Looking for Mabel Normand

Madcap Mabel Normand

 

 

The Irrepressible One

Fans are always clamoring to see more of Mabel Normand,

And in that they are quite like her many acquaintances.

 

By Norbert Lusk[1]

 

Picture-Play Magazine

October 1923

Transcribed by

Marilyn Slater

“Looking-for-Mabel”

May 31, 2014

 

 

Miss Normand, one hand grasping a tube of tooth paste, the other holding a bibliophile’s tenderness a volume of Ernest Dowson[2], romped into the room.

For two hours I had waited.  My patience was that of a senescent courtier used to the etiquette of dying monarchies.

Not to interview her.  Not as a stranger come to beg a photograph, or a year’s tuition in a college of chiropractic, or even to beseech aid for a crippled kiddie’s operation.

These benefices would, my experience told me, have been all too easily won from Mabel.  The prospect of such picayune gold digging would have found me not at all trepidant[3].

I had come on a far, far more delicate mission – one that held me rigidly apprehensive in the plush and prisms of the hotel drawing-room, though not too unstrung to inventory the jumble of Mabel’s belongings scattered, piled and flung here and there.

How like her they all were, I mused, but not too indulgently.  Deciding, you understand, to be reserved and not let her know I’d attention to her gewgaws.  They ranged from seven grotesque dolls, limply perched on mantel and chairs, to a capsized basket of faded flowers, and a leaning tower of cigarettes in boxes, with other oddments between.

For I was there as a once-devoted friend willing, but not too eager, to consummate a reconciliation, if I may use a toplofty phrase, and resolved to be dignified at all costs and not let old-time fondness be welded anew into fettered slavery.

It was to cancel an estrangement brought about by an unanswered letter, or, something equally heartbreaking that Mabel had done.

Frankly, I don’t quite remember what it was, now, though before Miss Normand scampered down the hall my grievances were precisely defined, like the perforations on a music roll, and ready to be ground out, a complete opus, at concert pitch.

Mabel is like that – she makes her wounded victim forget his wrongs in a moment and buckle on the armor of a crusader to avenge her own.  She is dreadfully devastating to dignity, to judicial balance, to one’s amour proper[4].

That neglected letter, or whatever it was had made me sorry for myself and skeptical of the friendly vows of all queens of the screen.  I had, indeed renounced the false sisterhood and consigned them to celluloid.  When, as recorded, Mabel bounced in.

Now for the Normand witchery, sorcery or what not.  If this story is to get anywhere at all, something that passes for explanation must be submitted.  The hard part of it lies in translating it by means of the printed word, lacking, in turn, the wizardry, alchemy or what not of a Rossetti[5], a Thomas Hardy[6] or a James Joyce[7].  Mabel is deserving, honestly, of an abler etcher than I.

“I love your coat – it looks like an Airedale!” she cried outside, before I saw her, as a means of breaking the ice after three years.

“Ernest Dowson is my favorite poet.  I love him.  If he weren’t dead I’d make him marry me.”  Mabel whirled in delivering herself of this and introduced me to the bell boy, who stood behind her, laden with books.

“This is my darling old friend who knows all my faults but loves me just the same.  He’s going to be Ritzy[8] about this when you go, because he’s got himself up in soup and fish, trying to pass for an ambassador!  But I don’t care, now that he’s forgiven me – do I Bunker Bean[9]!”

Whereupon she resorted to her own way of stifling a reply.  It is the way of an impulsive, affectionate child and, I add, to give the world hope, is not reserved for me alone.  One’s resistance sags under these onslaughts and I couldn’t command myself to strike an attitude of chill dignity.

Picture, if you can, Mabel as she is off the screen and you’ll not ask why.  A little figure all vivid expression, quick movement and rapid speech, with enormous eyes and petulant, childlike mouth.  She is wise as a serpent in the ways of the world, yet at times more naïve than a fictional milkmaid.  Beneath it all her manipulation of people is unfailing.

Clinging to the last vestige of self-assertiveness, I reminded her that I’d waited two hours.

“You would!” So would the Rock of Gibraltar!  That’s why you’re wonderful.  But I telephoned you twice from the bookshop.  Don’t tell me that maid didn’t – I’m going to fire her!”  She darted to the door, then wheeled and paused.  “No; if you don’t mind, I won’t.  She’s a wonderful packer.”  Mabel softly closed the door and lowered her voice as if in a den of thieves.

“I’m going abroad – no one must know but you.  I’ve always told you my secrets, haven’t I?  Sit here near me and I’ll tell you some more.”  Followed chattering exposition of her plans.

They included, so far as I could adduce, nothing sub rosa[10]. She was going to London for Christmas, would spend the holidays in Rome (I’d not surprised if she collected a present from the Vatican Christmas tree, if there were one) and return in a few weeks.  There were some trifles to be looked after in her absence.

It was happiness, as always, to undertake them.  Mabel asks little and makes one feel a minister plenipotentiary in obtaining chewing gum for her.

Our rapprochement[11] complete, she saw no reason for settling down to stilted conversation about the weather and topics of the day.  Accordingly she ran in and out of the room, presumably to confer with those wonderful packers, or leaped to answer the telephone’s insistent jangle.  It was always an invitation to join a party, and I caught names as celebrated as her own in these potential hosts.  But Mabel refused all, declaring, in a torrent of endearments, that her physician had ordered quiet and rest.

                                                                            

“Isn’t it outrageous?” She wailed, wide-eyed from her desk, “I have to autograph five hundred of these “Suzanna” books[12] before I can get away.  It’s slavery; yet people think we don’t do anything more strenuous than change our shoe trees.  I’ve got writer’s cramp, as it is, and housemaid knee too.  Tell me what to what on the flyleaf for my French teacher. I’ve been studying three years and don’t know a thing, but he’s a darling old peach.”

She munched her pen.  Already she was inked to the wrists.  Needless to relate the ready star needed no prompting.

“Don’t you dare like this book more than you do me!” she scribbled, “Votre gamine terrible – Mabel[13].”

Gamine! That’s the word.  Mabel herself described a phase of herself, her present phase.

Luxurious, lavish, independent of any individual’s favor, she is a gamine de luxe a sort of Kiki, minus Lenore Ulric[14], because, despite dissimilar circumstances, Mabel’s heart is that of the child-woman if André Picard’s[15] play. Gaining her own ends by the sheer vigor of her attack, never accepting defeat, appraising people and situations to a nicety, and over all flooding an excess of capricious high spirits.

Mabel is inimitable undeniable, irresistible.  You may put this down. If you choose, as arrant bias on the part of her toiling historian.  But confront him, if you can, with the person who has withstood Mabel.  Vainly he has sought this Hippolytus[16] among studio workers – people generally without illusion – and while there are feminine stars of the dramatic persuasion who wouldn’t exactly expand while Mabel watched their emotional scenes of burlesque would conflict with their lack of it.

Yet, while she indulges her gamine mood, there still are other moods.  When finally she permitted the packing to be carried on without interference and had inscribed fly leaves galore, autographed pictures, written notes, dispatched telegrams, denied herself to callers, plied me with food, “Suzanna” souvenirs and instructions – and had driven home her points with some comic imitations of people we all know – she talked uninterruptedly.  Probably as a means of warding off fatigue.

“why is it, do you suppose, I’m not happy?  People think I am.  I babble because they expect just that.  But, cross my heart and hope to die, I’m not Pollyanna by a long shot.  There’s something missing.  Sometimes I think it’s because I know people too well – see through them too easily – and it makes me want to hide myself away from it all.  You know I really love to be alone where I can think things over but – you answer the telephone, darling – say that Miss Normand has gone over to Staten Island to see her mother.”  Fortunately this fib swept the current of Mabel’s introspection into happier channels – happier, without doubt, for her visitor, who had the sudden qualms of one who might be keeping Mabel from thinking things over.

“You remember I always used to be writing things in my book?  If you promise not to make fun of me, or take down anything, I’ll read to you.  I’m really self-conscious about my poems.  I couldn’t bear to have people laugh at a comedienne’s attempt to be serious.”

And so twisted into gnomelike angles, on the sofa, Mabel unlocked her book and read.

She won’t mind mention of this because, in keeping my word not to quote.  I have only recounted a fact which her fans should know. 

Her verses are simple, unaffected, concrete[17].  Each mirrors an impression.  There are clear images, unclouded by wasted words, in them all.  The sincerity of her intention disarms the critic (if I may masquerade as one so late in the story), and stirs and touches.  Which is precisely what Mabel wished to do when she essayed her first author’s reading under a rose lampshade.

“Why in the world don’t you publish these? You’d have no trouble arranging it, and think what a surprise people would get.”

“Not for any money – at least not now.  They’d only be brought out of curiosity and some one surely would laugh.  I couldn’t bear to be laughed at in that way.  When one understands life, or tries to, thoughts that touch very deeply should be kept mostly to one’s self. 

… Oh, but I’d love to do an autobiography and tell the truth. Mind you, the whole truth!  That’s all that would excuse it.”

I predict that she will, some day, for unless all symptoms fail, what Mabel aches for is literary expression.

Certainly few busy people read more than she does or respond more readily when there is opportunity to discuss books.  Of the fifty or so volumes awaiting the clutches of the packers, there was nothing obvious; no garishly jacketed best seller, but poetry, biography, criticism, history, all out of the ordinary.

In reading, however, as in her conduct, it would seem milady has her moods.  She avowed affection for Ethel M. Dell[18] – at least for one of her stories which Mabel expects to do in pictures – yet holds Leonard Merrick[19], economist of emotion and narration, in esteem.

“No, no; not that.  Don’t begin with “Conad in Quest of His Youth’ – that’s not a fair test of Merrick’s power,” she advised a caller who wished to become acquainted with the novelist.  “Start with ‘The Man Who Understood Women.”  The rest will take care of themselves.”

She dispensed this counsel with a quiet zest that gave me a flash of the pedagogue, of you’ll credit that.  In line with this she assured me she was a born old maid, and expected to die one, because she spends much time happily cataloguing and rearranging her belongings.  Servants notwithstanding, Mabel says she knows exactly where to find the black-lace stockings that have been mended once and betide the slave that mixes her handkerchiefs.

How, I asked myself, did the inflexible Britons receive this quaint, unconventional ex-Biograph girl?  She had returned, not long since, from her first invasion of London and was now to go again, without having revisited Los Angeles.  There must have been few lorgnons[20] raised by the duchesses for Mabel to cartwheel into the midst of their unwedded young sons once more.  So I asked her.

“In England people do the loveliest things for you for the love of doing them.  You know what I mean?  They don’t calculate their kindness.  It’s an instinct, not a gesture, and it’s gracefully casual.  Gosh! I adore the English for their civilization, their traditions.”

This enthusiastic blanketing she followed with details spotlighting the hospitality of lords and ladies in country homes and at hunt breakfasts.  Of solitary walks over moors, gathering heather – and, with no less happiness, of a police inspector who had won her heart by escorting her through Limehouse.

“You knew dear George Loane Tucker[21], didn’t you?  Well Sir Hall Caine[22] wrote me a darling note – no; sweet was the word for it (I mean quaint), telling me that Mr. Tucker, when he was alive, used to write him nice things about me.  He came and turned out to be the gentlest, darlingest pet there ever was.  We understood each other – zip! Like that! – and later I went to his house for tea.

“I liked Barrie[23] too.  Wasn’t it a shame? I mean I was bathing when he called at the Ritz and kept him waiting too long” (oh Mabel, how like you!) “for when I came out he had gone, leaving a funny little note.  It said that he had fixed the fire in the grate and hoped it would warm me.  Of course I tried to make up for this later… Shaw[24] was awfully kind too – very quizzical and clever.”

She had, however, no tale of him to equal the other conquests, which gave me an opening to ask if it were true she had broken an engagement to meet Princess Mary.

“Oh course not! My friends ought to know me well enough to be sure I wouldn’t do that.  It was to have been at a charity bazaar or something.  At the last moment the thing was called off.  Some bigwig[25] engineering it was sick. Then some one thought it would be funny to say Mabel Normand had been rude.  That’s how things start.  Just because I’m a little – well, you know, different – people believe anything weird about me.

“I wish to heaven some philanthropist would take the time to write about me as I am.  Something quite simple, natural.  Not making me out a highbrow, or a stately Vere de Vere[26], or as a girl with no taste at all.  Just as I really am – just me. Then the public wouldn’t swallow nonsense when it’s printed by those who don’t care because they don’t know any better … It must be great to be a wharf rat[27].”

Mabel next returned from Europe in high spirits on a slow steamer, under the impress that she had booked passage on an express.

Reporters, boarding the vessel at quarantine[28], still surrounded her at pier because, I surmised, she was offering entertainment – or news.

Next morning’s paper rumored her supposed marriage to an anonymous Londoner.  Mabel was in tearful indignation over this wrong and, as always spurred her sympathizers to avenge the canard[29].  But first I probed for clews.

“I never said a thing,” she averred.  “A lady on the steamer was reading my palms, saw this diamond guard and kidded me about having married secretly.  I kidded her back.  Who wouldn’t have?  Then it spread.  Things always spread.  I’m going to take the veil.”

She was reminded of what she previously complained of in newspaper misrepresentation and advised that she should have flatly contradicted the sociable palmist.

“Oh, you want me to be dignified.  Dignity my eye! I can’t be upstage and I can’t be mean when people are nice.  But I’ll never even be civil to a newspaper man again.”

On the morrow this sprightly queen of contradiction was hostess to a group of news gatherers, purposely to convince them of the errors of their ways.  How she did it you perhaps know by now.  At any rate the next edition of their journals gave space to Mabel’s denial.

This, then is the Mabel Normand adjudged the leading feminine comedian of the films.  These glimpses of her away from the studios, chosen because they are typical rather than exceptional, reflect, I hope, the vigor and verve and whimsicality of her acting. It is doubtful, however, if they give an idea of her professional authority, sagacity.  When she is absorbed in work it is absorption indeed.  Her long experience – her facile inventiveness – fundamental sense of the comic – are all whipped into dynamic activity when she attacks a picture.  Should the result disappoint, Mabel’s reaction is that of utter heartbreak.  But she rebounds.  Like all urgent souls she never accepts defeat.

She seems to be working out as one of those very human characters,” she wrote of ‘The Extra Girl[30].’  “You know what I mean – a girl one looks at and wants to know more about as she passes by, and leaves one with a little ache that one may know her better…. She has given me tremendous ambition.  If others have failed perhaps it was misjudgment of one kind or another in attempting them.  But this picture has had the same effect as the faith of those who really love me.  And so, from the way things look, I think those who care for me will be rather proud of their – Mabel.”

ab





[1] Lusk, Norbert: was born in 1883 in New Orleans, Louisiana, a writer and director, he died on July 23, 1949 in Forest Hills, New York, http://looking-for-mabel.webs.com/norbertlusk.htm

 

[2] Dowson, Ernest: the poet that was Mabel’s favorite http://looking-for-mabel.webs.com/ernestdowson.htm

 

[3] trepidant (trepidation) agitation, alarm, anxiety

 

[4] Amour Propre. an often unjustified feeling of being pleased with oneself or with one's situation or achievements

 

[5] Rossetti, Dante Gabriel (1828 – 1882) English poet, founded “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (also illustrator)

 

 

 

 

[6] Hardy, Thomas, June 2, 1840 - January 11, 1928 was an English writer, one of a number of Victorian realist, he was a critic of the decline of Victorian society.

 

 THOMAS HARDY

[7] Joyce James Augustine: (February 2, 1882 – January 13, 1941) the glorious author of “Ulysses” was Irish and (in my opinion is) the most influential writer of the first part of the 20th century.

 

 

 

[8] ritzy: snobbish: impressively or ostentatiously fancy or stylish: fashionable, posh

 

[9] Bunker Bean A short story in which a meek and mild worker visits a mystic, Bean is told that he is the reincarnation of past leaders of men as Napoleon and an Egyptian Pharaoh. Armed with new confidence, Bean becomes success and wins his girl.

 

[10] sub rosa: In secret; privately or confidentially: held the meeting sub rosa. [Latin sub ros, under the rose

 

[11] rapprochement: comes from the French word rapprocher ("to bring together"), is a re-establishment of cordial relations

 

[12] Suzanna book: “Suzanna” (1922 Sennett) http://looking-for-mabel.webs.com/suzannathebook.htm

 

[13] Gamine is a slim, often boyish, elegant, wide-eyed young woman who is, or is perceived to be, mischievous, teasing or sexually appealing.  “Votre gamine terrible – Mabel.” Cheers! from terrible kid

 

[14] Ulric, Lenore: (1892 – 1970) was the KIKI of the Broadway stage. She was active in early films both silent and sound. She moved between stage and screen and back again

 

 

 

 

 

[15] Picard, André: Wrote: Kiki, Kiki,

 

[16] Hippolytus was a hero, his cult which was associated with the goddess of beauty and love, Aphrodite, shared a shrine at Athens, on the Acropolis. They held a ceremony dedicated to him, lamenting and offering locks of hair from young girls who were soon to be married.

 

[17] Poems written by Mabel Normand

Short, Short Story

I’m bad, bad, bad!

But I’ll really keep my engagement,

If there was one sprig of poison-ivy

In a field of four-leaf-clovers,

I’d pick it up.

If it was raining carbolic acid,

I’d be the dumb-bell sponge

 


There’s a Circle of Gold in the Sky,

And the sun’s far out in the West

It’s that wonderful hour before dusk,

 

That hour we both loved best

I’m waiting here beneath the window

For your loved steps on the walk;

I’m closing my eyes and I’m thinking,

 

Thinking I hear your talk.

My heart again is aflame

You’re holding me close to your breast;

While you whisper again that you love me

 

And your lips to mine are pressed.

The circle of gold is now gray

And the sun no longer I see;

‘Tis only a memory that haunts me,

But it brought you so close to me.


 

Patience

The world is made of waiting –

A lesson we all must learn.

Don’t be condemning or hating –

Be patient and wait your turn.

Be patient when there’s sorrow –

The sun will shine again.

Always there is to-morrow –

Learn to live through pain

 

  [18] Dell, Ethel M: on February 1, 1922 William Desmond Taylor gave Mabel Normand a copy of “Rosa Mundi and Other Stories  http://looking-for-mabel.webs.com/ethelmdell.htm

 

 [19] Merrick, Leonard: A Forgotten Novelists. http://looking-for-mabel.webs.com/merrickleonard.htm

 

 [20] Lorgnon: A spectacle lens for occasional use, mounted on a handle.

 

[21]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[22] Caine, Sir Hall: an enormously popular and best-selling author; he was accorded the idolization reserved now for pop stars; The “Christian was the first novel in Britain to sell over a million copies; he was a communism nearer to Christian socialism than to Marxism.

 

[23] Barrie: James Matthew known as J. M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan http://looking-for-mabel.webs.com/jmbarriemabel.htm

 

 [24] Shaw, George Bernard: (1856 – 1950) was an Irish playwright, founder of London School of Economics, novelist; socialist, etc.    http://looking-for-mabel.webs.com/walshatshaw.htm

 

[25] Bigwig: Field Marshal Sir Henry Hughes Wilson, assassination  - caused a month of public mourning; all court celebrations were cancelled, even the annual theatrical garden party – Chelsea Hospital

 

[26] Vere-de-Vere: vernacular, a playful term meaning the grandest, proudest, most historic

 

[27] Whart Rat: Someone who is a dishonest person. 

 

[28] Vessel at quarantine:

   New York Morning Telegraph,  February 14, 1923
Mabel Normand Engaged? No Indeed
    “Mabel Normand, film star, returned from Europe yesterday wearing a gold ring
                             studded with diamonds on the “engagement finger” of her left hand.”  
 
 
 
               
 
   [29]  Canard: An unfounded or false, deliberately misleading story.
 

[30]  Extra Girl, The: Sennett 1923 here is a review by William Everson,