Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

William Randolph's Hearse

A Conspiracy of Silence

Thomas Ince
Thomas Ince

Was the scene that greeted Thomas Ince on the deck of the Oneida on November 15, 1924 really the way it was described above? In all likelihood, it was something similar to that but, the truth is, we will never know. All of the players in the drama that would unfold that night are dead. Whatever they saw or heard in the hours that followed were secrets they took to the grave with them.

In their 2002 movie, The Cat's Meow, acclaimed director Peter Bogdanovich and screenwriter Steven Peros paint a lurid picture of a wild night of orgies, drunkenness and debauchery that was fairly typical among the unbridled Hollywood cabal and their wealthy private sector collaborators during that era. Guests onboard the Oneida that night are shown to be self-absorbed in their own decadent pleasures while furthering their own career ambitions, playing the game by its then-established rules. But living wildly and recklessly also meant living dangerously. And that night, the line between them was crossed and an innocent man who was unknowingly in harm's way paid the price.

Movie poster: The Cat's Meow
Movie poster: The Cat's Meow

In The Cat's Meow, Peros and Bogdanovich leave no room for doubt in the audience's mind as to who did what and why. They show Hearst (played convincingly by Edward Herrmann) storming around his floating pleasure palace in a blind rage, diamond-studded revolver in hand, seeking the villain who deflowered his beloved Maid Marion, literally right under his nose — in the cabin directly below his. They show him shooting Ince from behind in a tragic case of mistaken identity, while the real "villain" goes merrily sauntering off into the sunset at the end of the piece. And they show a conspiracy of gargantuan proportions; a conspiracy of silence. A cover-up as massive and far-reaching as only one of the world's richest and most powerful men could successfully pull off.

What really happened that night? Did Hearst actually shoot Ince, thinking it was the notoriously libertine Chaplin putting the make on Marion Davies or was it — as was widely reported in the Hearst-owned publications — a case of death from natural causes? Ulcers and "acute indigestion" rather than a bullet? The truth will never be known. William Randolph Hearst made sure of that.

Who were the players in this Greek melodrama? What brought them together that night? What was the sequence of events that led up to this tragedy? Who did what to whom? Who saw what? Why wasn't the incident more thoroughly investigated? Who was paid off and with what promises? More questions than answers prevail. More heat than light. Life in Tinsel Town, went gaily on, just as it did before, with one less of its movers and shakers moving and shaking.

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