❮BOOKS❯ ✬ Mabel Author Betty Fussell – Saudionline.co.uk

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About the Author: Betty Fussell

Betty Harper Fussell is an award-winning American writer and is the author of eleven books, ranging from biography to cookbooks, food history and memoir. Over the last 50 years, her essays on food, travel and the arts have appeared in scholarly journals, popular magazines and newspapers as varied as The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times, Saveur, Vogue, Food & Wine, Metropolitan



10 thoughts on “Mabel

  1. says:

    "Mabel: Hollywood's First I-Don't-Care Girl" was the only biography I could locate on silent comic Mabel Normand. While I admire Betty Harper Fussell's attempt, the end result left me frustrated. She also inserts herself into the biography in a way that left me feeling distracted. Like many, I have always been fascinated by Mabel Normand's work as well as her life off screen. She was a powerful female comedian at a time when that was a rarity. She also directed films and helped nurture talent. The side that most people discuss however is her downward spiral into drugs, alcohol and scandal. While the book does shed light on some of these matters, it raises more questions than answers. It also relies heavily on the first hand accounts of Mabel's former nurse and her gardener. They write Fussell rambling letters that are printed in the book. These letters reveal them to be delusional, religious fanatics who live in squalor. These letters also feel clumsy and embarrassing to read. It also makes me seriously question if their stories are truthful and accurate or mere distortions and even fabrications. The latter seems more likely. I also felt that book didn't capture the emotions, thoughts and inner demons that drove Mabel to ruin. As it stands, I have no insight as to what drove her and why. To me, a good biography will take you inside the mind of the subject and will clear up all of the confusion, myths and falsehoods surrounding a life. Fussell does however paint a solid depiction of Mabel's career and how it evolved. She even admits in the book that Mabel is an elusive ghost. Perhaps she is right, but I was hoping to read in these pages the portrait of the flesh and blood person who lived--and lit up screens around the country. Instead I felt like I had merely chased the ghost as well.

    If anyone knows of any other biographies on Mabel Normand, I'd love to read another one for comparison.


  2. says:

    Looking over Fussell's catalog of writings one sees a paucity of books relating to film. They are mostly books on food, with several devoted to the history and growing of corn. I can understand why -- it certainly isn't easy putting together an authoritative biography on a mostly obscure personality who died some fifty years before the onset of research. Eyewitness accounts are few, if any ... public records are spotty ... and what's left are the host of inaccurate press releases, other books which may have a reference or two to the subject, and the individual's work itself. Lots of these type biographies, then, are rehashed discussions of the work or a paraphrasing of countless newspaper and magazine articles with some supposition mixed in.

    But Betty Fussell seems to have performed the miraculous here -- forming a well-detailed and intimate biography of Mabel Normand, who died in 1930. The non-movie-addicted public has known nothing of her since probably the 1940s, so to put it tersely Mabel was the first female movie comic. She played romantic foil to Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Chaplin, and in real-life to her boy friend Mack Sennett for his hackneyed one-reel comedies of the teens. Others, like Lucille Ball, certainly knew of Mabel and borrowed copiously from her, but for us today the roots of women in comedy seem to begin with those screwball blondes of the 1930s. Poor Mabel's involvement in the William Desmond Taylor murder, by being the last person to see him alive, gives her a slight footnote in Hollywood lore. But even the major player in that drama, Mary Miles Minter, is buried deep under stratum of movie stars, legends, and lore piled on since the 1922 mystery.

    I get the feeling that Mabel herself would approve of this look into her life -- not only because her biographer isn't one of those starry-eyed, film obsessed writers of ga-ga portraits, but also due to the irony that the woman writing about her is an expert on corn.


  3. says:

    Being a big fan of Mabel Normand, I was excited when I found out that there has been a biography written about her. I read some mixed review both on here and on Amazon, but I was willing to read it anyways, because even if it was terrible, it would be about Mabel, right?

    Yes and no. This book is called "Mabel: Hollywood's First I-Don't-Care-Girl" but it should have been called something like "My Walk With Mabel", because that's what it's about. It about the author, Betty Harper Fussell, discovering things about Mabel, talking with her former friends and associates, and poring over documents that she hopes will lead her somewhere. No matter how one feels about the writing style, it's easy to agree that it's not a true biography.

    Speaking of the writing style, it's very incoherent and, honestly, a bit frustrating. She splices in letters written by Julia Benson, Mabel's nurse, and her partner, Lee, which don't match the tone at all. They're not even about Mabel! They're about themselves and other subjects that don't lend anything to the story of Mabel's life. Why she included them is beyond me. In fact, she even admits in the introduction that she edited the letters. Why would she do that? For all we know, they could have contained interesting information that had been written much more clearly, but Ms. Fussell tampered with them. True, they probably weren't important, but the fact that they were edited at all is irritating to the reader.

    There is little biographical information in this book. I would have loved to have read more about Mabel's family, especially her siblings, but Ms. Fussell decides to simply gloss over her early life. It also would have been nice to read about her relationship with Mack Sennett in a more serious light, but the author instead decides to keep it surface-deep. She even has the gall to say, multiple times, that Sennett lied in his autobiography. I'm sure that he did in several places, but it seems pretty forward of her to do that.

    The worst part of this book is that there are absolutely no references. No index, no bibliography, no footnotes. How can we trust what the author is telling us if there are no sources whatsoever? A good non-fiction writer should include these not only to give them credibility but to show their readers where they can learn more. It makes the information in this book, which already seems a bit incredulous, seem totally untrustworthy.

    I gave it two stars instead of one simply because the pictures were nice and there were a few interesting quotes from people who knew Mabel, such as Blanche Sweet and Minta Durfee. Other than that, I feel that Mabel deserves much, much better.


  4. says:

    It's got to make for a monumental headache for a biographer to take a subject like Mabel Normand, whose own short lifetime was packed full of rumor, scandal, mystery and everything else, and try to sift through it all to find the truth. The film magazines of the time are no help, since a few grains of fact easily became the core of a mountain of PR fantasy. Bad information is repeated over and over, even into the internet era, where it is so easy to access historical documents that prove what a performer's real name and age actually was, and that some family history was out and out faked or ignored. In my own minor research, I've come across all that and it takes dedication to sort it all out.

    Fussell took "Good Time Mabel" of the old Keystone shorts and the drug-addicted movie star of the William Desmond Taylor murder scandal and managed to get at Mabel the actress and Mabel the woman. The fairy tale of "Mack and Mabel" is shown to be the very bumpy human relationship it was, as Mabel hoped to find some level of domesticity with her boss, Mack Sennett. Unfortunately, Sennett was very much a mogul of his time and, no credit to him, eventually saw his longtime star and perpetual fianceé as just a part of his comedy empire.

    For some reason, the tragic stories of old Hollywood always seem worse than what we see today in the tabloids on a regular basis. Maybe it's because the industry was so young, yet the nasty and jaded side of it had already reached its majority and more besides.


  5. says:

    Betty Fussell delivers an unusual biography of silent film star Mabel Normand that is entertaining and proof again that truth is stranger than fiction. That is, when truth can be found. It seems that even in retirement, people connected with the film industry sometimes can't tell the difference between truth and what the studios wanted everyone to believe.

    Mabel Normand lived fast and died young but her surviving body of work shows her to be a comic on par with her male counterparts, Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. Unfortunately, tragedy and bad luck followed her throughout her life and she was constantly in the scandal pages for her bad behavior and connection with Arbuckle's rape trials, the murder of her friend William Desmond Taylor and her chauffeur's shooting of Coutland Dines. Any one of these should have ended her career even though she was innocent of any crime. That she persevered until her death from tuberculosis at age 37 is a testament to her stamina.

    The biography gets into strange territory when dealing with Mabel's grand-nephew Steven and her possibly insane nurse Julia. Julia sees Steven as the living embodiment of Mabel and seems intent on being as close to him as she was with Mabel. Steven just wants to be left alone but does provide plenty of mementos of Mabel that have been stored in Staten Island. It is a twisted tale and one that elevates the book above standard biography (though other reviewers vehemently disagree).


  6. says:

    This was an alright biography. While it was interesting to learn about Mabel, the author kept going back and forth with timelines. Each chapter started with her, she just had to put herself into each darn chapter. Just different from other biographies I’ve read.


  7. says:

    3.5. Review coming soon...


  8. says:

    Normand truly pioneered a type of slapstick comedy that few women were able to pull off (perhaps only Lucille Ball). Her career began during the development of narrative scripted Hollywood films and continued into the 1920's. It was then that her career was impacted by two of the biggest scandals of the era. First, co-star Fatty Arbuckle was accused of raping Virginia Rappe, a starlet of dubious reputation who died a few days after a wild party hosted by Arbuckle in San Francisco (he was eventually acquitted but that did not matter). Second, her would-be director William Desmond Taylor, was found shot in the back five minutes after she left him at his home. Because Taylor had a very secret past which was unearthed during the investigation, Normand was repeatedly brought in for questioning, hence her name was constantly in the papers in connection with this sordid event even though she was not a suspect. The murderer was never caught and speculation continues to this day.

    While these cases were not exactly her undoing, she did tend to get tarred by association. Like Clara Bow, she was a wild child at a time when the Hayes code was hell-bent on stamping out Hollywood decadence. That she was several years older than the other big stars of the day AND had a target on her back makes it astonishing that she managed to get parts until she was 35 years old. Most actresses -- especially in comedy -- were at least ten years younger.

    While it may have started out as such, this is not a straight biography. Written in the 1980's, this is as much a chronicle of the author's quest through seedy LA (and Staten Island where Normand was from) to locate the few remaining people with first hand knowledge of Normand's career. Among those were Normand's grand nephew Stephen and Julia, Mabel's nurse/companion from about 1920 to her death in 1930 from tuberculosis. While the author and nephew were both a bit "off," Julia, who was in her nineties at the time, seemed completely batty. Each chapter opens with an excerpt from an over the top letter from Julia to Stephen, in which she extols the virtues of the Gods for delivering her beloved mistress' nephew after all these years (okay, I don't have the book in front of me, but that is the gist). The only time Stephen met her was at the Ambassador Hotel in the 1970's. He was understandably appalled when Julia (wearing a peignoir) implored Dear Stephen, "the flesh and blood of Mabel herself, to just lie next to me in bed?"

    The whole thing reminded me of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Day of the Locust as directed by Bruce La Bruce. The author concludes that it is an almost impossible task to get the truth in a town whose entire existence is built on fakery and lies... and that is what makes the aforementioned films look like serious documentaries.


  9. says:

    This book is both a conventional biography of Mabel Normand, and a story about the author's attempt to uncover the facts of Mabel's life, and her interactions with the surviving people who knew her. (The book was researched in the late 1970s and published in 1982.) The latter part is rather sad and creepy, especially Mabel's grand-nephew, who was born after Mabel had died, whose "I AM MABEL NORMAND" proclamation rather implies that his connection to his late great-aunt is not quite what it should be.

    Anyway, as skin-crawly as the scenes from the 1970s sometimes were, the story of Betty Harper Fussell's efforts were rather interesting. But fortunately, most of the book was more of a straight-up biography, and a pretty good one.

    I'm not terribly familiar with Mabel's work. I know who she was, and have seen her in Tillie's Punctured Romance and in several shorts with Fatty Arbuckle. But the films seem so primitive, even by silent-movie standards, that I never felt that I got a good take on her, unlike others of the silent era, like Chaplin, of course, or Lillian Gish. I did get the sense, in watching her, that her on-screen persona was of the "cute and fun-loving" variety, kind of like Goldie Hawn. (Fussell also makes that same comparison.)

    In addition to relating the events of Mabel Normand's life, Fussell also provides a nice analysis of her works, and of the evolution of screen comedy during her era, as well as of the different "types" that applied to female stars of the era. This is the kind of thing I look for when reading about film history, and I don't always get it, so it's definitely appreciated. I've read quite a bit about the silent era, but most of what I've read seems more tilted to the 1920s than to the 1910s, with most of the material about that earlier decade being about D.W. Griffith, which is understandable since he dominated that period. So it was nice to read about what else was going on during those years.

    Finally, this book gives a brief recap of Fatty Arbuckle's infamous and career-killing scandal. It served as a reminder that I still need to find a good book about Fatty. I had previously read the absurdly bad Wolves at the Door: The Trials of Fatty Arbuckle. Fussell mentions The Day the Laughter Stopped. I'll have to give that one a try.


  10. says:

    This fine book is as much about the problems of biography as much as it is about Mabel Normand. An early film pioneer, the first Queen of Comedy, muse, lover, protege and victim of Mack Sennett, Mabel is a particularly elusive subject, and Fussell does an honest job of presenting what she thinks she knows and what she'll never know. It's tantalizing, because we want to know more than we can. But the very imprecision is instructive -- it reminds us how little we can know of the past, and this era in particular. And the mysteries around Mabel only make her more appealing. Fussell captures well the travails of being a woman in the era before women can vote, and making your way in an art and an industry that hasn't been invented yet.


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