Claim: Gossip queen Louella Parsons earned herself a lifetime contract with the Hearst organization for keeping quiet about a murder she witnessed.
Origins: Eighty-odd years after the fact, the November 1924 death of producer-director Thomas Ince remains shrouded in mystery. Though the official
cause of death was given as indigestion and/or a heart attack, privately the rumors flew around Hollywood that newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst had shot Ince aboard Hearst's yacht, the Oneida. Indeed, it's whispered that the first Los Angeles Times headline (which didn't survive into later editions) read: Movie Producer Shot On Hearst Yacht.
So what happened aboard the Oneida? And why?
No coroner's inquest into the producer's death was held. The fact that Ince's mortal remains were cremated further muddied the waters, thereby dropping a final curtain upon any possibility of later exhumation and examination. If he died with a bullet in his head, we'll never know for sure. Such is the stuff of mysteries. And scandal.
How did Ince come to be on the Oneida? A little jaunt from Los Angeles to San Diego was planned in celebration of his 43rd birthday. As well as Hearst, his lady-love Marion Davies, the ship's crew and a jazz band, there were fifteen guests on the yacht that day, including Charlie Chaplin and Louella Parsons. (This was Louella's first visit to Hollywood — at that time she was but a mere Hearst movie columnist in New York.) Due to pressing commitments in Tinseltown, Ince did not make the trip down to San Diego on Hearst's yacht as everyone else had — he took a train down the next day and joined the party already in progress.
The first stories in Hearst's newspapers about Ince's death were out-and-out fabrications — it was claimed Ince had taken ill while visiting at Hearst's ranch and had been rushed home by ambulance, dying in the bosom of his family. The wheels quickly fell off this one, for too many people had seen him board the Oneida in San Diego. Rumors were further fueled by Chaplin's secretary claiming to have seen a bullet hole in Ince's head as he was removed from the ship.
In time the rumors reached a high enough pitch that the district attorney for San Diego could no longer ignore them. His investigation was curiously incomplete in that only one person was called to testify — Dr. Daniel Goodman, a Hearst employee. Goodman claimed that he had traveled by train with the doomed producer, that Ince had suffered heart pains during the trip, and that Ince had admitted to having had these attacks before. This was apparently enough to satisfy the district attorney; he then closed the investigation without pursuing it any further. No one else was
One possible reason for the D.A.'s reluctance to do more than the bare minimum was the potential role liquor might have played in the affair. Remember, this was the era of Prohibition — drinking was against the law. It was an open secret that there had been booze aboard the Oneida. Were the investigation pursued any further, charges against someone or other would have had to have been laid. And how much of a fool would a D.A. have to be to bring William Randolph Hearst up on a liquor charge?
Hearst was not a drinking man. He tolerated the activity in others, but even then — only so far. Weekend visitors to his fabled castle in San Simeon quickly learned that they were allowed maybe all of two pre-dinner drinks, and that one of the fastest ways to get dumped back at the train station was to be caught boozing in the mansion, on the grounds, or even in the privacy of the individual guest houses. As I said, his tolerance only went so far.
Getting back to Ince's death, if you accept that Ince was shot, you also have to accept that it was by mistake — Hearst had been aiming at someone else. Always supremely possessive of his beloved Marion Davies, this wealthy yet sad man had invited Charlie Chaplin along so he could observe the two together. Whispers had come to his ears, you see, that Marion and Charlie were more than platonic friends.
The rumor mill had it that Hearst found the two lovebirds in a compromising position, that Marion's scream brought other guests running as Hearst ran the other way to get his gun, and that in the ensuing scuffle Ince, not Chaplin, dropped with a bullet in his brain. Possible? Well, it was known that Hearst kept a gun aboard the Oneida. Also, as D.W. Griffith remarked in later years, "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 to touch."
An interesting side note to this tale: 1996 saw the publication of Murder at San Simeon, a novel by Patricia Hearst (William Randolph's granddaughter) and Cordelia Frances Biddle. It's a fictionalized version of this murder, presenting Chaplin and Davies as lovers and Hearst as the jealous old man unwilling to share his lady-love with anyone else.
What of the unheralded movie columnist from New York? Many did not find it much of a coincidence that soon after this incident she was awarded a lifetime contract with the Hearst corporation, or that her syndication was expanded. Louella was always one to know how to be on hand for a breaking story, as well as how to feather her own nest with the bounty from such knowledge.