Looking for Mabel Normand

Madcap Mabel Normand








James R. Quirk




   Mabel Normand and Charlie Chaplin played together in the early Keystone Comedy hits - the golden age of slapstick.  Left, Mack Sennett, the great comedy director who discovered and developed Mabel.  Right, Lew Cody, the devoted husband she married in 1926.  




Mabel's Message

                “Mabel Normand's two great comforts, as she lay dying, were the devotion of Lew Cody and the letters from her fans.  They enabled her to meet death bravely.  She asked me to tell the public, through Photoplay Magazine, of her love and appreciation.  ‘They have been dear to me, and sweet and kind,’ she said

  Battered and beaten by life, little Mabel Normand has gone home to the Great Heart who understands all.


I am sure that voices have whispered love and encouragement and devotion to her on her long, frightened journey across the Dark River  --  voices of crooning old Irish women whose last days were made comfortable by Mabel's generosity  --  voices of pitiful little extra girls who had turned to her for help and sympathy  --  voices of hunger that was fed  --  of tears that were dried.


There would be one voice whispering in a proud, strange tongue; and this would be the voice of old Minnie, the Sioux Indian who was sheltered by Mabel's bounty and who loved her with a wild devotion.


Mabel Normand was the most extraordinary character I have ever known. Certainly, the most interesting and unusual person­ality the screen has ever known.


There will never be another Mabel Normand.  Few such vivid individualities have appeared in the world in any métier. Beyond that, the screen world has become too standardized to offer scope and right-of-way for another such character.


Generous, impulsive, self-effacing, impudent, untamed, misunderstood and not resentful of the cruelty of that misunderstanding.  Daring in spirit, tender, brilliant, and with the eager curiosity of a child.


 It was not without significance that Mabel's lips were always slightly apart  --  like a child drinking in a fairy story.  That was the keynote of her life.  Her avid eagerness for all that life held.  It was as though she realized in some dim way that she had not long to live and wanted to take a bite out of each cookie.


She was the best listener I have ever known. She listened to tramps and great authors; to soldiers who talked to her of the intricacies of military strategy and to jailbirds who told her of fights with policemen.


Mabel will always be pictured in my mind as the little Irish tad with a sable coat, as the little girl who ate peanuts all over the back seat of a gorgeous imported limousine.     


I suppose that no woman ever lived who has been showered with more fame and more attention; and no woman who has known so cruelly the voice of unmerited scandal.  She took the brickbats without bitterness and the bouquets with a giggle.  Mabel was without vanity.  She has a quality rare in creative artists of being a spectator looking at life.


When I first knew Mabel, she was a star comedienne of the old Mack Sennett Comedy Company. That was the time when the Keystone Kops were in their heyday.

Mack Sennett was one of the greatest figures of the screen world and Mabel was recognized as being without a peer.

 In those golden Keystone days, with Mack Sennett driving and inspiring her, Mabel's great talent for comedy was in full flow­er.  Her fellow artists were quick to recognize it. 


Once Photoplay asked Mary Pickford who her favorite actress was.


Mary, at that time the fans' greatest, answered quickly, “Mabel Normand!”


She was just the same then as when misfortunes overtook her later on. There was not one pretentious thing about her. The electricians on the set all adored the ground she walked on; and the cameramen would die in their tracks for her.


She was famous at that time for the fact that she scattered money around like a sailor on a spree; but I only found out little by little and always by accident, the places where her dollars rolled away.  The operation she had paid for; the impoverished families she was supporting; the orphans and the widows she was helping.


I remember one incident  --  a gesture that no one but a natural aristocrat could have achieved.


A very old Irish woman  --  a relative of one of the studio help  --  had one ambition.  She wanted to meet Mabel Normand.  By request, Mabel went to have dinner with her-dressed in her most elegant party clothes.


Once in the presence of her divinity, the poor old woman was simply paralyzed.  She was straight from the bogs of Ireland. Her table manners were something to send goose flesh down one's spine.


But so sweet were the manners of Mabel Normand that she promptly hung a napkin under her own chin as the old lady did.  When the chops came on, she picked up the meat and gnawed it off the bone.


And when the old lady timidly took out her pipe, Mabel found a pipe, too, and they whiffed together. That will remain, to my mind, one of the most delicate acts of chivalry it has ever been my lot to know.


Mabel had a peculiar relationship to Mack Sennett.  She loved him; fought with him; feared him and respected him with something like awe.  Mack Sennett was, in fact, her Svengali.  She resented the awe she had for him; but she never could rise to artistic heights without him.


Away from Sennett, she ceased to be the great artist of the screen and became commonplace.  Mostly I think it was a matter of understanding.  Sennett, as Irish himself as the banshees, along knew how to get the best from Mabel's wayward, rebellious Irish heart.


Her relationship to Charlie Chaplin also was one of the odd chapters of the screen.  When he first came to the studio, Mabel liked to torture him with taunts in the mischievous way a child  might have made fun of a queer-looking stranger.  But she was one of the first to recognize his genius.  Much of Chaplin's success in those earliest days was due to Mabel's untiring tutoring.  Chaplin was a great artist from the day he was born, but he did not know screen technique.

 No one grieved more sincerely over her death than he. “She was one of the truest friends I have ever known and one of the most remarkable, brilliant and self-sacrificing women any one has ever known.  She was a great woman and a great character.”


Mabel's illness was of long standing.  When I first knew her fifteen years ago, she was suffering from tuberculosis; but so brave was her spirit that she tossed off the threat with a gay indifference.


In later years, this malady was aggravated by grave troubles and worries.  Mabel was the Patsy who got the blame for what other people did.  She suffered humiliation and disgrace in silence when she could have set herself right  --  by “telling on” some one else.


There was the case of the chauffeur who adored Mabel so devotedly, that he shot a man whom Mabel knew but slightly, but whom the half-crazed boy thought was bringing bad company to her harem-scarem, topsy-turvy house.


There was the William Desmond Taylor case of which Mabel honestly knew nothing; but which brought down odium and club lady resolutions upon her.


As usual in such cases, Mabel's bitterest critics were often those who owed her most of money and kindness and tolerant charity.


She realized that she had to die and met the issue bravely and without whimpering.  One of her last messages was to me; when she asked me to tell the public through Photoplay Magazine of her love and appreciation.  “They have been dear to me, and sweet and kind,” she said. 


The affection between Lew Cody and Mabel Normand that re­sulted in their early morning marriage has never been understood.  But to one who knew them both intimately, it was a sweet story.


They had been devoted friends for years. Theirs was a comradeship of laughter  --  laughing at life, laughing at and with each other, laughing off troubles.


Lew loved Mabel, and Mabel adored Lew.  No woman could have helped loving a man who brought such happiness and sunshine into a life over which death was even then trying to cast a shadow.


Even at the last, she did not lose her thirst for life.


So weak she could scarcely talk, she took up the telephone to ask eager questions of a war correspondent friend of mine who had just come back from a Mexican revolution.  What the air raids were like; tell her about the Mexican girl who fought in the trenches; and what became of the dog who ran up and down on the top of a fire-swept trench:


He told her about a tramp aviator who had a steel extension in his leg, which he used to loosen and tighten up with a screwdriver he carried for the purpose.  Mabel laughed.  “You are a liar,” her voice came gasping over the phone.  Impudent to the last.


Mabel has gone from us, but like Chevalier Bayard  --  without fear and without reproach, she goes boldly forward. 

Photoplay, May 1930

James R. Quirk, Editor and Publisher



Mabel's Message 

"MABEL NORMAND'S two great comforts, as she lay dying, were the devotion of Lew Cody and the letters from her fans.  They enabled her to meet death bravely.  She asked me to tell the public, through PHOTOPLAY Magazine, of her love and appreciation.  'They have been dear to me, and sweet and kind,' she said."