Last week, I wrote about the unsolved 1922 murder of director William Desmond Taylor. This week, I thought it would be fun to continue by writing about another mysterious Hollywood death of the silent era, that of Thomas Ince.
Thomas Ince (below) was a film actor, director, and producer, sometimes called the "father of the Western." Born in 1882 to a family of stage actors, he began working in the infant film industry in New York in 1911. Ince is credited with inventing the concept of the "shooting script" and of planning out all aspects of production before shooting - at the time, movies were essentially made up as they were shot - and of redefining the producer's role as the overseer of production from start to finish, rather than just the financier of the film. In 1915, he moved to Santa Ynez Canyon, not far from Hollywood, and founded his own studio, Inceville, where his organized and carefully thought-out system of film-making produced some of the finest Westerns of the silent era. One of his greatest stars was the cowboy hero, William S. Hart. He also had a reputation for discovering and grooming new talent.
The mystery surrounding his death begins in November 1924, when Ince and his wife Nell were invited for a weekend cruise aboard William Randolph Hearst's yacht, the Oneida, to celebrate Ince's 43rd birthday. Besides Hearst and the Inces, also on board for the festivities were Hearst's mistress, the actress Marion Davies (right, with balloons, on board the Oneida); Charlie Chaplin, with whom Davies was rumored to be having an affair; the then-unknown columnist, Louella Parsons; the author Elinor Glyn; and assorted other hangers-on and wannabes who had somehow cadged a coveted invitation to hang out with Hollywood's high and mighty.
The boat left San Pedro on Saturday, November 15. Thomas and Nell Ince joined the cruise in San Diego on Sunday for Ince's birthday celebration. By early Monday morning - or maybe Tuesday - Ince was dead.
What happened? Well, that depended on whom you asked.
(left to right, Hearst, Davies, Chaplin)
The version that Hearst told and had printed in his papers was that Ince had taken ill and was removed from the vessel on Monday morning, in the company of Hearst's own doctor, Dr.Daniel Goodman. Ince was taken by train to his own home, where he died of heart failure on Tuesday morning. Or wait, maybe he hadn't been on the boat at all. According to Marion Davies, Ince had actually been at the Hearst ranch, miles away from Hearst and Davies. And she had called Nell Ince to notify her of her husband's death on Monday afternoon, which was interesting considering that, according to Hearst, Ince had died on Tuesday. Chaplin said he hadn't been on the boat either. Or...
The stories, besides their obvious contradiction of each other, had other problems. First off, the headlines in the LA papers on Wednesday morning all contained variations of "Hollywood Producer Shot on Hearst's Yacht!" Second, lots of people had seen the Inces and Chaplin on the Oneida. Third, Charlie Chaplin's secretary, Toraichi Kono, reported that he had seen Ince removed from the boat on Monday morning, his bleeding head wrapped in bandages. Fourth, Hearst was known to keep a gun on the vessel.
Hearst was powerful enough to quell the headlines - headlines that, by the evening editions, had mysteriously disappeared, never to be seen again. Remember, this was the man who some believe engineered the Spanish-American War ("bring me the pictures, and I'll bring you the war"). As I've written here before, the DAs office in 1920s Los Angeles was not above bribery and influence-peddling, either. Hearst also wielded, by virtue of his bottomless pockets, enormous clout within the movie community. He was a man to be reckoned with. What Hearst could not control, however, was the wagging of people's tongues. The murmuring got so loud that finally, reluctantly, the DA reopened the case.
What had happened to Thomas Ince?
According to the rumors, Hearst had invited Chaplin for the weekend cruise specifically to watch his interaction with Marion. He suspected them of having an affair. Which wouldn't have been surprising - not only was Hearst 34 years older than Marion, he was stodgy, controlling, jealous, and humorless. Marion, by all accounts, was friendly, funny, outgoing, and kind; she loved parties and good times, and had a wicked sense of humor. In fact, Chaplin, among others, was constantly urging Hearst to showcase Marion's natural wit and effervescence in comedies, rather than the stiff, slow, pretentious costume dramas he insisted she be featured in. Hearst wouldn't hear of it - he thought it was beneath Marion's dignity. Hearst, in any event, probably wasn't inclined to take any advice from Chaplin, who was suave, handsome, younger, fabulously successful and famously well-endowed, and whom he thought was sleeping with his girlfriend.
There were three versions of Ince's death circulating: one was that Hearst had caught Davies and Chaplin in flagrante delicto. Davies screamed; the passengers rushed to see what was the matter; and Hearst, in a rage, missed his aim and shot Ince by mistake. Version two had Marion and Ince chatting innocently in the galley. Hearst, according to this version, came into the galley, saw Marion with a man he thought was Chaplin, fired blindly, and struck Ince in the head. The final version was that somehow the gun had gone off accidentally in the deck below Ince's cabin. The bullet had traveled through the deck and struck Ince (although why this story would need a cover-up is not clear.)
Responding to these rumors, the D.A. did indeed reopen the case. However, his investigation consisted of interviewing Dr. Goodman and taking his story at face-value. Conveniently, Ince's body had been cremated almost immediately after he died, so there was nothing to examine. The case was officially closed. Thomas Ince, according to the authorities, had died of heart failure in his own bed on Tuesday, November 19, 1924.
But the rumors wouldn't die. They were fed, in part, by events after Ince's death. One was that Nell Ince immediately left for Europe, far away from the reach of the LA authorities. Another was that Louella Parsons (left), prior to this a very low-level columnist from New York, was almost immediately taken under Hearst's wing as the authoritative syndicated gossip columnist of the stars and given a lifetime contract. Under Hearst's aegis, Parsons became one of the most powerful and influential columnists in Hollywood, up until her death at age 91 in 1972. Was this, as some suggested, payment for her silence? Margaret Livingston (below left), one of the no-name starlets also on board that weekend and perhaps not coincidentally Thomas Ince's mistress, saw her salary instantly jump from $1000 to $3000 a film, and she went on almost immediately to star in several quite successful pictures. And, as D.W. Griffith was reported to have said, "All you have to do to make Hearst turn white as a ghost is mention Ince's name. There's plenty wrong there, but Hearst is too big."
Marion Davies stayed with Hearst until his death in 1951, at one point writing him a check for a million dollars after his fortunes took a nosedive. Her movie career kept alive, with ups and downs, until the early 1950s, despite the effects of age and alcoholism. She died of cancer in 1961.
In the 1960s, Orson Welles, who had nailed Hearst forever in Citizen Kane, told Peter Bogdanovitch the story of Thomas Ince's death. (Welles also said that he was sorry that people thought the character of Susan Alexander, Kane's alcoholic and talentless wife, was meant to be Davies, whom he found to be an intelligent and gifted woman.) Bogdanovitch was so taken with the story that in 2001 he wrote, produced, and directed a movie about the Ince affair, The Cat's Meow. Edward Herrmann plays Hearst; Kirsten Dunst is excellent as Marion Davies, as is the fab Eddie Izzard as Charlie Chaplin. Cary Elwes plays the doomed Ince. If you are into Hollywood history and/or murder mysteries, it's work a look.
Here's the trailer. Sorry about the Italian subtitles - it's the only version onYouTube.