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.
An Inevitable Myth
It was inevitable. A favorite hobby of writers since the 1960s has been to attach something to a long dead star (either sexuality or an addiction) and then deride them for said item. Those who continue to purport Mabel Normand as a drug addict tend to deride her for being one, then insist it doesn’t matter anyway so why care?
If we overlook how cruel it is to trash the dead, and the fact the deceased have living relatives not far removed; then we must conclude its simply wrong when presenting something as fact. If film history is to be a serious study, then the facts it presents should be correct, not made up or poorly corroborated.
Sadly its not hard for a myth to become a fact in this setup. I will demonstrate below how Normand went from comedienne to ‘drug addict’ to ‘drug addict: fact’ despite never having been known to use drugs, let alone be addicted to drugs.
The Myth Begins
By now the myth is ”fact”: Tinseltown (2014) names Normand as a drug addict by citing Betty Harper Fussell’s poorly done biography (1982) which cites biographies like Anita Loos (1966). This can be seen even better in 1998’s “Without Lying Down” a biography on Frances Marion and other powerful women by respected author Carrie Beauchamp. Beauchamp cites not only the vase myth but the drug myth and that Normand’s alleged drug use may have caused William Desmond Taylor’s myth. She had Fussell’s bio in her bibliography and cites numerous articles and books by the big female writers (Marion, Anita Loos, Adela Rogers St. John). This is basically self repeating myth: old writers writing their last memoirs made the claim in the 1960s and 1970s, Fussell latched onto it, off it goes.
What’s even more horrifying is all these books (Tinseltown, Without Lying Down, Fussell’s bio) have 4 stars or higher on Amazon.com which many new fans use as a rating system. What they don’t realize is that the standard for a biography was pretty low before the 1980s (Fussell did cite sources, they just weren’t GOOD sources…a lot of books from the era cited nothing at all.) The fact a major publisher like Harper Collins would keep this going in 2014 is astounding.
Normand had tuberculosis by the age of 10, so long before she entered film. The origin of the drug rumors seems to be the William Desmond Taylor murder. The still unsolved murder (that everyone, including me, has a theory on) was sensational. To understand consider the OJ Simpson trial akin to the Roscoe Arbuckle trial in 1921 (only difference being Arbuckle was actually innocent) and Taylor’s murder in 1922, sensation wise, was on par with Jon Benet Ramsey’s in 1995.The murder investigation was very poorly handled, and the eventual investigation revealed Taylor, to whatever extent, had been around Mary Miles Minter and Mabel Normand, both popular and not necessarily a stretch (he had directed Minter.) The press turned it into a torrid love affair when in actuality Normand and Taylor were just friends. Her association with Taylor’s death was she was the last known to have seen him alive, as neighbors spotted her leaving his home while he waved goodbye to her. While some just to be argumentative take the ‘maybe Normand did it’ angle, most people never considered her a serious suspect (it’d be pretty hard to leave and know you were spotted, then comeback unseen and kill someone.)
The Taylor scandal led Hollywood into a mass freakout. There was no solid suspects, the few people even near him were all women (minus his servant Peavey) making it more sensational. Then it was found out Taylor had a previous life leaving a wife and child behind. The rumors flowed like wine, not unlike the Ramsey murder. Taylor was gay, Taylor was caught in a straight love triangle, Taylor was extorted, Taylor got messed up with dope fiends, the accusations went on and on.This is where the Normand drug myth begins. Sin in Hollywood (1922), which I mentioned before, has a rant on drug fiends. I have included the Taylorology conclusions on the real names as they seem to be correct…mostly.
Today the dope peddler is a common sight around the streets of Hollywood. And once, not so long ago, the Federal officers called upon Handsome Wally Reid and talked things over with him. They wanted to know if he was the go-between–the man who acted as middleman for the actors and the peddlers of drugs. Somehow he got out of it. At least, he is still in pictures and out of jail.
But the dope users are increasing; dope peddlers prevail.
There is a handsome home, closed temporarily, on a certain fashionable street in Los Angeles, where if you could enter you would find the finest equipped dope outfit in America.
Here come the players–mostly stars and near stars–to revel in Popplyand (opium); here are held high revels–or such was the case only a few months ago–and here are the wildest of wild parties stages.
Not so long ago Lottie Pickford fought a duel with a former Follies girl Flo Hart with fists and vases; though it is claimed that hair pulling constituted and really ended the argument.
But they are interesting parties for all that. They must be interesting, for there have been as many as a hundred guests at these “affairs,” not all of them dope fiends, but many of them are. Most of them are easy to pick out. Their nervousness betrays them. The twitching of their mouths, the “snuffles,” the listless air of many of them.
A rather new and somewhat unusual dope lately employed is that of bromidia, a drug which taken in teaspoonful drives the user to continuous sleepiness, swelling of the limbs and a lassitude that brings great surcease. There are but a few of these, however, more of them preferring cocaine, a “shot in the arm,” and an occasional drag at the pipe.
Take for instance a certain young actor Henry Miller Jr, son of one of the country’s foremost exponents of the spoken drama Henry Miller Sr. His face is yellow as saffron. He is a pipe smoker. Twice his father has had him committed to sanitariums. When his father’s company comes to Los Angeles now the son secrets himself and after his father’s departure writes and tells him how sorry he was to be away on location during his stay in the city.
Then there is the case of the blonde with the Scandinavian name Juanita Hansen. Last year it cost her a thousand dollars a month for her dope supply. She uses cocaine and heroin, goes to sleep on the set, slips over to her dressing room, takes a few “sniffs” and returns full of ginger, only to fade away in a short time again.A once noted song writer, now a movie scribbler, spends the greater part of his income for drugs. (Vincent Bryan) An actor who has had a long and successful career with two of the big companies is one of the list. A well known director is another. (Marshall Neilan) A young woman star, whose name has been very much in the public print of late, is still another. (Mabel Normand)
Now this seems pretty damning. I’ve already stated the story about Mabel and Mack in this book is true. But I don’t think this one is. For starters its very vague, as is a lot of the hints in that ending paragraph (Neilan was a drunk but I have never heard of him being a drug addict.) Wallace Reid, Juanita Hansen and Lottie Pickford are all correct. But not everything in this book is.
For instance there’s a chapter after Mabel and Mack titled “A Wonderful Lover!”. It describes Rudolph Valentino (Adolfo) and Movie Girl (Jean Acker). It incorrectly states Valentino was a paid gigolo (he made enough money in New York, though he likely did whore around with women on his own free time). It then describes Valentino marrying Acker to bolster his own mediocre star, only to leave her the minute he becomes famous and oh that poor woman! Problem with this scenario is Acker was a lesbian who used Valentino to get out of her own love triangle that could have destroyed her career. It took him awhile to catch on, he was angry his wife continued to spurn him (as described in Affairs Valentino by Evelyn Zumaya). Valentino was a moderate star when he married Acker but she really didn’t do much for his career. One reason he may have married her was he was feeling lonely, his mother had just died and he had just moved to California after leaving his beloved behind (Blanca de Saulles, which is why he had to leave.)
I cite this non Normand story because its one I can break down. It is partially true, but ultimately not something to rely on. I do believe they probably were citing Normand in that dope fiend blind, but they were wrong.
Adela Rogers St John and other tabloid writers continued to push the story that Taylor died because he had tried to pull an actress (Normand) out of her drug addiction and the drug ring went after him. This was then enhanced to extortion (whether on top of leaving the drug ring or not) and that being the cause of his death.
Its all very sensational but not rational. There was a drug problem in America at the time, and if even half these claims are true (some definitely are such as Wally Reid) why would drug dealers really care if one actress or person stopped buying drugs? Nobody could be the sole source of drug intake that their leaving would cause a major monetary loss.
Normand wasn’t exactly poor at this point either. In 1920 she paid nearly $30,000 (in today’s money) for items from Olive Thomas’ estate. And before a new conspiracy theory starts most of those items were jewelery. Normand had been signed with Goldwyn and by this point signed with Sennett again. Molly O was no flop by any means. It just doesn’t gel that she alone couldn’t pay off any supposed extorters.
Its clear the drug rumors started up in 1922 with Taylor’s murder (as a reason he possibly could be killed) and they just grew from there. The Dines shooting happens soon after the Taylor murder so Normand is associated with scandal, then looks sick.
By the time Normand returns to the screen in 1926 she looks sickly. You wouldn’t be mistaken for thinking she looks like she deteriorated like Barbara LaMarr (who would die that year from a combo of hard alcohol/drug use and something like pneumonia). But Mabel Normand of 1926 looks like a picture of health next to Mabel Normand 1928. Normand was so sick she didn’t know how sick she was, that year she was making plans to make talkies. Then she gets so sick she ends up in the sanitarium where she dies in 1930.
A lot of the death articles (newspaper and magazine) mention how shocked people were…last fans knew she was making films…then she’s dead. She was 37 but they thought she was 35. That’s pretty young. But not shocking for the era (Jean Harlow, June Mathis, Rudolph Valentino, Barbara LaMarr, Olive Thomas, Fatty Arbuckle, Max Linder…the list goes on. Only LaMarr had known drug use of that lot.)
What I wanted to convey was without knowing Mabel Normand was ill (many people didn’t) her death looks suspicious, especially after hearing the 1922 drug rumors. Then time goes on, people forget what had happened, Mabel gets brought up by Chaplin and Sennett in the 1940s/1950s. 1960s revival of silent film happens, and they want salacious details or its not interesting. This brings in the other part of the story: people who claimed to know after the fact. Anita Loos, Frances Marion, Adela Rogers St John, Mack Sennett all wrote memoirs towards the end of their lives. All of the material is downright questionable but only Sennett’s wasn’t salacious. And of that lot Sennett was the only one who hadn’t made a career of writing. Loos, Marion and St. John all claimed Normand used drugs, usually cocaine. But they have several facts wrong in their books overall (I could go on point by point but that would take PAGES). These ladies were old and long forgotten, they probably needed the money. And who doesn’t like the attention? Nobody would pay attention if they had nothing salacious to say. Case in point: Miriam Cooper (silent actress) wrote a memoir in the 70s and while it had a few bitchy points (she was wrong on Arbuckle, she HATED Theda Bara because she thought Bara wanted her husband) it was mostly overall levelheaded. She got a few notices but no one blew her up like they did Anita Loos and co.
So that’s how a rumor from 1922 lives on and on. And I really don’t think the tuberculosis can be understated. There was no real cure/treatment til the 1950s and even now if you get a certain kind of it its still a death sentence. Its not pleasant: its hard to breathe, its very painful, you cough up blood. In fact there are still blood stained nighties (from coughing) of Mabel’s at FIDM. It’s not a good way to live or die.
And I don’t have Mabel’s medical records but one can see she had good and bad times til it finally ended her life. She looks good in Mickey and Molly O, she looks sad in The Extra Girl and her shorts. She looks like she’s about to die in What Happen Rosa. I think people have long mistook how she looks as proof of drug use, not knowing or understanding about tuberculosis. And that vase thing was really interesting because for the longest time that was claimed as the start of her drug use: she had a severe head injury, so she was prescribed cocaine or morphine (both legal at the time) to treat it and got hooked (this is similar to what really happened to Wallace Reid). BUT now that we have the story: she was hurt but NOT AS BAD as everyone believed; we know that she likely wasn’t given that hardcore of medicine. I’ve seen the head story even turned into a narrative: oh it happened and now she had frequent headaches/head pain and that’s why she drank/did drugs. I wouldn’t like getting my head bashed against a wall, but its unlikely it would cause permanent damage. This was Adela Rogers St John’s origin of coke story for Mabel. Clearly its untrue. So as far is as known about Mabel Normand using drugs: there is no proof she used anything and only took prescriptions when needed. She was ill, and died from, tuberculosis.
Tinseltown was so slashed together it didn’t include Sins in Hollywood or Twisted by Knaves by Charlotte Shelby. I hope people will realize where myth ends and fact begins.