married. Mabel was also one of the first movie actresses to put on the air of being a star, the whole flash chauffeured car and fur coat bit, and she even carried a fur hand muff around in the hot L.A. climate! Previously only top theater stars had done these things. That eternal ingenue, The Keystone Girl, was a creation, unsurprisingly, of  Keystone Studios. Equally unsurprising, is the fact that Mabel herself did not want to be seen this way – what adult woman would?

Tillies Punctured_Romance881w

Girl-about-town, Mabel, with huge hand muff. A clear necessity in freezing Ca.


However, the more Mabel flaunted herself around Tinseltown, the more angry Mack Sennett became. Mack tried to neutralize the press reports about Mabel, by issuing press releases, and by preventing his star from giving her own interviews. There is a case then for saying Mabel was impeded from becoming a real ‘Peck’s Bad Girl’ by the intervention of The King of Comedy, although, as Mabel became more and more popular, her unilateral power increased, and this led to her eventually slipping her neck casually into the noose in 1922.


If Mabel really took multiple sexual partners, where should we look for the evidence? This would not be easy, and to be certain would be well nigh impossible. It is clear, nonetheless, that this would have been a dangerous practice in Tinseltown, due to the prevalence of the big ‘S’ – syphilis. This was a real plague at that time, and every Hollywooder was looking at everyone else, trying to determine who had the STD. Louise Brooks had a hard time of it, simply because everyone thought she just had to have the disease. This didn’t happen to Mabel, and Chaplin stated in 1930 that Mabel had tuberculosis before 1914. This put everyone off the track, especially as Minta Arbuckle (Durfee) said Mabel was taking a ‘goop’ to treat lung hemorrhages by 1916.


Mabel was very sick when she made this scene for Mickey in 1916.


A ‘goop’, presumably medicine, would not have really helped Mabel’s lungs, but some type of elixir would have helped her throat. Mabel’s voice, we know, was always hoarse, and her speech gradually became quieter over time. This suggests a long-term throat problem, and, specifically, a laryngeal (voicebox) problem.


Mabel hits the ‘goop’ (?) in Salt Lake City (December 1915).

The coughing up of blood might represent an ulceration of the vocal cords, which can be caused by cancer, or even heavy smoking. However, it can also be caused by syphilis in its early stages. This would lead, later, to odema of the lungs. Due to the fact that this seems to fit Mabel’s medical history, syphilis is a possibility, especially as Mabel later went ‘out of her mind’ – another late symptom of the disease. Madcap Mabel, then, might have been a result of her illness. Simon Louvish in his book Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett, has a different take on this, and suggests Mabel had congenital syphilis. It should be noted that there could well have been no exterior signs of any STD, and it was quite normal for the cause of eventual death by syphilis to have been misidentified as tuberculosis, syphilis being the ‘great mimicker’ of other ailments.


Mabel’s Death Certificate.


As seen above, there is some case for Mabel having self-medicated with ‘goop’, whatever that was. It may have contained an opiate or, perhaps, cocaine, we don’t know. In the case of cocaine, heroin, or plain opium for recreational use, then this was certainly available at parties in Tinseltown. Like everyone else Mabel probably partook when these substances were available, and washed them down with oceans of gin. We cannot conclude that Mabel habitually consumed drugs, nor that she carried them around, ‘just in case’. One thing is certain, and that is that drugs were available at Keystone. Injuries were commonplace at the ‘fleapit’ studio, and Mabel reported that she often crawled into her house on her hands and knees, at the end of the working day. In this case, drugs might have helped. The case for addiction, nonetheless, is not proven, even though she might have needed them on occasions in order to carry on.


Stop drinking now! Take Cocaine!

Ice-Cream for Breakfast.

Anyone that has read Mack Sennett’s autobiography, will know of The King of Comedy’s claim that Mabel was killed by her love of ice-cream. Although ODing on ice-cream will give you, perhaps, diabetes and tummy trouble, it is unlikely to kill you per se. Perhaps, first thing in the morning (or midday, when Mabel usually arose) she was unable to eat anything else. There is enough evidence to make a prima facie case for Mabel not consuming, or simply avoiding, solid food. First, we have the ice cream, but, then, we also have soggy Carnation Milk sandwiches. On top of this Mabel was known for eating a whole chocolate cake to herself. Where did the famous peanuts come into this? There is no record of anyone actually seeing Mabel eating peanuts, she was only seen sitting among the empty shells, indicating that she might have eaten them – a bad move if you have a throat problem. One view is that she could have eaten a few at a time, as peanuts give energy, and, in Mabel’s line of work, you needed energy by the kilowatt.


Dinner for one.

At the end of an interview in 1918, Mabel said this:



Strange stuff, eh? In the very early days of Keystone, Mabel had dinner with Mack every evening after work. At one time it seems she ate normally, but later she would only accept a drink. Mack would not have been suspicious, as an actress was supposed to watch her weight – one ounce over 99 pounds, and out of the gate you went. Mabel, it appears, from her voluptuousness in the Biograph films, was prone to putting on weight. Her later wild fluctuations in poundage can only be seen as bulimia. Was this the reason for the vomit-inducing diet – chocolate cake and Carnation milk sandwiches? Alternatively, was this the only food that could slip down her damaged throat? It is, and was, common for those with laryngeal syphillis to be prescribed a special diet.


Mabel was closer to director F. Richard Jones, and for longer, than anyone else. He died of tuberculosis less than a year after Mabel, and at precisely the same age.


In conclusion, the three subjects of sex, drugs and ice-cream could be linked. It is possible that indiscriminate sex would result in a requirement for drugs, and a specialized diet. We have no evidence that Mabel died from anything other than tuberculosis, although the owner of the Pottenger tuberculosis sanitorium, where Mabel was diagnosed, clearly had a vested interest in diagnosing tuberculosis. A few conspiracy theories have been published, stating that someone, perhaps Mabel’s private nurse, or Lew Cody colluded with Pottenger, in order to keep Mabel locked down in the sanitarium. Of course, some of those that were very close to Mabel, like Dick Jones, died, apparently, from tuberculosis. This does not, however, solve the mystery of the throat problem that Mabel evidently had. Everyone has to make up their own minds about this – the chance of any  autopsy is many decades away.


Further questions: Was Jack Pickford ever Mabel’s lover? Certainly, they were very close, and had been since the Biograph days. The film What the Doctor Ordered 1912 shows the pair to be, well, very familiar, and they were not acting a part – they were supposed to be brother and sister. Jack is particularly keen on Mabel, and seems unable to keep his hands off her. Pickford, brother of Mary, was around 4 years younger than Mabel, and Mabel we know always preferred younger (and sometimes much older) people to her peers. Jack was probably the best friend Mabel ever had, although the type of work Jack did kept him away on location, most of the time. Both of Jack’s wives (Olive Thomas and Marilyn Miller) became firm friends of Mabel.


Editors of a 1910s English movie comic thought Jack and Mabel were an item.


Was Mabel bi-sexual? This is a difficult question – she may, or may not, have been. Of course, her house was full of women, and no man ever stayed overnight (what would the neighbors think?). Furthermore, she associated with known lesbians, like Alla Nazimova, and regularly used Alla’s massive pool. Mabel had her own, smaller, pool at 525 Camden Drive, but the garden was not very private (see Google Earth). It is unfortunate that Alla’s pool was also the scene of scandalous lesbian parties, but there is no information on whether Mabel ever attended these.












Charlie gets close to buxom Peggy, or is it Helen? 1914.

Peggy at Keystone.

There are many actors and actresses that worked at Keystone Studios, of which we very little. This should come as no surprise, as The Queen of Keystone herself, a certain Mabel Normand, left us little information concerning her early life. Actresses like Cecile Arnold, Eva Nelson, and Virginia Kirtley, although credible performers came and went, having barely created a ripple. Bad girl and extra, Jewel Carmen, filled out some lowly roles,


Eva Nelson, Dixie Chene, Jewel Carmen.

before moving on, but we only know of her really from a brothel scandal, and the murder(?) of Thelma Todd. This brings us to Peggy Page, who appeared in many Keystones, and had as many leading lady roles to Charlie Chaplin, as Mabel Normand. Peggy is a real mystery woman, as she appears different in every film. One possible explanation is that Peggy Page is a generic name, used for different players, at different times by the studio. On the other hand the camera always lies.


Left & Center: Trained by Charlie Chaplin. Right: Trained by Mabel Normand.


Peggy appears to have been quite good-looking, if plain. Her acting ability did not extend beyond tolerable, but she had a reasonably shapely body (they had meat on ’em in those days). Chaplin, as usual, did not choose her for acting ability, but for decoration, and her acceptance of being the genius’ foil. Meanwhile, Mabel had become very close to Charlie, and was probably quietly plotting to abscond, when Chaplin finally left. Charlie may have been unaware of this plan, but he had his own reasons for staying close to Sennett’s star-of-stars. Mabel, a great tragedienne, had endless ideas for comedy, such as combining pathos with funny business.


Tragic Mabels: Mabel’s Busy Day with Charlie Chaplin. Mender of Nets with Mary Pickford.


This, with some modification, formed the basis of Chaplin’s later success. In Mabel’s eyes Peggy was going nowhere, but Chaplin used her as someone he could later model Edna Compliance, sorry, Purviance, on. In all probability, Mabel failed to grasp Chaplin’s thinking. Sure, Charlie adored Mabel (who didn’t?), but she was too argumentative, too good, and too darned expensive! Chaplin had managed to steal the opening scene from Mabel in Mabel’s Strange Predicament, and she never allowed it to happen again. Mabel dominates Charlie in Mabel’s Busy Day, and His Trysting Place, while in Tillie’s Punctured Romance, the limey looks curiously diminished alongside Marie Dressler and Mabel. Of course, there was no sign of the tramp in any of these films.

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Chaplin looks diminished without his tramp’s outfit.

Getting back to Peggy, she really got into the ‘adore the tramp’ role that Charlie marked out for her, going all gooey-eyed when she looked up at her master. Chaplin, of course,


A message to Chaplin.

thought little or nothing of her, and was more interested in that other Peggy, Peggy Pearce. In the main, Chaplin had little access, professionally, to the lovely Miss Pearce, and perhaps this was Mabel’s doing. Peggy Page is recognizable in the Keystones, by the check coat she often wore. Before we think ‘big deal’ we should remember that these coats were the latest trick., and a little expensive. Gloria Swanson made a big thing of owning one, but Peggy had the coat first, a sign that she had access to extramural funds. Like Mabel, Peggy Page was to find that she had not done enough to deserve a place at Chaplin’s table, and he threw them both over in 1915 for an unknown stenographer he met in a café. Chaplin had now left Keystone for Essanay, and while Mabel sat by the phone waiting for a call to be Charlie’s leading lady, Peggy seems to have skipped off to his studio, where she apparently hoped to ‘accidentally’ bump into The Tramp.

At Essanay

Never heard of a Peggy Page at Essanay? Well, you won’t have, for some clever folk have worked out that she changed  her name back to her original, Helen Carruthers. In any event, there is no record of a Helen Carruthers at the studio either. There are, however, newspaper reports of a former Essanay girl trying to kill herself at the Multnomah Hotel, Portland, Oregon on May 5th 1915.

_Helen Carruthers article1

Her name was Helen Carruthers, and she had, apparently, swallowed 30 Bichloride of Mercury tablets, used to treat syphilis. In the newspaper report, Helen claims to have worked at Selig, Keystone and Essanay studios, and played second leads to Charlie Chaplin and G.M. Anderson, commonly known as Broncho Billy. Perhaps realizing that Chaplin was not going to hire her, Helen left for a stage role in Seattle. Unfortunately, the show collapsed, and she set out again for California, stopping over in Portland. Once in the Multhomah Hotel, Helen decided to do away with herself, and took the thirty tablets, which she’d apparently acquired at some point in San Francisco. Fortunately, because she’d taken the poison in tablet form, unlike Olive Thomas 5 years later, she survived, although, according to doctors, her kidneys were almost certainly damaged. As she admitted herself, she had no reason to take her life, but she was feeling very ‘lonesome’.

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Which way to the OK Corral? Downtown Niles 1910s.


Helen had, apparently, had a terrible time of it. It appears she had thought that her availability at Essanay would have led to a leading lady role with Chaplin. Instead, she seems to have been given parts as an extra in cowboy films, at the Niles studio, which was a godforsaken place that everyone avoided like the plague, even tough ex-Keystoners. Possibly, Helen was, unlike Bessie Love, not taken aside and warned of the physical and mental dangers of making cowboy films. After a mere few weeks, it seems Helen realized Niles was no Shangrila, and chanced her arm with the vague offer of a stage role. It looks like a straightforward story, except that reporters found no evidence for an engagement in Seattle, and then, a possible boyfriend turned up at the hospital. There was also a mother and a sister, who both seem to have known the boyfriend in Los Angeles. This same ‘boyfriend’ said that there was no truth in the rumour that Helen had another lover (it was, of course, thought that Helen had contracted syphilis). This case is much stranger and more complicated than it seems.


Hotels are a good place for suicides. Multnomah Hotel 1920.

Mystery upon Mystery.

On the face of it this seems to be a straightforward case of a starry-eyed girl going to Hollywood, finding it paved with mud and cocaine, and then attempting to end her life. Unfortunately, the story is far more convoluted than it seems. Firstly, the reporters were stunned to find that Helen seemed to have suffered little from ingesting a huge amount of poison. They say she ‘fluttered’ around the room, being jolly and jokey with everyone present, while demanding food. The doctors however, said that her kidneys were probably done, and that she would soon die. Apparently an eastern European ballet dancer had also swallowed Bichloride of Mercury tablets, a few weeks before, and had died within days. Perhaps, Helen had been studying Mabel, someone who was well up to distributing false stories about being held up at gunpoint, crashing aircraft, and breaking her head and various bones. Stories of her attempted suicide attempts might also have come directly from Mabel. However, such story-telling was the norm in Hollywood – stars needed to big themselves up, and keep hidden, the true story of their lives. We can safely assume that whatever Helen had swallowed it wasn’t poisonous. One journalist, however, seems to have fallen for the Carruthers’ hype, and wrote a ridiculous sob story about Helen.


‘Flying Ace’ Mabel: ‘Crashed’ in a plane piloted Chester Conklin.


The young man who visited Helen at the hospital was called Clay Swango, and he said he was not actually Helen’s boyfriend. Furthermore, he reiterated that Helen did not have a man in her life. He’d met Helen, her sister Gladys and their mother, Estella, two years previously in L.A. Clay said he’d come up from L.A. but had arrived in Portland independently of Helen. He’d apparently read about Helen’s suicide attempt in the news. Clay then came up with a strange story of the mother and two daughters living in a plush hotel in L.A. called the Antlers, which cannot now be traced in L.A. but can be found in Kingsland, Texas. Helen’s sister, Gladys, turned up at the hospital saying she was taking Helen back to California. The mother then arrived, and the three Carruthers later departed southwards, with Estella giving a well-versed thank you to all that had helped her daughter.


The following strange facts are apparent in the accounts.

Who exactly was Clay Swango, the young guy with a strange (perhaps fabricated) name? He just happened to be in Portland, where he lived in a YMCA hostel, at the exact time Miss Carruthers was hospitalized there. It seems he had suffered a nervous breakdown, and, reportedly, took his own life in 1917. The suspicion is that he might have met Helen in some mental institution.


The Ma Carruthers gang.

Who were the Carruthers family? They sound like the kind of mother and daughter’s combo that became very common in the Hollywood area in the 1910s through to, well, the present time (see Louise Fazenda’s Newly Rich 1931). The mother was usually feckless, but shrewd, and determined to make a living from her daughters. The colloquial term is ‘gold-diggers’. Usually they set themselves up in a hotel, where they used guile to survive. Of course the mother’s main aim was to get her daughters into pictures, but this was often a hand to mouth existence, as very few of these girls made it beyond extra and bit parts. No matter, for the mother could make extra cash by ‘renting’ her girls out. Jewel Carmen’s mother seems to have been one such matriarch, although there appears to have been some collusion here with the Keystone Studio, for when the storm blew up about Jewel (who claimed to be underage) being involved in a prostitution ring, the entire Sennett company departed for Mexico, and only returned after the dust settled, presumably after a suitable sum had slipped into the D.A.’s pocket from Mack’s wallet.


Mabel (Left) and the naughty Jewel (Right) enjoy a hooker’s performance (inset).


This suggests, and only suggests, that Sennett might have actually arranged for cash-strapped bit-part girls to obtain extra funds working joints down in Vernon, with which he, presumably, had a connection. Mack found the whole thing so hilarious that he made That Ragtime Band (1913) in which prostitutes openly touted for business at an amateur talent contest, using address boards showing addresses in downtown, where the L.A. big wheels resided. Jewel appeared in the film alongside Mabel Normand. This, then, is the background, in which Helen (Peggy) operated, and it seems possible that sister Gladys performed in the pictures, maybe also under the name Peggy Page. It has been suggested that Gladys looks more like Chaplin’s foil than Helen does. Gladys was surely more worldly than her little sister, and if you look at the Gentlemen of Nerve photo below, Peggy has a strange expression on her face. Is she thinking she can beat The Queen to it, in the Chaplin stakes? At some points, the director has to intervene and get Peggy to turn her attentions from Charlie and Dixie or Mabel. Suddenly aware of what’s going on behind him, Charlie turns round, and facetiously offers  Peggy a drink from Dixie’s pop bottle. Peggy sticks her her nose in the air, and Charlie gives her the old ‘snob’ sign.

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Check coat Peggy watches on, as Mabel molests Charlie in Gentlemen of Nerve. Is she thinking: “Hands off sister, he’s mine!”

Very few people in California in the 1910s, actually originated there – those that did had names like Valenzuela, Marquez and Pancho. The Carruthers seemed to be no exception, for some years previously they had lived in San Antonio, Texas. Hence, perhaps, the connection with the Antlers Hotel, for San Antonio is not so many miles from Kingsland and the Antlers Hotel.


Plantation house-style Antlers Hotel, Texas.

In San Antonio, in 1911, Gladys married a Lt. John Lynch, who shot himself, or was shot, six hours after the wedding – quite in line with what we said above. Evidence suggests that Helen was 14 in 1914, although the girl in the films must be at least 19. Maybe it was Gladys who appeared with Chaplin.


Helen aged 14.

Although Helen Carruthers claimed to be 23 years old, the reports hint that she was probably younger perhaps 14), and it was her sister that was 20+. While Gladys was listening to Helen giving her age, and her claim that she had appeared with Chaplin, Gladys simply smiled in a condescending way. Perhaps Helen was psychologically unstable, and perhaps she had been in some institution.

In Gentlemen of Nerve (still photo above, GIF below) it is easy to recognize the usual Keystone faces, such as Dixie Chene, Cecile Arnold, and Chester Conklin. However, there is an older woman sitting next to Peggy, who keeps holding the girl’s hand. She seems to be an unknown, but she looks remarkably like Peggy’s mother in the family portraits above. The hand-holding seems to take place whenever Chaplin takes an interest in one of the girls (the gorgeous Dixie or Mabel). Was mother there to ensure that Peggy renewed her contact with Charlie? She hadn’t played leading lady to Charlie for some time. Maybe mother worked some magic, for Peggy was back with Chas for his last Keystone film. Not only that, but she played The Queen Cave Woman, and did she cave woman up to Chas! Almost certainly, Peggy thought she’d made it – had Mabel over [Footnote]. What she didn’t know, however, was that Mabel would not have been seen dead in a grass skirt. In 1911, at Biograph, all hell had broken loose, when D.W. Griffith tried to get Mabel and Mary Pickford into grass skirts for Man’s Genesis.


Queen Peg with Chaplin in His Prehistoric Past.

Clay Swango had said that Gladys was a travelling saleswoman. What exactly was she selling? Well, selling pots and pans or cutlery, door to door, doesn’t sound likely, so it was probably houses in sunny California. Dodgy house salesmen sometimes appear in Mabel’s films, and one of her friends, Helen Holmes, was actually swindled out of her savings by a fake house salesman. Sales people could be found thick on the ground in the Midwestern states, mostly selling non-existent or sub-standard properties in California to dreamy eyed townsfolk..


Not exactly what the real estate agent promised. Mabel At The Wheel 1914.

After the family eventually headed south, out of Oregon, they seemingly disappeared, although they must have continued digging for gold. They do, however, appear to have dumped the movie business. Sure enough, relentless researchers discovered that the Carruthers family had eventually hit pay dirt. One researcher found a surviving niece of Helen C, who told the rest of the Carruthers story. The family eventually found themselves in New York, where, in 1918, the blossoming Helen met and married a certain Baron Fransiscus Gerard Zur Muhlen, who was a Dutch sugar merchant from Java. The story does not end there, for one airless, balmy night in 1925, Baroness Helen fell from a 5th story window of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel, during a party. The question was ‘did she fall or was she pushed? Two men were questioned about the case, but the verdict was ‘accidental death’. Curiously, an actor and a salesman were present at the party. By the way, Helen’s niece said that Helen had been in education between 1914 and 1918, the question is ‘what type of education?’

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Inside the Ritz-Carlton, New York.


Following Helen’s death, Estella and Gladys seem to have acquired enough cash to give up hotels, and, like other contemporary gold-diggers, hit the ocean cruising scene. What happened next? You’ve guessed it – by sheer chance Gladys ran into millionaire David, Jacob Lit of the Lit Brothers stores. They were married in 1930, and remained so until David died in the 1950s. Gladys died shortly thereafter, and now lies, ’tis said, in Woodlawn Cemetery, NY.


Woodlawn: Olive Thomas lies here, but there’s no sign of  Gladys Carruthers Lit.

There is every reason to suppose that the Carruthers family were classical gold-diggers, moving with the times, as, and when, required. One marriage had ended in death, and the family followed the 1911ers to Hollywood, seeking dinner and gold. The sisters hit the studios, where at least one of them was able to latch onto Chaplin. Chaplin was the future, and Ma Carruthers knew it. Mabel understood perfectly, and the wily old Queen Bee could not have failed to notice the attention they gave to Charlie. The rushes would have told her everything. Fortunately, the family set off for Niles in pursuit of Charlie, so they never came to blows with the equally ruthless Mabel. Mabel, in a drunken rage, was to wreak her revenge over Chaplin, on a different actress, nine years later.


Footnote: In Gentlemen of Nerve, it is plainly obvious that everyone behind the camera (perhaps about 40 people) is aware of Peggy’s distress, and are finding it all highly. amusing. When Chaplin realizes what’s happening, he turns around and interacts with Peggy, in a mocking sort of way. Mabel’s ridiculously small handbag (box) is interesting. It’s just about big enough to accommodate a small pistol, or at least a Derringer. Was Mabel expecting trouble from the Carruthers mob? Mabel always packed a pistol when out in the dangerous streets of L.A., and (despite what Sennett later said) she knew how to use it. Someone correct me, if I am wrong about the other actress being Peggy’s mother.



MABEL_ Cartoon00a1As some people believe that Mabel Normand became a recluse in early 1926, and never saw any of her later honorary pall bearers after that time, this blog is intended to lay out the facts. Firstly, Mabel was, by no means, washed up following the Dines affair of 1924, as a certain Dicky Attenborough once thought. Mabel made a staggering two million dollars from the film Extra Girl and the (sort of) failed stage play The Little Mouse in 1924/25. In 1925 she bought the lovely, but unpretentious, house in Beverley Hills. However, far from putting her feet up, as Louise Brooks was later to do, she put herself about, and had no intention of letting the moss gather on her. By the time she visited Mack Sennett Studios in May 1926, she’d attended numerous Hollywood functions and parties, and had held some well-attended shindigs of her own. Her attendance at Sennett Studios elicited great excitement among the company there, and, significantly, among the young, up and coming actresses, one of whom recorded the moment in her diary that she later published. “You’d have thought the Queen had come” quoth the exuberant Ruth Taylor. The ‘Queen’ was there to have discussions with Mack about a possible film, featuring his stars from yesteryear (just a couple of years ago!). Inevitably, the idea bombed – Mabel Normand and Gloria Swanson on the same set! No Way! Wouldn’t Work.



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Contrary to what people may think, Mack did not give up on getting Mabel back,  but Mabel signed for Sennett’s rival, Hal Roach, then married The Butterfly Man and heart-throb, Lew Cody. A clever move, for Lew was the most desirable man in Hollywood. At this point Mack threw in the towel, put his head in his hands, and cried into his beer – he’d been had over by Mabel and Roach, why even his greatest director, F. Richard Jones had defected to ‘thick-necked Irishman’ Hal! Herein may lay a tale, for the



Lew and a very thin Mabel attend the premiere of Lilac Time to the delight of onlookers. Even Edward G. Robinson seems to have turned out. 1928.

unavailability of Jones, Mabel’s fave director, probably had something to do with The Queen Bee’s decision not to go with Sennett. In fact, it was representations to Roach by Jones, Cody, Mary Pickford, and the Talmadge sisters (among others) that forced the producer’s hand. Such was the standing of the ailing Keystone Girl at this time. Of course, Hal regretted it later, when Jones somewhat neglected his supervisory duties to help the sick Mabel around the studio. Not only that, but live-out husband Lew was often on the set, and Mabel brought droves of aspiring actresses to the studio, to help her goad and intimidate ‘The Irishman’ with some very colorful and unladylike language. However, co-star Anita Garvin, a Mabel fan from childhood, was simply enthralled by The Madcap, who was now, evidently, losing her mind.


The previous big movie event: funeral of Valentino 1926. Attendees Mary Pickford, Norma and Constance Talmadge.

Mabel was last seen in the studio in early 1927, but she’d milked Hal of at least a quarter-of-a-million (1926) dollars . No worries for ‘The Irishman’, as Mabel’s films sold like hot cakes, and cost peanuts to produce. So, Mabel retired to her plush house, where she was pampered by her cooing staff, right? Wrong. As long as she breathed, Mabel was not going to lie down. Mabel was even more a gad-about-town, and, increasingly, a party animal. Why not? The Madcap’s presence, along with her partying sidekick Chaplin, made a Hollywood get-together swing,  and she was always the center of attention.



Madcap Mabel meets Anita, 1926.

Mabel attended numerous premieres between 1926 and 1928, at which Sennett was also present, so the King’s contention that he never saw Mabel after 1926 is untrue. He did not speak to her, as he was too busy biting his tongue. Other producers, like Goldwyn, almost certainly spoke to her briefly, although Adolph Zukor and D.W. Griffith probably avoided her. Mabel had once threatened to brain Zukor with a heavy book, while she had continually baited Griffith down through the years. Mabel made a personal film, in a sound studio, for husband Lew in 1928. Meanwhile, Mabel continued to receive offers from British film companies, who were always keen to pick off silent stars they believed to be on the wane (they snapped up Bessie Love and Bebe Daniels quickly enough. Bessie still rests under a tree in Ruislip cemetery, London). Mabel ensured that she remained in the public eye by issuing regular bulletins to the press, detailing what she had been up to. Many of these were very silly, in manner and content, but they, nevertheless, kept the star-of-stars in the limelight.


Pottenger’s Sanitarium. Right: Mabel occupied one of these bungalows on the site.

By early 1929, Mabel’s spells of illness (mostly pneumonia) began to join up, and she became evermore frail and wasted. Very few friends were allowed to see her, and certainly the world’s public (still adoring) were unaware of her perilous condition. Mabel, however, never gave up the fight, and entered the Pottenger sanitarium in September 1929 on the pretext of a cure. Within a few weeks, Mabel realized the situation was hopeless, and begged to return home to die in familiar surroundings. It is interesting to note that at least one radio station put out a message that they hoped Mabel would recover, on the very night she passed away.

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Trust Fund problems 1930.

Unfortunately, her pseudo-husband, Pottenger, and close associates (not exactly friends) were determined to keep her incarcerated in the sanitarium. Meanwhile, someone, according to Stephen Normand, was busy plundering her possessions. Where was Mabel’s money? Her net assets were listed at around $38,000, a considerable sum, but clearly not her entire fortune. As with other movie people, she probably had hundreds of thousands distributed in bank deposit boxes across the U.S. and over the border in Mexico. People were out looking for it, and, in the melee, Lew Cody tried to snatch Mabel’s $50,000 trust fund. All her assets were left in a will to her mother only, and she quickly ran Cody to court, in order to keep the trust fund in the family. It is not known if Mary Normand was granted all of the trust fund, or whether she shared in it with Cody. Mabel’s constant paid nurse, and companion of long standing, Julia Benson, was allotted $10,000 from the estate. It seems that none of the honorary pall-bearers had seen Mabel in the final year of her life. All of her friends were turned away, when they visited the sanitorium, while Mabel’s room filled up with their bouquets. Mabel, undoubtedly made a ghastly sight, and she weighed a mere 45 pounds at death. This explains why the casket was not opened at the funeral – not even the family saw her in death. This fact might seem erroneous to some people, but they can be assured that anything said to the contrary is untrue. Every newspaper report is adamant that the casket remained firmly closed.


1940 but not forgotten. Hollywood turns out for the dedication of The Mabel Normand Stage.

Finally, it is clear that Mabel stayed in the public, radio station and movie industry eye, up until her death, but also beyond that time. Future publications by Sennett, Chaplin and others, prove that Mabel was not forgotten. As for films, Chaplin’s tragic blind girl in the in City Lights and the gamin Modern Times, are clearly based on Mabel-like characters. Chaplin could have cast Mabel, the great tragedienne, in these roles – if he could have afforded her, and she was not dead. Sennett pushed for a film about Mabel, and was partly rewarded with Hollywood Cavalcade and the dedication of ‘The Mabel Normand Sound Stage’ at Republic Studios, to the everlasting memory of  “a girl with a golden heart.” Sunset Boulevard followed, based somewhat on Mabel, and starring, surprise, surprise, Gloria Swanson. Swanson, by the way, thought Mabel was ‘crude and vulgar’. Perhaps not too far from the truth, but everyone adored her, nonetheless. Mabel never gave up on returning to the screen prior to 1929, and even had a sound test for talking parts. Her eventual death came as shock to everyone – Mabel had survived tough times in the past, and she was fully expected to pull through again. The fact that Mabel ‘disappeared’ in 1929, only to turn up dead in 1930, in no way meant she was forgotten, far from it.


Mabel and Lew: Married or no?







Someone wrote recently that Mabel appears in Walt Disney’s Snow White of 1935. This very observant person has pointed out that Snow White is based on the screen Mabel. The following evidence is proffered in support of the contention. Firstly, Charlie Chaplin was involved in the film’s production. Secondly, and logically, the heroine should be a blond, a kind of Goldilocks, similar to Jean Harlow, but she’s dark-haired. Thirdly, Snow White’s actions and gestures are very Biograph, but more like Mabel than anyone else. We can further add that Adela Rogers St. Johns claimed that Charlie thought of Mabel, as a sort of elf, or fairy-tale character. Betty Boo, it should be said, was not based on Mabel, as some think, but on Helen Kane. The plot thickens, though, as the screen Helen speaks with a Brooklyn (some people say Bronx) accent, like the young Mabel, and she attracts people to her, like Mabel. Possibly, there is some Mabel here, but some say Helen mimics Clara Bow. Now it’s really confusing, but what if some directors were trying to roll up Mabel’s over-the-top personality into their actresses? Can we sense a research project here?








Fairbanks, Goebel, Griffith, Sennett, Goldwyn. Honorary pall-bearers in reflective mood at Mabel Normand’s funeral in 1930.

It is common knowledge that the first nail was hammered into the coffin of the silent movie in 1926. This was the year in which Al Jolson’s film The Jazz Singer was released. Reluctantly and slowly, the studios began to ready themselves for sound. Mack Sennett saw it all coming and moved lock, stock and barrel to Studio City, leaving his now worthless Keystone silent stages to slowly rot. It was a case of adapt or die. By 1928, the scene was set for the complete demise of the silent medium, but many still refused to believe it. Typical of these was journalist Adela Rogers St. John, who later wrote that she thought it impossible that the high pantomime of the silent era could be junked so readily, along with the old stages and equipment.


Keystone becomes a scrapyard. 1929.

At around this time, Mabel Normand stepped out of retirement, and into a movie studio to make a private film for husband Lew Cody. She did not recognize the equipment nor did she understand its purpose. The engineers had taken over, and there were cables running everywhere. Meanwhile, Charlie Chaplin was busy arguing with his team and their backers. If he went to sound he had to abandon The Tramp, the little man that everyone loved. The Tramp, could not, and would not, talk. Others dithered, waiting to see what happened, but it was impossible to only go halfway into sound. What to do, what to do?


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Mabel makes a film for Lew Cody in Art Deco surroundings. Dec. 1928.

A Penny for The Ferry Man.

Then it happened, the 23rd of February 1930 arrived, and Mabel Normand, The Keystone Girl, Madcap Mabel, died in a Monrovia sanatorium. Shock ran through the movie colony, the movie headquarters back east, and Europe – in fact the whole world. Mabel hadn’t made a film for three years, but her name was synonymous with silent movies, and the vacuum created was palpable. Could it really be true that the planet’s greatest survivor had passed to the other side? Enough obituaries were gathered by the


press from the stars of Tinseltown to fill a silent stage. Charlie Chaplin, Mack Sennett, Roscoe Arbuckle, Mary Pickford, Doug Fairbanks, and even young Douglas Fairbanks Jnr., not even born when Mabel started out, spoke of Mabel. Most cut up was Chaplin, who had not made his peace with Mabel before she passed on. She’d paved Chaplin’s path to success, but he’d never managed to apologize for the way he’d walked out on her in late 1914. Mack Sennett realized he’d never really known Mabel, and now it was too late. Roscoe Arbuckle simply wandered off to be alone, muttering that he’d lost his friend. All those silent stars, whose careers were now frittering away, could not have been unaware that it was all over – and there was no way back.

“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. 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.”      [Charlie Chaplin].

A Last Call for the Silent Actors

Mabel’s funeral can be seen as the last great event of the silent era. The press were quick to point out that the big movie moguls, the pioneers of film, that bore Mabel to her grave, were visibly aged, balding and gray. The eldest was D.W. Griffith, the great film-making genius, but his career was already washed up. Then there was white-haired Mack Sennett, whose star-of-stars was that little clown in the casket. Always youthful in looks, The King of Comedy looks strained and tired in the photos. Bankruptcy was already looming for this magician of film comedy, and two years down the line, he’d throw in the towel. Even the King of Swashbuckling, the super-fit Douglas Fairbanks, knew his days were numbered. His career would soon fizzle out, and he would only live another nine years. , With his graying devil’s horns, Charlie Chaplin was one of the younger ones, but even he was now entering middle-age.


Mabel’s funeral service was held in The Church of The Good Shepherd Beverley Hills. Mabel rests here: Mausoleum, Calvary Cemetery, Boyle Heights.

There is something strangely odd and haunting about the existing photos. All of the honorary pall-bearers appear to be in a dream-like state. Lost In their own thoughts, they seem to be reflecting on something. Perhaps they had become aware of their own mortality. No one really thought that the screen’s most fearless fighter would finally pass away – it was just not possible. But, possible it was, and they could not have failed to realize that an era had passed. Like the dot-com and South Sea  Bubble companies of other times, the silent movies had boomed and finally busted. Where were those young, enthusiastic movie-makers of the early days, average age 17, who took the world by storm in the early 1900s? Some had died, others had been driven insane by booze, drugs or syphilis, while a good number had committed suicide. The remaining silent stars, were entering old / middle age, and were not wanted by the new talkies. Some silent actresses, who’d arrived in the mid-1920s, were able to use their still youthful bodies, to move over to the new medium, but most were finished by the early 1930s. Mabel’s funeral was the silent film industry’s chance to say goodbye – to the public.


Casualties of 1920: Clarine Seymour, Olive Thomas, Bobby Harron. Olive sent her signed picture to Mabel, weeks before she died.

One of the odd things about Mabel’s funeral, is that nearly all the big Hollywood producers turned out. If Mabel had expired a few years earlier, those producers might not have bothered, for Madcap Mabel was one of a handful of actors and actresses that had held the movie industry to ransom. If a producer decided he wasn’t going to use one of his big stars in a movie, due to exorbitant financial demands, none of the other big stars would take the role.

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All smiles, but Mabel had only contempt for producer Goldwyn (left).

The producer would either reluctantly pay up, or chance his arm with an unknown. D.W. Griffith knew this only too well, as he’d been at the butt end of a strike organized by Mabel, Mary Pickford and others at Biograph. The interesting thing is the Biograph strike was over morality. The Edwardian girls refused to show their legs through grass skirts in Man’s Genesis. Griffith gave the part to new girl, Mae Marsh, thereby creating another storm. Although he successfully steered Mae into a number of big pictures, she was blackballed for years by the Biograph girls, who never forgave her (they never forgave anyone). As the main phase of her career petered out in 1923, Mae made a belated public apology to the girls, concluding with “I was just a lamebrain, you know”.

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Mae Marsh and Bobby Harron. Man’s Genesis. 1912.

The producers knew only too well that they constantly needed new stuff to keep the industry going. Color was one new thing, but its universal use was years away. Similarly, nobody could get sound to work properly. That left sex. The movie companies wanted to use more and more titillation in their films, but the big stars refused to appear naked or scantily clad. Then, just as the big producers were about to join forces, and sweep the old Biograph and Vitagraph girls from the studios, Chaplin, Pickford, Fairbanks and Griffith created their own distribution company, United Artists. Actors now held the trump card, and the producers could only slink off and lick their wounds. Thus, the old guard gained a further decade at the top, and an even bigger share of the profits (damn them!).


Curiously enough, only one big silent feature film was produced after Mabel’s funeral. The film was called City Lights, and it was made by the only man who could get away with such a thing – Charlie Chaplin. He began the film a little after Mabel’s death, and it has been said, by some, that it was a tribute to Mabel. Whereas, Charlie might have considered this, the overwhelming reason was that the tramp could not, and would not, talk. The tramp-like character in Modern Times, did not talk, although the Henry Ford-like character did talk, briefly.


The fact that Mabel Normand expired at the precise moment that silent movies died is clearly an unhappy coincidence. It is, however, easy to understand why some people read more into the connection than we might expect. Mabel has been reaching out to us from the the grave ever since, so why shouldn’t she have arranged her death to coincide perfectly with the demise of silent pictures? It’s an interesting thought.


It was intended that there would be an additional account about Mabel’s final years in this section. Instead, this will constitute a new blog to follow soon.





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The tranquil Staten Island North Shore.

Mabel Normand had no birth certificate, so there is no evidence as to where she was actually born. Rhode Island is a possibility, but it could have been Staten Island, where Mabel clearly grew up. Staten Island is a borough of New York, but is separated from the other boroughs by large areas of water. The natural NY partner of Staten Island is Brooklyn, but there has never been a ferry between Brooklyn and Staten Island, and the linking suspension bridge was not built until the 1960s. In order to reach civilization, Mabel used the ferry to Manhattan. Nevertheless, the prevailing accent among newcomers to Staten Island, has always been the Brooklyn accent, immigrants being less in number from Manhattan (the island is far too boring for them). Over the years a specific accent has developed on Staten Island, which is, unsurprisingly, an amalgam of the accents of all the other five boroughs. Mabel, it is said, started out with a Brooklyn accent, and this is supported by those that said her voice was ‘musical’. It seems she progressively dropped this for what the press described in 1924, as a ‘Cavendish Square accent, fully suited to old Lonnon’ (London).

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How New Yorkers see their five boroughs.

Mabel was always called The Girl from Staten Island, but following a certain T.V. series we might today call her A Staten Island Girl (for those in the U.K. The Staten Island Girl is the American version of The Essex Girl).  In fact Mabel, to some extent, was the original Staten Island girl (abbr: SIG) People have said Mabel had too much money, was too trashy, overly made up, and, originally, spoke with an awful accent. However, she never carried a coach bag, nor wore overly high heels (or white shoes), and only ever wore hoop earrings when playing a Spaniard or gypsy.  Of the features attributed to her above, only the accent is really true (the Brooklyn, not the amalgam). Furthermore, Mabel was from the North Shore (New Brighton and St. George’s) and, if what we hear is true, the real Staten Island Girl comes from the South Shore. Why should this be? We might guess that the south is so mind-numbingly remote and boring that the only reasonable route of escape is via New Jersey – home of, guess who, The Jersey Shore Girl (a creation of yet another, somewhat mocking, T.V. series). The South Shore Girl, if correct, is therefore doomed to forever wallow in mediocrity, and remain more orange than Donald Trump.


Spoof videos: ‘Orange’ SIGs ready to hit the mall. SIG high-heeled catfight.

What is it with Staten Island?

In reality, there is nothing amiss with Staten Island, other than the fact that it is suburban, but suburban with a capital ‘S’ as only an island can be (in the U.K. think Canvey Island in Essex.). First generation Staten Island immigrants are only too glad to escape New York proper, and prize the tranquility of Staten Island, even if they have to commute daily to Manhattan, New Jersey or Brooklyn ($15 to $17 on the bridges!). Second generation islanders, however, find it unbelievably stifling, and they know there is a whole new world, just a ferry ride away. Such was Mabel Normand. While her mother hated the city, Mabel looked over to Manhattan, and saw vibrancy and life (gangsters were looking in the other direction, and many made the trip over, to escape the prying eyes of the cops). Every chance she got, the future Keystone Girl boarded the ferry, and headed for the real Big Apple. Here she mingled with the gangster’s molls, street vendors, and the assorted low-life that inhabited the Lower East Side, although she was blissfully unaware that her future savior, or nemesis, Mack Sennett, was then working the cheap joints down on The Bowery.


Little Italy 1900s: a more lively location.




Mobsters lived here. Former home of Paul ‘Big Pauli’ Castellano, Staten Island.

The East Side excursions would provide her with characters later used in films like Mabel’s Busy Day, Mabel’s Dramatic Career, and Tillie’s Punctured Romance (i.e. Street Vendor, Slavey and Mobster’s Moll). If this means young Mabel was restless, reckless and beyond parental control, then this is the truth. Mabel was uncontrollable, and brooked no bridle. It seems she refused to go to school, but this presented little problem, for she was, with no birth certificate, a non-entity, unknown to the authorities. In any event, the education system was lax, and parents were only required to educate children for 14 weeks annually, in school or at home. Mabel stated that her mother taught her to read, and her father taught her to play the piano. The main problem was that kids found roaming the streets could be rounded up, and forced to attend school. On Staten Island there was little chance of the footloose Mabel (like Huck Finn, spending her time swimming and diving) being captured, but in the Lower East Side this, clearly middle-class, girl would stick out like a sore thumb. That might be how she ended up in a convent school, having been sent away by her exasperated parents. Mabel’s family, by the way, were not wealthy, but neither were they poor. They were quietly lower middle-class, and her father ran the Music Hall at the sailor’s home, Snug Harbour, which residents of S.I. will now know as a Cultural Center and Botanical Garden.

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Mabel’s possible school: PS 17. Music Hall, Snug Harbor.



Heading Out

It was inevitable that, when the time came, Mabel would find work, not on Staten Island, but in Manhattan. There are several conflicting stories about how she came to be an artist’s model, but become a model she did, and in the lively confines of Manhattan. From what we know of Mabel, she was in no hurry to get home at the end of the day, and would saunter down to the ferry terminal, via no-go areas, like Little Italy, rather than take the subway.


Moving on to The Biograph, Mabel made an immediate impression on the provincial and Manhattan actresses, with her plain speaking, irreverent attitude, and tricks like smoking, drinking and cussing. The other girls had stage mothers, or chaperones, but Mabel was a true free spirit, who rode bucking bronchos, swam the Hudson River, and engaged in high diving stunts. Consequently, it wasn’t long before she’d gathered a gaggle of admiring teenagers around her, much to the annoyance of the director D.W. Griffith, and the other girls’ mothers. At her next studio, Vitagraph, Mabel only lasted a few weeks before being fired for baring her backside to passing train passengers. A sortie into the Reliance Studio lasted one day, before she was again fired for ‘unacceptable behaviour’. If  Mabel sounds like a Staten Island Girl, then, she should, for she did grow up on the island. In all probability, like an Australian being dumped in New York or London, Mabel over-reacted to her new situation. So what about the Staten Island Girls’ presumed penchant for fighting? Well, Mabel was quick to create an argument with any girl she considered was getting a little swell-headed. She is said to have challenged Marie Dressler to a boxing match, but it is clear that the massive Marie would have flattened the diminutive Mabel with one punch. Mabel always kept close to boxers, and doubtlessly received some training from them, and, perhaps, from ex- lightweight trainer Mack Sennett.


 Staten Island Girl ready to hit town, 1912 style. Mabel in L.A.

Heading Out For Good.

Things were tough for Mabel, the journey to Manhattan everyday was tedious, if interesting at first. You can only see ‘The Statue’ so many times before you’re bored with its rusting hulk. Much of her time was probably taken up wondering “How the hell am I gonna get outta this place?” These thoughts almost certainly made her increasingly antagonistic, until she momentarily escaped westward, to California, with Biograph. Among the Orange groves Mabel finally found peace, with no hassle, and no parents watching her every move. Here also, Mack Sennett let her in on his plans to run the new Biograph comedy unit, when they returned to New York.


Time to chill out in California, 1912.

Back in 11 East Fourteenth Street, and true to his word, Mack arranged for Mabel (now apparently his girlfriend) to be his comedy leading lady, with the blessing of D.W. Griffith, who was glad to see the back of Madcap Mabel. After making a couple of films, Mack made his master move, and transferred his entire team, including Mabel, over to New York Motion Pictures, who rapidly moved them out to L.A. Finally off the leash, it was over two years before she, briefly, returned to Staten Island. Two years away from mother, and two years away from that god-damned island. Mabel would return to Staten Island on a yearly basis, although it is clear that she often went east several times a year, but always stayed in Manhattan. One reason for this , apart from the obvious ones, was that she was now just about the biggest thing to have hit Staten Island, and the local mayor insisted on meeting her at the ferry terminal, and conveying her in a parade to mother’s house in New Brighton.


Never mess with a Staten Island Girl (Mabel’s Busy Day).

Things went well for a while, and then other actresses came on to the lot, including the dreaded Bathing Beauties. This brought out the Staten Island in Mabel, and she laid down the law to Mack on how he could use his actresses – she often banned the competent ones from anything other than extra parts in her pictures. As she became more and more incensed by the scantily-clad Bathing Beauties wobbling around the lot, she also became aware that boyfriend Mack was paying interest to certain actresses. It is said that Mabel went for one of them, Mae Busch, and in the ensuing fight, Mabel was hit over the head with a vase. The vase thing is probably false, but there was, perhaps, a fight of sorts.


Mae Busch and cardboard cut-out of Mabel. The Mabel Normand Sound Stage 1940.

Go East Young Lady.

In December 1915, after many an argument with Mack Sennett, Mabel was compelled to move east, where New York Motion Pictures were keen on having, temporarily, the main company of Keystone, in order to advertise their new links with the Triangle company. Mabel departed with the Arbuckles, Al St. John and others, but the arduous daily ferry journey to NYMP meant she could not live on Staten Island. Of course Manhattan was preferable to Staten Island, but another reason was that Mabel was preparing to decamp, and no top studio man was headquartered on Staten Island (or in Hollywood for that matter).


An object of envy for D.W. Griffith, The Mabel Normand Studio.

When the time came to return to Keystone, Mabel sat tight in Manhattan, and made it clear to everyone that she was available, at a very non-Staten Island price. On March 17th 1916, Mutual announced they had signed Mabel to co-star with Charlie Chaplin. In sheer panic, at the mention of Chaplin, Triangle and Mack Sennett quickly arranged a new studio, just for her, in Silverlake L.A. – not really Hollywood, but close enough. Mabel rushed back to L.A., but not before she visited Staten Island, where she was hailed a heroine – the first actress to have a studio with her name emblazoned upon it, in eight feet-high letters. Not bad, eh, for a trashy SIG.


In 1917, Mabel returned to N.Y. having signed for Sam Goldwyn. However, she sat in Manhattan, while Goldwyn and Sennett argued over possession of her body. Again she made little effort to cross over to Staten Island, and stayed in a city apartment. Once she’d agreed to work with Goldwyn, she then commuted daily via the ferry to the studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, a journey that Mabel found absolutely horrendous (an impossible journey from Staten Is.). Mabel moved to and fro between Goldwyn’s Studio in Fort Lee, and his other studio in Culver City, L.A., never really settling at either.


Claude, Mabel and Gladys.

Scrolling forward to 1922, Mabel had restarted for Sennett, but departed for Europe when the Taylor scandal broke. Returning to New York, she once again sat in Manhattan, waiting for something to happen. It was here, in Marilyn Miller’s apartment, that Mabel learned she had been written out of the Mack Sennett film The Extra Girl. Being a feisty Staten Island colleen, she was soon on the long distance phone to Mack, demanding that he fire the actress Phyllis Haver, now in her place. Due to particular circumstances, Mack had no option, but to comply, and Mabel was soon rolling westwards again.


Witches’ House? No, Mabel’s St. Mark’s Place residence. Staten Island.


Following another scandal in 1924, Mabel went on a theatrical tour, during which she had a couple more spells in Manhattan. It was time now to make up her mind, whether to live in New York, or take off for L.A. Mabel had already bought a newly-built house on Staten Island, which she’d acquired for her parents at a cost of $20,000 (current value $1-million), but she did not choose to go there. Without going near the ferry, Mabel set out for L.A., where she bought a house in Beverley Hills, also for $20,000 (current value $5-million). Mabel was settling down, and it wasn’t in Staten Island. She never left L.A. to live elsewhere, and died and was buried in the city. Mabel’s brother, Claude, stayed in L.A. awhile, before moving back to Staten Island, where he committed suicide in 1945. Sister Gladys dallied for a time in L.A., then apparently married, and transferred to Florida – about as far as you can get in the U.S. from New York. Mabel’s mother, who moved to L.A. in 1930, died there in 1932, seemingly without ever returning to Staten Island. She is buried with daughter Mabel, in the mausoleum at Calvary Cemetery.


Mabel outside her Beverley Hills residence.

In Conclusion it seems obvious that Mabel possessed some of the traits attributable to an inscrutable island girl. However, the kind of stereotyping that created the definitive Staten Island Girl, does not fit Mabel, if it fits anyone at all. Was there an equivalent of the SIG in the early 1900s. Well, there were Kansas girls, with their ‘covered wagon’ accents, fearsome Bronx girls, cheap-rent Five Points girls, and various grades of trailer trash, so perhaps there were Staten Island girls.


Left: SIG 1914 style. Right: Mabel respected no-one.


If there was no Staten Island stereotype in 1910, then we can bet that D.W. Griffith would have created one, as he suffered most from Mabel’s irreverence, foul-mouthed language, and biting sarcasm. Griffith is known to have physically assaulted his actresses, once throwing Mary Pickford across the set, and kneeing Blanche Sweet off the stage. He never, nonetheless, laid violent hands on Mabel – he simply went home and punched holes in the doors. You never messed with Mabel. If she were here today, would she have been plastered with bronzer, worn torn jeans, with a beer belly hanging over the waistband? Probably not, for she was not a gang girl – she was a leader, not a follower. Even today, we don’t know what to make of her. We suspect she was crude and vulgar, a boozer, had droves of sexual partners, and ruthlessly bludgeoned all competition aside. Perhaps Longfellow might have given the answer: “When she was sober, she was very good, when she was drunk, she was horrid”.






This is a short, but interesting exploration of wardrobes in general, and Mabel’s wardrobe in particular.

In the Beginning.

In the early years of motion pictures, as related by Linda Griffith in 1925, actresses were expected to provide their own clothes for the films in which they appeared. Clothes could make or break a film, depending on their quality. And the quality really did matter, for the camera would pick up any low rent ‘shmutter’. Furthermore, the number of acting roles an actress got, depended on how good her clothes were. Jeanie Macpherson, said Mrs Griffith, got more roles than anybody at Biograph, due to her comprehensive Parisian wardrobe. The Pickford and Gish families were fortunate in a way, for both mama Pickford and mama Gish were very good needlewomen, so the girls acquired wardrobes at cheap prices. However, both Pickfords and Gishes could be trounced by better dressed actresses.


Height of Edwardian cool: Jeanie MacPherson, Marion Sunshine, Blanche Sweet.

If someone had a friend who was going to Europe, they always begged them to bring back at least one Parisian dress. Good clothes could also make money in their own right. If you were wearing something the director needed for a film, he would pay a fee for the loan of it. Some people made more money from these loans, at five dollars a time, than they ever made from performing before the camera. It was a few months after becoming the director at Biograph that D.W. Griffith managed to persuade his executives to stump up cash for an elementary studio wardrobe. Consequently, he sent wife Linda off with 50 dollars to see what she could get from the second-hand dealers. She got a good deal that day, at least a dozen upmarket pieces. Whether or not she got the garments from Adolph Zukor’s rag stall is unrecorded. One garment was a silk and velvet affair, which was consistently fought over by the Biograph girls.

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Linda Griffith; bought Biograph’s first wardrobe.

Mabel’s Gowns

Where, then, was Mabel in all this? Certainly, she was not left behind in the dainty clothes competition, and Mary Pickford later recalled Mabel’s liking for beautiful clothes. It is well-known that Mabel favored up to the minute attire, but quite where she found the money is difficult to determine. We know that some of the artists she had modeled for, allowed her to keep some of the clothes Mabel modeled, so she might still have been able to obtain clothes from this source.


mabe34adWith her irregular income from Biograph, it is unlikely that Mabel could afford much in the way of clothes herself, but she could always harass her parents, and when Mabel began to harass, people took notice. As everyone knows, Mabel had a boyfriend at Biograph, by the name of Mack Sennett. Now Mack was known for being tight-fisted, and, according to Linda Griffith, would never buy a girl anything, not even a sarsaparilla. However, when he first met Mabel, he bought her a milk-shake (with an egg in it!). This brought a response from Mabel, which Mack had never got from any other studio girl (usually it was “Get lost, creep!”). Realizing that Mack was on the up, and now regularly earning money, Mabel stuck with him, and acquired various items of jewelery as a result. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Mack also provided some clothing apparel, as well.

Once Mack had become a Biograph director in his own right, Mabel could count on even fancier film costumes – perhaps she even borrowed some of them. One particularly fetching dress with short sleeves, was worn by Mabel in Biograph’s Her Awakening (1911), which is also seen in their later comedy directed by Mack Sennett, Hot Stuff (1912). A slight change, nonetheless probably occurred when she signed with the new Kessell, Baumann, Sennett company, Keystone in 1912.


The Masq14sd

Mabel airs a new ensemble during a cameo part in The Masquerader.

Mabel signed to Keystone for the, then, staggering pay of $125 a week ($3,000 + today). The company was fairly strapped for cash, so it is likely that Mabel was required to provide most of her costumes. This was normal practice at that time, for actors receiving large salaries. Few performers made a big deal of this, until income tax came on the scene. The tax authorities refused to consider clothing an legitimate expense, which caused animosity between the actors and producers. An actor could be completely wiped out, financially, in this way. Producers and directors were usually reliant on the vanity of actresses in order to ascertain what costumes their stars actually owned. Coming to the studio attired in some cloth of gold Parisian number was not a good idea.


Alluring satin dress for Mabel, with fan-induced wind effect.

In any event, the studio executives always had spies reporting back on what their stars were wearing on the previous evening. Louise Brooks recalled that director’s would often remember what they’d seen her wearing, and would demand that they wear that item for a certain scene. Often it was a scene where the garments would be completely ruined. One prized suit (Brooksie loved smart suits) that was trashed had allegedly cost $500. The Oakland Tribune reported on the making of the Keystone film Mabel’s Wilful Way being filmed at Idora Park in 1915. Mabel’s dress was rather unusual, and something you would not have seen on Main Street U.S.A. everyday.


Mabel in ?pirate’s outfit. Mabel’s Wilful Way.

It was obviously a prized and expensive possession, and when she did repeated takes of sliding down the Mountain Ride, she was heard screaming “My clothes, my clothes!” (Oakland Tribune April 15 1915). By the end of the day, the dress was clearly second-hand, and she seems to have persuaded Mack to take it into stock, for it turns up in a couple of other films. Incidentally, if you’ve ever wondered why Mabel’s dresses billow so much in movies that were filmed in light wind Los Angeles, then the Oakland Tribune provides the answer – Keystone used several huge electric fans on location and on set. In fact they make clear that Mabel spent much time in getting her dress ‘to behave’ and not fly over her head. Was this done for titillation purposes, for general atmosphere, or to cool the actors? Probably all three are correct, although, in this film, the director seems to be keen on showing what Mabel is wearing underneath her dress, wind or no wind.

1915 04 16 ad to view filming Mabels wilful way


Ever wondered what Mabel wore under that dress? Here’s the answer.

Undoubtedly, Mabel had many an argument with Mack over her precious clothes. Mabel, however, would buy more dresses to give away to friends than she kept for herself. Usually, she wore a dress once, then handed it to some deserving stranger, before Mack could lay his sticky fingers on it. It is known that Mabel spent over $100,000 on dresses while in Europe in 1922. Some people say her cloth of gold dress alone cost $100,000. A signed photo of this dress turned up on Ebay some time back. Naturally, the producer was as much concerned about the condition of actors’ costumes, after several scenes, as he was about the physical condition of the actors following some crazy stunt. Costumes were as expendable as the actors themselves – both could readily be replaced.

Gold_ dress1922card

By the time Mabel came to star in Suzanna in 1921, she had Mack’s clause laying claim to her wardrobe deleted from the contract. Mack was probably furious that he had to bite his lip, as it is clear Mabel was going to be paid far in excess of the $3,000 per week stated in the contract.

Suzanna_contract p4ab

Page from the amended Suzanna Contract.

Goldwyn and Roach Studios.

When Mabel started with Sam Goldwyn in 1917, she had a clause in her contract, which stated that the studio would underwrite the cost of any costume she used in Goldwyn films. However, in all the time Mabel was at Goldwyn, she never submitted one chit for any clothing she’d purchased, but nor did she collect $36,000 in salary that remained outstanding. It seems that the psychological problems she was encountering at the time caused her to ‘forget’ on both counts. Eventually, Sam Goldwyn forced Mabel to take the $36,000 (900,000 today), but he never received a costume bill. In all probability Mabel was not able to take on board the tax implications – the wartime tax rate was 77% of earnings, with an even more complicated situation arising regarding clothing allowances. Mabel’s head was in turmoil from the situation at Goldwyn, her almost enforced split from Sennett, and worry about her brother, away fighting in the mud of the Somme.


Cloche hats gone mad. Who wouldn’t want to wear this hat?


Little is known of the wardrobe Mabel used at Roach Studios, although the short skirts and late 1920s hats she wore, suggest they were studio stock items. There is no indication Mabel ever privately wore above the knee skirts, nor the over-sized cloche hats, coming into vogue in the late 20s / early 30s.

If you want to get ahead, get a hat (and a parasol).

No self-respecting Edwardian girl would be seen in public without a hat. Not just any hat, but one with the broadest of rims, and the largest quantity of flora on top. These were the 1910s equivalent of the 80s big hair and wide shoulders., and, as with the Dallas hair and shoulders, they eventually came to look ridiculous.


What teenage girl would not want to wear this hat today?


More often than not Mabel was seen wearing a hat in her films. Where she was hatless, she sometimes had a bow in her hair (not too often, thank god), which was clearly meant to signify she was an ingenue.

Parasols were an essential item for a girl about town, and highly useful in California, where they could protect a star’s delicate skin from the sun. Often, though, they were used to beat off unwelcome visitors.


Parasols: Useful for looking demure or poking fat men.

It would be possible to write a whole book just on Mabel’s and other actresses’ wardrobes. The financial aspect, with its ramifications for taxation and producer’s budgets would, itself, fill one large chapter.


Two dresses worn by Mabel in films. The one on the left was  never seen again, but the one on the right was later worn by several other actresses. 


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mabels dressingroom.jpg

Shot from the short film Mabel’s Dressing Room.

A dressing room is a dressing room, right? Yes, but not when it’s the dressing room of one Mabel Normand. I’ll explain. In a normal studio, a dressing room is where an actress dresses for her various scenes. However, Mabel’s dressing room at Keystone was a little different, for it could be said that the studio was run, not from Mack Sennett’s office, but from the said dressing room. We’ll get to the reasons for this in a little while, but it is worthwhile running through the history of this hallowed edifice. When the band of around half a dozen, who made up the Keystone company, arrived at the lot on Allesandro Street (now Glendale Boulevard) there was little more than an old bungalow, a small barn (or shed) and a derelict grocery store on the site.


Left: Mabel’s Dressing room, Keystone. Right: dressing room, Moulin Rouge.

The previous movie inhabitants, Bison, had little use for buildings, as they made cowboy pictures. Going by what had happened at other movie studios out west, the barn was probably going to be a communal dressing room, with a section boarded off for Mabel, the only female. Mack would have the bungalow for an office. However, perhaps demonstrating the power Mabel already wielded, she ended up with half the bungalow. The other half became a communal dressing room for the other actresses that would later arrive. For now, it was probably Mack’s office.

Star DressRoom1

Peggy Page about to enter the star dressing room. The Property Man.

Some general notes on dressing rooms.

Some actresses have detailed what a dressing room was like in their memoirs. Mary Pickford described several in her book Sunshine and Shadow. At Biograph, the actresses’ dressing room was communal, on an upper floor of 14 East 14th Street, N.Y. and a dull dreary place it was. Real stars, like Florence Lawrence, mixed with the common rabble, although she was somewhat aloof, and helped herself to other actresses’ cosmetics, without challenge. While in the theater with David Belasco, Mary was given the star dressing room, but was heartbroken when she found it in a very sad condition, with broken mirrors and filth lying everywhere. Mary knew exactly how the room got like that, for she’d previously witnessed rampaging actresses throwing make-up around, smashing fittings, and writing obscenities on the walls. In Chaplin’s The Property Man (1914), which is a send up of theatrical folk, the star dressing room is a tip, with graffiti on the walls. The management’s view was that the ‘stars’ got what they deserved. Mabel endured the communal dressing rooms at Biograph and also Vitagraph, where she got so fed up with the railway passengers looking in her window, as they passed by, that she mooned at them out of the window (she got fired). In later years, the stars were given their own personal dressing rooms on studio lots, at considerable expense (decorating Mabel’s dressing room at Goldwyn cost Sam Goldwyn $2,000 in 1918).


Battle for the star dressing room. The Property Man.

Some Secrets of Mabel’s Keystone dressing room.

The most important thing on Mabel’s mind in 1912, was, probably, getting her dressing room in order. This room gradually changed from a rather bare space to a sumptuous (for the time) living room. Whether a  marble bathtub was installed at that time is not known, but there was certainly one in her later room, within the  actresses’ dressing room block built in 1915. We might think Mabel was a prima dona, and to some extent she was. However, her door was always open to any of the company that wished to see her. The only one excluded was Mack Sennett, who was required to make an appointment. The dressing room was Mabel’s retreat from the rigors of work, so Mack was kept out, and left knocking and shouting at the door, while ‘the queen’ reposed within. On one occasion, Mabel opened the door to Mack, while wearing a ‘Way Down East’ moustache, saying “I’m sorry but Miss Normand is unavailable at the moment, would you mind calling back”. She then slammed the door in his face.


Charlie and Mabel: just about shared a dressing room.

Charlie Chaplin said of Mabel “She was light-hearted and gay, a good fellow, kind and generous; and everyone adored her.” Mabel really was the Queen of Keystone, and she held court in her dressing room. Anyone wanting to discuss a grievence with the studio, would seek a consultation with Mabel first, and, should Mabel agree there was grievance, she’d speak to Sennett about it. In particular, Mabel became a soft touch for those requiring a supplement to their pay. Nonetheless, Mabel took up many diverse issues with the management, including sick pay, dangerous working practices, and the general bad treatment of workers. It was not unusual to see a stream of Keystoners marching from Mabel’s dressing room towards Mack’s tower office, with Mabel at the head of some protest or other.


The Queen Bee and entourage, en-route to Fort Lee December 1915.

Many callers at the Queen Bee’s abode were simply malingerers, who had become bored with working. Mabel’s bungalow was the only comfortable place on the lot, and was, unusually, equipped with an oil heater. Thus, Mabel had a diverse range of visitors from carpenters and electricians to extras and stars. Roscoe Arbuckle was a constant visitor, although one that was closely watched by wife, Minta Durfee (he was an incorrigible visitor to the female dressing rooms, according to Henri ‘Pathe’ Lehrmann).


Fatty and Mabel.

Charlie Chaplin was the most well-known and most frequent visitor to the Queen Bee during 1914. Chaplin found Mabel’s dressing room a haven from the boss, who really did not like theatrical types, and was very suspicious of the limey. According to Mabel, they discussed their films, and how they could improve their comedy. They would usually get together in the dressing room after work, presumably as they waited for Mack to finish up, before he took them both to dinner. When they got bored with work, they’d depart the dressing room, steal a company car, and head into L.A. As Mabel’s dressing room was the only private space on the whole lot, people have naturally wondered what else went on in the place. It is clear, though, that Sennett was astute enough to realize that his highly emotional stars could form passionate bonds, and even elope, perhaps to another studio. He therefore had Mabel constantly watched, and almost certainly had spies listening at her windows.

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Charlie and Mabel soon became the best of friends.

We can, therefore, be certain that nothing ‘untoward’ ever happened. But why did Mack seemingly turn a blind eye to the relationship between Charlie and Mabel? Why didn’t he slug (or plug) Charlie and throw him out? Quite simply Mack was not the boss – real power resided in Kessell and Baumann’s Longacre office in far-off New York. K and B had decreed that stage-star Charlie be given every accommodation in order to shine, and the two ‘wide boys’ had as many spies on the lot, as Sennett. Mabel was a willing go-between, and this was fortunate for Chas, who was a pure gags man, who’d totally misconstrued the Keystone films.


Trouble brewing for Mack, Mabel and Charlie (The Fatal Mallet).

He’d thought they were a series of gags, ‘a crude melange of rough and tumble’, sewn together in some makeshift way. However, Mack was an ardent student of Griffith, and there was always a story – of sorts, and Mabel provided a little femininity and decorum. Mabel’s dressing room served as Charlie’s schoolroom, where he could learn the art of movie-making, and step down from his self-built pedestal. All of this, however, occurred after the bust up during the making of Mabel At The Wheel. This had been predicted back in Longacre, especially as Mack intended Mabel to direct, and Charlie to be deprived of his tramp outfit. Baumann appears to have sent his daughter, Ada, along along to report back on the fireworks predicted to erupt. The result is well-documented, and needs no reiteration here, but it seems possible that Ada Baumann smoothed everything over, and prevented K and B from taking drastic action, such as closing the studio. Enter then, the dressing room period, which Mack had to go along with. Of course, Chaplin  eventually left, without taking Mabel with him, as she’d expected. This caused an undercurrent of animosity between them that lasted until Mabel’s death, but that, as they say, is another story.


Sweet Mabel: Everyone adored her.

Later dressing rooms.

The new actresses’ dressing room block was built at Keystone, sometime in 1914. There was only one entry point for the upper storey, and that was via a set of stairs that could be easily guarded. Mabel was given one of these upper storey rooms, as the old bungalow had become a target for nuts coming in off the street. The new room, however, backed onto the street, so it was possible for Mabel to escape Keystone-style and unnoticed, via a rope whenever she wanted to.

009 1915 Kessel Sennett

Keystone dressing room block with Sennet and Adam Kessell in the foreground. Mabel is far right on the veranda, wearing the frilly dress.

The Mabel Normand Studio.


The Mabel Normand Studio — Dressing room arrowed. 


In 1916, Mabel was given her own studio on Fountain Avenue, in what is now Silverlake. Although a timber building, Mabel  had it carpeted throughout, and pot plants soon appeared everywhere. She had a particularly unique dressing room on the site. This was on the upper floor, with a long patio area in front which formed a balcony overlooking the main stage. Undoubtedly, the dressing room was superior to anything she’d ever had before, and was probably the hub of the studio. Even Mack Sennett turned up with an expensive oriental rug for her bodoiur. One advantage of the studio was that it was clearly visible from the Reliance-Majestic studio, where her old antagonist, D.W. Griffith reigned as director. As Griffith had once told Mabel she would never make an actress, one can only imagine his face, when the huge sign boards bearing the words Mabel Normand Feature Film Company went up on her new studio.



When her studio came to an end, Mabel left Hollywood to work for Sam Goldwyn in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The change was complicated, and there were plenty of shenanigans, as moves were made to retain her by Sennett, and Kessell and Baumann, running Keystone’s holding company, New York Motion Pictures. Due mainly to problems with film distributors Triangle, neither Sennett nor K and B could mount a challenge to Goldwyn, and she started work with him in August 1917. Crushed at the way things turned out, Mabel soon fell into arguments with Goldwyn and his preening ex-theater stars. When certain other stars got luxurious dressing rooms, Mabel demanded the same for herself. Sam was forced to pay over $2,000 for an up-rated dressing room for Mabel.


Mabel’s luxurious Louis XIV dressing room at Goldwyn Studio.

Back at Sennett’s

When Mabel returned to Allesandro Street in 1920, it is highly likely that she took up residence at her old dressing room in the female block. Now Sennett was even more paranoid about Mabel’s whereabouts and her friends. His spies were probably out in force, and had ears clamped to the thin walls of Mabel’s dressing room. Outside of work, he knew she was seeing W.D. Taylor, although we do not know if he did something about it. In any event, Mabel left after less than four years.


With Dick Jones

Roach Studios.

At Roach Studios in 1926, we can be certain that Mabel’s intention was to put on the ‘movie star’ bit, as much as possible.  She could not have been happy about working with  her (and Mack’s) old enemy, ‘the thick-necked Irishman’ (as she called Roach). Mabel made herself as obnoxious as possible, when Roach was around, and almost certainly demanded a dressing room fit for a star. Roach would have had to comply, and the dressing room would have to have been large, as the sickening Mabel was now constantly surrounded by a considerable entourage, including her full-time nurse, husband Lew Cody, and an assortment of  girlfriends, well versed in the art of cussing (these days we might call them ‘The Staten Island Mafia’). We can imagine that Mabel’s old friend F. Richard Jones, now Roach studio supervisor, was a frequent visitor to the Queen Bee’s hive.


Mabel’s dressing rooms were important to her, but they were also of importance to the early motion picture, for without the incubator of Mabel’s Keystone dressing room, there’d have been no Charlie Chaplin. Mabel’s dressing room was open to all, except the most preening of studio stars.


  • Mabel’s Dressing Room
  • Charles Chaplin: My autobiography by Charles Chaplin (1964).
  • Love, Laughter and tears: My Hollywood Story by Adela Rogers St. Johns (1978).
  • Looking For Mabel Normand Site maintained by Marilyn Slater.
  • Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).
  • When the Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith (1924).