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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Regarding Mabel Normand

Mabel Ethelreid Normand (b. 9 November 1892 & d. 23 Feb 1930) Mabel was a silent film comedienne and actress. She was very close to William Desmond Taylor.

The following is an account of Mabel's day before Taylor's untimely death:
Mabel’s boss, Mack Sennett, had given her the day off on Wednesday. She woke up at noon, dressed quickly, and had her chauffeur, William Davis load the car with packages of jewelry she had received at Christmastime. Mabel’s plan was to spend the afternoon at her favorite jewelers, Brocks’ and Feagans’ at 5th & Broadway. She wanted to return some duplicate jewelry, exchange others, and have some engraved.

On Wednesday, around 6:00pm, Mabel went to the Hellman’s Commercial Trust & Savings Bank at the corner of 6th & Main. According to her friend Mack Sennett, Mabel got her cancelled checks, left her checkbook to be balanced, talked to several persons in the safety deposit vault when she placed some of her personal jewelry in her personal box. She asked permission to use the phone to call her maid, Mamie Owen with Mabel’s plans to dine downtown and go see Harry Lloyd’s new movie. When Mamie answered, she told Mabel of Mack Sennett’s order for Mabel to be ready to go on location for filming her movie at 7:00am with her makeup on. Mamie also told her that Taylor had called her 3 or 4 times and had sent a book over from CC Parker’s Bookstore and that he had stopped and had another book she wanted and could she pick them up at Taylor’s or should he bring them over? Mabel informed her maid she would stop at Taylor’s house before she arrived home.

After leaving the bank, Mabel had her chauffeur, William Davis drive her down Main Street, stopping when she saw a peanut man with a pushcart outside the Pacific Electric. Mabel got out of the car and skipped across the street and purchased 2 bags of peanuts worth 50¢. She had only $10 and the peanut man had no change so Mabel went inside the drugstore and the girl at the drugstore smiled when she recognized Mabel. She then stopped at 7th & Broadway and bought several magazines including the Police Gazette. She told Davis to take her straight to see Taylor’s at 404 B South Alvarado Street.

When Davis arrived at Taylor’s home close to 7:00pm, Mabel asked Davis to sweep peanut shells out of the car, while she still had a bag in her hand intending it as a thank-you gift for Taylor for the books he bought her. Henry Peavey, the house helper, opened the door. Peavey told Mabel that Taylor was on the phone and she could hear him talking loudly on the phone in the little room under the stairs. Mabel said she waited outside among the flower beds and eventually when she heard Taylor say, “Goodbye, Goodbye, Goodbye,” she rang the doorbell. Taylor went outside to see Mabel and Peavey went to the kitchen. In addition to the bag of peanuts, Mabel had in her hand the black bag she kept things like cancelled checks in. Taylor and Mabel went inside. They chatted as Taylor said he’d just finished dinner and offered for Peavey to make dinner for her. She explained that Mamie had dinner prepared for her and the early morning she anticipated.

Mabel agreed to have a cocktail with Taylor and she presented him with her creative thank you gift, of which he laughed and put the bag on top of the piano. Mabel first sat on the piano stool and the Taylor suggested she move to the rocking chair. Mabel saw the desk was open and Taylor called her over and showed her his desk in which the top of the table was covered with papers including cancelled checks. As Mabel sat on the arm of his chair, he pointed out that most of the checks were forged and even he had a difficult time telling which bore his signature. Taylor appeared to be at his wits end from trying to make sense of his financial mess. He had his suspicions of the identity of the guilty party but doubtful he would ever see justice.

Henry entered the room with a silver tray carrying two cocktails. He bowed in his peculiar way. He inquired as to Mabel’s well-being in his shrill voice and hoped she was well. Taylor asked Peavey to clean up and then sent him home assuring him that he should be able to fix up the problem with the courts on Thursday. With that, Henry was dismissed to go home and return at 7:00 on Thursday morning.

It’s unclear whether Mabel and Taylor had an intimate relationship or if they were dear companions who shared a love for movies, philosophy, and intellectual books. It’s been learned that both the two had a shared great affection for Ethel M Dell, a British writer of popular romance novels. The talked freely about the books, their work, and of other topics of interest to them. Taylor offered to call her later that evening, but Mabel informed him that Mamie wouldn’t disturb her after 9:00pm.

Taylor walked Mabel outside, closing the screen door behind them. Mabel suggested they visit her friend, Edna Purviance, who lived three doors down. Mabel noticed Arthur Cooley, chemical expert, sitting near the window under a light reading newspaper. The Cooley’s shared a common wall with Edna Purviance in the 402 duplex. Taylor walked Mabel to the car and helped her in while Davis was waiting for her amidst the scattered peanut shells. Taylor and Mabel said their goodbyes and blew kisses from their hands to each other as long she could see him standing on the sidewalk.

As Davis drove Mabel to her apartment at 3089 West Seventh Street, on the corner of 7th & Vermont, approximately 1.25 miles from Taylor’s home, she was thinking of Taylor and the big day of work on the morrow. Once at home, Mabel ate dinner alone. She waited for Taylor to call on her at her home that night, but when 9:00 came around and no sign of Taylor, she went to bed.

Mabel’s apartment building was owned by Mrs. Anna T. Gillon, who bought it years before for $100,000. Anna T. Durkee Gillon was born on 8 January 1860 at Jerseyville, Illinois to John and Ellen Johnson. Anna was of average height with grey eyes, auburn hair, fair complexion, and a round face. She married her 2nd husband, Charles Edwin Gillon in 1896. Charles was a fire insurance agent. Anna’s daughter Hazel Durkee was born in 1887 during her 1st marriage.

On 10 May 1917, Hazel Durkee Foster married Ralf P. Dignowity, the 2nd time at the altar for both of them. Ralf was born into a prominent family in San Antonio and educated in Switzerland and in elite schools in the East, including the Highland Military Academy in Worcester, Mass. Ralf’s father, Charles, was at one time a representative of one of the largest mining companies of New York. It was in 1906 that Charles, sons Ralf and Frederic left society to the Reno, Nevada area for the purpose of investing in mining properties. Charles’ wife, Ella stayed in the East. Charles became a formidable presence in the mining industry, promoting mines particularly in Nevada and Colorado. Eventually, Charles’ mining venture went bankrupt and he joined Charles in Los Angeles.

Ralf became accomplished, by 1912, at his job with the Los Angeles Playgrounds Association and was hired as a physical education director of the public schools in Pomona. Ralf quickly left the Phys Ed department for the automobile. He began with a small auto repairs shop on the corner of Grand & 10th (now Olympic) of which he prided himself on keeping one of the finest and cleanest repair shops in the city. By 1917, Ralf’s mother joined his father in Los Angeles. When Charles was injured in a streetcar mishap, he was left disabled, forcing him and Ella to depend on Ralf for financial support.

Ralf was one of 24 million men in the United States who completed a draft registration card during World War 1. On June 5, 1917, Ralf gave the information that he was born on Christmas day 1888 in San Antonio, Texas, that he was married, supported his parents, was a proprietor of an auto repair shop, was tall, slender, with green eyes, and brown hair. In 1918, Ralf was investigated by the FBI after a tip that he wasn’t supporting his parents and that his wife had a separate income. The investigation showed Hazel indeed had a separate income from her stock in the Silver Bowl Vineyard Company but had several properties of which the taxes were of a far greater amount than her income. Before she married Ralf, Hazel had gone to the extent of borrowing over $1200 from the AB Cohn Company at the corner of 3rd & Main when she pawned some jewelry. Ralf worked hard in the auto business and in November of 1920 was awarded the rights to sell Los Angeles Briscoe automobiles franchised.

Frederic “Fred” Dignowity was also investigated by the FBI in the fall of 1918, but for an entirely different matter. Fred was a mechanical engineer who had been fired by the Air Nitrate Corporation “ANC” of Buffalo, New York. It was during World War 1 that the ANC built their nitrate plants in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, approved by President Woodrow Wilson for the use of the much needed nitrates for ammunition and explosives. The ANC had substantial war time contracts with the US Government and it was believed Fred was in stolen possession of plans and processes belonging to the company. Fred had been kicked out of his residence at the Hotel Somerset in Buffalo after incurring a large bill while representing himself as a government employee. Fred’s last check from ANC, dated 1 June 1918, was sent to him in care of the American Cyanamid Company of Niagara Falls, Ontario. When Fred left the hotel, his trunk with possessions was left behind. When a locksmith had opened it, he found no trace of ANC’s missing papers. It was assumed by the FBI that Fred was headed to Washington DC, but they found no trace of him. Fred, however, showed up in Los Angeles some time later.

My first discovery of Ralf Dignowity and his family came when I read the mention of a witness in the neighborhood of the evening of William Taylor’s murder. Adela Rogers St. John, a Hollywood journalist for Wm Randolph Hearst’s newspaper, the LA Examiner, described Hazel Gillon as a witness. Did Adela interview Anna Gillon or her daughter, Hazel Dignowity? During June of 1917, Hazel and her husband Ralf lived at 404 B South Alvarado Street, the exact same apartment where William Desmond Taylor was murdered. When Taylor returned to Hollywood in May 1919, he went to live in the home vacated by the Dignowity couple. They went and moved into an apartment in Hazel’s mother’s building 3089 West 7th Street. They became neighbors in the building to Mabel Normand, her nurse, Mary Brent, secretary Edith Geiger, and maid Mamie Owens.

1 comment:

  1. Nice description.
    Where did you get the name arthur cooley as a witness on the porch reading.

    According to the Los Angeles Examiner of Feb. 4, 1922:
    "Mrs. Charles Cooley, living two doors from the Taylor residence, said that she and her husband were sitting in their living room reading almost the entire evening and did not hear a sound. They had their blinds drawn and had no occasion to look out, so saw no one."


    Jay Raskin