Today is the 142nd birthday of the film producer Thomas Harper Ince. His death is that of classic Hollywood Mysteries and Scandals. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
NAME: Thomas Harper Ince
DATE OF BIRTH: November 16, 1880
PLACE OF BIRTH: Newport, Rhode Island, US
DATE OF DEATH: November 19, 1924 (aged 44)
PLACE OF DEATH: USS Oneida or 1051 Benedict Canyon, Beverly Hills, California
BEST KNOWN FOR: Thomas Harper Ince was an American silent film – era filmmaker and media proprietor. Ince was known as the “Father of the Western” and was responsible for making over 800 films.
Thomas Harper Ince was born on November 16, 1880 in Newport, Rhode Island, the middle of three sons and a daughter raised by English immigrants, John E. and Emma Ince. His father was born in Wigan, Lancashire in 1841, and was the youngest of nine boys who enlisted in the British Navy as a “powder monkey”. He later disembarked at San Francisco, and found work as a reporter and coal miner. Around 1887, when Ince was about seven, the family moved to Manhattan to pursue theater work. Ince’s father worked as both an actor and musical agent and his mother, Ince himself, sister Bertha and brothers, John and Ralph all worked as actors. Ince made his Broadway debut at 15 in a small role of a revival 1893 play, Shore Acres by James A. Herne. He appeared with several stock companies as a child and was later an office boy for theatrical manager Daniel Frohman. He later formed an unsuccessful vaudeville company known as “Thomas H. Ince and His Comedians” in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey. In 1907, Ince met actress Elinor Kershaw (“Nell”) and they were married on October 19 of that year. They had three children.
Ince’s directing career began in 1910 through a chance encounter in New York City with an employee from his old acting troupe, William S. Hart. Ince found his first film work as an actor for the Biograph Company, directed by his future partner, D.W. Griffith. Griffith was impressed enough with Ince to hire him as a production coordinator at Biograph. This led to more work coordinating productions at Carl Laemmle’s Independent Motion Pictures Co. (IMP). That same year, a director at IMP was unable to complete work on a small feature film, so in a moment of bravado, Ince suggested that Laemmle hire him as a full-time director to complete the film. Impressed with the young man, Laemmle sent him to Cuba to make one-reel shorts with his new stars, Mary Pickford and Owen Moore, out of the reach of Thomas Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company-—the trust that was attempting to crush all independent production companies and corner the market on film production. Ince’s output, however, was small. Although he tackled many different subjects, he was strongly drawn to westerns and American Civil War dramas.
Clashes between the trust and independent films became exacerbated, so Ince moved to California to escape these pressures. He hoped to achieve the effects accomplished with minimal facilities like Griffith, which he believed, could only be accomplished in Hollywood. After only a year with IMP, Ince quit. In September 1911, Ince walked into the offices of actor-financier Charles O. Baumann who co-owned the New York Motion Picture Company (NYMP) with actor-writer Adam Kessel, Jr.. Ince had found out that NYMPC had recently established a West Coast studio named Bison Studios at 1719 Alessandro (now known as Glendale Blvd.) in Edendale (present-day Echo Park) to make westerns and he wanted to direct those pictures.
The offer came as a distinct shock, but I kept cool and concealed my excitement. I tried to convey the impression that he would have to raise the ante a trifle if he wanted me. That also worked, and I signed a contract for three months at $150 a week. Very soon after that, with Mrs. Ince, my cameraman, property man and Ethel Grandin, my leading woman, I turned my face westward.
Together with his young wife and a small entourage, Ince moved to Bison Studios to begin work immediately. He was shocked, however, to discover that the studio was nothing more than a “tract of land graced only by a four-room bungalow and a barn.”
Ince’s death at the age of 44 has been the subject of much speculation and scandal, with rumors of murder, mystery, and jealousy. The official cause of his death was heart failure, and while witnesses (including his widow Nell) corroborate that his medical condition brought about his death, rumors and sensationalism continued decades later, fueled with the 2001 release of the movie The Cat’s Meow.
Ince and William Randolph Hearst had been negotiating a deal under which Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Productions would use Ince’s studio. Hearst visited Ince at his home, his “Dias Dorados” estate at 1051 Benedict Canyon Drive, on Saturday November 15 and invited him for a weekend cruise on his yacht to honor Ince’s birthday and to work out details of the Ince/Cosmopolitan deal.
According to Ince’s widow, Nell, Ince took a train to San Diego, where he joined the guests the next morning. At dinner that Sunday night, the group celebrated his birthday but later Ince suffered an acute bout of indigestion due to his consumption of salted almonds and champagne, both forbidden as he had peptic ulcers. Accompanied by Dr. Goodman, a licensed though non-practicing physician, Ince traveled by train to Del Mar, where he was taken to a hotel and given medical treatment by a second doctor and a nurse. Ince then summoned his wife and Dr. Ida Cowan Glasgow (Ince’s personal physician) to Del Mar with Ince’s eldest son William accompanying them. The group traveled by train to his Los Angeles home where Ince died. Nell said that Ince had been treated for chest pains caused by angina, but years later his son William became a physician and said that his father’s illness resembled thrombosis.
Dr. Glasgow signed the death certificate citing heart failure as the cause of death. The front page of the Wednesday morning Los Angeles Times supposedly sensationalized the story: ‘”Movie Producer Shot on Hearst Yacht!”, but the headlines vanished in the evening edition. On November 20, the Los Angeles Times published Ince’s obituary citing heart disease as the cause of death along with his failing health from an automobile accident two years earlier. A month later, the New York Times reported that the San Diego District Attorney announced that Ince’s death was caused by heart failure and no further investigation was necessary. Both Ince and his wife were practicing Theosophists who preferred cremation and had arranged for it long before Ince’s death. While rumors prevailed that Ince’s widow suddenly departed the country after her husband’s death, she actually left for Europe about seven months later in July 1925.
However, several conflicting stories circulated about the incident, often revolving around a claim that Hearst shot Ince in the head after mistaking him for Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin’s valet, Toraichi Kono, claimed to have seen Ince when he came ashore via stretcher in San Diego. Kono told his wife that Ince’s head was “bleeding from a bullet wound.” The story quickly spread among Japanese domestic workers throughout Beverly Hills. Charles Lederer, the nephew of Hearst’s longtime partner Marion Davies, also told a similar story to Peter Bogdanovich, the director of The Cat’s Meow. Elinor Glyn, who was on the yacht, told Eleanor Boardman that everyone aboard the yacht had been sworn to secrecy about the events, which would indicate more than a death under natural circumstances. But during Ince’s funeral, the Los Angeles Times noted that his casket would remain open for one hour “to afford friends and studio employees to pass for one last glimpse of the man they loved and respected”, with no witnesses ever mentioning a bullet wound. Ince’s body was cremated on November 21 in Hollywood Forever Cemetery and the ashes returned to his family on December 24, 1924 who reportedly scattered them at sea.
Movie columnist Louella Parsons’ name also figured into the Ince scandal, with some speculating that she had been aboard the Oneida that fatal day. When the Oneida sailed, Parsons was a New York movie columnist for one of Hearst’s papers. Supposedly, after the Ince affair, Hearst gave her a lifetime contract and expanded her syndication. However, other sources show that Parsons did not gain her position with Hearst as part of “hush money” but had been the motion picture editor of the Hearst-owned New York American in December 1923 and her contract was signed a year before Ince’s death. Another story circulated that Hearst provided Nell Ince with a trust fund just before she left for Europe and that Hearst paid off Ince’s mortgage on his Château Élysée apartment building in Hollywood. But Nell was left a very wealthy woman and the Château Élysée was an apartment she had already owned and had built on the grounds where the Ince home once stood.
Years later, Hearst spoke to a journalist about the rumor that he had murdered Tom Ince. “Not only am I innocent of this Ince murder,” he said, “So is everybody else.” Nell Ince herself was increasingly frustrated over the Hearst rumors surrounding her husband’s death and remarked: “Do you think I would have done nothing if I even suspected that my husband had been victim of foul play on anyone’s part?”
But the myth of Ince’s death overshadowed his reputation as a pioneering filmmaker and his role in the growth of the film industry. His studio was sold soon after he died. His final film, Enticement, a romance set in the French Alps, was released posthumously in 1925.
Murder at San Simeon (Scribner), a 1996 novel by Patricia Hearst (William Randolph’s granddaughter) and Cordelia Frances Biddle, is a mystery based on the 1924 death of producer Thomas Ince aboard the yacht of William Randolph Hearst. This fictitious version presents Chaplin and Davies as lovers and Hearst as the jealous old man unwilling to share his mistress.
RKO 281 is a 1999 film about the making of Citizen Kane. The movie includes a scene depicting screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz telling director Orson Welles his account of the incident.
The Cat’s Meow, the 2001 film directed by Peter Bogdanovich, is another fictitious version of Ince’s death. Bogdanovich notes that he heard the story from director Orson Welles, who said he heard it from screenwriter Charles Lederer (Marion Davies’s nephew). In Bogdanovich’s film, Ince is portrayed by Cary Elwes. The movie was adapted by Steven Peros from his own play, which premiered in Los Angeles in 1997.
Ince’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is located at 6727 Hollywood Blvd. in Los Angeles.