Looking for Mabel Normand

Madcap Mabel Normand



Restless SPIRITS  

Reality Came to the Community of Fantasy-Makers


A fantasy by

Marilyn Slater

Looking for Mabel

October 21, 2011




     The fog clung to the grass so only the gravestones were seen; it was as if they were floating in a still gray pool of milky water.  It was strange how it always seemed 10 degrees cooler inside the gates of the cemetery. In the dark, the coolness seemed eerie, not the kind of coolness that a sweater could protect me from; it reached inside to my very core.  The light posts wear halos and even with a flashlight it is hard to find the way down the path to the main mausoleum at the very back; past the tombs, headstones and little lake; looking down, both the path and my feet seem to disappear.
     Why was I here, what possessed me to come? Now it seemed rather foolish to visit a graveyard at night but the ghosts didn’t appear in the sun, the night was their element. So here I am, wanting to disprove the stories or deep down where I don’t visit often, near where my logic stops and my imagination reigns, I wanted the stories to be true.   



The experience…..yes, that was it, I wanted the experience.  The stories….oh yes, the stories.  At night - nights like this when the air is still and heavily hugs the ground and light couldn’t penetrate the darkness more than a few feet.  At the main mausoleum, the old one near the end of the path, it’s said that a women in an evening gown, with flowers in her hair, weeps, while a translucent figure of a man walks.  Restless spirits.  Is the woman Virginia Rappe, crying for her unjust treatment by film historians?  

Is the man, William Desmond Taylor, trying to find his way back to the Paramount studio lot, which is adjacent to the rear wall of the cemetery?  Was it possible that he doesn’t “rest in peace” still waiting for someone to be held accountable for his murder?

 Stories, Hollywood stories, the Hollywood (Forever) stories… The deaths of these two restless spirits have haunted Hollywood since their internment at the cemetery.  The date on Virginia Rappe’s grave reads 1921 and William Desmond (Tanner) Taylor says February 1922. It was so long ago. It was a time when reality came to the community of fantasy-makers.   Even then, the movies were filled with tales of murder, violence, sex, overindulgence and excess but it became real, perhaps far too real.  Both of their deaths were violent and shrouded in mystery ---with endless speculation and gossip. 

   These are not my stories but the tales told; Hollywood lore.




Over the Labor Day weekend, the gorgeous, former fashion model-turned movie actress with an endearing smile by the name of Virginia Rappe died under rather confusing circumstances. She attended a party given by a friend, Roscoe Arbuckle, at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco where either she became ill or was injured. Virginia was taken to the Wakefield Hospital where she died September 9, 1921.  Roscoe Arbuckle was first charged with her death; it was only after 3 trials that he was acquitted, the jury determining him to be “entirely innocent and free from all blame.” No one was held responsible for her death…rumors of the most degrading type filled newspapers… mostly dealing with her sex life. Ninety years have not stopped the ugly rumors. If today her name is mentioned it is usually part of some revolting grimy tale. No one has wiped her tears or wiped the smear from her reputation.   

Virginia’s honor was blackened.  Henry Lehrmann, the Keystone director known as Pathe Lehman, was in love with Virginia, they planned to marry.  He was working in New York while she was with friends in San Francisco on that tragic Labor Day weekend. 

Henry telephoned from New York to make arrangements to have her body sent to Hollywood; the undertakers took charge. In single file 8,000 men, women and even children visited the bier to view her in her casket.  She was dressed in a white satin shroud with flowers in her hands.  The casket was covered with a blanket of 1,000 tiger lilies from Henry with a satin banner, which read “To My Brave Sweetheart from Henry.” 



 After a private service, the shroud was replaced with an evening gown, said to be designed by Virginia herself. Flowers were placed in her hair and gifts from friends, many from the movie colony, were placed in her casket.  The pallbearers were:  Larry Semon, Oliver Hardy, Dave Kirkland, Norman Taurog, Frank Coleman and Frank Olin. She was interred at the Hollywood (Forever) Cemetery. Does Virginia rise from her grave near the lake on lonely nights and search for someone to clear her name? Is she going to walk through the mist until the end of time, a weeping specter?

Henry told reporters and anyone who would listen Virginia had the most remarkable determination.  She would rise from the dead to defend her person from indignity.” 


The steps leading into the mausoleum are low and widely spaced, making visitors slow their pace to the cadence of a mourner; how many coffins have come up these steps and entered the small chapel?

Once a year, the faithful gather to remember the great Valentino. I have been told the phantom that wanders the echoing corridors is thin with a military air, not a dashing Valentino.  It is William Desmond Taylor--I am sure it must be him.   He was placed near the door just to the right of the entrance. Did I feel something as I entered?


 Who killed William Desmond Taylor? I don’t know the killer must be long dead, so who can be held responsible?  How can he rest in peace when the people he loved and respected were tarnished with accusations of involvement in his death.  His life ended with so many projects left undone.  His daughter; oh, a promising realionship unfulfilled. He would not see Daisy grow to womanhood. Her message is placed in bronze upon his crypt, “Beloved Father.” the unfairness, the damned unfairness of an assassin’s bullet. 

On February 1, 1922 in a bungalow court near 3rd Street and Alvarado in what was called the Westlake district, the Paramount Chief Director of the Famous Players-Lasky, William Desmond (Tanner) Taylor, was shot and killed.  Why?  I don’t know why. What I do know is that on the last day of his life, he was in pre-production on “The Ordeal” and was running errands…the bank… a swim and lunch…a meeting with his accountant…a business conference at the studio…then his driver took him home.

He called Mabel Normand’s house and left a message that he had 2 books for her. At 6pm he was served dinner by his servant Peavey…about 7pm Mabel’s driver took her to pick up the books… she rang the bell…Peavey opened the door…Taylor was on the telephone after he hung up Mabel and Taylor had a drink and a chat…at 7:30pm the dinner dishes were washed and Peavey left… 7:45pm Taylor left his door open – walked his friend to her car with the 2 books (“Rosa Munde & Other Stories” by Ethel Dell and “A Critical Work On The Writings Of Frederick Nietzsche”)…they said good night…he walked back to his bungalow.

At 8pm neighbors heard a sound that could have been a gun shot…they saw a figure walking away from Taylor’s door…around 8:15pm Taylor’s chauffer knocked on the door, before he put the car in the garage, no one answered and he walked home.

Thursday February 2, 1922, Peavey opened the door and found Taylor’s body on the floor dead – a bullet had entered his back and passed into his lung…all hell broke loose. 

It has become a parlor game, Who Killed Taylor?  The man, himself is forgotten with the frenzy over his killing. Mary Miles Minter was interviewed with her mother Charlott…that evening: blame, blame, blame…A woman or a man? a known or an unknown? Was it Sands a thieving ex-valet? 

By February 7, 1922 when the funeral service was held, the newspapers had turned the murder into a melodrama, the line between reality and fantasy was crossed so many times it was obliterated.  

All the personal details of the man’s life now became public domain.  A dignified, private man was now a public deviant.  There had been a brief coroner’s inquest with a verdict of murder by person or persons unknown. His spirit waits and paces, trying to go back to the studio or find…a person or persons unknown.      

The funeral was held at St. Paul’s Church near Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles; thousands of people filled the Square.  Taylor lay in an open coffin in his Royal Fusiliers uniform, surround by flowers from the Hollywood royal families; a procession of automobiles lead to the mausoleum in Hollywood where his spirit now paces.





Perhaps Virginia Rappe or William Desmond Taylor haunt the visitors, which come to remember and honor them. I sit on the hard stone bench near the mausoleum and wait. There was no wind, the lights from Santa Monica Blvd. appear as if seen through a white satin sheet creating a glow within the clouds that encompasses me, like stories of the London fog; drops of moisture form on my jacket, they look like crystal pearls…the sounds of the city, which surround me seem muffled.


I can’t be sure, did I hear the wind passing though the trees, I don’t feel any wind and yet I feel a chill. Where was the chill coming from…there it was again a soft moaning.  It is an unfelt breeze in the unseen trees, nothing more…yet, could it be, no that’s silly; I am letting my imagination play tricks on me, I need to leave this place, I am not afraid exactly, well maybe a little but terribly sad, terribly, terribly sad all of a sudden, I almost feel I am going to cry…



With a little help from my friends:

  •   Gierucki, Paul
  •   Hanney, Delores
  •   Mercaldi, Anthony
  •   Myers, Joan
  •   Nolan-Stein, Patricia