All the myths and rumors regarding Mabel, debunked with help from her great nephew.
Q: Was Mabel a drug addict (addicted to cocaine or morphine)?
A: The Normand estate emphatically denies this. The rumor seems to start here. Normand was never hit on the head with a vase, she never had a severe head injury. There is currently no proof she ever partook in drug use or was addicted to drugs of any sort. She did drink and she did take physician prescribed medicines when needed but was not known to abuse them.
In 2014 Stevie Nicks gave several interviews regarding a song she had written in the 1980s called “Mabel Normand”. Addicted to cocaine at the time, Nicks stated she kicked the addiction by being inspired by ‘Mabel Normand’s death from cocaine in 1930’. The Normand family released a statement about these comments. Despite our FAQ being up at the time none of the media seemed to bother checking on Mabel’s life and death, breathlessly reciting how ‘Mabel’s death from cocaine helped Stevie Nicks kick her drug habit.’
Initially I was very perturbed, but then I thought ‘Well Stevie Nicks could buy a book/google about Mabel and she might not find one new factual thing…you could very well read a book in 2014 and come away with that disinformation’ (and it appears Nicks gathered this story in the 80s, when misinformation was even more rampant.) So its great she kicked her drug habit, she’s a great entertainer and singer. And its great Mabel inspired her, albeit wrongly. As the Normand family stated, Mabel’s cause of death was tuberculosis, and was stated as such on her death certificate. And this wasn’t one of those ‘polite coverups’, she had been in the sanitarium continuously since 1928, nun’s don’t tend to allow cocaine use under their observation. Julia Benson (Mabel’s nurse) signed an affidavit that Mabel did not use any drugs as far as she knew, and she was her personal nurse for many years. Mabel definitely drank, but as far as any evidence currently shows, she did not use/nor was she addicted to cocaine or morphine.
Q: So that William Desmond Taylor thing….?
A: A prominent director of the 1910s, William Desmond Taylor was murdered sometime in the evening of February 1st, 1922. The crime scene was botched for even its era and rumors ran rampant. While it wasn’t the first Hollywood scandal it was by far the first prominent one. Coverage in its day could be compared to the Jon Benet Ramsey case.
Taylor was said to be having an affair with both Mabel and another actress named Mary Miles Minter. While most believe he and Mabel were just friends (they loved discussing literature), it is pretty well documented he and Mary Miles Minter were an item.
Mabel was documented as being the last person to see him alive by witnesses. He walked her to her car, she waved goodbye, he went back inside and the noises and such didn’t happen til sometime later. The big 3 suspects were Mary, her mother Charlotte Shelby and the butler Peavy. But Mabel was unfairly scrutinized to the point it made her already poor health much worse.
According to Mabel’s nurse she cried and cried for months about Taylor. Even away from the scrutiny she’d lock herself in a room and cry. Mabel was guilty by association and its one of the biggest tragedies of the era. Charlotte Shelby went on to write a memoir that one historian termed ‘If I did it circa 1920’, suggesting how she thought the murder took place. It may not be definitive proof but its very intriguing. A copy of this memoir survives online though the key pages are missing from this copy.
Q: What about that other shooting?
A: In 1924 Mabel was at a party where Edna Purviance’s boyfriend of the time, Courtland S. Dines was shot, but simply injured. It was blamed on the chauffeur though there have been rumors due to the drinking he was a stooge. There is no proof of any of that. Mabel lived another 6 years without incident.
Q: What did she die of and why? Drugs?
A: No, no drugs. The massive head injury didn’t help her in the slightest. It could be the alcohol was used to help take the pain away. But it seems her depression/despair over the Taylor affair really set off her drinking, according to her nurse. People with mental disorders such as PTSD, anxiety or depression tend to ‘self medicate’ in this sort of way. There wouldn’t really be any medicines to help her in the 20s with any of those disorders, short of sedatives.
Mabel contracted tuberculosis at age 10. While there were some treatments for TB, even to this day there’s no cure (but one can recover from it much easier than in the 1920s. By 1950 the mortality rate for TB dropped 90%.) Its an awful disease and Mabel wouldn’t be the only person to succumb to it at the time. How she contracted it is currently unknown…as many people had it yet showed no symptoms it could have gotten in her system, then became ‘active’ which only happens in so many cases.
In the 1920s and 30s syphilis, arthritis, diabetes, tuberculosis, etc could all be death sentences if progressed in a certain way. Had Jean Harlow, Mabel and Rudolph Valentino all become sick in 1950, they all likely would have continued living.
While Mabel’s death is rarely thought of ‘as sudden as’ Harlow or Valentino’s deaths, it kinda was. She had signed with the William Morris Agency and planned to continue making shorts and features, which certainly would have taken her to the talkie era. She did not know how dire her health was tell about a year before her death. And that’s why it seems so fast to us when looking back on it.
Q: Are there any recordings of Mabel’s voice in existence?
A: None are known to exist. Her voice and Olive Thomas’ voice seem to be the two most wanted of those we have no sound for. I have been adamant about the talkie myth for years i.e. no one failed silents to talkies because of weird voices, it was usually politics or changing tastes. But the myth persists.
Mabel’s voice was said to be soft, pleasing and a little throaty. In short: not too different from most any normal sounding woman. It likely would have suited her personality well when you look at the list of people who spent time/grew up in Staten Island. Unlike the Barrymores, Mabel did not have a theatrical voice, unable to project loud enough for theatre performances. This again probably would have suited her in talkies.
Mabel was aware and prepared for talkies, unaware of how ill she was. Alla Nazimova said she had consulted her on the suitability of her voice. Nazimova, who did well in theatre, silents and talkies; felt her voice was just fine for talkies.
Mabel did not pursue talkies fast enough, and no talkie projects where even started due to her illness. I personally like to think in an alternate universe she and Arbuckle could had teamed up again to great success and been happy (Arbuckle had a beautiful singing voice and was so successful in talkie shorts he was signed to do features, then died the night after signing ‘with a smile on his face’.)
The great white whale of silent enthusiasts is the dictaphone, or some variation of it. Debuting in 1907, many silent film stars used them for mundane activities such as recording ideas or household tasks. As a Valentino fan put it when she found one at an auction, she hoped she’d hear a handsome Italian accent, when the surviving recording was some guy from Wisconsin going over his beer inventory.
In a world where films themselves were considered ‘useless’ after debut, you can imagine how important these recordings were thought of. They would be comparable to a cassette tape in the 1980s: you used it once, you’d record over it, eventually you’d probably throw it out when the use was no longer needed. Gloria Swanson recounted using such a device to write Sadie Thompson, but if she kept those recordings it has never been mentioned…and its doubtful.
By fluke a recording of Mabel could theoretically exist on a dictaphone or some obscure project waiting to be found (one researcher found children’s stories read in the early 1920s by stars; there was also a ‘hear your stars’ promotion in the mid 20s, but not only have these records not been found, Mabel was not among the stars who partook.) While it would be touching to hear her voice, at this time it seems unlikely we ever will.