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It’s one of the great mysteries of Hollywood: Did a famous newspaper magnate try to shoot Charlie Chaplin in a yacht off San Diego and end up killing a filmmaker instead?
It’s still not clear exactly what happened in the early morning hours of a mid-November day in 1924. But if the rumors are true, they “point to the most carefully contrived (and probably the most successful) news cover-up of all time,” as one local newspaper put it.
More than eight decades later, Chaplin and San Diego are in the headlines again. On Sept. 17, La Jolla Playhouse debuted the musical Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin. The play takes note of the comedian’s infamous interest in women, which may have been the doomed filmmaker’s undoing.
The saga began when publisher William Randolph Hearst invited Hollywood friends to join him on a yacht cruise out in the ocean where they could party in peace without worrying about Prohibition. They left L.A., and “from this point on, the truth is hard to come by,” wrote Lionel Van Deerlin in a 1992 San Diego Union-Tribune column.
When the yacht got to San Diego, 43-year-old filmmaker Thomas Ince — the “Father of the Western” — came on board to celebrate his birthday.
Chaplin was supposedly on the yacht, although he later denied it (“none too convincingly,” writes Chaplin biographer Joyce Milton). Hearst’s much-younger mistress, silent film actress Marion Davies, was there, along with more of Hearst’s entourage.
Disaster struck. On a Monday, Nov. 17, the yacht docked in San Diego and a sick (or injured) Ince was hustled away. He tried to ride the train home to L.A. but became more ill and disembarked in Del Mar to seek medical care. He then continued on to L.A., where he died on Wednesday.
The San Diego Sun reported the filmmaker’s death in a front-page story that said nothing about the booze cruise. But within days, the paper ran a story headlined “Gay San Diego Party Led to Ince’s Death.” (That’s “gay” as in festive, not in the modern sense.)
Revelations about the death of a Hollywood producer were front-page news in the San Diego Sun in 1924. (“Gay” in this sense means festive.) San Diego Sun microfilm archives, San Diego Central Library.
The unprinted rumors didn’t take long to start. There were whispers that Hearst saw Chaplin kissing his squeeze — Davies — and shot at Chaplin, missing him but hitting Ince.
There were two schools of thought about what happened, according to biographer Milton.
One theory: There was no foul play. Ince simply died of natural disease. The other theory: There was a case of mistaken identity. Hearst ran into his mistress and Ince in a galley while the filmmaker was looking for something to calm his indigestion. Hearst mistakenly thought Ince was Chaplin, assumed they were having an “assignation” — getting it on — and shot Ince.
The San Diego County district attorney looked into the incident but didn’t turn up any evidence of wrongdoing. But there were eyewitness reports that Ince had a head wound when he got off the yacht in San Diego.
So what really happened? The story that Ince simply had a heart attack is plausible, although his long journey up the coast to his death is strange. Milton, the biographer, thinks Ince may have tried to get back to L.A. on his own, without going to a hospital, to avoid embarrassment because he’d been on the yacht with a woman who wasn’t his wife.
There’s another complication: Louella Parsons. She and rival muckraker Hedda Hopper would become Hollywood’s most popular and feared gossip columnists, but in 1924 she had a lower profile. She was on the Hearst yacht and, the legend goes, ended up with a lifetime contract to write for Hearst newspapers because she kept her mouth shut about the Ince murder. Urban legend debunker website snopes.com says the truth of this rumor is “undetermined.“
In 2001, Hollywood director Peter Bogdanovich — perhaps best known to younger audiences as the psychiatrist’s shrink on The Sopranos — released a movie called The Cat’s Meow about the doomed yacht trip. The film supported the mistaken identity theory: Hearst shot Ince, thinking he was Chaplin.
The truth may never be known. Ince was cremated, and his true cause of death may have gone up in smoke.
Bonus San Diego history tale:
It was, as an infuriated San Diego Union put it the next day, “the most sensationally contemptible practical joke ever attempted here for publicity or any other purposes.”
By coincidence, filmmaker Thomas Ince’s newest movie — Dynamite Smith — was scheduled to open in San Diego the week after his 1924 death at the Plaza Theater. A trio of men working with the theater decided to make a splash by dropping a fake ticking dynamite bomb at The San Diego Union building.
The presence of the “infernal machine” sparked fear and panic, the Union reported. An older woman collapsed (“a woman’s life hangs in the balance today”), another fainted on the street, “and the lives of hundreds of occupants of The Union Building were jeopardized by the rush for safety.”
Meanwhile, an editor supposedly shouted “Clear the decks for an extry!” — he meant an extra edition — as reporters rushed to cover the unfolding bomb story.
Publicists promoting a new movie by filmmaker Thomas Ince in 1924 sparked an uproar by bringing a fake bomb to the S.D. Union building. In a coincidence, Ince had died earlier that week. The hoax perpetrators are the three men grinning behind bars. San Diego Union microfilm archives, San Diego Central Library.
It took an hour for the fire department to determine the bomb was fake, and the cops went to work. “Bomb Hoax Plotters Jailed,” screamed the Union headline the next day, Thursday, Nov. 20, the same day that news of the filmmaker’s death came out.
The San Diego Sun took the hoax somewhat less seriously:
San Diego’s big bombing conspiracy has come and gone, leaving a trail of excited newspapermen and humming press wires, rising to the heights of the big story of the year, and falling with a dull thud as it was discovered that the whole melodramatic episode was a publicity hoax that wilted the flower of newspaperdom.
The Plaza Theater’s owners felt a bit wilted too. It promptly ran an apology ad in local papers for what it said was an unauthorized stunt and “foolish occurrence.”
The theater did take pains to note that the film in question — Dynamite Smith — “is among the cleanest and most human of pictures produced this year.” However, the theater said, its exhibition would be postponed.
Despite its explosive plot, the film is forgotten today.