On November 19, 1924, Hollywood movie producer Thomas Ince died after celebrating his 42nd birthday aboard a yacht belonging to infamous newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, but to this day, the exact circumstances of his death remain a mystery. Could this be why his ghost still wanders the movie studio that he founded?
Thomas Ince was a pioneering member of the Hollywood elite. In 1918, he founded Culver Studios and was considered to be the "Father of the Western." He was also the man who introduced the world to Mary Pickford, crowning her "America's Sweetheart." Ince rose from being a $15 a week actor to become the head of a studio and to this day, still has a street named after him in Culver City: Ince Boulevard.
Almost a century later, Culver Studios remains one of Hollywood's most historic studios. It was the site of filming for “Gone With the Wind,” “Citizen Kane” and other classics. Over the years, the film lot has been home to such names as RKO, Howard Hughes, and DesiLu Studios. In addition to film classics, Culver Studios was also the birthplace to favorite television shows like “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Lassie,” “Hogan’s Heroes,” and “Batman.” Previous owners of the studios have included Cecil B. DeMille and eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes.
But Thomas Ince had humble beginnings in the movie capital. In 1915, Ince partnered with D.W. Griffith and Mack Sennett to create the Triangle Motion Picture Company in Culver City. Somewhere along the way, the deal went sour and Ince sold out and entered into a lease with Harry Culver for a new 14-acre studio fronting on Washington Boulevard. It took two years to build the Thomas H. Ince Studio, and in December 1918, a Los Angeles newspaper called it “a motion picture plant that looks like a beautiful southern estate.” Ince, a visionary in the industry, promoted the glamour of moviemaking and he entertained the King and Queen of Belgium and President Woodrow Wilson at the studios. The administration building became a well-known landmark and Ince was rapidly expanding his successful facility.
Unfortunately, it was not meant to last – and neither was Ince’s revered status. Sadly, Ince is remembered much more today for his scandalous death than for his contribution to the art of movie making. Ince died in November 1924 while celebrating his birthday on board a yacht owned by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. The real story of how Ince died will never be known -- but Hollywood rumors tell a strange and twisted tale.
Parties thrown at Marion’s beach house were the most extravagant in town and people grabbed at the chance of an invitation to a Hearst affair. In addition, being able to relax at Hearst’s vast mansion in San Simeon, with millions of dollars worth of imported furnishings, tapestries, paintings, and 35 automobiles in the garage, was a must for anyone lucky enough to get an invitation for the weekend. Marion also earned high marks as a hostess, even if privately the party attendees made fun at her attempts at acting on the screen.
William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies
Another popular party spot was Hearst’s 280-foot yacht, the Oneida. Invitations to the boat were even more highly coveted than those for the beach house parties. On the night of Saturday, November 15, 1924, the yacht left San Pedro Harbor for a weekend cruise to San Diego. The cream of Hollywood’s charmed circle received invitations to a party on board the Oneida that weekend. There were a number of guests on board, but the only names that became available after the party were Hearst, Marion Davies, actress Seena Owen and author Elinor Glynn. That weekend marked the 43rd birthday of Thomas Ince, who was in the midst of negotiations with Hearst concerning the use of his Culver City studios as a base for Cosmopolitan Productions. It had been planned to throw Ince a birthday party on board the yacht. Mrs. Ince, who had also been invited, decided not to go along on the trip because she was not feeling well.
Ince, the guest of honor, missed the boat when it sailed from San Pedro because of his attendance at the premiere of “The Mirage,” his latest film. It is believed that he took the last train to San Diego, where he met the Oneida, and joined the party for the return trip. The celebration on board was said to be a wonderful occasion, but then things got murky.
In the early morning hours of the following Wednesday, Thomas Ince died at his Benedict Canyon home. His death was attributed to “heart failure.”
When the news reached the press, all sorts of ugly rumors began to circulate, as well as a hash of conflicting stories. Things became so heated that Chester Kemply, the District Attorney in San Diego, where the yacht had been anchored for the weekend, was forced to open an investigation. The principals were all strangely absent at the hearings that followed. Hearst could not be reached for a statement. Marion, Elinor Glynn, and Seena Owen – the only names known for certain to have been on board – were not called by the D.A. to give testimony. The only person present at the hearing in San Diego was a doctor named Goodman, an employee of Hearst. His official version of events, which was printed in Hearst newspapers, stated that, after eating and drinking too much at the party, Ince died of “acute indigestion.” He was taken from the yacht and rushed home, where he later died.
After the hearing, the case was closed. Originally, D.A. Kemply had insisted that he planned to call every single person who had been on board the yacht to give their version of events, but not only did he not call any of them, he suddenly, after just the one session, called off all further inquiry altogether. He was satisfied that Ince’s death had been explained – but others were not.
In Long Beach, a columnist named C.F. Adelsperger wrote, “At the risk of losing something of a reputation as a prophet, the writer will predict that some day one of the scandal-scented mysteries in filmdom will be cleared up. Motion picture circles have suffered alike from scandals and rumors of scandal. Deaths from violence or mysterious sources have been hinted at but never proved. If there is any foundation for suspicioning that Thomas Ince’s death was from other than natural causes an investigation should be made in justice to the public as well as to those concerned. If there was liquor aboard a millionaire’s yacht in San Diego Harbor, where Ince was taken ill, it should be investigated. A District Attorney who passes up the matter because he sees ‘no reason’ to investigate is the best agent the Bolshevists could employ in this country.”
One of the strangest facts about the cruise was that no accurate list of the guests on board the ship that weekend has ever been revealed. There were obviously many more people on board than has ever been reported. Several well-known personalities of the film world have been mentioned as Heart’s guests that weekend, but none of them ever publicly admitted to being on board the yacht. Of course, there were many rumors about who was there, just what actually occurred – and what really happened to cause the death of Thomas Ince.
Perhaps the most exciting rumor to make the rounds in Hollywood involved the presence of Ince’s friend, Charlie Chaplin, on board the Oneida for the party. Rumor had it, however, that Chaplin had not been invited just because he was Ince’s pal. Hearst was insanely jealous of other men’s attention to Marion Davies and his detectives had recently informed him that Marion and Chaplin had been seen together during a period of time when he was out of town. Hearst allegedly invited the comedic actor on board the yacht for the weekend cruise so that he could observe for himself how Chaplin and Marion behaved around one another.
It is believed that Hearst saw Marion and Chaplin slip off together during the party and that he discovered them together on the lower deck. A loud altercation followed and Hearst ran for his cabin to retrieve a diamond-studded revolver that he kept on board. (Heart was rumored to be an expert shot and often amused his guests on the boat by shooting down seagulls with a single bullet.) In the confusion that followed, it was rumored a shot was fired but it was Thomas Ince, and not Chaplin, who ended up with a bullet in the head!
Ince’s funeral was held on November 21, attended by his family, Marion Davies, Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Harold Lloyd. Hearst was noticeably absent. The body was immediately cremated and an official inquest was never held.
Despite the fact that the evidence was now in ashes, Hearst knew he could be in trouble with the Hollywood rumor mill. Everyone on board the Oneida was sworn to secrecy (and it wouldn’t be wise to cross Hearst) but, in spite of this, persistent rumors linked Hearst to Ince’s death. No one could resist talking about the way the hearings into Ince’s death had been called off, the lack of an official inquest, or the damning story that Charlie Chaplin’s secretary had seen Ince carried off the yacht bleeding from a bullet wound to the head.
Some thought it no coincidence that famed gossip columnist Louella Parsons was awarded a lifetime contract with Hearst soon after the incident since it was rumored that she had seen everything that had happened. Louella also felt the need to do a little covering up of her own and insisted that she had been in New York at the time of Ince’s death. The only problem with this story was that Vera Burnett, Marion’s stand-in, clearly recalled seeing Louella with Marion and Davies at the studio, ready for departure on the yacht. Vera valued her job, though, and decided not to make a big deal out of it.
Marion and Hearst managed to ride out the scandal unscathed, but as DW Griffith remarked in later years, “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 to touch.” It was widely known in Hollywood that, if you ever wanted to attend another party at Marion’s beach house or the San Simeon castle, you didn’t mention Ince’s name anyplace where Hearst might hear you.
In the years that followed, Hearst discreetly provided Ince’s widow, Nell, with a trust fund that was later wiped out by the Depression. Broke and penniless, Nell finished out her days as a taxi driver. As for Hearst, the entire affair was eventually reduced to a sardonic joke in Hollywood as the Oneida became known as “William Randolph’s Hearse.”
Strangely, though, death did not bring an end to sightings of Thomas Ince and his mysterious death also started rumors about Culver Studios being haunted. Ince built the studios, but they changed hands several times after his death. Cecil B. De Mille, Howard Hughes, David Selznick, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball made significant contributions to film and television history on this lot.
The rumors of the haunting have persisted for years. Employees have reported ghostly figures roaming the lot at night while others recount being frightened by the apparition of a woman who appears on the third floor from time to time. She always disappears quickly, leaving a cold spot of chilling wind behind.
Most famous, however, are the sightings of Thomas Ince himself. Witnesses have reported seeing the ghost of a man climbing the stairs in the main administration building, heading for the executive screening room. This had been Ince’s private projection room during his tenure at the studio. Remodeling seemed to bring out the worst in Ince’s ghost in 1988 when he began to reveal his displeasure over some major renovations.
The first to encounter him were two workmen who looked up to see a man in an odd, bowler-type hat watching them from the catwalks above Stage 1-2-3. When they spoke to him, he frowned and then turned and walked into the second floor wall. Later that summer, special-effects man Eugene Hilchey spoke to another worker who had also seen a man wearing an odd hat, this time on Stage 2-3-4. Hilchey was convinced the man’s description matched that of Ince. The workers’ statement was enough to cement his belief. The ghost had reportedly turned to the workmen and said, “I don’t like what you’re doing to my studio.” Then he vanished into the wall.
Even after the renovations, much of Ince’s original studio remains as it was and the sense of history here is very strong. Today, Culver Studios remains one of the busiest lots in town. Hopefully, Thomas Ince’s spirit can find a little peace in that!
This is a story from Troy Taylor's Book, "Bloody Hollywood."