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Can Fiction Solve a Real Mystery?

Movies* 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|KEVIN MAYNARD | SPECIAL TO THE 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.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 11, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Actor's name--A caption accompanying a story about the film "The Cat's Meow" in Wednesday's Calendar misspelled the last name of actor Edward Herrmann with one R.

"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.

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