I’m setting out to debunk various myths associated with Mabel Normand through research and fact. I feel strongly that with these articles any researcher that continues to perpetuate myths is failing to even try. For questions or myths you might like to see researched please see the contact page.
A Vase Appears
There is a story often brought up in Mabel Normand’s biography. It has been used to explain alleged (untrue) drug abuse and why Normand’s romantic relationship with Mack Sennett ended. The story goes as such: Mabel Normand walked in on Mack Sennett and actress Mae Busch…doing something (caught in the act, sleeping, petting, the what varies). Busch, shocked by Normand’s appearance, hits her in the head with a heavy vase and causes a severe head injury that almost kills Normand (the severity varies but its always serious). Normand escapes bloodied via taxi and usually goes to Minta Durfee and Roscoe Arbuckle’s house to recuperate. After this incident Normand and Sennett end their engagement and some claim Normand becomes addicted to drugs.
So this is an important story. If you believe Normand was a drug addict its usually the cause of the addiction. And it is the end of her relationship with Sennett.
I happened upon a Mae Busch website (maintained by a relative of hers) which helped me break down the origin of this myth. It however missed the entire beginning of the myth and whether it actually happened or not.
The Myth Begins
September 1915 this article appears in the LA Times:
MABEL NORMAND FIGHTING DEATH
While medical science waged a desperate battle for her life, Mabel Normand, famous film star and comedy queen, was unconscious and rapidly sinking today. Her physician, Dr. O. M. Justice, early today stated that the chance for her recovery was slight. Last night the beautiful movie star was in extremely low condition, according to advisors from the sick room, and not once during the night did she rally to consciousness. Miss Normand, who was Charlie Chaplin’s partner in the world of famous comedy acts, was held by thousands to be the most beautiful woman in filmdom. Today these thousands are anxiously awaiting developments from her sick room, and the laughter which she caused to rise to thousands of lips with her clever comedy is hushed by the seriousness of her condition. According to Dr. Justice, Miss Normand has been unconscious for several days and has not responded to the efforts of science to restore her to normal condition. That no rally is expected today was the intimation given out from her sick room at the Baltic Apartments today. Miss Normand’s illness is attributed to an accident in the studio of the Keystone company, of which she is a leading lady, a little more than a week ago. It is stated that the beautiful star fell, sustaining injuries to her head. Since the fall Miss Normand has suffered concussion of the brain and not once since the accident has she uttered a coherent word.
Minta Durfee, wife of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and frequent Normand co-star, gave the following recollection in a taped interview with Don Schneider in 1974
So that’s where I was, we were sleeping there at night. Or rather, that morning we were there, asleep. I wasn’t asleep because I’ve never slept much unfortunately. And when we heard this terrible “Unnhhhh, unnhhhhh” groaning, I was immediately up; Roscoe was asleep; we were sleeping on the front porch, of course all the family were inside. And up comes this cab driver with Mabel with blood all over from top to bottom, where this awful Mae Busch had struck her over the head with a vase.
Adela Rogers St. John wrote in her memoirs from the 1970s
…the injury was the result of a failed suicide attempt that involved her jumping off a pier. She attributes this desperate act to Mabel’s disillusionment and despair over the breakup of her engagement to Sennett and whom Mabel had found in bed with Mae Busch, purportedly one of Sennett’s finds.
So by now we have the full myth plus some additions: that Normand was suicidal over Sennett’s philandering, that this caused a drug addiction (also from St John), etc. Most authors stop here, this is the end. Some go a little farther and try to make Sennett gay (Louvish) with a basis flimsier than most.
The problem is (sexuality obsessed modern authors aside) most of the ‘sources’ for these kind of stories are Adela Rogers St John, Anita Loos, Frances Marion, or worse. All three women were writers by trade. St John was even the equivalent of a tabloid author in her day. They all released memoirs in their old age (1960s-1970s) when they had been long forgotten and likely could use some money. The 60s and 70s were about making everything as scandalous as possible. If these women didn’t put some sex and drugs in the stories they wouldn’t be in demand. Besides many of their books contain numerous factual errors (Loos had Normand as illiterate and writing coked fueled letters, then her brother attending Normand’s deathbed despite not being in the same state at the time.) To point out every era would take a very long time but one must remember that serious film historians take these memoirs with a grain of salt. Not every word is to be trusted as solid fact.
As I maintained in an earlier post: if Normand had wanted to kill herself over Sennett it doesn’t account for her rebuffing of him in the 1920s when he had seen the error of his ways. Normand was sick from tuberculosis from age 10 onward. Tuberculosis is a crippling chronic disease (pending you’re lucky and it doesn’t activate). If she could battle that, I doubt this would be the thing to upset her.
The thing the Busch article missed was Sins in Hollywood (1922, Ed Roberts). Written by a former Photoplay editor. It was judged so obscene it couldn’t be distributed through mail. The book contains a story about ‘Molly’ and ‘Jack’ broken up by ‘Mae’ that is clearly the origin of the ‘vase’ story. To make research easier I am going to reprint the text below with the real names.
A Battle Royal That Led to Stardom
Love brings strange contrasts–it upsets traditions and turns precedent all topsy-turvy. But what is love? Long years ago when motion pictures were struggling along in baby clothes there was a man whose total histrionic experience had been confined to carrying a spear on the speaking stage. He was a “super.”It was D. W. Griffith who gave him his first chance in the pictures–and he still carried the spear well. That, in fact, was about all he ever could do successfully. But it did not keep him from becoming a maker of pictures–of many popular pictures. But right at first it was a struggle.
Somehow he managed to break away from a job–induced half a dozen others to put in their wages along with his and take a chance on making a comedy. Finally, they sold their finished production and realized a profit. With this money they made another picture and by degrees the spear-carrier became the sole owner of the company–the others worked for him. Such is the law of humans. The man with the executive ability wins always in business. This man was an executive. To make it easier to comprehend his title we shall call him Mack.
Now there was a girl–a comedienne–who started out with Mack. She was his leading woman through all the vicissitudes which accompanied the first experiments in pictures. It was Mabel who cheered Mack up when things went wrong, who kept all the players in good spirits. And so it came about that Mack learned in his crude way to care for her. So did many another. But from the beginning it seemed that Mabel’s affection leaned more toward Mack than any other of her pals in the “good old days” when custard pies and stuffed bricks were coined into golden ducats.
Time went on and gradually the other suitors pulled away–Mack was winning out. True now he had much money and fame was beginning to look in on him when he was at home. The world looked particularly good to Mack. With some of his now easily earned money he fitted up a handsome apartment. To this love nest Mabel came often. No, they were not married.
It seemed fair enough to Mabel, she who had been reared to look lightly upon moral conditions. She could see the point. As a married woman she would not be so popular in pictures. And so they drifted along for a year–two years–and then–
One day there came on the “lot” an attractive brunette. Straightway the girl–shall we call her Mae?–and Mabel became friends, then pals. It was Mae who proposed that they be good friends. At first Mabel demurred, then she agreed. It was a diplomatic move. There was a good deal of talk going on around the “lot.” She wanted to stop that talk. So she frolicked with Mae. Mack was true to her–this the girl knew. Of course, there were a large number of new faces around the studios these days–they were necessary in the sort of pictures Mack was making. But Mabel worried none about them. Her Mack was hers–always.
And so blissfully working her way along toward stardom. Mabel drove to the “lot” with a song in her heart each morning, and with a happy smile on her face in the evening. Wasn’t she “kept” by the great maker of pictures, himself? Was not she soon to become a star? Was she not earning a wonderfully big salary?
But Mack began to get young ideas. True, in his way he loved Mabel; he does yet. But Temptation tossed her curls and beckoned him to come and play along the Highways of Immorality. Temptation, guised as a shapely maid with alluring lips and firm, rounded bosom called to him and he began to take heed.
Temptation’s other name was Mae–
There were little parties arranged–quiet parties in secluded places. Mabel, all blissfully ignorant of these meeting places, still went about her work with a song in her heart.
Once she was called out of town for a couple of days. She returned one day ahead of her planned schedule. A friend whispered a word to her. She was dumbfounded. Certainly it could not be true. Her Mack would not do such a thing.
The friend offered proof. All she needed to do, she was told, was to quietly go to a certain apartment that evening–late–and she would learn something.
Mabel dashed to the apartment, the friend following. They took Mae by storm. She opened the door. Mae was naked to her skin. Mabel’s worst fears were confirmed. For there, occupying the bed, was–Mack.
Like a tigress Mabel tore at the head of the sleeping Mae. But she reckoned without her adversary. Mae was the stronger, the more cat-like of the two. With a bound she was up and fighting her former chum. Grasping her head, Mae thrust Mabel’s head against the wall. Time and again she battered it against the wooden casing of the window, lacerating the scalp, tearing long gashes in her cheek.
Mack hurriedly dressed and like a slinking coward, sneaked out and down the elevator and fled.
Mabel fell unconscious, her head bleeding, her breath coming in gasps. Mae, waiting only to see the havoc she had wrought, too hurriedly dressed and went to a hotel for the night. Mabel, with beating head and too weak from loss of blood to go downstairs, called in her physician.
The next morning, Mack quaking with fear, called up the apartment. She was deathly ill, he was told. No he could not see her. The doctor said she was too ill. Well, then, was there anything he could do.
He was told to go to Hell!
That scared him all the more, just as Mabel and her friend expected it would. So he called up the doctor. Yes, Mabel was in bad shape–the end in grave doubt–only hope for the best.
Mack started sending flowers and gifts of every description and wanted to hire all the nurses and doctors in town. But it was no use, they wouldnot let him see her. Every day he was told she was getting worse.
Then about a week after the eventful night, one of the Los Angeles papers came out with a seven column scream headline “Mabel DYING.” Mack was petrified with fear. He called in his man Friday–at that time a cadaverous young man with a reputation as a clever fixer.
Friday got busy. The first thing to do was to quiet the papers. By the pulling of a few advertising strings the newspaper stuff began to abate. The journal that ran the seven column head in its first edition on the first page buried the story in the center of the second edition under the smallest head it could find type for.
Of course, the editor had been convinced that he was in error, that the lady was really getting better already–was mending rapidly.
Mack had a very busy fortnight following the battle. Between keeping
the papers under control and trying to find out just how ill Mabel was, he didn’t have much time to make comedies. Every request that he see Mabel was denied. She was too ill, far too ill to see him or anyone else.
Yet, somehow or other the papers had allowed the story to drop– It was two weeks later that Mack received a curt summons to call at the apartments of Mabel. Her head was still swathed in bandages. She was pale and thin. The doctor said she might not get well.
Mack was offered an ultimatum. The ultimatum was this: He must immediately build a new studio away from his “lot.” He must employ one of the finest directors obtainable. He must buy a first-class story–a comedy-drama, something to which Mabel aspired. Then he must star her, advertise her, spend money in making her name know, offer her hundreds of luxuries to which she had never before been accustomed. And he must pay in an enormous salary–away into the hundreds of dollars per week.
There was another alternative: The doctor said she might die. Mae would be held for murder, Mack would be an accessory. The whole sordid affair would be aired. Mack would be ruined.
The producer faced either ruin–or the necessity of spending a fortune on the woman he said he loved–if she lived.
Now, as a matter of cold, sordid fact, Mabel was not ill–she was not suffering from her injuries–she had been cured. But doctors are odd persons, and this one was her friend.
Nearly two years were spent on the production in which Mabel was starred named “Mickey”. Of course, the new studio was built; many a first-class director went down to defeat before the picture was completed. But she received everything she demanded–and what she demanded was a plenty.
The picture was not released for still another year. But it was a good one. It made the star famous–and rich. Mack made a lot of money in the meantime, and he needed it. Mabel took heavy toll.
Finally, when her big picture was cut, titled and released, she found that she must go to New York. There she remained until her name was spread about the land as a great star.
Daily there came to her frantic telegrams begging, pleading with her to come back–to her Mack. He needed her now more than ever, he said. And he wanted so to be forgiven–and they would start all over again.
There was a long silence; finally Mack received a telegram. It said:
“Just signed a long term contract with Goldwyn. I am to be starred in comedy-dramas at a salary, the basis of which you started. You and I are all through.
P.S.–You made me what I am today, I hope you’re satisfied.
Now of course an originally anonymously released sin drenched pamphlet seems as suspicious as a Adela Rogers St. John story. But you’ll notice there were many things corroborated. The LA Times article headline is extremely similar to the one mentioned in Sin in Hollywood. Things happened just as stated: Mickey took a long time to release, Sennett created Mabel Normand Film Co and studio to film it, all the demands listed were met. The minute Mickey was successfully released Normand left Sennett for Goldwyn and would never be romantic with Sennett again. As stated they had been engaged in 1915 and it ended.
Then there’s the ‘friend’ and ‘physician’ mentioned. I believe strongly the friend was Minta Durfee. It would explain why she knew so many details, why her hatred of Busch seemed to resonate through to the 70s when she was interviewed. And except for the vase her story seems to match up with the same one told time and time again. In fact that’s one of the most interesting things: there was no vase! Or no vase mentioned anyway.
And note the original article cited a physician O.M. Justice. I may not be fluent in 1910s slang but one meaning of O.M. I encountered means ‘Old Man’. Old Man Justice. That’s pretty good. And definitely not a real persons name.
Normand was attended by a physician but I’m not certain who it was at the time. Julia Benson isn’t noted as treating her til 1918, and would not be her full time physician til 1922. It theoretically could have been her. But its not too hard to believe any doctor/nurse close to Normand would convey her wishes. Durfee was angry almost 60 years later that Normand had been betrayed, its not hard to imagine those around Normand felt similarly.
Finally there’s Mae Busch. As I noted its not really fair to drag her through the mud for an affair with a man who had a fiancee. Sin in Hollywood makes it clear Normand, in anger, attacked Busch first, unlike the other tellings of the tale. And while Busch fought hard against her she didn’t almost kill her as so many stories have claimed. Sennett’s philandering led to Busch being drug through the dirt for things she did not do (she did hit Normand, but not with a vase, etc.) By 1923 Normand had forgiven Busch, inviting her to her own birthday party.
Sennett meanwhile never lived down his little tryst. He continued begging Normand to comeback to him, and she agreed for 3 features (starting with Molly O.) But they never became romantically involved again. Sennett took her rejection and death hard, spending his old age trying to honor her and make sure she was remembered.
I hope now we can put this story straight.