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
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
In time the rumors reached a high enough pitch that the district attorney for
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
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
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
Barbara "Ince'ing out the competition" Mikkelson
Last updated: 18 August 2007
Van Deerlin, Lionel. "Unraveling the Great San Diego Yacht Mystery." San Diego Union-Tribune. 2 June 1992 (p. B5). Van Deerlin, Lionel. "TV Flubs Hearst Yacht Scandal." San Diego Union-Tribune. 24 January 1985 (p. B11). Rasmussen, Cecilia. "L.A. Scene: The City Then and Now." Los Angeles Times. 23 May 1994 (p. B3). Life. "Almanac: How Things Were and How Things Are." September 1996 (p. 24).