Book Review: “Mabel Normand: The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap”

Decades before the likes of Lucille Ball, there was another comedienne who was every bit as well known and influential–the “madcap” Mabel Normand. She was one of the earliest screen comediennes, and for a time was the biggest. She coached Roscoe Arbuckle and directed Charlie Chaplin when they first arrived at Keystone. She was loved by moviegoers the world over. And yet, strangely, almost no books have been written about her. One “major” biography came out over 20 years ago, and…left a lot to be desired. (References and bibliographies are useful things.)

But cue the trumpets, for at long last a new biography is coming out, the result of seven years’ worth of research by author and enthusiastic fan Timothy Dean Lefler. It’s detailed, it’s sourced, it even has appendices. It gives Mabel the kind of thorough appreciation that’s been needed for decades. Is it, perhaps, definitive? Well, let’s take a look.

Mabel has always been a little remote to me. Unlike stars like Lillian Gish or Mary Pickford, I found Mabel harder to “know” as a person. On one hand, there’s the stories of the party-loving actress drinking and cursing, on the other hand, the former Gibson Girl we see on the screen often appears self-composed and graceful–even when pratfalling. Lefler shows us both of these sides of Mabel, and how they’re linked by a mischievous, warm-hearted nature. Indeed, “mischievousness” seems to be the key to understanding the lively young woman. One journalist said she reminded him of “a dancing mouse; whirling all the time”.

Lefler takes us through her early life and rise from modelling to screen fame, making it clear what a high status she achieved as a film star. Silent fans who know her mainly from those relentless “drug use” rumors will be stumbling upon plenty of enlightening information. How many people today know that her feature Mickey (1918) was one of the biggest hits of the whole era? Or that she once made $4000 a week, more than many Americans made in an entire year? Or that she was so generous that she once tipped a cook $100 for a piece of apple pie?

The book is also packed full of fun anecdotes and trivia about everything from her love of flying in airplanes to her interactions with famous coworkers like Charlie Chaplin and Marie Dressler. (Charlie thought she was the bees knees but Mabel was very clear about not returning his affections.) I was also happy to see some discussion of her Catholicism and the role faith played in her life (being a fellow Roman Catholic). My new favorite Mabel quote is: “I am a Catholic, but don’t hold that against the church.”

The famous “Mack and Mabel” romance is thoroughly covered, as is the most common story of how they ultimately broke up (the hard-to-verify one involving Mae Busch). Mabel had been so beloved by her Keystone coworkers that when she was recuperating from the injury received that evening, comedian Charlie Murray reportedly grabbed the venerable King of Comedy by the shirt collar and told him, “If that little girl dies, you son of a b****, you better not set foot around here.” (Amazingly bold, if true!)

While Lefler takes us step by step through the familiar William Desmond Taylor and Courtland Dines scandals, we see them through the valuable perspective of Mabel’s eyes. (In the appendices he even includes transcripts of her testimonies in court, very useful material for any Mabel researcher.) For the first time we can see–really see–the effect they had on her and her  career, and how tragic it was for her to have such an unrelenting stream of bad luck.

For me, the Eternally Picky Silent Fan, there’s a few things I wish had been studied more closely. One thing I was hoping to see was a thorough examination of Mabel’s rumored “cocaine addiction.” Why? Because of all the unsubstantiated rumors about silent stars, it’s one of the most widespread, always at the expense of talking about her work. I’m not kidding. Everyone–including many wonderful film historians–seems to assume she was a cocaine addict, no questions asked, no suspicions of accuracy raised. It’s the darnedest thing. It’s gotten to the point where Stevie Nicks wrote a song she said was inspired by Mabel’s (nonexistent) “death from cocaine” and few people said boo. (Although there’s some hope out there.)

Much of the “proof” for drug use has to do with the way she slowly wasted away for years until her early death–from the slow-working disease tuberculosis. Lefler does address TB’s effect on her health and mentions that there’s no hard proof of her using drugs–although the mention is brief and a bit vague. Oh, for the missed opportunity to investigate this subject even further, and perhaps lay some misconceptions to rest!

There’s also a couple details I found disconcerting, although they pop up in other biographies too. One is the assertion that “Keystone was the narcotic-dealing capital of Hollywood, with cocaine being the main attraction.” While there was some use of substances on the lot (which many of the Keystone employees were probably unaware of*), I’m concerned that this is going to give readers the impression that Roscoe Arbuckle, Ford Sterling, Slim Summerville, etc. were all snorting away before the cameras started rolling and having deals go down behind the Cyclorama. Words are strong, folks. I was also sad to see the “Jack Pickford + syphilis + drugs + Olive Thomas” rumors being spread a little further. And yes, the usual anecdotes from Adela Rogers St. Johns and Anita Loos make appearances.

Still, these quibbles aside, there’s no doubt that Lefler’s focus is definitely and appropriately on Mabel–both as a film star and as a human being. This is very welcome. We come away from his book understanding not only how wildly popular she was, but how important she was to Hollywood. And we see her more clearly as the lively, generous soul that she was. There’s still some wiggle room for future researchers (and I would love to see a study of Mabel’s features compared to Mary Pickford’s), but Mabel Normand: The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap has set a new standard. It was published by McFarland (their order line is 800-253-2187) and can also be purchased on Amazon.

* An Eddie Sutherland quote is the frequent reference for Keystone drug use stories. Sutherland stated that Keystone actor Hughey Fay brought drugs to Hollywood: “He put Mabel on the junk, and Wallace Reid, Alma Rubens. He was the pusher.” However, both Reid and Rubens had had been prescribed morphine by doctors for physical ailments, which sadly caused their addictions. This casts some doubt on Sutherland’s assertions about Mabel. Brent Walker, in his Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory, came to the conclusion that: “…It was probable that…the drug subculture was a minority at Keystone, with most employees going about their business oblivious of, or at least uninvolved with, such activity” (74). This seems more probable–and reasonable–to me.

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32 thoughts on “Book Review: “Mabel Normand: The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap”

  1. I was unsure about getting this book until now. Excellent review in your approach and style. Now I’m ordering it today. Thank you Lea!

    • Hope you enjoy, Don! 🙂 While I don’t think it’s quite the “definitive” biography because of the quibbles I mentioned, it’s a big step up from the last biography. 😉 (Although there’s a sourcebook of some kind out there too, I think, that’s supposed to be good.)

  2. I’m so glad to see your comments on this book—I’ve been seeing it mentioned, and have thought about buying it, but hmmm…. Mabel seems to have been so often a victim of sensationalism that I’ve been a little leery of biographies of her. Certainly, the truth shouldn’t be covered up, but I don’t want to see her unfairly trashed. I’ve seen some talk about a movie being made of her life—with Hollywood being the way it can be these days, I think I’d dread that!

    Anyway, this sounds like a good book. I’ve gotten the impression that Mabel is a tough one to get the facts on, and this sounds like a good job of background research on Lefler’s part.

    • “Victim of sensationalism”–you’ve got that right! Lefler’s book is much more levelheaded, that’s for sure. I agree that the truth shouldn’t be suppressed–heck, no one argues about Mabel’s love of alcohol–but some rumors are so serious and have been so damaging to her legacy that it’s downright bizarre how few people have questioned them.

      It’s hard to imagine Hollywood making a nuanced version of her life–I’ll join you in dreading the very thought of it. 😀

  3. Hi Lea! Love your blog! This is my first time commenting. 🙂

    Being a huge fan of Mabel, I preordered the book. I haven’t received it yet but am extremely excited to read it. Based on everything I’ve ever read about her, I identify STRONGLY with her. The first time I saw one of her movies it felt like a punch in the gut. It was something I couldn’t put my finger on, but I somehow felt that I KNEW her. (Not saying, oh, I knew her in a past life … just saying, I felt a kindred spirit.)

    I was also always seen as a very contradictory girl … I was an honor student in high school yet once received in-school suspension after being caught smoking in the girls’ room. 🙂 I used to have Coca-Cola and Twinkies for breakfast, and punctuality is not my strong suit. I myself was once accused many years ago, in my wilder days, of being a drug addict and rumors even swirled that I was engaged in unsavory activities to feed this rumored addiction. Yes, I was a bit of a party girl and “dabbled”, but I was certainly never addicted to anything other than nicotine. I think that Mabel was targeted in large part because, frankly, she was a walking contradiction that no one understood. I think in some ways the bewilderment can be distilled down to this: She was a very beautiful woman who played rough and tumble in a boys’ club and could out-rough and out-tumble the lot of them. She did not conform to society’s expectations of what a “feminine” woman should be. And she did all this while being FUNNY. This garbage about “pretty women can’t be funny” is still being perpetuated today. A few years ago, Christopher Hitchens wrote a sexist piece in Vanity Fair called “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” in which he had this to say: “There are more terrible female comedians than there are terrible male comedians, but there are some impressive ladies out there. Most of them, though, when you come to review the situation, are hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three.”

    Mabel was slender, unabashedly feminine, and Roman Catholic. Which, to many people, meant (and still means) only one thing: DOES. NOT. COMPUTE.

    I do not know Mr. Lefler, but I admire his courage in taking on such a formidable subject. I have been reading the initial reviews of the book with interest and am saddened by how much drama and misinformation still surrounds Mabel. I certainly hope that my own comment here doesn’t strike a nerve with anyone. Just wanted to throw in my $.02 as someone who feels a strong kinship with Mabel and hope that, at the very least, the new book sparks renewed interest in her as a wonderful comedienne and true film pioneer. 🙂

    • What a wonderful comment, thank you!! It’s so nice to hear from people who love Mabel for the real person she was and identify with her, rather than all those folk who just think of her as, ya know, some famous coke-addled murder suspect. What cruel fate it’s been, so far. I really hope Lefler’s book will help change some hearts out there–she deserves better!

      You’re hitting the nail on the head about Mabel, too–how she seemed to be a “walking contradiction,” especially in an age where people tended to be, well, straightforward. People back then adored her, though, which says a lot. And I like your personal example showing that just because someone SEEMS like they would “party hard” doesn’t prove that they do! (Actually had a conversation about Mabel on that very issue recently. Heh.)

      One thing that helped me understand her better was knowing that she had a mischievous side and loved thrills (such as flying in airplanes). I can totally see that thrill-seeking, confident, but still feminine gal on the screen now. And it makes to me how she was also an introspective person who adored reading and discussing her Catholic faith.

      p.s. Aaaand I now have reason 890,601 for not liking Hitchens’s work.

    • beyondthevelvetcurtain, those are some great observations about Mabel. I enjoyed reading about your kinship with her.

      It’s easy to see why audiences loved Mabel so much. She was so full of infectious fun, so incredibly alive and spontaneous. Her character seems like the epitome of the person who is able to live in the moment and fully enjoy it, unworried by the past or present. Even amidst the down moments of real life, I think she got a lot of happiness from bringing joy to audiences on the screen. It’s nice to know she was a person of faith.

      My favorite Mabel moments: in Mickey when she steals the cherries off the cake, and sweeping/staircase scene. 😀

      Another cool thing about Mabel: you never have to say her last name (well, in silent film circles, anyway). You can just say “Mabel” and everybody knows who you mean. Mabel is Mabel.

  4. Thank you so much for alerting me to the publishing of this book. I am very interested though, like you, I believe the “Mabel was hooked on cocaine” needs a deep and thorough investigation. I am wondering about one aspect – How are the last few years of her life treated? I recently read “Tinseltown” by William Mann (which I believe MAY be the definitive work on the Taylor death) and he was very kind to Mabel. He believed she was addicted for a time, but she had treatment, got past it, and never turned back. He shows that her last years after the Desmond scandal were not spent as a recluse but has pictures of her at Broadway openings and such, living a good life in NYC. Does this book have some of the same, or does the reporting on her last years regurgitate the old “recluse” trope? Thanks so much, Kathie

    • Hi Kathie! Lefler treats Mabel’s final years very fairly, I got the sense that she was active, working, and travelling right up until her tuberculosis made it impossible to do so. No Norma Desmond wannabe here! 🙂

      Full disclosure: I haven’t read Tinseltown, but I’ve heard that Mann gives several possible reasons for Mabel’s bouts of bad health/hospital stays, the big one being “cocaine addiction.” I would have to read it to see if he mentions her TB. If he doesn’t, that’s unfortunate. We often forget that she suffered from TB for many years–the type that goes dormant then comes back. She seems to have kept her illness quiet (stars didn’t tend to share personal details like that very much). It seems possible to me that people have been confusing her very real TB symptoms with “drug addiction.” At the very least it could explain a few things, and is something to take into consideration.

      I also tend to think that a bona fide drug addiction–a very serious thing–certainly would’ve interfered with her busy Keystone film schedule in the ’10s. But that’s just a thought.

      • Thank you. Now I am more inclined to buy the book! I read “Tinsletown” nearly a year ago so it’s hard to recall every detail, but I am certain Mann did not say Mabel died of drugs. That is my entire point, that he gave the first full and fair description of her last ten years of life that I have ever read, and defended her against the drug allegations. Now Mary Miles Minter and Mom don’t come off looking too good, not that he accuses them of the murder, he does not. Let’s just say the little lady was no virgin and kinda nuts! I thought it was a very good book and would love to know what you think of it. Thanks again, Kathie

  5. OH my gosh… I have SO wanted to read a GOOD book about Mabel!

    I can’t hold it against the author of the 1980s book because…..it seems like she was trying hard and no one was helping her out! So the book became more about the writing of the book….and someone will tell a three-page anecdote and then a page later you find out they were making the whole thing up! But….that was the only book I could find about her! I always think: how sad there’s not more info about Mabel. It made me appreciate the information we DO have about others from that era, we’re so lucky.

    For such a big star, it’s so sad there’s not any recording of her voice! I’d so love to hear what she sounded like.

    Thank you so much for yet another great book review, a fair one. You know what we’re looking for in such a book, and you let us know what we can expect, and not expect. I’ve always found your book reviews on the money, and I’m sure this one is no exception. I’ll definitely be getting it, thanks for alerting us!

    • Hope you enjoy it! It’s a breath of fresh air to see a book focus on Mabel as a human being, not just a name. That’s the problem with how a lot of people view the classic stars, it seems–they’re just names or characters, not living, breathing people. Look at how many people think of Hollywood only as a film noir wasteland of murder and scandal, for Pete’s sake.:-D

  6. I Have read all the thoughts published here concerning the Lefler book on Mabel Normand..both the individual personal thoughts about the book review and the personal thoughts, about what the individual contributors personal thoughts are concerning “their Mabel” with great interest.

    One person, “behind a velvet curtain” thinks she “knows” Mabel,and compares herself to Mabel Normand in an extraordinary manner, albeit lovingly.

    All of these contributors acknowledge the worthiness of this book, and the author’s good work and often applaud the sources from which he has taken the bulk to fill the book. If you look carefully and read the copious list of appendices it dawns on you that all of the information comes from materials already published, much of it unreliable and hearsay. The few original thoughts the author expresses, have actually appeared on other websites, he has depended heavily on other vociferous sources.

    There is no reference given to another source of invaluable information…”The Mabel Normand Family Estate” which contains the archive of Mabel Normand’s diaries, personal papers and correspondence etc.

    The author by quoting every other possible source, Tom Dick & Harry ..embarrassingly…sadly…ignored Mabel Normand’s family. Very odd they shouldn’t have been considered, as a primary source. After all, the family actually knew her. Their thoughts, as well as today’s and yesterday’s fans, who did/do not….ought to have been included for a fair appraisal of the private life of Mabel Normand.

    As has been said, for the moment, the book is an improvement on anything else published to date and it is the only biography of her career & life. Sadly it is not an authorised biography so cannot be the definitive biography.
    The author plainly admires his subject but unfortunately didn’t complete his search for sources…the most obvious source of private information of all..Mabel Normand’s own personal archive.. lovingly left to her mother Mary, and then to brother Claude & sister Gladis at her death in February 1930

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Stephen! It’s great to see you here. I’m happy that there’s a new biography out there on Mabel at last, and one that treats her like the living, breathing, lovable person she was rather than as just a name with a set of ugly rumors attached to it. I do agree that there’s room for further research–let this be a challenge to you, readers. 😉

  7. I have been a big fan of Mabel since I was a young boy. The very first movie I saw her in was “Tomboy Bessie” ( Buigraph company 1912) . my all time favorite.Her Keystone years working for (or starring with) Mack Sennett were the best years of her life. “The Fatal Mallet”, “Mabel at the Wheel” the list goes on. Love her movies. Its very sad that the last decade of her life was filled with tragedy. She was a very generous, mischievous , and sweet person. A family member of hers once said:”Mabel had a tendency of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” I will be ordering this book in the near future. It will be interesting to see what Mr. Lefler wrote about her. I hope this book does her justice!

  8. Thank you Lea for such a kind and generous review of my book. And thank you to the many others who have been so gracious to leave their feedback. I’ve been laid up for a while but I hope to be out doing signings very soon.
    All the best to you,
    Timothy Lefler

  9. Pingback: So Long, 2016: The Silent Community Year In Review | Silent-ology

  10. I liked the post. Unfortunately, the book is full of unsubstantiated statements. Relying on statements made by Mack Sennett is just as bad. As Louise Brooks once said ‘there is only one line of truth in the whole worthless book’.

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