Over the past century, Hollywood has spun out at least three times as many legends as it has movies. But few are stranger than the myth of the murder that wasn’t, and the way in which fiction more titillating than fact ultimately subsumed the reputation of a pioneering filmmaker, who really did deserve legendary status.
Silent-film mogul Thomas Harper Ince, “Father of the Western,” has been dead for almost 75 years, but despite sworn--and incontestable--evidence that he died in bed of natural causes, he usually is remembered--if at all--as the victim of a gunshot supposedly fired by a jealous newspaper tycoon.
Born in 1882 to a Rhode Island show business family, Ince became a seasoned stage performer before he was 15. In 1910, three years after he married actress Elinor “Nell” Kershaw, Ince was acting for Carl Laemmle’s Independent Motion Picture Co. and directing the Mary Pickford films that Laemmle made in Cuba.
The following year, Ince moved to Los Angeles for a $150-a-week job directing films for the Bison Co., which was located in a former grocery store in Edendale, now Echo Park.
As the cameras--and the money--continued rolling, Ince relocated his filmmaking to Pacific Palisades. He built Inceville on 18,000 acres at Santa Ynez Canyon and Pacific Coast Highway, where Gladstone’s restaurant stands today. The studio had 520 people on the payroll and its grounds were home to sets including a Spanish mission, a Dutch village with canal and windmill, a Western town and, of course, a Sioux Indian village.
It was there that Ince--using a circus with 350 showmen--staged the Battle of the Little Big Horn in the ambitious three-reeler “Custer’s Last Fight” (1912), among other famous Westerns. For realism, Ince imported 100 Sioux Indians, many of whom had taken part in the actual 1876 battle against the 7th Cavalry.
The Future Culver City
Actor William S. Hart--the first two-gun cowboy--leaped into film and fame at Inceville and would later take it over, changing its name to “Hartville.”
In 1915, when Harry Culver began building houses near La Ballona, Ince, while shooting a Western, sent several canoes filled with actors dressed as Native Americans paddling up the creek.
Hitting on an idea, Culver offered Ince a 16-acre prime piece of property on Washington Boulevard, inviting him to move his Inceville studio there. Ince accepted the offer, and the site soon became known as Triangle Studios.
Striking out on his own three years later, Ince paid $35,000 for another parcel down the street and put up a white colonial building, a replica of George Washington’s Mt. Vernon home.
With innate show business savvy, Ince pushed on to create more films, including what would become his last two significant movies in 1923: “Human Wreckage,” a condemnation of drug abuse, and “Anna Christie.”
Then came the apparently innocent outing that would plunge Ince’s reputation into the netherworld of innuendo and salacious rumor. On Nov. 16, 1924, Ince boarded press lord William Randolph Hearst’s yacht--the Oneida--to celebrate his own birthday and the signing of a major contract to produce and distribute the films of actress Marion Davies, Hearst’s longtime mistress. Other guests included comedian Charlie Chaplin, racy Edwardian novelist Elinor Glyn, actress Senna Owen and the head of Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Magazine, Dr. Daniel Carson Goodman.
A Heart Attack at Sea
Ince had neglected his health for years and, despite the fact that he was being treated for ulcers and angina pectoris, he partook liberally of Hearst’s rich food and well-stocked bar.
While still at sea, Ince--who already was vomiting blood--suffered a heart attack. The Oneida put into San Diego and Ince was sent home by train. Two more heart attacks quickly followed and, two days later, the 42-year-old Ince died in bed at Dia Dorados, the Spanish-style hacienda he shared with his wife on 30 acres in Benedict Canyon. Nell Ince and the couple’s two sons were at the filmmaker’s bedside when he passed away.
The entire sequence of events surrounding Ince’s death has been meticulously pieced together by the tenacious film historian Marc Wanamaker, who champions the memory of the “Father of the Western.”
But all his scholarship has availed little against the rumors that swept Hollywood--and, subsequently, the pages of popular books about the industry--in the wake of Ince’s death. In the imaginary version of the film pioneer’s last voyage, Hearst discovered Chaplin and Davies in an embrace, grabbed a gun and fired, hitting the wrong man--Ince. Another version has the newspaper tycoon finding Ince and Davies together.
Public suspicion initially was aroused when Hearst’s Los Angeles Herald Express published an account of Ince’s illness under the headline “Special Car Rushes Stricken Man Home from Ranch"[San Simeon], when the Oneida actually docked in San Diego. Skepticism increased when, despite Ince’s prominence, Hearst’s paper carried no further stories beyond a perfunctory report on the funeral.
After the scandalous rumors began to circulate, Hearst and Chaplin made things worse by denying they even were on the yacht when Ince fell ill. By then, stories were circulating that everyone on board had been sworn to secrecy, including small-time film reviewer Louella Parsons, who allegedly left the yacht as a columnist for the Hearst syndicate. Parsons subsequently denied that she was aboard the Oneida and, in fact, no one ever proved she was.
Wild Rumors Disproved
Beset by almost three weeks of rumors and glaring discrepancies, the San Diego district attorney ordered an investigation “to clear up certain facts connected with the death.” But, at the close of that probe, authorities concluded that the cause of Ince’s death was “heart attack brought on by acute indigestion.”
Two years later, Chaplin was photographed clowning around on the Oneida. Why would Chaplin and Hearst have remained friends if Hearst had really tried to kill him?
Moreover, after Ince’s $4-million estate was settled in 1928, his wife built a grand, seven-story hotel called Chateau Elysee across the street from another of their mansions on Franklin Avenue. But it didn’t take long before some speculated that Hearst financed her hotel because of his great guilt over killing her husband.
Although Ince left his wife a rich woman, one publication later reported that “Hearst discreetly provided Ince’s widow, Nell, with a trust fund. The Depression wiped out the fund, and Nell finished her days as a taxi driver.” In fact, Nell Ince died a very rich woman in the 1960s.
Shortly before her death, Nell had had enough of the rumors that continued to obscure her husband’s reputation. She collected a stack of notarized documents from several witnesses who had viewed Ince’s body and who attested that there were no bullet holes. She made her own written statement concerning the whole sequence of events and combined it with copies of the autopsy report and death certificate. The entire collection of evidence was shipped to New York’s George Eastman House, a caretaker of the nation’s film heritage.
All Nell ever wanted was for her husband to be remembered as the pioneering filmmaker he was, the man who turned movies from a “toy into an art.”