Looking for Mabel Normand

Madcap Mabel Normand

updated November 2010


Isn't Julie sweet?”

I just love her.”...

 (a guote from Minta Durfee Arbuckle)


Marilyn Slater

Looking for Mabel

April 2, 2010

 Julia Benson (her maiden name was Brew) was a registered nurse, trained at St. Vincent Hospital near downtown Los Angeles.  I can tell you what Julie told me,  although it maybe a bit colored by time and memory.  Her birthday was on Christmas Day in the late part of the 19th century, she was a bit vain about the exact year but I think perhaps 1888. She may have been older than Mabel Normand but they were contemporaries.  Her father and mother owned a tavern in Madison Wisconsin, James Brew was killed by barrels rolling off the back of a wagon when his daughter was a little girl and it wasn’t long before the young widow, Josephine married a man by the name of Mason.  One story she told me was about playing with the sheets on the clothesline pretending they were theatre curtains and putting on plays for the local children.  She loved the theatre and playacting but soon the tavern was full of the children of the second marriage, James and Josie and so Julie was sent away to a convent run by the Poor Clares, a cloistered contemplative order of nuns in the Franciscan tradition.

She was there to learn those things good Catholic girls needed to know and couldn’t learn in a tavern.  At fourteen she felt that she had a calling to become a nun and began training, giving up her family and dedicating herself to the Church, the order was primarily one of prayer and contemplation.  There came a point as she told the story, that the Mother Superior at the convent felt that Julie loved the world too much and her calling might lie in service rather than contemplation, so this novice straight from a cloistered order removed her habit and boarded a train to cross the country. 

The trip was though Indian Territory still populated by buffalo, on tracks just completed in 1869. The railroad trip took around 8 days and the cost was perhaps $65. It was a time before highways and a time after the wagon trails. Her destination was Los Angeles, California.  When she stepped from the train, two Sisters of Charity with their grand white headgear, which I always think of as lovely birds stood on the platform, they swooped her up and deposited her in the convent connected to the Los Angeles Infirmary, which had been founded back in 1856, it was actually the first hospital in Los Angeles.  The college of nursing was established in 1899.  The name of the hospital was changed in 1918 to Saint Vincent’s Hospital. I am fascinated with the hidden history of women, so the idea that these women came to El Pueblo de Nuestra Seńora la Reina de Los Angeles ("City of Our Lady, Queen of Angels.") and own the hospital. Just think of it the first women in the region to own a hospital and Julie was part of this history.

The Sisters of Charity advocated the education of women and very progressive social services. The order adopted of the long peasant twelfth century dress and the winged headpiece cornet which made them ease to identify.  Julie didn’t live in the dormitory with the other nursing students; she was thought of as one of the nuns, this young, frighten little pre-nun.  Her early training at the convent was very useful in performing the work of a private duty nurse.  When a member of the clergy was hospitalized Julie was the obvious choice to sit in a corner of the sickroom and watch the patient sleep.  She would sit very still and the only movement one might detect would be her hand in her pocket as she said her rosary.   After she received her “cap and pin” she was even more in demand, she was assigned duty for special/high priority patients.  Years later, I remember sitting in the rectory of Saint Basils Church on Wilshire Blvd. (the old wooden one) and Monsignor Gross telling me that if it wasn’t for Julie, he would be ‘pushing up daisies’.  He had been a young priest and the Spanish Influenza was killing people at a fearful rate but Julie nursed him back to health. 

Now this is the story as Julie told me.  She was assigned to a special case. It seems that someone had used a mustard plaster to treat a chest-cold and received a very bad burn in the process. Julie walked into the white hospital room and in a bed a young girl with thick braids framing a lovely face, its huge eyes overflowing with pain-tears. Julie leaned over the bed to check the dressing, the girl looked up and asked, “Who does your eyebrows?”  From that point forward they were friends.  Mabel Normand healed and went back to work at the Sennett Studio where she had caught a cold while making Molly O’ released in1921 while Julie went on to nursing other famous patients and others not so famous.  

Julie was busy working as a successful RN and Mabel was busy working as a successful movie star but when Mabel’s friend, William Desmond Taylor was killed just after she had left his bungalow on the evening of February 1, 1922, Mabel’s friends gathered around her.  Julie had been on a case out of town but came back to help Mabel.  To me Julie didn’t like to talk about this terrible period in Mabel’s life.  Mabel was said to be almost in a state of collapse.  From this point forward, Taylor now was part of any story of Mabel’s life.   

Mabel had been filming the early California love story, “Suzanna” and she returned after the funeral to finish it.  When the filming was done Mabel made her first trip to Europe during the summer of 1922; she left partly to get away from the reporters circling around her.  Julia saw her friend off at the train station as Mabel headed for New York. 

Mabel’s return to Los Angeles, she had decided to make her home in a new residential area of Beverly Hills just north of Wilshire Blvd. near Rodeo Drive. She had also purchased a wonderful architecturally important house on Staten Island and installed her parents in the house. The sweet little bungalow court in which she lived on 7th Street near the Ambassador Hotel was now a memory.  Not the Ambassador itself with its Coconut Grove, it was still a place of enjoyment but she needed a “Movie Star Mansion”. Julie had happy memories of the Ambassador and Mabel and the grand evenings that the friends shared in the opulent surroundings. 

Again on her return Mabel again was working with Mack Sennett on a film titled “The Extra Girl”.  By this time Julie was spending more of her off time with Mabel, helping to organize the details of Mabel’s increasingly complex life.  Mabel didn’t employ Julia; Mabel had a full time secretary, named Betty Coss, a personal maid named Mamie Owens, a housekeeper, driver and groundskeeper. Juliette Courtell had been Mabel’s companion on her European vacation because, although Mabel had been taking French lessons and trying to learn the language, she did not speak French and Juliette had been in Europe during the war and spoke French fluently. On returning Juliette had gone home to San Francisco. 

Julie was not really part of the staff as she came and went as needed as a good friend does but she had her own residence near Saint Vincent’s Hospital. For Christmas of 1924, Julie gave Mabel a pair of silver mules,  the friends wore the same size shoes, I didn’t hear what Mabel gave Julie but I am sure it was something nice. 

There came a time when Mabel Normand signed a 5 year contract with A. H. Woods, the New York producer for which she was said to have received more than 2 million dollars. The plans included both motion pictures and stage work.  Mabel left for the New York Season August 3, 1925 with a number of accompanying friends including Julia Brew on the Santa Fe train.  This deal didn’t work out as planned. The play was “The Little Mouse” and Mabel’s name alone was not able to carry this problematic play which had been staged a number of times-never successfully.  Her other friends returned to California but Julie went with Mabel on an eight weeks’ tour as part of the A. H. Woods’ project, hoping that the personal luncheons and meetings would dispel the idea that she was always in trouble.   Julie stood there as Mabel explained that she was guiltless of the Taylor and Dines shooting.

They traveled to Jersey City, and then Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Kansas City, Omaha, and other towns. In a number of cities the mayors meet her at the train, and they all gave her gold keys to the city; Mayor Kendrick of Philadelphia and Mayor James Dahlman of Omaha, she remembered also gave her gorgeous bouquets of flowers. Mayor Keil of St. Louis made an especially gracious speech. Mabel thought that the gold keys were made of real gold and wanted Julie to guard them, Julie told this story many times and each time, she laughed at how concerned Mabel was that the keys be kept safe. But in the end Wood passed on making any films with Mabel.




Back in Los Angeles on March 6, 1926 and a new contract at the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, Mabel was now having to deal with her increasing ill heath and she needed to have someone with her most of the time. Anita Garvin remembers Mabel having problems while they were working on "Raggedy Rose".  Lew Cody was on the set and when he wasn’t Julie was.     After five movies Mabel’s film career had ended; she was dependent on a cough syrup, which made her groggy but kept her from coughing blood.  Julie held the medication and administered it as needed because Mabel was a believer that if a little was good a lot was better. 

In 1926, her time in movies ended and she had married Lew Cody.  Now in February of 1927 she was hospitalized with bronchial pneumonia then an abscess was found on her right lung.  Julia was there for her friend in the Santa Monica Hospital, her doctors were Dr. H. Clifford Loos (Anita’s brother) and Dr. George K Dazey. Mabel was very weak, with a very high temperature and Julie took charge of the sick room and became the gatekeeper, perhaps alienating some of the people that she turned away from Mabel's hospital room.

On February 12, 1927 Mabel signed her Will, she by this time seemed to recognize that things were not going to get better; of course I am sure she hoped they would and I know Julie prayed they would. The Will was witnessed by Julie.  A Will can not be witnessed by anyone receiving benefits.  Mabel was taking care of any loose ends and giving private gifts to those she loved.   According to Minta Durfee, Mabel had planned to leave everything to her husband, as he was her rightful heir but it was Lew that encouraged Mabel to give her estate to her mother, which is what she did.  Mabel did not include her brother and sister in her Will. The rich movie star had also set up a Trust Fund for her parents; this too did not include her siblings.

Yes, of course, Julie had a personal life, separate from her friendship with Mabel; she married John Benson.  He became ill early in their marriage and she stayed in Los Angeles working at Saint Vincent’s Hospital and he went to a sanitarium in Arizona, in hope the dry air and rest would help control his TB. Sadly he died within a year of their marriage.  She never married again.   She had lost her husband and now her dear friend Mabel was fighting the “white plague of TB”, which Julie might have thought she could save her from, she would defeat death, prayers with rest, clear cold air, raw liver shakes, blood transfusions…she wanted Mabel to live.

Most of 1928 Mabel was confined in her home at Beverly Hills, with a few outings.  With the help of her friend Judge James, she started putting her affairs in order but finally in September 1929 Mabel’s new residence was Pottenger Sanitarium and Julie went there with her. Julie battled for Mabel’s life in the picturesque canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains. 

Questions of what Mabel knew about the murder of William D. Taylor hadn’t stopped even when she was too ill to undergo police and DA inquiries.  Even Dr. Francis Pottenger shielded Mabel and Julie told the investigators that Mabel had told all she knew of the Taylor case time and time again and had nothing new to relate.  Julie read Mabel the newspaper but neither her or the 3 nurses which were with Mabel around the clock read to her about the new interest in the Taylor investigation. The Pottenger Sanatorium allowed no visitors to see her at all with the exception of her husband, Lew Cody.  None of her family from the East Coast saw her during the time she was at Pottenger.  Mabel’s brother did something very sweet for his dying sister; he named his little girl Mabel. 

Julie didn’t like Lew very much nor did she respect the way he treated her friend.  During the period before Mabel was hospitalized for the last time, Lew employed Lee Westerlund in 1927 as a cook and masseur at Lew's house, which was about 8 blocks from Mabel’s house.  When Mabel became too weak to go up and down the stairs on her own; in the morning a call was made to Lew’s house and Lee would walk over to Mabel’s house and carry her downstairs and in the evening he would come back and carry her up the stairs. 

Now at Pottenger Mabel was no longer the vivacious Mabel of old, but a frail woman, with fevered dreams living within a sterile room.  Mabel was fighting for her life, she had been ill so long, but neither Julie nor Mabel had given up hope for her recovery. 

At Christmas time season's greetings came to her from all over the world and Julie sent acknowledgements to most of them for Mabel. Mabel gave special gifts to her friends that Julie had shopped and sent for her; that Christmas was not a happy birthday for Julie.

February of 1930 in the hills above Los Angeles the weather was cold and the days and nights were accompanied by rain and snow; it tended to retard any improvement in her condition, Julie was still there with her prayers and determination to make Mabel conforable.

Mabel’s friends and admirers sent flowers, messages and letters of cheer daily. The telephone rang with questions; Julie deflected the requests to talk directly with Mabel.  Mabel needed to rest. Blood transfusions gave some hope that Mabel would strengthen but her general condition was failing, she was sinking.  It had been 3 years since Julie had read and witnessed Mabel’s Will, during all those years of fighting with death she wanted Mabel to live but now she called a priest to administer the Last Rights.   

On Sunday night, February 23, 1930 at 2:30 a.m. Mabel Normand died in the arms of her friend, Julia Brew Benson.  From that minute on Julie dedicated herself to keeping Mabel’s memory alive, although she hadn't been able to save her life. It became the passion of her life.