Looking for Mabel Normand

Madcap Mabel Normand

 Mabel Normand is a subject found in a number of memoirs.  Recently, I had found a reference in Louella Parsons’ “Gay Illiterate” which was just a re-voicing of the period gossip told by a woman who was truly fond of Mabel.  After posting it, a dear friend referred me to another book with a memory of Mabel.  Broadway Heartbeat - Memoirs of a Press Agent by Bernard Sobel

 

I must admit the name; Bernard Sobel was not familiar to me.  I am sure a number of you know his work and the contribution that he has made to the study of theatre.  What I found was that Bernard Sobel was born in 1887, (so he would have been just 6 or 7 years older than Mabel,) in Attica, Indiana, Bernard said from the time he heard his first concert in his Indiana boyhood saw his first circus, and attended a road company performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he loved all things theatrical. Bernard received degrees from a number of universities, he was a true scholar and recognized intelligence and talent when he found it.

After Bernard’s graduation he taught for awhile before he understood his true calling; becoming one of the best-known and best-paid Broadway press agents.  For more than thirty years Bernard Sobel listened loving to the heartbeat of Broadway, (the name of his wonderful book). In the book he reminisced about the great producers he worked for and the great stars he publicized including our Mabel Normand in the 1920s.

 

He was a publicist for giants like Florenz Ziegfeld, Charles Dillingham, A.L. Erlanger and the Shuberts and he was the author of a number of books on the theatre and also plays of real note.  The University of Wisconsin-Madison is in possession of his papers at their Center for Film and Theater Research (1923-1962).

Marilyn Slater

Looking for Mabel

October 5, 2009

 

In 1953, “Broadway Heartbeat - Memoirs of a Press Agent” was published by Hermitage House.  This was a man that respected Mabel Normand’s intellect, in Chapter 10 on page 221-222, Bernard wrote:

 

 

Movie Publicity and I

 

MY FIRST publicity assignment for the silent films was getting space for Mabel Normand, a custard-pie Mack Sennett beauty who had suddenly become a legitimate comedienne in a full length picture called Molly O’.

 To celebrate the occasion, Mabel had decided to come to New York for her first visit in a number of years. This fact I announced in the following story:

 

 

WILL REJOIN HER LOVER OF

TEN THOUSAND YEARS AGO

 

Mabel Normand, picture star, has arrived in New York on an odd love quest. Being a theosophist and a believer in reincarnation, she expects to meet, while here, a former suitor, a man who lived ten thousand years ago, but who is now resuscitated and alive in this generation.

                 

The idea, though fantastic, was based on the popular conception of reincarnation. In order to give credibility to the press story, I read some elementary work on theosophy. Then I prepared a list of definitions and terms which I typed out neatly as a guide for Miss Normand for answering interview questions because I knew that stars usually required help in responding to reportorial quizzes.

The following day, I took my little typed guide over to Miss Normand's apartment at the Gotham Hotel and handed it to her. She glanced over it hastily and then, giving me a contemptuous look,

threw it into the wastebasket Half an hour later, when the interviewers arrived, Mabel was discussing theosophy on her own; and before she had talked five minutes, I found, to my humiliation, that she knew more about the subject than I could ever hope to know.

 Fortunately, Mabel placed no emphasis on the incident. She seemed, indeed, to like me; and before the day passed she sat talking books and plays as if we had always known each other.

Mabel was very feminine, with a kind of languorous appeal. Her masses of pitch black hair always appeared ready to fall over her shoulders. Her regular features were dominated by black eyes, note- worthy for their size and beauty, a beauty intensified by short blotches of mascara along the lower lids.

It was Mabel who lent me the first copies I ever read of Max Beerbohm's Seven Men and George Moore's Hail and Farewell. When I opened these books at home, I found that they belonged to William Desmond Taylor. He was the famous director who was murdered, a mysterious tragedy in which Mabel and Mary Miles Minter were allegedly involved and which has never been solved.

 Not long after reaching stardom, Mabel died. Many years after that regretful event, I met Mack Sennett, producer of the pie-throwing comedies which gave Mabel her start.

The Sennett meeting was important to me, for announcement had just been made that the veteran producer, gray-haired and seemingly broken-down, was to have his life story made into a biographical film.

"Tell me about poor Mabel Normand," I said eagerly. "I was grieved over her early death. I want to know more about her, your first stars and your pioneering."

 His answer I’ve never forgotten:

 'That's all water under the bridge. I'm thinking of tomorrow.'*

His abrupt dismissal of the subject seemed brutal; it took my breath away. On reflection, though, I decided that there was something magnificent in that terse, ruthless speech. It expressed his determination to live in the present and the future. He was an old man only in years. At heart, he was young, with no time for reminiscence and regret.