Mrs. Mary Scott Castle’s erratic behavior made headlines both before and after her three-and-a-half year affair with actor Lawrence (D.W.) Griffith. So when she simply vanished from a Manhattan dinner party given in her honor, even her relatives balked at the possibility of a scandal.
After a two-day search, they asked her boyfriend to go and notify the police. Griffith, 26, was shaken by the way she walked out on him and their vaudeville act in mid-engagement. She had been hospitalized in the past for mental reasons, and he could not help but think she might have killed herself now.
But this was the Edwardian era. Women could not even vote yet. He could not tell police the truth that they had been living together for fear of having her branded a “scarlet woman.”
The publicity from a citywide manhunt and the offer of a $500 reward brought her home within days.
She claimed she had innocently gone off to stay with friends and had no idea why anyone was concerned over her whereabouts.
What’s amazing is that after so many months of putting up with her rages and violent outbursts, Griffith still wanted her back.
Their relationship (and stage partnership) continued another two years before he was driven to call it quits. He went back to work in the theater for a time, married a different San Francisco-born actress, had his first full-length play produced, and started down a far different professional path.
For a full accounting of Mary’s sad, solitary destiny, I again direct all readers to William M. Drew’s scholarly 2012 research tome, “Mr. Griffith’s House With Closed Shutters: The Long-Buried Secret That Turned Lawrence Into D.W.” (Mutoscope Publishing).
After the break-up, Mary Scott supported herself as a model, and lived a hand-to-mouth existence in New York for a time. Neighbors found her unpredictable and scary. She encouraged and pursued the affections of a married attorney she had known as a young girl in San Francisco. When he tried to break it off, she stalked him.
Mary followed him into an elevator at the Waldorf-Astoria and shot him with her .22 caliber handgun. The attorney survived, and six weeks later the assault case was dismissed in court due to the actress’s past history of mental problems and sanitarium stays.
After that, Mary took up with the 21-year-old son of a judge who had been classmates at Yale with President William Howard Taft. Porter Charlton was fair-haired but also prone to violent outbursts. He was 10 years her junior but was smitten with her charms and beauty.
The couple moved to Europe, wandering from place to place and sometimes being banned from fine hotels for their drunken public fights. Eventually Mary disappeared once again. But this time the outcome was sadder.
Porter Charlton was convicted of Mary Scott’s murder after her body was found in a trunk dumped in Lake Como. He died in prison some years later.
By then, of course, Griffith was pioneering the art of motion pictures. How could such a scandalous past association have been overlooked? How could it be that his connection to the horror story that was Mary Scott remained unknown throughout a long and sensational international murder trial? Griffith was not only not asked about it at the time, the truth did not come to light until William Drew put all the recorded pieces together in 2012.
How could this happen? It’s an excellent question. After all, Griffith had no studio press department looking out for him and his reputation. The answer in large part was pure serendipity.
Through all the years of their relationship, Griffith was known by his stage name, Lawrence Griffith (often mistakenly reported in papers as Griffiths). By the time of Mary’s infamous murder he had moved on to a career as an anonymous motion picture director at American Biograph. It was the summer of 1910 before Griffith signed his real family name to a contract, and a few years later before he became known to the world as D.W. Griffith.
Griffith’s actress-wife in those first busy Biograph years, Linda Arvidson, must have known a good part of the true story. But long after they became estranged and divorced, she continued to respect his privacy and never revealed the truth of his “long-buried secret.”
It was Mr. Drew’s premise that the twisted relationship between the future film pioneer and the slain society actress was reflected in Griffith’s work and psychology. To whatever extent either is true, that author has given us all an additional lens through which to explore the artistry of D.W. Griffith.
In my upcoming novel about the early years of Biograph I mix fiction and legend to dramatize the dawn of American narrative cinema. Look for an announcement of the publisher and title. Both will appear here first.
© 2017 by John W. Harding