Can Fiction Solve a Real Mystery?
How and why did Thomas Ince die on Hearst's yacht? 'The Cat's Meow' adds another theory to the sex- and champagne-drenched saga.
April 10, 2002, By Kevin Mayard, Special to the L.A. Times

"History has been written in whispers. This is the whisper told most often. The yacht, you see, belonged to William Randolph Hearst."

So begins Victorian romance novelist Elinor Glyn (played by Joanna Lumley) in "The Cat's Meow," a new film about a weekend of murder and mayhem in the Roaring '20s in which history and fiction collide.

It's the latest in a line of films that includes "Ragtime," "The Cradle Will Rock" and even "Gosford Park," mingling fictional and nonfictional characters in a cultural context. Although such films often inspire renewed speculation about real events and people, they also can spark controversy, as was the case with "A Beautiful Mind." "Cat's Meow" writer Steven Peros learned the story that inspired his screenplay in 1988, when his New York University film school professor, film historian William K. Everson, told the tale matter-of-factly to his class.

"We were watching a silent short starring William S. Hart and produced by Thomas Ince," says Peros. "And Everson said, 'Of course, you know how Ince died, don't you?' And a class of 18-year-olds said, 'Well, no, not really.'" Everson proceeded to tell them the story of Ince's mysterious death in 1924 aboard the Oneida, a yacht belonging to Hearst, a newspaper mogul.

According to Hearst's newspapers, Ince, a pioneer of silent films who was celebrating his 43rd birthday on board, died of a heart attack. Elsewhere, the reported cause was acute indigestion. That his corpse was cremated further muddied the waters, resulting in an urban legend that Ince was murdered.

One of the biggest rumors was that the Los Angeles Times, one of Hearst's competitors, published the headline "Movie Producer Shot on Hearst Yacht" in an early edition but that it was killed in later editions because of threats from Hearst.

A search of Times archives turned up two stories that said Ince died the following Wednesday at his home, surrounded by family members; they cited "heart disease, superinduced by the indigestion attack," which the later story said occurred two days earlier aboard the yacht.

For Peros, the story had instant appeal. Hearst had been immortalized already in Orson Welles' fictional celluloid masterpiece "Citizen Kane," but here was a tantalizing footnote.

"So I held onto the story," says Peros. "And about a year out of college, I started researching the people that were supposedly on the yacht."

If it wasn't already apparent this was "Hollywood Babylon" material, consider the passenger list Peros gleaned from varying accounts. Among those aboard for the weekend boat trip from San Pedro to San Diego were fledgling gossip columnist Louella Parsons (played by Jennifer Tilly); Hearst's lover, actress Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst); and Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), rumored to also be having an affair with Davies.

More than murder is afoot in "The Cat's Meow." It's also about movers and shakers, desperate people looking for a piece of the Hollywood dream. A financially destitute Ince (Cary Elwes) attempts to forge a partnership with Hearst's Cosmopolitan Pictures, while Parsons schemes to leave her film critic job at Hearst's New York offices for a post on the West Coast.

Such behind-the-scenes machinations form fascinating mosaics of early 20th century American society and its tenuous relationship to the arts.

"To varying degrees, seeking patronage is a definition of art," says Peros, who knows whereof he speaks, having struggled for a decade in development hell to get his script onto the big screen. "Artists need to eat to survive; they need money for their art. This is a film about the games played between the artist and the patron without passing judgment on either."

"The Cat's Meow" is also about the high price of achieving fame and fortune, a subject its director, Peter Bogdanovich, knows all too intimately. Thirty-two years ago, Bogdanovich first heard of the story of the Oneida from Welles.

"It's a great story I always wanted to tell," says Bogdanovich. "It's about famous people who have this mythic level.... Money, power, fame and success are things blown up to be such a big deal. And as one who's had it and lost it, I know that firsthand"

Bogdanovich's own public image overshadowed his career. Even though he directed '70s cinema greats that included "Targets," "The Last Picture Show" and "Paper Moon," the media paid more attention to his love affairs with leading lady Cybill Shepherd and, later, Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratten, who was shot dead by her estranged husband.

"I've been used as a character on at least three occasions that I know of, and in no case was there any care taken to try and make it remotely like me," says Bogdanovich.

"That said, Steven and I, and then the actors, spent an enormous amount of labor to try to be as close to what we felt the truth was as we could. Maybe it isn't absolutely what happened, but it seems pretty close based on all the different reports and different disguised reports over the years. It is, I think, a fair speculation."

The life and times of William Randolph Hearst have been inextricably linked in the public mind to Welles' Charles Foster Kane.

But although Hearst and Kane share some similar characteristics--both were big businessmen with egos to match their empires--there are huge disparities between the man and his mythic alter ego.

"'Kane' has always been one of my favorite films and Welles one of my favorite filmmakers," says Peros. "But as I researched Hearst, I started to get really intrigued by their differences. Certainly the biggest difference was between [Kane's mistress] Susan Alexander and Marion Davies."

By Welles' own admission, "Citizen Kane's" biggest misstep was in making Alexander a no-talent gold digger while Davies was praised by critics and audiences as a lively and charming silent-movie star and comedian.

"The Cat's Meow" portrays Hearst and Davies as they truly were, a couple who stayed together out of mutual love and respect despite their 35-year age difference and his marriage to another woman.

For Edward Herrmann, an actor who's played a variety of real-life greats from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Lou Gehrig to Nelson Rockefeller, it was a chance to get that relationship right.

"This film shows Hearst as very human and vulnerable," he says. "That's what she loved about him." His portrayal of Hearst is that of a middle-aged, socially awkward, gentle giant, a far cry from the macho, swaggering tycoon that a 24-year-old Welles had conjured.

But though the film may get the details of their relationship right, the ill-fated weekend aboard the Oneida is pure conjecture.

For historian David Nasaw, author of "The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst," this kind of playing fast and loose with the facts is infuriating. Though Nasaw hasn't seen the film, it doesn't hold any interest for him.

"It makes my skin crawl," he says. "It's not blending fact and fiction; it's saying things they know to be untrue. You can't libel the dead, but you can libel history. We work so damn hard to teach students the difference between history and myth. And Hollywood forgets it all. And we end up battling images; film carries with it the presumption of reality. I think that's why a lot of people got upset over 'A Beautiful Mind.' It carries with it the notion that this is what happened."

In Nasaw's book, the Oneida scandal is blamed on rumors spread by one of Hearst's executives at Cosmopolitan magazine, Dr. Daniel Carson Goodman, who was on the yacht. Nasaw contends that Hearst covered up that Ince was on the yacht not to hide his murder but to stop the press and police from investigating the illegal consumption of champagne (this was during Prohibition) and because Ince had brought his alleged mistress with him.

Yet there's much debate even among historians. In "Tramp," a biography of Chaplin, author Joyce Milton describes several inconsistencies among accounts of Ince's death. She suggests that it is plausible a shooting occurred and even surmises it may have been Chaplin who pulled the trigger.

By his own account, Chaplin was "almost suicidal" about his impending shotgun wedding to 16-year-old Lita Grey. Lore has it that he could have accidentally killed Ince while playing with a .38-caliber revolver, the bullet passing through a plywood partition into Ince's cabin.

This kind of hearsay is key to understanding the early days of Hollywood, according to film historian Richard Schickel, author of biographies of early cinema legends D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks.

"You're going to get in more trouble doing a movie about John Nash than doing William Randolph Hearst," he says. "I read and reviewed Nasaw's biography of Hearst, and it would have been entirely out of Hearst's character to do anything violent. But I think the important thing about Hollywood history is that it's very much an oral history. It's not a written-down history.

"The documentation that would satisfy a historian of say, the Civil War, simply isn't present. It was such a fly-by-night operation in those days that people will concede, 'who can really know what happened?' Besides, there's something about real frogs in imaginary gardens that's kind of mythic and entertaining."

It's the mythmakers involved who have kept the story of the Oneida alive for 78 years. In 1981, Patte Barham, daughter of Hearst-employed publisher Frank Barham, did her own investigation in Los Angeles Magazine, despite her father's stern disapproval. In 1996, Patricia Hearst wrote her novel "Murder at San Simeon," retelling the story of Ince's death aboard her grandfather's yacht. Two of Ince's cousins appeared on an "E! Mysteries and Scandals" episode about the incident, supporting the foul play theory, although Ince's granddaughter, Nancy Ince Probert, vehemently denies it.

Peros hopes the continuing controversy will entice curious audiences to "The Cat's Meow" the same way the legend attracted him. "To me, it was just a story that was always going to cause a lot of debate," says Peros. "There's no smoking gun, just the smell of smoke in every room."

copyright 2002

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