We have a delicious He Did and He Didn’t week kicking off in March (premium only, so make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss out!).
When we left her last week, Mabel was very much still a major star and Hollywood royalty — whatever commentators since have tried to claim.
She was good friends with William Desmond Taylor (in my opinion, romance was probably unlikely, but who knows). Shortly after his body was found, Taylor’s manservant Henry Peavy reported that Mabel had visited Taylor the previous night, and was therefore likely the last person to have seen him alive.
She took the stand at his inquest on 4 February, 1922:
Q. Please state your name.
A. Mabel Normand.
Q. Where do you reside?
A. 3089 West Seventh.
Q. What is your occupation?
A. Motion pictures.
Q. Miss Normand, were you acquainted with Mr. Taylor, the deceased in this case?
Q. Did you see him on the evening before his death occurred?
A. Yes, I did.
Q. And where did you see him?
A. Will I tell you when I went in there and when I came out?
Q. Did you see him at his home?
A. Oh, yes.
Q. And you were with him about how long on that occasion?
A. I got there about 7 o'clock and left at a quarter to 8.
Q. And when you left his place, did you leave him in the house, or outside?
A. No, he came down to my car with me.
Q. Where was your car?
A. Right in front of the court.
Q. On Alvarado street?
A. Yes, on the hill.
Q. He accompanied you to your car?
Q. Was he still there when you drove away?
A. Yes, as my car turned around, I waved my hand at him; he was partly up a little stairs there.
Q. At the time you were in the house, was anybody also in the house?
A. Yes, Henry, his man.
Q. Henry Peavey?
Q. Do you know whether Mr. Peavey left the house before you did or not?
A. Yes, he did; he left about, I should say about 15 or 20 minutes before I left, but stopped outside and spoke to my chauffeur; we came out later.
Q. No one else except Henry Peavey was there?
A. That was all.
Q. What time was it you say you left him--drove away from his place?
A. I left him on the sidewalk about a quarter to eight.
Q. Did you expect to see him or hear from him later that evening?
A. Yes, he said--he had finished his dinner--he said would I go out and take dinner with him and I said, "no;" I was tired; I had to go home and get up very early; he said he would call me up in about an hour.
Q. Did he call you?
A. No, I went to bed; if he called me I was asleep; when I am asleep he tells my maid not to disturb me.
Q. Was that the last time you saw him when you left him about a quarter to eight?
A. That was the last time.
Q. Have you any questions, Gentlemen? That is all, you may be excused.
So as you can see, all pretty straightforward. She readily admits she visited Taylor, explains clearly at what time she left and the fact she did not see or hear from him again. As far as the police were concerned, that was the end of the matter. The media, led by the particularly vicious Hearst papers, weren’t so sure.
Rumours abounded that Mabel could have killed Taylor, possibly in the midst of some kind of lovers’ tiff. They didn’t get a great deal of real traction, because Mabel was not only a huge star, she was well loved, hilarious in interviews and popular with everyone who knew her. It was a reach and a half to get anyone to believe that she was a cold blooded killer.
So they moved on to the idea that she was a cocaine addict.
The claim went that Taylor was nobly and altruistically helping her to kick the habit (because he just had too much time on his hands directing several features a year). Supposedly, LA dealers were so incensed at his potentially losing them such a lucrative client that they…
Broke into his house and shot him in the back of the head.
As some of you know, when I’m not raging about the treatment of women in the film industry, I write crime fiction. Even I could not come up with a motive for murder as pointless and convoluted as that.
The idea that Mabel liked a party is far from beyond the realms of possibility, and there’s every chance she indulged now and then.
But it’s worth bearing in mind that, as we talked about last week, Mabel worked steadily throughout the twenties — indeed, right up until her death. If she really was shoving a small Colombian forest up her nose on the regular, I’ll just say she must have had an even stronger work ethic than I’d previously thought.
There’s also the small matter that newspaper reports reported that she had a “$2000 a week habit”. As actress Claire Windsor later pointed out, you would have needed a small dump truck to deliver the amount of cocaine $2000 would have bought you in 1922. If it were remotely true, then half the California earthquakes in the past century were probably caused by her body zinging off the walls of her coffin.
The idea that Mabel was an addict, and the original ‘star that burned too brightly’ (thus kicking off a trend that continues right up to Britney and beyond — WHY must any woman having a laugh being rich and famous be immediately cast as tragic and troubled?), is often accepted as established fact. I believe it is no such thing.
In Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By, Eddie Sutherland describes an unnamed actor:
Everyone who took drugs in the industry was started by this man. He was one of the quietest, nicest actors I’ve ever known. He put Mabel Normand on the junk, Wallie Reid, Alma Rubens. All three died as a direct result.
Except that Mabel Normand died of tuberculosis. That is a matter of fact. She had been troubled by TB on and off since childhood.
And most importantly, detectives working on the Taylor investigation confirmed that no illicit drugs were ever actually found on her, or proven to be connected with her.
"Happiness," said Mabel, "is simply a state of mind. I've never lost my mind. When things go wrong with you--kid yourself." - PHOTOPLAY, FEBRUARY 1920