Looking for Mabel Normand

Madcap Mabel Normand


“With reluctance, with reluctance, with love laughter and tears, we come to the Mack Sennett star-of-stars, Mabel Normand.

Somewhere, sometime, somehow, must people have come to the moment of truth when quite literally, they meet someone they know is not of this world.  I don’t mean out of this world – that can happen here and there to very ordinary people moved by some impulse or vision.  Mabel Normand was something else again.

She was a pixie, an elf, one of the little people.  She had fey moments when I actually thought I could see – not the wings, perhaps, but the faintest glimmer of them, silver-white and transparent.  I know – but I did think so, and so did many other people.  Charlie Chaplin, for one - Marie Dressler for another.  And of course Mack Sennett.

Now – now that she is gone – now that I am looking back across the years I can feel a little sorry for Mack Sennett, too.  It can’t have been much easier for a mortal to be in love with an elf than for an elf to be in love with a mortal.

Perhaps that explains it all and the disaster that befell.”


Love, Laughter and Tears

Adela Rogers St. Johns, pg 55


Adela Rogers St. Johns has been identified as a novelist and movie historian as early as 1930, Adela described Mabel Normand as “Not of this world” perhaps true in the poetic sense if not in a factual one. 

The story of a failed suicide attempt of Mabel by jumping off a pier came from the pen of Adela late in her life.  She tells a tale of setting at a table with Wally Reid and Mabel at Nat Goodwin’s when Mabel excused herself, walked to the end of the pier, and jumped.  Adela is a bit vague as to when this happen. It was believed that she was referring to the late summer of 1915; Wally was working for Lasky on Carmen. Mabel was very busy traveling between San Francisco and San Diego but she didn’t leave for New York until December, perhaps it was in September but Adela never gave a date.  Mabel was an award-winning diver, so would she have jumped into the Pacific Ocean to end it all? But the story keeps being repeated as if Adela was reporting facts not telling one of her fan magazine stories. 

Adela was a writer of public interest and feature stories in the light, emotional and whimsical style that was her trademark.  There is little doubt that she truly liked Mabel.  She and Mabel shared many qualities; one was a total lack of interest in being reporters, as Adela never worried about the facts if there was a good story to be told.  Personally, I believe Adela’s writings hold an emotional truth but not necessarily historic facts. 

TRUTH is a quality or state of being genuine, real, or correct and is very much a philosophical statement but on the other hand, FACTS are a thing done, thing known and are scientific in nature. Fact is not a quality but an actual thing.  In general, usage, we commonly use the words interchangeable, they are not. 

Adela’s sincere affection is clear whenever she wrote of her friend, Mabel Normand.  According to an article she wrote in Photoplay in August 1921, Adela first saw Mabel at Al Levy’s restaurant. Adela writes, her dining partner put down his fork, turned to her and told her in a hushed voice  that the ‘prettiest girl I ever saw in my life’ had just walked into the restaurant’, Adela turned and saw Mabel, a “round, youthful, exquisite thing. With enormous deep velvet brown eyes between ridiculous, exaggerate golden lashes, a skin like peach-bloom and a saucy, curling, red mouth.  All in white, with her glinting red-brown curls tucked under a big white hat.”

 Later when Adela saw Mabel while Mabel was working at the Goldwyn Studio in Culver City, (1920) Mabel looked ill and unhappy as if she were harassed by something bitter. Adela wrote that, “Her face was sunken so that her eyes looked uncannily large and dark. Her cheeks were the gray-white of a sea fog. Within her rich clothes she seemed wasted away, their gorgeousness hung loose about her thin frame…She haunted me. It hurt to see her ¾  as it hurts to see a gorgeous, fragrant, budding rose suddenly cut from a bush and flung carelessly on the ground, helpless, fading, bruised by sun and wind.”

 When she wrote in 1921, of Mabel, she found Mabel was smooth and round and girlish, again, the same old Mabel that Adela first met. She asked Mabel, “How did you do it?”          “I don't know,” answered Mabel smiling. Adela said that the word courage as Mabel’s supreme characteristic.  Adela said that Mabel was courageous, so set aside the facts and believe the truth of what she wrote about her friend.

 During the newspaper coverage of the murder of William Desmond Taylor, Adela reported a long distant telephone conversation she had with Mabel the evening of February 20, 1922.  Mabel was crying, Mabel asked if Adela believed she had anything to do with the shooting.  Adela told her no one believed she had done anything that had any connection with the shooting.  And told Mabel that she loved her and for her to take care of herself.

 Adela was working for the William Randolph Hearst newspapers syndicate in 1923 as a feature writer, which is not to be confused with a reporter; she wrote human-interest features. On New Years Day 1924, she wrote that Mabel’s chauffeur, to “square things” shot Courtland Dines. In the story that Adela told, Mabel’s driver, “had a deep, spiritual love for Miss Normand.”   He was protecting Mabel’s honor when he used her gun to shot Edna Purviance’s gentleman friend, not killing him of course.

 There was a very long and endearing feature that Adele wrote for the Photoplay, June 1929.  By this time, Mabel’s health was not good. Doctor's indicated that little Mabel was dying.  The article was titled The Butterfly Man And The Little Clown, “The sad love story of two gay and gallant stars. The man who loved life.  And the girl who loved laughter.  Surely, surely, a romance between those two should have spelled happiness.”

 Adela Rogers St. Johns’ article at the death of her friend is haunting (one of Adela’s favorite words) was published in newspapers across the whole country. 

The Butterfly Man


The Little Clown


by Adela Rogers St. Johns


The sad love story of two gay and gallant stars.


The man who loved life.  And the girl who loved laughter.  Surely, surely, a romance between those two should have spelled happiness.


Yet Mabel Normand lies seriously ill at her home in Hollywood, and out on the desert, Lew Cody is fighting a desperate battle for strength to go to her.


They called him the butterfly man on the twenty-four sheets that acclaimed his witty, worldly pictures.


And we who knew her called her the beautiful clown.

They met and laughed together. Laughter ripened into a friendship, and friendship ripened into love and love suggested marriage at three o'clock upon a September morning almost three years ago.


Their wedding march was a dance tune and in gay, golden bubbles, they drank their marriage toast. We read about it in the morning paper.  We were a little surprised.  After all, we hadn't realized that Lew and Mabel were in love.  They had seemed almost too good friends to be in love.  Then, when the surprise had passed, we were delighted.  It seemed such a natural, right thing.  Lew would take of Mabel and Mabel would take care of Lew.  -- Their home would be full of life and laughter -- splendid place to drop in for wit and gaiety and good fellowship. But sometimes two and two don't make four.  That is why some folks call life a game. The love story of Mabel Normand and Lew Cody has not, so far, had the happy ending, which we had written for it.  No one -- least of all Lew and Mabel -- knows what lies beyond.  Somehow, they seem now to stand hand in hand against a slowly darkening sky.  There is confetti yet in Mabel's dark curls -- bright, silly stuff.


Her tiny feet are bound fast with yards and yards of the colored paper ribbons that clutter dance floors after a party. Her eyes are twin graves of laughter.  And nothing is so sad as dead laughter. Under the elegant motley he has always worn, Lew's shoulders seem to sag with despair. For life doesn’t come to you.  You have to go out and meet it and Lew can no longer do that.  He has always gone forth gallantly to meet life -- the good and the bad, the successes and the failures, the lean days and the fat ones. Looking at Lew in the game of life, you could never tell whether he was winning or losing.  Only being denied a seat at the table has brought him to despair.  But the candle he burned so brightly -- “my candle burns at both ends, it will not last the night, but oh, my friends, and ah, my foes, it gives a lovely light” -- is very, very low.

Only a miracle, the doctors say, can bring Mabel back to health.

But, where Mabel is concerned, I want to believe in miracles.  I want to believe in some kind hand that will reach down and lift up that tragic, helpless little figure  -- the most tragic of all Hollywood's broken idols  -- and put it back at the start of things again.  Surely somewhere -- if not here, somewhere else -- a kindly God can turn back the hands of the clock just a few brief years and let Mabel start all over again.  It doesn't seem much to ask for the girl who never did harm to anyone in all her life.  It seems that whatever power planned things in the beginning owes Mabel something for giving her that divine gift of laughter and then sending her through life without any protection from the ruthless parasites, the selfish sycophants, the birds of prey that hover over the gay, the talented, the generous.


Mabel Normand was the greatest comedienne the screen ever knew.  I would not dare to make that statement upon my own opinion alone.  I heard it said first by Charlie Chaplin.  No one, I think, would dispute his authority.  I have heard it said often since by those who should know.  Yet today when she lies so desperately ill, we remember that it is years since we saw her on the screen since “Mickey” delighted us past measure.  She has been out of pictures for years, when her great talent should have been keeping pace with the development of the motion picture art.  Today she should occupy the place among the women of the screen that Chaplin holds among the men.  But Mabel is proof positive that women are not able to meet the world as men meet it.  Physically and professionally, she broke under the things piled up against her.  We are the losers, for we, too, have lost Mabel's gift of laughter.


Perhaps there will be a miracle.  I know.  Who better?  I am proud to say that I have been her friend since first she came to the land of motion pictures from some factory in Brooklyn, a mingling of youth and beauty and laughter that fairly took our breath away.  I know what is chalked up against her.  A lot of hotheaded, wild, young foolishness such as most of the flaming youth of today has to grow out of.  But bad luck rode beside her on the highway.  She got herself into messes that made great headlines. Her friends got her into things. Mabel has always been the fall guy.  She never got away with anything in her life.  There are plenty of girls in the world who have done in fact the things Mabel was only suspected of, and they have righted themselves and gone on.  But Mabel had no balance, no perspective, no cold streak through her warm emotionalism to teach her how to handle life.  More brains and less sense than any woman I ever knew -- that is what I would say of Mabel.


You don't hear about that brilliant, fascinating, cultured brain of Mabel's.  Mention any of the great books of the past ten years, either in French or English.  She has read them and she has thoughts about them almost as interesting as the books them-selves.  You don't know that, even in these last years when Mabel has been far from herself, there are a dozen of the cleverest men and women in Hollywood who delighted to spend a quiet evening before her fireside, talking books and music, and men and world affairs.  You don't know that all Hollywood, from the topmost rung of the ladder to the depths of the lowest gutter, is spangled with Mabel's enormous charity. Real charity   -- for it came from a purse that was often empty, from a heart that was near breaking, from a mind that always managed to find some good in everyone, even those who found no good in her.

You don't hear how, in the old days, Mabel brought her divine gift of laughter into our dark days and how she could, in some way, make laughter synonymous with courage.  The world doesn't know those things and even in Hollywood, they have been too easily forgotten.  But the world knows, and Hollywood, which has become very self-protective and a little smug with success, remembers a lot of other things and that remembrance has weighed upon Mabel and broken her.

William Desmond Taylor and his murder!


How that thing did cling to Mabel's skirts for years because she was the last person known to have seen him alive.  If she told me herself that she knew who shot Bill Taylor, I wouldn't believe her.  And let me tell you that there were two nights, one on the long distance telephone to Chicago, one in a house in Altadena soon after the tragedy, when I believe that if Mabel had known who shot him, she would have told me.  When you come right down to it, what was there about Mabel's connection with the Taylor murder that should have been held against her?  She had dropped in to see her friend, Bill Taylor.  Mabel had many men friends.  Later, that same night, someone killed him.  Then that thing about the young clubman from Denver -- was his name Courtland Dines?

A crazy kid chauffeur, who idolized Mabel, as does everyone who ever worked for her, shot Dines.  In his stupid fashion, he thought he was protecting Mabel.  Instead, he involved her in another mess. But Mabel understood the motive back of his silly interference and she stood by him at some cost to herself.

The worst indictment against Mabel is that she has been foolish, that she wasted and allowed others to waste her great spirit.  But on the other side are those things of which Paul speaks in the greatest passage in the Bible -- the 13th chapter in his Epistle to the Corinthians.  That should be Mabel's “swan song.”

Do you remember it --   “Faith, hope and love.  And the greatest of these is love.  Love suffereth long and is kind.  Seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil.”


Mabel came to us a young, uneducated girl. She became a great personality, a star and an unusually brilliant woman.  The she faded into oblivion and we lost her bright image.  Scandal and tragedy haunt those years, but not a single accusation of unkindness, ill temper, meanness, selfishness, envy or betrayal.  The craft and the malice and the trickery of life. They were too much for the little clown who never understood nor expected them.  They won't let anyone see Mabel now, in her Beverly Hills home where she lies so ill and wasted.  Do you know why?  Because she is so touched and grateful, that anyone remembers her, that the wasting fever climbs up and up to a danger point.  Even flowers bring tears of joy and appreciation to the laughter-loving eyes  -- and Mabel has no tears left except those that come from her very heart and her poor heart has all it can do these days to keep pace with life.  It is cowardly, but I am glad that I cannot see her.  Because it hurts so to think of Mabel in that pitiful state, with all the great things that her life should have meant, undone.  I know how brave her eyes would be, and how the ghost of laughter would rise in them, and how that haunting little voice would remember to speak only of her joy in my happiness.

Perhaps Lew in his struggle to win back enough health to leave his desert, feels something like that.  Understanding life as he does, he understands Mabel.  I think he married her to protect her  -- in one of those gallant gestures of his.  But he wasn't strong enough.  So the romance of the butterfly man and the beautiful clown has come to its unhappy ending.  The screen lacks, and will lack for some time, perhaps forever, two people who gave much happiness and who, so far as their work was concerned, always gave their best. 


June 1929