February 07, 2016
BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Classic Chicago delights in bringing intriguing mysteries to light, especially ones involving silver screen stars and Chicago luminaries. Colleen Moore perfectly fits this bill. In addition to being top box-office star of the 1920s, her contributions to Chicago were plenty: Colleen was a founder of the Passavant Cotillion and creator of the Fairy Castle at the Museum of Science and Industry. Ms. Moore was an amateur detective, to boot – it was she who discovered the killer in one of Hollywood’s most sensational murders.
With newly discovered and beautifully restored films such as 1929’s Why Be Good? featured recently in theaters around the country, Colleen’s talents as actress and dancer are delighting new generations. She was the first star to bob her hair, the one for whom the word flapper was invented, and the movie love interest of Gary Cooper, Tom Mix, and John Barrymore. Of her, F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth [a name given to the denizens of that glamorous decade], Colleen Moore was the torch. What little things we are to have caused all that trouble.”
But Colleen said that it was when she retired from the movies to marry Chicago widower Homer Hargrave, helping to raise his children and grandchildren, that her life really began.
Just before her death in 1988, Colleen, while returning to Chicago to visit friends, received an award for excellence in the arts from the Wedgewood Society. She was living then on a ranch near San Luis Obispo, still looking radiant in her signature Dutch bob haircut. Her impish smile turned serious as she spoke of proof so sensational – concerning perhaps Hollywood’s most lurid murder – that she helped lock it away in a steel trunk.
She had never lost touch with her beloved director King Vidor and on one of their visits in the late 1960s, they decided to solve together a l922 crime of passion: the murder of silent film director William Desmond Taylor and the scandal surrounding his involvement with glamorous actresses Mary Miles Minter and Mabel Normand, whom neighbors reported came and went frequently from his studio bungalow. Nightgowns monogrammed MMM and torrid love notes had been left behind. Even more sensational, the victim had left a wife and family in New York to lead a double life under a new name.
Added to the intrigue was a gay houseman, who was probably Taylor’s brother, hints of studio cover-ups, and drug sales by Taylor to a desperate Miss Normand (who had shot Keystone Cops comedies with Charlie Chaplin on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago a few years before). It short, it was a plot tailor-made for the big screen.
King Vidor, who had directed The Fountainhead, War and Peace, Duel in the Sun, among other important movies, was a Hollywood insider who knew that sudden wealth and spectacular fame led to scandal for several silent stars. In 1921, King directed Colleen Moore in Sky Pilot, shot in a blizzard near the Donner Pass in northern California.
Decades later, in 1967, Vidor and Colleen decided on a different type of collaboration: teaming up solve the 45-year-old murder of Desmond Taylor (with designs to later make it into a movie of their own). In discovering the murderer and the circumstances involved, Vidor felt it was just too explosive and the two agreed to not reveal the true killer. When the writer Sidney D. Kirkpatrick, Vidor’s authorized biographer, discovered the steel trunk after Vidor’s death, he decided instead of a filmography of Vidor’s life, he would write about what Colleen and King discovered. He told the full story in A Cast of Killers. Kirkpatrick said the evidence Colleen and King uncovered proved that the killer was Charlotte Selby, the dominating mother of Mary Miles Minter. She had been identified as the murderer years before, but because she used earnings from her daughter’s movie career to bribe members of the Los Angeles Police Department, she was never charged with the crime.
“Everything in the book about the murder is bizarre and absolutely true. Mr. Taylor’s neighbor had reported that the person seen leaving the house right after it happened was dressed like a woman,” Colleen said on that Chicago visit in 1988. “Charlotte was the type of woman who made us all suspicious. She was very jealous and watchful of her daughter. I remember that my first husband, John McCormick, and I double-dated with Mary and director Thomas Dixon for dancing at the Ambassador Hotel. I recall being amazed at the time that her mother let her out for that date. Mary was beautiful, like a little doll.”
Colleen and King thoroughly researched the murder. “We spent several days interviewing the detective who led us to the bribery proof,” Colleen revealed. “He was the last living investigator of the murder.”
King, who directed such stars as Audrey Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, and Charlie Chaplin during his long career was a great favorite of the Hargrave family, as Bill Hargrave, Colleen’s grandson, said recently. “King was always ‘Uncle King’ to all of us. We loved him and his very clever golden retriever, Nippy. King’s wife never allowed a divorce, hence Grandma and King never married. They indeed solved the murder but kept all their findings in a box in a dark corner of King’s garage. Upon solving it, Grandma and Uncle King decided to box up their findings since participants in the cover-up were still alive,” Bill said.
Kirkpatrick hints that a romance began when Colleen and King were snowed in together in 1922, when he directed her in Sky Pilot. She was 17 and he was 26. “King had adored Grandma, but had not spoken or written to her in decades. Long before, King used to write poems to her delivered with lilacs, her favorite flower. Fast forward to our grandfather’s passing in 1965: a poem was delivered to Grandma at her home at 1320 North State Parkway with a bouquet of lilacs containing a request to meet for lunch at the Pump Room. Grandma knew exactly whom they were from and thus began a whirlwind romance that brought the two of them to all four corners of the world,” he said. “He was the reason she moved to California where King and Grandma lived on their respective spreads. King liked living up there on his ranch away from his estranged wife,” he shared.
“We were all so very close and loved Uncle King. My favorite memory was watching his film ‘War and Peace’ in Grandma’s living room with King changing the reels and providing commentary to my brother and me and our two dates for the evening.”
When Colleen was in Chicago to receive the award in 1988 she said, “King and I were good friends since childhood. We both had the same backgrounds and were raised in the South. He attended military school and I a convent school.”
A Cast of Killers relates a secret code—“Love Never Dies” which Colleen and King used as their password throughout their long friendship. The book tells of their nicknames for one another, Madama Zaza and Professor La Tour, and of the fortune-telling games they entertained Hollywood with in the twenties.
A highpoint of A Cast of Killers is when the author tells of Vidor recognizing Colleen as the woman walking in front of him on the Champs-Elysees and walks up behind her to say, “Madame Zaza, what is it I am holding in my hand?” Before turning around to greet Vidor, whom she hadn’t seen in years, she replied, “A dime, Professor La Tour.”
During her days in Chicago, Colleen was not only a mainstay of the Woman’s Board of Northwestern Memorial Hospital and a founder of the Passavant Cotillion, she was also a stock broker and author of How Women Can Make Money in the Stock Market. Although she moved to California following the death of her husband, she kept in touch with family and friends and never lost her Chicago connection.
“Abra Prentice Wilkin, who is like a second daughter, keeps me up on all the gossip and sends me loads of press clippings. I love hearing about Chicagoans,” Colleen said at her interview. Abra, as well as so many members of her friends and family gathered at the AMC and Music Box last year to joyfully celebrate the re-release of Colleen’s movies.
We asked Colleen, who said she didn’t miss her movie star life because she was always so busy doing other things, what a flapper was. “She was a girl pretending to be far more sophisticated than she was and she hoped everyone would think she was at least five years older,” she said. Ladies didn’t drink in public at that time and we would go over to the Alexandria Hotel and order Pink Ladies.”
Those who visit the Fairy Castle at the Museum of Science and Industry, where the rooms are accented with pieces of her fine jewelry and tiny books penned by famous authors, might feel that Colleen’s spirit remains in every room. Her voice can be heard today as she narrates the history of the Fairy Castle for generations of children.
As her beloved granddaughter Kathleen Coleman Mitchell said recently, “Colleen was simply larger than life and never tired of new adventures and life’s mysteries.” Kathleen and David Mitchell named their daughter Colleen in her honor.
Keep checking back on Classic Chicago for more on Moore!