Thomas Harper Ince (November 6, 1882 – November 19, 1924) was an American silent film actor, director, screenwriter and producer of more than 100 films and pioneering studio mogul. Known as the "Father of the Western", he invented many mechanisms of professional movie production, introducing early Hollywood to the "assembly line" system of film making. His screenplay The Italian (1915) was preserved by the United States National Film Registry, as was his film Civilization (1916). He was a partner with D.W. Griffith and Mack Sennett in the Triangle Motion Picture Company, and built his own studios in Culver City, which later became the legendary home of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He is also known for his death aboard the yacht of William Randolph Hearst; officially he died of heart trouble, but Hollywood rumor of the time suggested he had been shot by Hearst in a dispute over actress Marion Davies.
Murder or natural death debate
On Saturday, November 15, 1924, William Randolph Hearst's lavish 280-foot (85 m) yacht, the Oneida, set sail from San Pedro, California heading for San Diego. Among his guests that weekend were his mistress Marion Davies, silent film star Charlie Chaplin, newspaper columnist Louella Parsons, author Elinor Glyn, film actresses Aileen Pringle, Jacqueline Logan, Seena Owen, Theodore Kosloff, Margaret Livingston, Julanne Johnston and Dr. Daniel Carson Goodman, Hearst's film production manager. Ironically, Ince, the guest of honor as it was his 42nd birthday, was late due to a production deal he was negotiating with Hearst's International Film Corporation and the yacht left without him.
Ince finished up his business in Los Angeles and took a train to San Diego where he joined the guests the next morning. At dinner that Sunday night, the group enthusiastically celebrated his birthday. Sometime later, Ince suffered an acute bout of indigestion on the yacht. Determining that Ince was quite ill, the silent film producer was taken from the yacht by water taxi and brought back ashore in San Diego, accompanied by Dr. Goodman, still a licensed, though non-practicing physician, then quickly put on a train bound for Los Angeles. However, while en route Ince's condition worsened. At Del Mar, he was removed from the train, then taken to a hotel where he was promptly given medical treatment by Dr. T. A. Parker and a nurse Jessie Howard. Ince informed them he had drank liquor on the Hearst yacht. Afterward, he was taken to his home in Hollywood where the next day November 19, he succumbed to a heart ailment.
Less than forty-eight hours after leaving the Oneida, Ince had died in his "Dias Dorados" estate in Benedict Canyon officially of a heart attack. Dr. Ida Cowan Glasgow, his personal physician, signed the death certificate citing heart failure as the cause of death. The front page of the Wednesday morning Los Angeles Times, however, told another story: '"Movie Producer Shot on Hearst Yacht!", headlines that mysteriously vanished in the evening edition. Without further ado, Ince's body was cremated, after which his widow, Nell, soon left for Europe.
The first stories in Hearst's newspapers about Ince's death claimed the producer had fallen ill while visiting the Hearst ranch in San Simeon and had been rushed home by ambulance, dying in the bosom of his family. The rumor mill in Hollywood immediately went to work. Several conflicting stories began circulating about the incident, often revolving around a claim that Hearst shot Ince in the head by mistake.
The story goes that Hearst suspected that Davies and Chaplin were secretly lovers. In order to keep tabs on the two, he invited them both on board the yacht. Supposedly, he found the couple in a compromising clinch and went for his gun. Davies' screams awakened Ince who rushed to the scene. A scuffle ensued, followed by a gunshot and Ince took the bullet for Chaplin. A second version of the story had Davies and Ince alone in the galley late Sunday night. Ince, who suffered from ulcers, was supposedly looking for something to ease his upset stomach when Hearst walked in. Mistaking Ince for Chaplin, Hearst shot him. A third version tells of a struggle over a gun belowdecks between unidentified passengers. The gun fired accidentally and the bullet ripped through a plywood partition straight into Ince's room where it struck him.
Chaplin's secretary, Toraichi Kono, added fuel to the fire when he claimed to have seen Ince when he came ashore. Kono told his wife that, Ince's head was "bleeding from a bullet wound." The story quickly spread among the Japanese domestic workers throughout Beverly Hills. Whether Ince was killed in a fit of jealousy or by accident the story stuck and with many believing Hearst using his power and influence to cover up the incident. One month after Ince's death, the rumors ran so rampant that the San Diego District Attorney's Office was forced to take action.
The D.A. only interviewed Dr. Goodman, who explained that once ashore, he and Ince caught a train heading back to Los Angeles. According to Goodman, Ince got sick on the train so they disembarked in Del Mar and checked into a hotel. Goodman then called a doctor, as well as Nell Ince. Concerned for her husband, Nell agreed to come to Del Mar immediately. Goodman, unclear whether Ince was suffering from a heart attack or indigestion, claimed he left Del Mar before Nell arrived. The D.A. quickly closed the investigation.
Nonetheless, the rumors and suspicions continued to be fueled by the very people who celebrated with Ince that ill-fated weekend. Chaplin denied even being there, insisting that he, Hearst and Davies visited the ailing Ince later that week. He also stated that Ince died two weeks after their visit. In reality, Ince was dead within forty-eight hours after leaving the Oneida with Chaplin attending the memorial services that Friday.
Davies also added to the mystery in her attempts to deny the incident. She never acknowledged that Chaplin, Parsons or Goodman were aboard the yacht that weekend. She insisted that Nell Ince called her late Monday afternoon at United Studios to inform her of Ince's death.
When the Oneida sailed, Parsons was a New York movie columnist for one of Hearst's papers. After the Ince affair, Hearst gave her a lifetime contract and expanded her syndication. Hearst also provided Nell Ince with a trust fund just before she left for Europe. She refused an autopsy and ordered her husband's immediate cremation. Rumor also has it that Hearst paid off Ince's mortgage on his Château Élysée apartment building in Hollywood. D.W. Griffith said of the incident:
"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."
The circumstances of Ince's death tainted his reputation as a pioneering filmmaker and diminished the way his role in the growth of the film industry was remembered. Even his studio could not survive his death. It shut down soon after he passed. The final film he produced, Enticement, a romance set in the French Alps, was released posthumously, in 1925. In summarizing Ince's career and the potential for his future in the movie business had he lived, David Thompson wrote in "A Biographical Dictionary of Film":
"His shameless self-aggrandizement seems the original of a brand of ambition central to American film. In that sense, he was the first tycoon, more businesslike than Griffith and much more prosperous. Remember that he died in early middle age, and it is possible to surmise that he might have become one of the moguls of the 1930s."