Superstar. Seductress. Murder suspect. Mabel Normand was a star at age 16 and dead at 37, and the life she lived between those short, brutal years careened between truly glamorous and utterly tragic. From the heady vapors of her fame to the notorious end of her career, here are facts about forgotten Hollywood icon Mabel Normand.
Mabel Normand Facts
1. Not Like the Other Girls
When Mabel Normand was born on November 10, 1892, in New York, film was in its infancy, and no one in her working-class family could ever dream she’d reach the fame—or the infamy—she later had. Her father was a cabinetmaker, and theirs was an average family. But like every true Scorpio, “average” simply wasn’t enough for Mabel.
2. Bathing Beauty
The actress was one of the very first Hollywood sex symbols, particularly because of her natural, “bathing beauty” good looks. She had big brown eyes, full chestnut hair, and a mischievous grin that contradicted her innocent appearance. But that perfect good-girl image would soon crumble in an utterly brutal way.
3. I’m Bossy
Normand gave new meaning to the term “Girl Boss”—or maybe it’s appropriate to say she invented it. She famously directed and starred in most of her productions, making her one of the very first female directors in Hollywood. This stone-cold baller even got her own production company: the Mabel Normand Feature Film Company.
4. Put Him in, Coach
Back in the day, Normand and King of Comedy Charlie Chaplin were an iconic film duo—but most people don’t realize that Normand is the reason Chaplin became a household name. When Chaplin first started at Keystone, he flubbed up big time, and it was Mabel, the real star at the time, who convinced studio head Mack Sennett to keep him on.
5. The Dye Is Cast
When Normand was just 10 years old, she had a nasty bout of tuberculosis. She ended up recovering—but at this tender age, the seeds of her tragic life were sown.
6. Saving Face
Certain dark rumors have followed Normand around for almost a century. According to some, Normand’s many illnesses throughout her life were a cover-up for something even more serious: a crippling addiction. Though her family staunchly denies this, it remains a part of her tragic legend—and sadly, it’s the least of her scandals.
7. Girl Meets Boy
Normand started out her career at Biograph, a well-known Hollywood studio at the time. While there, she met the handsome director Mack Sennett on the set of one of the films. Normand and Sennett quickly fell into each other’s arms, and for a time, the best was yet to come for the young, ambitious power couple.
8. Name a More Iconic Duo
When Mack Sennett decided to found his own studio, Keystone, the enraptured Normand immediately followed him, and he quickly marketed her as a beautiful starlet who could still take hilarious pratfalls. Their partnership produced an iconic era of film—but it also produced one of the most infamous Hollywood breakups.
9. Good Luck Charm
When Normand came into the world in 1892, her mother and father were shocked when they looked down at their newborn baby girl. She had a bizarre membrane that veiled her entire head; it was what doctors call a “caul.” Even strangely, since people believe cauls brought good luck, Normand’s parents sold it for a tidy sum of money.
Um, there’s no accounting for taste?
10. Not-So Rosy
Normand famously never wore the color rose pink—all for an unsettling reason. During one of her earliest jobs as a model, she walked through the door wearing a rose-colored dress, only to have the difficult artist, Penrhyn Stanslaw, scream at her about her choice, calling it an “atrocious color.” Deeply insecure about the incident, she abandoned the hue after that.
11. Hullo Guv’nor
Though she was a huge star in her day, we have no recording of Normand’s voice; after all, she was a star of silent films. However, the way people described her voice might surprise you. She had a thick and raspy Brooklyn accent that she tried to cover up with an aristocratic drawl, leading the papers to make fun of her “Old Lonnon Town” airs.
12. Blue Streak
Ask anyone who knew the starlet and they’d tell you: Mabel had one dirty mouth. Gloria Swanson sniped that she was “crude and vulgar,” while producer Hal Roach called her “the dirtiest-talking girl you’ve ever heard.” In Roach’s case, he had the disturbing receipts to prove it. After all, Normand lovingly called him “That [bleep]ing thick-necked Mick.”
Backing away slowly from that one, folks.
13. Clothes Horse
Normand absolutely loved clothing, the newer the better. She’d drop tens of thousands of dollars on a new wardrobe, only to wear each garment once and then throw it away. She also designed some of her own clothes, particularly hats. Except, well, she was objectively awful at it, and the results were super ugly. Hey, you can’t be good at everything.
14. Tell It Like It Is
Although she looked innocent, Normand wasn’t afraid to make her opinions known or joke around, even on the record. When a magazine once asked what her hobbies were, her response was unforgettable. “I don’t know. Say anything you like, but don’t say I love to work.” She replied, “That sounds like Mary Pickford, that prissy [bleep.] Just say I like to pinch babies and twist their legs. And get drunk.”
Normand and Pickford were actually good friends, which makes the ribbing even better—but as we’ll see, Normand definitely did like a drink.
15. Puppy Love
The mischievous Normand wasn’t at all afraid to poke fun at other Hollywood starlets. At the height of her fame, she owned a Chow puppy she named “It Girl” after silent film siren Clara Bow’s nickname.
16. Friend Zone
Normand was quite a good-time gal, and she made friends with men easily. She and director William Desmond Taylor had a heart-warming friendship, and the two bookworms often traded literature with each other. According to some, Taylor was in desperate, unrequited love with Normand—but as we’ll see, that wasn’t the only tragic thing about their friendship.
17. The Lady and the Tramp
In a thrilling example of girl on top, Normand spent a lot of her time directing Chaplin in his early films, even though she was a woman, and four years younger than him to boot. Her 1914 film Mabel’s Strange Predicament—which she starred in and directed, natch—is actually the first appearance of Chaplin’s legendary persona “The Tramp.”
18. Two Strikes, You’re out
Early in her career, no fewer than two studios fired Normand for “lewd” behavior.
19. Hollywood Babylon
Starting in the early 1920s, Normand was rocked by two of the most infamous scandals Hollywood had ever seen. First, her frequent collaborator Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle found himself on trial for the assault and murder of promising starlet Virginia Rappe. Theatres all but banned his films from playing—meaning Normand was also kept from the screen.
But that was just the beginning of the nightmare.
20. Bottoms up
Though rumors of an addiction to the white stuff dogged Normand’s career, one thing is certain: She liked her drink a little too much. Despite the fact that alcohol was banned during the Prohibition era in which Normand enjoyed her fame, she employed a bevy of bootleggers to buy her favorite refreshment: good old bathtub gin.
21. Going Down in History
We still see Mabel Normand as iconic today, we just don’t know it. That famous film scene of a damsel in distress tied up on the railroad tracks? Yep, you guessed it: that’s our Mabel.
22. A Mystery Most Foul
On February 2, 1922, the biggest scandal of Normand’s life hit the papers. That morning, Normand’s close friend William Desmond Taylor was found unresponsive in his own home. When the coroner examined the body, he initially declared it was a stomach hemorrhage—but an investigation later revealed he had been shot.
Then the plot took another cruel twist.
23. Key Witness
The authorities quickly discovered ruinous evidence against Mabel Normand: She had been the last to see Desmond alive. The previous night, just hours before his murder, Normand had visited the director and picked up a book from him. The pair blew kisses at each other as she left, and then Desmond went right to his doom.
24. You’ll Never Make It in This Town
Although officers cleared Normand of any wrongdoing early in their investigation, the tragedy still had devastating consequences. Her popularity had been flagging, and her proximity to the scandal totally destroyed her career. Desmond’s violent end is still unsolved to this day—and the tragedy for Normand wasn’t even over yet.
25. Where There’s Smoke
Two years after the Desmond affair, yet another scandal hit Normand, and it became the final nail in her Hollywood coffin. In 1924, Normand’s chauffeur Joe Kelly took the actress’s own gun and shot millionaire oil baron Courtland S. Dines. Though Normand continued making movies up until her equally tragic end, her career never fully recovered.
26. Let Her Cry
Whether out of grief for Desmond or herself, Normand sobbed throughout the entirety of William Desmond Taylor’s funeral.
27. I’m Ready for My Close-up
Compliment or not, the classic film Sunset Boulevard pays homage to Mabel Normand and her lasting scandal with William Desmond Taylor. The main character of the film, the aging silent star Norma Desmond, is a combination of both Normand and Taylor’s names. Pretty sure Mabel would have some choice words about that.
28. You Are What You Eat
Normand reportedly had an extremely bizarre diet. She regularly ate ice cream for breakfast, and once claimed to have survived for a whole month on just ice cream. She was also obsessed with chocolate cake, and would often hide from people so she could eat the confection in solitude. Honestly? Relatable.
29. Kiss and Sell
During WWI, Normand started selling war bonds. One day while making an appearance, she casually mentioned she would give a kiss to anyone who bought a bond. It started a literal riot. A deluge of strapping men immediately rushed the stage and created chaos in the auditorium. When all was said and done, Normand had to kiss cheeks for two hours straight.
30. Who’s That Girl
When Normand starred in The Diving Girl in 1911, something happened in Hollywood that had never happened before. As per studio custom, Normand went uncredited for the short, eight-minute film—after all, the executives didn’t think anyone really wanted to know any actors’ names. They lived to regret this mistake.
As soon as people saw the magnetic Normand on the brief reel, they flooded the studio with “Who is she?” requests. And thus, a star was born.
31. My Name in Lights
To say Normand was famous in her time is an enormous understatement. She was a monumental figure in early Hollywood, and she didn’t just get top-billing, she also had whole films named after her, with titles like Mabel’s Lovers and For the Love of Mabel. Keystone even advertised her as “Keystone Mabel” on publicity posters.
32. The People Who Matter Don’t Mind
Normand was brash, loud, and bawdy, but she also had a heart of gold. One time, a crewmember told her his mother would love to meet her, and Normand immediately invited the woman out to dinner at a nice restaurant. It did not go as planned. The woman committed the etiquette sins not only of putting her napkin under her chin, but also eating the dainty food with her fingers.
Luckily, the rough-and-tumble Normand didn’t care one jot, and she immediately went and did the same.
A tomboy at heart despite her striking, girlish good looks, Normand became famous on the Keystone set for her total lack of intimidation when it came to performing dangerous stunts. As her friend Mary Pickford put it, “There was no cliff so high that Mabel was afraid of it, no bucking bronco too wild for her to ride.”
34. Too Cool for School
When she became famous, Normand often dismissed or outright lied about her past, and she had good reason to. Her family was incredibly poor, much poorer than she ever let on. But early documents reveal the heartbreaking truth. In the 1900 Census, it’s clear that a six-year-old Mabel still hadn’t even started school, indicating she was dirt poor.
35. Brown-Eyed Girl
Normand’s lashes were so big—almost an inch long—that she actually couldn’t comfortably wear glasses, even though she had very bad vision.
36. Pie in the Sky
Another iconic Mabel first? She’s the first person to throw a pie in someone’s face on film; the gag came from A Noise From the Deep all the way back in 1913. But even better than that, it was all Normand’s idea to begin with.
37. Happily Never After
By 1926, Normand had lived an absolute lifetime of drama. Looking to settle down, she married third-tier silent film actor Lew Cody, a mousy-looking man who was sure to not bring any more strife into her days. But then her life took another brutal twist. Just four short years after her marriage to Cody, Normand was dead.
38. Rest in Peace
In the early months of 1930, Normand’s health declined with terrifying rapidity. She had always struggled with tuberculosis, but this time she simply couldn’t fight her way out of it and carry on. Normand was forced to check into Pottenger Sanatorium, and she never came back out. She died there on February 23, 1930, at the age of just 37.
39. Remember Me
Normand’s final days were filled with delirium and heartache. In the most heartbreaking moment, the weak and exhausted actress took special notice of the bouquet of flowers her ex-lover Mack Sennett sent her as a “get well” gift. When Normand saw them, the dying star reportedly whispered, “He never forgot me.”
40. The End of an Era
The day Mabel Normand died, the Hollywood era of silent film practically went with her. In fact, one of the only major silent films to come out after she passed was, fittingly, her old collaborator Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece City Lights. The age of silent film had been in decline since the late 1920s, but Normand’s end affirmed it.
41. A Shadow of Herself
By the time Normand passed, tuberculosis had so ravaged her body that some reports claimed she only weighed 45 pounds when she passed on. For understandable reasons, her family requested a closed casket for the funeral, preferring to remember their vibrant, chubby-cheeked Mabel and not the waif she had become.
42. Leave a Trace
Normand’s possessions at the time of her passing tell a haunting, horrific story. Pottenger’s Sanatorium, where she had to stay for round-the-clock care during her final illness, had piles of blood-stained nightgowns by which to remember the fallen star. Even creepier, no one knows where the garments are today; they were last seen with her long-term care nurse.
43. Famous Friends
As a testament to her fame, the pallbearers at Normand’s funeral included Charlie Chaplin and legendary MGM head Louis B. Mayer.
44. Just One More Chance
While laying on her deathbed, Normand’s last words were utterly heartbreaking. As she said, “If I am lucky, I hope again to make the world laugh as I once did.” Even to the bitter end, Normand was still hopeful she could move on from the ravaging illness, and earnestly wanted to work hard and have a career revival.
45. Your Cheating Heart
In 1918, Normand reportedly took a surprise trip to the love nest she and Mack Sennett shared—only to be greeted with a chilling sight. Sennett and the new starlet on set, Mae Busch, were naked as the day they were born, and they weren’t sitting around playing pinochle. Even worse, Busch had just recently become Normand’s friend.
It was a shocking discovery, but it was Normand’s dramatic reaction that fuelled the gossip rags for years.
46. Cat Fight
The enraged Normand leaped at her frenemy, only to be overtaken by Busch’s surprising strength. Horrifically, the starlet started bashing Normand’s head repeatedly into the window, and only let up when her skull split open, spilling blood everywhere in the tiny apartment. Or so the most reliable story goes—but there’s an even darker explanation.
47. Desperate Measures
Many people agree that Normand received ghastly head trauma on that fateful day; eyewitnesses saw her stumbling around with blood all over her face. Yet according to some witnesses, her injuries didn’t come from Busch. These sources claim that after running in on the scandalous pair, a desperate Normand threw herself off a pier in a suicide attempt.
48. The Uncensored Story
Though Normand seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when it came t William Desmond Taylor’s murder, one Hollywood insider claimed the truth was much darker. According to Robert Giroux, Desmond’s brutal end came about directly because of Normand, and it’s a sordid tale of addiction and Tinseltown’s hidden underbelly…
49. Mind Your Own Business
Giroux claims that Normand did have a raging addiction and that the actress begged Desmond to help curb her habit. Ever the dutiful friend, Desmond tried to cut the problem off at its source, approaching federal prosecutors with the names of Normand’s suppliers. Unfortunately, the dealers got wind of the plot and offed the meddling director instead.
50. A Guilty Conscience
In Giroux’s version of events, Normand knew full well why Desmond died, even if she didn’t know exactly who did it. Of course, experts have largely discredited this interpretation in the intervening years, but Desmond’s death is still an open case…and as Normand’s life proves, anything can happen in Hollywood Babylon.