Saving Mabel Normand

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Saving Mabel Normand

By Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli 02/24/15

She was lustrous and brash, especially on gin-soaked days, lifting her skirt or offering offbeat quotes in jest. And for nearly 100 years her pioneering spirit has been diminished by tales of her alleged cocaine addiction and sordid behaviors.

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Mabel Normand
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Mabel Normand loved gin when gin was illegal, that’s true. She especially loved a cocktail of gin and vermouth, even if she had to get her booze from a bootlegger. The more pressured her life, the more it comforted her and the more her servants watered down the gin bottles. 

Just say I like to pinch babies and twist their legs. And get drunk.

She carried a monogrammed Cartier’s flask to slip gin into her coffee. 

She smoked her Turkish cigarettes through a pearl diamond studded holder.

She was lustrous and brash and often taunted the press, especially on gin-soaked days, lifting her skirt or offering offbeat quotes in jest, “Say anything you like, but don't say I love to work. That sounds like Mary Pickford, the prissy bitch. Just say I like to pinch babies and twist their legs. And get drunk.”

And perhaps such impetuous behavior by a woman in the early twentieth century sparked the ire of the men covering her career and the scandals that marked her path. Fair? Who can say?

But, one thing is certain, silent film comedienne Mabel Normand’s bawdy tale is one that has been colored by damning reportage of drug dens, dope fiends, murder, lavish parties, illicit affairs, shootings, sanitariums, furtive love and power. 

Drug-crazed film queen is murder suspect. – New Orleans States, Feb. 7, 1922

…the film queen was again at a “dope party” morose and embittered, according to police… - Chicago American, Feb.7, 1922

…the film beauty may be the assassin, half-crazed with the drug she had taken…”- New Orleans States, Feb. 7, 1922

Still, to call it anything more than legend would be an egregious error. For hers was a life stained by accusation, innuendo and unsubstantiated claims. It’s a tale of he said, she said. And for nearly 100 years, her pioneering spirit and entrepreneurial talents have been diminished by tales of her alleged cocaine addiction and sordid behaviors. 

“The issue of Mabel Normand’s drug addiction is somewhat contentious, since it is not confirmed by any hard evidence. Since we only know the rumor and hearsay, there’s certainly room for doubt,” says Bruce Long, author of William Desmond Taylor, A Dossier, a detailed firsthand accounting of police reports, testimony, news clippings, and inquisition transcripts about the murder of film director, William Desmond Taylor. Mabel Normand was once a suspect in Taylor’s murder. “I think she usually had a sparkling personality, was mischievous, feisty, profane, and had a heart of gold. But, she had an unpleasant side, which perhaps only emerged after she had too much to drink.”

Audacious accounts of Normand’s raging cocaine addiction continue to live on today in books, films, articles and the recently released track, Mabel Normand, by multi-Grammy Award winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Stevie Nicks on her newest solo album, 24 Karat Gold: Songs from the Vault. Said Nicks in a Sept. 26 Billboard interview, “Give Mabel Normand a special listen. Mabel was an amazing actress and comedian from the '20s, and she was a terrible cocaine addict.”

In several interviews this past fall, Nicks credits her knowledge of Normand to a 1985 documentary she watched when she was at a low point with her own addiction to cocaine. “I really felt a connection with her. That's when I wrote the song.”

Was Mabel Normand merely a damsel in distress as many of her own films depicted? The beautifully saucy dark-haired flailing maiden chained to the railroad tracks awaiting rescue from the dashing Mack Sennett? Was she heroine or villain? In real life, did a disapproving media chain her to an unsubstantiated and unscrupulous fabrication? It depends on the version of the tale one chooses to believe. 

According to Columbia University’s Women Film Pioneers Project, Mabel was one of the earliest silent actors to direct her own films. And she can be found in at least 167 silent film shorts and 23 full-length features. And while rarely discussed, Mabel was instrumental in Charlie Chaplin’s screen success. Mabel threw cinema's first custard pie in the face. She wrote, directed, acted, coached others and even owned her own film studio, Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, launched in 1916. And she has been credited with paving the way for women comediennes like Lucille Ball.

To really understand this tale, is perhaps to first understand the era. 

It was a time of social and cultural upheaval. Women were fighting for a place in society and the right to vote. Life was faster, flamboyant and, at times, cavalier about drugs and alcohol. Coca leaf and its synthetic companion, cocaine, was legal until 1914. Right at the turn of the century cocaine was still viewed as miraculous—finding its way into tonics, elixirs, snuff tins and drinks. “Coca was a big fad and used by brain workers,” says Paul Gootenberg, a professor of history who specializes in the history of the Andean drug trade, at Stonybrook University, Staten Island. 

It was the seduction of the coca leaf that lured Sigmund Freud and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to its euphoria. In a 1916 silent film, The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, Douglas Fairbanks, playing Coke Ennyday, parodies Sherlock Holmes and consumes copious amounts of cocaine.  

Popular in Paris and New York, and perhaps, Hollywood at the time, was a tonic wine, Vin Mariani, actually a blend of red Bordeaux and cocaine. But he wonders if there was even enough cocaine available in the U.S. in the 1920s to support Mabel Normand’s alleged addiction. “There’s a controversy about cocaine availability at the time,” he says. “She might have been able to get it in a nasal spray.” says Gootenberg.

It is the perpetuation of Normand’s tale in stories, that Mabel’s nephew Stephen Normand, labels rumor. And he blames Stevie Nicks’ researchers for not doing a thorough job investigating Mabel’s life. “When a song has lyrics about a person who actually lived, accusing her of being a cocaine addict without proof, it is rather pathetic,” says Normand who lives in London. 

After repeated attempts to contact Nicks, through her publicist about the discrepancy; calls and emails were left unreturned.

Nephew Normand backs his claims with tomes of personal correspondence and access to Aunt Mabel’s friends, her sister Gladys, and Mabel’s diaries. But for some, especially Stevie Nicks’ fans, Normand’s side of the story has no merit, and he’s been harshly criticized on several websites as a “family member in denial, a publicity hound.” 

Such aspersions do not deter his reserve, he is adamant. “It is a web of hearsay, rumor and lies. Read any of these books, listen to the so-called historians, archivists who continue to rehash and rehash...,” says Normand. “They continue to use the same old rubbish...I simply ask the question, ‘Show me the facts: Where is it that documents Mabel Normand was a dope fiend?’ The answer is, they can't.”

As a young man, Stephen Normand connected with his Aunt Gladys, Mabel’s sister. And their first meeting at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal on the Manhattan side, started a two-year conversation about the family and Mabel, in particular. Initially, they met at the famous Chock Full ‘o Nuts cafe on lower Broadway for hotdogs, coffee and doughnuts, followed by a walk around Battery Park as they chatted. “We often sat on a bench to chat for a few hours,” Stephen said. “Later on, she brought gin martinis in a flask with little onions, we shared the drink in little metal cups.”

During their talks she told him all about growing up on Staten Island. “As she was the youngest, Mabel would lookout for her as her mother instructed her to do,” he said. “They often went over to Sailor's Snug harbor where their father Claude worked as a stage carpenter and scenery painter. Big brother, Claude, helping father and the girls pretending to be singing and acting on the stage.”

According to writers, Simon Joyce and Jennifer Putzi of the Women Film Pioneers Project: Even after her death, scholars have been more interested in the gossip surrounding Normand’s life and romances (including an announced marriage to Sennett in 1915 that never materialized) than her work. Scholars would do well to refocus attention on Normand’s distinctive contribution to early cinema and slapstick comedy, as well as the nature of her directorial work for Keystone.

Sister Gladys told Stephen, Mabel had a habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Such was so with her implication in the murder of film director and close friend, William Desmond Taylor, and a second shooting a few years later, by her chauffeur, with her gun. Mabel was exonerated of both shootings. 

The earliest news accounts of Mabel Normand’s drug-crazed life—although never mentioned by name—are traced to two young journalists, Wallace Smith, a correspondent for the Chicago American and Eddie Dougherty for the Chicago Tribune. Both assigned to cover the William Desmond Taylor killing, the reporters often sensationalized their stories, a common practice of the burgeoning yellow press at the time. In fact, so colorful and inflammatory were their stories about those involved, the Sheriff of Los Angeles County, Eugene W. Biscailuz, offered the duo bodyguards. 

From Wallace Smith, Chicago American, Feb. 1922: …Half-crazed with the drug she had taken, the woman ran in a rage to her car and drove to her home. In the morning, according to the dope peddlers—remember that was part of their trade—she repented and telephoned Taylor.

"The reports and gossip of orgies and high life among the moving picture stars are exaggerated a hundred-fold, or are simply false stories based on unauthentic rumor," said Edward "Hoot" Gibson, a world champion cowboy, screen star and daredevil to a Portland, Ore. crowd at the Liberty Theater on Feb. 12, 1922.  "The tales of elaborate dope parties in the studios and homes of the stars are not true, so far as I know…” 

So, was Mabel Normand’s abysmal addiction to cocaine merely a fabrication of overzealous reporters?  

“There are so many different rumors about her, but I give minimal credibility to the tales that Wallace Smith told about her,” says Bruce Long. “She certainly spent over a month at the Glen Springs Sanitarium. But there’s no hard proof she was there for drug rehab, or which drug(s) she used, if any. Even if she went into Glen Springs for rehab, there is less support for thinking she used drugs after that date.”

Mabel suffered from tuberculosis, her first bout at age 10. Family members say her various sanitarium stays were tied to her TB, of which she finally succumbed on Feb. 23, 1930, when she was 37.

While sexy tales of her addiction prevail, stories of her generous spirit have not garnered the same momentum. In one story, a man who worked at the film studio said his Irish mother would love to meet her. Mabel invited her to dinner at a swanky restaurant. Not knowing it was frowned upon, the woman stuffed her napkin under her chin, to save her any embarrassment, Mabel put hers under her chin. When the woman ate with her fingers, Mabel did, too. 

“Mabel was generous to a fault, giving presents and money to total strangers,” says Stephen Normand. “She was very thoughtful towards her family, particularly her parents, whom she bought a well located home on Staten Island and sent an allowance monthly to ease their life.”

In criminal trials, jurors sit in judgment and must be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt of a defendant’s guilt. In the case of Mabel Normand, what would a jury decide? Does she sit in the shadow of doubt? 

Who knows?

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli has written for the Washington Post, the LA Times, USA Today and American Medical News, among other publications. She last wrote about gambling in high placesthe state of addiction funding research and the legal status of a criminal confession in AA.

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